Sonoma County


Here’s a chardonnay that toes the line between richness and elegance with thrilling deftness. The Benovia Winery Chardonnay 2013, Russian River Valley, derives mainly from the winery’s benoviaMartaella Estate Vineyard. It’s barrel-fermented, with indigenous yeasts, and aged 12 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. Winemaker was Mike Sullivan. The color is a pale gold that almost shimmers in the glass; it’s a chardonnay of wonderful purity and intensity, offering aromas of pineapple and grapefruit, quince and crystallized ginger, with a hint of the tropical, a touch of musk, and notes of lilac and heather. Nothing overblown or strident here, nor creamy or toasty, as in so many chardonnays from Russian River, yet the wine’s balance and integrity hinge on pinpoint focus and steely resolve, taking a risk with the integration of lushness and limestone spareness; the oak is like a whisper along the wine’s arc of bright acidity and mineral structure. On the palate, you feel subtle elements of figs, spiced pear and lemon curd, a bit of dusty leafiness, and then a finish that brings in some rigor of grapefruit pith and flint. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 1,580 cases. We drank this bottle last night as accompaniment to seared salmon with a harissa crust and fingerling potatoes, split, tossed in olive oil, smoked paprika, cumin and chili powder, browned in a cast-iron skillet, then roasted in a 500-degree oven. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $36.

A sample for review. The label image is one vintage behind.

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_2012_RRS_PN_Bottle
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_2012_Hallberg_PN_Bottle
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_estate_outland_LRG
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
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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When I posted last week’s edition of Weekend Wine Notes, devoted to catching up on reviews of pinot noir wines from California, William Allen replied on Facebook, “Lots of Pinots — time to be Rhônely.” Allen happens to make tiny quantities of wines from Rhône Valley grape varieties under the Two Shepherds label in Sonoma County. In honor of his response, today I offer brief reviews of nine wines made from such Rhône grapes as syrah, grenache and mourvedre, including one from Two Shepherds that I should have mentioned months ago, as well as several others from California, one from Washington state, two from the southern Rhône Valley and two from Australia, where the syrah grape is called shiraz. As usual in these Weekend Wine Notes, I eschew reams of technical, historical, geological and personnel information in favor of incisive reviews intended to pique your interest and whet your palate. With duly noted exceptions, these wines were samples for review. Enjoy!
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beaume
Balma Venitia La Chapelle Notre Dame d’Aubune 2012, Beaumes de Venise. 14.5% alc. Grenache, syrah, cinsault. Dark ruby-purple; exuberant nose of black currants and black raspberries, violets and lavender; a wine of woodsy tendrils, filigrees and roots, with lip-smacking acidity and a savory note of grilled bread and mushrooms; an aura of clean linen snapping in a fresh breeze; fairly dense and chewy, with polished, slightly dusty tannins and a a sleek lithe texture. A joy to drink, now through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $25, a local purchase.
William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.
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bh14occultumbottle
Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem 2014, Cotes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France. 14% alc. Predominantly syrah, with grenache and carignan. Dark ruby-purple with a magenta rim; violets and loam, fresh black currants and plums with a hint of blackberry jam; lavender and licorice, smoke and graphite, notes of wet fur, tapenade and underbrush; lithe, supple and sinewy, quite tasty and refreshing but dense with dusty, slightly velvety tannins. A serious wine that also delights and charms. Now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $28.
An R. Shack Selection for HB Wine Merchants, New York.
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Cadaretta Windthrow 2012, Columbia Valley, Washington. 14.8% alc. Syrah 56%, grenache 25%, mourvèdre 19%. 130 cadarettacases. Deep ruby-purple, motor-oil opaque, with a thermo-magenta rim; earth and loam, briers and brambles, lavender and leather and wet dog; intense and concentrated notes of blackberry, blueberry and plum; a sense of immersive and slightly austere tannins but finely honed and sifted; the oak comes up from mid-palate back providing a woodsy-spicy framework. Tremendous presence and character. Try 2017 or ’18 through 2025 to ’27. Excellent. About $ .
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couron
Domaine de Couron 2012, Côtes du Rhône. 14.5% alc. 60% grenache, 40% syrah. Dark ruby-garnet; notes of sage and thyme, ripe and macerated black and red currants and cherries; a direct appeal of fruit and structure with pleasing heft and presence; slightly briery tannins, with a hint of leather and loam and a faint floral overtone. Drink now through 2018 or ’19. Very Good+. About $14, a local purchase.
Imported by Chloé Wines, Seattle, Wash.
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Heintz_syrah
Charles Heintz Winery Roxy Syrah 2013, Sonoma Coast. 13% alc. 150 cases (or 98 cases depending on if you believe the label or the website). Very dark ruby-purple with a glowing violet rim; a beautiful bosky-meadowy bouquet of roses and wild strawberries, heather and blueberries with hints of mint, tobacco and loam; sleek, lithe, silky texture enveloped by moderate tannins and enlivened by bright acidity; develops some rasp and cut in the glass, with notes of white pepper, briers, brambles and underbrush. A blithe version of the grape. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Very Good+. About $46.
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grenache
Quivira Vineyards Wine Creek Ranch Grenache 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 14.7% alc. Certified bio-dynamic. Entrancing ruby-crimson hue with a transparent rim; cloves, orange rind, black tea; cedar and pine; raspberry and black currant with a touch of pomegranate and cranberry; lean and lithe, brambly and a little raspy; vibrant acidity that plows a furrow on the palate; lovely heft and tone, nicely meshed tannins and oak; nothing opulent here, you feel the structure as a defining principle. Now through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $35. A local purchase.
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Two Shepherds Saralee’s Vineyard Syrah 2012, Russian River Valley. 13.2% alc. 60 cases. Opaque ruby-magenta with 2012_Syrah_front_COLAa pale rim; fleshy and meaty; ripe and slightly roasted blackberries, black currants and plums; cloves, fruitcake, oolong tea; firm, dusty tannins under a silky smooth texture that seduces the palate; deeply spicy black fruit flavors infused with graphite and lavender, powered by fleet acidity; the finish chiseled, sleek, polished and not austere. Truly lovely syrah, with power and elegance. Now through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $38.
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wakefield jaraman
Wakefield Jaraman Shiraz 2013, Clare Valley & McLaren Vale, Australia. 14.5% alc. Solid dark ruby hue; mint and iodine, black and red cherries and raspberries with a touch of thyme and tapenade; a steel thread of graphite runs through it; cloves, violets and an exotic hint of sandalwood; sleek, supple texture but slightly shaggy, dusty tannins dominate. Now through 2013 to ’25. Excellent. About $30.
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wakefield andrewsWakefield St. Andrews Shiraz 2013, Clare Valley. 14.5% alc. Very dark ruby color; black and red raspberries and currants threaded by mint and iodine, graphite and a rooty-branchy-loamy element; notes of tobacco and cedar emerge; quite flavorful, tasty ripe and slightly spicy berries, but plenty of acidity for liveliness and dusty, flint-laced tannins for structure. Now through 2020 to ’23. Very Good+. About $60.
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If you look at the website for Rodney Strong Vineyards, you’ll see quite an array of cabernet sauvignon wines, arranged in the order of Sonoma County, Estate, Reserve and Single Vineyard, seven offerings altogether. There’s rodney-strong-logo-crest-72dpialso a “meritage” style blend called Symmetry, which in the current vintage contains 75 percent cabernet, so that counts. Does the winery really need eight cabernet sauvignon-based bottlings? Does an audience exist for each level in this broad cabernet category? Do consumers care?

