Saturday, September 27, 2014

Syrah Syrah Extravaganza Barbecue Dinner

Syrah Syrah Extravaganza Barbecue Dinner

For a bar-b-q rib dinner faire, Syrah, Shiraz and Zinfandel were the wine theme for our annual gala (end of) summer dinner on the deck in the city hosted by friends Lyle and Terry on their spectacular, supersized deck with a great view of the Chicago cityscape.

Like last year, the early autumn weather was perfect for the gathering of the 'Pour Boys'  wine group (named such after our wine adventure at the UGC tasting event event last year).  As always, we assembled a fabulous intriguing flight of select wines. Many thanks to Lyle and Terry for their hospitality and a super dinner.

Before dinner featured a flight of white wines with artisan cheeses and Lyle prepared grilled scallops on the deck. The whites included Caymus Conundrum, Cote de Provence, Grigich Fume Blanc and a pair of champagnes. 

Of course this evening was all about big bold reds suitable for bar-b-q. As customary practice dictates, the wines are listed in tasting order - light to heavy, aged to young. One of the highlights of these events is the ritualistic 'line-up' of the flight. This process entails determining the tasting order, first based on alleged style, age, reputation, and knowledge of and experience with the wines. Once the order is established it is validated and tuned or corrected based on a sample tasting of each wine. Remarkably, as is typical, our initial order was right on the mark (as shown in the picture below) with only one correction following the tasting, with the HdV moving from right to left of the Balmoral.

Syrah or Shiraz? Consider them the same ... different monikers for the same grape, genetically related whether it be from France, Australia or California, according to Carol Lagier, winemaker, Syrah specialist and plant geneticist at Syrah producer Lagier-Meredith which we visited during our 2011 Napa Wine Experience

The Big Reds Flight - 

Santa Ema Amplus One 2008
Jackson Franklin (Elyse) Petit Sirah
HDV Carneros Syrah
Rosemount Balmoral Syrah 1995
Dead Arm 1995
Dead Arm  2002
Dead Arm 2004
Outpost Zinfandel 2009
Branson Coach House Rare Single Vineyard Syrah 2004
Chateau Tanunda Old Vines Shiraz
Sine Quo Non - The Raven

Santa Ema Carménère Amplus One 2008

This was the only blend in the flight, and the only South American wine, from Chile, an interesting mix of 75% Carmenere, 20% Syrah, and 5% Carignan. Since none of us are versed in such wines, we have no basis for comparison. Then again, this is such a unique blend we have no previous exposure to such a blend. The contribution of Syrah was our only baseline. It would be a good stumper in a blind tasting. I almost would've picked a right bank Bordeaux.  

Credit the Wine Enthusiast Buying Guide with this information on the producer, region and appellation. "In 1931, Pedro Pavone-Voglino acquired a plot of land in Chile’s Maipo Valley and began producing high-quality. Then in 1956, Pedro and his oldest son, Félix Pavone-Arbea, began producing and marketing their own bottled wine. The business continued to grow, and in the late 1960s the company purchased a large amount of land in the Peumo commune located in the Cachapoal province—an area known for red varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carmenère. Today, Santa Ema exports its wines to more than 30 countries throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia. Santa Ema has five lines—Selected Terroir, Rosado Soul, Barrel Select, Reserve and Amplus—as well as two red blends—Catalina and Rivalta. The winery has received numerous awards for its value-driven wines, particularly the Reserve and Amplus series."

This was dark garnet colored, medium to full bodied, nicely balanced, smooth and polished with dark berry and black raspberry fruits offset by moderate tones of soft oak, hints of earth and mocha with modest soft tannins.

RM 89 points.

Jacob Franklin Napa Valley Chavez Leeds Vineyard Petit Sirah 2008

We visited this winery on the guidance of Bill Arns during our Napa Valley Wine Experience 2012 with Bill and Beth, when we tasted and Bill acquired this wine during the visit.

Perhaps a point of serendipity, this is the product of Elyse Winery and we maintain a couple of bottles from the label in our cellar for when dining with dear friends Eric and Cathy, in recognition of their daughter Elyse, who has also joins us on occasion. I think however it was coincidence that Bill brought this to the tasting tonight given that Eric and Cathy would be there.

This wine exceeded our expectations which were modest when compared to this flight of comparative labels. It was medium bodied, dark garnet colored, forward blackberry fruit with hints of anise, eather, bit of cedar and black pepper on a moderate dusty tannin finish.

RM 89 points.
Hyde de Villaine Carneros Syrah 2004

This is the estate label formed from the combination of two legendary wine families, the Hyde family of California and and the de Villaine family of France. The 178 acre Carneros estate has been farmed by Larry Hyde since 1977 when he purchased and developed the property after serving as an apprentice at some of Napa Valley's top wineries. His late father, Richard Sr., an attorney from Woodside, purchased the first piece of land that now makes up Hyde Vineyards in 1979. At that time the Carneros area was undeveloped grasslands at the top of San Pablo Bay extending up to the beginning of the Mayacamas foothills leading to the mountain range that separates Napa and Sonoma Valleys.

Producing some of the most coveted grapes in Napa Valley, Hyde Vineyards has gained distinction sourcing fruit for some of the leading California winemakers including Paul Hobbs, Kistler Vineyards, Kongsgaard Wine, Mia Klein's Selene Wines, Patz & Hall and Ramey Wine Cellars. Most of these producers release single vineyard designated label wines featuring fruit from Hyde Vineyards. These wines are primarily Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and to a lesser degree, Syrah.

