Monterey County


I have been writing about the pinot noir wines of Black Kite Cellars since their releases of 2007, and many of them in subsequent vintages showed up on my annual list of “50 Great Wines” of whatever year. The examples under review today are from 2011 and 2012. Black Kite Cellars traces its origins to 1995, when Donald and Maureen Green bought a 40-acre parcel by the Navarro River just west of Philo in Mendocino County, in a cool area eight miles from the coast. They replanted an old vineyard with pinot noir vines and developed two more blocks on a hill above the river. The first crop was harvested in 2003, and the decision to retain a portion of the grapes to make their own wine brought the concept of Black Kite Cellars, named for a bird indigenous to the region, to fruition. Jeff Gaffner became winemaker in 2004; the first wines he worked on comprised the 2005 bottlings of distinct blocks within the estate. He is also well-known as owner and winemaker of Saxon Brown Wines. Alas, among these five Black Kite pinot noirs is the only product from this usually exemplary winery that I cannot recommend.

These wines were samples for review. This post is the eighth on BTYH of 2015.
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Black Kite Redwoods’ Edge Pinot Noir 2011, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. The color is a vivid medium red cherry hue; aromas of spiced and macerated red and black cherries and a touch of plum are permeated by notes of sassafras and pomander and a hint of allspice, with its inflection of slightly exotic astringency; a few moments in the glass bring up elements of cranberry and candied rhubarb, all subtle and well-balanced. The texture seems to drape with supreme satiny effect on the palate, while a fairly dense and almost chewy structure features slightly dusty tannins and freshening acidity. 13.8 percent alcohol. Production was 149 cases. Oak regimen was 11 months, all French oak, 2/3s new barrels. Now through 2017 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
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Black Kite Stony Terrace Pinot Noir 2011, Anderson Valley. The color, medium-range and almost transparent, is a shade more mulberry-magenta than ruby-cherry; this is notably spicier than the Redwood’s Edge, segueing through a panoply of cloves and cinnamon and sandalwood but also displaying depths of loam and graphite, briers and brambles, all in support of rich black and red currants and cherries. In the mouth, this is more austere than Redwood’s Edge, a little mossy and earthy, with touches of leather and lavender and undertones of bitter chocolate and raspy raspberry. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 203 cases. 11 months in French oak, 2/3s new barrels. I like its spareness and sense of elusiveness. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $ .
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Black Kite River Turn Pinot Noir 2011, Anderson Valley. A perfect ruby-magenta hue with a slightly lighter rim; this runs through the whole cherry gamut, spiced and macerated, a bit roasted, some of the hint of bitterness and austerity of the skin and seed; cloves, sassafras and pomegranate lead to notes of cranberry and — interestingly — blueberry. This is lively, lithe and supple, almost muscular in texture, and you feel the oak a bit more than with the previously mentioned pinot noirs. Not that it’s unbalanced, just that the wood influence announces itself more prominently, surrounding and slightly muting the other elements. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 148 cases. 11 months French oak, 2/3s new barrels. Now through 2018 to 2020. Very Good+. About $ .
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Black Kite Stony Terrace Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley. The color is bright ruby-magenta; notes of cranberry, pomegranate, cloves, violets and rose petals elide with ripe red and black currants with hints of mulberry, graphite, briers and brambles. Here is a great marriage of power and elegance, with pinpoint poise between spareness and succulence, between black and red fruit flavors and foresty, leathery tannins, between vibrant acidity and a faintly brooding animal aspect. Very attractive, wild, intriguing and compelling. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 200 cases. A beautiful pinot noir. 11 months French oak, 2/3s new barrels. Now through 2018 to 2021. Excellent. About $60.
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Black Kite Soberanes Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Uncharacteristically dark ruby-purple color; very ripe, quite spicy, almost jammy; where’s the pinot noir in this? Unbalanced; smells and tastes like zinfandel. A pinot noir done in by its alcoholic sweetness and heat. A disappointment. 15.2 percent alcohol. 348 cases. Not recommended. About $55.
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I was jesting a few days ago when I posted my “50 Great Wines of 2014″ and urged people to get their shopping lists ready. Obviously not many consumers are going to make note of a hundred-dollar cabernet sauvignon or a strictly limited, hard to find grenache gris. Here, though, is the roster that you’ve been waiting for, the “25 Great Wine Bargains of 2014,” a list of fairly widely available, well-made wines that will not but a strain on your budget. You will notice that a wine doesn’t have to be expensive to earn an Excellent rating. Seventeen of these products, priced from $10 to $20 have Excellent ratings; the rest are Very Good+. Not a one would you regret buying, some of them by the case. Now that fact that a number of these wines are from 2011 and 2012 means that they probably ought to be consumed quickly, especially the white wines and rosés; most of the reds can go for a year or two. The point is that these are terrific over-achieving wines that offer more personality and complexity than their prices might imply. The order is descending cost. Enjoy!

