TASTY, SUB-$15 CABERNET

Wines like this really test our communication skills. So many times whether or not someone might be interested in a wine we are offering can hinge on a single word. As merchants, it is to our advantage to be as honest as we can and convey as much information about a wine’s profile and value to consumers and explain what we saw in it to bring it in. This wine came in primarily because it answered one of the great dilemmas on our time…delicious Cabernet for under $20.

The search for Cabernet values can take us some pretty far-flung locales, in this case the Gilgal Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 comes from the Upper Galilee mountain range. Sitting atop the mountain range, the innovatively designed winery is committed to revitalizing the region’s rich history of winemaking. Over 2,000 years ago, these mountains, among Israel’s highest at more than 1,000 meters above sea level, was a choice location for the cultivation of quality grapevines.

Gilgal has an American winemaker, California-born and UC Davis educated Victor Schoenfeld, who has occupied the post as head winemaker for Golan Heights Winery, makers of Yarden and Mount Herman as well, for some 28 years. The area is warm enough to ripen grapes, but also has the cooler evenings to help preserve a wine’ freshness. This is a generally competent producer that makes a lot of solid wines but has the occasional hits. This Cabernet is one of those that stood out of the lineup.

If you want to profile the flavors, think ripe blackcurrant and a plush texture reminiscent of a warmer vintage in California, with a round mouthfeel and just enough acidity for brightness. We sure as heck can’t do a Cabernet like this for this kind of price here at home, so in that regard this is potentially an important find. Apparently, 2016 in the Golan Heights was one of the shortest harvests on record and there were no weather ‘events’ during the growing season to create issues. Maybe next year won’t be as easy, but we concern ourselves with the here and now with respect to go-to Cabernet candidates.

In the end, the only question was the winery telling us we shouldn’t say the ‘K’ word (kosher). Why not? We have been told that before but we don’t see the argument. We bought the Gilgal because we thought it was quite a performer for the fare and good value Cab isn’t easy to find. We wouldn’t buy something we didn’t like because it was ‘kosher’ any more than we would do that because something was ‘organic’ or ‘natural’. Quite the contrary, we see that fact that it serves the Kosher need as an added utility bonus for a tasty, low-priced, 100% varietal Cab that saw 12 months in oak and sells for under $15.

THE RETURN OF GIBBS: SINGLE VINEYARD, ESTATE NAPA CAB UNDER $25

You never mind retelling a good story, especially one that has a happy ending.  8Such is the saga of Gibbs Cabernet.  There’s always a need for a well-made version of Americas’s favorite varietal (Cabernet Sauvignon) that doesn’t cost “an arm and a leg,” the search for really good Cabs at fair prices is ongoing.  Since Cabernet is still kind of a big deal here in California, we were pretty sure we found the value Cabernet ‘holy grail’ back in 2014 when we rolled out the 2010 Gibbs Obsidian Block Cabernet Sauvignon.  Estate grown on a vineyard near Saint Helena, a quality, pure, varietally honest effort, that had definite Napa terroir and style points to boot, seemed too good to be true.

We rode that horse for several vintages simply because we could.  I mean, why not?  It was pretty much everything you could ask for in a Napa Cab at this price.   The story itself deserves a quick refresher.  The Handlys, Susan (formerly Carpenter) and Craig, met at a label design company in Napa called Colonna-Farrell.   After moving to Saint Helena in 1977, owner and winemaker Craig Handly began working as a label designer with, a notorious design studio with a history that is closely tied to the success of Napa Valley’s wine industry..

Before finding himself involved in the production of wine, Craig began a design and photography firm, Handly/Hansen, which produced materials for wineries including Beringer, Kendall-Jackson, Robert Craig, Karl-Lawrence, and Elyse. Later, Susan and Craig began their own stationary company, which started to lose ground at the turn of the century thanks to the wide acceptance of e-mail communication. It was then Craig made his foray into wine production by starting yet another company, Terroir Napa Valley.

With a focus on the staple crop of Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, Terroir Napa Valley focused largely on producing single-vineyard wines that exhibit the qualities of the vineyard site. As fate had  it, Dr. Lewis Carpenter (Susan’s father), who farmed his vineyards in St. Helena for more than a half century, passed away. Craig Handly, his son-in-law, is now farming those choice St. Helena vineyards.   Those well situated vines, acquired long before the real estate craziness that is Napa today, are the source for the Gibbs Cabernet.

