California


We don’t drink much merlot in our house because generally merlot wines made in California (and elsewhere in the world except for St. Emilion and Pomerol) tend to be rather uninteresting cadet cabernets. Here, thankfully, is an exception, a 100 percent merlot that displays not only integrity but marked individuality. McIntyre Vineyards lies in Monterey Country’s Santa Lucia Highlands, a growing area occupying terraces in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Range well-known for chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah. The narrow 12-mile-long region looks across the Salinas Valley to Chalone and the awesome rock formation called The Pinnacles. The McIntyre Kimberly Vineyard Merlot 2012 comes not from Santa Lucia Highlands, however, but from Arroyo Seco, an AVA just to the south. The 81-acre Kimberly Vineyard, planted entirely to merlot, occupies a site near the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and Salinas Rivers on an alluvial fan at the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountains, just beyond the influence of the intense Salinas Valley winds, creating a micro-climate much warmer than the surrounding terrain, that is, more suited to merlot than pinot noir. The McIntyre Kimberly Vineyard Merlot 2012 offers an opaque dark ruby hue with a riveting violet-magenta rim that’s almost nuclear; this is a blue-fruit wine — blueberry, blue plum, mulberry — packed with granite and graphite, briers and brambles that allow for notes of lavender, mint and loganberry tart. It is, make no mistake, a powerful, intense and concentrated wine that practically resonates in the glass with energy and dynamism. (The vineyard, by the way, is certified sustainable.) Acidity is profound; the finish is steep and lithic. Still, for all the emphasis on structure, this merlot, deeply committed to its place on earth, delivers myriad pleasures, especially, as we drank the bottle last night, with pork chops marinated in olive oil, soy sauce, lime juice, a mix of black and Szechuan pepper and smoked paprika. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 333 cases. Drink now through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $22, representing Great Value.

A sample for review.

For a guy who doesn’t much cotton to chardonnay wines, I have probably been paradoxical in my inclusion of chardonnays in this “Wine of the Day” series, now at its 22nd entry. I won’t bother to extemporize upon the manifold ways in which I think chardonnay wines can be over-done, over-blown, exaggerated and over-oaked; I have done that more than a sufficient numbers of times on this blog. I will say, however, that when I try a chardonnay that seems to touch on all the points of perfection that I will clasp it to my heart as not only an exemplar but a talisman, and I will shout its virtues from the roof-tops. Such a one is the Amapola Creek Jos. Belli Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. This wine was made by Richard Arrowood, and if ever a winemaker in California deserved the accolade “legendary,” he is certainly at the top of that brief list. Joseph Belli’s certified organic vineyard lies at the extreme western edge of the Russian River AVA in Sonoma County, where the land begins to slope gently upward. Facing east, the terraced and well-drained acreage receives full sunlight in the morning and early afternoon but is shielded by the hills from the harsh light of late afternoon. The color is pale gold with a faint green cast; the entire impression is of a chardonnay that is clean, pure and fresh, balanced yet forward, fervent, almost emphatic in its intensity; classic notes of pineapple and grapefruit are layered with hints of cloves, yellow plums, baked pear and undertones of ginger, quince and damp limestone; a few moments in the glass bring in touches of jasmine and lilac. The wine flows on the palate with sleekness and subtlety, in a texture almost talc-like in its packed nature yet riven by resonant acidity and a brisk chalk-and-flint mineral quality; though quite dry, it offers juicy, spicy and engaging citrus and stone-fruit flavors that lead to a finish finely-sifted with fruit, acid, oak and minerals. The wine went through barrel-fermentation and aged 11 months in a combination of new and used French oak barrels; its presence is apparent as a shaping element, and its tangible influence emerges primarily through the elegance but powerful finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 475 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.

Randall Grahm leaves a few unsanded edges in the Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy Grenache 2014, Monterey County, so the wine comes traipsing on the palate like a happy-go-lucky country cousin, embodying the concept of rusticity in all its beneficial aspects: open-hearted, generous, robust and a little bumptious, forthright. It’s a blend of 89 percent grenache grapes, 9 percent mourvedre and 2 percent syrah, derived mainly from the Alta Loma Vineyard and with dollops from four other vineyards. The color is medium ruby with a magenta rim; aromas of raspberries and red currants, rhubarb and pomegranate are infused with peppery notes of cloves, briers and loam, while vibrant acidity cuts a swath on the palate and moderately dusty tannins offer a touch of density to the texture. The wine is lively and engaging, earthy without being profound or oratorical. Perfect for pizzas, grilled leg of lamb, or with cold roasted chicken on a picnic. When vinous-minded John Keats called for “a beaker full of the warm South,” he must have had this type of delicious, uncomplicated wine in mind. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $20.

A sample for review. The label image in one vintage behind.

