Thursday, December 31, 2015

Skepticism 101 With Dr. Carl Sagan

I first read Carl Sagan’s classic book “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” after returning to the United States from a Christian missionary boarding school in Germany. I had been there for two years and, before starting my journalism studies, I needed to inject a healthy dose of skepticism in my worldview diet.

Sagan’s book struck me like a lungful of fresh ocean air. There are many thinkers who inspire me with their poetic praise of skepticism and rational thinking (Thomas Paine and Baruch Spinoza come to mind). Sagan was perhaps the 20th Century’s greatest advocate of reason.

I recently revisited Sagan’s book over Christmas vacation, and I was impressed yet again by the beauty of the prose, the precision of the arguments and the staying power of a science book first published in 1997.

Sagan advocates the application of the scientific method to the majority (if not entirety) of problems and propositions that face us. He maintains that the method of science is applicable to those big questions that have been traditionally viewed as the territory of religion and God. But Sagan’s approach is not a cold, surgical one. His skepticism is inflected with wonder. “Skepticism must be a component of the explorer’s toolkit, or we will lose our way, ” Sagan writes. “There are wonders enough out there without our inventing any.”

Anyone who has read Sagan or watched his epic “Cosmos” show knows that Sagan was a man in awe of the Universe. Speaking of his parents, Sagan writes, “in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabitating modes of thought that are central to the scientific method.”

Sagan has a great talent for boiling down complex and sometimes conflicting information and offering up a clear, cohesive idea. The idea that sticks with me most (and I think it's the core of Sagan's thesis) is as follows:

“At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.”

In a different passage, he offers up this wisdom:

“If you’re only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything. You become a crotchety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.)” But, Sagan argues: “At the same time, science requires the most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism, because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong, and the only way to winnow the wheat from the chaff is by critical experiment and analysis.”

I won’t attempt to break down and analyze the book bit by bit — that would be a fool’s errand. But this book continues to have a lasting impact on science writing, skepticism and rational thinking.

Anyone who grew up learning about intelligent design should give this a read. Anyone who claims to be a “climate skeptic” should crack open this book immediately. Anyone who thinks crop circles are evidence of extraterrestrial meddling, ditto.
There are a host of pressing issues facing humankind in the 21st Century. Climate change, depletion of natural resources, diseases, food security, clean water supply, space exploration, etc., etc., etc. These challenges are best met with the full force of a scientifically literate public. I’m no scientist and, odds are, neither are you. But for those of us concerned with these challenges, this book is a great place to start.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Pinot Gris & Noir from Ransom & Willamette Valley Vineyards

This post first appeared in the daily wine blog Terroirist.

For this report, we’re focusing on two producers, Ransom and Willamette Valley Vineyards.

Ransom is the project of Tad Seestedt, which started off as a distillery in 1997. Tad now makes a few craft spirits and small batch wines. While this was my first time tasting Ransom’s wines, I’m already a fan of the fresh, vibrant, lip-smacking approach of Tad’s Pinot Gris and Pinot Noirs.

Willamette Valley Vineyards is the child of Jim Bernau. A Willamette Valley staple, the winery dates back to 1989, and they still put out a variety of wines at all price points.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.  

2014 Ransom Pinot Gris Selection - Oregon, Willamette Valley, Eola - Amity Hills
SRP: $16
Bright but complex nose of lychee, kiwi and lemon zest, a deep sense of seashell, sea salt and honeysuckle as well. Bright, crisp, clean, refreshing, this wine is packed with lime and orange peel along with richer elements of papaya and pineapple, woven in with chalky mineral notes. Zesty acid, moderate body, some waxiness to the mouthfeel. This is a bright and zesty wine but also maintains plenty of complexity and body. Impressive. (88 points)

2014 Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot - Oregon, Willamette Valley
SRP: $16
A bit more honey and peaches on the nose, some lime and chalky notes as well. Juicy texture, medium-bodied, moderate acid. This wine displays papaya, yellow apple, pineapple and mango, but stays fresh and bright. I get honeysuckle, yellow apple, saline and chalk elements on the finish. Great food pairing versatility, but so refreshing on its own. (86 points)

2012 Ransom Pinot Noir Selection - Oregon, Willamette Valley
SRP: $27
Bright ruby color. Aromas of tart red berries, sour cherries, cranberry sauce, some tobacco, bay leaf, rose petals. On the palate, a tart, brisk presence of acid, with lightly dusty tannins, medium-light bodied at 12.6% alcohol. Crunchy red fruit (pomegranate, red cherries and sour cherries) shows freshness and liveliness. Notes of tobacco, clay, rose petals, some bay leaf and broth elements that add an earthy but pretty sense of complexity. Such a brisk and lively wine, but some notes of light roast coffee and campfire smoke, too. A beauty of a wine now but I’d be interested in seeing how it unwraps over the next two to four years. Aged 16 months in old French oak. (91 points)

SRP: $30
Juicy cherry colored. Airy, bright aromas, ripe yet tangy red cherries along with rose perfume and sweet cola notes. Medium bodied, medium acid, some slight grip to the tannins but a smooth, refreshing and vibrant approach on the palate. Notes of red currant and wild strawberries play off of richer summer plums, roasted nuts, cedar and rose petals. Nice now but some near-term aging wouldn’t hurt. (88 points)

SRP: $55
Darker ruby color. Black cherries and rich strawberries on the nose, also some deep loamy notes, coffee, anise  and violets. Medium-full bodied, velvety but full of dusty-firm tannic strength. Black cherries galore, along with a mix of rich yet tart black and red plums. I get some toasty and savory aspects on the finish. Stays bright and fresh despite the grip. Could use a few years to open up and get a bit more complex, but this is a very attractive young Pinot. (91 points)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Hourglass Napa Reds Shine in Special 2013 Vintage

Hourglass winemaker Tony Biagi says 2013 is the best vintage he’s seen in Napa since he started in 1993.

“This is truly a special, one of a kind vintage,” he said. “Tannin and color levels were high and at proper proportions, leading to wines with great structural integrity. The cool nights also preserved acidity and fruit freshness, despite deep extraction of rich flavors. It’s sort of a best of both worlds scenario.” 

“Suffice it to say we believe this to be one of the greatest vintages we have witness in our 17 years making Hourglass wines,” says Proprietor Jeff Smith.

You get the idea. They’re stoked about 2013. 

And, after tasting three of their wines from this vintage, so am I. (Here’s a one-page statistical summary of 2013 from the Napa Valley Vintners.)

Earlier this month, I took part in a virtual tasting and chat with Jeff and Tony, and had a great time discussing the wines and the vintage. I really respect the Hourglass team for taking time to discuss wine on social media, given that their wines have something of a cult status, high price points, and lots of credit from big-time critics. (For full background on this producer, the history and the vineyards, check out this longer post from a tasting of the 2010 vintage.) I've been thrilled about these wines since that tasting, but the 2013s are the best I’ve tasted yet from this consistently stunning producer.

Below are my notes on the three wines tasted. 

