Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015

If you look at our product listings, you will note that we post ‘third party’ reviews on the wines offered just like most everyone else.  What’s different about our approach is that you will also note we write a number of original pieces.  We taste a lot of wine over the course of the year and will make the point that context makes a huge difference in how a wine comes across.  So we give ourselves the opportunity to use our own voice to point out exceptional efforts that may not get that big score when judged in some sort of rapid fire tasting but sure hits the right notes for us ‘one-on-one’.  That is, incidentally how most of you will be consuming your wines.

If there was ever a prime example of how we see things quite a bit differently than the wine media, it is with Benovia winery.  We have been big fans of winemaker Mike Sullivan since back in his early Zin days with Deloach, and through an impressive group of Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels as he got the Hartford Court project going.  We have been quite pleased with his work since becoming the mind behind Benovia and have recommended a number of things from there over the years.

We’ll be the first to admit that the Benovia wines aren’t the kind of blowsy monsters that get easily noticed by the media.  They are, rather, succinct, pure and harmonious with well-woven flavors and nothing sticking out.  These are the kinds of wines to drink because they are outstanding examples of California classics of the type that were prevalent back in California’s more ‘formative’ years.  They are made to ‘seduce’ rather than ‘bludgeon’.

Not a lot of evident wood here, the style of this Chardonnay is an exploration of the terroir of the Russian River.  You’ve got finely meshed apple and citrus fruit with hints of almond and spice notes, the result of night harvesting, indigenous yeast and whole cluster fermentation and a sojourn of 12 months in oak.

The flavors are clean, persistent, and engaging while always fresh and vibrant.  The Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015 comes mainly from the winery’s Martaella estate and relies on a layered, nuanced, rather impressive demonstration of the vivid house style for its impression.  It will probably again get modest reviews from the press because it isn’t overtly big (though don’t get us wrong there is plenty of character).  But this one impresses where it counts, in the glass.  That is where this Chardonnay is made to perform, and we’d rather drink this than a lot of the other, higher- scoring (often oaky and flabby) options we have.

It would be easier for us to simply point to a Chardonnay that got a big review, and we have those, too. But this is one we believe in and the 2015 is a fine example to make new friends for what we feel is one of the more under-rated wineries around simply because the wines are balanced and made to drink rather than to go after ‘numbers’.

 

Don’t Miss This $34 Pinot Noir (for $15)

If the following saga sounds a bit familiar, it’s because we had a couple of rounds of insane Pinot Noir closeouts from the Knez winery earlier this year. The ‘back story’ itself is one of the more unusual we have told in all of our years of doing this and this ‘Episode 3’ is quite the climax to the Knez trilogy of Pinot Noir tales.  We ‘ve already sold a ton but we took down a ton and a half and, really, there’s nothing out there this expensively made for this kind of price

For those of you who don’t recall that Knez story, here’s a refresher. It starts (and ends) with Peter Knez, a math genius who did quite well for himself designing things like algorithms used by Wall Street types. Apparently, around 2007, Peter and his wife decided to move to the Anderson Valley to live the ‘dream’ of a rural life in ‘wine country.’ These were intelligent, highly successful folks turning their attention to the wine business, though that part is not particularly unusual.

Here, these ‘city folk’ wasted no time in getting down to business. They acquired two of Mendocino’s prime Pinot Noir vineyards, Demuth and Cerise, in 2007 and 2008, and planted their own Knez Vineyard in 2009. Winemaker Anthony Filiberti, who was quite familiar with these sites from his work with the respected Anthill Farms, came on board here as winemaker/viticulturist (as well as partner we are told). It wasn’t long before the winery was attracting attention and praise from the media. They were making compelling wines and farming these outstanding vineyards biodynamically. Things went along swimmingly, or so it seemed, and this is where we are supposed to say, ‘and they lived happily ever after.’

As it turned out, we have to presume that these folks didn’t really find the ‘simple life’ to their liking. They have sold their vineyards, finding an enthusiastic buyer in Kosta Browne for their important Knez, Demuth and Cerise holdings. The only other thing to do was sell their supply of highly-reviewed Pinot Noirs. Some folks have money problems, others have family issues. But this just seems to be a case where the Knez folk simply wanted out. Because of the quality of the juice and the dirt, it didn’t appear that the process was going to take very long.

We, and you, have certainly done our parts in making a lot of great Knez Pinot go away.

As they say, success is in the eye of the beholder as well. Knez apparently did not think the sell-off was going fast enough for his tastes. So, he changed horses with respect to his representation and rolled out an even crazier price on his Knez Winery Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2013! From another epic vintage in California, this bottling is made from approximately 2/3 Cerise and 1/3 Demuth fruit and saw a fair bit of whole clusters in the fermentation.

