Sunday, September 29, 2019

Robert Craig Tribute

Robert Craig Tribute and Remembrance - Mt Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon

Writing about our tasting Robert Craig Affinity last week, I was sobered to learn of the passing of founder and former owner/producer Robert Craig. As a result, in response to the news, I selected several Robert Craig labels to taste with several special dinners this week, in remembrance of and in tribute to Robert. As we opened and released each bottle we toasted Robert and offered our thoughts and prayers to Lynn.

I recall Robert telling us on numerous occasions that his favorite label was the Mount Veeder (Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon. This was likely in light of his early years managing vineyards up on Mt Veeder on behalf of Hess Collection, and then Robin William's winery (Toad Hollow, named for his brother Todd, whose name he couldn't pronounce as a child calling him Toad instead of Todd), and then his long history sourcing fruit from vineyards there to supply one of his key labels, the Mt Veeder Cabernet of the Robert Craig portfolio. This long association ended just a couple of years ago with the purchase of the vineyards by the Tesseron French conglomerate from the estate of the departed Robin Williams.
P.S. to this post, December, 2020 - Tesseron Napa Valley Pym Rae Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon just appeared in wine merchants this week - featured in the collectables room at $350 per bottle - quite a premium for the descendant of Robert Craig Mt Veeder label we enjoyed for so long!

Robert Craig in Napa Valley was founded in 1992 when Robert Craig, a former general manager of The Hess Collection winery, struck out on his own. Craig wanted to make small quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon from distinct Napa Valley appellations. Over the years, he acquired and produced wine from the 9.5-acre estate vineyard high atop Howell Mountain. Robert Craig also sourced grapes from Spring Mountain, Napa Valley, Mt George, Atlas Peak, and of course his beloved Mt. Veeder. He often referred to his portfolio of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons as 'three mountains and a valley'. He also sourced fruit and produced Napa Valley Chardonnay, Zinfandel and on some occasions a Syrah.

Robert attended the University of Chicago and hence we believe he always had a fondness for Chicago. He ventured here at least once on a wine release tour and we met him in the City at a tasting event. As partner and winery executive Elton wrote in his tribute to Bob, "To be introduced to Bob was to receive a hug from Bob". That day, in Chicago, Bob and Lynn walked into the venue and Bob spotted me across the room and made his way through the crowd towards me, came up to me and gave me a big hug!  

He was also a former merchant marine seaman. Back in 1999, we hosted a wine dinner featuring him and Lynn at the CIA in St Helena. That day, the tall ships sailed in to San Francisco Bay. Robert had gotten up a 430 am drive down to the city to see the tall ships, then drove back late afternoon to join us for dinner (shown right - Reuben Katz of CIA hiding in back).

I remember he was rejoicing in the fellowship and wine and had a special teary twinkle in his eye. Upon asking him if he was okay, he lamented, 'this was one of the best days of my whole life!". Such was the kind and content, joyful Robert Craig.

We also hosted a wine dinner at the CIA featuring Robert the year before in 1998 and he brought along his winemaker Rudy Zedema (shown left, rear next to me) whom he was no doubt mentoring. Robert and Rudy are pictured with our group, Andy, Liat, Linda, and me. 

The Robret Craig Mt Veender Napa Valley Cabernet wine was cited as "One of the "Top 50 Napa Valley Cabernets" based on 15 years of ratings by The Wine Spectator".

In tribute and remembrance of Robert Craig, we pulled vintage bottles of Robert Craig Mt Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon as well as horizontal selections of Robert Craig Affinity from those vintages that would've contained some of the same Cabernet Sauvignon fruit in the blend.

To heighten the significant and poignancy of the occasion, Sister Jan and Brother-in-law Bill were in town this weekend for a family event. They were with us during a couple of our Robert Craig special events and some of our memorable visits to the Robert Craig Estate up on Howell Mountain including a picnic lunch we had there back in 2007 (below).

Picnic with Robert at Craig Estate with Jan and Bill, Andy, Linda and Me
Our records show we still hold in our cellar nearly four cases of fifteen different vintage releases of this label spanning the three decades since its release.

Robert Craig Mt Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

We visited the Robert Craig estate winery high atop Howell Mountain on several occasions, including the Robert Craig Howell Mountain Harvest Party '09 back in 2009, when we first tasted some of the 2007 vintage release labels from barrel and when we would have acquired this wine. Robert Craig Napa Valley Cabernets, which are instantiated in at least six different labels including this vineyard designated select Mt Veeder, are one of the largest producer holdings in our cellar collection.

The previous time we served this wine at one of our wine dinners, it was poignant tasting and reminiscing over this wine. We recalled tasting this wine with Robert Craig on numerous occasions and he recollecting this is his favorite of the vineyard selections. We talked of the recent end of the supplier relationship for this fruit source as the legendary Pym Rae Vineyard, previously owned by the late Robin Williams, was sold to a major French producer who acquired the sixteen hundred acre estate and plan to enter the Napa Valley marketplace. We recall Robert's reminiscences of Robin for whom he worked and managed the vineyards back in the nineties. 
Jan and Bill, Linda and me, Rachel and Robert
Linda and Robert

Fellow wine buddy and 'Pour Boy' Bill C (above with Robert and me) was with us on our most recent visits to the Robert Craig Estate, harvest party and tasting events. He and Beth C were with us when we acquired several of our releases of this label in recent years and we were both members of the Craig wine club. 

