California


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Not many chardonnay wines feel as pure and intensely varietal as the Pine Ridge Le Petit Clos Chardonnay 2013, Stags Leap District. The wine’s name refers, in French, to a small enclosed vineyard, in this case a tiny area, within a larger vineyard, lying in the shadow of the ridge for which the winery is named. While Le Petit Clos Chardonnay 2013 is barrel-fermented, it ages only seven months in French oak, 65 percent new barrels, and malolactic fermentation is inhibited. The result is a chardonnay of shimmering and simmering integrity, lovely as it can be but with a dynamic core of bright acidity and scintillating limestone minerality. The color is mild gold; aromas of roasted lemon and lemon balm are heightened by notes of pineapple and grapefruit, baked apple and cloves; from the background surges a whiff of gun-flint and shale. The acid and minerality lend sinew to a moderately lush, talc-like texture that cushions a fluid layering of ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors, hints of quince and ginger, traces of chalk and flint and a suave, subtle, supple oak influence. 14.9 percent alcohol. A downright beautiful chardonnay, for drinking through 2019 to ’23. Excellent. About $75.

A sample for review.

Gary Andrus founded Pine Ridge Vineyards in 1978, acquiring 50 acres, planted mainly to chardonnay vines, on the Silverado Trail in Stags Leap District. After planting cabernet sauvignon vines and purchasing other vineyards, logo-Pine-Ridge-VineyardsPine Ridge earned a reputation for its full-bodied, multi-dimensional cabernet sauvignon wines, as well as chardonnay and, later, a popular and inexpensive chenin blanc-viognier blend that pays the rent. Anders put the winery on the market in 2000, and it was purchased by The Crimson Wine Group, which also owns Archery Summit, in Oregon, and Seghesio, in Sonoma County. Pine Ridge owns vineyard acreage in many parts of Napa Valley, and produces limited bottlings of wines from these classic AVAs. Under review today are the examples from Rutherford, Oakville District and Stags Leap District. Rutherford and Oakville stretch across the central Valley floor, while Stags Leap, backing up to the Vaca Range, is hillier, even fairly steep in places.

These three wines receive the same oak regimen, 18 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels, but it’s interesting that the blend on each is different, making accommodations to the vineyards and the landscape and micro-climates involved. Wimemaker and general manager is Michael Beaulac. These are stalwart — and expensive — cabernets, that seem to me to epitomize what makes Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon so well-known in the world of both casual drinkers and astute wine collectors: the sense of acute minerality; the poised and rugged tannins; the deep black fruit permeated by the unique combination of tea, dried herbs, loam and dust; the ultimate balance and integration, in the best years. The vintage in question here, 2012, though a warm year, is undeniably one of the best.

