When Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardio hears “Bennie and the Jets”, something comes over him.
“I’ve always associated the song with abundant sunlight and clean-house smells and security,” he told the Wall Street Journal, explaining that when he was a little boy, his mother would clean their house “with the Elton John single playing.”
Now, I love “Bennie and the Jets” as much as anyone, but when I hear it I don’t smell Pine Sol and see sunlight streaming through Venetian blinds. Nor would my mother (who was not much of a house cleaner) have listened to Elton John under any circumstances. (Guy Lombardo was more to her taste.) But I take Gregory Pardio’s point that “Bennie” appeals to him on some highly personal level that ultimately is impossible to explain, even to himself. As he puts it, he adores the song “[e]ven if [I] don’t know the words or what they mean.”
We all have “our songs,” I suppose. Or, to put it another way, we all have songs that strike a particular resonance with us, for reasons that usually occur on an unconscious or subconscious level involving memory, emotion, nostalgia. And I think it’s the same with wine. It’s a cliché to point out how travelers to some little Ligurian town discovered the best wine they’d ever had in a trattoria as the sun set over the sea. Would anyone else like that wine quite as much? Probably not. Same with “Bennie and the Jets” for Gregory. His fond memories of his mother and his childhood wonder set him up for that song to impact him every time he hears it.
What about a “great” wine, like a Grand Cru Burgundy, a First Growth Bordeaux or a cult Napa Cabernet? Do they have some kind of objective greatness that makes them instantly revered by anyone with any sort of understanding of wine? I don’t think so. Most people, even wine lovers with considerable experience, wouldn’t swoon over them if they tried the wine blind, with no context whatsoever. There might be a few people who “got it,” who even when tasting the wine blind experienced something so soulful that they had to stop everything and just experience the reverie. But I don’t think most people would.
There are rock songs that the majority of critics put on their top ten lists. Most reviewers would include Stairway to Heaven, for example. For me, Brown Sugar always does it, but then so does Pink’s You + Your Hand, or Superstition by Stevie Wonder, or almost anything early Beatles, for that matter. I’d be hard pressed to prefer one over the other and would hate to have to declare which is the best.
This is why I say that there are no great wines, just great bottles. Each bottle means something different to each of us, when we sip it. It may mean different things on different occasions. This is why so many wine aficienados say that, while they can appreciate an expensive, critically-acclaimed wine, they’d really prefer to drink something else (cost aside), that means more to them. They want, in other words, a “Bennie and the Jets” wine.
I’ve been in the business of declaring one wine to be greater than another for many years. I still basically stick to that concept. Whenever I have a tasting of wines, one of them always sticks out above all the others. At the same time, I can’t help but be influenced by the amazing revolution I’ve been privileged to be part of, wherein several new generations have arisen that question the pronouncements of “experts,” and share their views over social media. For me, the Big Question going forward isn’t whether or not we’ll still have a handful of “Great Wines” dominating the landscape, but if they’ll be the same “Great Wines” that have dominated it in the past. With everyone having his or her own “Bennie and the Jets” wine, I wonder if we’ll have room for “Great Wines” at all.
My weekly tasting at Jackson Family Wines tomorrow is exciting even for jaded old me. It’s of current release Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs. The lineup as now scheduled is:
Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate
Dehlinger 2012 “Altamont”
Gary Farrell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard
Dutton Goldfield 2012 Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard
Siduri 2013 Keefer Ranch Vineyard
Rochioli 2013 Estate
Joseph Swan 2012 Trenton Estate Vineyard
Failla 2013 Keefer Ranch
Paul Hobbs 2013 Ulises Valdez Vineyard
Peirson Meyer 2012 Miller Vineyard
Hartford Court 2013
La Crema 2013
Pretty impressive, eh? With the exception of the Peirson Meyer—which I’d never heard of until a friend recommended I try it—I have a long, rich relationship with each of these wineries and their winemakers/proprietors.