For whatever reason, the 2015 Gibbs didn’t make the cut after 4 out of five vintages previously.  But the 2016 is brighter and deeper and stands out in its field the way that the 2010 did back when we discovered the winery in the first place.  The Gibbs Cabernet Sauvignon Three Clones Napa Valley 2016 is 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot and 7% Petite Verdot that spends 8 months in French Oak.  It is 100% estate bottled, something virtually no Napa Cabs in this price range can say.  The ‘Three Clones’ moniker is a reference to the three different clones of Cabernet (6, 15, and 337) that are the heart of this engaging estate blend..

In the glass, the nose jumps forth loaded with spicy red and black fruits.  On the palate, all of the promise of the nose is delivered with the fruit character persistent from the cool black fruit core to the more jubilant, redder fruit center to the wine at large, with plenty volume to the flavors delivered.   If someone told you this cost $50, you’d taste the wine and look at the (single vineyard) Napa Appellation, and have no reason to question anything.  The kicker here is it is less than half that ($25)! Same as it ever was, this is one of the pre-eminent deals  on Napa Valley Cabernet.

 If you’re looking for the ‘hook’, there aren’t any scores or reviews on this one.  It seems this remarkable little wine is still under the radar, which is better for those of us that still just enjoy drinking a good Cabernet and don’t care about the media, particularly if the price is right.  We understand that it might be difficult to comprehend a well made, unpresuming, delicious Cabernet, from prime Napa Valley dirt, for under $25.  But it is certainly the kind of ‘adjustment’ one should be able make.  With only 1600 cases produced, the impact on the market at large will be pretty minimal.  But the possibilities for those ‘in the know’ is a whole different matter.  Good hunting.

 

 

 

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!

 

Chile’s Greatest Under the Radar Cabernet: Domus Aurea

As we have been singing for some time now, South America is almost all grown up.  Back when we first started working with South American wines in earnest back in the early 90s, we could see that there was a lot of potential.  A lot has happened since those times.  If we were being completely honest, we probably couldn’t have predicted it would go this far.  But it has.  We have accepted it and have taken to the pulpit ourselves as we have seen some pretty amazing things coming out of South America.  We have really seen an escalation in quality particularly over the last five years.

We can run through some of the big names.  Catena, Clos Apalta, Caro, Sena, Almaviva, these are the banner carriers for the elite from South America.  As with all wine programs, there was a process.  First came the inspiration to ‘reach for the stars’.  Then the producers had to learn the unique characteristics of the various vineyards in play. Vineyards don’t show you their stuff until they’re older, then you have to figure out if you have the right vines planted in the right spot. Wine growing and producing is a patient person’s game in an impatient world.

Finally there was the establishment of a style and consistency in the cellar.  Sure, in all the cases, there was consistent high quality.  But we can’t help but think that the wines had pretty serious international marketing behind them that helped the cause.  Viña Quebrada de Macul Domus Aurea Cabernet Sauvignon has been on our radar for quite a while as well, but is only now starting to get the attention it deserves.

We’ve had a soft spot for Domus Aurea, one of the boldest, most electric Cabernets produced anywhere in the world. It’s so distinctive, full of minerals, rocks, herbs, mint, dark berry, it’s kinda like the Chilean version of a great Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, but perhaps even richer and with more base notes.  Sleek, powerful yet refined, ‘Chateau Pinhead’ as we call it (the quirky label looks like a stylized native getting acupuncture) moves in a sphere all its own.

We have a long history with this wine going back over at least a decade (the 2002 might be the first version we sold if memory serves), but the press didn’t really get this unique red until Wine Advocate’s Luis Gutierrez took over the category with the 2008 vintage.  He gave that wine a 94, and the trend has only gone up from there.  The 2010 vintage, which we did an email offer on back in January, 2016, was considered their best effort to that time, getting a 96 point nod from Wine Advocate.

While the vintages in between have certainly been noteworthy, the 2014 Viña Quebrada de Macul Domus Aurea Cabernet Sauvignon hit the same heights as the 2010.  It is a spectacular effort packed with power, polished, and expressing its full array of gifts.  Luis Gutierrez said the same thing, “2014 has to be one of the finest vintages at Quebrada de Macul, with wines that remind me of the 2010 vintage.”

