Santa Barbara County

An overall satisfying, even in some instances great group of pinot noir wines, examples touching the winemaking borders limits of California, from Anderson Valley in the north to Santa Maria Valley in the south. Different interpretations, assuredly, diverse approaches to the notoriously difficult grape, but all feeling authentic and legitimate, though my taste runs to the more refined and elegant; and, blessedly, though the use of oak, of course, varies, none of these is burdened with or buried by too much wood. As usual in the Friday Wine Sips, I dispense with the minutiae of technical, historical and geographical data in order to deliver to my readers incisive and provocative yet thoughtful reviews, though I admit that a couple of these run a tad longer than I intend for this space, but then, come on, it’s pinot noir I’m writing about. With one exception, these were samples for review. The order is alphabetical. I’m posting this fairly late at night, but it’s still Friday in the USA.

Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County. 14.4% alc. Elegant and sophisticated at first, but becomes more intense and concentrated, a real mouthful of smoky black cherry and rhubarb, violets and lilac, hints of briers and brambles, sassafras, roots and moss, i.e., quite earthy and then quite spicy; deeply satiny texture, lithe and supple too, flows coolly through the mouth; but you feel the tug of oak from mid-palate through the finish. For those who like a muscular pinot noir. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $35.
Foley Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 14.3% alc. Medium ruby color with a tinge of magenta; incredible perfume: beet-root and root beer, rose hips and strawberry leaf, violets and sandalwood, black cherry and red currants, and then a gentle surge of austerity in brambles and forest floor and finely-honed graphite; in the mouth, more serious than you might think, deeply earthy, multi-dimensioned, yet suave, sleek, supple, satiny; black tea with cloves and cinnamon, orange zest; black and red fruit flavors, a beautifully burnished, balanced, transparent finish. Beautiful. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $40.
Foursight “Zero” Pinot Noir 2009, Charles Vineyard, Anderson Valley, Mendocino. 13.5% alc. “Zero” does not mean no oak but second-year and older barrels. Gosh, what a lovely gentle delicate yet darkly radiant sifting of finely-meshed, cloud-like tannins; ripe and slightly macerated red currants, plums and mulberries; earthy briers, brambles and leather; and baskets of dried flowers and spices. A model of pinot noir purity and intensity. Perfect with a roasted chicken; I could drink it every day. 360 cases and Worth a Search. Excellent. About $38.
Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, Mendocino. 13.9 % alc. So, how is the “regular” Foursight Pinot Noir ’09 different from its stablemate mentioned above? This is also quite alluring and exhibits similar purity and intensity of expression and character; fruit falls into the range of red and black cherries and cranberries with more emphasis on spice than flowers and just a haze of smoky (but not toasty) oak. As with the previous wine, balance and integration of all elements feel inextricable, tightly woven yet generous and expansive, a touch lithe and sinewy yet with a seductive satiny drape. Now through 2015 or ’16. 405 cases and also Worth a Search. Excellent. About $46.
MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 14.5% alc. Riveting purity and intensity; vivid yet somehow transparent or at least infinitely delicate black cherry and mulberry scents and flavors highlighted by subtle notes of sassafras and lightly toasted Asian spices; sleek, supple and a little spare, with flavors partaking more of plums as moments pass; a real dreamboat of a pinot noir with an understanding of its darker nature. Now through 2013 or ’14. 600 six-pack cases produced. Excellent. About $35.
MacMurray Ranch Winemaker’s Block Selection Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Loads of presence and tone yet ineffable balance and integration; lots going on, plums and more plums, with black and red cherries and hints of mulberry and rhubarb, undertones of cola and cloves, but it doesn’t feel fussy or overdone, all is smooth and finely-meshed; dense texture, satin transmuting to velvet but held in check by the ballast of earthy underbrush and a bit of foresty austerity. I like rather more reticence in pinot noir (as in the previous wine and the two Foursights), but this reveals thoughtful wine-making. Now through 2014 to ’16. Production was 600 six-pack cases. Excellent. About $60.
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A dozen chardonnays from California, some of which exhibit the too-common stylistic pitfall of heavy reliance on French oak barrels to shape a wine and malolactic fermentation to give it a rich “character.” A few others are excellent models of purity and intensity and fidelity to the grape, a concept that must rule paramount above all other considerations in making wine. As usual in these “Friday Wine Sips,” I eschew most technical and historical information for direct, fairly spontaneous jottings adapted from my original notes.