2013 Hourglass HG III - California, Napa Valley
SRP $50
Gorgeous violet color. Nose of bright black cherries, black currants, some jammy raspberry notes as well, a complex combination of violets, cocoa powder, dark chocolate shavings, vanilla but also some earthy and tobacco notes. Needs a lot of air to fully express itself, but a lot of nuance in here that will evolve and gain traction over time. Full-bodied with structured tannins that maintain some velvety feel, the acid is moderate enough to keep this friendly and relatively fresh on the palate. Juicy black cherries, black currants mix with notes of raspberry jam. A ton of forward, rich elements of cocoa, ginger snap, vanilla, coffee but I also get tobacco, graphite, loamy soil, pepper and roasted chestnut. Complex and age-worthy but surprisingly accessible young. Just a beautiful wine. $50 ain’t cheap but this over-delivers for that price point. Merlot, Cabernet, Malbec and Petite Sirah. (92 points)

SRP $125
Dark purple color. Wow, aromatically, this is stunning. Chilled black and blue berries, the fruit gushes but smells fresh and vibrant as well, matched with complex notes of sweet cola, coffee, graphite, pencil shavings, sweet pipe tobacco, paved road. So complex, you can sniff this and pull out nuances all night long. Full-boded, velvety-silky tannins provide a gorgeous mouthfeel when combined with the vibrant acid. The black cherry, blueberry, fleshy currant fruit, it glides over the palate with precision. Complex non-fruit elements of crushed rocks, iron, pencil shavings and loamy soil, lovely vanilla, coffee and cedar woven in well. Bold and slugging but punches with elegance and precision. Wow. I’d love to retaste this in another three to five years. Includes 9% Petit Verdot and 6% Malbec, aged 21 months in new French oak. The best wine I've tasted from Hourglass. (95 points)

2013 Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon Estate - California, Napa Valley
SRP $165

Dark and saucy purple color. Deeper and more concentrated aromatics than the Blueline. Still a ton of stuff going on: blackberry compote, tart blueberries, tangy black cherries, mixed in with sweet vanilla, espresso, violets, cigar box and rich loam. Concentrated and compact with firm tannic structure, a bit hotter than the Blueline and a bit less fresh, this is a burlier puncher with some serious power. Gorgeous fruit though: chewy blueberries and blackberries, rich black cherries. Tons of cola, violets, vanilla, cedar shavings, milk and dark chocolate and baked brownie notes, but also an intriguing sense of rocks, soil and minerality. Really needs time to open up or a really long decant, but a gorgeous wine. If you like a bit more elegance, the 2013 Blueline provides it. If you like a more full-throttle style, this is it. 100% Cabernet from the 4-acre Estate Vineyard, aged 22 months in new French oak. (93 points)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Something for Everyone in 2013 California Chardonnay

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Since my last report on California Chardonnay, I’ve tasted through a range of wines from around the state, most of them from the 2013 vintage.

From the Central Coast to the North Coast, winemakers have praised the 2013 as a warm but even year, producing wines with a lot of structure while still retaining a lively appeal. As is always the case, there is a California Chardonnay out there for everyone, consumers just need to know what they like and what they’re looking for (in terms of style). Differences in site, barrel aging, lees stirring, maloactic ferementation, etc., means there are wines that fall all over the spectrum. And it’s this diversity that keeps me passionate about Cali Chards.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted single-blind.

2013 Concannon Vineyard Chardonnay
- California, Central Coast, Monterey County
SRP: $18
Bright lemon color. Aromas of honeysuckle, ocean spray, almonds and lemon oil. A honeyed texture on the palate, medium acid, a smooth and almost chewy feel on the palate with peaches and glazed yellow pears. Notes of vanilla and spiced apple sauce. A rich, baking spice-laden wine but some really tasty flavors. (86 points)

2014 Inconceivable Wines Chardonnay - California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County
SRP: $25
Pale gold color. Aromas of apricots, honey, vanilla and nutmeg. Juicy yellow apples on the palate with apricots, honey butter and olive oil, some spiced cookie and honey notes. Rich and waxy but not too heavy, the moderate acid cleans it up. Tasty, crowd-pleasing stuff. Fermented in 30% new French oak. (86 points)

2014 Riverbench Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay Estate - California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
SRP: $26
Light gold color. Lovely, classic aromas of yellow apple, apricot, mixed with some honeycomb, nougat and brighter elements of sea spray and crushed chalk. Creamy, rich texture but some freshness from the moderately tangy acid as well. A rich fruity combo of bruised yellow apple, apricot jam and pineapple, mixed in with notes of nutshell, honeysuckle and baking spices, raw almond, olive oil. A bold, richly textured wine but well-put together and a ton to like. 30% new French oak. (89 points)

2013 William Hill Winery Chardonnay Bench Blend - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $40
Rich golden color. Nose of rich buttercream, hazelnut, nougat, along with baked yellow apples and yellow plums, and nice combo of floral perfume and clove. Creamy and velvety on the palate but some freshness from the acid. The yellow apples and juicy baked pear fruit is ripe and creamy, and laced with notes of nougat, hazelnut, clove, nutmeg and white flowers. A bold of full-frontal appeal to this wine, but it’s also fresh and maintains some complexity and intrigue to it – works out together quite well. (89 points)

2013 William Hill Winery Chardonnay North Coast - California, North Coast
SRP: $17
Vibrant gold color. A vibrant, chalky nose with some limes, rich apples, honeysuckle and tennis balls. Creamy and silky on the palate with moderate acid. Rich yellow apples and pears with plenty of nutty, nougaty elements. Rich but harmonious with accents of nutmeg, vanilla, honeysuckle and talc powder. Impressive for the price. (87 points)

2013 La Follette Chardonnay - California, North Coast
SRP: $20
Light gold color. Smells of juicy apricots, peaches, sweet yellow flowers and some clover honey. Creamy and smooth on the palate, nice tartness too, quite floral in its approach with rich yellow apple, lemon meringue pie. Plenty here to please most every time of Chardonnay lover. A mix of stainless and barrel fermented Chardonnay from Sonoma and Mendocino. (86 points)

2013 FEL Chardonnay Savoy Vineyard - California, North Coast, Anderson Valley
SRP: $48
Pale yellow color. The aromas of rich apricot, yellow apples and pears, along with honey butter and almond oil, hints of salty air. The acid is clean and refreshing and provides everything this wine’s richness requires in order to maintain balance. The fruit is pure and juicy (apple, pear, cantaloupe, apricot, a squirt of lime), the almond, butterscotch and honey flavors are woven in so well, and the wine is peppered with these other sea salt and mineral elements, and the wine makes a compelling sort of sense. A profound sense of purity and briskness mixes with power and opulence. Beautiful now but I’d like to retaste in two years to see what comes out. Fermented in French oak (50% new) and aged on the lees for 15 months. (93 points)

2013 Landmark Chardonnay Overlook - California, Sonoma County
SRP: $25
Light gold color. Nose of buttercream, honey, some crushed nutshells, on top of apricot and bruised yellow apple. Creamy texture on the palate, some moderate acid. A waxy, nutty element to this wine, on top of bruised apple, apricot, honeycomb, nougat, vanilla, a hint of white floral spice. It’s got good stirred lees creaminess, this is a rich and delicious style of Chardonnay. (86 points)

