May 2010

Here’s a sauvignon blanc that’s packed with personality. The Simonsig “Sunbird” Sauvignon Blanc 2009, from South Africa’s Western Cape region, is a crisp and snappy classic bursting with notes of fresh-mown grass, gooseberry, lime peel and grapefruit. A few moments in the glass bring up hints of tangerine and nectarine, beguiling whiffs of tarragon and lavender, and pointed highlights of caraway and celery seed. How scintillating can you get! Flavors are deftly balanced between meadow and orchard for a sort of dry-dusty-herbal-citrus effect borne on a drenching tide of limestone and damp shale. The wine is very dry, a tad austere toward the finish and permeated by keen acidity. It’s a real summer-sipper and would be great with grilled shrimp, chicken salad, linguine with clam sauce and other such lighthearted fare. The alcohol content is 13.4 percent. Very Good+. About $15, a Real Deal.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal. A sample for review.

During my excursion in Piedmont back in March, lo these many weeks ago, I naturally tasted primarily red wines, 400 or so. Barbera, nebbiolo and dolcetto are the grapes that have made the region famous, though nebbiolo, particularly in the form of Barolo and Barbaresco, has made it immortal. Piedmont cultivates white grapes too, however, and I tried a number of white wines that deserve to be better known, which is to say, marketed in America. The most interesting of these are made from arneis (“are-nay-eez” but usually slurred to “are-nayz”) and nascetta (“nas-chetta”) grapes.

Nascetta does not rate a mention in the 3rd edition on Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine or in Oz Clarke’s Encyclopedia of Grapes, a situation that does not deter Valter Fissone from being the grape’s champion and, he claims, the first (in 1994) to bottle it as a legitimate variety, though as a Vino da Tavola, meaning that the wine did not fit into the official D.O.C. registry of Italian wines. Now nascetta has a D.O.C. as Langhe Bianco.

Fissone married Nadia Cogno and is now the winemaker for the Elvio Cogno estate that occupies a stunning situation in an 18th century manor house atop the hill called Bricco Ravera, near the village of Novella in the Langhe area. Snow still lay over the vineyards on the shady hillsides the morning my group visited the estate, and it was difficult to tear ourselves away from the spectacular view. We did, of course, because we wanted to taste Elvio Cogno’s Barolo wines.

Before the reds, though, Fissone introduced us to his nascettas. First we tried a tank-sample of the six-month-old 2009. Fissone has given the wine a brand-name now: Anas-Cëttá. A strong sulfur component blew off in a few moments to reveal a full-bodied and fairly spicy wine that burst with elements of roasted lemons and pears, camellia and limestone and a touch of heat from 14 percent alcohol. By the time the wine is released, it should have found lovely balance and integration.

Then Fissone, in a generous and sacrificial mood, opened the last bottle of his Nascetta 2001, the last bottle left of some 4,500 to 5,000 cases. This was a reminder of what I always tell you, My Readers, about giving wine a chance and about storing wine well so it might develop into something unanticipated. The color was radiant medium gold; notes of dried thyme, honeysuckle, limestone, sage and petrol wreathed an irresistible bouquet that was almost savory. Rich and supple, quite dry and lively, the wine opened into layers of ginger and quince, candied grapefruit and a hint of crème brûlée and a contrasting touch of grassy bitterness on the finish. Wow, who knew such a wine even existed? This was a real privilege. The wines of Elvio Cogno are imported to the US by Vias Imports in New York. The Anas-cetta is about $25.

We also tried the the Matiré Nascetta Langhe Bianco 2008 at Rivetto, whose Barolos I wrote about in a previous post. This ’08 is the first vintage in which Rivetto produced a nascetta wine, but they’re off to a good start. The color is an attractive mild gold; aromas of roasted lemon and pear are twined with almond and acacia and a touch of greengage plum. Sleek acidity and high notes of leafy fig and lemon balm make the wine feel almost transparent in the mouth, while a finish of shimmering limestone minerality projects a sense of absolute freshness and clarity. Another revelation. The wines of Rivetto come to these shores through several importers. This Matiré Nascetta 2008 runs about $19 to $22.

