Russian River Valley


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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Audrey and Berry Sterling bought the 300-acre property in Russian River Valley that became Iron Horse Vineyards in 1976. The estate was named after a railroad stop that was sited on the property in the 1890s. Rodney Strong rediscovered it as a vineyard site in 1970, planting the original 55 acres of chardonnay and 55 acres of pinot noir. Joy Sterling, Audrey and Barry Sterling’s daughter — image at right — became CEO of the company in 2006, after 20 years of representing the family’s wines. Winemaker is David Munksgard. While Iron Horse produces still wines, it is best-known for its diverse roster of sparkling wines made in the champagne method. I reviewed two of those sparklers in the 2010/2011 edition of this series — the Brut Rosé and the Blanc de Blancs from 2005 — but recently tasted a pair of the winery’s limited edition efforts.

These wines were samples for review, as I am required to inform My Readers by ruling of the Federal Trade Commission. This is the third post to this blog of 2015.
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The Iron Horse Winter’s Cuvée 2010, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, is a blend of 74 percent pinot noir and 26 percent chardonnay. An interesting aspect is that the final dosage includes a touch of Audrey Sterling’s Pinot Noir Brandy from 1987. The color is very pale straw-gold; a terrific storm of tiny glancing bubbles fills the glass. This sparkling wine opens with winsome though slightly chilly elements of acacia and jasmine, apple and pear and bare hints of guava, ginger and quince; there’s an intriguing, almost otherworldly note of pine and juniper. It’s indeed a wintry sparkling wine, deeply etched with bright acidity, glacial in its chiseled limestone minerality and displaying tremendous resonance and vibrancy. All these aspects are deftly balanced and integrated into an eminently attractive, yet delicately demanding, package. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 250 cases, available to the winery’s club members and through the tasting room, including online. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $58.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The point of the Iron Horse Brut “X” 2010, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, is that it receives no dosage, so it’s presumably bone-dry. Of course sparkling wines and Champagnes typically exhibit such roaring acidity that even with some residual sugar they feel dry anyway. So, what do we expect from this blend of 69 percent pinot noir and 31 percent chardonnay? First, the color is very pale gold, a kind of platinum blond; as with its stablemate mentioned above, the bubbles surge in an upward torrent to the surface. This is very clean, crisp and lithe, quite elegant and fine-boned; a kind of lemony-gingery haze wraps a smoky, steely core, decorated with nuances of almond skin, lime peel, spiced pear and grapefruit rind. Almost needless to say, this is a sparkling wine of tensile power, scintillating limestone and flint minerality and exhilarating drive. It’s the quaff you knock back before tossing your glass off the snowy peak. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 500 cases. Drink through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $50.
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The Sixth Day of Christmas is always scary because it marks the halfway point in the sequence of 12 days and reminds me that I have so many Champagnes and sparkling wines to write about and so little time in which to accomplish my goal. So, here goes.

The VML of VML Wines is Virginia Marie Lambrix, who operates not only her own winery in the Russian River Valley, focusing on chardonnay and pinot noir but since 2012 has been director of winemaking for Truett-Hurst Winery in Dry Creek Valley. Lambrix has a scientific background not usually seen in the California wine industry; before returning to school at UC-Davis and earning a master’s degree, she worked for the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany. Her previous winemaking experience came at Hendry Ranch, Concha y Toro S.A., Lynman Winery and De Loach Vineyards. This sparkling wine is the only product I have tasted from VML Wines, and it’s a humdinger.

The VML Blanc de Noir 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, is a blend of 74 percent pinot noir and 26 percent chardonnay; it’s a collaboration, according to the winery website, with Iron Horse Vineyards, a well-known producer of sparkling wine. The glowing, jewel-like color is very pale onion skin; you could not ask for a more exhilarating or invigorating spiral of tiny glinting bubbles. Subtle scents of dried strawberries and red currants are wreathed with notes of orange rind, tangerine, rose petal and spiced pear, all arrayed against a backdrop of flint and limestone. Boy, this sparkler offers tremendous tone and luster, with lots of verve propelled by pinpoint acidity and a texture both lithe and lively yet attractively lacy and cloud-like; rather Alpine in effect, the finish is packed with glacial minerality and fractal elegance. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $50.