I've written in this blog about perhaps the best Shiraz/Syrah that I have ever tasted, from Kongsgaard Wines , which was produced from fruit from the nearby Hudson Vineyard from south-sloping land at the Hudson Ranch near the Bay on the southern Napa Valley side of the Carneros District. This site is also the source for Ramey, Kistler and other notable producers who also get their fruit from the Hyde property. The Hudson property is named after Hyde's mother Virginia Hudson and sits next to the Hyde de Villaine winery.
 In 1999, Aubert de Villaine, codirector of Burgundy's legendary  Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC), who happens to be married to Hyde's cousin Pamela F. de Villaine, partnered with Hyde to form HdV Wines, to brand and produce single vineyard wines from Hyde Vineyard fruit.

Aubert de Villaine is a legend in France's Burgundy region as the proprietor of his own wine, A. & P. de Villaine, and as co-director of DRC, one of the world's most exclusive and sought after wines.

While Larry Hyde manages the vineyards, his older siblings, Richard Jr. and Diana, are also involved in the business along with Diana's son Ryan Bailey, Richard's son Rick and Larry's son Chris.
Larry's other son Peter, 23, makes a proprietary family blend from the property's unsold grapes.

Based on the pedigree of this wine, I had very high expectations and approached it with much anticipation.  I was hoping it would fit the profile and character of Konsgaard Syrah, but it fell short in weight and polish, but this is certainly understandable since it is a fraction of the price.

Medium-full bodied, dark ruby color, black berry and black cherry fruits with hints of cassis, spice box and a bit of  pepper, turning to a funky grassy tone of dried meat on the moderate tannin finish that detracted from the rich fruit flavors. 

RM 89 points. This got 90 points from Wine Enthusiast; 92 points Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar and 92 points Connoisseurs Guide.

Rosemount Estate Syrah Balmoral 1995 
We still hold several cases of this wine in nearly a decade long vertical going back as early as 1992. Its time to drink them up as they're definitely reaching the end of their drinking window. This was showing its age with a somewhat funky leather and damp wood essence that thankfully subsided after an hour or so after decanting, giving way to aromas and flavors of blueberry fruits and eventually turning to its traditional tasting profile. 

Dark full flavor, over ripe berry, raisin, notes of blueberry, plum fruit, with spice and anise. Showing age on opening but opened and softened with a long full complex finish.

RM 89 points.

d'Arenberg Dead Arm McLaren Vale Shiraz 1995, 2002, 2004

Ernie, Dan and I all brought this label (without any collusion or prior communications), thankfully from different vintages, which afforded  us the chance to comparison taste this mini vertical of this popular wine. 

1995 - Like the aged Rosemount Balmoral from the same vintage, this was also showing its age with a bit of funky earthy leather and tobacco overtaking the fruit, but after decanting for an hour or so, this subsided and the black and blue fruits emerged.

Intense ruby, colored, medium bodied with black berry, tone of vanilla and oak giving way to earthy leather and bacon fat overtaking the fruits, rich and reasonably long modest tannin finish.

RM 88 points.

d'Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz 2002

The biggest of the three, always a big fruit forward complex wine, this was much more expressive than as documented in my earlier 2004 and 2009 tasting journal posts. Its bigger and still boasts a forwardness but what was an off-tone of minerality now is more natural ripe raisin-fig with a layer of cedar predominating over complex black and blue berry fruits with tones of pepper, spice, and cassis and hint of vanilla with a big long bold finish that has a slight tone of tangy cherry. Linda likes this ripe boldness but its a bit too much to my liking. LIke the rest of these wines,  this wine is suited to a bigger accompaniment like beef steak or even perhaps bar-b-que!

RM 91 points.

Subdued black berry and black cherry fruit, leather, hint of spice and pepper on a moderate tannin finish.

d'Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz 2004

Dark inky black purple color, full bodied, thick, tongue-coating unctuous layer of ripe plum, black raspberry, ripe blueberry and a layer of anise and black cherry with a spicy long firm tannin lingering finish.

RM 90 points. 

Outpost Howell Mountain Zinfandel 2009

Howell Mountain anchors the north east corner of Napa Valley and is known primarily for its distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon. Its terroir of rocky soil, western sun exposure with gentle breezes and altitude also produces a select style of Zinfandel with its rich, brambly extracted dark fruit and a unique spice that almost borders on cinnamon.

Outpost sits high atop the west facing slope just below Robert Craig and across the road from Lamborn, two of our other favorite producers.We worked our way up the road there during our Napa Valley Wine Experience 2008.

A great wine that demands bar-b-q or rich hearty meaty pasta, every cellar should have a couple bottles of this style Zin for such occasions. At the high end of price-points for typically moderate priced Zinfandel but this one is worth it.

Dark garnet colored, full bodied, this wine typifies that classic rich thick extracted forward Howell Mountain briery mountain berry fruit accented by spice, floral with hints of tobacco on the supple long lasting chewy tannins.

RM 92 points

Branson Coach House Coach House Block Rare Single Vineyard Barossa Valley Shiraz 2004

We discovered this wine several years ago and acquired and rapidly consumed the 2002 and 2003 vintages. We still hold several bottles from the neighboring Greenock Block. This 2004 that was selected for Wine Spectator's Top 100 2006 comes from old vines in Greenock, a prime growing area in the Barossa for Shiraz. Eric found this at Kahn's in Indy and brought it to share and compare.

Full bodied, rich, concentrated, complex, dark inky purple colored, with layers of black and blue berry, black cherry and black plum fruit flavors, with tones of dark mocha, cigar box and smoke notes with well integrated firm lingering tannins.

RM 92 points.

Chateau Tanunda "The Chateau" 100 Year Old Vines Eden Valley Barossa Shiraz

We discovered this wine at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour in Chicago when it was being poured by Chateau Tanunda's Dagmar O'Neill. Only 100 cases were produced. We orchestrated a purchase of eight three packs in OWC's (shown below) which we split amongst the wine team, pictured below.

