Sneaky Good Buy on Cali Chard from Santa Rita Hills

First of all, we must make the point that this Pence has nothing to do with politics that we know of.  Blair Pence owns a 200-acre working ranch in the western part of the Santa Rita hills with his vines situated on rocky soils .  By their own description, “Seen from above, it appears as an island on an elevated plateau, which has been slowly eroded over time on all sides and is thus fully exposed to merciless cold ocean winds, morning fog and other Pacific Ocean influences. It is this combination of stressful conditions that provides the character considered essential to making great wines from our location.”

Thing is it seems like everybody has some sort of angle to assert that their wine is better.  This one actually is.  The Pence Ranch Chardonnay Santa Rita Hills 2016 is one of the best under $20 Chardonnays we have tasted from California in quite some time.  To some people that means something that is ‘rich and round, mouth-filling and oaky’ (and probably pumped up with residual sugar and wood chips).  If you are looking for that kind of in-your-face style, this is not that.

This one surprised us because it had sufficient size, a great palate feel, nuanced flavors of pear, ‘butter’, and apple, and bright acidity.  In other words, it tasted like Chardonnay, with the kind of fruit, purity, balance and nuance that engages rather than overwhelms.   We’re going to go out on a limb and presume that the winemaking probably has a lot to do with this.

As soon as we tasted this one, we were pretty sure whoever made it knew what they were doing. The winemaker of record here is one Sashi Moorman, a talented fellow involved in a few side projects as well as his own PiedraSassi, Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte labels.  The stuff coming out of Sandhi now is quite impressive, and his touche seems to have worked beautifully with Pence’s ocean-influenced Chardonnay.

Yeah we can produce a review from Jeb Dunnuck, “92 Points!  The 2016 Chardonnay Estate has some caramelized notes as well as ripe orchard fruits and brioche, lip-smacking acidity, a rounded, beautifully textured feel, and a great finish. Aged 9 months in 25% new Ermitage barrels, drink it over the coming 3-5 years.”

But one on one, as opposed to some kind of multi-item blind review tasting, one will be able to sense a lot going on.

This is a beautiful option in today’s varied Chardonnay world.  But it wasn’t made to win a tasting with added bell and whistles.  It was instead made to be what it is supposed to be, a well-made, tasty, versatile, personality-filled ‘real’ Chardonnay made by a guy who is well acquainted with what great Chardonnay is supposed to taste like.  A sneaky value, we could try and make a big splash but, frankly, that’s not the format to sell a wine like this.  This Chardonnay speaks for itself without yelling and enough people should ‘get it’.

SANDHI PINOT NOIR 2016: SANTA RITA AS IT SHOULD BE

As the old saying goes, nothing is perfect.  Now all of that may have changed with the advent of the ‘100 point scale’ which occasionally has wines awarded 100 points.  Isn’t 100 points on a ‘100 point’ scale, well, perfection?  In theory it would seem so, but what defines perfection?  Simply it is the ability to fulfill all of the parameters in the best possible way.  But it is also relevant to understand that someone has to decide what those parameters are.  Obviously you can‘t judge Pinot Noir and Chardonnay by the same standard.

Even with the same varietal, there are stylistic preferences that some might judge more enthusiastically than others.  The origins also make a difference.  Willamette Pinots, those from Russian River, Santa Rita Hills or Santa Lucia Highlands each have their own charm, but they also have long-established traits that define their appellation.  All have very different profiles.

So that being said, within the very specific subset of Santa Rita Hills, it doesn’t get much better than the Sandhi Pinot Noir Santa Rita 2016Beautifully orchestrated throughout, this is a textbook example of the appellation like few we have ever seen.  The aromatics show the cool dark red fruits, rhubarb, and wild herbs.  In the mouth there is plenty of refined, well-meshed, ample cranberry and mulberry fruit, a tapestry of earth, anise, and touches of oak in the finish.

To quote Antonio Galloni of Vinous Media,“… the 2016 Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills) is positively stellar. Powerful and deep in the glass, with unusual depth, the 2016 has so much to offer. There is a level of sheer richness I have never seen in this bottling before. Blue and purplish berry fruit, lavender and spice flavors are all amped up. This is a very serious wine at the appellation level. Then again, the core of this wine is now composed of vineyards that belong to Domaine de la Côte. If there is one wine that over delivers big time in 2016, Sandhi’s Santa Rita Hills Pinot is it. Don’t miss it…93 Points! “

In any case, we haven’t experienced a better standard-bearer for the appellation than this one.  If you are a fan of the Santa Rita Hills, this wine hits all the right notes.  Does that mean perfection? Under a certain set of parameters, maybe so.  But at the very least, it’s seriously good, ‘Burgundy styled’ Pinot Noir crafted by guys (Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman) that have great experience with real Burgundy, and, at $29.98, delivers a lot of value on a wine that plays at a high level.  Like the man said, ‘don’t miss it!’

