Pinot noir


I have used Wordsworth’s lines so often — “The world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” — that I won’t allude to them on this occasion but merely issue an apology and assert that sometimes I just can’t keep up with tasting and writing. In fact, this post is probably the first in a series of “mea culpa” catch-up entries that I will issue over the next few weeks — if I have time. Ha-ha! These wines, a miscellaneous dozen from California, 11 red, one white, were all samples for review.
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Amapola Creek Monte Rosso Vineyard “Vinas Antiguas” Zinfandel 2011, Sonoma Valley. Winemaker Dick Arrowood mixed 5 percent petite sirah to this zinfandel derived from one of Sonoma County’s legendary vineyards, where the zinfandel vines are 118 years old. The wine aged 15 months in a combination of new and used French and American oak barrels. Generally, I have been a fan of Arrowood’s efforts at Amapola Creek, rating everything I have tasted either Excellent or Exceptional. The exception, however, will be this example, because the heat and sweetness from 15.5 percent alcohol tip the wine off balance and render it into a clunky blockbuster. That’s a shame, because such details as its melange of ripe and spicy black currants and blueberries, cloves, sandalwood and smoked fennel and a chiseled granitic quality would have been gratifying in a different package. Production was 310 cases. Not recommended. About $42.
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Amici Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. There’s an aspect of darkness about this (nonetheless) winsome pinot noir: a dark ruby color; a certain dark shading in its spicy elements of cloves and sandalwood; the smokiness of its black cherry scents and flavors hinting at currants and raspberries; the earthiness of its brier-brambly structure. The lovely texture, though, is all warm satin, while bright acidity keeps it lively and quaffable. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Production was 1,300 cases. Very Good+. About $35.
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Bonny Doon Vineyards Le Cigare Blanc reserve 2011, Arroyo Seco. The blend for this highly aromatic wine is 62 percent grenache blanc and 38 percent roussanne, from the Beeswax Vineyard; the grapes were fermented together in stainless steel and aged in five-gallon glass carboys, also called demijohns or bonbonnes, of the sort typically employed in home brewing and winemaking. The color is very pale gold, and it seems to shimmer in the glass. All of the lemon kingdom has assembled here in its guises of roasted lemon, lemon balm and lemon curd, highlighted by notes of quince and ginger, lanolin, lilac and camellia. It’s a savory and saline wine, spare, lean and supple and quite dry yet generous with its citrus flavors that delve a bit into stone-fruit. The entire package is animated by crystalline acidity and crackling limestone minerality. Alcohol content is a pleasing 12.5 percent. Production was 480 cases. Excellent. About $54.
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Daou Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Paso Robles. The wine is a blend of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent merlot and 9 percent petit verdot that spent 19 months in French oak barrels, 80 percent new. The color is very dark ruby-purple, almost opaque; seductive aromas of spiced, macerated and slightly roasted black cherries and raspberries are permeated by notes of graphite, cedar and tobacco and a hint of rosemary’s brash resiny quality; a few moments in the glass bring in touches of black olive and loam. This is a solid, tannic, granitic-based wine, spare and dusty and quite dry but with plenty of ripe black and blue fruit flavors; fairly rock-ribbed presently, it needs a lot of air to unfurl its attractions. 14.2 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2021 to ’25. Excellent. About $56.
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Davies Vineyards Nobles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. This pinot noir, which aged 15 months in 41 percent new French oak barrels, originated from an area of the Sonoma Coast region recently designated as the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. Don’t be surprised if in the coming years we see more segments of the vast Sonoma Coast fragmented into smaller AVAs; Petaluma Gap, anyone? The color is a beguiling medium ruby hue, though that limpidity is belied by the wine’s sense of power and muscularity; this is intensely spicy, bursting with ripe and macerated black cherry and plum fruit, while a few minutes in the glass bring up pungent notes of old leather and pomegranate. It’s a fairly dense and chewy wine, displaying incisive graphite minerality and acidity that I can only call flaring and buoyant. Quite a performance on pinot noir’s dark side. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 550 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
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Davies Vineyards Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Here’s a pinot that’s a bit more to my taste than the Davies Vineyards Nobles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 mentioned above, at least in terms of style. This spend 15 months in French oak, 22 percent new barrels. The color is a transparent medium ruby, and the first impression is of the earth, with rooty and loamy aspects under briers and brambles; then come black and red cherries and currents segueing to dusty plums, smoky sassafras and exotic spices like sandalwood and cloves. Within this sensual panoply expands a core of nuance — lavender, violets, a bare hint of beet-root — and clean bright acidity. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 400 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
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Dunstan Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011. Sonoma Coast. The color is dark ruby with a mulberry tinge. I would say that this pinot noir displays glorious purity, intensity and clarity, but “glorious” implies an emphatic nature that I want to avoid; let’s say, instead, that it’s perfect and adorable in the expression of those qualities. Aromas of red and black cherries and currants are imbued with notes of cloves and sandalwood, sassafras, rose petals and violets, with undertones of briers, brambles and loam, all amounting to a seamless marriage of elegance and power. The texture is supremely satiny, rolling across the palate like liquid money, but the wine’s ripe and spicy black and red fruit flavors are buoyed by slightly leathery tannins and back-notes of polished oak, the whole effect enlivened by fleet acidity. 14.5% alcohol. Excellent. About $55.
