Monterey County


One of the criteria for the Wine of the Week, besides being a good example of a wine in its style, quality and price, is availability. Obviously it would not do to recommend a bottle to my readers as the Wine of the Week and conclude by writing, “Oh, by the way, only 137 cases were produced, so good luck, suckers!” As much, then, as I would like to have made the Morgan Double L Vineyard Riesling 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, a Wine of the Week, I could not in good conscience do that, considering the minuscule amount of the wine there is. If, however, you run across the Morgan Double L Vineyard Riesling 2011, do not hesitate to buy as much as possible. This is the second vintage for the winery’s venture into the riesling grape. The color is pale straw-gold; enticing aromas of ripe pears and peaches offer hints of lychee and apricot nectar and, after a few minutes in the glass, orange zest and orange blossom, lightly traced with cloves. The wine is clean, fresh and lively — no oak is involved — silky and supple, delicately sweet initially but succumbing to a cool bracing breeze of damp limestone and savory salt-marsh elements. Then, to complete the progress of its tasty yet spare citrus and roasted pear flavors, comes a finish imbued with flint and the slight bitterness of grapefruit pith and apple skin. 10.5 percent alcohol. The vineyard is certified organic. Winemaker is Gianni Abate. We drank part of the bottle one night with turkey and dressing and gravy leftovers and another night with pasta in a carrot greens-and-almond pesto with diced yellow peppers. Production was 210 cases; see, I told ya. Excellent. Abut $22, and Worth a Search.

A sample for review.

Except for Santa Lucia Highlands, which I’m still working on as some separate posts since I published this post on October 12. Represented today though are Russian River Valley, Monterey, Cienega Valley, Carneros, Sonoma Coast and Edna Valley, as well as one example with a general California designation; all are from 2010 or 2009. I don’t burden the “Weekend Wine Sips” (formerly the “Friday Wine Sips”) with technical detail, narrative sweep, personnel histories or geographical and geological grandeur; these are brief notes, often transcribed directly from the pages of my notebooks, designed to give you a quick glimpse into the essence of the wine. These were samples for review.

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Pietra Santa Pinot Noir 2009, Cienega Valley, San Benito. 14.3% alc. Medium ruby, slightly brickish color; ripe and spicy black and red cherries, cola and cloves and sassafras; a little fleshy, with hints of dried fruit and spices, earthy, loamy, satiny; you feel the sticks and briers in the slightly austere underbrushy finish, which falls a bit short. Drink up. Very Good+. About $18.
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Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2010, California. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby color; a pretty pinot noir, bright and spicy red with blue fruit scents and flavors, a pleasing smooth texture and plenty of smooth-grained tannins for structure. Through 2013. Very Good. About $19.
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La Crema Pinot Noir 2010, Monterey. 13.5% alc. (Jackson Family Wines) A real mouthful of pinot noir, rich and very berryish, dark, spicy; cranberry-magenta color; cherries galore, very clean, pure and intense, lipsmacking acidity, quite dry; the oak comes up a bit in the finish, but a well-made and appealing wine. Through 2013. Very Good+. About $20, representing Good Value.
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Toad Hollow Goldie’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.9% alc. Medium ruby-magenta color; black cherries, red currants and plums, nicely balanced between richness and spareness, touches of rhubarb and cloves; undertone of brown sugar or something slightly caramelized; smoke and satin, sweetly succulent yet dry, a little sanded and burnished in effect; an edge of foresty austerity through the finish. Through 2014. Very Good+. About $20, Excellent Value.
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Rodney Strong Pinot Noir 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Dark ruby-mulberry color; beetroot, cloves, sassafras and coloa under black cherries and plums; satiny, slick and sleek; oak influence subdued to balance and integration; sapid, supple, savory; dense and almost viscous but cut by bright acidity and smooth-bore tannins; finish permeated by briers and brambles. Through 2014. Excellent. About $25.
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La Crema Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast. 13.9% alc. Medium ruby color; earthy, briery style, moss, mushroom, leather and the clove-cola-sassafras syndrome with black and red cherries and a hint of rhubarb; large-framed, dense, lithe, lively, pronounced tannins though polished and well-knit; succulent without being opulent; long fruit-and-spice packed finish with a final edge of graphite. Through 2015.
Excellent. About $25.
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MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Coast. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby-mulberry color; entrancing bouquet of currants and plums, smoky and softly ripe, a little fleshy, touches of fruitcake, rhubarb and lilac; slightly roughened tannins boost the texture; very dry though tasty; leather and loam in the finish where the wood comes up. Through 2013. Very Good+. About $27
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Frank Family Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros-Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. Medium ruby with a slightly lighter ruby rim; rich, warm and spicy, more syrah-like in heft and flavor than is good for its supposition as pinot noir; a muscular manner that blunts nuance. Very Good. About $35.

