Sunday, April 4, 2021

Holiday Family Dinner features special wines

Gala Easter Holiday Family Dinner features selection of special wines

The family gathered for a gala Easter Holiday dinner and we pulled from the cellar several select special wines for the occasion. Two of the wine highlights were a couple of birthyear vintage wines to commemorate special occasions. Son Alec and Vivanna are staying with us as they transition to their new Illinois home as soon as their furniture and belongings arrive from NYC. Moreover, it is Alec's birthday, hence we pulled a birthyear vintage label from a producer with a legacy of roots from Ryan's employer. Similarly, son Sean and Michelle are celebrating a family milestone announcement so we pulled a select label from a premier producer from his birthyear vintage. 

The boys also pulled from the cellar some special selections to taste for the occasion.  

Linda prepared beef tenderloin with baked potatoes, grilled asparagus and salad. Prior to dinner we had a selection of artisan cheeses, fresh shrimp and fresh fruits that we served with champagne. From Magnum we served Peiper Heidseick special bottling followed by a bottle of Moet Chandon Imperial. 

For the dinner course we had a selection of Bordeaux varietal wines from some special select producers and a range of vintages including two aged releases from son's birthyears:

Oakville Ranch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1990

Chateau Leoville Las Cases St Julien Bordeaux 1985 

Dunn Family Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2001

Cliff Lede Stags Leap District 2017



Château Léoville du Marquis de Las Cases, St Julien-Beychevelle, Bordeaux 1985

Our visit to Château Léoville Las Cases was a highlight of our visit to the St Julien appellation a year ago. I wrote about it in detail in a chronicle in these pages. Indeed, we booked the estate visit and arranged our travel and other events around this cornerstone event. At that time we were focus on our collection of 1990 vintage bottles to be served at son Alec's wedding. Tonight, we focused on the 1985 vintage release to commemorate son Sean's special family announcement. 

We hold a half dozen bottles in an OWC case that we acquired back upon release that we are at this stage holding for such special occasions, so I was eager to try this bottle to see how it is holding up and aging in our cellar. Indeed, our Cellartracker records include a tasting we did of this label for dinner the night before he set off for college fourteen years ago. 

Our last tasting of this label was in the month leading up to our Bordeaux trip and our visit at the Chateau. We opened a bottle when we received our invitation to visit the estate.

This is a classic Bordeaux Blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot.

At thirty-six years this is on the cusp of the end of the posted drinking window set for this wine by Cellartrackers - indicating it is at the end of its prime drinking window, not expect to improve further, rather expected to start to diminish from this time forward with further aging. 

True to form, I tasted and rated this without any indication or reference of earlier tastings or reviews for this label. My review was the same as the prior tastings and notes were consistent therewith as well. Tonight's tasting largely was consistent with that last experience twenty months ago, except that tonight the color held up well and did not exhibit any of the diminution of slight orange bricking. Notably, the cork was a bit saturated and softening and would soon be at risk of losing its integrity in the intermediate term.

Consistent with my last tasting back on 7/8/2019, "Deep garnet colored, medium-full bodied, elegant, complex but nicely integrated dark berry and black cherry fruits with notes of floral violets, tobacco, oak and hints of graphite, cigar box and leather on a tangy black cherry lingering finish of supple smooth, polished tannins. Over the course of the evening, it opened more to reveal layers of floral and fruits and accents."

RM 93 points.

This wine got 98 points from Wine Spectator who called it "A fabulous wine; one of the first great Las Cases.", 94 points from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, and 95 points Wine Advocate's Neal Martin.

Oakville Ranch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1990

To celebrate son Alec's birthday and relocation to Illinois from New York we opened a Napa Cab from his birthyear vintage. This producer was the family of the legendary co-founder and primary developer of Oracle software, son Ryan's company. So it was fitting and fun that we could open it with Ryan and son Alec in a special vintage release.  I wrote about the Oakville Ranch property, its history and terroir in a detailed blogpost at the beginning of last year.

This release was awarded 93 points by Wine Spectator and 92 points from Robert Parker. 

At thirty plus years of age it was still holding its body, color and fruit and was not showing signs of diminution from aging. The cork was most but still intact. 

Dark garnet colored, medium full bodied, bright expressive concentrated but nicely balanced and integrated black currant, cherry and plum fruits with notes of cedar, cassis, spice and oak with moderate balanced tannins on the long finish. 

RM 92 points.


 Dunn Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2001

Dunn Vineyards is one of he most extensive holdings in our cellar spanning four decades of vintages split between the producer's two labels, the Howell Mtn and this Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. 

For our gala wine dinner, the boys pulled from the cellar this classic Napa Cab from this legendary producer from the 2001 vintage, one that should be at its peak and drinking at its prime right now, as part of our flight spanning 35 years of vintages selected.

We also collect and hold numerous vintages of winemaker Randy Dunn's "Feather" Cabernet produced from Washington State Columbia Valley marketed under the Long Shadows Vintners Collection that features world class winemakers and Columbia Valley fruit.

We visited the Dunn Vineyards estate up on Howell Mountain and met legendary producer Randy Dunn during our our Napa Valley Howell Mountain Wine Experience back in 2008.

 Randy Dunn Cabernets are known to be long-lived and we are holding many vintages dating back four decades - longer than we would similarly situated wines. We pulled this one at two decades to get a taste of a vintage likely showing well, perhaps at the peak of its drinking profile.

This label was awarded 91 points by Connoisseurs Guide and 90 points by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate.

