Stags Leap District


“50 Great Wines of [The Year]” is a post I look forward to, even though its production is fraught with anxiety. “Fraught with anxiety!” you exclaim. “FK, you get to taste and write about terrific wines all year long! This task should be easy!” Look, my apostrophe-addicted friend, I started with a list of 76 potentially great wines and had to eliminate 26 of them. It was painful; it hurt my brain and my spirit. Even now, going back over this post just before I click the PUBLISH button, I am wracked by indecision and regret. On the other hand, life is about choices, n’est-ce pas, and we all have to knuckle down and make those choices, difficult as the job may be.

I reviewed 624 wines in 2013, compared to, for some reason, 642 in 2012, though I suppose 18 wines is not statistically significant in that range. Or perhaps it is; I’m not a statistician. Out of 642 wines in 2012, I rated 18 wines Exceptional. In 2013, out of 624 wines, I rated 28 as Exceptional. Did I taste that many better wines in 2013, or am I getting soft as I near my 30th anniversary as a wine writer? How did I choose, for “50 Great Wines of 2013,” the 22 examples to add to the 28 rated Exceptional? By reading again every review I wrote over the past year, by weighing the description and the language, by revisiting my memory of the wine, by looking for wines that possessed that indescribable quality of charisma, that combination of personality and character that distinguish a great wine. I could expand this post to 60 or 70 or 75 wines, but I’ll leave it as is. Suffice to say that these “50 Great Wines of 2013″ could include others, but for now, I’m sticking with these.
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Artesa Vineyards & Winery Estate Reserve Pinot Noir 2009, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $40.
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Adelsheim Ribbon Springs Vineyard Auxerrois 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $25.
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Amapola Creek Jos. Belli Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 400 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Archery Summit Vireton Pinot Gris 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $24.
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Belle-Pente Winery Belle-Pente Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Yamhill-Carlton District, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 785 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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Black Kite Cellars Rivers Turn Pinot Noir 2010, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $52.

Image from princeofpinot.com.
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Boekenoogen Chardonnay 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $35.
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Brooks “Ara” Riesling 2010, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $25.
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Calera Wine Company Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Mount Harlan, San Benito County. 398 cases. Exceptional. About $55.
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Capitain-Gagnerot Bourgogne “Les Gueulottes” 2009, Hautes Côtes de Beaune. 100 percent chardonnay. Excellent. About $27.
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Catena Zapata Adrianna Malbec 2009, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $120.
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Colgin “IX Estate” Red Wine 2009, Napa Valley. Cabernet sauvignon 69 percent, merlot 15 percent, cabernet franc 10 percent, petit verdot 6 percent. 1,200 cases. Exceptional. About $450.
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Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $80.
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Champagne David Léclapart L’Alchimiste Estate Premier Cru Extra Brut Rosé (non-vintage), Champagne, France. Exceptional. About $175.
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Domaine de Bernardins 2009, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. Excellent. About $25 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.
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Domaine Carneros Étoile Téte de Cuvée 2003. Exceptional. About $100.
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Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir 2008, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Exceptional. About $65.
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Domus Aurea 2009, Upper Maipo Valley, Chile. Cabernet sauvignon 85 percent, merlot 7 percent, cabernet franc 5 percent, petit verdot 2 percent. Exceptional. About $60.
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Drouhin Vaudon Montmains Premier Cru 2910, Chablis, France. 200 cases imported. Exceptional. About $39.
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Dunstan Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. 391 cases. Exceptional. About $40.
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Dunstan Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast. 291 cases. Exceptional. About $50.
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Dunstan Durell Vineyard Rosé Wine 2012, Sonoma Coast. 100 percent pinot noir. 95 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Elyse Naggiar Vineyard L’Ingénue 2011, Sierra Foothills. Roussanne 52 percent, marsanne 32 percent, viognier 11 percent, grenache blanc 5 percent. 416 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Champagne Franck Pascal Tolérance Rosé Brut (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Pinot meunier 58 percent, pinot noir 39 percent, chardonnay 3 percent. Excellent. About $55 to $65.
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Frankland Estate Netley Road Vineyard Riesling 2012, Frankland River, Western Australia. Exceptional. About $28.50.
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Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $60.
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Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $42.
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Halter Ranch Block 22 Syrah 2011, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. With 13 percent grenache and 11 percent tannat. 175 cases. Excellent. About $36.
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Inman Family OGV Pinot Noir 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 308 cases. Exceptional. About $68.
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J Late Disgorged Vintage Brut 2003, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Pinot noir 49 percent, chardonnay 49 percent, pinot meunier 2 percent. 500 cases. exceptional. About $90.
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Kay Brothers Amery Vineyard Block 6 Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. Exceptional. About $66.
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La Rochelle Donum Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Carneros. 259 six-pack cases. Excellent. About $75.
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La Rochelle McIntyre Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir Rosé 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 112 cases. Rose of the Year. Excellent. About $24.
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L’Aventure Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. 425 cases. Exceptional. About $85 (winery only).
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Long Shadows Pedestal Merlot 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington. Excellent. About $60.
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Morgan Winery Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 375 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Morgan Winery Tondre Grapefield Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 95 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $53.
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Penner-Ash Riesling 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Exceptional. About $23.
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Pine Ridge Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $85.
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Ramey Wine Cellars Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $60.
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Ramey Wine Cellars Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley, Carneros. Exceptional. About $60.
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Rombauer Zinfandel 2010, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $34.
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Renaissance Vineyards and Winery Granite Crown 2005, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills. Syrah 60 percent, cabernet sauvignon 30 percent, merlot 7 percent, cabernet franc 2 percent, petit verdot 1 percent. 74 cases. Excellent. About $40.
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Robert Turner Cabernet Franc 2010, Napa Valley. 50 cases. Exceptional. About $35.
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Shirvington Shiraz 2009, McLaren Vale, Australia. Excellent. About $70.
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Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2011, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 463 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
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Smith-Madrone Riesling 2012, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $27.
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Steven Kent Winery Ghielmetti Vineyard “Small-Lot” Cabernet Franc 2010, Livermore Valley, Alameda County. 48 cases. Exceptional. About $50.
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Tablas Creek Vin de Paille “Quinressence” 2010, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. 100 percent roussanne dessert wine. 100 cases. Exceptional. About $85 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.
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The point of bottling wines made from similar grapes from separate vineyards or regions is that those entities, because of differences, sometimes minute, sometimes pronounced, among geography, geology, soil and microclimate — terroir, friends, terroir’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout — will produce wines that reflect those differences in their individual characteristics. Such a premise is the whole basis, as much moral and philosophical as practical, of the wine industry in Burgundy, for example, with its myriad tiny vineyards each classified and codified in a (basically) three-tier scheme of theoretical quality. Such, too, is the premise of the five wines from Pine Ridge Vineyards that we look at today. Four of these wines are from the Napa Valley sub-appellations of Rutherford, Oakville, Howell Mountain and Stags Leap, bearing, inherently, the promise of distinguishing regional qualities.