Antonio Galloni of Vinous Media was succinct in his praise of the Knez Winery Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2013, “The 2013 Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley) is quite floral, lifted and delicate in style. Raspberry, crushed flowers and mint are some of the notes that grace this pretty, entry-level offering from Knez. Today (January, 2015), the 2013 comes across as a bit ethereal, with plenty of influence from the 50-60% whole clusters. The wine’s mid-weight personality leads me to think it is best enjoyed sooner rather than later…90 points.”

We’d make a couple of points here. The 2013s were much tighter out of the gate than the 2014s, and we think the nearly 3 years of bottle age has greatly benefited this cooler-climate Pinot noir allowing the fruit to expand and take on weight, and the nose to develop complexity. The bottle aging has already been done for you and, thanks to this rather unusual set of events, it’s like a Pinot Noir Black Friday all over again price-wise.

As you’ll possibly recall if you saw the last two offers, the single vineyard wines had original price tags approaching $50, and this one ‘listed’ at the winery for $34, not a bad price for the caliber of juice in this bottle. But thanks to this make-it-go-away offer, we are proffering this seriously intended, estate grown $34 Pinot for $14.98, about what you’d pay for some marginal commercial Pinot that probably isn’t even all Pinot!

Remember, Kosta Browne will be launching wines from these exact same vineyards starting in the 2016 vintage with, presumably, $90 price tags.  Needless to reiterate, this is a pretty fantastic, once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity and, based on the new owners of these vineyards, will not be happening again.

 

 

THREE GOOD AMERICAN ‘VALUE’ REDS

Not words you are likely to hear strung together very often from us .  First, our definition of value is perhaps a lot different than the majority of the marketplace.  First, a value doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘cheap’, it merely has to deliver far above its purchase price.  For the sake of argument today, however, this trio all sell for under $20.

Second, it has to taste like actual wine, as opposed to some of the current mass market items that taste formulaic as if someone put some juice, wood essence and sugar in a blender to approximate a desired flavor that isn’t necessarily wine-like.  Worse are the ones that are manipulated to the point of utter soullessness so as not to offend anyone.  Sadly, most of what is out there in the ‘value’ category falls into one of those categories.

Our struggle is to find fun things to drink that have character, some varietal identity where a varietal is stated, and possibly even notes of place.   In other words, things that taste like they were made from grapes instead of in the laboratory.  In America, such wines represent a fraction of what is available because most of the ‘price point’ bottlings are controlled to some extent by corporate-type entities or those trying to compete with them.

We seek the small, the talented, the maybe even a little bit quirky and are thrilled when we find something we are excited enough to talk about.  Can’t remember the last time we had three such American wines at the same time.  Usually we have to ‘outsource’ for quality in this price range

Lola Pinot Noir North Coast 2016

Though they have been around since 2008, this is only our second encounter with LOLA.  Winemaker/owner Seth Cripe got bit by the wine bug at 17 while working as a busboy near his home in Anna Maria Island, Florida.  You’ve heard the story before many times about the person who works at various wine locales around the world to learn  ropes and then finds his niche.  Seth’s niche turned out to be making wine from important  appellations, but selling them at reasonable prices.  What a concept.  The LOLA Pinot Noir tastes like, um, Pinot Noir.  Good Pinot Noir and we aren’t trying to be wiseacres because you know so many of them out there only bear a vague resemblance to the real deal after they have been manipulated in the cellar and pumped up with some other varietal.

The winery is located in Napa, but the juice for the Lola Pinot Noir North Coast 2016 comes from Pinot-legit places like Mendocino, Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast AVAs.  Tender, fruit driven core, red fruits that lean a little blue, a touch of spice and violet, it is a surprisingly engaging quaff.  Since LOLA costs about the same as a mass-marketed Pinot whose name is five letters starting with ‘M’ and ending in ‘I’, we can’t imagine why anyone would buy that when they could buy this!  The only reason we can fathom is that people don’t know about LOLA yet.  The whole winery produces 12,000 cases total of several varietals, and there are hundreds of thousands of cases of our mass-market Pinot.   Clearly LOLA is still kind of an insiders’ find, but now you know.

We’ll leave here with the words of Jeb Dunnuck, who apparently also found this Pinot rather charming,

“…An excellent value …It saw a touch of whole cluster and 6 months in used barrels. It offers a sweetly fruited, pretty, elegant, classic Pinot Noir style (which isn’t a given at this price point) to go with notes of cherries, toast and spice. Drink it over the coming 3-5 years…90 points.”

