Monterey County



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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Today, Friday Wine Sips offers 10 white wines and two reds, the whites mainly chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, mainly California but touching down in Italy, Spain and France, the reds collage-like blends, one from California, the other from Argentina.

As usual, I dispense with matters technical, geographical, climatic, philosophical, historical, anthropological, psychological, heretical and hermeneutic to focus on quick, incisive reviews that get at the essence of the wine. These were samples for review or tasted at wholesalers’ trade events.

By the way, I was curious, so I went back and checked through the Friday Wine Sips series, which I launched on January 5, to see how many brief reviews I’ve done, and counting this post today, it’s 86 wines. That’s a lot of juice.
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Hess Select Sauvignon Blanc 2010, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Very dry, crisp and lively, with pert acidity and a sleek texture; kiwi, celery seed, tarragon; tangerine, lemongrass and grapefruit skin, with a touch of citrus rind bitterness on the finish. Uncomplicated and tasty. Very Good. About $11.
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Cortenova Pinot Grigio 2009, Veneto, Italy. (% alc. NA) Clean and fresh, hints of roasted lemon and lemon balm with almond and almond blossom and an undertone of pear; the citrus spectrum in a smooth, crisp, bright package; good character and heft for the price. Very Good. About $13.
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Chateau Suau Bordeaux Blanc 2010, Cotes de Bordeaux, France. (% alc. NA) 55% sauvignon blanc, 35% semillon, 10% muscadelle. A lovely white Bordeaux, brisk and refreshing, bordering on elegance; pear and peach, jasmine and honeysuckle, surprising hint of pineapple; all suppleness and subtlety but in a lively arrangement of balancing elements. Very Good+. About $15, representing Great Value.
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Shannon Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Lake County. 13.5% alc. Crisp and sassy, with tremendous appeal; quince and ginger, lemongrass and peach, lime peel and grapefruit and fennel seed, all intense and forward; animated, provocative in its spiciness, its leafy herbal qualities and alert acidity running through steely citrus flavors. Very Good+. About $16, a Real Bargain.
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Valminor Albariño 2010, Rías Baixas, Spain. 12.5% alc. This boldly spicy and savory albarino offers real grip and limestone fortitude with enticing citrus and grapefruit scents and flavors, whiffs of jasmine and camellia, hints of apple skin and roasted pear; eminently refreshing, spring rain and sea-salt with a bracing punch of earth and bitterness on the finish. One of the best albariños. Excellent. About $20.
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Hall Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley. 14.8% alc. An organic wine. Pale straw color with faint green highlights; nectarine, pear and melon, dried thyme, cloves and a hint of fig, jasmine and honeysuckle; dry, smooth, suave; bright brisk acidity, scintillating limestone element; ethereal spareness and elegance of lemon, pear and grapefruit flavors. Excellent. About $20.
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Benessere Pinot Grigio 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley. 13.9% alc. Pretty exotic for a pinot grigio but super-attractive; pale straw color; apple peel, orange zest, roasted lemon and pear; cloves and clover, touch of mango; nicely balanced between moderately lush texture and zippy acidity, crisp and lively but just an undertow of richness; lemon and tangerine with a touch of peach skin; long spicy finish. 895 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Molnar Family Poseidon’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Uncommonly spicy and savory; deep, rich, full-bodied, yet so light on its feet, so agile, deft and balanced; classic pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors, exhilarating feeling of limestone and river rock minerality; smoke, cloves, cinnamon, hint of sandalwood, yeah, a little exotic but nothing overstated, and blessedly avoids any overtly tropical element. Excellent. About $24.
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Black Dog Cellars Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. (% alc. NA) Exactly the kind of chardonnay I would drink all the time: lovely purity and intensity of the grape; exquisite balance and integration of all features; pale straw-gold color; pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors highlighted by cloves and limestone; oak lends firmness, suavity and suppleness; there’s a touch of camellia in the nose, and an intriguing bit of resinous grip in the long resonant finish, all bound by acidity you could practically strum like a harp. Sadly only 313 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Morgan “Highland” Chardonnay 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 13.8% alc. Bright straw-gold color; fresh, clean, boldly spicy, apple, pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors, just a hint of mango; lovely finesse, balance and integration; rich but not creamy pineapple and grapefruit flavors, touch of cloves and buttered cinnamon toast, all beautifully modulated; limestone and flint come in on the finish. Excellent. About $26.
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And two reds:
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Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red 2009, Lake County. 14.2% alc. 38% zinfandel, 18% tempranillo, 13% barbera, 12% merlot, 12% cabernet sauvignon, 7% grenache. A pastiche of grapes that produced a warm, spicy, fleshy fruity and engaging wine; dark ruby-magenta color; cassis and blueberry, lavender, lilac and licorice; graphite and shale; hint of cloves and vanilla; quite dry, but juicy with black and blue fruit flavors supported by dense chewy tannins and burnished oak. Great for pizzas, burgers and such. Very Good+. About $17.
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Amalaya 2010, Calcahquí, Salta, Argentina. 14% alc. Malbec 75%, cabernet sauvignon 15%, tannat 5%, syrah 5%. Dark ruby-purple color; what a nose: rose hips and fruitcake, walnut shell, black currants, black raspberries and blueberries, cocoa powder and bittersweet chocolate, graphite; in the mouth, very dry, very intense and concentrated, amid the tightly-packed tannins and firm oak a deep core of spiced and macerated blackberries and currants, lavender and licorice, briers and brambles. Needs a grateful steak. Very Good+. About $17.
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One feature of writing about wine that I especially enjoy is trying products from wineries that I’ve never encountered. Such a one is Manzoni Vineyards, a small family-owned and operated estate in Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands. The winery traces its origin to Joseph Manzoni, who left Switzerland for the New World in 1921 and established a dairy business in the Salinas Valley, an area south of San Francisco that supplies a huge amount of the vegetables that Americans consume. (The town of Salinas is the seat of Monterey County.) Manzoni eventually shifted to cash crop farming, a tradition his descendants continue even as the third generation, Mark and Michael Manzoni, maintain their vineyards and make their elegant, understated wines. The winery was founded in 1990, with imported clones planted in 1999.

