Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino Riserva at Tuscany Bistro Destin

Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino Riserva at Tuscany Bistro Restaurant Destin/Sandestin

Visiting our favorite vacation destination The Cove, Destin, Florida vacation rental home, we're working through the long list of restaurant options in the Destin, Florida area. Tonight, we dined at Tuscany Bistro in Miramar Beach, Destin/Sandestin.

Chef and owner, Guglielmo Ianni, has been preparing authentic Northern Italian cuisine there since 1976, starting out in Chicago and Wisconsin before moving to the Emerald coast in 1991.

Guglielmo specializes in seafood and pasta dishes with one of his signature entrees the whole fish of the day; locally caught fresh red snapper.

Guglielmo Ianni says, “My mother, Adalgisa, gave me the inspiration to pursue culinary talents, which led me to study in Italy and compile Mama’s recipes. Now, I am passing my talents on to the third generation, my daughter Theresa, continuing the Ianni family traditions of preparing authentic Italian cuisine for you to enjoy. For all of our dishes, we only use the freshest ingredients, choice meats, fresh seafood, and garden vegetables. We are fine dining at its best, but we consider the restaurant to be casual, yet comfortable, with a quaint touch of Italy. We want you to feel like part of our family.”
From their classic Italian Menu supplemented by local seafood offerings, Linda ordered one of the house specialties, Lasagna Al Forno - Bolognese, ricotta, parmesan, and mozzarella cheese. It was delicious. 

I ordered the Vitello Parmesan, a benchmark dish that serves as a basis for comparison from one Italian eatery to the next. Guglielmo's preparation is better than average for this favorite offering.

From the somewhat limited but carefully selected winelist, I ordered a Sangiovese based Brunello di Montalcino, one of our favorite varietals for pairing with zesty Italian pasta cuisine. It proved to be a perfect complement accentuating the enjoyment of both the wine and the food for a delightful dining experience.

Tenuta Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Sangiovese 2016

This is from Tenuta Caparzo wine estate/producer in Tuscany in the Montalcino region known for its signature Brunello di Montalcino ‘Vigna La Casa’. 

The name Carpazo is taken from the Latin ‘Caput Arsum’, meaning ‘a place touched by sun’, and Caparzo, derived from “Ca’ Pazzo” as shown on some ancient maps of the area. 

Tenuta Caparzo was founded in the late 1960’s by a group of friends who bought an old ruin with vineyards in Montalcino and subsequently renovated and modernized the farm estate and replanted new vineyards. 

The recent history of Caparzo dates back to the dawning of Brunello di Montalcino at the end of the 1960s, when a group of friends with a fondness for Tuscany purchased an old ruin with vineyards at Montalcino. They set upon renovating and modernising the facilities and planted new vineyards and, not long after, Caparzo began to make a name for itself producing estate wines.

In 1998, Elisabetta Gnudi Angelini, owner of the notable neighbor Altesino estate and brand purchased Tenuta Carpazo and integrated the property and operations with the help of her son Igino and daughter Alessandra elevating the estate to another level. Combining tradition with innovation, the Angelini family produce high-quality wines year on year, always with an emphasis on selecting the best fruit from the best plots.

Caparzo covers an overall surface area of nearly 500 acres with 220 covered by vineyards, distributed over different hillsides around the borough of Montalcino. The vineyards are at a heights ranging from 720 to 985 feet above sea level. The soils ranges between sandy-clay, shale-clay (marl), shale-renaceous rich in skeleton, and sandy-stony. The exposure of the vineyards, the nature of the lands and the microclimates of the areas give fullness, age-ability and character to the Caparzo wines.

Located southwest of Chianti, Montalcino came into its own in the late 1880s when local producer,Biondi-Santi, discovered a Sangiovese clone in his vineyard that was darker in colour than the rest. Its colour, however, was not its only attribute. It produced a wine with notable body, structure and length. He named it ‘brunello' meaning 'little dark one'. 

This grape's genetic properties along with Montalcino's relatively temperate climate combine to create a wine stylistically different to that of more northerly Chianti. They are usually released approximately 5 years after the vintage following 2 to 4 years ageing in wood. The designation of Riserva indicates a wine usually produced with more concentrated grapes than the traditional cuvée and requires a minimum of one additional year of ageing. Today, Montalcino wines have become one of the most sought after appellations in the Tuscan region. 

