Cult California
A tasting of ten Californian cult wines

Cult California, Roberson, March 1st 2012

What an interesting tasting. 10 wines, all from California, all in the ‘cult’ category, and with price tags ranging from £102 to £485 a bottle.

Mark Andrew, or Roberson, who hosted the tasting began the evening by trying to put a loose definition on ‘cult’. They are wines that are limited in production (fewer than 2000 cases), which are sold on strict allocation (by mailing lists, usually, which you have to queue to get on), and which are expensive, and which have investment potential if you buy them early (there is a secondary market for these wines.) Oh, and one final thing: they need stellar critic scores. Robert Parker matters most here, but the Wine Spectator also has influence. ‘I’m not in any way a Parkerite,’ says Andrew, who doesn’t care for scores. ‘I would love a world where customers weren’t bothered about points.’ But they are, particularly in the USA.

I must point out that I came to this tasting with an open mind. None of these wines were set up to fail, and some I liked a great deal. Leave aside the prices for a moment (I don’t consider value for money in my scoring), and most of these wines did really well. But factor in the prices and the level of critical acclaim that they get in the USA, and there’s a surprising discrepancy.

You have to choose which critics you want to listen to. We all have rather different perspectives on wine. In the end, reader’s need to decide whether or not a critic’s particular perspective is useful for them, for some or even all wine regions.





Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill 2002 Napa, California
Refined blackcurrant fruit nose is smooth and restrained with some gravelly minerality. Lovely restraint on the palate: this is rich and ripe, but not at all overblown, and still fresh and youthful. Good structure and attractive minerality. 95/100 (£145)


Arietta Hudson ‘H Block’ 2000 Napa, California
Sweet inviting aromatics. Refined sweet berry fruits with some herbs and a hint of earth. Harmonious. The palate is sweet and smooth with finely grained tannins, nice cherry and berry fruits, and subtle warm spiciness. Evolving very nicely with real complexity and balance. 95/100 (£120)


Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 Napa, California
Rich, ripe, sweet berry fruits nose shows nice purity with some cedary, savoury notes. Very fine. The palate is ripe and smooth with good freshness and nice acidity. Stylish wine showing restraint. 94/100 (£102)



Kongsgaard Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Napa, California
Just 350 cases made. There’s a slight disconnect here between the sweet lush blackberry fruit, which seems very ripe and liqueur-like, and the high acidity. But after a while it begins to show a natural-wine-like purity of fruit, with some elegance. Definitely the outlier in this group, but some interest here. 93/100 (£130)



Rudd Estate Oakville 2003 Napa, California
I may have been a bit generous here, but I think it’s a well made wine in its style, which is ripe and modern. Sweet ripe blackberry and cherry fruit nose with some purity and lushness. Ripe palate shows nice density of ripe primary fruit with some spicy warmth from the oak. Creamy, ripe texture, with some grip on the finish. 93/100 (£110)



Joseph Phelps Backus 2004 Napa, California
Lots and lots of oak influence here. But it’s not a bad wine. Ripe, sweet, smooth and quite lush with blackberry fruit, a very sweet personality, and a liqueur-like richness. Smooth, textured and sweet, but showing some elegance. 92/100 (£195)



Harlan Estate 1999 Napa, California
Sweet aromatic black fruits nose with some liqueur-like ripeness. The palate is sweet and ripe with plum and blackberry fruit, but it is quite warm and alcoholic, and while it’s a nice drink it is lacking real complexity. 90/100 (£470)



L’Aventure Côte à Côte 2007 Paso Robles, California
40% Mourvedre, 40% Grenache, 20% Syrah. Smooth, ripe, lush pure sweet cherry and berry fruit nose is liqueur-like and sweet. Very ripe and smooth but with a disconnect between the ripe lush fruit and the grippy tannins. A bit overripe. 89/100 (£115)


Bond Pluribus 2005 Napa, California
Deep coloured. Bold nose showing herbs, mint, earth and spice alongside meaty ripe black fruits. Concentrated, rich and powerfully structured palate showing ripe blackberry fruit, oak and grippy tannins. Some warmth here: alcohol? A bit stewed: too much ripeness, despite the massive concentration. 89/100 (£225)



Sine Qua Non ‘A Shot in the Dark’ Syrah 2006
Incredibly ripe and sweet aromatics. Distinct roast coffee notes allied to the sweet liqueur-like black fruits reminds me of coffee Pinotage. The palate is super-sweet and rich, showing over-ripe lush black fruits as well as spice and tar. Very smooth and overdone, this is actually quite unpleasant to my palate, although I have to try to be objective in scoring it. 86/100 (£485)


See also: tasting icon wines at The Sampler  

Wines tasted 03/12  
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