Mount Veeder


By “all over the map,” I don’t mean that every sub-AVA of the Napa Valley is represented in this post, seventh in a series. True, Mount Veeder is here and Howell Mountain and Rutherford, but what I actually refer to is the technical and stylistic map upon which these examples of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon play their part. Seven of these wines are from 2012, one each from 2011 and 2010. The alcohol levels range from a mild 14.2 percent to a soaring and unmanageable 15.7. The use of oak barrels for aging varies enormously. The intention of the wines feels vastly different, with some wineries going whole-hog for the opulent and super-ripe, others tracking more toward the structured and elegant. In this panoply of approaches, do we discern a Napa Valley style? It’s difficult to say. To my mind — and my palate — the Sequoia Grove, Robert Mondavi and S.R. Tonella 2012s and the Napa Vintage 2011 adhere to a kind of general Napa-ness in their balance of fruit, tannin, acidity and mineral qualities and their pleasing herbal qualities, texture and depth. The other five feel more anomalous, marred by high alcohol or strenuous deployment of oak barrels. Of course no one would want Napa Valley to be homogenous nor its many wineries to operate on identical practices. We celebrate the place and the individuality together. These wines were samples for review.

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Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. There really are towering sequoias — I guess that’s redundant — at Sequoia Grove Winery; one feels rather dwarfish in their company. The winery, founded in 1979, occupies salubrious geography in the Rutherford appellation, in the heart of Napa Valley. President and director of winemaking Mike Trujillo has been at Sequoia Grove since the early 1980s, was appointed assistant winemaker in 1998 and in 2001 took the position he has now. Winemaker is Molly Hill. The winery is owned by its national distributor, Kobrand Corp. Sequoia Grove, while making a variety of wines, focuses on chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, and it’s to the latter that we turn today.

The blend for the Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is 77 percent cabernet sauvignon, 11 percent cabernet franc, 10 percent merlot and 1 percent each petit verdot and malbec, meaning that it employs, even if only in dollops, all five of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties. The wine aged 20 months in barrels, 60 percent French oak, 40 percent American oak. The color is opaque ruby with a tinge of magenta at the rim; the aroma profile begins with dusty leather and graphite and unfolds notes of ripe black currants and plums with a hint of blueberry, all permeated by cloves and allspice and a background of walnut shell and wheatmeal; top-notes are wild and slightly exotic. This is a dense, chewy and dry cabernet that coats the palate with dusty, velvety tannins; it’s loamy and rooty, a bit granitic, and yet bright acidity keeps it lively and boldly ripe and slightly fleshy and roasted black and blue fruit flavors make it delicious. Still, it could use a year or two to meld. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’24. Beautifully crafted and balanced. Excellent. About $38.
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Flora Springs Winery and Vineyard Trilogy 2012, Napa Valley. Trilogy is the flagship wine for Flora Springs. The winery was founded in 1978 on the site of an abandoned 19th Century “ghost winery” by Jerry and Flora Komes, though the real work of establishing the facility and vineyards went to their children John Komes and his wife Carrie and Julie Garvey and her husband Pat Garvey; now the third generation is poised to take command. Winemaker is Paul Steinauer. I generally enjoy the wine of Flora Springs and last year made the Chardonnay 2012 and the Soliloquy Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Wines of the Week. I have a quibble, however, with the Trilogy 2012.

