California


I managed to squeak by Merlot Month — October — by only mentioning the grape once. Whew! I deplore these marketing gimmicks, except, of course, World Champagne Day. That one, I happily go along with. Anyway, we look in this post at three merlot wines from Duckhorn Vineyards, a producer of merlot since 1976, not merely venerable but distinguished, even archetypal, particularly from the famed Three Palms Vineyard. Renée Ary was promoted to winemaker at Duckhorn in 2014, just in time to craft the Three Palms Merlot for that vintage, a stupendous wine that rates Exceptional in the review below. The other merlot wines here are from Gundlach Bundschu (Very Good+), Chelsea Goldschmidt (Excellent and a Great Value) and Mt. Brave (Excellent).

These wines were samples for review.
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Decoy is Duckhorn’s label for (relatively) inexpensive wines. The Decoy Merlot 2015, Sonoma County, is a blend of 92 percent merlot, 4 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent each cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah. The color is dark ruby shading to a transparent violet rim; aromas of red currants, black cherry and blueberry are infused with cloves and graphite and a hint of loam; this is a briery, brambly merlot, not rustic — the texture is sleek and supple — but rooty and woodsy, the whole package kept lively by vibrant acidity; the finish is solid with dusty tannins and a hint of oak. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 or ’20. Very Good+. About $25.
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The Duckhorn Merlot 2014, Napa Valley, represents an intense and concentrated rendition of the grape; it’s a blend of 88 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent petit verdot and 2 percent cabernet franc, aged 16 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. A totally opaque black-ruby color presages a merlot that’s dark in intensity and effect. This one reveals an oak influence greater than its stablemates also reviewed in this section, a factor that tends to mute the elements of red and black currants and blueberries that circulate below the surface, while adding a spicy and dried herb quality that manages to feel more generous and appealing. Graphite? You bet. Granitic minerality? Uh-huh. Dusty, velvety tannins? Count on ’em. A finish that expands the oak and tannic sway through toasty woody notes? Mais oui. 14.5 percent alcohol. Give this merlot another year to settle down and find better balance, and then consume through 2024. Very Good+, with Excellent potential. About $54.
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You’ll hear not a quibble or a qualm from me about the Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot 2014, Napa Valley. This single-vineyard wine set the standard for Napa Valley merlot decades ago and continues to handily best the competition. For 2014, the blend consists of 86 percent merlot, 8 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent malbec and 2 percent petit verdot; it aged 18 months in French oak, a whopping 75 percent new barrels. As often happens, however, when excellent grapes from a great vineyard meet a rigorous oak regimen, the wine soaked up that oak and turned it into a subtle, supple shaping factor rather than a dominating influence. The color, if that’s the word, is as opaque a black-ruby-purple as could be imagined; the gamut of sensations is here, but sustained, restrained and codified by the demands of immense dusty bastions of granitic-glazed tannins and a tremendous reserve of penetrating graphite minerality. While that description makes the Three Palms Merlot 14 sound as if it’s all about structure now, this wine adds intriguing and interesting detail to its dimension: black and red currants with touches of blueberry and raspberry, all slightly spiced and macerated; mocha and fruitcake, pomegranate and loam; dried porcini and woodsy herbs and flowers. This panoply is animated by bright acidity that plows a furrow through to the austere, mineral and oak infused finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. A monumental achievement, and thank god I have another bottle. Best from 2019 or ’20 through 2030 to ’34. Exceptional. About $98.
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Named for winemaker Nick Goldschmidt’s eldest daughter, the Chelsea Goldschmidt Merlot 2015, Alexander Valley, is a 100 percent varietal wine that aged 12 months in 25 percent new oak, 60 percent French barrels, 20 percent each American and Hungarian. The color is deep dark black-ruby with a purple rim; aromas of cassis and black currant jam are permeated by notes of cloves and licorice, iodine and graphite, lavender and bittersweet chocolate. Chewy, gritty tannins reach fathoms into layers of granitic minerality, all enlivened by vibrant acidity and laved by tasty black and blue fruit flavors. Yeah, it’s sort of like drinking gravel, and I mean that in the best way. 14.5 percent alcohol. Best from 2019 through 2025 to ’28. Excellent. About $19, an Incredible Value for this quality.
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If you dote on juicy, jammy red wines — as I do not — this one’s for you. The Gundlach Bundschu Merlot 2014, Sonoma Valley, is a blend of 89 percent merlot, 5 percent petit verdot, 4 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent each malbec and cabernet franc, thereby accommodating the five classic Bordeaux grape varieties. The wine aged 17 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The color is inky, opaque black-purple with a magenta rim; this opens with pure blackberry jam, penetrating aromas of graphite and lavender and a deeply spicy, macerated character that includes blueberries and mulberries. It’s quite dry but ripe, juicy and succulent, very dense and chewy and energized by bright acidity that rips through dusty, velvety tannins; you feel the sweet ripeness of the 14.8 percent alcohol on the finish. Drink now through 2020 or ’22. Very Good+. About $35.
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None of these examples is a wimpy wine, as some people think of merlot, but the Mt. Brave Merlot 2014, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley, pretty much takes the prize for structure. Made from grapes grown between 1,400 and 1,800 feet in elevation — it’s the old Chateau Potelle property — this 100 percent varietal wine aged 19 months in French oak, 93 percent new barrels. The wine displays another inky-black-purple hue with a violet rim; every aspect is intense and concentrated, from the tightly-wound notes of black currants, blueberries and (just a hint) boysenberry to the piercing granitic-and-graphite minerality to its rigorous tannins permeated by iodine, iron and loam. Give it a few minutes in the glass, and it calls up the dusty herbaceous quality of dried thyme and rosemary (with a touch of rosemary’s slightly astringent woodsy nature) that I associate with high-elevation red wines, all of these elements energized and bound by keen acidity; the finish feels chiseled from stone. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 532 cases. Winemaker was Chris Carpenter. This is a wine built to age; try from 2019 or ’20 through 2030 to ’34, properly stored. Excellent. About $80.
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It’s an article of faith among marketers of wine and spirits that the Millennial cohort wants to consume products with stories that somehow make what they’re drinking seem more authentic and connected with human qualities. Well, here’s a story they’ll clasp to their bosoms with glee and gratitude.

