Merlot


My history with Mayacamas Vineyards begins in late March 1984, when I served the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980 for dinner. I purchased the wine for $11, marked down from $13. In 1985, I bought a bottle of Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel 1978, though I did not record the price or the occasion. There’s a flurry of activity between 1992 and 1996, but after that no tasting notes, no published remarks, no contact. I was very pleased, then, to receive some samples from Mayacamas recently, because I’m an advocate of the winery’s traditional style of varietal purity and intensity and high-elevation grit and graphite, in the cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and flintiness, in the chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

The estate began as a winery and distillery built by J. H. Fischer, high on Mount Veeder, in 1889. Fischer sold his wine in barrels, sending them on barges down the Napa River and thence to San Francisco, but he went bankrupt in the early years of the 20th Century. The property lay derelict until 1941, when Jack Taylor, a Shell Oil executive, and his wife Mary bought the facility and 260 acres of land. Their first release, in 1953, was a minuscule quantity of Chardonnay 1951; winemaker was Walter Richert, who was also technical editor of the journal Wines & Vines and president of the American Society of Enologists. Philip Togni became winemaker for Mayacamas in 1959, going on to make wine at Inglenook, Sterling, Chalone and Cuvaison before launching his own Philip Togni Vineyards on Spring Mountain and becoming a cult figure in the world of cabernet sauvignon.

The Taylors sold Mayacamas to Robert and Elinor Travers in 1968; they still own the property, and Bob Travers continues as winemaker, a fact that must qualify him for some kind of longevity and dedication award. From 52 acres of vines Mayacamas produces primarily cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay with smaller amounts of merlot, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir — I have never tasted the pinot noir — remaining true to a vision practically demanded by the geography the vineyards occupy at 2,000 to 2,400-feet elevation on the slopes of an extinct volcano, a site that offers a complicated soil composition. Let’s be honest, however. The Travers built the reputation of Mayacamas on splendid, long-lived cabernets from the late 1960s through ’79 and ’80; quality suffered in the 1980s and only began to reassert itself within the last 15 years or so. The cabernets are built on deeply-rooted tannins that at first seem unassailable, and during this, shall we say, troubled period it felt as though the tannins not only dominated the wines but dried them out. The Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, which I am savoring even as I write these words, reveals the tannic structure upon which the winery has erected its reputation but also — after considerable airing — lovely generosity and expansive spirit.

Mayacamas no longer makes wines from zinfandel grapes, but one of my favorite wines of 1996 was the Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel 1984, two bottles of which I bartered from a friend by giving him some Cerutto Barbarescos.

For information about the history of the winery, see Charles L. Sullivan’s indispensable “A Companion to California Wine” (University of California Press, 1998) and the fourth edition of Norman L. Roby and Charles E. Olken’s “The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of the Wines of California and the Pacific Northwest” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). Both books need updated new editions.
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As I mentioned above, I bought a bottle of the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980 in March 1984; I commented on this wine in a post on this blog in March 2009. What’s remarkable is that the current release, the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley, conforms to the same spirit as its cousin from 31 years ago, though that long-distant wine carried a California designation; Mount Veeder did not receive AVA status until 1990. The Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 2008 aged for eight months in 1,000 gallon American oak casks; in comparison, the standard French oak barrel (barrique) holds 59 gallons. The wine is notably clean, fresh, spare and elegant from beginning to end. O.K., I’ll just say it; this demonstrates wonderful character, class and breeding and should not be neglected by anyone who loves the sauvignon blanc grape. Notes of baked pear, quince, ginger, yellow plums and papaya are touched with hints of smoke and cloves and a flare of cold steel; it’s like drinking liquified limestone and flint infused with ripe, spicy stone fruit flavors, each element of the wine etched with cunning definition, precision and scintillating acidity yet remaining compellingly attractive and delicious. Notice that for a sauvignon blanc this is not grassy or herbal; it doesn’t assault the nose and mouth with strident grapefruit or gooseberry/cat’s-pee afflicted with attention deficit disorder. No, readers, this is cool, harmonious, balanced and poised; yes, one feels the wood in the spicy element and in the wine’s firm yet forgiving framing and foundation, though ultimately the complete integration of all components is the utmost consideration. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 294 cases. Drink through 2014 or ’15 (well-stored). Among the very best of sauvignon blanc wines produced in California. Excellent. About $25.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The first chardonnay from Mayacamas that I tasted was the 1990. Someone was working in public relations and marketing for the winery — I don’t remember if it was someone at the winery or at an outside firm — but this young man got in touch with me, probably in 1994, and asked if I wanted some samples of current and past releases. Well, yes, I did. And in addition to the samples, I bought six bottles of the Cabernet Sauvignon 1985, so one fine day I received, at the newspaper office, a large box that contained those six bottles, samples of the Cabernet Sauvignon from 1990, ’89, ’85 and ’83, and chadonnays from 1990 and a vintage of which I can no longer find record. I’ll mention the cabernets in a moment, but let me here append my review of the Mayacamas Chardonnay 1990: The Mayacamas Chardonnay 1990 is so perfectly balanced that you don’t notice its stupendous 14.5 percent alcohol, so beautifully integrated that its 12 months in oak barrels seem merely to have lent an inextricable sheen to each atom in the bottle. No gushing, buttery, billowy, toasty tropical chardonnay here; its essence lies in hints and nods toward spice, limestone, caramel, flowers and dried herbs and citrus flavors, bolstered with essential but respectful oak and acid. Wow. About $20.

