Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Happy Canyon Cabernet: Dascomb Cellars

Dascomb Cellars Patriarch Don Dascomb bought the estate vineyard in 1974, starting a family business which sold their fruit to other winemakers. By the end of the 1990s, many Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in Santa Barbara County had been ripped out in favor of varieties that have proven quite successful for growers in the SBC - Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Dascomb felt that Cab's time in the county was not over. He maintained his planting of the King of Grapes in what is now the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara County AVA - a place where Cabernet Sauvignon thrives due to the conditions which are considerably warmer than the land to the west, which is closer to the marine influence.

According to the Dascomb website, winemaker Dave Dascomb - the younger generation - believes that he is simply building upon what nature has produced. "Mother Nature determines if a particular vintage will be good or not," he is quoted. "My responsibility is to make it exceptional!" The blurb continues that, "Exceptional wine is achieved through established farming practices, patience at harvest, old-world cellar practices and a passion for the art of winemaking!"

The grapes for this wine came from East Valley Vineyard, planted by the Dascomb family forty years ago, making it one of the oldest vineyards in the region. Alcohol hits 14.5% abv and it retails for $34. Considering the price point, it over-performs. I received a sample for the purpose of this article.

This Happy Canyon Cab certainly made me happy. Inky black in the glass, I like it already. Ripe nose of dark berries and graphite, you bet. Mouth full of blackberries and currants, yep. Amazing tannic structure, you had me at inky black. And, you get that fabulous acidity thrown in at no extra cost.

I paired mine with tri-tip straight from my grill, and it fit like it was on special order. I imagine it will serve equally well with a ribeye or a bacon-wrapped pork loin. Oh, sorry, I drifted off into my barbecue fantasy place for a second. Pair it with any meat dish that’s not really spicy and you’ll have a good time.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Who Do You Have To Know To Get A Proper Claret Around Here?

Reginald ffrench-Postalthwaite is billed as the alter ego of the beloved, quixotic, notorious Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm. His flowery prose graces the back label of the 2013 A Proper Claret, and his missive to me, accompanying a sample of the wine, is similarly evocative and properly footnoted. It may well be the only wine label in existence with footnotes.

On the label, ffrench-Postalthwaite wonders aloud - albeit in print - what one has to do to "be served a glass of Proper Claret around here?" Claret is the generic British term used for wines of Bordeaux. There may have been a jab directed at France by the word, which formerly meant something of light color. The wines of Bordeaux once actually were of light color, but that was quite a while before they stormed the Bastille.

The pejorative stuck, as did the use of the phrase "the French disease" to describe syphilis. It may or may not be true that the French fought back on that one, calling syphilis "the English disease." They also got in a shot of their own by recognizing the American colonies as independent of Great Britain, while not recognizing the wine of England as anything at all.

But, as ffrench-Postalthwaite might annotate in his footnotes, I digress. He writes me that A Proper Claret "nominally purports to represent an old-fangled style of' 'Claret,' it frankly strikes me as perhaps more of a version of the Cabernets I remember of the '60s and '70s. Slightly riper and richer than the '12 version, it is still quite elegant and restrained." Which is more than we can say for ffrench-Postalthwaite. Nearly 16,000 cases of A Proper Claret were made.

This wine is composed of a blend of red grapes, 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 15% Tannat, 13.5% Petit Verdot, 7.7% Syrah and and .8% Petite Sirah. Did he say "point-eight-percent?" Did he say "Tannat?"

The interesting reading on the back label should not - could not - distract you from the wonderful illustration on the front, by New York City artist Bascove. The wine clocks in at a restrained 13.5% abv, no faint feat considering the high-octane grapes used in the mix. It retails for $16 and comes bottled under a proper screwcap.

The wine is as dark as night. Black fruit on the nose is adorned in customary Grahm-savory fashion by notes of sage, rosemary and a delicious black olive scent. The palate shows blackberry and cassis, but the wine is not dominated by fruit. Notes of cedar, cinnamon and cardamom play a huge role on the palate. The tannins are are firm, but elegant, and it should pair as as well with British bangers as they do with a good old American beef brisket.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Wine Book: The Mad Crush

One of my wine country friends, Christopher Weir, has written a book about his experiences during one particular harvest at one particular winery. It’s called The Mad Crush: A Memoir of Mythic Vines and Improbable Winemaking, and it’s a great read. Its entertainment value is not restricted to those who know a lot about wine. Everyone can enjoy this book.

