Monday, May 26, 2014

Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Black Label 2011

Napa Valley's Cornerstone Cellars is known for their top-shelf Cabernet Sauvignon, as are many wineries within the narrow confines of that swath of expensive land.  In recent years they have delivered a wine targeted to a younger crowd, the Stepping Stone label.  Stepping Stone wines have filled the “affordable Napa Valley” niche.  The company has announced that they are now forced to choose between quality and price.

Cornerstone will discontinue its Stepping Stone label and replace it with a Black Label version of its Cornerstone Cellars brand.  The wine pictured and described here is, to my understanding, the last vintage to wear the Stepping Stone label.  They have also produced a Cabernet Franc and a Syrah similarly attired.

Cornerstone Managing Partner Craig Camp tells me the decision did not come easily - it was a fork in the road, and it was one direction or the other.  Camp explains, “We have decided to ... give up a less expensive line of wines to introduce a new range of wines made with no concessions in the tradition of our iconic White Label Cornerstone Cellars wines. The one thing we have not left behind is our obsession with offering exceptional values. However, we are a small company and can't do everything. To produce this new group of exciting wines something had to go by the wayside. So this is both the end of an era and a new beginning as we could not travel both paths.”

So, while Cornerstone’s new Black Label indicates a farewell, it’s not funereal.  The new label underscores a line of wines envisioned to be centered on elegance.  The company does consider the Black Label a value line, it’s simply value at a price that is more sustainable in the context of the Napa Valley marketplace.

“Our vision is to make dramatic, elegant and complex wines from great vineyards,” says Camp.  “This means that the value in our wines is not that they are inexpensive, but that they have such an expressive personality, combined with our singular character, that their value is not on their price tag, but on your palate.”

The 2011 Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Black Label is made from Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and 11% Merlot and retails for $45.  Alcohol is right in the Napa Valley wheelhouse at 14.3% abv.

The dark purple wine casts a spell at arm's length.  The aromas start as dark, ripe fruit.  Further inspection - don’t try to resist, further inspection is inescapable - reveals a subtle spiciness, a subtle herb character and a subtle smell of a box of cigars.  In fact, there is so much subtlety going on, the collective subtlety really starts to hog the scene.  It is very hard to upstage dark, ripe fruit, though.

That fruit comes forward prominently on the palate.  As big and juicy as the wine is, it is still very complex.  Huge flavors of blackberry and currant are joined by a little tobacco, a dash of nutmeg, a smidge of eucalyptus, a bit of bell pepper, a dollop of white pepper and a chunk of chocolate.

2011 was a very cool vintage for Napa Valley, so much so that at least one winemaker called it “horrible.”  Cornerstone’s winemaker Jeff Keene appears unfazed by the challenges of 2011.   He has created a stunning and forceful wine that offers explosive fruit, savory complexity and great acidity, all in one nicely dressed bottle.

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