High altitude cabernet sauvignon from Mendoza yesterday; high altitude zinfandel from Howell Mountain today — yes, ma’am and sir, the Wine of the Day requires Seven-League Boots, a vast imagination and flexible taste-buds. The zin in question is the Elyse Winery Zinfandel 2011, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, a blend of 89 percent zinfandel grapes and 11 percent petite sirah, the zinfandel derived from Howell Mountain’s well-known dry-farmed, sustainably-operated Black Sears Vineyard, which rises to 2400-feet elevation. Ray Coursen is the owner and winemaker of Elyse. The wine aged 10 and a half months in American oak barrels, 25 percent new. The color is dark ruby-purple, and the bouquet, which I thought at first was too earthy, smoothed out admirably into an exemplar of the grape’s classic aspects of blackberry and loganberry with undertones of black currants and plums etched with notes of graphite, lavender and wood smoke, all borne on a foundation of loam, iodine and iron. Many of these characteristics segue faultlessly onto the palate, where the wine’s scintillating purity and intensity resonate with a feeling that combines energy with a brooding nature. Here, this zinfandel turns knotty, briery and brambly, adding to its ripe and spicy black fruit flavors long-drawn out touches of brandied raisins, black pepper, bitter chocolate and dusty tannins. 14.7 percent alcohol. Production was 864 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’20 with steak, venison, boar and similar hearty and big-hearted fare. Excellent. About $37.

A sample for review.

Faithful readers of this blog — bless yer pointy little heads and may yer tribes increase! — know that California chardonnay and I have an uneasy and sometimes contentious relationship. I find too many of them over-blown, buxom, viscous and stridently ripe and spicy. On the other hand, chardonnays that display florid ripeness but manage to maintain an edgy balance with racy acidity and striking mineral elements can be not just delicious but exciting, even risky. Such a one is the Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands. The winery was founded by Dan Morgan Lee and his wife Donna in 1982; winemaker since 2005 has been Gianni Abate. The Lees purchased the Double L property, at the northern end of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, in 1996, planting the following year. At present, the vineyard consists of 48.52 planted acres: 27.99 acres planted to pinot noir, 18.45 acres of chardonnay and minuscule amounts of syrah and riesling. The vineyard is certified organic. The Morgan Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 30 percent new, the rest one- and two-year-old barrels. This is a golden and glittering chardonnay, offering a mild medium gold hue and forthright aromas of baked pineapple and caramelized grapefruit entwined with notes of jasmine, smoke, cloves and heather, spread on a background of damp crushed gravel. It’s indeed a sizable wine, quite dry but ripe and juicy with spicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors and animated by shattering acidity and dusty, scintillating limestone minerality. Oak provides a finely sifted and supple framework and foundation; a few minutes in the glass bring out hints of lemon balm and walnut oil. The finish is dense yet nimble, serious and exquisite together and radiant with chardonnay’s purity and intensity. 13.9 percent alcohol. A chardonnay this rich and layered, though elegantly (and dynamically) balanced, requires dishes of utmost simplicity; ultra-rich fare would compete with and clash with the wine. Something like grilled trout with brown butter and capers or roasted chicken with tarragon would be perfect. Drink through 2018 to 2020. Production was 530 cases. Exceptional. About $42.

A sample for review.

Let’s be honest. Rosé wines should not be too serious, thought-provoking or complicated. Their raison d’etre is delight and evanescence, the way that a quick cooling breeze brings delight and relief on a hot afternoon. On the other hand, occasionally I taste — or greedily consume — a rosé of such startling freshness, such intense loveliness and layered pleasure that it transcends mere prettiness and joy and attains a level of perfection and provocation, as a scent-laden gloaming works upon our senses, memories and imaginations. Such a one is the Ehlers “Sylviane” Cabernet Franc Rosé 2014, from the St. Helena AVA of the Napa Valley. This is, frankly, about the most beautiful rose I have encountered in my life of writing about wine. The estate is run on biodynamic principles and is certified organic; the grapes derive from portions of the vineyard dedicated to making rosé, so this one is not an afterthought. It sees no oak, only stainless steel. The color is a radiant light fuchsia-sunset hue; aromas of raspberries and watermelon are woven with rose petal and woodsy notes, with touches of flint, dried thyme and balsam. A few moments in the glass bring up hints of strawberries and a sort of Necco wafer dustiness. The wine slides across the palate in a lively (but not crisp), sleek, lithe flow that propels flavors of wild berry compote and citrus rind through to a delicate, elegant finish. More time, more sniffing and swirling encourage the unfurling of an extraordinary core of lilac, talcum powder and Evening in Paris perfume; it’s hypnotic and tantalizing. 12.9 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2016. We had this last night with a Spanish omelet with potatoes, sausage and parsley. Exceptional. About $28.

A sample for review.

