Cornerstone Cellars

2008 Stepping Stone Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon

California: Napa Valley

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Mission Codename: The Path to Nirvana

Operative: Agent Red

Objective: Return to Cornerstone Cellars and procure their newly released 2008 Stepping Stone Cabernet Sauvignon

Mission Status: Accomplished

Current Winery: Cornerstone Cellars

Wine Subject: 2008 Stepping Stone Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, by Cornerstone Cellars

Winemaker: Jeff Keene


For today’s wine, we sent Agent Red back to Cornerstone Cellars, a Wine Spies favorite. Until now, Cornerstone has been best-known for producing some of the finest, premium-priced, Cabernet Sauvignon the The Wine Spies have had the pleasure to taste. Today’s wine comes from their second label, Stepping Stone,

Read Agent Red’s tasting notes, along with his exclusive interview with winemaker, Jeff Keene.

Wine Spies Tasting Profile:

Look – Dark garnet hued, with a band of ruby that rings the glass. The wine is perfectly clear through its darkening heart, and when swirled it leaves behind skinny legs as it settles.

Smell – Youthful and vibrant, warm candied cherry leads the way, quickly followed by lush strawberry and cranberry. These mingle with soft cedar, vanilla, oak, dried flower petals and a hint of subtle green peppercorn.

Feel – Bright and pointed, on the attack, then firm tannins take hold, adding a hint of dryness that spreads from the tip of the tongue to the back of the palate. Eventually, the lips and cheeks become softly dry.

Taste – Youthful and bright, with underripe blackberry, young strawberry and cranberry. Flavors of fresh cut cedar, a hint of tobacco leaf and oak follow.

Finish – High and bright with smoky cherry and young strawberry, that linger into tart sweetwoods and flint.

Conclusion – This wine is youthful and bright, showing amazing potential for development over the next few years. If you are patient enough. With bright and bold flavors, and high, vibrant aromatics, this wine is best enjoyed after some extended decanting. Enjoy a bottle now, one closer to the Holidays, and one each year for the next ten! This is an age-worthy wine that should only continue to improve as it ages. Pair with bolder fare, such as a spicy pasta dish or a rich beef stew.

Mission Report:


SUBJECT: Jeff Keene

WINE EDUCATION: Postgraduate Degree in Oenology and Viticulture from Lincoln University, New Zealand.

CALIFORNIA WINE JOB BRIEF: Cornerstone Cellars, Peter Franus Wine Company and Havens Wine Cellars

WINEMAKING PHILOSOPHY: To produce wines that reflect site and appellation, respecting traditions and to make wines we love to drink.

WINEMAKER QUOTE: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…


AGENT RED: Greetings, Jeff. We are thrilled to be showing your [wine] today. Thanks so much for taking some time to answer questions for our Operatives today.

JEFF: That you so much for this exciting opportunity to show Cornerstone’s 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon this time around.

RED: Was there a specific experience in your life that inspired your love of wine?

JEFF: Well, growing up in a house where there was nothing, but the ‘bag in the box’ wine on offer, I can tell you it inspired me to find better wine, so you could say my parents inspired me…

RED: What wine or winemaker has most influenced your winemaking style?

JEFF: All wines I try influence me in one way or another, but in terms of winemakers I have learnt and still learning from Peter Franus and Michael Havens, 2 great but stylistically different winemakers.

RED: Who do you make wine for?

JEFF: You, me and all the consumers out there who enjoy great wines.

RED: Please tell me a little bit about the wine we are featuring today.

JEFF: A 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, our 2008 Stepping Stone Cabernet Sauvignon is a concentrated, multi-layered wine where the dark, rich fruit dominates as the palate expands, but the acid remains lively, juicy and focused. The tannins are long, youthful and satisfying and bring richness and length to the palate.

RED: What is your favorite pairing with today’s wine?

JEFF: A teriyaki marinated skirt steak. (from Alex who works in our Yountville tasting room)

RED: In your opinion, what makes the Napa Valley so special?