The Barossa is home to some of the world’s oldest Shiraz vines and the grapes for this wine come from hundred year old vines from a high altitude, one acre single vineyard in the Eden Valley. 

Full bodied, complex, concentrated, full lingering tannins predominate the dense, black and blue berry fruits with hints of liquorice, plum and spice and spicy oak.

RM 93 points.

2006 Sine Qua Non "The Raven No. 3" Syrah 

This legendary ultra-premium label has taken on almost a cult-like following.
Since its founding in 1994, the winery located in Ventura, on California's Central Coast has become the a classic example of an artisanal, garagiste winery. The husband-and-wife team of Manfred and Elaine Krankl produce very limited quantities of hand-crafted wines primarily from Rhone varietal grapes such as Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Roussane, and Viognier.

Robert M. Parker Jr. has called Sine Qua Non "one of the world's most creative wineries" and one that "is turning out world-class wines of extraordinary complexity and individuality. The Krankl husband-and-wife team remains wholly dedicated to the pursuit of perfection."

The branding of Sine Qua Non wines is as distinctive as their carefully crafted wines bearing unusual, sometimes outlandish names to their wines, such as "The Hussy", "In Flagrante," and the "The Raven", and they often change the wine names from vintage to vintage.

The 2006 Raven Series Syrah is a blend of 93% Syrah, 5% Grenache, and 2% Viognier, aged nearly two years in French oak. 

Dark blackish ink colored, full bodied, complex, big ,bold, rich layers of dark blackberry and black cherry fruits accented by hints of blueberry and plum, creosote, mocha and spice with tones of anise and pepper turning to a thick tongue coating tangy chewy tannin lingering finish.

RM 95 points.

Wine Spectator gave this 95 points, Robert Parker 96 points and Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar 94 points.

After dinner there were three dessert courses accompanied by two dessert wines.

 Grahams Vintage Port 1991

Grahams Vintage Port 1991

Domaine de laAncienne Cuvee Prestige Monbazzilac 1999

More to come .. ...

Yountville Woodinville Reds For Family Dinner

Yountville Woodinville Reds For Family Celebration Dinner

Celebrating son-in-law Johnny's birthday, the family assembled for a gala dinner. Daughter Erin prepared lasagna so son Ryan and I brought two reds, two Bordeaux varietals from diverse regions. From Yountville, a 'lesser appellation' of Napa I brought a Ninety Plus Cellars Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon. From Woodinville, Washington, the tony Seattle suburb that is home to legendary Chateau St Michelle, Ryan brought 'D2' from DeLille Cellars, named for the famous Bordeaux arterial highway that extends from Bordeaux city along the southern bank of the Gironde through the regions famous appellations to the west.

The town of Woodinville lies about 20 road-miles northeast of downtown Seattle and has become a wine-tourism destination. It all started with Chateau Ste. Michelle, opened in 1976, and has grown to over fifty wineries. It is also home to other notable producers such as Betz Family Cellars, Matthews Estate, Columbia Winery, and upcoming boutique producers such as Mark Ryan and Ross Andrew.

But unlike Napa, center to the nation's most famous wine growing region, the grapes are grown elsewhere, in the Columbia Valley and other wine growing areas a hundred miles or more to the east in eastern and central Washington. We visited Woodinville during our Washington Wine Tour back in 1998. Our cellar, while predominantly Napa and Bordeaux, followed by Australia, holds more than ten cases from Washington producers including Abeja, Andrew Will, Matthews, Dunham, Woodward Canyon, Spring Valley and Quilceda Creek.

Like many other Woodinville producers, DeLille Cellars make their wines in Woodinville from grapes grown in a number of eastern Washington appellations (AVAs - American Viticultural Areas). DeLille have operated since the early nineties and are one of the more notable producers. They have branding under two different labels: Doyenne for Rhone-styled blends, and Chaleur Estate for their Bordeaux blends and Cabernet Sauvignon releases. DeLille were nominated for Winery of the Year in 2014.

DeLille Cellars "D2" Columbia Valley Washington Red Blend 2011

Delille’s 'D2' is billed as the second wine of their Chaleur Estate blend and is a classic Bordeaux blend of Merlot 56.5%, Cabernet Sauvignon 35%, Cabernet Franc 6.5%, and Petit Verdot 2%.

The winemakers review says "A layered vintage of D2 expressing a fruit-driven nose of blueberries, cassis, and cherries along with lavender, cigar wrappers, toasted vanilla, crushed stones and pencil shavings. The flavors have a harmonious combination of red and black fruits with blackberries and cherries leading the profile. The majority of characters, however, are all about spices:  fennel, white pepper, Herbs de Province, cinnamon, graham and a touch of menthol. Definitely a complex D2 that is delicious, savory and balanced."

I certainly picked up the blue berry fruits, tones of cassis, tobacco and pencil. It was dark inky garnet with tones of purple, medium bodied, complex and concentrated with predominant black berry fruits and a hint on the back pallette of what the producer referred to as fennel, a particular flavor I find unfortunate in the profile. This likely will improve with some time.

RM 90 points. Robert Parker gave this wine 93 points.

This profile, review and rating is consistent with my earlier experiences and memories of  this wine.

Ninety Plus Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Lot 109 Yountville 2012

Napa wine aficionados recognize Yountville as one of the Napa Valley sub-appellations or AVA's (American  Viticultural Area), named for founder George Yount, who settled the area and planted the first vineyards in the Napa Valley in 1836. Today, the area is also known as NapaNook. Yountville is one of Napa Valley's lesser known appellations despite the fact that 4000 of its geographic 8000 acres are planted in vines. Unlike its more famous neighbor Rutherford, with it's famed 'dusty reds', or adjacent Stag's Leap and it's "velvet fisted" cabs, Yountville lacks a distinctive label for its patchwork combination of soils and climates that are a bit antithetical to the concept of terroir. 

