Sonoma County



Belle Glos is the pinot noir arm of the Wagner Family of Wines that includes the iconic Caymus cabernet sauvignons and the popular Conundrum white and red blends (yes, there’s a red now). The Meiomi label represents the more moderately priced and accessible pinot noir from the Belle Glos line. Winemaker is Joseph J. Wagner. Meiomi means “coast” in the languages of the Wappo and Yuki tribes that once thrived in California, and the wine is indeed a coastal product, derived from vineyards in three coastal counties, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Sonoma. (Though I have to say that every time I see a bottle of this wine I think, “Me-oh-my!”) The color of the Meiomi Pinot Noir 2012 is dark ruby with a tinge of magenta; the wine generally is dark, spicy, berryish, with heady aromas of black and red cherries and currants and plums touched with cranberries and cloves and a hint of sassafras. It’s super satiny on the palate, and its ripe and spicy black and red fruit flavors are permeated by smoke and leather that lead out to a keen graphite edge, all set midst moderately dense, dry and slightly dusty tannins. At 13.8 percent alcohol and with this panoply of effects, it’s a stylish crowd-pleaser. Now through 2016. Excellent. About $22.

A sample for review.

This post started as the Weekend Wines Notes on Friday, but if you follow me on Facebook, you know that this was a weekend of dog rescuing and transporting, so I was not able to finish until this morning. So be it.

