Nothing in life is perfect. But it is useful to have the idea of perfection in one’s conceptual arsenal as a regulative ideal. It provides a benchmark by which to measure the merely excellent and encourages the thought that, no matter how good something is, it can always be better. Perfection is the enemy of complacency.
But when a bottle of wine runs you well over $1500 it better be damn close to perfection. And so I wondered, while heading up the freeway to Orange County last week, whether the taste of Screaming Eagle I was about to enjoy would move the needle on my idea of perficio vinum.
For the uninitiated, Screaming Eagle is the quintessential Napa cult wine. It came on the market in 1996 and immediately earned a high score (99/100) from wine guru Robert Parker. This inaugural 1992 vintage now sells for over $8000 per bottle. When you combine low production with a soaring reputation, high prices come along for the ride. Today, the wait to get on their allocation list is rumored to be 10 years. It is the most sought after wine out of Napa. Which is not to say it is necessarily the best.
For most of us wine nerds, it is out of our price range. So when I had the opportunity to have a taste for a few hours pay and a trip up the coast, I couldn’t resist.
I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. It is the finest wine I have ever had. (Whether it is worth the price is another question) The best wines are both elegant and powerful, long, deep, and with a ceaselessly mutating flavor profile while it sits in the glass. Screaming Eagle is all of these.
Cabernet Sauvignon, while usually powerful up front with a big finish, can sometimes come up short in the mid-palate. Not this Cabernet. Its defining feature is a silky, creamy mid-palate that is prodigious yet light and lithe on the tongue. Remarkably, with a wine so concentrated and young, the shapely tannins have already softened enough to be pleasing although they were not quite integrated.
Cassis, cigar box, and eucalyptus flavors dominate, but after about an hour in the glass, coconut emerges followed in time by dusty, spicy notes. Heat from the alcohol (14.8%) is discernable but not distracting.
Classy, polished, yet fiercely sensuous. Is it comforting or frustrating to know that, as lovely as this wine is, it will be so much better in 8-10 years?
I might have been content to nose around in a 2 oz. pour of Screaming Eagle for 3 hours, but there were more wines to taste, some also striving for that elusive perfection.
The 1997 Léoville-Las Cases, a 2nd growth Bordeaux that some think should have 1st growth status, was a classic. Earthy and cultivated, showing off a nose full of truffles, it gave Screaming Eagle a run for the money. How do you compare a young, flamboyant, exhilarating youngster with the fully coordinated, refined, brooding adult at the peak of its powers? You don’t. Had I been seeking a sagacious, dignified companion on this evening rather than a more frolicsome, youthful consort I might well have given the Léoville top billing.
After all this refinement and elegance, the Saxum/Booker Vineyard 2009 had the impact of a switchblade at a tea party. (No not that tea party) Ripe, rich, meaty and alcoholic, this high scoring Syrah/Mourvedre blend needs a few years to settle down, but shows what hot, Paso Robles summers and the Rhone Rangers’ dedication to immensity can do to the pleasure centers of the brain.
But the group’s consensus was, please only one glass, and it will bury almost any food you pair it with.
If there was a disappointment in this eloquent lineup it was the storied Super Tuscan Sassicaia from 2009. Elegant with lovely floral notes, it nevertheless lacked the power of the more impressive Cabernets, although had it been accompanied by braised lamb with kale and white beans it might have fared much better. Context is everything, even in pursuit of perfection. Perhaps there is virtue in not being a show-off that would become apparent with more time.
This tasting was made possible by Wine Elite, a group of joyful, curious wine lovers dedicated to finding affordable means of tasting unaffordable wines.
Here is the full lineup of wines tasted throughout the evening:
2009 Sassicaia CABERNET SAUVIGNON, Tuscany, Italy, 98 points Wine Spectator
2009 Screaming Eagle CABERNET SAUVIGNON, Napa, California, 98 points Wine Advocate
2009 Can Blau CARIGNAN/SYRAH, Jumilla, Spain, Top 100 Wine Spectator
2009 Saxum Booker SYRAH/MOURVEDRE, Paso Robles, California, 97 points Wine Advocate
2004 Chateau Lagrange CABERNET SAUVIGNON. St Julien, France, 92 points Wine Enthusiast
2010 Cass SYRAH Dessert, Paso Robles, California
2010 Argiano Rosso Toscano CABERNET SAUVIGNON, Tuscany, Italy, 93 points Wine Spectator
1999 Bechtolsheimer Homberg Trockenbeerenauslese ORTEGA, Rhein, Germany
2010 Sine Qua Non “The Monkey” ROUSSANNE/VIOGNIER, Ventura, California, (94 points by International Wine Cellar)
1997 Leovilles Las Cases CABERNET SAUVIGNON, St Julien, California