Pine Ridge was founded in 1978 by Gary Andrus and a group of investors on the Silverado Trail in what would become the Stags Leap District. The winery made its name with various bottlings of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, though its biggest seller is an inexpensive and perennially popular chenin blanc-viognier blanc blend; every winery should have a product that pays the rent, so to speak. Pine Ridge and its sister winery in Oregon, Archery Summit, are owned by the Crimson Wine Group, also owners of Chamisal Vineyards, Seghesio Vineyards and Double Canyon, in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills.

Pine Ridge’s general manager and winemaker Michael Beaulac came on board in 2009, moving from St. Supery, where he made a string of superb sauvignon blancs and cabernets; assistant winemaker is Jason Ledbetter.

These wines were samples for review.
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The Pine Ridge Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is a blend of 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent malbec, 7 percent petit verdot, 4 percent merlot and 1 lonely percent cabernet franc; it aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 60 percent new. The grapes derived from Pine Ridge’s three estate vineyards in the Rutherford appellation, totaling 61 acres. The color is deep ruby-purple; the bouquet is a heady amalgam of graphite and lavender, bittersweet chocolate, ripe nut intense and concentrated black currants and black cherries, all wound with smoky allure. Tannins feel like an inescapable mesh of infinitesimal fineness and finesse, though composed of dusty velvet and iron. The wine coats the mouth with elements of granite and shale-like minerality, earth and loam and succulent black and blue fruit flavors, succulent but nothing like opulent or sumptuous; all the qualities conspire here to keep the wine substantial but elegant. Dust, earth and loam? Perhaps this is evidence of the famous yet elusive “Rutherford dust” for which the district is noted. The finish is long and packed with spice, minerals and, ultimately, layers of brambly-foresty qualities, becoming a little demanding but not austere. 14.3 percent alcohol. Best from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $80.
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Oakville is only two miles south of Rutherford on Hwy. 29 –the drive is under five minutes; geographically, the shape of Oakville is slightly flatter and a bit broader, as it reaches from the slope of the Vacas range in the east to Mayacamas range in the west. The Pine Ridge Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, 96 percent cabernet and 4 percent petit verdot, offers more fruit and slate and slightly woody spices — sandalwood, cloves, allspice — than its stablemate from Rutherford, though it displays similar dusty, granite-flecked and mouth-coating tannins; the black currant, black cherry and plum scents and flavors for “Oakville” are also a little more macerated, fleshy and meaty. This is definitely the most herbal of this quintet of cabernets, a characteristic I miss in most examples produced in California; here we have hints of cedar and thyme and and a high-note of bay leaf. The wine is undoubtedly dense and chewy, and the mineral elements of graphite and granite surge forward from mid-palate back through the surprisingly smooth (and smoky) finish. This cabernet aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 55 percent new. 14.1 percent alcohol. Best from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $80.
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Pioneered by Randy Dunn, who released his first cabernet from the 1979 vintage, and established by the federal government in 1983, Howell Mountain was the first sub-appellation in the Napa Valley. Most vineyards in this AVA north of St. Helena and east of Calistoga are planted at altitudes of 1,400- to 2,200-feet above sea-level. The Pine Ridge Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 reflects its mountain origin in its power structure and its brambly-briery, loamy and flinty character; the wine is 100 percent cabernet and aged 18 months in 50 percent new French oak barrels. Squinching tannins are drenched in dusty graphite-and-shale-like minerality that dominates the wine from front to back and top to bottom, and that dimension of minerality and the leathery-foresty nature of the tannins build austerity into the finish. The whole effect is of ink and obsidian, opaque and impenetrable. Fruit? Yes, but tightly furled now; enormous potential but try 2015 or ’16 through 2024 to ’29. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $90.
