An insatiable hunger for discovery and wine education is rewarded every time I taste wines in peer groups. Without the chance to examine lots of wines every day over an extended period, even frequent tastings of one wine per sitting lays down hurdles to thorough assessment most easily cleared via contextual, side-by-side tastings. The most recent example of this unveiled itself during a unique evening of food and wine at the Crystal Quail , a favorite BYOB restaurant masquerading as a simple 1700’s New Hampshire farm house serving up prixe fixe menus of natural food to intimately sized groups of foodie and wino revelers every Wednesday through Sunday night, literally in the middle of nowhere. On this visit I invited Richard Auffrey to join me, just returning from San Francisco at the top of his Sake class and freshly promoted by the Sake Educational Council as the newest of only 300 Certified Sake Professionals worldwide. Richard hand picked the Sake and I towed along some old California Cabernet. Besides their entertaining, warm, and glowing company, our spouses joined to gently taste and drive.
I have been trying to understand the nuances of Sake in similar ways new wine enthusiasts grasp at basic education. Until now, I was tasting one Sake at a time, most recently with the background help of Rich’s deep knowledge. Still, I was dissatisfied with my progress for connecting knowledge with sensory confirmation. On this break-through evening we used traditional ceramic Sake vessels to keep the experience real. Our first sake was Manabito Kimoto Ginjo. Manabito is the producer name. Kimoto is a disappearing traditional process (reliant on exposure to ambient air compared to simply adding lactic acid) for introducing natural acids to kill bacteria and get the yeast going. Ginjo indicates the level of rice kernel polishing that takes place in advance of the brewing. This rice wine had two dominant characteristics that became even more evident after tasting the second Sake. It presented a wholly earthy character and a memorably elegant mouthfeel and flavor. Intellectually I learned that the earthiness comes from the more natural Kimoto approach and the elegance from the polish. I was thankful for the learning, but more charged by the accompanying sensory confirmation that would not have been as concrete and conclusive without tasting the second rice wine.
That Sake was Daischichi Monowamon Junmai Daiginjo. In the Daiginjo process, a higher percentage of the kernel is polished compared with Ginjo brewed Sakes, getting down to the more desirable rice core. This wine went through the same Kimoto process as our first wine, setting further controls on the side by side comparison. This wine was even more elegant than the first, a result of the additional polishing. Yet, it offered extra acidity and was a distinctive taste experience compared to the Manabito.
With such a big part of Sake tasting occurring on the palate compared to the aromatic indulgence of wine tasting enabled by the deployment of deep vessel bowls to capture a wine’s nose, I have struggled to compile a large enough set of factors for confidently and thoroughly marking any single rice wine. And, I am afraid if I venture further afield at this point in my very young Sake education, I will misrepresent the contributing style factors. But, this evening was punctuated with an intensely satisfying milestone moment of cognitively embracing process differences that yielded palate recognition of two distinctive wines and styles. I learned something about Sake, became further infected with a need to know more, and experienced a level of heightened appreciation I would not have achieved drinking just one great Sake by itself.
We had a few other wines that night, including the 1991 Clos Centeilles, and some rare 1964 vintage Sherry that Rich wanted to taste. I will skip sharing the magical moments with those wines for now and stay on topic with more peer group learning.
I produced 1987 Dominus and 1992 Lewis Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon from my cellar. I am getting the overall sense it is time to drink up my late eighties and early nineties Cabernets. I never had the benefit of tasting the Dominus young, but drank a bunch of the Lewis Cellar Cab, often at raucous and indulgent dinners with Randy and Deb Lewis during frequent visits to our mutually favorite San Mateo restaurant 231 Ellsworth (early 90’s during the Ken Ottoboni era before it closed). Young Dominus in other vintages has always impressed me with Bordeaux style restraint combined with touches of richness and aromatics true to its California terroir. Before this evening, I had never tasted one that had been laid down for more than twenty years. Its Bordeaux styling was no surprise considering Christian Moueix’ background and philosophy:
Respecting the terroir, Christian Moueix began his career in Pomerol, where merlot is the dominant varietal grown. At Dominus Estate, the essential grape varietal is cabernet sauvignon, the best suited for the Napanook vineyard terroir. Cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot are also used in the final blends, reinforcing the consistent style of the wines although varying during the blend each year to reflect the climate during the growing season.
Our wines are made from grapes grown solely on the Napanook vineyard, allowing them to have a specific identity. They are “estate bottled” in the spirit of the Bordeaux chateaux. The ranch is dry-farmed, the ideal manner to allow the terroir to express itself.
Stylistically, young Lewis wines that I played around with were often ripe, chewy, rich, fruity, and round expressions of Cabernet providing enough soft tannic structure to give the impression the wines would hold up over time. These early nineties wines reminded me of soft and accessible Bordeaux years where wines were easily approached in their youth, like 1985 for example. In all cases, wines of this style are hard to hold onto since they offer tremendous pleasure early.
The 1987 Dominus was nothing short of profound. There is no other way to describe it. The wine could easily be mistaken for a classic 1989 or 1990 Bordeaux, and it’s no secret that Dominus aims to produce Bordeaux styled product from the floors of Northern California’s valleys. It had all the usual lead pencil, cedar, and cassis aromatics and flavors. Secondary flavoring was just becoming evident. There was a remarkable degree of purity and pin point balance wrapped up in a silky delivery and elegant finish; something I have only seen from a handful of California wines of that era. It is easily one of the five best California Cabernets I have ever tasted. It is worth going back into the market for some at approximately $150 a bottle, which you can source here and elsewhere.
Interestingly, the 1993 Lewis has shed some fat and calmed down a bit since its earlier heady and racy days. But, it has not advanced to produce the nose and flavors that Bordeaux of the same era would. Some of the 85 and even 97 Bordeaux I recently tasted have interesting things going on that were not present in the wines’ youthful styles. Furthermore, the Lewis has not come together with any resemblance to an old world style the way the Dominus did. Some might be fine with that since, after all, it’s California wine. I look for characteristics of age to advance the wine, not just tone it down. In this case the Lewis has moved toward a slightly thinner, more muted ripe California style that is still structurally sound but nowhere nearly as compelling to drink as it was fifteen years ago.
Another rewarding moment of learning came unfurled in this side-by-side comparison. One California Cab next to another, five years of separation, presenting different aging results. One was classically California, and one more like the cuvee’s old world brethren. I was disappointed in my patience with the Lewis on one level, yet amazingly satisfied with the evidence of separate aging paths. The depth of this learning was facilitated by tasting two wines next to each other. The next time you taste one wine alone, think how much easier it would be to describe it, and learn from it, if you had another wine like it to open for context.