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The Insider’s Guide to California Wine By Jim Gordon

February 2007

"What a difference a vintage makes. I just participated in an unusual three-vintage blind tasting of Cabernet set up by the Napa Valley Vintners as part of their Premiere Napa Valley promotional event and auction.

The years were 2002, 2003 and 2004, from 12 representative wineries up and down the valley. To me it confirmed that 2003 is an excellent vintage with its own personality, while 2002 and 2004 are stylistically similar to each other, deeper, fatter and more massive than 2003, which has classic Napa Cabernet aromas, pretty fruit flavors and great balance. You pick which style you like, and buy them while they last.

Winemakers around Napa have been quietly griping since James Laube of Wine Spectator gave the 2003 mediocre marks last fall, and advised people generally not to buy the vintage, especially since the prices had not dropped from 2002. He maintained that 2003 counts as the third off vintage in the six years from 1998 to 2003, making it a bad run in general.

I disagree, and encourage Cabernet lovers and the wine trade, especially those who've been complaining about the high alcohol levels and excess fat in California wines, to reconsider 2003. Out of 36 wines in the tasting, the three vintages finished very close together in my scores, with 2002 having a slight lead over the other two.

On my vintage chart, five out of seven vintages from 1998-2004 including 2003, are exceptional. 2000 was lighter, rather mute, with markedly less personality than 2003. 1998 was, yes, a noticeably weak year for Napa Valley, showing herbaceous flavors and a thinness in many wines.

Here's a great case where restaurants and retailers as well as consumers can show a little independence from the critics that they're often complaining about and decide for themselves. I haven't tasted as many 2003s as Laube, my old colleague and friend, but in many of the 100 or so that I have tried, there's a fascinating, distinct, unmistakable Cabernet bouquet of bright fruit, with hints of cedar and cinnamon, pretty and sometimes exotic fruit flavors with an unusual brightness and clarity, and a more elegant texture and lively balance than many good years.

If anything, these 2003s are like Bordeaux in balance and complexity, and should age very well for at least 10 years. It's not always the big fat years that age well, as we're seeing now with lots of 1994s that are past their primes.

The top four wines from 2003, with my 100-point-scale scores, were as follows. The Vintners didn't provide prices instantly, so I will attach those later in the Reviews searchable database. These vary from about $50 to $200 per bottle, with Shafer's Hillside Select being probably the most expensive in this group.

94  Grgich Hills Napa Valley 2003
93  Seps Estate Napa Valley Storybook Mountain Vineyard 2003
93  Shafer Stags Leap District Hillside Select 2003
93  Tres Sabores Rutherford Perspective 2003


2004 had a few more spikes in high scores, due to its great concentration and richness. My favorites were:

94  Shafer Stags Leap District Hillside Select 2004
94  Tres Sabores Rutherford Perspective 2004
93  Keenan Spring Mountain Reserve 2004
93  Grgich Hills Napa Valley 2004


And for 2002, my favorites were:

95  Keenan Spring Mountain District 2002
95  Seps Estate Napa Valley Storybook Mountain Vineyard 2002
95  Shafer Stags Leap District Hillside Select 2002
93  Grgich Hills Napa Valley 2002
93  Robert Mondavi Oakville 2002