Napa Valley


… and, yes, friends, it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky.
jayson
What is this trope about table wines that bear the cloying impress of alcohol levels over 15 percent, even 16 percent and higher? Some winemakers in California seem to fall into the same camp as many producers of craft beer, who believe that the hoppier a brew is the better it is, intrinsically, so, by parallel reasoning, since wine is an alcoholic beverage, let’s pump up the alcohol for a wild ride.

There was a time when wines produced in California came in at alcohol levels between about 11.5 and 12.5 percent, maybe up to 13.5. The norm now is 14.5 percent, with the result that red wines — cabernets, pinot noirs, syrahs, merlots and, especially, zinfandel wines — are riper and juicier but also convey an impression of sweetness and sometimes, on the finish, of heat. These exaggerated qualities increase as the alcohol content creeps past 15 percent and inches toward or past 16. The problems intensify because many of these wines are also exceedingly tannic, so any sense of balance is lost in an entity that turns out to be powerful and dynamic but awkward, clunky and incoherent. I read the deliriously approving descriptions of some of these wines and reviews from other writers, and I have to think, surely we’re not talking about the same product, as I’m sure they will think about me and my fairly harsh evaluations.

So, today, I offer brief notices of beyond-the-pale, high-alcohol, lurching, unbalanced red wines, along with a few that manage to pull off the feat and achieve a measure of poise. Notice that most of these examples are zinfandels from Lodi, Amador County and Dry Creek Valley; the great and surprising exception is a beautifully-made Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon that registers 15.2 percent alcohol. The order is by increasing amounts of alcohol, starting at 15 percent. Proceed at your own risk.
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Renwood Clarion Red Wine 2012, Amador County. 15% alc. Dark ruby color; pungent with ripe raspberry and blueberry infused with briery-brambly notes, graphite and lavender; very dry, quite spicy, juicy with red and black fruit flavors; you feel a touch of raisiny heat on the finish. Very Good+. About $20.
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Renwood Grandpere Zinfandel 2012, Amador County. 15% alc. Medium ruby hue with a light garnet rim; sweet spices, mint, ripe cherries and cranberries with touches of blueberry and boysenberry; quite dry, plush, velvety tannins, large-framed but palatable; a bit of alcoholic heat mars the dense, lithic finish. Very Good+. About $40.
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Priest Ranch Coach Gun 2011, Napa Valley. 15.1% alc. A cabernet sauvignon-based blend. Dark ruby color; smoke, loam, graphite, lavender; black currants and cherries and blueberries, all deeply spiced and macerated; cedar and mint; energized by pert acidity; very dry dusty out-of-scale tannins, austere finish that falters out of balance. Not a success. About $75.
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Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyard Syrah 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.2% alc. 75% syrah, 25% zinfandel. Opaque black-ruby with an intense violet rim; big, bold and very spicy; ripe and fleshy blackberry and blueberry fruit with an infusion of ligonberry, blackberry jam and blueberry tart; deep, plush, dusty tannins that coat the palate; every element that I look for in a syrah wine is absent, muted into anonymity by ripeness, alcohol and tannin. Awkward and unbalanced. About $32.
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Jayson Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley. (The second label of Pahlmeyer.) 15.2% alc. A complete, harmonious and complex red wine. Dark ruby-purple hue; a very ripe, fruit-infused wine, high-toned and surprisingly elegant in its balance; intense and concentrated, with notes of cassis and red and black cherries permeated by iron and iodine, graphite, ancho chili and meat blood; powerfully dynamic, ferrous and savory, deep, rich and spicy with a resonant mineral core and a concluding touch of blueberry tart; a sleek, polished and chiseled cabernet. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $65 to $75.
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Truett-Hurst Old Vine Burning Man Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.3% alc. Opaque black-ruby with a magenta rim; a strapping, palate-stomping tannic wine, pungent with spiced and macerated black currants, plums and blueberries, pomegranate and boysenberry; lots of leather and loam; formidable structure, dusty, gravelly and austere. Not a success. About $38.
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Renwood Premium Old Vine Zinfandel 2012, Amador County. 15.5% alc. Medium ruby hue with a garnet rim; a lovely blooming, floral and spicy bouquet, evolves to fruitcake, loam and brambles, bitter chocolate; blueberries, mint and pomegranate; a bit of an after-burn but not heavy, over-ripe or obvious; still, the finish is tight and austere. Very Good+. About $20.
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Michael David Winery Earthquake Zinfandel 2012, Lodi. 15.5% alc. Moderately dark ruby hue; very ripe, spiced and macerated plums, currants and cherries with a slightly raisiny fruitcake inflection; large-framed and quite lively; dense, dusty, chewy, infused with graphite and lithic tannins that coat the palate; still, surprisingly well-balanced, really luscious for those who want luscious wines (not me). Now through 2017. Very Good+. About $26.
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Tin Barn Vineyards Coryelle Fields Vineyard Syrah 2012, Sonoma Coast. 15.5% alc. Opaque ruby hue with a magenta rim; both intense and concentrated while being very ripe, smoky and spicy; heaps of leather and loam and a tide of black fruit flavors, but distinctly more zin-like than syrah, with a high-alcohol zin’s off-balance element of cloying fruit and austere tannins. Doesn’t work. About $27.
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Tin Barn Los Chamizal Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Sonoma Valley. 15.6% alc. Dark ruby with a much paler rim; a lovely bouquet of smoke, lavender and cloves, mint, sandalwood, fruitcake and blackberries; a big, firm, tannic wine that just manages to hold the line against over-ripeness and austerity; it takes a risk and the risk feels worth it; still, you feel some slightly sweet/parching alcoholic heat on the finish. Very Good+. About $29.
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Tin Barn Gilsson Vineyard Zinfandel 2013, Russian River Valley. 15.6% alc. Solid dark ruby hue; a refreshing bouquet of mint, lavender and black cherries until the alcohol wafts up and sort of stops everything in its tracks; very dry, spicy, dense, tannic and austere. Not recommended. About $29.
