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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Caymus: The Myth, the Legend, the Zin?

Friday, December 31, 2010
I first became intrigued by Caymus Cabernet at a friend’s birthday party in Tahoe. At 7:00 pm, we were the only party at Olivier, a charming olive oil and wine store, typically closed in the evenings, and were enjoying a private catered meal of fondue and selecting wines from the store’s cellar to enjoy with the dinner. One guest, in from Mexico City, clearly not on a restricted budget, kept pulling perfectly aged Caymus Cabs from the cellar walls, opening them as if they were table wine. The painfulhangover I suffered on the ski slopes the following day left me thinking back to the evening before and the rich, silky cabs that led me to indulge more than I typically might have.

Caymus has always seemed to me to be a rarefied wine reserved for “special occasions”, so it seemed fittin

g that the wine tasting Garrett and I did the weekend of our engagement was at Caymus. The sun broke out from the rain clouds just as we arrived at Caymus on Conn Creek road in Rutherford. While I’d expected a palatial winery comparable to the size of their full-bodied Cabs, we encountered an understated, old rustic looking building with flowers peeping out of the grounds, picnic benches glistening in rain water out front and vines draping the building. Nothing extraordinaire, simple and austere yet elegant. This is not a winery to visit if you are looking to be impressed by interesting winery architecture, art collections, or tech-forward wine making equipment and cellars. This is the winery to visit if you are a cult follower of Caymus looking to enjoy and purchase the wines, some of which are only soldat the Rutherford winery location.

Charlie Wagner, Lorna Belle Wagner and their son, Chuck Wagner established Caymus Vineyards in 1972, and their first Special Selection Cab was conceived in 1975. The winery's forte has always been Cabernet Sauvignon and it currently produces two Cabernets. Since the winery was founded, Caymus has been producing Cabs that have reached cult-like status and boast consistently high rating - the limited production Caymus Special Selection being held in particularly high regard. Few will argue about the high desirability of these incredible wines.

A burly white-haired elder gentleman, similar to a toll bridge guard, gruffly started to inquire our intentions as we approached the winery's entrance. Once he learned we indeed had a tasting reservation, he warmed up and welcomed us into the minimalist tasting room, decorated with patriotic flair. We awaited the other guests and perused a confusing photo montage of "Chucks and Charlies" of the Wagner family lining the walls of the rustic edifice. We sat with four other great couples – most from around the country and a couple in school studying wine-making in Washington. I found the tasting itself to be a bit hurried and brief. I prodded to try to obtain more background history, but our tasting facilitator seemed to prefer giving us a brief overview of each wine, pouring each right after the one before it and then leaving the four couples alone to formulate our own judgement and deliberate over which wines we would add to our cellars.

One of the best aspects of the tasting was being in the company of others who were true cult Napa Cab connoisseurs, uncovering what jewels were being stored in their own cellars and their personal experiences with cellaring and opening different vintages of cult Cabs. I did find it fascinating the majority of the grapes that go into Caymus wines are produced by varying vineyards from across California - a style similar to the negotiant model in Burgundy, where wine-making negotiants purchase different lots of grapes from the best Domaines to blend into silky perfection, bottled, labeled, and sold globally at high prices. While the Special Selection is made in limited production, I was surprised to learn that 40,000 cases of the Napa Valley Caymus Cabernet is produced annually. It made me question the high priced bottles, especially when one of the other couples confirmed that it can be purchased far more reasonably at Costco. The Sauvignon Blanc, labeled as Conundrum, and bottled in Monterey, was decidedly crisp and interesting - a great find for the price and the real surprise was the Caymus Zinfandel. It is blended with a bit of Petite Syrah, oak-aged, and produced in St. Helena which is lovely and classic and can only be purchased on property. Garrett and I left with all but the Caymus Cabs, which had initially lured us to the tasting. To me, Caymus Cabs will always be special, I'd prefer to open a bottle of Caymus in the company of good friends in our own special venue.

We tasted:
2006 Conundrum Sauvignon Blanc
This Monterey-produced aromatic blend is comprised of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Muscat, Sémillon and Viognier. It is pale straw colored, bright and full-bodied and packed with fresh flavors of peach, melon, lychee and yellow apple. It has a lovely bouquet rose petals, citrus and white flowers.

2006 Napa Valley Zinfandel
This St. Helena-produced wine is a deep, purplish-red color, with rich raspberry aroma and initial palette of ripe brambleberries. The full-bodied wine screams dark black cherry and plum making a full, forward and richly-flavored Zin, with a nice balance of acid and fruit.

2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Caymus hits the mark for rich, elegantly oaked Cabernet Sauvignon with black cherry, cassis, chocolate and sweet baking spice flavors. Secondary hints of wet earth, tobacco, smoke and pepper lend to its richness and complexity. It’s lush texture gives it early drinking appeal and its harmonious qualities are so well integrated that not one takes the dominant role.

2007 Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon
The expensive Special Selection is made from the best lots of Cabernet and is aged in a somewhat higher percentage of new French oak than the Napa bottling. A firm, ripe, muscular wine that’s tight, deep, structured, intense and concentrated, with stewed currant, cassis, plum, black cherry and blackberry fruit that’s pure, complex and layered. Secondary notes anise, cedar and black licorice.

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