Deep ruby/purple colored, medium to full-bodied, expressive forward black berry and black currant fruits with notes of floral, oak, earthy leather and hints of cola, pencil lead and what Connoisseur's Guide referred to as "black walnuts".

RM 91 points.


Cliff Lede Stags Leap District 2017

Ryan brought this from his cellar as a young recent release comparison in our diverse flight of reds. He's a member of the Lede wine club and has an extensive selection of labels. We've visited the Lede estate and vineyards in Stags Leap District on several of our trips to Napa Valley. 

The fruit for this label was sourced from the hillside terraces of the Poetry Vineyard, the Twin Peaks Vineyard estate surrounding the winery, and a few neighboring vineyards in the Stags Leap District. The wine is composed of small lots selected from the best blocks, representing a diverse range of carefully selected clones and rootstocks. The diversity of Poetry’s exposed, rocky terraces boasting volcanic origins, to the ancient riverbed alluvial soils of Twin Peaks, the breadth of contributing sites translates into a wine of impressive complexity. We hold a vertical collection of this label going back a dozen vintages.

Winemaker Notes
The 2017 Stags Leap Cabernet is darkly ruby/purple colored and possesses vibrant aromas of violets, lavender, blackberry, huckleberry, black licorice, and warm chocolate covered cherries. Juicy, penetrating, and conveying terrific depth, this gorgeously flavored wine possesses layers of blood orange, cardamom, cocoa powder, and slate. The long opulent finish continues on with notes of minerals, loam, pan grille, cassis, whilst the supple tannins go on supporting the well framed structure.
Production was 5,648 cases.
This wine was awarded 95 points by Wine Enthusiast, 94 points by Vinous and 91 points by  Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. It contains small amounts of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc for complexity and structure. 
This was the standout of the diverse flight being the youngest, but also was the most vibrant and expressive with dark garnet color, medium full body, complex bright bold dark fruits, notes of menthol and clove spice turned to mocha, floral and hints of menthol on a soft tannin laced lingering finish. 

RM 93 points.


A selection of photos from our visit to Château Léoville du Marquis de Las Cases, St Julien-Beychevelle, Bordeaux

The Grand Vin is the product of exceptional terroirs from the former Léoville estate. The estate vineyards are located mainly in the Clos Léoville Las Cases along the D2 route running along and overlooking the Gironde River. They lie at the northern edge of the appellation just outside the village of Saint-Julien Beyechevelle village as you descend the hill heading north toward the appellation and village of Pauillac. There they meet and are adjacent to the legendary First Growth Chateau Gran Vin Latour estate and Pichon Longueville Comtess de Lalande, and Pichon Baron just across the road, in the Pauillac appellation. The vineyards extend over nearly 135 acres comprised of Bordeaux sanctioned varietals Cabernet Sauvignon (66%), Merlot (24%) and Cabernet Franc (10%) with an an average age of 52 year old vines.
The Clos represents a terroir of very great complexity composed of Quaternary gravel ("graves") over gravelly sand and gravelly clay subsoils. The vineyards run along the Gironde River and the proximity to the river has created the wide diversity of soils, formed over various geological periods.

The legendary estate produces distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc Bordeaux grape varietals that are predominant in the blend resulting in a complex, polished expressive  characteristics which are unique to the Grand Vin of Léoville du Marquis de Las Cases that has been widely recognized as one of the premier producers of the Medoc for decades. 


The chai contains a series of connected buildings with production facility, blending halls with laboratory and command and control center, the barrel storage halls, bottling room, shipping and storage room and the historic vintage library storage area.  

The grand vin is kept in the prime tanks while the second wine is produced in the square tanks in the another production hall. The control center has precise control over each tank during all phases of the process.

The barrels are racked monthly to remove any sediment and top off the level that is lost to evaporation. The aging barrels are kept in a precise temperature controlled facility.

It was a great treat to tour the cellars and see the extensive Las Cases library of vintages dating back in the 20th century including historic legendary top vintages such as 1959, 1961, 1975, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1990 and others. Here is our 1985 vintage!

The historic Chateau contains lounges, meeting rooms and a elegant formal tasting room. The Chateau overlooks a formal garden and fountain with views of the Gironde River in the distance.

The Clos du Marquis vineyard to the south of the Leoville Las Cases Grand Clos vines, overlooking the Gironde river, covers 12 acres. It is planted with 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Clark-Claudon Napa Cabernet 2004

Clark-Claudon Estate Grown Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

For beef stroganoff dinner I pulled from the cellar this aged mountain fruit Napa Cabernet - a perfect match! 

The producer, Clark-Claudon estate is situated on the ‘backside’ of Howell Mountain in an area known as Pope Valley. Their 17 acres of vineyards are carved out of a 117 acre property located on the north east side of Howell Mountain between Ink Grade and Howell Mountain Road, from 800 ft to 1,200 ft elevation. It’s shallow, mountain soils, cool evening breezes and excellent sun exposure are ideal for a low yield of small, intense Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot grapes. The 17 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon are planted with clone 7 which grows well in hillside rocky soil and produces small berries with concentrated flavors. A small vineyard block is planted to Petite Verdot. After completing their initial vineyard planting, Clark decided to leave the  remaining 100 acres of forests, creeks, meadows and ponds in their natural state which serves as a preserve for native birds and wildlife.

