Uncategorized


Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t hate the chardonnay grape, I just despise and am frequently saddened by what is done to the grape in wineries in California. And it’s true, as I have remarked many times on this blog, that I hate the over-oaked, brassy, blatantly ripe, stridently spicy, dessert-and-tropical-flavors-dominated chardonnays that I often receive as samples for review. I find such wines drastically unbalanced, harsh yet sweet, and undrinkable. Today, however, I post for your delectation and edification reviews of 12 chardonnay wines that I found to be splendid examples of the intensity and purity of form and flavor that come from thoughtful fidelity to the grape and, possibly, to a particular patch of land. I have always felt that richness, whether in food or wine, is not a virtue in itself, and you will notice that while most of these examples display sufficient or even marked richness of fruit, that aspect is balanced and supported by clean, bright acidity and minerality. I don’t mind wines that provoke and take risks, but ultimately the governing principle is equilibrium of all the qualities that compose the whole package. With one exception — an online purchase — these chardonnays were samples for review, mainly 2014s and ’15s and one 2013. Geographically they range along the vertical axis of winemaking in the Golden State, from Santa Barbara County in the south to Mendocino in the north. Technically, they illustrate an interesting gamut of possibilities, from the lightest touch of neutral oak and no malolactic to (surprisingly) full barrel-fermentation, 100 percent new French oak and malolactic. Too often, we encounter wines — not only chardonnay — fashioned along the lines of the winemaker or producer’s ego and prescribed expectations, but in the models I describe today, it feels as if purity, sensitivity and integrity won the race.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
BK chard
The Black Kite Cellars Gap’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay 2014, Sonoma Coast, aged 10 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels, the rest one-year-old. The color is pale gold; aromas of baked apples and spiced pears are woven with layers of grapefruit and pineapple that are ripe and spicy but controlled on the palate by scintillating acidity and limestone-flint minerality; some moments in the glass bring in hints of gardenia, smoke and jasmine. The wine is quite dry, energized by its crystalline clarity and intensity and a lithe supple texture. The finish is packed with elements of damp stones and bright yellow stone-fruit flavors. 14.2 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Jeff Gaffner. Drink now through 2019 to ’21. Production was 201 cases. Excellent. About $48.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Byron_Nielson_CH-1
The Nielson Vineyard, the first commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County, was planted in 1964. Ken Brown, who acquired the 432-acre vineyard in 1989 after founding Byron Wines, started replanting in 1991. Jackson Family Wines purchased the winery and vineyard in 2006. Winemaker is Jonathan Nagy, who puts the Byron Winery Nielson Vineyard Chardonnay 2014, Santa Maria Valley, through 100 percent barrel fermentation, aging in 54 percent new French oak and full malolactic. To my palate, that regimen could be a recipe for disaster, but Nagy manages to fashion a high-impact chardonnay that offers lovely purity and intensity, texture and structure, a rich, ripe wine that isn’t stridently spicy or cloying with oak. The color is very pale gold with a faint green tinge; notes of green tea and lemongrass infuse aromas and flavors of pineapple and grapefruit that open to suggestions of clover, peach and quince. The wine is deftly balanced and integrated, and what might feel florid and forward in its approach is leavened by bright acidity and a lingering coastal shelf of limestone, flint and sea-salt. Tremendous vitality, verve and presence. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 848 cases. Now through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $45.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
415x1431-EVW_FDE_Char_V15_750
The Edna Valley Vineyard Winemakers Series “Fleur de Edna” Chardonnay 2014, Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County, sees only neutral oak barrels. The wine is very clean and fresh, offering a pale gold hue and pert aromas and flavors of green apple and pear, pineapple and grapefruit, all lightly spiced and macerated; lip-smacking acidity sends a bright arrow through a lean and lithe structure honed by limestone and flint minerality. The wine gradually opens to notes of smoke, lilac and honeysuckle, peach and quince, gently expressed. While this chardonnay makes no great display of itself, it asserts real confidence and character. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2019 to ’21. (The 2015 is also available now.) Excellent. About $27.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
fel chard
