During the time that I worked as a wine consultant in South Florida, I was lucky enough to meet one of the most famous winemakers in the industry who had been appropriately crowned the title, “The King of Cabernet Sauvignon” in 1988. The title was earned while he was winemaker at Groth Vineyard, and Robert Parker, Jr. awarded the 1985 vintage Groth Cabernet a perfect score of 100 points. This was the first time that a California Cab was given a perfect score by arguably the pickiest of wine critics. Winemaker & “King of Cabernet”, Nils Venge, currently makes wine and consults under several different labels, but his primary winery is Saddleback Cellars, which he actually founded in 1982.
Saddleback quickly became one of my favorite wine brands, and most treasured boutique wine. Not only because I was able to spend time tasting with its famous winemaker, but because this truly is a special kind of wine. Nils has not lost his touch when it comes to Cabernet (my personal favorite), nor has he been conservative in his pursuit of other varietals. I loved both his Albariño, as well as his Sangiovese, typically wines perfected only in Spain and Italy, respectively.
While visiting Napa Valley, and Oakville specifically, earlier this month, I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with Nils, his girlfriend, and winery staff over at Saddleback on a beautiful, warm October day. The Cabernet still hung heavy and deep royal blue on the vine, while the smell of fermenting grapes permeated through the air as we sat next to the barrel room and crush pad. We tasted everything from his light and crisp Pinot Blanc to the delicious, buttery Chardonnay; a juicy Zin, and of course, the famed Cab. Nils even took us on a “barrel tour” and gave us a taste of the newest vintages—not even released. I tried two varietals that were completely new to me: the dark, distinctive Italian Teroldego & foxy American Charbono. Both were absolutely delicious, and I cannot wait until they are bottled for purchase.
At the end of the afternoon, we were given the most special of wine treats—Nils’ very own dessert wines. The late harvest Zinfandel & late harvest Sauvignon Blanc, both under the name, Nils, are absolutely to die for. Paired perfectly with a piece of chocolate, these wines are both the smoothest of sweet finishes to any wine paired dinner & dessert. Nicknamed “liquid gold”, the late harvest Sauvignon Blanc is a personal favorite dessert wine, and definitely deserving of its title.
In addition to the fact that his wine is a cult classic, and appropriately awarded for its high quality, Nils himself is a top-notch host and all-around interesting guy. While we visited, he engaged us with entertaining stories of wine country past, as well as led us on a private vineyard tour and grape tasting. I was even given the opportunity to roll up my proverbial sleeves and help with “punch downs” to release the CO2 in already harvested grapes. What a great hands-on experience! We were visiting at the perfect time to see several steps in the process of creating fine wine: the grape on the vine, the fermenting grape, and the grape in the barrel.
Of course, I did not leave empty-handed. You cannot simply taste and not take home your favorite wine after a day spent experiencing first-hand the magic of the man who created it. Memories as special as spending time with a winemaker like Nils when you have a passion for wine are absolutely priceless.
I encourage you to check out Saddleback Cellars wine, and try for yourself. I doubt you will be disappointed by “The King”.