Selections for October 2017

A rare thing these days!

2015 ESOTERICA CABERNET SAUVIGNON – North Coast

What so many of you want is what’s hardest for us to find these days.  We’re talking about good $20 California Cabernet.  Oh, you can survey the supermarket shelves to find many a Cab represented at this price point, but the ones which properly function are few.  On that larger production level they tend to taste “manufactured” or betray cheap fruit sourcing causing less-than-attractive scents and flavors. 

What we think you want is a Cab you can take right home and drink right now.  You want color.  You want ripe fruit with perhaps an extra (but not intrusive) dimension of earth and / or herb.  You want a generous mouthfeel and enough – but not too much – of a tannic effect.  You want a damn good and affordable dark red drink!

Not to put words in your mouth but we think we just have.  Esoterica Cabernet represents the “third label” of Kent Rasmussen who long ago ditched his librarian job for grape-growing and winemaking.  His timing was right, arriving in Napa when land and grapes were still within the financial reach of the “common” man.  Kent has made many fans of his namesake Pinot Noir over the years, and also provides a range of value wines under his ‘Ramsay’ label.  ‘Esoterica’ is the appendage reserved for Rasmussen wines made in small production, barely appearing in the market.  Napa Cabernet fruit would be way too expensive to represent in a $20 bottle, so Kent heads farther north to find quality at a more nominal per-ton rate.  Mendocino and Lake County are the reliable providers of such a thing.   

Looking ahead to the holidays, we recommend stocking up with this Cab.  Considering its style and price, a lot of the folks you’ll be hangin’ with will appreciate your uncorkings of Esoterica!   

 

Bottled August 28, Debuting TODAY!!

2016 DOMAINE des PLUS-DE-VIE RED WINE – San Francisco Bay

That SF Chronicle quote happened in 2012 when this project was just a glimmer in my eye.  We’d had Grenache and Syrah vines in the back yard for nearly ten years.  At the time, their yield combined with those of a few local friends with the same varieties was making a not-for-sale hobby wine.  In 2013 we took the project more seriously by buying two tons of Livermore Valley Mourvèdre to augment and taking the whole batch to friend Adam Webb’s winery in Napa to be made “under bond” (which enables legal selling of the stuff).  Daughter Mary’s significant other Jason Cryer worked up a fun label design based on bottles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Calvados I showed him, and Domaine des Plus-de-Vie was born.

This is PdV Iteration #3.  Our roughly 700 pounds of homegrown Grenache and Syrah once again join Mourvèdre.  Those familiar with the project will notice a difference on the label (besides some color tweaking):  The appellation we’re now declaring is “San Francisco Bay.”  In 2016 we sourced the Mourvèdre addition not from Livermore but one county up, Contra Costa.   - Oakley, specifically; the unlikely home to some of California’s oldest grape vines.  The over 100-year-old dry-farmed Mourvèdre participants in PdV are actually un-grafted, meaning they didn’t have to be planted on phylloxera-resistant rootstock since that root-nibbling louse can’t survive in Oakley’s sandy soil.  Some wine geeks insist “own-rooted” grapevines speak more honestly of their variety.  I couldn’t say, but I was intrigued enough by the concept to plant my own Grenache and Syrah this way (no sign of infestation YET!).  “San Francisco Bay” is an actual American Viticultural Area just like “Livermore Valley” and “Napa Valley”.  Since this wine is sourced from two counties within the San Francisco Bay Appellation we chose to identify PdV that way rather than applying the more general “California” tag.

As noted, the 2013 version happened under Adam Webb’s jurisdiction in Napa.  The 2014 of which we have virtually sold out occurred under the roof of Nella Terra in the hills above Sunol.  We skipped the 2015 year but when it came time to revive the project we returned to Adam for help.  He is to be thanked for babysitting PdV for us once again, and our gratitude will be most obvious to you by showing some of his own Odisea / Cochon wine in our clubs.

This year around PdV can’t be called ‘Mourvèdre’ because it uses less than the 75% amount required for varietal identification.  The blend we liked after myriad bench trials is roughly 58% Oakley ancient vine Mourvèdre, 17% Livermore Valley Syrah, 17% Livermore Valley Grenache, and 4% Dry Creek Carignan (you’re allowed a small outside-appellation percentage).  The fermentation happened with no added yeast; only the ambient critters were invited to the party.  Once pressed off, the wine resided only in used, neutrally-flavored barrels; oversized versions known as hogsheads.  After a mere eight month rest in these “hogs” PdV was bottled without fining or filtration.

NOW: 

When we U-Hauled all 106 cases from the warehouse just a week after bottling I popped open a bottle for a celebratory sip – and knew what to expect:  Next to nothing.  When you run a wine through pumps and lines and related bottling equipment it gets “sea sick”; nearly all of the smells and most of the flavors you admired at blending time completely disappear.  As anticipated, these qualities are GRADUALLY re-emerging.  While this wine is entirely friendly right now it is still returning, on its own sweet time, to its original idea of complexity. 

Our premise in blending was to not allow bruiser Mourvèdre to completely overwhelm the more delicate yet exotic homegrown Grenache and Syrah.  With a little more aging time this wine will reflect that attentiveness.  “M” is known by its sappy and briary fruit.  “G” keeps the effect crisp and levitated.  “S” adds darkness and incense, plus a little pepper.  Our “C”arignan addition gives a slight sense of “bass note.”  In combination, these players provide a fresh, crisp and lively red which enriches with air and/or time.

We are damn proud of it.

Selections for September 2017

Pssst!  Your bias is showing!

2015 METHOD PROPRIETARY RED – North Coast

I’d like to say a word or two about what’s NOT in this wine and how, in my biased opinion (isn’t all opinion “biased”??) its absence makes ‘Method’ more delicious.  Note the source declaration (American Viticultural Area) on the label:  NORTH COAST.  This geographically broad term allows for fruit from any and all of six different counties:  Napa, Solano, Sonoma, Lake, Marin, and Mendocino. 

Give this North Coast blend little air, then start swirling, sniffing, and sipping.  What’s happening in this Syrah / Petite Sirah / Zinfandel concoction?  Sweet dark earth.  Boysenberries.  Espresso.  Freshness.  Juiciness.  Indulgence balanced with levity.  Tannins and acids countered by happy, ripe fruit. 

What’s NOT happening in this wine?  Compost.  Lawn mower bag.  Freshly-mown cornfield.  I’d suggest what you’re getting from ‘Method’ happens because the fruit is sourced from Mendocino and Lake Counties, qualifying it as a “North Coast” wine.  I’ve been wondering why we’re seeing this appendage less and less often these days, and suddenly it came to me:  Many makers of this kind of thing are now heading for LODI for a less expensive fruit addition to their blends, necessitating a “California” source on the label. 

Now, “California” doesn’t bother me a bit.  What bugs Yours Truly is a certain quality of freshly-fertilized cornfield or decomposing bits of leftover post-harvest tomato plants I taste in so many blends including Lodi grapes.  Now, I’m the first to insist we not apply blanket praise or dismissal when it comes to wine types and regions.  There are always exceptions; I have had some terrific Lodi wines defying my bias.  – But I’m talkin’ TENDENCY here:  When I taste “California” blends with vendors I can nearly always tell when Lodi is part of the wine.  Different flavors are appealing or offensive to different folks; the newly-manured plot up-wind from a plot of Zinfandel is my personal issue, to which you are subject!  Yep, I guess bias is on full display!