Winemaker Ryan Hodgins gave the FEL Chardonnay 2015, Anderson Valley, nine months in neutral French oak barrels and limited malolactic fermentation. The result is a chardonnay of lovely delicacy and elegance that features a pale straw-gold hue and elusive aromas of honeysuckle and jasmine; a few moments in the glass add classic notes of pineapple and grapefruit and subtle hints of cloves and roasted lemon. The wine is sleek and supple on the palate, juicy with ripe citrus and stone-fruit flavors buoyed by a burgeoning limestone quality and fresh, bracing salinity on the finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $32.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
FF_Chard_2014_EDIT3
Winemaker Todd Graff put the Frank Family Wines Chardonnay 2014, Napa-Carneros, through nine months in French oak, 1/3 each new, one-year-old and two-year-old barrels. The grapes derived from the winery’s Lewis Vineyard, where 68 acres of chardonnay vines and 10 acres of pinot noir are subject to the maritime influence of San Francisco Bay’s cool temperatures, fog and wind. The color is pale gold; the wine feels as if you’re sipping crushed gravel minerality with a cool flint chaser, these elements at the service of spiced pear and roasted lemon with notes of jasmine, cloves, honeysuckle and heather. This vibrant chardonnay offers texture and juicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors galore, edging a bit toward flamboyance but still nicely restrained by crisp acidity and its prominent mineral component; real personality and energy here, animating a finish packed with grapefruit and graphite. 14.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $35.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Rob Davis has made every vintage of Jordan chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon since the winery was launched in 1976. That’s a record for 2015-Jordan-Russian-River-Valley-Chardonnay-Label-WebThumblongevity, dedication and knowledge almost unsurpassed in California. For the Jordan Vineyards Chardonnay 2015, Russian River Valley, the grapes fermented for 17 days in 47 percent stainless steel tanks and 53 percent new French oak barrels, and then aged six months — not a long passage — in 100 percent new French oak. Did I read that right? 100 percent? Mais oui, mon lecteurs. How did the wine turn out? Delicate, elegant, steely, filled with tantalizing nuance. The color is pale straw-gold; white floral aromas are ethereal, while notes of pineapple and grapefruit and a hint of peach are spare and subtle, opening gradually to touches of heather and seashell. The limestone and chalk minerality settles in for the long haul, lending this chardonnay an extraordinary sense of presence and gravity, buttressed by an arrow-bright line of chiseled acidity. You could say that this is a very Chablis-like chardonnay for Russian River Valley; I just say that it’s great. 13.7 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $32.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, Sonoma Coast, is a bright, bold chardonnay whose tendency toward richness took my 2014-CHARD-FreestoneLABELtolerance right to the edge — but held back from the plunge by incisive acidity and a profound depth of limestone and chalk minerality. The oak regimen is interesting, the wine aging 13 months in French oak barrels and puncheons, 35 percent new, 65 percent two and three years old. A puncheon is typically about twice the size of a traditional barrique, or approximately 123 U.S. gallons to 59 U.S. gallons, though, truly, different interpretations as to the size of a puncheon exist from country to country and region to region. Anyway, this wine offers a mild gold hue and an initial impression of daunting mineral elements that make it quite spare and austere; as the moments pass, it opens and softens to the extent that notes of lime peel and roasted lemon emerge, with attendant touches of baked pineapple and grapefruit, mango and bananas Foster, all tempered by acid and a mineral nature that practically glitter in the glass. What’s most compelling here is the exquisite sense of tension and risky balance among all these qualities, making for a drink that’s both satisfying and exciting. 14.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2021 to ’24. Excellent. About $55.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Mayacamas Vineyards The Terraces Special Bottling Chardonnay 2013, Napa Valley, is simply one of the best chardonnay wines I have 2013 Mayacamas Terraces CH Front Labelever tasted. It was made from a high-altitude 60-year-old vineyard that will not be used again, so this one is a rare treat. The color is pale straw-gold; notes of ginger and quince, guava and yellow plum and peach are woven with a slightly piney-resinous element and a tincture of lilac; it feels like liquid quartz on the palate, animated by chiming acidity and an aura both propulsive and dignified; ripe and spicy stone-fruit flavors nestle in a texture that’s soft as talc yet lithe and a little muscular, all devolving to a finish loaded with tangerine, lemongrass and grapefruit pith. 14.25 percent alcohol. A chardonnay of stunning and crystalline balance, tone and presence. for drinking through 2021 to ’25. Exceptional. About $95, an online purchase and Worth a Search for devotees of varietal purity and intensity.