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In California, by comparison, the evolution & progress forward has been slow for the Syrah grape variety.  It has been like anxiously waiting for the sun to finally rise, but seemingly in slow motion & seemingly an eternity.  I often wonder if the process also took so long in the Rhone Valley.

By the late 80’s, on the California front, I already was working with the wines from Qupe & winemaker/owner Bob Lindquist.  His wines at that time were quite delicious, intriguing, well textured, balanced, food friendly & I loved selling them & then watching people’s faces smile from their pure enjoyment.  While these wines certainly deserved a place on a winelist, Bob’s real shining moments of glory really started when his custom Z Block hillside planting (planted in 1992) started coming into its own.  OMG, what a profound difference!

While I also tasted & appreciated the efforts from Joseph Phelps, McDowell, Edmunds St John & other prominent Syrah-ists, of the time, to me, Bob Lindquist & his Qupe Syrahs really stood out the most.  In the early 90’s there were a couple of estate Syrah bottlings from Bryan Babcock which also caught our attention.  Where Qupe crafted more elegant, refined, suave & well balanced renditions, Babcock’s were much more masculine, hearty & ruggedly structured.

Then, in the 90’s, we found & fortunately jumped early on to the bandwagons of Alban (1989 “Reva” Syrah) & Sine Qua Non (1992 “Black & Blue”, actually custom made by Mike Havens) before the HUGE hoop-la & prices really escalated.  These were/are standout bottlings, whose prominence & superstar status has stood the test of time & are still today some of the most prolific, revered, sought after wines out of California.  It certainly must have something to do with their focus & commitment.

Others certainly have tried to replace them as “king of the mountain”.  Even the media lavished high scores to newer generation Syrah producers such as Lagier Meredith, Shafer & other Napa Valley star wineries & while these wines are highly lauded, none of these Napa Valley-ers has yet to challenge or dethrone Alban & Sine Qua Non.

As it turned out the challengers are today really coming from the Central Coast of California.

Let’s start with Adam Tolmach & his Ojai label.  While I certainly appreciated the bravado & thunder that Alban & Sine Qua Non profoundly offered, the Ojai Syrahs had really caught our fancy more because of their mesmerizing transparency, intricate touch, wonderful texture & balance.  While I liked the Ojai Syrah bottlings from the early 90’s, I was especially much more enamored with their Bien Nacido Vineyard bottling from 1995 on (with the advent of grapes from Z Block, the newer, custom, hillside plantings of Bien Nacido vineyard, coming on line).  This bottling of Syrah has today really come into its own, starting with the 2004 vintage & as the vines got older.  (The 2010 which we sampled recently at a “Young Sommelier” tasting was really a homerun!)  Finally…a Californian grown & produced Syrah, which truly moved me!

(It was those relationships with Lindquist, Tolmach as well as Clendenen, Babcock & Whitcraft which cemented my keen interest in the wines of the Santa Barbara appellation, which is still quite active.  It had something to do with long growing seasons, marine soils & true mastery of winemaking).

I should also mention Randall Grahm & Bonny Doon here as well.  In the late 80’s/early 90’s, Randall was much more renown for his Grenache based “Le Cigare Volant” bottling than his work with Syrah.  That changed with his 1995 Bonny Doon Syrah, which featured grapes grown in the heralded Bien Nacido Vineyard of the Santa Maria Valley, the same vineyard source used by Lindquist at Qupe & Tolmach of Ojai.  The 1995 had a real gamey, rustic, provocative edge, which was a big step forward from his previous Syrah bottlings.  He was quite proud of the wine & deservedly so.  Randall’s biggest contribution, in my opinion however, was his remarkable talent for producing wines which would appeal to a wide spectrum of wine palates AND through his clever bottle packaging & amazing clever writings/marketing, he took Syrah & his other Rhone varietal bottlings, to a whole ‘nother, wider audience of wine drinkers.  He certainly was one of the real champions/crusaders of this niche of wines.  Thank you Randall!

In the early 90’s, the first red wine which started & egged on my fascination with the wines from Paso Robles further north, was the 1988 Justin “Isosceles”, a Cabernet blend from the westside of the appellation.  It clearly stood out in a line-up of other Cabernets from all over California.  It was partly because of the red rather than black fruit the wine exuded, but more importantly, it was because of the underlying minerality the wine innately had, instead of the gobs of super ripe fruit frequently featured.  Needless to say on my next trip to California I made it a point to visit the Paso Robles appellation to check the wine ongoings.  After days of driving around & tasting, Justin Vineyards & Winery was my only catch.  BUT, I was quite fascinated by the abundance of siliceous clay/limestone/white-gray soiled hillsides–which were heated by the 100 plus degree temperatures of daytime, but greatly cooled by the 50 degree nights.  I also remember telling Justin Baldwin at the time I felt this area would be a hotspot for Rhone grape varieties.

In the mid 90’s, I met Matt Trevisan, while he was an assistant winemaker at Justin Vineyards & Winery.  He had told me he & a partner were thinking about making their own wine soon.  The project was named Linne Calodo, which still produces standout wines to this day.  On a subsequent visit, I then met up with Justin Smith, who was to be Matt’s eventual partner, although I did not know at the time.  I, in fact, tasted a “home made” white wine at the Smith’s family’s cellar located in the James Berry vineyard below one the houses.  It was a blend of Roussanne & Viognier, done by Justin & his father Pebble.  This began a long running relationship with Justin Smith (Saxum), Matt Trevisan (Linne Calodo) AND the Paso Robles growing appellation.

There is no doubt, these two are the true standouts of the appellation.  I would also say, they both belong on the same pedestal as Alban & Krankl, in the quality of their wines, changing the game & leading the pack.

Matt is a master at blending.  He typically has 27 to 32 different cuvees to work with (a complex matrix of different vineyards, aspects, soils, micro climates, grape varieties all which have been harvested at different “hang” times & brix.  Furthermore, he has quite a stash of fermentation vessels–several concrete & wood–& in different sizes).  I therefore liken his wine blends as an orchestra as opposed to just a horn section.  It is a similar concept to what one could find from Cote Rotie, Barolo & Champagne in the old days before the single vineyard phenomenon.  His wines are lavish, ripe, though very layered, well textured & deftly seamless.

Justin Smith, in comparison, focuses on more single vineyard bottlings.  He is after all a man of the vineyard, so it makes sense.  (He however, also has a blended bottling, “Broken Stones”, as well).   The Saxum Syrah based wines have such remarkably civilized power, bravado, depth & layering which has certainly drawn incredible fanfare, accolades & a cult like following.

On another of the trips, I was invited to a blind tasting of Syrahs from the area.  This was during the Hospice de Rhone Wine Festival time, but ours was just a small, private get together separate from the festival itself.  Of the 20 plus wines poured, I was completely taken by what was in glass #7.  It really was unlike anything I had had previously.  The next morning, my friends & I were on the road to see Glen Rose Vineyard, the vineyard source of wine #7.  When we arrived, I was shocked how whitish the soils appeared.  Even on the way up to the site, the cuts in the hillsides along the road were “layered” with sheets of all white-gray looking soils.  On a later trip back to this vineyard with Bryan Babcock (whose Syrah at the time was one worth seeking out), he was also taken back at what he was seeing.  I remember him mentioning at the time, “the vines may have issues with shutting down because of how meager & extreme this site looked“.  Bryan & I also on this trip went to check out Heartstone Vineyard & walked the site with owner Hoy Buell.  It too was rather breathtaking in its rolling hills of whitish-gray soils.  The ball was really starting to roll & this appellation was just waiting to bust out to become a reckoning force in the California wine scene.

After those encounters, I therefore made I believe 6 trips in one year to Paso Robles, just to further dig around & get a better idea of what was happening & what would be coming down the road.

Justin Smith, as it turns out, is & has been a pivotal Paso Robles ambassador for us, as he later opened the doors to several of his consulting/helping out projects (early on in their development) of the region–Denner, Terry Hoage, Villa Creek, Booker & Epoch just to name a few.  These provided a whole ‘nother genre of California born Syrah based red wines–lavish, opulent & showy, BUT the limestone/siliceous vineyard soils seemed to greatly add interestingness & surprising buoyancy to the wines.

Further north in California, I also searched for Syrah based red wines.  Although I applauded the early Syrah efforts Joseph Phelps & McDowell pioneered, they weren’t really what I was looking for.  It really wasn’t until the 90’s that Syrah made a qualitative turn.

One of the early leads was based upon a tip from a respected wine friend.  I then drove to Bolinas, way out on the coast, to visit Sean Thackery, just to see his take on what Syrah could be.  As it turned out, his were very unique & idiosyncratic wines–deep, sinister, surly, feral, masculine, brooding–but certainly good enough that we later recommended him, when asked, to David Hirsch of Hirsch vineyard for considerations for Hirsch vineyard Pinot fruit.   I just thought that Sean’s mastery with Syrah, might also shed a different light of what Pinot Noir could be.  Here was one Syrah, named Orion, which really stood out, despite being wild & wooly.

A short time later, I made a trip to the Sonoma side to visit for the first time Wells Gutherie (Copain).  Although he was getting well known for his Pinot Noirs, I initially actually went there to try his Syrah based reds.  He had previously worked a stint with Helen Turley & a stage in France’s Rhone Valley, I believe at Chapoutier.   As it turned out, we liked the Copain wines, as they were much more worldly in style & Wells represented a new generation of young turks emerging on to the wine scene.  He scoured for grape sources & for Syrah even as out of the way as in Mendocino. He was very focused on his wines & his style of wines.  Despite the high acclaim & accolades, some people would say, however, the wines were quite masculine, structured, bordering hard & not so delicious.  Even so, he certainly was a star in the making.  He has since totally found his groove & his wines are today generally considered standouts.

