Blind tasting is the great equalizer. When you taste wines blind, you learn what you actually think of a wine, as opposed to what you expect to think. With this in mind, I assembled a set of eight wines to taste blind with one of my regular tasting groups. Having tasted some of the wines previously, I was going in with a bit of a stacked deck. I included wines that spanned a rather broad price spectrum, from $30 to $125 knowing, or hoping at least, that some of the less-expensive wines would perform quite well in this setting. Little did I know just how well they would.

Wine Tasting image via ShutterstockBefore we get into the wine, a little background on the vintage. 2009 has been described as both challenging and very successful. The first of a series of cool vintages, producers in 2009 were faced with late season rains that caused quite a bit of consternation, coming as they did right before harvest of late-ripping varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. The party line in the growing regions north of San Francisco was that those who harvested before the rains avoided the dilution and rot that followed. On the flip side are winemakers who harvested after the rains, claiming that the wines harvested before the rains suffered from a lack of physiological ripeness, manifesting as green tannins and herbaceousness. The truth lies somewhere in the middle of course, and the success of the Cabernet in 2009 depended heavily on both the winemaker and the viticulturist.

To be sure, the cooler temperatures did produce a crop of wines that lack the power, depth and lush personalities that Napa in particular has become famous for, but one has to ask if that, in and of itself, is necessarily a bad thing. Wines with less weight, higher natural acids, and tannins that you can feel without having to imagine them are, after all, traits of wines grown around the globe, and in Napa and Sonoma prior to 2007, to varying extents. While this set of wines didn't particularly wow me, I would say that they broke down roughly into three groups: wines I would be happy to buy, wines that I would be curious to try again, and wines that were simply not my style, though I would try them again.

That last group was, for me, the most troubling of this tasting. They were wines that felt forced, as if the winemakers felt they needed to produce the powerful wines the region is known for regardless of the quality of the fruit they were able to harvest. I'm sure they felt that they did the best they could, and have a certain obligation to their customers to deliver the house style each year, but one has to question whether that is the best strategy. These wines were in a house style, of sorts. Their structure and weight was consistent with previous efforts, but the flavor profiles were not, lacking depth and the explosive fruit that many consumers might expect. Might it not be better to focus instead on educating the consumer a bit? Getting them to know and understand what vintage variation is all about?

That, to a certain extent, is my job, and I'll do what I can when I can. This tasting was in part an effort to educate a small group of wine lovers, not so much about vintage variation, with which they are well-versed, but rather more with house styles. This group is a bit of a Euro-centric group, and as such it's not surprising that the wines that typically show more restraint, and thus needed to make up less ground in this restrained vintage, came out on top. It's also not surprising that these wines tended to be the less expensive wines of the group. I hear the responses coming my way already, that these wines need some age to show their best, and we were judging these wines on how they were showing today, not their potential.

Guilty as charged, to a degree, but that is the way people drink wine. They buy it and drink it within a few hours or days. The percentage of people who cellar wine is minuscule, and in all honesty, even when trying to divine the future of these wines, a troublesome and imprecise art, our consensus was that with two exceptions, there simply doesn't seem to be much upside here. The winners were the best wines, they will age well over the short to medium term, say three to six years, and they taste better than the losers. That's the story. That's all there is to say here before revealing the wines. My advice to you if you want to try some 2009 North Coast Cabernet? Read these notes carefully, but don't ignore the facts of the group's rankings, a cadre of sophisticated drinkers, or the correlation with my notes. Doing so risks disappointment and frankly, paying too much for a bottle of less-than-satisfying wine.