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Watts Winery Upstream Zinfandel 2012, Mokelumne, Lodi. 15.6% alc. Dark ruby hue with a mulberry rim; an immense presence, fairly well-balanced, considering, but takes on overwhelming ferrous and sanguinary elements and huge dusty tannins; the saving grace is that it’s not sweet, hot or cloying, but not quite coherent or reconciled either. Very Good. About $25.
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Truett-Hurst Old Vine Red Rooster Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.7% alc. Medium ruby-cherry color, not super-dark or extracted; very ripe, very spicy and fruity; black and red currants and plums with touches of lavender, licorice and saturated boysenberry; an alcohol after-burn of heat, spice and sweetness, so the finish clashes with the wine’s dryness and austerity on the palate, fundamentally unbalanced. Doesn’t work. About $35.
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Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Dry creek Valley. 15.8% alcohol. 88.2% zinfandel, 10.6% syrah, 1.2% petite sirah. Medium ruby color with a lighter rim; cloves, red and black berries, interesting notes of caraway and sandalwood, but tromps across the palate with boots of dry, austere and astringent tannins coupled with the sweetness of high alcohol in the finish. Nope. About $32.
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Truett-Hurst Old Vine Rattler Rock Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.8% alc. Radiant medium ruby hue; a broad, deep, very dry, quite austere wine, awkward, unbalanced, hot and sharp on the finish. Nuff said. About $35.
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Harney Lane Zinfandel 2011, Lodi. 15.9% alc. Dark ruby-purple; ripe, spiced and macerated blackberries and blueberries infused with cloves and graphite, a sort of mineral-laced cocktail of sweet and roasted black and blue fruit, touched with pomegranate and brandy-soaked raisins; acidity plows a row on the palate, preceding formidably dusty, lithic tannins leading to an austere finish. Maybe with a steak, or maybe not. Very Good+. About $22.
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Priest Ranch Somerston Estate Zinfandel 2012, Napa Valley. 16.2% alc. Medium ruby with a garnet rim; cloves, allspice and sandalwood make an exotic festoon; black and red currants and plums, with notes of blueberries, lavender and red licorice; outlandishly plush, dusty yet rigorous tannins dominate the palate, yet the finish is over-ripe and sweet. Awkward and ungainly. Forget it. About $40.
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Martinelli Lolita Ranch Zinfandel 2013, Russian River Valley. 16.3% alc. 253 cases. When I see that a table wine tops the charts at 16.3 percent alcohol, my reaction tends to run along the lines of “You have to be fucking kidding me,” but no, they’re not kidding. Moderate ruby color, almost transparent; roasted blackberries, currants and plums; fruitcake; very spicy and peppery; cloying alcoholic sweetness and heat; very dry, formidably austere tannins; clunky and chunky. Doesn’t work. About $52.
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Rombauer Vineyards is well-known for its zinfandels, which I consider among the best in California, and its rich, full-throated, California-style chardonnays, which I cannot drink. Today, however, I am happy to include, as the 2014 Romb_SB_f+b_v5100th entry in the Wine of the Day series, the Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Napa Valley. Yes, 2015! Harvest for the grapes occurred in the second and third weeks of August last year, the wine was made and rested for a few months, 90 percent in stainless steel tanks, 10 percent in neutral French oak barrels, and will actually be released in February, so jot down one of those little remindy note things on your phone. This wine marks the first national release of a sauvignon blanc for the winery; the first vintage, the 2014, was available only through the tasting room. So, the color is a shimmering pale straw-gold with an allusive green inflection. The lively bouquet offers grapefruit, lime peel and lemongrass, gooseberry and a subliminal trace of jasmine and honeysuckle, all enveloped in a lovely dusty-sunny-leafy fig character. The wine slides across the palate with a sense of supple presence yet with litheness and lightness; spiced pear and stone-fruit dominate in the mouth with the merest touch of guava and mango. Neither the tropical nor the floral element is emphasized, lending this fairly tart, limestone-influenced sauvignon blanc a feeling of ineffable balance. The finish concludes with a wisp of bracing grapefruit peel. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink through 2017. Excellent. About $24.

A sample for review.

How do the Smith brothers do it? Normally, I would find a chardonnay that was 100 percent barrel-fermented and aged in 100 percent new French oak barrels (for eight months) undrinkable because of the influence of wood, but Charles and Stuart Smith, who produce only limited bottlings of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and riesling, smith madrone chardonnaymanage, once again, to deliver a chardonnay notable for its bright, clean brilliance; its chiseled restraint that still allows for the grape’s natural richness; its lithe, supple juiciness. Perhaps this result has to do with the age of the mountain-side vineyard, where the vines were 41 years old for this vintage, or with the fact that the vineyard is dry-farmed, seeing no irrigation during periods of little rain, so the roots have to struggle to find nutrients and moisture, a sort of vinous variation on the “no pain-no gain” principle. In any case, the Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2013, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, is a beauty. The color is pale straw-gold with a faint green tinge; classic aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit carry a thread of mango and cloves, with high notes of jasmine, talc and limestone. The intimation of limestone, and its aide-de-camp, flint, in the nose expands righteously on the palate, and combined with chiming acidity produces a chardonnay of crystalline clarity that feels lit from within. Despite the oak regimen, any wood activity lies in subtly shaping and sculpting the wine, a significance as gentle but urgent as a Summer zephyr. Flavors are more stone-fruit — peach, yellow plum — than citrus, and all elements devolve to a long, limpid and luminous finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. An essential chardonnay, exquisite in its parts, elegant in balance, dynamic in total. Production was 806 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional. About $32.