2013 Amici Chardonnay Olema - California, Sonoma County
SRP: $15
Medium straw color. Nose of crushed nuts and honeybutter on top of lemon and orange peels, throw some baby’s breath on there. A waxy, full texture on the palate, a little low on the acid. Orange peel, pineapple, mango, topped with honeybutter. A rich, fun style. Half fermented in stainless steel, half-fermented in 25% new oak. (85 points)

2013 Anaba Chardonnay - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
SRP: $28
Vibrant gold color. Rich aromas of peach cobbler, baked yellow apples and apricots, some chalky and crusty sea salt notes blend nicely with the hazelnut and honey butter. Bold and waxy presence on the palate, helped a bit by moderately crisp acid. The fruit tastes of baked apples, apricot jam and creamy peaches, topped with refreshing sea salt and honeysuckle notes, along with more powerful elements of crushed almond shells, buttered baguette and honeyed chamomile tea. Long, persistent finish. Rides the line, but does so impressively well. Aged nine months on the lees in 35% new French oak. (90 points)

2013 La Pitchoune Chardonnay
- California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
SRP: $48
Medium gold color. Wonderful aromas of crusty sea salt, jetty rocks, bright lemons and green apples, sliced pears and almond. Full-bodied on the palate, a bold, waxy presence but the acid is so precise that the wine pulls off balance. Pears, baked apples, dried apricots, I get an interesting mix of hazelnut and honeyed tea with brisker elements of chalk and sea salt. Complex and intriguing but so easy to sip and enjoy. Some near-term aging potential here. Aged 18 months in used French oak barrels. (90 points)

2012 Biltmore Estate Chardonnay Antler Hill - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $30
Light golden color. Nose of sea salt, crushed shells and white flowers mixes with green pears and some chunkier yellow apple aromas. A rich body, it’s creamy yet quite bright with apricot, tart green apples and richer yellow apple fruit as well. Notes of dried honey and flowers, mixed with a sea salt aspect that lingers onto the finish. Quite nice if you’re looking for a brighter, unoaked style. 14.1% alcohol. (87 points)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Holiday Value Wine Recommendations <$15

Buying wine for a group doesn’t have to be expensive, nor should you feel pressured to buy in bulk from a big box store. While you may be able to obtain twelve bottles of the same wine at a deeply discounted price, you risk boring your crowd with the same old wine for the entire day and into the night. (And you know they’ve had that wine a million times before.) A carefully curated selection of value-priced bottles creates a colorful collage of story-filled glasses on your table. Make up your own mixed case of marvelous wines for the holiday table! The web’s top wine writers are here to help you.

To read my recommendation and some great ones from 15 other writers, click here. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Five California Wineries that Wowed Me in 2015

I had the pleasure of tasting a whole lot of California wine this year — from my own collection, during visits with winemakers and trips to wine country, and as part of my weekly wine reviews for the daily wine blog Terroirist. Sure there are some boring, inexpensive multi-regional blends that pass by without much notice. But I am consistently impressed by the amount of good, really good and even thrilling California wines I’ve tasted this year. 

Some of my favorites came from renowned producers and big-name vineyards (Cardinale, Shafer’s Hillside Select, Mondavi’s To Kalon, , Ridge’s Monte Bello), but a handful of relatively new producers really wowed me with exceptional (and far less expensive) wines.  

Like I’ve done in years past, I’ve chosen five California producers to highlight. Some of these producers I’ve known and tasted before, while others were new to me in 2015. The wines from these five producers were so consistently good (regardless of grape variety, vintage, etc.) that their name on a label is enough for me. If they make it, I’m confident the wine will be good. Most likely, it will be damn good. 

Here, in no particular order, are the producers that wowed me this year.


Jake and Ben Fetzer know a few things about Mendocino wine. As sons of Mendocino legend Bobby Fetzer (who kicked off Fetzer Vineyards in 1968), they grew up in the vineyards of this sprawling, sparsely populated area of Northern California.

In 1994, Bobby Fetzer purchased a site west of the Redwood Valley appellation called Masút, a Native American word meaning “dark, rich earth.” The first vines were planted in 1997. After Bobby passed away in a rafting accident in 2006, the brothers moved forward with the project. “More determined than ever, we felt a need to continue to move forward in his honor,” they write on the Masút website. “We spearheaded a petition for a new viticultural area called Eagle Peak Mendocino County, and decided to convert a barn on the property to make wine. In 2011, our first vintage was released, and we dedicated it to our father.”

Anyone who talks California wine with me for more than a minute has heard me wax effusively about Mendocino. I fell in love with this region in 2009 and have made a bunch of trips back since, tasting and touring my way around the appellations of Yorkville Highlands, Anderson Valley, Potter Valley and more, exploring the redwoods and surfing remote surf breaks along the rugged coast. So I was thrilled to learn about Mendocino’s new Eagle Peak American Viticultural Area (AVA). The AVA comprises more than 20,000 acres, but only 115 are planted to wine grapes, under the auspices of Masút, Golden, Linholme, Sea Biscuit South, and Turan Vineyards. (I’ve yet to taste any wines from these other producers, but that won’t be the case for long.) All Eagle Peak vineyards sit between 800 and 3,200 feet, which sets this region apart from the neighboring Redwood Valley, where vines are planted at around 600 feet.

This year I tasted my first wines from Jake and Ben, their two 2013 Pinot Noirs. These wines were the first to use the new Eagle Peak AVA on their label. The wines are rich and see lots of new oak, but they’re precise, complex and age-worthy. I can’t wait to explore more wines from this and other Eagle Peak winemakers. 

2013 Masút Pinot Noir Estate Vineyard - Mendocino County, Eagle Peak 
Medium-deep ruby. Lovely, elegant aromatic approach: roses, lavender, lovely red currants and strawberries, some deep and rocky elements, earth and charcoal. Fresh acid on the palate, bright and elegant with dusty tannins and great balance. Tangy yet fleshy red berry fruit, pulls off the rich yet pretty appeal with ease. Complex loam, pipe tobacco and dried roses along with notes of cedar and cherry wood. Long finish. Beautiful, elegant stuff. Beautiful stuff, aged 15 months in 50% new oak. (93 points)

2013 Masút Pinot Noir Two Barrel Estate Vineyard - Mendocino County, Eagle Peak 
Medium-dark ruby color. Nose of deep black cherries, some raspberry and strawberry, too, deeply floral, with violets, also some vanilla cola and cedar. Medium-firm tannins, medium-plus acid, chewy yet pretty fruit (black and red cherries, some strawberry jam). Silky yet full, showing complex flavors of coffee, tobacco, dusty earth, sweet cola, dark chocolate and cedar shavings. Could use a few years, but quite approachable at this point. For 15 months in 100% new French oak, I’m impressed by its balance. (92 points)

I’d never tasted a wine from Kitá before this year, but — oh, boy — mine eyes hath been opened! This Santa Ynez-based producer pulls off consistently excellent interpretations of all sorts of wines: Grenache, Syrah, Red Rhone Blends, Grenache Blanc, White Rhone Blends, even Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Apparently they can grow almost anything in the Camp 4 Vineyard, which was planted by the late Fess Parker in 1999 and is now home to a whopping 19 different grape varieties. The 256-acre vineyard, which stretches to the easternmost edge of Santa Ynez Valley near Happy Canyon, was purchased by the Santa Ynez Band of the Chumash Indians in 2010.

