Arroyo Grande Valley


A raft of chardonnays here from the Golden State, ranging geographically from Santa Barbara County in the south to Sonoma Coast in the north. They’re mainly from 2011 and 2012, with one from 2013. I offer a $10 product so good that you should buy it by the case, which I don’t often say about chardonnay, and reject some models that cost $65 and $70. I mean, as long as producers turn out chardonnays that embody the over-oaked, stridently spicy, tropical-tinged and butter-infused crème brûlée-like style — and the major wine publications continue to pass out high ratings for such wine — I will continue not to recommend them as unpalatable and undrinkable. Little in the way of historical, geographical or technical data today; these Weekend Wine Notes are intended to be quick and incisive, not as detailed as my regular reviews. Enjoy! (Or not.)

These wines were samples for review.

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Clos du Val Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; vibrant and vivid purity and intensity, scintillating acidity and limestone-flint minerality; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hints of mango and cloves; sleek, lithe, dynamic, beautifully balanced; nothing avant-garde or opulent here, just classic winemaking. Excellent. About $28.
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CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast. 14.1% alc. Pale gold hue; bright, clean and fresh; pineapple-grapefruit-roasted lemon, hints of nutmeg, lemon balm and lemon curd; dense and chewy, packed with spice and seashell-limestone minerality; slightly astringent floral element; quite dry, very attractive weight and substance; earthy finish where the oak comes out a bit more. Very Good+. About $25.
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Dunston Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 13.3% alc. Limited production. Ravishing medium gold hue with a green tinge; pine, cloves, grapefruit and pineapple with notes of mango, roasted lemon and some leafy/green tea element; fascinating in its complexity and risk-taking but ultimately exquisitely balanced, though you feel the tug of polished oak on the finish after an hour or so. Limited production. Excellent. About $45.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium gold color; very bright and bold, even brassy; very spicy with roasted grapefruit and baked peach, slightly caramelized; way too much oak, too much butter and tropical elements; stridently spicy, over-ripe and then austerely dry; fundamentally unbalanced. Not recommended. About $35.
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Gundlach Bundschu Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.3% alc. Pale gold color; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hint of mango; Chablis-like chalk and flint; smoke and earth, dense and chewy and pretty darned intense and concentrated; a substantial style. Very Good+. About $27.
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Isabel Mondavi Chardonnay 2012, Carneros. 13.7% alc. Medium straw-gold color; smoke, toast, oak; roasted lemon and baked pear; fairly spicy with buttered and caramelized citrus fruit; quite dry, sleek, good acidity and limestone minerality, but doesn’t know what style it wishes to emulate. Very Good. About $30.
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Jackson Estate “Camelot Highlands” Chardonnay 2012, Santa Maria Valley. 14.5% alc. This chardonnay falls under the Kendall-Jackson rubric rather than Jackson Family Wines; does either entity really need more brands? Medium gold; vividly spicy, boldly ripe and tropical; smoke, toast, brown sugar; dense and chewy, almost viscous, carries opulence to ridiculous lengths; toasted coconut and marshmallow; crème brûlée; doesn’t even come close to palatable in my world. Not recommended. About $35.
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Jordan Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 13.5% alc. Pale gold color; a typical Jordan chardonnay, nothing bold or sumptuous, thank goodness, but well-balanced with keen acidity and an edge of vital limestone minerality to bolster pineapple-grapefruit flavors highlighted by notes of cloves and lilacs; very dry, clean, spare, elegant; oak is an echo rather than a presence. Excellent. About $30.
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Laetitia Estate Chardonnay 2012, Arroyo Grande Valley. 13.8% alc. I generally like Laetitia’s pinot noirs, but this chardonnay is beyond the pale. So: pale gold color; starts off clean and fresh, with pineapple-grapefruit and notes of roasted lemon and mango; then expands with extravagant richness and exaggerated spice, smoke and crème brûlée gone to the dark side; where are the mitigating acidity and minerality? Not recommended. About $18.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Morelli Lane Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 182 six-pack cases. Steven Kent can make clean, balanced and finely detailed chardonnay (see below), but under his La Rochelle label he turns more baroque and fantastical; this wine is so oaky and over-spiced that it felt harsh on my palate. It gets no recommendation from me. About $65.
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Mandolin Chardonnay 2012, Monterey. 13.5% alc. Clasp this well-made inexpensive chardonnay to your bosom as if it were a long-lost friend. Pale gold color; pineapple-mango-grapefruit, hints of jasmine, crystallized ginger and quince; a tad dusty-earthy; deft balance among acidity, spicy oak and spare limestone minerality; notes of citrus on the finish. Very Good+. About $10 and a Remarkable Bargain.
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Newton Chardonnay 2012, Napa County. 14% alc. Medium gold hue; warm and spicy, bright and bold, but nicely balanced and shapely, with a sheen of oak; ripe pineapple and grapefruit with a note of green apple; brisk acidity and a scintillating limestone finish. Quite attractive. Very Good+. About $28.
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Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. This cousin to the wine mentioned just above is both more ambitious and unfortunately far less balanced; medium gold color; bright, ripe, brassy citrus and stone-fruit scents and flavors; cloves, caramel, brown sugar; very tropical, buttered toast, meringue; yet strangely very dry and austere on the finish. Unpleasant and unpalatable. Not recommended. About $65.
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Olema Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. (Second label of Amici Cellars) Pale gold color; crisp, taut, fresh; apples, grapefruit and pineapple; spicy and lively, a little lean and sinewy but generous and expansive too; quite pleasant and tasty. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
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Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Uh-oh. Medium gold color; forthright and boldly spicy, forthright and deeply oaky. I couldn’t drink it. Not recommended. About $47.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Pale gold; ineffable weaving of grapefruit and pineapple, Golden Delicious apple, cloves, ginger and quince; very dry but juicy and savory; lovely heft and texture, lithe and supple, almost talc-like but riven and balanced by bright acidity. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; so clean and pure, such crystalline intensity, yet spare, elegant and subtle but with a core of natural richness; roasted lemon and lemon balm; notes of pineapple and nectarine; very dry, packed with limestone and flint minerality, but quite delicious, seductive, compelling. Why can’t all chardonnays be like this? Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Reuling Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14% alc. 350 cases. Major disappointment. Very pale gold; brightly spicy, boldly scented; nutmeg and cloves, pineapple and grapefruit caramelized in butter; cinnamon toast; too creamy on the one hand, too sharply spicy on the other, essentially unbalanced, paradoxically both cloying and austere. Not recommended. About $70.
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Steven Kent Winery Merrillie Chardonnay 2012, Livermore Valley. NA% alc. 504 cases. Pale gold color; spare, clean and fresh; lemon balm with notes of grapefruit rind, lemongrass and green tea; hints of nutmeg and cloves; heaps of limestone minerality buoying a lovely talc-like texture shot with shimmering acidity; let’s call it beautiful. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $34.
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Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium straw-gold color; a classic of balance and elegance; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors infused with cloves and limestone; lovely weight and heft, that is to say feels dense and weightless simultaneously; clean, bright acidity for liveliness; subtle, supple oak influence and limestone minerality. Excellent. About $28.
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Souverain Chardonnay 2011, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Pale straw-gold hue; smoke, cloves and nutmeg; pineapple and pears; very dry, very spicy but dense with a crème brûlée element with emphasis on the brûlée; astringent grapefruit finish; bright acidity barely saves the day. Good only. About $16.
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Here’s a festive way to celebrate the advent of 2014, with the Laetitia Brut Rose 2009, from Arroyo Grande Valley, a small American Viticultural Area in San Luis Obispo County. A blend of 32 percent pinot noir and 68 percent chardonnay grapes, this sparkling wine spent three years in the bottle, resting on the lees to develop complexity. The color is very pale but radiant copper-onion skin, and the stream of tiny bubbles is robust and engaging. In fact, the Laetitia Brut Rose 2009 is robust in structure and liveliness, a fresh and attractive amalgam of strawberry and raspberry notes wreathed with orange zest, lime peel and an undertone of melon and sour cherry; limestone minerality provides foundation and tingling acidity forms a vibrant backbone. The long and resonant finish is packed with cloves, red currants and a hint of chalk, all enveloped in vital effervescence. 12.5 percent alcohol. Production was 1,571 cases. Drink through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $28.

