Sunday, December 29, 2013

Whitehall Lane Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2003

Whitehall Lane Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2003

We all gathered together for a gala family dinner before son Alec returns to NYC. Linda prepared a beef tenderloin wellington with a corn casserole, twice baked potatoes, broccoli and fresh roles. Ryan and I dug into the cellar for a 'big cab' and came up with a Whitehall Lane, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2003 to close out the year with this ten year old. Anyone that has visited Napa Valley probably has driven past the Whitehall Lane property on Hwy 29 south of St Helena. In all our Napa trips, we've somehow missed stopping there. We'll need to visit Whitehall Lane on an upcoming trip.

Somewhere along the way I acquired a mini-vertical of this wine from the 1999 to 2004 vintages. Normally we'd open the oldest, or the least age-worthy vintage (such as the 1998 vintage that was panned by pundits in the shadow of the blockbuster highly acclaimed '97, but in the end has been drinking very nicely the past few years - especially when compared to the highly touted '97 which seems to be still developing, awaiting the time to reveal its full potential), but we had a duplicate of the '03 so we popped that one.

Whitehall Lane Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2003

I am fighting off a winter cold with flu symptoms so my senses were diminished to adequately taste or fully appreciate this wine. Even in my state of dulled senses there was no mistaking the profile of this wine.

Ryan brought it upstairs and opened the bottle and was surprised to discover a glass stopper under the foil seal (see left). I have to admit in all my years of tasting literally thousands of wines, I don't recall coming across one of these. 

At ten years old, this showed no sign of aging diminution and came across a bit forward and adolescent with well balanced bright vibrant fruits.

Dark Ruby Red colored, medium to full bodied, it exhibited aromas and full flavors of black berry and black currant with a layer of alcohol that almost gave it a sense of bourbon, accented by sweet tones of vanilla, hints of anise, sweet mocha and a bit of cherry on a lingering silky moderate tannin finish.

RM 90 points.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Verney Syrah and Marc Bredif Chinon at Hemingways Bistro in Oak Park

Verney Syrah & Marc Brédif Chinon at Hemingway's Bistro Oak Park 

After conducting a tour for friends Kathy M and Jackie P at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio where I am a docent/interpreter, we lunched at nearby Hemingway's Bistro in Oak Park, for our second visit in as many weeks

Unlike our earlier visit and our small plates dinner the other night, I felt compelled to try French wines from their by-the-glass selections on the wine list. We chose two rather simple, approachable, pleasant easy drinking good value reds that were a nice complement to Linda's Bistro Burger and my Roast Pork loin special. 

Domaine Georges Vernay Syrah de Mirbaudie Vin De Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes  2011

From the little known appellation of Condrieu in the Northern Rhone river valley in south central France this wine is composed of 100% Syrah varietal. 

Bright ruby colored, medium bodied, bouquet of red raspberry, pepper and spice, much like a Pinot Noir. Flavors of blackberry and slightly tart black cherry fruits give way to layer of spice and black pepper with tones of smoke and soft velvety tannins on the moderate finish. 

RM 86 points.

Marc Brédif Chinon 2011

From the little known appellation of Chinon in the Loire Valley that produces vibrant spicy, racy Cabernet Franc varietal based wines. They are less structured and tannic than the Cabernet Francs from the hotter region down south in Bordeaux where they are used as part of the Bordeaux blend to provide structure, color and a bit of spice. Since it is a lesser known region and produces simpler single varietal wines of Cabernet Franc, they are more approachable and are less expensive for a much greater value than if they were from Bordeaux or California. 

 Dark deep ruby colored rim on dark purple medium body, aromas of cassis and licorice, with a touch of vanilla; flavors of blackberry, hints of strawberry turning to cassis, some earthiness & touch of  minerality with moderate dry tannins on the short finish. 

RM 87 points.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Marchesi Antinori Villa Antinori Toscana

Marchesi Antinori Villa Antinori Toscana for Casual Everyday Italian Fare

One of the world's most prolific wine producers, the Antinori family, has been producing wine for over six centuries, since 1385, over twenty six generations. Today they produce over 500 different wines from properties around the world. We tasted two of their flagship premium labels during our gala Italian wine tasting last month - Guado Al Tasso and Tignanello.

Today we tasted their 'every day' wine, what I like to call 'pizza wine', wine for every day casual drinking, say with pizza. Lets face it, most of us have limited or finite funds to spend on wine and must moderate our consumption. (I recall reading the biography of Henry Ford (Ford: The Man and the Machine, by Robert Lacey, 1986 - Little, Brown & Company) that each evening at dinner, he drank Chateau Lafite Rothschild, c'est la vie!).  

I refer to every-day wines, 'once a week', 'once a month', year and 'once in a life-time wines' for collecting and eventual consumption at some special occasion. This would be one of those wines to buy and drink, not hold for a special once per month or per year occasion. Most notably, besides being widely available at an affordable under $20 price point, it is a respectable, reasonable quality drinking wine offering good QPR - quality price ratio for 'every day' consumption. While it is not elegant, refined or polished, it does provide full body and full flavors, ideal for pasta, pizza, burgers or even a steak.

Label from the 2006 vintage
For a casual lunch outing with friends Jackie P visiting from Phoenix with Kathy M, we dined at Nuova Italia in St Charles. Relatively new to the St Charles scene, this long standing Addison restaurant opened in a stylish and quaint old church on 4th street for a delightful quaint picturesque setting. They offer a extensive selection of Italian dishes of high quality, and good portions for a great value dining experience.

