California


A raft of chardonnays here from the Golden State, ranging geographically from Santa Barbara County in the south to Sonoma Coast in the north. They’re mainly from 2011 and 2012, with one from 2013. I offer a $10 product so good that you should buy it by the case, which I don’t often say about chardonnay, and reject some models that cost $65 and $70. I mean, as long as producers turn out chardonnays that embody the over-oaked, stridently spicy, tropical-tinged and butter-infused crème brûlée-like style — and the major wine publications continue to pass out high ratings for such wine — I will continue not to recommend them as unpalatable and undrinkable. Little in the way of historical, geographical or technical data today; these Weekend Wine Notes are intended to be quick and incisive, not as detailed as my regular reviews. Enjoy! (Or not.)

These wines were samples for review.

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Clos du Val Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; vibrant and vivid purity and intensity, scintillating acidity and limestone-flint minerality; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hints of mango and cloves; sleek, lithe, dynamic, beautifully balanced; nothing avant-garde or opulent here, just classic winemaking. Excellent. About $28.
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CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast. 14.1% alc. Pale gold hue; bright, clean and fresh; pineapple-grapefruit-roasted lemon, hints of nutmeg, lemon balm and lemon curd; dense and chewy, packed with spice and seashell-limestone minerality; slightly astringent floral element; quite dry, very attractive weight and substance; earthy finish where the oak comes out a bit more. Very Good+. About $25.
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Dunston Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 13.3% alc. Limited production. Ravishing medium gold hue with a green tinge; pine, cloves, grapefruit and pineapple with notes of mango, roasted lemon and some leafy/green tea element; fascinating in its complexity and risk-taking but ultimately exquisitely balanced, though you feel the tug of polished oak on the finish after an hour or so. Limited production. Excellent. About $45.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium gold color; very bright and bold, even brassy; very spicy with roasted grapefruit and baked peach, slightly caramelized; way too much oak, too much butter and tropical elements; stridently spicy, over-ripe and then austerely dry; fundamentally unbalanced. Not recommended. About $35.
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Gundlach Bundschu Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.3% alc. Pale gold color; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hint of mango; Chablis-like chalk and flint; smoke and earth, dense and chewy and pretty darned intense and concentrated; a substantial style. Very Good+. About $27.
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Isabel Mondavi Chardonnay 2012, Carneros. 13.7% alc. Medium straw-gold color; smoke, toast, oak; roasted lemon and baked pear; fairly spicy with buttered and caramelized citrus fruit; quite dry, sleek, good acidity and limestone minerality, but doesn’t know what style it wishes to emulate. Very Good. About $30.
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Jackson Estate “Camelot Highlands” Chardonnay 2012, Santa Maria Valley. 14.5% alc. This chardonnay falls under the Kendall-Jackson rubric rather than Jackson Family Wines; does either entity really need more brands? Medium gold; vividly spicy, boldly ripe and tropical; smoke, toast, brown sugar; dense and chewy, almost viscous, carries opulence to ridiculous lengths; toasted coconut and marshmallow; crème brûlée; doesn’t even come close to palatable in my world. Not recommended. About $35.
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Jordan Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 13.5% alc. Pale gold color; a typical Jordan chardonnay, nothing bold or sumptuous, thank goodness, but well-balanced with keen acidity and an edge of vital limestone minerality to bolster pineapple-grapefruit flavors highlighted by notes of cloves and lilacs; very dry, clean, spare, elegant; oak is an echo rather than a presence. Excellent. About $30.
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Laetitia Estate Chardonnay 2012, Arroyo Grande Valley. 13.8% alc. I generally like Laetitia’s pinot noirs, but this chardonnay is beyond the pale. So: pale gold color; starts off clean and fresh, with pineapple-grapefruit and notes of roasted lemon and mango; then expands with extravagant richness and exaggerated spice, smoke and crème brûlée gone to the dark side; where are the mitigating acidity and minerality? Not recommended. About $18.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Morelli Lane Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 182 six-pack cases. Steven Kent can make clean, balanced and finely detailed chardonnay (see below), but under his La Rochelle label he turns more baroque and fantastical; this wine is so oaky and over-spiced that it felt harsh on my palate. It gets no recommendation from me. About $65.
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Mandolin Chardonnay 2012, Monterey. 13.5% alc. Clasp this well-made inexpensive chardonnay to your bosom as if it were a long-lost friend. Pale gold color; pineapple-mango-grapefruit, hints of jasmine, crystallized ginger and quince; a tad dusty-earthy; deft balance among acidity, spicy oak and spare limestone minerality; notes of citrus on the finish. Very Good+. About $10 and a Remarkable Bargain.
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Newton Chardonnay 2012, Napa County. 14% alc. Medium gold hue; warm and spicy, bright and bold, but nicely balanced and shapely, with a sheen of oak; ripe pineapple and grapefruit with a note of green apple; brisk acidity and a scintillating limestone finish. Quite attractive. Very Good+. About $28.
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Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. This cousin to the wine mentioned just above is both more ambitious and unfortunately far less balanced; medium gold color; bright, ripe, brassy citrus and stone-fruit scents and flavors; cloves, caramel, brown sugar; very tropical, buttered toast, meringue; yet strangely very dry and austere on the finish. Unpleasant and unpalatable. Not recommended. About $65.
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Olema Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. (Second label of Amici Cellars) Pale gold color; crisp, taut, fresh; apples, grapefruit and pineapple; spicy and lively, a little lean and sinewy but generous and expansive too; quite pleasant and tasty. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
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Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Uh-oh. Medium gold color; forthright and boldly spicy, forthright and deeply oaky. I couldn’t drink it. Not recommended. About $47.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Pale gold; ineffable weaving of grapefruit and pineapple, Golden Delicious apple, cloves, ginger and quince; very dry but juicy and savory; lovely heft and texture, lithe and supple, almost talc-like but riven and balanced by bright acidity. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; so clean and pure, such crystalline intensity, yet spare, elegant and subtle but with a core of natural richness; roasted lemon and lemon balm; notes of pineapple and nectarine; very dry, packed with limestone and flint minerality, but quite delicious, seductive, compelling. Why can’t all chardonnays be like this? Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Reuling Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14% alc. 350 cases. Major disappointment. Very pale gold; brightly spicy, boldly scented; nutmeg and cloves, pineapple and grapefruit caramelized in butter; cinnamon toast; too creamy on the one hand, too sharply spicy on the other, essentially unbalanced, paradoxically both cloying and austere. Not recommended. About $70.
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Steven Kent Winery Merrillie Chardonnay 2012, Livermore Valley. NA% alc. 504 cases. Pale gold color; spare, clean and fresh; lemon balm with notes of grapefruit rind, lemongrass and green tea; hints of nutmeg and cloves; heaps of limestone minerality buoying a lovely talc-like texture shot with shimmering acidity; let’s call it beautiful. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $34.
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Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium straw-gold color; a classic of balance and elegance; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors infused with cloves and limestone; lovely weight and heft, that is to say feels dense and weightless simultaneously; clean, bright acidity for liveliness; subtle, supple oak influence and limestone minerality. Excellent. About $28.
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Souverain Chardonnay 2011, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Pale straw-gold hue; smoke, cloves and nutmeg; pineapple and pears; very dry, very spicy but dense with a crème brûlée element with emphasis on the brûlée; astringent grapefruit finish; bright acidity barely saves the day. Good only. About $16.
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William Allen moved into commercial production in 2010, after years as a “garagiste” and writer. This doesn’t mean that he makes a lot of wine. Two Shepherds as a one-man operation, truly a labor of love, so the wines are made in minute quantities; sorry about that. These are Rhone-style wines that see no new oak, are foot-stomped, use natural yeasts and generally exhibit remarkable purity and intensity. I love them; there, I said it.