Tara Gomez, a member of the Chumash tribe, crafts wines of stunning clarity from the Camp 4 Vineyard. Tara studied Enology at Cal State Fresno with the help of a scholarship from her tribe, and she graduated in 1998. She interned with Fess Parker, worked as enologist for J. Lohr in Paso Robles and kicked off her own label in 2001 called Kalawashaq, through which she focused on Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc. Tara also trekked to Europe to tour wine regions in Spain, France and Germany and study more traditional winemaking methods. 

Kitá (which means “our valley oak” in the native Chumash language of Samala) is a small batch producer (artisinal is a bow cliched, but the term applies here). Tara produces a dizzying array of different wines, but they add up to only 2,000 cases per year (less than 5% of the vineyard’s total crop). 

“Kitá prides itself on its connection and balance to the land, which was a Chumash philosophy I was raised on,” Tara told me in an email message. “With each distinct vintage, I aim for the wines to capture the essence of such a spiritual and extraordinary place.” 

The specialness of this place (and the attention to detail by the vineyard crew and winemaker) is evident in each Kitá wine I’ve tasted. These wines consistently pop out in blind tastings with a sense of purity and freshness. If you get the chance, I highly recommend trying some. The expansiveness and diversity of Gomez's wine portfolio is beyond impressive. 

2013 KITÁ T'aya Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Light yellow color. Aromas of green apples, kiwi, lime, margarita salt, some clover and ginger as well, a bit hesitant, needs air to come out and speak. Rich in texture but it has a lighter essence (12.5% alcohol), medium acid. The green and yellow apple fruit is fresh but fully ripe, quite subtle, hesitant even. Some hazelnut, toasted almond, hints of saline and chalk too with the richer honeyed elements. Hints of shaved lime and seashell on the finish. Generous texture but subtle flavors. 59% Marsanne, 39% Roussanne and 2% Grenache Blanc. Very good for the price. (89 points)

2012 KITÁ Spe'y Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Light ruby color. Nose of tart red berries, some sweeter, jammier notes, backed up by elements of baking spices, pepper, coffee and toast. Bold approach, some moderate acid, drying tannins of decent strength, alcohol gives it a thicker presence. Tart currants, dark and crunchy cherries and plums. Lots of coffee, toasted nuts, add in some sweet herbal notes, spices, cola and rhubarb. A warm, rich finish. Seems to need a bit of time, as it really opens up with air. 53% Grenache, 27% Syrah and 20% Carignane, aged 18 months in 30% new French oak. (90 points)

2012 KITÁ Syrah Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Light purple color. Vibrant and bold on the nose. I get black cherries, currant jam, menthol, sweet cedar, violets, black pepper. Rich texture, medium-low acid, fleshy but quite firm tannins. Black currants, black cherries, some plum fruit, mixed together with menthol, eucalyptus, cedar, cherry cola, roasted coffee, black pepper. Chewy and long on the finish. Delicious, no doubt, but quite bold, perhaps it could use some time. Rich but the wine maintains this element of mystique that I find really attractive. All Syrah, aged 18 months in 30% new French oak. (90 points)

2012 KITÁ Grenache Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Pale ruby color. Nose of tart red cherries and strawberries, red flowers and even some cherry blossom and potpourri notes, hints of pepper. Fine tannins, a full body but some richer and fuller notes. Elegant despite its richness, with freshness from the acid. Lovely tart red fruit (strawberries and raspberries), notes of chestnut, tobacco, pepper, a spicy herbal kick, toasted almond, hint of cedar woven in well, spiced coffee, sweet cola. Complex, showing wonderfully right now but could hold for a year or two. Long finish. Exciting stuff. All Grenache, aged 18 months in 25% new French oak. (92 points)

2013 KITÁ Sauvignon Blanc Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Light gold color. Nose shows lemons, limes, grapefruit, lychee along with jalapeno, cut grass and oregano. Medium bodied, tangy acid. White peaches, drizzled with ruby red grapefruit juice, lots of grapefruit. Tangy and brisk throughout with notes of chalk, honeysuckle, green onion and spicy Italian oregano. Some hints of honey and orange peel on the finish. So food friendly, definitely a brisk style but showing some richer notes of nougat and raw almond on the finish. Quite complex, could even use some time to open up. Stainless steel plus 20% old oak for eight months. 13% alcohol. (89 points)

2013 KITÁ Grenache Blanc Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Light gold color. Aromas of white peaches, yellow apples, topped with honey, dandelion, hints of toasted almond. Clean acid on the palate, the wine has a waxy, full texture but stays bright. White peach, green melon, yellow and green apples, the fruit has a refreshing tartness, which is complemented by the white tea, honeycomb and almond notes (not oaky, though). Hints of chalk, crusty ocean jetties and a slight green herbal spice notes. Complex, full of flavor, yet stays tangy, salty and refreshing throughout. Really unique style. I for one would like to see more California Grenache Blan. (90 points)

2012 KITÁ S'alapay Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Bright purple color. Aromas of tart red and black currants, some cool blueberries, notes of roses and lavender, cedar, tobacco leaf and roasted coffee. On the palate, firm yet approachable tannic structure, some impressive tart acid for freshness. Soft around the edges, with juicy red and black fruit, which tastes ripe but still shows some crunchy skin aspects. Tempered noted of roasted nut and cherry wood. Long, clean finish with notes of tobacco and dusty soil. 50% Merlot, 44% Cabernet Franc and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 18 months in 35% new French oak. (89 points)

2012 KITÁ Cabernet Sauvignon Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Medium ruby colored. Smells of roasted figs, raspberry jam, some charcoal, sweet oak, coffee and baking spices, tobacco hints. Full-bodied and fruit-forward, but the tannins are easy to chew, medium-low acid, a smooth and rich presence on the palate. Full of juicy, gushing blue and black berries, laced with notes of cola, sweet coffee, earthy-dusty elements. I get cedar, pine, hints of sweet menthol as well. Full of richness and hedonism, but I can’t deny the deliciousness, and I’m loving the velvety feel and complexity of flavors. All Cabernet, aged 18 months in 40% new French oak. (88 points)

2012 KITÁ Pinot Noir Hilliard Bruce Vineyard - Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills
Deep ruby colored. Nose of raspberries and blackberries, red and black cherries, along with loamy soil, sweet rose potpourri, pepper, vanilla, root beer. Very juicy, fresh and attractive nose. Medium-bodied, silky tannins provide a chewy feel, medium acid. The fruit is rich and chewy, black cherries, dark plums, blackberries, add in some vanilla cola, mocha, sweet chewing tobacco, black cherries in ice cream, but also some cracked pepper, loam and Portobello mushroom elements. Despite the forward approach, this shows a lot of subtlety and complexity. Could be popped now, but I would cellar this for three or four years. A lot in here to contemplate over time. I love high acid, and would like this even more if it had a tad more acid, but it’s still quite balanced. 13.1% alcohol, aged 18 months in 25% new French oak. (91 points)

I swear, it’s not the name that makes me love this wine, although it is quite cool to drink a Baker Lane Pinot with a whole room of Bakers. (My family all loved the stuff, too.) 

