Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pulling cork: The problem with the other side of the table is there's no time to taste wine

                                 Black Bottles  
   The 2014 California futures tasting at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, near the Mall, came off with its usual smooth efficiency yesterday. Offered for sampling were barrel samples mostly from the excellent 2012 vintage and some from the lesser 2011. The idea behind the tasting, in case you're wondering, is to sell high-end wines before they're finally released, assuring those who can afford them a case or more that usually sell out before they're released. Early buyers also get a bit of a break on price.
   I stood behind a table pulling corks from unlabeled black bottles shipped from Napa Vally, and apportioning dollops of Dunn Vineyards' Howell Mountain cabernet sauvignon to the legion of proffered glasses. These were mostly collectors and enthusiasts from all over, the most common comment being, "Dunn's reliably good," with a couple of "Dunn's the best," high praise indeed in that company.
   This is the top Dunn cabernet, costs $90 a bottle, and comes exclusively from slopes high on Howell Mountain on the east side of the valley, some planted as far back as the '70s. (For particulars go to: I tasted it right off and was struck by a freshness straight out of the barrel, the tannins masked and the fruit surprisingly fresh under the overall smoky assertiveness of inky new wine. One reason for its approachability was its relatively low alcohol (under 14 per cent). After it had sat in my glass for an hour I tasted it again, and formidable tannins romped, presaging a long life for the which these cabs are known, and big rewards way down the line. Like maybe in 2025.
    Since I was alone I couldn't make the rounds of the tasting tables, as I had hoped. Finally I accepted the offer of a former journalist to cover for me while I sampled some of my neighbors' wine. A couple of standouts, new to me, were the Barnett 2012 Rattlesnake cabernet, made from fruit limited to one and a quarter tons per acre because of that high vineyard's extreme rockiness. It was tightly structured and very potent, including the 14.8 per cent alcohol. But there's real promise for this wine when it starts coming round in a decade or so ($145 a bottle now).
    I also liked Carte Blache's 2011 Nobles Ranch pinot noir ($$75) from the Sonoma coast, and Sanguis's Loner R-12a pinot ($65), though the alcohol in both was quite noticeable.
   The tasters were for the most part casually dressed and knowledgeable, their teeth stained purple after the first few minutes. After three hours even those who had spit out the wine they were showing some of its influence. Some had given up the spitting in favor of swallowing, a mistake. One said unapologetically, "The winemakers put so much effort into this it's feels disrespectful," and he was serious. (I pointed out that winemakers spit.). Another asked for no less than three pours - "I want to make sure I'm getting all the nuances" - and finally turned to the tables of Chinese dumpling, cheese, prosciutto and lovely crusty bread, almost as an afterthought.                                                    

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