These wines were samples for review. The labels used for illustration below are one vintage behind.

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The Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc 2012, Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley, is a blend of four white grapes typical of the southern Rhone Valley: 50 percent roussanne, 35 percent marsanne, 10 viognier and 5 grenache blanc; the wine ages an average of six months in neutral French oak barrels. The color is pale gold; aromas of quince and ginger, peach and spiced pear open to notes of bee’s-wax and camellia, sea-shell and limestone. The wine is rich, focused, enveloped in a structure of moderate and very attractive weight and body, clean, bright and crisp yet almost talc-like in texture. Quite dry, it offers a smoky, earthy and autumnal essence of peaches, nectarines and yellow plums, cloves and allspice and a backwash of limestone-and-flint minerality and salinity. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with grilled or roasted salmon or tuna, grilled mussels, trout with lemon-caper butter or shrimp salad. Production was 105 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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This time not Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley but Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley, for the Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc 2012; at first I thought that was a misprint. Santa Ynez, approved as an AVA in 1983, is in southeast Santa Barbara County and bears within it the sub-appellation of Santa Rita Hills. This grenache blanc offers an aura of greenness, by which I do not mean green as in grapes picked before they’re ripe, but green as in leafy green, as in sea-green, as in greengage, as in green apple. The color is pale straw-gold; notes of jasmine and honeysuckle are spare and ethereal, wreathed with tangerine and grapefruit and backed by shell-like minerals and a sort of sea-breeze salinity. A moderately soft and satiny texture is energized by brisk acidity and scintillating limestone minerality, while the finish brings in hints of green tea, orange rind and cloves. Eighty percent of the wine aged seven months in neutral oak, the other 20 percent six months in stainless steel. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with Thai salads, trout quenelles, watercress and cucumber sandwiches (crusts trimmed, of course). Production was 125 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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William Allen made one barrel of the Two Shepherds Trousseau Gris 2012, Fanucchi Vineyard, Russian River Valley, amounting to 25 cases, so while it’s a brilliant wine, the chances of any of My Readers getting their hands on a bottle are about as remote as Beyonce singing La Boheme in Bethlehem. The grape is trousseau gris, not widely found even in its home of the Jura mountains where France nestles against Switzerland. Being “gris,” the grape’s faintly rosy onion skin or grayish color yields a radiant coral hue when the wine is fermented on the skins; in other words, it’s a “white” wine made as if it were a red wine. The seductive and unusual bouquet delivers hints of orange zest and strawberries, melon and lemon balm with intriguing notes of parsley and celery and a touch of flint. It’s quite dry but juicy with ripe peach, red currant and rhubarb flavors deepened by the slight astringency of peach skin and almond skin, smoke, briers and brambles, all wrapped in clean acidity and a note of graphite minerality. The whole package is characterized by remarkable presence, resonance, transparency and vividness. The wine aged eight months in neutral oak barrels, four months on the lees. 13.8 percent alcohol. We drank this versatile bottle over several nights with a variety of food. Now through 2016 or ’17. Exceptional. About $25.
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So, here’s the red wine of this foursome. The Two Shepherds Syrah/Mourvèdre 2011 is a cross-county blend of 55 percent syrah from Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, and 45 percent mourvèdre from El Dorado. It aged 10 months in neutral French oak, the barrels four years old or older, four of those months on the lees. The color is a pronounced dark ruby with a magenta robe; fresh aromas of ripe red and black currants and plums are intensified by cloves, graphite, a hint of new leather and depths of briery, clean mossy earthiness. The wine is fine-grained and supple, riven by incisive acidity, decisively dry, dense and chewy, almost feral in its purity and individuality; despite projecting a vibrant and somewhat unbridled red and black fruit character and texture, the wine feels light on its feet, with nothing ponderous or opulent. 13.8 percent alcohol. Product was 40 cases. Drink now through 2018 or ’20 with grilled leg of lamb, a hot and crusty medium rare rib-eye steak just plunked from the coals, a gamy veal chop. Excellent. About $38.
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Sometimes you encounter a wine that gets everything right, in terms of impression, quality and price. Such a wine is the Flora Springs Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley. The winery was founded in 1978 on the site of an abandoned 19th Century “ghost winery” by Jerry and Flora Komes, though the real work of establishing the facility and vineyards went to their children John Komes and his wife Carrie and Julie Garvey and her husband Pat Garvey; now the third generation is poised to take command. Winemaker is Paul Steinauer. The Flora Springs Chardonnay 2012 aged in a thoughtful regimen of 34 percent French oak barrels, 33 percent larger oak “ovals” and 33 percent stainless steel. The color is pale straw-gold; the wine is fresh and clean, floral in the jasmine-honeysuckle range with notes of cloves; classic pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors are full-blown yet not over-ripe; everything is poised in a model of balance and elegance. A supple and moderately lush texture envelopes slightly candied citrus flavors — add a tinge of quince and ginger — with deeper layers of limestone and flint minerality and crystalline acidity; the finish brings in a note of earthiness. This is winemaking at its most shimmering and jewel-like, the result a chardonnay of exquisite purity and intensity. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with grilled or sauteed salmon or swordfish, with grilled shrimp, with tuna salad. Excellent. About $20, representing Terrific Value.

A sample for review.

Tin Barn Vineyards produces small amounts of compelling single-vineyard wines, especially in the range of their syrahs. Winemaker and co-owner is Mike Lancaster. The winery is named for a twisting road that runs along the Sonoma coastline, though physically it occupies a metal building in an industrial park; nothing fancy, so the focus is on the wines. Tin Barn wines are available in California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Vermont and Virginia and of course by direct shipment if your state allows. They’re definitely Worth a Search.

