Readers, today marks the 30th anniversary of my first wine column in The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. That’s right, it was July 11, 1984, and I was still a full-time college English teacher living in a dry county in Mississippi, just south of Memphis. The rest, as they say, is history but a very special and meaningful history. Thanks to Jan Smith, librarian at the newspaper, for digging up that column on microfilm and sending me a copy.

Under the headline “Wine connoisseur’s palate goes public” — I was anything but a connoisseur — I introduced myself; explained the purpose of the column, which was to appear monthly but quickly went weekly and five years later national; and provided reviews of a series of wines including several examples of vintage 1981 in Bordeaux and a group of miscellaneous products. My choice for the best price-quality ratio among the Bordeaux wines was Chateau Lynch-Moussas ’81, a wine of “balance and breeding” priced at $10 to $13. I also liked the Silverado Sauvignon Blanc 1982, Napa Valley (about $9); the Mount Veeder Late Harvest Zinfandel 1980, Napa Valley (about $10 for a half-bottle); the Domaine de la Tour d’Elyssas Vin de Syrah 1981, Coteaux du Tricastin, in the southern Rhone Valley (about $5); the Simi Cabernet Sauvignon 1979, Alexander Valley (about $9); and the Shadow Creek Brut Cuvée No. 1 (about $10).

I leapt into wine reviewing with the same approach that I take today, though I hope that 30 years have honed my palate and technique. Here’s what I wrote about the Mount Veeder Late Harvest Zinfandel 1980:

This wine is a beautiful deep purple, almost opaque; the nose is tannic and fruity and just slightly sweet; deep, complex and mouth-filling, almost thick, grapes and berries, hints of chocolate and vegetal undertones. Magnificent! Drink this with a wedge of English cheese after dinner. It should last and improve for decades.

Not bad for a beginner, I guess.

Writing about wine, first for the newspaper and the Scripps Howard News Service for 20 years, then on my old website and since December 2006 for this blog, has certainly given me the chance to taste and drink countless numbers of fine wines as well as afforded me the opportunity to travel not only to wine regions in this country but around the world. Most important, though, are the trust and the friendship that I have developed with so many people, from my local retailers and distributors to importers, producers and winemakers, public relations and marketing people and other writers and journalists — I see many of you almost daily on Facebook — to the consumers I see out and about who come over and say, “Hey, just read about this wine on your blog and went out and bought it.” All of you make this effort worth while. The awards don’t hurt either, so thank you for the confidence that those many votes expressed.

Tasting wines occurs under many circumstances and in many venues, all of which have advantages and disadvantages. Best, though, is to sit down with LL to a dinner that she cooked or perhaps we prepared together and I open a bottle of wine and pour it and we clink glasses and take a sniff and sip and say, often together, “Oh, yeah, that’s good.” I dedicate all this to her.

I smoked a filet of some kind of wild salmon from Whole Foods on the top of the stove, over alder wood chips, and made a classic Sauce Gribiche, with chopped eggs, capers and cornichon. LL served it simply with boiled new potatoes and a salad of butter lettuce, tomatoes and radishes. The whole ensemble was harmonious and delicious, the way food ought to be.

Additional enhancement came in the form of The Eyrie Vineyards Original Vines Reserve Pinot Gris 2012, Dundee Hills, Oregon. By “Original Vines,” the winery means that the grapes for this wine derive from the vineyard that the pioneering David Lett planted in the Willamette Valley in 1965; yes, those vines are 49 years old. Lett and his wife Diana — who must have had a great deal of faith in her husband’s vision — founded the winery in 1966 and produced the first wines from the 1970 vintage. Lett’s approach was always deft and minimal, with the goal of the wines, especially pinot noir, being elegant and expressive. Lett died in 2008; his son Jason is now the winemaker for Eyrie Vineyards.

The Eyrie Vineyards Original Vines Reserve Pinot Gris 2012 offers a medium gold color and intriguing aromas of straw, mango, tangerine and melon, with notes of jasmine and camellia, smoke and loam; after a few minutes in the glass, it unfolds hints of crystallized ginger and candied quince. The wine is supple, almost lush with slightly roasted and quite spicy stone-fruit flavors, tempered by star-bright acidity and a faceted limestone element. The finish brings in some chastening grapefruit astringency. I employ no hyperbole in saying that this incredibly vibrant and resonant wine is one of the best pinot gris I have tasted, as in ever. A wonderfully sane 12.5 percent alcohol. Production was 261 cases, so mark this wine Worth a Search. Exceptional. About $33.

A sample for review.

Though I have been writing about the wines made by Gideon Beinstock for 20 years, I met him for the first time three weeks ago at a dinner party in the Sierra Foothills, northeast of Sacramento. Around dusk, a group of us were sitting outside, and Beinstock opened a bottle of his Clos Saron Out of the Blue 2013, a blend of 90 percent cinsault and five percent each syrah and graciano grapes. This was also my first encounter with a wine under the Clos Saron label, which he and his wife Saron Rice launched in 1996, while he was winemaker for Renaissance Vineyard and Winery. You know how it is, friends. You sniff a wine, take a sip, and you know that this is the real thing, an amalgam of such intensity and expansiveness, of such vibrancy and resonance that most other wines seem amateurish in comparison. The next day, I visited Clos Saron and tasted through the winery’s currant releases and wines in the barrel. My colleagues on this occasion were Gary Paul Fox, owner and winemaker of Bangor Ranch Vineyard & Winery, and Cara Zujewski, who with her partner Aaron Mockrish, operates the local Three Cedars Ranch, she doing produce, he raising sheep.

