Napa Valley


I started this post as a way of commemorating my 30th anniversary in wine-writing, reached, as My Regular Readers know — bless your little pointy heads and may your tribes increase — early in July. Initially, the concept was “Fifty Great Wines,” but I decided that choosing 50 “great” wines from 30 years of tasting would be an impossible and probably just stupid and futile task. In three decades, I tasted thousands and thousands and more thousands of wines — you writers know how it is — so choosing the 50 “greatest” from this immense group would be a Sisyphian exercise.

Then I realized that what would be more significant anyway would be 50 wines that, as the title states, shaped my palate, the wines that shook me to the core, that shifted my perspective about how wine is made and its various effects, that achieved a level of purity and intensity that befit the divine; the wines, in short, that were not only definitive but created me as a writer. Yes, just that. So I spent the past few weeks combing through dozens of old notebooks, through the electronic archives of the newspaper for which I wrote a weekly column for 20 years and of course through the pages of this blog.

Now let’s be frank about some issues. As a wine reviewer, I am dependent on the practice of samples provided by producers, importers, marketers and (to a lesser extent) local distributors; I depend on the occasional trade tasting, lunch with a touring winemaker, on sponsored travel to wine regions in this country and abroad. You will not, therefore, see a list that emphasizes the great wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, though some are included, more Burgundy than Bordeaux, because I have few opportunities to encounter such wines. Perhaps, however, you will discover here wines that you had forgotten or overlooked; certainly there will be surprises. To those of my wine-writing/blogging/tasting friends who might say, “Cripes, FK, I can’t believe you didn’t put [whatever legendary fabuloso wine] on this list!” I can only reply, “I never had the chance to taste that wine and if you want to send me a bottle, I’ll be grateful but not humbled.” This is about my experience as an individual, as, you might say, a palate.

I benefited early on from the generosity of two people in Memphis, the restaurateur-wine collector John Grisanti and a figure important in wholesale, retail and wine education, Shields Hood. Many of the wines they offered me, exposed me to and sent in my direction truly changed my life and made me what I am today.
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1. Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley. Purchased at a local store, tasted at home March 1984 and still, at least in memory, one of the greatest California pinots I ever encountered.

2. Mercurey Clos des Myglands 1971, Faiveley. Tasted at John Grisanti’s private cellar, September 16, 1984. As in “Ah, so that’s what Burgundy is all about.”

3. Moët & Chandon Cuvée Dom Perignon 1976, Champagne. At a wholesaler’s tasting, with Shields Hood, September 17, 1984.

4. Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Johannesburg Riesling 1978, Belle Terre Vineyards, Alexander Valley. Last week of September, 1984.

5. Chateau La Grange 1926, St Julien Third Growth, Bordeaux. At a special wine dinner at the long-departed American Harvest Restaurant in Germantown, east of Memphis, October 1984. As in, “Ah, so this is what an aged Bordeaux wine is all about.” I love the label.

6. Simi Reserve Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Alexander Valley. My then father-in-law bought a case of this wine at $16 a bottle. High-living in those days. At 10 years old, it was perfect, expressive, eloquent. This was at Christmas dinner, 1984.

7. Clos Vougeot Grand Cru 1971, Grivelet. At John Grisanti’s cellar, June 9, 1985, a great afternoon.

8. Sonoma Vineyards Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 1976, Sonoma County. July 27 and 28, 1985. Fine balance, harmony and integration, a sense of confidence and authority expressed with elegance and restraint. This winery was not renamed for its founder Rodney Strong until after he sold it in 1984.

9. Chateau Latour 1982, Pauillac, Bordeaux. Definitive for the vintage and the chateau; tasted at a trade event in Memphis sometime in 1985; tasted again in New York, October 1991.

10. Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Napa Valley. Purchased at Sherry-Lehmann in NYC, for $20.50(!); consumed with Easter dinner in Memphis, April 1986.

11. Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Alexander Valley. At a tasting in Memphis of Silver Oak cabernets, sometime in 1986.

12. Chateau Haut-Brion 1937, Graves, Bordeaux. At a tasting with collectors in Memphis in 1987; this 50-year-old wine was, incredibly and from a dismal decade in Bordeaux, even better than the fabulous ’59 and ’66.

13. Paul Jaboulet Aîné La Chapelle 1949, Hermitage, Rhone Valley, France. One of a mixed case of wonderful wines I received for annotating a cellar, drunk at a dinner in the Fall of 1988. At 39 years old, one of the best wines I have ever tasted.

14. Beaune Clos des Ursules 1952, Louis Jadot. At lunch with Gagey pere et fils at the maison in Beaune, March 1990. When I mentioned this to a friend back in the U.S., he said, “Oh, yeah, they pull out that wine for all the Americans.” No matter.

15. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru 1983. Tasted in New York, October 1991.

