California


Here’s a terrific and reasonably-priced wine to open when you’re serving such redolent and deeply-flavored wintery fare as braised short ribs, veal or lamb shanks or hearty stews. The Vina Robles Red 4 2012, from Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County, is an interesting blend of 50 percent petite sirah grapes with 20 percent each syrah and grenache and 10 percent mourvèdre, drawn primarily from the winery’s estate Huerhuero vineyard. In other words, it’s a California rendition of a southern Rhône Valley red wine except that half of it consists of petite sirah, a grape grown almost exclusively in the Golden State. The wine aged 16 months in a combination of small and large American, French and European oak barrels, the latter term — I mean France is in Europe, n’est-ce pas? — usually implying an origin in what used to be called Eastern Europe, i.e., Slovenia or Hungary. In any case, the color here is dark ruby with a magenta-mulberry cast; the bouquet is spicy, feral, bursting with notes of ripe blackberries, blueberries and currants. The wine is lithe and supple on the palate, buoyed by vibrant acidity and mild but slightly dusty tannins and a line of graphite minerality, all at the service of tasty black and blue fruit flavors permeated by hints of lavender, leather and bitter chocolate and briery-brambly undertones. There’s a lot of personality here for the price. 13.9 percent alcohol. Vina Robles was founded in 1996 by Swiss entrepreneur Hans Nef; winemaker is Kevin Willenborg. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $17.

A sample for review.

We can’t drink great wine all the time. Contrary to what My Readers may think, I certainly don’t. In fact, a diet of perfection would become cloying and wearisome, n’est-ce pas? Well, perhaps not, but let’s assume that most people really just want a decent bottle of wine to accompany a simple meal. Here, then, are two white wines and four reds designed to be to consumed with, say, a tuna sandwich or seafood risotto, on the one hand, or a burger or steak, on the other. Prices range from $12 to $17, with quality fairly evenly portioned along the Very Good to Very Good+ range. Will these wines — especially the reds — lodge in the memory as some of the best wine you’ve tasted? certainly not, but they get the job done, or better, at a reasonable price. If only everything in life turned out that way. Quick reviews here, intended to pique your interest and whet the palate. Enjoy!

These wines were samples for review.

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Stepping Stone Rocks! White Wine 2013, North Coast, California. 13.3% alc. (Stepping Stone is the second label of Cornerstone Cellars; Rocks! is, well, the second label of Stepping Stone.) “Mystery” blend of chardonnay, viognier and muscat canelli. Very pale gold color; lilac, lemon-lime and pear, slightly grassy and herbal, hint of lemongrass; quite clean, crisp, fresh and dry, with a kind of gin-like purity and snap; taut, vibrant, lean but a pleasing, cloud-like texture; crystalline acidity and scintillating limestone minerality; slightly earthy finish. Extremely attractive white blend for short-term drinking. Very Good+. About $15, representing Excellent Value.
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Tomero Torrontes 2013, Mendoza, Argentina. 13.5% alc. Pale gold color; jasmine and gardenia, spiced pear and lemon balm, lime peel and a touch of grapefruit, a few minutes in the glass bring in whiffs of lavender and lilac, though this is not overwhelmingly floral, all is subtle and nuanced; pert citrus and stone fruit flavors; lovely body, crisp, lithe and lively yet imbued with an almost talc-like texture that slides across the palate like silk; hint of grapefruit bitterness on the finish. A superior torrontes for consuming over the next year. Very Good+. About $17.
Imported by Blends, Plymouth, Calif.
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Mandolin Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Central Coast. 13.8% alc. Brilliant dark ruby with a flush of mulberry at the rim; unfolds layers of cedar,
thyme and black olive, black currants and plums, hint of wild berry; notes of iodine and graphite; trace of wood in the slightly leathery tannins, quite dry but juicy with herb-inflected black fruit flavors; sleek and supple texture, lively acidity; spice-and-mineral-packed finish. Now through the end of 2015. Great personality for the price. Very Good+. About $12, an Amazing Bargain.
Image from brainwines.com.
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Esprit du Rhône 2013, Côtes du Rhône, France. 13.5% alc. 60% grenache, 30% syrah, 5% carignan, 5% cinsault. 1,000 cases imported. Medium-dark ruby color shading to a transparent rim; aromas of ripe blackberries, blueberries and plum with notes of cloves, briers and leather; fairly dense and robust tannins and bright acidity keep the texture forthright and lively for the sake of tasty, spicy black fruit flavors. Now through 2016. Very Good. About $12.
Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Calif. Image from vivino.com.
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Nieto Senetiner Malbec 2012, Mendoza, Argentina. 14% alc. Dark ruby-purple; briery and brambly blackberry and plum fruit deeply imbued with cloves, mocha and licorice; moderate and slightly chewy tannins for structure, an uplift of acidity; tasty black fruit flavors in a rustic, graphite-laden package. Now into 2015. Very Good. About $13.
Imported by Foley Family Wines, Sonoma, Calif.
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Tercos Bonarda 2013, Mendoza, Argentina. (From the winery of Ricardo Santos). 13.8% alc. Dark ruby hue, almost opaque; spicy and feral, blackberries and plums with notes of wild cherry, tar, graphite and licorice; heaps of rough-hewn tannins make for a sturdy mouthful of wine, though nothing heavy or ponderous to detract from ripe, delicious blackberry and blueberry flavors; loads of personality. Now through the end of 2015. Very Good. About $14.
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When the Mondavi family sold the Robert Mondavi Winery to Constellation Brands in 2004, no one assumed that the children of patriarch Robert Mondavi (1913-2008) — Michael, Tim and Marcia — would roll over and find jobs outside the wine industry, say in teaching or marketing or going to law school. No, wine and the Napa Valley were in their blood. Ten years later, Tim and Marcia own Continuum Winery on Pritchard Hill (whose products I have not tasted), while Michael and his family, wife Isabel and children Rob and Dina, preside over an empire of sorts that under the Folio Fine Wine Partners umbrella includes an arm that imports wines primarily from Italy but also Germany, Austria and Spain, and Michael Mondavi Family Estate, which includes the Isabel Mondavi, Emblem, Animo and M by Michael Mondavi labels. It’s the last three cabernet-based wines that concern us today.

Cabernet sauvignon is a natural fit for Napa Valley and for the Michael Mondavi family. That grape variety grew in importance with the reputation of Napa Valley and the Robert Mondavi Winery, which, along with others, exploited key vineyard sites to produce profound wines. Whether the grapes come from the valley floor, foothills or mountainside, cabernet sauvignon and Napa Valley are inextricably linked. Michael and Isabel Mondavi and their children presciently purchased the vineyard on Atlas Peak, renamed Animo, in 1999. It provides grapes for the flagship M by Michael Mondavi label but only became its own brand with the 2010 vintage reviewed below. True to the vineyard name, the Animo 2010 and the M 2010 feel imbued with a life force of vibrant animation. I found previous renditions of the Emblem wines well-made and flawless technically but somewhat stolid and uncompelling. For 2011, however, while the ‘regular” Emblem requires a year or two to lose some youthful brusqueness, the Emblem “Oso” is fine-tuned and engaging.

These wines were samples for review. Image of the Mondavi family from jamesbeard.org.
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Poor Emblem Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley, falls between the cracks on the winery’s website, which lists the 2012 for sale but explicates the full technical details about the 2010. I can tell you only that the wine aged 22 months in French oak barrels, 66 percent of which were new. The color is dark ruby fading to pretty translucence at the rim; intense and concentrated aromas of black currants, black raspberries and plums are infused with notes of loam and some pleasant briery-brambly raspiness; a few minutes in the glass bring up hints of cloves, lavender and graphite. This is a wine of tremendous substance and presence, filling the mouth with dusty, grainy tannins and granite-like minerality, being rather sinewy and lithe in character. Alcohol % NA. The wine feels a little inchoate presently; two or three years should bring it around and smooth the edges. Very Good+. About $35.
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The grapes for the Emblem Oso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley — 87 percent cabernet, 13 percent petit verdot — were grown in the eponymous vineyard at about 1,250 feet between Sugarloaf and Howell mountains in the northeastern region of the appellation. The wine aged 20 months in French oak, 77 percent new barrels. The deep ruby color shades into magenta at the rim; the lovely, seductive bouquet features notes of mulberries, black currants and cherries, with hints of cardamom and ancho chili, violets and lavender and lightly toasted bread; a few minutes in the glass bring in a touch of macerated plums. It’s an elegant, fit and trim cabernet that has been working out at the gym faithfully, as evidenced by its sleek, supple texture and lithe structure built upon finely sifted tannins and polished oak; stay with the wine for an hour or so and you detect leathery tannins and more prominent graphite minerality, leading to a taut, rather austere finish. 13.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $60.
