Monterey County


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.

Randall Grahm sold the certified biodynamic Ca’ del Solo Vineyard in Soledad in 2009, so this Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo 2007, Monterey County, is the next-to-last vintage. The vineyard’s name is a pun typical of Grahm’s well-known wit; though it sounds Italian, the name refers to the state penitentiary at Soledad, outside of whose gates the 160-acre vineyard lay, hence, House of Solo. (Ca is short for casa; the locution is common in Venice.) The presence of the prison also gave rise to Bonny Doon’s Big House brand of inexpensive wines, a label of which Grahm divested himself in 2007.

Not much nebbiolo is grown in The Golden State. According to the annual California Grape Acreage Report, in 2011 there were only 166 acres of nebbiolo, accounting for a crush of 380 tons; total number of tons of all red grapes crushed in 2011 was 1.9 million, so we can see that nebbiolo is a specialty, nurtured principally by devotees, if not fanatics.

Nothing heavily extracted here, the color of the Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo 2007 is a lovely, limpid cerise-scarlet color with a faint garnet rim. The bouquet offers aromas of dried currants and black and red cherries with spiced and macerated aspects and hints of black tea and dried orange zest with leather and rose petals. About half the grapes for this wine were air-dried before being crushed, lending subtle notes of fruitcake in the nose and succulence on the palate, though the wine is completely dry and far more elegant than obvious. The wine sees neither new wood nor small barrels (aging in tanks and puncheons of French oak), and we wish that more producers in Piedmont would return to this old-fashioned way of making Barolo and Barbaresco from their nebbiolo grapes, instead of being slaves to the allure of the barrique. Anyway, for a wine as spare and reticent as this is, it delivers juicy black and red fruit flavors supported by smooth and slightly dusty tannins that provide a bit of earthy grip on the finish; otherwise, this nebbiolo goes down like warm satin. Nor is the grape’s legendary acidity lacking; the Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo 2007 is lively and vibrant. 13.7 percent alcohol. Production was 765 cases. Drink now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $40.

This wine was a sample for review.

We drank the Ca’ del Solo Nebbiolo 2007, Monterey County, with medium rare tri-tip roast cooked (with a slight variation) according to a recipe in Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home (Artisan, 2009). This requires you to coat the meat with salt, pepper, sweet paprika and piment d’Espelette, the latter made from ground chili peppers grown only in the French Basque commune of Espelette and which I could not find anywhere, so I substituted smoked sweet paprika, Urfa pepper and chili maresh. Anyway, you wrap the roast in plastic and leave it in the refrigerator for 24 hours and take it out 30 minutes before it’s time to sear it in oil and butter with a smashed garlic, a sprig of rosemary and five thin lemon slices; the garlic, rosemary and lemon slices are placed on top of the roast and it all goes into a 300-degree oven for about 40 minutes. Be sure to let the roast rest on a plate or cutting board for half an hour before slicing to let the juices redistribute. Tri-tip is not the most tender cut (which is why it’s relatively inexpensive) but it delivers a lovely, mild meaty flavor, enhanced, in this recipe, by the piquant spiciness of the coating. If you don’t have the cookbook, the blog Rocket Lunch reproduced the recipe here. We ate the tri-tip, sliced thinly, with roasted potatoes and a succotash of fresh corn, edamame and red bell pepper. A great dinner and bottle of wine.

I love rosés. There, I said it and I’m not sorry. Once the temperature goes above 70, I’m ready to be charmed and delighted by these pale, dry, stony evocations of sun and wind and dusty herb gardens and hot stones and bowls of dried or fresh and spiced fruit. Today we look at a group of rosé wines that includes examples from the South of France, their natural home; from France’s Loire Valley; and from diverse areas of California: North Coast, Central Coast and Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey. The range of grapes is diverse too, mainly reds that we associate with Provence, the Rhone Valley and Languedoc — syrah, grenache, cinsault and mourvèdre — but also pinot noir, cabernet franc and even pinot gris, whose pinky-gray skin — it’s nominally a “white” grape — can impart the slightest pale hue to the wine. Rosés are versatile in their relationship with food, and we tend to drink them throughout the Spring and Summer with just about everything from snacks and appetizers to entrees except fish, which can make the wines taste metallic. Whether you’re feeling carefree or care-worn, a crisp, dry elegant rosé will perform wonders at elevating the mood and creating a fine ambiance.