As to the issue of price, the basic Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon goes for $20. The two Estate bottlings — Alexander Valley and Knights Valley — are $35. Moving up the ladder, the Reserve costs $40, the Symmetry Meritage is $55 and the Single Vineyard wines — Rockaway, Brothers and Alexander’s Crown — top out at $75. These are not cheap wines by any means, yet let’s be honest, compared to limited edition reserve-style wines from other California producers, particularly in Napa Valley, the Rodney Strong cabernets are bargains, though quality also is a factor in determining if a wine delivers good value, at whatever price.

Rodney Strong’s single vineyard project was launched in 2008 with the release of Rockaway 2005. Brothers — originally Brothers Ridge — and Alexander’s Crown were added over the next few years, the latter named for the elegant Alexander’s Crown cabernet-based wines that Rodney Strong himself made in the 1970s. Elegance is not the game-plan for this contemporary trio of high-concept cabernet sauvignons, except in terms of the simple, suave packaging.

From the beginning, alcohol levels have been high — 15.4 percent in the Rockaway 2005 — a device that consistently contributes a sense of over-ripeness and opulence on the palate and sweetness on the finish. On the other hand, these single vineyard offerings are crafted with rigorous tannins and dominant dusty graphite-inflected minerality, lending them a sleek, chiseled structure. Too often, though, the contrast between the succulence and ripeness of fruit and the precision and austerity of the structure isn’t resolved, leaving the wines awkward and unbalanced. I have chided this winery in the past with the overuse of French oak barrels and the length of aging, a criticism that applies to the wines presently under consideration. A criticism that I leveled against Rockaway 05 was that it felt made by a committee, as if a checklist of characteristics desirable in a cabernet wine from Alexander Valley had been followed. Indeed, it takes four men to make these wines: Rodney Strong’s longtime head winemaker, Rick Sayre; winemaker Greg Morthole; winery owner Tom Klein; and consultant (and highly regarded producer of his own label) David Ramey.

To this somewhat discouraging discourse, I’ll add a note of sweetness and light. The Rockaway and Alexander’s Crown 2012 are the best I have tasted in this series, a reflection, I feel sure, of a superb vintage but also, in some sense, of a certain delicacy of touch from the team. On the other hand, these are highly calibrated wines; visit the winery’s website to see how exacting the scheme behind each wine is, from the picking of the grapes at different times from various areas of the vineyards to their treatment in the cellar.

I review today the trio of Rodney Strong Single Vineyard offering from 2012 and 2010; for some reason, I had only the Brothers from 2011. If the other two from 2011 show up in the barbarian welter of my notes, I’ll append them promptly. I’ll write about the winery’s other cabernet-based wines in a subsequent post.