The blend is 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent each merlot, malbec and petite verdot. The wine aged 22 months in French oak barrels, 60 percent new, 40 percent one-year-old. The color is dark but vivid ruby-magenta with an opaque center. The bouquet — indeed the entire package — is centered to an obtrusive degree on the graphite, smoke and charcoal-tinged character of oak. You know how I feel about these matters; if a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, there’s too much oak! Bright glimmers of ripe and spicy black currants, cherries and raspberries emerge, with notes of lavender and licorice and undertones of loam and aged fruitcake, and the wine certainly offers an almost rapturously supple and lithe texture, verging on plush but balanced by clean acidity, dusty tannins and a slightly chiseled granitic structure, but the oak kills it for me. 14.2 percent alcohol. Perhaps a few years in bottle will tame it; try from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’24. Very Good+. About $75.
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Napa Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. Sean Piper grew up in Napa Valley, and after a career in the Coast Guard, he returned to, first, start Wine Consumer Magazine and, now, establish his own wine label, Napa Vintage. The initial outing is sourced from Howell Mountain and is an example of a successful cabernet sauvignon produced in a chilly rainy year. The wine is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, aged 20 months in all new French oak barrels. The color is inky ruby-purple, and the whole package reflects the intensity and concentration available from mountain-grown fruit, with its attendant notes of walnut shell and dried porcini, classic touches of cedar and rosemary (with the herb’s hint of resiny earthiness) and burgeoning elements of black currants and plums highlighted by a hint of pomegranate; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of cloves and allspice, with the latter’s touch of exotic astringency. This is, no surprise, quite dry, replete with densely buttressed tannins, and thoroughly oaked, yet well-balanced and integrated. All these elements are wrapped around a fervent core of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 414 cases. The Napa Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 seems to me to be a model of an upper-altitude Napa cabernet, displaying its rooted firmness and supple flexibility in fine style. Drink now with a medium rare rib-eye steak, hot and crusty from the grill, through 2020 or ’21. Excellent. About $42.
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S.R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Rutherford, Napa Valley. There’s little doubt that Napa Valley’s Rutherford Bench is one of the most advantageous pieces of earth on which to grow cabernet sauvignon grapes. Lying at the heart of the Napa Valley, west of Highway 29 and bordered (approximately) on the north by Zinfandel Lane, just above the town of Rutherford, and on the south by Oakville Grade, just below the town of Oakville, this area backs up to the foothills of the Mayacamas range in the west. The soil on this alluvial fan is well-drained gravelly loam. André Tchelistcheff, famed winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyards and guiding spirit of its George de Latour Private Reserve, called wines from the bench “dusty,” a term now accepted, perhaps too easily, as “Rutherford dust.” The cabernet wines that originate from the area undeniably often display a dry, dusty granitic aspect but not so uniformly as to make that characteristic applicable in every instance.

Steve Tonella’s heritage goes back a century in Rutherford. His great-uncle, Joseph Ponti, came from Italy to San Francisco after the earthquake in 1906, traveled up to Napa Valley, and became superintendent and winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards, founded in 1900. Ponti’s nephew, Louis Tonella, joined Ponti at BV when he was 17. From his uncle, Louis Tonella inherited vineyards in the Rutherford area to which his son, Raymond Tonella, added purchased acreage. The Neibaum-Tonella Vineyard in Rutherford is the winery’s estate vineyard; Morisoli-Borges, owned by Mike Morisoli, a fourth-generation grower, lies at the heart of the Rutherford Bench. From these sources, Steve Tonella makes his cabernet-based wine.

There’s five percent merlot in the S.R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012; the wine aged 28 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. The color is opaque ruby-magenta; the wine is deep in its dimensions, intense and concentrated, full-bodied and flush with dense, dusty, lithic tannins. Aromas of walnut-shell, dried porcini, loam and graphite yield little space to hints of ripe black currants and black cherries that carry classic notes of cedar, tobacco and mocha. It’s a cool yet savory and spicy cabernet wrapped around a tight core of bitter chocolate and lavender buoyed by vibrant acidity; the finish, not surprisingly, is focused, dynamic and granitic. 14.4 percent alcohol. Despite it’s size and substance, the S.R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 feels well-balanced, filled with energy and personality. Fewer than 500 cases were made. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’30. Excellent potential. About $74.
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Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. Robert Mondavi wasn’t the first person to think that the Napa Valley was capable of producing world-class cabernet sauvignon wines, but after he founded his winery in 1966, he brought the full force of his conviction, enthusiasm and larger-than-life personality to the task. Barrels of ink and puncheons of pixels have been spilled in outlining and commenting on the history of Robert Mondavi — the man, the family and the winery — so I will forgo that endeavor for this post. The winery continues to turn out excellent products under the ownership of Constellation (since late in 2004) and the tutelage of winemaker Genevieve Janssens, though I’ll say that this admittedly well-made cabernet felt almost too typical of its place and intention; it could have used a bit more individuality. On the other hand, it’s not a single vineyard or sub-appellation cabernet, so perhaps we should all just enjoy it.

