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Reflections on the 1996 Cabernet Report

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 14, 2007 1:30pm ET

This is a perfect time to discuss older vintages.

In a recent blog, Chuck Wagner writes about a wine's moment—which can be fleeting. In my report on the 1996 Cabernets, I was disappointed by how many of the wines showed, for various reasons.

If you are a wine collector—someone who buys wine and cellars it for future enjoyment—nothing is more important than knowing at which stage, or which moment, you like your wines.

I retaste older vintages to see how the wines have aged, whether they’ve stayed the same or improved, and to determine the best drinking window.

You’ll notice that in my Cabernet reviews, I use very narrow drinking windows. Why? My experience has taught me that Cabernets mature by age six to 10, and there is not a huge upside to cellaring them longer. That’s my opinion. If you've learned that you like your wines with more age—and you have the proper storage for your bottles—then you can extend that window another five to 10 years.

With the 1996 retrospective, many of the wines were in poor condition, so they required multiple tastings. I’ve never had so many nutty, oxidized, tired wines in any tasting of this caliber.

As for the 1996 vintage, some winemakers have been candid about the fact that many grapes were picked during the heat wave, which accounts for the tough tannins and herbal, cedary flavors.

While winemakers want to pick grapes at optimal ripeness, that can be a challenge, especially when it’s hot and sugar levels are rising. I’m sure winemakers thought these grapes were ripe when they were harvested, and the wines certainly tasted riper when I reviewed them in 2000 and 2001. In this tasting, however, I discovered that many of the wines have enough green flavors to indicate that the grapes may have been picked too soon.

One more thought. Part of Cabernet’s varietal character is herbal, a trait that I think winemakers sometimes fight. Over the last 15 years, the push has been to harvest riper grapes and minimize, or even eliminate, those herbal notes. I’m not sure that can be done.

Your thoughts on the 1996 Cabernets?

Brian Buzzini
NorCal —  February 14, 2007 3:37pm ET
Where did you get the wines for the retrospect tasting? Also, do you think your palate is changing away from Calif. Cabs....and more towards....lets say....Pinot Noir? ;-)
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 14, 2007 4:01pm ET
Brian, almost all of the wines came direct from the wineries, and no, my love of Cabernet hasn't waned, but tastes do evolve as one gains more experience and perspective. I've started seeing more 2004 Cabernets and they are more my style than 2003. Better balance, smoother textures. One lesson Pinot reminds us of is how important texture is.
Curtis Fox
February 14, 2007 4:08pm ET
Did you retaste the 1996 Screaming Eagle and how did it fare?
Jon Robinson
Bozeman, MT —  February 14, 2007 4:10pm ET
I just last week tried the Cornerstone Beatty Ranch from 96 and was surprised how much the wine had faded. The fruit was muted leaving only a harsh tannic backbone. It seems that the flesh of the wine was gone showing only a skeleton of its former self. A recent tasting of the Bryant1996 faired significantly better. The wine as described by James was quite excellent. It had a substantial fruit depth that has faded little in the last decade. What a treat!!! James, do you care to comment a little more on the opus. It's original rating was quite good. I wondered if the wine was just tired(old) or had developed some flaws. I have one bottle left...if 88 points was the best you could get out of 4 BOTTLES I'm a little worried I missed out on the drinking window.
Robert Caruana Jr
East Islip, NY —  February 14, 2007 4:21pm ET
James - I saw from your report on the '96 Cali Cabs that you rated the '96 Ridge Monte Bello 86 points (best of 3 bottles). In one of James Suckling's blogs late last year after the California Wine Experience he mentioned that the '96 Monte Bello was being poured at the tasting, and that the Monte Bello and the '02 Shafer Hillside Select were his two favorite wines of the tasting. In another blog after that, James discussed a dinner he had that night after the California Wine Experience in which he was drinking a number of top first growth Bordeaux and mentioned that he couldn't stop thinking about the '96 Monte Bello.

