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Joining Some Cults in Vegas

Posted: May 24, 2007 11:44am ET

I found some pieces of paper on my dresser this morning with tasting notes from the night of the Grand Tour in Vegas a few weeks ago, where I tasted some amazing wines. Of course, the hundreds of wonderful wines on pour were excellent enough, but I hooked up with some buddies from Zurich at Delmonico Steakhouse following the tasting. My companions included vintners Silvo Denz who owns Château Faugères, and Frank Ebinger, who makes and sells Spanish wines.

There were five of us, and we went large on 2002 cult Calfornia Cabernet Sauvignons that included Bond St. Eden Napa Valley, Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Hillside Select, Harlan Estate Napa Valley, and Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eisele Vineyard.

Obviously, this was not a blind tasting. In fact, it was over some juicy steaks. But here are my brief notes anyway:

2002 Bond St. Eden Napa Valley:  This is long and jammy with lots of plum and berry aromas and flavors. Full and velvety with bright and focused fruit with coffee undertones on the finish. Hard not to drink now but could use another couple years of bottle age. 93 points, non-blind.

2002 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Hillside Select: This reminds me of the 1990 Latour when I tasted it very young. It shows wonderful precision and power, yet remains balanced and very, very long. Gorgeous aromas of crushed raspberries and spices with currants. What a wine. I would leave it for another five years. 97 points, non-blind.

2002 Harlan Estate Napa Valley: This is big and alcoholic but impressive with masses of fruit and chewy tannins. Loads of plumy, jammy fruit with an underlying minerality. Velvety tannins.  I will be curious to see how this evolves. 92 points, non-blind.

2002 Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eisele Vineyard: Wonderful aromas of vanilla, coffee, plums, currants and fresh herbs follow through to a full bodied palate, with big yet silky tannins and a long, long fruity finish. All in balance. It needs another five years of bottle age. 95 points, non-blind.

We all took a vote at the end of the meal for which wine we preferred, and Shafer was the clear favorite. “It’s funny how some people don’t consider Shafer to be a California cult wine, but it clearly is, in terms of quality,” Denz said.

It made me think back to a tasting I did in Florence of California cults versus Tuscan cults, and Shafer Hillside Select was the overall winner.  The Shafer family sure knows how to make California Cabernet.

La Quinta, CA —  May 24, 2007 3:25pm ET
James, I swear your life sucks sometimes! Those are all amazing wines, I've tried every one of them. What would be fun though, is to do them all side by side blind. When you come back this way, maybe we could organize something like that......Dustin.
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
miramar beach, fl —  May 24, 2007 5:43pm ET
I do not know why I read this article. I get very tired of members of the WS bragging about the very expensive (and probably free), rare wines that they tasted in fancy expensive restaurants. Wouldn't this space have been better used if you had discussed wines that us mere mortal and deprived people (who agonize over spending $50 for bottle of wine) could afford?
James Suckling
 —  May 24, 2007 6:49pm ET
I am not bragging. I thought it was an interesting tasting that showed what a relative bargain Shafer Hillside is to some of the very, very expensive California cult wines.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  May 24, 2007 8:07pm ET
It is what it is James, and I've never taken anything as bragging. I need someone to tell me when a special bottle is really worth its price. There are too many expensive cult wines out there that are coasting on past success. Thanks for the informal updates!
Jason Schulze
Houston/Texas —  May 24, 2007 8:31pm ET
James-I appreciate the insight on thes wines. I am on the waiting list for Bond and Harlan Estate, but have seen the Shafer at a couple of places in Houston. Nice to know that I can grab a bottle that exceeds the others as opposed to waiting an eternity for the privilege of buying one of the others!
Tom Chen
Irvine, CA —  May 24, 2007 8:54pm ET
James, Thanks for the post. Definitely an interesting subject for me. I'm trying to decide which 2002 Cali Cab to open this year for my 5th wedding anniversary. I did have the Shafer HSS last year for our 4th anniversary and it was great. I'm leaning toward the Araujo Eisele this year, unless you have another suggestion. Tom
Steven Glazer
Orinda —  May 25, 2007 12:35am ET
What an unfortunate cheap shot by Hugh. Many of the blogs and especially the magazine spend a considerable amount of space and reviews on average priced wines of great value. I consider it a privilege to read honest evaluation of wines I may consider for a special ocassion. I'm on the list at Shafer and am hoping that one day I will get a chance at a bottle of HS. I know the price will be hard to swallow but by reading the excellent WS reviews I can have some confidence that the wines will be a pleasure to drink. Thank you James for the window into your world.
Willim Tisherman
Katonah, NY —  May 25, 2007 8:54am ET
I have no problem with your tasting and reporting on an expensive group of wines. But why the numbers? Am I missing something, or do the ratings in this post serve only two functions: to make clear that you thought they were all splendid, and to indicate your personal perference on that night with that group.