The wine employs all five of the “classic” Bordeaux red wine varieties: 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent cabernet franc, 4 percent merlot and 1 percent each petit verdot and malbec. Thirty percent of the grapes came from the famous To Kalon vineyard in the Oakville AVA, with 14 percent derived from Mondavi’s Wappo Hill vineyard in the Stags Leap District, with the rest, I assume, grown in other estate or nearby vineyards; the intention obviously was to create a “Napa Valley” style cabernet sauvignon without reference to a particular sub-AVA. The wine aged a very sensible 16 months in French oak, only 15 percent new barrels. The color is a rich dark ruby with a magenta tinge; aromas of cassis and black cherry are permeated by notes of cedar, tobacco and dried thyme, with deeper hints of lead pencil, briers and brambles and loamy graphite. Tannins are dry, a bit earthy and leathery, firm yet unobtrusive; fleet acidity keeps the wine energetic and thirst-quenching; a subtle oak influence shows up in the wine’s supple, lithe texture and in a wafting of exotic spice.The sense of balance and integration is well-nigh perfect. Alcohol content is the now New World average of 14.5 percent. What’s not to like? Drink now through 2020 or ’22. Excellent. About $29.
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Petar Kirilov made 50 cases of his Kukeri Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, aging it 36 months — yes, My Readers, three years — in French oak. Come now, sir, this is not Brunello di Montalcino, but Kirilov believes in oak, so oak it is, and the inky dark wine wears its oak on its sleeve. Aromas of cedar, tobacco and dried rosemary are drenched with notes of walnut shell, dried porcini, leather and loam, with all the attendant resinous, foresty, underbrushy elements we would expect. Fruit? Yes, there are glimmers. Acidity? Oh, sleek and dynamic. I still wouldn’t touch this wine, though, for five more years. The 2011 is the current release, made in 79 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Rating? Anybody’s guess, but time will be the ultimate judge, as it is in all matters concerning these sublunary precincts. About $79.
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Jamieson Ranch Double Lariat Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. Jamieson Ranch Vineyards is the southernmost winery in the Napa Valley. Formerly known as Kirkland Ranch Winery and Reata Vineyard, the company changed its name to Jamieson Ranch in 2013. The history of the property is tangled, involving dubious business decisions going back to the late 1990s and bankruptcy filings, but it is owned now by Madison Vineyard Holdings of Greenwood Village, Colorado, a company involved in myriad enterprises including high-end art storage in New York. Jamieson Ranch produces about 35,000 cases annually under its eponymous label, retaining the Reata name for some pinot noirs and chardonnays, and uses the Light Horse brand for inexpensive products. Winemaker is the Chilean Juan Jose Verdina.

About 2/3s of the grapes for this wine went through “flash détente,” a process much used in Europe, South America and Australia but fairly new to California. Before fermentation, grapes are heated to about 180 degrees and then sent to a vacuum chamber where they are cooled and the grape skins burst from the inside. The result — don’t ask me how — is better extraction of skin tannins and anthocyanins, the phenolic compounds responsible for the color of red grapes. That’s the simplified version, believe me, and doesn’t begin to approach the complications inherent in the process or the opportunities for manipulation they present.

The blend for the Jamieson Ranch Double Lariat Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is 86.5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9 percent merlot, 4.5 percent — surprise! — petite sirah. The wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels, amount of new oak not specified. A dark ruby-purple color is fresh and vibrant; aromas of ripe and spicy black currants, raspberries and plums are wreathed with notes of leather and lavender and a touch of graphite. Slightly dusty and granite-tinged tannins are well-integrated in a lithe texture that’s animated by bright acidity, while black fruit flavors are deep and rich; the finish brings in the oak influence. 14.8 percent alcohol. A well-made and enjoyable but not compelling cabernet sauvignon. Drink now through 2019 to ’22. Very Good+. About $40.
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Priest Ranch Somerston Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley.

Perhaps it’s the 14.9 percent alcohol, but I found this cabernet to be inchoate and unbalanced. It’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, aged 22 months in French oak, 35 percent new, 65 percent neutral, a regimen with which I fully agree. It displays a dark ruby-mulberry hue and all the austere elements of wheatmeal, walnut shell and dried porcini mushrooms over loam, dusty tannins and a startlingly high yet hollowed-out level of acidity. On the other hand, the black and blue fruit flavors are not only very ripe but sweet and jammy, making, altogether, for a package that does not cohere. Perhaps a few years in bottle will calm the wine down, but I’m not hopeful. Not recommended. About $48.
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Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. The story begins in 1977, with Ray Signorello’s purchase of 100 acres on the Silverado Trail in eastern Napa Valley. Originally intending to grow grapes to sell to other wineries, the emphasis shifted to making wine in 1985. Ray Senior died in 1998, and Ray Signorello Jr. operates the estate now. He is listed as proprietor/winemaker and Pierre Bierbent as winemaker/vineyard manager. This is a luxury wine estate, with packaging and prices to match its aspirations.

