Flavor Notes by Robert Rich: Food, Wine, Restaurants & Recipes




(Above: Sensorium's Jeff Ritchey and business partner John Zasio.)

Posted September 2007
by Robert Rich

Family Winemakers of California

Fort Mason, San Francisco, August 19-20, 2007

(Tasting notes augmented by Passion for Paso, San Jose, August 30)

The annual Family Winemakers tasting offers a venue for over 400 small wineries to show their new releases, a scale so vast as to make comprehensive note-taking impossible. To make sense out of such big tastings, I find myself looking for a theme, or a set of questions I wish to ask amidst over-stimulated senses. Of course, these events also offer the chance to reconnect with old friends in the trade.

This year I found some good opportunities to study some differences between Northern California appellations, but I also found myself rather frustrated by increasingly high price points among the better wines. With average prices for decent red wines climbing up towards $40-50, I began a search for outstanding budget wines. Trying to find good wines under $20 in a sea of $60 boutique Cabernets feels like shopping for a Honda Civic at the Ferrari dealer. Everyone wants to make high-end wines for special occasions, but few people want to make good solid everyday wines. They're just not sexy enough, nor does their low retail price justify the small production typical of these winemakers. The economies of scale don't operate at this intimate level. I'm happy when a small winemaker can make good profits from good wines - I want them to succeed; but I also want to be able to recommend good wines that normal people can afford. The two goals seem at odds with each other.

Now that I've griped about prices, I must admit that I can't help but be impressed by some of the blockbusters. At the high end, I still love the chocolate richness of Pride's Spring Mountain wines, along with some of the other wines that bear Bob Foley's influence, like Corte Riva and Paloma. Favorite Napa Valley wineries include Sullivan, Martin Estate, Downing Family among others; and my friends up at Elan on Atlas Peak continually make one of the more complex wines in the region. The Pisoni family on the central coast is still making some of the best Pinot Noir around (and at $65 it should be.)

Among other favorites include Sensorium's lush Viognier and excellent Napa and Santa Cruz Cabernets (I'm not unbiased here, as winemaker Jeff Ritchey is a good friend, but when a group of us blind-tasted his Cabs against top Napa labels, his wines averaged among the best.) L'Aventure and Tablas Creek continue to stand out among Paso Robles wineries, along with new charmer Vina Robles, which makes some of my favorite under-$20 wines. I tasted dozens of good Syrahs, alas whose prices are climbing above $30.

But I wanted to find a few wines that could satisfy my palate on an everyday budget. The short list includes a few new products from old friends. Vina Robles has a blend called Red4 that offers complex Rhone smokiness for around $13, and Lava Cap has a similarly priced American River Red with plush deep black fruit and good structure. Calstar's $12 Za-Za-Zinfandel offers big jammy strawberry-raspberry flavors; and Bill Arbios' Praxis brand includes a range of clean food-friendly whites and reds at $10 wholesale - targeted mostly for restaurants. Newcomer Alicats Winery in Hollister sells a big smokey Syrah for $20 that rivals those at twice the price.

So, I'll do my best to describe a few of those that I tasted during this two day marathon. I'll add some notes from a favorite Paso Robles exposition, Passion for Paso, that occurred a couple weeks later, since some of the same wineries appeared at both events.

Alicats Winery
10 Nash Road, Hollister, CA 95023
Husband and wife Alessio and Catherine Carli recently started a tiny winer,y with only a few hundred case output, making Syrah and Chardonnay. The Syrah had a memorable intensity and fair price.
2005 Syrah ($20)
A very smokey intense profile, with that varietally complex Syrah skank of bacon, rubber and tarmac, raw meat, blueberry and rust. On the palate comes the sense of bittersweet chocolate, sweet cream, darkly toasted marshmallows, licorice and tar. New oak profiles are subdued under the intensely complex meaty fruit. I really like this wine, as it expresses the intense side of Syrah.

Arbios Cellars and Praxis Cellars
561 Mission Blvd., Santa Rosa, CA 95409
I have written about Bill Arbios before, so I didn't take detailed notes about his wines this year. I still love his Alexander Valley Cabernet ($28), and his Praxis brand continues to be a great value. The Praxis Merlot has a bit more of a green pepper/graphite profile this year than in the past. In 2002 it was redolent of chocolate - not so much this year's release, which tasted like it had a bit less phenolic maturity in the grapes. Still a well-made wine, though. The '05 Praxis Viognier is excellent as always. It isn't fined, so it retains a bit of that typical smokey Viognier bitterness on the finish, along with limestone and light pear overtones. The '05 Praxis Pinot Noir is richer and smoother than in the past, with more red cherry fruit and cedar, and less black olive character than before - an excellent value. We have bought Arbios Cabernet for our own cellar in past years, and the Praxis Viognier has become one of our everyday white wines. This year I plan to add some Pinot to the list. I remain a fan.

Anglim Winery
740 Pine Street, Paso Robles, CA 93446
I never got around to tasting Anglim at Family Winemakers, but I did get some decent notes on two of their wines at Passion for Paso in San Jose a couple weeks later. These are very well made wines, supple and full-bodied.
2006 Rosé ($15)
A great food wine, and good value - in part because of the fact that rosés can be a bit hard to sell. This has a rich nose of strawberry, black pepper, perhaps a hint of cream cheese which foreshadows a palate hinted of peach custard with a bright dry finish. I would try this with salmon and mango salsa, or Thanksgiving turkey.
2005 Viognier, Bien Nacido ($24)
Light and creamy nose which opens up to nutmeg, peaches, and lemon-lime, which shades of pineapple, chalk and star jasmine. The palate shows the characteristic Viognier smokiness covered slightly by what tastes like a touch of residual sweetness. The lingering flavors trigger a memory of drinking the syrup from a can of Dole pineapple as a child, only not as sweet. Good stuff. I would pair this with fresh chevre and strawberries.

Big Basin Vineyards
830 Memory Lane, Boulder Creek, CA 95006
Some of the best Syrahs that I have tasted from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Expensive, however.
2005 Syrah Mandala ($45)
A very well made high-end Syrah, with only a hint of the classic Syrah stinkiness, more on the side of bright intense blueberry fruit and chocolate with smooth oak profile, and a rounded low-tannin finish.
2005 Syrah Rattlesnake Rock ($45)
More acidic than the Mandala, with leather, blueberry, blackberry, and a bit of a pinch at the end. This is tight now but could age very well, as that acidic tightness might soften and come to balance with the intense dark fruit.

(Above: Rick Davis of Calstar giving us a smile.)

Calstar Cellars
2420 West Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95407
I first met Rick Davis at a trade tasting in San Mateo, and we became acquainted through an odd coincidence: we have similar wrist injuries from broken glass while working in the cellar. Rick reminds me a little bit of Anthony Bourdain, physically and also stylistically - passionate, a bit world-weary, generous but not naive, idealistic but realistic. He makes unpretentious good wines at reasonable prices because he wants people to enjoy them with food in everyday settings. I like him and his wines - especially the new Pinot.
2004 Zinfandel "Za Za Zin" Lodi ($12.50)
A soft jammy zin, slightly chalky, with strawberry overtones, dark berry palate, black pepper and warm fruity finish. Not heavily oaked nor high alcohol, ready to drink and very friendly. I would try this with barbecue and dry cheeses.
2005 Zinfandel "Alta" El Dorado ($17)
More austere than the Lodi zin, with herbal notes, bright raspberry fruit, some earthiness, probably picked at the earlier stages of ripeness. Might age to a rather complex wine.
2005 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($28)
Intense and dark, spicy, almost brooding. Aromatic notes of sandalwood in the nose, with pink peppercorns and sapwood, coffee, black tar. Palate shows black cherry and cola with well extracted intensity. Ripe, dark, and complex, not immediately seductive but should be very interesting in a few years.

Cass Winery
7350 Linne Road, Paso Robles, CA 93446
Brief notes augmented by Passion for Paso two weeks later. The wines are very well-made but seem a touch expensive in context.
2006 Viognier ($24)
Ripe and bright with pineapple and lemon overtones. Not immensely complex, but fresh and friendly.
2006 Estate Cuvée ($28)
A blend of Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier. Rich sweet profile in the nose, with vanilla taffy and spice, plus soft chalky minerals, bubblegum and lemon custard. More lemony on the palate, good complex finish, dryer than one would expect.
2004 Syrah ($35)
An intense wine that seems at first to lean towards a brighter style, with dry grass and bright brambly fruit, which soon darkens into cocoa, vanilla, coffee and other earthy delights. Some intense tannins linger on the finish, with a leathery profile. Excellent and large.
2004 Cabernet Franc ($42)
I must admit I think this wine is overpriced. Bright floral nose characteristic of the variety - roses and violets with some dark leathery undercurrents. The palate is open in feel but quite tannic, a bit thin and tough. Maybe in a few years the tannins will soften, but I wonder how much fruit will remain.
2005 Grenache ($28)
Light violet perfume in the nose, smooth and round on the palate with some nice qualities resembling toasted marshmallows.
2005 Mourvedre ($34)
This sample was showing some reductive sulfur skank in the nose, and a surprisingly light color for this typically intense grape. On the good side, I like the varietally true character of saddle leather and shoe shop, animal and earthy. On the palate it shows coffee bean, black cherry, pepper and some lingering oak vanillin sweetness.
2005 Rocking One ($42)
A Rhone-Chateauneuf style blend with Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache. Round and smooth, with licorice and spice, pepper and brambles, a lightly chocolate finish. It's a really good wine, but priced comparably to some of the great Chateauneuf du Papes and Tablas Creek's flagship Esprit de Beaucastel. I'm just not sure it shows that level of complexity or cellar-worthy structure.

Clautiere Vineyard
1340 Penman Springs Road, Paso Robles, CA 93446
Notes in progress from Paso for Paso tasting - coming soon.

Corte Riva
Romel Rivera works at Pride alongside Bob Foley, and Foley's influence shows with a ripely structured big chocolate profile and piles of sweet oak; yet these wines somehow maintain balance and varietal distinction among the huge flavors. Alas, need I keep griping, they're expensive.
2004 Merlot ($50)
Nose of chocolate covered rose petals and Godiva liquer, cedar, oily rich mouth feel with vanilla and mocha cocoa finish, black cherry fruit. Lush, soft, yummy.
2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($65)
Nose reminiscent of Atlas Peak herbal leafiness, a bit like Elan's profile of sage, oregano, blueberries, rust. Very complex. Brambles, graphite, deep sweet oak and a hint of liquorice. A beautiful expression of the varietal.
2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve "Mabuhay" ($90)
Gorgeous rich black cherry, tobacco, saddle leather and chocolate. Lots of oak, but balanced well with the rich ripe fruit.

(Above: a proud and tired John Downing showing us his baby.)

Downing Family Vineyards
3212 Jefferson #189, Napa, CA 94552
I liked Randy Mason's wines before I ever knew who he was. When I first tasted Downing Family at a distributor tasting in late 2001, they were my favorite in the room - balanced, bright, deep, full bodied. Then a couple years later I discovered Del Bondio's Oakville wines, and learned that they had also hired Mason as their winemaker. Similar natural profile, balanced without over-manipulation, ripe yet complex. Downing Family still benefits from Mason's deft hand, and I enjoy their wines very much. I didn't take specific tasting notes so late in the day, but they remain a Napa Valley favorite. The 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) struck me as an especially good balance of price to quality alongside the double-priced Rutherford Cabs in its class.

