Crushing the Kronos Reveals Beauty of Consistency

Corison wine bottles
All 16 vintages of Corison Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon, with a few extra bottles thrown inf or good measure.

Right around the time my friends and I were sobering up from our 16-year verticle tasting of wines from Cathy Corison’s Kronos Vineyard, Dave McIntyre of The Washington Post, wrote in his weekly column, he, too, had recently tasted through 16 vintages of a particular wine. He said the wines in the tasting were “postcards from time,” and as one of his fellow diners told him: “I enjoy each wine less this way, but I learn more.”

Those are easy assertions to agree with and capitalizing on the learning and the understanding of time, is exactly why a year after my tasting group wrangled 21 vintages of Corison Napa Valley Cabernet, we challenged ourselves to do it again, this time focusing on the Cabernet Sauvignon she made from her Kronos vineyard. (Ok, we may have did it for some bragging rights, too!)  

Corison Kronos tasting
A semi-demolished flight of Corison Kronos wines.

The Kronos Cabernet comes from 45-year-old vines that are grown on Cathy’s St. Helena property. She and her husband farm the land, and since 1996 they have produced the single vineyard bottling of Corison Kronos Cabernet. The wines are more powerful than the Napa Valley Cabernet she blends from other nearby by vineyards. But true to her style, Kronos maintains her delicate signature style of winemaking, keeping the wines elegant and at a low alcohol level (about 13%). If you visit the winery for a tour and library tasting (which I strongly recommend), you’ll exit the back barn-like doors and step immediately into the Kronos vineyard, located on the Napa Valley floor, stretching about 8 acres back to the Mayacamas Mountains. Unlike many of Napa’s vines, this vineyard survived the 1990s phylloxera epidemic because the vines are on St. George rootstock, which is resistant to the tiny bugs. (For more on the vineyard, take a look at this profile Kelli White wrote in 2011.)

Corison's Kronos Vineyard
The Kronos Vineyard is literally in Cathy Corison’s backyard. This is the back of the winery.

Corison's Kronos Vineyard
Standing in the Kronos Vineyard looking out to the Mayacamas Mountains on a misty day in December, 2016.

We modeled this year’s tasting after last year’s. There were a handful of flights with all 16 vintages of the Kronos Vineyard from 1996 to 2012. Each wine was poured blind, but each flight was loosely in chronological order from oldest to youngest. A few ringers were included in the mix including two pours from the same vintage – one from the top half and other from the bottom half of a magnum, and a few of the Napa Valley Cabernets were compared against the Kronos. We had two separate bottles of 2004, so those were poured in separate glasses, as well, making for an interesting lesson in bottle variation.

Just like last year, there were no clear favorites, but together, the 16 vintages told a bigger story – a consistent beauty was strung from bottle to bottle. It’s impossible to escape the violets, dust and undertones of herbal mints that at times mixed with some chocolate (Junior Mints, anyone?).

I hit palate fatigue before the final flight. Despite my best efforts to spit and snack on the cheeses and charcuterie we prepared, by the last flight, there was nothing but the violets, dust and herbal mints coating my throat (which is certainly not a bad thing!). But there was something magical going on in the early parts of the aughts. We were told that Cathy’s favorite Kronos vintage was 2001, but 2002 and 2003 were slightly lifted from the pack for me. Whether that’s because those bottles had the right amount of age on it for my personal liking, or it was something within the vintages themselves, it’s hard to say.

It’s worth noting, however, that thanks to a very cool and rainy year – and what Cathy has called a challenging year in the vineyard – the 2011 bottle was the very definition of letting a wine speak for its vintage. It tasted significantly older – maybe by a decade – than its actual year. A bit darker and more savory than the others, but still elegant and restrained. Emanating from some of the darker more savory notes were dusty violets, which reminded one of my friends of Choward’s Violet Mints.


Having the opportunity to taste through almost all of the Corison wines – both the Napa Valley and Kronos bottles – is truly an honor. While it’s obvious that aging these wines only brings out more complexity, more structure and more textured flavors, the trouble will always be not popping the cork too early, as they are certainly just as enjoyable now as they will be in years to come.

Crushing the Corison – Part 2

I had very high hopes to not only crush our Corison tasting, but come back to with brilliant notes about many of the vintages – or at least some unifying themes that could tie certain years together.

We were set up for success: Each tasting place mat included designated lines for detailed note taking. And I was more than prepared to write down legible thoughts. But there were five place mats – with four wines per mat.


Reading back nearly a week later, the notes are only understandable enough to give a glimpse at what I was thinking, and maybe jog a sensory memory of two. But not enough to tell a riveting story.