First, allow me to mention that zinfandel is not “the all-American grape” that some writers still inexplicably assert, mainly in popular magazines. It’s a European vinifera grape just like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling and so on. Second, while capable of being made into fine wine indeed, zinfandel has the problem of being too versatile, that is, it can be made into a confusing array of styles so that consumers don’t know what they’re getting when they choose a bottle at their favorite retail store, but that’s why knowledgeable sales clerks exist, n’est-ce pas? In today’s edition of Weekend Wine Notes, I look at products from three producers that focus on zinfandel; in the case of two of these, McCay Cellars and Wine Guerrilla, the wines are designated single-vineyard. One style of zinfandel is full-throttle, super-ripe, dense and alcoholic; that’s the style favored by Wine Guerrilla winemaker Bruce Patch. It’s not my favorite manner — I think it distorts the grape’s character and results in undrinkable wines — and that stance is reflected in the reviews that follow. I liked three of Patch’s 2009s better, and I admire him for working with these historic old vine field blend vineyards; here are the more positive reviews. These wines were review samples. Unfortunately, label images for McCay’s recent releases don’t exist; at least I couldn’t find any.
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McCay Cellars Equity Vineyard Zinfandel 2010, Lodi. 14.4% alc. 288 cases. Dark ruby color, tinge of mulberry; intense and concentrated, graphite and briers, black currants, blackberries and plums, licorice and lavender; sleek and polished but dry; vibrant acidity plows through the center; loads of dusty tannins and oak; notes of cloves, sandalwood, fruitcake, hint of pomegranate; dense and chewy, a real mouthful of wine that flows beautifully on the palate. Try from 2015 through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $32.
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McCay Cellars TruLux Vineyard Zinfandel 2010, Lodi. 14.4% alc. 278 cases. Slightly darker and more intense ruby color than the previous example; iodine, iron and graphite; fruit and floral elements both fresh and dried; black currants, blackberry and blueberry; potpourri, bitter chocolate, heaps of briers, brambles and underbrush; very intense and concentrated, even brooding, but quite vibrant and resonant; finish is packed with granitic minerality, dusty tannins and dried spices. Try from 2015 or ’16 through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $32.
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McCay Cellars Jupiter Vineyard Zinfandel 2010, Lodi. 14.6% alc. 449 cases. Dark ruby color with a touch of magenta; intense minerality yet warm and spicy; very dry dusty grainy tannins and oak sanding the circumference, but zinging acidity adds liveliness; a dense, deeply spicy and dusty graphite propelled zinfandel that needs a year or two; presently a bit inexpressive. Try from 2015 or ’16 to 2020 or ’21. Very Good+. About $28.
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McCay Cellars Contention Vineyard Zinfandel 2010, Lodi. 14.9% alc. 223 cases. Dense dark ruby-purple color; spiced and macerated blackberries, black raspberries and plums, rather fleshy and meaty; iron and iodine; a very intense and savory core of potpourri, lavender, fruitcake, bitter chocolate and graphite; a huge mouthful of wine with austere tannin-oak-and-mineral-infused finish. Try from 2015 or ’16 to 2020 or ’22. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $64.
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Renwood Zinfandel 2011, California. 14.5% alc. 86% zinfandel, 10% primitivo, 2% roussanne, 1% each mourvedre and souzao. Bright medium ruby color; black currants, plums and blueberries with a touch of red raspberry; briers and brambles, intriguing hints of mocha and cherry cola; shapely and moderate tannins. A tasty zinfandel. Now through 2014. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
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Renwood Premier Old Vine Zinfandel 2010, Amador County. 15.5% alc. 92.5% zinfandel, 5.8% syrah, 1.7% souzao. Medium ruby color; spiced , macerated, roasted and fleshy; bristly black and red currants, a rasp of raspberries and rose hips; fresh and clean but with the dried spice, espresso bean and fruitcake note of old vines; finish is fairly austere and somewhat unbalanced with a touch of alcoholic heat and sweetness. Drink through 2015. Very Good. About $20.
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Renwood Fiddletown Zinfandel 2011, Amador County. 14.8% alc. 99% zinfandel, 1% mission grapes. Lovely medium ruby color, slightly lighter at the rim; red and black currants, red and black cherries, notes of blueberries; briers and underbrush elements, violets and tobacco leaf, cloves, mocha and a beguiling hint of pomegranate; very satisfying balance and integration; dusty graphite and tannins, a dry but not austere or forbidding red wine, perfect for Thanksgiving dinner. Now through 2015. Excellent. About $25.
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Wine Guerrilla McClain Vineyard Zinfandel 2011, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. 80% zinfandel, 20% petite sirah. Dark ruby-purple color; very ripe boysenberry, blueberry, blackberry, with iodine, mint and graphite, smoke, lavender, violets; juicy blue and black fruit flavors permeated by dusty granitic minerality and tart acidity, all set in a structure of powerful tannins; a not pleasing sensation of a dry red wine that feels sweet; will a few years tone down the effect? Good. About $35.