16. Gaja Barbaresco 1955, Piedmont, Italy. Made by Angelo Gaja’s father, tasted in New York, October 1991.

17. Chateau Beychevelle 1928, St. Julien Fourth Growth, Bordeaux. At a large tasting of multiple vintages of Chateau Branaire-Ducru and Chateau Beychevelle going back to 1893, with collector Marvin Overton and British writer Clive Coates, in Nashville. This ’28 was even better than the examples from the god-like years of ’47, ’45 and ’29; just writing that sentence made me feel like Michael Broadbent.

18. Freemark Abbey 1978, Napa Valley. At a vertical tasting in Chicago, January 1993.

19. Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Napa Valley. I bought six half-bottles of this splendid perfectly aged cabernet from a FedEx pilot who was divesting his cellar and served them at a dinner party in 1996.

20. Chalone Chardonnay 1981, Monterey. A revelation at almost 15 years old; I bought this and some other California chardonnays from the late ’70s and early ’80s out of a cellar that had been kept at 40 to 45 degrees; tasted with LL and a friend at Cafe Society in Memphis, May 1996.

21. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 1998, Clare Valley, Australia. Tasted at the property, October 1998, very young, filled with power and otherworldly grace.

22. Bass Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir 1997, Gippsland, Australia. Tasted in Melbourne, October 1998; they’re not shy with oak at Bass Phillip, but this was a thrilling monument to pinot noir purity and intensity.

23. Clos Apalta 1996, Rapel Valley, Chile, 95 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon. The initial release, tasted at the hacienda of Don Pepe Rabat, who owned the oldest merlot vineyard in Chile, with Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle and Michel Rolland, April 1998.

24. Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses Premier Cru 1998, Domaine G. Roumier. From the barrel at the property, December 7, 1999, my birthday. The earth seemed to open under my feet.

25. Chateau Petrus 1998, Pomerol, Bordeaux. Barrel sample at the property, December 1999. One of the most profound wines I have ever experienced.

26. Robert Mondavi To Kalon 1 Block Fume Blanc 2000, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

27. Robert Mondavi Marjorie’s Sunrise Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Oakville District, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

28. Sineann Reed and Reynolds Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Tasted at the International Pinot Noir Conference, McMinnville, August 2002.

29. Nicolas Joly Clos de la Bergerie 1999, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. New York, at La Caravelle, January 2003, with the line-up of Joly’s wines.

30. Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1966, South Australia. At a comprehensive tasting of this iconic wine, 1996 back to 1955, at Spago in L.A., April 2003.

31. Chateau d’Epiré 1964, Savennières Moelleux, Loire Valley, France. At a dinner associated with the Loire Valley Wine Fair, February 2004.

32. Domaine de la Pepière Clos des Briords 1986, Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Loire Valley, France. At the estate with proprietor Marc Ollivier, one of the great tasting experiences of my life, February 2004.

33. Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2001. Tasted in New York, June 2004.

34. Tres Sabores Zinfandel 2003, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Tasted in New York, March 2006.

35. Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996, Champagne, France. Tasted in New York, September 2006; fabulous but not nearly ready to drink.

36. Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets Premier Cru 2004, Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

37. Corton Grand Cru 2002, Domaine Comte Senard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

38. Chateau Montelena The Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley. New York, September 2007.

39. Porter-Bass Chardonnay 2004, Russian River Valley. New York, September 2007.

40. Pommard Les Epenots Premier Cru 2004, Dominique Laurent. New York, September 2007.

41. Phifer Pavit Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley. Sample for review, tasted at home October 2008. The best first-release cabernet I ever encountered.

42. Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, Napa valley. Sample for review, tasted at home December 2008.

43. Heyl zu Herrnsheim Niersteiner Pettenheim Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken 1991, Rheingau, Germany. At the estate, July, 2009.

44. Quinta da Roameira Vintage Porto 2007. In Douro Valley, August 2009, at a comprehensive tasting of the 2007 ports at Niepoort.

45. Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Tasted in Piedmont, January, 2010, with winemaker Giorgio Lavagna and a ragtag gaggle of American bloggers.

46 & 47. Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Malbec 2007, Mendoza, & Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Mendoza. Tasted at the property — the chardonnay with lunch — October 2010.

48. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998. Purchased locally and consumed on New Year’s Eve 2010, with Imperial Osetra caviar from Petrossian.

49. Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenerg Riesling Beerenauslese 2004, Pfalz, Germany. A sample for review, tasted December 2011.

50. Müllen Kinheimen Rosenberg Riesling Kabinett 2002, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany. Tasted with Lyle Fass in New York, December 2013.

