Santa Lucia Highlands


I have used Wordsworth’s lines so often — “The world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” — that I won’t allude to them on this occasion but merely issue an apology and assert that sometimes I just can’t keep up with tasting and writing. In fact, this post is probably the first in a series of “mea culpa” catch-up entries that I will issue over the next few weeks — if I have time. Ha-ha! These wines, a miscellaneous dozen from California, 11 red, one white, were all samples for review.
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Amapola Creek Monte Rosso Vineyard “Vinas Antiguas” Zinfandel 2011, Sonoma Valley. Winemaker Dick Arrowood mixed 5 percent petite sirah to this zinfandel derived from one of Sonoma County’s legendary vineyards, where the zinfandel vines are 118 years old. The wine aged 15 months in a combination of new and used French and American oak barrels. Generally, I have been a fan of Arrowood’s efforts at Amapola Creek, rating everything I have tasted either Excellent or Exceptional. The exception, however, will be this example, because the heat and sweetness from 15.5 percent alcohol tip the wine off balance and render it into a clunky blockbuster. That’s a shame, because such details as its melange of ripe and spicy black currants and blueberries, cloves, sandalwood and smoked fennel and a chiseled granitic quality would have been gratifying in a different package. Production was 310 cases. Not recommended. About $42.
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Amici Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. There’s an aspect of darkness about this (nonetheless) winsome pinot noir: a dark ruby color; a certain dark shading in its spicy elements of cloves and sandalwood; the smokiness of its black cherry scents and flavors hinting at currants and raspberries; the earthiness of its brier-brambly structure. The lovely texture, though, is all warm satin, while bright acidity keeps it lively and quaffable. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Production was 1,300 cases. Very Good+. About $35.
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Bonny Doon Vineyards Le Cigare Blanc reserve 2011, Arroyo Seco. The blend for this highly aromatic wine is 62 percent grenache blanc and 38 percent roussanne, from the Beeswax Vineyard; the grapes were fermented together in stainless steel and aged in five-gallon glass carboys, also called demijohns or bonbonnes, of the sort typically employed in home brewing and winemaking. The color is very pale gold, and it seems to shimmer in the glass. All of the lemon kingdom has assembled here in its guises of roasted lemon, lemon balm and lemon curd, highlighted by notes of quince and ginger, lanolin, lilac and camellia. It’s a savory and saline wine, spare, lean and supple and quite dry yet generous with its citrus flavors that delve a bit into stone-fruit. The entire package is animated by crystalline acidity and crackling limestone minerality. Alcohol content is a pleasing 12.5 percent. Production was 480 cases. Excellent. About $54.
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Daou Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Paso Robles. The wine is a blend of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent merlot and 9 percent petit verdot that spent 19 months in French oak barrels, 80 percent new. The color is very dark ruby-purple, almost opaque; seductive aromas of spiced, macerated and slightly roasted black cherries and raspberries are permeated by notes of graphite, cedar and tobacco and a hint of rosemary’s brash resiny quality; a few moments in the glass bring in touches of black olive and loam. This is a solid, tannic, granitic-based wine, spare and dusty and quite dry but with plenty of ripe black and blue fruit flavors; fairly rock-ribbed presently, it needs a lot of air to unfurl its attractions. 14.2 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2021 to ’25. Excellent. About $56.
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Davies Vineyards Nobles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. This pinot noir, which aged 15 months in 41 percent new French oak barrels, originated from an area of the Sonoma Coast region recently designated as the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. Don’t be surprised if in the coming years we see more segments of the vast Sonoma Coast fragmented into smaller AVAs; Petaluma Gap, anyone? The color is a beguiling medium ruby hue, though that limpidity is belied by the wine’s sense of power and muscularity; this is intensely spicy, bursting with ripe and macerated black cherry and plum fruit, while a few minutes in the glass bring up pungent notes of old leather and pomegranate. It’s a fairly dense and chewy wine, displaying incisive graphite minerality and acidity that I can only call flaring and buoyant. Quite a performance on pinot noir’s dark side. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 550 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
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Davies Vineyards Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Here’s a pinot that’s a bit more to my taste than the Davies Vineyards Nobles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 mentioned above, at least in terms of style. This spend 15 months in French oak, 22 percent new barrels. The color is a transparent medium ruby, and the first impression is of the earth, with rooty and loamy aspects under briers and brambles; then come black and red cherries and currents segueing to dusty plums, smoky sassafras and exotic spices like sandalwood and cloves. Within this sensual panoply expands a core of nuance — lavender, violets, a bare hint of beet-root — and clean bright acidity. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 400 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
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Dunstan Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011. Sonoma Coast. The color is dark ruby with a mulberry tinge. I would say that this pinot noir displays glorious purity, intensity and clarity, but “glorious” implies an emphatic nature that I want to avoid; let’s say, instead, that it’s perfect and adorable in the expression of those qualities. Aromas of red and black cherries and currants are imbued with notes of cloves and sandalwood, sassafras, rose petals and violets, with undertones of briers, brambles and loam, all amounting to a seamless marriage of elegance and power. The texture is supremely satiny, rolling across the palate like liquid money, but the wine’s ripe and spicy black and red fruit flavors are buoyed by slightly leathery tannins and back-notes of polished oak, the whole effect enlivened by fleet acidity. 14.5% alcohol. Excellent. About $55.
