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Comments and Analysis on the 2012 Barrel Samples at Passport to Cabernet

The 2013 Passport to Cabernet took place at the Bently Reserve in San Francisco on May 6. The annual event is put on by the California Cabernet Society. It’s goal is to promote California Cabernet Sauvignon and to highlight the most recently harvested vintage through barrel samples.

This year 32 wineries participated, each pouring at least two wines. Wineries came from as far away as Temecula Valley, but the vast majority were Napa Valley producers. I was there and tasted most everything over the four hour period. Consider my passport stamped.

The tasting was particularly interesting to me in three respects. It was an opportunity to taste a lot of 2012 barrel samples. Many wineries also poured 2008, 2009 and/or 2010 which further solidified my opinion about each of those. I got to taste wines from producers that were new to me.

Since barrel samples are a focus for this event, that will be the focus of this article. [I’ll cover the other wines soon.] There was substantial diversity among the samples for a variety of reasons, principally terroir, barrel selection and what I assume to have been viticultural decisions. When I say barrel selection, by the way, I don’t mean whose barrel they bought, though that’s also a factor. I mean which barrel/wine they chose to bring. Some offered samples from the best barrel of their flagship wine’s lot. Others brought Cabernet destined for a wine to be determined later. Still others decided to showcase particular clones or vineyard blocks. All of that was interesting, but it makes A-B comparisons even more pointless than would normally be the case with barrel samples.

So, what did I think of the samples? Most were very promising. Only a couple showed unpleasant green notes suggestive of overcropping or picking way too early. A similar number had Porty noses of raisin and alcohol, indicative of excessive ripeness. Most of the samples were surprisingly drinkable with just 6 months or so in barrel. A few I’d have loved to take home for dinner that night. (But I didn’t.)

My conclusion from this overall, and based on conversations I had with winemakers, is that 2012 will indeed be an excellent vintage in that it allowed wineries to make the wine that they want to make without interference from Mother Nature. She did not trick growers with surprise heat spikes or drown hopes with pre-harvest downpours. Despite the huge crops of 2012, quality does not appear to have suffered. On the other hand, it was not tthe tremendously ripe vintage some people have implied. It was ripe relative to the two preceding years but is middle of the road for California overall.

I’m not going to rate barrels here because, at this early date and given that the destination for many of the barrels is unknown, it’s pointless and possibly misleading. However, I will provide comments on the ones I think mostly likely to be able to be the backbone of wines I’d rate Highly Recommended or better. They’re listed in alphabetical order.

2012 Ackerman Family Vineyards Napa Valley, 100% estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Nearly full-bodied with medium-plus tannins of fine powder. Coffee and dark fruit on the nose.

2012 Bell Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 6. Really good and heading down the same path as the 2010. (That's a positive thing.) Coffee and bright fruit on the nose. Medium-plus body and powdery tannins.

2012 Cain Five Spring Mountain, blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. A very generous nose of earthy spice, mineral and rubber. Full-bodied and silky with dark fruit and spice flavors. Consistent with the 2008, but less complex due to its youth.

2012 Cain Concept Napa Valley. One of those wines I’d be happy to drink tonight. Dark fruit, earthy spice and coffee aromas. Full-bodied and ample tannins of fine powder and chalk.

2012 Charles Krug Peter Mondavi Family Winery Petit Verdot (destined for Generations). Very attractive coffee on the nose. Simultaneously juicy and grippy in the mouth with very substantial chalky tannins. Flavors of coffee and dark fruit.

2012 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. Very promising and smooth with good blackberry fruit and floral notes. Medium-plus tannins of fine powder.

2012 Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Volcanic Hill Diamond Mountain. I’m temporarily suspending my vow of non-hierarchical ratings and my normal rating system too. This sample was fabulous. An uber-generous nose of earth, scrumptious black cherry and chocolate. Full-bodied but fresh in the mouth with loads of chalky and fine-grained tannins. The flavors matched the nose and added spice.

Boots Brounstein, proprietor of Diamond Creek at 2013 Passport to Cabernet. Photo: Fred Swan

2012 Linked Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Esate Knights Valley Sonoma County. This is the winery’s fifth vintage, all wines made by Luc Morlet. I actually preferred the barrel sample to the 2008 because I found the cooler year 2012 allowed more nuanced fruit. Black cherry, cocoa and oatmeal on the nose. Nearly full-bodied with a creamy attack followed by powerful, fine-grained and chalky tannins. Chocolate and black fruit flavors that give way to the tannins on the finish. This is one of those wines that definitely needs the barrel time it will receive but is well worth waiting for.

2012 Rocca Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Grigsby Vineyard Yountville. The nose is a walk through the forest with vanilla beans in your pocket. The palate is full-bodied and creamy with plenty of chalky tannins from mid-palate on. Very nice.

2011 Star Lane Cabernet Sauvignon Happy Canyon. Star Lane was running a vintage behind everyone else (and proud of it) on the barrel sample and the bottled wines as well. This sample had lovely cherry and chocolate flavors with nearly full body and tannins of fine powder and chalk.

2012 The Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 30 Harry See’s Vineyard Livermore Valley. Sweet cherry and chocolate, amusingly reminiscent of a See’s chocolate-covered cherry. Nearly full-bodied with matching tannins of chalk and fine powder. Super and as long as the name.

2012 Stone Edge Farm Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Sonoma Valley. Engaging on the nose with cassis, coffee, chocolate and loads of spice. Perhaps the most interesting of the barrel sample palates with fruit and tannins staging a territorial battle in my mouth. The “free love” fruit partied in the front of my mouth while tannins built a wall of disapproval at the midpoint and began erecting statues to fallen disciplinarians behind it. I’m confident that by the time barrel aging is complete intermarriage will have occurred and the wine will be full of big smiling faces in tailored clothing.

2012 Viader Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain, 100% Cab from a single block at the bottom of the estate vineyard. Earthy spice, leather, mocha and dark fruit. Full-bodied with a wealth of chalky tannins. Savory and savor-worthy.

2012 Volker Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon (100%) from 25-year old vines. This wine’s destined for the Alexander Reserve. Cherry, vanilla, mocha on the nose and palate. Full-bodied, intense and long with tannins of chalk and light grain. A star in the making.


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