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Top 10 best wines of the week

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Six Pinot Noirs, four Cabernet Sauvignons/Bordeaux blends. Those were my ten top-scoring wines this week.

(I know I said I wouldn’t use “Bordeaux blend” anymore, but really, what’s the alternative? “Cabernet-based wine made with traditional Bordeaux varieties” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. I refuse to say “Meritage-style.” And what do you say when the wine’s a blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc? So I’m stuck with “Bordeaux blend.”)

You’ll find my full reviews, with point scores, in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast.

Here are the Pinots:

Nine Barrel 2007. This is a Jackson Family Farms brand. It’s a blend of some of their top Russian River Valley vineyards, which tells me that a lot of it must come from around Forestville. Alcohol is fairly high, 15%, but the wine is smooth and balanced, IMHO. Only 200 cases were produced. Bottle price is $90. Awesome wine, tremendous, dark, and a great expression of this fabled vintage.

Foxen 2008 Julia’s Vineyard. From this esteemed vineyard in the hills of the northern Santa Maria Valley. Winemaker Bill Wathan, a true Pinot hero of Santa Barbara County, is at the top of his game. Juicy and fresh. 670 cases, 14.6%, $54.

Chalk Hill 2007 Estate. Tasted the day Fred Furth sold his winery to Bill Foley. It’s a Cabernet-based Bordeaux blend, and utterly delicious. Chalk Hill has been just soaring lately in all their wines. 5,000 cases, 15.1%, $90.

Lang & Reed 2005 Right Bank. L&R specializes in Cabernet Franc. The name “Right Bank” pays hommage to St. Emilion; this wine is a blend of Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cab Sauvignon, in that order. Light and elegant. Bring on the steak! 248 cases, 14.5%, $60.

Silverado 2006 Solo Cabernet Sauvignon. Shows the iron fist of Stags Leap in the hard tannins. But this is a very noble wine, 100% Cab, with lots of new oak. A solid success for 2006. 2,800 cases, 14.7%, $90.

Marimar Estate 2007 La Masía Pinot Noir. From the estate Don Miguel Vineyard, in Green Valley. Marimar’s Pinots typically are dense and fairly tannic when young, and relatively low in alcohol, especially compared to the warmer, northern Russian River Valley. This bottling is enormously complex. I would give it 5-6 years in a good cellar. 3,658 cases, 14.1%, $49.

Marimar Estate 2007 Stony Block.

Marimar Estate 2007 Earthquake Block.

Both of these wines are also from Don Miguel Vineyard. The former is more minerally, the latter fatter and fruitier. All three bottlings are kissing cousins, as it were.

Dragonette 2008 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir. The Dragonettes are John and Steve. They get their hands on some of the best grapes in Santa Barbara, including, of course, Fiddlestix, Kathy Josephs’ love child in the Santa, oops I mean Sta. Rita Hills. 200 cases, 14.2%, $45.

Star Lane 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. One of a handful of Cabernets from the eastern part of Santa Ynez Valley (now officially Happy Canyon) I’ve ever drunk with pleasure. Drier and leaner than Napa. Call it Bordeaux-style. 6,000 cases, 15.1%, $42.

Have a great weekend!

  1. Bill Ward says:

    Amen, brother, on the Lang & Reed Right Bank — you can almost see Cheval Blanc from there — and the Star Lane.
    And to the notion of dispensing with meritage terminology.

  2. Brilliant!

    Happy to see you doing this here.

  3. Melissa Stackhouse says:

    Thanks for the positive buzz on the La Crema Nine Barrel Pinot noir!

  4. Steve, by excluding 100-point scale ratings and including alcohol by volume, you have, in my opinion, instantly made these reviews extremely more valuable to readers. As you may know, I have been pointing out the importance of including ABV in “buying guide” reviews. Is this a model that WE mag plans to replicate, in terms of including the alcohol percentages?

  5. Tish: not that I know of. But, as you’re aware due to having worked there, people can go to WE’s free, easy-to-access database and look up reviews; and if the reviewer knew the alcohol and case production, that information will be in there.

  6. Bravo for including ABV Steve! :) …and I agree w/you 100% on the Julia’s Vineyard & Chalk Hill.

  7. Paul Gregutt said the same thing when commenting on my blog post on this topic ( http://www.wineforall.com/blog/?p=404 ) but I have yet to see a single WE review online that includes alcohol %.

    I don’t understand what you mean by “if the reviewer knew the alcohol and case production, that information will be in there.” How can the reviewer (or someone pouring the blind samples) NOT know the alcohol %? Clearly, from this list of 10 wines, you CAN include ABV%. But saying that WE already does so is simply false.