Marchesi Antinori Villa Antinori Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy, 2010 

Nuova Italia offer a basic, modest but fundamentally sound wine list, to accompany the basic Italian fare. From the list, we selected this Villa Antinori Toscana. This is what is known as a 'super Tuscan', a blend comprised on big bold varietals indigenous to the Tuscany region, but also well known and grown in Bordeaux and California - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and the Italian varietal Sangiovese. The inclusion of Sangiovese in an otherwise Bordeaux blend is what sets this apart from a Bordeaux style and makes it a super Tuscan. In this case, the blend is 55% Sangiovese, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, and 5% Syrah.

Per the winemaker's notes, "Antinori Villa Toscana IGT is intense ruby red in color. The aromas are also intense and complex with notes of spices, mint, and chocolate, which are particularly felt along with light aromas of rip cherries. On the palate the wine, savory and long, is full-bodied and round with supple and velvety tannins."

We found this to be dark garnet colored, full bodied with full forward black berry fruits with soft layers of chocolate mocha, baking spice and tobacco with supple soft moderate tannins on the finish.

RM 87 points.

Pate selection with Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve 2001

Pate' selection with Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve 2001

After a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, we stopped at the 'big' Binny's in west Lakeview to see if they've opened their new expansion to learn it is being held up by the City. We picked up a selection of Pate's for a wine pairing - Mousse of Foie Gras with Sauternes Wine, Venison Pate with cranberry and pistachio, and Peppercorn Mousse Fabrique Deuces California. To accompany the wines we opened one of our favorites - a twelve year old Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir from our vertical selection of this wine.

We both loved the Vension selection. My favorite was the creamy smooth and rich Mousse of Foie Gras. Neither of us cared for the Peppercorn Mousse which seemed to have an odd musty almost soap taste. The first two were great pairings with the wine.

Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2001

Although we are not big Pinot drinkers we love this wine, one of the very few Pinot's in our cellar. Its a high achiever, always getting high marks thereby consistently offering a reasonable QPR. This year the 2010 release was Wine Spectator's #3 wine in its list of Top 100 gaining a 95 point rating. This 2001 was the oldest bottle in our vertical collection of this wine.

The winemaker's notes -
"With a brilliant ruby red color this wine opens to aromas of sweet red fruits, cherry, raspberry as well as more subtle spices of clove, cinnamon and pipe tobacco. On the front palate you taste blackberry and boysenberry that is rich and plumy. The wine has great weight and balance showing fine tannin on a supple frame. The finish is long with great earthy, toast, pepper and black olive. Blend of Pommard (77%), Wadenswil (16%) and Dijon (7%) clones of Pinot Noir from Estate Vineyards in the Red Hills (89%) and Eola Hills (11%)."

Ruby colored, medium bodied, this exhibited big fruit aromatics, full forward cherry, boysenberry and raspberry fruit flavors, clove and cinnamon spices with a layer tea, tobacco and hint of smoke on a smooth moderate tannin finish.

RM 91

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Venge Vineyards Penny Lane Family Reserve Sangiovese 2000

Venge Vineyards Oakville Napa Valley Penny Lane Family Reserve Sangiovese 2000

Christmas Day family dinner ... eight degrees outside, Linda made hearty lasagna so I pulled a Family Reserve Sangiovese from the cellar. It was a perfect combination.

We discovered, first tasted and purchased this wine during our winery visit and at a lunch tasting with winemaker Nils Venge as part of our Napa Valley Wine Experience 2002. At lunch with Nils Venge, he spoke of the Family Reserve label being a testament to an annual gathering of the extended family coming together to harvest the Penny Lane Vineyard for this and a few other select wines. In earlier blog posts I've written about that visit and previous tasting notesother vintage tasting notes, and Nils Venge, his work with the Sangiovese grape varietal and its history.Venge's label series also features a collection of original art work labels.

Continuing to show its age, approaching the last chapter of its aging profile, its time to consume these thirteen year olds, we're nearing the end of our assorted case of these Sangiovese's.

As with earlier tasting notes, the 2000 Venge Vineyards Sangiovese is grown on the Venge Family Estate Penny Lane Vineyard in Oakville. Ripe and smooth for a Sangiovese, the 2000 is dark inky color but starting to show a tinge of rust and brown edges at this stage of life. Medium bodied, it still presents pretty, ripe black cherry and blackberry fruit flavors at its core highlighted by a layer of herb and anise notes and touch of leather and tobacco. It has a flavorful lush long finish. 

RM 90 points.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Syrah stand-off - top rated Ojai Presidio vs. 90+ Cellars Lot 101

Syrah stand-off - top rated Ojai Presidio vs. 90+ Cellars Lot 101 

Here is a classic stand-off comparison between two contrasting styles of American Syrah. I've been enjoying the Ninety Plus Cellars Lot 101 Syrah recent release as written here in my blogpost. So when son Ryan said he was bringing a highly rated Ojai Vineyard Central California Syrah to Christmas eve dinner, the challenge was on. Erin prepared a delicious beef tenderloin while Ryan prepared succulent lobster tails for a gala Christmas eve family dinner that included twice baked potatoes, Barb's green beans in bacon and herbs, and Alec's salad, followed by Baby Jesus' birthday cake and decadent dark chocolate mousse.