(Eight others follow)
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The influence of geography and geology on vineyards, grapes and ultimately a bottle of wine is inestimable. In fact, geology and geography form the Alpha and the Omega of the biological foundation and agricultural process that in collaboration with weather — born itself of geographical and stratospheric principles — pump life into dormant vines, unfurl the leaves and encourage the buds, plump the grapes and bring them to fullness so they may be harvested and turned into wine. It’s not a magical or miraculous occurrence; aside from weather, which is the most variable factor in the tapestry, the elements of geography and geology change little over hundreds of thousands of years. (Global warming and climate change are different issues.)

Monterey County nestles against the Pacific Ocean, slanting to the southeast away from Monterey Bay, where it begins. You might picture, if you will, a flat valley, the Salinas Valley, the runs from the northwest to the the southeast between mountain ranges, the Santa Lucia Range to the west and the Galiban and San Benito ranges to the east. The Salinas Valley, a broad flatland, acts as a wind tunnel, drawing wind currents down from Monterey Bay, home to one of the world’s unique oceanographic features, the so-called Blue Grand Canyon, a name trademarked by the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. Whatever it’s called, this two-mile-deep (from the surface of Monterey Bay) and 60-mile-long trench in the ocean floor, located less than 100 yards off the coast, generates a colossal amount of cold air that influences the climate of Monterey’s vineyard regions as far south as San Lucas, where the Salinas Valley peters out. As you can see from this relief map, most of Monterey County — the county line is pink — is mountains; the Salinas Valley spikes down between the ranges. The light green area toward the bottom, surmounted by what look like bunny ears, is the San Antonio Valley. (Map from landwatch.org)

The entire valley and the foothills of its adjacent mountain ranges are filled with fog from early morning to late morning or early afternoon, when rising temperatures click on the wind tunnel effect and winds of up to 30 miles per hour begin to churn from the bay down through the valley. The resulting Thermal Rainbow — another trademark — regulates temperatures from the bay, where it’s coolest, down through the Salinas Valley all the way to the Hames and San Antonio AVAs, where the temperature is the warmest, sometimes to a differential of 40 degrees. In the cooler areas, pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah and riesling vines flourish; farther south, the vineyards hold cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and some Rhone Valley grape varieties. The climate of the Central Coast and Salinas Valley is characterized as Mediterranean, meaning dry summers and cool, wet winters, though “wet” is a relative terms for a region where the rainfall averages 17 inches annually, and that’s between November and April. (The image above shows the Panorama Vineyard at the western edge of Arroyo Seco AVA, looking toward the Santa Lucia Range.)

Monterey County is an American Viticultural Area, so designated in 1984, but that doesn’t mean that you can plant grapes anywhere in the county and expect to say so on the label. The Monterey AVA is restricted to the narrow, central part of the county as well as an arm that reaches to the coast around Carmel. Lying along or within the Monterey AVA are eight smaller appellations, some of which are much better known than others: Chalone (1982), high above Soledad in the Gabilan hills below Pinnacles National Monument, home to one winery, Chalone Estate, and two other vineyards, 300 acres planted; Carmel Valley (1983), with five wineries and 300 acres of vines; the crowded Arroyo Seco (1983), with 37 wineries and vineyards and 7000 acres of vines; the seldom seen San Lucas (1987), home to eight vineyards that total 8,000 acres; the increasingly prestigious Santa Lucia Highlands (1991), with 29 vineyards and wineries and 5,900 planted acres; the also seldom seen Hames Valley AVA (1994), with eight vineyards totaling 2,200 acres; San Bernabe (2004), whose raison d’etre is 4,300 acres of vines owned by Delicato Family Vineyards; and the vast and largely empty San Antonio Valley (2006), which boasts three wineries and another vineyard totaling 600 acres.