The Mad Crush is Weir’s personal recollection of the 1995 harvest at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard, in which he was recruited to help with the crush - the process of getting the grapes into the winery and making them into wine. Saucelito Canyon Vineyard is described on its website as being “in the middle of nowhere,” but a more accurate location would be the upper Arroyo Grande Valley of California’s Central Coast. This vineyard was originally planted in 1880, and the specialty of the house is old-vine Zinfandel.

Weir explains that while the book centers on the “eyebrow-raising escapades of the 1995 crush, it ultimately tells the larger tale of a century-old Zinfandel vineyard and the adventuresome characters who have dared to call it home.” It is his own personal account of the vineyard, its inhabitants and their place in California wine history. If you have a glass of wine while reading it, it’s like having a glass with a friend while he recounts the war stories of a season a couple of decades gone.

Interesting characters seem to gravitate to Weir, or he to them. In his role as a publicist for various wine concerns in the San Luis Obispo area, he has introduced me to several fascinating folks, including the most personal and hands-on vineyard tour I have ever experienced.

The one question that came to mind as I read the book was a wondered-aloud, “Why did he hold on to these stories for so long?” In almost the same instant I recalled the various books and screenplays that I and other friends have attempted, and the question became, “How did he ever find the time?” I’m not the only one who is glad that he did find that time.

The book has been getting some nice mentions from the wine-soaked likes of Joe Roberts, W. Blake Gray and rock-god Don Dokken, who is also a wine connoisseur. I’ll put my stamp of approval on it, too. There is nothing like a good collection of funny, interesting stories - when they happen to go so well with a glass of wine, The Mad Crush is irresistible.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc Born Of Terroir

It is the time of year when people turn their attention to the lighter, whiter wines that refresh and replenish, after a winter of hearty reds to warm the insides and pair with the meaty, soul-filling dishes of the winter season. For me, though, it's always white wine weather - I drink mine at room temperature, the better to savor the aromas and flavors which are sometimes softened by a chill. I also like mine with more than seafood, as the higher acidity levels found in many whites makes for a perfect match with meat.

The classic white wine for warmer weather - pardon me, Chardonnay fan - is Sauvignon Blanc. The grape so good it is grown all over France, instead of in just one corner, really shines when the season turns to flowers and showers and men swinging bats at hurled projectiles.

Sauvignon Blanc is a popular grape in California, too. It finds great purchase in the soil of Napa Valley, soil which also accommodates several other grapes that hail from Bordeaux. Winegrowers say that it's the dirt that makes or breaks a grape, but the weather figures in prominently when determining that nebulous quality known as terroir.

Commenting on the generous 2012 vintage in Napa Valley, Cornerstone managing partner Craig Camp says, "The warm, but not hot, weather in 2012 gave us a long, even season that let the flavors develop at an even pace producing a Sauvignon Blanc with classic structure and minerality combined with a generous character that speaks so clearly of Napa Valley terroir."

What winemaking tricks did they employ to get the wine so rich and full? "None," says Camp. "In Bordeaux they add Sémillon to add richness, but in the Napa Valley we can achieve that depth with the Sauvignon Blanc variety alone letting the pure essence of this noble variety shine. As always, there is no new oak used with our Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc White Label to blunt it's natural, beautiful vivacious personality."

Alcohol sits at a Napa-proper 14.1% abv. Picking the grapes earlier for a now-stylish lower alcohol content is not how Cornerstone rolls. In a Twitter exchange with Camp, he states his belief that, “Making a 13% alc. #wine in a 14% terroir is not good winemaking. You're just denying #terroir.” So lower alcohol should not be a result of simply harvesting earlier? “You can't make good wine from underripe grapes. If you want low alcohol you have to pick the right vineyard.”

This Sauvignon Blanc retails for $30, placing it on a high plateau for the variety. The experience is worth the expenditure.

The Cornerstone Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc White Label 2012 puts fruit first, with delicious aromas of apples, cantaloupes and guava emanating from the glass. There is a whiff of minerals, but it's downplayed to favor the ripe, fruity nose. On the palate, expect to find plenty of melon and tropical fruit abetted by a bit stronger play for the citrus zest and minerals. It drinks with a full mouthfeel, yet as clean as can be. It’s rich, without leaning on oak. It is aged in French oak barrels for only five months, with the spent yeast cells stirred every now and then to create that rich and creamy mouthfeel.

