Tasting with Karen MacNeil: Part 2, The Wines

Like cooking on Thanksgiving, decanting all the wines for a few hours makes quite the aromatic impression as guests arrive:  lush perfume of violets, cherries and cedar.  A dozen decanters of cabernet franc can do that to a room!

The panel:

  • Karen MacNeil, Karen MacNeil & Co., plus her two assistants, Heather Muhleman & Mike Goshorn
  • Rob Sinskey, Robert Sinskey Vineyards
  • Aaron Pott, Blackbird, Pott wine
  • Jeff Keene, Cornerstone Cellars (former Havens winemaker)
  • John Killebrew, former Havens winemaker
  • Sara Fowler, Peju Winery
  • Unfortunately not available to join us, but kindly contributing their wines:  Fritz Hatton (Arietta), John Skupny, and Pam Starr.

Karen MacNeil welcomed us, “I wonder if a great paragraph has ever been written about California Cabernet Franc; if not, I would like to write one.”  I fumbled through some effusively appreciative thoughts, grateful for the esteemed company, then silence befell us, and the swirling began.  Composite notes on the wines:

Flight #1:  Napa Valley Cabernet Franc

  1. Palazzo Cabernet Franc, 2007 (Carneros) $65 – bright, ‘sour cherry’ expressive nose with a good grain of tannin and high notes of ‘leafy/floral’ character
  2. Peju Cabernet Franc, 2007 (Napa Valley) $45 – strong oak component, overwhelming nutmeg, a bit grippy (a barrel sample not yet released)
  3. Robert Sinskey Vineyards Cabernet Franc, Vandal Vineyard, 2007 (Carneros) $40 elusive nose, but following Wine#2 was tough; hands-down winner in category of understated elegance:  bright fruit, orange peel, spicy, coffee, cedar, beautifully balanced, a nice ‘acid lift.’
  4. Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc, 2007 (St. Helena) $40 – the other end of the spectrum–dark, rich, spicy.  Comments were both ‘deeply flavored, ripe fruit’ as well as ‘cooked & raisined.’  Medium body, dusty–definitely “upvalley” to me.
  5. Crocker & Starr Cabernet Franc, 2007 (St. Helena) $58 – Voted a crowd pleaser – the ‘racehorse in the starting gates’ added Karen – very dark fruit, smooth/viscous texture, chocolate and clove. “Not so integrated, but in balance.”  60% new oak.  A winner if you love big & bold.
  6. Cornerstone Stepping Stone Cabernet Franc, 2007 (Carneros), $30 – earthy, peaty, cedar/cigar with a nice brightness, lighter red fruit, spicy herbal, some found it tannic in finish (“too furry.”)
  7. Pott, Pantagruel, 2007 (Napa Valley), $75 – Old world contender, intriguing, herbal, green peppercorn, toasty, dustyness, “like a shaved and retoasted barrel” (um, can we tell we’re tasting with winemakers?)

Overall, a great day for Napa Cabernet Franc: gorgeous red fruit, lovely supple textures, balance, and no green-ness in sight.  Maybe dried tea leaves, or “leafyness” but not lean, nor green.  Karen tasted “an inkling of a story.”

The Proprietary Blends

  1. Robert Sinskey Vineyards, “POV,” 2007 (Carneros) $38 – strong oak up front, then sourness, hollow middle, finishing with a pixie-stick sweetness, “overly made,” was not expected to improve with age.
  2. Blackbird Contrarian, 2007 (Oak Knoll), $90 – big, muscular, engaging and mouthfilling, but second sip really compounded the tannins.  I couldn’t go back for thirds–winemakers OK with the nature of the tannins, but not the quantity.
  3. Robert Sinskey Vineyards “Marcien” 2007 (Carneros) $65 – leather, hedonistic, rustic, structure from acidity but not ‘sour’–a balanced offering.
  4. VNV Tentative Blend, 2007, Price TBD – a real crowd divider and conversation starter:  from “aristocratic, layered, exquisite” to “flawed.”  Definitely old world character and balance.  Some thought this was the Pomerol.  I knew it was our wine–the complexity, the interestingness, the “flaw” comment suggested brett?  (we tested and there is none!)
  5. Anderson’s Conn Valley “Right Bank Cuvee” 2007 (Napa Valley) $65 – Sweet, earthy, cocoa-y, but watch out… my notes say: ***BITEY*** (tannins).  You can’t get past it.  Winemakers all chanted “VA” in unison. “Balsamic, dirty old barrels.”  Todd Andersen wasn’t there to defend himself, but he doesn’t need to:  this wine was the Robert Parker 97 in the pack!
  6. Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards, 2007 (Carneros) $150 – Definitely spent some cash on the barrels – nutmeg, clove, spice, cedar central – complexity, yes, but most of the personality coming from oak
  7. Palazzo Napa Valley Red Wine, 2006 (Carneros), $60 – Big California fruit, sweaty, funky, balanced, intriguing, lush. Only negative that the fruit was “dulled down by oak.”
  8. Lang & Reed Right Bank, 2004 (Napa Valley), $80 – a bit of advantage here with the 2004 vintage among a flight of 2007;  “One delicious merlot,” I wrote.  What’s not to like – big, juicy CA fruit [Note: it’s only 30% merlot, so that’s some nice ripe cab franc in there–I asked John Skupny, it comes from Napa]

The favorites of both flights (bold), are purely subjective, though representative I hope of the panel preferences.  In Cabernet Franc varietal wines:  Sinskey Vandal Vineyard demonstrating refreshing elegance and beauty of cabernet franc uncompromised by oak or blending, and the big chocolate-covered-cherry crowd pleaser of Crocker & Starr.  In the blend category, Virage Napa Valley was quite the conversation starter–earthiness and layered complexity, and what’s not to like about delicious, juicy, rich Lang & Reed “Right Bank.”

If anyone thinks Cabernet Sauvignon must dominate a Bordeaux blend to get dark, rich and full tasting wines from Napa Valley, try L&R Right Bank, Blackbird Contrarian, the Crocker & Starr Cabernet Franc.  If it’s complexity you’re after I can’t help but promote my own wine here, Virage Napa Valley, what can I say, I love it… this tasting confirmed for me our place in the Napa Valley Right Bankers lineup.


About Emily Richer

Investment banker turned right banker.
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