A touch of cabernet franc — 6.5 percent — completes what is otherwise all cabernet sauvignon in this large-framed and fairly lumbering wine. Fermented with native yeast, yes, that’s nice; aged 21 months in French oak. all new barrels, okey-dokey, but 15.7 percent alcohol? Please! The color is motor-oil-opaque with a purple-violet rim; it’s a vivaciously ripe wine, with sweet scents and succulent notes of cassis, black raspberry jam, brandied cherries, fruitcake and a hint of zinfandel-like blueberry tart. By contrast, potent tannins and truckloads of dusty graphite define a structure that becomes formidably dry and austere, leading to a feeling that the wine is at war with itself; imbalance and lack of integration personified. Give it a few years if you so desire, but don’t invite me when you eventually open a bottle. Not recommended. About $90.

What’s disheartening about this wine is that I rated the Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (the last I tasted) as Excellent and named it as one of my “50 Great Wines of 2012.” It came in at 14.7 percent alcohol. The cabernet under review today feels as if it had been given different marching orders.
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After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the cabernet sauvignon grape, in the hands of winemakers at Beaulieu Vineyards, Inglenook, Louis M. Martini and other Napa Vallery estates, raised California to world renown. Cabernet sauvignon continues to dominate the state’s prestige winemaking efforts, as properties established in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and some more recently, command top prices at retail, in restaurants and, in terms of wineries like Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle, at auction. New labels appear every year; it’s a crowded and competitive field. Today, I offer nine examples of cabernet and cabernet-blend wines from producers that range from venerable (Mount Veeder, founded in 1973) to brand-new (Mt. Brave, on its third release) to an impressive debut wine with an impressive pedigree. Common threads include the fact that alcohol levels are comparatively low (compared to 20 and 30 years ago) at 13.7 to 14.7 percent; that none of these wines feels heavy with oak; that the emphasis is mainly on structure rather than ripeness. We touch several climes in Napa Valley, Sonoma County and, far to the south, Paso Robles. As usual in these Weekend Wine Notes, I primarily avoid technical, historical, geographical and personnel matters for the sake of immediacy, hoping to spur your interest and whet your palates. Enjoy!

These wines were samples for review.
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Amici Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Dark ruby with a magenta-violet rim; black currants, raspberries and cherries, juicy, spicy, lots of graphite and lavender; that gratifying blend of ripe fruit and a rigorously tannic and mineral-tinged structure; oak providing a firm framework and foundation; lithe, almost sinewy, quite dry, even a little austere but lively, attractive, with an engaging personality. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $45.
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Cenyth 2009, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. 47% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, 8% petit verdot, 7% malbec. The debut release from this collaboration between Julia Jackson, daughter of the late Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke, and Helene Seillan, daughter of Pierre Seillan, winemaker of Verite. You know how some wines just hit you first thing, and you know they’re great; such a one is this. Opaque purple, almost more a force that a color; brilliant purity and intensity, scintillating and penetrating graphite and granitic minerality, very intense and concentrated black and blue fruit; lean and supple, lively and energetic yet with a brooding, inward cast; broad, deep tannins but a deftly poised marriage of power and elegance. Try from 2015 through 2025 to ’30. Exceptional. About $60.
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Cornerstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. With 13% merlot and 2% cabernet franc. 973 cases. Impenetrable dark ruby color; graphite, violets and lavender, bitter chocolate and walnut shell; very intense and concentrated black currant and raspberry fruit; densely packed with dusty tannins, dried spice and granitic minerality; yet manages to be open and generous, almost seductive, a sweet-talking brute, rigorous but buoyant. Try from 2015 through 2020 to ’25. Excellent. About $65.
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Cornerstone Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. 14.7% alc. With 10% merlot. 470 cases. Dark ruby-purple, motor-oil black at the center; ripe, fleshy and meaty on the one hand, rock-ribbed, granitic, intense and concentrated on the other; lavender, potpourri, sandalwood, black currants, raspberries and plums; dense dusty tannins, fluent acidity, lithe and supple texture; tremendous presence, vibrancy and resonance. Try from 2015 or ’16 through 2028 to ’30. Were I the sort of person who bought wine by the case to drink it over the years of its development and maturity, this would be one. Exceptional. About $80.
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Daoa Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Paso Robles. 13.9% alc. 78% cabernet sauvignon, 8.5% merlot, 7.5% cabernet franc, 6% petit verdot. Dark ruby-purple color; clean, intense, concentrated; very earthy, with piercing graphite minerality; mint, eucalyptus, dried sage and rosemary; black cherries and currants and plums, ripe, macerated and roasted; hint of plum pudding; dusty tannins, quite dry, a little austere but well-balanced; great structure and personality, pretty damned irresistible. Try 2015 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $28.
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Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.4% alc. With 3.5% merlot, 3% cabernet franc. (The former Chateau Potelle property.) Intense purple-black color, opaque at the center, a magenta rim; ripe and fleshy with black currants, raspberries and plums, notes of rosemary and cedar, lavender and licorice, hint of new leather; very dense and chewy, laden with graphite and polished, grainy tannins, deeply flavorful over a foundation of penetrating granitic minerals and bright vibrant acidity; brings in notes of moss, loam and underbrush; great presence and resonance. Try from 2015 or ’16 through 2025 to ’30. Excellent. About $75.
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Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. 14% alc. With 5% merlot, 2% petit verdot, 1% each malbec and syrah. Dark ruby-purple color, slightly lighter rim; cloves and sandalwood, bay leaf and sage, black olive and rosemary; intense and concentrated notes of black currants and plums; deeply, stalwartly tannic, dense and dusty; graphite and shale, but well-knit and balanced; a nicely done if predictable performance. Try from 2015 or ’16 through 2020 to ’22. Very Good+. About $40.
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Olema Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Sonoma County. 14.5% alcohol. Second label of Amici Cellars. With 7% merlot. Dark ruby color, lighter at the rim; graphite, cloves, black currants and plums, an undertow of briers, underbrush, dusty tannins and keen acidity; ripe and flavorful, goes down smoothly. Now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $22.50.
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Ravenswood Pickberry Red Wine 2011, Sonoma Mountain. 13.8% alc. 750 cases. 66% merlot, 35% cabernet sauvignon, 9% malbec. Medium ruby color with a light magenta cast; a seamless and gratifying blend, ripe, spicy, floral and deeply fruity, all edged by graphite and dusty tannins and dense oak that emerges after an hour in the glass; elements of loam, briers and brambles bring in the earthy note. I didn’t find this as exciting as some of the other selections in this post, but it’s immensely enjoyable as well as revealing a serious character. Now through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $50.
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So, My Readers, today I present the annual “50 Great Wines” in the edition for 2012. Why 50? It’s a nice comfortable round number, but it also makes me work hard to determine those 50 great selections.

