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What I like, and why

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I’m told, mainly by my friends in wine P.R., that the topic of my palate is of some interest to winemakers. It’s flattering, I guess, to think that people try to discover trends in my reviews; and certainly, the trends are there to be found. I don’t like table wines with residual sugar. I don’t like dirty, flawed wines. I don’t care for green, unripe tannins.

Beyond that, it’s harder to pinpoint just what makes for a “95” as opposed to an “88.” Words such as “intense,” “complex” and “brilliant” can only begin to describe qualities that are, essentially, indescribable. So I thought it would be worthwhile to look at some of my highest-scoring wines over the last 3 months and try to analyze just what it was about them that I liked.

My highest-scoring wines since June 1 consisted almost entirely of Pinot Noir, sparkling wines and Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blends. There were one or two Chardonnays and a handful of Syrahs or red Rhône blends. Pinot Noir clearly dominated the field, though. Why? Because of the great distance this grape and wine have come in California; also, because of Pinot Noir’s inherent nobility. Again, “noble” is a difficult word to explain when applied to wine, but I think most readers will understand.

My top Pinots — almost all from the great 2007 vintage — were a pair from Occidental Coast (Occidental Coast and Two Daughters vineyards), a duo from Lynmar (Hawk Hill and Quail Hill Bliss Block), three Faillas (Vivien, Occidental Ridge, Hirsch), two from Dutton Estate (Thomas Road and Karmen Isabella), Etude’s Heirloom bottling, Patz & Hall’s Jenkins Ranch, two from De Coelo (Terra Neuma and Quintus), J’s regular 2007 and a Roessler from Ollie & Hazel’s Block. Except for the Etude, each of these is from the far Sonoma Coast or darned close to it (for example, Green Valley). That has got to be more than coincidence, and it is. It’s fair to say that  the “true” Sonoma Coast is the most exciting place for Pinot Noir in California.

My top sparklers were Iron Horse’s non-vintage Joy!, the same winery’s 2002 Brut Late Disgorged, Schramsberg’s 2002 J. Schram, Mumm Napa’s 2001 DVX and a blush, Roederer’s L’Ermitage Brut Rosé. All are from the North Coast, obviously, and all are from producers with long track records of sparkling wine who never stinted from their devotion to it, through all the vicissitudes of the market. The best of California sparkling wines can stand next to anything from Champagne.

My top Cabernets were from Far Niente (2006 Oakville), Etude (2005 Oakville), W.H. Smith (2007 Purple Label, from Howell Mountain), Atlas Peak’s 2005, also from Howell Mountain, Beaulieu’s ‘06 Private Reserve, Stonestreet’s 2005 Black Cougar Ridge from Alexander Valley, a surprisingly good Hanna 2005 Reserve, also from Alexander Valley, and Corison’s outstanding 2005 Kronos. Some observations: Napa Valley and its sub-regions continue to dominate; no surprise. Howell Mountain again and again proves its greatness. The Alexander Valley Cabs come, of course, not from the “valley” itself but from the high ridges and hills on its east side, which are the western slopes of the Mayacamas. These are world-class wines that easily deserve the highest scores.

The one Chardonnay that crashed this exclusive list was Gary Farrell’s 2007, from the Rochioli Vineyard. Almost nobody gets Rochioli fruit, but Gary Farrell goes way back with that family, and even though he doesn’t own the winery anymore, I guess the new owners still have a deal. The lone Syrah at the top was another one from Failla, the 2007 Estate, from the Sonoma Coast.

Ehren Jordan, Failla’s owner/winemaker, got Wine Enthusiast’s “#1 Wine of the Year” award last year for his 2006 Phoenix Ranch Syrah. This young man has surged to the top in California. If you’ve never visited his estate vineyard, in the wild coastal highlands above Fort Ross, do so, but bring your four-wheel drive and GPS. You’ll probably get lost, and cell phones don’t work in those tortured mountains.

  1. That Etude is big stuff – good stuff as well!

  2. Yeah, Etude is really too big for Pinot Noir but for some reason it handles it well. Kind of like Queen Latifa — she’s a big woman but very beautiful.

  3. How about another list, Steve–top wines we can afford. Your other worldly list for extravagent times is so 2007. We’ve moved on. No one can afford to buy the best. So what about those that stand out from the crowd of under $30 wines, or $25 wines? We’re in a paradigm shift (for a spot-on critique of our former culture of excess, read David Brooks column from yesterday: “The Next Culture War” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/29/opinion/29brooks.html?em )

  4. Tom, great point. Keep in mind that Wine Enthusiast regularly publishes “Best Buys” and at the end of every year we have a Best Values issue. I’ve always stuck up for the average consumer (being one myself). My blog today, however, wasn’t about value, it was about my highest-scoring wines, and unfortunately they tended to be expensive.

  5. Dennis Schaefer says:

    In other words, you have a North Coast palate?

  6. Dennis, I don’t know if it’s “North Coast.” I don’t think so! I like a lot of Central Coast wines, and I love good wine from anywhere in the world. I think my palate is like most people’s — if it’s good wine, I like it.

  7. I’m a little prejudiced where Failla is concerned, but not so much that I can’t see their wines for what they are. The Syrah is truly amazing. The 2006 blew me away and I love the 2007. But that 2007 Keefer Ranch…GOOD GOD! It’s what the Burgundians would love to produce.

  8. I have known all along that you have a “North” palate, but I always thought it was North Berkeley or North Beach.

  9. Tom you have a good palate! And by the way thanks for joining the 100 point brigade. “We aim to serve.”

  10. Guess I’d better pull out some Oregon pinots on Friday, to see if we can tempt your palate to move a little further north.

  11. This was a nice read into the mind (tastebuds?) of Steve Heimoff.

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