Rodney Strong Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma County. 13.5% alc. Disappointing from this generally consistent producer (and a chardonnay ubiquitous in restaurants). Big flush of vanilla that dominates, lots of cloves, buttery and emphatic, over-oaked finish; the balance is way off. Que pasa? Not recommended. About $13.50.
Butternut Chardonnay 2010, California. 13.9% alc. Though this chardonnay ages in 100% new French oak and undergoes complete malolactic fermentation (aka, the kiss of death), it’s surprisingly well-balanced and integrated; pineapple and grapefruit, spiced peach; bright acidity, keen limestone element; dense and chewy without being viscous or heavy; actually very attractive, though not quite in the style I favor. Still … Very Good+. About $18.
MacMurray Ranch Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma Coast. 13.9% alc. Pretty standard but picks up lots of oak and woody spice on the finish; a bit over the top but not too bad if you like the style, I mean at least it’s not super-tropical or wallowing in cloying dessert notes. Very Good. About $20.
St. Supery Oak Free Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley. 13.6% alc. Who needs oak? Not this incredibly attractive chardonnay. Fresh and zesty, slightly floral (honeysuckle); lemon and pear, lime peel and quince with a hint of a tropical melon element; leafy and a bit herbal, a sort of greengage quality; quite lively but with a lovely silken texture and a grapefruit-tinged finish. Excellent. About $20, Good Value.
Heller Estate Chardonnay 2009, Carmel Valley, 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; a brash, bright, bold chardonnay; dry, quite vibrant, flashy, fleshy stone-fruit and pineapple; rather too spicy for my palate. Very Good. About $22.
Hess Collection Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley. 14.4% alc. Clean, pure and intense; smoke, roasted lemons, touch of honeysuckle; tasty pineapple-grapefruit flavors; transparent structure, pleasing lightness of being; very nicely balanced. Very Good+. About $22.
Roth Estate Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Way too much oak here and possibly malolactic; burnt match, the brûlée of crème brûlée, brown sugar, butterscotch, pineapple upside-down cake; sweet and strident at the same time. Not Recommended. About $22.
Mount Eden Chardonnay 2009, Edna Valley. 13.4% alc. & Mount Eden Saratoga Cuvée Chardonnay 2008, Santa Cruz Mountains. 14% alc. Beyond the pale; both are determinedly oaky, woody, flagrantly spicy; the “Saratoga” particularly too big, too dry, unbalanced, parched with wood. I have seen the “Saratoga” compared favorably to Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru; let’s hope these comments were made in jest, because Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru would never be made like this. Not recommended. The first is $20, the second $26, but neither represents good value.
Jordan Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley. 13.5% alc. Practically a lesson in deftness and lovely balance; pale but radiant straw-gold color; lemon balm and pineapple, ginger and quince; rich and flavorful but pared to elegance, vivid acidity and a resonant limestone element. Classic shape, structure and poise. Drink through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $29.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Karia” Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. Graceful, indeed, and elegant, sleek and suave, with a deceptive inner simplicity; this is crystalline, plangent, buoyant with spiced stone-fruit and green apple and its peel, ginger and cloves and a back-note of pear, a hint of smoke, a touch of limestone; all understated, fresh, appealing. An exemplar of Napa Valley chardonnay. Excellent. About $35.
Oakville Ranch Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. Major disappointment from a producer I greatly admire; very very spicy, very dense, I mean obtrusively so; very dry yet imbued with the dessert-like effects of roasted lemons, baked pears and apples, spiced quince, brown sugar and toffee; the palate is overwhelmed and wearied. Que pasa? Not recommended. 178 cases. About $45.

A few days ago, I griped on Facebook that too many inexpensive wines taste as if they had been designed by committee and manufactured by robots on an assembly line. Thankfully, not all wines in the inexpensive (or even cheap) category seem that way; here are four versatile examples, two white and two red, each from a different country, that do not. Actually and honestly, lots of expensive wines also feel as if they were designed by committee — “this much ripeness, this much toasty new oak, add 15 percent alcohol” — but that’s not our concern today.

All were samples for review.