Robin and Andréa McBride are half-sisters who grew up not knowing of each other’s existence. They shared a father who was not part of their lives. Andrea lived in New Zealand, having been placed in foster-care at the age of six, after her mother died. Robin was raised by her mother in Monterey, California, all the way on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Before their father died in 1996, he asked his family to try and connect the girls. They finally met in 1999, after tremendous efforts by their father’s family, and discovered that each worked in the wine industry on their separate continents. What else could they do but form a partnership in that business? They make and import a saugivnon blanc and a brut rosé from New Zealand and produce a chardonnay and the red blend under consideration today from the Central Coast. They are among the very few black women working in California’s predominantly white male wine industry.

The McBride Sisters Collection Red Blend 2015, Central Coast, is composed of merlot, zinfandel, malbec and petite sirah grapes — percentages not revealed — derived from Paso Robles and Monterey. The wine aged 18 months in primarily French oak barrels with a small portion in American and Hungarian oak. The color is dark ruby fading to a transparent violet rim; scents of red and black currants unfold to notes of blueberry and mulberry, cloves and allspice, espresso, tar and lavender. A few moments in the glass unfurl hints of dusty thyme and rosemary, pomegranate and fruitcake and elements of briers and brambles; bright acidity keeps the wine on an even keel, while light graphite-tinged tannins provide ballast (to sustain the nautical metaphor), and ripe and juicy black and blue fruit flavors charge through to the slightly mineral-and-woodsy-inflected finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. A lot of satisfying detail and dimension at a more than fair price. Excellent. About $17.

A sample for review.


Here’s a wine that would handily serve as your house red through the Fall and Winter, priced to buy by the case. The Shooting Star Merlot 2015, Lake County — a second label of Steele Wines — sees a sensible eight months in French and American oak barrels, lending plenty of structure without the wood unseemly obtruding. This is 100 percent varietal, the grapes grown at a cool 1,500 foot elevation. The color is opaque ruby-purple, even unto ebony; notes of ripe, spicy red and black cherries and plums are permeated by a strain of graphite and iodine, with hints of dried mountain herbs and an element of tobacco and rosemary, with a bit of the latter’s slight woodsy astringency. Dusty, velvety tannins lend both a cushiony texture and some austerity to the finish, the whole package delivering a sense of juicy black fruit flavors impelled by bright acidity. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink with braised short ribs, pasta Bolognese, sausage and mushroom pizza or a burger; you get the idea. Very Good+. About $14, marking Excellent Value.