Caparzo's Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is only produced in the finest vintages and from grapes selected personally by winemaker Massimo Bracalente. It is a certified DOCG wine. It was first produced in 1980 and has shown to have the capacity to age for up to 40 years. 

This Caparzo Riservarelease was constructed combining fruit from the estate’s original vineyard in the far north of Montalcino, with La Casa on the Montosoli hill, as well as Il Cassero and La Caduta which are in the south to southwest of the denomination.

Winemaker Notes - Ruby, tending towards garnet with age. Penetrating on the nose with ample and very complex nose with echoes of wild berry fruit. Dry, warm, solid, harmonious, combining delicacy and austerity, and persistent. 

This label release was awarded 95 points by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, Decanter and Wine Spectator, 93 points by Vinous, and 92 points by Wine Enthusiast.

2,000 cases were made, 500 cases imported. 

It showed dark inky purple color, medium full body with concentrated structured red currant and black berry fruits with notes of savory herbs and clove spice, ash, earth with hints of pepper with silky fine grained tannins on the tongue coated finish. 

RM 93 points.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Master Sommelier curated winelist at Auburn U Culinary School Restaurant

Master Sommelier Thomas Price curated winelist at Auburn U Culinary School Restaurant

Enroute to a getaway at The Cove, Destin, Florida vacation rental home, we stopped in Auburn, AL to visit an investment property on the campus of Auburn University where we dined at the 1856 Residence Culinary School fine dining restaurant.

The Wine Spectator recognized 1856–Culinary Residence restaurant, named after the year of the university’s founding, is an upscale teaching restaurant sited on College Avenue directly across from campus in the new Tony & Libba Rane Culinary Science Center, home of the Horst Schulze School of Hospitality Management.

The restaurant, opened in the summer of 2022, is the flagship of the four story Rane Culinary Science Center at the university and integrates classrooms and laboratories with a restaurant, a coffee roaster and café, a boutique hotel, bars, the rooftop garden, and other real-world hospitality services.

The Culinary experience is part of the Horst Schulze School of Hospitality Management.program which includes three pillars - Hospitality Management, Event Management and Culinary Studies. The working restaurant operations offers students immersive hands-on training in all aspects of the front and back of the house. 

1856 – Culinary Residence offers patrons a unique dining experience with stylish modern architecture, the dining room adjacent the open kitchen and bar, and also includes a view into the wine cellar with its two story wine wall, and a private dining room between the working kitchen and cellar. 

The 1856 restaurant operates a la carte lunch and a seven-course tasting menu at dinner.

Academy students staff the restaurant under the guidance of one or more Chefs in Residence, a position that rotates each year. Each year, an acclaimed chef works alongside the Ithaka Hospitality Partners team as well as Auburn University faculty and staff to create a unique restaurant concept, providing a one-of-a-kind, ever-changing culinary experience for students and restaurant guests alike. 

They boast the country’s first tasting-menu-only teaching restaurant that offers a unique and elevated experience where education meets experiential dining. The multi-course meal at the 1856 restaurant delivers a gourmet pleasure for diners while providing educational lessons for the Auburn University students who prepare and serve the food getting hands-on experience, learning the myriad details of running a restaurant. A chef in residence, which changes annually, oversees how fine dining and the classroom intersect at the restaurant.

The presiding Chef in Residence is Ford Fry who founded Rocket Farm Restaurants in 2007 and currently oversees a portfolio of 23 restaurants in Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Houston, and Cary, NC. Rocket Farm Restaurants includes some of the South’s most popular concept establishments including Beetlecat, St. Cecilia, The Optimist, Superica, La Lucha and State of Grace. While the concepts each have their own identity, they share a commitment to their respective communities and to serving exceptional food made with local ingredients and attention to detail.  

One of the highlights of dining at 1856 – Culinary Residence or participating in institutional programs is The Master Sommelier in Residence who designs and curates the wine program. The presiding wine director and instructor is Master Sommelier Thomas Price’s who has crafted a 650-label, Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning program featuring wines primarily from France, Spain, Italy, California and Oregon. 