Cornerstone suggests seafood - particularly shellfish - as a pairing, but don't overlook weightier dishes. The wine's acidity makes it a delight with turkey or chicken sausages, particularly ones that have a touch of spice in the recipe. It kills with Asian cuisine.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Day Trip To Santa Barbara County Wine Country

Road trips to wine country are the best road trips.  For us, they are practically the only road trips. The beauty of the land up north of Santa Barbara is captivating, the fruit and vegetable stands offer some really great tastes to bring home and - lastly, but not leastly - there is wine when you get there. Denise and I recently took her brother, his girlfriend and a buddy of ours from Los Angeles up to the Santa Barbara County wine country around Los Olivos for the day. It’s been several months now, but here are the notes from that trip.

After the two-hour-plus drive - which included the customary stop for a bagel in Camarillo - our first stop in wine country was off the 101 Freeway west of Buellton.  We hit a couple of wineries there which have nice tasting rooms. Then, after lunch, we finished on “tasting room row” in Los Olivos. It’s the standard structure for our Santa Barbara County road trips, and it offers plenty of flexibility so we can keep our itinerary as fresh as we like.


The vines at Sanford Winery and Vineyards were planted at a time when that was considered a bit of a weird thing to do in Santa Barbara County. It doesn’t seem so strange now, with the Sta. Rita Hills claiming a rightful place in the handful of great Pinot Noir regions.

The tasting room is housed in a big, beautiful hacienda with a walk-around porch that offers several serene views of the grounds. The crew is fantastic: just as helpful and knowledgeable as you want a tasting room crew to be. I’ve been to other tasting rooms where questions about the wines went unanswered - or worse, unrecognized. That is never the case with the attentive pourers at Sanford.

Winemaker Steve Fennell works for the Terlato family and has created some memorable wines at Sanford for nearly a decade.

2011 La Rinconada Vineyard Chardonnay - $40
Even though sparkling wine is often made with Chardonnay grapes, Chardonnay wine almost never reminds me of sparkling wine. This one does. A lovely pear and vanilla nose opens to a toasty palate that shows the nine months in oak (40% new) beautifully. The great acidity is a hallmark of Sanford wines.

2010 La Entrada  Chardonnay - $55
A little more oak influence in this one, with 50% new oak for nine months.  It’s slightly toastier with a really delightful showing of oak on the nose and palate. Only nine barrels were made.

2012 La Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir - $64
The 15 months aging in oak, fully half of which is new, does not seem the least bit overdone. The nice cranberry and raspberry nose  announces the flavors of the palate aptly.  There is a slightly toasty note in there and the acidity is superb.

2012 Sanford and Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir - $64
This, we were told, was the first Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County. It was made by Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict in 1971 and is still going strong today. Oak is again a 15-month process, and it shows a bit more here. Red berries and chocolate aromas lead to a fruity palate that offers a little toasty mocha on the finish.

LaFond Winery and Vineyards

Pierre Lafond pioneered the modern era of winemaking in Santa Barbara County. He started the region’s first winery after prohibition, back in 1962. He spent a lonely decade as the county’s only winemaker before planting 65 acres of vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills in 1971. It is on this property where the Lafond wines are poured in the wine country tasting room. The Lafond production facility is in downtown Santa Barbara, with another tasting room attached.

2012 Chardonnay Stainless Steel - $32
This one of those Chardonnays that straddles fence and offers a taste of both sides. The wine has a great, crisp acidity, yet it's very full, even though no oak is used. At least they tell me no oak is used. From where, I wonder, does that oak spice on the nose and palate arise? It would come from the nine months aging sur lie - meaning "on the lees." Lees are the old yeast cells that gave their lives turning the fruit’s sugar into alcohol. Leaving the wine in contact with them during aging lends weight and texture to the wine. It fooled me into thinking it surely must have been oak-aged for at least a bit. Those yeast cells worked overtime in this wine, leaving an alcohol content of 14.6% abv. 169 cases were made.

2012 Sta. Rita Hills Riesling - $20
You don’t see a lot of Riesling grown in the SBC, but this is estate fruit from 40 year-old vines that are growing in a meadow in the sun.  The nose give a beautiful note of white flowers and white nectarines, with peach and nectarine flavors following on the palate. More great acidity in this one.

2012 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir - $27
70% estate fruit, 30% from a nearby vineyard. It’s a fresh, bright Pinot with a nose of lavender and mocha and flavors of cranberry in a toasty setting.

2010 Arita Hills Vineyard Pinot Noir - $48
The grapes for this wine come from a plot just a half mile east of the estate vineyard. This is a real treat, with an unusual, distinctive nose of orange tea. The palate boasts orange tea, raspberry and a brilliant acidity.

