Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Kistler Sonoma Mtn Chardonnay at Cotton Row Huntsville

Kistler Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay at Cotton Row Restaurant Huntsville

Enroute to our favorite getaway at The Cove, Destin, Florida vacation rental home, we stopped in Madison/Huntsville, AL to visit an investment property. Staying over the night, we dined at Cotton Row Restaurant, downtown Huntsville

Arguably one of the more highly acclaimed restaurants in Huntsville, Cotton Row sits on the southwest corner of the Courthouse Square in a historic three-story brick building built in 1821 along the cotton exchange, from which it derives its name.

Cotton Row is the creation of Chef James Boyce and wife Suzan. James started his culinary career in New York City at venerable Le Cirque, where he worked for six years under the tutelage of Daniel Boulud. While working in New York, Boyce studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, graduating with top honors. 

In 1990, Boyce moved west to Phoenix, where he worked at The Phoenician with Mary Elaine’s former chef de cuisine, Alex Stratta. After five years there he moved to Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas as chef de cuisine at Palace Court before moving to Loews Coronado Bay Resort as executive chef in 1995. While heading culinary operations for Loews, he made a name for himself as one of Southern California’s leading chefs, earning critical acclaim with a variety of awards. James Boyce was tapped to be the anchor of Studio when it opened in 2003 where he earned a second Mobil Five-Star award.

In 2008 he and wife Suzan moved to Huntsville and opened Cotton Row featuring fine American cuisine with strong Southern influences. In 2014, Cotton Row was awarded Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence for its extensive well crafted wine list. They won it again several times from 2015 through 2020, however they don't appear to be currently so recognized. 

The recognition is given for "offering a wine list of typically 350 or more quality selections with significant vintage depth or superior breadth in one or more major wine regions."

Wine Spectator identified Cotton Row's "wine strengths as California and Bordeaux."

Their website speaks of their wine cellar that houses the restaurant’s collection of nearly 5,000 bottles of 300 different selections in the Cedar Pipe Cellar dining room that can seat sixteen for special dinners. 

It is written that the Boyces own three restaurants in Huntsville -- Cotton Row, Commerce Kitchen and Pane e Vino Pizzeria, and Galley and Garden Restaurant in Birmingham. Both Cotton Row Restaurant in Huntsville and Galley and Garden in Birmingham received the distinctive Best of Award of Excellence, the only two in Alabama to be so recognized in 2017. 

Cotton Row has four dining areas, an outdoor streetside patio, inside adjacent the bar, intimate stylish warm comfortable dining areas to the rear with cushioned bench seating along both walls, and a private dining room in the wine cellar.

The rear dining area is highlighted with an intriguing large industrial strength vault safe door (below), presumably from the legacy cotton exchange, or perhaps from a follow on era as a bank.

From the menu I ordered as a starter the Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras. The foie gras was small from my experience and was served on a rather strange somewhat tasteless waffle that continued the breakfast theme with what appeared to be simple maple syrup drizzle for a somewhat disappointing attempt at creativity, or, as if they ran out of or forgot to mix in the berry compote.

Linda ordered the Cornmeal Crusted Apalochiola Oysters as her starter and entree. Once again, the serving was rather modest.

For my entree I ordered the Roasted Alaskan Halibut, served with a gnocchi, and the chef's selection grilled scallops enhancement. The tab reflected the two grilled scallops were a twenty dollar up-charge which would've been pricey had they been perfect, but in the end was somewhat egregious since they were less than stellar being less than fresh and unimaginative in preparation and serving.

From the winelist I selected an ulra-premium Kistler Sonoma Chardonnay as an accompaniment and wine pairing with dinner. This is the third different label Chardonnay from this producer we have ordered in restaurants in recent memory. Most recently - Kistler Les Noisetiers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay at Emerils Coastal

Kistler Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay 2019

Our awkward dining experience continued over discussion about the label and source designation of this wine. I commented to the server that I half expected the notation on the wine list to be a mis-print, expecting a Sonoma Coast or Sonoma Valley, other appellation vineyard specific designation, knowing that Kistler offer a dozen different Chardonnays. I admit I'd never heard of or didn't recall Sonoma Mountain as a designation and asked where it was. The server didn't know and deferred, but confidently stated Suzan, wine director was a sommelier and would undoubtedly know the answer.  