This dark and delicious juice bomb includes Master Sommelier Ian Cauble on the design team.  You’ll remember him as one of the four dudes pursuing their certification in the move “Somm”.  So, Ian, does Lodi bug you, too?!        

Drink now, with frequency and friends.

Le Bec is BACK!

2015 BECKMEN VINEYARDS ‘Cuvée le Bec’ – Santa Ynez Valley

For the next two months you will be subject to our particular interest in Rhone blends.  Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and the like are most famously assembled in France’s northern Provence region of the Southern Rhone, and the rest of the wine world including California’s Central Coast aspires to emulate.  Why the global popularity?  I think it’s all about the uniquely delicious coming-together of charmingly-fruited “G,” darkly mysterious “S,” and curmudgeonly rustic “M”.  These complementary grapes play a beautiful trio so many wine palates can appreciate!

In October we will present the recently-bottled 2016 Domaine des Plus-de-Vie, our own contribution to the Rhone inquiry.  – But it may have to rest a little longer:  “Bottle shock” has a hard-to-predict duration and PdV really needs a nap right now.  In the meantime we’re pleased to bring you a frequent player in your club, yet another vintage of thoughtful grower/winemaker Steve Beckmen’s ‘Cuvée le Bec’ from Sideways Country’s Santa Ynez Valley.

This GSM also includes the less frequently applied Counoise grape.  If our estimations of the first three grapes are happening in Le Bec’s scents and flavors, what might the latter be adding?  I’ve only tasted three or four varietal renditions of Counoise but surmise that any quality of incense or Asian spice could be attributed to its inclusion.  After all, the whole idea of blending is the access of an elaborate “spice cabinet” of flavors and dimensions.  Who wants a wine that says but one simple thing?

I love “Le Bec” for its modesty.  Very little new oak was applied here, and most of the barrels employed were the larger format “hogshead” and “puncheon” sizes.  Tempranillo and Cabernet wines love newer and smaller barrels, but the Rhone varieties are generally offended by that treatment.  Consider the beautiful fresh fruit and floral perfume happening here – why clutter that with vanilla and oxidation?

Certainly, this generously-fruited wine also sports a structural element of acidic nerve and tannic grip (that little “nip” of astringency in the finish).  You are meant to resolve that by eating – especially grilled proteins.  You DO eat, don’t you?!

Selections for August 2017

Grenache, honest and unfettered

2015 VASCO URBANO ‘Coco Noir’ GRENACHE – Cortez Vineyard, Contra Costa County

During my Livermore Valley Cellars days, Tim Sauer and I thought it fairly inappropriate to source grapes from anywhere but our own valley, considering our eponymous label.  Then we discovered how much we liked the Rhone varieties and realized some of California’s old vine sources were right next door in Contra Costa County; namely, Oakley and right-next-door Knightsen.  Many of these vineyards have survived longer than a century and are ungrafted.  That is, they are on their own phylloxera-threatened roots but that nasty louse is no problem here due to the uninhabitable sandy soils.  So deeply established are these root systems that irrigation is often unnecessary.  Whether Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, or Grenache, the wines from these old soldiers are intense in fruit along with the more mysterious addition of bramble and spice.  Old vines in Contra Costa County ROCK!

Then there’s the right way to treat them:  My nascent preoccupation with GSM blends from France’s Rhone Valley incited an inquiry:  “How do THOSE Old World guys treat these varieties?”  It turns out that regular-sized, new French oak barrels, so embraced in Bordeaux and Burgundy, are of little use in the Rhone.  That smaller barrel size has proven to hasten the oxidation of Grenache in particular, so storing that component in larger format “puncheons” or “foudre” is preferred for fruit preservation.  Vast subterranean vats made from fiberglass-lined concrete - some installed a hundred years ago - also provide this service.  Another feature of no-fuss Rhone winemaking:  A shorter stay in these vessels.  Certainly, some of the more important Chateauneuf-du-Papes might see up to two years of pre-bottling aging, but the other village wines and more simply-good Cotes du Rhones are often bottled before the next harvest.  These two approaches – larger barrel size and shorter time in barrel – are what we apply to our own Domaine des Plus-de-Vie.  This TWS ‘House Wine’ will feature both Livermore Valley AND Contra Costa grapes in its next iteration.  Stay tuned for that, but in the meantime: 

Without trying to sound patronizing, I must say I’m proud of Collin for applying the same winemaking ideas to ‘Coco Noir’ Grenache, of which only 168 cases were produced.  Five years ago he was using conventional barrels for such projects, and aging them longer.  Tasting those, I hoped he’d someday do something like THIS instead.  His own name for the winemaking that happened here:  “A poor man’s Pinot approach.”  Used puncheons (500-600 liter barrels rather than the more common 225’s) housed this Grenache for but ten months before bottling.  The purity and clarity of old vine fruit is uncluttered by either oxidation or new oak flavors.  Thin-skinned Grenache’s honesty is confessed by the delicate color (we discussed this last month per the Stolpman example).  Scents of cigar wrapper, raspberries, and thyme intimate a nearly-Rhone effect.  The palate is juicy and brambly; fuller if you serve this at room temperature and refreshingly crisper if you chill it a little.

Kudos to kindred spirit Collin and his nearly-Livermore, local wine!         

Sangiovese, unusually honored

2012 LUNA SANGIOVESE – Napa Valley

We’re happily surprised to find you a rare success:  California Sangiovese, a varietal too dependent on great soil and thoughtful winemaking to have a great track record.  We’re even more pleased to provide this from the high-rent Napa Valley for a very agreeable price.  Correctly-done Napa Valley Sangiovese for less than twenty dollars?  Now, that’s a rarity!

Full disclosure:  8% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon are helping out the modest, middleweight Sangiovese in this rendition, but the very same thing happens in the grape’s Tuscan homeland as well, so there’s some validating precedent. 

Bright cherries, a very “Tuscan” sense of sotto bosco (underbrush), and a tinge of tobacco comprise the perky, enervating perfume.  Smooth and supple textures finish with a nice food-inviting “nip” of tannin.  Just like the Italian versions, this wine’s mouthwatering acidity activates the appetite.  Listen to your Luna and “Mangia!

Selections for July 2017

Stolpman x 2

2012 STOLPMAN PETITE SIRAH – Ballard Canyon, Santa Barbara County

It’s difficult to maintain focus in an industry where there is so much that is good, so much to know, and so many potential relationships to start then foster.  The idea of something new always being on the horizon is irresistible to wine lovers.  For retail to thrive novelty must be allowed, but a sense of continuity must also be maintained.  We want you to get to know a particular place featuring a particular producer making particular wines, and to preserve that awareness by repeatedly carrying that same product.  You follow?

And so we choose Pete Stolpman, or he chose us – or you, based on your continuing approval, chose us both.  Pete and The Wine Steward have a good thing going on; something well worth the maintenance of focus on one great brand from one great place.  His family owns a beautiful property in Santa Barbara County.  At one time it was represented as “Santa Ynez Valley” on its bottlings, but more recently the Stolpmans helped spearhead the drive to name this special locale more site-specifically.  As of just a few years ago, “Ballard Canyon” may now appear on the labels of Stolpman and its small but proudly regional group of neighbors. 

While Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive just west of here in the Santa Rita Hills American Viticultural Area, the slightly warmer Ballard Canyon AVA is largely planted to Rhone varietals.  Of those, Syrah tops the acreage list.  Stolpman bottles several Syrah renditions from its place.  We will show these and many other beautiful Stolpman-derived wines when Pete visits once again in November, but in the meantime let’s have a look at a different (albeit related) variety, Petite Sirah.  This grape is represented by just six acres in Ballard Canyon, versus nearly three hundred acres of Syrah.  It is the “son” of Syrah and Peloursin, the result of an inadvertent cross-pollination in a French nursery in the 1860’s.  While we identify it as a Rhone varietal, most of southern France has removed its plantings.  The early admiration for its resistance to mildew faded as winemakers decided it didn’t make a very interesting wine.  California is now Petite’s main proponent, but even here it occupies but a minor market niche. 

No matter:  This one’s a great foot forward for the grape.  The deep ruby / maroon color virtually glows.  The perfume encompasses both blackberry cobbler and a pleasingly aggressive pencil lead vibrancy.  On the palate, freshness and juiciness keep the sense of decadence barely in check.  The tannins one anticipates from Petite Sirah are certainly present, but the pleasurable fruit richness accommodates, almost necessitates, them. 

Our relationship with Pete and the size of the order we could give him (your numbers matter!) result in a price much lower than the winery itself asks for this bottle.  We hope you’ll recognize the goodness of this rare Petite Sirah from a good friend and come back for more!

In Praise of Grenache

2012 STOLPMAN GRENACHE – Ballard Canyon, Santa Barbara County

We have carried this wine before, but never at this price.  Your club numbers and Pete Stolpman’s chance to get not one but two of his wines into your bag accommodated a big wholesale discount dispensation.  A wine we sold for nearly $35 is now, rarely and temporarily, far less.

Grenache is the workhorse of France’s Southern Rhone; the base of nearly every Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend.  Its presence in Spain, Italy, Australia, and many other wine realms amount to its being the most planted red wine variety in the world.  Its challenge:  A bigger berry and a thinner, lighter-colored skin, making for a more delicately colored wine (one reason for the common Syrah adjustment).  Its attributes of sweet perfume and charming berry and cherry fruit easily compensate, and a great Grenache will also feature more intriguing nuances such as tobacco, white pepper, wood smoke, and dried herbs.  Because of its delicacy and fragrance we often identify this wine as “The Pinot Noir of the Rhone.”

Grenache is also subject to weak, even watery flavors when relentlessly irrigated and over-cropped; its yields can be prodigious.  The thoughtful grower must restrain the vine to achieve the beautiful character you’re discovering in this example.  Two tons per acre or less is often the needed yet economically unfeasible take.  The price of California real estate combined with this varietal’s low crop requirement make great Grenache an expensive delicacy.  The strength of the relationship between Pete Stolpman and The Wine Steward helps make this lovely wine a bit more attainable. 

Indulge in this with a Pinot Noir-style glass.  Serve at cellar temperature.  Consider pork roast as a food mate!       

See you in November, Pete!

Selections for June 2017

Chip off the ol’ (Ghost) Block

2015 ELIZABETH ROSE ‘Chockablock’ Red Blend – Napa Valley

I took an unkind jab at trophy Cabernet “Ghost Block” at our recent Nickel & Nickel event, but only as a tongue-in-cheek remark.  The Ghost Block folks own the Rock Cairn vineyard, and I ventured that N&N does a better job with their fruit than the GB owners themselves.  What was I supposed to say with Nickel & Nickel’s gifted winemaker Darice Spinelli in the room?! 

The fact is, Ghost Block Cabernet is a different STYLE of Cabernet, so comparing their interpretation with the Nickel & Nickel rendition isn’t really fair.  Ghost Block goes for a leaner, more elegant but no less flavorful wine and this ‘Chockablock’ echoes the idea.

Less purple and more ruby in hue.  Less in the way of violets and blackberries and alternatively providing a more perfumey, sultry redness (sage, raspberry sauce, brined olives).  Less in alcoholic bombast and more in balance, complexity, and graceful length . . . here is a less-is-more Napa red experience which is definitely designed to cost more!

The grapes at play:  41% Merlot, 41% Malbec, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cab Franc, 1% Petit Verdot from Oakville and Yountville. 

The treatment we recommend:  Grilled Boudin Blanc (white Cajun) sausages, filet mignon, good friends!          

“NOT another Syrah?!”

2014 RIGHT HAND MAN SYRAH by McPRICE MYERS – Central Coast

You’re right:  There have been a few Syrah provisions in recent months and we promise to lay off for a while.  - But we defend the trend by pointing out Syrah’s many different manifestations.  We have fulfilled our mandate of providing VARIETY.

This wine is twice as dark in color as Adam Webb’s Cochon Syrah in last month’s pack.  That wine was suave, with a sense of red mellowness.  This is a cannon blast of purple fruit fun.  Take a drag of its perfume:  Fresh asphalt, unsweetened dark chocolate, and blackberry compote indulge.  Black pepper and cured meat intrigue.  This is nearly scary fun. 

In the mouth the blackberries win out, then admit late-arriving blueberries and espresso to the party.  Some grippy tannins creep in at the very end, setting off the “Where’s the protein??” alarm.  Respond to that with anything grilled and this rambunctious beast of a fruit bomb Syrah will be soothed.

Right Hand Man includes 5% Petite Sirah for darkening and structure and 5% of the white Viognier which helps fasten color (yes, white wine enhances the purpleness!) and promotes florality.  The fruit sources range from the very warm region of Paso Robles down to more mild Los Olivos and Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County.   A 22-month rest in French and American oak happened before bottling.

Enjoy this fun expression of a grape worthy of a wide range of renditions!

Selections for May 2017

Cab Franc that just wants to have fun

2016 FIELD RECORDINGS ‘FRANC’ CABERNET FRANC – Paso Robles

You have been enjoying and coming back for more of the recent Barter & Trade Cabernet and Merlot club provisions from Washington State.  Those are the work of Central Coast nurseryman-turned-winemaker Andrew Jones.  So is this friendly wine grown closer to home.

The grape variety Cab Franc and place Paso Robles give you a very different, more ridiculously lighthearted effect this time, as does the wine’s youth.  Yes, here’s a 2016, already out on the market.  Andrew meant to do that; emphasizing the nearly Beaujolais-like, devil-may-care wine experience in FRANC.

Redolent of mulberries, nearly-overripe plums, and musk, FRANC is juicy-licious on the palate.  Confronted with a hot summer day and still want a red wine?  Here it is.  Just give it a 20 minute stay in the fridge and crack it open on the patio.  It works just fine without food, but antipasto (salumi and such) would be seasonally-appropriate accompaniments.

You’d like Andrew.  He’s one of the most “real” guys I’ve encountered in this industry, happy to bring you pleasure as he best knows how . . . with a friendly wine like FRANC!

2013 COCHON SYRAH – Phoenix Ranch, Napa Valley

This is the story of Brian Phoenix, who owns Phoenix Vineyard just north of the town of Napa and south of Stags Leap District.  Brian farms his five acres of Syrah biodynamically, a level of farming attention above and beyond “organic.”   Biodynamics is a very natural, highly-observant farming culture concerned with the restoration of the soil and surrounding environment and, by that means, a more hopeful future for the land and – of course – a better wine.  Brian’s a pretty thoughtful vineyardist, it seems, and reinforcing the idea is his commitment to Syrah.  Napa-grown Cabernet Sauvignon could make him much more money per ton, but an all-Cabernet Napa Valley wouldn’t be as interesting, would it?  Here’s to Brian, Biodynamics, and varietal diversity!