2011 Sta. Rita Hills Syrah - $23
70% estate fruit here, 30% from a hilltop vineyard. Pepper and blackberry grace the nose, with dark fruit flavors embedded in very firm tannins.

2011 Lafond Vineyard Syrah - $40
older vines, more new oak than the SRH Syrah, at 37.5%. Aromas of bright coffee and mocha mocha lead to a huge baker’s chocolate note layered over the cherry flavor.


Cimarone's vineyards are in the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara County AVA, while their tasting room is on the main drag in Los Olivos. They produce 2,500 cases of wine each year and specialize in grape varieties of the Bordeaux region.

2012 Sauvignon Blanc - $16
This is the one and only white wine Cimarone makes. It spent 17 months in French oak twice-used. You'll get a nose full of nice floral notes while the palate brings green herbs, big fruit and zippy acidity.

2012 Cilla’s Blend - $18
The blend belongs to Priscilla, and it mixes Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It is bright and cheery, as its name suggests it should be.

2009 Syrah - $30
Only 111 cases of this interloper were made - a Rhône grape amidst the Bordeaux. It is a warm-climate example of the great grape, with a floral nose, great acidity and sweet cherry on the palate.

2009 Gran Premio - $30
This Italian grape earns its place with the others. The Happy Canyon Sangiovese is bright and fruity, and demands one more sip. It goes great with pasta or pizza, by the way.

2011 Cabernet Franc - $30
This bright, peppery Cab Franc is a delight, with wild cherry flavors and a nice, red finish.

2012 Cabernet Franc - $30
A bit brighter than the '11 due to the warmer vintage.  A spicy nose and palate shows good acidity and a fabulous finish.

2012 Cabernet Sauvignon - $35
This is an unusual cab, very bright, with not too much typical Cab-like flavor showing. It is cheery, red and ripe.

2010 Le Clos Secret - $40
It's no secret that this wine sports all five Bordeaux grapes. It was the first wine produced by Cimarone, and it still offers plenty of ripe, red fruit and savory cherry.

At the Cimarone tasting bar, I overheard a conversation between the pourer and a couple who were tasting next. To us. The gentleman was asked, "You do reviews for her and she does reviews for her?" He responded, "Yes, and she tells me I don’t know what I’m talking about” Don't let her dissuade you, fella. Your palate is your own. Trust it.

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Shedding Some Light On Illuminate Wines

The Illuminate brand comes from Kimmel Vineyards, part of Kimmel Ranch in the western foothills of Mendocino County's Potter Valley. Four generations of Kimmels have shed their blood, sweat and tears through the years - as cattle ranchers until their 1986 decision to grow plants - grapevines which grow at an altitude of a thousand feet. The Kimmels supplied great fruit for others to make into wine until 2007, when they chose to hold back some choice stuff for their own label.

According to the Kimmel website, their wines "are developed under the guidance of renowned winemaker Bruce Regalia, highly regarded for his leadership with brands like Duckhorn, Goldeneye and Madrigal. Ragalia works closely with vineyard manager Mark Welch.

Kimmel Vineyards' marketing mavens recognized a need for good wine at an affordable price, what we generally think of as an "everyday" wine. The Illuminate brand was created to satisfy that thirst for a good ten-dollar wine. Illuminte's label art, "ROOTS," by Karena Vail, depict how the grapevines "reach deep into the earth to nourish the vines and transform the grapes into a wonderfully fresh and fruit-forward wine."


The Illuminate North Coast Chardonnay 2013 carries a ripe alcohol content of 14.5% abv and is fermented and aged in stainless steel - not a splinter of oak for these Chardonnay grapes. 3,000 cases were made, and the wine sells at a $10 price point, putting it within reach of everyone looking for a great everyday wine.

The wine throws off a yellow-gold tint and smells of crisp green apples, tropical fruit, cantaloupe and a twist of lemon. The palate is fairly lush, with enough citrus fruit to make Minute Maid jealous. The zippy acidity carries some nice zest along to the finish. The sip is clean and brisk.


Illuminate's North Coast Red Blend 2012 is a Bordeaux-style mix that is Merlot-heavy - 95% - with a smattering of Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. The wine is presented naturally - aged in steel, not oak. Alcohol hits 13.9% abv and 2,200 cases were produced.