Yountville possesses a unique combination of distinctive soil characteristics with volcanic soils to the east that are similar to the neighboring Stags Leap District, and centuries old coastal deposits with both sedimentary and alluvial soils to the west, interspersed with sandy and gravelly loam. No other area in  Napa Valley boasts this particular geomorphic combination. Indeed, very different soils are found in the areas immediately surrounding Yountville in Oakville, Stags Leap, Mt. Veeder, and Oak Knoll districts, hence its AVA designation.

According to the Yountville AVA site, climatically, historical record keeping and modern weather gathering techniques indicate that cool marine air currents from San Pablo Bay to the south, are trapped when they reach what are known as the Yountville Mounts, keeping natural "air conditioning" working even on the warmest summer days. These milder temperatures allow the grapes of the region plenty of time to develop unique flavor characteristics, demonstrate the local "terroir."

Based on its unique soil and climatological data, Yountville was granted Appellation status in 1999, and was one of the last Napa Valley sub appellations to be officially recognized. As with all AVAs, a minimum of 85% Yountville grapes must be used in the bottle to have the Yountville AVA cited on the label.

We've talked about Ninety Plus Cellars numerous times in this blog and their negociant model of buying excess or set-aside product from growers or producers, and releasing it under their private label.  They cite the 'source price' for this wine at $45 and are releasing it for $18. I can imagine it being offered under the source label at the $45 price and being considered over-priced or underwhelming at that pricepoint. Perhaps that is why the producer sold it to be marketed under a different label. However, it may prove to be a great buy and offer tremendous QPR (quality price ratio) at the under twenty dollar price point. I bought it for $18 and another local retailer is currently offering this at $16. At that price I'd suggest buying it for a complex sophisticated every day wine that may evolve into a really good wine. With 2000 cases produced, this should be generally available. Notably, since its a negociant offer private label, its a one of a kind, not likely to be repeated, so enjoy it while you can.

This was dark garnet colored, medium to full bodied, big floral aromas, complex with dense rich black berry, tones of black cherry and sweet spice, hints of cassis and creosote with a layer of firm but approachable tannins on a long lingering finish. It lacked polish and was a bit forward and needs time and we no doubt drank it too early. It also needs time to open and breath and should be decanted and allowed time to open. The next morning it was much smoother and more approachable.

RM 88 points upon opening, 90 points the next day after settling.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Conn Valley Anthology Highlights Capital Grill Board Room Dinner

Conn Valley Anthology Highlights Capital Grill Board Room Dinner 

For an important client dinner, we dined in the Board Room at the Capital Grill in Chicago. Readers of this blog know that I place high emphasis on the wine and food combination pairings, coupled with value, and hence choose the restaurant and my entree based on the winelist selections, offset or influenced by the corkage policy. That said, one would be right to infer that I lost the vote (or deferred to rank) on the restaurant selection to dine at Capital Grill this evening. Sorry Jared.

I find it more than a bit irritating that they don't publish a more complete list online to aid the diner in advance dinner planning. While this may be okay for a personal social outing or impromptu dinner, I believe an important client business dinner warrants and deserves better info for appropriate planning. 

Capital Grille tout their winelist as "having more than 350 world-class wines ....  hailing from nearly every wine growing region on earth. Old World and New World gems, little-known labels on the brink of stardom, and a Captain’s List featuring some of the world’s most celebrated wines." The Sommelier  Selections they feature on their website are very limited and mostly uninspiring wines.

While this description of their wine offerings may be technically correct, it leaves an impression of depth and breadth in a wine selection. I consider it rhetoric as I don't think it offers either, unless you look at California Bordeaux varietals - Cabernet, Merlot and Blends. The European and ROW (rest of world) selections are very limited.

Perhaps this limited selection would be acceptable for the serious wine drinker if it was selective in signature wine offerings -  those that are at the critical intersection of 'reasonably' priced and delectable wines. Naturally if you can afford $200 for a bottle, then you can find a pleasant impressive sipper. I find it hard to pay $110-125 for a mediocre uninspiring wine. Sure, the winelist is filled with many of my cellar favorites that I own and enjoy at home and am pleased to serve guests, but those wines that cost $40 to $50, the mainstay of my and many serious consumer cellars, but those wines cost $150 or more on the CG winelist.  Even on a business expense account, I find this difficult to justify.

Again, as is typically the case, I cant afford to drink my own cellar in most fine dining restaurants.

This angst is exacerbated by the vintage selections, or lack thereof.  I carefully selected a quality classic, favored Napa Valley mainstay label, Joseph Phelps, Cab 2010, but they were out of this vintage and tried to sell an alternate.

I craftily selected from the Captains List a unique boutique label - a single vineyard designated Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir 2011, winning out over a colleague's preference, Domain Drouhin 2011. I discovered Ken Wright during my years commuting to a large software firm in suburban Seattle back before the millennium. In the end, we were served a 2012, and while I thought this would be a great discovery to share with colleagues, it turned out to be a disappointment - certainly not worthy of a Captain's List feature selection.

In the end, we did discovered a gem on the Captain's winelist that was a huge hit. Even then, we captured the last two bottles, so this will not available on our next visit, or to the next diner.

Our server was apologetic and noted they will soon be offering a interactive tablet based virtual winelist. Perhaps this will result in greater accuracy and currency in the data, but it won't address the selection and pricing challenges or concerns.

Ken Wright Cellars Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012

I hold several of these wines going back to the turn of the millennium when I discovered it in the Pacific Northwest. I distinctly remember a tasting featured in my wine journal with a wine post for the 1997 vintage of this wine tasted back 1999.

Located in rural Carlton, Oregon, near the farm of a dear friend, Ken Wright Cellars specializes in featuring quality select vineyard designated wines - most notably Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with special emphasis on Pinot which they believe is best at reflecting the unique character of the location where it is grown - terroir.

