December 2009

The history of Mount Veeder Winery is not the most convoluted in the annals of the Napa Valley, but it’s typical of how ownerships change in a world of corporate takeovers.

Mount Veeder was founded in 1973 by Michael and Arlene Bernstein, 2,000 feet up the mountain for which the winery is named. From the beginning, they produced earthy, tannic, mineral-laced cabernets that often required a decade to shed their austerity and then rewarded those having patience with deep, rich, resonant flavors and balanced structures. Occasionally, the mountain-side tannins got the better of the wines, and there are Mount Veeder cabernets from the 1970s and early ’80s that never came around. Still, it was always gratifying to know that one could expect no compromise from this focused winery. The Bernsteins also made a little zinfandel, chenin blanc and chardonnay. I previously wrote, in the “100 Wines: A Chronicle” series, about the Mount Veeder Late Harvest Zinfandel 1980, and I went back in my notebook and found a label for a Mount Veeder Pinot Blanc 1981, as you can see a tough label to get off the bottle.

The Bernsteins sold the winery to Henry and Lisille Mathieson in 1982, but the significant change came in 1989, when the Mathiesons sold Mount Veeder to the partnership of Agustin Huneeus and the Eckes Corp. of what was then West Germany. The Eckes had hired Huneeus, a Chilean, to put Franciscan in shape to be sold, but under his sensible leadership, the winery had turned around and improved. In optimistic expansion mode, Huneeus launched Estancia, and then acquired the venerable Simi and Mount Veeder wineries. Along with Veramonte, in Chile, these properties comprised Franciscan Estates. The whole kit-and-kaboodle was sold to Constellation in 1998. Mount Veeder is now part of that giant corporation’s Icon Estates portfolio.

Here are reviews of the most recent releases, sent as review samples, from Mount Veeder Winery.
My first notes on the Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley are “so lovely and seductive.” Indeed, the warm, ripe, attractive bouquet is black fruit-laden, deeply spicy and winsomely floral and finely etched with notes of cedar, tobacco and lead pencil. In the mouth, grainy tannins and polished oak take over, and the wine turns briery and brambly, though leaving room for hints of bitter chocolate, platonic potpourri and a touch of toasted walnuts. Flavors of black currants and black raspberries need two or three years to find space to expand, though the potential is there for something fine. The blend includes 15 percent merlot and 3 percent “other red varietals.” The wine spent two years in French barrels, 84 percent new; that’s a pretty strict routine for a wine that came out fairly light on its feet, oak-wise. Try from 2011 to 2015 or ’17. Very Good+ to Excellent. About $40.

No caveats apply to the Mount Veeder Reserve Red Wine 2004, Napa Valley. The interesting blend — 53 percent cabernet sauvignon, 44 percent merlot and 3 percent malbec — represents the sort of fine balance between cabernet sauvignon and merlot sometimes seen in the Bordeaux Left Bank communes of St.-Estephe and St.-Julien, though the goal of the Mount Veeder Reserve 2004 is not Bordeaux-esque elegance but mountain-side eloquence. The wine opens with smoke, cedar and lead pencil-like minerality woven with ripe and concentrated black currants, cherries and plums. It’s an intensely aromatic and seductive bouquet, but in the mouth, the wine reverts to a rigorous strategy expressed in elements of wheatmeal, dried porcini, briers, brambles and underbrush, all the dusty, earthy range of dense, grainy tannins and polished oak. The regimen was 80 percent French oak barrels, 99 percent of them new; one wants to say, “Oh, hell, throw in that other damned barrel!” That’s a lot of oak, but as with its “regular” cousin from 2005, the Mount Veeder Reserve ’04 absorbed that wood and came out stronger, more supple, more nuanced. Indeed, after a few minutes in the glass, the wine gives up hints of mulberry and some bright, vivid wild berry, bacon fat, licorice and cocoa powder. Above all, the wine is characterized by tremendous, engaging vitality and resonance. Try from 2011 or ’13 through 2016 to ’20. Exceptional. About $80.