There were, however, a few other winemakers who shared space in his Russian River facility & one in particular, Mike Officer (Carlisle) & his wines really caught our attention.  Mike started off as a home winemaker, but soon because of how good his wines truly were, decided to take the plunge professionally….although part time in the beginning.  He had a true passion for interesting, old vine Zinfandel (& mixed black grapes) vineyards mainly in the Russian River, but also included the Dry Creek Valley.  His wines had lots of mojo, swag, AND lots of intriguing, old vine character.  The high scores & acclaim were inevitable & much deserved.  As the Carlisle wines just took off, Mike also included some Petite Sirah & some Syrah bottlings along the climb.  Like his Zinfandels, his Syrah based reds were manly, unabashed, dense & significant with formidable structure & length on the palate.  Mike Officer’s star was definitely on the rise.  He knew what kind of wine he wanted to make & he since has passionately & skillfully fulfilled his vision.

On the same trip, we then drove to see Pax Mahle.  Back then, I don’t think there was GPS, at least available to me, so I got quite lost trying to locate him.  In following his directions, I kept ending up at a winery with some kind of Italian origin name.  I later found out he rented space there to make his wines.  On this first visit, Pax had 4 to 6 barrels of wine, which were neatly lined up in the middle aisle between their barrels.  We tasted through his barrels & I was especially taken by the Lauterbach Vineyard barrel of Syrah.  It wasn’t overtly fruit driven or oaky.  It had smells of meat, violets, lavender.  The fruit was very ripe, but didn’t smell over ripe.  It certainly was decadently mouthfilling, but still had structure & balance despite the higher levels of alcohol.  This gentleman certainly had a touch!  I believe Pax was also a former sommelier once, or maybe a retailer.  He had the right understanding & spin on his wines, really knew what he wanted them to be & what he thought they were at this time.  He was badass & I left there with my head spinning over the experience.  This was a guy worth keeping an eye for.  Fast forward to today, his Wind Gap wines are quite opposite in style from what he produced under his Pax Wine Cellars label.  They are now much more transparent, elegant, refined & balanced & well worth searching out for.  He is definitely in a real zome.

I thought the same of winemaker Ehren Jordan.  At that time, Ehren was winemaking partner at Neyers Vineyard & was also working at Turley.  Because of his cellar work with superstar winemaking consultant Helen Turley, his Chardonnays while at Neyers were so striking, provocative & highly acclaimed, as was expected.  I knew Ehren had done a stint working in Cornas & had a keen interest in Syrah & therefore was anxiously waiting to see what he would do at Neyers with Syrah.  While he & Bruce Neyers released some interesting single vineyard Syrah early on in their collaboration, it was actually their 2001 Syrah “Cuvee d’Honneur” bottling which really captured our attention.  This bottling showcased a fascination, respect & homage for the way iconic French Rhone Valley Syrah masters like Clape, Verset & specifically Allemand went about their craft (essentially 100% stems, foot stomped, wild yeast fermented & NO SO2).  The resulting wine had a much more of savory, soulful edge which for me was a considerable step above most of the other Syrahs out of California at that time.

This is an ideal opportunity to segue from Neyers wines to the true mastermind behind the wine project–Bruce Neyers.  I first met Bruce back in the late 70’s/early 80’s while he was still at Joseph Phelps.  Even back then I was fascinated with the way his mind worked & I therefore always had uku-zillion questions to ask him, especially regarding Riesling & Syrah, since I was such a fanatic of these 2 grape varieties (which were 2 of Phelps’ wine specialties back then).  It was a thrill to taste through their bottling(s) of each at the same time.  My next really significant meeting up with Bruce occurred when he took over the reins as National Sales Manager for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants in the early 90’s.  I had already been to France a couple of times & visited many of the wineries he would now be representing.  He therefore was someone I could talk to for ages about Syrah & the wines of the Old World at length & in detail.  He could also better explain to me the Neyers transition of Syrah in the New World, based upon what he saw & learned on his many trips to the Rhone Valley, especially given his deep relationships with, what I would call THE Syrah “Masters”.  He became the yoda of Californian wine.

The next VERY noteworthy Syrah under Bruce’s watchful & insightful care, “started in the mid 90’s, when the revered Sangiacomo family developed their Old Lakeville Road” vineyard using budwood from the three primary red wine vineyards in the northern Rhône: Cornas, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. The 12-acre parcel was divided into three blocks, and each is harvested and fermented separately. From these three components, we created a blend which seems to have characteristics from each of the appellations. The vineyard is located in what is proving to be one of the most favorable spots for Syrah in California“, legally labeled as “Sonoma Coast”, though much closer to Petaluma & therefore greatly cooled by the ocean winds from the Petaluma Gap.  When I first tasted the 2006 Neyers Syrah “Old Lakeville Road”, I was quite stunned.  Finally….another Californian grown & produced Syrah with potential to move me.  The different, subsequent vintages of this bottling had its ups & downs.  Sometimes it was good, sometimes memorable.  Was it the extreme winemaking or the uneven-ness or the moodiness of the imported vines & resulting grapes which caused the disparity?  Or perhaps a combination of both?  Whatever the case, these wines clearly showed how much better vine material could greatly elevate quality.  As time went along, however, it became clear that the vines were not happy to be there & slowly faded into the sunset, with 2012 being the last bottling.  Yes, it was a mere flash of brilliance, but it certainly fostered the dream of what could be.

Although it took some time to get my foot in the door, I also worked hard to get the wines, Syrah based & otherwise from Les Behrens, who was then the winemaker/co-owner of Behrens & Hitchcock.  I especially liked his “Alder Springs” bottling.  When I later tasted a stellar “Alder Springs” Syrah from Pax Mahle, I made it a point to drive north, right outside the quaint town of Laytonville near the Humboldt county line to visit Stu Bewley & walk his Alder Springs vineyard with him.  The burning question & subsequent search was to find a Syrah that really would ring my bell.  This was heralded as one of those spots that could provide something noteworthy.

I also was at the time quite intrigued with the 1999 Edmeades Syrah “Eaglepoint Ranch”, which was crafted by winemaker “Vanimal”–Van Williamson.  At the time Van was producing some very hearty, old vine Zinfandel beasts from a variety of unique, old vine vineyards throughout Mendocino.  Interestingly, he also produced some wild & interesting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah AND Syrah during his tenure at Edmeades.  I was so taken by his masculine, wild & wooly style of Syrah, which featured grapes grown in “Eaglepoint Ranch”..

A short ime later, Van introduced me to Casey Hartlip, the then vineyard manager of “Eaglepoint Ranch”, a vineyard planted I believe sometime in the 70’s/early 80’s (first Syrah planted in 1989), roughly 1800 feet above the town of Ukiah.  We subsequently made a couple of trips up to see & walk the vineyard.  With the 2001 harvest, Along with Jeff Figone, fellow Master Nunzio Alioto, we contacted Casey to buy 2 tons of Syrah fruit, based upon what we had tasted from Edmeades & Copain.  Since this brazen, warmer climate, “mountain grown” fruit had more than enough bravado, we then contacted Pinot winemaking master, Fred Scherrer, to craft the wine for us, hoping he could work his magic to make a much more elegant, suave style of Syrah.  That he did!  We thought the wine was stellar & definitely along the lines we were looking for.  It is still drinking quite superbly to this day.  (By the way, Fred today produces some very elegant, suave, classy Syrahs under his own Scherrer label, definitely worth searching for).

Interestingly, at this time, while we were quite intrigued with this wine, another fellow Master, Mike Bonaccorsi, made a comment I will always remember–“If you are interested in Syrah from California, you need to go back & check out what’s happening down in Santa Barbara“.

That I did!  Thank you Mike.  Back to where the interest & journey for California Syrah really began.

Mike was right.  The Syrah scene had really changed in the Santa Barbara appellation.  Newer Syrah “finds” included those crafted by Sashi Moorman (former assistant to Adam Tolmach) under the Stolpman label; Jason Drew (former assistant winemaker to Bryan Babcock) under the Drew label; Paul Wilkins (former assistant to John Alban) under the Autonom label & Paul Lato (former cellar rat for Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat) under the Paul Lato label, as well as Greg Brewer at Melville & Chad Melville under his own Samsara label.

One of those wines, the 2003 Drew Syrah “Morehouse Vineyard,” in particular was a true standout for me at the time.  (This was a time when Jason was still working down in the Santa Barbara region, first with Babcock & then spinning off with his own Drew label).  Because of his tenure at Babcock in the 90’s & Bryan Babcock’s very masculine, dark, manly, untamed, beasty Syrah wines, I had expected Jason Drew to do something similar in style.  Boy, was I surprised!  His 2003 was so classy, refined & provocatively transparent & intricate, with remarkable layering, savoriness, texture & balance.  The 2003 was a special wine, with something extra & unique, something beyond fruit & oak, qualities even the 2004 did not have.  I often wonder what ever happened to that vineyard since.  (And, as an update, Jason moved his winemaking operation up north in 2004/05, where his home & relatively newly planted, surrounding estate vineyard is located in the Mendocino Ridge appellation.  In the meantime, he has been sourcing from various vineyards in the area, & deftly crafting gorgeous Syrahs & Pinots well worth searching out for).

