Lake County



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.

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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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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So, here it is, My Readers, the annual “50 Great Wines” roster, presently for the past year, that is, 2016. Not the “Greatest” of all wines or the “Best” of all wines, but a selection of 50 products that struck me as embodying everything we want in a wine: freshness, balance, appeal; depth, personality and character; an adherence to the nature of the grapes and, where possible, the virtues of the vineyard and climate. These are wines that leave aside the ego of the winemaker and producer for an expression of — not to sound too idealistic — an ideal of what a wine should be. I won’t belabor the process by which I arrived at this list of 50 wines, except to say that every wine I rated “Exceptional” during 2016 is automatically included. Did I leave out wines that I truly admired? Indeed, I did, because this list focuses on wines that I truly loved. Enjoy!
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Acorn Heritage Vines Alegria Vineyard Zinfandel 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 78 percent zinfandel, 12 percent alicante bouschet, 8 percent petite sirah and 2 percent a combination of carignane, trousseau, sangiovese, petit bouschet, negrette, syrah, black muscat, cinsault and grenache. A real field blend. Production was 548 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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gratien
Alfred Gratien Brut Rose nv, Champagne, France. Excellent. About $65.
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Arrow&Branch Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $35.
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Black Kite Cellars Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay 2014, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Production was 212 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Bonny Doon Bien Nacido X-Block Syrah 2012, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County. Exceptional. About $50.

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R. Buoncristiani Vineyard Orentano Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 305 cases made. Excellent. About $40.

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Les Cadrans de Lassegue 2012, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux. Merlot and cabernet franc. Excellent. About $35.

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Champ de Rêves Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Exceptional. About $45.

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chartogne
Chartogne-Taillet “Heurtebise” Blanc de Blancs Brut 2008, Champagne, France. Exceptional. About $65 to $80.

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Domaine Chignard “Beauvernay” 2014, Julienas, Beaujolais Cru. Excellent. About $22.

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Cornerstone Cellars Michael’s Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. Production was under 250 cases. Exceptional. About $75.

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Erath Winery Prince Hill Pinot Noir 2012, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $50.

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Etude Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Sta. Rita Hills. Exceptional, About $45.

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eve-essence
Eve’s Cidery Essence Ice Cider, Finger Lakes, New York. 390 cases produced. Exceptional. About $28.

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fields
Fields Family Wines Old Vine Zinfandel 2013, Lodi. 250 cases made. Excellent. About $28.

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gamble
Gamble Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $25.

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Tenute Cisa Asinari Marchesi di Grésy Martinenga Camp Gros Riserva Barbaresco 2010, Piedmont, Italy. Exceptional. About $106.

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inman-ogv
Inman Family OGV Estate Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley. Excellent. About $73.

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Jayson Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $75.

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Luscher-Ballard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 200 cases produced. Excellent. About $80.

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Lutum La Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sta. Rita Hills. Production was 225 cases. Excellent. About $50.

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MacPhail Wightman House Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Production was 100 cases. Exceptional. About $55.

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alsace-1
Frederic Mallo Vielles Vignes Rosacker Riesling 2010, Alsace Grand Cru. Excellent. About $23.

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Merisi Wines Denner Vineyard Petite Sirah 2013, Lake County. 100 cases produced. About $35.

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montelena-riesling
Chateau Montelena Riesling 2015, Potter Valley. About $25.

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Chateau La Nerthe 2014, Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc. 40 percent each grenache blanc and roussanne, 10 percent each clairette and bourboulenc. Excellent. About $65.

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Patz & Hall Vineyard Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Carneros-Napa Valley. Excellent. About $70.

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Pine Ridge Le Petit Clos Chardonnay 2013, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $75.

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Pol Roger Extra Cuvee de Reserve Brut Rose 2004, Champagne, France. Excellent. About $80-$100.

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Prieure de Montezargues 2014, Tavel Rose. 55 percent red and white grenache, 30 percent cinsault, 13 percent clairette, 2 percent melange of syrah, mourvedre, carignane and bourboulenc. Excellent. About $24.

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red-newt
Red Newt Cellars Tango Oaks Vineyard Riesling 2013, Finger Lakes, New York. About $24.

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Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Josephshoff Riesling Kabinett 2012, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $23.

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Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley. 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent cabernet franc, 2 percent each malbec, petit verdot and merlot. Excellent. About $60.

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Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $24.

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Saxon Brown Durell Vineyard Hayfield Block Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. Fewer than 100 cases. Exceptional. About $48.

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Sedition Chenoweth Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 230 cases produced. Exceptional. About $75.

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The Seed Malbec 2014, Altamira District, Uco Valley, Argentina. 59 cases made. Excellent. About $60.

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Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2013, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Production was 806 cases. Exceptional. About $32.

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Stonestreet Estate Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $35.

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Stony Hill Chardonnay 2013, Napa Valley. Production was 1,852 cases. Exceptional. About $45.

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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. 585 cases produced. Exceptional. About $65.

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tongue-dancer
Tongue Dancer Wines Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. Production was 125 cases. Exceptional. About $45.

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troon
Troon Vineyards Vermentino Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Applegate Valley, Southern Oregon. 80 percent vermentino, 20 percent sauvignon blanc. 176 cases produced. Excellent. About $24.

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2-sheps
Two Shepherds Catie’s Corner Viognier 2014, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Production was 75 cases. Exceptional. About $26.

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Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc 2013, Russian River Valley. 12.9% alc. Roussanne 50%, marsanne 25%, viognier 13%, grenache blanc 6%, grenache gris 6%. Production was 100 cases. Exceptional. About $30.

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Two Shepherds Trimble Vineyard Carignan Rosé 2015, Mendocino County. Production was 50 cases. Exceptional. About $22.

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Williams Selyem Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $55.

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poete
Guillaume Sorbe “Les Poëte” 2014, Quincy, Loire Valley, France. Sauvignon blanc. Exceptional. About $30.

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windracer
WindRacer Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 1,007 cases produced. Exceptional. About $50.
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Zena Crown Vineyard Conifer Pinot Noir 2013, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Production was 240 cases. Excellent. About $75.

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I’m about to do that thing, you know, the thing where I recommend a wine you probably can’t find because it’s a limited release from a tiny winery that produces only a few hundred cases merisiannually. Sorry, but I want to bring attention to Merisi Wines, the kind of place that I love to write about. It’s a husband and wife operation of Mandy Heldt Donovan — she’s the winemaker — and Nick Donovan, whose purpose is to take grapes from excellent vineyards and craft well-made wines. Today’s selection is the Merisi Wines Denner Vineyard Petite Sirah 2013, carrying a Lake County designation, the AVA just north of Napa County. The wine is fermented with natural yeast and aged 21 months in oak, 50 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a vivid magenta rim; aromas of deeply spicy and woodsy black raspberries, currants and plums are highlighted by notes of black pepper, lavender and leather, with pervasive graphite in the background. The wine drives across the palate, propelled by bright acidity and chiseled granitic minerality; tannins are shaggy, dusty and velvety, saved from opulence by the wine’s innate spareness and reticence. A few moments in the glass bring in hints of violets, bittersweet chocolate and dry, slightly astringent (and exotic) spices like cloves and allspice. The finish is generous, shapely and rather elegant, considering the grape. 14.6 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 or ’20 with full-flavored, big-hearted fare: pork tenderloin, braised short ribs, pork chops. Production was 100 cases. Excellent. About $35.

A sample for review.