Sonoma Coast


In making the Charles Heintz “Searby” Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast, the Wine of the Day, I don’t mean that you should rush right out and buy a case or even a bottle, because the production was very limited. I know, that’s not fair. On the other hand, I don’t mind using this venue or series of posts to inform My Readers of the wines that are out there in the world and available with a telephone call or a visit to a website. The family has owned Heintz Ranch, atop the second ridge back from the Pacific Ocean, since 1912. Charles Heintz is in charge now, growing chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah grapes that he sells to a handful of highly regarded producers, reserving some for his own wines, usually fewer than 1,000 cases annually. Consulting winemaker since 2012 has been Hugh Chappelle, winemaker at Quivira and former winemaker at Flowers Vineyard and Winery. The Charles Heintz “Searby” Chardonnay 2013 was made from grapes grown on 42-year-old dry-farmed vines; it’s the first stainless steel-fermented chardonnay produced at Heintz, and it reveals the delightful, fresh and engaging qualities that such a wine can possess, while offering, in this instance, plenty of depth and dimension. After fermentation, the wine undergoes 11 months of aging in French oak, 35 percent new barrels. The color is pale-straw-gold with a glint of leaf-green at the center; the entry is incredibly clean and attractive, with notes of spiced pear, green apple and lime peel; a few minutes in the glass bring in touches of pineapple and grapefruit, a hint of almond blossom and a slight edge of limestone. Propelled by purposeful acidity and scintillating flint and limestone minerality, the wine nonetheless flows gently and brightly on the palate, its citrus and stone-fruit flavors (deepened by hints of ginger and quince) enhanced by a lively yet supple texture lent subtlety and sleekness by the deft wood influence; this is a chardonnay that illustrates what I frequently say about the relationship between wood and wine: “Oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible.” 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Production was 50 cases. Excellent. About $44.

A sample for review.

Here’s a beautiful rosé wine that you’ll have to make a little effort to find, because it was produced in a limited quantity. The Joon Coryelle
Fields Vineyard Rosé of Syrah 2014, Sonoma Coast, was made by Michael Lancaster at the Tin Barn winery. The grapes derived from the six-acre vineyard — lying at an elevation of 1,000 feet — owned and managed by Carolyn Coryelle. Made all in stainless steel, the wine delivers an entrancing smoky topaz-salmon skin hue that glows like a platonic Summer sunset. Aromas of pomegranate, macerated strawberries and orange rind have a slightly candied effect, while a bracing background of pink grapefruit and lime peel contribute notable zest and character. Unusually dense and satiny for a rosé, the wine, with its flavors of red currants and dried raspberries, nonetheless is animated by brisk acidity and a limestone-like mineral element that burgeons from mid-palate back through the finish, where clean touches of thyme, lavender and loam add depth. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 158 cases. A rosé substantial enough to serve as a table-wine and picnic libation. Excellent. About $23.

A sample for review.

If a pinot noir wine doesn’t touch both the sublime of the ephemeral and the profundity of the chthonic, it is, to me, perhaps not a failure but a gravely lost opportunity in allowing the grape’s complicated and paradoxical virtues to express themselves. Greg Bjornstad, winemaker for Pfendler Vineyards, employs the panoply of craft, art and intuition to make pinot noirs that satisfy my desire for the broad range of the grape’s character and dimension. The winery is owned by Kimberly Pfendler, pictured here. The Pfendler Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, aged 11 months in French oak barrels, 50 percent new. The color is a fairly opaque ruby shading to transparent magenta at the rim; what a seductive procession of black cherries and cranberries, with notes of cloves and sassafras, pomegranate, potpourri and sandalwood, emerges from the glass! The texture offers a lovely, dense, satiny drape that flows with lithe and lissome engagement on the palate, while a few moment’s pause for swirling, sniffing and sipping lend the wine hints of smoke and tobacco leaf, rose petals and rhubarb. Earthy, leathery elements burgeon, and the wine takes on more loamy, underbrushy qualities as it leans toward the power of slightly dusty tannins and a flinty mineral structure. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Production was 350 cases. Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.