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Animo Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. This wine contains 83 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and 17 percent petit verdot, derived from the 15-acre Animo Vineyard on Atlas Peak, elevation from 1,270 to 1,350 feet; it aged 20 months in French oak barrels, 87 percent new. The color is dark ruby with a tinge of magenta at the rim; the first impression is of graphite perfectly sifted with loam, charcoal and granitic minerality, followed by notes of iodine and iron, underbrush and walnut shell. This description makes the wine sound as if it’s all structure, but it unfolds elements of spiced and macerated and deeply ripe black currants and cherries with a touch of plum, highlighted with hints of blueberry tart, lavender and black licorice. You feel the mountainside in the wine’s indubitable lithic character, but ultimately it turns out to be a fitting marriage of power and elegance, a multi-faceted cabernet etched with fine particulars; the finish is long and a bit austere, packed with spice and minerals. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink now, with medium-rare dry-aged rib-eye steaks, hot and crusty from the grill, through 2020 to ’25. Production was 860 cases. Excellent. About $85.
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Also from the Animo Vineyard but 100 percent varietal, the M by Michael Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley, spent 28 months in French oak, 87 percent new barrels. The grapes were harvested from small selected areas at the highest point of the vineyard. The color is opaque ruby; boy, this is a fleshy, meaty, sanguinary cabernet, flush with ripe and slightly roasted-feeling black currants, raspberries and plums permeated by mocha, tobacco and granitic minerality and a back-note of plum pudding and all the touches of dried spices and candied fruit such confection allows; a few minutes in the glass bring in earthy elements of burning leaves, dried porcini and underbrush. This is, as you can see, a bouquet of impressive layering and complexity. In the mouth, well, this behemoth coats the palate with dusty grainy tannins, burnished yet not obtrusive oak and graphite; the texture is lithe, sinewy and supple, and all its qualities, included surprisingly succulent black fruit flavors, are sewn together by fresh acidity. While M 2010 is a powerful, dynamic cabernet — don’t look for elegance — its grave dimensions are tempered by attention to detail, though the finish is substantial, dignified and fairly austere. 14.3 percent alcohol. Try from late in 2015 or 2016 through 2025 or ’28. Excellent. About $200.
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Landmark Vineyards was founded in 1974, in Windsor, Sonoma County, California, by Bill Mabry. In 1988, with the winery threatened by urban sprawl, operations were moved to a new facility in Sonoma Valley near Kenwood, at the western base of the Mayacamas range. At some point control of the winery passed to one of its investors, Damaris Deere Ford, great-great-granddaughter of inventor John Deere. The winery concentrated on chardonnay, with its proprietary “Overlook” Chardonnay first produced in 1991. The timeline on the winery’s website skips from 1997 to 2014. At least part of what occurred in that interval was that the winery was sold, in 2011, to Roll Global, owner of Fiji Water and Pom Wonderful, among other brands, including Justin Vineyards and Winery. An addition to the Landmark roster is an Overlook Pinot Noir, released this year from the 2012 vintage. The Overlook Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are multi-county blends, intended, therefore, not to showcase a particular region, much less a single vineyard, but to create a sense of one-variety wines in their purity and complexity, with the various sites contributing different factors. The wines are fermented by native yeasts; each ages 10 months in French oak barrels. I regularly gave high ratings to the Landmark Overlook through the 1990s into the early 2000s, but had not tasted the wine in at least a decade before this 2012 showed up at my door. I’m pleased to find that the style remains consistent, from the time that Helen Turley was consulting winemaker in the early and mid 1990s. Winemaker now is Greg Stach.

These wines were samples for review as I am required to disclose by ruling of the Federal Trade Commission.