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Gallo Signature Series Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Gina Gallo employed grapes from the family’s Olson Ranch Vineyard to craft this well-made but not compelling pinot noir that aged eight months in a mixture of new and used French oak barrels. The color shades from dark to medium ruby at the rim; aromas of black cherries and cranberries, smoke and loam, cloves and pomegranate characterize the attractive bouquet, while on the palate the wine is satiny smooth and supple; a few minutes in the glass bring out pretty floral elements. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $35.
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Pedroncelli Mother Clone Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. The “mother clone” of this wine is a vineyard planted to zinfandel vines since 1904; some of those grapes are included here. Other parts of the vineyard represent the second generation of vines cloned from the original plants, all blended here with six percent petite sirah grapes. The wine aged 11 months in American oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a magenta rim; pungent aromas of black currants, blackberries and blueberries feel warm and spicy but with edges of graphite, briers and brambles. Bright acidity brings liveliness to dense dusty tannins and a slightly chiseled granitic minerality that testifies to the wine’s origin in an old hillside vineyard; however, black fruit flavors are equally bright and faceted, gradually opening to touches of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $18, representing Great Value.
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Sanctuary Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Maria Valley. This is a beautiful pinot noir in every sense, from its lovely transparent medium ruby-cherry hue, to its bouquet permeated by notes of spiced and macerated red and black currants and cherries, with hints of rhubarb and cranberry, tobacco leaf and cigarette paper, to its subtle undertones of loam and moss and brambles, to its seductive satiny texture. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 841 cases. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Silverado Vineyards Mt George Merlot 2010, Napa Valley. This classically balanced and structured wine is a blend of 77% merlot, 19% cabernet sauvignon, 4% malbec, 1% petit verdot. (Yeah, that’s 101 percent.) The color is very dark ruby-purple, verily, verging even unto motor-oil black; it’s quite pungent, unleashing penetrating aromas of ripe, meaty and fleshy black cherries and raspberries bursting with notes of cassis and black olives, bell pepper and tobacco. Chiseled and polished graphite rules the day, with hints of iodine and saline qualities, earth and loam; the texture is supple, lithe, dense and chewy, yet somehow refined and elegant, never forgetting its obligation to beautiful but not showy black and red fruit flavors. 14.9 percent alcohol. A terrific, finely-honed and tuned merlot that displays great character. Drink now through 2018 to 2022. Excellent. About $35.
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Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Livermore Valley. The blend here is 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5
percent each petit verdot and merlot and 2 percent cabernet franc; the wine aged 24 months in 60 percent new oak barrels, mostly French with a small portion of American oak from the Appalachians. A dark ruby hue transcends inky purple; the bouquet is clean and fresh, very cherry-berry with some raspberries and their sense of faint raspiness, briers and brambles in the background, with an intensifying element of violets, lavender and potpourri. This panoply of sensual pleasures doesn’t quite prepare your palate for the rush of dusty tannins, the wheatmeal and walnut-shell austerity, the espresso and graphite elements that characterize the wine’s passage through the mouth. Still, coming back to it in an hour or so reveals its expression of a more approachable side, so give it a chance. A nicely manageable 13.5% alcohol. Production was 983 cases. Excellent potential, 2016 or ’17 through 2020 to ’24. About $48.
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Sojourn Cellars was launched in 2001 with 100 cases of cabernet sauvignon. The winery, based in the town of Sonoma, was founded by Craig and Ellen Haserot with winemaker Erich Bradley. The (not uncommon) idea was to produce limited quantities of pure and intense chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir wines from excellent vineyards. Judging from my experience with a selection of chardonnays and pinot noirs from 2010 — link to my reviews here — and these examples from 2012, the team succeeds in their aim. As you will see, the chardonnay from the Durell Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast AVA was a bit flamboyant for my palate, but I find the pinot noirs to be perfect models of the grape’s delicate yet tensile marriage of power and elegance. All the wines are fermented by native yeasts; the pinots see 50 percent new French oak barrels. Though the length of time in oak was not specified in the technical information I received with these samples, the influence of the span spent in the new and used barrels resulted in wines of lovely suppleness and nuance.
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The Sojourn Cellars Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast, is a “3 Bs” chardonnay: Not Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but bold, bright and brassy. The color is luminous medium gold; forthright aromas of lightly roasted and caramelized pineapple and grapefruit are permeated by notes of cloves and ginger and hints of mango and orange rind; a quadrille of ripe and macerated stone-fruit parades across the palate, and I wish it revealed a bit more of a limestone and flint element and brisk acidity to balance the richness. Still, it’s not blatantly tropical, it’s not dessert-like, it’s not stridently spicy, though it’s a little over the top for my taste. The wine was barrel-fermented in 40 percent new French oak and underwent malolactic fermentation while aging. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 275 cases. Very Good+. About $54.
