Russian River Valley



Here are quick notes on eight pinot noir wines from California, all eminently desirable, ranging in price from $22 to $70, and in rating from Very Good+ to Exceptional, two of the latter, so pinot fans pay attention. As is usual with these Weekend Wine Notes, I eschew technical, historical, geographical and personnel data for the sake of immediacy, the intention being to pique your interest and whet your appetite. Enjoy, and I hope everyone has a happy and safe Memorial Day Weekend.

These wines were samples for review.
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Cambria Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Maria Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby with a magenta tinge; deep, rich and spicy; thyme and caramelized fennel, black and red cherries, currants and cranberries with a hint of rhubarb; succulent and satiny, dense, quite dry but sweetly ripe; earth and loam, graphite underpinnings; flavorful and tasty. Now through 2016. Very Good+. About $22, representing Good Value.
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Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2011, Carneros. 14.3% alc. 479 cases. Medium ruby color with violet tones; lovely balance, dimension and detail; black cherry and cranberry, sassafras, cloves and rhubarb; deep and rooty, yet it retains ultimate delicacy and elegance; paradoxically dark, spicy and wild, hints of briers, loam and graphite; black and red fruit flavors that feel almost transparent and weightless, though the wine drapes like the finest, most sensuous satin on the tongue. Now through 2017 to ’18. Excellent. About $72.
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Isabel Mondavi Estate Pinot Noir 2011, Carneros. 14.4% alc. Dark ruby color with a magenta tinge; cranberry and rhubarb, hints of pomegranate, cola and cloves with back-notes of tar and loam; surprisingly burly and robust, very dry, texture like satin born of dusty velvet; burgeoning floral element: roses and violets; deeply plummy and curranty with a touch of raspy raspberry and mulberry. Absolutely lovely, with a bit of mystery and sexy hauteur. Now through 2016 to ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.4% alc. Entrancing “robe” — almost opaque ruby-purple at the center and lightening subtly to a violet-magenta rim; smoky black cherries and plums, pomegranate and cranberry, cloves and cola; a graphite and loamy element that cuts the dense, chewy satiny texture; plump with ripe black fruit, deeply spicy with a hint of mint and mocha but doesn’t push into opulence; instead, displays exquisite, slightly risky balance. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $55.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.4% alc. 230 cases. Dark ruby-magenta color; plums, raspberries and mulberries, hints of pomegranate and dusty graphite; cloves, sassafras; super sleek, supple and satiny, almost sultry; smoke, burning leaves, a touch of moss and brambles; some astringency and rigor to the structure, a lash of granite and acid at the core of deep spicy black and red fruit flavors. Tremendous tone and presence. Now through 2017 or ’18. Exceptional. About $45.
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Reata Three County Pinot Noir 2012, California. (48% Monterey County, 44% Sonoma County, 8% San Benito County). 14.3% alc. Dark ruby color; pomegranate, cranberry, blueberry with some graphite element under a sanding of woody spices; quite dry, dense, supple lip-smacking texture with vibrant acidity; you feel the glassy polished tannins and oak like a granitic bastion but the wine is deeply flavored, rich, exotic, with keen balance between the succulent and the rigorous. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $26.
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Reuling Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14% alc. 1,000 cases. Dark ruby-magenta color; black cherries, mulberries and cranberries with notes of cloves and allspice, dried fruit and potpourri with crushed violets and lilacs; pushes oak to the limits with a great deal of dry structure and asperity, but it is smooth, lithe and svelte and above all delicious; I like the risks with oak because the wine offers really lovely balance; it finishes with a seductive display of mocha, pomander and bitter chocolate. A serious pinot noir, packed with the gratifying and the unexpected. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $70.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2010. Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 429 six-pack cases. Fairly dark ruby-magenta hue; a wine of fantastic and deepening complexity; cloves, sandalwood, sassafras; spiced and macerated black cherries, currants and plums; briers and loam set into a superlatively satiny texture, yet thoroughly imbued with a sense of graphite and oak defined dimension and gravity; quite dry, almost austere, but resilient, supple and elegant. Now through 2017 or ’18. Exceptional. About $48.
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In the brave annals of vinous experimentation, the J Vineyards Misterra Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, is one of the strangest. If you are a purist when it comes to pinot noir, the thought of blending other varieties with that grape seems a violation, a stain on the snowy tunic of a Vestal Virgin, like adding a dollop of syrah or cabernet franc to a Chambolle-Musigny. The J Misterra 2012 blends six percent pinotage and four percent pinot meunier to Russian River pinot noir. Pinotage, widely known as “the signature grape of South Africa,” was created in 1925 as a cross between pinot noir and cinsault by Abraham Izak Perold, the first professor of viticulture at Stellenbosch University. While the survival of the seedlings was in doubt, the grape eventually thrived and became the backbone of the South African wine industry, though I’m here to tell you that it’s an acquired taste. Pinot meunier is most familiar as a red grape grown mainly in Champagne as a blending element; it’s a natural for J Vineyards because of their excellent sparkling wine program.

