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Enjoying Petite Sirah at Dark & Delicious

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I went to Dark & Delicious, the big Petite Sirah event that my friends, Jo and Jose Diaz, hold every year, through their P.S. I Love You advocacy group. As usual, it was at Kent Rosenblum’s Rock Wall Wine Co. facility,  in an airplane hangar at the old Alameda Naval Air Station, which was given up by the U.S. Defense Department years ago, and whose extensive buildings now are available for rent by private companies, like Rock Wall.

It was a gorgeous night; the island city of Alameda is located across the Bay from San Francisco, and I only wish I’d taken some photos of the S.F. skyline and the amazing new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, all lit up against a starry night sky. But I didn’t. Sorry ‘bout that.

I love Dark & Delicious for several reasons, among them the quality of the food. Jo and Jose recruit local restaurateurs and caterers, and because the wine is Petite Sirah (and “dark and delicious” are perfect descriptors for the wines), the food tends to be rich and heavy: lots of barbecue, sausages, paella, pork, beef, wild boar, Ahi tuna, not to mention irresistable chocolate. I have to admit I’m a bit of a ravenous carnivore at these things: it’s with a mild sense of guilt that I make my rounds of the tables, inhaling everything, stuffing myself silly. Food, or rather the enjoyment of it, is one of the distinctive properties of being alive, particularly for us humans, who, if we’re lucky, have access to such gorgeously prepared delicacies. If I was a young pup and just starting out, I might consider being a chef, like a guy I met at D&D, Tyler Stone, who was making Petite Sirah sorbet using liquid nitrogen with a huge machine that puffed out clouds of white smoke. Tyler reminded me of a young Tyler Florence or Bobby Flay–an ambitious, good-looking chef whose name just might be a household word someday (well, at least, in foodie households).

The Petite Sirahs themselves were amazing. A Mounts and a Tedeschi in particular blew me away. How good Petite Sirah has gotten over the years. It used to be a big, brawny, tannic wine, a sort of redneck cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon, but nowadays the best wines have polished up their images and become truly elegant–although they still have Petite Sirah’s swagger.

Just for the heck of it, here are the top Petite Sirahs I’ve reviewed for Wine Enthusiast over the last six months: Stags’ Leap 2010 Ne Cede Malis, Ballentine 2010 Fig Tree, Grgich Hills 2009 Miljenko’s Vineyard, J. Lohr 2011 Tower Road, Retro 2009 Old Vine, Raymond 2010, Galante 2010 Olive Hill, Peachy Canyon 2011, Ancient Peaks 2010 and Alta Colina 2010 Ann’s Block. Note the proliferation of Central Coast sources; Petite Sirah no longer is just a Napa-Sonoma phenomenon.

A tip of the hat to Jo and Jose, for always pulling D&D off with such artful precision. Unless you’ve done one of these big events yourself, you can’t even imagine all the prep work that goes into them–not to mention all the opportunities for disaster. That D&D goes off so effortlessly is a testimony to their organizational skills.

Speaking of events, here are a few I’ll be going to in the near future: World of Pinot Noir, the Pinot Noir Shootout, In Pursuit of Balance, the Paso Robles Cabernet Collective, the Chardonnay Symposium and the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. The Wine Bloggers Conference invited me back, after a lull of a couple years, to be on a panel for their Santa Barbara conclave, July 11-13, although I won’t know for two or three weeks if I can make it. I like getting out on the road and going to stuff, especially if I can bring Gus, which I usually can. If you’re planning on attending any of these events, look me up.Gus

 


New Reviews: Quady

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Back in the day I used to taste a lot of Quady. It’s been a few years now, and it’s good to see they’re right on course. Quady got their start in the late 1970s when they began specializing in the fairly arcane area of sweet dessert wines. They’re still at it. I’ve always had a soft spot for underdog wineries, of which Quady is certainly one: Americans aren’t drinking many dessert wines these days, for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, Quady persists, and more power to them. These are wonderful wines; the whites in particular are very low in alcohol and delicious.