These wines were samples for review. This post is the seventh of 2015 on BTYH.
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Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $20.
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Joseph Cattin “Brut Cattin” Crémant d’Alsace, France. Variable blend of pinot blanc, pinot gris, riesling and chardonnay. Excellent. About $19.
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Nieto Senetier Nicanor Blend 2011, Mendoza, Argentina. 34 percent cabernet sauvignon, 33 percent malbec, 33 percent merlot. Excellent. About $19.
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Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla Sherry, nv, Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain. Excellent. About $18.
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McCay Cellars Rosé 2013, Lodi. Old vine carignane with some grenache. Production was 253 cases. Excellent. About $18.
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Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Marlborough, New Zealand. Excellent. About $18.
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Jean Ginglinger Cuvée George Pinot Blanc 2011, Alsace, France. Excellent. About $17.
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Livon Pinot Grigio 2013, Collio, Italy. Excellent. About $17.
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J Pinot Gris 2013, California. Excellent. About $16.
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Prazo de Roriz 2010, Douro, Portugal. Tinta barroca 37%, “old vines” 18%, touriga nacional 16%, touriga franca 15%, tinta amarela 7%, tinta cao 7%. Excellent. About $16.
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Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio 2012, Dolomiti, Italy. Excellent. About $15.
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CVNE Monopole 2013, Rioja Blanco, Spain. 100 percent viura grapes. Very Good+ verging on Excellent. About $15.
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Fratelli Chianti 2011, Toscana, Italy. 100% sangiovese. Very Good+. About $15.
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Domaine Les Aphillanthes Rosé 2013, Côtes du Rhône, France. Cinsault, grenache, counoise, mourvèdre. Excellent. About $14.
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Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc 2011, Western Cape, South Africa. Excellent. About $14.
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Dry Creek Fumé Blanc 2013, Sonoma County. Very Good+. About $14.
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Palacios de Bornos Verdejo 2013, Rueda, Spain. 100 percent verdejo grapes. Excellent. About $14.
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Stemmari Dalila 2012, Bianco Terre Siciliane, Italy. 80 percent grillo grapes, 20 percent viognier, Excellent. About $14.
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Wolfberger Pinot Blanc 2013, Alsace, France. Excellent. About $14.
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Aia Vecchia Vermentino 2013, Toscana, Italy. With 5 percent viognier grapes. Very Good+. About $12.
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Pedroncelli Signature Selection Dry Rosé of Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $12.
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Li Veli Passamante 2012, Salice Salentino, Italy. 100% negroamaro grapes. Very Good+. About $12.
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Trim Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, California. With 15 percent merlot, 3 percent malbec. Very Good+. About $11.
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Mandolin Chardonnay 2012, Monterey County. Very Good+. About $10.
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Tres Ojos Garnacha 2011, Calatayud, Spain. 85 percent grenache, 7 percent each cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo, 1 percent syrah. Very Good+. About $10.
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Unbate your breath, My Readers, today I present the annual “50 Great Wines” entry, this edition for 2014. I posted to BiggerThanYourHead 135 times in 2014 and reviewed 582 wines. These 50 Great Wines represent 8.6 percent of the wines I reviewed last year. How do I choose the 50 wines for this honor? First, any wine that I rated Exceptional automatically gets a berth in the roster. After that, the selection process involves going back over every post, looking at the reviews of the wines that received an Excellent rating, reading the notes again and looking for the words or phrases signifying that I felt a wine was exciting, provocative, intriguing, highly individual. You can be sure that this list probably isn’t definitive; how could such a selection of wines be? I cut from the field many wines that could easily have been included, but the limit is 50 and they had to be sacrificed. Even as I clicked on the “Publish” button on WordPress I thought, “Oh no, how could I leave out ……?”