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

The good news is that the Iron Horse Gratitude Brut Rosé 2012, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, is superb. Also good news is that $5 from each bottle sold will go to The Redwood Empire Food Bank, which is providing critical supplies to evacuation centers and shelters in Sonoma County for people displaced by the recent devastating wild-fires, while working to ensure that those who needed food assistance before the fires are still able to receive help. It’s a blend of 76 percent pinot noir and 24 percent chardonnay, resulting in an entrancing hue of very pale coral-smoky topaz, enlivened by a fervent upward surge of tiny glinting bubbles. The first impression is of pure strawberry, a notion quickly subsumed by delicate notes of macerated peaches and spiced pears, highlighted by apple skin, blood orange and seashell and limestone minerality; in the background blossoms a trace of fresh-baked brioche. The lithe dynamic mineral element dominates the palate along with crystalline acidity for raciness and verve; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of lime peel and almond skin. The whole package is dry, spare and elegant, adding up to the best brut rosé sparkling wine I have tasted this year. 13.5 percent alcohol. Proprietor of Iron Horse is Joy Sterling; winemaker is David Munksgard. Excellent. About $65.

A sample for review.

Jed Steele is assured a place in the annals of the California wine industry — and in the chronicle of American consumer taste — because he formulated the character of the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, a ripe, slightly florid and slightly sweet chardonnay that tickled American palates to the tune of millions of cases. The wine was introduced in 1982, when proprietor Jess Jackson was getting started in the business. Steele had worked at Stony Hill and Edmeades and brought a wealth of knowledge, as well as instinct and intuition, to Kendall-Jackson, an ever expanding winery for which he worked until 1991, when Jackson fired Steele amid contentious accusations leading to suits and counter-suits. Jackson asserted that the “formula” for the Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay was a trade secret owned by the company, not by the man who created the wine. Surprisingly, a court agreed with Jackson. Water under the bridge, right. That year, the winemaker started Steele Wines, based in Lake County but drawing grapes from the breadth of California’s wine regions. While he makes a dizzying array of wines from multiple grape varieties, Steele produces several pinot noirs, both on a regional basis and from the single-vineyard standpoint. In today’s post, we look at an inexpensive and approachable example from Lake County, under the Shooting Star label; models from 2013 and ’14 from Santa Barbara County and Carneros; and a single-vineyard offering from the well-known Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara. No one would mistake these wines for anything other than pinot noir, yet Jed Steele imprints his individuality on each one, allowing the grape to express itself while keeping to his vision of what the grape can be.

These wines were samples for review.
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Let’s start with the Shooting Star Pinot Noir 2015, Lake County, under a label that’s one of Steele Wines’ subsidiary (and competitively priced) efforts. The wine aged nine months in French and Hungarian oak barrels. The color is dark ruby shading to a magenta rim; aromas and flavors of black cherries and currants are lightly spiced with sassafras and cloves, with a note of red cherry in the background. The texture is silky smooth and animated by brisk acidity; the finish brings in hints of loam and graphite. 13.8 percent alcohol. Very Good+. A Real Bargain at about $14.
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The Steele Wines Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Barbara County, aged eight months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby, shading to a medium transparent rim; the beguiling and seductive bouquet offers notes of violets and rose petals, spiced and macerated red and black cherries and currants, with a complex weaving of sassafras, rhubarb, sandalwood and cloves and tantalizing hints of cranberry and sour cherry. The texture is supernally satiny, but make no mistake, this pinot noir delivers a real mouthful of loamy-spicy black and red fruit flavors and vivid acidity, while the finish brings in elements of new leather and graphite. 14.5 percent alcohol. An exotic and highly individual pinot noir drinking beautifully at four years; it should develop well through 2020 or ’21. Excellent. About $21, representing Great Value.
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Steele Wines Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Barbara County. The color is dark ruby shading to a transparent rim; this pinot noir is dense with black and red fruit and exotic spice, feeling macerated and slightly fleshy and roasted; black and red cherries and currants display a hint of plum; a ballooning floral element wreathes violets and rose petals, while a penetrating graphite quality arrows through the svelte, succulent texture; lip-smacking acidity keeps the whole package lively. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $21.
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The Steele Wines Pinot Noir 2013, Carneros, aged 10 to 12 months in French oak, 10 percent new barrels, a percentage I like. The color is medium ruby-garnet with a transparent rim; the impression is of spiced and macerated red and black cherries and currants, fairly ripe and fleshy and permeated by notes of an element slightly resinous and herbal, like fresh rosemary, and by deeper hints of cranberry and pomegranate, violets and dusty loam. The texture is irresistibly satiny-smooth. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink through 2018. Excellent. About $21.
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As with the other pinot noirs in this post, the Steele Wines Pinot Noir 2014, Carneros, delivers a well-modulated, almost subliminal oak presence that doesn’t interfere with its aromas — both lovely and intense — of red cherries and currants permeated by blossoming notes of violets and lavender, sassafras and sandalwood or its expansive flavors of ripe red and black fruit that after a few minutes in the glass take on hints of loam and new leather, bittersweet chocolate and graphite. The whole package is driven by acidity that cuts a path on the palate. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $21.
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The Steele Wines Bien Nacido Vineyard Block N Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Barbara County, aged 12 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. An entrancing medium transparent ruby hue shades to a delicate rim; very pure, intense yet generous black and red cherry and currant scents and flavors are permeated by pronounced elements of pomegranate and cranberry, sandalwood and sassafras. On the palate, this pinot noir is lithe, supple and suave, animated by bright acidity and given a firm mineral backbone of graphite and loam. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 150 cases. Should drink beautifully through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $36.
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Let’s say this right up front: These four chardonnays from Grgich Hills Estate are world-class wines, competitive with chardonnays from any country and any region. They embody everything about the marriage of grace and power that characterizes the best examples of the grape, as well as the volumes of intuition, knowledge and experience required to produce such wines. The use of oak barrels is particularly thoughtful and deft. While the talented and skillful winemaker for Grgich Hills is Ivo Jeramaz, over all hovers the benign and venerable presence of Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, one of Napa Valley’s great pioneers. Devotees of the finest chardonnay wines will want these in their cellars.

