A wine from my cellar, plus Bordeaux at a Basque restaurant

 

A few nights ago I pulled the Charles Krug 2008 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley), which cost $75 on release. The color was still as inky dark as a young Cabernet, but after almost precisely ten years, the aromatics and flavors had turned the corner, picking up secondary (although far from tertiary) notes. The fresh blackberries and black currants I found when I initially reviewed the wine, in the Autumn of 2011 when it was three years old, were still there, but “growing grey hairs,” as they say, becoming more fragile, and showing leathery notes and, perhaps, a little porty, due to high alcohol, namely 15.7%.

In my early review, I wrote that the wine was “certainly higher in alcohol than in the old days, but still maintains balance.” In those olden days (never to come again, alas), Krug’s Vintage Selection, always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, hovered in the 12-1/2% range. Gerald Asher, writing in the early 1980s, credited Krug’s “influential legacy” (along with Beaulieu, Martini and Inglenook) as having contributed to “the seeds of all [stylistic Cabernet] options available to winemakers today,” a statement that remains true. His fellow Englishman, the enormously influential Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, went him one better. He gave the 1959 Krug Cabernet his highest rating, five stars, calling it “most perfect” and “a lovely rich wine,” and added, amazingly, that his friend, Edward Penning-Rowsell, who wrote the best book on Bordeaux ever (The Wines of Bordeaux), “could not fault it,” rare praise indeed from an oenophile who opined about his specialty, Bordeaux, for decades in the Financial Times. James Laube, the most important American wine critic after Robert Parker, was of more ambivalent opinion. While he called Krug’s Cabernets (first produced in 1944) “grand, distinctive [and] long-lived,” his scores on the 100-point scale were less impressive. In his 1989 California’s Great Cabernets he managed only two 90-plus scores over more than four decades of vintages of the Vintage Select (as it was then called).

I scored the 2008 Vintage Selection 93 points in 2011, and would do the same now. Admittedly, that wine took an enormous departure from the Krug Cabernets Asher and Broadbent loved. The high alcohol is a conceptual problem, and perhaps makes pairing it with food more challenging, but these are matters for our imaginations, not our palates. Organoleptically, the wine still provides good drinking. Even on release the $75 price was a bargain, when, for example, Grgich Hills already was $150, and Jarvis was a sky-high $315. Charles Krug had by then long lost its luster among the label chasers, a fickle bunch, and it must have been hard for Krug, used to being at the top, to be so overlooked, or maybe disrespected is the better word.

It’s always risky to predict the future of such wines, but I would not be surprised if the ’08 Vintage Selection is still purring away contentedly in 2028.

Tasting Légende Bordeaux at Piperade

In France “piperade” (pronounced something like “pip-rod”) is a Basque stew of onions, green peppers and tomatoes, spicy and garlicky. In San Francisco, it’s the name of Gerald Hirigoyen’s restaurant, which opened in 2002 and has long been a fixture on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants list. It’s situated on Battery Street, an old-timely San Francisco neighborhood at the junction of North Beach, Chinatown and the Financial District, just below the cliff of Telegraph Hill: old brick buildings, lovingly restored, that now house tech hubs and architectural firms.

A wine from my cellar, plus Bordeaux at a Basque restaurant

Piperade was where an interesting tasting of Bordeaux took place on Monday. I was invited despite my status as a retiree and had the privilege of being seated to the right of Diane Flamand, the winemaker for Légende, the Bordeaux brand that sponsored the luncheon. (I think this honor was because I was the eldest person in the room!)

Légende is owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (DBR), which also owns Lafite-Rothschild. It produces five what might be called “entry-level” Bordeaux: a basic red and white Bordeaux, a Médoc, a Pauillac, and a Saint-Emilion. (This latter is, of course, not within DBR’s traditional wheelhouse, but was developed in response to the market.)

I have to say how impressed I was by all five wines. The white, which was served as a conversation starter before we sat down for the meal, was fine, clean and savory, a blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon. The red Bordeaux was equally satisfactory, being dry and somewhat austere, although elegant. The official retail price of both–$17.99, although I’ve seen them for less—made me inquire where in the Bay Area I could find them.

As we progressed through the lineup, the red wines all showed true to form: the Médoc more full-bodied than the Bordeaux, the St. Emilion wonderfully delicate and silky, and the Pauillac the darkest and sturdiest of all, as you might expect. The flight was capped off with 2010 Carruades de Lafite, the “second wine” of Lafite-Rothschild, just for the sake of comparison. As good as it was–and it was!–the other wines had nothing to be ashamed of.

During the meal, where most of the other guests (about 15 in all) seemed to be bloggers, the topic arose concerning Bordeaux’s status and popularity in the California market. I weighed in, as is my wont : ) I mentioned that younger people are looking for unusual, often eccentric wines—the kind their parents never drank—which means they’re not drinking Bordeaux. But, I added, there’s a reason why Bordeaux has been the classic red wine in the world for centuries; and that, as they get on with life, I was sure these drinkers would eventually discover Bordeaux—especially reasonably-priced Bordeaux that shows the classic hallmarks of the genre.

At any rate, if you can find these Légende wines, they’re worth checking out!

Wine Reviews: En Garde

 

En Garde’s Csaba Szakal has sent me his new wines for review. (I have not been paid for this.) The Pinot Noirs in particular are very good, providing plenty of cool-climate acidity and delicacy, as well as Russian River Valley fruity intensity. And they’re ageable. If there’s a criticism–a minor one–it’s that they’re all rather similar to each other. But En Garde wouldn’t be the only producer of boutique Pinot Noirs to deserve this critique. Producers still have got to rationalize their fetish with vineyard and other special designations. En Garde’s wines are costly, but the prices are fair, considering what California Pinot Noirs of this quality cost these days.