Going through these wines, many of My Readers may cry “Foul!” because some of them were produced in severely limited quantities, but that’s often the case with great wines. Think of the situation as a challenge wherein you face a sort of scavenger hunt in tracking such wines down. Some of these wines were made by well-known winemakers for prominent wineries or estates; others are far more obscure, but I enjoy bringing attention to young, small, family-owned and -operated properties that otherwise might not receive the exposure they deserve. The usual suspect grapes are included, of course — chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir — but you will also find on this list proponents of trousseau gris and grenache gris, carignane and cinsault, crafted by brave pioneers of the unusual, even rare grapes. With one exception — the Dolce 2005 — these products are the current releases from their wineries, or close to it. I think all of them were samples for review or were tasted at the property. I hope this list of 50 Great Wines inspires you to look for the ones that capture your interest and to try wines you never encountered before. Prices, by the way, range from about $22 to $120. Coming in a few days will be my annual list of 25 Great Bargain Wines $20 and Under.
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Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Sonoma Valley. With 7 percent petit verdot. 1,475 cases. Exceptional. About $70.
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Anakota Helena Montana Vineyard Elevation 950 Feet Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Knights Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $75.
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Animo Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. With 17 percent petit verdot. From Michael Mondavi. Excellent. About $85.
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d’Arenberg The Other Side Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. 14% alc. 96-year-old vines. 200 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $85.
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d’Arenberg Tyche’s Mustard Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. 14% alc. 200 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $85.
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Battenfeld Spanier Mölsheim Riesling 2012, Rheinhessen, Germany. Exceptional. About $23.
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Blair Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. 481 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc 2013, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. 55% roussanne, 26% grenache blanc, 19% picpoul. 1,965 cases. Exceptional. About $28.
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Bonny Doon Cuvée R Grenache 2012, Monterey County. 593 cases. Excellent. About $48.
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Cade Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $28.
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Catena Zapata White Bones Chardonnay 2010, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $120.
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Cenyth 2009, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. 47% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, 8% petit verdot, 7% malbec. The debut release from this collaboration between Julia Jackson, daughter of the late Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke, and Helene Seillan, daughter of Pierre Seillan, winemaker of Verité. Exceptional. About $60.
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Chêne Bleu Aliot 2010, Vin de Pays du Vaucluse, France. 65 percent roussanne, 30 percent grenache blanc, 5 percent marsanne and some smidgeon of viognier. Exceptional. About $85.
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Clos Saron Out of the Blue, 2013, Sierra Foothills. 90 percent cinsault, 5 percent syrah, 5 percent graciano. (The cinsault vines planted in 1885.) 170 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. 14.7% alc. With 10% merlot. 470 cases. Exceptional. About $80.
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Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Napa Valley. 361 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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Dolce 2005, Napa Valley. 90 percent semillon, 10 percent sauvignon blanc. A majestic dessert wine. Exceptional. About $85 for a half-bottle.
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Elena Walch Kastelaz Gewürztraminer 2012, Alto Adige, Italy. Exceptional. About $32.
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The Eyrie Vineyards Original Vines Reserve Pinot Gris 2012, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 261 cases. Exceptional. About $33.
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FEL Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $38.
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Fields Family Wines Old Vine Zinfandel 2011, Mokelumne River, Lodi. 200 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Gallegos Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 250 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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Grgich Hills Estate Fume Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
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Idlewild Grenache Gris 2013, Mendocino County. 230 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Inama Vigneto du Lot 2011, Soave Classico, Italy. Excellent. About $30.
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Inman Family “Endless Crush” Rosé of Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $25.
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Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Dallas County, Texas. Excellent. About $40.
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J. Christopher Wines Lumière Pinot Noir 2011, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 756 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Diamond Mountain District, Napa Valley. With nine percent malbec. Exceptional. About $90.
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Tenutae Lageder Porer Pinot Grigio 2012, Sudtirol, Alto adige, Italy. Excellent. About $25.
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McCay Cellars Carignane 2011, Lodi, 218 cases. Excellent. About $32.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2010, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. This proprietary wine is a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 18 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot and 4 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $100.
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Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. With 3 percent petit verdot, 1 percent each malbec and cabernet franc. Excellent. About $100.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.4% alc. 230 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 588 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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La Pitchoune Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 279 cases. Exceptional. About $60.
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Pittnauer Rosenberg St. Laurent 2010, Burgenland, Austria. Excellent. About $27.
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Quinta do Vallado 20 Years Old Tawny Porto. 83 cases. Exceptional. About $80 for a 500-milliliter bottle..
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Respite Reichel Vineyard Indulgence 2010, Alexander valley, Sonoma County. A proprietary blend of 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent malbec and 13 percent cabernet franc. 77 cases. Exceptional. About $75.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2010. Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 429 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 1,302 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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Steven Kent Winery Merrellie Chardonnay 2012, Livermore Valley. 504 cases. Excellent. About $34.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Origin Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Valley. 266 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma Coast. 170 cases. Exceptional. About $65.
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Tin Barn Coryelle Fields Syrah 2009, Sonoma Coast. 123 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Two Shepherds Trousseau Gris 2012, Fanucchi Vineyard, Russian River Valley. 25 cases. Exceptional. About $25.
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VML Blanc de Noirs 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $50.
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Volta Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $60.
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Wakefield St. Andrews Single Vineyard Release Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Clare Valley, Australia. 250 cases imported. Excellent. About $60.
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Weltner Rödelseer Küchenmeister Trocken Sylvaner 2012, Franken, Germany. Excellent. About $27.
