Our 2004 Cabernet was found to be a ‘taste of timelessness’ in a field of 33 Napa Valley Cabs. An excerpt from The San Francisco Chronicle (link at bottom to the article):
The year that broke California wine: Our idea of luxury has changed dramatically over the last 15 years. Napa Valley wines reveal how
by Esther Mobley, August 4, 2019
Look around. We live in the age of gilded minimalism. In the Bay Area in the year 2019, pop-ups in unmarked buildings draw hours-long lines. Our hottest restaurants are spare, open temples to natural light. We want our vegetables heirloom, our butter house-cultured, our wild ales spontaneously fermented — and we’re happy to pay the premium markup.
We privilege heterogeneity. We will stalk Instagram for the limited availability of a naturally leavened bagel that is available nowhere else. Our most of-the-moment bars sling natural wines — the cloudier, the funkier, the better. Obscurity reigns. If you haven’t heard of the grape variety (Gringet, anyone?), you probably want the bottle. Even in Napa Valley, where wine trends arrive sluggishly, the most established winemakers have adopted the language of restraint and balance, praising wines that are low in alcohol and high in acidity. Flashy has ceded the stage to subtle.
There are many ways to tell the story of today’s Bay Area….Before we could arrive in this era of understated luxury, we had to boomerang off an era of overstated luxury.
Looking back at the last two decades, we can find a single inflection point where our idea of luxury began to turn, transforming from the extravagant energy of the early aughts to the spartan style of today. That point is the year 2004…..And though it might not have looked like it at the time, 2004 would turn out to be the most pivotal year in California wine of this millennium….Most of all, 2004 was the vintage that finally fulfilled the ideal of ripeness that the California wine industry had been gradually moving toward since the late 1990s. In Napa Valley, winemakers picked grapes at higher sugar levels in 2004 than in any other vintage of the decade: Whereas most years fall closer to 14%, the average ’04 Napa Cabernet would clock in at a whopping 15.3%.
It was that very extremity that catalyzed a monumental shift in Napa Valley wine, forcing a reconsideration of the industry’s identity. Soon, a group of dissenting winemakers would form an influential opposition group, urging a return to leaner, lighter wines. The former wine critic of this newspaper would later write an entire book about the shift away from what he termed “Big Flavor.” Our collective sense of taste would begin to morph. 2004 was the year that took everything too far…..
Much like the molecular food trend, wines in this era embraced the era’s technology….. This was the peak era for so-called Parkerization, the apex of the critics’ influence. …Serendipitously, culture and nature found a perfect synergy in 2004. The vintage’s hot weather and the resulting grapes’ high sugar levels were the ideal conditions for crafting wines that made the critics swoon…..
I want to know: How do the wines born of this lavish era stand up to the standards of taste we enforce today? Have they aged better than the eyedroppers of blue vodka?
So I assemble my own collection of wines and enlist three of 2004 San Francisco’s top sommeliers to help me taste: Paul Einbund, Emily Wines and Christie Dufault, who was then at Gary Danko and now teaches at the Culinary Institute of America. We gather in The Chronicle newsroom to uncork 33 bottles of 2004 Napa Valley Cabernets, all disguised inside brown paper bags…..
It occurs to me that what we dislike in the flight is its homogeneity. Beyond the fact that the wines are made from the same grape and region in the same year, most seem to be reaching for the same exact paradigm. Very ripe grapes, check. Lots of flavor extraction from the grape skins, check. Toasty oak barrels, check. Success for these wines was measured not by their distinctiveness but by how expertly they emulated this narrow prototype.
And that flies in the face of the vibrant individuality we’ve come to fetishize in the year 2019. We reject homogeneity at every turn now. Instead of Napa Cab, our most progressive restaurants are proselytizing Sicilian Frappato, Georgian Rkatsiteli, skin-fermented Ribolla Gialla. If it was once in vogue to seek out wines of monolithic power, now it’s fashionable to praise wines that eschew oak influence and reject technology. Today’s avante-garde natural wine movement demands “living wines,” which may evolve unpredictably and be variable from bottle to bottle.
Tasting the outdated 2004s makes me wonder: Does everything go out of style? Does anything get to be timeless? Maybe not — and maybe, for wine, that’s OK. If one of the reasons we love wine is its ability to express its vintage, can that expression be cultural as well as meteorological? If they don’t always conform to the reigning style of the day, so be it.
And yet there is one wine in our tasting that seems to defy it all. The 2004 Smith-Madrone from Spring Mountain happens to carry a modest 13.9% alcohol, but that’s not the point. By the time we get to it, the 30th wine in our lineup, our mouths are parched and our tongues fatigued. But something in me perks up when I put my nose in the glass.
It’s not the most youthful wine on the table. It bears some telltale signs of aging — cigar box, leather, a browning rim. Still, it’s alive, pulsing with energy, generous with blackberry, currant, licorice and at the same time, restrained and delicate.
What makes the Smith-Madrone so compelling is that it could have been made in any era. It’s a product not of fashion but of principle. It abides by fundamental standards of wine quality — balance, simplicity — that have never gone out of style, and never will.
Tasting the Smith-Madrone, it seems clear to me that today’s trendiest wines have more in common with 2004 than their makers would like to imagine. In the annals of taste, wines that are immoderately funky or excruciatingly lean will have just as short of a shelf life as the extravagantly ripe wines of the aughts.
No matter what form it takes, excess will always get old. But sometimes, when something stays the course, ignores the fads, keeps it simple, we get a taste of timelessness.