NOTE ON THE 3 ELECTRA MOSCATOS: I enjoyed these on their own, but I also tried adding some sliced ripe strawberries, and some good sparkling water, along with a couple ice cubes. Very refreshing!

Quady 2018 Red Electra Moscato (California); $15. This is the red version of Quady’s Electra Moscato, which includes the white and rosé bottlings. It’s just as sweet as the others, with residual sugar of 17.6%. The color is ruby-garnet, and translucent. Like its siblings, it’s utterly delicious, with cherry, raspberry, fig, vanilla cream and white pepper, accompanied by a bit of fizziness. Very high acidity provides a cleansing finish. A great success at this price. I have to say how much I enjoy all three of these Moscatos; they’re super-drinkable, at low alcohol (5.5%). Score: 92 points.

Quady 2018 Electra Moscato (California); $15. This white wine pours clear and straw yellow. It looks dry—but it isn’t! One sniff tells you it’s a sweetie. Honey, orange blossom, apricot preserve and a subtle clover-leaf aroma make you want to taste it immediately. It is sweet enough to drink as a dessert wine with, say, vanilla butter cookies, or even on its own. The sweetness is balanced with refreshing acidity (the total acidity is a high 9.2). All in all, a bright, clean, satisfying wine whose low alcohol—a mere 4.5%–may inspire you to drink a lot of it. It’s also just a little fizzy. Food-wise, I like the winery’s recommendations, which range from fruit salad to Indian food to spicy Asian. I’ll give this wine 91 points for its sheer likeability.

Quady 2018 Electra Moscato Rose (California); $15. Same  price as the white Electra Moscato, a percent higher in alcohol, but still, at a mere 5.5%, pretty low. The blush color is a pretty salmon-pink. It’s a bit sweeter, but the main difference is the range of flavors: deeper, fruitier, more flowery, more honeyed. With lower acidity than its white sister, it’s also more mellow. Both wines are just fine. Tremendously versatile at the table, and a perfect warm-weather sipper. Tasting this rosé on a warm summer day, I think of beaches, pools, gardens. I think of watermelon, ham, fried chicken, pot stickers, Chinese roast pork, sushi, prosciutto-wrapped melon, cheesecake, vanilla ice cream, butter cookies. Score: 91.

Quady 2017 Essentia Orange Muscat (California): $23. In this sweet wine, you’ll find delicate flavors of Mandarin orange, apricot and honey. The residual sugar, for you factoid freaks, is 17.4%, which is high, but the acidity (8.6%) also is very high, which balances the wine, so it’s not insipid. There’s a wonderful creaminess, which I suppose comes from brief oak barrel aging, and also from the nature of the Orange Muscat grapes from which the wine was made. Alcohol is high—15%, due to some fortification with a brandy-like spirit, which stops the fermentation so that some residual sugar remains. I would certainly enjoy this wine with cheesecake. Score: 90 points.

Quady NV Palomino Fino (California); $32.  Most Americans are unfamiliar with sherry-style wines, which of course originate from Spain but have been reproduced successfully here in California. This bottling was made from the Palomino grape variety—the real sherry grape in Spain–grown in the Central Valley city of Fresno, a hot area where Palomino thrives. It’s made in the authentic sherry style, using flor yeast and a solera system. The alcohol is fairly high, 17.5%, but it has to be with sherry, which is fortified with a little brandy. The wine, darker than a regular fino, is absolutely dry, with a yeasty, nutty flavor and elusive notes of macaroons, orange marmalade and spices. The oxidative taste is delicate; the freshness won’t last long after the bottle is opened. This is an acquired taste, but once you understand it, it’s addictive. I would drink this with classic Spanish aperitifs, such as garlickly potato salad, roasted almonds, grilled shrimp and sausage, olives, scrambled eggs, croquettes, calamari. Score: 90.

