Napa Valley

Made in stainless steel drums and tanks, fermented with natural yeast, the Priest Ranch Grenache Blanc 2015, Napa Valley, allows the eloquence of the grape to express itself with clarity and elegance. The color is very light gold, almost colorless, but displaying an elusive shimmer of pale green; aromas of dusty lilac, pear and apricot are highlighted by notes of dried thyme and sage, heather and meadow flowers, while a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of woodsy spice and acacia. The wine is quite dry but juicy with ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors and enhanced by incisive acidity and scintillating limestone and flint-like minerality. Though it flows with surprising density on the palate, it remains lithe and lively and vibrant. 14.8 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Craig Becker. The wine is perfectly suited for drinking with grilled fish, seafood risottos, shrimp salad and the like, through 2018. Production was 1,643 cases. Excellent. About $22.

A sample for review.

Unlike designations for, say, Sonoma County or Mendocino County, the Napa County indication on a sterlingwine label is rare. That’s because the world-famous Napa Valley AVA and its sub-AVAs occupy most of Napa County, from top to bottom and side to side, except for Lake Berryessa and an area in the northeast, beyond the Chiles Valley sub-AVA. So the designation on the Sterling Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Napa County, probably involves a cross-county origin for the grapes, with Napa County providing the preponderance. This is a sauvignon blanc that offers terrific character and personality for the price. The color is very pale gold; aromas of tangerine, lime peel and pink grapefruit are permeated by notes of grass, hay and heather, wrapped in an intensity of talc, graphite and gunflint. Give this a few minutes, and it unfurls hints of pea-shoot and caraway, fig and sun-warmed leaves. A nicely powdery texture bathes the palate, as well as juicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors, but riveting acidity brings liveliness and crispness, while the finish dredges from a deep grounding in limestone minerality. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2017 as a pert and sassy aperitif or with grilled fish or seafood, chicken salad or shrimp salad. Excellent. About $18.

A sample for review.

Cabernet sauvignon is the king of grapes in the Napa Valley, but let’s not neglect that other “sauvignon” known as sauvignon blanc. In fact, if it were not for the marriage, so to speak, of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc in the 18th Century, Bordeaux might be a series of wind-swept forests between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde River and Napa valley still the purview of 2014 Romb_SB_f+b_v5walnut and plum orchards. Yes, world-class wines based on the cabernet sauvignon grape are endemic now to Napa Valley, but the region and its sub-AVAs also produce some of the world’s best sauvignon blanc wines. One of those is today’s featured wine, the Rombauer Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Napa Valley, a 100 percent varietal wine made 90 percent in stainless steel tanks, 10 percent in neutral French oak barrels, “neutral” meaning the barrels were used for so many vintages that their wood influence is almost subliminal, more in terms of gently shaping the wine’s texture and structure rather than asserting a definite woody-spicy-vanilla thumbprint. The color is very pale gold with a faint light green cast; pungent aromas of lime peel, grapefruit, lemongrass and celery seed are highlighted by notes of jasmine, almond skin and tangerine, with a pert hint of flint and limestone in the background. On the palate, the wine is sleek, elegant and steely but not austere, and its soft talc-like sensation is animated by brisk acidity and a scintillating edge of limestone minerality. It’s quite dry but feels pleasantly ripe with lemon, nectarine and lime flavors that lead to a supple finish of heather and grapefruit; right at the slightly leafy and figgy core, there’s a pure singing drop of currant. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Director of viticulture and winemaking at Rombauer is Richie Allen. Excellent. About $24.

A sample for review.