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The color of the Sojourn Cellars Wohler Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, is an entrancing medium ruby-mulberry hue, while the hypnotic bouquet wreathes notes of cranberry and sassafras, black and red cherries, lavender and crushed violets with undertones of oolong tea and orange rind and hints of loam and mushrooms. These intoxicating elements segue seamlessly onto the palate, where they drape and flow like a dense satiny fabric of luxurious cost, though there’s nothing heavy or obvious here; this is a pinot noir that whatever its heft retains an essential grasp on the ineffable. The aromas deepen as an hour or so passes, and the wine grows increasingly floral and spicy; it’s quite dry, however, with a long finish that’s surprisingly mineral-flecked and tannic. Exquisite proportions, 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 550 cases. Drink now through 2017 to ’20. Excellent. About $40.
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The Sojourn Ridgetop Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast, offers a limpid medium ruby-mulberry hue with a transparent rim; this is the earthiest of this trio of single-vineyard pinot noirs, displaying a full complement of briers, brambles and loam under layers of redness: I mean red cherries and raspberries, a hint of cranberry, a touch of red licorice. Vibrant acidity cuts a swath on the palate, making for a texture that’s spare and lithe though not meager; this, like its stablemates, remains generous and expansive in terms of fruit and spice while making rather serious demands in terms of its tannic and mineral-flecked structure, making it the most Burgundian of these examples, not that the comparison matters, but it indicates to me a certain style and philosophy. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 450 cases. Best from 2016 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $59.
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I wrote about the FEL Wines Chardonnay 2013 and Pinot Noir 2012, carrying Anderson Valley designations, in Part VI of this series about chardonnay and pinot noirs wines from the same producer. For this entry, we go to single vineyard versions of these wines. The idea behind issuing wines from a single vineyard source, instead of a more general regional or county/valley-wide source, is that a single vineyard will offer more character and individuality in the finished wine than a broader designation would. That sounds fine in theory, but it doesn’t always work out that way, especially when techniques in the winery mute or obliterate whatever qualities may have been inherent in the grapes and the soil and micro-climate from which they derive, as seems to be the case with this chardonnay. Richard Savoy, owner of a well-known bookstore in San Francisco, planted the vineyard that would bear his name in 1991. It lies at the mid-point of Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, just west of the town of Philo, occupying an area that slopes gently toward the southwest. He sold the vineyard in 2011 but continues to advise on farming for Ryan Hodgins, winemaker for FEL wines.

These bottles were samples for review.
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The FEL Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, aged 14 months in French oak, 56 percent of which were new barrels.The color is dark but vivid ruby; subtle notes of loam and graphite support enticing aromas of black cherries, currants and plums infused with cloves and allspice — with a hint of the latter’s woodsy astringency — sassafras and potpourri, all amounting to a sensuous panoply of complicated but deftly melded effects. Matters are a bit more ambiguous in the mouth, as the palate feels cleansed by bright acidity that drives spicy black fruit flavors through a lithe, supple and satiny texture to a finish that demands attention with a nod to dry slightly dusty tannins and notes of leather and underbrush. Great authority here, as well as spare elegance, exactly what I want in well-made pinot noir. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 645 cases. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $65.
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The FEL Savoy Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Anderson Valley, pushes every wrong button in my relationship to chardonnay and how it is too often made in California. It was fermented in French oak barrels, 50 percent new, and aged 15 months sur lie, that is, on the residue of yeast cells. The color is bright medium gold; bold and vivacious aromas of ripe and roasted pineapple and grapefruit are permeated by notes of cloves, quince and ginger and hints of papaya and mango. It’s a super sleek chardonnay whose citrus and stone-fruit flavors are saturated by obtrusive elements of toffee, baked apple, caramelized lemon curd and orange scented creme brulee, all cloying and stridently spicy. I’ve asked this question a thousand times: Why would anyone make chardonnay like this, and why would anyone drink it? 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 138 cases. Not recommended. About $48.
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The small, family-owned house of Champagne J. Lassalle is named in honor of its founder, Jules Lassalle, who established the firm in 1942 in the village of Chigny-Les-Roses. The patriarch died in 1982, and his wife Olga and her daughter Chantal Decelle-Lassalle took the reins. Chantal Decelle-Lassalle and her daughter, Angeline Templier, now run the house, the latter joining the estate as winemaker in 2006, spanning three generations of mothers and daughters. J. Lassalle produces about 12,500 cases of Champagne annually; the estate’s vineyards are farmed by organic methods. The production is very traditional, all done by hand, and the various cuvées tend to age three to five years in bottle before disgorgement. The wines go through full malolactic fermentation, so they tend to be quite rich.