These wines were samples for review.
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The Manzoni Home Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, is an individual but not eccentric rendition of the grape, one that embodies pinot noir’s innate balance between elegance and power. The color is dark ruby with a tinge of magenta at the rim; seductive aromas of melon ball, rhubarb and black cherry with a hint of cranberry are woven with cola and sandalwood, earth and leather, rose petal and camellia. You could stop right there and just smell this wine, except that you would miss a lovely satiny texture that robes slightly spiced and macerated black and red fruit flavors beautifully poised and integrated with a subtle, supple oak influence and enough tannins to give the wine a firm but unobtrusive framework and foundation. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 441 cases. Drink now through 2014. Excellent. About $26.
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What a pleasure to try a syrah that doesn’t think it has to grab your tongue, plow your palate and run over you with a Harley to make its effects known. What I first want to point out in respect to the Manzoni Home Vineyard Syrah 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, is that its tannins are beautiful; I don’t think I have said that about a wine in almost 28 years of writing about the subject. These tannins feel as if they had been sanded with very fine sandpaper and buffed with chamois; they fill the mouth, formidably yet softly, almost cloud-like yet with a particular intensity of purpose and integration. These tannins are married to piercing minerality in the infinitesimally-grained granite and graphite range, all of this subject to the authority of lively acidity and deep mossy earthiness. Red and black currants, blackberries and blueberries form the core of the wine’s fruit aspects, permeated by notes of lavender and licorice, smoky potpourri and bittersweet chocolate and, in the finish, a slight bite of wet fur and ash. Absolutely classic. I would rather drink this wine than a thousand over-ripe, over-oaked, high-alcohol blockbuster syrahs. 14.2 percent alcohol. 494 cases. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $26.
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The Bandwagon Chardonnay 2009, Monterey County, is completely delightful. Yes, the 2010 version is on the market, but plenty of this 09 is available in stores. The wine was made by Tony Leonardini, hence the name of his outfit, The Little Lion Wine Company. (Leonardini’s parents own Whitehall Lane Winery, and he grew up in the wine business.) Bandwagon Chardonnay 2009, made entirely in stainless steel, is a pale straw-gold color; lovely aromas of ripe apples and pears reveal hints of mango and jasmine with a background of cloves and limestone. Pineapple and grapefruit flavors, with touches of spice and smoke, are deftly balanced by pert acidity and a burgeoning mineral element through the finish; the texture is silky-smooth but lively and appealing. There’s a lot of character here for the price. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink through Summer 2012. Very Good+. About $16.
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For the second choice in this twofer Wines of the Week, let’s turn to the Keenan Chardonnay 2009, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Boy, this is so fresh and clean and pure, so scintillating yet subtly layered that it’s irresistible. Eighty percent of the wine fermented in barrels, with the other 20 percent in stainless steel; the wine spent seven months aging in oak but with no malolactic fermentation. The result is remarkable intensity and dimension married to elegance and suavity. Classic notes of pineapple and grapefruit are permeated by quince and crystallized ginger and a hint of cloves; there’s nothing tropical or buttery here, thank goodness, just a sheen of nuanced oak balanced with bright citrus flavors, chiming acidity and an almost palate-tickling limestone quality. A chardonnay to revel in for its integrity, authenticity and charm. 13.9 percent alcohol. Consulting winemaker is the venerable Nils Venge. Production was 2,600 cases. Drink through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $30.