Quady NV Starboard Batch 88 (California); $25.  Proprietor Andrew Quady turns to sweet red wine for inspiration. This is made from traditional Port varieties. It’s deeply colored, but an orange rim at the edge is a good sign, suggesting immediate gratification. Your first impression of the taste is intense sweetness, the result not only of the residual sugar (13.6%) but of soft acids and mellow tannins. There’s a lot of deliciousness here: blackberry jam, sugared espresso, plum sauce and chocolate-raspberry truffle. There’s also a pleasing heat from high alcohol (20%). It’s basically a California tawny port: no need to age, just drink up now. I could see sipping this on a cold winter evening with chocolate brownies. Score: 91.


A wine tasting in San Francisco

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I went to a great wine tasting on Friday, “Flights,” put on by ZAP, the Zinfandel consumer and trade group I’ve known and enjoyed for many decades. The event was held in the elegant, posh Palace Hotel, in San Francisco.

A “flight” is a series of individual wines, tasted and evaluated side by side. All of the wines share a common theme. In this case, the theme was that they were all comprised of Zinfandel, or of “related” grape varieties.

These “related” varieties, which included Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and Carignan[e], are not related to Zinfandel in any ampelographic way. Instead, the relationship consists in the historical fact that Zinfandel was frequently interplanted with the other varieties by [mainly] Italian-American immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries; the wines made from them (the grapes were often co-fermented) are called “field blends.” These old vineyards, once threatened with being torn out for housing development or with being replaced by more popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, have been rediscovered over the years, with the vines lovingly tended. Some of the very interesting wines made from them were included in the tasting.

There were four flights, 13 wines in all. Here are my tasting notes, followed by a brief discussion. My notes follow my traditional pattern: starting with color/appearance, then proceeding through aromatic notes to flavors and finish.

First flight: 100% Zinfandel

McCay Cellars 2015 “Faith Lot 13 Estate,” Lodi. $32, 13.8% alcohol. Bright, clean. Red berries, esp. raspberries. Lots of peppery spice, sandalwood, briary notes. Delicious! Medium-bodied, elegant, claret-like. Good acidity, very well-balanced. Score: 93.

Easton Wines 2015 Estate, Shenandoah Valley (Amador County). $35, 15.1%. Darker, riper than the McCoy. Prune and dark chocolate aromas. Flavors of Dr. Pepper, cassis, tapenade. Full-bodied, a little porty and hot. Score: 87.

Day Zinfandel 2016 Grist Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley. $43, 15.2%. Made by Ehren Jordan, of Failla. A stellar wine, classic Dry Creek Zin. Good garnet color. Complex, alluring aroma: earthy, briary, spicy, tobacco, raspberry, toffee, licorice. Super-spicy, deep, juicy, fabulous complexity. No heat at all, refreshing acidity. Score: 94.

Hendry Wines 2015 Block 7, Napa Valley. $36, 15.4%. Darkest of all. Exotic aromas: wild mushrooms, blackberries, licorice, pepper. Deep, dark chocolate, berry and coffee flavors. Full-bodied, spicy, full-throttle Zin. Long finish. Will age. Score: 90.

Second flight: Carignan.

Ravenswood Winery 2015 Angeli Vineyard, Alexander Valley. $42, 14.5%. 100% Carignan, grown in the hot region of Cloverdale. Very dark color, purple-black. Aromas of meat (teriyaki beef), blackberry, coffee, black raspberry, spice. Very deeply flavored, enormous mouthfeel, yet elegant and balanced. Very good. Score: 92.

Ridge Vineyards 2015 “Geyserville”, Alexander Valley. $48, 14.5%. A blend of 70% Zinfandel, 15% Carignane, 12% Petite Sirah and 3% Alicante Bouschet. Very dark color, very ripe. Chocolate, blackberry, coffee, spice flavors. Tastes hotter than the official 14.5%. Some raisins, prunes, lots of sweet, savory fruit. Very tannic. Too ripe for me. Score: 88.