These wines were samples for review.
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Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Alexander Valley. A dark ruby-purple hue leads into a definitive rockawaystatement of intensity and concentration in nose and mouth; the bouquet is characterized by cassis, black cherry and plum infused with cedar, sage and graphite and notes of leather loam and black pepper. Dusty, dense but manageable tannins cloak a rigorous and chiseled mineral element that maintains discipline while relegating plenty of space to juicy black and red fruit flavors; the finish is granitic, a bit austere and sustained. 14.5 percent alcohol. The vineyard lies at elevations from 225 to 700 feet. 14.5 percent alcohol. This feels classic Alexander Valley and the best Rockaway I have tasted. With 4 percent malbec; aged 21 months in French oak, 56 percent new barrels. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
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Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Alexander Valley. The color is unvarying dark ruby; crownstructure is foremost, with the nose detecting whiffs of wheatmeal and walnut shell and intense and concentrated aromas of black currants, cherries and plums; give it a few minutes and it offers hints of black olives and bell pepper and, with a little more swirling of the glass, touches of lavender and violets. Tannins are lithe, sinewy and rigorous, and the wine’s structure includes incisive acidity and graphite-tinged minerality, yet for all that, this is a surprisingly approachable (and slightly over-ripe) wine for drinking now through 2022 to ’25. The vineyard lies at elevations of 250 to 360 feet; the wine aged 21 months in French oak, 38 percent new barrels. 15 percent alcohol, but carries it lightly. Excellent. About $75.
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Rodney Strong Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Alexander Valley. For 2012, the Brother Cabernet feels like an brothersamalgam of its stablemates, the Rockaway and the Alexander’s Crown. (It contains 2 percent petit verdot; it aged 21 months in French oak, 44 percent new barrels.) Yes, the intensity and concentration; yes, the important tannins, meaningful acidity and sleek, sculpted graphite minerality; yes, the spicy, slightly roasted and succulent black fruit flavors; yes — damnit! — the 15.5 percent alcohol that creates a slight sweet and over-ripe aura. So, that being the case, what is the justification for these wines created from separate vineyards in Alexander Valley, this one the highest at 400 to 1,030 feet elevation? They are far more similar than they are different, perhaps a reflection more of a house style and philosophy than the actual character of the vineyards involved. And if that’s the case, what’s the point? Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Very Good+. About $75.
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brothers
Rodney Strong Brothers Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Alexander Valley. The color is deep ruby verily unto the opacity of a black hole, with no trace or purple or magenta or mulberry; the bouquet offers an extraordinary melange of mint, iron and iodine layered with lavender, violets and loam, finally delivering notes of ripe red and black currants and cherries bolstered by dusty graphite. Well, that’s quite a performance! The effect on the palate is more typical and unsurprising, that is, the standard plush, velvety mineral-laced tannins, boot-strap oak hauling up the wood influence, vibrant acidity, all at the service of an austere, lithic finish. 15 percent alcohol. This wine is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon; it aged 26 months in French oak, 48 percent new barrels. Very Good+. About $75.
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rockaway
Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Alexander Valley. A deep ruby-purple hue presages a bake-shop bouquet of blueberry tart and plum jam as a glaze to graphite, lavender and licorice and hints of black currants and cherries; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of rosemary and thyme and a hint of black olive. A huge and daunting tannic and oaken presence creates a dense, dusty, chewy structure on which to hang glimpses of succulent blue and black berry flavors. 15 percent alcohol. Plenty of substance, not much character. 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent malbec, 5 petit verdot; aged 20 onths in French oak, 57 percent new barrels. Very Good+. About $75.
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crown
Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Alexander Valley. The color is dark ruby-magenta, with little fading at the rim; notes of caraway, roasted fennel, potpourri and violets mingle with hints of very intense and concentrated black currants, blueberries and blue plums; a few minutes in the glass open a dusty-herbal aspect. A tremendous element of graphite and charcoal minerality plows every other quality under, dominating the palate from entry through the chiseled finish. 15.5 percent alcohol. Only for wine masochists. About $75.
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brothers
Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Alexander valley. The wine is 100 percent varietal; it aged 21 months in French oak, 43 percent new barrels. Very dry yet sweetish with alcohol and oak; wearying opulence, tiring alcohol, strident, unbalanced. 15.5 percent alcohol. Not recommended. About $75.
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Today’s edition of Weekend Wine Notes — a day early, but we don’t care, do we? — continues with the Catching Up on California Pinot Noir theme but focusing on three wineries: Donum Estate, FEL Wines and Lutum Wines. I depart from my usual procedure today and offer a bit more detail about winemaking and about the wines than I usually do in these posts. Still, as I typically inform My Readers, the Weekend Wine Notes are not intended to provide scads of information about history, geography, personalities and technical data. The idea is to inspire your interest and whet your palates. These wines were samples for review.
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Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. This wine aged 12 months in French oak, 64 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby-magenta, almost beet-red; aromas of ripe black and red currants and plums are intense and concentrated, though opening to notes of cloves, sandalwood and allspice, with a trace of the latter’s slightly astringent, earthy quality. Velvety and vigorous tannins feel imbued with graphite and loam, and the black and red berry flavors are deeply spicy and rather rigorously proportioned. 14.7 percent alcohol. This could use a bit more charm. Now through 2019 or ’20. Production was 732 cases. Very Good+. About $72.
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Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2012, Carneros, Sonoma County. The aging regimen was 11 months in French oak, 59 percent new barrels. In contrast to the color of the previous wine, this one offers a transparent medium ruby hue; it’s a warm and spicy pinot noir that builds inextricable layers of red cherries, cloves and sandalwood, sassafras and cranberry, with hints of earthy moss and mushrooms. The texture is dense and chewy, superbly satiny and flowing, seeming to drape the palate, while elements of graphite-tinged minerality and bright acidity keep the wine honest and true to scale. 14.5 percent alcohol. Lovely balance and integration. Production was 766 cases. Drink now through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $72.
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Donum Ten Oaks Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. Of this quartet of pinot noir wines from Donum Estate, this is the one that captured my heart. A transparent medium ruby hue shades to light mulberry at the rim; ethereal notes of cola, cloves and beetroot wrap around scents of ripe black cherries and raspberries that reveal traces of smoke and cranberries, rose petals and lavender; Readers, you could eat it with a spoon. Delicacy and elegance, robustness and vivacity balance deftly here, though while the texture is suavely silky and almost succulent, dry, dusty tannins provide ballast. Alcohol content is a pleasingly low 13.4 percent. An exquisite pinot noir with the proper amount of tension and resolution. Production was 160 cases. Excellent. About $72.
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Donum Estate West Slope Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma County. Another deceptively light and lithesome pinot noir that turns out to be muscular and sinewy. The color is a graceful transparent ruby-magenta; notes of black and red cherries are flush with hints of sassafras, tar and black tea, while a few minutes in the glass bring in an intensely floral quality of violets and roses. Though the wine’s structure is powerful and drawn out through the dynamic finish, the weight on the palate feels fleet and refined. 14.7 percent alcohol. Production was 273 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $90.
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FEL Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley. This is the “regular” bottling from this winery, as distinguished from the Savoy single-vineyard offering remarked upon below. The color is a beguiling transparent medium ruby; aromas of sandalwood and sassafras, cloves and tobacco leaf, pomegranate and cranberry serve as exotic highlights to notes of black and red cherries and currants that deepen to a layer of underbrush and loam. This pinot noir displays lovely limpidity, suppleness and lightness of being, but not without elements of tannic muscle and mineral power. 14.6 percent alcohol. Production was 2,347 cases. Drink now through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $38.
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FEL Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley. The color is dark ruby shading to a purple-magenta rim; the wine delivers a fairly rigorous structure, with slightly dusty tannins and acidity that plows a furrow on the palate, but, withal, it’s a beautifully balanced and integrated pinot noir that exudes tons of confidence and elan. Scents and flavors of red and black currants and cherries are permeated by notes of cloves and sassafras, violets and pomegranate, while a super satiny and supple texture bathes the taste-buds in luxury; the grace of pinpoint graphite minerality saves ther wine from being too opulent. The wine aged 15 months in French oak barrels, 59% of which were new. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 605 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $70.
