Monterey County


I keep reading that there has been a general toning down of oak in chardonnay wines produced in California, but you wouldn’t know it from the wines I taste, of which I offer today a selection of 16. I’ve uttered these sentences before, and I’ll probably utter them many more times before I close the computer a final time and drag my weary fingers to the catacombs, and I don’t care if you’re tired of reading them; to wit: If a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, it has too much oak. AND: Oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible. Oak barrels are instruments, and they should not define a wine or establish its character; definition and character derive from the vineyard and the grape. It traduces every aspect of common sense that winemakers would want to send out into the world and into the grasp of innocent consumers chardonnays that taste as if they were made from liquid sawdust, yet many chardonnay wines feel exactly like that … and they’re not cheap. To those who say, “But, FK, plenty of people like their chardonnays to smell and taste like oak,” my reply is “Fine, start your own blog. Call it ILoveToastyOak.com.” This, however, is my blog, and on this blog we abhor wines that obliterate the purity and intensity of the grape and the authority of the vineyard through the heavy-handed agency of oak barrels.

Anyway, the scorecard today reads Excellent, 4; Very Good+, 5; Very Good, 1; Good, 1; Not Recommended 5. Among the Not Recommended chardonnay’s but also earning an Excellent rating are three from La Rochelle, a winery I admire for its individuality and willingness to take risks, though that’s a stance that to my palate doesn’t always work, as you can see. Still, I would rather a winery extend itself and skate sometimes over the edge than produce more bland innocuous “me-too” wines.

As usual in these Weekend Wine Notes (previously Weekend Wine Sips and before that Friday Wine Sips), I eschew reams of technical, geographical, geological, climatic and historical data for quick incisive reviews designed to pique your interest, if not, in some cases, whet your palate. Enjoy! (Or not.)