Though Jean Descombes died in 1993, his jolly visage still appears on the labels of his Morgon wine, a Beaujolais cru. Morgon is one of 10 villages whose names are allowed to appear on the labels of their wines; those names are emphasized over the term Beaujolais. Descombes’ daughter Nicole took over the winemaking duties when her father died. The wine has been bottled and marketed since 1980 by Georges Duboeuf. Beaujolais, south of Burgundy, is the land of the gamay grape, or, as it is officially known, gamay noir a jus blanc; it is a cousin of pinot noir.

Of the 10 Beaujolais crus, Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent represent the more robust end of the range. Indeed, the Jean Descombes Morgon 2008 is full-bodied and resonant, teeming with black currant, black cherry and plum flavors so peppery, so fleshy that the wine is savory, almost lip-smackin’ good. The typical youthful gamay spicy vividness and brightness is couched in notes of briers and brambles and a hint of black olive. Completely delicious but with an edge of minerals and dusty tannins. Jean Descombes Morgons usually age well for 10 or 12 years. Excellent. I paid $17 for this wine; prices nationally range from $14 to an unaccountable $20.

We drank this with a ham to which LL applied a plum and horseradish glaze.

Imported by W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Harrison, N.Y.

I’m defining “Old School” as wineries founded in 1980 or earlier. I’ll be working intensely on this series through the end of the year, which is — whiz! bang! –almost here. I’ve been fretting about this subject for months, thinking that I needed to write a blockbuster post for 25 or 30 wines, but that would have been insane, so I’m breaking the roster into parts. I think that will help me accomplish the job a little easier.
____________________________________________________________________________________ When E.and J. Gallo purchased the Louis M. Martini Winery in 2002, the company acquired not only a Napa Valley winery and production facilities, the Martini label and 720 acres of vineyards, it bought almost 70 years of history and goodwill and a solid reputation. Louis M. Martini began making sacramental wine in 1922, but he was ready for the end of Prohibition, producing his first cabernet sauvignon wine in 1934. Martini had studied winemaking in Italy, and he adhered to old-fashioned ideas of blending grapes from different vineyards and using large wooden tanks for fermentation and aging. Collectors with long memories recall the great Martini cabernets of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and one reads about those wines with envy. The 1970s and ’80s, however, saw a decline in the winery’s ability to keep up with the times and with the many producers that emerged during those decades. Out went the redwood vats in 1989; in came the French barriques.

The reputation of Louis M. Martini has been slow to rebuild. Louis M. Martini’s grandson Michael remains as winemaker, and he seems dedicated to making cabernet-based wines of which his grandfather would be proud, wines that are neither over-ripe or flamboyant, that depend on acidity for structure, that keep alcohol to an acceptable level — for today, that is, meaning between 13.5 and 14.2 percent, generally — and that play down toasty new oak in favor of tannin. Old-fashioned, to be sure, forthright rather than elegant, not thrilling but virtuous.

Here are reviews of Louis M. Martini cabernet wines, sent as sample bottles, from the past several vintages.

The Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County — this is the winery’s basic cabernet — offers remarkable detail and dimension for the price. The color is medium ruby; the pungent bouquet weaves black currants and black cherries with cedar and tobacco, mulberry, bitter chocolate and crushed gravel and a hint of rhubarb pie. Flavors of macerated and slightly stewed black and red fruit are permeated by grainy, dusty tannins, lead pencil and granite, dried porcini and spicy oak, all wrapped in a dense chewy texture and enlivened by vibrant acidity. You could drink this tonight with a steak or let it age for a year or two. Loads of personality. Excellent. About $17, a Great Bargain.

The Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Sonoma County, blends 90 percent cabernet sauvignon with 4 percent each malbec and cabernet franc, and 1 percent each merlot and tannat, and what the hell is tannat, a rustic bruiser of a grape from southwest France, doing here and what is its one-percent task? Anyway, the wine is rich, warm and spicy, its bouquet a penetrating amalgam of macerated black fruit, black olive, coffee and cocoa powder and crushed granite. Vigorous tannins that incorporate dusty, gnarly, briery elements, bolster succulent black currant and black cherry flavors, with a few minutes in the glass bring hints of red licorice and rose petals to the nose. A cabernet that’s half serious and half charming. Drink through 2014 to ’16. Very Good+. About $17, Great Value.

