We (Jackson Family Wines) are having a winetasting in two weeks down in Monterey that will be hosted by myself and by one of JFW’s Master Sommeliers, Sur Lucero, who is not only an M.S. but a helluva nice guy. So he and I were talking about it over the phone, to discuss logistics, and I realized that the two of us are going to be tasting these wines—blind—in far different ways.
As Sur expressed it, he’ll be looking for typicity. Based on things like fruit, earthiness, tannins, acidity, wood, structure and so forth, he’ll be appraising the six wines to determine what they might be. I, on the other hand, will be assessing them the way I’m used to: qualitatively, according to the standards I employed at Wine Enthusiast. There, we rated wines on the 100-point system, which is sub-divided into a scale based on how good (or bad) the wines are on a quality basis.
(By the way, some people told me, when I quit Wine Enthusiast, that I ought to change my tasting procedure. I saw no reason to do that, and I still don’t.)
Typicity and quality: these are really two entirely different ways to evaluate wine. One, Sur’s approach, depends on a vast knowledge of the world’s major wine regions, accumulated over many years to such an extent that the taster is able to pass the extremely rigorous M.S. examination. The other approach, mine, couldn’t be more different. For one thing, professional wine critics are mostly regional. We develop an expertise at tasting the wines of a particular region, or perhaps of several regions, but very few critics claim to focus on all the wine regions of the world. Moreover, we’re looking for inherent quality, not typicity, which is the fundamental basis of assigning a point score.
All those years I was at Wine Enthusiast, I told myself—and I still do—that it’s not that important for a wine critic to have the worldwide palate of a Master Sommelier, because we have different jobs. The critic’s job is to hopefully develop expertise in his region, then to report faithfully on the wines, and finally offer consumers enough judgment and information so they can make an intelligent choice concerning whether or not to buy the wine. A sommelier, on the other hand, has to assemble a wine list that will pair well with his or her chef’s food. In that sense, a wine that a critic might score at 86 points—not bad, but not great—might be the ideal wine to drink with chef’s food.
A sommelier’s job also entails something far, far different from a wine critic’s: It’s the somm’s responsibility to pick and choose the wines she puts on her list, according to her preferences and the restaurant’s parameters. The critic by contrast tastes and reviews the wines that are presented to him. He’s not picking or choosing anything. He doesn’t care who buys the wine, or if anyone buys it. He doesn’t have to make a chef happy, or worry about a bottom line, the way a sommelier (who also is a restaurant wine buyer) has to. Thus, I told myself, my job entailed greater freedom than that of a somm.
I always was a bit concerned that, in focusing so heavily on California, I was missing out on the rest of the world’s wines. But it was unavoidable. I was tasting thousands of wines a year. There simply wasn’t time to explore France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the New World and so on. I wished there had been, but…well, there just wasn’t.
Since our Monterey tasting will be blind—actually, double-blind, since neither of us will have any idea what the wines are, aside from their color (although they all will be JFW wines, which come from four continents)—I’m going to be a bit out of my element. As I explained to Sur, no critic who uses the 100-point system tastes double-blind, to my knowledge. At the big wine magazines and newsletters, they taste single-blind, meaning they know something about the flight: it might be 2012 Napa Cabernets, or Barolos over $30, or something similarly broad. That’s if they taste blind at all: open tasting seems to be the new normal for critics.
Now, single-blind is the way I’m used to tasting, and it’s actually my preference. When you know something about the wine, your mind works in a different way from when you know nothing. It makes assumptions. It has expectations. It rules certain things out, and certain things in. For example, if I know I’m tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, I’m inclined to give the wines fairly high scores. Of course, the more I know, the less “blind” the tasting is. If I know that those white Burgundies are all premier crus—no village wines, no Grand Crus—that probably suggests I’m not going to be handing out 100s or 99s or maybe even 98s. But it also suggests I won’t be giving any low 80s either.
Some people complain, with justification, that having too much information invalidates the results of the tasting, even if the bottles are in paper bags, because the taster cannot be completely objective. That’s true, but it gets back to the different jobs of the critic and sommelier. As a critic, I don’t have to be completely objective. I have to be fair, and uninfluenced by monetary concerns or friendship, but ultimately my job is to deliver a clear, informed judgment on the wine. I always felt that I could do that even non-blind (and I think most professional critics agree), only there is a lot of pressure out there on critics to taste blind, so to some extent they do taste blind to satisfy that pressure.