Interesting, following my discussions in recent blogpost about the terroir and appellation specificity line of demarcation being at the 1200 foot elevation level to differentiate between Howell Mountain and Napa Valley designation, we have another such-situated Napa/Howell Mountain Cabernet. Similar to the Viader Napa Valley Cabernet Red Blend we drank the other night, this Clark Claudon Napa Cab vineyard is at 1000 foot elevation on the lower reaches of Howell Mountain. That terroir distinction doesn't apply here as the Clark Claudon property is on the backside of Howell Mountain which never sees the fog that is experienced on the Napa Valley side of the hill.

We have been collecting this label since its introduction back in 1993 and hold two decades of vintages since. We first met Tom Clark and Laurie Claudon-Clark during our Napa Wine Experience 1999 when we hosted them at one of our wine producer dinners. That night, held at what was then Pinot Blanc Restaurant in St Helena (see picture left), we tasted Clark Claudon 1995-96 against ten year old 1989 Bordeaux. 

During our Napa Wine Experience visits of 1997 through 2000 we hosted gala tasting dinners with the "'Undisccovered Dozen', emerging new wine producers to watch", featured in an article in Wine Spectator Magazine. Many of these producers released their inaugural vintage releases in or about the 1994 vintage. Those producers and winery visits included Plumpjack, David Arthur, Clark-Claudon, Robert Craig, Del Dotto, Elan, Paradigm, Pride Vineyards, Snowden, Nils Venge and White Cottage and are featured variously on my winesite An complete index of my tasting notes of these wines over the years is on the site at this link to California Producers Index. These producers make up a foundation of our wine cellar collection even today. In many of these wines, we still have vertical selections, several dating back to those early release vintages.  

We love the distinctive unique Clark-Claudon packaging with the tall slender bottles. An interesting and trivial wine-geek's observation about the Clark-Claudon branding and packaging; as mentioned, we hold close to a score of vintages of this label. All our vintage holdings but this one, the 2004 release, are packaged with the wax cap inside the rim of the bottle, topping the cork, as shown left. This one, 2004, has a 'traditional' foil top of the bottle (shown below). Not sure why?

This release was awarded 93 points from Wine Enthusiast who wrote, " ... it really needs time. Give it until after 2008, if you can keep your hands off, and will come into its own after 2010."

A decade later, going on seventeen years, this release is holding its own very nicely and showing no signs of diminution whatsoever. The fill level, label and most importantly the cork were in perfect condition.

Wine Enthusiast wrote, "The 2004 Clark-Claudon Napa Cabernet Sauvignon blends fruit from all over the winery's estate, combining multiple expressions of the fruit. The higher portions of the estate yielded fruit that was rich, deeply colored with intense tannins. The lower portions of the estate produced softer, more perfumed wine."

Tonight's tasting was consistent with previous tastings in 2015 and 2016. In 2016 I wrote it was more expressive than earlier tastings. I sense this is at its peak, not likely to improve further, but grand and capable of aging several more years none-the-less.

Like before, the room filled with dark berry fruit aromatics as soon the cork was pulled. This was dark garnet colored, rich, full, concentrated, but nicely integrated and elegant black berry and black currant fruits with accents of cassis, mocha, floral and notes of spicy oak and hints of black cherry on a lingering fine-grained silky tannin finish.

RM 92 points.


Earlier tasting posts ...

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Varner Santa Barbara El Camino Vineyard Chardonnay 2014

Varner Santa Barbara County El Camino Vineyard Chardonnay 2014

We served this with grilled Cod and Salmon dinner with son Alec and daughter-in-law Viviana visiting from NYC/FL. As I've written in several blogs, we've been having fun with "V" wines as a result. I recently acquired several bottles of Venge Chardonnay for such an occasion. 

Ironically, when I went to the Chardonnay rack in our cellar and pulled from a selection of older bottles, as part of cellar management and rotation, selecting an old bottle most likely to nearing the end of its drinking window, I pulled out a "V" bottle from Varner by chance! Great fun with labels and whimsical matching wines to friends, occasions and loved-ones. 

This label is from the Varner brothers, Jim and Bob, known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Barbara County. They recently severed ties with grower producers the Neely families, losing access to a source for fruit from the Spring Ridge Vineyard in the Santa Cruz range they have enjoyed since the early 2000s. Here forward, they'll focus on Santa Barbara County sources. 

This label is one such label, a single vineyard designated label sourced from the El Camino Vineyard in Santa Barbara County

This label release was awarded 92 points by Vinous and was heralded by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate as a good value "serious Chardonnay for (the pricepoint). Despite its very reasonable price, the 2014 Chardonnay El Camino Vineyard delivers serious intensity, richness and nuance. Broad, ample and phenolic ..."

Another review writes, "Showing the more forward, charming and textured style of the vintage, the 2014 Chardonnay El Camino Vineyard has pretty notes of citrus, leafy herbs, mint, and even basil, as well as a medium-bodied, elegant feel on the palate."

Straw colored, medium bodied, bright notes of grapefruit citrus with notes of lime, mineral and hints of oak. 

RM 88 points.


Monday, March 29, 2021

Viader Napa Valley Syrah 2004

Viader Napa Valley Syrah 2004

Following a gala dinner, Linda brought out her decadent chocolate dessert. On request, I trolled the cellar and pulled a hearty Syrah to map on to the Viader Proprietary Red Blend we had with dinner

We discovered and acquired this label in 2005 during our visit to the Viader estate property on lower Howell Mountain in 2008. A travelogue of photos of our visit are shown here or a selection are featured below.

This is sourced from the Viader estate vineyard on the lower reaches of Howell Mountain in the north east corner of Napa Valley. 