A blend of 89 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9 percent merlot, 2 percent syrah and 1 percent petit verdot, the Louis M. Martini Napa Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley, begins with a clean, fresh granite-and-lead-pencil bouquet that teems with cedar and tobacco, smoke, cassis, black cherry and black raspberry. As enticing as these elements are, in the mouth the wine focuses on intensity and concentration, delivering the true grit of dusty, grainy tannins and polished oak from 12 months in new and used French, American and “European” — which must mean Hungarian or Slovenian — barrels. The finish devolves into wheatmeal, walnut shell and granite-like austerity. In other words, this is a cabernet whose raison d’etre presently lies in the expression of structure; allow it to rest until 2011 or ’12 to unfold. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $27.
A bit more accessible, the Louis M. Martini Alexander Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, drops the proportion of cabernet to 85 percent, increases the petit verdot to 13 percent and slips in 1 percent merlot. You could just stop at the aromas of anise, leather and lavender, mint and cassis and spcied and roasted plums spread on toast. Do continue, though, because in the mouth this wine is large-framed, generous, vibrant and resonant, with bright, ripe, juicy black currant and black cherry flavors abundantly supported by the tannic character of slightly astringent walnut shell and dusty, earthy dried porcini. This is, in a word, classic. Drink now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $35.
How carefully calibrated can a wine be? Check this: The Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley, is a blend of 94 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent petite sirah (unusual itself) and — get this — 0.9 percent cabernet france, 0.6 percent petit verdot (which the press materials that accompanied these wines insist on misspelling petite verdot) and 0.5 percent merlot. Is anyone going to say, “Yesiree, that half percent merlot made all the difference”? O.K., I don’t make the wine, I just second-guess the winemakers. Anyway, this is an incredibly attractive cabernet, deep, rooty, briery and minerally (think shale and crushed gravel), with touches of mint, eucalyptus and black olive threaded through meaty, fleshy black and blue fruit. Yeah, you could eat it with a spoon. Sweet spices add an exotic note to ripe black currant, black cherry and plum flavors nestled in a dense, chewy texture brightened by brisk acidity and supported by well-integrated oak and tannins. A classic to enjoy through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $25.
Louis M. Martini bought the Goldstein Ranch, on the west side of the Mayacamas Mountains, in 1938, renaming it Monte Rosso, for its red volcanic soil. In the old days, grapes from Monte Rosso typically went into the winery’s “Special Selection,” cabernet, its previous flagship wine; Monte Rosso has been produced separately since the early 1980s. The Louis M. Martini Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabnernet Sauvignon 2005, Sonoma Valley, with 7 percent petit verdot, is profoundly earthy and tannic, a dusty, rooty, minerally wine that readily displays its (relatively) high-altitude origins. Wisps of mint and eucalyptus, cedar and tobacco and hints of dried currants seduce the nose, but this is clearly a wine in the grip of density, intensity and concentration, though after I tasted these wines in the afternoon, LL had a few glasses each with meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and it drank consistently and beautifully. The alcohol level is higher than usually seen in wines from Martini; the label says 14.8 percent, while the printed material says 15.25. Best from 2011 through 2018 or ’20. Excellent. About $85.

Last night LL made a perfect carbonara. Like so many Italian pasta creations, whether classic or contemporary, the thing is utter simplicity: butter, garlic, pancetta, eggs, Parmesan and Romano
cheeses. The whole process takes even less time than it takes the pasta to cook. We didn’t have pancetta — spiced and cured but not smoked pork belly — but applewood smoked bacon made a fine substitute. Nor did we have Romano cheese, so I grated half Parmesan and half Campo de Montalban, a hard cheese made from goat’s, sheep’s and cow’s milks. The ability to improvise, but not compromise, is essential, in cooking and in life, n’est-ce pas?