 

STOLPMAN: TASTY VALUE-PRICED REDS FROM UNIQUE BLENDS

We have watched as Stolpman experimented with viticulture and winemaking ideas until they got it figured out.  The Stolpmans had the passion and they also had Sashi Moorman on the payroll and, through him, a connection to a larger group of vintners with a ‘higher calling’ wine-wise.  The common mindset here as they worked towards their goals was not visions of other domestic producers, but of some of France’s greatest Rhone producers (the Stolpmans named their child Augie, in deference to August Clape of Cornas, for example).

There’s a saying in sports about how one must ‘play the right way’.  Well these folks did that with wine.  They experimented, they learned, and they got better and better.  Yet they never lost sight of the fact that people will be drinking their wine and clearly, given their pricing, the Stolpmans left their egos at the door.  Now, with Syrah as their major focus, they make some of the most compelling and unique blends in California.  The care that goes into these wines in both the vineyards and the cellar is far above the prices charged.  To further enhance the individual wines’ identity, they give them individual labels and stories.

On top of it all, the Stolpmans produce these wines in partnership with the Solarzano family, who manage the viticultural duties for the entire estate, and permanent staff.  It’s kind of a ‘family’ affair where everyone cares a great deal about what’s in the bottle.  We can vividly recall a number of new labels from corporate type wineries where we asked about the source of the wine and were told, essentially, that the ‘story’ came first and they found some juice to fill the bottle.  These are well conceived, purely made wines where the story on the label is from the ‘heart’ and the juice is first rate and unfettered.

As we mentioned, great Syrah is the recurring theme through this lineup.  We’ll start with the newest edition, the Stolpman La Cuadrilla 2016.  When Tom Stolpman originally bought the property, he wanted his workers on site year-round, so the team members could have a steady job, a career, and raise their families with security.  To further that goal, Ruben Solarzano divvied up parcels among the workers for them to maintain and thus learn the growing cycle ‘hands on’.  This wine includes the crew’s plots (called Cuadras) in a unique and tasty blend of 72% Syrah, 16% Sangiovese and 12% Grenache.  Not to get too technical, but 80% of the grapes are destemmed and 20% are done whole cluster to give the fruit some ‘pop’.  Afterwards it sees time in neutral oak just to round out the edges.

This is a juicy and accessible wine with an uncanny purity to the fruit that reminds us of times long past, with lively dark cherry, blueberry and plum.  There’s a little spice and a pleasing savory streak to add interest to the blend, and all is integrated for current ‘applications’ and well-priced for what it delivers.  You rarely get this caliber of juice for this kind of price here in California.  Notes from Wine Advocate coincide with ours and demonstrate how far this sophisticated project has come, “…the unabashedly delicious 2016 La Cuadrilla is a beautiful wine, jumping from the glass with notes of roses, violets, wild berry fruits and pomegranate. On the palate, it’s medium to full-bodied with an ample core of juicy fruit, satiny tannins and a pure finish. This is an amazing value….92 Points”.

The name, the blend, and the winemaking are pretty daring on the Stolpman Para Maria de los Tecolotes 2017, but they are a key part of the reason why this wine is so unique.  The blend of 80% Syrah and 20% Petit Verdot is quirky enough.  But the ‘process’ takes it up a notch.  By their own description this wine is done with 40% of the Syrah done via whole cluster (carbonic maceration) in a sealed tank, 40% Syrah destemmed and done by a traditional open top fermentation.  The Petit Verdot also is destemmed and done open top.   It’s a bit of work for a wine in this price range, but the results are beyond impressive.