Ryan Patrick Redhead Red Columbia Valley 2016

 Washington is still something of a sleeping giant when it comes to making value reds.  But we have certainly had our eyes opened by the likes of Alder Ridge and Powers, and little blends from folks like Bookwalter.  Behold our newest surprise, the Ryan Patrick Redhead Red Columbia Valley 2016.  An unpretentious blend of 56% Cabernet, 22% Merlot, 17% Syrah, 5% Petit Verdot, it has the size and polish to excel as a casual quaff, but if you pay a little attention you can also see that there is some serious fruit in here in top-flight grapes sourced from the Wahluke Slope.

The winery prides itself on its flexibility.  In their own words, “Many wineries use static recipes for their wines. Instead, the (Partick Ryan) winemaking team, headed by Kendall Mix, does daily fermentations with different yeast or temperatures to achieve a specific effect.  Batch-tinkering approaches have resulted in varietals and blends that have justifiably become famous for how they out-perform their price point. Ryan Patrick is known for its Naked Chardonnay, Redhead Red and Rock Island Red labels, and for its Reserve wines.

Only 15% of this charming, juicy, not-so-‘little’ red from Ryan Patrick saw any oak.  The focus here is on generous berry, black cherry, and cassis flavors.  At under $10 this is quite the bargain and the wine’s weight is more akin to a riper Bordeaux than something jammy from, say, Paso Robles.  As such it is more versatile with food and doesn’t get tiresome in the glass.

 Ultraviolet Cabernet Sauvignon California 2016

Samantha Sheehan had the good fortune to taste a lot of the world’s great wines at a fairly young age.  She knows what exceptional wine is supposed to taste like.  To satisfy her own artistic needs, she founded Poe Winery with the intent of showcasing specific California vineyard terroirs made in a transparent, minimalist way.  There’s also apparently a little whimsy as Poe also produces a nouveau Pinot, Vermouths and, of course, a Rose.  Apparently the winery is involved in a charitable endeavor or two, but there is still an awareness that not everybody can plunk down serious money for wine.

To that end, Sheehan has been making a wine called Ultraviolet Cabernet since 2010 in a price range that can appeal to a much broader audience.  Why ‘ultraviolet’?  Apparently it is a nod to ‘fruit ripened in the California sun’.  The wine also bears the banner “Bottled in the Napa Valley” with the wine’s appellation not immediately evident.  On the back label it says California Cabernet in a way that doesn’t really give the impression that it is an appellation reference.

What is evident is that, while this fruit may not be all from Napa, it also doesn’t taste like it is sporting the kind of Central California ‘filler’ that most ‘value’ Cabs seem to feel they need to have for cost reasons.  If it isn’t all North Coast fruit, it certainly tastes like it is.  What is particularly relevant here, besides the supple (particularly for a young Cabernet) cassis fruit component, is the texture.  There’s a suppleness to the midpalate you don’t typically see in wines of this price range, with rounder edges and laid back tannins.

It isn’t big or jammy.  It is a crowd pleaser certainly with enough volume and fruit that tastes like it is supposed to taste, genuine and rather elegant.  The stats are interesting in that the wine is 95% Cabernet and 5% Franc, and it sees 50% new French oak but the wood is definitely integrated.  The point is that it definitely shows a certain breeding and delivers a lot for it’s more than modest fare.

 

 

RIDGE CABERNET SAUVIGNON ESTATE 2014-Montebello Heritage, Lower Fare

One of our long time tenets has been to explore ‘other offerings’ from iconic wineries.  If you haven’t heard our reasoning it’s pretty simple.  ‘Iconic’ wines are wines that have achieved a certain status because of continued excellence over a period of time, and our thought (which has proven true time and again) is that the folks who make great wines answer to a higher standard than the rest.  A value wine for them has to still fill a certain criteria no matter what.

Over the years we have told this story a number of times, usually with the subject being something from a top Bordeaux chateau like Lafite or Pavie, a Chave or a Lodovico, or something of that ilk.  We openly admit that our usual forte is the Old World because California has eschewed the value handle it seems, almost bristling at the suggestion that anything of theirs be offered at a price that is less that whatever they divined to sell it for.  But even here, the theory can work.  It’s just a matter of finding the example.

So who is our icon?  Well, it would be difficult for any California aficionado would deny that Ridge Montebello is among the state’s most storied Cabernet series.  AS folks who have tasted these them since the late 80s, we would have the temerity to suggest that Montebello has actually gotten better over time and the current releases are among the best ever.  The problem is that the wine is becoming even more scarce and, these days, sells in the $200 range.

That’s what makes this story particularly important.  A few years back we started to see a wine called Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Estate.  So what is it?  Well, in this case, think of Ridge Montebello’s answer to Carruades de Lafite, Les Forts de Latour, or Pavillon Rouge de Chateau Margaux.   In other words this is Ridge Cabernet from the younger vines and deselected lots of the ‘big dog’.  There was a lot of experimentation that lead to this decision, with earlier versions that were simply labeled Ridge ‘Santa Cruz Mountains’ until we started to see this nomenclature in 2008.

