Crushing the Corison — Part 1

After months of planning and securing as many vintages that we could, a group of us gathered Saturday night for a vertical tasting: We wanted to taste side-by-side the 25-plus vintages of Cathy Corison’s Napa Valley Cabernet.

We succeeded in securing 21 of those bottles (including one that involved travel through Brussels and Austria!). Eighteen of the wines were blindly served in five flights over approximately two and a half hours. Three of the more recent vintages were then served later that evening with dinner.

For the first time in the year and a half that I’ve known this group of friends, there was pure silence as the first flight was poured and we were ready to begin.

Corison Wine Tasting
Pre-tasting lineup of bottles. Our host also printed out tasting notes and reviews from the Corison website for us to later compare.

If Corison Cabernet has not yet crossed your palate, get yourself a bottle. The first time I tasted it, I was half-way into a  wine-laden dinner and it stopped me cold. It’s not what you expect out of a Napa Cabernet (it’s so much better than that!) and the winery is significant to today’s winemaking conversations (for example, this recent post from James Suckling about Napa’s 2013 vintage aligns more closely with how Cathy has been making her wines throughout her 40-year career, than just the results of a single vintage).

She is the first woman winemaker/proprietor in Napa and has been creating wines under her own label since 1987. Now, after releasing more than 25 vintages, she’s known by many as a “living legend.” She’s also highly-respected among her winemaking-legend peers ( See this recent interview with Ridge’s Paul Draper).

One important reason why: She has yet to stray from her restrained, elegant style that’s focused on making beautiful layered and complex wines that speak to the terroir, even while the rest of Napa began producing overly-ripe, high-alcohol, in-your-face Cabernets. I fell in love with her Cabernets because it’s the only Napa Cab I have yet to taste that doesn’t include a bite of raw green pepper (I’m convinced I have a sensitivity to pyrazines, and Corison wines are known for not having the chemical compound). On a visit to her winery last October, she was quick to quip: “I pick before the pyrazines!”

Had I done some better research prior to my visit, I would have found this San Francisco Chronicle profile from more than 10 years ago where she addresses this specific topic. But more notable, this piece could have been written yesterday. It’s a sign that her philosophy is steadfastly strong. Here are just two paragraphs from that 2005 story worth noting:

“I make wine for myself,” says Corison simply, and the statement comes not as an arrogant claim as much as an explanation of why her wine is so styled. It’s refined and calls for introspection, with the sort of character that once was mainstream California Cabernet in the 1970s and early 1980s, and which today is like wearing spats with formal attire: of another era.

It is a wine style that focuses first on lower alcohol levels. In a tasting of her wines, dating back a decade, the average alcohol level was about 13 percent; today’s wines are a tad riper, hitting 13.5 percent. Moreover, they deliver a faint hint of the dried herbs and “dusty” component for which her ranch south of St. Helena once was prized.

More recently, Eric Asimov of The New York Times wrote a column after tasting the first 25 vintages of Corison wines in a special tasting session with Cathy. Just as in the Chronicle piece, he pays particular attention to her approach:

“Wine is way more interesting at the intersection of power and elegance,” she said. For that reason, she is among the earlier harvesters on the valley floor, picking grapes while they still retain lively acidity and before they begin to shrivel and turn overly sweet.

“I feel almost a moral obligation to make wines that let the dirt speak,” she said. “One of the things I love about wine is that it speaks of time and place, and marches forward speaking of time and place. These wines are still talking about what was happening.”

Like her wines, her winemaking approach has been notably consistent: simply grape juice, just enough yeast to ensure that the fermentation begins within a few days of harvest, and a little sulfur dioxide after the naturally occurring malolactic fermentation, in which stern malic acid transforms into softer lactic acid. That’s it. No added acid, tannins, enzymes or other corrective steps, and no overbearing oak flavors. In an era when Napa cabernets have shot up past 15 percent alcohol toward 16 percent, Corison cabernets have never touched 14 percent.

Corison Wine Tasting
The first flight of our Corison tasting included the 1988, 1990 and 1993 vintages. The fourth wine is a 1987 Chappellet. We were unable to obtain a bottle of her first Corison bottle from ‘87, but we managed to find a bottle of the last vintage where she was the winemaker at Chappellet.

There’s no denying any of the observations made in the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times pieces during our 21-vintage salute. It was a study in dusty herbs and beautiful young fruit emanating out of the older vintages – a sign that in the coming years, these wines will still have a lot to say. When the initial silence (or maybe it was just pure awe) subsided and we began comparing our thoughts out loud, comments included everything from “blueberry pie” and “chocolate-covered raspberries,” to notes of leather saddle, white and black pepper, and gorgeous florals. The complexity and layers of tastes radiating out of each vintage meant almost every glass was emptied well before there was opportunity to take advantage of the white-plastic dump buckets that were supposed to help keep us relatively sober.

Our final results were inconsistent except that most of our favorites were spread out across the 1990s.

Corison Wine Tasting
While there was a lot of love for the 1993 vintage, there wasn’t a clear favorite at the end of our formal tasting.

Yet our conclusions further confirmed the reason we went to such great lengths to plan this event: Corison Cabernets are all special bottles, meant to be swirled and savored. It was fascinating to taste the evolution of a particular wine and just begin to understand a hint of how each year’s harvest impacts the components of the wine (I’ll address a few of our lessons in a future post).

As much as our goal was to “Crush the Corison,” as was repeated in all our planning e-mails’ subject lines – our generous host noted (with the accompanying gif) what truly happened that night: It’s the Corison that crushed all of us. Cheers to Cathy for creating such special wines!

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