These wines were samples for review.
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The not yet released Tin Barn Coryelle Fields Vineyard Syrah 2011, Sonoma Coast, displays a deep ruby-purple color and intoxicating aromas of lavender and lilac, black licorice and potpourri, leather, spiced and macerated blueberries, black currants and plums, with undertones of smoke, graphite and loam; pretty heady stuff, indeed. In the mouth, the wine is clean, intense and penetrating, with a chewy, supple texture, spare, moderately dusty tannins, and some reticence about the black fruit flavors. It’s packed with earth and graphite, briers and brambles, and while the bouquet expands and becomes more evocative and seductive, the structure gets more rigorous. 14.4 percent alcohol. Best from 2015 through 2020 to ’23. Excellent expression of the grape. Production and price N/A.
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The winery’s current release is the Tin Barn Coryelle Fields Syrah 2010, Sonoma Coast, a wine of lovely heft, tone and balance. The color is medium ruby with a tinge of magenta; notes of spicy and slightly fleshy plums, black currants and mulberries are wrapped in potpourri, lavender and leather; a few moments in the glass bring out hints of violets and rose petals, sandalwood and cloves, briers and loam. The wine aged 18 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, a regimen that lends subtle spice and a mildly dense texture. Brisk acidity keeps it lively and appealing, while red and black fruit flavors are ripe, meaty and juicy. Still, the finish is a tad austere, a thicket of brambles, dried porcini, classic wet dog and forest floor. 13,8 percent alcohol. Production was 76 cases. Excellent. About $25, and definitely Worth a Search.
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If you can find a bottle of the Tin Barn Coryelle Fields Syrah 2009, Sonoma Coast, clasp it to your bosom like a long-lost friend. At four and a half years old, this syrah offers a massively dark purple color with a motor oil sheen and is distinctly earthy, rooty and leathery. The wine aged 26 months in French oak, 66 percent new barrels. Loads of deeply spiced and macerated blue and black fruit flavors are bolstered by smooth, lithe tannins, graphite and spicy, smoky oak for an effect that delivers length and dimension of lordly degree, yet the winsome appealing element is not neglected. 15.4 percent alcohol, though you feel no heat on the finish or over-ripeness. 123 cases. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $25.
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Now to the grandaddy of the previous wines. The Tin Barn Coryelle Fields Syrah 2003, Sonoma Coast, opens most ethereally and then gains power and structure in the glass. It sports a dark ruby color and a softly spiced and macerated character of raspberries and currents, shot with cloves, allspice and sandalwood. Behind moderately chewy tannins lies a bedrock of graphite and slightly chalky granitic minerality; some time in the glass brings out notes of cedar, tobacco and mushroomy loam. The whole effect is vibrant and resonant, mature, well-developed and delicious. The wine aged 18 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 327 cases. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $32.
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The delightful Tin Barn Joon Rose of Syrah 2013, Sonoma Coast, glimmers with a pale copper-salmon robe and delivers a radiant bouquet of ripe strawberries and raspberries with touches of peach and tomato skin; a few moments develop notes of loam, mulberry and pomegranate and just a hint of limestone. This is exuberantly lively yet almost lush in texture, resulting in rather exquisite balance between acidity and structure. 13.3 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2014. Production was 86 cases. Excellent. About $23.
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And, boy, are they eclectic! And sort of electric in effect, by which I mean snappy, vivid, lively and crisp. Some are fairly straightforward, fruity and appealing; a few others are more complicated and inspire a little contemplation, though in these languid, humid days, a bit of contemplation harmonizes with the lap of waves at the beach or the plock-plock of tennis balls or the creak of the rope that supports your gently swaying hammock. We touch Chile, Spain, Italy, Germany, Alsace in France and several regions of Italy and California today, as well as a dazzling range of grape varieties. As usual with the Weekend Wine Notes, my goal is not to overload your sensibility with technical, historical, geological data, as I might in more extensive reviews but to offer incisive impressions that will pique your interest and whet your palate. Contemplating an afternoon at a picnic, by the pool, on the porch or patio? Any of these white wines would serve you well.

These wines were samples for review.
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Albamar Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Casablanca Valley, Chile. 12.5% alc. Very pale straw-gold color; notably fresh and zingy; lychee and pear, lime peel and grapefruit, jasmine and honeysuckle; hints of celery seed, fennel and fig; leafy, sprightly, with a scintillating limestone edge; plenty of verve and clarity. Drink through 2015. Very Good+. About $11, a Sure-Fire Bargain.
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Blanco Nieva Pie Franco Verdejo 2012, Rueda, Spain. 13% alc. 100% verdejo grapes. Light gold color; clean, crisp and vibrant; bee’s-wax, sea salt, roasted lemon, lime peel, limestone, little waxy flowers; very nicely knit and well-balanced; bracing acidity and salinity, with a dry finish that offers a pleasing touch of candied grapefruit. Very attractive and refreshing; lots of personality. Now through 2015. Excellent. About $23.

