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james laube's wine flights

There's One in Every Crowd

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Oct 23, 2006 1:21pm ET

Late Saturday night, a few minutes before it turned into Sunday morning, my bubble finally burst.

Up until that moment I thought that perhaps I had succeeded.

My intent in showcasing 10 great Napa Valley Cabernets on Friday had been to show the diversity of styles and different expressions of terroir and style within the valley.

Sure, it was an all-star lineup, thanks to the generosity of the owners. We tasted six 2003s (Colgin IX, Merus, Paul Hobbs Stagecoach Vineyard, Harlan Estate, Schrader Beckstoffer To-Kalon and Robert Foley Claret), a trio of 2002s, (Gemstone, Screaming Eagle and Araujo Eisele Vineyard) and one 2001 (Sloan) Everyone had 90 minutes to compare and contrast these wines.

Obviously, it’s not the kind of tasting that happens every day and, in fact, I’m sure even the owners had never sat down with this identical set of wines.

The two senior winemakers in the group, Bob Foley and Paul Hobbs, both of whom have logged 33 harvests, had never met before I introduced them prior to our seminar.

After the tasting, the response from those in the audience, and the panel, was immediate and as expected.

Everyone who approached me had a few favorites, perhaps a couple of disappointments, certainly moments of enlightenment tasting wines they’d never tried and might not ever try again, but certainly no quibbles about the quality of the wines, the format or the winemakers.

At least 30 people reached out to tell me about their impressions of the wines, and there was no consensus about which wine was the favorite, which is fine. How do you pick a winner, or worse, a loser out of that group?

Ah well, someone did find the tasting uninspiring and uneventful, and as I left the Grand Award banquet and headed to the bar at the top of the Marriott, a woman, who I’ve known for years, approached me with the bad news.

“All of the wines tasted the same,” she said, in a no-nonsense tone.

She wondered what the point was.

She proceeded to nip and tuck at me and the wines for proving to her that all 10 were, more or less, and for better or worse, identical.

Up until that moment I thought I had made my case.

But it just goes to prove you can’t sway a jury of 1,000.

I just hope she was the only one who went home with that impression.


Read James Suckling's thoughts on tasting California Cabernet

Serry Osmena
Los Angeles, CA —  October 23, 2006 4:15pm ET
On the Cab tasting...There ought to be a common thread to well made wines coming from a specific terroir as well as distinct winemaking styles, particularly at this level. Perhaps in Napa, the differences and nuances from wine to wine are more subtle, and I would go so far as to say that 7 of the 10 wines to me had more similarities than differences, but to say that they all tasted the same, I don't agree.Jim, I do now agree with you about your opinion of the 03 Napa vintage, and the walkaround tasting certainly confirmed that for me (It didn't seem like the right time to tell you this while you were at the gym on the recumbent).Regards to Hanna.
Delmonico Stkhse @ Venetian
Las Vegas, Nevada —  October 23, 2006 4:49pm ET
James - I found them quite different, but all deserving to be on the same table. Four of them really stood out as my favorites though.

Kevin Vogt
James Laube
Napa, CA —  October 23, 2006 4:54pm ET
Great to meet you, too, Serry. I think it is fair to say the wines did have much in common. What I call an earthy, loamy currant character and thick, rich tannins and body are certainly common traits. I'll have more to say on the '03 issue, since some people somehow concluded I hated the vintage, with an 85 rating it ranks at the low end of very good. Hannah, my trusty canine, was thrilled to see me!
Brian Greenglass
Toronto, Canada —  October 24, 2006 12:29am ET
Not directly related to this particular tasting, but I am interested in how you ended up giving the 2003 Dominus a rating of 81 in your list of California Cabs (Nov 15, 2006 issue of Wine Spectator) when two other well-known wine writers rated the 2003 Dominus in the mid 90's? There has to be something wrong with this picture.
Fred Schrader
Calistoga, CA —  October 24, 2006 12:47am ET
Jim, congratulations on a great way to spend an afternoon. What a line-up. Now, talking about my wine would of course be pointless, so it¿s not in the mix. In thinking about the tasting, I agree, the wines were defined by nuance, profile, and texture. Some were impressive, though when I close my eyes and think about the ¿winner¿ for me it was the Foley 2003 Claret. Great richness, character and range and depth of flavor.In thinking about the challenges of the 2003 vintage, the Claret shows the added dimension that the extra components bring to the wine in contrast to the pure Cabernets, even the clonal blends. Brilliant and bravo to Bob. Well done.Fred Schrader
Peter Czyryca
October 24, 2006 3:22pm ET
JL, to Brian's comment - I feel that a lot of people are curious to hear if you feel that Cali Cab prices are much too high, whether in general or in regards to quality. From reading the forums and reviewing your scores of older vintages of the same producers that you're now rating 10-25 pts. lower - it is difficult to not arrive at the conclusion (without hearing it from yourself) that you are "on a mission" to lower Cali Cab pricing by issuing lower point scales. If that's the case, I say just come out and say it. If not, please explain how something like Dominus, which has a great track record of producing amazing juice - drops off a cliff to an 81 rating. Full Disclosure: I only own one bottle of Dominus and it's a Napanook, so this isnt a case of buyer scorned by point scores.
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  October 24, 2006 3:58pm ET
Mr. LaubeI was one of the sommeliers at the California Wine Experience ten years ago or so. After one of the tastings, in the mezzanine bar, I spilled a glass of port on your brand new, very expensive shoes. I have never had a chance to apologize until now. My apology!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  October 24, 2006 4:02pm ET
Hoyt, your memory is better than mine...apology accepted!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  October 24, 2006 4:07pm ET
Peter, I am not on a campaign to lower California wine prices based on reviews, even if I think some wines are overpriced. I've written time and again that I believe in the free market, and that the market determines the relative value of wine. I haven't changed my rating system and those who know me best (my tasting coordinator MaryAnn Bovio chief among them) know how consistent I am with the wines I taste and my reviews and scores. The rest is pure speculation.
Peter Czyryca
October 26, 2006 10:55am ET
James, fair enough. Thanks for responding directly to it!

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