Anyway, this was a great dish. To accompany it, I opened – with a deft twist of the wrist — a bottle of the Monte Antico 2006, Toscana, a blend of sangiovese (85%), cabernet sauvignon (10%) and merlot (5%). The label is owned by its American importers, Neal and Maria Empson. The wine is made in the Tuscan province of Pisa by Franco Bernabei.

Monte Antico 2006, as befits its broad grounding in the sangiovese grape, is clean and spare yet warm and spicy. Aromas of dried black and red fruit, dried spice and flowers are woven with orange rind and a sort of floral-rooty black tea and hints of tobacco and smoke. The smokiness increases as the black currant and macerated plum flavors take on their freight of dusty tannins, crushed gravel and vibrant acidity. This is sleek, polished and harmonious and will drink nicely through the end of 2010 or into 2011. Very Good+ and a Great Bargain at about $13, though seen on the Internet as low as $10.
Imported by Empson USA, Alexandria, Va.

Notes on other recently tasted red wines from Italy:

I once heard a winemaker in Australia say that there were no great wines without oak. This point of view ignores many of the great wines of Chablis and Alsace and portions of Germany, but those are white wines, and perhaps he referred only to red. It’s true that the great red wines of the world, from Bordeaux and Burgundy to Tuscany and Piemonte, from Napa Valley to the Barossa Valley, tend to be aged in wood, and they tend to be made from “noble” grapes like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, sangiovese, nebbiolo and syrah. What then do we make of the Serra de Prete 2007, a deep-dyed, towering blockbuster of a red wine made by the producer Musto Carmelito in the rustic Italian province of Basilicata, a wine made with nary a speck of wood? No, my friends, this staggering wine spends six months in stainless steel tanks, four months in cement vats and two months in bottle before it is unleashed to an unsuspecting world. Now if the definition of a great wine is one that will develop and mature into mellow nuance, refinement and subtlety, as we expect with Bordeaux and Burgundy, then Serra de Prete 2007 doesn’t approach greatness. If however a wine achieves a supreme expression of a single grape variety and vineyard, if it practically shivers with authenticity and integrity, well, that’s a different kind of greatness. The grape in question is aglianico del vulture — “vool-CHUR-ay” — and it provides Serra de Prete 2007 with a color that’s like some nocturnal Lovecraftian deep purple shading into black; with intense and concentrated scents and flavors of licorice/oolong tea/tar-stained black currants; with a dense, supple, chewy texture that draws on the power of fathomless tannins; and a tone somber and brooding but not rustic or truculent. In fact, the blessing of keen acidity keeps the wine unexpectedly vibrant and resonant. Best after 2011 or ’12. Excellent. About $20-$22, Good Value.

Imported by Domenico Selections, N.Y. Available in the Northeast and limited in the rest of the country.

Double disclosure: This wine was sent to me as a review sample, AND I borrowed the image from Benito and modified it.

In the old days, that is, the 1950s through the 1980s, the grapes that went into Amarone were hung up in the rafters of the wineries or spread out on mats to dry. Now, however, the grapes — corvina and rondinella — are dried in temperature-controlled rooms and carefully monitored. Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone, as the wine used to be called, is the great red wine of the Veneto region, though it must be carefully made to retain freshness and clarity. One that does just that is the Masi “Costasera” Amarone Classico 2005, a dark vigorous, boldly flavorful wine, deeply spicy, dauntlessly dry yet succulent. Aromas of fruit cake and spice cake are twined with dried black and blue fruit and hints of orange rind, toasted almonds and bitter chocolate; nothing raisiny or toffee-ish mars the wine’s sleekness and its profound presence or tone. Paradoxically, this Amarone is dramatic, displaying a flair for overt statement of fruit, structure and acidity, yet at the core, it is calm, generous and, through the finish, austere. Drink now through 2015 to ’18 with hearty stews and braised meat or strong cheeses, or allow it to mature into a wine that encourages contemplation and meditation. Excellent. Prices range ridiculously across the board for this wine, as in from about $35 to $65.

Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Cal. Tasted at a trade event.