Bedrock Wine Co. 2017 Papera Ranch “Heritage,” Russian River Valley. $60, 14.6%. From Morgan Twain Peterson, son of the Flights moderator, Joel Peterson. From a vineyard planted in 1934. 49% Zinfandel, 44% Carignan, 7% “other.” Very dark. Complex aromas of spice, licorice, mincemeat, blackberry, blueberry. Insanely rich and sweet, glyceriney. A bit clumsy now, needs a few years to settle down. Score: 89.

Third flight: Petite Sirah.

Turley Wine Cellars 2016 Hayne Vineyard Petite Sirah, Napa Valley. $75, 14.4%. Very, very dark. Big, eruptive aromas of meat, fig, briar, blackberry, cocoa. Full-bodied and stuffed with big, sweet tannins. Leathery tastes and feeling, with more sweetness emerging mid-palate: sandalwood, peppermint patty. Delicious, gulpable. Score: 90.

Beekeeper Cellars 2012 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel, Rockpile. $NA, 14.75%. Contains 20% Petite Sirah. The vineyard is between 1,200’ – 1,500’. Good, dark saturated color. Impressive aromatics: black currants, raspberries, spices, coffee-toffee, vanilla. Very rich, sweet, fruity, long finish. Will age, but fully drinkable now. Score: 92.

Matrix Winery 2016 Bacigalupi Vineyard Red Wine, Russian River Valley. $38, 15.6%. This is a 50-50 blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The color is inky black, impenetrable to light. The nose is muted at first, gradually suggesting earthy tobacco, blackberries and spice. Very tannic, and pretty oaky. Oodles of sweet black fruits, cinnamon bun, cocoa, with some overripe raisins and heat on the finish. Needs time. Score: 90.

Fourth flight: Alicante Bouschet.

St. Amant 2017 Alicante Bouschet, Lodi. $21, 12.93%. Good translucent garnet color, so much lighter than the Petite Sirahs. Lovely, uplifted raspberry, vanilla, cedar and spice aromas and flavors. Pinot Noir-like in texture, silky and satiny, with delicate raspberry fruit and refreshing acidity. Very fine, delicate, delicious. Score: 91.

Once & Future 2016 Teldeschi Vineyard Frank’s Block Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley. $50, 14.8%. Inky-black color, no doubt from the Zinfandel and Carignane, which constitute 88% of the blend. The remainder is Alicante. Deep, bold, assertive aromas: packed with wild blackberries, earth, tobacco, leather, clove, anise. Full-bodied, lots of sweet fruit, figs and currants. Super-high quality. Score: 92.

Hartford Family Vineyard 2016 Dina’s Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel, Russian River Valley. $60, 14.9%. Mainly Zinfandel, with 6% Alicante Bouschet and a few drops of other, undefined varieties. The color is very dark. The aroma is spicy and earthy, with notes of blackberries, cassis, blueberries and cocoa nib, as well as some overripe raisins. Dry and tannic, a big, ripe barbecue wine, although a little too robust for my taste. Score: 89.

The surprise of the tasting was the Alicante Bouschets, so out of place among those dark, tannic, heavy wines. What a pity more California winemakers don’t play with it, although who can blame them? The public is hardly ready for yet another obscure varietal. Among the Zins, Carignanes and Petite Sirahs, the Zinfandels showed best. Zinfandel is a noble variety in this family; the others can rise to the occasion, but always show some rusticity.


New Wine Reviews: a California Zinfandel, and a mixed bag from Michigan

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Every once in a while, I still get some wine to review, even though I retired three years ago. The latest batch includes a very good Zinfandel from Sonoma County, and eight wines from the Great Lakes State, Michigan.

Beekeeper 2016 Montecillo Vineyard (Sonoma County); $65. This is one of those big, galumphing, blood-warming Zins that brings thoughts of summertime barbecued ribs or wintertime hearty stews. The grapes got really, really ripe, soaking up the sun in their vineyard, 1,500 feet above Sonoma Valley. First the flavors hit cherries—then they soar into blackberries—and then finally burst onto the raisins and black currants that high alcohol so often inspires in Sonoma Zin. (The official reading is 14.5%, but I suspect it’s higher.) The tannins are considerable, but they’re Zinny tannins, furry and slightly bitter, like the skins of mulberries. The wine spent 15 months in 25% new oak barrels, but there’s nothing oaky about it, just an aura of vanilla and caramel, although the wood also lends tannins. Wonderful acidity, thorough dryness, a very nice, deliciously voluptuous Zinfandel, although it is on the pricy side. Score: 92.

