ONE LAST WORD ON THE RAVENSWOOD ZINFANDEL BARRICIA FOR $14.98 THING

We sent this out as an email and then mentioned it again in our Sunday ‘week that was’ piece.  But we think this deal is so extraordinary, we want to make sure that everyone gets a look at it as, at the time of this writing, our source still has some wine:

“The odyssey continues, but the story lines are as interesting now as they were back some three decades ago when we started with Ravenswood, though for entirely different reasons.  Back in the 90s, Ravenswoods single vineyard wines were iconic.  We used to have ‘Ravenswood Day’ where we would offer up our allocations of these well reviewed , exceptional Zinfandels for distribution.  At the time we, a single store, were one of Ravenswood’s larger customers in California.  We sold everything from those compelling single vineyard bottlings to their ‘lowly’ but exceptionally performing ‘Vintners’ value series.

Then, one day, it all changed.  OK, maybe not all of it.  The key issue was that one of the first significant winery acquisitions of the modern era in California took place.  Winemaker/mind behind Joel Peterson and his partner Reed Foster sold Ravenswood to Constellation in 2001 for $148,000,000.  That’s a lot of zeros.  Can’t blame them for taking the money, but the rub was Joel had to stay and help keep an eye on things.  Small price to pay for that kind of coin and Joel, always the businessman, saw the wisdom in the move.

Once one of the most recognized brands in California, Joel had to know that the only way for the new owners to recoup that kind of investment was to ramp up production.  Once Ravenswood ‘went corporate’ most of the winery’s long term loyal supporters figured production of the personality filled, well-priced Vintners wines, as well as their other regional varietal bottlings, would predictably add a zero to their production level and churn out tens of thousands of cases of soulless corporate juice.   Predictably, that happened.

The same folks also dismissed Joel’s treasured line of single-vineyard Zinfandels as going ‘corporate’ as well.  What now?   Would there be some  50,000 cases of ‘Big River’ or 200,000 cases of ‘Old Hill’.  No. With these small, ‘heritage’ sites covered with low yielding old vines, there was no way to boost production.  The current iteration of Ravenswood does indeed put out a million boxes of Vintners Blend wines now.  But the historic single vineyard program has remained essentially the same as it was ‘back in the day’.  We talked with both Joel and his long-time winemaker Peter Mathis, who made Ravenswood wines for 20 years, and both of them had no clue why Ravenswood’s Historic Single-vineyard program was no longer revered.

Our best guess is ‘guilt by association’.  Certainly, there was an emphasis by the corporate bean counters to deliver big numbers. There were ‘stockholders’ and all sorts of new criteria by which Ravenswood would be judged.  As to the single-vineyard jewels upon which Ravenswood built their reputation in the first place, there was little reason to spend corporate marketing dollars to promote them.  In fact, we’d guess that the accounting dept. gets downright annoyed to have to keep track of such tiny numbers.  Eventually the media pretty much stopped talking about them.

Anyway the results of this story led us to a remarkable cache of Ravenswood’s treasured single vineyard Zins at fantastic prices in May of last year.  Don’t ask us about the machinations that brought this about, we couldn’t tell you. But we sent that offer to an enthusiastic audience.  We were pretty sure we were ‘killin’ it’ at $24.99 on Old Hill, Big River, Dickerson and Barricia, about the price we sold these special Zins for decades earlier in the mid-90s.

But even more inexplicable is the offer we are rolling out today on that 2013 Ravenswood Barricia Zinfandel.  What happened?  Beats us.  Everything with this program is the same or better.  Even though Joel’s bank account is larger, he still has ‘the fire’ concerning these vineyards.  The vineyards themselves are still the same, too…. old and super low-yielding. This is still some of the most treasured dirt in California.  Are they made the same way? Pretty much.  Joel himself says so, except now they can buy better equipment with a corporate bankroll.

So how did an outstanding example of true California Zinfandel, from a revered vineyard, made under the auspices of one of the true Zinfandel masters, end up at this kind of price?  Again, we have no clue, but we don’t care.  We simply grabbed every box we could of this once-in-a-lifetime offer.  This Zin  is sourced half from Zinfandel planted prior to 1892 and the balance from new plantings of Zin and Petite Sirah, which makes up around 20% of the blend.  That Petite gives the wine heft and another level of complexity.

The nose shows brambly blackberry and black raspberry augmented by brambly notes.  Big in the mouth with notes of pepper and spice, this one shows expansive volume yet both the tannins and acidity are nicely integrated.  The wine hasn’t skipped a beat over the years.  The only thing missing is the ‘aura’ of times past.  At roughly 1/3 the typical price, we can deal with that.  If you love Zinfandel, here’s a legendary Zin for a remarkable fare… ”

 

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NEW PINOT FROM AVERAEN

Every day is a winding road, and you never know what is going to roll in the door.  This was a good case for this particular wine as the buyer on call that day had never seen this particular wine before.  Came to find out that the store had sold the 2016 version of Averaen Pinot Noir and the other buyer, who had not seen the label previously, thought it was pretty cool juice and bought the 2017.  Can’t think of a lot better testimony for the wine’s quality than that.