These wines were samples for review.
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The Pine Ridge Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, is a blend of 76 percent cabernet sauvignon and 24 percent petit verdot. With its intensity and concentration, its huge, dynamic lithic structure and its exquisite balance that paradoxically verges on elegance, this wine conforms to my ideal of an Oakville cabernet. The color is very dark ruby with a tinge of purple at the rim; taking some time to swirl the wine and sniff allows whiffs of black fruit shading to blue and dried meadow flowers to emerge, almost reluctantly it seems, while the big build-up is in the precincts of dust and graphite, iodine and iron. Still, tannins are plush on the palate, and the wine, despite its depth and dimension and the tautness of its acidity, flows through the mouth with lively aplomb. A wine that needs some time to open, though it would be tempting with a medium-rare strip steak, hot and crusty from the grill. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’34. Excellent. About $85.
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The Pine Ridge Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, offers a dark ruby hue with a glowing magenta rim; the nose is distinguished by incisive graphite minerality that bears hints of iodine and iron, ancho chili and bitter chocolate, opening gradually to deeply spiced and macerated red and black currants and raspberries; these aromas take on an incredibly floral aspect, blending lavender, violets and lilacs with a twist of black licorice. Though rigorous in structure, supported by bastions of dry, dusty tannins, this Pine Ridge Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is lively, vital and vigorous, almost engaging, though a few minutes in the glass give it burgeoning depth and dimension; oak stays firmly on the periphery, yet the influence is undeniably there. The finish is long, dense and freighted with a kind of powdery granitic quality. The blend is 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 15 percent malbec, 3 percent petit verdot. 14.8 percent alcohol. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’30. Excellent. About $85.
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Stylistically, the Pine Ridge Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, bears resemblance to its cousins also mentioned in this post but feels even denser, more stringent, bottomless, as if it siphoned up all the bedrock of the steep hillside vineyards where it was born. It’s a blend of 77 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent cabernet franc and 3 percent malbec. The color, of course, is dark, almost opaque ruby that shades to a lighter mulberry rim; the bouquet is a stirring melange of graphite, tar, ancho chili and bitter chocolate, roasted fennel and ripe, macerated red and black currants and cherries; a bit of time brings in notes of cloves, sage and rosemary. Yes, it’s massive on the palate, deeply tannic, yet fleet of foot too, aided by plangent acidity and a deft touch with oak, which feels polished and lightly sanded. It will need a few years aging to bring out more of the black fruit flavors, so try from 2017 to ’19 through 2030 to ’35. 14.7 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $125.
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The joke about Bonny Doon’s A Proper Claret is, of course, that it’s a highly unproper example, even a parody, of APC13C_front_300dpiclaret, that is, of a red wine from Bordeaux. Birthed by the fervid, fevered imagination of winery owner, winemaker and celebrated punster Randall Grahm, the latest release, the Bonny Doon A Proper Claret 2013, carrying a California designation, contains 46 percent cabernet sauvignon, 17 percent merlot and 14 percent petit verdot, all veddy proper for a Bordeaux, but the balance is filled by 15 percent tannat, 8 percent syrah and 1 percent petite sirah, grapes that would made all the Rothschild ancestors and cousins spin in their graves, now and forevermore. To say that the result is unique doesn’t begin to cover the bases. The color is dark ruby-purple; at first, the aromas are red fruit — mainly cherries and currants — that take on hints of black and blue as the minutes pass, all permeated by notes of mint and iodine, briers and brambles, a hint of dried porcini mushrooms and a remarkably intense floral element, like a bouquet of fresh and dried meadow flowers. On the palate, this is woodsy, musky and dusty, with ripe and spicy raspberries, currants and plums bolstered by firm yet pliant tannins and a dense supple texture enlivened by brisk acidity. Graphite and loam serve as foundation for an earthy element that broadens across the spectrum with meaty, feral, ferrous dimension. Quite a performance; loads of tantalizing and ineffable personality. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018. Excellent. About $16, marking Great Value.

A sample for review.

The Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs 2012, North Coast, isn’t all “noirs”; to its 88 percent pinot noir grapes it adds 12 percent chardonnay. It’s clearly North Coast, drawing grapes from Sonoma (44 percent), Mendocino (33 percent),Schramberg-Vineyards-Blanc-de-Noirs-Label Napa (19 percent) and Marin (4 percent) counties. The color is an ethereal pale gold, enlivened by a steady swirling stream of tiny bubbles. The first notes from the glass blossom with freshly baked biscuits and toasted hazelnuts, hints of lemon and pears spiced with ginger, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and touches of mango, melon and orange blossom, clean, high and elegant. This sparkling wine indeed sparkles on the palate with crisp acidity and a scintillating limestone element that burgeons through the sleek, chiseled finish; slightly macerated citrus tones dominate the flavor profile but in a spare cool fashion that allows the structure to express itself fully. 11.8 percent alcohol. A superb aperitif but also appropriate with such dishes as duck, pork and rabbit terrines, roasted veal and (more humbly) fried chicken. Now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $41.

A sample for review.

