A few weeks back I was lucky to be a guest when Sotiris hosted his tasting group. We tasted seven wines blind of which one was a ringer. Now I could not peg that we were tasting 2000 and 1996 Bordeaux but the 2001 Dunn, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley did stick out for it is certainly different. Though the flavor is good, the structure is rather intense at this point so I suggest cellaring it for years to come.
The 2000 Chateau Lagrange, Saint-Julien is a particularly fine wine which you may drink now and over the coming years. From the nose to the flavor and mouth feel I could not help but to enjoy it. I thought the 1996 Chateau Calon Segur, Saint-Estephe showed well too. The nose demonstrates how it is entering a mature phase but the power and acidity will see this through for some time. As for the other bottles, the 2000 Chateau Quinault, L’Enclos, St-Emilion is a wine to drink now whereas the 1996 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien needs time to come into its own. Our bottle of 1996 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, Graves was sadly musty but the 2000 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, Hermitage was spot on. This group loves Rhone wines so what a treat to finish up with Chave. This is a fine, impeccably balanced wine that is still very young in flavor but the saline and fat notes hint at future complexity.
1) 2000 Chateau Quinault, L’Enclos, St-Emilion
Imported by Wine Markets Intl. Alcohol 13%. A garnet hint in the glass. There are hints of maturity on the nose, ripe fruit, minerals, and Kirsch. The mature ripe start soon brings minerals but is not as expansive as I expected. There is a prominent vein of acidity, some herbaceous flavors, floral middle then less apparent acidity and spices in the finish. ***(*) Now – 2022.
2) 2000 Chateau Magdelaine, St-Emilion
Imported by Maison Marques et Domaines. Alcohol 13%. The nose is more subtle. This is a redder wine with fuzzy cranberry and red berry flavors. It has a core of sweet fruit in the middle then takes on more body, grip, and an herbaceous bit. *** Now – 2022.
3) 2000 Chateau Lagrange, Saint-Julien
Imported by Bordeaux Wine Locators. Alcohol 13%. This is a dark violet garnet color with an elegant nose. There is power in the mouth which builds until the very finely textured flavors fill the mouth. It also coats the mouth with structure. Despite the strength this is an elegant wine with red fruit, minerals, and quite the aftertaste. **** Now – 2027.
4) 2001 Dunn, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley
Alcohol 13%. There is a eucalyptus start followed by a red fruit burst with acidity. The flavor is interesting and different than the others. This is a powerful wine with very, finely coating flavor. With air flavors of blue fruit develop, warmth, and fresh grip. The very fine structure is intense and there is a bit of a rough patch with heat right before the finish. ***(*) 2020 – 2030.
5) 1996 Chateau Calon Segur, Saint-Estephe
Imported by Ginday Imports. Alcohol 12.5%. The nose is fine and mature with a eucalyptus component. The wine is bright with focused flavors of red fruit that takes on a citric hint in the middle. With good power, the vein of acidity will see this wine develop for some time. A lovely wine. **** Now – 2027.
6) 1996 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien
Imported by Calvert-Woodley. Alcohol 13%. There is a tough of cream to the nose. The tangy and ripe, powdery blue fruit builds grip as it leaves flavor on the gums. Powerful structure. With air the wine develops attractiveness as the components balance out. ***(*) 2020 – 2030.
7) 1996 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, Graves
Imported by MacArthur Liquors. Alcohol 13%. The musty nose makes with to a mature, mouth filling wine. The flavor is lighter, the structure is there, as is mineral and cedar box but no denying this is flawed. Too bad. Not Rated.
2000 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, Hermitage
Imported by Langdon Shiverick. This is a tense wine with a saline note that adds complexity to the red fruit. The structure is perfectly integrated, the balanced impeccable. With air a very fine perfumed finish makes way to an aftertaste of gently coating fat. **** 2022-2032.
The TSA officer at the airport asked if I was escaping the Washington, DC rain for the warmth of Florida. No, I replied, I am going down to drink wine with my friend. With the officer perplexed I explained that Bern’s Steak House was my destination. A woman in the security line chimed up, Bern’s is my favorite place in the world.
Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida is legendary amongst wine lovers due to the half-million bottle wine cellar that contains table wines dating back to the 19th century and a few fortified wines which are even older. Founded in the 1950s by Bern Laxer and his wife Gert, wine has always played a major role at the Steak House. Decades worth of purchasing ensured that there are still ample supplies of wines from the 1960s and later which were bought on release. Coupled with nearly obsessive backfilling of ancient vintages, particularly for Bordeaux, there is also unparalleled depth. Many of these bottles were imported specifically for Bern’s. Fortunately, the prices for most of these wines appear frozen in time.