My concern today (and in a subsequent post), after this introduction, is Santa Lucia Highlands, a long, narrow and increasingly populated AVA that over the past two decades has built a solid reputation for wines made from (especially) chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. SLH perches along the eastern terrace of the Santa Lucia Range, on the west side of the Salinas Valley, looking across to the distant Chalone AVA and Pinnacles National Monument (see accompanying image, from santaluciahighlands.com). From any vantage point or dizzy coign, the valley spreads northwest and southeast in a fertile quilt-like patchwork of various intense green hues, the country’s abundant basket of lettuce, cabbage and other leafy vegetables, that would not be possible without irrigation. SLH benefits from its semi-lofty placement on the escarpment — vineyards go from about 300 to 1,400-feet-elevation — where morning fog from Monterey Bay brings moisture and late morning sun and afternoon winds dry the grapes; the cool winds also slow photosynthesis, ensuring a long, even ripening of the grapes. Soil is primarily fine alluvial sandy or gravelly loam.

I’ll look today at SLH products from two young (or youngish) winemakers, Sabrine Rodems at Wrath Wines (she also has some Monterey AVA wines) and Chris Weidemann, who owns Pelerin Wines. A post coming next week (at a rough estimate) will discuss Figge Cellars, Tudor, Boekenoogan and Hahn Estate’s Lucienne single-vineyard pinot noirs. All of these wines were tasted on a sponsored trip to Monterey during the second week of September.
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Sabrine Rodems is fast-talking, brash, opinionated, animated, funny and sincere and totally dedicated to making authentic wines with balance, integrity, grace and no small measure of power. As winemaker for Wrath Wines — formerly San Saba Vineyards –she produces very limited quantities of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and syrah under three labels: Ex Anima Wines, Winemaker Series and Single Vineyard Series.

The Wrath Ex Anima Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Monterey, practically climbs out of the glass with its brash bright notes of green apple, grapefruit and gooseberry and hints of fresh-mown grass; made all in stainless steel, this is very clean, crisp and tart, with appealing personality and mineral grip. 12.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $19. The Wrath 3 Clone Chardonnay 2010, Monterey, goes the whole route: barrel-fermentation, 10 months in “40 or 50 percent” (Rodems said) new French oak and full malolactic; almost miraculously, the result is not overwhelming richness but exquisite balance, lovely heft, density and texture, reams of spice-infused apple, grapefruit and pineapple scents and flavors heightened by a trace of jasmine and deepened by shimmering limestone and flint minerality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $35.

The Ex Anima Pinot Noir 2010, Monterey, aged 10 months in a combination of stainless steel tanks and two-to-four-year-old French oak; no window-dressing here, this is all pinot noir purity and intensity, cleanness and freshness, with clove-and-cola- inflected raspberry and red currant scents and flavors, a sleek satiny texture and invigorating acidity that cuts a swath on the palate. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25. Rodems makes a pinot noir from the Boekenoogan Vineyard (about which more later); the version for 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, reveals a bit more obvious hand with oak, but the wine is essentially well-balanced, smooth, suave and polished. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $49.

Finally, the Wrath Fairview Vineyard Syrah 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, offers all the blackberry and blueberry fruit, baking spice and black pepper and potpourri you could ask for in a supple package bolstered by plenty of dusty, briery tannins and earthy graphite-like minerality. 14.6 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $35.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Sometimes you encounter wines that seem such an embodiment of grace and elegance, purity and integrity that you would like to drink them forever. It’s fitting that the labels of Chris Weidemann’s Pelerin Wines feature the profile of an elderly pilgrim depicted as if part of an ancient mural; that sense of classical decorum and timelessness is intrinsic in Weidemann’s wines, all of which carry the Santa Lucia Highlands designation. He specializes in chardonnay, pinot noir and red and white Rhone Valley grape varieties and produces about 2,200 cases annually.

