Monterey County


For the 18th entry in this series about chardonnay and pinot noir wines, mainly from California but occasionally from elsewhere, I offer 15 reviews that mention wines whose geographical origins range from Anderson Valley and Mendocino Ridge in the north, in Mendocino County, to Santa Maria Valley in the south, in Santa Barbara County. Some threads of the grapes’ innate characters run through the wines — certain central and peripheral fruit scents and flavors, certain spice notions, some earthy, minerally qualities — with differences among the wines derived from radical and inevitable variations in climate, elevation, exposure and soil type, the elements that comprise terroir. The issue of oak is involved, of course, with winemakers making decisions about how long to age their wines in wood and what percentage of new oak barrels to use. I prefer wines with a light oak (or no oak) thumbprint, so I’m pleased to say that none of these wines — 13 pinots, 2 chardonnays — is swamped by an overbearing oak influence. The wines considered today are all pretty terrific, a few more terrificker than the others, but I promise you would not turn any of them down. The order is alphabetical.

These wines were samples for review, as I am required to inform you by ruling of the Federal Trade Commission.
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The first vintage from this celebrated vineyard for the winery, the Black Kite Cellars bk-pinotGap’s Crown Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, displays a dark ruby-magenta hue and riveting scents of cranberry and pomegranate, black cherries and raspberries, sassafras and sandalwood, all strung on a line of rooty, loamy elements and graphite minerality. This is a remarkably clean, fresh and bright pinot noir yet also dusty, musky and bosky — three of the Seven Dwarves — and burgeoning with deeply spiced black and red berry flavors. It’s sleek and smooth, animated by brisk acidity and founded on layers of moderate tannins flecked with notes of iodine and iron. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 273 cases. Drink now through 2020 to 2023. Excellent. About $55.
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The pale gold Black Kite Cellars Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay 2014, Santa Lucia bk-chardHighlands, aged 10 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels, and I would say that regimen was just right, because this is a chardonnay of righteous and star-like purity and intensity. Notes of ripe pineapple and grapefruit are infused with hints of cloves, almond skin and toasted hazelnuts; a few minutes in the glass bring out elements of lilac and jasmine and lustrous limestone minerality. On the palate, this chardonnay adds a bit of peach to the citrus flavors, all enclosed by a talc-like texture riven by bright acidity and lacy, etched layers of flint and damp stones; the whole package feels impeccable, beguiling and authoritative in tone, presence and character. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020 to 2024. Production was 212 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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The Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2013, Carneros, aged 14 months in French oak, 60 donum-estate-grown-carneros-pinot-noir-napa-county-usa-10332775percent new barrels. The color is dense, dark ruby; aromas of black and red currants, cherries and plums are deeply imbued with notes of cloves, nutmeg, allspice and sandalwood, together exuding hints of the exotic astringency of woody Asian spices. In the nose and on the palate, the fruit feels slightly brandied, as in a macedoine, and also a bit ripe, fleshy and roasted. The complexity of the nuances and layers is heady and seductive. Super satiny in texture, suave and supple, this pinot noir partakes of leather and loam, pomegranate and beetroot, buoyed by lively acidity yet rather brooding through the finish. 14.7 percent alcohol. Production was 650 cases. Drink through 2020 through 2023. Winemaker was Dan Fishman. Excellent. About $72.
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The Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, aged in French oak, 70 percent new barrels, number of months undetermined. The color is a transparent medium ruby-magenta hue; the wine is reticent and slow to yield its character, though it opens to reserves of intense and concentrated black cherries, raspberries and plums infused by cloves and bittersweet chocolate, brambles and underbrush, iodine and loam. A few moments in the glass reveal notes of lavender and violets. This pinot noir is dense, almost chewy and feels pretty damned rigorous in its tannic-mineral nature. Try from 2018 through 2024 or ’25. Production was 890 cases. Excellent (potential). About $72.
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Mendocino Ridge is one of the rare vineyard regions in the world in which the geographical components are not contiguous, the only such AVA in the United States. Instead, this AVA runs along a series of mountain peaks above 1,200 feet elevation. While the total area encompasses about 262,000 acres, actual vines amount to 237 acres, divided among 17 vineyards. The Ferrari-Carano Sky High Ranch Pinot Noir 2014, Mendocino Ridge, offers a dark ruby hue shading to a lighter magenta rim; aromas and flavors tend toward the more shadowed, exotic and spicy side of the grape, replete with sassafras, cloves, sandalwood and lavender in a foundation of ripe, dusky black cherries and currants and a dash of pomegranate. The texture is satiny with a sensuous drape on the palate, though enlivened by buoyant acidity. The wine aged 10 months in French oak, 42 percent new barrels. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020. Excellent. About $52.
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Another example from this vineyard in Sonoma County’s Petaluma Gap, the Gary Farrell Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, aged 14 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. Offering a transparent medium ruby hue shading to mulberry, the wine delivers intense aromas of black cherries and raspberries coated with talc and loam and opening after a few moments in the glass to notes of melon and sour cherry, cloves and pomegranate, sassafras and sandalwood; the wine is dense and supple on the palate, lively and engaging in its acidity and finely balanced between ripe succulent black fruit flavors, brooding tannins and graphite minerality. 14.2 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Theresa Heredia. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Production was 495 cases. Excellent. About $70.