So, here we are, in the 11th segment of “Whither Napa Valley Cabernet,” a series devoted to exploring the many aspects of the cabernet sauvignon wines created in the various regions of the Napa Valley. It’s a question worth asking, since, as readers will see in today’s selection of 12 examples, the cabernet wines from this legendary area and its sub-AVAs, can vary from an austere Old School character to the new style of very ripe — or over-ripe — fruit and plush textures. Most of the models in today’s post hew to the old-fashioned style of emphasis on structure, but a couple of them are over-the-top for my palate. These are mostly from 2012, with a couple of ’13s and one from 2011. Except for one wine encountered at a wholesale trade tasting, these wines were samples for review.
bv private
I tasted the Beaulieu Vineyards Georges De Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, last November at a wholesale distributor’s trade event. This great and historic label had a difficult period in the first decade of the 21st Century, but made a real effort under the direction of world-famous (and extremely busy) consultant Michel Rolland. If the 2012 is a pertinent example, the winery (owned by Diageo) is hitting on all cylinders again. The color is an obsidian-like, brooding dark ruby-purple; it’s a cool, chiseled, graphite and granite-based amalgam of power and elegance energized by swingeing acidity — call it the Lafite-Rothschild of Napa Valley — and as taut and tense a cabernet as I have encountered. Tannic? Oh, yes, but tannins that seem as generous and supple as they are sinewy and chewy. The blend is 93 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent petit verdot and 3 percent malbec. Oak regimen was 22 months, 90 percent new French barrels. The alcohol is a soaring 15.5 percent, by far the highest in this roster of a dozen cabernets. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’36. Excellent. About $135.
The Cornerstone Cellars Michael’s Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, is named for Michael Dragutsky, a doctor in Memphis who is one of the winery’s founders. It’s a blend of 91 percent cabernet grapes and nine percent merlot; I have no information about the oak regimen. The color is ruby that is dark unto opacity; a broad pungency of intense black currants and plums infused with tapenade, fig paste and roasted fennel, graphite and lavender, iodine and iron characterizes the complex and beautifully integrated bouquet. Likewise, the wine is broad and deep and dense on the palate, though it flows like a lithe and supple source of power and elegance; fathomless, dusty, cushiony tannins support concentrated black fruit flavors poised over tremendous reserves of forest and loam. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was under 250 cases. Drink from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’32. Exceptional. About $75.
The grapes for the Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Oakville District, derive primarily from the Martin Skelling Vineyard, planted in 1978 and located just behind the winery in Oakville. The wine is a blend of 97 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent petit verdot; it aged 17 months in French oak, 77 percent new barrels. Winemaker was Nicole Marchesi. The color is very dark ruby-purple with a magenta cast; this feels like classic Oakville, with its bastions of iodine and iron, graphite, cedar and lead pencil and notes of plums, black cherries and currants touched with dried thyme and rosemary — with the latter’s hint of branchy astringency — and roasted fennel. The structure is like taut muslin, fresh and snappy, full of energy. On the other hand, the wine delivers a chiseled, hard-edged character in its dusty chewy tannins that take on a velvety quality. A few minutes in the glass bring in touches of ancho chili and bitter chocolate, and the finish grows increasingly austere. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’32. Excellent. About $155.
The Flora Springs Trilogy 2013, Napa Valley, is a blend of 87 percent cabernet grapes, seven 2013_trilogy_labelpercent petit verdot and 6 percent malbec; it aged 22 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels, 40 percent one-year-old. Winemaker was Paul Steinauer. The color is an opaque ruby-purple, black at the center; aromas of pure and intense cassis, blackberry and raspberry are permeated by notes of cloves and sandalwood, lavender and licorice, mint and eucalyptus, with iodine and loam in the background, all contributing to a pleasing balance of the exotic and the earthy. It’s a dry, large-framed cabernet whose dusty velvety tannins fuse with an indisputable oak foundation driven by vibrant acidity, all of these elements keenly balanced but needing some time to unfurl to higher usefulness. 14.2 percent alcohol. Try from 2018 or ’19 through 2028 to ’32. Excellent. About $80.
Galerie 2012 Pleinair Cabernet
Winemaker Laura Diaz Muñoz aged the Galerie “pleinair” Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, 18 months in 58 percent new French oak barrels. The unforgettable color is deep ruby-purple with a thermonuclear violet-magenta rim; it’s a large-framed, dense, chewy and minerally cabernet but neither ponderous nor obvious, carrying its elements of graphite, iodine and iron, spiced and macerated black currants, raspberries and plums with pinpoint focus and fervent poise. This cabernet is mouth-filling without being plush or ostentatious, made vivid with bright acidity and a chiming tannic-mineral structure. A few minutes in the glass bring up hints of lavender and licorice driving into a long deep finish that’s dry and furnished with granitic minerality, making for an effect that’s chaste, spare and strangely elegant. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink from 2018 or ’20 through 2028 to ’30. Excellent. About $50.
The Grgich Hills Estate Yountville Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley, derives from 11CSYT_FRONT_NO-ALCvines planted in 1959. The wine is a blend of 82 percent cabernet grapes, 14 percent petit verdot and 4 percent merlot; it aged 23 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels. The color is an intense and warm dark ruby hue with a tinge of magenta at the rim; it’s all about structure now, filled with wheatmeal and walnut shell elements, loamy and briery, and it opens cautiously, a heavy old volume whose pages turn very slowly or, from another aspect, a block of oak buffed and burnished by sandalwood sandpaper. Velvety tannins are pumped up with notes of graphite and granite dust, while a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of plum pudding and fruitcake, lavender and bitter chocolate. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 772 cases. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’32. Excellent. About $185.00, yes, per bottle.
The “Allomi” tier is the entry-level cabernet sauvignon for The Hess Collection; a less expensive example falls under the cheaper “Hess Select” rubric. So, the Hess Collection Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, displays a dark ruby hue, shading to a tinge of mulberry; it offers rich black currant-cherry-raspberry scents and flavors permeated by graphite, iodine and iron, lavender and black licorice. Plush, dusty tannins have roots in underbrush and foresty elements, while ripe and spicy black fruit flavors are spicy and savory. 14.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 or ’20. Very Good+. About $30.
On the “shop” page of the winery’s website, The Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Mount Veeder, is described thus: “Nothing is quite so luscious as blueberries framed by hints of vanilla, cassis, creamy milk chocolate caramel and oak spice.” Gack, thank god, that’s not the character that emerged from my tasting; had that been the case, I would have given this one a definite thumb’s-down. Granted, this wine — 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent malbec and aged 20 months in 80 percent new French oak barrels — feels ripe and rich, but the ripeness and richness of black and red currants and raspberries are balanced by tannic elements of mineral dust, graham and wheatmeal and a touch of walnut shell, and the wine is far more intense and concentrated than the unhelpful notation quoted above implies. It’s quite dry, substantial, dense and inky, with graphite minerality and dark, oaken polish. The wine finishes with a high note of wild cherry. 14.6 percent alcohol. Drink through 2022 to ’26. Director of winemaking for Hess Collection is Dave Guffy. Excellent. About $60.
Lüscher-Ballard Wine is a project of Christina Lüscher-Ballard and Carroll Ballard, married labelformer filmmakers who own a tiny property, 2,200 feet high on Spring Mountain. John Kongsgaard makes the wine. The Lüscher-Ballard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Spring Mountain District, fermented with native yeast and aged 22 months in French oak barrels. The color is dark ruby with a black center and a faint mulberry rim; it’s a majestic wine, freighted with massive elements of iron and iodine, graphite, cedar and tobacco, with hints of old leather, dried rosemary and ancho chili, and high-notes of lavender and bitter chocolate. On the palate the wine combines density and weight with airiness and elegance, though tannins need a few years to recede from a feral state. Fruit? Of course, in the range of spiced and macerated black currants and plums with a cast of red fruit overall. Altogether, lovely balance and integration of every element. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was about 200 cases. Try from 2018 or ’19 through 2030 to ’32. Excellent. About $80.
Brothers Charles and Stuart Smith deserve a Nobel Prize for consistency and integrity. Making sm_label_lr_cab_12their Smith-Madrone wines using the same methods every year and allowing the vintage to speak through the grapes, they produce chardonnay, riesling and cabernet sauvignon wines on Spring Mountain that embody ideals of realism, individuality and location. Produced from 40-year-old, dry-farmed vines and aged 18 months in French oak barrels, the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Spring Mountain District, is a blend of 82 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 10 percent merlot and eight percent cabernet franc. The color is dark ruby from stem to stern; notes of dried sage and rosemary, briers and brambles, cedar and tobacco leaf are etched on intense elements of ripe and dried black currants, raspberries and blueberries, all balanced on a well-oiled vehicle of graphite and granitic minerality. On the palate, the wine is — no surprise — lithe and sinewy, bolstered by dusty, slightly velvety tannins and vibrant acidity. The finish is long and lean and laden with chiseled flint-like minerality. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 1,815 cases. Drink through 2028 to ’32. Excellent. About $48, the bargain of this group.
Established in 1943 and producing its first vintage in 1952, Stony Hill Vineyard, on Spring Mountain, is still operated by the McCrea family. It says something about loyalty and tradition that Mike Chelini has been making the wines since 1972. A specialist in non-malolactic, all-neutral-oak, long-aging chardonnay, the winery — probably the least known of Napa Valley’s Old School producers — only began making cabernet sauvignon wines in 2009, and it’s not surprising that the Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, mirrors the philosophy that governs its chardonnays; this is not a cabernet for consumers looking for the glamorous or the gorgeous. The wine aged 18 months in oak barrels and 18 months in bottle before release. The color is dark ruby shading to medium ruby at the rim; aromas of black currants, raspberries and blueberries are intense and concentrated, permeated by notes of lead pencil, rosemary and cedar, briers, brambles and loam. Tannins feel deep, rooty and dusty, and an aura of wood-smoke pervades the whole vibrant, resonant, chiseled package. An eminently sensible 13.5% alcohol. Production was 430 cases. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’32. Excellent. About $60.
Young Inglewood winery touts this initial release as an “instant crowd pleaser,” but the Venn Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, did not please me all that much; everything about it, except for the moderate alcohol level, blares “contemporary Napa Valley” in the glass. The color is very dark ruby-purple shading to a glowing magenta rim; the nose draw up scents of ripe cassis, vanilla, cloves, blueberry jam, lavender, graphite and mocha, while on the palate the wine is rich and succulent, ferrous and sanguinary and framed by heaps of charcoal and graphite.
14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 209 cases. If this is a crowd-pleaser, I’ll drink alone, thank you. Very Good. About $50.

