Blind Tasting

I invited wine-blogging colleague Benito to come over and taste six pairs of mainly limited-edition red wines with me a couple of weeks ago. The wines within each pair were related in some way, mainly in the sense that they were made by the same producer but from different vineyards or appellations. My intention was to see what sort of characteristics the wines possessed and how they expressed the variations in location, if they did so, and to what degree. There were four pairs of cabernet sauvignon-based wines and two pairs of merlot; one pair was from Washington state and the others from California, two from Sonoma County and three from Napa Valley.

Benito knew none of these details; all I revealed to him was that the wines were red, in related pairs and that we would taste them blind. I had a potential advantage, of course, but after I bagged and marked the wines (and removed the capsules), I moved the pairs around the table, and when Benito arrived, I asked him to do the same thing. When we sat down to begin, I realized by looking at the groups of bottles in brown paper sacks that I actually didn’t have a clue what the order was.

Here’s the deal: I found these wines, whose prices range from $35 to $85, generally solid and well-made but unexciting, uninvolving and uncompelling. Many of them shared so many similar qualities that they felt as if they had been engineered by committees. Nor did I discover much of the individuality and personality I was hoping for, either in the single examples or comparatively within the pairs. In fact, they seemed remarkably alike, reflecting a sense of prevalent style. After Benito and I tried the wines on a Thursday afternoon, I set the wines aside, let them rest over night and tried them the next day, and the next and even on Sunday; there was little sense of development or diminishing of oak and tannin. It’s difficult to understand, then, what these wines represent except their own status as iconic products to be featured on high-end wine lists and in the cellars of collectors. The order in which the wines are reviewed follows the order in which Benito and I tasted them.

These wines were received as samples for review.
1. Matanzas Creek Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County. 88.5% merlot, 7.5% syrah, 4% cabernet sauvignon. 14.1% alcohol. $35. and 2. Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County. 100% merlot. 14.1% alcohol. $49. Winemaker is François Cordesse. Matanzas Creek is part of the Jackson Family Wines of Kendall-Jackson.

The “regular” Bennett Valley Merlot 06 offers a dark ruby-purple color and a seductive bouquet of smoke, lilac and lavender, iodine and graphite, cassis and crushed raspberries, with a final fillip of violets and toasty charcoal. (The oak regimen is 14 months in French barrels, 31 percent new, 69 percent used.) So, this aromatic nature is attractive and pretty standard in the California vein, with emphasis on the character that comes from oak aging, all that sort of smoky, crunchy, roasted stuff. The wine is rich, ripe and juicy with black fruit flavors, deeply spicy, solid with dense chewy tannins that grow more austere as the minutes (and days) pass, and altogether very cabernet-like in its sleek, powerful structure.

How does the Jackson Park version compare? Immediately one feels more power and darkness in the glass, more structure and more of the wheatmeal-graham-walnut shell nature, the dusty minerals that indicate the presence of formidable oak and tannin and presage time in the cellar. This wine also spends 14 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, 25 percent one-year-old, 25 percent two-year-old. At first the wine feels pungent, spicy and provocative, but it quickly succumbs to its structural elements, turning very dry and austere from mid-palate through the finish, leading one to wonder if the only way to produce impressive merlot-based wines is to make them like cabernet sauvignon. Try this perhaps from 2012 or ’13 through 2016 or ’17.

I rate both of these merlots Very Good+.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Emblem Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.3% alcohol. $50. and 2. Emblem Oso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 13.7% alcohol. $50. Winemakers are Michael Mondavi and his son Robert Michael Mondavi Jr. of Folio Fine Wine Partners.

The Rutherford district, progenitor of the famed (or infamous) “Rutherford dust” character, marks the heart of the Napa Valley. Named for the small, unincorporated community on Hwy 29, the district stretches in a broad band across the valley from the foot of the Mayacamas mountains in the west to the smaller Vaca Range on the east. The grapes for the Emblem Rutherford Cabernet 06 derive from a single, unnamed vineyard on the eastern side of the Napa River. This feels, indeed, like classic Napa/Rutherford cabernet, with a nose of cedar and black olives, mint and cloves and very intense and ripe cassis and black cherry scents wrapped in spicy oak and (yes) a dusty, leafy graphite quality. The oak treatment is 22 months in French barrels, of which 66 percent were new. At first, Emblem Rutherford 06 is pretty luscious and juicy, but strapping tannins expand rapidly and take up all the available space, turning the wine austere to the point of astringency. It is, in a word, huge in oak, huge in tannin, huge in that dusty, granite-like mineral element. It’s the old iron-fist in the iron-glove thing. Try from 2012 or ’14 through 2018 or ’20. For now, Very Good+.

Cousinage between these two Emblem wines consists of the factor of 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and some resemblance in the oak regime, which for the Oso Vineyard 06 is also 22 months in French barrels, but 45 percent of the barrels are new. No matter. The Oso is another substantial, oak-bound, formidably tannic and granite-like wine that’s even more closed, more brooding and more austere than the Rutherford 06. The grapes come from the Mondavi family’s Oso Vineyard in the northern part of Napa Valley, near Calistoga. Considerable time will elapse before it softens and unfolds a bit, though I’ll grant that the wine’s supple texture — the tannins are more velvety than grainy and gritty — is very attractive. Another Very Good+ and hoping for the best after 2013 or ’14.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Northstar Merlot 2006, Walla Walla Valley, Washington. 78% merlot, 17% cabernet sauvignon, 5% cabernet franc. 14.4% alcohol. 1,200 cases. $50. and 2. Northstar Merlot 2006, Columbia Valley. 76% merlot, 19% cabernet sauvignon, 3% petit verdot, 2% cabernet franc. 14.7% alcohol. 10,00 cases. $41. Winemaker is David Merfeld. Northstar is a sister winery to Chateau Ste. Michelle.

