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New wine reviews

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I met Oded Shakked years ago when I was writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. He had started Longboard Vineyards and I was giving him good reviews. His story—how he got from the Israeli Army to the Russian River Valley—was fascinating. Oded continues at the Longboard helm; I’ll be visiting with him at the tasting room in Healdsburg this weekend. He recently sent me his latest releases, which I was pleased to taste.

Longboard 2013 Mavericks – Chrome Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley): $65. Winemaker Oded Shakked is a surfer (hence “Longboard”); the name of this wine honors the Mavericks surfing competition, held annually south of San Francisco. The “Chrome,” Oded explains, is for a photograph of a big wave; I haven’t seen it, but supposedly it’s quite famous. Oded used to make a Cabernet from the Rochioli Vineyard. I don’t think he still does, but he learned his chops. He’s moved his Cabernet sourcing further east, to the warmer Alexander Valley, on the east side of the valley, where the appellation meets Chalk Hill and Cabernet has no problem ripening. The wine contains a splash of Malbec and Merlot from Oded’s own vineyard, in the northern Russian River Valley, from where the structure and acidity come. It’s quite a good wine, showing lush, plush black currant, teriyaki, anise and chocolate flavors, with a sweet-spicy earthiness that suggests black olive tapenade. I really like this Cab right now. You can probably age it for 5-8 years, but why bother. The alcohol is 14.5% and only 72 cases were produced. Score: 93 points.

Longboard 2014 Mystos Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley): $55. This is a big, luscious Pinot Noir, the kind that smacks of the summer sun. Oded doesn’t want to reveal the name or location of the vineyard, other than to say it’s “hillside.” That’s a confidentiality agreement, common in wine country. It’s a solid wine, packed with ripe raspberries, persimmons and cherry cola; one-third new French oak for a year adds layers of vanilla and toast. The alcohol is a modest 13.9%. It’s super-drinkable now. I’m thinking of lamb or char-broiled filet of beef, or grilled salmon with wild mushrooms. Score: 92 points.

Longboard 2013 Syrah (Russian River Valley): $30. This is quite a delicious Syrah, easily worth the price. It’s soft and smooth, housing ripe, lush blackberry and blueberry jam, cocoa, crispy bacon, espresso, black pepper and smoky oak flavors, with a glyceriney sweetness in the finish. Glides over the palate like a velvet tapestry. I don’t know the exact grape sourcing; the Russian River Valley is a big place, but it tastes like it’s from the warmer, northerly parts. The wine is 100% Syrah, aged for 18 months in 30% new French oak. Oded, who is of Israeli extraction, says he likes this wine with lamb and kebab dishes. I concur. Drink now-2021. Alcohol 14.5%, production 422 cases. Score: 92 points.

Longboard 2014 Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley): $50. Oded Shakked is one of the few winemakers fortunate enough to obtain grapes from his old friends, the Rochiolis. The vineyard, in a warmer part of the valley on Westside Road, is, of course, one of the greatest in California for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This fresh, young wine is made in the classic Burgundian way, with 40% new French oak barrel fermentation and aging on the lees. It’s very rich and intricate, with layers of crème brulée, orange custard, golden mango, honey and buttered cinnamon toast. That makes it sound like a dessert wine, but it’s quite dry and racy. Oded predicts that it will age; I don’t think so. So drink it now with the richest foods: Dungeness crab, lobster, scallops, a wild mushroom risotto. Alcohol 14.2%, 186 cases produced. Score: 92 points.

Square Peg is a winery I was unfamiliar with until they sent me these two Pinot Noirs. Both are from the estate vineyard, which is near Occidental, at the junction of Russian River Valley, Green Valley and Sonoma Coast. The vineyard is dry-farmed, unusual in my experience for this part of the world. The owner is a guy named Brad Alper, a former American Airlines pilot who retired in 2012. The winemaker is William Knuttel, who was winemaker at Saintsbury for a long time, and knows Pinot Noir.

Square Peg 2014 SP-SL Vineyard Block 8 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $65. The winery hasn’t made clear what the difference is between their Block 1 and Block 8 Pinots [see below]. The alcohol, 14.5%, is the same. The case production is roughly the same. The acidity and pH are pretty much the same. The difference seems to be that Block 8 was harvested at significantly lower brix than Block 1, and that does seem to be the crucial difference. The wine is lovely, with raspberry, strawberry and cherry fruit, and a tight, taut mouthfeel. I’m giving it two extra points over Block 1 because it has more delicacy and finesse. Score: 93 pojnts.

Square Peg 2014 SP-SL Vineyard Block 1 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $65. No stems in the fermentation of this garnet-colored wine, which despite its alcohol level of 14.5% is silky and delicate, with refined tannins. The flavors tread an interesting line between earthy-mushroomy, with a slight tomatoey greenness, and more generous raspberries, cherries and persimmons. The acidity is just fine. It’s a wine that hints of complexity. Fine to drink now and over the next six years. Score: 91 points.


Wine Reviews

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Another week, another batch. Enjoy my wine reviews!