It was quite a few years later that we started to check out the plantings in the Ballard Canyon niche of Santa Barbara county, first with Stolpman in the early 2000’s & then much later (mid 2000’s or so) with the Jonata plantings.  I was actually introduced to Stolpman grown wine via the vineyard’s Sangiovese & Nebbiolo crafted by Jim Clendenen.  After tasting their Syrah, however, I knew they were on to something even more special.  Plus, under the direction of winemaker Sashi Moorman, the vineyard morphed & adjusted their vine plantings, but this time in keeping with what they learned was happening in Italy & France at some standout estates.  Coupled with Sashi’s meteoric learning curve, the wines, especially the Syrah based ones, just kept getting better & better.  The Estate Syrah typically offers such elegance, class, wonderful texture & balance.

I was then anxious to try the Jonata wines, after eye balling all of the work they put into developing their rolling hills (which we later discovered was mostly sand, instead of the limestone bedrock we saw at neighboring Stolpman estate) into vineyards, while sparing NO expense.  I also became a huge fan of winemaker Matt Dees with the first visit & even more so as time goes on.  He is totally in the winemaking sweet spot.  While my original interest was for their Cabernet Sauvignon & Cabernet Franc, their Syrah (Sangre) seems to be making the biggest splash so far & is a very masculine, savory, mega-intense stud, challenging for the top spot.  I also thought we would see some interesting Syrah being grown at the neighboring Beckman & Larner vineyards, but as it turns out, Grenache seems to be more of their thing.

Where to next?

 

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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There was also Syrah/Shiraz from Australia to consider.

In the early 1980’s, for instance, I was drawn to another supposed Syrah based red–the 1975 Penfolds Grange Hermitage from Australia.  Unlike its Shiraz based peers & neighbors, this was one of immense power, concentration & grandeur that was truly monumental & full of mojo, vinosity & character.   It was really impressive to say the least & had the stuffing with quite the swag.

On another occasion, when looking for an appropriate wine to take to a BYOB red wine tasting I was attending in San Francisco, I remember trading one bottle of 1966 Chateau Haut Brion & one bottle of another wine in exchange for only one bottle of 1971 Penfolds Grange Hermitage.  Yes, the price was stiff & a very considerable expense for me, especially at that time.  As it turned out, however, the tasting featured quite THE line up of top caliber red wines from around the world from vintages 1966 to 1971 & this wine fit the theme so perfectly.  I could therefore see first hand how this wine would fare amongst the more familiar standouts.  There was also quite an impressive list of top echelon tasters attending & I could witness everyone’s candid reaction to this relatively undiscovered wine (at least in the U.S. at the time), since all of the wines were served blind.  What a line up & tasting this turned out to be!  I was really taken with the ’70 & ’71 Chateau Petrus & ’66 Chateau Latour.  Wow!  Wow!  Wow!  But I also remember being especially taken by the 1970 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva “Monfortino” & my bottle of 1971 Grange Hermitage.  Both were truly like no other wine I had had previously.  I did not, however, find any aspects of either the 1971 or the previously tasted 1975 Grange that reminded me of Northern Rhone Valley Syrah (not that it should’ve).  It was quite another interesting genre of what this grape variety has to offer.  This tasting clearly showed to me, though, that Grange was definitely the wine that would open the door & usher Australia onto the world class stage of red wines.

I was, at the time, working at the Kahala Hilton Hotel & for a Food & Beverage Director who was originally from Australia.  (Since the hotel was part of Hilton International, we were fortunate to work with professionals regularly from all over the world). Interestingly, we also had had another Food & Beverage Director just a few years earlier who came to us from a sister property in Australia. I am very thankful for all of the knowledge & wines they both shared in helping me better understand & appeciate what was happening wine wise Down Under, especially on the “boutique” front. This really was quite the opportunity!

While I appreciated many of the wines from this new found niche of wines for me, the next real WOW bottling came years later & a winery named Henschke from the Eden Valley.  These wines floored me upon first taste & I remember both the 1985 (& later the 1986) “Hill of Grace” & “Mt Edelstone” like it was yesterday!  Where Grange offered bodacious, mega-intense, luscious fruit, the Henschke wines, in comparison, were much more about vinosity (old vine-ness) & savoriness on a more masculine, muscular frame with lots of saddle leather, cigar box, roasted chestnut, smoked bay leaf, charred sandalwood nuances.  I was later astounded to find out “Hill of Grace” was planted in the 1860’s, 1958 being the first release & Mt Edelstone was planted in 1912 (on its own roots).  Stephen Henschke oversaw the winemaking & his wife Prue was the viticulturist responsible for the care of these ancient vines.   What a talented combo & what a duo of standout wines!

The “Grange”, especially those back in the 70’s & 80’s, & the “Hill of Grace” bottlings are still the two shining stars for me EVER out of Australia even to this day.  Collectors over the years have pointed all of these much higher rated wines & those that are even harder to get.  But I find them not as interesting & not as “game changing”.

Grange to me, at least in the old days, was like an orchestra rather than just the horn section (just as I have heard & noted about old time Barolo, which was made from several sites rather than being a single vineyard, where the sum of parts was profoundly more complete & moving than each part individually).  The core was profoundly vinous & must have come from their elaborate scope of old vine sources AND a myriad of areas, soils, climates & terroirs.  To that base note, the Penfolds team layered it & added nuance through tireless, very detailed blending….just as one would add the string section, percussion, etc to the horn section.  An orchestra sound–layers upon layers & something to behold.  Another simple way to understand what I am trying to say is–in the music of the Beach Boys, there were the simpler, catchy, sing along songs like “Help Me Rhonda” & “Fun, Fun, Fun” AND then there was “Good Vibrations”, a tune seemingly comprised of 4 to 5 songs smashed into one, using 10 guitar tracks & 7 piano.  Epic, game changing!  Or the Beatles with “She Loves You” compared to the much more complex work on “Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band” album.  Grange was grand!  It was something to behold!  There has been no one peer to even come close.

Henschke, on the other hand, to me was Jimi Hendrix.  Jimi was so spellbinding–his sound & skill was distinctive AND so personal, heart felt & soulful.  I would be spellbound even if he played a solo guitar rant.  There truly has been no one else like him.  He really didn’t need an orchestra or even a band behind him.  He could stand out on his own.  That is Henschke “Hill of Grace” for me.  Only one vineyard, but the resulting wine was all about vinosity, was soulful to the core & heart stirring in its delivery.

I must also add, however just to be clear, I am speaking of Grange & Henschke of the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s here.  The prices of the current releases are just too prohibitive for me to even think of splurging.  I did, for example, fortunately have a 2009 & a 2012 Grange not that long ago & I will say, these are a VERY different kind of wine from those I remember having back when.  Today’s certainly have the stuffing, vinosity, mojo & character, but somehow I think the soul orientation has waned.  (Each were served blind & I know had been stored right).

The next BIG wave of “Thunder from Down Under” for me, was spearheaded by wine importer Dan Philips, who seemingly came out of nowhere & created a tidal wave of “must have”, artisan Australian wines. His company, the Grateful Palate, had a real cool “look”, schtick  & a well selected portfolio of mainly lavish, hedonistic, Old Vine Shiraz.  The wine media, especially the Wine Advocate, helped fuel a frantic, shark feeding frenzy for his wines & developed a cult like following–with wines from Torbreck, Dutschke, Henry’s Drive, Chris Ringland, Trevor Jones, Shirvington & later his own Marquis Philips (with partners Sarah & Sparky Marquis).   Sometime in the early to mid 2000’s Sarah & Sparky Marquis parted ways with Philips & founded their own Mollydooker wine label, starting I believe with the 2005 vintage.  The Mollydooker wines just exploded, taking off like a rocket, with immediate hype & fervor most wineries can only dream about getting.  There are still no signs of their “show” slowly down.  I had recently heard, though, that big personality front man Sparky is now out (divorced) & Sarah has taken over the reins herself.

On the other front, Dan Philips just kept his ball rolling & continued where Sparky left off, using the BIG name Chris Ringland as his winemaking “face” for the wine world to see.  It seemed to work for a couple of years, but inevitably the whole “Grateful Palate” operation just seemed to ride off into the sunset, although I heard there was a brief stop in Italy (for Philips) & Spain (for Ringland) along the way.

Our next real interesting Australian Syrah maestro we encountered was Serge Carlei from Victoria (with vineyards also in Bendigo).  Serge produced wines with real mojo, intriguing vinosity & layering, all done in a much more sensible style–suave, well textured & balanced, without the extreme showiness, flamboyance & decadence often seen during Australia’s 1990/2000’s heydays in the U.S..  They had a different beat, were much lighter on their feet, easier to enjoy without compromising complexity, vinosity, integrity or mojo.  I don’t think it a coincidence that Serge was recognized as one of Australia’s top Chardonnay & Pinot Noir specialists prior to his Syrah bottlings, & is probably why I was so enamored by his wines.  A Syrah crafted by a Pinot maker?  I often wonder why neither he nor his wines ever got too much international superstardom?

Our search for really good Syrah from Australia continues.

We recently had a Grenache from fellow Master Sommelier Richard Betts under his Sucette label.  90 plus year old, own rooted vines, 25 to 40 stems….this was some kind of Grenache & one that was truly memorable.

If someone, in this day & age, can come up with something this superb, imagine the possibilities with Syrah?

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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I realized early on, I am by no means a skilled writer, but, because of this recent envious Syrah tasting I attended in San Francisco, I just wanted to jot down some of my thoughts & experiences with Syrah, while the juices were flowing.  At least all of the reminiscing will make me smile.

It starts with…….I really enjoy a well grown, well made Syrah.