The point here is that since Walla Walla is a smaller appellation within Columbia Valley theoretically a Walla Walla merlot will be (or could be) better than a merlot from the larger, more diversified region; how else justify the difference in price and packaging? As it happens, in this blind tasting, Benito and I tried the Walla Walla version before the Columbia Valley rendition, and while I’ll give the Northstar Walla Walla 06 a slight edge over the Northstar Columbia 06, these were both very well-made wines with a pleasing sense of detail and dimension. Walla Walla is, as many devotees of merlot know, a potentially superb area for the grape. Do these Northstar merlots, especially the Walla Walla, evince a definite regional character, points that one would pick out as “Walla Walla”? I would say not. While immensely enjoyable, there’s not much to distinguish these merlots from dozens, if not hundreds, of other examples.

To follow the tasting order, the Northstar Merlot 06, Walla Walla, ages 17 months in French oak barrels, 56 percent new. The grapes for the wine derive from nine blocks within four vineyards. The color is dark ruby-purple with a slightly paler purple rim; the bouquet is intense and concentrated, a tightly furled amalgam of iodine and iron, licorice and lavender, and very ripe and penetrating scents of black currant and black cherry. The wine is deeply rooted in baking spice and macerated black fruit flavors permeated by polished oak, graphite and dense, supple tannins, all ensconced in a sumptuous, velvety texture. Drink now through 2015 to ’16. Very Good+.

Surprisingly, my first notes on the Northstar Merlot 2006, Columbia Valley, are “color is even darker; more intense — more concentrated.” This is actually an incredibly dense, fervently eloquent expression of the merlot grape that, for once, doesn’t seem like just another cabernet in disguise. The wine sees a little more oak than its stablemate — 18 months in 70 percent French and 30 percent American oak barrels, 65 percent new — but it does not come off as besotted or imperiled by wood; in contrast, it feels as if you’re drinking tapestry loaded with cassis, Damson plums, potpourri, mocha and bitter chocolate with a slightly piquant spicy edge and a lacy etching of iron filings. Nothing over-ripe or exaggerated here, and, in fact, this may be the most elegant and balanced wine of the tasting. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 97% cabernet sauvignon, 2% malbec, 1% petit verdot. 15.4% alcohol. $75. and 2. Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 100% cabernet sauvignon. 15.4% alcohol. $75. Winemakers are Rick Sayre and Gary Patzwald, with David Ramey as consultant.

Alexander Valley is a narrow, 12-mile long region that stretches southeast to northwest into the upper reaches of Sonoma County. At its lower end, Alexander Valley is buttressed by Knights Valley on the east, Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley to the south and southwest and Dry Creek Valley to the west, but it rises above this crowd and reaches in isolation up to the border with Mendocino County. The Russian River runs right down through the center of Alexander Valley, providing a moderating influence to temperatures that are generally warmer than the rest of the county.

The Brothers Ridge Vineyard, in what we’ll call the northern quadrant of Alexander Valley, lies east of the town of Cloverdale — pop. 6,831; motto “Genuinely Cloverdale” — in hills that reach nearly 1,000 feet elevation. The soil is loam over layers of sandstone, shale and “ancient” greenstone, that is, basaltic rock that was once deep-sea lava. The vineyard faces mainly west. In contrast, the Rockaway Vineyard, which slopes primarily northeast and southwest, lies over a gravelly clay subsoil atop fractured sandstone. A few miles southeast of Brothers Ridge and slightly lower — 750 feet at the highest elevation — Rockaway is a bit cooler. Do these factors of climate and geography produce different wines? Don’t forget the element of oak aging; 22 months in French barrels, 42 percent new, for Brothers Ridge, 22 months, in French barrels, 47 percent new, for Rockaway.

Rockaway 2006 starts with toasty, sweet oak and sweet, ripe black and blue fruit scents straight out of the gate; this bouquet is deliriously seductive, broadly and deeply spicy, with violets, crushed lavender, licorice and an exotic touch of mocha and smoky, incense-like sandalwood. Soon, however, one reaches an impasse; yes, there are the generous spicy nature and glimmers of cassis and blue plums with a hint of fruit cake, but mainly the wine at this point is tightly, massively structured, and three days in the bottle did not do a lot to help it unfurl. On Sunday morning, Rockaway 06 still offered an intensely spicy character that permeated black cherry and red currant flavors, but the tale was told in chewy, grainy tannins and formidably austere oak. Try from 2012 or ’13 through 2018 to ’20. Very Good+ for now.

Brothers Ridge 2006 felt a little looser, a little more open and approachable than its cousin. Here we perceive leather, plums with hints of espresso and prunes — the summer of 2006 was historically hot — the depth and range of the spice cabinet, touches of menthol and cedar. After three days of sweet-talking and coaxing, though, however much the attractive points of macerated and roasted berries became evident, Brothers Ridge 06 remained all about oak, which coated the mouth with austerity and astringency. It’s difficult to imagine that the wine will ever achieve the equilibrium it requires to become palatable. Try, with hope in your hearts, from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’20. Very Good+ for now.
1. Piña Cellars Buckeye Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 15.1% alcohol. 840 cases. $85. and 2. Piña Cellars D’Adamo Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 15.4% alcohol. 1,085 cases. $75. Winemaker is Anna Monticelli.

The Buckeye Vineyard, high atop Howell Mountain — vineyard elevation up to about 2,200 feet — is a far cry from the D’Adamo Vineyard, nestled in the foothills between the Silverado Trail and Atlas Peak. One feels that difference immediately in this pair of wines from the Piña family, who have been tending vineyards in Napa Valley since the late 19th Century. The Buckeye Howell Mt. 07 displays bastions of resonant tannins for framing and foundation, like the deepest bass notes of a grand pipe organ, yet the bouquet draws you in with bacon fat, lavender and licorice, smoky charcoal, roasted meat (lamb, I would say) and very intense and concentrated elements of black currants, black cherries and plums. By the third day after being opened, this Buckeye Howell Mt. 07 had evolved into a real classic of mountain-grown cabernet, with high notes of cedar, tobacco and mint leading into spiced and macerated black currants and plums; the wine was still inky and granite-like, still awesome with oak and tannin, yet its innate elegance and balance were clearly evident. Of the 12 wines under consideration in this post, this was my favorite. Try from 2013 or ’14 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent.

