Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: We need gold medals that make more sense

A cabernet sauvignon that’s ready to drink now.
A cabernet sauvignon that’s ready to drink now.

Almost invariably within the first three flights of red wine at a competition, a judge will ask fellow panelists, “Are we judging these wines on how drinkable they are now or on how they will age?”

And this is how it is resolved: It isn’t. Unless they are of one mind on the topic, which is rare, judges will debate the matter gently and then settle on an amiable compromise whereby a wine’s other merits override whether it’s accessible now or should be stashed in the cellar until some uncertain time.

That’s fine, but it doesn’t do consumers any favors, who when reaching to buy a bottle with a gold-medal sticker on it have no idea whether the wine is ready to drink with tonight’s shepherd’s pie or should be tucked away in the basement for a decade or two.

Wine competitions could take the next logical step and issue two kinds of gold medals, one with the designation “drink now,” the other with the qualification “save.” That isn’t likely, so what’s the wine enthusiast to do when faced with a bank of wines with eye-catching “gold medal” stickers on several of them?

▪ The wine salesperson on the floor might actually have tasted the wines and be able to point out intelligently which ones are fit for tonight’s dinner and which ones should be socked away.

▪ Some wine critics note or imply whether a wine be drunk now or held.

▪ Other hints for telling whether a wine is best consumed now or is meant to age: Screwcaps indicate a wine is intended for early consumption, while corks indicate that the wine should be aged. Also, the lower the alcohol the more likely the wine should be drunk young. Furthermore, price can be a guide; the higher it is, the longer the wine likely will age, or at least that’s the implication. There are, however, enough exceptions to these guidelines to send consumers back to the advice of a knowing wine merchant.

Cabernets in the $40 niche should be models of varietal typicity, energy, balance and length

What put me in mind of two types of gold-medal sticker was a class of cabernet sauvignons our panel judged at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale earlier this year. There were 66 of them, all priced between $39 and $43. Yes, we were lucky, for cabernets in that price niche should be models of varietal typicity, energy, balance and length. We gave 16 of them gold or double-gold medals, the latter being granted when all judges of a panel agree that a wine merits gold.

Here are my favorites, grouped by whether they are ready to drink now or should be held:

Drink Now Gold Medals

Le Casque Wines 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40): Get this: Our best-of-class cabernet sauvignon came from Le Casque Wines in little ol’ Loomis. While Le Casque is identified largely with varietal wines and blends based on Rhone Valley grape varieties grown in the Sierra foothills, owner-winemaker Kevin Stevenson knows where to go for cabernet sauvignon, and that’s Napa Valley. The result is a 2012 that comes down proudly and expressively on the herbal side of the cabernet spectrum, a well-proportioned throwback to the days when Napa Valley cabernets could be drunk immediately as well as laid down to age handsomely.

Ecluse Wines 2013 Paso Robles Lock Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($40): For its silken texture and seductive cherry flavor, this entry won a rare spontaneous double-gold medal. Usually, a double-gold is a negotiated medal; that is, a panelist who thought it warranted silver but not gold had to be persuaded of the wine’s grandeur. With this elegant and balanced interpretation there was no question that it deserved gold.

DeWitt Family Wines 2012 Sonoma County Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($42): Cabernet sauvignon out of Alexander Valley long has been recognized for its dark lush fruit, supple tannins and graceful presentation, characteristics captured here in a readily accessible representative. It was one of six double-gold medal winners in the class.

Speedy Creek Winery 2013 Knights Valley Speedy Creek Cabernet Sauvignon ($40): After a stretch of especially rigid cabernets during the judging, this entry was embraced not only for its vivid fruit but its tangy acidity, modest tannins and all-around drinkability.

Hood Crest Winery 2013 Columbia Valley Waving Tree Cabernet Sauvignon ($42): From northern Oregon comes a cabernet that while lithe in build nonetheless is hung with ample sweet fruit that is welcoming at first sip and refuses to give up its embrace until long after the last swallow.

Save Gold Medals

Boatique Winery 2012 Lake County Red Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($40): This is why the volcanic soils of the Red Hills rising from the west shore of Clear Lake are generating so much buzz – a cabernet sauvignon complex, graceful and persistent, with a note of sarsaparilla and the kind of firm tannic build that will have it drinking best in five or so years.

Longboard Vineyard 2013 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($42): In my notes, I call this “a conversation piece,” code for a certain alluring eccentricity. It won’t be everyone’s cup of cabernet sauvignon, primarily for its young stiffness and brooding attitude, but lurking behind all that is fresh dark fruit, spice, silk and a lingering finish, all of which is bound to build upon itself with a few years in the cellar.

Vina Moda 2013 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon ($40): Though gold-medal cabernets out of the Sierra foothills are rare, and double-gold medals even more rare, which this was, the Vina Moda won over the panel for its faithful juiciness, insinuations of tea and complications of earthiness and oak. It’s hard right now, but should continue to evolve into a wine of suppleness and balance.

V. Sattui Winery 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($39): V. Sattui is recognized for wines faithful to breeding, accessibility and value, and while this cherry- and oak-saturated release can be enjoyed right now with appropriately marbled beef, it should evolve into a more open take on the genre with a few years of age.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

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