My Favorite Wine?
During & after my many years in the wine industry, the question I'm most often asked by consumers has been:
“What’s your favorite wine?”
If I’ve never told you – I really dislike this question. There is no good or definitive answer. My tongue-in-cheek answer has always been “The bottle that’s open.” At least that gets people to chuckle.
Now for a bit of education. Your palate changes constantly. What you prefer this morning might completely change by the end of the day, and will certainly change tomorrow. My favorite wine? I can give you a different favorite every time you ask. The factors used to determine the wine I would choose to drink at any given time vary, and intermingle. My choice would always be effected by:
- My health
- Who I’m with
- The weather
- How much sleep I had the night before
- What food(s) are being combined with the wine
- My mood
- The time of day
- How much time I have allocated to enjoy the wine
- The ambiance of the location
One day my “favorite” might be a great old Bordeaux or Burgundy. The next day I might prefer a big bold California Cabernet. Some days I’d choose a bright bottle of Sancerre, are a slightly spritzy off-dry Moscato. My favorite will even change throughout a meal, as different wines are paired with different food combinations in different courses (appetizer, main course, dessert, etc.)
So, if you meet someone knowledgeable about wine, don’t ask them what their favorite is, ask them to educate you about the bottle that is open before you!
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ll backtrack. I do have some go-to categories. On any given day, I might choose to venture away from these “go-tos,” but to be completely honest, I do have preferences.
Here we go:
Champagne. If I were to be stranded on a desert island & told I could choose only one wine to drink for the rest of my life, it would be fine Champagne (or some of the other great sparkling wines of the world…but I have a particular fondness for true French Champagne). That doesn’t mean Champagne is a favorite over any of the other categories listed here. It is simply the most versatile of all. Champagne goes well with almost any food. It can be served at any time of the day or night, by itself, or with any course of your meal. It also has a magical quality, in that it seems to bring a smile to the face of most people who taste it. To me, Champagne is perhaps God’s most perfect beverage, for its wonderful qualities & versatility. I never turn down a good glass of Champagne!
Well-aged Pinot Noir, particularly from the great vineyards of Burgundy – My go-to red wine of top quality? Usually a Burgundy from a great producer, vineyard & vintage. There is something about the delicate aromas, flavors & silky/velvety texture of great Burgundy & Pinot Noir that is simply sublime & makes my eyes roll back in pleasure. Do I often choose other great reds? Bordeaux, Rhone, California Cabernet, & others? Of course! Look back at my list of factors that effect my “favorite” of the moment. However, more often than not, if given the choice, I’ll gravitate in this direction.
For dry white, it’s toss-up between Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends (or as single varietals) and great Chardonnay. I love white wines that drink like reds. They might be “see-through” wines as I like to call them (whites), but if they have enough body & backbone to stand up to any food, I think of them as drinking like a red. There are a few domestic examples, but my roots always go to France. Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley, Semillon/Sauvignon blends from Bordeaux, & Chardonnay from the great vineyards of Burgundy. I like my whites rich, full & luscious…I like them to drink like reds! (yes, sometimes I enjoy a light, bright, refreshing offering, but with a meal I like a wine with backbone).
Great Dessert Wine – My preferences are not as well defined with dessert wines as with the drier wines served with most of the meal. The incredible late harvest Rieslings of Germany. Great Sauternes from Bordeaux. Vintage Port. Great Madeira & Sherry. If I had to choose one from this list it’d probably be Riesling, closely followed by Sauternes – but Dessert more than anything is affected by the food served. Chocolate demands Port. An apple or pear tart, or crème caramel?…why Riesling or Sauternes of course. A quiet respite in front of a roaring fire (with or without food)…Port, Madeira & Sherry all work well.
That’s about the best I can do in answering the question “What’s your favorite wine?” Actually, I’d like to revise my usual answer. I'll no longer use “The bottle that’s open."
My answer, from this point forward, will be “The bottle that I’d like to share with you!”
Master of Balance - Mitch Cosentino
Great Wine – the key word is BALANCE
Great wines all have one thing in common. Balance. Every component in its place, and each complimenting, rather than overpowering the others. Fruit, acid, tannin, alcohol, etc…none so strong that it hides the inner glory that a great wine will exhibit. A master winemaker knows this, and creates wines that will evolve and grow in the bottle, even after the winemaker’s job is done. Most often this requires careful blending, of different barrels, varietals, clones, vineyard locations, etc. What one lot lacks, the other will contribute. This is perhaps the most important thing a winemaker does.