Stags’ Leap 2013 The Leap Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap District); $90. It’s fascinating to taste this alongside the winery’s regular ’13 Cabernet, which I scored at 90 points. It’s considerably richer and denser. Made from 100% Cabernet grown in the estate vineyards, it displays that famous Stags Leap “iron fist in a velvet glove.” Velvet is indeed the texture: so smooth, so plush, so sexy. The color—midnight black, flecked with glints of ruby—hints at the concentration as well as the youth. Aromatically and flavor-wise, it’s massive. Intense tiers of blackcurrants and cassis liqueur, blueberry jam, candied violets, mocha and umami plum sauce, with an earthy hint of green olives. It’s all accented by the smoky sweetness of 50% new French oak barrel aging for 20 months. As sweetly fruited as it is, the finish is entirely, and satisfyingly, dry. The mouthfeel is full-bodied and elegant, with great weight and depth, and an alcohol level of only 14.1%. Delicious! A great accomplishment! Super-impressive! But oh, so young. I can’t stop anyone from drinking and enjoying it now, but if you do, decant! Otherwise, stash it in a good cellar. It will reward another twenty years, at least. Score: 97 points.

Stags’ Leap 2012 Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah (Stags Leap District): $115. I’ve been reviewing this wine (the name means “Don’t give in to misfortune”) since the mid-1990s and since ’99 never gave it less than 90 points. The wine was grown on the estate vineyard, west of the Silverado Trail, in the lee of the Stags Leap palisades, within the famous natural amphitheater that captures afternoon sunlight yet benefits from the appellation’s southerly location to capture cooling breezes up from San Pablo Bay. The winery says the vineyard’s oldest blocks were planted in 1929. The blend includes at least eight other varieties, including some white ones. And the wine? It reminds me of the 2010, which I described as “dry and tannic, with wild berry, currant, licorice, tobacco and oak flavors.” This ’12 is all that, and more: there’s a charcuterie umami-ness that, to me, suggests salami and crisped prosciutto, and a spiciness I don’t recall from previous vintages. With the lush mouthfeel, it absolutely caresses the mouth, growing more complex and fascinating with each moment it breathes. It’s so robust and powerful, I almost can’t believe the alcohol is only 14.1%, but that’s what they say. I do find the price concerning. But in an era when the merest Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon can top $100, perhaps it’s time for us to reconsider whether Petite Sirah of this quality may not be worth a triple-digit price. I would drink this right out of the bottle on release, or stash it away for, who knows how long? Thirty years is not out of the question. Score: 97 points

Aberrant Cellars 2014 Chehalem Mountain Vineyard Block B3 Old Vines Pinot Noir (Chehalem Mountains): $50. There’s much to like about this new Pinot Noir, but it really is young at this point, and wants some time to come around. It’s starting life off as tight and rather closed, with intense aromatics of raspberry compote, orange pekoe tea, chocolate brownie, espresso and cheese rind. In the mouth, the acid-tannin balance is just fine, and the wine has a nice delicacy, courtesy of 13.8% alcohol. The winery is owned by Eric Eide, who seems to have been an American in the wine biz who frequently visited Burgundy and fell in love with the wines. The vineyard was planted back in 1968 by Richard Erath, of Knudsen-Erath; the wine comes from an ungrafted 2.34-acre patch, hence the “Old Vines” designation. The intensity is explained by the low vine yield, only 1.4 tons per acre, while the sweet oak hails from aging for 15 months in 36% new French oak. The winemaker used 5% whole clusters in the fermentation, a wise choice that seems to add body, wood spice and texture to the delicacy. Only 210 cases were produced. Most people will probably consume this wine too early, but it will certainly be more satisfying after 2020. Score: 93 points.

Stags’ Leap 2013 Petite Sirah (Napa Valley): $39. I looked up all my scores over the years for this wine, and every one of them was at least 90 points, except for the 2009. This ’13 is consistent with that history. It’s a good Petite Sirah, darkly hued, dry and tannic, with deep, rich blackberry jam, espresso, black currant, licorice, beef teriaki and black pepper flavors. The grapes come from all over the valley, north and south. The wine was aged for a year in partially new American oak, which brings notes of smoke and dill. It will probably live for decades without gaining in complexity, so drink it whenever you want. The alcohol is 14.1%, and interestingly, the blend includes Syrah, Grenache, Carignane and Mourvedre, which makes it a California Rhône. Score: 90 points.

Stags’ Leap 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $58. The wine is a blend of all five classic Bordeaux varieties, grown partly on the Stags Leap estate but also sourced from other vineyards in the valley. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, with its dark color, hard tannins, and intensely concentrated black currant and cassis flavors, but Malbec—currently out of fashion in Napa—as the second grape adds darkness and tannins and plummy violets. Approximately one-third new French oak brings the usual toasty, smoky notes. At the age of three-plus years, it’s aloof. Everything is muted, seen through a glass darkly. But there are tantalizing hints of its future. I don’t mean to suggest you cellar this wine for a long time. But it will reward patience over the next six years. Score: 90 points.

Hindsight 2014 20/20 Red Wine (Napa Valley): $35. Convincing enough, a hearty, slightly rustic blend with enough sophistication to satisfy. Bone dry, with thick, scoury tannins and flavors of black tea, cassis, leather, coffee, cocoa nib, white pepper and smoky cedar wood. The blend is all five classic Bordeaux varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon dominating both in percentage and taste. Drink now. Score: 89 points.

