Napa Valley


Cakebread Cellars was the first winery I visited on my first trip to Napa Valley, in 1987, covering the Napa Valley Wine Auction. The winery celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, having been founded in 1973 by Jack Cakebread, photographer and owner of Cakebread’s Garage, an auto repair shop in San Francisco started by Leo Cakebread in 1927. I say that Jack Cakebread founded the winery, but his wife Dolores and sons Steve, Bruce and Dennis cannot be left out of even a brief account of the Cakebread history. The company is still family-owned and has grown from its original 22 acres to hundreds of acres with vineyards throughout Napa Valley and a pinot noir outpost in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Jack Cakebread is CEO, Bruce is president and COO, and Dennis is senior vice president for sales and marketing. Winemaker since 2002 has been Julianne Laks, previously the winery’s assistant winemaker.

The three cabernet sauvignon-based wines from 2012, ’11 and ’10 reviewed in this post are powerful expressions of the grapes and the Napa soil and sub-strata from which they grew. If your ideal notion of cabernet wines is finesse and finely-tuned nuance, the wedding of dynamism and elegance, these are not your models. Winemaker Julianne Laks fully exploits all elements for their deepest dimensions of tannin, oak and mineral-like qualities, building unimpeachable structure, in addition to drawing from wells of sometimes exotic spice and ripe, macerated fruit, the latter requiring a decade to develop completely. While the wines can be daunting initially, there are rewards for those with patience. Cakebread is not a winery that kowtows to fashion. The label is basically unchanged from how it was designed 40 years ago; the style does not lean toward high alcohol, super-ripeness or layers of toasty new oak. Such solidity and sense of tradition may seem staid and stodgy to some consumers, but to my mind they form a gratifying display of dedication and common sense.

These wines were samples for review. The image immediately above shows Bruce, Jack and Dennis Cakebread back in the day, that is, sometime in the 1980s.
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The Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, is a blend of 84 percent cabernet sauvignon, six percent each merlot and cabernet franc and four percent petit verdot. This is a valley-wide wine, its components deriving from vineyards throughout the appellation. It aged 18 months in French oak, 54 percent new barrels. The color is deep ruby-red with a magenta rim; a full-blown woodsy bouquet of moss, loam, underbrush and walnut-shell opens to notes of cassis with spiced and macerated blueberries and plums underlain by whiffs of coffee, cedar, tobacco and graphite; a few minutes in the glass bring up hints of bell pepper and black olive. The wine fills the mouth with dusty, grainy tannins and polished oak; it’s lithic and granitic, yet possesses inner richness and ripeness; still the mineral, oak and tannic elements preside for the time being. The finish is large, dry, highly structured and rather austere. Twelve hours overnight merely deepened and broadened the wine’s essential framework. 14.3 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’25 or ’26. Excellent potential. About $61.50.
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The Cakebread Cellars Benchland Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley, is 100 percent cabernet grapes, taken from two vineyards in the slopes in the west of the Rutherford AVA; the wine aged 19 months in French oak, 45 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby, though not quite opaque, with a slightly lighter rim; the bouquet is characterized by notes of cedar and rosemary — with a touch of the resinous quality implied — walnut-shell and graham meal, iodine and graphite; some moments of airing reveal hints of tapenade and loam. This is a very dense, chewy wine, with bales of oak and tannin that coat the palate with dusty, front-loaded minerality; it requires considerable swirling of the glass to free the spicy and balsamic-inflected blackberry-blueberry-and-black-cherry scents and flavors. The texture embodies the classic Napa Valley “iron-fist-in-velvet-glove” plushness married to granite and deep earthy tones. Even the next morning, the wine exhibited tannins that should read you your Miranda rights before you imbibe. 13.6 percent alcohol. A bit inchoate now, this will need three to five years to attain balance and integration and then develop through 2025 to ’29 or ’30. Very Good+. Not yet released; prices for previous vintages were about $90 to $110.
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The Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, contains six percent cabernet franc and 1 percent merlot in the blend; the vineyards go up to 1,800-foot elevation. The wine aged 19 months in French oak, 39 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby-magenta; if a wine could be described as both monumental and winsomely exotic, this is it. The whole enterprise is intense and concentrated in every detail and dimension, and while the first impression is of utter clarity and freshness, the second impression is laden with deep graphite minerality, iron-like but finely-milled tannins and polished ecclesiastical oak — I mean, think of ancient burnished altars, dusty velvet drapery and incense, the latter notion leading to the wine’s exotic nature in notes of lavender, sandalwood, cloves and black licorice. Still, fruit is a buried stream here; you sense rather than feel the latent intensity of ripeness, though the rich, savory quality is undeniable. Twelve hours later, the tannins formed a bastion that will demand three to five years to soften and admit entrance, drinking then through 2028 to ’30. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Excellent potential. Unreleased, but previous vintages priced about $100 to $125.
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Today’s post continues my investigation into the character and evolution of cabernet sauvignon wines produced in Napa Valley. The first post in this series provided an introduction and reviews of six examples. Now I look at the current-release cabernet-based wines of Newton Vineyard.