The Moccagatta Nebbiolo 2007, from Piedmont’s Langhe region, represents the entry level wine for the Minuto family’s Moccagatta estate, founded in 1952. Made from 100 percent nebbiolo grapes (from young vineyards) and aged a scant six months in old barriques, the wine offers the typical nebbiolo aromas of tar, smoke, violets, spiced plums, damp leaves and moss and gravel. Flavors of macerated black currants and blueberries are draped on a spare, taut structure whose bright acidity cuts a swath on the palate. Nothing opulent or easy here; the wine is an eloquent expression of a grape at a level of purity and intensity that’s especially gratifying from vines that are less than a decade old. Dried heather and thyme seep through the bouquet after a few minutes in the glass, as the wine gets increasingly spicy, dry and austere, with touches of old paper and dust. While the Moccagatta Nebbiolo ’07 doesn’t display the dimension or detail of Moccagatta’s more expensive single-vineyard Barbarescos, it’s an admirable statement of a grape variety and winemaking philosophy. Best from 2010 or ’11 through 2015 to ’17. Bring on the pappardelle con coniglio. Excellent. About $25.

Marc de Grazia Imports, Winston-Salem, N.C.

From the vast sea of wine turned out in Puglia comes this distinctive number, the Masserie Pisari Negroamaro 2005, Salento Rosso. Made from a grape that’s often treated like a bludgeon, the Masserie Pisari ’05 takes rich, deep black currant, blueberry and plum scents and flavors and adds exotic spice and a note of wild cherry. After a few moments in the glass, matters turn tarry, briery and brambly; the wine grows more exotic, wilder and spicier, more roasted and smoky, with an expanding tide of dusty tannins, dried thyme and rosemary and a warm, meadowy aspect, all enlivened by brisk acidity. The wine does sort of hit you over the head, but gently; there’s something almost droll about it. Definitely calls for burgers, pizzas and hearty pasta dishes. Very Good+. About $16, which is what I paid in Memphis, Tenn., but prices on the Internet go as low as $10.
A Marc de Grazia Selection for Vin Divino, Chicago.
I wish I hadn’t paid $19 for this wine; the national median is about $16. We live and learn (or not). That range in prices isn’t the fault of the wine though. The Marcarini Fontanazza 2008, Dolcetto d’Alba, which we drank on Pizza-and-Movie Night, opens with aromas of black cherries and plums with a background of sour cherry, a tea-like spice and a touch of dried orange rind. In other words, this is classic Piedmontese dolcetto, with that good old dependable northern Italian acid structure, piano-string taut and vibrant, and the requisite black currant-leather-tobacco nature that leans lightly on supple tannins. Here’s another wine that sees no oak and is all the better for it. Very Good+. About (oh, well) $16.
Imported by Empson USA, Alexandria, Va.

Except for vintage port, the wines of Portugal have languished in relative obscurity. That has not been a bad situation, because it has kept international trends and the pressures of the marketplace from the doors of small producers. Circumstances have changed in Portugal, as indeed everywhere, since the middle of the 1990s, bringing more Portuguese wines to our shores as well as opening producers to global marketing and ideas. This process is certainly occurring in an off-the-beaten-track region like Alentejo, nestled against the Spanish border southeast of Lisbon. Here the kings of the vineyards are tempranillo, which goes by the local name aragonês, and the alicante bouschet grape, which doesn’t get a whole hell of a lot of respect elsewhere in the world.

The unusual wine I’m urging on you today — as a great gift for a wine person or for yourself because you were so good this year — is Malhadinha Tinto 2004, made in the Alentejo region by the small producer, Herdade da Malhadinha Nova. The simple winery and the vineyards occupy an abandoned farm purchased by the Soares family in 1996. Winemaker is Luis Duarte. This is the first vintage of the wine brought into the U.S.