Founder Stephen Singer has had his fingers in many (eco-friendly) pies. He’s worked as a wine consultant and mentored with Kermit Lynch. He was also married to Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, and he served 15 years as wine director for the famous Berkeley restaurant. And he developed his own restaurants, Table 29 in Napa and César in Berkeley. Perhaps this deep experience with high California cuisine helps explain the vibrancy and food-friendly attitude of Baker Lane’s wines.

Winemaker Greg Adams joined Singer in 2007, after working with Flowers, Stags Leap and Lynmar, in addition to stints in Argentina, South Africa, Italy and France. These guys put out some absolutely delicious Syrah and Pinot Noir. I find the wines maintain an earthy, spicy, bright aesthetic, but many of them have plenty of structure to age well. 

Located at the end of Baker Lane in Sebastapol, Sonoma County, Baker Lane Vineyards is home to Syrah and Viognier vines, which are farmed biodynamically. A neighboring vineyard, the organically farmed Ramondo, is the site of some exceptional Syrah and Pinot Noir. The Syrahs I tasted this year are packed with savory, peppery, earthy elements (which is refreshing for old-school Syrah nerds), but they also pack juicy Sonoma Coast fruit that makes them immediately attractive. Lower alcohol and less new oak (10-20%) round out these restrained versions of California Syrah. 

2012 Baker Lane Syrah Sonoma Coast Cuvée - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Dark ruby. Lush and exotic on the nose, the blackberry and dark plum fruit mixes with violets, rose potpourri, bay leaf, cracked pepper and roasted coffee. Firm tannins, moderate acid, the wine is big but balanced and could be elegant with time in the cellar. Tart blueberries, black cherries and blackberries, the fruit is dusted with all sorts of spices (black pepper, dried red pepper, oregano, soy sauce). Notes of loam, violets, iron and roasted coffee as well. Tons of stuff going on here, but this needs two to four years to show its true potential. 2% Viognier in here, this spends 17 months in 10% new oak. (92 points)

2009 Baker Lane Syrah Estate Vineyard - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Dark ruby colored. I love the aromatics here: the tart blueberry and black cherry fruit is intertwined with cracked pepper, red sprinkle pepper, barbecue spice rub and grilled steak smells. Medium-bodied, moderate tannins and acid balance each other out nicely. The fruit is tangy but fully ripe (blackberries, blueberries, black cherries), again those elements come out on the palate and take center stage: black pepper, beef jerky, spice rub and crispy bacon. The fruit is pure Sonoma Coast goodness, but this could be mistaken for a Northern Rhone Syrah. Long finish with notes of coffee and iron. Complex, delicious, beautiful stuff. 13.6% alcohol, this is co-fermented with 4% Viognier and aged 17 months in 20% new barrels. (93 points)

2010 Baker Lane Syrah Estate Vineyard - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Medium-dark ruby colored. Smells of black and red currants, some tart blueberries, more violets but also some subtle pepper and spice elements. Juicy and ripe with grippy tannins and medium acid. Jammy but smooth on the fruit (blackberries, blueberries and dark currants). I really like the accents of cracked pepper, red pepper, soy glaze and bacon fat. Juicy, forward fruit but love the spicy complexity of this wine. Hints of mineral, coffee and iron as well. Plenty of time to let those complexities evolve, the wine has a lot of stuffing. 13% alcohol, this is co-fermented with 4% Viognier and aged 17 months in 20% new barrels. (92 points)

2014 Baker Lane Syrah Rosé - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Pale salmon/tangerine color. Lighter approach on the nose, sliced red apples and white cherries, a breezier aromatic profile with white flowers, dandelions and hints of sea salt. Bright and crisp approach on the palate, this wine is light and elegant but not short on flavor. I get McIntosh apple, wild raspberries, tangerine and watermelon fruit, but what I like best is the complex mix of crushed chalk, white pepper, sea shells and minerals. Long, bracing finish that keeps the mouth watering. Crazy value, this is a 12% alcohol Syrah from Baker Lane’s Ramondo Vineyard. (90 points)

2010 Baker Lane Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Cuvée - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Bright red cherries and currants on the nose, coated with dried rose petals, clove and some red licorice. Fresh and lively with moderate tannins and acid. Bursting with tangy-ripe strawberries, red and black cherries and raspberries. Interesting herbal and earthy elements (rosemary, white pepper, tobacco, rose hips) mixed with sweet cocoa powder and cola. This wine is open and outgoing but it has a lot of interesting elements to unpack. After two hours, this started exploding with complexity, roses, soil, pickling spices, hints of mushroom. Showing well right out of the bottle, but enough structure for a few more years of aging. I’d love to see what happens to those savory notes in two or three years. (90 points)

Hatton Daniels          

Kicked off in 2009, Hatton Daniels is the combined effort of winemaker Daniel Fishman and his co-owners and friends John Hatton, Daniel Caddigan and John Black. Dan Fishman interned at California Pinot boss Donum Estate, as well as Auteur and Eric Kent before taking over as Donum winemaker in 2012.

Credit: Hatton Daniels. The Roberts Road Vineyard is home to some excellent Pinot.
Describing their vision on their website, Hatton Daniels aims for wines that have “plenty of natural acidity, and this leads to wines that are a bit lighter in style, but that are full of energy, and still have plenty of depth and complexity. ” Well, that’s exactly how I’d describe their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs — full of flavor and complexity but demonstrating an airy, almost effortless feel on the palate that makes them so refreshing to sip.

They also produce a Napa Cab and a Contra Costa County White Rhone Blend. I haven’t tasted either of these wines, but I’m willing to guess they’re solid bottles.

2012 Hatton Daniels Chardonnay Fichtenberg Vineyards - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Aromatically rocking, so bright and crunchy but woven in perfectly are these richer, honeyed notes, the whole thing is dashed with crushed shells and chalk. Tangy acid, this medium-plus-bodied, the lime and green apple fruit is so pure and vibrant. The wine is loaded with Sonoma Coast goodness in a complex blend of honey, minerals, chalk, hazelnut and baking spices. A beautiful wine. (93 points)

2011 Hatton Daniels Chardonnay Fichtenberg Vineyards - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Do you like tart, tangy, mineral-driven Chardonnay? No? Then don't bother with this wine. But I love it. So vibrant and alive, sea shells and chalk and lemon peel, lime, crushed rocks, some richer dried honey notes. Love the intense oceanic elements. Tangy acid, laser-like. Creaminess is attractive though. Lemon, lime, green apple, top it off with crushed oyster shells, chalk. Almost Muscadet like in its oceanic and acidic severity, but some really nice honey richness as well. I love it. (91 points)

2011 Hatton Daniels Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Roberts Road - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Light ruby color. Loving the tart red berries and spice components, more floral notes with air. Refreshing acid throughout, tart red berries abound on a frame of fine tannins. Spices and herbs mix with sweet floral and vanilla cola notes, but this is a brisk and easy-drinking Pinot that’s showing very well right now. Could hold for a bit longer, but beautiful right now. Drink this while the 2012s are sleeping. (90 points)

La Pitchoune

I first tasted wines from this Sonoma Pinot and Chardonnay producer late last year, and my interest was immediately piqued. La Pitchoune is a newcomer to the Sonoma winemaking scene, but everything I’ve tasted, from regional blends and single-vineyard bottles, has been delicious.