The winery was founded by Peter and Su Hua Newton on Spring Mountain in 1979, two years after Peter Newton sold his share in Sterling Vineyards to Coca-Cola. (That move on Coke’s part didn’t work out; the company sold Sterling to Seagram’s, and it’s now owned by Diageo.) Newton was British, a horticulturalist and garden designer. The Newtons bought 650 acres, basically a square mile, on the mountain, west of the town of St. Helena, and planted vines on about 60 acres of steeply terraced sites. The winery, a grandiose building surrounded by extensive formal gardens, focuses on several levels of cabernet or cabernet-based wines, as well as merlot and chardonnay. Vineyard area is 120 acres, ranging from 500 to 1,600 feet above sea level, divided into 112 blocks and cultivated for different soil characteristics. LVMH acquired a majority interest in Newton Vineyard in 2001; the winery is now part of the luxury goods company’s Estates and Wines Collection. Peter Newton died in 2008, at the age of 81.

The cabernet sauvignon wines produced by Newton are powerful and dynamic yet restrained when it comes to ripeness, alcohol content and oak regimen, almost managing to be elegant. The first two wines, the Claret 2011 and the Cabernet 2011, derive from a multitude of vineyards that range from the north to the south of Napa Valley; they display Napa County designations. The Unfiltered Cabernet 2011 and The Puzzle 2010 are made from estate blocks on Spring Mountain and in particular offer a deep earthy mineral-laced character. These are not cheap wines, and in fact I would quibble at the hyperbolic prices — the Claret should be about $20 instead of $28, but no one asked me — still, Newton’s The Puzzle, even at $100, is one of Napa Valley essential flagship wines. Winemaker at Newton is Chris Millard.