I reviewed 642 wines on this blog in 2012, so 50 choices represent only 7.78 percent of the wines I reviewed. Wines that I rated as “Exceptional” automatically make the cut. In 2012, I ranked 16 wines “Exceptional,” or only 2.5 percent of all the wines I reviewed. How did I ascertain the other 34 wines? That’s where the task got difficult. I read all the reviews of wines that I rated “Excellent” and wrote down the names of 68 that seemed promising, but of course that was already way too many wines; I had to eliminate half of that list. I went back through the reviews and looked for significant words or phrases like “an exciting wine” or “a beautiful expression of its grapes” or “epitomizes my favorite style” or “I flat-out loved this wine,” terms that would set a wine apart from others in similar genres or price ranges, even though they too were rated “Excellent.” By exercising such intricate weighing and measuring, by parsing and adjusting, by, frankly, making some sacrifices, I came to the list of wines included here, but I’ll admit that as I went over this post again and again, checking spelling and diacritical markings and illustrations, there were omissions that I regretted. You get to a point, however, where you can’t keep second-guessing yourself.

Notice that I don’t title this post “50 Greatest Wines” or “50 Best Wines.” That would be folly, just as I think it’s folly when the slick wine publications select one wine — out of 15,000 — as the best of the year. The wines honored in this post are, simply, 50 great wines, determined by my taste and palate, that I encountered and reviewed in 2012. Some of them are expensive; some are hard to find. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, though, at how many of them are under $40 or even in the $20 range; the price of a wine can be immaterial to its quality, and I mean that in both the positive and the negative aspects. Where I know the case limitation, I make note. With wines that are, for example, chardonnay or pinot noir, you can count on them being 100 percent varietal; in other cases, I mention the blend or make-up of the wine if I think it’s necessary.