The initial most enlightening renditions for me were from a trio of masters from France’s Rhone Valley–Gerard Chave, Marius Gentaz & Noël Verset.  Although by this time I was well under way with the wines from Germany, Italy, Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Port AND California, there was nothing I previously tasted that even came close to what I experienced from these majestic , highly personal Syrah based reds.

I became an instant fan!  These created a new standard for me to measure others by.

Each of these producers made wines which were much more interesting to me, AND consistently way more moving than those I tasted from the much more heralded trio of Jaboulet, Chapoutier, Guigal also of France’s Rhone Valley, just to name a few headliners.

My first trip to see these French vignerons was in the cold months of January 1991.  Our list of appointments (made by fellow traveler, Fran Kysela M.S., then the National Sales Manager of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants) included Marius Gentaz (Gentaz Dervieux), Rene Rostaing & Robert Jasmin of Côte Rôtie; Gerard Chave of Hermitage; Joseph Panel of St Joseph AND August Clape & Noël Verset of Cornas, just to name a few.  The weather was quite inhospitable, vineyards barren & even the wine cellars quite cold, despite the lack of a wind chill factor.  We visited, we talked & we tasted each day till well into the dark.  At several of the stops spitting wine out on the floor seemed inappropriate, especially where in some cases there was so little wine in their cellar to sell to begin with.

Our first stop in the northern Rhone Valley, was at the Chez Chave.  Talk about apprehension!  Here was a family who owned & farmed the truly iconic Hermitage hill since 1481!  (please keep in mind Christopher Colombus sailed to the New World in 1492 for goodness sake!)  The family owned roughly 10 hectares , in 7 different parcels.  We met & spent time with Gerard Chave.  (I certainly will never forget this opportunity!)  We started with a tasting of his Hermitage Blanc (roughly 85% Marsanne from 80 to 85 year old vines AND 15% Roussanne, also from 80 to 85 year old vines).  It has taken me quite some time to understand & appreciate this wine.  I previously just didn’t get it.  I was awestruck by the sheer power/intensity, viscosity, bordering unctuou-ality, & reverent vinosity & breed of the ’90 & ’91.  They were both resoundingly masculine AND grandiose each with very different perfumes, tastes & character.  We continued with the ’90 St Joseph Rouge & then the 1989 St Joseph Blanc, which I remember thinking was quite an interesting progression  (I certainly would not question a Master!)   We then proceeded downstairs & barrel tasted through 7 lots from the 1990 vintage–Bessards (80 year old vines), Le Meal (80 year old vines), Rocoules, Peleat (a monopole), Diognieres, Baume & L’Hermite.  Wow!!!! what a huge opportunity!  (I have written an earlier piece on this with more specific notes of each.  please check it out in archives).  We also tasted the 1989, 1988, 1987 & some older vintages of his Hermitage Rouge, all, with color commentating by Gerard while he tasted along with us.  What a day!  I walked away with an even greater appreciation of Chave Hermitage because of this behind the scenes master class.  I have visited this domaine a few times after & always walked away with an even greater understanding & appreciation of what this family does.

In addition, the times of walking Hermitage hill, parcel by parcel, with the color commentating by Chave is truly some of my best memories ever in wine country.  I had previously thought Hermitage hill was all granitic soils.  As was explained to me later by Jean Louis Chave, over time, glaciers collected & smashed different soils up against what was already there.  That is why there are so many soil types found in different pockets.  The Bessards lieu dit, for example, is mainly granitic; Le Meal has river stones; Peleat has more clay/sand; & Baume–pudding stones.   And, these different soils also help create the layering of his red Hermitage wine.  It is therefore a blend, rather than a single vineyard.

We then went on to visit August Clape in Cornas.  They own 5.5 hectares, 50% on the “hill”.  This was also a rustic, very small family owned winery & I loved the strong sense of heritage, culture & family here.  We tasted many wines here, back to 1981 & I was awed by the masculine soulfulness of the wines, which were much more blue collar & rugged than those at the Chave stop.  But, they were still so memorable.

Probably the most emotional visit for me in all the years of visiting vineyards & wineries was our visit with Noël Verset.  I was already so taken by his wildly rustic, profoundly soulful Cornas wines & meeting him & tasting wines with him, tugged at my heart that much more.  I sometimes hear all kinds of disenchantment with his wines & their flaws.  Get a life!  This was an honest man who made wines that touched us deep inside.  He reminded me of a painter/artist from way back when.  Just went about his business. No frills.  While there the last time, he hinted he would be retiring.  Perhaps 2000 would be the last?  Ha!  I saw some 2003 show up.  Then 2006.  Surprise!  Then there was none.  There will sadly never be another like him or his wines.

It was quite late the night we visited Joseph Panel in St Joseph across the river from Vienne.  St Joseph is a long, thin appellation & therefore has quite the variety of vineyard site topography, soils & growing conditions.  Panel’s was at the top of a hill.  It was cold & even colder because of the fierce pounding wind & what seemed like sleet.  I was hoping it would be warmer in the cellar, but the coldness permeated through the rock floor numbing my feet & then worked its way up.  His estate was 200 years old–7 generations.  I felt like I was hanging out with a farmer rather than a winemaker.  He was a true artisan & I loved his St Joseph reds, as they were so honest, earnest, earthy, feral & full of countryside character.  They also had delicious-ness in a very masculine, savory way without any sense of heaviness.  I was very sad when he retired & his wines were no more.

I was really glad to visit with Robert Jasmin (& son Patrick).  Robert made you feel very welcome.  He seemed gregarious with a big personality.  He looked like he was a true blue collar type, never afraid of getting dirty.  He owned 4 hectares of vineyards, mostly in the Côte Brune & the Côte Blonde, planted to 96% Syrah (mostly Petite Serine from Hermitage) & 4% Viognier.  He proudly told us, he typically uses only about 10% new oak (since 1984) & does not filter or fine (since 1989).  His were big, “down to earth”, masculine, savory, surly wines with the same kind of manliness he had.  I was sad to hear of his passing in I believe 1999.

Marius Gentaz had an old, earthen floor “shack”, which looked no bigger than a 3 car garage.  Marius seemed like an every day kind of guy, dressed simply, reserved, but very articulate as he explained to us the 5 hillsides that comprised the Côte Rôtie, while showing us each on an old map on one the wooden walls.  He spoke very little English, so our traveling companion, Dennis, acted as the translator.  His family could be traced to the 1700’s in the area.  He had a little under 2 hectares of vines, split into 2 parcels.  The vines averaged 45 to 80 years in age & he smiled when he spoke of his Petite Serine vines, which he seemed more proud of & happy with in comparison to some of the “Mauvre” vine selection (tightly packed, BIG berries) he also had planted.  He also had a tiny bit of Viognier planted of which he would blend .5 to 1% into his Gentaz Dervieux Côte Rôtie, depending on what he felt the wine needed.  He was kind enough to open & share with us the ’90, ’89, & some older vintages.  I was absolutely blown away with each.  I had never had Syrah like these before.  Just before we left, he sadly informed us, he thought his nephew, Rene Rostaing, would be making the wines after the 1991 vintage.  OMG, the end of an era.  (as it turned out I think he also made a ’92 & a ’93).

Our next visit, as it turned out, was in fact to Rene Rostaing.  It was in the early evening & quite cold.  I was shocked as we walked up to see what looked like a modern winery, as if it could be in California.  I was further anxious later on the visit after seeing the barrel room, full of new oak barrels.  It was almost opposite of what we experienced at Gentaz.  Rene has 17 different parcels (which included absorbing the Dervieux-Thaler parcels), his prized lieu dit was 1/4 hectare in the Côte Blonde of 80 year old vines.  Rene was very neat & precise & I dared not spit at this domaine, eventhough it was quite late & we were all so tired.  Both his 1990 “La Landonne” & ” Côte Blonde” had sweet, very ripe fruit & with quite noticeable oak presence & grip, despite being only 18 or so months in 25% new.  I walked away remembering all of that new oak barrels & asked myself, what will happen when he takes over Marius Gentaz’s magnificent vines & fruit?

Imagine, these were just the highlights of the trip AND only the northern Rhone Valley leg.  Still, it solidified my fascination with the Syrah grape variety, what it was capable of & insight into the true Masters of the French renditions.

A short time later, I was again blown away at a casual dinner held at Square One restaurant in San Francisco, where my long time wine brother, Nunzio Alioto, kindly opened 4 amazing, for me, “once in a life time” French Syrahs–1990 Vincent Gasse Côte Rôtie, 1990 Gallet Côte Rôtie, 1990 Gentaz Dervieux Côte Rôtie  & a 1990 Jean Louis Chave Ermitage “Cuvée Cathelin”.  Wholly smoke!, this certainly was a night to remember & really fueled my love for such northern Rhone Syrah wines.  It made me wonder, how could man create wines like this that transcend what the fruit & the oak offer?

The wonders continued with samplings of the string of Chave Hermitage–the 1978 & 1983 really being memorable; multiple aged vintages of Gentaz Dervieux, Verset & Clape wines.  Each were WOW, beguiling experiences & I am so thankful to have experienced such treasures, especially with my dear friend Nunzio Alioto & later with the VINO gang.

Furthermore, because of these Syrah epiphanies, I still always keep an eye out for Syrah based red wine that would also ring my bell.

