Santa Maria Valley


Looking for a true Rhone Valley experience in a California red wine? Well, then, you should be. bns12c_bottle_180x579pxIn any case, look for a bottle of the Bonny Doon Bien Nacido X-Block Syrah 2012, Santa Maria Valley. In all its wild and woolly and autumnal 100 percent syrah nature, the wine feels elemental, fundamental and inevitable. The color is an opaque black-ruby shading to a glowing violet rim; aromas of roasted meat and wet dog are foresty and loamy, opening to notes of macerated and slightly stewed blackberries, currants and plums; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of black pepper, tar, oolong tea and fruitcake, iodine, smoke and roasted fennel, with a bell-tone of blueberry. This syrah rests on deep foundations of briery and granitic tannic power and dynamic acidity, combined with very intense and concentrated black fruit flavors, polished oak and graphite minerality, these factors meshing across the palate and culminating in a brooding, darksome, feral finish. 13 percent alcohol. Tremendous character and personality. Production was 313 cases. The wine is a natural with braised short ribs or veal shanks and such cool-weather fare, though we drank it happily with black bean and sweet potato chili. Now through 2020 to ’22. Exceptional. About $50.

A sample for review.

Etude Wines was founded in 1982 in Napa Valley by Tony Soter to focus on cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir made from purchased grapes grown in highly regarded vineyards. After a series of purchases, acquisitions and transformations, Etude is owned by Treasury Wine Estates, along with a rather astonishing roster of properties in California, Australia and other regions. The winery still concentrates on pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, usually produced from named vineyards in small quantities. Under review today are six of Etude’s single-vineyard pinot noir wines from 2014, touching AVAs in Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills in California; Yamhill-Carlton in Willamette Valley; and Central Otago in New Zealand. Winemaker is Jon Priest. These are, let me just say, splendid examples of the pinot noir grape and the resonance rung upon it by specific locations. Priest sensibly employs a minimal amount of oak, as well as keeping alcohol levels to reasonable levels. These are all worth searching for.

Samples for review.
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The Etude Ellenbach Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Sonoma Coast, aged 13 months in French oak, percent new barrels. The steeply sloping vineyard sits at around 800 feet elevation, just above the morning fog line, four miles east of the Pacific Ocean. The color is dark ruby-mulberry with a slightly paler rim. A burst of cloves, allspice and sandalwood precedes notes of a compote of black and red cherries and plums, wreathed with loam and graphite, mint and iodine, presided over by high-tones of pomegranate and cranberry; pretty heady stuff, all right. On the palate, this pinot noir brings in more red fruit — cherries and currants — its deeply spicy character buoyed by slightly flinty minerality, dusty tannins and lively acidity that cuts a swath on the tongue. The finish delivers a polished melange of spice, graphite tinged minerals and an element of heathery meadow flowers. 14.8 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $60.
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The Etude Grace Benoist Ranch Estate Grown Pinot Noir 2014, Carneros, aged 12 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels. Located at the northwest corner of the Carneros AVA, the vineyard features various types of well-drained, rocky volcanic soils and is influenced by breezes from the Pacific. The color is medium mulberry-magenta shading to a transparent circumference. Scents of red and black cherries are permeated by notes of sassafras, pomegranate and cranberry, talc, lilac and rose petals; the perfume grows deeper and more redolent as the moments pass. This pinot noir embodies beautiful shape and substance, flowing on the tongue like perfection in a lithe, supple stream of satiny texture; there’s a touch of baked plum in the red and black fruit flavors and a strain of dusty graphite minerality to the subtle yet skillfully chiseled tannins. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $45.
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The superlative transparent violet-magenta hue of the Etude North Canyon Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Maria Valley, belies the seriousness of its frame and foundation and its earthy, loamy character. The vineyard, planted in calcareous clay sandstone, lies in a secluded canyon that’s a bit more exposed to sunlight and a bit warmer than the rest of the valley. The wine aged 10 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels, the least oak influence of these six wines. A complex array of spicy effects — cloves, sassafras and cumin — heightens elements of ripe red and black cherries that open to notes of wild berries and oolong tea, pomegranate and cranberries. A profoundly earthy, loamy character penetrates the entire enterprise, lending deep roots for its graphite-tinged tannins and minerality. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2021 to ’25. Excellent. About $45.
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Location is everything, n’est-ce pas? For example, the Fiddlestix Vineyard lies in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA that is part of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, all encompassed by Santa Barbara County. The hills and ranges run east and west here, unusual for California where the typical etu_12fiddlestix_pinot_nv_400x126 mountainous orientation is north-south, and a configuration that allows a direct inlet for fog and cooling ocean breezes. The vineyard receives its share of those daily climatic events but stands low enough against the hills to be sheltered from strong afternoon winds. The combination of exposure and protection with well-drained clay-loam and calcareous marine shale soils results in pinot noir wines of great depth and finesse.