Interesting that for the Mayacamas Chardonnay 2008, Mount Veeder, the alcohol content is the same as for the 1990, a now-typical (for California) 14.5 percent; things were different 21 years ago, when 14.5 percent seemed over the top and beyond the pale. Far more dissimilar is the oak treatment; for the 2008, not 12 months but 20 months, that’s right, 20 months!, an extraordinary length of time for a chardonnay to spend in wood, in this case eight months in those 1,000-gallon American oak casks, followed by a year in small French oak barrels. Yikes, thinks my inner curmudgeon, what a great way to ruin a chardonnay! The regimen, however, calls for only 10 percent new oak, no sur-lie aging (on the spent yeast cells, a process that adds richness) and no malolactic; the result is a crisp, fresh, crystalline chardonnay that resonates with varietal character and authenticity and rests on a beautifully balanced and harmonious foundation of silky, spicy resonant wood. The first phrase in my notes is: “gorgeous but not flamboyant.” There’s a hint of the tropical in aromas of pineapple and mango with a touch of lightly toasted grapefruit dusted with cloves; a few moments in the glass bring in undercurrents of quince marmalade, ginger and orange blossom, all borne on the wings of crisply etched limestone and slightly spicy wood. Bear in mind that all of these elements partake of the subtlest nuance; nothing is overbearing or egotistical. The wine’s texture is beautifully poised between moderate lushness of ripe fruit (more citrus in the mouth, with a bit of roasted lemon) and the fleet tension of taut acidity, with immense reserves of shale-like minerality in the background. A masterpiece. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2015 or ’16. Production was 876 cases. Exceptional. About $30
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All right, let’s do this again. Recently, I posted the entry “8 Grapes, 8 Places, 8 Wines,” and it was an agreeable way to celebrate the diversity of wine in the world’s wine-making regions, but such an effort doesn’t even qualify as a molecule of a gnat’s whisker on the needle-point of the teeniest tippy-tip of the vinous iceberg, if you see what I mean. So let’s do it again. In the previous post, I reviewed wines made predominantly from these grapes: sauvignon blanc, riesling, chenin blanc and chardonnay; pinot noir, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo. The regions were Mendoza and Patagonia in Argentina; Rheinhessen in Germany; Chablis in France; Rioja in Spain; Marlborough in New Zealand; and Carmel Valley and Napa Valley in California. So, today, none of those grapes and none of those places. The first post offered four whites and four reds; today the line-up is five whites, fairly light-bodied and charming for summer, the reds rather more serious.
These wines were samples for review or were tasted at trade events.
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Albariño Rias Baixas is the most important wine region in the province of Galicia in northwest Spain, right up against the Atlantic coastline. The white albariño is the principal grape. Albariño does not take well to oak, and its quality diminishes exponentially when it is over-cropped, so care must be taken in the vineyard and the winery. No such worries with the Don Olegario Albariño 2010, Rias Baixas, made all in stainless steel tanks from grapes grown using sustainable practices. Heady aromas of jasmine and camellia are twined with roasted lemon, lemon balm, limestone and a bracing whiff of salt-strewn sea-breeze; lovely heft and texture, almost lacy in transparency yet with a tug of lushness bestowed by ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors (touched with a bit of dried thyme and tarragon), all enlivened by brisk acidity and a scintillating limestone element. Albariño is not grown much outside of Spain and Portugal, where it’s known as alvarinho and goes into Vinho Verde; Mahoney Vineyards, however, makes an excellent example in Carneros. Great with fresh seafood, grilled fish and risottos. 12.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012. Very Good+. About $18.
Imported by Kobrand Corp, Purchase, N.Y.
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Falanghina We are used to the promiscuous regard of grapes in Italy, in which one variety can be found in many provinces throughout the country and usually under different local names. Not so the ancient falanghina, grown in a small area of Campania, the state of which Naples is the capital; it is grown nowhere else except in vineyards near the coast north of Naples. Perhaps this situation is a healthy and profitable one for the producers of wines made from the falanghina grape, because they can at least make a claim for uniqueness. A great introduction to the grape is the Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio 2009, Sannio Falanghina. Made all in stainless steel, the wine is notably clean and fresh and appealing. The color is pale straw-gold with green notes; it’s a savory, spicy, floral wine, bursting with hints of apple, roasted lemon and baked pear, cloves and allspice, lilac and lavender, all given a slightly serious tone by the bracing astringency of what I have to call salt-marsh and some hardy sea-side flowering plant. There’s a touch of the tropical in flavors of pineapple and banana, with strong citrus undercurrents and a hint of dried thyme and tarragon, all of this bolstered by crisp acidity and a burgeoning quality of limestone-like minerality. A natural with seafood, grilled fish and sushi. Winemaker is Riccardo Cotarella. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012. Very Good+ About $18.
Imported by Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Fla.
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Melon de Bourgogne This grape was kicked out of Burgundy in the 18th Century, leading to the eventual ascendancy of the chardonnay grape. It made a pretty perfect fit, however, with the maritime climate and stony soil of the Nantais, way to the west of the Loire region. While it’s true that 90 percent of Muscadet wines are cheap, bland and forgettable, in the right hands the melon de Bourgogne grape is capable of finer things. The Éric Chevalier Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu 2009 feels like an exhalation of sea wind, bright, clean, salt-flecked, exhilarating. The wine is spare and pared-down, lean and sinewy, with notes of roasted lemon and pear imbued with hints of honeysuckle and yellow plum. Chiseled acidity etches deep and scintillating limestone-like minerality resonates like a blow on an anvil, yet the wine remains warm, slightly spicy and tremendously appealing. If ever a wine got down on its knees and practically begged, I repeat begged, to be consumed with a platter of just shucked oysters extracted from cold, briny waters a fleeting moment past, by damn, this is it. 12 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012. Very Good+. About $16.
Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca.
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Pinot gris Let’s just come right out and say that the Innocent Bystander Pinot Gris 2009, Yarra Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia, is delightful, but at the same time, while “delight” might conjure a notion of being too eager to please, the wine is also fresh, pert and sassy, talkin’ back and takin’ names, an Ellen Page of a wine. The bouquet is freighted with aromas of cloves and ginger, jasmine and honeysuckle, apple and spiced pear, with undercurrents of lime, fennel and thyme. Bright and vibrant, this pinot gris zings with crisp acidity and sings with crystalline notes of limestone minerality, while offering tasty peach, pear and quince flavors. It drinks almost too easily. We had it one night with seared swordfish marinated in lime, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and white wine. The wine ages in neutral or used French oak barrels, a device that lends it a sheen of woody spice and a lovely, shapely structure. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Imported by Old bridge cellars, Napa, Ca.
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Vermentino The white vermentino grape is found in nooks and crannies up and down the Italian boot but does its best work in Tuscany and Sardenia, with good examples coming recently from Tuscany’s Maremma region, an isolated area in the southwest by the Tyrennian Sea. So, the Val delle Rose Litorale Vermentino 2010, Maremma, Toscana (one of the Cecchi Family Estates), could be called another seaside wine (or at least in proximity), though unlike the Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio 2009 mentioned above, this is not so much a savory, spicy drink as a wine of delicacy and nuance. This is a blend of 85 percent vermentino and “15 percent other complementary white grape varieties,” a vague designation that occurs not merely on the printed matter that accompanied the wine to my door-step but on the website of Banfi Vintners, the wine’s importer. What I really want to know, of course, is what those other grapes are, but I’m writing this post on Sunday morning, so I won’t worry my pretty little head about the issue. Anyway, yes, the Litorale Vermentino 2010 — sporting a radically different label that emphasizes the wine’s coastal or desk-side drinkability — offers subtle tissues in a well-wrought fabric of almonds and almond blossom, lemon and lime peel, a slightly leafy character and just a hint of mango and papaya. It’s balanced and harmonious in the mouth, with mildly lush citrus and stone-fruit flavors, though crisp acidity and chalk-like minerality lend to its lively, thirst-quenching nature and a sprightly finish. Drink through summer 2012. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $17.
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Carmenère The story of how for decades all that merlot in Chile was really carmenère — widely planted in Bordeaux in the 19th Century — but this fact wasn’t discovered until the 1980s and so on has often been related, even by me on numerous occasions, so here’s a link to something I wrote previously on the issue and let’s leave it at that. Apaltagua is a small estate in the Apalta Valley of Chile’s Colchagua wine region, itself part of the Rapel Valley south of Santiago. The winery is owned by the Edward Tutunjian family; winemaker is Alvaro Espinoza. The Apaltagua Reserva Carmenère 2010, Apalta Valley, Colchagua, impresses immediately with its clarity, purity and intensity of expression. The color is deep ruby-purple; vivid scents of black currants, blackberries and blueberries are permeated by notes of black olive, dried thyme, briers and brambles, smoky cedar and lavender. Your mouth will welcome a dense chewy texture founded on dusty, graphite-imbued tannins and ripe, spicy black and blue fruit flavors — adding a bit of plum — buoyed by vibrant acidity. Sorta like cabernet sauvignon and merlot but sorta itself, too. A terrific red to quaff with burgers, meat loaf, pepperoni pizza and such. 14 percent alcohol. Drink through 2013. Very Good+. About $11, a Fantastic Bargain.
Global Vineyard Imports, Berkeley, Ca.
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Merlot Merlot doesn’t receive a huge amount of respect because it’s so much like cabernet sauvignon in many ways, or at least it’s made that way, so when you run across an example of the grape that expresses some individually, a little character that sets it apart from cabernet, then it’s time to splurge on a case. The Kunde Family Estate Merlot 2006, Sonoma Valley, California, is one of those models. The deep ruby color may be dark, but the wine is bright and clean with intense aromas of very spicy black currants and red and black cherries that take on a slight edge of graphite-like minerality and smoky wood; the wine aged 18 months in small barrels of French, Hungarian and American oak, 30 percent new. The Kunde Merlot 06 is dense and chewy, robust without being rustic, solid without being stolid, and a few minutes in the glass smooths it out nicely and lends a bit of finesse and elegance. In fact, the hallmark of this wine is lovely balance and harmony among oak and tannin, fruit and acidity, while its pass at wildness in hints of oolong tea, moss and blueberry gives it a sense of off-beat but appropriate personality. 13.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $18 — Good Value — but found around the country at prices ranging from $14 to $20.