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Wine Guerrilla Clopton Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel 2011, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. A field blend of zinfandel, palomino and alicante bouschet. Dark ruby-purple color; blackberry, blueberry tart, super-ripe sweet fruit packed with cloves, allspice, sandalwood and hints of rhubarb and beetroot and loam; big, dense and powerful, relentlessly dry yet almost cloying with sweet ripeness so the balance feels off; will a few years bring coherence? Good. About $40.
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Wine Guerrilla Carreras Ranch Block 2 Old Vine Zinfandel 2011, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. A field blend of zinfandel, petite sirah, Napa gamay, alicante bouschet, chasselas dore. Dark ruby-purple, almost opaque; deep, rooty, loamy and earthy; smoke, leather, briers and brambles; intense and concentrated, very dry, dusty and minerally; dense, almost viscous, has the dignity and power of old vines — these planted in 1916 — as well as the intensity and concentration. Now through 2019 to ’20. Excellent. About $40.
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WG Sonoma Monte Rosso Vineyard Block E44 Zinfandel 2010, Sonoma Valley. 15% alc. 200 cases. Very dark ruby-purple color; smoke, plums and blueberry tart; heady notes of cloves and sandalwood, violets and lavender; deeply earthy and mineral-laden in the graphite and granite range; stout, dusty leathery tannins; feel some heat on the finish; next morning, quite dense, austere, almost astringent oak and tannin influence; will the fruit survive? Not recommended except for those who want to take a chance. About $35.
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Wine Guerrilla Conte Vineyard Zinfandel 2010, Russian River Valley. 15.6% alc. 120 cases. 85% zinfandel, 10% petite sirah, the rest grenache and carignane. Deep ruby color with a magenta rim shading to garnet; very ripe, stridently spicy; boysenberry and blackberry tart; sweetish alcohol; both super-ripe and austere; uncoordinated and unbalanced. Not recommended. About $30.
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I could have called this post, “The Pinot Noirs of Inman Family Wines,” but since the small winery is a very personal enterprise and since Kathleen Inman’s physical and philosophical fingerprints seem to be on everything regarding the wines and the winery, I went with this title instead. Inman and her husband, attorney Simon Inman, acquired the 10.5 acre Olivet Grange vineyard on Olivet Road in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley in 1999; she produced her first wines from the 2002 vintage. She concentrates on two renditions of pinot noir — a Russian River bottling and what’s now called OGV, for Olivet Grange Vineyard — and also makes small amounts of sparkling wine, chardonnay and pinot gris. All of her wines are characterized by elegance, balance and finely-knit structure. Inman favors natural yeasts, no fining and ideally no filtration. Trained as an economist, Inman said that she “tries to derive the best economic use from everything.” The facility, which she calls a “stealth winery,” was constructed almost totally of post-consumer recycled materials. It’s solar powered, producing more energy than it consumes, and it features a privately owned electric vehicle charging station, so drive those toy cars up there with confidence that you can get home! The small group I was visiting the winery with had lunch at the winery, and except for the duck, everything on the plate came from the bounty of her garden. Inman’s style of pinot noir is opposite of the dark, high-extract and powerfully alcoholic examples we see too often in California. Her pinots are delicate, finely-etched, potent with lively acidity and spicy red and black fruit flavors and supported by moderately dense yet resilient tannins. It’s too easy to throw around the term “Burgundian,” but Inman’s pinot noirs remind me of Premier Cru wines from Volnay, with their finesse, breeding and satiny texture.
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The beguilng Inman Family Rose Brut Nature OGV 2009, Russian River Valley, offers a very very pale onion skin hue (faintly tinged with pink) and a diverting bouquet of rose petals, dried strawberries and red currants and back-notes of limestone and shale; bubbles are fine and persistent. This sparkling wine is so light, delicate and elegant that you’re surprised at its lively and persuasive presence and tone, It’s quite dry, packed with limestone and shale-like elements for high-toned austerity yet it’s also quenching in its tingly melon and lime peel flavors and — if I may say so — quite romantic. 12 percent alcohol. 139 cases. Now through 2015 to 2017. Excellent. About $68.
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Made all in stainless steel, the Inman Family Pinot Gris 2012, Russian River Valley, displays a very pale straw-gold color and clean fresh scents of peach and pear, jasmine and lilac, subtle notes of ginger and cloves and a hint of roasted lemon; the wine is very dry, very delicate without being ephemeral or elusive, bound by crisp lithe acidity and a plangent limestone mineral element. The wine had just been bottled when I tasted it in August at the property; it will unfold a bit over the next year. The alcohol is an eminently manageable 11.8 percent. Production was 230 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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The Inman Family Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley, was fermented partially in stainless steel tanks and partially in new and one-year-old French oak barrels; Kathleen Inman prefers Vosges oak for its tight grain. Native yeast compels fermentation, and native bacteria ignites malolactic; in other words, no inoculation. The wine is so pale in its pale gold color, so pure and intense in its aura that the elegance is deceptive; yes, it’s deft and light on its feet, but it’s also dense and chewy and packed with elements of chalk and limestone minerality. Spare and lively notes of graham cracker, roasted lemon, verbena, ginger and quince are bolstered by limestone and slate and balanced by the richness of lemongrass and slightly candied grapefruit. A few moments in the glass bring out hints of toasted hazelnuts, jasmine and honeysuckle, while the oak comes up subtly in the finish. 12.9 percent alcohol. Production was 650 cases. Drink now through 2017 to 2020. Excellent. About $35.