Coming in a few days: “25 Great Bargains of 2012.”
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Amapola Creek Cuvée Alis 2009, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County. 55 percent syrah, 45 percent grenache. 95 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Archery Summit Looney Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $85.
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Black Dog Cellars Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. Excellent. About $25.
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Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Vineyard X Block Syrah 2007, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County. 573 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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Champagne Françoise Bedel Entre Ciel et Terre Brut. Excellent. About $75.
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Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino 2005, Tuscany, Italy. 100 percent sangiovese. Exceptional. About $149.
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Chalone Estate Chenin Blanc 2011, Chalone, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $25.
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Chamisal Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County. Excellent. About $40.
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M. Chapoutier Chante-Alouette 2007, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne grapes. 350 six-packs imported. Exceptional. About $92.
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M. Chapoutier De L’Orée 2008, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne. 40 six-packs imported. Exceptional, About $190.
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Cima Collina Tondre Grapefield Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $48.
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Etude Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros. Excellent. About $42.
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Ferrari-Carano Prevail West Face 2007, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 61 percent cabernet sauvignon, 39 percent syrah. Excellent. About $55.
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Foley Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County. Excellent. About $40.
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Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $46.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $42.
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Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2009, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $23.
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Hidden Ranch 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $45.
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Kelly Fleming Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Oakville District, Napa Valley. 540 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Domaine Michel Lafarge Meursault 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $44-$48.
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La Follette Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Mountain. 429 cases. Excellent. About $40.
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Lasseter Enjoué 2011, Sonoma Valley. 73 percent syrah, 24 mourvèdre, 3 grenache. A superior rosé. 570 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Champagne David Léclapart L’Amateur Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, non-vintage. Exceptional. About $83.
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Lenné Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Yamhill-Carlton District, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 491 cases. Excellent. About $55.
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Chateau La Louvière 2009, Pessac-Lèognan, Bordeaux, France. 85 percent sauvignon blanc, 15 percent semillon. Excellent. About $42.
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Manzoni Vineyards Home Vineyard Syrah 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 494 cases. Excellent. About $26.
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Max Ferd. Richter Veldenzer Elisenberg Riesling Kabinett 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $19.
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Mayacamas Chardonnay 2009, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
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McCay Cellars Jupiter Zinfandel 2009, Lodi. 449 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Domaine Pierre Morey Pommard Grands Epenots Premier Cru 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $85.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2008, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 42 percent merlot, 36 cabernet sauvignon, 14 cabernet franc, 6 petit verdot, 2 malbec. Excellent. About $80.
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Nicolas Joly Clos de La Bergerie 2009, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. 100 percent chenin blanc. 580 cases. Exceptional. About $45-$60.
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Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $42.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County. 250 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 372 cases. Exceptional. About $75.
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Piocho 2009, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. From Margerum Wine Co. 58 percent merlot, 22 cabernet sauvignon, 18 cabernet franc, 2 petit verdot. 570 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Quivira Fig Tree Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. 862 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Sea-Fog Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley. 380 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Shafer Hillside Select 2007, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $225.
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Shafer Merlot 2009, Napa Valley. With 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $48.
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Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. With 12 percent cabernet franc. 381 cases. Excellent. About $75. Date on label is one year behind.
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Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2011, Los Carneros. Another superior rosé to drink all year. Excellent. About $28.
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Spotted Owl Chardonnay 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Inaugural release of this winery’s chardonnay. 120 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $125.
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St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. With 10 percent merlot, 2 petit verdot and 1 cabernet franc. Excellent. About $55.
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Domaine André et Mireille Tissot La Graviers Chardonnay 2010, Arbois, France. 552 cases. Excellent. About $26-$30. Label is two years out of date.
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Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 295 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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Tenuta di Valgiano 2008, Colline Luccesi, Tuscany. 60 percent sangiovese, 20 merlot, 20 syrah. Excellent. About $55-$60.
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Vieux Télégraphe “La Crau” 2009, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France. 65 percent grenache, 15 mourvèdre, 15 syrah 5 cinsault, clairette “and others.” Excellent. About $85.
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Villa Huesgen Schiefen Riesling Trocken 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $35.
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The well-known Champagne house of Moët & Chandon started looking for vineyard land in the Napa Valley in 1968. In 1973, in a partnership with Hennessy, the cognac producer (both owned by LVMH), the company bought acreage in Mount Veeder and Yountville, producing the first Domaine Chandon sparkling wine in 1976. Winemaker Tom Tiburzi has been at Chandon since 1989, working his way up through the winemaking staff; he is assisted by Pauline Lhote, whose family are farmers in Champagne. Chandon, long an iconic presence to the west of Hwy 29 across from the town of Yountville, makes a complete range of nonvintage sparkling wines, but today I want to feature two of its vintage series. These were samples for review.
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Neither the print material I received nor the winery’s website reveal the percentages of the blend of grapes in the Domaine Chandon Yountville Vintage Brut 2007, Yountville, Napa Valley, so all I can tell you is that it’s made from pinot noir and chardonnay from the Yountville district, north of the city of Napa. The southern area of Yountville particularly, where it’s coolest, is a prime location for chardonnay and pinot noir. The color is radiant medium gold; there’s a constant lively stream of tiny bubbles. Notes of roasted lemons and spiced pears are bolstered by toast and biscuits with hints of toffee and candied ginger and an undercurrent of smoke. The emphasis segues to crystalline acidity and scintillating limestone and flint elements that balance deftly a texture that’s substantial enough to be almost lush, though the fineness and elegance of the finish make it spare and lithe and slightly austere. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $45.
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The Domaine Chandon Mount Veeder Vintage Brut 2006, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, focuses on chardonnay; it could, I suppose, be called blanc de blancs, but the powers at Chandon opted for a straightforward “brut” indication. The point would be: what are the differences between a sparkling wine made from Yountville grapes and one made from Mount Veeder grapes, especially if the latter is one year older? The color of the Mount Veeder sparkler is much paler, much blonder and Harlow-like than the hue of the Yountville version mentioned above. While there’s a similar component of fresh bread and biscuits, the Mount Veeder adds hints of roasted hazelnuts, cinnamon toast and caramel popcorn with a touch of baked apple and slightly honeyed peach. These qualities, let me emphasize, are expressed in a tone of utmost nuance and pure suggestion, because, above all, this is a sparkling wine that combines notable presence and persistence with finesse and refinement. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $45.
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For the July 31st issue of the Wine Spectator, veteran columnist and taster James Laube wrote the lead article, “California’s Best Chardonnays: Top 30 Producers.” With the exception of longtime writers and pundits like Dan Berger and Charles E. Olken, Laube probably knows more about the wines of California and the history of its industry in the last three or four decades than anyone, so naturally it’s instructive to see his take on what’s going on with the chardonnay grape in the Golden State and his roster of the 30 best estates and wineries. Since Laube writes for a magazine format, one can see why he limited his selection to 30 and a short paragraph to each. Matters were different when he wrote the book California’s Great Chardonnays, published in 1990 by Wine Spectator Press; in that tome, Laube included 74 producers, devoting two to four pages of descriptions and notes apiece.

