The Omniboire

The question on everybody’s lips — at least those with fairly loose lips — is this: Should Texas winemakers bother trying to produce cabernet sauvignon, or should they throw in the towel and go for grapes that have a better hot-weather track record? Say tempranillo or granache, just to name two. Rising to the challenge, Omniboire decided to take the beloved bull by the horns and stage a tasting of some of the state’s cabernet contenders. (Anyway, it’s rodeo time, and the metaphor seemed appropriate.) Don’t expect a definitive answer; we aren’t that authoritative. But do take note of the musings of our latest tasting panel — composed of a bunch of wine-savvy rogues and scoundrels, as usual.

Due to a delivery glitch, some of the wines we had expected to taste didn’t arrive (see my after-the-fact comments below), but what we did taste was illuminating. Our host for the event was chef and owner Brian West of Café Paladar, and we were joined by wine rep and all-around expert Ray Ayala of Republic National Distributors, and Tanji Patton, formerly of late-night news and a closet wine wonk all this time. (She and her husband Mike are serious wine tourists; they have taken and passed, “with distinction,” a grueling two-day wine-tasting course at Copia in Napa Valley, and Tanji is currently involved in producing a pilot focused on wine, food, and travel.) As usual, yours truly was the hall proctor, attempting both to keep things moving and to elicit quotable quotes after the identity of the bottles was revealed.

I should admit upfront that there was an out-of-state ringer in the mix of eight cabernets and blends; after seeing its label I couldn’t resist. Out of the seven remaining Texas products, three didn’t make the minimum 13/20 score to merit inclusion — though again, see below, because one was re-tasted from a different bottle. On the surface, this is not encouraging for the industry. And though the remaining wines were deemed worthy of inclusion, their scores were based more on overall quality than any sense of true cabernet expression.

“It’s bright and fun to drink … I see it with paella,” said West of the McPherson Cabernet, adding that he detected honey on the palate and saffron on the nose. “It’s soft for a cab … but a nice little wine,” opined Patton, while Ayala observed that “The fruit leaped out of the glass.” (Though he feels compelled to produce a cab, winemaker Kim McPherson is an advocate of “stuff that loves heat” for Texas, claiming cabernet “is not going to be like Napa’s. It’s going to be warm-climate cabernet” — and priced accordingly, he hopes.)

Llano Estacado’s baseline Texas Cabernet tended to exhibit more traditional character, with Ayala saying it had “good varietal flavor and balance with soft tannins.” Patton found it had a nose that was “oaky, but not overwhelming,” and West deemed it “good drinking” with “a little spark … I’d serve it with duck and pomegranate molasses” — which, as it happens, you can find on his menu.

Ironically, Llano’s Viviano, a Super Tuscan blend of cabernet with sangiovese that’s considered the winery’s “flagship” wine, was less well-received by the panel. “There’s more cherry than I want … and a little sweetness,” claimed Patton, while West detected mocha and chocolate aromas that suggested a pairing with a chocolate dessert served with stewed cherries.

Llano’s entry-level cab even scored on par with the ringer of the day, the Longhorn Mendocino Cabernet from Meeker. Charlie Meeker, a man with deep Texas roots and a law degree from UT Austin, made this wine as an homage to a state where “everything’s big,” and the label screams Texas. (And, yes, it’s longhorn-and-Texas-flag tacky, leading West to suggest “it belongs in a convenience store.”) Ayala enthused over its “beautiful nose and its wonderful, well-integrated oak and fruit,” theorizing it came from a warm vintage.

The highest-scoring wine of the panel tasting, however, was Becker Vineyards’ Les Trois Dames 2005 Claret, an almost-Bordeaux blend of cabernet with merlot, malbec, cabernet franc, and just a soupçon of petite syrah. “I
really enjoyed it; it has dark fruits, fig … it would be great to drink with dinner,” said West. “There’s a casual elegance about it,” offered Patton. “It has nice layers … a lot of everything,” claimed Ayala — and this of a bottle that’s not Becker’s most prestigious cabernet-based wine.

We had intended to taste that bottle, the Becker Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Newsom Vineyard, but it didn’t arrive until the next day, so, along with four other late-comers, I tasted them solo, using the same scoring system. (These wines won’t appear on the panel–ranked chart, however.) Given the ranking of the claret, it’s perhaps not surprising that this wine topped all of them with a personal score of 17.5 out of 20. Here I found deep fruit — cassis on top of cherry — with a beautiful finish.

The same High Plains vineyard also supplied fruit for Llano Estacado’s Cellar Reserve 2005 Newsom Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, and it was instructive to taste how different winemaking led to distinctive results from the same fruit. This wine rated a 16.5 and exhibited a more restrained nose than the Becker, but offered very appealing dark cherry with sage, cedar, and even graphite aromas and flavors, the package being marred only slightly by a somewhat harsh finish. The Sister Creek 2005 Cabernet blended with merlot and malbec just made the 13-point cutoff, with Messina-Hof’s 2005 Barrel Reserve weighing in at 13.5 points.

Another flagship wine, the 2004 Meritus from Fall Creek Vineyards, didn’t make the cut at the panel tasting, with one panelist, who preferred to remain anonymous, calling it a “re-gifter.” This bottle (the most expensive of the tasting, retailing for around $43) had been plucked from a supermarket shelf, however, and as it appeared in the second-round delivery, it seemed only fair to retaste it — and the difference was night and day, perhaps due to storage conditions or simply bottle flaw. Ranking a personal 17, it showed both freshness and dark-fruit intensity, with a little mature coffee on the lingering finish. Price/value was an issue, however. “This is a hard wine to sell from our wine list,” admitted a waiter friend at Biga, who gets customer resistance when a Texas wine is listed at over $80.

There are no Texas reds currently on the wine list at Biga; there is one, the Becker Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, at Las Canarias. Comprehensive lists such as the award-winners at The Little Rhein/Fig Tree and Grey Moss Inn do dedicate a section to Texas wines, but they generally stick to bottles that can be offered at no more than $46-$48. Whites appear more often than reds, suggesting that, although quality in red varietals has improved significantly since the pioneering years of the industry in Texas (there’s less of the green quality that marred many early offerings, for example, there still is a problem of perception. Whereas an all-Washington wine list can be imagined (and found) in Seattle, a totally Texas slate would seem suicidal in San Antonio — in part because the boosterism of an agency such as the influential Washington Wine Commission is lacking. Yes, some winemakers ought to rethink producing cabernet — especially at high-end prices, but a little Longhorn and Aggie enthusiasm wouldn’t hurt, either. Just without the tacky labels, please.