The French rosés here were tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event; the others were samples for review.
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Saint Martin de la Garrigue “Tradition” Rosé 2011, Coteaux du Languedoc. 13.5% alc. 50% cinsault, 30% syrah, 20% grenache. Pale melon color with a slight violet tinge; classically proportioned, dry, austere; raspberry and a touch of tart cranberry, dusty and herbal, wet stones, flint and chalk. Very Good+. About $15.
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Eric Chevalier Pinot Noir Rosé 2011, Vin de Pays du Val de Loire. 11.5% alc. Ruddy copper-salmon color; dried currants and raspberries, hint of mulberry; provocative whiffs of thyme and white pepper; chalk and limestone, crisp, tense acidity, with a spicy, flinty finish. Excellent. About $15, representing Great Value.
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Domaine de Fontsainte Gris de Gris Rosé 2011, Corbières. 12.5% alc. 70% grenache, 10% each mourvèdre, carignane, cinsault. Pale copper-salmon color; very floral, very spicy, compote-like maceration of strawberries and raspberries highlighted by dried spice; limestone and flint, slightly dusty and earthy, touch of dried thyme; crisp and lively. Super attractive. Very Good+. About $16.
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Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2011, Central Coast. 13.5% alc. 73% grenache, 10% mourvèdre, 8% grenache blanc, 5% roussanne, 4% cinsault. Pale yet radiant melon-copper color; fresh and dried strawberries and red currants, hint of watermelon with an overlay of peach skin; a little dusty, earthy and brambly; very dry, spare, elegant, an infusion of macerated fruit with scintillating liquid limestone. Excellent. About $16, a Real Bargain.
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Domaine de Reuilly Pinot Gris Rosé 2011, Loire Valley. 12% alc. Very pale onion skin color; dried raspberries and red currants, quite dry, spare, elegant; lots of stones and bones and crisp acidity; hints of roses and lilacs; buoyant tenseness and tautness balanced by an almost succulent texture. Really attractive and tasty. Excellent. About $20.
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V. Sattui Rosato 2011, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Grenache, syrah, carignane grapes. A Florida of a rose, that is, florid, floral, the color of hibiscus, the scent of roses, violets, strawberries and raspberries, cloves, hints of orange rind and peach; more layered and substantial than most rosés, like what in Bordeaux is called clairette, falling between a rosé and a full-blown red wine; savory limestone and spice-laden finish. This could age a year. Excellent. About $21.75.
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Charles Joguet Chinon Rosé 2011, Loire Valley. 100% cabernet franc. Very pale melon color; ripe and fleshy yet cool, dry, packed with limestone and bright acidity, a touch austere; spice-infused red currants and raspberries. Very Good+. About $22.
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La Rochelle Pinot Noir Rosé 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 12.5% alc. Very pale shimmering onion skin color; very dry, spare, austere; imbued with nuances of spiced and slightly macerated red currants and raspberries and, as in a dream, an evocative and fleeting scent of dried rose petals; structure is all clean acidity and honed limestone. A superior rosé. 119 cases. Excellent. About $24, and Worth a Search.
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Since 2003, Bonny Doon’s Le Cigare Blanc has consistently been one of the best Rhone-style white wines made in California. The high quality continues with the version for 2010, a blend of 55 percent grenache blanc grapes and 45 percent roussanne grown in the bio-dynamic Beeswax Vineyard, in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County, south of Soledad. This is mainly white grape territory, with chardonnay and riesling leading the pack. Beeswax, indeed, since the wine exudes in plenty the characteristic waxiness of the grapes and a touch of small waxy white flowers, like camellias, to which add roasted lemon and lemon balm, spiced pears and yellow plums and hints of bay leaf, hay and leafy fig. The wine is ripe and spicy and savory — there’s a fleck of rosemary-like or pine-like resin — yet its juicy pear, peach and fig flavors are allied to a sense of spareness and astringency; there’s nothing opulent or voluptuous strung on this glittering structure of plangent acidity and scintillating limestone, aspects reinforced by the long, lively, spice-packed and faintly bitter finish. 12.7 percent alcohol, and boy, it’s a long time since I saw a wine from California with that little alcohol. Winemaker was Randall Grahm. This was terrific with asparagus risotto with roasted garlic and shiitake mushrooms. Now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $24.