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Gallo Signature Series Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Gina Gallo employed grapes from the family’s Olson Ranch Vineyard to craft this well-made but not compelling pinot noir that aged eight months in a mixture of new and used French oak barrels. The color shades from dark to medium ruby at the rim; aromas of black cherries and cranberries, smoke and loam, cloves and pomegranate characterize the attractive bouquet, while on the palate the wine is satiny smooth and supple; a few minutes in the glass bring out pretty floral elements. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $35.
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Pedroncelli Mother Clone Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. The “mother clone” of this wine is a vineyard planted to zinfandel vines since 1904; some of those grapes are included here. Other parts of the vineyard represent the second generation of vines cloned from the original plants, all blended here with six percent petite sirah grapes. The wine aged 11 months in American oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a magenta rim; pungent aromas of black currants, blackberries and blueberries feel warm and spicy but with edges of graphite, briers and brambles. Bright acidity brings liveliness to dense dusty tannins and a slightly chiseled granitic minerality that testifies to the wine’s origin in an old hillside vineyard; however, black fruit flavors are equally bright and faceted, gradually opening to touches of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $18, representing Great Value.
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Sanctuary Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Maria Valley. This is a beautiful pinot noir in every sense, from its lovely transparent medium ruby-cherry hue, to its bouquet permeated by notes of spiced and macerated red and black currants and cherries, with hints of rhubarb and cranberry, tobacco leaf and cigarette paper, to its subtle undertones of loam and moss and brambles, to its seductive satiny texture. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 841 cases. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Silverado Vineyards Mt George Merlot 2010, Napa Valley. This classically balanced and structured wine is a blend of 77% merlot, 19% cabernet sauvignon, 4% malbec, 1% petit verdot. (Yeah, that’s 101 percent.) The color is very dark ruby-purple, verily, verging even unto motor-oil black; it’s quite pungent, unleashing penetrating aromas of ripe, meaty and fleshy black cherries and raspberries bursting with notes of cassis and black olives, bell pepper and tobacco. Chiseled and polished graphite rules the day, with hints of iodine and saline qualities, earth and loam; the texture is supple, lithe, dense and chewy, yet somehow refined and elegant, never forgetting its obligation to beautiful but not showy black and red fruit flavors. 14.9 percent alcohol. A terrific, finely-honed and tuned merlot that displays great character. Drink now through 2018 to 2022. Excellent. About $35.
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Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Livermore Valley. The blend here is 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5
percent each petit verdot and merlot and 2 percent cabernet franc; the wine aged 24 months in 60 percent new oak barrels, mostly French with a small portion of American oak from the Appalachians. A dark ruby hue transcends inky purple; the bouquet is clean and fresh, very cherry-berry with some raspberries and their sense of faint raspiness, briers and brambles in the background, with an intensifying element of violets, lavender and potpourri. This panoply of sensual pleasures doesn’t quite prepare your palate for the rush of dusty tannins, the wheatmeal and walnut-shell austerity, the espresso and graphite elements that characterize the wine’s passage through the mouth. Still, coming back to it in an hour or so reveals its expression of a more approachable side, so give it a chance. A nicely manageable 13.5% alcohol. Production was 983 cases. Excellent potential, 2016 or ’17 through 2020 to ’24. About $48.
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I have been writing about the pinot noir wines of Black Kite Cellars since their releases of 2007, and many of them in subsequent vintages showed up on my annual list of “50 Great Wines” of whatever year. The examples under review today are from 2011 and 2012. Black Kite Cellars traces its origins to 1995, when Donald and Maureen Green bought a 40-acre parcel by the Navarro River just west of Philo in Mendocino County, in a cool area eight miles from the coast. They replanted an old vineyard with pinot noir vines and developed two more blocks on a hill above the river. The first crop was harvested in 2003, and the decision to retain a portion of the grapes to make their own wine brought the concept of Black Kite Cellars, named for a bird indigenous to the region, to fruition. Jeff Gaffner became winemaker in 2004; the first wines he worked on comprised the 2005 bottlings of distinct blocks within the estate. He is also well-known as owner and winemaker of Saxon Brown Wines. Alas, among these five Black Kite pinot noirs is the only product from this usually exemplary winery that I cannot recommend.