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Stags Leap District — no apostrophe — was approved as an AVA in 1989. Grapegrowing commenced in this hilly area east of Yountville athwart the Silverado Trail in the 1870s. Pine Ridge owns four vineyards in the district: the 47-acre Pine Ridge Estate Vineyard, the steepest; Locked Horns Vineyard (6 acres) and Cornerstone Vineyard (7 acres); and the particularly rocky 9-acre Circle Hill Vineyard; all contribute grapes to the Pine Ridge Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, a 100 percent varietal wine that defines what we think of as largeness in a wine; it’s broad and deep, with roots that seem to extend down into the soil and strata of the vineyards and with an emphasis on an impeccable and pretty damned unassailable (yet beautifully balance) structure of acidity, tannin, oak and a prominent mineral element; the wine aged 18 months in 65 percent new French barrels. The color is deep purple, nigh unto black; the bouquet delivers whiffs of classic cedar and lead pencil and cigar box wrapped around very intense and concentrated black fruit scents and a stab of flint that’s like a sharp exhalation. In the mouth, the Pine Ridge Stags Leap 09 is dense and chewy, gritty and grainy and yet — there’s always an “and yet” when one talks about complicated wines — the wine’s poise and integration, however “big” is it, are lovely. 14.1 percent alcohol. best from 2014 or ’16 through 2020 to ’25. Excellent. About $85.
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The idea behind Fortis, whose composition changes every year, seems to be a sort of ideal of Napa Valleyness rather than the expression of a more narrow AVA or vineyards within an AVA, as is the case with the other Pine Ridge wines mentioned in this post. And there’s not a thing wrong with that scheme; many wines that come from this valley that’s legendary for cabernet sauvgnon operate on the same principle. The question is: What is the platonic ideal for a Napa Valley wine? For the Pine Ridge Fortis 2009, it’s this: A 100 percent cabernet wine — a varietal tradition that goes back to the origins of the Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de La Tour Private Reserve in the 1930s — that balances power, dynamism and multi-faceted dimension with integration, elegance and finesse. For 09, Fortis is a blend of 52 percent Rutherford grapes with 48 percent Stags Leap, in other words, the western valley floor but backing up to the Mayacamas slopes combined with the rocky hillsides on the eastern side of the valley. The wine is sturdy, robust, cleanly focused, smooth and velvety yet dusty, deeply imbued with flint-and-graphite minerality; and it’s rich with black currant and black cherry flavors steeped in spicy oak — 60 percent new French barrels, 18 months — and grainy tannins, yet, paradoxically, while the finish retains a rather Olympian distance, there’s nothing austere to violate the wine’s essential poise. 14.1 percent alcohol. best from 2014 or ’16 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $150.
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So, My Readers, today I present the annual “50 Great Wines” in the edition for 2012. Why 50? It’s a nice comfortable round number, but it also makes me work hard to determine those 50 great selections.

I reviewed 642 wines on this blog in 2012, so 50 choices represent only 7.78 percent of the wines I reviewed. Wines that I rated as “Exceptional” automatically make the cut. In 2012, I ranked 16 wines “Exceptional,” or only 2.5 percent of all the wines I reviewed. How did I ascertain the other 34 wines? That’s where the task got difficult. I read all the reviews of wines that I rated “Excellent” and wrote down the names of 68 that seemed promising, but of course that was already way too many wines; I had to eliminate half of that list. I went back through the reviews and looked for significant words or phrases like “an exciting wine” or “a beautiful expression of its grapes” or “epitomizes my favorite style” or “I flat-out loved this wine,” terms that would set a wine apart from others in similar genres or price ranges, even though they too were rated “Excellent.” By exercising such intricate weighing and measuring, by parsing and adjusting, by, frankly, making some sacrifices, I came to the list of wines included here, but I’ll admit that as I went over this post again and again, checking spelling and diacritical markings and illustrations, there were omissions that I regretted. You get to a point, however, where you can’t keep second-guessing yourself.

Notice that I don’t title this post “50 Greatest Wines” or “50 Best Wines.” That would be folly, just as I think it’s folly when the slick wine publications select one wine — out of 15,000 — as the best of the year. The wines honored in this post are, simply, 50 great wines, determined by my taste and palate, that I encountered and reviewed in 2012. Some of them are expensive; some are hard to find. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, though, at how many of them are under $40 or even in the $20 range; the price of a wine can be immaterial to its quality, and I mean that in both the positive and the negative aspects. Where I know the case limitation, I make note. With wines that are, for example, chardonnay or pinot noir, you can count on them being 100 percent varietal; in other cases, I mention the blend or make-up of the wine if I think it’s necessary.

