Classic Cabernet Class and Tasting

Do you love great Cabernet Sauvignon? Do you thrill at the thought of elegant, balanced wines that taste of variety and place? If so, please join me, Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton, at 7pm on Monday, December 2nd at The Wine School at l’Alliance Française for a taste of Classic Cabernet. We’ll taste and discuss fourteen Cabernet-dominant wines mostly from Napa Valley made using responsibly-farmed grapes using winemaking that respects the grapes and the places they are grown. We will discuss the farming and winemaking practices that make these wines taste as they do. At each price point, these wines represent the very best of the most balanced Cabernet being made in the US today. The wines tasted will be served in Riedel Degustazione stemware. A selection of cheeses and bread will be offered during each class.

The lineup includes:
Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley VT
Robert Mondavi Napa 2016
Snowden Cabernet The Ranch 2016
Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon 6/cs 2015
Ridge Santa Cruz 2016
Robert Mondavi Oakville 2016
DuMOL Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, 2017
Nickel & Nickel De Carle Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
Robert Mondavi To Kalon Private Reserve 2015
Quintessa 2016
Ridge Monte Bello 2016
Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa 2015
Opus One 2016
Eisele Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

This Classic Cabernet Class and Tasting will cost $120 per person (cash or check) or $126.32 (regular). To purchase your ticket, please contact Bear Dalton at 713-854-5129 or (Susan is out recovering from shoulder surgery. Please keep her in your prayers.)

L’Alliance Française is the French cultural center in Houston. Located at 427 Lovett Blvd. (77006), l’Alliance is on the southeast corner of Lovett and Whitney (one block south of Westheimer and two blocks east of Montrose).

If you buy a ticket and will not be able to attend, please cancel at least 24 hours before the class or you may be charged. Later cancellations will not be charged if we can fill the seat. This is often case as we regularly have waiting lists for these classes.

With over 40-years experience in the wine business and 30-plus-years experience teaching about wine, Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton is one of the top wine authorities as well as the most experienced wine educator in Texas.

When the Steak Outshines the Sizzle

There’s an old salesman’s saying that goes “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.” The idea was to sell the experience rather than the actual product. I’ve always been somewhat conflicted about that. The experience is an important and even integral part of the product but to support the experience, the product has to be good. And the bigger the experience is made out to be, the better the product has to be. My experience is that once someone starts selling sizzle, they often begin cutting corners on the steak. To me the steak is the most important thing. So here are some higher end Napa Valley reds that offer the best possible steak and (oh, by the way) the sizzle to go with it. You might think of it as great steak with elegant but exuberant (rather than flashy) sizzle – but in these cases, you are buying the steak and the sizzle comes along as part of the deal.araujoeiselevineyard

ARAUJO Eisele Vineyard Cabernet, Napa Valley, 2012 ($499.99)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Eisele Vineyard aged 20 months in oak barrels (all French, all new).       Purple-red with well-formed legs; dry, medium-full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium-plus phenolics. Rich, elegant, juicy. Lots of tobacco leaf and a bit of black pepper to go with dark and darker red fruit with little black fruit. hints at dark floral to go with subtle earth and oak. Pure. Lovely. Elegant. Textural and dimensional wine. BearScore: 97+.

ALTAGRACIA (Araujo) Eisele Vineyard, Napa Valley, 2012 ($129.99)
altagraciaEffectively the second wine of the Araujo Eisele Estate, this is an all Eisele Vineyard blend of 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Petit Verdot, 8% Cabernet Franc 6% Merlot, and 4% Malbec aged 21 months in oak barrels (all French, 99% new).     Purple-red with well formed legs; dry, medium-full-bodied with freshly-balanced acidity and medium-plus phenolics. Supple, fresh, lively, ripe with red and darker red fruit accented with tobacco leaf, spice, dust, and oak. Delicious, lovely accessible. While this is the 2nd wine from the Eisele estate, it may be one of the ten best Cabernet-based red made in Napa Valley. WOW. BearScore: 95+.

OPUS ONE, Oakville – Napa Valley, 2013 ($264.99)opuslabel
An estate blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec. Component lots received an average of 18 days of skin contact. 17.5 months all new French oak barrels.     Purple-black with red highlights and well-formed legs; dry, full-bodied with balanced acidity and medium chewy phenolics. Complex still developing Cabernet blend offering dark and darkest red and some black fruit accented with tobacco leaf and cedar, black pepper and warm spice, and gravelly dusty earth and oak. Complex and evolving in the glass and even in the mouth. complex, satisfying. offers dimension and texture. BearScore: 96+.

