2009 Stepping Stone Cabernet Franc
California: Napa Valley: Carneros
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Mission Codename: One Giant Leap
Operative: Agent Red
Objective: With the introduction of its Stepping Stone label, Cornerstone Cellars, itself a producer of high-end Napa Valley wines, has created a budget-minded Cabernet Franc that truly lives up to the Cornerstone name.
We missed out on the previous vintage of Cornerstone Cellars’ excellent Stepping Stone Cabernet Franc. While the 2009 vintage is still in barrel, infiltrate the winery and secure an ample quantity for our Franc-loving Operatives.
Mission Status: Accomplished!
Current Winery: Cornerstone Cellars, Napa Valley, California
Wine Subject: 2009 Stepping Stone Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley
Winemaker: Jeff Keene
Cornerstone Cellars, a Wine Spies favorite winery, recently introduced today’s 2009 Stepping Stone Cabernet Franc, a delicious and elegant high-value wine that he recommends wholeheartedly. As you know by now, Cabernet Franc is one of Agent Red’s favorite red varietals. Perhaps this is because its flavors are often rich, layered, complex and elegant. Or, perhaps he loves Cabernet Franc so much because it pairs so exceptionally with many different foods. One of the most notable things about Cabernet Franc is the fact that finding excellent examples can be very difficult. Read Red’s tasting notes and mission report below for the full intel on today’s superb wine
Wine Spies Tasting Profile:
Look – Darkest ruby red hues, with a clear, dark heart of black cherry juice. At the edge of the wine, a pink ring cuts a fine circle around the glass.After a swirl, the wine leaves behind tight clusters of crooked legs that descend very slowly down the glass wall.
Smell – Lush and clean, with black cherry, blackberry and sweet black plum in the lead. As the wine breathes, it opens up and reveals additional aromas of dried violets, soft spice, dried meats, sweetwood, and a savory hint of dried herbs.
Feel – Crushed velvet and medium bodied, this wine quickly settle onto the palate. Flavors coat the palate and the wine takes on a softly textured, softly chewy feel. A gradual, pronounced flinty dryness spreads all around he palate as flavors remain.
Taste – Bold spiced blackberry and juicy cherry lead the way, closely followed by black currant, dried cranberry, red plum skin, raspberry, dried violets and soft spice. At the very end, an intriguing flinty flavor mixes with a hint of fine black pepper and very subtle pencil shavings.
Finish – Very intriguing, with fruit that is sustained for a very long time. Even after the palate is dried, slightly, by the wine, fruit sticks around for a long time. Then, at the tail end of the finish, a very interesting (and tasty) and very subtle hint of pencil shavings appears.
Conclusion – This young buck is a keeper! A little shy at first, we decanted the wine to see if it would open up. We were generously rewarded with more fruit on the nose and on the palate. I recommend that you spin the wine in your glass and continue to taste it as it opens up for you. We have always had great love for all of Cornerstone’s wines and today’s 2009 Stepping Stone Cabernet Franc Napa Valley lives up to the reputation. Cabernet Franc is one of the most food-friendly wines I know, but if you are looking for a pairing suggestion, I’d recommend a delicious pulled pork sandwich! Enjoy now, but be sure to buy enough to cellar for the next few years.
WINEMAKER INTEL BRIEFING DOSSIER
SUBJECT: Jeff Keene
DATE OF BIRTH: 04/71
PLACE OF BIRTH: Waiouru, New Zealand
WINE EDUCATION: Postgraduate degree in Oenolgy and Viticulture from Lincoln University in New Zealand, with an undergraduate in Chemistry, because there needs to be a little science with this art.
CALIFORNIA WINE JOB BRIEF: Havens Wine Cellars, Peter Franus Wine Company and Cornerstone Cellars.
WINEMAKING PHILOSOPHY: To produce wines that reflect site & appellation, respecting traditions and to make wines we like to drink.
SIGNATURE VARIETAL: Come back to me in 2 to 3 years time with this question, but I have to say that I have had the most challenges and rewards with Cabernet Franc.
CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Every day is a highlight, but honestly, the friends I have made and the wines I have drunk while in this industry are the highlights…and its not over yet!
WINEMAKER QUOTE: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it…I think you can apply this to most occupations
AGENT RED: Greetings, Jeff. We are thrilled to be showing your 2009 Steppingstone Cabernet Franc today. Thanks so much for taking some time to answer questions for our Operatives today.
JEFF: Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity. It’s an honor to be given this mission.
RED: Please tell me a little bit about the wine we are featuring today
JEFF: My favorite grape variety to work with in the Napa Valley…Cabernet Franc.
The 2009 Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Cabernet Franc comes from 2 outstanding vineyard sites, the cool climate Carneros region and the warmth of Oakville, each adding a unique personality to the wine. This wine is a beautiful example of this variety and showcases how spectacular Cabernet Franc can be from the Napa Valley.