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The color of the Inman Family Pinot Noir 2010, Russian River Valley, is limpid medium ruby; hints of red currants and red and black cherries are permeated by notes of rhubarb and cloves, sassafras, and a touch of briers, brambles and leather for the earthy element. This is so clean and fresh, so invigorating that one almost forgets how spare and elegant it is; how the acidity cuts a swath on the palate at no expense to the ripe, dark spicy black and red fruit flavors; how dry, slightly starchy tannins and that fleet acidity give the wine a lithe, supple texture that drapes the tongue like satin. Percentage of alcohol not available. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $35.
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Going one vintage back, the Inman Family Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley, derives from the winery’s Olivet Grange Vineyard and the Thorn Ridge Vineyard several miles to the south in the Sebastopol Hills. There’s that same transparent medium ruby color and a similar fruit profile of cherries and currants, but the ’09 is spicier than the ’10 rendition, with more of the briery-brambly-leather component and certainly a more prominent tannic-graphite feature. Yet the ’09 is also intensely floral, revealing touches of smoke and lilac, pomegranate and violets, and the property’s signature resonant acidity. Again, the texture is light, fleet-footed, elegant. 13.7 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 through 2020. Excellent. About $35.
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The Inman Family OGV Pinot Noir 2010, Russian River Valley, is a supreme example of how Kathleen Inman pushes the use of oak in one direction, that is, by aging in French oak barrels for 23 months, an astonishing span of time for a pinot noir, but being very careful about the percentage of new oak. The wine is incredibly complex and layered, in the ample ranges of fresh and dried red and black fruit with hints of rhubarb and beets, cloves and sassafras; earthy briers and brambles and graphite-like minerality; vivid acidity that plows a furrow on the palate and keeps the wine bright and vivacious; but every element and aspect adhering with delicacy, elegance and subtle tensile strength. Still, this is dry, moderately tannic, a little austere on the finish, and it would profit from a year or two in bottle, drinking then through 2020 to ’22. The alcohol content is 12.5 percent. 308 cases. Exceptional. About $68.
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The version for 2009 finds the Inman Family OGV Pinot Noir beautifully unfurling its batteries of cloves, pomegranate and orange rind, cinnamon and sassafras, all, however, subdued to a finely-knit amalgam of briers and brambles, loam and graphite, red and black cherries and a touch of plum. The wine spent 19 months in French oak, a process that gave this pinot noir plenty of spice and suppleness without marring the integrity of the fruit of its overall balance or the sinewy brightness of its vivid acidity. A few moments in the glass bring up notes of violets, rose petals and fruitcake — cloves, cinnamon, dried fruit — while moderately dense tannins provide an essential foil to the wine’s innate richness. It’s a dry, slightly austere pinot noir, with a bit more hauteur than elegance, but perfectly balanced and integrated. Hints of pomegranate and cranberry emerge in the finish. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 to ’23. Excellent. About $68.
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The Balverne label has quite a pedigree. Its parent winery, Windsor Oaks, occupies land that was part of the Rancho Sotoyome grant in Sonoma County later acquired by Antonio Perelli-Minetti (1882-1976), the Italian immigrant who eventually headed the 20-million gallon California Wine Association near Delano in Kern County. Though Antonio Perelli-Minetti first planted grapes on the property south of Healdsburg, in Russian River Valley, the estate was primarily used as the family’s summer residence. It was purchased in 1972, named Balverne, and the vineyards were replanted; winemakers who came on board in 1978 were recent UC-Davis graduates Doug Nalle and John Kongsgaard, neither of whom, as they say, need any introduction to devotees of fine California wine, having gone on to found their own highly regarded wineries. The 710-acre estate was acquired in 1992 by current owners Bob and Renee Stein, who renamed it Windsor Oaks Vineyards and Winery. Windsor Oaks sold grapes to more than 35 wineries before turning back to wine production in 2005. Last year, the Steins reintroduced the Balverne label and kept the pedigree going by hiring as winemaker Margaret Davenport (Simi, Clos du Bois) and as consulting winemaker, Doug Nalle, creating a sort of full-circle homecoming.