    I am not alone in thinking that alcohol % data is important, just as vintage, price, origin and case production are important facts. I truly believe that including ABV% in reviews is becoming a litmus test for credibility among wine reviewers. Including it demonstrates and awareness of how widely the % can vary. It also gives readers a chance to see how their personal preferences on ABV% match up to various reviewers.

  8. I am looking into this. I never go to the public version, only my password protected editor’s version, where case # and alc. are listed. And Tish, before you go off screaming “Wine Enthusiast lies!” I suggest you cool your jets and let me see what’s up. I expect if Paul said the same thing, it’s because he, too, never goes to the public version.

  9. Al Samuelson says:

    Love the reviews. I always try to get my hands on La Crema Nine Barrel. Glad someone is!

  10. Wanting ABV is not the same thing as getting it.

    Listings on wine labels are not required to be accurate. They can vary by 1 to 1.5%. So, a wine at 12.5 ABV can show anything from 11% to 14% on the label.

    A listing of 15.0% could be anything from 14% to 16%. Thus ABV is essentially a useless indicator for anyone who cares about specificity.

    I am not arguing that alcohol is nothng. It makes a difference, but the difference is impossible to measure under current circumstances.

    There may be 11% Riesling but there are not many 11% reds that will go well lamb chops or spaghetti and meat balls. And once you get into the difference between 13.2% and 14.5%, you are talking about one ounce of wine at a half bottle consumption with dinner.

    But those discussions are almost totally useless because ABV indications are next to worthless–and are hidden on labels in any event.

  11. Totally agree with Charlie. I’d like to see TTB regs demand exactitude. As for case #s, it’s often that the winery will report variant numbers. They’ll send me one #, then report a totally different one on their website. What should we reporters do about that?

  12. Charlie, Steve: I have never been aware of discrepancies between alcohol on labels and figures stated by wineries or importers. Can you cite an example?

    While I totally understand the imprecision argument, the taxation differential under and over 14% — and penalties connected to misstatement — are such that it is pretty certain that wines stating 14% or more are in fact that, and those under, are under. So while variability exists, the 14% line is not only significant but relatively real. (In other words, Charlie, if a wine says 15%, I know it’s on the high side of 14; I don’t much care if it’s 14.1 or 15.9.)

    And no matter how much anyone decries the imprecision, fact is: the % on the label is legal data. And that data is relevant, for exactly the reasons you state: alcohol impacts the style of the wine. And when I am reading about a Riesling, for example, it is indeed helpful to know if the label says 10.5% or 13.5%.

    Sure, ABV reporting is not perfect, but that is no reason to not pay attention to it in the context of reviewers providing information. I laid out an extended argument on this point in the blog post ( http://www.wineforall.com/blog/?p=404 ) referenced in my previous comment. In today’s wine world of widely varying percentages, including the legal number in reviews makes good sense — if a reviewer truly intends to aid readers by providing as much relevant info as possible.

    Meanwhile, Steve, I accept your explanation for not realizing that ABV% is in fact not a viewable part of the database. I wish Paul Gregutt had done the same. I do encourage you to bring it up. Having a print magazine join the increasing number of sensible bloggers and independent writers who are including ABV% in their reviews would be a welcome thing.

  13. Given the prices and the alcohol levels of these wines, I certainly don’t miss not drinking California wines. But I do enjoy reading your blog entries.

  14. Dear Bob R., whatever floats your boat.

  15. Tish, I don’t know how many wines a year you taste, but it’s probably nowhere near as my number. And I double check every alcohol level I enter on the Wine Enthusiast’s database and can tell you how frequent it is that the tech sheet says one thing and the label says another. I don’t keep track of these discrepencies because it would just be another level of record-keeping. But if you want to go on record as the person who defends the truthiness of winery reports of alcohol level, be my guest.

  16. Gee, I wonder why wine labels and wine descriptions do not also state RS, TA and pH. I find those measurements much more determinative of the wine experience than a difference of one percentage point in alcohol.

    And, Tish, the difference of two points in alcohol that you mention is far more important to wine than the difference between slightly less than fourteen per cent and slightly more than fourteen per cent.

    But, when you get to Riesling, you assume that alcohol statements are accurate, when, in fact, statements of ten and thirteen per cent alcohol both can apply to wines of twelve per cent.

    And, more importantly, statements of twelve could be ten and a half or thirteen and a half. Go read Champagne labels. They all read twelve or twelve and a half. Do you really think that every wine coming out of that region is twelve per cent or so?