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Though the Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2014, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, saw 100 percent barrel-fermentation and aging in 100 smlabel_lr_chard_14percent new French oak barrels — that a lot of wood in my book — the wine feels as if it had been chiseled from the bedrock of the 42-year-old, dry-farmed vineyard whence it originated, while the oak influence feels almost subliminal in lending the wine shape, size and subtle spice. It’s a beautifully proportional chardonnay in every aspect — made from a 42-year-old dry-farmed vineyard — displaying a pale straw-gold hue and enticing aromas of cloves, ripe pineapple and grapefruit with a touch of mango and guava and back-notes of quince and crystallized ginger; these elements segue seamlessly to the palate, where the wine feels etched by bright acidity that cuts a swath and a deeply-hewn, scintillating limestone quality. 14.2 percent alcohol. One of my favorite chardonnays to taste in any and every year. Production was 850 cases. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $32.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
c_1409.tif
New oak was kept to a minimum in the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Karia” Chardonnay 2015, Napa Valley, which aged seven months in 30 percent new French barrels. The color is pale straw-gold; hints of peaches and spiced pear, quince and ginger waft from the glass in an effect that’s delicately floral and both faintly smoky and slightly candied, as in just a note of caramelized grapefruit lightly touched with mango, the whole impression being beguiling and intriguing. This chardonnay is quite dry but offers a vibrant, vital presence in a lithe supple texture that flows over a keen edge of limestone-flint minerality; citrus and stone-fruit flavors are ripe and moderately spicy, bold without being overdone. A really lovely chardonnay. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 or ’21. Excellent. About $35.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The grapes for the Stony Hill Chardonnay 2014, Napa Valley, were grown on dry-farmed vines from 23 to 32 years old, at elevations ranging stony chardfrom 800 to 1,500 feet. Winemaker Mike Chelini uses only neutral oak for the winery’s chardonnays and inhibits malolactic. The result is a chardonnay whose innate richness and generous nature are buttressed by a powerful limestone and flint element and enlivened by riveting acidity. The color is medium straw-gold; aromas of slightly caramelized pineapple and grapefruit are shot through with notes of quince and cloves, acacia and heather, a hint of yellow plum and a faint whiff of lilac. This chardonnay offers true grace, elegance and spareness, with a lithe, lightly powdered texture brightened by vibrant crispness and scintillating minerality that feels filigreed and transparent through the finish. 13 percent alcohol. Drink this exquisite yet powerful wine through 2021 to ’24. Excellent. About $48.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
2014-CHard
If you’re looking for a taut, vibrant chardonnay that admirably balances fruit and floral elements, acidity and mineral power, Trione Vineyards and Winery River Road Ranch Chardonnay 2014, Russian River Valley, is your baby. Deriving from the winery’s 115-acre estate vineyard, the wine features a shimmering pale gold hue and lovely aromas of apple and pear, quince and ginger and slightly roasted pineapple and grapefruit, all heightened by notes of cloves and a hint of quinine; there’s a gradual blooming of honeysuckle and jasmine. This chardonnay is fleet and fluent in all aspects, quite dry but delivering a beguiling talc-like texture riven by clean acid and a burgeoning limestone quality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2019 to ’21. Excellent. About $34.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Here’s a totally refreshing rosé wine made in the classic fashion of the South of France. The samorens2015lFerraton Père et Fils Samorëns Côtes du Rhône Rosé 2015 consists of 75 percent grenache grapes with the balance made up by syrah and cinsault. The color is a pale salmon-peach hue, a shade darker than onion skin, and the aromas of strawberries, red currants and peaches are as delicate as a ballerina’s wave goodbye; the wine admits hints of lemon zest and orange rind, as well as notes of cloves and dried thyme. On the palate, it flows with lovely, lithe tone and texture, propelled by pert acidity and a crystalline limestone element, and while being quite dry, the ephemeral, slightly spicy red fruit flavors are juicy and delicious. The estate, founded in 1946, was acquired by Michel Chapoutier in 2004. In 2013 the winery and cellars were updated with new equipment and fermentation tanks appropriately sized to their vineyard parcels. Partner growers farm using sustainable techniques while the estate vineyards and parcels under long term lease are managed by the winery using biodynamic methods. And that’s probably more than you need or want to know, but there it is anyway, because I’m interested. Drink this charming rosé through 2017 with typical picnic fare — fried chicken, cucumber or shrimp salad sandwiches, rabbit terrine, the kind of stuff you always pack in your picnic baskets — or as a very appealing aperitif. Very Good+. About $14, representing Excellent Value.