So, what is this pinot + pinot + pinot like? Pinotage is a powerful influence, and even at only six percent tips Misterra 2012 toward the earthy, loamy, rustic camp. The color is medium ruby-magenta with a lighter transparent rim; the whole package is very spicy, deeply fruity and wildly floral, with notes of spiced and macerated black and red currants and cherries with a trace of blueberries and, as a few minutes pass, tobacco and roasted coffee beans. Full-bodied and robust, fairly dense with dusty and graphite-laden tannins, this combines cloves, black cherries, bitter chocolate and rhubarb with spanking acidity and granitic minerality in a robust structure that’s more solid and shaggy than smooth and supple. Though it manifests myriad points of satisfaction, this is not what I want pinot noir to be. 14.3 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Melissa Stackhouse, who previously worked for La Crema and fashioned excellent pinot noirs for that winery. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Very Good+. About $50.

A sample for review. Image from vivino.com.

There are rosés, and then there is the Inman Family “Endless Crush” Rosé of Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. The wine’s nickname commemorates the long relationship between winery owner and winemaker Kathleen Inman and her husband, Simon. At first, she made the wine only for them and the family, but you can’t keep a great wine hidden endlessly. This rosé derives from Inman’s Olivet Grange Vineyard, from pinot noir vines dedicated to that purpose. It is fashioned, of course, completely in stainless steel. The color is the true Provençal rosé hue of light salmon-copper, more gris than pink; delightful and enticing aromas of dried currants and strawberries are buoyed by thyme, damp gravel and a tinge of ripe tropical fruit. This is a zesty rosé, layered with notes of peaches, watermelon and cloves riven by crisp acidity and a lacy limestone element that seems to lend tensile strength to what might be ephemeral and evanescent. The total effect is dry, spare, elegant, lively, irresistible. 12.8 percent alcohol. Production was 1,350 cases. Drink now through the Summer of 2015 with such picnic fare as cold fried or roasted chicken, deviled eggs, watercress and cucumber sandwiches, rabbit terrine. I don’t often rate rosé wines Exceptional, but this one is an exception. About $25.

A sample for review.

Three pinot noirs, two cabernet sauvignons, one syrah; a nice sense of symmetry, n’est-ce pas? Five from California, one from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. All rated Excellent. One more costly than most of us can afford, the others more reasonable. All offering many virtues and confidences of the vineyard, the grape, the winemaker’s gentle and genial art. Quick notices here, eschewing technical matters and such geographical and historical information as much stimulate our fancies; the idea is that these notes — not as full-bodied as actual reviews — will inspire your interest and whet your palates. Enjoy!