The Russian River Valley is such a vast place, with so many wineries, that I could have broken it down into several regional tastings, such as Middle Reach, Green Valley and Laguna Ridge. Maybe I should have, and maybe I will someday. As things turn out, most of the wineries in tomorrow’s lineup are from the southern stretch of the appellation, with quite a few from Green Valley, although nowadays that appellation seems to be falling out of favor; wineries seem to prefer Russian River Valley or Sonoma Coast. I wonder why that is. The Rochioli, which comes from the north, in that sense is an outlier, as is the La Crema, a blend from various valley vineyards. Still, I hope we’ll get a sense of what Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is all about. What makes one different from Carneros, or Fort Ross-Seaview, or anyplace else?
The neat thing about these regional and varietal tastings is that the smallest imperfections, as well as the greatest highlights, of the individual wines are so much easier to perceive than if you’re just drinking the wine alone. Last week, for instance, the Donum 2012 West Slope really had everything a Carneros Pinot Noir should have—but if you’d tasted, say, the Saintsbury Lee all by itself, you might not have realized it was missing a certain something. Tasting is all about context, then, which can be a problem, because if you taste a lesser wine immediately following a very great one, the former will suffer by comparison. Yet if you’re tasting flights, there has to be some kind of order. The question is, how do you determine it?
Well, if you’re doing—let’s say for the sake of argument—Bordeaux, I suppose it makes sense to lead up to the First Growths by starting with Seconds or Thirds. And even with the Firsts you might want to put Latour after Haut-Brion and Margaux. But we don’t have classifications in California, so arranging the order of the wines is more of a problem. You could taste by alcohol level—going from lowest to highest. But if you did, it wouldn’t really be “blind” because you’d know the alcohol levels, which would tell you something you wouldn’t otherwise know, and possibly contaminate or bias your findings.
Anyhow, while worrying about the order of wines in a tasting of Carneros Pinot Noirs is the sort of thing I think about, it’s not going to keep me up at night.
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I’m very glad to learn that Gallo has bought the old Asti property. I fell in love with this historic place in the Alexander Valley after researching and visiting it while writing my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.
The Asti campus is large and complex, with many beautiful old brick buildings, situated along the old railroad tracks that brought wine from these parts down to the big cities in the 1800s. It’s filled with history–Andrea Sbrabaro is a character out of a novel–and is a fabulous place to visit, only it’s never been open to the public, and most of the buildings were run down because nobody cared enough to restore and protect them. I hope Gallo does. Please Gallo, sink some money into Asti and build it into a historical/educational center!
It’s not an exact match, but if you superimposed a map of red and blue states on top of another map showing state per capita wine consumption in the U.S., there would be a lot of overlap.
So do Dems drink more wine than GOPers? The jury’s out on that one; lots of studies, but no definite conclusions. However, one interesting study does seem to suggest that liberals like wine more than their conservative counterparts. This scatter chart
has Democrat-skewing people drinking more alcohol than Republicans, and drinking different kinds, too: For example, Ravenswood and Charles Shaw veer Democratic, while Kendall-Jackson and Sterling lean Republican. Republicans, if they drink (and many don’t), also seem to like spirits more than Democrats (although you’d never know that after a night on the town here in Oakland!). I have no idea why that is, but I do know this: Wine and food trends start on the West Coast and then spread over the country.
This came to mind over the weekend, when the Wall Street Journal’s “Personal Journal” section published this piece, called “But How Will It Play in Portland?” The article was on how Portland, Oregon “is known…for setting food and restaurant trends that catch on around the U.S.” Despite the headline, there was nothing I saw in the article that particularly supported this argument—after reading it, I have no idea what trends Portland started.
So I interpreted “Portland” to mean the entire West Coast, especially Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, both of which really have bequeathed food and drinking traditions to America, everything from coffee and sourdough bread to California cuisine, the farm-to-table movement, locovorism, freshness, Asian influences, craft beer and, of course, artisanal wine. The philosopher and mystical gadfly, Alan Watts, once referred to coastal California, including Big Sur and Marin County, as power centers for spirituality—magical places where magically creative people want to live, free of the shackles of conventional norms. Surely Seattle, Portland and San Francisco are such places. And surely, such an iconoclasm is necessary for true innovation in the creative arts.