Trotter 1/16 2013 Oak Canyon Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $75. The name refers to the owner’s position in a family of 16 children. The label doesn’t say “Coombsville,” which legally it could, because that AVA was approved in early 2012. Nonetheless, the wine, which is 100% Cab, is from a tiny, biodynamically-farmed vineyard in that southeastern Napa appellation. The region is cool, by Napa standards, in fact cooler than Carneros. Perhaps that accounts for the hard tannins here, or perhaps it’s a deficiency of tannin management. There is a solid core of black currants, and the long, spicy finish typical of Napa Cabernets. The alcohol is only 14.3%, and a mere 75 cases were produced. It’s an impressive wine from a young winery, but the tannins are uncomfortably astringent, and make me wonder if they’ll ever drop out before the fruit disappears. Score: 88 points.

Michael David 2014 Earthquake Petite Sirah (Lodi); $26. One of these days I’m going to have to come up with a more creative way of describing a wine like this than “Will be good with short ribs.” Having said, that, this wine will be good with—short ribs! Or barbecue and such. To call it rustic and brawny is an understatement. The official alcohol is 15%, and there’s a chocolate-covered raisin superripeness, with a grapy, sappy blackberry liqueur sweetness and plenty of smoke from 1-1/2 years in French oak. It’s a solid Petite Sirah from this warm, inland Delta region. Score: 88 points.

Moniker 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendocino County): $25. The Thornhill family established their vineyard, on the east side of the Russian River in the Ukiah Valley, in 2002, and started the winery two years later. This Cab, which contains 1% Petit Verdot, has plenty of varietal character. It’s dark, dry, full-bodied and tannic, with a wealth of black currant, cassis and tea flavors, and a smoky edge from 22 months of aging in 36% new American oak. This muscular wine is fine for drinking now. The alcohol is 14.5%. Score: 88 points.

Merisi 2014 Diener Vineyard Petite Sirah (Lake County): $35. If you can get the cork out through the hard plastic capsule without slicing off a finger, you’ll find a pretty good wine. It’s big and bold, in the Petite Sirah fashion, with sturdy tannins and dense blackberry and mulberry, beef jerky, sugared expresso, clove, anise, pepper and toast flavors. The alcohol is high, at 15.3%, which gives it prickly heat, as well as a glyceriney sweetness. Score: 87 points.

Pamela’s 2013 Un-Oaked Chardonnay (Sonoma County); $16. Unoaked Chardonnay depends for richness on the grapes. They need concentration of flavor to succeed without oak, because Chardonnay itself is a fairly featureless variety. This wine succeeds in that respect. It’s easy to drink, offering plenty of Chardonnay personality, with tropical fruit, peach, honeydew melon, lime, vanilla and honeysuckle flavors. From Ron Rubin Vineyards and Winery. Score: 87 points.

Aberrant Cellars 2015 “Philtrum” Pinot Noir Blanc (Willamette Valley): $29. I never thought Pinot Noir was a good variety to make a dry white table wine from (despite its efficacy in sparkling wine), and this wine doesn’t change my view. This is a strong wine, with intense orange, strawberry, tropical fruit, hazelnut, roasted coconut and vanilla flavors that remind me of a dessert macaroon, although it is dry. It was fermented and aged, in roughly equal proportions, in stainless steel and oak. I admire the low alcohol, only 13%, and the brisk acidity, but for me the wine lacks delicacy and subtlety. You can call it a white wine for red wine drinkers. Score: 86 points.

Locations Non-Vintage F5 Rosé (France); $??.  This is a dry rosé made entirely from Grenache. The winery says the vines are 50 years old and dry farmed. The wine is unoaked. There’s no vintage date on the label or the paperwork. It has some nice raspberry and watermelon flavors, and a spicy pepperiness. Acidity is quite high, bordering on sour, and there’s a disturbing smell and taste of unripe greenness, which for me really lowers the score. 82 points.

Locations Non-Vintage F4 Red Wine (Portugal); $??. Smells disagreeable, with green, mushroom and cough drop flavors, and the taste is similar, although there’s a little raspberry-cherry fruit. The alcohol, at 15%, gives the thin flavor heat. The blend is Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Turiga Franca. Score: 82 points.

Michael David 2014 Petite Petit (Lodi); $18. This is, I suppose, a junior version of the winery’s Earthquake Petite Sirah. It’s two-thirds the price, anyway. The name comes from the 15% of Petit Verdot in the blend, which seems more like a marketing decision than a winemaking one, so they could call it Petite Petit. The wine is overpriced. It’s rustic and brawny, with blackberry and oak flavors and sturdy tannins. Some mustiness seriously mars it. Score: 82 points.

Oak Grove 2014 Family Reserve Petite Sirah (California); $9. Petite Sirah in name only. Smells like old cola that was left out on the counter overnight, stale and harsh. Feels brutish in the mouth, with no structure and some sugary sweetness. Barely drinkable. Score: 80 points.