However, as I said, lots of critics who used to taste blind (or said they did) have now abandoned the practice in favor of open tasting. And I have not heard a peep from anyone complaining about it. A few bloggers here and there might gripe, but they’re outliers. I don’t believe the public at large gives a hoot how critics taste, as long as they believe the critic’s ethics are unimpeachable: can’t be bought, has no ax to grind, and so forth.
So I’ll be a little uncomfortable at our Monterey tasting, not with the quality part, but with the identification part. But I’m excited, too. No doubt I will learn something, not just about the wines but about how I think when I taste. This old dog can still learn new tricks.
And what a fabulous tasting it was. This was really one of the most interesting sessions I’ve been to in years. For one thing, the level of wineries was exceptionally high, as it tend to be in this sprawling appellation. We’re also dealing with two very good years, 2012 and 2103.
As usual—and as we saw in our tasting of Russian River Valley Pinots last week—two styles of wine emerged: one paler in color and generally lower in alcohol, and the other darker and more full-bodied. It was quite impossible to rule one style or the other out: both succeeded. Of the fifteen wines we tasted, I scored each at 91 points or higher.
Here are my notes, from highest on down. They generally accorded with the group’s findings. All the wines were tasted blind during our 2-1/2 hour session, which included plenty of spirited conversation.
Williams Selyem 2012 Precious Mountain, $94, 13.6%. Over my years at Wine Enthusiast, this bottling became my favorite of the winery’s many vineyard designations. Once again, it didn’t disappoint. Gives off a tremendous perfume of aromatics: spices, sandalwood, toast, persimmon, sassafras. In the mouth, delicate but intense, bone dry, with masses of sweet fruit and a long, spicy finish. Such sophistication, so high-toned. A real beauty, and will age. Score: 97.
Hirsch 2012 Block 8, $85, 13.4%. The official appellation beginning with the 2013 will be Fort Ross-Seaview. The wine has a beautifully clear, prismatic translucence. It is delicately perfumed with strawberry and pomegranate jam, black tea, rose petal, smoke and dusty spices. Rich, spicy, complex, bone dry, with great acidity. Shows the wild, feral quality you often find in these Fort Ross Pinot Noirs. An intellectual wine, with mystery; feminine. Score: 96.
Hartford Court 2012 Seascape, $70, 14.4%. The vineyard is west of Occidental. The wine is young and fruity, with tons of raspberry jam, wild mushroom, root beer, black tea and exotic spice notes. Shows smooth, complex tannins and great balancing acidity. A dramatic, compelling wine, with a very long finish. Will certainly age. From Jackson Family. Score: 95.
Wild Ridge 2012, price unknown, 14.5%. A brilliant translucent ruby color. Absolutely luscious. Delicate and silky, with fabulous spices and raspberry-cherry fruit, cocoa powder, mushrooms, forest floor earthiness. Great acidity. This is a Jackson Family Wines brand that I wasn’t all that familiar with. The vineyard is in Annapolis, at an elevation of 900 feet. Score: 95.
DuMol 2012 Eoin, $79, 14.1%. This was the only wine in our tasting that was grown east of the 101 Freeway. The vineyard is east of Petaluma, influenced by the Petaluma Wind Gap. The aroma began with oak, and the first impression was of a jammy wine, with persimmons, blackberries, cherries, root beer and orange zest. Smooth tannins, great acidity. Later, a peat moss tang emerged. A lovely wine for holding until 2018, at least. Score: 95.
Littorai 2013 The Pivot, $70, 13.1%. The estate vineyard is between Sebastopol and Freestone. The wine is very dry and tart with acids, with some floral notes. The lowish alcohol shows in the light, delicate mouthfeel. Very pretty and supple, with complex rose petal, tart strawberry, black tea and brown spice notes. I couldn’t help but think of charcuterie with this wine. Give it another 5 years. Score: 95.
Joseph Phelps 2012 Quarter Moon Vineyard, $75, 13.8%. A darker color suggesting greater extract. Tremendous fruit, almost sappy: raspberries, cherries, cola, sassafras, cocoa dust. Showed an iodine, peat note, like an Islay Scotch. Tons of spices: clove, star anise, pepper. Rich, heady, dramatic, full-bodied. A great overall impression The vineyard is in Freestone, at 500 feel in elevation. Score: 95.