Obviously he had a different view of the Monte Bello; and it may just have been a better bottle that he tasted. However, it's probably more a difference of opinion and the fact that he may enjoy more of an "aged Bordeaux" style of wine than you do. I'd be interested to hear James Suckling's thoughts on this.
John Wilen
Texas —  February 14, 2007 4:28pm ET
JL, your disappointing findings on the 1996 cabernets should surprise nobody. The markets increasingly wants opulence in their wines immediately. Winemakers, in search of high ratings, are letting their fruit hang in search of greater flavor ripeness, in many cases to freakishly high sugar levels. This comes with a cost: decreased ageability. (I'll let the winemakers, growers and scientists blog why it is near impossible to produce wines that must be impressive from day one that can also stand the test of time in the cellar.) If one has paid attention, you'd see that recent viticultural trends, consumer trends and retailing trends all point in the same direction: short term pleasure at the expense of ageability.

Having had close to 1000 California reds over the last 6 vintages, my palate tells me if you love California wines, enjoy them while they're young. You'll be setting yourself up for major disappointment if you bury these wines in your cellars. My CA cab-drinking friends and I have nothing older than 1999's in our cellars right now. The last few 96's and 97's we tasted, for the most part, had faded. They were mere shadows of their former selves. We sold them off at auction at handsome prices to people who were still taking, as gospel, the reviews and ratings you posted back in 1999 and 2000. Clearly your recent retrospective once again proves that a critic's assessment of wine is valid at a point in time, but may have a relatively short shelf life. Today's 94-point fruit bomb is all-too-often tomorrow's faded 86 point disappointment...
David Williams
Carlsbad, CA —  February 14, 2007 5:28pm ET
So what are you saying? You give the Cinq Cepage a 95 and it was awarded the WS WOTY. Its drinking window was 2000-2008. Now it's an 88 with a window (for that rating) until 2011. Now that you have done reviews of 1986 & 96 what do precentage of success do you give your ratings of California Cabernets?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 14, 2007 5:39pm ET
David, depends on how you define success. As John pointed out, reviews have a shelf life; they're not forever. For years I've written that the fruit forward style of wines made today are to be enjoyed in their youth. They are certainly not going to get fresher or frutier. The wines that age the best will be the ones that were the best balanced to begin with. My experience with a vintage such as 1996 suggests the grapes were a shade greener than might have been desired. I read critics who say you should age these wines for 15 or 20 years, but I've never suggested that.
Brian Buzzini
NorCal —  February 14, 2007 6:46pm ET
JL...I'm drinking the 1996 Pride Reserve right now. I'm thinking your bottle(s) were off? Did they come from the Winery? Here's my note: 1996 Pride Mountain Reserve Cabernet - Dark black cherry, slight pink rim color. Beautiful sweet dark berry, mocha, vanilla oak, smoked cedar, raspberry liqueur, slight herb nose. So far....classic Pride! In the mouth.....YOUNG AS EVER! Tannins hit you first, still strong, but the still ooozing sweet wild berry fruit comes through. The flavors are rich...mocha, cedar, raspberry jam, earth dust, pencil lead. Lovely florals and big spice. The tannin does win in the end....showing a little dryness on the finish. Very tasty wine....that tastes young to me...not at all "mature and underwhelming". I think this will age even more. Lookout 20 year retro! 96+pts.----Last year, you raved about their 1995(97pts). Would be interesting to see you taste them side by side. Come on over.....I'll crack a few!
Kevin Rogers
Geyserville, CA —  February 14, 2007 7:00pm ET
James, I'd like to know how you can arrive at a point score based on the "best bottle tasted" when that bottle might be one of three, with the other two being inferior. If one takes your logic a step further, that means we would have a 2 in 3 chance of opening a bottle that doesn't reflect the score you've given it. Doesn't seem like the right way to do things...perhaps you should give a weighted average score based on the number of bottles tasted. That would give consumers a very fair idea of what they're in for.
Donald Schriver
Philadelphia, PA —  February 14, 2007 7:01pm ET
I recently purchased several bottles of the 1996 Beringer Cabernet Private Reserve. The cork on the bottle I just opened almost disintegrated while it was pulled. The cork was soft, mushy and crumbled in the middle. The wine however was still flavorful, full of fruit with moderate tannins. I did not have the pleasure of tasting this wine in it's youth. I have had the great pleasure of drinking several bottles of the same wine from 1997. The cork was in fine condition once pulled.My point is, maybe, the cork purchased and used for this vintage may be at fault for some of the loss described in the articles. If the cork was bad, the wine would certainly suffer with age. Mr. Laube, your thoughts would be appreciated.
Evan K Dangel
Dover, MA —  February 14, 2007 7:09pm ET
My experience with older Cali Cabs has been as varied as the winemakers. Some are more ageworthy than others. Historically, Silver Oak is an early drinker but Spottswoode and Diamond Creek are not. I still have 15 different 1996 Cabs left in my cellar that aresearching for their "sweet spot". My advice, taste along the way,get a level and make a judgement call. Age can be a wines friend if youdo your homework.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 14, 2007 7:10pm ET