A sample for review.

We tend to know when a wine is great from the first sniff and taste, because it possesses that ineffable yet very real quality called charisma. Renewed sniffing and tasting confirm that assessment, while adding depth and character. These factors hold true whether a wine costs $19 or $350, the range represented in today’s 2015 edition of the annual “50 Great Wines” post. I wouldn’t pay $350 for a bottle of wine — though apparently some people would — but I appreciate the occasional opportunity to encounter one. Of the wines on today’s roster, 18 rate Exceptional and 32 rate Excellent. Often the dividing line between Excellent and Exceptional is fine indeed, with permutations and intimations running silent and deep in each direction, but since my inclination is toward distinctions, rankings and hierarchies — that’s what graduate school will do for you — I always include a rating for each wine reviewed on BTYH. On the other hand, I refuse to employ the famous 100-point system; I would rather leave room for some ambiguity and imagination.

A great wine satisfies every point of interest and essence that we desire from a wine, exuding a feeling of utter completion and comprehension. Each wine accomplishes this purpose in a different way, of course, and to varying degrees, necessitating different responses. Some of these wines I admire, gravely and humbly; others, I adore rather shamelessly. The ultimate test, I think, is that when we drink a bottle of great wine, our conclusion is thus: “I wouldn’t want it to be anything other than this,” a sentiment we might also share with works of art and love affairs.

Today’s roster is presented alphabetically. Where a wine is a blend of grapes, I include the percentages that compose the blend. I also mention the case production for wines released in limited quantities, of which many on this list, not surprisingly, are. I do not include alcohol levels or names of importers or technical, geographical or historical date That sort of information is available in the reviews. These wines were selected from examples that I wrote about during 2015. The preponderance were samples for review, for which I thank the wineries, importers and marketing people who sent them.

For whatever eccentricities this list of “50 Great Wines of 2015” embodies, blame them on my taste, knowledge, experience and intuition. That is all I — or any of us — have to go on.
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achaval-ferrer-CMendoza-2013
Achaval Ferrer Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Mendoza, Argentina. Excellent. About $25.
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valadorna 09
Arcanum Valadorna 2009, Toscana IGT, Italy. 85 percent merlot, 8 percent cabernet franc, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon. Exceptional. About $80.

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14537_ARG-NHRS-13-F_1
Argyle Nuthouse Riesling 2013, Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon. Exceptional. About $30.
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sangioveto
Badia a Coltibuono Sangioveto di Toscana 2009, Toscana IGT, Italy. 100 percent sangiovese. 750 cases. Excellent. About $60.
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Benovia-2013-Russian-River-Valley-Pinot-Noir
Benovia Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $38.
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occultumlapidem2012us
Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem 2013, Côtes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France. 50 percent syrah, 40 percent grenache, 10 percent carignan. Excellent. About $30.
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BlackKite
Black Kite Cellars Stony Terrace Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 200 cases. Excellent. About $60. (Not exactly the correct label, but this is what they look like.)
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terras gauda
Bodegas Terras Gauda O Rosal 2014, Rias Baixas, Spain. 70 percent albariño, 15 percent loureiro, 15 percent caiño blanco. Excellent. About $24.
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Riesling
Chateau Montelena Riesling 2014, Potter Valley. Excellent, About $25.
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clemens-busch-vom-grauen-schiefer-riesling-trocken-mosel-germany-10529188
Weingut Clemens Busch Grauen Schiefer Riesling Trocken 2012, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $30.
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Concha y Toro Terrunyo Los Boldos Vineyard Block 5 Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Casablanca Valley, Chile. Excellent. About $26.
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cornerstone 11
Cornerstone Cellars The Cornerstone 2011, Napa Valley. 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet franc. 100 cases. About $150.
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duckhorn merlot
Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot 2012, Napa Valley. With 7 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent cabernet franc, 1 percent malbec. Excellent. About $54.
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ehlers
Ehlers Estate Sylvanie Cabernet Franc Rosé 2014, St. Helena, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $28.
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FEL-Logo_850x500
FEL Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 645 cases. Excellent. About $65.
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Foursight Jpeg Logo
Foursight Wines Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 224 cases. Excellent. About $46.
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FINAL 2013 ESS LABELb
Grgich Hills Estate Miljenko’s Selection Essence Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Napa Valley. 1,204 cases. Exceptional. About $55.
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Grgich Hills Estate Miljenko’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. 485 cases. Exceptional. About $90.
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inman-rose
Inman Family Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,500 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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iron-horse-brut-x
Iron Horse Brut “X” 2010, Green Valley of Russian River Valley. 69 percent pinot noir, 31 percent chardonnay. 500 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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jacquard
Champagne Jacquart Brut Rosé nv. 53 percent pinot noir, 35 percent chardonnay, 12 percent pinot meunier. Excellent. About $55.
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La Jota Vineyard Co. W.S. Keyes Vineyards Merlot 2010, Napa Valley. 296 cases. Exceptional. About $50.
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cuvee rose
Champagne Laurent-Perrier Cuvee Rosé Brut nv. 100 percent Grand Cru pinot noir. Excellent. About $99.
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laurent 2006
Champagne Laurent-Perrier Brut Millesime 2006. Excellent. About $65.
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lokoya
Lokoya Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $350.
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ember-site
Loomis “Ember” Red Wine 2012, Napa Valley. Syrah, grenache, mourvedre. 75 cases. Excellent. About $38.
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maggy
Maggy Hawk “Afleet” Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 156 cases. Exceptional. About $66.