Most tables at Bern’s do not test the depth of the wine list. This fact combined with the sheer size of the wine cellar means there is still an impressive supply of old wine at all price points. Many wine-loving groups make regular trips to plunder the cellar. During the rise of the wine bulletin boards, Bern’s largely remained a place you did not post about or if you did, you certainly did not mention the Bern’s name. I suspect some posters did not mention all of the wines they drank for fear of the cherry pickers finishing off such satisfying gems as bottles of 1970s Crozes-Hermitage at $30 per bottle. Hence the unwritten rule of those who plunder Bern’s wine cellar, don’t mention it.
This silence was not always the case. The Bern’s wine cellar was mentioned in major newspapers over the decades and the wine list, available for $35 in the late 1980s, was even recommended as a Christmas gift. In 1978, Frank Prial began to include mention of Bern’s Steak House in his New York Times articles. Described as “[o]ne of the most unusual lists anywhere to be found” he describes the book of a wine list as being “chained to the table to keep from disappearing.” For $15 one could pay for a copy instead. Also in the New York Times, Florence Fabricant mentioned the inclusion of Bern’s in The Wine Spectator very first Grand Awards in 1981. Three years later Fred Ferretti focused in on Bern’s in the article “Wine List Thick as Tampa Phone Book.” Later that year Frank Prial wrote the list was “bigger than most telephone books.”
The wine list was still chained to the tables when James Conaway wrote about Bern’s for The Washington Post in 1987. It was actually a marble fixture to which the list was attached. Apparently this did not stop people from stealing the wine list for a woman was once employed to ferret out lists hidden under furs and shirts. Despite the wine list shrinking to the size of the Washington, DC, phone book, a cool $1 million Dollars of wine were sold each year. Frank Prial still wrote about the Bern’s wine list some two decades after he first mentioned it. He noted that even Bern Laxer called the immense book “absurd.”
My friend Lou first visited Bern’s nearly a decade ago and he has been sharing stories about his adventures ever since. It was to join Lou at Bern’s that caused me to flew down to Tampa. Lou was there the evening before my arrival so it was with delight that I looked at texted pictures of 1964 Domaine Edmond Valby, Morey-Saint-Denise, “Dried cherries, herbs and a little tar” and 1961 Pierre Ponnelle, Chateauneuf du Pape, “[V]ery different. More earth and animale.” For our dinner together, we were joined by two of Lou’s colleagues. Though they know little about wine, they are curious to try any old wine.
Lou and I found ourselves at Bern’s ahead of the other couple. We sat ourselves in the bar to flip through the wine list. After confirming the relative quality of the 1973 vintage in Germany, Lou somewhat randomly picked a bottle of 1973 Freiherr Langwerth von Simmern, Hattenheimer Nussbrunen Riesling Kabinett, Rheingau. Drunk over one hour, the nose remained rather shy but the fruit flavors picked up definition and weight. While it was not the most complex wine, it offered a pleasing combination of freshness and maturity.
1973 Freiherr Langwerth von Simmern, Hattenheimer Nussbrunen Riesling Kabinett, Rheingau
Imported by Frank Schoonmaker Selections. The color is a youthful light, vibrant amber gold. The light nose bears some petrol aromas and is generally subtle yet very fresh. The tart, yellow fruit mixes with good acidity and some textured tannin before picking up mid body weight. With air the flavors become sweeter with better definition of fruit and some ripeness in the aftertaste. *** Now.
Once seated at the dinning table we began our succession of red wines with the help of Senior Sommelier Brad Dixon. Brad was excited about a mature Beaujolais, something that Lou has long mentioned, so he soon returned with a decanted bottle of 1983 Heritiers Finaz Devillaine, Moulin-a-Vent. Alexis Lichine described Moulin-a-Vent as the “king of Beaujolais”, capable of slow development in great vintages such as 1983. Likely produced by a de Villaine relative, think Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, this bottle is a lively, compelling wine of tart red fruit, minerals, and wood notes. I would not compare this particular example to Burgundy, as some old Beaujolais is compared to, rather it is its own unique wine. Clearly great vintage and great storage.