These wines were samples for review, as I am required to inform My Readers by dictate of the Federal Trade Commission.
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The lean, tight and focused Grgich Hills 40th Anniversary Chardonnay 2014, Napa Valley, was fermented and aged 10 months in the standard 60-gallon French oak barrique, in this case 70 percent new barrels, the rest neutral. It’s a chardonnay of magnificent power and range, detail and dimension; it was shaped to offer a sense of poise and dignity that leans close to austerity while also delivering the complete package of juicy pear, pineapple and grapefruit flavors (slightly macerated and roasted) and encompassed in a texture that deftly balances incisive crispness with talc-like softness. I cannot emphasize enough what an impression of dynamism and completeness this wine makes on the palate or how powerful the influence of limestone minerality is from beginning to end, making for a chardonnay that feels perfectly poised between crystalline vibrancy and delicacy, on one hand, and the potent earthiness of smoke, ash and loam, on the other. 14.1 percent alcohol. A wonderful achievement, commemorating the winery’s 40th anniversary in 2017. Now through 2024 to ’28, if properly cared for. Exceptional. About $50.
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The Grgich Hills Miljenko’s Selection Chardonnay 2014, Napa Valley-Carneros, was fermented (with native yeast) and then aged 11 months in 900-gallon oak casks, and in case My Readers wonder about the size of the barrels, think in comparison that the standard barrel, the one you see when you tour wineries or in atmospheric photographs of aging cellars, contains 60 gallons. The color is pale straw-gold; it’s permeated by yellow fruit and flowers — pears, peaches and quince; jasmine and honeysuckle — bolstered by definitive notes of limestone, flint and graphite, heather and damp dusty roof tiles. Boy, this chardonnay offers tremendous presence on the palate; it’s dry and dense, even chewy, bursting with energy and vitality yet, withal, beautifully knit, almost elegant in its balance, this character lasting through the long, vibrant, mineral-laden finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 882 cases. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $62.
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The Grgich Hills Miljenko’s Selection Chardonnay 2015, Napa Valley-Carneros, received the same oak treatment as its cousin from 2014, also with fermentation induced by native yeast — the yeast that naturally occurs in the vineyards and on the grapes — and did not undergo malolactic. In a testimony to consistency, these stablemates are very similar in character, though the 2015 possibly offers a slightly more refined, brighter aspect. The color is light straw-gold; aromas of pineapple and grapefruit are permeated by notes of mango and toasted coconut, apple and spiced pear, graphite and gun-flint. The lovely balance the wine displays is exquisite; all elements feel strung along a finely wrought line of fleet acidity and delicately chiseled limestone. A few moments in the glass bring out hints of lilac and camellia, while the structure, nicely dense yet lithe and supple, leads to a mineral-packed finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 875 cases. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $60.
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Talk about lots of oak! The Grgich Hills Paris Tasting Commemorative Chardonnay 2014, Napa Valley, fermented in and then aged 12 months in French barriques, 70 percent new, and then six more months in French oak foudres, that is barrels that hold 1,500 gallons, though foudre is a flexible term. How did the wine emerge from this regimen? Crystalline with chiming acidity, scintillating with limestone minerality, vibrant, resonant, earthy and powerful, yet elegant, almost delicate in its marshaling of detail: notes of slightly baked pineapple and grapefruit, pear compote, smoke and cloves, mango, jasmine and almond skin. The color, by the way, is light gold; the wine is quite dry, yet so sleek, suave and supple that the texture comes close to being luxurious; its heft on the palate is glamorous and dynamic. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 942 cases. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Exceptional. About $94.
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So, what is “pet-nat”? Besides being a cute nickname. These of-the-moment sparkling wines, the darlings of astute somms — pétillant-naturel in French — exist at the basic level of making sparkling wine, less complicated than the méthode champenoise, more rustic in effect, yet often delicious and appealing. An added factor is that they seem the epitome of naturalness in winemaking. Simply stated: Wine is bottled before fermentation is complete, so that fermentation continues in the bottle (because of the residual sugar) and carbon dioxide forms: i.e, bubbles. The result is a light sparkling wine, often but not always slightly sweet, that tends to leave sediment as a mark of its down-to-earth character.