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The J Vineyards and Winery Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley, is the best bottling of the winery’s “regular” pinot noir that I have tasted in years. Winemaker is Nicole Hitchcock. The wine aged nine months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is an entrancing medium ruby flushed with magenta; aromas of red and black cherries and currants, with infusions of sour cherry and cherry pit, are imbued with briery-brambly elements and exotic notes of smoke, sassafras and sandalwood; a few moments in the glass bring out hints of leather and tobacco. This is a bright and feral pinot noir, deep, savory and super-satiny in texture; it’s quite dry but packed with the sweet ripeness of red and black fruit married to the rigor of dusty, graphite-slicked tannins and undertones of loam, roots and branches. 14.3 percent alcohol. A terrific balance of the ethereal and the earthy. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. E & J Gallo purchased J Vineyards and Winery in March 2015. Excellent. About $40.
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The Kendall-Jackson Jackson Estate Pinot Noir 2014, Anderson Valley, aged 11 months in French oak, 29 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby fading to a transparent magenta rim; this is a deep, spicy, minerally and powerful expression of the pinot noir grape, loaded with elements of black plums and cherries, pomegranate and cranberry, white pepper, cloves and sassafras. It’s dense, sleek, supple and satiny on the palate, brimming with dark ripe fruit and burgeoning with briery-brambly qualities marked by leather and forest floor, cedar and tobacco and a touch of dried sage and thyme. While the wine could, from my lights, use more grace and finesse, it’s a good example of pinot noir in its more muscular guise. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2021 to ’24. Excellent. About $32.
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Lazy Creek Vineyards in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, is owned by Don and Rhonda Carano, owners of the better-known and much larger Farrari-Carano winery in Sonoma County. Winemaker for Lazy Creek is Christy Ackerman. The Middleridge Ranch vineyard lies at 1,200 to 1,400 elevation. The Lazy Creek Middleridge Ranch Pinot Noir 2014, Anderson Valley, aged 10 months in a mixture of new and used French oak barrels. The color is dark ruby shading to a transparent magenta rim; intense and concentrated aromas of black cherries and plums are infused with notes of cloves and sassafras, rhubarb and sandalwood, rose petals and violets, altogether forming an exotic and seductive aura. Exquisite balance between succulence and a velvety texture, on the one hand, and a spare effect based on vital, lively acidity and a bracing brambly-branchy element on the other, lends the wine an exciting sense of tension and resolution. The finish brings up dry leathery tannins and hints of black cherries cloaked in bittersweet chocolate. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 418 cases. Drink now through 2021 to ’24. Excellent. About $50.
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The AVA is one of those intricate ones, a small “valley,” characterized primarily by cool macphail-logoclimate and fog, nestled at the southwestern border of a larger “valley” that lies within the broad Sonoma County AVA (American Viticultural Area). The MacPhail Sundawg Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, aged 16 months in French oak, 35 percent new barrels. The beguiling color is transparent medium ruby shading to an ethereal mulberry rim; this is a dark, spicy smoky pinot noir — I immediately thought of it served with seared duck breast, braised fennel and turnips — that features ripe and slightly macerated, roasted black and red cherries and plums permeated by notes of sassafras and rhubarb. The wine flows like satin drapery over the palate, where it feels animated by bright acidity and shadowed by elements of briers, brambles and forest floor, lending an autumnal cast to the proceedings, and lightly sanded and dusted tannins. 14.7 percent alcohol. Production was 650 cases. Drink now through 2019 through ’22. Excellent. About $49.
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The Three Sticks Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Maria Valley, aged 3-bien-nacido10 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The color is transparent medium ruby from center to slightly faded rim; the bouquet is intensely floral, opening to notes of red and black cherries, pomegranate and cranberry and displaying discreet tones of loam, cloves and rhubarb, with earthy briers and brambles in the background. The texture is quite sleek and satiny but not voluptuous, and despite juicy black and red fruit flavors, the wine is dry and a little foresty. A few minutes in the glass bring in hints of rose petals and sandalwood, mocha, leather and graphite, lending a slightly exotic air to the whole delicious enterprise. 13.9 percent alcohol. Lovely allure and complexity. Production was 243 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $60.
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The Three Sticks “The James” Pinot Noir 2014, Sta. Rita Hills, aged 10 months 3-jamesin French oak, 35 percent new barrels. It begins with an enchanting transparent medium ruby-magenta hue that fades to an invisible rim; at first it feels like all spices, with notes of cloves and sassafras, but it quickly unfurls black cherries and raspberries permeated by rose petals and lilac, smoke and graphite. This is a supremely satiny and mouth-filling pinot noir of sweetly succulent black fruit flavors nestled in a lip-smacking texture and dusty velvety tannins. Sounds too opulent? Fortunately, the whole package is propelled by penetrating acidity that keeps it honest and on an even keel. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 547 cases. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $60.
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The Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Origin Chardonnay 2014, Sonoma Valley, 3-originfermented in concrete eggs and aged 10 months in stainless steel tanks; yes, there is great wine without oak! The color is a mild gold hue; classic aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit are infused with notes of lilac and fennel, quince and ginger, all animated by a snap of gunflint. This chardonnay is vibrant and resonant on the palate, enlivened by bright acidity that cuts a swath through an appealing dusty, talc-like texture; citrus flavors open to a touch of peach and green tea. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 398 cases, and I wish I had a few of them. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $48.
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Bob Cabral, now at Three Sticks, made these wines. Don’t look for them or any of the — let’s say it — legendary Williams Selyem single-vineyard chardonnays and pinot noirs in stores; they’re sold only by allocation through the winery’s mailing list.