I grew up on the best that France had to offer. My father introduced me to the great wines of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, and the rest of France. My world view of wines was greatly skewed toward France, and to a lesser extent Italy, Germany, and Spain.
California wines? In the early 1970’s, I found few that fit the profile that appealed to me. I kept finding big, bold, tannic, overpowering wines (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon) that just didn’t measure up. Many had so much tannin (a false sign of aging potential), that they would never soften before the fruit fell out. My biggest complaint was that they didn’t have the balance, elegance, and finesse of the great wines of Europe. I won’t even speak about the early California efforts at Pinot Noir (there are some exceptions, most notably my friends at Hanzell).
Many California winemakers fell into an attractive trap. Since most of the great wines of Bordeaux are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, why not use that grape exclusively, and eliminate the “lesser” “blending” grapes (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, & Malbec)? They failed to recognize the complimentary characteristics the other grapes contribute. As a result, many wines were one-dimensional. Big & bold, as is the nature of Cabernet Sauvignon. Often overly tannic. Yes, it is possible to make great single varietal Cabernet, but most benefit from blending, adding complexity, elegance and finesse.
Cosentino Winery – the birth, the glory days, the demise, and the pretender
One of my earliest consistent exposures to great, BALANCED California wines came when I met my friend Mitch Cosentino. Around 35 years ago, in the early 1980’s I was the “Import Manager” at a major wholesale wine distributor in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had no responsibility for working with California wines…and really didn’t care. I was required to attend sales meetings and learn about our entire portfolio… but in the field my focus was on our import portfolio.
In the door walks Mitch, bringing his wines to our portfolio. His personality was immediately engaging, and when I tasted his wines, I was blown away. Here was a small producer, making wines out of Modesto (under the old Crystal Valley Cellars label), and soon to be breaking ground on the then-new Cosentino Winery on Highway 29 in the Napa Valley, near Mustard’s Grill.
Mitch’s wines had all the qualities I love from my roots in French wine. I soon learned that Mitch liked to make small batch wines, and that he is a master blender. Mitch’s focus is on making hand-crafted wines of great balance. He will tinker with each wine until it is just right, often blending different barrels, clones, varietals, and vineyard sites to make the wine he wants. He loves to emulate (and often match or exceed) the styles of the great wines of France and Italy.
Yes, Mitch does make some single varietal wines, but even then he leans toward careful & thoughtful blending, picking from different vineyard sites, barrels, and clones to make wines that will exhibit great balance and structure.
Great things came out of the Cosentino Winery. Mitch was on the board of the original “Meritage Association” (now the Meritage Alliance) that created the “Meritage” name in 1988, and in 1989, the 1986 Cosentino “The Poet” was the first wine to ever bear that designation. Mitch delighted in coming up with new blends, and new names, creating not only the “Poet,” but the “Novelist” (White Meritage/Bordeaux Blanc blend), “MCoz” (another red Meritage that had great critical acclaim), “The Franc” (Cabernet Franc), and others. Many of these wines were/are very highly rated, and if stored well, will age for some time to come.
Alas, the economy and poor business decisions by corporate partners led to the demise of Cosentino Winery as it was, and it closed its doors in 2010. Another company stepped in and purchased the facility and the Cosentino name, along with most of the “proprietary” wine names like “Poet” & “Novelist.” Mitch won’t admit it publicly, but I suspect that he is grieved by the commercialization of his name, the winery he built, and the wines he created. They aren’t bad wines, they just aren’t up to the standards of a master winemaker. He will admit nothing more than that they are different, using different fruit, different facilities and different winemakers.
PureCru – the ReBirth!
So where does that leave Mitch Cosentino? Enter a new group of friends…wine geeks all…who helped Mitch to create a new label, PureCru, and caught his vision, allowing him the freedom to make great wines again. Together they formed PureCru Winery, releasing their first wines in 2009. With PureCru, Mitch is once again making small batch hand-crafted wines (seldom more than a few hundred cases of each wine). He started with PureCoz, a red Meritage blend, and he was also able to bring MCoz, one of the signature wines from the old Cosentino label into the PureCru fold.
Since then, Mitch has lined up many of his old vineyard sources, and found some new ones. He now has access to most of the grapes that made the original Cosentino wines great – and they are going into the PureCru selections. With PureCru, Mitch even has the liberty (and integrity) to skip vintages when the crop doesn't measure up to his standards, something very few wineries will do.