Not to stint, however, on the virtues of the D’Amado 07, which opened seeming a little sleeker, a little smoother and more supple than its stablemate; in fact, you could swim in this ripe, rich, spicy and floral bouquet, though seemingly fathomless tannins come into play fairly quickly and dominate the wine after 15 or 20 minutes in the glass. Three days later, that bouquet still simmers with spice, cloves and mocha and macerated black fruit, but the bitingly austere tannins, the oak, the mineral qualities had not abated an inch. Give this considerable time, and call it Very Good+ for now with the potential for an Excellent rating.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Markham “The Altruist” Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Calistoga, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.8% alcohol. 507 cases. $53. and 2. Markham “The Philanthropist” Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Yountville, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.8% alcohol. 506 cases. $53. Winemaker is Kimberlee Nicholls. These wines are dedicated to Markham’s 2008 “Mark of Distinction” award winners, Table to Table in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., and the Bartlett Arboretum in Bell Plaine, Kansas.

These wines aged in French oak barrels 28 months and 27.5 months respectively, longer than any of the other wines tasted for this post, and the extra time shows in the intractability and impenetrability of their textures and structures. These are two freakin’ big tannic, oaken, dusty-iron-and-granite-girt wines! Will they ever come around? Making two 100 percent cabernet sauvignon wines from distinct areas in Napa Valley — Calistoga, north of St. Helena, and Yountville, in the central south –and treating them much the same in the winery would seem to point to the notion of emphasizing the wines’ origins in different micro-climates and soils, but the imposition of long oak aging and of deeply extracting tannins rendered that potentially interesting point moot, null and void. These cabernets are about their making, not about their vineyards or locations. As much as I played with them from Thursday afternoon until Sunday morning, I could elicit from them only the stringent rigor of their fabrication. Try, if you will, from 2014 or ’15 to 2020 or so, and let me know what happens. You know where to find me.

Benito came over to the house a couple of days ago to taste wine, but before we got down to business, he offered a brown-bagged Mystery Wine for my amusement and perplexity.

He poured a tasting portion in my glass. The wine was a deep ruby-purple color; the bouquet seethed with ripe, smoky raspberry and blueberry scents, underlain by exotic spice, lavender and violets and a touch of fruitcake. Whoa, thought I, methinks this might be zinfandel. In the mouth, the wine was intense and concentrated, packed with soft, furry, briery tannins, with jammy currant and plum flavors, a touch of bacon fat and that granite-like minerality and foresty nature that sometimes defines old-vine zinfandel; the fruitcake element seemed a giveaway too. Despite this panoply of sensations, the wine was quite dry, the finish a little austere.

“So?” sez he.

“Hmmmm,” sez I. “I would pretty much have to go with zinfandel. I mean, the richness, the exotic quality. Yeah, zinfandel.”

“Region? You don’t have to be too specific.”

“Uh, could be Dry Creek Valley, but I’m going to go with Amador. It has that old-fashioned appeal, sort of puritanical and shameless at the same time.”

“So, you’re saying northern California?”


“How about southern California? How about way, way southern California, as in Baja?” And there’s a twinkle in the old Benito eye.

That’s right, friends, the Mystery Wine was from the Guadalupe Valley, Baja, California, as in Mexico. The wine was revealed to be the Baron Balch’e Reserva Especial 2005, a blend of cabernet franc, merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon. A friend of Benito had brought it back to him as a gift.

“I was about to say cabernet franc,” I said. Ha-ha, really though, this is a thoroughly New World, though not over-the-top blend. Made me wish for a veal chop.

The Guadalupe Valley, one of five appellations in Baja Norte, lies about 70 miles south of San Diego. Some 20 wineries are located northeast of the coastal city of Ensenada, a deep-water port and sport fishing and surfing center. While most of the long, crooked finger of land separating the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California is desert, the Guadalupe Valley benefits from a more moderate Mediterranean climate.

The alcohol content of the Baron Balch’e Reserva Especial 2005, by the way, was a reasonable and palatable 12 percent. One cannot help thinking that if winemakers in Baja can produce wines with this rational level of alcohol, then producers in Napa who are always saying, “Dude, it’s not our fault that our cabernets are coming in at 15.2, it’s the freaking global warming,” should shut the hell up and try harder.

Baja map from

Mystery Sauvignon Blancs
I can go along with a stunt with the best of them, so when the offer came from Terlato Wines International to sample three sauvignon blancs wrapped in black paper so I would, if I wanted to, taste them blind, my response was, “Oh, sure, what the hell.” Lined up on the kitchen counter, they looked sort of cool and elegant in their black habits, like monks with marathon numbers.

LL works late on Tuesdays, and I usually cook dinner — late enough to be called supper since we sometimes don’t sit down until after nine — and last night I decided to make a sort of spring-like dish of eggs on toast with mushrooms and onions cooked in Fried Eggs on Toast with Sherried Mushrooms sherry. You scatter chopped flat-leaf parsley on top .This is from the April 2009 issue of Food & Wine magazine. You can see in the image of the dish that I added some basil oil for color and piquancy. On the side, I served a simple mixed green salad. Oh, for mushrooms, I used crimini, porcini and a few precious, pungent morels.

I tasted the wines in the kitchen, while I was cooking the mushrooms, put the bottles back in the fridge, and then got them out and LL and I tried them during dinner.

A hitch occurred when I unwrapped Wine #1, and there was the cork, with the winery name printed on it; so much for subterfuge! The other bottles were closed with screw-caps, so I truly did not know what they were. To keep to the program, I won’t mention what the first wine was yet.

So, Wine #1 offered a fresh clean, vibrant bouquet with green apple, citrus, baking spice, thyme and tarragon. Touches of grass and hay came into play, along with, in the mouth, citrus and green plum flavors. This had attractive heft, a sense of textural authority that comes from oak, though obviously held to a minimum.

Wine #2 gleefully cried “New Zealand!” with its audacious lime, gooseberry, fennel and grapefruit aromas and snappy acidity.

