Reacquainted with a Great Napa Cabernet

Apr 27, 2009

David Long got straight to the point.

"We took our eye off the ball," said the owner of David Arthur Vineyards today when discussing the mostly ups but also a few big downs with his Napa Valley wines.

I was perplexed by my experiences with Long's flagship wine, the Elevation 1147 (which refers to the elevation where the grapes are grown on Pritchard Hill), and the 1997 vintage in particular. The 2005 Cabernet Elevation 1147 ended up as a bretty mess, and to my taste, the 2002 and 2003 vintages were off the mark as well.

The 1997 Cabernet was the wine of the vintage when it came out, an absolutely gorgeous wine with great fruit purity. I bought a case, knowing I'd like to try it in years to come. But it seemed as if every time I opened a bottle, it disappointed. When I tasted two of the '97s in my 1997 Cabernet retrospective, one bottle tasted spoiled and the other was drinkable, but nothing like the 99-point experience I'd had when the wine was released.

So last night I decided to open a bottle and give it one more try and, bingo, there it was, back to its old self, a rich, layered, complex mix of loamy currant, wild berry, herb and mineral. Deeply colored, with a long full finish, more like a 96-point rating.

Long didn't recall any bottle variation with the 1997, but I had several mixed, mostly uninspiring experiences. I was glad to have finally tasted a great bottle.

How does this happen? It's hard to say. Off corks? Poor storage? First case bottled?

In Long's case, he said he had moved his 13 bottles on several occasions and the last time he unpacked, he found that the 1997 1147 hadn't come with him. But he did say that the winery had experienced microbial difficulties with some of its wines.

"What happened to us is we took our eye off the ball [with a few vintages] and we needed to get our rears kicked," he said. "We weren’t having our noses in the barrels as we should have. You can’t ignore [microbial] problems. You have to jump on them."

Because of the difficulties, "We fell off," he said, "but we’ve bounded back."

The new wines are again on solid footing. Long credits winemaker Nile Zacherle, who joined David Arthur in 2008. "He really spun us around," Long said. "He saved our 2006," which had brett, too, but was cleaned up before bottling, which Zacherle oversaw.

I appreciated Long's candor. At one point or another, every winery faces similar challenges. Sometimes mistakes are caught before the wines are bottled. Sometimes the flaws become apparent only after time in the bottle.

But ducking the issue is hardly a solution. The wines speak for themselves and there's no sense in defending a mistake that's readily apparent.

Winery Taint Red Wines United States California Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

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