Elan Vineyards
4500 Atlas Peak Road, Napa, CA 94558
I wrote about Elan several years ago. We became friends after that, and Elan remains one of my favorite wines in California. The Elliot-Smiths just make Cabernet from their own vineyard, sometimes only a few hundred cases in a year. They don't charge a fortune for a wine that can age 15 years and retains beautiful complexity.
2003 Elan Cabernet Sauvignon ($48)
The 2003 Elan Cabernet has a bit more of a chocolate profile than usual for these mountain grapes, and a bit more new oak. It's plush and full, yet retaining the complex herbal notes of sage and oregano that their vineyard shows, along with meaty rust and blueberries, tobacco and graphite. I think the 2003 Elan might be one of Patrick Elliot-Smith's best wines so far, like a cross between his monster 2000 and velvety 1999 vintages. Highly recommended.

Four Vines Winery
P.O. Box 120, Paso Robles, CA 93447
Notes in progress from Paso for Paso tasting - coming soon.

(Above: Mat Garretson in full expostulation at Passion for Paso)

Garretson Wine Company
2323 Tuley Ct., Ste. 110, Paso Robles, CA 93446
Notes in progress from Passion for Paso tasting - coming soon.

Goosecross Cellars
1119 State Lane, Yountville, CA 94599
I first tasted Goosecross about 10 years ago, and I liked the cleanly etched lines that their wines presented, bright and clean relative to other Napa valley floor wines. They have pushed into a riper and more oaky style, as perhaps the modern trends might dictate. Their prices have also kept up with the times. I tasted their recent Cabernet Sauvignon (2004 I believe, at $69) and found it to be well made but not standing out from the crowd, with good balance and a leathery profile, with tones of licorice and dusty oak, ripe and full with warm cassis fruit and balanced tight tannins that should resolve well with time. Not a bargain, but very well made.

Graeser Winery
255 Petrified Forest Road, Calistoga, CA 94515
Good news for Dick Graeser and his winery: the tasting room at his beautiful rustic old mountain estate is open again after several years' closure. His wines have as much quirky personality as he does, tough and leathery yet friendly and generous. A pleasant surprise this year was a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé ($16) made from grapes sourced in Hopland. It tastes fresh and seductive, with haunting cherry and rose hip perfume, begging for a salad with smoked salmon and feta cheese. I think Graeser's whites often surpass his reds (and I'm usually a red kinda guy.) His dry Semillon with its lemon custard richness, and his exquisite Chardonnay that walks the tightrope between buttery and bright, remain standouts for their varietal character. These are excellent food wines made in an individualistic style that defiantly steers away from the current trend of heavy extraction.

Lava Cap Winery
2221 Fruitridge Road, Placerville, CA 95667
Lava Cap surprised me this year with one of the best budget wines that I tasted at the show. Their $13 American River Red blends Bordeaux and Rhone red grapes with some zinfandel to create a chocolatey blue ball of flavor. With notes of blackberry, licorice, dark earth, chocolate, graphite and a rich lingering almost-sweet finish, it would find a happy home on my dinner table any day. Lava Cap's other wines tend towards big, slightly sweet and full bodied. This year I thought I noticed slightly drier finishes on some of the other wines tasted, less hints of residual sugar. That's a good thing as far as I'm concerned. These are always big wines with full extraction and high alcohol. (Sort-of the opposite of Graeser - see above.) Still one of the my favorite Gold Country wineries.

Martin Estate
P.O. Box 390, Rutherford, CA 94573
A favorite from Rutherford Dust has made their first appearance at Family Winemakers. A standout from the generic Rutherford profile, a mature and complex Cabernet that shows more herbaceous earthy notes without the dominating simplified oaky black cherry of its neighbors. I love the fact that Martin's wines don't feel manipulated nor contrived. They are expensive like their neighbors ($60 and $100), but among the few in this price range that feel like they deliver something unique for the money. Kudos.

(Above: Therese Martin -on right- making some excellent wines near Gilroy.)

Martin Ranch Winery
6675 Redwood Retreat Road, Gilroy, CA 95020
Not to be confused with Napa's Martin Estate nor with Dry Creek Valley's Martin Family, Martin Ranch is husband and wife Therese and Dan Martin on the benchlands east of Gilroy. Both Therese and Dan act as winemakers, but each focus on different wines in their lineup. Their wines vary in quality with some of them excellent, and I am pretty sure I like the wines that Therese makes the best. Two of the wines were a bit flawed, one with some VA and the other a bit vegetal, but the remaining two were excellent. I want to return to these wines with a fresh palate to find the strengths, because I remember better things from the Merlot (for example) than I tasted here. I will keep watching Martin Ranch closely because I think they have promise, especially Therese's wines, and I'm glad to see a new and high quality winery in the South Bay Area.

Mauritson Family Winery
2859 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448
I have always loved the Dry Creek appellation, and I have personally made Pinot Noir from the grapes that grow across the street from the Mauritson Winery building on Dry Creek Road. I was especially keen to taste their line of wines made from the recently acknowleged Rockpile appellation, above the Lake Sonoma dam at the north-west end of Dry Creek Valley. The Mauritson's ancesters grew grapes here over 100 years ago. Wow, these are tannic wines! I tasted Zinfandel and Petite Sirah from this aptly named region, and it tastes like every chunk of gravel from those steep vineyards has found its way into a grape. Luckily, the acidity in these wines is high enough that they should pull together into an interesting unity after a few years age. Hopefully the fruit profile has enough full body to survive as the other elements come together. Tough and interesting wines, I recommend them for their uniqueness.

Mount Eden Vineyards
22020 Mount Eden Road, Saratoga, CA
Mount Eden is located at the original Martin Ray winery, one of the first artisinal wineries in California dating back to 1942, just after the prohibition. Like Ridge Montebello and a handful of others, Mount Eden stands as a watermark of Santa Cruz Mountain winemaking, and their wines offer a textbook study in local character. Their Chardonnay shows firm acids, chalky minerals, hazelnut, green apple/honeydew, dry grass, lemon and some deep nutmeg notes from the oak. Despite full malolactic and long aging, this isn't one of those caramel popcorn creations. Mount Eden's '03 Pinot Noir got an unfair drubbing by a certain overrated wine magazine last year, and I still don't quite understand the problem. They make a great (and still slightly tight) Pinot Noir with spicy incense overtones along with strawberry/brambles, with black olives and an almost rusty brooding character. Classic mountain wine.

Opolo Vineyards
7110 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles, CA 93446
Notes in progress, from Passion for Paso - coming soon.

(Above: Barabara and jim Richards of Paloma, with their giant Merlot)

Paloma Vineyard
4013 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA 94574
Barbara and Jim Richards make only the Merlot that they grow on their own Spring Mountain estate, and they learned their craft from the Spring Mountain Master, Bob Foley, who they hired for several years as their winemaker. They still maintain the Foley magic even without him, walking the razor edge between full ripeness and good balance, with chocolate and black cherry overtones, structured tannins and sweet oak. They somehow avoid the flabby cooked character that very ripe Merlot can exhibit. Sure, it's expensive (about $50) but so seductive.

Pisoni Vineyards & Winery
P.O. Box 908, Gonzales, CA 93926
I try very hard to avoid superlatives in my writing, like "the best Pinot Noir of the show" and such, because I didn't taste every Pinot Noir at the show. But I'm hard pressed to avoid superlatives when it comes to Gary Pisoni's vineyards. I think I can say fairly that some of the best Pinot in California comes from grapes that Gary grows on the west benchlands of the Salinas valley. Gary's son Jeff is the winemaker for Pisoni's own label (they also sell their grapes to top makers elsewhere) and he's hitting these wines out of the park. Pisoni Pinot Noir isn't cheap ($65) but it delivers so much flavor that everybody sits up and takes notice. If the line in front of the Pisoni table tells anything, I'm not alone in my praise. I wish I had more time at the tasting to pull apart the rich earthy complexity of this ripe wine, but quick impressions include black cherry and licorice, milk chocolate, cola, black pepper, raspberry leaves, clay and loamy dark earth. Oak is in balance with that French Medium+ toast clove-vanilla-cinnamon profile. Suffice to say that this is not a "Burgundian" Pinot Noir, but rather a case study in what makes California wines so amazing. It's yummy.

Pride Mountain Vineyards
4026 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA 94574
Did I mention Robert Foley? Corte Riva and Paloma also benefit from his tutelage, among several other great Napa mountain wines. When you taste Foley's creations, you understand why he is such a fanatic in the vineyard. This intense ripeness combined with balance and structure only comes from obsessive attention to detail while growing and harvesting the grapes. At the summit of Spring Mountain in the Mayacamas range, the soil at Pride Vineyard combines small lots of chalky ocean upthrust, portions of black volcanic basalt, and even some quartz tossed in from some ancient earth movement. Foley has mapped out every soil break, and examined the ripeness patterns of every vine. The grapes get picked by hand over many separate passes, vine by vine as the grapes ripen, and the lots ferment and age separately until final blending. The resulting wines walk that razor edge between velvet and leather - a sexy combination, a balancing act among huge flavors. This is a rare creation, worthy of the wines' minor cult status and delivering a regular dose of brilliance. These aren't "difficult" intellectual wines - they are sensual wines.

501 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Ste. A, Los Gatos, CA 95030
I can't really review Jeff Ritchey's wines with any neutrality. Jeff is a friend, and I have helped him bottle a few of his wines in past years. He has helped steward some award winning vintages for Gundlach Bundschu and Clos le Chance, and I witnessed him pull Picchetti up from mediocrity to a quality Montebello Road winery. He is also currently boosting the reputation for San Saba (seek out their Pinot Noir!) and helping another startup, Blue Cellars. During my visits to his various haunts, I have tasted grapes in his vats that I thought would prove challenging, only to taste a finished product sometime later that surprised me by the high quality result. Sensorium is Jeff's own label, with his father Lee and family friend John Zasio as partners. They are sourcing some of the best grapes that Jeff has found while making wines for others, and the results are very good. I picture Jeff's approach as an attempt to balance the natural flavors of the vineyard with a palate that leans towards full-bodied yet complex wiines, in the ripe California style. At this year's Family tasting, Jeff snuck me a taste of his Viognier that has already sold out ($35 - sadly gone.) It was one of the best Viogniers of the day, with intense floral profile of peach/apricot, fresh honey and clover blossoms, and sexy tropical starfruit-jasmine-honeysuckle overtones. After all that sweet prelude, the palate feels smooth yet crisp, without residual sugars. It shows a hint of the smokey finish one expects in a Viognier, but not bitter. Look for future vintages of this Viognier, when Jeff can get more grapes. As I mentioned up top, last year Jeff called together a sortie of his wine tasting friends for a blind tasting, where he snuck in both of his 2003 Santa Cruz and Napa Cabernet Sauvignons, alongside unlabeled top Napa wines including Mt. Veeder and some others above $50. We unknowingly voted his two Cabernets into the top 4 among a dozen anonymous wines; and at $35-ish each, his Cabs show great value in this context.