These wines were samples for review.
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It’s not easy to find inexpensive, well-made, varietally authentic pinot noir; the sensitive grape rarely reveals its allure for cheap-seats treatment. Such a good one, however, can be had in the Estancia “Pinnacles Ranches” Pinot Noir 2010, Monterey County. Estancia began in 1986 as a Franciscan Vineyards label for moderately priced wines from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley. After the Franciscan owners bought acreage in Monterey County, however, and built a winery, eventually all activity centered on Estancia’s Pinnacle Ranches vineyard in Monterey, that is, until 1999, when vineyards in Paso Robles were also acquired. Franciscan was a troubled winery that between its founding in 1973 and 1979 went through four ownerships; it only began to prosper when Agustin Huneeus took over in 1985. It’s interesting that the websites for Franciscan and Estancia don’t mention that the wineries have been owned by Constellation Brands since 1998; in fact, Constellation’s fine wine division was called Franciscan Estates until 2005, when that segment of the business was renamed Icon Estates.

Anyway — the tangled workings and ravelings of the California wine industry aside — the Estancia Pinot Noir 2010 is a child of whole-cluster fermentation, native yeasts and gravity-flow systems, which is why, I assume, that the label asserts that the wine was “Handcrafted” and “Artisan Grown,” though I find the latter designation pretty nebulous; one imagines the artisans in their smocks and berets lightly treading the rows and gently snipping grape clusters one by one. Anyway — sorry — the Estancia Pinot Noir ’10 derives from the producer’s Pinnacles vineyards and also from its vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands. Attractive aromas of smoky black cherry, cranberry and rhubarb are woven with notes of cola and cloves, while a satiny, supple texture testifies to 10 months oak aging. Lip-smacking viscosity, pert acidity and fine-grained tannins support ripe black cherry and plum flavors suffused with slightly earthy elements of moss and brambles, with a hint of graphite in the background. Actually, despite my quips and quibbles, this is a model of an inexpensive pinot noir with a gratifying amount of personality for the price. Alcohol content is a sensible 13.5 percent. Drink through 2013. Very Good+. About $16.

A sample for review.

Sequana Vineyards produces only pinot noir wines from Russian River Valley, in Sonoma County, and Santa Lucia Highlands, in Monterey County. These are elegant pinots that eloquently express the marriage of delicacy and grace with resonance and power. Winemaker is James MacPhail. The winery is part of the Hess Family Estates.

These wines were samples for review.
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The color of the Sequana Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, is a lovely, limpid medium ruby hue; lovely, too, is the sense of classic balance, tone and integration represented by a seamless amalgam of smoky red and black cherries and red and black currants with hints of rhubarb, cola and cloves, all consistent in nose and mouth, where an ultra-satiny texture is buoyed by pert acidity. The wine aged nine months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels, a process that contributed spice and suppleness to the package. Irresistible. You could drink this pinot noir all day; actually, I think I did. 13.9 percent alcohol. 6,202 cases. Now through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $32.
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The Sequana Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley, is a little knottier than its cousin from Santa Lucia Highlands, denser and spicier, with more earthy and mineral elements; this is warm and attractive, like plum coffee cake with touches of rose petals and violets, a hint of leather and sassafras, black and red cherries. There’s a bit more tannic grip here; the wine is slightly less gorgeous than the model from Santa Lucia Highlands, yet with its briery-brambly aspects and some dark graphite-like minerality and depth, it also feels more grown-up. It aged 11 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. 13.9 percent alcohol. 2,350 cases. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $38.
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We expect a certain amount of character from a single-vineyard wine, else why make the wine at all and promote it as such? The Sequana Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2009, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, delivers. The wine is quite intense, dense, pure, even a bit grave; it calls forth the whole panoply of potpourri, dried baking spices (with an extensive into the exotic, like sandalwood and sassafras), fresh and dried floral elements, and fresh and dried red and black fruit qualities, all ensconced in a super-satiny texture enlivened with ringing acidity that cuts a swath on the palate. A backbone of tannin, slightly dusty and granite-flecked, keeps this pinot noir firmly in place. The wine aged nine months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. 13.8 percent alcohol. 514 cases were produced. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $45.
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The history is complicated.