Well, I already see a couple of wines that I should have included in this roster — Chateau d’Yquem 1975, Sauternes, for example — but 50 is a good wholesome round number with an air of closure about it, so let’s leave it alone. And for the future? The process of learning, having our minds changed, our ideas and consciousness expanded never ends. Perhaps there will be candidates for this list from 2014, among them the Clos Saron Stone Soup Vineyard Syrah 2011, Sierra Foothills, made by Gideon Beinstock, and, oddly enough, the Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Dallas County, Texas, made by Dan Gatlin. We’ll see how I feel in another 30 years.

One of the seemingly natural pairs in terms of wine type, grapes and geography is chardonnay and pinot noir. Doubtless such a perception stems from the conjunction of chardonnay and pinot noir in their Ur-home, their cradle, their altar, in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. It’s the terroir, stupid, a small narrow stretch of low, southeast-facing hills upon which nature, climate and geology have, with mindless yet carefully calibrated precision, wrought exactly the gradations, exposure, drainage, top soil and under-girding layers, wind and weather — the latter being the wild card — to produce some of the world’s legendary vineyards and finest, rarest wines. It’s not surprising, then, that growers and winemakers in other regions of the world consistently seek to emulate that pairing of these grapes.

No place else is Burgundy, of course, so no area can hope to duplicate exactly the terroir or the conditions that prevail there. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, for example, the pinot noir grape performs beautifully among those verdant hills and dales, while chardonnay — not that there’s not good chardonnay — is gradually giving over to pinot blanc, pinot gris and riesling. Many regions in California are amenable to chardonnay and pinot noir: Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Maria Valley and other smaller and more isolated areas produce splendid examples of each. It’s not surprising that large producers include both types of wines in their rosters or that small-scale wineries sometimes specialize in just the two.

Today’s post inaugurates a series in which I will be looking at the chardonnay and pinot noir wines of producers in California, sometimes individually, occasionally in groups. There’s a good chance that My Readers have not heard of Gallegos Wines. The close-knit family released its first wines only last year, but its roots in Napa Valley — figuratively and literally — go back three generations. The wine industry in California could not exist without the labor of the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who work in the vineyards and wineries, plant and then tend the vines and grapes through all stages of growth. Increasingly, many of those workers with ties to the land and the industry are starting to make wine too, enough that there’s now a Mexican-American winemakers organization.

Ignacio Gallegos came to California from Michoacan in the 1940s and settled in St. Helena, in Napa Valley, in the mid-1950s. His son, Ignacio II, and grandsons, Eric and Ignacio III, worked in vineyard management and gained the renown that enabled them in 2007 to finally establish their own vineyard management company. Having worked in many of the valley’s finest vineyards, having their own company and with Eric and Ignacio III completing college and courses in viticulture and winemaking, it seemed inevitable that the family would draw on these resources and the grapes from the Rancho de Gallegos estate in the Rutherford bench area, owned by Ignacio II’s brother Maurilio. Gallegos Family Wines produces about 1,000 cases; in addition to the chardonnay and pinot noir reviewed here, there’s a sauvignon blanc, with merlot, petite sirah and cabernet sauvignon coming soon.

These wines were samples for review. Image of Eric, Ignacio II and Ignacio III by Tom Stockwell for the Napa Valley Register.
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The Boekenoogen Vineyard is one of my favorite vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands, and the family that owns and farms the land produces terrific wine from it. The Gallegos Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, is a reflection of the greatness of that land. The color is a limpid medium ruby with mulberry undertones; this is exquisite, evanescent, transformational pinot noir that features slightly fleshy aromas of red currants and cherries flecked with mulberries, violets and rose petals, cloves, allspice and sassafras, and notes of rhubarb with briers and brambles for an earthy element; all amounting to perhaps the most alluring and definitive bouquet on a pinot noir that I have encountered this year. The division of oak is 25 percent new French barrels and 75 percent neutral, though I was not informed about the length of aging; I venture to say not excessive, because the oak influence here is subliminal, a subtle and supple shaping force. The texture is delightfully sleek and satiny, supporting smoky black and red cherry and currant flavors that take on a bit of loam and leathery earthiness through the finish; well-knit and integrated tannins round off the package. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Production was 250 cases. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $42.
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The Charmer Vineyard, owned by Ed Beard Jr. and located in the heart of the Yountville AVA, was planted by Ignacio Gallegos and his brothers more than 30 years ago, so they know it well. They produced 125 cases of the Gallegos Charmer Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Yountville, Napa Valley, a wine that sees only 25 percent new French oak barrels and underwent 25 percent malolactic, the natural chemical transformation that turns sharp malic acid into milder and creamier lactic acid; the result is a chardonnay that retains bright acidity and is not a creamy-butter bomb, while maintaining a lithe, supple almost talc-like texture. The color is pale gold; no denying the richness, in aromas and flavors, the slightly caramelized pineapple and grapefruit with top-notes of jasmine, mango and cloves, but elements of flint and damp gravel and a crisp exhilarating character keep it honest and true. 14.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $29.
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First, I apologize to the people at Dolce Wines, a sister winery to Far Niente, Nickel & Nickel and EnRoute, for holding on to these samples for so long before tasting and writing about them, but I wanted to see how a few years in the fridge would affect them. The examples in question are Dolce 2007, 06, 05 and 04, dessert wines in half-bottles, and what they reveal across four years is a remarkable and gratifying consistency in tone, structure, flavor profile and balance. Differences? Of course, and I will discuss those variations in more detail further in this post.