The Etude Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Sta. Rita Hills, aged 12 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels. The color is a transparent medium ruby-magenta hue of transfixing radiance; aromas of rhubarb, sassafras and sandalwood, pomegranate and cranberry, smoky black cherries and plums achieve a Platonic level of loveliness, while on the palate the wine is lithe, supple and satiny. juicy black and red cherry flavors reach down to elements of some rooty black tea, talc and chalk and a kind of gravelly condensation of graphite minerality. A few minutes in the glass bring out notes of rose petals and lavender. Redolent, even pungent; deeply spicy and flavorful; elegant and fine-boned yet with a dynamic of bright acidity, lightly dusted tannins and the shaping force of subtle oak — this is one of the most complete and wholly beautiful pinot noirs I have tasted this year. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 to ’24. Exceptional. About $45.
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This wine takes us to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Approved in 2004, the Yamhill-Carlton District AVA is a horse-shoe shaped region that includes only acreage that lies between 200 and 1,000 feet elevation, where marine sediments compose some of the oldest soil in Willamette Valley. The vineyard from which this wine is derived stands at 600 feet. The Etude Yamhill Vista Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Yamhill-Carlton District, aged 13 months in French oak, 33 percent new barrels. The color is transparent medium ruby shading to a mulberry rim; to notes of black cherries and plums, pomegranate and cranberry, the wine adds touches of tobacco and black tea, mint and iodine, as well as the deep loamy character typical of Willamette Valley pinot noir. The texture is superbly satiny, though powered by swingeing acidity and energetic tannins; the wine is quite dry, revealing an immediacy of granitic minerality that leads to a brooding, chiseled finish. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2021 to ’24. Excellent. About $60.
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Talk about far afield, this wine takes us to New Zealand and Central Otago, the world’s southernmost wine region. The Etude Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2014, Central Otago, spent 12 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. I found this to be an extremely fine-grained, richly detailed and slightly exotic pinot noir. The color is transparent magenta-mulberry with a delicate rim; aromas of macerated and lightly stewed red and black cherries are permeated by notes of cloves and allspice, red licorice and violets, loam and damp wood ash; after 15 or 20 minutes, the bouquet unfurls hints of cedar, iodine and rosemary. Nothing opulent or flamboyant here, the wine is spare and honed, riven by arrows of acidity and borne by gravel-like minerality and layers of loam and foresty elements. 13.8 percent alcohol. I loved it. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $60.
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For the 18th entry in this series about chardonnay and pinot noir wines, mainly from California but occasionally from elsewhere, I offer 15 reviews that mention wines whose geographical origins range from Anderson Valley and Mendocino Ridge in the north, in Mendocino County, to Santa Maria Valley in the south, in Santa Barbara County. Some threads of the grapes’ innate characters run through the wines — certain central and peripheral fruit scents and flavors, certain spice notions, some earthy, minerally qualities — with differences among the wines derived from radical and inevitable variations in climate, elevation, exposure and soil type, the elements that comprise terroir. The issue of oak is involved, of course, with winemakers making decisions about how long to age their wines in wood and what percentage of new oak barrels to use. I prefer wines with a light oak (or no oak) thumbprint, so I’m pleased to say that none of these wines — 13 pinots, 2 chardonnays — is swamped by an overbearing oak influence. The wines considered today are all pretty terrific, a few more terrificker than the others, but I promise you would not turn any of them down. The order is alphabetical.