I remember, for instance, noticing a lot of 1982 Gentaz Dervieux Cote Rotie at the KHPR Radio wine auction one year.  The wines were procured by well renown wine auctioneer, Archie McLaren from a collector in Texas.  Jim Clendenen & I stood in the back anxiously waiting for the lot to come up for bid, like two hungry wolves.  We should have been smarter, as we did not have an auction paddle & just held up our hand to place a bid.  Since Hawaii is such a small town when it comes to fine wine, others starting bidding too, because they saw it was the two of us & figured if we are bidding on these wines, they must be good!  I shouldn’t complain, though, as we still got the lot for $35 a bottle, a REAL steal, even though this was in the mid-90’s.   I truly believe that only Jim, myself & perhaps Archie had a grasp of what these wines were or how hard they were to get.  Well, that is certainly not the case any more, that’s for sure.  (By the way, tasting the wine eventually was yet another mind blowing experience.)

My generation was very fortunate to have a visionary palate & importer like Kermit Lynch to sniff out these kinds of “game changers” & expose them to young, impressionable minds like myself.  When more & more small, specialized importers came onto the national wine scene, I realized what separated Kermit from the rest, was his eye for that special artisan, who could connect & realize the true potential of a special site in a very personal way.  Furthermore, many of the selections had a soulfulness to them AND thankfully a wonderful deliciousness & remarkable balance.  Yes, he had/has a gift.  There has been, after all, only one Marius Gentaz & only one Noël Verset, just to name a couple of examples.

Aside from who I considered to be the 3 masters of the time–Chave, Gentaz & Verset–Kermit also championed St Joseph “below the radar” winemaking studs such Joseph Panel & Raymond Trollat & Auguste Clape (& son Pierre-Marie & grandson, Olivier) & later on Thierry Allemand from Cornas.  These are/were truly artisan, profound, rustic, soulful Syrah, done in a style we sadly see less & less today.  And, later on, Kermit would introduced us to Pierre Gonon & Jean-Pierre Monier of St Joseph & Philippe Faury.

Again I ask–how could man create wines like this that transcend what the fruit & the oak offer?

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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Our first winemaker dinner at our Sansei restaurant in Seattle.  Who better to kick start the concept than Master Sommelier Greg Harrington of his own winery Gramercy Cellars?  Thank you to Greg, the managers, the Chefs & the staff for a wonderful evening!

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We continue the tasting with a gang of white wines.  White on, bro!

2016 Palmina Pinot Grigio “Santa Barbara”–Palmina is a project featuring Italian grape varieties grown & produced in the Santa Barbara appellation of California by winemaker Steve Clifton.  (Quite candidly, I am not quite sure who else is still involved with Steve).  The 2016 is markedly different from the previous Pinot Grigio bottlings.  It definitely has a more coppery hue to the naked eye, which reminds me of a more ramato (skin contact) style.  The wine is still tasty, refined, seamless–just with a little more flesh & a bitter almond to the finish.  I would also suggest that it is still greatly & thankfully still way underpriced.  Thank you to Warren for sharing this bottle.   2016 Chehalem Pinot Gris “12th Ave Grill”–Here is a wine “designed” for head wine star, Rick Lily, over at 12th Ave Grill.  As one taster noted–“I love it, because it is so pretty & delicious“.   Can’t argue with that kind of endorsement.  Kudos to you Mr. Lily!   2014 Au Bon Climat Pinot Gris/Pinot Blanc “Santa Maria Valley”–This certainly was one of the standout white wines–very classy, elegant, seamless texture AND plenty of mojo in the core.  I also love the superb balance AND mostly what a SENSATIONAL VALUE this truly is considering the price. 

2015 Lieu Dit Sauvignon Blanc “Santa Ynez Valley”–I have been a huge fan of this bottling for a few vintages, as it showcased the very best attributes of what Sauvignon Blanc can be in California–elegance, refinement, class with sublime, earth driven nuances.  Quite candidly, however, I was a little disappointed with this particular wine.  Although it still showed much of the characteristics I had previously admired, it was rather lackluster, disjointed & kind of a “plain Jane” on this night.   I think it was mainly due to following the previously tasted Au Bon Climat wine.  It still was quite good & undoubtedly dwarfed the New Zealander that followed–2015 Petit Clos Sauvignon Blanc “Marlborough” (from Clos Henri) with much rounder edges, seamlessness & a much better finish.

2015 Cambiata Albariño “Monterey”–Such subtle & enticing perfume with seamlessness & wonderful flow on the palate.  We have really been working hard to find such fragrant, aromatic grape varieties, as they provide a very different compatibility when pairing with foods.  This one is from our wine friend Eric Laumann, using vines grown especially for him down in Monterey.  In addition, this wine really does over deliver for the dollar.  The sad news is, there was apparently only 205 cases produced.  I am not so sure what to say about the 2013 Matthiasson White Wine “Napa Valley”.  Winemaker Steve Matthiasson has developed a huge following, especially among the sommelier scene.  We therefore had big expectations for this wine, because the core is Ribolla Gialla, an Italian/Slovenian grape variety (vine cuttings from Josko Gravner) which Steve is especially high on.  It was unexpectedly & unfortunately quite underwhelming on this night (forward, hollow in the middle, no core to it, & oaky/alcoholic & bitter in the finish).  Maybe it was due to shipping or storage, which was undetermined, because no one said they brought it.   It was still a treat to try.  

2013 Melville Viognier “Verna’s Vineyard”–the first commercial Californian grown Viognier I tasted was a 1986 from Bill Smith of La Jota up on Howell Mountain.  The next, shortly thereafter was one from Calera.  Because of its wonderful perfume & aromatics, it seemed to really catch on & lots of people were planting it.  It was en vogue.  The challenge for me, however was finding “good” ones.  I remember trying one in the early 90’s which was organically grown in the Russian River appellation.  It was exotically perfumed, as expected, thick viscous, luscious, BUT flabby, quite hollow, noticeably alcoholic & bitter.  The following year the same winemaker contacted me again, with much eagerness over his new rendition.  The grapes came from the same vineyard, but he noted harvested at way lower brix to retain the acidity & freshness.  In both cases, I just felt, this quite fickle  grape variety really didn’t do too well in his spot.  I have found that this exotically scented grape variety seems to do especially well in the marine soils & cool growing confines of Santa Barbara county.  Here was a stellar example–enticing, uplifting perfume, the weight of a Chardonnay grown in the same vineyard, an interplay of exotic & minerality, seamlessness & lovely, captivating deliciousness.   Thank you Micah for sharing. 

2014 Folk Machine Chenin Blanc–Chenin Blanc did not have such a good reputation over the years in California.  There were far too many that would lacksidasically grown & made.  Along came former skateboarder Kenny Likitprakong who found some very interesting Chenin Blanc sources, the first from down south in the Santa Barbara appellation & more recently from the old vine Norgard Vineyard on the Talmage Bench in Mendocino in 2010.   I believe these vines are more like 36 years in age.  While this wine does not have too much resemblance to the Chenin Blancs of France’s Loire Valley (& so it should be, by the way.  This is California after all!), this particular bottling is a fairly good drink & certainly much better suited for the dinner table than most Californian Sauvignon Blanc bottlings I have tasted.  The 2015 Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/Viognier–was kindly brought to share by one of Hawaii’s top sommeliers.  He routinely buys this at the wine store for under $13 a bottle & feels he really gets his bang for his buck.  Thank you for sharing!

Categories : White, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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We gathered the gang again to do yet another BYOB BLIND tasting.  The theme was to explore “other” grape varieties in the New World……yes, still in search of what is “good” wine.  We ask, how much would you pay for this wine?  And, what kinds of foods would you pair it with?  Yes, questions pertinent to working the floor…….just another way of learning!

2013 Palmina Dolcetto “Santa Barbara”–we started the tasting with an Italian grape variety grown & produced in the Santa Barbara appellation of California.  I had previously tasted & enjoyed many Italian grown Dolcetto red wines over the years, BUT not too many ever REALLY rang my bell.   What drew me to this bottling, however, is how delicious, juicy & well made this wine is & still with the earthy, savory, masculine, dark fruited qualities one normally would find in Italian versions.  I also feel the price makes since this wine even more compelling, especially when one compares the quality/dollar ratio of other red grape varieties such as Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Barbera & the sort.  the challenge then for the sommelier is how to sell it on the floor.

 

2011 Scherrer Zinfandel “Shale Terrace”

1998 Scherrer Zinfandel “Old & Mature Vines”

Both of these Zinfandels come from Fred Scherrer’s father’s vineyard in Alexander Valley, located on a bench above the Silver Oak planting.  The Zinfandel was first planted in 1912 & was subsequently supplemented in waves over the years.  As I have mentioned before, the Scherrer Zinfandel “Old & Mature Vines” are some of our all time favorite bottlings of this grape variety.  They standout because of how surprisingly elegant, suave, & well textured & balanced they are……quite the contrast to hearty, robust, higher alcohol versions from other wineries.  The 1998, brought & shared by Erica & Jamm was stunning.  The edges were even rounder & the wine much more integrated.  In addition the old vine nuances really sang out with the fruit & spice qualities now much more in the background.   Who says Zinfandel doesn’t get better with bottle age?  In comparison, we tasted the 2011 “Shale Terrace” which from a particular parcel of this vineyard which as the name suggests, much more rocky in make up.  It really does want to say something different, with higher toned, almost nectarine/peach fruit aromas & seemingly much lighter on its feet.  In both cases, I felt the wines were excellent!