The current Master Sommelier, Thomas Price, spent the last 35 years working in some of Seattle’s most prominent restaurants, including his own. Shortly after obtaining his Master Sommelier certificate in 2012, Price joined Jackson Family Fine Wines as National Director of Wine Education, in addition to working with Auburn University’s Hospitality Management program as a visiting sommelier over the last eight years. 

During our visit, we had the pleasure of meeting Thomas who was gracious and hospitable, generous with his time to discuss the program, the wine selections from the Wine Spectator award winning winelist, their regions and producers, and several topics of oenology and mutual, shared interests and experiences.

Throughout the meal and our visit, we were hosted and served by a student as well as a full time professional server who also mentors, coaches and supervises students in all aspects of the front of the house operations. 

For our dining pleasure we ordered from the 1856 menu the wedge salad, starters and then entrees, with an accompanying wine selection. 

For our starters I had the Chicken Liver Mousse pate' with stone fruit on Brioche Toast, and Linda had the Marcel Bread with Garlic Herb Buer, Whipped Ricotta, Olives, Prosciuto and EVOO.

For her entree, Linda the Gnudi pasta with Pesto, Pine Nuts, Parmesan, Roop Basil and Evoo.

 Master Chef Ford Fry calls the Gnudi “a big umami flavor bomb.” It is house-made ricotta cheese seasoned and rolled into balls that are dipped in egg and buried in flour. That forms a shell when the gnudi is boiled. The cheese oozes out when the orbs are sliced. The sauce – sometimes brown butter, and other times a vinaigrette – features truffles.

For my entree, I ordered the Flounder Fish N' Chips - Crispy NC Flounder, Malt Vinegar Aioli, Garlic Oil and rice-Cooked Fries andwith pomme frits.

For our wine selection we drank the Evenstad Reserve Chardonnay from Domaine Serene. 

Domaine Serenc Evenstad Reserve Dundee Hills Chardonnay 2018

This is a producer we know well, one of our favorites and one of the few we collect of Oregon wines and Pinot Noir. We hold this same Evenstad Reserve branded label Pinot Noir going back a dozen vintages. We've seen but never tasted their Chardonnay and were eager to do so, especially in this idyllic setting. Having tried it and enjoyed it immensely, we'll be sure to pick some up as soon as we return home.

In discussions with wine director Master Sommelier Thomas Price about this selection he raved about Oregon Chardonnays and the collaborative partnership the Auburn school enjoys with this producer.

The ‘Evenstad Reserve’ Chardonnay showcases the art of blending select barrels from estate vineyard sites in the Oregon Willamette Valley Dundee Hills AVA. Three of the seven Domain Serene Dundee Hills vineyards comprising a total of 150 acres of vines are planted to Chardonnay, in addition to Pinot Noir, which produce highest quality fruit from the combination of Dijon clone vines, Jory soil and the high elevation of the Dundee Hills estates.

Winemaker notes - "The 2018 vintage of this acclaimed wine incorporates the best select fruit of each vineyard into the compelling blend. An enticing tropical medley of kiwi and yellow peach act as the melody, with high notes of white flower and fresh linen. The oak treatment is flawlessly integrated, with a lingering minerality and salinity completing the symphony. This wine will certainly deserve a place in the cellar of the discerning collector of fine Chardonnays."

This vintage release was awarded 96 points by James Suckling, 95 Points "Editor's Choice" by Wine Enthusiast and 93 points by Wine Advocate. It was Ranked #87 in Wine Enthusiast Top 100 Cellar Selections of 2020.

Golden straw colored, medium to full-bodied with creamy texture, complex concentrated pear, white peach and yellow apple fruits with notes of honeydew and wet stone and hints of citrus, hazelnut and bit of butterscotch on a crisp acidic lingering finish. Delicious.

RM 94 points.

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. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Mark Ryan Water Witch Red Mountain Red Wine 2015

Mark Ryan Water Witch Red Mountain Red Wine 2015

On one of our last nights at home before taking an extended road trip, Linda prepared grilled filets of beef with pasta and a hearty red sauce with homegrown tomatoes and herbs, baked bread and grilled asparagus. I pulled from the cellar this full bore complex aged vintage Washington State Red Mountain Red Blend Cabernet for the occasion.This was a perfect pairing of food and wine enhancing the enjoyment of both for a fabulous meal.

