August 2011

In the New York Times (sort of) recently, classical music reporter and reviewer Zachary Woolfe explored the notion of what it means when an opera singer or classical music performer has charisma, prominently using the example of Maria Callas. “Charismatic performers,” Woolfe writes, “are those whom you simply can’t look away from. Their charisma is an almost physical presence, a spark that powers even the most unassuming musical passage.” He continues: “To experience a charismatic performance is to feel elevated, simultaneously dazed and focused, galvanized and enlarged. It is to surrender to something raw and elemental, to feel happy but also unsatisfied.” Unsatisfied may seem a strange factor in our reaction to the presence of charisma, but that feeling arises from a sense of incomprehension, because while we can describe charisma its source remains mysterious and, I suspect, because a charismatic performance must end, never to be repeated in the same way.

The notion of charisma extends to other sorts of performers — rock singers, actors — to other sorts of celebrities and public figures and occasionally to politicians. I covered a booksigning event for Bill Clinton when his memoir came out, and you could feel the charisma, the power or magnetism when he came into the store; he glowed; just standing there, talking to people, shaking hands, signing books, he was stunning.

Of course not all opera singers or pianists or presidents are blessed with charisma; it’s a rare phenomenon. A violinist, say, can be technically superb, gifted with expressiveness and interpretive genius yet not possess charisma; a statesman can be wise, diplomatic and daring, yet not embody an ounce of charisma. All reports tend to agree that Liszt had charisma, while Chopin did not. A person can be great at what he does or just great without charisma; that’s an extra, the transcendent yet forcefully felt presence that lifts an experience of a person or that person’s art into a realm that seems not of this world.

And can wine have charisma?

If you are fortunate enough to have spent time tasting a wide variety of wines, you have probably come across one that wasn’t just excellent or exceptional, that didn’t just display impressive and impeccable character, it floored you, changed your mind about how greatness in wine should be defined. It was a wine that because of its tremendous sense of presence and tone, its incredible quality of potency and power (and ultimate elegance), struck you almost as otherworldly. All sorts of wines can compel one to exclaim “holy shit!”; a wine with charisma engenders a holy whisper.

For a wine to effect us with its charismatic nature, that is to say, for a wine to exhibit the character of true greatness, it must originate in the very best grapes grown in the very best mature vineyards that are the most appropriate in terms of soil, drainage, exposure and climate — terroir! — for those grapes. The grapes, after their seasons of thoughtful care in the vineyard — and, one hopes, perfect seasons of weather, cold and heat and rain, for an exceptional vintage — must have been harvested at the optimum moment so that all the chemical components that reside in the skins, the pulp and juice, the sugars and acids and myriad trace elements are poised in platonic harmony. These are the grapes that strike farmers and winemakers with awe at the potential they hold. (We know, of course, that ripeness and how it is defined and how it is measured constitute one of the great controversies in 21st Century winemaking.)

In the winery or garage or cellar, the grapes must be handled extremely carefully, by which I mean that every effort must be made to allow the grapes to express themselves and their origins with minimum intervention by human beings and not to destroy their potential through the ego of the winemaker or producer. How easy for a winemaker to say, “I’m going to shape the wine to my ends,” when in truth the wine shapes itself and expresses its purity and intensity but with sensitive and intelligent nurturing in the cellar. (Wine does not literally “make itself” as people often assert.)

Above all, these are the wines that, because of the perfect confluence of all the requisite factors that make a wine great, feel as if they exude more presence, more character, more resonance and vibrancy at a level that other wines could not possibly attain. These wines practically hum in the glass, and they fill the mouth almost beyond our ability to understand, though we do comprehend the enormous pleasure they impart, pleasure, it must be said, that may often be founded on or must accommodate to fathomless tannins, austerity and a sense of aloofness. At the same time, charismatic wines tend to exhibit exquisite balance from the beginnings to the ends of their trajectories, balance being a relative and shifting ideal as a wine develops in the bottle.

So, here then are 20 wines that in my experience projected charisma. Chronologically, they span 70 years, from a red Bordeaux from 1937 to an Argentine malbec from vintage 2007; in terms of my on-going education, they cover a period from 1984, the year that my newspaper wine column was launched, to eight months ago on New Year’s Eve 2010, with LL and me at home nibbling osetra caviar and sipping one of France’s greatest Champagnes. I spent a day going through old — ancient , it seems — wine notes, but what’s interesting is that when I started contemplating this post, I knew what most of the wines were that I wanted to include; that’s how persistent they have been in my memory.

1. Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley (purchased at a local store, tasted at home March 1984 and still one of the greatest pinots I ever encountered)

2. Chateau Latour 1982, Pauillac (tasted at a trade event in Memphis sometime in 1985; tasted again in New York, October 1991).

3. Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Johannesburg Riesling 1978, Belle Terre Vineyard, Alexander Valley (tasted in John Grisanti’s cellar, some time in 1989)

4. Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Napa Valley (purchased at Sherry-Lehmann in NYC, for $20.50[!]; consumed with Easter dinner in Memphis, April 1986)

5. Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Alexander Valley (at a tasting in Memphis of Silver Oak cabernets, sometime in 1986)

6. Grivelet Clos Vougeot 1971 (at John Grisanti’s restaurant, sometime in 1987)

7. Chateau Haut-Brion 1937, Graves (at a tasting with collectors in Memphis in 1987; this 50-year-old wine was, incredibly and from a dismal decade in Bordeaux, even better than the fabulous ’59 and ’66)

8. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru 1983 (tasted in New York, October 1991)

9. Gaja Barbaresco 1955 (made by Angelo Gaja’s father, tasted in New York, October 1991)

10. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 1998, Clare Valley, Australia (tasted at the property, October 1998)

11. Domaine G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses Premier Cru 1998 (barrel sample at the property, December 1999, on my birthday)

12. Chateau Petrus 1998, Pomerol (barrel sample at the property, December 1999)

13. Sineann Reed and Reynolds Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000, Oregon (tasted in Oregon, August 2002)

14. Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2001 (tasted in New York, June 2004)

15. Tres Sabores Zinfandel 2003, Rutherford, Napa Valley (tasted in New York, March 2006)

16. Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996 (tasted in New York, September 2006)

17. Phifer Pavit Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley (sample for review, tasted at home October 2008)

18 & 19. Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Malbec 2007, Mendoza, & Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Mendoza (tasted at the property — the chardonnay with lunch — October 2010)

20. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 (purchased locally and consumed on New Year’s Eve 2010)

Wait, wait, wait, I just remembered — one more: 21. Paul Jaboulet Aine Hermitage La Chapelle 1949, one of a case of bottles mainly of Bordeaux and Burgundy from the 1950s and 60s that I received for cataloging a private wine cellar in 1988. I invited five or six people to join me at a local restaurant sometime that Fall to taste — nay, drink — all of the wines, and they were truly memorable, I mean the whole evening was a superb education and an orgy of great food and wine, but the Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1949, at 39 years old, was certainly among the very best and most extraordinary wines I have tasted in my life.

But wait, again, wait ….. no, we’ll save that wine for another day.

I’ve always liked the way that wines from Trefethen Family Vineyards stand out as models of restraint and balance, and the Trefethen Dry Riesling 2010, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley, illustrates the case. These rieslings tend to be among my favorites made in California, and they age well; we drank the 2007 version at Thanksgiving last year, and it was splendid. For the 2010 version, the color is a shimmering pale straw-gold; the bouquet features green apple, pear and lychee with hints of peach, honeysuckle and lilac and the grape’s requisite petrol or rubber eraser scent. In the mouth a lean, spare structure of crisp acidity and almost scintillating limestone and chalk elements supports lovely flavors of roasted lemon and lemon balm, with touches of ginger and quince; the finish is long and spicy, with more limestone and traces of lime peel and grapefruit bitterness. We drank this with a pasta dish with spinach, shrimp and marinated tomatoes. Terrific tone and presence, with beguiling balance between taut elegance and slightly earthy lushness. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $22.

A sample for review.