1983 Heritiers Finaz Devillaine, Moulin-a-Vent
Imported by B Strauss Selections. Alcohol 12.5%. The wine is a relatively dark, young color. The nose is of cranberries back by a wood note. In the mouth is a bitter red fruit start before black, mineral hints come out. This lively wine is compelling to drink. The drying tannins and wood note before the tart finish lend to the impression of perfect storage. *** Now but will last.
A balance was struck between less expensive and more expensive wines. The pair of of Northern Rhone reds represented low priced wines from negociants. John Livingstone-Learmonth and Melvyn C. H. Master wrote that Leon Revol sold wines “which are consistent without being spectacular.” The Revol house was founded in the early 20th century. They own no vineyards, instead fruit was purchased from all over the Cotes du Rhone. The negociant Maison Brotte sold wine under the Pere Anselme label and become associated with their Chateauneuf du Pape. No amount of proper storage could change the fact that the 1979 Leon Revol, Cornas, from a superior vintage, was more engaging than the 1980 Pere Anselme, Cote Rotie. The Revol offered more interesting and complete flavors. The Anselme did have a bit of attractive meat flavor but was simpler and perhaps, a touch old.
1979 Leon Revol, Cornas
Imported by Bay Distributors. Alcohol 12%. There are fresh, red fruit and greenhouse aromas. In the mouth, the tart red fruit takes on some lipstick, a wood note, and a tart, citric pithe finish. *** Now.
1980 Pere Anselme, Cote Rotie
Imported by Bay Distributors. Alcohol 12.5%. This nose reveals buttery, tart red fruit. In the mouth the slightly meaty red fruit plays it tight with good structure of old wood and a hint of roast. ** Now.
The Californian flight proved to be the best of the night both in terms of the wines and history. Mike Grgich came to California in 1958. He first worked for Lee Stewart at the original Souverain Cellars then went on to Beaulieu Vineyard, Robert Mondavi Winery, and Chateau Montelena. Grgich Hills Cellar lead off with the 1977 vintage so our bottle of 1979 Grgich Hills Cellar, Zinfandel, Alexander Valley stems from the very early days. It is an outstanding wine. With a youthful color it was fruity on the nose followed by deep, chewy flavors backed by lively acidity and the right amount of cedar notes. It was the favorite wine of the evening. Clearly at full maturity. The half bottle of 1970 Souverain Cellars, Mountain Zinfandel, Napa Valley came from the year Lee Stewart sold the winery to a group of investors. There was then, for a time, a Souverain of Rutherford in Napa Valley and a Souverain of Alexander Valley in Sonoma. The later eventually became Chateau Souverain. Our half bottle bears the original Lee Stewart label. There are other bottles of 1970 “Souverain of Rutherford” Cabernet Sauvignon bearing post-sale labels. This wine is classically structured with fresh flavors of tart black fruit. I would almost venture it is not yet ready to drink. At least from the Bern’s cellar!
1979 Grgich Hills Cellar, Zinfandel, Alexander Valley
Alcohol 13.7%. The deep, youthful color is easily matched by the deep berry fruit on the nose. In the mouth are beautiful fruit flavors that range from blue to tart red by the middle. The lively acidity, cedar note, and slightly chewy aspect continue to delight through the aftertaste. Drinking so very well. **** Now.
1970 Souverain Cellars, Mountain Zinfandel, Napa Valley
Alcohol 13%. This fresh wine is infused with cedar that supports the fresh, focused, and tart black fruit. This classic wine sports a lively personality and great structure. It leaves a menthol freshness in the aftertaste. ***(*) Now – 2025.
After dinner we moved up to the Harry Waugh dessert room with its mini barrel shaped rooms. We all opted to drink various dessert wines by the glass. Two of the glass of Port were particularly good. The 1965 Taylor Fladgate, Crusted Port leans towards the sweet, marshmallow spectrum but the addition of baking spices and expansive flavors make it a hands-down solid drink. However, it was 1978 Quinta do Noval, Vintage Port from a modest vintage, that was the Port of the night. It was complex, inky, and poised for further development. To add to the surprise, it is one of the cheapest Ports by the glass. In the end, that is what Bern’s is all about. You walk in with a general plan about what you want to drink but in the end you taste other wines you never expected to be so interesting.
1977 Barbosa, Vintage Port
The round berries and youthful flavors become super expansive and drier by the finish. Unfortunately there is some heat at the end. ** Now.
