There are not many times that I am invited to taste some of the icon wines of California, so when a selection of 2005 vintages from Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate and Scarecrow were lined up against Vérité from Jackson Family Wines in one of London’s classiest hotels, I was there with taste buds primed and notebook ready.
To be honest, icon or cult wines are generally out of my price bracket but for those with weighty wallets and a social circle that is impressed by obtaining the almost unobtainable at an eye-watering price, these are the ones to aim for. They are made to perfectionist standards. Marketing comes into it too. If you tell wealthy wine lovers that there are just 1,000 bottles of a particular wine in the whole world then you can be sure that they will all clamour to taste it.
Surprisingly it doesn’t take several generations to create an icon. What it does take is attention to detail in terms of site selection and viticulture as well as a certain financial backing.
Barbara Banke is now in charge of Jackson Family Wines. It was her husband Jess Jackson who founded the company Kendall-Jackson in 1974 by buying an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport, California. He replanted it with vines and within a few years he was winning awards for his wines.
Jackson Family Wines is now the largest owner of coastal vineyards in California and Oregon. But since Jess’s death in 2011, it is Barbara, who is now driving JFW forward. She used to be a lawyer but realised that while she was battling for her clients in court her husband was “out having fun and going on trips”.
The trips came in handy because over the years Jess and Barbara acquired various vineyard properties around the world. Along the way they met Pierre Seillan, who originates from Gascony but who now makes wine in several Jackson properties across two continents. Rather than “winemaker”, he describes himself as a “vigneron and a servant of the soil” and it is perhaps that attitude that has brought Vérité to its current cult status.
“Jess asked Pierre whether it would be possible to make a Californian Merlot as good as Pétrus and the answer was – why not?” said Barbara.
Now there are three styles of Vérité, made from grapes grown on the mountain soils of Sonoma – the heavy clay of Alexander Valley; the cool basalt and schist slopes of Bennett Valley; the gravel of Knights Valley and the chalky soils of Chalk Hill.
We tasted first the 2012 vintage of those three wines; Vérité la Muse is mainly Merlot with splashes of Cabernet Franc and Malbec. This was rich with mulberry fruit, opulent but still very young in style with tannins that wrapped around the palate. Vérité La Joie, a classic Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, was structured, grippy and layered with cassis and spice. Vérité le Désir, mainly Cabernet Franc with Merlot adding its rounded tones and Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec in supporting roles, was packed with red fruits, with spice, earthy tones and silky tannins.
All of these wines were still far too young. They need at least another five years to unfold and show their complexity.
Next it was the turn of the icons, all 2005 vintage.
2005 Vérité la Joie, Sonoma, California (around £300 a bottle). Deep cassis aromas with notes of cedar and the palate clearly showing a European style, with a seam of freshness balancing the black and red fruits, a touch of coffee and a long finish.
2005 Harlan Estate, Napa, California (around £500 a bottle). Concentrated, chewy black fruits with silky, smooth tannins; powerful, elegant and long, this seems to be ready right now.
2005 Scarecrow Napa, California (around £750 a bottle). Huge on the nose, with oak and warm floral notes blending with powerful aromatic black fruits. Evolved, high toned and rich with flavour.
2005 Screaming Eagle, Napa, California (around £2,500 a bottle). A fabulous wine that opened and enveloped the senses, with powerful, black cherry, blackcurrant and coffee bean notes.
Apart from delighting my palate, what this tasting really showed is that Napa doesn’t have a monopoly on top wines from California. There is a considerable variation in style amongst these powerful and expensive names.
The overall question for any wines at these elevated prices is “are they worth the money?” The answer just has to be the same for top couture, cars and watches – if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.
None of these wines is available locally, yet. Try Hedonism in London or check wine-searcher.com.