Well, damn it, this is sort of embarrassing. I have so many pinot noirs from California to catch up on reviewing that I have to divide the effort into two parts. Perhaps three. As usual in the Weekend Wines Notes, I eschew technical, historical and geographical information for the sake of incisive reviews, ripped from the pages of my notebooks, designed to tease your interest and whet your palate.
These 12 examples, all samples for review, are from vintages 2012 and 2013. The order is alphabetical, not hierarchical. Enjoy.
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anaba
Anaba Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.3% alc. A glowing medium ruby hue shading to a transparent magenta rim; a cool and mineral-laden pinot noir that features spiced and macerated black and red cherries with hints of loam, briers and brambles; incisive acidity and graphite minerality, notes of mint and iodine and a savory fleshy quality; lots of tone and subtle shape, beautifully balanced and integrated. Excellent. About $34.
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ferrari pn
Ferrari-Carano Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley. …% alc. Limpid medium ruby color; the typical range of smoky black cherry, currant and plum scents and flavors filigreed with notes of cloves, sassafras and sandalwood, yet couched in a texture of supernal silky suppleness and deepening to a dark, rooty loamy layer bolstered by mildy dusty tannins and bright acidity; displays more power than elegance, but certainly plumbs the depths of the grape. Now through 2019 to ’21. Excellent. About $35.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. Ineffable medium ruby hue shading to light mulberry; an elevating and enticing bouquet: macerated red currants and cherries with a hint of slightly briery raspberry and notes of cloves and sassafras, smoke, lavender and heather; super supple and satiny; dusty tannins infused with underbrush and moss; pulls up roots and branches and wild floral elements; quite dry but seductive in every sense. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $45.
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Head High Wines Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. 14.2% alc. Transparent medium ruby, brick-red at the rim; a subdued manner that features pert acidity and fairly tart red berry fruit, though highlighted by notes of smoke and cloves, sassafras and pomegranate; it becomes deeper and broader in the glass, after 30 or 40 minutes, building a dimension of blue plums, blueberries and graphite, becoming more intense and vibrant. A lovely pinot noir, ephemeral yet with sleek backbone, for drinking through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $35.
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Heintz Ranch Swan Selection Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. 13.3% alc. 200 cases. Lovely limpid medium ruby color; cherries, cranberries and rhubarb; cloves and tobacco, sandalwood and loam; supple and satiny texture, feels generous on the palate yet enlivened by clean acidity and graphite-tinged minerality; dried spice and wild flowers emerge after a few minutes in the glass. Very attractive personality and character. Now through 2017 or ’18. Very Good+. About $48.
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follette
La Follette Pinot Noir 2013, North Coast. 13.8% alc. Medium ruby fading to a lighter magenta; remarkable depth and dimension for the price; black cherry, cranberry and cloves, sassafras and sandalwood; quite intense and pure, with a lithe and supple texture; richness and density cut by vibrant acidity; brings in touches of smoke and dried spices, briers and loam, with dry, dusty tannins. Now through 2017 or ’18 If you’re looking for a house pinot noir, this is it. Excellent. About $20, representing Fine Value.
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MacMurray Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013, Central Coast. This Gallo brand used to be called MacMurray Ranch and sported an altogether more pleasing label than the new generic model, but nobody asked me. 14.8% alc. Dark ruby shading to a transparent mulberry rim; black raspberries and currants with hints of plums, cloves and sassafras; very satiny and supple, with appealing substance on the palate; savory, and with some elements of briers and brambles and slightly dusty tannins and graphite. A nice rendition. Very Good+. About $23.
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Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Lucia Highlands. 14.4% alc. 1,211 cases. Dark ruby shading Double_L_Pinot_Noir_2013to lighter ruby and a transparent magenta rim; ravishing bouquet: cloves and sandalwood, smoky black cherries and plums, rose petals and lavender; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of Necco wafer, raspberry jam, leather and violets; beautifully lithe and supple on the palate, spicy and savory, with lovely weight and heft; dry and loamy, dense and fairly tannic in a dusty, graphite-laden fashion; all melded by fleet acidity and deftly handled oak. A real beauty; drink now through 2019 to 2022. Excellent. About $58.
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Paul Hobbs CrossBarn Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley. 14.1% alc. Transparent medium ruby hue; pure fresh black crossbarnraspberry and plum infused with cloves and sassafras and a hint of leather and loam; a few moments in the glass bring up notes of red currants and cherries; smoky and dusty, with plenty of stuffing, though tannins are supple and manageable; keen acidity cuts a furrow on the palate. Very attractive, for drinking through 2017 or ’18. Very Good+. About $35.
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Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. Medium ruby-magenta with a pale rim; patza pure and intense expression of lightly macerated red raspberries and cherries with a touch of blue plum; cloves, sandalwood and sassafras, hints of graphite and loam; super satiny, spicy, smoky and savory, the red berry flavors a bit fleshy, all directed by a stern finger of dusty tannins and lip-smacking acidity. a joy to drink. Now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $70.
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Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Beguiling transparent ruby hue shading to a rim of delicate invisibility; bursting with notes of sassafras, cloves, pomegranate and cranberry opening to smoky black cherries and currants; lovely purity and intensity, with a sleek silky texture, abundant acidity and slightly briery tannins, all at the service of bright yet slightly loamy cherry-berry flavors. Drink now through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $25.
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Saxon Brown Durell Vineyard Hayfield Block Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Fewer than 100 cases. Dark ruby hue at the center shading to medium ruby-magenta at the transparent rim; dusty plums and red currants, loam, cloves and allspice, with a tantalizing note of the latter’s fragrant woody astringency; iodine and graphite tending toward a granitic element, softened by a supple texture exquisitely poised between silky lushness and lithe muscularity; it feels married to the earth. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, or at least, say, until 2020 or ’22. Exceptional. About $48.
The wines of Saxon Brown are sold by allocation through a mailing list. Contact saxonbrown.com for information.
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Here’s a zinfandel from Lodi that’s balanced, delicious and close to elegant, though it doesn’t neglect the 2012 Sherm Zinnecessary structure. The Fields Family Wines Sherman Family Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel 2012 offers a dark ruby-purple hue that shades toward violet at the rim. Blackberry, blueberry and plum scents and flavors feel rooted in dark graphite minerality and loaminess at the same time being delicately etched with filigrees of cloves and sandalwood, smoke and pomegranate. The wine is fairly dense and chewy on the palate, but vibrant, beautifully poised and polished by gently burnished oak and slightly dusty tannins; ripe and spicy black fruit flavors stay on the sane side of succulent, held in check by bright acidity and a chiseled frame-work. 14.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 or ’18 with burgers or steaks, braised meat dishes and seared porkchops. Russ Fields purchased the property where the vineyards and the recently constructed winery stand in 2005. Winemaker is Ryan Sherman. Excellent. About $26.