We liked it a lot for its texture, density of flavor, and the cool underpinning to the dark Syrah fruit provided by the Petit Verdot, which plays not unlike Mourvedre in this mix.  Again we are talking a unique, seriously complex wine from California for under $20, which we must again mention doesn’t happen every day.  But Antonio Galloni of Vinous took it up a couple of notches from there.  His words, “…another attractive wine from Stolpman.  Here, too, the fruit is bright, precise and articulate, which is to say quite a departure from the style of the 2016. Generous and pliant  on the palate, with no hard edges and striking aromatics…it is shaping up to be a real beauty…Don’t miss it….92-95 points

As long as we’re at it, we feel compelled to mention their Stolpman Vineyards Estate Syrah Ballard Canyon 2016, definitely a bottling they are well known for and one of California’s best bargains on serious Syrah year in and year out.  This wine gets plenty of love consistently and it did here again.  It’s a Wine Advocate 92 and, in their words  “keenly priced.”  Vinous offers up a 93 with comments, “The 2016 Syrah Estate is dense and powerful in the glass, with plenty of fruit intensity. Even so, the shift towards a more polished, subtle style that is so evident in the 2017s is already quite evident here. Today, the Estate is a bit shy, but all the elements are very nicely balanced. I especially admire the wine’s persistence.”

Their program with their employees is enlightened and productive, and each wine is special in its own way. But they all share the aspect of being intriguing juice that performs well above their modest prices.  Their hard work has paid off as has their thinking outside the cuadra.  Now you get to take advantage.

 

 

 

Palazzo for the People (Master’s Blend 2016)

Scott Palazzo is not your ordinary Napa vintner.  His boundless enthusiasm for his wines and the Napa Valley in general are not uncommon among winery owners, but his demeanor seems perhaps a bit more ‘Hollywood’ than ‘wine country’.

But, while the guy can definitely ‘talk the talk’, he also walks the walk.  His numbers speak for themselves.  Take for example his Wine Advocate reviews.  For 25 wines over the course of a decade (2003-2013), Palazzo never received a score below 91 and there were a number of ‘95s’, ‘96s’, and even some ‘98s’ sprinkled in the mix.

We have worked with Scott a few times over the years because his wines are quite good.  But being wine merchant types as we are, the ‘relationship’ has always been subject to price concerns.  While we appreciate the best of breed from Napa as much as the next guys, we are a little conservative when it comes to offering that $80-and-up category for sale.  It is a common problem for us with ‘the Valley’ these days.

We could go off (and have) on the present state of affairs in Napa Valley as it seems most wineries are only willing to do as much as they need to do to promote their own ‘direct to consumer’ sales.  But what is relevant in this case is that we are starting to see a few Napa-ites starting to take stock of serving a broader market with a wine or two that isn’t just some unembellished effort that just bears the winery’s name.

Not long ago we profiled a new effort from Conn Valley that really delivered quality for a much more modest fare than their usual ‘reserve level’ offerings.  Most important, the wine showcased the style of the house and gave the luxury feel of the winery’s top cuvees for substantially less of an outlay.  So many wineries are putting out uninspired bottlings for the ‘little people’ that are little more than token offerings.  They rarely reflect the house style.    The Conn Valley is a notable diversion from that format.

So is this new effort from Palazzo (the second of the series we are told).  Unlike a lot of ‘value’ (by Napa standards) wines, this tastes and stylistically presents a legitimate Palazzo experience.  The style of all of Palazzo’s wines have the plush elegance and balance of Bordeaux as their reference point.  It is Napa with an eye to Saint Julien.  The Palazzo Left Bank Red Cuvée Master Blend Series 2016, while the name is too long, represents more the rich Napa texture and presence with a Bordeaux elegance rather than, say, the pedal-to-the-medal trophy style typical of most vintners here.

The ‘Left Bank’ is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25% each Cabernet Franc and Merlot.  It sees 20 months in oak, 50% new.  The result is a pleasing, layered effort with lush black-cherry and blackberry fruit on the nose and palate, along with hints of chocolate, coffee and cassis. Because some of the components come from top Carneros sites, there’s a cool, fresh underpinning of ‘savory’ to play against the lusher, sweeter  Cabernet core.  It’s about complex aromatics and harmony and it performs like wines costing a lot more while accurately conveying the style of the house, which is exactly the point!

 

‘BARGAIN’ CABERNET FROM ANDERSON’S CONN VALLEY NAPA VALLEY

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  This would seem to be a fine example of that saying.  No one has time to read the whole story of Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards.  Their website claims four generations have been here though the label only started with the 1987 vintage and their website states “Since 1983 we have been family owned and operated by the Anderson’s.” (this is a direct cut and paste showing the incorrect use of the possessive for all you English nigglers out there).   They got a lot of attention pretty soon in their history, rattling off a series of 92+ scores in successive vintages in Wine Advocate (and a Wine Spectator cover with their incredibel 1988) and the label was generating some buzz ahead of the emergence of a number of now iconic ‘trophy styled wines’ shortly thereafter.