If you owned a winery in a region recently granted status as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) by the generous folks at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), how would you go about capturing the hearts and minds of wine consumers? Would you start by establishing a solid reputation as a producer of reliable wines, wines that even punch above their weight, in the range of, say, $18 to $30? Or would you attempt to capture the elite spender’s attention by releasing the Mercedes and Porsche models of your line, the wines that cost $50 to $175? My recommendation would be to take the first route to consumers’ approval and their wallets, but a group of wineries in the Coombsville AVA chose the second alternative, sending out the top dogs for review. Coombsville was granted AVA status in December 2011.
All producers and winemakers want their wines to be unique, and one way they see to achieving that special status is an emphasis on a specific place. That drive is the primary motivation, in this country, for petitioning the TTB to grant official status as an American Viticultural Area to increasingly smaller regions within larger AVAs. The thinking goes that if, for instance, Napa Valley, however illustrious its history may be, seems a bit broad and uninteresting as a designation, how much better to mention on a label that one’s wine derives from Oakville District or Howell Mountain, important splinters within the Napa Valley AVA. Vineyard owners, winery owners and winemakers hire consultants, geologists and climatologists to determine the individual qualities and values of a proposed AVA, often working for years to secure approval. In 2014, for example, the Paso Robles AVA, itself a delineated region within the larger San Luis Obispo AVA, was divided into 11 sub-AVAs all at once, on the assumption that consumers will harken to the call of Paso Robles Willow Creek AVA or Santa Margarita Ranch AVA on wine labels.