Two Italian wines today, a white from Umbria and a red from Tuscany, both made in stainless steel, so no oak influence, both accessible, approachable and tasty.
Two weeks ago, I made the Arnaldo-Caprai Montefalco Rosso 2007 the Wine of the Week — here — so today it’s the turn of that wine’s cousin made from the white grechetto grape, the Arnaldo- Caprai Grecante 2009, Grechetto dei Colli Martani. The grape came from Greece — think El Greco — in ancient times, or else was thought to have been; the same claim is made for greco bianco, the grape that makes Greco di Tufo. Anyway, The Arnaldo-Caprai Grecante 2009, made from vineyards in the Martani hills in eastern Umbria, is delicately spicy and floral, a sort of tissue-like congeries of citrus effects: orange blossom, roasted lemon, lime peel and a hint of pink grapefruit; add a touch of peach, and there’s a great deal of winsome beauty in the wine. This is clean, fresh, spare, slightly lean and sinewy in texture but also lovely in its slightly talc-like weight, its ripeness and modest density. We enjoyed this wine with seared rare tuna and Romesco sauce. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012. Very Good+. About $20.
Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Ca.
The Bindi Sergardi Chianti Colli Senesi 2008 is made from 100 percent sangiovese grapes in Tuscany, not around Florence but near Siena; in fact, Chianti Colli Senesi means “Chianti from the hills of Siena.” The Bindi Sergardi family has been growing grapes and making wine on their estate for six centuries. The Bindi Sergardi Chianti Colli Senesi 2008 is a medium ruby color with a tinge of magenta. Because it receives no oak aging — it’s made all in stainless steel — the wine offers delightful purity and intensity of grapy mulberry and black and red currant aromas and flavors grounded in earthy touches of briers and brambles and leather. A few minutes in the glass bring up hints of lavender and violets, baking spices and black tea; the wine finishes with a smoky, slightly meaty aspect and dry, fairly dense tannins. The combination of fruit and spice, of smoke and vibrant acidity makes this wine attractive and highly drinkable, now through 2012 or ’13; great with burgers, pizzas, red sauce pasta dishes and steaks. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Imported by Le Vignoble Fine Wines, Memphis, Tenn.

A year ago I tasted through a range of Georges Duboeuf’s Cru Beaujolais wines from 2009, both in the well-known “flower” label series — on which the floral aspect has gradually diminished over the years — and from single-vineyard estates. Last week, I had the opportunity to try many of those wines again, at a wholesaler’s trade event, and among them was the flower label or “regular” Juliénas 2009 that I had not tasted last August. I thought the conjunction provided a way of investigating what a year in the bottle had done to two of the estate-grown Juliénas wines and compare them to the regular model I just tasted.
The wines of Georges Duboeuf are imported by W.J. Deutsch & Sons, N.Y.

The Georges Duboeuf Juliénas 2009 offers a characteristic deep ruby color with a violet-magenta glow. Violets seem to be a theme, because there’s a hint of violets in the bouquet, along with notes of strawberry and mulberry, touches of red and black cherries and a slight briery quality. Those cherries, ripe and succulent, come out in the wine’s flavor aspect, adding layers of smoke, plums, more briers and brambles. The wine is juicy but dry, with keen acidity and a bit of slightly gamy earthiness providing anchor. Drink now through 2013 or ’14 with omelets, pates and terrines – or rabbit fricassée, which is what I ate when I had the Georges Duboeuf Julienas 1983 — my first Beaujolais Cru — at my birthday dinner in 1984. Here’s a link to a post about that wine and occasion. Very Good+. About $15.
A year ago, I wrote of Duboeuf’s Juliénas La TrinQuée 2009 that it was a wine of particular purity and intensity, resonance and vibrancy. It offers, paradoxically, the warmth of ripe, fleshy, meaty black and red fruit flavors with the coolness of granite and peat. Immensely appealing, powerful without being forceful, elegant without being fragile. Now through 2015 or ’16. Twelve months have lent the wine more heft and “darkness” in the form of additional graphite-tinged rooty, mossy, foresty, spicy elements though its beguiling notes of roses and violets, blackberries and mulberries and strawberry bubblegum have lost none of their allure. The wine is beautifully knit, vibrant and still tremendously appealing. 2015 or ’16 also still seems right. Excellent. About $16.
I was not so fond of the Georges Duboeuf Juliénas Chateau des Capitans 2009 last August, writing Oh, it certainly displays tremendous purity and intensity — it practically vibrates in the glass — but in its wheatmeal-earthy-minerally nature, its rollicking spice and dusty, chewy tannins, I find it atypical of its grape and commune. It’s not enough merely to take the virtues of those essential entities and pump them up like sluggers on steroids. Or perhaps it just needs some time to find company manners, say from 2012 or ’13 through 2015 to ’17. Well, it seems as if a year in the bottle has smoothed the wine out a great deal, though no denying that it remains somewhat of an uncharacteristic powerhouse for the commune; nonetheless, the wine delivers a gorgeous, penetrating floral and mineral-tinged bouquet that layers ripe red and black cherries and currants with deeply spicy, briery qualities that extend dynamically and elegantly into the flavor profile. A lovely estate Juliénas with a serious edge. Now through, yes, 2015 to ’17. Last year I rated this wine Very Good+, but it surely merits Excellent now. About $20.

