What Were They Thinking

The history is complicated.

The Mirassou family has been in the wine business in California since 1854, qualifying them for a place among the industry’s pioneering pantheon. For most of the first century, the family grew grapes in Santa Clara and (discounting Prohibition) sold bulk wine. I won’t go into all the details of the family’s splits, buy-outs and mergers as the generations succeeded each other — Charles L. Sullivan provides the narrative in the essential A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California press, 1998) — except to say that by the mid 1960s Mirassou had moved decisively into bottling varietal wine and that they were crowded out of Santa Clara by suburban development and had expanded to Monterey, buying some 600 acres in the northern part of the county.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Mirassou struggled with quality and finally achieved the sort of standards and technical ability that result in decent and drinkable and sometimes more than decent wines. Production centered on about 70 percent white wine — the “White Burgundy,” mostly pinot blanc, and the Harvest Reserve Chardonnay being notable — 10 percent sparkling wine and 20 percent in red.

In 2002, the family’s fifth generation sold the brand to Gallo, which uses it for cheap, innocuous bottlings; the family retained the winery and property, then reduced to 15 acres by encroaching habitation and commercial endeavor. The name was changed to La Rochelle, in honor of the French sea-coast town from which Louis and Pierre Pellier embarked for America (bringing with them what would become California’s first pinot noir vines); in 1881, Pierre H. Mirassou married Pierre Pellier’s daughter Henriette, who was already running her father’s vineyards, thus paving the way for the Mirrasou enterprise.

In June, 2005, as reported by W. Blake Gray in the San Francisco Chronicle, brothers Daniel and Peter Mirassou sold the La Rochelle brand to their cousin, Steven Kent Mirassou, who owns the Steven Kent Winery, a producer of small edition cabernet sauvignon in Livermore, east of San Francisco Bay. La Rochelle now concentrates on limited release pinot noir wines from vineyards throughout California and in Oregon. Some of those pinot noirs, which I find fairly unpinot-like, will be our focus in this post. In fact, I thought that these wines displayed an alarming variance in quality, tone and effect. Winemaker is Tom Stutz.

These were samples for review. The Mirassou labels in this section are from my wine notebook for 1983.
First, if you can possibly get your hands on a case or a few bottles of La Rochelle Pinot Noir Rosé 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, do so. This is perhaps the best rosé from California (or the “New World”) that I tasted this year. Color is pale but radiant onion skin with a light copper glow; it’s all dried red currants, Rainier cherries, melon ball and a hint of spiced peach; a lovely almost satiny texture made vital and vibrant by crisp acidity and a scintillating limestone element. Loads of personality yet quietly elegant. 13.2 percent alcohol. Production was 157 cases. Excellent. About $22, and Worth a Search.
La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, seems pretty over-heated and syrah-like for a Russian River pinot. It’s very spicy and slightly sweet, with powerful waves of cloves, cinnamon and Red Hots permeating intense aromas and flavors of black and red cherries with a touch of dried red currants and blueberries; a beguiling floral element, bursting with violets and rose petals, is immediately apparent. The texture is blatantly and sleek satiny but neither heavy nor obvious, though the finish starts to fall apart, not knowing if it’s meant to be dry, briery and earthy or super-ripe, candied and glossy. Shall I be generous and call this wine a curiosity rather than a failure? 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 137 cases. Drink now, if you’re of a mind, through 2013 or ’14. Very Good. About $42.
A shadow darker, a shade more subdued is La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast — and also more balanced and integrated than the Russian River version mentioned above. It’s actually fairly placid and brooding, though not truculent, definitely earthier and more deeply imbued with graphite-like minerality, still managing, however, to display aspects of finesse and gradations of spice (instead of an assault) that marry well with the delicious but almost spare black and blue fruit flavors layered with notes of briers, brambles and forest floor. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 156 cases. Drink now through 2012 or ’14. Very Good+. About $42.
La Rochelle Pinot Noir La Cruz Vineyard 2008, Sonoma Coast, is unabashedly gorgeous and seductive, star-making qualities to be sure but not necessarily the first aspects one thinks of pertaining to the grape. The fine print reveals the fact that this wine carries 15.3 percent alcohol, a heady element perhaps accounting for a bouquet of black cherry compote, spiced and macerated cranberries, mulberries and plums, though backnotes of mint and iodine and graphite-like minerality provide a bit of leavening. Violets and roses, yes, plum pudding, the latter also prominent in the profile of ripe and roasted black cherry and currant flavors steeped in cloves and sassafras, with some notion of briers and brambles hinting at a foresty layer. The wine is potent with alcohol, and the dry, austere finish feels rather flat-footed. A pinot for zinfandel-lovers. Drink now through 2013 to ’14. Production was 171 cases. Very Good. About $48.
Despite the 15.3 percent alcohol, La Rochelle Sarmento Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, initially displays a modicum of the fleetness, finesse and elegance and the black cherry, cranberry, rhubarb and cola notes that we associate with the best pinot noir wines. On the other hand, sadly, its excessively spicy, assertively macerated and roasted nature tends to overshadow those qualities and bring to the foreground obtrusive elements of brown sugar and caramel and high alcohol’s over-ripeness and cloying sweetness; a good pinot noir should have a satiny texture, but this is almost viscous. In the end, one cannot figure out exactly what this wine is supposed to be. Drastically unbalanced. 141 cases. Not recommended. About $48.
Finally and thankfully — I loved La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Cruz Mountains, the most balanced, integrated and seemingly authentic of these five pinot noir wines, excluding the rosé, which, as you’ll note above, I also adored. The color is an entrancing cherry-cerise with a dark ruby center; classic aromas of black cherry and blueberry tart — this is California — are generously wreathed with touches of rhubarb and cola, moss and leather, briers and brambles, all seamless, reserved, tranquil. In the mouth, this pinot noir expands into more earthy, mossy, foresty realms that provide ballast for ravishing black and blue fruit flavors that gain flesh, ripeness and substance after 20 or 30 minutes in the glass. The texture is lovely, smooth, satiny, flowing, the finish sweetly delineated, long, spicy. A beautiful pinot for drinking through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.9 percent, high for pinot noir in my book but not obvious here. 138 cases. Excellent. About $38 and Worth a Search.

I have been fascinated by the print-media ads for Fragoli and Passionné since they began appearing in food and wine publications about a year and a half ago, or at least I started noticing them early in 2010. Fragoli is a liqueur made from “wild strawberries,” whatever “wild” means in the context of international marketing; the bottle is actually filled with fruit. Passionné is a Prosecco Spumante. These products are made by the Toschi firm in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.

The picture is always the same: five gorgeous young Latina or Hispanic women engaged in a sort of cluster mind-fuck of hugging, fondling, kissing, smoldering glances, seductive smiles, whispering — notice that the structure of the image is almost a perfect right triangle; could Caravaggio have planned it any better? — while three hold flutes of “Fragoli Passion,” a cocktail composed of Fragoli and Passionné in a 1 to 4 proportion. The motto is also consistent: “Forbidden Fruit.”

What in the name of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas is going on here?

I wonder every time I see this ad who the target audience is. Latina lesbians would be a pretty small demographic niche (unless I am ill-informed), and the portion of citizens of the United States who wish they were Latina lesbians, media cool and sexy as that category may be — and si, amigos, these babes are hot — must also be pretty darned narrow. There’s always the group of men who are turned on by the idea or implication of lesbian romance, but these products are relentlessly girly, though you gotta watch that 24 percent alcohol in Fragoli, not that these women don’t know how to hold their liquor, I’m not saying that.

