Merlot


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.

Last night LL made one of our favorite cool weather dishes, the roasted chicken with figs, garlic, thyme and bacon. Yes, it’s exactly as good as it sounds, and as we were chowing down, we kept stopping, each of us, and saying something like, “Holy shit, what a fabulous dish!” I wrote about this item previously, in October 2009; follow the link for a fuller description of the dish and how it’s made.

Anyway, to drink with this delight of savory and hearty flavor, I opened a bottle of the Niner Wine Estates Bootjack Ranch Merlot 2008, Paso Robles. which I’ll get to in the reviews further along.

The winery was founded in 2001 and is owned by Richard and Pam Niner. Richard Niner, a product of Princeton and Harvard Business School, spent 30 years investing and turning around small businesses before visiting San Luis Obispo County and deciding to get into the wine industry. He bought the Bootjack Ranch on the east side of Paso Robles in 1999; a later purchase was Heart Hill Vineyard, in the western reaches of Paso Robles, 12 miles from the ocean and often 10 degrees cooler than Bootjack. Chuck Ortman consulted for the first vintages produced by the winery; since 2004 winemaker has been Amanda Cramer.

These wines were samples for review.
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For a winery that concentrates on red wines, Niner turns out a splendid sauvignon blanc; in fact, along with the Merlot 2008 and Syrah ’06, the Niner Bootjack Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Paso Robles, was my favorite of this group of recently tasted wines from the producer. The color is very pale straw-gold. Aromas of roasted lemon, tangerine and grapefruit are imbued with notes of lemongrass, dried thyme and tarragon and a pungent element of gunflint and limestone; this is a bouquet I could sniff and contemplate for hours. The wine ages briefly in a combination of stainless steel barrels and once-used and neutral French oak, so the wood influence is subtle and supple, a soft blur and burr of dusty spice. In the mouth, the wine is taut with spanking acidity and clean limestone-backed minerality; pert flavors of lemon and grapefruit wrap around hints of meadow grass and leafy fig; the finish is long, lacy, spicy, chalky. A great sauvignon blanc for drinking through 2012. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 1,395 cases. Excellent. About $17, a Remarkable Value.
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The Niner Bootjack Ranch Merlot 2008, Paso Robles, is one of those rare merlots from California that asserts its individuality from under the mantle of cabernet sauvignon; that is to say, it smells and tastes like something other than cabernet. This polished beauty offers notes of blueberry, mulberry and cassis ensconced in graphite, cedar, lavender, thyme, pepper and black olive. The wine retains something untamed and plangent, high tones of wild berry and exotic spice, along with more typical black and red currant flavors bolstered by shale-like minerality and burnished oak from French and Hungarian barrels, one-third new. Tannins are finely-milled and plush, with just a trace of rigor and authentic austerity on the finish. This was terrific with our dish of roasted chicken, bacon, figs, garlic and thyme, with which we had roasted potatoes and sauteed chard. Now through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.7 percent. Production was 908 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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The Niner Bootjack Ranch Sangiovese 2007, Paso Robles, is a curious matter in that it’s a thoroughly enjoyable wine, but it doesn’t have much to do with the character of the sangiovese grape. Actually, it behaved more like a well-made, non-blockbuster zinfandel. The color is deep ruby-red; the bouquet offers red and black currants, black cherries and touches of smoke, coffee and tobacco. Dense, grainy tannins, polished oak and vibrant acidity provide structure that’s firm and lively in its support of luscious black currant and cherry flavors. Now through 2012 or ’14. Production was 851 cases. 14.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24.
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I was, on the other hand, quite pleased with the Niner Bootjack Ranch Syrah 2006, Paso Robles, which I will call, as a matter of fact, one of the best renditions of the grape I have tasted from the Golden State. The color is deep ruby with a slight magenta/blue cast, an entrancing hue; the ripe, meaty, fleshy bouquet offers a rapt rendition of spiced and macerated red and black currants, blueberries and blackberries backed by black pepper, briers and brambles, smoke and moss, honed granite and slate, all seamlessly layered atop a foundation of clean loamy earth and a touch of wet dog funk. Yes, this is the real thing. At fours years old the wine is beautifully balanced and integrated, and while 16 months in small French and Hungarian barrels (one-third new) lend the wine a character of unassailable oak, added to dense, velvety tannins, broad and generously spiced black fruit flavors make this very drinkable, especially with such full-bodied fare as venison, pork chops and beef stew, now through 2005 or ’06. Production was 1,281 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.
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My slight beef with the Niner Bootjack Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Paso Robles, is a strain of vanilla that my palate and sensibility register as a flaw, if not a downright aberration; if vanilla is what you want, order a dish of crème brûlée. ANYWAY, this cabernet, like its merlot cousin fairly individual in style, is big, dense, furry, chewy, intense and concentrated; sleek, polished and honed; black currant and black cherry flavors are touched with wild berry, lavender and violets, licorice, smoke and potpourri, rhubarb and sandalwood; a few minutes in the glass bring out classic tones of cedar and tobacco.. The exoticism does not get out of hand, however, held firmly in check by keen acidity, heaps of granite-like minerality and tongue-swathing tannins. I sipped this with a strong Irish cheddar-style cheese, and it was perfect thus. Drink now, with a steak, through 2016 or ’17. Production was 2,294 cases. 14.3 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $28.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ I’m sorry to say that my reaction to the Niner Fog Catcher 2005, Paso Robles, was not ecstatic, though the wine, a blend of 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent cabernet franc and 10 percent merlot, is well-knit, impeccably balanced and integrated, smooth and mellow, enjoyable, with classic notes of smoky cedar, fruit cake and spice cake, brandied black cherries, honed shale and so forth. It’s just not very exciting; it doesn’t offer that edgy poise between power and elegance, dynamism and transparent austerity that great cabernet-blend wines should possess. Plenty of pleasing personality here but not enough character; a wine at this price should not be so easy. 550 cases. 14.1 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $58.
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Location matters in retail, real estate and winemaking, and perhaps in wine-tasting too. My group visited Veramonte in the cool Casablanca Valley, northwest of Santiago, yesterday afternoon — and it was pretty damned cool, I’ll say; I was glad that I brought gloves and a scarf –and we rode out and up into the vineyards, stopping at mid-rim of a wide shallow valley to taste the Veramonte Reserva Merlot 2009; “Reserva” is the winery’s basic level of wines, widely available in the United States. Yesterday was not only cool but cloudy and intermittently foggy; the wine was served at what seemed like true “cellar” temperature, bringing out the merlot’s minerality and clean acidity. In fact, I was impressed by the wine, which felt lively, intense and pure. It ages about eight months in French and American oak barrels, 20 percent new. Though previous vintage have contained smidgeons of cabernet, the ’09 is 100 percent merlot. Classic notes of black olive, cedar, bell pepper and tomato skin are permeated by intense and concentrated scents and flavors of black currants and black raspberries, the whole package inundated by a pert and penetrating graphite element edged with smoke and bitter chocolate. Drink with burgers, hearty pizzas and pasta dishes, steak and roast pork. Expert winemaking here to produce an inexpensive wine that feels a bit above its station. Very Good+. About $10 to $12, a Great Bargain.