New Wine Reviews

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Stags’ Leap 2013 The Leap Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap District); $90. It’s fascinating to taste this alongside the winery’s regular ’13 Cabernet, which I scored at 90 points. It’s considerably richer and denser. Made from 100% Cabernet grown in the estate vineyards, it displays that famous Stags Leap “iron fist in a velvet glove.” Velvet is indeed the texture: so smooth, so plush, so sexy. The color—midnight black, flecked with glints of ruby—hints at the concentration as well as the youth. Aromatically and flavor-wise, it’s massive. Intense tiers of blackcurrants and cassis liqueur, blueberry jam, candied violets, mocha and umami plum sauce, with an earthy hint of green olives. It’s all accented by the smoky sweetness of 50% new French oak barrel aging for 20 months. As sweetly fruited as it is, the finish is entirely, and satisfyingly, dry. The mouthfeel is full-bodied and elegant, with great weight and depth, and an alcohol level of only 14.1%. Delicious! A great accomplishment! Super-impressive! But oh, so young. I can’t stop anyone from drinking and enjoying it now, but if you do, decant! Otherwise, stash it in a good cellar. It will reward another twenty years, at least. Score: 97 points.

Stags’ Leap 2012 Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah (Stags Leap District): $115. I’ve been reviewing this wine (the name means “Don’t give in to misfortune”) since the mid-1990s and since ’99 never gave it less than 90 points. The wine was grown on the estate vineyard, west of the Silverado Trail, in the lee of the Stags Leap palisades, within the famous natural amphitheater that captures afternoon sunlight yet benefits from the appellation’s southerly location to capture cooling breezes up from San Pablo Bay. The winery says the vineyard’s oldest blocks were planted in 1929. The blend includes at least eight other varieties, including some white ones. And the wine? It reminds me of the 2010, which I described as “dry and tannic, with wild berry, currant, licorice, tobacco and oak flavors.” This ’12 is all that, and more: there’s a charcuterie umami-ness that, to me, suggests salami and crisped prosciutto, and a spiciness I don’t recall from previous vintages. With the lush mouthfeel, it absolutely caresses the mouth, growing more complex and fascinating with each moment it breathes. It’s so robust and powerful, I almost can’t believe the alcohol is only 14.1%, but that’s what they say. I do find the price concerning. But in an era when the merest Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon can top $100, perhaps it’s time for us to reconsider whether Petite Sirah of this quality may not be worth a triple-digit price. I would drink this right out of the bottle on release, or stash it away for, who knows how long? Thirty years is not out of the question. Score: 97 points.

Aberrant Cellars 2014 Chehalem Mountain Vineyard Block B3 Old Vines Pinot Noir (Chehalem Mountains): $50. There’s much to like about this new Pinot Noir, but it really is young at this point, and wants some time to come around. It’s starting life off as tight and rather closed, with intense aromatics of raspberry compote, orange pekoe tea, chocolate brownie, espresso and cheese rind. In the mouth, the acid-tannin balance is just fine, and the wine has a nice delicacy, courtesy of 13.8% alcohol. The winery is owned by Eric Eide, who seems to have been an American in the wine biz who frequently visited Burgundy and fell in love with the wines. The vineyard was planted back in 1968 by Richard Erath, of Knudsen-Erath; the wine comes from an ungrafted 2.34-acre patch, hence the “Old Vines” designation. The intensity is explained by the low vine yield, only 1.4 tons per acre, while the sweet oak hails from aging for 15 months in 36% new French oak. The winemaker used 5% whole clusters in the fermentation, a wise choice that seems to add body, wood spice and texture to the delicacy. Only 210 cases were produced. Most people will probably consume this wine too early, but it will certainly be more satisfying after 2020. Score: 93 points.

Stags’ Leap 2013 Petite Sirah (Napa Valley): $39. I looked up all my scores over the years for this wine, and every one of them was at least 90 points, except for the 2009. This ’13 is consistent with that history. It’s a good Petite Sirah, darkly hued, dry and tannic, with deep, rich blackberry jam, espresso, black currant, licorice, beef teriaki and black pepper flavors. The grapes come from all over the valley, north and south. The wine was aged for a year in partially new American oak, which brings notes of smoke and dill. It will probably live for decades without gaining in complexity, so drink it whenever you want. The alcohol is 14.1%, and interestingly, the blend includes Syrah, Grenache, Carignane and Mourvedre, which makes it a California Rhône. Score: 90 points.

Stags’ Leap 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $58. The wine is a blend of all five classic Bordeaux varieties, grown partly on the Stags Leap estate but also sourced from other vineyards in the valley. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, with its dark color, hard tannins, and intensely concentrated black currant and cassis flavors, but Malbec—currently out of fashion in Napa—as the second grape adds darkness and tannins and plummy violets. Approximately one-third new French oak brings the usual toasty, smoky notes. At the age of three-plus years, it’s aloof. Everything is muted, seen through a glass darkly. But there are tantalizing hints of its future. I don’t mean to suggest you cellar this wine for a long time. But it will reward patience over the next six years. Score: 90 points.

Hindsight 2014 20/20 Red Wine (Napa Valley): $35. Convincing enough, a hearty, slightly rustic blend with enough sophistication to satisfy. Bone dry, with thick, scoury tannins and flavors of black tea, cassis, leather, coffee, cocoa nib, white pepper and smoky cedar wood. The blend is all five classic Bordeaux varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon dominating both in percentage and taste. Drink now. Score: 89 points.