    That is why I find the use of ABV notations on labels to be of marginal value when used to make finite judgments about wines that one will like. They simply miss the essentials.

  17. Charlie makes a great point here – the data is certainly useful to have, but consumers need to proceed with caution; i.e., buying based on a 12% vs. 13% abv difference because they figure it will have less (or more) alcohol in it isn’t necessarily going to net in the result they might be looking for.

    I can personally attest to the variance in abv reported on labels vs. PR docs, etc., that Steve pointed out – I’ve seen that dozens of times, enough to make me wonder about it, anyways…

  18. Tish,

    I disagree with you about alcohol numbers as I think it puts undue emphasize on one aspect of a wine’s make up while there are many other aspects that make up the wine – but will respond over in your blog as you went into much more detail there.

    In the interim, may I suggest that, in the interest of consumer edification, reviewers list their age after they list the alcohol number as it seems that most of the wine critics that complain about alcohols are getting up there in years. :)

    Adam Lee
    Siduri & Novy

  19. Adam, I only complain about alcohol when it’s out of balance with the rest of the wine. If it’s balanced, I could care less if it’s 16% or even more.

  20. Dude, this whole thing about posting alcohol levels is so stupid, because we writers will never, ever know what they really are! It says one thing on the label, another thing (sometimes) on the paperwork — and even then, we don’t know if all the bottles even came out of the same tank! And don’t get me started on case production numbers. I’ve seen hugely divergent numbers between the winery’s paperwork and it’s website. So while I’m personally in favor of publishing whatever #s the winery gives us, we have to let readers know to take it with a grain of salt. And ultimately, what Charlie says is right: all that matters is what does the wine taste and feel like?

  21. Steve,

    I understand that about alcohol levels and when you mention them (and don’t). — And I certainly wasn’t implying you were old (you got tatoos to keep you young!).

    Why did you start listing them with the reviews here? Was there much thought behind it?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  22. Adam, less thought than you think.

  23. Steve, thanks for the comments on RIGHT BANK.
    In regards to the exactitude of ABV let me chime in. This week I bottled… Having had TTB approve the label some months ago based upon the ABV of a composite blend. Checking it again in final composite last week and having run two samples this week, while bottling, at two different labs… all four were different.. as much as .4 throughout the samples…. This can be a big problem as it could have thrown me into a higher tax class but fortunately it landed below 14.05% ABV in all the samples.
    In addition – if a winery exports to the EU the alcohol MUST be stated as .0 or .5 –
    So what is a winery to do!… I believe in truth in labeling – But there is a bit of variability in the process and methods used to determine ABV.

  24. Steve–

    I am now more convinced than ever that this is a discussion that has missed the point.

    Your stated alcohols are all in the 14.1% to 15.1% range, and because they are taken from wine labels, they are potentially very misleading.

    Have you ever noticed how some wineries use the same ABV number for every wine in their portfolios? You and I know that the truth lies elsewhere. You pretty much say that no one in the public (not you, not me, not Dude, not Tish, not any writer and not any consumer) knows the truth and that labels are misleading.

    This is not a contest between 8.5% Riesling and 15.6% Viognier. Comparisons between comparable wines (hyphenated Montrachets and Sonoma Coast Chards) will show negligible, meaningless differences in ABV numbers.

    So why bother? Nothing has been accomplished here except to suggest that the numbers have significance, when in fact they do not in any meaningful comparative setting between peers.

    There are many attractive lower alc categories, and my view is that the consumer is better served by focusing on them directly than on the oft heard suggestions that 13.5 ABV is better than 14.2 ABV. That is a nonsense that adds up to one half ounce of wine if one is consuming half a bottle.

  25. Steve,
    Allow me to disagree, once more, with your affirmation that “ultimately, what Charlie says is right: all that matters is what does the wine taste and feel like?”
    IMHO, “hedonic and utilitarian value assessments are useful to define the shopping experience, but these are distinct from outcome quality assessments, i.e. whether the product is good value for money”. [A Conceptual Model of Channel Choice: Measuring Online and Offline Shopping Value Perceptions” (Business & Economics Rev.)]

  26. John, Charlie, Peter: Consumers want more information, not less. So I don’t have any problem with letting them know these numbers. At the very least, consumers can see if a wine is mass produced or limited. Who cares if case production is 550 or 710? The variant numbers reported by the winery are not going to be 500 and 9,000, or 13.7 vs. 15.5. So let’s just put the numbers out there, and consumers can do with it what they will.