QUINTESSA, Rutherford – Napa Valley, 2013 ($158.59)
quintessaAn all estate blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Carmenere, and 2% Petit Verdot fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks and aged 21 months in all French oak barrels (85% new).   Red Purple with well formed legs; dry, medium-full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium-plus phenolics. Supple, delicious, fresh. Darker red fruit with tobacco leaf and dust. Integrated oak and some spice. Delicious. Complete. Alive in the mouth. Best Quintessa yet? BearScore: 96.

Is there a theme here? You bet there is. All of these are stunningly good Cabernet Sauvignon or heavily Cabernet-based wines that offer elegance and balance, texture, and dimension. They push all my buttons. Having said that, I look for elegance and balance rather than extraction and extreme ripeness. I think Cabernet-based wines should offer some tobacco leaf and should not smell or taste of chocolate. Given those conditions, I think these are – at their price points – the best options in the market. Each is from a special and particular place. All practice pristine farming and land management. Each is made in a ‘spare no expense, make the best wine we can’ environment using meticulous process and respectful practice. All steak, no sizzle. But, in the best possible way, they will sizzle when you put them in your mouth.


The other day, I bumped into a friend-of-some-years (thereby avoiding referring to her as an “old friend”) who asked if I’d made my list yet. Even though I look more-than-a-bit like Santa Claus, I generally wait until after all the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone to start thinking about Christmas stuff. And I said as much.

She replied “No. Not that list. Your value wine list.”

I told her that it had been a few years since I’d done that. She said I should do it again as she needed a new one … and then she pulled a much-taped-and-folded, very-beat-up piece-of-paper from her purse and showed me one of my old value wine picks lists she’d been carrying around for several years. The vintages were all way out-of-date but a good chunk of the wines that are still available are wines I’d still recommend. After I looked at it (with some wonderment on my part), she carefully refolded it and put it safely back in her purse saying “See. I need a new one … but I’ll hold on to this one until you get around to it.”

Well, OK. Good idea. And since she’s what I refer to as a “church lady” (although not all church ladies go to my church), her “request” is really more of a command anyway.

You may well ask “What makes a ‘Value Wine?’” (You also may ask “What makes a Church Lady?” but that‘s a topic for another time and place.) In the general parlance, “value wine” is a good or recommended wine below a certain price point. That well-worn list my friend had saved was all under $15.00 per bottle. And that’s fair as far as it goes but to make my list, the wines have to consistently over-deliver. That being the case, not many heavily-marketed, national brands make my list as, while many of them offer a fair value, seldom do they over-deliver (and almost never do they over deliver over a series of vintages).

bearonwinelogoWhat you’ll find on this list are my picks (wines I actually buy and drink at home) with First-of-December-2016 prices under $20 (Spec’s cash bottle price – if you’re buying six-mixed at a time or by-the-case, the prices will be lower). The prices listed will likely change (some up, some down) over time. The vintages on the list are those that are current as I compile it but don’t worry too much if you bump into a vintage that’s younger. These wines tend to be pretty consistent from vintage-to-vintage. These are wines with enough production that they are available most of the time; I’m not including anything where we don’t get at least a couple of pallets a year. Finally, these are wines that I recommend. Which means they are wines I like to drink. Which means they offer plenty of fruit but are not over-ripe or over-manipulated. Which is to say that they taste of the grapes from which they were made and (generally) of the specific place they were grown.



A Wine Trip to Napa and Sonoma Done Bear’s Way

Bear Dalton of Spec’s and Sarah Donaho of Frosch Travel are finishing up the planning (and budget) on a trip to the North Coast Wine Country (that would be Napa and Sonoma with side trips to Lake and Mendocino Counties) … and we are doing it Bear’s way.

“Bear’s way” means leaving the hotel about 8am with the first stop being breakfast (which in at least one case will be at a winery – OPUS One) and four(ish) winery visits a day … with most of our lunches and dinners at the wineries. We will be traveling by “Luxury Coach” (aka “the bus”). Law and policy allowing, some sparkling wine may get served/consumed on the bus. As we will be leaving at about 8am and getting back to the hotels between 9pm and 11pm (and so not spending much time there), we will be staying in nice but not fancy hotels. And we will only change hotels one time (Sunday through Tuesday nights we stay in Napa and Wednesday through Friday nights we stay in Rohnert Park just south of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County). If you like you can get in early and/or stay later. How you get there is up to you (airfare is NOT included).