Kevin, good question. In many instances I'm familiar with these wines (Phelps, Bryant, Harlan, etc) and have tried them on several occasions when they've been tremendous. If I find one good, representative bottle, then to me that indicates that the wine is still good and that the other two (or more) bottles weren't. That is not reassuring. But merging the scores wouldn't tell the story either. My hope is to find out whether the wine is good and if storage is an issue with many wines as I'm concerned it is, then that too is part of the story.
Mr Randy Beranek
Napa, CA —  February 14, 2007 7:57pm ET
John, perhaps that Texas heat has crept through your cellar walls and shortened the life of some of your wines. My experience with the 96s has been very positive. Of course I've only tasted a fraction of the wines from the vintage that James has. However,in the past year I've had Whitehall Lane Reserve, Lewis Reserve, Opus, Shafer Hillside, Pahlmeyer, Colgin and Insignia from the 96 vintage. I can honestly say that each one met or exceeded my expectations. Clearly a 10 yr old cab is an entirely different experience than when it is first tasted upon release. Not every wine will age gracefully but there are enough examples around to suggest that you needn't start making salad dressing out of the 96s.While on the subject of a mid 90s vintage, if you haven't tried a 95 Araujo lately and get the chance...do not pass it up.
Peter Czyryca
February 14, 2007 8:27pm ET
"I read critics who say you should age these wines for 15 or 20 years, but I've never suggested that." No - but you did suggest 12 years in your initial review of Cinq Cepages (drink through 2008 which would be 12 years from vintage). You rated the 1996 vintage 96 pts, in the classic range. Is that classic for 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, 20? I guess the good news is that you may soon change your opinion of the 2003 vintage (85pts), perhaps sooner than 12 years after the fact?
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  February 14, 2007 8:52pm ET
Over the past few months, I have the opportunity to drink several older Cali Cabs..these are my thoughts: (1)96 Arajuo for my 40th b-day...it was spectacular (2) 96 BV Tapestry also tasted pretty good, although it was not as good as I remembered it when I drank it in 1999/2000 (when, against the advice of many friends, I drank almost all of the bottles in their youth). (3) 1990 BV Latour was faded and dissapointing and (4) Most suprisingly, a 1994 Gallo of Sonoma Barrelli Creek Cab had improved with age!! I drank a whole boatload of these from the 1994-1997 vintages (they were $15 at the Travis AFB Class 6 store); they were all great--generally getting 88-89 points from you. I recently found the 94 BC at K&L for $25 so I thought what the hell?? and bought 3 bottles. 1 is now gone and wow was it awesome. The fruit had subtly faded leaving a wonderful soft anise scented finsh and moderate tannins. I continue to lament the quality demise of GOS...I surely hope they can pull this level of QPR back again. Bottom line, however, I agree with you; if you like Cali wines now, don't wait (or at least don't wait long)
Mark Dankel
Las Cruces, NM —  February 14, 2007 9:52pm ET
This year I will be 50. A good reference point. When younger, I paid great attention to the sages who wrote about how wines mature and the stewardship necessary to preserve them for later, greater, enjoyment. Um - not so much anymore. I've grown increasingly to appreciate the art of crafting wines more immediately enjoyable. Are they different wines? Yes, certainly. But I may not be around to appreciate the rewards of proper cellaring for 10 years, so I am seeking out and enjoying more what is ready to drink soon! But I would not turn down the opportunity to experience a '61 Latour, either. Cheers.
Daniel Becker
February 14, 2007 9:56pm ET
Mr. Laube,I greatly appreciated your review. My wife and I had a bottle of BR Cohn 1996 Olive Hill Special Selection Cabernet that we had been saving for "the right time". After reading your article earlier in the week we decided to have it tonight with our Valentine's dinner (veal in a tomato-basil-gorgonzola sauce). You were definitely right, the fruit essence was on the way out and there was a hint of cedar, but overall we found it to be smooth and well mannered and an excellent match to our food. As we still have a bottle of 1996 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet we are likely to be drinking that up soon. Someimes in waiting for that "perfect moment" to open a particular bottle we lose the window of opportunity for enjoying the wine at its best. Thank you for reminding us of that lesson.PSAny typos or grammatical errors can be blamed on the Cohn. It isn't easy writing coherently after a great meal and a good bottle of wine.
Doug Eaton
Phoenix, AZ —  February 14, 2007 9:58pm ET
I have been waiting for a special moment to open a 1996 Bacio Divino. Should I just pop the cork right now or hang on and dream some more?
Kevin Rogers
Geyserville, CA —  February 14, 2007 10:35pm ET
James, I agree to a point..but to find "one good, representative bottle..." is not in fact, representative. It is an outlier. When you have more than one bottle that share more consistency than the "good" bottle, then your good bottle is not a representative sample. Perhaps a weighted score with an additional score for the "best" bottle would serve us all better. As for the storage issue, you yourself said in the article that many of your samples came from the wineries themselves. It would stand to reason that they've been stored correctly, and if not, should be held accountable as many consumers purchase library wines for this very reason. Or, despite correct storage, the majority of the wines simply didn't hold up.