These wines were samples for review, as I am required to inform you by ruling of the Federal Trade Commission.
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The first vintage from this celebrated vineyard for the winery, the Black Kite Cellars bk-pinotGap’s Crown Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, displays a dark ruby-magenta hue and riveting scents of cranberry and pomegranate, black cherries and raspberries, sassafras and sandalwood, all strung on a line of rooty, loamy elements and graphite minerality. This is a remarkably clean, fresh and bright pinot noir yet also dusty, musky and bosky — three of the Seven Dwarves — and burgeoning with deeply spiced black and red berry flavors. It’s sleek and smooth, animated by brisk acidity and founded on layers of moderate tannins flecked with notes of iodine and iron. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 273 cases. Drink now through 2020 to 2023. Excellent. About $55.
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The pale gold Black Kite Cellars Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay 2014, Santa Lucia bk-chardHighlands, aged 10 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels, and I would say that regimen was just right, because this is a chardonnay of righteous and star-like purity and intensity. Notes of ripe pineapple and grapefruit are infused with hints of cloves, almond skin and toasted hazelnuts; a few minutes in the glass bring out elements of lilac and jasmine and lustrous limestone minerality. On the palate, this chardonnay adds a bit of peach to the citrus flavors, all enclosed by a talc-like texture riven by bright acidity and lacy, etched layers of flint and damp stones; the whole package feels impeccable, beguiling and authoritative in tone, presence and character. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020 to 2024. Production was 212 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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The Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2013, Carneros, aged 14 months in French oak, 60 donum-estate-grown-carneros-pinot-noir-napa-county-usa-10332775percent new barrels. The color is dense, dark ruby; aromas of black and red currants, cherries and plums are deeply imbued with notes of cloves, nutmeg, allspice and sandalwood, together exuding hints of the exotic astringency of woody Asian spices. In the nose and on the palate, the fruit feels slightly brandied, as in a macedoine, and also a bit ripe, fleshy and roasted. The complexity of the nuances and layers is heady and seductive. Super satiny in texture, suave and supple, this pinot noir partakes of leather and loam, pomegranate and beetroot, buoyed by lively acidity yet rather brooding through the finish. 14.7 percent alcohol. Production was 650 cases. Drink through 2020 through 2023. Winemaker was Dan Fishman. Excellent. About $72.
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The Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, aged in French oak, 70 percent new barrels, number of months undetermined. The color is a transparent medium ruby-magenta hue; the wine is reticent and slow to yield its character, though it opens to reserves of intense and concentrated black cherries, raspberries and plums infused by cloves and bittersweet chocolate, brambles and underbrush, iodine and loam. A few moments in the glass reveal notes of lavender and violets. This pinot noir is dense, almost chewy and feels pretty damned rigorous in its tannic-mineral nature. Try from 2018 through 2024 or ’25. Production was 890 cases. Excellent (potential). About $72.
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Mendocino Ridge is one of the rare vineyard regions in the world in which the geographical components are not contiguous, the only such AVA in the United States. Instead, this AVA runs along a series of mountain peaks above 1,200 feet elevation. While the total area encompasses about 262,000 acres, actual vines amount to 237 acres, divided among 17 vineyards. The Ferrari-Carano Sky High Ranch Pinot Noir 2014, Mendocino Ridge, offers a dark ruby hue shading to a lighter magenta rim; aromas and flavors tend toward the more shadowed, exotic and spicy side of the grape, replete with sassafras, cloves, sandalwood and lavender in a foundation of ripe, dusky black cherries and currants and a dash of pomegranate. The texture is satiny with a sensuous drape on the palate, though enlivened by buoyant acidity. The wine aged 10 months in French oak, 42 percent new barrels. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020. Excellent. About $52.
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Another example from this vineyard in Sonoma County’s Petaluma Gap, the Gary Farrell Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, aged 14 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. Offering a transparent medium ruby hue shading to mulberry, the wine delivers intense aromas of black cherries and raspberries coated with talc and loam and opening after a few moments in the glass to notes of melon and sour cherry, cloves and pomegranate, sassafras and sandalwood; the wine is dense and supple on the palate, lively and engaging in its acidity and finely balanced between ripe succulent black fruit flavors, brooding tannins and graphite minerality. 14.2 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Theresa Heredia. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Production was 495 cases. Excellent. About $70.
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The J Vineyards and Winery Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley, is the best bottling of the winery’s “regular” pinot noir that I have tasted in years. Winemaker is Nicole Hitchcock. The wine aged nine months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is an entrancing medium ruby flushed with magenta; aromas of red and black cherries and currants, with infusions of sour cherry and cherry pit, are imbued with briery-brambly elements and exotic notes of smoke, sassafras and sandalwood; a few moments in the glass bring out hints of leather and tobacco. This is a bright and feral pinot noir, deep, savory and super-satiny in texture; it’s quite dry but packed with the sweet ripeness of red and black fruit married to the rigor of dusty, graphite-slicked tannins and undertones of loam, roots and branches. 14.3 percent alcohol. A terrific balance of the ethereal and the earthy. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. E & J Gallo purchased J Vineyards and Winery in March 2015. Excellent. About $40.
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The Kendall-Jackson Jackson Estate Pinot Noir 2014, Anderson Valley, aged 11 months in French oak, 29 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby fading to a transparent magenta rim; this is a deep, spicy, minerally and powerful expression of the pinot noir grape, loaded with elements of black plums and cherries, pomegranate and cranberry, white pepper, cloves and sassafras. It’s dense, sleek, supple and satiny on the palate, brimming with dark ripe fruit and burgeoning with briery-brambly qualities marked by leather and forest floor, cedar and tobacco and a touch of dried sage and thyme. While the wine could, from my lights, use more grace and finesse, it’s a good example of pinot noir in its more muscular guise. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2021 to ’24. Excellent. About $32.
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Lazy Creek Vineyards in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, is owned by Don and Rhonda Carano, owners of the better-known and much larger Farrari-Carano winery in Sonoma County. Winemaker for Lazy Creek is Christy Ackerman. The Middleridge Ranch vineyard lies at 1,200 to 1,400 elevation. The Lazy Creek Middleridge Ranch Pinot Noir 2014, Anderson Valley, aged 10 months in a mixture of new and used French oak barrels. The color is dark ruby shading to a transparent magenta rim; intense and concentrated aromas of black cherries and plums are infused with notes of cloves and sassafras, rhubarb and sandalwood, rose petals and violets, altogether forming an exotic and seductive aura. Exquisite balance between succulence and a velvety texture, on the one hand, and a spare effect based on vital, lively acidity and a bracing brambly-branchy element on the other, lends the wine an exciting sense of tension and resolution. The finish brings up dry leathery tannins and hints of black cherries cloaked in bittersweet chocolate. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 418 cases. Drink now through 2021 to ’24. Excellent. About $50.
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The AVA is one of those intricate ones, a small “valley,” characterized primarily by cool macphail-logoclimate and fog, nestled at the southwestern border of a larger “valley” that lies within the broad Sonoma County AVA (American Viticultural Area). The MacPhail Sundawg Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, aged 16 months in French oak, 35 percent new barrels. The beguiling color is transparent medium ruby shading to an ethereal mulberry rim; this is a dark, spicy smoky pinot noir — I immediately thought of it served with seared duck breast, braised fennel and turnips — that features ripe and slightly macerated, roasted black and red cherries and plums permeated by notes of sassafras and rhubarb. The wine flows like satin drapery over the palate, where it feels animated by bright acidity and shadowed by elements of briers, brambles and forest floor, lending an autumnal cast to the proceedings, and lightly sanded and dusted tannins. 14.7 percent alcohol. Production was 650 cases. Drink now through 2019 through ’22. Excellent. About $49.
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The Three Sticks Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Maria Valley, aged 3-bien-nacido10 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The color is transparent medium ruby from center to slightly faded rim; the bouquet is intensely floral, opening to notes of red and black cherries, pomegranate and cranberry and displaying discreet tones of loam, cloves and rhubarb, with earthy briers and brambles in the background. The texture is quite sleek and satiny but not voluptuous, and despite juicy black and red fruit flavors, the wine is dry and a little foresty. A few minutes in the glass bring in hints of rose petals and sandalwood, mocha, leather and graphite, lending a slightly exotic air to the whole delicious enterprise. 13.9 percent alcohol. Lovely allure and complexity. Production was 243 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $60.
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The Three Sticks “The James” Pinot Noir 2014, Sta. Rita Hills, aged 10 months 3-jamesin French oak, 35 percent new barrels. It begins with an enchanting transparent medium ruby-magenta hue that fades to an invisible rim; at first it feels like all spices, with notes of cloves and sassafras, but it quickly unfurls black cherries and raspberries permeated by rose petals and lilac, smoke and graphite. This is a supremely satiny and mouth-filling pinot noir of sweetly succulent black fruit flavors nestled in a lip-smacking texture and dusty velvety tannins. Sounds too opulent? Fortunately, the whole package is propelled by penetrating acidity that keeps it honest and on an even keel. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 547 cases. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $60.
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The Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Origin Chardonnay 2014, Sonoma Valley, 3-originfermented in concrete eggs and aged 10 months in stainless steel tanks; yes, there is great wine without oak! The color is a mild gold hue; classic aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit are infused with notes of lilac and fennel, quince and ginger, all animated by a snap of gunflint. This chardonnay is vibrant and resonant on the palate, enlivened by bright acidity that cuts a swath through an appealing dusty, talc-like texture; citrus flavors open to a touch of peach and green tea. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 398 cases, and I wish I had a few of them. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $48.
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Bob Cabral, now at Three Sticks, made these wines. Don’t look for them or any of the — let’s say it — legendary Williams Selyem single-vineyard chardonnays and pinot noirs in stores; they’re sold only by allocation through the winery’s mailing list.

