2014 Caymus Cabernet Blind Tasting

One of my favorite wine shops caught my attention with a special promotion–centered around the 2014 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a simple concept, one Winestore has run annually since 2010. The 2014 Caymus carries a sizable price tag, but is it justified? Does it outperform $25 competitors on reputation or actual taste?

Winestore lined up eight bottles, identical in size and shape, each masked with aluminum foil and numbered with a simple Sharpie. I was a rookie in that I’d never done a blind taste test, and never tried Caymus. Could I really pick it out against other worthy wines?

Masked bottles at Winestore, endeavoring us all to hunt for Caymus.

Masked bottles at Winestore, endeavoring all comers to hunt for the 2014 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon.


I was interested to sample this highly regarded Wagner release, and interested to see if my modest tasting experiences over the past years would be of any value in differentiating it from the competition. I paid my fee and started with #8–you know why. Its color seemed slightly lighter than a typical Cabernet, and its easy finish I considered more Pinot- or Zin-like. Not too much in the way of earth tones or spices, and I considered it lower in price almost immediately. I jotted down tasting notes, swirled, and dialed up my next wine.

Number 7 was a shadow of #8. Almost immediately I was thinking neither of these was the Caymus, in part because neither was “blow you away” impressive and in part because there was less differentiation between them. That said, #7 carried a hint of smoke and slightly more raspberry than cherry or blackberry. All of this went onto my tasting sheet, and I started eyeing bottle #6.

Six was big flavor, an explosion of fruit. It was the right color. This wine’s big, jammy feel reminded me right away of the Petite Petit from Michael David that I love so much. Pretty cool, too, since it was Winestore that first opened my eyes to the Petite about two years ago. This is juice, this is big cherry, and the blackberry I thought missing from the previous samples.

The #5 wine was also a big contrast, very different from all three that came before it. The fifth was as dry as #6 was juicy. I’m not thinking Cabernet tannins here, and I’m catching a feel that is more Roija and Mediterranean than Californian. My notes say “Spanish? Grenache?” Was I right about that? We’ll get to that in a moment. Onward, true readers…

…to bottle #4. This one too was an easy disqualification. Very much not California, very much not a Cabernet. So not Caymus, but pretty damn good. I’m thinking Spanish Rioja here again. This sort of made another pairing. So far I’ve got #7 and #8 in proximity to one other, and #4 and #5 as semblances too.

By the time I hit #3 the wheels are turning, but I’m thrown out of the zone when the dispenser sputters and runs sort of empty as I fill my tasting glass. I sip, I swirl, I mull this one over. It’s got the right color, and my brain says “#3 always does right by you“. Wine #3 throws off the earthy notes that clearly signify Cabernet, and perhaps California at that. This smells special and tastes that way too. Is this my goal or just a windmill? I wonder how much of my game has been thrown by the sputtering dispenser.

There are fun people in the store, a few tackling this same Caymus challenge, and a couple others just enjoying time and each other’s company as they sample vino. I cracker up, I rinse my glass, and I make my way to #2.

It’s pretty damn good–is this the 2014 Caymus? It pours with the right color, has the right legs in the glass. I whiff and sip. I’ve never seen someone do the slurpy thing in real life, and I’ll be honest in telling you I swallowed every drop that I tasted today. This one in particular, because it is fine. Real fine! It is big fruit, it is layered, and it has a Cab-like finish.

Only #1 remains, and I hit it. It’s okay but doesn’t measure up to the last two bottles I’ve sampled. There’s a hint of something in this wine that I can’t quite place. It’s not vanilla, and it is not spice, leather, or licorice. Even now I’m not sure what it was, but it was closest to the licorice. Beautiful red color in bottle #1 yet no California Cabernet. (Look, if you read this column with any regularity, you know that an overwhelming percentage of all wine in Notes is Californian, so most times I know it when I taste it. This isn’t it.)

Making the Call

I think I’ve got my pick, and I’m wondering about the psychology of the order as I make my way over the employees managing the testing. Did they assign bottles to position at random? What does recency bias do to your taste buds? Do professional tasters wrestle over questions like this, and would they scoff at anyone who would confuse Caymus for these other wines? What’s the price of these other wines, which I have ordered by quality in my own brain in a way that’s independent from label, reputation, or cost?

2014 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, USA. AKA #6!

2014 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, USA. AKA #6!

Moment of confession–at this last minute, I hedge my bet. I ask the employee if the Petite Petit is among the samples. When he says no, I know right then and there that Caymus is Bottle #6 and I make my prediction. Yes, I get it right, but I still half-kick myself for not having the confidence to say so without wanting to first disqualify the David. The 2014 Caymus Cabernet is reminiscent of both Conundrum (which I have had on several prior occasions) and, obviously, the Petite Petit.