As faithful readers of this blog know — bless yer little pointy heads! — every feasible Saturday night it’s Pizza-and-Movie Night in the FK/LL household. This has been a steady occurrence for 15 years or so, and for most of that time I adhered to pretty much the same routine in making the pizza. Recently, though, I radically changed the way I make pizza, in terms of basic ingredients and technique.

The first inspiration was an article that ran in the food section of The New York Times on May 18 (and available online), called “The Slow Route to Homemade Pizza,” by Oliver Strand. Following the advice of a number of professional pizza-makers, the story advocates making the pizza dough and letting it rise at room temperature for 24 hours or at least overnight. Now I’ve always indulged in what I thought of as a slow rising of the dough at about eight hours, but overnight was new to me. I tried the technique soon after I read the article, making the dough on Friday night and leaving the bowl on the counter until the next morning. About 11 o’clock, I punched the dough down, kneaded it a few times, put it back in the bowl and set it out on the back porch. By the time I was ready to make the pizza at 6 p.m., the dough has been working for about 20 hours.

What happened next was remarkable. Usually, when you roll out the dough, you have to have do it a couple of times because the gluten is still elastic, so it has to rest for a couple of minutes and then be rolled again. With the new technique, I rolled the dough out and it immediately spread across the edges of the wooden paddle and onto the counter. Whoa! I actually had to trim the circumference because the pizza would have been too big for the stone. (Sorry I don’t have images of the process.) When we ate the finished pizza, the crust was thinner than I have ever achieved before, yet still chewy, not cracker-like, with a texture that had a little give and a rim that was slightly puffy. Fabulous, yes, but for me anyway, this technique is a little tricky, and over the past two months or so, I have had — it seems to me; LL is more generous –about a 25 percent failure rate, by which I mean that the crust was not up to a fine standard. I think I just have to keep trying to tune the method until I get it right.

The other change is that I began buying, at the Memphis Farmers Market, the hard white whole grain wheat flour from Funderfarm, a milling operation run by a young couple in Coldwater, Miss. The flour is not cheap — $8.50 for four pounds — but it’s ground the day before I purchase it, and it contributes wonderful texture and flavor to pizza. Now I can’t make a pizza with only the Funderfarm flour (the result is rather heavy), so I worked out a formula of about 40 percent Funderfarm hard white whole grain flour, about 50 percent King Arthur Bread Flour and about 10 percent rye flour from Whole Foods. All of these flours are organic.

We have also benefited from a bumper crop of local aubergines, including little globular eggplant; slim, tender baby eggplant; and pale lavender eggplant with faint white stripes. I slice these thin, marinate the slices in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, thyme and oregano, salt and pepper and then grill them briefly over hardwood charcoal. This is great on pizzas, especially in conjunction with pepper-cured bacon (as in the image above), and what’s interesting is that usually I can’t stand eggplant, it sort of
hurts my stomach. Ratatouille, yuck! I also like combining fresh tomatoes and marinated dried tomatoes on the same pizza, dribbling on a bit of the marinade as the final touch. (This image is of a small vegetarian pizza I made one Saturday when LL was traveling.) And recently I’ve been using four cheeses: mozzarella, feta, parmesan and pecorino.