Sullivan Vineyards
1090 Galleron Road, Rutherford, CA 94573
I like Sullivan because they strike me as a holdout to a more tight and ageworthy style of winemaking. These aren't lush and supple, "drink-now" wines, but rather more elegant and even intense at this young age. These wines invite cellaring for the possibility of complex and more studious interest in future years. For example, their 2004 Coeur de Vigne red Meritage blend (rather pricey at $90) shows a slighty herbal and dark earthy nose hinting of crushed blackberry leaves, flavors of raspberry-cassis, tar, black olive, mint and brambles with lingering strong leathery tannins. Not a soon-to-quaff overripe Napa Cab, I think this well-made wine could become beautiful in five or ten years. For the price, it's not my favorite, but I respect its intense character. The $15 Pink Ink Rosé is pretty darned good too.

(Above: Very cool new glass stoppers at Surh Luchtel - watch for these!)

Surh Luchtel Cellars
P.O. Box 2486, Napa CA 94558
I must confess that I was trying to become acquainted with the gregarious Gary Luchtel, but he was so busy greeting his industry friends that I couldn't get a word in edgewise. Obviously I need to get to know him better. He has a great sense of balance and structure in his small-batch wines, easy to drink and hard to describe, light in profile, never cloying. Sourcing grapes from all over NorCal (Napa, Sonoma, Central Coast) with Zin, Pinot, Viognier, Cab and Syrah, It's hard to pin down a single character other than very well-made wines with a sense of generous good balance, always veering away from overripe.
2005 Viognier ($20)
In a very light and airy style, smooth and bright, with tropical starfruit notes and some pink grapefruit, orange blossoms, some bitterness at the finish typical of the variety.
2004 Syrah, Page Nord Vineyard Napa ($34)
Black fruit nose with blueberries and rust, deep chocolate and gravelly minerals on the palate, not smokey but very earthy and dark, yet smoothing out into a sweet black licorice and blackberry finish. This is a lovely and intense wine, without heavy oak treatment, just huge ripe supple fruit.
2004 Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($29)
A high-alcohol Zin that doesn't smell as hot as many of those in its class. Showing excellent balance and dark earthiness, with coffee, chocolate and raspberry notes in the fragrance and the palate. Finishing dry and not too tannic, with the fruit showing through in an almost brooding rather than jammy character. I like this.
2004 Mosaique Meritage, Napa Valley ($29)
56% Merlot, 34% Cab Franc, 5% Cab Sauv, 5% Malbec. Despite the St. Emillion-style blend heavy on the Merlot, this red blend shows quite a lot of the typical Cabernet characters of green pepper and tobacco (probably expressed from the Merlot), with more classic Napa valley chocolate and black cherry filling in underneath, along with some chalky minerality and graphite. A slightly tight cranberry character adds some pinch to the palate, and leathery tannins linger in balance with the brightness. Not my favorite from this winery, but interesting and complex. Needs time.

Tablas Creek
9339 Adelaida Road, Pao Robles, CA 93446
I keep saying good things about Tablas Creek because I think their wines stand out from the pack in California - not immediately accessible sometimes, and with an old-world crispness and light body. In fact, I am coming to feel that Tablas' white wines surpass their reds for intrigue and food-freindliness. I took advantage of the Passion for Paso tasting two weeks after Family WInemakers to taste their recent wines more carefully, due to inundation at the big event. These notes come from the Paso event. Interestingly, Tablas Creek seems to be moving away from their Franco-purist stance of selling only varietal blends, as they now show a wide range of rare and unique single varietal wines from lesser known grapes. For a wine geek, these bottlings provide a great chance to study individual character between grapes, especially as Tablas' style tends towards low oak and minimal intervention.
2004 Esprit de Beaucastel ($45)
Tablas' flagship red wine, a Mourvedre-heavy Chateuneuf style blend that always shows better after several years of aging. Currently exhibiting bright mineral notes from its mountainous chalky soil, oceanic salty smells, black pepper, licorice, bright black cherry.
2005 Cotes de Tablas ($24)
An excellent half-priced companion to the Esprit, more generous when it's young but also improves in the cellar for a few years. This new release shows deep coffee notes with licorice and cherry, ripe but bright fruit on the palate with a slightly peppery finish, good acidity, low oak, fresh yet smooth.
2005 Counnoise ($27)
One of Tablas' increasing and unusual single-variety bottlings, showing dark licorice and spice but with an open-bodied palate, a bit like a Grenache without the floral rose-petal overtones in the nose that Grenache tends to show.
2006 Vermentino ($?)
A very unusual white grape that shows great complexity and a bright clean profile. Chalk and salt come first on the nose, with tropical pineapple and citrus-starfruit filling out the middle, with the palate full of lemony clarity, ending in lemon & dust. Food friendly.
2006 Rosé ($27)
Always among my favorite rosés around, typically showing fragrances of strawberry and melon, this year tilted slightly toward earthier tones with dry grasses and licorice deep down inside. A pink wine for red wine lovers. One of very few rosés that might be worth this price.

(Above: Twisted Oak & Rubber Chickens)

Twisted Oak
4280 Red Hill Road, Vallecito, CA 95251
Twisted Oak is a new winery that I've wanted to visit ever since passing their vineyard along Highway 4 in the gold country, heading up to my annual backpacking trips in the Sierras. I'm quite fond of the wines from nearby Chatom, so I've had high hopes. I also admit I was charmed by their table at Family Winemakers festooned with rubber chickens. No snobbery here. Better yet, these are excellent wines. I jotted brief notes for their Syrah, which had a full smooth mouth feel, balanced acidity next to its rich ripe fruit, with almost none of the smokey sulfurous or bacon-like qualities that typify some Syrah. (I don't mind those qualities, personally.) The full body hints at sweetness, but the finish is dry. People who like big wines but prefer to avoid the funk of many Syrahs should appreciate this effort. Twisted Oak's Petite Sirah shows the leathery side of this grape, with full-bodied black fruit and lingering tannins, dark and rich, somewhat brooding. With ripe balanced wines showing excellent acid backbone, Twisted Oak should do quite well.

Vihuela Winery
995 El Palomar, Templeton, CA 93465
New wineries keep popping up in Paso Robles, and many of them are excellent. I like what I tasted at Vihuela, especially their $22 Syrah, aged Rhone-style in large vats to avoid the oak characters that can sometimes overpower this grape. I like low-oak Syrah because the grape itself often offers enough sweet complexity, and it seems prone to pulling too much vanilla-caramel sweet overtones from the oak, which can make the wine cloying. Instead, this Syrah exhibits bright fresh blueberry and blackberry character, with a clean finish that begs for a hunk of meat. Their Cabernet has the characteristic dark blue-black tar and licorice fruit prevalent in Paso, with low tannins and a spicy clove finish from the oak. Their Reserve Cabernet also shows surprisingly low tannin for a reserve, but higher acidity and a slightly more detailed character than the non-reserve.

Vina Robles
P.O. Box 699, Paso Robles, CA 93447
I've been watching Vina Robles very closely for the last few years, as their wines keep getting better, and they seem to have made a statement this year on the price-to-performance scale. They have become one of my favorite wineries in Paso Robles, and at a rather accessible range of prices. Their wines tend towards a smooth rich profile while maintaining excellent structure and complexity.
2003 Syrah Estate ($16)
The new release is not as smokey as last year, with meat and blueberry in the nose, black licorice and some dusty minerality. Oak is subtle but present, with smooth caramel notes in the finish. Low tannin, velvety yet not overripe. An excellent value.
2004 Petite Sirah, Jardine Vineyard ($26)
More smokey than the Syrah, with some brambly blackberry qualities, and a hint of tannic bitterness on the palate, showing up mostly in the finish. The tannins will probably resolve into added complexity in a couple years, with their almost woody-cocoa qualities at this point, as opposed to the chewey gravel or leather that one often finds at the finish of tougher Petite Sirahs.
2005 Chardonnay ($14)
I'm very happy that more people are making Chardonnay in this lighter un-oaked style. With no malolactic secondary fermentation, this Chardonnay shows bright green apple and spice fragrances, with some lemony tones and a hint of minerals and tropical blossoms.
2005 Red4, Huerhuero Vineyard ($13)
66% Syrah, 25% Petite Sirah, 7% Touriga, 2% Tannat. One of my favorite budget red wines of the day. I'm guessing this is where Vina Robles put their smokier batches of Syrah, since this nose reminds me more of their 2002 Estate Syrah, with bacon and dark rubbery tones, balanced by bright blueberry and a shadow of brooding licorice. The Portuguese varietals aren't clearly evident, but might be adding a tiny tannic backbone and some dark chocolate to the blend. The wine has an open feel on the palate, not lingering nor saturated but very tasty. I plan to buy some for myself.

Vineyard 7 & 8 (at Viader)
4028 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA 94574
I love Spring Mountain wines, although they do get pricey. 7&8's $50 Chardonnay walks the line between the bright and the buttery, with 30% malolactic and some new oak lending some sweet toastiness to green-apple and hints of hazelnuts. Not quite like apple strudel, more like a fresh lemon-apple custard tartlet. Their $90 Cabernet Sauvignon is beautiful - as it should be at this price. It has full meaty fragrances, rust and cassis, hints of leather, chocolate, pepper and more. Tannins are smooth and resolved in the finish, not at all tough. This doesn't need cellaring to enjoy, just a healthy budget.

Addendum: Passion for Paso

(Above: St. Claire Hotel tasting room for Passion for Paso, August 30, 2007)

Appearing at Passion for Paso, but not at Family Winemakers:

Adelaida Cellars
5805 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles, CA 93446
Notes in progress - coming soon.

Chateau Margene
4385 La Panza Road, Creston, CA 93432
Notes in progress - coming soon.

RN Estate Vineyard & Winery
7986 North River Road, Paso Robles, CA 93446
Notes in progress - coming soon.

Stay tuned for new updates as time allows. - RR


Posted December 2006

"A Passion for Paso" tasting
San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose CA.
August 24, 2006

A new year for this Paso Robles wine showcase. Some exceptionally good wines, as usual, among a few that seemed a bit too soft for my tastes. I'll focus on my favorites. The tasting began with a panel dicussion for trade and media, with owners from Peachy Canyon and Viña Robles among others. (See photo.) The panelists pointed out how the different soil types and weather conditions in the region lend themselves to a wide range of varietals. The main split occurs between east and west sides. The east side offers warmer conditions and flatter alluvial soils, helpful for acheiving full maturity in grape varietals that require higher heat and ripen slowly. The west side climbs up the Adelaida foothills and over the mountains that separate Paso Robles from cold coastal fogs. The west-side grapes have more acidity and benefit from chalky mineral soils.


Cass Winery 

2004 Cass Rockin’ One ($34)
Despite being slightly put off by the name and the relatively high price, I must say that this Rhone blend  of 90% Grenache and 10% Syrah impressed me with its warm clean fruit profile of fresh cherries, licorice and mint. Excellent and well structured.