These wines were samples for review.
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Olema Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma County. 14.2% alc. (The second label of Amici Cellars.) Radiant ruby-magenta color; plums, mulberries and cranberries, brier rose; hints of cloves, rhubarb and pomegranate; dense, supple and satiny; ripe and lightly spiced red and blue fruit flavors; a few moments in the glass bring in notes of roses and violets, leather and tobacco; undertones of graphite, earth and mild tannins. Really lovely. Now through 2016. Excellent. About $20, marking Great Value.
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Elizabeth Chambers Cellar Winemaker’s Cuvée Pinot Noir 2011, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 13.9% alc. Transparent medium ruby color; quite spicy and lively, with macerated red currants and cherries, seductively ripe but balanced by a spare structure and long elegant lines; hints of cloves, cola and rhubarb, leather and loam, subdued oak; lovely satiny texture, but again that sense of reserve and delicacy, with acidity that lays an arrow across the palate. I could drink this one all day long and almost did. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $32.
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Ramey Wine Cellars Syrah 2011, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. With 5% viognier. 780 cases. Dark ruby color; deliriously spicy; notes of
macerated and slightly fleshy black currants, blackberries and raspberries, roughened by brambles and underbrush elements; robust, dynamic, powered by bright acidity, graphite minerality and sleek tannins; quite dry but flavorful, deft balance of spareness and rigor with generosity and expressiveness; finish packed with woody spices, granite and lavender. Perfect with pork chops coated with cumin, urfa pepper and chili powder. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Entrancing ruby-magenta hue; nicely layered aromas of cloves and allspice, hint of sandalwood; macerated red currants, plums and cranberries; notes of rhubarb and pomegranate; gently sifted tannins over loam and slightly granitic minerality; a touch of lightly candied red cherry; lithe, supple, sinewy; exhibits terrific confidence and authority without being ostentatious. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $45.
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Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 13.9% alc. With 8% each merlot and cabernet franc. 1,302 cases. Dark ruby color; rigorous structure with mountain roots but such a pretty surface, violets and lavender, cassis, plums and black cherries, note of licorice; stout, robust tannins and dusty oak bastions; walnut shell and underbrush; gets dustier and more austere but still scrumptious; lithic chambers of blueberries, sweet smoke, soy sauce and barbecue; iodine, iron, resonant acidity. Drink 2015 or ’16 through 2025 to ’30. Always one of Napa Valley’s best and most characterful cabernets. Excellent. About $45, representing Great Value for the Quality.
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Hestan Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. 14.7% alc. 400 cases. An exemplary Napa Valley cabernet, and at the price it ought to be. Dark ruby-purple hue; iron and iodine, lavender and violets; black currants, black cherries and raspberries with a graphite/ancho chili edge, a hint of black olive, a dusting of dried rosemary; glossy tannins and a polished oak superstructure, all enlivened with brisk and elevating acidity; a long, dense yet lithe finish. If you have on hand a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the charcoal grill, introduce it to this wine. Now through 2020 to 2025. Excellent. About $110.
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When Constellation purchased Ravenswood for $148 million in 2001, the consensus was: “Uh-oh.” No way, we thought, will the giant alcoholic beverage company allow Joel Peterson to make those single-vineyard old vine zinfandels with the same individuality, if at all. These fears proved groundless, as a decade shows. Peterson founded the winery in 1976, and it’s a measure of his dedication — and the slim profits that the winery generated — that he kept his day-job as head of a medical laboratory at Sonoma Valley Hospital until 1992, when the success of the Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend wines enabled him to devote what must be his every waking moment to making wine and running the facility. Under review today are three samples of Peterson’s genuinely old vine products, as in each vineyard — Old Hill Ranch, Barricia, Belloni — contains at least part of the original vines planted more than a century ago. What I like about these zinfandels is that they deliberately eschew the blockbuster qualities of high alcohol, deep extraction and super-ripe fruit; don’t look for anything plummy and jammy in these wines, no cloying boysenberry flavors or alcoholic heat. Peterson’s hallmarks are purity and balance in terms of structure and fruit. He succeeds admirably.
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When one steps into Old Hill Ranch, in what is now the Sonoma Valley AVA, there’s a feeling of being on sacred ground. The vineyard was planted around 1880 by William McPherson Hill, who established his farm in 1851. The property passed through his descendents until Otto and Anne Teller acquired it in 1981 and decided not to uproot the historic but abandoned overgrown vines but to restore the vineyard to productivity, working with Joel Peterson, who released Ravenswood’s first Old Hill zinfandel in 1983. The vineyard contains more than 30 varieties of red grapes, the majority zinfandel but also a remarkable array of the well-known and the obscure. It is now farmed by Otto Teller’s stepson, Will Bucklin, who has his own label.

The Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 2011, Sonoma Valley — 75 percent zinfandel, 25 percent mixed black grapes — offers a medium ruby-magenta color and pungent aromas of fresh raspberries and blueberries infused with lavender and graphite, with hints of dried thyme and cedar, all highlighted by some clear wild berry notes. The wine is quite dry but balanced and integrated, its moderately dense but supple tannins and lithe acidity providing support for black and blue fruit flavors inflected by pepper, cloves and a touch of mint. The wine aged 19 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels, but the influence stays firmly in the background. The finish is clean and well-knit, packed with spice and graphite minerality. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 1,200 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’21. Excellent. About $60.
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Barricia looks Italian or Spanish, but it’s a combination of the first names of Barbara Oleson and Patricia Herron, who bought the historic property in 1978. How historic is it? In the 1840s, the land belonged to Sonoma pioneer General Mariano Vallejo, who traded it to his children’s music teacher for piano lessons. Of the 10 acres of zinfandel vines on the estate, six were planted before 1892, the rest in 1995; two acres of petite sirah were planted in 1998. The vineyard now belongs to Mel and Angela Dagovitz.

The Ravenswood Barricia Zinfandel 2011, Sonoma Valley, is a blend of 75 percent zinfandel and 25 percent petite sirah grapes. Fermentation is by indigenous yeasts; the wine aged 19 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The color is intense medium ruby; the wine is bright, clean, fresh and spicy, roiling with notes of macerated raspberries, plums and mulberries wreathed with hints of white pepper, leather and loam. In the mouth, this is, characteristically, muscular and sinewy but light on its feet and enlivened by brisk acidity; still, the tannins build incrementally, chiseled and faceted, along with granitic minerality, leading to a very dry, almost austere finish. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 1,250 cases. Try from 2015 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $35.
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The property that became Belloni Vineyard was planted around 1900 and acquired by Italian immigrant Ricardo Belloni in 1971. Joel Peterson started making zinfandel from the vineyard after meeting Belloni in 1991. The owner died in 1997, but his widow, his children and grandchildren keep the legacy going. This is a flat, sea-level site in a cool foggy Russian River Valley climate.

The Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel 2011, Russian River Valley, is a blend of 75 percent zinfandel and 25 percent mixed black grapes — Peterson’s magic numbers; the wine is fermented on native yeasts and aged 19 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels. The color is glowing medium ruby; the vivid bouquet offers spiced and macerated black and red cherries and raspberries with notes of sandalwood and fruitcake, licorice and lavender, staying just on this side of the exotic. As with its sister wine from Barricia, the Belloni ’11 gradually layers its sleek tannins, its granitic core and its seething acidity in seamless balance, while the oak component provides supple framework and foundation. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 800 cases. From 2015 through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $35.
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Call me a romantic, but I was raised on Keats and Tennyson, Chopin and Brahms; how could I be anything else? So, here I am again, offering a roster of brut rosé Champagne and sparkling wines for your Valentine’s celebration. Yes, the idea is trite, but it’s also right for the occasion. We hit Italy, Spain, France and California in this post and offer prices that range from a highly manageable $15 to the elusive $100. Whatever the differences in price and character, these are all very satisfying — and in some instances, exciting — products. Pop the cork (carefully) and pour (carefully) into tall flute-style glasses, gaze upon the vivid colors, revel in the effervescence, enjoy the lively flavors and the tingle on your palate. Above all — share with someone you love.

These products were samples for review. Image from clipartguide.com.
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When a sparkling wine bottle comes robed in pink, my first thought is “Gack, sweet!” The Anna Codorníu Brut Rosé, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain, however, feels crisp and bone-dry. Composed of 70 percent pinot noir grapes and 30 percent chardonnay, “Anna” is made is the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, as the regulations for Cava dictate. The color is fiery copper; aromas of blood oranges, raspberries and dried red currants are heightened by notes of cloves and orange rind; dry and crisp, yes, but leavened by juicy orange, lemon and strawberry flavors that arrow in to a lively grapefruit zest, lime peel and limestone finish. 12 percent alcohol. This estate goes back to 1659, when Anna Codorníu married Miquel Raventos; their descendants still run the company. Very Good+. About $15, a Distinct Value.

Imported by Aveníu Brands, Baltimore, Md.
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Juvé y Camps Brut Rosé, Penedès. Made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes in the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, this crowd-pleaser offers a brilliant ruby-garnet hue and a fount of tiny bubbles; notes of pure strawberry and raspberry with a hint of pomegranate lead to a dry, crisp yet juicy and delicious sparkler that provides plenty of crisp acidity and flint-like minerality for body and structure. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $16 and Worth the Price.

Imported by Winebow, New York.
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Cavicchioli & Figli Vigna del Cristo 2011, Lambrusco di Sorbara, is made completely from lambrusco di Sorbara grapes in Italy’s Emilia- Romagna region. The grapes derive from the Cavicchioli family’s original 12.5-acre vineyard; though in the grape-growing business for over a century, the family first bottled its own wines in 1928. For this example, 50 percent of the free-run juice undergoes second fermentation in tank, lending the wine a mild but very pleasing effervescence. Unlike many lambrusco wines, which manifest a dark ruby-purple hue, the color of the Cavicchioli & Figli Vigna del Cristo 2011 is a ruddy copper-flame color; enticing aromas of ripe strawberries and rose petals open to a background of raspberries and a slight earthy rasp to the texture; the wine is very dry, and a surprising limestone and flint element emerges, as well as an autumnal aura, just a touch over-ripe and mossy. All this adds up to a delightful wine with a hint of seriousness. 11.5 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2014. Very Good+. About $17.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.
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The latest release of the J Vineyards Brut Rosé, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, is a blend of 66 percent pinot noir, 33 percent chardonnay and 1 percent pinot meunier; it’s made in the Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle. The color is a radiant coral-topaz hue, energized by a gentle upward swirl of tiny silver bubbles. Strawberry shortcake in the bouquet is balanced by notes of raspberries, cloves and orange zest with hints of floral astringency and spiced pears. The stones-and-bones structure is both powerful and elegant, dry and crisp, with a halo of dried red currants and raspberries supported by pert acidity and an impressive limestone character. A lovely sparkler. Winemaker was Melissa Stackhouse. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $38.
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The Ronco Calino Radijan Rosé, Franciacorta, Lombardy, is dedicated to owner Paolo Radici’s father. The color is slightly ruddy, smoky salmon-pink; the bubbles are exceedingly tiny, fine and persistent; first impression is pure strawberry and raspberry but highlighted by notes of orange rind and grated lemon peel, limestone and steel. This is a very lively, spicy sparkling wine, truly effervescent; ripe and macerated red berry flavors are wrapped around a spine of bright acidity and clean flint-like minerality. The whole effect is sensual, charming and appealing yet with dark earthy undertones. 13 percent alcohol. Production was 500 cases. The image of a piano on the label is an homage to the great pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995), to whom the estate once belonged. Excellent. About $31.

Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, N.Y.
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The Domaine Chandon Étoile Brut Rosé, North Coast (Napa and Sonoma counties), is one of the prettiest sparkling wines you’ll find, though it has a serious, even a dramatic side too. A blend of 49 percent chardonnay, 45 percent pinot noir and 6 percent pinot meunier (slightly different than the previous release), it displays an entrancing fiery copper-peach color and a steady pulse of infinitesimal glinting bubbles. The bouquet is characterized by strawberries and red currants enlivened by orange zest and cloves and hints of fresh-baked bread, flint and steel. There’s very agreeable tension among slashing acidity, taut and crisp-edged limestone-like minerality and an almost luxurious sense of round citrus and stone-fruit nuances and irresistible seductive power. This would be a great special occasion — i.e., romantic — sparkling wine. 13 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Tom Tiburzi. Excellent. About $50.
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Delamotte is owned by Champagne Laurent-Perrier (see below), and as such is a sister house to Champagne Salon, one of the greatest, rarest and most expensive of all Champagnes. Don’t worry, though, the Delamotte Brut Rosé is a special brut rosé Champagne priced reasonably for the type. The pinot noir grapes for this blend derive from Grand Cru vineyards at Montagne de Reims; the chardonnay is from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, superior pedigree all round. The color is shimmering copper-salmon, like a deepening sunset; tiny bubbles surge swirling to the surface. This is a high-toned and austere rose, built on strains of steel and limestone wreathed with orange zest, camellia, quince, ginger and lightly buttered cinnamon toast; chiming acidity and an almost crystalline flint and limestone element lend frosty if not glacial elegance, but the effect is more thrilling than forbidding. 12 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Michel Fauconnet, also cellar-master at Laurent-Perrier. Excellent. About $70, though online there’s a wide range of prices.

Imported by Vineyard brands, Birmingham, Ala.
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The entrancing color of the Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut, Champagne, France, is a ruddy copper-salmon color, like tarnished silver over rosy-gold, enlivened by a constant upward froth of tiny glinting bubbles; this is all pinot noir, from 10 Grand Cru villages, presented in an old-fashioned bell-shaped bottle. The initial impression is of raspberries, red currants, orange zest and lightly toasted brioche, quickened by high notes of something wildly berry-like and broadened by bass tones of flint and chalk. The balance between fleetness and suppleness is exciting, and while the whole package is beautifully woven, elegant and sleek, it harbors depths of limestone minerality and bright acidity for resonance. Intense yet buoyant and sophisticated. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $100 suggested retail price but can be found for far less on the Internet.

Imported by Laurent-Perrier U.S., Sausalito, Cal.
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Including not merely a roster of pinot noir wines from California but a pinot meunier made as a still wine — it mostly goes into Champagne and sparkling wine — and two pinot gris/grigio wines, one from northeast Italy, the other from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. As usual in these quick reviews, ripped, as it were, from the fervid pages on my notebooks, I eschew the available range of technical, historical, geographical and personal (or personnel) detail to concentrate on immediacy and my desire to pique your interest and whet your palate. Enjoy!