Anyway, that’s what’s happening in My Pizzaworld. As far as wine is concerned, here are notes on the variety of wines we’ve had with pizza over the past few months. These were all samples for review.

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When Easton says “old vine,” they’re not kidding. The grapes for the Easton Old Vine Zinfandel 2006, Fiddletown, derive from the Rinaldi-Eschen Vineyard, some of whose vines date to the original planting of 1865, up there in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley. Can there be an older vineyard still producing grapes in California? This is a beautifully balanced and integrated zinfandel, with loads of poise and character. The color is rich dark ruby with an opaque center and just a nod to cherry-garnet at the rim. Scents of macerated and meaty plums and red and black currants are permeated with smoke and cloves with a touch of leather and briers. In the mouth, the wine is rich and warm, displaying an intriguing combination of the savoriness of ripe, fleshy black fruit flavors with a sweet core of spicy oak and a touch of the grape’s brambly, black pepper nature. It’s quite dry, though, gaining a bit of dignified austerity and mineral presence on the finish. Nothing jammy, nothing overdone, and surprisingly elegant for an “old vine” zinfandel. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Winemaker was Bill Easton, who also makes Rhone-style wines under the Terre Rouge label. Alcohol is 14.5. percent. Excellent. About $28 and definitely Worth a Search.
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The Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2006, Napa Valley, asserts an individual character, unlike so many merlot-based wines that just taste “red” or like an imitation cabernet. From the winery’s Demeter-certified biodynamic vineyards, this intense and concentrated merlot delivers a bouquet of ripe black currants and black cherries etched with smoke and bitter chocolate and hints of lavender and Damson plum. A few minutes in the glass bring on a slightly roasted element, with flavors of black currants and blackberries permeated by cedar and dried thyme, all of these sensations cushioned by gritty, velvety tannins and fairly militant dusty, gravel-like minerality. The wine aged 18 months in a combination of French barriques and casks (that is, small and large barrels), some 30 percent of which were new. Such a regimen lends the wine shape, tone and seriousness without the frippery of toast or overt spiciness. Try from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Winemaker is Ivo Jeramaz, nephew of the winery’s co-founder and winemaker emeritus, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich. Alcohol is 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $42.
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The winery was founded in Australia’s Barossa Valley as Karlsburg Wines in 1973 by Czech winemaker Karl Cimicky; his son Charles changed the winery’s name to Charles Cimicky Wines when he took the reins. The blend in the Cimicky Trumps Grenache Shiraz 2007 is 55 percent of the first, 45 percent of the second. The wine spends 15 months in two-year-old French oak barrels that lend subtle spice and suppleness. This is a big, dark, rich and, yes, jammy red wine that bursts with aromas of ripe black currants, blackberries and plums swathed with licorice and lavender and crushed gravel. Despite the intense black fruit nectar-like ripeness, the wine is completely dry, even austere toward the finish, but it also just rolls across the taste-buds like liquid velvet couched in furry, chewy tannins. A little swirling unfurls notes of clean earth, new leather and smoke. This was terrific with the night’s pizza, but Lord have mercy, would it ever be great with a medium-rare, pepper-crusted rib-eye steak. Alcohol content is 14 percent. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $15 to $18.
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La Mozza is jointed owned by Lidia Bastianich, her son Joe Bastianich and his partner is the restaurant business, Mario Batali. None of these celebrities — especially Batali — needs an introduction. (Mother and son also own a winery, launched in 1997, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, in the Colli Orientali Giulia D.O.C. region.) La Mozza was founded in 2000 and is located in Tuscany’s southwestern Maremma area. La Mozza Aragone 2006, Maremma Toscana I.G.T., could be called a combination of Italy and France; on the Italian side we have 40 percent sangiovese and 25 percent alicante grapes, and on the French side, specifically the southern Rhone Valley, we have 25 percent syrah and 10 percent carignane. The wine aged 22 months in 500-liter French casks; the standard French barrel is 225 liters, so theoretically, because of the greater mass of wine in proportion to wood, the oak influence with a cask is less, or at least more subtle. Not that the point matters tremendously for this dark, robust and vigorous red wine. Scents of red and black currants (and a touch of mulberry) are permeated by elements of graphite and potpourri, moss, briers and brambles and a bass note of mushroomy earthiness. Yes, there are intriguing, seductive layers in the bouquet, and if the wine is a bit more brooding in the mouth, that’s nothing that a little bottle aging won’t ease. The wine is well-balanced, but the emphasis is on dense but smooth, almost sleek tannins and rich, smoky black fruit flavors that need a year or two to develop. Try from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Alcohol content is a comfortable 13 percent. Excellent. A few months ago, the price range for this wine was about $38 to $42; today it’s about $28 to $35.