Ken Wright sources fruit from nearly a dozen sites in the Northern Willamette Valley, known especially for outstanding  Pinot Noir. Compared to other Pinot Noir regions around the world, the region is extremely cool, offset by a long growing season. The Wright Cellars source Pinot Noir vineyards span five different appellations or AVAs including well know Dundee Hills, McMinnville, the Coastal Range and this one, Eola Hills.

Tonight's selection is from the Carter Vineyard near Canary Hill in the Eola Hills AVA and features mature vines planted back in the mid-eighties. Sited low on the hillside at just 325 feet elevation,  the leaner, less fertile soil stresses the vines to produce more concentrated extracted fruit. Carter Vineyard wines tend to be firmer than Canary Hill when young, then age nicely to reveal darker vibrant earthy fruits.

This wine in recent years has been highly acclaimed with rave reviews. Tonight the 2012 vintage of this wine was lean and astringent lacking balance and polish and coming across rather flabby, ruby colored, light bodied, cherry and hints of cranberry with a layer of earthy dusty rose on the tangy spicy moderately tannin finish.

RM 87 points.

Conn Creek Napa Valley Anthology 2010

This was a big blockbuster stand-out hit, enjoyed by all. When finished, rather than switching to another bottle for a comparison tasting, which I would normally do, we had a second bottle, which happened to be their last. It was smooth, polished and nicely balanced which is a bit surprising given the blend of all five Bordeaux varietals was sourced from no less than twenty-one different vineyard sites across the range of diverse Napa Valley appellations.

The Blend:
 - Cabernet Sauvignon, 78% from Atlas Peak (Stagecoach), Calistoga (Surber & Frediani), Stags Leap District, St. Helena (Collins), and Spring Mountain (Crowley)
 - Petit Verdot, 8% from Napa Valley (Rodeno)
 - Cabernet Franc, 7% from: St. Helena (Carpenter), Atlas Peak (Stagecoach)
 - Merlot, 4% from Atlas Peak (Stagecoach)
 - Malbec, 3% from Yountville (Herrick

Medium bodied, dark garnet colored, rich, nicely balanced symphony of smooth soft sweet black berry and black raspberry fruits highlighted by layers of vanilla mocha, cinnamon, and sweet spicy oak, with silky fine grained tannins on a smooth polished lingering finish.
RM 92 points.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mr Riggs McLaren Vale Shiraz 2004

Mr Riggs McLaren Vale Shiraz 2004

For a relaxing dinner on the patio at our favorite neighborhood trattoria, Angelis Italian, we took this aged Mr Riggs McLaren Vale Shiraz, BYOB from the cellar. The large heavy oversize bottle packaging hints at what is to come.

This wine typifies everything we love in a Aussie Shiraz - big, thick, chewy, sweet forward fruits - a perfect compliment to the Italian pasta and soup with red meat, tomato and ricotta cheese. It was sinfully good with the caramel and sea salt gelato. I can't wait to finish the remaining partial bottle tonight with some hearty cheese. I'm already mourning the fact we only have a few bottles of this left in the cellar. I pushed the CT (Cellartracker) drinking window out a couple more years too.

Dark inky garnet colored, full bodied, rich, concentrated, complex, full forward sweet black and blue berry fruits, accented by a layer of mineral and tones of sweet caramel, cassis and graphite on a lingering tongue coating full tannin finish.

RM 93 points.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Viader Napa Valley Proprietary Red

Viader Napa Valley Proprietary Red Highlights Grilled Filet Steak Dinner

When #1 son Ryan invited us over for a gourmet dinner if I'd bring the wine, the deal was done. The menu selection was endive and radish salad in lemon dill dressing, scallops in a beet and parsnip purée with crispy bacon, filets of beef with balsamic and rosemary, potato and carrot mash, finishing with bananas foster.

I pulled from the cellar the following wine flight to accompany the dinner courses: Robert Craig Durell Vineyard Sonoma Valley Chardonnay 2005, Viader Proprietary Red Wine 1996, Chateau La Rose Lussac-St Emilion Bordeaux 1982, and to finish, Linden Cellars Late Harvest Vidal 2005.

Robert Craig Durell Vineyard Sonoma Valley Chardonnay 2005

We tasted and obtained this wine at one of several visits over the last decade at the winery up on Howell Mountain during our Napa Valley Wine Experience 2008, and later acquired an additional case at auction. 

Producers notes -  "Hand-crafted in very small quantities, this Chardonnay has the qualities of a fine white Burgundy in its balance and deep fruit, mineral character and clean, crisp acidity that are hallmarks of the Durell Vineyard and of this great old world-leaning estate."

Light butter colored, crisp, medium to full bodied but nicely balanced pear and tropical fruits, almond and mineral with finely balanced acidity on a long finish.  

RM 89 points.

Viader Napa Valley Proprietary Red 1996

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 the 1990 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 is a blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon and 41% Cabernet Franc.

While sited on Howell Mountain, since Viader sits below 1200 feet elevation, their wines carry the Napa Valley rather than Howell Mountain Appellation. This is because the fog rise up to but sits below that level and thereby affects the micro-climate and growing conditions of the grapes - characteristics that help make up what is known as terroir.

Dark blackish garnet colored with a slight rust edge on the rim, medium to full bodied, while it certainly is beyond gaining advantage from further aging, it seems to be holding at eighteen years but is entering the last stage of its prime drinking window. Deep complex, tight yet balanced , the restrained black fruits are overshadowed a layer of tar, leather and tobacco flavors with tar/tobacco underpinning and hints of smoky spice and lead pencil finishing with firm, tongue-coating tannins.

RM 90 points.

