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.