Ninety Plus Cellars Lot 101: Collectors Series Columbia Valley, Washington, Syrah, 2009

I reviewed this wine last week in my blogpost. I love this style as my preferred profile of a Syrah, thick, chewy with sweet forward fruits. Dark inky colored, medium to full bodied, this full throttled Syrah reveals layers of blackberry and black currants fruits with tones of sweet vanilla, caramel and spice with hints of black pepper on a lingering smooth silky tannin finish.

RM 93 points.


Ojai Presidio Vineyard Santa Barbara County Syrah 2008 

Since 1983 Ojai Vineyard have been producing central California wines in the French style of Burgundy and the Rhone valley. Adam Tolmach studied viticulture and enology at UC Davis and worked at Zaca Mesa in Santa Barbara County after graduating in 1976. He co-founded Au Bon Climat with Jim Clendenen in 1982. After nine years Adam sold out to Jim to focus on Ojai Vineyard where he planted Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc on the property his grandfather bought in the Ojai Valley in 1933. 

Today the team of Adam and Helen Tolmach and Fabien Castel source fruit from a dozen different vineyards from the coolest districts in Northern Santa Barbara County. They produce wines from Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier varietals. They produce about 6000 cases each year across about 15 different bottlings/labels, most of which are vineyard designated wines. This Syrah is another blockbuster in their recent lineup that received huge reviews and ratings. 

Black color, medium-full bodied, full aromatics of berry fruits, concentrated, complex, still a bit backwards and tight, a core of dark fruits is accented by creosote, licorice, tobacco and herbs with a hint of pepper. My preference is for the forward fruit filled style of the 90+ while the layers of tar and licorice detract of the Ojai from its appeal for my tastes, Robert Parker loves the Ojai and gives this 95 points. Ryan too favored the Ojai.

RM 89 points.

Parker's description - "Meaty and peppery, with green herbs, bacon fat, smoke, mineral and loads of dark fruit, this medium to full-bodied Syrah has superb purity and definition on the palate. Still backwards and tight, it needs another 2-3 years of bottle age and will thrill through 2024."

Ravines Wine Cellars Finger Lakes Dry Riesling 2012 

To accompany the lobster, I brought this recent release Dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes region in New York. We visited Ravines during our visit to the Finger Lakes Wine Region in 2012. This is one of the very few Finger Lakes region producers to reach the Chicago market. Their Cabernet Franc and this Riesling can be found currently.

As noted in my blog posts from the time, Riesling is the primary and most appropriate varital grape grown in the region. They should stick to what they do best and focus on Riesling and a select few other varietals that are best suited to the climate and terroir there. But unfortunately they stray from the tried and tested approach learned in the old world and produce a wide variety of wines from an extraordinary wide selection of varietals. The result if a lot of mediocre and uninspiring wines. Never-the-less, Wine Spectator recently included Ravines Wine Cellars’ 2012 Dry Riesling in its Top 100 Wines of 2013, ranking it 33rd on the list.

James Molesworth rated the 2012 Dry Riesling with a 91 point score in the October issue of Wine Spectator, citing its “good weight and drive, with Asian pear, fennel and Fuji apple notes carried by lively acidity. Delivers lots of cut on the finish.”

Did he say fennel? Yes, I'm afraid so and this tends to detract from the harmony of the fruit. The wine tends to have a subtle but noticeable tone of what some might describe as rubber or tennis ball aromas.

I gave it 86 points.

Ryan gave it a 85 in his Cellartracker note - "strange wine. overpowering new rubber aroma and flavor..".

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Spring Valley Uriah Walla Walla Valley Red Wine 2010

Spring Valley Vineyard Uriah Walla Walla Valley Red Wine 2010

Following my post the other night on the earlier 2002 vintage of this wine, and upon seeking to replace it with the most current release, I wrote about it suddenly disappearing from merchant stocks after receiving a Top 100 #27 in the Wine Spectator Top 100 ranking for the year.

Son Alec picked up a half case on the east coast and brought it home for Christmas. So it was only fitting we popped a bottle to try it during our father-son dinner outing at his 'alma mater' restaurant where he worked through high school and college. Readers of this blog see regular frequent mentions of Angeli's, our favorite local Italian eatery.

This may be the most expressive Uriah I have tasted. It is the most complex on the front and most vibrant on the finish that I remember. We hold each vintage going back to 2002.

Dark ruby colored, full bodied, complex layers of tight spicy red currant and black raspberry fruits are accented by spicy clove, hints of smoky anise turning to a big mouthful of subtle cinnamon and hint of mocha on a big floral tongue tingling smooth dusty tannins.

RM 93 points.