Bill's Cellartracker notes on this tasting:

"Big full bodied Mt Veeder. Medium garnet in color. Nose musty upon opening but reveals pencil shavings with some light floral notes. Dark cherry, raspberry, mocha and a hint of mint on the finish. Bigger and bolder than most Mt. Veeder. Medium bodied with a long, lingering finish."

WCC 90 points.

Robert Craig Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder 2004

We also opened a 2004 vintage release of this same label - a 'vertical' selection - multiple vintages of the same label. Obviously similar to the 2007 release above since its essentially the same wine, sourced from the same vineyards and crafted by the same winemaker and processes. The 2004 was a bit less fruit filled and forward, a bit tighter and subdued, but very good none-the-less.

This release got 92 points from Connoisseur's Guide and Wine Enthusiast.

Dark garnet colored, medium full bodied, nicely integrated and well balanced black cherry, black currant and black raspberry fruits accented by notes of cassis, smokey oak, dark mocha and hints of cedar with moderate dusty tannins on the lingering finish.

RM 91 points.

This is a blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, & 2% Cabernet Franc.


Saturday, September 28, 2019

Ladera Malbec 2006

Ladera Napa Valley Malbec 2006 

We discovered this wine and purchased it following our visit to the Ladera Vineyards estate and winery up on Howell Mountain during our Napa Valley Howell Mountain Wine Experience 2008

We'd driven past the property, formerly the historic Chateau Woltner many times over the years on our treks up Howell Mountain. 

The fabulous historic winery building consists of production and barrel storage below and a rustic tasting room upstairs. It is surrounded by spectacular gardens, beds of lavender, and of course the vineyards.

Rick & Linda at Ladera winery
Howell Mountain
Ladera primarily focused on Cabernet Sauvignon of which we still hold a several cases of four different labels across three vintages from this era. We also acquired some of their Pinot Noir which was sourced from Sonoma County, as well as this Malbec grown from estate fruit, of which we still hold a half case in our cellar.

Malbec is one of the "big five" grape varieties in Bordeaux included in the "Cabernet family" of grapes.

It serves as one of the blending wines to round out and add complexity to the primary varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Merlot used for its deep, dark purple color, its fragrant aromas, ranging from black cherry to black pepper, and its texture which is lush and juicy in the mid palette and very soft on the finish.

Primarily a blended complement to the tannic, brooding Cabernet Sauvignon, it produces an interesting and nice stand alone wine, as well.

The 2006 Napa Valley Ladera Malbec is a blend of fruit from two mountain vineyards - 50% from Howell Mountain and the other 50% from Lone Canyon - two unique terroirs.

The rolling hills and volcanic soils of Howell Mountain vineyard lend to the bold dark fruit characters while the steep slopes and gravely soils of Lone Canyon high atop Mt Veeder contribute intense phenolic structure and complexity to the wine.

Somewhat consistent with my tasting notes way back in 2011 when we last tasted this wine: "This wine holds true to its varietal characteristics with its dark inky color, rich aromatics and bold masculine structure. The wine exhibits forward fruits flavors of black cherry and black berry with violets, red licorice, hints of vanilla, white pepper and smoky fig.

Dark garnet colored, medium-full bodied, less complex and less structured than a Cabernet this comes across a bit flabby on opening but overcame the funkiness to reveal black berry and cherry fruit flavors, a layer of spice, hints of leather and a touch of cedar on a long finish." 

RM 89 points.

Rick with Ladera owner/producer
Anne Stotesbery
The seeds for Ladera were planted in the early 1970s, when Pat and Anne Stotesbery fell in love while attending university in Northern California. Among their many shared interests, they discovered a passion for wine, and were soon taking wine classes together, and traveling to wine country for tastings.

The next two decades took them to Minnesota and Montana, where they ran a 3,200-acre ranch with 750 head of cattle, during which time, their interest in wine continued to grow.

With deep agricultural roots on both sides of their family, Pat and Anne Stotesbery acquired their first Napa Valley mountain vineyard in 1996. Their original vineyard was on Mount Veeder, the following year they purchased their second mountain vineyard, Lone Canyon.

In 1998, Pat and Anne made their first non-commercial vintage of 100 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon.

 As a reflection of their commitment to making mountain Cabernet Sauvignons, they selected the name Ladera for their winery, which means “hillside, or slope” in both Spanish and Italian.

They moved their family to Napa Valley, and in 2000, they acquired a historic Howell Mountain property featuring an 82-acre vineyard. For the next 16 years, this property served as the home for Ladera.

