Tom's blog

Some wines should just take a rest

After spending a delightful breakfast with Dan Cohn talking about his accessible and reasonably priced cabernet sauvignon, I had quite the opposite experience speaking to Craig Becker, winemaker at Priest Ranch.

Becker has an envious selection of mountain-grown grapes on Vaca Mountain just south of St. Helena. Generally, vineyards located on mountain sides produce late-ripening grapes that in turn create massive wines with serious tannins and depth.

Indeed, these red wines are hardly approachable. Only the regular 2015 Priest Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon was drinkable. The estate’s Coach Blend, a Bordeaux-like blend, the Somerston Merlot and the Somerston Cabernet Sauvignon XCVI were closed, tannic and begging to be decanted or, better, aged.

Don’t get me wrong: these wines were great but far too early to enjoy. And that got me to thinking about the number of people who pay hundreds of dollars in restaurants to taste these wines. Even against a steak, I don’t see how they could be enjoyed.

Priest Ranch is now part of the Somerston Estate as a result of a purchase recently made to expand its vineyards. It is named after James Joshua Priest who settled the property in 1869. It was purchased by the Chapmans in 2004. All of its wines come from estate-grown grapes.

Perhaps the best wine of the tasting was the Priest Ranch Grenache Blanc 2016 ($20). Becker says the yield from this block is 20 tons an acre — but they drop 14 tons to get the results they want.

Bellacosa: finally a true wine to enjoy

I’m so tired of false wines. By that I mean those sappy popsicles that are loaded with sweet fruit and blended with no consideration for what makes sense. Oh, wait, there is a wine called Liquid Popsicle. And there are wines called Kitchen Sink to denote that everything but is a part of the blend, and Conundrum because the variety of grapes make it impossible to define.

 Daniel Cohn

Daniel Cohn

But then comes along Bellacosa, a cabernet sauvignon that is appreciably honest.. The wine is balanced and the best $25 cabernet sauvignon on the market today. I am not exaggerating.

The genius behind this three-year-old brand is Dan Cohn, the son of Bruce Cohn whose cabernet sauvignons — B.R. Cohn — were legendary. When Bruce sold the business in 2015, Dan launched Bellacosa with the matra that his wine “had to look like a $100 bottle, it had to brink like a $50 bottle and it had to sell at $25.”

He traveled state to state for 308 days a year while married with child, staying in cheap hotels and putting his wines in the mouths of restaurant beverage managers, retailers and consumers — shoe-leather marketing. When I met up with him for breakfast, he pounded down two espressos — he would have four more before lunch. He is the Energizer Bunny of the wine world.

“I try to keep it under 20 espressos a day,” he quipped.

His first vintage of 25,000 cases sold out in 10 months. Wine Business named him one of the top 10 Wine Brands of 2016. Critics are raving about his wines.

Each restaurant he visits, he challenge doubters to blind taste his $25 Bellacosa alongside the best cabs on their wine lists. In fine restaurants, that can include Hall, Frank Family Vineyards and other prestigious brands that sell for considerably more. He calls this the “Bellacosa Bet” and if he wins the restaurant agrees to pour his wine by the glass. He hasn’t lost yet.

He makes only cabernet sauvignon from California’s north coast vineyards because that’s the grape variety he managed while working for his father. Last year he formed a joint venture with Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits.

What I found so refreshing in Bellacosa is that it didn’t follow the herd of most start-ups that are parlaying the consumer’s coco-cola palate for instant success from cheap blends loaded with sugar and plastered with some catchy name.

You’re a fool if you don’t try this wine.