2005 Cass Roussanne ($24)
Fragrances of bubblegum and pineapple, with undertones of lemon and cream. Bright, floral and fresh. 

2005 Cass Roussanne Late Harvest ($29)
An unctuous wine with heavy notes of botrytis (the noble rot that sets the flavors for the great Sauternes and Rieslings, with its distinctive fragrances reminiscent of rubber bands.) Alongside the distinctive Botrytis smells, this sweet wine offers layers of strawberry and cooked pineapple, guava and apricot. A rich, sweet and delicious dessert wine.


In the past I have criticized some of Justin’s wines for a certain oversaturated “cooked” quality that I don’t care for, although I sometimes find that same quality in wines that have rated very high scores in the trade. However, at this tasting, Justin’s wines showed a much fresher profile: dark, ripe and saturated but not cooked (well, except for the Cabernet, which still had some of that soft overripe flavor…) If I seem to come down a bit hard on Justin, that’s because I feel their wines have very high potential, and I want to see this excellent vineyard make the best wines they can make.

2005 Justin Sauvignon Blanc ($14)
Chalky, creamy lemon custard fragrances with a bright clear lemony palate. Good acidity and ripe attractive flavors.

2005 Justin Chardonnay ($16)
Made in a crisp style, with just enough oak to give some complexity. Aromas of lemon grass and hazelnuts give way to light and rich flavors of baked apples, lemon-lime and butterscotch. Well-made and refreshing.

2004 Justin Syrah ($25)
Intense clean aromas of blueberry, rust, clay and mint, with flavors of blackberry, blueberry, chocolate, dry leaves, and a leathery finish with clove spices. My notes show a smiley face next to this one.

2004 Justin Cabernet Sauvignon ($25)
The only wine of this group that showed the sort of cooked oxidized odors that I sometimes criticize Justin for, but otherwise full bodied, with a nose reminiscent of strawberry jam. Excellent flavors of red cherry fruit, black licorice, chocolate, coffee and dry leaves, with sweet tannins at the end resembling strawberry seeds. This wine shows very ripe warm qualities that make it quite inviting, although not exactly refreshing.

2004 Justin Tempranillo ($28)
Rather big profile for a Tempranillo, with fragrances of espresso bean and open ripe palate with minty qualities, dark earthy notes like black coffee and cocoa.

2005 Justin Obtuse ($26)
A late harvest dessert wine resembling port, with none of the oxidized qualities, and not overly sweet. Fragrances show raisins, grape seeds, mint and earthy soil, with balanced sweet flavors of figs, plums, berries, earth and black pepper, with sizeable tannins on the end. (18% alc., 7.5% sugar)


Making some of my favorite wines in all of California, it’s hard for me not to gush about L’Aventure. These big yet balanced ripe wines can get expensive, but they’re among the few wines around that seem to deliver the price all the way through from the bottle to the glass and onto the palate. I remain a fan.

2003 L’Aventure Optimus ($45)
An idiosyncratic blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petite Verdot. Mineral nose with leather, elegant black earthy qualities meshed with blueberry fruit. Palate shows characteristic anise, chocolate, leather, blueberry, blackberry, with dry open cleansing tannins growing coffee-like without implying the cooked qualities that such ripe flavors might denote.

2004 L’Aventure Estate Cuvée ($75)
The flagship for L’Aventure, again with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petite Verdot. Aromas of black liquorice, coffee, blackberry, with rich mineral undertones. Huge chocolaty palate with cassis and espresso bean, black olive, with a beautifully dry, rich and mouth filling texture. A total drinker now, it tastes like it could also age well for several years… but it doesn’t require ageing to enjoy.

2005 L’Aventure Roussane ($25)
Aged 50% in stainless steel and 50% in water bent (un-toasted) oak, this fresh and complex white wine shows tropical mineral and floral notes, star jasmine and clover blossoms. Flavors of pear, peach, chalk and mint, with hints of sweat and cheese. (Very French!)


Seated on the coastal side of the same mountain as Tablas Creek and Justin Vineyards, Opolo is positioned in a perfect Rhone style growing location. I want to love this winery, but at this tasting I finally figured out why I have some reservations. Almost all of their wines seem to have trace amounts of residual sugar. This doesn’t pose a problem to most people, but I find that it makes their wines a bit heavy, and possibly not as well suited for pairing with food. Ironically, this trace of sugar (perhaps only a few tenths of a percent) can help win big scores at wine competitions while also rendering a wine less suitable for food pairing. These are well-made wines, so I recommend you try for yourself.

2005 Opolo Pinot Grigio ($22)
Nose shows lemon and juniper, peach pits, chalk and bubblegum. Pineapple fills the mouth in a residual spicy sweetness. (.5% residual sugar)

2005 Opolo Viognier ($22)
Chalky soils, lemon, bubblegum and ripe pit fruit (apricots, peaches) fill the nose and palate, with a lingering sweetness.  (.5 % residual sugar)

2004 Opolo Grenache ($24)
12% Syrah blended into this Grenache didn’t darken its light ruby translucence. Nose of blackberry, coffee, licorice, and spicy oak characters. The palate shows flavors deeper than the color: black pepper and sweet spices, black cherries, coffee and cinnamon. Very nice.

2004 Opolo Pinot Noir ($26)
The quiet dusty nose slowly builds into rich candied cinnamon and brown sugar oak sweetness. The sweet profile continues on the palate, with round rich fruit and oak spices, finishing in floral herbal anise flavors

2003 Opolo Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)
Rich and sweaty nose, with sweet aromas of cherry cider and black licorice. The flavors show light lingering fruit with soft tannins, not a huge structure, drink soon and enjoy the ripe fruit. (14.9% alc.)

2003 Opolo Zinfandel ($30)
Explosive fragrances of raspberry fruit, white pepper (alcohol heat) strawberry and plum. This profile seems like a prototype of big huge California Zin. Jammy flavors expose some residual sugar, with a big attack at the front of the palate and a receding finish (the flavors might be gettting dissipated by the alcohol, which is 16.6%.)

2003 Opolo Rhapsody ($45)
40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. A Bordeaux style blend, well constructed, showing characteristic deep and rich profile, an elegant complex nose with lightness and oak complexity, dark red fruit flavors with some crispness adding to a lightness in the palate. Although this may be my favorite Opolo of the rank, I feel it’s a bit expensive.


Orchid Hill
This winery is a new discovery for me. I liked what they were pouring and I look forward to becoming more familiar with these excellent wines.

2005 Orchid Hill Viognier ($21)
A rich and delicious wine, packed full of flavor. Fragrances of flowers, taffy, honey and chalk burst out of the glass, followed by a palate of ripe pit fruits, peaches and lemons, with a long lingering floral finish hinted with pine.

2004 Orchid Hill Pinot Noir ($27)
Deep dark fragrances of black olive, minerals, blueberry and rust. A surprisingly tannic texture in the mouth, hints of leather along with red cherries, with somewhat astringent finish.

2004 Orchid Hill Zinfandel ($24)
The fragrances start quietly, with dusty black pepper, raspberry, winter spices and gravelly minerals. The flavors beautifully express Zinfandel’s personality, with jammy strawberry, rich milk chocolate underpinnings, earthy spices, smooth and not overly tannic. Yummy.

2002 Orchid Hill Syrah ($25)
A well-made austere Syrah profile, with refreshing cool weather characteristics of dark fruit, brambles and crushed twigs, chocolate, rose petals, oceanic smells and a touch of sulfur compounds resembling smoked trout. The palate is generous, with chocolate mint, green olives, earthy and floral components, and a tough tannic finish.


Robert Hall
This winery has been growing and getting widely distributed. I have been fond of Robert Hall’s wines and they remain solid, if somewhat standardized.

2003 Robert Hall Meritage ($30)
Nose of milk chocolate, black cherry, licorice. Smooth round palate with black cherry, herbal grassy hints. Low tannin and easy to drink.

2004 Robert Hall Syrah ($14)
A good value, with smooth chocolate and dark berry nose, deep and hinting at sweet tones, a bit simple. The palate delivers drier flavors than the nose, minty and leafy.

2004 Robert Hall Merlot ($14)
Smells resemble Hershey’s syrup and blackberry brambles, dry leaves and sweet oregano. The mouth-feel is light but with excellent clear red fruit flavors.

2003 Robert Hall Port ($25)
A well made and fairly priced, with beautiful dry aromas of dusty chocolate and old book leather. Light raisin palate with chocolate and cherry tones, not too sweet. Very attractive.


Another new winery for me, priced quite fairly. The winemaker tends more to sweet wines than dry, and a few of Rotta’s dessert wines are excellent.

2004 Rotta Chardonnay ($14)
Rich fragrances of nutmeg, apple and pear.Palate is smooth, nutty and lingering with warm ripe fruit.

2005 Rotta Zinfandel Rosé ($10)
Not a serious wine, quite sweet with 4% residual sugar, nose of bubblegum and roses.

2004 Rotta Merlot ($16)
Soft but not cloying profile with brambly blackberry, coffee and wet road tar. Palate shows ripe black cherry, brambles, clay loam, chocolate and sweet coffee.

2003 Rotta Cabernet Franc ($22)
Bright complex nose of dusty rose, leather, red cherry and minerals. Light palate shows excellent warm weather earthiness, dry grass, bright red cherry and currants. Good winemaking here.

2003 Rotta Cabernet Sauvignon ($14)
Now here’s one of the better values of the whole tasting. Red cherry and cassis aromas with mint, iodine, cigar box and milk chocolate. The palate is somewhat simple, with smooth red cherry fruit like Red-vines licorice, with a firm minty-leathery tannic finish.

2003 Rotta Estate Zinfandel ($27)
This is an excellent full bodied Zin, which they tell me comes from a dry farmed vineyard with head pruned old vines that yield only 1.5 tons per acre. A prototypical nose, bright and deep, with earthy strawberry and black pepper. Flavors of chocolate and raspberry jam, mint, with a well structured dry finish. (15.5% alc.)

2005 Rotta Muscat Canelli ($10)
Floral sweet fragrances of peach pits and various pit fruits, gravel, oranges or even Tang powder. There’s a lot of sugar remaining in this wine, with ripe peach flavors, hints of strawberry.

2004 Rotta Zinfndel Port ($30)
Leafy soft aromas with black fruit and licorice, big in the mouth and very sweet, with dark tones and a raisiny finish. A bit overpriced. (19% alc.)

2002 Rotta Dessert Sherry ($20)
Wow. This intense dessert wine delivers huge flavors. It smells more like cognac than sherry, with immense nutty sweet oak perfumes, resembling candied walnuts. Flavors of orange oil, pecans, vanilla, toffee, lingering into a praline finish. Amazingly it isn’t overly sweet nor too heavy. Excellent.


Stacked Stone
I don't like to be harsh on any winery, especially when the people are so friendly. Yet, this year I found the same problems with Stacked Stone’s wines that I tasted last year. Many of their wines smell oxidized, cooked, overly soft. Last year I attributed the problem to the hot weather, but this year’s tasting was indoors. The Sauvignon Blanc is the only wine I can recommend below.

