...and don't forget to email your questions or comments!
Email me: apj@wine-people.com

Cult Rites

The ultimate tasting of California cult wines? Could be! It happened in North Jersey on September 25, 1999 and you better believe I was there. Hereís the sip-by-sip, complete with photos they'd never print in Wine Spectator.

ARE THESE FOLKS HAVING TOO MUCH FUN? Click here to see photos from the Cult Wine Offline...

     If you want to jump right to the tasting notes, click here. Otherwise, read on...

"Itís not fair, your armís longer than mine..."

"Whoops! Hope you didnít like that tablecloth, Steve..."

"You mean to say, Mark, your glass just fell apart all by itself..."

"Oh Lord, Ronís kissing David..."

"Louie had a bath in honor of tonight. He should smell pretty good..."

     Okay, sometimes it did get a little weird, but for the most part the evening was remarkable genteel. Especially considering the occasion.

     We were gathered at a private home in North Jersey to taste what may have been the most comprehensive lineup of California "Cult Wines" ever assembled. Certainly itís the most complete such tasting Iíve ever heard about.

     For the uninitiated, let me explain that "Cult Wines" are the small-production trophy labels from California that are now going for hundreds of dollars per bottle at auction. Some folks decry Ďem. Others worship Ďem. Most of us wish we had a few.

     And now, in the space of a few hours, we were tasting through more than 40. Let me be crude. About $20,000 worth of wine. Maybe more.

     It wouldnít have happened without the Internet. As I understand it, the ball got rolling more than 6 months ago when friend and fellow wine-geek Ed Assidio posted a note on Mark Squiresí Bulletin Board.

     "Letís have dinner," he said. "Everyone bring sixty bucks to cover the eats -- and a bottle of cult wine. Letís we how many different ones we can put together."

     The reaction from the online wine community was mixed. Some of us protested killing so many rarities in one night. Others said it was just way too much conspicuous consumption. How gauche. How crude. How greedy.

     But, uh, how neat.

     Gotta admit, I was a naysayer at first. Then, after about 5 minutes, my curiosity and vinous gluttony got the better of me.

     I signed up. And now itís history. And here I am the following evening, asking myself what I learned. (I mean, thatís why we did it, right? To learn more about wine. Correct? Oh sure.)

     Well, was it worth it? You bet. It was a fun group of folks who know how to party. Wouldnít have missed it for the world.

     No, I mean, the wines. Were they worth it? All depends. I mean, they were terrific wines. I mean, if you like your wine flamboyant, opulent and oozing with fruit. And the quality was very, very consistent. Folks argued themselves hoarse over the best, of course, but that was only because there so many likely contenders. Only a couple were disappointing and one of those may have been stored poorly.

     But is any wine worth the kind of money these wines fetch? Yeah, thatís the big question, isnít it? Because, after all, this is wine. As I drank, an angel did not descend to explain the meaning of life. Nor did a hot rush of heavenly pleasure infuse my mortal flesh. Better than sex? No. (But rarer? Happily, yes.)

     Well, what about bragging rights? Good point. They must be worth something. Letís be honest. Iím having a lot of fun writing this article.

     Cut to the chase. What actually happened? Soon, soon! First, a few awards.

BEST WINE. In no particular order, I probably had the most fun with 1994 Colgin, 1995 Colgin, 1994 Shafer Hillside Select and 1995 Araujo. But really, the quality gaps were remarkably small. Pick your style. Dan Kravitz, sitting beside me, criticized the "flabby, flashy" 1996 Les Pavots and really liked the hulking, backward Harlans. I felt exactly the opposite -- the Harlans were monolithic and comparatively boring. We could argue all night about this and we did.

BEST OVER-ACHIEVER. 1995 Seavey was poured by request of the estate, just to see how it would stand up alongside the likes of Colgin, Bryant, Maya, et al. Though not nearly as coveted on the auction circuit, the Seavey ran a great race. I liked it even better than a few of the big buck contenders.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT. 1990 Dalla Valle Maya didnít show much of anything. Wasnít nearly as nice as the considerably cheaper 1991 Dalla Valle Estate. 1990 Dominus also failed to perform well, but I suspect the bottle may have been cooked. See my tasting note below.

BIGGEST SURPRISE. The 1995s are at a more flattering stage than the 1994s. First time Iíve noticed that. The latter are starting to shut down. They really do have a lot of tannin under all that fruit. Even the 1993s, with less tannin to begin with, are showing better right now than the Ď94s.

THE BOTTOM-OF-BIRDCAGE TROPHY goes to our gracious host Steve Levy, who not only donated his home for the dinner, but generously opened several bottles of killer Port after dinner, including 1994 Taylor. He then passed out cigars. (No, I did not light up. Been there, done that, had the headache.)

THE I.M.A. KLUTZ MEMORIAL BIB has to go to Mark Squires, who not only spilled an enormous puddle of wine on Steveís pale lemon-yellow linen tablecloth but also managed to break one of his glasses off at the stem just by looking at it. (See my photos.)