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Lutum Wines La Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sta. Rita Hills. The color is pale ruby-magenta with a very delicate rim; it’s a wine of quicksilver effects and changeability, with notes of cranberry and pomegranate, cherries and rhubarb, cloves and sassafras strung like twinkling lights on lines of loam, underbrush, heather and leather and oolong tea; for all its ethereal character, however, this pinot noir delivers plenty of tannic power and acid structure for liveliness and longevity, as well as a silky-satiny texture that feels like a scarf draping a warm shoulder. I loved it. 14.5 percent alcohol. The wine aged 15 months in French oak, 33 percent new barrels. Production was 225 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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Lutum Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Maria Valley. The color is a ravishing pale ruby-magenta shading to a transparent rim; the wine is intense, rich and focused, driven by bright acidity and chiseled flint-like minerality, yet open and generous with its black cherry, currant and plum fruit and its exotic touches of rhubarb, sassafras, sandalwood and lilac. The wine is quite dry, permeated by elements of briers and brambles, loam and dusty, earthy tannins, but it never loses a grip on its inner delicacy and buoyancy. 13.42 percent alcohol. Production was 650 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $50.
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Lutum Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. Here’s a darker pinot noir, with a dark to medium ruby hue, high-toned intensity and concentration and lip-smacking acidity. Scents and flavors of ripe and smoky black cherries, currants and plums unfold to hints of cloves, lavender and violets, cranberry, pomegranate and loam; passing moments develop an elusive strain of red currant and sour cherry. This is a richly detailed and very dry pinot noir whose dimensions are framed by dusky tannins and a bosky briery and brambly character. 14.13 percent alcohol. The wine aged 15 months in French oak, 33 percent new barrels. Production was 250 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $60.
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Well, damn it, this is sort of embarrassing. I have so many pinot noirs from California to catch up on reviewing that I have to divide the effort into two parts. Perhaps three. As usual in the Weekend Wines Notes, I eschew technical, historical and geographical information for the sake of incisive reviews, ripped from the pages of my notebooks, designed to tease your interest and whet your palate.
These 12 examples, all samples for review, are from vintages 2012 and 2013. The order is alphabetical, not hierarchical. Enjoy.
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anaba
Anaba Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.3% alc. A glowing medium ruby hue shading to a transparent magenta rim; a cool and mineral-laden pinot noir that features spiced and macerated black and red cherries with hints of loam, briers and brambles; incisive acidity and graphite minerality, notes of mint and iodine and a savory fleshy quality; lots of tone and subtle shape, beautifully balanced and integrated. Excellent. About $34.
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ferrari pn
Ferrari-Carano Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley. …% alc. Limpid medium ruby color; the typical range of smoky black cherry, currant and plum scents and flavors filigreed with notes of cloves, sassafras and sandalwood, yet couched in a texture of supernal silky suppleness and deepening to a dark, rooty loamy layer bolstered by mildy dusty tannins and bright acidity; displays more power than elegance, but certainly plumbs the depths of the grape. Now through 2019 to ’21. Excellent. About $35.
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Gary_Farrell_2012_RRS_PN_Bottle
Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. Ineffable medium ruby hue shading to light mulberry; an elevating and enticing bouquet: macerated red currants and cherries with a hint of slightly briery raspberry and notes of cloves and sassafras, smoke, lavender and heather; super supple and satiny; dusty tannins infused with underbrush and moss; pulls up roots and branches and wild floral elements; quite dry but seductive in every sense. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $45.
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HeadHigh_2013_SCPinotNoir_Label
Head High Wines Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. 14.2% alc. Transparent medium ruby, brick-red at the rim; a subdued manner that features pert acidity and fairly tart red berry fruit, though highlighted by notes of smoke and cloves, sassafras and pomegranate; it becomes deeper and broader in the glass, after 30 or 40 minutes, building a dimension of blue plums, blueberries and graphite, becoming more intense and vibrant. A lovely pinot noir, ephemeral yet with sleek backbone, for drinking through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $35.
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Heintz_pinot
Heintz Ranch Swan Selection Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. 13.3% alc. 200 cases. Lovely limpid medium ruby color; cherries, cranberries and rhubarb; cloves and tobacco, sandalwood and loam; supple and satiny texture, feels generous on the palate yet enlivened by clean acidity and graphite-tinged minerality; dried spice and wild flowers emerge after a few minutes in the glass. Very attractive personality and character. Now through 2017 or ’18. Very Good+. About $48.
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follette
La Follette Pinot Noir 2013, North Coast. 13.8% alc. Medium ruby fading to a lighter magenta; remarkable depth and dimension for the price; black cherry, cranberry and cloves, sassafras and sandalwood; quite intense and pure, with a lithe and supple texture; richness and density cut by vibrant acidity; brings in touches of smoke and dried spices, briers and loam, with dry, dusty tannins. Now through 2017 or ’18 If you’re looking for a house pinot noir, this is it. Excellent. About $20, representing Fine Value.
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-MacMurray_Estate_Vineyards_2014_Central_Coast_Pinot_Noir_750ml_0
MacMurray Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013, Central Coast. This Gallo brand used to be called MacMurray Ranch and sported an altogether more pleasing label than the new generic model, but nobody asked me. 14.8% alc. Dark ruby shading to a transparent mulberry rim; black raspberries and currants with hints of plums, cloves and sassafras; very satiny and supple, with appealing substance on the palate; savory, and with some elements of briers and brambles and slightly dusty tannins and graphite. A nice rendition. Very Good+. About $23.
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Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Lucia Highlands. 14.4% alc. 1,211 cases. Dark ruby shading Double_L_Pinot_Noir_2013to lighter ruby and a transparent magenta rim; ravishing bouquet: cloves and sandalwood, smoky black cherries and plums, rose petals and lavender; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of Necco wafer, raspberry jam, leather and violets; beautifully lithe and supple on the palate, spicy and savory, with lovely weight and heft; dry and loamy, dense and fairly tannic in a dusty, graphite-laden fashion; all melded by fleet acidity and deftly handled oak. A real beauty; drink now through 2019 to 2022. Excellent. About $58.
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Paul Hobbs CrossBarn Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley. 14.1% alc. Transparent medium ruby hue; pure fresh black crossbarnraspberry and plum infused with cloves and sassafras and a hint of leather and loam; a few moments in the glass bring up notes of red currants and cherries; smoky and dusty, with plenty of stuffing, though tannins are supple and manageable; keen acidity cuts a furrow on the palate. Very attractive, for drinking through 2017 or ’18. Very Good+. About $35.
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Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. Medium ruby-magenta with a pale rim; patza pure and intense expression of lightly macerated red raspberries and cherries with a touch of blue plum; cloves, sandalwood and sassafras, hints of graphite and loam; super satiny, spicy, smoky and savory, the red berry flavors a bit fleshy, all directed by a stern finger of dusty tannins and lip-smacking acidity. a joy to drink. Now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $70.
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strong
Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Beguiling transparent ruby hue shading to a rim of delicate invisibility; bursting with notes of sassafras, cloves, pomegranate and cranberry opening to smoky black cherries and currants; lovely purity and intensity, with a sleek silky texture, abundant acidity and slightly briery tannins, all at the service of bright yet slightly loamy cherry-berry flavors. Drink now through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $25.
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Saxon Brown Durell Vineyard Hayfield Block Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Fewer than 100 cases. Dark ruby hue at the center shading to medium ruby-magenta at the transparent rim; dusty plums and red currants, loam, cloves and allspice, with a tantalizing note of the latter’s fragrant woody astringency; iodine and graphite tending toward a granitic element, softened by a supple texture exquisitely poised between silky lushness and lithe muscularity; it feels married to the earth. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, or at least, say, until 2020 or ’22. Exceptional. About $48.
The wines of Saxon Brown are sold by allocation through a mailing list. Contact saxonbrown.com for information.
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One of the best-known vineyards in Sonoma County, if not California, is the Durell Vineyard, perched at the cusp of three appellations, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and Carneros, just a toe-hold in the latter, but entitled to a Sonoma Coast designation. Dedicated primarily to chardonnay and pinot noir, this vineyard supplies grapes to such labels as (perhaps most famously) Kistler, Chateau St. Jean, Patz & Hall and Robert Craig, as well as Saxon Brown, Loring, Armida, Auteur and others.