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MFW_Rose_Face
MacPhail Family Wines Rosé of Pinot Noir 2014, Sonoma Coast. 492 cases. Exceptional. About $22.
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loidana-nueva-imagen-def_0_0
Marco Abella Loidana 2010, Priorat, Spain. 60 percent grenache, 25 percent carignane, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon. Excellent. About $30.
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mccay zin
McCay Cellars “Trulux” Zinfandel 2012, Lodi. 479 cases. Excellent. About $32.
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mcintyre
McIntyre Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 368 cases. Exceptional. About $42.
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Morgan_2012_Double_L_Chardonnay
Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 530 cases. Exceptional. About $42.
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beautiful pinot gris
Mt Beautiful Pinot Gris 2014, North Canterbury, New Zealand. 1,500 cases. Exceptional. About $19.
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Pahlmeyer and Jayson Wines Line Up
Pahlmeyer Merlot 2012, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $85.
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pfendler
Pfendler Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. 350 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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post and vine
Post & Vine Testa Vineyard Old Vine Field Blend 2012, Mendocino County. 42 percent zinfandel, 37 percent carignane, 21 percent petite sirah. 143 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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quivira zin
Quivira Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. With 10 percent petite sirah, 1 percent carignane. Excellent. About $26.
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innocent
St. Innocent Freedom Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 948 cases. Exceptional. About $42.
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sequoia grove cab
Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. With 11 percent cabernet franc, 10 percent merlot, 1 percent each petit verdot and malbec. Excellent. About $38.
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smith madrone 11
Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 1,070 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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tonella sb
S.R. Tonella Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $29.
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2014EstateSauvBlanc
Stonestreet Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $35.

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tanner dafoe
Tanner Dafoe Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County. 141 cases. Exceptional. About $110.

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taylor
Taylor Fladgate Vargellas Vintage Porto 2012, Portugal. Exceptional. About $53.
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joon
Tin Barn “Joon” Coryelle Fields Vineyard Rosé of Syrah 2014, Sonoma Coast. 158 cases. Excellent. About $23.
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torre
Torre San Martino Vigna della Signore 2013, Colli di Faenza Bianco, Italy. Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, albana grapes. Excellent. $NA.
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two shepherds logo
Two Shepherds Grenache Rosé 2014, Sonoma Coast. 90 cases. Exceptional. About $24.
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Vietti Castiglione Barolo 2011, Piedmont, Italy. 100 percent nebbiolo grapes. Excellent. About $50.
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chateau-villa-bel-air-graves-france-10213716
Chateau Villa Bel-Air 2013, Graves, Bordeaux. 65 percent sauvignon blanc, 35 percent semillon. Excellent. About $25.
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2012-Jordan-PN-300x207
Youngberg Hill Jordan Block Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley. 300 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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duval lerot rose
The Champagne house mentioned yesterday in this space, Ayala, was founded in 1860. For today’s entry, we skip back one year to 1859, when the house of Duval-Leroy was established by the melding of two well-known families in Champagne. Duval-Leroy is still run by the family, with Carol Duval-Leroy at the head, assisted by her sons, Julien, Charles and Louis. Master of the cave is Sandrine Logette-Jardin. A major contribution of the house to the Champagne industry occurred in 1911, when Raymond Duval-Leroy created the first Champagne made exclusively from Premier Cru vineyards, opening the door to a level of focused, upscale products. Our Champagne today is the Duval-Leroy Premier Cru Rose Prestige, composed of 90 percent pinot noir and 10 percent chardonnay, aged on the lees a minimum of 36 months. The color is an entrancing smoky topaz-light copper hue, given liveliness by a upward surge of tiny bubbles. First, on the nose, come notes of strawberry, raspberry and orange rind, deepened, after a few moments, by hints of brioche and lightly-buttered cinnamon toast, quince and orange marmalade. Make no mistake, this is a high-toned, dry Champagne, flush with elements of limestone and flint, satin and steel, yet immensely appealing in its touches of red berries, cloves and a bracing fillip of sea-salt, all expressed with the utmost delicacy and tenderness over a tensile structure. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $80.

Imported by Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Ill. A sample for review.
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PRBR_Web
Here’s another brut rose, this one from Napa Valley. Priest Ranch is a label of the Somerston Wine Co. that includes Somerston Wines and Highflyer. Craig Becker is general manager and director of winemaking and viticulture. The Priest Ranch Brut Rose 2011, Napa Valley, was made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes. The wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks and neutral French oak barrels; produced in the traditional Champagne method, it spent 18 months in the bottle en tirage, on the lees. The color is medium salmon-topaz with a core of tempest-like tiny bubbles. Lots of steel and flint in evidence, a crisp and lively sparkling wine, it offers notes of blood orange, apple peel and lime with hints of almond skin and orange blossom; a few minutes in the glass nurture elements of sweet red fruit and juicy currants. An intense limestone edge and brisk acidity lead to an austere finish that builds layers of chalk and damp shale. 12.5 percent alcohol. A fresh, lovely, vibrant brut rose for drinking through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $38.