There are some real stars, and some amazing values in the PureCru lineup (see my tasting notes at the end of this article). Most notably, in the value category, are the “Purety” (96 Points – an excellent White Meritage/Bordeaux Blanc blend, primarily from Semillon), and “Sangio Vetta” (96 Points – most easily likened to a “Super Tuscan” Blend, primarily Sangiovese, with some Merlot). The “CFM” (Cabernet Franc/Merlot) (95 Points) is also a standout value, at a slightly higher price point. These wines are all perfectly balanced, and made to age – but because of their balance will drink well immediately. If you want to jump into higher price categories, the wines just keep getting better. These are just some highlights – see my tasting notes at the end of this article, and additional notes on more of the PureCru wines can be found on TastingBook.com.
But it doesn't end there. Since he only makes small batches under his own label, Mitch has the luxury of time to expand his horizons, and is now consulting winemaker for several other properties. With a selected few owners/properties/labels, Mitch is helping others to make his unique style of wonderfully balanced wines. Mitch has also invited some key producers with similar philosophies to share space in the downtown Napa tasting room he created (known as “Wines on First”). While Mitch’s influence varies on these wines, they are all part of the world of Mitch Cosentino.
Here are some highlights of Mitch’s PureCru wines, as well as some of the other wines that Mitch has worked on recently (More extensive notes on these and other wines may be available on TastingBook.com):
- 96 Points, 2014 PureCru "Purety" (Meritage Blanc). An intriguing blend of approximately equal parts Semillon & Sauvignon Blanc. The nose is instantly appealing, with aromatic figs, apples, quince & a hint of dust and earth. Extremely complex, austere, & rich all at the same time. The palate follows perfectly. Toasty, austere, rich, long. The fruit flavors of fig/apple/quince are balanced to each other, no one overpowering the other. Great depth. Hi acid, but not obtrusive. Very much in the style of the great dry whites of Graves. Drinking well now, but will certainly improve with age. At $25.00 U.S. Retail, one of the best bargains in white wine I’ve found in years. (In a previous note posted on TastingBook.com, I rated this wine with a score of “95”).
- 95 Points, 2013 PureCru Chardonnay (Meursault Clone). Definitely an “old-world” style Chardonnay. The color is a very pretty straw-bold. The nose has subdued apple & melon fruit, with a toasty/yeasty/bread-toast quality and mixed spices. Very complex. The palate is very rich & mouth-filling, with apples & a hint of dried stone-fruit (peach?), without being overly fruity. The texture is very creamy, with great balance, & a rich, long finish. $32.00 U.S. Retail
- 96 Points, 2012 PureCru “Sangio Vetta”, Napa Valley. A blend of primarily Sangiovese, with 18% Merlot. The nose is a mix of “road tar”, mixed spices, flowers & plummy fruit. The palate is fully of complex, well-integrated flavors with black cherry, plum & mixed berry fruit. An excellent (and affordable) entry into the non-Tuscan (Napa Valley) “Super-Tuscan” category. Young, powerful, complex, balanced, tasty but age-worthy – what more could you ask for in a wine priced at $28.00 U.S. Retail?
- 92 Points, 2014 PureCru Pinot Noir (Napa-Carneros grapes), A bright light cherry red color. The nose is classic Pinot Noir fruit. Violets, light cherries, earth, mushrooms, and a hint of spice. The palate has the velvety soft Pinot Noir character that so few outside of Burgundy can create. Mouth-filling, round, soft, & long. Quite delicious. At $36.00 U.S. Retail, an excellent value.
- 95 Points (Potential for 97+ with age), 2011 “CFM”, Napa Valley (Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend). The nose has floral (violet & rose) characters, with clove & other spices. The fruit is a mix of plum & cherry. The palate brings layers & layers of flavors, with hints of cedar and tobacco. Delicious now, should continue to age well. $50.00 U.S. Retail – worth every penny & more!
- 95 Points (Potential for 98+ with age) 2012 PureCru Cabernet Franc Reserve, Napa Valley. The nose has qualities of vanilla, violets & mixed fruits. Extremely aromatic & perfumed. Quite beautiful. The palate shows great promise. It is still closed, but has lots of character. Deep & long, complex & elegant. Spice & cherries abound. As it softens with some air, it becomes very sexy. Captivatingly elegant. One of those rare wines that are both powerful and elegant at the same time. If you can get your hands on some bottles, sit on them for a while. Very small production. $65.00 U.S. Retail – again, not inexpensive, but worth the price.