Ed Durell, a food broker in San Francisco, acquired the land in 1977, intending to raise cattle but planted vines bill-600x880instead, and, as it turns out, this area, just at the foot of the Sonoma Mountains, was prime soil and climate for those grapes. In 1998, Durell sold the 200-acre vineyard, by now a prestigious site, to Bill and Ellie Price. Bill Price III, a co-founder of TPG Capital (image at right), which bought Beringer Wine Estates and sold it to Fosters and if that’s not a great introduction to the wine business I don’t know what is, and Ellie Price divorced in 2001 but each retains ownership of Durell Vineyard. 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 purchased the well-known Gap’s Crown Vineyard in 2013.

Price’s Three Sticks label — named for his old surfing nickname — draws grapes from Durell as well as from other vineyards in Sonoma County and down to Santa Barbara County. These 2013s were made by Don Van Staaveren, who is now winemaker emeritus, having handed his former duties to director of winemaking Bob Cabral (former winemaker at Williams Selyam), associate winemaker Ryan Prichard and assistant winemaker Ashley Holland.

These wines were samples for review.
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13Chardonnay_Durell
I’m sorry to begin this series of reviews on a discouraging note, but the Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Valley, received the full in-house treatment, and it shows. Fermented in French oak barrels, aged for 15 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels, and undergoing complete malolactic fermentation, the wine came out bold, bright and brassy, dense and lush to the point of being viscous, bursting with candied and caramelized citrus and stone-fruit flavors, stridently spicy, cloying and creamy and lacking the saving grace of minerality. It is my understanding that some people like this overdone, exaggerated character in chardonnay, but not me. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 713 cases. Not recommended. About $50.

Now, on to more pleasant matters.
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12_OriginChardonnay_750-215x700-1-copy
Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Origin Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Valley, fermented 28 days in concrete eggs and aged for 12 months, unusually, completely in stainless steel. No oak for this baby! It did not go through malolactic fermentation, the transformation of sharp malic (“apple-like”) acid to creamy lactic (“milk-like’) acid that can occur during barrel aging. The color is medium gold, and the first impression is of a bold, forthright but not flamboyant chardonnay that features quite spicy lemon and peach scents and flavors with notes of ripe and slightly roasted pineapple and grapefruit, all permeated by elements of cloves, quince and ginger. It’s a deep, almost rooty chardonnay with structure to burn and a smoky, cigarette paper character that lends depth and dimension. Crystalline acidity cuts through a supple texture and rich stone-fruit flavors enlivened by a burgeoning limestone quality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 409 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $48. One of my favorite chardonnays produced in California.
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12_OneSkyChardonnay-292x10241
Unlike its stablemate Origin Chardonnay mentioned just above, the Three Sticks One Sky Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Mountain, ferments in French oak barrels and ages in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, for 15 months; it undergoes 100 percent malolactic. Sometimes that full oak treatment works out fine, thank you very much, but it has to be thoughtful and finely balanced. The color is bright, brassy gold to match the wine’s bright, brassy aromas and flavors. Lots of volume here, lots of structure and dimension, personality and character. Spiced and macerated grapefruit and pineapple have a slightly floral overlay, while the wine coats the mouth with ripe and slightly dusty citrus and stone-fruit flavors that open to hints of toffee and lightly candied and caramelized lemons, peaches and grapefruit. While the description of this panoply of sensual delights may sound overwhelming, the wine is actually deftly controlled and engaging, gliding over the palate with confidence and some fancy footwork. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 274 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’21. Excellent. About $50.
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2012-RRV-PN_Bottle-Shot
The Three Sticks Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, aged 16 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The color is medium ruby shading to a transparent rim; transporting and exotic notes of cloves and sandalwood, sassafras and rhubarb lend highlights to a macerated compote of cranberries and red and black cherries; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of smoke, lavender and heather. The texture is supremely satiny, with a luxurious drape on the palate that’s balanced by brisk acidity, slightly dusty tannins and touches of graphite and shale minerality, all at the service of tasty, spicy red and black fruit flavors. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 573 cases. Drink now through 2019 to ’21. Excellent. About $60.
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2012-Sta-Rita-PN-James_Bottle-Shot
The Three Sticks “The James” Pinot Noir 2013, Sta. Rita Hills, gathers grapes from three familiar vineyards in this region of Santa Barbara County: Burning Creek, La Rinconada and (perhaps the best-known) Sanford & Benedict. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is an irresistible limpid medium ruby that shades to transparent at the rim; you could call this wine “cherries, cherries, cherries,” though the heady influence of black and red raspberries and currants is undeniable, along with notes of cloves and sassafras, graphite and lavender; a few moments in the glass pull up hints of pomegranate and rhubarb. It’s a supple, sleek and satiny pinot noir, whose slightly dusty tannins, clean acidity and burnished oak keep it on the sane side of succulence, though let’s admit that it’s really tasty, too. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 through 2013. Excellent. About $60.
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13Pinot_Durell
The Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, aged 16 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, but you don’t feel the oak influence until the finish, where the wood element feels sanded and burnished. The color is transparent medium ruby; aromas of sassafras and cloves, black and red cherries and currants are permeated by hints of loam and an autumnal briery-brambly quality, like some ancient root-like brew; give it a few minutes and it dredges up a mysterious and seductive floral tone, as if dried violets and lilacs had been steeped in oolong tea. It’s all quite extraordinary. In the mouth, well, taut acidity cuts a swath on the palate, leading the way for a texture that feels both delicate and tense, poignant and dynamic; deeply spiced red and black fruit flavors seem suspended in a foundation of lightly dusted tannins and an increasing lithic, graphite character. Altogether a beautiful performance, exquisitely balanced, tensile with power. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 585 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Exceptional. About $65.
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13_GapsCrownPinot
The Three Sticks Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, received the same oak regimen as the Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir ’13 mentioned just above, and for whatever reason, you feel the oak more in this wine, a persistent presence from mid-palate back through the finish. Still, this is pinot noir of fine detail and dimension, offering a light transparent ruby-magenta hue and a meaty, fleshy, roasted bouquet that pulls up fathoms of spice in the juicy, peppery red and black fruit scents. Again, the wine hints at some rooty, loamy tea steeped in bark and mushrooms, with an allusive and tantalizing floral element. Flavors of very ripe, sweet cherries and currants open to touches of cranberry and rhubarb, while a supple lithe texture runs like warm satin across the tongue. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 329 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Very Good+. About $65.
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Or luscious wines, or wines that a certain writer calls “sexy” or “hedonistic,” or wines that base their raison d’etre on ripeness and juiciness, succulence and opulence. I think that these wines reflect the infantile nature of the American palate trained to sweetened iced tea and sugary sodas or, for the Baby Boomer generation, Kool-Aid and Tang. American wine consumers seem to want their taste buds coddled and cosseted by the saturated ripeness of long-hanging grapes plumped with sugar and by velvety textures that slide comfortingly through the mouth and down the throat.