Freestone Winery was founded by Joe Phelps and his son Bill, proprietors of Napa Valley’s justly renowned Joseph Phelps Vineyard, producer of the justly renowned Insignia cabernet sauvignon. Located in the Sonoma Coast appellation near the quaint old town of Freestone, the estate was launched in 1999 when father and son and their management company purchased about 100 acres in a cool-climate area rapidly becoming known as appropriate for pinot noir and chardonnay. Some 88 acres are devoted to pinot noir and 12 to chardonnay spread among four vineyards, Freestone, Quarter Moon, Pastorale and Ferguson (not to be confused with Robert Stemmler’s Ferguson Block in Carneros). The estate is operated on biodynamic principles. Freestone Winery makes three levels of wines: single-vineyard designated chardonnays and pinot noirs, sold only to its Wine Club at $100 a bottle; the “regular” bottlings that are blends of grapes from the three sites; and FogDog (not to be confused with Foghat, the British rock band that just keeps trying to keep on going forever) as the second, less expensive label. Winemaker is Theresa Heredia. I found these wines to be utterly classic in their ineffable melding of power and elegance and in their attention to varietal integrity and detail.
Tasted at a trade event.
FogDog Chardonnay 2008 & Freestone Chardonnay 2008, Sonoma Coast. FogDog Chardonnay 08: Impressive, beguiling, lovely purity and intensity, very nicely balanced; pineapple-grapefruit, touches of pear, cloves, quince, hint of honeysuckle; oak is very subtle and transparent; supple texture made lively by vibrant acidity and scintillating limestone element; pineapple-grapefruit flavors with hint of roasted lemon, long spicy, mineral-drenched finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. This encompasses only 14 percent estate grapes, the rest from local vineyards including Dutton Ranches and Bacigalupi. Very Good+. About $35.

In comparison, the Freestone Chardonnay 08 pushes the throttle of intensity and purity to an impeccable scale, with apple, pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors pierced by penetrating minerality, and with crystalline acidity electrifying a texture that’s almost talc-like in density and allure; to a touch of quince add hints of ginger and cloves; to the overall package add far more than a touch of audacious limestone and shale. This ages 14 months in French oak, 65 percent new barrels, but the wood influence is somehow as gossamer to its own tenacity. A chardonnay beautifully poised in essential equilibrium among all factors. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Excellent. About $55.
FogDog Pinot Noir 2008 & Freestone Pinot Noir 2007, Sonoma Coast. The difference in style between these pinot noirs is more marked than any differences between the chardonnays cited above. Rather than just a contrast in the intensity and density of the chardonnays, the pinots can be experienced as exploits in depth and seriousness. The FogDog Pinot Noir 08 is just a dreamy, seductive version of the grape that grabs you from the beginning with its moderately rich and radiant ruby-magenta color and incredibly lovely notes of smoky black cherry, cranberry, sassafras and cloves. The wine aged 15 months in French oak, 45 percent new barrels, but you feel the oak primarily as a persistent yet almost languid support for red and black cherry and rhubarb flavors and vivid acidity. Wow, date this one. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Very Good+. About $35.

On the other hand, the Freestone Pinot Noir 07, aging 15 months in French oak, 65 percent new barrels, is all briers and brambles, dried porcini, earthy and mossy elements, deep woody spice qualities — sandalwood, cloves, allspice — and then dried flowers, potpourri, lavender; fruit, now playing second fiddle, comes slowly as black and red cherries, cranberry and cola, all ensconced in an ultra-satiny texture enlivened by vibrant acidity. I would wait a year before opening a bottle of this wine, but the potential seems superb, certainly on a par with certain Premier Cru pinot noirs from Burgundy, so 2012 through 2015 to ’17. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Excellent. About $55.