Designated a Napa Valley wine from the area normally suggests the source site is below 1200 feet elevation. Above that level would warrant a Howell Mtn designation. This is due to the demarcation point that the morning and late evening fog rises to that level thereby cooling the ripening grapes, resulting in a different microclimate above and below. In this specific case, the vineyard is at 1300 feet and they use Napa Valley in the greater content of region that encompasses several sub-appellations. 

Notably, according to the (rear) label, the fruit for this label is sourced from both Hermitage appellation in the French Northern Rhone River Valley and the Australian Barossa  valley appellation - two districts/regions known for distinctive Syrah/Shiraz. Accordingly, they attribute 'spice and fruit concentration' to the Barossa vines, and 'sleek and fragrant nuances' to the Rhones. 

This release was awarded 92 Points by The Connoisseurs Guide.

Dark garnet colored, medium plus bodied, black berry fruits accented by spice, earthy leather, black olives and pepper on a moderate finish.

RM 89 points. 

400 cases were made of the French-Oaked Syrah.


Views of visit to Viader estate vineyards and winery. 




Viader Napa Bordeaux Blend 1997

Viader Napa Valley Proprietary Bordeau Red Blend 1997

Our first dinner with the newlyweds Alec and Viviana upon their arrival in Illinois, Linda prepared a beef roast and I pulled from the cellar this Viader Napa Valley Red Blend. As I have written in these pages, this is one of the numerous "V" labels we have fun with as a tribute to our new daughter-in-law, Viv.

We met proprietor winemaker Delia Viader at a tasting hosted by Binny's Chicago Lakeview back in 2005, and visited the property on lower Howell Mountain in 2008

Our collection of Viader dates back to this 1997 vintage so it was with interest to see how this vintage has held up over the years to calibrate the lifespan of the other vintages. In the style of many Viader releases, this blend of 62% Cabernet Sauvignon and 38% Cabernet Franc in the profile of a top Graves from Bordeaux.

We expanded our collection of Viader wines following our visit to the Viader winery estate on the lower reaches of Howell Mountain during our Napa Valley Howell Mountain Wine Experience 2008.  

A travelogue of photos of our visit to the Viader are shown here or a selection are featured in the follow-on blog.  

We have since acquired and still hold close to a dozen vintages dating back to this 1997 release. As usual, as part of cellar collection management, I pulled this '97 vintage release, the oldest vintage in our collection.

The Viader 23-acre estate sits on the lower mountain at 1200 foot elevation overlooking Napa Valley. The vineyards are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Syrah. Viader is known for its Bordeaux-style blends. 

The 1200 foot elevation of the estate is significant and notable as that is the height that the fog reaches above the valley floor and hence is the point at which below is designated Napa Valley, and above it designated Howell Mountain. This climatic difference creates a distinctive terroir due to the effects of the fog on the ripening vines.  

Napa Valley view from the Viader estate

This follows our tasting last evening of another of the 'V' series of labels we enjoy with and in tribute to to Viviana, the Venge Vineyards Scout's Honor.

The 'V' is the prominent branding of the producer and winemaker Delia Viader, a remarkable and impressive lady who was born in Argentina and educated in Europe before earning graduate degrees in the U.S., a notable role model for any career minded female. Delia spent much of her formative years in Europe and in France where she earned a doctorate in Philosophy from the Sorbonne University in Paris, then pursued advanced business studies in the US at MIT, UC Berkeley and UC Davis.

Recognizing the potential Napa Valley wine industry in the 1980's, Delia acquired the Howell Mountain property and set out to create a world class wine estate, and continued studying Enology and Viticulture at University of California, Davis.  During this time she also raised her four children in the wine environment and culture.

Shown here is our meeting Delia Viader during a producer tasting evening sponsored by Binny's here in Chicago back in 2005. 

Viader Napa Valley Bordeaux Blend 1997

This release was awarded 97 points Wine Spectator and was Ranked #2 Top 100 Wines of 2000.  It received 92 points from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate who wrote, "The terrific 1997 Proprietary Red is the finest Viader I have tasted. It is a wine of exceptional finesse and elegance, yet undeniable richness and intensity." 
We acquired this label upon release and I first tasted and published a tasting note back in May 2000 when I wrote, "
Supposed to be one of California's best Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon blends, this mountain-grown wine is bold yet moderately structured,  currant, blackberry, cassis and herb flavors. I found this unexciting and a bit flat - perhaps it needs more time... (RM 89)." 
My lackluster rating at that time was somewhat typical of my experiences with the 1997 vintage that underwhelmed relative to its lofty ratings and high volume hype. Indeed, it took a decade or more for many of the labels to emerge and open up and reveal their true character and profile and live up to their potential. 
Here is another example where, at two decades, it is now showing vibrancy in the fruits, moreso than when young. It showed subtle signs of diminution from aging with ever-so-slight signs of opacity and rust color hues setting in with a bit of funkiness as fruits give way to non-fruit notes, mostly upon opening which burned off somewhat after an hour. 
The fill level, label, foil and most importantly the cork, as shown, were perfect, as if new.
Vinous wrote in 2017, "This wine has a distinctly cool element, as well as more fruit retention than the Cask 23, and I could easily enjoy it for dinner tonight. Supple and fully evolved; seems just past its peak even if sweetness remains."

Dark garnet color with hues of purple, medium full bodied, complex but nicely balanced, black cherry, black currant fruits with notes of spice, toasty oak and hints of graphite and dark mocha on the tangy crisp acid and smooth silky tannin laced finish. 
RM 92 points. 