These wines were samples for review.
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Ascevi Luwa Pinot Grigio 2012, Collio, Italy. 12.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; winsome aromas of hay and almond blossom, saline and savory; roasted lemon, spiced pear; a little briery; very dry, crisp and chiseled but appealing moderately full body and texture; a far more thoughtful pinot grigio than one usually encounters. 1,500-case production. Excellent. About $19.
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MacMurray Ranch Pinot Gris 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 15% alc(!). A Gallo label. Medium gold color; jasmine and honeysuckle, lemon and lemon balm, baked pear, all very spicy and intricately woven; attractive supple texture and bright acidity, but you feel some alcoholic heat on the slightly unbalanced finish. Very Good. About $20.
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La Crema Pinot Noir 2012, Monterey County. 13.5% alc. Jackson Family Wines. Medium ruby-violet color; black cherries and currants, cloves, tobacco and sassafras, hint of brown sugar; earthy and loamy, moss and mushrooms; very dry but satiny and supple, with tasty black fruit flavors; the oak comes up a bit in the finish, along with some graphite-tinged minerality. Now through 2016. Very Good+. About $23.
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La Crema Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 13.5% alc. Jackson Family Wines. Lovely limpid ruby-magenta color; sour cherry and melon, pomegranate, cranberry and cloves, develops a hint of smoke and black cherry; lovely and limpid, again, in the mouth, flows like satin across the palate but enlivened with keen acidity; notes of earth and brambles. Drinks very nicely but doesn’t have the heft that La Crema pinot noirs typically display. Now through 2015. Very Good+. About $25.
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La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Coast. 14.9% alc. 326 cases. Enrapturing ruby-magenta color; a lithe and supple pinot noir that takes 45 minutes to loosen up a bit; cranberry and cola, dried cherries and raspberries; cloves and allspice, fairly exotic; buoyed by bright acidity and slightly bound by oak and tannin. Now through 2015. Very Good+. About $42.
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La Rochelle Deer Meadows Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 14.3% alc. 235 six-pack cases. A real beauty. Lovely medium ruby-plum color; black and red cherries, pomegranate and pomander, oolong tea, sassafras and beetroot, slightly earthy and loamy, yes, the whole panoply of sensation; a few moments bring in notes of iodine, mint and graphite; very dry, dense, almost chewy, quite notable tannins for a pinot noir but well-managed and integrated; gathers power and paradoxical elegance in the glass. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $75.
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La Rochelle Saralee’s Vineyard Pinot Meunier 2012, Russian River Valley. 13.9% alc. 866 cases. Pinot meunier is primarily grown as a minority component in Champagne and sparkling wine production. Entrancing transparent ruby-magenta color with a clear rim; delicate, dry, slightly raspy in the sense that raspberries and their leaves can be raspy; black and red cherry compote, spiced and macerated, with a subtle element of dried fruit, flowers and spices; damask roses, note of violets; dust, earth, a touch of loam, enlivened by swingeing acidity that plows a furrow. Now through 2016. Oddly Excellent. About $38.
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Liberty School Pinot Noir 2012, Central Coast. 13.5% alc. The first pinot noir from this label known for well-made and moderately priced cabernet sauvignon. Makes sensible claims and meets them: Medium ruby color; black cherry and plum, hints of rhubarb and tart mulberry; smoke and cloves; reasonably supple texture; a little merlot-ish overall, though. Very Good. About $20.
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MacPhail Family Wines “The Flyer” Pinot Noir 2011, Green Valley of Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium ruby-magenta color; quite intense and concentrated for pinot noir, ripe and vivid black and red cherries, smoke, cloves; vibrant acidity cuts a swath, it’s very satiny but with a tannic and oaken core that ramps up the power and somewhat masks the varietal character. Still, it makes an impression. Very Good+. About $59.
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Rodney Strong Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Medium ruby color; pungently spicy and floral, notes of tobacco and coffee bean, cranberry, pomegranate and rhubarb; black cherries with a briery, mossy undercurrent; very satiny, drapes over the palate as it flows; fairly deep and dark aura for pinot noir, with a graphite element and resolutely spicy with cloves and sandalwood, moderately dense tannins. Quite a package. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $25.
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Well, the first one is a cheat; it’s $22, but the rest are $20 and under, I promise, with prices starting at $13. Every wine on this list is rated Excellent, and it’s an eclectic roster, first geographically, with five wines each for California and Argentina, three each for Italy and Spain, two each for Oregon and France, one each for Germany, Portugal, Chile, Austria and Australia, and by genre; there are no dominant cabernet sauvignons, merlots or pinot noirs on this list and only one chardonnay, but you will find pinot blanc and riesling and gruner veltliner, albariño and carménère, loureiro and treixadura, as well as sangiovese and syrah and the ever-popular bobal. These are wines that performed above their price range in terms of intensity and satisfaction, a quality that is, I suppose, what we wish from every wine we encounter.
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Balthasar Ress Schloss Reichartshausen Riesling Spätlese 2009, Rheingau, Germany. Excellent. About $22.
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Balverne Rosé of Sangiovese 2012, Chalk Hill, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $20.
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Brooks Runaway White Pinot Blanc 2011, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 244 cases. Excellent. About $15.
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Catena High Mountain Vines Chardonnay 2012, Mendoza, Argentina. Excellent. About $20.
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Cleto Chiarli Vigneto Enrico Cialdini 2011, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Excellent. About $15.
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Colognole Chianti Rufina 2007, Tuscany, Italy. Excellent. About $19.
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Cono Sur Reserva Especial Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Casablanca Valley, Chile. Excellent. About $15.
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Davis Bynum Virginia’s Block Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $18.
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Finca La Linda Malbec Rosé 2012, Lujan de Cujo, Mendoza, Argentina. Excellent. About $13.
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Fred Loimer “Lois” Grüner Veltliner 2012, Niederösterreich, Austria. Excellent. About $16.
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Greg Norman Shiraz 2010, Limestone Coast, Australia. Excellent. About $15.
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Harney Lane Albariño 2012, Lodi. 716 cases. Excellent. About $19.
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Inama Carménère Piú 2010, Colli Berici, Veneto, Italy. With 25 percent merlot. Excellent. About $20.
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Kopke Vinho Branco 2011, Douro, Portugal. 50 percent arinto grapes, 45 percent gouveio, 5 percent rabigato. Excellent. About $16.
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Lee Family Farm Albariño 2010, Monterey County. 213 cases. Excellent. About $18.
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Lucien Albrecht Brut Rosé, nv, Crémant d’Alsace, France. Excellent. About $20.
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Manuel Manzaneque Nuestra Selección 2005, Finca Elez, La Mancha, Spain. Cabernet sauvignon 40 percent, tempranillo 40 percent, merlot 20 percent. Excellent. About $16.50.
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Domaine de Reuilly Les Pierres Plates 2012, Reuilly, Loire Valley, France. 100 percent sauvignon blanc. Excellent. About $20.
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Santiago Ruiz 2011, Riax Baixas, Spain. 70 percent allero grapes, 15 percent loureiro, 10 percent caino, 5 percent treixadura and godello. Excellent. About $17.
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Una Seleccion de Ricardo Santos Semillon 2013, Mendoza, Argentina. Excellent. About $16.
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Sierra Norte Pasión de Bobal 2010, Utiel-Reguene, Spain. Excellent. About $15.
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Tinto Negro Co-Ferment Malbec 2011, Mendoza, Argentina. With 7 percent cabernet franc and 3 percent petit verdot. Excellent. About $20.
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Tolentino Pinot Grigio 2011, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina. Excellent. About $15.
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Vina Robles Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. Excellent. About $14.
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Youngberg Hill Pinot Blanc 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 160 cases. Excellent. About $18.
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“50 Great Wines of [The Year]” is a post I look forward to, even though its production is fraught with anxiety. “Fraught with anxiety!” you exclaim. “FK, you get to taste and write about terrific wines all year long! This task should be easy!” Look, my apostrophe-addicted friend, I started with a list of 76 potentially great wines and had to eliminate 26 of them. It was painful; it hurt my brain and my spirit. Even now, going back over this post just before I click the PUBLISH button, I am wracked by indecision and regret. On the other hand, life is about choices, n’est-ce pas, and we all have to knuckle down and make those choices, difficult as the job may be.