The Pelerin Paraiso Vineyard Les Tournesols 2010 is a blend of 58 percent viognier and 42 percent roussanne grapes; the wine spent six months in neutral oak barrels, that is, barrels used several times before. What a completely lovely, perfectly balanced wine, with notes of jasmine, fig, melon and roasted lemon and a hint of lime peel and limestone; audacious acidity and a firm but limpid limestone element support a structure and texture of beguiling shading and dimension. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $27. The Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 offers a bright gold color and grapefruit-pineapple scents and flavors that hint at the tropical without falling into the trap of overstatement or ungovernable ripeness; it’s a beautifully balanced and harmonious chardonnay, smooth, subtle and supple but with an edge of spice and flint, ginger and quince that raises the level of discourse a notch or two. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $42.

People often say, “Words fail,” an assertion I find ridiculous, because words and language are adequate for all purposes; it’s not the words that fail, it’s us and our imaginations. So, words don’t fail at the prospect of describing the Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, but they certainly stand rather awe-struck. Not that there’s anything super-dimensional about the wine; just the opposite, and if you’re weary of pinot noir wines from California that push the limits with extraction and richness and ripeness and alcohol, then this pinot noir is what you have been longing for. The fruit profile is red and blue, as in red currants and plums and blueberries with a hint of the tartness of cranberries and notes of cola and cloves; supple, satiny, yes, but spare, elegant and understated, except for the essential crisply-etched acidity that plows a row on the palate and a seemingly fathoms-deep element of graphite-like minerality and earthy briers and brambles, all this panoply subdued in honor of divine harmony. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Exceptional. About $42.

