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New wine reviews: Nick Goldschmidt

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Nick Goldschmidt is a fine winemaker, an entrepreneur, a kiwi, a helluva nice guy, and an old friend. He’s been a fixture in the California wine industry (and on other continents) for decades. If I recall correctly, we met around 1990, when I was a newbie wine writer and he was the winemaker at the venerable old winery, Simi, in Healdsburg. I believe that was the start of his association with Sonoma County grapes. Nick also did stints at big corporate wine companies, like Allied Domecq and Beam Estates. But he never lost his fascination for small-lot, ultrapremium wines, and, throughout the 2000s, these have been his forte.

Nick is probably involved in more brands than I know about (he produces from six countries), but his main portfolio consists of bottlings under his Nick Goldschmidt label—the most expensive—Forefathers, Set in Stone, and others named after his daughters: Hillary, Katherine and Chelsea, as well as the least expensive, Singing Tree. He also travels a lot to places like New Zealand and Chile, where he is what I think of as a “flying winemaker.” In other words, a busy guy.

I’ll get to the reviews in a moment, but first a word about Nick’s business model. He’s hardly the first to make a lot of different wines at different price points, with different degrees of association with the grapes and brands. I always think of Robert Mondavi in this respect: he made everything from Opus One and Mondavi Reserve down to Woodbridge and Coastal. It was this proliferation of effort that led to the ultimate demise of the Mondavi company, which simply got too big to be managed properly. Mondavi tried to be all things to all people, and succeeded only in institutionalizing confusion. Nick seems to have understood this lesson; he keeps things under control. Someday, somebody should teach a course at the University of California, Davis, on Nick Goldschmidt’s successful business practices!

And now, the wines. It’s fair to say that Cabernet Sauvignon, usually unblended, is Nick’s passion and strong suit. The style is New World: ripe, oaky, plush. For me, as a Northern California devotée, it’s always interesting to contrast Nick’s Cabs from Alexander Valley, in Sonoma County, with those from Oakville, in Napa Valley. These two places bracket what seems to me to be the range of possibilities for California Cabernet Sauvignon: softer, more mellow and a little more herbaceous in the former, dark, tannic and intense in the latter. Neither is “better” than the other, merely different.

Goldschmidt 2016 Game Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $90. The raw, juicy quality of this 100% varietal Cab speaks of its extreme youthfulness. All the parts are there, but they’re nowhere close to melding. First off are the blackberry and currant flavors so indicative of Oakville. Then there are the tannins, vigorous and tough, and mouthwatering acidity. New oak (30 months in 100% new French barrels) is overwhelming, bringing vanilla and sweet wood spice, in addition to even more tannins. The vineyard is on the east side of Oakville, the hotter side of the valley that gets the afternoon sun. As for the vintage, 2016 was the best in years, the last of the drought years that yielded such intense fruit. I looked up my scores from past vintages and compared them to some current critics, and I see that I tended to like Goldschmidt’s Game Ranch more than most. I also compared it with Goldschmidt’s 2016 Yoeman Ranch, from Alexander Valley. It’s equally as good: harder, more astringent due to Napa’s tougher tannins, but just as delicious. This wine is all about the power and glory of Napa Valley, and Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon. It would be a pity to drink it too soon. I may be dreaming, but twenty years of aging doesn’t seem excessive. If you can’t wait that long, at least do the decent thing and set it aside, in a good cellar, until 2024. Score: 95 points.

Goldschmidt 2016 Yoeman Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $75. Alc. 14.5%. It was Cabs like this, more than twenty years ago, that showed me that Napa Valley, the inevitable point of comparison, did not have the exclusive franchise on great California Cabernet Sauvignon. Alexander Valley Cab, at its best, was a worthy rival, softer, perhaps, and slightly less fruity and more herbaceous, but no less attractive. The 2016 vintage, as I’ve written, was a good one. The warm, dry growing season resulted in beautifully ripe, intensely flavored grapes. In this case, the single-vineyard wine brims with big, bold black currant and black licorice flavors, liberally oaked (85% new French barrels), with a richness balanced by fine acidity. It’s sinfully easy to drink. The sign of a great, full-bodied red wine like this is that the enjoyment doesn’t pall after the first or second glass, but increases in intellectual and hedonistic interest. There also are significant tannins, dustier than Napa’s, but still tough and tight. I envision a superb steak whose fattiness will jump with joy and yield to this beauty. Ageability? Certainly, the wine will remain lovely through, say, 2025. Score: 94 points.