The Israeli-French Beinstock arrived at what became Renaissance in the 1970s and helped plant the original vines. He spent most of the 1980s working in vineyards in Burgundy and the Rhone Valley. and when he returned to Yuba County, he took the position as assistant winemaker to Diane Werner, widow of the estate’s first winemaker Karl Werner. Beinstock became winemaker for Renaissance in 1994, a job he held until 2011. He told me that for his last few years at Renaissance, his “heart was not in it,” and he extricated himself from the Fellowship of Friends, the spiritual organization that owns the estate, and took up the reins of Clos Saron full-time.

Clos Saron occupies a rustic compound near the community of Oregon House — motto: “We’re not actually in Oregon!” — where the structure in which he and his wife and children live lies a few steps from the winery. The Home Vineyard extends practically from their front door down a slight slope. Also on site are sheep, chickens and geese. Beinstock’s methodology is about as minimal as winemaking gets. The winery possesses neither a crusher nor a destemmer; all crushing is done by foot-stomping, and fermentation takes place with stems in open-top casks; because of the stems, fermentation is relatively short, that is, four to 10 days. Grapes are not inoculated with commercial yeast, but fermentation is impelled by natural yeast on the grape skins. Acidity is never “corrected.” New oak makes no appearance at Clos Saron. Battonage (stirring) and racking do not occur while wines are in barrel; wines are only racked directly to bottle. Sulfur dioxide is applied at a minimum degree, 20/25 parts per million. Red wines are neither fined nor filtered.

The result, to my palate, are wines that display a remarkable measure of authenticity and integrity, purity and intensity, the exhilarating quality of a wine that goes almost directly from the vineyard to the glass. I asked Beinstock if he missed working with cabernet sauvignon, the grape that put Renaissance on the map, admittedly a small map considering the limited production. He said, “Truly, what I’m most fascinated with is soil, not the grape. I worked with cabernet at Renaissance because of the microclimate. It’s one of the world’s best sites for cabernet. Here I work with different grapes because of the location. A lean soil over layers of volcanic ash and decomposed granite.” The Home Vineyard slopes gently to the northeast at 1600 feet above sea-level.

How do you find these wines, usually made in a total quantity of about 800 cases a year? They’re available at a handful of restaurants and retailers in California, New York and around Boston and Washington D.C.; or from the winery website: clossaron.com

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Current and recent releases:
>Clos Saron Syrah 2013. An experimental blend of Stone Soup syrah with 30 percent (white) verdejo; powerful, very spicy and fruity; seductive body and texture. $NA.
>Clos Saron Stone Soup Syrah 2013. Inky purple, penetrating graphite and granitic minerality; very intense and concentrated, very spicy. Try 2017 or ’18 through 2023 to ’25. Typically 60 to 150 cases. About $50
>Clos Saron Stone Soup Syrah 2012. A touch more open and approachable than the ’13; slightly fleshy and meaty, grounded in iodine and iron, bright acidity; fresh with ambient elegance. 2015 through 2025. About $50
>Out of the Blue 2013. 90 percent cinsault, 5 percent syrah, 5 percent graciano. The cinsault vines were planted in 1885, and the vineyard is still owned by the same family. Lovely heft and body, profoundly lively, vibrant and appealing; black and blue fruit scents and flavors, permeated by briers and brambles, graphite and dusty tannins. Approximately 170 cases. About $30.
>A Deeper Shade of Blue 2013. 56 percent syrah, 38 percent old vine grenache, 6 percent verdejo. Quite spicy and minerally, currants and blueberries and plums, slightly macerated and roasted; smooth and polished but earthy, rooty, slightly granitic. About $35.
>Pinot Noir 2011. Grapes from the Home Vineyard. Dark ruby with a violet tinge; deeply earthy and minerally, a bit of iron; but fresh and clean and penetrating, currant and plum fruit, tremendous presence, vibrancy and tenacity; dusty tannins but sleek supple texture; one of the most individual and expressive pinot noirs I have tasted. Approximately 108 cases. About $60.
>Stone Soup Syrah 2011. Awesome purity, intensity and concentration; you feel the rock-strew soil of that precipitous vineyard, the deep foundation of tannin and acidity, the cut and edge of graphite, the spareness and elegance yet the paradoxically voluptuous aura of ripe blackberries, currants and plums. Approximately 104 cases. About $50.
>Heart of Stone Syrah 2009. With 10 percent viognier. Very earthy, piercing graphite minerality, deeply and darkly spicy, intense and concentrated, black and blue fruit; powerhouse acidity and tannin, briery and brambly, root-like; incredibly supple texture. 125 cases. About $45.
>Cuvee Mysterieuse 2009. 64 percent syrah, 30 percent merlot, 6 percent viognier. Lovely, rich and warm but intense, well-knit, vibrant, supple, resonant; quite floral, very spicy, earthy and imbued with a huge lithic minerally component. About 96 cases. Price $45.
>Black Pearl 2008. 65 percent syrah, 27 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent petit verdot, 2 percent merlot. Ripe, spicy and minerally; black and red cherries and currants with a touch of plum; smoky, briers and brambles, touch of old leather, dusty tannins, vibrant acidity. Approximately 97 cases. About $45.
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From the barrel:

First, we tried a couple of wines made from fruit purchased in Lodi, a Tickled Pink Rose 2013 that won’t be released until 2015, 100 percent graciano grapes, a dry, spare, elegant and intellectual rose; and the Carte Blanche 2013, a half-half blend of verdelho and albarino grapes that builds remarkable density and character in the glass while remaining bright, clean, fresh and elevating.

Then, we moved on to the components of pinot noirs from 2013 and 2012, getting an impression of what the separate blocks or lots in the vineyard offer.

For 2013, the North Block (planted in 1999) is a radiant dark purple hue, deep and spicy, with notes of lavender and violets, very dry, bastions of tannin. The South Block is quite earthy and loamy, delivering rooty briers and brambles and tannins that are dominant but not punishing. The Lower Block is indeed the “blockiest,” the most inchoate and unformed, even feral. Older Block, grafted in 1995 to cabernet stock planted in 1980 and interplanted between, feels the most complete and comprehensible as pinot noir, very dry, with spanking acidity but with spice and violets and lovely fruit. Finally, in this group, we tasted the Pinot Noir 2013 that’s a blend of these separate blocks, a wine that’s inky-purple, very dry, impressively vibrant and resonant and starting to be expressive.

For 2012, the North Block offers a hint of floral character but is incredibly intense and concentrated and wrapped by tight tannins. Lower Block is deep, dark and spicy, roiling with earth and loam and quite tannic. Older Block delivers a thread of spice, dried flowers and black fruit through the vibrant acidity and minerally tannins. The blend of these three vineyards — we didn’t taste the 2012 from South Block — felt almost like real pinot noir, complete, confident, both deep and elevating.

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Swiss entrepreneur Hans Nef founded Vina Robles in 1996, in northern San Luis Obispo County. Today’s Wine of the Week is the Vina Robles Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Paso Robles. The blend is 76 percent cabernet sauvignon and 24 percent petit verdot, all grapes derived from three estate vineyards; the wine spent 18 months in French oak barrels. Winemaker for Vina Robles is Kevin Willenborg. The color is dark ruby with a magenta tinge; the bouquet is ripe and fleshy, abundant with aromas of spiced and macerated red and black currants and plums touched with lavender and potpourri, walnut-shell and briers, amid a background of iodine and iron. Lots of grip here, a real mouthful of dusty velvety tannins bolstered by graphite minerality and vibrant acidity, yet ripe black fruit flavors are packed with cloves and allspice, notes of roasted fennel and black olives wrapped around a core of bitter chocolate and mocha. The texture is sleek, lithe and supple. Altogether, a cabernet of lovely complexity and nuance for drinking with steaks and grilled leg of lamb, now through 2018 to 2020. And look at the alcohol content, a sensible and flattering 13.3 percent. Excellent. About $24.

A sample for review, as I am required to inform you by the FTC.

I was privileged to be the only writer at an all-day tasting of the wines of Renaissance Vineyard and Winery last month, along with Darrell Corti, the esteemed retailer in Sacramento whose knowledge of the state’s wine industry and memory for wines and vintages is phenomenal; winemakers and owners of other properties in Sierra Foothills; and personnel from RVW. The occasion was a comprehensive look at the library wines in the cellar. When Oklahoma oilman Greg Holman became president of RVW in 2011 (he was already president of its parent entity, the Fellowship of Friends), he found back rooms in the winery that held bottles going back to the 1980s, ranging in size from half-bottles to double and triple magnums, not only of the cabernet sauvignon-based wines for which Renaissance is known but Rhone-style wines and dessert wines made from riesling, semillon and sauvignon blanc. The day of the tasting, Holman walked me through these storage areas; it was astonishing to see boxes and boxes of well-aged wines still on hand, but as Holman said, it was never RVW’s business plan to make a profit, if such a practice can be called a plan.

The question for the winery is what to do with this trove. The purpose of the tasting was to determine the quality of the wines and to have a discussion about their fate. (More about that later.)

Renaissance became noted, under the tutelage of Gideon Beinstock, winemaker there since 1994, for its hands-off approach that produced wines of admirable spareness and elegance, low alcohol, an almost fanatic resistance to new oak and an unheard of delay in releasing wines, as in sometimes 10 or 12 years after harvest. The winery and vineyard occupy a large estate on land purchased by the Fellowship of Friends in 1971; the group is controversial in its beliefs or at least its former leadership and founder Robert Earl Burton, and as a business entity (separate from but owned by the Fellowship) Renaissance has had to shake off the perception that the Fellowship is a cult.

