It's too expensive today to hold that kind of tasting to prove yourself. Trying to prove the worth of his Livermore Valley Cabernet-based blend Lineage ($145), Steven Kent Mirassou last week put the 2009 up against 2009s from some of the big names of California: Harlan Estate ($800), Opus One ($230), Joseph Phelps Insignia ($150), and Continuum ($175), as well as a random Saint-Estèphe a PR person had sitting around (true), Château Cos Labory ($50).
I know what you're expecting me to write, and certainly what Mirassou was hoping for: Lineage smoked 'em. Unfortunately, considering the money he laid out for this tasting, that didn't happen.
There were four other wine writers there, and Mirassou and his experienced PR rep/wine educator Paul Wagner also tasted with us, and we all, unanimously, liked ...
None of us saw that coming. The last time I had Opus One, I thought it was very oaky. But this time, it had easily the best aroma of the group: elegant, complex, dark cherries in a warm cedary drawing room. And the flavor delivered complexity as well. The tannins on the finish were a little strong, but this isn't a wine meant to be drunk on release, plus I went back to it an hour later and they had loosened up.
So, a big win for Opus One. The Harlan Estate, I'm sorry to report, finished last and tasted weird; we all hated it. I just wrote about Harlan Estate a couple months ago and I have respect for what they do, but in a blind setting, I have to hope this was bottle variation. If I had spent $800, I'd be pissed.
The Phelps Insignia tasted generic: solid, boring, could be a Cab blend from anywhere, which makes sense given that it's a many-vineyard blend. I guess people pay for surety with this brand and at that it succeeded.
I liked Tim Mondavi's Continuum more than the other tasters did. It's very New World, ripe, dark fruit, well-balanced. Another taster called it the kind of flashy California wine that tastes great with one sip but you can't have a second glass of it. Well, maybe; I went back to it later and still liked it.
You'd think the Saint-Estèphe would have stood out in this group, and maybe it did in retrospect, but when we blind-tasted we didn't actually know where any of the bottles were from save "Northern Hemisphere." None of us jumped up and said, "Ah, back to France!" This wine was the simplest up front but also the liveliest, with a nice fruity finish. It was the easiest to drink and possibly the easiest to finish a bottle of.
That leaves our host's wine, the Lineage. It smelled and tasted of candied fruit to me; Virginie Boone from Wine Enthusiast called that same flavor "liqueur." Language is so important in the wine experience. Virginie writes a lot more wine reviews than I do these days and "liqueur" is the lingua franca. I liked the flavor better than the aroma, but I don't know if the tasting accomplished what Mirassou wanted.
|Stephen Kent Mirassou|
Mirassou is a huge booster of Livermore Valley, where his father moved shortly after selling the family's eponymous winery (Gallo owns it now.) Pre-Prohibition, Livermore Valley was about as respected for fine wine terroir as Napa Valley.
But while the Wente family has done a nice job of getting Livermore Valley in every airport wine shop in America, the high-end industry has never taken off. It's not because of weather (Livermore has a similar climate to St. Helena) or soils; it's size of the industry and marketing. However, it's also a self-fulfilling prophecy: if people pay $150 for wines, wineries can invest in personnel and equipment that wineries which make $20 wines can't afford.
Mirassou has been trying to beat the drum for a decade for the Steven Kent label Cabernet he makes from Livermore; Lineage is a step up in price even on that. It's a Cabernet-dominted blend of all five Bordeaux varieties mostly from the 64-acre Ghilmetti Vineyard. The '09 was a single-vineyard wine but after a short Cab harvest in 2010 he added grapes from two other vineyards. I wonder about that decision, as he made only 150 cases of it, but I guess "single-vineyard" doesn't mean much to high-end California Cabernet buyers.
He made 300 cases in 2011 and 400 in 2012, and sells most of it through the Steven Kent wine club, although he did get the wine in restaurants in a few markets that he enjoys traveling to: Las Vegas, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington, DC.
We drank the first four vintages of the wine, 2007-'10, with lunch, and I really enjoyed the 2007, a balanced, elegant, lively wine with raspberry character and nice supple mouthfeel. Mirassou is trying to make an age-worthy wine: "One thing we pay attention to is we don't bottle the wine with a 3.9 pH," he said, casting aspersions at certain Napa producers. So maybe the '07's character is a good omen.
I also went back and retried the other wines with lunch and still loved the Opus, still liked the Continuum, and still hated the Harlan. Mirassou laughed: "I'd be a liar if I said that wasn't gratifying." You take your victories where you can.