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“Parkerization” is not a myth or a lie

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Lisa Perrotti-Brown surprised no one with her glowing defense of her “greatest mentor,” Robert M. Parker Jr., which she published the other day, on the occasion of Parker’s “immediate” retirement from The Wine Advocate, the periodical he founded in 1978.

That Parker was the most famous and influential wine critic of the last 35 years, as Perrotti-Brown writes, cannot be disputed. In making the following arguments, I cite my own position: as the lead California critic for Wine Enthusiast Magazine for many years, I had a privileged seat at the high table of wine criticism—a seat that enables me to make these observations with some degree of eye-witness veracity.

I would not challenge a single word of Ms. Perrotti-Brown’s encomium. Bob Parker absolutely was “the father of modern wine criticism”; he did indeed “raise the bar” for all of us who followed. But where I part ways with Perrotti-Brown is in her unfettered denial that Parker created an “international style” of ripe, high-alcohol wines. This is not a “big lie,” as she asserts, but the pure, unadulterated truth—and everybody in the wine industry knows it.

Perrotti-Brown has been trying to undo or obfuscate this truth about the “Parkerization of wine” for years. Last June, she wrote her piece de résistance on the topic, a robust rebuttal that does not stand up to scrutiny. Parkerization is “a myth,” she says. It is “a lie.” Its effect on wine is “purported.” Yes, Parker’s reign, she admits, coincided with a time when “wineries…developed styles that fit the trend” of riper, fruitier wines. But “it was not Parker who created the trend, consumers did.” Those who continue to decry Parkerization and the international style, she states, are merely seeking “a villain.” Wine writers who dare to suggest that Parkerization is real are just “looking for something to write about that attracts more viewers.”

These are patronizing, insulting remarks that Perrotti-Brown did not have to make. But she did, and they need to be addressed. I’m certainly not looking to “attract more viewers” by writing these words, and I never thought Parker was a “villain.” I admire the man tremendously. But I was there, in the front row, watching this whole phenomenon unroll, from the early 1980s until I formally retired from wine criticism in 2013 (and even since then I’ve kept my eye on the scene). And I can state with clear conscience that Parkerization was and is real.

We all know that alcohol levels in wine rose drastically during Parker’s era. Bordeaux, Burgundy and California in particular, as well as the Rhône, saw these increases—all regions Parker specialized in. During my heyday (and Parker’s as well), alcohol levels in California Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from Napa Valley, soared. Frequently, levels of more than 15% were seen, and many of us—aware of the fudge factor the Federal government allows in wine labeling—suspected that a Cabernet of official 15.5% strength might in reality be in excess of 16%. This is not a “myth” but a fact.

Why did it happen? Perrotti-Brown says that “consumers created the trend.” That is a misstatement. Consumers do not create such trends in wine; they respond to them. Consumers enjoyed wine before the Parker era when alcohol levels were between 11% and 13%. There is no evidence that a consumer uprising occurred in the 1980s, in which these consumers demanded riper, higher-alcohol wines. Talk about “myths”!! It simply didn’t happen.

What did happen was that wine periodicals, like The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, assumed a far greater importance than ever before, as a maturing and wealthier Baby Boomer generation realized it needed help figuring out what to buy (and cellar) among the thousands of competing brands. Parker’s Wine Advocate wasn’t the first to fill that market niche, but it was the most successful and influential. The 1982 Bordeaux vintage, which Parker lionized, did indeed cement his reputation. After that, he was golden.

I can’t prove the following assertion but I strongly believe it: wine critics who became well known after Parker’s rise, including James Laube, James Suckling and myself, felt they had to praise the same sorts of wine as did Parker. This may not have been a conscious thought on their part; but wine critics don’t work in a vacuum. The handwriting on the wall was very clear by the late 1980s: Parker was giving huge scores to wines like Groth’s 1985 Reserve (the first California wine to get 100 points from him). With each high score, not only the winery’s reputation was boosted, but Parker’s, as well. Wine writers took note! The concept that big, fruity, high-alcohol Cabernets were better than their thinner, less ripe but often more elegant counterparts became entrenched. No wine critic is immune to his environment; like artists, they are affected by their contemporaries. There has got to be a scale or continuum of hedonism in criticism; otherwise, criticism makes no sense; and what Parker bequeathed the rest of us was to define the upper scale of this continuum.