Katherine Goldschmidt 2018 Stonemason Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $25. Alc. 14.5%. The extreme youth of this wine is evident from the impenetrable blackness at its heart in the glass, showing just the slightest royal purple at the rim. The aroma is all babyfat, too: masses of ripe, succulent black cherries, cassis liqueur and unsweetened chocolate, accented with smoky, toasty oak, and made just a touch porty with alcohol—good for a cold winter night by the fire. And flavors to match. Stupendously rich, almost delirious in the sumptuousness of the fruit. I did a doubletake when I saw the price. Twenty-five bucks retail? You have got to be kidding. Named after Nick Goldschmidt’s daughter, Katherine, who is co-winemaker, this has got to be one of the greatest Cabernet values out there. Production was 20,000 cases. I’d open it now and over the next six years. Score: 93 points.

Forefathers 2018 Lone Tree Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $50. Alc. 14.8%. This single-vineyard wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. I compared it immediately with Nick’s “Katherine Goldschmidt” Stonemason Hill Cab, also from 2018 (see above), and the fundamental difference was the tannins. They’re drier and harder in the Lone Tree, although I’m not sure why. Nick himself says he gets “more power and weight from Lone Tree” than from his other Alexander Valley Cabs, a description entirely consistent with my palate. Underneath the tannins is rich black currant fruit. I looked up the scores I gave Lone Tree when I was at Wine Enthusiast and, no surprise, at least 90 points in every vintage from 2003 until 2012, when I quit the magazine. Some people may find the tannins a bit aggressive, but they’re natural to Cabernet Sauvignon, part of its inherent charm and structural integrity. They may help the wine to age, not to mention assisting it in grappling with a good steak. Drink now-2028. Score: 92 points.

Boulder Bank 2019 Fitzroy Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough): $16. Alc. 13.0%. Nick Goldschmidt turns his talents to his native country and to the father-parent of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc. (The other parent is Cabernet Franc.) The wine is classic Marlborough. Brilliantly structured, racy and dry, its mouthwatering acidity highlights complex flavors of lemon, lime and tangerine, honeysuckle, white peach and grapefruit. A touch of pyrazines gives the green, bell pepper or gooseberry notes so indicative of Marlborough, while lees aging lends a smidgen of yeastiness. The finish is long and distinguished. There’s no oak at all here, just gorgeous fruit. In forty years of winetasting, I’ve never figured out how a wine can taste this rich but still be bone dry—a delightful conundrum! What a beauty, clearly the product of a distinguished terroir. Balanced in every respect, so food-friendly and easy to drink, it’s just about perfect. And the price! Score: 92 points.

Singing Tree 2018 Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $16. Alc. 13.9%. This is a very nice Chardonnay, elegant and delicious. It has plenty of varietal character, including butterscotchy flavors of tropical fruits, Asian pears, apple sauce, cinnamon and honeysuckle flower, but it never crosses the line into vulgar flamboyance. There’s a firm minerality undergirding the fruit that gives it finesse and elegance. The must was fermented in stainless steel; oak does not play a prominent role. But the creaminess tells of lees, while the acidity—6 grams per liter–is racy and mouthwatering. The quality-price ratio is excellent, making the wine a real value. Great house wine or, when restaurants re-open (may it be soon!), by-the-glass. Production was 5,000 cases. Score: 90 points.

Set In Stone Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $30. Alcohol: 14.5%. This Cab has the signature of Nick Goldschmidt all over it. But even a great winemaker like Nick can’t overcome the limitations the grapes impose upon him. It’s a pretty good wine, flavorful and lusty, brimming with ripe blackberries infused with oak. Dry and tannic, it fulfills the basic requirements of an Alexander Valley Cab. But in the end, it can’t quite overcome a rustic nature. Score: 86 points.

Set In Stone 2018 Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $30. Alc. 13.9%. This is one of those Chardonnays that isn’t terribly sophisticated, but provides the kind of buttery, tropical fruit, green apple and creamy flavors and textures that Chardophiles like. It’s a wine to pour when you’re having non-fussy friends over for weekend brunch (if we can ever do home entertaining again!). Despite the simplicity, there’s a structural elegance that represents the cooler Western sections of the Russian River Valley. Score: 85 points.


