The first vintage of Steelhead was released in 2002. The label was founded by Quivira Vineyards to benefit Trout Unlimited and the restoration of Wine Creek, a tributary of Dry Creek, in a partnership with governmental, educational and non-profit organizations. Dan and Katy Leese and their partner Pete Kight, owner of Quivira, launched their company V2 Wine Group in 2010 with the acquisition of Steelhead, making it a stand-alone winery. Proceeds from the sale of Steelhead wines still help to fund the conservation work of Trout Unlimited. The winemaking staff at Quivira, which includes Hugh Chappelle and Greg La Follette, makes the wines. Production of each of this trio was 2,500 cases. These were samples for review.

The Steelhead Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Sonoma County, is made completely in stainless steel and does not go through malolactic fermentation, the result being immediate freshness and appeal. While there’s some evidence of sassy gooseberry and tarragon in the bouquet, the primary aromas are roasted lemon, baked pear, celery seed, jasmine and an intriguing touch of smoke. The sense of clean, bracing freshness extends to the mouth, aiding by invigorating acidity and limestone-like minerality that bolster tasty lemon, pear and melon flavors permeated by hints of cloves, dried thyme and newly-mown grass; in fact, the wine gets spicier the longer it stays in the glass. It lacks only some intensity that would raise my rating. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink up. Very Good. About $13, representing Good Value.

A bit more impressive than the (still quite enjoyable) Steelhead Sauvignon Blanc 2009 is the Steelhead Red 2009, Sonoma County, a blend of 55 percent cabernet sauvignon and 45 percent zinfandel that sees no oak. This is a terrific little bistro-style wine, robust without being exactly rustic and nicely balanced between spicy, juicy fruit and carefully delineated acid and tannins. Black currant and blackberry scents and flavors offer a touch of something wild in the range of blueberry and rhubarb, underlain by hints of briers and brambles and nuances of earth and graphite-like minerality. The wine is lively and vibrant, a bit chewy in texture, moderately rich and velvety. It cries out to be in a restaurant’s wine-by-the-glass program at $8 a glass. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012. Very Good+. About $15.
Here’s the prize and the real bargain. In fact, I don’t see how a wine of this character can sell for what it does. The Steelhead Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma County, contains 5 percent syrah, a factor not that unusual in California now; the wine aged for 10 months in oak barrels. The color is an entrancing plum-mulberry hue, with a hint of violet at the rim; the darkly spicy and earthy bouquet delivers bushels of red and black cherries, plums and cranberries etched with touches of cloves, cinnamon and sassafras. The texture is lovely, even gorgeous, completely satiny in its drape and flow across the palate, and the wine offers remarkable intensity and structure for the price; all is not kissy-face, however, because under the richness and the plushness lie elements of spareness, of the slightly rigorous influence of wood and underbrush and forest floor, of slate-like minerality. Quite a performance. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013. Excellent. About $15, a Great Value.

… and both are single-vineyard wines. And neither are huge, super-ripe, high-octane, hot, cloying, sweetish zinfandels, examples of which continue to be produced in California, though they clearly defy any rational sense of balance and drinkability. No, these models are exemplars of the grape’s deeply fruity, spicy and innate tannic character that doesn’t have to resort to exaggeration and baroque, not to mention bizarre manipulation. We drank the first, the Benessere Estate Black Glass Vineyard Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, with pork chops rubbed with cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper and seared and then roasted with lime juice, cilantro and garlic; the Jake-Ryan Cellars Bald Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, we had with one of my heartier pizzas one Saturday for Pizza-and-Movie Night.

These were samples for review.
Benessere Vineyards was founded in 1994 by John and Ellen Benish on a 42-acre property north of the town of St. Helena; they restored a former winery, vineyard and residence. The winery specializes in the Italian grape varieties of pinot grigio, sangiovese, muscat di canelli and — quite rare for California — sagrantino and aglianico, as well as zinfandel, which, to be nit-picky, could in a way be called Italian since it is the same as the primitivo grape grown in the Italian calf and boot-heel. (No primitivo wine I ever tasted, however, was anything like a California zinfandel.) From a first release of 135 cases in 1995, Benessere grew to annual production of between 4,500 and 5,000 cases. Winemaker is Jack Stuart. (At the end of May, I reviewed the excellent Benessere Rosato 2010.)