Around 2008, their son Dan visited us while on a wine promotion trip and we took him around to several of the local wine merchants in the area. 

In 2016, following the earlier sales of the Lone Canyon and the Mount Veeder properties, with their children grown and pursuing careers of their own, Pat and Anne sold their land on Howell Mountain.

Dark color - full bodied - full firm forward fruits - a bit flabby on opening but overcame the funkiness to reveal black berry and cherry fruit flavors, a layer of spice, hints of leather and a touch of cedar on a long finish.
Rustic Ladera tasting area in the historic
chai and barrel building back in 2006.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Bellemore West Loop Chicago

Trendy Bellemore West Loop Chicago Restaurant Dinner features Red Wine Flight

For a dinner meeting hosting EMEA team and a key business partner, we dined at trendy Bellemore Restaurant in the West Loop, Chicago. The bright, vibrant, trendy, chic high-end spot is from the group behind Girl & the Goat and Somerset. In partnership with Boka Restaurant Group, Bellemore aims to define the category of "Artistic American" in both cuisine and decor. Since opening in November 2017, the restaurant has been awarded #1 in Robb Report’s Best of the Best in the "10 Best New Restaurants in America’. Chef/Partner Jimmy Papadopoulos was also named as Robb Report’s 2018 Best Young Chefs in the country. 

In 2015, Papadopoulos was named Eater Chicago’s Chef of the Year, as well as one of Zagat’s ‘30 under 30’. Papadopoulos has been praised for his ability to “take the familiar and add layers of flavor to make it outstanding.”  He describes his style of cooking as "bold, bright and beautiful."

Chic, elegant, bright and airy, Bellmore features sleek interiors with brass details accentuated with natural elements, plush blush sofas, nostalgic wood & wicker seating, and theme of colorful birds highlighted by peacocks.

We dined at the 'chef's table adjacent and overlooking the kitchen.

Bellemore do not have a deep or broad wine list but the selection of offerings are carefully chosen to complement the menu.

and the Nori Radiatore with peekytoe crab, breadcrumbs, yuzu kosho & mint. 

Chardonnay - Louis Moreau, Chablis - Burgundy, France 2016

Alain Graillot, Crozes-Hermitage, Northern Rhône Valley 2017

We had this label from the previous 2016 vintage during a team partner dinner in Paris back in May of this year. Producer Alain Graillot founded his domaine in Crozes-Hermitage in 1985, and has since become one of the most in-demand producers in the Northern Rhone. He is known for exuberant, robust, and complete Syrah based wines sourced from his 50 acre estate of 30-year-old Crozes-Hermitage vines on the flat alluvial plain at the junction of the Rhône and Isère rivers.

Photo-label from 2016 release
Alain is joined by his two sons Antoine and Maxime working the estate. They produce rich, concentrated reds that represent the best art of the possible of the Syrah grape: black fruit, intense aromatics, pepper and spice complexity underpinned by crisp acidity and fine tannins.

Graillot works organically, harvesting fruit by hand and fermenting in whole bunches. He ages his wines in used barrels, one to three-years-old, purchased from Burgundy’s best estates. His Crozes-Hermitage is approachable and enjoyable young, yet will age nicely for a decade or more. Despite the tannins that inevitably come from the inclusion of whole bunches in fermentation, Graillot wines are seldom hard-edged, overly tannic, or in need of extended cellaring. 

This 2017 release was bottled in March of this year, 2019. gave the 2016 a rating of 91 points when he wrote:“The 2016 Crozes Hermitage from this terrific producer offers a big blast of classic Crozes – dark fruits, earth, truffle, olive, and pepper on the nose. This is followed by a medium-bodied, rounded, nicely concentrated effort that has good acidity, building tannins, and a great finish. An incredibly successful wine in this vintage, it will benefit from a year or two of bottle age and keep for 7-8 years.”
Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gave it 91-93 points.

Tonight, the 2017 was bright ruby colored, medium full bodied, notes of floral and violets, black berry and dark plums fruits with notes of black olives, truffles and earth with hints of pepper on a silky smooth tannin laced finish.

Vieux Telgraphe Piedlong, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rhône Valley 2012 

We first discovered this label at Il Fiore Restaurant and Bar at the Langham Hotel in NYC last year. This is the second release of this Piedlong label that was first released in 2011. It comes from a 29 acre vineyard site from the stony soils on the Piedlong plateau in the heart of the appellation, north of the village, the highest point in the region. The Mourvèdre, comes from the Pignan lieu-dit, just to the east of Piedlong. We visited the Vieux Télégraphe estate during our CDP appellation tour back in 1998 and then again this year during our 2019 visit with owner/producer Alain Brunier at the Estate. was a highlight of our visit to the Luberon and Southern Rhône.

This label is a blend of 90% Genache Noir and 10% Mourvèdre. Comprised of but two varietals of the thirteen that are allowed in the AOC sanctioned blend, its a simpler less complex wine than the flagship label which under appellation rules can contain up to thirteen different varietals. 