These wines were samples for review. Image from tripadvisor.com.
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Newton Claret 2011, Napa County. The blend here is 54 percent cabernet sauvignon, 28 percent merlot, 10 petit verdot, 4 syrah, 3 cabernet franc and 1 percent malbec, a sort of Bordeaux red blend with a dollop of syrah; the wine aged 20 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a mulberry rim, and as far as being shaped in the Bordeaux model, the wine offers a rather St.-Julien-like bouquet of black currants and black cherries permeated by notes of black olives, rosemary and walnuts, tobacco leaf and cigarette paper. It’s smooth and lithe on the palate, a beautifully integrated package of dark, lightly spiced black fruit, vibrant acidity, slightly dusty tannins and supple oak. Exciting, racy, demanding? No, but very satisfying, delicious and well-structured. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $28.
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Newton Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa County. This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, aged 12 months in French oak, percentage of new barrels not specified. The color is deep ruby with a tinge of magenta; the overall impression is of lovely weight, heft and balance, beginning with aromas of ripe black currants and raspberries mixed with dried fruit, potpourri and lavender and a whole snootful of exotic spices; this is, however, a cool, clean graphite-laden cabernet, freighted with lithic influence and etched with granite (and a note or two of violets and licorice). Flavors of black currants and cherries, with touches of blueberry and plum, are highlighted by resolute acidity and fairly prominent tannins that are dense without being ponderous. The slightly austere finish is packed with spice and minerals. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $30.
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Newton Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. There’s a bit of a blend here, with three percent petit verdot grapes, all derived from Newton’s Spring Mountain estate vineyards; the wine aged 22 months in French oak barrels, 50 percent new. The color is dark ruby, with a hint of purple; the emphasis is on structure, so while the bouquet fairly seethes with ripe, spicy black currants and cassis, those elements are circumscribed by graphite, iron and iodine; fine-grained velvety tannins and dense, slightly creamy oak frame black fruit flavors enhanced by tense acidity. A great deal of power and energy don’t detract from the essential balance and integration of this wine, though it requires a bit of aging to achieve real poise. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $60.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2010, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. This proprietary wine is a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 18 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot and 4 percent malbec. Because it contains less than 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, it cannot state the majority grape on the label. The Puzzle 2010 aged 22 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels. The color is dark, dense ruby-purple; the wine embodies that lovely and gratifying paradox of being intense and concentrated yet generous and expansive, so while it feels ferrous, sanguinary and feral (though Olympian in its brooding character), it also displays an innate delicacy and elegance of balance and harmony, all effects marshaled under the tempering influence of plangent acidity and dusty, graphite-packed tannins. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2015 or ’16 through 2025 to ’30. Exceptional. About $100.
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When the first European settlers entered what became California’s Napa Valley in the early 1830s, they found six small tribes of Native American Indians who spoke different dialects and were often at war. A smallpox epidemic in 1838 put an end to that situation. George Yount, perhaps the first Anglo settler in the area, built a log house on the Mexican land grant in received in 1836 and planted the first vineyard in Napa, though Charles Krug established the first winery, in 1861. Though by the end of the 19th Century Napa Valley was home to 140 wineries, the rest is not exactly history, at least not of the straight-line sort, because the plant louse Phylloxera followed by the scourge of Prohibition brought a halt to grape-growing and commercial wine production.

Napa Valley’s real influence emerged after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and the proliferation of and focus on the cabernet sauvignon grape. Such wineries as Beaulieu Vineyards, Inglenook, Louis M. Martini and Charles Krug took the lead in finding the best sites for the vineyards and in putting the name of the grape on the label. These wineries of what I’ll call the first generation were joined in the 1960s and ’70s by a second wave in the form of Mayacamas, Diamond Creek, Heitz, Clos du Val, Freemark Abbey, Cakebread Cellars, Robert Mondavi, Duckhorn, Dunn, Burgess, Chateau Montelena, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Smith-Madrone, Joseph Phelps and many others. Excellent vintages like 1968, ’74, ’78, ’84, ’85 and ’86 and the cabernet wines they produced caught the attention of wine buffs all over the country and in the Old World. It didn’t hurt that two Napa Valley wines, Chateau Montelena Chadonnay 1973 and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon 1973, beat their counterparts from Burgundy and Bordequx in the ground-breaking (and infamous) Paris Tasting of 1976. Napa Valley became a name to conjure with in terms of cabernet sauvignon, though of course most of these wineries also made other sorts of wine: merlot, zinfandel, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc.

The third generation, coming into prominence in the 1990s and often involving huge outlays of fiduciary prowess in acquiring expensive vineyard land and building showplace facilties, includes such “cult” wineries as Screaming eagle, Harlan Estate, Bryant Family and Colgin, followed in the 21st Century by such recent additions as Sloan Estate and Hundred Acre, most sold primarily by mailing list and avidly sought by collectors.