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Syrah Bonny Doon Le Pousseur Syrah 2008, Central Coast. This wine features on the label a depiction of the montebank, the alchemical trickster from the Tarot deck, but there’s nothing shifty or tricky about the wine in the bottle. Made by the inimitable Randall Grahm, Le Pousseur 2008 offers a deep, dark ruby color with a fleck of magenta at the rim; it’s winsome and involving simultaneously, with seductive aromas of ripe, spicy, dusty black currants, blueberries and plums that unfold to hints of rhubarb and mulberry and, deeper and more intense, layers of licorice, lavender and sandalwood. Great grip and definition make for a wine that fills the mouth and nurtures the palate while grounding its effects in slightly sandpapery tannins and earthy elements of briars, brambles and underbrush, all serving to promote savory, up-front flavors of blackberries and blueberries tinged with a little smoke and bacon fat. Scrumptious but with a nod to syrah’s more serious (but not too severe) side. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 with roasted and grilled meats and such hearty fare. 2,705 cases were made. Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.
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As CEO of Merryvale Vineyards from 1997 to 2009, Peter K. Huwiler developed contacts with all sorts of growers and owners of top-quality vineyards and wineries in the disparate regions of Napa Valley. As president and CEO of Napa Station, he draws on those contacts for grapes and wine that make up the small range of products offered by Napa Station, a family concern that he operates with his son Peter Huwiler II, who handles sales and marketing. Huwiler, originally from Switzerland, left a worldwide career in the restaurant business to work in wine, first for Stimson Lane in Washington, then, beginning in 1990, as head of national accounts and exports for Kendall-Jackson. Napa Station, so far, is almost minuscule compared to what is now Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and K-J; total production for Napa Station is about 10,000 cases annually. There’s still a connection with Merryvale; Napa Station’s winemaker is Faith Armstrong-Foster, who is married to Sean Foster, Merryvale’s senior winemaker. Armstrong-Foster was previously assistant winemaker at Frank Family Vineyards; she also has her own label, Onward. The Napa Station wines are very well-made, clean, balanced and harmonious, and prices are reasonable. Deriving grapes from as many as five growing areas of the Napa Valley, these wines strive, it seems, for a sort of authentic “Napa Valleyness” in terms of ripeness and structure without being identified with a specific region like Rutherford or Howell Mountain. Oak is managed very carefully, and as far as I am concerned, Armstrong-Foster could give lessons to many winemakers in California that seem to throw oak at their wines with reckless abandon.
These wines were samples for review. Image of Faith Armstrong-Foster from napastation.com.
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The Napa Station Sauvignon Blanc 2009 draws grapes from three areas of Napa Valley: Oak Knoll (predominantly), Carneros and Rutherford. Most of the wine remains in stainless steel tanks for fermentation and aging, though 18 percent goes into neutral — meaning used several times — French oak barrels for four months. No malolactic process occurred, so the wine retains considerable freshness and immediate appeal. The wine includes 2 percent semillon grapes. The color is medium straw-gold; bright aromas of apple and roasted lemon curl around elements of pear and melon and ginger, with touches of grass, dried thyme and tarragon. A lovely texture that nicely balances moderate richness with pert and sassy acidity delivers flavors of lemon and pear that open to hints of leafy fig and a finish that combines a note of grapefruit bitterness with burgeoning limestone minerality; here, one feels the slight sway of burgeoning spicy oak. A pretty suave and sophisticated sauvignon blanc for the price. 13.5 percent alcohol. 1,610 cases. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
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Again, as with the Sauvignon Blanc 09, there’s no new oak in the Napa Station Chardonnay 2008; the wine is made primarily in stainless steel (73 percent) with the rest aging six months in one- and two-year old French barriques. Twenty-three percent of the wine goes through malolactic, lending smoothness and touches of lushness, yet the balance leans toward crisp acidity and a scintillating minerality. The color is moderate straw-gold with a tinge of green; the nose is bright and clean, an attractively fresh amalgam of green apple, pineapple and grapefruit pungent with cloves, lime peel and limestone and a fleeting nuance of Chablis-like gunflint. While it’s quite dry, this chardonnay rolls across the palate like money, offering tasty lemon, peach and baked pear flavors as it simultaneously builds the case for spicy wood and spry acidity. It’s dense and chewy for an inexpensive chardonnay, with more lime peel and a note of grapefruit skin on the finish. A really well-made chardonnay for the price. 13.5 percent alcohol. 1,615 cases. Excellent. About $16, a Great Value.
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The Napa Station Merlot 2008 is a blend of 77 percent merlot, 21 percent cabernet sauvignon and 2 percent petit verdot, sourced from three areas of Napa Valley but mainly Los Carneros. The wine aged 22 months in a combination of small oak puncheons (which is to say larger than the standard 59-gallon barrique) and French barriques, 22 percent new. The color is dark ruby with a violet rim, meaning where the surface of the wine touches the glass when you tilt the glass away from you. Intense and concentrated aromas of black currants, cherries and raspberry are permeated by hints of cedar and tobacco, a little toasty/caraway quality and a touch of briers and brambles. This is firm, savory merlot endowed with finely knit, velvety tannins, vivid acidity and a deep graphite-tinged minerality joined by a plethora of foresty/underbrush elements; an hour or so mellows and smooths it out nicely and brings out the spicy black fruit/black tea flavors. Drink now through 2013. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. 525 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Presently, the Napa Station Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 is defined by structure. The wine is a blend of 88 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 9 percent merlot, 2 percent malbec and 1 percent petit verdot; the Huwiler boys draw these grapes from five Napa Valley areas: Rutherford, Oakville, Stags Leap, Atlas Peak and Carneros. The wine aged 20 months in small puncheons and French barriques, 21 percent new. A reflection of a year that produced deep, intense and concentrated cabernets, the Napa Station Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 is quite substantial, a wine packed with dense tannins and all the elements of walnut shell, dried porcini, forest and underbrush that indicate the necessity of additional time in the bottle, say two years, to become more approachable. Even tasted 24 hours later, this wine asserted its compositional prowess and its dominance over fruit, though I bet if you opened a bottle tonight and served it with a great medium-rare steak, a porterhouse for two, say, hot and crusty from the grill, you would be quite happy. 14.5 percent alcohol. 2,525 cases. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $23.
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Classic Medoc in style — that is to say, it feels like Left Bank Bordeaux — the Napa Station Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 is the wine to drink while waiting a year or two for its cousin from 2007 to gentle down and learn company manners. Slight differences in origin and production: As a grape source, Atlas Peak is dropped in favor of Howell Mountain; the composition is 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot, 4 percent petit verdot and — where did this “unclassic” dollop come from? — 1 percent petite sirah; the wine aged 22 months in small puncheons and barriques, 23 percent new. The color is dark ruby with an almost opaque center; nicely-defined aromas of black currants and cherries, with cedar and thyme, black olive and a touch of bell pepper set the stage for a well-balanced and integrated cabernet that displays lively acidity, firm but pliant tannins (embodying some dusty, graphite-like minerality) and macerated black fruit flavors bolstered by a flourish of spicy oak. No edges, no surprises, but thoroughly enjoyable; restaurants could sell the hell out of this wine at $10 in by-the-glass programs. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 3,450 cases. Very Good+. Price not available; to be released Sept. 1.
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A red and a white for your drinking this week, from Toad Hollow Vineyards. The winery was launched in 1993 by Todd Williams (1938-2007), retired from an illustrious career in bars and restaurants, and Rodney Strong (1927-2006), the former Broadway dancer and Sonoma County pioneer who had long had no hand in the winery that bears his name. Williams was the older brother of comedian and actor Robin Williams. Artist of the whimsical Toad Hollow labels is Maureen Erickson. Samples for review.
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The Toad Hollow Francine’s Selection Unoaked Chardonnay 2010, Mendocino County — Francine is the winery’s owner Frankie Williams — offers a radiant straw-gold color and fresh, beguiling aromas of green apple and pineapple with hints of mango and grapefruit. Though made entirely in stainless steel, the wine goes through complete malolactic “fermentation” (as a process that has nothing to do with fermentation is called), so it delivers quite a bit of spice, richness and full body; flavors of roasted lemon and pear tart are shot through — “sliced” might be appropriate — by a keen blade of acidity and bright layers of limestone minerality for an effect of Chablis-like austerity on the finish. A chardonnay of scintillating purity and intensity and remarkable character for the price; lay out, right now, a feast of grilled shrimp and mussels to be preceded by a whole raft of just-shucked oysters. 13.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
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The Toad Hollow Erik’s the Red 2009 was released under the California rubric; the wine used to carry a Paso Robles designation. This is one of those smorgasbord-of-grapes wines that producers in California dream up and that actually often turn out to be delightful. To merlot and cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma County and zinfandel from Lodi are added dollops of varying amounts of souza, tannat, syrah and petite sirah; the result is a dark and vibrant wine that falls under the robust and rustic label, fitting it for pairing with robust and rustic food; I had a glass with leftover pasta Bolognese for lunch one day, and the dish and the wine definitely made friends. The wine is rooty and earthy, bursting with scents and flavors of black currants, spiced plums and cherries highlighted by some element of feral berries and underlying graphite-like minerality. Erik’s the Red 09 is briery and brambly, moderately dense and chewy with slightly velvety, grainy tannins, and lively with pert acidity; ripe and spicy black fruit flavors are bolstered by a modicum of oak from nine months in barrels. A great barbecue and grilling wine for consuming through 2012. Very Good+. About $15.
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By “great,” I mean a terrific — and nicely aged — wine, not a bargain. After all, the purpose of this benefit event was to raise money to fund the spaying and neutering of dogs and cats, so bidders opened their hearts and wallets. (More than 12,000 dogs and cats a year are euthanized at the Memphis Animal Shelter; people, give your pets a dose of planned parenthood. LL and I also bought a genuine Schwinn bicycle, a Madame Alexander doll in the original box, someone’s old stamp collection and other items; we were outbid on the neon Texaco Pegasus sign, and I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad about that.