We were then approached by a young lady purportedly the general manager who advised us that Sonoma Mountain was in California. Of course it was, I exclaimed but where? My premise was that Sonoma Mountain must be the western side of the Mayacamas Range that separates or divided Napa Valley to the east, from Sonoma Valley to the west. If that were to be the case, then how is it distinguished from Diamond Mountain at the north end of the range, Spring Mountain in the middle, and Mount Veeder on the southern end? 

Her response was that it was in Southern California!?! I was a bit flummoxed from the response and politely responded that no, Sonoma County is in Northern California. I further explained my quandary and query, as to the location of Sonoma Mountain - to the north near Fisher Vineyards?, Or in the middle near Chateau St Jean or Kenwood? Or to the south, past Kunde, down near Arrowood? - all Sonoma Valley properties up against the western side slopes of the Mayacamas Range. 

She departed to consult with the Sommelier again and returned to advise us that it "appellates" as Sonoma Mountain. I took that to infer that it is in itself an Appellation in Sonoma. With my numerous travels to and studies of Sonoma County and its numerous, varied appellations, it made sense, however I had never heard of or seen such, and still wasn't sure where it was. Perhaps in response to my apparent dismay at the use of 'appellate' as a verb, or an adjective, she repeated it again.

I expected more from an upscale restaurant serving an ultra-premium label from an Wine Spectator Award wine-list - especially when sincerely inquiring about this, the most expensive (white wine) bottle on offer from such list.

To close out the matter, the following day, ironically and fortuitously, we had the distinct pleasure and honor of meeting Master Sommelier Thomas Price, Master Sommelier in Residence at 1856 Culinary Residence in Auburn, where we dined for lunch. When asked about the existence of and location or Sonoma Mountain, he promptly and confidently advised us it is on the eastern wall of Sonoma Valley near or at Kenwood. Alas, that makes sense and answered the question. Interestingly, it does not correlate to the adjacent or opposing Napa Mountains on the east side of the range as it is on the opposite western side of the Sonoma Valley. Lesson learned. 

Forgive me for this diatribe but I had to share it, and get it off my chest - indeed these pages are all about sharing our wine and dining experiences.

In retrospect upon further research the Sonoma Mountains cover approximately 130 square miles (83,200 acres, about 8% of the County). According to James R. Allen, MS, PG Geology, Earth and Environmental Sciences, California State University, East Bay, "Actually, it should be called the Sonoma Mountains, a 25-mile long ridge bordered on the east by Sonoma Valley, on the west by the Petaluma River Valley and the Cotati/Santa Rosa Plain and on the south by San Pablo Bay. The north/south-oriented ridge is only about nine miles wide on its east/west axis".

The Sonoma Mountains range separates the Sonoma Creek watershed from the Petaluma River and Tolay Creek watersheds.

Sonoma Mountain anchors the Western boundary wall of Sonoma Valley, opposite the Mayacamas Range that forms the eastern wall. It is the center of the coastal range that separates Sonoma Valley from the coastal Sonoma County and borders pretty much the totality of the Sonoma Valley, from the town of Sonoma in the south up to Glen Ellyn. 

To the north, adjacent the town of Kenwood is the northern coastal range consisting of Bennet Mountain on the eastern slope, and Taylor Mountain on the western facing slope. 

The south range, from the town of Sonoma south to Sears Point is bounded by the lesser predominant Wildcat Mountain. 

Confusion or bewilderment about Sonoma County wine appellations is understandable given Sonoma County has no less than eighteen American Viticulture Areas (AVAs), federally designated grape-growing regions that each reflect the wide variety of climate and soil conditions in the County.

The difference in climate and soil (terroir), means that cooler climate grapes grow well in certain regions and in others warm climate grapes are more suitable. The large production of the County means that each AVA is significant in its own right. 

