Friday, September 2, 2011

The $500 Napa Cabernet

Way back when I was still a policy wonk and wine was just a hobby, I put my name on the waiting lists for all the highly allocated wines I could think of.  Wines like Kistler, Sine Qua Non, Sea Smoke, Screaming Eagle, you know what I mean.  I figured someday I might be able to afford such things, or even be able to flip a few for a quick profit.

Instead of waiting years, I got onto almost all of them when the economy tanked in 2008.  This is one of the reasons I have 500 bottles of wine and no children.  Well the grandaddy of them all came knocking this week, Harlan Estates.  I've purchased his second wine before and several of his wines under the Bond label, but this time, the offer was for a bottle of Harlan Estate 2009.  The cost, $500.

Now this is not a post to bash Bill Harlan and his wines; I am quite a fan.  Consider the words of Mr. Robert Parker Junior, "Harlan Estate might be the single most profound red wine made not just in California, but in the world."  And five hundred bucks for one of the top bottles in the world doesn't seem out of profile when you consider that first growth bordeaux runs $1000 to $1500.  Also consider that my $500 offer is a significant discount from the 'street' price of Harlan, usually between $600 and $900.

But I can't do it.  I cannot order one this year, or probably next.  For those reading, my birthday is coming up...  The amount of money got me thinking about cultish California producers I have spent money on this year.  There are many many options for someone willing to shell out $100 for a Napa Cab, and some really incredible wine.  If I had five hundred bucks, I think I'd buy these five bottles instead of just one Harlan...

Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red 2007
Helen Turley was the wine maker at Pahlmeyer when I started drinking the 1994 vintage.  Her onetime assistant Erin Green now leads the cellar and it just seems to get better and better.  BTW, she makes awesome Merlot and Pinot Noir for the Pahlmeyers too.  The tannins are super-rich and fine grained.  The flavors are, of course, full of fruit, but also minerals of excellent complexity.  Parker and others rain praise on Pahlmeyer, and I cannot believe it isn't more expensive.

Neal Family Vineyards Rutherford Dust Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
I first encountered Neal Cabernet in its basic Napa bottling, and I thought it was solid, but only one amongst many.  Once I tried their single vineyard offerings, however, I knew I had found something special.  My favorite is named Rutherford Dust, after the alluvial soil of the benchland.  Neal eschews any notion that their wine should be drunk early; they are just now releasing their 2006 and the 2005 bottling is still closed and monolithic.  Given time, however, it turns into liquid velvet.

Harris Estate Vineyards Lakeview Cabernet 2008
One of the greatest compliments you can get as a chef is for a person to spend a ton of money at your place, and then thank you for it.  On a trip to Napa a few years ago, the manager of the Bounty Hunter recommended I make the trip way up in the hills above Calistoga to visit Harris.  From the name, I was expecting a corporate setup with tasting room, but ended up sitting in Mike Harris' living room, drinking wine and petting his dog, Jake.  Then I spent a ton of money on his wine and thanked him for letting me do so.  The wines are opulent and powerful, full of pure dark fruit and brambly tannins.

Nickel & Nickel Rock Cairn Cabernet 2008
Nickel & Nickel is the 'single vineyard sites only' project of Far Niente.  If you visit the winery, they actually have boxes of dirt you can sniff from each of their projects.  And they are pretty serious about it, making over a dozen distinct bottlings from Napa. Rock Cairn is sourced from the southern edge of Oakville on a late ripening Western exposure.  It's a very dark wine, full of black cherries, old time red licorice (the kind they used to make with molasses), and tea.  It's approachable young, but has great acid and tannin for aging.

Heitz Cellars Martha's Vineyard Cabernet 2006
In 1999, Wine Spectator magazine named the 1974 vintage of Heitz Martha's Vineyard the greatest wine of the 20th Century.  Certainly one of the most storied sites in Napa, or anywhere else, Martha's vineyard is back after a long replanting project necessitated by phylloxera.  The minty, chocolaty Cabernet is loaded with glycerine and ages like Helen Mirren.

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