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The Star At Blankiet

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Apr 18, 2006 2:10pm ET

I paid my first visit to Blankiet Estate last week, on one of the rare days this spring when the sun was shining brightly in Northern California.

This is the ambitious new vineyard and winery owned by Claude and Katherine Blankiet, with the viticulture and winemaking being overseen by Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer. Turley and Wetlaufer are the celebrated winemaking team renowned for their work with their own Marcassin Vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in Sonoma, and earlier successes with Napa Valley Cabernet at Bryant Family and Colgin.

I've tasted the Blankiet wines--they bottle a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot—informally on two prior occasions and noted the progress. But this was my first trip to their Paradise Hills Vineyard, a 16-acre spread located on a low-slung rolling hillside due west of Dominus in the Napa Valley township of Yountville.

The Blankiets are in the final stages of finishing their new winery, built in front of a knoll where they tunneled a barrel-aging cave. Their 2005 wines were made on a makeshift crush pad before the winery walls went up.

The last time I tasted the Blankiet wines I was most impressed by the 2003 Merlot. This time, after tasting all of the Cabernets, dating to 1999, and Merlots, back to 2002, I'm convinced the '03 Merlot is the breakout wine. It is also, to my taste, the stronger of the two wines produced. Counterpoint: Turley favors the Cabernet ever so slightly.

The wines are the opposite of what you might expect from these two Bordeaux varietals. The Merlot is the bigger, richer and more complex of the two. The Cabernet is excellent, too, and improving. But it is leaner and more austere, and not as compelling as the Merlot. The closest reference wine comes from Dominus Estate, Christian Moueix's winery. While Moueix's Dominus is a Cabernet-based Bordeaux blend, his property has yielded brilliant Merlots. One that comes to mind is the 1996 Pahlmeyer, made by Turley from Dominus grapes.

Claude Blankiet in front of his soon-to-be-finished winery  

Blankiet Estate is very much a work in progress. The Blankiets purchased the property in 1996 and began replanting it the next year. They pulled acres of Sangiovese and kept only a small plot of Cabernet. After hiring Turley and Wetlaufer, they decided to add more Cabernet acreage to the rockier, volcanic ash soils and plant Merlot on the clay portion that runs through the middle of the property.

The initial plan was to produce one estate wine. But after tasting the wines in various blends and as 100 varietals on their own, they opted for two wines, which makes sense. "We found the parts were more interesting than the whole," said Claude Blankiet, who is 63, a native of Burgundy and a recent transplant from Texas to Napa Valley. From this vineyard, "Merlot is special," he said, adding, "We are learning as the vines mature and we taste the wines. We can taste the differences in every block and we can see the differences in the wines."

The Blankiet property, purchased in 1996 and since replanted.  

Here are my notes from our non-blind tasting:

With Merlot, the 2005, tasted from barrel, exhibits a saturated color and aromas of kirsch, graphite and currant. It’s super rich, but also strikingly elegant. Potentially outstanding.

The 2004, also tasted from barrel, is another powerful vintage. Dense, massive and opulent, with amazing depth and concentration. Tightly focused, with layers of currant, wild berry and black cherry. Great length. Could be a classic.

The 2003, of which 800 cases were made, is being released now for $100 a bottle. It has the potential to be a classic. I look forward to blind tasting this wine. Last week it offered a wonderful berry and cassis aromas, mocha-laced oak flavors and hints of herb, black olive that coat the palate.

The 2002, on the other hand, is tough, herbaceous and leathery, falling into the good category.

With the Cabernets, I liked the 2004 the best. The barrel sample showed a dense, more extracted body of fruit, with loamy currant and plush berry flavors that featured a long, intense finish. It showed outstanding potential.

The 2002 is the least impressive, tighter and more restrained than when I reviewed it blind last year ($100, 82 points).

The other wines fall into the very good range. The 2005, tasted from barrel, featured tart blackberry and grapey flavors, but not the depth nor plushness of the '05 Merlot.

The 2003, which is being released now for $150 a bottle, with 900 cases, is sleeker than the '03 Merlot, with a streak of dried currant, herb and leather.

The rest I tasted from magnum. The 2001 is intense and woody, with cedar, pencil lead and graphite dominating the dried currant flavors. The 2000, which I gave 88 points in a blind tasting in 2003, offered grapey plum and wild berry fruit, turning sleek at mid-palate and finishing with a persistent aftertaste. The 1999 featured complex aromas of earth, mineral and currant that carried over to the palate.