Finally, the Pelerin Paraiso Vineyard Les Violettes Syrah 2008 is a model of balance, purity, intensity and utter drinkablility, yet behind that sapid facade, with its tasty black and blue fruit flavors, lingers a savory bastion of tar and tapenade, leather, black pepper and graphite. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $36.
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Seven white wines and one rosé; seven Californians and one Spanish wine (not the rosé). Several chardonnays and a viognier made exactly in the fashion I like best. And some irresistible bargains. I do it all for you. No technical data, no paeans to place, no exploring the byways of personnel and personality; just brief reviews designed to perk up your interest and whet your thirst. Enjoy. These were samples for review.
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Pepi Chenin Blanc Viognier 2011, California. 13% alc. 66% chenin blanc, 34% viognier. Pleasant enough and drinkable but the grape varieties get lost in each other; a little citrusy, a little spicy, pleasing texture; no great shakes, but you can’t beat the price. Good to sip when you don’t want to hurt your brain too much. Good+. About $10.
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Sumarroca Temps de Flors 2011, Penedes, Spain. 12% alc. 48% xarel-lo, 40 % muscat, 12% gewurztraminer. Pale straw-gold color; very attractive but with some spareness and slight astringent factor, like little white mountain flowers that don’t take any crap from you, thank you v. much; pear, yellow plum, hint of white peach; acacia with a touch of honey and bees’-wax; lovely, lively, lithe and totally charming. Now into Spring 2013. Very Good+. About $14, offering Great Value.
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St. Clement Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.6% alc. Pale straw-gold color; just lovely; slightly smoky and steely pineapple- grapefruit scents and flavors, clove and limestone-flecked and with a beguiling trace of honeysuckle; spiced apples and pears, hint of citrus, sleek, smooth, supple and tingling with brisk acidity, superb balance between tense and teasing nervous energy and lightly honed richness, the finish laved with damp limestone and flint. My style. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $19, a Terrific Value.
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Ventana Dry Rosato 2011, Arroyo Seco, Monterey. 13.5% alc. 500 cases. 90% grenache, 10% syrah. Pale melon color; strawberry, dried cranberries and mulberries, hint of dusty limestone; supple texture with crisp acidity; a delightfully delicate and well-knit rosé with pleasing heft for drinking through Summer 2013. Very Good+. About $22.
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Ventana Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Arroyo Seco, Monterey. 14.2% alc. Pale straw-gold color; notably clean and fresh; lemon and pear, dried thyme and tarragon, hints of honeysuckle, lemongrass and gooseberry; vibrant, lively, spicy, engaging, but dry, spare, almost elegant. Now through 2013. Very Good+. About $22.
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Ventana Chardonnay 2010, Arroyo Seco, Monterey. 14.2% alc. Pale gold color; pineapple and grapefruit, a bit of mango, a few minutes bring up notes of greengage and quince and cloves; crisp and lively, texture moderately lush but tempered by acidity and a burgeoning limestone element; very nicely balanced, holds the richness of fruit in check for the essential structure. Through 2013. Excellent. About $22.
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Chamisal Estate Bottled Chardonnay 2010, Edna Valley. 13.9% alc. Very pale gold color; fresh clean aromas of candied quince and ginger, grapefruit and pineapple with a backnote of mango and delicately smoky oak; flavors of green apple and pineapple are boldly framed by baking spice, slightly woody dried spices (and a trace of dried flowers) and a hint of baked lemon; all held in check by bright acidity and a scintillating limestone element. This qualifies as radiant. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $28.
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Stags’ Leap Winery Viognier 2011, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Pale gold color; vibrantly clean, fresh, lissom, elegant; a wine of stones and bones with a hint of jasmine and tarragon laid over tart lemon and pear flavors bolstered by taut acidity and a bracing sea-salt and grapefruit finish; paradoxically, the texture is seductive and enveloping. For people weary of the overwhelming floral style of viognier. Now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $30.
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Morgan Winery was not on the agenda for the small group that I traveled around Monterey County with in the middle of September, but keeping with the spirit of that trip and with the day we spent in the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, I’ll make the Wine of the Week the Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir 2010, the grapes for which were drawn from the winery’s own Double L Vineyard — 56 percent — and from several other vineyards in Santa Lucia, including Tondre Grapefield and Gary’s. The winery was founded by Dan Morgan Lee and Donna Lee in 1982; winemaker since 2005 has been Gianni Abate. The wine is named for the 12 original pinot noir clones in the Double L Vineyard, though now there are 14.

The Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir 2010 offers a seductive color of medium ruby-cerise with a touch of magenta at the rim; the bouquet is a welter of cloves and sassafras, spiced and macerated red and black currants and cherries with a back-note of plum and deeper hints of briers and brambles The wine aged 10 months in French oak, 36 percent new barrels, the rest one- and two-years-old, and you feel that wood slightly in the wine’s subtle and supple nature, because this is, above all, beautifully balanced and integrated, though clean acidity cuts a swath and keeps this pinot noir bright and lively, while a satiny texture wraps all elements. Black and red fruit flavors are buoyed by a hint of graphite minerality and potpourri; the finish is long and packed with spice and foresty touches and just a hint of oak’s austerity. 13.9 percent alcohol. The winery made 10,000 cases, so there’s plenty to go around. Now through 2014 or ’15, with roasted chicken or grilled salmon, or, what the hell, a grilled cheese sandwich. Excellent. About $32.

A sample for review.

