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The 2003 cabernet sauvignon lived through some significant history, from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to the rise of Lady Gaga and the inauguration of the first African-American president.

And yet it seems time stood still inside these youthful wines. They tasted of vibrant, fresh fruit when uncorked for our recent Press Democrat 10-year cabernet sauvignon retrospective tasting.

But Mother Nature made some mischief in the vineyards in 2003, and despite the wines' vigor, some developed less depth and complexity as they aged than in past vintages.

Here's a glimpse of the top winners:

First Place, a tie:

Sbragia Family Vineyards, 2003 Monte Rosso Vineyard Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.4 percent alcohol

Shafer 2003 Napa Valley Stag's Leap District Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.9 percent.

2nd place:

Burgess, 2003 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 13.9 percent.

3rd place:

A. Rafanelli Dry Creek Valley Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.5 percent.

4th place:

Duckhorn Vineyards, 2003 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.5 percent.

5th place:

Joseph Phelp's Insignia 2003 Napa Valley Red Wine, 14.4 percent.

The 2003 vintage, as one winemaker put it, brought bookended challenges, with heavy rains in April and a series of heat spikes in September.

When the 2003s were released, wine critic Robert Parker Jr. of the Wine Advocate wrote that the challenging growing year "gave headaches to winemakers and viticulturists ... While 2003 can be irregular, at the top end, the vintage has turned out to be very good with relatively chunky, full-bodied, powerful wines. When chosen carefully, the 2003s will offer consumers many rewards."

California cabernets (and Bordeaux red blends) with good balance and solid structure on release are expected to show well at their 10-year mark, emulating the great wines of Bordeaux that can last for decades in the bottle.

How did the first-place winners show at their 10-year mark and outsmart Mother Nature's antics?

Ed Sbragia, president and founder of Geyserville's Sbragia Family Vineyards, said the key was to wait for physiological maturity.

"When it's cool the grapes ripen slowly but then when it gets really hot, the sugars can go up but the fruit is not ripe yet," he said. "If people just picked by the numbers they may not have had all the fruit flavors and tannins in balance, in harmony."

Sbragia said that year was only his second time making wine from the Monte Rosso vineyard.

"I just lucked out I guess," he said.

Of course Sbragia is something of a wine sage. He was the lead winemaker at St. Helena's Beringer Vineyards for nearly four decades and continues to be Beringer's winemaster emeritus.

The trick, he said, is paying meticulous attention to the grapes.

"I look for the color of the skins, the maturity of the fruit and the maturity of the seeds," said Sbragia, who only picks when these aspects line up.

Sbragia said people often ask if he changes the way he makes wine and he replies, "No, we change the way we grow grapes."

He said the old "California sprawl" style of growing has been replaced by vertical trellising so fruit ripens optimally to maturity.

That said, winemakers still have to be on grape "maturity" watch, and all the while they still have to stare down Mother Nature.

"You have to weigh the waiting against (the risk of) getting rained on," Sbragia said. "My dad always told me, 'You think those guys in Reno or Las Vegas bet? We farmers put it on the red or the black every year.'"

At Shafer, winemaker Elias Fernandez tries to gamble less by cutting unfit fruit from the vines.

"We always start with the goal of wanting to ensure that all the fruit arriving at the crush pad is uniformly ripe," he said. "Working backward from there, we do everything we can to ensure that outcome."

Shafer has had a good showing in the cabernet retrospective, ranking in the top five since 1998.

He said in 2003 that meant putting a lot of extra work into the vineyard, going vine by vine cutting away whole clusters, partial clusters or snipping off individual berries so that on the day of harvest, every cluster and every berry was ideally ripe.

Fernandez said at Shafer, they're willing to drop fruit and sacrifice profits to ensure quality.

"The wines I'm most proud of in my career," Fernandez said "are vintages like '98 and '03 when we had to struggle and come together as a team to make a wine that we believe is as good as it can be."

Staff writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or peg.melnik@ pressdemocrat.com

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