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

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

No place else is Burgundy, of course, so no area can hope to duplicate exactly the terroir or the conditions that prevail there. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, for example, the pinot noir grape performs beautifully among those verdant hills and dales, while chardonnay — not that there’s not good chardonnay — is gradually giving over to pinot blanc, pinot gris and riesling. Many regions in California are amenable to chardonnay and pinot noir: Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Maria Valley and other smaller and more isolated areas produce splendid examples of each. It’s not surprising that large producers include both types of wines in their rosters or that small-scale wineries sometimes specialize in just the two.

Today’s post inaugurates a series in which I will be looking at the chardonnay and pinot noir wines of producers in California, sometimes individually, occasionally in groups. There’s a good chance that My Readers have not heard of Gallegos Wines. The close-knit family released its first wines only last year, but its roots in Napa Valley — figuratively and literally — go back three generations. The wine industry in California could not exist without the labor of the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who work in the vineyards and wineries, plant and then tend the vines and grapes through all stages of growth. Increasingly, many of those workers with ties to the land and the industry are starting to make wine too, enough that there’s now a Mexican-American winemakers organization.

Ignacio Gallegos came to California from Michoacan in the 1940s and settled in St. Helena, in Napa Valley, in the mid-1950s. His son, Ignacio II, and grandsons, Eric and Ignacio III, worked in vineyard management and gained the renown that enabled them in 2007 to finally establish their own vineyard management company. Having worked in many of the valley’s finest vineyards, having their own company and with Eric and Ignacio III completing college and courses in viticulture and winemaking, it seemed inevitable that the family would draw on these resources and the grapes from the Rancho de Gallegos estate in the Rutherford bench area, owned by Ignacio II’s brother Maurilio. Gallegos Family Wines produces about 1,000 cases; in addition to the chardonnay and pinot noir reviewed here, there’s a sauvignon blanc, with merlot, petite sirah and cabernet sauvignon coming soon.

These wines were samples for review. Image of Eric, Ignacio II and Ignacio III by Tom Stockwell for the Napa Valley Register.
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The Boekenoogen Vineyard is one of my favorite vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands, and the family that owns and farms the land produces terrific wine from it. The Gallegos Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, is a reflection of the greatness of that land. The color is a limpid medium ruby with mulberry undertones; this is exquisite, evanescent, transformational pinot noir that features slightly fleshy aromas of red currants and cherries flecked with mulberries, violets and rose petals, cloves, allspice and sassafras, and notes of rhubarb with briers and brambles for an earthy element; all amounting to perhaps the most alluring and definitive bouquet on a pinot noir that I have encountered this year. The division of oak is 25 percent new French barrels and 75 percent neutral, though I was not informed about the length of aging; I venture to say not excessive, because the oak influence here is subliminal, a subtle and supple shaping force. The texture is delightfully sleek and satiny, supporting smoky black and red cherry and currant flavors that take on a bit of loam and leathery earthiness through the finish; well-knit and integrated tannins round off the package. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Production was 250 cases. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $42.
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The Charmer Vineyard, owned by Ed Beard Jr. and located in the heart of the Yountville AVA, was planted by Ignacio Gallegos and his brothers more than 30 years ago, so they know it well. They produced 125 cases of the Gallegos Charmer Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Yountville, Napa Valley, a wine that sees only 25 percent new French oak barrels and underwent 25 percent malolactic, the natural chemical transformation that turns sharp malic acid into milder and creamier lactic acid; the result is a chardonnay that retains bright acidity and is not a creamy-butter bomb, while maintaining a lithe, supple almost talc-like texture. The color is pale gold; no denying the richness, in aromas and flavors, the slightly caramelized pineapple and grapefruit with top-notes of jasmine, mango and cloves, but elements of flint and damp gravel and a crisp exhilarating character keep it honest and true. 14.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $29.
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Today’s notes feature eight rosé wines, four from France, three from California and one from the state of Virginia. In style they range from ephemeral to fairly robust. I have to take shots at a couple of these examples, but those are the breaks in the realm of wine reviewing. No attempt at technical, historical, geographical or personal information here (you know, the stuff I really dote on); instead, the intent is to pique your interest and whet your palate. Except for the Calera Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2013, these were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Chateau de Berne Terres de Berne Rosé 2013, Côtes de Provence, France. 13% alc. 50% each grenache and cinsault. Very pale onion skin hue, almost shimmers; light kisses of strawberry, peach and orange rind, hints of dried thyme; bone-dry, crisp and vibrant, loads of scintillating limestone minerality. Really well-made and enjoyable but packaged in an annoying over-designed bottle that’s too tall to fit on a refrigerator shelf. Excellent. About $20.