A sample for review.
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Named for — let’s not toss this word around too loosely — legendary winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, long-time director of Grgich mikeHills Estate, in Napa Valley’s Rutherford district, the Miljenko’s Selection labels indicate a level of quality and limited quantity fully worthy of the man and his heritage. While the 92-year-old veteran of 50 or more harvests turned over winemaking duties to his nephew Ivo Jeramaz years ago, the wines from the estate, all organically produced, bear Mike Grgich’s influential and benign thumbprint, and he personally selected the vineyards from which they derive. These wines ferment by indigenous yeast; the oak regimen is carefully tempered to the grapes in question and to the outcome at the end of aging. The goal is a fine balance between elegance and power, and rarely is that goal not accomplished. These are, admittedly, wines for collectors and enthusiasts, and they are available to the winery’s club patrons and at the tasting room. If any happen to come your way, don’t hesitate, if you can manage, to acquire a bottle or two or even twist someone’s arm to give you a taste. Such wines raise beacons of purity and intensity for others to follow.

Samples for review.
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The color of the Grgich Hills Estate Miljenko’s Selection “Essence” Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Napa Valley, is very pale straw-gold; FINAL 2013 ESS LABELbbeguiling aromas of lemongrass and lime peel, quince and ginger are animated by an undertow of graphite and limestone. These elements segue seamlessly to the palate, where the wine’s dense, talc-like texture is riven by keen acidity and that shimmering stony minerality, lending a sense of both delicacy and durability. A few moments in the glass bring in notes of heather, fig and jasmine. 14.1 percent alcohol. A sauvignon blanc of piercing purity and intensity, beautiful in every aspect. The wine spent nine months in large French oak casts. Production was 1,204 cases. Now through 2019 to 2022. Exceptional. About $55.
The label image is one vintage behind.
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Hailing from Carneros, Napa Valley, the Grgich Hills Estate Miljenko’s Selection Chardonnay 2013 delivers loads of bright, bold 2012 CHCN, MSrichness handled with infinitely deft balance and nuance. The color is pale straw-gold; the bouquet blossoms in layers of classic pineapple-grapefruit scents infused with quince jam, hints of peach and spiced pear and notes of crushed gravel and damp flint. In the mouth, the wine is characterized by lovely expressiveness and vibrancy, a true marriage of power and elegance; citrus and stone-fruit flavors are lightly touched by cloves and allspice and bear a light cloak of slightly burnished oak, all encompassed by resonant limestone minerality. 14.1 percent alcohol. The wine spent 11 months in 900-gallon French oak casks. Production was 1,265 cases. Drink now through 2019 to 2023. Excellent. About $60.
The label image is one vintage behind.
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I haven’t seen a petite sirah wine that measured under 14 percent alcohol in years, and not many under 15 percent, but the Grgich Hills Estate Miljenko’s Selection Petite Sirah 2011, Napa Valley, performs very nicely at 13.9 percent, thank you very much. It’s a rollicking ripe and spicy wine, whose dark ruby-purple color presages aromas of deeply scented, dusty and macerated black cherries and blue plums opening to notes of lavender, black pepper and graphite; a few minutes in the glass bring out hints of blueberry, mulberry and violets. The impression on the palate is of wonderful freshness, brightness and appeal of red and black fruit, but give the wine an hour or so and bulwarks of stalwart chiseled tannins begin to assert themselves. The wine spent a whopping 32 months in wood, half large oak casks, half small neutral barriques. Production was 503 cases. We drank this with a medium-rare strip steak, crusted with my secret multi-pepper mixture. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $65.
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The Grgich Hills Estate Miljenko’s Selection Petit Verdot 2012, Yountville, with 10 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, is a deep, geological wine that seems to draw strength and power from the strata of the earth and recesses of glittering granite. The color is inky ruby-purple, and the chief quality of the wine is — not to be repetitious — a piercing minerality entangled with tannins that crowd the palate like dusty antique velvet. Fruit makes an appearance in the guise of black currents and cherries with notes of wild blueberries and cranberries, but this is primarily a wine that will center on structure for years to come. The wine aged 21 months in French oak casks. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2022 to ’25. 14.7 percent alcohol. Production was 493 cases. Excellent potential. About $65.
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Devotees of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon wines — particularly from the west-central area of the region — who possess the necessary fiduciary prowess will want to snap up a case of the 100 percent varietal Grgich Hills Estate Miljenko’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Rutherford. This is the real stuff, from a great vintage. The color is opaque ruby-purple with a tinge of magenta at the rim; at first, the wine emits scents of mint and eucalyptus, cedar and thyme, gradually unveiling notes of spiced, macerated and slightly roasted black and red currants and cherries, backed by graphite, lavender and bitter chocolate, all melded with purposeful integration. It’s a dry, vigorous wine, ruled by laser-beam minerality, ferocious acidity and burnished and polished tannins; despite this profound nature, the wine is not ponderous or obvious, rather it carries its scintillating lithic character with grace and dignity. One feels, after a few minutes airing, the famous or elusive Rutherford dusty, loamy influence, adding touches of espresso and ancho chili. 14.5 percent alcohol. The wine spent 18 months in French oak barrels, 80 percent new. Production was 485 cases. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’30. Exceptional. About $90.
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The Spire Collection comprises the top products in the expansive stable of Jackson Family Wines. These are limited edition wines, generally from specific AVAs, carefully made, aged with primarily new French oak barrels and priced accordingly. The Spire Collection labels are Anakota (Knights Valley); Arcanum (Tuscany); Capensis (Western Cape, South Africa); Capture (Sonoma County); Cardinale (Napa Valley); Cyneth (Napa Valley); Chateau Lessegue (Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux); Chateau Vignot (Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux); Galerie carpenter(Napa Valley); Hickinbotham (McLaren Vale, South Australia); La Jota Vineyard (Napa Valley); Lokoya (Napa Valley); Maggy Hawk (Mendocino County); Mt. Brave (Napa Valley); Verite (Sonoma County);Windracer (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County). Today we look at red wines from La Jota, Lokoya and Mt. Brave, made by Chris Carpenter, pictured at right. He is also the winemaker for Cardinale, the 2011 version of which I reviewed back in January (here) and Hickinbotham, whose wines I will save for a later post; I mean, Australia is so far away from Napa Valley, and I want to stick to a theme.