Coming in a few days: “25 Great Bargains of 2012.”
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Amapola Creek Cuvée Alis 2009, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County. 55 percent syrah, 45 percent grenache. 95 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Archery Summit Looney Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $85.
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Black Dog Cellars Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. Excellent. About $25.
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Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Vineyard X Block Syrah 2007, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County. 573 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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Champagne Françoise Bedel Entre Ciel et Terre Brut. Excellent. About $75.
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Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino 2005, Tuscany, Italy. 100 percent sangiovese. Exceptional. About $149.
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Chalone Estate Chenin Blanc 2011, Chalone, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $25.
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Chamisal Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County. Excellent. About $40.
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M. Chapoutier Chante-Alouette 2007, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne grapes. 350 six-packs imported. Exceptional. About $92.
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M. Chapoutier De L’Orée 2008, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne. 40 six-packs imported. Exceptional, About $190.
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Cima Collina Tondre Grapefield Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $48.
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Etude Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros. Excellent. About $42.
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Ferrari-Carano Prevail West Face 2007, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 61 percent cabernet sauvignon, 39 percent syrah. Excellent. About $55.
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Foley Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County. Excellent. About $40.
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Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $46.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $42.
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Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2009, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $23.
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Hidden Ranch 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $45.
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Kelly Fleming Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Oakville District, Napa Valley. 540 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Domaine Michel Lafarge Meursault 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $44-$48.
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La Follette Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Mountain. 429 cases. Excellent. About $40.
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Lasseter Enjoué 2011, Sonoma Valley. 73 percent syrah, 24 mourvèdre, 3 grenache. A superior rosé. 570 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Champagne David Léclapart L’Amateur Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, non-vintage. Exceptional. About $83.
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Lenné Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Yamhill-Carlton District, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 491 cases. Excellent. About $55.
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Chateau La Louvière 2009, Pessac-Lèognan, Bordeaux, France. 85 percent sauvignon blanc, 15 percent semillon. Excellent. About $42.
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Manzoni Vineyards Home Vineyard Syrah 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 494 cases. Excellent. About $26.
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Max Ferd. Richter Veldenzer Elisenberg Riesling Kabinett 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $19.
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Mayacamas Chardonnay 2009, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
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McCay Cellars Jupiter Zinfandel 2009, Lodi. 449 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Domaine Pierre Morey Pommard Grands Epenots Premier Cru 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $85.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2008, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 42 percent merlot, 36 cabernet sauvignon, 14 cabernet franc, 6 petit verdot, 2 malbec. Excellent. About $80.
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Nicolas Joly Clos de La Bergerie 2009, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. 100 percent chenin blanc. 580 cases. Exceptional. About $45-$60.
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Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $42.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County. 250 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 372 cases. Exceptional. About $75.
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Piocho 2009, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. From Margerum Wine Co. 58 percent merlot, 22 cabernet sauvignon, 18 cabernet franc, 2 petit verdot. 570 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Quivira Fig Tree Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. 862 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Sea-Fog Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley. 380 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Shafer Hillside Select 2007, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $225.
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Shafer Merlot 2009, Napa Valley. With 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $48.
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Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. With 12 percent cabernet franc. 381 cases. Excellent. About $75. Date on label is one year behind.
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Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2011, Los Carneros. Another superior rosé to drink all year. Excellent. About $28.
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Spotted Owl Chardonnay 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Inaugural release of this winery’s chardonnay. 120 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $125.
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St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. With 10 percent merlot, 2 petit verdot and 1 cabernet franc. Excellent. About $55.
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Domaine André et Mireille Tissot La Graviers Chardonnay 2010, Arbois, France. 552 cases. Excellent. About $26-$30. Label is two years out of date.
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Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 295 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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Tenuta di Valgiano 2008, Colline Luccesi, Tuscany. 60 percent sangiovese, 20 merlot, 20 syrah. Excellent. About $55-$60.
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Vieux Télégraphe “La Crau” 2009, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France. 65 percent grenache, 15 mourvèdre, 15 syrah 5 cinsault, clairette “and others.” Excellent. About $85.
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Villa Huesgen Schiefen Riesling Trocken 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $35.