Showing a very deep purple color, this red wine's nose is loaded with blueberries and sage with a backbeat of black olives. Flavors of cassis and blackberry are powerful, but there is a savory slant that is quite striking. The tannins bite a bit, but things settle down some after the bottle is open for a time. It's a pretty good wine, and the $10 sticker makes it look even better.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Blended Wines Offer Better Guessing Games

Blended wines have more to offer than varietal wines, in my humble opinion. The fun I experience while trying to pin down the percentages of the different grapes in the blend probably marks me as a wine geek beyond hope, but that's alright with me. It's a fate from which I feel no need to be rescued.

Cornerstone Cellars' Stepping Stone brand offers a white blend called Rocks! It combines Chardonnay, Viognier and Muscat Canelli, but the percentages are withheld - the better to cause wine geeks to wonder what those numbers are.

Cornerstone's managing partner, Craig Camp, made a sample available to me. He always shares more than wine with a sample, citing his own love of blends - particularly field blends, in which the grapes are grown together in the vineyard with only a guess as to what percentages make up the blend.

Camp writes, "My love of interesting blends goes back to the now famous Vintage Tunia by Silvio Jermann in Italy's Fruili." He says he was among the first American importers of this wine in the early 1980's. "During the same period I was introduced to the many blended southern French wines by Christopher Cannan," he continues. "No one debated too much the exact blends of these wines they way people do now. They were just enjoyed for what they were - delicious."

On the Jermann website, there is a quote from a wine writer on the virtues of Vintage Tunia: "No one until now has ever realised it, but it is the most extraordinary meditation wine in existence. Not in the passive sense (wine to drink while meditating), but in the active sense: it is a wine that makes you meditate.” So let's meditate on Stepping Stone Rocks! North Coast White Blend 2013.

One of the numbers Cornerstone does release is the alcohol content of 13.3%, a fairly moderate number. Also moderate is the retail price of $15.

Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Rocks! North Coast White Blend 2013 has a pale yellow tint in the glass, with a brilliant nose featuring a spray of floral notes with melon and a spicy, herbal twist. The palate offers very bright acidity in a wine that is sweet, but not syrupy. There is a cantaloupe note in the middle and a citrus finish. This is a natural with Japanese noodles, Pad Thai or penne pasta with sun-dried tomatoes.

The floral aromas give away the Muscat Canelli, while the fruit I attribute to the Chardonnay and the vibrant acidity to the Viognier. The alcohol moderation points to early harvest and the balance to just plain good winemaking.

Kari Auringer has just replaced Jeff Keene as the Cornerstone winemaker, by the way. According to Camp, "When Kari became winemaker for Cornerstone Cellars she was, in fact, coming home as, for most of the vintages of the 2000s, Kari was assistant winemaker to Celia Welch, who made the wines of Cornerstone Cellars from 2000 through 2007. Kari's fingerprint is already on almost a decade of Cornerstone Cellars wines. Over the last decade she has contributed to the fame of some of the Napa Valley's most luminous names including Scarecrow, Lindstrom, Keever, Kelly Fleming and Corra and has been singled out as a rising star in Napa Valley winemaking."

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Globerati Sauvignon Blanc

This 2013 Sauvignon Blanc comes from the Central Valley of Chile, and is made exclusively for Whole Foods Markets. It is apparently 100% Sauvignon Blanc, although I could find little information to support that. Globerati is a company that "stalks the finest vineyards of the world, swooping in at the opportune moment to bring you the latest sensational wine."

I don't know that I would call this one sensational, but it is certainly enjoyable. It has a nice yellow-gold straw tint in the glass, with a nose exhibiting big citrus - lemon-lime and grapefruit - with great citrus notes on the palate, too.  Grapefruits and limes are abundant, with a bright acidity and a mouthfeel that is full and round. It finishes clean, with minerals and zest. Not extremely complex wine, but as Spencer Tracy once said, "what's there is cherce."

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Friday, April 10, 2015

Martellotto La Bomba Cabernet Sauvignon

There is a warm spot in Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley known as Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara County. It is in the east end of the transverse valley, kept mainly cool by Pacific breezes that blow in and across the land between mountains. The winds do not produce a big cooling effect this far east, though, like they do in the Sta. Rita Hills to the west. Over there, it's Pinot Noir country. In Happy Canyon, Bordeaux grapes rule.

Martellotto Wines is an importer, but they also find some pretty terrific grapes in the warm spot of Santa Barbara County. The website explains that "Greg Martellotto’s family has been making wine for generations, and his grandfather brought traditional winemaking practices to the U.S. when he immigrated to Ellis Island in 1909 A vineyard-first philosophy focuses efforts on farming (including biodynamic and sustainable agriculture) with gentle handling in the winery and minimal intervention. Martellotto wines are allocated, vineyard designated wines that are our pleasure to share."