Dark Star Imports, New York.
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Yangarra Estate Vineyard, located in Australia’s McLaren Vale appellation, is part of the Jackson Family Wines empire. While the Yangarra wines are promoted as “100% estate grown,” the federally required designation on the back label mysteriously does not say “Produced and Bottled by …” but “Vinted and Bottled by …”; the implication is that the Yangarra wines (at least the ones shipped to the U.S.) are not made at the estate. Whatever the case, the Yangarra Mourvèdre 2008, McLaren Vale, is a wonderful, I’ll say it again, a wonderful expression of the mourvèdre grape. While a traditional component of the blended red wines of the Rhone Valley, Provence and Languedoc in southern France, mourvèdre is seldom bottled on its own except for a few instances in California and Australia. At first, this is all black: Blackberry, black currant, black plum, black pepper, black olive. Then a touch of dried red current enters the picture, along with sweet cherry and sour cherry, red plum, new leather. Give the wine a few more minutes and it turns into a glassful of smoldering violets and lavender, with overtones of bitter chocolate, espresso and dried thyme. The mineral element expands into layers of dusty granite and graphite that permeate the bastions of polished, chewy tannins. The wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels, only 15 percent of which were new, so the wood influence is sustained yet mild and supple and slightly spicy. This could mature for a year or two, so drink from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Production was 500 six-bottle cases; winemaker was Peter Fraser. Alcohol content is the now standard 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $29.

Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Cal.
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Just as the Yangarra Estate Mourvedre 2008 mentioned above represents a Platonic embodiment of the mourvedre grape, the Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, performs a similar service for syrah. Syrah was planted in Darien in 2000 and 2001, so the vines have reached a point of development that should lend rich character to the wine and continue on a plateau of quality for 50 or 60 years. There’s a whole truckload of crushed thyme, marjoram and Oolong tea in this wine, as well as baskets of blackberries and blueberries imbued with hints of prunes, plums, lanolin and leather and an all-over sense of ripe fleshiness. The color is inky with a faint violet/purple rim; the granite and shale-like mineral element feels/seems inky too. So add the caprice of lavender, licorice, bitter chocolate and potpourri crushed by mortar and pestle and scattered on a smoldering field of wild flowers and herbs. Yes, I’m saying that this is a syrah that reaches a level of delirious detail, depth and dimension, and the deeper it goes, the darker and denser it gets, until you reach the Circle of Austerity and the Chamber of Tannins and the Rotunda of Oak. (The wine aged 14 months in French barrels, 42 percent new.) Despite those fathoms, the wine is surprisingly smooth and drinkable, huge in scope yet polished and inviting. Production was 974 cases. Alcohol content is 14.9 percent. Drink from 2011 or ’12 through 2018 to ’20 (well-stored). Winemaker was Darice Spinelli. Exceptional. About $48.
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Desiring something probably less complicated and certainly cheaper on a subsequent Pizza-and-Movie Night, I opened the Estancia Zinfandel 2007, Keyes Canyon Ranches, Paso Robles. Estancia was founded in 1986 on the old Paul Masson vineyards in Soledad, in Monterey County. The winery is now owned by Constellation. Keyes Canyon is in Paso Robles, down south in San Luis Obispo. The wine is touted on its label as “Handcrafted” and “Artisan-Grown,” whatever those nebulous terms mean. As is the case with many of the products from wineries purchased by Constellation, this wine says on the label “Vinted and Bottled … “; check your bottles of Mt. Veeder and Franciscan, also owned by Constellation. Actually what the complete line on this label says is “Vinted and Bottled by Estancia Estates, Sonoma Co.” So the question is: Where the hell was the wine made?

Anyway, I didn’t like it. I tried manfully for 15 or 20 minutes to coax something out of the glass that might resemble anything to do with the zinfandel grape, but all I got was a generic sense of smoky, toasty red wine that could have been cabernet or merlot. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Winemaker was Scott Kelley. Avoid. About $15.

Finally, LL said, “Oh, just open something else. Something better.” So I went looking and found the next wine.
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Yes, as you know, I’m the kind of guy who will open a Jordan Cabernet to go with pizza, but, damnit, the movie was going and we were chowing down and I had to grab something. And of course I’m not implying that a wine that costs $52 is necessarily better than a wine that costs $15; the case is simply that every wine should perform up to or better than its price range, and the Estancia certainly didn’t do that.

Anyway, the Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, offers lovely balance, integration and harmony. The blend is 75 percent cabernet sauvigon, 19.5 percent merlot, 4.5 percent petit verdot and 1 percent malbec. Aging was 12 months in French (67%) and American (33%) oak barrels, of which 33 percent were new. The bouquet is first a tangle of briers and brambles, cedar, thyme and black olive with a background of iron and dusty walnut shell; a few minutes bring in the notes of black currants, black cherries and cassis. The wine is intense and concentrated, dense and chewy, with finely-milled tannins and polished oak enfolding flavors of spicy black currants and plums and a streak of vibrant acidity contributing a sense of purpose. A model of the marriage of power and elegance and a delight to drink. Try now through 2015 or ’16. The alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Winemaker was Rob Davis. Excellent. About $52.

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I invited wine-blogging colleague Benito to come over and taste six pairs of mainly limited-edition red wines with me a couple of weeks ago. The wines within each pair were related in some way, mainly in the sense that they were made by the same producer but from different vineyards or appellations. My intention was to see what sort of characteristics the wines possessed and how they expressed the variations in location, if they did so, and to what degree. There were four pairs of cabernet sauvignon-based wines and two pairs of merlot; one pair was from Washington state and the others from California, two from Sonoma County and three from Napa Valley.