The super attractive Zantho Grüner Veltliner 2009, Burgenland, comes under a new label that’s a collaboration between two of Austria’s best-known winemakers, Josef Umathum and Wolfgang Peck. ( I previously reviewed the Zantho Blaufränkisch 2008 here.) This grüner veltliner offers delicate notes of orange blossom, roasted lemon, lime peel and lemon balm, with a slightly spicy background; the spice element burgeons in the mouth, along with prominent limestone-like minerality, vibrant acidity and citrus flavors highlighted by hints of ginger and quince. A polished performance, charming in every respect. 11.5 percent alcohol. Drink through summer 2012. Very Good+. About $15.

Imported by Vin Divino, Chicago.

Cimarone Estate is a small producer in the newly declared appellation of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara; apparently, there’s a law that everybody who lives in the AVA has to be happy all the time. Made from the estate’s 26-acre Three Creek Vineyards, the wines focus on Bordeaux-style blends, costing about $60, and a series of less expensive wines under the 3CV label. Owners are Roger and Priscilla Higgins; the first vintage to be released was 2006. The 3CV Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Happy Valley of Santa Barbara — the image says “2009″ but it’s 2010 were concerned with — is a sprightly and resonant sauvignon blanc, registering a distinct melon-lime-gooseberry profile that’s given acidic grip by a swath of grapefruit on the finish and the heft of limestone and shale-like minerality; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of lemon balm and baked pear. Fresh, clean and appealing, with a lovely silken texture. 269 cases. Drink through summer 2012. Very Good+. About $18.

Terrazas de los Andes Reserva Malbec 2009, Mendoza, Argentina, is a true reserve wine in the sense that the grapes derive from older vineyards than the producer’s “regular” label, it spends 12 months in predominantly French oak and the production is smaller. This wine just damn hits the spot where malbec works best as a dark, spicy, briery, deeply scented and flavored wine with a touch of wildness about it; there’s intensity and concentration here, with brambly-graphite-tinged underpinnings to the dense chewy texture and almost sumptuous black currant, plum and mulberry fruit shot with vivid acidity and touches of lavender, licorice and bittersweet chocolate. Thinking Thanksgiving leftovers — as who is not? — then here’s a wine to drink with the turkey and dressing and potatoes and whatever else graced the groaning board. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $15.

Imported by Möet Hennessy USA, New York.


Produced by the Antinori winery in Pulgia, the Tormaresca Neprica is one of the world’s great wine bargains. Made from an unusual and provocative blend of 40 percent negroamaro grapes, 30 percent primitivo and 30 percent cabernet sauvignon — you see where the name Neprica comes from — Tormaresca Neprica 2009, Puglia, is a wild, heady amalgam of violets and lavender, spice cake and fleshy black currant, blueberry and plum scents and flavors; the wine is robust, full-bodied, dynamic with rollicking acidity and deeply packed with black and blue fruit that opens to touches of leather, fruitcake, mint and bay, for a vividly savory impression. A great match with pizzas, burgers, hearty pasta dishes and braised meat. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $13, representing Real Value, often discounted to $10.

Imported by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Woodinville, Wash.

Zaca Mesa was a pioneer in bringing syrah to Santa Barbara County, planting that region’s first syrah vines in 1978. Founded in the early ’70s, the winery first planted just about every grape variety available but gradually narrowed the field to Rhone Valley types. Since the 1990s, Zaca Mesa has produced only Rhone-style wines, with a focus on estate and single-vineyard syrah. Winemaker is Eric Mohseni.

Wine of the Week is the Zaca Mesa Syrah 2008, Santa Ynez Valley, the producer’s basic syrah wine. Aged 16 months in French oak barrels, 35 percent new, 65 percent up to four years old, the wine offers complex layering of spicy, floral and earthy elements woven with dense, chewy grainy tannins and lively acidity, all set in fine balance. The color is dark ruby-purple; aromas of blackberries, black currants and plums are permeated by notes of sage and thyme, smoky oak and leather, violets and lavender and a pointed dusty graphite quality. So far, this is textbook syrah, and the impression deepens with ripe, spicy and concentrated black and blue fruit flavors founded on a classic character of slightly mossy underbrush qualities that generously unfold to reveal a core of potpourri, bitter chocolate and scintillating slate-like minerality. The finish is long and spicy. Lovely purity and authenticity and well-suited to an upcoming Fall season of braised and grilled meat. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $25.

A sample for review.

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