The partners in Far Niente conceived of the project — a small winery devoted to a single dessert wine — in 1985; the first vintage introduced commercially was 1989, released in 1992. The production of dessert wine depends on geographical and climatic conditions — foggy, with a subtle balance between warm and cool — suitable for the inoculation of the botrytis mold, the “noble rot,” that can attack grapes, suck out the moisture and reduce them to concentrated sugar bombs. This invasion occurs grape by grape, not cluster by cluster, so harvesting a vineyard affected by botrytis can take several weeks and many passes through the rows. Because of the vagaries of weather, botrytis doesn’t occur every year or it may happen in a scattered and spotty fashion, so those vintages do not result in wine. The practice is tedious, time-consuming and expensive, and great attention must be paid to detail in the vineyard and winery. The 20-acre Dolce vineyard is in Coombsville, east of Napa city, at the base of the Vaca Mountains, in an area where fog often lingers until midday, encouraging the growth of the homely but beneficial mold. The Dolce dessert wines evince a great deal of power, typically built on a base of super-ripe and seemingly roasted peaches and apricots and building other aspects of detail and dimension as the vintage dictates; their grace comes from what feels like fathomless acidity and limestone minerality that offers exquisite balance to the immense ripeness and richness. These are world-class dessert wines.
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Dolce 2007, Napa Valley. This blend of 82 percent semillon grapes and 18 percent sauvignon blanc aged 31 months in all-new French oak barrels. The residual sugar is 12.5 percent. Color is medium gold with a faint green highlight; I could smell the roasted peaches and apricots when I poured the wine into the glass. What other elements? Creme brulee, hazelnuts and almond skin, hints of mango and papaya, notes of mandarin orange and pineapple. This is, in other words, a very sweet wine, in the mouth viscous and satiny, spiced and macerated, rich, honeyed and buttery, yet electrified by vibrant — I almost wrote “violent” — acidity, so the whole musky, dusky package resonates with liveliness and frank appeal. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Drink now through 2025 to 2027. Excellent. About $85 a half-bottle.
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Dolce 2006, Napa Valley. For 2006, Dolce contains the most sauvignon blanc of this quartet, 20 percent against 80 percent semillon. It aged 31 months in all-new French oak barrels. Residual sugar is 13 percent, the highest of this group. The color is radiant medium gold; the bouquet is pungently smoky, ripe with creamy honeyed peaches and apricots enlivened with cloves and sandalwood, hints of coconut and pain perdu. It’s smooth as silk on the palate, round, dense and viscous, with undertones of orange marmalade, preserved lemon, lime peel and cinnamon toast; clean acidity ramps up the vibrancy and resonance, creating a finish that’s almost dry and bursting with limestone minerality. Alcohol content is 13.8 percent. Drink now through 2026 to 2030. Excellent. About $85 a half-bottle.
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The word for Dolce 2005, Napa Valley, is “otherworldly.” The blend is 90 percent semillon, 10 percent sauvignon blanc; again the oak regimen is 31 months, all-new French oak barrels; the residual sugar is 12 percent. King Midas would envy this golden richness, but this example of the wine is not only rich and ripe but elegant, almost delicate; that’s a paradoxical quality, though, because this elegance and sense of delicacy encompass sumptuous notes of roasted peaches and apricots, caramelized mango, pineapple upsidedown cake, exotic spices, all wrapped in a creamy, honeyed texture that manages to be both sophisticated and feral. The lithe, supple finish, charged with vivid acidity and scintillating limestone minerality, is the driest of this group. Alcohol content is 13.8 percent. Drink now through 2025 to 2030. Exceptional. About $85 a half-bottle.
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It’s interesting that Dolce 2004, Napa Valley, embodies the highest alcohol level of this quartet — 14.1 percent — and, logically, the lowest residual sugar at 10.8 percent; a notion of sauvignon blanc that’s almost subliminal, at 1 percent; and the least time in the typical all-new French oak barrels, 28 months, still a considerable span, of course. The color is pure shimmering gold; aromas of peach tart and apple turnover, deeply caramelized citrus and stone fruit, feel elevating and balletic, yet this is the earthiest of these wines, the one most imbued with limestone and flint minerality, all a shade darker in smoke and the redolence of toasted Asian spices. Still, it’s rich and ripe — slightly over-ripe — and, as is essential, brightened by an arrow of rigorous acidity that aims straight for the dry, uplifting finish. Drink now through 2020 to 2024. Excellent. About $85 for a half-bottle.
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Just six weeks ago I made the Flora Springs Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley the Wine of the Week, and, darn it, I can’t help but put the Flora Springs Soliloquy Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Oakville, in the same spot today. The grapes derive from a two-block proprietary vineyard in Napa Valley’s Oakville District AVA, and, in fact, the vineyard receives more prominent display on the label than the grape variety does. Is that device helpful to consumers? Probably not, but it makes for a very elegant and typographically balanced label, one that matches the balance and elegance of the wine. Thoughtful work by winemaker Paul Steinauer puts the wine through seven months in a combination of concrete and stainless steel tanks, oak barrels and steel drums, the result being a sauvignon blanc of unusually appealing texture, subtlety and suppleness, as well as being fresh and crisp. The color is very pale gold, almost invisible; aromas of apple peel and lime peel are woven with lemon balm and lemongrass and back-notes of celery seed, hay, fennel and thyme. Brisk acidity energizes what is otherwise a sleek and suave sauvignon blanc that encompasses stone-fruit and citrus flavors enmeshed with hints of cloves, freshly-mown grass and pink grapefruit. The finish engages the palate with a touch of grapefruit bitterness and an unexpected feral tang. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 as a delightful aperitif or with grilled or roasted salmon or swordfish. Excellent. About $25.