Coombsville is the most recent (and the 16th) sub-AVA granted in Napa Valley. It lies east of the burgeoning city of Napa, bordered on the west by the Napa River, on the east by the Vaca Range, on the north my Mount George and runs south to Imola Avenue. This newish AVA encompasses 11,075 acres, of which something like 1,400 acres are planted to vines. Located in the southern Napa Valley, Coombsville comes under the influence of San Pablo Bay and its cooling maritime nature, being, actually, the coolest AVA in Napa Valley except for Carneros. The unique feature of the Coombsville AVA — named for Natham Coombs, who founded the town of Napa in 1848 — is a vast caldera, an ancient horseshoe-shaped ridge that is the result of a collapsed volcano. The volcanic ash and debris left from this geologic event created a soil suited for the nurture of grapevines and the necessary stressing of their roots. In addition, alluvial flows from Mount George contributed to the rocky-volcanic quality of the soil.

I received six samples for review from wineries in the Coombsville AVA, and while several struck me as classic Napa Valley, compounded of distinct mineral-black fruit-sleek tannin elements, others felt too emphatic, over-determined and unbalanced. I also thought that some of these prices smacked of delusions of grandeur. Lemme see what you can do at $25, please, before you send me the bottle that carries a $175 tariff. I omit, unfortunately, a great deal of technical information I would typically include in these reviews because the websites of most of these wineries seem not just reticent but downright secretive. Come on, people, the point of a website is to deliver information.