Anyone who has tasted Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon going back to the 1970s will attest to a vast change in style over the decades, a transformation that includes higher alcohol levels — even to 15 percent and over; riper, jammier fruit; and voluptuous textures. The reasons for these changes may be attributable to several factors: global warming, consumer taste and the exigencies of the market, the palates and dictates of high-profile critics and wine publications. Whatever the case, it is and has been fascinating to observe and experience the evolution of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, even if I don’t always agree with the results. I tend to favor more structured, lean and elegant cabernets, the iron fist in the velvet glove approach (in Warren Winiarski’s phrase), as opposed to the more flamboyant and opulent renditions, though I can be swayed by adequate acidity.

Anyway, today I launch a series of posts dedicated to Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon wines, beginning with detailed reviews of six examples, including two Old-School models — Chateau Montelena and La Jota Vineyard — and two quite recent start-ups — Calla Lily and Volta. Some are traditional Bordeaux-style blends, others are 100 percent cabernet sauvignon; some see all new oak for several years, while others are subjected to a less rigorous regimen. These are from 2011, 10 and ’09. The series will continue with group reviews and with posts dedicated to products from a single winery. Napa Valley cabernet has become legendary in the world of wine, but even legends must bear scrutiny.
These wines were samples for review. Map of Napa Valley and its sub-appellations from napavalleypassport.com.
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Calla Lily Ultimate Red Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. This bold effort, aged 25 months in French oak barrels, is the first release from a fledgling winery, established in 2013 in Pope Valley, east of Calistoga. The color is dense ruby-purple with an opaque center. Altogether, it displays the gratifying paradox that balances intensity and concentration of all aspects with a generous and expansive character. Highly expressive aromas of lavender and black licorice, espresso and graphite, toasted walnuts, fruitcake and just a whiff of vanilla open to notes of ripe black currants, black cherries and plums; this is succulent on the palate, plush and powerful, quite dry and packed with dusty, velvety tannins and oak that gives off elements of dried woody spice and a hint of exoticism. The finish is austere, high-toned but lithe and supple. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drinkable now with steaks and braised short ribs or try from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $80.
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La Jota Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. La Jota fell off my radar for quite a few years, meaning that I didn’t write about the wines because I received no samples. Then — boom! — comes to my door this dignified-looking bottle of cabernet sauvignon. The winery dates back to 1898, when Swiss immigrant Frederick Hess purchased 327 acres of George Yount’s Rancho La Jota land grant on Howell Mountain. (The jota is a Spanish folk-dance, in 3/4 or 6/8 time, that achieved broad popularity in the mid 18th Century.) Within a few years, La Jota wines were winning awards at national and international competitions. Phylloxera and Prohibition put an end to the winery’s accomplishments, and the estate did not see a revival until 1974, when the original stone winery and 40 surrounding acres were bought by former oilman Bill Smith and his wife Joan. They planted new vines and added acreage, developed several new varieties and were instrumental in persuading what was then the BATF to declare Howell Mountain a separate American Viticultural Area within Napa Valley. In 2001, Smith sold La Jota to Markham Vineyards and its parent company Mercian Corp. The late Jesse Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke acquired La Jota in 2005, and it is now a part of Jackson Family Wines. Winemaker for La Jota is Chris Carpenter.