A sample for review.

…might be called the Isabel Mondavi Deep Rosé Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, and in case any of you winemakers out there are thinking, “What a great name! I think I’ll use ‘deep rose’ for my label,” there’s a little trademark symbol that protects the name from other use. Anyway, this is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, from vineyards in the Altas Peak, Rutherford and Howell Mountain AVAs, made all in stainless steel after a long cool fermentation. The color is an entrancing medium ruby-magenta hue, a little darker and richer than the color of most rosé wines. The impressions are fresh and grapey, with notes of red currants and raspberries and a lift of just-cut Braeburn apple; hints of cranberry and rhubarb linger in the background. The freshness, bright berryish qualities and element of earthiness remind me of Beaujolais-Villages, particularly in the bouquet, but in body and dark spicy red and blue fruit flavors it feels like what in Bordeaux is called clairette, a wine that’s darker and exhibits slightly more heft than a Bordeaux rosé but is lighter than a “regular” cuvée. The combination of freshness, elegance and substance makes the Isabel Mondavi Deep Rosé 2013 a versatile match with all sorts of summertime fare. Alcohol level is a sane and manageable 13.2 percent. Winemaker for the Isabel Mondavi label is Rob Mondavi Jr. Drink now into 2015. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.

A raft of chardonnays here from the Golden State, ranging geographically from Santa Barbara County in the south to Sonoma Coast in the north. They’re mainly from 2011 and 2012, with one from 2013. I offer a $10 product so good that you should buy it by the case, which I don’t often say about chardonnay, and reject some models that cost $65 and $70. I mean, as long as producers turn out chardonnays that embody the over-oaked, stridently spicy, tropical-tinged and butter-infused crème brûlée-like style — and the major wine publications continue to pass out high ratings for such wine — I will continue not to recommend them as unpalatable and undrinkable. Little in the way of historical, geographical or technical data today; these Weekend Wine Notes are intended to be quick and incisive, not as detailed as my regular reviews. Enjoy! (Or not.)

These wines were samples for review.