Hartford 2012 Far Coast, $70, 14.8%. The vineyard is up near Annapolis. This was a substantial wine, darker in color and full-bodied. Erupted in freshly ripe cherries and persimmons, with an earthy, mushroomy note. Feels rich and harmonious, with fine tannins and brisk acidity. Certainly a wine that needs time to evolve. Best after 2018. Score: 94.
Siduri 2013 Hirsch Vineyard, price unknown, 14.1%. One of the more delicate entries, and quite similar to the Hirsch Block 8, although of course the vintage is different. Lots of black tea, licorice, sweet raspberry, rhubarb and even some leather flavors. Exotic and savory. Feels elegant, spicy, complex, but needs time. 2018 and beyond. Another Jackson Family Wines wine. Score: 94.
Martinelli 2012 Blue Slide Ridge, $95, 15.2%. Good ruby color, with tremendous aromatics: violets, rose petals, raspberries, cola, black tea, cinnamon, clove and cumin spice. Lots of charm, with zesty acidity and rich tannins. Fancy and complex, but I found a touch of heat in the finish, which must have come from the relatively high alcohol. Still, Score: 93.
Lynmar 2013 Terra de Pormissio, $70, 14.3%. A darker wine, made from grapes purchased from this well-known Petaluma Wind Gap vineyard. Big, rich and full-bodied, but a little heavy, with extracted, jammy raspberry fruit and some meaty bacon. Delicious, but could be defter and more delicate. Almost like Grenache. Hold until 2018 and see. Score: 93.
Wayfarer 2012 Wayfarer Vineyard, $90, 14.5%. One of the darkest wines in the flight. At first, the aroma was muted. It took a while for the black cherries, black tea and persimmons to emerge. Quite full-bodied and tannic, a bigger, bolder style that needs time to develop. Despite the power, there’s plenty of harmony. From Jayson Pahlmeyer. Score: 93.
Hartford 2013 Land’s Edge, $50, 15%. The wine is a blend of the Far Coast and Seascape vineyards. I found some heat from alcohol, but otherwise, the wine is rich and exotic, with sassafras, raspberry, gingerbread cookie, cinnamon and clove aromas and flavors. Some sweet glycerine around the edges. I would certainly love this with a grilled steak. Score: 92.
Peay 2013 Pomarium Estate, $56, 13.5%. From way up near Sea Ranch, in Annapolis. I called it a “pretty” wine. Tons of sweet red fruit and berries, very spicy, with nice oak application. Some earthy herbs add interest. Polish, supple, easy to drink, with great harmony. I may have missed something; others liked it more than I did. Score: 91.
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Last week I blogged at my disappointment by the S.F. Chronicle’s wine coverage, or lack thereof. I got an email from the newspaper’s managing editor, who felt that I had done The Chron a disservice. She wrote that her team is “doubling down on our wine coverage, have a new critic/writer starting next week and plan several new publications around our wine and spirits journalism.” The new wine writer, whom I do not know, previously was at Wine Spectator.
Well, as Donald Rumsfeld famously observed, there are unknown unknowns in life. I did not know that the Chron is planning on this greatly-expanded new wine coverage, because how could I? I subscribe, I read the paper every day, and I saw nothing to alert us readers to these new realities. I welcome them: As I wrote, the Chron is Northern California’s biggest newspaper, at the gateway to wine country. I’ve read it daily for close to 40 years. No one can be more pleased than I that they are once again going to cover wine.
There are very few common Pinot Noirs in the Russian River Valley. Certainly, given the number of producers (in the hundreds), the level of quality is extraordinarily high, especially when we have two vintages in a row—2012 and 2013—that both were very fine, although it looks like ’13 has the edge in terms of consistency.
This was brought home to me following the tasting of RRV Pinot Noirs I arranged last week. In general, I found two different types of wines: darker, more robust and fuller-bodied ones that also tend to be higher in alcohol, and paler, more delicate ones. And yet, some higher alcohol wines can be delicate, while some lower alcohol wines can be dark and heavy. In wine, as in life, beware of generalizations; and don’t go drawing conclusions based merely on alcohol level!
