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Wines to love

Some jaw-dropping suggestions


Today's column focuses on American cabernet sauvignon and cabernet blended wines. Legally, American cabs must be 75 percent of that grape, while allowing the blending of other varietals, such as cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot, to produce a more complex wine. We are seeing fewer and fewer bottlings that are 100 percent cabernet, with the resulting wines being all the more interesting because of it. These are an outstanding choice for a perfect holiday gift.

This review will only feature the best that I have tasted, and why these particular wines stood out as opposed to being merely pleasant, drinkable, "good enough" styles. A vinous franchise burger or a chain, take-out pizza will not do. Surely "average" isn't good enough to be a gift for those you love and admire, or as hearty thanks regarding a job well done, or a business remembrance. These are wines that will make your recipient glad to be alive and grateful for the mouth-enchanting experience they have received.

I supply ratings numbers on these wines (51 examples tasted blindly), but the numbers are of secondary importance. What really matters is that each wine is memorable. All will bring a smile to the face. Like the nuts and bolts that can make either a Ford or a Ferrari, the best wines are examples of what miracles can be achieved via a few bunches of grapes.

Prices for these West Coast cabs ranged from $14-$95. It's a pleasure to report that Sonoma and Napa Valley, plus the Columbia Valley of Washington State, had numerous representatives in the "grab your attention" department. Napa gets all the hype, but Sonoma often delivers just as many intricate and fascinating wines. Frei Brothers (2002, 89 points, $24) is one of the finest estates under the Gallo family's protective wing. Frei makes round, luxurious cabs with silky textures, long legs and satisfying flavors. It's a storybook property overlooking the Dry Creek Valley and is one of the area's few estates to specialize in cabernet.

There is a general competency level that American consumers expect and count on in the production of Kendall-Jackson wines. They are ubiquitous and seldom disappoint, yet the real excitement is most evident in their Grand Reserve niche (2002, 89, $26). This is not meaningless hyped-up wording that can (and shouldn't) appear on many low-cost bottlings you often encounter. K.J. takes these words and their spirit literally, and their Grand Reserve cabernet sings with spicy and bountiful cherry nuances. There is careful breeding in this effort, with refined flavor components and delicious middleweight mouth feel. Clos Du Bois (2002 Alexander Valley Reserve, 89, $22) is another extremely well known property where steady quality is expected. I have always enjoyed the wines and their value, but one taste of their reserve cabernet opens your eyes to the excitement that can be generated. Easy-going, not terribly dense but with sinus-pleasing sweet berry fruit and briery oak. A totally melded round, warm and satisfying mouth feel completes the picture. A classy, joyful wine.

Washington's western wonder, the Columbia Valley, continues to impress as its vines mature and the soulful character of Northwest cabernet emerges. Snoqualmie Vineyards (2002 Reserve, 88, $28) has a brooding, cedary velvet nose with nutty, spicy hints. Flavors are rather straight on, but completely satisfying and eminently sippable. A profound, chocolate cherry nose blossoms in the Hogue Cellars bottling (2002 Reserve, 88-89, $30). A succulent, rich grainy mouth feel is voluptuous and alive with good acidity energizing the experience. Hogue consistently makes expressive, full-throttle reds. (Drink now-2009.) Chateau St. Michelle (2002, 89, $15.50), no stranger to these pages, brings glorious freshness as it teases and tantalizes the nose with true cabernet identity and marvelous depth. Direct, pointed flavors with virile styling and a very dry finish. (BEST BUY.)

What a comeback has been staged at the Louis M. Martini Winery ( 2001 Napa Valley, 90, $25 ). Founded in 1922, Martini bought prime vineyard sites in Napa Valley, with later additions in Sonoma. Living on the past glories of the 1940s through the '60s, Martini wines had lost much of their substance and sumptuous texture during the latter part of the 20th century. (Interestingly, when the winery switched to small oak barrels rather than the older style large bins, the quality began to suffer!) Now, with a fresh influx of money and the time-tested, perfectly located vineyard land, the wines are regaining the promise that was never far from reach. This wine's large, boisterous "gang's all here" styling is a joy to drink. Deep, resonant with a slight herbal overtone, it's a very solidly packed flavorful mouthful. Expressive and may even improve. (Drink now-2012.)

Sitting high atop the Silverado Trail is a new winery, Bennett Lane (2002, 89, $45). Making an early splash, its wines are high toned, graceful, intense and vibrant with chocolaty and herbal highlights. Bursting with cabernet juiciness, this is a treat for those who relish a wine that clearly shows a sense of place. (I look forward to future bottlings.) A more established Napa winery with an absolutely gorgeous release is St. Clement Vineyards (2002 Oroppas, 92, $50). The St. Helena property has always wowed with this cabernet blend. (By the way, the name Oroppas is Sapporo--their former Japanese owner--spelled backward.) A beautiful bouquet of wild berries and beets (stay with me) with concentrated, refined, exciting dark spices. The generous sweet nose with saturated fruit is as comfy as an overstuffed chair. A gorgeous vanilla fruit mouth feel follows--soft, long and delightful.

Finally, Sebastiani Vineyards (2003 Secolo, 93, $30) continues the simply remarkable tenure of winemaker Mark Lyon and his transformation of a very good estate into a great one. There is no other California winery more dependable nor more value priced. The Sebastiani name, and the family's wisdom in hiring Mark, is a guarantee of quality with never a boring sip. This particular "high end" wine has perfect fruit with delicate, refined berry and cedar scents in superb balance; it doesn't need to shout out the great purity, finesse and textbook styling of its Alexander Valley cabernet blend components. A complex and thought-provoking wine, with another nuance emerging on each subsequent sip. A Bordeaux lover's style--and I'm speaking of Bordeaux' finest! BEST WINE AND VALUE OF TASTING.

New Book on the Block
The great tradition of English wine writers known to American readers continues with the emergence of Tom Stevenson and his Wine Report 2006 (DK Press, $15). I was weaned on the great English wine scribes of the mid-20th century: Michael Broadbent (born 1927) and Hugh Johnson (1939). Later, Jancis Robinson (far younger and attractive!) complemented and continued this English love affair of writing about the grape.

A contemporary of Ms. Robinson, Tom Stevenson is an accomplished wine writer of over 30 years. His yearly guide has spread Mr. Stevenson's fame further afield. This book takes a close look at all major (and some minor) growing regions, giving information on harvest conditions, best bargains, top producers and intimate "insider" tips from each area.

The world of wine throughout the globe has become a minefield of constantly changing, formidable amounts of information. To this end, Mr. Stevenson writes the Champagne and Alsace sections of the book, but leaves other areas to specialists in those particular regions. Thus, you'll read timely commentary from well-known scribes such as Dan Berger, Clive Coates, David Peppercorn and Serena Sutcliffe. Other lesser-known lights (at least to me) such as Beverly Blanning, Franco Ziliani and Phillip Blom write insightful essays and analysis, imparting a ton of knowledge to those in need.

A book for the wine enthusiast, not the casual tippler, this would be a great stocking stuffer and font of insights, outlining a buying strategy for the near term.

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