The label image is one vintage behind.
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Conundrum 2012, California. 13.5% alc. Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, semillon, muscat canelli, viognier. Is Conundrum getting drier? Is that why I actually liked this vintage of the well-known white blend? Pale gold color; fully-fleshed out notes of peaches and spiced pears, lychee and riesling-like petrol; operatically floral in the lilac and honeysuckle range, some muscat-tinged muskiness; a touch of sweetness going in but felt more as plush ripeness; crisp yet lush, sleek, polished, sophisticated; very dry finish etched with limestone. Now through 2015. Excellent. About $22, often discounted.
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Dry Creek Vineyards Dry Chenin Blanc 2013, Clarksburg. 13% alc. Pale gold color; hay, roasted lemon, acacia and dried thyme; savory, spare and bracing yet graceful; hints of yellow stone fruit and tangerine; background of damp stone minerality; all bound by crisp acidity. Quite charming. Very Good+. About $12, a Great Bargain.
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Hugel et Fils Gewurztraminer “Hugel” 2011, Alsace. 14% alc. Very pale gold color; lychee, peach and spiced pear; notes of lemon curd, honeysuckle and preserved lemon; dry but juicy with stone-fruit and hints of citrus and green apple; a cool wine, shot through with limestone and flint minerality, warmed by touches of cloves and allspice; ultimately spare, elegant, slightly astringent on the finish. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $22.
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J Vineyards Pinot Gris 2013, California. 13.8% alc. Light gold color; lemon and lime peel, delicate notes of honeysuckle, thyme and sage, lemon oil and orange blossom, crushed gravel undertones; very crisp and refreshing though spare and lithe; pith and peel and the bracing astringent bitterness that attends them, yet a wisp of slightly overripe peach under the spareness and a hint at briers and loamy earthiness. A thoughtful and appealing rendition of the grape, surprisingly complex for the price. Excellent. About $16, a Terrific Bargain.
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Masseria Li Veli Fiano 2012, Puglia. 13% alc. 100% fiano grapes. Pale gold color, tinge of green; cloves and allspice, jasmine and smoke; roasted lemon and bee’s-wax, talc and limestone; clean, dry and savory; lovely body, cloud-like density and supple texture but spurred by bracing acidity. Irresistibly tasty. Very Good+. About $11, representing Wonderful Value.
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St. Urbans-Hof Bockstein Ockfen Riesling Kabinett 2012, Mosel, Germany. 8% alc. A reisling of scintillating purity and ethereal refinement; very pale gold color; delicately struck notes of jasmine and apricot, mango and lychee, lemon peel and almond skin; vivid acidity sends an electric wave across the palate though the ultimate effect is never less than utmost elegance and elevation; a texture almost lush exquisitely balanced by the acid and the bright limestone minerality. Now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $18 to $20.
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Senorio de Rubios Albarino 2010, Rias Baixas, Spain. 12.5% alc. How well does albarino age? Beautifully, in this case. I don’t usually include
wines that are Worth a Search in the Weekend Wine Notes, but this 2010 was the sample I received, even though, apparently, the 2012 is available. Light gold color; my first reaction, “Gosh, how lovely”; not as fresh as it would have been two years ago, perhaps, but with a depth of spice and richness; roasted lemon, lemon balm and baked pear; camellia, quince and ginger; very dry, saline and savory, slightly honeyed entry leading to an earthy, limestone-inflected finish that’s a bit austere. Drink up. Very Good+ leaning toward Excellent. About $18.
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Toad Hollow Francine’s Selection Unoaked Chardonnay 2012, Mendocino County. 13.9% alc. Pale gold color; lively, clean and bright, very dry, crisp and pert; notes of lemon and mango, hint of jasmine; lots of serious limestone minerality enlivened by a grapefruit finish. Quite refreshing. Very Good+. About $14.
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Trimbach Pinot Blanc 2011, Alsace. 12.5% alc. Very pale gold color; pear, peach and lychee, yellow plum; tantalizing floral elements, like memories of dewy violets and lilacs; a precise and incisive wine, layered with flint and limestone, crystalline acidity; earthy, though, a bit dusty; the entire effect clean, resonant and elegant. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $17, representing Great Value.
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Zenato Lugana 2012, San Benedetto, Veneto. 13% alc. 100% trebbiano di Lugana grapes. Very pale shimmering gold color; super attractive, with notes of jasmine and orange rind, talc and lilac, mango and spiced pear; slightly honeyed, with hints of bee’s-wax and lanolin; touches of dried thyme and rosemary, with the latter’s slightly resinous quality; notably clean and fresh, chiming acidity and a seashell-like minerality. I could drink this all Summer. Very Good+. About $14, marking A Notable Bargain.

The label image is one vintage behind.
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Here’s a rosé to entice lovers of all things delicate and elegant. The J Vineyards Vin Gris 2013, Russian River Valley, is 100 percent pinot noir, made all in stainless steel and was bottled a scant three months ago. “Vin gris” means “gray wine” in French, though the color here isn’t so much gris as it is a very pale copper salmon hue, like pink parchment. Ethereal scents of strawberries, raspberries and red currants, slightly spiced and macerated, are wreathed with notes of orange rind and pomegranate, with a hint of limestone in the background; a few moments in the glass bring up a touch of lilac. Pert acidity keeps this rose crisp and lively, while the wine’s texture comes close to being lush; it’s the balance between those elements that lends a bit of animation and electricity on the palate. Flavors of red currants and watermelon are effortlessly buoyed by dusty, brambly flint-like qualities, all notions woven into an ephemeral silken finish. Alcohol content is 14.3 percent. Drink through the end of 2014 with all fare related to the porch, the patio, poolside or picnic. Closed with a screw-cap, so it doesn’t matter if you forgot the corkscrew, again. Winemaker was Melissa Stackhouse. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.