As a culture, Americans typically desire immediate gratification, a tendency that’s probably our most consequential export to the rest of the world. With a sniff and a sip, the gorgeous wine gets right in there and provides quick fulfillment, a burst of pleasure. “Wow, that’s gorgeous!” What happens next, though? Such wines may be superficially attractive, even seductive, and I won’t deny that a wine with the capability to draw you in irresistibly isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the end, however, the gorgeous wines don’t deliver the true promise that great wines hold: elegance and finesse married to power and dynamism; a structure that feels embedded in the grapes’ origin in the vineyard and the vineyard in a region; acidity that brings the necessary matanzas merlotvitality to the wine’s essence and cuts a swath on the palate; the balance among fruit, tannin, acid, oak and minerality that soothes, stimulates and challenges the senses and the intellect.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A couple of nights ago, to accompany meatloaf and roasted potatoes, I opened a bottle of the Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2012, Bennett Valley. (Matanzas Creek is owned by Jackson Family Wines.) Bennett Valley, approved as an AVA in 2003, largely at the instigation of Matanzas Creek Winery, lies almost entirely within the Sonoma Valley AVA and overlaps somewhat into Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Mountain AVAs. The vineyard stands at an average elevation of 600 feet. The wine is 98 percent merlot with one percent each cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc; it aged 20 months in French and American oak, the French being 23 percent new barrels. Winemaker was Marcia Monahan-Torres. Yes, that’s the wonky technical data that may bore you silly, but I love it.

The color is deep ruby-purple with a glowing magenta rim. The aromas launch from the glass in what’s initially a subdued skein of ripe and slightly macerated black and red currants and cherries with notes of raspberry and blueberry; a few minutes’ airing brings in hints of cloves and sandalwood and then a great bloom of violets and lilacs, backed by licorice and bitter chocolate, all in a lovely welter of sensual delight. Yeah, pretty damned gorgeous. Within this panoply of pleasure, however, lurks a deeper influence of graphite, something root-like, briery and brambly, with sage and a touch of rosemary, and deeper yet, a layer of lithic iodine and iron. The wine is shifting, you see, from gorgeous to profound, a transition that occurs on the palate, also, where the ripeness and allure of the spicy red and black fruit flavors are bolstered by bright and active acidity and given depth and dimension by dusty, woodsy tannins that partake of dried mushrooms and forest-floor and a burgeoning tide of granitic minerality. This is in no way, you see, a merely gorgeous wine. The Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2012 doesn’t sate your desire for wine or weary your palate by its opulence and velvety succulence. Instead, it leads you on from sip to sip, a wine to savor for the very savory qualities that more flamboyant wines lack. This should drink beautifully through 2020 to ’24. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $60.

Perhaps the virtues I extol demand too much of wine, which is, after all, only a beverage, an agricultural product, though I think that wine — including Champagne and the adjuncts Port and Cognac — possesses the capacity to be the most complex and satisfying result of agricultural endeavor. (I’ll hear arguments for Scotch, too.) Not that every wine ought to promote deep contemplation and examination; sometimes you just want a decent quaff to knock back with a burger or pizza. Still, I think we deserve wines that exhibit finer character and more essential structure than the prettiness and hyperbole of ripeness and plumpness allow.

… and, yes, friends, it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky.
jayson
What is this trope about table wines that bear the cloying impress of alcohol levels over 15 percent, even 16 percent and higher? Some winemakers in California seem to fall into the same camp as many producers of craft beer, who believe that the hoppier a brew is the better it is, intrinsically, so, by parallel reasoning, since wine is an alcoholic beverage, let’s pump up the alcohol for a wild ride.

There was a time when wines produced in California came in at alcohol levels between about 11.5 and 12.5 percent, maybe up to 13.5. The norm now is 14.5 percent, with the result that red wines — cabernets, pinot noirs, syrahs, merlots and, especially, zinfandel wines — are riper and juicier but also convey an impression of sweetness and sometimes, on the finish, of heat. These exaggerated qualities increase as the alcohol content creeps past 15 percent and inches toward or past 16. The problems intensify because many of these wines are also exceedingly tannic, so any sense of balance is lost in an entity that turns out to be powerful and dynamic but awkward, clunky and incoherent. I read the deliriously approving descriptions of some of these wines and reviews from other writers, and I have to think, surely we’re not talking about the same product, as I’m sure they will think about me and my fairly harsh evaluations.