2016 Pleasant Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley), $60. Delicate and silky. It’s quite translucent in color; you could read through it. But there’s nothing thin about the flavors. Opens with a blast of wild raspberries, pomegranates, cranberries and rosehip tea, with subtly pleasant notes from oak. There’s also a nice earthy component: dried mushrooms, spicy cloves, a touch of crushed white pepper and cinnamon. The finish is dry and intense. Makes me think of lamb chops or beef tacos or even paté or, if you’re vegan, a rich wild mushroom risotto. Very nice now, elegant and refined, if a little tannic and youthful. I expect it to continue on a good glide path for eight years, at least. I’d love to be around to try it in 2036, but I probably won’t. A mere 98 cases were produced, and the alcohol is 14.7%. Score: 94 points.

2016 Pinot Noir Reserve, Russian River Valley, $80. Only 121 cases were produced of this Pinot Noir, which is a selection of the winemaker’s best barrels (as a Reserve should be). The wine, in its youthful exuberance, is simply delicious. It is, as my friend, Allen D. Meadows (Burghound.com) describes certain Burgundies, “big and robust, though always with breed and class.” Opens with a blast of essence of ripe, succulent raspberries. Oak brings notable but subtle notes of smoky wood and vanilla. But it’s really the flamboyant fruit that’s the star of the show, with great supporting performances from acidity, soft tannins, a silky texture and a minor but scene-stealing bacon and rhubarb-infused wild mushrooms. It’s so delightful, you might want to drink the entire bottle, but it will hold for at least eight years. Alcohol 14.9%. Score: 93 points.

 2016 Starkey Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley), $60. Wine purists will want to know that the vineyard is near Sebastopol, near but not in the Green Valley AVA, one of the cooler sections of the Russian River Valley. You can tell from the color—translucent ruby—that it’s from a chilly area. I reviewed the 2014 Starkey and called it “lighter in body and more delicate” than some of En Garde’s riper Pinots. It still is. This is a delicately structured wine, with plenty of acidity and a silky texture. But there’s nothing shy about the flavors: big, bold cherries, tobacco and herb tea, plenty of peppery spice, a rich, mushroomy earthiness, and smooth, refined tannins. There’s enough elegant complexity to warrant the price. The wine changes interestingly in the glass as it breathes. With alcohol of 14.5%, it’s bit hot, but should mellow with at least six years in the bottle. Score: 93 points.

2016 Rossi Ranch Vineyard Petite Sirah (Sonoma Valley); $60. Pinot specialist En Garde turns to the warm Sonoma Valley for  Petite Sirah, a grape that requires more heat to ripen than does Pinot. You don’t want to drink this ’16 quite yet; it’s just too young. The aroma is big and grapy, and the new French oak hasn’t yet integrated with the fruit. It’s also raspingly tannic, one of the most tannic young California wines I’ve tasted in a long time. Underneath all that are big flavors of mulberries and blackberries. A dense, dry, concentrated wine, inky black in color, with subtle, enticing notes of bacon and good acidity. Give it three years to begin to come around and then try again. It could still be ticking in fifteen years. 155 cases, alcohol 14.8%, but I’m dinging the score because of the tannins. Score: 88 points.

2016 Manchester Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay (Mendocino Ridge); $55. Even though the official oak content on this wine is only 20% new French oak for ten months, the oak is overwhelming. It’s strange, because sometimes, 100% new oak on Chardonnay is fine. Maybe it’s because the underlying fruit doesn’t have the guts to stand up to the wood. Hard to tell. Whatever, it’s toothpicks. The vineyard is in the Mendocino Ridge appellation that has to be above 1,200 feet in elevation in order to be so labeled. Yes, you’ll find ripe pears, citrus and tropical fruits, but the main impression, in both the smell and taste, is buttered toast, caramel and butterscotch. 14.4% alcohol, 110 cases produced. Score: 87 points.

Wine critics vs. crowdsourcing: which is best?

 

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!

 

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.

A tasting of Pauillac wines

 

 

Bordeaux is the most famous wine region in the world. On the western bank of the Gironde estuary (the Médoc), influenced by its position on the Atlantic, the climate is continental. Red wine grapes have been grown for a thousand years. Since the sixteenth century, Bordeaux’s chateaux have been famous: Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild and others have thrilled wine lovers, from Kings and Popes to Thomas Jefferson and, today, rich Chinese businessmen.

Bordeaux is divided politically into communes–areas around small towns. Its most famous commune is Pauillac, where winegrowing dates back to the Middle Ages. The great grape of Pauillac, and throughout the Médoc, is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which also is the great red wine grape of California. However, unlike California, in Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon never constitutes 100% of the wine. Instead, it is blended, in various percentages depending on house style and vintage, with other Bordeaux grapes, primarily Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

Pauillac wines are considered the epitome of power, finesse and elegance. They age  well. Invariably hard in tannins in their youth, they require time for the tannins to precipitate out as sediment, revealing pure, sweet flavors of currants and cassis, often with an herbal note suggesting tobacco or, in some cases, chocolate. On Thursday of last week, I went to a wine tasting in San Francisco sponsored by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, the region’s trade organization. At the tasting, I focused on the wines of Pauillac, which also is the home of three of Bordeaux’s five “Premier Cru” (First Growth) wineries: Latour, Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild. So famous are these Premier Crus that they do not pour their wines at the Union des Grands Crus trade tastings.  They do not need to market themselves to buyers, the way the other chateaux do, since demand for them is inexhaustible.

All the wines below are from the 2015 vintage, a very fine one in Bordeaux (England’s authoritative Decanter Magazine calls it “unquestionably great.”) I still use the 100-point system in rating wine quality. Were I a beginning wine critic today, I might not employ that controversial system. But old habits die hard.

Chateau Clerc Milon. I found the wine rather hard and rustic, especially compared to its Pauillac brethren. It has a strong, ripe aroma suggesting blackcurrants, toasted oak from barrels, roasted coconut and shaved chocolate. It feels full-bodied and big in the mouth, but a little hot in alcohol. The fruit reprises on the mid-palate into the finish. I would give the wine 5-6 years in the cellar. The winery is part of the Mouton-Rothschild empire. Score: 88 points.

Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. This is a celebrated wine, highly sought by connoisseurs and expensive. The 2015 has been lavishly praised by critics, but I have to admit I found it disappointing. Considerably more forward than its neighbor, Pichon Baron [see below], with generous blackberry and cherry fruit. In the mouth, soft and silky, yet very tannic. Perhaps it was the fault of the tannins, but I found the mid-palate and finish a little thin and brittle. Chacun a son goût! Score: 89 points.

Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse. The terroir of this rather underrated chateau is very superior, bordering on Mouton and Lafite. Its wines were at the height of their fame in the mid-nineteenth century; production is among the lowest in the Médoc. I called the 2015 “Californian” in style for its fruity ripeness. Big aromas and flavors of blackberries, cassis and cedar, powerful and delicious. I might have mistaken it for a Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, except for the vibrant acidity. Score: 92 points.

Chateau d’Armailhac. This winery also is part of the Mouton-Rothschild stable. The wine has less Cabernet Sauvignon, and more Merlot, than the average Pauillac wine, which makes it rounder and more supple than many others. The 2015 is dry and tannic, but very elegant, with ripe blackberry and blackcurrant fruit flavors and a long, spicy finish. I liked it quite a bit for its instant appeal and generosity. It drinks well now and should age for 15-20 years. Score: 92 points.

Chateau Lynch-Moussas. A very small winery, not seen much in the U.S.; the name “Lynch” comes from an Irishman who owned the estate in the 19th century. The 2015 is a pretty wine, polished and supple and drinking well now despite a high level (70%) of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a tannic wine, with good structure and acidity and some real complexity. I liked the way the blackcurrant and berry flavors were interwoven with the oak. Score: 92 points.

Chateau Lynch-Bages. One of the most famous of the Médoc chateaux, Lynch-Bages traditionally contains one of the highest percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine long has been a favorite of the Brits; they called it “Lunch Bags.” The 2015 is very fine, with a gorgeous garnet hue. The aroma is strong, primary and immature: blackberries, cassis, violets and cedar wood. It feels hard and youthful in broad-based but supple tannins. Yet its elegance is apparent. The wine needs lots of time. Score: 93 points.

Chateau Pichon Baron. For me, the star of Pauillac in the 2015 vintage (other than the three Premier Crus, which were not included in the tasting). The first recorded wine off the estate was produced in 1694; the neo-classical chateau dates to 1851. It is right across the street from Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande; the two properties long have been distinguished by Baron’s “masculine” character and Comtesse’s “femininity.” The 2015 Baron has a pure ruby-garnet color. I tasted it immediately after Lynch-Bages, and found it more generous in comparison, with chocolate shavings and freshly crushed summer blackberries. A big, big wine, powerful, complex, yet the definition of elegance. Needs lots of time to come around. Score: 95 points.

New Wine Reviews

 

Balzac Communications was kind enough to send me a few wines, even though I’ve been retired for three years, so, as is my wont when this happens, it’s only proper for me to review them on my blog.

A mini-vertical of Parducci “True Grit” Petite Sirah (Mendocino), 2004-2006.

It’s almost a given that wine critics call Petite Sirah ageable. I nearly always did in my career, for a couple reasons. First, it’s really tannic in youth, but balanced, and secondly, I’ve been lucky enough to taste many old Petite Sirahs, so I have first-hand experience. A good one, from a good vintage, will last for decades, in the right cellar. And Parducci’s Petite Sirah is always good; at Wine Enthusiast, when these three wines were released, I gave the 2004 93 points, the 2005 89 points, and the 2006 I scored at 90 points. I’m happy to say the wines continue to offer plenty of interest.

2006: The wine was $30 on release, a lot for a Peite Sirah, but it was quite good. I called it “consistently one of the best in California” and gave it 90 points. It was tasty when I reviewed it in 2009, and now, eight years later, it still is, although it’s showing its age. The fresh fruits—blackberries, currants—are drying out and turning savory and leathery, and there’s a soft, dark chocolate unctuousness, but the spices are still there, and so are the tannins. It’s a very nice wine to drink now, elegant and complex. I would keep the score at 90 points.

2005: When the wine was first released, I called it “young, dry, jammy, acidic and tannicly immature,” a rather “aloof” wine. Now, at the age of 12 years, it’s really blossomed. The tannins are resolved, although still firm, and the primary blackberry-cherry and cocoa nib flavors are evolving into secondary status: dried fruits and currants, with those mushroom, leather and bacon notes that mark more mature bottles of the variety. The wine now has a softness that makes it round and supple. Lovely to drink now, and will last for another ten years, at least. Score: 91 points.

2004: I gave the ’04 my highest score of the three wines, at the time of its release, but it has not aged as well as the ’05 or ’06. The official alcohol on all three wines, according to the winery, is 14.5%, but the ’04 tastes hotter than the other two. The 2004 vintage was, after all, a scorcher. There were multiple heat waves in the crucial month of September that overripened many grapes. I predicted, in April, 2008, that the ’04 True Grit would age, but I was wrong. The fruit is beginning to fade, with a pruney taste and porty heat replacing what once was fresh blackberries and cherries. Perhaps this was not a good bottle. Score: 84 points.

Locations non-vintage NZ Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand); $20.  I have to admit I was not a fan of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc when I was a working critic. I guess I was used to a richer California style. The green, pyraziney aromas were off-putting to me. The pyrazines are certainly there in this wine (call them gooseberries, if you prefer), but for whatever reason, in my dotage my palate has changed, and now I find this green, grassy herbaceousness, when done well, as it is here, adds an attractive, stimulating complexity. In the mouth, while it’s dry, there’s a lot of succulent, sweet fruit: nectarines, a hint of papaya, green melon, figs, and a brilliantly clean, swift acidic minerality. No oak, of course, to get in the way. This is an eminently sippable wine that I would happily drink every night, especially with the right appetizers. Goat cheese comes to mind, smeared on toasted sourdough bread, sprinkled with olive oil and chopped chives and a few grains of good salt. The alcohol is 13.5%. Score: 90 points.

