California


When I was first learning about wine and tasting more wine and taking notes — back in early 1980s — Pedroncelli was a name I often saw in the local liquor stores, along with other venerable family-owned labels like Parducci, Sebastiani, Louis M. Martini, Concannon, Mirassou and Fetzer. Pedroncelli survived since 1927 by never wavering from its mission of producing well-made, though rarely ped sbexciting, wines sold at reasonable prices. I’m pretty excited, however, about the Pedroncelli East Side Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Dry Creek Valley. I have been tasting lots of sauvignon blancs recently, or sauvignon blanc-based wines in the case of Bordeaux, and I will be composing posts about the different regions soon. I couldn’t resist, though, making this one a Wine of the Day. Made completely in stainless steel and not allowed to go through malolactic fermentation, the Pedroncelli East Side Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Dry Creek Valley, practically shimmers in the glass in its pert, tart and sassy character. The color is very pale gold, and the aromas of lime peel, spiced pear and lemongrass, just touched with mango and honeysuckle, fig and pink grapefruit, are intensely beguiling. Deep and crisp and even as the famous snow of the Balkans, this sauvignon blanc is quite dry but features a lovely almost powdery texture that delivers a piercing sense of tension and resolution among supple vibrancy, tangy limestone/chalk minerality and a bracing saline/savory nature. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 as an appealing aperitif or with spice-rubbed salmon and swordfish and grilled shrimp. Excellent. About $15, a Raving Great Value.

A sample for review.

For the Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant 2011, Central Coast, owner and winemaker Randall Grahm drew grapes from eight vineyards located all the way from Contra Costa County in the north to Santa Maria Valley in the south. The blend of this Rhone Valley-inspired wine is 37 percent mourvèdre, 34 percent grenache, 20 percent syrah and nine percent cinsault. The color is a rich and radiant dark to medium ruby hue; the bouquet is a complex weaving of fresh and dried red and black raspberries and currants, with notes of mulberry, cloves, sandalwood and rosemary (with a sight touch of the herb’s resinous edge) and undertones of loam, moss, burning leaves and tobacco-leaf. The mood, then, is autumnal, earthy, almost nostalgic; you could even call this wine old-fashioned in its repudiation of plushness, opulence, alcoholic heat and super-ripeness. It is — no surprise — quite dry, riveting in its blazing acidity and dusty, graphite-infused tannins, though neither these tannins nor the subtle, supple oak halo exert undue influence; rather, the intention is to give the wine a spare, faceted structure that will age well while supporting its elegant and mildly spicy black and red fruit effects. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 2,527 cases. We drank this bottle with a medium rare flank-steak salad (tomatoes, arugula and avocado) with a shallot vinaigrette. It would also serve well with more robust fare, particularly, in the ideal of my mind’s eye, with roasted venison or pheasant, rabbit pappardelle or something English, like steak-and-kidney pie. Now through 2021 to 2024. Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.

We needed something red to drink with a pizza that included spicy merguez lamb sausage, so after looking at a dozen or so bottles, I picked the McCay Cellars Trulux Zinfandel 2012, Lodi, because I have experienced the wine in previous vintages and because I respect owner and winemaker Mike McCay’s honest and restrained touch, as in 15 percent new oak, the rest neutral, as to give the wine shape and suppleness without overwhelming it, and 14.3 percent alcohol. Believe me, I have a shelf of zinfandels from Lodi that top the alcohol scale at 15 to 16 percent, and I wanted nothing to do with their jammy, overheated character. With the McCay Cellars Trulux Zinfandel 2012, on the other hand, alcohol content of 14.3 percent keeps the wine sensibly balanced and palatable. The color is dark ruby at the center but shades through medium to lighter cherry at the rim; the bouquet offers scents of raspberries and blueberries permeated by notes of cloves, lavender and graphite, and then, very lightly, a sort of red cherry licorice-cigarette paper element that lends a welcome sense of delicacy. The wine is quite dry but flavorful along the spiced and macerated red and black berry and plum range, and it’s powered by vibrant acidity for propulsive energy. Tannins, on the other hand, feeling carved from dusty underbrush, briers and brambles, are tranquil, deeply set and inexorable. Production was 479 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $32.

A sample for review.

A sort of milestone, I suppose, the 50th post in a series, and on this momentous occasion I offer for your delectation and edification the Amici Cellars Pinot Noir 2013, from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley AVA, a trove of fine pinot noir and chardonnay if they’re not messed about with excessively in the winery. This one was not. Winemaker for these friends is Joel Aiken, who spend almost 30 years as winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyards and now has his own brand as well as making the wines for Amici. The Amici Pinot Noir 2013 has the deft touch of a veteran all over it. The wine, which is “cellared” rather than “produced,” derives from a number of vineyards in Russian River Valley — in other words, very simply put, it’s not an estate wine — and aged 12 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The color is medium ruby shading to a transparent magenta rim; an enticing bouquet of black and red cherries and raspberries is suffused with subtle notes of cloves and sandalwood, blueberries and rhubarb and a tantalizing hint of cocoa powder. This pinot noir is super satiny and supple on the palate, mixing ripe, spicy and moderately juicy black and red berry flavors with undertones of loam, briers and brambles and a touch of heather. While moving through the mouth with sensual allure, this pinot noir is neither opulent or obvious, letting its energy — propelled by brisk acidity and slightly dusty tannins — dictate a more delicate, elegant and nuanced approach. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 1,650 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020 with a roasted chicken, seared magret of duck or a veal chop grilled with rosemary. Excellent. About $35.

A sample for review.

The name of Wente perhaps has been around so long that it does not conjure cries of joy in American wine consumers, but we have to remember that the family was pioneering in many ways. Now run by the fourth and fifth generations, Wente Vineyards traces its beginning to 1883, when German immigrant C.H. Wente purchased 47 acres in Livermore Valley, in Alameda County east of San Francisco Bay, and planted grapes in the gravelly soil. Wente Bros., as the winery was called, released the first varietally-labeled sauvignon blanc wine (1933) and chardonnay (1936) in California and the first late-harvest riesling affected by Botrytis cinerea, the “noble rot,” in 1969. The family was also among the first to explore planting vines in Monterey County, where it now has substantial holdings. Altogether, Wente owns about 3,000 acres of estate vineyards. A history going back 132 years practically guarantees variations in production and quality and perhaps some confusion in direction — the 1970s and ’80s were not easy decades — but the Wente family absorbed those depredations over the years and now seems to be operating at the top of their scale. Winemaker is fifth-generation Karl Wente, pictured here. The estate also is a leader in sustainable vineyard, winery and company practices. The Wente Clone, originating with Ernest Wente in 1912, provides the basis for many of the best chardonnays made in California.

Let’s look, then, at currently released chardonnays from this ever-evolving winery. These wines were samples for review.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The family’s entry-level model is the Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay 2013, Livermore Valley — now part of the San Francisco Bay AVA, established in 1999 and amended in 2006. The wine is carefully made. Fifty percent of the grapes are barrel-fermented in a mixture of French, American and Eastern European oak, after fermentation aging for seven months. The other 50 percent is fermented in stainless steel tanks; half of that amount rests on the lees for seven months and half is racked off clean. What’s the result? The color is pale straw-gold; aromas of pineapple and grapefruit with a touch of mango open to notes of cloves and toasted hazelnuts and a hint of quince jam. These elements segue seamlessly onto the palate, where the wine displays brisk acidity, fresh and ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors and a modest amount of limestone minerality, all set into a well-balanced and appealing texture; a bit of spicy oak emerges on the finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Is it great? No, but it is very appealing and satisfying,and you could sell the hell out of this chardonnay in wine-by-the-glass programs in bars and restaurants. And look at the price. Very Good+. About $15, representing Real Value.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
How small is the production for the winery’s “Small Lot” label? For the Wente Small Lot “Unoaked” Eric’s Chardonnay 2014, Livermore Valley, the production was 1,100 cases; that’s fairly small. The wine is made completely in stainless steel tanks. This is a fresh, clean and bright chardonnay, sporting a pale straw color and attractive aromas of ripe and spicy pineapple and grapefruit buoyed by notes of green apple, spiced pear, jasmine and honeysuckle. Every element is in its place here: lively acidity and limestone minerality, a pleasing texture and structure, balanced between crispness and suppleness, and all feeling a little too correct and by-the-numbers, especially for the price. 13.4 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $28.

On the other hand, I found in the white wine fridge this wine’s version from 2012, and it’s a winner. Again, this wine saw no oak and no malolactic fermentation. A year or two burnished the effect, leaving this rendition richer, spicier and nuttier, but gently pronounced, and with wonderful purity and intensity on the palate, with a glow of citrus and stone-fruit flavors and an almost talc-like texture riven by arrow-straight acidity and scintillating limestone minerality. If you find a retail source for the Wente Eric’s Chardonnay 2012, snap it up and drink through 2016. 13.7 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Wente Single Vineyard Riva Ranch Chardonnay 2013, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County, offers a pale but sort of star-bright gold hue and subdued but enticing aromas of ripe and spicy pineapple-grapefruit permeated by notes of mango, almond skin, jasmine and lilac. This wine was 90 percent barrel-fermented in new and second-year French and American oak and aged eight months; 10 percent was treated in stainless steel. This is certainly a reticent oak regimen, but from mid-palate back you feel the whisper and then the clamor of that wood resonate through the lush cushiony texture and into the spice-drenched, slightly creamy finish. I would say that this chardonnay needs another year to find its balance and core principles. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $22.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

In making the Charles Heintz “Searby” Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast, the Wine of the Day, I don’t mean that you should rush right out and buy a case or even a bottle, because the production was very limited. I know, that’s not fair. On the other hand, I don’t mind using this venue or series of posts to inform My Readers of the wines that are out there in the world and available with a telephone call or a visit to a website. The family has owned Heintz Ranch, atop the second ridge back from the Pacific Ocean, since 1912. Charles Heintz is in charge now, growing chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah grapes that he sells to a handful of highly regarded producers, reserving some for his own wines, usually fewer than 1,000 cases annually. Consulting winemaker since 2012 has been Hugh Chappelle, winemaker at Quivira and former winemaker at Flowers Vineyard and Winery. The Charles Heintz “Searby” Chardonnay 2013 was made from grapes grown on 42-year-old dry-farmed vines; it’s the first stainless steel-fermented chardonnay produced at Heintz, and it reveals the delightful, fresh and engaging qualities that such a wine can possess, while offering, in this instance, plenty of depth and dimension. After fermentation, the wine undergoes 11 months of aging in French oak, 35 percent new barrels. The color is pale-straw-gold with a glint of leaf-green at the center; the entry is incredibly clean and attractive, with notes of spiced pear, green apple and lime peel; a few minutes in the glass bring in touches of pineapple and grapefruit, a hint of almond blossom and a slight edge of limestone. Propelled by purposeful acidity and scintillating flint and limestone minerality, the wine nonetheless flows gently and brightly on the palate, its citrus and stone-fruit flavors (deepened by hints of ginger and quince) enhanced by a lively yet supple texture lent subtlety and sleekness by the deft wood influence; this is a chardonnay that illustrates what I frequently say about the relationship between wood and wine: “Oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible.” 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Production was 50 cases. Excellent. About $44.

A sample for review.

We had been drinking lots of white wines and rose wines, and finally LL said, “I need something red!” So with medium-rare cheeseburgers from Belmont Cafe — cheddar for LL, Swiss for me — I opened the Stonestreet Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Alexander Valley, and found a cabernet made exactly the way that I want a cabernet to be made. Stonestreet was launched when Jess Jackson, founder and owner of Kendall-Jackson, acquired the Zellerbach winery and vineyards in Chalk Hill in 1989. This became the prestige label for K-J and was a part of what was called the Artisan and Estates division of Jackson’s growing empire. Between May 1996 and May 1999, for my newspaper column, I reviewed the Stonestreet Chardonnay 1994 and ’95, the Pinot Noir 1994, the Pinnacle Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 1995, the Merlot 1994, ’95 and ’96, the Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 and ’96, the flagship Legacy 1994, the Sauvignon Blanc 1997 and, oddly, a Gewurztraminer 1997. Many changes have come upon Stonestreet since that period. The winery and estate now occupy 5,100 acres in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, ranging from 400 to 2,400 feet up the western flank of the Mayacamas Range. Nine hundred acres are planted in grapes divided into 235 individual vineyard blocks. Winemaker is Lisa Valtenbergs; vineyard manager is Gabriel Valencia. The focus is on chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon.

The Stonestreet Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 is 100 percent varietal; it aged 16 months in French oak, 38 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby-purple shading to a magenta-violet rim. The immediate impression is of tremendous vitality and vigor, as aromas of cedar and thyme, graphite and lavender, hints of black olive, green peppercorns and bell pepper seethe in the glass, opening to notes of ripe but spare black currants, cherries and blueberries; there are undertones of black tea, iodine, tapenade and flint. I love how on the palate this cabernet reveals stones and bones through its potent and seductive ferrous and sanguinary nature, its wash of roots and branches and underbrush, its granitic aplomb. Give this wine 30 or 40 minutes and it calls up an extraordinary core of violets, black licorice, pomegranate, potpourri and sandalwood, all anchored in sleek, lithe dusty tannins and bright propulsive acidity. Those tannins, and the wine’s granite-backed mineral character, dominate the finish, which grows a bit austere but never astringent or undernourished. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020 to ’22 with such suitable fare as grilled steaks, pork chops, barbecue ribs — or hamburgers. Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.

Way back on July 11, as Wine of the Day, No. 29, the Foursight Wines Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, was the topic of concern. Today, I want to look at a unique product issuing from the same winery — where Joe Webb is winemaker — the Foursight Charles Vineyard Unoaked Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley, a red wine made entirely in stainless steel tanks; not a smidgeon of oak affects the impression of the grape’s purity and intensity. The color, a deep ruby-purple shading to magenta at the rim, will remind My Readers of Beaujolais-Villages or even a cru like Fleurie of Julienas, and indeed this wine offers some of the complicated fresh/earthy/funky/fruity character of the best examples of those genres. The ripeness and generosity of the ripe red and black currants and red and black cherries are unassailable, though that fruity aspect is permeated by notes of leather and loam, oolong tea and some dark rooty elixir; a few moments in the glass bring in tantalizing hints of raspberry (a little raspy), rose hips, dried fruit and potpourri. Scintillating acidity makes for a lively drink, while a background of graphite minerality and dusty yet silky tannins, from a portion of whole clusters, provides foundation and framing for structure. A lovely wine with a serious edge, not profound but with lots of appealing personality. 14.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 or ’17. Production was 125 cases. Excellent. About $25 and Worth a Search.

A sample for review.

The primary sparkling wines that issue from Schramsberg Vineyards are vintage-dated, I’ve just been tasting the releases from 2012. The venerable winery, founded in 1965, also offers a non-vintage sparkler called Mirabelle, a product that has steadily improved — and increased in price — over the years. The current version of the Scramsberg Mirabelle Brut is a blend of 83 percent 2011 and 17 percent reserve wines held back from previous years. The designation is California, because grapes are drawn from these counties: Sonoma, Monterey, Mendocino, Santa Barbara and Marin. It’s a combination of 52 percent chardonnay and 48 percent pinot noir. The color is medium straw-yellow, enlivened by a potent upward stream of finely honed bubbles; aromas of green apples and lime peel open to notes of quince and ginger, with hints of lightly buttered cinnamon toast and limestone; the overall effect is savory and saline, like heather, marsh grass and seashells. Squinching acidity contributes crispness and animation to this sparkling wine, which delivers flavors of roasted lemon, toasted hazelnuts and a touch of toffee; it’s quite dry and seems not to attempt the ethereal and elegant realms that Schramsberg’s vintage sparklers do; instead, this is about substance, moment and momentum on the palate, with a lively and dense character. Alcohol content is 12.6 percent. Drink with a variety of flavorful appetizers, especially revolving around grilled shrimp, smoked salmon and crab. Excellent. About $27.

A sample for review.

A blend of grapes from four vineyards and a plethora of classic clones, the Benovia Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, offers a medium ruby color that shades into ethereal transparency at the rim; first come smoke and loam, then an earthy briery-brambly quality, followed by touches of black cherry, cranberry and a hint of pomegranate seemingly macerated with cloves and sandalwood, mulberry and rhubarb; yes, that’s quite a sumptuous panoply of effects. The wine is dense and super satiny on the palate, a pretty wine with pockets of darkness and something sleek, polished and intricate that reminded me of the line from Keats’ sonnet “To Sleep”: “turn the key deftly in the oiled wards.” Not that this pinot noir feels too carefully made — winemaker is Mike Sullivan — because it concludes on a highly individual and feral note of wild berries, new leather, fresh linen and finely-milled tannins, all propelled by bright acidity. Alcohol content is 14.1 percent. Drink now through 2018 to 2020 with roasted chicken, seared duck breast, lamb or veal chops. Excellent. About $38.

A sample for review.

Next Page »