It’s interesting to compare the list of “Great Chardonnays” from 1990 to the “Top 30 Producers” of 2012; a considerable amount of attrition in several areas has occurred in 22 years. Many of the wineries that produced great chardonnay wines in 1990 don’t exist anymore or were acquired and absorbed by other companies or went through an unfortunate transition to lesser quality. And the reverse proposition is true; some of the “Top 30 Producers” of chardonnay wines in the article weren’t a gleam in their founders’ eyes in 1990, while others, like Rodney Strong, are included now because of improved performance. In fact, only five producers from the earlier book make it onto the present roster: Beringer, Hanzell, Kistler, Robert Mondavi and Mount Eden.

When Laube describes or reviews the top wines, he emphasizes richness and complexity, though he usually tempers his tastes by mentioning brightness, acidity, poise and elegance, qualities that I wholeheartedly endorse. Actually, of course, I would take brightness, acidity, poise and elegance over richness any day (though not complexity), and it puzzles me to read in Laube’s reviews for this article

A little like a top-rated chardonnay

(and seen in many past issues of the Wine Spectator) praise given to such attributes as butterscotch and roasted marshmallow. I cannot for the life of me conceive why anyone would want a chardonnay to smell or taste like butterscotch or roasted marshmallows, or if they tasted such a wine wouldn’t spit it out in horror. Butterscotch belongs on sundaes and the proper place for roasted marshmallows is at the end of sticks held over a campfire while a gaggle of 12-year-olds unhappily drones “Kumbaya.”

All of which leads to this post’s focus, and that’s my reviews of six chardonnay wines from Mount Veeder, a series of steep hillsides, stretching up some 2,000 feet, at the southwestern corner of Napa Valley and part of the Mayacamas Range that separates Napa and Sonoma counties. None of these wineries is included as a Top Producer in Laube’s story, and only one (Hess Collection) is mentioned in the brief reviews that follow, but I found them pretty damned brilliant. No butterscotch or roasted marshmallows in these mountainside chardonnays, no “toasty oak”; this is, rather, one of the most elegant groups of chardonnay I have tasted, though they’re also powerful, flavorful and multifaceted. I bestowed four Excellent and two Exceptional ratings.