Wine #3, however, immediately won my heart through its winsome pear, honeydew and jasmine bouquet, its hints of almond blossom and orange zest, its engaging liveliness and immediacy.

While we ate supper and tried the wines again, going back to each several times, details and dimensions were filled in. Wine #1 fleshed out with notes of leafy fig, a rich hint of currant and a layer of slightly dusty yet clean earthiness. Wine #2, unfailingly exuberant, added touches of green pea and fresh-mown grass, while Wine #3 continued to impress with its lovely balance and integration, with piercing purity and intensity. It was clearly my (and our) favorite.

All were quite delicious, in their different manners, with the eggs and sherried mushrooms on toast.

The wines? Ta-dah! hanna.gif

#1. Markham Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Napa Valley. With 10 percent semillon grapes, this is fermented in stainless steel and then given 3.5 months in wood tanks, not small barrels. Excellent. About $17.

#2. Wairau River Family Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Marlborough, New Zealand. Made completely in stainless steel. Very Good+. About $19.

#3. Hanna Winery & Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Russian River Valley. Also made completely in stainless steel. Excellent. About $19. If I hadn’t already posted a Wine of the Week, this would be it.

Tasting sweet dessert wines is tough. They’re extremely rich and over-ripe and can come close to being cloying, though if they’re made correctly dynamite acid keeps them honest and dry from mid-palate back; that point is essential; you want to feel the clean vibrancy as well as the lushness, the unctuousness. The best examples of dessert wines are amazingly complicated, royal.jpg not only directly sensuous but intellectual. Glorious though they can be, they tire the palate and weary the tongue. They are made, after all, for sipping, not drinking.

Nevertheless, I had accumulated a number of dessert wines of widely diverse origins and styles, so I invited enough people to make a group of eight and we sat down on a rainy Sunday afternoon to try them. We tasted the wines blind, the principle order being from youngest to oldest. Since the wines varied so much in mode and manner, I didn’t arrange them in flights, instead, we tasted each individually. For convenience and fun more than anything else, we scored the wines on a 20 point scale — reminder: on this blog and on I do not rate wines on a numerical system — which gave us a means of keeping track of our favorites. I include on this list, which goes from highest to lowest rating, the group score followed by my score. With the exception of the Monbazillac (the last wine on this roster), I regard all of these examples mentioned here as successes in varying degrees

Some of the wines that I thought were terrific the group didn’t regard very highly. I have no way of explaining this occurrence.

There are, basically and briefly, three methods of producing dessert wines. The point is that the sugar content of the grapes will be high enough (or to put it another way, so high) that fermentation will stop before all the sugar is converted to alcohol; that’s why sweet wines are sweet.

First, in the classic procedure made famous in Bordeaux’s Sauternes and Barsac regions, the grapes are affected by the botrytis cinerea mold, which shrinks and dries the grapes, concentrating the sugars and raising the sugar level dolce03.gif(usually measured by the Brix ripeness scale). Botrytis, the “noble rot,” may contribute a scent and flavor of over-ripeness, a sort of sweet, crystalized earthy-superfruitiness to the wine. The climate of the vineyard has to be perfectly balanced with foggy mornings and warm afternoon humidity in late summer and early fall to produce the rot. Botrytis can be induced in the winery, as is the case with Beringer’s well-known Nightingale dessert wines.

Second, the grapes can be dried on straw mats or wooden boxes or on special racks to concentrate the sugar, a procedure that takes several months, so fermentation may not begin until January or February. This is common practice in northern Italy, for example in the production of Vinsanto.

Third, in the “late harvest” method grapes are allowed to hang on the vines so the grapes dry and shrivel as sugar levels rise, while trying (usually) to avoid the presence of botrytis. This method produces the Vendages Tardives sweet wines of Alsace. Winemakers can, of course, leave grapes on the vine until they actually freeze, producing the specialty called Eiswein or ice wine.

This tasting of white dessert wines included examples of all these methods.

1. Royal Tokaji Red Label 2000, five puttonyos, Hungary. About $32 for a 500 ml bottle. The grapes are furmint, harslevelu and muscat. Imported by Wilson Daniels. Composite score: 18. My score: 17. The wine spends four years in barrels. Bright, brassy gold color; quince, peach and pear, cloves and cinnamon, spiced and macerated peaches, candied melon and lime; quivering acid, scintillating limestone. A puttonyo is the traditional 4.5 gallon wooden tub used to collect grapes in Aszu; the higher the puttonyo level (up to six) the sweeter the wine. A beauty. 2010 to 2015.

2. (Tie with no. 3) Louis Guntrun Silvaner Eiswein 2003, Rheinhessen, Germany. About $53 for a half-bottle. Imported by Broadbent Selections. Composite score: 16.83. My score: 16. Very clean, fresh and lively, quince, pear and lychee, quite floral; sleek, smooth and charming; sweet candied entry but a dry finish that chimes with acid. 2013 to 2018.

3. (Tie with no. 2) Carpineto Farnito Vinsanto del Chianti 1986, Tuscany, Italy. Trebbiano Toscano 60%, malvasia 40%. About farnito_vinsanto_del_chianti_1986_small.jpg$44 to $55 for a 500 ml. bottle. Imported by Opici. Composite score: 16.83. My score: 17. Rich and warm, toasted almonds, orange rind, toffee, bittersweet chocolate, cloves and cinnamon; quite dense and luscious, long spicy finish with a huge hit of acid. Now through 2012 to 2016.

4. Chateau de Fesles 1997, Bonnezeaux, Loire Valley, France. Chenin blanc. About $40 for a half-bottle. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons. Composite score: 16.33. My score: 17. Vivid medium amber color; slightly oxidized and sherry-like, toffee, caramel, candied orange rind, touch of roasted lemon; attractive tone and presence. now through 2012 or 2015.

5. Renaissance Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 1991, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California. About $ for a full bottle. Composite score: 15.83. My score: 16. I wasn’t as impressed with this wine as when I tried it in October. This example seemed lighter, more delicate, though quite delicious, with hints of dried herbs, spiced pears and apricots, a bit of nectarine, candied lime peel. Good length and a dry, crisp finish. Now though 2011 to 2015.