A sample of the Martellotto La Bomba Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 was shared with me as a sample for review.  The red is 25% Merlot, 75% Cabernet Sauvignon. Previous vintages came from Paso Robles, but the '13 hails from the SBC. 200 cases were made.

The wine has a deep ruby color, very dark, with a nose sporting blackberry, clove, vanilla and light cedar notes. The palate shows more blackberry and oak spice with a smattering of cassis and a nice acidity. There are great tannins and a good grip, the better for pairing with any kind of meat you like.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bonny Doon Vineyards Le Pousseur Syrah 2012

Bonny Doon Vineyards' 2012 Syrah, "Le Pousseur," is made from Syrah grapes grown in some nice Central Coast spots - 48% Alamo Creek Vineyard, 18% Bien Nacido Vineyard, 18% Spanish  Springs Vineyard and 16% Ventana Vineyard. These are cool-climate sites and the website states that with "a fair amount of whole clusters included, this is a savory Syrah of great restraint."

Randall Grahm writes that he finds Le Posseur "enchanting and captivating rather than overpowering." He labels it as a "feminine" Syrah. I don't make it a habit to argue with a winemaker about his wines, but I was taken to task once for the use of the term "feminine" as a sexist way to describe a wine. PC or not PC, it does not strike me as feminine. Maybe it's feminine in a masculine way. Or masculine in a feminine way. Maybe it's just a wine having a crisis of sexuality. Or maybe it's just a Syrah of great restraint. It retails for $26 and 2,126 cases were produced.

Under the screw cap is a wine which is opaque indigo. Big blueberry fruit dominates the nose with a savory undercurrent. It is possibly the fruitiest nose I've experienced from a Bonny Doon red, which usually lean savory. The palate shows dark fruit too, with just a hint of that black olive note Grahm's wines often exhibit. Very nice acidity and a good tannic grip top off an entirely enjoyable experience. The oak touch is nice, just right in fact.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sea Pines Russian River Valley Chardonnay

The Russian River Valley is known for its terrific Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, grapes that love the marine influence that rolls in up the river and the fog that typically envelopes the region until most decent folks are digesting their lunches.  Winemaker Chris Condos has great fruit with which to work, and it all works out very well in the Sea Pines Russian River Chardonnay 2013.

This wine was featured in a virtual tasting event sponsored by Whole Foods Markets late last year. The participants online were very complimentary of it during the Twitter tasting.

The tweets about this wine got started with @WFMwine, who volunteered that "Chard is America's fav white wine. Love the color here, nice pale gold, get some green apps and vanilla on nose." They continued,"lots going on w/ the palate here, richness of RR fruit but the balance is perfect. Well-crafted,elegant,loving this chard. Stylish!" The tasters in Dixie were enjoying it, according to @WFM_Louisiana: “Guests are really digging this chard!” @AshleyHawkins tweeted, “Love how well-balanced and buttery the Sea Pines is.”

This Chardonnay shows yellow gold in the glass, sends yellow peaches and yellow nectarines on the nose with vanilla and a slight toasty oak smoke note. The palate exhibits stone fruit with a honeyed layer to sweeten the deal. Oak notes sit between "just right" and "too much." Acidity is quite nice with a good tingle right into the finish. That oak lingers on the finish but it seems "just right" then. I think you could pair this with just about anything short of a ribeye and be happy. Seafood, cheese and soups are great candidates.

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Friday, April 3, 2015

The White Wines Of Southwestern France

The Côtes de Gascogne region is in the southwest of France, in the Armagnac region, and is known as Gascony in English. There is forest to the west, then the Atlantic Ocean; the Pyrenees Mountains, then Spain to south. Various combinations of clay, limestone, sand and silt make up the soils.

The Gascogne wines are mostly white, with only ten percent red and ten percent rosé. The white grapes are Colombard, Gros Manseng, Ugni Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.  Red grapes include Tannat, Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon. 75% of the Gascogne wines are made for export. Look here for dry, crisp, refreshing, aromatic whites.

The following wines were provided to me as samples for the purpose of this article.

