After multiple years of no blind tasting get togethers due to the pandemic, our group finally did the normal, blind, score on a 20-point scale blind tasting last night. I brought all the wines, and they all came from my late father’s cellar. For each flight I had three potential bottles in case one was bad. I didn’t need a single backup. Every bottle was on point, from the oldest to the youngest.
Preparation info: none of the bottles were decanted. They were opened about 90 minutes before service. Did they improve with more air – a little, but mostly they showed so spectacularly out of the gate that it was a very high bar to clear.
While getting organized we had a 2017 Laherte Freres Les Grandes Crayeres that was bright, focused and showing just enough depth/richness to avoid coming across as shrill. Early days, but happy to have more of this in the cellar.
On to the blind wines, served in pairs:
1986 Chateau Montelena “The Montelena Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
I don’t really know when/where my dad bought this bottle, but it looked great (clean label, high fill), and it showed even better. Restrained fruit, well-evolved structure, and a notable “bottle sweetness” – that non-sugary sweetness that I associate with older red wines. Adding earthy and tobacco notes, this was a complete package. Along with the 1991 Monte Bello tasted later, this had the best aromatics of the night. Second place wine for the night, averaging 18.0/20 (standard deviation among the tasters was 0.7).
1991 Chateau Montelena “The Montelena Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Another bottle that dad likely picked up in the secondary market, but also a winner. Brighter acidity than the 1986 it was served with, and more depth of fruit. This felt much more like California, but still in a very restrained way. Balanced tannic structure, and the amount of remaining depth indicates a long runway still ahead for this wine. Fourth place wine for the night, averaging 17.7/20 (standard deviation also 0.7)
1991 Ridge Monte Bello (Santa Cruz Mountains)
My history with this wine had been mostly tragic. I had owned two bottles. One was broken, the other corked. Finally, the streak was broken, and in a most amazing way. From the first sniff, the first sip when I opened the bottle to check the wine was on point and glorious. An hour later when we had it in the tasting it was glorious. Another hour plus after that when we were sipping on what was left it was glorious. Deep, comforting fruit, with no sign of overripeness, and subtle yet firm structure created a seamless whole that was much harder to describe than any of the other wines, as each element was set precisely in place. This was a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I have had some legendary California Cabernets over the years, but this immediately took the top spot. Runaway first place wine of the night, averaging 19.0/20 (standard deviation 0.5).
1997 Ridge Monte Bello (Santa Cruz Mountains)
Oh, it sucks to follow the 1991. This was a really good wine. The group gave it good marks, but by comparison it got its butt kicked. That said, all the pieces were there, just not integrated into the seamless whole like the 1991. Initially it was rather acidic, and also showed a bit of pyrazine character. I actually liked both of those elements, as they conveyed a sense of freshness into the wine. Just an unfortunate placement against a wine that was in no way “bigger” just too close to perfect to compete with. Sixth place wine of the night, averaging 16.9/20 (standard deviation 0.7).
1994 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” (Napa Valley)
Back to Napa, and a more modern expression, but not over the top. The last 199 Insignia from my dad’s cellar had clearly been well cared for, and it produced mellow, fruit-driven aromatics, and earthiness that ran as an undercurrent. Less structured than the Montelenas and Monte Bellos, it still had enough grip to hold things together. More obviously full-bodied, it did not have the same level of sustain as the prior two wines but would still have been a welcome accompaniment to dinner (and I in fact had a few beef/pork blend meatballs alongside it which was a nice match). I would never turn down a bottle of this, but I also would drink up relatively soon to capture the expression before it starts a decline. Third place wine of the night with 17.8/20 (standard deviation 0.3!)
1996 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” (Napa Valley)
I really liked this wine, but it was somewhat divisive with the group, as one guy gave it a dramatically low score (13/20). Everyone else had it near the preceding 1994. What struck me about this 1996 was the bright acidity running through the middle of the wine. It perked everything up compared to the 1994. More in the black cherry realm rather than the plummy 1994, it had me asking for a rare ribeye steak, to contrast the fat of the meat with the acid in the wine. This was another one that I was happy to drink up. I suspect it will go quite a while longer, but the balance was correct, and I would prefer to take advantage of that. This was another solo bottle from my dad’s cellar, so I won’t get to test my guess. Fifth place wine of the night with 17.1/20 (standard deviation 1.6 due to the one person not much caring for it)
2018 John Anthony Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
For the final red wine flight, we switched gears to much younger bottles, and two 2018 Cabernets. This wasn’t entirely fair to the two wines, as they followed one of the better runs of wine we had enjoyed in a very long time (even prior to COVID). That said, both performed well. The John Anthony was the riper styled of the two, with rich, ripe, plummy fruit that largely buried the structure. Seemed somewhat shut down on the nose, despite having 2+ hours after opening to fill out. Eighth place wine of the night, but still a very respectable 16.4/20 (standard deviation 0.8)
2018 EMH Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
The EMH was the more classic of the two young wines, going more to the cassis end of the spectrum, and having more obvious structure. This was another bottle that begged for a steak. I have a bunch of this in my cellar (the rare wine where dad and I bought the same stuff), and no regrets about that, as it seems balanced for a positive evolution over the next 10-12 years. Seventh place wine of the night with 16.5/20 (standard deviation 1.1 – one taster had this scored 19/20)
1998 Domaine Weinbach Pinot Gris Altenbourg Sélection des Grains Nobles
Honey covered pineapple upside down cake. This was luscious. Drink now and for the next 50 years. Lovely way to cap off the evening. We didn’t rank this as it was a complete outlier from the rest of the tasting, but the average score was 18.3/20 (standard deviation 0.5)
That was fun, and a nice way to share a bunch of bottles from my dad’s cellar. I hope to do it again soon.