The Benessere Estate Black Glass Vineyard Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, spent 18 months in new and used French and American oak barrels. This is truly a lovely, dark-ruby-hued, old-fashioned sort of zinfandel that bursts with notes of plums, red and black currants and cloves with touches of rhubarb and fruitcake and beguiling hints of orange rind and violets, sandalwood and leather that require a few minutes in the glass to unfold. It’s a well-balanced and integrated zinfandel whose smooth, well-wrought tannins and burnished oak qualities contribute to a texture of moderate density that encloses delicious ripe black and red fruit flavors just touched with elements of dried fruit and spices; vibrant acidity keeps the wine lively and attractive, while a reasonable measure of granite-like minerality and slightly sandpapery tannins give the finish a bit of austerity. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.7 percent. 390 cases. Excellent. About $28.
Jason Benge and Traci Seville launched Jake-Ryan cellars in 2004, naming the enterprise after Benge’s sons Austin Jake and Colby Ryan. Winemaker is Jeff Fontanella, about whose own label I will have something to say soon. I’m on a bit of a tear about Mount Veeder, and several producers were kind enough to send me samples, including Mayacamas, about whose wines I wrote recently.

The Jake-Ryan Cellars Bald Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, practically shimmers in the glass with the purity and intensity of the zinfandel grape. At almost four years old, the wine is fresh and clean, immediately appealing. The emphasis lies in profound graphite-granite-like minerality and an extraordinary level of pungent, deeply flavorful spicy elements, akin to sandalwood and dried ancho chilies ground together and adorned with a crisply etched filigree of dusty sage and heather. The fruit component consists of intense and concentrated black and red currants bolstered with undertones of blueberries, mulberries and rhubarb, all slightly spiced and macerated, making for a complex and satisfying experience; great balance and integration and notable acidity lend the wine poise, while finely-milled and fairly dense tannins add momentum and purpose. Definitely Worth a Search for zinfandel lovers. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. 400 cases. Excellent. About $28.

A red and a white for your drinking this week, from Toad Hollow Vineyards. The winery was launched in 1993 by Todd Williams (1938-2007), retired from an illustrious career in bars and restaurants, and Rodney Strong (1927-2006), the former Broadway dancer and Sonoma County pioneer who had long had no hand in the winery that bears his name. Williams was the older brother of comedian and actor Robin Williams. Artist of the whimsical Toad Hollow labels is Maureen Erickson. Samples for review.
The Toad Hollow Francine’s Selection Unoaked Chardonnay 2010, Mendocino County — Francine is the winery’s owner Frankie Williams — offers a radiant straw-gold color and fresh, beguiling aromas of green apple and pineapple with hints of mango and grapefruit. Though made entirely in stainless steel, the wine goes through complete malolactic “fermentation” (as a process that has nothing to do with fermentation is called), so it delivers quite a bit of spice, richness and full body; flavors of roasted lemon and pear tart are shot through — “sliced” might be appropriate — by a keen blade of acidity and bright layers of limestone minerality for an effect of Chablis-like austerity on the finish. A chardonnay of scintillating purity and intensity and remarkable character for the price; lay out, right now, a feast of grilled shrimp and mussels to be preceded by a whole raft of just-shucked oysters. 13.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
The Toad Hollow Erik’s the Red 2009 was released under the California rubric; the wine used to carry a Paso Robles designation. This is one of those smorgasbord-of-grapes wines that producers in California dream up and that actually often turn out to be delightful. To merlot and cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma County and zinfandel from Lodi are added dollops of varying amounts of souza, tannat, syrah and petite sirah; the result is a dark and vibrant wine that falls under the robust and rustic label, fitting it for pairing with robust and rustic food; I had a glass with leftover pasta Bolognese for lunch one day, and the dish and the wine definitely made friends. The wine is rooty and earthy, bursting with scents and flavors of black currants, spiced plums and cherries highlighted by some element of feral berries and underlying graphite-like minerality. Erik’s the Red 09 is briery and brambly, moderately dense and chewy with slightly velvety, grainy tannins, and lively with pert acidity; ripe and spicy black fruit flavors are bolstered by a modicum of oak from nine months in barrels. A great barbecue and grilling wine for consuming through 2012. Very Good+. About $15.