A sample for review.

One of the best-known vineyards in Sonoma County, if not California, is the Durell Vineyard, perched at the cusp of three appellations, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and Carneros, just a toe-hold in the latter, but entitled to a Sonoma Coast designation. Dedicated primarily to chardonnay and pinot noir, this vineyard supplies grapes to such labels as (perhaps most famously) Kistler, Chateau St. Jean, Patz & Hall and Robert Craig, as well as Saxon Brown, Loring, Armida, Auteur and others.

Ed Durell, a food broker in San Francisco, acquired the land in 1977, intending to raise cattle but planted vines bill-600x880instead, and, as it turns out, this area, just at the foot of the Sonoma Mountains, was prime soil and climate for those grapes. In 1998, Durell sold the 200-acre vineyard, by now a prestigious site, to Bill and Ellie Price. Bill Price III, a co-founder of TPG Capital (image at right), which bought Beringer Wine Estates and sold it to Fosters and if that’s not a great introduction to the wine business I don’t know what is, and Ellie Price divorced in 2001 but each retains ownership of Durell Vineyard. Price is chairman of Kosta Brown Winery and Gary Farrell Winery — you know those names — and has interest in Kistler, another name you know. He purchased the well-known Gap’s Crown Vineyard in 2013.

Price’s Three Sticks label — named for his old surfing nickname — draws grapes from Durell as well as from other vineyards in Sonoma County and down to Santa Barbara County. These 2013s were made by Don Van Staaveren, who is now winemaker emeritus, having handed his former duties to director of winemaking Bob Cabral (former winemaker at Williams Selyam), associate winemaker Ryan Prichard and assistant winemaker Ashley Holland.

These wines were samples for review.
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I’m sorry to begin this series of reviews on a discouraging note, but the Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Valley, received the full in-house treatment, and it shows. Fermented in French oak barrels, aged for 15 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels, and undergoing complete malolactic fermentation, the wine came out bold, bright and brassy, dense and lush to the point of being viscous, bursting with candied and caramelized citrus and stone-fruit flavors, stridently spicy, cloying and creamy and lacking the saving grace of minerality. It is my understanding that some people like this overdone, exaggerated character in chardonnay, but not me. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 713 cases. Not recommended. About $50.