So what did I learn? Looking back, I recognize my palate has begun to tell me things about red wines and, to a growing extent, to differentiate between rich, nuanced reds and others that lack the subtleties that come in higher-regarded (and pricier) releases. I get the sense that I can discern California Cab from other varietals. And I also learn that I can find 90 to 95 percent of Caymus’ amazing taste in the Conundrum and Petite Petit bottles that cost 50 to 60 percent less. Fun occasion–thanks to the Winestore team for the compelling promotion.

The Wines

#8 was the 2014 Snowvale Cabernet ($12.99)

#7 was the 2011 Americano Petite Sirah ($14.99)

#6 was the 2014 Caymus Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($64.99)

#5 was the 2014 Waccamaw Proprietary Red ($14.99)

#4 was the 2013 Las Flors de le Peira ($34.99)

#3 was the 2014 Willowlake Napa Cabernet ($59.99)

#2 was the 2013 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz ($34.99)

#1 was the 2011 Marge Priorate ($19.99)

2012 Napa Merlot, Beaulieu Vineyard

Ushering in a festive family weekend is this 2012 Beaulieu Vineyard Napa Merlot, a gentle red from one of California’s best-known wine makers. It had an opportunity to breathe and ultimately came out for the cocktail hour and hors de oeuvres on the back patio. The sun’s out, the company is good, and the food is here too–game on.

2012 Merlot Beaulieu Vineyard Coastal Estates, California, USA.

2012 Merlot Beaulieu Vineyard Coastal Estates, Napa Valley, California, USA.

The 2012 Napa BV is a nice fruity red, with strong cherry vibes to it and of course a tad of blackberry. We sampled the BV with a cheese plate, crackers, and strawberry halves complemented with some dipping yogurt. I sort of avoided the strawberries, not sure how their flavors would mix with the Merlot (I might have had some if drinking a Pinot Noir), but in hindsight wonder if I missed an opportunity to bring out some other nuances of the BV. The 2012 had a mild finish and was very approachable.

Of the 2012, the winemaker offers, “Bing cherry, plum and raspberry mingle with chocolate-cherry truffle and red rose petal in this wine’s sensual aromas and flavors. Silky tannins and beautifully balanced acidity gently support the expansive flavors through the delicious, lingering finish.

Tomorrow we’ve got an early curtain call for my cousin’s wedding, so we’re opting for discretion over valor – but yet moving onto a La Mer red blend shortly. Good decisions on both!

2012 Conundrum, Wagner Family

I enjoyed a great bottle of Conundrum earlier this year and uncorked this one to share the experience with family. We have just returned from watching the new Star Wars (good flick) and are prepping a light dinner–a “must do” after all the rich eating on Christmas. This deep ruby red is now in the glass, so let’s touch on some details:

2012 Conundrum

2012 Conundrum, Wagner Family, Napa Valley, California, USA.

This 2012 red blend is going to accompany a Romaine salad, tossed with Buffalo-style chicken, and accented with a crumble of Gorgonzola. It’s luscious fruits, harvested from grapes in California’s Napa Valley, are presented evenly. In the Conundrum you have less spice than a Syrah and less tannins than a Cabernet Sauvignon, but both probably contribute to this proprietary blend.  In the 2012 vintage, I taste a little bit of cherry, blueberry, and even want to bite into it a bit–that’s an accent I usually attribute to a chocolatey profile of a wine. The actual blend is not disclosed by the Wagners but works to good effect in the Conundrum.

I know that the Wagner family would suggest this Conundrum be consumed not at room temperature but slightly colder; we’ll have to give that a shot next time instead. Would that have been a good contrast to the spicy Buffalo sauce? Interesting to consider. I’ll keep you posted and thanks again for following Notes here.


2012 North Coast Chardonnay, William Hill Estate Winery

This was a multiple­-night Chardonnay, and that usually means one of two things: 1) either the white didn’t have enough time to breathe, or 2) the accompanying food disappeared faster than the vino. In our house, whites are consumed infrequently and even less often once the fish or chicken is gone.

2012 North Coast Chardonnay, William Hill Estate Winery, Napa Valley, California, USA.

2012 North Coast Chardonnay, William Hill Estate Winery, Napa Valley, California, USA.

The William Hill North Coast has good branding, and a label that is not unlike a Mondavi. The embossing is a nice touch too, but I didn’t think this white quite lived up to this appearance. It was not sweet (which gets no love whatsoever in Notes) at all, and had some light floral and citrus (definitely pear) notes to it­­–but so do practically all whites. So how did this 2012 differentiate itself?