This wine is one of those samples that arrives unheralded and accompanied by no information, and the winery website is pretty reticent too, so I have no idea how many cases were produced and how wide the distribution is; I’m guessing not many and not widespread. Mark this, then, Worth a Search via Internet or telephone. You won’t be sorry.

I love the sauvignon blanc grape, and given my druthers I would chose sauvignon blanc wines over chardonnay any day of the week. Oh, sure, you can get bland sauvignon blancs but usually not over-oaked, buttery, super-ripe fruit-bombs, as can happen with chardonnay. Today I present brief reviews of 15 sauvignon blanc wines, mainly from different regions of California, but also two from Sancerre, in France’s Loire Valley, one from New Zealand and a surprisingly delightful example from the state of Virginia. With the exception of the Sancerre wines, these were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Amici Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. 50% sauvignon blanc/50% sauvignon musque. 10% barrel-fermented in French oak and malolactic. Pale gold; quite fresh and clean; lemon and tangerine, hint of mango and lemongrass; hint of honeysuckle; moderately lush but crisply balanced; river-rock minerality; lime peel and flint finish. Quite attractive. Very Good+. About $25.
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Terroir Coquerel Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Calistoga, Napa Valley. 12.5% alc. Seven months in French oak, 10% new barrels. Very pale gold color; grapefruit, tangerine, lime peel, hint of peach, notes of lilac, lavender and fennel; a few moments in the glass bring up touches of roasted lemon and celery seed; a little leafy and herbal; taut, crisp, vibrant, loads of personality and presence; tensile slightly dusty grapefruit-limestone finish. Just terrific. Excellent. About $32.
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Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. 853 cases. Five months in mature French oak barrels. Pale gold hue; lemongrass, green olive, lime peel, smoked grapefruit: a sauvignon blanc for grown-ups; very dry, crisp, packed with limestone and flint elements and enlivened by crystalline acidity; almost talc-like texture but lithe and lean; roasted lemon, preserved lemon rind, spiced pear; chalk and flint finish. Drink through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $30.
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Davis Bynum Virginia’s Block-Jane’s Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 13.5% alc. Four months 74% old French oak barrels, 26% stainless steel. Pale gold; almost glistens with liveliness and crispness; pineapple, grapefruit, cloves and thyme; wholly clean and fresh but a touch exotic with lavender, lilac and roasted fennel; sunny and leafy, hints of figs and hay; scintillating limestone and grapefruit finish, brings up some earthiness. Drink through 2016. Excellent. About $25.
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Dry Creek Vineyard Fume Blanc 2013, Sonoma County. 13.5% alc. Pale gold color; lemon, lime and grapefruit, hints of figs and yellow plums; leafy, slightly grassy, a bit saline; very dry, crisp and lively with bright acidity and limestone minerality; nothing complicated but tasty and delightful. Very Good+. About $14, an Unbeatable Bargain.
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Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. Pale gold; grapefruit and lime peel, spiced pear, jasmine and lilac; pert, tart and sassy; lots of limestone and flint minerality; nicely balanced and integrated. Standard style but tasty. Very Good. About $18.
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Galerie Equitem Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Knights Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. 55% neutral French oak, 45 percent stainless steel. Pale gold color; lemongrass, celery seed, smoke, hint of cumin; lemon drop and lime peel, hints of jasmine and lilac; lovely almost powdery texture riven by bright acidity; quite vibrant and resonant; limestone-packed finish. Drink through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $30.
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Galerie Naissance Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. 51% neutral French oak, 49% stainless steel. Pale gold; delicate peach, pear and tangerine aromas, notes of lemongrass, grapefruit and honeysuckle; back note of guava; clean, bright acidity, lovely taut, lithe texture, vivid citrus and stone fruit flavors slightly subdued by limestone minerality. Through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. about $30.
Image from vivino.com.