This is a very fragrant and elegant wine which balances its satisfying acidity and brightness with a full well structured palate. Long and firm on the finish this wine has the mouth filling texture to be enjoyed now, but will also benefit and become more delicious with some age.
RED: What is your favorite pairing with today’s wine?
JEFF: Our 2009 Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Cabernet Franc has the right amount of acidity and brightness to be a ready companion for most meals, but my favorite pairing is a perfectly roasted leg of lamb with all the fixing’s.
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 this inspired me to find better wine…
RED: And where did you learn the most about winemaking?
JEFF: I can point to my education in New Zealand, but for all aspects of winegrowing, physically, mentally, spiritually I have to say the majority of my experience came from my time at Havens Wine Cellars where I had the opportunity to work with 2 great, but stylistically different winemakers, Peter Franus and Michael Havens.
RED: What is your winemaking style or philosophy?
JEFF: I aspire to make wines that reflect the site and appellation they come from and also to make wines we love to drink, very challenging, but the rewards are a great bottle of wine.
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, once again, Peter Franus and Michael Havens…2 different winemaking heads. I have learnt a lot from these guys and I am still learning from them…
RED: How long have you been making wine?
JEFF: 11 years now…time flies when you are having fun, but then there is bottling…
RED: Who do you make wine for?
JEFF: You, me and all the consumers out there who enjoy great wines
RED: Tell me, what makes the Carneros and Oakville regions so special?
JEFF: Showcasing the authentic varietal character of Cabernet Franc is a very important goal in crafting this Stepping Stone selection. I feel the long growing season of the Carneros appellation which offers mouth filling, silky, textural tannins with slightly more acidity and refreshing fruitiness is balanced by the bold earthy aromatics and tannic structure offered by the Oakville appellation. Cabernet Franc can be a cantankerous variety, but find the right locations and as you can see something very special emerges.
RED: What is one piece of advice that you would give to someone that is considering a career as a winemaker?
JEFF: Listen, learn, travel and have fun. What an amazing industry to be in. Wine is made in some of the worlds most beautiful regions. So many different styles, traditions and personalities. It’s a fascinating experience and one that you are always continually learning.
RED: What is occupying your time at the winery these days?
JEFF: This is my favorite time of year in the winery, we are currently finalizing our 2010 red blends ready for bottling. It is amazing to see the evolution of a wine, how the aromas and flavors have developed over the past 2 years. Tannins, texture, richness, balance. Over and over again different red varieties are blended in different proportions to carefully piece together our vision of the perfectly balanced wine.
RED: Please share one thing about yourself that few people know
WINEMAKER: My wife and 2 kids keep me sane in this profession.
RED: What is your favorite ‘everyday’ or table wine?
JEFF: Being in this industry I count myself very lucky that I am surrounded by many great wines that I can enjoy everyday. So… many favorites, but I am always on the look out for new wines from new producers and regions.
RED: How would you recommend that people approach your wines, or wine in general?
JEFF: I would recommend people approach these wines with great enthusiasm and don’t hold back…sorry that was the sales person in me…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: If you could choose any one wine to drink (regardless of price or availability), what would it be?
JEFF: Not this question please…my answer to this question is always based on who, what, where and how…Who I am with, friends, family…What am doing, something, nothing…Where I am, inside, outside, hot, cold and how I am feeling…party or reflective…
RED: What is the one question that I should have asked you, and what is your answer to that question?
JEFF: Where and what is Waiouru…middle of the North Island of New Zealand, close to Lake Taupo…and not a vineyard to be seen in any direction.
RED: Thank you so much for your time. We learned a lot about you – and about your wine. Keep up the great work, we are big fans!
JEFF: Thank you so much for this amazing opportunity to showcase our 2009 Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Cabernet Franc. Once again its a real pleasure to work with you guys.
Wine Spies Vineyard Check:
The location of the vineyards where today’s wine was born can be seen in this satellite photo.
What the Winery Says
Awards and Accolades:
90 Points – Wine Enthusiast
Silver Medal – San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
About This Wine:
With perfectly balanced fragrant aromatics, flavors and well-structured tannins, this wine also has the right amount of satisfying acidity and brightness which makes it a ready companion to most meals. Our Stepping Stone by Cornerstone 2009 Cabernet Franc shows a fine balance and elegance which maybe enjoyed now, but will also benefit and become more delicious with some age.
Cabernet Franc; a cantankerous variety; often blended with other Bordeaux reds is a late ripener, preferring cooler climates which makes ripening this variety to perfection a challenge. However, find the right locations and something very special emerges.
Sourced from 2 outstanding vineyard sites, each adding a unique personality to the the wine, our Stepping Stone by Cornerstone 2009 Cabernet Franc is a beautiful example of this variety and showcases how spectacular Cabernet Franc can be from the Napa Valley.
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.
Varietals: 95% Cabernet Franc, Truchard Vineyard, Carneros and Cassanova Vineyard, Oakville. 5% Merlot Stewart Ranch Vineyard, Carneros.
T.A.: 0.550 g/100mL
Production: 755 Cases