This is also the story of Adam Webb, another advocate for mixin’ it up, who commits to buying and rendering Phoenix Ranch Syrah every year.  Adam eschews the idea of an ivy-covered, fancy-dancy up-valley winery in favor of making his small projects under the roof of a very industrial-looking custom crush facility near the Napa airport (he’s a block away from Mi Sueño).  While he has finally opened his own tasting room just off Sonoma’s town square, Adam’s way of selling his wines has been to the likes of The Wine Steward.  Because he’s a good friend (who helps us make our Domaine des Plus-de-Vie, by the way) and because we like his style we do several wine club deals with him each year.  Because of friendship and this level of support, Adam responds with very nice prices.  – Whereby we are able to offer you this wine for a price well below what’s advertised at his tasting room.

You may recognize this label.  A few months ago we provided your club with another “Cochon” Syrah coming from the Cardiac Hill Vineyard of Sonoma’s Bennett Valley.  That wine was darker and more mysteriously meaty and peppery.  Phoenix Ranch, on the other hand, is a more mellow, musky wine experience.  The color is less purple, more garnet.  The lifted nose portends spice, plum, and perhaps a little eucalyptus-derived menthol.  Its overall florality is emphasized by Adam’s addition of a small percentage of the white Viognier grape, the traditional Cote Rotie (Northern Rhone) practice.  The mouthfeel is tangy, borne out by the biodynamic farming (maybe) and (certainly) Adam’s preference for neutral, oversized barrels (he calls these his “pigs” or “cochon”).  The flavors range from pomegranate to strawberries, with a nostalgic cedar effect alongside.  This is not thick, bombastic Syrah as you might access from Paso Robles or Australia’s Barossa Valley.  Rather, it is the suave product of a Napa vineyard located south enough to be affected by the fog of San Francisco Bay.

We hope you appreciate it, and the stories behind it!    

Selections for April 2017

Got that Pinot Noir glass handy?

2014 ‘Murray’ SYRAH from HIGHTOWER CELLARS – J Hightower Vineyard, Red Mountain, Washington St

This wine does not come to California.  Red Mountain residents, grapegrowers, and winemakers Tim and Kelly Hightower do enough work within their local market to keep the small inventory flowing.  However, having met these nice folks and tasted their wares during two different northwest excursions, they and we were determined to get you exposed.

Many California wine drinkers have a blurry perspective on what happens north of us.  A common misconception:  Grouping together the Oregon and Washington wine scenes.  Please don’t!  They could not be more unalike.  Most of Oregon’s wine action happens on her west side; coast-influenced, wet, and more moderate in temperature swings.  With the Rogue Valley’s rise we can’t generalize as we once did, but traditionally this is the land of delicate Pinot Noirs, Burgundian Chardonnays, and Pinot Gris.  Washington State’s wine action is in the east:  High desert, very low rainfall, different soils . . . and hardly a Pinot Noir vine to be found.  This place gives us America’s best Merlots (my own estimation), along with terrific Cabernet, Syrah, Riesling, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Grenache, Tempranillo. . . all kinds of deliciously impactful wines!

Red Mountain is considered one of the Columbia Valley’s most significant sub-appellations.  As small as it is in acreage, dozens of Washington State wineries clamor for its fruit.  The resulting wines often sell for much more than the price tag for this Syrah, but Tim and Kelly control costs by being their own growers.  This delicious value is resplendent with boysenberries and windblown herbs, delivered with an endearing juiciness.  It is easily enjoyed on its own but would especially shine next to lamb chops or pork.  We hope you enjoy this rare visitor!!      

Indulgent Merlot . . .

2012 SEMPRE VIVE MERLOT – Napa Valley

All good things come to an end:  The great values from this winery will not go on forever. 

You recently loved their underpriced Cabernet and will now savor this even-better Merlot only because Sempre Vive’s backed-up inventory has allowed for club-friendly purchasing.  In other words, we got a deal and so will you.  This bottle goes for $44 on the winery’s own website and, as you can see, The Wine Steward is doing much better for you.

Single vineyard (Calistoga) quality happens here.  So does the oh-so-benevolent 2012 vintage.  An extravagant treatment of French Oak adds lavishness to an already fully-ripe wine.  Fruit and herbs and vanilla compete for your attention. 

We just enjoyed the company of a young couple at our winebar who were contemplating what they’d have with their Easter duck dinner.  I showed them this and they required no further data!

Selections for March 2017

Great Napa Valley . . . Zinfandel?

2014 GIRARD ‘Old Vine’ ZINFANDEL – Napa Valley

There’s been a higher-than-usual incidence of Zinfandel in your club of late.  That’s not on purpose.  We’re not on a campaign to redeem the reputation of an often improperly grown / made wine at the expense of other just-as-deserving varietals.  It’s all about opportunity.  We’ve just had higher-than-usual exposure to good Zin at great prices of late and you’re the thoughtful winner.  – But don’t worry:  I’m sure a flood of delicious Cabernets is just around the bend!

While Girard is no stranger to “broader” markets we feature this because we can compete, and because wine lovers should know this bottling:  Zinfandel with structure and balance, resisting the “pancake syrup” style in favor of a drink accommodating good food (steak or a lamb chop).  Sourced mainly from old vines in Calistoga, the Zin fruit is accompanied by a 3% Petite Sirah contribution.  Girard deserves respect for its work with these grapes from Napa.  It is more lucrative to rip out the old, shy-bearing vines and plant new plots of Cabernet.  This Zinfandel preserves varietal diversity in a wine valley where that’s becoming rare.

Raspberry tart, baking spice, and vanilla greet the nose.  Vivacious fruit is countered by a fairly “grippy” effect on the palate.  Acids and tannins get the palate restless . . . your salivary glands are activated.  You’re headed toward your Weber for a protein treatment!        

Reveling in time-tested wine . . .

2007 DERBÈS PINOT NOIR -          Russian River Valley

The color:  Fading.  The scent:  Heading from red fruit to coffee, vanilla, potpourri, bing cherry, and burnt orange peel.  The palate:  Soft, juicy, silky.  This is a rare look at 10-year-old Pinot Noir which will be appreciated by most but, perhaps, misunderstood by a few who are rarely shown “library” wine.  I think it’s a pretty cool thing to provide.

There is little evidence that this winery still exists.  The all-knowing Internet is of no help, featuring a winery website showing no vintages newer than 2009.  There’s an impressive winemaker résumé with nods to Champagne, Carneros, and the Golan Heights plus some great-looking recipes I must attempt.  As I sniff and sip this beautiful Pinot Noir I sense a swan song:  Here is a winery we’ve never heard about and the story probably ends there.  This was shown to us by a broker whose specialty is relieving burdensome inventory.  These are often going-out-of-business deals, and I suspect that’s what’s happening here.

Meant to cost over $35, we hope you will find a soothing, sultry, and exotic wine experience from this older Pinot – of which we can unfortunately say very little more!  

Selections for February 2017

For The Thinker and The Drinker. . .