It seems odd, however, in a culture where old-fashioned, hostile and morally judgmental attitudes about same-sex love and marriage are changing, ever so gradually to be sure, to base a long-running marketing campaign on the notion that lesbian relationships are titillating and “forbidden.” Most lesbian women and gay men are like most heterosexual men and women in that they all share a desire for love and commitment, for legal recognition and security. I mean, are the white middle-class foodie-types who read Food & Wine or Bon Appetit going to look at this ad and say, “Whoa, honey, this Fragoli stuff could change our lives!”

The concept of decadence projected by the image in the Fragoli and Passionné ads is hopelessly out of date, except in the minds and stunted imaginations of 15-year-old boys — meaning 98 percent of all male human beings — who read too much H. Rider Haggard and William S. Burroughs. (That’s a literary joke, of course; no 15-year-old boys read H. Rider Haggard or William S. Burroughs nowadays; perhaps if someone made a video game of Naked Lunch …) A YouTube segment devoted to Fragoli is titled “Sexy New Yorkers Taste Forbidden Fruit,” about as pathetic an appeal to provincial yearnings as could be made; I mean, don’t we all want to be sexy New Yorkers?

Oddly enough, passionné is the masculine form of the adjective in French that means “passionate” or “impassioned” (and a noun that denotes “devotee” or “fanatic”). Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to use the feminine passionnée?

Vine Connections of Sausalito, Ca., well-known importer of wines from Argentina, just announced that the name of one of its labels, Budini, will be changed to Bodini. Bodini, which produced its first vintage in 2002 (as Budini), produces highly-regarded wines made from chardonnay and malbec grapes. The change comes because of a threatened lawsuit from Budweiser, the ubiquitous beer manufacturer, whose cadre of attorneys apparently interpreted Budini as an Italian rip-off meaning “little Bud” or “Buddy.”

Budweiser, launched in 1876, is made by Anheuser-Busch (now known as Anheuser-Busch InBev), founded by German immigrant Adolphus Busch and his father-in-law. The company had revenue of $16.7 billion in 2007 and accounts for a 48.9 percent market share of the American beer business, producing some 11 billion cans and bottles annually. In 2008, after hostile approaches, the Brazilian-Belgian beverage giant InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion, creating the world’s largest brewer.

Bodini makes about 20,800 cases of wine each year. Current releases sell for about $13 a bottle.

In a related development, Universal Studios, owner of the rights to the ever-popular slap-stick Abbott and Costello films, announced that the first name of famed comedian Bud Abbott was being changed to “Steve.”

… including some that I should have tasted months ago or last year or maybe years ago, but the process proved interesting in some ways, disappointing in others. Since the majority of the chardonnays were produced in California, many of them, perforce, were stiff and unwieldy with oak. Well, why should I have been disappointed; too much oak, strident spice and austere finishes (or cloying buttery, creamy, tropical, dessert-like qualities) are typical in chardonnays from the Golden State. All the more reason, then, to praise the few on this roster that actually celebrate the purity and intensity of the chardonnay grape itself.