Michael David 2014 Earthquake Petite Sirah (Lodi); $26. One of these days I’m going to have to come up with a more creative way of describing a wine like this than “Will be good with short ribs.” Having said, that, this wine will be good with—short ribs! Or barbecue and such. To call it rustic and brawny is an understatement. The official alcohol is 15%, and there’s a chocolate-covered raisin superripeness, with a grapy, sappy blackberry liqueur sweetness and plenty of smoke from 1-1/2 years in French oak. It’s a solid Petite Sirah from this warm, inland Delta region. Score: 88 points.

Moniker 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendocino County): $25. The Thornhill family established their vineyard, on the east side of the Russian River in the Ukiah Valley, in 2002, and started the winery two years later. This Cab, which contains 1% Petit Verdot, has plenty of varietal character. It’s dark, dry, full-bodied and tannic, with a wealth of black currant, cassis and tea flavors, and a smoky edge from 22 months of aging in 36% new American oak. This muscular wine is fine for drinking now. The alcohol is 14.5%. Score: 88 points.

Merisi 2014 Diener Vineyard Petite Sirah (Lake County): $35. If you can get the cork out through the hard plastic capsule without slicing off a finger, you’ll find a pretty good wine. It’s big and bold, in the Petite Sirah fashion, with sturdy tannins and dense blackberry and mulberry, beef jerky, sugared expresso, clove, anise, pepper and toast flavors. The alcohol is high, at 15.3%, which gives it prickly heat, as well as a glyceriney sweetness. Score: 87 points.

Pamela’s 2013 Un-Oaked Chardonnay (Sonoma County); $16. Unoaked Chardonnay depends for richness on the grapes. They need concentration of flavor to succeed without oak, because Chardonnay itself is a fairly featureless variety. This wine succeeds in that respect. It’s easy to drink, offering plenty of Chardonnay personality, with tropical fruit, peach, honeydew melon, lime, vanilla and honeysuckle flavors. From Ron Rubin Vineyards and Winery. Score: 87 points.

Aberrant Cellars 2015 “Philtrum” Pinot Noir Blanc (Willamette Valley): $29. I never thought Pinot Noir was a good variety to make a dry white table wine from (despite its efficacy in sparkling wine), and this wine doesn’t change my view. This is a strong wine, with intense orange, strawberry, tropical fruit, hazelnut, roasted coconut and vanilla flavors that remind me of a dessert macaroon, although it is dry. It was fermented and aged, in roughly equal proportions, in stainless steel and oak. I admire the low alcohol, only 13%, and the brisk acidity, but for me the wine lacks delicacy and subtlety. You can call it a white wine for red wine drinkers. Score: 86 points.

Locations Non-Vintage I4 Red Wine (Italy); $??. A blend of three Italian varieties, Negroamaro, Nero d’Avola and Barbera. It is very “Italian-y,” in the sense of dryness, high acidity, tannins and a truffly earthiness. Otherwise, there are notes of cherries, blackberries, black tea, cola and spices. It’s a solid wine, a bit austere on its own, but will be a good companion to rich beef, cheese and pasta dishes. Score: 85 points.

Locations Non-Vintage F5 Rosé (France); $??.  This is a dry rosé made entirely from Grenache. The winery says the vines are 50 years old and dry farmed. The wine is unoaked. There’s no vintage date on the label or the paperwork. It has some nice raspberry and watermelon flavors, and a spicy pepperiness. Acidity is quite high, bordering on sour, and there’s a disturbing smell and taste of unripe greenness, which for me really lowers the score. 82 points.

Locations Non-Vintage F4 Red Wine (Portugal); $??. Smells disagreeable, with green, mushroom and cough drop flavors, and the taste is similar, although there’s a little raspberry-cherry fruit. The alcohol, at 15%, gives the thin flavor heat. The blend is Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Turiga Franca. Score: 82 points.

Michael David 2014 Petite Petit (Lodi); $18. This is, I suppose, a junior version of the winery’s Earthquake Petite Sirah. It’s two-thirds the price, anyway. The name comes from the 15% of Petit Verdot in the blend, which seems more like a marketing decision than a winemaking one, so they could call it Petite Petit. The wine is overpriced. It’s rustic and brawny, with blackberry and oak flavors and sturdy tannins. Some mustiness seriously mars it. Score: 82 points.

Oak Grove 2014 Family Reserve Petite Sirah (California); $9. Petite Sirah in name only. Smells like old cola that was left out on the counter overnight, stale and harsh. Feels brutish in the mouth, with no structure and some sugary sweetness. Barely drinkable. Score: 80 points.


Reviews: 5 new wines from Chateau Potelle

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I’ve known Jean-Noel Fourmeaux du Sartel, Potelle’s winemaker/proprietor, for about 27 years, since I wrote an article for Wine Spectator on Chateau Potelle (which he founded with his then-wife, Marketta), back in 1989 or 1990. In fact, as Jean-Noel reminds me, it was my first big feature article for the magazine. I remember driving up the steep dirt road to the winery, high up on Mount Veeder, in a clearing in a forest heavy with evergreens; the road was so pitted after a rainy winter that when I arrived at the winery, Jean-Noel welcomed me to “Chateau Pot Hole.” His sense of humor was also exhibited when he punned on his name: “My friends call me Johnny Christmas!” He was a funny guy, but dead serious about wine, and about taking what he called a French-approach to a California style he deemed excessive. (He compared California wine to Tammy Faye Bakker!) The wine I remember the most from that visit was the VGS Zinfandel. It was in a tall, slender bottle; the meaning of the letters, Jean-Noel explained, was “Very Good Shit.”