I reviewed 624 wines in 2013, compared to, for some reason, 642 in 2012, though I suppose 18 wines is not statistically significant in that range. Or perhaps it is; I’m not a statistician. Out of 642 wines in 2012, I rated 18 wines Exceptional. In 2013, out of 624 wines, I rated 28 as Exceptional. Did I taste that many better wines in 2013, or am I getting soft as I near my 30th anniversary as a wine writer? How did I choose, for “50 Great Wines of 2013,” the 22 examples to add to the 28 rated Exceptional? By reading again every review I wrote over the past year, by weighing the description and the language, by revisiting my memory of the wine, by looking for wines that possessed that indescribable quality of charisma, that combination of personality and character that distinguish a great wine. I could expand this post to 60 or 70 or 75 wines, but I’ll leave it as is. Suffice to say that these “50 Great Wines of 2013″ could include others, but for now, I’m sticking with these.
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Artesa Vineyards & Winery Estate Reserve Pinot Noir 2009, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $40.
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Adelsheim Ribbon Springs Vineyard Auxerrois 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $25.
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Amapola Creek Jos. Belli Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 400 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Archery Summit Vireton Pinot Gris 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $24.
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Belle-Pente Winery Belle-Pente Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Yamhill-Carlton District, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 785 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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Black Kite Cellars Rivers Turn Pinot Noir 2010, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $52.