This is what is meant by “Parkerization.” Parker himself never denied his personal preference for big wines; he simply recoiled from what he felt was the smear of calling them “Parkerized.” And now, his successor at Wine Advocate, Perrotti-Brown, has picked up the mantle of outraged indignation. But I really don’t see why. Why is it so irksome to her (and to her “greatest mentor”) that Parker had this impact on wine? The only reason I can surmise—and it’s just my guess—is because Perrotti-Brown shares to some degree the belief common among younger (and some older) critics and sommeliers that some wines have indeed become too ripe, too alcoholic; and to the extent there’s a reason for this, it’s because of Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate.

History will be the final judge of all this. Does anyone doubt that History will record that Parkerization and the international style he inspired were real and not fake news? Meanwhile, Perrotti-Brown should calm down. The more she denies the reality of Parkerization—the lady doth protest too much–the more defensive she appears. As for Bob Parker, I salute you, sir, and–speaking as one whose retirement preceded yours–I welcome you to our ranks, and wish you peace and health!


A wine tasting in San Francisco

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I went to a great wine tasting on Friday, “Flights,” put on by ZAP, the Zinfandel consumer and trade group I’ve known and enjoyed for many decades. The event was held in the elegant, posh Palace Hotel, in San Francisco.

A “flight” is a series of individual wines, tasted and evaluated side by side. All of the wines share a common theme. In this case, the theme was that they were all comprised of Zinfandel, or of “related” grape varieties.

These “related” varieties, which included Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and Carignan[e], are not related to Zinfandel in any ampelographic way. Instead, the relationship consists in the historical fact that Zinfandel was frequently interplanted with the other varieties by [mainly] Italian-American immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries; the wines made from them (the grapes were often co-fermented) are called “field blends.” These old vineyards, once threatened with being torn out for housing development or with being replaced by more popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, have been rediscovered over the years, with the vines lovingly tended. Some of the very interesting wines made from them were included in the tasting.

There were four flights, 13 wines in all. Here are my tasting notes, followed by a brief discussion. My notes follow my traditional pattern: starting with color/appearance, then proceeding through aromatic notes to flavors and finish.

First flight: 100% Zinfandel

McCay Cellars 2015 “Faith Lot 13 Estate,” Lodi. $32, 13.8% alcohol. Bright, clean. Red berries, esp. raspberries. Lots of peppery spice, sandalwood, briary notes. Delicious! Medium-bodied, elegant, claret-like. Good acidity, very well-balanced. Score: 93.

Easton Wines 2015 Estate, Shenandoah Valley (Amador County). $35, 15.1%. Darker, riper than the McCoy. Prune and dark chocolate aromas. Flavors of Dr. Pepper, cassis, tapenade. Full-bodied, a little porty and hot. Score: 87.

Day Zinfandel 2016 Grist Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley. $43, 15.2%. Made by Ehren Jordan, of Failla. A stellar wine, classic Dry Creek Zin. Good garnet color. Complex, alluring aroma: earthy, briary, spicy, tobacco, raspberry, toffee, licorice. Super-spicy, deep, juicy, fabulous complexity. No heat at all, refreshing acidity. Score: 94.

Hendry Wines 2015 Block 7, Napa Valley. $36, 15.4%. Darkest of all. Exotic aromas: wild mushrooms, blackberries, licorice, pepper. Deep, dark chocolate, berry and coffee flavors. Full-bodied, spicy, full-throttle Zin. Long finish. Will age. Score: 90.

Second flight: Carignan.

Ravenswood Winery 2015 Angeli Vineyard, Alexander Valley. $42, 14.5%. 100% Carignan, grown in the hot region of Cloverdale. Very dark color, purple-black. Aromas of meat (teriyaki beef), blackberry, coffee, black raspberry, spice. Very deeply flavored, enormous mouthfeel, yet elegant and balanced. Very good. Score: 92.

Ridge Vineyards 2015 “Geyserville”, Alexander Valley. $48, 14.5%. A blend of 70% Zinfandel, 15% Carignane, 12% Petite Sirah and 3% Alicante Bouschet. Very dark color, very ripe. Chocolate, blackberry, coffee, spice flavors. Tastes hotter than the official 14.5%. Some raisins, prunes, lots of sweet, savory fruit. Very tannic. Too ripe for me. Score: 88.

Bedrock Wine Co. 2017 Papera Ranch “Heritage,” Russian River Valley. $60, 14.6%. From Morgan Twain Peterson, son of the Flights moderator, Joel Peterson. From a vineyard planted in 1934. 49% Zinfandel, 44% Carignan, 7% “other.” Very dark. Complex aromas of spice, licorice, mincemeat, blackberry, blueberry. Insanely rich and sweet, glyceriney. A bit clumsy now, needs a few years to settle down. Score: 89.