Conn Valley is a little different from the heart of Napa.  Located roughly ten minutes up the hill east of St. Helena, sort of on the back side south of Howell Mountain, this 40 acre estate sits in a sort of elevated cleft known as Conn Valley.  It has a completely different and more serene vibe than the Valley below and this all-by-itself property has cave cellars, a sort of throwback facility, and what one might call its own ‘zen’.  We visited the Andersons there many years ago, met Todd and his father, and got a real feel for the wines.  We sold the many renditions from Conn Valley for many years but, as has happened so often in this part of the world, prices started to creep up beyond the point where they were slam dunks.

They made their bones on a series of ‘reserve level’ bottlings called Eloge, Reserve, Signature and Right Bank built from Bordeaux varietals.  It should also be mentioned that they have had some occasional enthusiastic kudos for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but their reputation was based on wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, and Merlot.  The style has always been of a luxury bent with broad, creamy fruit well-seasoned with top flight oak.  It seemed to be the perfect recipe for the market, and it had a pretty good run.

No one can say for sure what happened but production started to outpace sales.  One could suggest a gradual slowdown in the super-premium market and their signature wines ran from $80 to $150, though they got reviews commensurate with that level of pricing.  Maybe it was the move from just making a wine called Cabernet to making a number of different bottlings (until this wine, the last review we saw for something called simply Cabernet was 1995) that confused consumers.  Maybe it was the label, which they changed to something else rather distinctive (but also difficult to read) not long ago.

Maybe it was Todd Anderson’s focus on his super-super-premium Ghost Horse project that took away from the attention devoted to Conn Valley.  There are many conjectures, and the story can get pretty complicated.  But the bottom line is that the winery decided it needed to produce a wine that got the attention of a whole new set of buyers and was within the price range of a larger audience.

To that end, the 2016 Anderson’s Conn Valley Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was born (or ‘reborn’ depending on how you interpret the history).  The blend is 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot & 5% Cabernet Franc, the Cabernet Franc the only part to come from another site (Reinke Family Vineyards, a hillside vineyard in west Carneros…the wine still qualifies as estate bottled under the law).

They really nailed this one.  This has a lot in common with their ‘reserve’ level wines (except the price)…creamy fruit, notes of chocolate, spice and vanilla, along with pretty ripe, melty tannins for a wine so young.   The winery’s story is this, “A new product for us is this first ever ‘non-reserve’ Cabernet. It is a fruit forward, friendly, easy to drink style of Cabernet produced from the barrels that don’t quite make the cut for the Reserve and Eloge bottlings. What you may enjoy though is knowing that this is an estate grown, estate bottled Conn Valley Cabernet for HALF what you’d normally have to pay…”

It certainly tastes like it had the luxury treatment and showed surprising presence and polish on both occasions that we tried it.  This definitely has a ‘wow’ quality to it, and the kind of plush refinement you simply don’t see for under $40.  If you are a fan of Cabernet, it would be hard not to like it.

We don’t think the media has seen this one yet as this just hit the market.   No doubt it will be tasted among the other, much more exotic (and more expensive) Conn Valley wines and probably not get its due with respect to numbers.  It’s our version of the ‘theory of relatively’ where, if there are ‘upper cuvees’, most writers will focus on those and work backward.  As to timing, you are definitely ahead of the game as the wine was literally just released.

Are we going to tell you it’s as good as their $150 reserve bottling?  We know human nature far too well to promise that.  Are we going to tell you that if you drop this in among what is out there for $35-60 it will likely steal the show? Absolutely!  It is one of the sexiest Cabernets we have had for this kind of fare but it’s all estate fruit from a place that has been making top notch reds for a long time.  They created this wine to make an impression.  That it does!

 

 

A NEW PLAYER IN NAPA CABERNET ‘VALUE’

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  This would seem to be a fine example of that saying.  No one has time to read the whole story of Anderson’s Conn Valley.  Their website claims four generations have been here though the label only started with the 1987 vintage and their website states “Since 1983 we have been family owned and operated by the Anderson’s.” (this is a direct cut and paste showing the incorrect use of the possessive for all you English nigglers out there).   They got a lot of attention pretty soon in their history, rattling off a series of 92+ scores in successive vintages in Wine Advocate and the label was generating some buzz ahead of the emergence of a number of now iconic ‘trophy styled wines’ shortly thereafter.