The wines of La Jota, Lokoya and Mt. Brave, products of mountainside vineyards, are true vins de garde, that is, wines intended for long aging, in the case of some of these from 10 to 15 years or more, yet they are — conforming to the California ideal — accessible at a fairly young age too. They are wines of character, serious and highly structured but not ponderous, dignified but not aloof. With prices ranging from $75 to $350 a bottle, a legitimate question is, who buys these wines? Who even cares that they exist, in their limited quantities? Loyoka doesn’t even have an online function to purchase its wines; the best one can hope for is to add your name to an allocation list.

The desirability of these wines is not merely an effect of their price and rarity, however. These are great — to use a subjective term — wines that deserve to be in the cellars of anyone who collects such products. As for the rest of us, well, I wouldn’t have access to them either if I weren’t a veteran wine-writer, and I don’t hesitate to say that I enjoyed the hell out of them.

These notes are a combination of tasting samples for review at home and tasting wines in Napa Valley in March this year.
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La Jota Vineyard Co. 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.
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La Jota Vineyard Co. W.S. Keyes Vineyard Merlot 2010, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. 82% merlot, 18% cabernet sauvignon. 19 months French oak, 85% new barrels. W.S. Keyes Vineyard, planted in 1888, lies at 1,825 feet elevation on Howell Mountain. Very dark ruby hue with a slightly lighter rim; first note: “just beautiful”; quite rich, ripe and intense but without being opulent or overpowering; cloves and sandalwood, black cherries, currants and raspberries with a wild flash of blueberries; bitter chocolate, cedar, tobacco and mocha; wonderful balance and integration of all elements: dusty, supple tannins, spicy fruit, burnished wood, bright acidity and graphite-tinged minerality, all poised with real depth and precision. Drink now through 2020 to ’24. Production was 296 cases. Exceptional. About $150.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Merlot 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 95% merlot, 5% cabernet sauvignon. 19 months French oak, 97% new barrels. Dark ruby with a magenta rim; laser beam concentration of ripe black cherry, current and raspberry scents and flavors; bitter chocolate and lavender, cloves and graphite; bright acidity with tremendous resonance and pinpoint balance; finish packed with granitic minerals, walnut-shell and dusty tannins. Now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Franc 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 96% cabernet franc, 4% cabernet sauvignon. 19 months French oak, 96% new barrels. Opaque ruby-purple hue; cedar and tobacco leaf, rosemary and pine resin; intense black currant with wild notes of blueberry and raspberry; opens to hints of black olive, oolong tea, white pepper and allspice; dense, dusty tannins, lithe, sinewy texture that’s tight but doesn’t stint on generosity. Now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 82% cabernet sauvignon, 8% merlot, 6% cabernet franc, 4% petit verdot. 19 months in French oak, 91% new barrels. Dark ruby with a magenta rim; graphite and granite, iodine and iron; traces of lavender and violet, bitter chocolate and dusty sage; tannin treads the fine line where strict rigor dissolves into dusty velvet; gradually adds ripe black currants, raspberries and blueberries; austere finish needs time to mellow, though it would be tremendous now with a medium rare strip steak. Try through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Franc 2012, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 100% cabernet franc. 20 months French oak, 81% new barrels. Dark ruby with a vivid magenta rim; bushy and brushy black and red currants, touches of plums, blueberries, notes of cedar, black olives and cloves; lithic structure, plenty of graphite; tannins feel dusty, polished, slightly sanded; also plenty of oak but well-balanced and integrated; robust without being rustic, packs a lot of power into a vibrant package. Drink through 2020 or ’24. Excellent. About $75.
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La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 77% cabernet sauvignon, 11% cabernet franc, 8% petit verdot, 4% merlot. 20 months French oak, 89% new barrels. Dark ruby with a violet rim; walnut shell, wheatmeal and graphite, focus on structure but firmness etched with deeply spicy black currants, raspberries and plums; notes of lavender, mocha and bitter chocolate; briery and brambly on the one hand, sleek and chiseled on the other, dry and granitic, with fissures of black olive and bell pepper; heaps of presence and energy. Try 2017 or ’18 through 2025 to ’30. Excellent. About $75.
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Mt. Brave, named for the Wappo Indians — “the brave ones” — who inhabited the area, was founded in 2007 to exploit the terroir of the former 30-plus-acre Chateau Potelle property that Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke purchased that year.
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Mt. Brave Merlot 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 80% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon. 19 months in French oak, 80% new barrels. Deep ruby-purple color; a dusty, dusky, lithic rooty wine, offering heaps of graphite and a distinctive earthy quality; also layers of ripe black cherry and plum fruit with notes of spicy pomegranate and blueberry; blossoms with a generous wafting of perfume — violets and lavender, incense and heather; lithe and supple texture supported by velvety tannins and vibrant acidity; a long, dense, slightly austere finish. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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Mt. Brave Malbec 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 100% malbec. 19 months French oak, 70% new barrels. Lustrous black as motor oil with a purple-violet sheen; a darkly gorgeous malbec, seething with notes of blueberry and boysenberry, though not over-ripe or cloying; deeply infused with structural elements of graphite, wheatmeal and walnut shell; opens to hints of black cherry and plum, iodine and iron, cloves and violets, a touch of cherry tart; tannins are dense and chewy, robust, and acidity cuts a path on the palate. Quite a performance. Now through 2021 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 94% cabernet sauvignon, 3% each merlot and cabernet frnac. 19 months French oak, 91% new barrels. All right, this is the Big One, very dark and inky in every respect; you sense the mountain roots, the chthonic stirrings in its depths of brushy, briery tannins, fleet acidity and grantic minerality; yet — there’s always a yet — the wine also feels like classic Napa Valley cabernet, sleek, chiseled, almost elegant in its presentation and delicious with a wide-ranging complement of cassis, black cherry and blueberry scents and flavors, with notes of cedar, tobacco, mocha and lavender. Another great package. Now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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Lokoya was founded in 1995. The wines are 100 percent cabernet sauvignon and originate in high-altitude vineyards in the Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain District and Spring Mountain District AVAs. I have tasted only the Mount Veeder version.
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lokoya
Lokoya Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Oak regimen was 21 months in French oak, 99% new barrels, a tad finicky perhaps — what difference would one more percent make? — but this winemaker knows what he’s doing. Very dark ruby-mulberry hue; incredible purity and intensity, deep focus and concentration; dusty graphite and granitic qualities that reach far into the depths but allow for the burgeoning of floral notes — lavender and violets — coffee and mocha, black current and blueberry fruit with a wild, high trace of black cherry; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of cloves and sandalwood; the finish — as expected — long, dense, sleek and a bit austere. Tremendous presence, dimension, power and resonance. Now through 2025 to ’30. Exceptional. About $350.
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Founded by a consortium of families in 1976, Duckhorn Vineyards is operated by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, whose present winemaker is Renee Ary. Deciding early on to focus on the merlot grape, Duckhorn is a leader in high-quality production, centered on single- vineyard releases of merlot, such as the famous Three Palms Vineyard. The winery also makes highly-rated sauvignon blanc and cabernet duckhorn merlotsauvignon. Today’s Wine of the Day is Duckhorn’s “basic” merlot, which draws from a variety of vineyards and carries a Napa Valley designation. The blend of the Duckhorn Merlot 2012, Napa Valley, is 88 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent each petit verdot and cabernet franc and 1 percent malbec; the wine aged 16 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels, 75 percent once-used. The color is a radiant dark ruby-purple. Aromas of black currants, blueberries and mulberries are inflected with notes of cloves, allspice and a bit of plum jam, opening, after some airing, to intriguing hints of bell pepper and black olive, cedar and sage. It’s an intense and concentrated wine, wild and loamy, briery and brambly, a little gnarly even, yet lithe, polished, powered by bold acidity and dusty, bristly tannins. It’s deep and spicy, seething with ebon-like fruit flavors; if a beverage could feel inky, this would be it, and yet, there’s a paradoxical sense of sweet balance and elegance on the graphite-infused finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Loads of presence and personality. Drink through 2018 to 2020 with steak, game, braised red meat. Excellent. About $54.

