California cult Cabernets – Ridge Monte Bello is the steal


28 March 2019 We go way, way back 18 years to be precise for today's Throwback Thursday, chosen to complement Elaine's detailed profile of Ridge Vineyards on Tuesday.

15 April 2001 Is California dreaming? an extraordinary assessment of the cult wines that cost more than Bordeaux's first growths.

For 200 years Bordeaux was the red wine capital of the world and its wine styles and prices set the standards for the international wine market. But in the last 10 years, quite independently of any European wine consideration, California created its own wine kingdom with a quite different aristocracy and legislature.

The wines themselves may be made from the same Cabernet and Merlot grapes as red bordeaux but they taste quite different – exuberantly fruity and ready to enjoy at what a European might regard as an almost obscenely young age. Are they child prodigies? Or wine Minipops, those heavily made-up prepubescent girl dancers whose gyrations were so disturbingly distasteful that they were eventually censored from British TV screens?

Most of these California cult Cabernets carry names which were unknown ten, sometimes five, years ago. But they are made in such small quantities – sometimes just a few hundred cases as opposed to the tens of thousands of cases of some Bordeaux first growths – that prices have overtaken those of Europe's established classics. These can easily be four- rather than three- or two-digit dollar bottles, and even more in America's beloved charity auctions.

Demand is so much greater than supply that the lucky wine collectors whose names are on the all-important mailing lists for these California cult wines can immediately sell their allocation at a profit.

The super-cultish Screaming Eagle, for example, is released at about $500 per three-bottle lot, which could immediately be sold for something closer to $4000. 'It's as though Jean Phillips [the bemused owner of Screaming Eagle] wrote you a cheque for $3500', beamed one of her customers at an extraordinary tasting I witnessed recently in England.

Gordon Getty, son of J Paul, is among other things the owner of Plump Jack winery in the Napa Valley and principal backer of the relatively new Russian National Orchestra. To reward a handful of fellow-donors to the RNO he flew them to Europe last December on his 727 for a series of wine, music and art events in England and Spain.

The main wine-tasting was a fascinating four-hour marathon over a long lunch at Waddesdon Manor, Lord Rothschild's wine-minded estate near Aylesbury (pictured above from the air). About 20 of us, mainly the American visitors plus myself, Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent from Britain and Hardy Rodenstock and Hans Johannson from Germany gathered round a long table in Waddesdon's palatial 'Dairy'. We tasted flights of four to six vintages from the nineties of seven of California's best Cabernets old and new: Araujo Eisele, Caymus Special Select, Dalla Valle Maya, Harlan Estate, Ridge Monte Bello, Screaming Eagle and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 whose cerebral owner Warren Winiarski was the only person present who actually knew how to make these essences.

The wines were served strictly alphabetically, so we started with Araujo Eisele whose efforts with the dense fruit of the venerable Eisele vineyard near Calistoga had already impressed me. Worryingly, the 1991 seemed to be losing its fruit but the 1994 and 1995 showed a welcome combination of fruit and rigour for both current and future drinking. The more familiar, suppler, Caymus Special Select offerings drew considerably more praise from Johnson and Broadbent.

Dalla Valle Maya, a wine much admired in the US, also failed to win friends on this side of the Atlantic. This was the least familiar wine to me for I had tasted only one or two bottles of it before, so it was instructive to see a run of the first five vintages of the last decade. This dark, brooding, heavily extracted wine had a massively intense initial perfume of something like cordite or smouldering fireworks (perhaps something to do with the volcanic soil here) but then tended to turn into a damp squib without enough follow-through of fruit on the middle of the palate and a drying, dumb finish – quite an achievement for a wine so high in Cabernet Franc.

Harlan Estate came next, a wine made in the Napa Valley with help from the ubiquitous Michel Rolland of Bordeaux. Its sumptuousness had won me over on previous occasions but as in the case of Araujo, the oldest vintage, 1991, was looking a little too old already. The 1992 was literally gorgeous, however, and even if the 1993 like so many wines of this vintage was a bit constrained and awkward, the 1994 and 1995 managed to blend those vintages' generosity with some serious structure.

But at this point, to the possible chagrin of the American connoisseurs, many of whom had these wines in their cellars, Hugh Johnson declared, 'I find no grace in these wines at all. They're designed for cigar smokers. There's mass but no aroma.' Tough talk.