We have, then, the Bay Area to thank for the gift of wine culture to America. (Proof? Just read Harry Waugh’s diaries to appreciate how a small cadre of wine-loving friends made it all happen in the 1960s.) Perhaps it would have happened if, say, the West Coast ended at Sacramento, perish the thought. Perhaps. But I don’t think so. For all the knocking of San Francisco, and the coastal Pacific Northwest, by certain elements in society, we have influenced this nation in a tremendous way, and will continue to do so, because in order for culture to spread to new places and populations—to go viral, as it were—it has to appeal to the best and brightest: the young, the inquisitive, the intellectual, the creative–the artists and musicians and writers and thinkers, the poets and philosophers and chefs and winemakers, who make America what it is.
Here are my latest reviews. The wineries are Butter, Cattleya, District 4, Furthermore, House Family, Jarvis, Kenefick Ranch, Krupp Brothers and Prime. None of these wineries paid me. These are purely my professional opinions. If you’d like to send me wines for review, I’m happy to oblige. If you use one of my reviews in your promos, please credit to steveheimoff.com.
Krupp Brothers 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard “Veraison” Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $85. I’ve always liked Krupp’s red wines from their Stagecoach Vineyard, which is one of the best in Napa Valley. It sort of straddles a plateau between Atlas Peak and Pritchard Hill, a high-rent district where the grapes get nice and ripe, yet maintain beautiful balance and acidity. This 2009, at the age of nearly six years, is ideal for drinking now, although it has a long road ahead. Dry and softly tannic, with a bite of tartness, its primary fruit blackberry and plum flavors are beginning to pick up secondary notes of dried fruits, herbs, roasted coffee and spices. The alcohol, officially 15.3%, gives the wine a pleasantly warming heat. Score: 92.
Kenefick Ranch 2012 Pickett Road Red (Calistoga): $50. Pickett Road is Kenefick Ranch’s best red wine, although it’s not their most expensive. Always based on some Bordeaux variety other than Cabernet Sauvignon, it seems somehow more generous, complex and interesting than their Chris’s Cuvée Cabernet, although both wines are fine. This 2012 is mainly Petit Verdot, with Cabernet Franc and Merlot and just 8 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. The black currant fruit, which can get intense in Calistoga’s high summer heat, is tempered with notes of violets, blueberries, cherries and sweet olive tapenade, leading to a wonderfully long, ripe, spicy finish. The tannins, as always, are thick and complex, but sweet. This is a delicious wine, with a bit of heat from alcohol (14.9%) and a generous jacket of smoky oak. I can’t imagine anyone not liking it, not even a confirmed Bordeauxphile. I would drink it now, although it’s still very young, because it’s so tantalizing, but if you have a bottle in, say, 2024, please let me know. Score: 93.
Kenefick Ranch 2012 Caitlin’s Select Cabernet Franc (Calistoga): $50. This wine contains some Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which give it a darker profile and more solid tannins than Cabernet Franc alone can provide. But it’s still 85% Cab Franc, and that makes it sensual and sexy—a voluptuous, instantly appealing wine marked mainly by ripe red cherry pie, red currants, red licorice and dusty Asian spices. You’ll find none of the herbal, green pea notes that can accompany (pleasantly) Cabernet Franc, although there is something suggesting the green olives that float on a martini. It’s a soft, round, supple, mellow wine, entirely pleasurable to drink now. Seared sirloin steak or filet mignon will be magnificent: char the outside but let the inside be red and juicy. Score: 92.