Of necessity, these reviews will be briefer than usual, and I will devote less space to the negligent wines and more space to the successes. To avoid a hierarchical scheme, the order is alphabetical. I receive at my doorstep, you will perceive, all sorts of wines in many styles and at many prices. Unless otherwise indicated, these wines were samples for review.
Alamos Chardonnay 2009, Mendoza, Argentina. This is the inexpensive line from the Catena family. Spiced apple, pineapple and grapefruit, a haze of oak; very pleasing dense, slightly chewy texture; lively acidity, a firm limestone background, essential balance. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink through the summer of 2012. Very Good. About $13, representing Good Value.
Imported by Alamos USA, Haywood, Ca. (i.e., Gallo).
Albamar “William Cole” Chardonnay 2010, Casablanca Valley, Chile. The problem with this otherwise attractive wine is that it seems in every respect more like a sauvignon blanc than a chardonnay, right down to its sauvignon blanc-like notes of leafy fig and dried thyme and tarragon. Also touches of peach and pear and roasted lemon; very dry, heaps of limestone; austere finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. Not recommended. About $11.
Global Vineyard Imports, Berkeley, Cal.
A. et P. de Villaine Les Clous Bourgogne Chardonnay 2007, Cotes Chalonnaise. About a month ago, I wrote about the A. et P. Villaine La Fortune Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2007; now comes the turn of its stablemate chardonnay, an absolutely lovely and authentic example that I wish I could have as a house wine. If I were compiling a wine list for a restaurant, I would certainly include this both by bottle and glass. Pale gold color; roasted lemon and pear, jasmine and acacia (think of some pert, astringent little white flower); earthy and minerally in the limestone and wet shale range; quite dry but juicy, almost luscious, yet superbly matched by a texture that balances spareness with a talc-like effect; all wrapped in scintillating acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. I paid about $25.
Imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, Cal. (Current release is the 09.)
Apaltagua Reserva Unoaked Chardonnay 2010, Casablanca, Chile. I don’t know how widely available this chardonnay is, but it’s worth the effort to make a search. Bright, clean, seductively fragrant; green apple, pineapple and grapefruit; honeysuckle and cloves; touch of roasted lemon and baked pear in aroma and flavor; brings in some peach; heaps of flint- and limestone-like minerality; quite dry but tasty; a lovely chardonnay with a slightly serious acid and mineral edge. 14 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $11, a Fantastic Bargain.
Global Vineyard Imports, Berkeley, Cal.
Aquinas Chardonnay 2007, Napa Valley. Obviously I forgot about this wine and allowed it to languish in the wine fridge, but boy, did I get a surprise when I tried it. Full-bodied, vibrant and resonant; spiced pineapple and grapefruit, roasted lemon; dense and chewy; good balance though the oak comes in more prominently through the finish; dry, stony. Quite attractive and drinkable. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15 (according to the tag on the bottle; website says $20. This is apparently the current release of this wine.)
From Don & Sons division of Don Sebastiani Family of Companies.
Benziger Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, Carneros. Sangiacomo is one of the most important vineyards in California; many producers have made award-winning chardonnays from its grapes, but of course what happens in the winery is beyond control of the vineyard and poor little ol’ grapes themselves. This is a big, bold, powerfully spicy and thoroughly oaked chardonnay, and the oak influence continues to gain momentum, like a force of nature, through mid-palate to finish. If all you care about is oak, you’ll like this. I don’t. 14.1 percent alcohol. Biodynamically produced. Not recommended. About $20.
Box Car Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma Coast. Pale straw color; very attractive poise and balance, moderately rich pineapple and grapefruit scents and flavors; spicy, vibrant, dense and chewy; good integration, through the wood — 10 months in French oak, 10 percent new barrels — comes through a bit on the finish. Still, it’s tasty and pleasing. 13.4 percent alcohol. 917 cases. Now through 2012. Very Good+. About $23.
B.R. Cohn Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma County; B.R. Cohn Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Carneros. The differences between these chardonnays (one from the well-known Sangiacomo Vineyard) lie in degrees of power, intensity and dimension. The 09, Sonoma County, offers a pale straw color; green apple, pineapple and grapefruit; it’s bright, ripe and spicy, with dusty limestone and damp shale and a long finish woven of ripe fruit, clean acidity and spicy oak. Eight months in French oak. 14.1 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $24. The Sangiacomo 09, on the other hand, which is barrel-fermented and matures in 100 percent new French oak, eight months, is not just bright and ripe and spicy but boldly stated and authoritatively proportioned, a true well-bred luxury item; the wine is intense and concentrated, though it greets your first sniff and sip with accommodating freshness and cleanness. Again, the oak regimen layers its effects as the wine builds, yet the balance is never compromised; in fact, the wine gets better as the minutes pass. 14.4 percent alcohol. Best from 2012 through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $35.
Winemaker is Tom Montgomery.
Bridlewood Chardonnay 2007, Monterey County. The most difficult wines to write about are the ones that are just fine, thank you v. much, that are completely O.K. and fairly pleasant in every sense but not memorable. So, the Bridlewood Chardonnay 2007 — it’s a Gallo label — offers interesting notes of pear and quince, cloves and yellow plums; the balance is nicely maintained; there’s a slightly chewy, slightly dusty texture and heaps of limestone on the very dry, almost austere finish. Oak and stainless steel fermentation and aging. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $15.
Winemaker is David Hopkins.
Coppo Costebianche Chardonnay 2007, Piemonte. What happened here? The 08 version of this wine has been released, but there’s no reason why the 07 shouldn’t be, well, maybe not as fresh as a daisy but certainly attractive and nicely developed. Instead, this is all buttered toast, toffee, burnt orange, burnt match, sherry-like and very dry. Bad storage? Bad shipment? Or a wine that contravenes everything that I believe proper about making chardonnays? 12 percent alcohol. Not recommended. About $20.
Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Ca. (My previous and more approving post on Coppo’s Barbera d’Asti wines and a Barolo is here.)
Davis Bynum Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley. In chapter and verse, in song and refrain, this excessively spicy chardonnay is about oak, oak and more oak. Eleven months in French barrels, 70 percent malolactic fermentation. Winemaker was Gary Patzwald. It doesn’t help that the alcohol level is 14.9/15 percent alcohol. Not recommended. About $25.
Franciscan Estate Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley. Toasty, buttery, cinnamon and cloves, spicy and roasted fruit aromas; very dry; tons of oak, almost fruitless in mouth, unbalanced. Seven months in French and American oak, 20 percent new barrels; that doesn’t sound like much exposure to wood, but this came out wrong. 13.5 percent alcohol. Not recommended. About $18.
Winemaker was Janet Myers. Franciscan is owned by Constellation Brands.
Forest Ville Chardonnay 2008, California. (A Bronco label) Bright, clean, fresh; apples, pineapple and grapefruit; pear and melon flavors, a bit of grapefruit on the finish; well-balanced, ripe, tasty, slightly floral. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good, and a Terrific Bargain at about $6.
Glen Carlou Chardonnay 2009, Paarl, South Africa. You feel the pull of the oak in this bright, bold, resonant chardonnay, but its baked pear, spiced pineapple and hazelnut scents and flavors are pretty engaging, balanced by vibrant acidity and an almost lacy sense of limestone minerality. 10 months in French oak, 30 percent new. 14 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $16.
The Hess Collection New World Wines, Napa Ca.
Gloria Ferrer Chardonnay 2007, Carneros. This estate-grown and bottled chardonnay may be 3 and a half years old, but it feels as bright and radiant as the day it was made. It takes oak to the edge for my palate, yet the buttered toast, pear compote and smoky pineapple elements are nicely balanced by a prominent limestone quality and scintillating acidity. Suave and sophisticated. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18 to $20.
Haywood Estate Los Chamizal Chardonnay 2008, Sonoma Valley. Peter Haywood’s wines are never shy, and this chardonnay is no exception. Serious structure, dense, chewy; builds layers of dimension and detail, all manner of ripeness and boldly spicy qualities; gains power but also nuance in the glass and essential vibrancy and resonance; exquisite balance yet slightly over-the-top. Quite a performance. 14 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $28. A great choice for restaurant wine lists that specialize in a wide range of California chardonnays.
Heller Estate Chardonnay 2008, Carmel Valley. All Heller wines are certified organic and vegan (no animal products used in filtering or fining). Pure loveliness: sage and lemongrass, jasmine and honeysuckle, pineapple, grapefruit, quince, yellow plums; some time in the glass pulls up spiced peach and baked pear; vital with limestone minerality and crystalline acidity; nothing too rich or powerful though texture is fairly lush. Quite attractive, with a very dry, slightly woody finish. 12 months in French oak, 35 percent new barrels. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24. Tasted twice with consistent results.
Hook & Ladder Chardonnay 2003, Russian River Valley; Hook & Ladder “Third Alarm” Reserve Chardonnay 2003, Russian River Valley. Your eyes do not deceive you; these chardonnays are from 2003, yet the freshness, the balance are amazing. The “regular” bottling is absolutely lovely in the way that only well-made, mature chardonnays can be: smoky pears and peaches, deeply spicy, slightly honeyed yet bone-dry, touch of guava, quince and ginger, polished, supple oak, chiming acidity; authoritative yet winsome: one could mistake this for a superior Puligny-Montrachet village wine. 14.2 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $18-$20(?)The “Third Alarm” Reserve, which I assume received more oak — that’s what “reserve” tends to mean in California — does project more of a woody-dried spice character and again the spiced and macerated peaches and pears, but this is earthier, more intense and concentrated, very dry, leaning toward austerity. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $25(?)
Hook & Ladder is the winery Cecil De Loach founded after selling the De Loach winery.
J Vineyards Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley. Attractively clean, bright and fresh; vibrant and lively; seductive heft and presence; spicy pineapple-grapefruit flavors with a pronounced citrus turn and underpinnings of cloves, quince and limestone: a long spicy finish. Barrel-fermented and aged in French oak (40 percent new) with malolactic fermentation. 14.3 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $28. Tasted twice with consistent results.
Winemaker is George Bursick.
Kendall-Jackson Avant Chardonnay 2009, California. This wine is K-J’s entry into the unoaked (or “little-oaked”) segment of the market, and I immediately liked it better than the ubiquitous Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, the wine that put K-J on the map back in 1982. Fresh, crisp and clean; attractive scents and flavors of apple and mango, pineapple and grapefruit, which, in the bouquet, are woven with subtle touches of jasmine and honeysuckle. A few moments bring up nuances of almond and almond blossom; dry, stony finish has a bit of almond skin’s mild bitterness; dense, almost cloud-like texture; whole package animated by lively acidity. 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $14, representing Great Value.
1. La Crema Chardonnay 2009, Monterey; 2. La Crema Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma Coast; 3. La Crema Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley; 4. La Crema Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley. Let me say rat cheer that I’m a fan of winemaker Melissa Stackhouse’s pinot noirs (which I will mention soonishly) but not of these chardonnays, with one exception. (The winery was founded in 1979 as La Crema Vinera — how many people remember that label? — struggled financially and quality-wise for years and after a bankruptcy was purchased in 1996 by Kendall-Jackson; it is now one of the Jackson Family Wines.)
1. & 2. Though new oak is kept to a minimum, both of these wines are thoroughly oaked and woody, and the density and fairly strident character either dull or mask the fruit. Neither recommended. Each about $20.
3. La Crema Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley; big, resonant, vibrant, vital; very spicy, oak, oh yes, but held in check, allowed its own sense of deliberation; pineapple-grapefruit, ginger and quince, deeply floral and smoky; nothing tropical, nothing dessert-like; heaps of limestone and shale. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $30. But see the following:
4. What a difference from No. 3. RRV 09, cloves, cinnamon, hazelnuts; seductive powdery texture, smoky lilac and lavender; but drenched in oak; very dry, stiff, unbalanced. 14.5 percent alcohol. Wanted to like it, but couldn’t. Not recommended. About $30.
Luca Chardonnay 2008, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina. Luca is a personal project of Laura Catena, daughter of Nicolas Caterna, patriarch of the venerable Catena Zapata winery. The grapes for the Chardonnay 08 come from vineyards lying at 4,710-feet elevation; the Catenas indeed believe in high-elevation vineyards. Winemaker is Luis Reginato. The wine aged 12 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. I loved this wine; it’s like drinking limestone cliffs infused with baked pear, roasted lemon and lemon balm, all permeated by the astringent scent of some little white mountainside flowers and fashioned with impeccable elegance and elan. Production was 1,500 cases, so this is definitely Worth a Search. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $26.
Imported by Vine Connections, Sausalito, Cal.
Ministery of the Vinterior Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley. Ha ha, o.k., nice pun, though I’m not so fond of wines with punning names, still, this is an appealing chardonnay: quite dry and stony; beguiling notes of green apple, lemon and lime peel, touch of pineapple-grapefruit; snappy acidity, delicately floral; one of those wines that makes you think, “Gosh, I’m glad to be drinking this.” A first release from this winery. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
Winemaker is Daniel O’Donnell.
Moobuzz Chardonnay 2009, Monterey. 85 percent Monterey, 15 percent Clarksburg; there’s two percent viognier in the wine. Talk about punning or “fun” names! Hey, all you cows and bees! Anyway: clean, crisp and refreshing; pineapple-grapefruit, touches of lemon balm and lemon curd, very spicy; attractive, moderately lush texture cut by bright acidity; very dry finish, a bit austere. 13.5/13.8 percent alcohol (depending on if you’re reading the label or the printed matter). Four months in oak barrels. Very Good. About $15.
From The Other Guys, part of the Don Sebastiani Family of Companies. (& a very strange opening device!)
Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Chardonnay 2008 and 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands. Morgan’s Double L Vineyard is certified organic.
2009: Pale straw-gold color; bright, bold, dense, chewy; roasted lemon, baked pineapple, grapefruit, hint of peach; ginger and cloves, jasmine and camellia; oak — 10 months French barrels, 33 percent new — is supple and resonant and shapely; a powder-like texture riven by crystalline acidity; the whole thing just fucking sings of the purity and intensity of the chardonnay grape given thoughtful and gentle handling; just at the finish: a tiny fillip of buttered cinnamon toast over slate. 14.2 percent alcohol. 560 cases. Now through 2015 or ’16. Exceptional. About $36.
2008: Pineapple-grapefruit, jasmine-honeysuckle; deeply spicy, deeply flavorful; fruit is slightly creamy and roasted without being tropical or dessert-like; dense chewy almost voluptuous texture, the approximation of liquid gold, but held in check by crisp acidity; oak is ever-present — 10 months French, 30 percent new — yet as a permeable, shaping force. A fairly serious chardonnay, now through 2014 or ’15. 14.4 percent alcohol. 450 cases. Excellent. About $36.
1. Nickel & Nickel Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley, Carneros; 2. Nickel & Nickel Medina Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley; 3. Nickel & Nickel Searby Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley.
Winemaker is Darice Spinelli; director of winemaking is Dirk Hampson. The Nickel & Nickel chardonnays do not undergo malolactic fermentation.
1. First note on the N&N Truchard Chardonnay 09, “Wow, what power and elegance!” Green apple that segues to roasted lemon, lemon balm, spiced pear and peach; it’s a substantial chardonnay, no lie, fully framed and fleshed-out, yet it’s a construct of myriad delicate details; firm, supple texture; a few minutes bring in hints of cloves and allspice, with the latter’s touch of dry astringency amid the lushness of savory ripeness. Nine months in French oak, 45 percent new barrels. Pretty much a masterpiece. Excellent. About $48.