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Artesa Chardonnay 2011, Carneros. 13.8% alc. Pale gold color; clean and fresh, touches of apple and pear, hint of pineapple; quite spicy, smooth and supple, not creamy or viscous, “just right” as Goldilocks said; almost savory in its slightly roasted fruit qualities and modulated spicy aspects; bright acidity, and the limestone and flint elements and sense of oak expand through the finish. Nicely-made. Very Good+. About $20.
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Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay Reserve 2010, Carneros Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. A bold and powerful expression of the grape but balanced and integrated; bright medium gold color; pineapple and grapefruit, ginger and quince, hint of cloves; wet stones and flint mineral element that grows as the moments pass; no doubt about the oak but it contributes creaminess to the mid-palate, a supple texture and spice; long spice-and-mineral-packed finish; tremendous tone and presence. 14.9% alc. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $55.
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Cuvaison Estate Grown Chardonnay 2011, Carneros Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. The last Carneros Chardonnay I reviewed from Cuvaison was the 2007; I rated it “Excellent.” Not this example. Pale to medium gold color; bright, bold, ripe, spicy; you feel the oak from the moment you take a sip; grapefruit and pineapple, notes of lemon and lemon curd; plays a subtle floral card; plenty of acid and limestone minerality; supple texture at first but it feels as if the wine stiffens and becomes slightly unyielding with oak, which coats the palate and leave an astringent sensation in the mouth. Perhaps a year or two will help. Good only. About $25.
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Davis Bynum River West Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. First note: “Man, that’s a lot of wood.” & it goes on from there. Medium gold color; insistently spicy and cloying; austere and astringent oak dries the palate unpleasantly; like drinking liquid sawdust. Not recommended and consistent with my reviews of Davis Bynum chardonnay (and pinot noir) from previous vintages. About $30.
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Dry Creek Vineyard Foggy Oaks Chardonnay 2010, Russian River valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; apples, pears and grapefruit, undercurrent of pineapple, moderately spicy, firm foundation of gunflint and limestone; lovely balance and poise, shaped by vibrant acidity and a burgeoning oak element that provides a modulating quality to the wine’s richness. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $20, signifying Great Value.
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Ferrari-Carano Tre Terre Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. “Vineyard Select Limited Production.” Bright medium gold color; banana and mango, baked grapefruit and pineapple, cloves and smoke; big, deep, rich and savory; bacon fat, ginger, lemon balm, have mercy; feels like multiple layers of limestone and flint-like minerality; a bit daunting and needs a little nuance and elegance, but not over-oaked, not cloying. Perhaps it needs a year of age. Very Good+. About $32.
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Gallo Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. 87% Laguna Vineyard, 13% Del Rio Vineyard. I always thought the winemaker’s thumbprint — in this case Gina Gallo, whose name is on the front label twice — was too heavy on this wine; bright medium gold color; rich, warm, spicy, almost dense and chewy for a chardonnay; very ripe citrus and tropical scents and flavors; butterscotch, vanilla, cloves — what is this, a dessert cart? the oak and spice elements are overwhelming; so unbalanced. Not Recommended. About $30.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Pale gold color; fresh, clean, bright; pungent with cloves, slightly roasted peaches and yellow plums melded with pineapple and grapefruit with a whiff of white pepper; smoky oak, smoky caramel around the edges, quite dry yet feels innately balanced. Now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $35.
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You could call this, if you were generous, and I know you are, an Early Weekend Wine Sips instead of what it is, a Way Late Weekend Wine Sips, but the weekend starts tomorrow, right, so everything is OK. Nous sommes tres eclectic today, as we touch several regions of California, as well as Chile, Portugal, Washington state and France’s renowned Bordeaux region. We are eclectic, too, in the various genres, styles and grape varieties featured here. Minimal attention to matters technical, historical, geographical and personal, the emphasis is these Weekend Wine sips being in instantaneous and incisive reviews designed to whet your interest as well as your palate. These were all samples for review. Enjoy! Drink well, but moderately! Have a great life…
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Meli Dry Riesling 2012, Maule Valley, Chile. 12.5% alc. Always one of our favorite rieslings, made from 60-year-old vines. Terrific personality; pale straw-gold color; peaches and pears, lychee and grapefruit, hints of petrol and honeysuckle; sleek with clean acidity and a flinty mineral quality, yet soft and ripe; citrus flavors infused with spice and steel; quite dry, a long flavorful finish tempered by taut slightly austere structure. Very Good+. About $12, a Great Bargain.
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Six Degrees Pinot Noir 2011, California. 13.5% Alc. So, whatya want in a $14 pinot? Medium ruby color; pleasant and moderately pungent nose of red and black cherries and raspberries, notes of cola, cloves and rhubarb; attractive mildly satiny texture, undertones of briers and brambles; smooth, spicy finish. Drink up. Very Good. About $14.
