September 2017



Sometimes a sweet wine is called for, and that’s just the way it is. For example, yesterday for lunch I had a pasta dish — the pasta was farfalle — that features caramelized cabbage with anchovy-sage-garlic bread crumbs. Plenty savory, all right, but the caramelized cabbage gave the dish a depth of sweetness that suggested drinking a sweet riesling with it. I opened the Brooks Wines “Sweet P” Riesling 2016, from Willamette Valley’s Eola-Amity Hills AVA. The grapes grow in a dry-farmed, biodynamic method vineyard on 42-year-old vines; native yeast starts the fermentation, and only stainless steel tanks are used, no oak. How sweet is the wine? The back label indicates a point between medium dry and medium sweet, and I would say that’s an accurate assessment. The color is pale straw-gold; at first the wine is all fresh green apple and apple skin; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of spiced pear and lychee and a hint of apricot, unfolding elusive hints of jasmine and honeysuckle. On the palate, the sweetness assumes the form of ripe and slightly honeyed peaches and apricots balanced by bright acidity and a fairly glittering element of limestone minerality; the latter qualities provide a tension between softness and crispness, between sweet and dry that gives the wine excitement and allure. 11.9 percent alcohol. Production was 500 cases. Drink now through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $24.

A sample for review.


Looking for a fine-grained, robust red wine to accompany the braised meat dishes and roasts that will surface on our tables as the months slope toward Autumn and, down the road, Winter? Or even just burgers and hearty pizzas and pasta dishes? Try the Niro Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2015. The color is black-purple shading to a vibrant violet rim; true to the nature of the montepulciano grape, the intense and concentrated scents and flavors of black raspberries and currants are permeated by notes of cherry skin and stem, lending a hint of bitterness and austerity; a few moments in the glass unfurl touches of loam, black tea, orange zest and cloves. The wine ages first in stainless steel and then in large oak casks, resulting in an effect of freshness, vivid acidity and enough wood influence for a sturdy structure. Mildly dusty tannins contribute to a pleasing velvety texture, driving through a finish packed with graphite and black fruit flavors. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.

Imported by Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Fla. A sample for review.

So, what is “pet-nat”? Besides being a cute nickname. These of-the-moment sparkling wines, the darlings of astute somms — pétillant-naturel in French — exist at the basic level of making sparkling wine, less complicated than the méthode champenoise, more rustic in effect, yet often delicious and appealing. An added factor is that they seem the epitome of naturalness in winemaking. Simply stated: Wine is bottled before fermentation is complete, so that fermentation continues in the bottle (because of the residual sugar) and carbon dioxide forms: i.e, bubbles. The result is a light sparkling wine, often but not always slightly sweet, that tends to leave sediment as a mark of its down-to-earth character.

Today, we look at two examples of single-vineyard pét-nat sparklers from Onward Wines, fashioned in small quantities by winemaker Faith Armstrong Foster. These examples are bone-dry, spare and subtle, not as robust or complex as Champagne yet delivering very satisfying character of their own, with an unmistakable quality of authenticity and integrity.

These wines were samples for review.
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The Onward Wines Sparkling Rose of Pinot Noir 2016, Redwood Valley, offers a pale coral-onion skin hue and delicate scents of blood orange and watermelon, sea foam and heather; mild effervescence keeps the wine gently but persistently animated. Traces of fresh, yeasty bread and lime peel highlight the nose and the palate, where lithe acidity drives through notes of dried red currants and the slight bitterness of grapefruit rind, all of these elements expressed with spare elegance, lovely balance and a touch of reticence. 12.1 percent alcohol. Production was 174 cases. Excellent. About $30.

Redwood Valley is a small American Viticultural Area (AVA), approved in 1996, in northern Mendocino County.
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The color of the Onward Wines Sparkling Malvasia Bianca 2016, Suisun Valley, is pale platinum blond, a Jean Harlow hue, made lively by a steady stream of tiny bubbles; it’s made 100 percent from malvasia bianca grapes, which lend the wine notes of green apple, apple peel, almond skin and a slightly foxy greenness. This is very dry, almost austere, but delivers fresh and ripe touches of lemongrass and melon, cinnamon toast and orange blossom, energized by bright acidity and scintillating limestone minerality. 12.6 percent alcohol Production was 350 cases. Excellent. About $24.

Suisun Valley, approved as an AVA in 1982, lies east of Napa Valley in Solano County, bounded by Howell Mountain on the west and the Vaca Range on the east.
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I’ll say right here, at the beginning of this post, that the result of tasting a short roster of chardonnay and pinot noir wines from the acclaimed Patz & Hall Wines was a conclusion too common in this series: I loved the pinot noirs, abhorred the chardonnays. The former I found exciting, multi-layered and slightly unpredictable, replete with pinot noir character yet each creating its own sense of detail and dimension. The chardonnays were entirely too predictable in the line of the dominant California style: too ripe and sweet with baked fruit qualities, too spicy, too oaky and intrinsically unbalanced. Those who disagree with me about these chardonnays and consider them and others like them some sort of epitome are, I know, manifold, and they are entitled to their opinion. The factors involved and of most importance for this blog are my nose and palate, and I can do naught else but follow their dictates.