The Williams Selyems Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley, derived from two of ws-rrvthe winery’s estate vineyards plus the well-known Bacigalupe Vineyard. It aged 11 months in French oak, 45 percent new barrels. The color is a transparent medium ruby hue shading to a delicate magenta rim; macerated black and red cherries, currants and plums are sifted with extravagant notes of cloves, sassafras and sandalwood, pomegranate and leather, lavender and violets; I defy anyone not to be mesmerized by these seductive aromas. Fortunately, on the palate, this pinot noir reveals more rigor in the form of bright acidity that plows a furrow through a dusty, satiny texture and sleek tannins imbued with graphite and shale. A few minutes in the glass bring out touches of lilac, red licorice and mint and more earth and loam. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2021 to ’24. Excellent. About $55.
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The Williams Selyem Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River ws-westside-roadValley, is an autumnal, feral, foresty pinot noir that follows an amazing evolution in the glass. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 62 percent new barrels, and while that may seem like — as it does to me — a lot of oak influence for pinot noir, these grapes soaked up that wood and turned it into remarkable shapeliness, suppleness and subtlety. The color is a not quite transparent medium ruby-mulberry hue; the wine takes a little time to open from its initial state of earthy, loamy layers that feel a bit funky to woody spices like cloves, allspice and sandalwood, unfurling then its bounty of macerated and lightly stewed red and black cherries and raspberries imbued with notes of sour cherry and melon, briers and brambles. The sense of presence and heft is impressive, as is the sleek, suave texture, the lively acidity and the slightly dusty, graphite-ridden tannins. Give this wine an hour or more to allow its mint-eucalyptus-iodine character to emerge, its notes of resiny rosemary and pine, its layers of damp flint. I would call this pinot noir a monument except that it delivers its ultimate qualities with elegance and finesse. 13.8 percent alcohol. Drink through 2025 to 2030. Exceptional.
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Say that it’s a beautiful day, with mild temperature, bright sun and a lightly wafting breeze. You made a piece of cheese toast for lunch, intending to sit on the back porch, catching up on ls_morgan_cotes_du_crows_2014_frontthe newspapers while dogs snore around your feet. What to drink? Readers, I opened a bottle of the Morgan Winery Cotes du Crow’s 2014, a blend of 53 percent grenache grapes and 47 percent syrah from Monterey County, and, by golly, it made me happy. The wine is given gentle treatment in the winery, aging for 10 months in French oak, only 12 percent new barrels. Nothing heavy or ponderous here; all is fluid, fluent and expressive. The color is a moderate ruby-purple with a magenta tinge at the rim; a burst of ripe and intense raspberries, black currants and plums is followed by notes of violets and rose petals, cranberry and tapenade, with hints of wild fennel and celery seed, and I mean that in the best sense, as lending a touch of herbal intrigue to the wine. On the palate, this blend is juicy and smoky, tasting of slightly roasted black and blue fruit that gives it a distinct savory, autumnal quality; the wine gains depth as the moments pass, and the subtle, supple tannins gain a measure of rigor that builds to a finish packed with leather and loam, iodine and iron. Still, this wine, lively and invigorating, feels light-hearted, blithe and balletic. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 or ’19 with braised meat dishes, hearty pizzas and pasta preparations, burgers and, of course, my World-Famous Cheese Toast. Excellent. About — ready for this? — $18, representing Great Value.

A sample for review.

We tend to know when a wine is great from the first sniff and taste, because it possesses that ineffable yet very real quality called charisma. Renewed sniffing and tasting confirm that assessment, while adding depth and character. These factors hold true whether a wine costs $19 or $350, the range represented in today’s 2015 edition of the annual “50 Great Wines” post. I wouldn’t pay $350 for a bottle of wine — though apparently some people would — but I appreciate the occasional opportunity to encounter one. Of the wines on today’s roster, 18 rate Exceptional and 32 rate Excellent. Often the dividing line between Excellent and Exceptional is fine indeed, with permutations and intimations running silent and deep in each direction, but since my inclination is toward distinctions, rankings and hierarchies — that’s what graduate school will do for you — I always include a rating for each wine reviewed on BTYH. On the other hand, I refuse to employ the famous 100-point system; I would rather leave room for some ambiguity and imagination.

A great wine satisfies every point of interest and essence that we desire from a wine, exuding a feeling of utter completion and comprehension. Each wine accomplishes this purpose in a different way, of course, and to varying degrees, necessitating different responses. Some of these wines I admire, gravely and humbly; others, I adore rather shamelessly. The ultimate test, I think, is that when we drink a bottle of great wine, our conclusion is thus: “I wouldn’t want it to be anything other than this,” a sentiment we might also share with works of art and love affairs.