Venge Vineyard "Scout's Honor" Napa Red 2015

Venge Vineyard "Scout's Honor" Napa Valley Red Blend 2015

Son Alec and daughter-in-law Viviana arrived from Florida as part of their circuitous relocation from New York City to Chicago. As part of our welcome to them we opened this bold expressive casual sipper, one of our "V" wines, those featuring the letter 'V' on their labels or in their branding, as a tribute to Viviana, that we have fun with in our collecting and serving. 

As I have written often in these pages, we've been enjoying Nils and Kirk Venge' wines since the early 1990's when Nils was featured by Wine Spectator Magazine in a 1994 article on up and coming wine producers. 

One of the labels of the Venge portfolio is Scout's Honor named for the family Labrador Retriever. I remember Scout walking the rows in the vineyards with Nils during a visit to the Rutherford Penny Lane estate back in the nineties (shown right from our 2002 visit).

This wine was initially meant to be a fun sipper for the Venge tasting room, yet it became — and remains — one of the most popular wines of the Venge portfolio which has now grown to nineteen labels. 

 Scout's Honor is based on a tradition of producing a full bodied, delicious and enjoyable red wine that can be opened and enjoyed immediately upon release however when cellared correctly it will age for 5 to 8 years.

Scout's Honor starts as a unique proprietary red blend anchored by a base of old-vine Zinfandel and builds upon that with dry-farmed Petite Sirah, old-vine Charbono, and finish with mountain vineyard Syrah.  

The blend for 2015 70% Zinfandel, 14% Charbono, 9% Petite Sirah and 7% Syrah.

We have been collecting this label since the earliest releases in the mid-nineties and hold a half dozen vintages. We typically keep a half dozen vintages of this label on hand for easy, enjoyable smooth sipping with everyday fare, great with BBQ, burgers, pizza to hearty cheese, beef, fruits and chocolates.
I was surprised when I went to write up this tasting note that this was my first recorded tasting of this vintage.

Nil's has stepped down into retirement and winemaker and production duties are now with son Kirk who has raised the bar taking this label to new heights in recent years, earning 93 or 94 points from Wine Advocate for vintages 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

 Wine buddy Andy and I visited Kirk and Nils up at the Calistoga estate and the Signal Fire Vineyard back in 2002 (shown right).  

From a branding perspective, this may be the last year you see this packaging with a paper label as the 2018 release went to a more upscale painted on glass bottle label marking, moving to a more premium positioning for this label. It remains to be seen what happens to the price point. It is already priced at the high end of the Zinfandel range, but well worth it with its sophistication and complexity and quality of the blend. 

2015 Venge "Scout's Honor" Napa Valley Red Blend

This release got
94 points from Jeb Dunnuck and 93 points from
Robert Parker's Wine Advocate.

 Winery notes: "The base starts with old-vine Zinfandel from Venge's Signal Fire Vineyard in Calistoga (where some of those vines have been producing for over 100 years!) and build upon that with dry-farmed Petite Sirah, old-vine Charbono, and finish with mountain-vineyard Syrah from the Stagecoach Vineyard. The result is an unpretentious red wine that will satisfy time and time again. This vintage has a gorgeous, concentrated assemblage of aromas of stone fruits, crushed blue herbs, violets, cherry, anise, and a touch of honeysuckle. On the palate is pure richness from the old-vine Zinfandel with loads of super-ripe blackberry, pepper spice, and an enveloping masculinity of char and tannins from the Syrah, Charbono and Petite Sirah. A seamless balance and mouth coating deliciousness are found throughout the palate, with an extra-long finish."

Deep garnet-purple colored, full bodied, rich, bold expressive dense, forward, especially ripe black berry and black currant fruits, this is another fruit bomb that is almost a bit over the top with its super ripe fruits' opulence, almost bordering on raisin notes with a bit of burnt coffee and tobacco notes turning to anise and dark bitter mocha with hints of cedar and pepper on the long moderate tannin laced finish. 

RM 89 points.



Thursday, March 25, 2021

Flora Springs "Trilogy" Napa Valley Bordeaux Blend 2008

Flora Springs "Trilogy" Napa Valley Bordeaux Blend 2008 

We enjoyed this with left over beef stew dinner at home. It was a perfect complement. I wrote about this label, the producer, history, family and branding in an in-depth chronicle last summer

This label is a regular favorite and mainstay holding in our cellar, partly due to the namesake that wife Linda is a descendant of the Flora family, founders of her hometown Flora, in Indiana, no relation of course to the California Napa Flora (first name) Kombs, but fun and a tribute none-the-less.

To this day, we hold a dozen vintages of this label in our cellar dating back to 90 and 91, a dependable offering for quality sophisticated drinking at reasonable value relative to the premium Napa and Bordeaux Blends.

Notably, we served the 1990 and 1991 vintages of this label, birthyear vintages of the groom and bride, at son Alec's wedding last fall

Hence, to fulfill the urge for a Bordeaux with our beef this evening, we opened this dozen year old Trilogy, named for the three primary Bordeaux varietal grapes in the blend.

Had I read the winemaker's accolades for this vintage release earlier, I likely would've held this vintage longer and chosen an older or alternate year as he attests 'it may be one of our greatest ever', and suggests prime drinking through 2028. 

As shown right, the cork was perfect at a dozen years of age. 

Robert Parker suggested in 2014 it should drink well for 10-15 more years. Prudent cellar management might have suggested I select a bottle that is closer to the end of its prime drinking window since this bottle can be held still longer for prime drinking. 