Today’s a twofer in this 900th post on BTYH, a rosé wine and a red that will serve you well throughout this week.

These were samples for review, as I am required to inform you by the FCC.
First is the versatile Clayhouse Adobe Pink 2010, Central Coast, a blend of 38 percent mourvèdre grapes, 32 percent syrah and 30 percent cabernet sauvignon. The grapes derive from the Red Cedar Vineyard, an estate property of Middleton Family Wines outside Paso Robles. This rosé is not made in the saignée method of bleeding off lightly colored juice from the vat of red grapes after crush but before fermentation; it is, instead, produced as if it were a white wine, the grapes gently pressed and taken off the skins after just enough contact, in this case, to lend the wine a lovely, glowing coppery-melon color. Twenty-three percent of the wine aged two months in what are called neutral oak barrels, that is, barrels previously used for aging wine so that they no longer impart a dominating woody, spicy element. Enough with the technicalities! The Clayhouse Adobe Pink 2010 offers a delightful bouquet of strawberries and watermelon, with dried red currants and pomegranate in the background. A touch of rhubarb comes into play among the strawberry and melon flavors, with a slight briery element and hints of dried herbs and damp limestone. The finish, buoyed by crisp acidity and that limestone element, offers a bit of silky sweetness. This one goes down all too easily, and I mean that in the best sense. 13 percent alcohol. We drank this as aperitif and with a vegetarian pasta dish; it would also be appropriate with omelets, seafood salads and fried chicken. 450 cases. Very Good+. About $15.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The red is the Colomé Estate Malbec 2009, Calchaqui Valley, Salta, Argentina, a blend that to 85 percent malbec grapes adds 8 percent tannat, 3 percent cabernet sauvignon and 2 percent each syrah and petit verdot; that’s what you call fine tuning. One-fifth of the grapes came from vineyards that at 50 to — are you ready? — 150 years old truly qualify for the status of Old Vines. The vineyards of Bodega Colomé lie at elevations from 5,500 to 8,500 feet, qualifying for among the highest, if not the highest, vineyards in the world. As for aging, the wine matured 15 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. I’ll come right out and say that this is a pretty darned special malbec. It’s deep and rich and full-bodied, though its power is nicely muted by a welcome sense of spareness and reticence, so it’s juicy, but not jammy. The color is dark ruby, fairly opaque at the center, and with a violet rim. Aromas of black currants and blackberries and a touch of mulberry are woven with lavender and licorice, sandalwood and cloves and a whiff of mocha. Plums enter the equation amongst a flavor range of blackberry, blueberry and fruitcake, threaded with brambles, underbrush and slightly earthy graphite-like minerality. Tannins feel well-honed and knit, almost obligingly holding themselves back from full-throttle power, while the finish brings in elements of dried spice a bit of austerity. Director of winemaking for Colomé is Randle Johnson. We drank this with pork chops dusted with ground cumin and chili powder, seared with garlic and lime juice, and then roasted for 10 minutes, sprinkled with chopped cilantro and served with roasted sweet potato “fries.” All good, all the time. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $25
Imported by The Hess Collection, Napa, Ca.

Thursday in The New York Times, James R. Oestreich, reviewing a performance of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Fischer, wrote, “The orchestra played well, with a full-bodied sound and yet a transparency that helped clarify lines in the occasionally dense counterpoint.”

Reading that tremendously sympathetic assessment, I couldn’t help thinking that Oestreich might have been describing the attributes of a great wine. What we desire, even yearn for, in the experience of a wine is the impeccable and risk-taking balance that sets in finely-tuned equilibrium qualities of intensity and full-bodiedness, of density and concentration with transparency of effort and effect, with lines of character cleanly and persistently etched and clarified. In the same way that a particular theme or motif is threaded through the melodic narrative and harmonic architecture of a string quartet or a concerto or symphony, certain qualities and elements weave through a great wine: a touch, say, of smoky black cherry and rhubarb in a pinot noir or hint of lilac and black olive in a merlot or thread of ginger and quince in a chardonnay that remains consistent from first sniff through the last savoring of the finish, at some points (or counterpoints) more revealed than at others.