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Welcome back, Weekend Wine Sips, after a two week hiatus! “Thanks, FK, glad to be back!” So what do we have in store today? “Well, FK, since this segment of BTYH took some time off, I thought I’d assemble a vastly varied group of 12 wines that should appeal to just about every taste and pocketbook as well as hitting diverse regions.” Sounds good, WWS, can you be more specific? “Of course! We have four white wines, three rosés and five reds, and we’re looking at two regions of Spain, Argentina, Italy, Alsace, different areas of California and Washington state.” Sounds exciting! “Thanks! I think our readers will find a lot to ponder and enjoy.” And as usual –? “Right you are, FK! No tech notes, no history or geographical info, just quick, pithy, insightful notes and remarks that grab the essence of the wine and shake it out on the table!” Ah, perhaps I wouldn’t have put the case exactly in those words, but what the hell! “Indeed! And I say, let the show begin!” Don’t forget to mention, as per FTC regulations — “Oh, damn! These wines were samples for review.”
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Viña Reboreda 2011, Ribeira, Spain. 11.5% alc. 40% treixadura grapes, 20% each godello, torrontés and palomino. Pale straw-gold color; clean, fresh aromas of roasted lemons and spiced pears permeated by hints of dried thyme and limestone; taut, bracing acidity; texture indulges in lushness that feels almost powdery, like electrified talcum powder; citrus and stone-fruit flavors persist through a finish that pours on the limestone. Very Good+. About $13.
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Una Seleccion de Ricardo Santos Semillon 2012, Mendoza, Argentina. 14% alc. 100% semillon grapes. Pale straw-gold with a faint greenish cast; fig and pear, green pea, hint of grapefruit; sleek and smooth but with a touch of wildness in its weedy-meadowy quality; ripe and almost luscious but quite dry, crisp and lively and truly spare and high-toned; hint of almond skin bitterness on the finish. Extraordinary power and character for the price. Production was 1,000 cases. Excellent. About $16, marking Tremendous Value.
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Domaines Schlumberger Les Princes Abbes Pinot Gris 2009, Alsace, France. 100% pinot gris. 13.5% alc. Medium straw-gold color; beguiling bouquet of pear, peach and melon heightened by jasmine and cloves and a tinge of honeyed grapefruit; quite spicy and lively in the mouth, just this side of exuberant yet a wine imbued with the dignity of limestone and flint; slightly sweet initially but shifts smoothly to bone-dry through the mineral-and-grapefruit flecked finish. Drank this with the soup made from the Thanksgiving turkey carcass. Excellent. About $20. How can they sell it so cheaply?
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Jordan Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 13.5% alc. 100% chardonnay. Clean, fresh, spare, elegant; lovely balance and integration; pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors permeated by ripe slightly spicy stone fruit and hints of ginger and quince; seductive texture that’s almost cloud-like yet enlivened by crystalline acidity and an inundation of liquid limestone. Very dry, a bit austere through the finish; one of the most Chablis-like of California’s chardonnays. Excellent. About $29.
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Viña Zorzal Garnacha Rosato 2011, Navarra, Spain. 13% alc. 100% garnacha grapes. Entrancing bright cherry magenta; pure raspberry and strawberry, touches of watermelon and mulberry; dark, more full-bodied than most rosés; notes of briers and slate for an earthy undertone. Quite charming, but nothing light or delicate. Very Good+. About $13.
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Heller Estate Merlot Rosé 2011, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. 100% organic merlot grapes. Light cherry-violet color; raspberry, mulberry and melon with a touch of pomegranate; very stony and spicy, with hints of damp slate and dusty herbs; vibrant acidity keeps it lively and thirst-quenching. Lots of personality. Very Good+. About $21.
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Lasseter Family Winery Enjoué 2011, Sonoma Valley. 13.2% alc. 73% syrah, 24% mourvèdre, 3% grenache. Entrancing shimmering pale salmon-copper color; delicate, spare, elegant; dried raspberries and cranberries with hints of melon and pomegranate, backnotes of cloves and orange zest; quite dry but subtly ripe and flavorful; “I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows”; pert acidity, slightly stony but not austere. Quite lovely rosé. 570 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Michele Chiarlo Le Orme 2010, Barbera d’Asti Superiore. 14% alc. 100% barbera grapes. Medium cherry-ruby color; a beguiling mélange of smoky and sweetly ripe red cherries and red currants with hints of blueberry and mulberry; undertones of violets and potpourri and gentle touches of briers and graphite-like minerality, with a smooth segue into the mouth, all elements supported by moderately chewy tannins, bright acidity and subdued granitic earthiness. Excellent. About $15, marking Great Value.
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Lasseter Family Winery Chemin de Fer 2010, Sonoma Valley. 14.8% alc. 49% grenache, 38% syrah, 13% mourvèdre. Medium ruby-purple with a hint of violet at the rim; wow, smoke on silk and tattered on briers and brambles; graceful, balanced and integrated but gathers power and dimension as the moments pass; luscious and spicy blackberry, raspberry and blueberry flavors but not over-ripe, held in check by a taut spine of acid and sinew of dense and dusty tannins. Love this one. Excellent. About $40.
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Candaretta Windthrow 2008, Columbia Valley, Washington. 14.6% alc. 36% syrah, 29% mourvèdre, 18% counoise, 17% grenache. Very dark and dense in every way; deep ruby-purple color; spiced and macerated blackberries, black currants and plums with an undertow of blueberry; smoke and a charcoal edge, leather and graphite; touch of earth and wet dog; incredibly lively and vivid, royal tannins and imperial acidity. Drink through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $50.
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Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 14.9% alc. 100% syrah. Classic in shape, proportion and tone; dark ruby-purple with a violet-magenta rim; volcanic in its elements of smoke, ash, graphite; tar, leather, fig paste and fruitcake; black currants and plums, very spicy, very lively; finely milled tannins, dense and chewy; long dry, earthy finish. Drink through 2019 or ’20.
Excellent. About $50.
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Stags’ Leap Winery Petite Sirah 2009, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. 85% petite sirah, 15% field blend of at least 16 other grape varieties. Just what petite sirah should be. Deep ruby-purple color; dark, dense, ripe, packed with dusky blackberry, black currants and blueberry scents and flavors; plum jam and an intensely highlighted dusty graphite element; smoke and ash, leather and tar; robust and rustic, with large-scale but palatable velvety tannins. Bring on the braised short ribs or the grilled pork chops with cumin and chillies. Now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $80.
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The Silverado Trail winds through the bucolic eastern side of the Napa Valley, a 29-mile long road that was created as a wagon trail in 1852 to link the cinnabar mines on Mount St. Helena with the shipping outlet of San Pablo Bay. The palisades of the Vaca range lie just east of Silverado Trail, which runs parallel to state Highway 29 a few miles to the west, the main road that runs up the center of the valley through Napa city, the small but important towns of Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford, to St. Helena and up to Calistoga in the north. Compared to the carnival atmosphere of Highway 29, especially on weekends, Silverado remains quiet and isolated, a reminder of the valley’s rural days.