Domaine San de Guilhem resides in the village of Ramouzens in the eastern portion of the Bas-Armanac region. Alain Lalanne is the fourth generation to work the soil of this land and bring forward the potential of the fruit of its vines. When his father retired in 1970, Armagnac was all they produced, a brandy distilled from wine made of the region's grapes. At that time they faced a declining demand for Armagnac and decided - along with the other growers in the region - to turn their grapes into wine rather than spirits. Lalanne was among the first in Gascogne to plant Gros Manseng, which adds a nice balance to their white wines. It is not an easy grape to coax from the ground. As Lalanne puts it, “Gros Manseng does not accommodate hot summers, the smallest hailstone ruins it. Nevertheless, what class!  Powerful in alcohol, strong in acidity, long in the mouth with persistent aromatics, it transcends the Côtes de Gascogne.”

This wine is made from the main grapes of Gascogne, 40% Colombard, 30% Gros Manseng and 30% Ugni Blanc. It is Lalanne’s main product, although he still makes a bit of Armagnac, too.

This refreshing white has a very nice nose of tropical fruit and citrus, towing minerals along behind it.  The aromas are made even lovelier by a slight floral scent.   Great minerals appear on the palate with a twist of lime and fabulous acidity.  There is a hint of oak - just a hint - and the finish has a bit of salinity on it.  It's zingy and refreshing, perfect for spring and summer sips and salads.

Domaine de Tariquet has a rich history, combining bear tamers, hairdressers, three nations, two world wars and a bad case of amnesia in their fascinating story, into which you can delve here.

Their Classic is composed of 45% Ugni Blanc, 35% Colombard, 10% Sauvignon and 10% Gros Manseng. It is imported by Robert Kacher Selections of New York. At 10.5% abv, the alcohol is very restrained, making for a very drinkable wine.

Very pale in color, the wine's fruity nose shows peach and pear along with a very savory aspect. There are plenty of minerals underneath, but an herbal overlay takes the spotlight. It tastes like I imagine wet rocks would, and features an earthy fruit flavor.

Domaine Chiroulet has weathered 150 years of such hindrances as phylloxera and World War Two, not necessarily in that order of importance. Seated on some of the highest slopes in the region, the land is named after a local word for "wind that whistles."

The white wines of Chiroulet come from the clay and limestone-rich soil with some chalky outcrops - all of which come through on the palate.

The Chiroulet Terres Blanches - the domaine' top white wine - hits 12.5% abv and is labeled as white Gascony wine - en Francais, Côtes de Gascogne IGP.  This wine is aged in tanks for eight months, with additional fullness added by the stirring of the spent yeast cells.  It is imported by Charles Neal Selections of Richmond, CA.  50% Gros Manseng, 40% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Ugni Blanc.

This yellow-gold wine shows the classic terroir of southwest France - limestone, chalk and the essence of wet stones.  Its nose is full of this minerality, with the aroma of Meyer lemons and light oak spice filling out the profile.  On the palate comes a bracing acidity, fresh citrus fruit and that incredible minerality which begs for something from the sea - anything from the sea - but make it shellfish, please.

Domaine de Menard is a relative youngster in this group, established in 1920 by a Swiss vintner. Forty years later, his daughter expanded the operation and now a third generation is involved in growing grapes and making wine.

The 2013 Cuvée Marine is imported from the Gascogne by Paul M. Young Fine Wines. It reaches 11.5% abv and shows a beautiful, light green tint.

There is a grassy nose decorated with lemon and minerals aplenty. The very full mouthfeel shows nice acidity, a good combination. Lemon and lime zest on the palate is chock full of minerality. The wine finishes brisk and clean, with just a hint of oak. It makes me feel all summery inside. You may experience similar results.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Face For Anderson Valley: Domaine Anderson

Great wine is something you may incorporate into your life on a daily basis, but how often do you have caviar? I put the two together and found that - in this case - it was the wine that was really special.

A group of Los Angeles food and wine writers recently took a publicist’s invitation to attend a wine dinner at Petrossian West Hollywood, an exclusive restaurant featuring caviar and French cuisine. The caviar was great by the way, as were the dishes paired with the wines. But it was the wine which attracted me. The dinner was held to feature the four wines of Domaine Anderson, a new winery in Anderson Valley with some heavyweight parentage.

The Domaine

Domaine Anderson is the realization of a vision.  The Rouzaud family of Louis Roederer, had their eyes on a special parcel of land in Anderson Valley for a number of years. In 2009, the stars aligned for the purchase to be made and vines to be planted. The first vintages of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir came in 2012, and the wines - two each, Chardonnay and Pinot - were released last year.

What captured the fancy of the Rouzaud family was the terroir of this particular 50-acre Anderson Valley plot. The vineyards - and the production - are mostly dedicated to Pinot Noir, but there is some Chardonnay made as well. Where grows Pinot Noir, Chardonnay usually grows, too. It was felt that Anderson Valley lacks a “face,” so Domaine Anderson took the name for their label, hoping to provide a better focus on the Mendocino County region.