The next flight brought some respite for California though in the form of six vintages of Ridge Monte Bello, from 1990 to 1995, the only wine in the tasting from outside the Napa Valley (and by far the most keenly priced – simply because it is made in reasonable quantities). This lovely and well-proven wine was certainly distinctive, consistently delicious and characterful, well balanced, not too big, and the best wine was, tellingly, the oldest. This is a Californian wine made to a more recognisably European formula, one that requires age of a wine – even if, as Warren Winiarski reminded us, 'the point is beauty not age'.

By this stage a certain gloom had descended on the long table at which were expertly served this succession of glasses (34 apiece for the main tasting alone) and dishes. Had all these dollars really been spent on wines incapable of winning friends with some of Europe's most experienced palates?

The sea change among the sea of glasses came when the Screaming Eagles were served. European noses twitched appreciatively. Eyebrows were raised and the odd smile played on European lips. I thought they were delicious. In fact the 1993 was the only one I scored less than 19 out of 20 and they all had some way to go despite being utterly and seductively packed with sweet, lively fruit now – fruit which carried on right through the palate, unlike the Dalla Valle wines and the less successful Harlan vintages. Even Messrs Johnson and Broadbent were impressed. Hans Johannson when asked to comment on the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Cask 23 flight that followed could not stop himself bubbling with enthusiasm for the Screaming Eagles. Honour was most definitively saved.

Tom Black, wine collecting owner of a bank services software company in Nashville, had donated the great majority of these wines. If it had been me I would have felt distinctly protective towards them but he is obviously made of sterner, more objective stuff. 'In California this is what they like. We don't have to like it. We must understand it and recognize the shift in people's taste. I will never believe any of the cult wines in 20 years can compete with a Latour, Cheval Blanc, Pétrus or Haut Brion.'

I would agree wholeheartedly with this assessment of the relative potential for ageing of the wines we tasted, but am more tolerant of the California Minipops, some of which I believe may in future vintages, like the much longer-established Ridge Monte Bello, offer a more Mozartian experience.

The market today is impatient for its thrills, and there is a place for wines that deliver something other than the long-term intellectual stimulation of a great claret. Any wine that can deliver as much pleasure as a Screaming Eagle 1992, a Harlan 1995 or an Araujo 1994 deserves to be celebrated not penalised for it. The world of wine is richer for the emergence of these overpriced, precocious beauties – even if their crazy purchasers are not.

Individual tasting notes:


1991 – 16 and fading

Lots of acidity and tannin, positively autumnal and almost a hint of Barolo! Not hugely pleasurable.

1992 – 17.5 and nearly ready

Warm, ripe and almost chocolatey in its richness. Quite a different palate experience to 91. Gorgeous with well hidden tannins.

1993 – 17 and quite a way to go

Back to mushrooms and autumn again. Lovely rich breadth and vigour but quite a hard finish.

1994 – 18 and climbing steeply

Prunes, very very rich and seductive with a hint of tar. Sweet palate attack with refreshing acid. Built for the long term.

1995 – 18 and climbing

This one's like prunes in armagnac! Almost overripe. Hint of woodsmoke. Oozes ripe fruit within an expensive oak corset. Oodles of pleasure. Even riper than 94 but maybe too much so??


1990 – 15 but still some way to go

Smoky, taut, tight-knit nose. Sweet berry flavours, rather simpler than those of Araujo. Chewy end and the opposite style to Bordeaux 1990!

1991 – 16 and not ready

Suppler on the palate than the 1991. Quite rich and well balanced with lots of depth and no obvious sweetness. Depth and still taut.

1992 – 16.5 and still maturing

Thick, velvety though not particularly aromatic. Very sumptuous though still with quite a rigid structure. (There was no 1993 as the quality was not reckoned high enough.)

1994 – 17 and maturing nicely

Very rich and opulent. Lovely beguiling scent with great, winning spiciness. Lovely palate texture. Very smooth and round if slightly light at the end. So rich it could be drunk now.

1995 – 16.5 and still evolving

Reined back on the nose as though there is much more to come. Great sweetness on the palate with unintegrated tannins. Slight dustiness on the finish.


1990 – 17.5 and still climbing

Excellent deep crimson. Great attention-grabbing lift on the nose. A massive, still very tannic wine but the nose is extremely alluring. Slightly drying finish.

1991 – 17 and still maturing

Massive cordite nose with a hint of prunes. Very chewy start but with obvious ambition, even if the whole is also marked by a drying finish.

1992 – 16 and still a bit more to come

Looks very slightly lighter than most. Smells of tea leaves. Big, dramatic wine with more than a little in common with a dry port. Lacks middle. Weak end.

1993 – 17 and gently maturing

Gorgeous, rich with more attractive cordite (fireworks) notes on the nose. Very full and supple start on the palate and then lowkey, rather cool finish.