Chateau La Rose Lussac-St Emilion Bordeaux 1982

To commemorate our father-son wine tasting dinner, I pulled from the cellar this aged vintage release Bordeaux from Ryan's birthyear - a remnant of our horizontal collection of his birthyear wines. Being a lesser producer, despite this classic vintage, this was a gamble on whether or not it was still drinkable. Having most assuredly passed  its prime drinking window, tonight was as good a time as any to open this bottle.

Having low expectations, we weren't disappointed since it was drinakable despite lacking any redeeming characteristics. Brownish garnet in color, medium bodied, remnants of berry and black cherry fruit flavors hid beneath the layer of smoky creosote, tar, wet wood and leather with moderate lingering tannins. It was a tasting adventure in perserverance on the agabilty of Bordeaux wines suitable for a tasting experience but not as an accompaniment to food or standalone as a drink. It wasn't flawed, rather passed its suitable drinking window. Surprisingly, it was still approachable.

RM 81 points. 

Linden Vineyards Vidal Late Harvest 2005

For a period of several years, I was commuting to and working in Washington DC. During this time Linda and I toured the Virginia wine country and discovered Linden Vineyards. At a visit to the vineyards and winery, we discovered impressive well crafted wines including this late harvest Vidal dessert wine which we tasted in the winery cellar with owner/winemaker Jim Law.

Light butter colored, full bodied thick tongue coating almost syrupy, sweet - subtle aromas of dried apricot, lychee, and hint of mango - flavors of tangy persimmon, lychee, hint of apricot.

RM 91 points.  

Ryan's scallops in a beet and parsnip purée with crispy bacon

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Marilyn Merlot and Norma Jean Wines - A Study in Branding

Marilyn Merlot and Norma Jean Wines - Now That's Branding! 

Another blog post on wine marketing and branding - one of the more imaginative and marketing driven labels is a study in the ultimate branding exercise that totally transcends the wine experience. I wrote in a recent blogpost about wine branding about a couple of labels which were lacking a theme and absent of typical recognizable elements in accordance with branding practices. To the other extreme, Nova Wines have created an entire franchise on one celebrity identification theme based on a play on words - Marilyn Merlot. Marilyn Wines holds an exclusive agreement with the estate of Marilyn Monroe for the use of the name and the images in their wine marketing and packaging.

Playing on the name of the famous cinema starlet, Marilyn Monroe, the marketers at Nova Wines have  built the brand on an annual release of moderate priced Merlot varietal featuring an authentic Marilyn Monroe photo on the label. What might have started out as a whimsical or even corny idea has turned into a fun wine that has an almost cult following in some precincts of collectors. Vintage bottles of the label fetch high prices that far exceed the pedigree of the wine, explicable only due to the marketing/branding of the label collection. I know of one reputable wine shop in a mid-size midwestern city that holds a 1985 Marilyn Merlot that they're offering at $3500.

Marilyn Merlot 2003
I've assembled a portfolio of Marilyn labels in my label library on my winesite. And, I admit I've collected a 'vertical' collection of the wine that spans the past dozen years. We do have fun gifting these wines to friends for suitable occasions, great for those not into the wine so much, but taken by the clever packaging. The Marilyn Merlot label is now in its 26th year.

Evidence of the Nova team marketing savvy and building upon the success of their branding, the portfolio has grown to more than a half dozen labels all playing to the 'Marilyn' theme, bearing whimsical names, Marilyn Meritage, Sauvignon Blond, Blond de Noirs, and this label, Norma Jeane.

Playing on the name Norma Jeane, the given name of the starlet before she became 'Marilyn' famous, the wine is a modest priced entry level sipper intended to be consumed young or soon after release, lacking the sophistication and pedigree for aging. As with the Marilyn label, "each vintage of Norma Jeane Merlot features a photograph taken of the young actress in the years just before she captured the imagination of the American public as Marilyn Monroe", according to their website.

Norma Jeane is the low end, budget priced label in the portfolio which continues to grow in a range of varietal offerings and price points. The family has grown to also include Marilyn Cabernet and a recently released Velvet Collection. According to their marketing, "Norma Jeane wines have captured the imagination of collectors and as well as those who simply enjoy the exuberance of young and delicious Merlot." Indeed, its more marketing than viticulture and winecraft as the wine's appeal exceeds its wine pedigree. They're striving to address this with their premium Velvet Collection label.

Evidence of their marketing success is in the pricing of their 'vintage' wines. Today, their winesite offers ten vintages of the otherwise 'modest' Norma Jeane label. The release price from Nova for their 2013 vintage is $13 and its generally available from $10 to $14. The 2012 release is also available at $13. But note the price escalation for earlier vintage releases - the 2011 is offered on their website at $70! The 2010 vintage is a bargain at $35 if you look the hefty $110 price for the 2009! The rest of the flight is available at 2008 - $70, 2007 - $55, 2006 - $65, and the 2005 is priced at $100. But wait, after the bargain priced 2004, available at $50, the 2003 is $155 and the 2002 is $175. Hold on, the 2001 and 2000 are offered at $225 each, and you can round out your vertical collection with the 1999 at $110 and the 1998 at $160. Don't fret, the 1998- 2009 Vertical Collection is In Stock and available for $1500. I can't make this up. Don't forget, this is a $12 every day sipper. Marketing!

I refer to Nova Wines as marketers as opposed to producers, since I believe they are more negociants than producers - purchasing fruit or wine from others and remarketing it under their own branding and labeling. I am not aware of land holdings or vineyards attributable to Nova Wines.

According to their stated history, "Marilyn Wines traces its origins to 1981, when a small group of friends started making wine at their home near St. Helena in the Napa Valley.  One evening in 1983, over dinner and a bottle of homemade merlot, the concept of "Marilyn Merlot" was born.  The wine enjoyed a good deal of popularity around the valley and was often donated to charity auctions and given as Christmas gifts.'