JEFF: What makes Napa so special… the 2008 Stepping Stone Cabernet Sauvignon highlights the complexity and diversity of winegrowing in the Napa Valley. From the muscular, dense, concentrated fruit of Wooden Valley to the lusciously complex, bold, earthy aromatics and tannic structure of Oakville, which are then lifted with a touch of softness, acidity and forward, almost floral notes from the Coombsville and Carneros vineyards of Southern Napa.

RED: What is occupying your time at the winery these days?

JEFF: I’m out of the winery and into the vineyards…walking, sampling , tasting…it’s getting close for our white varieties.

RED: How would you recommend people approach your wines and wine in general?

JEFF: With great enthusiasm and vigor. With wine in general…don’t be afraid to try new wines, new winemakers, new regions / new experiences. Let your own intuition guide you.

RED: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

JEFF: I would just like thank The Wine Spies for this fantastic opportunity to showcase one of our wines and to thank all your readers out there for their amazing support. Thank you.

RED: Thank you so much for your time. We learned a lot about you – and your wine. Keep up the great work, we are big fans!

Wine Spies Vineyard Check:

The location of the Cornerstone tasting room, in the heart of downtown Yountville, can be seen in this satellite photo.

What the Winery Says

About This Wine:

Our 2008 Stepping Stone Cabernet Sauvignon is a concentrated, multi-layered wine where the dark, rich fruit dominates as the palate expands, but the acid remains lively, juicy and focused. The tannins are long, youthful and satisfying and bring richness and length to the palate. While enticing, generous and elegant upon release, this wine will become even more delicious in the cellars of the patient among us. While it is one thing to make great wines, it’s a whole other challenge to produce beautiful wines of outstanding quality that are both reasonably priced and capable of expressing their full charm and complexity in their youth, which is part of our vision for Stepping Stone.

A 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, this 2008 Stepping Stone highlights the complexity and diversity of winegrowing in the Napa Valley. Sourced from 5 outstanding vineyard sites, each adding a unique personality to the wine, which is the secret to its silky textures and rich balance. From the muscular, dense, concentrated fruit of Wooden Valley to the lusciously complex, bold earthy aromatics and tannic structure of Oakville, which are then lifted with a touch of softness, acidity and forward, almost floral notes from the Coombsville and Carneros vineyards of Southern Napa.

2008 was a dramatic growing season beginning with below normal winter rainfall, an extended April frost that reduced quantities in many regions, followed by ideal mid-summer and fall temperatures with no precipitation. Berry size was small and combined with lighter yields, resulted in excellent quality fruit producing wines with amazingly deep colors, great balance, flavor and aromas.

About The Winery:

1991 was the first vintage of Cornerstone Cellars – and a head-first plunge into the wonderful world of long-distance wine production for Memphis physicians, Michael Dragutsky and David Sloas.

Back in the fall of 1991, Sloas was visiting the Napa Valley. He and Napa wine merchant Bruce Scotland went up to see Randy Dunn on Howell Mountain, taste his wines and watch harvest. As the trailers unloaded, Dunn told them he had five tons more Cabernet coming in than he could manage at his place. Would Sloas want to buy it? He called back to Dragutsky in Memphis for a reality check. They agreed they had both lost their minds – and purchased the overage of 4.8 tons of premium Howell Mountain Cabernet. They were in the wine business.

Taken somewhat by surprise by their overwhelming reception, Dragutsky and Sloas decided that their love of good wine would prevail over all else. “From the beginning our philosophy was to use the best grapes, the best barrels, the best facilities,” says CFO and Vice President, Dragutsky. “Making the best wine we can bottle is the real bottom line for us. It’s thrilling to be out to a fine meal with friends, order our wine and see the great response to our Cornerstone wines.”

From the first, the wines have been extremely well received in the press, getting ratings in the mid-nineties in the Wine Spectator and excellent reviews in The Wine Advocate and Connoisseurs’ Guide.