Map from
Cairdean Acquaintance Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coombsville, Napa Valley. The color shades from dark ruby at the center to medium ruby at the rim; it’s a highly structured wine now, with a bouquet characterized by elements of toast, dust and graphite, charcoal, cedar and tobacco, rosemary, lavender and licorice and a core of iodine and iron. The segue onto the palate produces similar results, with the glimmering addition of intense and concentrated blue and black fruit — blueberries and blue plums, black currents and cherries — drenched in granitic tannins. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 224 cases. Try from 2018-’20 through 2028-’32. Very Good+ for now. About $84.
Covert Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coombsville, Napa Valley. Signaling a wine of deep extraction, the color here is opaque ruby shading to glowing purple-magenta at the rim; the bouquet delivers powerful snootfuls of iodine and graphite, with notes of charcoal, cedar and lavender, black currants and baked plums touched with mint, mocha and fruitcake in an array of structural and esthetic effects. Not surprisingly, the wine is quite dry, characterized by a vibrant arrow of graphite minerality and resonant, lip-smacking acidity that serve to animate black and blue fruit flavors encased in depth-charge tannins, both dusty and succulent. A lingering finish pulls in elements of smoke, tobacco, cigarette paper and iron. 14.9 percent alcohol. 356 cases produced. Drink from 2018 or 2020 through 2030 or ’32. Excellent. About $175.
Maroon Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coombsville, Napa Valley. This wine spent 30 months in French oak, though we are not informed of the percentage of new barrels. It is, in any case, a strapping example of dynamic structure, cloaking its modicum of rich, jammy black and red fruit scents and flavors, all spiced, macerated and roasted, with blueberry undertones, in a panoply of large-framed, dusty and gritty tannins that seethe with charcoal, cold ashes and foresty funk. 14.4 percent alcohol. Nowhere near drinkable now, try from 2019 or ’20 through 2030 to ’34. Production was 1,340 cases. Very Good+, for now. About $80.
scalon cab
Scalon Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coombsville, Napa Valley. The color of this 100 percent cabernet wine is very dark ruby-purple; it aged 20 months in all new French oak barrels. Penetrating aromas of ripe blackberries and and black currants carry hints of blueberry jam, graphite and lavender, rosemary and cedar, black olives and braised fennel; a few minutes in the glass unleash elements of iodine and iron. On the palate, this cabernet sauvignon is lively and vibrant, lent dynamism by vivid acidity and a keen mineral edge that bolsters a dense, dusty, chewy texture and velvety but rigorous tannins. 13.8 percent alcohol. 235 cases produced. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $85.
scalon priorityScalon Cellars Priority Red Wine 2012, Napa Valley. This very limited edition wine is a blend of 51 percent cabernet sauvignon, 40 percent cabernet franc and nine percent merlot; it aged 20 months in French oak barrels. It starts with a dark ruby-purple hue and opens with aromas of ripe and slightly roasted black cherries and plums infused with cassis and cloves; the wine is quite woodsy and foresty, with undertones of briers and brambles, graphite and lavender. It’s very dry, even a bit austere, yet imbued with jammy and spicy black fruit flavors, leaning altogether, with its shaggy tannins, toward a rustic presentation. The least coherent of this group, the wine needs more balance and integration. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 50 cases. To give it chance to cohere, try from 2018 or ’19 through 2030 to ’32. Very Good+. About $50.
silver stag
Silver Stag Parsley Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. The color is dark ruby with a magenta rim; the chief feature of the bouquet is ripe black currant and black raspberry scents permeated by notes of cedar and tobacco, iodine, iron and loam; it’s a lively and energetic cabernet but dense with a towering structure of austere oak and dusty tannins, still, somehow, managing to be rich and jammy on the palate. A few minutes in the glass bring in hints of lavender, bitter chocolate and graphite. 14.4 percent alcohol. Give this a few years to find better balance. Very Good+. About $90.

From the winery’s warmest vineyard (above Calistoga) and from a warm year, the Grgich Hills ZN12-FRONT_750Estate Zinfandel 2012, Napa Valley, tips the scale at 15.5 percent alcohol, a factor that accounts for the wine’s sizeable presence on the palate without sending it into the over-ripe, cloying camp. The zinfandel grapes were fermented with two percent petite sirah, all certified organic; the wine aged 15 months in large French oak casks, so there’s very little wood influence (and no new oak vanilla), more a sense of shaping the wine’s suppleness and depth. The color is a pleasing medium ruby hue, not dark or extracted; aromas of plums, black currants and cherries are permeated by notes of black pepper, tar and oolong tea, with deeper hints of cloves, boysenberry and blackberry jam. It’s a very dry zinfandel, framed by dusty tannins and buoyant acidity over fathoms of briery-brambly elements and chiseled graphite minerality; the spicy black fruit flavors, tinged with blue, make a delicious melange with the wine’s suave structure. Drink now through 2018 to 2020 with grilled steaks and pork chops or similar hearty meaty fare. Excellent. About $36.

A sample for review.