Like the complicated “up-and-down” score of an orchestral work, on which each measure relegates some portion of melody and harmony to different instruments — here the violins and violas, the flutes and oboes with tremors from the string basses and tympani, there all the strings, the clarinets, the trumpets and trombones and horns, the full complement of percussion — just so a great wine offers depth and breadth of character that opens the dimensions of tannin, acidity, minerality and oak (if that’s part of the package), inextricably bolstering and permeating the details of fruit, spice, flowers and all the other flourishes that make a wine irresistible.

Oestreich’s point about transparency is as important for wine as for music. However deep and profound a wine might be in its structure and potential, it will possess a sense of immediacy, a completely bearable lightness of being that expresses the essence of its grapes, its vineyard and its little patch of geography, the fundamental imperative of its existence.

Must all wines embody this theoretically parallel nature with musical composition and performance? No, of course not. The tasty Argentine malbec you had with a burger last night, the pert and sassy sauvignon blanc from New Zealand that you quaffed with fish tacos, the robust primitivo you knocked back with barbecue ribs at a family picnic; in their simplicity and directness and one hopes authenticity, these wines were exactly what you needed at the moment. After all, even Bach, Beethoven and Brahms had whimsical impulses. We expect more from certain other wines, however, whether posited in terms of cost or place or property or winemaker — or (most desirable) all four — and when such wines deliver the goods from top to bottom and meet all expectations, then they provide the complete allure and gratification of which a great wine is capable in full symphonic regalia.

My history with Mayacamas Vineyards begins in late March 1984, when I served the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980 for dinner. I purchased the wine for $11, marked down from $13. In 1985, I bought a bottle of Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel 1978, though I did not record the price or the occasion. There’s a flurry of activity between 1992 and 1996, but after that no tasting notes, no published remarks, no contact. I was very pleased, then, to receive some samples from Mayacamas recently, because I’m an advocate of the winery’s traditional style of varietal purity and intensity and high-elevation grit and graphite, in the cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and flintiness, in the chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

The estate began as a winery and distillery built by J. H. Fischer, high on Mount Veeder, in 1889. Fischer sold his wine in barrels, sending them on barges down the Napa River and thence to San Francisco, but he went bankrupt in the early years of the 20th Century. The property lay derelict until 1941, when Jack Taylor, a Shell Oil executive, and his wife Mary bought the facility and 260 acres of land. Their first release, in 1953, was a minuscule quantity of Chardonnay 1951; winemaker was Walter Richert, who was also technical editor of the journal Wines & Vines and president of the American Society of Enologists. Philip Togni became winemaker for Mayacamas in 1959, going on to make wine at Inglenook, Sterling, Chalone and Cuvaison before launching his own Philip Togni Vineyards on Spring Mountain and becoming a cult figure in the world of cabernet sauvignon.

The Taylors sold Mayacamas to Robert and Elinor Travers in 1968; they still own the property, and Bob Travers continues as winemaker, a fact that must qualify him for some kind of longevity and dedication award. From 52 acres of vines Mayacamas produces primarily cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay with smaller amounts of merlot, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir — I have never tasted the pinot noir — remaining true to a vision practically demanded by the geography the vineyards occupy at 2,000 to 2,400-feet elevation on the slopes of an extinct volcano, a site that offers a complicated soil composition. Let’s be honest, however. The Travers built the reputation of Mayacamas on splendid, long-lived cabernets from the late 1960s through ’79 and ’80; quality suffered in the 1980s and only began to reassert itself within the last 15 years or so. The cabernets are built on deeply-rooted tannins that at first seem unassailable, and during this, shall we say, troubled period it felt as though the tannins not only dominated the wines but dried them out. The Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, which I am savoring even as I write these words, reveals the tannic structure upon which the winery has erected its reputation but also — after considerable airing — lovely generosity and expansive spirit.

Mayacamas no longer makes wines from zinfandel grapes, but one of my favorite wines of 1996 was the Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel 1984, two bottles of which I bartered from a friend by giving him some Cerutto Barbarescos.

For information about the history of the winery, see Charles L. Sullivan’s indispensable “A Companion to California Wine” (University of California Press, 1998) and the fourth edition of Norman L. Roby and Charles E. Olken’s “The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of the Wines of California and the Pacific Northwest” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). Both books need updated new editions.