A sample for review.


Oops, not exactly Friday, is it? I must have fallen into the sinkhole of the space-time continuum. Anyway, no theme today, just a group of wines that I tasted recently, some of which I liked and a few that I didn’t. That’s the breaks, n’est-ce pas? As usual in the erstwhile Friday Wine Sips, I eschew most technical, historical and geographical data for the sake of incisive reviews of blitzkrieg intensity. Included today are a delightful pinot noir rosé from Sonoma County, two excellent chardonnays (one from Carneros, one from New Zealand) and an inexpensive red wine blend from the “South of France” that’s worth a search for devotees of organic products.

These were all samples for review.
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Toad Hollow Eye of the Toad Rosé of Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma County. 11.5% alc. Pure strawberry and raspberry with undertones of pear, melon and peach skin; a hints of orange rind, almond blossom and limestone; quite dry but soft and juicy; more stones and bones on the finish. Delightful. Very Good+. About $13, a Great Bargain.
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Craggy Range Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. 13% alc. A lovely, delicate, elegant chardonnay, yet very spicy, slightly resinous (as in a hint of rosemary), touched of roasted lemon, pineapple and grapefruit with a tinge of mango; underlying richness and complexity, quite dry, always mindful of balance and poise. More than charming, attractively individual. Excellent. About $21.
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Nickel & Nickel Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. Rich but beautifully balanced, bold but not brassy; classic pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors deeply infused with cloves and allspice, hints of lemon and honeysuckle; a golden and sunny chardonnay with a sheen of deft oak, ripe and slightly creamy yet with a prominent limestone edge. Pure, intense, sophisticated. Excellent. About $50.
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Naked Earth 2009, Vin de Pays d’Oc (though the front label says “South of France”). 12.5% alc. Merlot 50%, cabernet sauvignon 25%, grenache 20%, carignan 5%. Certified organic. Surprising character for the price and geographic anonymity; dark ruby color; cedar, tobacco, black olives; black currants and plums; lavender and violets, touch of new leather; dry, dusty tannins, almost velvety texture, spicy black fruit flavors, lipsmacking acidity. Worth seeking out. Very Good. About $12, representing Real Value.
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Green Truck Zinfandel 2009, Mendocino County. 13.5% alc. Certified organic. A generic red wine with wild berries and brambles, very dusty tannins and heaps of graphite-like minerality. People searching for organic wine deserve better. Good. About $14.
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Murphy-Goode Merlot 2009, California. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby color with a lighter rim; toasty oak, caraway and celery seed; cherries, plums and raspberries; very dry, disjointed plus a vanilla backnote. Not recommended. About $14.
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Murphy-Goode Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California. 13.5% alc. Better than the merlot but still fairly ordinary; attractive heft and texture, ripe and spicy black currant, black raspberry and plum scents and flavors, nice balance among fruit, acidity and mildly dusty chewy tannins. Very Good. About $14.
Note that both of these Murphy-Goode products carry a California appellation instead of Sonoma County and are “vinted” rather than “produced,” which means that consumers have no idea whence within the state the grapes came or where the wine was made. Jackson Family Wines acquired Murphy-Goode in 2006.
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Mark West Pinot Noir 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands. 14.2% alc. Dark ruby color with a paler ruby edge; black cherry and leather, cola and cloves; hits all the necessary points without being compelling; dense, chewy tannins, swingeing acidity, very dry with a dusty, earthy, mineral-flecked finish. Very Good. About $14. (Sorry, the price is actually about $19.)
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Davis Bynum Pinot Noir 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. You gotta like wood to like this one. At first, subtly woven black cherry, mulberry, smoke, cola and woody spice (cloves, sandalwood), then you feel the oak sneak up, as it were, from the back to front, smothering everything in its path. Not my cuppa tea. Good. About $35.
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An overall satisfying, even in some instances great group of pinot noir wines, examples touching the winemaking borders limits of California, from Anderson Valley in the north to Santa Maria Valley in the south. Different interpretations, assuredly, diverse approaches to the notoriously difficult grape, but all feeling authentic and legitimate, though my taste runs to the more refined and elegant; and, blessedly, though the use of oak, of course, varies, none of these is burdened with or buried by too much wood. As usual in the Friday Wine Sips, I dispense with the minutiae of technical, historical and geographical data in order to deliver to my readers incisive and provocative yet thoughtful reviews, though I admit that a couple of these run a tad longer than I intend for this space, but then, come on, it’s pinot noir I’m writing about. With one exception, these were samples for review. The order is alphabetical. I’m posting this fairly late at night, but it’s still Friday in the USA.