La Jota Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Howell Mountain, is a blend of 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot, 4 petit verdot and 6 cabernet franc. The wine aged 19 months in French oak, 91 percent new barrels. The color is deep ruby-purple with a magenta cast; marked by intensity and concentration in every respect, the wine offers aromas of graphite and charcoal, lavender, violets and bitter chocolate, spiced and macerated black cherries, raspberries and plums. It fills the mouth with dense, chewy, dusty tannins and a texture that feels sleek and chiseled, like arrowheads carved from obsidian; a few minutes in the glass bring out notes of fruitcake and plum tart, sandalwood and ancho chile. Wine reviewers are fond of saying that they can sense the high origins of mountainside wines; I’ll go so far as to say that in this case the prominent granitic minerality feels like a permanent ledge that time in the bottle will gently erode. While the wine developed some notions of being broad and expansive, after an hour or so, it began to shut down. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’18 to 2025 to ’30. Excellent. About $75.
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Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Calistoga, Napa Valley. Chateau Montelena is another estate whose roots go back to the late 19th Century. The winery was founded in 1882 by Alfred Tubbs, who commissioned the looming Chinese-Gothic castle that appears on Montelena’s labels. Tubbs’ efforts failed, however, early in the 20th Century, and the property was a “ghost” winery until 1972, when it was bought by James L. Barrett, an attorney from Southern California. His son Bo Barrett is now the winemaker for Montelena. The winery received a huge boost when its Chardonnay 1973, made by Mike Grgich, was named best white wine in the legendary (or infamous) Paris Tasting of 1976. I have a bias toward the cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays produced at Chateau Montelena, because they fall exactly into the parameters that I prefer in such wines, representing an ideal of purity and intensity, without being overripe, flamboyant or scrumptious. You could not find a better metaphor for the perfectly balanced marriage of power and elegance.

The Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Calistoga, is a blend of 91 percent cabernet grapes, seven percent merlot and two percent cabernet franc; the wine aged 14 months is a combination of French and Eastern European oak, only 12 percent of which were new. The color is medium ruby, but fairly opaque at the center; cabernet sauvignon’s classic notes — what to me are classic notes — of cedar, black olives and thyme are meshed with elements of dusty graphite and whiffs of lightly spiced and macerated black and red currants, black cherries and raspberries, all poised over a clean, vivid backdrop of briers, brambles and loam. Tannins are stalwart and slightly lithic, yes, but etched with hints of lavender, black licorice and potpourri, while black and red fruit flavors evolve into a finish that’s sleek and polished yet faintly austere with touches of walnut shell and underbrush. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now or let it rest through 2016 or ’17 for consumption by 2023 to 2025 or ’26. Excellent. About $50.
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Sanctuary Usibelli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Not many wineries place the name of the winemaker on the front label — or the back label for that matter — but there is Dennis Martin’s name at the top, albeit in small letters. He is assisted by a young woman with the wonderful name Zidanelia Arcidiacono, though she is mentioned not on the label but on the winery’s website. Sanctuary obtains grapes from vineyards throughout California’s major regions for its wines, in this case from the Usibelli Vineyard in Napa Valley’s Rutherford AVA.

This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. It rested 14 and a half months in French oak barrels, percentage of new barrels not specified. The color is an entrancing deep ruby hue with a magenta rim, brimming with health and intrigue; penetrating aromas of iodine, iron and graphite smolder in the glass, along with notes of spiced, macerated and lightly stewed red and black currants, raspberries and black cherries; the whole effect is of rather fleshy fruit briefly grilled over charcoal. Matters turn fairly serious on the palate, where the wine unlimbers leathery tannins, elements of walnut shell, underbrush and forest floor, and brings the oak slightly to the foreground. Still, the spicy black and red fruit flavors, though spare, are delicious, nestled into a sensuous velvety texture. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $40.
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Silverado Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. The Silverado Vineyards compound perches like its own Italian hilltown above the Silverado Trail in eastern Napa Valley. The winery was established in 1981 by Lillian Disney (1899-1997), widow of the world-famous animator and entrepreneur; her daughter Diane Disney Miller (1933-2013); and the latter’s husband Ron, former president and CEO of Walt Disney Productions. The emphasis at Silverado is on cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc. Winemaker is Jon Emmerich.