Image from princeofpinot.com.
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Boekenoogen Chardonnay 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $35.
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Brooks “Ara” Riesling 2010, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $25.
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Calera Wine Company Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Mount Harlan, San Benito County. 398 cases. Exceptional. About $55.
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Capitain-Gagnerot Bourgogne “Les Gueulottes” 2009, Hautes Côtes de Beaune. 100 percent chardonnay. Excellent. About $27.
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Catena Zapata Adrianna Malbec 2009, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $120.
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Colgin “IX Estate” Red Wine 2009, Napa Valley. Cabernet sauvignon 69 percent, merlot 15 percent, cabernet franc 10 percent, petit verdot 6 percent. 1,200 cases. Exceptional. About $450.
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Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $80.
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Champagne David Léclapart L’Alchimiste Estate Premier Cru Extra Brut Rosé (non-vintage), Champagne, France. Exceptional. About $175.
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Domaine de Bernardins 2009, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. Excellent. About $25 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.
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Domaine Carneros Étoile Téte de Cuvée 2003. Exceptional. About $100.
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Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir 2008, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Exceptional. About $65.
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Domus Aurea 2009, Upper Maipo Valley, Chile. Cabernet sauvignon 85 percent, merlot 7 percent, cabernet franc 5 percent, petit verdot 2 percent. Exceptional. About $60.
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Drouhin Vaudon Montmains Premier Cru 2910, Chablis, France. 200 cases imported. Exceptional. About $39.
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Dunstan Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. 391 cases. Exceptional. About $40.
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Dunstan Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast. 291 cases. Exceptional. About $50.
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Dunstan Durell Vineyard Rosé Wine 2012, Sonoma Coast. 100 percent pinot noir. 95 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Elyse Naggiar Vineyard L’Ingénue 2011, Sierra Foothills. Roussanne 52 percent, marsanne 32 percent, viognier 11 percent, grenache blanc 5 percent. 416 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Champagne Franck Pascal Tolérance Rosé Brut (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Pinot meunier 58 percent, pinot noir 39 percent, chardonnay 3 percent. Excellent. About $55 to $65.
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Frankland Estate Netley Road Vineyard Riesling 2012, Frankland River, Western Australia. Exceptional. About $28.50.
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Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $60.
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Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $42.
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Halter Ranch Block 22 Syrah 2011, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. With 13 percent grenache and 11 percent tannat. 175 cases. Excellent. About $36.
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Inman Family OGV Pinot Noir 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 308 cases. Exceptional. About $68.
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J Late Disgorged Vintage Brut 2003, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Pinot noir 49 percent, chardonnay 49 percent, pinot meunier 2 percent. 500 cases. exceptional. About $90.
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Kay Brothers Amery Vineyard Block 6 Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. Exceptional. About $66.
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La Rochelle Donum Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Carneros. 259 six-pack cases. Excellent. About $75.
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La Rochelle McIntyre Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir Rosé 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 112 cases. Rose of the Year. Excellent. About $24.
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L’Aventure Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. 425 cases. Exceptional. About $85 (winery only).
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Long Shadows Pedestal Merlot 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington. Excellent. About $60.
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Morgan Winery Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 375 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Morgan Winery Tondre Grapefield Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 95 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $53.
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Penner-Ash Riesling 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Exceptional. About $23.
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Pine Ridge Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $85.
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Ramey Wine Cellars Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $60.
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Ramey Wine Cellars Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley, Carneros. Exceptional. About $60.
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Rombauer Zinfandel 2010, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $34.
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Renaissance Vineyards and Winery Granite Crown 2005, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills. Syrah 60 percent, cabernet sauvignon 30 percent, merlot 7 percent, cabernet franc 2 percent, petit verdot 1 percent. 74 cases. Excellent. About $40.
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Robert Turner Cabernet Franc 2010, Napa Valley. 50 cases. Exceptional. About $35.
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Shirvington Shiraz 2009, McLaren Vale, Australia. Excellent. About $70.
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Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2011, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 463 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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Smith-Madrone Riesling 2012, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $27.
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Steven Kent Winery Ghielmetti Vineyard “Small-Lot” Cabernet Franc 2010, Livermore Valley, Alameda County. 48 cases. Exceptional. About $50.
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Tablas Creek Vin de Paille “Quinressence” 2010, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. 100 percent roussanne dessert wine. 100 cases. Exceptional. About $85 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.
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If River Road Family Vineyards and Winery, located in Green Valley of Russian River Vallery, didn’t issue the first wine in California from the harvest of 2013 — you know, like three months ago — then it’s right up there in the front of the vanguard; the wine was released on December 2. Not surprisingly the wine, made by Joe Freeman, is a rosé. The wonderful color of the River Road Rosé of Pinot Noir Reserve 2013, Russian River Valley, is a radiant violet-melon hue that we’ll call Kardashian pink. Aromas of pure strawberry and raspberry, slightly spiced and macerated, mingle with notes of rose petals, orange rind, cloves and limestone; in the mouth, this rosé gushes with red fruit flavors, adding a hint of blueberry, that flow in a moderately satiny texture; the finish brings in more limestone minerality and a touch of almond skin. While not made in the stony, austere style of rose that I prefer — this is a little riper and more voluptuous — the River Road Rosé of Pinot Noir Reserve 2013 is a delightful and tasty rosé for drinking through the summer of 2014. Alcohol content is 12.5 percent. Production was 240 cases. Very Good+. About $15.

A sample for review.

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