A sample for review.

Here are two venerable producers in this series to which I have not posted in eight months, so I apologize. I chose to deal with these wineries together because they are what I think of as Old School Napa Valley and because they have each undergone many changes in the cycles of their existence.

Freemark Abbey, which occupies a site east of Hwy 29 between St. Helena and Calistoga, was established in 1886 by ECM299053Josephine Marlin Tychson, who sold the property in 1894. It was acquired in 1898 by Antonio Forni, who named it Lombarda Cellars. The winery specialized in “chianti” until it went out of business with the advent of Prohibition in 1919. The revival came in 1939, when a team of investors bought the property and named it Freemark Abbey, an amalgam of parts of two surnames and a nickname. That era came to an end in 1962 — are you paying attention — and the property lay moribund until 1967, when it was acquired by a partnership that included Chuck Carpy, Laurie Wood, Bill Jaeger and winemaker Brad Webb, who had made his reputation at Hanzell. It didn’t take long for Freemark Abbey to become well-known as a producer of top-ranked cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, particularly, in the first category, for its reserve-style Cabernet Bosché. After the mid 1990s, however, quality faltered. The partners sold Freemark Abbey to The Legacy Estate Group in 2001, but in 2005 that over-extended company filed for bankruptcy and the next year Jess Jackson purchased it for $97 million. The deal included Byron and Arrowood, and those labels, and Freemark Abbley, are now a part of Jackson Family Wines. Winemaker is Ted Edwards.

Mount Veeder Winery doesn’t own the 19th Century legacy that Freemark Abbey does, but that fact does not prevent it veeder logofrom possessing a distinguished heritage. Mike and Arlene Bernstein planted vines on Mount Veeder in the mid 1960s, and in 1973 released their first wine, a zinfandel. They built the reputation of Mount Veeder Winery on bold, large-framed, brooding zinfandels and cabernet sauvignons, with a little chardonnay on the side, but in 1982 sold the estate to Henry and Lisille Matheson of San Francisco. Seven years later, the Mathesons sold the property to Agustin Huneeus, president of Franciscan Vineyards, and his partners, for about $2.6 million. Much like what occurred at Freemark Abbey, the ability of Mount Veeder Winery to produce top-notch cabernet wines seemed to sag after the mid 1990s, yet it maintained enough history and status to be acquired by what’s now known as Constellation Brands in 1999, when the company purchased Franciscan Estates, the first of several high-profile purchases that included Ravenswood and Robert Mondavi. Winemaker at Mount Veeder is Janet Myers.