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Clos du Val Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; vibrant and vivid purity and intensity, scintillating acidity and limestone-flint minerality; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hints of mango and cloves; sleek, lithe, dynamic, beautifully balanced; nothing avant-garde or opulent here, just classic winemaking. Excellent. About $28.
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CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast. 14.1% alc. Pale gold hue; bright, clean and fresh; pineapple-grapefruit-roasted lemon, hints of nutmeg, lemon balm and lemon curd; dense and chewy, packed with spice and seashell-limestone minerality; slightly astringent floral element; quite dry, very attractive weight and substance; earthy finish where the oak comes out a bit more. Very Good+. About $25.
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Dunston Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 13.3% alc. Limited production. Ravishing medium gold hue with a green tinge; pine, cloves, grapefruit and pineapple with notes of mango, roasted lemon and some leafy/green tea element; fascinating in its complexity and risk-taking but ultimately exquisitely balanced, though you feel the tug of polished oak on the finish after an hour or so. Limited production. Excellent. About $45.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium gold color; very bright and bold, even brassy; very spicy with roasted grapefruit and baked peach, slightly caramelized; way too much oak, too much butter and tropical elements; stridently spicy, over-ripe and then austerely dry; fundamentally unbalanced. Not recommended. About $35.
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Gundlach Bundschu Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.3% alc. Pale gold color; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hint of mango; Chablis-like chalk and flint; smoke and earth, dense and chewy and pretty darned intense and concentrated; a substantial style. Very Good+. About $27.
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Isabel Mondavi Chardonnay 2012, Carneros. 13.7% alc. Medium straw-gold color; smoke, toast, oak; roasted lemon and baked pear; fairly spicy with buttered and caramelized citrus fruit; quite dry, sleek, good acidity and limestone minerality, but doesn’t know what style it wishes to emulate. Very Good. About $30.
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Jackson Estate “Camelot Highlands” Chardonnay 2012, Santa Maria Valley. 14.5% alc. This chardonnay falls under the Kendall-Jackson rubric rather than Jackson Family Wines; does either entity really need more brands? Medium gold; vividly spicy, boldly ripe and tropical; smoke, toast, brown sugar; dense and chewy, almost viscous, carries opulence to ridiculous lengths; toasted coconut and marshmallow; crème brûlée; doesn’t even come close to palatable in my world. Not recommended. About $35.
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Jordan Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 13.5% alc. Pale gold color; a typical Jordan chardonnay, nothing bold or sumptuous, thank goodness, but well-balanced with keen acidity and an edge of vital limestone minerality to bolster pineapple-grapefruit flavors highlighted by notes of cloves and lilacs; very dry, clean, spare, elegant; oak is an echo rather than a presence. Excellent. About $30.
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Laetitia Estate Chardonnay 2012, Arroyo Grande Valley. 13.8% alc. I generally like Laetitia’s pinot noirs, but this chardonnay is beyond the pale. So: pale gold color; starts off clean and fresh, with pineapple-grapefruit and notes of roasted lemon and mango; then expands with extravagant richness and exaggerated spice, smoke and crème brûlée gone to the dark side; where are the mitigating acidity and minerality? Not recommended. About $18.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Morelli Lane Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 182 six-pack cases. Steven Kent can make clean, balanced and finely detailed chardonnay (see below), but under his La Rochelle label he turns more baroque and fantastical; this wine is so oaky and over-spiced that it felt harsh on my palate. It gets no recommendation from me. About $65.
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Mandolin Chardonnay 2012, Monterey. 13.5% alc. Clasp this well-made inexpensive chardonnay to your bosom as if it were a long-lost friend. Pale gold color; pineapple-mango-grapefruit, hints of jasmine, crystallized ginger and quince; a tad dusty-earthy; deft balance among acidity, spicy oak and spare limestone minerality; notes of citrus on the finish. Very Good+. About $10 and a Remarkable Bargain.
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Newton Chardonnay 2012, Napa County. 14% alc. Medium gold hue; warm and spicy, bright and bold, but nicely balanced and shapely, with a sheen of oak; ripe pineapple and grapefruit with a note of green apple; brisk acidity and a scintillating limestone finish. Quite attractive. Very Good+. About $28.
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Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. This cousin to the wine mentioned just above is both more ambitious and unfortunately far less balanced; medium gold color; bright, ripe, brassy citrus and stone-fruit scents and flavors; cloves, caramel, brown sugar; very tropical, buttered toast, meringue; yet strangely very dry and austere on the finish. Unpleasant and unpalatable. Not recommended. About $65.
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Olema Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. (Second label of Amici Cellars) Pale gold color; crisp, taut, fresh; apples, grapefruit and pineapple; spicy and lively, a little lean and sinewy but generous and expansive too; quite pleasant and tasty. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
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Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Uh-oh. Medium gold color; forthright and boldly spicy, forthright and deeply oaky. I couldn’t drink it. Not recommended. About $47.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Pale gold; ineffable weaving of grapefruit and pineapple, Golden Delicious apple, cloves, ginger and quince; very dry but juicy and savory; lovely heft and texture, lithe and supple, almost talc-like but riven and balanced by bright acidity. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; so clean and pure, such crystalline intensity, yet spare, elegant and subtle but with a core of natural richness; roasted lemon and lemon balm; notes of pineapple and nectarine; very dry, packed with limestone and flint minerality, but quite delicious, seductive, compelling. Why can’t all chardonnays be like this? Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Reuling Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14% alc. 350 cases. Major disappointment. Very pale gold; brightly spicy, boldly scented; nutmeg and cloves, pineapple and grapefruit caramelized in butter; cinnamon toast; too creamy on the one hand, too sharply spicy on the other, essentially unbalanced, paradoxically both cloying and austere. Not recommended. About $70.
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Steven Kent Winery Merrillie Chardonnay 2012, Livermore Valley. NA% alc. 504 cases. Pale gold color; spare, clean and fresh; lemon balm with notes of grapefruit rind, lemongrass and green tea; hints of nutmeg and cloves; heaps of limestone minerality buoying a lovely talc-like texture shot with shimmering acidity; let’s call it beautiful. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $34.
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Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium straw-gold color; a classic of balance and elegance; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors infused with cloves and limestone; lovely weight and heft, that is to say feels dense and weightless simultaneously; clean, bright acidity for liveliness; subtle, supple oak influence and limestone minerality. Excellent. About $28.
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Souverain Chardonnay 2011, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Pale straw-gold hue; smoke, cloves and nutmeg; pineapple and pears; very dry, very spicy but dense with a crème brûlée element with emphasis on the brûlée; astringent grapefruit finish; bright acidity barely saves the day. Good only. About $16.
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Sometimes you encounter a wine that gets everything right, in terms of impression, quality and price. Such a wine is the Flora Springs Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley. 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. The Flora Springs Chardonnay 2012 aged in a thoughtful regimen of 34 percent French oak barrels, 33 percent larger oak “ovals” and 33 percent stainless steel. The color is pale straw-gold; the wine is fresh and clean, floral in the jasmine-honeysuckle range with notes of cloves; classic pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors are full-blown yet not over-ripe; everything is poised in a model of balance and elegance. A supple and moderately lush texture envelopes slightly candied citrus flavors — add a tinge of quince and ginger — with deeper layers of limestone and flint minerality and crystalline acidity; the finish brings in a note of earthiness. This is winemaking at its most shimmering and jewel-like, the result a chardonnay of exquisite purity and intensity. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with grilled or sauteed salmon or swordfish, with grilled shrimp, with tuna salad. Excellent. About $20, representing Terrific Value.