  27. Steve, you are, of course, right that consumers what information. The questions for me in this discussion are (1) why alcohol only (2) do you have case production for everything? I don’t (3) in a world in which other numbers are more meaningful than stated ABV, which is next to meaningless under current regulations, why not demand RS, TA and pH since WE seems to demand case production (4) by focusing on alcohol almost exclusively (I dont see anyone congratulating you on the publication of case production), the public begins to believe the bogus claims that one can drink unlimited amounts of 13% alcohol wines but get inebriated, sated, tired, dulled and bored by wines at 14%+.

  28. We are one of the wineries that doesn’t change the alcohol percentage from vintage to vintage, as long as it is within the legal range – and I can tell you why we don’t do it. Because it is expensive! Having to re-register the new label in different states costs a lot of money. In addition, if there is a change on the label then we have to make certain and provide that information to our different distributors – who provide it to their customers (there are, for instances, counties in Texas where wines labeled about 15 percent alcohol are prohibited). All in all a great big expensive hassle if you can leave it alone and still be legal.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  29. Adam, thanks for being transparent. I’m sure readers will find your comment enlightening.

  30. We print labels well in advance of bottling because they need to be ready to be applied at bottling. The bottling line won’t wait for labels – I don’t own my own line. I run labels for the whole vintage at one time to reduce costs (small print batches of labels just before bottling would cost the consumer about $1 extra per bottle; bottling first as shiners and then running the line again just for precise info on labeling would be even more expensive). Alcohol can be an estimate as blends aren’t finalized when labels are designed.
    Tech sheet submitted with wine for review and on the website will include the labs from bottling and will generally be more accurate.
    We don’t run labs on fruit prior to pick – we don’t know brix until we start processing the fruit. Numbers shmumbers, so long as it is tasty, stable and sound.

  31. Thank you for mentioning the alc levels. I hope it is a mainstay with reviewers. Although once the wine hits 14.1%, the numbers become funny numbers. As technology and winemaking becomes more and more advanced, we in this industry should maybe start labeling within say .5% instead of 1.4%. As we all know, Pinot Noir labeled 14.1% is more like (usually) 14.8% or even higher. In fact, I’d go as far as saying most Pinots and Chard labeled 14.1% is a red flag of insincerity.

    Play the low alc card while making jet fuel. Glad I don’t have to calculate my alc intake for driving purposes because 1.4% higher alc than what’s labeled could put one easily from .07 to .085 Blood Alc level, which is the difference of the officer saying have a nice night and please put your hands behind your back.

  32. Randy,

    Actually I don’t know that Pinot Noir labeled 14.1% is more like (usually) 14.8% or even higher. Nor do I think a jet would get very far on Pinot Noir.

    I don’t think hyperbole helps things.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  33. And, Randy, a 5% increase in ABV, from 14.1% to 14.8% will also raise blood alcohol by 5%, or from 0.70% to 0.735%–not to 0.85%.

    Listen to Adam, Randy. Hyperbole in these kinds of arguments can be labeled either as unknowing or disingenuous. I think that you simply made a math error.

  34. Marina C says:

    First time poster here…thought I better start contributing. Here goes…I think there are many consumers that appreciate more information so adding ABV and case # are two areas that will allow people to improve their knowledge base in a non-tech/scientific way. As for the other numbers as Charlie suggests (RS, TA, pH) . There are winemakers out there that would prefer not to have to share this information since they feel it could bias a person/critic’s palate before they enjoy the wine (esp with pinot Noir). I know this to be true, but won’t call anyone out since I haven’t asked permission.

    p.s. I very much enjoy this blog (thanks Steve) and all of the thoughtful discussions that stem from it (thanks everyone else).

  35. Dear Marina, thank you. I can’t advise a complete listing of all lab #s with wine, as that would take up all the space that most publications, print or online, have, and besides, we still have to trust the #s wineries give us, and wineries lie. I’m all in favor of listing case production and alcohol, but I’m really, really uncomfortable with official alcohol readings, given the govt’s leeway. Thanks for your kind words about my blog.

  36. Just curious why many Chards, S. Blancs, Pinot Noirs do find themselves labeled at exactly 14.1%. I would make a wager that 50% of Cali Pinots are labeled and 14.1 and of those I’d bet only a mere fraction are actually 14.1. Coincidence or a widespread proactive marketing approach to deceive consumers by playing the low alc card?

    Math is off, premise is dead on.

  37. Randy, I have absolutely no faith in “official” alcohol measurements. I reproduce them as reported only because some people find it interesting.

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