Warren Winiarski arrived in the Napa Valley in the late 1960s, a political science professor from Chicago whose interest in wine had been piqued when he studied in Italy. He apprenticed himself at Souverain Cellars and Robert Mondavi Winery before buying 45 acres in 1970, between Silverado Trail and the Stag’s Leap formation, in what is now Stags Leap District, the little red area on the accompanying map. He was persuaded to do so after tasting the homemade cabernet sauvignon of Nathan Fay, produced from his vineyard next to the land that Winiarski eventually purchased. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars produced its first wine — 400 cases — in 1972, but it was the 1973 bottling that changed everything. (Consultant in the early days was the highly influential André Tchelistcheff, mastermind behind the Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.) That 1973 vintage of cabernet sauvignon, from the Stag’s Leap Vineyard, was chosen for the famous and infamous Paris Tasting of 1976, in which the wines of two obscure fledgling wineries, little known even in California, prevailed against the best estates of Burgundy and Bordeaux. The other triumphant wine was the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973, made by Mike Grgich.

Winiarski coined the well-known phrase “iron fist in velvet glove” to describe the cabernet sauvignon wines from his Stag’s Leap Vineyard, a handy rubric for a character that combines a granitic quality with a plush texture. Indeed an almost feral iron-iodine element runs through all of the SLV wines that I encountered on a recent sponsored visit to the winery, where the group I was with tasted the 1979, ’83, ’93, 2003 and 2007, ’08 and ’09. The winery produces an SLV in every year, a Cask 23 wine only in the best vintages, and a Fay wine from the vineyard that Winiarski acquired in 1986. (This image of the Fay Vineyard looks east toward the Vaca palisade and the promontory from which the legendary stag is supposed to have leapt.)

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars — not to be confused with Stags’ Leap Winery, the position of those apostrophes the result of a lawsuit — thrived not only as a result of winning the Paris tasting but because of the quality of its cabernets and chardonnays, being regarded as one of the great Old School Napa Valley wineries, along with Heitz, Beaulieu, Caymus, Robert Mondavi, Freemark Abbey, Clos du Val, Beringer, Charles Krug, Montelena and others. Stag’s Leap, however, seemed to get lost in the shuffle as newer, heavily financed producers came along in the late 1980s and the 1990s and achieved the status of cult cabernet-makers in the hearts of well-heeled collectors. Perhaps the Stag’s Leap wines lost a shade of dimension and depth. In any case, Winiarski sold the winery, in 2007, to a partnership of Washington state’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Tuscany’s Marchesi Piero Antinori.

Vineyard manager for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is Kirk Grace; winemaker, now in her 12th harvest, is Nicki Pruss.

On a side note, my first encounter with a wine from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, oddly, was not one of its vaunted cabernets but the Gamay
Beaujolais 1981, which I purchased for $6.99 and drank on November 5 and 6, 1983. It was quite charming, but I have never seen so-called “gamay beaujolais” mentioned on any product list for the winery, so I assume the attention it received was short-lived. Anyway, it turns out that gamay beaujolais was actually the French valdiguié grape; the term “gamay beaujolais” was banned on labels of American wine after April 2007.

Map of Napa Valley wine appellations from napanow.com. Image of Warren Winiarski from napawinelibrary.com.

Here are my notes on seven vintages of cabernets from the Stag’s Leap Vineyard, later abbreviated as SLV on labels, tasted at the winery.
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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV 1979, Napa Valley. The vines were only nine years old when this wine was made; the wine aged 15 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels. A dollop of merlot, 1.5 percent. The color is medium ruby-garnet with perfect clarity and transparency, in the old sense. The bouquet is warm and spicy and inviting, a gratifying amalgam of crushed and macerated black and red currants and plums with mint and iodine and graphite and hints of tobacco, cedar and soy sauce. The wine is well-knit, smooth and balanced, though vibrant acidity is a bit prominent; it grows more complex, more vigorous as the minutes pass, adding touches of celery seed, candied fennel and lightly roasted plums or fruitcake, and the tannins seem to expand in volume too, though they are soft and moderately plush. Altogether a lovely wine at 33 years old and with some life, say five to seven years, ahead. 12.9/13 percent alcohol. Excellent. Price at the time: $15; seen on the Internet for $180.