Imported by HB Wine Merchants, Pleasantville, N.Y. A sample for review.

Last night, LL made a fabulous stir-fry with shrimp, snow-peas, red bell pepper and jalapeno. She made a broth from the shrimp shells and a bunch of vegetables and also gently heated canola oil in a small pan with chopped garlic and ginger and some red pepper flakes. Then she marinated the shrimp in that oil. After the stir-frying, she used the broth to thicken the sauce. The result was deep and wonderful flavors and textures. Of course we wanted a white wine, Mt Beautiful Riesling 2015 Ftsomething that would balance the hint of spicy heat emanating from the red pepper flakes and jalapeno, so I opened a bottle of the Mt. Beautiful Riesling 2015, from New Zealand’s North Canterbury region. Made all in stainless steel, this riesling exudes freshness and immediate appeal, while just a suggestion of off-dryness in the entry provided an appropriate foil for the spiciness of the dish. The color is very pale gold; lovely aromas of pears and green apples are touched with notes of lychee, peach and jasmine, cloves and white pepper, and a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of tangerine, lime peel and roasted lemon, all of these elements perfectly integrated. The segue onto the palate is seamless, and from mid-course back through the finish the wine feels bone-dry, animated by chiming acidity and scintillating limestone minerality. A wine with the word “beautiful” in the name better live up to its billing; this one, golden and glittering, certainly does. 11.5 percent alcohol. Production was 1,100 cases. Drink now through 2019 to ’20. Excellent. About $22.

A sample for review.

Indigenous-Cemetery-20141
The sort of zinfandel I dote upon is one that expresses, either forthrightly or eloquently, the character of the grape without the hyperbole of over-ripeness, strident spicy qualities, tough tannins and the fatal sweet heatedness of high alcohol. We often find those kinds of zinfandels in Lodi, where the wines typically soar above 15 percent alcohol, but a model much more balanced is the Oak Farm Vineyards “Indigenous” Cemetery Vineyard Zinfandel 2014, Lodi, which clocks in at a mild and sensible 13.5 percent alcohol. The color is deep ruby with a glowing magenta rim; aromas of ripe blackberries and black currants are highlighted by notes of blueberries, cloves, briers and brambles and touches of fruitcake and iodine. Dusty tannins display a honed graphite edge, and indeed this zinfandel, while being warm and spicy and tasty with its black and blue fruit flavors, exudes the coolness of chiseled limestone, wrapped around an animated core of vibrant acidity and hints of lavender, leather and loam. Drink now through 2019 to ’21 with steaks or burgers, grilled pork chops, chili, hearty pastas and pizzas. Production was 361 cases. Excellent. About $32.

A sample for review.

cune-monopole-rioja-nv
Well, darnit, it’s a gloomy, drippy day in our neck o’ the woods, and I hope the weather is better wherever My Readers find themselves. In recompense or hope, I offer a delightful, inexpensive white wine from Spain’s Rioja region, If this one doesn’t lift your spirits, you have a heart of stone, and I’m unfriending you right now. The CVNE Monopole 2015 is made from the indigenous viura grape, not a grape we tend to rave on all night about but one that certainly performs handily when treated with thoughtful simplicity. (CVNE, by the way, stands for Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana, is often written as CUNE, and is pronounced “koo-nay.”) The color is very pale straw-gold; aromas of green apple, roasted lemon and lime peel are highlighted by notes of jasmine and honeysuckle, acacia and almond skin. The texture is sleek and silky, buoying tasty stone-fruit and citrus flavors, animated by bright acidity and touches of limestone minerality and brisk salinity that foreshadow the wine’s appropriateness with fresh seafood or with shrimp or chicken salad or, in general, with all sorts of lighthearted picnic fare. 13 percent alcohol. This vintage marks the 100th anniversary of the production of this wine, the first made in Rioja. Drink now through 2017. Very Good+. About $13, marking Excellent Value.

Imported by Skurnik Wines, New York. A sample for review.

Pat and Joe Campbell founded Elk Cove Vineyards in 1974, establishing them among a handful of Willamette Valley, Oregon, pioneers such as Erath, Ponzi, Amity, Sokol Blosser and Adelsheim, also launched in the 1970s. The winery focuses on pinot noir as its red wine and two other “pinots” — gris and blanc — as their whites. Winemaker since 1995 has been Pat and Joe’s son Adam Campbell. Our foray today, in this 15th entry into reviewing one wine every day, is the Elk Cove Pinot Gris 2014, carrying the Willamette Valley designation. Seeing only stainless steel, with no oak influence, this pinot gris offers the pleasing paradox of delicacy and prettiness embodied in blazing purity and intensity. The color is pale straw-gold; finely-knit aromas of jasmine and almond blossom, spiced pear and lime peel are highlighted by notes of grapefruit and damp limestone; the stony factor becomes a dominant motif on the palate, in the form of chalk and flint elements, while shivery acidity cuts a swath through a lovely talc-like texture and spare tones of pear and grapefruit. The austere finish — savory, saline, chiseled — resonates with touches of grapefruit rind, almond skin and limestone. 13 percent alcohol. The first thought regarding this wine is fresh oysters, succulent and briny; the second thought is grilled scallops or mussels in a mignonette sauce. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $19.