Grapes for the Silverado Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley, derive 40 percent from Stags Leap Vineyard, next to the winery; 55 percent from Mt. George Vineyard, east of the city of Napa; and five percent from Oakville Station in the Oakville AVA, the heart of Napa Valley. The wine is a blend of 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 16 percent merlot, 2 percent petit verdot and 1 percent cabernet franc; it aged 17 months in French oak (90 percent) and American oak (10 percent), the total of new barrels being 44 percent. O.K., enough with the percentages. This one radiates an intensity of purpose and confidence as well as bastions of spicy oak, buttresses of dusty tannins and flashes of electrifying acidity, which is to say that there’s balance here, of sorts, and great liveliness and appeal, but the wine needs some time to let fruit emerge from the structure. The color is a ravishing deep ruby-purple; aromas of red and black currants and red and black cherries are permeated by touches of loam and graphite, cloves, lavender and walnut shell. On the palate, this is dense, chewy, lithe, supple, managing to be both sleek and substantial; the finish is packed with woody spice and granitic minerality. 14.7 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $48.
The image on the winery website has not caught up with newer releases.
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Volta Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. This recently founded winery is owned by music industry veteran Steve Lau and finance and real estate expert Frederick McCarthy. Winemaker is Massimo Monticelli, who learned the ropes during a five-year stint at Silver Oak Cellars. The wine is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon from the certified organic Mission Ridge Vineyard; it aged 22 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels. Production for Volta 2009 was 450 cases. The color is deep ruby-purple, markedly opaque at the center; aromas of ripe and macerated black currants, black cherries and plums pull you in to a bouquet that seethes with cloves and walnut shell, lavender and licorice and bitter chocolate, all encompassed by a circumference of graphite, slightly toasty-vanilla tinged oak, iodine and iron. There’s an air here of artfulness but also a tinge of the feral; the wine is dense and chewy, powerfully and dynamically tannic, but also light on its feet, almost balletic in its sense of elevation and wildness. Still, it has some aging to go through, so try from late in 2015 or 2016 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $60.
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Take your choice. Either at our backs we always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near OR the world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Choice, did I say?! Or, did I say?! Heck no, it’s both, incessant, ceaseless, seemingly infinite! So, anyway, it’s difficult to keep up with all the wines I need to review, so here, today, I offer 12 wines, rated Very Good+ to Exceptional, that I should have written about this year but didn’t have the time or space. I’m trying to make amends. There should be something in this post to appeal to a variety of palates. Most of these wines are from California, but we also touch on Oregon’s Willamette Valley; Baden, in Germany; France’s Alsace region; and Clare Valley in South Australia. With one exception today, I purposely avoid technical and geographical information in favor of quick, incisive reviews designed to pique your aching interest and whet your anticipatory taste-buds. These wines were samples for review. Enjoy — in moderation, of course.
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Josmeyer Pinot Blanc 2009, Alsace. 12% alc. Bright medium gold color; slightly honeyed ginger and quince, papaya and mango, quite floral with hints of jasmine and honeysuckle; slightly dusty limestone minerality, a touch of diesel; a sweet impression because of the ripe juicy roasted lemon and stone-fruit flavors but actually very dry, enlivened by bright acidity and that scintillating limestone element. Taut yet generous, a real beauty. Now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $20 to $22.
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Steven Kent Winery “Lola” Ghielmetti Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Livermore Valley. 13.9% alc. 100% sauvignon blanc. 401 cases. Very pale straw-gold hue; gorgeous aromas of honeysuckle and camellia, tangerine, lime peel and lemongrass, cloves and ginger, hints of hay and thyme; lemony with a touch of peach and guava; wonderful talc-like texture riven by bristling acidity and bright limestone minerality; touch of celery seed and grapefruit bitterness on the finish. Irresistible. Now through Summer 2015. Excellent. About $24.
Image from cuveecorner.blogspot.com.
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McCay Cellars Tres Blanc 2013, Lodi. 14.5% alc. Blend of vermentino, verdelho, muscat and pinot noir. 218 cases. Pale gold color; intensely floral with jasmine and lilac; celery seed, fennel, roasted lemon, spiced pear, slightly leafy, with notes of fig and lime peel; dry but juicy, keen acidity and lovely viscosity; limestone and grapefruit finish. Very charming. Drink through Summer 2015. Very Good+. About $24.
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Grgich Hills Estate Fume Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. 13.55 alc. 100% sauvignon blanc. Pale gold color, shimmering; grapefruit, lime peel, roasted lemon, hint of peach; lemongrass and thyme; exotically floral, lilac, hyacinth; extraordinary texture, tense and tensile with steely acidity, limestone and damp rocks but contrastingly soft, silky, caressing, all this in perfect balance, along with notes of yellow plum, quince, ginger and just a hint of mango. Consistently one of the best sauvignon blanc wines made in California. Now through 2017 or ’18. Exceptional. About $30.