Kenefick Ranch 2012 Chris’s Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon (Calistoga): $65. I’ve always liked, and given high scores to, Kenefick Ranch’s red wines. In general I prefer the Picket Road red, which is a Bordeaux blend without Cabernet Sauvignon, or very little. But Chris’s Cuvée, based mostly on Cabernet Sauvignon, always was a very good and interesting wine. To judge by the 2012, which contains a few drops of Petit Verdot and Malbec, it still is. It’s big wine, rich, opulent and softly tannic; the blackberry jam and black currant fruit approaches—but does not enter into—overripe prune territory. Yes, the alcohol officially clocks in at 15.1%, but I have no problem with that, and neither should you. This is Calistoga we’re talking about, and Kenefick’s winemaker has consistently shown a deft ability to handle fruit from a hot growing region. I would give this wine some time in the cellar, to let the slight bitterness subside, and to allow the oak to integrate as the fruit begins to shed its primary character and enter into bottle-aged territory. Keep it until, say, 2018; not much longer, please. It seems best suited to slightly rustic beef stews, or barbecue. But use your imagination: I tasted it with Thai noodles in a spicy peanut sauce and it was great. Score: 91.
Prime 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Coombsville); $68. This is a very proper Napa Valley Cabernet. By that, I mean no disrespect, simply to suggest that, if you like your California Cabernet Sauvignon big and rich in fruit and oak, luxuriously ripe, and slightly sweet, you’ll love this. It’s a big gulp of blackberry jam and blueberry preserves, smeared onto buttered toast, with a sprinkle of cinnamon and brown sugar, and a few flakes of freshly-squeezed black pepper. Doesn’t that sound yummy? This is a yummy wine. It’s quite similar to the 2010, to which I gave 93 points. The winemaker is Ted Henry, from Jarvis, whose estate Cabs—grown not that far from Coombsville—I have long loved; and Ted says he specializes in these cool-climate Cabs from the southern part of the valley. (Take that, Calistoga and St. Helena!) This 100% Cabernet is adorable, in the richly baroque way of Napa Valley, fancy enough for an expensive restaurant meal—say, a great Porterhouse steak, properly grilled, served simply. Is it an ager? Sure. It will last for a decade or longer, but I don’t see the point of holding it. Decant and drink now. Score: 92.
House Family Vineyards 2009 Old Oak Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Cruz Mountains): $52. This Cabernet, like the winery’s 2011 Merlot I liked so much, also comes from the estate vineyard, in the hills above Saratoga and Silicon Valley. However, the Cab is now nearly six years old, and has evolved beyond its primary stages. It shows true bottle-aged characteristics, in a most positive way. Everything’s drying out—the blackberries, blueberries and currants, turning earthier, mulchier, more tobaccoey, smoother, more seamless. The oak is now fully integrated, providing a pleasant layer of toast and smoke. The tannins, while mountain-thick and chewy, are softly sweet. The finish is long in black licorice, cinnamon spice and mocha. The complexity of the mouthfeel comes not just from age but from the varietal blend, which included Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. With just 14% alcohol, the wine feels balanced, with no heat, just a pleasing warmth. And it will continue to mature for the next 8-10 years. It’s impossible to imagine this wine coming from Napa Valley, or Paso Robles. Possibly the best analogy is the mountainous eastern ridge of the Alexander Valley. But why make comparisons? It’s a terrific exemplar of Santa Cruz Mountains Bordeaux-style wine, and at this price, a terrific value, especially for a restaurant wine list. But only 133 cases were produced. Score: 94.
2014 Chardonnay (California); $16. For sixteen bucks, whaddya want? Montrachet? It’s pretty much what you’d expect for a California Chard of this price—and for a wine called Butter. It’s soft and creamy, with orange, vanilla, honey and buttered toast flavors. End of story. Score: 84.
House Family Vineyards 2012 Chardonnay (Santa Cruz Mountains); $45. I give credit to the winery for producing a dry, firm, minerally Chardonnay that’s not a fruit and oak bomb. The wine has golden mango, pineapple, smoky cream and new oak flavors, and a complexity that lets it evolve in the glass. It feels a bit angular in the mouth, and the sur lie yeastiness sticks out. But it possesses a savory elegance. May benefit from time in the bottle to settle down. Try early in 2016. Score: 90.