Today’s roster is presented alphabetically. Where a wine is a blend of grapes, I include the percentages that compose the blend. I also mention the case production for wines released in limited quantities, of which many on this list, not surprisingly, are. I do not include alcohol levels or names of importers or technical, geographical or historical date That sort of information is available in the reviews. These wines were selected from examples that I wrote about during 2015. The preponderance were samples for review, for which I thank the wineries, importers and marketing people who sent them.

For whatever eccentricities this list of “50 Great Wines of 2015” embodies, blame them on my taste, knowledge, experience and intuition. That is all I — or any of us — have to go on.
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Achaval Ferrer Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Mendoza, Argentina. Excellent. About $25.
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valadorna 09
Arcanum Valadorna 2009, Toscana IGT, Italy. 85 percent merlot, 8 percent cabernet franc, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon. Exceptional. About $80.

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Argyle Nuthouse Riesling 2013, Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon. Exceptional. About $30.
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sangioveto
Badia a Coltibuono Sangioveto di Toscana 2009, Toscana IGT, Italy. 100 percent sangiovese. 750 cases. Excellent. About $60.
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Benovia Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $38.
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Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem 2013, Côtes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France. 50 percent syrah, 40 percent grenache, 10 percent carignan. Excellent. About $30.
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BlackKite
Black Kite Cellars Stony Terrace Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 200 cases. Excellent. About $60. (Not exactly the correct label, but this is what they look like.)
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terras gauda
Bodegas Terras Gauda O Rosal 2014, Rias Baixas, Spain. 70 percent albariño, 15 percent loureiro, 15 percent caiño blanco. Excellent. About $24.
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Riesling
Chateau Montelena Riesling 2014, Potter Valley. Excellent, About $25.
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Weingut Clemens Busch Grauen Schiefer Riesling Trocken 2012, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $30.
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Concha y Toro Terrunyo Los Boldos Vineyard Block 5 Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Casablanca Valley, Chile. Excellent. About $26.
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cornerstone 11
Cornerstone Cellars The Cornerstone 2011, Napa Valley. 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet franc. 100 cases. About $150.
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duckhorn merlot
Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot 2012, Napa Valley. With 7 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent cabernet franc, 1 percent malbec. Excellent. About $54.
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ehlers
Ehlers Estate Sylvanie Cabernet Franc Rosé 2014, St. Helena, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $28.
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FEL Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 645 cases. Excellent. About $65.
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Foursight Wines Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 224 cases. Excellent. About $46.
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FINAL 2013 ESS LABELb
Grgich Hills Estate Miljenko’s Selection Essence Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Napa Valley. 1,204 cases. Exceptional. About $55.
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Grgich Hills Estate Miljenko’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. 485 cases. Exceptional. About $90.
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inman-rose
Inman Family Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,500 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Iron Horse Brut “X” 2010, Green Valley of Russian River Valley. 69 percent pinot noir, 31 percent chardonnay. 500 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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jacquard
Champagne Jacquart Brut Rosé nv. 53 percent pinot noir, 35 percent chardonnay, 12 percent pinot meunier. Excellent. About $55.
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La Jota Vineyard Co. W.S. Keyes Vineyards Merlot 2010, Napa Valley. 296 cases. Exceptional. About $50.
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cuvee rose
Champagne Laurent-Perrier Cuvee Rosé Brut nv. 100 percent Grand Cru pinot noir. Excellent. About $99.
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laurent 2006
Champagne Laurent-Perrier Brut Millesime 2006. Excellent. About $65.
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lokoya
Lokoya Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $350.
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ember-site
Loomis “Ember” Red Wine 2012, Napa Valley. Syrah, grenache, mourvedre. 75 cases. Excellent. About $38.
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maggy
Maggy Hawk “Afleet” Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 156 cases. Exceptional. About $66.

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MacPhail Family Wines Rosé of Pinot Noir 2014, Sonoma Coast. 492 cases. Exceptional. About $22.
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Marco Abella Loidana 2010, Priorat, Spain. 60 percent grenache, 25 percent carignane, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon. Excellent. About $30.
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mccay zin
McCay Cellars “Trulux” Zinfandel 2012, Lodi. 479 cases. Excellent. About $32.
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mcintyre
McIntyre Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 368 cases. Exceptional. About $42.
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Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 530 cases. Exceptional. About $42.
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beautiful pinot gris
Mt Beautiful Pinot Gris 2014, North Canterbury, New Zealand. 1,500 cases. Exceptional. About $19.
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Pahlmeyer and Jayson Wines Line Up
Pahlmeyer Merlot 2012, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $85.
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pfendler
Pfendler Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. 350 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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post and vine
Post & Vine Testa Vineyard Old Vine Field Blend 2012, Mendocino County. 42 percent zinfandel, 37 percent carignane, 21 percent petite sirah. 143 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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quivira zin
Quivira Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. With 10 percent petite sirah, 1 percent carignane. Excellent. About $26.
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innocent
St. Innocent Freedom Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 948 cases. Exceptional. About $42.
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sequoia grove cab
Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. With 11 percent cabernet franc, 10 percent merlot, 1 percent each petit verdot and malbec. Excellent. About $38.
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smith madrone 11
Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 1,070 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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tonella sb
S.R. Tonella Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $29.
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2014EstateSauvBlanc
Stonestreet Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $35.