We discovered, tasted and acquired this wine at the producer's Woodinville tasting room during our Seattle/Woodinville Wine Experience in 2018. Mark Ryan Winery was actually recommended to us by one of the other producers that we visited during that tour. We weren't aware of or familiar to the producer previously.

As featured in my producer profile and visit report at that time, Mark Ryan wines are the artwork of Mark Ryan McNeilly a self taught winemaker who learned the craft working with well known producers, acquiring Bordeaux varietal grapes from renowned vineyards in the Columbia Valley Red Mountain appellation.

Established in 1999 in Woodinville, Washington, by Mark Ryan McNeilly, Mark Ryan Winery produces an extensive portfolio of wines from across the region, but is most notably known for several art crafted Bordeaux Blends.

McNeilly crushed and produced his first vintages in garages of friends and family and in the years since its founding, the winery has grown in size, earning respect and acclaim from both wine lovers and critics. 

In 2017, production shifted from Woodinville to Walla Walla, allowing tasting rooms to open in both cities and helping Mark Ryan become the 14th largest winery in Washington. 

Specializing on Red Mountain. Mark Ryan McNeilly produces wine from grapes grown in the high desert, on a very warm site. They are "big-shouldered wines that we coax a great amount of finesse and elegance. We utilize specific vineyard sites to create our style, and have continued adding a portfolio of the most sought-after vineyards in Horse Heaven Hills, Yakima Valley, and Columbia Valley."

We tasted and acquired these wines at the Mark Ryan tasting room in Woodinville, Washington 

 Woodinville is a Seattle suburb that has become a wine mecca with several dozen tasting rooms of producers of wines sourced from vineyards in the Columbia Valley in the center of the State, three hours to the east. The tasting rooms inhabit numerous free standing sites as well as several commercial centers that resemble outlet malls but filled with wine producers. 

We tasted this wine flight as part of the wine flight offered at the Mark Ryan tasting room that included Burgundian varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Oregon, as well as several Bordeaux varietal blends sourced from the Washington State central Columbia Valley. 
The scheduled tasting flight on offer for the day was as follows and as pictured. This is a great bargain to taste this range of quality wines for $15, which is refundable with purchase. As usual, we tasted, and acquired several wines beyond the standard flight.  
Mark Ryan dutifully lists the vineyard sources for each of its wines accordingly. They represent the notable famous sites from the Central Washington State appellations. Vineyards and their applicable appellations that provide grapes for Mark Ryan Wines include Red Willow from the Yakima Valley AVA, the famous Ciel du Cheval vineyard from Red Mountain AVA, Klipsun, Red Mountain, Quintessence and Obelisco Vineyards from Red Mountain, Olsen Vineyard and Red Willow from Yakima Valley and Phinny Hill Vineyard from the Horse Heaven Hills AVA.

The fact that these famous vineyards source grapes to many producers, the differences in their various labels is the result of their handicraft of winemaking since they all come the same sites, rather than the difference of the vineyard sites themselves. Never-the-less, we were extremely impressed with the quality of wines coming out of the Columbia Valley producers. 

Many of these wines rival the premium wines from California notable regions such as Napa and Sonoma Valleys, some at relative bargain prices of up to half less, since they don't yet have the cache of the more historic areas. 
Like many of the Woodinville and region's producers, Mark Ryan sources its fruit from growers of the large established vineyards. Many of these are long established relationships under contracts for specific rows of a vineyard or blocks. While not Estate wines, where the grapes are sourced from producer owned sites, it offers the next best thing. This is important of course to reflect Terroir, the unique essence of climate, soil, site, as it manifests itself in the wine, consistently over time, from vintage to vintage. 

Readers of these pages know we're fans and collectors more based on Bordeaux Varietal wines and have we focused the following wines that were comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Interesting, these wines were based on grapes sourced from the same vineyards, as noted above and were largely differentiated by the composition of the Blend of the grapes in each label.  