A sample for review.

At a time when most West Coast wineries have released their sauvignon blanc wines from 2012 and even in some cases 2013, it’s brave of Craig Camp, general manager of Napa Valley’s Cornerstone Cellars, to send not only review samples of the 2011, the winery’s current release, but the 2010 and ’09 as well. The implication is clear: These are meant as serious sauvignon blancs, 100 percent varietal, seasoned six months in mature French oak barrels and capable of aging as their counterparts in Bordeaux do, complex wines intended for, say, the richness of lobster, rather than the incisive brininess of oysters. The grapes derive from the Talcott Vineyard in St. Helena, a fact that perhaps accounts for the remarkable consistency in the character and quality of the three wines. Winemaker for Cornerstone is Jeff Keene.
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The Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Napa Valley, is a pale gold color and offers beguiling aromas of lemongrass, honeysuckle and cucumber, woven with white peach, ginger and quince, with notes of fig and spicy oak. The wine is very dry, packed with elements of limestone and flint, and it exudes an intriguing earthy, almost briery quality; a few moments in the glass bring out hints of mango, lychee and roasted lemon. Most impressive are the wine’s tremendous polish and presence, its vibrancy and energy, all wrapped in a texture that’s both irreproachably crisp and enticingly soft and palatable. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 to ’19. Production was 361 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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The Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley, resembles its cousin from 2011 in its grapefruit-cucumber-lemongrass character, to which it adds notes of white pepper, sunny–dusty–leafy fig, lilac and licorice; a snap of black currant and vivid acidity animates the core. One feels the oak influence just a shade more in this 2010 than in the 2011, evinced in svelte suppleness and a dash more exotic woody spice. Again, though, the wine’s primary personality lies in its combination of substance and transparency, its heft and crystalline ethereal qualities. 13.9 percent alcohol; case production not available but certainly limited. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. Sold at the winery for $50.
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As with the 2011 and ’10, the Cornerstone cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Napa Valley, offers a set of elements revolving around cucumber, lemongrass and grapefruit, lime peel, ginger and quince buoyed by powerful limestone and chalk elements. Perhaps the ’09 is a whisper less ripe and juicy, a hair more robust and structured than its stablemates, but at an age when many sauvignon blanc wines are lapsing into flatness and flaccidity, this one is wonderfully fresh and aromatic, vibrant and appealing. 13.9 percent alcohol; case production not available but certainly limited. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. Sold at the winery for $70.
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One truth that we hold self-evident is that wines made from the same grapes can be very different. The extreme example of this principle occurs in Burgundy, where producers who each own a few rows of vines in Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards make wine that may be wholly divergent from the wine of their neighbors. On a broad geographical scale, we would not expect pinot noir made in, say, Gevrey-Chambertin or Chambolle-Musigny to resemble pinot noir emanating from the Santa Lucia Highlands or Anderson Valley. History, heritage, geology and philosophy all mitigate against such resemblance. Let’s turn, then, to cabernet sauvignon, where obviously the same principle applies. A cabernet-based wine from Pauillac or St.-Estephe in Bordeaux has no reason to be much like a cabernet-based wine from Howell Mountain or Paso Robles, even though the blend of grapes might be similar — or with those cabs produced in Howell Mountain and Paso Robles themselves — and yet we expect a core of cousinage born of the character of the dominant grape, some sign that the origin prevails.