Here are reviews of 10 wines — one syrah, two sauvignon blancs, three chardonnays and four pinot noirs — that I tasted late in the afternoon of Monday, September 10, at the Holman Ranch in Monterey County’s Carmel Valley, a beautiful setting for trying mainly excellent wines. As usual in these Friday Wine Sips I forgo the technical data of history, geography, vineyard practices, winemaking and personalities in which I typically indulge for the sake of straightforward reviews of a more incisive nature. These producers — Dawn’s Dream, Cima Collina, Silvestri — are small in scale, each making between about 2,500 to 3,500 cases annually, but large in talent. Enjoy…
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Dawn’s Dream Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. 13% alc. Very pale straw color but shimmering radiance; grapefruit, limestone and gunflint; jasmine and honeysuckle, pears and lemons, mildly herbal and grassy, subtle and supple but crisp and lively acidity with scintillating limestone minerality; finish is sleek, elegant, more spicy. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $24.
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Dawn’s Dream Chardonnay 2011, Arroyo Seco. 14.1% alc. Very attractive chardonnay in the spare, lithe fashion; very dry, bursting with cloves, ginger and quince, hints of grapefruit and pineapple; a floral element grows, twining itself around ripe fruit; mainly structure through, lots of stones and bones; finish falls a tad short. Drink through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $24.
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Dawn’s Dream Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros. 14.1% alc. This will be the last Carneros pinot noir that Dawn Galante makes. Purple-magenta color; very spare, dry, almost sinewy, black and red currants and hints of cranberry and rhubarb permeated by cola and tobacco over layers of briers and brambles, underbrush, spicy oak and dry, brushy tannins; acid cuts a swath; nothing overdone, obvious or voluptuous but capturing the essential cool-climate character of the grape. Now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $24.
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Dawn’s Dream Alyssa Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands. 14.1% alc. Entrancing light cherry-magenta color with a faint violet rim; rhubarb, pomegranate, sassafras, cloves; another dry, slightly foresty/slightly feral rendition, with a lean, keen graphite edge, plangent acidity and just a little too much oak on the finish, still quite enjoyable and a little challenging. Now through 2015 to ’17. Very Good+. About $24.
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Cima Collina Cedar Lane Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Arroyo Seco, 14.7% alc. 320 cases. Pale straw-gold color; remarkably full-bodied, rich and spicy for an all stainless steel sauvignon blanc; scents and flavors of roasted lemons and spiced pears, hints of dried herbs and a slight tendency toward a grassy-meadowy character; quite dry yet juicy with macerated stone fruit flavors; brisk and bracing acidity, touch of sea-salt. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $16 and Worth a Search.
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Cima Collina Chula Vina Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, Monterey County. 14.4% alc. 318 cases. Big, bright and bold; perfectly balanced and integrated; seething with limestone and flint minerality and vibrant acidity yet bears itself with calmness and dignity; a great example of a chardonnay wine seamlessly segueing from youth to maturity; flavors of spicy yellow plums, quince, ginger and pineapple arrow through a finish supple with grapefruit and a hint of oak. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $33.
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Cima Collina Tondre Grapefield Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands. 14% alc. 325 cases. Enticing color of moderate ruby-mulberry with a tinge of violet-magenta at the rim; wow, what a perfect pinot noir, with exquisite balance, tone, harmony and elegance (and seductive spicy red and black currant and rhubarb flavors) yet supported by an almost rigorous structure of graphite-washed minerality; earthy, slightly mossy elements of underbrush, briers and brambles; and acidity the plows a row or two on the palate. Now through 2016 or ’17. Exceptional. About $48 and definitely Worth a Search for fans of SLH pinot noir from one of my favorite vineyards.
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Silvestri Vineyard “Bella Sandra” Chardonnay 2009, Carmel Valley. 14.1% alc. 968 cases. Despite the spicy, slightly vanilla-tinged oak in the background, this manages pleasing restraint and decorum in a subtle, supple package; embellished with burgeoning floral elements and limestone-shale minerality; roasted lemon, spiced pear flavors with hints of bright pineapple and grapefruit that extend through a mineral packed finish; fresh and vibrant at three years old. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $20, a Remarkable Value.
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Silvestri “Rising Tide” Pinot Noir 2009, Carmel Valley. 14.3% alc. 1420 cases. Dark ruby-magenta color; red and black currants and plums, mocha and sassafras, touch of cranberry; foresty briers and brambles, rooty and minerally, very dry, resonant almost resolute acidity; close to sleek above the touch of robust rusticity, and you feel the oak a bit in the finish. Try from 2013 or ’14 through 2017 to ’19. Very Good+. About $32.
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Silvestri Syrah 2009, Carmel Valley. 14.5% alc. 200 cases. Dark ruby-purple with a motor-oil black center; very pure and intense, riveting graphite-like minerality that bursts through lavender, licorice and leather, blackberries, blueberries and plums; slightly fleshy and meaty with a touch of wet dog and black pepper, all wrapped around a core of dry, grainy tannins and bitter chocolate. If this is what people can do with syrah in Carmel, they ought to plant more. Now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $18, and they’re practically giving it away.
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Driving up and up a twisting dirt track toward the Chalone winery, nothing in the steep, sere hillsides, lying arid and exposed to the glaring sun that reigns over this realm of dust and chaparral, could convince you that the landscape and climate are anything like Burgundy. Yet from this improbable parched landscape, some 1800 feet up the Gavilan range, high over the city of Soledad and just under the Pinnacles National Monument, emerges some of the best (and at times controversial) chardonnay and pinot noir wines in California, as well as pinot blanc and chenin blanc, the latter from a vineyard planted in 1919, the oldest in Monterey County. (This image looks down on Chalone from the hills above.)