New Wine Review: a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir, at 10 years

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Longoria 2011 La Encantada Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills); $50 on release.

With these mature Pinot Noirs, you never know. I opened this one, which is a few months older than ten years, because the weather is turning colder and for the first time in many months, I’m in the mood for a red wine. The first thing I look for, in a wine of this age, is whether it smells clean and proper, or is showing signs of decrepitude. This is perhaps not the highest standard, but it tells the experienced taster what to expect, for better or worse. The initial sniff told me that the wine was just fine. No off-odors, no senescence, no “naked alcohol,” no raisins, no mold, just clean fruit—which is what you expect of a California Pinot Noir.

I sipped then, and the fruitiness reprised. Masses of raspberry essence. And something spear-minty and green, by no means unpleasant, a welcome taste of herbs that thrive in the cool, foggy Santa Rita Hills. Is there any sign of age? Yes. The fruits are rounding the corner from fresh to dried. But they’re delicious.

La Encantada Vineyard is located in the southern part of the appellation, along the Santa Rosa Road corridor, in the same vicinity as such famous vineyards as Fiddlestix and Sanford & Benedict. This latter was one I chose for an article I wrote years ago on California’s greatest vineyards. It was co-founded by Richard Sanford, who also planted La Encantada; this is the true historic heart of Pinot Noir in the Santa Rita Hills (although Highway 246, a little to the north, is probably more famous, post-Sideways). The master winemaker, Rick Longoria, who has longstanding ties of friendship in the region, has access to the grapes, as he does to pretty much any vineyard he wants (and he has his own Fe Ciega Vineyard, not too far away).

OK, so raspberries and mint is good stuff, but it would be boring if that’s all there was. Fortunately, there’s more. Baking spices—cinnamon, star anise, Chinese five spice—show up, giving the wine additional bursts of flavor. But flavor isn’t everything! The texture is just what Pinot should be: silky and smooth. Everything glides over the tongue, with none of the stubborn tannins of, say, Cabernet Sauvignon. Then there’s the acidity that always accompanies Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noirs. So stimulating! Gets the mouth juices flowing. You want food with it. I can imagine a well-charred steak, but, since I hardly ever eat steak, I have to mentally search for something else; seared ahi tuna is a serious candidate, and so is cream of mushroom soup.

Does the 2011 Longoria La Encantada have a future? Here, we get into the realm of personal preference. Yes, it has a future in the sense that it’s still alive and vital—“middle-aged,” as it were. It should hold in its present condition (given good storage) for several more years, gradually becoming more delicate and tea-like, but at the same time, the aroma, or, more properly, the bouquet will become sweeter and more captivating. A final word: the 2011 vintage was much defamed by almost everybody. A wine like this proves that generalizations are misleading. Score: 92 points.


New Wine Reviews: Steven Kent

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It was with enormous pleasure I found Steven Kent’s four new releases sent to me. I hadn’t asked for them. I always had the greatest respect for proprietor Steven Kent Mirassou’s wines. To my way of thinking, he was, not only the greatest winemaker in Livermore Valley, but one of the best in California, which means: the world. He took a growing region that seldom rose to its full potential and crafted exciting, world-class Cabernet Sauvignons and blends. I suppose the buzz about my reviews will be that I have given two of the four wines 100-point scores. Should I second-guess myself because both were perfect?

Mia NIPOTE 2017 Il Rinnovo (Livermore Valley); $50. Petite Sirah, which comprises half the blend of this youthful wine, is immediately apparent, in the pitch-black color and massive aromas and flavors. Blackberry jam, teriaki, chocolate macaroon, licorice, cherry pie, my goodness, the rich strands intertwine in the mouth and explode into a long, spicy finish. The other half of the blend, Cabernet Sauvignon—which marries beautifully with the “Pet”–contributes black currants and just a hint of dried herbs, as well as the fine tannin structure. There’s oak, too—50% new French—adding sweet vanilla and caramelized toast. That’s a lot of new oak, but the wine easily handles it. What a mouthful of flavor! And yet the wine never loses elegance. It remains supple and balanced, with just enough acidity to balance out the creamy sweetness. Yes, there is some heat from alcohol. But it’s a gently warming heat. I think a lot of people might drink Il Rinnovo (“renewal” in Italian) with summer grill, particularly in Livermore Valley, as restaurants re-open; and that’s fine. But I’d keep it for wintertime, when you’re cold and thirsty for a big, rich, delicious red. And there’s no reason it won’t hold for many years. A great achievement from Steven Kent Winery. Score: 93 points.

