California Cabernet has a bright future |

California Cabernet has a bright future

SUSANNE JOHNSTONspecial to the daily

Last weekend I flew to California and ate and drank my way through Napa Valley. I am a little spoiled because, having lived there, I have a free place to stay, couch camping and plenty to drink since everyone I know is in the wine business. They are all remarkably talented in the kitchen as well. It is a great way to get together with friends. The weather was pleasant, it had finally stopped raining. Everything was in bloom – just exactly the thing that restores your faith that spring is here and summer is around the corner. (I was told it was snowing here while I was gone, so it was really a treat!)One of the biggest things I miss about Northern California is being at the epicenter of culinary creativity. The cheeses coming out of California right now are world-class. The produce is so fresh that you dare put anything on it or even cook it half the time. Don’t even get me started on the seafood.

I went not only to eat, but also to drink. Only in Northern California can you order a wine by the glass at a simple little bistro that is only produced in 100-case lots. Small, family owned wineries that sell only out of their tasting rooms and to the local restaurants in the neighborhood showcase their talents at small industry tastings, hoping to get the word out.I went to one such tasting while in Napa. It is called The Cabernet Society and it is an opportunity to taste barrel samples of the upcoming vintage not only from no-name producers but some of the better-known cult wineries as well. In this case we tasted 2005 barrel samples. Since wine that is a barrel sample has only been in barrel for five to six months at this point it is not necessarily a really enjoyable drink, thankfully wineries also provided samples of their current release wines. Cabernet Sauvignon is a majestic grape. The king of grapes, many would say.

Well, a barrel sample is very different from what you get once it is in bottle and aged a little while. Kind of tastes like slightly sweet grape juice and yogurt mix. The reason is that the wine is still going through malo-lactic fermentation, turning malic acid into lactic acid. Once this transformation takes place, the rich, round, creamy mouth feel we all love about wine, particularly red wine, will be present. But as it is going through that process … well, unless you understand the nuances and how they are promising to evolve, I doubt many readers would find them the least bit appealing. A few things you are looking for when tasting barrel samples is complexity, tannin structure, acidity and richness of fruit. You have to think of this in terms of what might be. Wine writers worldwide make or break a vintage based on barrel samples. Well, I may not be the most knowledgeable or talented wine person out there, but my experience tells me that 2005 will be a very exciting vintage for California Cabernet. Yes, you heard it here first. The samples were amazingly balanced, very rich in fruit, had prominent forward tannins that promise slow aging, and the acid structure was excellent. Even with all that fermentation still going on you still got a sense of structure.Thankfully the wineries also shared their 2002 or 2003 vintage with us weary tasters. I have been a fan of 2002 since its first releases last summer, and they are only getting better.

The 2003 wines were higher in alcohol and not quite as well balanced but are probably going to be heavier fruit wines and real crowd pleasers. It was great to be on the front lines again, getting the early scoop on what is coming down the pipeline. I saw a great many old friends and had a wonderful time. Afterwards we all went to a lovely little restaurant a friend owns in Yountville and drank a whole lot of Sauvignon Blanc!Susanne Johnston is the owner of Frisco Wine Merchant. For more information, contact her at (970) 668-3153, or at

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