I have been reviewing the pinot noir wines of Black Kite Cellars since the vintage of 2007 was released, but recently had the opportunity to try the winery’s chardonnays for the first time, as well as its flagship “Angel Hawk” pinot noir. Winemaker Jeff Gaffner makes the Black Kite wines from separate blocks of the estate vineyards in Mendocino County as well as from vineyards in Sonoma Coast and Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands. Gaffner is also proprietor and winemaker for Saxon Brown, whose wines I have been tasting recently and will report about soon.

These bottles were samples for review.
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Black Kite Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay 2013, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Soberanes Vineyard, nestled in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Range, is owned by Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni, both from farming families long rooted in Monterey County. From this vineyard, and others they own in the Highlands, they supply notable wineries with chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah grapes. This aged 10 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. It’s a bold, ripe and spicy chardonnay, displaying a medium gold hue and forthright aromas of roasted pineapple, caramelized grapefruit, lightly buttered cinnamon toast, cloves and a hint of toasted coconut, all accumulating in what long-time readers of this blog will recognize as not my favorite manner of chardonnay. It’s quite dry but juicy with citrus flavors, pear and lemon oil; dense, viscous, almost talc-like in texture but saved by a fundamental quality of brisk acidity and limestone minerality. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 195 cases. Perhaps this requires a year or two in bottle to calm down a bit and resolve itself. Until then, Very Good+. About $45.
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Black Kite Cellars Gap’s Crown Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast. The 138-acre Gap’s Crown Vineyard lies in the cool and windy Petaluma Gap area in southwest Sonoma County; elevation varies from 300 to 800 feet above sea level. First planted in 2002, it supplies primarily pinot noir grapes (and some chardonnay) to a roster of California’s best pinot producers, Bill Price purchased the vineyard in January 2013. Price owns one of California’s best-known vineyards, Durell Vineyard, which he purchased in 1998. He co-founded the private equity firm Texas Pacific Group in 1992 and sold his share back to the company in 2007, and that, friends, is a lesson in how you get into the vineyard and winery business. Price is chairman of Kosta Brown Winery and Gary Farrell Winery — you know those names — and has interest in Kistler, another name you know. This chardonnay marks the first wine from the vineyard for Black Kite. It aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 40 percent new and presents a more classic restrained version of chardonnay than the example from the Soberanes Vineyard mentioned above. Still, this is quite pronounced in its expression of pineapple and grapefruit scents and aromas, highlighted by notes of ginger, quince and spiced pear. The texture is pleasingly dense, not viscous or oily and it offers more acidity and limestone minerality by several degrees. In fact, this is a chardonnay of crystalline clarity and eloquence that culminates in a long, compelling finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 236 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $45.
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Black Kite Cellars “Angel Hawk” Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. This wines derives from vines that owners Rebecca and Tom Birdsall and winemaker Jeff Gaffner consider the best of their estate vineyards. And while my heart sinks to read that a pinot noir wine aged 19 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels — I think that’s typically too much new oak for too many months for pinot noir — this model handily absorbed that influence and turned into a deep, supple, lithe and super satiny wine. The color is deep ruby with a transparent rim; rich aromas of spiced and macerated black cherries, currants and plums are permeated by notes of pomegranate, rhubarb and loam; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of cloves, white pepper, leaf smoke and tobacco. This layered panoply of sensation segues smoothly to the palate, where the wine flows purposefully to a graphite-packed, slightly tannic finish. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 190 cases. This is obviously no evanescent, ephemeral, elegant pinot noir; rather, it draws on the grape’s potential for power and substance, helped a bit in the cellar, of course, though it still beautifully captures its essential character. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $85.
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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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Sojourn Cellars was launched in 2001 with 100 cases of cabernet sauvignon. The winery, based in the town of Sonoma, was founded by Craig and Ellen Haserot with winemaker Erich Bradley. The (not uncommon) idea was to produce limited quantities of pure and intense chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir wines from excellent vineyards. Judging from my experience with a selection of chardonnays and pinot noirs from 2010 — link to my reviews here — and these examples from 2012, the team succeeds in their aim. As you will see, the chardonnay from the Durell Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast AVA was a bit flamboyant for my palate, but I find the pinot noirs to be perfect models of the grape’s delicate yet tensile marriage of power and elegance. All the wines are fermented by native yeasts; the pinots see 50 percent new French oak barrels. Though the length of time in oak was not specified in the technical information I received with these samples, the influence of the span spent in the new and used barrels resulted in wines of lovely suppleness and nuance.
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The Sojourn Cellars Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast, is a “3 Bs” chardonnay: Not Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but bold, bright and brassy. The color is luminous medium gold; forthright aromas of lightly roasted and caramelized pineapple and grapefruit are permeated by notes of cloves and ginger and hints of mango and orange rind; a quadrille of ripe and macerated stone-fruit parades across the palate, and I wish it revealed a bit more of a limestone and flint element and brisk acidity to balance the richness. Still, it’s not blatantly tropical, it’s not dessert-like, it’s not stridently spicy, though it’s a little over the top for my taste. The wine was barrel-fermented in 40 percent new French oak and underwent malolactic fermentation while aging. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 275 cases. Very Good+. About $54.