Said plainly, it really didn’t. I have yet to research this vintage of the William Hill, and I don’t know its cooperage­­, but I’m betting this was not aged in oak. I’m thinking stainless steel instead. Some of the warmth (what I often hear described as “buttery”) I equate with an oak barrel was not present here. This is not to say it was metallic tasting, but it was just uneven.*

Enjoyed the chance to try something new here, in the 2012 William Hill North Coast Chardonnay, but I am satisfied and file now under “been there, done that.”

*Postscript. The winemaker described, “This well-balanced wine has a robust fruit finish.” And they also state that a “portion” of this wine is aged in stainless steel at a maximum temperature of 62°F and the rest fermented in barrels at “an ambient cellar temperature of approximately 65°F.” Bingo!

2012 The Aristocrat, Buena Vista

The Aristocrat is one of the finest wines I’ve ever enjoyed, and it’s going right onto Notes‘ Top Five Reds list. It’s really special. This 2012 is the inaugural vintage, and it’s already sold out at Buena Vista so coming by this gem will not be easy–yet a worthwhile pursuit if you’re even remotely inclined toward great wine.

2012 The Aristocrat, Buena Vista, Sonoma County, California, USA.

2012 The Aristocrat, Buena Vista, Sonoma County, California, USA.

The 2012 Aristocrat is more cherry and blueberry in its flavor. It is crazy smooth, packed full of fruit, and has a spectacular, even finish. There is not even a hint of sharpness, of tannins, of the need for time the way you often get with a Bordeaux or similarly styled red blend. It has great legs, and a jammy color that you’ll find–like its bouquet–extremely enticing.

My wife and I enjoyed this 2012 from a mountainside cabin in western NC, along with a rack of ribs (that’s a dry rub you see in the photo) and a salad featuring some vegetables we picked up fresh at a roadside farm stand.

The team at Buena Vista did not assemble this winner haphazardly–it is filled with purpose and intention. It features Valdiguie (a first for me?), Petit Verdot, and Charbono grapes, each harvested from vineyards in Napa Valley’s Calistoga AVA.  Believe it or not, the vines of the Valdiguie, located at the base of the Vaca Mountains, date back before Prohibition. Poking through the Buena Vista website, I also relay to you that the Charbono is grown on one of Napa’s last remaining Charbono vineyards. This amazing wine is aged (in separate lots) in 100% French oak for 16 to 18 months before being blended.

Special thanks to my mother for presenting us with this amazing housewarming gift. We are thrilled at the reason you selected the 2012 Aristocrat, and thrilled too at the occasion to enjoy it. Hope we brought just a little bit of that back to you in the recap and the photos!

2013 Pinot Noir, BV Coastal Estates

The 2013 Pinot Noir from Beaulieu Vineyard Coastal Estates lasted several nights at our place, which says several things about a wine. Usually it means a bottle that we opened on a weeknight. It can also be a more tannic red, particularly a Bordeaux or Malbec that needed some extra time, or even a wine that just didn’t stick the landing for one reason or another. In this instance, however, it was that the wine was opened on a night prior to a long work trip. If you’re a reader who also knows the joys–and poor night’s sleep–of an early morning flight, you know what I’m talking about here.

2013 Pinot Noir, BV Coastal Estates, Rutherford, California, USA.

2013 Pinot Noir, Beaulieu Vineyard Coastal Estates, Rutherford, California, USA.

BV has been producing wine for more than 100 years, and the Latour name has long enjoyed a strong reputation for its Cabernet Sauvignons. A quick bit of research revealed that its founder Georges de Latour even sold wine to the Catholic Church during Prohibition (the only working Napa winery during that dark period of U.S. history), and his viniculturist Andre Tchelistcheff developed the first “cult” Cab in the first half of the 20th century. So you know they know grapes and how to get things done with a bang in the wine business.

Alas, this is not one of those smart-sounding Latour Private Reserve Cabernets but rather the 2013 BV Pinot Noir. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. As a matter of fact it was nice and smooth, and a bit more of a cherry finish than a strawberry taste. I rushed through the pre-trip glass, and was too tired upon returning to make better notes of its profile. I do know that I finished off this 2013 vintage with some pepperoni pizza, and that the wine was enjoyable.

This is how the Beaulieu team describes the 2013: “Classic in style, our Pinot Noir is elegant and graceful, showing intense varietal character over a soft, supple profile. Fresh cherries and summer plums open the aromas. On the palate, the fruit gains complexity and depth, adding subtle layers of leather and forest floor. French oak stitches the bright fruit together, leaving just a hint vanilla.

Forest floor? Missed that. I’m interested in another bottle of this, particularly a Friday night bottle, but even more so one of the Latour Cabs! I’ll be ready with my signature any time the good folks at BV decide they want to ship one to this humble writer.