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Niner Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. 14.4% alc. 90% sauvignon blanc, 5% semillon, 5% sauvignon musque. Certified sustainable. Very pale straw color; honeysuckle and acacia, roasted lemon and spiced pear, touch of fig and fennel; very dry, earthy, almost loamy for a sauvignon blanc; dense, vibrant, resonant; unusually intense style. Very Good+. About $22.
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Paul Dolan Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Potter Valley, Mendocino County. 14% alc. (Organic) Pale gold; subtle, supple, mildly grassy and herbal — think hay and thyme — roasted lemon and grapefruit, hints of lime peel and spiced pear; very dry, with brisk acidity and a chalk/limestone finish; lovely presence and texture. Very Good+. About $18, representing Good Value.
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Pierre Cherrier et Fils Domaine de la Rossignole Cuvee Vieilles Vignes 2012, Sancerre, Loire Valley. 13% alc. Pale gold; quince and ginger, jasmine and lemon balm, grapefruit and lime peel, hints of smoke and limestone; very dry, dense and almost malleable, packed with chalk, flint and damp limestone; a few minutes in the glass bring up notes of yellow plums and (faintly) sage and camellias; lovely complexity and dimension. Excellent. About $25.
Imported by The Country Vintners, Ashland, Va.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. 588 cases. Pale gold; lemongrass and lime peel, roasted lemon; almond blossom and lemon balm; ginger and quince, yellow plum; piercing acidity and penetrating limestone minerality; exquisite balance between a soft, petal-like texture and dynamic leanness and litheness; finishes with grapefruit, pear skin and bitter almond; tremendous personality and presence. Drink through 2016 to ’18. Exceptional. About $30.
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Jean Reverdy et Fils La Reine Blanche 2013, Sancerre, Loire Valley. 13% alc. Very pale gold color; lime peel and roasted lemon with high notes of ginger and quince and a tinge of grapefruit; very dry, taut, vibrant, teems with chalk and limestone minerality; brings in hints of lilac and spiced pear; great balance and tone through the slightly austere mineral-packed finish. Through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $25.
Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.
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Stinson Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Virginia. 12% alc. 150 cases. Pale gold; very delicate, subtle, delightfully wreathed with jasmine, peach, green grass and gooseberry; hedge and heather; back notes of cloves and crystallized ginger; quite dry, taut, bright and clean yet with an attractive element of moderate lushness and a spicy finish. Loveliness. Excellent. About $23.
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Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Marlborough, New Zealand. 13% alc. Very pale gold hue; typical NZ with its lime peel, celery seed, bell pepper, gooseberry and grapefruit snappiness but quite clean and well-balanced, nothing exaggerated; crisp, lively scintillating, a touch leafy and figgy; bright zippy finish. Irresistible personality. Excellent. About $18, a Great Bargain.
Imported by Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Ill.
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The pinot noirs of Kosta Browne Winery regularly earn the highest ratings from reviewers for the big publications, an occurrence that brings a great deal of attention to these highly allocated wines. In fact, the winery’s waiting list comes with a two- to three-year wait for the “Appellation” wines and — I’m not kidding — a five- to six-year wait for the Single Vineyard wines, of which there may be up to 10 separate bottlings depending on the vintage. The idea for the winery was born in 1997 when Dan Kosta and Michael Browne, then working at a restaurant in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, decided to venture into winemaking. They began with a half-ton of pinot noir grapes, a used barrel and a surplus stemmer-crusher. In 2001, Kosta and Browne brought in Chris Costello, from a family involved in commercial real estate and development, as the business end of the enterprise; through the Costello family, the partnership gained contacts, contracts and management acumen. Browne is executive winemaker, with assistant winemakers Jeremiah Timm and Nico Cueva. Kosta Browne draws on vineyards in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs in Sonoma County and Santa Lucia Highlands AVA in Monterey County. There is no tasting room, and the winery in Sebastopol is closed to the public.

Under consideration today are two of Kosta Browne’s Appellation wines, the One Sixteen Chardonnay 2012 and the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2012, in this series dedicated to the examination of chardonnay and pinot noir wines from the same producer. These wines were samples for review.