Better known than nascetta is the arneis grape. Grown mainly in the Langhe and Roero zones of Piedmont, south of the town of Alba, arneis, which does not take well to the burden of oak, is capable of making floral wines of attractive delicacy that is some cases approach real elegance. Roero is the best area for the grape, and those versions may receive a designation of Roereo Arneis D.O.C. Falchetto makes a charming and refreshing Arneis Langhe 2009, nicely balanced among grapefruit and lime peel, jasmine and honeysuckle and spirited acidity. More complex was the Arneis 2009 from the noted Barolo producer Brovia; this offered ripe peaches and pears, with green apple, tangerine and honeysuckle, all layered with limestone and enlivened with tingling acidity. An example that could age five or six years is the Perdaudin Roero Arneis 2009 from the venerable Angelo Negro estate, which goes back to 1670. The wine is very spicy and minerally (in the limestone shale range) and quite forward in its assay of lemon characteristics — bright lemon, savory roasted lemon, redolent lemon balm — with lime peel and grapefruit infused with smoke and acacia blossom, all ensconced is a super-seductive texture that melds crispness with pillowy lushness. Just terrific. The wines of Angelo Negro are not imported to the U.S., but the products of Brovia (Neal Rosenthal) and Falchetto (Direct Wine Imports in Houston) are.

All of those wines were tasted in Piedmont, but within the past two weeks I tasted two more widely available versions of the arneis grape.

It diminishes the qualities of the Ceretto Blangè 2009, Langhe Arneis, not a whit to say that it is delightful from beginning to end. It’s one of the cleanest, freshest and most refreshing wines I have tried in ages, even embodying a touch of spritz to add to its invigorating charm. Think of lemon, lemon, lemon and then almond and almond blossom, and think then of a little smoke, a touch of lilac and lavender and a minute strain of dried thyme. The wine deepens slightly with notes of baked pear and apple, developing moderate richness to balance the spareness and elegance of its crystalline, thirst-quenching, palest gold character. The alcohol content is a modest 12.5 percent. Irresistible for summertime sipping or with light snacks and appetizers. Very Good+. About $26.

Imported by Wilson Daniels, St. Helena Cal. A sample for review.

We see a slightly different nature in the Vietti Roero Arneis 2009. Of course it’s clean as a whistle and fresh as a daisy (and stop me before I hit all the cliché buttons), but it also develops a line of subtleties that center on orange rind and lime peel with a tinge of candied grapefruit before broadening into a multiplicity of lemon effects that in turn bottom out in spiced tea, lemongrass and limestone. The acidity is keen and blade-like; the texture is supple and lithe, sort of winsomely sinuous, and it all goes down very easily indeed. Yes, it’s as enticing and charming as it sounds. The alcohol content is 13.5 percent. A great picnic wine or for a first course at a dinner party, say with parsnip-ginger soup, which I made recently. Very Good+. About $23.

Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Cal. Tasted at a trade event and the following week at a restaurant, where LL and I each had a glass with grilled octopus.

There’s no need to dilate upon the extraordinary career of Manhattan chef and (now) entrepreneur David Chang, so this recapitulation will be brief. Chang is Korean American, and his culinary stomping ground is the East Village. First, in 2003, came Momofuku Noodle Bar, then, in 2006, Momofuku Ssãm Bar and then, in 2008, Momokufu Ko, which propelled Chang into the heady glare of celebrity, multiple awards and two Michelin stars. Adjacent to Ssãm is now Momofuku Bakery and Milk Bar, and in April, Chang made a move into Midtown Manhattan and opened the French-Vietnamese restaurant Má Pêche in the Chambers Hotel; chef is Tien Ho.

Much of this brilliant career is related with verve, considerable drama, good humor and surprising modesty by Chang and Peter Meehan in Momofuku (Clarkson Potter, $40), a cookbook and autobiography written as closely as possible in the chef’s own salty language. It’s a tale of fits and starts, of experimentation, insane goofiness, failure, lots of beer and incredible success. The recipes fall into the order of the successive restaurants, Noodle, Ssãm and Ko. The Asian influence is profound, but more pronounced is the willingness of Chang and his various chefs to work New World variations on Asian themes, such as making the traditional Japanese dashi soup stock with bacon or to serve Brussels sprouts with a fish sauce vinaigrette.

I have not eaten at Noodle or Ko, which has only 12 seats, but I have dined at Ssãm four times: twice on consecutive nights in March 2007, again with LL in September 2007 and in May 2009. Every dish is a revelation of strangely complementary flavors and textures, but there’s nothing weird or excessively (that is, phony) witty about the food.