Today, we look at two examples of single-vineyard pét-nat sparklers from Onward Wines, fashioned in small quantities by winemaker Faith Armstrong Foster. These examples are bone-dry, spare and subtle, not as robust or complex as Champagne yet delivering very satisfying character of their own, with an unmistakable quality of authenticity and integrity.

These wines were samples for review.
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The Onward Wines Sparkling Rose of Pinot Noir 2016, Redwood Valley, offers a pale coral-onion skin hue and delicate scents of blood orange and watermelon, sea foam and heather; mild effervescence keeps the wine gently but persistently animated. Traces of fresh, yeasty bread and lime peel highlight the nose and the palate, where lithe acidity drives through notes of dried red currants and the slight bitterness of grapefruit rind, all of these elements expressed with spare elegance, lovely balance and a touch of reticence. 12.1 percent alcohol. Production was 174 cases. Excellent. About $30.

Redwood Valley is a small American Viticultural Area (AVA), approved in 1996, in northern Mendocino County.
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The color of the Onward Wines Sparkling Malvasia Bianca 2016, Suisun Valley, is pale platinum blond, a Jean Harlow hue, made lively by a steady stream of tiny bubbles; it’s made 100 percent from malvasia bianca grapes, which lend the wine notes of green apple, apple peel, almond skin and a slightly foxy greenness. This is very dry, almost austere, but delivers fresh and ripe touches of lemongrass and melon, cinnamon toast and orange blossom, energized by bright acidity and scintillating limestone minerality. 12.6 percent alcohol Production was 350 cases. Excellent. About $24.

Suisun Valley, approved as an AVA in 1982, lies east of Napa Valley in Solano County, bounded by Howell Mountain on the west and the Vaca Range on the east.
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I’ll say right here, at the beginning of this post, that the result of tasting a short roster of chardonnay and pinot noir wines from the acclaimed Patz & Hall Wines was a conclusion too common in this series: I loved the pinot noirs, abhorred the chardonnays. The former I found exciting, multi-layered and slightly unpredictable, replete with pinot noir character yet each creating its own sense of detail and dimension. The chardonnays were entirely too predictable in the line of the dominant California style: too ripe and sweet with baked fruit qualities, too spicy, too oaky and intrinsically unbalanced. Those who disagree with me about these chardonnays and consider them and others like them some sort of epitome are, I know, manifold, and they are entitled to their opinion. The factors involved and of most importance for this blog are my nose and palate, and I can do naught else but follow their dictates.

Donald Patz and James Hall, who met while working for Flora Springs Winery, founded their enterprise, with their partners, in 1988. The winery owns no vineyards but makes wine on long-term contracts from highly acclaimed vineyards, primarily in Sonoma County. They sold the company to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in April 2016.