All the wines were tasted blind; identities weren’t revealed until the very end. (Note: I am currently paid by Jackson Family Wines, which owns Hartford Court and Siduri.) We had six or seven people, and the conversation was lively. Not everyone agreed on everything, but I think there was plenty of unanimity in the room, especially concerning the overall quality of these dozen fine wines.
Here are my notes, with scores:
Peirson Meyer 2012 Miller Vineyard. $40, 14.9%, 150 cases. Loved this wine. Complex nose of red cherries, cocoa, sandalwood, cola, persimmons, orange zest, cinnamon and clove. A little heat from alcohol, but not too much. Very high quality. The vineyard is south of Graton, at an elevation of 500 feet. The winemaker/co-owner, Robbie Meyer, has worked at Peter Michael, Lewis and Jericho Canyon. Good for a newish winery to score this well against far more famous veterans. Score: 93.
Paul Hobbs 2013 Ulises Valdez Vineyard. $70, 14.1%. Darker in color, richer and denser than A, despite lower alcohol. Go figure. A bit soft and over-extracted, with cherry pie, cocoa and pruney flavors. Ripe and voluptuous, but a bit too thick for my tastes, and some hard, bitter tannins in the finish. The vineyard is in the Green Valley, near Sebastopol. Score: 88.
Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate. $57, 14.5%. Rich garnet-ruby color. Very aromatic, lots of crushed cherries, rose petal, tea, dried herbs, baking spices. Quite tannic at this time. Complex, layered, but very young. Give it at least six more years. The vineyard is in the Sebastopol Hills area. Score: 92.
Joseph Swan 2012 Trenton Estate. $59, 14.3%, 447 cases. Pale, translucent ruby color leading to delicate, complex aromas of golden tobacco, cranberries, persimmons, cola, cinnamon and clove, sandalwood. Feels delicate and silky, but quite intense in fruits and spices. Nice toast. Good finish. Gentle and lovely now. I thought it will age well, but others disagreed. Score: 93.
Siduri 2013 Keefer Ranch. $46, 14.2%. Pretty ruby color. Fine quality wine. Tasting a bit one-dimensional now, but it’s a pretty dimension. Classic Russian River Pinot: dry, silky, good acidity, nice cherry-cranberry fruit. Lovely to drink now. If I were teaching a class in Pinot Noir 101, I’d use this. Score: 91.
Rochioli 2013 Estate. $60, 14.5%. Good color. Jammy pie flavors (raspberries, cherries). Nice dusty tannins, good acidity, smooth finish. Somewhat oaky and a little rustic. A bit on the light side. This is Rochioli’s basic estate Pinot Noir, not the block bottlings which tend to be superior. Score: 89.
Hartford Court 2012 Fog Dance. $65, 14.7%. Big aromatics: baking spices, smoke, masses of cherries, raspberries, blackberries, plums, sweet vanilla, balsam, wild mushrooms. Ripe, flashy tannins, good acidity. A flamboyant, showy wine that drinks well now and will improve. Also, ironically, an intellectual wine: I kept coming back and finding more. Score: 94.
Failla 2013 Keefer Ranch. $45, 13.7%. A pretty wine, polished and supple. A little disconnected now in the mouth: the oak, raspberries, tannins, acidity and spices haven’t knit together yet. I suspect most people will drink it now, but you really should age it unti 2020. A few tasters found it a bit hollow, but not me. Score: 92.
Dutton-Goldfield 2012 Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard. $58, 13.5%, 613 cases. Pretty dark. Feels big and full-bodied despite the lowish alcohol. Dense, glyceriney. Could be more delicate, but it could be an ager. Oodles of black cherries and blackberries, orange rind, cinnamon, smoke. Considerable oak is evident. Hold until 2020, when it could easily be a 93-94 point wine.
Gary Farrell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard. $39, 14.2%. Nice to see this venerable winery doing well despite all the ups and downs of ownership. Combines delicacy with power. Intense flavors, firm tannins, some minerality underneath the bitter cherry candy and mushroom flavors. Very complex and layered, but needs time. Best after 2020. The vineyard is in Green Valley, near Sebastopol. Score: 93.
