Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What's in a California Cult Cab?

I was fully prepared not to love this wine. I knew there was a good chance it would display evident oak, plush “busty” fruit, and spray-tan perfection…

What did I expect? Deep down, I was secretly hoping to be blown away by this pricey bottle of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. After all, Cab is my comfort wine. I’m a displaced California girl and California wine is at the heart of my earliest experiences and love for wine. I have certain nostalgia for the full, fruity deliciousness of California wine.

The wine: Nicholls 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon produced and bottled at CrushPad, San Francisco. This is Nicholls’ flagship wine featuring fruit sourced from one of “Super grower” Andy Beckstoffer’s properties: Dr. Crane Vineyard. We ordered this bottle in late January out of curiosity to see what Crushpad’s clients are making. At that time this wine was retailing for $55 but, when I checked back recently it was up to $85$65(*see comments section). The Nicholls 2005 Pinot Noir took gold at the 2008 SF Chronicle Wine Competition.

“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”
To be fair, we should have decanted this bottle. As it is, the first aroma off the first glass was oak. There was other stuff there too: cherry, cassis, vanilla, plum, blackberry, and a little pepper. This wine was certainly perfect right from the start (except for the slightly obtrusive oak). Great balance, yummy fruit, etc, yet, I felt a little like I was having dinner with a starlet: Good bones, perfect nails, hair and make-up, pleasant conversation but, is there anything else there? Are we likely to get a glimpse of the soul of this wine? [Resisting urge to insert photo of Lindsay Lohan here. You're welcome]

Coaxing or Hoaxing?
Craig Camp recently posted a great blog entry: Debating the Points: Spoofulation. The centerpiece of the post is an article by Clark Smith defending (quit deftly) manipulation in wine-making. Among the salient points are A) no wine-maker is going to let a batch go to pot if there is something that can be done to save it, and B) there is ‘spoofulating’ wine, and there is using the tools of the trade to tease out the nuances of the terroir. Ironically, I think the argument made by Clark Smith, Wine Villian could be applied to what was going on with a flight Châteauneuf du Pape we tasted last weekend. Several of the wines had characteristic subtleness of fruit which allowed the minerality to shine, and in order to achieve that result in the face of rising temps and brix in the region, the traditional wine-making technique was tweaked a bit. Conversely, we also tasted some traditionally made Châteauneuf du Pape which was getting closer to a New World style in the glass. That is to say: riper fruit, less minerality, and in some cases more oak.

I Don’t Know How They Did it
So, I tried the Nicholls again a couple of days later (and after tasting 9 Côtes du Rhône wines). Again, I noticed a sort of glossy perfection but, this time my reaction was a little different. The oak overtures had completely dissipated and I no longer felt aware of adjusted acidity, and smoothed edges. Now, there was a cool wet stone aroma and a slight wisp of mustard atop the underlying fruit. Now, on the palate, I began to notice more nuance; the balance and structure is phenomenal; maybe this fruit actually possessed some level of innate perfection to begin with before the wine-maker ever touched it.

New Age Wine
I definitely don’t want to dis this wine. It didn’t rock my world like a Sperino Uvaggio but, it was good, and it benefited me to drink it. It totally balanced my yang. This wine was like getting a dose of Chinese medicinal bark and mushroom tea. I know many of my east coast friends are going “huh?” but, you Californians know what I’m talking about…

California is Like Nowhere Man
This wine definitely brings visions of Lexus SUVs, fashionable restaurant facades, and jazz tunes (Take 5), in other words, it has a sense of place and that place is California. So, I can’t resist the temptation to bring up the question of California ‘terroir’: Has anyone done a flight of Sonoma Cabs next to a flight of Napa Cabs and been able to discern which AVA the Cab was grown and vinified in? To those who argue that California has no terroir, here is a question for you: If there had never been any AOCs, and rules saying “this is how wine will be made in XYZ Village”, would you still be able to distinguish between a wine made in Saint-Emilion and one made in say, Castillion-la-Bataille without a unifying conformity in the wine-making practices? Would these places still possess their own ‘terroir’?


Anonymous said...

First, thank you for tasting my wine. That has got to be the most chaotic, stomach-turning - yet ultimately flattering, sincere review I will ever receive. Certainly better than a 2-digit number. Yes, the wine needs time. It will age more gracefully than your average starlet. Yes, 80% of a wines quality is directly the result of the quality of the fruit itself... we start with the best fruit and try to not get in the way. We did a zebra barrel - 50% new oak. I decided against any blending; it's 100% cab, for better or worse. Only 25 cases were made. Yes, the price has flopped around a bit... the '05 Cabernet is currently priced at $65 a bottle. Your readers are welcome to use the discount code "miami" for 10% off any purchase (in keeping with your Lohan theme, but moving it a little further East). There is free shipping on purchases of 6 or more bottles (mix or match) and an additional 10% off for purchases of a case or more (also mix or match). Thank you for taking the time to taste and feature my wine.


Malcolm Nicholls

Taster B said...


Thank you for leaving a coupon code for Smells Like Grape readers. We really did enjoy your Cab and weird as it may sound to people, my hyper-yang symptoms cleared up after drinking this wine and have remained in balance which I think is a very remarkable and special quality.

The Spunky Mommy said...

Wow, you guys have a lot going on here. I have to stay on top of it a little bit better. In any case, great to see you last night and hope to do it again in the (near) future!!!