The inspiration for creating a vineyard came from German-born Karl Werner, the founding winemaker at Callaway Vineyards, way south in Temecula. Under his guidance, members of the Fellowship chiseled terraces from the steep slopes at altitudes of 1700 to 2300 feet and drilled 150,000 holes to plant vines. The first harvest, in 1979, took 20 minutes and produced one barrel of cabernet sauvignon. Werner died in 1988, and his wife, Diana, took over winemaking duties. When Beinstock became winemaker early in ’94, he turned the winery away from its former goals of deep extraction and heavy, densely tannic wines to minimal manipulation, gentle extraction, no yeast inoculation and, gradually, to organic methods in the vineyards. Due to Beinstock’s efforts, Renaissance has produced a series of remarkable, authentic and largely age-worthy wines (in minute quantities) that are like nothing else in a California besotted by super-ripeness, toasty new oak and sweet alcohol.

Beinstock left the winery in May 2011 to concentrate on his own project, Clos Saron. Present winemaker is RVW’s former vineyard manager Edward Schulter, also a principal in the Grant Eddie winery. I will have more to say about Clos Saron and Grant Eddie in subsequent posts.
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The Estate Cabernets:

>2012. 85% cabernet sauvignon, with merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc the remainder. Deep purple, very young, spicy, vigorous; steeply tannic, packed with graphite and dusty oak, bright acidity. Needs four to six years.

>2005. 75% cabernet sauvignon, 19% merlot, 3% cabernet franc, 2% petit verdot, 1% syrah. Dark ruby; ripe but tightly wound, very spicy, cloves and caraway; bastions of tannin and oak. Needs five to seven years.

>2002, the current release. 87% cabernet sauvignon, 10% merlot, 2% petit verdot, 1% syrah. Dark ruby color; still young, highly structured, with leathery tannins and mineral-laced oak, but encouraging notes of plum and cherry compote. Give it three or four more years.

>1999. (Blend not available.) Dark ruby-garnet; a touch musty and vegetal? A second bottle was fresher and cleaner; while dense, chewy and tannic, it felt like the embodiment of vineyard, geography and fruit, earthy, scintillating, almost elegant, but not exactly drinkable yet. Three or four years.

>1994. Gideon Beinstock’s first cabernet as winemaker. (Blend not available.) Dark ruby-garnet hue; still tannic, solid, tight and well-knit; muscle and sinew, lithe and deeply spicy, glittering minerality, vibrant and resonant. Needs three to five years aging. Terrific potential.

>1993. 90 percent cabenrnet sauvignon, 9% merlot, 1% cabernet franc. Dark ruby-garnet color; woody spice, as cloves and sandalwood; dusty graphite; spiced and macerated currants and plums; a little leafy, notes of cedar and dried rosemary, a little resiny; oolong tea and leather; still tannic. A favorite of this flight. Now through 2020 to 2025.

>1991. (Blend not available.) The first of this group that feels immediately drinkable; soft, mellow, tannin and acid for backbone and flesh; notes of bell pepper and ancho chile; black and red fruit both ripe and dried; elements of dried spice and flowers; black tea and orange zest. Almost lovely. Now through 2018 to 2022.

The next series, 1986, ’84 and ’83, were made by Karl Werner and are 100 percent cabernet sauvignon.

>Reserve 1986. Dark ruby-garnet color; remarkably youthful, vigorous and lively; but very dry, austere, deeply rooty, the essence of wood, iron, iodine and earth. Drink through 2020 to 2026.

>1984 Reserve. This was released before the ’83. Dark ruby-garnet hue; quite dry, lively, dense and chewy but with beautifully shaped structure and fruit and possessing a sense of completeness and confidence. Now through 2020 to 2024. Another favorite; my second encounter with this wine.

>1983. Coming around now; still very dry, dense, tannic and austere but with flavors of stewed fruit compote, notes of resin and almond skin, briers and leather, allspice and dried rosemary. Now through 2018 or ’19 through 2023.
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Premier Cuvee, Vin de Terroir, Claret Prestige with some Estate for Comparison:

>Claret Prestige 2012. 40% petit verdot, 27% cabernet sauvignon, 31% cabernet franc, 2% merlot. Very dark ruby-purple; drenched with currant-cherry-plum fruit and baking spices; graphite and lead pencil, cedar and thyme; spiced and macerated; plenty of vibrant acidity and dusty tannins. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2027 or ’30.

>Claret Prestige 2002. 41% merlot, 40% cabernet sauvignon, 11% syrah, 7% petit verdot, 1% sauvignon blanc (yes). Leaping back a decade, here’s a Claret Prestige that offers lovely, almost ineffable spicy black and red fruit scents and flavors but a huge, dense dusty structure and scorching tannins. Don’t touch until 2018 or ’20 and then give it another 10 years.

>Premier Cuvee 1997. 79% cabernet sauvignon 13% merlot 6% cabernet franc. Dark ruby color; rich, warm and spicy, notes of black cherry, fruit cake, graphite, dried thyme and black olive; still quite tannic with lots of woody spice, yet oddly attractive and drinkable. Best, though, from 2017 or ’20 through 2027 to 2030.