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The color of the Sojourn Cellars Wohler Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, is an entrancing medium ruby-mulberry hue, while the hypnotic bouquet wreathes notes of cranberry and sassafras, black and red cherries, lavender and crushed violets with undertones of oolong tea and orange rind and hints of loam and mushrooms. These intoxicating elements segue seamlessly onto the palate, where they drape and flow like a dense satiny fabric of luxurious cost, though there’s nothing heavy or obvious here; this is a pinot noir that whatever its heft retains an essential grasp on the ineffable. The aromas deepen as an hour or so passes, and the wine grows increasingly floral and spicy; it’s quite dry, however, with a long finish that’s surprisingly mineral-flecked and tannic. Exquisite proportions, 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 550 cases. Drink now through 2017 to ’20. Excellent. About $40.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The Sojourn Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast, is characterized by racy acidity, and while the wine is delicate and elegant, it offers plenty of vitality and cut. The color is medium ruby-magenta; aromas of cloves and sassafras, red cherries and currants blend with hints of pomegranate and cranberry and notes of dried fruit and sandalwood, yes, there’s incense-like pungency in the glass. Despite a touch of cherry-berry succulence, the wine pulls up an element of briery-brambly earthiness and underbrush-infused loam for depth under its savory, slightly macerated black and red fruit flavors. Despite those factors, the wine feels poised, graceful and delectable. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 1,150 cases. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $54.
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The Sojourn Ridgetop Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast, offers a limpid medium ruby-mulberry hue with a transparent rim; this is the earthiest of this trio of single-vineyard pinot noirs, displaying a full complement of briers, brambles and loam under layers of redness: I mean red cherries and raspberries, a hint of cranberry, a touch of red licorice. Vibrant acidity cuts a swath on the palate, making for a texture that’s spare and lithe though not meager; this, like its stablemates, remains generous and expansive in terms of fruit and spice while making rather serious demands in terms of its tannic and mineral-flecked structure, making it the most Burgundian of these examples, not that the comparison matters, but it indicates to me a certain style and philosophy. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 450 cases. Best from 2016 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $59.
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Rodney Strong Vineyards already has a fairly full roster of chardonnay and pinot noir wines. There are the Reserve Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Estate Chardonnay, designated Chalk Hill, and Estate Pinot Noir, designated Russian River Valley, and a “regular” Sonoma County chardonnay. Recently, the winery added, under its Estate division, a chardonnay and pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast AVA. Sonoma Coast, officially approved as an American Viticultural Area in 1987, encompasses more than 500,000 acres and stretches from San Pablo Bay in the south to the Mendocino County line in the north. In the past decade or so, the region has established a reputation, primarily because of its ocean influence and cooler climate, as a prime, not to say primal, area for chardonnay and pinot noir. On the other hand, it’s such a large AVA that it’s difficult to establish one fixed identity for it, which is why there are movements afoot to portion off distinct smaller regions as sub-AVAs; Fort Ross-Seaview was approved in 2011, and I wouldn’t be surprised if windy, foggy Petaluma Gap, which contributes grapes to both of the wines under review today, was granted that privilege soon. You’ll notice on the labels illustrated here that the Sonoma Coast designation is given prominence over the grape variety. Winemakers for these examples were Rick Sayre and Justin Seidenfeld. These wines were samples for review.
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When I saw that the Rodney Strong Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast, was barrel-fermented and spent 10 months in 85 percent new French oak barrels, my heart sank; that’s a lot of new oak for a chardonnay. However, some (unspecified) amount stayed in stainless steel, which perhaps helped to right the balance. In any case, the color is pale gold; the whole effect is bright, fresh and clean, with beguiling aromas of pineapple, grapefruit and green apple woven with cloves and crystallized ginger and notes of guava and quince; yes, there’s a hint of a tropical element, but it’s not overplayed. Oak is deftly integrated on the palate, with just a touch of the toasty quality, but supported by brisk acidity and scintillating limestone minerality; delicious green apple and spiced pear flavors are nestled in a winsome, moderately dense texture that flows with supple subtlety across the palate. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 to ’18. Excellent. About $25.
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The color of the Rodney Strong Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, is an almost translucent ruby-magenta hue. This is a highly fragrant wine, offering prominent notes of cloves and sassafras, black cherries and plums, with hints of red and black currants and pomagranate, and touches of lavender and rose petals. There’s a lovely satiny drape to the texture, but the structure is broad and deep, almost tannic, and framed by spicy, woody, woodsy elements from 10 months in French oak barrels, 35 percent new; a copious amount of loamy, briery and brambly earthiness lends foundation to a well-balanced and integrated package. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $30.
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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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The pinot noirs of Kosta Browne Winery regularly earn the highest ratings from reviewers for the big publications, an occurrence that brings a great deal of attention to these highly allocated wines. In fact, the winery’s waiting list comes with a two- to three-year wait for the “Appellation” wines and — I’m not kidding — a five- to six-year wait for the Single Vineyard wines, of which there may be up to 10 separate bottlings depending on the vintage. The idea for the winery was born in 1997 when Dan Kosta and Michael Browne, then working at a restaurant in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, decided to venture into winemaking. They began with a half-ton of pinot noir grapes, a used barrel and a surplus stemmer-crusher. In 2001, Kosta and Browne brought in Chris Costello, from a family involved in commercial real estate and development, as the business end of the enterprise; through the Costello family, the partnership gained contacts, contracts and management acumen. Browne is executive winemaker, with assistant winemakers Jeremiah Timm and Nico Cueva. Kosta Browne draws on vineyards in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs in Sonoma County and Santa Lucia Highlands AVA in Monterey County. There is no tasting room, and the winery in Sebastopol is closed to the public.