These wines were samples for review.
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The color of the Patz & Hall Pinot Noir 2015, Sonoma Coast, is dark ruby fading to a transparent and then ethereal magenta rim. The wine aged in 40 percent new French oak barrels. This is a pure, bright, intriguing pinot noir, whose scents of red, black and blue fruit compote are spiked with notes of beetroot and rose petals, sandalwood and lavender; the wine is lithe, lean and supple on the palate, taut and spicy, and a few minutes in the glass bring in touches of wood smoke and autumn leaves, along with hints of pomegranate and cranberry. This is a cuvee blended from a roster of top Sonoma Coast vineyards, including Chenoweth, Dutton and Gap’s Crown. 14.2 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 or ’21. Excellent. About $48.
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The Patz & Hall Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir 2015, Sonoma Coast, aged in 50 percent new French oak barrels. The color is a beautiful dark mulberry shading to a lighter magenta rim; concentrated aromas of black cherries, currants and plums feel dredged in dried baking spices and hints of rose petals and sassafras, fig and braised fennel. The wine displays a loamy, untamed character, framed by moderately dusty tannins and a burnished, slightly sanded texture, through which bright acidity cuts a swath; macerated and lightly roasted red and black fruit flavors open notes of smoke and damp ash, leading to a finish both generous and chiseled. 14.6 percent alcohol. Production was 650 cases. Now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $60.
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The chardonnays in question are the Patz & Hall Chardonnay 2015, Sonoma Coast ($40); Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Chardonnay 2015, Russian River Valley ($44); Patz & Hall Alder Springs Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, Mendocino ($60). These are bold and assertive wines in every respect: super-ripe fruit with baked apple and roasted pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors, dense textures, no-holds-barred spiciness and drenching oak. I understand that many critics and consumers adore chardonnays fashioned in this manner, but I find them to be ruinous to the potential purity and crystalline clarity of which the chardonnay grape is wonderfully capable. The Alder Springs I found to be particularly egregious in its stiff and drying oak influence. If these rich, glossy and exaggerated examples mark your favorite style of chardonnay, go for them by all means. For me and my palate, I find them unpleasant, strident and undrinkable, either on their own or with food.
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A passel of sauvignon blanc wines today, most from California, but one from New York, a pair from Chile and one from New Zealand are included. With three exceptions, these are from vintage 2016. Prices range from about $14 to $50, and a number of real bargains can be found. As is typical with the Weekend Wine Notes, I eschew most technical, historical, geological/geographical and personnel data for the sake of quick and incisive reviews, ripped, as it were, from the pages of my notebooks and designed to pique your interest and stimulate the palate. Enjoy! And always consume in moderation.