Michael Webb
Pittsburgh, PA —  February 15, 2007 8:23am ET
Last night I opened up a 1996 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Reserve. The wine was really closed upon opening, but opened up after 30+ min. Wonderful black tea aroma developed. Very refined with a long finish. Personally, I usually like more fruit forward wines, but the color and aromas were really great. I will be interested to compare to the 1995 Mondavi Reserve.
David A Zajac
February 15, 2007 8:44am ET
I have never been a huge fan of the 96's, only the 98's to me were worse in the decade of the 90's. That being said, it was still a very good vintage of which I enjoyed many wines in their youth. Still have about a case or so of wines from 96, so I will be popping corks soon to check them out. But the one thing I must point out is the fact that personal preference is supreme in this discussion. In the past few retrospectives, you have totally dissed Seavey wines from 94 and 95. I must admit I have some in my cellar and still find these to be outstanding wines! Your rating in the low 70's in this case is my 90 point wine...go figure.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 15, 2007 11:42am ET
Doug, pop it.
Martin Stoevesandt
Germany —  February 15, 2007 12:06pm ET
James,first of all: Thank you for being so open and honest to basically write that you were way of in your estimates of drinking window and evaluation of an entire vintage, not from the cask, but basically 1-2 years after bottling. Most other wine writers probably would not be so frank about it. On the other hand I do admitt, that I belong to the irritated bunch of readers of your notes. There used to be 18 wines rated 95 or higher, including Bryant receiving 100. The latter being the only "classic" rating with a mere 95 left. I understand that wines may change with age. Sometimes unexpected, but how can an entire vintage that used to be rated classic, suddenly be mediocre, by Californian standards? Reading you Blog I have the feeling you are somewant stunned as well?! So is 96 and exemption or the trend? Will the 97 notes go the same way? Finally let me say that agree with some of the other guys who answered to this Blog. I find a lot of Californian Cabernets extremely age-worthy. I had dozends of bottles of BV from the fifties, sixties and seventies, almost everything Diamond Creek made in the seventies and wines like Mayacamas 74 or 70. All of those wines, if properly stored!!! were either good or even great. By the way, I had all Bryants a week ago and other than the somewhat tired 92 and the of 01, even 98 and 00 showed well; and the only reason the 96 would not get 100 from me was that I found the 97 even more powerful and impressive. Martin
Howard Kaman
Vancouver, BC, Canada —  February 15, 2007 12:41pm ET
I'm not surprised by the outcome of this retrospective, and have been waiting for this as I've watched with curious trepidation why people have been keen on forking over lots of money for these wines, where it's more been about the "me too" for $75++ Napa wines without any track record.For me, I go back to the basic tennets that great wines come from low-yielding, older vines with very deep roots. Did people forget phylloxera hit CA in the early 90's, and that these 96's come from vines which are not even 7 years old? There is a difference between cropping young vines low to achieve fruit intensity superficially, vs. older vines which naturally produce lower yields but with more DEPTH of fruit. Compare these 10 year old wines, which now look like they only have a 15 year drinking window and not much additional nuance, vs. Bordeaux (still my benchmark) from 96, 95, 90, 89, 86, 82, 61, 49, 47, 45, 29, 28, 1900... and consider that most of the older vintages were made without the modern-day technology and know-how. Personally, I feel that TRULY great wines should be well-balanced right from the start and have at least an interesting drinking window of 5-50 years, where there is tremendous fruit in its youth, but develops additional nuance and complexity during the wine's lifecycle. It's not hard to ripen grapes in any warm climate, crop-thin to achieve this superficial intensity in the wine's youth, resulting in fruit-bombs with higher alcohol & lower acidity to provide that sexy mouthfeel, and throw a bunch of vanilla from new oak (catnip for people) to mask it. In my experience, truly profound wines have come from areas where the specific varietal is at the edge of where it can ripen (ie. German and Alsace Riesling, Burgundian Pinot and Chardonnay, as well as Champagne, Bordeaux, Nebbiolo from Barolo/Barbaresco, etc). I'm sure this blog is quite "loaded", but I hope people are more skeptical being taken by these super-hyped wines with no track record. --RG
Tim Burnett
February 15, 2007 12:42pm ET
We had a bottle of the 1996 Monte Bello for our 2nd anniversary last fall and would agree with JL's rating and notes. It's not that it wasn't good anymore, there was still a fair amount going on, but it just didn't have enough punch anymore; it was "tired" to use the word from JL's blog (though not his note for the Monte Bello). My wife and I left the experience wishing we had drank it earlier. But I would not go anywhere near so far as to say I regretted the purchase, it just could have been better.