MICHIGAN WINES

A recent (Nov. 6) article in the Oakland Press (in this case, Oakland, Michigan, not my hometown of Oakland, California) was headlined, “Michigan’s wine industry flourishes with powerful combination of tourism, agriculture.”

The article stressed the “tremendous growth” of Michigan’s wine industry, which contributed an aggregate $5.4 billion to the state’s coffers. The leading wine production area is perhaps Old Mission Peninsula, a cool-climate growing region of 19,200 acres, a smallish appellation equal in size to California’s Carmel Valley, and containing only nine wineries. Located on the 45th parallel, the same as Bordeaux, Piedmont and Willamette Valley, the peninsula lies in the northeast corner of Lake Michigan; winters are cold, but are tempered by the proximity of water on both sides, while summertime growing conditions are ideal: the temperature seldom rises above 80 degrees, and nights are as cool as they are in California’s wine valleys.

The trade group Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula sent me these wines for review:

Chateau Chantal 2016 Proprietor’s Reserve Trio (Old Mission Peninsula); $27. This is a Meritage-style wine, although the Merlot and Cabernet Franc have a tiny drop of Pinot Noir in there–why, I don’t know, but it doesn’t hurt. The alcohol is 13.5%. I’m giving it a good score because it shows real Bordeaux flavors and suppleness, even though it’s not particularly complex or ageable. If you’d given it to me blind, I might have guessed Italy, but certainly not Michigan! It’s fully dry, with firm but pliant tannins and a good bite of acidity. But the best sign of all is that it gets easier and nicer to drink as you drain the bottle. Not all wines can say that! The winemaker suggests drinking with “rich meat-based pastas with traditional Italian red sauce” and I totally agree. Score: 90.

2 Lads Winery 2016 Cabernet Franc (Old Mission Peninsula); $35. With 15% Merlot, this wine shows some green pea flavors alongside the cherries, blueberries and spices, in the fashion of a Loire Cab Franc. It’s fully dry (good), with nice, silky tannins and a mouthwatering bite of acidity, as well as some subtle oak. I mention the Merlot because it brings added weight and texture to the Cab Franc, which on its own can be light. The alcohol is a refreshingly low 13.3%. As tasty as the wine is, it isn’t an ager; if anything, it will go downhill fast. So drink up soon. Score: 88.

Hawthorne 2016 Rose Table Wine (Old Mission Peninsula): $12. Rosé is in many respects the hardest wine to make. It requires the delicacy of white, but with at least some of the body of red. This wine largely succeeds. It’s medium-bodied and rather darkly colored for a blush; the blend is based on Cabernet Franc, with lesser amounts of Pinot Meunier, Gamay, Merlot and Pinot Noir. No oak was used, so all you get is the fruit: raspberries and strawberries, with a tobacco spiciness. Acidity is high, although not searing. Best of all, for me, is the dryness: absolute and total, with lowish (13.2%) alcohol. All in all, a success. The winemaker recommends drinking it with chicken, salmon or game, but I think the range is far greater, because the wine is so versatile. I’d even drink it with a juicy steak. Score: 89.

Black Star Farms 2016 Arcturos Sauvignon Blanc (Leelanau Peninsula); $18. I have definite expectations of what I want a Sauvignon Blanc to be: dry, crisp and elegant (as in Sancerre), with a citrus and tropical fruit taste and, sometimes (as in Marlborough) a tang of green gooseberry. It should never be sweet, as too many California Sauv Blancs were in the 1990s. This bottle satisfies on many levels—not all. It is indeed dry and crisp, and there is a tanginess, even a spritziness, that refreshes the palate. I’m not sure if there’s any oak; sadly, the tech notes don’t say (which they should). If there is, it’s subtle. There is a bit of heaviness that’s hard to define, except that the wine lacks that delicate finesse a light white wine needs. I’ll rate it at 87 points and say that it’s a pretty good buy for a wine to drink with a firm, full-flavored fish, such as halibut. The Leelanau Peninsula, like Old Mission Peninsula, sits at the 45-degree latitude near Lake Michigan, and is thus cool.