These wines were samples for review.
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Amici Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. 1,700 cases. Pale straw-gold hue; grapefruit and lime peel, fennel and pea-shoot, touch of pear; highlights of grass, hay and dried thyme; balances silky talc-like texture with bright crispness and liveliness; lilac and limestone, with a slightly bracing grapefruit finish. Lovely stuff. Excellent. About $25.
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Bridge Lane Sauvignon Blanc 2016, New York State. 12.9% alc. 1,100 cases. Second label of Lieb Cellars. Fresh as a daisy and clean as a whistle; lime peel, lilac, grapefruit and flint, and a touch of melon; a delicate sauvignon blanc of wisps and hints, with bright, lively acidity. Nothing profound, tasty for beach or patio parties. Drink up. Very Good. About $16. Also available in 3-liter boxes and 20-liter kegs, so party down.
Image from pullthatcork.com.
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Concha y Toro Ribera del Rapel Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Colchagua Valley, Chile. 13% alc. Light straw-gold with a faint green cast; very bright, fresh and clean, with pert notes of lime zest and gooseberry, lemongrass and fennel, spearmint and jasmine; a fairly individual sauvignon blanc, lean, lithe and chiseled, with heaps of limestone and damp flint minerality, but also generous and expansive; the finish features more spice and dried herbal elements. Excellent. About $17, marking Good Value.
Excelsior Wine Company, Old Brookville, N.Y.
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Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Dry Creek Valley. 14.5% alc. Pale straw-gold hue; a honed and faceted sauvignon blanc that gleams like crystal; dominated by sassy gooseberry, lime peel, grapefruit and fennel qualities, opening to notes of tangerine and intriguing hints of white pepper and paper whites; zesty acidity and a well-tuned limestone element give it class and vibrancy. Excellent. About $20.
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Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2016, St. Helena, Napa Valley. 13.2% alc. Very pale straw color; lemongrass, lime peel and grapefruit, etched with some astringent mountainside blossoms and herbs; like biting into a fresh Granny Smith apple but also meadowy and heathery; crisp as new currency, lively and electric; spare, lean and lithe, with a wafting of lilac and almond blossom and a finish layered with grapefruit pith, limestone and almond skin. Very impressive. Exceptional. About $32.
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Gamble Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Yountville, Napa Valley. 13.1% alc. Pale straw-gold color; lime peel, lemongrass, gooseberry; pea-shoot, spiced pear, tarragon, grapefruit rind and pith, the latter especially from mid-palate back through a slightly bitter finish; texture poised excitingly between soft lushness and lithe crispness; bright acidity plows a furrow through burgeoning limestone minerality; entrancing body and presence; the considerable oak brought to the making of this wine is supple and subtle, a shaping but not dominating force. Consistently one of the best sauvignon blancs made in Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $25, a True Bargain.
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Illumination Sauvignon Blanc 2015, 58% Napa County, 42% Sonoma County. 14.2% alc. With 13% semillon grapes. From Huneeus Vintners. Pale gold in hue; clean, fresh, leafy and spicy, slightly honeyed, with a note of bee’s-wax; fig, roasted lemon and fennel, lemongrass, chalk and flint; quite crisp and lively, slightly raspy and bitter with grapefruit pith; very dry, scintillating acidity and limestone minerality. Excellent. About $50.
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Kunde Family Winery Magnolia Lane Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Sonoma Valley. 13.8% alc. Pale straw-gold; spiced pear, lemongrass and lime peel; slightly herbal and grassy, with a lovely greenness, like celery and fennel; honeysuckle and jasmine with a note of damp hay; very crisp and vibrant, slightly earthy, with flint-like minerality and a touch of seashell salinity on the finish. Excellent. About $17, marking Great Value.
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Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Russian River Valley. 13.5% alc. Pale straw-gold with faint green highlights; a green and leafy sauvignon blanc, notable for its lemon balm and fig character, its pert notes of lime peel, lemongrass and grapefruit, with a background of fennel and licorice, limestone and preserved lemon; a pleasing talc-like texture riven by bristling, lip-smacking acidity. Excellent. About $20.
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Matanzas Creek Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Sonoma County. 13.6% alc. With 4% semillon grapes. Very pale gold hue; lime and tangerine, fennel and lemon drop, with hints of lemon balm and jasmine, ginger and thyme; quite dry and tart, like a distillation of damp limestone and flint electrified by bright acidity. Very attractive. Very Good+. About $15.
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Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Alexander Valley. 13.5% alc. With 7% semillon. Medium straw-gold color; Granny Smith apples and Key limes, pink grapefruit and white pepper; broader dimension than its stablemate mentioned above but also more subdued and elegant; soft and more supple but still quite crisp and taut, with a dry powdery texture; heaps of limestone minerality from mid-palate back. Excellent. About $20.
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Mt. Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc 2016, North Canterbury, New Zealand. 14.1% alc. Pale gold; lime zest and green bean, grapefruit and pea-shoot, gooseberry and roasted fennel, with penetrating notes of iodine and seashell; a pert, tart and sassy sauvignon blanc that tickles the palate with an herbal edge and bright acidity; a bracing, saline finish. Rich with nuance and not exaggerated. Excellent. About $16, a Great Bargain.
Imported by Mt Beautiful USA, Benecia, Calif. The label image is one vintage behind.
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Pedroncelli East Side Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Dry Creek Valley. 13.5% alc. Very pale straw-gold; lime zest, peach and grapefruit, with a tropical note of guava; a bit green and leafy; hints of jasmine and lemongrass with a limestone background; snappy acidity, real pizzazz; quite dry but juicy and engaging, heaps of limestone and flint from mid-palate back through a finish that brings in fennel and lavender. Very Good+. About $17.
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Shooting Star Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Lake County. 13.5% alc. The second label of Steele Wines. Very very pale, almost colorless; lemongrass, lime peel, grapefruit; heather, thyme and flint; quite crisp and vibrant and offering surprising density and texture for the price. Quite enjoyable. Very Good+. About $14, representing Great Value.
The bottle image is one vintage behind.
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Terrunyo Los Boldos Vineyard Block 5 Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Casablanca Valley, Chile. 13% alc. From Concha y Toro. Shimmering pale gold color; pure celery seed and celery leaf, pea-shoot, lime peel and grapefruit; caraway seed and fennel; crisp and lively, with a supple, lithe structure bolstered by vibrant limestone minerality. Real personality and character. Excellent. About $26.
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Robert Mondavi Winery established a reputation for the sauvignon blanc grape soon after the charismatic and innovative Robert Mondavi broke away from his family and established his own winery in 1966. Long a neglected grape in California, used for blending generic proprietary white wines or badly made on its own, sauvignon blanc became in his hands a fresh, grassy, appealing wine that bore a made-up French name on the label, “Fumé Blanc,” a nod to the Pouilly-Fumé appellation in the eastern Loire Valley, where sauvignon blanc reigns supreme. The result was a marketing triumph. In fact, some wineries in California still maintain a theoretical distinction between sauvignon blanc wines, supposedly made in the fashion of white Bordeaux, and fumé blanc wines, fashioned in the Loire Valley manner, if such distinctions can practically be made.