Anyway, the wine was the Hedges Family Estate Three Vineyards 2005, from Washington State’s Red Mountain appellation, or as the Federal government puts it, “American Viticultural Area” (AVA). Proprietors are Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges, who married in 1976 — she is from France’s Champagne region, he is from eastern Washington — and in 1986 launched American Wine Trade Inc. to export wine to Europe. The first wine from Hedges Cellars came in 1987, after which the couple segued toward vineyard acquisition and the founding of a real facility. Winemaker for Hedges is Tom Hedges’ brother Pete. Red Mountain officially became an AVA in 2001. Not so much a mountain as a steep, long southwest-facing slope, Red Mountain lies in the eastern Yakima Valley AVA, itself encompassed by the vast Columbia Valley region, all of this area being in south-central Washington.

Hedges Family Estate Three Vineyards 2005 is a sort of Bordeaux-style blend of 61 percent merlot grapes, 36 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent cabernet franc. I say “sort” and “style” because the dominance of merlot points toward the Right Bank communes of Pomerol and St. Emilion, where cabernet sauvignon might not make up such a generous portion as we see in this wine. I have no information about the oak regimen for the wine, but pages devoted to the 2007 and 2008 versions on the winery’s website indicate a modest 10 months aging in mainly American barrels, in combination with French and a small amount of Hungarian or “European” barrels, altogether being 50 percent new and 50 percent used or “neutral.” The process indicates a great deal of thoughtfulness in producing a finely-knit and balanced wine, as does the consistently low — for these days — alcohol levels, for the 2005 coming in at a refreshing 13.3 percent.