>Vin de Terroir 1997. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Opaque ruby-purple hue; very dark, dense, dusty, chewy, minerally, oaky, tannic and needs another decade (or at least five years) to soften its grip.

>Claret Prestige 1997. (Poured from a magnum.) 43% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, 12% cabernet franc, 6% syrah, 6% sangiovese (yes), 3% malbec. Very backward, very dry and tannic, but paradoxically, after 15 or 20 minutes, it opens quite nicely, relaxes a bit, unfurls hints of fruit, spice, even a floral note. 2017 through 2025 to ’30.

>Estate 1997. 91% cabernet sauvignon, 7% merlot, 2% cabernet franc. Opaque ruby-purple with a garnet rim; reticent, almost truculent, spicy but tight, dry, austere; leafy and autumnal. Might as well wait until 2017.

>Premier Cuvee 1995. 76% cabernet sauvignon, 24% merlot. (Poured from a double magnum.) 76% cabernet sauvignon, 24% merlot. Opaque ruby-purple with a garnet rim; cedar, cigar and tobacco, dried rosemary and pine resin, graphite, leather and briers; bouquet unfolds seductively but this is a big, tannic austere wine, nonetheless with great potential. Try 2017 or ’20 through 2028 to ’30.

>Vin de Terroir 1995. 100% cabernet sauvignon. (Poured from a double magnum.) Don’t touch this until 2020.

>Claret Prestige 1995. 53% cabernet sauvignon, 37% merlot, 10 cabernet franc. Don’t touch until 2018 to ’20 or even 2025.

>Estate 1995. 86% cabernet sauvignon, 14% merlot. Very solid, dark, dense; dusty, tannic; graphite and granitic minerality, leather, briers, yet finally rich, warm and spicy, close to seductive and with sleek, elegant structure. Try 2020 through 2030.
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Imagine being so famous that people can use your first name and everyone knows who they’re talking about. As in: “Fredric just posted to his blog,” and billions of earthlings go “oooohhh” and “aaaahhh.” Anyway, as multitudes are aware, the Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, in partnership with the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, last year released the first wine from their Chateau Miraval property, a Côtes de Provence Rosé 2012. I didn’t try that wine but we just drank the second release, the Chateau Miraval 2013, and it’s a honey. Every aspect of this product is thoughtfully and exquisitely executed, including the elegant bottle that resembles an old-style Champagne bottle, and the understated, even reticent label. The wine is a blend of the red cinsault, grenache and syrah grapes with a dollop of the white rolle, the Italian vermentino. The entrancing color is the palest copper-onion skin-topaz with the faintest pink flush; aromas of fresh strawberries and dried red currants are subtly woven with notes of dried thyme, flint and limestone, with a hint of tangerine. Though in its nuanced red fruit flavors this rose is slightly savory and saline, it embodies the utmost in delicate and ineffable character, while retaining the vibrancy of definitive acidity and the vitality of a scintillating mineral element. Compulsively drinkable, and without the taint of amateurish that often comes with “celebrity” wines; this is the real thing. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. Prices around the country range from about $24 to $30.

Imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala. Sample provided by a local retailer.

I can’t say a great deal about most of these wines, because they were tasted on the fly or at a buffet lunch or dinner during my sojourn in the High Plains AVA (indicated in the map) back in the month of May. And My Readers throughout the country will recognize that the enterprise is inherently unfair in relationship to their curiosity because very few wines produced in the Lone Star State are available beyond its irregular borders. Naturally, this circumstance disturbs winemakers in Texas, because they know that many of the wines that issue from their doors are fine enough to stand up to any in the U.S.A. (No state, of course, has a monopoly on mediocre wines.) Texas has slightly more than 200 wineries; 95 percent of the wine is consumed inside the state. Obviously in a three-day visit, the main purpose being to tour vineyards and interview owners and growers, I could experience only the tiniest fraction of vinous products and those primarily relating to High Plains grapes. Still, I thought that it would be friendly and decent to give a shout-out to the wines that stood above the pack. I’ll say that some of the pricing structure seems inflated, if not downright grandiose. If you’re passing through Texas, however, you might want to investigate some of these wines at retail stores or perhaps visit the wineries. Most will be happy to ship for you if the state you live in allows the practice.
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McPherson Les Copains Rosé 2013, Texas, about $11. A delicate blend of 55 percent cinsault, 30 percent mourvèdre and 15 percent viognier. Kim McPherson is the son of “Doc” McPherson, one of the founders of seminal High Plains winery Llano Estacado, in Lubbock. McPherson Cellars is also in Lubbock and occupies an old Coca-Cola bottling plant from the 1930s. This is one of the best rosés I’ve had all year.
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It’s a consensus ( or fervent hope) in the High Plains of Texas AVA that tempranillo is the grape that will turn the tide and bring national attention to the region, though there’s a back-bench movement for montepulciano. This belief indicates a general segue in High Plains away from “classic” grapes like chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon to grapes that reflect the hot dry climate and its similarity to some areas of Spain, Italy and southern France. I probably tried more wines made from tempranillo grapes (or blends) while I was in High Plains than all the other wines combined; these four were certainly the best:

1. Becker Reserve Tempranillo 2012, about $19
2. Lewis Wines Newsom Vineyard Tempranillo 2011, High Plains. About $32(?). Neal Newsom is a prominent grower in High Plains.
3. Lost Oak Tempranillo 2012, about $33. (The winery is in Burleson, south of Fort Worth.)
4. Inwood Estates Vineyards Cornelious Reserve 2012, 100 percent tempranillo from the Inwood Block at Newsom Vineyards. About $69. (See next entry for more about Inwood.)
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Dan Gatlin is a wine pioneer in Texas, an outspoken and controversial figure. There’s no denying, though, that he is a brilliant winemaker or that his Inwood Estates wines, authentic and highly individual, are difficult to forget once you taste them. Gatlin’s chardonnays undergo no barrel-fermentation or malolactic and have what he called “a brief exposure to oak.” Both the 2012 and ’13 are notable chardonnays, the ’12 deftly balanced between elegance and weight, with prominent stony minerality and hints of pineapple, cloves and baked peaches; the ’13 suave, supple yet a little earthy, almost briery, showing chalky-flint elements. These are from Dallas County; they run about $40. Despite the movement toward Mediterranean basin grapes, cabernet sauvignon is still grown in High Plains; Gatlin’s Inwood Estates Mericana Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Newsom Vineyards, about $70, was definitively the best that I tasted.
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As testament to the affinity of Texas High Plains climate to the grapes of southern France and Spain, I tasted these three wines on every occasion they were offered and kept going back for more. The “Reddy” refers to Vijay Reddy, a prominent grower in High Plains.

1. Bending Branch Reddy Vineyard Mourvèdre 2011, Texas Hill Country, 145 cases, about $28.
2. Brushy Creek Reddy Vineyards Tannat 2008, Texas, about $20.
3. Brushy Creek Rachel’s Reserve Carignane 2010, Martin’s Vineyards, Texas. About $25.
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Sliding a medium rare leg of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary from the grill? How about pork chops doused with olive oil and soy sauce and rubbed with cumin and chili powder? You carnivores getting hungry? How about opening a bottle of Eric Texier Côtes du Rhône 2011 to accompany these primal dishes? That would be a good idea. Texier, a nuclear engineer turned winemaker, takes a meticulous approach to his wines, whether estate-grown or made from grapes purchased on long-term contract. His methods in the vineyard are organic, his techniques in the winery traditional and minimal. This wine is a blend of about 80 percent grenache with the remainder portions of the white grapes grenache blanc, clairette and bourboulenc. Texier tends to age his reds in neutral barrels and large old futs. The color is an entrancing medium ruby hue with a tinge of violet; aromas of lightly spiced and macerated raspberries and red and black currants are woven with elements of briers and brambles and dusty graphite; a few moments in the glass bring in notes of plums, leather and lavender. This is a dry wine, a bit raspy with slightly knotty tannins, but eminently drinkable and tasty with red and black fruit flavors, all bolstered by clean, bright acidity and an underlying granitic mineral quality. 12.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $15.

Imported by Louis/Dressner, New York. A sample for review. Label image from hogsheadwine.

A raft of chardonnays here from the Golden State, ranging geographically from Santa Barbara County in the south to Sonoma Coast in the north. They’re mainly from 2011 and 2012, with one from 2013. I offer a $10 product so good that you should buy it by the case, which I don’t often say about chardonnay, and reject some models that cost $65 and $70. I mean, as long as producers turn out chardonnays that embody the over-oaked, stridently spicy, tropical-tinged and butter-infused crème brûlée-like style — and the major wine publications continue to pass out high ratings for such wine — I will continue not to recommend them as unpalatable and undrinkable. Little in the way of historical, geographical or technical data today; these Weekend Wine Notes are intended to be quick and incisive, not as detailed as my regular reviews. Enjoy! (Or not.)

These wines were samples for review.