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tanner dafoe
Tanner Dafoe Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County. 141 cases. Exceptional. About $110.

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taylor
Taylor Fladgate Vargellas Vintage Porto 2012, Portugal. Exceptional. About $53.
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joon
Tin Barn “Joon” Coryelle Fields Vineyard Rosé of Syrah 2014, Sonoma Coast. 158 cases. Excellent. About $23.
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torre
Torre San Martino Vigna della Signore 2013, Colli di Faenza Bianco, Italy. Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, albana grapes. Excellent. $NA.
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Two Shepherds Grenache Rosé 2014, Sonoma Coast. 90 cases. Exceptional. About $24.
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Vietti Castiglione Barolo 2011, Piedmont, Italy. 100 percent nebbiolo grapes. Excellent. About $50.
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Chateau Villa Bel-Air 2013, Graves, Bordeaux. 65 percent sauvignon blanc, 35 percent semillon. Excellent. About $25.
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Youngberg Hill Jordan Block Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley. 300 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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Two excellent blanc de noirs sparkling wines — 100 percent pinot noir — from California.
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McIntyre
Made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes, the McIntyre Vineyard L’homme Qui Ris nv, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, is essentially a blanc de noirs sparkling wine. The name means “the man who laughs.” It was made in the traditional method of Champagne, from the winery’s sustainable estate vineyard, and aged on the lees in bottle for a minimum of two years. The color is a very pale blond hue, animated by a silver tempest of tiny glinting bubbles; notes of roasted lemon, lemongrass and lime peel contain a bare hint of red currents and raspberries, against a background of brioche and wet stones. The whole enterprise is supported by whiplash acidity and a scintillating mineral element, call it steel etched by limestone and sea salt, yet the overall effect is of tissues of delicacy melded by tensile energy. Lovely purity and intensity. Winemaker was Steve McIntyre. Excellent. About $36.

A sample for review.
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The Inman Family Wines Blanc de Noirs 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, is the winery’s first blanc de inmannoirs, following its Brut Rose into production. Made from Inman’s OGV Estate Vineyard, the all-pinot noir wine aged almost three years en tirage and was finished with no dosage — added sugar — so it qualifies for the Bone-Dry category. The color is palest straw, and the bubbles are fervently dynamic in their upward, spiraling surge. First come notes of baked apple, roasted lemon and lemongrass, with undertones of lightly buttered cinnamon toast, pastry, spiced pear and damp chalk. On the palate, slashing acidity cuts a swath on the palate, while a crystalline limestone element adds a bracing quality of seashell and salt marsh to the finish. Taut, nervy and dramatic, this blanc de noirs feels deep, ethereal and elevating. Drink now through 2019 to ’22. Winemaker was Kathleen Inman. Excellent. About $68.

A sample for review.
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The name of Wente perhaps has been around so long that it does not conjure cries of joy in American wine consumers, but we have to remember that the family was pioneering in many ways. Now run by the fourth and fifth generations, Wente Vineyards traces its beginning to 1883, when German immigrant C.H. Wente purchased 47 acres in Livermore Valley, in Alameda County east of San Francisco Bay, and planted grapes in the gravelly soil. Wente Bros., as the winery was called, released the first varietally-labeled sauvignon blanc wine (1933) and chardonnay (1936) in California and the first late-harvest riesling affected by Botrytis cinerea, the “noble rot,” in 1969. The family was also among the first to explore planting vines in Monterey County, where it now has substantial holdings. Altogether, Wente owns about 3,000 acres of estate vineyards. A history going back 132 years practically guarantees variations in production and quality and perhaps some confusion in direction — the 1970s and ’80s were not easy decades — but the Wente family absorbed those depredations over the years and now seems to be operating at the top of their scale. Winemaker is fifth-generation Karl Wente, pictured here. The estate also is a leader in sustainable vineyard, winery and company practices. The Wente Clone, originating with Ernest Wente in 1912, provides the basis for many of the best chardonnays made in California.

Let’s look, then, at currently released chardonnays from this ever-evolving winery. These wines were samples for review.
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The family’s entry-level model is the Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay 2013, Livermore Valley — now part of the San Francisco Bay AVA, established in 1999 and amended in 2006. The wine is carefully made. Fifty percent of the grapes are barrel-fermented in a mixture of French, American and Eastern European oak, after fermentation aging for seven months. The other 50 percent is fermented in stainless steel tanks; half of that amount rests on the lees for seven months and half is racked off clean. What’s the result? The color is pale straw-gold; aromas of pineapple and grapefruit with a touch of mango open to notes of cloves and toasted hazelnuts and a hint of quince jam. These elements segue seamlessly onto the palate, where the wine displays brisk acidity, fresh and ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors and a modest amount of limestone minerality, all set into a well-balanced and appealing texture; a bit of spicy oak emerges on the finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Is it great? No, but it is very appealing and satisfying,and you could sell the hell out of this chardonnay in wine-by-the-glass programs in bars and restaurants. And look at the price. Very Good+. About $15, representing Real Value.
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How small is the production for the winery’s “Small Lot” label? For the Wente Small Lot “Unoaked” Eric’s Chardonnay 2014, Livermore Valley, the production was 1,100 cases; that’s fairly small. The wine is made completely in stainless steel tanks. This is a fresh, clean and bright chardonnay, sporting a pale straw color and attractive aromas of ripe and spicy pineapple and grapefruit buoyed by notes of green apple, spiced pear, jasmine and honeysuckle. Every element is in its place here: lively acidity and limestone minerality, a pleasing texture and structure, balanced between crispness and suppleness, and all feeling a little too correct and by-the-numbers, especially for the price. 13.4 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $28.