Tasted at the winery on April 26, 2013; tasted subsequently as a sample for review.


The holiday season stretching from Thanksgiving to Twelfth Night, with Christmas and New Years monumental stops on the road, is almost upon us. If you’re looking for a house sparkling wine that’s far better than cheap tank-generated sparklers but nothing as expensive and thought-provoking as the more luxurious examples from California and Champagne, here’s a candidate. The Laetitia Brut Cuvée, a nonvintage sparkling wine from San Luis Obispo County’s Arroyo Grande Valley, is a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot blanc grapes, produced in the traditional champagne method by a winery noted for its precisely made single-vineyard pinot noirs. The color is pale gold with a slight shimmer of silver in the upward surge of tiny bubbles. This feels like steel and snow, biscuits and lemon curd, apples and pears, with cloves and almond skin in the background and a foundation of scintillating limestone. A few moments in the glass bring in notes of tangerine and grapefruit, the whole package enlivened by crisp and vibrant acidity. Laetitia Brut Cuvée spend 24 months en tirage – no, not triage — that is, two years in the bottle resting on the lees of the yeast cells and touch of sugar that stimulated the second fermentation. 12.5 percent alcohol. Production was 3,600 cases. Thoroughly enjoyable and engaging, close to elegant. Very Good+. About $25.