Today I look at three fumé blanc wines from Robert Mondavi. While I give out two Excellent ratings here and one Very Good+, my caveat is that the winery seems to make a fetish of French oak barrels and of employing every possible winemaking technique to shape a sauvignon blanc in a particular image rather than — especially in the instances of the Oakville 2014 and Reserve 2014, made from the almost hallowed To Kalon Vineyard — allowing the character of the vineyard to achieve eloquent expression. One feels, again particularly for the Reserve ’14, that the wines were poked and prodded and minutely examined rather than being allowed a natural development. Still, two Excellent ratings out of three ain’t bad. I especially liked the basic Fumé Blanc 2015, which at about $20 rates as a distinct bargain.

Director of winemaking for Robert Mondavi is Genevieve Janssens.

These wines were samples for review.
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The winery’s basic product in this iteration is the Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2015, Napa Valley, a blend of 96 percent sauvignon blanc grapes and 4 percent semillon. The grapes derived from a Wappo Hill vineyard in Stags Leap District (70 percent); from Mondavi’s famed To Kalon Vineyard (13 percent), with the balance from Napa Carneros. Eighty-five percent of the juice was barrel-fermented — the rest in stainless steel — and then aged five months in French oak barrels on the lees, hand-stirred twice a month. This is a smoky sauvignon blanc, truly fume, that offers a very pale straw-gold color and entrancing aromas of roasted lemons and lemon balm, lime peel, pea shoot and lilac. The texture is silky, talc-like but balanced by bright acidity and the burgeoning edge of limestone minerality, all in support of pert and tart flavors of guava, greengage, lemon and heather, the latter for a subtly grassy touch; spicy oak stays at the filigreed periphery. 14.5 percent alcohol. One of my favorite sauvignon blanc wines of the year. Drink now through 2019 or 2020. Excellent. About $20, marking Great Value.
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The Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2014, Oakville District, contains 21 percent semillon grapes, a factor that lends the wine notes of honeydew melon and fig and a particular sunny-leafy aspect that I associate with the variety. Ninety-one percent of the wine fermented in French oak and then aged on the lees for eight months, undergoing regular bâtonnage (hand-stirring); only eight percent of the oak was new barrels. Grapes for this wine derived from the renowned To Kalon Vineyard that surrounds the winery in Oakville. The color is pale gold; besides the features I already mentioned, the wine teems with hints of lime peel and lemongrass, crushed gravel, verbena and fennel, hay and heather. Vivid acidity and scintillating limestone minerality provide the balance between fruit and oak, which indeed as the moments pass becomes a dominating aspect of the wine: dry, spicy and burnished, a bit more powerful than I would like. Still, this sense of tension and resolution in texture and structure gives the wine its exciting quality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 to ’20. Excellent. About $40.
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Strangely, or sadly, my least favorite of this trio of sauvignon blancs is the Robert Mondavi To Kalon Reserve Fumé Blanc 2014, Napa Valley. The amount of new oak increased to 42 percent, the aging to nine months, from the previous example; a small difference one might think, but enough to make this wine feel burdened by its wood regimen rather than enhanced, at least from mid-palate back through the finish. There’s a bare two percent semillon. The grapes came from the To Kalon Vineyard, half from Robert’s Block, first planted in 1960. A small portion of the fruit was fermented in cement egg-shaped containers and was added to the final blend. Of course the wine was barrel-fermented and hand-stirred in barrel. The color is very pale straw-gold; aromas of lime peel and celery leaf, lemongrass and preserved lemon are woven with notes of spiced pear, tangerine and just a hint of fig, all abetted by a snap of gunflint and graphite. The wine offers a texture almost dense in its fluid materiality, though it’s lightened and heightened by vibrant acidity and a sense of lithe energy. That oak, though, develops from a subtle haze to a formidably drying factor in the mouth, powering over all other aspects to become the wine’s raison d’etre. Through all the technique exercised in the winery, does the character of the vineyard shine through? It just feels all too handled. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $52.
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