As I mentioned above, I bought a bottle of the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980 in March 1984; I commented on this wine in a post on this blog in March 2009. What’s remarkable is that the current release, the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley, conforms to the same spirit as its cousin from 31 years ago, though that long-distant wine carried a California designation; Mount Veeder did not receive AVA status until 1990. The Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 2008 aged for eight months in 1,000 gallon American oak casks; in comparison, the standard French oak barrel (barrique) holds 59 gallons. The wine is notably clean, fresh, spare and elegant from beginning to end. O.K., I’ll just say it; this demonstrates wonderful character, class and breeding and should not be neglected by anyone who loves the sauvignon blanc grape. Notes of baked pear, quince, ginger, yellow plums and papaya are touched with hints of smoke and cloves and a flare of cold steel; it’s like drinking liquified limestone and flint infused with ripe, spicy stone fruit flavors, each element of the wine etched with cunning definition, precision and scintillating acidity yet remaining compellingly attractive and delicious. Notice that for a sauvignon blanc this is not grassy or herbal; it doesn’t assault the nose and mouth with strident grapefruit or gooseberry/cat’s-pee afflicted with attention deficit disorder. No, readers, this is cool, harmonious, balanced and poised; yes, one feels the wood in the spicy element and in the wine’s firm yet forgiving framing and foundation, though ultimately the complete integration of all components is the utmost consideration. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 294 cases. Drink through 2014 or ’15 (well-stored). Among the very best of sauvignon blanc wines produced in California. Excellent. About $25.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The first chardonnay from Mayacamas that I tasted was the 1990. Someone was working in public relations and marketing for the winery — I don’t remember if it was someone at the winery or at an outside firm — but this young man got in touch with me, probably in 1994, and asked if I wanted some samples of current and past releases. Well, yes, I did. And in addition to the samples, I bought six bottles of the Cabernet Sauvignon 1985, so one fine day I received, at the newspaper office, a large box that contained those six bottles, samples of the Cabernet Sauvignon from 1990, ’89, ’85 and ’83, and chadonnays from 1990 and a vintage of which I can no longer find record. I’ll mention the cabernets in a moment, but let me here append my review of the Mayacamas Chardonnay 1990: The Mayacamas Chardonnay 1990 is so perfectly balanced that you don’t notice its stupendous 14.5 percent alcohol, so beautifully integrated that its 12 months in oak barrels seem merely to have lent an inextricable sheen to each atom in the bottle. No gushing, buttery, billowy, toasty tropical chardonnay here; its essence lies in hints and nods toward spice, limestone, caramel, flowers and dried herbs and citrus flavors, bolstered with essential but respectful oak and acid. Wow. About $20.

Interesting that for the Mayacamas Chardonnay 2008, Mount Veeder, the alcohol content is the same as for the 1990, a now-typical (for California) 14.5 percent; things were different 21 years ago, when 14.5 percent seemed over the top and beyond the pale. Far more dissimilar is the oak treatment; for the 2008, not 12 months but 20 months, that’s right, 20 months!, an extraordinary length of time for a chardonnay to spend in wood, in this case eight months in those 1,000-gallon American oak casks, followed by a year in small French oak barrels. Yikes, thinks my inner curmudgeon, what a great way to ruin a chardonnay! The regimen, however, calls for only 10 percent new oak, no sur-lie aging (on the spent yeast cells, a process that adds richness) and no malolactic; the result is a crisp, fresh, crystalline chardonnay that resonates with varietal character and authenticity and rests on a beautifully balanced and harmonious foundation of silky, spicy resonant wood. The first phrase in my notes is: “gorgeous but not flamboyant.” There’s a hint of the tropical in aromas of pineapple and mango with a touch of lightly toasted grapefruit dusted with cloves; a few moments in the glass bring in undercurrents of quince marmalade, ginger and orange blossom, all borne on the wings of crisply etched limestone and slightly spicy wood. Bear in mind that all of these elements partake of the subtlest nuance; nothing is overbearing or egotistical. The wine’s texture is beautifully poised between moderate lushness of ripe fruit (more citrus in the mouth, with a bit of roasted lemon) and the fleet tension of taut acidity, with immense reserves of shale-like minerality in the background. A masterpiece. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2015 or ’16. Production was 876 cases. Exceptional. About $30

I have been fascinated by the print-media ads for Fragoli and Passionné since they began appearing in food and wine publications about a year and a half ago, or at least I started noticing them early in 2010. Fragoli is a liqueur made from “wild strawberries,” whatever “wild” means in the context of international marketing; the bottle is actually filled with fruit. Passionné is a Prosecco Spumante. These products are made by the Toschi firm in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.

