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California Cabernet Snapshots

Revisiting the 2002 California Cabernets reminds us that tasting a wine, young or old, creates a unique moment that can't be replicated
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Apr 24, 2012 3:50pm ET

I'm finishing a retrospective tasting of 2002 California Cabernets this week, most of them from Napa Valley. Revisiting wines you tasted seven or eight years ago is an opportunity to evaluate how the wines are aging and recalibrate drink recommendations.

It can also be a minefield of second guesses. There is one thing, however, that becomes obvious to those of us who routinely revisit wines we rated years ago: You can't replicate the moment.

The moment you taste a wine has everything to do with your perception, especially if your assessment is at a winery or dinner party with friends. Even in our blind tastings, always conducted in the same setting, we still can't go back to the same moment in which a wine was first assessed.

What you're left with is the wine in front of you. It's great when the 95-pointer tasted years ago is still at the same level of quality. It's troubling if a high-end 10-year-old Cabernet tastes tired; that shouldn't be the case. Each bottle is on its own evolutionary journey.

People assess wines differently in different settings, or different moments, if you will. Ever heard someone say, "It tasted better at the winery"? Or, "I've had better bottles"? My favorite: "I wonder what on earth [critic's name here] was thinking when he reviewed this?"

It's important to keep an open mind when revisiting wines as they age—past experiences influence these new moments—and that's another reason that these retrospective Cabernet tastings are conducted blind. I also taste most of the wines twice just as a measure of bottle consistency.

The 2002 California Cabernets have been by and large just as impressive as the 2001s I revisited last year. A few are stunning and look to be wines with another 20 years ahead of them. Most are drinking very well now and can age another 10 years. A few have slipped or are fading. Either way, there's no substitute for reexamining one's research, even if the results aren't what you expected or may raise eyebrows.

People who are used to big, ripe, fruity young Napa Cabernets may be disappointed with the way some older Cabernets show, but that's part of the beauty of these snapshots of a wine at age 10. They create yet another moment—one we won't be able to replicate another 10 years from now—that helps us determine just how long a life these wines will have.

And they remind us that wine really isn't so much a living thing as a dying thing.

Brian Peters
Broomfield, CO —  April 24, 2012 9:06pm ET

Nice blog...we recently had a bottle of 2002 Staglin and it was drinking beautifully.

John Wilen
Texas —  April 25, 2012 11:21am ET
Wine reviews and ratings are like tattoos. Once revealed, they exist in cyberspace, print media, auction catalogs and on wine store shelf talkers forever, unchanged. And yet wines die. That's why the 10 year CA cabernet retrospectives that JL does are so interesting. Time and time again, they confirm my own findings. Drink 'em early! By the time the retro gets published, I want to make sure I have NONE of that vintage left in the cellar.
Peter Vangsness
Springfield, MA —  April 25, 2012 11:37am ET

I have always found that a well made CA cab (or blend) is at its best at the ten year point.

Just had an '02 Ramey Claret last weekend - fabulous!!
Gregory Smith
Lima, Peru —  April 25, 2012 3:39pm ET
I led a consumer tasting last week of Juslyn Vineyards. The 2002 Vintage Select showed beautifully, evolving but still showing youthful fruit. Still has a long life ahead of it.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  April 25, 2012 5:32pm ET
Brian, Staglin was stunning. Ramey Claret hanging in nicely too.
Brian Blades
Valencia —  April 25, 2012 6:11pm ET
I have to say that the 2002's are drinking beautifully. The 02' Insignia is still the rock star that it was when rated, and should probably be pointed higher.
Ron Lippitt
Warwick, RI —  April 25, 2012 6:23pm ET
I am really looking forward to reading this retrospective. I appreciate an aged cabernet and I, too
have found many pleasurable ones at ten years of age.
Some of the ones that I have had recently that were quite good were the Rudd, Plumpjack and Flora Springs Reserve. Still have 2 bottles of the Staglin left-glad to hear it is ageing well.
Rick Penner
Langley, B.C. Canada —  April 26, 2012 2:59am ET
Ron - Was the Plumpjack you had the estate cab? I have one bottle of the estate 02 and one of the 02 Staglin left. I had my other 02 Staglin 2 weeks ago and was blown away - so good!
Tim Mc Donald
Napa,CA —  April 26, 2012 3:17pm ET
Perfectly stated and a snapshot of time and quality is a great place to start. I real appreciate the retrospective tastings because it supports what you thought in first place, should I buy a few bottles and see how the wine develops? Ramey, Staglin, Insignia, etc. solid then upon release and now...glad to have acquired a couple bottles to try before the living changes to dying. Cheers and thanks for doing those retrospectives for the readers and collectors!
Ron Lippitt
Warwick, RI —  April 26, 2012 5:46pm ET
Rick, I had the regular plumpjack estate cab from McWilliams vinyard not the reserve.
Ted A Hunt
Fort Lauderdale, Fl —  April 27, 2012 8:44am ET
James - can you let us know when you might publish the 2002 retro report? I'm holding a few until then. Thanks.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  April 30, 2012 10:42pm ET
James, did you retaste the 2002 Gemstone? Is it holding up?

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