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Landmark Vineyard Overlook Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma County 83 percent, Monterey County 11 percent, Santa Barbara County 6 percent. This multi-county chardonnay draws on 22 separate vineyards for its grapes; it spent 10 months in French oak barrels, percentage of new barrels not specified. The color is medium gold; aromas of smoke with a hint of toffee permeate slightly spiced and roasted stone-fruit and citrus in the pineapple-grapefruit range and touches of mango, peach and banana. This is, in other words, a bright, bold and rather florid chardonnay that displays rich, vivid flavors reined in by striking acidity and a clean limestone-and-flint element, all qualities nestled in a supple talc-like structure molded by slightly dusty oak. However bold it is, though, the wine is precisely balanced and integrated. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18 with seafood risottos, grilled or broiled fish. Excellent. About $22.50.
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Landmark Vineyard Overlook Pinot Noir 2012, San Luis Obispo County 53 percent, Sonoma County 40 percent, Monterey County 7 percent; aged in French oak barrels 10 months. The color is medium ruby-magenta; penetrating scents of rose petals and violets, cloves and sassafras are woven with notes of slightly stewed red and black currants and cherries and a touch of briers and brambles. The texture is supernally satiny, dense and flowing as drapery yet somehow light and lissome; spicy red and black fruit flavors open to elements of earth and loam and a hint of graphite minerality, though the overall effect is of grace and elegance, balance and proportion. 14.5 percent alcohol. Consume now through 2018 to ’20 with roasted chicken or veal chops. Excellent. About $25.
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Well, thank goodness all that Thanksgiving hubbub is over and the attendant brouhaha about what wine to drink with the turkey and dressing and sweet potatoes and so on, so now we can focus just on wines to drink because we like them. Here are brief reviews of 12 such wines that should appeal to many tastes and pocketbooks. Prices range from $15 to $56; there are three white wines and nine reds, including a couple of sangiovese blends and a pair of white Rhône renditions from California, as well as a variety of other types of wines and grape varieties. As usual with these Weekend Wine Notes, I eschew technical, historical and geographical data for the sake of offering incisive notices designed to pique your interest and whet the palate, after which you may choose to wet your palate. These wines were samples for review. Enjoy! (In moderation, of course.)
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Capezzana Barco Reale di Carmignano 2011, Tuscany, Italy.13.5% alc. 70% sangiovese, 20% cabernet sauvignon, 10% canaiolo. Dark ruby-purple hue; raspberry, mulberry and blueberry, notes of potpourri, dried herbs and orange peel; a bit of stiff tannin from the cabernet, but handily a tasty and drinkable quaff with requisite acidity for vigor. Now through 2015. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
MW Imports, White Plains, N.Y.
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Bordòn Reserva 2008, Rioja, Spain. 13.5% alc. 80% tempranillo, 15% garnacha, 5% mazuela. Medium ruby color; mint, pine and iodine, macerated and slightly stewed red and black currants and cherries; violets, lavender, pot pourri, cloves and sandalwood; very dry, autumnal with hints of mushrooms and moss, nicely rounded currant and plum flavors, vivid acidity; a lovely expression of the grape. Now through 2016 to ’18 with roasted game birds. Very Good +. About $15, a Real Bargain.
Imported by Vision Wine & Spirits, Secaucus, N.J.
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Jacopo Biondi Santi Braccale 2010, Toscano. 13.5% alc. 80% sangiovese, 20% merlot. Medium ruby color; raspberries and red currants, orange zest and black tea, hints of briers and brambles, touches of graphite, violets, blueberries and cloves, intriguing complexity for the price; plenty of dry tannins and brisk acidity for structure, fairly spare on the plate, but pleasing texture and liveliness; flavors of dried red and black fruit; earthy finish. Now through 2016 or ’17 with grilled or braised meat, hearty pasta dishes. Very Good+. About $19, marking Good Value.
Imported by Vision Wine & Spirits, Secaucus, N.J.
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Clayhouse Estate Grenache Blanc Viognier 2013, Paso Robles. 14.5% alc. 70% grenache blanc, 30% viognier. Production was 650 bottles, so Worth a Search. Pale gold color; crystalline freshness, clarity and liveliness; jasmine and acacia, yellow plums, quince and ginger; beautifully balanced and integrated, exquisite elegance and spareness; saline and savory, though, with bracing acidity running through a pleasing talc-like texture; backnotes of almond blossom and dried thyme; a supple, lithe limestone-packed finish. Now through the end of 2015. Excellent. About $23.