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Quinta do Vallado Rosado 2012, Douro Valley, Portugal. 12.5% alc. 100% touriga nacional grapes. Pale pinkish-onion skin color; charming and rather chastening as well; dried strawberries and currants, hints of cloves and orange zest; lithe and stony, clean acidity cuts a swath; a few minutes in the glass unfold notes of rose petals and rosemary; finish aims straight through limestone minerality. Now through 2014. Very Good+. About $15, Good Value.
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Morgan Winery “Highland” Chardonnay 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 14.2% alc. Medium straw-gold color; boldly ripe and fruity, boldly spicy, suave and sleek with notes of pineapple and grapefruit, lightly macerated peach; hints of quince and ginger; real abs of ripping acidity for structure, lithely wrapping a damp gravel mineral element; oak? yep, but subtle and supple; finish packed with spice and minerals. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $27.
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Chateau Durfort-Vivens 2006, Margaux, Bordeaux, France. 13% alc. 70% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot. (Second Growth in the 1855 Classification) Medium ruby color; ripe, fleshy, meaty and spicy; black and red currants and raspberries; classic notes of cedar, tobacco and bay leaf, hint of pepper and black olive; dry, highly structured, grainy but polished tannins. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $45 (up to $60 in some markets).
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Les Fiefs de Lagrange 2010, Saint-Julien, Bordeaux, France. 13.5% alc. 50% cabernet sauvignon, 50% merlot. The “second” label of Chateau Lagrange. Dark ruby color, almost opaque at the center; smoky, spicy, macerated black and red berry scents and flavors; deeply inflected with notes of cedar, thyme and graphite; deep, dry dusty tannins and an imperturbable granitic quality, best from 2015 or ’16 through 2020 to ’24. Excellent potential. About $50 (but found as low as $35).
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Bonny Doon Beeswax Vineyard Reserve Le Cigare Blanc 2010, Arroyo Seco. 12.4% alc. 56% roussanne, 44% grenache blanc. 497 cases. Demeter-certified biodynamic. Pale gold color, hint of green highlights; beeswax indeed, dried honey, lightly spiced pears and peaches, touch of roasted hazelnuts, backnotes of straw, thyme and rosemary, with rosemary’s slight resinous quality; very dry, paradoxically poised between a generous, expansive nature and spare elegance; savory, saline, clean and breezy; roasted lemon and grapefruit flavors, all tunneling toward a suave, spicy, limestone inflected finish. Wonderful wine with grilled or seared salmon and swordfish. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $50 .
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SKW Ghielmetti Vineyard “Small-Lot” Cabernet Franc 2010, Livermore Valley. (Steven Kent Winery) 13.6% alc. 48 cases produced. Deep ruby-purple color; smoky, earthy, loamy, granitic; notes of blueberries and black raspberries, sandalwood and cloves; leather, licorice and lavender; a hint of tobacco and black olive; prodigal tannins and potent acidity, with a fathomless mineral element, all tending toward some distance and austerity but neither overwhelming the essential succulent black and blue fruit flavors; a physical and perhaps spiritual marriage of power and elegance. Now through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional. About $50.
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Cakebread Cellars Pinot Noir 2010, Anderson Valley, Mendocino. 14.5% alc. Translucent medium ruby color; pure red licorice and raspberries; red currants, cloves, pomegranate; briery and brambly; fairly rigorous tannins from mid-palate back; acidity cuts a swath; exotic spice, lavender; builds tannic and mineral power as the moments pass but retains suavity and elegance. Now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $50.
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Morgan Winery Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 13.9% alc. 187 cases. Deep, lush, delicious, warm spice and cool minerals; black raspberries, rhubarb and a touch of sour cherry and melon; cloves and sassafras; sweet ripeness balanced by savory qualities; berry tart with a hint of cream but essentially modulated by bright acidity and a slightly briery foresty element. Just freaking lovely. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $54.
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Long Shadows Pedestal Merlot 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington. 14.5% alc. Dark ruby color; iron, iodine and mint, ripe and intense cassis and raspberries, inflected with cloves, allspice, lavender and licorice; deep, dark, earthy, the panoply of graphite and granitic minerality; dense, dusty packed fine-grained tannins coat the mouth; tons of tone, presence and character. Try 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’24. Great merlot. Excellent. About $60.
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En Route Les Pommiers Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. Ravishing medium ruby color with a magenta-violet rim; a penetrating core of iodine and graphite minerality; black and red cherries, black and red currents, fleshy, earthy, savory and saline; dry, chewy yet super-satiny without being plush or opulent, keeps to the structural side, though, boy, it’s delicious. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $65.
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The whole Anything But Chardonnay trope can be justified because the poor grape is often treated so barbarically in the winery that the results are hideous to drink. On the other hand, there are scads of lovely chardonnays out there to choose from. On the other hand, again, if you’re looking for an alternative to chardonnay — one that’s not, say, sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio — look for wines made from the albariño grape, a mainstay of Rias Baixas, the most important wine region in the province of Galicia in northwest Spain, right up against the Atlantic coastline above Portugal. Albariño does not take well to oak, and its quality diminishes exponentially when it is over-cropped, so care must be taken in the vineyard and the winery. (These wines were samples for review.)