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Well, thank goodness all that Thanksgiving hubbub is over and the attendant brouhaha about what wine to drink with the turkey and dressing and sweet potatoes and so on, so now we can focus just on wines to drink because we like them. Here are brief reviews of 12 such wines that should appeal to many tastes and pocketbooks. Prices range from $15 to $56; there are three white wines and nine reds, including a couple of sangiovese blends and a pair of white Rhône renditions from California, as well as a variety of other types of wines and grape varieties. As usual with these Weekend Wine Notes, I eschew technical, historical and geographical data for the sake of offering incisive notices designed to pique your interest and whet the palate, after which you may choose to wet your palate. These wines were samples for review. Enjoy! (In moderation, of course.)
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Capezzana Barco Reale di Carmignano 2011, Tuscany, Italy.13.5% alc. 70% sangiovese, 20% cabernet sauvignon, 10% canaiolo. Dark ruby-purple hue; raspberry, mulberry and blueberry, notes of potpourri, dried herbs and orange peel; a bit of stiff tannin from the cabernet, but handily a tasty and drinkable quaff with requisite acidity for vigor. Now through 2015. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
MW Imports, White Plains, N.Y.
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Bordòn Reserva 2008, Rioja, Spain. 13.5% alc. 80% tempranillo, 15% garnacha, 5% mazuela. Medium ruby color; mint, pine and iodine, macerated and slightly stewed red and black currants and cherries; violets, lavender, pot pourri, cloves and sandalwood; very dry, autumnal with hints of mushrooms and moss, nicely rounded currant and plum flavors, vivid acidity; a lovely expression of the grape. Now through 2016 to ’18 with roasted game birds. Very Good +. About $15, a Real Bargain.
Imported by Vision Wine & Spirits, Secaucus, N.J.
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Jacopo Biondi Santi Braccale 2010, Toscano. 13.5% alc. 80% sangiovese, 20% merlot. Medium ruby color; raspberries and red currants, orange zest and black tea, hints of briers and brambles, touches of graphite, violets, blueberries and cloves, intriguing complexity for the price; plenty of dry tannins and brisk acidity for structure, fairly spare on the plate, but pleasing texture and liveliness; flavors of dried red and black fruit; earthy finish. Now through 2016 or ’17 with grilled or braised meat, hearty pasta dishes. Very Good+. About $19, marking Good Value.
Imported by Vision Wine & Spirits, Secaucus, N.J.
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Clayhouse Estate Grenache Blanc Viognier 2013, Paso Robles. 14.5% alc. 70% grenache blanc, 30% viognier. Production was 650 bottles, so Worth a Search. Pale gold color; crystalline freshness, clarity and liveliness; jasmine and acacia, yellow plums, quince and ginger; beautifully balanced and integrated, exquisite elegance and spareness; saline and savory, though, with bracing acidity running through a pleasing talc-like texture; backnotes of almond blossom and dried thyme; a supple, lithe limestone-packed finish. Now through the end of 2015. Excellent. About $23.
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Les Trois Couronnes 2011, Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France. 14.5% alc. 70% grenache, 20% syrah, 10% mourvèdre. Dark ruby-violet color; lovely, enchanting bouquet of black olives, thyme, graphite, moss and mushrooms, opening to plums and black currants, pepper, leather and lavender; a bit of wet-dog funkiness aligns with dusty, supple tannins and beautifully integrated oak and acidity; rich, spicy black fruit flavors with a hint of blueberry; undertones of loam, underbrush, black licorice; spice-and-mineral-packed finish. Drink now through 2017 to ’19. Great with beef braised in red wine. Excellent. About $23.
Imported by OWS Cellars Selections, North Miami, Fla.
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Paul Dolan Zinfandel 2012, Mendocino County. 14.5% alc. Certified organic. Transparent ruby with a magenta rim; notes of strawberry, raspberry and blueberry with a nice raspy touch and hints of briers and brambles, black pepper, bitter chocolate and walnut shell; ripe and spicy raspberry and cherry flavors, a bit meaty and fleshy, but increasingly bound with dusty tannins and graphite minerality, all enlivened by generous acidity. Not a blockbuster but plenty of stuffing. Now through 2016. Excellent. About $25.
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Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc 2013, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. 55% roussanne, 26% grenache blanc, 19% picpoul. 1,965 cases. Very pale gold hue; green apple, peach and spiced pear; lemon balm, ginger and quince; wonderful tension and resolution of texture and structure; taut acidity, dense and almost voluptuous yet spare, tensile and vibrant with crystalline limestone minerality; seamless melding of lightly spiced and macerated citrus and stone-fruit flavors; feels alive on the palate, engaging and compelling. Now through 2016 or ’17. Exceptional. About $28.
The winery website has not caught up with the current vintage.
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Cornerstone Cellars Stepping Stone Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 14.1% alc. 100% pinot noir grapes. Dark to medium ruby-mulberry color; black cherry and raspberry scents and flavors with plenty of tannic “rasp” and underlying notes of briers, brambles and loam; cloves, a hint of rhubarb, a touch of cherry cola; all enlivened by pert acidity. A minor key with major dimension. Now through 2016. Excellent. About $30.
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von Hövel “R” Spatlese Dry Riesling 2012, Mosel, Germany. 11% alc. 100% riesling. Very pale gold color; peach, pear and lychee; hints of honeysuckle, grapefruit and lime zest; a chiseled and faceted wine, benefiting from incisive acidity and scintillating limestone and flint elements; tremendous, indeed inescapable resonance and presence, yet elegant, delicate and almost ethereal; long penetrating spice and mineral-inflected finish. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $34.
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Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. 81% cabernet sauvignon, 9% cabernet franc, 8% merlot, 1% each petit verdot and malbec. Deep ruby with a magenta tinge; cedar and thyme, hint of black olive; quite spicy and macerated black currants and plums with a hint of black and red cherry; lithe, supple, muscular and sleek; dense but soft and finely sifted tannins adorned with slightly toasty oak, a scintillating graphite element and vibrant acidity; long spicy, granitic finish. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $38.
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Bonny Doon Cuvee R Grenache 2012, Monterey County. 14.9% alc. 100% grenache grapes. 593 cases. (Available to the winery’s DEWN Club members.) Dark reddish-cherry hue; dusty, spicy red and black cherries, with a curranty note and hint of raspberry; some cherry stem and pit pertness and raspiness; cloves and sandalwood, with a tide of plum skin and loam; the finely-knit and sanded tannins build as the minutes pass; clean, vibrant acidity lends energy and litheness. Terrific grenache. Drink now through 2016. Excellent. About $48.
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Plumpjack Merlot 2012, Napa Valley. 15.2% alc. (!) 91% merlot, 8% malbec, 1% cabernet sauvignon. Vivid dark ruby color; intense and concentrated aromas of cassis, black raspberry and plum; notes of cloves and sandalwood with a tinge of pomegranate and red cherry; a hint of toasty oak; sinewy and supple, almost muscular; deep black fruit flavors imbued with lavender and bitter chocolate and honed by finely-milled tannins, graphite minerality and keen acidity; a substantial merlot, not quite monumental because of its innate balance and elegance; through some miracle, you don’t feel the heat or sweetness of high alcohol. Now through 2020 to ’22, Excellent. About $56.
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Casting about for a bright, fresh, fruity wine to accompany a pizza the primary elements of which were Brussels sprouts leaves, leeks and bacon, I settled on the Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy Grenache 2013, Monterey County, and got exactly what I wanted. The wine is a blend of 75 percent grenache grapes, 17 percent syrah and 8 percent mourvèdre. The color is dark ruby with a glint of magenta at the rim. Bright, fresh and fruity, indeed, with blackcurrant, raspberry and strawberry aromas permeated by notes of pomegranate and cloves and hints of pepper and graphite. Sleek on the palate, this is an easy-drinking wine, or deceptively so, because you become aware, as the moments pass, of firm, fine-grained tannins and slick-as-a-whistle acidity for balance and verve. And its black and red fruit flavors are delicious. 14 percent alcohol. Now through 2015 or ’16. Delightful and, in my experience, versatile. Very Good+. About $20.