And we should invent a GOLDEN GEARSHIFT AWARD for smooth operator Ed Assidio, who not only managed to pull the whole thing off, but also oversaw the pouring. Looked chaotic at times, but as far as I could see everyone got a fair pour of everything. Didnít hear any complaints. Do it again, Ed.

     Now to the notes. First we went through a "few" Chardonnays:

***+1995 Marcassin Chardonnay "Lorenzo." This, my friends, is what California Chardonnay is all about. Big burst of cumquat and papaya. Lots of smoke. Frankly, openly, brazenly, blazingly fruity and oaky and who cares, itís great. Some say it needs to calm down. I respect their palates but donít think they get it. WHITE OF THE EVENING.

*1998 Trevor Jones Chardonnay "Virgin." The polar opposite. An Australian wine whose label proclaims a manifesto of no oak and no malolactic. Itís nice. Subtle flavors of peach, melon and pineapple. Nice, but frankly, I think itís a good argument for using oak.

**+1994 Beringer Chardonnay "Sbragia Limited Release". Very intense stuff. More integrated and less openly oaky than the Lorenzo, but not as punchy either. Tonight is a night to sing loud. This wine has lost a decibel since release. A longtime favorite of mine and itís still beautiful, but if youíve got Ď94s, Iíd say drink Ďem.

**1994 Marcassin Chardonnay "Gauer Ranch Upper Barn." I was mildly surprised to find this milder than the 1994 Lorenzo tonight. A little more splintery too.

***1994 Kistler "Vine Hill." Spice, smoke and a boatload of mango. But that doesnít do it justice. Magnificent. If you like the California style, you gotta love this wine. Kudos, Steve Kistler. I tried to find another half-ounce of Lorenzo to compare to it, but couldnít.

***1992 Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Clos Windsbuhl. This is not a California cult wine and Iím not sure how it slipped in, but it is super juice. Thick, oily, mmm. Some rose petal still but the minerals and pears are taking over this wine as it ages. Some called this the white of the evening. Wouldnít argue too hard.

**1997 Neyers Chardonnay Carneros. Surprised a lot of people who had never tasted a Neyers Chard. I found it hauntingly similar to the Marcassin Gauer. Tried to find more Gauer for a head-to-head and failed, of course. If youíve never tried any of Ehren Jordanís Chardonnays, correct the mistake.

     Then came the onslaught of reds, reds and, gadzooks, even more reds:

**1977 Mayacamus. Poured by Dan Kravitz, to prove a point. Okay, point made. Garnet, but surging with big sour cherry flavors, with notes of leather. Lots of length. A beaut, especially, considering the general quality of the 1977 California vintage.

**1990 Dalla Valle Estate. Teaberry, lavender, cassis and Asian spice. Exotic, structured, powerful and a heck of a lot more interesting than itís highly esteemed sister, below.

1990 Dalla Valle Maya. What happened? No aromas. Sweet and soft on the palate, but ultimately dull and I havenít even tasted the monsters yet. One of only two disappointments this evening.

***+1994 Shafer Hillside Select. Tannins are finally starting to clamp in on this wine, but thereís no holding back the ocean of black cherry, seasoned by bittersweet chocolate. Huge, slippery, smooth, Shafer! Tied for WINE OF THE EVENING.

**+1993 Shafer Hillside Select. Very similar, on a slightly smaller scale. Some prefer it to the 1994. Thatís because itís not as tannic, but itís not as fruit-packed, either. Later on, I am to find that many of the Ď93s are more generous than their bigger brethren, probably for the same reason.

**+1990 Stagís Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23. One of the two bottles here tonight was corked and undrinkable. Ironically, it was sent by the estate! (An argument for artificial closures if ever I heard one.) I was lucky enough to cadge a taste of the good bottle and itís very sexy indeed. Jamocha almond fudge. Showing more spice and chocolate than the Shafer, but otherwise exhibiting the supple texture and seductive fruit of Stags Leap District Cab at its best.

**+1990 Philip Togni. The Tognis were the most Bordelaise of any Cabs tonight -- even more so than the Dominus wines noted below. Lots of Bordeaux herb and cassis. You might have thought you were drinking Latour. Truly. (But Philip may not take that as a compliment!)

***1992 Philip Togni. A bigger wine than the 1990, if thatís possible. Showing even more fruit. Other comments hold. Wonderfully complex for all its size.

**+1995 Seavey. William Seavey apparently asked if his wine could be entered against the better-known wines. He made his point. I wasnít so surprised, having been blown away by the 1991 and 1990 Seaveys, but I was pleased. Fudgy, fruity, yum. Very comparable in style and quality to the 1990 Cask 23.

**1993 Abreu. David Abreu is the vineyard manager for many of the most famous cult wines -- including, I believe, Colgin and Bryant. You gotta love what heís doing with his fruit. The style of this particular Cab didnít impress me as much as the Colgins and Bryants, however. Powerful wine with a walloping finish, but lacks some polish. Reminds me of the Harlans. Adjust your own expectations accordingly.