The Mirassou family has been in the wine business in California since 1854, qualifying them for a place among the industry’s pioneering pantheon. For most of the first century, the family grew grapes in Santa Clara and (discounting Prohibition) sold bulk wine. I won’t go into all the details of the family’s splits, buy-outs and mergers as the generations succeeded each other — Charles L. Sullivan provides the narrative in the essential A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California press, 1998) — except to say that by the mid 1960s Mirassou had moved decisively into bottling varietal wine and that they were crowded out of Santa Clara by suburban development and had expanded to Monterey, buying some 600 acres in the northern part of the county.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Mirassou struggled with quality and finally achieved the sort of standards and technical ability that result in decent and drinkable and sometimes more than decent wines. Production centered on about 70 percent white wine — the “White Burgundy,” mostly pinot blanc, and the Harvest Reserve Chardonnay being notable — 10 percent sparkling wine and 20 percent in red.

In 2002, the family’s fifth generation sold the brand to Gallo, which uses it for cheap, innocuous bottlings; the family retained the winery and property, then reduced to 15 acres by encroaching habitation and commercial endeavor. The name was changed to La Rochelle, in honor of the French sea-coast town from which Louis and Pierre Pellier embarked for America (bringing with them what would become California’s first pinot noir vines); in 1881, Pierre H. Mirassou married Pierre Pellier’s daughter Henriette, who was already running her father’s vineyards, thus paving the way for the Mirrasou enterprise.

In June, 2005, as reported by W. Blake Gray in the San Francisco Chronicle, brothers Daniel and Peter Mirassou sold the La Rochelle brand to their cousin, Steven Kent Mirassou, who owns the Steven Kent Winery, a producer of small edition cabernet sauvignon in Livermore, east of San Francisco Bay. La Rochelle now concentrates on limited release pinot noir wines from vineyards throughout California and in Oregon. Some of those pinot noirs, which I find fairly unpinot-like, will be our focus in this post. In fact, I thought that these wines displayed an alarming variance in quality, tone and effect. Winemaker is Tom Stutz.