A sample for review.


It’s not easy to make an inexpensive pinot noir wine that feels authentic, but James Ewart, winemaker of Delicato’s Noble Vines label, did just that with the Noble Vines 667 Pinot Noir 2012, Monterey County. The majority of the grapes derive from the Indelicato family’s estate San Bernabe Vineyard, with additional dollops from Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Seco AVAs. The color is a limpid medium ruby hue; enticing aromas of macerated black cherries and plums are highlighted by notes of cloves and sassafras and hints of cranberry and pomegranate; a few minutes in the glass bring up touches of leather and violets. The texture is satiny but with a nice rasp of oak and graphite, and the wine pulls up surprisingly substantial tannins for firmness and a bit of austerity. Bright acidity keeps the wine lively and engaging, as do the modestly ripe and spicy black and red fruit flavors. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Very good+. About $15.

A sample for review.

The land occupied by Blair Estate in the Arroyo Seco area of Monterey County has been in Jeffrey Blair’s family since the 1920s. Only in 2007 did Blair start planting pinot noir vines on the old ranch. Now the winery turns our small quantities of chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir. I did not taste the chardonnay, but I thoroughly enjoyed the Pinot Noir 2012 and Pinot Gris 2012, sent to me as samples for review. My responses to the wines follow. Small quantities, so mark them Worth a Search.
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Grapes for the Blair Pinot Gris 2012, Arroyo Seco, were purchased from neighboring Meador Vineyard, owned by Doug Meador, who sold his Ventana Vineyards in 2006 to concentrate on this project. The wine was made half in stainless steel tanks, half in neutral French oak barrels. The color is pale gold, almost shimmering with vitality; aromas of roasted lemons, tangerines and grapefruit are infused with notes of quince and ginger, acacia and lilac. Crystalline acidity and a scintillating limestone element lent the wine vivacity, while a super attractive cloud-like, talc-like texture, balanced by innate crispness and tautness, reveals hints of peach and lychee. At bottom, this is an earthy pinot gris that beds its sensual appeal in a solid loamy character. 13.9 percent alcohol. We drank this with salmon filets marinated in olive oil and lemon juice, urfa pepper and a coffee rub. Production was 248 cases. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $28.
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The winery’s estate Delfina’s Vineyard, named for Jeffrey Blair’s grandmother, contributed the grapes for the Blair Pinot Noir 2012, Arroyo Seco. The wine aged 10 months in a mixture of French oak barrels. The color is medium ruby with a slightly darker center; the bouquet is an irresistible amalgam of black cherries, rhubarb and cranberries bolstered by cloves and sassafras, graphite and loam. The whole effect is lively, clean and fresh, wild even, exuding exotic notes of sandalwood and cumin, with the latter’s slight astringent character. Flavors of red and black currants and plums are permeated by hints of smoke and tobacco, clean earth, briers and brambles, all ensconced in a suave, satiny texture embraced by moderate tannins and nuances of spicy oak. 13.9 percent alcohol. A model of elegance, balance and proportion. Production was 481 cases. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $35.
The winery’s website has not caught up to the 2012 vintage of this wine’s label.
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I started this post as a way of commemorating my 30th anniversary in wine-writing, reached, as My Regular Readers know — bless your little pointy heads and may your tribes increase — early in July. Initially, the concept was “Fifty Great Wines,” but I decided that choosing 50 “great” wines from 30 years of tasting would be an impossible and probably just stupid and futile task. In three decades, I tasted thousands and thousands and more thousands of wines — you writers know how it is — so choosing the 50 “greatest” from this immense group would be a Sisyphian exercise.

Then I realized that what would be more significant anyway would be 50 wines that, as the title states, shaped my palate, the wines that shook me to the core, that shifted my perspective about how wine is made and its various effects, that achieved a level of purity and intensity that befit the divine; the wines, in short, that were not only definitive but created me as a writer. Yes, just that. So I spent the past few weeks combing through dozens of old notebooks, through the electronic archives of the newspaper for which I wrote a weekly column for 20 years and of course through the pages of this blog.

Now let’s be frank about some issues. As a wine reviewer, I am dependent on the practice of samples provided by producers, importers, marketers and (to a lesser extent) local distributors; I depend on the occasional trade tasting, lunch with a touring winemaker, on sponsored travel to wine regions in this country and abroad. You will not, therefore, see a list that emphasizes the great wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, though some are included, more Burgundy than Bordeaux, because I have few opportunities to encounter such wines. Perhaps, however, you will discover here wines that you had forgotten or overlooked; certainly there will be surprises. To those of my wine-writing/blogging/tasting friends who might say, “Cripes, FK, I can’t believe you didn’t put [whatever legendary fabuloso wine] on this list!” I can only reply, “I never had the chance to taste that wine and if you want to send me a bottle, I’ll be grateful but not humbled.” This is about my experience as an individual, as, you might say, a palate.