The wine is lovely and mellow, with subtle poise and integration and burgeoning fields of dried spice, dried flowers and potpourri (largely inflected by violets and lavender) and spiced and macerated red and black currants and plums. The texture is smooth, lithe and a touch sinewy, with vibrant acidity cutting through supple tannins that bear a dusty graphite-like edge and that continue to grow with unassailable power through the dry, briery and brambly finish. That description betokens some austerity in the wine’s final moments in the mouth, but whatever slightly astringent rigor it imposes does not cancel out a delicious strain of black and red fruit flavors that bear touches of cedar, tobacco and fruitcake. Excellent and Definitely Worth a Search. I paid $60 for the bottle that LL and I drank with last night’s pizza — remember, this was for a good cause; it was released at $18, and you can find it occasionally on the Internet for $25 or so.

My Readers can tell from the title of this post that I’m a fan of Twomey Cellars, three of whose wines I encountered a few weeks ago at a local wholesaler’s trade tasting.

Raymond Duncan, an oilman from Colorado, partnered with former Christian Brother Justin Meyer, as winemaker, to start Silver Oak Cellars in 1972. Concentrating on cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley and Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, the winery quickly acquired a cult following, a situation that continues today. In 1999, Duncan, with his four sons, launched Twomey Cellars with winemaker Daniel Baron. The winery’s range is not quite as restricted at that of Silver Oak, though still pretty rigorous; Twomey makes only sauvignon blanc, pinor noir and merlot-based wines in limited quantities. Two of Duncan’s sons, Tim and David, are the estate’s managing partners. Winemaker for pinot noir is Ben Cane. Twomey has wineries in Calistoga, Napa Valley, and Healdsburg, Sonoma County.