Dehlinger 2012 Altamont. $70, 14.8%. Oak wood and spice notes dominate, along with strong tannins. Buried underneath is raspberry compote, sour cherry Lifesaver candy and exotic baking spices. Supple mouthfeel, very high class wine, noble, but young. Altamont is from a hilly section of the estate vineyard, which is south of River Road, in the cool, foggy Laguna Ridge section of the valley. Wait until 2020. Score: 94.
Hartford Court 2012 Hailey’s Vineyard. $65, 14.6%. A wonderful wine. At first I was suspicious of the tremendous extract (raspberries, black cherries, kirsch liqueur) and considerable oak (44% new French) but then the innate strength and elegance hit me. A flashy, sexy wine that grew complex as it breathed, giving off notes of balsam and tamari. There is a core of iron-driven firmness I associate with Gold Ridge soils. Very impressive for drinking now and will age. Score: 94.
My tasting yesterday of eight Carneros Pinot Noirs was enormously instructive to me, even after all these years. Afterwards, we tried to put together four attributes that linked all the wines, and they were:
- a “Burgundian” earthy, mushroomy thing
- nice, ripe California fruit
Of course, identifying regional typicity is possible only in high-end wines, preferably single vineyards but not necessarily. As it turned out, there were two fabulous wines that really captured Carneros: one on the Napa side, the other on the Sonoma side. But these boundaries are political fantasies: true terroir doesn’t follow county lines, which is why Carneros was properly recognized by the Feds as the first AVA that crossed counties, because it was defined by climate and soil.
Here are my notes, somewhat abbreviated.
Donum 2012 West Slope, $90. The first wine in the flight. It blew me away so much that I decided to return to it after the last wine. Sometimes the first wine of a flight (and of the day) can seem better than it inherently is. It showed the most wonderfully ripe, pure raspberries and cherries, with plenty of exotic Asian spices, smoky oak, great acidity and polished tannins. After an hour in the glass the oak emerged as a stronger force. There also was a rich, mulchy mushroominess. This is a fabulous wine with a future. Score: 94 points.
La Rochelle 2011 Donum Estate, $80. A real disappointment. It was bretty but also thin. Well, it’s 2011, after all. Score: 84 points.
Carneros Hills 2013 Estate, $36. I work for Jackson Family Wines, which owns this winery. The wine was okay. Nothing wrong with it, in fact a pretty good wine, but the best I could do was 87 points. I know that Carneros Hills is a work in progress and I expect better things from it in the future.
Hartford Court 2012 Sevens Bench Vineyard, $65. Another Jackson Family Wines wine, and another disappointment. It was too hot in alcohol—officially 15% but I think higher than that. I scored it at 87 points.
Cattleya 2012 Donum Vineyard, $85. This was one of the better wines in the flight: rich, fruity and young, but a little soft. I thought it might improve in 3-4 years and scored it at 90 points.
Paul Hobbs 2013 Hyde Vineyard, $75. A fabulous wine. Savory, rich, complex, complete. Raspberries, plums, cherries, great savoir faire. Right up there with the Donum West Slope. Score: 93 points.
Saintsbury 2012 Lee Vineyard, $54. We all frankly found this wine a little unassertive. Nothing particularly wrong with it, just lacking that extra oomph. Score: 87 points.
Stemmler 2012 Estate, $44. It was better than the Saintsbury but not even close to the Donum or Paul Hobbs. A good, sound, well-made Carneros Pinot Noir. Score: 89 points.
Some critics have claimed to find minerality in Carneros Pinot Noir. I did not—at least, not as much as you find in Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir.
The question arose as to whether we can assume that the Napa side of Carneros is warmer than the Sonoma side. I do think that’s true, overall: Sonoma Carneros is that much more open to the Petaluma Gap. But it differs with individual wineries: when they want to pick, how ripe they want the brix or flavors to get before they pick. And there are differences in climate even within Napa, which is why the question of Haut Carneros—approaching the Mayacamas foothills—and Bas Carneros—the muddy, sandy, silty flats along San Pablo Bay—continues to be a fascinating one. I don’t know about the Frenchisms, but I do think this process of further distinguishing Carneros’s terroirs would be further along if they’d allowed more small, creative wineries to do business there.
Carneros has lost much of its luster over the last twenty years. But the potential is there for Carneros to re-gain the reputation it once had, and again be a contender.