Third flight: Petite Sirah.

Turley Wine Cellars 2016 Hayne Vineyard Petite Sirah, Napa Valley. $75, 14.4%. Very, very dark. Big, eruptive aromas of meat, fig, briar, blackberry, cocoa. Full-bodied and stuffed with big, sweet tannins. Leathery tastes and feeling, with more sweetness emerging mid-palate: sandalwood, peppermint patty. Delicious, gulpable. Score: 90.

Beekeeper Cellars 2012 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel, Rockpile. $NA, 14.75%. Contains 20% Petite Sirah. The vineyard is between 1,200’ – 1,500’. Good, dark saturated color. Impressive aromatics: black currants, raspberries, spices, coffee-toffee, vanilla. Very rich, sweet, fruity, long finish. Will age, but fully drinkable now. Score: 92.

Matrix Winery 2016 Bacigalupi Vineyard Red Wine, Russian River Valley. $38, 15.6%. This is a 50-50 blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The color is inky black, impenetrable to light. The nose is muted at first, gradually suggesting earthy tobacco, blackberries and spice. Very tannic, and pretty oaky. Oodles of sweet black fruits, cinnamon bun, cocoa, with some overripe raisins and heat on the finish. Needs time. Score: 90.

Fourth flight: Alicante Bouschet.

St. Amant 2017 Alicante Bouschet, Lodi. $21, 12.93%. Good translucent garnet color, so much lighter than the Petite Sirahs. Lovely, uplifted raspberry, vanilla, cedar and spice aromas and flavors. Pinot Noir-like in texture, silky and satiny, with delicate raspberry fruit and refreshing acidity. Very fine, delicate, delicious. Score: 91.

Once & Future 2016 Teldeschi Vineyard Frank’s Block Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley. $50, 14.8%. Inky-black color, no doubt from the Zinfandel and Carignane, which constitute 88% of the blend. The remainder is Alicante. Deep, bold, assertive aromas: packed with wild blackberries, earth, tobacco, leather, clove, anise. Full-bodied, lots of sweet fruit, figs and currants. Super-high quality. Score: 92.

Hartford Family Vineyard 2016 Dina’s Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel, Russian River Valley. $60, 14.9%. Mainly Zinfandel, with 6% Alicante Bouschet and a few drops of other, undefined varieties. The color is very dark. The aroma is spicy and earthy, with notes of blackberries, cassis, blueberries and cocoa nib, as well as some overripe raisins. Dry and tannic, a big, ripe barbecue wine, although a little too robust for my taste. Score: 89.

The surprise of the tasting was the Alicante Bouschets, so out of place among those dark, tannic, heavy wines. What a pity more California winemakers don’t play with it, although who can blame them? The public is hardly ready for yet another obscure varietal. Among the Zins, Carignanes and Petite Sirahs, the Zinfandels showed best. Zinfandel is a noble variety in this family; the others can rise to the occasion, but always show some rusticity.


Wine critics vs. crowdsourcing: which is best?

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It’s never a good idea for wine critics to defend the field of wine criticism against its critics, because they end up sounding whiney and defensive. I got plenty of criticism during my time, and I never took the bait, but Eric Asimov did last week, and he shouldn’t have.

His column, which ran in the Wednesday New York Times on July 18, was a rebuttal to what Eric called an “attack on wine critics” that appeared on the liberal news and opinion website, Vox. The Vox article argued several points, all of which undermine the importance of wine critics like Eric (and me, when I was working). The most important is this: “community wine reviews,” like CellarTracker’s, are better than, or at least as good as, professionally individual wine reviews (like those of Eric or Jancis Robinson), especially given that CellarTracker is free, whereas Jancis charges $110 a year for her subscription, and to read Eric, you have to subscribe to the New York Times.

(Parenthetically, that’s why I can’t link you to Eric’s column. The Times’ firewall is very effective! But if you Google “every few years, an article” Asimov, you’ll find in second place an Untitled link to a PDF of it.)

The Vox premise is harmless enough. All it’s saying is that crowdsourced wine reviews tend to correlate very closely with individual reviews, which objectively is true, according to Vox’s data. But Eric took the finding personally. “Pitchforks Are Out, Again, for Wine Critics” he, or his editor, headlined his column, letting you know, even before you read the first sentence, just what Eric’s going to say about those wielding the “pitchforks.”