Composed of 45 percent aragonês grapes, 40 percent alicante bouschet and 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, Malhadinha Tinto 2004 is drop-dead gorgeous. Yes, I actually wrote those words, and I’m not sorry. You could stop at the Penelope Cruz-like bouquet of cassis, hot stones, smoke, coffee, mocha and tar, but then you would miss the wine’s lovely shape and tone, its robust and vigorous nature, its ripe black currant and plum flavors infused with baking spices and sweet oak, all tempered by supple, chewy tannins and a background of crushed gravel. Malhadinha 2004 aged 14 months in new French oak barrels, but the wood influence is beautifully integrated into the texture and dimension of the wine, so there’s no taint of new oak toastiness or creaminess; instead, vibrant acidity gets the last word. Production was 1,433 cases. Excellent. About $90.

More accessible, at one-third the price, is this wine’s cousin, the Monte da Peceguina Tinto 2007, composed of 50 percent aragonês grapes, 25 percent alicante bouschet, 9 percent touriga nacional and 8 percent each cabernet sauvignon and tinta caiada, a grape that apparently grows only in Alentejo. The wine is solid and resonant, stalwart but with a sense of light-boned delicacy, a prime example of the marriage of power and elegance. The color is dark ruby-purple, the flavors are dark, too, in the black currant, blackberry and black plum range, and the spicy character carries a tinge of dark exoticism. Aged seven months in new French oak, the wine is sleek and polished but not superficially sophisticated; the finish is an amalgam of finely ground wood, dried flowers, granite-like tannins and slate. When it comes to a rib-eye smack-down, this wine would be all over a piece of rare beef. 7,083 cases. Excellent. About $30.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal., which provided these samples for review.

Those madcaps at Renaissance Vineyard and Winery have done it again, releasing a wine that’s not only unique but sort of crazy. If you think you have tasted everything, you must try this.

The wine is the Da Vinci Petite Sirah from the Sierra Foothills. (Da Vinci is a second label that Renaissance uses occasionally.) Notice that no vintage is stated on the label. That’s because this petite sirah is a “cross-vintage” blend from 1979, 1980, ’81 and ’82 — 70% from 1982, 20% from 1981, the remainder from 1980 and 1979. (Federal regulations state that if a label carries an American Viticultural Area designation, then 95% of the grapes must come from the stated vintage.) The wine was bottled in 1984 and was released on Oct 15 this year. That’s right, readers, this wine, in its finished state, has been aging at the winery for 25 years, though the base wines go back 30 years.

The Da Vinci Petite Sirah (nv) offers all the attributes of a well-made, perfectly aged and mature red wine. It’s mild and mellow, yielding hints of mint and white pepper, spiced and macerated black and red cherries and a touch of cedar and tobacco. Sporting a ruddy, luminous ruby-garnet color, the wine is smooth and harmonious; flavors of black and red currants are wreathed with cloves and spiced plums, and as the minutes wear by, a wafting of smoke emerges. Despite its age, there’s nothing puny about the wine, which is enlivened by bold but unobtrusive acidity and framed by gently faded yet still persistent tannins. A masterpiece!

Renaissance produced about 300 cases of this petite sirah, a true California classic. It’s the kind of wine you savor with duck or pheasant or squab. Most mature red wines from 25 or 30 years ago would cost hundreds of dollars, but the price here is $65. It’s available by mail from the winery in states where direct shipment of alcoholic beverages is legal, which of course it should be in every state of this union. I mean, come on, can’t we all act like grown-ups?

Sent to me as a review sample, and am I ever glad it was.

The Liberty School label was created in 1975 by the redoubtable Caymus Vineyards to absorb surplus cabernet sauvignon grapes. In 1987, after the brand became popular, the Hope family, which owned vineyards in Paso Robles, began selling cabernet grapes to Caymus. By 1995, production of Liberty School had moved to Paso Robles, and within four years, a Central Coast chardonnay and syrah had been introduced. Liberty School is now a label under the umbrella of Hope Family Wines, which includes Treana, Austin Hope and Candor.

The Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Paso Robles, is as bright, ripe and juicy as all get-out. Intense aromas of cassis and black raspberry are woven with sweet, spicy oak, dusty tannins and a deep core of lavender and mulberry. The wine is boisterously spicy, imbued with generous black currant and plum flavors bolstered by taut acidity and a dense chewy finish where elements of grainy tannins and crushed gravel align with the earthy character of briers and brambles. This is as charming as cabernet gets and is a terrific match with burgers and pizzas and hearty pasta dishes. Very Good+ and a Great Bargain at about $12.