We liked the 2012 version of this wine quite a bit (it was also a Wine Advocate 92 and 94 Galloni), but think the new version, while perhaps a little less outgoing out of the gate than the 2012, is possibly even a touch more polished and complete.  Once again we were not alone and this Cab already has a few reviews including a 92 from former Wine Advocate scribe Jeb Dunnuck who has recently started his own service, and Antonio Galloni’s 93.

Galloni posts a rather rave review, stating “…bold, incisive flavors. Even with all of its intensity, the 2014 has a certain silkiness in its tannins that makes it approachable today. Of course, the 2014 will be even better in another few years, but opening a bottle on the early side is not a crime. The 2014 spent 27 months in French oak. Readers who are looking for a more affordable alternative to Ridge’s iconic Monte Bello should consider the 2014 Estate. Look for the Estate to be a real overachiever in 2014 as well as one of the best – possibly the best – California Cabernets in its price range.

 That’s kind of what we’re on about here.  This is a brilliant effort made up of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, and 5% Cabernet Franc, and 100% Montebello fruit! More importantly, it’s a very classy, sophisticated Cabernet essentially hidden in plain sight in the shadow of its famous sibling.  This is not a place most folks think to look for an elite Cabernet but beside performance, horse sense tells you that you can’t buy much in Napa at this level for $60-70.  So in its own way, the Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Estate 2014, at a quarter the price of the Montebello, is a legit value for folks looking for serious Cabernet.  It’s also proof that the more affordable efforts from big time players theory works in California sometimes as well.

 

 

PURLIEU CABERNET 2014-SERIOUS DIRT YIELDS SERIOUS JUICE

This is a curious example of the ‘new math’, and certainly an anomaly in today’s Napa.  In world where legitimate $40-50 Cabernets are asking $150, this guy is offering a wine sourced from an iconic list of Napa vineyards, made by one of Napa’s ‘rock star’ winemakers, for less than $100.  This isn’t our first go-around with Purlieu Cabernets.  We’ve sold a couple of prior vintages just because we thought they were seriously good and offered value in a rarefied world of elite Napa Cabernets that seems to be philosophically averse to it.

The list of vineyards in the Purlieu Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014 is sick…Missouri Hopper, Beckstoffer To-Kalon, the Pritchard Hill vineyard next to Ovid (Martinez) and Teucer.  These make $150-300+ single vineyard wines for Purlieu and others.  Put them together and it’s…less?  The fruit in this wine is gorgeous…black cherry, plum, and blackcurrant with flecks of vanilla, toast, and dark chocolate (around 82% cocoa if you want specifics, chocolate geeks).    In line with the 2014 vintage, the wine is pretty seamless front-to-back, and the texture of plush and palate caressing.

The winemaker here is one Julien Fayard, one of Napa’s rising superstars with a resume that sounds like some one made it up.  He has worked as the director of winemaking for Phillipe Melka’s all-star team that took care of wineries like Hundred Acre, Vineyard 29, Lail, and Gemstone.

Robert Parker’s notes are pretty enthusiastic about the wine, “The real knock-out is the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa… this is a superb example of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Inky purple in color, with beautiful blackberry and cassis fruit, a touch of creosote, charcoal and some subtle background oak, the wine hits the palate with authority, serious extract and richness, but enough acidity to frame up its boisterous and exuberant parts. It is a big, rich, concentrated, mouth-filling Cabernet Sauvignon with relatively sweet tannin. It should drink well for 15-20 years, possibly longer…94 points”

We would’t be at all surprised if this sexy, layered Cabernet could kick some serious tail in a scrum of high-digit Napa stalwarts, yet at this price it’s actually a deal based on performance in our minds. Robert Parker went out of his way to say the wine ‘wasn’t a bargain’ at under $100.  Since ‘print’ has no nuance, we aren’t sure about the context of that comment, but we politely (though firmly) disagree.  We aren’t the type of folks that tell people to spend this kind of money lightly and are very measured in our praise. This one delivers.  It’s is also as crowd pleasing a high end Cabernet as we have had in a while.  It will only get better.  Not everyone can play at this level price-wise.  But if you can, this is a star.

 

Keeping it real with $20 Pinot Noirs

There have been more than a few statements on these pages about how California wineries (read that Napa in particular) have gotten a little out of touch with real people.  There are lots of folks coming in from outside the industry that are here to be the next Harlan.  We have had a few choice words as well about producers making 5 or six different Pinot Noirs to ‘showcase the vineyards’ with $40-60 (or more) price tags.  All too often the nuances of the various sites are lost in the oak treatment and heavy-handed winemaking.  Other times there are well crafted Pinots done with minimal handling and oxygen exposure that take days to unwind.  Art for art’s sake? Oh yeah, and most people can’t or don’t want to spend that kind of money on a regular basis.