The first examples we look at today were made by Bodegas Terras Gauda, which produces just these two wines, one that’s all albariño, the other a blend. Both wines are made completely in stainless steel to retain freshness and immediate appeal. First is the Abadia de San Campio Albariño 2012, Rias Baixas, sporting a bright gold color and enticing aromas of roasted lemon, lime peel and cloves; this is very spicy, lively with bracing acidity and saline qualities and unfurling notes of orange blossom, fig, limestone and dried thyme. Abadia de San Campio Albariño 2012 is a sleek, tasty, moderately complex and highly drinkable wine that we happily tried over several nights with different fish entrees. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $20. This wine’s stablemate is the Terras Gauda 2012, Rias Baixas, a blend of 70 percent albariño, 20 percent loureira and 10 percent caiño blanco. The addition of the loureiro and caiño blanco grapes lends the albariño here both heft and suavity, as well as touches of lemongrass, quince and ginger, a bit of leafy fig. This too is bracing and saline, offering a hint of brisk salt-marsh austerity to a tone and texture that come close to elegance, while a slightly chiseled limestone finish edges up the spice quotient. 12 percent alcohol. Fabulous with seared swordfish and held its own with tomatillo-braised pork tenderloin. Excellent. About $24, representing Real Value.

Imported by Aveniu Brands, Baltimore, Maryland.
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I mentioned up top that the albariño grape doesn’t take kindly to oak, unless the regimen is carefully applied. That’s the case with the Lee Family Farm Albariño 2012, Monterey, a 100 percent albariño that aged a brief four months in neutral French oak barrels, meaning barrels that have been used several times previously, so their influence is not only subtle but almost subliminal. That’s the case here, any wood effect being in a super supple structure that feels as if it has a bit of give to it and a below-the-radar permeation of cloves and ginger. There’s fresh green apple here, the roasted lemon and lemongrass that we expect, a hint of pears and a backnote of grapefruit, with just a smidgeon of grapefruit bitterness on the finish and a slightly leafy quality. This mainly features tremendous character and polish, beautiful tone and balance, and a texture that flatters the palate without being opulent or obvious. Lee Family Farm is the side-project of Dan Lee, proprietor of Morgan Winery; the knowledge and experience show. 13.5 percent alcohol. 213 cases. Excellent. About $18, a Phenomenal Bargain.
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Here I am on chardonnay from California again. I like some of these wines very much, enough to pass out a few Excellent and Exceptional ratings. Some, however, the ones over-oaked and malolactic-ed to a fare-thee-well get Not Recommended ratings. And I ask the question I have posed so often in the past: Why would anyone make such undrinkable chardonnay? Anyway, the point of the Weekend Wine Sips, even for the wines I loathe, I mean, the wines I don’t recommend, is concision and quick insight, therefore I do not include much in the way of technical, historical or geographical info. What you read is what you get. These chardonnays, as the title of this post states, are from vintages 2011, ’10 and ’09 and hail from Sonoma and Monterey counties, Napa Valley and Carneros. These examples were samples for review.
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La Crema Chardonnay 2010, Monterey. 13.9% alc. (Jackson Family Wines) Pale gold color; candied pineapple and grapefruit, cloves, allspice, lemon balm and lime peel, roasted almonds, penetrating gunflint and limestone minerality; ripe and rich, very spicy; dense texture, almost viscous; quite dry, growing austerity through the finish; feels unbalanced, the parts don’t mesh. Good only. About $18.
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La Crema Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 14.2% alc. (Jackson Family Wines) Pale gold color; huge oak influence, very spicy, very creamy — you feel that “malo” — ; way too ripe and tropical; candied and roasted citrus and mango; exotic spice; lots of smoke; cloying and unpalatable to this palate; how can people choose to make chardonnay in such an impure fashion? And yet the pinot noirs from this winery are pure, intense and beautiful. Not recommended. About $30.
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La Follette Sangiacomo Vineyard Robert’s Road Block Chardonnay 2010. Sonoma Coast. 14.2% alc. Medium gold color with a faint green flush; pineapple and backed apple; ripe and fleshy, a little toasty; roasted lemons and yellow plums, cloves and ginger; very spicy and very dry; brings up a touch of butter and caramel; supple, dense and viscous; heaps of limestone minerality. Pushes the limits but still beautifully balanced. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $38.
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La Follette Lorenzo Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 14.3% alc. Highly individual, almost exotic in spiciness; you feel the oak as an intrusive agent that dries the palate; almost tannic in character; pineapple and grapefruit, touch of banana; very dry and the spice gets pretty strident; curious and off-putting combination of fruit candy, creamy desserts and spicy, woody oak. Not recommended. About $38.
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Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2009, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. 502 cases. How beautiful. Medium straw-gold color; fresh, clean, crystalline, restrained and elegant yet displaying inner richness and depth; lively and spicy, quince and ginger, pineapple and grapefruit, roasted lemon; you scarcely perceive the oak except for a tinge of burnished slightly dusty wood on the finish; unfurls a hint of camellia and lilac; a powerful limestone mineral element that expands through the wine’s generous spirit. Exquisite balance and harmony and resonance. Now through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional. About $35.
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Amapola Creek Jos. Belli Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. 400 cases. Certified organic. Wonderful clarity, purity and intensity; jasmine and lilac, roasted lemon, spiced pear, lemon balm and verbena; backnotes of cloves and flint; bountiful presence and tone yet firm in structure and texture, almost robust and savory; blazing acidity, very dry, finish packed with spice, flint and limestone. Incredible authority yet fleet, light on its feet, elegant. Best from 2014 through 2020. Exceptional. About $45.
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Gary Farrell “RR Selection” Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 14.2% alc. Pale gold color; boldly ripe and spicy, classic grapefruit and pineapple scents and flavors tinged with mango and slightly over-ripe peach; a bright and golden chardonnay, a little earthy; very lively and spicy, cloves, touch of brown sugar; dense, almost chewy texture; you feel the tug and sway of oak in the background. Very Good+. About $32.
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Boekenoogan Chardonnay 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 14.3% alc. A gorgeous character-filled chardonnay, deep and broad and generous; boldly rich and spicy pineapple-grapefruit flavors permeated by limestone minerality of the most demanding nature; seductive, almost talc-like texture emboldened by clean, bright acidity; the fruit currently subdued by the structural elements, though the oak influence feels supple, close to subliminal. Drink now, sure, but this is a 10 to 15-year chardonnay. Exceptional. About $35.
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Signorello Estate Hope’s Cuvee Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley. 14.6% alc. Medium gold color; not my preference at all in chardonnay: very spicy, very ripe, lots of oak; caramel, brown sugar, burnt match; caramelized pineapple and candied grapefruit; exaggerated, strident. I hear rumors that people exist who enjoy this sort of chardonnay; not me, brother. Not recommended. About $70.
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Donum Estate Chardonnay 2010, Carneros. 13.5% alc. Bright medium gold color; cloves and sandalwood, pineapple and grapefruit, ripe peach and pear; quite ripe, a little funky and earthy but with a real edge of limestone minerality and spicy oak; a chardonnay that feels vast and close to tannic, though oak stays in the background and burgeons only from mid-palate back through the finish. Definitely an individual styling for the grape yet it has attractions for the brave. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $50.
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Stemmler Estate Chardonnay 2011, Carneros. 13.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; boy, this is woody and harshly spicy; yes, the necessary lip-smacking acidity and a scintillating limestone element, but so burdened by oak and a sharp smoky candied burnt sugar-cloves-roasted grapefruit edge and a texture that’s dauntlessly dry yet viscous at the same time; unresolved, unbalanced. Not recommended. About $24.
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Jordan Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 13.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; lovely, taut, vigorous; roasted lemon and lemon curd, lime peel, orange blossom and a hint of toasted almonds; quite dry, limned with chalk and limestone, clean, fresh pineapple-grapefruit flavors touched with buttered toast, a hint of cloves, a squeeze of green apple; very Chablis-like for Sonoma. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $30.
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Yes, it’s your lucky day, because today I offer reviews of 12 wines that all rate Excellent. No duds! No clunkers! And boy are we eclectic! Two whites, three rosés and seven reds, all representing myriad grape varieties, styles, regions and countries, including, on the broader scope, California, Oregon, Australia, Italy, Chile and France. Dare I assert that there’s something for everyone here? As usual in these Weekend Wine Sips, the notion is to present concise and incisive reviews, cropped from the fertile fields of my tasting notes, in such a manner as to pique your interest and whet your palate, while omitting the sort of info pertaining to history, geography and technical matters that I include with other more detailed posts. Straight to the point, that’s the Weekend Wine Sips philosophy!