So, today, I offer as Wine of the Week the Balverne Rosé of Sangiovese 2012, from Chalk Hill, a sub-appellation within Russian River Valley. The wine is a estate-grown blend of 88 percent sangiovese and 12 percent grenache grapes and is made completely in stainless steel tanks; no oak influence here. The color is a lovely shade of russet-Rainier cherries, slightly darker than pink or onion skin. Speaking of cherries, notes of red cherries, strawberries and mulberries dominate a bouquet that subtly unfurls its hints of rhubarb, cloves and limestone. This rosé is tart on the palate, bright and lively, and here the red fruit, with tinges of sour cherry and melon, takes on a slightly riper and macerated tone, though the wine is spare, bone-dry and permeated by limestone and chalk minerality. The finish brings in a touch of dried orange rind and pomegranate. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink through 2014 as an aperitif or with simple picnic or luncheon fare. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.

Two weeks ago in this space I dissed a number of chardonnay wines from Cuvaison, Davis Bynum, La Follette and La Rochelle wineries. Today, in addition to other pinot noir wines from California, I offer some reviews of successful pinot noirs from the aforementioned producers, not in recompense — I would never do that — but to show that they can indeed make wines that are balanced and authentic. So, 12 wines, brief reviews, no emphasis on technical, historical, geographical or personal data but just my notes, some taken directly — ripped, as it were — from my notebook pages, some expanded upon a bit; but all designed to pique your interest and whet your palate. Most of these pinots, whose ratings fall into the narrow range of Very Good+ to Excellent, do not conform to my notion of the grape’s hallowed ideal of delicacy, elegance and tensile strength, being more about structure and power, though on the California model they tend to perform well. These were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Cuvaison Estate grown Pinot Noir 2011, Napa Valley Carneros. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby-magenta color; very spicy, earthy and rooty, with moderate tannins and acidity that cuts a swath; still, super satiny in a fairly lithe manner and quite attractive with notes of red and black cherries, red currants, hints of rhubarb, cranberry and cloves; briers and brambles in the background and a touch of graphite. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $38.
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Davis Bynum Jane’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River valley. 14.5% alc. Medium ruby-mulberry color, slightly lighter ar the rim; exotic nose of cloves, allspice and sandalwood, like incense in your hippie pad; plums, red currants, cranberries; dense, chewy a bit more drapery than ordinary satin; rich with smoky plum flavors, black and red cherries; one feels indulged, a little decadent, though the earth-mint-mineral elements surge forth through the finish. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Davis Bynum Jane’s Vineyard Garfield Block Pinot Noir 2011. Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. 500 cases. This more limited version of the previous wine (in origin and production) is a shade darker in color, a little tighter, a bit more focused and delineated; it’s very supple and satiny but displays more of a tannic and mineral presence under its dark, succulent and spicy red and black cherry fruit with overtones of plums and mulberries; long, deep, earthy finish. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $60.
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DeLoach Vineyards Olivet Bench Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River Valley.13.5% alc. 499 cases. Medium ruby-mulberry color; plums and rhubarb, red and black cherries with a hint of cranberry after a few moments; dusty graphite, very spicy, exotic; dry, minerally, muscular, almost rigorous but super-satiny in texture; you feel the rooty-barky qualities and the undertow of tannin and oak. Try 2014 or ’15 through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $NA.
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Frank Family Pinot Noir 2011, Napa Valley Carneros. 14.5% alc. Radiant ruby-cranberry color; cloves, rhubarb and pomegranate, red cherries and currants, white pepper; smooth, sleek, suave and satiny; fairly tannic and rigorous after 30 or 40 minutes, with a full complement of earthy, briery, underbrushy and graphite elements but doesn’t lose its essential succulence and flavorful sway. Now through 2016 to ’17. Excellent. About $35.
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La Follette Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma Coast. 12.9% alc (lovely!) 536 cases. Medium ruby with a touch of violet-blue magenta; meaty and fleshy, spiced and macerated; succulent and smoky red cherry and plum flavors imbued with briers, brambles and an underbrushy element; intensely spicy, intensely floral; superbly satiny texture but a rather startling structure for a pinot noir that needs a couple of years to find its footing. Try 2015 through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $40.
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La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands. 15.2% alc. 381 cases. Medium ruby color with a trace of garnet at the rim; big, dense, pithy, sappy pinot noir, rich, warm and spicy but thrown off balance a bit by the high alcohol, which makes a distinct presence on the finish. Very Good+. About $38.
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La Rochelle Donum Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Carneros. 14.7% alc. 259 six-packs. Medium ruby color with lovely transparency; better balance here than with the previously noted wine; the drawers of the bureau of exotic spices thrown wide, making for a heady and seductive bouquet and intriguing flavors of red and black currants, pomegranate and rhubarb; bright acidity plows a furrow through layers of briers, brambles and graphite, all the while the wine displays beautiful purity and intensity. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $75.
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MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2011, Central Coast. 14.3% alc. Medium ruby-mulberry color, trace of magenta at the rim; notes of pomegranate, cranberry and rhubarb open to red and black cherries permeated by cloves and cola; quite dry, a little mossy and briery; ripping acidity; attractive, lively and tasty though no great depth. Very Good+. About $23.
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MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium ruby color; rhubarb, cranberry, cola and cloves, touch of plum, interesting note of mint; leans more to black and red cherries in flavor; gains body and substance as minutes pass, a little rooty and mossy with tannins and earthy elements; very dry finish, oak and granitic minerality. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $28.
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MacMurray Ranch Reserve Pinot Noir 2010, Russian River Valley. 15.2% alc. Dark ruby color with a touch of garnet; big, dry, leather and graphite; comes close to being dramatic; quite rich, warm and spicy but riven by scintillating acidity and dusty, dusky tannins; you feel the oak and alcohol on the finish. Not my favorite style for pinot noir. Now through 2016 to ’18. Very Good+. About $37.
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Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Luicia Highlands. 14.2% alc. Medium ruby-magenta color with a pure violet rim; black and red cherries and currants; pomegranate, rhubarb and sassafras, hint of cloves; succulent but spare, elegant, lithe and muscular; scintillating acidity and granitic minerality; riveting purity and intensity of the grape and the vineyard. Always a favorite in our house. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $54.
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I don’t typically use a wine at this price as the Wine of the Week, but the Reata Pinot Noir 2011, Napa and Sonoma counties, is so well-made and authentically pinot noirish that I couldn’t resist. I will not ask forgiveness and indeed would welcome expressions of gratitude from fans of the grape in its mode of utmost purity and intensity. The blend of this two-county wine is 64 percent of the rarely-seen Napa County designation (an AVA slightly larger than and encompassing Napa Valley) and 36 percent Sonoma County. The grapes ferment in stainless steel tanks, and the wine matures for 14 months in French oak barrels, 70 percent neutral, 30 percent new. The color is medium ruby with lovely transparency and limpidness; aromas of plums, red currants and cranberries are permeated with notes of cloves, sassafras and rhubarb and a hint of earthy briers and brambles. The wine is just so fresh and clean and pure, yet it displays beautiful depths of graphite and — a paradox — delicately granitic minerality and an almost lacy network of minutely dusty and elegantly plush, supple tannins with bright and vibrant acidity for structure and quenching liveliness. Red and blue fruit flavors are imbued with fruitcake-type spice and dried fruit, all these elements leading to a tea-like lithe, limber. lithic finish. Yeah, I really liked this pinot noir. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $30, though often found around the country for $20 to $25.