Conn Valley is a little different from the heart of Napa.  Located roughly ten minutes up the hill east of St. Helena, sort of on the back side south of Howell Mountain, this 40 acre estate sits in a sort of elevated cleft.  It has a completely different and more serene vibe than the valley below and this all-by-itself property has cave cellars, a sort of throwback facility, and what one might call its own ‘zen’.  We visited the Andersons there many years ago, met Todd and his father, and got a real feel for the wines.  We sold the many renditions from Conn Valley for many years but, as has happened so often in this part of the world, prices started to creep up.

They made their bones on a series of ‘reserve level’ bottlings called Eloge, Reserve, Signature and Right Bank built from Bordeaux varietals.  It should also be mentioned that they have had some occasional enthusiastic kudos for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but their reputation was based on wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, and Merlot.  The style has always been of a luxury bent with broad, creamy fruit well-seasoned with top flight oak.  It seemed to be the perfect recipe for the market, and it had a pretty good run.

No one can say for sure what happened but production started to outpace sales.  One could suggest a gradual slowdown in the super-premium market and their signature wines ran from $80 to $150, though they got reviews commensurate with that level of pricing.  Maybe it was the move from just making a wine called Cabernet to making a number of different bottlings (until this wine the last review we saw for something called simply Cabernet was 1995) that confused consumers.  Maybe it was the label, which they changed to something else rather distinctive (but also difficult to read) not long ago.  Maybe it was Todd Anderson’s focus on his super-super-premium Ghost Horse project that took away from the attention devoted to Conn Valley.  There are many conjectures, and the story can get pretty complicated.  But the bottom line is that the winery decided it needed to produce a wine that got the attention of a whole new set of buyers.

To that end, the 2016 Anderson’s Conn Valley Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was born (or ‘reborn’ depending on how you interpret the history).  The blend is 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot & 5% Cabernet Franc, the Cabernet Franc the only part to come from another site (Reinke Family Vineyards, a hillside vineyard in west Carneros).  This wine still qualifies as estate bottled under the law.  It spends 18 months in French oak.

They really nailed this one.  This has a lot in common with their ‘reserve’ level wines…creamy fruit, notes of chocolate, spice and vanilla, along with pretty ripe, melty tannins for a wine so young.   The winery’s story is this, “A new product for us is this first ever ‘non-reserve’ Cabernet. It is a fruit forward, friendly, easy to drink style of Cabernet produced from the barrels that don’t quite make the cut for the Reserve and Eloge bottlings. What you may enjoy though is knowing that this is an estate grown, estate bottled Conn Valley Cabernet for HALF what you’d normally have to pay…”

It certainly tastes like it had the luxury treatment and showed surprising presence and polish on both occasions that we tried it.  This definitely has a ‘wow’ quality to it, and the kind of plush refinement you simply don’t see for under $40.  If you are a fan of Cabernet, it would be hard not to like it.

We don’t think the media has seen this one yet as this just hit the market.   No doubt it will be tasted among the other, much more exotic (and more expensive) Conn Valley wines and probably not get its due with respect to numbers.  It’s our version of the ‘theory of relatively’ where, if there are ‘upper cuvees’, most writers will focus on those and work backward.  As to timing, you are definitely ahead of the game as the wine was literally just released.

Are we going to tell you it’s as good as their $150 reserve bottling?  We know human nature far too well to promise that.  Are we going to tell you that if you drop this in among what is out there for $35-60 it will likely steal the show? Absolutely!  It is one of the sexiest Cabernets we have had for this kind of fare but, then again, it’s all estate fruit from a place that has been making top notch reds for a long time.  They created this wine to make an impression.  That it does!

 

 

OREGON UPDATE: KEEPING UP WITH THE DROUHINS

When Veronique Drouhin came to Oregon in 1986, she had just completed her masters in enology.  In what was probably conceived as a scouting mission, Veronique worked the harvest with three of Oregon’s early pioneers, the Letts of Eyrie, the Casteels of Bethel Heights, and the Adelsheims.  The lasting impression was that something important was happening in the Willamette Valley.  A year later, Robert Drouhin was invited to participate in the International Pinot Noir Celebration.  It was on that trip that this scion of a century-old Burgundy producer decided to buy land in the Dundee Hills.  In 1988, the first edition of the Domaine Drouhin Oregon project was made.  As they say, the rest is history.

The winery is celebrating their 30th Anniversary this year.  It seems a good time to look back on what had to have been viewed as one of the defining moments in the history of Oregon viticulture.  When someone of Drouhin’s stature establishes roots in Oregon, it had to have the effect of validating the entire region.  We have been fans of this project since day one and some of those early releases were kind of groundbreaking in terms of shining light on what was possible in the Willamette Valley.