Now, on to more pleasant matters.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Origin Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Valley, fermented 28 days in concrete eggs and aged for 12 months, unusually, completely in stainless steel. No oak for this baby! It did not go through malolactic fermentation, the transformation of sharp malic (“apple-like”) acid to creamy lactic (“milk-like’) acid that can occur during barrel aging. The color is medium gold, and the first impression is of a bold, forthright but not flamboyant chardonnay that features quite spicy lemon and peach scents and flavors with notes of ripe and slightly roasted pineapple and grapefruit, all permeated by elements of cloves, quince and ginger. It’s a deep, almost rooty chardonnay with structure to burn and a smoky, cigarette paper character that lends depth and dimension. Crystalline acidity cuts through a supple texture and rich stone-fruit flavors enlivened by a burgeoning limestone quality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 409 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $48. One of my favorite chardonnays produced in California.
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Unlike its stablemate Origin Chardonnay mentioned just above, the Three Sticks One Sky Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Mountain, ferments in French oak barrels and ages in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, for 15 months; it undergoes 100 percent malolactic. Sometimes that full oak treatment works out fine, thank you very much, but it has to be thoughtful and finely balanced. The color is bright, brassy gold to match the wine’s bright, brassy aromas and flavors. Lots of volume here, lots of structure and dimension, personality and character. Spiced and macerated grapefruit and pineapple have a slightly floral overlay, while the wine coats the mouth with ripe and slightly dusty citrus and stone-fruit flavors that open to hints of toffee and lightly candied and caramelized lemons, peaches and grapefruit. While the description of this panoply of sensual delights may sound overwhelming, the wine is actually deftly controlled and engaging, gliding over the palate with confidence and some fancy footwork. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 274 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’21. Excellent. About $50.
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The Three Sticks Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, aged 16 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The color is medium ruby shading to a transparent rim; transporting and exotic notes of cloves and sandalwood, sassafras and rhubarb lend highlights to a macerated compote of cranberries and red and black cherries; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of smoke, lavender and heather. The texture is supremely satiny, with a luxurious drape on the palate that’s balanced by brisk acidity, slightly dusty tannins and touches of graphite and shale minerality, all at the service of tasty, spicy red and black fruit flavors. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 573 cases. Drink now through 2019 to ’21. Excellent. About $60.
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The Three Sticks “The James” Pinot Noir 2013, Sta. Rita Hills, gathers grapes from three familiar vineyards in this region of Santa Barbara County: Burning Creek, La Rinconada and (perhaps the best-known) Sanford & Benedict. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is an irresistible limpid medium ruby that shades to transparent at the rim; you could call this wine “cherries, cherries, cherries,” though the heady influence of black and red raspberries and currants is undeniable, along with notes of cloves and sassafras, graphite and lavender; a few moments in the glass pull up hints of pomegranate and rhubarb. It’s a supple, sleek and satiny pinot noir, whose slightly dusty tannins, clean acidity and burnished oak keep it on the sane side of succulence, though let’s admit that it’s really tasty, too. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 through 2013. Excellent. About $60.
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The Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, aged 16 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, but you don’t feel the oak influence until the finish, where the wood element feels sanded and burnished. The color is transparent medium ruby; aromas of sassafras and cloves, black and red cherries and currants are permeated by hints of loam and an autumnal briery-brambly quality, like some ancient root-like brew; give it a few minutes and it dredges up a mysterious and seductive floral tone, as if dried violets and lilacs had been steeped in oolong tea. It’s all quite extraordinary. In the mouth, well, taut acidity cuts a swath on the palate, leading the way for a texture that feels both delicate and tense, poignant and dynamic; deeply spiced red and black fruit flavors seem suspended in a foundation of lightly dusted tannins and an increasing lithic, graphite character. Altogether a beautiful performance, exquisitely balanced, tensile with power. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 585 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Exceptional. About $65.
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The Three Sticks Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, received the same oak regimen as the Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir ’13 mentioned just above, and for whatever reason, you feel the oak more in this wine, a persistent presence from mid-palate back through the finish. Still, this is pinot noir of fine detail and dimension, offering a light transparent ruby-magenta hue and a meaty, fleshy, roasted bouquet that pulls up fathoms of spice in the juicy, peppery red and black fruit scents. Again, the wine hints at some rooty, loamy tea steeped in bark and mushrooms, with an allusive and tantalizing floral element. Flavors of very ripe, sweet cherries and currants open to touches of cranberry and rhubarb, while a supple lithe texture runs like warm satin across the tongue. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 329 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Very Good+. About $65.
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Or luscious wines, or wines that a certain writer calls “sexy” or “hedonistic,” or wines that base their raison d’etre on ripeness and juiciness, succulence and opulence. I think that these wines reflect the infantile nature of the American palate trained to sweetened iced tea and sugary sodas or, for the Baby Boomer generation, Kool-Aid and Tang. American wine consumers seem to want their taste buds coddled and cosseted by the saturated ripeness of long-hanging grapes plumped with sugar and by velvety textures that slide comfortingly through the mouth and down the throat.

