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Wine Report: Robert Craig Winery in Napa Comes to Dallas

Yesterday, Andrew Chalk and I sat down with Elton Slone of Robert Craig Winery in Napa. I was particularly interested in tasting the much ballyhooed 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Affinity. Why? Because the wine which scored a 96 on Robert Parker’s scale is making its Dallas debut next Wednesday at the SideDish Supper Club at Sevy’s Grill. It will be poured with the fifth course (Crustacean vs. Cow). We have six seats remaining. Hurry, it is shaping up to be a fantastic dinner and presentation on sustainable seafood.

Anywhoo, Andrew Chalk files this report on our tasting along with witty and informative video interviews.

Elton Slone, General Manager of Robert Craig Winery, rolled through town this week and remarked how pleasant the balmy 70s weather was. With serious faces, we explained that it was pretty much like this everyday in Dallas, at least until November. We think he fell for it! However, while you can pull the wool over Elton’s eyes about Dallas weather, the same isn’t true when it comes to making wine. Elton and Robert Craig Winery have a very clear picture of what they are trying to do and where they want to go. And that is the pursuit of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines that compete with the best in the world. The path that they see to achieve this goal is to choose mountain vineyards, plant Cabernet Sauvignon and blending grapes (Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot) and then cultivate for very low yields so that the vines concentrate all their nutrients into comparatively few grapes. In this video, Elton explains the difference between mountain vineyards versus valley floor vineyards.

The harvested grapes are fermented and then aged in 100% French oak, most of which is new each year. The near total refreshment of the oak each vintage means that the wine possesses a new oak quality in the mouth feel and the bouquet. Total winery output is minuscule at 8,500 cases (you could fit them all inside just one of those mansions described on DallasDirt). We made a dent in the stockpile and tasted our way through his latest releases to see how the winery was doing.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Affinity, Napa Valley, CA.  This wine has a perfumy nose of black fruit, orange peel and hints of cedar. There is also a slightly plumy note, although it is not pronounced enough to be unpleasant. In the mouth, one’s first impression is how chewy, massive and ripe the wine is. The dark fruit present in the nose is evident in the taste as well. The tannins that contribute to the chewiness mean that this wine will be more elegant to drink several years out and will age at least a decade. ‘Affinity’ is Robert Craig’s Cabernet blend from the less renowned Napa region of Mt. George. It is 79% Cabernet Sauvignon with the rest a blend of the other four grapes mentioned above. 5700 cases were made. The world’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker, just rated this wine 96/100. In street parlance, that means it is a classic. In his top 1%. It retails nationally for about $50, which is itself a relative bargain.  However, separately from this tasting, I received an e-mail from Sigel’s today that shows their regular price to be $45.99 and, from Thursday the 22nd through May 15th, their sale has the wine at $39.99. I cannot find anywhere in the country to match this price and I think it is likely that they will sell out. Some people who will be able to drink it are the attendees at next Wednesday’s SideDish Supper Club, where it will be paired with beef tenderloin and Maine lobster.   [ED. note: Sigel’s Affinity has 07 1.5 liter bottles for $94.99. They are the only retailer in the country to get any of the magnums (only 4 cases)]

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley, CA. Some AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) are fake (the product of political lobbying). Mt. Veeder is not. The Cabernet Sauvignon wines really do have distinct characteristics of floral aromatics and open fruit flavors in the mouth. The nose of this wine had notes of blackberries and chocolate. In the mouth the fruit flavors are massive and the tannins soft and luxurious. A showy wine. The blend is 81% Cabernet Sauvignon and the retail price is about $69.99.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, CA. A classic Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. Closed in the nose. Chewy, oaky, tannic in the mouth. Massively fruity but leaving me with the impression that it was only yielding 1% of the fruit what it had. It will probably be the best wine of the bunch when it reaches full maturity in, say, 5000 years. Howell Mountain wines stand like the statues of a different era. Products of a time when one bought a Cabernet and cellared it for a decade before trying a bottle, only to discover it hadn’t even reached puberty. A decade later, it was glorious, or vinegar (the latter likely the result of a bad cork). As the national sales director of Robert Mondavi Winery told a conference I attended: “People expect to go to the store, buy their wine, drive home, and drink it. Except in Texas, where they expect to go to the store, buy their wine, drink it, and drive home”. Howell Mountain does not fit into either model. In this video Elton assures me that I am wrong, and that this wine will be good to drink next year.

This wine is 84% Cabernet Sauvignon and retails for about $69.99. We also tasted some of Robert Craig’s non Cabernet wines.

2007 Zinfandel, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, CA. The nose is black pepper and ripe red fruit. The taste is massive but soft and supple. Despite the mesmerizing alcohol level (15.9%) the finish was not hot and the wine was not overly sweet. $44.99

2008 Chardonnay, Durrell Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, CA. Nose of Chardonnay fruit and oak. In the mouth this wine has a superb fruit/acid balance. Would be fantastic with lobster or crawfish. This wine is not typical of California chardonnay in that it did not go through a ‘malolactic fermentation’ (conversion of the malic acid to lactic acid) so it does not have the reference buttery taste. It was also fermented 65% in stainless steel. Only the other 35% was fermented in oak barrels, thereby reducing the toasty flavor common in California chardonnay. Despite being produced by a purported cabernet specialist this was one of the best chardonnays that I have had recently. Maybe it is because Robert Craig was born in Texas (Dickinson, to be precise)? Robert Craig Winery and Kistler Vineyards are unique among wineries getting fruit from the famous Durrell vineyard in that they get theirs from “Block R1” which is reported to be the best. Price approx. $39.99.

One comment on “Wine Report: Robert Craig Winery in Napa Comes to Dallas

  1. This just in from jasper Russo at Sigel’s:

    From: Jasper Russo [mailto:jrusso@sigels.com]
    Sent: Thursday, April 22, 2010 1:21 PM
    To:
    Subject: RE: Robert Craig

    We started off with 50 cases of the Affinity and that should just about get us through the 15th of May. Some of our longtime Robert Craig customers have been waiting for it since the Wine Advocate issue came out and are buying it up 3 or 4 cases at a time, so I have more arriving in about 2 weeks just to be safe.

    Jasper