We aren’t going to say that the road was without any bumps.  There was a period where we wondered where the mojo of this house had gone.  There were a few vintages that simply weren’t all that special.  We have no explanation as to why.   As inexplicable as that little dip in quality was, the winery seems to have snapped back and is now doing some of their best work ever.  Veronique is definitely rolling now as this trio of their traditional releases indicates.

Not surprisingly given the vintage, the Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Dundee Hills 2015 is a riveting, pure example of proper Oregon Pinot with the intense dark red fruits, palate-tingling interplay of high-toned spice and savory notes, and bright flavors right through to the end.  This reminds us of some of those earliest offers, but with more harmony and finesse.  Oregon vintners have definitely raised their game and Drouhin has, too.

It caught the attention of James Suckling, who offered, “A great pinot noir that shows dried flowers, violets and orchids. Cherry and raspberry undertones, too. Medium to full body with an incredible polished texture. Ripe and round tannins and a fresh and vibrant finish. Delicious now but better in 2020…95 points.”

Josh Reynolds expands, “Brilliant red. Fresh cherry and raspberry on the nose, complicated by candied rose, licorice and musky earth flourishes. Juicy, finely etched red berry and bitter cherry flavors show very good energy, and a deeper, sweeter suggestion of cola emerges with aeration. Closes on a bright, spicy note, with sneaky tannins lending framework and grip.”  Also ’91’ from both Wine Advocate and Vinous, the wine clearly shows ripe Oregon fruit but a Burgundian sensibility and harmony.

Also from a great vintage, the even more expressive reserve bottling Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Laurene Dundee Hills 2014 takes It up another level.  Named for Veronique’s daughter, Laurene is their flagship bottling assembled in the cellar from selected ‘best barrels’.  From Vinous, “Vivid red. A sexy, highly perfumed bouquet evokes ripe red berries, cola and rose oil, and a smoky flourish builds in the glass. Fleshy, expansive black raspberry, bitter cherry and floral pastille flavors show impressive depth as well as energy, picking up a hint of star anise with air. Finishes juicy, supple and very long, offering lingering spiciness and pliant, even tannins that fold effortlessly into the lush fruit… 93.”

Advocate’s Lisa Perotti-Brown, MW, has this take, “Pale to medium ruby-purple, the 2014 Pinot Noir Laurene offers a very fragrant nose of exotic spices—anise, cardamom and fenugreek—over a core of pomegranate, rhubarb, Bing cherries, fertile loam and truffles. Medium-bodied with a taut, fine structure of fine tannins and refreshing acid, the fruit has plenty of earth and red berry layers that linger with great persistence. ..92+ points.”

One of the most significant developments across Oregon over the last few vintages is that they have finally figured out Chardonnay.  The wrong clones planted in the wrong places definitely made Chardoannay the ‘also-ran’ varietal in this part of the world.  But the times, they are a changin’.  Meanwhile Drouhin did it right in the first place, some of these vines dating back to 1990.  The Domaine Drouhin Arthur Chardonnay Dundee Hills 2015 definitely follows the French model with crisp underpinnings and streaks of perceived minerality.

Josh Raynolds of Vinous offered, “(raised in a 50/50 combination of stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels, 20 percent of the oak new) Light gold. Intense, mineral-accented citrus and orchard fruits on the nose, complicated by hints of buttered toast and honeysuckle. Lush and creamy but focused as well, offering concentrated dried pear and peach flavors and a touch of bitter lemon pith. Turns firmer on the incisive finish, which repeats the citrus and mineral notes and leaves a hint of chamomile behind…92 points.”

James Suckling was more succinct, but even more enthusiastic, ” A layered and pretty wine with dried apples and fresh fruit. Linear and spicy, showing plenty of salty undertones. Full-bodied, solid and fresh. Lovely intensity. Drink now…94 Points.”

It is fair to say these wines were more than 100 years in the making, and the knowledge the Drouhins brought to the New World has been good for Oregon as a whole.  There are plenty of ‘young guns’ grabbing media attention these days.  But Drouhin is doing fine work and definitely is still a standard-bearer for the region.   These subtle, proportioned wines belong in everyone’s cellar.