This wine was sent to me as a review sample.

Founded in 1854 in Santa Clara Valley, Mirassou was once a venerable name in California. Having been farmers and bulk wine producers for four generations, the family in 1966 turned to bottling wines from their own vineyards and entering the competitive lists of the state’s growing wine industry. These efforts were not always successful, yet particularly in the white wine area, with gewurztraminer; “White Burgundy,” made from pinot blanc; and the “Harvest Reserve” chardonnay, the Mirassou family could be proud of its achievement. I tried many of these wines in the 1980s, including this Mirassou Harvest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1979 from Monterey County. As you can see from the label, the winery made 3,000 cases of the wine.

We drank this bottle on Dec. 9 and 10, 1984. I paid $10 for it. My notes read thus:

“Interesting and complex. Deep ruby color; tannic, fruity nose, hints of herbs and flowers; quite a mouthful, almost thick — very complex, almost puzzling, many layers of fruit and spicy, sappy nuance with, at the bottom, a provocative level of what CDK [my son, 17 at the time] called ‘cherry gasoline.’ Long finish. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste.”

“Cherry gasoline,” indeed, way to go, my boy, and surely not to the taste of anyone with a nose and palate for real cabernet sauvignon. A noble failure at five years after harvest? Or just a weird anomaly or indication of how erratic the winemaking could be at Mirassou?

In any case, Gallo bought the brand and the inventory in 2003, and the cheap Mirassou wines are now made in Modesto.

Is it possible to make such a statement?

As many readers know, Saturday is Pizza-and-Movie Night in our house, and it has been for many years. If we suffer under the burden of a social or cultural obligation on Saturday, we can switch Pizza-and-Movie Night to Sunday, but it feels weird. Occasionally, LL and I joke about how many pizzas I have made, and the closest approximation we can calculate is somewhere between 500 and 600, which is pretty damned approximate. Trying to ascertain, from that number of pizzas, which is the best would seem fruitless folly.

Of course some pizzas are better than others. Once we situate ourselves to watch the movie and the wine is poured and the first bites of pizza taken, LL will usually say something like “Great pizza” or “Wonderful” or, occasionally, “Brilliant.” And sometimes a silence ensues, and I, suddenly worried, will sort of clear my throat and hem and haw a bit, and she will say, “Not one of your best efforts.” Well, come on, we can’t be perfect all the time.

In late Summer and early Fall this year, I went through a Golden Age of pizza-making, where it seemed as if I could do no wrong. Then I went into a bit of a slump. Usually the flaw with a pizza is not in the toppings, though sometimes there can be a Clash of Ingredients; no, the flaw — or the perfection — of a pizza is in the crust. Having created as many pizzas as I have, the making of the dough long ago became routine, yet there must be minute variations of which I am unaware that affect the outcome, an ounce more water one week, a smidgeon less olive oil another week, an extra minute spent kneading the dough while I’m distracted by other matters. Who knows?

Last Saturday, though, by whatever conjunction of physical, philosophical and spiritual elements aligned in utter harmony, the crust on the pizza was perfect. I mean, it was perfect. Thin but not too thin. Toothsome and almost flaky, but not “short,” as a pie crust would be. Around the edges, it was light and puffy, making little air pockets that crunched gracefully in the mouth. The toppings were a handful of shiitaki mushrooms, sliced thin; little red and green peppers, sliced thin; chopped yellow onion; diced salami, medium hot; one sliced Roma tomato; mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses; a scattering of thyme, rosemary and oregano. Scrumptious.

