THREE GOOD AMERICAN ‘VALUE’ REDS

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

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

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

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

Lola Pinot Noir North Coast 2016

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

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

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

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

Ryan Patrick Redhead Red Columbia Valley 2016

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

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

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

 Ultraviolet Cabernet Sauvignon California 2016

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

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

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

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

 

 

RIDGE CABERNET SAUVIGNON ESTATE 2014-Montebello Heritage, Lower Fare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

PURLIEU CABERNET 2014-SERIOUS DIRT YIELDS SERIOUS JUICE

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

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

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

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

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

 

Double Down on this aged cab!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How often does that happen?

Blackjack Ranch Harmonie Proprietary Red Wine 2005