I was excited to get a copy (not free) of the cookbook, and of course I wanted to make something from it, but ingredients are sometimes exotic, and while many dishes seem entirely simple, others require several prep and cooking steps before the dish is finally put together. After reading the book several times and poring over the recipes obsessively, I settled on a dish from Ko, the Roasted New Jersey Diver Scallop, Kohlrabi Puree and Iwa Nori, part of the multi-course dinner from the original menu at Ko. These are the elements of the dish: 1. the scallop (I used two for each of us since this was our main dinner course); 2. kohlrabi puree; 3. pickled chanterelles; 4. finely julienne scallion; 5. bacon dashi; 6. iwa nori, or unpressed nori, the kind of seaweed (when compressed) that sushi rolls are made from.

First, I couldn’t find kohlrabi, so I emailed Peter Meehan and asked if fennel would work as a substitute; he said that fennel would be fine. Then last week, at the Memphis Farmers Market, several vendors had kohlrabi, so that was taken care of. The bacon dashi called for konbu, another form of pressed seaweed. Whole Foods stocks konbu but not iwa nori, used as a garnish on the dish, so I substituted the dried seaweed wakame, which looked very pretty on the plate as well as providing a welcome bit of crunch. Nor could I find chanterelles, so I substituted shiitakes. (Mea culpa, chef!)

Last Sunday morning, I made the bacon dashi, the kohlrabi puree and the pickled mushrooms and put them in the fridge. No food processor used here; the kohlrabi puree is made the old-fashioned way, simmering chunks of kohlrabi until they’re soft, mashing them with a hand masher and forcing the mash through a fine sieve with the back of a wooden spoon. That night, it was just a matter of slicing a scallion “incredibly fine,” as the instructions say, and soaking the strips in cold water, where they curl around very nicely, and gently warming the dashi and the puree. From that point, things happen quickly. I had the plates ready and warmed. I salt-and-peppered the large sea scallops and seared them in grapeseed oil and after about 90 seconds, added butter to the pan and when it had melted used a spoon to scoop the butter over the scallops. This all takes about three and a half minutes, tops.

The assembly is: A smear of kohlrabi puree and then the scallops on top of that, in a wide, shallow bowl; the slices of pickled mushrooms, the tendrils of scallions, artlessly arranged; a scattering of wakame; a few spoonfuls of bacon dashi ladled into the bowl; sea salt. The result is captured in the image above. I was, frankly, damned proud of myself; the dish looked beautiful and tasted fabulous, with layers of contrasting and complementary textures and flavors that were playful and satisfying. Particularly important were the smoky bacon dashi and the briny pickled mushrooms and the manner in which they infiltrated the rich succulent sweetness of the scallops and the smooth, sapid earthiness of the kohlrabi puree.

For wine, I opened the pale straw-blond Plantagenet Riesling 2008, from Western Australia’s cool Great Southern region. Founded in 1968, Plantagenet was the first winery in Great Southern.

A few sips taken while I was cooking were quintessentially lively with scintillating limestone and actually puckery with animated acidity. The dish gently moderated the wine’s aggressive stance and emphasized the camellia-jasmine floral elements and scents and flavors of lemon and pear delicately touched with notes of lemon-grass, lime peel, ginger and quince. This is a riesling of lovely purity and intensity whose pert cool crisp character is enveloped in a seductive texture of talc-like softness. The alcohol content is a comfortable 11.7 percent. I’ll drink to that! Drink now through 2015 to ’18 (well-stored). Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.

Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal. A sample for review.

Geography counts, in war and in wine. The locations, the microclimates or terroirs where the cabernet sauvignon grape achieves greatness are few, through the grape is grown around the world. The Left Bank communes of Bordeaux qualify, of course, though there cabernet sauvignon is blended with merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Small pockets of Tuscany; parts of the Yarra Valley and Coonawarra in Australia; Maipo and Aconcagua in Chile (potentially); and California, where the modern wine industry was defined by the success of wines based on the cabernet sauvignon grape, and not only based but in many cases made completely from cabernet. California’s wine regions are incredibly diverse and varied, and cabernet sauvignon is grown, for good or ill, throughout the state. The most appropriate areas, however, remain the Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley in Sonoma County; Oakville, Rutherford and Stags Leap and the mountain vineyards of Napa Valley; Paso Robles and Santa Cruz.

This brief survey serves as prelude to examinations of two wonderful wines, one 98 percent cabernet sauvignon, the other 100 percent varietal, and both second release wines for their labels. The first is fashioned from a vineyard in a rather obscure area of Napa Valley, the second from high elevation vineyards on the western side of the Mayacamas range.