A sample for review.

Of the chardonnays from California that I tasted and reviewed recently — most in my Weekend Wine Notes yesterday — the Crossbarn by Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast, is the one I recommend buying by the case. The color is pale gold; the bouquet is a delicate weaving of lemon and lemon balm, jasmine, quince and ginger, with hints of tangerine, chalk and talc. The Crossbarn Chardonnay ’12, Sonoma Coast, offers gratifying measures of resonance and vibrancy, with lip-smacking acidity whose crispness and liveliness support a lovely, moderately lush texture. The wine is quite lemony in flavor, highlighted by notes of cloves, pineapple and grapefruit and permeated by limestone and flint minerality. The wine was made 80 percent in stainless steel tanks, 20 percent in neutral French oak barrels, so the oak influence is subtle and supple. Lots of personality and presence for the price. Winemaker was Molly Bohlman. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Restaurants could sell the hell out of this wine. Excellent. About $25.

A sample for review.

I keep reading that there has been a general toning down of oak in chardonnay wines produced in California, but you wouldn’t know it from the wines I taste, of which I offer today a selection of 16. I’ve uttered these sentences before, and I’ll probably utter them many more times before I close the computer a final time and drag my weary fingers to the catacombs, and I don’t care if you’re tired of reading them; to wit: If a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, it has too much oak. AND: Oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible. Oak barrels are instruments, and they should not define a wine or establish its character; definition and character derive from the vineyard and the grape. It traduces every aspect of common sense that winemakers would want to send out into the world and into the grasp of innocent consumers chardonnays that taste as if they were made from liquid sawdust, yet many chardonnay wines feel exactly like that … and they’re not cheap. To those who say, “But, FK, plenty of people like their chardonnays to smell and taste like oak,” my reply is “Fine, start your own blog. Call it ILoveToastyOak.com.” This, however, is my blog, and on this blog we abhor wines that obliterate the purity and intensity of the grape and the authority of the vineyard through the heavy-handed agency of oak barrels.