2. First note on the N&N Medina Chardonnay 2009, “Golden.” A shimmering and lustrous chardonnay that spent nine months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels; expansively floral, deeply rich and spicy without being strident or cloying, in fact the lushness of savory, slightly roasted stone fruit and pineapple-grapefruit flavors is almost rigorously tempered by the spare elegance of bright acidity and limestone-like minerality. Frankly beautiful. 14.6 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Production was 1,093. Exceptional. About $48.

3. The N&N Searby Chardonnay 08 aged nine months in French oak, 51 percent new barrels. The vineyard was planted in 1972. Big, rich, bright and bold, but not brassy or obstreperous; firm, suave, supple and silky, frankly gorgeous; apple-pineapple-grapefruit with hints of fig, cloves, ginger and slightly creamy quince; touch of honeysuckle; deeply permeated by spice; lovely talc-like texture enlivened by crisp acidity and a monumental limestone element. Now through 2015 or ’16 (well-stored). 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 1,986 cases. Excellent. About $45.
Picket Fence Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley. The last time I wrote about Picket Fence, it was a new endeavor one of whose partners was Don Van Staaveren, formerly winemaker at Chateau St. Jean and creator of that winery’s fabulously successful Cinq Cepages Cabernet Sauvignon 1996. Now Picket Fence is a brand owned by Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co.; the wheels in California grind pretty damned quickly and exceedingly fine. This chardonnay is clean and fresh, modestly appealing but mainly generic and pedestrian; it also displays a bit more oak than it needs. 13.5 percent alcohol. Good. About $15.
Plantagenent Chardonnay 2008, Great Southern, Western Australia. What a sweetheart of a chardonnay! Clean and fresh with bright acidity; a sense of earthy integrity and authority while offering nicely poised delicacy and deliciousness; mouth-filling, balanced and integrated with a strain of spare and lithe elegance; jasmine and peach and pear; heaps of limestone with a touch of grapefruit on the finish and a hint of buttered cinnamon toast. Nine months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels; no malolactic. 14 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $21, Good Value for the Price.
Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa Cal. Winemaker is John Durham.
Renaissance Chardonnay 2006, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills. Medium straw-gold color with a green glimmer; spiced and macerated peach and pear, baked pineapple and grapefruit, ginger and quine; dry, stony, woody spice (a sort of blondness); quite earthy, lithe and sinewy; lilac and camellia; after 30 minutes slightly peppery and herbal; suave and sleek yet elemental and authoritative. Aged nine months in new and 1- and 2-year old barrels. Another individually-styled wine from Gideon Beinstock. 13.6 percent alcohol. Production was 81 cases. Excellent. About $35.
Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma County. Longtime winemaker Rick Sayre crafts a well-made, middle-of-the-road chardonnay that’s fresh and lively, with apple-lemon scents and pineapple-grapefruit flavors that feel like a clarion-call for perfect ripeness and luscious stone-fruit flavors bolstered by lively acidity, undertones of polished oak and a burnished limestone element. Low-key but classic. Sixty percent barrel-fermented, 40 percent in stainless steel; the barrel-fermented portion ages four months in French and American oak. The winery is “carbon-neutral, solar powered, sustainably farmed.” 13.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $13.50, representing Good Value.
Sanford Chardonnay 2008, Santa Barbara County. While I am an admirer of Sanford’s pinot noirs, I found this chardonnay to be stern and stiff, drenched with oak, with emphasis on strident spice and cloying toffee and caramel elements. 14.5 percent alcohol. The materials here are great; the grapes derive from some of the best vineyards for chardonnay (and pinot noir) in the Sta. Rita Hills — La Rinconada and Sanford & Benedict — and Sta. Maria Valley — Bien Nacido and El Camino. The wine is barrel-fermented, spends eight months in 20 percent new French oak barrels, and undergoes full malolactic fermentation. Not recommended. About $22.
Simi Chardonnay 2008, Sonoma County. Very dry, austere, woody. 85 percent barrel-fermented; 6 months in 25 percent new oak. Not recommended. About $18.
Simi, a venerable winery founded in 1867, is owned by Constellation Brands.
Spelletich Cellars Chardonnay 2007, Napa Valley. This small family winery was launched in 1994 by Timothy Spelletich and his wife, winemaker Barb Spelletich. The material I received with a sample of their wines mentions “minimal intervention” and “when to pull the wine off the oak to pursue something larger and more elusive than your ordinary wine.” Sorry, but I don’t buy those principles, not when this chardonnay went through barrel-fermentation and aged sur lie 18 months — yes, 18 months for a chardonnay! — in French and Hungarian oak. Not much of the grape could survive that manipulation. The wine is bright, bold, spicy, tropical; oily and viscous in texture; very spicy (I say again), very toasty, very ripe to the point of being over-ripe, with baked pineapple and grapefruit, guava and mango, cloves and buttered cinnamon toast; very dense and chewy, almost powdery; where’s the acidity? I find this sort of chardonnay intolerable. 14 percent alcohol. 336 cases. Not recommended. About $27.
Trefethen Chardonnay 2007, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. A model of classic balance and integration; very pure, very intense and drinking perfectly now at three and a half years old (the current release in 09); you feel the oak at its inextricable framing and foundational purpose but never at the expense of fruit and a suave, silky and lively texture; the chiming acidity and scintillating limestone elements are not only essential but exciting. If you can find some bottles (or a case) drink now through 2014 or ’15, well-stored. Eight months in French oak. 14.1 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $30.
Director of viticulture and winemaking is Jon Ruel; winemaker is Zeke Neeley.
Windsor Sonoma Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley. A large-framed chardonnay, stones and bones, bright, bold and a little brassy with tasty ripe pineapple-grapefruit flavors holding shades of stone-fruit, cloves and cinnamon; fairly dense texture packed with supple oak, crisp acidity and burgeoning limestone minerality. Indigenous yeast; 10 months in French oak, 50 percent new. Could go through 2012 or ’13. Alcohol is 13.5 percent. Very Good+. About $20.
X Winery Chardonnay 2009, Carneros. Two vineyards: 60 percent Sangiacomo, 40 percent Truchard. Bold, bright, full-bodied; smoky spicy pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors; vibrant, resonant, sleek and supple, feels crisp, lively and moderately lush; earthy with hints of mushrooms and limestone; oak comes out more on the finish — 8 months in a combination of 90 percent French, 10 percent American oak — but the wine is well-balanced and integrated. 14.5 percent alcohol. (Bottled w/ a screw-cap.) Excellent. About $25.
Winemakers are Reed Renaudin & Gina Richmond.