Today, in line with those thoughts, I want to look at two cabernet sauvignon wines produced in Napa Valley, the Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 and the Faust 2011. Last year, Forbes called Paul Hobbs “the Steve Jobs of winemaking,” and indeed Hobbs has a reputation for being meticulous, inventive and hardworking. He is winemaker for his eponymous winery as well as overseeing projects in Argentina and consulting in other countries. Hobbs favors emphatic wines that do not shy away from succulence while maintaining a firm hold on structure. Faust is a label from California veteran Agustin Huneeus and his son Agustin Francisco Huneeus, producers of the well-known Quintessa cabernet sauvignon. The Huneeus wines tend toward classic dignity and austerity whole maintaining, to continue the parallel, a firm hold on fruit. Let’s do a little comparison and contrast of these expressions of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and the vision of individual producers. Winemaker for Faust is Quintessa’s Charles Thomas.

These wines were samples for review. Image of cabernet sauvignon grapes in the Seven Oaks Vineyard at J. Lohr Winery from tripadvisor.com.

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The Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley, is a blend of 95 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes with three percent petit verdot and one percent each malbec and cabernet franc. The wine aged 20 months in French oak barrels, 65 percent new. This cabernet is immediately appealing, even gorgeous in the way that red wines made in Bordeaux tend not to be, but it is not elegant in the way that red wines made in Bordeaux often are. Vineyards that contributed grapes for Hobbs ’11 include Beckstoffer’s Dr. Crane and Las Piedras, just outside the city of St. Helena, and Stagecoach Vineyard, stretching from Pritchard Hill to Atlas Peak at elevations varying from 1,200 to 1,750 feet.
The color is deep ruby-purple that’s almost opaque in the center. Aromas of blackberries and black currants are permeated with notes of lilac and lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate, all drenched in dried baking spices and dried fruit over a grounding of tar and graphite; as bouquets go, this one is spectacular. In the mouth, the wine is rich and plummy, close to jammy — there’s a hint of lingonberry — but it’s held in check by a powerful granitic mineral element joined to iodine and iron, supple dusty tannins and spanking acidity. For a frankly opulent and sensuous cabernet sauvignon, this one is impeccably balanced, and it drinks fine now, especially, perhaps, with a hot and crusty ribeye steak or leg or lamb right off the grill, or over the next 10 or 12 years. 14.4 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $100.
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All right, notice this. As with the Paul Hobbs Cab ’11, the Faust Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley, contains three percent petit verdot and one percent each malbec and cabernet franc, though there the resemblance ends, because the balance of the Faust is 78 percent cabernet sauvignon and 17 percent merlot, the latter variety entirely absent from the Hobbs. Faust ’11 aged 19 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. The preponderance of grapes for this wine derived from Coombsville, east of the city of Napa, declared an American Viticultural Area in 2011; the rest of the grapes came from vineyards as widespread (within Napa Valley) as Yountville, Mount Veeder, Atlas Peak, St, Helena and Rutherford, which is to say, valley and mountains.
The color is deep ruby-purple with a magenta rim. If graphite and granite could be made into incense, this would be it, though with those aromas are woven notes of red and black cherries, black currants, cocoa powder and cloves. On the palate, Faust ’11 is dense and chewy, freighted with dusty, gritty mineral-laden tannins darkened by touches of slightly austere walnut shell and wheatmeal; structure is the raison d’etre, though depths of spicy black fruit flavors are not ignored. This strikes me as a cabernet not quite ready to drink, though even for all its emphasis on foundation and framing one feels its shapely aptitude and subtle elegance; try from 2016 through 2022 to ’25. Alcohol content is 14.2 percent. Excellent. About $50.
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I am averse to making a limited edition product the Wine of the Week because it just ain’t fair to My Readers. On the other hand, the Cornerstone Stepping Stone Corallina 2013, Napa Valley, is that rare rosé of such character and quality that I don’t want you to miss it, though it must be marked Worth a Search. Made completely from syrah grapes given a long cool fermentation in stainless steel tanks and aged five months in neutral French oak, this wine is designated Napa Valley, but it’s made from dedicated grapes grown in the Crane Ranch Vineyard in the Oak Knoll District. The color is that true coral, what the French call “eye of the partridge,” and while I’ve never looked a partridge in the eye, I’ll take their word for it. Aromas of strawberries and peaches are highlighted by orange zest, a hint of dried thyme and rosemary and a touch of flint; a few minutes in the glass unfurl a note of tobacco-leaf earthiness. The structure feels incisively chiseled from limestone, and there’s a deep cut of bright acidity under a texture lent suppleness and clove-like spice by the brief exposure to wood; all of this supports tasty and juicy yet spare strawberry and red currant flavors. Alcohol content is 13.1 percent. Winemaker was Jeff Keene. Production was 417 cases. Excellent. About $25.

A sample for review.

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