The trip starts in Napa on Sunday and ends after our last visit on Saturday afternoon. The plan is for you to arrive at our hotel (Hilton Garden Inn) in Napa on Sunday (8/10/14) afternoon and for the group to gather for a welcome dinner on Sunday (Restaurant TBD). From there, the plan is …

Monday Aug 11
Breakfast at Black Bear Diner (Napa)
Winery Visits: Inglenook (formerly Niebaum Coppola), Schramsberg (Lunch), Corison, Shannon Ridge
Dinner at Shannon Ridge in Lake County

Tuesday Aug 12
Breakfast at Black Bear Diner (Napa)
Winery Visits: Domaine Carneros, Tetra-Expression-Prime Solum (Lunch), Buehler, Ca’Momi
Dinner at Oenoteca – Ca’Momi’s Pizzeria in Napa)

Wednesday Aug 13
Check out of Hilton Garden Inn.
Breakfast at Opus One
Winery Visits: Opus, Snowden (Lunch), Quintessa, Kenefick
(check into DoubleTree in Rohnert Park )
Dinner TBD in Santa Rosa area

Thursday Aug 14
Breakfast at Black Bear Diner (Rohnert Park)
Winery Visits: Dry Creek Vineyards, Alexander Valley Vineyards (Lunch), Ridge, Roederer Estate
Dinner at Roederer In Anderson Valley in Mendocino

Friday Aug 15
Breakfast at Black Bear Diner (Rohnert Park)
Winery Visits: Siduri, Ravenswood (Lunch), Hanzell, Sonoma Highway
Dinner TBD

Saturday Aug 16
Check out of DoubleTree Hotel
Breakfast at DoubleTree Hotel
Winery Visits: The Sorting Table (A morning Burgundy Tasting in the town of Napa), Gloria Ferrer (Lunch)
And we are done.

That’s the plan. Over the next couple of weeks, we will finalize all the visits and the itinerary. If we cannot see a particular winery, we will add another of comparable quality.
Cost is projecting to be between $3,100.00 and $3,300.00 per person based on double occupancy.
All meals, hotels, and wine country transportation are included. Airfare is not included.
The cost for a single supplement will be about $625.00.
We are finalizing the budget now.
Sarah is also working on shuttles to Napa and back  to airports.
This will be limited to 30 people.
If yes, please email and

Wine of the Week: OPUS ONE 2009

OPUS is a consistent personal favorite Napa Valley Cabernet-based red. It fits in with my other favorites such as Araujo, Quintessa, Dunn, Snowden, Oakville East, Kenefick, Shafer, The Fourteen, Reynold’s Family Reserve, etc. in that the flavor of ripe (but not over-ripe) Cabernet comes through with its tobacco, cedar, black pepper nuance intact. It does not taste of chocolate or chocolate syrup. It is elegant, balanced, and has the acidity to go the distance. This is what Cabernet-based Napa Valley red wine is all about and what current wave of ripeness and extraction hounds have gotten too far away from. If this is old school, I guess that makes me an old school kind of guy. Oh, and I’ll take that steak to go with it rare-to-medium-rare with a nice crust on it.

OPUS ONE, Napa Valley, 2009  ($205)

A blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, 6%, Petit Verdot, 3% Merlot, and 1% Malbec macerated for 20 days (including fermentation) and aged 17 months in all new French oak barrels.  Bottled un-fined at 14.5% AbV one year prior to release. Sensory: Deep-purple-black in color with well formed legs that stain the glass; dry, medium-full-bodied with a fresh balance and chewy but well-integrated phenols (tannins).   Supple, juicy, beautifully balanced. Offers red and black fruit with notes of tobacco, spice, black pepper, cedar. Dusty oak and earth. Lovely integration. Elegant. Rich but very approachable with a classic dusty feel in the mouth. YUM. 97+. In the short term, a splash through a decanter wouldn’t do it any harm. Neither would serving it in large glasses that allow for some vigorous swirling. Longer term, this 2009 Opus is a wine with a demonstrated track record that will easily repay aging for twenty or more years.