That vineyard was planted by F.W. Silvear, who after the end of Prohibition sold grapes to Almaden and Wente and made a little wine of his own. He died in 1957, and the property went through various changes of name and ownership until Richard Graff, a Navy veteran with a degree in music from Harvard, bought the insolvent company, with investment from his mother, in 1965. After a great deal of trial and error, the first wines were produced in 1969. Graff was fascinated by Burgundian methods, and he introduced to California the concepts of barrel fermentation and malolactic fermentation for white wines. It wasn’t easy making wine at Chalone. The winery was a former chicken coop that held 40 barrels. The property had no electricity, water or telephone service until the early 1980s; water for irrigation had to be trucked in from Soledad, and at night oil lamps came into service. A “real” winery was constructed in 1982, but it’s more easily described as a facility than a winery; no fancy digs here, no beautiful building designed by a famous architecture, the Chalone winery consists of serviceable offices, metal sheds and tanks. That former chicken coop/winery (see accompanying image) now holds the library of Chalone’s past vintages, a collection that can make visitors downright giddy.

In 1972, Phil Woodward resigned from the accounting firm Touche Ross and joined Chalone Vineyard as vice president of finance, a position that allowed him to take over all marketing and financial matters and to bring in a group of investors and much-needed cash. Graff and Woodward shared a vision that included maintaining Chalone as a fairly small producer but expanding the company through partnerships or through the creation of new wineries in other regions of the state. Thus came about the establishment of Edna Valley Vineyard winery in San Luis Obispo County, the Carmenet winery — since 2009 a brand for cheap wines from Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co. — and Canoe Ridge in Washington and the acquisition of Acacia and Jade Mountain and Staton Hills (in Washington), renamed Sagelands Vineyard. Chalone made an initial stock offering in 1984, the first California winery to go public. The Chalone Wine Group was purchased in 2005 by beverage giant Diageo, though as Robert Cook, Chalone winemaker since 2007, said, “They take care of the books. We take care of the wine.”

Dick Graff was killed in 1998, when his single-engine Cessna went down near the town of Salinas.

The Chalone American Vitacultural Area was approved in 1982, the first AVA in Monterey County, as Chalone was its first bonded winery. Though the region now contains seven vineyards, it has only one winery, Chalone itself. As long ago as the 1890s, when Frenchman Maurice Tamm planted vines in the declivities of these long, dry slopes, the area’s unique properties — its deep calcareous soils and its paucity of rainfall, about 14 inches a year — were recognized for the demands they would make on vines to work hard for nourishment and for the element of minerality the soil contributes to the wine.
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Here are the wines we tasted, under a blue sky and bright sun, on Wednesday, September 12:
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When Doug Meador left the Navy in 1971, he thought that he would return to Washington state and his apple orchard, but friends persuaded him to go to Monterey County and help them plant a vineyard, and that was that. In 1972, he purchased land in what is now the Arroyo Seco AVA — approved in 1983 — and founded Ventana Vineyards in the western hills of the Salinas Valley and south of the town of Soledad. The name means “window” in Spanish. This California wine pioneer and experimenter sold Ventana to a group of local investors in 2006, though he retained his other brand, Meador Estate. I visited Ventana recently and was particularly impressed by the product that I’ll make the Wine of the Week.