The label of the Juane Serra Cristalino Brut, a 10-dollar CAVA sparkling wine from Spain, carries this disclaimer: “JAUME SERRA CRISTALINO is not affiliated with, sponsored by, approved by, endorsed by, or in any way connected to Louis Roederer’s CRISTAL™ champagne or Louis Roederer.”

Not meaning to be a total asshole or anything, but would anyone with even a modicum of sanity think that these products, which stare at each other across a vast abyss of intentionality, taste and expense, have the slightest connection to each other? To refresh your enfeebled memories — it’s the end of a very long week, right? — Louis Roederer Cristal is one of the grandest of the grand cuvee champagnes, served in the hallowed temples of cuisine and beloved by hip-hop artists who splash it around their hotel rooms or the interiors of their Escalades with gleeful prodigality. Retail prices for Cristal range from about $200 to $300 a bottle; the cost in a restaurant or from room service is unimaginable. Cristalino, as I mentioned, retails for about $10 and is often discounted to $7 or $8.

It struck me that the language of the disclaimer possesses the stink of legalese, and a little research by my lovely assistant, Miss Google, proved that indeed back at the beginning of August the producer of Cristalino — J. Garcia Carrion — lost a four-year lawsuit for copyright infringement brought by Louis Roederer. (Those interested in the actual brief may read it at the Minnesota Litigator website.)

I received a bottle of Jaume Serra Cristalino yesterday by overnight delivery — my friendly UPS man said, “Wow, they really wanted you to have this in a hurry!” — along with related press and technical matter. The letter from the importer, CIV (USA) in Sacramento, begins thus: “Hello, I’d like to share with you some exciting news about Jaume Serra Cristalino, … [which] has an entirely new look this year for the Brut, Vintage Brut, Rose Brut and Extra Dry sparkling wines that are now in the U.S.” I suppose I can’t blame the company for not adding “and the reason we have an entirely new look is because we suffered a humiliating loss in a lawsuit brought against us for copyright infringement.” The company was required to change everything about the label: color, typography, font, devices, the whole shebang. You can see in the photo I took of the lower half of the new label that “Jaume Serra” now gets top billing over “Cristalino.”

Will the litigation, the negative ruling and the radical change of label hurt sales of Cristalino? Naw. Remember the mantra of the old-time Hollywood agent: “All publicity is good publicity.” The CAVA has been marketed in the U.S. since 1989 and by 1997 was selling about 400,000 bottles a year. More recent figures are not available, but anecdotally Cristalino is the country’s top-selling CAVA; I would be happy to receive more exact information. In any case, it’s hardly surprising that sales of Cristalino “exceed sales of Cristal,” as the lawsuit ruefully puts it — like boo-hoo — as if a sparkling wine that consumers could purchase by the case for as little as something like $84 wouldn’t outsell a luxury Champagne that could cost $2,400 a case, if you could find one. We’re talking completely different worlds here, and they not only weren’t separated at birth, they weren’t born in the same hospital.

My initial impression of the Jaume Serra Cristalino was a bit negative because the bubbles are rather large and flabby, but the steely, limestone-tinged bouquet drew me in with its hints of lemon, lime and grapefruit, its slightly nutty and yeasty character. This sparkling wine, made in the traditional champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, is quite crisp and lively, and it’s that factor that makes Cristalino so fresh and engaging. It’s a blend of the typical grapes of the Penedes region, 50 percent macabeo, 35 percent parellada and 15 percent xarel-lo. Buy by the case for parties and receptions. 11.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $10 and often found two or three dollars cheaper.

One tries to cultivate a thick-skin in the business of journalism, especially in the segment devoted to reviewing and criticizing. Believe me, in several decades of reviewing books, wine, art, restaurants, classical CDs, movies and other cultural forms, I’ve had the equivalent of a box-load of dead cats flung at my head, including — regarding a negative restaurant review — a death threat that the newspaper I formerly worked for took seriously enough to provide me with security. (Those were the days!) Still, it rankled my pointy little head to receive the following comment in response to a post on this blog, on May 19, about Kendall-Jackson’s proliferating range of brands and labels:

“I know it’s just a small factual detail (never let the facts interrupt a good story) but Kendall-Jackson is not a company. It doesn’t own anything. Kendall-Jackson is a brand with its own winemakers, etc. just like the other wineries you mentioned. A minor point to you, no doubt, but when assuming the role of informing the public, it is sometimes reassuring to know that the writer has a basic knowledge of the subject.”

This comment came from Hugh Green and it was posted on Sept. 15; I stumbled on it a few days ago.

Apparently, this sentence from that post contained the offending word:

“Though at 5.5 million cases a year in 2009 (according to San Francisco Business Times), K-J doesn’t compete with Diageo, Gallo, The Wine Group or Constellation, the company makes and sells a hell of a lot of wine.”