These wines were samples for review. Butterscotch sundae image from foodsnobz.com
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Fontanella Family Winery Chardonnay 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Our first wine in this Mount Veeder line-up aged nine months in French oak, 33 percent new barrels; a smidgeon of the wine, 12 percent, went through malolactic fermentation (henceforward abbreviated “malo”). The color is pale gold; the first impression is of a chardonnay that’s clean and fresh and bright, yet very spicy in its ripe pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors given some gravity by bastions of flint and limestone. There’s a touch of white peach and nectarine, and a texture that’s almost talc-like in its combination of firmness and softness, enlivened by crisp acidity. The wine gains power in the glass; this is a mouthful of chardonnay that asserts its presence on the palate but manages to achieve a measure of elegance too in its balance and integration. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2015 or ’17. Productions was 600 cases. Winemaker is Jeff Fontanella. Excellent. About $34.

I wrote about this wine at the end of October last year; here’s the review. You can see that the intervening months have given the wine space to settle down a bit.
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Godspeed Vineyards Chardonnay 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. The regimen here is 11 months in French oak barrels, 80 percent neutral (used several times) and 20 percent new; the wine does not go through malo. The color is pale gold; aromas of smoky lemon curd and lemon balm are woven with touches of mango, pear, yellow plums and pineapple and, after a few moments in the glass, hints of toasted hazelnuts and cloves. The wine is rich, ripe, downright gorgeous, but the pulchritude is blessedly tempered by resounding acidity and a burgeoning element of limestone-like minerality for a sense of acutely honed balance. However juicy and bountiful, the Godspeed Chardonnay ’10 is quite dry, dense, almost chewy, yet suave and smooth, and the finish is long and spicy. 14.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 to ’18. Production was 550 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Hess Collection Chardonnay 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. This pale straw-gold chardonnay is given no new oak, aging, rather, for nine months in four- to five-year-old French barrels; there is no malo. Produced from vines planted at altitudes ranging from 1,300 to 2,000 feet elevation, the wine offers a brilliant bouquet of spiced lemons and pears with pineapple and grapefruit, quince and ginger in the background and a high note of honeysuckle. The wine delivers tremendous power and gravitas, as well as lip-smackin’ stone-fruit and citrus flavors bolstered by crackling acidity, all elements assembled with lucent fleetness and transparency. Not gorgeous but lovely; not flattering to the palate but subtle and supple. The finish is packed with spice, limestone and flint. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 or ’18. Production was 392 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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Mayacamas Vineyards Chardonnay 2009, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. In this chardonnay, among the group, we see the longest period of time in oak: six months in large American casks; one year in French barrels, 20 percent new; the wine does not go through malo. The result? A “Wow!” as my first note. The color is pale straw-gold; aromas of honeysuckle and jasmine, steel and limestone, quince and fig and ginger discreetly unfold hints of candied grapefruit and pineapple. The wine, dry and spare in the mouth, bristles with vitality and energy and displays awesome purity and intensity in its blending of fruit, acid and mineral elements; despite the sensation of elevating, crystalline, almost balletic qualities, there’s underlying earthiness through the finish, a seeming connection to soil and bedrock. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to ’19. Production was 1,156 cases. Could this please be my house chardonnay? Exceptional. About $30, a Remarkable Price for the Quality.
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Y. Rousseau “Milady” Chardonnay 2009, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Again, no malo in the making of this wine, though it’s barrel-fermented, using natural yeasts, and aged 11 months on the lees in French oak, of which 20 percent of the barrels were new. (The fruit derived from the Godspeed Vineyard.) The wine is quite fresh and bright, very pure and intense (if My Readers don’t mind that I repeat these important words), dense, chewy, spicy. The color is shimmering pale gold; classic notes of pineapple and grapefruit open to hints of cloves and toasted hazelnuts. This chardonnay is moderately creamy, smooth and svelte but heightened by chiming acidity and scintillating limestone and flint-like minerality. The finish is long, dry and spicy and packed with minerals. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 to ’17. Production was 195 cases. Winemaker was Yannick Rousseau. Excellent. About $36.

I wrote about this wine at the end of October last year; here’s the review.
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Spotted Owl Vineyards Chardonnay 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Here is the earthiest, the boldest and ripest of these six chardonnays; I wrote “very spicy,” followed by “very spicy.” Here, also, are terrific tone and energy, in a wine that feels almost visceral in its drawing upon the essential core of the chardonnay grape’s character and its frank lively appeal to the palate, yet it abdicates not a nuance of the finest detail of its pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors layered with camellia and talc, pear and yellow plum, cloves and figs. Wood-wise, this was barrel-fermented with natural yeasts and aged 11 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels; information about malolactic was not available. If acidity and limestone minerality could glitter, this wine would light up a dark room. The finish is long, dense, lithe and spicy. 14.8 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 or ’20. Inaugural release of this winery’s chardonnay; 120 cases. Winemaker was Rolando Herrera. Exceptional. About $45.
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