The J. Lassalle Cuvée Preference Premier Cru Brut in this present disgorgement is a blend of wines from 2009 and 2010. It’s a combination of approximately 60 percent pinot meunier and 20 percent each pinot noir and chardonnay — “approximately,” because the house does not reveal exact percentages — and it aged 48 months on the lees in bottle. The color is pale gold with a cast of slightly tarnished silver, an effect that continues as swirls of tiny glinting bubbles surge to the surface; notes of lemon balm and roasted lemon are buttressed by intriguing scents of roasted grain and lightly buttered cinnamon toast. This is a very dry and stylish Champagne, animated by limestone and chalk elements and given a sense of attentiveness by its fleet-footed acidity; though substantial and fully fleshed out with an array of spicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors, it’s neither heavy nor obvious. In fact, the focus intensifies from mid-palate through the finish tinged with hazelnuts and just-baked bread and hints of sea-salt and grapefruit rind. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. This was a local purchase, about $45. Prices around the country range from $35 to $50.

Imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, Berkeley, Calif.

The reputation of Russian River Valley’s Inman Family Wines rests on chardonnay and pinot noir, but if you grow pinot noir, you might as well produce a rosé, n’est-ce pas, and if you make pinot noir, you might as well experiment with carbonic maceration. That technique is explained below, with a review of Inman’s Whole Buncha Love Pinot Noir 2013. Owner and winemaker Kathleen Inman asserts that this wine is her favorite pinot noir that she has made, and while I think that statement is rather hyperbolic — she makes terrific “regular” pinot noir — this first effort at carbonic maceration resulted in a wine of great authority, detail and dimension. So, under review today are the recently released Inman Family Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir 2014 and Whole Buncha Love Pinot Noir 2013. These were samples for review, and I’m really happy that I was able to try them, “try” being a euphemism for “drink every damned drop.”
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Kathleen Inman’s Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley, represents the first rosé table wine I have tasted this year, by which I mean that I’ve also had rosé sparkling wines. Made from the winery’s OGV Estate — Olivet Grange Vineyard — it marks a great way to begin what I hope will be a whole season of brilliant or at least tasty rosé wines. Made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes and seeing only stainless steel, the Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir 2014 displays a shimmering light pink-mauve hue — call it the modest blush of an aroused nymph — and a captivating bouquet of strawberries and red currants, dried cherries, jasmine and violets, with background notes of cloves and orange rind and a mysterious and seductive scent I can only name as licorice Necco wafer. The wine is sleek and spare on the tongue, building its structure from brisk but not tart acidity and crystalline limestone minerality, though achieving too a modicum of nicely balanced lushness; to its strawberry and raspberry flavors it adds a hint of spiced peach and, on the finish, juicy watermelon. 12.8 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2015. Production was 1,500 cases. Excellent. About $25.
The image is of the previous vintage label.
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The Inman Whole Buncha Love Pinot Noir 2013, from the winery’s OGV Estate in Russian River Valley, is made in the carbonic maceration method. Put rather simply, the process involves putting whole bunches of red grapes in a tank, covering the mass with a blanket of carbon dioxide to create an anaerobic situation, and allowing the bunches on top and in the middle gradually to crush those below. (It is not employed for white wines.) The bunches on the bottom undergo a kind of natural fermentation due to wild yeasts on the skins, while the whole bunches above, in a complicated chemical transformation, achieve a state of non-yeast-induced fermentation inside the grapes. Carbonic maceration is associated most closely with Beaujolais and the gamay grape, though method is also used in Burgundy. In a response to a post on my Facebook page, Kathleen Inman described her procedure:

I made this by placing 4 tons of 100% whole clusters in an open top fermentor. The only juice released was from the weight of the clusters, about 70 gallons in the end. I covered the fruit with dry ice (CO2) and tarped the tank to seal it. Four times a day for 28 days, I opened the top, pumped over the juice to help promote the native fermentation (no yeast or bacteria was added to the wine) and then I reapplied the dry ice and sealed it up. (Now you can see where the “Whole Buncha”" and the Love came from!). There is no excessive CO2 in the wine although the fermentation that happens within the skins of the grapes does produce CO2 that is trapped. When you pop one of the fermented grapes into your mouth it is not dissimilar to a pop rock! This wine was very fresh and fruity when it was first dry, but as it aged in the barrel for 15 months and was stirred periodically, any CO2 dissipated, so there is no frizzante character to the wine. It is my favorite Pinot Noir I have made to date.