6. (Tie with no. 7 ) Dolce 2003, Napa Valley, California. Semillon 89%, sauvignon blanc 11%. Made by Far Niente. About $85 for a half-bottle. Composite score: 15.71. My score: 19 (my highest score of the tasting). This is a fabulous wine, the nectar of the gods, the nectar of the goddesses, the nectar of the nymphs, the nectar of the nymphets. (I dunno what happened to my fellow tasters on this wine, but I like them anyway.) Golden yellow; deep, rich and spicy, fruit not only ripe but macerated and roasted, as in peaches, pears, quince and apricot with touch of mango; roasted honey; intense and powerful, like drinking liquid gold plate but never obvious or ponderous. Best from 2009 through 2015 or ’18.

7. (Tie with no. 6) Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine Gold 2005, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario. About $85 for a half-bottle. Imported by Icon Estates. Composite score: 15.71. My score: 18. Incredibly deep and spicy and layered, so thick and dense, nectarine over peach over apricot and lychee, all super-ripe, over-the-top, macerated and roasted, yet clean, electrified by acid. Try 2008 or ’09 through 2015 or ’18.

8. Beringer Nightingale Private Reserve 2001, Napa Valley. Semillon 65%, sauvignon blanc 35%. About $40 for a half-bottle. Composite score: 15.5. My score: 18. Myron Nightingale (1915-1988) pioneered the used of induced botrytis for making Sauternes-style dessert wines in California. Medium brassy-gold; incredibly rich, deep and spicy, honeysuckle and jasmine, super-ripe peach, apricot and mango, roasted and smoky, a foundation of limestone and vivid acid, almost daringly spicy. Now to 2013 to ’15.

9. (Tie with no. 10) Schmitt Sohne Eiswein 2004, Rheinhessen, Germany. Made from scheurebe grapes. About $20 for a 500 ml. bottle (the bargain of this tasting). Imported by Schmitte Sohne Inc. Composite score: 15.33. My score: 14. No great depth or presence but very attractive, authentic over-ripe botryised aromas, rich and spicy, dense and moderately lush.

10. (Tie with no. 9) Sonnenmulde Samling Eiswein 2003, Burgenland, Austria. Samling is the local name for scheurebe in Burgenland. About $33 for a half-bottle. Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates. Composite score: 15.33. My score: 15. Not particularly complicated but a lovely dessert wine, well-balanced and structured, slightly floral, very spicy peach and apricot, good length.

11. Jackson-Triggs Proprietors’ Reserve Vidal Ice Wine 2005, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario. About $20 for a quarter-bottle. Imported by R.H. Phillips, Inc. Group score: 15.28. My score: 15. Very attractive, mango and orange rind, peach and nectarine, touch of honeysuckle, sweet entry balanced by keen acidity.

12. Inniskillin Riesling Ice Wine 2006, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario. About $75 for a half-bottle. Imported by Icon Estates. Group score: 15.14. My score: 16. Light, delicate, lively, subtly woven, peach and apricot, lime and lime peel, touch of lychee and orange blossom, practically shimmers in the glass.

13. Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine 2006, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario. About $65 for a half-bottle. Imported by Icon Estates. Group score: 15. My score: 18. Light gold color, fresh, clean and delicate but so much substance, tone and structure, crystalline acidity like a tuning fork, multiple layers of super-ripe stone fruit, citrus peel, flowers, honey and limestone. Fabulous. Best from 2008 through 2012 to ’15.

14. Jorge Ordonez & Co. Seleccion Especial Moscatel 2005, Malaga, Spain. About $19 for a half-bottle (another bargain). Imported by Star Distributors, Memphis, Tenn. Group score: 14.7. My score: 14. No profound depth here but absolutely lovely; orange rind, orange and almond blossom, white peach, lime peel, lychee and rose petal, very spicy with heaps of limestone. Now through 2010 or ’11.

15. Beringer Nightingale Private Reserve 2002, Napa Valley. Semillon 65%, sauvignon blanc 35%. About $40 for a half-bottle. Group score: 14.42. My score: 17. What was wrong with the group? So many layers, details and nuances, deep, rich and very spicy, creme brulee with honey-peach whipped cream, jasmine and honeysuckle, and so much energy and nervosity. Now through 2012 to ’15.

16. Chateau Villefranche 2005, Sauternes, Bordeaux. Semillon 85%, sauvignon blanc 10%, muscadelle 5%. About $33 for a villefranche_01.jpg half-bottle. William Harrison Imports. Group score: 13.7. My score: 15. Clean, fresh and delicate, Meyer lemon, very ripe pineapple and grapefruit, peach and apricot, stone fruit, tingling acid, a wash of limestone and shale in the dry finish. Very charming. Now through 2012 to ’15.

17. Bonny Doon Le Val des Anges Roussanne 2006, Beeswax Vineyard, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. About $30 for a half-bottle. Group score: 13.14. My score: 13. This “flight of angels” emerges from Bonny Doon’s biodynamic vineyard in southern Monterey county. Elegant, delicate, composed of finely poised layers of jasmine, spiced and honeyed white peaches, roasted grapefruit, lime peel and limestone; gripping acid keeps the finish dry. Now through 2011 or ’12.

18. Chateau Monbazillac 2000, Monbazillac. Semillon 80%, sauvignon blanc 10%, muscadelle 10%. About $22 for a half-bottle. No importer listed. Group score: 12.57. My score: 9. Unbalanced, tired, earthy and a little dirty.

There’s quite a to-do over at Eric Asimov’s blog The Pour about the best way to encounter and experience wine. The possibilities seem to be: (1) Over dinner with family and friends, knowing what the wine is; tasting31.jpg (2) In a blind tasting situation, where tasters know something about the wines (say, the grapes or the vintage) but not all the details; (3) In a double blind situation in which tasters know only that the wines are red or white.