Co-founders Tracy Nielsen and Peter Joachim Nielsen are both transplants to Sonoma (Tracy is originally from Colorado, Peter from Sweden), but they’ve adapted quite well.

La Pitchoune (which means “little one” in French) focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, sourcing grapes from a range of Sonoma County vineyards. Some are bottled as single vineyard wines: English Hill Vineyard near Sebastopol; Holder Vineyard, on a ridge above Occidental) while others are blended into the Sonoma Coast wine. The wines are made by Andrew Berge, a UC Davis grad who has Sonoma Pinot and Chardonnay experience with Spell and Hunter Wine Cellars.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what this producer does in the coming vintages. 

Credit: La Pitchoune.
2014 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir Vin Gris - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Medium salmon colored. So vibrant and fresh on the nose, with wild strawberries, white cherries and watermelon, mixed in with sea salt, crushed shells and a hint of white pepper. Crisp, clean, racy but attractive in its creaminess as well. I love the watermelon and tangy white cherries, and I get notes of honeysuckle, chalk, sea salt and rosewater. Delicious stuff right here, so vibrant and begging for shellfish and salads. (90 points)

2013 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir English Hill Vineyard - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Deep ruby color. Aromas of ripe, juicy black cherries, raspberries, tart strawberries, also some notes of pine sap, tobacco, white pepper, a spicy-herbal kick. Bright approach on the palate with tart raspberries, cherries and red plums, dusty tannins, plenty of structure, a bright acidic backbone that keeps the wine lively and tart. Notes of bay leaf, tobacco, white pepper, mixed in with richer elements of chocolate-covered cherries and cola. Deep underlying sense of earth and minerals. A beauty of a Pinot Noir that should improve for the next three to five years. Aged 11 months in 25% new French oak. (93 points)

2013 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir Holder Vineyard - Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Medium ruby colored. Aromas of jammy raspberries, tart summer plums and red currants, along with some earth and rosemary elements. Medium+ bodied, a velvety appeal with moderate acid, the balance is quite a thing. Tart plums mix with wild raspberries and richer strawberry jam flavors, and I get secondary notes of pine sap, green coffee, black tea. Velvety, smooth but stylish, rounded out with some earthy and saucy aspects that will surely evolve with time. 13.8% alcohol, aged 11 months in 25% new French oak. (92 points)

2012 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Tart cranberries and cherries on the nose but so many floral, spice and complex aromatic nuance as well. Bright and red fruit-driven on a frame of dusty tannins and some refreshing acid. Lots of spice, earth, rose petal and coffee integrated together so smoothly. A bold and full-bodied wine at 14%+ but maintains freshness and elegance as well. Opening up beautifully, drinking fine now but I’d like to revisit again in 2016. (91 points)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

From Inexpensive to Splurge Bottles, Chile & Argentina Have it All

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Chile and Argentina are, of course, different countries with varied winegrowing regions and winemaking histories. But we received just a handful of South American wines this season — hence this catch-all review.

Most of these wines fall into that South American sweet spot: those $10-$20 bottles that deliver reliably tasty (if rather predictable) wines. The Alamos brand of wines from Mendoza's Catena have long served this purpose for American consumers by offering straightforward, well-made, varietal wines with accessible price points and wide availability. My first Torrontés, Bonarda and my first Argentine Chardonnay were all Alamos wines, so I'm proof that these wines provide a great introduction to the wines of Mendoza. 

The major outlier in this report is the Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon from Concha y Toro. The 2011 represents the 25th vintage of this iconic Chilean Cabernet, which has been receiving praise and high scores for more than a decade. Another top-tier wine appears in this report, Trivento's Eolo Malbec. This is the top of the line for Trivento, also owned by Concha y Toro, the Eolo is a high-elevation (3,000+ feet) single-vineyard Malbec of stunning precision — and it ages beautifully as well.   

The following wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2014 Alamos Chardonnay - Argentina, Mendoza
SRP: $13
Light gold color. Aromas of yellow apples, sliced pears, nougat and honeycomb. Creamy on the palate, bright acid, light in intensity and quite clean, but plenty of yellow apples, apricot, honey, some nougat. A bit simple, but done well, and quite good for the price. Aged in French and American oak for six months. (85 points)

2014 Alamos Cabernet Sauvignon - Argentina, Mendoza
SRP: $13
Light purple color. Smoky aromas, like charcoal and scorched earth on top of red currants and black cherries, hints of loam and coffee as well. Medium-bodied, softly dusty tannins, medium acid, the fruit is juicy and smooth but not too deep (black cherries, juicy plums) Hints of coffee, vanilla, smoky earth, mint and cola. Fun, simple, a drink-me-now style, but well-made and a good introduction to Mendoza Cabernet. (85 points)

2014 Alamos Red Blend - Argentina, Mendoza
SRP: $13
Vibrant purple color. Smells of juicy plums mixed with smoky blackberries, some tobacco, charred herbs and sweet cola. Medium bodied, slight acid, soft tannins. Chewy blackberries and plums mix with notes of cola, vanilla and tobacco. Fun stuff to drink now, it does well for the price. 65% Malbec, 16% Bonarda, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Syrah. (84 points)

2013 Criterion Collection Malbec Reserva - Argentina, Mendoza
SRP: $14
Deep purple color. Aromas of tart red and black currants, some tart plums, cola and mocha. On the palate, this shows a tart approach, with bright acid, light tannins and crunchy red and black fruit (currants, blackberries). Notes of roasted coffee, toasted oak (a bit too much perhaps), and vanilla, hint of peppery spice on the finish. Simple, pleasant. (84 points)

2013 Familia Zuccardi Cabernet Sauvignon Serie A - Argentina, Mendoza, Valle de Uco
SRP: $15
Deep ruby color. Aromas of Tart red currants, raspberries, plums, loam, some cedar and eucalyptus notes. Full-bodied, really velvety tannins, moderate fresh acid. Red plums, currants and some black cherries thrown in. The fruit is smooth, rich but shows some tangy edges. Rounded out by coffee, cedar, loam and a hint of bell pepper. Smooth, tasty, approachable, solid value for sure. (87 points)