I couldn't agree more, however, with David. It's about personal preference. I can see how some people would prefer the flavors, texture, etc., with wines that I think are past their peak. I've found, at least at this point in my wine life (which is fairly young) that I prefer California Cabs aged, but not a for a decade (for something like the Monte Bello, 8 yrs. seems to be optimal). I'm sure this will change over time, I'm just not sure how.

As a side note, next year's anniversary bottle will be the 1997 Martha's Vineyard (after these two I am getting away for a 10 year rule), so hopefully it will have aged a little better. Even if not, I'm still looking forward to it as Monte Bello and Martha's Vineyard are not often found on my dinner table.
Alex Bernardo
Millbrae, CA —  February 15, 2007 12:53pm ET
Mr. Laube, thank you for your intriguing and insightful (historic even) report. It's really bold for someone in your position, especially considering that you live in Napa, to speak out your findings about these wines. I sure hope you don't get ostracized in your neighborhood!:)A recent report by another respected wine publication on the aging potential of California Cabernet Sauvignon supports your view. After a horizontal tasting of 1994 and 1997 Cabernets, they also came up with a similar conclusion and their scores-ranging from 7/20 to 15/20-somewhat parallel your ratings. Just to quote some of the conclusions from the tasting: "All the tasters had happy memories of many of these wines and had expected them to be at their peak; but in truth they had not aged well... This raises the question of whether California Cabernet actually needs to age for a long time."I sure hope that fans and producers of California Cabernets instead of being offended would consider your report soberly and learn something from it.
David A Zajac
February 15, 2007 3:36pm ET
James, as an aside, your "New and updated" vintage charts still list the 1996 California cabernet vintage in Napa as a "96" rating - better get it changed!!!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 15, 2007 4:41pm ET
Sorry David. I keep the original vintage rating and change the drink recommendation. If we changed the rating by age for every vintage on every chart, they would all eventually end up in the same score category--over the hill--without any clear record of how good the vintage once was or any indication of how good some top wines within that vintage could still be.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  February 16, 2007 1:04am ET
OK...here is a thought; if a wine drinks wonderfully upon release, is it a bad thing that it does not age well? Is the wine any less important or any less valuable? I recently drank a 96 Margaux and to be quite frank, it was unappealing at best. I was told that, at 10 years old..."it was too young". THats horses***, these "long aged collectable wines" from the old world will never even come close to delivering the flavor and impact of a young Cali cab swaggering in its youth! Why wait?? TO be honest, I cut my wine drinking teeth in California so I like that style...each to his own I guess. That being said, the 96 Silver Oak and 97 BV Latours that I own will be consumed shortly!
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  February 16, 2007 10:11am ET
James, I'm going to buck the trend here and respond to your comment about herbal notes. I'm not a fan. But I love Cab. I routinely avoid those you describe as having sage or herb or, even worse, dusty qualities. That has worked pretty well so far, but sometimes I've been surprised on bottles I've taken chances on. I've noticed that sometimes, when enough time passes, a bottle that formerly tasted "green" might actually "grow out of it", allowing the fruit flavors to take control in its maturity.