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Bila-Haut Rosé 2013, Pays d’Oc, France. 13.5% alc. Cinsault and grenache. (From M. Chapoutier) Pretty copper-salmon color; orange zest and raspberries, dusty minerals, notes of rose petals and lavender; quite dry, with limestone austerity, a fairly earthy, rustic style of rose, not in the elegant or delicate fashion. Very Good. About $13.
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Calera Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2013, Central Coast. 14.7% alc. 466 cases. Bright copper-peach color; think of this as a cadet pinot noir in the form of a rosé; currants and plums, raspberry with a bit of briery rasp; notes of smoke and dried Provencal herbs, hints of pomegranate and orange zest; very clean, fresh and vibrant with a damp limestone foundation. Excellent. About $17.
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Dunstan Durell Vineyard Rosé of Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. 13% alc. 92 cases. Light but bright copper-salmon-topaz hue; strawberries and red currants, both fresh and dried, blood orange, note of pomegranate; lovely, lithe and supple but energized by brisk acidity; floral element burgeons and blossoms in the glass, as in rose petals and camellias; very dry, delicate, ethereal yet with a real bedrock of limestone minerality; a touch earthier than the version of 2012. Excellent. About $25.
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Domaine de la Mordorée “La Dame Rousse” 2013, Tavel, France. 14.5% alc. 60% grenache, 10% each cinsault, syrah and mourvèdre, 5% each bourboulenc and clairette. Brilliant strawberry-copper color; strawberries, raspberries and red currants with a touch of peach; very dry and fairly robust for rosé; notes of dried herbs and summer flowers, dominant component of limestone and flint, almost tannic in effect, but overall high-toned and elegant. Excellent. About $30.
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Notorious Pink 2013, Vin de France. Alc% NA. 100% grenache. (Domaine la Colombette) Better to call this one Innocuous Pink. Carries delicacy to the point of attenuation; very pale onion skin color; faintest tinge of strawberry, bare hint of orange zest and limestone; fairly neutral all the way round. Comes in an upscale frosted bottle, woo-hoo. Good. About $20.
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Stinson Vineyards Rosé 2013, Virginia, USA. 12% alc. 100 percent mourvèdre. 120 cases. Ruddy onion skin hue; fresh strawberries and raspberries with cloves and slightly dusty graphite in the back; notes of orange pekoe tea and dried red currants; a little fleshy and floral; bright acidity and a mild limestone-like finish. Very Good+. About $18.
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Robert Turner Wines Mosaic Rosé of Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Lucia Highlands. 14% alc. With 15% cabernet franc. 25 cases. Pale copper-onion skin color; musky and dusky melon, raspberry and strawberry with notes of pomegranate and rhubarb; finely-knit texture, delicate, elegant, lively, with a honed limestone finish. Excellent. About $22.
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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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The black kite of the winery name is not a fabrication of paper and sticks tossed on the wind at the end of a long string but a species of bird. Black Kite Cellars traces its origins to 1995, when Donald and Maureen Green bought a 40-acre parcel by the Navarro River just west of Philo in Mendocino County, in a cool area eight miles from the coast. They replanted an old vineyard with pinot noir vines and developed two more blocks on a hill above the river. The first crop was harvested in 2003, and the decision to retain a portion of the grapes to make their own wine brought the concept of Black Kite Cellars, named for a bird indigenous to the region, to fruition. Jeff Gaffner became winemaker in 2004; the first wines he worked on comprised the 2005 bottlings of distinct blocks within the estate. Black Kite pinot noirs showed up on my lists of 50 Great Wines of 2009 and 50 Great of 2011.
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Black Kite “Kite’s Rest” 2010 and Black Kite “Kite’s Rest” 2011, Anderson Valley. 14.5 and 14.3 percent alcohol respectively. These spend about 11 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The ’10 version offers a medium ruby-magenta hue and enticing aromas and flavors of rhubarb, sassafras, beetroot and cranberries; the wine is lively and vibrant, with piercing slate-like minerality and slightly dusty tannins. Lovely purity and intensity. 541 cases. Now through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $45. The ’11 rendition displays a light ruby-red cherry color; it’s much more reticent than the ’10 and more structured, with leathery tannins, briers and brambles and a pronounced graphite mineral element. Pretty tightly wound. 953 cases. Try from 2015 through 2020. Very Good+. About $45.
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Black Kite Soberanes Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 and Black Kite Soberanes Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands.
The alcohol content is 14.6 percent for 2010, 14.9 percent for 2011. These wines also age about 11 months in French oak but in 50 percent new barrels. The ’10 sports a vivid dark ruby-garnet color; the wine is ripe and a little fleshy and funky, with a dollop of briery earthiness and tinges of smoke. Scents and flavors of black cherries, currants and blueberries are infused with cloves and sandalwood for an overall sense of spicy warmth. 149 cases. Drink through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $55. The Soberanes ’11 is perhaps the most attractive of this group of pinot noirs from Black Kite. The color is lustrous medium ruby; heady aromas of sassafras, rhubarb, cranberry and blueberry are permeated by notes of cloves, macerated black cherries, briers and brambles; the wine is super satiny yet a touch raspy and underbrushy; you feel the earth and the roots; bright acidity keeps it lively, while mild slightly dusty tannins add depth. Great purity and intensity. 273 cases. Drink through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $55.