Sometimes you take a sip of wine into your mouth and think, “Oh, yes. This is real. This is it.” Such was my reaction to the first release of the Phifer Pavitt “Date Night” Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2005, and such also was my impression of the second release, the 2006. The grapes derive from the all-organic Temple Family Vineyards in Pope Valley, a small and lightly populated appellation north of Howell Mountain in the extreme northeast of the Napa Valley. Though shoe-horned into its famous neighbor, as far as the federal viticultural boundaries are concerned, geographically, Pope Valley faces the opposite direction, draining away to the east and Lake Berryessa. Pope Valley is home to the Dollarhide Ranch, which supplies St. Supery with cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc grapes, and, coincidentally, to the must-see folk-art environment, Litto’s Hubcab Ranch. The Phifer Pavitt winery itself, owned by Shane Pavitt and Suzanne Phifer Pavitt, is on the Silverado Trail near Calistoga. Winemaker is Ted Osborne.

Date Night 2006 is not merely profound but profoundly huge, and I don’t mean in an overwhelming sense — the alcohol content is 14.7 percent — but huge in vibrancy and resonance, tremendous in its presence and immediacy. Though the wine on the surface is placid and approachable, one feels in the depth a sense of implicit turbulence, that “tiger burning bright, in the forests of the night,” though a more appropriate feline, considering the wine’s opacity, would be a black panther. Macerated black currants, black raspberries and plum distinguish a bouquet that rests lightly on notes of briers and brambles and that gradually unfurls hints of ancho chile, bitter chocolate and potpourri. What feels like an infinite mesh of finely-grained tannins envelopes every principle here while sharing the power, triumvirate-wise, with slightly spicy, slightly toasty oak – these are nuances — and vivacious acidity. (The wine spends 17 months in French oak barrels, 65 percent new; the wine contains two percent petit verdot.) A few minutes in the glass allow a dark tide of graphite-like minerally its encompassing influence. Obviously there’s terrific emphasis on structure here, but that composition does not bury the effect of luscious black and blue fruit flavors. Not surprisingly for a wine of such dimension, the finish brings in earthiness and an element of austerity that do not diminish the wine’s innate suppleness and elegance. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Production was 275 cases. Exceptional. About $75.

Most winemakers under the age of 40 in California need to take lessons from Dick Arrowood, who, since he started in the wine industry in 1965, probably will not object to personifying the “old-timer” of this post’s respectful title. That initial job was at Korbel Wine Cellars, while Arrowood was in college. From Korbel, he went to the old United Vintners and then to the old Sonoma Vineyards (which did not acquire the name Rodney Strong until 1984, when Strong sold the company he had founded). Arrowood was hired as the first winemaker for the fledgling Chateau St. Jean in 1974, and over the course of 26 years he produced a glorious roster of cabernet sauvignon wines, memorable single-vineyard chardonnays and sumptuous hate-harvest rieslings and gewurztraminers. In the meanwhile, Arrowood and his wife Alis started Arrowood Vineyards and Winery in 1985. Now the situation becomes complicated, as it often does in the 21st Century world of bankruptcies and acquisitions. Arrowood sold his winery to Robert Mondavi in 2000. When Constellation acquired Mondavi in 2004, Arrowood was part of the deal, but the conglomerate sold Arrowood in 2005 to the Legacy Estate Group, which owned Byron and Freemark Abbey. Shortly thereafter, Legacy filed for Chapter 11 and was snapped up, in 2006, by Jess Jackson, which is how Freemark Abbey, Byron and Arrowood are part of Jackson Family Wines. Dick Arrowood remains as winemaster at the winery that still bears his name, while also running his pet project Amapola Creek, owned solely by him and his wife.

The point is that Dick Arrowood has spent a lifetime making excellent wine in Sonoma County; there can be few people who know the intricacy and the potential of its microclimates better than he. Amapola Creek, consisting of 20 acres of certified organic vineyards, is located on the western slopes of the Mayacamas mountains, which separate Napa and Sonoma counties, where the terminating foothills add heft to the Sonoma Valley appellation.

The Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Sonoma Valley, is the second release of this wine. The first impression is of beautiful balance and integration, of a sort of vast poise that casts a veil of expectancy over the experience. The intoxicating bouquet weaves cassis and black plums with smoky licorice, caraway and black olive and then deepens with briers and brambles and dried porcini. This is, frankly, a stupendous wine, confident and purposeful and packed with grainy, velvety tannins and spicy, burnished oak from 26 months in new and used French and American barrels. Yep, readers, that’s a lot of wood, yet there’s no trace of toastiness, no hint of stridency about it; all is calibrated for a character of monumental equilibrium that reaches down to the wine’s very roots and origin. On the other hand, whatever the wine’s present seductive qualities — and let’s just call it gorgeous — in terms of structure it could use a year or two to ease its buttons a bit, let’s say 2012 or ’13 to drink through 2020 or ’22. The alcohol content is 14.7 percent. Production was 996 cases. Exceptional. About $80.

Samples for review.

Readers, this blog has been nominated again for a Wine Blog Award in the category of Best Wine Reviews. How about that! We won in this category last year, but this is a different year, with a few different competitors. Let’s maintain the momentum! If BiggerThanYourHead is helpful, informative, education and fun, and especially if you like the way that I write reviews of wines, please vote for us. Deadline for voting is Sunday, May 30, so the rush is on. Thanks for the support, the kind thoughts, the entertaining comments and especially — Your Vote! I wouldn’t mind if you forwarded this message through your various email and other social media networks, too.

The link to the voting page is here.

Michel Rolland has been criticized, demonized and vilified, but on the occasions I met and chatted with him, he seemed pleasant and humorous. (He won’t remember this, but we got sort of smashed and had a long witty conversation — so it seemed — at a lovely dinner at the late, lamented La Caravelle back in, oh, 1997 or ’98.) Still, the ubiquitous French enologist and consultant has more than ruffled feathers through his emphatic and technological style of winemaking, a fashion that I don’t normally countenance. I was surprised, therefore, at how much I enjoyed the Clos de los Siete 2008, Mendoza, Argentina, on the label of which Michel Rolland’s name appears, though the wine is a collaboration among Rolland and six other winemakers, hence “siete.” Writing about the 2007 version of this wine, another blogger called it “a poster child for the over-extracted, over-ripe, and over-oaked wines that [Rolland] has popularized.” My impression of Clos de los Siete 2008, however, is completely the opposite; the wine struck me as classic Bordeaux, beautifully grained, deeply fruity yet restrained, even close to elegant. I doubt that the intention and style of winemaking would change from one vintage to the next.

Clos de los Siete 2008, from Mendoza’s Uco Valley, is a blend of malbec (56%), merlot (21%), syrah (11%) cabernet sauvignon (10%) and petit verdot (2%). Far from being over-oaked, the wine ages 11 months, one-third in new French oak barriques, one-third in one-year-old barriques, and one-third in large oak vats. The bouquet seethes with scents of black currants and black plums wreathed with briers, brambles and walnut shell. Give the wine a few moments of swirling and sniffing and touches of black tea, orange rind and baking spice add complexity. Flavors of cassis, black cherry and plum are permeated with accents of cedar, tobacco, black olive and dried thyme supported by finely-knit tannins, a transparent wash of oak and dusty granite-like minerals, all layered with bright acidity. While it’s true that these tannins, oak and minerals coalesce into a rather formidable notion of framing and foundation for the wine, the flavors remains dominant and ultimately expansive and generous, with final notes balanced between ripe and macerated black and red fruit and a disciplined, dignified and almost rational sense of structure. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $19, a Great Value.

Imported by Dourthe USA, Manhasset, N.Y. A sample for review. Image of Michel Rolland from

I received some wine samples from Freemark Abbey not long ago, and I thought, “Gosh, how nice to hear from this venerable Napa Valley winery,” and then I remembered that Freemark Abbey is owned by Kendall-Jackson. Same thing happened with Matanzas Creek and Murphy-Goode. Other labels owned by the Jackson Family Wines division include La Crema, Stonestreet, Byron, Lakoya, Verite, La Jota, Edmeades and Cambria. Kendall-Jackson itself, which started producing the well-known Vintner’s Reserve line with chardonnay in 1982, has several tiers of labels to accommodate many price points. Though at 5.5 million cases a year in 2009 (according to San Francisco Business Times), K-J doesn’t compete with Diageo, Gallo, The Wine Group or Constellation, the company makes and sells a hell of a lot of wine.

So why does billionaire owner Jess Jackson — or to be realistic, his marketing honchos — need more labels?