Parducci 2015 “85” Red Wine (Mendocino County); $45. This red blend is rustic, a word I use to describe a wine that is not elegant, in fact awkward in texture, but okay for everyday drinking. There’s a green pepperiness that’s unusual in a California Bordeaux blend, which this is (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc). Fruit-wise, a kick of black cherry brings needed richness, rounded out by vague oak notes. The finish is very dry, and the tannins are pretty hefty. The “85” designation is to acknowledge Parducci’s 85th anniversary, which surely is worth celebrating. Drink this wine now and over the next year or two. Good with steak fajitas. Score: 87 points.

[The following wines were from my cellar, but I thought I’d include them.]

Staglin 2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford); $185 on release. When I reviewed this, in late 2011, I wrote that it was a great success for a challenging vintage. I gave it 94 points, and praised it for the lush, dramatic flavors, although I warned it didn’t seem to be a long-term keeper. My judgment now is pretty much the same. It’s still rich and flamboyant in blackcurrants and dark chocolate, yet with a jacket of tannin-acid control that lends elegance and complexity, and seems perfect for drinking now. I suppose it will continue to glide path for another five or ten years, but why wait? Score: 95 points.

MacPhail 2011 Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $49 on release. When I reviewed this, back in the Spring of 2014, I gave it 92 points, and remarked on the acidity, which I called “vibrant.” Now, at the age of six, acidity remains a fundamental feature, making the wine almost sour, except for the core of raspberry, persimmon and rhubarb, which give it a balancing, sweet fruitiness. But what I like best is the complexity. There’s so much going on. The fruit is melding into herbs and mushrooms, so that the flavor experience changes second by second, in an exciting tension between fruit and earth. In my review, I suggested drinking until 2019. I still think that’s the case, and the sooner, the better. Score: 92 points.

MacPhail 2011 Rita’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills); $49 on release. I gave it 92 points back in the Spring of 2014, and called it “flashier than anything that MacPhail has produced in their Sonoma County Pinots.” Indeed, it is a thrill ride of colorful flavors: raspberries, cherries, vanilla parfait, just as rich as they were 3-1/2 years ago. The wine has barely aged. It still has a spine of minerals and that tingly acidity that makes it so clean, although not as tart as the Sangiacomo. I really love drinking this wine, which will pair well with anything Pinot Noir traditionally goes with. For some reason I’m thinking of beef tacos, but anything from filet mignon to ahi tuna. salmon or wild mushroom risotto will highlight the wine’s beauty. Score: 94 points.

Inizi 2012 Charbono (Calistoga); $32. Decades ago, when Charbono used to be planted in considerable quantities in California, I went to a vertical tasting in which we tried bottles that were 20-30 years old. I formed my impression then: A rustic, dark, full-bodied wine in youth that will live practically forever, gradually throwing tannins without necessarily growing more complex. I first reviewed this 2012 near the end of my career at Wine Enthusiast, gave it 90 points with an “Editor’s Choice” special designation, and called it “bone dry and tannic” but “food-friendly [and] of considerable interest.” I wouldn’t change a word. It’s still as black as a moonless night, with just a hint of garnet at the edge, and the aroma, of blackberries and dark chocolate, remains youthful. It’s still dry and tannic, yet at the age of nearly five years, the fruity sweetness is struggling to overcome the astringency, and very nearly succeeding. No doubt it will still be drinkable in 2037. I like this wine a lot despite its rusticity. It makes me think of comfort fare: pizza, short ribs, Szechuan beef, pepper steak, a great cheeseburger. The alcohol is a modest 13.4%, which gives it a shabby-chic elegance. Score: 90 points.

New Wine Reviews: En Garde

 

I’ve given En Garde, which is based in Kenwood (Sonoma County), lots of 90-plus scores over the years, and my successors at Wine Enthusiast have followed suit. I taught my young Jedis well! The winery specializes in the two hottest wines in California, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. The owner/winemaker is Hungarian-American Csaba Szakál; his first wine was a 2007 Diamond Mountain Cabernet to which I gave 95 points and a “Cellar Selection’ designation. (I wish I could taste it now to see how it’s doing.) Judging by the wine wines, En Garde remains focused and on-track.

En Garde 2013 Adamus Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $100. This is a reserve-style selection from the winery’s block of the Sori Bricco Vineyard. The price is midway between the Bijou du Roi ($120, 95 points) and the regular Diamond Mountain ($90, 92 points), both of which also are from Sori Bricco. This is certainly a delicious, important Cabernet Sauvignon, rich and opulent, but I wonder why En Garde needs three wines from the same vineyard. With ultra-smooth tannins, complex black currant, green olive and oak flavors, and refreshing acidity, it’s a crowd-pleaser, but really, all three wines are so similar that most people could not detect any difference. Still, kudos to Csaba. He has amazing grapes and he is making amazing, ageable wines. Score: 93 points.

En Garde 2013 Touché Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $180. This is the winery’s most expensive Cabernet. It’s a blend of their best barrels from their Diamond Mountain and Mount Veeder vineyards. It’s also, with their Bijou du Roi Cabernet, the oakiest of the six new releases (100% new French for 28 months). There’s a family resemblance with En Garde’s other 2013s: concentrated blackcurrant, cassis and green olive flavors, plus in this case a bacony, umami tang that adds to the pleasure. Cedary, toasty oak. Thick tannins, and acidity that’s fine and cleansing. If there’s a qualitative difference here, and there is, it’s in the purity. There’s a structural refinement that’s hard to put into words, a wholesome completeness that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Adjectives that come to mind are smooth, impeccable, dramatic, authoritative, delicious, lithe, and let’s not forget ageworthy: I would drink this now, but it should glide effortlessly through the decades. Score: 96 points.