2013 Ancient Peaks Petite Verdot “Santa Margarita Vineyard”–The Santa Margarita Vineyard is located at 1,000 feet in elevation down in southern Paso Robles.  I had tasted a Petite Verdot (blended with Merlot) bottling from this vineyard produced by another winery a few years back & was so impressed I started working on actually visiting the ranch.  After much effort, we were finally able to get in & 4 wheeled our way through all of the nooks & crannies of this remote, 900 plus acre “mountain”  site.  There are actually at least 5 distinct soil types here, & the most compelling were the fossilized oyster bed & the more common shale parcels.  When I was later asked to help find wines for the First Class service of Hawaiian Airlines, I instantaneously knew this was the vineyard I wanted to work with AND I had a notion there would be a good portion of Petite Verdot used in the blending. Yes siree!   As it turned out, however, on the first go around, I realized that this vineyard’s Petite Verdot was much better as a blending component rather than being a stand alone.  This 2013 reconfirmed that.  While I think the wine was good, it actually got unintentionally dwarfed by the 2012 Cambiata Tannat “Monterey” it was paired with.  This was truly a black beast–black as old fashion shoe polish, mega-intense, dense, seemingly just packed as packed could be, hearty, robust, masculine though surprisingly well textured & well balanced.  How does one corral such a wild, full on monster like this?  How does one manage the searing tannins & acidity?   Other winemakers, first of all, would probably not even take on such a project.  And, if they did, many today, I would guess, certainly would explore what micro-oxygenation could do.  Winemaker/owner Eric Laumann instead chose the virtue of patience.  The first vintage of this wine, 2004,  I had tasted was aged for I believe an astounding 40 plus months in oak barrels.  The 2012 was a mere 28 months.  In both cases, the time in oak helped to round out hard edges & helped frame an otherwise uncontrollable beast.  I am not necessarily looking for such esoteric wines, BUT when it is this good, especially when one considers the price tag, how can you not go all in?

2013 Linne Calodo “Nemesis”–we have been huge fans of the wines from Linne Calodo for quite some time.  We shared this bottle of 2013 Nemesis (82% Syrah, 14% Mourvèdre, 4% Grenache) to show tasters an example of well grown & crafted Syrah based red from the westside of the Paso Robles appellation.  Despite this being a lavish, opulent, luscious, higher alcohol wine with lots of bravado & mojo, the wine’s innate minerality from the limestone/siliceous clay soils it was grown in, made it so provocative & surprisingly more buoyant.  It certainly had the wow factor & was quite impressive.  Because of its density, showiness & mouthfilling richness, we feel this wine could be a segue for many Cabernet fans into a whole new world of wines to experience, once again helping to fill that puka between Californian Pinot & Cabernet (closer to the Cabernet end of the spectrum).  The 2015 Stolpman Syrah “Estate” on the other hand, shared by Rick, was a much more elegant, suave, more transparent style of Syrah & therefore lied closer to the Pinot end of the spectrum.  What a fabulous comparison!

2013 Gramercy Cabernet Sauvignon “Columbia Valley”–there is little doubt it is becoming Washington state’s “time in the spotlight” more & more.  The wines have gotten much better, partly because the vine material & plantings have gotten much more interesting AND there is quite a growing number of winemakers (& grape growers) changing the game.  One of those leading the charge is Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars.  A Master Sommelier & former wine director for both the Wolfgang Puck & Emeril Lagasse restaurant groups Greg intuitively grows & makes wines in pursuit of balance.  While his Syrah & Mourvedre based red wines are at the head of the class, we wanted to showcase one of his Cabernets just to show tasters, Washington state has arrived!  we were so fortunate that Brent & Helen brought & shared a bottle of the 1997 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon “Sonoma Mountain”.  It was a very fine example of where we came from, in terms of Cabernet Sauvignon in California.  Back in the 80’s & 90’s, this bottling was one of the very best California had to offer.  Grown in a very spiritual felt vineyard on top of Sonoma Mountain, this was one of those vineyards that offered something special & unique & this wine really showcased that.  These Laurel Glen Cabernets were always something more than fruit, ripe fruit & oak.  They had mojo, spirit & heart.  This one was spectacular on this evening AND soooo remarkably youthful still.  I wish more people would make & appreciate wines like this today!  AND, if my memory serves me correctly, the 1997 was the first Cabernet, winemaker/owner Patrick Campbell produced up to this point that was over 14 degrees alcohol.

2015 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir “Santa Barbara”–Au Bon Climat is one of the true leaders (AND for quite a long time) out of California for producing more elegant, highly refined, very transparent & worldly Pinot Noirs.  This is an example of his work, although there was a surprising rustic edge to the wine showing (perhaps from some Mondeuse he typically blends into this bottling).   Still there is a fine-ness on the palate with wonderful texture & balance.   I believe he has never really gotten enough credit for all he & his wines have done for the Californian wine industry.  Thank you John for sharing.  I was glad Ann kindly shared a bottle of the 2015 Maison L’Envoye Pinot Noir “Tasmania” on this day.  When I was growing up in this industry I would frequently hear about the terrific potential the Island of Tasmania had for growing & producing sparkling, Riesling AND Pinot Noir wines.  This bottling is by far the best example I have to date, 30 years later.  I would not even think this was Cru quality by any means, BUT it is elegant, fine, classy, well textured & balanced…all at quite a remarkable price.

2012 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir “Bien Nacido Vineyard”–I just loved this wine for its intoxicating perfume–musk, earth & funk AND its wonderful transparency, refinement, remarkable texture & balance.  It was the wine of the day for me, which is saying a lot.  PLUS, when one considers the quality for dollar ratio, it’s an absolute NO-brainer,” on the list” wine for me.  Done deal!  I also greatly appreciate Rick bringing to share his wine, the 2015 Tyler Pinot Noir “12th Ave Grill” with all of us.  Tyler winemaker/owner Justin Willett masterfully crafts Pinot Noirs like this (& a bevy of Chardonnays) all about precision, refinement, transparency, texture, balance & class, as this wine clearly showcased.  Kudos to Rick & Justin!!!!! I just wished I had poured it before the Au Bon Climat.

Categories : Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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Jun
08

Tasting Syrah –final thoughts 05-13-17

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As I had mentioned, when Jason Drew, one of our favorite California winemakers, first emailed me about the inklings of a Syrah tasting & get together I was quite hyped.  I really enjoy well grown & well made Syrah.

Prior to the actual event, I had very little information as to what would happen or who would be attending, but figured if Jason invited me, it would be my kind of tasting AND a wonderful opportunity/forum for discussion & learning.

Therefore, after giving considerable thought as to what I wanted to bring to such a tasting, I settled on 2 wines.  I was hoping these 2 wines would help shed some kind of light on what Syrah could be & therefore provide kindling to provoke thought.

I brought the 2013 Château Fontanès “La Petite Sérine” to show tasters a specific Syrah vine not commonly seen outside of the Northern Rhone Valley of France.   Over the years, I was told it was at least part of the “secret” to the wines of Chave in Hermitage, Gentaz in Côte Rôtie, Clape & Verset in Cornas, 4 of the greatest Syrah producers & wines of all time.  While there is much variation & therefore controversy about this vine selection both in California & even in France, this particular cutting, I was told by this domaine’s owner/winemaker Cyriaque Rozier, came from 3 of the top proponents of this vine in the Northern Rhone.  He planted (& subsequently organically & biodynamically farmed) them in his vineyard down in the Pic St Loup of southern France & its limestone influenced soils.  When I tasted this wine for the first time, I was really taken by its intricacies, etherealness & incredible transparency.  In short, it was NOT fruit driven!  There was a time not that long ago when I would taste en vogue, acclaimed French “country” red wines from that neck of the woods & more often than not, found them to be markedly too much about Syrah…..whose grape varietal print really dominated the resulting wine, thus obliterating other nuances.  This was certainly not the case here.  Although one could tell it was Syrah, it was NOT blatantly so & it did not over shadow the “sense of place” qualities & nuances.  Secondly, this wine offered a much more classy edge to it in comparison to its neighboring peers, again, without being too much.  Lastly, this wine is just a fraction of the cost of the Grander bottlings listed above.  

Interestingly, when one tastes through the Syrah based line-up from a producer such as Clape, one could readily sense the difference between those grown in their flatter parcels & those grown & produced from the Cornas hillside.  California, in my opinion, has not yet worked through all of that yet.  So, my thought was to taste a Syrah, produced from a top quality vine, which is organically & biodynamically farmed, in a “less than Grand” terroir.  I was hoping this would bring a different slant on what Syrah could be & thereby provoke very different thoughts & questions of possibilities from a different angle.

The second wine I brought, a 2009 Côte Rôtie “Les Roses”, is from a joint project of iconic Rhone Valley winemaker Louis Barruol & superstar importer/Rhone master, Kermit Lynch.  The previous year, I had received a note from the Kermit Lynch team which stated–“Louis had barrels from seven vineyard parcels on the roasted slope. I finished by blending  four  of  them  together,  40% of it from the vineyard Champin. The result has me sailing high, thinking back to the glory days when Marius Gentaz, René Rostaing, and Robert Jasmin were producing classics; classics that hopefully made me very demanding when it comes to Côte Rôtie“.  The 2009 “Les Roses” is a blend of the lieux-dits Fongeant and Rozier from the Côte Rôtie , again featuring the Petite Serine vine.  Here, in my mind was yet another example of how the Petite Serine vine could manifest itself.  I didn’t know exactly what wines would be shown at this tasting since it was BLIND, but wanted to make sure tasters had a chance to taste this old heritage vine, grown in a “Grand” site (s) nonetheless.

In essence, I would suggest one focus should be on finding better vine material, other than or in addition to ENTAV & Tablas Creek clones.