I won’t make the Benessere Rosato 2010, Napa Valley, the Wine of the Week because there’s not enough available. If it’s sold in your neck o’ the woods, however, or if you can order it from the winery, please do; this is a terrific rosé in the New World sense, meaning that it’s darker in color than the often much paler, “gris”-type rosés we see from Europe, particularly the South of France; those wines, indeed, occupy a sacred place in my heart. The color of the Benessere Rosato 2010, on the other hand, is an entrancing true crimson, that is deep, vibrant red — not ruby! — with a tinge of maroon, which in this case includes a pale brick-red or garnet rim, like the world’s most beautiful rose. The wine, made in stainless steel, is a blend of 49 percent zinfandel, 41 percent sangiovese and 10 percent merlot, a unique marriage that results in a heady bouquet of black and red currants, dried cherry, cranberry and an intriguing earthy hint of pomegranate. Limestone fills the background, with black cherry and red raspberry flavors given a savory quality by touches of dried thyme, cloves and briers. You’re thinking, “Gosh, FK, this sounds like a red wine,” but I promise that it is a rosé, just one with an unusual amount of dimension and character; it’s still a congeries of delicacy and nuance, light-hearted and carefree. I had a glass at lunch recently with scrambled eggs, tomatoes, scallions and black olives, though it would be equally appropriate with fried chicken, potato salad, quiche and other picnic and brunch fare. Serve chilled, through summer of 2012. Winemaker was Jack Stuart. 13.6 percent alcohol. The tag on the bottle said 350 cases; the printed material that came with this sample for review says 284 cases. In either case, mark this rosé Worth a Search. Excellent. About $16.

Dow’s Vale do Bomfim 2008, from Portugal’s Douro Valley, is a great little wine to drink with pizza and red-sauce pasta dishes, burgers, braised meats, barbecue ribs and such. Dow is, of course, one of the distinguished Port houses owned by the Symington family; this wine is made from the same kinds of grapes that go into vintage and reserve Ports, in this case 55 percent tinta barroca, 22 percent tinta roriz (the Spanish tempranillo), 3 percent each tourga nacional and touriga franca and 17 percent “mixed old vines,” which I assume means a field blend of several “old vine” varieties. The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged nine months in American oak barrels. Winemakers are Charles Symington and Pedro Correia. The wine is as dark as night, exuberantly smoky and spicy, plummy and peppery, with whole baskets, it seems, of black plums, blueberries and mulberries woven with notes of lavender, violets, potpourri and graphite and just a hint of dried thyme and black olive. If that description makes the wine sound irresistible, it is, though along the parameters of basic, direct appeal. Still, Vale do Bomfim 2008 gradually delves into depths of spice and granite-like minerals, dusty tannins and meaty black and blue fruit flavors supported by vibrant acidity. 13.9 percent alcohol. Now through 2012. Very Good+. About $12, representing Great Value.

Imported by Premier Port Wines, Inc., San Francisco.

