On the Trail

A Masterpiece of Modern Napa Winemaking

David Driscoll
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I could start this article off by telling you how famed critic Robert Parker recently gushed about the latest installment in the Jax Cabernet saga; his elation over the "beautiful blueberry and blackberry fruit, oodles of glycerin and richness" announcing yet "another great vintage in Napa" with the 2015 expression. But this is my turn to gush, not Robert Parker's, as this is my blog and not his. I've known Kimberly Jackson-Wickam for years now and I've been sending people to her family's downtown Brannan St. tasting bar since it opened. Jax makes fairly-priced, tasty, approachable, true-to-form California wines in a variety of styles, and just about everyone I talk to thinks they're charming as hell. Vintage after vintage, year after year, the Jacksons churn out value after value for the same reasonable prices, while slowly building their base of enthused local customers and critics alike. I thought the 2014 Estate Cabernet (we still have a few bottles in stock) was incredible, as did pretty much everyone else I know who tasted it. In a sea of $40-$60 oaky, sweet-fruited, heavy, mouth-coating Napa Cabernets, the 2014 Jax stood out as honest and authentic. It wasn't just loaded with goopy texture and toasty oak; it had grit and character, showing restraint and balance in the face of all that weight. But when I got my first sample bottle of the 2015 vintage last week, I had yet another Jax epiphany. Not only did the wine exceed the quality of the 2014 edition, it was without a doubt the best wine of any kind I'd tasted from the Jackson family portfolio. Never cloying or bloated with sweetness, but rather expansive and mouthcoating with just a bit of chewiness on the finish, the 2015 Jax Napa Cabernet is a masterpiece of modern California winemaking—it's the best mid-range Napa Cab I've tasted this year.

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I say "modern" in terms of the masterpiece because of how delicious the 2015 Jax tastes right now. In the modern age of California drinking culture, I don't know many Cabernet drinkers who are building cellars dedicated to Napa anymore. Most of the folks I deal with on a daily basis in the domestic department are drinking bottle to bottle. They're in search of something fun for that evening's dinner, not their twentieth wedding anniversary. While I'm certain that the 2015 Jax will hold up beautifully over time, the freshness of the fruit at this point already, coupled with the supreme balance it maintains with the acidity and tannin levels, make it an easy pop-and-pour candidate for this weekend's Labor Day barbecue. The man behind that precision is Jax winemaker Kirk Venge, whose successes with Hunnicutt, B Cellars, and Bacio Divino have also been met with huge scores from likes of Parker and the Wine Spectator. With each vintage of Jax he continues to fine-tune the Napa Cabernet expression towards perfection, understanding the fruit a little more each time around and making small adjustments like any master technician. The 2015 is his masterwork thus far. "They have a great property," Venge told me last time I spoke with him; "The sun doesn't hit the vines until around 11 AM so it's a slow-ripening site. It allows the flavors to develop gradually." 2015 was another great year for Napa and the evidence of Venge's words are here inside the 2015 Jax Napa Cabernet, now finally on our shelf. I've tasted it on five separate occasions now and the wine is simply spectacular from front to back. It's the perfect mid-range bottle for those of you who enjoy your Napa Cab on the younger and richer side, and—despite the improvements—it's still the same price it always has been: fifty bucks.

-David Driscoll