I opened a bottle of the Murphy-Goode “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel 2007, Sonoma County, a wine that I have not tasted in five or six years. The winery was founded in 1985 by veteran vineyard developers and managers Tim Murphy and Dale Goode and their friend David Ready; in 2006, the estate was acquired by Kendall-Jackson. Murphy-Goode perpetually displayed a marked fondness for assertively ripe and fruity red wines; a predilection for sumptuous, voluptuous textures in red and white wines; and, in chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, an addiction to new oak so severe that a 12-step intervention — “Hi, I’m Bob, and I’m an oakaholic” — would have improved things greatly. I blew hot and cold about Murphy-Goode wines throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, generally cottoning to the reds better than to the over-manipulated, syrupy whites, so it was with some interest that I recently received a trio of reds (samples for review) from the winery, or, I should say, from Jackson Family Wines.

True to form, the Murphy-Goode “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel 2007, Sonoma County, is rich and ripe, sleek and exotic. At 15.4 percent alcohol, it packs a heady hit as well as the sweetness that a high alcohol level often conveys. Black currant and blueberry flavors, with a hint of fleshy boysenberry, are threaded with briers and brambles, polished tannins and dusty granite, and sweet, spiced plums. The wine slides through your mouth like plush velvet woven with iron filings. This is a blend, with three percent each carignane and petite sirah grapes. Winemaker David Ready Jr. calls the “Liar’s Dice” ’07 “our most passionate wine.” It could use less emotion and more thoughtfulness, though, I’ll admit, its unabashed nature managed nicely with the hearty, earthy, slightly spicy pizza. Drink now through 2011 or ’12 with cumin-and-chili-rubbed pork roast, barbecue brisket and the like. Very Good+. About $21.

Curious about my reaction to previous vintages of the “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel, I checked the archives of the newspaper for which I wrote a weekly print column for 20 years, and found a few references:

<>Exquisitely ripe and flavorful, the Murphy-Goode “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel 2000, Alexander Valley, is a crowd-pleaser of sensual appeal that manages to be almost sophisticated. Very Good+. About $19.50.

<> Like mainlining blackberry jam and brandied plums – that’s about all you need to say about the extraordinarily vivid and vibrant Murphy-Goode Liar’s Dice Zinfandel 1999, Sonoma County. Fortunately, this wild thing has a full complement of minerals, oak and plush tannins to rein it in (sort of). Excellent. About $19.

<> … the Murphy-Goode “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel 1998, Sonoma County, [is] a bit lighter than the previous vintage but delicious for its bright, ripe currant-cherry-plum flavors and touches of smoke, minerals and spice. Very good+. About $17.

In other words, the owner may be different, but the philosophy is the same.

About as much white wine is made in Chinon, in France’s Loire Valley, as red wine is made in Burgundy’s Puligny-Montrachet. Really damned little! Chinon, part of the Touraine region smack in the middle of the Loire, is largely cabernet franc country. No bistro in Paris would be without Chinon on its wine list; I wish we saw more examples of this quintessential restaurant wine in America. A little rose is made in Chinon and a smaller proportion, about two percent of the production, is white wine made from chenin blanc grapes.

Thus, the shimmering pale Les Chanteaux 2008, from Couly-Dutheil, was a revelation. LL had seared a fine filet of swordfish, just enough to give it slight char on the exterior and leave the interior moist, flavorful and almost rare at the center. She paired that with a piece of salmon that she had cooked a few days before, that fish having marinated in a black pepper-jalapeno sauce brought home from a Vietnamese restaurant. The combination, a sort of surf ‘n’ surf deal, was striking; the salmon, served cold, was dense, packed with spicy heat; the swordfish was lush and succulent. Also on the plate were rice and buttery, garlicky kale.

Les Chanteaux 2008 opened with a burst of camillia and honeysuckle, pear and quince, tangerine and exotic spice. As if this panoply of delights were not enough, the wine is bright and lively, with a tone of some piquancy wrapped around notes of white pepper and lychee, baked apple and in the limestone-laced finish, a hint of some shy, astringent meadow flower. Les Chateaux sees no oak, but rests on the lees in tank to pick up some nuance. Immensely appealing, and it tied together the elements of our meal very nicely. Very Good+ and definitely Worth a Search. I paid $25 for this bottle, which is the median price around the country.
Imported by Frank-Lin International, San Jose, Cal.

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