For this edition of Weekend Wine Notes, I offer a miscellaneous group of red wines from California, dominated by cabernet sauvignon, but with entries from the merlot and pinot noir camps. Truth is, I probably receive more samples of California cabernets to review than from any other region and any other grape variety. State-wide, today, we range from Russian River Valley in the north to Paso Robles in the south. As is usual in this series of Weekend Wine Notes, I dispense with the technical, historical, geographical and personal data that I dote on for the sake of incisive and, I hope, vivid reviews ripped, as it were, from the pages of my notebooks. These wines were samples for review. Enjoy, and always consume in moderation.
Aleksander 2011, Paso Robles. 13.3% alc. 80% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon. 840 cases. Glowing medium ruby color with a transparent magenta rim; a very impressive merlot exhibiting structural qualities of generous, supple tannins, clean acidity and ebon-like minerality; mint and thyme, lavender and violets, iron and iodine, black currants and raspberries with a trace of dark plum, smoky and dusty; a little resiny with notes of rosemary and cedar; lovely shape, tone and presence. Now through 2020 to 2023. Excellent. About $75.
cage pinot
J. Cage Cellars Nunes Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. 119 cases. Deep, vibrant ruby shading to lighter magenta; warm and spicy yet with a dark meditative aura; macerated red currants, cherries and plums, with a touch of cherry skin and pit; loam, briers and brambles; opens to notes of tar, violets and rose petals, pomegranate and sandalwood; a dense and sinewy pinot noir, enlivened by the influence of brisk acidity; elements of lithic dust, some root-like tea and a bare hint of orange rind. I’ll say, “Wow,” and “Please, bring on the seared duck breast.” Excellent. About $40.
2013 Merlot-small
Ehlers Estate Merlot 2012, St. Helena, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. With 8% cabernet franc. Opaque black-ruby shading to a vivid purple rim; very intense and concentrated, coiled power; black currants and plums infused with lavender, licorice and graphite; a scintillating core of granitic minerality that almost glitters, magnified by the wine’s bright acidity; lots of vibrancy and resonance, marred, unfortunately, by the taint of toasty oak that dominates from mid-palate back through the finish. You know what I always say, friends: If a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, there’s too much damn oak. Now through 2020 to ’24. Very Good+. About $55.
Ferrari-Carano Tresor 2012, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. 71% cabernet sauvignon, 9% petit verdot, 7% each merlot and malbec, 6% cabernet franc. Dark ruby color with a tinge of magenta at the rim; warm and spicy but with a cool mineral core of graphite and iron; cassis, black raspberry and plum, with notes of cedar, lavender, violets, leather and loam; dusty, velvety tannins coat the palate midst intense and concentrated black fruit flavors and bastions of wheatmeal, walnut shell and burnished oak; how the finish manages not to be austere is a wonder. Try 2017 or ’18 through 2024 to ’28. Excellent. About $60.
Geyser Peak Pluto’s Fury Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley. 14.4% alc. 1,379 cases. Medium transparent ruby color; first come spice and herbs: cloves, sandalwood, sage; slightly macerated black cherries and red currants, touch of pomegranate and rhubarb; sleek, supple, lithe and satiny; generous with burgeoning elements of violets and rose petals; a well-made pinot noir that lavishes fruit and bright acidity on the palate. Now through 2017 or ’18. Very Good+. About $36.
grgich merlot
Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2012, Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. With 5% cabernet sauvignon. Dark ruby hue from stem to stern; rooty and loamy, with finely sifted elements of forest floor, dried porcini and graphite; ripe raspberry and black currant aromas inflected by seductive notes of mocha, black licorice, allspice and sandalwood; very intense and concentrated on the palate, framed by sturdy tannins that feel slightly sanded and roughened; after an hour or so, the tannins and oak flesh out and take over, giving the wine a formidable, monumental quality. No punk-ass little merlot here; this one is for the ages, or through 2024 to ’28. Excellent. About $43.
KRUG_FR_HM_11 5006
Charles Krug Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 15.2% alc. (!) 80% cabernet, 18% petit verdot, 2% merlot. Very dark ruby-purple with a bright violet rim; despite the soaring alcohol content, this is a beautifully balanced and harmonious wine, with perfect weight and presentation, yet plenty of structure for support and the long-haul; a full complement of dusty, graphite-laden tannins bolsters black currant, cherry and blueberry flavors inflected by notes of lavender, licorice, black tea and black olive; a few moments in the glass bring up hints of cedar, rosemary and tobacco; girt by a framework of granitic, mountain-side minerality, this classic cabernet is still a lovely drink, though built for aging through 2022 through 2028. Excellent. About $75.
Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. (Jackson Family Wines) brave logoOpaque black-ruby with a glowing purple rim; a focused line of graphite and granite defines the space for elements of spiced, macerated and roasted black currants, cherries and plums, permeated by iodine and iron, mint and lavender; a feral, ferrous and sanguinary cabernet, somehow both velvety and chiseled, seductive and lithic; it’s mouth-filling, dynamic, impetuous. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2027 to ’30. Excellent. About $75.
Signorello Estate Padrone 2012, Napa Valley. With 9% cabernet franc. Whoa, what is up with this 15.8 percent alcohol? That factor dominates this wine and throws it off balance, though initially it reveals deep, brooding qualities of cassis, bitter chocolate, briers and brambles, leather and loam that might blossom into harmony; sadly, the austere tannins, the astringent oak and, above all, the sweet, hot alcohol demolish that hope. Not recommended. About $150.
tongue dancer
Tongue Dancer Wines Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Production was 125 cases. Transparent medium ruby shading to an invisible rim; indelible and beguiling aromas of pomegranate and cranberry, red and black cherries and currants, anise and lavender, with bare hints of rhubarb, thyme and celery seed; a thread of loam and graphite runs through this wine’s supple satiny texture, creating a sense of superb weight and heft on the palate, yet expressing eloquent elegance and delicacy of effect. Now through 2018 to 2020. I could drink this pinot noir every day. Exceptional. About $45.
Trione Vineyards and Winery River Road Ranch Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Trione-2012-Pinot-NoirCounty. 14.5% alc. 1,408 cases. Medium transparent ruby hue; dark and spicy with cloves and allspice (and a hint of the latter’s slightly astringent nature); black and red cherries and currants, notes of cranberries and pomegranate; turns exotic with violets, lavender, mint and sandalwood; a lively and engaging pinot noir, incredibly floral; a lithe texture, moderate oak with lightly sanded edges. Now through 2018 to ’21. Excellent. About $39.
The label image is one vintage behind.
Young Inglewood Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, St. Helena, Napa Valley. 14.8% alc. 612 cases. With some percentage of merlot and cabernet franc. Dark ruby color; redolent of graphite, iodine and mint, cassis and blueberry, cloves and sage and ancho chile; acidity that runs silent and deep through canyons of dusty, granitic tannins; plenty of spice and scintillating energy, gradually opens reservoirs of lavender, licorice and violets and stylish, polished oak that carries through the brooding but not austere finish. Touches all the moves in the Napa cabernet playbook — meaning that it’s an exemple rather than an individual — but still very impressive. Now through 2024 through ’28. Excellent. About $90.