These were samples for review. The Mirassou labels in this section are from my wine notebook for 1983.
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First, if you can possibly get your hands on a case or a few bottles of La Rochelle Pinot Noir Rosé 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, do so. This is perhaps the best rosé from California (or the “New World”) that I tasted this year. Color is pale but radiant onion skin with a light copper glow; it’s all dried red currants, Rainier cherries, melon ball and a hint of spiced peach; a lovely almost satiny texture made vital and vibrant by crisp acidity and a scintillating limestone element. Loads of personality yet quietly elegant. 13.2 percent alcohol. Production was 157 cases. Excellent. About $22, and Worth a Search.
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La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, seems pretty over-heated and syrah-like for a Russian River pinot. It’s very spicy and slightly sweet, with powerful waves of cloves, cinnamon and Red Hots permeating intense aromas and flavors of black and red cherries with a touch of dried red currants and blueberries; a beguiling floral element, bursting with violets and rose petals, is immediately apparent. The texture is blatantly and sleek satiny but neither heavy nor obvious, though the finish starts to fall apart, not knowing if it’s meant to be dry, briery and earthy or super-ripe, candied and glossy. Shall I be generous and call this wine a curiosity rather than a failure? 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 137 cases. Drink now, if you’re of a mind, through 2013 or ’14. Very Good. About $42.
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A shadow darker, a shade more subdued is La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast — and also more balanced and integrated than the Russian River version mentioned above. It’s actually fairly placid and brooding, though not truculent, definitely earthier and more deeply imbued with graphite-like minerality, still managing, however, to display aspects of finesse and gradations of spice (instead of an assault) that marry well with the delicious but almost spare black and blue fruit flavors layered with notes of briers, brambles and forest floor. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 156 cases. Drink now through 2012 or ’14. Very Good+. About $42.
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La Rochelle Pinot Noir La Cruz Vineyard 2008, Sonoma Coast, is unabashedly gorgeous and seductive, star-making qualities to be sure but not necessarily the first aspects one thinks of pertaining to the grape. The fine print reveals the fact that this wine carries 15.3 percent alcohol, a heady element perhaps accounting for a bouquet of black cherry compote, spiced and macerated cranberries, mulberries and plums, though backnotes of mint and iodine and graphite-like minerality provide a bit of leavening. Violets and roses, yes, plum pudding, the latter also prominent in the profile of ripe and roasted black cherry and currant flavors steeped in cloves and sassafras, with some notion of briers and brambles hinting at a foresty layer. The wine is potent with alcohol, and the dry, austere finish feels rather flat-footed. A pinot for zinfandel-lovers. Drink now through 2013 to ’14. Production was 171 cases. Very Good. About $48.
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Despite the 15.3 percent alcohol, La Rochelle Sarmento Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, initially displays a modicum of the fleetness, finesse and elegance and the black cherry, cranberry, rhubarb and cola notes that we associate with the best pinot noir wines. On the other hand, sadly, its excessively spicy, assertively macerated and roasted nature tends to overshadow those qualities and bring to the foreground obtrusive elements of brown sugar and caramel and high alcohol’s over-ripeness and cloying sweetness; a good pinot noir should have a satiny texture, but this is almost viscous. In the end, one cannot figure out exactly what this wine is supposed to be. Drastically unbalanced. 141 cases. Not recommended. About $48.
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Finally and thankfully — I loved La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Cruz Mountains, the most balanced, integrated and seemingly authentic of these five pinot noir wines, excluding the rosé, which, as you’ll note above, I also adored. The color is an entrancing cherry-cerise with a dark ruby center; classic aromas of black cherry and blueberry tart — this is California — are generously wreathed with touches of rhubarb and cola, moss and leather, briers and brambles, all seamless, reserved, tranquil. In the mouth, this pinot noir expands into more earthy, mossy, foresty realms that provide ballast for ravishing black and blue fruit flavors that gain flesh, ripeness and substance after 20 or 30 minutes in the glass. The texture is lovely, smooth, satiny, flowing, the finish sweetly delineated, long, spicy. A beautiful pinot for drinking through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.9 percent, high for pinot noir in my book but not obvious here. 138 cases. Excellent. About $38 and Worth a Search.
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By “accessible” I mean more widely available and less expensive than the winery’s single-vineyard chardonnays, typically produced in lots fewer then 500 cases. What I’m talking about are the very popular Morgan “Metallico” Chardonnay 2010, Monterey County, and the Morgan “Highland” Chardonnay 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey, each of which serves as a sort of microcosm of the winery’s concerns and techniques. Dan Lee and his wife Donna founded Morgan Winery in 1982, while he was winemaker for Durney Vineyards. They now have 48.5 acres of vines, as well as the Lee Family Farm. Winemaker for Morgan is Gianni Abate.

These were samples for review.
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The Morgan “Metallico” Chardonnay 2010 draws grapes mainly from Santa Lucia Highlands but also from the slightly warmer Arroyo Seco area of Monterey County. The wine sees no oak, fermenting and aging in stainless steel tanks, and going through no malolactic fermentation to retain ultimate freshness and crispness. This is a lively, appealing chardonnay, sporting a pale straw-gold color and attractive aromas of pineapple and grapefruit and touches of roasted lemon and spiced pear; a few minutes in the glass bring out hints of tangerine and jasmine. The texture is a beguiling amalgam of talc-like softness and lushness balanced by taut acidity and burgeoning limestone and wet shale elements that ensconce ripe, spicy flavors of pineapple, grapefruit and lemon drop, highlighted with a hint of ginger. The finish is medium-length, yet finely drawn and slightly austere with stones and bones. Lovely purity and intensity and brilliant with swordfish seared medium-rare. Buy by the case and drink over the next year. 14.1 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $20.
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What do you get for six dollars more? The grapes for the Morgan “Highland” Chadonnay 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, derive from some of the vineyards that provide Morgan with its best single-designation chardonnays and pinot noirs, namely Double L and Rosella’s. The wine ages a careful nine and a half months in a combination of 25 percent new French oak barrels with one- and two-year-old barrels and some number of neutral barrels, meaning well-used, the overall effect being a gentle, subtle shaping of the wine with appropriate suppleness and spiciness that brings out the best in the fruit without overwhelming it; you do, though, feel that oak, a sense of woody blondness, if I can say that, through the long, almost muscular finish. The color is medium straw-gold; the bouquet is bright and boldly spicy, featuring hints of roasted lemon, lemon balm and lemon curd permeated by slight tinges of banana and mango, ginger and yellow plums. This is rich and luscious but fortunately cut by the tang and tingle of rigorous acidity and a powerful limestone character that grounds the wine in the earth. Juicy, full-bodied, delicious. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14, well-stored. Excellent. About $26.
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