With one exception, these wines were samples for review.
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J Pinot Gris 2012, California. 13.8% alc. Pale straw-gold color; delicate hints of roasted lemon and lemon balm, hints of cloves and spiced peach; lovely soft texture endowed with crisp acidity; back wash of yellow plums, lilac and lavender; finely etched limestone minerality. Irresistible. Excellent. About $15, representing Great Value.
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Brooks “ARA” Riesling 2010, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 11.5% alc. 300 cases. Very pale straw-gold color; a blissful state of pure minerality lightly imprinted with notes of rubber eraser, pears, ginger and quince, highlighted with smoke, lilac, chalk and limestone; shimmering acidity, whiplash tension and energy, spare and elegant, yet so ripe and appealing. A great riesling. Excellent. About $25.
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SKW Ghielmetti Vineyard “Lola” 2012, Livermore Valley. (Steven Kent Winery) 13.7% alc. 65% sauvignon blanc, 35% semillon. 260 cases. Pale pale straw color; lemon balm and lemongrass, touches of peach, lime peel and grapefruit, quince and cloves; a few minutes bring out notes of fig and dusty leaves (bless semillon’s heart!); very dry, almost taut with tingling acidity; pure limestone from mid-palate back through the finish. Excellent. About $24.
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St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. Pale straw color; pure grapefruit, lime peel, pea shoot, thyme and tarragon, notes of gooseberry and kiwi; totally refreshing and exhilarating, juicy with lime and grapefruit flavors, hints of orange zest (and almond blossom in the bouquet), very dry with resonant acidity; slightly leafy and grassy; picks up limestone minerality from mid-palate through the finish. Delightful. Excellent. About $20.
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Stepping Stone Corallina Syrah Rosé 2012, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. A shade more intense than onion-skin, like pale topaz-coral; dried strawberries and raspberries, just a touch of melon; traces of cloves and thyme, sour cherry and pure raspberry with a slightly raspy, bristly edge; very dry but lovely, winsome; a bit chiseled by limestone and flint through the spare finish. A thing of beauty. Excellent. About $20 .
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La Rochelle McIntyre Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir Rosé 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 13.4% alc. 112 cases. The true pale onion-skin color; elegant and delicate in every sense yet with a tensile backbone of acidity and minerality that scintillates in every molecule; hints of strawberries and raspberries, touches of dried red currants, fresh thyme, a clean, slightly resiny quality that cannot help reminding you of Provence, many thousands of miles away. Fervently wish there were more of it. Excellent. About $24.
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Rosé de Haut-Bailly 2011, Bordeaux Rosé. 13% alc. 50% cabernet sauvignon, 50% merlot. Ruddy light copper color; strawberries both spiced/macerated and dried; raspberries and red currants woven with cloves, hints of cinnamon and limestone; lithe, supple texture, just a shade more dense than most classic French rosés, otherwise deft, quite dry, elegant; light red fruit flavors filtered through violets and gravel. Exquisite but with a nod toward heft and structure. Excellent. About $25, an online purchase.
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Inama Carmenere Piú 2010, Colli Berici, Veneto. 14% alc. 75% carmenere, 25% merlot. Camenere in the Veneto! Who knew? Dark ruby color; pungent, assertive, robust, quite spicy, lively, lots of grainy tannins; deep, ripe black currant and plum scents and flavors permeated by notes of sauteed mushrooms, black olive, dried rosemary and lavender; a little tarry and foresty, with real grip, yet polished and sleek. Begs for grilled or braised red meat. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $20.
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Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 14.3% alc. Deep ruby-mulberry color; that enticing blend of red and black currants and red and black cherries permeated by notes of smoke, cloves, rhubarb and sour cherry; seductive super satiny texture; furrow-plowing acidity bolstering lissome tannins for an all-over sense of balance and harmony. Just freakin’ lovely. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $32.
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Halter Ranch Block 22 Syrah 2011, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. 15.2% alc. With 13% grenache, 11% tannat. 175 cases. Deep, dark ruby-purple; scintillating in every respect; while it delivers the earth-leather-graphite qualities and the fruit-spice-foresty intensity we expect of the best syrah (or shiraz) wines, the manner of presentation is gorgeously attractive, though (paradoxically) with a sculpted, lean schist and flint-like effect. Beautiful is not a word I often apply to syrahs, but it’s merited for this example. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $36.
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Ventisquero Grey [Glacier] Single Block Trinidad Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Maipo Valley, Chile. 14.5% alc. Dark ruby color; earth, leather, dust, graphite; very intense and concentrated black currant, black cherry and plum scents and flavors; dense, chewy, solid, grainy tannins but with appealing suppleness and animation; deep core of bitter chocolate, lavender and granitic minerality. Today with a steak or 2014/15 to 2020. Excellent. About $21, a Fine Value.
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Penley Estate Special Select Shiraz “The Traveler” 2009, Coonawarra, South Australia. 14.5% alc. Dark ruby with a tinge of mulberry at the rim; a real mouthful of graphite, dusty tannins and intense and concentrated black fruit with tremendous acidity and iron-iodine minerality in a package that manages, whatever its size, to express a really attractive personality; touch of blueberry tart, something wild, flagrantly spicy, long dense finish. Smoking ribs this weekend? Look no further for your wine. Drink through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $50.
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Perhaps we really are in Spring now, or even tending toward Summer, and while it may be banal to say it — or merely a trope of the winewriting and reviewing gig — I think people are looking for lighter wines that provide delight as well as flavor. In fact, if you’re grilling shrimp or making chicken or tuna salad, an appropriate wine to uncork would be the Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2011, from Carmel Valley in Monterey County, a blend of 87 percent organically grown chenin blanc and 13 percent riesling, made all in stainless steel. The color is pale gold with a faint green shimmer; the bouquet, well, you could swim in the bouquet or dab it behind your ears, this winsome and pert amalgam of prickly and briery ripe peach and pear with intensely pungent elements of camellia and lilac with a back note of lavender and a burgeoning hint of limestone. True to its principal grape, in the mouth there’s a touch of hay and yellow plum along with those spiced pear and peach flavors, while the limestone and flint minerality expands from mid-palate back and crisp acidity keeps the wine lively and appealing. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2013. I always look forward to this wine. Excellent. About $23.