"In 1985, the playful idea and the fine wine that bore its name led to the limited production of Marilyn Merlot for sale to the public.  Over the 25 years, continuing acclaim from critics, collectors, and lovers of fine wine have led to the production of Marilyn Merlot, Marilyn Cabernet, Norma Jeane, the Velvet Collection, Marilyn Blonde de Noirs, Marilyn Red Dress, and Marilyn Sauvignon Blonde, and Marilyn Meritage."

While they may own some land, and make some of their own wine, I suspect their incredible success has grown beyond that capacity such that they now source their product from other growers and or winemakers to meet their demands.

As I wrote in earlier blogs about negociants and their practices, while this often provides notable wines at extraordinary prices, since their sources may change from vintage to vintage, there may be no such element of terroir, sense  of place with consistent predictability or uniformity in the product. Here again, this isn't about the wine, its about the brand. Kudos to the Nova team for creating an marketing case study in branding, contrary to my earlier citations on the practice.
Norma Jeane Red Wine 2013

Ironically, I picked this up at the local wine shop while I was there to pick up the absolute last available bottles of another negociant label - Ninety Plus Cellars Lot 101 Syrah. Now that its gone, its gone forever. I scoured the market to find the last stock and grabbed it all.

While I follow the releases of Norma Jeane, based on their marketing and labeling featuring images of the starlet early in her career, I've not been a consumer of this wine. I don't have a palette for or particularly enjoy low end modest red wines, despite their affordability at around $10. Its a double edged sword, that as one tastes and studies more wine, and develops a conscious palette for such, one's preferences tend to elevate to more sophisticated wines, which naturally cost more. This is one of the perils of wine enjoyment, one's 'tastes' tend to become more expensive with the more educated palette. As I've written before, this isn't continuous, one reaches their limit of sophistication and preference at a particular level, that typically reflects a pricepoint, whether it be $20, $35, $50 or more. Above that level, I contend that price does not equate with wine quality or appeal, rather marketing and label 'cache' takes over and dictates prices as much as the product itself. Aside the rarified air of certain ultra premium wines, certainly there is a point of diminishing returns for the vast majority of labels. 

This wine was vegetal in character with green pepper predominating over any essence of berry fruit, almost to a point of airing wet grass with woodiness. Buy it for the label, not the contents. Indeed, people will.

RM 83 points.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ninety Plus Cellars Lot 101 Collectors Series Columbia Valley Syrah

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

This may be one of the most enjoyable drinking wines in our cellar right now at any pricepoint.  
Looking for a 'special' bottle to enjoy for some casual drinking at home I pulled this from the cellar to enjoy. 
I reviewed this wine earlier in the spring 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.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

2001 Vintage Napa Cab Comparison Reveals Contrasts in Terroir

2001 Vintage Napa Cab Comparison Reveals Contrasts in Terroir

Bach'ing it for the weekend, we invited Bill and son Ryan over for a grilled steak dinner and impromptu wine tasting. Following our tasting of the blockbuster 2001 Cliff Lede Cabernet recently, I suggested we try '01 Cabs as the theme for a comparison tasting. Bill brought from his cellar a HaLo, the flagship wine of Trefethen Vineyards which we visited together during out Napa Wine Experience 2013. We scoured our cellar for a similar wine to compare. While I had several '01 Napa Cabs from which to select, most were from mountain appellations reflecting our penchant for that style. Seeking the closest geographical source for a comparison tasting, we pulled from the cellar a 2001 Snowden estate bottled cab. Snowden is from the lower southern end of Oakville district in the foothills about 700 feet elevation. Halo is from the Oak Knoll District at the lower end of Napa Valley nestled up against the base of Mt Veeder. The two wines ended up being in stark contrast in terroir and style - both well suited to the grilled strip steaks.

Trefethen Halo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2001

Befitting the flagship brand name, HaLo is named for the producer's children, Hailey and Loren, who grew up in the middle of the Hillspring Vineyard, source for the wine. Hillspring is located in the foothills tucked up against the base of Mt Veeder in the lower Mayacamas range on the western edge of Napa Valley. The estate vineyard sits west of the winery and tasting room at the entrance to Napa Valley just north of the town of Napa. The historic building on the property suffered extensive damage in last week's earthquake.

The '01 Halo was smooth, polished and elegant, a symphony of layers of fruit flavors - berry, black cherry and nuances of soft oak and delicate floral. While complex, it was sophisticated and almost soft, lacking any pretense of muscular structure or backbone on the layer of silky tannins.

RM 92 points.

Snowden Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2001

We discovered Snowden shortly after their inaugural release in the early nineties and still hold several vintages dating back to then. We met Scott and Randy Snowden during our early Napa Wine Experience events from that era.

The '01 was dark garnet colored with a subtle rust on the rim, full bodied, firm and a bit tight, forward black cherry, black currant and black cherry fruits, accented by tones of black tea, black olive, herb, cedar and spice, finishing with a gripping tannins.  A layer of funky earth, leather, and musty wet wood hung over the fruits and didn't dissipate until late into the night.

RM 88 points.

Flora Springs "Trilogy" Napa Valley Bordeaux Blend 2010

I picked this up today and wanted to try it against a couple benchmark cabs to see if I wanted to buy more. We hold numerous vintages of this wine going back to the 1991 vintage. It used to be a perennial favorite. This 2010 vintage release is as good as any in my recollection and definitely warrants being included in a cellar collection. I will most certainly go back and buy more. This release is a blend of 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 4% Malbec and 1% Cabernet Franc. It has the best of both worlds, all the positives of a nicely crafted, balanced Bordeaux varietal blend, with the new world 'instant gratification of a full forward rich concentrated Napa Valley fruits. 