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Clos du Val Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; vibrant and vivid purity and intensity, scintillating acidity and limestone-flint minerality; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hints of mango and cloves; sleek, lithe, dynamic, beautifully balanced; nothing avant-garde or opulent here, just classic winemaking. Excellent. About $28.
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CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast. 14.1% alc. Pale gold hue; bright, clean and fresh; pineapple-grapefruit-roasted lemon, hints of nutmeg, lemon balm and lemon curd; dense and chewy, packed with spice and seashell-limestone minerality; slightly astringent floral element; quite dry, very attractive weight and substance; earthy finish where the oak comes out a bit more. Very Good+. About $25.
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Dunston Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 13.3% alc. Limited production. Ravishing medium gold hue with a green tinge; pine, cloves, grapefruit and pineapple with notes of mango, roasted lemon and some leafy/green tea element; fascinating in its complexity and risk-taking but ultimately exquisitely balanced, though you feel the tug of polished oak on the finish after an hour or so. Limited production. Excellent. About $45.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium gold color; very bright and bold, even brassy; very spicy with roasted grapefruit and baked peach, slightly caramelized; way too much oak, too much butter and tropical elements; stridently spicy, over-ripe and then austerely dry; fundamentally unbalanced. Not recommended. About $35.
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Gundlach Bundschu Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14.3% alc. Pale gold color; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with hint of mango; Chablis-like chalk and flint; smoke and earth, dense and chewy and pretty darned intense and concentrated; a substantial style. Very Good+. About $27.
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Isabel Mondavi Chardonnay 2012, Carneros. 13.7% alc. Medium straw-gold color; smoke, toast, oak; roasted lemon and baked pear; fairly spicy with buttered and caramelized citrus fruit; quite dry, sleek, good acidity and limestone minerality, but doesn’t know what style it wishes to emulate. Very Good. About $30.
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Jackson Estate “Camelot Highlands” Chardonnay 2012, Santa Maria Valley. 14.5% alc. This chardonnay falls under the Kendall-Jackson rubric rather than Jackson Family Wines; does either entity really need more brands? Medium gold; vividly spicy, boldly ripe and tropical; smoke, toast, brown sugar; dense and chewy, almost viscous, carries opulence to ridiculous lengths; toasted coconut and marshmallow; crème brûlée; doesn’t even come close to palatable in my world. Not recommended. About $35.
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Jordan Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 13.5% alc. Pale gold color; a typical Jordan chardonnay, nothing bold or sumptuous, thank goodness, but well-balanced with keen acidity and an edge of vital limestone minerality to bolster pineapple-grapefruit flavors highlighted by notes of cloves and lilacs; very dry, clean, spare, elegant; oak is an echo rather than a presence. Excellent. About $30.
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Laetitia Estate Chardonnay 2012, Arroyo Grande Valley. 13.8% alc. I generally like Laetitia’s pinot noirs, but this chardonnay is beyond the pale. So: pale gold color; starts off clean and fresh, with pineapple-grapefruit and notes of roasted lemon and mango; then expands with extravagant richness and exaggerated spice, smoke and crème brûlée gone to the dark side; where are the mitigating acidity and minerality? Not recommended. About $18.
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La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Morelli Lane Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. 182 six-pack cases. Steven Kent can make clean, balanced and finely detailed chardonnay (see below), but under his La Rochelle label he turns more baroque and fantastical; this wine is so oaky and over-spiced that it felt harsh on my palate. It gets no recommendation from me. About $65.
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Mandolin Chardonnay 2012, Monterey. 13.5% alc. Clasp this well-made inexpensive chardonnay to your bosom as if it were a long-lost friend. Pale gold color; pineapple-mango-grapefruit, hints of jasmine, crystallized ginger and quince; a tad dusty-earthy; deft balance among acidity, spicy oak and spare limestone minerality; notes of citrus on the finish. Very Good+. About $10 and a Remarkable Bargain.
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Newton Chardonnay 2012, Napa County. 14% alc. Medium gold hue; warm and spicy, bright and bold, but nicely balanced and shapely, with a sheen of oak; ripe pineapple and grapefruit with a note of green apple; brisk acidity and a scintillating limestone finish. Quite attractive. Very Good+. About $28.
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Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay 2011, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. This cousin to the wine mentioned just above is both more ambitious and unfortunately far less balanced; medium gold color; bright, ripe, brassy citrus and stone-fruit scents and flavors; cloves, caramel, brown sugar; very tropical, buttered toast, meringue; yet strangely very dry and austere on the finish. Unpleasant and unpalatable. Not recommended. About $65.
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Olema Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. (Second label of Amici Cellars) Pale gold color; crisp, taut, fresh; apples, grapefruit and pineapple; spicy and lively, a little lean and sinewy but generous and expansive too; quite pleasant and tasty. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
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Paul Hobbs Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Uh-oh. Medium gold color; forthright and boldly spicy, forthright and deeply oaky. I couldn’t drink it. Not recommended. About $47.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Pale gold; ineffable weaving of grapefruit and pineapple, Golden Delicious apple, cloves, ginger and quince; very dry but juicy and savory; lovely heft and texture, lithe and supple, almost talc-like but riven and balanced by bright acidity. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Ramey Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; so clean and pure, such crystalline intensity, yet spare, elegant and subtle but with a core of natural richness; roasted lemon and lemon balm; notes of pineapple and nectarine; very dry, packed with limestone and flint minerality, but quite delicious, seductive, compelling. Why can’t all chardonnays be like this? Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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Reuling Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast. 14% alc. 350 cases. Major disappointment. Very pale gold; brightly spicy, boldly scented; nutmeg and cloves, pineapple and grapefruit caramelized in butter; cinnamon toast; too creamy on the one hand, too sharply spicy on the other, essentially unbalanced, paradoxically both cloying and austere. Not recommended. About $70.
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Steven Kent Winery Merrillie Chardonnay 2012, Livermore Valley. NA% alc. 504 cases. Pale gold color; spare, clean and fresh; lemon balm with notes of grapefruit rind, lemongrass and green tea; hints of nutmeg and cloves; heaps of limestone minerality buoying a lovely talc-like texture shot with shimmering acidity; let’s call it beautiful. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $34.
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Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley. 14.1% alc. Medium straw-gold color; a classic of balance and elegance; pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors infused with cloves and limestone; lovely weight and heft, that is to say feels dense and weightless simultaneously; clean, bright acidity for liveliness; subtle, supple oak influence and limestone minerality. Excellent. About $28.
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Souverain Chardonnay 2011, North Coast. 13.5% alc. Pale straw-gold hue; smoke, cloves and nutmeg; pineapple and pears; very dry, very spicy but dense with a crème brûlée element with emphasis on the brûlée; astringent grapefruit finish; bright acidity barely saves the day. Good only. About $16.
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William Allen moved into commercial production in 2010, after years as a “garagiste” and writer. This doesn’t mean that he makes a lot of wine. Two Shepherds as a one-man operation, truly a labor of love, so the wines are made in minute quantities; sorry about that. These are Rhone-style wines that see no new oak, are foot-stomped, use natural yeasts and generally exhibit remarkable purity and intensity. I love them; there, I said it.