Jarvis 2013 Estate Grown Cave Fermented Chardonnay (Napa Valley); $TK. I don’t know the retail price on this wine: they didn’t tell me, and I couldn’t find it online. My highest scores for Jarvis’s Chardonnays have been for their very expensive, reserve-style Finch Hollow bottling, which this is not; this is less costly, although still from their estate vineyard, 1,000 feet up in the southern Vacas, on Napa’s eastern side. The wine is first and foremost oaky, courtesy of aging in 100% new French barrels. Buttered toast and sweet caramel dominate. It went through 100% malolactic fermentation, which adds to the butteriness. Sur lie aging contributes a yeasty, sweet-sourdough note. Underneath you’ll find some tropical fruits. The acidity is fine. This is a flashy Chardonnay, designed to dazzle, but it quickly palls. Score: 87.
Kenefick Ranch 2012 Estate Merlot (Calistoga): $50. Merlot is not Kenefick Ranch’s strongest suit, just as it is not from almost every other Napa Valley Cabernet house. So peculiar are Merlot’s needs for success that few wineries anywhere can rise to the occasion. This 2012 is a solid, drinkable wine, with some enjoyable features, but it does have flaws. For one, the alcohol, at 15.5%, is very high and noticeable, giving the wine a jalapeño pepper heat that’s hard to ignore despite deliciously ripe cherry-berry fruit. Another problem is an awkward acid-tannin balance that makes the wine feel jiggly-jaggly in the mouth. Score: 85.
House Family Vineyards 2011 Merlot (Santa Cruz Mountains): $48. I happened to taste this Merlot, which contains the two Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc, as well as Petit Verdot in the blend, right after a high-end Bordeaux blend from Tuscany that impressed me for its dry, structural complexity. The House Family Merlot stood up well. Of course, it’s richer and riper in sunshiney fruit, with a core of sweet licorice and cinnamon, but the structure is just as fine. Great acidity and firm tannins frame the fruit and spices, while 50% new French oak barrel aging brings enriching but balanced notes of toast. As the wine warms in the glass, it grows more seductive. Only 110 cases were produced, with an elegantly low alcohol level of 13.8%. The estate vineyard is above the foothills town of Saratoga. This is definitely a Merlot that’s a cut above most in California, from a winery worth watching. Score: 92.
District 4 2014 White Blend (Napa Valley); $20. District 4 is the California Dept. of Food and Agriculture’s designation for Napa County, meaning this wine could come from anywhere within that vast region. As it turns out, the grapes hail from Atlas Peak, Oak Knoll and Coombsville—in other words, cooler, southern areas. The varietal blend is Sauvignon Blanc, Marsanne and Chardonnay. There’s a tiny bit of oak, just enough to give it some fatness. It’s a clean, crisp wine, with fruity, spicy, herb, white pepper and mineral notes, not particularly complex but super-drinkable and interesting. Easy to drink with almost anything that wants a dry, low alcohol (13.7%) white wine. The parent company is Prime Cellars, and the winemaker is Ted Henry, who is Jarvis’s winemaker. Score: 86.
Furthermore 2012 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $50. Gap’s Crown has emerged in recent years as a pre-eminent source of Pinot Noir. Located near Cotati, well south of the traditional Russian River Valley, it’s been source to outstanding wines from Fulcrum, Trombetta, Guarachi Family, Sojourn and others, as well as Furthermore, whose 2009 Gap’s Crown I gave 95 points. Here’s a wine in the same style. Pale in color and crisp in acidity, it offers intense and complex flavors of raspberries and cherries, with a leathery edge and the same mushroominess as that wonderful ’09. It’s a bit hot, with an official alcohol reading of 14.5%, but you won’t notice it with a salted-and-peppered filet mignon or T-bone. Score: 91.
Furthermore 2012 Nevina’s Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $50. I’d never tasted a wine from Nevina’s vineyard, although my former Wine Enthusiast colleague, Virginie Boone, gave Furthermore’s 2011 Nevina’s 90 points. The vineyard is near Occidental, a cool-climate area, and is at a remarkable 1,300 feet in elevation in the coastal hills. It was planted to Dijon clones in 2002, and only 126 cases of this wine were made. It’s fairly pale in color, but quite weighty in the mouth, with intensely ripe raspberry, cherry and red licorice flavors, as well as a balancing earth-and-mushroom complexity. The tannin-acid balance is just fine, while the oak is perfect. This is a very good wine, immediately likeable, although a bit too immature right now. Give it at least four years, and then enjoy a classic Pinot Noir that might still be enticing in 2022. Score: 92.