Sampled at a wholesaler’s trade event.
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With the Twomey Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Napa Valley, you feel as if you’re drinking the grape in its most concentrated and distilled character, though despite the intensity, the wine is generous, approachable and delicious. No zingers or palate-whiplash here; oh, yes, the acidity is crystalline and quenching, but it lends the wine appropriate structure and authority without the audacious citric/grapefruit snap that so many other sauvignon blancs deliver. The tale this sauvignon blanc tells is of balance and harmony, with just enough of a keen limestone edge and whiff of gunflint to get your attention in the finish. Tangerine and stone fruit, a whisper of baked pear, hints of fresh-mown grass and dried thyme form a seamless amalgam in bouquet, while similar flavors emphasize the grape’s slightly spicy, leafy, curranty side. The wine aged in oak barrels, steel drums and tanks, so any wood influence is almost subliminal. Drink through 2013. Alcohol content is 13.9 percent. Excellent. About $25.
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The Twomey Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast, is frankly exquisite, revealing the delicate and necessary equilibrium between power and elegance, between deceptive lightness and satiny grace that distinguishes the best pinot noir wines. The color is radiant cerise with a slight bluish-magenta cast; ethereal aromas of black cherry, red and black currants and mulberry are etched with tracings of cranberry, cola and cloves. Despite its purity and intensity, this pinot noir feels transparent, its draping texture more supple and sensuous than obvious or weighty; it doesn’t hurt that vibrant acidity cuts a cleansing swath across the palate. The spicy aspect emerges more prominently through the finish, where a bit of oak — from 13 months in French barrels, 40 percent new — brings in some polish and grain. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $50.
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Occasionally, in whatever setting and with whatever intention, I take a sniff and sip of a wine and think, “Oh yes, this is the grape with all its virtues revealed, intensified and concentrated.” That was my thought on first encountering the Twomey Merlot 2006, Napa Valley, a flawlessly, impeccably balanced wine of remarkable depth and surface appeal; it includes six percent cabernet franc grapes. The initial whiffs of mint and iodine, graphite and ripe black currants and blueberries give way to hints of cedar, black olive and dried thyme. This is truly a sizable wine, almost awesome in dimension, and deeply earthy and minerally (in the granite and slate realm), yet it moves, as it were, on little cat feet, utterly deft and refined and elegant. It aged 16 months in French oak, 45 percent new barrels, 55 percent once- and twice-used, but there’s no interference of toasty wood here, only a firm yet resilient shapeliness throughout as support to spice-infused black and blue fruit flavors and dense chewy dusty tannins. A great merlot. 14.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 to ’18. Exceptional. About $50.
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Some friends came over a few nights ago for a meeting of a committee that LL and I are chairing for an animal-related fund-raising event, and of course I pulled out a few wines to slake their thirst and accompany a selection of cheeses and grilled vegetables. These friends are not “wine-people”; they just like to drink wine, though when they taste something good they can tell the difference between the good stuff and some bland, innocuous fluff. The temperature was a bit chilly for late March — the month came in like a lion and seems to be going out like one too — so I made it a red wine occasion, to which no one objected. I thought diversity in country and grape variety would be interesting, so here’s what I opened: Gainey Vineyard Merlot 2007, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County; Inurrieta Sur 2007, Navarra, Spain, a blend of garnacha and graciano grapes (maybe; see review below); and La Valentina Spelt 2006, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Italy. These wines were samples for review.
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When I poured a few glasses of the Gainey Merlot 2007, Santa Ynez Valley, someone said, “Ymmmmm, so glad you chose this one!” The wine is a blend of 95 percent merlot, 4 percent cabernet franc and 1 percent cabernet sauvignon; it aged 19 months in French oak, 38 percent new barrels. Boy, this is deep, rich, glittery yet impeccably balanced merlot, permeated by black currant and black raspberry scents and flavors thoroughly imbued with notes of mint and cedar, smoke, graphite-like minerality and polished oak that takes on a bit of toast. The smoky quality, which unfurls to reveal hints of bitter chocolate, black tea and lavender, intensifies as the moments pass, as does the more profound depth of dusty tannins, earthy loaminess and shale. Not that the wine is forbidding; oh, no, these serious qualities, along with vibrant acidity, are necessary to temper, if not tame, the wine’s profuse sensual attractions. Quite a performance. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $20, Great Quality for the Price.
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There’s a bit of confusion about exactly what grapes go into the Inurrieta Sur 2007, from Spain’s Navarra region. The back label tells us that the wine is a blend of garnacha (grenache) and graciano; the printed matter I was sent with the wine says 60 percent garnacha and 40 percent syrah; the winery’s website asserts that the wine contains garnacha, syrah and graciano grapes. O.K., people, let’s get the story straight! The point is, when I poured our friends a glass of the wine, a chorus of “whoa” and “wow” filled the air. The wine is a dark ruby color, while the bouquet is deeply spicy, sooty, smoky, ripe and funky in the fleshy, meaty sense. This is a delectable quaff whose residence in American oak barrels for six months lends a combination of suppleness and sinewy power to the flavors of black currants, black raspberries and mulberries, all slightly macerated and roasted. The whole effect is sleek, burnished, highly drinkable, now through 2012 or ’13. I almost wish I had saved it for pizza, but I’ll find something else, don’t worry. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Very Good+. About $15, representing Great Value.
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The Wine of the Week on Feb 18 was La Valentina Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2008; now it’s the turn of that wine’s slightly older cousin, La Valentina Spelt 2006. Also made from 100 percent montepulciano grapes, Spelt 06 — the wine is named for the region’s dominant grain crop — ages 18 months, partly in stainless steel; partly in French barriques, new and one- and two-years old; and partly in 25 hectoliter barrels. Nothing rustic here; this is a lovely, balanced, eminently drinkable red wine notable for a beguiling bouquet of mint and eucalyptus, slightly spiced and macerated black currant, black raspberry and plum fruit; and a deep dark woody/spicy/chewy/dusty/tannic/graphite/minerally texture and structure etched with delicate tracings of licorice, lavender and potpourri. Alcohol is a sensible 13.5 percent. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $22.
Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Cal.
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When I open a bottle of wine for Pizza & Movie Night, I follow no pattern or motivation, no agenda. I usually just pluck what’s at hand and give it a try. It was coincidence, then, that the wines for the past two Pizza & Movie Nights were Italian, both from Tuscany yet very different sorts of wines.
Imported by Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, Cal. Samples for review.
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First is a simple yet tasty Borgianni Chianti 2007, made by Castello di Volpaia from sangiovese grapes grown in the Chianti Colli Senesi area near Siena. The wine is made completely in stainless steel tanks and receives not the slightest kiss of oak; there’s a little canaiolo in the blend, which is traditional for Chianti. What do you want in a quaffable Chianti? How about a dark ruby-colored, robust and slightly sinewy wine that bursts with notes of black and red currants, smoky oolong tea, dried orange rind, cloves and potpourri? Would that get it for you? Borgianni 07 is nicely balanced, with moderately rich black and red fruit flavors cushioned by moderately dense and chewy tannins and enlivened by pert acidity. The wine is quite dry and a bit austere on the briery, foresty finish. 3,000 cases imported. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13 with pizza, burgers and red-sauce pasta dishes. Very Good+. About $14, a Terrific Deal.
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Tenuta di Biserno is a collaboration between the brothers Marchese Piero and Marchese Lodovico Antinori, of the well-known and venerable family that has been involved with winemaking in Tuscany since the middle of the 14th Century. Piero Antinori runs the vast family business from the Palazzo Antinori in Florence. Lodovico was the founder and owner of Tenuto Dell’Ornellaia in the Bolgheri region in southwestern Tuscany; the first vintage of the flagship “super Tuscan” Ornellaia was in 1985. After various complicated partnerships and buy-outs involving Robert Mondavi, the Frescobadli family and Constellation Brands, Lodovico lost the estate to the Frescobaldi family in 2005.