Donald Patz and James Hall, who met while working for Flora Springs Winery, founded their enterprise, with their partners, in 1988. The winery owns no vineyards but makes wine on long-term contracts from highly acclaimed vineyards, primarily in Sonoma County. They sold the company to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in April 2016.

These wines were samples for review.
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The color of the Patz & Hall Pinot Noir 2015, Sonoma Coast, is dark ruby fading to a transparent and then ethereal magenta rim. The wine aged in 40 percent new French oak barrels. This is a pure, bright, intriguing pinot noir, whose scents of red, black and blue fruit compote are spiked with notes of beetroot and rose petals, sandalwood and lavender; the wine is lithe, lean and supple on the palate, taut and spicy, and a few minutes in the glass bring in touches of wood smoke and autumn leaves, along with hints of pomegranate and cranberry. This is a cuvee blended from a roster of top Sonoma Coast vineyards, including Chenoweth, Dutton and Gap’s Crown. 14.2 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 or ’21. Excellent. About $48.
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The Patz & Hall Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir 2015, Sonoma Coast, aged in 50 percent new French oak barrels. The color is a beautiful dark mulberry shading to a lighter magenta rim; concentrated aromas of black cherries, currants and plums feel dredged in dried baking spices and hints of rose petals and sassafras, fig and braised fennel. The wine displays a loamy, untamed character, framed by moderately dusty tannins and a burnished, slightly sanded texture, through which bright acidity cuts a swath; macerated and lightly roasted red and black fruit flavors open notes of smoke and damp ash, leading to a finish both generous and chiseled. 14.6 percent alcohol. Production was 650 cases. Now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $60.
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The chardonnays in question are the Patz & Hall Chardonnay 2015, Sonoma Coast ($40); Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Chardonnay 2015, Russian River Valley ($44); Patz & Hall Alder Springs Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, Mendocino ($60). These are bold and assertive wines in every respect: super-ripe fruit with baked apple and roasted pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors, dense textures, no-holds-barred spiciness and drenching oak. I understand that many critics and consumers adore chardonnays fashioned in this manner, but I find them to be ruinous to the potential purity and crystalline clarity of which the chardonnay grape is wonderfully capable. The Alder Springs I found to be particularly egregious in its stiff and drying oak influence. If these rich, glossy and exaggerated examples mark your favorite style of chardonnay, go for them by all means. For me and my palate, I find them unpleasant, strident and undrinkable, either on their own or with food.
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Winemaker Chris Williams produces an array of pinot noirs for Brooks Wines every year, but today we looks at his basic or entry-level model, the Brooks Runaway Red Pinot Noir 2015, derived from nine vineyards in the Willamette Valley. Yes, that’s a depiction of Leon Trotsky on the label. The wine fermented by native yeast and aged 10 months in French oak barrels. The color is a beguiling transparent medium ruby-magenta hue; elevating aromas of spiced and macerated black and red cherries and currants take on, after a few moments in the glass, a cast of ripe raspberry and the slight rasp of raspberry leaf and stem; all of these immensely pleasing elements segue seamlessly to the palate, where they expand into notes of woodsmoke, tobacco and balsam. Plenty of loamy, rooty qualities betoken a grasp of the vineyards and their underlying strata, all upheld by incisive acidity and a finish lightly tinged by iodine and graphite. 13.6 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 through 2022. Excellent. About $23.

A sample for review.


Salina is one of the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily. Composed of six volcanic peaks, the island comprises only about 10 square miles. While Salina claims to produce the world’s best capers, the island is also notable for sweet wines made from the malvasia grape. In 2013, however, Tenuta Capofaro, a property owned by Sicily’s Tasca d’Almerita, produced the island’s first dry malvasia. I recently tried the Capofaro Didyme Malvasia 2016, Salina, and it’s one of the best white wines I have tasted this year. (“Didyme” is the ancient name for the island.) Made all in stainless steel, the wine displays a very pale straw-gold hue and arresting aromas of preserved lemon, bee’s-wax, melon and figs; a few moments in the glass unfurl notes of greengage, almond skin and camellia. Bright acidity, a necessity considering the grape’s tendency toward fatness, lends lift, litheness and energy to a dense and vibrant texture that seems filled with sunlight; flavors of roasted lemon and spiced pear, touched with an aura of salt marsh and green leafiness, are framed by a sense of spareness on the palate, all leading to a burnished finish polished by sea breeze and heather. 12.5 percent alcohol. We were intrigued and entranced by this wine, which served as a fine accompaniment to salmon marinated in olive oil, soy sauce and lemon juice and given a juniper berry rub, then seared in a cast-iron skillet. Now through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $25, and Worth a Search.

Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Calif. A sample for review.