The Williams Selyems Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley, derived from two of ws-rrvthe winery’s estate vineyards plus the well-known Bacigalupe Vineyard. It aged 11 months in French oak, 45 percent new barrels. The color is a transparent medium ruby hue shading to a delicate magenta rim; macerated black and red cherries, currants and plums are sifted with extravagant notes of cloves, sassafras and sandalwood, pomegranate and leather, lavender and violets; I defy anyone not to be mesmerized by these seductive aromas. Fortunately, on the palate, this pinot noir reveals more rigor in the form of bright acidity that plows a furrow through a dusty, satiny texture and sleek tannins imbued with graphite and shale. A few minutes in the glass bring out touches of lilac, red licorice and mint and more earth and loam. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2021 to ’24. Excellent. About $55.
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The Williams Selyem Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River ws-westside-roadValley, is an autumnal, feral, foresty pinot noir that follows an amazing evolution in the glass. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 62 percent new barrels, and while that may seem like — as it does to me — a lot of oak influence for pinot noir, these grapes soaked up that wood and turned it into remarkable shapeliness, suppleness and subtlety. The color is a not quite transparent medium ruby-mulberry hue; the wine takes a little time to open from its initial state of earthy, loamy layers that feel a bit funky to woody spices like cloves, allspice and sandalwood, unfurling then its bounty of macerated and lightly stewed red and black cherries and raspberries imbued with notes of sour cherry and melon, briers and brambles. The sense of presence and heft is impressive, as is the sleek, suave texture, the lively acidity and the slightly dusty, graphite-ridden tannins. Give this wine an hour or more to allow its mint-eucalyptus-iodine character to emerge, its notes of resiny rosemary and pine, its layers of damp flint. I would call this pinot noir a monument except that it delivers its ultimate qualities with elegance and finesse. 13.8 percent alcohol. Drink through 2025 to 2030. Exceptional.
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The history of Byron Vineyards and Winery is as Byzantine as any of the wineries in a state where convoluted narratives of origins, founders, failures, buy-outs, consolidation and recovery SBCare common. It’s too easy to say that Byron Ken Brown founded his winery in the eastern reaches of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley in 1984. We have to go back to 1964, when Uriel Nielson planted the first commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County, in an area considered too cool to grow grapes. Brown, the first winemaker at Zaca Mesa (for six vintages), purchased the Nielson Vineyard in 1989, and it became his estate vineyard. The people at Robert Mondavi Winery were impressed by the quality of Byron’s wines — mostly chardonnay and pinot noir — with the result that Mondavi bought the winery in 1990, retaining Ken Brown as winemaker. Such was the new owner’s faith in Byron’s potential that in 1995, Mondavi financed the creation of a technically advanced 32,000-square-foot winery.