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Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County. 14.4% alc. Elegant and sophisticated at first, but becomes more intense and concentrated, a real mouthful of smoky black cherry and rhubarb, violets and lilac, hints of briers and brambles, sassafras, roots and moss, i.e., quite earthy and then quite spicy; deeply satiny texture, lithe and supple too, flows coolly through the mouth; but you feel the tug of oak from mid-palate through the finish. For those who like a muscular pinot noir. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $35.
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Foley Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 14.3% alc. Medium ruby color with a tinge of magenta; incredible perfume: beet-root and root beer, rose hips and strawberry leaf, violets and sandalwood, black cherry and red currants, and then a gentle surge of austerity in brambles and forest floor and finely-honed graphite; in the mouth, more serious than you might think, deeply earthy, multi-dimensioned, yet suave, sleek, supple, satiny; black tea with cloves and cinnamon, orange zest; black and red fruit flavors, a beautifully burnished, balanced, transparent finish. Beautiful. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $40.
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Foursight “Zero” Pinot Noir 2009, Charles Vineyard, Anderson Valley, Mendocino. 13.5% alc. “Zero” does not mean no oak but second-year and older barrels. Gosh, what a lovely gentle delicate yet darkly radiant sifting of finely-meshed, cloud-like tannins; ripe and slightly macerated red currants, plums and mulberries; earthy briers, brambles and leather; and baskets of dried flowers and spices. A model of pinot noir purity and intensity. Perfect with a roasted chicken; I could drink it every day. 360 cases and Worth a Search. Excellent. About $38.
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Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, Mendocino. 13.9 % alc. So, how is the “regular” Foursight Pinot Noir ’09 different from its stablemate mentioned above? This is also quite alluring and exhibits similar purity and intensity of expression and character; fruit falls into the range of red and black cherries and cranberries with more emphasis on spice than flowers and just a haze of smoky (but not toasty) oak. As with the previous wine, balance and integration of all elements feel inextricable, tightly woven yet generous and expansive, a touch lithe and sinewy yet with a seductive satiny drape. Now through 2015 or ’16. 405 cases and also Worth a Search. Excellent. About $46.
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MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 14.5% alc. Riveting purity and intensity; vivid yet somehow transparent or at least infinitely delicate black cherry and mulberry scents and flavors highlighted by subtle notes of sassafras and lightly toasted Asian spices; sleek, supple and a little spare, with flavors partaking more of plums as moments pass; a real dreamboat of a pinot noir with an understanding of its darker nature. Now through 2013 or ’14. 600 six-pack cases produced. Excellent. About $35.
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MacMurray Ranch Winemaker’s Block Selection Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Loads of presence and tone yet ineffable balance and integration; lots going on, plums and more plums, with black and red cherries and hints of mulberry and rhubarb, undertones of cola and cloves, but it doesn’t feel fussy or overdone, all is smooth and finely-meshed; dense texture, satin transmuting to velvet but held in check by the ballast of earthy underbrush and a bit of foresty austerity. I like rather more reticence in pinot noir (as in the previous wine and the two Foursights), but this reveals thoughtful wine-making. Now through 2014 to ’16. Production was 600 six-pack cases. Excellent. About $60.
