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Monday, Nov. 8, 2010

Lake County, California

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I love it when I’m lucky enough to score a couple of wine samples. I opened the box to discover a couple of cabernets from Lake County, California -- two 2005's from Snows Lake Vineyards named "One" and "Two." "One" was 100% cabernet sauvignon. "Two" was a 3-1 blend of cab sauv and cab franc. Both wines retail for around $45.

I had to do a little background on Lake County to know what I was getting into. Lake County is immediately to the north of Napa. The soil is similar to Napa's, albeit on more mountainous terrain and with higher elevations. Lake County had a thriving wine business from the 1860's up until Prohibition. Wine production started up again in earnest in the 1960's. There are now about 9,000 acres of vineyards in Lake County (compared to Napa's 40,000 ). Lake County, like Napa, is largely known for cabernets -- specifically powerful, tannic cabs.

Tasting big cabernets, of course, is a perfect excuse (like I need one) to fire up the grill and toss a couple of ribeyes on there. No fancy rubs -- just salt, pepper, and olive oil. Sides were some grilled, herbed Yukon gold potatoes and some halved Cremini mushrooms, cooked down in a sauce of ginger, garlic, tomato paste, curry and cumin.

I opened both of these wines a couple of hours before I thought we'd be having dinner. I wanted to give them enough time to breathe. My experiences with tannic wines have taught me that a couple of hours is a minimum for bottles like these. After the steaks came off the grill and were resting, we did a side by side of the two wines.

Even after the time to breathe, the One was a tannic monster. The nose was huge with wood and violets, but the flavors of the wine were obscured initially by the overwhelming tannin. We broke out an aerator and eventually my super-duper Taste of Monterey tasting glass to speed up the process. That helped a little. The other flavors began to emerge. Layers of smoke, wood, and tobacco. (I guess this is what people refer to as "cigar box.") There are some currant and blackberry flavors in there, too. The finish hits you with a surprisingly tart burst that fades pretty quickly into a lingering coffee taste. "This doesn't finish as long as I thought it would...and I think that's a good thing."

The Two was more pleasant. The cabernet franc blended in mellowed the experience considerably. The wine wasn't as tannic, but still certainly wasn't to be taken lightly. ("Doesn't beat you over the head" was my note.) The nose was much more berry and vanilla. The flavors were better balanced -- cherry, blackberry, and cocoa dominated. The bitterness of the tannins start out very strong on the finish, but they mellow quickly into smoke and chocolate with a mineral undertone that certainly wasn't unpleasant.

With the meal, both wines changed. The One lost a little of its tannic edge and revealed more blueberry flavors. That tart burst on the finish remained, which I didn't find all that pleasant. The Two was much better. The tannins balanced the fruit nicely when paired with the steak. The mushrooms were really interesting, since they had a spice to them. The spice flavors gave way gently to fruit, then as the wine finished the spice picked back up pleasantly. That was probably my favorite gustation sensation of the meal.

I had high hopes for these wines with chocolate, but I was disappointed in both. With both Dove dark chocolate and a brownie, each wine ended up a tart, tannic overload. Honestly, the leftover two day-old zinfandel that we had laying around before was a much better pairing.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that these are bad wines by any stretch. They simply aren't wines built for my palate. A couple of weeks ago, I linked an article from the Daily Beast by Keith Wallace entitled "The Great Cabernet Ripoff," which bemoaned the huge price increase in recent years for Cabernet Sauvignon. In my semi-uninformed opinion, my guess is that this huge increase is driven by folks who are more interested in collecting wine than actually drinking the stuff. Wine collectors' eyes big up when they see the words "aging potential." You've seen shelf talkers for wines that might state something like, "Drinks well now, but best between 2012-2017."

The growers of premium Napa-style cabernets market to this. Both these Snows Lake wines are so powerfully tannic that, at least for me, they just aren't very pleasant to drink right now (although we both much preferred the "Two" to the "One") -- and I can imagine that they're built to be bought and stashed in a cellar for four or five years until the tannins settle down. I know that there are many folks out there who can taste these wines now and project how they will drink in 2015. Maybe these are good investments for some folks at $45 a bottle. As much as I really appreciated the opportunity to try these wines, they're difficult for me to pass appropriate judgment upon. Now, if some of you want to pick some of this up and invite me over in a few years to give them another go, be my guest!

Before I leave Lake County, I wanted to find a Lake County wine that was more in my price range. I ended up with the Guenoc 2007 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon for about $11. It certainly wasn't bad, and you could open this up right now without batting an eye.It started with cedar and blackberry on the nose. It's medium bodied, slightly alcoholic tasting, with straightforward blackberry flavors and some earthiness. The finish is a bit clipped -- starts strong with fruit, but quickly tapers off into a mild tannin. It's not nearly as complex as its more expensive cousins, but it's not built to be. It's a pleasant enough cabernet, especially with food (and it's much better with chocolate...).