I spent a couple hours last night tasting through a large selection of some of the bigger names in mainstream California wine. Several of the recognizable names were there, including Caymus (Yeah the special selection stuff), Coppola Cask Cab, Duckhorn and Montelena. I have to say that despite a few finds, the overall results were wildly disappointing.
The biggest disappointment of the evening was a trio of Bennett Lane Cabs. A winery representative was there pouring, and after he finished gushing about how great the wine was, the longer hang time, the neutral oak (are those supposed to go together?) and a "drink it near term" philosophy. I tried the trio: Raisin Puree is what came to mind. In my lowly opinion those wines were cooked.
The overall theme of the tasting was one of uniformity. I didn't taste a single wine that stood out as distinct or interesting. Every single one was just an expression of power. Now there were some good expressions of power in there. The Caymus and the Coppola Cask were very drinkable, maybe even memorable. There was a Heitz Trailside that struck me as well balanced (despite being an extremely powerful effort), and a couple of bottles in the $15 range, like the Alexander Valley, were good values.
The only real saving grace of the evening was the nice selection of whites. I've traditionally shied away from the whites of Napa Valley. It seems like more often than not California wine makers choose to make trophy Chardonnay that tastes like chewing on an oak stave. Every once in a while they get it right, and wines like Ramey, Au Bon Climat, and Silver are born. All three were stellar efforts, and Ramey is like a little island of Burgundy smack in the middle of Napa. Yay for Carneros! Another fine effort came in the form of a Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc. Not the highly acidic version of the wine that is so common, the Duckhorn was made more like those Chardonnays I complain so vehemently about. In this case it works. The crisp acidic "grapefruit" flavor is cut by a mellowing creamy oak. I don't know how else to say it, the wine just tastes good.
I'm hoping this showing of whites is proof that California is moving away from its base and to a more elegant wine making practice. Seems like there is a long way to go in the Napa Cab department, but one can hope.
One thing I certainly learned from this tasting. I'm forming a palate preference. it used to be that when someone asked me that fateful "What kind of wine do you like?" question, I answered "every kind". Now I know better. Its still hard to find a wine I can't appreciate for its style, but now I think I have a firm handle on the profile of a wine that will get me excited.