Blend: 46% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Malbec

Culler Napa Valley Howell Mtn Cabernet 2005

Culler Wines Napa Valley Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 
At picturesque Ladera Winery on
Howell Mountain
This is the signature wine from Karen Culler who is the winemaker of Ladera Winery up on Howell Mountain. She produces this full throttle Howell Mountain cabernet and a cabernet syrah blend under the Culler label. We visited Ladera Winery up on Howell Mountain during our Ladera Napa Wine Experience 2008.
Dan Stotesberry, son of the Ladera owners, was marketing their wines and came and visited me here in Chicago several months later during one of his trips to the east. Traveling with him during that trip, I learned of the Karen Culler connection and I obtained these wines during our stops at Binny's here in Chicagoland as a result. 
Today, Dan works in sales and marketing for Pillow Road Vineyards up in Sonoma. We also tasted and acquired Pillow Road wines during our Ladera visits. Dan is no stranger to the midwest. He attended Depauw University in Greencastle, Indiana and then, after graduation, traded soybean futures at the Chicago Board of Trade. His passion for wine eventually lead him back to California and the family business at Ladera Winery and Pillow Road Vineyards. 
I pulled this from the cellar to enjoy with a grilled steak without forethought or thinking much about it.  Had I considered it further, I might have tasted this against the Ladera Howell Mountain Napa Cab from the same vintage. This might have revealed or suggested that they are the same wine. An intellectual exercise perhaps, I'll have to rely on my tasting notes and memory to compare the two when I eventually open the Ladera wine. We hold a collection of Ladera Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley, Howell Mountain, Lone Canyon, and a label from 'Two Mountains'. We've heard they have sold off and discontinued the Lone Canyon production. 

Complicating the wine tasting comparison further will be the latency or delay between the two individual tastings which  will add another dimension of time or aging between the two specimens. 
Perhaps the comparison to Ladera may be errant or over-stated. The other dimension is to this wine compare this to other 'similarly situated' Howell Mountain Cabernets, those from the same terroir and like and similar vintages. That too may prove to be merely an intellectual exercise since there may be different components in the blend, different oak treatment, different harvest conditions, and so on. Never-the-less, these are the elements of tasting and comparing wines, hence the fun and fascination with the subject. 
 All that said, I have to say that I did not find this wine to strongly resemble any other Howell Mountain cabernets that I have tasted. The range of such wines that we hold in our cellar consist of Robert Craig, Cade, Beringer, Clark Claudon, Outpost, Lamborn, Viader and Oshaughnesy. Needless to say, we're huge fans of Howell Mountain Cabernets! Karen Culler may read this and be amused, or she may see her wine mentioned with list above and she'll see how off base I am, in which case, my 'miss' may be attributed to the differences cited above - time in bottle, oak treatment, aging, etc. In any event here is what I found in this wine tonight, the sport of tasting is all about discovering and diagnosing these comparisons and differences.
The Culler 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon was dark purple colored, full bodied, complex, tight and a bit 'hard' or firm, which did tend to soften over the course of a couple hours over the evening. It presented black fruits with a layer of charcoal, slight hint of smoke, tones of anise and tobacco leaf, turning to a layer of  mocha sweetness on the moderate lingering tannin finish. I sense this would have been harder, more subdued and a bit closed had it been opened three to five years earlier, and in that same vein, will continue to soften and open and be more approachable over the next five years. 
 Regrettably, I don't have five or six more bottles to test this over time, but it does give me a benchmark to compare the aging profile of and effects of some other similar wines.
RM 92 points. 


Monday, December 16, 2013

Roots Klee Pinot Noir Hemingway's Bistro in Oak Park

Roots Klee Pinot Noir and Cain Cuvee' at Hemingway's Authentic French Bistro in Oak Park

Located in the center of the historic district in Oak Park amidst historic architecture and homes of historic figures sits Hemingway's Bistro, an authentic French dining experience. A few doors away is Ernest Hemingway's home, across the street from the Ernest Hemingway Museum, and a couple blocks away is Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio (where I am a docent/interpreter). (See my Frank Lloyd Wright site dedicated to Wright and Prairie Style architecture.)

After a day holiday shopping in Chicago with Linda and our friend Kay Z, we stopped enroute home for a festive wine and small plates tasting experience. While we deviated from the French wine selections, the rest of the experience could have been from the Languedoc or Loire. Chef Christopher Ala has worked as the opening Executive Chef of the Historic Allerton Hotel in Chicago after their 80 million dollar renovation, has also run the Le Meriden Hotel and the memorable classic Chez Paul Restuarant in Chicago. We remember dining at Chez Paul back in the early eighties. Most will recall it from its classic lunch scene in the movie Ferris Bueler's Day Off (Abe Froman, Sausage King of Chicago!).

Our small plates (see below) consisted of Oysters on the half shell, Foie Gras, Pate, a cheese selection plate, followed of course by desserts - creme brulee. For the wine selection we chose a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir from Roots Vineyards. With desserts, our second wine was Cain Cuvee' Napa Valley NV9. Hemingway's wine list is primarily French and also American with over 60 selections by the bottles and 30 by the glass.

As I often write in this blog, it is easy to find a great Pinot Noir for $80. It is hard to to find a good, well priced Pinot for under $25, let alone under $20. A high QPR (Quality Price Ratio) Pinot Noir is one of the toughest varietals to find. Start with a producer who tends to over achieve with a value brand. Chris Berg,  from “five family vineyards” in the Willamette Valley brings us this respectable value priced offering with the stylish art inspired whimsical label.

Born is Racine, Wisconsin, raised in the midwest, Chris Berg moved when his family relocated to Oregon to start a business. In 1999, the Bergs planted seven acres of mostly Pinot Noir on the 20-acre property near Yamhill in the Yamhill-Carlton District of the Willamette Valley. Chuck and Dian Berg built a small house on the vineyard, and son Chris lived in Portland with his wife, Hilary. After Chuck and Dian moved to Arizona, Chris and Hilary took over the vineyards and winemaking duties.

The Roots name on the label is from the French word Racine taken from Chris' birthplace.