En Garde 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mount Veeder); $90. I fell in love with this wine with the first sip. Profound! So pure, so refined, so essence of Napa Valley mountain Cabernet. The vineyard is above the fogline so it gets more sun than down on the valley floor; there’s a ton of ripe, flashy blackcurrants and blueberries and blackberries. Oak, too: 67% new French for 21 months, which adds clove and vanilla notes. The wine feels dense and important, if you know what I mean: nothing flimsy here, just solid, packed juiciness and complexity. Also lots of mountain tannins that give it a certain astringency. Parker gave this wine 93 points. I’ll go to 95 points. You can drink it now, or over the next 20 years.

En Garde 2014 Gold Ridge Pinot Noir (Green Valley); $55. I’m giving this the highest score of En Garde’s five new Pinot Noirs. The vineyard is near Sebastopol, planted in the famous Goldridge soils I wrote about years ago in my first book. This soil type is very fine and sandy, with wonderful drainage; Ehren Jordan calls it “rain forest desert.” The Pinots grown in Goldridge have a delicacy that’s otherwise rare in the Russian River Valley, of which the Green Valley appellation is a subset in the chilly, foggy southwest corner. The wine, whose alcohol is 13.5%, is exceedingly fine. It first strikes you for deliciousness: savory essence of raspberries, a vein of red licorice, a taste of wild mushroom, the sweetness of roasted oak, a pleasantly titillating clove-and-white pepper spiciness. Then you notice how light and silky it is, how “transparent” to use that overworked word. Another sip; a third; the wine is addictive. A Pinot Noir triumph, superb to drink now. If I had a case, I’d drink a bottle a year. Score: 97 points.

En Garde 2013 Le Bijou du Roi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $120. This mountain appellation in the Mayacamas Mountains always gives intensely concentrated, yet tannic, Cabernets than can take a lot of time in the cellar. The grapes are from the Sori Bricco Vineyard, which has been source to Cabernets from Nickel & Nickel and Von Strasser—not bad company to be in! The wine is, in a word, immense. The color is very dark, almost impenetrable. The aroma is young and intense: fresh black currants, green olives, oak (100% new French), and a lanolin note, like warm candle wax. In the mouth the flavors of blackcurrants and ripe blackberries have a floral edge of violet petals and anise. Very delicious, very complex. But those tannins are strong. Of course, they’re as finely-meshed as modern winemaking techniques can achieve, and there’s no reason you can’t drink the wine now. Yet in a proper cellar it should stride effortlessly through the next two decades. Great job. Alcohol 14.5%, 112 cases produced. Score: 95 points.

En Garde 2014 Reserve Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $70. The thing to keep in mind about most reserves is that (a) the winery makes a decision in the first place to have one and then, having made that choice, (b) the winemaker chooses the “best barrels” that will comprise it. The selection is therefore arbitrary. In my long experience, reserves aren’t necessarily better, although they are more expensive—sometimes considerably so. This reserve is 15 dollars more than En Garde’s single vineyard Pinots, and 25 dollars more than the regular Russian River Valley. It is a composite of the single vineyard wines: Olivet Court, Starkey Hill and Gold Ridge. It’s a close approximation of them all, made in the winery’s style: rich, dense, layered, complex. It’s also the oakiest of the bunch. The result is delicious: red currants, licorice, cranberries, tea, beet root, wild mushroom, cloves, anise, wrapped into firm tannins. Is it “better” than the rest? Not really. But it sure is good. Score: 94 points.

En Garde 2014 Starkey Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $55. I tasted this alongside the Olivet Court, and the difference was stark. The Starkey, which comes from the Sebastopol area, is much lighter in body and more delicate in structure. It’s also more transparent of the terroir, and less fruit-forward, not so much about raspberries and cranberries, although they’re there, but more subtle sensations. The tea, mushroom, beet, cocoa dust and anise flavors of Olivet Court are there, but the main difference is how light and ethereal this wine feels. The alcohol is only 13.2%. The wine has a grip that’s partly from zippy acidity, and partly from unresolved tannins, and the finish is absolutely dry. Production was 138 cases. I suspect most people will drink this wine soon, and that’s fine; give it some decanting, and enjoy with ahi tuna, lamb, a great grilled steak or wild mushroom risotto. But if you like your Russian River Valley Pinots with some bottle age, it will develop nicely over the next ten years, at least. Score: 93 points.

En Garde 2014 Olivet Court Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $55. What I like about this Pinot is that it has big, flashy, exuberant flavors, but also a complexity that gives it intellectual interest. The fruits suggest raspberries, cranberries, red currants and orange zest. The complexity derives from the earth, with tea, mushroom, beet root, anise and clove notes, finished with the sweet, smoky vanilla of new French oak. It’s a good wine, solid and well-made, with fine acidity and silky tannins. Should be more interesting in a few years, and could go to ten years while dropping sediment and purifying. The vineyard is west of Santa Rosa, and is said to be planted to vines more than 35 years of age. The alcohol is 14.1%. Score: 92 points.

En Garde 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $90. A first bottle was severely corked. The second showed well, displaying a plethora of ripe, Napa-esque Cabernet flavors: blackberries, black currants, cassis liqueur, blueberries, pencil lead and dark shaved chocolate, accented by 60% new French oak aging for 28 months. The tannins are strong, as you’d expect from Diamond Mountain, and there’s good, savory, balancing acidity. I would cellar this for 4-5 years. Score: 92 points.

En Garde 2014 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $45. It’s true that this regional Pinot isn’t quite as concentrated as En Garde’s single-vineyard bottlings, which it’s a blend of. But that is in its favor, because it’s the most drinkable of the winery’s five Pinot Noirs at this time. It’s quite classic, with lively acidity highlighting flavors of raspberries, cranberries, balsam, crispy bacon, orange zest, tea, pepper and cloves. Bone dry, with moderate alcohol (14.3%) and a silky mouthfeel, it’s not an ager, but it’s a real beauty for drinking now, and every bit as good as the Olivet Court, which costs ten bucks more. Production was 130 cases. Score: 92 points.