It seems all is not lost though.  Interestingly enough, we have recently been presented with a number of California Pinot Noirs we can sell for under $20 that are not only good, but stylistically distinctive.  While we can’t necessarily call it a ‘movement’ yet, it is comforting to know that there are vintners out there that care about giving the consumer something pleasing and affordable, but also with a little flair.

Each of these Pinot Noirs has its own story, is loaded with personality, and produced in pretty modest quantities.   In each case there are people involved that are industry veterans, and these are all a far cry from the neutered, corporate, lowest-common-denominator Pinots that occupy this price point in the broad market.  Any or all of these may appear in a larger offer down the road, though they don’t fit the profile of the usual whiz-bang, this-score-at-this-price format.  These are still under the radar (heck, we just found them!), but they are soulful, tasty, purposeful Pinots made by folks who are bent on ‘keeping it real’.  Bravo…

Raised on a small family farm in Wisconsin, Francis Joyce came to Monterey in the early 1970s to pursue a career in auto racing.  As the story goes, in the 80s he acquired several ‘pirated’ cuttings from European vineyards and set of shop to grow grapes and continued farming as he pursued a new career in dentistry.  Son and current winemaker Russell grew up in the vineyards and developed a passion for winemaking as he started to take more of the reigns at the property.

These folks are all about ‘transparency’ of the vineyard, though with them it isn’t just lip service.  They harvest a little on the earlier side so that the grapes are at a stage where the ripeness level does not require them to get manipulative in the cellar while showcasing the crisp lines of the cooler parts of Monterey.  The wine has an extended stay on the lees but is done in entire neutral oak.  The resulting wine in this case is a blend that show the lifted fresh fruit and crunchy flavors they feel is the region’s best expression.  Joyce Pinot Noir Submarine Canyon Monterey County 2016is a blend of clones and vineyards and named for the Monterrey Bay Submarine Canyon which is the deepest such ‘trench’ on the West Coast.  High-toned flavors of dried strawberry, cranberry, rhubarb, and a crisp edge of saline minerality are highlights of this ‘cool customer’ of a wine that still has plenty of flesh and packs 14% alcohol.

The Pence Ranch Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2016 is not associated with the current Vice-President.  It is instead something much more interesting to wine drinkers as an exciting new Pinot star from the team of winemaker Sashi Moorman (Sandhi, Evening Land, Domaine de la Cote, Piedrasassi) and grower Blair Pence.  From the warmer east side of the Santa Rita Hills, near John Sebastiano’s vineyard, this wine delivers a refined, spicy blast of darker cherry fruit and deliciousness that reminds us of the Bonaccorsi Pinot.  In other words, it aims to please with a plush texture, sweet-but-lifted flavors and tender edges even at this young age.  ‘Terroir’ is all well and good, but it helps to have a winemaker that takes the time to understand the vineyard in context rather than ‘one-recipe-fits-all’. Pretty engaging stuff.

Fortunately long time industry veteran Marcel van Stuijvenberg chose not to use his own name on the label, and he got the wine part figured as well.  This wine is something of an enlightened throwback. The 45 year-old vines in the McIntyre vineyard are the oldest in the region and were planted with Pommard and Swan clones rather than some of the new, hipper ‘numbered’ clones (114, 115, 667, 777, etc.) that are widely popular today.  Perhaps it is the old vines, maybe it’s those old-time clones (or maybe a combination of the two!) that give this wine a fab ‘Old-World’ feel with layered depth but with New World punch to the fruit behind it. Complex and surprisingly refined and subtle, with flavors that lean on the darker red side of the spectrum but with a Pinot purity that shines and none of the Syrah-esque aspects that many SLH Pinots bear, the White Hart Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2015 is a terrific value.

 

 

 

 

SWAN PINOT: HOME RUN FOR THE ‘OLD GUARD’

JOSEPH SWAN VINEYARDS PINOT NOIR TRENTON ESTATE VINEYARD 2013

 Historically, this is one of those labels where we never really ‘got it’.  The reputation of Joseph Swan has been exalted for pretty much our entire time in the wine business.  But perhaps because history doesn’t really matter to us when it comes to purchasing, only what’s in the glass, we have not been big fans.  A lot of the wines were a bit too, um, ‘exotic’.  Maybe we had the misfortune to have them all on ‘root days’ (arguably before anyone knew what that was).  But we never understood why the ‘old timers’ spoke of the label in such glowing terms, and presumably never tasted the wines that generated such a buzz back in the day.