2013 VAUGHN DUFFY SYRAH – Sonoma County

Do yourself a favor:  Own at least three different wine glass styles (we can help with this).  You’ll want a skinnier one for high-acid whites and reds, when you want your nasal cavities to be happily disturbed with perky, Tinkerbell-style mischief.  The bigger, Bordeaux-style glass will accommodate all of your richer, fruit- forward reds such as New World Cabernet.  Then there’s the Pinot Noir glass, sometimes known as “Burgundy / Barolo” by famed stemware producer Riedel.  Maybe you think stocking your cabinet with two different shapes of larger glasses is a redundant exercise.  It’s not.  Smell the same Pinot Noir from your big Bordeaux glass and your big Pinot Noir glass and you’ll quickly get it:  Glass #1 will declaregoodness, but Glass #2 will elaborate on it, grandly.  Wine Lovers:  You need that “other” big glass!!

… And the wine we put before you now insists your Pinot Noir glass is much more than that.  We often like it for Grenache, when that grape is rendered more delicately.  White Burgundy more broadly expresses itself in that big space as well.  – And Syrah?  YES, especially the cooler-weather style!! 

I’m proving it to myself here at my desk with a side-by-side comparison.  From the Bordeaux glass I’m smelling a deep darkness of fruit, with some pepper; impactful but fairly one-dimensional.  Now for the wider Burgundy bowl:  Ahhh, here are violets and smoked meat added to those other features.  A simply delicious dark drink has become a complex and thoughtful cool weather Syrah.  The “Drinker” may wish to stick with his or her Bordeaux glass in order to limit the experience.  For you, the impact of smoothly-said dark fruit will suffice.  The “Thinker” will want to know this Syrah for all its beautiful eccentricities by deferring to the Burgundy stem . . . and by grilling some lamb to perfectly honor this lovely red.

Here is an archetypical Wine Steward club wine:  Delicious and thoughtful, rendered by two hardworkingpeeps who give a shit, Matt Duffy and Sara Vaughn.  135 cases made, and your TWS got the last 21 of those.  

What we really wanted to show you . . .

2014 BARTER & TRADE MERLOT – Columbia Valley, Washington State

You’re not seeing double:  For the second month we are subjecting you to the smoky goodness of Washington State red wine via a California nurseryman-turned-winemaker (actually, Andrew continues to sell grapevines).  When I tasted both the Cabernet Sauvignon provided in January and this Merlot I couldn’t choose between the two, so you’re getting two Barter & Trade experiences – one after the other.

. . . And for the wine scholars (y’all) this Merlot is the more meaningful provision.  I believe Washington State is this country’s best champion for an unfairly-maligned varietal.  Only Bordeaux produces as manyinexpensive yet dependable examples from its Right Bank.  Buy up from “inexpensive” and Washington’s Merlots might trump its Cabernets with their dark power and satisfying mouth-feels.  With this Barter & Trade you’re experiencing the in-between price point - better than basic and less than profound – and you’re witnessing all the essential components of Washington State Merlot.  The color:  Intense.  A charcoal briquette-like fragrance includes fresh black and red fruits.  The mouth is lithe yet not without flavorful impact; a stylistic tightrope walk which keeps the mouth engaged, unwearied.                

Unrepentant copy & paste from January’s notes:

This is the work of Andrew Jones who already represents himself with a more local range of wine labels such as Field Recordings, Neverland, and Fiction – not to mention his Tin City Cider project.  Andrew got into winemaking via his work as a nurseryman providing grapevine starts to vineyard owners all over California’s Central Coast.  This occupation gave him grape-supplying contacts and a broad perspective of “place” few other California winemakers possess.  Want to encourage a hardworking, young small-production winemaker with whom we like to participate?  Taste this wine soon (preferably with medium-rare steak and ‘shrooms) and – when you like it – dash back in for more!              

Selections for January 2017

The LAST Zinfandel for a while, we promise!                

2013 GARDIENNE WINES ‘Old Vine’ ZINFANDEL – Spenker Vineyard, Lodi

Suppositions and assumptions abound here; many erroneous. 

First off, we should probably leave ‘Old Vine’ without quotation marks in this case, for it is true for once.  That designation on a wine label has no official meaning.  Anybody could apply that moniker to enhance the potential customer’s impression.  The Zinfandel vines of the Spenker Vineyard were planted in 1888.  Old vines?  Do the math.  Drop the quotes.

Next, the Lodi location.  Lodi, for us, is usually a problem.  It can deliver very obvious “impact” wines but only rarely furnishes real complexity.  The latter happens ONLY from the right Lodi vineyards (Spenker qualifies) and in the right hands.  The 125 cases of THIS Lodi Zin were handmade by our very qualified friend Adam Webb, who also had a lot to do with our own Domaine des Plus-de-Vie Mourvèdre.  With a reverence for this nearly-sacred old vine fruit, Adam went to the labor-intensive trouble of BARREL FERMENTING the fruit.  Anyone familiar with red winemaking understands the ridiculousness of the task, but certain Bordeaux and Spanish Tempranillo makers have proven its worth and Adam makes a case for it more locally.

Zinfandel.  We’ve recently shown you three of them now.  One was bigger, but intriguing based on age.  Two, including this, are more balanced regardless of the alcohol reading.  A variety we’re usually shunning has seen a proper spotlight, based on our identifying useful examples.  Consider what’s happening in your glass:  The wine is a bit color deprived, but the beguiling scents easily compensate.  Are you smelling overwhelmingly jammy fruit?  Probably not, if it’s an old vine Adam Webb wine!  I’m getting potpourri instead, broken down to dried citrus peel, a mixture of herbs, and a delicate wild strawberry perfume.  Jammy-ness is also absent from the mouth, replaced by silky and refreshingly, mildly gritty tannins carrying tobacco, citrus, and stone fruit flavors – evasively, wonderfully.

Thank you Adam Webb, for keeping us interested in Zinfandel!

Not Quite (or more than) California . . .

2014 BARTER & TRADE CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Columbia Valley, Washington State

The worm is turning.  When a very valid Paso Robles-based producer turns his gaze northward for a new project we consumers ought to take note, giving more consideration to what Washington State has to offer.  As someone doing just that for nearly two decades I can tell you California is easily matched by the power, intrigue, and value this “alternative” place can provide.

This is the work of Andrew Jones who already represents himself with a more local range of wine labels such as Field Recordings, Neverland, and Fiction – not to mention his Tin City Cider project.  Andrew got into winemaking via his work as a nurseryman providing grapevine starts to vineyard owners all over California’s Central Coast.  This occupation gave him grape-supplying contacts and a broad perspective of “place” few other California winemakers possess. 

That he would also get involved in Washington State’s wine game is no surprise.  Guys like him are ever-curious about what other winemaking opportunities might avail themselves.  – And leave it to Andrew to quickly identify the effective Washington State recipe:  Cabernet Sauvignon rarely stands alone here, but is more effective with this region’s other two superstar red grapes.  This first-ever Barter & Trade is represented by 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, and 5% Syrah.  The crimson color is nearly opaque, suggesting an “impact” wine.  The nose further substantiates the idea of power with loamy sweetness and deep black cherry and blackberry fruit, plus a tinge of mint.  Add to this my favorite Washington State red wine descriptor – “charcoal briquettes” – and you’re assured of the source.  The palate feel is indeed one of fat fruit impact, yet a mineral freshness keeps the palate alert and in play.