Benito knew none of these details; all I revealed to him was that the wines were red, in related pairs and that we would taste them blind. I had a potential advantage, of course, but after I bagged and marked the wines (and removed the capsules), I moved the pairs around the table, and when Benito arrived, I asked him to do the same thing. When we sat down to begin, I realized by looking at the groups of bottles in brown paper sacks that I actually didn’t have a clue what the order was.

Here’s the deal: I found these wines, whose prices range from $35 to $85, generally solid and well-made but unexciting, uninvolving and uncompelling. Many of them shared so many similar qualities that they felt as if they had been engineered by committees. Nor did I discover much of the individuality and personality I was hoping for, either in the single examples or comparatively within the pairs. In fact, they seemed remarkably alike, reflecting a sense of prevalent style. After Benito and I tried the wines on a Thursday afternoon, I set the wines aside, let them rest over night and tried them the next day, and the next and even on Sunday; there was little sense of development or diminishing of oak and tannin. It’s difficult to understand, then, what these wines represent except their own status as iconic products to be featured on high-end wine lists and in the cellars of collectors. The order in which the wines are reviewed follows the order in which Benito and I tasted them.

These wines were received as samples for review.
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1. Matanzas Creek Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County. 88.5% merlot, 7.5% syrah, 4% cabernet sauvignon. 14.1% alcohol. $35. and 2. Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County. 100% merlot. 14.1% alcohol. $49. Winemaker is François Cordesse. Matanzas Creek is part of the Jackson Family Wines of Kendall-Jackson.

The “regular” Bennett Valley Merlot 06 offers a dark ruby-purple color and a seductive bouquet of smoke, lilac and lavender, iodine and graphite, cassis and crushed raspberries, with a final fillip of violets and toasty charcoal. (The oak regimen is 14 months in French barrels, 31 percent new, 69 percent used.) So, this aromatic nature is attractive and pretty standard in the California vein, with emphasis on the character that comes from oak aging, all that sort of smoky, crunchy, roasted stuff. The wine is rich, ripe and juicy with black fruit flavors, deeply spicy, solid with dense chewy tannins that grow more austere as the minutes (and days) pass, and altogether very cabernet-like in its sleek, powerful structure.

How does the Jackson Park version compare? Immediately one feels more power and darkness in the glass, more structure and more of the wheatmeal-graham-walnut shell nature, the dusty minerals that indicate the presence of formidable oak and tannin and presage time in the cellar. This wine also spends 14 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, 25 percent one-year-old, 25 percent two-year-old. At first the wine feels pungent, spicy and provocative, but it quickly succumbs to its structural elements, turning very dry and austere from mid-palate through the finish, leading one to wonder if the only way to produce impressive merlot-based wines is to make them like cabernet sauvignon. Try this perhaps from 2012 or ’13 through 2016 or ’17.

I rate both of these merlots Very Good+.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Emblem Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.3% alcohol. $50. and 2. Emblem Oso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 13.7% alcohol. $50. Winemakers are Michael Mondavi and his son Robert Michael Mondavi Jr. of Folio Fine Wine Partners.

The Rutherford district, progenitor of the famed (or infamous) “Rutherford dust” character, marks the heart of the Napa Valley. Named for the small, unincorporated community on Hwy 29, the district stretches in a broad band across the valley from the foot of the Mayacamas mountains in the west to the smaller Vaca Range on the east. The grapes for the Emblem Rutherford Cabernet 06 derive from a single, unnamed vineyard on the eastern side of the Napa River. This feels, indeed, like classic Napa/Rutherford cabernet, with a nose of cedar and black olives, mint and cloves and very intense and ripe cassis and black cherry scents wrapped in spicy oak and (yes) a dusty, leafy graphite quality. The oak treatment is 22 months in French barrels, of which 66 percent were new. At first, Emblem Rutherford 06 is pretty luscious and juicy, but strapping tannins expand rapidly and take up all the available space, turning the wine austere to the point of astringency. It is, in a word, huge in oak, huge in tannin, huge in that dusty, granite-like mineral element. It’s the old iron-fist in the iron-glove thing. Try from 2012 or ’14 through 2018 or ’20. For now, Very Good+.

Cousinage between these two Emblem wines consists of the factor of 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and some resemblance in the oak regime, which for the Oso Vineyard 06 is also 22 months in French barrels, but 45 percent of the barrels are new. No matter. The Oso is another substantial, oak-bound, formidably tannic and granite-like wine that’s even more closed, more brooding and more austere than the Rutherford 06. The grapes come from the Mondavi family’s Oso Vineyard in the northern part of Napa Valley, near Calistoga. Considerable time will elapse before it softens and unfolds a bit, though I’ll grant that the wine’s supple texture — the tannins are more velvety than grainy and gritty — is very attractive. Another Very Good+ and hoping for the best after 2013 or ’14.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Northstar Merlot 2006, Walla Walla Valley, Washington. 78% merlot, 17% cabernet sauvignon, 5% cabernet franc. 14.4% alcohol. 1,200 cases. $50. and 2. Northstar Merlot 2006, Columbia Valley. 76% merlot, 19% cabernet sauvignon, 3% petit verdot, 2% cabernet franc. 14.7% alcohol. 10,00 cases. $41. Winemaker is David Merfeld. Northstar is a sister winery to Chateau Ste. Michelle.