Just released are two wines in the new Jackson Hills label, intended to fit between the K-J Grand Reserve and Highland Estates tiers. The basic label, the ubiquitous Vintner’s Reserve line, consists of 11 wines priced between $14 and $18. The Grand Reserve roster includes 14 wines that cost from $15 to $25. The limited edition Highland Estates label offers 16 wines priced from $30 to $75. Obviously there was a crying need for a niche right there between the $15 to $25 range and the $30 to $75 sequence, and the Jackson Hills label is it.

Another new label from Jackson Family Wines is Acre, a line that focuses on grapes from the Central Coast, a vast “appellation” — it covers seven counties south of San Francisco — about as useful as two left arms on an infielder. Since the Acre Chardonnay 2008, for example, derives completely from Los Alamos Valley in Santa Barbara County, why not label it Santa Barbara instead of Central Coast? The narrower the appellation, the more impressive it is (though not necessarily a better wine). In terms of price — $16 — the Acre wines seem redundant; they fall smack in the middle of the Vintner’s Reserve line-up. All right, so I’m skeptical about American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) — or AOCs in France — that encompass extensive geographical realms, though the Central Coast is distinguished by proximity to the Pacific and its morning fogs and by its inland mountain ranges, but saying that chardonnays from Monterey and San Luis Obispo share a “Central Coast character” is disingenuous. As far as usefulness is concerned, of course the Central Coast designation serves a purpose when grapes from more than one county go into a wine.

So, how are these new wines in the Jackson empire?

With the exception of the Jackson Hills Chardonnay 2008, Santa Barbara County, they’re not particularly compelling, or, to put the case another way, I don’t recommend them with much confidence.

The Jackson Hills Chardonnay 2008, Santa Barbara County, is a clean and bright chardonnay fashioned in an expansively fruity style that’s neither tropical nor too oaky. Typical pineapple and grapefruit flavors are set into a fairly opulent texture deftly balanced by bracing acidity and keen limestone-like minerality. The wine is quite dry, moderately spicy and a little austere on the finish. Does it sound familiar? Yes, this is an exemplar of a specific style of California chardonnay, tasty, sleek, sensually satisfying and undemanding. Very Good+. About $25.

A bigger deal is the Jackson Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, from Knights Valley, the northern section of Sonoma County noted for cabernet production. How big a deal is it? So big that it feels as if woody tannins and dusty oak are sifting through your teeth. This wine is very intense, very concentrated, and if there’s fruit in there somewhere — and there must be, right? isn’t that the point? — I couldn’t find it. I whomped the cork back in the bottle and left this wine to try the next morning; rising fresh from my guileless repose, I was greeted by a mouthful of austere and astringent tannins. Perhaps I simply disagree totally with the way this wine was made, but it gets no nod from me. About $40.

Nothing quite so drastic mars the three Acre wines that I tried; their flaw is to be merely ordinary and free of varietal quality. (Well, the chardonnay is pretty darned flawed.) The Acre label was launched in May 2009 by White Rocket Wine Co., a division that Kendall-Jackson created in Oct. 2006 to create and market “fun” brands aimed at a younger generation of wine consumers; several existing labels, such as Tin Roof, Camelot and Pepi, were shifted to White Rocket, which was based in Napa. I say was because White Rocket was absorbed by Jackson Family Wines in August 2009 and some staff members were laid-off. Other “fun” labels developed by White Rocket included AutoMoto, Dog House, French Maid, Geode, Horse Play and so on.

Anyway, the Acre Chardonnay 2008 is fermented half in oak and half in stainless steel, goes through full malolactic, ages four month in French oak sur lie with frequent stirring of the lees, and boy does it show. This is a very bright, boldly oaky and spicy chardonnay made in a style that does not marry its extremes; on the one hand, its vivid baked pineapple and grapefruit flavors grab your palate with succulent lusciousness, while on the other hand the excessive dryness and woody austerity sear your taste-buds. Unworkable; unbalanced; a Big No. About $16.

The Acre Merlot 2007 and Acre Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 are not unbalanced or unwieldy; they merely feel interchangeable. These truly are cross-county wines: The Merlot ’07 derives 72 percent from the small Hames Valley AVA in Monterey, 20 percent from San Benito County and 8 percent from San Luis Obispo; the blend is 80 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 percent petit sirah. The Cabernet Sauvignon ’07 originates from Raso Robles in San Luis Obispo (68%), San Benito (20%) and Monterey (12%). These geeky details may be tedious to peruse, but they indicate the level of thoughtfulness that went into assembling these two wines, though perhaps “assembled” isn’t the method we most seek in the wines we admire.

