Premier Cruz: Cabernet Three Ways
Photo Credit: Julie Thiebaut

Tasting Bordeaux from France side by side with examples from Napa and the Santa Cruz Mountains, all from a single vintage, is an illuminating way to see what gets the juices flowing.

Attendees of Premier Cruz on November 6, 2015, at The Mountain Winery were treated to a rare presentation of nine excellent Cabernets, along with an even more rare appearance by surprise guest, Warren Winiarski, founder and former owner of one of Napa’s most iconic wine brands of all time, Stag’s Leap Winery. His comment regarding judicious blending, “Bring together opposites to create a sense of completeness,” will forever remain a mantra. A brilliant, charming man.

Premier Cruz: Cabernet Three Ways
Photo Credit: Julie Thiebaut

Premier Cruz is always a microcosm of the mountain’s magnificence, and the breadth of micro-climates in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Expanding the scope by introducing some well-known brands from Napa, along with two distinctive French visitors, gave the crowd of over 100 who came out on a rare day of sprinkles, something to chew on. Cool, grey skies provided perfect Bordeaux weather, as one cannot enjoy the heady black-fruited frenzy, leather-wrapped and cigar-infused Men’s club aromatics and the voluptuous tannins of Cabernet any other way.

One quick note: 2005 was an extremely dry and warm year in France. It was a nearly perfect growing year in California.

The nine wines, all labeled as Cabernet, and all a decade into their lifespans, were, along with my impressions and notes:

  1. 2005 “La Questa Cabernet,” Woodside Cellars, SCM: Great aromas of dusty earth, rose petals, old sachet and potpourri, highlight warm, softly-aged flavors of soy, tobacco, leather, sage and roasting chestnuts. Lovely and eminently capable of another 10-15 years of graceful maturity.
  2. 2005 Château Montrose, Bordeaux (Ste. Estephe): Very French nose of barnyard and intense funk, with massive tannins and powerful innards that will need time to knit together. As accessible as a locked cellar door in an Edgar Allen Poe novel. Will benefit from a decade or two.
  3. 2005 Château Leoville Poyferre, Bordeaux (Saint-Julien): Now this, a blend of 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot and 6% Petit Verdot was fabulous, from the dark licorice and rosemary aromas, to the rich, majestic and appealing flavors of plum, fig, basil and spicy ripe blackberries. Fantastically deep as midnight tannins (courtesy of Petit Verdot), ensure this beauty has the stones to go 30 years easily.
  4. 2005 Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard,” Napa: Classic balsam and menthol aromas make this a classic, with red-fruited zestiness and persistent pine forest finish. Probably good for another 20.
  5. 2005 Stags Leap Wine Cellars “Cask 23,” Napa: Absolutely smashingly fruity nose of dark plum, cigar box, allspice and clove, this wine comes off as ripe and as ready to drink as a figgy pudding at Christmas. Pass the hard sauce, as this wine will more than match it. Drink now and for 5 years or so. It’s 100% Cabernet.
  6. 2005 Ridge Monte Bello, SCM: Powerful American oak aromas meld with wet adobe, black licorice, cassis and cigar in this blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc. Angular and intense on the palate, with flavors of tiny huckleberries, the wood is still in charge. This could definitely have benefited from decanting. Age another 10 – 15.
  7. 2005 Mount Eden Estate, SCM: Probably the youngest lad in the lot, still skipping rope in short pants. With its heady aromatics of pine and tobacco, brisk red flavors of currant, cranberries and red cherries, and its inherently fresh, sandy tannins, this has the stuffing to go 40 +.
  8. 2005 Kathryn Kennedy Estate, SCM: Earthy, mineral-laden and animalistic in every way, this wine quickly grows on you with its peppery tobacco and red cherry pie spice. The layers are many, the stories complete and the impact unforgettable. Drinking great right now and for 10 to 15 to come.
  9. 2005 Thomas Fogarty “Lexington,” SCM: With equal parts of Cabernet and Merlot, this was the ringer in the bunch, tempting with lovely aromatics of dark red and black fruit. With its pretty, satiny texture, lovely plump middle and gorgeous finish, it showed beautifully why Merlot is like the Watson to Sherlock’s Cabernet. It simply does everything sooner and a great deal more tidily. Drink up, baby. This is not for the cellar, but is oh so very enjoyable right now. It’s the wine you can drink while you wait for the previous eight to arrive at the party.
Premier Cruz: Cabernet Three Ways
Photo Credit: Julie Thiebaut

It was interesting to compare findings and favorites with the guests, who ranged from inebriated wine neophytes to career winemakers and sommeliers. Several things were apparent. The wines that make the biggest, loudest noises, are the ones most people remember, and are therefore the ones you will hear people talking about. These were the Ridge, with its massive American oak, and the Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard with its rip-snorting juniper and menthol notes from the eucalyptus trees that dominate that vineyard.

Like heavy metal rock, those wines are not for everyone, but they do rather rudely demand your attention, like someone playing Led Zeppelin on Sunday morning at max volume.

The most attention-getting wines were not to me the most enjoyable, or the most interesting, but they will be the ones writ large on the lips and hearts of the masses. Hollywood and the music industry have trained us well.

Like those who prefer listening to the nuanced, practiced skill required to play acoustic guitar, cello, piano or harp, I am firmly in the camp of wines #1, 3, 7, 8 and 9, as they politely request your attention, and then proceed to rivet it with their masterful composition.

It is to these wines Warren Winiarski was referring when he said, “The finest wines are the ones that satisfy. The Latin root of satisfy is ‘enough:’ all you need is just enough. Anything more detracts from purity.”

Amen, Warren.


Laura NessLaura Ness, aka “Her VineNess,” is an accomplished wine journalist and wine critic whose passion for wine was ignited by a visit to France, where she had the unmatched pleasure of tasting Sancerre in the medieval town of Sancerre – splendid!— and then a Saumur, after visiting the Chateau de Saumur in Chinon. The concept of terroir came alive in those incandescent moments. She regularly judges wine competitions and serves on the tasting panels of the Pinot, Cabernet and Chardonnay Shootouts. She was instrumental in helping define the unique sub-regions of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA in concert with Appellation America. You can usually find her sipping and smiling in Mendocino, Livermore, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Cruz Mountains and Paso Robles. Laura writes extensively for many industry and consumer publications, and has weekly wine columns in several Bay Area newspapers. She blogs, irreverently and sporadically, at

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