O.K., now, when Constellation bought Robert Mondavi Winery in 2004 for $1 billion, the giant drinks company signaled that it would divest itself of Mondavi’s individual winery properties, selling Byron to Legacy Estates Group, founded in 2000 by brothers Calvin and Dev Sidhu. Legacy had purchased Freemark Abbey in 2001 and followed with Arrowood and Byron in 2005, purchased for $40 million from Constellation. Eight months later, Legacy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Waiting in the wings was Jess Jackson, founder of Kendall-Jackson and owner, with his wife Barbara Banke, of Jackson Family Wines. He acquired Legacy for $97 million, and it’s with Jackson Family Wines that Freemark Abbey, Arrowood and Byron remain. Byron, not coincidentally, lies next to JFW’s Cambria Estate, and Byron winemaker Jonathan Nagy produces pinot noir from Cambria’s Julia’s Vineyard (see review below). Nagy came to Byron in 2001 as assistant winemaker and became director of winemaking there in 2003.

The four pinot noirs under review today from single vineyards in Santa Maria Valley. Byron also makes pinot noir and chardonnay from vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, southeast of Santa Maria in the Santa Ynez Valley. While this quartet offers differing quotients of detail and dimension, the wines feature a similarity of seductive fruity, floral and spicy bouquets; dense enveloping textures; and loamy, slightly granitic earthiness and minerality.

These wines were samples for review. Map of Santa Barbara County AVAs from sbcountywines.com.
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At about 1,750 cases, the Byron Winery Nielson Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Maria ECM306808Valley, offers by far the largest production of these four single-vineyard wines. The south-facing vineyard lies 18 miles from the coast, some 500 to 800 feet above sea level, on benchland overlooking the Santa Maria River. The site contains a mixture of alluvial, decomposing rock and older soils that have washed down from the foothills to the north. Nielson is the warmest of Byron’s vineyards in the valley, though still quite cool. The wine aged approximately 16 months in French oak, 35 percent new barrels.

The color is a beautiful medium ruby shading to transparent magenta; aromas of ripe black cherries, raspberries and plums are permeated by hints of cloves, sassafras and rhubarb, with high notes of rose petals and lilac. This is a sultry and satiny pinot noir, deeply spicy and almost luxuriously textured, though cut by vivid acidity and a tinge of slightly dusty tannins. The black fruit flavors are bolstered by an intense core of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate, while a few minutes in the glass bring out elements of mint and talc. 14.5 percent alcohol. Lovely dimension and detail. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $45.
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Planted in 1974, the well-known Sierra Madre Vineyard, the coolest of Byron’s Santa Maria Valley sites, sits 10 miles from the Pacific at about 215 feet elevation. The environment is the sort of poor, sandy-loamy soil that forces vines to search deeply for water and nutrients. No pain, no gain, n’est-ce pas? The Byron Sierra Madre Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Maria Valley, aged about 16 months in French oak, 31 percent new barrels.