A sample for review.

Dear Readers, you have surely noticed, doubtless with mounting alarm, the absence of this blog from the airwaves. This hiatus will continue for an indefinite period of time due to a broken arm that I stupidly acquired last weekend. That appendage being the right arm, I find myself in the position of neither being able to open a wine bottle nor lift a glass of wine nor take notes. Anyway, my medications all forbid the consumption of alcoholic beverages. I am by the way writing this bulletin with one finger of my left hand; you could watch an episode of Games of Thrones in a shorter span. I hope to have cast off and stitches out soon, but I don’t know when I will return to serious work. Bear with me. Cheers!

I have used Wordsworth’s lines so often — “The world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” — that I won’t allude to them on this occasion but merely issue an apology and assert that sometimes I just can’t keep up with tasting and writing. In fact, this post is probably the first in a series of “mea culpa” catch-up entries that I will issue over the next few weeks — if I have time. Ha-ha! These wines, a miscellaneous dozen from California, 11 red, one white, were all samples for review.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Amapola Creek Monte Rosso Vineyard “Vinas Antiguas” Zinfandel 2011, Sonoma Valley. Winemaker Dick Arrowood mixed 5 percent petite sirah to this zinfandel derived from one of Sonoma County’s legendary vineyards, where the zinfandel vines are 118 years old. The wine aged 15 months in a combination of new and used French and American oak barrels. Generally, I have been a fan of Arrowood’s efforts at Amapola Creek, rating everything I have tasted either Excellent or Exceptional. The exception, however, will be this example, because the heat and sweetness from 15.5 percent alcohol tip the wine off balance and render it into a clunky blockbuster. That’s a shame, because such details as its melange of ripe and spicy black currants and blueberries, cloves, sandalwood and smoked fennel and a chiseled granitic quality would have been gratifying in a different package. Production was 310 cases. Not recommended. About $42.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Amici Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. There’s an aspect of darkness about this (nonetheless) winsome pinot noir: a dark ruby color; a certain dark shading in its spicy elements of cloves and sandalwood; the smokiness of its black cherry scents and flavors hinting at currants and raspberries; the earthiness of its brier-brambly structure. The lovely texture, though, is all warm satin, while bright acidity keeps it lively and quaffable. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Production was 1,300 cases. Very Good+. About $35.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Bonny Doon Vineyards Le Cigare Blanc reserve 2011, Arroyo Seco. The blend for this highly aromatic wine is 62 percent grenache blanc and 38 percent roussanne, from the Beeswax Vineyard; the grapes were fermented together in stainless steel and aged in five-gallon glass carboys, also called demijohns or bonbonnes, of the sort typically employed in home brewing and winemaking. The color is very pale gold, and it seems to shimmer in the glass. All of the lemon kingdom has assembled here in its guises of roasted lemon, lemon balm and lemon curd, highlighted by notes of quince and ginger, lanolin, lilac and camellia. It’s a savory and saline wine, spare, lean and supple and quite dry yet generous with its citrus flavors that delve a bit into stone-fruit. The entire package is animated by crystalline acidity and crackling limestone minerality. Alcohol content is a pleasing 12.5 percent. Production was 480 cases. Excellent. About $54.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Daou Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Paso Robles. The wine is a blend of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent merlot and 9 percent petit verdot that spent 19 months in French oak barrels, 80 percent new. The color is very dark ruby-purple, almost opaque; seductive aromas of spiced, macerated and slightly roasted black cherries and raspberries are permeated by notes of graphite, cedar and tobacco and a hint of rosemary’s brash resiny quality; a few moments in the glass bring in touches of black olive and loam. This is a solid, tannic, granitic-based wine, spare and dusty and quite dry but with plenty of ripe black and blue fruit flavors; fairly rock-ribbed presently, it needs a lot of air to unfurl its attractions. 14.2 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2021 to ’25. Excellent. About $56.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Davies Vineyards Nobles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. This pinot noir, which aged 15 months in 41 percent new French oak barrels, originated from an area of the Sonoma Coast region recently designated as the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. Don’t be surprised if in the coming years we see more segments of the vast Sonoma Coast fragmented into smaller AVAs; Petaluma Gap, anyone? The color is a beguiling medium ruby hue, though that limpidity is belied by the wine’s sense of power and muscularity; this is intensely spicy, bursting with ripe and macerated black cherry and plum fruit, while a few minutes in the glass bring up pungent notes of old leather and pomegranate. It’s a fairly dense and chewy wine, displaying incisive graphite minerality and acidity that I can only call flaring and buoyant. Quite a performance on pinot noir’s dark side. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 550 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Davies Vineyards Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Here’s a pinot that’s a bit more to my taste than the Davies Vineyards Nobles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 mentioned above, at least in terms of style. This spend 15 months in French oak, 22 percent new barrels. The color is a transparent medium ruby, and the first impression is of the earth, with rooty and loamy aspects under briers and brambles; then come black and red cherries and currents segueing to dusty plums, smoky sassafras and exotic spices like sandalwood and cloves. Within this sensual panoply expands a core of nuance — lavender, violets, a bare hint of beet-root — and clean bright acidity. 14 percent alcohol. Production was 400 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $55.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dunstan Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011. Sonoma Coast. The color is dark ruby with a mulberry tinge. I would say that this pinot noir displays glorious purity, intensity and clarity, but “glorious” implies an emphatic nature that I want to avoid; let’s say, instead, that it’s perfect and adorable in the expression of those qualities. Aromas of red and black cherries and currants are imbued with notes of cloves and sandalwood, sassafras, rose petals and violets, with undertones of briers, brambles and loam, all amounting to a seamless marriage of elegance and power. The texture is supremely satiny, rolling across the palate like liquid money, but the wine’s ripe and spicy black and red fruit flavors are buoyed by slightly leathery tannins and back-notes of polished oak, the whole effect enlivened by fleet acidity. 14.5% alcohol. Excellent. About $55.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Gallo Signature Series Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Gina Gallo employed grapes from the family’s Olson Ranch Vineyard to craft this well-made but not compelling pinot noir that aged eight months in a mixture of new and used French oak barrels. The color shades from dark to medium ruby at the rim; aromas of black cherries and cranberries, smoke and loam, cloves and pomegranate characterize the attractive bouquet, while on the palate the wine is satiny smooth and supple; a few minutes in the glass bring out pretty floral elements. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $35.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Pedroncelli Mother Clone Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. The “mother clone” of this wine is a vineyard planted to zinfandel vines since 1904; some of those grapes are included here. Other parts of the vineyard represent the second generation of vines cloned from the original plants, all blended here with six percent petite sirah grapes. The wine aged 11 months in American oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a magenta rim; pungent aromas of black currants, blackberries and blueberries feel warm and spicy but with edges of graphite, briers and brambles. Bright acidity brings liveliness to dense dusty tannins and a slightly chiseled granitic minerality that testifies to the wine’s origin in an old hillside vineyard; however, black fruit flavors are equally bright and faceted, gradually opening to touches of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $18, representing Great Value.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sanctuary Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Maria Valley. This is a beautiful pinot noir in every sense, from its lovely transparent medium ruby-cherry hue, to its bouquet permeated by notes of spiced and macerated red and black currants and cherries, with hints of rhubarb and cranberry, tobacco leaf and cigarette paper, to its subtle undertones of loam and moss and brambles, to its seductive satiny texture. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 841 cases. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $40.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Silverado Vineyards Mt George Merlot 2010, Napa Valley. This classically balanced and structured wine is a blend of 77% merlot, 19% cabernet sauvignon, 4% malbec, 1% petit verdot. (Yeah, that’s 101 percent.) The color is very dark ruby-purple, verily, verging even unto motor-oil black; it’s quite pungent, unleashing penetrating aromas of ripe, meaty and fleshy black cherries and raspberries bursting with notes of cassis and black olives, bell pepper and tobacco. Chiseled and polished graphite rules the day, with hints of iodine and saline qualities, earth and loam; the texture is supple, lithe, dense and chewy, yet somehow refined and elegant, never forgetting its obligation to beautiful but not showy black and red fruit flavors. 14.9 percent alcohol. A terrific, finely-honed and tuned merlot that displays great character. Drink now through 2018 to 2022. Excellent. About $35.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Livermore Valley. The blend here is 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5
percent each petit verdot and merlot and 2 percent cabernet franc; the wine aged 24 months in 60 percent new oak barrels, mostly French with a small portion of American oak from the Appalachians. A dark ruby hue transcends inky purple; the bouquet is clean and fresh, very cherry-berry with some raspberries and their sense of faint raspiness, briers and brambles in the background, with an intensifying element of violets, lavender and potpourri. This panoply of sensual pleasures doesn’t quite prepare your palate for the rush of dusty tannins, the wheatmeal and walnut-shell austerity, the espresso and graphite elements that characterize the wine’s passage through the mouth. Still, coming back to it in an hour or so reveals its expression of a more approachable side, so give it a chance. A nicely manageable 13.5% alcohol. Production was 983 cases. Excellent potential, 2016 or ’17 through 2020 to ’24. About $48.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