It is with that history, and with full knowledge of the fact that a number of people will simply tune out as we are pitching a $70 Pinot with a 91 point score, we say that the Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Vineyard 2013 is bloody amazing.   We kept tasting this and looking at each other with the expression, ‘is this really that good?’.  The answer is, “heck yeah!”  It is one of the best Pinots we have tasted from anywhere this year, and we have been tasting 2015 Burgundies among other things.

Apparently the 40th vintage of this wine, it shows deft winemaking in its unfettered purity, haunting, subtle spice and anise tones to the deep dark red and blue fruits, refined tannins and just the right touch of acidity to make the wine pop on the palate.  If you are looking for some sweet, gooey ‘jamball’, this is not that.  It is instead a very focused, refined and harmonious expression of Russian River Pinot that can play alongside anything.

It isn’t ‘big’ as that is defined these days.  But it is deep and expressive, simply a gorgeous effort that made us reconsider our position on this producer.  We must, in all fairness, give some of the credit to 2013, one of the most impressive vintages we have ever had from California.  It was also one that was particularly kind to Pinot, giving the wines an unusual depth and power while maintaining balance.

Lisa Perotti-Brown’s description, while accurate and complimentary enough, sounds a little clinical, “The 2013 Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Vineyard presents a pale to medium ruby color and tar and asphalt-led nose, opening out to a core of raspberry preserves, red currant jelly and licorice, plus a waft of underbrush. Full-bodied, rich and powerful in the mouth, it gives mouth-filling berry preserves and anise flavors with a chewy backbone and a long, fruity finish.”

The score and the rhetoric, while pretty good for her, simply doesn’t convey our level of enthusiasm.  Maybe she had it on a ‘root day’.  In any case, this is a serious, layered bottle of Pinot that deserves equally serious attention.  There are lots of other wines that would be easier sells, but this one is very special, and maybe something of a game-changer for us….$69.99

A ‘NOSTALGIC’ CABERNET DEAL

Who knew back in 1967 that we would get here?  Steve was still in high school and Chateau Ste Michelle, then called Ste. Michelle Vineyards, would start a long and impressive run as well as essentially be the genesis of the wine industry in Washington State.  We’re sure there are historians that would dispute that latter point with an example of some winery that may have preceded the folks at Ste. Michelle.  But in point of fact this is the winery that eventually got people’s (and critic’s) attention at a time when the Hugh Johnson Wine Atlas did not even have a Washington section.  The rest, as they say, is history.

We don’t necessarily go in for nostalgia plays.  Usually it is an excuse for a winery to make some special ‘commemorative’ bottling and charge a big price tag.  But this one caught our fancy because the folks at Ste. Michelle took the unusual step of ‘doing a solid’ for their customers and creating a wine at a ‘throwback’ price while adorning it with a take on their original label from back in the day.  It’s a ‘feel good’ story which, of course, is the point.  But back when they started, no one would have any way of knowing that the 2015, which is being released in their 50th year of existence (though from their 48th vintage) would happen to come in a near perfect vintage in the great Northwest (one of the warmest ever).

The winery chose Cabernet to celebrate their milestone, and sourced the grapes from Columbia Valley vineyards in eastern Washington including Cold Creek, Canoe Ridge Estate and Indian Wells.   The blend is 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 4% Syrah, 1% Malbec, 1% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petit Verdot and saw fourteen months in a combination of French and American oak, 32% of which was new.  The juicy Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 50th Anniversary Commemorative Bottling 2015 shows plenty of ripe dark fruits, a touch of vanilla, surprising amplitude and polished tannins for something this age.  Think of this as a step back in time, to when you could get a pretty compelling bottle of wine for ten bucks, only it’s 2017 and you can’t get much of anything for this kind of price.

Therein lays the attraction.  Cool label, sure.  Great feeling and commemoration of a surprising history that few would have predicted back then.  But in the end, our interest in the ‘50th’ is because it’s a really good, honest bottle of Cabernet for an unbelievable price in today’s market.  Think of this as at least on par with, and arguably better than the best offerings we’ve sold from their Columbia Crest brand over the years, many of which received 90-92+ scores.

Thus far we haven’t seen any reviews on this one, but the price/quality relationship is more than enough reason to get excited about it.   As you know, we are not ones to spend a lot of effort promoting large wineries, though we are certainly not afraid of doing so when the wine merits.  It certainly does here. Kudos to Ste. Michelle for their doing something tasty at a price where everyone can celebrate a little, as well as one of the better value Cabernets around.

CABERNET QUARTERLY

It has truly been quite busy in Q1, what with all the hot releases rolling in from Europe (2015s from France and Italy for the most part and 2014 Bordeaux) after a couple of relatively quiet years on that front.  Here at home we are also experiencing an unparalleled string of successful vintages (at least in our memory) from 2012 through 2016.  Given all that is happening, with things coming at us ‘hot and heavy’, including some eyebrow-raising deals on all sorts of things, there simply haven’t been enough hours to talk about everything.