A sample for review, as I am required to inform you by ruling of the Federal Trade Commission, an injunction that does not apply to print media.

I stayed one night at Holman Ranch last September, and the serenity and beauty of the place — the stillness, the magnitude of stars in the night sky — cannot be emphasized too much. Deep in the hills of Carmel Valley, inland and south of Monterey Bay, Holman Ranch occupies land bestowed upon the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo — hence, later, Carmel Valley — during the reign of Spain in these lands. After the mission properties were secularized, the area passed through many owners until in 1928, a Spanish-style hacienda was built and the ranch became an outpost or retreat for Hollywood stars and producers. Clarence Holman, of the Holman Department Store family in Pacific Grove, acquired the ranch in the 1940s and with business-like acumen transformed it from a private hideaway to a resort, which was still popular with Hollywood’s elite. Present owners Thomas and Jarman Lowder, who purchased Holman Ranch from Dorothy McEwen in 2006, restored the facility, the original hacienda, the quaint cabins and the grounds to full operation and comfort.

If you Google “Holman Ranch” you’ll see that the property’s raison d’etre focuses on events and meetings but particularly weddings. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of a more spectacular setting for tying the matrimonial knot. For my purposes, however, it’s more important that Holman Ranch produces small quantities of well-made wines (and olive oil), samples of which were recently sent to me. I found the white wines and the rosé to be engaging and highly drinkable, while the two pinot noirs bordered on exquisite. Search though I did in the brochures that accompanied the wines and on the Holman Ranch website, I found no mention of a winemaker; surely credit must be given when it is earned. All these wines are designated “Estate Grown.”
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Holman Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. This sleek sauvignon blanc offers a pale gold color and beguiling aromas of lime peel and grapefruit, roasted lemon, hints of thyme and tarragon and a lift of lemongrass. An element of limestone minerality produces a whiff of gunflint and also, in the mouth, bolsters citrus flavors lightly touched with fig and fresh-mown grass, all tied together with brisk acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. 224 cases. Quite charming, but drink up. Very Good+. About $20.
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Holman Ranch Pinot Gris 2011, Carmel Valley. The color is very pale straw; pure apples and pears pour from the glass, imbued with notes of cloves and lime peel, camellia and jasmine. The wine is quite dry, crisp and zesty, eminently refreshing; citrus and pear flavors are bolstered by a burgeoning limestone and flint element, leading to some austerity through the spicy and slightly steely finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. 323 cases. Very Good+. About $20.
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Holman Ranch Chardonnay 2010, Carmel Valley. This is an elegant and stylish chardonnay, from its pale straw-gold color, to its spare citrus and stone fruit scents and flavors, to its hints of jasmine and honeysuckle and dried herbs; there’s a bright undercurrent of crisp acidity and a distinct influence of limestone minerality. The wine is tasty, well-balanced and integrated but a little delicate (especially for a barrel-fermented chardonnay), so its match will be more delicate hors-d’oeuvre and seafood entrees. 12.5 percent alcohol. 205 cases. Very Good+. About $28.
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Holman Ranch rosé of Pinot Noir 2011, Carmel Valley. Here’s a superior rosé whose brilliant hue of raspberry-tourmaline at least esthetically enhances its aromas of strawberry, watermelon and rose petals; its raspberry-watermelon flavors permeated by hints of pomegranate, cloves and (barely) cinnamon; its appealing touch of dried thyme and limestone minerality; its pert, thirst-quenching acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. 144 cases. Drink through the end of 2013. Very Good+. About $22.
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Holman Ranch Pinot Noir 2010, Carmel Valley. The enchanting hue is medium ruby-garnet; aromas of black cherries, mulberries and red plums are infused with notes of sassafras, pomegranate, cloves and a hint of rhubarb. This pinot noir evinces a lovely lightness of being at the same time as it embodies intensity of black and red fruit flavors and an exquisite satiny texture. A few minutes in the glass bring in touches of smoke and graphite; the finish is medium-length, supple and subtle. 12.5 percent alcohol. 500 cases. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $33.
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Holman Ranch Heather’s Hill Pinot Noir 2011, Carmel Valley. The color is radiant medium ruby; the whole aura is warm, ripe and spicy, the display is impeccably balanced. Notes of spiced and macerated red currants, black raspberries and cranberries open to hints of cloves and cola. The wine is earthy, with elements of briers and brambles under flavors of red and black currants and cherries, yet it’s elegant, silky, integrated. After 30 or 40 minutes, you feel increasing dryness as the oak and mild tannins assert themselves, but overall this is beautifully made pinot noir. 14 percent alcohol. 444 cases. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $37.
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No sense evading the truth: I’m a fan of Morgan Winery’s pinot noir wines from Santa Lucia Highlands, a northeastward-facing, hillside appellation in Monterey County. Dan Lee started the winery in 1982, while he was winemaker for Durney Vineyards in Carmel, taking the project full-time in 1986. Originally focusing on full-blown and thoroughly oaked chardonnay, the winery has changed emphasis considerably over several decades, the wines displaying much more finesse and elegance and with single-vineyard pinot noirs taking a definite lead in the roster; Morgan does not, however, neglect a full line-up that includes sauvignon blanc and pinot gris, syrah, a Rhone-style blend, an well-known unoaked chardonnay (Metallico) and a new riesling among other wines. Today, in the Weekend Wine Sips, I offer brief reviews — no historical, geographical or geeky tech info allowed — of Morgan vineyard-designated pinot noirs tasted over the past year and a half, from vintage 2010 back to 2007. Winemaker since 2005 has been Gianni Abate. These wines were samples for review.
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Morgan Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 13.9% alc. 575 cases. Dark ruby color; smoky black cherries, plums and currants; a little briery, with leafy and mossy elements, hint of mushrooms; pretty intense and concentrated; super satiny drape on the palate, lithe and supple; passing glance at cloves, cola and rhubarb; mainly about structure for the present. Try 2014 through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $50.
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Morgan Double L Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands. 13.8% alc. 670 cases. Medium ruby color, slightly lighter mulberry rim; moss, briers and brambles; cranberry, cola and mulberry; rhubarb, cloves and sandalwood; lavender and lilacs, smoky, spicy black cherries and plums; black tea, hint of tapenade; dense, chewy, supple, lithe; dry, a touch austere on the spice-and-mineral-packed finish. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $50.
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Morgan Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands. 14.3% alc. 302 cases. Medium ruby-magenta color; has the earthiness and minerality that I associate with Garys’; deeply spicy, bright, briery, intense and concentrated; evocative red and black cherry and currant scents and flavors; gradually brings up the rose petal and lilac floral elements; slightly furry tannins and a touch austere in the finish; the muscular side of pinot nor. Now through 2015 to ’18. Excellent. About $50.
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Morgan Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands. 13.8% alc. 375 cases. Dark ruby color with a touch of magenta; ripe yet spare notes of black cherry, black raspberry and mulberry with undertones of rhubarb, cranberry and cola and subtle elements of clean earth, moss and briers and brambles: classic! Yes, it’s dry, but black and red fruit flavors are both succulent and balanced by bright acidity and a spine of graphite, while the finish, smooth and satiny, teems with cloves, sandalwood, underbrush and a touch of granitic minerality. Now through 2015 or ’16. Exceptional. About $48.
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Morgan Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands. 13.8% alc. 550 cases. Medium ruby with a flush of mulberry at the center; deep, bright, clean and vivid; iodine with a touch of iron, beetroot, rhubarb and black cherry, cloves and sassafras; very supple, lithe (but not muscular) and satiny, drapes the palate like a scarf of some significance; earthy, not so much moss as mushrooms and truffles, a sleek element of graphite to close the generous finish. Now through 2014 to ’15. Excellent. About $48.
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Morgan Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands. 13.9% alc. 190 cases. Gary’s 09 is more structured than Double L 09; you feel the tannin and the graphite/granitic minerality more, as well as more spicy wood; this is also more spiced and macerated with the black and red fruit scents and flavors; bright acidity cuts a swath on the tongue; with this pinot noir’s audacity yet beautiful balance, I am reminded of the Burgundian estate of Domaine de Montille in Volnay; this is vital, alive, dense with character but with nothing obvious or gratuitous to the grape and vineyard. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $48.
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Morgan Tondre Grapefield Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands. 13.5% 95 cases. First note: “Bliss.” Not to go just absolutely delirious, but of this group of extremely well-made and presented Morgan SLH pinots from 2008, the Tondre Grapefield — and I love this vineyard, 80 acres of pinot noir grapes, 21 of chardonnay — is a singular example. Radiant medium ruby color, intensely magenta-like at the center; ripe and slightly smoky black cherry, black currant and plum scents and flavors, with notes of cranberry and pomegranate, rhubarb and cloves; extremely finely milled and grained, fabulously satiny texture yet properly spare and elegant, floats on the palate; long, dense finish, seething with spice, graphite, briers and brambles. Now through 2016 to ’18. Exceptional. About $48.
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Morgan Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands. 14.4% alc. 550 cases. Medium ruby-mulberry color, darker at the center; black and red cherry, cranberry and cola, packed with cloves, sassafras and sandalwood; loads of personality, shines with vigor and resonance without beyond blatant; dense and chewy but not in the least heavy or obvious; clean, satiny texture, vibrant acidity; you feel the oak from mid-palate back, a bit more controlling than one would like, but still a well-balanced Garys’. Now through 2015 or ’16.
Excellent. About $48.
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No, Disappointing Herons is not the name of my next band, it’s an expression of my dismay at the quality of some of a recently tasted group of products from Heron Wines, a company founded by Laely Heron (image at right) in 1995. Her idea was straightforward: own no vineyards but buy grapes from reliable, preferably sustainable sources, make wines with as little manipulation as possible and sell them at a reasonable price, in other words, to fill the role of a responsible negociant.

