Diamond Creek Vineyards - Exclusively Cabernet

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Wall Street Journal

A Stateside Search For a World-Class Experience
Are Pricey U.S. Red Wines A Reason for Splurging?
Two Kinds of Old Friends
November 5, 2004


Around this time of year, more people than usual think about spending a great deal of money on a single bottle of special wine as a present, for entertaining or as an end-of-year gift to themselves. They often turn to America's best-known names in expensive red wine, such as Opus One, Dominus, Insignia and Rubicon.

These wines generally cost more than $100, sometimes far more. At that price, buyers have their choice of wines from all over the world -- fine Bordeaux and Burgundy, great Barolo, the very best wines of Spain. But many people prefer to buy reds from the U.S., and that often means Napa Valley. What are they getting for their money? We decided to find out with a large tasting of top reds from Napa and elsewhere.

In a blind tasting of 50 well-known, very expensive American Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux-style proprietary blends from the 1999, 2000 and 2001 vintages, these were our favorites.

When we were growing up in wine, there were a few famous high-end American Cabernet Sauvignons, notably Heitz Cellars "Martha's Vineyard," Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve and Robert Mondavi Reserve. The 1968 and 1974 Heitz and Beaulieu and the 1974 Mondavi were among the greatest wines we ever tasted. As the years went on, there were so many more to love: the 1978 Diamond Creek, the 1994 Pahlmeyer and on and on. During the 1990s bubble, these were topped by trendier, even more expensive wines, such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate, which commanded hundreds or even thousands of dollars a bottle.
Household Names

So we wondered: If we were to pick up 50, what we would find? Scores of American wineries now make a limited amount of very expensive red wine -- it's their signature wine, the one they want to be judged by -- but we stuck with the wines that are household names, at least in some households. We set our limit at $160, which included the familiar names but left out the very expensive cult wines like Screaming Eagle. We included both Cabernet Sauvignon and proprietary labels made from blends of the classic Bordeaux grapes -- primarily Cabernet and Merlot, often with some Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

We bought wines from the 1999, 2000 and just-released 2001 vintage, depending on which vintage we saw. In some cases, we bought two or more vintages of the same wine. Of the three vintages, 2000 is widely regarded as the weakest although, of course, there are always exceptions. Some might argue that we shouldn't have included the 2000 vintage because it wasn't a very good one, but if a winery doesn't want to be judged by its wine from a so-so vintage, it shouldn't be charging $100 or more for it.

All of these wines are young, of course, and most will be better in a few years. Going into the tasting, we knew it would take some time to decipher what they are now and what they might become in the future.

At this price, we're not just looking for a pleasant wine. At this price, we have a right to expect a special experience, wines with layers of taste and surprising nuances that make them interesting and conversation-worthy. They should be made from the best grapes from the best areas of the best vineyards and get the best care. This doesn't mean we will love the wine, because any wine at this price should have some individuality, some sense of the winemaker. We might not really like the same kind of wine the winemaker does. Still, it should be a wine that makes us sit up and take note, one that we find interesting and well-made. And it should be American, with the hard-to-imagine combination of elegance and power that made us fall in love with American wines so many years ago.

Sadly, too many of these did not reach the bar, including far too many of our old friends. The Beaulieu 1999 was disappointing and we were deeply saddened by our experience with the Mondavi Reserve. The 1999 was so lackluster that we tried a second bottle purchased from a different store and it tasted the same. The 2001 was only slightly better. (Both vintages cost about $90.) We have never much liked Dominus, and this tasting, unfortunately, didn't change our minds (we tried both the 1999 and 2000). Rubicon 1999 and 2000 were also just OK to good. A travesty at these prices!

Keeping the Faith
Fortunately, some of the other labels, including other old friends, restored our faith. Staglin was one of our best. If you ever wonder what a truly American Cabernet tastes like, with dark, powerful, intense tastes, this is one to find and try.

Our best of tasting was a surprise, a real eye-opener for us. We have never been really fond of Opus One, the well-known joint project of the Mondavi and Rothschild families -- we have found it perfectly fine but overpriced and overrated. The 2000, however, offered the combination of finesse and heft we love in a great American red. A close second: Opus One 2001, a powerful wine lacking just a little of the structure of the 2000. We paid about $160 for each and they were worth the price for the experience. These are wines that, throughout the night, changed, grew and offered all sorts of different tastes and sensations, giving us tight, intense, pure dark-berry fruit and bittersweet chocolate for a few minutes, then more-giving, softer, sweet-fruit tastes, then tightening up again. There is no substitute for good fruit, and these were bursting with it.