Here is one of those rare $20 Cabs which, regardless of source, delivers a surprising amount of goods for that price.  Want to support a small local biz like The Wine Steward?  Want to encourage a hardworking, young small-production winemaker with whom we like to participate?  Taste this wine soon (preferably with medium-rare steak and ‘shrooms) and – when you like it – dash back in for more!              

Selections for December 2016

Quick, braise something!!

2010 DANE ZINFANDEL – Los Chamizal Vineyard, Sonoma Valley

Having oftentimes tasted and chosen your club wines a month or so ago, I uncork and re-taste a bottle as I’m writing these notes.  The “live” experience can often have me typing in a certain direction.  More often than not I compose the notes in the sequence you’re seeing, meaning I had just tried the brilliant Aglianico mentioned above before uncorking this Zinfandel (yes, another Zinfandel!).  After that deep, saucy winter wine experience in my mouth I’m experiencing yet another; a good follow-up!

This Zinfandel, sold for $32 by the winery itself, calls its source ‘Sonoma Valley’ on the label.  If we were to be viewing its 2011 counterpart a new sub-appellation name would be seen instead.  Los Chamizal Vineyard does not occur in a “valley” but well above one – up to 800 feet above the actual Sonoma Valley on what we may now call (the authorities give their blessing) “Moon Mountain.” 

The nutrient and water-depriving qualities of “mountain,” the age of the head-pruned Zinfandel vines, and the six-year-old age of this wine all contribute to a rich and mysteriously-flavored wine.  I want short ribs with this episode of tobacco, leather, and dried cherries.  I want it to be raining outside – or cold as hell.  I want to be a cowboy.

The Next PdV             

2014 DOMAINE des PLUS-de-VIE – Livermore Valley

For the duration of the nineties two guys nicknamed “Biff” and “Scooter” made the wine at Livermore Valley Cellars. 

I was Biff. 

That decade taught us two important lessons:  “What Lousy Wine Tastes Like” and “How Not to Make It.”  In our later years we learned a third:  “Mourvèdre Is Good.”

Long after I moved on to hanging around The Wine Steward I remembered those teachings, going back to Scooter’s place to assemble a Mourvèdre-based wine or two for The Wine Steward’s club.  Y’all liked ‘em.  Years passed, LVC shut down, and we had to devise another way to bring you this lesser-known player in the GSM game.  Finally, in Vintage 2013, Domaine des Plus-de-Vie was born.  I took Livermore Valley Mourvèdre from Wente’s Raboli Vineyard to Napa (of all places) where friend Adam Webb and I could make it into wine under his bond.  To “M” I added “G” and “S” (Grenache and Syrah) grown in my back yard and those of a couple local friends.  My daughter’s boyfriend and I devised a French-looking label to intimate our intent to make a more modest and balanced (what I call “drinkable”) Livermore Valley wine.  180 cases were bottled and as of December 20 (today) 175 cases have been sold. 

The next PdV – this one – uses the same grape sources and was rendered closer to home in the hills of Sunol.  We enlisted the aid of ambient yeasts (some call them “native”) and oversized neutral (older) barrels, just as they might in France’s Rhone Valley.  This 2014 spent twice the amount of time in that semi-oxidative environment so it’s more mellow and expressive at release than was its predecessor. 

This soft-yet-tangy, discreet-yet-flavorful compilation of strawberry fruit, tobacco, and shaded leafpile is easily the most elegant wine I’ve ever had anything to do with.  I’d like to think growing the right grape variety in the right place is a big reason why, along with the data I’ve collected from many a winemaker visiting TWS to share his or her own achievements. 

We made just 50 cases this time around and when we run out I can probably let you know of another source for the same wine, otherwise labeled. 

Selections for November 2016

Pinot’s not the only turkey wine!

2014 BENESSERE SANGIOVESE – St. Helena, Napa Valley

There are precious few masters of Sangiovese in California.  Many took on the challenge and failed to succeed during our state’s “Cal-Ital” movement about twenty years ago.  One of the issues was the public’s misunderstanding of the varietal.  Sangiovese is a red-coloured middleweight, not a purple-hued heavyweight.  Eager to please the purple people, many California producers tried to confer more heft on Sangiovese with oak or blending, and lost “Sangiovese” in the process.  The consumer was left confused, and Sangiovese was abandoned by most producers.

That’s fine.  Now we’re down to the few who treat the grape with respect - resisting the urge to amplify - and the consumer can get used to the truer version.  Benessere has long been one of these honorers of Sangiovese and before you is their latest work. 

Remarkably-priced for grapes sourced from the Napa Valley’s heart, here is a brilliant addition to / replacement of the Pinot Noir you’d normally use at Thanksgiving.  This Sangiovese works with turkey because it is ISN’T overweight and applies a fruit sauce effect of red syrup to the feast.  By the furtive sip it may seem delicate, but by the gulped glassful I promise you:  You’ll recognize a perfect holiday wine!   

Yet another wine for the bird     

2013 BELLA ZINFANDEL – Sonoma County

By now you know our Zinfandel preference:  We like the kind you can actually drink.

- And Bella has been making that kind for as long as we can remember.  One look at their website convinces you these guys are successful with a varietal too often overdone:  Bella makes a myriad of different Zinfandel bottlings, mostly from individual vineyards.  To specialize in Zin these days you must show more balance and less monstrous fruit than the preferred oversized style of the past.  That’s Bella.

Sourced from both the Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys, this is their entry level Zinfandel.  Blackberries and brambles are elegantly expressed in the nose.  A refreshing juiciness conveys flavors of cherries, raspberries, and sweet leather.  These flavors are abundantly delivered, then know when to stop, preserving your desire to return for more. 

If the Sangiovese described above is indeed a great turkey wine, let’s get particular and devote it to the white meat.  This more purple wine would in turn fully cooperate with the dark meat of the same bird.  While I don’t expect your Thanksgiving feast to involve a scientific inquiry with multiple glasses before each lab-coated, wine-studying guest, I think you’ll find great pleasure in a more casual pairing of this Zin with all that happens on that food-crowded table.

Enjoy this successful, balanced Zinfandel and Happy Thanksgiving from TWS

Selections for October 2016

Before you get the one WE made . . .

2014 BECKMEN ‘Cuvée Le Bec’ – Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County

While it’s been a while, longtime California Wine Lover’s club members will recognize a repeat performance here:  This is at least the third ‘Le Bec’ we’ve brought you over the years.  As many of you know, I’m a sucker for France’s Rhone Valley wines and celebrate when I find an effective emulation from California.  Beckmen is one of California’s most consistent providers of such.  If this wine inspires, then you should also seek out their Purisima Mountain Syrah currently on display at TWS; it, too, is a beauty.

Here is 50% Syrah, 35% Grenache, 8% Mourvèdre, and 7% Counoise.  Its making respected an important Rhone winemaking rule:  “Don’t over-oak the GSM’s!”  Such blends are dumbed with the wood addition, as Beckmen knows, so ‘Le Bec’ saw only older, unflavored barrels and only for a short stay.  The result is a perfect preservation of vibrant fruit and a crisp, lively feel. 