Flora Springs Trilogy Napa Valley Red Bordeaux Blend 2008

This release was awarded 94 points by Wine Enthusiast, and 91 points by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. It is a blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 2.5% Petit Verdot, and 2.5% Malbec, sourced from estate vineyards in the benchland hills of the Mayacamas Range in the further northwest corner of the Rutherford Appellation. It was aged for 22 months in 100% new French Oak and nearly 5000 cases were produced. 

Deep ruby purple coloed, medium to full body, complex yet elegant, supurbly balanced and polished black raspberry and black current flavors highlighted by floral, smooth oak and spice with hints of cassis and mocha turning to smooth silky tannins on the lingering finish. 



Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011

Calera Vineyards Mt Harlan Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011

For a midweek dinner, Linda served baked ham and scalloped potatoes. I pulled from the cellar this Calera Pinot Noir from Mt Harlan near Hollister in North Central California.

This is a single vineyard designated wine from the Ryan Vineyard. Readers of these pages know we primarily collect, drink and enjoy Bordeaux varietals and to a lesser degree Rhones. This is one of the very few Pinot Noirs we hold in our cellar. The reason for holding this label is part due to the classic history and legacy of this producer, and, the whimsical fun that this vineyard designated label shares the name of Ryan our oldest son. 

We don't do a lot of Pinots, opting instead for bigger, bolder, fuller bodied, darker more fruit forward wines. There are occasions when a lighter, more delicate subtle wine is more suitable and Pinot Noir, the wine of Burgundy is ideal. Such wines are not simpler however and can often be equally complex and even elegant.

Ten year old Pinot
vs Cabernet
As I have often written in these pages, our cellar is full of labels selected as signature labels for a family member or friend due to Vineyard names, special bottlings, or logos on the bottle as remembrances or tributes to someone special. These selections are in addition to our penchant for collecting wines from birth year and anniversary and special occasion year vintages as well.
Add to all this exuberance the selection of the producer Calera Vineyards and its founder winemaker Josh Jenson who is the epitome of Pinot Noir in California, or perhaps America.

I have written that I initially learned about Josh Jenson and his legendary Calera Vineyards were featured in Marq Devillier's wonderful 1994 book - "The Heartbreak Grape: A California Winemaker's Search for the Perfect Pinot Noir". The story tells the tale of Josh's quest to grow the very finnicky Pinot Noir grape in California in the early days before Pinot was cultivated here. In pursuit of his dream to create authentic Burgundian style wines, he sought to find the place in California suitable to achieve that goal. 

Devillers tells of Jenson's quest and research to find the right terrior - all the attributes of the right location, soil, climate, drainage, and other nuances of 'place' that make up the character and personality of a wine from grapes of a particular site. Josh chose Mt. Harlan, an area not then know for grapes or winemaking. 

The rest, as they say, is history. While it is a human interest tale, it also provides a rich insight into the challenges and travails of setting up a winery, and a business, and achieving one's dream to make noteworthy wines. 

Calera’s Mt. Harlan Vineyards are located in Hollister, California, in the Gavilan Mountains, 25 miles east of the Monterey Bay. After much research and searching, Jenson found and selected this site for its limestone soils and ideal climate. At an average elevation of 2,200 feet it is among the highest and coolest vineyard sites in California.

Calera Pinot Noirs are single vineyard designated meaning they are each named for and produced from fruit sourced from one vineyard each. Their five vineyards planted in Pinot Noir are named for Josh's father (Jenson), Mills, a neighbor who mentored Josh in his early years, Reed, for one of Josh's dear friends and early investors, and in this case Selleck, for a family friend whom Josh attributes to introducing him to wine.

In 2002, the Ryan label appeared, named for Calera's vineyard manager since 1979. We've had fun with this wine collecting it for our #1 Ryan, serving it in celebration of his wedding a few years ago, and holding it in our cellar for special Ryan oriented occasions, or just fun occasions shared together such as tonight!

The Calera vineyards are enumerated and featured on the rear bottle label of the bottles as shown here. They are perhaps the most comprehensive and informative labels one will find anywhere on a bottle of wine. They spell out the information on the vineyard, geography, altitude, plantings, vines, the vintage and the bottling. The rear label itself makes for interesting reading, and insightful comparisons across the vineyards or vintages if one happens to have such bottles.

The Calera branding features the historic massive 30 foot tall limestone kiln that sits on the property from earlier days quarrying and processing limestone. Noting limestone in the soils of the legendary French Burgundy region, Jenson scoured the US seeking similar terroir to site his vineyards to produce Pinot Noir. He found such terroir and thoughtfully chose the property in the Central Coast region of California. The name Calera translates to 'limekiln' in in Spanish.

The Calera organically farmed Mt. Harlan vineyards are in the Gavilan Mountains, 25 miles east of Monterey Bay. The Ryan Vineyard, like Calera's others, has limestone soils, which are prized above any other soil type for growing Pinot Noir. Combined with the vineyard's average elevation of 2,200 feet--among the highest and coolest in California--the result is structured, intense Pinot.

Interesting that the latest wave of development in vineyard plantings for Burgundian varietals, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is in the western reaches of Sonoma County along the Sonoma Coast. Producers are calling these cool climate wines for the coastal breezes and fog encroaching and enveloping the vineyards from the Pacific Ocean. 

We toured the region and stayed in the remote town of Botega Bay during our Napa/Sonoma County Wine Experience in 2017

Winemaker notes for this release: "Graceful aromas of rose petal, tea, cassis, and clay accent a beautiful strawberry brick hue. This 2011 Ryan is firmly structured and intense with classic Mt. Harlan mineral purity. Mouthwatering flavor of cranberry, sour cherry and calcium offer fascinating tension with the taut, well integrated tannins offering a bright and very complex wine, and definitely a candidate for cellaring."