Well, first, it wasn’t really a contest. I volunteered to take some appropriate red wines to a birthday lunch for my former father-in-law, Ed Harrison, who just turned 94, and while he may not be as spry as he once was, he’s a gracious, good-humored person and all-around gentleman. The fare was pulled pork shoulder with beans and slaw and sauce, brought in from a local purveyor, and (second) just to remind My Readers who live outside this vicinity, the word “barbecue” in Memphis is a noun, not a verb, and it refers to pork shoulder or ribs slow-cooked over hickory coals with a basting sauce. (Don’t believe the outside propaganda that “Memphis-style” barbecue is “dry”; traditionally it has been “wet,” that is, cooked with a basting sauce and served at table with a different sauce.) We don’t say “let’s barbecue tonight” or “let’s have a barbecue” as people apparently do in the North and West regions of this great, vast country. “Barbecue” is the stuff itself in these parts. Got that? And, yes, in these parts the slaw goes in the sandwich.

I pulled six hearty red wines from the rack to take to lunch, and here’s what they were:

*Clayhouse “Show Pony” Red Cedar Vineyard Petite Sirah 2007, Paso Robles.
*Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Shiraz Grenache 2007, South Australia.
*Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2008, Russian River Valley.
*Villa Cecchi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2007, Tuscany.
*Mettler Epicenter Old Vines Zinfandel 2008, Lodi.
*Cruz Andina Malbec 2008, Mendoza.

These wines were samples for review. BBQ sandwich image from lifesambrosia.com; this is a great site for recipes for simple, authentic everyday food, with excellent art and thoughtful commentary.

Let’s eliminate three of these wines immediately. The Mettler Epicenter Old Vines Zinfandel 2008, at 15.8 percent alcohol, epitomized everything that is shamelessly sweet and over-ripe and cloying and awful about high alcohol zinfandel, and I found it undrinkable. About $20. The Cecchi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. made from 90 percent sangiovese grapes with 10 percent mammolo and canaiolo nero, was lean and very dry and austere and not nearly ready to consume; frankly something about the angularity of the wine just didn’t feel right with the rich, smoky, slightly spicy barbecue. Try it in a couple of years, however, with porcini risotto or roasted game birds. About $30. Finally, the Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Shiraz Grenache 2007 seemed unbalanced between its own smoky, fleshy spicy character and dry, almost rigorous austerity. Not a success. About $19 to $24.

Nickel & Nickel’s Darien Vineyard Syrah is consistently one of the best syrah wines made in California; I rated the 2007 version Exceptional and made it one of My Best 50 Wines of 2010. I think I would rate the 08 rendition Excellent, rather than Exceptional, but boy this is a deep, dense, darkling plain of a wine, headily fragrant, intense and concentrated in its spicy and macerated blackberry, black currant and plums scents and flavors and developing over 20 to 40 minutes added levels of detail and dimension. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 44 percent new barrels. 1,108 cases. About $50. Actually, this wine was too complex, too multi-dimensioned for the barbecue, which required a wine a little less magnificent, a little more down-to-earth and immediately appealing. Those qualities we found in the Clayhouse “Show Pony” Petite Sirah 2007, Paso Robles, and the Cruz Andina Malbec 2008, Mendoza.

The fresh clean vibrant Clayhouse “Show Pony” Red Cedar Vineyard Petite Sirah 07 is all smoky plums, spicy blueberries and graphite-laced blackberries, ensconced in a smooth, supple structure supported by authoritative, slightly grainy but non-threatening tannins. This went down very nicely with the pork shoulder barbecue, beans and sauce. An expressive version of the petite sirah grape that doesn’t try to knock you down with high alcohol and baroque over-ripeness. This aged 20 months in a combination of French, Eastern European and American oak. Very limited production, unfortunately. Excellent. About $40.

I kept going back and pouring a little more of the Cruz Andina Malbec 2008, a blend of 85 percent malbec, 8 percent syrah and 7 percent cabernet sauvignon derived from Mendoza’s Lujan de Cuyo and Uco Valley areas. The wine was made in a partnership of Chile’s Veramonte winery and Carlos Pulenta, a third-generation vintner in Mendoza. Cruz Andina 08 aged 14 months in French oak barrels, 30 percent new. The whole package is smooth and mellow and tasty, with intense blueberry and red currant flavors supported by elements of smoke and cedar, black olive and potpourri and hints of pepper and spice. This was perfect with the barbecue and fun to drink. Very Good+. About $20.