I benefited early on from the generosity of two people in Memphis, the restaurateur-wine collector John Grisanti and a figure important in wholesale, retail and wine education, Shields Hood. Many of the wines they offered me, exposed me to and sent in my direction truly changed my life and made me what I am today.
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1. Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley. Purchased at a local store, tasted at home March 1984 and still, at least in memory, one of the greatest California pinots I ever encountered.

2. Mercurey Clos des Myglands 1971, Faiveley. Tasted at John Grisanti’s private cellar, September 16, 1984. As in “Ah, so that’s what Burgundy is all about.”

3. Moët & Chandon Cuvée Dom Perignon 1976, Champagne. At a wholesaler’s tasting, with Shields Hood, September 17, 1984.

4. Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Johannesburg Riesling 1978, Belle Terre Vineyards, Alexander Valley. Last week of September, 1984.

5. Chateau La Grange 1926, St Julien Third Growth, Bordeaux. At a special wine dinner at the long-departed American Harvest Restaurant in Germantown, east of Memphis, October 1984. As in, “Ah, so this is what an aged Bordeaux wine is all about.” I love the label.

6. Simi Reserve Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Alexander Valley. My then father-in-law bought a case of this wine at $16 a bottle. High-living in those days. At 10 years old, it was perfect, expressive, eloquent. This was at Christmas dinner, 1984.

7. Clos Vougeot Grand Cru 1971, Grivelet. At John Grisanti’s cellar, June 9, 1985, a great afternoon.

8. Sonoma Vineyards Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 1976, Sonoma County. July 27 and 28, 1985. Fine balance, harmony and integration, a sense of confidence and authority expressed with elegance and restraint. This winery was not renamed for its founder Rodney Strong until after he sold it in 1984.

9. Chateau Latour 1982, Pauillac, Bordeaux. Definitive for the vintage and the chateau; tasted at a trade event in Memphis sometime in 1985; tasted again in New York, October 1991.

10. Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Napa Valley. Purchased at Sherry-Lehmann in NYC, for $20.50(!); consumed with Easter dinner in Memphis, April 1986.

11. Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Alexander Valley. At a tasting in Memphis of Silver Oak cabernets, sometime in 1986.

12. Chateau Haut-Brion 1937, Graves, Bordeaux. At a tasting with collectors in Memphis in 1987; this 50-year-old wine was, incredibly and from a dismal decade in Bordeaux, even better than the fabulous ’59 and ’66.

13. Paul Jaboulet Aîné La Chapelle 1949, Hermitage, Rhone Valley, France. One of a mixed case of wonderful wines I received for annotating a cellar, drunk at a dinner in the Fall of 1988. At 39 years old, one of the best wines I have ever tasted.

14. Beaune Clos des Ursules 1952, Louis Jadot. At lunch with Gagey pere et fils at the maison in Beaune, March 1990. When I mentioned this to a friend back in the U.S., he said, “Oh, yeah, they pull out that wine for all the Americans.” No matter.

15. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru 1983. Tasted in New York, October 1991.

16. Gaja Barbaresco 1955, Piedmont, Italy. Made by Angelo Gaja’s father, tasted in New York, October 1991.

17. Chateau Beychevelle 1928, St. Julien Fourth Growth, Bordeaux. At a large tasting of multiple vintages of Chateau Branaire-Ducru and Chateau Beychevelle going back to 1893, with collector Marvin Overton and British writer Clive Coates, in Nashville. This ’28 was even better than the examples from the god-like years of ’47, ’45 and ’29; just writing that sentence made me feel like Michael Broadbent.

18. Freemark Abbey 1978, Napa Valley. At a vertical tasting in Chicago, January 1993.

19. Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Napa Valley. I bought six half-bottles of this splendid perfectly aged cabernet from a FedEx pilot who was divesting his cellar and served them at a dinner party in 1996.

20. Chalone Chardonnay 1981, Monterey. A revelation at almost 15 years old; I bought this and some other California chardonnays from the late ’70s and early ’80s out of a cellar that had been kept at 40 to 45 degrees; tasted with LL and a friend at Cafe Society in Memphis, May 1996.

21. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 1998, Clare Valley, Australia. Tasted at the property, October 1998, very young, filled with power and otherworldly grace.

22. Bass Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir 1997, Gippsland, Australia. Tasted in Melbourne, October 1998; they’re not shy with oak at Bass Phillip, but this was a thrilling monument to pinot noir purity and intensity.

23. Clos Apalta 1996, Rapel Valley, Chile, 95 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon. The initial release, tasted at the hacienda of Don Pepe Rabat, who owned the oldest merlot vineyard in Chile, with Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle and Michel Rolland, April 1998.

24. Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses Premier Cru 1998, Domaine G. Roumier. From the barrel at the property, December 7, 1999, my birthday. The earth seemed to open under my feet.

25. Chateau Petrus 1998, Pomerol, Bordeaux. Barrel sample at the property, December 1999. One of the most profound wines I have ever experienced.

26. Robert Mondavi To Kalon 1 Block Fume Blanc 2000, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

27. Robert Mondavi Marjorie’s Sunrise Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Oakville District, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

28. Sineann Reed and Reynolds Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Tasted at the International Pinot Noir Conference, McMinnville, August 2002.