Responders to Eric’s posts can be various, opinionated and vociferous, and on this issue they do not disappoint. Some insist that double blind or at least blind is the ONLY way to properly evaluate wines; others insist that such an approach is academic, intellectual, over-analytical and ridiculous and that wine must be appreciated in the context of its history, heritage and geography along with the appropriate food; still others assert that notions of history, heritage and geography are a crock and that you should just drink the stuff and enjoy it on the basis of whether you like it or not.

I think that first we have to separate drinking from tasting.

Drinking, I would say, implies sipping wine as an aperitif or having a glass while cooking or sitting down to a meal whether at home or in a restaurant or bosky dell. The themes? Enjoyment, fun, pleasure, eating good or great food while drinking good or great wine, and, sure, maybe a little education in the process, as in, “Whoa, I didn’t know a pinot noir could have these flavors. Where did you say it came from?”

Tasting is different. Tasting wine is what people do when they want to experience many wines in a short time. as at an importer’s portfolio tasting; or educate their palates and sensibilities about the wines of a particular region or property or grape and so on; or test their palates and sensibilities and knowledge against a group of unknown wines, either solo or with other tasters.

In the first category, for example, I would never go on a picnic and insist on drinking a bottle of wine blind, so no one knew what it was; what a jerk that would make me! Nor would I insist that, while standing around the kitchen before a dinner party, the wine the guests sipped should be covered so no one knew what it was and we could educate ourselves. “What a pompous spoil-sport,” the host would mutter, “last time we invite him.” When LL and I sit down to dinner and have a bottle of wine or perhaps I open two or three for comparison while we eat, I don’t put them in brown paper bags, because we have too much fun sipping and comparing, going back to the wines several times as they develop, not that we’re not also serious about this.

Trade tastings, especially large ones, aren’t conducted blind because, after all, the purpose is to let people try as many wines as possible and and develop potential orders for the wines.

In other circumstances, however, single blind and double blind tastings are not only educational and frequently revelatory but essential. Research by psychologists and sociologists has show over and again that our judgments about wine are drastically influenced by the presence of a label and all the label implies about grapes, property, region and reputation. If you understand that you’re about to taste Lafite-Rothschild 1982, the structure of expectations that knowledge imposes is almost impossible to ignore. And if I were the wine manager for a restaurant, I would insist when wholesalers came to call and present new wines that I not be told what they are in advance and then taste them double blind, or if that’s impossible, single blind, knowing perhaps that the wines were, say, reds from Australia or whites from Spain but nothing about producers and prices.

This year I’ve held two tastings for six people at home. One was blind; the panel knew they were tasting 24 merlots or merlot-based wines but knew nothing about years, regions or properties. The second event was double blind; all the tasters knew was that they would be trying 22 red wines. They turned out to be petite sirahs, and, boy, did that create a stir! In both cases, the experiences were profoundly revealing and educational.

Let’s allow Michael Broadbent, the dean of British wine tasters, writers and auctioneers, the last word. This is from one of the most valuable items in my library of books about wines. It’s Michael Broadbent’s Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting, a slim little volume first published in 1968. My well-worn copy, printed in 1982, is the sixth edition, published in 1979.

Here’s what Broadbent says, on page 63:

“It is my firm opinion (one of the few these days unwhittled by doubts!) that to assess the qualities of a wine by tasting it completely blind, without any hint of what it might be, is the most useful and salutary discipline that any self-respecting taster can be given. It is not infrequently the most humiliating. The first thing it does is concentrate the thoughts, and expose fresh and unprejudiced senses to the problem of analysing the colour, bouquet and flavors. To know what the wine is before one starts to taste is like reading the end of a detective novel first; it satisfies the curiosity but dampens the interest.”

Need we say anything more?

The image of the wine taster is from

I invited five people to the house for a double-blind wine tasting. That means that not only do the tasters not know the genre of the wines, they don’t know anything about them, neither grapes nor region nor country nor vintage, only the color. Ha! What fun! My guests included people from the wholesale and retail arms of the wine business and one fellow blogger, Ben Carter earthquake1.jpg ( The wines, all red, were arranged in flights of six, six, six and four. As I usually do with tastings at home, I arranged the bottles in a semblance of sense (concealed inside brown paper bags) but allowed a hired pourer to determine the final order.
After the first flight, I revealed that all the wines were made from the same grape. Groans, curses, pens thrown into the air. “Well,” said one taster, “that ruins whatever I thought was going on here.” Tee-hee!

After the second flight, I revealed that all the wines came from the same region, but not what the region was. More consternation of the “you-have-got-to-be-kidding” variety. I also mentioned that there was a general order to the tasting, but left that for my colleagues to figure out. Snicker-snicker!

Finally, when we had gone through four flights, all questions were answered. The wines were made from petite sirah grapes. The place was California — and all over California, from south in Santa Barbara to north in Lake County — and the order was from lowest to highest alcohol content, about a modest 13.5% to a blockbuster 16%.

Petite sirah — not “syrah” — is a confusing grape because while it is a hybrid grape, a cross of peloursin + syrah, its name has girardps_012.jpg became attached over generations to the true syrah grape and to the rough ‘n’ ready durif grape. In fact, most of what’s called petite sirah in California is actually durif, with many of the “old vine” vineyards being a combination of all three, with other red grapes, mainly Rhone Valley varieties, thrown in. Petite sirah is notable for shaggy tannins, rollicking spice, deep colors and jammy black fruit flavors. If not handled carefully, the tannin can overwhelm a wine, and my lower scores tended to go to wines with out-of-control tannins. Treated deftly, the grape can produce wines of rustic nobility. The alcohol levels tend to be high, as you can see by the list of wines that follows.

Here are the results of the tasting, from highest score down to lowest on a 20-point scale. My score is in parantheses. (The rating system is for convenience; I never rate wines by points on this blog or on my website

1. Michael & David Petite Petit 2005, Lodi. About $22. Score: 18.66. (My score: 19) Alcohol: 14.5%. This wine has a high petit verdot component, hence the name.

2. Michael & David Earthquake Petite Sirah 2004, Lodi. About $28. Score: 17.5. (My score: 17) Alcohol: 15.5%.

3. Rosenblum Cellars Pickett Road Petite Sirah 2003, Napa Valley. About $35. Score: 17.42. (My score: 14) Alcohol: 15.6%.

4. Epiphany Cellars “E” Rodney’s Vineyard Petite Sirah 2004, Santa Barbara County. About $30. Score: 17.33. (My score: 14) Alcohol: 15.8%. “A smidgen of cabernet sauvignon.”

5. Girard Vineyards Petite Sirah 2005, Napa Valley. About $28. Score: 17.16. (My score: 18) Alcohol: 14.5%. The blend includes “7% Rhone-varietal old-world” grapes, that is, syrah, grenache, mourvedre and so on. This is always one of my favorite petite sirah wines.

6. Marr Cellars Shannon Ranch Petite Sirah 2004, Lake County. About $24. Score: 16.69. (My score: 17) Alcohol: 16%.

7. Marr Cellars Petite Sirah 2004, California. About $24. Score: 16.5. (My score: 18) Alcohol: 14.45%. I loved this wine’s classic warmth and ripeness, its lovely size and shape and resonance.

8. Bogle Vineyards Merritt Island Reserve Petite Sirah 2004, Clarksburg. About $18. Score: 16.42. (My score: 17) Alcohol: 14.9%. A freakin’ bargain!, but only 500 cases produced.

9. Bogle Vineyards Petite Sirah 2005, Clarksburg. About $11. Score: 15.69. (My score: 16) Alcohol: 13.5%. Another freaking bargain! and plenty to go around. marr-pets-04.jpg

10. Mettler Family Vineyards Petite Sirah 2004, Lodi. About $25. Score: 15.58. (My score: 19) Alcohol: 13.7%. The wine contains nine percent cabernet sauvignon. One of my top wines of the tasting, beautifully polished and balanced, yet deep. We had another bottle recently and it was equally alluring.

11. Concannon Vineyard Reserve Petite Sirah 2003, Livermore Valley. About $30. Score: 15.42. (My score: 16) Alcohol: 14.5%. 98.5 percent petite sirah, 1.1 percent cabernet sauvignon, 0.4 merlot. 577 cases.

12. David Bruce Petite Sirah 2004, Central Coast. About $18. Score 14.83. (My score: 16) Alcohol: 13.9%.

13. Stags’ Leap Winery Petite Syrah 2004, Napa Valley. About $38. Score 14.83. (My score: 13) Alcohol: 14.2%. This is a blend of 78 percent petite sirah, 15 percent syrah, 4 percent grenache, and one percent each viognier, carignane and mourvedre. I have never understood why Stags’ Leap spells “sirah” as “syrah” on this label, a habit that leads, in my mind, to confusion, discord and barbarians at the gate.

14. Cecchetti Wine Company 39 (degrees) Petite Sirah 2005, Lake County. About $15. Score: 14.5. (My score: 14) Alcohol 14.5%.

15. Vina Robles Jardine Vineyard Petite Sirah 2004, Paso Robles. About $26. Score: 14.42. (My score: 16) Alcohol 14.5%. 792 cases.

16. Pedroncelli Family Vineyards Petite Sirah 2003, Dry Creek Valley. About $14.50. Score: 14.16. (My score: 14) Alcohol 13.9%. The wine contains seven percent zinfandel.

17. Silkwood Petite Sirah 2004, Stanislaus County. About $39. Score: 13.83. (My score: 16) Alcohol 13.5%. 297 cases.

18. Eos Cupa Grandis Petite Sirah 2003, Paso Robles. About $55. Score: 13.83. (My score: 17) Alcohol 14%. Yeah, that’s a big price for a petite sirah.

19. Eos Petite Sirah 2004, Paso Robles. About $18. Score: 13.37. (My score: 14) Alcohol 13.5%. This finely-tuned wine contains 1.9% cabernet sauvignon, 0.7% zinfandel, 0.4% merlot and 0.2% cabernet franc.

20. Oak Grove Wines Reserve Petite Sirah 2005, California. About $8. Score 13.19 (My score: 17!) Alcohol 13.6%. mettler.jpg

21. Novella Fine Wines Petite Sirah 2003, Paso Robles. (Made by Eos.) About $12. Score: 11.5. (My score: 13) Alcohol 13.5%. The wine contains six percent zinfandel.

22. Concannon Vineyard Limited Release Petite Sirah 2004, Central Coast. About $14. Score: 11.3. (My score: 15) Alcohol 13.8%. The wine contains 6% grenache and 3% valdeguie. For Concannon, “limited release” means 65,000 cases.

Attentive and mathematically-inclined readers will say: “Whoa, F.K., your scores were higher than the composite scores almost 73 percent of the time!”

Alas, ’tis true. Am I more generous and forgiving? A push-over? I reminded the tasters before we launched into the first flight that one always has to be careful at the beginning because the wines are unknown and there’s no context of comparison. Yet I gave the first wine of the event, the Oak Grove Reserve Petite Sirah 2005, an eight-dollar wine, 17 points. Perhaps the other tasters, taking my warning to heart, were too cautious. Here are my notes on this wine: “V. intense & concentrated purple color, intense and concentrated nose, smoke — potpourri — currant and blackberry — briers, brambles underbrush — cedar, black olive — smoke, ash & minerals, lovely depth and personality, excellent.”

Sounds pretty good, huh, but perhaps these are indeed the notes of a nicely-made, drinkable, respectable 11 or 12-point wine rather than a 17-point wine. In fact, we took a bottle of this wine to a BYOB Greek restaurant last night, and that was exactly our impression: nicely-made, drinkable and respectable. Rats.