Robert Parker awards this 90 points with the observation:

 “ . . . the peppery, black and blue fruits and floral-scented 2014 Cuvee le Bec is plump, medium to full-bodied, rounded and beautifully textured on the palate. Drink it over the coming 2-4 years.  “

May I add that it’s wonderful with all things grilled, from salmon to chicken to pork tenderloin?

The irrepressible wine style of the former Rombauer dude

2012 GREGORY GRAHAM GRENACHE – Crimson Hill Vineyard, Red Hills Lake County

There’s a wonderful irony going on here.  Proprietor / Winemaker Gregory Graham made the wines of Rombauer long ago, and is largely credited with the “recipe” for one of California’s most celebrated, over-the-top-style Chardonnays.  To know only this is to anticipate a similar effect from this red wine. 

Know more:  Greg moved on from that job to start his own label, acquiring property in Lake County for his own vineyard.  Grenache is one of his thoughtfully-grown offerings from there, and to understand his choice of a less bombastic-than-Rombauer varietal you’d best know yet another fact:  Greg loves France’s Rhone Valley wines so much he and his wife honeymooned in Gigondas, the more scenic neighbor to Chateauneuf du Pape.  So let’s put it together:  A guy who understands how to make one of womankind’s fave generously-endowed Chardonnays chose a region famous for balanced red wines for the best lovemaking of his life.  I’m confused.  Is Gregory Graham a celebrator of sensuality or not??

Ah, but let’s more carefully define Grenache to better understand our winemaker’s psyche.  Grenache is delicate, right?  “Delicate” as applied to color:  The Grenache berry is a larger one with a thinner skin.  A larger berry makes for a higher juice to color-conferring skin ratio.  A thinner skin is also to blame for a more wimpy red-not-purple hue.   “Delicate” might also be applied to Grenache’s pretty scents and flavors of raspberry, cherry, and wispy smoke.  What’s NOT delicate about Grenache?  Potential alcohol.  Grenache typically can’t express even its “prettier” qualities without being ripened to a higher sugar level resulting in a higher hooch factor.  Pick it under-ripe and Grenache gives you inertness of character.  Pick it properly and you’re looking at 14%+, usually.  Now, by my read too many folks obsessively check the alchohol figures on wine labels these days and too quickly make negative judgments about the higher ones.  It’s all relative, folks:  Some grapes perform well at a lower level, while others like Viognier, Zinfandel, and our “little” Grenache must often be further ripened to fully declare themselves.  Grenache will always be pretty, but it’s also often deceptively big; like a larger person who prefers frilly underthings.  

So where are we with Grenache-lovin’ Gregory Graham?  I’d say that like all great appreciators of wine, Greg’s into different things.

Selections for September 2016

California’s Original Pinot

2012 WATERSTONE PINOT NOIR – Carneros

Pinot Noir has been hanging around California for ages, but the casual consumers only began to take notice of the varietal about twenty-five years ago.  No wonder:  Their awareness not-coincidentally coincided with California’s winegrowers finally getting it right and making more attractive Pinot Noir.  Until the late eighties / early nineties this varietal didn’t deserve to go mainstream. 

. . . And the first site-specifically-named Pinots we heard of came from Carneros:  Before anyone had heard of Santa Rita Hills or Santa Lucia Highlands . . . before the Anderson Valley showed up on the radar . . . even before the Russian River Valley made its mark.  Carneros, occupying the southern parts of both Napa and Sonoma Counties, was the first California appellation identified not with political boundaries but for its proximity to San Pablo Bay.  It was one of California’s original ideas for the now-popular concept of coastal viticulture; locating vines near temperature-moderating water masses.  In addition to yielding bright and lively Chardonnays, cool but not freezing-cold Carneros would keep fickle Pinot Noir’s delicate fruit from burning up OR over-chilling.       

When Carneros rose to prominence it was largely planted to the Swan and Martini clones of Pinot Noir.  While providing marvelous complexity, these clones tended to produce lower-colored, lighter–bodied wines.  Therefore – with Carneros carrying the flag - the mainstream’s original impression of California Pinot was one of delicacy.  A fine strawberry / cranberry perfume encouraged one to slow down to a more patient perusal or, conversely, to quickly reject the wine as too “light.”  The experience in the mouth further confirmed either opinion:  Arousing with citric anxiety and cherry pit bitterness.  Those used to the comforting effect of riper “cocktail” wines with bigger alcohols had some reckoning to do, for this new California Pinot Noir was certainly a more nervy, protein-needy drink.

Carneros has more recently been planted to other clones of Pinot which confer more darkness of color and fruit to their wines, so now you’ll see bigger wines from there.  This Waterstone sticks to Carneros tradition, however, with the effect described earlier.  For Yours Truly it’s a nostalgic reminder of my original California Pinot impression, and I understand it far better now than I did then when most of what my palate fathomed was more monstrous (ZIN!) in size.  In body it is half the wine of the Baker Lane Pinot we recently brought you.  In character – for those who carefully consider their wines – it is at least its equal.

They Voted for This

2013 NEVERLAND CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Santa Barbara County

We rarely source this area for Cabernet, so there’s less of a general idea as to what Santa Barbara Cabernet should taste like.  Certainly, you have indulged in “Sideways Country” Pinot Noir and Chardonnay - and perhaps a Rhone-inspired blend or two - but how many Bordeaux varietals have you seen from here? 

Fifteen years ago we would have protected you from this wine type.  Southern Central Coast Cabernets and Merlots were just too “green” to be popular.  Root and cruciferous vegetable aromas and flavors ran the show; qualities which are downers for the general palate.  Better vineyard practices have changed that story mercifully, and young winemakers such as Andrew Jones are also instrumental in delivering a more broadly appealing Santa Barbara Cabernet.

Smell this:  Witness the generous fruit sauce and baking spice qualities.  Also note the subtle nod to SB County terroir:  You might sense the nuance of earth clinging to roots; not at all unattractive in its low proportion to the whole impression.  There is great purity of unfettered (barely-oaked) fruit in the mouth as well, then a final “snap” of tannins.  I showed this to a few different Stewards hovering nearby, wondering aloud if that last effect disqualified the wine for your fruit-loving club.  The consensus:  The big jammy fruit NEEDS those tannins to keep the mouth engaged and interested.   Basically, they were saying, “Jim, you’re being too analytical!”  Indeed, when I get out of “wine autopsy mode” and just drink this stuff it is unavoidably attractive.

“Neverland” brings to mind the old Michael Jackson retreat hidden in the hills of this area.  Andrew Jones swears he had another allusion in mind when naming the wine.  This nurseryman-turned-winemaker realizes he’ll probably never afford vineyard property of his own in this now too-famous area, so he buys this fruit from several trusted sources, naming the wine for the land he’ll never actually acquire.

We hope you enjoy this rare visit to one of California’s southernmost (and deliciously unique) expressions of a well-known varietal, for less than today’s price of an e-ticket ride!   

Selections for August 2016

Washington Strikes Again

2014 SKYFALL VINEYARD RED BLEND – Columbia Valley, Washington State

We recently brought you a Cabernet Sauvignon from here; dark and sturdy with powerful, flamboyant fruit.  Now it’s time for a kinder, gentler Northwest expression!

“Skyfall” alludes to the car-sized rocks commonly viewed among the vines throughout this region.  They appear to have fallen from the sky but were in fact dragged here from two states east near the end of the last ice age.  The so-called Missoula Floods occurred when an ice dam containing a lake half the size of Montana burst, sending water rushing west at 90 miles per hour and carving out the Columbia River.  The rocks came, too. 