Steven Kent 2017 Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. The best Ghielmetti from Steven Kent I ever reviewed was the 2007, and this beauty is even better. Right from the get-go, you know it’s a fine, serious wine. One hundred percent varietal Cabernet, it shows impressively alluring aromas of blackcurrants, savory red licorice and toasty oak, with similar flavors that veer into rich, creamy milk chocolate. There’s an elusively herbal touch—Bay leaf? Sweet thyme? Just enough to ground it. And is that floral note violets? It’s very rich—the winery calls it “gigantic”–but the structure is superb. Such nice tannins, firm and sweet, with a fine bite of acidity to balance everything out, and a noble, dry finish. The vineyard sits at between 500 feet and 1,000 feet in altitude in the Livermore Valley’s eastern foothills, the heart of its wine country. It’s a warm area, but benefits from Pacific air that flows in through gaps in the coastal hills from San Francisco Bay. The 2017 vintage was just about perfect: lots of rain during the winter, but then things dried out during the growing season, and except for the usual Labor Day heat spell, things went well. To be honest, Bordeaux wishes they could get grapes this ripe. Score: 95 points.

Steven Kent 2017 The Premier Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $125. Made from 100% Cabernet, this wine is a blend of three vineyards the winery accesses, including their Home Ranch and the esteemed Ghielmetti. The result is, in a word, stunning. I would stand it next to any Cabernet Sauvignon in the world; it’s that good. Let’s break it down. The flavors are awesome and impeccable, luxuriously showing the ripe blackberries, black currants, milk chocolate and olivaceous sweet savoriness associated with Cabernet. There’s a lot of new French oak (75%) that is perfectly integrated, with its smokiness and vanillins. But what really stands out is the wine’s structure. I think of it as a room where tannins are the walls and acidity is the floor. It’s the kind of wine you take one sip of and think, Wow. Then another sip, and another wow. And a third. The critical mind looks for flaws, but there aren’t any. There’s not even the excessive heat from alcohol that can mar many otherwise remarkable California Cabs. There’s also an element that’s hard to put into words: call it elegance, the kind of designer effect you find in a great sports car or the best clothing. The wine feels “jazzy,” a word my mom used to use to describe things she loved. And the finish! Don’t get me started. I was writing years ago that Steven Kent was lifting Livermore Valley Cabernet to unprecedented levels. He still is. It’s expensive, yes, but it’s not an everyday wine, and compared to Napa Valley, which is just next door over the hills, it’s a bargain. What a treat to experience this wine! If I had a case, I’d try to keep my hands off it for six years, and then open one bottle a year. I could give this wine 98, 99 points and hedge my bets, but why bother? It’s perfect. Score: 100 points.

Steven Kent 2017 Lineage (Livermore Valley); $175. This is the winery’s Bordeaux-style blend, although it’s probably time to stop using that derivative phrase. It’s 75% Cabernet Sauvignon (legally enough to call it Cabernet; proprietor Steven Mirrasou prefers to call it “Red Blend”), 20% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc. Like the winery’s other new reds, it’s quite oaky—60% new French, aged for nearly two years—a bit less than The Premier, but it doesn’t need as much wood. The official alcohol reading is 14.9%. Only about 330 standard cases were produced, in addition to some big bottles. It’s also, obviously, Steven Kent’s most expensive release. I mention these particulars only because some people like to know. Now that the details are out of the way, what of the wine? To begin with, it’s enormously complex in aroma and flavor. The Cabernet Sauvignon contributes its telltale black currants and powerful tannins, but the cherry, raspberry and fig notes derive from the Cab Franc and Merlot, leading to a prettier, more feminine feeling compared to the 2017 The Premier or Ghielmetti Cabernet Sauvignons, both 100% varietal. It also feels, for that reason, more accessible now. The fruit and oak create a sweetness in the mouth, deliciously soft and decadent, heightened by a fabulous backbone of acidity. The winery’s tasting notes suggest 5-10 years before drinkability. I disagree. A wine like this is exciting even at the tender age of less than three years. And it’s not just a winter-sipping wine; I can imagine summer barbecue with grilled steak. The precision, tailoring and esthetic impact of Lineage are remarkable. I don’t taste a huge range of wines anymore since I retired, but I have my memory and my notes of the tens of thousands of California Cabs and blends I tasted in my career. And frankly, none have been better. A huge achievement, both for Steven Kent and for the Livermore Valley to which he has been dedicated for so long. Score: 100 points.