The color is bright and translucent cherry red; penetrating aromas of loam, red and black currants and cherries, sassafras, pomegranate and cranberry are infused by notes of cloves and allspice and a hint of lavender. The texture offers a lovely satiny drape on the palate, though buoyed by bright acidity and a piercing graphite element; 15 months in neutral French oak barrels lend firmness, subtlety and suppleness to the wine’s structure. Flavors of crushed cherries and currants are borne on a burgeoning wave of clean loam and underbrush qualities, with the complete effect of intense purity and an eloquent evocation of varietal character. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 to ’19. Production was 168 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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Rodney Strong Vineyards already has a fairly full roster of chardonnay and pinot noir wines. There are the Reserve Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Estate Chardonnay, designated Chalk Hill, and Estate Pinot Noir, designated Russian River Valley, and a “regular” Sonoma County chardonnay. Recently, the winery added, under its Estate division, a chardonnay and pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast AVA. Sonoma Coast, officially approved as an American Viticultural Area in 1987, encompasses more than 500,000 acres and stretches from San Pablo Bay in the south to the Mendocino County line in the north. In the past decade or so, the region has established a reputation, primarily because of its ocean influence and cooler climate, as a prime, not to say primal, area for chardonnay and pinot noir. On the other hand, it’s such a large AVA that it’s difficult to establish one fixed identity for it, which is why there are movements afoot to portion off distinct smaller regions as sub-AVAs; Fort Ross-Seaview was approved in 2011, and I wouldn’t be surprised if windy, foggy Petaluma Gap, which contributes grapes to both of the wines under review today, was granted that privilege soon. You’ll notice on the labels illustrated here that the Sonoma Coast designation is given prominence over the grape variety. Winemakers for these examples were Rick Sayre and Justin Seidenfeld. These wines were samples for review.
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When I saw that the Rodney Strong Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast, was barrel-fermented and spent 10 months in 85 percent new French oak barrels, my heart sank; that’s a lot of new oak for a chardonnay. However, some (unspecified) amount stayed in stainless steel, which perhaps helped to right the balance. In any case, the color is pale gold; the whole effect is bright, fresh and clean, with beguiling aromas of pineapple, grapefruit and green apple woven with cloves and crystallized ginger and notes of guava and quince; yes, there’s a hint of a tropical element, but it’s not overplayed. Oak is deftly integrated on the palate, with just a touch of the toasty quality, but supported by brisk acidity and scintillating limestone minerality; delicious green apple and spiced pear flavors are nestled in a winsome, moderately dense texture that flows with supple subtlety across the palate. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 to ’18. Excellent. About $25.
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The color of the Rodney Strong Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, is an almost translucent ruby-magenta hue. This is a highly fragrant wine, offering prominent notes of cloves and sassafras, black cherries and plums, with hints of red and black currants and pomagranate, and touches of lavender and rose petals. There’s a lovely satiny drape to the texture, but the structure is broad and deep, almost tannic, and framed by spicy, woody, woodsy elements from 10 months in French oak barrels, 35 percent new; a copious amount of loamy, briery and brambly earthiness lends foundation to a well-balanced and integrated package. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $30.
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Longtime readers of this blog — bless your tiny pointed heads and may your tribes increase! — know that a great deal of effort goes into the annual “12 Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” series, but as encompassing as that sequence is, it cannot include all the Champagnes and sparkling wines that I taste from late November through early January. For this edition of Weekend Wine Notes, therefore, I offer an eclectic roster of nine of such products, one from Champagne, a duo from Franciacorta in Lombardy and a Lambrusco, an unusual darker-than-a-rosé sparkler from the far western Loire Valley, and versions from California and Oregon. I deliver as much technical information as might actually be required but concentrate on the essence of the blitzkrieg review: short, incisive and to-the-point. With one exception, these wines were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Antica Fratta Essence Brut 2007, Franciacorta, Lombardy, Italy. 13% alc. 90% chardonnay, 10% pinot noir. A favorite of ours for two Yuletide seasons. Light gold color; a seething horde of tiny bubbles; another year has burnished this sparkling wine; a little spicier, a bit toastier than it was at the previous tasting; roasted lemon and lemon balm, spiced pear; lightly buttered cinnamon toast; keen acidity and a honed limestone element; delicious, with appealing generosity but also a serious edge. Excellent. About $35.
Imported by Masciarelli Wine co., Weymouth, Mass.
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Argyle Brut 2011, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 12.5% alc. 60% pinot noir, 40% chardonnay. Pale gold gold, animated by a shimmer of tiny bubbles; a finely meshed construct of delicate details: lemon balm, verbena and lemon curd, a touch of orange rind; candied quince and ginger and a note of cloves; hint of biscuit; quite dry, bright acidity, lots of flint and limestone; very steely, very steady. Lovely. Excellent. About $27.
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Bonny Doon Sparkling Syrah 2011, Central Coast. 13.8% alc., according to the label, 11.9% alc. says the winery website. 83% syrah, 17% grenache. 378 cases. Opaque purple-black with a violet cast; moderately fizzy; the roasted, meaty and fleshy aspect we expect from syrah, but with vivid elements of deeply spiced and macerated strawberries and raspberries; a high balsamic note; burgeoning hints of violets and lavender; strangely attractive yet very intense, almost demanding, in fact too intense to use as an aperitif; this definitely needs food. Very Good+. About $36, intended for the winery’s club members.
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Cleto Chiarli e Figli Vecchia Modena Premier 2013, Lambrusco di Sorbara Secco, Italy. 11% alc. 100% lambrusco di Sorbara grapes. Bright medium ruby-red cherry hue; definitely and pleasantly effervescent; raspberries, red and black currants; slightly earthy with heather and boxwood; swashbuckling acidity keeps the whole dark, savory package lively and quenching, while a hint of tannin lends body; appealing supple texture balances a touch of dry austerity on the finish. Classic with rabbit pasta, terrines, duck. Very Good+. About $ .
Imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Calif.
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Contadi Castaldi Brut Rosé 2008, Franciacorta, Lombardy. 15.5% alc. 80% pinot noir, 20% chardonnay. Pale salmon/onion skin hue; quite effervescent; fresh raspberries and strawberries with hints of rose petals and lilac; freshly baked bread, cloves, anise, orange zest; elegant and ethereal; limestone and almond skin on the finish; lovely texture and structure. Very Good+. About $21
Imported by TMT USA, San Antonio, Texas. Image from altissimocento.net.
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Emma 2013, Vin de France. 9% alc. A blend of gamay and grolleau gris grapes, produced by Domaine de la Coche. The Vin de France classification was created in 2009 and allows winemakers to blend grapes and wines from across France, not just those dictated by their appellation. Domaine de la Coche is an organic estate located in the Pays de Retz that lies south of the Loire estuary and north of the Breton marshlands. Bright purple-magenta hue; gently effervescent, just tickles your nose; rose petals and violets, blueberries and raspberries, surprisingly earthy; detectably sweet initially but segues to dry from mid-palate back; a little dusty and raspy but mainly delightful. Very Good+. About $24, an online purchase.
Imported by Fruit of the Vine, Long Island City, N.Y. I think that Emma needs a label makeover.
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Evolution Sparkling Wine nv, America. Produced by Sokol Blosser Winery. 12.5% alc. A proprietary blend of semillon, riesling, muller thurgau, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, muscat, chardonnay. Sokol Blosser, founded in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1971, delivered a real hit with its non-vintage Evolution White, now in its 18th “edition.” This sparkling wine, now debuting and made from the same grape varieties in Washington state, seemed like a natural development. It’s essentially a Prosecco-like sparkling wine made in the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle. Pale gold color; a tidy splurge of tiny bubbles; apples and lemons, a lot of flowers from the muscat and gewurztraminer, it seems, as well as a hint of muscat funkiness; detectably sweet on the entry but slides toward dryness on the finish; fortunately clean acidity and a hint of limestone keep it honest. Very Good. About $22.
Image from urbanblisslife.com.
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Jacquard Brut Rosé nv, Champagne. 12.5% alc. 53% pinot noir, 35% chardonnay, 12% pinot meunier. Enchanting pale copper-salmon color; a tempest of tiny swirling bubbles; wild strawberries and cherries with a hint of red currants, touches of peach and orange zest; biscuits and cinnamon toast; quince and crystallized ginger; delicate, elegant, an ethereal construct buoyed by crisp acidity and a scintillating limestone quality; a finish half chiseled/half softly appealing. Really lovely. Excellent. About $55.
JAD Imports, Manhasset, N.Y.
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Schramsberg Crémant Demi-Sec 2010, North Coast. 13.5% alc. 88% flora grapes, 11% chardonnay, 1% pinot noir. 96% Napa County, 2.5% Mendocino, 1.5% Sonoma, 1% Marin. The flora grape is a cross of semillon and gewurztraminer developed of UC-Davis. Very pale gold hue; a gentle tug of finely-wrought bubbles; lemon balm, spiced pear and a touch of peach; jasmine and camellia; not so much sweet as ripe, soft and cloud-like; the floral and slightly nutty elements burgeon as the limestone character digs deeper, creating attractive tension even as the wine feels integrated and harmonious. Drink with the most simple desserts, nothing flamboyant; a sugar cookie or biscotti, a fruit tart, light cakes. Excellent. About $39.
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When I first tasted the Oak Knoll Winery Pinot Noir 2011, assembled from six vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, my reaction was, “Well, O.K., that’s nice.” As I continued to sniff and sip the wine, however, my assessment changed to “Hmmm, that’s really good” and finally to “Excellent. Well-done.” The point is, give this pinot a little time, say 25 to 30 minutes, to develop in the glass. The color is a lovely transparent medium ruby-garnet; aromas of spiced tea, rose-hips and loam are blended with notes of macerated raspberries and currants, tobacco, briers and mushrooms. A few moments bring in hints of cloves, lavender and sassafras, and the wine, both in nose and mouth, becomes a little fleshy and meaty, picking up some slightly dusty tannins and graphite elements. The wine also develops more firmness, offering a tantalizing texture that’s part dense, part ephemeral, all enlivened by spanking fresh acidity. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Reticent, spare, elegant. Oak Knoll was founded in 1970 by Ron and Marjorie Vuylsteke; it is operated now by their sons, Tom and John. Excellent. About $18, marking Good Value.

A sample for review. This post is the 9th on BTYH for 2015.