The list of this wine’s ingredients indicates most of the reds Washington State does right.  This red blend involves 48% Merlot (this place’s best grape, by my read), 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Syrah, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Sangiovese.

Dark berries and wood smoke appeals to your nose.  A soft and velvety palate feel carries flavors of juicy cherries and black fruits.  Skyfall finishes briskly, with food-craving acidity.  While it could easily be enjoyed on its own, it will truly shine with proteins.

If this tasty red seems a little more modest than some of our provisions, well, so is the price!

The new Mario?

2013 SEMPRE VIVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Napa Valley

Brands come and go around here.  A new vintage of an old friend can sometimes fail to repeat in quality, and we must reluctantly tell it goodbye.  Other times a label is tested out on our smaller wine shop market, proves itself, and explodes in production size.  Costco and Safeway become its new peddlers and we, the once-again burned, angrily banish it. 

One wine we admired year after year was Mario Perelli-Minetti Cabernet Sauvignon.  One of the few smaller-production Napa Valley Cabs which could somehow remain near the $20 mark, it looked, smelled, and tasted more expensive.  With multiple successful vintages, our customer was all over the stuff and TWS was glad to have a steady brand.   Finally though, the price per ton for Napa-sourced grapes exponentially rose and MPM was forced to outsource.  Based on the new, less-impressive flavors another familiar TWS face necessarily vanished from our set.

Since then, our $20-ish Cab category hasn’t been lacking in players, but no one wine seemed to “say it all” the same as MPM – until this Sempre Vive happened for us.  Here is the dark fruit for which 2013 has become known . . . the classic flavors of blackcurrant, cedar, black olive, and dark chocolate for which Napa Cab is famous . . . and a crowd-appealing ripeness and sauciness sealing the deal.

It is remarkable to us, knowing the formidable costs of the Napa Valley wine biz, that a single estate (Calistoga) Cabernet Sauvignon can happen at this price.  The winery’s website puts this at an over-$40 tasting room rate.  We’re glad we can do better!  Cab lovers, get back in here!   

Selections for July 2016

Beauty deeper than skin

2013 OUTCAST ‘The Drifter’ - Mendocino

Some of you will admire the hyperactive label design.  Others will deem it ghastly.  I’m siding with the latter, but upon closing my eyes and TASTING this wine I was forced to give The Drifter the time of day.  Actually, I kept my eyes open long enough to admire the deep maroon-purple color, then put my nose to work:  As dramatic as its label, the scents of violets, black pepper, blueberries, blackberries, licorice, and smoked meats happened in abundance.  On the palate, dark fruits vied with bacon and gutsy tannins.  In the finish:  Violets once again.  Here, surprisingly, was a very serious wine.

Sold on the winery’s website for $45, we had other ways of accessing it for a much lower price and can extend that to you.  The only downer is our lack of data for you.  Sometimes our best deals happen with less disclosure.  We know only 400 cases were rendered and that the varieties involved are Rhone-ish.  Considering the color and scent I’d say Syrah is the dominant player.  Grenache may be hiding in there, and Mendocino-frequenting Carignan could be responsible for the substantial structure.  What’s for certain:  This is remarkably expressive wine for our lower price and very worthy of grilled lamb chops or bistecca fiorentina.  Drunk alone, the astringency might challenge your tongue.  With the aforementioned proteins you’ll find delicious resolution.  Hate the label?  Get over it and admire a great wine – as I did!

Another year, another label

2014 STOLPMAN VINEYARDS ‘La Cuadrilla’ – Ballard Canyon, Santa Barbara County

Because it’s always delicious and because this winery near Los Olivos is dear to us this may be the FIFTH vintage of La Cuadrilla we’ve brought you.  It suffers but one way, with the marketing disadvantage of a different label design each year.  Even those most faithful to all things Stolpman might have a hard time remembering this shape-shifting wine.

No matter:  Let’s celebrate yet another successful bottling of La Cuadrilla!  This time the bottle sports an image of Pete’s dad Tom Stolpman donning mariachi gear at one of the winery gatherings (Stolpman’s crew [“cuadrilla”] probably talked him into it after a tequila or two).  Those hard workers deserve to have their say now and then, and they have it in this particular wine which comes from a particular plot farmed to their own specifications, blended per their annual whims.  10% of Stolpman’s total production is devoted to this bottling and the resulting profits are returned to the crew. 

This time the cuadrilla went for 80% Syrah, 12% Sangiovese, and 8% Grenache; all vital varieties to the Stolpman program.  15 months in neutral oak calmed the textures but added no woody interference to the exuberant fruit you’ll certainly detect.  A deep mocha and blackberry perfume welcomes the nose.  Soft and syrupy textures indulge the palate.  Here is hedonism barely under control, worthy of this weekend’s barbecue (will you be hiring a mariachi band?).     

Selections for June 2016

Seen this before?

2011 D.E. FLEMING ‘Founder’s Blend’ SYRAH – Santa Lucia Highlands

We have recently conducted a few different promotions from Paraiso, located on the “back side” of Big Sur in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands.  We’ve bought stack after stack of their Pinot which delivers loads of fruit for a surprisingly low price.  We took all that was made of their upper-tier D.E. Fleming Pinot as well, showing you a $45 wine at a far better rate.  More recently, we bought all that remained of this 60-case-production Syrah and likewise promoted it.  Unlike its Pinot counterpart it didn’t sell out in ten days.  Why not?  It’s Syrah, a wine about which many casual consumers have serious doubts. 

Most of our club members know better.  Syrah is a great varietal not for predictable sameness, but for its wonderful variations.  Its cooler Northern Rhone homeland confers mysterious spice and meat to its renditions.  Alter ego Barossa Valley Shiraz, along with the Paso Robles versions, give you powerful fruit. 

The Santa Lucia Highlands possesses the rare ability to give both Northern Rhone exoticity and warmer weather body and fruit to its Syrahs, and that happens here.  As you may recall, 2011 was a cooler year for California’s wine regions, so this Syrah is a little lower in obvious fruit and higher in the pepper aspects.  The body isn’t lacking, however:  This is a hefty red, worthy of its original $45 price tag. 

Pair this with grilled lamb chops or ribeyes and you’re set to go!            

A Man of Many Culinary Experiences . . .

2014 BAKER LANE ‘Colors’ PINOT NOIR – Sonoma Coast

Stephen Singer is the proprietor of Baker Lane, a winery and estate vineyard located just outside downtown Sebastopol.  This wine comes from trusted fruit sources owned by his neighbors.  You might say it is also sourced from this man’s wealth of culinary experience.

Singer was once married to Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and father to her only child Fanny (remember Café Fanny next to Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley?).  He once operated a San Francisco wine shop.  He was the wine director for Chez Panisse itself for fifteen years.  He was the initiator (and remains an owner) of next-door tapas destination Cesar.  He has his own olive oil and vinegar import business.

This accumulation of sensory data has certainly contributed to The Wine Steward’s admiration for Baker Lane wines over the years.  Both Pinot Noir and Syrah have happened on our shelves to very good effect (you bought a lot), but this wine shows more color and depth of ripe fruit and forest floor character than any prior example.  This, my friends, will be a Steward staple; destined to be loved by any with a penchant for delicious Pinot.