My first encounter with a wine from Heron was in the form of the Heron Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, which I received as a sample and subsequently reviewed in a post on January 24, 2009, otherwise known as The Dim Past. Here’s what I wrote:

If you can find the Heron Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, California, anywhere, buy it by the case. Sporting a mild but effective 13 percent alcohol, this irresistible cabernet is a lovely medium purple-magenta color. Aromas of smoke, minerals and earth, cedar, tobacco and black pepper wreathe notes of ripe and slightly roasted black currants and black cherries. The wine is dense and chewy in the mouth, with grainy tannins that permeate succulent and very spicy black currant and black cherry flavors. Aged a judicious eight months in French oak, the wine delivers a firm yet yielding structure that opens to reveal a hint of underbrush and dried porcini on the finish. There’s a lot of heart here for the price. Very Good+ and a phenomenal bargain at about $14.

Now that sounds like a wine you could get behind and feel happy about every time you opened a bottle. Unfortunately, the Heron Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Mendocino, not only has no heart but it lacks soul, conveying the impression of a “red wine” at its most generic common denominator. My notes conclude, “What a shame!”

I tasted five current releases of Heron products courtesy of a local wholesaler now carrying the wines in our market. Two I can recommend, and three, including the Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, I cannot. The other two not recommended are the Merlot 2010, Mendocino County, again a matter of a wine tasting more generic and blah than varietal (though with merlot sometimes I wonder what varietal means) and the Chardonnay 2011, California (a blend of grapes from Russian River Valley, Carneros and Santa Maria Valley, one-third each) that channels the inner sauvignon blanc to which all chardonnays must surely aspire.