All right, let’s start at the most basic level. The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition (2005) offers its first definition of “company” as “a commercial business.” Kendall-Jackson — or any other winery or producer, large or small — is certainly that. However they might market the image of wine country, the wine life, elegance, sophistication, connection with nature, hands-on craftsmanship, wineries are in the business of selling wine; if they don’t perform that function, they don’t survive.

On the issue of Kendall-Jackson not owning anything, the point on which Green thinks I have erred so drastically that I have betrayed the trust of my readers, he’s wrong. Soon after the winery produced its first vintage in 1982, owner Jess Jackson started acquiring properties. In 1988, for example, he bought Edmeades Vineyards in Mendocino. In 1994, he purchased Robert Pepi, the winery and vineyards. (Pepi cannot use his name on labels now and makes cabernets under his Eponymous label.) The year 2006 saw Jackson in high acquisition mode; within two months that summer, he took in Robert Pecota and Murphy-Goode and then for $97 million purchased Legacy Estates, which owned Freemark Abbey, Arrowood and Byron, a purchase that included winery facilities, brands, inventory and vineyards, all of these brought under the Kendall-Jackson umbrella. Altogether, Kendall-Jackson owns about 14,000 aces in California. This list is just a selection of Kendall-Jackson’s acquisitions over 25 years and does not include properties in Italy, Chile and Argentina.

A company, however, doesn’t have to “own” anything. Many companies provide services. In fact, these days, a company can consist of nothing more than a person in a room with a computer. Even I could be a company except for the fact that this “commercial business” doesn’t make any, you know, money.

I won’t say that great pinot noir can only be made in Burgundy nor will I assert that a strict Burgundian interpretation of the grape is the only legitimate course to follow. Yet there is a greatness and fineness about the best models of the pinot noir grape from the Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy that examples produced in other parts of the world seldom achieve. Still, who would decry the fresh, pale, astringent pinot noirs of the Jura mountains, or the uniquely rooty, earthy pinots of Oregon’s Dundee Hills or the bright, fruity pinots of Carneros? One of the most transcendent pinot noirs I have ever tasted hailed from Tasmania. Obviously we must allow room for variation and individual style, yet most important is the notion that place matters; geography, friends, is a dear teacher, and whether in warfare or winemaking only fools will fail to pay heed to its lessons.

The responsibility of the winemaker is to produce a wine that exploits the grape’s best and most expressive character. The first exercise of that responsibility lies in planting grapes in the right location. Soil composition, sub-soil, underlying strata; the folds in hillsides, exposure to the sun and its duration, the ability of the ground to absorb or shed rainwater; the direction of prevailing winds and their distant source; the seasonal range of temperatures throughout the day and night; all of these factors and more coalesce in that precisely measurable yet somehow mysterious notion we call microclimate or terroir. Five hundred years have proven that a group of lamentably tiny vineyards in central-eastern France form the perfect terroir for the pinot noir grape, but that fact will not hinder prophets and pioneers from seeking a similar salubrious combination of effects elsewhere in the world.

The winemaker’s next responsibility is to allow a grape variety to seek its most natural level of eloquence; such a wine must be made without ego or agenda. Excellent grapes picked from a great vineyard need little help in accomplishing this goal, yet winemakers are an interfering lot. All details and variations of place and year aside, the pinot noir grape does not express itself best when the alcohol level is high, when the grapes are extremely ripe, when through deep extraction and oak aging the winemaker tries for size, voluptuousness and power. Let me state my feeling clearly: A pinot noir wine that, because of its size, its extraction, its power, reminds the taster, even in part or in passing, of, say, a syrah or a zinfandel, is a flawed wine, is, frankly, a failure, and it has been made in bad faith. The compact was been broken between the winemaker and the grape, and the wine amounts to an act of betrayal. I’m not saying that a pinot forced into larger-than-life dimension could not be enjoyable, match well with certain foods and so forth; I’m saying that it’s not pinot noir, and you might as well be drinking something else.

Over the past two or three weeks, I tasted 30 to 35 pinot noir wines from various regions of California; all are from vintages 2007 and 2008. I present my findings in a three-part series beginning today. A few of the examples displayed exactly what lovers of the pinot noir grape hope for, that ineffable marriage of delicacy, elegance, earthiness and authority that no other grape can offer in the same balance or proportion. More, however, and sadly, seemed heavy-handed, over-wrought, stridently-oaked and burdened with alcohol. Of course the pinot noir grape is not alone in such misfortune.

Image of pinot noir grapes from bighandsome.com.

Benovia Winery was founded in 2005 by Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane, with winemaker Mike Sullivan as co-owner. The wines produced are chardonnay and zinfandel and a variety of single vineyard or proprietary pinot noirs. New French oak ranges from 53 to 60 percent; fermentation is induced by indigenous yeast.

The Benovia Savoy Vineyards Pinot Noir 2006, Anderson Valley, is pure and intense, rooty, loamy and minerally in the graphite sense. Scents and flavors of macerated black cherries, currants and plums are full-blown and spicy, yet the wine retains a tinge of reticence and austerity. Ten or 15 minutes in the glass bring out hints of pert cranberry and mulberry and burgeoning spice, but you feel the oak too, a tide that pushes against the swathing of fruit. The “Savoy” is the most sinewy, the most powerfully structured of this trio. 14.1 percent alcohol. 372 cases. Excellent. About $58.

The Benovia Cohn Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Sonoma County, is a little warmer, a little spicier and certainly more exotic, with notes of sassafras, sandalwood and cloves. The texture is satiny, almost plush, but with a backbone of rigorous acidity and shale-like minerality. The black fruit flavors become rather marinated and roasted and hints of rhubarb and fruit cake seep in. Again, one feels the oak from mid-palate back, drying the finish. 14.4 percent alcohol. 372 cases. Very Good+. About $58.

One notices immediately that the warmest, the most generous and multi-dimensional of these pinot noirs is the Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, for which grapes are drawn from the Martinelli, Dutton and Manzana vineyards. The wine is also the earthiest, with layers of a moss-like Oolong tea, and traces of tobacco leaf and sandalwood. This is frankly a big mouthful of pinot noir, and fortunately it possesses a core of delicately wrought black fruit flavors to play against the forceful oak and tannic structure, offering convincing balance. 14.5 percent alcohol. 195 cases. Excellent. About $58.

Samples for review.

Davis Bynum, who could be counted among the Sonoma County pioneers, founded his winery in 1975, concentrating on chardonnay, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. Well-known winemaker Gary Farrell came aboard in 1986 to bring some steadiness to the label, before starting his own winery. The label is now owned by Tom Klein and is part of Rodney Strong Wine Estates. Winemaker is Gary Patzwald, for whom 2007 was the first vintage.

Fine so far, I suppose, but I have to say that the Davis Bynum Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, is one of the most un-pinot-like pinot noirs I have experienced, and I have to wonder what good ol’ Davis Bynum, with his label in other hands, thinks of it. The color is a deeply extracted dark ruby-plum hue; aromas of plum and black cherry, fruit cake, lavender and rose petal (some dark, heady damask-like rose) seethe in the glass in a promiscuous smoky, fleshy welter. The wine is dense, succulent, almost viscous, and the intense ripeness pushes the fruit toward boysenberry, just as the 14.9 percent alcohol shoulders through the finish as a kind of sweet heat. Is it zinfandel? Is it shee-razz? The grapes, we’re told, are pinot noir, but the effect is bizarre. Not for this boy. About $35.

A sample for review.