So, our overall advice if you're looking for a top American red this holiday season? First and foremost, the old saw really is true: Price itself is no guarantee of quality. Spend some time with a merchant, look around and choose carefully (and keep in mind that prices on these wines vary widely). Also, consider this: Young, expensive reds generally aren't at their best right now. With about the same amount of money, you can probably find a fine older American Cabernet -- from any of the early years of the 1990s, for example, and from less famous wineries -- that might be more satisfying at the moment. You will need to go to a good, trustworthy wine store to find a wine with some age on it, but at that price range, you should have your choice of a few.

• You can reach us at wine@wsj.com1 and read much more about wine in our new book, "Wine for Every Day and Every Occasion: Red, White, and Bubbly to Celebrate the Joy of Living."

The Dow Jones Very Expensive Cabernet Index
In a blind tasting of 50 well-known, very expensive American Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux-style proprietary blends from the 1999, 2000 and 2001 vintages, these were our favorites. Prices vary widely. Overall, these should age beautifully for many years. These wines deserve meals that are elegant yet fairly simple so the complexity of the wine doesn't clash with the complexity of the food. We'd suggest steak, lamb, prime rib or a savory white bean casserole with herbed, grilled root vegetables.

Vineyard/Vintage: Opus One 'Red Wine' 2000 (Napa Valley)
Price: $159.99
Rating: Delicious
Tasters' Comments: Best of tasting. Awesome fruit bound tightly into a focused, complex whole. Nose of cedar, tobacco and rich berries. Intense and angular, with hints of dark chocolate and lilacs. A wine to sip and talk about all night, with new, surprising tastes all the time. Memorable.

Vineyard/Vintage: Far Niente Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (Oakville, Napa Valley)
Price: $80.00
Rating: Very Good/Delicious
Tasters' Comments: Best value. Brawny yet textured, with blackberries on top and very ripe raspberries underneath. Intense fruit, very American. Not as much stuff underlying the tastes as some, so we're not sure about its longevity. (We didn't like the 1999 as much.)

Vineyard/Vintage: Opus One 'Red Wine' 2001 (Napa Valley)
Price: $160.00
Rating: Delicious
Tasters' Comments: Massive, leathery and filled with character. Layer upon layer, with a long, elegant finish. Classy. We give a small edge to the 2000 because it seems even more complex.

Vineyard/Vintage: Staglin Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (Rutherford, Napa Valley)
Price: $125.00
Rating: Delicious
Tasters' Comments: Roasted and interesting, with an earthy richness and great tannins. Still so hard it's like rock candy. A real winemaker's wine. Lay one down for Open That Bottle Night 30.

Vineyard/Vintage: Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 'Gravelly Meadow' 1999 (Napa Valley)
Price: $159.99
Rating: Very Good/ Delicious
Tasters' Comments: Confidence in a glass. It hits all the right notes but it's relaxed, not obvious. Elegant, with ripe fruit and surprisingly soft tannins. Almost ephemeral. Lovely.

Vineyard/Vintage: Dalla Valle Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 (Napa Valley)
Price: $139.99
Rating: Very Good
Tasters' Comments: Beautiful wine, with lilacs, eucalyptus and plenty of elegance. More finesse than power. (We also liked the 1999.)
Vineyard/Vintage: Joseph Phelps Vineyards Insignia 'Red Table Wine' 2000 (Napa Valley)
Price: $100.00
Rating: Very Good
Tasters' Comments: Creamy vanilla and chocolate nose. Voluptuous and very satisfying, with nice spices and pepper on a bed of ripe, red fruit. Lovely, dry finish. Probably too oaky for some. (We didn't like the 2001 as much.)
Vineyard/Vintage: Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 2001 (California)
Price: $125.00
Rating: Very Good
Tasters' Comments: Beautiful dark color. Young and tight, but it still has layer after layer of fruit and real complexity. So big it's just about chewy. (We didn't like the 1999 as much.)

NOTE: Wines are rated on a scale that ranges: Yech, OK, Good, Very Good, Delicious, and Delicious! These are the prices we paid at wine stores in New York, New Jersey and Illinois.


Diamond Creek Vineyards · 1500 Diamond Mountain Road · Calistoga, California 94515 · 707.942.6926
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