Behind the Supermarket Wines


A quick visit to one of my favorite Paso Robles producers today yielded a plethora of experiences from J. Lohr’s Cuvée Series of Cabernets.  First up, a perennial favorite–and easily one of the best-knows and well-marketed premium bottles: HILLTOP.  I have enjoyed this bargain wine too many times to count over the years, and it always impresses with its consistency and polish.  Retailing for $30-$40, well-shopped it can be found considerably under $30, making it one of the top bargains in not only Paso Robles, but in all of California’s premium Cab-growing regions.  Today we tasted the 2012 and 2013 together, with the 2012 being a bit plusher and rounder–both from an extra year of age and different vintage characteristics.  The 12 showing deep ruby-garnet, with the 13 still bright purple-red with pink edges.  Smooth and elegant–showing FAR beyond the $30 PP–always with a dollop of rich oak and decadent ripe fruit.  Vintage is quite an insignificant concern with HILLTOP–every vintage I have had back into the 90’s has shown impressive quality and drinks handsomely up to a decade or more of age.

2012 J. LOHR Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles

2013 J. LOHR Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles

A bit of an unusual bird in the Paso wine scene is J. Lohr’s CAROL’S VINEYARD Napa Valley Cabernet.  While common to see Paso-produced wines sourced from vineyards in Santa Barbara and Monterey Counties, rarely do you see a winery with vineyard holdings in Napa Valley–and bottling it labelled as such.  I am always curious about CAROL’S, and have had it many times over the years, and while always good, it has never impressed me terribly against my regular diet of Napa and Sonoma Cabs.  There’s always been something dull about it, it never has exposed to me the vibrant earthy textures Napa Cabs are famous for.  Until now.  Tasting the 2011 and 2013 today was something I anticipated eagerly, as I have been very vocal of late in favor of 2011 Napa Cabernet, a vintage sandwiched between what are often flabby, over-fruited 2010’s and 2012’s–but of course which are ridiculously popular to undiscerning palates and reviewers alike.

The 2011 CAROL’S showed me not so much excitement, but a consistency with my long-term opinion of them being well-made, but somewhat unexciting wines.  With my first glance and sniff of the 2013 CAROL’S, it was clear something had changed.  Stunning in the glass, lively impenetrable ruby with wide pink edges, aromas stiflingly dense and concentrated, deep fruit, brier and mint with a density of structure coming plentiful through the nose.  In the mouth, layers and layers of concentration peel off the fresh, beautiful fruit and a backbone of perfectly controlled acid wrapped tightly around blood-orange earth and viscous infant tannins, rich and deep-rooted.  This is one to watch, boys and girls, something which could easily turn up in a Best Of 2013 list.  I have been shy to jump on the 2013 Napa bandwagon–having lived and drank through MANY MANY *Vintages of the Decade* since the term was invented about 1985 and used increasingly often since–but this one truly impresses.  Head and shoulders above any CAROL’S I have had in the past and a major contender across Napa as a whole.

2011 J. LOHR Carol’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

2013 J. LOHR Carol’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

wp-image-1991506356jpg.jpgAnd that brings us to these two.  If you have not had these wines please just get back under the porch. There really does not exist in Paso Robles ANYTHING comparing to these two wines. You’ve never had Merlot this finessed, this tannic, no fat or oak candy anywhere on it. The Cabernet manages size, balance and complexity in complete defiance of the burnt, acid-free Paso norm. These were a couple of library selections dug out for the weekend and while they showed clear signs of polish each were blisteringly ruby for 10 year-old wine, tannic to a fault, dense fruit and base textures throughout, elegance worming its way into every nook and cranny of these bottles.  Do NOT miss POM, PAU, and ST.E from J. Lohr.

2007 J. LOHR Cuvée Pau Cabernet Sauvignon+  Paso Robles

2007 J. LOHR Cuvée Pom Merlot+  Paso Robles

The funny thing about having a huge international audience is how often I hear J. Lohr getting put down for being supermarket plonk.  Yes, they have marketed their cheaper–and well made, I should add–wines into every retailer on the planet and they can always be looked to for great value.  And why NOT have entry-level brands?!? But these Vineyard and Cuvée Series’ wines.  THEY are the ones you truly need to seek out.  And once you do, you will never look at J. Lohr the same way again.

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