He resorts to an ad hominem argument in blasting the study Vox cited, calling it “dense [and] statistics-heavy,” as though the fact that a study contains numbers and tables somehow makes it suspect, which of course isn’t true. He attacks, too, a video that accompanied the Vox article which showed Vox employees blind-tasting wines. “While they were able to identify the most expensive bottles with some consistency, they far preferred the cheaper ones,” Eric wrote, adding, “The conclusion: ‘Expensive wine is for suckers.’” This is a conclusion that rankles Eric a great deal.

But to me, the most shocking part of Eric’s column lies in his statement that “It’s not surprising to see this [sort of attack on critics] again, at a time when knowledge and expertise have been dismissed at the highest levels…”. You know exactly whom Eric’s not-so-subtle remark is directed at: Donald J. Trump and his legions of fact-free followers.

I defer to no one in my condemnation of and contempt for Trump and Trumpism and its war against scientific and historic fact. Readers of my blog know that I’ve warned about this dangerous know-nothingism for a long time. But to equate questioning the value of wine critics with attacks on the science of global warming is hyperbolic to the extreme. It’s a desperate resort to the emotions of the Times’ readers: Eric knows that the vast majority of them loathe Trump’s war on “knowledge and expertise,” and he seems to be trying to convince them to turn against critics of wine critics, as well.

It’s a positively Trumpian move.

Let me give my judgment, after tasting hundreds of thousands of wines professionally, at the highest levels of the industry, for twenty-five years. First, critics don’t agree amongst themselves. That should tell you something. Secondly, inexpensive wine can be as good as expensive wine. I need to parse this sentence, because it’s complicated. First, “inexpensive” and “expensive” are obviously relative terms. Second, when I say “good,” that also is a relative word: “goodness” in wine (as in films) is strictly in the eye of the beholder. You might love that $11 bottle of Croatian white wine. Jancis or Eric (or I) might hate it. That doesn’t make your taste any less authentic than theirs’, which is the whole point of the Vox article. Eric, who has devoted a lifetime to the knowledge and understanding of wine, deservedly wants to be acknowledged; when his “knowledge and expertise” are dismissed so lightly, he becomes affronted—as well he might.

But we’re not concerned here with Eric’s feelings. We’re concerned with the best approach for consumers to take, who are overwhelmed with the mysteries of wine. Eric suggests that the smart consumer will turn to a professional like him for the best advice. But the Vox article says definitively that crowd-sourced reviews are at least as correct, or right, or spot-on (whatever word you like) as the reviews of a single professional. And I simply can’t disagree with that. It’s true; it’s a fact; it makes sense, and there’s no getting around it.

This isn’t to say that wine critics don’t provide a very valuable service. If you find a critic whose tastes align with yours (no easy task), then you should feel free to follow that critic. Critics have the additional benefit that, because of their knowledge and expertise, they’re a delight to read. I love reading good wine critics (including Eric), because they write so well, and they’re able to put a wine into context, beyond their mere hedonistic review. (My favorite current writer is Benjamin Lewin.) Wine is complicated, elusive, the product of the marriage of history, geography, grape and fermentation science, human artistry, climate, entrepreneurial business and marketing and so on; a good writer, like Eric, captures these complexities for us and educates us about the wine, which makes its consumption all the more enjoyable.

So I’m certainly not dissing wine critics! But I am saying that to write a whiney, defensive tome like Eric did is not in his best interests, or those of knowledgeable wine criticism. Very few people read the Vox article because very few people read Vox. Eric’s position atop the heap in American wine writing is unchallenged. He shouldn’t have wasted his time.


“Parkerization” is real. Lisa Perrotti-Brown has it wrong!

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There is much to admire but also to object to in Lisa Perrotti-Brown’s op-ed piece in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, about Parker’s influence on wine. I hardly know where to begin to address the misinformation, but perhaps the biggest refutation of her claim that “parkerization is a lie”—repeated so often it sounds like it came from the telescreens of 1984—is that winemakers themselves say “parkerization” is real, and has dramatically changed their approach to winemaking.