- 96 Points (potential for 98+ with age), 2012 “PureCoz” (Napa Valley Meritage Rouge). Beautiful medium garnet color. The nose is one of the most elegant & complex I’ve found from the Napa Valley. Spices, hints of anise, clove & green olive, with the unmistakable fruit quality of cassis. Very aromatic, bright & floral. All of that follows onto the palate. Multi-faceted. Very, very delicious. Powerful & elegant. Very long. Not to be missed if you can afford it. $65.00 U.S. Retail, and a bargain at that price.
- 96 Points (potential for 98+ with age), 2012 PureCru “Secret 7” Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Using the “Secret 7” clone of Cabernet Sauvignon (a story for another day), this wine has earthy tar & tobacco notes in the nose, with hints of mint & eucalyptus to compliment the cassis & berry fruit. The flavors on the palate are quite intense, predominated by cassis, with mixed spices. High acid, but soft tannins. Very very long flavorful finish. Tastes like a Meritage blend, but 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. $100.00 U.S. Retail. Worth the price, compared to the great wines of Bordeaux, or some of the over-priced/over-hyped wines of other Napa Valley producers.
Scotto Family Wines (Mitch Cosentino, Associate Winemaker). Labels include: “Napa by N.A.P.A.”, “J. McClellend,” “Steele Canyon Cellars”, and “50 Harvests” wines. Mitch shares winemaking duties with Mark Smith and Paul Scotto. There are some great surprises, and incredible value, in this lineup.
- 91 Points “Napa by N.A.P.A.” 2014 “Bianca’s White”, 38% Semillon, 62% Sauvignon Blanc. Delightful bright floral notes to the nose with hints of figs and quince. On the palate there is a sense of mineral/wet stone, with hints of grass and fit. Very dry, clean, and refreshing. Delicious $19.00 U.S. retail – great value!
- 93 Points, 2013 Napa Valley Chardonnay, J. McClelland. Truly beautiful wine. The nose exhibits mixed dry apples & pears, with medium toasty wood and a hint of yeasty bread. The palate is simply OUTSTANDING, with layers & layers of flavors. Excellent acid in the finish carries the flavors through and brings them into focus. Apples, pears, mineral quality. Somewhat angular, in a very appealing way. Mitch Cosentino was not involved in the fermentation of this wine, but made adjustments in the barrel aging & blending. $35.00 U.S. Retail.
- 93 Points, 2012 J. McClelland Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (Oak Knoll District) (86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10& Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot). Classic Napa Cabernet nose, with some Bordeaux-like qualities. Sweet cassis, with hints of cedar and earth waft up from the glass. Similar flavors on the palate. Great acid and balance, with medium soft tannins. Mitch made some major adjustments to this wine, which was started by the previous winemaker. $45.00 U.S. Retail
- 94 Points, 2012 Napa Valley Charbono, J. McClellend. This was the biggest surprise of the day. An outstanding wine made from an often overlooked grape. The nose and palate are full of grapey plums, hints of anise, smoky wood, dust, and chocolate. Delicious, balanced, long. Medium bodied, not as overpowering as I’d expect from Charbono (that’s a good thing). Mitch did very little with this wine, but he’ll be involved in subsequent vintages. $45.00 U.S. Retail.
- 97 Points, 2013 “50 Harvests” (another special label from Steele Canyon) (75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Cabernet Franc, 12% Merlot). This label was created to commemorate the 50th harvest by the Scotto family. Simply outstanding wine, and an incredible value. First bottled in the vintage of the 50th harvest, it is now made in each vintage that produces the quality required. The current rules? Named after the 50th harvest, only 50 barrels produced, and priced at only $50.00 U.S. retail. The nose & palate are filled with complex aromas and flavors of deep cassis, cigar box, tobacco, smoky wood, earth and leather. Dusty chocolate pops up in the mid palate and finish. Flavors keep unfolding as you hold the wine on your palate, and in the finish. The cassis sweetens in the mid-palate, continuing to the finish. Perfect balance and structure. Very reminiscent of Mitch’s old “Poet” creations from his days at the Cosentino Winery. If you can get some, grab it now, as there is talk of raising the price.
•Secret Rows Ranch
- 94 Points, 2014 “Secret Rows Ranch” Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley (made by Mitch Cosentino). Blended with a hint of Semillon, but only enough to add to the complexity without taking away the distinctive Sauvignon qualities of this wine. Very much a Loire Valley style Sauvignon, reminiscent of Sancerre. Intense sweet straw/hay/grass qualities on the nose, with hints of citrus. Absolutely delicious on the palate. The grassy/straw qualities of the nose continue, with hints of pineapple and citrus fruit, finishing with a very dry, austere quality. Absolutely delightful. $35.00 U.S. Retail.