2013 Bodega Santa Julia Reserva Mountain Blend - Malbec/Cabernet Franc - Argentina, Mendoza, Valle de Uco
SRP: $13
Vibrant purple color. Smells of jammy blackberries and raspberries along with cola, cherry wood, and some earth and violet petal notes. Medium-to-full-bodied with a moderate tannic structure and some tang from the acid. Tart blackberries, plum skins and raspberry jam, the fruit is forward and juicy but tangy too. Notes of cola, violets, pepper, sweet herbs, coffee, even some elements of graphite and pepper. Juicy fruit and plenty ripe, but the non-fruit complexity is solid and there’s enough freshness to make this food-friendly. Impressive structure at this price point. The value of this wine is exceptional. 70% Malbec and 30% Cabernet Franc aged 10 months in French oak. (88 points)

2012 Trivento Malbec Eolo - Argentina, Mendoza, Lujan de Cuyo
SRP: $79
Deep purple color. So rich and deep on the nose, I get saucy plums, currant jam, blackberry, and lots of non-fruit elements: a blend of sweet (vanilla, violets, fig cookie) with the earthy (granite, loam, charcoal). Needs time to open, but lots to unpack aromatically. Rich and concentrated on the palate, the tannins show serious grip and structure, medium acid helps a bit but this is a bold wine with a chewy, slightly gritty texture. The black cherry, dark plum and blackberry fruit is rich, chewy but shows signs of freshness as well. Complex cedar, vanilla, black tea and anise cookie mix with deep notes of graphite, pencil shavings and rocky minerals. Serious structure here, a bit intense to fully appreciate at this young age (I’d love to taste it in five to eight years) but this is a beautiful Malbec for sure. (91 points) 

2013 Criterion Collection Carménère Reserva - Chile, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
SRP: $16
Rich purple color. Smells of juicy black cherries and currant jam along with a hefty dose of tobacco, bell pepper, spiced coffee and fallen leaves. Juicy and fleshy on the palate with some light to moderate tannic grip, medium acid keeps it moving forward. Juicy black cherries and tart currants, the fruit is velvety and smooth but matched by a web of black pepper, green coffee, wet moss and earth. Approachable, fruity but loving the mix of non-fruit elements. Drink in the next few years. (87 points)

2011 Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon Don Melchor - Chile, Maipo Valley, Puente Alto
SRP: $125
Vibrant purple color. Rich but compact aromatics, it takes time to coax out the nuances. But still tons to contemplate: chewy black cherries, red and black currants, blackberries. Lots of non-fruit complexity: woodsy, earthy, loamy aspects, creamy oak, rich coffee, graphite and iron. Full-bodied with a ton of grip to the tannins but some moderate acid underneath seals the deal and makes this a wonderfully balanced and stunningly ageworthy wine. Compact blackberry, black currants, black cherries – rich fruit but tight and needs time. Tons of other savory, earthy and sweet aspects: loam, chewing tobacco, espresso, mint, vanilla, cedar, graphite, dark chocolate. Complex but wound up, the structure will allow 10-15 years of complex aging, at least. Alcohol (14.5%) is integrated well and, despite its brawniness, I feel confident using the word balance. Aged 15 months in 70% new French oak. (94 points)

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Tasting Report: California Cabernets (Including Some Ridiculously Good Napa Gems)

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

California Cabernet — what else is there to say? This week, we’re looking at a slew of Cali Cabs, from the fresh, fruity, inexpensive wines to the massively oaked, expensive nectar.  A few Cab-based blends were mixed in as well.

There are some big boys from Napa this report, Mondavi’s To Kalon, Chris Carpenter’s Cardinale, Shafer’s Hillside Select. These bottles stick out, demanding attention and inspiring awe. They just taste expensive. And they are. But these bottles need years to evolve and open up, and, on some level, I always feel like I’m cheating the wines by tasting and analyzing them at such a young age. Not that I’m complaining.

2012s have a ton to offer in terms of structure and aging potential, and several Napa Cab producers have told me the 2013s are even more exciting. Luckily some 2010s and 2011s (which were raised under much more difficult vintage conditions) are more approachable now while the 2012s sleep softly in the cellar.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted single blind. 

2013 Wild Horse Cabernet Sauvignon - California, Central Coast
SRP: $20
Deeper ruby color. Juicy and dark on the nose with plum sauce, some jammy black cherries, a bit of sweet toffee mixing with eucalyptus and chewing tobacco notes. Moderate tannins (soft around the edges), some medium acid for balance, the wine is medium-bodied and reasonably fresh. Flavors of tart red and black currants, juicy blackberries, some roasted plum notes as well. Coffee and eucalyptus rounded out by cedar and some dark chocolate shavings. Not too deep but put together well. Includes some Syrah, Petit Verdot, Mabec and Merlot aged in 25% new oak for 14 months. (85 points)

2013 Justin Vineyards & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
SRP: $28
Deep purple color. Dark and saucy aromas (deep black cherries, blueberry pie) along with mint, eucalyptus and some mineral-rocky notes. A full and chewy texture on the palate, velvety tannins, some moderate acid. Sweet blueberry and fleshy black cherry fruit combines with some complex notes of smoke, milk chocolate, roasted chestnut and vanilla. Woody but not overly so for my palate. Delicious right out of the bottle, but could age in the near term. Aged 14 months in 25% new American oak, 14.9% alcohol. (88 points) 

2013 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County - California, Sonoma County
SRP: $20
Vibrant purple color. Smells like blackberry and blueberry jams along with smoked wood, caramel and charcoal pit. Full-bodied with chewy tannins and low acid, a moderately structured for full-frontal approach on the palate. Ripe blue and black fruits, jammy and a bit roasted, I also get notes of charcoal, sweet caramel, roasted coffee and vanilla. Includes some Merlot and Petite Sirah. (87 points)

2013 Mount Veeder Winery Cabernet Sauvignon - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $44
Dark purple color. Big, compact and dense on the nose but it opens up with swirling and air to show boysenberry, inky blueberries and black currants, along with notes of loam, granite and toasted oak. Full-bodied and quite densely tannic on the palate, yet a lively acidity on the palate makes this a rich, structured yet velvety wine. Rich blackberry plays off tart black currant, and the fruit is laced with flavors of fallen leaves, chestnut, tobacco, pencil shavings and iron. Significant mocha, cedar and vanilla in this wine (high oak tolerance seems a requisite to enjoyment), but I think the wine is accentuated enough by these non-fruit elements that it works quite well. Still, this is a dark and concentrated wine that could use a significant amount of time to unravel. Includes 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. For the price - wow. (91 points)

2012 Revival Vineyards Field Guide - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $42
Dark ruby colored. Nose of currant jam mixed with tart fresh currants along with rich loam, sweet violets, clove, roasted coffee and vanilla bean. A complex aromatic display that begs for an evening in the decanter. Full and fleshy on the palate with velvety but structured tannins and some surprising acid that helps keep it fresh. The red and black currant fruit is plenty ripe and flows in waves over the palate, but it maintains a fresh crunch, which is quite attractive. Fruit is topped in smoke, pine tar and cedar planks (the oak is a bit too overt for my palate), but it’s rather balanced by notes of fallen leaves and pencil shavings that linger onto the finish. One of those paradoxical wines that’s bold but also elegant. Plenty there to enjoy now, but I’d like to revisit in three to five years. Equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. (91 points)