En Garde 2013 Tempranillo (El Dorado); $40. Body-wise, this wine is like a full-sized Pinot Noir, veering into a lighter Merlot, but with the spiciness of Zinfandel. With alcohol of 14.4%, it features oaky, fruity flavors of red licorice, red currants, cocoa nib and teriyaki beef, with soft tannins and good acidity, all wrapped into a silky texture. It’s a good, drinkable wine, although not particularly Tempranillo-esque, whatever that means in California. The grapes were grown at an altitude of 2,800 feet in the Sierra Foothills, where the summer weather is quite hot and dry during the daytime, but chilly at night. The winemaker interestingly blended in a little Petit Verdot—for structure? Steak would be the ideal partner, unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case a mushroomy lasagna will suffice. Score: 88 points.

En Garde 2013 Greenville Summit Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $70. I can’t say I found this Cab in the same league as the winery’s Napa Valley bottlings. It’s sound, it’s good, it’s drinkable, but it simply lacks their lush, rich opulence. The blackcurrant and cassis fruit, the oliveaceous notes are there, but the wine is quite tannic and dry and tart, and there’s something herbal: maybe it’s the Hungarian oak that gives it a dill weed aroma. I would decant this wine before drinking it; it should provide decent drinking over the next 4-5 years. Score: 87 points.

New wine reviews

 

Steven Kent 2013 Lineage (Livermore Valley); $155. I’ve long had a fondness for Steven Kent’s Bordeaux-style wines, of which Lineage is the best. (He also makes the Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.) Lineage is a meritage-style wine; this ’13 is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, 15% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec. It is, in a word, superb. The mélange of flavors fascinates me; there’s fresh fruit (cherries, blackberries, blueberries), dried fruit (currants), liqueur (cassis), sweet dried leather, milk chocolate, smoky oak (cedar, vanilla, toast) and licorice (anise). The texture is mind-blowing: so smooth and velvety, so seamless. For all the richness, there’s a structural control, courtesy of the acid-tannin balance. I don’t know if it will age; it’s pretty soft now, but it’s so balanced, it might. You never know, but then again, it’s so good, so complete and wholesome and delicious, there’s no reason not to drink it now or over the next year or two. The alcohol is 14.4%. Only 275 cases were produced. The wine spent two years in French oak, most of it new. I can’t praise this wine enough. It’s really expensive, but compared to the price of many Napa Cabs, it’s a bargain. Score: 97 points.

 

Chateau Smith 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington State): $20.This is a succulent, juicy Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s rich in black currants, with firm, rich tannins and the most lively acidity that really gets your mouth watering. It’s from Charles Smith, and I’m not sure if they mean for the “Chateau Smith” to be a different brand, or a proprietary name under Charles Smith. The technical notes state it’s from the Columbia Valley; the label simply says “Washington State.” Why, oh why can’t these wineries get their story straight? Whatever, it’s quite a fine red wine, robust, bone dry and moderate in alcohol, clocking in at 13.5%. It strongly suggests a grilled steak. Score: 91 points.

 

Steven Kent 2016 LOLA White Wine, Ghielmetti Vineyard (Livermore Valley): $24. A classic blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillion, this wine demonstrates why Livermore Valley was famous long ago for white Bordeaux-style blends. It’s really lovely, with citrus, tropical fruit, apricot and fig flavors cut through with a trace of pyrazine-inspired green grass. The finish is dry, although there may be a little residual sugar to give it a round, mellow mouthfeel. Meanwhile, the acidity is racy, and the alcohol is a refreshingly low 13.4%. The wine is entirely unoaked. I might have given it a touch of wood to bring that fancy edge of vanilla smoke, but nonetheless it’s a super-nice wine, at a good price. Score: 91 points.

 

Charles Smith 2014 The Velvet Devil Merlot (Washington State): $13. This is so good for the price, I’m almost shocked. It’s translucent ruby in color, suggesting a light- or medium-bodied wine, which it is, with only 13.5% alcohol. The aroma is red cherries, red currants and espresso, with a sprinkling of cocoa dust, a suggestion of beet root, and just a whiff of violets and dusty earth. So pretty. In the mouth, it’s entirely dry, but rich and complex. The spicy finish is longer than you’re think in a thirteen dollar wine. And, yes, it does feel velvety in the mouth. This is not an ageable wine, but it is a beauty for drinking now. Although the label doesn’t say so, the grapes are from the Columbia Valley. Buy this one by the case. Score: 91 points.

 

Trentadue 2015 Estate Bottled La Storia Petite Sirah (Alexander Valley): $TK. Alc. 14.8%. I’ll give this wine kudos for its sheer mass. It’s just what you expect a modern, warm-climate Petite Sirah to be. Dark in color, full-throttle in body, and humungous in flavor. Waves of chocolate, black cherry jam, mocha, anise, white pepper and smoke, wrapped into thick but ultra-soft tannins, and brightened by just-in-time acidity. This is the kind of wine I always call a barbecue wine, meaning its practical usage is limited because of the size. But if you’re grilling up those old babybacks, go ahead and slurp away. Score: 91 points.

 

Charles Smith 2015 Kung Fu Girl Riesling (Washington State): $13. Such a deal! This is a super price for a Riesling of this purity. I love the apple, orange marmalade, petrol, nectarine and white flower flavors, and the way the acidity makes it all so lively. There’s also a tangy minerality, like cold metal. The alcohol is a refreshingly low 12%, and yet the wine tastes just off-dry (I’m sure it has a little residual sugar to round it out). Really a delight to drink. I would buy this by the case. Score: 91 points.