29. Nicolas Joly Clos de la Bergerie 1999, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. New York, at La Caravelle, January 2003, with the line-up of Joly’s wines.

30. Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1966, South Australia. At a comprehensive tasting of this iconic wine, 1996 back to 1955, at Spago in L.A., April 2003.

31. Chateau d’Epiré 1964, Savennières Moelleux, Loire Valley, France. At a dinner associated with the Loire Valley Wine Fair, February 2004.

32. Domaine de la Pepière Clos des Briords 1986, Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Loire Valley, France. At the estate with proprietor Marc Ollivier, one of the great tasting experiences of my life, February 2004.

33. Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2001. Tasted in New York, June 2004.

34. Tres Sabores Zinfandel 2003, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Tasted in New York, March 2006.

35. Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996, Champagne, France. Tasted in New York, September 2006; fabulous but not nearly ready to drink.

36. Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets Premier Cru 2004, Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

37. Corton Grand Cru 2002, Domaine Comte Senard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

38. Chateau Montelena The Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley. New York, September 2007.

39. Porter-Bass Chardonnay 2004, Russian River Valley. New York, September 2007.

40. Pommard Les Epenots Premier Cru 2004, Dominique Laurent. New York, September 2007.

41. Phifer Pavit Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley. Sample for review, tasted at home October 2008. The best first-release cabernet I ever encountered.

42. Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, Napa valley. Sample for review, tasted at home December 2008.

43. Heyl zu Herrnsheim Niersteiner Pettenheim Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken 1991, Rheingau, Germany. At the estate, July, 2009.

44. Quinta da Roameira Vintage Porto 2007. In Douro Valley, August 2009, at a comprehensive tasting of the 2007 ports at Niepoort.

45. Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Tasted in Piedmont, January, 2010, with winemaker Giorgio Lavagna and a ragtag gaggle of American bloggers.

46 & 47. Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Malbec 2007, Mendoza, & Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Mendoza. Tasted at the property — the chardonnay with lunch — October 2010.

48. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998. Purchased locally and consumed on New Year’s Eve 2010, with Imperial Osetra caviar from Petrossian.

49. Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenerg Riesling Beerenauslese 2004, Pfalz, Germany. A sample for review, tasted December 2011.

50. Müllen Kinheimen Rosenberg Riesling Kabinett 2002, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany. Tasted with Lyle Fass in New York, December 2013.

Well, I already see a couple of wines that I should have included in this roster — Chateau d’Yquem 1975, Sauternes, for example — but 50 is a good wholesome round number with an air of closure about it, so let’s leave it alone. And for the future? The process of learning, having our minds changed, our ideas and consciousness expanded never ends. Perhaps there will be candidates for this list from 2014, among them the Clos Saron Stone Soup Vineyard Syrah 2011, Sierra Foothills, made by Gideon Beinstock, and, oddly enough, the Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Dallas County, Texas, made by Dan Gatlin. We’ll see how I feel in another 30 years.


Here are quick notes on eight pinot noir wines from California, all eminently desirable, ranging in price from $22 to $70, and in rating from Very Good+ to Exceptional, two of the latter, so pinot fans pay attention. As is usual with these Weekend Wine Notes, I eschew technical, historical, geographical and personnel data for the sake of immediacy, the intention being to pique your interest and whet your appetite. Enjoy, and I hope everyone has a happy and safe Memorial Day Weekend.