The problem is that these two reds feel more generic than individual. Each is quite brambly and berryish, bursting with spicy oak and etched with mocha; each is earthy and minerally, in the graphite-tinged area; each has a circumference of dusty, slightly charcoal-like tannins. The cabernet does offer a hint of black olive and cedar to differentiate it minutely from the merlot, but I don’t call that enough. I’ll give these Good+ and say that wines costing $16 should deliver more personality and dimension.

Now, not to be a complete curmudgeon, I’ll say that I was delighted with the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Summation 2009, California. Introduced to the line-up last year for the 2008 vintage, this wine is perfect for sipping throughout the summer into the fall. It contains a smorgasbord of grapes — sauvignon blanc (33%), viognier (27%), chardonnay (15%), semillon (9%), roussanne (6%), pinot blanc (6%), riesling (2%) and muscat canelli (2%) — from five counties dominated by Lake (63%) with major contributions from Mendocino (23%) and Santa Barbara (21%). The result is a winning and very pretty wine that offers a seductive bouquet of jasmine and honeysuckle, pear and lychee, with hints of almond and just-mown hay. The wine is quite crisp and refreshing, with cheeky acidity to tantalize the palate and lovely flavors of roasted lemon, melon and pear imbued with quince and cloves and an energizing element of chalky limestone. The finish is dry and limestony and brings in a bracing touch of grapefruit bitterness. This would drink nicely with grilled fish and seafood or summery salads and pastas. Very Good+. About $17.

In fact, it seems to me that the most reliable wines for the regular consumer in the extensive Kendall-Jackson line-up are the Vintner’s Reserve wines, that ones that started the whole dance back in 1982. They may not always be exciting, but they are true to their originator’s philosophy and their grape varieties and they generally taste real.

Yes, friends, it happens. My pizza Saturday night was an abysmal, miserable flop, of Edsel and Ishtar proportions. O.K., perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it felt that way to me, though maybe I take pizza failure too seriously. My world and welcome to it. When I proofed the yeast, working in a hurry, I may have used water that was too hot and basically killed the stuff before it even had a chance to perform its task. Or I may have flung in too much salt; you need salt, of course, but a lot of salt will slow the action of the yeast. In any case, the dough did not rise properly, a fact I realized after a couple of hours. I punched the dough down anyway, kneaded it a bit more and set it out to rise again. Nope. And I foolishly, stubbornly, went ahead and made the pizza. What emerged from the oven, after all this effort, felt and tasted half-formed, incomplete, unfulfilled. In a word: awful.

The wine I opened, however, was terrific. This is the Tardieu-Laurent Les Becs Fins 2008, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. Composed of 50 percent each of syrah and grenache grapes, the latter from 60-year-old vines, the wine sees no oak, only stainless steel, so its sense of freshness, vivacity and immediacy is unimpaired, along with robustness and a deeply fruity, juicy nature. Black currant, black plum and mulberry scents and flavors coalesce into dark, spicy, pithy and Platonic black cherry layered with soft, supple tannins. These qualities are shaded — as if the wine were not dark enough — by touches of graphite and shale, mint, a breath of sea-salt and that notion called garrique, the combination of warm, dusty wild flowers and herbs characteristic of the South of France. The finish brings in a little tar, bittersweet chocolate and mossy, earthy elements. This will be great with your grilled steaks and burgers and smoked ribs this summer. The alcohol content is 14 percent. 1,008 cases were imported. Excellent. About $22.

Imported by Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, Ca. A sample for review.

I don’t typically compose a post at the moment of drinking, I mean, of course, tasting a wine, but the day is so damned pleasant — except for the noisy yard work going on to the north and the east; people assume no one is home during the day, I guess — ANYWAY, the afternoon, as I said, is pleasant and I just opened my first rosé wine of the season, though as far as I’m concerned it’s always open season for roses.