I was clearly reminded on a visit to the Cornas hillside with Olivier Clape one year, when asked about vine selection, he confided they had replanted one of their Cornas parcels with a new, hot fandango clone, which everyone gaga-ed over.   Judging by his facial expression & body language as the conversation continued, however, I don’t think the family was too thrilled over the results from that planting.  I also would surmise, this parcel does not make it into their “pride & joy” Cornas bottling.  Plus, they also knew & understood it would cost too much to redo.  If I were in their shoes, I would therefore not put all my eggs in one basket, unless it was a massale selection that is happy & has proven itself for a long, long time in the area.  Or perhaps finding an offspring of a massale selection, which shows great promise & planting it in a small area at first to see how it does.

The second important focus would be finding better sites to work with.

As a reminder, there are vineyards in France, which are designated as Cotes du Rhone & there are those designated as Cornas, eventhough they are not that far apart as the crow flies.  It just took time, often multiple generations, sometimes centuries to fully uncover & validate those differences.  I get it.

Still, in the meantime, one can make a pretty “good” Syrah, from a lesser than Grand site like what the Château Fontanès, is, using a very highly regarded, proven vine selection, as the first stepping stone.

I was hoping tasting these 2 wines would encourage more discussions & questions on those two fronts.

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Jun
08

Tasting Syrah 05-13-17

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Two or so years ago, a small group of top echelon Californian Syrah producers visited France’s Rhone Valley, which included a talk story session with some the valley’s top, artisan producers.  Yes, California meets France, looking to discuss how to grow & craft top caliber Syrah.  I would have loved to be a fly on the wall observing & listening to all of that! 

Fast forward to May 11, 2017, the core of the Californian group met again in San Francisco to continue the conversation & moving the sharing of thoughts & information forward.  The centerpiece of the night was a BLIND tasting of 12 Syrah red wines–6 from California & 6 from France’s northern Rhone Valley.  The event was held at the Hillside Supper Club in San Francisco.

The list of attendees included–

winemakers–Adam Tolmach (Ojai); Bob Lindquist (Qupe); Pax Mahle (Wind Gap); Paul Gordon (Halcon); Bradley Brown (Big Basin); Michael (assistant winemaker of Drew, since Jason was in Europe at the time).

media–included–William Kelley (Decanter); Esther (Chronicle); Jim Gordon (Enthusiast); Mike Dunne (Sac Bee); Patrick Comiskey (author of “American Rhone: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink“); Cyrus Limon & Alan Rath (WineBerserkers).

and me. 

I didn’t even know what wines were actually there!  Some French names had been mentioned in passing prior to the event & I would expect there would be wines from the Californian winemakers present, but all speculation, at least for me.   I believe Paul Gordon (in the middle of the picture) was the true mastermind in putting this event together.  (Thank you Paul!)  Orchestrating & pouring of wines blind was the host restaurant’s “wine guy”, Austin Ferrari, apparently quite the rising star in the city.  (standing up & serving in the picture).  Thank you Austin!


The 12 wines were served in 2 flights of 6…….BLIND.  The tasters were then asked to rate the wines, 1 thru 12.

 

Here was the group’s compilation of the top 5–

#1 2013 Wind Gap “Nellison”

#2 2013 Halcon “Alturas”

#3 2012 Jamet Cote Rotie

#4 2013 Gonon St Joseph

#5 2013 Drew “Perli”

Here was my list (complete with the tasting notes I had taken)—

#1 2012 Clusel Roch Cote Rotie “Vialliere”–captivating, feral nose–really good pedigree with sandalwood, smoke,roasted green peppercorn, gamey, pepper, bay leaf, savory, musky, classy.  vinous, higher in acidity, less glycerine, lower alcohol.  When asked, I thought this was French.

Tied for #1 2013 Ojai “Solomon Hills”–earthy, savory & classy, though quite masculine in style, dense, immense & quite formidably structured.  raspberry, smoke, earth, pepper, green peppercorn.  moderate plus in alcohol & glycerine. 

#3 2012 Jamet Cote Rotieclosed nose, but more ethereal, feral/rustic, rank andouille sausage, smoke  musk & earth.  Also had pedigree & lots of class.  leaner, more acidity, lighter in color, lower alcohol & glycerin.  When asked, I thought this was French–perhaps Cornas.  

#4 2012 Allemand Cornas “Challiot”–andouille sausage/feral smells–wildly rustic, bay leaf, smoke, lavender, savory, musk, sandalwood, masculine, leaner, higher acidity, lower alcohol & glycerine.  Definitely had a soulfulness.  When asked, I thought this was Cornas.

#5 2013 Wind Gap “Nellison”–ripe red fruit, bordering jammy, smokey, earthy, savory, ripe, forward, power, well structured,  well balanced……stewed raspberry nuances.  Well made Californian, so I thought this might be Ojai Syrah.

Other notes–

While I was tasting the wines, I did not think about whether the wine was from France or California.  My focus was instead on whether it was good or not, why or why not.  I noted my thoughts on place of origin, only because my neighbors had asked.

One of the real missing bits of information I would have liked was how much did each wine cost.  As a wine buyer, one, I believe, also needs to consider quality for the dollar when purchasing.  I believe the Ojai & perhaps the Wind Gap bottlings, for example, was the least expensive of my top 5 list & that certainly would have been a strong consideration for me when looking which of these wines to buy for the restaurant.

Another clarification I need to comment on, is top 5 for consumption when?  I really believed the French trio of my top 5 list–Clusel Roch, Jamet & the Allemand because of the higher acidity levels & mojo would greatly benefit from some additional bottle age & would therefore have really affected my subsequent scoring of each.  While the Ojai & Wind Gap would have also benefitted from additional bottle age, I’m not so  sure if it would have been as much.  All conjecture however.

Also, as promised, I started reading Patrick Comiskey’s newly released book–“American Rhone: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink” on the plane back to Hawaii.  Although I have read only just a bit, I like it & had a hard time putting it down.  It certainly (at least so far) does a good job of documenting the Rhone varietal based wines history in a very clear, understandable style–from Kermit Lynch to Joseph Phelps to Gary Eberle to Jim Clendenen, Adam Tolmach & Bob Lindquist to Randall Grahm to what I am currently reading–Steve Edmunds.  Since this all unfolded in the early part of my wine career, it really was so fascinating for me the way Patrick connected the dots & made transitions from one to another, as he moved forward.  Thank you Patrick for your work!

(As a side note, I would absolutely love it if Kermit Lynch would some day do the same kind of writing documenting his journey with the producers from France’s northern Rhone Valley such as Chave, August Clape, Marius Gentaz, Noel Verset, Thierry Allemand, Gonon, Faury AND with Monier, Joseph Panel, Trollat, Rostaing & Robert Jasmin!  Wouldn’t that be something to read!)

I must also thank Paul Gordon of Halcon for putting together this tasting.  It took, I am sure, a lot work, time & energy.  Thank you also to Jason Drew of Drew wines for getting me invited.  I, for one, got a lot out of this experience.

I truly believe there is a huge opportunity for these kinds of wines on our winelists.  Well grown & crafted renditions, for one, can help fill a puka which lies between Pinot & Cabernet.  Yes, we can create a step ladder which will better bridge that gap on the restaurant floors.

Furthermore, Syrah is undisputedly a noble grape variety.  I clearly remembered how floored I was tasting my first Chave Hermitage & later Gentaz Dervieux Cote Rotie & Noel Verset Cornas back in the late 80’s.  Each completely astounded me in terms of pedigree, transparency & soulfulness.  They really helped open a whole new horizon of wines & possibilities for me.  Imagine 28 years later at this tasting, a Californian born Syrah was a favorite on the compiled tasters’ list, as well as on mine.  My, my, we have come a long ways.

Lastly, it was great to see some long time friends–Bob Lindquist (on the left),  Adam Tolmach (on the right) & Pax Mahle.  And, it was also great to meet a bunch of new wine friends.  Thank you to all!!!

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All modesty aside, I thought this tasting/get together was a fabulous experience.  I saw & learned a lot & sincerely hope all of the young wine minds who attended did too.

As a side note, I would like to add a thought or 2.

A few days after the tasting, a long time fellow co-worker, now turned level 3 sommelier, stopped by VINO.  He had worked at VINO for a few years some time ago & therefore understood our continual search for “good” wine.  He also remembered how we look to “tell their story” in an effort to serve our guests wines we are proud to serve.  Since leaving VINO, he has worked at some real top wine destination restaurants in California & now in Las Vegas.

He mentioned that although he loved the wines from Au Bon Climat, Costa de Oro & Scherrer, they were, in his experience, a real “hard sell” on the restaurant floor, even in San Francisco & Las Vegas.   That really floored me & was actually quite depressing.  It took me a few days, to sort & sift through that bit of insight & ponder how to address that.  (I am an admitted addresser).

As this tasting clearly reiterated to me, all 3 of the wineries he mentioned, in my opinion, produce really good wines.  AND, they have done so, for many, many years.

In addition, each of these producers also, in my opinion, under charge us for their wines, not that I am complaining.

So, top quality (good enough to REALLY standout at this tasting & its top caliber line-up)………offering BIG quality for the dollar………hmmmm……

Isn’t part of my job as a sommelier to find wines like this, even if they are not recognizable?

AND, even if they are not lavish, opulent 95 to 100 point rated or are not colored orange or from Mt Etna, isn’t it part of my job as a sommelier to be able to find suitable opportunities to turn people on to such wonderful valued discoveries?

Furthermore, because of having delivered these kinds of traits for quite some time, shouldn’t these kinds of wines actually be considered core staples for their respective categories in one’s wine program?

There are many more questions I would like to ask, but at least, that’s a start.

I absolutely love challenges like this!