At a time when most West Coast wineries have released their sauvignon blanc wines from 2012 and even in some cases 2013, it’s brave of Craig Camp, general manager of Napa Valley’s Cornerstone Cellars, to send not only review samples of the 2011, the winery’s current release, but the 2010 and ’09 as well. The implication is clear: These are meant as serious sauvignon blancs, 100 percent varietal, seasoned six months in mature French oak barrels and capable of aging as their counterparts in Bordeaux do, complex wines intended for, say, the richness of lobster, rather than the incisive brininess of oysters. The grapes derive from the Talcott Vineyard in St. Helena, a fact that perhaps accounts for the remarkable consistency in the character and quality of the three wines. Winemaker for Cornerstone is Jeff Keene.
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The Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Napa Valley, is a pale gold color and offers beguiling aromas of lemongrass, honeysuckle and cucumber, woven with white peach, ginger and quince, with notes of fig and spicy oak. The wine is very dry, packed with elements of limestone and flint, and it exudes an intriguing earthy, almost briery quality; a few moments in the glass bring out hints of mango, lychee and roasted lemon. Most impressive are the wine’s tremendous polish and presence, its vibrancy and energy, all wrapped in a texture that’s both irreproachably crisp and enticingly soft and palatable. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 to ’19. Production was 361 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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The Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley, resembles its cousin from 2011 in its grapefruit-cucumber-lemongrass character, to which it adds notes of white pepper, sunny–dusty–leafy fig, lilac and licorice; a snap of black currant and vivid acidity animates the core. One feels the oak influence just a shade more in this 2010 than in the 2011, evinced in svelte suppleness and a dash more exotic woody spice. Again, though, the wine’s primary personality lies in its combination of substance and transparency, its heft and crystalline ethereal qualities. 13.9 percent alcohol; case production not available but certainly limited. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. Sold at the winery for $50.
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As with the 2011 and ’10, the Cornerstone cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Napa Valley, offers a set of elements revolving around cucumber, lemongrass and grapefruit, lime peel, ginger and quince buoyed by powerful limestone and chalk elements. Perhaps the ’09 is a whisper less ripe and juicy, a hair more robust and structured than its stablemates, but at an age when many sauvignon blanc wines are lapsing into flatness and flaccidity, this one is wonderfully fresh and aromatic, vibrant and appealing. 13.9 percent alcohol; case production not available but certainly limited. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. Sold at the winery for $70.
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Here are quick notes on eight pinot noir wines from California, all eminently desirable, ranging in price from $22 to $70, and in rating from Very Good+ to Exceptional, two of the latter, so pinot fans pay attention. As is usual with these Weekend Wine Notes, I eschew technical, historical, geographical and personnel data for the sake of immediacy, the intention being to pique your interest and whet your appetite. Enjoy, and I hope everyone has a happy and safe Memorial Day Weekend.