2003 Stacked Stone Sauvignon Blanc
Creamy fragrances including lemon and chalk. Smooth and balanced lemon custard flavors with hints of buttered popcorn (ML?). Round and attractive.

2003 Stacked Stone Chardonnay
Very oxidized. Not good.

2003 Stacked Stone Syrah
Blueberry and leather, also cooked smells.

2003 Stacked Stone Merlot
Brambly blackberry jam, soft, with cooked smells. Oxidized.


Treanna / Liberty School / Austin Hope
Austin Hope is the winemaker for Treanna and its budget second label, Liberty School. I’ll include Hope’s own label here as well, as they were poured side by side.

2004 Liberty School Chardonnay ($13)
Nose of cooked apples and pears, rather sweet and a bit oxidized. Soft simple warm palate resembling apple pie.  I prefer a more fresh crisp profile.

2004 Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon ($14)
Slightly raisiny nose, with an almost Italian profile of loamy earth or worm castings, with cinnamon and cloves from the oak. Simple but very pleasant flavors, not too soft nor cooked tasting, well balanced for a budget Cabernet.

2004 Liberty School Syrah ($13)
A refreshingly light and clean style of Syrah, yet with the dark undertones one would expect. Fresh minty nose with dried rose petals and blueberry, with a balanced light blueberry palate and a dry but not tannic finish. A good value.

2003 Treanna White (Mersoleil) ($25)
Sourced from the exceptional Mersoleil vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands near Monterey, this blend of 66% Viognier and 34% Marsanne delivers one of the most satisfyingly floral white wines of the day. A bountiful fresh nose of ripe apricots and other pit fruits, clover honey and citrus jelly. Flavors echo apricots and lemon custard, nuts and taffy-like roundness, perhaps a hint of residual sugar leaves behind a soft roundness in the mouth, yet with good acidity.

2003 Treanna Red ($52)
An excellent full flavored dark red wine, offering a minty meaty nose with fresh notes hinting at clean acid balance. Chocolate, licorice, roasted coffee beans, blueberry fruit with bright cherry finish, balanced and smooth with very soft tannins at the end. A bit pricey.

2003 Austin Hope Westside White ($18)
50% Roussanne, 45% Viognier, 5% Grenache Blanc. At first, a hint of juniper jumps out of the nose (which shares some fragrance chemistry with honey and cat pee, oddly enough) then the perfumes resolve toward lichi and pineapple, with fresh tropical notes, crisp and bright. Palate shows some of the musty depth of a white wine aged in neutral oak, with rich nutmeg and apple juice flavors. 

2003 Austin Hope Roussanne ($37)
A very ripe and opulent white wine, with a whopping 15% alc. and .4% residual sugar. Warm buttery nose resembles pineapple upside down cake, vanilla, nutmeg, bubblegum. Rich tropical fruits and ample glycerin-like texture in the mouth. Supple. Pair with strong cheese for dessert, or perhaps with paté as an opening course.

2003 Austin Hope Westside Red ($18)
40% Syrah, 40% Mourvedre, 20% Grenache. Very soft raisiny nose with cinnamon and dark clay, licorice and coffee. Dry woody palate with cherry fruit, a hint of un-integrated tartaric acid on the finish.

2003 Austin Hope Syrah Family Vineyard ($47)
Beautiful nose of warm cinnamon and caramel, rose petals, chocolate mint and blueberries. A fair amount of oak makes the flavors a bit sweet and heavy, but this should resolve in a year or two to create a lush big dark spicy treat.


Tablas Creek
One of my personal favorites, and a flagship winery on the central coast. Tablas Creek continues to make clean refreshing wines, well structured but never over-stuffed.

2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc
Creamy fragrances interlaced with chalky minerals, tropical hints of mango and lemon meringue pie along with grapefruit and nutmeg lingering in the dry finish.

2004 Rosé
Always among the most complex rosés around, this doesn't disappoint, with nose of strawberry and orange blossom, perhaps a hint of almonds. Smooth and round in the mouth, full and balanced with melon and strawberry notes, a viscous texture.

2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge
Bright red cherry, black peppercorns, black licorice, roses and violets. Open crisp lightly textured palate, soft peppery tannins. This wine typically improves with age, and it’s still quite young.


Vina Robles
 Last year, I criticized some of Vina Robles' wines because they seemed overly soft and a bit oxidized, as if they had suffered some storage problems; although they clearly showed the promise of something great. Well, this year Vina Robles shined as one of the best wineries, with good values, at the tasting.

2002 Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon Estate ($19)
Perhaps one of the best value wines tasted today, with rich and deep fragrances of coffee, chocolate, licorice and ripe black cherries. The palate delivers inky black fruit, blueberries, finishing in minty but rounded big tannins and a tar-like blackness of flavors. The structure is elegant and open in the mouth yet showing deep earthy fruit. Excellent. 

2002 Vina Robles Syrah Huerhuero Vineyard, Pleasant Valley ($16)
Smokey nose offering the classic syrah overtones of wild game, bacon fat, charcoal and other brooding and slightly reductive qualities. A surprisingly light body with the feel of black coffee, flavors of smoke and leather on the finish with caramel oak. Austere in a good way, and very interesting.

2004 Vina Robles Signature (pre-release) ($29)
72% Petit Verdot, 28% Syrah. One of those atypical new-world blends of Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, showing the unique ways that these fruits express themselves in the generous Paso Robles climate. Petit Verdot usually appears as a blending grape because of its normally gravelly rough tannins; a tiny bit can add backbone to otherwise unstructured blends. Here the grape expresses its softer side, ripe and smooth. At this young age, the wine has a quiet nose, with coffee, cherries and mint. The palate is smooth and round, growing into black licorice and tar, with lingering textured tannins. This is a big yet elegant, attractive wine.


Posted August 24, 2006

Rutherford Dust Society Tasting Notes

Every year, the wineries of Napa's Rutherford appellation host a trade tasting to show off their recent releases. The Rutherford Dust Society tasting includes some of the more high-end wines in Napa, and offers a benchmark for each vintage of the valley's "Big Cabs." It's easy to get saturated by tannin and oak at these events, and most of the subtleties of these wines get lost amidst the crowding. But then some would argue that many of these wines aren't subtle. A generic profile of black cherries, tobacco, leather and chocolate becomes apparent throughout all of these Cabernets, so I personally tend to notice wines that show something different. Since many of these wines cost over $50, I also give special attention to wineries willing to charge less.

Rutherford Dust, July 2006

Overall, I felt that more of the wines this year stood out as excellent, with better balance between fruit, tannin, acidity and oak, fewer over-oaked wines, and almost no overpriced duds. My personal favorites included Staglin, Fountainhead, Quintessa and Martin Estate. A few of the wineries showed off a library Cabernet at its prime, such as Heitz's 1992 Trailside which impressed as usual.

An odd difference from previous year's Dust, the glasses provided by Rubicon Estate were taller, with straighter sides, and actually made it a bit harder to discern subtleties in the nose. I felt that my notes were not as detailed as before, perhaps for this or other reasons.

Beaulieu Vineyard

2002 BV Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 337
This Bordeaux clone often shows the more black-fruit and leather side of Cabernet, in true form here with nose of liquorice and tar, blueberry, and dark loam. Lingering tannins stay just short of overpowering the fruit.

2002 BV Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 6
Leathery red cherry and cassis nose, with a palate completely overtaken by tannin. Scrape this one off your teeth with a putty knife and move on. Should be reserved for blending into something flabby to create some balance.

2002 BV Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 4
The opposite side of clone 6, with round, smooth velvety fruit, chocolate and an oily rich mouth feel. Big tannins don't overpower. This would blend well with Clone 6.

2003 BV Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford ($16 street price)
A soft floral nose like milk-chocolate covered rose petals, or perhaps a distant draft of Hershey's syrup. Light open red cherry palate without the fullness of the pricier wines in the room, and a soft herbal finish. Still a good value food wine for the price.

2003 BV Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour ($100)
This early release shows smoother tannins than years past, with chocolate and creme de cassis nose, rich layers of leather and liquorice, which should expose some dust and deeper layers over the next five years or so.

Conn Creek Cellars

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon , Hozhoni Vineyard ($45)
Always a strong performer for the price at the Dust tasting, this year Conn's Cab is still quiet in the glass, with subdued fragrances of balanced red fruit. On the palate this offers rich, balanced oily red cherry-berry with a smooth chocolatey ending. Not a big tough wine, more on the sensuous side.

El Molino

2003 Pinot Noir ($57)
A satisfying but expensive, spicy bright Pinot, with enough stuffing to hold its own in this context of Big Cabs. Flavors of rich earthy red cherry fruit, touches of strawberry, liquorice and duff, but in a framework of crisp acidity and fragrances hinting at sandalwood. Excellent.

2004 Chardonnay ($47)
Avoiding Malolactic to retain the crisp apple profile, this clean tasting Chard is nevertheless rich and nutty, with warm butterscotch tones from 50% new French oak. Good but expensive compared to other Chardonnays with similar character.

Elyse Winery

Elyse made some of the more balanced and food-friendly wines of this year's tasting. A lighter and more elegant style than many others in the appellation, I liked the clean spicy quality that ran through these wines.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Tietjen Vineyard ($65)
Spicy and fresh, with a nose of bright cherry and black pepper. Hint of brambly berries fill the mouth. Pair with a rare pepper steak.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli Vineyard ($65)
Showing more chocolate and liquorice than the Tietjen, with rich dark fruit and a burlwood finish dusted in cinnamon oak. A more masculine profile.

2004 Zinfandel Morisoli Vineyard ($37)
Brightly flavored strawberry covered in dry chocolate and black pepper, with a crush of some brambly leaves. Fat rounded chocolatey palate with a spicy tannic finish. A big yummy beast.

2004 Petite Sirah Wood Vineyard, Rutherford ($37)
Sweet oak profile shows a bit of a heavy hand, with nose of smoke and caramel, butterscotch, with a rich dark toasted quality around strawberry fruit. The tannins overtake the palate almost immediately, but the ripe fruit is so full as to put these huge flavors in balance, like boulders on a seesaw. A standout wine today for its hugeness and fair price, perhaps a bit over-oaked.

Fleury Winery

2004 Merlot Rutherford Estate
intense brambly blackberries with chocolate and other red berries. Black pepper and big tannins fill the palate

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Estate
Warm and spicy with black pepper, soft and smooth on the palate at first, but then the tannins start to grow toward the back of the mouth and get almost overpowering in the end.

Fountainhead Cellars

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon ($45)
Lighter than the '04 barrel sample below, showing elegance and refinement. Peppery nose hints at a more tannic profile than it shows on the palate, as a floral (violet) quality with strawberry/raspberry fruit rounds out the fragrances. A richly textured mouth feel finishes smoothly. Very inviting. Good value in context with this tasting.

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli-Borges Vineyard ($45)
This barrel sample shows riper heavier character than the '03, chocolate and tar with sweet cherry-cassis liquer filling the nose and mouth, and a rich milk chocolate finish.