So, not to be confused with Sonoma Valley AVA, or Sonoma Coast AVA, or Northern Sonoma AVA, Sonoma Mountain gives its name to the Sonoma Mountain AVA.

We visted and toured some of the remote regions of Sonoma County from the coast to Sonoma Valley during our Napa / Sonoma Wine Experience 2017.

That was our first trip to focus on exploring and discovering the more remote appellations of Sonoma County, as a discovery and learning trip, setting the stage for further in-depth immersive studies in the future. We stayed the first few days in the Pacific coastal town of Bodega Bay.

That week we focused on, visited and toured the Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Green Valley and Dry Creek Valley appellations, as well as Sonoma Valley. This set the stage, so watch for more immersive studies on these areas in the future, now that we have the big picture and understanding of navigating the region.

We discovered some new producers or producer's sites in the remote Sonoma areas - Gary Farrell and Porter Creek Vineyards and Winery. Lastly, we also visited Krug in Sonoma County, and  Chateau St Jean and Kunde in Sonoma Valley before venturing on to Napa Valley. 

As I wrote in my posts about that trip, Sonoma County is vast, covering almost 60,000 acres of vineyards, with a broad diverse range of terrior and microclimates. Sonoma County, reaches all the way to the Pacific Coast from the west side of the Mayacamas Mountain range that forms the eastern boundary of the Sonoma Valley and separates Sonoma Valley from Napa Valley. Sonoma County consists of, at that time, 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs, or appellations) – each with its own distinctive characteristics. There are more than 400 wineries in the region.

The western Sonoma County Sonoma Coast area is emerging as the source of 'cool climate' Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.

Citing, a valuable source of wine information - "Defined more by altitude than geographical outline, the Sonoma Mountain appellation occupies elevations between 400 and 1,200 feet on the northern and eastern slopes of the actual Sonoma Mountain and is part of the greater Sonoma Valley appellation. The mountain reaches 2,400 feet; its hills separate the cooling winds of Petaluma Gap from the Sonoma Valley.'

"On a cooler western flank, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah enjoy a great deal of success. Vineyards on its warmer, eastern side, interspersed with heavily forested areas, tend to include Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Syrah. Given its complexity of topography and mesoclimates, Sonoma Mountain excels with a wide range of grape varieties."

The peak of Sonoma Mountain defines part of the boundary of another such region, the Sonoma Coast AVA. Wines made from grapes grown on its western and southern slopes qualify for the Sonoma Coast appellation, but wines made from grapes grown on its eastern and northern slopes do not.

The Sonoma Mountain AVA (American Viticultural Area) centered on the Sonoma Mountain in the Sonoma Mountains includes the town of Glen Ellen, California and is nearly surrounded by the Sonoma Valley AVA. The area is known for the diverse micro-climates that occur on exposed hillsides and shaded drainages, and as such is home to production for a wide range of grape varieties beyond Chardonnay, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Zinfandel.

Meanwhile, the Sonoma Mountain (appellation) Chardonnay from Kistler is another vineyard or appellation designated label in their broad portfolio. Kistler Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay has been produced since 2009. It ranked fourth for number of awards won among wines from this region: the The TEXSOM International Wine Awards awarded the 2021 vintage Gold and the 2019 vintage Gold Medal.

Kistler is widely considered one of the New World’s greatest Chardonnay producers.

Winery note: "The Kistler plantings on Sonoma Mountain, situated on a hillside bench perfectly suited for growing world class Chardonnay, are interlaced with the rare combination of red volcanic and fine grained chalky soils. The vineyards are planted to California Heritage clones that were selected specifically over the last 30 years to ripen to our balanced wine standards. They are some of the oldest Chardonnay vineyards in Sonoma County. When coupled with the selections in the vineyard the textbook growing conditions afford a wine that is decidedly Sonoma Mountain in character. Annually some of our earliest vineyard pickings each year, this is a wine driven by a grounded, focused mineral core yet lifted by striking ethereal tones of vibrant light fruit raised at elevation."

Once again, rather general and broad representation of the source of, or location of the vineyard site/sources.