Chateau Grand Traverse 2017 Dry Riesling (Old Mission Peninsula); $13. A lovely white wine, light and delicate, perfect for summertime fare, or now that we’re headed into cold weather, light lunches or starters like smoked trout, scrambled eggs, a leafy salad of greens and citrus fruits. As the label states, it’s mostly dry, yet there’s plenty of rich, ripe green apple and peach fruit, white flowers and Riesling’s slight hint of petrol, with honey showing up on the finish. Refreshing acidity provides a grapefruit tang; almost effervescent, but not really, just mouth-awakening. The alcohol is only 12%. At this price, I’d buy it by the case. Score: 90.

Mari Vineyards 2017 Gamay Noir (Old Mission Peninsula): $26. I think of the Gamay Noir grape as midway between the light, refreshing fruitiness of the Gamay varietal, which is what French Beaujolais is made from, and the more serious Pinot Noir. This is a light-bodied wine, silky and smooth, with pronounced acidity and flavors of sour cherry, cranberry, cola, orange zest and sandalwood. It’s bone dry, and the alcohol is a mere 13%. Not particularly complex or sophisticated, but pleasant enough. I’d call it gulpable: drink up and don’t overthink. Score: 87.

Brys Estate 2016 Reserve Pinot Noir (Old Mission Peninsula); $32. California and Oregon have nothing to fear from Michigan in the Pinot Noir department, to judge by this wine. It’s okay in its dryness and zesty acidity, as well as the gentle tannins and silkiness you expect from Pinot. But there’s very little substance. Some cherry-berry fruit, a sprinkle of white pepper and cinnamon, a touch of oak. But the complexity Pinot Noir needs to go beyond being a drinkable little wine to a truly fine one just isn’t there. Score: 86.

Bowers Harbor Vineyard 2017 Unoaked Chardonnay (Michigan); $16. I’ve tasted a ton of unoaked Chardonnays from many countries but I have to say this is not one of the better ones. Chardonnay doesn’t need oak to succeed, but it does have to be ripe and opulent. This wine is neither. It’s watery and bland, and moreover has some unpleasant green notes, like bell pepper. Score: 81.

 


New Wine Reviews: En Garde

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I’ve given En Garde, which is based in Kenwood (Sonoma County), lots of 90-plus scores over the years, and my successors at Wine Enthusiast have followed suit. I taught my young Jedis well! The winery specializes in the two hottest wines in California, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. The owner/winemaker is Hungarian-American Csaba Szakál; his first wine was a 2007 Diamond Mountain Cabernet to which I gave 95 points and a “Cellar Selection’ designation. (I wish I could taste it now to see how it’s doing.) Judging by the wine wines, En Garde remains focused and on-track.

En Garde 2013 Adamus Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $100. This is a reserve-style selection from the winery’s block of the Sori Bricco Vineyard. The price is midway between the Bijou du Roi ($120, 95 points) and the regular Diamond Mountain ($90, 92 points), both of which also are from Sori Bricco. This is certainly a delicious, important Cabernet Sauvignon, rich and opulent, but I wonder why En Garde needs three wines from the same vineyard. With ultra-smooth tannins, complex black currant, green olive and oak flavors, and refreshing acidity, it’s a crowd-pleaser, but really, all three wines are so similar that most people could not detect any difference. Still, kudos to Csaba. He has amazing grapes and he is making amazing, ageable wines. Score: 93 points.