The point here is that since Walla Walla is a smaller appellation within Columbia Valley theoretically a Walla Walla merlot will be (or could be) better than a merlot from the larger, more diversified region; how else justify the difference in price and packaging? As it happens, in this blind tasting, Benito and I tried the Walla Walla version before the Columbia Valley rendition, and while I’ll give the Northstar Walla Walla 06 a slight edge over the Northstar Columbia 06, these were both very well-made wines with a pleasing sense of detail and dimension. Walla Walla is, as many devotees of merlot know, a potentially superb area for the grape. Do these Northstar merlots, especially the Walla Walla, evince a definite regional character, points that one would pick out as “Walla Walla”? I would say not. While immensely enjoyable, there’s not much to distinguish these merlots from dozens, if not hundreds, of other examples.

To follow the tasting order, the Northstar Merlot 06, Walla Walla, ages 17 months in French oak barrels, 56 percent new. The grapes for the wine derive from nine blocks within four vineyards. The color is dark ruby-purple with a slightly paler purple rim; the bouquet is intense and concentrated, a tightly furled amalgam of iodine and iron, licorice and lavender, and very ripe and penetrating scents of black currant and black cherry. The wine is deeply rooted in baking spice and macerated black fruit flavors permeated by polished oak, graphite and dense, supple tannins, all ensconced in a sumptuous, velvety texture. Drink now through 2015 to ’16. Very Good+.

Surprisingly, my first notes on the Northstar Merlot 2006, Columbia Valley, are “color is even darker; more intense — more concentrated.” This is actually an incredibly dense, fervently eloquent expression of the merlot grape that, for once, doesn’t seem like just another cabernet in disguise. The wine sees a little more oak than its stablemate — 18 months in 70 percent French and 30 percent American oak barrels, 65 percent new — but it does not come off as besotted or imperiled by wood; in contrast, it feels as if you’re drinking tapestry loaded with cassis, Damson plums, potpourri, mocha and bitter chocolate with a slightly piquant spicy edge and a lacy etching of iron filings. Nothing over-ripe or exaggerated here, and, in fact, this may be the most elegant and balanced wine of the tasting. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 97% cabernet sauvignon, 2% malbec, 1% petit verdot. 15.4% alcohol. $75. and 2. Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 100% cabernet sauvignon. 15.4% alcohol. $75. Winemakers are Rick Sayre and Gary Patzwald, with David Ramey as consultant.

Alexander Valley is a narrow, 12-mile long region that stretches southeast to northwest into the upper reaches of Sonoma County. At its lower end, Alexander Valley is buttressed by Knights Valley on the east, Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley to the south and southwest and Dry Creek Valley to the west, but it rises above this crowd and reaches in isolation up to the border with Mendocino County. The Russian River runs right down through the center of Alexander Valley, providing a moderating influence to temperatures that are generally warmer than the rest of the county.

The Brothers Ridge Vineyard, in what we’ll call the northern quadrant of Alexander Valley, lies east of the town of Cloverdale — pop. 6,831; motto “Genuinely Cloverdale” — in hills that reach nearly 1,000 feet elevation. The soil is loam over layers of sandstone, shale and “ancient” greenstone, that is, basaltic rock that was once deep-sea lava. The vineyard faces mainly west. In contrast, the Rockaway Vineyard, which slopes primarily northeast and southwest, lies over a gravelly clay subsoil atop fractured sandstone. A few miles southeast of Brothers Ridge and slightly lower — 750 feet at the highest elevation — Rockaway is a bit cooler. Do these factors of climate and geography produce different wines? Don’t forget the element of oak aging; 22 months in French barrels, 42 percent new, for Brothers Ridge, 22 months, in French barrels, 47 percent new, for Rockaway.

Rockaway 2006 starts with toasty, sweet oak and sweet, ripe black and blue fruit scents straight out of the gate; this bouquet is deliriously seductive, broadly and deeply spicy, with violets, crushed lavender, licorice and an exotic touch of mocha and smoky, incense-like sandalwood. Soon, however, one reaches an impasse; yes, there are the generous spicy nature and glimmers of cassis and blue plums with a hint of fruit cake, but mainly the wine at this point is tightly, massively structured, and three days in the bottle did not do a lot to help it unfurl. On Sunday morning, Rockaway 06 still offered an intensely spicy character that permeated black cherry and red currant flavors, but the tale was told in chewy, grainy tannins and formidably austere oak. Try from 2012 or ’13 through 2018 to ’20. Very Good+ for now.

Brothers Ridge 2006 felt a little looser, a little more open and approachable than its cousin. Here we perceive leather, plums with hints of espresso and prunes — the summer of 2006 was historically hot — the depth and range of the spice cabinet, touches of menthol and cedar. After three days of sweet-talking and coaxing, though, however much the attractive points of macerated and roasted berries became evident, Brothers Ridge 06 remained all about oak, which coated the mouth with austerity and astringency. It’s difficult to imagine that the wine will ever achieve the equilibrium it requires to become palatable. Try, with hope in your hearts, from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’20. Very Good+ for now.
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1. Piña Cellars Buckeye Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 15.1% alcohol. 840 cases. $85. and 2. Piña Cellars D’Adamo Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 15.4% alcohol. 1,085 cases. $75. Winemaker is Anna Monticelli.