The Robert Oatley Rosé of Sangiovese 2009 is from the Mudgee “geographical indication” of New South Wales. Officially, Mudgee is included in the Central Ranges region, along with Cowra and Orange. If you know anything about Australia’s wine geography, Mudgee is inland from Hunter Valley on the east coast. So, this is 100 percent sangiovese, made all in stainless steel. The color is a moderately ruddy copper/salmon; call it angry peach. Irrepressible scents of watermelon, strawberries and orange zest draw you in to meet flavors of nectarine, apricot and dried cranberry given a savory slant by a hint of sage. The wine is quite dry and slightly minerally in the limestone area; bright acidity cools a lovely dense texture that somehow segues into a bit of ripeness on the finish. The wine possesses the heft to accompany antipasti, other sorts of hearty appetizers and hard cheeses. Or take it on a picnic, well-chilled; it’s closed with a screw-cap, so it doesn’t matter of you forget the corkscrew. The alcohol content is a comfortable 12.8 percent; whoa, is that my third glass? Just kidding! Very Good+. About $15.

Imported by Robert Oatley Vineyards, Petaluma, Ca. A sample for review.

A clos is a walled or enclosed — don’t you just love cognates! — vineyard, hence Clos des Mouches is “enclosed vineyard of the flies.” How appetizing! It’s also one of the most famous clos of Burgundy, as much for the quality of the red and white wines produced by the venerable Domaine Joseph Drouhin as for the unusual name. Clos des Mouches is a Premier Cru vineyard in Beaune (“bone”) though Drouhin does not include the term “Permier Cru” on labels of Clos des Mouches because it would clutter a label that’s already pretty busy with its array of typography and images, including six little flies. The device is a tad misleading, however. In the Middle Ages, at least in this region, or perhaps just this commune, honey-bees were called mouches de miel, “honey-flies,” hence what the name of the vineyard refers to are actually bees, not flies. Clos des Mouches is not to be confused with tiny Clos-de-la-Mousse, also a Beaune Premier Cru vineyard but wholly owned by Bouchard Pere et Fils.

The domaine was founded in 1880, when Joseph Drouhin took control of a wine business that itself dated back to 1756; one is required to take the long view in Burgundy. After World War I, Joseph’s son Maurice became head of the firm and began acquiring fine vineyard land, including 12.9 hectares (31.9 acres) of Clos des Mouches, now planted almost equally with chardonnay and pinot noir. Today, Domaine Joseph Drouhin owns 182.5 acres of Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards in every commune of Burgundy. The vineyards are managed on biodynamic principles.

My first note on the Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 2007, blanc, is “the liquid equivalent of late summer sunshine,” followed by “actually perfect.” Must I continue? The wine ages about a year in barriques, of which typically 25 percent of the barrels are new. Robert Drouhin — Maurice’s nephew — who ran the domaine from 1957 to 2003, has been widely quoted for a succinct statement in relationship to oak that all the world’s winemakers should take to heart: “We are not carpenters.” This wine offers a limpid pale gold color and a bouquet of roasted lemons, honeyed grapefruit and spiced almonds; after a few minutes, a hint of honeysuckle appears. There’s a trace of buttery richness to the lemon, orange rind and quince flavors, but the effect is mitigated by taut and steely acidity and a scintillating limestone-shale minerality. The texture is a heavenly amalgam of lithe suppleness and moderately lush generosity. The entire package radiates irresistible resonance and vibrancy. Drink now through 2015 to ’18. We had it with grilled swordfish. About 600 cases imported. Excellent. About $100 to $110.

The Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 2007, rouge, is fascinating for a detail of which I was frankly unaware. The portion of Clos des Mouches that Drouhin farms for pinot noir contains a minuscule amount of pinot gris, a white grape that’s a clone of pinot noir and importantly cultivated in Alsace. Pinot gris, though almost completely disappeared from Burgundy, was widely planted generations ago. Anyway, the smidgeon of pinot gris mingled with pinot noir is allowed in the Clos des Mouches red wine, and I do mean a smidgeon, in the plus-or-minus two percent range. Does the pinot gris “do something” to the wine? I couldn’t say. I do know that this is an exemplary model of pinot noir’s potential for elegance, suavity and satiny texture, with a sense of ineffable lightness and delicacy married to interior intensity and power. It’s packed with baking spices and hints of smoky black cherry, dried cherries and currants, with touches of cranberry, lavender and potpourri. Oak and tannin provide framing and foundation for the wine’s character – it ages 15 to 20 months with only 20 percent new oak — while allowing fruit and acid to furnish personality. Drink from 2011 through 2016 to ’20. We drank this with the classic pairing of roasted lamb. About 500 cases imported. Excellent. About $80 to $85.

Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., New York. Samples for review.

Next Page »