En Garde 2013 Touché Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $180. This is the winery’s most expensive Cabernet. It’s a blend of their best barrels from their Diamond Mountain and Mount Veeder vineyards. It’s also, with their Bijou du Roi Cabernet, the oakiest of the six new releases (100% new French for 28 months). There’s a family resemblance with En Garde’s other 2013s: concentrated blackcurrant, cassis and green olive flavors, plus in this case a bacony, umami tang that adds to the pleasure. Cedary, toasty oak. Thick tannins, and acidity that’s fine and cleansing. If there’s a qualitative difference here, and there is, it’s in the purity. There’s a structural refinement that’s hard to put into words, a wholesome completeness that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Adjectives that come to mind are smooth, impeccable, dramatic, authoritative, delicious, lithe, and let’s not forget ageworthy: I would drink this now, but it should glide effortlessly through the decades. Score: 96 points.

En Garde 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mount Veeder); $90. I fell in love with this wine with the first sip. Profound! So pure, so refined, so essence of Napa Valley mountain Cabernet. The vineyard is above the fogline so it gets more sun than down on the valley floor; there’s a ton of ripe, flashy blackcurrants and blueberries and blackberries. Oak, too: 67% new French for 21 months, which adds clove and vanilla notes. The wine feels dense and important, if you know what I mean: nothing flimsy here, just solid, packed juiciness and complexity. Also lots of mountain tannins that give it a certain astringency. Parker gave this wine 93 points. I’ll go to 95 points. You can drink it now, or over the next 20 years.

En Garde 2014 Gold Ridge Pinot Noir (Green Valley); $55. I’m giving this the highest score of En Garde’s five new Pinot Noirs. The vineyard is near Sebastopol, planted in the famous Goldridge soils I wrote about years ago in my first book. This soil type is very fine and sandy, with wonderful drainage; Ehren Jordan calls it “rain forest desert.” The Pinots grown in Goldridge have a delicacy that’s otherwise rare in the Russian River Valley, of which the Green Valley appellation is a subset in the chilly, foggy southwest corner. The wine, whose alcohol is 13.5%, is exceedingly fine. It first strikes you for deliciousness: savory essence of raspberries, a vein of red licorice, a taste of wild mushroom, the sweetness of roasted oak, a pleasantly titillating clove-and-white pepper spiciness. Then you notice how light and silky it is, how “transparent” to use that overworked word. Another sip; a third; the wine is addictive. A Pinot Noir triumph, superb to drink now. If I had a case, I’d drink a bottle a year. Score: 97 points.

En Garde 2013 Le Bijou du Roi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $120. This mountain appellation in the Mayacamas Mountains always gives intensely concentrated, yet tannic, Cabernets than can take a lot of time in the cellar. The grapes are from the Sori Bricco Vineyard, which has been source to Cabernets from Nickel & Nickel and Von Strasser—not bad company to be in! The wine is, in a word, immense. The color is very dark, almost impenetrable. The aroma is young and intense: fresh black currants, green olives, oak (100% new French), and a lanolin note, like warm candle wax. In the mouth the flavors of blackcurrants and ripe blackberries have a floral edge of violet petals and anise. Very delicious, very complex. But those tannins are strong. Of course, they’re as finely-meshed as modern winemaking techniques can achieve, and there’s no reason you can’t drink the wine now. Yet in a proper cellar it should stride effortlessly through the next two decades. Great job. Alcohol 14.5%, 112 cases produced. Score: 95 points.

En Garde 2014 Reserve Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $70. The thing to keep in mind about most reserves is that (a) the winery makes a decision in the first place to have one and then, having made that choice, (b) the winemaker chooses the “best barrels” that will comprise it. The selection is therefore arbitrary. In my long experience, reserves aren’t necessarily better, although they are more expensive—sometimes considerably so. This reserve is 15 dollars more than En Garde’s single vineyard Pinots, and 25 dollars more than the regular Russian River Valley. It is a composite of the single vineyard wines: Olivet Court, Starkey Hill and Gold Ridge. It’s a close approximation of them all, made in the winery’s style: rich, dense, layered, complex. It’s also the oakiest of the bunch. The result is delicious: red currants, licorice, cranberries, tea, beet root, wild mushroom, cloves, anise, wrapped into firm tannins. Is it “better” than the rest? Not really. But it sure is good. Score: 94 points.