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Friday again, so soon, time flies, seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and then it’s like why didn’t I drink more wine? So, here’s your chance! Today’s Friday Wine Sips are mainly from California except for an Argentine malbec I threw in to mess with your heads this morning. As usual, I eschew technical data for the sake of brevity, punch, vim and vigor. Seven wines here, arranged by price; six recommended, one emphatically not. These were all samples for review, as I am required to inform you by the Federal Trade Commission.
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Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. Bright and bold but not flashy or overdressed; classic pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors freighted with notes of green apple and cloves, a hint of some floral aspect; very dry but juicy, lively and taut with acidity and a sinewy limestone element but a lovely, almost lush powdery texture; a zing of grapefruit and flint on the finish. Very attractive. Very Good+. About $13.50, a Raving Bargain.
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Conundrum, 2009, California. 13.5% alc. The famous mystery white blend from Caymus, though the grapes are chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, muscat canelli, viognier and semillon. Radiant medium straw-gold color; mango and jasmine, roasted lemon and cinnamon toast; you feel the oak in the presence of a touch of toffee and spicy baked pears; quite spicy altogether, hints of lychee, lemongrass and petrol; lovely talc-like texture balanced by bright acidity and limestone. The best Conundrum in years. Current release is 2010 but the ’09 is still widely available. Excellent. About $18.
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Parley The Bookmaker 2009, California. 14.5% alc. 70% cabernet sauvignon, with zinfandel, petite sirah and petit verdot. From Ramian Estate. Pick up a cheeseburger with one hand and a glass of this robust wine with the other. Black currants, black raspberry and plums; laden with smoke and spice, potpourri, thyme and cedar, a hint of graphite minerality; rambunctious and slightly shaggy tannins wedded to svelte oak; long sleek, dusty finish. 570 cases. Very Good+. About $19.
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Morgan Syrah 2009, Monterey County. 13.8% alc. Blackberry and black raspberry with undertones of blueberry and mulberry; lavender and violets, cloves and sandalwood; a deep exotic core of bittersweet chocolate, moss and smoked Russian tea; quite earthy, a little rustic and muscular but eminently drinkable, balanced and integrated. Very Good+. About $20.
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Mer Soleil Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 14.5% alc. Medium gold color with green highlights; big, rich, bold, brassy; very ripe, very spicy, very toasty; mango, pineapple and grapefruit, buttered toast, toffee, brown sugar, coconut crème brûlée, bananas Foster; full-bodied, rampant ripeness and oak; a woody stridently spicy finish. Who would want to make such an exaggerated “chardonnay”? Who would want to drink it? Not recommended. About $32.
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Colomé Estate Malbec 2010, Calchaqui, Salta, Argentina. 14.5% alc. Dark ruby-purple color; intense and concentrated; walnut shell and rosemary, cedar and bay leaf, black currants, black raspberry and blueberry; a combination of austere and juicy with deep, dry dusty tannins and huge reserves of oak and dry woody spices. Try from 2014 to 2018 or ’20. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $30.
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Hidden Ranch 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County. 14% alc. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Ripe, fleshy and meaty, intense and concentrated black currants, black cherries and plums; graphite right through the core to the bottom; mint, dried thyme and bay leaf, earthy and loamy; huge power of dynamic fine-grained tannins, vibrant acidity and a great undertow of polished oak, but boy this is lithe and sleek and seductive. A tremendous achievement. Best from 2013 or ’14 through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $45.
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