Here are two very attractive selections from the roster of Windsor Sonoma. Winemaker is Marco DiGiulio. Samples for review.

The Windsor Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Russian River Valley, is a solid middle-of-the-road style sauvignon blanc, and that’s a good thing. It doesn’t slap you in the face with excessive grapefruit/pea shoot qualities, though it possesses a modicum of each, nor is it so stony, minerally and austere that it sucks your breath out, though it offers, indeed, just the right amount of stoniness and limestone-like minerality. Aromas of tangerine, roasted lemon and a bit of melon cosy up to a bit of the grapefruit-pea shoot-lime peel element, all of which draw you in, quite prettily, to flavors of lime and nectarine bolstered by touches of dried thyme and tarragon, scintillating acidity — the wine was made in stainless steel — and a finish nicely balanced between spice and stones. Thoroughly enjoyable. 13.9 percent alcohol. Production was 750 cases. Drink through 2011 with delicate fish and seafood dishes or as an aperitif. Very Good+. About $15.

We drank the Windsor Sonoma Zinfandel 2008, Dry Creek Valley, with pizza last night. The wine contains four percent petite sirah grapes and ages 15 months in French oak barrels, 25 percent of which were new. The color is a bright medium ruby red; the bouquet wafts scents of ripe black currants and raspberries and a bit of slightly roasted plums at your grateful olfactory nerves, gradually bringing in hints of orange Pekoe tea and fruit cake, with the range of dried fruit and spices implied by those elements, though there’s nothing raisiny here. Black and blue fruit flavors are deeply imbued with baking spice — cloves and allspice — and smooth, lightly oaked tannins that provide a firm but not aggressive structure; graphite-like minerality, along with touches of lavender and licorice, stir in the depths. A model of a non-blockbuster zinfandel, though the alcohol content may be 14.9 percent, according to the bottle, or 15.4 percent, according to the winery website. In any case, the wine is not hot or over-ripe. 807 cases were produced. Drink through 2012 with braised meat dishes, hearty pastas and pizzas or burgers and steaks. Excellent. About $22.

The Shaw Vineyard was planted in 1882, so the Kunde Reserve Century Vines Shaw Vineyard Zinfandel 2005, Sonoma Valley, is made from vines that are actually 29 years more than a century old. The wine, at a bit more than five years old, is wonderfully smooth and mellow, as well as being surprisingly clean and fresh and more than a little exotic with notes of cloves and sandalwood, violets and potpourri seeping through the scents and flavors of spiced and macerated red and black currants and plums. It aged 17 months in a combination of French, American and Hungarian oak, with 20 percent of the barrels being new; the result is a structure of appealing suppleness and firmness layered with moderately dense and chewy tannins in the sleek, fine-grained mode. Lovely balance and integration all around and an irresistible drink for those who weary of over-blown, over-ripe, high-alcohol zinfandels. Production was 1,900 cases. Winemaker was Tim Bell. Excellent. About $30 to $35 and definitely Worth a Search.

Tasted at a trade event.

Wine Guerrilla produces about 5,000 cases of zinfandel-based wines from Sonoma County’s Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander valleys. The three examples I tried recently reveal a deft hand at the helm, so that while the wines are ripe and sometimes high in alcohol, they’re also nicely balanced and integrated. (All right, two out of three, as you will see.) In fact, the absence of over-ripe boysenberry tart elements and alcoholic heat/sweetness while yet being filled with flavor and spice made me wonder if these zinfandel wines resemble the 19th Century zinfandels for which California was once famous. Another gratifying aspect is that the colors of these wines are surprisingly moderate, if not light, in contrast to the deep, dark purple/black hues favored by producers of thunderous, blockbuster zins. These wines are unfiltered and unfined. The labels are colorful and intriguing. Samples for review.