The short story on this label was as follows.  The folks that made Banshee wines, and their value label Rickshaw, were at the INPC (International Pinot Noir Conference) and just ‘sittin’ round the campfire’ when they had a revelation that this appellation that they were in, located in McMinnville, was remarkably similar to where they were working in California’s Sonoma Coast.  Cold Marine wind funneling through low-lying gaps in the coastal mountain ranges and soils of a mixed volcanic and marine sedimentary soils played off of each other to create a very advantageous environment to grow Pinot Noir.  Clearly it was kismet.

Not only did the Banshee boys sense that this would be a good environment for premium Pinot Noir, but they had just completed a partnership deal with William Foley that took a lot of stress out of taking the Banshee/Rickshaw label to the next level, but they ran across one Adam Smith, a talented winemaker  who had bolted to the Northwest after making the first vintage of Banshee in 2010.  It was ‘kismet’ and Averaen was born.

The 2017 Averaen Pinot Noir reflects both their desire to make high-toned, cool climate Pinot Noir, and the distinctive element s of the 2017 vintage that made this a very successful but very unique expression of Oregon Pinot.  This was the fourth straight successful vintage in this part of the world (global warming?), but one that differed from the previous three harvests in its personality.  While the 2014-2016 run showcased the riper side of Oregon Pinot, the 2017s showed plenty of ripeness but also a higher pitched, fresher, more lifted profile.

The nose showed urgent but high-toned ripe red, spicy fruit from the get-go.  In the mouth, this expressive, lifted, almost ‘crunchy’ Pinot had plenty of well-defined, vivid red fruits that sat higher of the palate and delivered a wave of energetic flavors.  We were taken with the wine immediately and bought it.  Some two weeks later as we sat down to write these notes, Vinous Media put their comments on this wine on the front of their website.  Apparently we are not alone.

Josh Raynolds comments in that feature reflected our impressions of both performance and value here, “Displays abundant berry and floral character, with vibrant spice accents adding verve. Seamless in texture and appealingly sweet, the 2017 finishes with impressive, juicy persistence and resonating florality.  This is textbook Willamette Valley Pinot Noir at a great price. ..91 points (an even better score than he gave the  2016).”

The 2017 Averaen Pinot Noir Willamette Valley is  appealing, well-priced effort from a label that shows a lot of promise going forward from a group that was already quite successful further south (Sonoma Coast).  This juicy,  little number  plays nicely in the here and now in a higher-toned, ‘Burgundy’ sort of way .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RETURN OF THE BUNNY

This has been a wonderful recurring theme since Charlie Coniglio first walked into our office a few years ago with a Napa Cabernet in tow.  Sure we see a lot of folks peddling expensive Napa Cabernets but this one had style, depth, and the kind of vanillan, chocolatey blackcurrent theme that Cabernet drinkers love.  Even back then, $50 was considered a pretty attractive price on serious Napa Cabernet and we started to carry it in the regular lineup.  That was a 2004.  A few months later he came back to us with an extremely aggressive price on that same delicious Napa Cabernet and, well, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse.

We have done a number of deals since that time and have come to depend on this quirky relationship to keep us supplied with sensational and well priced (for the quality level) Cabernet whenever he had some to sell.  We dubbed the series ‘The Bunny’ because it is our euphemism for Coniglio, the family name (which is also the Italian word for ‘rabbit’).  ‘The Bunny’, by virtue of the series of thrilling Cabernet deals we have launched over the last half decade or so, has become something of a brand around here.

The style is remarkably consistent over the years.  We could almost cut-and-paste the descriptors from one year to the next as the style is classic, Cabernet lovers juice.   People have enjoyed these lavishly styled, full throttle Napa Cabernets, particularly at the kind of reduced prices we are selling them for.   It has been a classic win-win, and we are always interested to see what Charlie has in his bag.  The most recent ‘visit’ turned up another can’t miss Cabernet for a thirsty world.

The Coniglio Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014 looks quietly impressive with its black label and broad-shouldered bottle.  It certainly doesn’t taste like a sub-$35 Napa Cab, though that might be because the listed winery price is $70.  Technically, this wine could have carried an even groovier Stags Leap District appellation on the label but ‘the bunny’ knows they’d probably have to charge more if they did that.  That kind of decision-making is above our pay grade and we certainly didn’t want to create a case for raising the tariff.  Let sleeping bunnies lie.

So what you have here is legit, well-endowed Stags Leap juice at a fantastic price.  This is typical ‘Bunny’ style.  You’ve got your dark, chewy, powerful Napa Cab with loads of cassis and inky black fruits, with a lovely sheen of chocolatey nuance from what tastes like expensive oak.  This wine has a bit more volume than many SLD wines, with more weight and a broader palate impression.  But the telltale elegance of the appellation lurks beneath. At $31.98 this is a pretty sensational value for a high quality Napa Cab!

 

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.