Here, though, are the Heron wines that I recommend:
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The all stainless steel Heron Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Mendocino County — that is to say, 75 percent Mendocino and 25 percent Yountville, in Napa valley — displays a bright medium straw color and enticing aromas of lime peel, roasted lemon, grapefruit, thyme and tarragon, with back-notes of smoke and a burgeoning, penetrating tide of limestone and flint minerality. That mineral character permeates spicy and savory flavors of citrus and stone-fruit highlighted by keen acidity and a lean and taut structure that nevertheless admits of a winsome, almost talc-like texture; the contrast is delightful. 13 percent alcohol. Loads of personality; restaurants and bars could sell the hell out of this wine in by-the-glass programs. Drink now through the end of 2013. Very Good+. About $14, a Terrific Value.
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The Heron Pinot Noir 2011, California, derived from Monterey (75 percent), Paso Robles (20 percent) and Russian River Valley (5 percent) and aged a careful nine months in French oak, a combination of new, one-year-old and two-year-old barrels. The color is an entrancing cerise with a touch of magenta; this is clean and fresh pinot noir that offers an engaging Beaujolais-Villages-like aspect of ripe black and red cherries, hints of raspberry and mulberry and a touch of rose petals and violets, with undercurrents of slightly funky earthiness and graphite. There’s enough tannin to give the wine a slight dusty edge, and sufficient acidity to lend vibrancy and liveliness. 13 percent alcohol. Now through 2014. Again, this would be a very attractive restaurant and bar wine to sell by the glass; pair it with a roasted chicken or mushroom omelet. Very Good+. About $14, representing Real Value.
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Weekend Wine Sips and it’s only Friday afternoon. If you live in the Northeast, you probably won’t be able to get to a liquor and wine store tonight — two feet of snow? 50- to 75-mph winds? — but for the rest of the country, time’s a-wasting! There’s one wine in this post that I strongly do not recommend, otherwise these range from pleasant to impressive to memorable. Six eclectic white wines and four reds today, ranging in price from about $13 to $25, with a couple that merit ranking as Bargains and Values. As usual, little in the way of historical, geographical or technical detail; instead I offer quick reviews intended to pique your interest and whet your palate. These were all samples for review, and the order is alphabetical.
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Angelini Sangiovese 2008, Colli Pesaresi, Marche, Italy. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby color; lovely warm sangiovese nose of dried red currants, cloves, black tea and orange zest; pert acidity, an element of graphite-like minerality and a rather lean structure contribute to a sense of spareness and angularity, though the wine never loses its charm and appeal. Drink through the end of 2013. Very Good+. About $16.
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Brancaia “Tre” 2010, Toscana, Italy. …% alc. 80% sangiovese, 20% merlot and cabernet sauvignon, from three estates, hence “Tre.” Deep ruby color; intense and concentrated; dried red and blue fruit, dried flowers (lavender and potpourri), dried spices like cloves and allspice; hints of thyme, rosemary with its slightly resiny quality, earthy and slate-like minerality; black tea and black olives; the oak comes out on the finish a bit obviously, but lots of personality. Now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $18.
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Edna Valley Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Central Coast, California. (Owned by Gallo since 2011) 13.9% alc. Very pale straw color; scintillating bouquet of lime peel, lemongrass, kiwi, tarragon and grapefruit; segues smoothly to the palate, enhanced by rousing acidity and a keen limestone edge. Now through the end of 2013. Totally attractive. Very Good+. About $15.
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Franz Keller “Schwarzer Adler” Pinot Blanc 2010, Baden, Germany. 13% alc. Pale straw-gold color; pear and peach with a trace of lychee and spicy backnotes; very crisp, lively and flinty; vibrant acidity, taut, clean, fresh; touch of limestone-laced earthiness to buoy the ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors; svelte, elegant, lots of authority yet charming. Now through 2015. Excellent. About $22.
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Hooker Betsy’s Vineyard “Home Pitch” Syrah 2010, Knights Valley, Sonoma County, California. 14% alc. Deep ruby color with a magenta rim; robust, intense and concentrated, roasted and fleshy, smoke and ash, damp mossy earth and leather; ripe blackberry and black currant scents and flavors with notes of wild raspberry and plums; a little nutty and toasty; builds power as it goes, accumulating layers of graphite, licorice, bitter chocolate, briers and brambles. Pretty darned classic. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $24.
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Poliziano Lohsa 2010, Morellino di Scansano, Tuscany, Italy. 14% alc. Unusual blend of 80% cabernet sauvignon and 20% alicante, petit verdot and carignano (carignane). Dark ruby color; black currants and plums, touch of red cherry, deeply imbued with spice and brambly elements, notes of oolong tea, mushrooms and sour cherry; neatly balanced rusticity with pleasing poise and integration; slightly shaggy tannins abound. Now through 2015. Very Good+. About $15, representing Great Value.
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Santiago Ruiz 2011, Rias Baixas, Spain. 13% alc. 70% albariño, 15% loureiro, 10% caiño, 5% treixadura and godello. Pale straw color; spanking fresh and clean as new ironed sheets, with a savory, bracing sea-salt, sea-breeze exhilaration as well as a stony and steely backbone; thyme and mint, peach, kumquat and quince, touch of bay leaf; deftly handled texture halfway between prettily lush and bony spare; very polished sense of heft and presence. Now through the end of 2013. Excellent. About $17, a True Bargain.
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Treana 2010, Central Coast, California. 14.5% alc. (Hope Family Wines) 50% each marsanne and viognier. Again and again, I try to like this wine but cannot. Two grapes that are capable of lovely finesse and ardent dimension are treated in such manner that the wine comes out brassy, over-ripe and florid, stridently spicy, candied and over-blown. Oh, and way too oaky. I know that people love this wine, but I don’t recommend it. About $23.
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Wente Riverbank Riesling 2011, Arroyo Seco, Monterey, California. 12.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; a very appealing riesling at the right price; a touch of sweetness in the entry tones down to just off-dry across the palate; jasmine, lychee, pear and a hint of ripe peach; a little fleshy but good acidity; a hint of grapefruit on the finish. Now through Summer 2013. Very Good+. About $13, representing Real Value.
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William Hill Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley, California. 14.5% alc. (Gallo acquired William Hill from Beam Wine Estates in 2007.) Pale gold color; a generous and expansive version of the grape, fresh and vibrant with enticing personality and authority; dry, crisp and bright, with moderately ripe pineapple and grapefruit flavors barely touched by mango and jasmine and what people like to describe as “a kiss of oak”; nothing bold or brassy here, just clean balance and integration and, through the finish, a hug of limestone minerality. Now through 2013. Excellent. About $25.
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