 

Steven Kent 2014 BDX Collection Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley); $48. The first duty of Cabernet Franc is to be different from Cabernet Sauvignon. Otherwise, what’s the point? This small production (249 cases) bottling certainly is. While it has weight, it’s lighter in color and silkier than Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s also redder in fruits: not black currants and cassis, but cherries and kirsch. Thoroughly dry, it exhibits quite a lot of complexity, showing earthy tea notes, dried mushrooms and smoky new oak. User alert: it’s very tannic. We’re talking palate lockdown, although a great steak might prove a worthy opponent. Will it age? I don’t think it will beyond five years. My advice to Steven Kent is to figure out a way to manage those tannins in future vintages. Score: 90 points.

 

Charles Smith 2015 Boom Boom Syrah (Washington State): $18. Boom Boom is the right terminology. This is a big, rich, dense, robust Syrah. It’s jam-packed with flavor: blackberries, mulberries, shaved dark chocolate, coffee and teriyaki beef, with black pepper accents and a smoky oakiness. The color is inky black, the tannins dense but fine, and there’s a welcoming bite of acidity. With a totally dry finish and an alcohol level of just 13.5%, it’s quite food-friendly. Drink now. Score: 90 points.

 

Geyser Peak 2015 River Ranches Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley): $22. Aromatically, heaps of lemongrass and freshly-mown hay characterize this bone dry, crisp 100% Sauvignon Blanc. If there’s any oak at all (the tech notes don’t say, unfortunately), it’s not evident. In the mouth, juicier notes of figs and spearmint emerge, but it’s still a rather severe wine, and quite a good one in that style. I think of Chinese food, or shellfish, or feta cheese, or drinking it as a stylish appetizer. The alcohol is a refreshingly low 13.5%, and 1,590 cases were produced. Score: 91 points.

 

Geyser Peak 2013 Walking Tree Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley): $30. This is a very nice Cabernet, rich and delicious. It has a ripe Cab’s classic flavors of crushed blackberries and mocha, while the addition of 7% Petite Sirah seems to add a peppery mushu plum sauce taste. The tannins are ultra-smooth and the wine is a little on the soft side, suggesting immediate drinkability. Thirty bucks is the suggested retail price, but I’ve seen this wine for $20 or less. If you can get it for that price, it’s a lovely sipper for summer steaks. Score: 90 points.

 

Miro 2014 Coyote Ridge Vineyard Reserve Petite Sirah (Dry Creek Valley): $TK. This delivers just what you’d expect from a Dry Creek Petite Sirah. It’s dry, heady and incredibly rich in blackberry jam, brown sugar and coffee flavors. The tannins are thick and hard, and there’s a nice burst of acidity. A big, big wine, dark and voluptuous, ideal for barbecue. The official alcohol level is 14.5%. Score: 88 points.

 

Geyser Peak 2015 Water Bend Chardonnay (Sonoma County): $26. Oaky and superripe, with vanilla, sweet cream and honey-infused tropical fruit and apricot jam flavors. It’s the kind of Chardonnay you either like or don’t. I do. It’s rich, soft, a little sweet and eminently drinkable. The alcohol is 14.5%, and 632 cases were produced. Score: 87 points.

 

Stanton Vineyards 2014 Petite Sirah (St. Helena); $45. This is textbook Petite Sirah, in the black color, the massive extract and the solid tannins. The flavors are blackberries, ripe and sweet and rather liqueur-like, due to 15.3% alcohol. There’s a milk-chocolate richness, too, but the wine actually is dry. The tannins are evident, but they’re in the modern style: soft and finely-ground. The oak overlay shows up in the form of smoky vanilla. I am bothered by something “off” in the aroma. It could by pyrazine, indicating a celery unripeness; it could be a bit of mold. Score: 87 points.

 

Parducci 2013 Small Lot Petite Sirah (Mendocino County): $?. This is a decent sipper for stews, barbecue and such. It’s dry, smooth and easy to drink, with blackberry, tea, tobacco, cocoa dust, anise and pepper flavors. The acid-tannin balance is gentle. Try it as an alternative to Zinfandel or Merlot. Score: 87 points.

 

Zin-Phomaniac 2015 Old Vine Zinfandel (Lodi): $15. The price is the main attraction on this Zinfandel. The connoisseur crowd will object that it’s too ripe and plummy, too chocolatey, too hot, and has some unevenly ripened fruit. That’s all true, but it is a savory mouthful of wine, with a flood of raspberry jam, caramel, vanilla and spicy flavors. I call it a barbecue wine, and for fifteen bucks or less, there’s nothing wrong with that. Score: 86 points.

 

Steven Kent 2014 Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. I find this 100% Cabernet too brawny for my tastes. If you’re a fan of fruit, you’ll like the blackberry jam, chocolate macaroon, spice and toasty oak flavors. The tannins are very fine and smoothly-ground, and there’s a nice bite of acidity. The year 2014 was of course a drought year, and while the official alcohol here is a modest 13.9%, I also detect overripe prune notes. Don’t bother aging it. Score: 86 points.

 

Charles Smith 2014 Eve Chardonnay (Washington State): $13. The winery says this Chard has no new oak and was aged in barrel for only five months, but it tastes oaky to me. Either that, or it’s tired, with the fruit dropping out and the oak sticking out. The tropical fruits are turning apricotty. It’s okay, but I can’t really say I like it, even at this price. Score: 84 points.

 

Tie Dye 2014 Red Wine (North Coast); $15. This is a pretty bland wine. Comprised of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Grenache, it’s soft, dry and dull, with vegetal overtones. You’ll find enough flavor to make it acceptable for drinking with simple fare. Score: 82 points.

New Wine Reviews: Loring Wine Co.

 

I’ve reviewed a lot of Loring wines over the years, and in going over my scores, I note that very few were lower than 90 points. Loring is one of those California wineries, like Testarossa and Siduri, that don’t own vineyards of their own, but take advantage of grower relationships to purchase fruit from some of our most famous vineyards, and then designate them on the label. The wines are almost always impeccably crafted, but due to their ripe, fruity style, are not particularly ageworthy. If there’s a certain sameness to them, it’s a delicious, food-friendly sameness. All Loring’s wines are bottled in screwtops. If this bothers you, you’re a snob.