Calera Ryan Vineyard Mt Harlan Pinot Noir 2011

We hold a half dozen vintages of this label in our cellar as one of our 'signature' wines we hold in fun tribute to son Ryan.  

I still hold several bottles dating back to the 2010 and 2011 vintages. Normally I would select the older vintage but I chose the 2011, believing it might be the 'lesser' vintage, from a less ageworthy vintage. This is based on the lackluster vintage up further north in the Napa region. Alas, what a pleasant surprise that was very enjoyable, showing well, and holding up well showing no diminution of age whatsoever at ten years of age, exceeding my expectations on both counts. I raised my personal rating score of this label from earlier tasting (s).

Winemaker notes for this release suggest it is a 'candidate for cellaring': "Graceful aromas of rose petal, tea, cassis, and clay accent a beautiful strawberry brick hue. This 2011 Ryan is firmly structured and intense with classic Mt. Harlan mineral purity. Mouthwatering flavor of cranberry, sour cherry and calcium offer fascinating tension with the taut, well integrated tannins offering a bright and very complex wine, and definitely a candidate for cellaring." 

Pundit Allen Meadows of Burghound suggests 'drinking this on the younger side with an appropriate dish,' and Vinous said 2014 it 'should drink well for many year's. Robert Parker's Wine Advocate Jeb Dunnuck in 2014 wrote, 'Overall, it’s a structured effort that should be given another handful of years in the cellar, and consumed over the following decade.

I suspect at ten years, we're drinking this wine at the apex of its drinking window. The label from the bottle was in perfect condition (shown above).

This release was awarded 93 points by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, 92 points by Vinous

Consistent with our last tasting of this wine, ironically a year ago this week, and our previous tasting for this label which we served for the family Thanksgiving diner back in 2015, this was translucent ruby red colored, medium light bodied, scent of dusty rose, cherry and raspberry fruit flavors with a hint of cola, clove spice, leather and earthy mushroom turning to fine grained delicate tannins on the moderate lingering finish.

RM 90 points.  @CaleraWine

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Swerwer Swartland Chenin Blanc 2018

JC (Jasper) Wickens Swerwer Swartland Chenin Blanc 2018

Continuing our exploration of South African wines recently sourced from Vin Chicago, Linda prepared crabcakes and we opened this South African Chenin Blanc for casual sipping. This is from the Swartland appellation, 'Designation of origin' from the Western Cape, Coastal Region of South Africa.

This is produced by winemaker Jasper Wickens who was previously the assistant winemaker at Badenhorst Family Wines He has built up a following since his first releases in 2012 with his highly popular ‘Swartland’ wines. 

Jasper Wickens started out working at Zevenwacht Wine Estate where he learned conventional wine making practices over a two year period. He went on to graduate from Stellenbosch University with a Bachelor's Degree in Viticulture and Oenology. Jasper spent some time in Napa Valley where he was exposed to cutting edge technology and state of the art equipment.

Returning to South Africa he writes, “Adi Badenhorst brought me down to earth, really fast and hard. Coming to the Swartland changed everything I thought I knew about the wine world. Immediately I was working in the most primitive of ways, paying with blood and sweat, to learn that good wine doesn't come without getting your hands dirty. Tasting and developing a feel for the vineyards, the grapes and what they would become was much more important.”Suddenly, Jasper found himself in a completely different environment of old bush vines, natural whole bunch fermentations, low sulphur levels and a hands-off approach. This ‘Swartland norm’ was very far from the clinically sterile approach of the cellars he had worked in before. His time immersed in the ‘primitive’ ways passed quickly resulting in an almost ten year working relationship at AA Badenhorst Family Wines.

During his time at Badenhorst, he was allowed the freedom to travel and explore new cultures of winemaking. He spent time at the ancient, steep sloped slate vineyards of Priorat, Spain, working alongside Eben Sadie at Terroir-al-Limit, using traditional winemaking techniques, plowing with mules and practicing biodynamic farming for the first time. Crafting top wines from old vine Grenache and Carignan, Jasper returned to Priorat yearly between 2009 and 2011.

During the European harvests of 2011 and 2012  Jasper worked with Tom Lubbe at Matassa in Roussilon, France where he explored and experimented with completely naturally made wines farming organically or even bio-dynamically.

Moving with the seasons, working two harvest a year: a South African Swartland harvest followed by an European Priorat and Roussilon harvest, his ‘Swerwer’ project was born. “Swerwer” is a name which describes the lives of many young winemakers who chase the vintages across the globe traversing between the opposing seasons of the Northern and Southern hemispheres. 

The bulk of Swerwer grapes came from Waterval farm where a number of new vineyards were planted especially for Jasper’s growing production. Grenache Noir, Cinsault and Tinta Barocca vineyards were planted with a particular vision for Swerwer. There he got the opportunity to work with old vine Chenin Blanc and be part of the planting of new vineyards.

Waterval is one of the oldest farms in the area of Pardeberg dating back to the late 18th Century farming fruit orchards, vegetables and livestock. Over time and with the rise and formation of Swartland Co-op in the late 1940’s, attention turned to planting grapes. 

The Paardeberg ('horse mountain') divides the Paarl and Swartland wine regions, on the Western Cape coastal region, north of Capetown. The climate has cold winters with an average rainfall of 400-600 mm and hot summer, typically very hot during the day, with cooler temperatures at night.