If your ideal of chardonnay from California is a wine that’s opulent, bold, brash, rich and spicy, tropical and creamy, tinged, perhaps, with vanilla and butterscotch, stop reading right here. The chardonnay I nominate for Wine of the Day, No. 109, takes the opposite stance from all of those burdensome qualities and maintains a character consistent with the vision that Eleanor and Fred McCrea had when they produced their first bottling from vintage 1952. That is, a chardonnay that sees no new oak and undergoes no malolactic fermentation. Those who possess knowledge of the history of the Golden State’s wine industry know that I’m referring to Stony Hill stony hill chard labelVineyard, a winery perched on Spring Mountain above St. Helena that since its inception refused to follow the standard procedures of winemaking and marketing and went its own way, a model of individuality and authenticity. Fred McCrea died in 1977 and Eleanor in 1991, but the winery’s tradition continues with their son Peter, his wife Willinda and their daughter Sarah. Winemaker Mike Chelini has been at Stony Hill since 1971.

The Stony Hill Chardonnay 2013, Napa Valley, fermented in French oak and rested 10 months in barrels that were six to 26 years old. Malolactic is inhibited, so the wine retains a scintillating element of fresh and vibrant acidity. The color is very pale straw-gold; subtle aromas of pineapple and grapefruit, quince and ginger are touched with smoke and a hint of peach and spiced pear. The purity and intensity of this chardonnay, its beautiful balance and integration are incredibly gratifying. On the palate, the texture feels like talc or powdered limestone, while the structure is lithe and supple, flowing across the tongue with vibrancy and mineral-laced resonance. Ripe but not ostentatious citrus and stone-fruit flavors are backed up by the pith and vigor of the wine’s crystalline roots in the earth and the shapely modulation of those old French oak barrels. 13 percent alcohol. Production was 1,852 cases. Drink now through 2023 to 2028; it has the framework and foundation to last. Exceptional. About $45.

A sample for review.

Not many chardonnay wines feel as pure and intensely varietal as the Pine Ridge Le Petit Clos Chardonnay 2013, Stags Leap District. The wine’s name refers, in French, to a small enclosed vineyard, in this case a tiny area, within a larger vineyard, lying in the shadow of the ridge for which the winery is named. While Le Petit Clos Chardonnay 2013 is barrel-fermented, it ages only seven months in French oak, 65 percent new barrels, and malolactic fermentation is inhibited. The result is a chardonnay of shimmering and simmering integrity, lovely as it can be but with a dynamic core of bright acidity and scintillating limestone minerality. The color is mild gold; aromas of roasted lemon and lemon balm are heightened by notes of pineapple and grapefruit, baked apple and cloves; from the background surges a whiff of gun-flint and shale. The acid and minerality lend sinew to a moderately lush, talc-like texture that cushions a fluid layering of ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors, hints of quince and ginger, traces of chalk and flint and a suave, subtle, supple oak influence. 14.9 percent alcohol. A downright beautiful chardonnay, for drinking through 2019 to ’23. Excellent. About $75.