 

 

KEENAN CABERNET SAUVIGNON RESERVE SPRING MTN 2014

In a ‘brave new world’ that seems overly focused on the new producer and the breakout category, it seems sometimes it’s a disadvantage to have any kind of history.  Talk about some entity that is making orange wine or early harvest Mourvedre and there seems to be a waiting cadre of folks willing to give them a look.  Talk about a proven Napa Valley label that has been around for more than three decades and you are likely to get blank stares.  But just because someone has been around a while doesn’t mean they are no longer relevant.

The history of Keenan Winery started over 40 years ago. Certain that mountain side vineyards in Napa Valley could produce world-class wines, in 1974 Robert Keenan purchased 180 acres in the Spring Mountain District at an elevation of 1700 feet. Located on the eastern slope of the Mayacamas mountain range, Spring Mountain District gained recognition as an American Vineyard Appellation (AVA) in 1993. The low vigor soils unique to the region were known to create a stressful environment for vine growth, setting up perfect conditions to encourage vineyards planted on the steep, rocky, mountainsides to produce wines of great concentration, structure, and pure varietal flavors.

The original acreage Robert acquired included the crumbling Peter Conradi Winery, founded in the late 19th Century and one of the first pioneering properties established on Spring Mountain. By the time Robert Keenan  arrived in 1974, none of the estate’s original vineyards were producing. Robert cleared the estate of tree stumps and rocks, extended the original vineyard acreage and replanted the property to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. He built a new winery using the existing stone walls from the old Conradi building, and celebrated Keenan Winery’s first harvest there in 1977.

Robert’s son Michael took the reins in 1998 with a vision of moving the property up the quality ladder.  While those early Keenan wines were respected, many of them were ferociously tannic.  A slow deliberate process of trial and error, including the replanting of clones and the incorporation of a solar-powered system and sustainable farming (Keenan is now recognized as a ‘green’ winery) has helped the winery take the steps necessary to elevate their game and make some of the best wines in the winery’s history.

It has been interesting to watch the winery get more critical recognition as a result of this multitude of changes under the watchful, and arguably rather intense eye of Michael.  It has been clear every year when we do the tasting with him that the wines are more intense, better balanced and more refined within the context of ample, burly mountain reds.  Better grapes, better wine and every aspect is carefully watched in the process.  The result has been a Keenan lineup that is playing at a high level but has remained true to their vision of Spring Mountain as an identifiable and important terroir of the Napa Valley.

The last lineup we were presented was arguably the best yet, but the star of the show was the Robert Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Spring Mountain 2014.  This is serious ‘mountain’ Cabernet with all of the power, depth and flavor intensity that the description implies.  Lots of dark cassis and other blue fruits highlighted with notes of chocolate and the requisite chewy, but thoroughly ripe tannins, this is impressive from front to back.

We can roll out the requisite press.  There’s a Vinous 93 with comments, “… an impeccably balanced wine that brings together firm mountain structure with ripe, unctuous fruit. Dark cherry, plum compote, spice, licorice and menthol are some of the many notes that give the Reserve its mid-palate density and sweetness. The firm tannins need time to soften, but this is impressive juice. “

There’s an even more emphatic Wine Advocate 95, offering “The (2014 Cabernet)… is the deepest, richest wine of the entire portfolio, with an opaque purple color and a super-pure nose of crème de cassis and blueberries. The wine is rich, full-bodied, nicely textured, and very long in the finish, with ripe tannins. It can be drunk now or cellared for another 15 or more years.”

High praise, to be sure.  But we can’t help but think that if the wine had a little more of a ‘trophy’ style that obliterates terroir for the sake of hedonism, with overt, lavish oak, and carried the name of one of the current media darlings, it would have garnered a couple more points and approached ‘legend’ status.  To Michael’s credit, this is as fine an expression of this vineyard, in a pure, honest style, that we have tasted from Keenan.

But we also think this effort is better even than the reviews chronicle and we’d think to ourselves that it seems to us that sometimes the ‘old guard’ has to do more to get the same recognition.  One of the Cabs of the vintage for us thus far and, given the cost of Napa reserve Cabs these day, attractively priced as well.

OREGON CHARDONNAY 2.0: LINGUA FRANCA BUNKER HILL 2016

There’s a lot to digest here.  First of all, it would have been easy for us to dismiss this as another ‘somm label’.  You know, famous sommelier decides he can do it better and goes off to create some undernourished wine that ‘pairs well with food’.  Only in this case the sommelier in question is one of some repute, Larry Stone, and he partnered with a ‘hall-of-fame’ Burgundy producer, Dominique Lafon.    They then hired Thomas Savre, an accomplished young winemaker from Evening Land’s Seven Springs Vineyard and put him to work on the project.