Visitors these days will find a nicely paved roadway instead of pot holes, but Chateau Potelle isn’t there anymore; Jean-Noel sold the winery and vineyard to Jackson Family Wines, my ex-employer, in 2007, who renamed it Mount Brave. But he kept the brand’s name. I ran into Johnny Christmas recently at the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux tasting, at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. I’m pleased to review his exciting new Chateau Potelle wines.

Chateau Potelle 2014 VGS Syrah (Mount Veeder); $75. This Syrah instantly brought me to the Northern Rhône, although the tannins are completely different. I don’t know if anyone really cares about California Syrah anymore, except some sommeliers, but really, there’s a distinct place in cuisine for a great wine like this. It’s noble. I mean that in the French sense, of world-class finesse. The wine is young and immature, absolutely black as a moonless midnight, with just a tease of purple-garnet at the extreme edge. Aromatically, it’s muted. But in the mouth, Boom! Such power, such masculinity (if it’s still okay to have a gender reference these days). Waves of blackberry jam, plum preserves, cherry compote, dark chocolate, roasted veal bone, tamari, cloves, crispy bacon, charred cedar wood, Chinese 5-spice…Jean-Noel finds lavender, and I can see what he means, there’s something floral and pretty. Those tannins: big, firm, thick as only a Napa mountain can grow them, but so finely meshed. The vineyard is very high up on Veeder, at 2,500 feet, well above the fogline, where the solar radiation is intense, but keep in mind Veeder is right above San Francisco Bay and gets those cooling winds. Yikes, just spectacular. Grill up some lamb, sprinkle it with rosemary and black pepper, proceed to heaven. Drink this now, after careful decanting or even double-decanting, and over the next ten years. Score: 96 points.

Chateau Potelle 2014 VGS Potelle Two Red Wine (Napa Valley); $65. Massive flavor erupts from this young, dramatic wine, offering tiers of cassis, black currants, black licorice, plum crisp, sweetened espresso, milk chocolate, raspberry newton, smoky cedar, teriyaki beef and briary, peppery wild blackberries. The beef teriaki must come from the 16% Syrah in the blend of this Cabernet Sauvignon- (41%) based beauty. The briary pepperiness hails from 14% Zinfandel. Other varietal components are Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The “Potelle Two” designation, according to the winery, is meant to suggest this is a “second wine.” That is completely insane; this wine is as good as nearly anything out there in a dry, full-bodied table red. Irresistibly delicious. Drink now-2020. Score: 95 points.

Chateau Potelle 2014 VGS Chardonnay (Mount Veeder); $50. The structure is what pleases me. Anyone can get California Chardonnay ripe; packing in an architectural framework is tricky. Brilliant acidity, the mouthwatering kind that feels like freshly-squeezed limes. Sur lie aging brings its own form of structure, or perhaps texture is a better word, with a yeasty, sourdough dimension, while oak tannins bring a hint of firmness. There’s a minerality that reminds me of licking granite on a cold day. But back to the fruit. Papayas, guavas, immaculately ripe peaches and pears, Meyer lemons, kumquats, fresh pineapple, kiwi—my goodness, it goes on and on. But this is no fruit bomb: nervy, intense, complex. People think of Mount Veeder as Cabernet country, and it certainly is, but the mountain makes fabulous Chardonnay, and this one, grown at 1,800 feet and fermented with natural yeast, is spectacular. Score: 94 points.

Chateau Potelle 2014 VGS Zinfandel (Sonoma Mountain); $65. In the 1990s Chateau Potelle was making what was possibly California’s best Zinfandel, from their vineyard high up on Mount Veeder. These days, proprietor Jean-Noel Fourmeaux du Sartel still makes the winery’s VGS Zinfandel, but he’s shifted his fruit sourcing across the Mayacamas to another mountain, the one called Sonoma. This wine shows that Jean-Noel hasn’t lost his deft touch with Zin. It’s robust and exuberant, yet retains that “Frenchy” elegance, despite a hefty alcohol level of 15.5%. The flavors span the gamut, from raspberries and cherries to fruit liqueur, ripe figs, prosciutto, white currants, pepper and cloves. I personally would have put a little less oak on it; it doesn’t need all that toasty vanilla. But it sure is a delight. Score: 91 points.

Chateau Potelle 2014 The Illegitimate (California); $18. You wouldn’t know this was from Potelle without careful reading of the back label, but it is. It’s a departure for the winery, a (relatively) affordable, mixed-red blend with a statewide appellation. Jean-Noel calls it his “second flag.” There’s a place for it on the table. Dry and robust, it features blackberry, currant, licorice, cassis, bacon, black pepper, tapenade and smoky flavors, wrapped into chunky tannins. The mouthfeel is a little rough, but it’s a good, sound wine with some aspirations. The blend is Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Barbera, Petit Sirah and Zinfandel. Score: 86 points.