R Scott Hudson
April 18, 2006 7:28pm ET
James,Thanks for the blog on Blankiet. A great read and I look forward to more blogs of other wineries.
David Nerland
Scottsdale —  April 18, 2006 9:23pm ET
It is my understanding that the vines are still young and given time, this winery, along with Helen and John, will produce world class results.I am glad I am on their mailing list.
Jon Robinson
Bozeman, MT —  April 19, 2006 10:46am ET
I bought Blankiet early on and it has failed to impress. At that price one can definitely do better. the 01 merlot lost in a blind tasting to a $20 Merlot from the magnificent wine Co (charles smith of K vintners, Walla Walla, WA) I still get mailers but will continue to pass.....
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  April 19, 2006 3:22pm ET
$100 for a "starter" Merlot? I don't get it; dozens of Napa vintners are making delicious, complex Merlots and Merlot-based blends, Shafer, Pride Mountain, Switchback Ridge, Arietta, to name a few, all priced below $100 and many below $50. Sorry, but I'm not interested in subsidizing Helen and John, no matter how much promise the winery may have.
Anthony Clapcich
April 19, 2006 6:09pm ET
Low production can certainly raise the price of a bottle, but paying >$100 for wine that is mediocre and ultimately short-lived is ludicrous. California wines are not built for marathon aging (a lot of vintners give them 10-15 years max), indeed a recent WS review of Cabs from the early 80s found them dead or dying! For the money, bordeaux is a much better value. Right Bank "merlot-heavy" blends in the $30-100 will give decades of pleasure. I plan to pass my Left Bank "cab-heavy" blends to my children. These "boutique" wineries are giving high end California wines a bad name!
Terrence Meyerhoff
April 20, 2006 12:05am ET
I agree with the comments above. Having purchased CA wines for years and seeing the price skyrocket, I am no longer wiling to pay into the stratosphere for the early releases of a winery that has no track record as to quality. There are only a handful of times in my experience where paying $90 or more for an initial release from a new winery has ever panned out.
Michael Henderson
Martinez, CA —  April 20, 2006 12:30am ET
While I enjoy reading about new wineries, I have stopped buying Napa wines because of the high prices. My 500 bottles of Napa Cabs will last my liftime. The next 500 I buy will be from other parts of the world where prices are resonable and the wines most enjoyable.
Chris Haag
vancouver, bc —  April 20, 2006 1:41am ET
I have not tried these wines before. But it seems that anything that has the name "Turley" associated with it equals big dollars for a bottle of wine. The only wines I have tried of Helen Turley's are those she makes for Martinelli and I found them to be too extracted and not really tasting like wine anymore. At $90.00 a bottle there are tonnes of proven California red wines I'd rather spend my $$ on?
Matthew Lo
Zurich, Switzerland —  April 20, 2006 8:12am ET
I have to agree with the other sensible comments in here. $ 100 for a wine from a new winery? It is like asking to be the CEO of Microsoft before I even graduate from high school. I am very tired of hearing this kind of prices. Investors tried to recoup their overpriced vineyard purchase in a few years. I have since long switched to buy good Bordeaux for my cellar. Living in Europe, I could even get better prices than in the US for Bordeaux. High-priced California wine has become almost non-competitive. Then again, "high-end" California wine is not depending on the exporting market.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  April 20, 2006 5:23pm ET
I really enjoyed James Laube's blog on Blankiet. I wish that it was a weekly blog on a different winery each week, and even in different states or countries.JT
David A Zajac
April 21, 2006 8:47am ET
I might as well add my two cents (or hundred dollars)worth...I am on their list and to be honest, the Merlot is underwhelming to say the least. At one hundred per bottle its just plain insanity to be purchasing those wines. On the other hand, the cab is delicious and deserves the high ratings it gets, but in order to purchase their cab you need to buy their Merlot too...sorry, but I won't do it. I have also noticed more California wineries are selling packages or nothing at all...I have been removing those from my list of wineries I will purchase from. If I can't buy what I want, you can keep your wines...remember, you need me more than I need you!
La Quinta, CA —  May 11, 2006 2:42pm ET
Now that your all done crying about these wines....When they have a name and reputation as big as Harlan, BOND, and Screaming Eagle, everyone will come running back. I am on their list, and I do enjoy these wines. I rely on my palate and not James Laubes or anyone elses. Drink what you like regardless of dollar amount. If it brings you satisfaction, buy it. If not, don't buy it. Pretty simple math.
Jeffrey Nowak
scottsdale, arizona —  May 11, 2006 10:06pm ET
hostage packaging. overpriced. undrinkable.
Patrick Deparini
Las Vegas, Nevada —  October 10, 2006 3:06am ET
How many of you have actually tasted these wines? I have been on the mailing list for the past 4 years and have purchased wines every time. Pricey? Yes, but these are not meant to be "value" wines that you get from the corner quick mart. Does it match up with First Growth Bordeaux? No, but this estate is still in its infancy and is developing, which is evident when you taste the evolution in the bottle with each passing vintage. Although I do wish it were cheaper to keep up with this winery, I feel my money was well spent. And for the record, I prefer the Merlot to their Cab.

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