Perhaps even a bigger challenge here is that we are going to talk about an Oregon Chardonnay that sells for around $50.  But the performance here was so remarkable that we are thinking about it not as an Oregon Chardonnay, but as a white Burgundy look-alike that, given the cost of ‘real’ white Burgundy these days, actually looks reasonably priced.  We know a lot of you are still like we used to be, thinking of Oregon Chardonnay a sea of lean, mediocre juice grown in the wrong location, planted to the wrong clone.  There is still a lot of that.  But the upswing in quality from those who have reoriented their Chardonnay programs and corrected some of the old mistakes is astounding.

Lingua Franca Chardonnay Bunker Hill 2016 is exclusively from Salem’s Bunker Hill in Eola-Amity, with 20-year-old CH76 vines on pure Nekia soils at an altitude of around 800 feet. It is a west-facing vineyard that is exposed directly to the cooling ocean winds of the Van Duzer corridor (yeah pretty geeky stuff). The name of the winery, Lingua Franca, which is defined as “a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different”, seems an appropriate tongue-in-cheek reference to this ‘Franco-American’ endeavor.

All we can figure is that these guys, who have tasted some of the world’s greatest wines, have figured out a way to make something in the image of a great white Burgundy.   No easy task but knowledge is power.  The wine has both substance and lift.  The aroma is complex with layers of mineral, smoke, herbs, caramel apples, and a faint hint of that hazelnut character we associate with Meursault (or is that power of suggestion?).  The wine is intense, long, racy and complex on the palate with a lasting finish of citrus, herbs, and white flowers.  There are flinty, mouth-watering mineral notes as well, which we don’t typically associate with Oregon Chardonnay.

All in all this is an impressive glassful and indicates this project is going to turn some heads (the inaugural 2015s got some nice ink from Vinous), and that Oregon is capable of bringing Chardonnay drama when the juice is in the right hands.  A good run of vintages probably hasn’t hurt the early success here but, clearly, there is some vision here as well.  Talking about $50 domestic Chardonnay typically isn’t our ‘jam’, but exceptions do come along.  We highly recommend this one as a breakout kind of effort as well as a darned tasty bottle of serious Chardonnay that deserves attention.  Also there’s that whole thing about ‘preconceived notions’…

The Best Charbono in Years

Unless you have had a somewhat unusual wine experience, we are pretty confident that this will be the best Charbono you have had in years.  We can say that because it is very likely the only example of this varietal you are likely to have experienced over the last few years.  There is precious little even being produced any more.

Charbono has a shadowed past. To this day there is no agreed upon origin of the grape. Some suggest it comes from the northwestern part of Italy under the name Bonarda Piemontese.  Others claim it comes from the southwestern part of France and exists under the handle Corbeau or Douce Noir.  The only things that can be stated with any certainty is that the Charbono grape thrives in a harsh mountain terrain, and that it made it across the ocean as the Italians that settled California early on planted multiple-varietal field blends to assure, through diversity, there would always be some sort of crop to harvest.

For a lot of you, there is no point of reference for a wine like this.  In truth, we don’t need more than our fingers to count all of the California versions of Charbono we have had over the years.  The thing is that, among the limited experiences we have had with California versions of this varietal, there have been a disproportionate number of intriguing efforts.  So on the rare occasion we are presented with a Charbono, we pay attention.

This story is particularly interesting.  We initially were a little skeptical of the ‘program’ at Inizi, a small side project for some wine professionals who have ‘day jobs’ at other wineries.  That in itself is not a big deal.  But the fact that they were focusing on eclectic Italian varietals like Sagrantino and Tocai Friulano, and blends of things like Dolcetto and Montepulciano, gave us some concern that they were a little bit out on the fringe from a marketability standpoint.  The Inizi Charbono 2014, however, showed us some of the best traits of this somewhat hard to pinpoint grape.

The profile is engaging red and mainly black fruit, a touch of woodsiness and lots of spice, ample enough but with plenty of freshness and lift.  There’s some tobacco and vanilla in there, too. It is a delightful example of what Charbono can be. It is a unique situation.  The grapes come from the Heitz Brothers vineyard near Calistoga, a 1.5 acre plot with 40-year-old, head-trained, dry-farmed vines.

A long, dry vintage delivered great optimally ripe fruit that was 30% whole berry fermented.  About 25% saw once used barrels, the rest neutral wood, for 10 months.  Plenty to like here, Charbono is one of those grapes that has elements that remind you of other varietals, but ultimately has its own unique character.