Paardeberg has some of the highest vineyards above sea level in the Swartland region rising to 700 m. Vines are planted on the slopes of the Paardeberg in relatively deep soil consisting of decomposed sandstone, granite and some clay, while glenrosa-scali-type soil is found on the lower northeastern slopes.

Waterval has been in the Schreiber family since 1947 managed by father and son team, Cyril and Barry. After graduating from Elsenburg, third generation Franziska joined her father Barry and gradually took the ‘reins’, combining old school with a fresh outlook and modern techniques.

In 2016 Jasper and Franziska Waterfal tied the knot and the proprietorship partnership was formed, Jasper as winemaker and Franziska as viticulturist, they set out to produce estate wines from vines dating back to the 1960s. The old cellar on Waterval farm was renovated and equipped with the help of Adi. The first grapes in 50 years were received in January 2019, the same year James Barry was born to be the 4th generation on Waterval.

JC (Jasper) Wickens Swerwer Swartland Chenin Blanc 2018

Winemaker note for this label in 2019, "A high quality, focused Chenin Blanc. An invite of white and yellow stone fruit and herbal notes to a leaner palate, softly textured with peach, citrus, quince and a slightly savoury touch. A zesty acid zip leaves flavours to evolve and broaden with a longer finish. It is a complex and well-balanced wine, to be enjoyed fresh with food, although it can benefit with ageing to become quite complex and special."

Straw colored, light bodied, crisp acidity with citrus, tropical and stone fruit and hints of peach and lime on a zesty finish.

RM 88 points

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Force Majeure Collaboration Series Ptera Red Mountain 2012

Force Majeure Collaboration Series Ptera Force Majeure Vineyard 2012

For midweek dinner, Linda prepared a beef roast variation of her shepherd's pie and pot pie. I pulled from the cellar this big complex Columbia Valley red wine for an accompaniment. This is from proprietor entrepreneurs Paul and Susan McBride who ventured to the Northwest in pursuit of a dream to develop world-class vineyards and wines from the region. They believed in the promise of the quality wines coming from Red Mountain in the Columbia Valley in central Washington State, They purchased undeveloped land that is now Force Majeure Vineyard in 2004 to pursue their passion to make wines that define the region and showcase the terroir of its vineyards.

Drawing inspiration from the great vineyards of Bordeaux and the Northern and Southern Rhône valleys, they developed the first vineyard on the steep, rocky upper slopes of Red Mountain that were formed by the ancient Missoula floods, winds and volcanic activity. This steep vineyard ranges in elevation from 960 to 1,230 feet. 

They worked to carefully match varietal and clonal selections and viticulture techniques and irrigation to the eight distinct soil types in their vineyard. The outcome is a vineyard articulated into many small “micro-blocks,” maximizing the potential to to capture the distinctive and varying terrior of the unique and dynamic site.

The rocky upper-slope with shallow soil is well suited to the cultivation of Rhone varietals such as Syrah and Grenache, while the lower blocks of the vineyard are comprised of deep, well-drained Warden soils, where the Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc excel. The west/southwest exposure of the site is planted to Syrah on the hill, tightly spaced to provide shade on the fruit. Development of the site began in 2006.

In 2014 they recruited winemaker Todd Alexander from California. Todd had developed a reputation for crafting terroir-driven wines that showcase the unique characteristics of specific sites through uncompromising, meticulous work in both the vineyard and winery. Prior to his arrival at Force Majeure, Todd had been Winemaker for acclaimed “cult” winery Bryant Family Vineyard in the Napa Valley. At Bryant, he worked closely with some of the very best and brightest in the wine industry, including legendary vineyard manager David Abreu and famous winemaking consultant Michel Rolland. 

In 2014, Todd came to Force Majeure with the goal of applying his skills and talents toward pushing the envelope of winemaking in Washington state, to join in our endeavor of crafting truly world-class wines from our own special sites.

We hosted Todd and his wife Carrie during their vintage release tour visit to Chicago in 2016 where we introduced him to our good friend Jared Gelband, wine director at the Italian Village restaurants.

We later visited Force Majeure during our Walla Walla Force Majeure Vineyards Site Visit and Tasting Walla Walla Washington Wine Experience in 2018. We tasted and acquired a broader portfolio of their wines at that time and subsequently through their wine club allocations.  

We have subsequently served Force Majeure Red Mountain wines at dinners we have hosted at Italian Village Chicago.
This vintage release is a unique blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. This label, Ptera, was only made in a few vintages and quickly become a mailing list favorite. This was from the Force Majeure Collaboration Series, begun in 2004 with a partnership between viticulturist Ryan Johnson, owners Paul and Susan McBride and seven specially selected winemakers, each chosen for their proficiency with various grape varietals and styles.

The “Collaboration Series” was produced in small quantities of Bordeaux- and Rhone-inspired wines, sourced from the notable Ciel du Cheval Vineyard from 2004 to 2013, and including in later years the Force Majeure Vineyard.  This and the follow on 2013 release were the final vintage for the “Collaboration Series” wines, as Force Majeure estate production increased to allow them to be a completely estate-focused winery sourcing fruit from their own vineyards.

This label was a unique blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It was awarded 95 points by The Wine Advocate and 91 points by Wine Spectator. 

At nearing a decade old, this was likely at its prime, at the apex of its drinking window and profile. The cork was in perfect condition as shown.

Dark inky purple garnet colored, full bodied, firmly structured but nicely balanced and approachable full black raspberry and black berry fruits are accented by notes of cola, coffee, spices with lead pencil graphite and floral turning to fine grained tannins on the long lingering finish.

RM 92 points.