The Wine House is one of the biggest and most popular independent wine stores in Los Angeles. Every Fall it hosts an annual, not-to-be-missed wine tasting, the Cabernet Fest. Nothing but Cab, and lots of it—approximately 135 were poured at this year’s event, the majority coming from some of the most highly regarded names in California winemaking. Top California Cab is almost always a splurge, and we whittled through to find the ones most worthy of their top dollar.
It so happens all of our top selections come from the Napa Valley. We continue to love, LOVE the 2011 vintage in Napa. It’s a vintage that challenges the stereotype of a Napa Cab—i.e. big, ripe and bold (although plenty of these exist)—and is truly a winemaker’s vintage where personal artistry shines. California vintages 2009, 2010 and 2012 were well represented, critically acclaimed vintages by major publications, but we prefer ’11 over both ’09 and ’10 for its subtleties and complexities. As far as ’12, there’s very little to complain about, but we remain non-committed until further exploration.
Here’s our top 12 Napa Cabs of the event, meaning these are some of the finest Cabernet Sauvignons in the world today.
1. GEMSTONE Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (Yountville, Napa, $130–$150)
“Symmetry” refers to a sense of harmony and beautiful proportion and balance. It’s a word that accurately sums up this truly spectacular wine. It all starts with a very complex nose of herbs, spice, earth and rock—and then an impressive depth of flavors evolve over the entire pallet, including cassis, plum and traces of menthol characteristic of a Heitz Cellars, Martha’s Vineyard. Mouthfeel is cottony soft but round and firm, entirely seductive.
Utilizing the best of modern technology and Old Word traditionalism, the eastern-facing vineyards responsible for this wine were meticulously planned, planted and engineered over the last decade by the winemaker, and the handcrafted quality of the final work of art is obvious and striking—there’s a level of creativity, obsession and personal expression in the winemaking here that you could compare to Orson Welles making Citizen Kane. The wine is now only a shadow of what it will become with several years in bottle. Thank you, Philippe Melka and team. About 450 cases made. 98 pts search direct
2. BEAULIEU VINEYARD Georges de Latour Private Reserve 2010 (Rutherford, Napa, $85–$100)
Johannes and I had already indulged in a fair amount of wine by the time we tasted this beauty. Such is its power that it lays all wines before it to dust (perhaps Tchelistcheff’s famous “Rutherford dust!”). This is a very concentrated, incredibly distinctive wine that packs a lot of heat with touches of spice, tobacco, mocha and sour cherry. The tannins are mild, the finish keeps going and going. A California legend is alive and well. Ready to drink now with a decanting. The best vintage since 2007, hands down. 96 pts search direct
3. COHO Summit Vine Ranch 2011 (Diamond Mountain, Napa, $47–$52)
Earthy aromas of dark fruit typical of Diamond Mountain wine, but its fruit-forwardness was unexpected. Firm tannins but not overpowering—very expressive. Undoubtedly the most pleasant surprise of the event and definitely underpriced (shhhh!) A home run, and pure velvety joy. Approximately 460 cases made. 95 pts search direct
4. CADE Howell Mountain 2010 (Howell Mountain, Napa, $70–$81)
Unmistakable mountain nose of volcanic soil and rock. Strong masculine tannins grip you and take you for a long journey. Along the way, warming spices, clove, leather, and red fruit. A true Napa mountain cab that reaches great heights. Around 3,000 cases produced. 95 pts search direct
5. ROBERT MONDAVI To Kalon Vineyard Reserve 2011 (Oakville, Napa, $120–$145 )
Difficult and stressful environments often bring out the best of an artist (refer to Van Gogh, etc.). Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking at Mondavi, has created a masterwork in a tough 2011 vintage. Sure, when you’ve got a first growth vineyard as your canvas, that gives you a certain advantage—but expectations are also increased, and this wine, miraculously, does everything to surpass those expectations. So atypically Napa in its great complexity and subtleties, silky lightness of texture, violet and raspberry fragrance, graceful and elegant red fruit in the center, and a finish that flows like the moves of a ballerina. Johannes’s #2 wine of the event. 96 pts search direct
6. RELIC Napa Valley 2010 (Napa, $70–$75)
Many wine enthusiasts strive to find a hidden gem. This is one of them. A dark wine with tremendous depth and texture, almost a liqueur mouthfeel. Most of this wine’s force is felt mid-palate with strong hints of red fruit throughout. With fruit sourced from the famed Stagecoach Vineyard, don’t hesitate to purchase on a whim. 94 pts search direct
7. STAG’S LEAP WINE CELLARS Artemis 2011 (Stag’s Leap, Napa, $40–$55)
With apologies to L.L. Cool J, call it a comeback. After nearly a decade of disrepair evident in the early 2000s, we’re ready to declare that this throwback brand is revived and ready to settle a score. Laying down more beats than a Beats headphone, the hallmark structure, lush fruit and muscular body of the Stag’s Leap name is back. Mama said knock you out. 93 pts search direct
8. CAYMUS Napa Valley 2012 (Rutherford, Napa, $55–$65)
With Caymus you know what you are going to get no matter the vintage. Call it a predictable wine, and that’s a good thing. The 2012 is immediately drinkable—dense, fruity, oaky, with a vanilla backbone. Any fan of what we have come to know as a “classic Napa Cab” will absolutely love this wine. Perhaps the best Caymus in years. 93 pts search direct
9. JOSEPH PHELPS Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Napa, $60–$70)
Not on par with the iconic Insignia, but this is, for most people, the more sensible buy. Thoroughly enjoyable and worthy of acclaim and full of that Phelps x-factor that makes their wines so special. A bountiful fruit bomb typical of the 2012 vintage that is ready to drink immediately. 93 pts search direct
10. STANTON VINEYARDS Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Oakville, Napa, $80)
You may not have heard of this winery, but you’re probably familiar with other works of art (e.g. Orin Swift) by the person largely responsible for this stellar effort, Dave Phinney. Warm mouthfeel, high alcohol content at just under 15%, mild tannins and definitely fruit forward like many other 2012s, but perhaps a little more so than other stereotypical Oakville cabs. Some may consider this wine a little jammy, but it drinks like liquid velvet. 100% Cabernet and less than 600 cases made. 94 pts search direct
11. DOMINUS 2009 (Yountville, Napa, $169–$210)
This estate has had a tremendous run over the course of the last decade with awarded points from critics that all but a handful of Napa vineyards would envy. Elite status has been bestowed upon Dominus, and prices reflect it. Like a Mercedes, BMW or Audi, you know you are achieving status with a purchase. It so happens this wine is a blockbuster. Incredibly silky, very concentrated but effortless and so seamless, hint of blueberries into a long finish that goes on for minutes. Two words that best describe this wine: elegant and sophisticated. Go ahead and put those year-end bonuses to good use because you deserve it. 97 pts search direct
12. VINEYARD 29 Cru 2012 (Napa, $48–$58)
A well-rounded wine. Notes of chocolate, cherries and leather. Very fragrant with mild tannins that provide added depth. A terrific value. If you enjoyed the 2007 Cru, this similarly-structured wine is a must. 93 pts search direct
–R.K. and J.M.