The predominant Grenache grapes are sourced from 70 year old vines on the Vieux Telegraph 27 acre site on the stony Piedlong Plateau which is in the heart of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC area. Piedlong is north of the village at the highest point of the appellation. The Mourvèdre fruit is sourced from 50 year old vines on the 22 acre Pignan lieu-dit, east of Piedlong.

This 2012 Piedlong was only the second vintage for this label. It was vinified all in wood tank, with 30% whole-cluster, it possesses medium to full-bodied richness, firm tannin and excellent purity, with plenty of blackberry fruit, dried spice and licorice on the nose. It should continue to age nicely in the cellar and for another half decade or more. 

Giving up loads of kirsh, strawberry, dried soil, flowers and hints of meatiness; this classic Grenache is medium to full-bodied, ripe and textured, yet remarkably focused and fresh. While the acidity here is relatively low, it has plenty of fine tannin that keep it focused

Wine Advocate Jeb Dunnuck gave this wine 91-93 points.

Wine Spectator J.Molesoworth and International Wine Cellar Josh Reynolds both gave this 92 points.

Bright ruby color, medium-full bodied, vibrant black cherry and black raspberry fruits accented by dried flowers and peppery spices, notes of kirsch, dark mocha chocolate with a gripping but manageable tannins on a long lingering finish. 

RM 91 points.

Château des Eyrins - La Closerie des Eyrins - Margaux 2015

We stayed a short walk from this estate during our recent trip to Margaux. Husband-wife winemaking team Julie and Xavier Gonet-Médeville are a prodigy of French wines having both been raised in notable winemaking families: Julie’s family famous for its incomparable Chateau Gilette, and Xavier comes from a long line of Champagne growers in Le Mesnil.

Julie and Xavier bought the seven-acre Château des Eyrins estate in the village of Margaux from Eric Grangerou in 2008. The Grangerou family has been cellar masters for Château Margaux for three generations. Sited on a hillside plateau in the heart of Margaux, Château des Eyrins produces a classic Margaux: dense and deep, with incredible finesse and freshness, the wine undeniably expresses the identity of this glorious appellation.

This is the second wine of this small boutique producer - a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot and the remaining 35 Petit Verdot. Evidence that in great vintages, all boats rise with the tide and second labels can also be quite nice, offering wonderful QPR (quality price ratio).

This was a nice progression in our wine flight to a more focused, complex and sophisticated wine to accompany our dinner entrees; dark garnet colored, medium full bodied, elegant, polished and nicely integrated notes of black cherry, ripe plum, accents of spice box, dried herbs, tobacco leaf and silky smooth tannins on a moderate lingering finish. 
RM 90 points.

Domaine du Collier Saumur La Ripaille 2015

From a small lot producer, not yet on the winelist, this label rounded out our flight for a simpler, more focused and enjoyable sipper to wind down our dinner evening. Comprised of 100% Loire Valley Cabernet Franc, the vines of Domaine du Collier lie within small parcels which are separated from its neighbors by a 12th century wall which protects the site from chemicals that may be used by neighbors in their farming. 

Each of the domaine's parcels lie on the flowing hill now famously known as the Brézé commune. The domaine is split 2/3 to 1/3 - Chenin to Cabernet Franc. For this La Ripaille rouge, vines range from 30 to 80 years in age. 

Aged for 3 years in a combination of used Burgundy barriques (1-3 years old). The domaine as a whole produces around only 1200 cases per year.

Dark garnet colored, medium full bodied, bright vibrant, focused black raspberry and black berry fruits with notes of spice, herbs and cigar box. 

RM 89 points.


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Masciarelli Montepulciano d'Abruzzo

Vintage Masciarelli Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and Carpineto Poggio Sant' Enrico Toscana at Italian Village Business Dinner

We had a mid-week business dinner with my team and a key partner visiting from overseas. We dined at our regular dinner meeting site Italian Village Chicago, as I wrote in a recent blogpost.

While my staff pokes fun at me for being such a creature of habit, our guests don't know any better and are well served by the experience. Wine Director Jared Gelband took good care of us as usual with a couple exemplary wines suited to the occasion and to our dinner selections.

The depth of the Italian Village cellar, with over ten thousand bottles, allows them to hold and serve a wine that is going on ten or beyond twenty years of age, at or near its prime drinking window, as opposed to turning their inventory and serving wines early and young.

Normally, as I did at another business dinner the next evening, I would take the opportunity to taste several wines, ordering a different wine with each bottle. Tonight, contrary to my usual practice, this was so good, we drank three bottles of the same label.

Gianni Masciarelli Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva Villa Gemma 2011 

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is made from the Montepulciano wine varietal grape in the Abruzzo region of east-central Italy, not to be confused with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the Tuscan wine made from Sangiovese  grapes. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo was classified as Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) in 1968. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is one of the most widely exported DOC wines in Italy.