The color is a beguiling medium transparent ruby-mulberry hue; it’s a dark and slightly brooding pinot noir, pungent with cloves, sassafras and beetroot, smoky black cherries, and notes of violets, lavender and graphite. On the palate, it feels burnished, polished and sleek, flowing across the tongue in a sensuous satiny fashion, though it develops a serious loamy-musky-graphite element that speaks of profound depths and roots in the earth. 13.8 percent alcohol. Production was 225 cases. Now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $45.
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Julia’s Vineyard encompasses some of the oldest pinot noir vines in Santa Barbara County, having been planted in 1970 and 1971. The location is two miles west of the Nielson Vineyard, situated at 500 feet elevation and running east-west. The soil is poor sandy limestone, requiring hard work on the part of the vines. The Byron Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Maria Valley, aged about 16 months in French oak, 39 percent new barrels. An entrancing transparent medium ruby hue shades to an invisible rim; you would be hard-pressed not to love this bouquet that seethes with smoky black cherries and currants imbued with hints of cedar and cloves, sage, rose petals and lilac, flint and graphite and revealing poignant notes of rhubarb and pomegranate. Totally seductive in its lovely weight and viscosity, uttering beguiling in its nuance and detail (and spicy black fruit flavors tinged with blue), this pinot noir does not neglect the structural elements of clean, bright acidity or an almost subliminal tannic edge etched with flint-like minerality. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 115 cases. Prodigiously satisfying. Now through 2021 through 2024. Excellent. About $45.
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The Byron Monument Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Maria Valley, is composed of grapes chosen from the best blocks of the winery’s estate Nielson Vineyard. The wine aged about 16 months in French oak, 78 percent new barrels. A transparent medium ruby hue shades to an ephemeral magenta rim; aromas of black cherries steeped in oolong tea, notes of rhubarb and cola, cloves, an aura like clean linens snapping in an urgent breeze, fresh and dried fruit and flowers — all contribute to a wonderfully layered and appealing bouquet. The wine is dark and spicy on the palate, woodsy and loamy, dense and chewy, yet it displays ineffable delicacy and elegance despite its size and presence. It’s vivid and vital, a pinot noir whose languid satiny drape on the tongue belies its energy and elan. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 120 cases. Excellent. About $65.
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I know that some of My Readers are thinking, “Um, F.K., why are you telling us about pinot noirs from 2012? Haven’t these wineries released their 2013s? Aren’t you, like, a little behind the times here?” Laggard, yes, but trying to catch up. And besides, many of these pinots from 2012 still have a retail presence around the country, in physical stores and online. Where you can find them, buy them, because at a bit more than three years after harvest, some of these pinot noirs are drinking beautifully and will continue to do so for four to six more years. To clarify matters, I didn’t just taste these wines; they have been in my notebooks in jottings that go back to last Spring. I am not behind in the experience but in the organizing and publishing. I offer, then, brief reviews of 18 wines that range geographically from Mendocino County in the north to Santa Barbara County in the south. As usual in the Weekend Wine Notes, I avoid technical, historical, geological and personal information for the sake of incisive but heart-felt reviews meant to tease your taste-buds and pique your interest. These wines were all samples for review.
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FC anderson
Ferrari-Carano Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson valley. 14.3% alc. Medium ruby color; a finely meshed web of smoky black and red cherries and currants (a bit macerated and roasted), briers and loam, lavender and rose petals; bright acidity, moderately sleek and satiny texture, with supporting slightly dusty tannins and integrated oak; the spice element burgeons from mid-palate back through the finish. Now through 2017 to ’18. Very Good+. About $30.
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FC middleridge_pinot_noir_2012
Ferrari-Carano Middleridge Ranch Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley. 14.6% alc. Medium ruby color, slight fading to magenta; smoky and spicy black and red cherries; dust, graphite and loam; bare hints of lavender and violets; very dry, with leathery tannins and dominating oak that feels a bit sanded and polished; could use more balance, meaning less oak. Now through 2017 or ’19. Very Good. About $NA.
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FC sky-high2012
Ferrari-Carano Sky High Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Mendocino Ridge. 14.5% alc. 700 cases. Medium ruby-meganta hue; intense and concentrated, with a focus on black and red cherries and currants permeated by graphite and loam and a trailing edge of black pepper, cloves, rhubarb and pomegranate; this is deep, rich and spicy on the palate, more velvety than satiny or silky; lithe, supple, a little muscular, with a real mineral edge and acid cut. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $48.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. Dark ruby-mulberry hue; intoxicating bouquet of cranberry, blueberry and plums permeated by rhubarb, lavender and violets, cloves, iodine and brambles with a touch of sandalwood; marvelously svelte, sleek and supple texture enlivened by bright acidity and a subtle graphite accent. Delicious and delightful but with some depth. Now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $45.
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Gary Farrell Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Limpid ruby-magenta color; this single-vineyard pinot noir resembles its regional cousin mentioned directly above but with the difference of marked intensity and concentration; rhubarb, cranberry and pomegranate; cloves, sassafras and beet-root; briers and brambles and a touch of loamy earthiness; very sleek and satiny but with a peppery rasp; the spicy element builds, as do the slightly dusty, graphite-tinged tannins; keen acidity cuts a swath on the palate. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $55.
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GB pinot
Gundlach-Bundschu Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.4% alc. Medium ruby-magenta color; cranberry, rhubarb, pomegranate; cloves, rose petals, lilac; a lovely mid-palate, with a dusty silky texture, slightly earthy with notes of briers, underbrush and loam, though paradoxically, the earthy element grows while the finish falls a bit short. Not quite a success. Very Good. About $39.
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Kendall-Jackson Jackson Estate Outland Ridge Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley. 14.5% alc. Dark ruby shading to medium ruby at the rim; a powerful expression of the grape, delivering notes of iodine and iron, savory black plums, cherries and raspberries, with hints of cloves, white pepper and loam; a large-framed pinot, dry, polished, a bit chiseled in its graphite minerality, velvety tannins and vibrant acidity; the finish is focused and a bit austere. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $35.
