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.

DEROSE: GREAT OLD VINE REDS FROM THE LAND TIME FORGOT

This is a story that spans three centuries. We are speaking of the historic Cienega Valley located near Hollister between Hwy 101 and the 5 Freeway. Probably the only time most folks have heard of Hollister at all, except as a freeway exit or a clothing brand, is as the claimant as one of the ‘earthquake capitals of the world’ (along with nearby Coalinga). In fact, the San Andreas fault not only runs through the town of Hollister, but through the main building of the winery we are featuring here, Derose.

It all starts way back in 1854 when a French immigrant called Theophile Vaché was marketing his vinous wares in nearby San Bautista. It goes through German immigrant William Palmtag who won medals his wines at the 1900 World Expsotion in Paris, and later on involved California giants of their respective times, Almaden and Heublein.   During that last Heublin phase, probably due to that company’s historic meltdown, these grand old vineyards on this terraced hillside suffered a bit from neglect.

The DeRose and Cedolini families purchased this estate in 1988 and subsequently rescued and revitalized 100 acres of overgown vineyards including 40 that were planted before 1900. Historical research also found that this is the oldest existing winery in California as well. This isn’t one of the first areas people think of with regard to fine wine, however.  In fact we’d be a little surprised if many folks even knew of it.  There are no plans to put a “Wine Train’ in the Cienega Valley, but there are very special and unique wines produced here that make this an important wine stop nonetheless.

DeRose Cabernet Pfeffer Cienega Valley Old Vines 2015 ($24.98)-Four of the 10 acres of Cabernet Pfeffer that exist in California are here at Derose.  This obscure varietal is said to be a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and either Gros Verdot or Trousseau (depending on who you ask).  The real issue is that it doesn’t taste like Cabernet but something entirely different.  Lighter on its feet, without the hard tannic back bone, it leans more flavor wise to dark cherry and pomegranate with a lifted palate feel and notes of pepper (pfeffer is the German word for ‘pepper’).  Stylistically unique, it plays best with pork, chicken, duck and salty cured meats.  From very old vines planted between 1865 and 1905, this is a one-of-a-kind wine but quite the engaging experience.

DeRose Negrette Cienega Valley Old Vines 2015  ($39.98)-Speaking of one-of-a-kind wine experiences, this is the only varietal Negrette bottling we know of from this part of the world, and maybe anywhere.  A dark grape with primarily dark red and black fruit character laced with notes of smoke, brown spices and white pepper, this is a substantial red with rich, smooth old vine fruit.  Again very pleasing and rather complex, a plush, ample texture with some supporting ripe but slightly chewy tannins, this is a wine of substance with plenty of stuffing but that doesn’t cross over to extreme ripeness. Some of these vines are 120 years old and the old-viney complexity is a big part of the wines appeal. Grapes harvested at less than one ton to the acre.

DeRose Zinfandel Old Vines Cedolini Vineyard Cienega Valley 2015 ($29.98)–This one is love at first sniff for any true fan of Zinfandel.  It will also win a lot of converts to the varietal among those who don’t think of Zinfandel as ‘serious’ wine.  One good whiff of the spicy, brambly, old-vine berry aromas transports us back to some of Zinfanel’s greatest hits from the breakout efforts of the early 1990s.  DeRose has 15 acres of Zinfandel vines originally planted on their own roots in the late 1890s. Dry farmed on steep hillsides in Cienega Valley, the head-trained vines produce highly pigmented grapes inscribed with a spicy mountain terroir. This kind of profile is very hard to create.  You either have the special old vines and the understanding of what to do with them, or you don’t.   Captivating aromatics and tender, ripe, plush but still buoyant fruit on the palate are on stunning display here.  This is the essence of what ‘old vines’ are all about.  In all of the wines we taste we’re lucky to run into two or three a year like this one.  A rich-yet-balanced expression of Zin-ness, with flecks of the area’s spice and faintly chalky mineral terroir, this wine has incomparable harmony and surprising complexity.  Everyone should taste this just to see what Zinfandel at the top of its game can be, and Zinfandel fans simply should not miss it, period!

This is a one of a kind property with a unique story and some very special wines.  History can be very tasty sometimes and, for as unique and distinctive as these wines are, they are very attractively priced.  Quantities, as you might guess, are limited.

MAYACAMAS-HISTORY RETOOLED

Anyone that has been a part of the California wine scene has heard the name Mayacamas.  Purchased by Robert Travers in 1968, it was a visible member of the first wave of boutique California wineries.   Under Travers, the winery gained international fame, particularly for its Cabernet and its legendary longevity.  Arguably this was the first important ‘mountain Cabernet’ as Napa Valley moved to make its mark on the wine world.  There were some distinct aspects to the winery, not the least of which was Travers own dry wit as a part of his winery missives.

While Mayacamas was still generally considered ‘top drawer’,  the luxurious ‘trophy style’ became the style that dominated the review boards.  As the preferred style leaned more towards pandering fruit and lots of creamy oak, Travers always stuck to his guns and the more ‘traditional’ style of Mayacamas Cabs rendered the label considerably less topical.  The respect was always there, just not the buzz any more.

While very ‘mountain’ and very honest in their presentation, the wines were also often a bit chewy and perhaps a tad rustic.   Eventually Bob got to the point where it was time to retire, and the property was purchased by a partnership of former Screaming Eagle owner Charles Banks and retail entrepreneur Jay Schottenstein in 2013.  The timing of Banks’ well publicized legal problems took him out of the game relatively quickly, leaving the winery under Schottenheim’s supervision.

The winery now points to 2013 as the beginning of a new era, and the 2013 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon clearly demonstrates that there is a new sheriff in town.  Bringing in husband and wife team of former Screaming Eagle winemaker Andy Erickson and Annie Favia has had an immediate impact and we dare say this is the most impressive effort from Mayacamas we have ever tasted.  This is not your father’s Mayacamas.  This one has structure, yes, but a purity and tenderness we can’t recall from these Cabernets in the past.  Rich but also refined with a fleshy wrap of red and black fruits flecked with wild herbs, graphite, and cocoa coating the fine tannins.

The 97 point review from Antonio Galloni is a good jumping off point for the new Mayacamas with comments like, “The flavors are dark, bold and incisive, with potent tannins and a real feeling of gravitas to back things up. Black cherry, game, smoke, gravel and licorice add to an impression of brooding intensity. In many ways, the 2013 reminds me of some of the great wines of the 1970s in its dark, imposing personality.”

As to the quality, we agree wholeheartedly.  This Cabernet knocked us out.  But we differ on the comparisons to those ‘70s Cabs because this one is far more cohesive and harmonious and, given this particular winery’s history, much more engaging in its youth.  If you’ve got the fare, this is something special.

 

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.