Founded in 1981, Masciarelli and its wines have become a standard-bearer for Abruzzo. Since the age of 22, producer  Gianni Masciarelli has dedicated his life to his home of Abruzzo and its native grape varieties to produce world-class wines. He focused on intense rigorous vineyard management, reducing yields, working organically, thereby greatly increasing fruit quality.

In the winery, he adopted new conventions of gently and precisely handling fruit, and introducing French barriques to add depth and complexity to his wines, resulting in better integration of tannin. The work of Gianni and his wife Marina Cvetic in the vineyards and the winery has been rewarded with 29 Tre Bicchieri and they are today recognized as a groundbreaking and iconic winery in Italy.
Started in Gianni Masciarelli's grandfather's basement, Villa Gemma highlights the best of Abruzzo, showcasing the terroir of the region and the Montepulciano grapes of Abruzzo.

Villa Gemma Montepulciano d'Abruzzo produces powerful, intense wine of character and complexity, with deep fruit and complex earthy and spicy secondary characteristics that represent the highest achievement of the potential from the Montepulciano grape in Abruzzo.

This wine is produced from a single designated site in Montepulciano, from the Colle Cave vineyard in Chieti, the vineyard directly behind the house of Gianni's grandfather, and where his grandfather first started making wine in 1930. This terroir of the steep-sloped site consists of limestone, clay and gravel, and the historic traditional pergola vine training has been replaced by the modern day French Guyot training system.

This is the winery’s flagship label, produced from 100% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. It embodies all the style and taste of the winemaker Gianni Masciarelli in an austere and complex Montepulciano D’Abruzzo Villa Gemma that represents a perfect interpretation of Abruzzo’s most noble grape, now fairly acknowledged in the world map of viticulture that counts.

Dark blackish garnet colored, full bodied, intensely structured, rich, complex, powerful yet graceful at the same time, ripe black and red fruits with hints of anise and toasted nut and oak, the tannins are restrained and silky smooth on the polished and elegant finish. 
RM 93 points.  

James Suckling rated this wine 94 points.


Our second wine of the evening was this Toscano IGT Sangiovese. 

Carpineto Poggio Sant' Enrico Toscana IGT Sangiovese 1999

As I write this, I reached back to Jared to make sure I had the correct label. Even though I saved the cork for reference, it mentioned the producer and Appodiati which is their name for their Single Vineyard Collection. 

Carpineto Single-Vineyard-Collection wines are only produced in great vintage years. The vineyards are selected based on the vintage results showing exceptional characteristics, which fully exemplify and glorify the terroir - the microclimatic characteristics of each area. The wines are crafted for very long ageing and are bottled without undergoing any kind of treatment. They are released only after a minimum of 5 years of bottle ageing.

This is 100% Sangiovese sourced from the Poggio Sant’Enrico Piccolo vineyard that was planted in 1978.

Ironically, as I researched this further, I noted that we drank the exact same label a year ago, almost to the date, with my same leadership team.

Tonight's experience was consistent with my tasting notes of a year ago when I wrote: 

"At nineteen (now twenty) years of age, this is at the apex of its drinking window but not likely to improve with further cellaring, rather more likely to start to diminish from here forward. '

"Dark, deep, blackish-ruby colored, full bodied with firm backbone of bold, intense black berry and ripe plum fruits, notes of black pepper, hints of smoke, leather and subtle vanilla with a long lingering supple tannin finish."

RM 90 points.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

AXΩ Reunion Wine Flight

White Wine Flight for Sisters' Gala Reunion Dinner

Linda hosted her Alpha Chi Omega (AXΩ) sisters' reunion dinner and I put together a flight of white wines for the occasion.

The sisters gathered in Naperville as their destination reunion site and stayed at the Indigo Hotel downtown, and dined in town Friday night.

Tonight, Linda hosted them at our house and served grilled salmon and beef tenderloin with grilled cauliflower.

Before dinner I served a selection of artisan cheeses with biscuits including creamy Harvarti, Brie, Gorgonzola, Blue, Parmesan and a hearty Camembert.

The wine flight:

Twomey Napa Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Hungry Blonde Napa Valley Carneros Chardonnay 2016
Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Chardonnay 2017
Raymond Napa Valley Chardonnay 2017

Château Doisy-Védrines Sauterne 2006

For reds I opened a whimsical Marilyn Merlot 2014 and a Andretti Montona Reserve Merlot 2015.

Twomey Napa / Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc 2017

Twomey's estate Sauvignon Blanc is the quintessential California expression of this varietal. Sourced from four estate-owned vineyards, 52% from two in Napa Valley, Calistoga and Oakville, and 48% from two in Sonoma Russian River Valley Merino Vineyard and Healdsburg, the wine is aged for five months, about 46% in wood and the rest in tank or concrete.

Light golden butter and straw color, light bodied, nicely balanced, bright aromatics of tropical fruits - mango, guava, a hint of ginger, apple and peach aromas, bright vibrant citrus opening turning to hints of lime, Meyer lemon, grapefruit and grassy herbal notes. Nicely balanced acidity on a crisp refreshing finish. 

RM 90 points.