1965 Taylor Fladgate, Crusted Port
This fruity wine offers up a touch of marshmallow, subtle ripe baking spices, and other sweet notes. The finish is quite expansive. *** Now – 2025.
1970 Delaforce, Vintage Port
Musty, tastes of old red fruit. Not Rated.
1978 Quinta do Noval, Vintage Port
The deep ruby color speaks of promise. There is a lot going on in the mouth. The fruit is wound around a core of complementary wood. The fruit mixes with bakings spices, ink, and other complexities. Simply a really nice vintage Port. ***(*) Now.
Jenn and I first tasted the wines of Dunn Vineyards well over a decade ago. We were attending a New Year’s Eve party thrown by a student who was minding the substantial house of a venture capitalist. We were allowed to raid the small wine closet by the bar. One random grab resulted in a wax sealed bottle of Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. I clearly remember sitting outside, drinking it out of cups. Our recent experience is due to the annual California Barrel Tasting arranged by MacArthur Beverages. Though Dunn Vineyards releases separate Howell Mountain and Napa Valley bottlings, there has always been a single unlabeled barrel sample. I have consistently found them remarkably approachable, already complex, and somewhat earthy. It was always clear that we would visit Dunn during our spring vacation to Sonoma and Napa Valleys.
The drive up to Howell Mountain was longer and more winding than I expected. Only Kak’s phones managed to maintain a single bar of signal so when we unknowingly kept passing the drive to Dunn Vineyards we were able to reach Mike Dunn on the phone. There are no signs marking the entrance for this is not only a vineyard and winery but the home of Randy and Lori Dunn. This is very much a family run winery so it was Mike who met us that afternoon. We started off by exploring the barrel caves or tunnels that were built one decade after the winery was established in 1979. These tunnels are completely passive and feature a sloping floor so that any excess moisture or water can drain out.
Mike began assisting at the winery in 1997 then working full-time back in 2000. Though he still works under his father’s watch, this is very much his territory. Mike moves all the barrels himself, racks them, and cleans them such that the physical aspects of winemaking give him an aura of strength. The barrels are stacked two-high, demonstrating his sole physical ability. There are a lot of barrels in the tunnel. His son even included a scene of Mike moving the barrels on the mural that appears on the side of the barn. There was a lone, five gallon glass carboy, they are more fragile than a keg, that he pointed out is used to produce the barrel sample for MacArthur Beverages. There was at least one larger hogshead that seemed innocent enough until the barrel cleaning equipment needed to be modified to account for the increased diameter.
The fermentation tanks lie just outside the entrance. They are exposed to the elements but can be covered if needed. The grapes are sorted in the vineyard so no sorting table is used at the winery. Mike explained that a sorting table itself introduces one more potential source of contamination.
The winery was originally located in the old white house. Today the basement is used to store equipment like the pump, bottling device, hand operating corking machine, and packing material. While the Napa Valley bottles feature a capsule the Howell Mountain bottles are sealed with wax by hand. The tremendous amount of effort required to farm the vineyards and produce the wine is always evident here.
We followed Mike upstairs. Despite the presence of the large office, the kitchen and tasting room, which is essentially a dining room, made me feel like I was in the Dunn family home. They were currently evaluating ten different samples from the 2011 vintage. Mike poured us one of them and later on we smelled several others. The samples are followed over several days. The glasses are covered and periodically freshened from the relevant bottle. Recent vintages have experienced more variable weather but the mountain location of the vineyards has buffered them from any extremes.
Mike is quite candidate and practical about the work in the vineyard, making the wine, as well as factors that directly affect the price to the consumer. Mike has been learning more about the vineyards as of late and how they directly influence the wine. The parcels are generally planted around 2,000 feet in elevation with deep volcanic soils at three feet. The roots take up potassium which results in particularly high levels in their wines. Potassium acts as a buffer, resisting changes to pH, so this can affect how they vinify. Mike will use Round-Up to treat weeds and may apply at night not to be secretive but to take advantage of minimal winds. Randy Dunn has long been opposed to wines over 14% alcohol and openly employs reverse osmosis to lower his alcohol levels. Mike still follows this tradition as well as employs the use of commercial yeasts and acidification if needed.