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

Kosta Browne One Sixteen Chardonnay 2012 was indeed barrel fermented, 93 percent, the other 7 percent being in concrete. The wine did age 15 months, but only in 41 percent new oak. The color is medium gold, and the aromas define this chardonnay as bold, bright and rich, with ripe, slightly caramelized pineapple, grapefruit and mango highlighted by notes of cloves, vanilla, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and — faintly — lime peel and flint. The wine is supple and boisterously fruity and spicy on the palate, with hints of creme brulee, roasted lemon and baked pear. This sensuous panoply is both abetted and balanced by clean, vibrant acidity and a scintillating limestone element. My favorite style of chardonnay? No, but certainly a model of the type that I found surprisingly poised, energetic and delicious. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $58.
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The Kosta Browne Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast, derives from three vineyards in the south of the Sonoma Coast AVA, lying straight in the path of the Petaluma Wind Gap that allows a distinct maritime influence, and one vineyard in the northwestern coastal area of the AVA. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 46 percent new barrels. The color is medium ruby with an almost transparent rim; the amazingly complex and layered nose offers a seamless amalgam of cloves and menthol, violets and rose hips, with hints of loam, briers and iodine bolstering macerated black and red cherries and currants with a touch of cranberry. On the palate? Imagine supernal satin infused with velvet through which vivid acidity cuts a swath and earthy graphite minerality stakes a supporting claim; the influence of oak and tannin, both feeling slightly sanded and dusty, gradually seeps in, providing firm foundation for spicy black and red fruit flavors that seem ripe and juicy yet spare, elegant, a bit exotic. I re-corked the wine and tried it eight hours later, at which time it had closed down a bit, becoming more reticent, quite dry, with emphasis on structure. Even the next day, now open for more than 24 hours, this pinot noir kept its integrity and balance. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $64.
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Three Sticks Wines was founded by Bill Price III — get it? his surfer handle was Billy Three Sticks — who also owns one of California’s best-known vineyards, Durell Vineyard, which he purchased in 1998. He co-founded the private equity firm Texas Pacific Group in 1992 and sold his share back to the company in 2007, and that, friends, is a lesson in how you get into the vineyard and winery business. Price is chairman of Kosta Brown Winery and Gary Farrell Winery — you know those names — and has interest in Kistler, another name you know. He met winemaker and fellow-surfer Don Van Staaveren (image at right) in 1996 when TPG acquired Chateau St. Jean from Suntory, and in 2004 Price asked Van Staaveren to come aboard as winemaker at Three Sticks. (I’m condensing history quite a bit here.) The “winery” occupies space in an industrial/warehouse area in Sonoma, a practical measure since no one has to worry about tasting rooms, landscaping, high-end facilities, jazz concerts, picnic grounds, executive chefs and so on, though a great deal of organizational logistics is required. Van Staaveren, who created the sensational Cinq Cepage cabernet sauvignon for Chateau St. Jean, indeed resembles nothing more nor less than a gracefully aging, if slightly craggy, California boy; when I visited Three Sticks in the Summer of 2013, he wore a cast on one arm, the result of a surfing mishap. The wines he creates from the Durell Vineyard and other vineyards are thoughtfully made and embody tremendous personality and character. Unfortunately, they are produced in limited quantities and are available only on an allocation list. They are worth a visit to the winery’s website threestickswines.com to sign up. These examples were samples for review.