Hungry Blonde Napa Valley Carneros Chardonnay 2016

What a fun wine to serve for such an occasion. The joys of having a broad cellar selection from which to source for a special setting. This was a big hit with the ladies with the cheese, salad and dinner courses.

Winemaker notes for the 2016, "Our Hungry Blonde Chardonnay is the perfect expression of cool-climate Napa Valley Chardonnay from the Carneros region. Inviting aromas of lemon zest and white flowers make way for waves of bosc pear, Tahitian vanilla, and baked apple tart. All held together with fresh acidity and a supple texture inviting another sip."

As I reported in my earlier blogpost on this wine, "according to Wine Country Connection, Hungry Blonde is made by the well known Napa producer Cary Gott. The fruit comes from the Poe Vineyard, which sits adjacent to the world renowned Hyde Vineyard. Larry Hyde’s HDV Chardonnay, sells for $60."

Freemark Abbey Chardonnay Napa Valley 2017

From one of our favorite and widely held producers, we own or have consumed Freemark Abbey Napa Valley wines going back three decades - most their portfolio of Cabernet Sauvignons.

I picked this up a couple weeks ago and we served it a family dinner. I like it so much, I went out and purchased more. 

This is their standard estate Napa Valley Chardonnay. It is sourced from five different vineyards: Huichica Hills  (37.9%), Rancho Sarco (29.6%), Ahmann Vineyard-Carneros (24.3%), Keyes Vineyard-Howell Mountain (6.7%), and Spring Mtn AVA (1.5%).

The Freemark Abbey premium Chardonnays are single vineyard or single AVA designated selections while this is sourced from all their vineyards to meet the large quantity of the offering. Still it is excellent and offers very good QPR - (Quality Price Ratio).

This is 85% aged in oak barrels with roughly 19% new French oak.

Winemaker's Notes for this release: "Light greenish straw in color, our chardonnay expresses fruit aroma of ripe pineapple, ripe banana, guava, apricot, peach and tropical fruit cocktail. Adding to the complexity, the oak aging is fairly integrated adding spice like nutmeg, light toast, and the nuance of angel food cake. This wine has great viscosity, depth and an intriguing long finish. The flavors are lively on the palate with pear, citrus, lemonlime, green apple and fleshy peach. This wine shows great complexity, creaminess, and elegance to compliment many foods."

I give this 91 points.

This was rated 94+ by WA and 91 by JS.

Raymond Reserve Napa Valley Chardonnay 2017

This is a bit of branding tomfoolery calling this a 'Reserve' bottling. Usually, a 'Reserve' wine is a selection of the finest batches or lots, or selected from the finest blocks in the vineyard, or even the finest grapes set aside for a special bottling. Antics like this lead to branding confusion, and confusion about wine in general, and is the basis or the premise of this blog unwindwine - making sense of wine.

Like the Freemark Abbey Chardonnay above, this is the 'standard' estate bottled large volume Chardonnay, from this long time Napa producer. The Raymond estate is situated just off Highway 29 on Zinfandel Lane just south of the town of St Helena.

Winemaker notes for this release: "Aromas of honeysuckle and orange blossoms followed by lemon, lime and pear notes amid toasted almond and honey. A rich, full, mouth feel with balanced acidity and bright lemon, pear, lime and passion fruit flavors followed by a smooth vanilla and toasted oak finish."

RM 88 points.

Château Doisy-Védrines Sauterne 2006

This is a Second Cru Classé (French, “Second Growth”) classic Sauterne, ideal for salad, cheese or dessert. This is one of the regular producer's that show this wine at the annual UGCB release tour.

This was a nice complement to the fresh berries and flowerless chocolate cake with creme fraisch.

Wine Spectator notes on this release: "Shows a solid core of fruit, with spice, honey, lemon and lime. Full-bodied and medium sweet. Spicy and very minerally. Long and balanced. Almost 92-94."

Neal Martin for Robert Parker wrote: "Very expressive nose, tropical fruits, honey, well-integrated new oak, good definition. Gets better with aeration. A crisp, well defined palate with attractive honeyed fruits, orange zest and a nice citrus kick towards the finish. Just lacks the depth of flavour compared to Doisy Daene, but there is still an attractive joie-de-vivre, plus the strict selection of grapes has rid the wine of any rot. Very fine effort, very pretty and elegant. Tasted March 2007.
Score: 91/93"

K&L's notes - At Joanne-spicy aromas and flavor. Fine balance. At UGC-a fatter style with fine depth and length. Clean acidity. Very good as usual.

My notes - Weak tea colored, medium bodied, the sweet nectar tones were overtaken by a slight layer of smokiness and mineral detracting from the normal desired experience - tasty none-the-less.

We still hold about a half case of this release and its probably time to drink up as it will not likely improve with any further aging.

RM 89 points.