On the other hand, I found in the white wine fridge this wine’s version from 2012, and it’s a winner. Again, this wine saw no oak and no malolactic fermentation. A year or two burnished the effect, leaving this rendition richer, spicier and nuttier, but gently pronounced, and with wonderful purity and intensity on the palate, with a glow of citrus and stone-fruit flavors and an almost talc-like texture riven by arrow-straight acidity and scintillating limestone minerality. If you find a retail source for the Wente Eric’s Chardonnay 2012, snap it up and drink through 2016. 13.7 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25.
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The Wente Single Vineyard Riva Ranch Chardonnay 2013, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County, offers a pale but sort of star-bright gold hue and subdued but enticing aromas of ripe and spicy pineapple-grapefruit permeated by notes of mango, almond skin, jasmine and lilac. This wine was 90 percent barrel-fermented in new and second-year French and American oak and aged eight months; 10 percent was treated in stainless steel. This is certainly a reticent oak regimen, but from mid-palate back you feel the whisper and then the clamor of that wood resonate through the lush cushiony texture and into the spice-drenched, slightly creamy finish. I would say that this chardonnay needs another year to find its balance and core principles. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $22.
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We don’t drink much merlot in our house because generally merlot wines made in California (and elsewhere in the world except for St. Emilion and Pomerol) tend to be rather uninteresting cadet cabernets. Here, thankfully, is an exception, a 100 percent merlot that displays not only integrity but marked individuality. McIntyre Vineyards lies in Monterey Country’s Santa Lucia Highlands, a growing area occupying terraces in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Range well-known for chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah. The narrow 12-mile-long region looks across the Salinas Valley to Chalone and the awesome rock formation called The Pinnacles. The McIntyre Kimberly Vineyard Merlot 2012 comes not from Santa Lucia Highlands, however, but from Arroyo Seco, an AVA just to the south. The 81-acre Kimberly Vineyard, planted entirely to merlot, occupies a site near the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and Salinas Rivers on an alluvial fan at the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountains, just beyond the influence of the intense Salinas Valley winds, creating a micro-climate much warmer than the surrounding terrain, that is, more suited to merlot than pinot noir. The McIntyre Kimberly Vineyard Merlot 2012 offers an opaque dark ruby hue with a riveting violet-magenta rim that’s almost nuclear; this is a blue-fruit wine — blueberry, blue plum, mulberry — packed with granite and graphite, briers and brambles that allow for notes of lavender, mint and loganberry tart. It is, make no mistake, a powerful, intense and concentrated wine that practically resonates in the glass with energy and dynamism. (The vineyard, by the way, is certified sustainable.) Acidity is profound; the finish is steep and lithic. Still, for all the emphasis on structure, this merlot, deeply committed to its place on earth, delivers myriad pleasures, especially, as we drank the bottle last night, with pork chops marinated in olive oil, soy sauce, lime juice, a mix of black and Szechuan pepper and smoked paprika. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 333 cases. Drink now through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $22, representing Great Value.

A sample for review.

Randall Grahm leaves a few unsanded edges in the Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy Grenache 2014, Monterey County, so the wine comes traipsing on the palate like a happy-go-lucky country cousin, embodying the concept of rusticity in all its beneficial aspects: open-hearted, generous, robust and a little bumptious, forthright. It’s a blend of 89 percent grenache grapes, 9 percent mourvedre and 2 percent syrah, derived mainly from the Alta Loma Vineyard and with dollops from four other vineyards. The color is medium ruby with a magenta rim; aromas of raspberries and red currants, rhubarb and pomegranate are infused with peppery notes of cloves, briers and loam, while vibrant acidity cuts a swath on the palate and moderately dusty tannins offer a touch of density to the texture. The wine is lively and engaging, earthy without being profound or oratorical. Perfect for pizzas, grilled leg of lamb, or with cold roasted chicken on a picnic. When vinous-minded John Keats called for “a beaker full of the warm South,” he must have had this type of delicious, uncomplicated wine in mind. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $20.