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The Kosta Browne One Sixteen Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley, is a blend of grapes derived from seven vineyards that total 12 different chardonnay clones, the notion being a sort of ideal balance of all the attributes those clones contribute to the wine. It’s named for the Gravenstein Hwy. 116 that cuts through the town of Sebastopol in the Russian River Valley sub-appellation of Green Valley. This AVA is the coolest and foggiest vineyard area of Russian River Valley, situated in the southwest corner where the Pacific Ocean influence is readily apparent. When I tell My Readers that this chardonnay went through barrel-fermentation and aged 15 months in oak, they will respond, “Uh-oh, FK is not going to like this chardonnay.” I’ll admit, though, that I was surprised at how much I liked this wine, and while I don’t normally find words of praise for what I think of as the Bold California Style of Chardonnay, this example was little short of thrilling.

Kosta Browne One Sixteen Chardonnay 2012 was indeed barrel fermented, 93 percent, the other 7 percent being in concrete. The wine did age 15 months, but only in 41 percent new oak. The color is medium gold, and the aromas define this chardonnay as bold, bright and rich, with ripe, slightly caramelized pineapple, grapefruit and mango highlighted by notes of cloves, vanilla, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and — faintly — lime peel and flint. The wine is supple and boisterously fruity and spicy on the palate, with hints of creme brulee, roasted lemon and baked pear. This sensuous panoply is both abetted and balanced by clean, vibrant acidity and a scintillating limestone element. My favorite style of chardonnay? No, but certainly a model of the type that I found surprisingly poised, energetic and delicious. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $58.
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The Kosta Browne Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast, derives from three vineyards in the south of the Sonoma Coast AVA, lying straight in the path of the Petaluma Wind Gap that allows a distinct maritime influence, and one vineyard in the northwestern coastal area of the AVA. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 46 percent new barrels. The color is medium ruby with an almost transparent rim; the amazingly complex and layered nose offers a seamless amalgam of cloves and menthol, violets and rose hips, with hints of loam, briers and iodine bolstering macerated black and red cherries and currants with a touch of cranberry. On the palate? Imagine supernal satin infused with velvet through which vivid acidity cuts a swath and earthy graphite minerality stakes a supporting claim; the influence of oak and tannin, both feeling slightly sanded and dusty, gradually seeps in, providing firm foundation for spicy black and red fruit flavors that seem ripe and juicy yet spare, elegant, a bit exotic. I re-corked the wine and tried it eight hours later, at which time it had closed down a bit, becoming more reticent, quite dry, with emphasis on structure. Even the next day, now open for more than 24 hours, this pinot noir kept its integrity and balance. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $64.
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I wrote about Kathleen’s Inman’s wines produced under the Inman Family Wines label last year in October; check out that post for information about the history of the winery and Inman’s philosophy. Suffice to say that in this second entry in my “Pinot and Chardonnay” series, I offer a pair of wines that strike, to my palate, the perfect notes of balance and integration, purity and intensity, power and elegance. These wines were samples for review.
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The Inman Family Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley, is not made from estate vines but from grapes purchased from the Pratt-Irwin Lane Vineyard. Native yeast was employed. The wine matures 40 percent in new French oak and 60 percent in small stainless steel barrels, both portions going through malolactic fermentation. The color is pale gold; aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit are highlighted by notes of quince and ginger, jasmine and acacia, limestone and flint. The whole package is characterized by perfect tone and balance, with its spare and elegant qualities poised against scintillating limestone minerality and bright acidity. The kind of chardonnay that makes me happy to drink chardonnay. 11.6 percent alcohol; you read that correctly. Drink now through 2016. Production was 493 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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Allow me to say right here that 21 months in oak seems like doom to pinot noir to me, but the Inman Family OGV Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River Valley, displays, as I said about its stablemate mentioned above, perfect tone and balance of all elements, while retaining, as Kathleen Inman’s pinot noirs tend to do, something wild and exotic. The color is dark to medium ruby-magenta; beguiling and ineffable scents of cranberry, pomegranate and rhubarb are permeated by heartier, earthier notes of briers, brambles and loam, while after a few moments in the glass a whiff of intense black cherry and cloves comes out. On the palate, the wine is warm and spicy, with a wonderfully satiny drape to the texture that’s bolstered by straight-arrow acidity, a hint of graphite minerality and moderate yet certainly present tannins. Another minute or two of swirling and sipping produces touches of rose petals, lilac and sandalwood. Criminy, what a beautiful pinot noir! 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 517 cases. Drink through 2017 to ’19 with roasted chicken, veal or seared duck. Excellent. About $68.