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Black Kite Stony Terrace Pinot Noir 2010, Anderson Valley. The color is medium ruby, slightly lighter at the rim; a sniff opens a trove of cloves, lavender and lilacs, black cherries and red currants, a hint of plums and mint; lip-smacking acidity and smacky tannins give the wine a lively and somewhat substantial structure, though the whole impression is of a pinot noir that revels in being clean, fresh and wild. 14.6 percent alcohol. 153 cases. Now through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $52.
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Black Kite Redwood’s Edge Block Pinot Noir 2010, Anderson Valley. The color is medium ruby with a mulberry tinge; violets and lavender form the leading edge of a bouquet that teems with notes of red and black currants and red and black cherries, highlighted with cloves, sassafras and underbrush. In the mouth, this pinot noir is super succulent and supple, spicy and savory, but it’s also quite dry and — speaking of redwood — the oak emerges to a slightly obtrusive degree. 14.6 percent alcohol. Perhaps a year or two with help it smooth out. 149 cases. Very Good+. About $55.
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Black Kite Rivers Turn Pinot Noir 2010, Anderson Valley. The medium ruby color carries a touch of magenta; this is cool with penetrating graphite-tinged minerals; warm with clove-spiked spice; lively with arrow-bright acidity; succulent with black and blue fruit flavors; shapely with mildly dusty tannins and oak; richly detailed with notes of rose petals, pomegranate, cranberry, briers and brambles. I love it. Drink now through 2018 or ’19. 152 cases. Excellent. About $52.
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Black Kite Angel Hawk Reserve Pinot Noir 2010, Anderson Valley. This reserve wine, which sees 20 months in French oak, derives from the winery’s Kites Rest Vineyard. The color is a limpid medium ruby with marked intensity of hue, I mean fucking gorgeous; aromas of spiced and macerated plums and red and black cherries and currants are permeated by hints of rose petals and lilac. It’s a substantial pinot noir, as befits a reserve wine, but it does not overwhelm with sheer size or oaken influence; it is, instead, supple and mouth-filling, and it displays layers of briers, brambles, graphite and moderately dusty tannins for foundation and framing. 14.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 to ’20. 114 cases. Excellent. About $80.
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Two weeks ago in this space I dissed a number of chardonnay wines from Cuvaison, Davis Bynum, La Follette and La Rochelle wineries. Today, in addition to other pinot noir wines from California, I offer some reviews of successful pinot noirs from the aforementioned producers, not in recompense — I would never do that — but to show that they can indeed make wines that are balanced and authentic. So, 12 wines, brief reviews, no emphasis on technical, historical, geographical or personal data but just my notes, some taken directly — ripped, as it were — from my notebook pages, some expanded upon a bit; but all designed to pique your interest and whet your palate. Most of these pinots, whose ratings fall into the narrow range of Very Good+ to Excellent, do not conform to my notion of the grape’s hallowed ideal of delicacy, elegance and tensile strength, being more about structure and power, though on the California model they tend to perform well. These were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Cuvaison Estate grown Pinot Noir 2011, Napa Valley Carneros. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby-magenta color; very spicy, earthy and rooty, with moderate tannins and acidity that cuts a swath; still, super satiny in a fairly lithe manner and quite attractive with notes of red and black cherries, red currants, hints of rhubarb, cranberry and cloves; briers and brambles in the background and a touch of graphite. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $38.
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Davis Bynum Jane’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River valley. 14.5% alc. Medium ruby-mulberry color, slightly lighter ar the rim; exotic nose of cloves, allspice and sandalwood, like incense in your hippie pad; plums, red currants, cranberries; dense, chewy a bit more drapery than ordinary satin; rich with smoky plum flavors, black and red cherries; one feels indulged, a little decadent, though the earth-mint-mineral elements surge forth through the finish. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Davis Bynum Jane’s Vineyard Garfield Block Pinot Noir 2011. Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. 500 cases. This more limited version of the previous wine (in origin and production) is a shade darker in color, a little tighter, a bit more focused and delineated; it’s very supple and satiny but displays more of a tannic and mineral presence under its dark, succulent and spicy red and black cherry fruit with overtones of plums and mulberries; long, deep, earthy finish. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $60.
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DeLoach Vineyards Olivet Bench Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River Valley.13.5% alc. 499 cases. Medium ruby-mulberry color; plums and rhubarb, red and black cherries with a hint of cranberry after a few moments; dusty graphite, very spicy, exotic; dry, minerally, muscular, almost rigorous but super-satiny in texture; you feel the rooty-barky qualities and the undertow of tannin and oak. Try 2014 or ’15 through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $NA.