So, where do these wineries fall on the maps of tradition and quality? The cabernet sauvignon-based wines that I tasted for this post — all samples for review — seem well-made, thoughtfully-crafted and enjoyable in every way. Large on structure, they will probably age and develop for 10 years or more. Are they exciting, exalted, deliriously seductive, do they catch the edge of transcendence? No, sir, they are not and do not. They do, on the other hand, seem to be essential embodiments of place and soil, central-west Napa Valley for Freemark Abbey and the steep slopes of Mount Veeder, and confronted with a medium rare rib-eye steak, hot and crusty from the grill, I would be more than happy to pop the cork on any of them.
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Freemark Abbey’s “basic” cabernet in the current release is the Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, a blend of the five so-called Bordeaux grape varieties: 76.5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 16.6 percent merlot, 3.3 cabernet franc, 2.6 petit verdot and 2 malbec. Yes, apparently each and every smidgeon counts. The wine aged a bit more than two years in barrels, 86 percent French, 14 percent American, in combination 40 percent new oak. This strikes me as classic Napa Valley cabernet, with every element in place and nothing exaggerated or knotted in clenched intensity and concentrated. In two words, fairly generous, despite its firmness of structure and depth of character. The color is dark ruby, not quite opaque; the wine is built around layers of graphite and granitic minerality and dense, dusty tannins that are brightly etched with scents and flavors of black currants, black raspberries and plums adorned with hints of lavender and mocha, brambles and walnut shell. Acidity runs like a bright taut thread through this package, leading to a slightly austere finish on which you feel the oak. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now (with a steak) through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $44.
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The Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, from the Rutherford AVA, harks from three vineyards in that appellation in central-western Napa Valley, backing up to the Mayacamas range. The blend, to be precise, is 83.2 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8.3 percent merlot, 4.6 petit verdot, 3.9 cabernet franc. The wine aged 24 and a half months in 49 percent French oak barrels, 51 percent American oak. The color is opaque black-ruby with a magenta rim; intense and concentrated, the aromas offer hints of black currants, black raspberries and plums, with notes of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate, briers, brambles and loam. The wine is inky in every sense, sporting very dry, dusty and graphite-tinged tannins and a lithic, earthy structure that still opens to a tender filigree of floral and dark berry elements around the circumference; the finish is packed with granitic minerals, velvety tannins and spicy oak. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’18 through 2026 to ’30. Excellent potential. About $70.
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MTV_2013_CabernetSauvignon_lowRes
The color of the Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, is opaque ruby-purple with a glowing magenta rim. The wine is a blend of 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 4 malbec, 3 petit verdot and 1 percent each cabernet franc and syrah; information about oak barrels and aging was not available on the winery’s unusually reticent website. If your notion of a red wine made from mountain-grown grapes is of a vinous edifice that’s intense and concentrated, brooding, packed with notes of gnarly briers and brambles, weathered shale and airy notes of cedar, sage, tobacco and a hint of resinous rosemary, well then, this is your baby. Also featured: black currants, raspberries and plums; wheatmeal and walnut shell; a dusty, velvety tannin structure; and a solid finish that unleashes a final fillip of blueberry tart. 14.5 percent alcohol. Give this until 2017 and then consume through 2023 to ’25. Excellent. About $44.
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As we can reasonably expect for a reserve product, the Mount Veeder Reserve Red Wine 2012, Napa Valley, from vineyards that reach 1,600 feet elevation, displays even more intensity and concentration than its cadet stablemate does. The blend is a fairly straightforward 91 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 merlot and 2 percent each malbec and petit verdot; the wine aged 20 months in 100 percent new oak barrels, I assume French, but we’re not given that information. In any case, that’s a lot of new oak, but these small, tight mountain-grown grapes soaked up that wood and turned it into something firm and rigorous yet supple, spicy and smoky. The color is opaque black-purple, rather like motor oil, though thankfully not as dense; dense, however, is the word for this wine’s impression on the palate, dense, chewy, magesterially weighty yet not ponderous or blatant, really, since it possesses the necessary degree of balance and elegance. Still, despite the details of black currant and raspberry fruit, of a hint of a floral element, the wine concludes with an austere, granitic finish packed with walnut shell, wheatmeal and loam. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2025 to ’28. Excellent potential. About $90.
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Napa Valley’s Somerston Wine Co. encompasses three labels: Somerston, Priest Ranch and Highflyer. Today we look at the Priest Ranch PR-LogoFinal-EstateGrenache Blanc 2013, from a grape not commonly found in Napa Valley. The wine was fermented by native yeasts — that is, yeasts naturally occurring on the grapes, rather than inoculated in the winery — in stainless steel drums and tanks, with aging carried out in stainless steel with 10 percent neutral French oak barrels. No toasty new oak for this baby! The color is what I think characteristic for grenache blanc, a pale gold hue with a sheen of shadowy tarnish. The bouquet is a subtle melange of lemon and melon, greengage and white pepper, dried thyme, lavender and cedar. The wine is spare and elegant and nicely balanced with juicy roasted lemon flavors highlighted by notes of peach and spiced pear; for all its delicate felicity, though, it pulls up a slightly dusty, faintly tannic element that lends a mysterious earthy effect and leads to a finish lithe with an austere saline and savory quality. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 1,151 cases. This should drink well through 2016 with light fish and seafood dishes. Winemaker was Craig Becker. Excellent. About $22.

A sample for review.

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