In 2002, the Bergs picked their first harvest of a mere three tons, which were made into 72 cases of Pinot Noir. Today, Roots produces approximately 3,800 cases annually. Wines include their flagship estate Pinot Noir, as well as eight single vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs, sourced mostly from neighboring vineyards in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Other wines include an estate Pinot Gris, Melon de Bourgogne, Viognier, Riesling, Dessert Riesling, Syrah and a methode champenoise sparkling, Theo, named after their son. All these wines are made in very small lots and handcrafted using indigenous yeasts.

In homage to one of Chris' favorite artists, Roots' second label, Klee (named after Paul Klee), makes up the largest portion of their case production with 2,000 cases made annually. The artwork is their own adaptation of a Klee painting. An art lover would recognize the artist Klee style artwork, the label is a clever rendition of a brilliant melange of color with a take-off of the Chesire Cat and a wine bottle.

Klee Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2011

Ruby colored, medium bodied, classic in the style of  Roots with the soft core fruits of black cherry, cranberry and plum with accents of spice and a hint of earth. The fermentation is done with indigenous yeasts, and the wine sees 10 months in neutral oak.  This is a pleasant easy drinking Pinot that is a great value - a rare find indeed. Credit Hemingway's for finding and offering such a feature.

RM 89 points.

Cain Cuvee' NV9

Cain's Cuvée project began over 20 years ago as a multi-vintage, multi-varietal blend based primarily on Bordeaux varietals - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The grapes are sourced from Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville, Spring Mountain, and Atlas Peak. Each vintage is a new, carefully made blend and many of the same rows of the same vineyards are included in each cuvée.

Cain Cuvee' NV 9
From winemaker Christopher Howell: "The facts will explain nothing. The NV09 is 53% Merlot (the balance being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot), and it’s a blend of two vintages: 2009 (57%) and 2008 (43%). What sets the wine apart is how it tastes... This has everything I want in a red wine: smooth entry, mouth filling, sits gently and lightly on the palate, just enough mouthwatering tannins to cleanse the palate. Aromas of black cherries, red cherries, cigar box. Core of red fruit carries through from beginning to end. Nicely refined. Nothing sticks out."

Dark garnet colored, medium-full bodied, complex, firm and a bit tight, black berry and black cherry fruits give way to cigar box and tea with moderate lingering tannins. May soften and open with a few more years in the cellar.

Merlot 53%, Cabernet Franc 26%, Cabernet Sauvignon 20% Petit Verdot 1%

RM 89 points.

Hemingway's dining room
Foie gras with red pear
Pate' plate

Danielle preparing the cheese plate
Wine and cheese plate

Creme brulee

Friday, December 13, 2013

Private Labels Often Offer Great QPR Value

Ninety Plus Cellars Lot 101: Collectors Series Columbia Valley, Washington, Syrah, 2009

Ninety Plus (aka 90+) Cellars operate under the practice known in the 'old wine world' as a 'négociant', the French word for wine merchant/trader acting as a middleman consolidator. They buy excess production from producers and sell it under their own 'private' label. They seek out producers of high quality wines, wines that consumers might hold for special occasions, but strive to price it at 'every day' wine prices, at a fraction of the original price.

The practice is a derivative of the original négociant role dating back in France where négociants, or Wine Merchants/Traders, were the dominant force in the wine trade until the last couple of decades. Historically, owners of vineyards and producers of wine had no direct access to buyers and did not engage in the practice of directly marketing their product. The practice was perpetuated over time due to the arcane French inheritance laws where land and vineyard holdings were often split up amongst the heirs such that offspring owned only parts of a vineyard,  sometimes no more than a single row of grapes. The resulting fragmentation often meant that an owner of only a small portion of a particular high-quality single vineyard where that grower had insufficient wine from a parcel to vinify on its own. Negociants purchased and consolidated wines and engaged in bottling, marketing and distribution.

The négociant might buy already fermented wine in barrels or in bulk containers and may age the wine further, blend in other wines or simply bottle and sell it as is. Often the wine is already bottled or 'in glass' but not yet labeled. The result is sold under the name of the négociant, not the name of the original grape or wine producer. Some French négociants in earlier times had long lived and recognizable labels sourcing wines from the same producer's and region over time so as to develop their recognizable house style.

I recall when I started buying wine early in my collecting 'career', buying wines under the négociant's label. One example I distinctly remember was the popular négociant label, B&G from Barton & Guestier. I remember buying their non-specific 1975 vintage St. Emilion, which referred to the appellation but lacking any specificity of the individual source producer. Today, Barton & Guestier tout themselves as the first French brand name known to millions of consumers worldwide. They have been in the wine business for almost three centuries. They cite that their role and expertise 'guarantees regular quality, vintage after vintage, and reassures consumers in increasingly complicated markets'. They are present in 130 countries on 5 continents.

Over time,  prices for a premier cru associated with the more specific appellation or even specific vineyard, or producer were higher than for wines attributed to a larger area like a village or region. Grower's realized they could make more money selling off the production as the premier cru rather than blending it into a less specific appellation or more generalized label. This works in vibrant markets when there is sufficient demand for the higher priced quality wines. When markets collapse or when production exceeds demand, excess inventory creates opportunity for the negociant to acquire and market the premier product at value prices - often great opportunities of high QPR - Quality to Price ratios.