En Garde 2014 Starkey Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $55. I tasted this alongside the Olivet Court, and the difference was stark. The Starkey, which comes from the Sebastopol area, is much lighter in body and more delicate in structure. It’s also more transparent of the terroir, and less fruit-forward, not so much about raspberries and cranberries, although they’re there, but more subtle sensations. The tea, mushroom, beet, cocoa dust and anise flavors of Olivet Court are there, but the main difference is how light and ethereal this wine feels. The alcohol is only 13.2%. The wine has a grip that’s partly from zippy acidity, and partly from unresolved tannins, and the finish is absolutely dry. Production was 138 cases. I suspect most people will drink this wine soon, and that’s fine; give it some decanting, and enjoy with ahi tuna, lamb, a great grilled steak or wild mushroom risotto. But if you like your Russian River Valley Pinots with some bottle age, it will develop nicely over the next ten years, at least. Score: 93 points.

En Garde 2014 Olivet Court Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $55. What I like about this Pinot is that it has big, flashy, exuberant flavors, but also a complexity that gives it intellectual interest. The fruits suggest raspberries, cranberries, red currants and orange zest. The complexity derives from the earth, with tea, mushroom, beet root, anise and clove notes, finished with the sweet, smoky vanilla of new French oak. It’s a good wine, solid and well-made, with fine acidity and silky tannins. Should be more interesting in a few years, and could go to ten years while dropping sediment and purifying. The vineyard is west of Santa Rosa, and is said to be planted to vines more than 35 years of age. The alcohol is 14.1%. Score: 92 points.

En Garde 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $90. A first bottle was severely corked. The second showed well, displaying a plethora of ripe, Napa-esque Cabernet flavors: blackberries, black currants, cassis liqueur, blueberries, pencil lead and dark shaved chocolate, accented by 60% new French oak aging for 28 months. The tannins are strong, as you’d expect from Diamond Mountain, and there’s good, savory, balancing acidity. I would cellar this for 4-5 years. Score: 92 points.

En Garde 2014 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $45. It’s true that this regional Pinot isn’t quite as concentrated as En Garde’s single-vineyard bottlings, which it’s a blend of. But that is in its favor, because it’s the most drinkable of the winery’s five Pinot Noirs at this time. It’s quite classic, with lively acidity highlighting flavors of raspberries, cranberries, balsam, crispy bacon, orange zest, tea, pepper and cloves. Bone dry, with moderate alcohol (14.3%) and a silky mouthfeel, it’s not an ager, but it’s a real beauty for drinking now, and every bit as good as the Olivet Court, which costs ten bucks more. Production was 130 cases. Score: 92 points.

En Garde 2013 Tempranillo (El Dorado); $40. Body-wise, this wine is like a full-sized Pinot Noir, veering into a lighter Merlot, but with the spiciness of Zinfandel. With alcohol of 14.4%, it features oaky, fruity flavors of red licorice, red currants, cocoa nib and teriyaki beef, with soft tannins and good acidity, all wrapped into a silky texture. It’s a good, drinkable wine, although not particularly Tempranillo-esque, whatever that means in California. The grapes were grown at an altitude of 2,800 feet in the Sierra Foothills, where the summer weather is quite hot and dry during the daytime, but chilly at night. The winemaker interestingly blended in a little Petit Verdot—for structure? Steak would be the ideal partner, unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case a mushroomy lasagna will suffice. Score: 88 points.

En Garde 2013 Greenville Summit Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $70. I can’t say I found this Cab in the same league as the winery’s Napa Valley bottlings. It’s sound, it’s good, it’s drinkable, but it simply lacks their lush, rich opulence. The blackcurrant and cassis fruit, the oliveaceous notes are there, but the wine is quite tannic and dry and tart, and there’s something herbal: maybe it’s the Hungarian oak that gives it a dill weed aroma. I would decant this wine before drinking it; it should provide decent drinking over the next 4-5 years. Score: 87 points.


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