Given his extensive narrative, Gutierrez makes our job easy this time around, “One of the best, most classical Cabernet Sauvignons from Maipo, the 2014 Domus Aurea contains some 6% Petit Verdot, 4% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc. This wine is always balanced and elegant. In a dry year like 2014, they think the key was sensitive irrigation without excess to keep the plant with enough water supply to get through the summer without stress. It comes from a plot of vines planted ungrafted in 1970 in the outskirts of Santiago, and it’s always vinified in a simple and traditional way; the wine is fermented with indigenous yeasts after a 12-day cold soak and aged for 16 to 18 months in French oak barrels, 80% of them new…”

… 2014 is a great year for Domus; it has the notes of mint and eucalyptus, intermixed with hints of spices (cola nut and Jamaica pepper), and it’s quite aromatic, with cassis aromas and good ripeness. It has the Domus character, which is what they search for, as well as the wild character from the mountains and the stones, with that dry sensation and somewhat austere palate. It reminds me of the 2010, which was also a superb year and a textbook Cabernet from Macul. 24,491 bottles were filled in January 2016. This wine is always aged for a minimum of 18 months in bottle (often a lot longer) before it’s released…96 points.

All we can add is that this is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind, delicious and expressive Cabernet that is likely unlike anything you have.  It’s a wild ride well worth taking, a real ‘sock knocker’particularly at our special insider price.  Wine Advocate shows a $75 retail, but we’re rolling it at a special at the checkout price of $54.98.

 

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!

 

 

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.

THE PERFECT CABERNET?

It has been our mission to fight the high cost of ‘North Coast Cabernet’ because the ones with that nebulous title are rarely very exciting, and the ones that say Napa Valley on them are typically too expensive.  One of our solutions to this issue is to put successful and well priced options from ‘other places’ in front of you for you consideration.  We have stated that Chile and Argentina have really been finding their mojo over the last few years and this effort from one of the pioneers of the modern era in Chile definitely scored a gooooaaaaaal with this one.

The star of this story, Lapostolle, has now had nearly a quarter century to perfect their craft, and they are certainly working on a high plane right now.  If you don’t know the story, it’s a classic tale of French people going to the New World to try and make magic.   Lapostolle Wines was founded by Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle and her husband Cyril de Bournet in 1994. Alexandra is a member of the renowned family that has been dedicated for several generations to the production of high-quality spirits and wines (like Grand Marnier).   After visiting Chile, Alexandra and Cyril not only fell in love with the Colchagua Valley, they also detected the enormous potential of the country to produce premium wines.

To that end they have been producing a number of different wines that showcase the region, none more interesting than their efforts with Bordeaux varietals, some of it brought here from Bordeaux in the 19th Century (pre-phylloxera).  They were one of the ‘true believers’ in Chile and when their super-premium Clos Apalta 1997, one of the first of its kind, there were plenty of nay-sayers.  But the wine has now established unquestioned credibility (the 2013 was a 97 from James Suckling, the 2014 a ‘100’, for example).  All the while the winery has benefited not only from the means and knowledge of its ownership, but an association with wine guru Michel Rolland.

The Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon Cuvee Alexandre Apalta 2013 definitely shows a ‘trickle down’ effect.  It is plush and polished like something twice the price, with a sexy core of black fruits and notes of cocoa and graphite.  The Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon Cuvee Alex Alexandre 2013 comes from the same Apalta vineyard as the ‘big dog’.  The process here is very natural with minimal intervention. The grapes are 100% hand harvested in small cases of 14 kilos, there is strict fruit selection by state-of-the-art optical sorting and 15% hand de-stemming of the grapes. Gentle extraction methods and a judicious use of oak are key to making a wine that is ample, pure, and supple.

Having tasted several vintages of Lapostolle, we can honestly say that this is one of the best.  Apparently we weren’t the only fans.  James Suckling had this to say, “Deep and dense yet agile and fine. Full body, blueberry and black currant character, and a seamless silky finish. Gorgeous pure cabernet sauvignon. Biodynamically grown grapes. Drink or hold….94 ponts.”  Note his comment on ‘purity’ alongside ours.  In a world where reds are tasting ever more formulaic, this tastes like a really good, balanced Cabernet.

The best part is that, with all of the laborious handling, this delightful, plush, engaging Cabernet, with an extra bonus of being five years old, can be had for under $20!  A delicious, honest, varietally true red at a great price, with a little bottle age and an impressive review, is this the ‘perfect Cabernet’ for ‘current applications’ or what?!

 

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.

 

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.