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Aratas 2012 Shake Ridge Ranch Petite Sirah (Amador County): $52. Alcohol 14.9%. This is a real mountain wine, grown at an elevation of 1,700 feet. The climate in this part of California is wild, with very hot summer days that turn rapidly chilly at night, as cold air sinks down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The wine is 100% Petite Sirah, aged in 50% new Hungarian oak. The wine itself is dramatic. I love the intricate blackberry jam and cassis flavors that ooze across the palate, complexed with grilled meat bone, crispy bacon, crushed black pepper, espresso, umami tamari, wood spice, mocha and smoky oak. I love the mouthfeel, rich and deep in finely-meshed tannins, enlivened by bright, citrusy acidity. And I love the finish, which is as satisfying as the attack. The founding partners come from a restaurant background, and it shows in this wine, which tames Petite Sirah’s sometimes brawny character and makes it elegant. This is the best, most satisfying Petite Sirah I’ve ever reviewed, and I have no problem giving it the highest rating I’ve ever given to a Petite Sirah. Score: 97 points.

Aratas 2012 Petite Sirah (Napa Valley): $48. Alcohol 14.9%. The winery’s 2012 Shake Ridge was the best Petite Sirah I’ve ever reviewed. This one’s nearly as good. Clearly, winemaker Matt Sunseri, who has worked with Helen Turley, Heidi Barrett and Paul Hobbs, understands this variety as few do. The wine has Cabernet-like elegance, which is really hard to translate to Petite Sirah. The vineyard is in Oak Knoll, in other words, a cooler, southerly district of Napa. The wine is 100% Petite Sirah, and spent 27 months in a combination of new and older oak before bottling—a long time by any standard, which gives the wine a smokiness throughout. Black currants, blackberry and cherry liqueur, umami charcuterie and baking spices comprise the fascinating array of flavors. I wish I had a case of this. Score: 96 points.

Hindsight 2013 Bella Vetta Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Howell Mountain): $75. Alcohol 14.7%. By coincidence I had been working on a project involving describing Howell Mountain Cabs, so tasting this wine played right into that. We know that the mountain is a fabulous place to grow intense, concentrated Cabernets. What this wine brought home is how elegant they can be. It’s not a pitch-black monster, but rather gleams with ruby luminescence, a hint of its character. Despite the considerable black cherry, cocoa nib, smoked meat, spice and saline flavors and rich tannins, it dances on the palate, now lithe, now full-bodied and muscular. It grows more complex by the minute. I must admit I spent a lot of time with it. The winemaker is Jac Cole, whose resume includes time at Chateau St. Jean, Stag’s Leap and Stags’ Leap (both of them) and Spring Mountain. Cabernet Sauvignon, in other words, is in his DNA. (Jac also owns the vineyard.) I would happily drink this wine immediately and over the next ten years. Score: 96 points.

Robert Biale 2014 Palisades Vineyard Petite Sirah (Calistoga): $55. The trick with Petite Sirah is to balance the variety’s natural tendency toward bigness with the elegance we want in a red table wine. This single-vineyard wine succeeds. It was grown in the eastern side of Calistoga, a warm, sheltered region that is friendly to Cabernet Sauvignon, but also for Petite Sirah, which thrives in inland Napa Valley, from St. Helena up to Calistoga. The wine is rich, soft and heady (although the official alcohol is just 14.4%). The texture is pure velvet. Blackberry jam, black currants, white pepper, crisped bacon, cocoa nib, violets, a firm minerality—this is as complex as Petite Sirah gets. Definitely one of the best I’ve had in years. Score: 95 points.

Robert Biale 2014 Royal Punishers Petite Sirah (Rutherford): $45. Biale’s three new Petite Sirahs are all so good, it’s crazy. Is anyone else making multiple Pets, especially at this level? Not that I know of. This one is really good, but first, I want to criticize the winery for not letting us know why they call it “Royal Punishers” or providing any technical information as to grape sourcing. Is it a single vineyard? A blend? Some of us want to know! Anyhow, it’s a wonderful wine whose soft tannins and taste of the earth define “Rutherford Dust.” The wine is pitch black in color except for a glint of garnet at the outer rim. The flavors are fabulously deep in concentrated plum essence, espresso, blackberry jam, beef teriyaki and smoky cedar wood. I’ll give it 95 points, easily, which makes it as good as the E.B.A., which costs 30 bucks more.

Robert Biale 2013 E.B.A. Petite Sirah (Napa Valley): $75. The initials stand for extended barrel age, to suggest the long aging period, 30 months, in oak. The wine has begun its long process of softening and mellowing. Although it’s still pretty hefty in tannins, it’s fully drinkable now. Stuffed with blackberry jam, black currant and cassis flavors, it has a smoked meatiness that suggests pairing with short ribs, barbecue, Szechuan beef. Expensive, yes, but it brims with complex elegance and smooth grace despite high alcohol (15.5%). Drink now-2026. Score: 94 points.