These wines were samples for review.
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Cambria Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Maria Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby with a magenta tinge; deep, rich and spicy; thyme and caramelized fennel, black and red cherries, currants and cranberries with a hint of rhubarb; succulent and satiny, dense, quite dry but sweetly ripe; earth and loam, graphite underpinnings; flavorful and tasty. Now through 2016. Very Good+. About $22, representing Good Value.
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Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2011, Carneros. 14.3% alc. 479 cases. Medium ruby color with violet tones; lovely balance, dimension and detail; black cherry and cranberry, sassafras, cloves and rhubarb; deep and rooty, yet it retains ultimate delicacy and elegance; paradoxically dark, spicy and wild, hints of briers, loam and graphite; black and red fruit flavors that feel almost transparent and weightless, though the wine drapes like the finest, most sensuous satin on the tongue. Now through 2017 to ’18. Excellent. About $72.
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Isabel Mondavi Estate Pinot Noir 2011, Carneros. 14.4% alc. Dark ruby color with a magenta tinge; cranberry and rhubarb, hints of pomegranate, cola and cloves with back-notes of tar and loam; surprisingly burly and robust, very dry, texture like satin born of dusty velvet; burgeoning floral element: roses and violets; deeply plummy and curranty with a touch of raspy raspberry and mulberry. Absolutely lovely, with a bit of mystery and sexy hauteur. Now through 2016 to ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.4% alc. Entrancing “robe” — almost opaque ruby-purple at the center and lightening subtly to a violet-magenta rim; smoky black cherries and plums, pomegranate and cranberry, cloves and cola; a graphite and loamy element that cuts the dense, chewy satiny texture; plump with ripe black fruit, deeply spicy with a hint of mint and mocha but doesn’t push into opulence; instead, displays exquisite, slightly risky balance. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $55.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.4% alc. 230 cases. Dark ruby-magenta color; plums, raspberries and mulberries, hints of pomegranate and dusty graphite; cloves, sassafras; super sleek, supple and satiny, almost sultry; smoke, burning leaves, a touch of moss and brambles; some astringency and rigor to the structure, a lash of granite and acid at the core of deep spicy black and red fruit flavors. Tremendous tone and presence. Now through 2017 or ’18. Exceptional. About $45.
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Reata Three County Pinot Noir 2012, California. (48% Monterey County, 44% Sonoma County, 8% San Benito County). 14.3% alc. Dark ruby color; pomegranate, cranberry, blueberry with some graphite element under a sanding of woody spices; quite dry, dense, supple lip-smacking texture with vibrant acidity; you feel the glassy polished tannins and oak like a granitic bastion but the wine is deeply flavored, rich, exotic, with keen balance between the succulent and the rigorous. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $26.
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Reuling Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14% alc. 1,000 cases. Dark ruby-magenta color; black cherries, mulberries and cranberries with notes of cloves and allspice, dried fruit and potpourri with crushed violets and lilacs; pushes oak to the limits with a great deal of dry structure and asperity, but it is smooth, lithe and svelte and above all delicious; I like the risks with oak because the wine offers really lovely balance; it finishes with a seductive display of mocha, pomander and bitter chocolate. A serious pinot noir, packed with the gratifying and the unexpected. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $70.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2010. Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 429 six-pack cases. Fairly dark ruby-magenta hue; a wine of fantastic and deepening complexity; cloves, sandalwood, sassafras; spiced and macerated black cherries, currants and plums; briers and loam set into a superlatively satiny texture, yet thoroughly imbued with a sense of graphite and oak defined dimension and gravity; quite dry, almost austere, but resilient, supple and elegant. Now through 2017 or ’18. Exceptional. About $48.