Donum Estate occupies the former Tula Vista Ranch in Carneros, which the Racke family held onto after selling the Buena Vista Carneros Winery to Allied Domecq in 2001. Buena Vista traced its origin to 1857, when it was founded by the Sonoma County wine pioneer, Count Agoston Haraszthy, so even peripherally, there’s a lot of history here. President of Donum is Anne Moller-Racke, who came to California from Germany in 1981 and by 1997 was vice president of vineyard operations for Buena Vista; Moller-Racke is highly regarded as a grower, and her experience with the vineyards from which Donum draws its estate grapes goes back 20 and 30 years. I understand how meticulously the estate is run, how thoughtful and careful the vineyard practices are; I comprehend the innumerable questions and details that Moller-Racke and winemaker Kenneth Juhasz address in trying to achieve what the winery’s website calls “the purest possible expression of site and vintage.” So why do I find this trio of pinot noirs not thrilling? These are large-framed, packed-in pinot noirs, very Californian in tone and presence, and there’s nothing wrong with that nature, necessarily — all pinot doesn’t have to be Volnay or Chambolle-Musigny –but the persistent presence of new French oak in these wines is distracting, distancing and, particularly in one case, unbalancing.

The color of the Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Carneros, is medium-darkish ruby. Scents of black and red cherries and cloves with a touch of cola and rhubarb burst from the glass in a welter of macerated and slightly roasted fleshiness; this is heady stuff, indeed. The spicy black and red fruit character continues seamlessly through the mouth, ensconced in a satiny texture that flows smoothly and lushly across the palate; the wine is substantial, even weighty for the pinot noir grape, and you feel the pull of the oak — 11 months, 70 percent new barrels — as it takes over the finish. 14.4 percent alcohol. 800 cases. Very Good+. About $65.

Even more seductive and exotic is the bouquet of the Donum Estates West Slope Pinot Noir 2007, Carneros, a seething cauldron of red currants and black cherries, sandalwood and ashes of roses, lavender, rhubarb, sassafras and smoky Oolong tea, like some hippie cologne concocted in Kathmandu. The wine is smooth, silky, plush, dense and dusty with moderately chewy tannins and a touch of slate; altogether, it takes the grape’s sensuous possibilities almost to the limit, that is to say, almost beyond a sense of natural pinot noir-ness. In quite a feat, Moller-Racke and Juhasz pulled off a minor miracle by putting the wine through 16 months in French oak, 70 percent new barrels, and not overwhelming the wine (and its drinkers) with too much wood. Try through 2013 to ’14. Alcohol content is 14.4 percent. 150 cases. A grudging Excellent. About $70.

Beyond the pale for this palate, however, is the Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, a wine that opens with sweet succulence and quickly proceeds to display the tangible panoply of its oaken arsenal. The regimen was 11 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels; the result is very foresty, very briery, with dry woody spice and dusty austerity. Where’s the fruit? 14.4 percent alcohol. 500 cases. Not recommended. About $65.

Samples for review.

In 1998, Bill Foley, who has deep pockets, founded his winery in the Santa Rita Hills, a sliver of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley. Not long afterward, he swung into acquisition mode, and now Foley Wines owns 16 wineries or labels, including the venerable Firestone and, as of December 2008, the even more venerable Sebastiani. The Foley label itself focuses on chardonnay and pinot noir from the estate’s Rancho Santa Rosa vineyard. Winemaker is Kris Curran, who before she came to Foley established the very successful pinot noir program at Sea Smoke Cellars.

Lord have mercy, the Foley Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Rita Hills, is lovely. Despite 16 months in French oak, the wine is a model of subtlety, poise and elegance. Poignant aromas of red and black currants and cherries are married to piercing slate-like minerality and a wafting of cloves and the slight asperity of allspice. As is the case in great pinot noir, slashing acidity cuts a swath on the palate, so the wine’s luxurious satiny texture does not overwhelm or turn into exaggeration; the wine is so fresh that even the spare tannins feel clean and wholesome. The bouquet’s heady perfume increases as the moments pass, while the ripe black and red fruit flavors deepen and darken. A wonderful amalgam of grace and authority; close to perfection. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink through 2012 to ’14. Excellent. About $40, but prices on the Internet can be as low as $32.

Tasted at a trade event.
Rich Frank — no pun intended — sough relief from the stress of the Hollywood media industry by buying a house in Napa Valley in 1990. He had been chairman of Disney’s television and telecommunications division and president of Walt Disney Studios. In 1992, he and a partner — subsequently bought out — purchased the defunct Kornell Champagne Cellars on the old Larkmead Winery near Calistoga. Larkmead had been established in 1884. Frank Family Vineyards concentrates on chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, and though I have liked the cabernets and chardonnays, I have found the zinfandel overbearing. The pinot noir discussed today is the first pinot that the winery has released for national distribution; a Reserve Pinot Noir is sold only in the tasting room. Winemaker is Todd Graff.

The Frank Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2008, Napa Valley-Carneros, is one big snootful and mouthful of pinot noir. Scents of red and black cherries and plums are dominated by ripe, earthy, fleshy elements and by piercing slate-like minerality and spicy oak. The treatment is entirely reasonable — 11 months in French barrels, 25 percent new, 75 percent one- and two-years-old — yet wood pervades every aspect of the wine, building from mid-palate back through the finish and providing, paradoxically, a sort of robust balance between voluptuousness and austerity. A few more details emerge in hints of cherry cola and briers, rose petals and licorice, but this is a wine primarily dominated by structure. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 954 cases. Very Good+. About $35.

A sample for review.

The Gainey family hails from Minnesota, where they built Josten Inc., a company devoted to academic and athletic products and services, into a Fortune 500 company, while, at the same time, dedicating their lives to the raising of Arabian horses. That avocation brought them to the Southwest and then to Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley, where Daniel J. Gainey, son of the family patriarch, in 1962 purchased 1,800 acres of farmland and open range. Grapevines came later, and in 1984 Gainey Vineyards released its first wines. The ranch is the largest diversified farming operation in Santa Ynez Valley, with 1000 acres for cattle, 600 for organically cultivated farmland, 100 acres for horses and 100 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards. Winemakers are Kirby Anderson and Jon Engelskiger.

The Gainey Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Rita Hills, offers lovely balance and integration, with delicately wreathed notes of smoky black cherry, red currants and plums, touches of orange zest and lapsang souchang tea and an intriguing back-tone of spiced apple. The wine drapes the mouth like satin, and then pulls out the panoply of dried baking spices and subtle hints of blueberry, cranberry and dried currants. A modicum of briers and brambles testifies to the presence of firm but unobtrusive tannins, while the oak influence, probably inescapable after 16 months in French barrels, 30 percent new, hews a dry, slightly woody path through the finish. I personally would rather see a tad less oak on the finish, but this is by and large a very warm and appealing pinot noir. Alcohol is 13.9 percent. production was 450 cases. Excellent. About $32.

A sample for review.
In Part II of this post about California pinot noir, I’ll review wines from Hahn and Hahn SLH Estate, three pinots from La Crema from 2008, two single-vineyard pinots from Lucienne (2007), three from MacMurray Ranch and the Meiomi 2008 from Belle Glos.

July 14 being Bastille Day, we went out to eat steak frites. Completely logical, mais non? Somewhat illogically, the restaurant which we went to, while having a French chef and serving mainly Euro/bistro-style fare, features almost all California wines on its list. The chef told me, in an interview at the beginning of this year, that he would like to have French wines on the list but that he couldn’t afford them. The thought-cloud hovering over my head pleaded, “Let me do your list!” Anyway, that’s not the point.