It’s fascinating to read James Laube’s evaluation of this wine in California’s Great Cabernets: The Wine Spectator’s Ultimate Guide for Consumers, Collectors and Investors, published in 1989. He first writes, briefly, that that 1979 SLV “has an off, mossy quality.” In the principle review, he says: “This wine has never appealed to me — it tastes extremely dry and tannic without much in the way of fruit or charm. Drink 1990,” and he gives the wine a rating of 68 on the 100-point scale. As you can see by my notes, the wine must have shed its theoretically detrimental qualities, smoothed out those tannins, gained fruit and blossomed into something wonderful.
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SLV 1983. Poured from a 1.5-liter magnum. The color is radiant medium ruby with a light garnet-tinged rim. Again there’s that touch of mint and iodine, but the wine displays slightly less graphite or granite-like minerality; it is, on the other hand, slightly cooler, detached and more elegant than the ’79 discussed previously. On the other hand, again, even after 30 or 40 minutes in the glass, this example, anyway, did not offer quite the depth or complexity of the ’79, though it was still a lovely wine. Flavors of slightly macerated and stewed red and black currants are ensconced in a sizable, mouth-filling structure dominated by potent, even pregnant tannins that assert a dense and gritty presence. The finish brings in that back-note of slightly caramelized fennel. Drink now through 2020 to 2023. Very Good+. Price at the time: $18.
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SLV 1993. Poured from a 1.5-liter magnum. The wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels; there’s five percent petit verdot in the blend. A dark ruby color sports a slightly lighter ruby hue at the rim. Here’s a cabernet that feels, at 19 years old, whole, complete, authentic and essential. The wine is remarkably lively and vibrant, ringing with the resonance of its iron-and-graphite-like minerality, its fleet acidity and its dense, intense, pervasive, chewy tannins; in other words, it performs like a youngster, and while the wine could profitably be consumed now, it has many years ahead to develop and mature, say from 2020 to 2030. No kidding. Excellent. Original price: $40.
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SLV 2003. From an unpredictable year, with early heat spikes followed by the rainiest April on record, Stag’s Leap produced a gorgeous cabernet sauvignon for SLV. The color is solid ruby with a dark, almost opaque center and a shading toward magenta at the rim. The wine aged a whopping 27 months in French oak; a dab of merlot totals 1.2 percent. This is a deeply fruity, spicy and vibrant wine that draws you in with its power and vitality; SLV ’03 is profoundly minerally in the earthy, graphite, iodine-and-iron range, with attendant dense, dusty, leathery tannins, yet the wine is exquisitely detailed with hints of cedar and sage, celery seed and black olive, crushed black currants, plums and mulberries, all drawn out to a long finish packed with loam and underbrush. The alcohol content is a comfortable 14.1 percent. Drink now through 2030 to ’35. Excellent. About $110.
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SLV 2007. A contradictory year — some winemakers said that it was like having two or three different years in one — that turned into a great vintage for cabernet sauvignon. SLV ’07 is 100 percent cabernet; it aged 24 months in French oak, 88 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a purple-violet rim and an opaque center. Young as it is, as rigorous as the tannins are, the wine almost gushes with black and blue fruit scents and flavors that would edge close to being rich and jammy if not held in check by those finely-tuned, well-oiled tannins, by vibrant acidity and by a granite/graphite/iron character of magnificent proportions. Despite the profundity, though, despite the monumentality, the wine is precisely balanced and poised, and it’s edged by delicate details of mulberry, ancho chili, bitter chocolate, sage and lavender. 14.5 percent alcohol. Best from 2013 or ’14 through 2030 to 2037. Exceptional. About $125.
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After a career in the publishing business, John Shafer moved his family to the Napa Valley in 1972, purchasing a 210-acre estate — with 50 acres of vines — in what is now the Stags Leap District AVA, officially designated without an apostrophe. The first crush occurred in 1978. The winery’s vineyard property gradually increased to 205 acres, with 79 acres in Stags Leap, 60 acres just south of SLD in Napa Valley and 66 acres in Carneros. By variety, the breakdown is 97 acres devoted to caberet sauvignon (Napa’s great hero grape), 66 of chardonnay, 24 of syrah, 12 of merlot and 6 of petite sirah. John Shafer’s son Doug became winemaker in 1983; when he was elevated to company president in 1994, assistant winemaker Elias Fernandez became winemaker, a position he still fills today.