Mark Ryan "Water Witch" Washington State Red Mountain Red Wine 2015

Vineyard Source was the Quintessence Vineyards on Red Mountain

Producer's note:

Quintessence Vineyards is a 410-acre parcel of land with a base elevation of 675 feet, rising to 1,025 feet as it reaches Red Mountain AVA's southwest-facing slopes. Quintessence founders Dick Shaw and Paul Kaltinick planted their first vines as partners on Red Mountain in 2010. They launched Quintessence with a planting of 68 acres along Red Mountain's southwestern slope. Positive response was immediate, with customers pointing to "world class vineyard management" and "spectacular fruit" as some outstanding attributes. Additional planting followed, with similar success. Now, with the expansion along the eastern ridge and slop of Red Mountain, Quintessence will encompass some 300 acres in total. Quintessence is made up of premium land, a talent for farming, dedicated management, ideal growing conditions, and a love for what they do.

310 cases produced; aged in 70% new French oak barrels

This is a classic traditional 'left bank' Bordeaux Blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot.

Tonight's tasting was consistent with that previous tasting of this wine back in the fall of 2018 

This was dark garnet and purplish colored, full bodied, rich concentrated bright forward extracted black raspberry fruit accented by layers of exotic spices, sweet mocha chocolate and notes of sweet oak and creme de cassis with silky polished tannins on a full long smooth polished finish.

This was rated 93 points by Jeb Dunnuck and 92-94 Points by The Wine Advocate.

As with my first tasting, tonight I gave this 93 points. 

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Clark Claudon Napa Cabernet 2004

Clark Claudon Napa Cabernet 2004

For a quiet evening at home, watching a pre-recorded showing of 'The Voice' from earlier in the week, we opened an old favorite wine from our extensive collection from this favorite producer, with a selection of cheeses and sourdough bread. 

Here following is a updated re-post of earlier posting about this wine and this producer.

Clark-Claudon Estate Grown Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

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

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

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

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

We love the distinctive unique Clark-Claudon packaging with the tall slender bottles. An interesting and trivial wine-geek's observation about the Clark-Claudon branding and packaging; as mentioned, we hold close to a score of vintages of this label. 

All our vintage holdings but this one, the 2004 release, are packaged with the wax cap inside the rim of the bottle, topping the cork, as shown left. This one, 2004, has a 'traditional' foil top of the bottle (shown below). Not sure why?

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

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

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

Tonight's tasting was consistent with previous tastings in 2015, 2016 and most recently in the Spring of 2021. In 2016 I wrote it was more expressive than earlier tastings. I sense this is at its peak, not likely to improve further, but grand and capable of aging several more years none-the-less.

At nineteen years, the fill level, label, foil and most importantly the cork were all still in pristine condition. 

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

RM 92 points.

In seeking to replenish this bottle with a more recent vintage of this wine, I looked in distribution and found none in Chicagoland, but got this response when searching national beverage superstore Total Wine - "We could not find this item at Pensacola, FL (our select store), But we found it at Denver, CO." We'll be reaching back to the producer directly, as well as looking in the secondary market.


Earlier tasting posts ...

Saturday, October 7, 2023

The James Geneva features wine friendly menu and fine wines

The James Restaurant Geneva (IL) features wine friendly menu and fine wine selection

Saturday afternoon lunch - a beautiful picture perfect Midwestern autumn day - we drove out to Geneva on the Fox River and dined at The James Restaurant, recently reopened under new ownership, formerly Fiore's which we've visited and featured previously in these pages.  

The James new restaurant and cocktail lounge, features a broad menu offering steaks from prime purveyor Allen Brothers, seafood and other assorted entrees and small plates ... and a Wine Spectator Award winning winelist, opened in May at 317 S. Third St., Geneva, the former location of Fiora’s, which closed in January.

The James is the creation of Geneva residents Chris and Gretchen Hupke who are leasing the space. Along with Gretchen's brother, Todd McWethy, they also own and operate McWethy’s Tavern at the Mistwood Golf Course in Romeoville, and McWethy’s Sports Bar in Bolingbrook. The James is partly named for their late father, James (Jim) McWethy, and partly too, for James Herrington, Geneva’s first settler, namesake to the nearby (James) Herrington Inn & Spa which we have also featured in these pages

The James occupies the quaint historic building on trendy bustling Third Street, Geneva, with a collection of stylishly decorated multi-colored dining rooms, the brightly lit sun-porch overlooking the patio outdoor seating area, a classic vintage library bar with pressed- tin-ceiling and marble top tables, and the wine cellar dining room on the lower level which is an operating wine cellar and has seating for up to 20 for wine themed special dinners. 