As a culture, Americans typically desire immediate gratification, a tendency that’s probably our most consequential export to the rest of the world. With a sniff and a sip, the gorgeous wine gets right in there and provides quick fulfillment, a burst of pleasure. “Wow, that’s gorgeous!” What happens next, though? Such wines may be superficially attractive, even seductive, and I won’t deny that a wine with the capability to draw you in irresistibly isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the end, however, the gorgeous wines don’t deliver the true promise that great wines hold: elegance and finesse married to power and dynamism; a structure that feels embedded in the grapes’ origin in the vineyard and the vineyard in a region; acidity that brings the necessary matanzas merlotvitality to the wine’s essence and cuts a swath on the palate; the balance among fruit, tannin, acid, oak and minerality that soothes, stimulates and challenges the senses and the intellect.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A couple of nights ago, to accompany meatloaf and roasted potatoes, I opened a bottle of the Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2012, Bennett Valley. (Matanzas Creek is owned by Jackson Family Wines.) Bennett Valley, approved as an AVA in 2003, largely at the instigation of Matanzas Creek Winery, lies almost entirely within the Sonoma Valley AVA and overlaps somewhat into Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Mountain AVAs. The vineyard stands at an average elevation of 600 feet. The wine is 98 percent merlot with one percent each cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc; it aged 20 months in French and American oak, the French being 23 percent new barrels. Winemaker was Marcia Monahan-Torres. Yes, that’s the wonky technical data that may bore you silly, but I love it.

The color is deep ruby-purple with a glowing magenta rim. The aromas launch from the glass in what’s initially a subdued skein of ripe and slightly macerated black and red currants and cherries with notes of raspberry and blueberry; a few minutes’ airing brings in hints of cloves and sandalwood and then a great bloom of violets and lilacs, backed by licorice and bitter chocolate, all in a lovely welter of sensual delight. Yeah, pretty damned gorgeous. Within this panoply of pleasure, however, lurks a deeper influence of graphite, something root-like, briery and brambly, with sage and a touch of rosemary, and deeper yet, a layer of lithic iodine and iron. The wine is shifting, you see, from gorgeous to profound, a transition that occurs on the palate, also, where the ripeness and allure of the spicy red and black fruit flavors are bolstered by bright and active acidity and given depth and dimension by dusty, woodsy tannins that partake of dried mushrooms and forest-floor and a burgeoning tide of granitic minerality. This is in no way, you see, a merely gorgeous wine. The Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2012 doesn’t sate your desire for wine or weary your palate by its opulence and velvety succulence. Instead, it leads you on from sip to sip, a wine to savor for the very savory qualities that more flamboyant wines lack. This should drink beautifully through 2020 to ’24. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $60.

Perhaps the virtues I extol demand too much of wine, which is, after all, only a beverage, an agricultural product, though I think that wine — including Champagne and the adjuncts Port and Cognac — possesses the capacity to be the most complex and satisfying result of agricultural endeavor. (I’ll hear arguments for Scotch, too.) Not that every wine ought to promote deep contemplation and examination; sometimes you just want a decent quaff to knock back with a burger or pizza. Still, I think we deserve wines that exhibit finer character and more essential structure than the prettiness and hyperbole of ripeness and plumpness allow.

… and, yes, friends, it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky.
jayson
What is this trope about table wines that bear the cloying impress of alcohol levels over 15 percent, even 16 percent and higher? Some winemakers in California seem to fall into the same camp as many producers of craft beer, who believe that the hoppier a brew is the better it is, intrinsically, so, by parallel reasoning, since wine is an alcoholic beverage, let’s pump up the alcohol for a wild ride.

There was a time when wines produced in California came in at alcohol levels between about 11.5 and 12.5 percent, maybe up to 13.5. The norm now is 14.5 percent, with the result that red wines — cabernets, pinot noirs, syrahs, merlots and, especially, zinfandel wines — are riper and juicier but also convey an impression of sweetness and sometimes, on the finish, of heat. These exaggerated qualities increase as the alcohol content creeps past 15 percent and inches toward or past 16. The problems intensify because many of these wines are also exceedingly tannic, so any sense of balance is lost in an entity that turns out to be powerful and dynamic but awkward, clunky and incoherent. I read the deliriously approving descriptions of some of these wines and reviews from other writers, and I have to think, surely we’re not talking about the same product, as I’m sure they will think about me and my fairly harsh evaluations.

