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WINE AND FOOD WEDNESDAY
05/17/2017
Dunn Cabernets of the 1990s—Still Great at 20 Years and More

By Charles Olken

In Alameda, across the Bay from San Francisco, the home of Connoisseurs’ Guide and the Rock Wall Winery among other attractions, is a very fine restaurant, Pappo, by name. The place is run by John Theil whose credentials includes stops at the Huntington in San Francisco and the Bay Wolf in Oakland. This guy can cook.

But he is also a bit of a wine nut, and an occasional member of our tasting panel. The other day, John decided it was time to put some of his older wines to the test and invited a group of friends and yours truly to his place to taste a run of Dunn Cabernets that should be nearing maturity. The vintages chosen ranged from 1994 to 1998, and there have been few such runs in which every year was so very different from that which preceded it. It promised to be an instructive tasting and it was.

It is now a long-proven fact to those who pay attention rather than shooting from the lip that California Cabernets do age well. There are vintages in which the local wines have aged far better than their Gallic counterparts and vintages in which the French has shown better and longer. But when it comes to the better California Cabs from good vintages, we have every right to expect them to hold up in bottle for twenty years and beyond.

Randy Dunn’s wines have long enjoyed a deserved reputation for ageworthiness so anything less than a fine performance was going to be a disappointment in any event. His wines are generally a little lower in alcohol than most of their fancy Napa counterparts, and Mr. Dunn has spared few words in arguing that high ripeness takes away rather than adds to the attractiveness of Cabernet Sauvignon. I disagree to that as the only way to go and can point to many very ripe wines that have aged remarkably well—among them, Staglin, Chappellet and Shafer Hillside.

Still, ripeness level is not what was at issue here but longevity, and in that regard, these wines were near perfect reflections of what their respective vintages had to offer. Each was fascinating in its own right, and more so, when examined in light of vintage expectations. If you, like me, have some of them in your cellar, you will find yourself reading on with pleasure, especially if you will now pull out those wines whose two decades has seen them reach attractive maturity.

1994 Howell Mountain--Totally Brilliant
Here is a wine now running past two decades and showing so well that it seems likely to hold up for another decade and maybe two. Its aromas are rich, deep, layered and oh-so inviting, and its texture is nothing short of textbook perfect for an older wine with potential to keep on going. The temptation to call it open and soft does arise at first, but then the back half of the wine speaks with firmness, more than enough grip and great length. Not only the wine of the night but among the wines of the year for few will be able to surpass its combination of energy, texture, range and out-and-out deliciousness. Every taster placed this wine first in preference order. Bravo, Mr. Dunn.

1995 Howell Mountain—Sturdy As She Goes
The 94s from Napa were filled with fruit. The 95s made their bones on their solidity, tightness and long potential. They have never been as voluptuous as the 94s but it would not have been surprising if they had lasted longer. Such will be the case here, but with a caveat or two. Here is a wine at twenty years old and counting and its muscles are still evident. One has to conclude that they will always be in frame and that the wine, no matter how much one likes it (I did but it was controversial because it was not open, accessible and inviting). John served a seared ribeye and a lamb T-bone with the wines, and it took the richness of the meat to bring out the best of this wine. So, while older Cabs often can go with richer foods that do not require brawn, this wine still wants a gnarly hunk of well-prepared beast. It should hold in bottle for another decade and could go on from there.

1996 Napa Valley—A Good Wine From An Average Vintage
Nobody has much good to say about 1996. Its wines, while not without worth, have not been valued highly. And this wine, the only bottling in the tasting that did not boast a Howell Mountain appellation, showed pretty much as expected. It had none of the highlights of a great wine yet also had lasted the two decades in remarkably good shape. While there seems little room for further growth here, that is no crime when one considers that starting point and that twenty years of good performance is not to be sneezed at. I often argue with those who diss California wines as unworthy of cellaring that our Cabs easily hold for two decades. Here is wine from a less than stellar vintage that has done just that. No one should be asking for more.

1997 Howell Mountain—Showing The Vintage Tendency to Ripeness
Even allowing that Mr. Dunn’s wines are made at lower alcohols than many others, they are still the children of the Napa Valley and cannot escape to a different place just because the grapes have been picked a bit lower on the ripeness scale. One can smell that ripeness here, and even though the flavors of the wine are not given over to high concentration, there is a drift to what seems to be slightly drier fruit and higher concentration here. Age has not overcome the wine and will not for some years hence, but it is not so much a “Dunn” wine as a Napa wine in this vintage. It can safely be held further, perhaps a decade, but it is not going to achieve the brilliance of the 1994.

1998 Howell Mountain—The Big Surprise (Or Not)
Not long after the grapes had come into the wineries and were finishing up their fermentations, this cool vintage was awarded a big “black eye” by some commentators. And it has worn that unfortunate adornment ever since. Truth be told, some others, CGCW included, argued that the vintage was not a failure so much as a lighter, earlier maturing one. California does not usually produce such vintages. Our wines are almost always ripe and either successful or not, but it is the rare year that produces lighter wines. Still, the big surprise here was the diametrically opposing views of the tasters on this night. Those who liked the soft, open, ready to drink now state of this wine ranked it near the top. Others, myself included, felt like its openness also reflected a shortfall in structure and lack of convincing continuity from front to back regardless of how well it had started out at the front of the palate.

The Bottom Line—All Good and What A Treat
When a wine like the 1998 lasts twenty years and is still delivering lots to like, then it is a sure sign that the genre can last as long as anyone has any right to expect. And when a wine like the 1994 reaches sublime heights and promises to keep on going, it makes the point again about the high ageworthiness of our best wines in good vintages.


 

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Comments

Agree on the 1994
by Noah
Posted on:5/18/2017 9:08:36 AM

Had it last year for a big birthday, and it outshone many classified Bordeaux (all about 10 years old, so not exactly the same aging curve … but still). Chapeau

94-98 Dunn Tasting
by Ted Bruce
Posted on:7/7/2017 11:53:36 AM

Great article!!! Enjoyed raeding about how older vintage Cabs, especially Dunn have held up over time. Unfortunately my cellar is small and has a capacity of only 150 bottles. 1994 was rge first year I purchased Dunn, both the Howell Mt and the Napa from my friend Mike Francoeur who used to own Dart Liqours in South Shore. Unfortunately like so many other Cabs, they have exceeded $100 and I can't afford them anymore.

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