Wine rating systems: time for a change

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I spent the better part of 30 years living and working in 100-point land: the wine-rating system used by my two former employers, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, as well as by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

The 100-point system surely is the most popular in the world. It has survived decades of often fierce criticism. Critics said it was arbitrary and capricious, that it presented itself as scientific when it was anything but, that it had a deleterious effect on wine style because the most powerfully extracted, oakiest wines got the highest scores. All these things were true, but the 100-point system proved remarkably robust. When I retired from formal wine tasting eight years ago, it dominated the market, and, as far as I can tell, it still does.

The 100-point system looks like it’s here to stay, at least in America. There’s nothing looming on the horizon to replace it. Oh, sure, a new generation of wine drinkers has increasingly turned to peer-reviewing on social media; they no longer care what some (usually white) wine critic says, and that’s fine. But in that sense, the market may be ahead of the industry. Winery P.R. communications continue to tout high scores (anything over 90 points) in their campaigns. As long as that’s the case, wine samples will continue to be mailed to wine critics, who will continue to publish reviews using the 100-point system, which will continue to be touted by winery P.R. people, and on and on…It’s a cycle, and like most cycles, it’s hard to stop.

But a new development in China throws all this into an interesting perspective. Mike Veseth, the respected wine economist, just published an issue of “The Wine Economist” that reports on “China’s 10-Point Scale.” That gigantic country apparently is launching an official, national rating system of 10 points that will “score…each wine on the market taking into consideration…Chinese tastes, cuisine, and culture.” The new system is being rolled out in stages. It was introduced late last year, but The Drinks Business publication reports it “is not yet compulsory for all wines sold inside China [and] may serve as a base for formulating a national [wine] recommendation system.” That article quoted a Chinese expert as predicting that, eventually, “[the] majority of wines sold in China will adopt this system.”

Now that I’m not living and working in 100-point land, I have the benefit of hindsight about the 100-point system that provided such a nice job for me for so long. And the more I think about it, the sillier it seems to be. I used to be quite sincere when people asked how I could determine the difference between, say, 87 points and 88 points.. I would say, “Easy. To me, it’s obvious.” And I could go into great detail, if they wanted. At the same time, I always admitted that, if I tasted the same wine (from different bottles) on separate occasions, chances were good that I’d give it different scores. But, I argued, in general the scores would be close together. In the end, I always said, a wine review ought to be looked at as the taster’s impression of that wine, at a particular moment in time, and consumers were free to accept, reject or ignore the review.

Nowadays, I often cringe when I see how wine scores are used. There are so many critics across this land (and elsewhere) that a P.R. person has her pick of dozens of reviews to use in an advertisement. We, the consumer, often don’t know the qualifications of the reviewer, or the circumstances under which he reviewed the wine (blind? Open?), nor do we always know with precision what the relationship is between reviewer and winery. Has the reviewer been paid? These are important considerations. (Of course, the new Chinese system suffers, I would think, from the same drawbacks.) I turn to critics and scores to inform my own buying decisions, but I always feel a little guilty about it. I wish that all numerical rating systems would go away, and be replaced by something more esthetically satisfying: a short essay, for example, that showed real writerly qualities.

I think there’s a place for more intelligent, nuanced wine reviewing. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s going to be a different world. After all these months of sheltering in place, people may well be more reflective, and less reflexive. I know that social media tends to work in the opposite direction, making people think less; but here and there I pick up on clues that younger people are getting tired of social media. They’re reading more books and spending less time scrolling through meaningless Twitter feeds. I’m hoping to see new publications emerge that treat wine consumers as intelligent, thinking adults, instead of like cows lining up for silage.