This post is the fourth in a series devoted to wines made from two grapes that seem to occur together, chardonnay and pinot noir, on the model of Burgundy.
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The Three Sticks One Sky Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Mountain — the first Three Sticks release for this wine from a vineyard that remains anonymous — was treated in a manner traditional for California chardonnay: barrel fermentation; 14 months aging in French oak barrels, 50 percent new; full malolactic fermentation. The color is medium straw-gold; classic aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit feel infused by quince and ginger, spiced pear and toasted hazelnuts, amid a background of limestone minerality. This is a supremely rich chardonnay, slightly creamy but not buttery or tropical, and its lusciousness is tempered by bright acidity and that scintillating limestone element; citrus and stone-fruit flavors are highlighted by notes of orange marmalade and a hint of grapefruit pith. Altogether, this is a round, supple, mouth-filling chardonnay that displays lovely, if a bit florid, balance and tone. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 222 cases. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $50.
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The winemaker took a completely opposite approach to the Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Origin Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Valley. This wine was fermented in giant concrete egg-shaped vessels and aged 14 months in small steel barrels; not a smidgeon of oak touched it, and it did not go through malolactic. The grapes derived from two areas in the Durell Vineyard, “Old Wente 5,” on a northwest-facing slope of light soil, and “V9,” one of the rockiest and windiest parts of the vineyard. The color is medium straw-gold; the first impression is of something earthy, highly structured, almost tannic in effect, but with a core of remarkable resonance and vitality that animates captivating scents and flavors of quince jam and crystallized ginger, candied grapefruit and spiced pear with hints of lemon oil and lime peel, the whole package conveying the feeling of a lacy transparency of fruit over a dense, almost talc-like texture and a vibrant structure of limestone, damp gravel and chiming acidity. All in all, amazing energy, presence and tone, a wine that gives new meaning to “no-oak chardonnay.” 14.6 percent alcohol. Production was 266 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Exceptional. About $48.
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The Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma Coast, took grapes from three blocks of the estate vineyard, all of which greet the sunrise: The Extension, a steep slope that falls mainly east but a little to the south; the Terraces, an area of slightly terraced rows running north-south and with an eastern exposure; Block R, a cool, windy location of light soil with red volcanic deposits that falls on a slight slope to the east. The grapes fermented in open-top vessels, and the wine aged 14 months in French oak barrels, 50 percent new. The color is a translucent and luminous medium ruby hue; beguiling aromas of pomegranate, rhubarb and cranberry are permeated by notes of cloves and allspice, loam, briers and brambles and a hint of graphite; a few moments in the glass bring up hints of smoky red and black cherries, rose petals and sandalwood. This is a substantial pinot noir, blessed with a sense of total confidence and completion, though whatever character it possesses of power and dynamism is complemented by qualities of grace, delicacy and elegance. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 170 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional. About $65.
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