In June I spent three days in North Yuba, a sub-appellation of the Sierra Foothills, about an hour’s drive north of Sacramento, for a brief immersion into the situation of Renaissance Vineyard and Winery and the other wineries and properties in the area. The first task of my visit was devoted to a day-long tasting of RVW library wines, a fairly astonishing collections of thousands of bottles going back to the early 1980s. Not surprisingly, the winery would like to sell these wines, which themselves are a pretty astonishing reflection of quality, integrity and single-minded devotion to an ideal. The winery staff was quite open in its expectation for my visit and looked to me for recommendations about how to market these wines and for the direction RVW should take to make their products more appealing to consumers. This sort of consulting work is not typically the position I find myself in when visiting a vineyard and wine region, but I felt that I had to take these expectations seriously. Here, by the way, are links to my two-part posting on the tasting: Cabernet-based reds and White table and dessert wines.
(Image of Sierra Foothills counties from 1916, courtesy of quarriesandbeyond.org.)
How is the winery going to divest itself of this tremendous store of library wines dating back to the early 1980s? By conveying a sense of a narrative that focuses on the winemakers, the terroir of the property and the quality and character of the wines. It’s a truism of today’s wine market that consumers, especially under the age of 35, are attracted to wines that possess a back-story, whether it’s a unique history or location, whether there’s an interesting aspect to the personalities involved or to the winemaking process. To reach to the contemporary audience, Renaissance needs to do what it has never done in its almost 40-year chronicle: Hire an outside marketing agency to craft this narrative and package the wines for sale to a particular stratum of restaurants and retail outlets. The advantage for restaurants would be that they could offer aged wines on their lists without having to serve them before they’re ready to drink or store them for a decade, the latter a prospect that few restaurants have the space for or can afford. Imagine being able to recommend the Renaissance Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 1989 or the Riesling 2002 or the Estate Cabernets from 1994, ’93 and ’91, all drinking perfectly now, to discerning palates.

This marketing agency could create, indeed with no embellishment, a fascinating narrative about a succession of fanatical winemakers dedicated to low alcohol content, little or no new oak, Old World techniques and organic methods. Imagine the appeal to collectors of a package that included cabernet-based wines from the 1980s, 90s and 2000s made by original winemaker Carl Werner; his wife Diana, who became winemaker when Werner died in 1988; and Gideon Beinstock, winemaker from 1994 to 2011, or of the winery’s late harvest dessert wines. The ability to taste such wines and compare them is invaluable. The fact that Carl Werner’s cabernets from years such as 1983 and 1984 are just coming round to a drinkable state, having shed their considerable tannins, creates a unique opportunity in California. It doesn’t hurt that Renaissance is located not in Napa Valley or Sonoma but in North Yuba in the Sierra Foothills, a region that may lack the glamor and recognition of better-known areas but offers the attraction and authenticity of laboring in obscurity and even a tinge of stubbornness.

A variety of ways exist through which a wine-savvy marketing agency could package and promote these wines to retailers and the restaurant trade, but Greg Holman, president of RVW, and his staff would have to be receptive to suggestions and new ideas and willing to make the financial outlay necessary.

And what about the future?

First, trim the line. RVW offers four cabernet sauvignon or cabernet-based wines — the “regular” cabernet sauvignon, a Reserve bottling, the Claret Prestige and the Vin de Terroir — and four Rhone-inspired red wines, a single-variety syrah and the blends La Provencal, Mediterranean Red and Granite Crown. Asking consumers to understand the differences among these wines and their motivations leads to confusion and indifference. Perhaps limiting these labels to a regular and reserve cabernet and one Rhone-style blend in addition to the syrah would clarify matters.