I don’t know why I decided to focus on wines made from merlot grapes. I suppose after getting some review samples it seemed like a good idea to visit a few retail stores and lay in more examples for reasons of comparison, and before I knew it, I had 20 of them. Typical of the way I manage life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, most of them were pretty expensive, too, top-of-the-line merlotgrapes2_01.jpgsort of thing, don’t you know. Not the top top of the line necessarily, not like Chateau Petrus from Bordeaux’s Pomerol region or Ausone or Cheval Blanc from St.-Emilion (Petrus these days can easily be $800 or $900 a bottle), but I actually found myself in a store with a bottle of Masetto 2002 in my hand — that’s the best merlot wine made in Italy, a legendary wine and so on — I even actually started walking toward the check-out counter, but my cooler head prevailed and I said to myself, “No, I cannot, I will not pay $235 for a bottle of wine, even if I can deduct it next year.”

Let’s be honest: Merlot is not a grape easily made into a cheap wine; it turns bland and generic and sweetish-ripe without blinking an eye. Beginning in the early 1990s, though, producers throughout the West Coast of the United States and in the south of France and in Chile and Australia tried their damnedest to turn out every kind of merlot they could based on the fact that American consumers wanted a no-challenges red so they could slurp up the two glasses of red wine a day as seemingly required by “The French Paradox.” That notion was introduced to this county by “60 Minutes” in 1991. Then merlot, which for a decade and a few years more proliferated far beyond its capabilities to be all grapes to all people, took a beating from the (only so-so) movie, Sideways. which leveled the playing field (or devastated it) for merlot while raising pinot noir to apotheosis.

Merlot’s natural home is Bordeaux, though the grape is regarded differently in such cabernet sauvignon-dominated Left Bank communes as Pauillac, St. Estephe, St. Julien and Margaux and in the merlot-dominated Right Bank communes of Pomerol and St.Emilion. On the Left bank, where the soil is primarily gravel in nature and beneficial to cabernet sauvignon, merlot is relegated to a secondary blending role, making up as little as 10 percent to up to 35 or 40 percent of the wine. On the Right Bank, the clay-based soil is better for merlot vines, with merlot grapes composing anywhere from about 60 to 95 percent of the blend with, usually, cabernet franc (not cabernet sauvignon) making up the rest. Of the Pomerol wines listed below, for example, Gazin typically contains 90 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent cabernet franc, while the proportion at Latour a Pomerol is likely to be 90 percent merlot and 10 percent cabernet franc.

California, of course, does whatever the hell it wants, and while some of these wines, Grgich Hills for one, are made of 100 percent merlot grapes, others include touches of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc or even petit verdot grapes in the blend.

Looking at the phalanx of wines I had acquired, I finally decided to share the wealth and invite a few people over for a blind tasting, that is, the participants knew that we were tasting merlot wines, but the bottles were hidden so they didn’t know what the regions, producers or vintages were. Around the table were someone from the wholesale world, someone from retail, a wine blogger (Ben Carter of Benito’s Wine Reviews:, me and my wife.

Here are the wines we tasted, in order of the panel’s preference. I include the composite score followed by my personal score. You will quickly notice that the California examples, and the one from Washington state, achieved more impressive scores than the French models. The reason is pretty clear from looking at my tasting notes. The wines from Pomerol and St. Emilion were not only rigorously structured but ferociously tannic; the fabled Bordeaux balance between elegance and power had not yet made itself manifest. The West Coast wines, on the other hand, while exhibiting plenty of structure and tannin were more immediately sensuous and pleasurable. It’s the old Euro/California style debate in a nutshell.

We rated the wines on a 20-point scale, and you will notice that in most cases my score is higher than the evident scores of the rest of the panel. I’m such a damned pushover.

1. Lewis Cellars Merlot 2000, Napa Valley, California. About $55. Score: 18. My score: 18. This was clearly the favorite wine of the tasting.

2. L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot 2002, Columbia Valley, Washington. About $35. Score: 17. My score: 14. secondmerlot_01.jpg

3. Turnbull Cellars Merlot 2004, Oakville District, Napa Valley, California. About $35. Score: 16.6. My score: 19. Yep, this just knocked me out.

4. (Tie) Rosenblum Cellars Mountain Selection Merlot 2001, Napa Valley, California. About $30; I bought this on sale for $20. Score: 16.2. My score: 18.

4. (Tie) Ferrari-Carano Merlot 2004, Sonoma County, California. About $28. Score: 16.2. My score: 17.

5. Chateau St. Jean Merlot 2004, Sonoma County, California. About $25. Score: 15.6. My score: 17.

6 (Tie) Chateau Ferrand Lartigue 2000, St.-Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux. About $70. Score: 15.4. My score: 18.

6. (Tie) Pahlmeyer Merlot 2003, Napa Valley, California. About $115. Score: 15.4. My score: 16.

7. Sbragia Family Vineyards Home Ranch Merlot 2004, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, California. About $25. Score: 15. My score: 17.

8. (Tie) Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot 2004, Napa Valley, California. About $64. Score: 14.8. My score: 18. Obviously another knockout for me, but my colleagues certainly didn’t agree.

8. (Tie) Plumpjack Merlot 2004, Napa Valley, California. About $58. Score: 14.8. My score: 14.

9. Nickel & Nickel Suscol Ranch Merlot 2004, Napa Valley, California. About $45. Score: 14.2. My score: 14.

10. Chateau La Fleur-Petrus 2000, Pomerol, Bordeaux. About $115. Score: 13.6. My score: 14.

11. Chateau Latour a Pomerol 2001, Pomerol, Bordeaux. About $75. Score: 13.2. My score: 16.

12. Chateau Gazin 2001, Pomerol, Bordeaux. About $90. Score: 12.8. My score: 15.

13. Matanzas Creek Merlot 2003, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County, California. About $30. Score 12.6. My score: 16.

14. Chateau Belair 2001, St.-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe. About $68. Score 12.2. My score: 13.

15. Grgich Hills Merlot 2003, Napa Valley, California. About $38. Score: 11.8. My score: 16. Once again the opinions and scores of my colleagues and I vary radically.

16. Blason de L’Evangile 2002, Pomerol, Bordeaux. About $40. This is the “second” wine of Chateau L’Evangile. Score: 11.2. My score: 15.

17. Lassegue 2003, St.-Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux. About $50. Score 10.8. My score: 12.

The image of merlot grapes is from