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Frank Family Pinot Noir 2011, Napa Valley Carneros. 14.5% alc. Radiant ruby-cranberry color; cloves, rhubarb and pomegranate, red cherries and currants, white pepper; smooth, sleek, suave and satiny; fairly tannic and rigorous after 30 or 40 minutes, with a full complement of earthy, briery, underbrushy and graphite elements but doesn’t lose its essential succulence and flavorful sway. Now through 2016 to ’17. Excellent. About $35.
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La Follette Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma Coast. 12.9% alc (lovely!) 536 cases. Medium ruby with a touch of violet-blue magenta; meaty and fleshy, spiced and macerated; succulent and smoky red cherry and plum flavors imbued with briers, brambles and an underbrushy element; intensely spicy, intensely floral; superbly satiny texture but a rather startling structure for a pinot noir that needs a couple of years to find its footing. Try 2015 through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $40.
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La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands. 15.2% alc. 381 cases. Medium ruby color with a trace of garnet at the rim; big, dense, pithy, sappy pinot noir, rich, warm and spicy but thrown off balance a bit by the high alcohol, which makes a distinct presence on the finish. Very Good+. About $38.
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La Rochelle Donum Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Carneros. 14.7% alc. 259 six-packs. Medium ruby color with lovely transparency; better balance here than with the previously noted wine; the drawers of the bureau of exotic spices thrown wide, making for a heady and seductive bouquet and intriguing flavors of red and black currants, pomegranate and rhubarb; bright acidity plows a furrow through layers of briers, brambles and graphite, all the while the wine displays beautiful purity and intensity. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $75.
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MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2011, Central Coast. 14.3% alc. Medium ruby-mulberry color, trace of magenta at the rim; notes of pomegranate, cranberry and rhubarb open to red and black cherries permeated by cloves and cola; quite dry, a little mossy and briery; ripping acidity; attractive, lively and tasty though no great depth. Very Good+. About $23.
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MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby color; rhubarb, cranberry, cola and cloves, touch of plum, interesting note of mint; leans more to black and red cherries in flavor; gains body and substance as minutes pass, a little rooty and mossy with tannins and earthy elements; very dry finish, oak and granitic minerality. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $28.
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MacMurray Ranch Reserve Pinot Noir 2010, Russian River Valley. 15.2% alc. Dark ruby color with a touch of garnet; big, dry, leather and graphite; comes close to being dramatic; quite rich, warm and spicy but riven by scintillating acidity and dusty, dusky tannins; you feel the oak and alcohol on the finish. Not my favorite style for pinot noir. Now through 2016 to ’18. Very Good+. About $37.
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Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Luicia Highlands. 14.2% alc. Medium ruby-magenta color with a pure violet rim; black and red cherries and currants; pomegranate, rhubarb and sassafras, hint of cloves; succulent but spare, elegant, lithe and muscular; scintillating acidity and granitic minerality; riveting purity and intensity of the grape and the vineyard. Always a favorite in our house. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $54.
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I keep reading that there has been a general toning down of oak in chardonnay wines produced in California, but you wouldn’t know it from the wines I taste, of which I offer today a selection of 16. I’ve uttered these sentences before, and I’ll probably utter them many more times before I close the computer a final time and drag my weary fingers to the catacombs, and I don’t care if you’re tired of reading them; to wit: If a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, it has too much oak. AND: Oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible. Oak barrels are instruments, and they should not define a wine or establish its character; definition and character derive from the vineyard and the grape. It traduces every aspect of common sense that winemakers would want to send out into the world and into the grasp of innocent consumers chardonnays that taste as if they were made from liquid sawdust, yet many chardonnay wines feel exactly like that … and they’re not cheap. To those who say, “But, FK, plenty of people like their chardonnays to smell and taste like oak,” my reply is “Fine, start your own blog. Call it ILoveToastyOak.com.” This, however, is my blog, and on this blog we abhor wines that obliterate the purity and intensity of the grape and the authority of the vineyard through the heavy-handed agency of oak barrels.

Anyway, the scorecard today reads Excellent, 4; Very Good+, 5; Very Good, 1; Good, 1; Not Recommended 5. Among the Not Recommended chardonnay’s but also earning an Excellent rating are three from La Rochelle, a winery I admire for its individuality and willingness to take risks, though that’s a stance that to my palate doesn’t always work, as you can see. Still, I would rather a winery extend itself and skate sometimes over the edge than produce more bland innocuous “me-too” wines.

As usual in these Weekend Wine Notes (previously Weekend Wine Sips and before that Friday Wine Sips), I eschew reams of technical, geographical, geological, climatic and historical data for quick incisive reviews designed to pique your interest, if not, in some cases, whet your palate. Enjoy! (Or not.)