So, today, I offer brief notices of beyond-the-pale, high-alcohol, lurching, unbalanced red wines, along with a few that manage to pull off the feat and achieve a measure of poise. Notice that most of these examples are zinfandels from Lodi, Amador County and Dry Creek Valley; the great and surprising exception is a beautifully-made Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon that registers 15.2 percent alcohol. The order is by increasing amounts of alcohol, starting at 15 percent. Proceed at your own risk.
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Renwood Clarion Red Wine 2012, Amador County. 15% alc. Dark ruby color; pungent with ripe raspberry and blueberry infused with briery-brambly notes, graphite and lavender; very dry, quite spicy, juicy with red and black fruit flavors; you feel a touch of raisiny heat on the finish. Very Good+. About $20.
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Renwood Grandpere Zinfandel 2012, Amador County. 15% alc. Medium ruby hue with a light garnet rim; sweet spices, mint, ripe cherries and cranberries with touches of blueberry and boysenberry; quite dry, plush, velvety tannins, large-framed but palatable; a bit of alcoholic heat mars the dense, lithic finish. Very Good+. About $40.
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Priest Ranch Coach Gun 2011, Napa Valley. 15.1% alc. A cabernet sauvignon-based blend. Dark ruby color; smoke, loam, graphite, lavender; black currants and cherries and blueberries, all deeply spiced and macerated; cedar and mint; energized by pert acidity; very dry dusty out-of-scale tannins, austere finish that falters out of balance. Not a success. About $75.
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Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyard Syrah 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.2% alc. 75% syrah, 25% zinfandel. Opaque black-ruby with an intense violet rim; big, bold and very spicy; ripe and fleshy blackberry and blueberry fruit with an infusion of ligonberry, blackberry jam and blueberry tart; deep, plush, dusty tannins that coat the palate; every element that I look for in a syrah wine is absent, muted into anonymity by ripeness, alcohol and tannin. Awkward and unbalanced. About $32.
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Jayson Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley. (The second label of Pahlmeyer.) 15.2% alc. A complete, harmonious and complex red wine. Dark ruby-purple hue; a very ripe, fruit-infused wine, high-toned and surprisingly elegant in its balance; intense and concentrated, with notes of cassis and red and black cherries permeated by iron and iodine, graphite, ancho chili and meat blood; powerfully dynamic, ferrous and savory, deep, rich and spicy with a resonant mineral core and a concluding touch of blueberry tart; a sleek, polished and chiseled cabernet. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $65 to $75.
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Truett-Hurst Old Vine Burning Man Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.3% alc. Opaque black-ruby with a magenta rim; a strapping, palate-stomping tannic wine, pungent with spiced and macerated black currants, plums and blueberries, pomegranate and boysenberry; lots of leather and loam; formidable structure, dusty, gravelly and austere. Not a success. About $38.
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Renwood Premium Old Vine Zinfandel 2012, Amador County. 15.5% alc. Medium ruby hue with a garnet rim; a lovely blooming, floral and spicy bouquet, evolves to fruitcake, loam and brambles, bitter chocolate; blueberries, mint and pomegranate; a bit of an after-burn but not heavy, over-ripe or obvious; still, the finish is tight and austere. Very Good+. About $20.
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Michael David Winery Earthquake Zinfandel 2012, Lodi. 15.5% alc. Moderately dark ruby hue; very ripe, spiced and macerated plums, currants and cherries with a slightly raisiny fruitcake inflection; large-framed and quite lively; dense, dusty, chewy, infused with graphite and lithic tannins that coat the palate; still, surprisingly well-balanced, really luscious for those who want luscious wines (not me). Now through 2017. Very Good+. About $26.
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Tin Barn Vineyards Coryelle Fields Vineyard Syrah 2012, Sonoma Coast. 15.5% alc. Opaque ruby hue with a magenta rim; both intense and concentrated while being very ripe, smoky and spicy; heaps of leather and loam and a tide of black fruit flavors, but distinctly more zin-like than syrah, with a high-alcohol zin’s off-balance element of cloying fruit and austere tannins. Doesn’t work. About $27.
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Tin Barn Los Chamizal Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Sonoma Valley. 15.6% alc. Dark ruby with a much paler rim; a lovely bouquet of smoke, lavender and cloves, mint, sandalwood, fruitcake and blackberries; a big, firm, tannic wine that just manages to hold the line against over-ripeness and austerity; it takes a risk and the risk feels worth it; still, you feel some slightly sweet/parching alcoholic heat on the finish. Very Good+. About $29.
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Tin Barn Gilsson Vineyard Zinfandel 2013, Russian River Valley. 15.6% alc. Solid dark ruby hue; a refreshing bouquet of mint, lavender and black cherries until the alcohol wafts up and sort of stops everything in its tracks; very dry, spicy, dense, tannic and austere. Not recommended. About $29.
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Watts Winery Upstream Zinfandel 2012, Mokelumne, Lodi. 15.6% alc. Dark ruby hue with a mulberry rim; an immense presence, fairly well-balanced, considering, but takes on overwhelming ferrous and sanguinary elements and huge dusty tannins; the saving grace is that it’s not sweet, hot or cloying, but not quite coherent or reconciled either. Very Good. About $25.
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Truett-Hurst Old Vine Red Rooster Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.7% alc. Medium ruby-cherry color, not super-dark or extracted; very ripe, very spicy and fruity; black and red currants and plums with touches of lavender, licorice and saturated boysenberry; an alcohol after-burn of heat, spice and sweetness, so the finish clashes with the wine’s dryness and austerity on the palate, fundamentally unbalanced. Doesn’t work. About $35.
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Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Dry creek Valley. 15.8% alcohol. 88.2% zinfandel, 10.6% syrah, 1.2% petite sirah. Medium ruby color with a lighter rim; cloves, red and black berries, interesting notes of caraway and sandalwood, but tromps across the palate with boots of dry, austere and astringent tannins coupled with the sweetness of high alcohol in the finish. Nope. About $32.
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Truett-Hurst Old Vine Rattler Rock Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.8% alc. Radiant medium ruby hue; a broad, deep, very dry, quite austere wine, awkward, unbalanced, hot and sharp on the finish. Nuff said. About $35.
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Harney Lane Zinfandel 2011, Lodi. 15.9% alc. Dark ruby-purple; ripe, spiced and macerated blackberries and blueberries infused with cloves and graphite, a sort of mineral-laced cocktail of sweet and roasted black and blue fruit, touched with pomegranate and brandy-soaked raisins; acidity plows a row on the palate, preceding formidably dusty, lithic tannins leading to an austere finish. Maybe with a steak, or maybe not. Very Good+. About $22.
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Priest Ranch Somerston Estate Zinfandel 2012, Napa Valley. 16.2% alc. Medium ruby with a garnet rim; cloves, allspice and sandalwood make an exotic festoon; black and red currants and plums, with notes of blueberries, lavender and red licorice; outlandishly plush, dusty yet rigorous tannins dominate the palate, yet the finish is over-ripe and sweet. Awkward and ungainly. Forget it. About $40.
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Martinelli Lolita Ranch Zinfandel 2013, Russian River Valley. 16.3% alc. 253 cases. When I see that a table wine tops the charts at 16.3 percent alcohol, my reaction tends to run along the lines of “You have to be fucking kidding me,” but no, they’re not kidding. Moderate ruby color, almost transparent; roasted blackberries, currants and plums; fruitcake; very spicy and peppery; cloying alcoholic sweetness and heat; very dry, formidably austere tannins; clunky and chunky. Doesn’t work. About $52.
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In some ways, it’s more fun to compile the “25 Great Wine Bargains” than it is to fret over the “50 Great Wines.” This present list of wines priced at $20 and under offers more geographical and varietal diversity, as well as appealing to people — most of the wine-drinkers on the face of the earth — would would rather pay $15 for a bottle of excellent wine than $150 for a bottle of exceptional wine. What’s particularly pleasing about today’s roster is that of the 25 wines included, all but two rate Excellent. The truth is that wines don’t have to be high-priced to be thoughtfully and precisely made or to embody all the characteristics of a terrific drink. An excellent sauvignon blanc for $11? Who would pass that up? These 25 Great Wine Bargains are cause for celebration, so have at it. Remember, though, that not all wines are available in every market. For bottles that can’t be found in your local retail stores, a search on the Internet may be helpful. Enjoy!