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

Faithful readers of this blog — bless yer pointy little heads and may yer tribes increase! — know that California chardonnay and I have an uneasy and sometimes contentious relationship. I find too many of them over-blown, buxom, viscous and stridently ripe and spicy. On the other hand, chardonnays that display florid ripeness but manage to maintain an edgy balance with racy acidity and striking mineral elements can be not just delicious but exciting, even risky. Such a one is the Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands. The winery was founded by Dan Morgan Lee and his wife Donna in 1982; winemaker since 2005 has been Gianni Abate. The Lees purchased the Double L property, at the northern end of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, in 1996, planting the following year. At present, the vineyard consists of 48.52 planted acres: 27.99 acres planted to pinot noir, 18.45 acres of chardonnay and minuscule amounts of syrah and riesling. The vineyard is certified organic. The Morgan Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 30 percent new, the rest one- and two-year-old barrels. This is a golden and glittering chardonnay, offering a mild medium gold hue and forthright aromas of baked pineapple and caramelized grapefruit entwined with notes of jasmine, smoke, cloves and heather, spread on a background of damp crushed gravel. It’s indeed a sizable wine, quite dry but ripe and juicy with spicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors and animated by shattering acidity and dusty, scintillating limestone minerality. Oak provides a finely sifted and supple framework and foundation; a few minutes in the glass bring out hints of lemon balm and walnut oil. The finish is dense yet nimble, serious and exquisite together and radiant with chardonnay’s purity and intensity. 13.9 percent alcohol. A chardonnay this rich and layered, though elegantly (and dynamically) balanced, requires dishes of utmost simplicity; ultra-rich fare would compete with and clash with the wine. Something like grilled trout with brown butter and capers or roasted chicken with tarragon would be perfect. Drink through 2018 to 2020. Production was 530 cases. Exceptional. About $42.

A sample for review.

I have been reviewing the pinot noir wines of Black Kite Cellars since the vintage of 2007 was released, but recently had the opportunity to try the winery’s chardonnays for the first time, as well as its flagship “Angel Hawk” pinot noir. Winemaker Jeff Gaffner makes the Black Kite wines from separate blocks of the estate vineyards in Mendocino County as well as from vineyards in Sonoma Coast and Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands. Gaffner is also proprietor and winemaker for Saxon Brown, whose wines I have been tasting recently and will report about soon.