Green, herbal qualities are fine, so long as they're below my recognition thresshold. ;)
Craig Syata
Kingston, RI —  February 16, 2007 2:31pm ET
James, I have to ask about cellaring Montelena Estate cabs from 2001-2003. You have rated them very low and having tried some 2001's I agree (I have not opened '02's or '03's) . Other respected reviewers continue to rave about these wines, even these years and recommend holding for 15+ years. Two questions: Do you believe these years will benefit at all from long-term cellaring? I buy through their futures program, a good value if the wines are consistent with the Montelena reputation but have they solved their tca and other problems or is the winery losing its luster? Thanks, I'm perplexed as to how to proceed.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 16, 2007 5:33pm ET
Martin, yes I was disappointed. Yes, the wines showed more fruit on release (not a surprise) and no I don't think the 1997s will follow. The '97 vintage was much riper and I'll be tasting some soon for a report. My experience is the '97s have aged well, but now is a good time to assess them.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 16, 2007 5:36pm ET
Craig, I would pass on futures and try them on release, as I will. If you detected TCA in the 2001 vintage then I think you'll be disappointed by the wines with age. TCA doesn't fade (see our discussion else where -- put TCA in the search engine). Only time will tell, but as the fruit fades and softens, the TCA won't.
Dave Adams
Maple Grove, MN —  February 21, 2007 10:53pm ET
At a dinner party this past weekend and after reading this blog, we decided to open a bottle of 1996 Napa Silver Oak. It was old and tired, not much fruit at all and a bit on the earthy side. I didn't much care for it. So, then we popped a 1999 Leonetti Cab. Wow was it great, still young and vibrant, and very well balanced. Finally, we decided to go with a 2001 Alexander Valley Silver Oak. The 2001 was very good, much better than the 1996 Napa, but not quite as good as the Leonetti, which was hands down the winner on this night.
Burgess Cellars
Saint Helena CA —  March 12, 2007 6:35pm ET
Hello All,Regarding our 1996 Cabernet tasted for the retrospective tasting, it will be part of our "Library Release" in another year or so. It can also be purchased directly from our winery for $68, four bottles maximum per customer. My apologies for not submitting the price with the samples.Thank all of you for your interest in mature Napa Cab!Best,Steve Burgess
Margory A Ricker
March 11, 2008 4:36pm ET
I was out updating my personal wine list and pull the 1996 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages review and needless to say was shocked!! This was the Wine of the Year in 1999 with an original WS rating of 95 pts. It now shows a rating of 88 pts and no mention of the distinguished award with which it was bestowed. Since I have 3 bottles patiently waiting for a special occasion my question to you is... do I serve this in the glass or with a nice olive oil on the salad?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 11, 2008 5:00pm ET
Marjory, an 88-point wine is hardly salad dressing. As I've discussed here, I recommended drinking the wine earlier on and now the '96 Cinq is at least in a more herbal phase. Open a bottle, decant it, and enjoy it and let us know what you think.

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