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by Jerry D. Mead

Rutherford, Napa Valley, California, is a magic place for Cabernet Sauvignon. How magic? How special? It has been home to some of the greatest wines of America and the world for more than a hundred years.

The once great Inglenook Vineyards were here, before the proud name was despoiled by greedy and ignorant corporate interests, today being revitalized by film director and vintner Francis Ford Coppola at his Niebaum-Coppola Estate.

And the heart and soul of decades of Beaulieu Vineyard  Cabernets are Rutherford grapes.

Dozens of other great Napa Cabernets owe Rutherford region grapes for their success, whether they make the claim or not.

Imagine if you will, a beautiful estate in the heart of this most desirable of all Napa appellations for Cabernet Sauvignon, that had never before been planted to grapes.

Such an estate did exist and many of the biggest names in wine had coveted this nearly 200 acre property, trying to buy it outright, or piece by piece. Owned by a group of heirs, no one could them all to agree.

Finally, Agustin and Valeria Huneeus made the deal in 1990, amid promises to keep the estate intact and to develop it to fulfill its immense viticultural promise.

Agustin Huneeus has a long history in wine, dating back to family properties in Chile, including a stint with giant Seagram Corp., ownership of several vineyard operations throughout California, ownership of Concannon Vineyards in Livermore, and, until recently, a partnership in Franciscan Oakville Estate, Estancia Wines and Mt. Veeder Vineyards. Those properties were sold to Canandaigua of New York, but he stays on as CEO. He also maintains ownership in a Chilean winery.

Valeria Huneeus holds a Ph.D. and is a scientist and viticulturist in her own right. She not only designed the vineyard, employing the latest viticultural research, planning which grapes would go where, but continues as day to day vineyard manager.

Only three grape varieties were planted, all native to the Bordeaux region of France, and they are planted in the approximate proportions as they appear in the final blend of the wine. The mix is 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Merlot and 10 percent Cabernet Franc.

The first wine named Quintessa was from the 1994 vintage and received wide critical acclaim. As the vineyard gains maturity there is every reason to believe the wine will get even better. The wine bears no grape variety as part of its name. There is one wine made from the same vineyard source every year, it is simply, and magnificently, Quintessa.


Quintessa 1995 ($90) I'm at a loss for words equal to this quite spectacular wine. It is one of those Bordeaux-style (generally called "Meritage" in the US) wines that enter boldly and that the flavor continues to build throughout the taste experience and even after you swallow. The intensity is almost overwhelming, but without being overripe or out of balance to the brawny side. It is perfectly structured and balanced and while you can enjoy it immediately you will be rewarded by a decade or more of cellaring. Berry, plum and cassis fruit with enough acidity to cut through rich sauces. Spicy, slightly smoky wood notes; earthy, truffley complexity. What a bottle for a year 2000 dinner or any very special occasion. Rating: 100/84


When I first met Byron Kenneth Brown in the early 70s, he was the young and energetic winemaker for Zaca Mesa Winery in Santa Barbara County. Of course he was simply "Ken" then...we didn't find out until a decade later that his mother had tagged him with Byron.

Actually, he continues to be just "Ken" even though his more formal sounding first name appears on the label. (They couldn't call it "Brown Wine," after all.)

After a decade of making award-winning wines for Zaca Mesa, Brown joined a group of investors and partners to establish Byron Vineyards & Winery in 1984. It has since been sold to the Robert Mondavi corporation, but Brown continues as general manager and winemaker.

Brown does a good job with every grape variety that comes his way, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have always been specialties of both his and the Santa Barbara-Santa Maria growing region where Byron is based.

Byron 1997 "Santa Maria" Chardonnay ($18) Forward, tropical fruit, leaning to ripe, fresh pineapple. Good fruit throughout and very drinkable, with lovely, forward, oak vanillin complexity. Rating: 92/84

Byron 1996 "Byron Estate Vineyard" Chardonnay ($28) The fruit here is tropical once again, but there's a lot more going on. There's definitely more wood, and probably newer barrels with heavier char. Very toasty, smoky and complex. Very long after-flavors. Rating: 94/84

Byron 1997 "Santa Maria" Pinot Noir ($18) Serious Pinot! Black cherry, plum and a little raw beet. Beautifully structured and balanced. Enjoyable now, but much better in a year or three. Rating: 90/86

Byron 1996 "Byron Estate Vineyard" Pinot Noir ($36) Pinot collectors alert! Don't miss this one. Really big and intense. More black cherry and plum, with a bonus of rose oil complexity. Double the weight and extraction of the Santa Maria version, remembering that it was no lightweight. I'm betting on this one to improve well into the 21st century. Rating 96/84

Byron wines are widely available due to their national marketing by the Robert Mondavi team. For information on  visiting the winery, call toll free (888) 303-7288.


Santa Alicia 1994 "Maipo Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon ($7) This Chilean Cabernet is an exceptional value, though it may be tough to find due to limited distribution. (For information, call the importer Halby Marketing at 707-935-1711.) Black cherry and boysenberry and a little black currant. Mature and serious flavors and more backbone than you would expect for this price. Rating: 88/94

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Wines are scored using a unique 100 point system. First number rates quality; second number rates value.

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