This was dark inky purple colored, full bodied, concentrated rich black berry and black raspberry fruits accented by complex layers of cassis, tobacco, dark chocolate mocha, hints of caramel and soft sweet oak on the smooth silky tannins on the long lingering finish.

RM 92 points. 92 points Wine Enthusiast, 91 points Robert Parker's Wine Advocate 

Fog Dog Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2012

Prior to dinner, Linda broiled two lobster tails to serve lobster medallions with drawn butter that we served with Fog Dog Chardonnay.

FogDog is the label of Sonoma Coast wines from famed Napa producer Joseph Phelps. FogDog is the whimsical name for the expression used when there is a slight break in a fog bank, and clear skies can be seen.

This release is 100% Sonoma Coast Chardonnay sourced from the Phelps owned Freestone estate vineyards and the Dutton Ranch Mill Station Vineyard.

Light straw colored, light bodied, bright, crisp, nicely balanced acidity, tangy citrus, stone fruit giving way to green apple tones with hints of pineapple and tangy lemon on a smooth lingering finish.

RM 90 points

Groth Reserve Napa Cabernet 2010

Groth Reserve Napa Cabernet 2010 Highlights Harbor Side Sunset Dinner

On the eve of a special tour outing to the Frank Lloyd Wright Meyer May house in Grand Rapids, we stayed in Grand Beach, MI. We dined with our hosts, friends Gayle and Mark harbor-side at Brentwood Tavern at the Marina Grand Resort in New Buffalo. From the winelist we selected Groth Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - a perfect accompaniment to the tenderloin steak with twice baked potato.

Prior to dinner we did a tasting on the rooftop deck and watched the sunset over the harbor and lake. We enjoyed a bottle of Uriah from Spring Valley Vineyard in Walla Walla that I brought BYOB from the home cellar.

Groth Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 

We first visited the Groth Vineyards Oakville Estate back in the mid-nineties during one of our Napa Wine Experience trips.  We still  hold Groth Cabernet in our cellar going back to the 1990 vintage (part of our 1990 vintage horizontal collection commemorating son Alec's birthyear). The Groth flagship Reserve bottling is sourced from the Reserve Block vineyard at the winery's 27.78-acre estate on the eastern side of the Oakville appellation. It also contains some Merlot from Groth's Hillview Vineyard. It is aged for 22 months in all new French oak.

The 2010 Groth Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was considered one of the top Napa Cabs from the 2010 vintage release. The 2010 harvest is regarded as one of the most intriguing, most difficult and may prove to be one of the best vintages of the early 21st century.

Dark garnet colored, full bodied, dry, concentrated and complex yet nicely structured, balanced and polished, rich in tannins, dark fruit flavors of black currants and black raspberry accented by a moderate soft layer of sweet cassis and licorice with hints of dried herbs and toasty cedar.

RM 92 points.

Spring Valley Vineyard 'Uriah' Walla Walla Valley Red Blend 2004

Our vertical collection of this wine dates back almost a decade to the 2002 vintage, capped by the current 2010 vintage release which received rave reviews and a Top 100 wine of the year accolade. Brought from the cellar for this casual pre-dinner tasting, this Merlot based blend offered an interesting and pleasant conversational wine experience. 

Consistent with earlier tasting notes, this Merlot based Bordeaux blend is dark garnet colored with slight brownish tones, medium to full bodied, the fruits are starting to subside a bit and give way to non-fruit tones. It opened with a barnyard funkiness that dutifully burned off as predicted in less than a half hour. The black berry fruit is accented by a layer of truffles, black tea and fresh sauteed mushroom with anise tones and a layer of spicy black cherry fruits accented by subtle smoke creosote on a tangy lingering tannin finish.

RM 89 points.

Barossa Old Vine Company Barossa Shiraz 2003

The following evening we did a casual tasting at the lake house of Barossa Old Vine Co '03 brought from our cellar, tasted with artisan cheeses, crackers, salami and chocolates. This is a limited release bottling produced from 109, 127, and 152 year old vineyards.

Dark inky purple colored, full bodied, big dense concentrated rich tongue coating ripe fruits of blueberry, black raspberry and currant, accented by cedar, spicy oak and hints of licorice on the full tannin finish. The ripe fruit is so forward and rich that it comes across with a slight offset of an mineral tone with an almost metallic edge.

Robert Parker 94, REM 93 points.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Del Dotto Napa Valley Merlot 1998

Del Dotto Napa Valley Estate Merlot 1998

For a casual wine and cheese tasting, I opened this vintage Merlot from a half bottle. At sixteen years old, from a much maligned vintage, from a small format (375ml) bottle, this had all the makings for a pop and pour (out). Fortuitously, this was still very approachable, tasty, holding its own, a nice complement to the selection of artisan cheeses and dark chocolate.

This is another example of the steadfastness of this unheralded '98 Napa vintage that was severely overshadowed by what I contend was the over-rated '97. This is also further testament to the age-ability of  Bordeaux varietals from Napa. I have said and written often that the '98 vintage offers more enjoyable drinking than the much higher rated '97. Its ready to drink now, while the 97 seems to be withholding its potential and remains a bit tight and closed. I said this five years ago and am surprised to still be saying it today.

We visited and dined with Del Dotto during several of our Napa trips going back to our Napa Wine Experience 1998 up to 2005. We hold a vertical collection of their Napa Cabernets that spans about a decade. 

This '98 Merlot was dark garnet colored, medium-full bodied with earthy black berry and black cherry fruits accented by leather, dark tea, hints of tangy spice, and tones of creosote and smoke with a tongue coating mouth puckering lingering tannin finish - a nice accompaniment to hearty cheese, biscuits and dark chocolates. Amazingly, it showed no signs of diminution from age. Amazingly, I opened this, had a small glass, corked it and threw it in the cooler. When I found and reopened it three days later,  it was even better!

RM 88 points.