Starting today, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before on my blog: I’ll be reviewing wines.
The first batch follows below. None of these wineries paid me. I don’t intend for steveheimoff.com to become a wine-reviewing site, although I think people are interested in what I have to say. But I do want to do it occasionally. If you want your wines to be reviewed on steveheimoff.com, send me your tasting sample, along with tech notes and the SRP. You’ll notice my reviews are longer than they used to be at Wine Enthusiast. I always felt constrained within the 40-word format and now I can make these reviews as lengthy as I want.
This change coincides with some additional changes in my professional life. Starting tomorrow, I officially become a consultant. My first client will remain Jackson Family Wines. I’m having conversations with additional wineries. My goal is to assemble a high-end portfolio of wineries I like and respect, and who respect my contributions. If you’re interested in working together, reach out to me and let’s talk.
A word of caution: If you do use one of my reviews for promotional purposes, credit it to steveheimoff.com, not Steve Heimoff. Thanks.
Dominus 2012 Napanook (Yountville): $69. My tasting notes for Napanook have been remarkably consistent for many years, going back to the 1990s. The wine always has struggled in the shadows of its senior sister, Dominus Estate. For instance, I said of the 2006 that it “has been trying to stand on its own,” apart from Dominus. Napanook still is seeking its own identity. Like previous vintages, this 2012 is fairly tough, dry and tannic. Its black currant, blueberry and cassis flavors are framed in oak, 20% of which was new French. There’s an earthy complexity, reminiscent of dried sage and unsweetened cocoa. The overall impression is one of great balance and care, but of course, Napanook must be viewed as the second wine of Dominus. Unresolved now, it will benefit from hours of decanting. Is it an ager? Five or six years will present no problem. Much longer than that, and you’re gambling. Score: 90.
Laurel Glen 2013 Counterpoint (Sonoma Mountain): $40. I must admit to having lost track of Laurel Glen for a number of years, following Patrick Campbell’s sale of the winery. Counterpoint, the “second label”, often could be a worthy alternative to the main attraction, the estate wine, showing the same classy, dry, elegant structure, if less ageable. With this 2013, Counterpoint firmly establishes itself at the top of its price tier in California Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s the anti-Napa Cabernet, bone dry and modest in alcohol. You’ll find plenty of California-style black currants and black raspberry essence, but no overripeness, just a rich, delicious complexity that finishes spicy and long. There’s an oaky sweetness that’s perfectly balanced with the fruit. The addition of 15% Merlot to the blend softens the tannins, bringing a sensual mellowness to the mouthfeel. This 2013 is as good as the 2009 Counterpoint, to which I gave 93 points, and, like that wine, I would recommend drinking it over the next four years. Score: 92.
Tamber Bey 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $125. Tamber Bey has flirted with ripe, opulent Cabernet for years, with mixed results. With this 2012, they firmly ensconce themselves in the California style of high alcohol, extracted fruit flavor and generous new oak. You’ll find plenty of blackberry jam, cassis liqueur and dark chocolate, with an overripe hint of prunes, wrapped into soft tannins and just-in-time acidity. The result is heady and delicious, although it could grow tedious if you’re drinking the entire bottle. The official alcohol is 14.9% and 682 cases were made. Drink now-2020. Score: 88.
Krupp Brothers 2013 Stagecoach Vineyard Chardonnay (Napa Valley); $65. Krupp Brothers, and Stagecoach Vineyard, are of course well-known for beautifully crafted Cabernet Sauvignon. But this lovely wine shows that Chardonnay can grow pretty well 1,500 feet up on the mountain, which straddles Atlas Peak. It’s enormously rich in orange, pineapple and mango fruit, with a sweet overlay of toasty, vanilla-accented oak and crème brulée. There’s a firm streak of minerals running throughout, as well as crisp, mouthwatering acidity that balances and grounds the richness. Fancy and memorable, it’s very fine to drink with rich California cuisine: Dungeness crab, shrimp or scallops, grilled Ahi tuna, chicken in cream sauce. Ageworthy, too–reminds me of a young Hanzell Chardonnay. Drink over the next ten years. Score: 93.
