I recently attended a wine tasting fundraiser for Hawaii Public Radio that featured over 200
different wines, gourmet food and great Hawaiian music. For an additional fee, a small group of
tasters could also participate in a sit down blind tasting of several California cult Chardonnays or
sample the six available vintages of the Plumpjack Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I was fortunate
enough to attend both of these special tastings.
California Here We Come
Ever since that notable wine tasting in Paris in 1976 where a 1973 Chateau Montelena
Chardonnay bested the best white burgundies and a 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet
Sauvignon stood above the best of Bordeaux, California has been known to produce excellent
Chardonnays and Cabernets. While California wines may not always have that distinct terroir of
their French counterparts, they are just as concentrated, balanced, distinctive and most
importantly a pleasure to drink. However the enhancement in quality has come with a price…
literally. The cost for these cult wines can border on a small mortgage and that’s if you can find
these wines. For instance, as a poor student in San Francisco I was able to purchase Caymus
Cabernet Sauvignon at the local Park-N-Shop for $12.99 back in 1990. The recent vintages retail
in the $65 to $80 neighborhood now… and that’s just for the “regular” Cabernet. The Special
Selection Cabernet goes for $130 to $150 and that’s if your neighborhood wine shop was lucky
enough to secure an allotment of the recent vintage. I still feel that Caymus makes excellent
Cabernet Sauvignons; the difference now is that instead of opening several bottles at a party,
only one bottle is uncorked and the portions are doled out by the tablespoon.
The Chardonnay tasting was led by Hawaii’s newest addition to the ranks of Master Sommeliers,
Roberto Viernes. The tasting was conducted blind so no taster knew the identity of each glass
of wine – we simply knew that amongst the wines were a Marcassin Upper Barn, Kistler Cuvee
Cathleen, Kongsgaard, Ramey Hudson Vineyard, Brewer-Clifton Sweeney Canyon, Peter Michael
Mon Plasir, Martinelli Three Sisters and Au Bon Climat Sanford & Benedict. As a ringer, the
organizers slipped in a 9th wine that was only identified as non-California.
Why are these cult wines? For starters, most of these wines can’t be found at your average
supermarket, liquor store or even wine shop. They might be found at specialty wine shops
though it’s highly unlikely that you would find all 8 at any given time. The prices start in the
$40 range and get close to $200… and again, that’s if you’re “lucky” enough to find or be
offered a bottle. For all intents and purposes, these wines are only available if you’re on that
winery’s mailing list.
I won’t bore you with my own tasting notes though I will give you my final evaluation. The
“ringer” wine was actually a French white Burgundy. I assumed as much since the true
comparison to a cult California Chardonnay would be the prototype old world rendition or
white Burgundy. It was actually a 2002 Michel Colin-Deleger Les Chaumes Chassagne
Montrachet. What did I like? I had the Marcassin on top*. It was a big, rich wine with nice fruit
and a balancing acidity/alcohol. Unfortunately it’s also the bottle that’s not really available and
starts at $170 or so. In close 2nd I had both the Kistler and Au Bon Climat for their nice
balance. A little lower were the Peter Michael and Kongsgaard. Rounding out the list were the
Ramey, Brewer-Clifton and Martinelli. I thought all of the wines were good, even those on the
bottom of my personal evaluation. Would I purchase any of these wines? That’s when cost and
headache in procurement plays a role. For $10 to $20 I‘ll purchase a good wine, however when
the cost approaches $40, I usually require those wines to be very good to excellent. Of the five
wines I considered very good to excellent, only one wine is less than $50 – the Au Bon Climat
and it is available in Hawaii. Therefore I’ll be looking for this wine the next time I visit Fujioka
Wine Times, Vintage Wine Cellar, R. Fields, Tamura’s Fine Wines or the Wine Stop. Purchasing
the other four wines depends on the existing balance on my Mastercard and when the next
payday is scheduled.
*I hope Napa Valley doesn’t ban my presence but the actual top wine for me was the Chassagne
Montrachet. It had the perfect balance and wasn’t over the top in any one flavor quality. At
roughly $60 a bottle, I could get three bottles versus one Marcassin (which I can’t get anyway)
and a guest might even be served a full glass!
Plumpjack at its Finest
The second special tasting consisted of the six available Plumpjack Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
bottlings (no 1996 Reserve was made). All Bay Area denizens should recognize this label as its
chief partner is no less than the current mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom. The Plumpjack
group along with the Plumpjack Wine also operates several restaurants in California. Their initial
1995 Reserve vintage received rave reviews from the exalted palate of Robert Parker and
immediately cast them into the rarefied status of cult wine.
The tasting consisted of the 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001 Reserve vintages. These
wines are in the $160 to $180 range – again if you’re “fortunate” enough to be on the mailing
list or knows Mayor Newsom himself. The first three vintages were good, maybe even
approaching very good on the Gochiso’s palate. The last three were very good to excellent. I had
the 2001 as my favorite, a perfect balance of lush red fruit, sweet tannins and a very long finish.
The 1999 was a close 2nd with the same characteristics as the 2001 but with the volume at 11
out of 10 if you know what I mean. It was over the top in concentrated ripe red fruit and
mouth feel. I placed it as second just because the 2001 seemed a little more refined and
restrained. I explained it to a colleague as the 1999 was when you had a bad day at work and
needed a big Cabernet at the end of the day. The 2001 was when you had a good day at work
and wanted a big Cabernet.
So you just hit the Lotto five out of six and want to celebrate based on this article, how do you
get Plumpjack Reserve? It may be available at the Plumpjack wine shop if you know the secret
handshake (though not likely). Since its principal partner is a public figure, take a chance. Go
up to Mayor Newsom and say “I voted for you. Can I buy a bottle of Reserve 2001”? Can’t hurt.
I’d do the same with Mayor Hanneman here in Honolulu if he ever made excellent Cabernets.
California Cult Wine Tasting