The Buckeye Vineyard, high atop Howell Mountain — vineyard elevation up to about 2,200 feet — is a far cry from the D’Adamo Vineyard, nestled in the foothills between the Silverado Trail and Atlas Peak. One feels that difference immediately in this pair of wines from the Piña family, who have been tending vineyards in Napa Valley since the late 19th Century. The Buckeye Howell Mt. 07 displays bastions of resonant tannins for framing and foundation, like the deepest bass notes of a grand pipe organ, yet the bouquet draws you in with bacon fat, lavender and licorice, smoky charcoal, roasted meat (lamb, I would say) and very intense and concentrated elements of black currants, black cherries and plums. By the third day after being opened, this Buckeye Howell Mt. 07 had evolved into a real classic of mountain-grown cabernet, with high notes of cedar, tobacco and mint leading into spiced and macerated black currants and plums; the wine was still inky and granite-like, still awesome with oak and tannin, yet its innate elegance and balance were clearly evident. Of the 12 wines under consideration in this post, this was my favorite. Try from 2013 or ’14 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent.

Not to stint, however, on the virtues of the D’Amado 07, which opened seeming a little sleeker, a little smoother and more supple than its stablemate; in fact, you could swim in this ripe, rich, spicy and floral bouquet, though seemingly fathomless tannins come into play fairly quickly and dominate the wine after 15 or 20 minutes in the glass. Three days later, that bouquet still simmers with spice, cloves and mocha and macerated black fruit, but the bitingly austere tannins, the oak, the mineral qualities had not abated an inch. Give this considerable time, and call it Very Good+ for now with the potential for an Excellent rating.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Markham “The Altruist” Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Calistoga, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.8% alcohol. 507 cases. $53. and 2. Markham “The Philanthropist” Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Yountville, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.8% alcohol. 506 cases. $53. Winemaker is Kimberlee Nicholls. These wines are dedicated to Markham’s 2008 “Mark of Distinction” award winners, Table to Table in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., and the Bartlett Arboretum in Bell Plaine, Kansas.

These wines aged in French oak barrels 28 months and 27.5 months respectively, longer than any of the other wines tasted for this post, and the extra time shows in the intractability and impenetrability of their textures and structures. These are two freakin’ big tannic, oaken, dusty-iron-and-granite-girt wines! Will they ever come around? Making two 100 percent cabernet sauvignon wines from distinct areas in Napa Valley — Calistoga, north of St. Helena, and Yountville, in the central south –and treating them much the same in the winery would seem to point to the notion of emphasizing the wines’ origins in different micro-climates and soils, but the imposition of long oak aging and of deeply extracting tannins rendered that potentially interesting point moot, null and void. These cabernets are about their making, not about their vineyards or locations. As much as I played with them from Thursday afternoon until Sunday morning, I could elicit from them only the stringent rigor of their fabrication. Try, if you will, from 2014 or ’15 to 2020 or so, and let me know what happens. You know where to find me.
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I received some wine samples from Freemark Abbey not long ago, and I thought, “Gosh, how nice to hear from this venerable Napa Valley winery,” and then I remembered that Freemark Abbey is owned by Kendall-Jackson. Same thing happened with Matanzas Creek and Murphy-Goode. Other labels owned by the Jackson Family Wines division include La Crema, Stonestreet, Byron, Lakoya, Verite, La Jota, Edmeades and Cambria. Kendall-Jackson itself, which started producing the well-known Vintner’s Reserve line with chardonnay in 1982, has several tiers of labels to accommodate many price points. Though at 5.5 million cases a year in 2009 (according to San Francisco Business Times), K-J doesn’t compete with Diageo, Gallo, The Wine Group or Constellation, the company makes and sells a hell of a lot of wine.

So why does billionaire owner Jess Jackson — or to be realistic, his marketing honchos — need more labels?

Just released are two wines in the new Jackson Hills label, intended to fit between the K-J Grand Reserve and Highland Estates tiers. The basic label, the ubiquitous Vintner’s Reserve line, consists of 11 wines priced between $14 and $18. The Grand Reserve roster includes 14 wines that cost from $15 to $25. The limited edition Highland Estates label offers 16 wines priced from $30 to $75. Obviously there was a crying need for a niche right there between the $15 to $25 range and the $30 to $75 sequence, and the Jackson Hills label is it.

Another new label from Jackson Family Wines is Acre, a line that focuses on grapes from the Central Coast, a vast “appellation” — it covers seven counties south of San Francisco — about as useful as two left arms on an infielder. Since the Acre Chardonnay 2008, for example, derives completely from Los Alamos Valley in Santa Barbara County, why not label it Santa Barbara instead of Central Coast? The narrower the appellation, the more impressive it is (though not necessarily a better wine). In terms of price — $16 — the Acre wines seem redundant; they fall smack in the middle of the Vintner’s Reserve line-up. All right, so I’m skeptical about American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) — or AOCs in France — that encompass extensive geographical realms, though the Central Coast is distinguished by proximity to the Pacific and its morning fogs and by its inland mountain ranges, but saying that chardonnays from Monterey and San Luis Obispo share a “Central Coast character” is disingenuous. As far as usefulness is concerned, of course the Central Coast designation serves a purpose when grapes from more than one county go into a wine.

