California’s 2001s: Quintessential Cabernet

There is great excitement in Napa and Sonoma Valleys, as winemakers, growers and proprietors realize they’ve caught lightning in a bottle.

Now that steak is back in fashion and great steak restaurants are thriving all over America, it seems appropriate to remember Pat Cetta, the cofounder of Sparks Steak House in New York City. Many years ago, I was waiting for a table at Sparks and Cetta escorted me to the bar. There, he directed the barman to pour me a glass of their house red. At the time, most house red wines were disappointing, to say the least. But Sparks’ house pour was a premium California Cabernet, rich and flavorful. Pat Cetta could not fail to notice my surprise and deep enjoyment.

“My house red wine speaks to the quality of our meat,” said the legendary restaurateur, who died in 2000. “When my guests taste the rich flavors of a great red wine they know they are in a very special place.” For Cetta, a great wine list testified to the quality of his food, and vice versa.

And what type of red wine did Cetta treat his patrons to? None other that the best, rich Cabernet Sauvignon California offered at the time. Cetta once cornered the market on 1974 Sterling Vineyards Reserve Cabernet and poured it with great gusto to his customers. I’m guessing that Cetta would have been thrilled to uncork a bottle of a 2001 Cab from just about anywhere in California.

In this issue, our West Coast Editor Steve Heimoff declares the 2001 the best vintage ever for Cabernet Sauvignon. On a recent trip to California wine country, I met plenty of people who are close to the soil, and who are inclined to agree.

Larry Maguire, president of Far Niente, agreed that the “2001 is our best Cabernet ever.” He believes his—and others—are even better than the heralded 1997s because the new vinestock, replanted in the wake of Napa’s bout of phylloxera, had matured in the intervening years. As I traversed the Mayacamas Mountains, from Sonoma to Napa and back, I continually heard the “best ever” phrase: Tom Shelton, president of Joseph Phelps; Jon Pageler of Beaulieu Vineyards; Darryl Groom, winemaker for Geyser Peak; John Calmeyer of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars—all confirmed their excitement over this vintage.

But the proof is in the glass, so I recently fired up the grill, threw on a delicious top sirloin and reached into my cellar for a 2001 BV Reserve Cabernet. Was that why Pat Cetta called his restaurant Sparks? Because the layers of luscious flavors in the wine—black cherry, chocolate, oak—combined with the charry and juicy meat created sparks on my palate. Truly one of the great pleasures in life. Hurry and fill up your cellars with these timeless 2001s. Though the emphasis in Steve Heimoff’s article (see page 22) is on Napa Valley, it’s clear that great wines were produced in Sonoma, Mendocino and, indeed, statewide—nature and winemaker collaborated to elevate their game.

Also in this issue you’ll find Michael Schachner’s report on the wines of Navarra, the unsung region in Northern Spain where some excellent wines are being crafted from native varieties virtually unknown to Americans. You’ll also find a report on the culinary pyrotechnics being produced in San Sebastián, the city just north of Navarra that is receiving a veritable shower of Michelin stars for its outstanding, innovative restaurants.

Monica Larner got a taste of the lifestyle of the rich and famous when she spent time with the courtly Gianni Zonin, president of Zonin Family Wines & Estates, Italy’s largest private wine enterprise. Gianni Zonin owns 11 estates in seven regions, and produces 25 million bottles of wine each year, many of which are exported to the United States. For a deeper understanding of some of the Italian wine you are likely to drink this year, read Larner’s compelling story.

Monica Larner also spent time in Puglia, researching the wines and foods of that fabled region. And looking to the spirit world, Paul Pacult savors blended Scotches, which are so often overlooked in this era of the single malt.

Here in the northeast, the air grows chilly and crisp, and for many wine enthusiasts, thoughts turn to bracing, full-bodied red wines. Many of the Cabs of California’s 2001 vintage are ready to drink now—and the glory is, they’ll be enjoyable for many years to come.


Published on October 1, 2004