We were able to secure a table on the sun-drenched sun porch room, whose floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlook the 140-seat outdoor patio. 

The James' imaginative varied menu features creations from chef Steven Blackburn who previously headed up a sushi bar in West Hollywood. The meat menu selections offer beef sourced from premier purveyor Allen Brothers in Chicago, from an eight-ounce bavette and filet mignon to a hearty 24-ounce porterhouse, classic chicken Vesuvio, pork schnitzel, and a 16-ounce pork chop. The entree and small plate selections offer seafood selections such as grilled swordfish, Japanese style salmon sashimi, and shrimp shakshuka.

We ordered a medley from the small plates menu, the Lobster Agnolotti, the Coffee Charred Steak along with the Lobster Bisque and Apple and Pear Salad. 

Apple and Pear Salad - green apple, red pear, candied pecans, mixed greens with bleu cheese vinaigrette
Crab Bisque with Chive
Lobster Agnolotti - lobster tail, saffron cream sauce, brown butter
Coffee Charred Steak - Allen Brothers, Chicago skewered Prime beef, plum BBQ sauce, pea shoot

Everything was wonderful - the bisque was especially delectable and the Charred Steak skewers with the plum BBQ sauce was spectacular, and a wonderful pairing with the red wine (s) (despite having note of spice heat, which normally I would degrade for offsetting the pallet and discrimination for the wine).

A draw for us was the James' imaginative and carefully selected wine list with 90 wines by the bottle, wines by the glass, and a collection of half bottles. Their wine list won a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for 2023.

For our wine accompaniment to our lunch we ordered a half bottle of the Vieux Telegraph Chateauneuf-du-Pape. We know this producer and wine well having visited the Chateau and Estate on a couple occasions.  

Our visit to the Vieux Télégraphe estate and meeting owner/winemaker Daniel Brunier (left) was a highlight of our Rhone Valley Wine Experience in 2019.

Notably, while the wine list features Domaine du Vieux 'Telegraph' Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone (their quotation emphasis, not mine). They actually served Domaine du Vieux Telegraph, 'Telegramme', Chateauneuf-du-Pape. This is their 'second' wine, sourced from younger vines and is generally about half the price of the flagship grand cru. 

We brought this to our server's attention and eventually to the proprietor/owner Chris Hupke (below). Upon researching this further, he realized that while they ordered the flagship Vieux Telegraph label, they actually received from the distributor the Telegramme label, which they were subsequently serving. They hadn't caught this difference until I brought it to their attention.

This sparked an extensive in-depth friendly and convival conversation with Chris about our shared interests and experiences in fine wines, culminating in a cellar tour and visit to the wine room downstairs. 

Our lively discussion about wine finds and preferences and restaurant wine lists covered our shared love of Howell Mountain Cabernet's and lead to Bordeaux varietal selections from Washington State.

In recompense for the winelist switch/snafu and shortcoming in our red wine selection, Chris brought out a glass of a Washington State Red Mountain Cabernet from Walls Vineyard and Winery.

Our original selection:

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape Télégramme 2018 

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe 'Telegramme', Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rhone 2018

As stated, we visited Vieux Télégraphe during our trip to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhone River Valley back in 1998 and again in 2019. We hold Vieux Télégraphe wines dating back three decades to the early 1980's. 

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe has been run by the Brunier family for five generations dating back to 1891. The estate’s vineyards average 60 years of age on the Plateau of La Crau, a site known for growing Châteauneuf-du-Pape grape varietals.

The estate is named for the telegraph towers that sat on the site dating back to the early visual signal towers that were invented and deployed as far back as 1792. Lines of relay towers were built within line-of-sight of each other at distances of 5–20 miles. Tower operators would watch adjacent towers through a spyglass for signals produced by mechanical shutter arms and would pass the message on to the next tower. These early systems were faster and less expensive than horse drawn riders. These lines were a precursor of the electrical telegraph which would replace them half a century later.