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Need I say more? Half-a-dozen very attractive, lively, spicy and savory — some more spicy than savory, some more savory than spicy — white wines designed to quench the thirst, caress and engage the palate, and accompany all sorts of the imaginative cuisine you’re so good at creating — or, you know, a package of fish sticks from the freezer (the only form of seafood we ate when I was a child). Anyway, quick reviews here, meant to tease your interest and whet your taste-buds. All were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Villa Robles Huerhuero Albarino 2013, Paso Robles. 14.5% alc. Very pale gold hue; jasmine and clover, roasted lemons and lemon balm,
cloves and ginger; very dry and crisp with zingy acidity but delivering a pleasing almost talc-like texture; tangerine with a note of peach and pine; juicy, saline, savory, mouth-watering. Now through 2015. Very Good+. About $18, online and tasting-room only.
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Rocca Sveva Castelerino 2012, Soave Superiore Classico, Italy. 13% alc. Very pale gold color; quite fresh and clean; pineapple, mango, lemongrass, almond blossom, lime peel, but with a spareness and savory quality married to slight astringency; lively, spicy, slightly dusty limestone effect. Now through 2015 to ’16. Very Good+. About $20.
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Jean Ginglinger Cuvee George Pinot Blanc 2011, Alsace, France. 12.5% alc. Bright medium gold color; crisp, clean, lean, blade-like but filled with notes of lychee and slightly over-ripe peaches and tangerines and hints of lime peel and little white flowers; chiseled, incisive limestone minerality and scintillating acidity; brings in touches of cloves, flint and loam on the finish. Quite a performance. Now through 2017 to ’18. Excellent. About $17, representing Great Value.
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MacMurray Estate Vineyards Pinot Gris 2013, Russian River Valley. 14.4% alc. This Gallo label was formerly known as MacMurray Ranch. Pale gold hue; citrus and stone-fruit, spare and lean; cloves, quince and ginger; dry but juicy with a very attractive mouth-feel; bright acidity and limestone/flint minerality; a dry, spicy, slightly austere finish; fine-grained complexity on the palate. Now through 2016. Excellent. About $20.
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Cadaretta SBS 2012, Columbia Valley, Washington. 70% sauvignon blanc, 30% semillon. Very pale gold hue; melon and lime peel, lemongrass and fig, slightly grassy and hay-like, herbal in the thyme sense, musky and dusky; tantalizing hints of lavender and lilac; crisp and lively but silky smooth texture; savory, mouth-filling but limpid with crystalline purity and intensity and a limestone finish. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $23.
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Mar de Frades Albarino 2012, Rias Baixas, Spain. 12.5% alc. You can’t miss the cobalt-blue bottle. Pale straw-gold color; decisively saline and savory, thrilling vitality; roasted lemon and spiced pear; intensely floral with notes of jasmine, almond blossom and some wild fragrance; very dry, with a citrus tang, clean acidity and heaps of vivid limestone minerality. Now through 2015. Excellent. About $25.
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A raft of chardonnays here from the Golden State, ranging geographically from Santa Barbara County in the south to Sonoma Coast in the north. They’re mainly from 2011 and 2012, with one from 2013. I offer a $10 product so good that you should buy it by the case, which I don’t often say about chardonnay, and reject some models that cost $65 and $70. I mean, as long as producers turn out chardonnays that embody the over-oaked, stridently spicy, tropical-tinged and butter-infused crème brûlée-like style — and the major wine publications continue to pass out high ratings for such wine — I will continue not to recommend them as unpalatable and undrinkable. Little in the way of historical, geographical or technical data today; these Weekend Wine Notes are intended to be quick and incisive, not as detailed as my regular reviews. Enjoy! (Or not.)