While it is a stretch to compare Ninety Plus Cellars in the same sense as the historic brand B&G, their role here is no less significant to the consumer. They started the company during the economic downturn in 2009 when demand for wines priced more than $20 a bottle fell and and inventories grew. Rather than discount their wines and erode the value of their brands,  some producers were willing to sell off excess inventory at the distressed market prices on the condition they would be marketed under the 90+ Cellar's label. 90+ Cellars obtains the excess production and is able to sell it at discounted prices on the condition non-disclosure of the their source (s).

Ninety Plus Cellars' goal is to seek out, bottle and deliver fine wine at discounted prices.  Of course their tantalizing name would imply they only seek out or offer wines rated a 90 or higher on the overrated 100 point scale. While that may not always be the case, they often offer good QPR opportunities, none-the-less. Their cover was 'blown' in one case when they obtained bottled but as yet unlabeled product and resold it with their own 'private' label, but when the wine was uncorked, the producer's identity was revealed on their original corks. Aha!

As soon as I tasted this Syrah at the local wine merchant Malloy's store in Naperville, I knew they had a winner, substantiating their claims that they had landed a top rated Syrah and were able to sell it at a deeply discounted price. I probably should have bought as much as I could obtain. Well actually, I did clean them out, and then went back for more when their next shipment arrived the following week. But I did leave some for others. I may regret leaving it behind!

This is a 2009 Columbia Valley, Washington, Syrah that they market under the label Ninety Plus Cellars, Collectors Series, Lot 101. The label specified that '250 cases'. Interestingly it doesn't say produced. How many cases were sold under some other, perhaps well known, perhaps higher priced label?

Dark inky colored, medium to full bodied, this full throttle Syrah reveals layers of blackberry and black currants fruits with tones of sweet vanilla, caramel and spice with hints of black pepper on a lingering smooth silky tannin finish.

RM 93 points.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Château La Louvière Pessac-Leognan Graves Bordeaux 1994

Château La Louvière Pessac-Leognan Graves Bordeaux 1994

There is still life left in this nineteen year old. We still have half a dozen half bottles of this original case we purchased upon release. The original wood cases of 375ml small format half bottles contained 24 bottles equaling the same amount of wine as twelve regular 750ml bottles.

Dark Ruby color with a brownish tinge starting to set in. Medium bodied, leathery and smoky tones predominate over the black cherry and black berry fruits, accented by cedar and tangy cinnamon spice that gives way to a big full floral note that fills the mouth and lingers for minutes with the tongue coating moderate tannins.

This wine provides a good QPR - Quality Price Ratio with its pleasant early drinkability coupled with its longevity.

RM 89 points.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Spring Valley Vineyard Uriah Walla Walla Valley Red Wine

Spring Valley Vineyard Uriah Walla Walla Valley Red Wine 2004  

Whimsical label from series of fun yet serious wines named for ancestors of the producer. Uriah was Uriah Corkrum, grandfather of Shari Corkrum, the current vineyard owner. Uriah Corkrum began farming on his own during the 1880’s and acquired and began farming the property now known as Spring Valley in 1910.

In 1993, Shari and Dean Derby planted the first grapes at Spring Valley. The first vintage of Estate grown and bottled Spring Valley Vineyard wines were produced with the 1999 vintage.

We hold a ten year vertical of this wine dating back to the 2002 vintage.

After a long week, this was an enjoyable complement to 'pub stew' Linda produced with beef tenderloin, carrots onions and mushrooms for Friday night dinner. 

This Merlot based Bordeaux blend is dark garnet colored with brownish tones, medium-full bodied, it presents an essence of full forward bourbon taste with a bit of alcohol, turning to a complex medley of flavors of fresh sauteed mushroom and black licorice with layer of spicy black cherry fruits accented by smoke creosote on a tangy lingering tannin finish.

The 2004 Uriah is 60% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 4% Petit Verdot. 

RM 90 points.

Post note - After consuming this bottle, I went to purchase a current release bottle to replenish our cellar. Lo and behold it was suddenly sold out from all the merchants that I frequent. I've seen this phenomenon before and upon checking found Spring Valley Uriah 2010 was highly rated and listed in Wine Spectator's Top 100 for 2013. Like so many wines before it, one of my favorite cellar collectables had been 'discovered' or recognized. It will for the foreseeable future be harder to obtain, and will no longer be value priced. Indeed, its now offered at $10 above release price, $15 above normal retail. Once again, as often before, I rue the day one of my favorites gains notoriety. Still I found bottles to restock my cellar with the current release, but they were sourced from out of state.

I vividly remember Château Ducru-Beaucaillou St.-Julien 1995 when it was annointed Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year 1998, Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages 1996 , Wine of the Year 1999, and before them, Flora Springs Trilogy and Leoville Las Cases 1982. All were wines I regularly purchased and enjoyed that received Top 100 or Wine of the Year notoriety. Thereafter, prices spiked and supply dwindled.  Onward to the next undiscovered gem to be enjoyed until it too gains notoriety. Watch this space!

I too am guilty of this ratings driven buying when it comes to my kid's birthyears. I've been quoted many times referring to my kids' birth year collections, most notably the 1990 vintage, son Alec's birthyear. Indeed, three times, 1990 vintage wines were annointed Wine of the Year, Chateau Latour 1994, Penfold's Grange Hermitage 1993, and Caymus Special Select in 1992. Alas, we reap what we sow.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

Hall T-Bar-T Alexander Cabernet with steak and squash ravioli

Hall T-Bar-T Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with grilled steak and squash ravioli

For a quiet intimate dinner at home, we popped this bottle with grilled filets of beef with a delicious decadent concoction Linda pulled together of butternut squash ravioli sauteed in a sweet cranberry sauce of brown sugar, maple syrup, butter, olive oil and spinach. What a great combination on all fronts. Wow!