It would be far more useful to Cab lovers if you were to express your impressions with more descriptors that could help readers potentially decide which one of these we might buy. The notes on readiness certainly help, but why not give us more useful information. Which was the most food-friendly, and what did you eat with them? Which ones changed in the glass? (To me, this is one of the most important traits of complexity.) Were these bottles consistent with other vintages you had had of the same wines, and/or other wines of the same year? Which, in your opinion, are overpriced? And while you did include the group consensus as to Shafer being the overall favorite, did any of the other tasters feel any of the other wines had slipped or showed poorly that night?

The ratings are not only distracting, but also they seem to limit your ability to put these wines in context--both in the context of their Napa Cab peers and the context of that particular evening. It makes one wonder if the "pieces of paper" you found on your dresser had little more than numbers. - Tish
James Suckling
 —  May 25, 2007 9:45am ET
I think the Araujo is a gorgeous wine and that would be my next pick after the Shafer. Good call Tom!
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  May 25, 2007 10:26am ET
well , always the same thing. thanks james because, when someone want to put a big amount of money on a wine , you are expecting something special about it. I prefer reading about those great wines than buying them and at the time of opening it, being a bit disappointed. well thanks againludovic
Chris Kolodziej
Reno,NV —  May 25, 2007 10:55am ET
James, If I had your job I would brag every day. You have a great job that you get to enjoy and then write about. With these wines alot of us who are on lists or waiting to get on do not get to taste most of them ahead of time so I think its great to get your point added to Mr. Laube and Mr Parkers. I like the fact that even though your not Cali guy you let us know what you think. Who knows maybe someone who agrees with your pallet on these wines may be willing to be more inclined to try some of the other wines you write about from other parts of the world. All good for us and wine. Cheers.
Sam Chanhao
calgary —  May 26, 2007 4:16pm ET
Good call James,I totally agree with you, the Shafer HSS is a bargain compare to those BIG BOYS.I also like it cosistency made very good wine year in year out, it must be something to do with that HS site!( and the talent people..). A few week back I had a chance tasted it(blind)againts those BIG BOYS,one of them come with the gold ring,and at the end of the night the Shafer HSS is the cut above.Great wine from start to finish and awesome nose!!This is a wine would make anybody best buddy very very happy. Oh! Hugh I think you would enjoy these two fine bargain ..the regular NAPA CAB from Robert Mondavi and the SONOMA CAB from Sebastiani they both 2004 vintage.Hope you like them.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  June 12, 2007 9:29pm ET
James, Like many others I appreciate your thoughts on ALL bottles you open. I certainly appreciate your thoughts on these wines as they are literally "trophy wines" to so many drinkers. It's always fun to hear what other editors from other regions think about certain wines....also, seeing as I paid through the nose ($500) for my bottle of 2002 Harlan Estate it's great to hear that maybe it needs more time, or maybe it's just smarter to sell and stock up on 2001 Brunello's

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