These bottles were uncorked at noon, decanted at 6pm, and tasted from 7:30 through 10:00pm




2009 Midsummer Cellars Canon Creek Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 14.1% $45

My 8th place wine - The group's 8th place wine

This starts out with hints of savoriness, olives, spice and floral notes over a base of sweet fruit, but with time the aromatics turn matte with a dominant vanilla fragrance filling the glass. Starting out rather light and dilute on the palate, this fills in nicely with clear, slightly earthy dark fruit but as with the nose, the heavy oak load takes over with air, adding bitterness to the finish and obscuring the fruit. This seems to have some potential to age well, but for early drinking it's just too oaky tonight. 80pts


2009 Rodney Strong Alexander's Crown Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 15.5% $55

My 7th place wine - The groups 7th place wine

Opening with nice leather and spice aromas this quickly becomes dominated by lots of spicy, nutty oak on the nose. Dark, full and slightly dense on the palate, there's a lot of dark chocolate wrapped around dark fruit here with a spicy, almost peppery finish. This feels and tastes extracted, a bit of a black hole of a wine with a powerful if hot finish. 85pts


2009 Robert Mondavi Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 15% $90

My 6th place wine - the group's 4th place wine (tie)

Fine and focused on the nose with a simple expression of sweet blackberry fruit framed by hints of grilled meat and mint. A little sweet on entry, though nicely red-fruited, this turns a bit hollow on the mid-palate with lots of fruit tannins adding richness to the texture. It seems to lack a little intensity of flavor, but feels friendly enough in the mouth. 86pts


2009 Caymus Vineyards Special Select Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 14.9% $125

My 5th place wine - The groups' 4th place wine (tie)

Sweet and gingery on the nose with a classic modern Napa Cabernet profile that shows plenty of candied black cherry fruit and lots of coffee-toned oak. Smells a bit spoofy. Smooth, polished and extracted in the mouth with lots of black fruit framed by notes of chocolate, licorice, and toast. Fine grained tannins nicely match the density of fruit here, and in its style it's quite good if quite hot, particularly on the finish. 88pts


2009 Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 14.5% $30

My 4th place wine - The groups 6th place wine

Dusty and a bit sweet on the nose but showing nicely layered green olive, licorice, cedar and black cherry fruit with a hint of dried herbs. A bit diffuse on the palate, but showing a nice balance of integrated acidity and soft tannins that supports the light and lean core of red cherry fruit. This is a touch on the simple side but is drinking well with an attractive mouthfeel. 88pts


2009 Stuhlmuller Vineyards Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 14.2% $30

My 3rd place wine - The groups 1st place wine

This opens with a nose of used wood, wild herbs, red cherry fruit and nuanced mineral and leather notes. It opens slowly with air but shows a very attractive bouquet already. Velvety on entry with a modest and attractive richness that is supported by fine grained fruit tannins. This has lovely grip in the mouth with soft, polished red currant and cherry fruit nicely framed by a hint of green herbs and some mineral earth. A very appealing wine tonight, and the wine I built this tasting around, but I scored it a bit lower than the next two wines only because it is a bit atypical for a North Coast Cabernet. It's still a fantastic value and a wine I highly recommend. 91pts


2009 Chappellet Signature Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 14.9% $50

My 2nd place wine - The groups 1st place wine (tie)

Dense and oaky at first with buttery notes and a deep whiff of coconut which integrates with air, allowing the pure core of simple yet intense black cherry and mineral fruit to emerge with time. Starting off a bit hollow, this fills in in the glass, showing freshly crushed black currant and black cherry fruit supported by earthy and medicinal flavors. The wood is present but well-judged and lessing in impact over the course of the evening. Not the best wine tonight but the wine with the best potential for improvement in the cellar. Give this three to five years and it should show quite well. 91pts


2009 Frank Family Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 14.5% $30

My 1st place wine - The groups 1st place wine (tie)

At first dark and earthy in the nose, this quickly shows attractive black currant and weedy aromas that gain a modest sheen of oak spice along with hints of candied blackberry and wild berry fruits. Fruity on entry with a rather natural, unfettered feel, this reveals a fine core of bright and juicy black currant fruit supported by fine tannins that allow the almost delicate fruit to shine clear as a bell. With air this does turn a touch soft, and there is a hint of pruny-ness on the moderately long finish, but the texture and purity of this wine is very attractive.  91pts