Furthermore 2012 La Encantada Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills); $40. This is one of the winery’s bigger, more ponderous releases from the 2012 vintage. It seems clumsy in youth, although the component parts are quite fine. You have good acidity and softly gooey tannins, with jammy raspberry and cherry flavors, but it’s harder to put into words why the wine feels so heavy now. Maybe it’s a certain plummy, raisiny overripeness. I re-examined my Encantada reviews from multiple wineries over many years, looking for some clue, but there was none. Sometimes Encantada Pinots are ravishing; sometimes they’re not. Furthermore’s 2007 was a gorgeous wine; I gave it 93 points. I’d give this 2012 something lower, say 88.
Furthermore 2012 Gloria Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $40. Lots of acidity in this tart, somewhat arch young wine. The grapes are from Freeman Winery’s estate vineyard, in the Green Valley area near Sebastopol. The grapes were planted in 2006, which is comparatively young, and may account for a certain toughness. The clones vary from Swan and Pommard to newer Dijons. There’s a rich, deep core of pomegranates, persimmons and red plums, with a dusting of sandalwood and a fancy coating of smoky oak, but the tartness is somewhat inhibiting. Give it until 2020 and see what’s up. Score: 88.
Furthermore 2012 Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands); $40. This is one of those coastal Pinot Noirs that combines a pale, translucent color with intensely concentrated flavors, which is probably the highest praise I can give Pinot. The color anticipates the weight, which is delicate and silky, despite a fairly hefty alcohol level of 14.7%. I instantly think of a charbroiled steak; the smoky edge of the wine will echo the caramelized sear, while its acids and mild tannins will grapple beautifully with the meat-fat. Flavors? Glad you asked. Raspberries, cherries, cola and Christmas persimmons, with an earthy, mushroomy spiciness. Drink this glorious wine now and over the next four years. Score: 93.
Furthermore 2012 Weir Vineyard Pinot Noir (Yorkville Highlands); $50. My impressions of this vineyard, located in the Mendocino mountains as you make your way from inland to the Anderson Valley, were shaped over many years by Williams Selyem’s bottlings. I sometimes found the Pinots heavy and soft, although Bob Cabral assured me that the winery’s legions of fans loved it. The wines seemed to get better after 2007 or so; I loved Williams Selyem’s 2011, which led me to believe that a cooler vintage was kinder to the vineyard. The 2012 vintage was not exactly cool. It represented a restoration of normality after decidedly chilly 2010 and 2011. This resulting Furthermore wine is tasty and ripe, but still seems a bit soft and rustic to me. The flavors, of raspberries and cherries, orange zest, red licorice, smoke and vanilla, are frankly delicious, if a bit obvious. It may simply be that this is a wine that needs bottle age. I may be being a little ornery here, and I hope I’m wrong. Try stashing it in your cellar until 2017 or so and see what it does. Score: 89.
Furthermore 2012 Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands); $50. Rosella’s Vineyard, which has been the source of so many fine Pinot Noirs from so many wineries, is in some respects the quintessential Santa Lucia Highlands vineyard. It’s located just northwest of the appellation’s center—not too warm, not too cold, just right. Furthermore is one of those wineries, like Siduri and Testarossa, that sources fruit from multiple Pinot Noir vineyards. This is clearly their best Rosella’s to date. The alcohol is a respectable 14.8%; you can taste the ripeness in the vast array of raspberries and cherries, with a slight heat of liqueur and a long, deliciously spicy finish. The mouthfeel is silky and elegant, just what Pinot Noir should be. It’s a delightful wine. Despite the immediately appealing flavors, it has a thoughtful quality, the kind of wine that’s a little brooding at first, and then slowly unfolds as it breathes. I would drink it now and over the next four years with anything made from lamb: roasted leg, chops, rosemary-braised shanks. The crisp acidity and ultra-fine tannins will cut right through the fat. But just 151 cases were produced. Score: 92.