These wines were samples for review. The labels used for illustration below are one vintage behind.

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The Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc 2012, Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley, is a blend of four white grapes typical of the southern Rhone Valley: 50 percent roussanne, 35 percent marsanne, 10 viognier and 5 grenache blanc; the wine ages an average of six months in neutral French oak barrels. The color is pale gold; aromas of quince and ginger, peach and spiced pear open to notes of bee’s-wax and camellia, sea-shell and limestone. The wine is rich, focused, enveloped in a structure of moderate and very attractive weight and body, clean, bright and crisp yet almost talc-like in texture. Quite dry, it offers a smoky, earthy and autumnal essence of peaches, nectarines and yellow plums, cloves and allspice and a backwash of limestone-and-flint minerality and salinity. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with grilled or roasted salmon or tuna, grilled mussels, trout with lemon-caper butter or shrimp salad. Production was 105 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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This time not Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley but Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley, for the Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc 2012; at first I thought that was a misprint. Santa Ynez, approved as an AVA in 1983, is in southeast Santa Barbara County and bears within it the sub-appellation of Santa Rita Hills. This grenache blanc offers an aura of greenness, by which I do not mean green as in grapes picked before they’re ripe, but green as in leafy green, as in sea-green, as in greengage, as in green apple. The color is pale straw-gold; notes of jasmine and honeysuckle are spare and ethereal, wreathed with tangerine and grapefruit and backed by shell-like minerals and a sort of sea-breeze salinity. A moderately soft and satiny texture is energized by brisk acidity and scintillating limestone minerality, while the finish brings in hints of green tea, orange rind and cloves. Eighty percent of the wine aged seven months in neutral oak, the other 20 percent six months in stainless steel. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17 with Thai salads, trout quenelles, watercress and cucumber sandwiches (crusts trimmed, of course). Production was 125 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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William Allen made one barrel of the Two Shepherds Trousseau Gris 2012, Fanucchi Vineyard, Russian River Valley, amounting to 25 cases, so while it’s a brilliant wine, the chances of any of My Readers getting their hands on a bottle are about as remote as Beyonce singing La Boheme in Bethlehem. The grape is trousseau gris, not widely found even in its home of the Jura mountains where France nestles against Switzerland. Being “gris,” the grape’s faintly rosy onion skin or grayish color yields a radiant coral hue when the wine is fermented on the skins; in other words, it’s a “white” wine made as if it were a red wine. The seductive and unusual bouquet delivers hints of orange zest and strawberries, melon and lemon balm with intriguing notes of parsley and celery and a touch of flint. It’s quite dry but juicy with ripe peach, red currant and rhubarb flavors deepened by the slight astringency of peach skin and almond skin, smoke, briers and brambles, all wrapped in clean acidity and a note of graphite minerality. The whole package is characterized by remarkable presence, resonance, transparency and vividness. The wine aged eight months in neutral oak barrels, four months on the lees. 13.8 percent alcohol. We drank this versatile bottle over several nights with a variety of food. Now through 2016 or ’17. Exceptional. About $25.
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So, here’s the red wine of this foursome. The Two Shepherds Syrah/Mourvèdre 2011 is a cross-county blend of 55 percent syrah from Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, and 45 percent mourvèdre from El Dorado. It aged 10 months in neutral French oak, the barrels four years old or older, four of those months on the lees. The color is a pronounced dark ruby with a magenta robe; fresh aromas of ripe red and black currants and plums are intensified by cloves, graphite, a hint of new leather and depths of briery, clean mossy earthiness. The wine is fine-grained and supple, riven by incisive acidity, decisively dry, dense and chewy, almost feral in its purity and individuality; despite projecting a vibrant and somewhat unbridled red and black fruit character and texture, the wine feels light on its feet, with nothing ponderous or opulent. 13.8 percent alcohol. Product was 40 cases. Drink now through 2018 or ’20 with grilled leg of lamb, a hot and crusty medium rare rib-eye steak just plunked from the coals, a gamy veal chop. Excellent. About $38.
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