Grenache gris is a rare gray-skinned manifestation of the grenache grape, somewhere between “regular” dark grenache and the green grenache blanc. William Allen makes his Two Shepherds Gibson Ranch Grenache Gris 2013 from a 105-year-old vineyard in Mendocino County. It is fermented and aged nine months in neutral French oak, meaning that there’s no interference of toasty new oak with the wine’s purity and intensity, rather a contributing factor of shapeliness and subtlety. The color is pale but radiant gold with a tinge of topaz; an intoxicating bouquet of lilac and camellia, peach and spiced pear, quince and crystallized ginger is wreathed with notes of lemongrass and lime peel. The wine is vital and vivid on the palate, yet spare, delicate and elegant; on the other hand, it’s remarkably intense, displaying real presence without being heavy or obvious; it’s engaging, not obtrusive. Flavors are yellow and green fruit — citrus and stone-fruit and a touch of yellow plum — highlighted by a leafy, bracing savory, saline quality and a finish that brings in touches of grapefruit rind and almond skin. 13.2 percent alcohol. Only 90 cases produced, so mark this one Worth a Search. Drink through 2016 with grilled shrimp, seafood risotto, grilled trout with capers. Excellent. About $28.

A sample for review.

Fellow toilers in the fields of wine-writing, blogging and journalism will understand that sometimes bottles get forgotten in the mounting backlog of samples. Such was the case with the Hestan Vineyards Chardonnay 2010, San Francisco Bay. On the other hand, the winery’s current release chardonnay, according to its website, is the 2011, so there’s not much of a lag. Obviously proprietors Stanley and Helen Cheng like to hold their chardonnays a bit longer than most producers do, evidenced by the fact that most California chardonnays on the market now are from 2012 and ’13. Winemaker for Hestan is Thomas Rivers Brown, who invests the estate’s cabernets and chardonnays with plenty of heart, size, structure and flavor. Though the winery’s principle vineyards lie up-valley, the chardonnay grapes come from a 2.5-acre site near the mouth of the Napa River, hence the San Francisco Bay appellation, approved as an AVA in 1999, amended in 2006. The Hestan Chardonnay 2010 displays a bright medium gold hue with a slight greenish cast; aromas of peach and baked pineapple are imbued with notes of cloves, bay leaf, heather and touches of peach-pit woodiness and pine; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of quince and crystallized ginger. This is a strapping chardonnay, supple, lithe and silky, almost muscular; despite the ripeness of its citrus and stone-fruit flavors, it’s quite dry, alight with blazing acidity and anchored by prominent limestone minerality, two qualities that save it from opulence and flamboyance. Also blessedly absent are any traces of the tropical, the creamy and the buttery. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 350 cases, so mark this Worth a Search. Drink now through 2018 or ’20. Excellent. About $50.

A sample for review.

If a pinot noir wine doesn’t touch both the sublime of the ephemeral and the profundity of the chthonic, it is, to me, perhaps not a failure but a gravely lost opportunity in allowing the grape’s complicated and paradoxical virtues to express themselves. Greg Bjornstad, winemaker for Pfendler Vineyards, employs the panoply of craft, art and intuition to make pinot noirs that satisfy my desire for the broad range of the grape’s character and dimension. The winery is owned by Kimberly Pfendler, pictured here. The Pfendler Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, aged 11 months in French oak barrels, 50 percent new. The color is a fairly opaque ruby shading to transparent magenta at the rim; what a seductive procession of black cherries and cranberries, with notes of cloves and sassafras, pomegranate, potpourri and sandalwood, emerges from the glass! The texture offers a lovely, dense, satiny drape that flows with lithe and lissome engagement on the palate, while a few moment’s pause for swirling, sniffing and sipping lend the wine hints of smoke and tobacco leaf, rose petals and rhubarb. Earthy, leathery elements burgeon, and the wine takes on more loamy, underbrushy qualities as it leans toward the power of slightly dusty tannins and a flinty mineral structure. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Production was 350 cases. Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.


Michael McCay uses a light touch to make small quantities of impeccable wines at his McCay Cellars facility in Lodi. He is probably best-known for a series of single-vineyard zinfandels, but he produces versions of more out-of-the-way grapes too. An example is the McCay Cellars Cinsault 2013, derived from the Bechthold Vineyard planted in 1886. This cherry-red wine, fermented on native yeasts and seeing only 23 percent new French oak, sings with purity and intensity. Aromas and flavors of ripe cherries and raspberries are permeated by notes of cloves and allspice, briers, brambles and loam and wild tones of cranberry and rose petals. A flinty graphite edge hones the palate, while bright acidity cuts a swath and lends pert liveliness; the finish gathers touches of cherry-berry, apple peel and a modicum of dry, dusty tannins. Thankfully, there’s nothing opulent here; you feel this wine’s spare virtues and savory attractions strung on a line of limpid and uncontested structural depth. 13.8 percent alcohol. Fewer than 200 cases produced, so mark this Worth a Search. Excellent. About $39.

A sample for review.

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