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Les Trois Couronnes 2011, Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France. 14.5% alc. 70% grenache, 20% syrah, 10% mourvèdre. Dark ruby-violet color; lovely, enchanting bouquet of black olives, thyme, graphite, moss and mushrooms, opening to plums and black currants, pepper, leather and lavender; a bit of wet-dog funkiness aligns with dusty, supple tannins and beautifully integrated oak and acidity; rich, spicy black fruit flavors with a hint of blueberry; undertones of loam, underbrush, black licorice; spice-and-mineral-packed finish. Drink now through 2017 to ’19. Great with beef braised in red wine. Excellent. About $23.
Imported by OWS Cellars Selections, North Miami, Fla.
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Paul Dolan Zinfandel 2012, Mendocino County. 14.5% alc. Certified organic. Transparent ruby with a magenta rim; notes of strawberry, raspberry and blueberry with a nice raspy touch and hints of briers and brambles, black pepper, bitter chocolate and walnut shell; ripe and spicy raspberry and cherry flavors, a bit meaty and fleshy, but increasingly bound with dusty tannins and graphite minerality, all enlivened by generous acidity. Not a blockbuster but plenty of stuffing. Now through 2016. Excellent. About $25.
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Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc 2013, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. 55% roussanne, 26% grenache blanc, 19% picpoul. 1,965 cases. Very pale gold hue; green apple, peach and spiced pear; lemon balm, ginger and quince; wonderful tension and resolution of texture and structure; taut acidity, dense and almost voluptuous yet spare, tensile and vibrant with crystalline limestone minerality; seamless melding of lightly spiced and macerated citrus and stone-fruit flavors; feels alive on the palate, engaging and compelling. Now through 2016 or ’17. Exceptional. About $28.
The winery website has not caught up with the current vintage.
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Cornerstone Cellars Stepping Stone Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 14.1% alc. 100% pinot noir grapes. Dark to medium ruby-mulberry color; black cherry and raspberry scents and flavors with plenty of tannic “rasp” and underlying notes of briers, brambles and loam; cloves, a hint of rhubarb, a touch of cherry cola; all enlivened by pert acidity. A minor key with major dimension. Now through 2016. Excellent. About $30.
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von Hövel “R” Spatlese Dry Riesling 2012, Mosel, Germany. 11% alc. 100% riesling. Very pale gold color; peach, pear and lychee; hints of honeysuckle, grapefruit and lime zest; a chiseled and faceted wine, benefiting from incisive acidity and scintillating limestone and flint elements; tremendous, indeed inescapable resonance and presence, yet elegant, delicate and almost ethereal; long penetrating spice and mineral-inflected finish. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $34.
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Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. 81% cabernet sauvignon, 9% cabernet franc, 8% merlot, 1% each petit verdot and malbec. Deep ruby with a magenta tinge; cedar and thyme, hint of black olive; quite spicy and macerated black currants and plums with a hint of black and red cherry; lithe, supple, muscular and sleek; dense but soft and finely sifted tannins adorned with slightly toasty oak, a scintillating graphite element and vibrant acidity; long spicy, granitic finish. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $38.
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Bonny Doon Cuvee R Grenache 2012, Monterey County. 14.9% alc. 100% grenache grapes. 593 cases. (Available to the winery’s DEWN Club members.) Dark reddish-cherry hue; dusty, spicy red and black cherries, with a curranty note and hint of raspberry; some cherry stem and pit pertness and raspiness; cloves and sandalwood, with a tide of plum skin and loam; the finely-knit and sanded tannins build as the minutes pass; clean, vibrant acidity lends energy and litheness. Terrific grenache. Drink now through 2016. Excellent. About $48.
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Plumpjack Merlot 2012, Napa Valley. 15.2% alc. (!) 91% merlot, 8% malbec, 1% cabernet sauvignon. Vivid dark ruby color; intense and concentrated aromas of cassis, black raspberry and plum; notes of cloves and sandalwood with a tinge of pomegranate and red cherry; a hint of toasty oak; sinewy and supple, almost muscular; deep black fruit flavors imbued with lavender and bitter chocolate and honed by finely-milled tannins, graphite minerality and keen acidity; a substantial merlot, not quite monumental because of its innate balance and elegance; through some miracle, you don’t feel the heat or sweetness of high alcohol. Now through 2020 to ’22, Excellent. About $56.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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