Aspen Food & Wine Classic: Outstanding California Cabernets

This year marked the 30th Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, CO.  Given that I am turning the big 3-0 this year, I received tickets in what will be known as the best birthday present ever.

The Food and Wine Classic is three packed days of cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, Grand Tastings (hundreds of wine and artisanal food producers offering tastings of their wares) and late night parties with celebrity chefs and roughly 5,000 foodies from around the world.

The weekend was one that ‘Off the Wagon-ers’ would be proud of. The first Grand Tasting opens each day at 11:30am, and I was on my way to a lovely buzz by about 12:15pm. Follow that up with a wine class, then another Grand Tasting at 4:30pm, and let’s just say that you’re feeling no pain by the time dinner rolls around.

I had the pleasure of taking two great wine seminars during the course of the weekend. The first with Paul Roberts titled ‘Outstanding California Cabernets’. If you’ve not heard of Paul, he’s basically the Tiger Woods of wine (post 3rd green jacket, pre sleep-fucking his way to Wilt Chamberlain numbers). Any doubt? Check out his (abbreviated) bio:

Paul Roberts, MS, BOND Estate Director, is known as being one of the best sommeliers in the world and was the 6th person in sommelier history to win the Krug Cup (an award that goes to the person who passes all three exam sessions on their first attempt and with the highest cumulative score). From 2003-2008, Paul was the wine director for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group and is now the estate director for BOND Estates in the Napa Valley.

We were early, so we took seats in the front row. This is frightening when two master sommeliers start utilizing the Socratic Method to engage the audience in sharing about the wines. Terms like dark fruit, red fruit, minerality, leather, earth and even poo (but in a good way??) filled the air.

Paul started the session with a quick rendering of the Napa Valley – detailing where the various wines were from on the map. Most of us had visited Napa Valley, so this visual representation, paired with the detail about each mini-region was incredibly helpful in connecting the taste profiles of the wines to an understanding of the region.

As you reference the map, you’ll see that the wines are generally organized from south to north. This, among myriad factors, influences the way that the wine tastes. Typically, as you move from south to north, temperatures get cooler, but with the SF Bay near the south, the opposite is true here and the wines become more robust as we progress through the tasting.

Now, when a session is referenced as ‘Outstanding ‘at the Food and Wine Classic, they’re not messing around. Paul showed up with some beautiful, high-end wines that you’d be more likely to expect at a Reserve Wine Tasting than those tastings included in the overall ticket price.

The tasting, in order:

1.       2008 Caldwell “Gold Reserve,” Napa Valley $165

Mostly dark fruit, light tannins. Felt a little tight, will likely age well. For my money, I’d focus on cabs 4 & 5.Though I’d likely pick up “Rocket Science” a blend by the same vineyard at less than $50/bottle.

2.       2008 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon “Fay Vineyard,” Napa $95 (sold out)

Floral and more ‘red fruit’ forward. Very fine tannins. Stag’s Leap is a favorite of many who seem to find a lot of value in this wine, but it’s not on my list of top picks.

3.       2008 Emerson Brown Cabernet Sauvignon “Oakville,” Napa $80 (sold out)

Old-world Bordeaux style, smooth tannin, well structured. I was able to find this published at $50 – though its mere 285 cases are sold out. Keep an eye out for the next release!

4.       2008 Harlan Estate, “The Maiden,” Napa $150

You know the type of person that can glance at a page in a catalog and instantly identify and fall in love with the most expensive item? Eh, hem… that’s me. I couldn’t get enough of “The Maiden,” which also happens to be Paul’s baby. We were told that the wine was $150 and I was secretly proud that I loved something ‘middle of the road.’ Upon further research, it’s impossible find this wine for less than $225, making it the most expensive of the bunch (and F&W crowd favorite)!

5.       2008 Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon Estate, Napa $185

Runner up crowd favorite was the Staglin cabernet. I felt like this and ‘The Maiden’ drank like more refined ‘Silver Oak’ or ‘Caymus’ cabernets—big fruit, earth, high tannin, dry and well, phenomenal. Staglin is described as “old-world, cassis, black cherry, black olives and green peppercorns, earthy bed of resonant loam, pimento, cedar and bay leaf … and a little tight upon opening, does will with decanting and age.”

6.       2008 Vineyard 7 & 8, Cabernet Sauvignon “Spring Mountain District,” Napa $125 

Described as “dark brooding wine full of mountain tannin” and “quite muscular and tannic” – recommendation is that this wine deserves a few more years in the bottle. Open in 2016 or later for a great wine!

As part of the tasting we discussed the difference in more recent vintages from those quintessential big Napa cabs people have been known to love. If you’re anything like me, you typically buy and consume varietals on demand (not many bottles gathering dust in this girl’s cellar just yet), meaning that you’re likely buying the most current vintage. I’ve noticed a significant difference in the wines coming out of some of my favorite vineyards in more recent years. Those 2000-2004 cabs that were so powerful have been replaced with, at times, slightly less ‘in your face’ flavors. Per Paul, beginning in 2005, the valley entered a cooling period, producing less ripe—big fruit—jammy, grapes. Learning more about the geography of the valley can help you choose vineyards that may be more likely to produce wines in line with your preferred flavor profile.

To those readers that are opening ‘08’s or have tasted any of these wines, I’d love your notes!

Up Next, as part of the Food and Wine Classic series, I’ll share my notes on ‘Piedmont Beyond Barolo’ with Antonio Galloni (don’t worry, none of these wines cost more than $25) and my Top 10 Best Wine Finds from the Classic.

About Joni Klippert

Lover of all things Boulder... food and wine, entertaining and our awesome startup scene! Also, Nerd.

  • Brian L

    Aspen Food & Wine is a great time, every wine lover should go once.  I hope you will be posting more about your experiences there and other great wines you tried.