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What I’m drinking this winter


We’re in the middle of winter now, and even though the rest of the country laughs at Californians when we complain about 40 degrees, to us, it feels really cold. When I have my first drink of the day, around 5 p.m., I might start with a sip of white wine, just to get myself comfortable. But these chilly nights call for red.

Red wine is warming, to the blood, the mind, the soul. There’s something about it that’s like a soft blanket you wrap yourself in that keeps you cozy. I suppose the relatively higher alcohol of red wine also helps with this warming process. I don’t like to put the heat on, even when my home is chilly, so I’ll often be wearing a sweatshirt and even a woolen cap to keep myself warm. But I always notice, after a glass or two of red wine, that my body temperature rises enough that I can take off the sweatshirt and cap and feel comfortable, even though the actual room temperature hasn’t changed. I like that feeling. It’s as though red wine boosts my body’s ability to balance itself to external conditions.

I love a good Pinot Noir, but on these really cold nights I want something with more body. Zinfandel is a full-bodied wine, but I find that even a good one palls on me after a glass. It’s too strong, too spicy, too briary, often overripe and hot. Even the best Zin doesn’t contain mysteries, which is what makes me want a second or third glass of wine–it contains subtleties that require repeated examination. I might dwell on a Merlot for a few glasses, but it would have to be a very good one: La Jota, Shafer, Rutherford Hill, Turnbull, Hunnicutt, all from Napa Valley. A new Napa winery that’s impressed me is Crosby Roamann; they have a Merlot from Oak Knoll that’s really good. There’s not much Merlot out there in California to challenge Napa Valley, although I recently enjoyed a Happy Canyon Vineyard 2007 “Barrack Brand” Merlot. That new Happy Canyon AVA is one to watch.

Syrah, for me, often has the same limitation as Zinfandel. That first sip can be deliriously delicious. But does it keep you coming back for more? A few do. Syrah, though, is one variety that Napa Valley doesn’t dominate. Since winter began, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Syrahs from Donelan (Cuvee Keltie), MacLaren (Judge Family Vineyard) and Del Dotto (Cinghiale Vineyard), all from Sonoma County. But it’s Santa Barbara County Syrah that’s really surprised me. Among the best are Andrew Murray, Brander, Rusack, Whitcraft, Larner, Margerum and La Fenetre. What is it about Santa Barbara that’s so hospitable to Syrah? Food for thought.

Still, when all is said and done, on those cold nights when I want to snuggle in with a red wine, it’s invariably Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the rich body I want, also the intrigue and complexity that make it so interesting as it breathes and changes. I suppose this is why they call Cabernet a “noble” variety, a word that’s hard to define, except to imply that it has layers you keep discovering, one by one, like the experience of great music or literature or painting.

Here are some great Cabs I’ve been drinking this winter: Goldschmidt, World’s End, Venge, Trefethen, Turnbull, B Cellars, Patland, PerryMoore, Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Arger-Martucci, Altvs [the “v” is not a typo, it’s the way Bill Foley wants it), Antonio Patric, Tudal and Napa Angel by Montes. These are all from Napa Valley and its various sub-appellations, and most of them are single vineyard wines. Two vineyards show up repeatedly: Stagecoach and Beckstoffer To Kalon. When people say great wine is made in the vineyard, they’re talking about wines like these.

  1. Steve, do you ever stick your nose and palate out the window and try the zillions of wine available in other states?

    I hear wonders and wonders of wines made up north. Very frustrated for being [even more] ignorant in those wines.

    So, during your spare time you drink your work hours wines? You’re a warrior.

  2. I have to agree with Stagecoach vineyard being utilized for all sorts of great Cabs. I tend to lean Stagecoach over even To Kalon, mostly because Stagecoach tends to be marginally cheaper, at least for the stuff available “off the shelf.”

    I also see what you are saying with regard to at least domestic Syrahs being somewhat simplistic. If it is a great bottle with several years on it though, some Syrahs can keep you guessing the whole time. As far as Zinfandel is concerned (Williams-Selyem, Storybook, Turley, Carlisle, Hartford, etc.), I have to completely disagree that these wines are any less complex/stunning/balanced/nuanced than any other California wine made. Different strokes and all.

  3. Thanks for the Rutherford Hill props – that wine has always (even before my days at Terlato) been a benchmark for the great things Napa can do with Merlot.

    I will say that consistently, vintage after vintage, the one Zinfandel that has always shown nuance, depth and richness of character is A. Rafanelli. One of my all time favs.

    If you haven’t tried them – the Peak series from Terlato Family Vineyards are amazing. And Elizabeth Vianna is making some amazing wine at Chimney Rock these days. ‘Nuff said – shameless plug complete.

  4. Chris, Rutherford Hill is one of the pioneering Merlot producers, going way back. It’s good to see they haven’t lost the magic touch.

  5. Carlos, 95% of the wine I drink/taste is from California. There are only 24 hours in the day and I simply don’t have the time or physical capacity to drink much more wine than I already do. Sorry to frustrate you, but my blog is by and large a California wine blog! However I do try to keep it a good read everyday.

  6. Steve, thanks for the shout out! I love how you introduced Syrah. Part of my goal is to make compelling wines, the ones you do indeed come back to, or are compelled to come back to!

    Also, is it just me or is Trefethen Cabernet way underrated? I’ve had some ones the past year with age on them (mid to late 90s) and they were still so youthful.

    Happy drinking!

  7. Steve, you don’t frustrate me in the least. I trust you know very well what you do with your business and personal tiem. Between you and me you’re the closest one from different american wines. If i ever get back to living in the USA i’ll devote more time/energy/money to those wines.

    Maybe by then americans would have learned how to handle a glass of wine…why so many fingers on the glass?? It’s not a mug of coffee.

    Um abraço virtual from here.

  8. +1 for Turnbull. One of my favorite Napa Cabs, and I wonder if possibly underrated. These days, despite the chill, more often than not it’s Sonoma Chard that makes it into my glass – sad to say, those heavy reds make me too sleepy!

  9. Clint, I’ve said for years that Turnbull is seriously underrated. They fly below the radar.

  10. Tyler Thomas, yes Trefethen is one of those wineries people forget about, which often happens to older wineries. Too many people look for the new kid on the block and overlook the wineries like Trefethen who have been doing a great job for many decades.

  11. Just recently had the chance to get some Trefethen wines, quite nice I must say. I also agree with GrapesRGreat regarding the Zins produced by WS, Turley, Hartford and especially Carlisle! Also Rafanelli is always hands down a great maker of Zinfandel and of Cabernet. In the last year I’ve enjoyed a couple of nice Syrah’s from Arnot-Roberts as well. Cheers to staying warm!

  12. As someone surrounded by Willamette Valley Pinot Noir,I’d say Sonoma Zinfandel is my favorite California wines. They just have an exuberant joy that makes them fun to drink. However, I was lucky enough to taste the Corison wines last time I was in Napa, and I see how you could fall in love with Napa Cab. The combination of depth and intensity was amazing. But the only California wines I’m drinking lately are Merlot under $10, which are surprisingly good

  13. Glad to hear that Patland is one of your favorite cabs. We feel that our winemaker Jay Buoncristiani and Stagecoach Vineyards deserve all the credit. Next time you find yourself in Napa, we invite you to visit Patland Estate Vineyards for a more in depth tasting.


  14. Steve, thank you so much for the shout out on our Oak Knoll Merlot. I am so glad you enjoyed it, perfect for a cold night. Cheers!

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