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Lazy Creek Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley. 14.3% alc. (Owned by Don and Rhoda Carano.) 257 cases. A cherry-berry color for a cherry-berry pinot noir, all black and red with touches of rhubarb, cranberry, lavender and loam and hints of briers, brambles and underbrush; dense and almost chewy, tending toward the heavier satin drape; lively and dynamic, with vibrant acidity supporting a dry, foresty structure and finish. Another fairly lithe and muscular pinot noir. Now through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $60.
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macmurray
MacMurray Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Medium ruby with a slightly lighter rim; ripe, meaty and fleshy; black cherries and plums steeped in cloves and oolong tea; an earthy and loamy pinot noir, satiny in texture but feeling slightly roughened and sanded around its tannic edges. Now through 2017 or ’18. Very Good+. About $28.
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Orentano Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. From R. Buoncristiani Vineyard. 305 cases. Transparent orestano pnmedium ruby hue with a lighter, ethereal rim; dried red and black cherries and potpourri; deceptively unextracted — the mild color and its blithe footfall on the palate — yet displaying notable intensity and rootiness; hints of orange peel and black tea, mocha and tobacco; gains power and grip while not losing hold of elegance and proportion; lithe, not clingy or drapy; acidity plows a furrow on the palate. One of my favorite pinot noirs from tasting over the past six months. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $40.
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dolan pn
Paul Dolan Pinot Noir 2012, Potter Valley. 13.5% alc. Certified organic. Transparent mulberry-magenta color; black cherry, cranberry and pomegranate; cloves, cinnamon, touches of allspice and cola; the tannins expand, fairly dusty and leathery, and the oak comes up too, dominating the wine from mid-palate back through the finish. Could use more balance and integration. Very Good. About $30.
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Patz & Hall Burnside Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 13.2% alc. 413 cases. Beautiful transparent patz hall pn burnsidemedium ruby/mulberry hue; spiced and macerated and slightly fleshy red and black cherries and plums highlighted by notes of cloves, rhubarb, rose petals and sandalwood; a lovely, supple silky texture; quite dry, and after a few minutes in the glass, you feel the tannin and oak come up, not formidably but definitely there; still a display of exquisite balance and proportion. Now through 2017 to 2019. Excellent. About $75.
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patz chenoweth
Patz & Hall Chenoweth Ranch Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.8% alc. 871 cases. Dark ruby shading to a magenta rim; a pinot cast in the dark shades of black cherries, currants and plums, with notes of cloves and allspice and a hint of sandalwood; dense and substantial, supernal in its silky/satiny character; brings in touches of tobacco, smoke and briers. Immensely appealing. Now through 2017 to ’18. Excellent. About $60.
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Saxon Brown Glass House Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.7% alc. Dark ruby-mulberry hue; exotic, fleshy, even a bit — gulp! — sexy; cloves, sandalwood, allspice, sassafras; black cherries and plums, pomegranate and cranberry; fills the mouth and strokes the palate in a satiny profusion, but you feel the burgeoning rigor of slightly dusty tannins and polished oak in the depths; along with bright acidity and a tinge of loam. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $48.
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Stemmler Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Carneros. 14.2% alc. Transparent medium ruby-magenta color; black and red cherries, mulberries and cranberries, cloves and cola, plum dust, notes of briers and brambles, loam and graphite; a dark and spicy pinot noir, highlighted by touches of lavender and potpourri and characterized by a mouth-filling presence and a draping of supple satin on the palate; long, lithe, muscular. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $44.
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Stemmler Estate Nugent Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.3% alc. 873 cases. Yes, this is RS_11nugent_frontreaching back pretty damned far, but so be it. Transparent medium ruby-cranberry hue; roots and branches, briers and brambles, a hint of dried porcini and loam; sweet and smoky and ripe black and red cherries and currants offering a distinct aura of lavender and violets, cloves and sandalwood; supple, lithe and sinewy, with dusty, slightly leathery tannins and a finish packed with plums, flint-like minerality and slightly burnished oak. A big deal pinot for those who desire big deal wines, which I generally don’t, but I would certainly drink this one again. Now through 2019 to ’21. Excellent. About $44.
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Three Sticks Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Maria Valley. 14.6% alc. Transparent and ethereal ruby-cranberry hue; red and black currants, cranberries and mulberries; cloves, sassafras and rhubarb, notes of loam and leather, smoke and brambles; opens to a tinge of tobacco and black pepper; a very satiny texture enfolds the palate yet the wine feels light on its feet, fleet and dynamic; even the moderate tannins and hint of graphite minerality seem blithe and spontaneous. A lovely pinot noir. Now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $60.
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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.7% alc. Dark ruby color with a slightly lighter rim; full-blown spicy, floral and fruity pinot noir, offering an array of black currants, cherries and raspberries etched with cloves and sassafras and notes of rich loam; dense and super-satiny, with deep dimensions and layers of spice, black fruit, vibrant acidity and fairly firm tannins bolstered by a graphite-flinty mineral element. Just terrific. Now through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $65.
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One of the smartest moves Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Vineyards, made as a businessman and winemaker was selling his Cardinal Zin and Big House labels in 2006 and his Pacific Rim brand in 2010, allowing him to reduce production and concentrate on the Rhone variety grapes that his Central Coast vineyards grow best and for which, it must be said, he seems to have a natural affinity. Grahm also delved full-time into biodynamic farming practices while espousing, as he always had, the principle of minimal manipulation of wines in the winery. Under review today is a group of Bonny Doon’s red Rhone-style wines which, whatever the nuances of detail and dimension that differentiate them, share an almost genetic propensity toward spareness and elegance, toward a rooty-branchy structure and lithe, sinewy texture. If terroir means being able to taste the influence of the vineyard in the wine, then these wines seem to embody that doctrine. These wines fall into the limited edition category of reserve bottlings and a couple intended for members of the the winery’s DEWN club. They were samples for review.

