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Burgess Cellars comes out on top in challenging 2000 cabernet tasting


The 2000 cabernet sauvignons aged for a decade in the chilled cellars around Wine Country.

They hibernated through the surge of Twitter and its nanosecond communiqu?, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the election of Barack Obama as this country's first African-American president.

Twenty-four bottles were roused from their slumber and uncorked at The Press Democrat's recent 10-year retrospective tasting and there was plenty of suspense.

The 2000 vintage was a challenging one. Mother Nature threw what she could at the harvest as a cold, rainy October held up ripening. What would show up in the glass after 10 years of aging was anybody's guess.

The spotty vintage reeled out about a half a dozen very strong contenders, with the number-one pick being the Burgess Cellars, 2000 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Vintage Selection. (4.5 stars)

"What gave us the edge was our hillside vineyards," said Bill Sorenson, who has been making wine at Burgess Cellars in St. Helena since 1972. "At 800 to 1,000 feet, the vineyards are 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the valley floor and we had all our fruit picked by the end of September before the October rains."

The other top winners, each scoring 4 stars, are:

Second Place: Joseph Phelps Insignia, 2000 Red Table Wine, Napa Valley.

Third Place: Shafer, 2000 Hillside Select, Napa Valley Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon.

Fourth Place: Mosaic, 2000 Alexander Valley Meritage.

Fifth Place: Duckhorn Vineyards, 2000 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cabernet sauvignon is the best grape varietal to gauge how well a wine ages. The astringent tannins in the grapes' skins give the wine its flavor structure. Good structure that can maintain over time is crucial to aging gracefully.

While the top-tier wines showed their age well, about a third of the bottlings hovered between 2 stars (below average) and 3 stars (good), revealing the vintage's conundrum. These wines lacked the depth and complexity to earn a higher score.

Several top cabernet producers predicted a poor outcome, so they tasted their 2000 vintage ahead of time and ultimately decided to forgo the contest this year.

"They weren't happy with them," said Randy Dunn, vintner of Napa Valley's Dunn Vineyards. "Maybe they felt they weren't bold enough for modern-day critics."

Dunn decided not to submit his 2000 cabernet, but he said the weather wasn't a factor because his mountain fruit at 2000 feet ripened before the October rains.

"I tasted it (the 2000 cab), and I thought the nose was in a slump and the cab was in one of those lulls they go through," Dunn said.

Wine critic Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate gave the vintage a 78 rating out of 100 for the North Coast, while the Wine Spectator gave Napa an 85 rating and Sonoma, 81.

Many producers had to grapple with fog, but Burgess Cellars could sidestep it.

"We have natural frost protection," Sorenson said. "Since cold air is heavier than warm, the cold air flows down the hill, and the grapes ripen earlier above the fog line."

At their 10-year mark, Napa producers dominated the top-tier winners again this year, revealing a strong track record. For example, this year's second-place winner Joseph Phelps won first-place last year, and this year's third-place winner Shafer won first place in 2008.

The surprise? Mosaic, which hasn't traditionally scored in the top five, made the cut this year and came in fourth.

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 decades in the bottle.

A balanced wine is one in which no one particular flavor or characteristic is so strong that it dominates or overshadows others.

Sorenson said his goal is to make cabernet sauvignon that's approachable upon release but also improves in flavor over time by balancing the alcohol, acid and tannins.

"With hillside vineyards, you get natural tannins in the grapes, with less juice to the skin, so they're already concentrated," he said.

"The trick is to try not to be too tannic."

Sorenson, now 70, said he's made peace with the antics of Mother Nature.

"It's part of a farmer's life," he said with a laugh. "You just get used to the idea that you don't always have control."

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