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When I begin a post that way — “Worth a Search” — you know, My Readers, that the wines under review are limited in production. That’s certainly true of these three examples from Idlewild Wines, a project run by Sam Bilbro and Jessica Boone Bilbro. There’s a certain pedigree; Sam’s father, Chris Bilbro, started Marietta cellars in 1979, and Sam grew up in the wine business. Jessica has a degree in zoology but fell in love with winemaking and worked at Edgewood Estate, Armida Winery and Passalacqua. Idlewild is a small young winery at the vanguard of what’s most important in California now. No chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, no cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir is made here. Instead, we have out-of-the-way French and Italian grape varieties like grenache gris, arneis, cortese. Alcohol levels are moderate. New oak dares not show its face. Meticulous attention to detail is made, yet the wines are more nurtured and encouraged than manipulated. Prices are reasonable. I am, frankly, deeply enamored of these wines and wish that they were made in quantities to render them more accessible to My Readers. That not being the case, you’ll have to search them out. They’re lovely wines for drinking this Summer.

These wines were samples for review. Images from idlewildwines.com

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The Yorkville Highlands AVA, in Mendocino County, was approved in 1998. Its rocky outcroppings separate Mendocino’s Anderson Valley from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley. The Idlewild Vin Gris 2013, Yorkville Highlands, is made completely from grenache grapes briefly macerated, slowly fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged four months in neutral oak barrels. The color is very pale onion skin, almost parchment; everything is subtle and nuanced; my comment on Facebook was “Tissues of delicacy woven on a steel loom,” and I stand by that assessment. Hints of peach and yellow plum, with some of the pithiness of the stone; notes of mandarin orange and grapefruit zest; summer flowers in a dry meadow; the whole package fresh and refreshing but offering pleasing density and impact on the palate; the texture is soft and appealing but enlivened by a slap of crystalline acidity. Does rose get any better than this? Not in my book. Alcohol NA. Drink into 2015. Production was 200 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Grenache gris is a pinkish-gray mutation of the red grenache grape, rarely found even in the South of France and then usually not made into its own wine. It is not the same as grenache blanc. The grapes for the Idlewild Grenache Gris 2013, Mendocino, derive from vines at Gibson Ranch in McDowell Valley that are more than 100 years old. The grapes were foot-trod rather than crushed mechanically; after fermentation, the wine aged four months in neutral French oak barrels. The color is radiant mulberry-tourmaline; the nose is pure raspberry and black currants with hints of rose petals, rhubarb and pomegranate, summer meadows, pomander (cloves, allspice and citrus). A few moments in the glass bring in notes of tomato skin and slightly mushroomy earthiness; this is very much a wine of the garden and the fields, lightly herbal and savory and altogether wild and alluring. In style, it resembles a Bordeaux clairette, falling between a rose and a light-bodied red wine. 12.9 percent alcohol. Truly lovely and unusual. Drink through 2015. Production was 230 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Not much arneis is grown in the U.S.A., but the wine that Sam Bilbro and Jessica Boone Bilbro make from the Fox Hill Vineyard, southeast of Ukiah, on Mendocino’s Talmage Bench, rivals many of the examples that I have tasted from Piedmont, the grape’s home. The color of the Idlewild Fox Hill Vineyard Arneis 2013, Mendocino, is brilliant light gold; aromas of bees’-wax, lanolin, honeysuckle and jasmine are wreathed with spiced pear, along with a slightly honeyed aura and almond notes. The wine is dry, silky and supple, laid over a foundation of dusky earthy and herbal elements, lime and roasted lemon flavors and a touch of grapefruit bitterness and limestone on the finish; some time in the glass brings hints of lychee and mango to the fore. A beguiling blend of limpid transparency and steel-like scaffolding. 13.6 percent alcohol. Production was 145 cases. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $28.
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One truth that we hold self-evident is that wines made from the same grapes can be very different. The extreme example of this principle occurs in Burgundy, where producers who each own a few rows of vines in Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards make wine that may be wholly divergent from the wine of their neighbors. On a broad geographical scale, we would not expect pinot noir made in, say, Gevrey-Chambertin or Chambolle-Musigny to resemble pinot noir emanating from the Santa Lucia Highlands or Anderson Valley. History, heritage, geology and philosophy all mitigate against such resemblance. Let’s turn, then, to cabernet sauvignon, where obviously the same principle applies. A cabernet-based wine from Pauillac or St.-Estephe in Bordeaux has no reason to be much like a cabernet-based wine from Howell Mountain or Paso Robles, even though the blend of grapes might be similar — or with those cabs produced in Howell Mountain and Paso Robles themselves — and yet we expect a core of cousinage born of the character of the dominant grape, some sign that the origin prevails.