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

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

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Artesa Chardonnay 2011, Carneros. 13.8% alc. Pale gold color; clean and fresh, touches of apple and pear, hint of pineapple; quite spicy, smooth and supple, not creamy or viscous, “just right” as Goldilocks said; almost savory in its slightly roasted fruit qualities and modulated spicy aspects; bright acidity, and the limestone and flint elements and sense of oak expand through the finish. Nicely-made. Very Good+. About $20.
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Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay Reserve 2010, Carneros Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. A bold and powerful expression of the grape but balanced and integrated; bright medium gold color; pineapple and grapefruit, ginger and quince, hint of cloves; wet stones and flint mineral element that grows as the moments pass; no doubt about the oak but it contributes creaminess to the mid-palate, a supple texture and spice; long spice-and-mineral-packed finish; tremendous tone and presence. 14.9% alc. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $55.
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Cuvaison Estate Grown Chardonnay 2011, Carneros Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. The last Carneros Chardonnay I reviewed from Cuvaison was the 2007; I rated it “Excellent.” Not this example. Pale to medium gold color; bright, bold, ripe, spicy; you feel the oak from the moment you take a sip; grapefruit and pineapple, notes of lemon and lemon curd; plays a subtle floral card; plenty of acid and limestone minerality; supple texture at first but it feels as if the wine stiffens and becomes slightly unyielding with oak, which coats the palate and leave an astringent sensation in the mouth. Perhaps a year or two will help. Good only. About $25.
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Davis Bynum River West Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. First note: “Man, that’s a lot of wood.” & it goes on from there. Medium gold color; insistently spicy and cloying; austere and astringent oak dries the palate unpleasantly; like drinking liquid sawdust. Not recommended and consistent with my reviews of Davis Bynum chardonnay (and pinot noir) from previous vintages. About $30.
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Dry Creek Vineyard Foggy Oaks Chardonnay 2010, Russian River valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; apples, pears and grapefruit, undercurrent of pineapple, moderately spicy, firm foundation of gunflint and limestone; lovely balance and poise, shaped by vibrant acidity and a burgeoning oak element that provides a modulating quality to the wine’s richness. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $20, signifying Great Value.
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Ferrari-Carano Tre Terre Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. “Vineyard Select Limited Production.” Bright medium gold color; banana and mango, baked grapefruit and pineapple, cloves and smoke; big, deep, rich and savory; bacon fat, ginger, lemon balm, have mercy; feels like multiple layers of limestone and flint-like minerality; a bit daunting and needs a little nuance and elegance, but not over-oaked, not cloying. Perhaps it needs a year of age. Very Good+. About $32.
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Gallo Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. 87% Laguna Vineyard, 13% Del Rio Vineyard. I always thought the winemaker’s thumbprint — in this case Gina Gallo, whose name is on the front label twice — was too heavy on this wine; bright medium gold color; rich, warm, spicy, almost dense and chewy for a chardonnay; very ripe citrus and tropical scents and flavors; butterscotch, vanilla, cloves — what is this, a dessert cart? the oak and spice elements are overwhelming; so unbalanced. Not Recommended. About $30.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Pale gold color; fresh, clean, bright; pungent with cloves, slightly roasted peaches and yellow plums melded with pineapple and grapefruit with a whiff of white pepper; smoky oak, smoky caramel around the edges, quite dry yet feels innately balanced. Now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $35.