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Artesa Chardonnay 2011, Carneros. 13.8% alc. Pale gold color; clean and fresh, touches of apple and pear, hint of pineapple; quite spicy, smooth and supple, not creamy or viscous, “just right” as Goldilocks said; almost savory in its slightly roasted fruit qualities and modulated spicy aspects; bright acidity, and the limestone and flint elements and sense of oak expand through the finish. Nicely-made. Very Good+. About $20.
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Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay Reserve 2010, Carneros Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. A bold and powerful expression of the grape but balanced and integrated; bright medium gold color; pineapple and grapefruit, ginger and quince, hint of cloves; wet stones and flint mineral element that grows as the moments pass; no doubt about the oak but it contributes creaminess to the mid-palate, a supple texture and spice; long spice-and-mineral-packed finish; tremendous tone and presence. 14.9% alc. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $55.
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Cuvaison Estate Grown Chardonnay 2011, Carneros Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. The last Carneros Chardonnay I reviewed from Cuvaison was the 2007; I rated it “Excellent.” Not this example. Pale to medium gold color; bright, bold, ripe, spicy; you feel the oak from the moment you take a sip; grapefruit and pineapple, notes of lemon and lemon curd; plays a subtle floral card; plenty of acid and limestone minerality; supple texture at first but it feels as if the wine stiffens and becomes slightly unyielding with oak, which coats the palate and leave an astringent sensation in the mouth. Perhaps a year or two will help. Good only. About $25.
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Davis Bynum River West Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. First note: “Man, that’s a lot of wood.” & it goes on from there. Medium gold color; insistently spicy and cloying; austere and astringent oak dries the palate unpleasantly; like drinking liquid sawdust. Not recommended and consistent with my reviews of Davis Bynum chardonnay (and pinot noir) from previous vintages. About $30.
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Dry Creek Vineyard Foggy Oaks Chardonnay 2010, Russian River valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; apples, pears and grapefruit, undercurrent of pineapple, moderately spicy, firm foundation of gunflint and limestone; lovely balance and poise, shaped by vibrant acidity and a burgeoning oak element that provides a modulating quality to the wine’s richness. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $20, signifying Great Value.
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Ferrari-Carano Tre Terre Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. “Vineyard Select Limited Production.” Bright medium gold color; banana and mango, baked grapefruit and pineapple, cloves and smoke; big, deep, rich and savory; bacon fat, ginger, lemon balm, have mercy; feels like multiple layers of limestone and flint-like minerality; a bit daunting and needs a little nuance and elegance, but not over-oaked, not cloying. Perhaps it needs a year of age. Very Good+. About $32.
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Gallo Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. 87% Laguna Vineyard, 13% Del Rio Vineyard. I always thought the winemaker’s thumbprint — in this case Gina Gallo, whose name is on the front label twice — was too heavy on this wine; bright medium gold color; rich, warm, spicy, almost dense and chewy for a chardonnay; very ripe citrus and tropical scents and flavors; butterscotch, vanilla, cloves — what is this, a dessert cart? the oak and spice elements are overwhelming; so unbalanced. Not Recommended. About $30.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Pale gold color; fresh, clean, bright; pungent with cloves, slightly roasted peaches and yellow plums melded with pineapple and grapefruit with a whiff of white pepper; smoky oak, smoky caramel around the edges, quite dry yet feels innately balanced. Now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $35.
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You could call this, if you were generous, and I know you are, an Early Weekend Wine Sips instead of what it is, a Way Late Weekend Wine Sips, but the weekend starts tomorrow, right, so everything is OK. Nous sommes tres eclectic today, as we touch several regions of California, as well as Chile, Portugal, Washington state and France’s renowned Bordeaux region. We are eclectic, too, in the various genres, styles and grape varieties featured here. Minimal attention to matters technical, historical, geographical and personal, the emphasis is these Weekend Wine sips being in instantaneous and incisive reviews designed to whet your interest as well as your palate. These were all samples for review. Enjoy! Drink well, but moderately! Have a great life…
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Meli Dry Riesling 2012, Maule Valley, Chile. 12.5% alc. Always one of our favorite rieslings, made from 60-year-old vines. Terrific personality; pale straw-gold color; peaches and pears, lychee and grapefruit, hints of petrol and honeysuckle; sleek with clean acidity and a flinty mineral quality, yet soft and ripe; citrus flavors infused with spice and steel; quite dry, a long flavorful finish tempered by taut slightly austere structure. Very Good+. About $12, a Great Bargain.
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Six Degrees Pinot Noir 2011, California. 13.5% Alc. So, whatya want in a $14 pinot? Medium ruby color; pleasant and moderately pungent nose of red and black cherries and raspberries, notes of cola, cloves and rhubarb; attractive mildly satiny texture, undertones of briers and brambles; smooth, spicy finish. Drink up. Very Good. About $14.