A sample for review.

Gary Andrus founded Pine Ridge Vineyards in 1978, acquiring 50 acres, planted mainly to chardonnay vines, on the Silverado Trail in Stags Leap District. After planting cabernet sauvignon vines and purchasing other vineyards, logo-Pine-Ridge-VineyardsPine Ridge earned a reputation for its full-bodied, multi-dimensional cabernet sauvignon wines, as well as chardonnay and, later, a popular and inexpensive chenin blanc-viognier blend that pays the rent. Anders put the winery on the market in 2000, and it was purchased by The Crimson Wine Group, which also owns Archery Summit, in Oregon, and Seghesio, in Sonoma County. Pine Ridge owns vineyard acreage in many parts of Napa Valley, and produces limited bottlings of wines from these classic AVAs. Under review today are the examples from Rutherford, Oakville District and Stags Leap District. Rutherford and Oakville stretch across the central Valley floor, while Stags Leap, backing up to the Vaca Range, is hillier, even fairly steep in places.

These three wines receive the same oak regimen, 18 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels, but it’s interesting that the blend on each is different, making accommodations to the vineyards and the landscape and micro-climates involved. Wimemaker and general manager is Michael Beaulac. These are stalwart — and expensive — cabernets, that seem to me to epitomize what makes Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon so well-known in the world of both casual drinkers and astute wine collectors: the sense of acute minerality; the poised and rugged tannins; the deep black fruit permeated by the unique combination of tea, dried herbs, loam and dust; the ultimate balance and integration, in the best years. The vintage in question here, 2012, though a warm year, is undeniably one of the best.

These wines were samples for review.
The Pine Ridge Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, is a blend of 76 percent cabernet sauvignon and 24 percent petit verdot. With its intensity and concentration, its huge, dynamic lithic structure and its exquisite balance that paradoxically verges on elegance, this wine conforms to my ideal of an Oakville cabernet. The color is very dark ruby with a tinge of purple at the rim; taking some time to swirl the wine and sniff allows whiffs of black fruit shading to blue and dried meadow flowers to emerge, almost reluctantly it seems, while the big build-up is in the precincts of dust and graphite, iodine and iron. Still, tannins are plush on the palate, and the wine, despite its depth and dimension and the tautness of its acidity, flows through the mouth with lively aplomb. A wine that needs some time to open, though it would be tempting with a medium-rare strip steak, hot and crusty from the grill. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’34. Excellent. About $85.
The Pine Ridge Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, offers a dark ruby hue with a glowing magenta rim; the nose is distinguished by incisive graphite minerality that bears hints of iodine and iron, ancho chili and bitter chocolate, opening gradually to deeply spiced and macerated red and black currants and raspberries; these aromas take on an incredibly floral aspect, blending lavender, violets and lilacs with a twist of black licorice. Though rigorous in structure, supported by bastions of dry, dusty tannins, this Pine Ridge Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is lively, vital and vigorous, almost engaging, though a few minutes in the glass give it burgeoning depth and dimension; oak stays firmly on the periphery, yet the influence is undeniably there. The finish is long, dense and freighted with a kind of powdery granitic quality. The blend is 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 15 percent malbec, 3 percent petit verdot. 14.8 percent alcohol. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’30. Excellent. About $85.
Stylistically, the Pine Ridge Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, bears resemblance to its cousins also mentioned in this post but feels even denser, more stringent, bottomless, as if it siphoned up all the bedrock of the steep hillside vineyards where it was born. It’s a blend of 77 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent cabernet franc and 3 percent malbec. The color, of course, is dark, almost opaque ruby that shades to a lighter mulberry rim; the bouquet is a stirring melange of graphite, tar, ancho chili and bitter chocolate, roasted fennel and ripe, macerated red and black currants and cherries; a bit of time brings in notes of cloves, sage and rosemary. Yes, it’s massive on the palate, deeply tannic, yet fleet of foot too, aided by plangent acidity and a deft touch with oak, which feels polished and lightly sanded. It will need a few years aging to bring out more of the black fruit flavors, so try from 2017 to ’19 through 2030 to ’35. 14.7 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $125.

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