Earlier this fall, principals of 26 wineries scattered through the redwoods and oaks of the American Viticultural Area called Mount Veeder, a portion of the much larger appellation called Napa Valley, convened their 13th annual tasting at The Hess Collection, one of the 26 estates.
The wineries were arranged alphabetically in the Hess sculpture garden, and that's how most guests looked to be dutifully checking them off as they moved from table to table. We started at the end of the alphabet, however, where it was less crowded, and worked our way toward the front.
By the time we approached the tables at the start of the alphabet, near where the pourers of The Hess Collection itself were stationed, I'd begun to sense a few things about the wines of Mount Veeder.
They're mostly cabernet sauvignon, or blends based on cabernet sauvignon.
They're firm and intense, as wines from vineyards on mountains are expected to be. And they sure can be expensive; one I especially liked cost $65, another $80, a third $125. These are Saturday-night wines.
At the table for The Hess Collection, I tasted several wines, including Hess Collection 2008 Mount Veeder 19 Block Cuvee, a bright red wine of exceptional overall polish. It isn't a cabernet sauvignon, though cabernet sauvignon makes up 69 percent of the wine. The rest is malbec (13 percent), merlot (8 percent), syrah (8 percent), cabernet franc (1 percent) and petit verdot (1 percent).
All those precise figures add up to just part of the wine's story. Another is the name "19 Block," which stems from the winery's practice of choosing grapes for the wine from 19 individual vineyard blocks scattered about Mount Veeder.
And here's the most surprising number of all: $36. That's the wine's suggested retail price, which made it the best buy of the day. It's still a Saturday-night wine, but in the category of when you and a companion are dining alone, without the boss, minister or school counselor also at the table.
I'd tasted the 2008 19 Block Cuvee before, but not until after I got home and looked up my earlier notes did I realize I'd given it the same ranking and said basically the same things about it.
In short, while the wine is representative of the concentrated fruit and firm structure for which Mount Veeder wines are recognized, it also carries a seam of accessible freshness unusual for a mountain-sourced wine. While youthful, it has a graceful maturity about it; no brooding or challenging attitude here.
It's a sprightly blend, with a note of spice and a suggestion of laurel, though mostly fruit related to the berry, cherry and plum families.
It's a subtly layered wine, smooth and lasting, its tannins more supple than rigid. You can drink it easily today, or if you plan to give it to someone during the year-end holidays you can tell them they can lay it down to age handsomely for the next five to 10 years, at least.
The groundwork for 19 Block Cuvee began in 1999 when David Guffy arrived on Mount Veeder as the new winemaker at The Hess Collection.
He'd long been a vineyard-first winemaker, and in walking the Hess property, he concluded that some of the blocks of cabernet sauvignon at the higher elevations might be better suited to other grape varieties.
As a consequence, he grafted some of the stands of cabernet sauvignon to malbec and syrah, in part because he was confident they could ripen easily at the appellation's higher reaches. Mount Veeder is mostly cabernet country, with cabernet sauvignon accounting for nearly two-thirds of its plantings.
Plots of 16 other varieties are scattered through the appellation, however, with several showing encouraging potential, including malbec and syrah.
"Malbec has been the big story for us. We get a triple or a home run from almost every block we put in," Guffy said.
He credits the malbec for softening cabernet's rigid tannins, thereby helping to explain the drinkability of 19 Block Cuvee as soon as it is released. The syrah, a variety not often blended with cabernet sauvignon, though that's changing, helps elevate the wine's aromas, Guffy explained.
He began to release a proprietary red blend made with grapes from several different estate blocks with the vintage of 2002, initially calling it Mountain Cuvee. A few years later, however, The Hess Collection changed the name to 19 Block Cuvee because other wineries had started to use "Mountain Cuvee" or something similar on wines.
Guffy is able to draw from so many varied blocks of grapes because of the lay of the land and the types of soils at Mount Veeder, which rambles across hills and through hollows on the steep slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains just west of the city of Napa.
Some blocks are as high as 2,000 feet, some are down at around 1,750 feet. Their exposures vary by the curves of the hills. Their soils are apt to be weathered volcanic along the peaks, sedimentary siltstones and shales on the slopes down below.
Despite the wine's name, Guffy isn't locked into using grapes from all 19 blocks, given the vagaries of growing conditions from year to year, and he has drawn from as many as 20 blocks, though 19 is the customary total.
Hess Collection 2008 Mount Veeder 19 Block Cuvee
By the numbers: 14.6 percent alcohol, 19,100 cases, $36.
Context: Dave Guffy prefers the 2008 19 Block Cuvee with duck finished with a slightly sweet sauce, while others at The Hess Collection recommend it for braised or grilled lamb or pork, especially with spring or sweet onions, mushrooms, eggplant and fennel, and harder cheeses such as Bravo Farms Silver Mountain or Beecher's Flagship Reserve.
Availability: In the Sacramento area, the 2008 19 Block Cuvee is stocked by some branches of Total Wine & More and BevMo, and has been available at such restaurants as Chinois City Café, Bella Bru Café, Café Vinoteca, Il Fornaio and Grange. The wine can be ordered online through the winery's website, www.hesscollection.com.
More information: The tasting room at The Hess Collection, 4411 Redwood Road, Napa, is open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily.