California


I rated the first release of the Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2005, “Exceptional” and included it in my roster of “50 Great Wines of 2008″ as “the best debut wine from Napa Valley that I’ve tasted in the 21st Century.” The 2006 and ’07 I also rated “Exceptional.” Then the wine slipped off my radar, and I thank the winery for sending me samples of the current release 2011, as well as 2010, ’09 and ’08. All of these wines derive from the all-organic Temple Family Vineyard in Napa County’s Pope Valley, north of Howell Mountain in the region’s extreme northeast area. Production is small, ranging from the 233 cases of 2008 to the relatively huge 875 cases of 2011. Winemaker is Ted Osborne. The Phifer Pavitt winery itself, owned by Shane Pavitt and Suzanne Phifer Pavitt, is on Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail near Calistoga. Each of the wines under review today rates Excelllent. You’re thinking, “What happened to those Exceptional ratings for the 2005. ’06 and ’07?” I’ll be honest. These four wines are very well-made, complex, capable of opening and unfolding and offering multitudes of detail and dimension, and I absolutely recommend them to lovers of potentially long-lived Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. What they seem to lack is an ultimate charisma, the ineffable, magical incisiveness and penetrating power that lift a wine above the order of excellence into the realm of the extraordinary. Did anything change in the vineyard or winemaking process? Not that I am aware of. On the other hand, I liked each one of these cabernets and would happily taste and drink them again. Each represents a model of the purity and intensity of the cabernet grape in a manner that’s unique to this winery.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley, is the winery’s current release. It contains 2 percent petit verdot and aged 18 months in small French oak barrels, 75 percent of which were new. The color is dark ruby shading to medium ruby at the rim; aromas of ripe black currants and raspberries are woven with notes of sandalwood, lavender and leather, with hints of cedar, bell pepper, black olive and mocha. Nothing too extracted, though a few moments in the glass bring up touches of briers and brambles, with a little of the raspiness of raspberry leaves and stems, a bit of caramelized fennel. On the palate, however, the wine is large-framed and dimensional, quite dry but succulent with ripe and spicy black fruit flavors founded on sleek, grainy tannins, graphite minerality, polished oak and vivid acidity, all balanced and integrated but all readily apparent. The finish is long, packed with spice and fairly austere. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 875 cases. Drink from 2016 or ’17 through 2026 to ’30. Excellent. About $80, according to the winery website, $85 on the sticker affixed to the sample bottle.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
For 2010, the Phifer Pavit Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon comes awfully close to being 100 percent varietal, except for a scant one percent petit verdot. The wine aged 19 months in French oak barriques, 80 percent new barrels. The color here is an intense dark ruby fading to transparency at the rim; at first the bouquet is all about structure, with elements of walnut shell, leather and wheat meal, but gradually there’s an unfolding of spiced and macerated black currants, raspberries and plums, as well as autumnal notes of burning leaves, moss and dried flowers. In the mouth, this cabernet is saline and savory, offering touches of iodine and iron and intense and concentrated clove-and-incense-infused black fruit flavors; tannins, however, are hard-driven, oak is a bit intractable and the granitic mineral character feels unassailable, though every quality is tied together with resonant acidity; the finish is dry, mineral-inflected and austere. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 561 cases. Drink from 2016 or ’18 through 2028 to ’32. Excellent potential. About $80.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley, contains two percent petit verdot and aged 19 months in French oak barriques, 70 percent new barrels. The color is dark to medium ruby; the bouquet amalgamates notes of iodine and iron, in a sanguinary/ferrous communion, with cloves, cinnamon and ancho chili, spiced and macerated black currants, cherries and plums with back-notes of walnut shell and leather; the 09 is the driest, most tannic and austere of this quartet of Date Night cabernets, coating the palate with deep and dusty elements of granitic minerality, spice-laden oak and lip-smacking acidity, as well as earthy and loamy qualities that evince a moss-mushroom-underbrush character. Still loads of personality in evidence and great potential from 2016 or ’18 through 2028 to ’30. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Production was 513 cases. Excellent. About $80.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
After a day of tasting these four Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernets from 2011, ’10, ’09 and ’08, this 2008 was the one we drank the rest of with dinner of leftover boeuf bourguignon. It contains four percent petit verdot; it aged 19 months in French oak barriques, 65 percent new barrels. Notes of leather, lavender and iodine, wheatmeal, black olive and rosemary teem in the glass, along with pungent aromas of dried baking spices and graphite minerality; scents and flavors of black currants, cherries and plums are a little roasted, a bit stewed, an element that adds depth and resonance to the fruit. This wine slowly builds layers in the glass, adding power and character as the minutes elapse; those shadings include the essential vibrant acidity, a deep-seated lithic element and finely-sifted and polished tannins. The finish is long, packed with spice and minerals and only becomes slightly austere after an hour or so. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was a minuscule 233 cases. Drink now through 2022 to 2026. Excellent. About $80.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2013, Napa Valley, illustrates the manner in which a wine can be carefully calibrated without feeling manipulated or over-cossetted. It’s a blend of 90 percent sauvignon blanc and 10 percent semillon; 89 percent of the grapes came from two vineyards in Napa Valley, 11 percent from Mendocino County. O.K., here’s where it gets complicated: 60 percent of the juice was barrel-fermented, eight percent of that in new oak; the other 40 percent fermented in stainless steel; the wine aged five months in French oak barrels on the lees, that is, the residue of yeast. So, you’re thinking, Why go to all this trouble? Can’t they just make the wine and let me drink it? The point is to create a wine that thoughtfully balances richness and substance with fresh brightness and crispness, a task this one does handily. The color is very pale gold; aromas of jasmine and lemongrass, lime peel and guava are wreathed with spiced pear and tangerine, touches of hay and dried thyme, and back-notes of limestone and flint. On the palate, this sauvignon blanc offers a lovely, soft talc-like texture animated by scintillating acidity and limestone minerality, buoying the spice-inflected citrus and stone-fruit flavors that open to hints of melon, quince and (barely) fig. It’s a leafy, sunny sauvignon blanc that displays marked presence and character. Director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi is Geneviève Janssens. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2015 as aperitif or with seafood risottos and stews or grilled shrimp or mussels. Excellent. About $20, representing Good Value.

This wine was a sample for review.


The history of Respite Wines goes back to 1948, when Corinne Reichel’s grandfather purchased 400 acres high in what would become the Alexander Valley AVA of Sonoma County, high as in 2,400 to 2,600 feet elevation. Corinne and Charles Reichel began growing grapes on 20 acres of that land in 1985 but decided a decade ago to shift from just growing grapes to producing wine. Winemakers for this small enterprise are Denis and May-Britt Malbec (pictured in this image). Denis was born on the property of Chateau Latour, the world-famous Bordeaux estate in Pauillac, and was the third generation, going back to 1920, of his family to work there, being cellar master from 1994 to 2000, after his father’s retirement. May-Britt Malbec is an award-winning sommelier from Sweden. She and Denis formed an international winemaking consultant business in 2000 and joined Respite in 2004.

Not surprisingly, these three cabernet sauvignon-based wines combine power and elegance in packages energized by relatively moderate alcohol levels and mountain-vineyard acidity and minerality. Production is tiny, even for the least expensive “entry” wine, and distribution is limited, so try the winery’s website for information about purchasing.

These wines were samples for review. Image of Denis and May-Britt Malbec from wine-blog.org.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Respite Antics Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Alexander Valley, is a blend of 84 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent cabernet franc and 4 percent malbec; it sees 50 percent new French oak. The color is consistent dark ruby from center to rim; aromas of cassis, black cherries and plums are wreathed with elements of dusty graphite, bitter chocolate and lavender. This is a solid, dense and chewy wine, not rustic by any means, but a little blocky and rough-hewn; intense and concentrated black fruit flavors are permeated by notes of tar, loam, cedar and tobacco-leaf. The whole effect is of something sprung wildly from the mountain soil. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 112 cases. Very Good+. About $26.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Respite Reichel Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Alexander Valley, is a blend that includes 4 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent malbec; 60 percent new French oak was used in aging. A dark ruby hue is opaque at the center; the bouquet seethes with notes of black raspberry and black currant, touches of cedar, caraway and sandalwood, with a pungent strain of graphite, rosemary, black olives and caramelized fennel. This is an earth-bound, rock-carved cabernet sauvignon, settled on a deep foundation of loamy granitic minerality, resonant acidity and dense, finely-milled and sifted tannins; there’s no neglect of thoroughly spiced and macerated black currants, cherries and plums, though they take a back seat to the wine’s burgeoning oaken and tannic character. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 325 cases. Drink now (with hearty braised meat dishes) through 2020 to ’25. Excellent. About $48.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Respite winery’s flagship Reichel Vineyard product is Indulgence, for 2010 a proprietary blend of 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent malbec and 13 percent cabernet franc, aged in 60 percent new French oak and feeling like a pure expression of a high-elevation vineyard in its intensity and concentration of iron and iodine, graphite and walnut shell, underbrush and graham meal. The color is vibrant dark ruby with a magenta rim; the bouquet teems with notes of cassis, black raspberry, blueberry and kirsch permeated by sandalwood, lavender, bitter chocolate and tobacco. This wine is dense and chewy, and it not only slides through the mouth with tremendous tannic, mineral and acid presence but it inhabits the tongue and palate, staking claims on your attention and sensibility. It’s the epitome of Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 77 cases. Best from 2016 or ’17 through 2025 to ’30. Exceptional. About $75.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

No holds are barred in California, unlike in the Old World, where government agencies determine where grapes can be grown and what grapes go into certain wines. Many wines, of course, are famous for their combinations of grapes, like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which may contain any ratio of up to 13 grapes, red and white, or Bordeaux, where winemakers fashion cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc (primarily) into some of the world’s most elegant, powerful and best-known red wines. No such customs or regulations abide in the Golden State, and today we look at five wines that offer some unusual blends of grapes, some more successfully than others. The trick is to create a blend that delivers distinctive, if not original, qualities rather than something than comes out smelling and tasting like a generic “red wine.” These wines were samples for review. Enjoy!
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Bonny Doon Vineyards A Proper Claret 2013, California. 13.5% alc. Cabernet sauvignon 46%, merlot 17%, tannat 15%, petit verdot 13%, syrah 8%, petite sirah 1%, the point being that this is a very improper claret — Bordeaux red wine — indeed. Dark ruby-purple with a magenta rim; solid, tannic, fills the mouth with briers, brambles and underbrush but builds layers of cloves and allspice, cedar, ancho chili, then undertones of dusty black currants, raspberries and plums; no molly-coddle here, intense and concentrated, lip-smacking acidity; dense, chewy; needs a medium rare strip steak or a great joint of venison. Now through 2018 to 2020. Loads of personality. Very Good+. About $16, a Real Bargain.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Casey Flat Ranch Estate Red Wine 2012, Capay Valley, Yolo County. 14.8% alc. Cabernet sauvignon 56%, syrah 30%, cabernet franc 13% viognier 1%. Dense ruby-purple; cassis, black cherries and raspberries; hints of menthol, violets, hedge and heather, then graphite and underbrush, leather and mocha; bushy and brushy but succulent, balanced, integrated; a touch of the iodine-and-iron complex (sounds like a vitamin) under delicious black fruit flavors with a note of blue; wild berry notes, licorice and lavender lend some elevation to a wine of true class, distinction and character. Now through 2020 to ’22 with steaks and braised meats. Excellent. About $45.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Gnarly Head Limited Release Authentic Black 2012, Lodi. (Delicato Family Vineyards) 14.5% alc. Petite sirah-based blend. A limited edition wine for Fall. The problem with the Gnarly Head wines is that they’re not gnarly enough. One of the purplest and most opaque wines I have ever seen; very ripe, spicy, grapy, gamy; plummy and jammy with sweetish blackberry, blueberry and currant scents and flavors, plush and velvety, “soft in the middle,” as Paul Simon says; quite juicy, smoky, a little loamy; comes across as unfocused and inauthentic. Good+. About $12.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Juxtapoz Red Wine Blend 2012, North Coast. (Delicato Family Vineyards) 15% alc. Syrah 55%, zinfandel 23%, petite sirah 9%, malbec 6%, cabernet sauvignon 4%, “other reds” 3%. Dark ruby with an opaque center; first impression is of woody spices and walnut shell, then ripe black currants, cherries and plums, hints of plum skin, cedar and black olive; a few moments in the glass bring in notes of slightly caramelized fennel; scrunchy tannins and bright acidity make a fairly robust wine; you feel the alcoholic heat a bit on the finish; takes an hour or so for this to come together, and it finally convinced me that it worked. Cheesy label, though. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Very Good+. About $25.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Renwood Clarion Red Wine 2012, Amador County. 15% alc. 25% each zinfandel, petite sirah, syrah and marsanne; that’s right, one-quarter of this wine is from white grapes. Dark ruby purple color; a deep spicy wine, bursting with notes of blackberries, black currants and blueberries permeated by violets, lavender, potpourri and graphite; sleek, supple and integrated and manages not to be overwhelmed by the alcohol content; picks up hints of cloves, walnut shell, briers and brambles through a wildly fruity but earthy, mineral-packed finish. Tasty and intriguing. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $20.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Here’s a syrah wine that gets to the nitty-gritty of the grape. The Bonny Doon Le Pousseur Syrah 2012, derived from four cool climate vineyards in the Central Coast appellation, offers reams of spicy black fruit and whole tomes of briery-brambly-underbrush structure. True to the grape’s youngster mode, the emphasis is on spiced and macerated blackberry-blueberry-plum scents and flavors powerfully inflected with dense, chewy, lithic tannins and evocative notes of mossy earthy, loamy minerality. Call it robust without being rustic and deeply dark (and a little shaggy) without being inchoate, and allow it a few or considerable minutes to open to its more floral, spicy, attractively ripe aspects, and you have a red wine whose chiseled, faceted (yet inherently sensual) character lends itself as accompaniment to braised short ribs or veal shanks, beef stew or medium-rare rib-eye steak, hot and crusty from the grill. The Poser may be a trickster, but there’s no chicanery here. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 or ’20. Winemaker is, of course, Randall Grahm. Excellent. About $26.

A sample for review, tasted with a variety of salamis and hard cheeses.

I love the sauvignon blanc grape, and given my druthers I would chose sauvignon blanc wines over chardonnay any day of the week. Oh, sure, you can get bland sauvignon blancs but usually not over-oaked, buttery, super-ripe fruit-bombs, as can happen with chardonnay. Today I present brief reviews of 15 sauvignon blanc wines, mainly from different regions of California, but also two from Sancerre, in France’s Loire Valley, one from New Zealand and a surprisingly delightful example from the state of Virginia. With the exception of the Sancerre wines, these were samples for review. Enjoy!
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Amici Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. 50% sauvignon blanc/50% sauvignon musque. 10% barrel-fermented in French oak and malolactic. Pale gold; quite fresh and clean; lemon and tangerine, hint of mango and lemongrass; hint of honeysuckle; moderately lush but crisply balanced; river-rock minerality; lime peel and flint finish. Quite attractive. Very Good+. About $25.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Terroir Coquerel Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Calistoga, Napa Valley. 12.5% alc. Seven months in French oak, 10% new barrels. Very pale gold color; grapefruit, tangerine, lime peel, hint of peach, notes of lilac, lavender and fennel; a few moments in the glass bring up touches of roasted lemon and celery seed; a little leafy and herbal; taut, crisp, vibrant, loads of personality and presence; tensile slightly dusty grapefruit-limestone finish. Just terrific. Excellent. About $32.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. 853 cases. Five months in mature French oak barrels. Pale gold hue; lemongrass, green olive, lime peel, smoked grapefruit: a sauvignon blanc for grown-ups; very dry, crisp, packed with limestone and flint elements and enlivened by crystalline acidity; almost talc-like texture but lithe and lean; roasted lemon, preserved lemon rind, spiced pear; chalk and flint finish. Drink through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $30.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Davis Bynum Virginia’s Block-Jane’s Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 13.5% alc. Four months 74% old French oak barrels, 26% stainless steel. Pale gold; almost glistens with liveliness and crispness; pineapple, grapefruit, cloves and thyme; wholly clean and fresh but a touch exotic with lavender, lilac and roasted fennel; sunny and leafy, hints of figs and hay; scintillating limestone and grapefruit finish, brings up some earthiness. Drink through 2016. Excellent. About $25.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dry Creek Vineyard Fume Blanc 2013, Sonoma County. 13.5% alc. Pale gold color; lemon, lime and grapefruit, hints of figs and yellow plums; leafy, slightly grassy, a bit saline; very dry, crisp and lively with bright acidity and limestone minerality; nothing complicated but tasty and delightful. Very Good+. About $14, an Unbeatable Bargain.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. Pale gold; grapefruit and lime peel, spiced pear, jasmine and lilac; pert, tart and sassy; lots of limestone and flint minerality; nicely balanced and integrated. Standard style but tasty. Very Good. About $18.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Galerie Equitem Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Knights Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. 55% neutral French oak, 45 percent stainless steel. Pale gold color; lemongrass, celery seed, smoke, hint of cumin; lemon drop and lime peel, hints of jasmine and lilac; lovely almost powdery texture riven by bright acidity; quite vibrant and resonant; limestone-packed finish. Drink through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $30.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Galerie Naissance Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. 51% neutral French oak, 49% stainless steel. Pale gold; delicate peach, pear and tangerine aromas, notes of lemongrass, grapefruit and honeysuckle; back note of guava; clean, bright acidity, lovely taut, lithe texture, vivid citrus and stone fruit flavors slightly subdued by limestone minerality. Through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. about $30.
Image from vivino.com.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________
Niner Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. 14.4% alc. 90% sauvignon blanc, 5% semillon, 5% sauvignon musque. Certified sustainable. Very pale straw color; honeysuckle and acacia, roasted lemon and spiced pear, touch of fig and fennel; very dry, earthy, almost loamy for a sauvignon blanc; dense, vibrant, resonant; unusually intense style. Very Good+. About $22.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Paul Dolan Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Potter Valley, Mendocino County. 14% alc. (Organic) Pale gold; subtle, supple, mildly grassy and herbal — think hay and thyme — roasted lemon and grapefruit, hints of lime peel and spiced pear; very dry, with brisk acidity and a chalk/limestone finish; lovely presence and texture. Very Good+. About $18, representing Good Value.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Pierre Cherrier et Fils Domaine de la Rossignole Cuvee Vieilles Vignes 2012, Sancerre, Loire Valley. 13% alc. Pale gold; quince and ginger, jasmine and lemon balm, grapefruit and lime peel, hints of smoke and limestone; very dry, dense and almost malleable, packed with chalk, flint and damp limestone; a few minutes in the glass bring up notes of yellow plums and (faintly) sage and camellias; lovely complexity and dimension. Excellent. About $25.
Imported by The Country Vintners, Ashland, Va.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Phifer Pavitt Date Night Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 588 cases. Pale gold; lemongrass and lime peel, roasted lemon; almond blossom and lemon balm; ginger and quince, yellow plum; piercing acidity and penetrating limestone minerality; exquisite balance between a soft, petal-like texture and dynamic leanness and litheness; finishes with grapefruit, pear skin and bitter almond; tremendous personality and presence. Drink through 2016 to ’18. Exceptional. About $30.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Jean Reverdy et Fils La Reine Blanche 2013, Sancerre, Loire Valley. 13% alc. Very pale gold color; lime peel and roasted lemon with high notes of ginger and quince and a tinge of grapefruit; very dry, taut, vibrant, teems with chalk and limestone minerality; brings in hints of lilac and spiced pear; great balance and tone through the slightly austere mineral-packed finish. Through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $25.
Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Stinson Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Virginia. 12% alc. 150 cases. Pale gold; very delicate, subtle, delightfully wreathed with jasmine, peach, green grass and gooseberry; hedge and heather; back notes of cloves and crystallized ginger; quite dry, taut, bright and clean yet with an attractive element of moderate lushness and a spicy finish. Loveliness. Excellent. About $23.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Marlborough, New Zealand. 13% alc. Very pale gold hue; typical NZ with its lime peel, celery seed, bell pepper, gooseberry and grapefruit snappiness but quite clean and well-balanced, nothing exaggerated; crisp, lively scintillating, a touch leafy and figgy; bright zippy finish. Irresistible personality. Excellent. About $18, a Great Bargain.
Imported by Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Ill.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Cakebread Cellars was the first winery I visited on my first trip to Napa Valley, in 1987, covering the Napa Valley Wine Auction. The winery celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, having been founded in 1973 by Jack Cakebread, photographer and owner of Cakebread’s Garage, an auto repair shop in San Francisco started by Leo Cakebread in 1927. I say that Jack Cakebread founded the winery, but his wife Dolores and sons Steve, Bruce and Dennis cannot be left out of even a brief account of the Cakebread history. The company is still family-owned and has grown from its original 22 acres to hundreds of acres with vineyards throughout Napa Valley and a pinot noir outpost in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Jack Cakebread is CEO, Bruce is president and COO, and Dennis is senior vice president for sales and marketing. Winemaker since 2002 has been Julianne Laks, previously the winery’s assistant winemaker.

The three cabernet sauvignon-based wines from 2012, ’11 and ’10 reviewed in this post are powerful expressions of the grapes and the Napa soil and sub-strata from which they grew. If your ideal notion of cabernet wines is finesse and finely-tuned nuance, the wedding of dynamism and elegance, these are not your models. Winemaker Julianne Laks fully exploits all elements for their deepest dimensions of tannin, oak and mineral-like qualities, building unimpeachable structure, in addition to drawing from wells of sometimes exotic spice and ripe, macerated fruit, the latter requiring a decade to develop completely. While the wines can be daunting initially, there are rewards for those with patience. Cakebread is not a winery that kowtows to fashion. The label is basically unchanged from how it was designed 40 years ago; the style does not lean toward high alcohol, super-ripeness or layers of toasty new oak. Such solidity and sense of tradition may seem staid and stodgy to some consumers, but to my mind they form a gratifying display of dedication and common sense.

These wines were samples for review. The image immediately above shows Bruce, Jack and Dennis Cakebread back in the day, that is, sometime in the 1980s.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, is a blend of 84 percent cabernet sauvignon, six percent each merlot and cabernet franc and four percent petit verdot. This is a valley-wide wine, its components deriving from vineyards throughout the appellation. It aged 18 months in French oak, 54 percent new barrels. The color is deep ruby-red with a magenta rim; a full-blown woodsy bouquet of moss, loam, underbrush and walnut-shell opens to notes of cassis with spiced and macerated blueberries and plums underlain by whiffs of coffee, cedar, tobacco and graphite; a few minutes in the glass bring up hints of bell pepper and black olive. The wine fills the mouth with dusty, grainy tannins and polished oak; it’s lithic and granitic, yet possesses inner richness and ripeness; still the mineral, oak and tannic elements preside for the time being. The finish is large, dry, highly structured and rather austere. Twelve hours overnight merely deepened and broadened the wine’s essential framework. 14.3 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’25 or ’26. Excellent potential. About $61.50.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Cakebread Cellars Benchland Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley, is 100 percent cabernet grapes, taken from two vineyards in the slopes in the west of the Rutherford AVA; the wine aged 19 months in French oak, 45 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby, though not quite opaque, with a slightly lighter rim; the bouquet is characterized by notes of cedar and rosemary — with a touch of the resinous quality implied — walnut-shell and graham meal, iodine and graphite; some moments of airing reveal hints of tapenade and loam. This is a very dense, chewy wine, with bales of oak and tannin that coat the palate with dusty, front-loaded minerality; it requires considerable swirling of the glass to free the spicy and balsamic-inflected blackberry-blueberry-and-black-cherry scents and flavors. The texture embodies the classic Napa Valley “iron-fist-in-velvet-glove” plushness married to granite and deep earthy tones. Even the next morning, the wine exhibited tannins that should read you your Miranda rights before you imbibe. 13.6 percent alcohol. A bit inchoate now, this will need three to five years to attain balance and integration and then develop through 2025 to ’29 or ’30. Very Good+. Not yet released; prices for previous vintages were about $90 to $110.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, contains six percent cabernet franc and 1 percent merlot in the blend; the vineyards go up to 1,800-foot elevation. The wine aged 19 months in French oak, 39 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby-magenta; if a wine could be described as both monumental and winsomely exotic, this is it. The whole enterprise is intense and concentrated in every detail and dimension, and while the first impression is of utter clarity and freshness, the second impression is laden with deep graphite minerality, iron-like but finely-milled tannins and polished ecclesiastical oak — I mean, think of ancient burnished altars, dusty velvet drapery and incense, the latter notion leading to the wine’s exotic nature in notes of lavender, sandalwood, cloves and black licorice. Still, fruit is a buried stream here; you sense rather than feel the latent intensity of ripeness, though the rich, savory quality is undeniable. Twelve hours later, the tannins formed a bastion that will demand three to five years to soften and admit entrance, drinking then through 2028 to ’30. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Excellent potential. Unreleased, but previous vintages priced about $100 to $125.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The brand-spanking-new FEL Wines is a project of Cliff Lede — pronounced “lay-dee” — owner of the Cliff Lede winery in Napa Valley. This Anderson Valley facility, named for the proprietor’s mother, Florence Elsie Lede, is devoted to chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir. Under review today, in this series dedicated to wineries that produce chardonnay and pinot noir, are the FEL Chardonnay 2013 and Pinot Noir 2012; winemaker Ryan Hodgins also produces each variety in a single vineyard version. Both of these wines are clean, ripe and forward — classic California, you might say — but well-balanced and endowed with multiple nuances of earth and minerality appropriate to the grape. Nothing shy here, though the final analysis tends toward elegance (especially for the pinot) as well as dynamism.

These wines were samples for review.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The FEL Wines Chardonnay 2013, Anderson Valley, spent nine months in neutral French oak barrels and underwent what is described as “very limited” malolactic fermentation, both of which sound perfect to me; keep the oak and malo to a minimum, I say. The color is radiant medium gold; a very pure and intense bouquet of pungent pineapple and grapefruit is infused with cloves and lime peel, hints of jasmine and limestone and a back-tone of slightly woody spice. The wine is ripe, bright and lush, quite dry with its burgeoning elements of chalk, flint and limestone and scintillating acidity; notes of smoke and toffee add intrigue to the citrus and stone-fruit flavors that lean toward tangerine and peach, while a structure that’s dense, chewy and almost tannic segues into a spice-and-mineral-packed finish. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 1,201 cases. Quite a performance. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $28.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The FEL Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, aged 14 months in French oak, 44 percent new barrels, offers a lovely, limpid ruby-magenta hue and beguiling aromas of cranberries and red and black cherries and currants that open to notes of menthol and violets, leather, briers and brambles with hints of graphite and loam; after a few minutes in the glass, the wine emits touches of pomegranate, sassafras and cloves. Reader, you could eat it with a spoon. The supple texture is satin lifted to the supernal mode, though this pinot noir also delivers a slight mineral rasp and after an hour or so builds incrementally layers of soft-grained oak and finely-milled tannins. Bright acidity provides liveliness and propulsive energy through a wine that, however gorgeous its spiced and macerated black and red fruit flavors, feels like an entity of earth, moss, terrain, geology. 14.6 percent alcohol. Production was 2,923 cases. A true marriage of power and elegance. Now through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $38.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Casting about for a bright, fresh, fruity wine to accompany a pizza the primary elements of which were Brussels sprouts leaves, leeks and bacon, I settled on the Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy Grenache 2013, Monterey County, and got exactly what I wanted. The wine is a blend of 75 percent grenache grapes, 17 percent syrah and 8 percent mourvèdre. The color is dark ruby with a glint of magenta at the rim. Bright, fresh and fruity, indeed, with blackcurrant, raspberry and strawberry aromas permeated by notes of pomegranate and cloves and hints of pepper and graphite. Sleek on the palate, this is an easy-drinking wine, or deceptively so, because you become aware, as the moments pass, of firm, fine-grained tannins and slick-as-a-whistle acidity for balance and verve. And its black and red fruit flavors are delicious. 14 percent alcohol. Now through 2015 or ’16. Delightful and, in my experience, versatile. Very Good+. About $20.

A sample for review.

The pinot noirs of Kosta Browne Winery regularly earn the highest ratings from reviewers for the big publications, an occurrence that brings a great deal of attention to these highly allocated wines. In fact, the winery’s waiting list comes with a two- to three-year wait for the “Appellation” wines and — I’m not kidding — a five- to six-year wait for the Single Vineyard wines, of which there may be up to 10 separate bottlings depending on the vintage. The idea for the winery was born in 1997 when Dan Kosta and Michael Browne, then working at a restaurant in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, decided to venture into winemaking. They began with a half-ton of pinot noir grapes, a used barrel and a surplus stemmer-crusher. In 2001, Kosta and Browne brought in Chris Costello, from a family involved in commercial real estate and development, as the business end of the enterprise; through the Costello family, the partnership gained contacts, contracts and management acumen. Browne is executive winemaker, with assistant winemakers Jeremiah Timm and Nico Cueva. Kosta Browne draws on vineyards in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs in Sonoma County and Santa Lucia Highlands AVA in Monterey County. There is no tasting room, and the winery in Sebastopol is closed to the public.

Under consideration today are two of Kosta Browne’s Appellation wines, the One Sixteen Chardonnay 2012 and the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2012, in this series dedicated to the examination of chardonnay and pinot noir wines from the same producer. These wines were samples for review.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Kosta Browne One Sixteen Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley, is a blend of grapes derived from seven vineyards that total 12 different chardonnay clones, the notion being a sort of ideal balance of all the attributes those clones contribute to the wine. It’s named for the Gravenstein Hwy. 116 that cuts through the town of Sebastopol in the Russian River Valley sub-appellation of Green Valley. This AVA is the coolest and foggiest vineyard area of Russian River Valley, situated in the southwest corner where the Pacific Ocean influence is readily apparent. When I tell My Readers that this chardonnay went through barrel-fermentation and aged 15 months in oak, they will respond, “Uh-oh, FK is not going to like this chardonnay.” I’ll admit, though, that I was surprised at how much I liked this wine, and while I don’t normally find words of praise for what I think of as the Bold California Style of Chardonnay, this example was little short of thrilling.

Kosta Browne One Sixteen Chardonnay 2012 was indeed barrel fermented, 93 percent, the other 7 percent being in concrete. The wine did age 15 months, but only in 41 percent new oak. The color is medium gold, and the aromas define this chardonnay as bold, bright and rich, with ripe, slightly caramelized pineapple, grapefruit and mango highlighted by notes of cloves, vanilla, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and — faintly — lime peel and flint. The wine is supple and boisterously fruity and spicy on the palate, with hints of creme brulee, roasted lemon and baked pear. This sensuous panoply is both abetted and balanced by clean, vibrant acidity and a scintillating limestone element. My favorite style of chardonnay? No, but certainly a model of the type that I found surprisingly poised, energetic and delicious. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $58.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Kosta Browne Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast, derives from three vineyards in the south of the Sonoma Coast AVA, lying straight in the path of the Petaluma Wind Gap that allows a distinct maritime influence, and one vineyard in the northwestern coastal area of the AVA. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 46 percent new barrels. The color is medium ruby with an almost transparent rim; the amazingly complex and layered nose offers a seamless amalgam of cloves and menthol, violets and rose hips, with hints of loam, briers and iodine bolstering macerated black and red cherries and currants with a touch of cranberry. On the palate? Imagine supernal satin infused with velvet through which vivid acidity cuts a swath and earthy graphite minerality stakes a supporting claim; the influence of oak and tannin, both feeling slightly sanded and dusty, gradually seeps in, providing firm foundation for spicy black and red fruit flavors that seem ripe and juicy yet spare, elegant, a bit exotic. I re-corked the wine and tried it eight hours later, at which time it had closed down a bit, becoming more reticent, quite dry, with emphasis on structure. Even the next day, now open for more than 24 hours, this pinot noir kept its integrity and balance. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $64.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Next Page »