Cattleya 2012 Donum Vineyard Pinot Noir (Carneros); $85. Alc.14.5%. I’ve long had an affection for Pinot Noirs from Donum’s estate vineyard. It seemed like they had to work hard to get a score below 90 points! They’ve sold coveted fruit to a handful of wineries, and now, Cattelya is among them. The winery was unfamiliar to me until recently; the owner/winemaker, Bibiana Rave, previously worked at Lynmar, Peay, La Crema, Pahlmeyer, Au Bon Climat and Qupé. In other words, this Columbia-born, French-trained winemaker knows her Pinot Noir! The Donum vineyard, in the heart of Carneros, on the Sonoma side of the appellation, south of the Carneros Highway, on Ramal Road, was planted by the great Anne Moller-Racke in 1989-1990. It was part of the historic Buena Vista estate vineyard. These wines always show similar characteristics in youth: mouthwatering acidity, a scour of tannins, absolute dryness, and, in a good vintage, deeply concentrated, but juvenile, fruit flavors of cherries and black raspberries. There’s a corresponding spicy, tobacco, mushroom and black pepper note that gives it a fine earthiness. This is a very good wine, juicy, complex and delicious, but it’s so tart and unevolved that it’s clearly too young to drink. It will no dou t show up on plenty of restaurant wine lists, recommended by somms for steak, lamb, ahi tuna and the like, but I would strongly advise drinking it now. Give it six to eight more years in a good cellar. Score: 93.
Prime 2013 Syrah (Coombsville); $42. This is for those who like their Syrahs Northern Rhône style. It’s absolutely dry, with brisk acidity and furry tannins framing flavors of blackberries, blueberries, white pepper, tobacco, olive tapenade and something Asian-meaty, like seared beef teriaki. If that sounds delicious, it is. The wine feels smooth and elegant in the mouth, and has a long, spicy (cinnamon, pepper, clove, star anise) finish. Only 101 cases were produced, and while the alcohol level, 15.1 percent, is hefty, there’s very little heat, only a blood-warming headiness. There’s just enough oak to bring suggestions of smoke, although the oak tannins are firm. I would drink this wine now, after a generous period of decanting, with anything that wants a full-bodied, robust red wine. Lamb comes to mind, as chops, as roasted leg, as stew, with pork a close second. If you want to age it for six years, go right ahead. It’ll be just fine. Coombsville is best known for Bordeaux-style wines, but this is a sophisticated Syrah, from a great vintage. Score: 93.
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.
To say that I was shocked when I read Andy Blue’s editorial in the latest edition of The Tasting Panel would be an understatement.
It’s a sharp, almost brutal attack on California Petite Sirah—so malicious in tone that I truly don’t understand where Andy is coming from—at least, the Andy I’ve known, liked and admired for decades. He’s a polite, gentlemanly type, thoughtful, wry and scholarly–not given to diatribes or the kind of invective displayed in this hit piece.
He calls Petite Sirah a “garbage grape” and a “Frankenstein monster.” He is “offended” by it, as though Petite Sirah had personally insulted him. In what is possibly the most hyperbolic exaggeration I’ve ever read in a wine article, he speculates that Petite Sirah is “European pay back for America exporting phylloxera to them,” thereby equating the grape and wine with a pest that kills vines and almost destroyed the French wine industry. He supposes that Petite Sirah is possibly better than “toxic bathtub gin,” but—one feels—not by much. He concludes that no one “in their right mind” would choose to drink it, even over Barbera, one of the most disagreeable wines in California.
I mean, what’s going on?
I’m not saying Petite Sirah is the greatest wine in the world. I drink very little; I would not normally buy it for myself. But there are hundreds of varieties and wines I would not normally buy for myself, but which I can be objective about as a critic; I don’t loathe them the way Andy seems to hate Petite Sirah. Even the title of Andy’s piece, P.S., I Don’t Get It, seems designed to mock P.S. I Love You, the Petite Sirah trade and marketing group.