In addition to the sample we also tasted three vintages of the Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon as well as two bottles from Retro Cellars. The 2010 vintage of the Howell Mountain was young with good personality and grip. The 2007 and 2005 vintages were more expressive on the nose giving just a hint of what is to come. We finished with the 2009 vintages of the Retro Cellars Howell Mountain and Napa Valley Petite Sirahs. This project was started in 2003 by Mike and his wife Kara so everything is done according to their preferences. Of these two wines the Napa Valley bottle was more forward and fruity but the Howell Mountain had juicy acidity and a saltiness I very much enjoy in wine. In retrospect it is not surprising that Mike has produced such excellent Petite Sirah for over the years he has made wine from other varieties such as Sangiovese.
I definitely recommend you take the drive up to Howell Mountain to visit Dunn Vineyards. During our trip we even met a couple who had travelled all the way from Hong Kong! Thanks again to Mike, Kara, and Kristina for arranging our visit. Please find my brief tasting notes below.
2011 Dunn Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sample B
There were good dry black and red fruit flavors along with good acidity and tannic structure. The flavors had initial red hint before picking up midpalate density, lovely acidity, and a black, minerally finish. It was slightly spicy with a hint of smoke.
2010 Dunn Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Alcohol 13.9%. There was a little greenhouse aroma with a subtle tobacco leaf note. In the mouth the red fruit mixed with greenhouse flavors. The wine had good grip, lively acidity, bright fruit, and a little weight.
2007 Dunn Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Alcohol 13.9%. The nose was starting to relax and reveal perfume. The flavors were a little more generous with a ripe cote of fruit, nice structure, and character.
2005 Dunn Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Alcohol 13.8%. There was more on the nose followed by rounder flavors in the mouth. It had gentle delicate spices, greenhouse flavors, and a hint of drying structure. It left nice, ripe tannins in the mouth.
2009 Retro Cellars, Petite Sirah, Napa County
There was fruit on the nose. In the mouth the fruit mixed with a dry structure then took on ripe spices. This was a fruity wine, ripe and sweeter towards the finish. It had a lot of texture.
2009 Retro Cellars, Petite Sirah, Park Muscatine, Howell Mountain
There was good fruit in the mouth that became tart and black in the middle. There structure was there but it had a round finish with juicy acidity and a little salty flavor. There was a bright lift at the end followed by tannins and minerals in the aftertaste.
This blog receives very few samples so it was a treat to taste through these recently released red wines provided by Cornerstone Cellars. As usual, they were tasted over two days. The Stepping Stone, Rocks! Red Wine is produced from a changing and secret blend of varietals. It is meant to be a daily drinker. This bottle changed remarkably over the course of one evening. It went from being all about very fresh, bright fruit to an overall well-balanced wine for drinking over the next several years. I would give it a year to settle down.
The Napa Valley and Howell Mountain wines deliver more goods. These wines have traditionally been made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon but with the 2009 vintage 5% Merlot has been included. Over the years there will be an increase in Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This fall we drank mature bottles of the 2002 and 2003 Napa Valley. You may read about them here. The 2009 vintage is obviously young but approachable and capable of aging. There is a familial identity between the two but the Howell Mountain delivers an engaging perfume to its darker fruit. It is not a bigger wine either. I think it shows more elegance. Both may be drunk now for their enjoyable baby fat but I would cellar them a few years to let their identities develop. These bottles were provided by Cornerstone Cellars.
2010 Stepping Stone by Cornerstone, Red Rocks!, North Coast – $18
From an even changing blend of varietals. Alcohol 14.5%. The nose is light and tight with black-red fruit. In the mouth there is bright, fresh red fruit then blacker fruit flavors delivered with plenty of acidity. There are some grippy tannins in the finish along with a little cinnamon spice. **(*) 2014-2019.
2009 Cornerstone Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – $65
This wine is a blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot. It was aged for 22 months in 100% French oak. Alcohol 14.9%. there is a light nose of potpourri with a cinnamon note. There is a little tart acidity on the tip of the tongue then flavors of dense fruit, ripe black and red, which is thick in the mouth. There are integrated spices, and blacker flavors in the finish. The powdery, ripe tannins are enjoyable. The wine firms up to show balance with air. *** 2016-2023.
2009 Cornerstone Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley – $80
This wine is a blend off 95% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from Ink Grade Vineyard and Oak Knoll District and 5% Merlot sourced from Carneros. It was aged for 22 months in 100% French oak. Alcohol 14.9%. There is a light nose of mixed berries. In the mouth there are fine flavors, a sort of perfume mixes with the concentrated fruit. There are fresh, black minerals, a little acidity, and a savory finish. The texture is creamy. The grippy finish brings sweet cinnamon tannins which coat the cheeks and lips. ***(*) 2018-2028.