The estate wines are known for their distinctive terroir signature of predominant minerality from filtering through the thick layer of large pebbles left behind when the Alpine glaciers melted, long before the Rhône Valley formed.

Winemaker (s): Frédéric & Daniel Brunier 

The blend for this release is 80% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 6% Mourvèdre and 4% Cinsault. 

Winemaker's Tasting Notes: Châteauneuf-du-Pape seriously dominated by Grenache, which confers very singular suppleness and roundness. Best savored young.

This is the second wine of Vieux Telegraphe. Mainly Grenache with Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault from mostly young vines but it does include grapes from 45 year old vines at Château La Roquette.

This release was awarded 92-93 points by James Suckling and 90-92 points by Wine Advocate.

Dark Ruby colored, medium-full bodied, classic brambly red and black raspberry and plum fruits with notes of gariggue, floral and spice from the Grenache, with hints of pepper on the moderate long, rich, ripe tannin finish.

RM 91 points.

Wall Vineyards 'Curiositas' Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Chris served us a glass of this big full bodied, fruit forward, flavorful Cabernet. We happen to know this brand and label and have a case of other vintages in our cellar collection.

Ironically, or notably, we also knew this producer and label well, having visited the winery in Walla Walla during our Walla Walla Wine Experience back in 2018, where we discovered this label and acquired a case of it from the 2015 vintage. 

Our visit the winery was one of the highlights of that appellation visit. It was great fun to share, and educate our host about this label, the brand and its background and history of the producer, the estate and the vineyards.

Walls Curiositas Red Mountain Cabernet

Walls Winery Curiositas Columbia Valley Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

With Mike Martin, Owner Walls Vineyards
We discovered and acquired this wine during our visit to the producer during our recent Walla Walla Wine Experience. It was our favorite of the portfolio of wines tasted with Mike Martin, owner/producer Walls Vineyards and Winery.

This is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Red Mountain AVA in central Washington.

As I wrote in an earlier blogpost almost four years ago to the day, this was my favorite of the flight that we tasted at the winery. Of course I tend to favor Bordeaux varietals and found this especially appealing.

The fruit for this is sourced from the Obelisco Vineyard on the higher slopes of the Red Mountain AVA. The vines get increased exposure to the sun and are planted in higher density to further stress the grapes. The result is a wine of great complexity but one that is elegant and lush, yet subtle with tones the winemaker describes as possessing 'freshness that evokes a Margaux-styled fragrant' Cabernet'.

From our Walls Winery producer visit report when we tasted and acquired the 2015 vintage release.

The Walls Curiositas Red Mountain Cabernet 2015

2015 Curiositas is an elegant, complex and lush, yet subtle, wine. Its tone of freshness evokes a Margaux-styled fragrant Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sourced from the Obelisco Vineyard, high in the Red Mountain AVA where the vines get full exposure to all the elements.

“It is beautifully situated, with more vines doing less work, and planted with higher density,” says winemaker Ali. “It lends itself to complexity so how could we not take advantage of that?”

Chris served us the 2018 release of this label. It was bigger, more vibrant and expressive than the 2015 vintage we hold in our cellar that we are accustomed to.

Bright purple garnet colored, it was medium-full bodied with a firm gripping backbone structure with glycerine legs clinging to the glass, the polished elegant tannins were smooth and silky that it made for enticing casual sipping - bright red and black fruits accented by bright expressive notes of menthol, spice and creme de cassis, with notes of tobacco leaf and subtle vanilla and oak. 
Jeb Dunnuck gave this 97 points and like Robert Parker's Wine Advocate talks about this label's 'well-integrated tannins, solid grip, coupled with a swath of fresh acidity that delivers muscular structure' but then talks about it being 'light footed through the long finish'.

RM 93 points.

Jeb Dunnuck, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate gave this  “Editor’s Choice" and rated it "Extraordinary (95-100 pts.) "

331 Cases were produced.
We enjoyed The James so much we've already signed up for their upcoming winemaker producer dinner next week.


James Photo of the Bar