Petite Sirah has its place, definitely, in the world of robust, full-bodied and dry red wines. And there is something historically Californian about it. I’ve particularly enjoyed bottles from Madrigal, Titus, Envy, Ridge, Kent Rasmussen, Zina Hyde Cunningham, Sirius, Turley and Grgich Hills, among others (and you’ll notice that most of those came from Napa Valley). Don’t forget, some of the ancient vine field blends we so rightly celebrate in California are based, largely or in part, on Petite Sirah. You want to talk ageabiilty? A great Petite Sirah will last longer than any Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Look, properly grown, well-made Petite Sirah can be a dramatic, rich, enjoyable wine; most of them are no longer the monsters they used to be, as vintners treat the vines and wines with more respect, ending up with balanced, less alcoholic bottlings. And Petite Sirah is the ideal partner to the kinds of foods restaurateurs serve up at P.S. I Love You’s “Dark and Delicious” event, held annually at Kent Rosenblum’s Rock Wall Wine Co.: pork and beef stews, short ribs, sausages, burgers, and anything with chocolate. So, old pal Andy–a great entrepreneur and brilliant media idea man–I think you maybe woke up on the wrong side of bed when you wrote that piece.
California has had so many “early harvests” lately that we’re going to have to redefine what the word “early” means. Maybe “early” is the new “normal.”
It seems like the last two years, 2013-2014, were mind-blowingly early. The 2013 vintage was “Early [with] exceptional quality vintage throughout the state,” said the Wine Institute.
Then, in 2014, Wine Spectator said that, in 2014, “Everything was ready to go in early- to mid-August, even Cabernet Sauvignon, which usually ripens much later.”
And now, here comes 2015, “which is expected to arrive earlier than usual,” according to the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.
That’s what I also heard last week, while walking through Andy Beckstoffer’s Georges III vineyard in Rutherford, where veraison had already started. Of course, all this comes amidst persistent reports of above-average temperatures in California. Just yesterday, it was reported that June was “the warmest ever for California,” as it also was for Nevada, Oregon and Washington. That simply extended this year’s trend: The entire West Coast, plus Nevada, just went through its warmest-ever January-June.
And that was for the second year in a row! Last year, 2014, also was the warmest ever recorded up to then in California, Arizona, southern Nevada and parts of southern and coastal Oregon, according to NOAA.
You’d think statistics like these would be enough to convince the most die-hard climate-change denier, but there’s just enough anomalistic weather to keep them hoping against hope that their delusions are real. May, 2015, for example, was unusually wet and cool in California (actually, it helpfully slowed down the ripening)—but, even at that, May “was the first cooler-than-average month in well over a year for the state.” So when a climate-change denier, like Sen. Ted Cruz, declares that, “I believe in following evidence and data. On the global warming alarmists, anyone who actually points to the evidence that disproves their apocalyptical claims, they don’t engage in reasoned debate,” he would seem to be on increasingly shaky intellectual footing, and not abiding by his own rules for reasoned debate.
However, I’m not here to indulge in pretentious political-scientific jiggery-pokery (thank you, Justice Scalia!), merely to chat about our freaky weather. And now, here comes El Nino! We’ve heard rumors of its approach for years now—rumors that turned out not to be true. But for the last two weeks or so, the media increasingly has been rife with reports, such as this one, of “strong El Nino rainfall” this coming winter. Just yesterday, AccuWeather reported that it “could be one of the strongest in 50 years,” with all that that implies, especially powerful rains.
In big El Nino years, California is drenched, wih L.A. sometimes having even more rain than NoCal. I vividly recall the January, 1995 storms, which brought “disastrous rainstorms throughout California,” said the USGS; poor Guerneville in particular, in the Russian River Valley, was hit hard, with people having to be airlifted off their roofs. We want El Nino’s rain, but we certainly don’t want the natural catastrophes. The problem is, usually the two can’t be separated. Fortunately, a lot of the river dwellers in Guerneville, bless them, put their houses up on stilts after 1995.