New Wine Reviews: En Garde

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En Garde Winery, which is based in Kenwood (Sonoma Valley), produces solid Pinot Noirs from the Sonoma Coast/Russian River Valley. Venturing into Napa Valley, the winery also makes stellar Cabernets from Diamond Mountain, part of the Mayacamas range on Napa’s western side. The En Garde style is thoroughly modern: soft, complex tannins, plenty of upfront fruit, and elegant.

2016 Touché Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $180. To my way of thinking this is the En Garde new Cab for the cellar. The ’16 Le Bijou [see below] has more varietal Cabernet Sauvignon (99% compared to 95%), but the Touché is far more tannic. I don’t know why, but it’s apparent on the palate: tough as nails, with that hard astringency that’s almost old-style in its impenetrable mystery. Bone dry, too, despite the impeccably sweet core of blackcurrants. There’s plenty of new oak, too: you can tell from the vanilla, and that smoky wood char that marries so well with the fruit. Altogether a first-class wine: elegant in structure despite the power, and—if it’s not too much of a stretch—delicate. We need to recognize the official alcohol reading: 15.7%. Yes, that’s high. It’s a heady wine. But there’s no unwarranted heat—the wine’s power balances it out. The alcohol is simply part of the wine’s personality. Vintage Port ages; this Cabernet Sauvignon should too. Stash it for six years and see what happens. Score: 95 points.

2016 Le Bijou du Roi Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $120. I’ve always liked En Garde’s Bijou for its sumptuous flavors. You’d think a mountain wine that’s 99% Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly from Diamond Mountain which is infamous for hard tannins, would be astringent in youth, but no. This one’s so softly delicious, it’s drinkable now. Waves of ripe, sweet blackcurrants and raisin pudding, with notes of licorice, spice and wood smoke, flood together in a complex mélange that lasts through a long finish. There’s a bit of heat from alcohol (15.5%), but that’s the En Garde style; you either like it, or you don’t. I do, especially with a superb steak, or as an after-dinner, Port-style sipper. Score: 94 points.

2017 Reserve Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $70. This is a blend of the Starkey Hill and Pleasant Hill vineyards, and shows the same exuberant fruit: juicy raspberries and cherries, with some riper notes of red currants that mark the finish. It also has a bit more new oak, just enough to give that rich steak of vanilla and toast. The acidity is quite tart (0.65 TA) and stings me; the wine really needs the softening effect of food to tame it. Of all the Pinots, this is the one I’d give cellar time to—say, six years in a good cellar. Yet, if you’re drinking it now, the wine gets much more interesting as you move from “critical” mode into “enjoyment” mode, as there’s real complexity here. Score: 93 points.

2018 Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $50. At only 1-1/2 years of age, this Pinot is taut and tight, offering little pleasure now. The acidity is fierce, while the tannins are a bit brusque, and the finish is very, very dry. There’s a solid core of cherry-raspberry fruit and savory spice, and oak has been modestly applied; still, the toughness dominates. The alcohol level is lower than I remember from past vintages—under 14%–which lets the delicacy of Pinot Noir show through. The overall impression is one of austerity, almost rustic, although elegant enough. So is this an ager? I’d be lying if I guaranteed it. No problem in keeping it for a couple years, but if you drink it now, decant it first to let it breathe. Score: 89 points.

2018 Starkey Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $60. This single-vineyard bottling is considerably more opulent and generous than En Garde’s regular ’18 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Made from grapes grown in Sebastopol, it shows a rich array of cherry, raspberry and date fruits, wrapped into silky tannins touched with a bit of new French oak. The acidity is fine and refreshing; the finish is spicy and dry. On the downside is some heat from alcohol of 15.4%. This is the sort of thing that will annoy some people while leaving others untroubled. I, personally, don’t care, if the tradeoff of high alcohol is richness. I doubt if there’s much ageworthiness here, but who cares? It’s delicious to drink now. Score: 91 points.

2017 Pleasant Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $60. Although this Pinot is a year older than En Garde’s 2018 Starkey Hill, it’s pretty much an identical twin. You’ll find the same ripe fruits of cherries and raspberries, and the same vanilla spice from new oak. The tannins are silky and smooth, the acidity fine. All in all, this 2017 Pleasant Hill is a sumptuous wine that will pair nicely with Pinot-friendly food: steak, lamb, wild mushroom risotto. Score: 90 points.


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