Today, in line with those thoughts, I want to look at two cabernet sauvignon wines produced in Napa Valley, the Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 and the Faust 2011. Last year, Forbes called Paul Hobbs “the Steve Jobs of winemaking,” and indeed Hobbs has a reputation for being meticulous, inventive and hardworking. He is winemaker for his eponymous winery as well as overseeing projects in Argentina and consulting in other countries. Hobbs favors emphatic wines that do not shy away from succulence while maintaining a firm hold on structure. Faust is a label from California veteran Agustin Huneeus and his son Agustin Francisco Huneeus, producers of the well-known Quintessa cabernet sauvignon. The Huneeus wines tend toward classic dignity and austerity whole maintaining, to continue the parallel, a firm hold on fruit. Let’s do a little comparison and contrast of these expressions of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and the vision of individual producers. Winemaker for Faust is Quintessa’s Charles Thomas.

These wines were samples for review. Image of cabernet sauvignon grapes in the Seven Oaks Vineyard at J. Lohr Winery from tripadvisor.com.

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The Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley, is a blend of 95 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes with three percent petit verdot and one percent each malbec and cabernet franc. The wine aged 20 months in French oak barrels, 65 percent new. This cabernet is immediately appealing, even gorgeous in the way that red wines made in Bordeaux tend not to be, but it is not elegant in the way that red wines made in Bordeaux often are. Vineyards that contributed grapes for Hobbs ’11 include Beckstoffer’s Dr. Crane and Las Piedras, just outside the city of St. Helena, and Stagecoach Vineyard, stretching from Pritchard Hill to Atlas Peak at elevations varying from 1,200 to 1,750 feet.
The color is deep ruby-purple that’s almost opaque in the center. Aromas of blackberries and black currants are permeated with notes of lilac and lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate, all drenched in dried baking spices and dried fruit over a grounding of tar and graphite; as bouquets go, this one is spectacular. In the mouth, the wine is rich and plummy, close to jammy — there’s a hint of lingonberry — but it’s held in check by a powerful granitic mineral element joined to iodine and iron, supple dusty tannins and spanking acidity. For a frankly opulent and sensuous cabernet sauvignon, this one is impeccably balanced, and it drinks fine now, especially, perhaps, with a hot and crusty ribeye steak or leg or lamb right off the grill, or over the next 10 or 12 years. 14.4 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $100.
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All right, notice this. As with the Paul Hobbs Cab ’11, the Faust Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley, contains three percent petit verdot and one percent each malbec and cabernet franc, though there the resemblance ends, because the balance of the Faust is 78 percent cabernet sauvignon and 17 percent merlot, the latter variety entirely absent from the Hobbs. Faust ’11 aged 19 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. The preponderance of grapes for this wine derived from Coombsville, east of the city of Napa, declared an American Viticultural Area in 2011; the rest of the grapes came from vineyards as widespread (within Napa Valley) as Yountville, Mount Veeder, Atlas Peak, St, Helena and Rutherford, which is to say, valley and mountains.
The color is deep ruby-purple with a magenta rim. If graphite and granite could be made into incense, this would be it, though with those aromas are woven notes of red and black cherries, black currants, cocoa powder and cloves. On the palate, Faust ’11 is dense and chewy, freighted with dusty, gritty mineral-laden tannins darkened by touches of slightly austere walnut shell and wheatmeal; structure is the raison d’etre, though depths of spicy black fruit flavors are not ignored. This strikes me as a cabernet not quite ready to drink, though even for all its emphasis on foundation and framing one feels its shapely aptitude and subtle elegance; try from 2016 through 2022 to ’25. Alcohol content is 14.2 percent. Excellent. About $50.
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