We ordered our steak frites and two glasses of Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel 2008. Our waiter was a cheery, eager young woman, what my mother would have called “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” an expression that always puzzled me when I was a child; I got the bright-eyed part, but bushy-tailed? Was she talking about squirrels? The waiter brought the glasses of wine, and here’s where the problem started. Now I haven’t tasted a Lyttons Spring Zinfandel in a while, but over the years I have tasted and consumed many examples of the zinfandel wines, including Lytton Springs, that emerge from the Ridge winery. After a few sniffs and sips of this wine, I was convinced that, unless Paul Draper and the team at Ridge have completely changed the philosophy and methodology of their decades-old practice, this was not a Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel. What I was smelling and tasting seemed to be the super-ripe snap and spicy toasty overlay of an over-oaked merlot or cabernet sauvigon.

Of course I couldn’t prove my theory because, as happens in about 95 percent of the cases when one orders wine by the glass in a restaurant, we didn’t see the bottle from which the wine was poured. I could have asked the waiter to bring us the bottle but we have to remember that it’s usually not the waiter who pours the glass of wine, it’s the bartender. So the waiter could have been completely innocent.

So, we chowed down on our delicious, medium-rare strip steaks and terrific frites and so forth and mutely drank the wine. The waiter came back to the table after a while and asked if we would like another glass, and LL said yes she would and I said no, not for me, but I reminded her that we were drinking the Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, and she was like, well, yeah, duh, of course. Still, the waiter misunderstood and brought two glasses anyway, and I thought, swell, O.K., this will give me a chance to compare the wines, but before I could say, whoop-de-doo — and I have never seen this before in a restaurant but perhaps I live a protected life — she took the old glasses and poured the remaining wine in them into the new glasses of wine. So much for comparison.

Here’s the point.

Anything that happens to the wine that diners order in a restaurant, whether full bottle or by-the-glass, should happen in front of the customer. A bottle of wine, it should go without saying, should be opened at the table. Is the wine a precious bottle that the wine steward or sommelier thinks he or she should taste to see if it’s up to standard? All right, fine, but only with the permission of the diner and done at the table. Does an older wine need to be decanted? Sure, go ahead, but decant the wine at the table or at a nearby waiters’ station in view of the patron. And if wine is ordered by the glass, the waiter or wine steward should bring the bottle to the table and pour the glasses right there in front of the customers.

Such transparency can only promote the sense of goodwill and trust that form the bedrock of excellent service.

July 4 is our country’s Independence Day. How about on July 5, we declare independence from oak.

Yesterday, as befits a patriotic mood, I made a tomato salsa and then fired up the old Weber and grilled some split-open bratwurst and wedges of baguette; LL made potato salad. Voila! A very nice Fourth of July supper, which we ate on the back porch with the increasing sounds of firecrackers and the distant dull boom of pyrotechnics burgeoning round about; and the dogs exhibiting nervous jitters by twitching ears and soulful restlessness.

In sly-boots mode, I opened a bottle of The Federalist Zinfandel 2007, Dry Creek Valley, which bears, as you can see, the familiar visage of Alexander Hamilton from the U.S. $10-bill, based on the portrait executed by John Trumbull in 1805, except that on this label the figure faces to the right instead of to the left, as it does on the good old sawbuck.

Someone writes on the back label: “As leader of he Federalist party in the late 1700s, Alexander Hamilton was also a founding father and ally of the Declaration of Independence,” which is rather like saying that Benjamin Franklin was an ally of electricity, but what one must vehemently take issue with is this statement: “Around the same time, the roots of Zinfandel were beginning to grow and expand out of Europe and into the U.S.” Similarly, the wine’s website says: “The History of Zinfandel dates back to the 1700s, when farmers in the northeastern United States attempted to cultivate this as yet unknown varietal.”

Bad history, class, produces bad karma, just as lazy logic proceeds to ignorance.

In the excellent and highly readable Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine (University of California Press, 2003), Charles L. Sullivan documented with meticulous research the zinfandel grape’s entrance into the New World in a batch of cuttings sent in the late 1820s or early 1830s from Vienna to George Gibbs of Long island, an amateur and fairly obsessive horticulturist, and from his care to Boston. These grapes, under the name “zinfindal,” became popular in Boston in the 1830s and ’40s for hot-house growing as table grapes. They were not intended as wine grapes because two centuries of experience had taught the colonists and recent Americans that the climate of New England was not amenable for European (vinifera) grapes in a vineyard setting. All of this took place some 20 or 30 years after Hamilton died on July 12, 1804, from wounds inflicted by Aaron Burr in their famous duel, not in “the 1700s.”

Another misleading statement on the back label is this: “Our Dry Creek estate-grown Federalist Zinfandel is hand crafted to bring out the true individuality of the Zinfandel grape.” If only that were true, or, at least, if only it had worked out that way, because in fashioning this wine, its makers succeeded primarily in bringing out the toasty, spicy, deeply vanilla-tinged aspects of oak barrels. I kept looking for, hoping for, some element, some feature that would relate the Federalist Zinfandel 2007 to the character of its grape, to zinfandel’s innate briery currant and brambly plum scents and flavors, to its peppery flair, but no, the wine continued to express its oak-infused personality, making it just like scores, if not hundreds, of other indistinguishable red wines from California, enjoyable perhaps, if you don’t mind that spicy vanilla, but inauthentic. 14.2 percent alcohol. 2,570 cases. Very Good. About $25.

A sample for review.

So I open this nifty bottle of $20 cabernet from, say, Napa Valley and, let’s see, the alcohol is 14.5 to 15 percent, it has dollops of merlot and cabernet franc and a touch of syrah — people are so clever nowadays! — it smells like vanilla-laced, toasty oak and cassis and, you know, it’s fine, just fine, but nothing very special or exciting. But, hey, we’re just talking about 20 bucks, so do we care?

Then I open this bottle of cabernet that costs $45 or $60 or $75 from, oh, just about anywhere but let’s say Tuscany, and the alcohol is 14.5 to 15 percent, it has dollops of merlot and cabernet franc and a touch of syrah — people are so clever nowadays! — it smells like vanilla-laced, toasty oak and cassis and, you know, it’s fine, just fine, but nothing very special or exciting. And, come on, we’re talking real money here, wine-wise.

I’m so tired of this crapola. I just want to pour out these damned wines. I’m tired of interchangeable cabernet-based wines that could have been made in Napa or Sonoma, Tuscany or Piedmont, Barossa or Coonawarra, Rapel or Mendoza or Walla Walla because they all look and smell and taste and feel the same. Lord, I’m so weary of carefully-calibrated, committee-made cabernets that toe the line of all the popular, 95-point conventions and cliches. Have mercy, I’m exhausted by the sleek, slick debut cabernets that cost $75 or $100 a bottle right out of the starting gate, with no track record except the promise of a winemaker’s name. Criminy, I’m sick unto death of the press releases that inform me in exalted, ecstatic tones of the owner’s vision and the winemaker’s passion and the integrity of the land and the absolute sustainable architectural treasureness of the winery.

And speaking of the integrity of the land, the notion of terroir and single-vineyard wines don’t matter a rat’s ass when the finished wine is sodden with oak and hot with alcohol. Don’t spin me the hype of how important yer little microclimate and soil and organic philosophy and vineyard practices are (not to mention all that vision and passion) when you clobber the wine with wood and eradicate any terroir-like character it might have had. What a waste!

So stop it. Right now.

Broken wine glass image from apartmenttherapy.com.

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