These wines were samples for review.

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Clos du Val Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; vibrant and vivid purity and intensity, scintillating acidity and limestone-flint minerality; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hints of mango and cloves; sleek, lithe, dynamic, beautifully balanced; nothing avant-garde or opulent here, just classic winemaking. Excellent. About $28.
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CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast. 14.1% alc. Pale gold hue; bright, clean and fresh; pineapple-grapefruit-roasted lemon, hints of nutmeg, lemon balm and lemon curd; dense and chewy, packed with spice and seashell-limestone minerality; slightly astringent floral element; quite dry, very attractive weight and substance; earthy finish where the oak comes out a bit more. Very Good+. About $25.
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Dunston Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 13.3% alc. Limited production. Ravishing medium gold hue with a green tinge; pine, cloves, grapefruit and pineapple with notes of mango, roasted lemon and some leafy/green tea element; fascinating in its complexity and risk-taking but ultimately exquisitely balanced, though you feel the tug of polished oak on the finish after an hour or so. Limited production. Excellent. About $45.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium gold color; very bright and bold, even brassy; very spicy with roasted grapefruit and baked peach, slightly caramelized; way too much oak, too much butter and tropical elements; stridently spicy, over-ripe and then austerely dry; fundamentally unbalanced. Not recommended. About $35.
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Gundlach Bundschu Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.3% alc. Pale gold color; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hint of mango; Chablis-like chalk and flint; smoke and earth, dense and chewy and pretty darned intense and concentrated; a substantial style. Very Good+. About $27.
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Isabel Mondavi Chardonnay 2012, Carneros. 13.7% alc. Medium straw-gold color; smoke, toast, oak; roasted lemon and baked pear; fairly spicy with buttered and caramelized citrus fruit; quite dry, sleek, good acidity and limestone minerality, but doesn’t know what style it wishes to emulate. Very Good. About $30.
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Jackson Estate “Camelot Highlands” Chardonnay 2012, Santa Maria Valley. 14.5% alc. This chardonnay falls under the Kendall-Jackson rubric rather than Jackson Family Wines; does either entity really need more brands? Medium gold; vividly spicy, boldly ripe and tropical; smoke, toast, brown sugar; dense and chewy, almost viscous, carries opulence to ridiculous lengths; toasted coconut and marshmallow; crème brûlée; doesn’t even come close to palatable in my world. Not recommended. About $35.
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Jordan Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 13.5% alc. Pale gold color; a typical Jordan chardonnay, nothing bold or sumptuous, thank goodness, but well-balanced with keen acidity and an edge of vital limestone minerality to bolster pineapple-grapefruit flavors highlighted by notes of cloves and lilacs; very dry, clean, spare, elegant; oak is an echo rather than a presence. Excellent. About $30.
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Laetitia Estate Chardonnay 2012, Arroyo Grande Valley. 13.8% alc. I generally like Laetitia’s pinot noirs, but this chardonnay is beyond the pale. So: pale gold color; starts off clean and fresh, with pineapple-grapefruit and notes of roasted lemon and mango; then expands with extravagant richness and exaggerated spice, smoke and crème brûlée gone to the dark side; where are the mitigating acidity and minerality? Not recommended. About $18.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Morelli Lane Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 182 six-pack cases. Steven Kent can make clean, balanced and finely detailed chardonnay (see below), but under his La Rochelle label he turns more baroque and fantastical; this wine is so oaky and over-spiced that it felt harsh on my palate. It gets no recommendation from me. About $65.
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Mandolin Chardonnay 2012, Monterey. 13.5% alc. Clasp this well-made inexpensive chardonnay to your bosom as if it were a long-lost friend. Pale gold color; pineapple-mango-grapefruit, hints of jasmine, crystallized ginger and quince; a tad dusty-earthy; deft balance among acidity, spicy oak and spare limestone minerality; notes of citrus on the finish. Very Good+. About $10 and a Remarkable Bargain.