2012 Terlato Vineyards Episode - California, Napa Valley, Rutherford
SRP: $175
Rich purple color. Saucy, dark-fruited aromas of blackberry and cassis jam with a vanilla and violet-inflected approach, plenty of cedar shavings and cherry wood as well. So velvety and rich on the palate, the tannins are refined but offer plenty of structure, while moderate acid keeps it from being sticky. The black currant, cassis and tart blueberry fruit is pure, crunchy and oozing with flavor. I get a complex mix of espresso, vanilla bean, black tea, anise and dark chocolate. Smooth, silky finish, the flavors are delicious but the overall mouthfeel of this wine makes it irresistible. Hedonistic, most definitely, but not lacking in depth or intrigue. This will benefit greatly from three to six years in the cellar and probably improve for quite some time. Cabernet, Merlot and Petite Verdot. (92 points)

2012 Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $250
Rich purple color. Deep aromatics of blueberry, sweet black cherries and black currants, along with sweet pipe tobacco, rich coffee and toasted oak. Full-bodied and concentrated on the palate, but the tannins have some smoothness around the edges, and some acid helps it from being too weighed down. Juicy, tart yet gushing black cherries, blueberries and black currants. Laced with tobacco, cedar, coffee, root beer, vanilla, pencil shavings, sweet loam and mint. Complex, flashy and stylistic yet deep, verging on the profound. A blend from 8 vineyards across Napa, this includes 16% Merlot, aged 20 months in 93% new French oak. (94 points)

2012 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $50
Vibrant purple color. Smells of jammy blackberries, currant paste, cocoa powder, sweet violets and vanilla. Full-bodied with solid grip on the tannins, medium acid steers it toward freshness. The blackberry, tart blueberry and cassis fruit is rich and juicy. Notes of graphite, vanilla, cinnamon and clove are woven in with the rich fruit well. This is a bold and full wine but the mouthfeel is silky and smooth. Long finish with jammy fruit, roasted coffee and birch beer. Expressive but this could use a few years to unwind. Includes Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, aged 25 months in mostly French oak, some American. (88 points)

2012 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon - California, Napa Valley, Rutherford
SRP: $70
A juicy purple/deep ruby color. Sweeter aromatics, like brown sugar and candied pecans on top of blackberries, dark currants and juicy dark plums, notes of pencil lead, dried violets and mocha add complexity. Full and plush on the palate, the tannins are firm but velvety, medium-low acid. Juicy blackberry, dark currant and plum fruit, very forward and rich. The fruit is tossed with lots of candied nuts, cedar planks, sweet earth, sweet vanilla sauce, and I get some hints of graphite and fallen leaves as well. A very sumptuous and forward wine that comes right at you swinging, but it is damn delicious. 14.5% alcohol, Includes Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc and the wine is aged 24 months in mostly new French and American oak. (89 points)

2012 Revival Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon - California, Napa Valley, St. Helena
SRP: $125
Deep, rich purple color. Saucy and bold aromatics, blackberries and black currants, some tart yet rich blueberries, and a blend of cocoa, vanilla, fallen leaves, violets. The aromas need time to open up fully, but they’re impressive. On the palate: full-bodied and powerful, but despite the structured grip from the tannins there’s a smooth, velvety mouthfeel that makes the wine feel effortless. Blackberry, dark cherry, black currant, the fruit is crunchy and compact and will evolve for a long time in the cellar. The fruit is blended together with delicious vanilla, cedar, loamy soil, some spearmint and chewing tobacco flavors as well. A real beauty of a wine, and while it has that mouthfeel, it’s still quite young and will probably show best after a few years of sleep. 100% Cabernet from Kairos Vineyard aged in all new French oak. (93 points)

2012 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve To-Kalon Vineyard - California, Napa Valley, Oakville
SRP: $155
Light purple color. Smells of tart red and black currants and cherries, a bit dense at first, but seriously deep aromas are buried in here, and time coaxes out sweet pipe tobacco, loamy soil, asphalt, graphite and cigar box. Full and bold, very sturdy in terms of tannic structure, medium acidity, a big boy at 15% alcohol. Blackberry, cassis and gushing dark cherry fruit abound. Equally earthy and sweet with this interesting combination of cocoa powder, bitter chocolate, dark coffee and potting soil flavors. Nuances of coconut, charcoal, pencil shavings and tobacco leaf rise to the top with air. A beautiful wine with serious structure, this is clearly a bit hesitant in its youth, but there is plenty to unpack over the long term. I’d love to revisit this in eight to ten years, but undeniably awesome even at this age. Includes 7% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot, aged 20 months in all new French oak. (93 points)

2011 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select - California, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District
SRP: $250
Dark purple color. Aromas of deep blackberry, blueberry, rich but tart black currants, rich earth, dark floral tones, smooth vanilla, clove, a sweet and seductive appeal that opens up more and more in time. Strong tannic structure, very full-bodied and chewy, some medium acid though, the wine is both compact but showing an underlying velvetiness. Rich blackberry fruits, tart blueberries, crunchy black cherries. Quite gripped with oak (lots of dark chocolate shavings, charcoal, vanilla and cedar), but complex notes of tobacco, loamy soil, crushed rocks, paved road. Despite the richness this has a real sense of refinement. An extraordinary effort in a difficult vintage. Very, very young, a long life ahead. 100% Cabernet aged 32 months in 100% new French oak. (94 points)

2013 Amici Cabernet Sauvignon Olema - California, Sonoma County
SRP: $22
Light purple color. Aromatically kicking, a lovely blend and pepper, clove and eucalyptus, on top of some juicy blackberries, black cherries and raspberries, some oak and charcoal, underlying floral-earthy notes. Lightly dusty tannins, refreshing acid, a full-bodied wine with a smooth and snappy presence on the palate. Red and black cherries and plums, the fruit is juicy and topped with some pepper, eucalyptus, charcoal. Significant toasty-vanilla aspects, a bit distracting, but overall a solid wine. Includes dashes of Malbec and Petit Verdot, aged 16 months in 30% new French oak. (87 points) 

Wines to Avoid
2013 Mirassou Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon - California
SRP: $12
Juicy ruby color. Smells like lingonberry and currant jams, sweet mocha, some cola and fig cookie notes. The palate is goopy and sweet. The tannins provide little to no structure, while the acid is non-existent. The brown sugar, sweet fig cookies and cloyingly sweet coffee throw my palate off. Jammy, overdone, tastes manufactured and just plain bad. (69 points)

2013 Our Daily Red Cabernet Sauvignon Our Daily Cab - California
SRP: $12
Dark ruby color. Smells jammy, like raspberry and strawberry jam, mixed in with some sweeter baked cookie notes, sweet oak, vanilla, rose potpourri. On the palate, light tannins, medium-low acid, a lightly chewy and candied mouthfeel. Sweet cola, fig paste and strawberry jam mix with notes of sweet toffee and candied apple. Not much else going on besides sweet, candied, manufactured elements. Tastes cocktail-esque, not really reminiscent of any grape variety or place. (71 points)