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The “family” part of the winery name is true. Founder Joe Donelan, originally from Connecticut, is accompanied in the business by his sons Cushing, the winery’s director of marketing, and Tripp, director of sales. This is the former Pax Wine Cellars; the name was changed in 2009. The winery is in Santa Rosa, owns no vineyards and makes its wines from grapes purchased primarily from cool climate vineyards in Sonoma County. Though the emphasis at Donelan is on syrah and Rhone Valley grape varieties, the samples I received for review include only one of those, the “Venus” 2011, a roussanne-viognier blend; the others are the Nancie Chardonnay 2011 and the Two Brothers Pinot Noir 2011. Winemaker is Joe Nielsen; consulting winemaker is Tyler Thomas. These wines are limited in production, so mark them Worth a Search.
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It rather gives the game away to say that the Donelan “Venus” 2011, Sonoma County, is exactly what I want a white Rhone-style roussanne-viognier blend to be. The color is pale straw-gold; aromas of jasmine and honeysuckle, peach, pear and yellow plum are wreathed with deeper notes of straw, rosemary, salt-marsh and dried apricots. This wine saw no new oak, but was fermented in stainless steel and neutral oak barrels. There’s some lushness in the texture, and the pear and stone-fruit flavors are rich and slightly honeyed, but the overall effect is of spareness, reticence and finesse and of vitality born of scintillating acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16, well-stored. Production was 165 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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The Donelan “Nancie” Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma County, offers a different aura than the preceding wine; this is boldly ripe and rich, fully fledged with spice and floral notes, yet here too the richness is firmly tempered by brisk acidity and by a wet rock and limestone character that expands from the finish up through the entirety of the wine. Classic pineapple-grapefruit scents are highlighted by hints of tangerine, lime peel, orange blossom and cloves; pretty heady stuff, but in the mouth a core of dynamic acidity and gun-flint and limestone minerality tethers the juicy fruit-and-spice complexity to an earthy anchor. As with the previous wine, no new oak was used for the “Nancie” Chardonnay 2011; only neutral puncheons (large casks) and barriques (small barrels). 13.7 percent alcohol. Now through 2015 tor ’17, well-stored. Production was 825 cases. Excellent. About $45.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________ The Donelan “Two Brothers” Pinot Noir 2011, North Coast, derives from two vineyards in Sonoma County and one farther north in Mendocino. The color is medium ruby with a mulberry tinge, the hue that I think of as “Burgundy.” This opens with the impression of lovely pinot noir purity and intensity; the bouquet holds notes of macerated and slightly stewed plums, red currants and cherries with undertones of rhubarb, cloves, white pepper and sandalwood and an intriguing smoky, mossy, earthy element. The texture is divinely smooth and satiny, a fitting repose for red and blue fruit flavors given depth by touches of fruitcake-like dried spices and fruit and a slightly foresty layer of underbrush and dried porcini. The wine is dry and gets drier as the moments pass, picking up some austerity and woodiness on the finish; give it a year or two to mellow and drink through 2019 to ’20. Alcohol content is 14.4 percent. 900 cases. Excellent. About $55.
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The sparkling wines of Mirabelle, second label of Schramsberg, have shown steady improvement and seriousness of intent over the years. The Mirabelle sparklers are always non-vintage, whereas the products under the Schramsberg label always have a vintage date. Today’s particular wine is the Mirabelle Brut Rosé, North Coast, a blend of 55 percent chardonnay grapes and 45 percent pinot noir. Eighty-six percent of the wine is from the 2010 vintage, the rest made up of aged reserve lots. The designation is North Coast because the grapes derive from multiple counties north of San Francisco, mainly Napa and Sonoma but also Mendocino and Marin. Made in the traditional champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, Mirabelle Brut Rosé offers a beautiful light copper-salmon color and a teeming upward stream of tiny bubbles; aromas of fresh and dried strawberries and raspberries, lime peel and guava open to notes of limestone and chalk and hints of quince and ginger. This sparkling wine is quite dry, very crisp and lively, not only with effervescent but crystalline acidity, though the texture is almost creamy; spicy yet subdued red berry and stone-fruit flavors are heightened by the burgeoning limestone and flint minerality, while the finish is long, elegant and steely. 12.8 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $27.

A sample for review.

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