1994 – 17 and still a long way to go

Thick and sweet with a remarkable amount of mass in this very ripe vintage. Rich and big but maybe a bit too harsh on the finish. This is a real blockbuster. Drink by the drop not the glass.


1991 – 18 but in gradual decline

Very rich and opulent. Almost too sweet but lovely in a ripe Pomerol style (the Rollan effect?). Lots of pleasure on the palate is followed by that slight hint of rusty nails that can also be found on mature Pomerol. Only about 1,000 cases made.

1992 – 18 and fully mature

Hint of dustiness on the nose but a very glossy, ripe, supple palate attack. Much more user-friendly style than Maya! Lots of alcohol but lots of pleasure.

1993 – 17 and fully mature

A little restrained (relative to other vintages!) on the nose. Definitely reined in a bit in terms of impact. Slightly drying finish.

1994 – 17+ and climbing

Very very deep crimson. Interesting, a distinctive vintage for this wine. Not as obviously ripe as some other vintages. Drier on the palate despite all the exotic flavours on the nose. Supple but very very dense. Could well make a better food wine than most Harlan vintages but there is still some development ahead. (In line with previous tastings.)

1995 – 17 and less development ahead than the 1994

Extraordinary ripeness. Not a wine to serve as any traditionalist's introduction to California cult wines! All chocolate-covered prunes. Good texture even though very sweet but worryingly hot, alcoholic finish. Presumably this is a true expression of the vintage though.


1990 – 19 and not there yet

Really appetising, layered, interesting mineral-scented nose. Massive dry (as in not sweet) structure with lots still to give. This Santa Cruz Mountains style contrasted markedly with the ultra-ripe Napa Valley ferments from further north.

1991 – 18 and at its peak

Relatively pale in colour and simple in flavour but still round, full and gentle with many appetising layers. Quite evolved.

1992 – 18 and still climbing

Very very deep colour, layered fruit. Ultra-ripe and very youthful. On the palate, big and tough and a bit of a bruiser. Massive palate impact. Dry (as opposed to sweet) but not drying in terms of its neat tannic charge.

1993 – 17.5 and extremely youthful

The least impressive of this array. Very dumb indeed with a nose of essence of tea and the palate completely dominated by tannins. There is even a hint of some slightly unripe fruit. This wine will need considerable ageing.

1994 – 18 and youthful

A much more restrained wine than the other 1994s. There is obviously lots of ripe fruit and ripe tannin here but both are well hidden and tucked in for future development. Quite stern in Ridge's typically confident, almost Latourish style.

1995 – 17.5 and climbing

This wine is so unevolved it is difficult to judge. Savoury but extremely deeply buried notes on top of obvious sweetness from ripe grapes. Tannins at present contributing to a note of dryness on the finish.


1992 – 19.5 and still improving

Very very deep colour, Lively, edgy nose. Round palate but with revitalising edge of acidity. Very slightly drying at the end but markedly long (the longest-lasting wine of the tasting) and elegant. Sweet and appetising (the bullseye) right through to the end.

1993 – 18 and climbing

Much less obvious bouquet than the 1993. Sweet and full and a great impact on the palate if less lively and subtle than the 1992. Sweet and almost overblown but with an attractive kick on the finish.

1994 – 19 and climbing

Again, that magic combo of life and sweetness. Richly explosive on the palate. Plumminess gives way to tea flavours and then a soft, neat lively finish. Bravo! Not overwhelmed by sheer mass.

1995 – 19 and climbing

Dusty nose precedes convincing layers of exciting flavour – although there is some of that dust on the palate too (and this ain't Rutherford, but way over on the Silverado Trail). Again, though, the fruit carries right through to the end of the palate, much more than say Dalla Valle and some of the Harlan vintages.


1990 – 17.5 and mature

Relatively pale with orange notes and a hint of rusty nails. Round and fruity on the palate. Sweet and harmonious. Very correct balance, very definitely Californian, very definitely pre-cult winemaking.

1992 – 17 and ready

Relatively simple and supple. Very obvious Cabernet on the nose (the first of these wines to express grape variety so obviously). Sweet and round. Gentle and well balanced. Correct with a nice little kick at the end.

1994 – 18 and climbing

Gentle wine with real lift. Very rich and full. The most concentrated of this flight with deep flavours and lots of both alcohol and tannin. Slightly drying finish but lots of layers.

1997 – 18.5 and much more to give

Very, very deep crimson. Gorgeous young essence of California Cabernet. Fantastic oaking. All there and set for a glorious future.