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Quinta do Vallado Rosado 2012, Douro Valley, Portugal. 12.5% alc. 100% touriga nacional grapes. Pale pinkish-onion skin color; charming and rather chastening as well; dried strawberries and currants, hints of cloves and orange zest; lithe and stony, clean acidity cuts a swath; a few minutes in the glass unfold notes of rose petals and rosemary; finish aims straight through limestone minerality. Now through 2014. Very Good+. About $15, Good Value.
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Morgan Winery “Highland” Chardonnay 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 14.2% alc. Medium straw-gold color; boldly ripe and fruity, boldly spicy, suave and sleek with notes of pineapple and grapefruit, lightly macerated peach; hints of quince and ginger; real abs of ripping acidity for structure, lithely wrapping a damp gravel mineral element; oak? yep, but subtle and supple; finish packed with spice and minerals. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $27.
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Chateau Durfort-Vivens 2006, Margaux, Bordeaux, France. 13% alc. 70% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot. (Second Growth in the 1855 Classification) Medium ruby color; ripe, fleshy, meaty and spicy; black and red currants and raspberries; classic notes of cedar, tobacco and bay leaf, hint of pepper and black olive; dry, highly structured, grainy but polished tannins. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $45 (up to $60 in some markets).
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Les Fiefs de Lagrange 2010, Saint-Julien, Bordeaux, France. 13.5% alc. 50% cabernet sauvignon, 50% merlot. The “second” label of Chateau Lagrange. Dark ruby color, almost opaque at the center; smoky, spicy, macerated black and red berry scents and flavors; deeply inflected with notes of cedar, thyme and graphite; deep, dry dusty tannins and an imperturbable granitic quality, best from 2015 or ’16 through 2020 to ’24. Excellent potential. About $50 (but found as low as $35).
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Bonny Doon Beeswax Vineyard Reserve Le Cigare Blanc 2010, Arroyo Seco. 12.4% alc. 56% roussanne, 44% grenache blanc. 497 cases. Demeter-certified biodynamic. Pale gold color, hint of green highlights; beeswax indeed, dried honey, lightly spiced pears and peaches, touch of roasted hazelnuts, backnotes of straw, thyme and rosemary, with rosemary’s slight resinous quality; very dry, paradoxically poised between a generous, expansive nature and spare elegance; savory, saline, clean and breezy; roasted lemon and grapefruit flavors, all tunneling toward a suave, spicy, limestone inflected finish. Wonderful wine with grilled or seared salmon and swordfish. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $50 .
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SKW Ghielmetti Vineyard “Small-Lot” Cabernet Franc 2010, Livermore Valley. (Steven Kent Winery) 13.6% alc. 48 cases produced. Deep ruby-purple color; smoky, earthy, loamy, granitic; notes of blueberries and black raspberries, sandalwood and cloves; leather, licorice and lavender; a hint of tobacco and black olive; prodigal tannins and potent acidity, with a fathomless mineral element, all tending toward some distance and austerity but neither overwhelming the essential succulent black and blue fruit flavors; a physical and perhaps spiritual marriage of power and elegance. Now through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional. About $50.
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Cakebread Cellars Pinot Noir 2010, Anderson Valley, Mendocino. 14.5% alc. Translucent medium ruby color; pure red licorice and raspberries; red currants, cloves, pomegranate; briery and brambly; fairly rigorous tannins from mid-palate back; acidity cuts a swath; exotic spice, lavender; builds tannic and mineral power as the moments pass but retains suavity and elegance. Now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $50.
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Morgan Winery Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 13.9% alc. 187 cases. Deep, lush, delicious, warm spice and cool minerals; black raspberries, rhubarb and a touch of sour cherry and melon; cloves and sassafras; sweet ripeness balanced by savory qualities; berry tart with a hint of cream but essentially modulated by bright acidity and a slightly briery foresty element. Just freaking lovely. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $54.
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Long Shadows Pedestal Merlot 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington. 14.5% alc. Dark ruby color; iron, iodine and mint, ripe and intense cassis and raspberries, inflected with cloves, allspice, lavender and licorice; deep, dark, earthy, the panoply of graphite and granitic minerality; dense, dusty packed fine-grained tannins coat the mouth; tons of tone, presence and character. Try 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’24. Great merlot. Excellent. About $60.
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En Route Les Pommiers Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. Ravishing medium ruby color with a magenta-violet rim; a penetrating core of iodine and graphite minerality; black and red cherries, black and red currents, fleshy, earthy, savory and saline; dry, chewy yet super-satiny without being plush or opulent, keeps to the structural side, though, boy, it’s delicious. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $65.
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