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Newton Chardonnay 2012, Napa County. 14% alc. Medium gold hue; warm and spicy, bright and bold, but nicely balanced and shapely, with a sheen of oak; ripe pineapple and grapefruit with a note of green apple; brisk acidity and a scintillating limestone finish. Quite attractive. Very Good+. About $28.
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Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. This cousin to the wine mentioned just above is both more ambitious and unfortunately far less balanced; medium gold color; bright, ripe, brassy citrus and stone-fruit scents and flavors; cloves, caramel, brown sugar; very tropical, buttered toast, meringue; yet strangely very dry and austere on the finish. Unpleasant and unpalatable. Not recommended. About $65.
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Olema Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. (Second label of Amici Cellars) Pale gold color; crisp, taut, fresh; apples, grapefruit and pineapple; spicy and lively, a little lean and sinewy but generous and expansive too; quite pleasant and tasty. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
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Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Uh-oh. Medium gold color; forthright and boldly spicy, forthright and deeply oaky. I couldn’t drink it. Not recommended. About $47.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Pale gold; ineffable weaving of grapefruit and pineapple, Golden Delicious apple, cloves, ginger and quince; very dry but juicy and savory; lovely heft and texture, lithe and supple, almost talc-like but riven and balanced by bright acidity. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; so clean and pure, such crystalline intensity, yet spare, elegant and subtle but with a core of natural richness; roasted lemon and lemon balm; notes of pineapple and nectarine; very dry, packed with limestone and flint minerality, but quite delicious, seductive, compelling. Why can’t all chardonnays be like this? Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Reuling Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14% alc. 350 cases. Major disappointment. Very pale gold; brightly spicy, boldly scented; nutmeg and cloves, pineapple and grapefruit caramelized in butter; cinnamon toast; too creamy on the one hand, too sharply spicy on the other, essentially unbalanced, paradoxically both cloying and austere. Not recommended. About $70.
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Steven Kent Winery Merrillie Chardonnay 2012, Livermore Valley. NA% alc. 504 cases. Pale gold color; spare, clean and fresh; lemon balm with notes of grapefruit rind, lemongrass and green tea; hints of nutmeg and cloves; heaps of limestone minerality buoying a lovely talc-like texture shot with shimmering acidity; let’s call it beautiful. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $34.
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Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium straw-gold color; a classic of balance and elegance; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors infused with cloves and limestone; lovely weight and heft, that is to say feels dense and weightless simultaneously; clean, bright acidity for liveliness; subtle, supple oak influence and limestone minerality. Excellent. About $28.
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Souverain Chardonnay 2011, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Pale straw-gold hue; smoke, cloves and nutmeg; pineapple and pears; very dry, very spicy but dense with a crème brûlée element with emphasis on the brûlée; astringent grapefruit finish; bright acidity barely saves the day. Good only. About $16.
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William Allen moved into commercial production in 2010, after years as a “garagiste” and writer. This doesn’t mean that he makes a lot of wine. Two Shepherds as a one-man operation, truly a labor of love, so the wines are made in minute quantities; sorry about that. These are Rhone-style wines that see no new oak, are foot-stomped, use natural yeasts and generally exhibit remarkable purity and intensity. I love them; there, I said it.

These wines were samples for review. The labels used for illustration below are one vintage behind.