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Alexander Laible “Chara” Riesling trocken 2012, Baden, Germany. 13% alc. 100% riesling. Medium gold color; peach and pear, lychee and jasmine, wet stones, touch of apricot and diesel; very ripe entry, just a brush with sweetness but quickly turns dry; huge limestone element and chiming acidity give it tautness and resonance; lovely, lively delicate texture, yet plenty of lithe muscularity. Just terrific and delicious. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $40.
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Waterstone Pinot Noir 2011, Carneros. 14.5% alc. 100% pinot noir. 868 cases. Medium ruby color; red currants and cranberries, cloves and cinnamon; touch of candied cherries; rhubarb and pomegranate; very warm and spicy; mild tannins and a subtle oak presence; slightly foresty and briery, hints of leaf smoke, moss, a bit autumnal but fresh and clean. Quite appealing. Now through 2015. Very Good+. About $22.
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McCay Cellars Carignane 2011, Lodi. 13.5% alc. 100% carignane from a vineyard planted in 1908. 218 cases. Medium ruby-mulberry color; briery red currants and cranberries; rose petals, sandalwood, potpourri, brings up an infusion of red and black cherries; a little sappy and loamy; the whole package grows more expansive, generous and exotic as the minutes pass; supple but slightly smacky tannin and straight-arrow acidity; grows richer and more powerful through the brambly, flinty finish. Tasty and individual. Well worth a search. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $32.
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Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 13.5% alc. 100% pinot noir. Lovely, limpid medium ruby-mulberry hue; raspberries and plums, touch of black cherry, with a slightly raspy character; rose hips, violets, exotic with potpourri, lavender and sandalwood; rooty, loamy and a bit leathery; lithe and sinewy with lively acidity that cuts a swath on the palate; spare, savory, somehow like autumnal bounty slightly withheld. Tremendous integrity and authority, yet graceful, elegant, thoughtful. A pinot noir such as we do not often see made in the United States of America. Now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $35.
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Eponymous Syrah 2009, Napa Valley. 14.4% alc. With 4% cabernet sauvignon. Dark ruby-purple with a magenta rim; a syrah of real class and purpose; blackberries, blueberries and plums; clean earth, loam, graphite and new leather; hints of violets and lavender, dried rosemary and roasted fennel; touch of fruitcake; very dry, iron-like tannins and dusty oak; long spice-packed and granitic finish. Tremendous tone and presence yet sleek, elegant, light on its feet. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $38.
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Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2009, Napa Valley. 14.8% alc. 100% merlot. Dark to medium ruby color; smolders with lavender and licorice, meaty and fleshy black currants and black raspberries, cloves and allspice; there’s a pungent dusty charcoal-graphite edge; a sizable, vibrant, resonant mouthful of merlot, with elements of leather, briers and brambles, underbrush and tannins of deep deliberation, all in all intense and concentrated yet sleek, well-balanced and integrated. Drink now through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $42.
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Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Alexander Valley. 13.5% alc. With 16% merlot, 7% petit verdot, 1% malbec. I typically don’t mention technical details in these Weekend Wine Notes, but I highly approve of the thoughtful oak regimen for this wine: 12 months aging in 74% French and 24% American oak barrels, of which, collectively, only 39% of the barrels were new. How sane! How rational! Thank you! Deep ruby-purple color; utterly classic, suave, delicious, well-structured; blackberries, black cherries and plums, hints of fennel, lavender, licorice and violets; though the wine is characterized by velvety, cushiony tannins, the tannic nature firms up in the glass and builds a sort of walnut shell-briers-and-brambles austerity through the finish; a perfect display of power and elegance. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $53.
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Wakefield “The Visionary” Exceptional Parcel Release Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Clare Valley, South Australia. 14% alc. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Dark ruby color; mint, iodine and iron, spiced and macerated black currants, plums and cherries; graphite and granite minerality that accumulate like a coastal shelf; dusty tannins, walnut-shell and loam; dense, chewy. A powerhouse of presence, tone and resonance, yet not in the least overwhelming or ponderous. Try from 2016 through 2030. Excellent. About $120.
Image from wineanorak.com
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Few wineries in Napa Valley and indeed in California are as iconic, both physically and metaphysically, as the Robert Mondavi Winery. Its mission-style facility on Hwy 29 on Napa Valley is unmistakable. The story has often been told of how Robert Mondavi (1913-2008), in a feud with his brother Peter about the operation of the Charles Krug winery, left that business and launched his own winery in 1966, eventually becoming a wine-juggernaut of world-wide innovation and influence. As they say, the rest is history, though the history of the winery related on a timeline on the company’s website skips from 2002 to 2005, omitting the fact that the over-extended family sold the kit-n-kaboodle to Constellation Brands in November 2004 for a billion dollars. The wise move that Constellation made was to retain Genevieve Janssens as director of winemaking, a position she has held since 1997, thus lending a sense of continuity and purpose. Modavi continues to release a dizzying array of products — a rose! a semillon! (neither of which I have seen) — but the concentration is on the varieties that made its name, often produced at levels of “regular” bottlings, single-vineyard and reserve: cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Today, in this series, I consider the Robert Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, from 2012.