Tamber Bey 2013 Deux Chevaux Vineyard Dijon Chardonnay (Yountville): $55. The oak really dominates this single-vineyard Chardonnay, in the form of butterscotch, caramel and buttered cinnamon toast. That oakiness is accentuated by the butteriness of the malolactic fermentation. Underneath that, you’ll find ripe apricot jam, peaches and cream and pineapple crème brulée flavors. The acidity is acceptable. The ultimate result is quite rich and flamboyant. Drink it with lobster, scallops, crab. Score: 88.
Tamber Bey 2014 Trio Vineyard Unoaked Chardonnay (Yountville): $34. This is what superbly grown Chardonnay tastes like when it’s never seen a molecule of oak. How good it is. You’ll find an enormously deep, ripe array of flavors, ranging from golden apricots and oranges to succulent peaches, pears and exotic guavas and passionfruits, with hints of honeysuckle and clarified butter. The alcohol is hefty, yet balanced. Only 720 cases were produced. I would love to drink this wine with ahi tuna tartare topped with chopped, toasted macadamia nuts and mango salsa. Score: 91.
Tenshen 2014 White Wine (California): $20. The Central Coast long has been a hotbed of Rhône-style white blends, and now Tenshen, which is owned by Guarachi Wine Partners (Montes, Guarachi, Bodega Norton and others) hops on the bandwagon. The blend is Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, with a decidedly un-Rhônelike addition of Chardonnay. Each variety brings something to the table, giving the wine real complexity. It’s a pleasurable sipper, dry, crisp in acidity and interestingly flavored in oranges, green melons, succulent peaches, spices and white flowers, with a creamy mouthfeel and bracing minerality. It’s a little hot and heavy—the alcohol is a sturdy 14.7%–suggesting pairing with rich fare, like seared scallops in beurre blanc or baked salmon. The wine is a new partner to Tenshen’s 2013 Red, which was successfully launched earlier this year. Score: 87.
Guarachi 2013 Sun Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir (Petaluma Gap); $75. The vineyard, on the southern side of Sonoma Mountain, is one of the highest (1,400 feet) in the Petaluma Gap, an area currently contained within the greater Sonoma Coast appellation but one that is hopefully awaiting approval of its own AVA status by the federal government. Alex Guarachi owns the young (2007) vineyard, whose grapes have been purchased by others, including Patz & Hall and Fogline. Now Guarachi, who has perhaps been better known for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, has this bottling, which comes down firmly in favor of a riper, more alcoholic (officially 14.5%) and frankly gulpable style. It’s a big wine, dense, somewhat heavy and flamboyant, not your typical In Pursuit of Balance Pinot Noir, but certainly one that scores high on the deliciousness scale. With soft tannins and decent acidity, it’s forward in black cherry pie filling and cola flavors, with a smoky, cedary coating (55% new French oak) and tons of Chinese 5 spice in the finish. I would give it a several hours of decanting and drink it now, with rich, fatty foods, like lamb or steak, although it will overshadow something more delicate, like salmon. Score: 92.
Tamber Bey 2013 Sun Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $65. A stylish, classy Pinot, whose silky structure frames intense flavors. Floods the mouth with ripe raspberry preserves, cola, Christmas persimmons, red currants and sweet pomegranates, leading to a long, spicy finish. It’s ripe and soft and satisfying, solidly made in the California style, elegant and ageable for a few years. The new oak flavors of toast and vanilla are enriching. The vineyard is in a mountainous part of the emerging Petaluma Gap region. Only 484 cases were produced. Drink now-2021. Score: 91.
Kenefick Ranch 2014 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc (Calistoga); $24. Sauvignon Blanc in Calistoga? Well, yes, and it’s as ripe as you’d expect it to be. No subtle grass and minerals here, but rather an explosion of Meyer lemon, apricot and orange preserves, with little bites of stewed fruit. Lots of spice, good balancing acidity, and a touch of smoky oak from barrel fermentation. A big wine, slightly heavy. but sound. Call it a white wine for red wine fans. Score: 85.
Tamber Bey 2014 Mello Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Yountville); $28. Tamber Bey is best known for its reds, but this is quite a good Sauvignon Blanc, and shows how well the southerly part of Napa Valley, with its Carneros influence, can succeed with this variety. The wine, which is highish in alcohol, has just a touch of wood influence, and treads a careful line between tart gooseberries and riper tropical fruit notes, braced with a clean, tangy minerality. The acidity is just fine, and the finish is dry and peppery. I’m giving it extra points for sheer deliciousness and complexity. Score: 92.