So, today, I offer brief notices of beyond-the-pale, high-alcohol, lurching, unbalanced red wines, along with a few that manage to pull off the feat and achieve a measure of poise. Notice that most of these examples are zinfandels from Lodi, Amador County and Dry Creek Valley; the great and surprising exception is a beautifully-made Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon that registers 15.2 percent alcohol. The order is by increasing amounts of alcohol, starting at 15 percent. Proceed at your own risk.
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Renwood Clarion Red Wine 2012, Amador County. 15% alc. Dark ruby color; pungent with ripe raspberry and blueberry infused with briery-brambly notes, graphite and lavender; very dry, quite spicy, juicy with red and black fruit flavors; you feel a touch of raisiny heat on the finish. Very Good+. About $20.
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Renwood Grandpere Zinfandel 2012, Amador County. 15% alc. Medium ruby hue with a light garnet rim; sweet spices, mint, ripe cherries and cranberries with touches of blueberry and boysenberry; quite dry, plush, velvety tannins, large-framed but palatable; a bit of alcoholic heat mars the dense, lithic finish. Very Good+. About $40.
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Priest Ranch Coach Gun 2011, Napa Valley. 15.1% alc. A cabernet sauvignon-based blend. Dark ruby color; smoke, loam, graphite, lavender; black currants and cherries and blueberries, all deeply spiced and macerated; cedar and mint; energized by pert acidity; very dry dusty out-of-scale tannins, austere finish that falters out of balance. Not a success. About $75.
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Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyard Syrah 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.2% alc. 75% syrah, 25% zinfandel. Opaque black-ruby with an intense violet rim; big, bold and very spicy; ripe and fleshy blackberry and blueberry fruit with an infusion of ligonberry, blackberry jam and blueberry tart; deep, plush, dusty tannins that coat the palate; every element that I look for in a syrah wine is absent, muted into anonymity by ripeness, alcohol and tannin. Awkward and unbalanced. About $32.
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Jayson Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley. (The second label of Pahlmeyer.) 15.2% alc. A complete, harmonious and complex red wine. Dark ruby-purple hue; a very ripe, fruit-infused wine, high-toned and surprisingly elegant in its balance; intense and concentrated, with notes of cassis and red and black cherries permeated by iron and iodine, graphite, ancho chili and meat blood; powerfully dynamic, ferrous and savory, deep, rich and spicy with a resonant mineral core and a concluding touch of blueberry tart; a sleek, polished and chiseled cabernet. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $65 to $75.
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Truett-Hurst Old Vine Burning Man Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.3% alc. Opaque black-ruby with a magenta rim; a strapping, palate-stomping tannic wine, pungent with spiced and macerated black currants, plums and blueberries, pomegranate and boysenberry; lots of leather and loam; formidable structure, dusty, gravelly and austere. Not a success. About $38.
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Renwood Premium Old Vine Zinfandel 2012, Amador County. 15.5% alc. Medium ruby hue with a garnet rim; a lovely blooming, floral and spicy bouquet, evolves to fruitcake, loam and brambles, bitter chocolate; blueberries, mint and pomegranate; a bit of an after-burn but not heavy, over-ripe or obvious; still, the finish is tight and austere. Very Good+. About $20.
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Michael David Winery Earthquake Zinfandel 2012, Lodi. 15.5% alc. Moderately dark ruby hue; very ripe, spiced and macerated plums, currants and cherries with a slightly raisiny fruitcake inflection; large-framed and quite lively; dense, dusty, chewy, infused with graphite and lithic tannins that coat the palate; still, surprisingly well-balanced, really luscious for those who want luscious wines (not me). Now through 2017. Very Good+. About $26.
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Tin Barn Vineyards Coryelle Fields Vineyard Syrah 2012, Sonoma Coast. 15.5% alc. Opaque ruby hue with a magenta rim; both intense and concentrated while being very ripe, smoky and spicy; heaps of leather and loam and a tide of black fruit flavors, but distinctly more zin-like than syrah, with a high-alcohol zin’s off-balance element of cloying fruit and austere tannins. Doesn’t work. About $27.
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Tin Barn Los Chamizal Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Sonoma Valley. 15.6% alc. Dark ruby with a much paler rim; a lovely bouquet of smoke, lavender and cloves, mint, sandalwood, fruitcake and blackberries; a big, firm, tannic wine that just manages to hold the line against over-ripeness and austerity; it takes a risk and the risk feels worth it; still, you feel some slightly sweet/parching alcoholic heat on the finish. Very Good+. About $29.