I reviewed the Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant 2011, Central Coast, as a Wine of the Day, in August last year. Here’s a link to that post now.
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The unusual blend for the Bonny Doon Cinsault Counoise 2014, California, is 67 percent cinsault and 33 percent counoise, this latter being one of the minor grapes allowed into Chateauneuf-du-Pape and other red wines of the southern Rhone Valley. The color is medium to light cherry; a bouquet of red cherries and currants is slightly briery and brambly and opens to hints of cloves and sandalwood, tobacco, black tea and cigarette paper. The counoise lends a distinctly peppery note in the nose and on the palate, where a tannic bite and blazing acidity cut a swath. It’s almost unnecessary to add that this is a lithe, lively and sinewy wine that prizes bones above flesh and muscle above fat. I like it. 13.7 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 or ’19. Production was 280 cases. Very Good+. About $35.
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My first note on the Bonny Doon Cuvee R Grenache 2014, Monterey County, was “lovely wine,” and indeed it is. From its nearly transparent medium ruby color, it goes to aromas of pure raspberry and red currents over briers, brambles and loam, with hints of violets and lilac, cloves and cinnamon, with a spicy, peppery effect a bit like Red Hots, and a background of black tea and orange zest. Spare and limber on the palate, the wine delivers a mouthful of red and blue fruit flavors deftly and lightly graven with graphite and mildly dusty tannins. Overall, the impression is of a liquid both dense and weightless. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 270 cases. Drink now through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $48.
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Bonny Doon Reserve Le Cigare Volant 2011, Central Coast, is a blend of 37 percent mourvedre, 34 percent grenache, 20 syrah and 9 cinsault. This is the “normale” version of the Reserve Le Cigare Volant, meaning that it aged in oak barrels rather than in five-gallon glass demijohns as the following wine did. The color is dark ruby-purple with a tinge of magenta at the rim. The wine is slightly dusty and graphite-inflected, burgeoning with elements of ripe black currants and raspberries etched with notes of cloves, leather and sandalwood. Delicately mossy, rooty and woodsy, this mellow and drinkable wine’s tannins feel clothed in lightly sanded oak and chiseled granitic qualities, while bright acidity keeps it lively and flowing. I played with this wine for three hours, and it gained power and structure over that time, but never to the detriment of its tasty black and red berry flavors, both fresh and dried. The lithe finish offers more dried spices and a sinew of forest floor, brambles and briers. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 966 cases. Drink now through 2020 or ’22. Excellent. About $79.
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Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Reserve “en bonbonne” 2010, Central Coast. “En bonbonne” refers to the five-gallon glass demijohns mentioned above, in which this wine rested for 20 months, after a brief pass through oak for malolactic fermentation. It’s a blend of 28 percent syrah, 22 percent grenache, 17 cinsault, 17 mourvedre and 16 carignane. The color is dark ruby shading to transparent mulberry; aromas of ripe and macerated red currants, cherries and plums are permeated by notes of violets, smoke, leather and mushrooms. This is a wine of threads, tendrils and filaments, a bosky, framboiserie of a wine whose fruit seems to shift subtly from red to black from mid-palate back; though it possesses plenty of slightly dusty tannins and vivid acidity for structure (and it’s quite dry), it’s not heavy or strenuous. Rather, it offers lovely detail and satisfying dimension in its approachable character. 13.3 percent alcohol. Production was 511 cases. Drink now through 2019 to ’21. Excellent. About $79.
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bien nacidoThe Bonny Doon Bien Nacido X-Block Syrah 2011, Santa Maria Valley, delivers an enticing dark ruby hue shading to pale magenta; aromas of dried lavender and violets, cloves and white pepper underlie notes of black currants, blueberries and plums; a few minutes in the glass bring in elements of loam and forest floor, cedar, black olives and bell pepper. The wine flows across the palate with brisk vitality, expressing a sense of litheness and sinuosity; dusty, graphite-infused tannins are a little chiseled and faceted, needing a year or two to smooth out. Other than that aspect, this is a thoroughly tasty, approachable wine that gains some power and dimension in the glass. 12 percent alcohol. Production was 463 cases. Try now or from 2017 through 2022 or ’23. Excellent. About $50.
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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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A raft of chardonnays here from the Golden State, ranging geographically from Santa Barbara County in the south to Sonoma Coast in the north. They’re mainly from 2011 and 2012, with one from 2013. I offer a $10 product so good that you should buy it by the case, which I don’t often say about chardonnay, and reject some models that cost $65 and $70. I mean, as long as producers turn out chardonnays that embody the over-oaked, stridently spicy, tropical-tinged and butter-infused crème brûlée-like style — and the major wine publications continue to pass out high ratings for such wine — I will continue not to recommend them as unpalatable and undrinkable. Little in the way of historical, geographical or technical data today; these Weekend Wine Notes are intended to be quick and incisive, not as detailed as my regular reviews. Enjoy! (Or not.)

These wines were samples for review.

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