Andretti Montona Reserve Merlot 2013 

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Robert Craig Affinity

Tribute to Robert Craig - Affinity Cabernet 2011 - Lot 95 2017

For the end of a tumultuous week, we treated ourselves to a dinner outing at our local neighborhood trattoria, Angeli's Italian. We took BYOB two bottle from our cellar, a latest vintage release of Lot 94 Ninety Plus Cellars Rutherford Cabernet to taste upon release, and an old reliable perennial favorite Robert Craig Affinity Napa Cabernet.

I write about our experience with Ninety Plus Lot 94 in a separate blogpost.

The Robert Craig brand is one of the largest holdings in our wine cellar dating back to the inaugural vintage of their first release in 1993. We hold several dozen bottles of several Robert Craig labels dating back to then across the portfolio of Napa Cabernets. We actually hold a bottle of this label from the first release that actually appeared in 1993.

Over the next two decades Robert Craig expanded the portfolio and added at least five more Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons sourced from different vineyard sites from the two mountain ranges that line and form the two boundaries of Napa Valley.

We've enjoyed many visits to the Robert Craig estate and vineyards high atop Howell Mountain, and the early production facility up on Atlas Peak in the early early days. We've hosted Robert and Lynn Craig for several producer wine dinners over the decades.

As I write this I was reading the Craig blog on the Robert Craig website and just learned that Robert passed away last Sunday at his home in Tuscon with Lynn at his side. We're deeply saddened by this news and he will be missed. He was a wonderful, delightful man and a legend in Napa Valley since his emergence there back in 1990.  We have many fond memories of Robert going back to the mid-nineties.

Robert Craig estate visit 2008
Robert Craig Harvest Party 2009

Robert and Lynn Craig Producer Dinner at CIA in 1999
The 2011 vintage of certain Napa Valley appellations was marginal and some producers shunned the vintage altogether, or combined what would normally go into their grand vin with their standard estate bottling. The result was that some of the labels were actually extraordinary from an otherwise modest or lackluster vintage.

The 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet vintage was rated 86 points, the lowest rating in a decade and the only such rating in a span of a dozen years that averaged about 95 points or spectacular. The primary reason for the decline of the vintage was a rare rainy harvest that spared few producers resulting in modest or variable quality generally.

Robert Craig "Affinity" Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Bordeaux Blend 2011

Robert Craig was always most proud of this label and strove to maintain it at a fairly priced affordable, high QPR - quality price ratio. As I have written in these pages, he has recently stepped down from stewardship and day to day duties of the brand that bears his name, and the new owners/managers have let the price of Affinity creep up precipitously.

Despite the lackluster vintage harvest across the region, this was quite good and exceeded my expectations. I wrote recently about the delights and great fortunes of often investing in lesser vintage releases. This may be another such case.

While generally considered a Cabernet due to its predominance in the blend, Affinity is actually a Bordeaux Blend comprised of the traditional Bordeaux varietals. The 2011 release is a blend of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc and 1% Malbec.

Robert Craig's classic Affinity Bordeaux Blend is based on Cabernet Sauvignon grown at the Robert Craig estate in the foothills of Mount Geroge in Napa's Vaca Range. The firm backbone of Cabernet Sauvignon is augmented and enhanced with the small additions of Petit Verdot which adds a bit of color, Malbec which provides some weight, Cabernet Franc for structure,) and Merlot to soften and smooth the blend with a its more approachable mouthfeel. The blend is aged for 18 months in new and second-fill French oak, the resulting wine is powerful and ripe.

This was dark garnet colored, medium full bodied,  very nicely balanced and integrated for easy pleasant drinking, a vibrant bright core of sweet blackberry, black raspberry and black currant fruits, with highlights of graphite, floral and toasty oak with moderate smooth tannins on a long tangy soft acidity finish.

RM 91 points.  

Robert Parker's Wine Advocate gave it 90 points.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

90+ Lot 94 2017

Ninety+ Cellars Napa Valley Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon Lot 94 2017

After drinking our last bottle of the 2015 vintage release of this label, and being surprised at how good it was at its price point, we were eager to see if we could acquire any more. Alas, the vintages had moved on and the 2017 release was available in local wine shops. I rushed out to purchase some to see if the current release matched the high QPR (quality price ratio) of its earlier vintage. After tasting the 2017, I went back to our local merchant and purchase every bottle available on the shelf.

I've written before, and reiterated recently on the negociant practice of Ninety Plus Cellars and how they acquire excess or un-allocated inventory from growers or producers and market it under their private label. Each source is anonymized and identified only according to its 'Lot' number to track the same wine from vintage to vintage. Here, below is what they wrote about "Lot 94 Napa Valley Rutherford Cabernet".

"Lot 94 is our most popular Collector's Series wine. A full-bodied Napa Cab from highly-regarded vineyard sites in the distinguished Rutherford AVA. This is real deal Napa Cab at an incredible price.'

"Rutherford is home to many of Napa Valley's most sought-after Cabernets. In contrast to the Cabs of Oakville, those of Rutherford tend to display brighter fruit and an iconic earthy flavor that is often described as Rutherford "dust."'