Founded in 1978, Kistler Vineyards is a small, family-owned and operated winery specializing in the production of Burgundian style Chardonnay and limited amounts of Pinot Noir. Grapes are estate grown and purchased from vineyards in Sonoma County. In 1992, Kistler Vineyards moved all production to its Vine Hill Road Vineyard in the Russian River Valley.

Winemaker's notes: “The Kistler plantings on Sonoma Mountain, situated on a hillside bench perfectly suited for growing world class Chardonnay, are interlaced with the rare combination of red volcanic and fine grained chalky soils. The vineyards are planted to California Heritage clones that were selected specifically over the last 30 years to ripen to our balanced wine standards. They are some of the oldest Chardonnay vineyards in Sonoma County. When coupled with the selections in the vineyard the textbook growing conditions afford a wine that is decidedly Sonoma Mountain in character. Annually some of our earliest vineyard pickings each year, this is a wine driven by a grounded, focused mineral core yet lifted by striking ethereal tones of vibrant light fruit raised at elevation.”

From Kistler ...  "Kistler is a single clone chardonnay house... One heritage Californian selection of Chardonnay planted across fifteen vineyards, from Carneros to Sonoma Valley, to the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast. From those sites we produce eleven vineyard designate Chardonnays. We are wholly dedicated to the ideal of wines of site. It’s an unparalleled approach in the new world."

Winemaker notes on this label: "Bottled since 1986. Just shy of 1800 feet in elevation, in a small bowl on the western edge of the Mayacama mountains lies the original Kistler planting. Forty-year old dry farmed vines grow in deep red volcanic soils, producing a wine with an intense sense of its mountain heritage. The Kistler Vineyard Chardonnay has delicate and bright lifted stone fruit and faintly floral like tones, like its McCrea cousin, yet also a firmer nature with a stronger core and added layers of texture."

So, their description of the site fits my initial recollection of its location. It is repeated or elaborated by numerous wine pundits and merchants. 

Wine pundit Natalie MacLean, author/producer of North America's most popular online wine and food pairing classes, publisher of two Amazon Best Books of the Year on wine, describes Kistler Chardonny. "Kistler 2019 Chardonnay is a single-vineyard Burgundian-style Chard with great acidity for food. Kistler Vineyards has been producing Chardonnay since 1978 with this example from their estate vineyard in the Mayacamas Range. The wine is unfined and unfiltered, dry, medium-bodied and creamy with ripe apple, pear, hazelnut and toasty oak spice flavours on a long finish." She gave this wine 94 points.

Astor Wine Merchants - At 1800 ft, this is the original planting of Kistler Vineyards. On the western edge of the Mayacamas Mountains, these sturdy, 30 + year old vines yield an evocative Chardonnay, dense in texture, yet delicate on the palate. Waves of apple and pear confit float over fine acidity. A classic in every way and fine for roasted onions, baked gratins, and buttery poultry. The vines are dry farmed in the deep red volcanic ash of the region. 

The notable wine merchant K&L, in Redwood City, offers this citation of this wine: "An iconic wine from one of the most legendary producers in California. Meticulous detail goes into the farming and winemaking. Fruit is from some of the most highly regarded vineyards in the region, many of which are farmed entirely by Kistler themselves."

In any event, this was golden straw colored medium-bodied, rich, full and round yet smooth and elegant with ripe apple, pear and lemon curd notes accented by caramel, nut and toast flavours, silky smooth, dry and long on the palate. 

RM 94 points. 

This release was awarded 94 points by Natalie McLean.

For the dessert course we shared the Creme' Brulee. Unsolicited, Linda made a point that the accompanying blueberries were not fresh, but rather were dry and bordering being wilted, listless and tastleless.

Linda orderd a Sambucca, her customary aperitif, which she noted was served sans the customary traditional coffee bean. 

As a matter of comparison with the Sambucca, I inquired about the French manifestation of anise, anisette, licorice liquor - seeking a Pastis. The server brought out and offered the Fernet-Branca (shown). Having never heard of or tried such, I ordered one. It was awful - not blatantly offensive such as a Chicago style Malort, but bordering on unpleasant in any event. 

 C'est la vie. A fitting close to the evening.