NOTE: all these wines served alone, or with light snacks, *not* with dinner . . . .
1997 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Table Wine, Napa Valley AVA, California: one of the most famous years for Insignia since its inception, and deservedly so. A blend of 83 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 14 percent Merlot, and three percent Petit Verdot, this wine looks every bit of its 15 years of age -- no longer a vivid ruby color, it is garnet but showing definite brick at its rim; the bouquet has lost some of its ripe fruit, gaining more secondary and tertiary aromatics, with earth, spice, saddle leather, some tamari, and sun-dried bed linen (bottle bouquet); on the palate, the wine is smooth, silky, and flavorful, but a bit drying in the finish. This would have shown better, I think, with a meal, but I also do not believe this will be getting any better with added age.
1999 Viader Red Table Wine, Napa Valley AVA, California: a blend of 61 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 39 percent Merlot, this wine is a dense, deep ruby garnet, clear and clean, filled with plummy fruits, blackberries, cola, vanilla, moderate oak, and a touch of cocoa; on the palate, the wine is velvety-smooth, with fine tannins and good acidity; the flavors are lush, developed, with generous fruit, cocoa, and more, all of which linger through the exceptionally long finish. Stunning wine.
1996 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Estate, Napa Valley AVA, California: more classic, Old World in style and structure, but with a California edge, this is not as dense and opulent as many a "modern" California Cab, more reminiscent of Bordeaux in its weight and style, with a more terroir-driven character to it; showing good fruit, spice, smoke, cedar, and cigar box in the bouquet, all this and more fill the mouth, but while retaining a subtlety and finesse that one doesn't often find in "high-end" Calif. Cabs. This, too, is stunning, but very different than the Viader.
2004 Lewis Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Napa Valley AVA, California: a blend of 92 percent Cabernet and 8 percent Cabernet Franc, this is a deep, intensely colored ruby red, still youthfully purple at the rim; opulent and fleshy in both the nose and mouth, there is densely packed sweet plums, black currants, sweet cream, vanilla, cocoa, oak, and spice that fill the heady aroma and velvety mouth; this wine walks a very fine line between being "oaky" and "too oaky" but never crosses it; all of the wine's richness and depth carry through the long finish. In a sense, this wine might perfectly capture my love/hate relationship with many California Cabernets in the "modern" style. This was truly a very enjoyable, delicious wine -- one that I had no trouble re-filling my glass with for more -- but it really showed well on its own, and I cannot picture having it with a steak, roast or . . . well, dinner. It's a steamroller, not a plow (OK, well, that made sense to me -- how about "it's a cleaver not a chef's knife"?)
1997 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley AVA, California: This has always been a rather odd winery for me; many old-timers may remember all of the "dill pickle" comments that dogged this winery in the 1970s, or the fact that it often seemed as though their best wine was their least expensive (Alexander Valley), followed by their middle one (Napa Valley), and their now-discontinued single vineyard wine (Bonnie's Vineyard) was gawd-awful! As such, I've avoided their wines pretty much ever since the 1980s, tasting them with friends when they open them, but never really seeking them out for myself. Well this '97 Napa is quite simply the best Cabernet I've ever had from Silver Oak. Period. A blend of 93 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, five percent Cabernet Franc, two percent Petite Verdot, this wine has wonderful depth and intensity, still deep garnet, clear and clean; the bouquet is opulent without being heavy or too forward, with black fruits, cedar, earth, and spice in the nose; on the palate, the wine is generous, round and full without being so dense and packed as to overwhelm; good fruit and spice, soft tannins, with a firm core underneath, the finish is long and lingering. I am impressed . . . and those fans of SO may now say "I told you so."