Shafer is one of Napa Valley’s elite wineries, and if California possessed a system similar to the classification of Bordeaux — don’t worry, that will never happen, at least not “officially” — it would certainly be listed among the First Growths. The commitment is to cabernet sauvignon, though forays into chardonnay and syrah have proved highly successful. The wines tend to see a boodle of new French oak, 100 percent new oak for some of the wines, but they seem to absorb that wood and make it an integral part of the package; I have never tasted a wine from Shafer tainted by the blatant, smoky vanilla qualities of new barrels. The winery is making an effort to enumerate more accurately the alcohol content of its wines, once listed as a blanket 14.8 percent. Since federal regulations allow a one-degree leeway, an indication of 14.8 percent could mean anywhere from 13.8 to 15.8. The degrees indicated now represent an attempt to tell consumers what they’re actually getting.

Tasted at a trade event.
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The Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay 2010, Carneros, is an absolutely exquisite and classic representation of the grape. The wine aged 14 months in 75 percent new French oak barrels and 25 percent stainless steel tanks. Since it does not go through what’s called malolactic fermentation, the wine delivers a sense of grace, purity and intensity that does not involve the extraneous and often cloying creamy, dessert-like aspects that the process can produce (and which some wine publications unaccountably dote upon), while the oak influence is subtly revealed only in the wine’s sleekness and suppleness and its spicy nature. The color is pale gold; aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit are tinged with quince and ginger and hints of cloves and limestone. In the mouth, ripe and spicy stone-fruit flavors are ensconced in a texture that’s almost lush and powdery, though balanced, indeed cut, by powerful limestone and flint minerality and the scintillating effect of crystalline acidity; tremendous presence, heft and tone, yet exquisitely drawn and finely detailed, right through the spare, elegant finish. 14.9 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 or ’17, well-stored. Excellent. About $48.
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Sometimes I think that I would rather drink hot grease than another merlot from California, but then an example like the Shafer Merlot 2009, Napa Valley, comes along to gladden my heart and make the world seem fit to live in. This is a merlot of jewel-like transparency, detail and definition; I mean, it feels effortless, though there’s nothing delicate or evanescent about it. (There’s 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent malbec in the blend.) The wine aged 20 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby-purple; aromas of ripe and macerated mulberries, black raspberries and blueberries are highlighted by notes of rose petals and brambles, white pepper, bittersweet chocolate and penetrating graphite-like minerality. The heft and balance, the absolute confidence and insouciance of this merlot are truly lovely, though the wine does not neglect the important aspects of a rigorous tannin and acid structure that lends a sense of tension and grip. It you love merlot and sometimes despair of its fate, don’t fail to get a few bottles of this quite beautiful model. 15.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to ’20. Exceptional. About $48.
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You could call the Shafer Relentless 2008, Napa Valley, a blend of 75 percent syrah and 25 percent petite sirah, a blockbuster — I kept using the word tremendous in my notes — except that it displays so much finesse; its, um, tremendousness feels like an inextricable weaving of infinite strands of subtlety and nuance bound by, er, tremendously huge tannins and tautly wrought acidity. (The wine aged an astonishing 30 months in 100 percent French oak barrels.) The color is deep, dark ruby-purple; the bouquet bursts from the glass in a dynamic welter of black and blue plums, black currants and blueberries, mocha and black pepper, violets and lavender and the classic Northern Rhone notes of wet fur, tar and hot stones; if ever a bouquet could be called muscular, it’s this one. Still, for all its tannic and oaken power and its iron-like minerality (and shall we mention 15.6 percent alcohol content and the bravado ripeness of its black and blue fruit flavors?), the wine does not feel ponderous or overbearing; it takes a lot of skill and experience to assemble these components into a balanced, coherent wine that feels utterly faithful to its constituent grapes. Best from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $60.
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The Shafer One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Stags Leap District — 98 percent cabernet with 2 percent petit verdot — offers a deep almost opaque purple color and burgeoning aromas of cassis and black raspberry, smoke, bittersweet chocolate, underbrush, iodine and iron. (This aged 20 months in 100 percent new French oak.) There’s a great deal of depth and grip and forceful tautness here, an energetic element that makes the wine lively and resonant — the tannins, at least, are finely milled, seeming well-oiled and seamless — yet of the five wines under review here, this is the one that feels the least integrated. Perhaps it’s simply the earthiest (I wouldn’t say rustic) and just needs a couple of years to come together, say 2014 to ’15 and then drinking until 2020 or so. 15.3 percent alcohol. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $70.
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Shafer’s flagship wine is the Hillside Select, Stags Leap District, which for 2007, the 25th Anniversary vintage, brings together all the virtues of place and grape for a virtuoso performance. This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon; the wine aged 32 months in all new French oak barrels. Real weight, heft and substance here, stupendous earthy-granitic minerality, roiling acidity and deeply-rooted grainy tannins; this is not about elegance or finesse, but it is about power, balance and total integration of all elements into dynamic, resonant completion, the whole package feeling as if it had been lightly sanded and burnished. There’s some toughness here, too, dense, tense, a little truculent for the next few years, yet, paradoxically, the wine is almost voluptuous in texture, a fitting cushion for heady and penetrating qualities of ripe, bright cassis, black cherry and dark plum flavors. 15.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to 2025. Exceptional. About $225 (a bottle).
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