Fortunately, after 20 tastes of 19 different Cathy Corison-made wines, there were some key takeaways. Even more fortunate, I was surrounded by 10 knowledgeable and experienced friends.

In Part 1  of this 21-vintage salute to Corison Napa Valley Cabernet, I noted there wasn’t a clear winner among the wines we sipped during our formal tasting. Yet when I sent an e-mail to the group asking for any “lessons learned,” many were in agreement with what impressed us the most.



(Note: we used 18 vintages and one bottle of the final vintage Cathy spent at Chappellet for the tasting. There were three more recent vintages that were later popped during dinner. And yes that equals 22, but the Chappellet was thrown in as a ringer.)

The first takeaway was acknowledgment of our limitations, such as in this response:

“My insights are that I cannot taste 20 iterations of the same wine and expect to come out with a clear favorite. I measure the value of wine in interest, and similarly interesting wines all have similar value. Also, my palate is a blunt instrument and easily overwhelmed by sameness. The small differences become ever harder to discern.”

Pheww! This warmed my novice heart and I realized the value of this tasting was not about distinguishing differences in each individual year. Instead, it was a master class in understanding a particular winemaking style, and a tribute to how well-made wines evolve over time.



Our biggest OMG moment came in the form of a 1999 magnum. This may not be specific to a Corison wine – in fact, it’s probably not – but it was truly the most jaw-dropping part of the night.

The top half of the magnum was poured into one decanter, while the bottom half of the bottle went into a second. The two decanters were poured in the first and fourth glasses during our third flight (we were blinded  with each flight – so while we could guess the general time frame because the flights were in order of oldest to youngest, we didn’t know what years we were tasting in each glass).



Upon tasting, the wines presented themselves completely differently. The first glass was lighter with layered flavors and tannins. “Minty spice,” is what I jotted down. The fourth glass, however was much rounder and full-bodied. It tasted of dark inky fruit and had a green finish. Of our three hosts, the one who wasn’t involved in the blinding or serving of the wines shocked her husband when she was able to detect a similar component and asked if the two wines were the same vintage. But the rest of us were dumbfounded when the two glasses were revealed as being poured from the same bottle.

My place mat notes depict a double arrow pointing at both glasses with the words “HOLY SHIT” written across the arrow. One taster e-mailed all the questions that started running through my head:

The magnum was crazy. Who knew the top and bottom half could taste like two completely different wines? Does this happen in 750s too? If it does, I wonder if that has something to do with how people talk about a wine opening up over an evening (which I don’t tend to notice much of myself) – maybe sometimes the variation is already there in the bottle?”

So now we have an entirely new topic to investigate for another day!

Other takeaways, more specific to Corison wines, included:

  • In the third flight there was a “consistent metallic, tar, bloody, iodine note … It made me wonder whether there was something in the viticulture or winemaking during those years that brought that out.”
  • Except for the 1987 Chappellet, which had a “grittier texture to the tannins,” there was a “stylistic consistency. There was definitely a connecting thread through all the wines regardless of vintage variation. It was very easy to get a sense of what a Corison wine’s character is.”
  • There were no detectable traces of a bad vintage. Each wine in and of itself could have stood beautifully on its own.

A few tasters who were well-versed in Napa Cabernet offered a broader perspective:

“Corison clearly belongs on the short list of Napa producers whose wines not only age well, but actually get more interesting. Both secondary and tertiary development. I’m excited to try the more recent vintages in 10 to 20 years. This list is very small.”

In response to that comment, another wrote:

 “As someone that really doesn’t ever recall having Corison before, oddly enough, that’s the impression I came away with, too: I’d put Corison in the same category as Dunn. Made to age, older-world style of winemaking.”


For me, what continues to make this night so special is understanding the simple and gradual evolution of wine as it ages. It’s not that the younger wines can’t be enjoyed now. But all of a sudden, that 2006 bottle I fell in love with months ago no longer held a torch to some of the older vintages.

As one friend e-mailed:

“The tasting really solidified for me what it means for a young wine to be closed/locked down/not showing much. The really young ones (‘09, ’11, ’13) were still delicious and still obviously Corison, but after tasting the older wines, I could really tell that they weren’t revealing their full potential.”

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!


If You’re In The Berkeley Area and It’s Monday (or any other day), I Found The Perfect Place!


Word of advice: If you’re a serious wine lover, have a day in the Berkeley/Oakland area, and don’t want to go very far, make sure it’s not a Monday. I learned  that lesson the hard way. The last full day of my vacation after driving nearly 700 miles all over wine country (and even down to Monterey), I was determined to find something to do close to where I was staying for the last two days of my trip.