This wine was a fabulous complement to the steak as well as to the pasta. Everything exceeded all expectations on all levels.

Hall T-Bar-T Ranch Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 

We discovered this wine when we tasted and acquired it at the winery on our  Napa Wine Experience trip back in 2003. This year we visited Hall at their new spectacular Rutherford Winery during our Napa Wine Experience 2013.
Tonight this wine was more complex than earlier tasting notes indicated ... With a dark garnet color that is beginning to take on a slight brown brickish color - medium bodied, smooth polished silky texture, bright berry, red currant fruits with a tone of creme caramel that turns to a whisper of licorice on the finish.

Earlier notes say this is better than when tasted at the winery almost a decade ago. I think it is better than when last tasted three years ago, although it is starting to show its age in color and taking on a slight bit of earthiness and a smoky creosote undercurrent on the finish.

RM 90 points.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Celebration Dinner - A wine-tasting adventure diverts from usual fare

Thanksgiving Celebration Dinner - A wine-tasting adventure diverts from usual fare.

 Thanksgiving feast is a special celebration dinner that happens once each year on the last Thursday in November.  The traditional menu is uniquely American and is a particular combination of offerings that seldom occurs at any other time. Even the main course of turkey is rarely featured at any other time during the year. Hence, its no surprise that the wine tasting selections to accompany the Thanksgiving meal always offer an adventurous challenge since it is a once a year feature-set.

The characteristics of turkey and stuffing lends themselves to a more neutral, acidic, non-tannic, clean and crisp fruit filled flavorful wine. Suggested offerings tend towards white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc Semillon or a more outgoing forward varietal such as a Riesling or a spicy Gewurztraminer. For red wine lovers, fruit filled moderate bodied reds go well with the dark turkey meat, sweet potatoes and stuffing.

Of course Rose wines fit this offering well but they're wide diversions from our normal drinking selections and are conspicuously absent from our cellars so only through a direct purchase or gifting will they find their way to our table.

Ryan and Michelle brought this proscuitto and cheese plate (shown left) - Bellavitano, goat cheese, cranberry sharp cheddar with red pear.  

Finally, there is always a place for Champagne, especially on festive holidays, and most suitably with the white meats, hor d'ovres, appetizers and cheeses.

We pulled a somewhat eclectic flight from the cellar, highlighted by some special wines brought by Bill C and Ryan ....

NV Pierre Gimonnet Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Cuis 1er Cru






 La Sirena Napa Valley Moscato Azul Dry Musat Canelli 2006 

From the legendary winemaker Heidi Barrett's own label, she makes six wines including this one. Whimsically packaged in a blue bottle with a blue synthetic cork, this is an interesting wine that takes a while to characterize as its evolves on the pallet.

Light straw colored, medium light bodied, dry with a medley of fruit flavors, opens with a a bit of pink grapefruit that gives way to tropical fruits, lychee with hints of papaya and green apple on the finish. 

RM 89 Points.


Château Haut-Bergey Blanc Pessac-Leognan Bordeaux 2005 

Dark straw colored, medium bodied, aromas and somewhat subdued flavors of wet stone, nut, melon and grapefruit - opened up a bit more with moderate peach flavors with citrus and lemon on with a crisp finish.

RM 89 points.






Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru Burgundy 2010

Bill also brought this from his cellar. This was a great complement to the Thanksgiving dinner features.

Light butter color, medium-light bodied, crisp and clean, complex tones of  citrus, pear, nut and hints of smoke with a complex lingering finish.

RM 90 points.




Domain Saint Damien Gigondas 2007

Bill brought this from his cellar. His tasting notes from Cellartracker. We visited Gigondas during our Rhone Valley wine experience. Sitting up in the foothills overlooking the fabled Chateauneuf-du-Pape region, Gigondas produces expressive full flavored wines that provide some of the best QPR (Quality to Price ratio) values in French wines.

Thanksgiving dinner with all the spicy dishes presents a challenge to find an appropriate accompanying wine that will not be overwhelmed by all the strong flavors. The Domaine St.-Damien nicely fit the bill. Medium red and crystal clear in the glass. Limited nose with a hint of pepper and ginger foretells what to expect. Pepper and spice on the palate, big mouth feel and a lingering finish.

WCC 90 points.

 Lewis Cellars Ethan's Vineyard Napa Valley Syrah Wine 2009

Ryan brought this Syrah from Lewis cellars, producer's of one of our favorite Cabernets. It went well with the pre-dinner proscuitto and cheese plate (shown above), and even better with the chocolates after dinner. We loved it and promptly arranged to obtain some for the cellar.

Dark inky purple color, full bodied, concentrated supple tongue coating fruit filled ripe black raspberry, boysenberry and plum with tones of vanilla, spice and sweet oak with hints of licorice before yielding to a layer of mineral on the lingering smooth tannin finish.

RM 94 points.

Selection of pie and cake desserts

Wine Bottle Sizes...Bigger is Better

Right Bottle Sizes...Bigger (or Smaller) is Better

Rick with Salmanazar served
at daughter Erin's wedding

There is great novelty and fun in opening and serving wine or Champagne from a large bottle. For parties, business dinners, special occasions, private dining, any gathering of a group, there is a bottle size to fit the occasion. 