These bottles were samples for review.
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Black Kite Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay 2013, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Soberanes Vineyard, nestled in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Range, is owned by Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni, both from farming families long rooted in Monterey County. From this vineyard, and others they own in the Highlands, they supply notable wineries with chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah grapes. This aged 10 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. It’s a bold, ripe and spicy chardonnay, displaying a medium gold hue and forthright aromas of roasted pineapple, caramelized grapefruit, lightly buttered cinnamon toast, cloves and a hint of toasted coconut, all accumulating in what long-time readers of this blog will recognize as not my favorite manner of chardonnay. It’s quite dry but juicy with citrus flavors, pear and lemon oil; dense, viscous, almost talc-like in texture but saved by a fundamental quality of brisk acidity and limestone minerality. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 195 cases. Perhaps this requires a year or two in bottle to calm down a bit and resolve itself. Until then, Very Good+. About $45.
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Black Kite Cellars Gap’s Crown Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast. The 138-acre Gap’s Crown Vineyard lies in the cool and windy Petaluma Gap area in southwest Sonoma County; elevation varies from 300 to 800 feet above sea level. First planted in 2002, it supplies primarily pinot noir grapes (and some chardonnay) to a roster of California’s best pinot producers, Bill Price purchased the vineyard in January 2013. Price owns one of California’s best-known vineyards, Durell Vineyard, which he purchased in 1998. He co-founded the private equity firm Texas Pacific Group in 1992 and sold his share back to the company in 2007, and that, friends, is a lesson in how you get into the vineyard and winery business. Price is chairman of Kosta Brown Winery and Gary Farrell Winery — you know those names — and has interest in Kistler, another name you know. This chardonnay marks the first wine from the vineyard for Black Kite. It aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 40 percent new and presents a more classic restrained version of chardonnay than the example from the Soberanes Vineyard mentioned above. Still, this is quite pronounced in its expression of pineapple and grapefruit scents and aromas, highlighted by notes of ginger, quince and spiced pear. The texture is pleasingly dense, not viscous or oily and it offers more acidity and limestone minerality by several degrees. In fact, this is a chardonnay of crystalline clarity and eloquence that culminates in a long, compelling finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 236 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $45.
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Black Kite Cellars “Angel Hawk” Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. This wines derives from vines that owners Rebecca and Tom Birdsall and winemaker Jeff Gaffner consider the best of their estate vineyards. And while my heart sinks to read that a pinot noir wine aged 19 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels — I think that’s typically too much new oak for too many months for pinot noir — this model handily absorbed that influence and turned into a deep, supple, lithe and super satiny wine. The color is deep ruby with a transparent rim; rich aromas of spiced and macerated black cherries, currants and plums are permeated by notes of pomegranate, rhubarb and loam; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of cloves, white pepper, leaf smoke and tobacco. This layered panoply of sensation segues smoothly to the palate, where the wine flows purposefully to a graphite-packed, slightly tannic finish. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 190 cases. This is obviously no evanescent, ephemeral, elegant pinot noir; rather, it draws on the grape’s potential for power and substance, helped a bit in the cellar, of course, though it still beautifully captures its essential character. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $85.
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Ripped with white hot heat from the pages of my notebooks are these reviews of 10 pinot noir wines, primarily originating in California but including examples from Western Australia and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I avoid technical, historical or geographical data in these reviews for the sake of brevity and immediacy, hoping to pique your interest and whet your palate. With one exception, duly mentioned, these wines were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Ad Lib Cruel Mistress Pinot Noir 2014, Pemberton, Western Australia. 14% alc. Medium ruby color shading to transparent magenta; pomegranate and cranberry, touch of sour cherry; sassafras and cloves; an intense core of lavender and violets; warm, spicy, satiny. Incredibly charming yet with pleasing heft and substance. Very Good+. About $17, marking Real Value.
Imported by Middleton Family Wines, Shandon, Calif.
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Argyle Spirithouse Pinot Noir 2012, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 13.5% alc. 850 cases. Lovely medium ruby-cerise color; enticing aromas of red cherries and currants, rose petals and lavender, cloves and sassafras, a hint of loam; more serious on the palate, very supple and satiny texture, deftly threads a fine line of acidity and flinty minerality, but you feel some austerity from mid-palate back through the finish, in which the oak makes itself known. Try from 2016 through 2019 or 2020. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $75.
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J Vineyards and Winery Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley. 14.3% alc. This well-known producer, famous for its sparkling wines, was recently acquired by E&J Gallo. Translucent medium ruby hue; red and black cherries, cranberries; notes of cloves and sandalwood, mocha, tar and loam; nothing plush or opulent here, rather spare and reticent but with lively acidity and a lovely satiny drape on the palate and slightly exotic red and black fruit flavors. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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VML Wines Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.7% alc. VML is Virginia Marie Lambrix, owner and winemaker. Dark ruby-magenta hue; cranberry and pomegranate, hints of blueberry tart, cloves and cinnamon, notes of violets and rose petals; a little fleshy and meaty; quite lively and dynamic; sweet red cherries, rhubarb; loam and slightly dusty tannins; a finish of spice, sour cherry and graphite. Pinot noir as force of nature, exotic but true. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $32.
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Paul Dolan Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012, Potter Valley, Mendocino County. 13.5% alc. Radiant and intense medium ruby color; black and red cherries and currants, touch of plum; cloves and sassafras, violets and potpourri, loam, briers and a top-note of tart cranberry; ripe and a little fleshy; quite dry, and it develops a surprising amount of tannin, becomes rather austere on the finish, with oak taking a dominant role. Now through 2018 or ’19. Very Good+. About $30.
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Les Cousins Pinot Noir 2011, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 13% alc. The second label of Beaux Freres Vineyard. Transparent medium ruby-garnet; macerated red currants and cherries permeated by notes of tobacco and cloves, apple peel, with undertones of cinnamon and sandalwood; supple and very satiny in the mouth, balancing the dry/juicy dichotomy with ripe and slightly roasted red fruit and clean acidity; a dry spicy finish and fillips of moss and loam. A pinot of lovely dimension and detail. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $30, a local purchase.
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Reata Three County Pinot Noir 2013, Monterey 53 percent, Sonoma 31 percent, San Benito 16 percent. 14.3% alc. Bright cherry-magenta hue; black and red cherries, pert cranberry and spicy pomegranate, cloves and sassafras; briery and brambly earthiness; a woodsy pinot noir, with notes of allspice and sandalwood, moss and dried porcini; some graphite and mildly dusty tannins; lithe and slightly sinewy texture, quite dry. Now through 2018 to 2020. Very Good+. About $35.
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McIntyre Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 14.5% alc. 368 cases. Absolutely entrancing mulberry-magenta color, limpid and transparent; every element that I adore about pinot noir but both generous and intense; ripe black cherries, currants and plums, violets and lavender, notes of cloves and sassafras; a touch of graphite and hints of leather and woodsy aromas; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of tobacco and leaf smoke; a layer of briers and brambles underlies spicy and succulent black and red fruit flavors ensconced in a lithe and supple texture through which bright acidity cuts a swath; a sleek and elegant pinot but with a feral edge. Now through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional. About $42.
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Dolin Estate Pinot Noir 2012, Sta Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County. 14.3% alc. 485 cases. Transparent medium ruby color; smoke, cinnamon toast, rhubarb and sassafras, red currants and cranberries; underbrush and loam, vital and vibrant acidity, juicy with red and black fruit flavors yet spare, a bit chiseled; gradually unfolds notes of cloves and sandalwood, leather and slightly creamy oak, and you feel the oak influence etched along the circumference; lovely and dynamic presence and heft yet with a beguiling ephemeral quality, a bit elusive and tantalizing. Now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $ .
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Kukeri Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 13.9% alc. 61 cases produced. Limpid medium ruby color; sandalwood, violets and cloves, macerated red currants and cherries with a hint of strawberries and some dried fruit in the background, notes of mint and tobacco leaf; sleek, subtle and satiny, quite dry; a few moments in the glass bring up touches of pomegranate and rhubarb, loam and old leather; an autumnal, woodsy feeling as the oak comes up through the finish. Not quite Excellent, because the oak in some measure mutes the wine’s sensual aspects; otherwise it’s quite beguiling, so, Very Good+, with final judgment withheld. About $42.
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