Frank Family Vineyards

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve ($70)
Pointed aromas of black liquorice and mint within red cherry/cassis, gravel dust and oceanic smells. A salty mineral sensation accompanies red and black fruit in the palate, along with more austere leathery dusty tannins, which increase toward the back of the mouth.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve ($70)
Differing from the 2001 with more blackberry fruit, peppery spice and somewhat astringent tannins that impart a coarse texture in the mouth, almost like cork taint but without the chlorine smells.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve ($70)
Tannins are more in control than the '02, with nose of strawberry, pepper and dust, a fruity blackberry and chocolate palate. Should develop nicely over time.

Freemark Abbey Winery

1991 Cabernet Sauvignon Bosché Estate, Rutherford
Showing more effects from age than the '92 Heitz Trailside described below, this has a delicate dusty nose, oily tones of wet tarmac and Red-Vines liquorice, with some asparagus and mustiness. Smooth and open palate, with just a hint of stuffing left.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Bosché Estate, Rutherford
Austere smells of a dusty street in the rain, a library with pipe smoke and old books. Smooth leathery tannins. In fact, quite a bit like a younger version of the '91 described above.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Sycamore Vineyard, Rutherford
Smooth and rich, with ripe fruit showing chocolate, black cherry, cassis, with a light round oily mouth feel, lingering with winter spices, milk chocolate and creme de cassis.

Heitz Wine Cellars

1992 Cabernet Sauvignon Trailside
Every year at Dust, Heitz pulls out a library vintage of its Trailside Cabernet, which has managed to impress me every time. Elegant and round, showing beautiful effects of age, with a bouquet of creme de cassis, smooth chocolatey mint and barely any hint of the menthol that Heitz is famous for in its Martha's Vineyard Cabernet. Oily and smooth in the mouth, with some tannins still quite noticeable at the back of the palate.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Trailside
The young version of Trailside shows plum and black cherry with a big ball of ripe black fruit on the tongue and lingering toasty tannins.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Bella Oaks
Nose of bright red fruit, cinnamon red-hots candy, a hint of liquorice. Smelling a bit hot (14.3% alcohol isn't unusual for Napa, but it's showing more here.) Light bright finish with good acidity, and lingering tannins which hide well under the clean fruit.

JRE Wines

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford ($65)
Fruit-forward and supple, with nose of strawberry, cassis and red cherry. Low tannins in the mouth with a round juicy mid-palate and soft finish.

Long Meadow Ranch Winery

2005 Sauvignon Blanc, Rutherford
A standout among the Sauvignon Blancs featured in the center of the room at the tasting, with an especially fragrant tropical nose. Floral character with predominance of li-chi and a bit of chalk, lighter on the palate with lemon grass flavors and a smooth bright finish. Well made.

Martin Estate

I featured Martin Estate in my Dust notes last year because their wines stood out boldly from the standard Rutherford profile. These are unique and intense wines, well-made and with loads of personality, a bit more rustic than their neighbors.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Estate ($65)
An earthy nose with black clay, leather, blueberries and rust, graphite, black pepper, a bit of bell pepper. On the palate shows muscular black fruit: blackberry, brambles and tar. As before, I would need a lot more time with this wine to fully describe its layers.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Reserve ($100)
As it was for the '01 vintage, similar in profile to the Estate but with more generous fruit flavors and more mouth-filling texture, more chocolate. Cassis liquer qualities enriching the flavors, slightly more woody lingering tannins which I expect will fall into good balance after a few years.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Estate barrel tasting
Following well in the footsteps of the '02, but with more of a red berry and cassis profile. Should be very good.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Reserve barrel tasting
Blackberry, chocolate, black liquorice, earthy tar fragrances. Surprisingly smooth and chocolatey in the mouth, with a creamy fullness and tannins well hidden within the fruit. Becoming an inviting and warm "big cab" with loads of complexity.

Piña Napa Valley

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
A strong rich wine with a hint of eucalyptus in the nose, dark fruit flavors and strong minty tannins.

2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (barrel sample)
Already smooth at this early state, showing rounded black cherry fruit and a spicy finish. Hopefully maturty will introduce some more dimensions.

Pine Ridge

Pine Ridge Winery

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford
Pine Ridge typically makes wines with a lighter style than its neighbors, approachable and easy on the palate. This Cab has light ruby color, smooth chocolate and cassis in the nose, with a palate rich in liquer-like fruit, almost a blend of creme de cassis and... Cointreau, with that distant hint of orange peel? Sweet oak profile of caramel and vanilla lingers toward the end.

Provenance Vineyards

After a series of corporate mergers, Provenance now falls under the umbrella of Diageo, a very large multinational beverage company. I wonder if corporate accounting will affect the quality of these wines, which I have often mentioned as among the better values in Rutherford. I recently found '03 Provenance Cabernet selling at Costco for only $24, a bargain, and a probable result of these mergers.

2005 Sauvignon Blanc, Rutherford Estate ($18)
A trace of Semillon imparts some spicy undercurrents to this bright and clean profile of granny smith apples, grass and pineapple. Clean finish with a subtle nutmeg-like warmth.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford ($40 retail, $24 Costco)
Protoypical Rutherford Cabernet, with bright cherry fruit fragrances, some woody, brambly raspberries, creme de cassis, cinnamon oak. Light and crisp on the palate with a flavor combination like cherry cobbler - black cherries, butter, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla. Smooth finish, not big but balanced, if a little bit loamy.


Although Quintessa has been part of a large multinational company for a while, and their wines hover in the $100 range, every year they stand out among the best at Rutherford Dust. These big reds always impress. This year I was happy to see them show a library sample:

1995 Red Meritage ($100)
A complex floral nose reminiscent of star jasmine and gardenias, with creamy cherry and cassis fruit still clean and bright. An oily mouth feel with rich black cherry and liquorice, rounded and supported by very smooth tannins. Excellent balance.

2003 Red Meritage ($100)
Generous and deep, with rich creme de cassis, chocolate, vanilla and warm spicy fragrances, like sandalwood; similar ripe warm full flavors. This wine fills every corner of the mouth with its depth and richness. A treat.

Raymond Vineyard & Cellar

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford ($40)
Almost a textbook profile of Rutherford Cab: black cherry, liquorice, leather and mineral dust, finishing in gravelly tannins and spicy oak.

Round Pond

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford ($50)
Another pure Rutherford profile: black cherry, cassis, pepper, liquorice. Centered mid-palate with peppered strawberries and chocolate, cocoa tannins.

Rubicon Estate

I don't really like the new vibe at Neibaum-Coppola. It's starting to feel like a Disneyland "Wine Country Adventure" ride mixed in with the Village from "The Prisoner." Attendants sell tickets in kiosks and offer informational maps and brochures. They changed their name to Rubicon in order to highlight the high end wines, while the Coppola label remains for the mass produced table wines. Many of their wines are very good, especially the flagship Rubicon Meritage, but others are flabbby. I guess it's just not my scene. Anyway, while waiting for Rutherford Dust to start upstairs, I spent a moment tasting the new line of Rubicon wines downstairs in the public tasting room. Not bad...

2005 Sauvignon Blanc Captain's Reserve ($19)
Sweet tropical overtones in the nose, pineapple, li-chi and straw. The palate starts out with a bitter twist then smooths out into a tropical buttery texture.

2004 Chardonnay Captain's Reserve ($25)
Classic Chardonnay profile of apple and hazlenuts, a hint of butterscotch but thankfully not overoaked, with good crisp acidity, lemons and nuts, buttery finish.

2003 Zinfandel Captain's Reserve ($28)
Spicy strawberry liquer with white pepper nose, bright peppery red-fruit palate with lingering tannins and the slightly bitter twist on the finish typical of Zin.

2004 Merlot Captain's Reserve ($36)
Brambly blackberry and plum fruit with chocolate and earthy black pepper. Slightly cooked flavors on the finish.

2004 Pinot Noir Captain's Reserve ($42)
Rich chocolate and black cherry nose with some spicy sweetness from the oak (cinnamon, nutmeg.) Clear acidity on the palate with blackberry brambles and bright spices with a chewy finish. Surprisingly dense for a Pinot.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Captain's Reserve ($45)
Rich oakey nose with creme de cassis, and a sweet oily quality reminiscent of cooked jam. A bit woody in the mouth with ripe dark fruit and smooth lingering tannins in the finish.

2002 Rubicon (Meritage) ($110)
Intense nose of blackberry, blueberry and cassis, black pepper and dark chocolate, liquorice and tar. Balanced and open on the mid-palate, chocolatey rich dark fruit with well controlled tannins creating a rounded lingering smooth finish. Supple, ripe and well-crafted.

Garen Staglin

Staglin Family Vineyard

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Estate ($135)
Lovely rich fruit nose, with tones of black cherry and creme de cassis, caramel, bubblegum, christmas spices and rose petals. The palate has the smooth texture of creme de cassis liquer, with layers of spicy ripe fruit, mellow tannins totally in balance with the sweet oak. This is a sensual wine, one of the most approachable, mouth filling, and immediately appealing of the tasting (also one of the most expensive.)

2003 Salus Cabernet Sauvignon ($65)
Staglin's second label, still among my favorites in the room, with a brighter profile than the flagship, plummy fruit with more mineral chalk in the nose, more peppery, showing earthy depth and elegance.

William Harrison

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon ($45)
Red berry fruit and woodshop smells rise up into the nose, with leather and ash-tray. Rather austere and tannic in the mouth, with a spicy finish tinted with tobacco, leather and smokey oak.

2003 Rutherford Red ($60)
More tar and liquorice than the Cabernet, with much smoother more velvety tannins, black fruit and liquorice flavors. Excellent, but apparently $15 more expensive than last year, which had been one of my favorite Bordeaux style blends of the day.

2003 Cabernet Franc ($40)
Spicy nose with violets, black pepper. Rich red fruit palate, ending in rose hips and slightly bitter tannins.

Zahtila Vineyards

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer Vineyard ($48)
Seems a bit smoother with less herbal complexity than last year's release (2002 vintage). Based on Clone 6 grapes, this Cab lands in pure Rutherford profile, on the rich and oily side of the spectrum, with chocolate, cassis, black cherry, cinnamon spice and a round finish with oaky sweetness. Pleasant and approachable.

Posted July 11, 2006

Slow Food's "Golden Glass"
Italian Regional Wines

Wine Tasting Notes from June 10, 2006
at Fort Mason in San Francisco
by Robert Rich.
Photos by Dixie Chan & RR.

For three years, the Slow Food organization has invited some of the best wineries from Italy to the United States for a fundraising event that celebrates the diversity of Italian regional winemaking styles. They divide the Herbst Pavilion at Fort Mason into four islands that represent the four major vinicultural areas of Italy: Northeast, Northwest, Central and South. They hold a silent auction for collectible bottles of these wines, and local Bay Area food purveyors serve samples of their signature dishes next to cheeses and meats imported from Italy.

Golden Glass offers a good opportunity to educate oneself about Italian wines. I still consider myself a beginner when it comes to Italy's winemaking styles, and I can't think of a better organization to introduce them than Slow Food. Below you will find my quick notes about a few of the many excellent growers pouring on this day.

Golden Glass also provides a platform to show off some of the best of our own local food purveyors here in the Bay Area. Between sipping and spitting, we sampled charcuterie, cheeses, tapenades and treats from various purveyors and restaurants. San Francisco's A16 restaurant made an uncompromising carnivorous statement with a whole stuffed pig (head and all) filled with paté of its own meat.