This has been, as you might have surmised given our comments on the domestic front, a wonderful time for Cabernet fans.  Wines that would have easily ‘made the cut’ a couple of years ago, qualitatively are middle of the current pack, and the stuff we do purchase is excelling in a much tougher field.  So, we deemed it time to take a breath and talk about a few gems that we loved, grabbed, but haven’t had time to get around to.  It’s a lovely list that Cab drinkers can truly sink their teeth into.

Martin Ray, the wine brand operating under the name of one of California’s early pioneer winery owners, has built itself a serious business with meticulous winemaking and careful sourcing of fruit.  They do well on a number of different fronts from Cabernet to Chardonnay to even, dare we say it, Rosé.  They have access to a lot of different fruit and certain lots will be set aside to create something special when the opportunity presents itself.   The Martin Ray Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain 2013 is one of those wines.  Made from 100% Cabernet from two well-known estates, this displays full throttle, almost chewy Diamond Mountain fruit honed to a perfectly civilized yet still rich Cabernet.

Very engaging stuff, as well it should be for an $80 list price, this one not only got our attention but tickled the fancy of James Suckling who typically doesn’t spend as much time on California wine.  His enthusiasm was evident here, “Breathtaking aromas of wet stones, blackberry and black currant follow through full body with seamless tannins that fill your mouth and last for minutes. Gorgeous wine. Why (wait)? But will age incredibly well….95 Points!”  Given the extreme prices of Napa Cabs these days, a lot of which is pretty ordinary, we didn’t blink at the $59.98 fare for this classy red.  Actually, based on performance, it actually represents something of a deal.

The Roberts + Rogers Cabernet Sauvignon Louer Family Napa Valley 2013 maybe one of the most impressive Cabernets you’ve never heard of.  Though they have been around since 2004, they only got noticed by Robert Parker with their 2012s.  Even if you sort by scores, by the time you get past all of the $150-and-up micro-boutiques that you can’t buy (even if you have the money) that he reviews these days, you would be several pages in before you got to this classy 95-point, $60 gem.

‘The Bob’ certainly wasn’t lost for words here, saying The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Louer Family is a blockbuster of power and elegance. Young, exuberant and youthful, with a dense purple color, notes of charcoal and smoke from the barrels interwoven with copious quantities of blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. This lavishly rich, full-bodied, multi-dimensional wine is still youthful and coiled tight, but has enormous upside and promise. Give it several more years of cellaring and drink it over the following 20-25 years.”  It has unwound a bit since that review (Dec. 2015), but it is a definitely ‘home run’ on the uber-quality scale whether you drink or hold.

Given the current run of vintages, most folks have forgotten that Antonio Galloni called 2010 Cabernets “…magnificent, viscerally thrilling wines loaded with character and personality.”  Here we have a later release from the vintage, now with some bottle age, that shines brightly in the Palazzo Proprietary Red Right Bank Napa Valley 2010Yes, it’s a ‘red table wine’ made of 72% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon, but it will please Cabernet drinkers as well as anyone else that’s a fan of serious Napa reds.  Oh, yeah, there’s that 96+ from Robert Parker with comments, “The 2010 is another wine of great intensity but coiled, very tight, with high levels of tannin. Sensational in extraction and richness…it shows fabulous density, richness, and intensity. Perhaps it will evolve somewhat like the brilliant 2005…”   We also have some of the Advocate 97-point Palazzo Cabernet Franc Napa Valley 2013

One doesn’t necessarily think of reds wine when the name Chalk Hill comes up, but their red program has made a quantum leap in recent vintages under the ownership of William Foley (yeah, the Chalone, Sebastiani, Las Vegas Golden Knights guy).  Behold the Chalk Hill Estate Proprietary Red 2013This has more Cabernet than the Palazzo (45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Malbec, 12% Petit Verdot and the rest Carignane, Syrah and Merlot), but, again, its Cabernet-ness isn’t the point.  It’s about great juice.

Parker’s words are pretty compelling, “This is another titanic effort from proprietor Foley. A spectacular dense-purple color and sweet toasty oak intermixed with licorice, blackberry, cassis and graphite are all present in this profound first-growth quality blend that should age effortlessly for 25-30 or more years. This is a stunner and a revelation. 95 points.”  “First-growth quality”? “A stunner and a revelation”? Ever the cheerleader for great wine, those are still rare words and high praise from Parker.  The juice is in the bottle, but the descriptors definitely got our attention.