Second, engage in a major label revamp, another task for a marketing or design firm. Let’s face it, while the Renaissance label may be dignified, it’s also stodgy and bland. I don’t advocate changing a label design whenever the vagaries of fashion seem to dictate, and I admire wineries like Grgich Hills, for example, for staying with an uncluttered, elegant and easily identifiable label. The retention of the Renaissance label, however, feels more like habit than devotion, and I would say that it’s time for a shake-up. Keep the initial “R,” or a version of it, with its hint of antique finery, but clarify, simplify and modernize the rest.

Third, update the winery website with better graphic elements, a more compelling design, pictures of the winery and the estate, and, speaking selfishly, a section for Trade & Press where images and technical information can easily be obtained. A website and an active blog increasingly are part of a winery’s story.

The Jameson brand represents the largest-selling Irish whiskey in the world. The company was founded in Dublin in 1780 by (of all things) Scotsman John Jameson. Its parent entity is Irish Distillers Corp, formed in 1966, which in turn was acquired by Pernod-Ricard in 1988. Pernod-Ricard encompasses 36 spirits and wine brands that include Absolut, Chivas Regal, Ballantine’s Scotch, Beefeater Gin, Jameson, Kahlua, The Glenlivet, G.H. Mumm and Perrier-Jouet. Let me know if you haven’t heard of any of those names. The company owns 96 production sites in 23 countries, according to its annual report for 2012-13. Total assets currently are $8.72 billion, according to Market Watch. Pernod-Ricard is, in other words, a company that possesses worldwide depth and breadth, mega-clout and the dinero to back up its claims.

Jamieson Ranch Vineyards is a winery located in the Napa Valley, in fact the southernmost winery in the appellation. Formerly known as Kirkland Ranch Winery and Reata Vineyard, the company changed its name to Jamieson Ranch in 2013; it happens to be located on Jameson (not Jamieson) Canyon Road. The history of the property is tangled, involving dubious business decisions going back to the late 1990s and bankruptcy filings, but it is owned now by Madison Vineyard Holdings of Greenwood Village, Colorado, a company involved in myriad enterprises including high-end art storage in New York. Jamieson Ranch produces about 35,000 cases annually under its eponymous label, retaining the Reata name for some pinot noirs and chardonnays, and uses the Light Horse brand for inexpensive products. Prices for the Jamieson and Reata wines range from about $24 to $60. Assets of Madison Vineyard Holdings, according to the company’s website, are $250 million.

Early this year, Irish Distillers sent a cease-and-desist letter to Madison Vineyard Holdings, asserting that “Jamieson” is “confusingly similar” to “Jameson” and is “likely to cause consumer confusion and/or the appearance that your client’s business originates from or is endorsed or authorised by Irish Distillers,” the use of which is likely to dilute the mark “Jameson.” Madison Vineyard Holdings responded by filing suit against Irish Distillers for declaratory relief, a term that is totally meaningless to me but I assume implies that there’s no danger to Jameson Irish Whiskey from Jamieson Ranch Winery and that Jameson should leave Jamieson the hell alone.

It seems to me that only people who lack the intellectual prowess to tell the difference between, say, Lady Gaga and Little Lulu — meaning lawyers — would find the labels, intentions and products of Jameson Irish Whiskey and the wines of Jamieson Ranch Vineyard “confusingly similar.”

Let’s examine the evidence.

Jameson Irish Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grain. The alcohol content is 40 percent. It’s a rich amber-brown color. It looks and tastes nothing like wine.

The products of Jamieson Ranch Vineyards are fermented from grapes. Alcohol contents tend to be about 13.5 to 14.5 percent. Colors range from ruby-purple to pale gold. They look and taste nothing like Irish whiskey.

Additionally, distilled spirits and wine are stored in different sections of retail stores, none of which want to muddy the waters by keeping whiskey next to wine. I cannot conceive that any person would set a bottle of one next to the other and think, “Oh ho, these brands must be the same.” Despite these factors, lawyers for Pernod-Ricard are tallying the billable hours in going after a harmless gnat with a baseball bat. This rigamarole makes as much sense as a case I mentioned three years ago in which the giant Anheuser-Busch InBev went after a tiny winery in Argentina called Budini because their label would “dilute” the effect of Budweiser. The result was than Budini became Bodini. Money counts, as if you didn’t know.

Next Page »