"This distinguished Napa Cabernet Sauvignon was made from fruit picked from vines situated on the east side of the valley in a vineyard that was first planted in the 1890s. Upon alluvial and volcanic soils these densely planted vines produce Cabernet Sauvignon that makes some of the best wine in Napa. This is an all-star Cabernet with an elite pedigree.'

"Sitting in the middle of the St. Helena AVA to the northwest and Oakville AVA to the southeast, Rutherford is the home of many of Napa Valleys sought after bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon. In contrast to the Cabs of Oakville, those of Rutherford tend to display brighter fruit flavors and an iconic earthy flavor that is often described as Rutherford “dust”. We acquired this wine because of the way it stands true to these characteristics and the fact that it can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of most other Rutherford Cabs.'

Upon tasting the 2017 release I found it to be near, but not equal the 2015 in QPR which was a bit better integrated and polished. Although having aged two years in bottle might have made the difference, and the 2017 could perhaps improve and benefit from some bottle aging as well.

In any event, the 2017 is a top flight Cabernet, sophisticated, complex and enjoyable for early gratification, drinking now, and may likely improve further with 2 to 5 years of aging or more. Hence I bought a case plus, all that was available, and will look forward to drinking over the next couple of years. 

The negociant's (Ninety Plus Cellars) tasting notes on this release: "Deep crimson in color with lavish aromas of black currant, mocha, and savory herbs with trailing notes of tobacco and vanilla. Full-bodied and well-rounded with soft edges and a lively dose of bright cherry fruit that unfolds into a smooth finish."

I give it 90 points and look for it to add a point with some bottle aging.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

90+ Cellars Lot 94 Napa Cab

Ninety Plus Cellars "Lot 94" Rutherford Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

Tonight, I opened the last remaining bottle of this high QPR (quality price ratio) value special wine that I acquired a year ago. I wrote a feature at the time about Ninety Plus Cellars and their negociant business where they buy excess fruit from growers, or bulk wine, or in some cases bottled but unlabeled wine from producers, and bottle or release it under their own private label series.

Once in a while this results in an extraordinary value in a wine offered at a fraction of the original producer's or grower's offering price, hence the need to keep the source secret and release under their own or private label. This Lot 94 is such a wine.

The challenge of course is that you can't get too attached to a wine because there may not be a follow on vintage, or there may be sporadic intermittent releases every couple of years, or perhaps only in lesser years when the quality of the product is not up the standards for the primary label. Or, you may get lucky, and the producer has excess inventory or product available and is eager to release it to a trusted outlet. 

Ninety Plus Cellars have built an extensive brand with an extensive selection of wines from around the world, released under their own label. Their nomenclature of the Lot number for any particular wine indicates the source of the product so consumers can identify such from one vintage to the next. 
The challenge of course is that true identity of the source is not revealed, although there are times when it can be determined, either through mis-steps in the packaging (once the bottles had already been filled and corked with corks branded by the original producer), or there have been times when the original wine can be determined by the unique blend of the vintage. 

Their Lot 150 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon label is a case where the identity of the source of the wine is not revealed, until one pulls the cork from the bottle to see it was corked by the original producer using their branded imprinted corks. In that case, the wine available through 90+ is about 1/2 the price of the 'secret' producer's grand vin.

There have been several Ninety Plus wines that I have discovered where I acquired all that I could obtain to keep for enjoyment and value over time, Lot 101, Washington State, Columbia Valley Syrah was one such example.

To replace this consumed bottle of this wine, I had to obtain the latest release of this label, still available as 'Lot 94' from 90+, albeit from the 2017 vintage. Following this tasting I went out and acquired a case of the latest release of the label. Watch for my review of that vintage release.

A replay of my review of Lot 94. Tonight's tasting was consistent with that earlier experience.

Ninety Plus Cellars "Lot 94" Rutherford Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

According to Ninety Plus Cellars, "This distinguished Cabernet Sauvignon was made from fruit picked from vines situated on the east side of the valley in a vineyard that was first planted in the 1890s. Upon alluvial and volcanic soils these densely planted vines produce Cabernet Sauvignon that makes some of the best wine in Napa. This is an all-star Cabernet with a pedigree that's unrivaled by anything we've put in a bottle."

They assert that the offering price for the wine under the source producer's label is double the price of the discounted private label. That may indeed be the case. In any event, I'll testify that this is a high QPR - quality price ratio, great value wine that is comparable to product twice its price.

I originally acquired this when it was one of the wines of the week, featured at the Saturday tasting of the local Vin Chicago outlet (since closed as they succumb to the competition of on-line retailers). So it was, that after tasting at the Vin Chicago Saturday tasting, I grabbed a couple bottles to bring home and try again with different foods or accompaniments. I expect I'll be going back to buy more for great value high quality every day drinking, as well as for special occasions.

This was dark garnet colored, medium bodied, complex sweet black currant and berry fruits, with notes of mocha, tangy clove spice, herbs, tobacco and hints of spicy oak and vanilla with a smooth polished finish.

RM 91 points.