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The Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc 2012, Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley, is a blend of four white grapes typical of the southern Rhone Valley: 50 percent roussanne, 35 percent marsanne, 10 viognier and 5 grenache blanc; the wine ages an average of six months in neutral French oak barrels. The color is pale gold; aromas of quince and ginger, peach and spiced pear open to notes of bee’s-wax and camellia, sea-shell and limestone. The wine is rich, focused, enveloped in a structure of moderate and very attractive weight and body, clean, bright and crisp yet almost talc-like in texture. Quite dry, it offers a smoky, earthy and autumnal essence of peaches, nectarines and yellow plums, cloves and allspice and a backwash of limestone-and-flint minerality and salinity. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with grilled or roasted salmon or tuna, grilled mussels, trout with lemon-caper butter or shrimp salad. Production was 105 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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This time not Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley but Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley, for the Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc 2012; at first I thought that was a misprint. Santa Ynez, approved as an AVA in 1983, is in southeast Santa Barbara County and bears within it the sub-appellation of Santa Rita Hills. This grenache blanc offers an aura of greenness, by which I do not mean green as in grapes picked before they’re ripe, but green as in leafy green, as in sea-green, as in greengage, as in green apple. The color is pale straw-gold; notes of jasmine and honeysuckle are spare and ethereal, wreathed with tangerine and grapefruit and backed by shell-like minerals and a sort of sea-breeze salinity. A moderately soft and satiny texture is energized by brisk acidity and scintillating limestone minerality, while the finish brings in hints of green tea, orange rind and cloves. Eighty percent of the wine aged seven months in neutral oak, the other 20 percent six months in stainless steel. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with Thai salads, trout quenelles, watercress and cucumber sandwiches (crusts trimmed, of course). Production was 125 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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William Allen made one barrel of the Two Shepherds Trousseau Gris 2012, Fanucchi Vineyard, Russian River Valley, amounting to 25 cases, so while it’s a brilliant wine, the chances of any of My Readers getting their hands on a bottle are about as remote as Beyonce singing La Boheme in Bethlehem. The grape is trousseau gris, not widely found even in its home of the Jura mountains where France nestles against Switzerland. Being “gris,” the grape’s faintly rosy onion skin or grayish color yields a radiant coral hue when the wine is fermented on the skins; in other words, it’s a “white” wine made as if it were a red wine. The seductive and unusual bouquet delivers hints of orange zest and strawberries, melon and lemon balm with intriguing notes of parsley and celery and a touch of flint. It’s quite dry but juicy with ripe peach, red currant and rhubarb flavors deepened by the slight astringency of peach skin and almond skin, smoke, briers and brambles, all wrapped in clean acidity and a note of graphite minerality. The whole package is characterized by remarkable presence, resonance, transparency and vividness. The wine aged eight months in neutral oak barrels, four months on the lees. 13.8 percent alcohol. We drank this versatile bottle over several nights with a variety of food. Now through 2016 or ’17. Exceptional. About $25.
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So, here’s the red wine of this foursome. The Two Shepherds Syrah/Mourvèdre 2011 is a cross-county blend of 55 percent syrah from Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, and 45 percent mourvèdre from El Dorado. It aged 10 months in neutral French oak, the barrels four years old or older, four of those months on the lees. The color is a pronounced dark ruby with a magenta robe; fresh aromas of ripe red and black currants and plums are intensified by cloves, graphite, a hint of new leather and depths of briery, clean mossy earthiness. The wine is fine-grained and supple, riven by incisive acidity, decisively dry, dense and chewy, almost feral in its purity and individuality; despite projecting a vibrant and somewhat unbridled red and black fruit character and texture, the wine feels light on its feet, with nothing ponderous or opulent. 13.8 percent alcohol. Product was 40 cases. Drink now through 2018 or ’20 with grilled leg of lamb, a hot and crusty medium rare rib-eye steak just plunked from the coals, a gamy veal chop. Excellent. About $38.
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Here’s a rosé to entice lovers of all things delicate and elegant. The J Vineyards Vin Gris 2013, Russian River Valley, is 100 percent pinot noir, made all in stainless steel and was bottled a scant three months ago. “Vin gris” means “gray wine” in French, though the color here isn’t so much gris as it is a very pale copper salmon hue, like pink parchment. Ethereal scents of strawberries, raspberries and red currants, slightly spiced and macerated, are wreathed with notes of orange rind and pomegranate, with a hint of limestone in the background; a few moments in the glass bring up a touch of lilac. Pert acidity keeps this rose crisp and lively, while the wine’s texture comes close to being lush; it’s the balance between those elements that lends a bit of animation and electricity on the palate. Flavors of red currants and watermelon are effortlessly buoyed by dusty, brambly flint-like qualities, all notions woven into an ephemeral silken finish. Alcohol content is 14.3 percent. Drink through the end of 2014 with all fare related to the porch, the patio, poolside or picnic. Closed with a screw-cap, so it doesn’t matter if you forgot the corkscrew, again. Winemaker was Melissa Stackhouse. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.

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