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Tin Barn Gilsson Vineyard Zinfandel 2013, Russian River Valley. 15.6% alc. Solid dark ruby hue; a refreshing bouquet of mint, lavender and black cherries until the alcohol wafts up and sort of stops everything in its tracks; very dry, spicy, dense, tannic and austere. Not recommended. About $29.
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Watts Winery Upstream Zinfandel 2012, Mokelumne, Lodi. 15.6% alc. Dark ruby hue with a mulberry rim; an immense presence, fairly well-balanced, considering, but takes on overwhelming ferrous and sanguinary elements and huge dusty tannins; the saving grace is that it’s not sweet, hot or cloying, but not quite coherent or reconciled either. Very Good. About $25.
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Truett-Hurst Old Vine Red Rooster Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.7% alc. Medium ruby-cherry color, not super-dark or extracted; very ripe, very spicy and fruity; black and red currants and plums with touches of lavender, licorice and saturated boysenberry; an alcohol after-burn of heat, spice and sweetness, so the finish clashes with the wine’s dryness and austerity on the palate, fundamentally unbalanced. Doesn’t work. About $35.
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Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Dry creek Valley. 15.8% alcohol. 88.2% zinfandel, 10.6% syrah, 1.2% petite sirah. Medium ruby color with a lighter rim; cloves, red and black berries, interesting notes of caraway and sandalwood, but tromps across the palate with boots of dry, austere and astringent tannins coupled with the sweetness of high alcohol in the finish. Nope. About $32.
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Truett-Hurst Old Vine Rattler Rock Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.8% alc. Radiant medium ruby hue; a broad, deep, very dry, quite austere wine, awkward, unbalanced, hot and sharp on the finish. Nuff said. About $35.
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Harney Lane Zinfandel 2011, Lodi. 15.9% alc. Dark ruby-purple; ripe, spiced and macerated blackberries and blueberries infused with cloves and graphite, a sort of mineral-laced cocktail of sweet and roasted black and blue fruit, touched with pomegranate and brandy-soaked raisins; acidity plows a row on the palate, preceding formidably dusty, lithic tannins leading to an austere finish. Maybe with a steak, or maybe not. Very Good+. About $22.
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Priest Ranch Somerston Estate Zinfandel 2012, Napa Valley. 16.2% alc. Medium ruby with a garnet rim; cloves, allspice and sandalwood make an exotic festoon; black and red currants and plums, with notes of blueberries, lavender and red licorice; outlandishly plush, dusty yet rigorous tannins dominate the palate, yet the finish is over-ripe and sweet. Awkward and ungainly. Forget it. About $40.
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Martinelli Lolita Ranch Zinfandel 2013, Russian River Valley. 16.3% alc. 253 cases. When I see that a table wine tops the charts at 16.3 percent alcohol, my reaction tends to run along the lines of “You have to be fucking kidding me,” but no, they’re not kidding. Moderate ruby color, almost transparent; roasted blackberries, currants and plums; fruitcake; very spicy and peppery; cloying alcoholic sweetness and heat; very dry, formidably austere tannins; clunky and chunky. Doesn’t work. About $52.
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Rombauer Vineyards is well-known for its zinfandels, which I consider among the best in California, and its rich, full-throated, California-style chardonnays, which I cannot drink. Today, however, I am happy to include, as the 2014 Romb_SB_f+b_v5100th entry in the Wine of the Day series, the Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Napa Valley. Yes, 2015! Harvest for the grapes occurred in the second and third weeks of August last year, the wine was made and rested for a few months, 90 percent in stainless steel tanks, 10 percent in neutral French oak barrels, and will actually be released in February, so jot down one of those little remindy note things on your phone. This wine marks the first national release of a sauvignon blanc for the winery; the first vintage, the 2014, was available only through the tasting room. So, the color is a shimmering pale straw-gold with an allusive green inflection. The lively bouquet offers grapefruit, lime peel and lemongrass, gooseberry and a subliminal trace of jasmine and honeysuckle, all enveloped in a lovely dusty-sunny-leafy fig character. The wine slides across the palate with a sense of supple presence yet with litheness and lightness; spiced pear and stone-fruit dominate in the mouth with the merest touch of guava and mango. Neither the tropical nor the floral element is emphasized, lending this fairly tart, limestone-influenced sauvignon blanc a feeling of ineffable balance. The finish concludes with a wisp of bracing grapefruit peel. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink through 2017. Excellent. About $24.

A sample for review.

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