Tenuta di Biserno was established in 2001. The estate lies in the Alta Maremma region adjacent to Bolgheri near the town of Bibbona. The estate produces three wines, all red, of which Insoglio del cinghiale is considered the entry-level wine. No traditional Tuscan grapes are used here; all devolves upon “international” varieties, and indeed the blend of the Insoglio del cinghiale 2008 — syrah and merlot each 32 percent, cabernet franc 30 percent and petit verdot 6 percent — one might expect to see in California or Australia. Careful winemaking, however, allows Insoglio 2008 to retain individuality outside the category of mere internationalism.

Insoglio 08 is, first, a sleek, elegant and expressive wine whose oak regimen — 40 percent of the wine aged only four months in new and 1-year-old French barriques; the rest in stainless steel — lends it lovely suppleness and firm dimension. The whole effect is of engaging richness, presence and tone tempered by a background of clean, earthy, loamy and graphite-like mineral qualities married to polished and fine-grained tannins that slide through the mouth as if on well-oiled ball-bearings. As many well-made and ambitious wines do, Insoglio 2008 balances intensity and concentration with expansiveness and generosity, and while a few minutes in the glass unfurl depths of minerals and leather, the wine never loses grip on its innate, deeply spicy and macerated black and blue fruit flavors. 14 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 to ’18. Essential drinking, I would think, with rare to medium rare steaks or braised veal shanks, though LL and I happily consumed it with last night’s pizza. Excellent. About $32
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Wine writers all over the country are receiving samples in a new format called TASTE, which stands for “Total Anaerobic Sample Transfer Environment.” Simply stated, this means that tiny samples of wine are drawn from full, 750-milliliter bottles and transferred into cute little 50-milliliter bottles in a “sealed, zero-oxygen chamber.” The idea is that this “mini-sample,” as it were, provides an utterly fresh, clean, uncontaminated version of the wine submitted for review. The mini-bottles are closed with itsy-bitsy screw-caps, and the samples are accompanied by a recommended “taste-by” date.

I received a “Flock Box” sampler of six wines from Blackbird Vineyards, a high-class outfit in the Oak Knoll District of the Napa Valley. Blackbird is owned by Michael Polenske, an investment manager-philanthropist-gallery and restaurant owning-”life aesthetic” sort of person who, fortunately, happens to turn out very impressive wine, though a great deal of credit must be given to actual winemaker Aaron Potts. The Flock Box is aimed at people who want to purchase wines from Blackbird without committing to buying full bottles untasted or perhaps only read about. This device is a boon, because the Blackbird wines are limited in quantity and they’re not cheap. On the other hand, there’s a distinct scent of exclusivity about the whole enterprise; as the winery’s website states:

Blackbird wines are available in limited quantities to private clients and the finer restaurants and resorts throughout the world. If you are not on our private client list and desire to receive an allocation, we invite you to Join the List, to receive a unique Username and password, which will enable you to immediately purchase an allocation from our portfolio of wines.

These brief reviews, therefore, are for those who possess the fiduciary prowess and the inclination to participate in such exclusionary rigmarol or who happen to find themselves looking at a wine list in a finer restaurant or resort throughout the world. The problem with the small-format bottles is that they preclude saving some wine to try the next day or tasting with a meal. After all, 50 mls equals 1.69 fluid ounces, providing, indeed, a few sips.