Next to A16, two men shucked oysters for a ravenous crowd. (Alas, I failed to note the company they represented, but their shirts all said Royal Hawaiian.)

Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse offered tasty scoops of bean purée on toast. Harley Farms handed out its delicious fresh chevre, and Berkeley newcomer Fra'Mani Handcrafted Salumi gave samples of its house-made cured meats. We certainly nibbled enough to skip lunch and dinner.

Above: Chez Panisse with bean purée

Above: samples from the Ark of Taste

Above: wines and cheese for the silent auction

Golden Glass Tasting Notes:

North Eastern Italy
Alto Adige, Friuli, Veneto
Generally cooler growing region just south of Switzerland, Austria and Croatia, featuring excellent white wines and lighter-bodied reds, as well as the intense Amarone della Valpolicella, made from intentionally raisined late harvest grapes. At this tasting, Amarone was not so well represented.

2004 Bastianich, Tocai Friulano
Is this perhaps related to the Takaj grape of Hungary? In this form, a rich tasting buttery white wine with tropical notes of pineapple and bubblegum.

2002 Bastianich, Vespa Bianco
An unusual blend of 45% Chardonnay, 45% Sauvignon Blanc, and 10% Picolit. The chardonnay asserts its dominance with apples and hazlenuts, while its overt buttery qualities are tempered by ageing half in stainless, half in oak. A complex wine, hard to pin down.

2003 Albino Armani, Corvara Rosso
A low-tannin crisp red wine with dark fruit overtones of black olive, tar and chocolate with an oily mouth feel in the finish.

2001 Venturini, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico
Not one of my favorites during this tasting, a port-like big tannic wine with raisin overtones and a hot alcoholic nose. 16% alcohol could explain the heat.

2003 Venturini, Classico Superiore Semonte Alto
A grassy red wine with Brett smells and a tight minty finish.

2003 Zenato, Valpolicella Ripassa
An excellent complex red wine with bright ripe fruit, low oak, medium to light body with delicate spicy notes of anise - black liquorice, and a lingering peppery spice finish.

2005 Zenato, Lugana Vigneto San Benedetto
A supple, rich mouth-filling white wine with citrus and apples and lingering oily texture.

North Western Italy
Valle D'Aosta, Piemonte
Northwestern Italy hosts some of my personal favorites among Italy's wines. This is the home of the great leathery Barolos and ripe layered Barberas. I confess that I spent more time covering these wines than the others of the day - their high quality kept me looking for new discoveries.

2004 Cave du Vin Blanc, Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle Brut Metodo Classico
A warmly hued sparkling wine with apricot and lemon overtones enriching its crisp mineral nose.

2001 Bric Cencurio, Barolo Costa di Rose
Nose of tar and strawberries, ripe deep fruit, with oily mouth feel. Rustic profile.

2003 Bric Cencurio, Barbera d'Alba Naunda
A lovely big supple wine. Black fruit in the nose, smooth and rich in the mouth, with cocoa tannins and a round lingering finish. Generous and warm.

2001 Cascina Adelaide, Barolo Preda
Graphite tones in the nose, with big tannins, earthy fruit and notes of granite or limestone. An austere and serious wine.

2003 Cascina Adelaide, Barbera d'Alba Superiore Amabilin
With 15% Nebbiolo added for extra structure, notes of black liquorice and ripe berries with full mouth-filling texture and bright clean finish.

1999 Castello di Nieve, Barbaresco Riserva Santo Stefano
Complex and earthy, showing a wide range of Nebbiolo fruit's deep profile. Combining mineral and leathery fragrances with creme de cassis, black tar and liquorice, with a bright tannic leathery finish. Beautiful.

2004 Castello di Nieve, Dolcetto d'Alba
A young and fun fruity red wine, with smooth soft tannins and a light red-fruit finish, a hint of banana in the nose?

1999 Cortese Guiseppe, Barbaresco Riserva Rabaja'
Perhaps one of the most memorable wines of the day, with rustic overtones that split my opinions between favorite and questioning. This Riserva had a rich mahogony color that gave evidence to some oxidation with age, mirrored in the slightly Madeira-like nose; but also generous with black cherry fruit and deep earthy notes. Massive tannins in the mouth might never resolve, still huge while the rest of the wine seems to be fading slightly. But still an amazing range of flavors.

2003 Cortese Guiseppe, Barbaresco Rabaja'
Light garnet color and low oak profile (18 months in neutral oak) with bright red cherry fragrances and a hint of Brett's wet grasses. A minty finish with high tannin and restrained fruit, a traditonalist's rustic but graceful wine.

2002 Damilano, Barolo
Balancing at the dark side of this often austere wine, with nose of leather and graphite, black pepper and clove, oily mouth-feel with tarry black fruit and a lasting intense leathery finish. Excellent.

2004 Damilano, Barbera d'Alba
Nose of tar and black cherries, soft but bright on the palate with cleansing acidity and low tannins. A good food wine.

2001 Gianfranco Alessandria, Barolo
Among my favorite winemakers of the day, this Barolo offered a generous and deep range of woodsy fragrances, with smoke, chocolate, tobacco and hints of limestone soil. The warm fruit ameliorates the sizeable but balanced tannins. ($340/case wholesale)

2001 Gianfranco Alessandria, Barolo San Giovanni
The reserve bottling of the above wine, with even more generous rich black fruit, liquorice mid-palate and supple lingering finish. I picture a big muscular hand in a black velvet glove. ($532/case wholesale)

2001 Mauro Veglio, Barolo Vigneto Arborina
Located close to Gianfranco Alessandria, but in sandy soil instead of limestone. It's fascinating to taste the difference between the two soil types. Mauro Veglio's wines show a more floral profile - almost feminine compared to GA's masculinity. This Barolo smells softer, with notes of violets and roses, smooth mid-weight palate with hints of tar, and a less tannic finish.

2001 Mauro Veglio, Barolo Vigneto Gatera
With a similar floral profile as the Vigneto Arborina, but not as unified on the palate, with flavors that separate from each other amidst a slightly hotter (more alcohol-ish) texture. Still, delicious overall and a good study of contrasts.

2003 Monchiero Carbone, Roero Printi
Mineral and oceanic smells with coffee and graphite. Stands out as quite unique among a table dominated by Barolo. ($36/bottle wholesale)

2001 Prunotto, Barolo Bussia
Prunotto's wines appear very generous and round in the context of the region. This Barolo shows ripe dark earth with characteristic graphite and leather but surrounded by rich supple berry fruits. ($85/bottle retail)

2001 Prunotto, Barbera d'Asti Costamiole
Soft, ripe and chocolatey, offering cinamon, plum, coffee and black liquorice. An inviting and delicious, ripe and warming ball of flavor. ($60/bottle retail)

Central Italy
Abruzzo, Marche, Toscana
Home to rich ripe dark red wines that deliver hefty grounded flavors without requiring as much time to age and soften (compared to a Barolo for example), yet with excellent structure and depth and generally good prices. Trebbiano, Montepulciano and Brunello offer serious complexity, and of course Chianti is famous for its earthy food-friendly character.

2005 Valle Reale, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Vigne Nuove
Very soft with slightly herbacious overtones, dark notes of chocolate and coffee. ($12/bottle retail)

2003 Valle Reale, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo San Callisto
Much tighter acidity than above, with bright herbal character, green olive, chocolate, plummy fruit, smooth medium tannins and a vanilla toffee finish. ($35/bottle retail)

2003 San Giovanni, Rosso Piceno Superiore Axeè
70% Montepulciano and 30% Sangiovese grapes, with a light back cherry nose, smooth in the mouth with lingering black tar/liquorice and minty tannins.

2004 Baracchi Riccardo, Rosso Smeriglio
Herbal, slightly raisined, with coffee, black liquorice and a hint of dry grasses.

2003 Baracchi Riccardo, Ardito
Also showing signs of raisined fruit, this 50/50 blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon is aiming at "Super Tuscan" status. Rubbery tar, espresso, cooked plums, rich and soft sweet spices grow in the palate toward the finish.

2001 Capanna di Cencioni, Brunello di Montalcino
Bright and clear, wth balance and centered crisp acidity, red cherry fruit. ($50/bottle retail)

1999 Capanna di Cencioni, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva
Rich and balanced flavors, much more complex and interesting than the above 2001 Brunello, with fat leathery cherry fruit and layers of generous earthy flavors that evade simple names. Excellent. ($80/bottle retail)

2002 Casa alle Vacche, San Gimignano Rosso Acantho
Red vines liquorice, soft coffee and a hint of Brett. Soft and earthy. ($30/bottle retail)

2001 Fattoria Le Corti / Tenuta Marsiliana (Principe Corsini) Marsiliana
One of the most immediately approachable wines of the day, with rich round ripe black fruit, medium acidity, and a very full fruity mouth feel. Oily milk chocolate with rising tannins at the finish. Sumptuous and layered within its generosity

2001 Felsina, Chianti Classico Riserva Rancia
Red cherry fruit hovers above this big clean wine, with tones of mint and gravel, finishing with huge crusty tannins on the palate.

2000 Fornacina, Brunello di Montalcino
Plump ripe fruit hides some sizeable tannins within a matrix of chocolate-mint, smoke, liquorice and an attractive tiny hint of barnyard Brett. A very pleasant wine.

1999 Fornacina, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva
Brighter acidity and more austere than above, with black cherry, leather and huge lingeng tannin.

2001 Il Molino di Grace, Chianti Classico
Coffee, black liquorice, and a fair whiff of Brett.

2001 Il Molino di Grace, Gratius
Leather, coffee and Brett. Barnyard dominates the nose.

2004 Sassotondo, Rosso
Oily red cherry, vanilla toffee and clean bright acidity on the palate. A good food wine at $16/bottle retail.

2001 Sassotondo, San Lorenzo Ciliegiolo
A "Super Tuscan" blended with appellation grapes rather than the Bordeaux varietals one commonly finds. Exhibits smooth chocolate and black cherry fruit with big rounded tannins, leather and graphite, liquorice and tar, big in the mouth and dominated by fruit despite using 100% new oak. Excellent ($52/bottle retail)

Southern Italy
Calabria, Campania, Puglia, Sardegna, Sicilia
The red wines of the south often show a raisiny profile imparted by the arid climate and extreme heat of summer. Often velvety soft, these wines fit those palates that have become accustomed to the sweet ripeness of California's central valley or Austalia's warmer regions.

2003 De Concilis, Aglianico, Naima
Smelling a bit hot at 15% alcohol, bright and clear yet with overtones of mulched leaves and coffee, some raisining, earthy on the palate with hints of mint and chocolate.

2004 De Concilis, Fiano, Donna Luna
A lovely tropical-smelling white wine resembling a California Central Coast Viognier, with floral li-chi perfume. Plump and sexy.

2004 Feudi San Gregorio, Primitivo di Manduria Ognissole
Is Primitivo the distant uncle of Zinfandel? It's easy to understand why people think so. Blackberry, chocolate, brambly herbs and dust show Zinfandel-ish qualities while also exposing the sun and soil of southern Italy. A well made and attractive big red. Drink this young to feel the ripe fruit.

