Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth joined the staff in 1997, at age 26, having previously worked in wine retail and as a sommelier at New York’s famed ‘21’ Club. At the end of this year, he will add California Cabernet to his stable of tasting beats, which currently includes Bordeaux, the Rhône, South Africa and Vintage Port. "Honored and humbled," Molesworth said of being assigned to succeed senior editor James Laube on Wine Spectator's California Cabernet beat. "I've got big shoes to fill."
As he prepared for his first official trip to the Golden State, he shared with us his perspective of the California winescape, and what he’s looking forward to learning.
James Molesworth is filing dispatches from his recent trip to Napa Valley. Latest stop: Philip Togni.
Wine Spectator: What is your first memory of tasting a wine from California?
James Molesworth: One summer, as a teenager, I worked part-time in the office of a wine distributor to make some extra cash. One of the wines they handled was the Guenoc Petite Sirah. I can still taste that big, rambunctious, mouthfilling red.
WS: Have you ever had a eureka moment with a California wine?
JM: A couple, most of which won't come as a surprise. While working in retail at the beginning of my wine career, the store owner would pull bottles from his own cellar for the annual staff party. The '74 Heitz Martha's, as well as Mondavi Reserve and Chappellet Cabs from that decade are stained on my brain. I still have the empty magnum of '74 Mayacamas Cab I used to ring in the millennium. And a bottle of '92 Dalla Valle Cabernet Franc served blind to me remains one of the most fascinating wines I've tried.
WS: You've been officially reviewing the wines of Bordeaux since the release of the 2008 vintage. What perspective will you bring from your experience with Left Bank Cabernets to your coverage of California? What about your experience reviewing South African and Chilean Cabernets?
JM: Great question, as I know some folks wonder what a "Bordeaux palate" will be like on Cali Cabs. First, I'd say I don't have a Bordeaux palate—I just happen to have a palate that tastes a lot of Bordeaux. If you look at my Bordeaux reviews, you see that, for example, Léoville Las Cases and Ducru-Beaucaillou get similar ratings, yet they are polar opposites in style. South African Cabernets are distinctive—combining ripe fruit with cooler climate nuances. And Chilean Cabs are just as distinctive, with soft but no less substantial tannins and broader, loamier feels. Yet from all of those areas I've been able to treat wines of varying styles equally.
The point is this: Quality first, style second. There are good and bad versions of "old-school," rugged, tannic Cabernets just as there are good and bad versions of more "modern," lushly styled Cabernets. The wine writer's job is to point to the good and bad of all styles, describe them as accurately as possible, and thus allow the reader to make an informed decision rather than dictating a preference based on style.
WS: How does assessing a California Cabernet differ from reviewing a Left Bank Bordeaux? And in what ways will you approach them the same?
JM: The criteria used to judge wine is fairly universal: length, depth, complexity, balance, purity, sense of place. And perhaps the last one is key to appreciating the differences between Bordeaux and California. I want Cali Cab to taste like Cali Cab, expressing the place where it is from, whether it's a blend of valley floor vineyards or from a single small mountaintop site. The same goes for a Pauillac or St.-Julien.
WS: Will you be relocating to Napa?
JM: Not yet. I'm a native New Yorker and much of my life is here. Plus, being in New York keeps me equidistant between the West Coast and France. But don't worry, I'm planning to be in California eight to 10 weeks a year or so.
WS: What trends in California Cabernet are you most excited about? What criticisms do you have?
JM: Watching the overall style of California Cabernet dial back a few notches in recent years has been very interesting. I do think the 1997 vintage was the one that jumped the shark in terms of ripeness. But it was a perfect storm of young vines producing fruit in a mega vintage, being made by winemakers who were basically all pushing the envelope at the time. The vineyards have matured, as have the winemakers.
As for criticism, prices are a stomach punch. Cali Cab isn't an everyday wine anymore for most people, which is a shame. But it's hard to point fingers since high prices are a function of demand—someone is buying and drinking all that $100 Cab. And frankly, it's a big part of my job to find the excellent Cabs that are priced for everyday drinking as well. We can fix this criticism by doing a little more digging …
WS: Do you drink California wine when you're off the clock? How else do you relax?
JM: I drink California wine more often than most people probably realize. If I open a wine list in a restaurant and I know all the Rhônes on the list, I'm probably going to take a stab at something else. I dig Cali Pinots and Chards, as well as some producers' Rhône varietals. I'm also a sucker for Champagne, Riesling, Rioja and more. I'm an equal-opportunity wine drinker.
As for relaxing, I'm a jazz and blues lover and I continue to add to my vinyl collection. Dropping the needle on an original mono pressing from the Blue Note releases of the '50s and '60s is as thrilling as a great wine. I like to eat as much as I like to cook, though I am more skilled in the former. Plus plenty of exercise offset by more mellower pursuits—I can bingewatch Game of Thrones or Mad Men with the best of them.
WS: Will you ever give a wine a perfect 100-point score?
JM: If I find perfection in a wine, yes. This isn't a conscious line drawn against score inflation, though—which is a bit rampant these days. When I started, I wasn't presumptuous enough to give 100 points to a wine, knowing I would be tasting for many more years and there were bound to be better wines. Now, after 20-plus years at Wine Spectator, not having found perfection yet simply means it is very, very, very hard to achieve, if it can be achieved. But at this point, I've got a pretty large mental database of wines in my head, so if and when it does happen, I think I'll see it.
WS: Do you have a favorite California Cabernet food pairing?
JM: Thanks for the softball. Filet mignon, medium-rare, side of steamed spinach. I prefer more marbled beef with Bordeaux …
WS: Are you going to put more Dave Brubeck into the rotation now?
JM: He's already in heavy rotation, along with Dexter Gordon and Eric Dolphy. And T-Bone Walker for blues … and some Dr. Dre too. Quality first, style second.
James Molesworth's 2018 Napa Trip
On Napa’s Spring Mountain, Philip Togni’s Bordeaux-style blends are aging nearly as gracefully as he is.
After decades stewarding Napa's Eisele Vineyard, the Araujo family has a new winery, and a new philosophy toward Cabernet.
The treasured Napa contrarian is (mostly) handing the reins to the next generation, with a third waiting in the wings.
A longtime star vineyard in Napa is getting a new accent.
The Napa Valley cult Cabernet star is building for the future.
The legend of Mayacamas Vineyards is in good hands with winemakers Braiden Albrecht and Andy Erickson.
Youthful energy infuses a California legend.
There's another changing of the guard at Napa's iconic pioneer, and another impressive lineup with the 2015 vintage Cabernets.
WineSpectator.com members: Read James Molesworth's tasting notes of new (and older) vintages from these 8 Napa Cabernet legends.