The picture is always the same: five gorgeous young Latina or Hispanic women engaged in a sort of cluster mind-fuck of hugging, fondling, kissing, smoldering glances, seductive smiles, whispering — notice that the structure of the image is almost a perfect right triangle; could Caravaggio have planned it any better? — while three hold flutes of “Fragoli Passion,” a cocktail composed of Fragoli and Passionné in a 1 to 4 proportion. The motto is also consistent: “Forbidden Fruit.”

What in the name of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas is going on here?

I wonder every time I see this ad who the target audience is. Latina lesbians would be a pretty small demographic niche (unless I am ill-informed), and the portion of citizens of the United States who wish they were Latina lesbians, media cool and sexy as that category may be — and si, amigos, these babes are hot — must also be pretty darned narrow. There’s always the group of men who are turned on by the idea or implication of lesbian romance, but these products are relentlessly girly, though you gotta watch that 24 percent alcohol in Fragoli, not that these women don’t know how to hold their liquor, I’m not saying that.

It seems odd, however, in a culture where old-fashioned, hostile and morally judgmental attitudes about same-sex love and marriage are changing, ever so gradually to be sure, to base a long-running marketing campaign on the notion that lesbian relationships are titillating and “forbidden.” Most lesbian women and gay men are like most heterosexual men and women in that they all share a desire for love and commitment, for legal recognition and security. I mean, are the white middle-class foodie-types who read Food & Wine or Bon Appetit going to look at this ad and say, “Whoa, honey, this Fragoli stuff could change our lives!”

The concept of decadence projected by the image in the Fragoli and Passionné ads is hopelessly out of date, except in the minds and stunted imaginations of 15-year-old boys — meaning 98 percent of all male human beings — who read too much H. Rider Haggard and William S. Burroughs. (That’s a literary joke, of course; no 15-year-old boys read H. Rider Haggard or William S. Burroughs nowadays; perhaps if someone made a video game of Naked Lunch …) A YouTube segment devoted to Fragoli is titled “Sexy New Yorkers Taste Forbidden Fruit,” about as pathetic an appeal to provincial yearnings as could be made; I mean, don’t we all want to be sexy New Yorkers?

Oddly enough, passionné is the masculine form of the adjective in French that means “passionate” or “impassioned” (and a noun that denotes “devotee” or “fanatic”). Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to use the feminine passionnée?

Speaking in vinous terms, Umbria tends to play second fiddle to Tuscany, its illustrious cousin to the north, yet this province of shadows offers many bright spots, not only in beautiful, historic towns and cities — Orvieto, Todi, Urbino, Perugia, Assisi — and varied landscape but in wine. Still relatively undiscovered are the wines made from the indigenous sagrantino grape around the tiny and fabulously cute hilltown of Montefalco — mount of the falcon — in eastern Umbria. Interestingly, though sagrantino is the area’s primary grape, Montefalco Rosso mainly involves the sangiovese grape, usually blended with sagrantino or other varieties. That’s the case with the Arnaldo-Caprai Montefalco Rosso 2007, a blend of 70 percent sangiovese, 15 percent sagrantino and 15 percent merlot; the wine ages 12 months, half in botti (large oak casks) and half in small French barriques. This is a dark, deeply spicy, savory red wine that bursts with notes of black currants and red cherries unfolding to a smoldering core of black tea, lavender, licorice, sandalwood and graphite and just a hint of sangiovese’s characteristic dried orange peel. It takes a few minutes for the wine to build layers of intense, meaty, smoky qualities that infiltrate clean ripe black and red fruit flavors permeated by the briery-brambly nature of earthy, smoothly-knit tannins. Spend enough time with the wine and it begins to reveal some austerity, especially through the slightly woody finish, but that’s after two hours. Hugely enjoyable, especially with a rich, savory pizza (as we had) or with similarly styled pasta dishes or grilled or roasted beef or lamb. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $23.
Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Ca. A sample for review.

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