So, how are these new wines in the Jackson empire?

With the exception of the Jackson Hills Chardonnay 2008, Santa Barbara County, they’re not particularly compelling, or, to put the case another way, I don’t recommend them with much confidence.

The Jackson Hills Chardonnay 2008, Santa Barbara County, is a clean and bright chardonnay fashioned in an expansively fruity style that’s neither tropical nor too oaky. Typical pineapple and grapefruit flavors are set into a fairly opulent texture deftly balanced by bracing acidity and keen limestone-like minerality. The wine is quite dry, moderately spicy and a little austere on the finish. Does it sound familiar? Yes, this is an exemplar of a specific style of California chardonnay, tasty, sleek, sensually satisfying and undemanding. Very Good+. About $25.

A bigger deal is the Jackson Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, from Knights Valley, the northern section of Sonoma County noted for cabernet production. How big a deal is it? So big that it feels as if woody tannins and dusty oak are sifting through your teeth. This wine is very intense, very concentrated, and if there’s fruit in there somewhere — and there must be, right? isn’t that the point? — I couldn’t find it. I whomped the cork back in the bottle and left this wine to try the next morning; rising fresh from my guileless repose, I was greeted by a mouthful of austere and astringent tannins. Perhaps I simply disagree totally with the way this wine was made, but it gets no nod from me. About $40.

Nothing quite so drastic mars the three Acre wines that I tried; their flaw is to be merely ordinary and free of varietal quality. (Well, the chardonnay is pretty darned flawed.) The Acre label was launched in May 2009 by White Rocket Wine Co., a division that Kendall-Jackson created in Oct. 2006 to create and market “fun” brands aimed at a younger generation of wine consumers; several existing labels, such as Tin Roof, Camelot and Pepi, were shifted to White Rocket, which was based in Napa. I say was because White Rocket was absorbed by Jackson Family Wines in August 2009 and some staff members were laid-off. Other “fun” labels developed by White Rocket included AutoMoto, Dog House, French Maid, Geode, Horse Play and so on.

Anyway, the Acre Chardonnay 2008 is fermented half in oak and half in stainless steel, goes through full malolactic, ages four month in French oak sur lie with frequent stirring of the lees, and boy does it show. This is a very bright, boldly oaky and spicy chardonnay made in a style that does not marry its extremes; on the one hand, its vivid baked pineapple and grapefruit flavors grab your palate with succulent lusciousness, while on the other hand the excessive dryness and woody austerity sear your taste-buds. Unworkable; unbalanced; a Big No. About $16.

The Acre Merlot 2007 and Acre Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 are not unbalanced or unwieldy; they merely feel interchangeable. These truly are cross-county wines: The Merlot ’07 derives 72 percent from the small Hames Valley AVA in Monterey, 20 percent from San Benito County and 8 percent from San Luis Obispo; the blend is 80 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 percent petit sirah. The Cabernet Sauvignon ’07 originates from Raso Robles in San Luis Obispo (68%), San Benito (20%) and Monterey (12%). These geeky details may be tedious to peruse, but they indicate the level of thoughtfulness that went into assembling these two wines, though perhaps “assembled” isn’t the method we most seek in the wines we admire.

The problem is that these two reds feel more generic than individual. Each is quite brambly and berryish, bursting with spicy oak and etched with mocha; each is earthy and minerally, in the graphite-tinged area; each has a circumference of dusty, slightly charcoal-like tannins. The cabernet does offer a hint of black olive and cedar to differentiate it minutely from the merlot, but I don’t call that enough. I’ll give these Good+ and say that wines costing $16 should deliver more personality and dimension.

Now, not to be a complete curmudgeon, I’ll say that I was delighted with the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Summation 2009, California. Introduced to the line-up last year for the 2008 vintage, this wine is perfect for sipping throughout the summer into the fall. It contains a smorgasbord of grapes — sauvignon blanc (33%), viognier (27%), chardonnay (15%), semillon (9%), roussanne (6%), pinot blanc (6%), riesling (2%) and muscat canelli (2%) — from five counties dominated by Lake (63%) with major contributions from Mendocino (23%) and Santa Barbara (21%). The result is a winning and very pretty wine that offers a seductive bouquet of jasmine and honeysuckle, pear and lychee, with hints of almond and just-mown hay. The wine is quite crisp and refreshing, with cheeky acidity to tantalize the palate and lovely flavors of roasted lemon, melon and pear imbued with quince and cloves and an energizing element of chalky limestone. The finish is dry and limestony and brings in a bracing touch of grapefruit bitterness. This would drink nicely with grilled fish and seafood or summery salads and pastas. Very Good+. About $17.

In fact, it seems to me that the most reliable wines for the regular consumer in the extensive Kendall-Jackson line-up are the Vintner’s Reserve wines, that ones that started the whole dance back in 1982. They may not always be exciting, but they are true to their originator’s philosophy and their grape varieties and they generally taste real.

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