Fortunately, I found a fabulous place that should have been on the top of my list. But before I tell you about it, here are three places that could have made for a fun Monday (had they been open):

1) Broc Cellars. I haven’t tried Chris Brockway’s wines yet. But the little I know from the social media accounts of industry folks whose palates I respect (and this great Eric Asimov New York Times profile), not getting into this tasting room was heartbreaking. I discovered its location on a Sunday evening on my way back to my friend’s apartment from a beautiful visit to Stinson Beach. The painted square label – using its signature whimsical artwork – screamed out from the building’s corner location. Known for natural wines from non-conventional California grapes, I have no doubt this would have meant a fun and educational tasting.

2) Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. The famed wine importer’s retail outlet would have been the equivalent of wonderland for anyone interested in French and Italian wines. Or at least that’s how I would have hoped it would be. Since it’s difficult to know which are the best wines from far off wine regions, understanding the preferences of an importer becomes a wonderful guide in discovering new wines. And who better to to learn from than the most famous wine importer in the U.S. I only know Kermit Lynch by his multi-decade-long reputation of choosing terroir-driven wines, but it would have been a great lesson to really see which wines he recommends. 

3) Ordinaire Wine. This wine bar and shop seems to be among the newest darlings on the block – especially since it’s so focused on natural wines. If you haven’t guessed – these are a preference of mine, and was certainly a bit of a theme on this trip (my airplane reading included Alice Feiring’s Naked Wine and many of the wineries I was visiting believed in those core values). Ordinaire was also on my to-do list before I even stepped foot in California. I was convinced its existence was aligned perfectly with my own wine beliefs. Just look at the first ‘graph from their about page and you’ll see what I mean (emphasis via bolding is mine):

Our name refers to vin ordinarie, or “everyday wine,” which is wine that never makes it into bottle, but is kept back for the winemaker, close friends, and the local bistro. This is the point of the shop: using wine to transform our concept of the ordinary——to transform our concept of the possibility of the ordinary. L’ordinaire est possible!

But when I looked up its address, I was hit with the awful news, that they, too, are closed on Mondays!

Not completely discouraged about a lack of somewhere to visit, I discovered a cheese shop. If I can’t do wine for lunch, then cheese seems to be the next logical place. But just my luck… The Cheese Board Collective (ummm, hello! I didn’t even need to read much more to know this would send me to a happy place) closed at 1 p.m. on Mondays. It was already 12:15. Sigh.

So where did that photo at the top of this post come from? And where can you find a magnum of Hérve Souhaut and a bottle of Michael Cruse wine sitting on the counter opposite a tasting bar?


Welcome to Bay Grape! This wine shop lets you purchase a bottle and if you pay a $5 corkage, they will open it, and you can enjoy it there and even take home the leftovers (I know, I know – who has leftover wine? But when you’re responsible for driving yourself to your next destination, then limiting yourself to a single glass becomes the wise choice).

This is not just any wine shop. It’s a well curated boutique focused on many of the natural producers I’ve been following. In the dearth of Monday wine offerings, this not only became an oasis, it was probably the location that should have been on the top of my my list. 

It was clear right away that the owners – a husband and wife team who are serious about wine – are here to share their knowledge and favorite wines (there’s beer there, too), rather than just be a commercial retailer. Within minutes of looking through their shelves, I was finding many of my own favorite winemakers – three of whom I met on this trip: John Lockwood of Enfield Wine Co., “living legend” Cathy Corison and Hardy Wallace of Dirty & Rowdy. (This pic are bottles I snapped at the store.)  


Their bottle notes are to the point and offer easy guidance. And while there were many wines I recognized or have tasted before – there were just as many that were foreign to me. If only they could transplant the entire store to Washington, D.C., so I could sip my way through all their offerings.

But Bay Grape is not just wine! There’s a small refrigerated case featuring cheese (!!), charcuterie (!!) and a baguette that they will toast for you (!!). Toasted warm crunchy bread and creamy gooey cheese, with a flavorful salami – is there a more perfect lunch? I made myself a little picnic right on their tasting bar and it was heaven. One of the owners recommended a Domaine de La Grande Colline Le Canon Syrah, based on some simple parameters I gave him. It paired deliciously with the ash-ripened goat cheese, a wild boar salami and the baguette. As I commented on Delectable: “There’s a streak of something lively running up the front of the fruity palate. Candied strawberries mixed with pepper, too.” Have I mentioned yet that it was the perfect lunch?


The best part about noshing on all this – there were plenty of leftovers to share as a pre-dinner snack later that evening.  

Little did I know when I set out on my day that all those Monday closures would lead to the perfect Bay Grape adventure. And while I can’t wait to go back to the Berkeley/Oakland area on another day of the week to explore all the other options, I can guarantee this shop will still be at the top of my to-do list.