Loring 2015 Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills); $54. The first word that popped into my head on tasting this wine was: “Pretty.” And that is a compliment, not a slight. “Ravishing” works, too: raspberries and strawberries, with hints of bitter cranberries and pomegranates, wrapped into a tart, silky Pinot Noir that finishes with oaky vanilla and spicy-sweet coffee and mushroom earthiness. It is so easy to drink, you might not even appreciate how layered it is. The vineyard is, of course, a pioneer in the Santa Rita Hills, in the tenderloin of the appellation, along the Highway 246 corridor. As pretty as it is, there’s a young, grapey sappiness that suggests midterm ageability. Drink now, after decanting, and through 2021. Alcohol 14.8%, 150 cases produced. Score: 94 points.

Loring 2015 Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands): $54. This is an excellent Pinot Noir. It tastes a bit more “cold climate” than Loring’s other 2015s, to judge from the cranberry and heirloom tomato notes, but there’s still a ton of riper plums, and oak gives it the most delicious vanilla-smoke nuances. It also shows a spiciness that intrigues, especially on the finish. Like Loring’s other single-vineyard Pinots, the acidity is perky, the tannins soft and silky. Lip-smackingly good. Alcohol 14.8%, case production 300. Score: 94 points.

Loring 2015 Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands): $54. Strikes a careful balance between the exuberance of its fruit and the integrity of its structure. The result is just fine, perfect for upscale drinking wherever Pinot-friendly food requires liquid partnership. The raspberries, cherries and plums have a mushroomy earthiness. The tannic grip is sandy and refined, the acidity mouthwatering. Really a nice example of Pinot Noir’s silky, sexy nature. Will remain delicious over the next six years. Alcohol 14.5%, case production 150. Score: 94 points.

Loring 2015 Garys’ Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands): $54. Garys’ Vineyard is the joint effort of the two Garys, Franscione and Pisoni. It’s in the tenderloin of the Santa Lucia Highlands. This bottling is so delicious in cherries and plums, and so balanced in acidity, oak and tannins, you’d be hard pressed to find something better to drink now with filet mignon, grilled salmon or ahi tuna. The alcohol is 14.8% and the case production was 150 cases. Score: 93 points.

Loring 2015 Kessler-Haak Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills); $54. Juicy, crisp and fruity are the highlights of this single-vineyard Pinot Noir, whose wines I’ve given good, sometimes great, scores to for many years. With lowish alcohol (14.2%), it’s lithe in the mouth, showing a silky delicacy. But there’s nothing delicate about the flavors: raspberries, cherries and pomegranates, spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon and crushed black pepper, and accented noticeably by toasty oak. It’s really complex and approachable now. Score: 93 points.

Loring 2015 Sierra Mar Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands): $44. Tropical fruits are the theme here: ripe, sweet papayas, golden mangos, juicy nectarines, tangerines, even sautéed bananas. Throw in some buttered toast, vanilla custard and brown spices, and you have this insanely rich, but balanced, Chardonnay. Such pretty acidity, the kind that makes your mouth water. And a hint of creamy lees for good measure. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser. The vineyard is yet another effort from Gary Franscioni, one of the partners (with Gary Pisoni) of Garys’ Vineyard. Alcohol 14.3%, 100 cases produced. Score: 93 points.

Loring 2015 Rosella’s Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands): $44. The trick to California Chardonnay is to take advantage of the summer sun that ripens the grapes to fruity richness, but also to maintain an architectural precision that gives the wine structure, and keeps all that sweetness from cloying. This Chard succeeds. I love the tropical fruit, Key lime pie, white peach, butterscotch, sweet cream and toasty vanilla flavors, but there’s also a flinty minerality and keen acidity that are so balancing. I went over all my past scores for Rosella’s Chardonnay, from all wineries, and, except for a handful of instances, all were 90 points or above. Alcohol 14.3%, 100 cases produced. Score: 93 points.

Loring 2015 Keefer Ranch Vineyard Pinot Noir (Green Valley): $54. On the spectrum of Pinot Noir, this bottling plays it down the middle: rich, but tart; fruity, yet elusive; dry, yet sweet in fruit. The raspberries and pomegranates have a touch of bitter cranberry, which certainly makes the mouth water. The oak is perfect, bringing sweet toast, vanilla and wood sap to the formula. And the finish is dry and long in fruity essence and cola spice. All in all, a lovely Pinot Noir, delicate and feminine, super-drinkable now and over the next five or six years. Score: 93 points.

Loring 2015 Rancho La Viña Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills); $54. I tasted this blind and knew right away it was Santa Rita Hills from the acidity, which is so fresh and keen. Clearly a cool-climate Pinot Noir, it has a cranberry tartness, but is also rich and decadent in black cherry and raspberry jam, with an earthy coffee-bean quality. The vineyard is along Santa Rosa Road, in the southerly part of the Santa Rita Hills; the owners also sell fruit to several other wineries. I like the way the wine balances voluptuousness with a streamlined, tantalizing, elusive personality, which really is what Pinot Noir at its best should do. Alcohol is 14.3% on the label, and case production was 300. Score: 93 points.

Loring 2015 “Cooper Jaxon” 2015 Pinot Noir (California): $60. This looks like a second label from Loring, with its “California” appellation and old-fashioned label, but in fact, it’s their most expensive Pinot Noir. Apparently it’s a blend of two of Brian Loring’s “favorite barrels,” and named after his young nephew. It’s a big wine, bursting with all kinds of wild berry aromas and flavors, cherries especially, but notes of licorice, dried herbs, cocoa powder, tea, espresso, white pepper, nutmeg and black pepper. It is, in other words, an incredibly complex wine. Acidic and fresh, with fine, intricate tannins, the sort of Pinot Noir that belongs on a fine wine list. The alcohol is fairly hefty, officially 14.9%, and there’s a bit of heat, for which I deducted a point or two. Only 35 cases were produced. Score: 92 points.

New wine reviews

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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