“Parkerization,” or “wine parkerization” to be precise, even has its own place in Wikipedia, where it’s defined as less-acidic, riper wines with significant amounts of oak, alcohol, and extract.” That wines, especially in trend-setting Napa Valley and Bordeaux (where Parker’s influence always has been outsized), have undergone this stylistic development is made clear by the facts: “Alcohol levels of Napa Cabernet have increased more or less steadily since the seventies,” writes the Master of Wine, Benjamin Lewin, in his book, Claret and Cabs. Lewin cites studies showing that from 1975 until 1995, average alcohol levels in Napa Cabernet were between 13% and 13.5%. (The first issue of The Wine Advocate was in 1978.) From 1995 to 2000, they rose to around 14%, and then, after 2000, they went sky-high, in many cases reaching if not exceeding 15%. Lewin, citing a Napa winemaker, Anthony Bell, writes that “a deliberate change to riper styles” came in the 1990s, and that Bell “attributes it to Robert Parker’s influence.” This fully comports with the scores of winemakers I interviewed over the years, who all told me the same thing.

Perrotti-Brown’s contention is that Parker, who remains a co-owner of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and thus is one of Perrotti-Brown’s bosses, is not the cause of this phenomenon. Instead, she says, consumers are driving the change; Parker is simply an objective journalist reflecting this trend. We could, of course, debate forever the question of “Which came first?”, the consumer’s taste or Parker’s scores. That would be a fruitless pursuit. But to me, after close to thirty years of being at the center of the wine reviewing business in California, the answer is clear. While the old saying, “Correlation isn’t causation,” is, strictly speaking, true, we usually assume that blatant and repeated correlation is a form of causation. For instance, when we see the cue ball hit the eight ball, sending it careening, we infer with a high degree of certainty that the collision of the cue ball with the eight ball sent the latter on its merry way, even though, as David Hume reminded us, we cannot prove that to be the case.

So too is it with Parkerization. Over and over during my long career as a wine writer and critic, California vintners described to me how Parker scores forced them to change their winemaking style, even when they didn’t like the new style they felt compelled to adopt. I first heard this in the mid-1990s, not only from Napa winemakers but from others up and down California. By the early 2000s, the argument over whether wines, especially Cabernet, should be picked ultra-ripe was essentially over. Parker and parkerization had won. Only a handful of challengers, like Cathy Corison, could make “non-parkerized” Cabernet and get away with it.

There is something arch about Perrotti-Brown’s argument, a bit of “Methinks she doth protest too much.” It’s part of her job, I suppose, to defend her boss. Now, I don’t mean to disparage Robert Parker himself. As Perrotti-Brown points out, Parker has made “an incredible contribution…to our wine world,” and few understand this better than someone like myself, whose career overlapped his for many years. Working as a wine critic, in such a critic-sensitive place as California, I couldn’t help but be super-aware of Parker’s gigantic shadow, which made the rest of us mere fledglings beneath his eagle wings. I always defended Robert Parker; I thought he was entitled to every plaudit he got, and in fact our tastes in wine often overlapped. His high scores matched mine, almost bottle for bottle, in the areas, such as Napa Valley, we both covered.

I just think that Perrotti-Brown is a bit too outraged by the allegations of “parkerization” and I’m not sure why her outrage is in such high dudgeon. “Parkerization” is not “an erroneous slur,” as she characterizes it; it’s a description of reality. Every winemaker knows it; every critic knows it; every merchant and sommelier knows it.

Thought experiment: If Parker had not existed, would Napa Cabernets and Bordeaux have gotten as ripe and “big” as they did over the last 25 or 30 years? I can easily conceive of a reality in which the old style of red wine—anywhere from 11-1/2% to 13.2% or so—continues to be popular. After all, Bordeaux, upon which Napa is based, became celebrated hundreds of years ago, when alcohol levels were so low, the wines often had to be fattened up with Syrah from the South of France (or even, perish the thought, with Algerian wine!). There was nothing inevitable about people developing a preference for richer, higher-alcohol, oakier wines.

Yet the consumer did. Why? Here’s a little secret: as a critic, I have long thought that people will like the wines they’re told to like by the critics. This may sound cynical, but in fact, when people buy a wine based on a shelf talker that advertises a high score, they’re being very human about it: With so many wines, they do need help making choices. It’s perfectly natural for someone to think, “If a famous critic loves this wine enough to give it a high score, it must be a very good wine, so I should like it, too.”

Nor does this way of thinking characterize only beginning or uneducated drinkers. Connoisseurs, too, are psychologically influenced by the critics (believe me, the richer they are, the more enslaved they are to Parker scores); and when the critic is so famous as to have his last name turned into an adjective (“parkerized”), even the savviest, wealthiest collector will find himself under pressure to like a high-scoring Parker wine. So, while it may ultimately be impossible to say which came first, the chicken or the egg (the consumer’s taste in big, ripe wines or Parker’s scores), common sense tells me that Parker did: he drove the modern style. It’s called “parkerization,” and my suggestion to Perrotti-Brown is not to attack it but to celebrate it. Her boss created the modern wine industry; he, and she, should be justly proud, and own it.