The Ventana Estate Riesling 2010, Arroyo Seco, offers a pale straw-gold color and penetrating aromas of petrol and lychee, lime leaf and lime peel, all supported by back-notes of grapefruit and limestone. The wine is notably crisp and lively, the merest tad sweet at the entry but achingly dry from mid-palate back through a finish awash with flint-and-limestone-like minerality. There’s nothing too spare or arid here though; for one thing, the nose opens to a lovely floral influence in the jasmine and camellia range, while in the mouth the grapefruit, spiced pear and (slightly) roasted lemon flavors nicely balance tartness with moderate ripe lushness. A very comfortable 11.7 percent alcohol. Drink through 2013 or ’14 as an attractive aperitif (perhaps with Pigs in Blankets on the side) or with braised veal, shrimp risotto or mildly spicy Southeast Asian fare. Excellent. About $22.

Sometimes I taste a wine that’s so immediately pleasing and pretty, so tasty and satisfying, while not necessarily inspiring contemplation or awe, that I quickly want to let My Readers know about it. Such a wine is the Noble Vines 667 Pinot Noir 2010, Monterey County, a product of DFV Wines, operated by the third generation of the Indelicato family, whose patriarch, Italian immigrant Gasparé Indelicato, planted vines in Monterey County in 1924. After selling grapes for a decade, the family first made wine — about 1,500 cases — in 1935. Known primarily for the Delicato label, the family also produces a variety of wines under other labels, including Gnarly Head, Twisted, Irony, Brazin, Domino, Loredona, Fog Head and Noble Vines.

The Noble Vines 667 Pinot Noir 2010 bursts from the glass in a welter of fresh raspberries and cranberries, with notes of rhubarb and pomegranate, rose petals, cloves and cola; I mean, it wakes up your nose and then soothes it. In the mouth, the wine is dry, lithe, almost sinewy, sheerly cut with vibrant acidity that lays a path yet swathed in lightness and delicacy and a moderately satiny texture. From mid-palate back through the finish, gaining on the mildly spicy red and blue fruit flavors, elements of briers and brambles, graphite and potpourri pack the finish. 10,000 cases made, so there’s plenty around. Drink this uncomplicated but attractive pinot noir through 2014 with grilled salmon, roasted veal and light pasta dishes. Very Good+. About $15.

Tasted in the old wine cellar at Mission San Antonio de Padua, San Antonio Valley, Monterey County.

Hello, My Readers… How about an update on this week’s activities so far exploring some of the smaller American Viticultural Areas in Monterey County. It’s been pretty much a whirlwind of bus travel, greeting and tasting and then on to another winery or stopping point to meet with a group of winemakers. I’m writing this post at 7:20 a.m. in a Tower Room at the hacienda of William Randolph Hearst’s former cattle ranch, though as a hacienda goes, this one, designed by Julia Morgan, is palatial in scope. It also happens to be on an Army base — Hearst sold the ranch to the military in 1940 — so everyone has to show picture ID to get in. Monday, we were in Carmel Valley; yesterday we stopped in Arroyo Seco in the morning and the new San Antonio AVA in the afternoon. Today we go on to Chalone and up to The Pinnacles, where we’ll taste pinot noir and chardonnay from some of the upcoming producers in Santa Lucia Highlands, including Sabrine Rodem’s Wrath Wines and Peter Figge’s Figge Cellars, both of which have been getting attention recently. The picture included with this post is of a Barbary falcon improbably named Sugar; perhaps she has a really sweet demeanor under her fierce exterior. We saw a demonstration — the first on a wine trip for me — of how one falcon (and handler) can do the work in a day of seven beaters using mechanical means to scare away birds that feed on the grapes. It’s cheaper and more environmentally sound for the farmer or winery. Anyway, off to breakfast and another day under these incredible pure blue skies of traveling and tasting wine in Monterey County. At the conclusion of this brief travelogue, you may all return to class.

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