All of these selections were samples for review or were tasted at wholesaler trade events.
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kerner
Abbazia di Novacella Kerner 2013, Valle Isarco, Alto Adige, Italy. Kerner is a white hybrid grape created as recently as 1969. It is found primarily in Germany but certainly performed well in this section of Alto Adige. Excellent. About $19.
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baur
Francois Baur Brut Réserve nv, Crémant d’Alsace, France. Pinot blanc, riesling, chardonnay, pinot gris. Excellent. About $18.
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cattin riesling
Joseph Cattin Riesling 2013, Alsace, France. Excellent. About $14.
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chevalier_muscadet_2010_hi_res
Eric Chevalier Clos de la Butte 2013, Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu sur Lie 2013, Loire Valley, France. Excellent. About $16.
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arneis_le_madri_btl_535px
Michele Chiarlo Le Madri Roero Arneis 2014, Piedmont, Italy. 100 percent arneis grapes. Excellent. About $18.
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2014_Sauvignon_Blanc_label_rgb1
Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $18.
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Eguia_Rosado_FT
Viña Eguía Rosado 2014, Rioja, Spain. 80 percent tempranillo, 20 percent garnacha. Very Good+. About $12.
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cava
Isaac Fernandez Seleccíon Biutiful Cava Rosé nv, Penedes, Spain. Excellent. About $15.
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schloss-gobelsburg-gobelsburger-riesling-kamptal-austria-10224971
Schloss Gobelsburg “Gobelsburger” Riesling 2013, Kamptal, Austria. Excellent. About $18.
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Hidalgo_Fino
Emilio Hildago Fino Jerez Seco nv, Jerez, Spain. Excellent. About $14 (500 milliliter bottle).
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leitz
Leitz Rudesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling Trocken 2013, Rheingau, Germany. Excellent. About $20.
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martini-cab
Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $20.
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masi
Masi Campofiorin 2011, Rosso del Veronese IGT, Italy. Corvino, rondinella and molinara grapes. Excellent. About $18.
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mud-house-sauvignon-blanc-marlborough-new-zealand-10126095
Mud House Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Marlborough, New Zealand. Excellent. About $17.
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pazo
Pazo San Mauro Albariño 2014, Rías Baixas, Spain. Excellent. About $19.
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ped sb
Pedroncelli East Side Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $15.
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2012_domaine_perraud_macon_villages_vieilles_vignes
Domaine Perraud Vielles Vignes Mâcon-Villages 2013, Mâconnais, France. 100 percent chardonnay. Excellent. About $20.
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Amauta-Absoluto-Torrontes
El Porvenir de Cafayate Amauta Absoluto Torrontés 2012, Salta, Argentina. Excellent. About $16.
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prodigo
Prodigo Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Friuli Grave, Italy. Excellent. About $11.
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scaia-garganega
Tenuta Sant’Antonio Scaia Bianca 2014, delle Venezia IGT, Italy. The label asserts 55 percent garganega, 45 percent chardonnay grapes. Press materials and website say 50 percent garganega, 30 percent chardonnay, 20 percent trebbiano Soave. Whatever. Excellent. About $11.
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segries
Château de Ségriès Côtes-du-Rhône 2013, Rhone Valley, France. 50 percent grenache, 30 percent syrah, 10 percent each cinsault and carignane. Excellent. About $15.
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charles_thomas_cotes_du_rhone_rouge_hq_label
Charles Thomas Côtes-du-Rhône 2013, Rhone Valley, France. (Maison Jean-Baptiste Bejot) 50 percent syrah, 40 percent grenache, 10 percent mourvedre. Very Good+. About $12.
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valentina
La Valentina 2014, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, Italy. Rosé of montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Very Good+. About $12.
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VR_Label_14_WHITE4_Front
Vina Robles “White 4” 2014, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County. 54 percent viognier, 22 percent vermentino, 15 verdelho, 9 sauvignon blanc. Excellent. About $16.
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Zemmer-Pinot_Bianco_Square
Peter Zemmer Punggl Pinot Blanc 2013, Alto Adige, Italy. Excellent. About $18.
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