Domaine Anderson Wine Club Manager Jennie Dallery (below) offered that head winemaker Jerry Murray is “a Pinot Noir fan who came to winemaking, not a winemaker who came to Pinot Noir.”  He oversees production of two estate wines - Pinot Noir and Chardonnay - as well as a single vineyard bottling of each grape. The estate wines are blends made from several parcels of their estate vineyards.

Here are the wines featured at the dinner, as well as a brief note about the food created in Petrossian’s kitchen for pairing purposes.

The Brut

The evening opened with a sparkling wine, the Roederer Estate Brut NV. It’s a toasty and yeasty bubbly, which went wonderfully with the first course of Transmontanus caviar, cold buckwheat noodles, Santa Barbara sea urchin, quail egg, scallion and yuzu.

The Chardonnay

The Domaine Anderson Estate Chardonnay 2012 also hit that dish well, although the attention of the diners was somewhat distracted by the wine’s amazing nose, one of the best sniffs of Chardonnay I have ever had. Lemon smoke dominates the aromas, and dazzles the sense. On the palate, Meyer lemon is in the forefront, leading a creamy mouthfeel that still has plenty of acidity. The wine underwent partial malolactic fermentation, so the zing I look for in a white wine is not blunted by the soft mouthfeel.

This was an explosive wine. As elegant as the Walraven Vineyard bottling would prove to be, this one is just as boisterous. Not in that big, flabby buttery way that Chardonnay is expected to behave in Cali, but in a way that is surprising, innovative, fun. If you gave up on Chardonnay years ago, this is one that will bring you back to the fold. It really is the Chardonnay for people who don't think they like Chardonnay.

Next up, the Domaine Anderson Walraven Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, does get full malolactic treatment. The nose is light and ethereal - almost a disappointment after the show put on by the estate Chardonnay. There is a very nice acidity on this one, with barely a hint of oak. The lemon finish is crisp and refreshing. This single-vineyard wine paired nicely with the second course - Kanpachi carpaccio, featuring uni, caviar, lemon, sweet chili avocado mousse and brioche. The wine played the part of support for this tasty and spicy dish.

Walraven Vineyard is on the east side, looking over the valley below from an altitude of 500 feet.  The wine spent 11 months in French oak, 25 to 35% of which was new, with gentle stirring of the wine during the aging process. The result is a wine hardly marked by oak at all. The malolactic fermentation makes it more creamy while the oak adds just a bit of weight. The touch is absolutely perfect.

The Pinot Noir

The Domaine Anderson Estate Pinot Noir 2012 came out just after the raw artichoke salad with Italian black winter truffle, pine nuts, arugula and lemon. This wine hit the truffle right, but the Walraven Chardonnay was better suited to it.

The estate Pinot was dark, meaty and savory on the nose with a great backbone. Dark berries and coffee notes made the palate beg for food, but the dish with which it was paired was a little too spicy for the tannins - lamb merguez potato gnocchi, butternut squash, parmesan, sage, brown butter and red pepper flakes. I’m glad I saved some for dessert.

The other single-vineyard wine came with the fifth course, Aspen Ridge short rib on parsnip mash with pear and horseradish. The Domaine Anderson Dach Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 provided more fruit that the estate wine, with smoky black raspberry and cherry aromas hit with a spot of black tea. The palate is a little smoother and a little brighter than the estate Pinot, and it fit extremely well with the rib.


Dessert brought a nice surprise - a 1999 Roederer Estate Anderson Valley L’Ermitage. The nose runs quickly from toast to yeast to caramel to apricots. The palate offers great, toasty fruit. The blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is a library wine, available only to wine club members. Four percent of the cuvée experiences oak. It was probably not the best choice to pair with the Valrhona chocolate mousse with caramel pearls and gold leaf, but I did have a sip or two of the Pinots still available, and they were terrific with the high-class Ho-Ho.

The Domaine Anderson wines aren’t cheap, but they don’t break the bank, either. The Walraven Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 sells for $55, while the Estate Chardonnay 2012 is $37.50. Both wines age for 11 months in oak. The Domaine Anderson Dach Vineyard Pinot Noir sells for $65, while the Estate Pinot gets $45. Both wines are aged for 16 months.

Thanks go out to Domaine Anderson Wine Club Manager Jennie Dallery, who was present to talk about the valley and the wines, giving her expertise and knowledge to a subject that is obviously close to her heart.

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