These wines were samples for review.
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Cambria Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Maria Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby with a magenta tinge; deep, rich and spicy; thyme and caramelized fennel, black and red cherries, currants and cranberries with a hint of rhubarb; succulent and satiny, dense, quite dry but sweetly ripe; earth and loam, graphite underpinnings; flavorful and tasty. Now through 2016. Very Good+. About $22, representing Good Value.
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Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2011, Carneros. 14.3% alc. 479 cases. Medium ruby color with violet tones; lovely balance, dimension and detail; black cherry and cranberry, sassafras, cloves and rhubarb; deep and rooty, yet it retains ultimate delicacy and elegance; paradoxically dark, spicy and wild, hints of briers, loam and graphite; black and red fruit flavors that feel almost transparent and weightless, though the wine drapes like the finest, most sensuous satin on the tongue. Now through 2017 to ’18. Excellent. About $72.
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Isabel Mondavi Estate Pinot Noir 2011, Carneros. 14.4% alc. Dark ruby color with a magenta tinge; cranberry and rhubarb, hints of pomegranate, cola and cloves with back-notes of tar and loam; surprisingly burly and robust, very dry, texture like satin born of dusty velvet; burgeoning floral element: roses and violets; deeply plummy and curranty with a touch of raspy raspberry and mulberry. Absolutely lovely, with a bit of mystery and sexy hauteur. Now through 2016 to ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.4% alc. Entrancing “robe” — almost opaque ruby-purple at the center and lightening subtly to a violet-magenta rim; smoky black cherries and plums, pomegranate and cranberry, cloves and cola; a graphite and loamy element that cuts the dense, chewy satiny texture; plump with ripe black fruit, deeply spicy with a hint of mint and mocha but doesn’t push into opulence; instead, displays exquisite, slightly risky balance. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $55.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.4% alc. 230 cases. Dark ruby-magenta color; plums, raspberries and mulberries, hints of pomegranate and dusty graphite; cloves, sassafras; super sleek, supple and satiny, almost sultry; smoke, burning leaves, a touch of moss and brambles; some astringency and rigor to the structure, a lash of granite and acid at the core of deep spicy black and red fruit flavors. Tremendous tone and presence. Now through 2017 or ’18. Exceptional. About $45.
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Reata Three County Pinot Noir 2012, California. (48% Monterey County, 44% Sonoma County, 8% San Benito County). 14.3% alc. Dark ruby color; pomegranate, cranberry, blueberry with some graphite element under a sanding of woody spices; quite dry, dense, supple lip-smacking texture with vibrant acidity; you feel the glassy polished tannins and oak like a granitic bastion but the wine is deeply flavored, rich, exotic, with keen balance between the succulent and the rigorous. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $26.
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Reuling Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14% alc. 1,000 cases. Dark ruby-magenta color; black cherries, mulberries and cranberries with notes of cloves and allspice, dried fruit and potpourri with crushed violets and lilacs; pushes oak to the limits with a great deal of dry structure and asperity, but it is smooth, lithe and svelte and above all delicious; I like the risks with oak because the wine offers really lovely balance; it finishes with a seductive display of mocha, pomander and bitter chocolate. A serious pinot noir, packed with the gratifying and the unexpected. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $70.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2010. Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 429 six-pack cases. Fairly dark ruby-magenta hue; a wine of fantastic and deepening complexity; cloves, sandalwood, sassafras; spiced and macerated black cherries, currants and plums; briers and loam set into a superlatively satiny texture, yet thoroughly imbued with a sense of graphite and oak defined dimension and gravity; quite dry, almost austere, but resilient, supple and elegant. Now through 2017 or ’18. Exceptional. About $48.
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Mother’s Day is Sunday, so right now I offer six selections of sparkling wine and Champagne to honor your Mom, toast her presence or memory and basically perform your duty as a child, which you will always be as long as either or both of your parents are among the living. No beverage is more festive that Champagne or sparkling wine — the latter designation for such products made outside of France’s Champagne region — and lord knows, your Mom deserves some festivity and honor after what she put up with all these years, n’est-ce pas? Prices range from just under $20 to over $60, so I hope there’s a bottle of bubbles here that will suit varying budgets. I include two sparkling wines from Italy and two from California, each of diverse spirit, and two Champagnes, also made in different styles; three of these products are rosés, making them even more celebratory. The sparkling wines were samples for review; I bought the Champagnes. Enjoy! And be good to your Mom!
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Carpenè Malvolti Extra Dry (nv), Prosecco Conigliano Valdobbiadene, Italy. 11% alc. 100% glera grapes. Pale pale gold color; green apples, almond skin and lemon curd, hint of lime peel; slightly sweet entry but dry from mid-palate back through the tingly, modestly spicy finish; quite clean, crisp and lively. Enticing by itself, or use in a Bellini with peach nectar. Very Good+. About $19.
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Sofia Blanc de Blancs 2012, Monterey County, California. 12% alc. Pinot blanc 74%, riesling 16%, muscat 10%; Pale gold color with brisk effervescence; jasmine and orange blossom, spiced pears; hints of lime peel and orange rind, roasted lemon; sprightly, engaging, just off-dry; touch of limestone minerality; backnote of biscuits and toasted hazelnuts. Very pleasant for casual sipping. Very Good+. About $19.
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Berlucchi Cuvée 61 Franciacorta Rosé (nv), Lombardy, Italy. 12.5% alc. Chardonnay 50%, pinot noir 50%. Lovely copper-salmon color, persistent stream of frothy bubbles; pop the cork and you smell strawberries from a foot away; add orange rind, almond skin and honeysuckle; pert, tart and sassy (my law firm), slightly sweet in the beginning but quickly transitions to bone dry; notes of lemon and lemon curd balanced by the acidity previously referred to and more than a hint of seashell minerality. Quite charming and beautifully structured. Excellent. About $35.
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Inman Family Brut Rosé 2012, Russian River Valley, California. 12% alcohol. 100% pinot noir. Pale pale pink color, almost virginal; a torrent of tiny bubbles; dried strawberries and raspberries, hints of brambles and lightly buttered cinnamon toast; a spine of bright acidity supporting a framework of scintillating limestone minerality; very dry, with spare red currant and stone-fruit flavors, hint of spiced pear, all elements woven with steely delicacy and elegance. Delightful, marvelous sparkling wine. Excellent. About $56.
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Henriot Souverain Brut (nv), Champagne, France. 12% alc. Chardonnay 40%, pinot noir 60%. Medium straw-gold color, wildly effervescent; biscuits and fresh bread, pears, lime peel and ginger, notes of limestone and chalk that take on increased resonance; vivacious acidity, almost glittering limestone minerality; lovely personality and verve, refreshing balance of savory and saline elements; irresistibly appealing. Excellent. I paid $62, but prices around the country go as low at $42.
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Paul Bara Grand Rosé Brut (nv), Champagne, France. 12% alc. Pinot noir 80%, chardonnay 20%, all Grand Cru vineyards. Pure topaz in hue; billions of tiny glinting bubbles; macerated strawberries, cloves, orange marmalade, hint of brioche, notes of chalk and flint; full-bodied, lots of presence and a powerful limestone element, yet wreathed with ethereal touches of dried red currants and rose petals, slightly biscuity; bone-dry with chiming acidity; tremendous class and breeding. Excellent. I paid about $69, but it can be found as cheaply as $45 if you look.
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