This was our objective at yesterday’s tasting. The answer:
- high alcohol
- tremendous fruity extract
- thick tannins
- soft acidity
- a sense of sweetness
Think about each of those. Each element is at the utmost of the limits of a table wine to remain balanced. In this high-wire act, if you make the slightest error, you’re screwed.
The high alcohol means that, while it’s there (and we’re talking 15%-16% or more), if the wine is in the slightest degree hot, it loses points.
The tremendous fruity extract means that, if you get it wrong, you end up with a fruit bomb.
The thick tannins mean that you don’t want to end up with something that’s harsh in the mouth.
The soft acidity presents the danger of an insipid, boring wine, flashy, perhaps, with the first sip, but one that quickly palls.
So we’re talking about that elusive but vital element, balance. It’s funny that people always talk about a more delicate wine, like Burgundian Pinot Noir, as being so transparent that balance, or any hint of imbalance, is apparent. But that’s also true of these gigantic Paso Robles GSMs. Mere size isn’t enough to hide flaws. Nothing can hide a flaw to the discerning taste. And yet, a good winemaker can turn size to his advantage.
These winemakers—Matt Trevaison, Justin Smith, Stephen Asseso and the like–chose to make these sorts of wines, and by the standard of the market, they’ve been wildly successful. These westside GSMs have become Paso Robles’ most expensive wines. Produced in tiny amounts, they sell for far more on the aftermarket than their initial release prices. So, when my friends at Jackson Family Wines asked me to put together a Paso Robles tasting (and the family currently owns nothing in Paso Robles), I happily acceded.
I could have done a tasting of Paso Bordeaux blends. I’ve been a big fan; that was part of the reason why I successfully argued for Paso Robles to be Wine Enthusiast’s “Wine Region of the Year” a couple of years ago.
I could have done a tasting of what I call Paso’s “wacko blends,” those innovative blends of everything from Tempranillo and Zinfandel to Merlot, Sangiovese and Petite Sirah. I wrote extensively about them for Wine Enthusiast. These young winemakers, who invaded Paso Robles over the last 5-10 years, had nothing to lose by being creative. They knew they couldn’t compete against Napa Valley with Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir was out of the question. Why not create a blend that had never existed before in the history of the world, if it made a delicious wine? It was a niche to be explored and exploited.
But GSMs are the signature wines of Paso Robles, especially at the high-priced end. So here were the seven wines we tasted yesterday, in a blind tasting. (Sadly, although I ordered the L’Aventure 2013 Cote de Cote directly from the winery, and paid $120.68, including shipping, for it, it never arrived.)
The wines, with SRP and alcohol:
Saxum 2012 Heart Stone, $149, 15.1%
Tablas Creek 2013 Cote de Cote, $55, 14.5%
Law Estate 2011 Sagacious, $67, 16%
Linne Calodo 2013 Sticks & Stones, $79, 15.8%
Jada 2012 Hell’s Kitchen, $54, 15.5%
ONX 2012 Crux, $45, 15.2%
Booker 2013 Full Draw, $75, 15.3%
My favorite, and the group’s, too, was the ONX. It was closely followed by the Jada, Tablas Creek, Saxum, Linne Calodo, and Booker. The trick with wines of this sort, which are very popular with critics, is to keep them balanced. All the individual parts—tannins, fruity extract, alcohol—are so strong, in and of themselves, that if any one of them sticks out, it perturbs the entire wine. (One of my co-tasters called several of the wines “distracting,” for that very reason). In this modern In Pursuit of Balance world, we make much of the structure and finesse of lightly-structured wines, which are so transparent that inherent imbalances quickly reveal themselves. As we focus—properly—on these wines, we tend to forget that these big, rich wines have similar balancing challenges; like Bob Dylan’s “mattress balanced on a bottle of wine,” the equilibrium must be just-so, the poise exquisitely tense, or otherwise the wine just collapses under its own weight into a heap.
Still, these west side Paso Robles wines (which now come under a guise of AVAs since Paso Robles split up into 11 appellations) are attention-getting, although I’m not sure I’d want to split an entire bottle with someone over dinner.