**1993 Joseph Phelps Insignia. Coffee vanilla milkshake with lots of Asian spice. Approachable charmer. Showing better than its more impressive younger sibling...

***1994 Joseph Phelps Insignia. Similar but more, even though itís holding more back too! One of the most backward wines poured tonight, but you canít shut it down. Powers its way to respect.

**+1991 Ridge Monte Bello. Big nose of American oak, followed up by Bordeaux-style herbs and cassis. Lots of depth. Scratchy tannins. Old-style Cab. Needs time. Two folks at my table argue for this as wine of the evening. Canít agree -- thereís just too much competition tonight -- but I know where youíre coming from, friends.

1990 Dominus. The only one of four Dominus vintages poured tonight that failed to delight. Iíve had far better bottles of the 1990. Itís highly drinkable, with some nice violet aromas. But a flavor of stewed prunes tells me that this bottle may have been heat-damaged. Too bad.

***1991 Dominus. Tobacco, berry, hint of horse dung. But itís thoroughbred horse dung. Impeccably balanced, but finishes long. Doesnít shout like some of the wines we have later, but that may be a vote in its favor.

**+1992 Dominus. Basically the same as the 1991, but a hair less concentrated.

***+1994 Dominus. Basically the same as the 1991, but even more concentrated. There was some discussion tonight about whether the 1994 may ultimately outshine the 1991.

***1996 Peter Michael "Les Pavots." Hotly debated. I think itís heaven. Super-fruity, barges of ripe cassis and tobacco. Some say itís too soft and can never last. Nuts. Thereís plenty of ripe tannin here. Itís just slathered with baby fat. Yes, the acidity is low. Itís also low in 1982 Mouton.

***1994 Araujo Eisele Vineyard. Darn, Iím running out of adjectives. Tannins are taking hold, as with many 1994s poured tonight, but this is ultra-classic, chocolate-cherry, California Cab. I was going to name it one of my wines of the evening, until I sipped...

***+1995 Araujo Eisele Vineyard. Sterner, but also sweeter. Bigger, I think. May just be that this one hasnít closed down as much as the Ď94. Tied for WINE OF THE EVENING.

***1994 Bryant Family. Lots of mineral flavors. Then a bottomless pool of blackcurrant-strawberry essence. Something else too. Some say they taste rhubarb. Sip, are they right? Maybe, but you know, I like rhubarb.

***+1995 Bryant Family. So intense it hurts. Otherwise, compares to the 1994 as other wines do to their own respective Ď94s. More gritty but more intense. I would guess that eventually it will close down even tighter.

***1993 Bryant Family. Brilliant! Literally. Shining brightly (quite insane, if anyone out there remembers Procol Harum). Again, the same story as the other Ď93s. Same profile, more approachable, a little less concentrated than the 1994. If you have all three vintages (lucky dog), drink this first.

***+1994 Colgin. I confess, I brought one of these Ďcause I always loved it. Well, dance with the girl you brung. Tonight I love it passionately. Blueberry is the flavor that makes this wine stand out from the rest. I like blueberry. Plus, thereís leather, plum jam and heaven knows how much else going on. This is the most talkative of all the 1994s I tasted tonight, possibly because itís just too, too, too, to ever shut up. Tied for WINE OF THE EVENING.

***+1995 Colgin. But yes, this is showing even better tonight than the 1994. Is that possible? Slurp, mm, guess so. Gosh, what a tough decision. Give me more hard work like this. Tied for WINE OF THE EVENING.

***1993 Colgin. See notes on 1993 Shafer, Bryant, Phelps. Very flashy tonight. Hope you like blueberry.

**1992 Harlan. Boy what a change! Big, strapping, tannic wine. Not as sexy as the Colgin. Dan Kravitz, on my right, likes Ďem built to last. Respects acid and tannin Thumbs up. I dunno. Wonít complain, but give me Colgin tonight.

**1993 Harlan. Even more acidic and tannic than the 1992. Also the dullest tonight of the three Harlans, comparatively speaking.

***1995 Harlan. Now this wine demands respect. Most tannic of the three but thereís so much extraction, your head snaps back. Still, I must say that the Harlan style doesnít move me to open my wallet.

We finished the night with a passel of dessert wines, but at this point, my palate was beginning to tire. I took special note of:

1976 DíYquem (from magnum). An incredibly generous gesture from the donor. I wish I could say the earth moved. It did not. Flavors of parchment and botrytis, but not the syrupy essence I was expecting.

***1994 Taylor-Fladgate Port. Drink 1994 vintage Port now? Yes, and you know what? It kicked tail. Maybe not so oddly, it seemed the most appropriate way to conclude an evening of such big, big, big , big wines.

Top of page     Back to articles contents page


     Tasting Notes     Articles
Main Contents     Under $16     Search     Blog