A sample for review.

The history of Laetitia Vineyards and Winery begins in 1981, when a joint venture between Deutz Champagne and the old Beringer Estates established a facility for making sparkling wine — they were good, too — in San Luis Obispo’s Arroyo Grande Valley, until the partnership was rent asunder in 1996. The next year, Jean-Claude Tardivat acquired the property and named it Laetitia, after his daughter; the name means joy or happiness in Latin. Tardivat’s tenure was brief; in 1998, he sold the winery to a partnership that included Selim Zilkha, who became sole owner, with her daughter Nadia Wellisz, in 2001. The concentration at this large estate — 1,900 acres with 620 acres of vines — is on pinot noir and sparkling wines, the latter production meaning that chardonnay is also grown, produced both as a still wine and for blending in sparking wine. My focus today is on Laetitia’s reserve and single-vineyard pinot noirs, some of which I tasted as recent review samples and others on a visit to the winery late in April this year. The pinot noirs from Laetitia do not fall into the category of delicate and elegant; these are full-bodied and substantial pinots, tending even toward muscular, yet they are never over-ripe or too high in alcohol. Ultimately, they are primarily well-balanced and integrated. Winemaker is Eric Hickey, son of Laetitia’s sparkling winemaker, Dave Hickey, who has been in that job since 1990.

Image of the Laetitta tasting room from winelinesonline.com.

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Laetitia Reserve du Domaine Pinot Noir 2011, Arroyo Grande Valley, San Luis Obispo County. The grapes are a selection from the best areas of the winery’s vineyards. The wine aged 11 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a tinge of magenta; aromas of intensely fragrant black cherries and raspberries are permeated with notes of cranberry, pomegranate and rhubarb, with underlying layers of briers and brambles and forest floor. This is the point at which to mention the dynamic and muscular character of Laetitia’s pinot noirs, qualities this example prominently displays, though the spicy black and blue fruit flavors and the texture are almost succulent but cut with a line of bracing acidity and graphite minerality. The model here is nothing delicate or ephemeral, yet you would not mistake the wine for anything other than pinot noir. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 1,200 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $40.

Of the 2010 version of this wine, tasted at the property on April 26, I noted: “acidity cuts a swath and minerality plows the furrows… one from the dark side of pinot noir.” 14.3% alc.
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Laetitia La Coupelle Pinot Noir 2010, Arroyo Grande Valley. This wine aged 12 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is medium ruby, a lighter hue than the previous wine; the aroma profile leans in a different direction, with red and black currants, plums and leather, dust and graphite and just a note of violets. It’s dense and chewy in the mouth, a pinot noir with lots of presence, but it’s not significantly earthy or briery; despite its substantial nature this pinot exudes an aura of radiant varietal purity and intensity, with a super-satiny texture buoyed by bright acidity and well-spiced and slightly macerated red and black fruit flavors. 14.7 percent alcohol. 311 cases were produced. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $60.

Of the 2009 redition of La Coupelle, tasted at the winery on April 29, I wrote, “big one… more aggressive, a little tighter [than La Colline 09]… very deep, lots of spice… a real edge… great.” 14.7% alc.
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Laetitia Les Galets Pinot Noir 2010, Arroyo Grande Valley. This wine aged 12 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is a sultry ruby-mulberry hue; scents of black cherries, black raspberries and plums are infused with hints of rose petals, rhubarb and pomegranate, and the whole package is invested with a subtle earthy element. This is a supple, lithe pinot noir, more sinewy than muscular and propelled by blade-like acidity; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of dusty graphite, while ripe black fruit flavors are slightly roasted and fleshy and supported by touches of sleek tannins and polished oak. Lovely tone and balance. 13.8 percent alcohol. Production was 233 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $60.
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Laetitia La Colline Pinot Noir 2010, Arroyo Grande Valley. Aging for this wine was 12 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels, obviously the standard for this group except for the Reserve du Domaine. The color is medium ruby with a slight magenta cast, a fitting color for a wine that offers beguiling aromas of red currants, blueberries and mulberries, heightened by notes of cherry cola, cloves and graphite with a hint of lilac. Despite the mildness of the alcohol content — 13.3 percent — and the similarity of the oak regimen, La Colline 2010 feels a bit rough-shod and perhaps a little more rigorous than the three wines mentioned above; possibly it simply needs time for the elements to come together and achieve balance. Try from 2015 through 2020. Production was 190 cases. Very Good+. About $60.

And of La Colline 2009, tasted at the property on April 26, I said, “lovely medium cerise color, brambly raspberry and blueberry, touch of cranberry, rhubarb and sassafras… gets hints of tannin and underbrush in mid-palate.” 13.8% alc.
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