Vina Robles 2013 Creston Valley Vineyard Petite Sirah (Paso Robles): $44. Creston is southeast of the city of Paso Robles, located in a hilly, arid and hot area that is a high region III on the UC Davis Winkler scale. That is too hot for many grape varieties, but not Petite Sirah, which thrives in such a climate. This single-vineyard wine is an excellent Petite Sirah, inky black, soft and thick in tannins, with the most delicious mulberry, chocolate, blackberry, espresso, cola, beef teriaki and spice flavors. Oak barrel influence shows up in the smokiness and caramelly-vanilla taste. The alcohol is a hefty 15.1%, and only 418 cases were produced. This is quite as good as any Petite Sirah I’ve ever encountered. Score: 94 points.

Hindsight 2013 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon (Calistoga): $65. Hindsight is really killing it with Cab. This bottling is just lovely. It defines a more elegant, supple style (the alcohol is only 14.1%), although the tannins are rather hard at this time. They frame enormously complex black cherry, leather, licorice, teriyaki beef, espresso and smoky cedar flavors, and that just begins to describe it. Despite the hefty tannins the wine impresses for its balance and charm and overall fanciness. Drinkable now, but it will improve with 6-8 years in the bottle. Score: 94 points.

Hindsight 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $40. Right out of the bottle, the wine is tight and seems a little straightforward in fruit and oak. It offers tiers of black raspberry and cherry jam, mocha, fig, cassis, toast and cinnamon-spice flavors, swirling in soft, complex tannins. It’s tasty, but you really want to give it some time for the baby fat to start to melt. Made from 100% Cab, it’s full-bodied and dry, with an inherent sense of drama. Give it until the holiday season before popping the cork. It will drink well for another decade. Score: 92 points.

Vina Robles 2013 Estate Petite Sirah (Paso Robles): $29. What a delightful Petite Sirah. If you compare it with, say, the Robert Biales, it’s not as gigantic. But it is Petite Sirah-esque in its dark color, thick tannins and full-bodied, ripe blackcurrant, espresso, blueberry and dark chocolate flavors. It also has a real bite of acidity—technically, 7.6 grams per liter, which makes it a little tart on its own, so drink it with the appropriate foods. I can’t see it aging, so your window is over the next three years. The alcohol is 14.9%. Score: 91 points.

Hindsight 2012 Estate Grown Petite Sirah (Calistoga): $45. If size was everything, this would get a much higher score, because it’s a big, huge, gigantic Petite Sirah. By that, I mean inky black, tannic, and absolutely stuffed with blackberry, blueberry, blackstrap molasses, black licorice, charred meat bone, black pepper, tanned leather and smoky oak flavors, with a bone dry finish. It’s impressive, but kind of cumbersome, with something old-fashioned and rustic. It could age very well, and in fact probably will. If you can, give it ten years in the cellar. Right now, the score is 91 points.

Hindsight 2014 Chardonnay (Napa Valley): $28. Some people will find this Chard too oaky. Others, including me, will love the caramel vanilla richness, which meshes effortlessly with underlying tropical fruit flavors. The texture is creamy, the acidity is just right. This single-vineyard wine comes from the Oak Knoll District. It’s a little sweet on the finish, but sure is tasty, and easily deserves 90 points.

Paul Dolan 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendocino County); $20. Alcohol 14.5%. It’s not a back-handed compliment to call this one of the best $20 Cabs on the market. It has real character, from the rich tannins and oak-infused smokiness to the fresh blackberry and licorice flavors. It’s a little rough around the edges, but to tell the truth, it has quite a bit of sophistication, sort of a country cousin to Napa Valley. Score: 88 points.

Parducci 2013 True Grit Reserve Red (Mendocino County); $20. Alcohol 14.5%. This is one of those red wine multi-blends the oldtimers used to drink. In this case, it’s comprised of eight varieties, led by Carignane, Zinfandel and Grenache. The wine is briary and rustic, not as heavy as a Petite Sirah, in fact quite drinkable with the right foods: barbecue, tacos, chicken cacciatore, lasagna. It has the benefit of honesty: an old-fashioned wine with few pretensions, but solid. Good price. Score: 88 points.

Zin-Phomaniac 2014 Old Vines Zinfandel (Lodi); $15. Zin’s rustic personality has been preserved here, with plenty of baking spices and slightly overripe flavors of red currants and raspberry jam. Some 20% of new oak brings sweet oak flavors. The alcohol is a little high, 14.9%, and there’s evident glycerine in the wine, which makes it somewhat sweet, like sugared berry tea. This is a big, bold Zin for easy drinking. Score: 85 points.

Tie-Dye 2013 Red Blend (North Coast); $15. Crazy label, kind of a cross between a Sixties psychedelic rock poster and an auto repair shop pin-up. They’re clearly appealing to a crowd that eats pizza and such and doesn’t want to spend big bucks on their red wine. The blend is at least seven varieties, from Pinot Noir to Tempranillo and Barbera. The wine is decent and honest, with leather and blackberry jam flavors and scoury tannins. Score: 84 points.

Justice Grace 2013 Tenbrink Vineyards (Solano County): $30. Solano is the county to the east of Napa, almost in the Central Valley, but the climate is tempered by its proximity to San Pablo Bay. This wine, with a little Grenache from the Sierra Foothills, is rustic and drinkable. It has blackberry jam, bacon and espresso flavors, and is full-bodied and tannic. Score: 84 points.


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