Cornerstone Cellars was rated one of eight “World Class” Cabernet Sauvignon producers (along with Dunn Howell Mountain, Dunn Napa Valley, La Jota Anniversary, Mondavi Reserve, Phelps Insignia, Ridge Monte Bello, and Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23) in The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of the Wines of California and the Pacific Northwest, 4th Edition.

1991 was a great vintage year and Cornerstone Cellars found a cult niche: powerful Howell Mountain Cabernets – big, ripe and muscular with focused fruit of currant, cherry and plum – and a miniscule production of 400 cases. This is some of the latest Cabernet in the valley to ripen due to the lean hillside soils and the elevation of the vineyards on Howell Mountain (the vineyard sources are from 1700 to 2400 feet). The yield averages two to two-and-a-half tons per acre. While the temperatures are moderate, the daily pattern is reversed: on a hot day it is warmer in the morning since the vineyard is above the fog on the valley floor, and it is cooler later in the day which makes the flavors more concentrated. The later ripening allows “hang time” when the intensity of flavor develops and the tannins soften.

In 1997, Dragutsky and Sloas bought into a 12 acre vineyard on Liparita Road which had been the primary fruit source since the first vintage. The site is at approximately 1700 feet with red mountain clay soil typical of this part of Howell Mountain. In 2002 the vineyard was sold to next door neighbor and vintner, Mark Neal. A gradual replant is underway with all aspects of the project focused on putting the best wine possible in the bottle. Long term contracts with Neal ensure continuity of fruit source for many years to come.

About The Team

A New Era at Cornerstone – I’m pleased to announce that, for the first time in many years, Cornerstone Cellars has a full-time winemaker. With our plans for growth and ever higher quality goals, I felt a consulting winemaker would not be able to give us the focus and time required to achieve our goals. Our new winemaker, Jeff Keene, is a veteran winemaker with more than a decade of Napa Valley experience. A native of New Zealand, Jeff was a research chemist, but returned to university in New Zealand to get a degree in enology. A former associate winemaker with Peter Franus and head winemaker at Havens Wine Cellars, Jeff will bring an elegant touch to the wines of Cornerstone Cellars. Also joining our winemaking team is star consulting enologist Peter Franus, whose more than thirty years of Napa Valley winegrowing and winemaking will help achieve our goal of taking our Cornerstone wines to the pinnacle of Napa Valley wines.

A New Era with New Wines – This September saw the release of our new Stepping Stone wines: 2008 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($20), 2007 Carneros Cabernet Franc ($30) and 2007 Red Hills-Lake County Grenache ($20) all of which were produced by our new winemaking team. Our mission with Stepping Stone is to craft wines of exceptional value and we have achieved that goal in our new releases. The Sauvignon Blanc is steely and crisp, the Cabernet Franc is fragrant and elegant and the Grenache is powerful and peppery. Production of all of these wines was limited and I expect them to sell out before the end of the year.

We’ve just harvested our first Cornerstone Cellars white wine, a single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from an exceptional block in the St. Helena AVA. This new wine will be released next Spring and will help introduce more consumers to our wines. Our traditional Cabernet Sauvignon portfolio remains unchanged, except that our 2008 Napa will now have some Cabernet Franc in the blend from our Casanova Vineyard on the rocky hills at the eastern edge of the Oakville AVA. With this vintage we are taking all the fruit from this tiny, but exciting vineyard. Our flagship wine, Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, will continue to come from the Ink Grade Vineyard and is made with 100% organically certified grapes, as it has been since 2004. The current releases are 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.

Our new tasting room and hospitality center in Yountville is now open and we invite you to visit us when you are in Napa.

Technical Analysis:

Alcohol: 14.9%

Appellation: Napa Valley

Vineyards: Oakville (UC-Davis Block, Cassanova Vineyard), Wooden Valley (Rancho Chimiles), Coombsville (Hardman Road), Carneros (Truchard Vineyard)

Varietal: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon

Year: 2008

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