I have been writing about the pinot noir wines of Black Kite Cellars since their releases of 2007, and many of them in subsequent vintages showed up on my annual list of “50 Great Wines” of whatever year. The examples under review today are from 2011 and 2012. Black Kite Cellars traces its origins to 1995, when Donald and Maureen Green bought a 40-acre parcel by the Navarro River just west of Philo in Mendocino County, in a cool area eight miles from the coast. They replanted an old vineyard with pinot noir vines and developed two more blocks on a hill above the river. The first crop was harvested in 2003, and the decision to retain a portion of the grapes to make their own wine brought the concept of Black Kite Cellars, named for a bird indigenous to the region, to fruition. Jeff Gaffner became winemaker in 2004; the first wines he worked on comprised the 2005 bottlings of distinct blocks within the estate. He is also well-known as owner and winemaker of Saxon Brown Wines. Alas, among these five Black Kite pinot noirs is the only product from this usually exemplary winery that I cannot recommend.

These wines were samples for review. This post is the eighth on BTYH of 2015.
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Black Kite Redwoods’ Edge Pinot Noir 2011, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. The color is a vivid medium red cherry hue; aromas of spiced and macerated red and black cherries and a touch of plum are permeated by notes of sassafras and pomander and a hint of allspice, with its inflection of slightly exotic astringency; a few moments in the glass bring up elements of cranberry and candied rhubarb, all subtle and well-balanced. The texture seems to drape with supreme satiny effect on the palate, while a fairly dense and almost chewy structure features slightly dusty tannins and freshening acidity. 13.8 percent alcohol. Production was 149 cases. Oak regimen was 11 months, all French oak, 2/3s new barrels. Now through 2017 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
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Black Kite Stony Terrace Pinot Noir 2011, Anderson Valley. The color, medium-range and almost transparent, is a shade more mulberry-magenta than ruby-cherry; this is notably spicier than the Redwood’s Edge, segueing through a panoply of cloves and cinnamon and sandalwood but also displaying depths of loam and graphite, briers and brambles, all in support of rich black and red currants and cherries. In the mouth, this is more austere than Redwood’s Edge, a little mossy and earthy, with touches of leather and lavender and undertones of bitter chocolate and raspy raspberry. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 203 cases. 11 months in French oak, 2/3s new barrels. I like its spareness and sense of elusiveness. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $ .
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Black Kite River Turn Pinot Noir 2011, Anderson Valley. A perfect ruby-magenta hue with a slightly lighter rim; this runs through the whole cherry gamut, spiced and macerated, a bit roasted, some of the hint of bitterness and austerity of the skin and seed; cloves, sassafras and pomegranate lead to notes of cranberry and — interestingly — blueberry. This is lively, lithe and supple, almost muscular in texture, and you feel the oak a bit more than with the previously mentioned pinot noirs. Not that it’s unbalanced, just that the wood influence announces itself more prominently, surrounding and slightly muting the other elements. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 148 cases. 11 months French oak, 2/3s new barrels. Now through 2018 to 2020. Very Good+. About $ .
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Black Kite Stony Terrace Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley. The color is bright ruby-magenta; notes of cranberry, pomegranate, cloves, violets and rose petals elide with ripe red and black currants with hints of mulberry, graphite, briers and brambles. Here is a great marriage of power and elegance, with pinpoint poise between spareness and succulence, between black and red fruit flavors and foresty, leathery tannins, between vibrant acidity and a faintly brooding animal aspect. Very attractive, wild, intriguing and compelling. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 200 cases. A beautiful pinot noir. 11 months French oak, 2/3s new barrels. Now through 2018 to 2021. Excellent. About $60.
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Black Kite Soberanes Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Uncharacteristically dark ruby-purple color; very ripe, quite spicy, almost jammy; where’s the pinot noir in this? Unbalanced; smells and tastes like zinfandel. A pinot noir done in by its alcoholic sweetness and heat. A disappointment. 15.2 percent alcohol. 348 cases. Not recommended. About $55.
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Unbate your breath, My Readers, today I present the annual “50 Great Wines” entry, this edition for 2014. I posted to BiggerThanYourHead 135 times in 2014 and reviewed 582 wines. These 50 Great Wines represent 8.6 percent of the wines I reviewed last year. How do I choose the 50 wines for this honor? First, any wine that I rated Exceptional automatically gets a berth in the roster. After that, the selection process involves going back over every post, looking at the reviews of the wines that received an Excellent rating, reading the notes again and looking for the words or phrases signifying that I felt a wine was exciting, provocative, intriguing, highly individual. You can be sure that this list probably isn’t definitive; how could such a selection of wines be? I cut from the field many wines that could easily have been included, but the limit is 50 and they had to be sacrificed. Even as I clicked on the “Publish” button on WordPress I thought, “Oh no, how could I leave out ……?”

Going through these wines, many of My Readers may cry “Foul!” because some of them were produced in severely limited quantities, but that’s often the case with great wines. Think of the situation as a challenge wherein you face a sort of scavenger hunt in tracking such wines down. Some of these wines were made by well-known winemakers for prominent wineries or estates; others are far more obscure, but I enjoy bringing attention to young, small, family-owned and -operated properties that otherwise might not receive the exposure they deserve. The usual suspect grapes are included, of course — chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir — but you will also find on this list proponents of trousseau gris and grenache gris, carignane and cinsault, crafted by brave pioneers of the unusual, even rare grapes. With one exception — the Dolce 2005 — these products are the current releases from their wineries, or close to it. I think all of them were samples for review or were tasted at the property. I hope this list of 50 Great Wines inspires you to look for the ones that capture your interest and to try wines you never encountered before. Prices, by the way, range from about $22 to $120. Coming in a few days will be my annual list of 25 Great Bargain Wines $20 and Under.