And we still wonder what Mount Eden has to do to get the Cabernet respect it deserves.  They made one of California’s greatest Chardonnay for decades before people really caught on.  But they also make some pretty fine Cabernet from the Santa Cruz Mountains.  The Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon Estate 2012 is a dual 94 (from Wine Advocate and Antonio Galloni) and made up of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and the rest Petit Verdot that also boasts moderate alcohol as Cabs go (13%).   Jeb Dunnuck calls it, “…beautiful. Giving up lots of black and blue fruits, tobacco leaf, sweet oak and graphite… nicely concentrated and focused, with fine tannin and impeccable balance. It shows its class on the lengthy finish as well.”

Finally, this Pritchard Hill pioneer has had no problem keeping up with all newcomers to the Napa Valley, and the Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon Signature 2014 is another in what has been an impressive string for this winery.   The 2014, from another outstanding vintage, was given one of Robert Parker’s highest scores thus far for a series that has long finished in the money.  A 94+ from Parker (as well as a 93 from Vinous), Parker’s review also made the point that this is a “…profound Cabernet Sauvignon that actually sells at a bargain price for what is in the bottle”.

When these are the types of things that we haven’t had time to get to, it is truly a special time.  Good hunting.

Double Down on this aged cab!

If you have ever driven on Alamo Pintado Road between Solvang and Los Olivos, you pass right by Blackjack Ranch Vineyards. If the name strikes you as a little curious, proprietor Roger Wisted essentially made his bones by inventing a game called ‘California Aces’, a variation on traditional Blackjack that essentially made it possible for gaming interests to circumvent an 1873 law banning the game of Blackjack in California.

In any case, many of the large retailers in Southern California knew Roger as a consumer with a penchant for big time Bordeaux some two decades ago. Surely, we weren’t the only ones surprised when we heard about Roger going into the winery business. But the surprise was less because he did it and more that he chose the Solvang area to feature a winery whose reputation was based on Bordeaux varietals. From a historical perspective at the time, this was rather outside the box in an area best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Roger made a bet and he won. The winery has stood the test of time and has spent nearly two decades as one of Robert Parker’s favorite wineries, including over 40 wines that have scored 90+. That’s some serious consistency considering his first vintage was in the mid-90’s!

This is a very personal, ‘hands on’ operation with respect to running the place. Roger is not some absentee owner running his winery from a mansion or boardroom in another part of the country. He is invested. One can also make the point that there is a definite ‘house style’. “Blackjack reds are demur, elegant, and restrained’ said no one, ever. The reds here are dark, extracted and packed with dense, weighty fruit, somewhat the antithesis of the typical profiles of the region. The old Ravenswood motto of ‘no wimpy wines’ definitely applies here.

The winery has changed horses from a distribution standpoint a few times, which may have resulted in the wines being less visible than they might otherwise have been. But when they do turn up again, as they did a few weeks ago, their distinctive stylings are unmistakable.

A selection of reds that was presented to us recently were true to form…dark, mouth filling, and substantial. But, one really jumped out. As we have tasted Blackjack over the years, we’ve occasionally wondered how they might age. We got the opportunity to find out with the Blackjack Harmonie 2005. The answer, at least in this case, was ‘very well’. Harmonie is the flagship red, in this vintage made from 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 15% Cabernet Franc that was aged in 100% sexy, new Taransaud French oak, arguably the Prada of the genre.

The Cabernet itself was harvested via five separate passes through the vineyard to select only the fruit that was optimally ripe. The Cab Franc came from a parcel on the steep Suicide Hill, adding aromatic highlights and complexity. The resulting wine, now over a decade old, is in a beautiful groove with blackcurrant, mocha, fresh tobacco, and a pleasing tinge of sweet herb. All those great Bordeaux that Roger had experienced over the years certainly helped create the blueprint for this little gem.

Interestingly, Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck tasted this wine as recently as 2015 and wrote, “I had never tasted the wines, but Robert Parker loved the older releases and I was thrilled to be able to taste them this go around. I came away more than impressed. These are concentrated, rich, and full-throttle beauties that deliver tons of fruit and texture while remaining balanced and thrillingly drinkable.

Of the 2005 Harmonie, he offered, “… classic cassis, lead pencil shavings, bay leaf and tobacco notes in a full-bodied, ripe, layered, yet elegant style on the palate…a beautiful Bordeaux blend that’s still fresh and lively. Feel free to drink this beauty anytime over the coming decade…92 points”

Tons of fruit, texture, balanced, with time in the bottle and at an appealing price? For Cabernet drinkers that’s the holy grail. And who wouldn’t enjoy popping the cork on something that’s ‘thrillingly drinkable’?

Originally $70 at the winery, Roger has an aggressive library program (his love of older Bordeaux certainly the inspiration) and has allowed us to secure a reasonable quantity of this wine at a terrific price. Only $39.98 for a recently-tasted 92-point Cabernet with bottle age from a terrific vintage.

How often does that happen?

Blackjack Ranch Harmonie Proprietary Red Wine 2005