At VINO, we have been recently getting a special egg.  This Japanese couple took over a farm in Waimanalo.  They changed the diet & water of the chickens.  Now, the egg is much more orange to the yellow.  They harvest 5 mornings & we get the eggs in the afternoon.

Our VINO Chef Keith Endo has chosen to support this farm & champion this egg.  He therefore uses them wherever & whenever he can.  So, all of floor staff now tell our guests a story about this egg in an effort to help promote it.    We now sell quite a bit of eggs AND this farm’s eggs are now on allocation, which thankfully means the demand is higher than the supply.  They now thankfully have a better chance of making it!

The point here is, one CAN make a difference, which is really cool, especially when it is the right thing to do.

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May
15

A Tasting for Young Sommeliers Part 2

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We continued this gathering & tasting of young sommeliers with wines produced from grape varieties they are more familiar working with–Cabernet, Pinot Noir & Chardonnay.  Again, the goal of this blind tasting was to reiterate the search for what is “good” wine.  Tasting all of the wines BLIND would help better understand & appreciate the wines from a different perspective, with the influences of labels, pricing & media scores/hoop-la.

SIXTH FLIGHT–Cabernet Sauvignon

We started this flight with a 2001 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon, which was kindly brought & shared by Brent.  As VINO regulars well know by now, we are HUGE fans of Ric Forman’s Cabernets & have been for quite sometime.  The first wine I tasted from this venerable winemaking icon/master is the 1969, when he was still a young turk at Sterling vineyards. As good as wines were back then (the 1974 Sterling “Reserve” in particular), the quantum leap in quality happened when the vines from his very own estate vineyard came to fruition.  The vineyard has 2 distinct parcels–one on the “floor” on a small amphitheater surrounded by solid rock.  The soil is whiter-gray gravel, which he had once told me was a pushed river bed.  This was the source for this particular bottling.  I watched in amazement how tasters could readily smell the gravel/crushed rock character this wine showed, which by the way, was WAY different from most of the Napa Valley Cabernets they were used to.  This wine was a real, intense, mesmerizing thoroughbred, which offered lots of character, mojo, texture & fabulous balance, which is a very different experience than the dried fruit, autumn leaves, cedar, cigar box nuances would get from similarly aged peers.  AND, it was so surprisingly youthful still in its core.  What a wonderful bottle of wine, which I felt we were drinking at an ideal time of its life!  In comparison, Ann kindly brought & shared the 2011 Arnot Roberts Cabernet Sauvignon “Bugay Vineyard”.  This was an ideal wine for a comparison, as Arnot Roberts is certainly so highly regarded by the sommelier community, because of their vineyard sourcing & how they chase the concept of “In Pursuit of Balance” in all of the various grape varieties & single vineyards they work with.  As expected, it was very elegant & classy in style.  Having said that, in all fairness, we should have poured this wine after the 2001 Forman, especially since the Forman is riper, blacker Napa Valley fruit AND the very fact it was 10 years older & has had a chance to resolve itself.  I certainly applaud Arnot Roberts for looking to produce more transparent, balanced wines.  For me in this case, however, I just wanted more.   Theirs was like a wine chasing winemaking & specifically the “In Pursuit of Balance” concept, rather showcasing character or really moving me.  I just think they haven’t hit their stride quite yet…at least consistantly.  (Still, although I didn’t say so at this tasting, I wish one could taste the 2012 Camino “Montecillo Vineyard” produced from a similar hillside on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas to better understand what I am trying to say.  Another example worth checking out, although from a different sub-region of Sonoma–Alexander Valley–is the Scherrer Cabernet Sauvignon “Scherrer Vineyard”.  Both of these wines still exhibit the concept of “In Pursuit of Balance” but with more mojo & character, AND at 60% of the cost.)

SEVENTH FLIGHT–Pinot Noir

This actually was the category I was most excited to taste & discuss, when originally putting together this tasting.  The concept, for example, of “In Pursuit of Balance”, was originally started by Rajat Parr & Jasmine Hirsch, which has in my opinion provoked a lot of really interesting thoughts & conversations.  While it may have sadly created a polarization & controversy amongst parts of the Californian wine community , it did raise a lot of questions.  Questions which I don’t think can ever be fully answered, as everyone has their own opinions, thoughts & beliefs.  Still, I cherish the fact that questions were & are being asked.  Thank you for that.  And, thank you to all of the winemakers who voice an opinion.  It really is a way for me to continue to learn.  I therefore headed into this flight looking for wines of balance–forward or elegant, oaky or not, Dijon clone or heritage–balance was for me the key.  We started this flight with 2013 Hilt Pinot Noir “Old Guard”.  This was a project that really caught my eye on a trip up & down California wine country a couple of years ago.  Spearheaded by winemaker Matt Dees (of Jonata fame), the project features fruit from a matrix of most interesting vineyard sites–old vine Sanford & Benedict (Mt Eden vine selection with some Martini, planted in 1971, own rooted & their 30 acre parcel is organically farmed); Bentrock & Radian vineyards (2 extreme vineyards located in the western most areas of the Santa Rita Hills) & Puerta del Mar (5 acres of extreme conditions actually outside of the Santa Rita Hills boundaries).  In addition, Matt has some older vine fruit from Solomon Hills & G Block (planted in 1973 on its own roots) of Bien Nacido to work with if needed.  The “Old Guard” is the bottling that wow-ed me the most.  Produced mostly from the old vine Sanford & Benedict parcel (25% stems, 10% new oak), I loved the masculine, vinous, savory, musky, classy character this wine shows.  In looking over my notes, I did not see any fruit nuances listed.  In addition, though quite masculine & full of mojo in style, this wine still displays fabulous texture & balance.  Yes, this certainly was a treat.  Thank you Cheryle for sharing.  The next wine of the flight was the 2012 Rhys Pinot Noir “Horseshoe Vineyard” a 94 point (by both Parker & Galloni) Santa Cruz phenom really exploding onto the wine scene.  The classy, gracious, seductive style certainly is quite alluring, charismatic & captivating.  I can better understand all of the hype & hoop-la for the Rhys wines. I surmise the only thing really holding it back is the roughly online $100 per bottle price tag, especially when one considers the roughly online $70 a bottle tag of the Hilt listed above!  Thank you to Keith for sharing this bottle!  The next blind wine, the 2006 Costa de Oro Pinot Noir “Gold Coast Vineyard” was the mind blower of the day for me.  It REALLY caught me off guard, because how sheer, ethereal, superbly light, airy & transparent it was truly was after 11 years of bottle age.  Now, this was definitely my kind of Pinot!  I never, however, dreamed this bottling of wine could evolve into something this special!  Talk about having a wine at the perfect time of its life!  And, thinking about it further, this was the perfect vintage to reward us in such a way.  Thank you Brent for sharing.  (By the way, the price tag of the current release, in case you are interested, is roughly $29 a bottle Hawaii retail.  Isn’t part of a floor sommelier job is to find wines that greatly over deliver quality for the dollar like this?)  The last Pinot of the flight AND actually the centerpiece wine that prompted me to do this tasting, was the 2004 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “Q Block”, a wine shared by Nicholas Miller of Bien Nacido Vineyard.  As VINO regulars well know, I have been a huge fan of the early on Whitcraft Pinot Noirs from the 1990’s & on until the 2006 vintage from then owner/winemaker Chris Whitcraft.  His were VERY masculine, heady, rambunctious, wild & wooly Pinots, not always correct, but certainly well worth enjoying & provoking thought.  He was a devout disciple of world renown Pinot icon, Burt Williams (co-founder of Williams & Selyem, which they sold I believe in 1997) & was in fact best friends until Chris passed away a few years ago.  My anticipation to taste & savor this wine was so longing.  I was shocked, however, how belligerent, coarse, oaky & alcoholic this wine showed after following the 2006 Costa de Oro.  Such a big disappointment.  When I went back to the wine later, however, it tasted like a Whitcraft–masculine, savory, vinous & wild & wooly.  I should have poured the Whitcraft BEFORE the Costa de Oro.  Wow, what a lesson!

EIGHTH FLIGHT–Chardonnay

A few weeks back at a trade wine tasting, I was blown away at the truly superb quality offered by the 2014 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay “Sanford & Benedict Vineyard”.  My notes simply said–“tastes like liquid rock…..mega-intense, but elegant, refined, majestic & superbly balanced“.  I also remember saying…at less than $30 a bottle Hawaii retail!  OMG, are you kidding me?  The next day, I called the winery to see if I could buy an older vintage to showcase side by side at this tasting.  They thankfully sent the 2008, as a gift to this Young Sommelier tasting.  Thank you Jim & Jim.  The 2008 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay “Sanford & Benedict Vineyard” still showcased glorious minerality, structure & superb balance, but was so visceral, bordering somewhat creamy & so much more layered because of the additional bottle age.  In short, for my palate, these 2 wines were excellent……worldly….& truly memorable, all at quite the reasonable price, especially considering the quality.  Interestingly, someone kindly brought a highly acclaimed (94 & 95 point rated) Sonoma Coast Chardonnay to share.  I will leave it as unnamed for reasons which will soon be more apparent.  The website noted, words like minerality, seductive, formidably structured & grand.   I thought the wine to instead be–brazen, frantic, over oaked, hollow, VERY bitter & highly alcoholic.  Not only was I really turned off by this wine, but was even more so when I found out the online price tag to be $84.99 a bottle (not including shipping)!  Not only was the 2014 Au Bon Climat WAY better mano e mano….but then dwell on the fact that you can get 2 2/3’s bottles for 1 bottle of this wine!  NO brainer.

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