The Wine Guerrilla Adel’s Vineyard Zinfandel 2009, Dry Creek Valley, is an exemplar of balance and restraint while offering all that is good, beautiful and true about the zinfandel grape. It is, by the way, the winery’s first 100 percent zinfandel wine; all the others have been and are field blends. The color is radiant medium red cherry/ruby; aromas of smoke, cloves, new leather, black currants and black cherries are highlighted with notes of sage and black pepper. One feels on the palate a finely woven fabric of spicy nuance and supple texture that envelopes flavors of black and red fruit — with a touch of wild plum and mulberry — and hints of mocha and earthy briers and brambles, all framed with subtle, slightly chewy tannins. Those who favor zinfandels that run over their taste buds like a motorcycle gang on its way to a beer bash may not appreciate this style, but it’s my notion of what zinfandel ought to be. 170 cases. 14.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $30.

There’s no question that the Wine Guerrilla Conte Vineyard Zinfandel 2009, Russian River Valley, is more emphatic than the Adel’s Vineyard model. This is a warm and spicy blend of 83 percent zinfandel, 12 percent petite sirah, 2 percent each carignan and alicante bouschet and 1 percent grenache. The color is medium to dark red ruby with a black cherry hue at the center; a bouquet of ripe raspberries, mulberries, blackberries and plums is permeated with smoke, tobacco leaf, lavender and licorice and a distinctly roasted and fleshy quality. The wine is ripe and juicy but very dry and far more minerally, in the slate-shale range, and earthy-mossy than its cousin, though the texture is weightier, so dense and chewy that it’s almost viscous. Still, there’s nothing overpowering here, nothing heavy or obtrusive, and the wine slides through the mouth like liquid velvet. 238 cases. 15.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $30.

I found the Wine Guerrilla Forchini Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel 2009, Dry Creek Valley, more problematic than its stablemates, solely because, to my palate, the alcohol level throws it a bit out of balance, particularly on the finish. Made from vines that are more than 100 years old, the wine contains about 95 percent zinfandel grapes with dollops of carignan, petite sirah and alicante bouschet. The immediate impression is of lavender and licorice, blueberries, blackberries and blue-bluer-bluest plums, circumscribed by walnut shell and wheatmeal and a broad element of fruit cake and brandied cherries and raisins. The whole enterprise is cast in the mold of powerful spice, black pepper and deeply macerated and roasted fruit flavors ensconced in a dense, thick, chewy structure. The finish is not hot, but it comes through as rather sweet and almost unctuous; yes, I’m sure devoted fans of the style will love it, but I feel a discordant note at the conclusion. 240 cases. 16.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $35.

We’ve been tasting and drinking quite a few vigorous and rigorous cabernet sauvignon wines from California, even if they didn’t necessarily make a good match with what we were eating, so for Saturday night’s pizza — pepper-cured bacon, roasted tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms. goat cheese — I went in the direction of something more simple, more direct and more appropriate. That turned out to be The Climber Red Wine 2009, a blend of zinfandel (63%), cabernet sauvignon (21%), syrah (12%), petite sirah (2%) and merlot (2%), the sort of fruitful melange you’re likely to see nowhere but in California. The Climber label comes from the people that started the Clif Bar company in 1992. While the winery and farm are in Napa Valley, the grapes for the Climber 2009 came from Mendocino and Lodi; the wine carries a California designation. So, what’s here? A robust, ripe and vibrant red wine that’s packed with fleshy, meaty blackberry, black currant and plum flavors deeply permeated by spice, black pepper, briers and brambles and soft, cushiony tannins that float over the palate like a dusty cloud. This is a terrific pizza wine, though it would serve equally well with burgers, fajitas, pulled pork and other such hearty carnivore-targeted items. Winemakers are Sarah Gott and Bruce Regalia. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 3,500 cases. Closed with a screw-cap. Very Good+. About $12, a Great Bargain.

A sample for review.

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