Benziger Family Winery: five new reviews

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I’ve followed Benziger’s fortunes for decades, and one thing I can say, they’re always striving to boost quality. The Benziger family began with the hugely successful Glen Ellen Winery, which pioneered “fighting varietals,” before launching their boutique Benziger brand, which they sold to The Wine Group in 2015. These five wines are the first I’ve tasted since the sale—although all five of them were made prior to it. We’ll have to see if the winery continues on a quality trajectory under the new ownership. The Cabernets are from the estate vineyard, in Glen Ellen, the heart of Sonoma Valley, on slopes of Sonoma Mountain. The Pinot Noirs hail from the estate de Coelo Vineyard, way out on the coast between Freestone and Bodega Bay. I first visited it years ago when it was being developed. My sneakers sank inches into the deep, seabed-derived Goldridge soil, as fine as moon dust. One of the best soils for Pinot Noir in the world, Goldridge drains readily, and lends the wine an expressive elegance.

Here are the wines, in the order I tasted them.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Terra Neuma” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 14.0%, 230 cases produced. This is from a higher-elevation block of de Coelo. The color is pale and translucent, hinting at delicacy. As in previous vintages, the alcohol is lowish, giving the wine a light, silky mouthfeel. Dusty tannins give it plenty of grip. The fruit suggests persimmons, with tarter cranberries, highlighted by mouthwatering acidity. There are more exotic notes of green tea, white pepper, Chinese 5 spice, and wild mushroom. The finish is severely dry, which is a compliment. Yet, toasted oak barrel aging lends it a vanilla sweetness. Complex and elegant, and so easy to love, this beauty will age for at least eight years. Score: 94 points.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Quintus” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 625 cases produced. The family resemblance with the other wines from de Coelo is marked in this block-derived wine, which is lower in alcohol than Terra Neuma. It’s slightly tarter and more delicate, but the same persimmon, raspberry, cranberry, tea, orange peel, mushroom and white pepper notes carry through, as do the silky tannins and magnificent acidity. This is exactly what we look for in Goldridge-derived Pinots: enormous complexity, delicacy undergirded with power, extreme drinkability. If there is ever going to be a Freestone appellation—and there ought to be—this wine could stand as its exemplar. I cannot imagine a better companion for lamb or steak. Score: 94 points.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Arbore Sacra” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 641 cases produced. Another block bottling from the estate vineyard. Aromatically it’s a little shier than the other two, showing more mineral and earth notes, like tree bark, brittle, dried leaves, cloves and dust. But the fruit is there: raspberry tea, pomegranate, orange peel, tart cranberry. There’s also a crispness that lends vitality to the mouthfeel, but the tannins are as light as air: they give a hint of astringency. The mouthfeel is as silky and delicate as an old tapestry, yet the depth is very great, with complex impressions extending out through a long, spicy finish. Of the three wines, I’d have to say this is my favorite. It is ultra-refined and elegant, a wine that would have been unthinkable in California not that long ago. Score: 95 points.

Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Obsidian Point Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $65. Alc. 14.4%, 486 cases produced. This is a very proper Cabernet, by which I mean it is classic, balanced and delicious. It’s one of those wines that you take a sip of and think, Wow, is this going to be easy to like. Bone dry, with thick but fragile tannins and just-in-time acidity, it’s rich in black currants, anise, unsweetened cocoa powder, sweet toasted oak and just a hint of herbaceousness: sweet green olive especially. The grapes are from Benziger’s estate vineyard, in the heart of Sonoma Valley on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, and were biodynamically-grown. I have not been an ardent supporter of biodynamique, but there is a purity to this wine that is notable. Interestingly, the wine is already throwing some tannins. Drink now-2020. Score: 93 points.

Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Sunny Slope Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $59. Alc. 14.5%, 562 cases produced. The wine is just a little bit less concentrated than Obsidian Point, but it’s also six bucks less. It’s quite lovely, with classic black currant, cassis, cocoa and green olive flavors, enriched by 20 months of aging in French oak. It has an inherent elegance due mainly to the splendid acid-tannin structure. It’s not clear to me that it would be worth aging this wine for any length of time, but it is an enjoyable, complex sipper. Score: 90 points.

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