While all six of these wines contain some portion of cabernet sauvignon grapes, the emphasis in most of them is on merlot and cabernet franc, so the ideal, the model, would be Pomerol or St.-Emilion, those Right Bank communes of Bordeaux where merlot and cabernet franc grown so well. All of these wines carry a Napa Valley designation, though they differ in marked degree from over-ripe, super-oaky, high alcohol cabernets turned out by too many produces. The Blackbird red wines display, instead, admirable restraint and balance.
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Blackbird Arriviste Rosé 2009. 58 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon 12 percent cabernet franc. Color is light copper-salmon with peach undertones; peach and strawberry in the nose, a rosé of stones and bones, classically lean but slightly plump and creamy at the center, thirst-quenching acidity for backbone, lovely texture. 610 cases. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24.
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Blackbird Arise 2008. Merlot 42 percent, cabernet sauvignon 38 percent, cabernet franc 20 percent. Great character and presence; smooth, sapid, savory; black and red currants, black cherry, thyme, cedar, briers and brambles, dusty plums, lavender and violets: irresistible bouquet; dense and chewy, lively and vital, grainy, granite-laced tannins, fully integrated oak; a few minutes bring hints of mint and iodine; powerful and earthy but refreshing. The most accessible for Blackbird’s red wines. 1,570 cases. 14.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $50.
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Blackbird Paramour 2007. Merlot 50 percent, cabernet franc 45 percent, cabernet sauvignon 5 percent. A burst of bitter chocolate, lavender, cloves, thyme and cedar, mocha, deeply spicy and macerated black currants, black raspberry and the richness of cassis; furry, velvety tannins, you could wear them; the rigor of walnut shell and dried porcini, smoke, ask, penetrating granite-like minerality. Great detail and dimension. 534 cases. Didn’t get the alcohol, sorry. Drink 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $90.
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Blackbird Contrarian 2007. Cabernet franc 46 percent, merlot 34 percent, cabernet sauvignon 20 percent. Structure right up front; dried porcini, dusty graphite and granite, wheatmeal, cedar, thyme, tobacco; dried spices and flowers, some earthy funk but clean and vigorous; red and black currants; briers, brambles, moss; definitely the foundation and frame to age from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’24. 538 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $90.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Blackbird Illustration 2007. Merlot 70 percent, cabernet franc 20 percent, malbec 5 percent. Sleek, polished, elegant, honed; basalt and granite; dense, intense, concentrated; leather, smoke; ripe, spiced and macerated black currants and plums; great definition, as in slim, lithe, supple and muscled, the weight and substance subdued to a sense of generosity, refinement and mobility. This is, frankly, a wonderful wine, though it could use some age, say from 2014 or ’15 through 2021 to ’24. Production was 1,324 cases. Excellent. About $90.
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Blackbird Illustration 2006. 86 percent merlot, 11 percent cabernet franc, 3 pecent cabernet sauvignon. Immediately seductive, with potpourri, lavender and licorice, cloves, dried red and black fruit with ripe black currants and cherries carrying an infusion of dusty granite and slate; this smolders in the glass; smooth and mellow, balanced and integrated, dense and chewy with some plush, show-offy tannins, yet so elegant, so sophisticated that it’s completely entrancing. Drink now through 2016 or ’18. Production was 1,195 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $90.
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Fans of super-ripe, velvety, alcoholic cabernet- and merlot-based wines from California might have a difficult time understanding Chateau Bahans Haut-Brion 2001, a classically spare, lean, highly structured yet sensually appealing red wine that we drank with our usual Christmas Eve dinner of standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts in brown butter, followed by a selection of cheeses and Dow’s Trademark Reserve Porto. Yes, very English in the Old Sense.

Bahans Haut-Brion is the “second” wine of the celebrated Chateau Haut-Brion, the only red wine from Bordeaux’s Graves region admitted to the pantheon of the almost sacred 1855 Classification. Many chateaux in Bordeaux use the second wine concept to divert grapes that might not be of the highest quality into a wine that will be much less expensive (and less great) than the primary product but still reflect the character of the estate. Second wines have been around for a long time; Bahans Haut-Brion has been produced since 1907.

Chateau Haut-Brion is an old property, dating back to the mid 16th Century. English diarist Samuel Pepys was a fan, as was American President Thomas Jefferson. It has been owned since 1935 by the Dillon family, the only Bordeaux First Growth in American hands. The part of Graves where Chateau Haut-Brion stands, now encompassed by the busy suburbs of the city of Bordeaux, was designated Pessac-Leognan in 1987. The vineyards yield about 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 37 percent merlot and 18 percent cabernet franc. With the 2007 vintage, Bahans Haut-Brion was renamed Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, after the American banker who bought the estate. For some period, Bahans Haut-Brions was sold as a non-vintage wine, a marvelous example of which I tasted in the late 1980s.

I decanted our Christmas Eve bottle of Chateau Bahans Haut-Brion 2001 an hour before dinner, not because of the possibility of sediment — there was none — but because a taste I had tried several weeks earlier indicated some hardness that needed a little airing to soften. By the time we sat down to eat, the wine seemed close to drinkable, though it continued to evolve as several hours passed. At first sniff, the wine offers notes of wheatmeal and walnut shell, cedar and tobacco and a tinge of dried spice and dried red and black currants. Gradually, as moments passed and we sipped and partook of perfectly rosy-rare slices of beef, Bahans Haut-Brion 2001 unfurled hints of violets and lavender, mocha and bitter chocolate, the latter seemingly wrapped around ripe black currants, black raspberries and plums. Even as it opened and became more approachable and enjoyable, though, the wine retained a sense of lithe sinewy muscularity and animation, based on an architecture of dry, dusty tannins, polished oak and profound acidity. The wine did not let us forget that while it was, after all, made from grapes, that fruit found its origin in dirt, subsoil and underlying strata, nor did it neglect, finally, the beguiling, vinous appeal that compelled us to return to the glass. 13 percent alcohol. Typical production of Bahans is 7,500 cases; production of Chateau Haut-Brion itself is about 15,000 cases. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. Prices on the Internet range, ludicrously, from about $40 to $70. I was fortunate enough to purchase two bottles at the lower end of that spread.

Imported by Diageo Chateau & Estates, New York.

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