As mentioned in my last post, "Large format bottles serve festive celebration dinner", we're big fans of serving large format bottles for special occasions. As noted, our collection of large format bottles commemorating the birth years of each of our kids was the basis for our large bottle feature in Wine Spectator Magazine. Those bottles were a big hit and great fun as well as a tribute at our kid's weddings.  

For a large gathering, besides the utility of not having to open so many bottles, a large bottle also affords another unique opportunity - its also fun to have all the quests sign the label of a large bottle as the labels are proportionately larger with the large bottles.

Michelle & Sean - 6L Napa Cab
for their rehearsal dinner

From my blog posting from a recent wine tasting (see Half Bottle Mania offers twice the tasting options), I chose half bottles that allowed for a more extensive tasting. While the fun of big bottles is evident, its not as widely known or practiced that opening half size bottles offers twice the number of tasting experience options in the same setting.

Opening small format bottles that evening allowed us to taste seven different wines instead of perhaps three had we opened regular or standard size bottles. You've no doubt see such small format bottles where they are used for single servings such as for individual consumption on airplanes or in hotel mini-bars. 

Just this week, there was a news feature about  Moët & Chandon unveiling a vending machine offering single serving wine bottles for swank shoppers at tony upscale department stores in London.

Bottle Shapes 

For starters, there are different shape bottles for different wine types. The most common shape bottles are those associated with red wines from Bordeaux or California. These 'Bordeaux' bottles have straight sides and tall shoulders (shown left). 

Notably, many of the popular California wines from Napa and Sonoma are of the Bordeaux varietals, that being, made from grapes generally grown in Bordeaux and comprising Bordeaux wines - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.  White wines using the same bottle shape are Sauvignon Blanc or Semillon. 

Wines grown from grapes most common and popular in the Burgundy wine region of France are Pinot Noir  and Chardonnay. Those wines are associated with bottles with gently sloping shoulders (shown right), often sturdy, heavy bottles, with a slightly fatter girth than the Bordeaux style wine bottles. 

For the most popular wine bottle shape, that associated with Bordeaux and Napa/Sonoma varietals, there are 13 different bottle sizes. The larger sized bottles are produced in less quantity than the standard size bottle, and are always worth more than just double or proportionately the price of the regular size bottle. 

Many California Cabernet Sauvignons, Red Bordeaux, and Red Burgundies are produced and subsequently collected in these larger formats. It is generally accepted that wine will age better - longer, more gracefully and uniformly in a large format bottle - hence another reason for their popularity with collectors. 

I recall seeing several Nebuchadnezzars (12 to 16 liter bottles) and a couple Sovereigns (50 liter bottles) in one California wine producer's cellar for his personal collection as well as to serve their library (shown left).

Horizontal Selection of 1981 Bordeaux and California large format bottles from Rick's Cellar that were served at daugher Erin's wedding.
Not shown: 1981 Chateau Palmer, Lynch Bages, Ducru Beaucaillou, Cos' d_Estournel, Chateau Beaucatel and Silver Oak large format bottles.
The 13 Standard Bordeaux/California Bottle Sizes

Made only for Sparkling Wine.
187 ml.
1/4 of a standard bottle
375 ml.
1/2 of a standard bottle
750 ml.
1 standard bottle
MAGNUM 1.5 liters Equal to 2 standard bottles.
DOUBLE MAGNUM 3 liters Equal to 4 standard bottles.
JEROBOAM - This is what Champagne and Burgundy call their 3 liter bottles. Equal to 4 standard bottles.
REHOBOAM About 4.5 liters. Equal to 6 standard bottles.
JEROBOAM 5 liters Equal to about 6 3/4 standard bottles.
IMPERIAL 6 liters Equal to 8 standard bottles.
METHUSALEM - This is what they call an "Imperial" in Champagne and Burgundy.
This one is a case of wine in one bottle.
9 liters
12 standard bottles.
12 liters.
Equal to 16 standard bottles.
12 to 16 liters
Depending on the country of origin this will be from 16 to 20 standard bottles. 
50 liters
67 standard bottles.

Champagne has its own distinctive popular shape and also comes in its own range of sizes. The design of the Champagne bottle also has gently sloping shoulders. Because of the pressure inside a sparkling (bubbly) wine bottle (as much as 90 psi or three times the pressure in a car tire), they have thicker glass and have a deep 'punt'  or indentation on the underside. Champagne is the most popular and most common in using small and larger bottles. The magnum is a double sized bottle (1.5 liters) and is one of the best selling sized bottles for Champagne. We've all seen the winner of a Formula One race spraying the crowd from a large format, Jeroboam (4 liter bottle) of Champagne. Or more likely, one has see the locker room scene of the World Series or NBA champions, spraying the room from magnums of Champagne. 

Display of range of bottles offered at Moet Chandon Champagne House in
Epernay, Champagne, France

Standard Champagne Bottle Sizes
Bottle Name Bottle Equivalency Capacity
1/4 bottle
18.7 cl
1/2 bottle
37.5 cl
1 bottle
750 ml
2 bottles
1.5 l
4 bottles
3 l
6 bottles
4.5 l
8 bottles
6 l
12 bottles
9 l
16 bottles
12 l
20 bottles
15 l

So, for your next special occasion where you'll be serving wine, that being a gathering of one, or four or more,  think to right-size the bottle to the occasion, seek out a large (or small) bottle for the utility, novelty and for fun.