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Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Sonoma Valley. With 7 percent petit verdot. 1,475 cases. Exceptional. About $70.
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Anakota Helena Montana Vineyard Elevation 950 Feet Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Knights Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $75.
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Animo Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. With 17 percent petit verdot. From Michael Mondavi. Excellent. About $85.
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d’Arenberg The Other Side Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. 14% alc. 96-year-old vines. 200 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $85.
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d’Arenberg Tyche’s Mustard Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. 14% alc. 200 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $85.
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Battenfeld Spanier Mölsheim Riesling 2012, Rheinhessen, Germany. Exceptional. About $23.
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Blair Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. 481 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc 2013, Arroyo Seco, Monterey County. 55% roussanne, 26% grenache blanc, 19% picpoul. 1,965 cases. Exceptional. About $28.
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Bonny Doon Cuvée R Grenache 2012, Monterey County. 593 cases. Excellent. About $48.
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Cade Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $28.
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Catena Zapata White Bones Chardonnay 2010, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $120.
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Cenyth 2009, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. 47% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, 8% petit verdot, 7% malbec. The debut release from this collaboration between Julia Jackson, daughter of the late Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke, and Helene Seillan, daughter of Pierre Seillan, winemaker of Verité. Exceptional. About $60.
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Chêne Bleu Aliot 2010, Vin de Pays du Vaucluse, France. 65 percent roussanne, 30 percent grenache blanc, 5 percent marsanne and some smidgeon of viognier. Exceptional. About $85.
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Clos Saron Out of the Blue, 2013, Sierra Foothills. 90 percent cinsault, 5 percent syrah, 5 percent graciano. (The cinsault vines planted in 1885.) 170 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. 14.7% alc. With 10% merlot. 470 cases. Exceptional. About $80.
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Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Napa Valley. 361 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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Dolce 2005, Napa Valley. 90 percent semillon, 10 percent sauvignon blanc. A majestic dessert wine. Exceptional. About $85 for a half-bottle.
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Elena Walch Kastelaz Gewürztraminer 2012, Alto Adige, Italy. Exceptional. About $32.
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The Eyrie Vineyards Original Vines Reserve Pinot Gris 2012, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 261 cases. Exceptional. About $33.
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FEL Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $38.
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Fields Family Wines Old Vine Zinfandel 2011, Mokelumne River, Lodi. 200 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Gallegos Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 250 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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Grgich Hills Estate Fume Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
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Idlewild Grenache Gris 2013, Mendocino County. 230 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Inama Vigneto du Lot 2011, Soave Classico, Italy. Excellent. About $30.
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Inman Family “Endless Crush” Rosé of Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $25.
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Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Dallas County, Texas. Excellent. About $40.
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J. Christopher Wines Lumière Pinot Noir 2011, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 756 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Diamond Mountain District, Napa Valley. With nine percent malbec. Exceptional. About $90.
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Tenutae Lageder Porer Pinot Grigio 2012, Sudtirol, Alto adige, Italy. Excellent. About $25.
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McCay Cellars Carignane 2011, Lodi, 218 cases. Excellent. About $32.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2010, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. This proprietary wine is a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 18 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot and 4 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $100.
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Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. With 3 percent petit verdot, 1 percent each malbec and cabernet franc. Excellent. About $100.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.4% alc. 230 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 588 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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La Pitchoune Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 279 cases. Exceptional. About $60.
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Pittnauer Rosenberg St. Laurent 2010, Burgenland, Austria. Excellent. About $27.
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Quinta do Vallado 20 Years Old Tawny Porto. 83 cases. Exceptional. About $80 for a 500-milliliter bottle..
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Respite Reichel Vineyard Indulgence 2010, Alexander valley, Sonoma County. A proprietary blend of 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent malbec and 13 percent cabernet franc. 77 cases. Exceptional. About $75.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2010. Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 429 six-pack cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 1,302 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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Steven Kent Winery Merrellie Chardonnay 2012, Livermore Valley. 504 cases. Excellent. About $34.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Origin Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Valley. 266 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma Coast. 170 cases. Exceptional. About $65.
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Tin Barn Coryelle Fields Syrah 2009, Sonoma Coast. 123 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Two Shepherds Trousseau Gris 2012, Fanucchi Vineyard, Russian River Valley. 25 cases. Exceptional. About $25.
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VML Blanc de Noirs 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $50.
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Volta Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $60.
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Wakefield St. Andrews Single Vineyard Release Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Clare Valley, Australia. 250 cases imported. Excellent. About $60.
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Weltner Rödelseer Küchenmeister Trocken Sylvaner 2012, Franken, Germany. Excellent. About $27.
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