These wines were samples for review.
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Let’s start with red, this one being my favorite of the pair. The Robert Mondavi Reserve Pinot Noir 2012, Carneros, Napa Valley, spent 10 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels, and to my mind that’s a lot of new oak for pinot noir. Despite my opinion, however, the grapes soaked up that oak, and the wine came out sleek and satiny; this is no ethereal, evanescent pinot noir, but a wine of substance and bearing. The color is dark ruby with a purple/magenta tinge; aromas of black cherry and raspberry are bolstered by notes of pomegranate and sassafras, oolong tea, graphite and loam, all in all retaining a winsome quality in the earthiness. Nothing winsome on the palate, though; while the texture is wonderfully supple and attractive, and the black and red fruit flavors are deep and delicious, this is a pinot noir that takes its dimensions seriously, as elements of new leather, briers and brambles and slightly woody spice testify. 14.5 percent alcohol. At not quite two years old, the Robert Mondavi Reserve Pinot Noir 2012, Carneros, Napa Valley, is still in its formative years; try from 2015 or ’16 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $60.
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Unfortunately, the Robert Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay 2012, Carneros, Napa Valley, pushes all my wrong buttons as far as the chardonnay grape is concerned. The color is medium straw-gold; with its rich and ripe mango-papaya trajectory, this is more tropical than I would want a chardonnay to be, not even accounting for its creamy elements of lemon curd and lemon tart, its vanilla and nutmeg and touch of lightly buttered cinnamon toast. The wine aged a sensible 10 months in French oak barrels, 58 percent new — that’s the sensible part — but its over-abundant spice and its nuances of toffee and burnt match detract from the grape’s purity of expression, and it lacks by several degrees the minerality to give the wine balance and energy. I know, I know, many of My Readers are going to say, “Well, look, FK, this is an argument about style, not about whether this is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ wine,” and I will reply, “Yes, I’m aware of that fact, but a style of winemaking that obscures the virtues of the grape is folly.” This is, frankly, not a chardonnay that I would choose to drink. 13.5 percent alcohol; that’s a blessing. Now through 2017 or ’18, but Not Recommended. About $40.
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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.

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