2003 Coppadoro, Radicosa
Dark red fruit with bright acidity, very tannic in the mouth with an astringent finish.

2004 Coppadoro, Rosa di Salsola
A pink wine (rosé) made of 100% Montepulciano grapes, light and dry with a clean finish, smelling of rose hips. Very nice.

2004 La Cantina di Gallura, Nebbiolo Colli del Limbara "Karana"
Woody nose, with harsh tannins up front, cherry fruit leather and tobacco leaf flavors. Intense and quirky.

2005 Cantina Sociale Trapani, Forti Terre Siciliana Bianco
A beautiful rich tropical white wine, with fresh pink grapefruit and li-chi characteristics.

2003 Cantina Sociale Trapani, Forti Terre Siciliana Nero d'Avola
An very good wine, with velvet texture, chocolate and liquorice nose within ripe fruit, hiding big tannic-acid structure, with a hint of raisins in the finish. Of the southern Italian wineries tasted today, this is my favorite.

(Re-written from notes on July 9, 2006)

Posted September 15, 2005

"A Passion for Paso"

Wine Tasting Notes of Paso Robles wineries
August 2005
Mountain Winery, Saratoga CA.

This promotional event for Paso Robles wineries showed an impressively high standard of quality. Although prices for the best Paso Robles wines are starting to climb, they still show better value than many of their California competitors. Rhone varietals seem to perform best in this area (Viognier, Syrah, Mourvedre, etc.) but several elegant red Bordeaux-Rhone blends also impressed me at the tasting. The weather created a bit of a challenge on the day of the event, with 95 F heat threatening to bake the wines as well as the tasters. We survived, as did most of the wines, and these are my shorthand impressions.

Adelaida Vinyeards

2002 Syrah Reserve Viking Estate
Black inky purple color, nose of blackberry and blueberry, rust and chocolate. Rounded but lingering tannins show dry cocoa in the end. Classic Paso Syrah.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($28)
Anise, chocolate, tar and mint on the nose with cherry/cassis fruit. Palate showing excellent layered flavors, with blackberry, cassis, orange juice and chocolate, finishing in mint-cocoa and tar, ending like it starts. A very good Cabernet.


740 Pine Street
Paso Robles, CA 93446
805-227-6813, www.anglimwinery.com

2002 Syrah Fralich Vineyard ($18)
A finessed and light bodied Syrah, more crisp and herbal, not brooding nor fleshy and super-ripe. Dark berry fruit with tobacco and taffy oak with crisp acidity on the palate. Very well balanced.

2002 Syrah French Camp Vineyard ($30)
Rounder and richer than the Fralich Syrah, with jammy overtones, violets and chocolate, with a deep fruity darkness that finishes with good balance.

2003 Grenache Vista Creek Vineyard ($22)
Dominated by oak profile of cinammon and spice, with a ripe strawberry fruit hiding underneath.

2003 Viognier Bien Nacido Vineyard ($22)
An exquisitely rich almost unctuous Viognier, with high alcohol (15.5%) and a silky mouthfeel full of glycerin smoothness. Nose of creamy minerals, lemon custard and spice. Almost sweet palate with li chi tropical flavors, and a yeasty echo of sur-lie ageing. Try pairing this with strong soft cheeses, mussels or clams.

2004 Roussanne Fralich Vineyard ($22)
Brighter than the Viognier, with lemony crispness, followed by warm hints of nutmeg, apples and buttery sur-lie yeasts.

2004 Syrah Rosé ($15)
A very light and green-tasting rosé, tart palate with a bit of that funky sulphurous Syrah nose.


Austin Hope

Private label for the winemaker who works for Treanna and Liberty School. Among these three labels, he's constistently making wine at the top tier.

2003 Roussane Mer Soleil Vineyard ($30)
Rich buttery color, with sweet smells of pinneapple upside down cake. Lemon and pineapple on the palate, with extracted fruit leaving a lingering sense of residual sugars. Expensive but yummy.

2002 Westside Red ($18)
Blend of Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache. Balanced bright cherry nose with a bright tannic palate, lingering grainy tannins.

2002 Syrah ($42)
A big black beast, with nose of blueberry, tar and black olives, dusty oak leaves and tobacco. Brooding palate shows dark earthy fruit and rounded tannic structure. Excellent expression of Syrah.


Castoro Cellars

Reliably good wine at reliable value prices, these guys are also friends of mine, and I learned much from associate winemaker Mikel Olsten. My wife and I served their '97 Cabernet at our wedding after blind-tasting it with 6 other more expensive wines (and I sometimes buy their grapes for making my own wine.) So, I'm not neutral, and I tend to lean positively towards Castoro. Good thing their wines are consistently well made. Castoro also does custom crush and winemaking for other labels. I just learned that they make the $3.99 Trader Joe's Cabernet from their bulk juice, which I expect could be a good value.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon ($15)
Smooth and centered, easy drinking wine, with medium tannin and rounded red cherry fruit, a hint of liquorice.

2001 Syrah Reserve ($18)
An excellent value, with blueberry-blackberry fruit and slight metallic overtones, light and clear palate growing into a chalky finish.


Chateau Margene
4385 La Panza Road
Creston, CA 93432
805-238-2321, www.ChateauMargene.com

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($36)
Deep and tarry nose, with blueberry and tobacco in a centered and dark matrix of mature fruit. Rich in the palate, with an oily lingering finish and well-camouflaged tannins.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve ($52)
The nose shows more herbal complexity than the second tier offering, with more pepper and graphite but still with rich dark tarry fruit. Still young and sleeping, should wake up in a few years and age gracefully for even longer, with more intense tannic structure.

2002 Syrah ($30)
Big black fruit with a slightly minty edge, showing some vegetal character in the nose, with sweet caramel oak.


Clautiere Vineyard
1340 Penman Springs Road
Paso Robles, CA 93446
805-237-3789, www.clautiere.com

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($24)
A rich and approachable Cabernet with medium complexity and dense flavors. Aromas of graphite, tobacco and a hint of green pepper augment the black cherry fruit. A lingering oily texture coats the mouth and adds to the long finish with minty tannins.

2002 Mon Rouge ($25)
Mostly Syrah (54%) and Mourvedre (37%) with a drop of Cabernet Sauvignon (9%), this Rhonish blend shows good acidity with deep fruit profile and low tannins. A bundle of anise in the nose with aditional hints of tar, musk and chocolate with crisp blueberry fruit. Rich and smooth on the palate, but not hugely dense. Well made and ready to drink.

2004 Viognier ($23)
Bright clean nose of meyer lemon and grapefruit with a dusting of limestone. Dry but very fruity on the palate with a lingering sense of sweetness among citrus and blossoms. Quite nice.


Dunning Vineyard
1953 Niderer Road
Paso Robles CA 93446
805-238-4763, www.dunningvineyards.com

2002 Merlot Estate ($22)
Nose offers rich aromas of chocolate and orange liquer, a waft of barnyard, tar, tobacco and mint. Bright tannins finish on the palate.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($24)
Well structured and leathery, with a slightly austere "masculine" profile: a nose of tobacco and leather, a medium density palate of coffee and red cherry lingering into a long leathery dry finish.

2003 Syrah Estate ($28)
A light profile with rose petal and violet overtones, an open texture on the palate, a bit minty, then finishing in a massive granular sheet of tannins. Return to this in about four years.

2003 Zinfandel Estate Reserve ($32)
Spicy, ripe and full, with classic Zin aromas of strawberries and black pepper. Chocolate and peach nectar overtones fill the mouth, with a spicy finish and rounded cocoa tannins. Very well made. 14.9% alc.

2004 Vin De Casa Estate ($16)
A good value dark red blend offering a generous nose of anise and chocolate liquer supporting plummy blackberry fruits. Rich and creamy mouth feel with chocolate, coffee, tobacco notes. Very satisfying. Enjoy it while it's still youthful. 14.2% alc.




2001 Petite Sirah
Graphite, blueberry, chocolate, with a pruney raisined finish that belies over-ripe fruit.



Grey Wolf Cellars

2003 Soulmate Red Rhone Blend ($18)
Classic blend of Syrah (50%) Grenache (25%) Mourvedre (13%) and Cinsault (12%) in a light and food-friendly style, with a fresh herbal nose showing anise, mint and dry grasses. The open soft cherry palate exhibits a trace of bitterness, with low tannin and a slightly grassy finish with warm oak tones.

2003 Zinfandel Barton Family Reserve
Nose shows chocolate and fresh cut lawn (green grassiness) with black pepper and dusty chalk. Ripe strawberry fruit fills the palate, with the smooth round richness of good milk chocolate, with well integrated and subtle tannins in the finish. Yummy.

2004 Awakening White Rhone Blend ($12)
Marsanne (40%) Roussane (40%) and Viognier (20%) in a value priced and delicious fruity exposition. A sweet nose of peach nectar and spring blossoms, with flavors of peach, apricot, passion fruit, smokey musk and green grass. Aging in 3 year old oak lends a richness that complements the fruit.


J. Lohr

Producing over a half million cases of wine, J. Lohr remains one of the biggest wineries in the Central Coast, but maintains a surprisingly high standard despite the quantity. However, next to some of the exceptional small winemakers at this tasting, their offerings seemed adequate but not exceptional.

2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Hilltop
Lighter and less well structured than the excellent '99 Hilltop, showing graphite and some green pepper in the nose, with summer herbs and green fennel. Light on the palate with a balanced clean finish.

2003 Syrah
Smokey nose with grassy herbs, fresh meat, tin, a salty breeze and a hint of sulphur. Rounded ripe blackberry fruit on the palate, with a long rich fruity finish.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Seven Oaks
A value-priced Cabernet, one of the best selling in the Lohr lineup, but not stunning. Some cooked vegetables in the nose, cherries, graphite, green pepper, coffee. In the mouth it feels quite tannic and hard, lacking the supple generous character one comes to expect from Paso Robles.



2003 Cabernet Sauvignon
The nose shows some of the vegetal character that sometimes reduces my enjoyment of Justin's wines, but underneath the scent of baked zucchini hides a lovely deep oaky intense Cabernet, with rich blueberry and cassis fruit, coffee, leather, some graphite, and a centered finish with medium soft tannins. I would be willing to blame the hot weather for the vegetal smells, except I also noted them in Justin's tasting room on previous visits.

2003 Syrah
A clean and spicy Syrah (not vegetal at all) with classic varietal blueberry, mint, rusty red meat and sweet vanilla oak. Saturated dark fruit on the palate, bright with good acid profile, and slightly pinched youthful tannins.



Stefan Asseo came into Paso Robles from Bordeaux looking for a place to break the rules imposed by the AOC, wanting to make big structured wines without shackles or limiting expectations. Among the second generation of Paso Robles wineries, starting in the mid-1990s, who have raised the standards up to those of world-class wine, I watch for the developments led by such winemakers.

2003 Optimus ($45)
An Bordeaux-Rhone blend of Syrah, Cabernet, and Petit Verdot. Complex and ripe, both generous and multilayered. Big round black fruit offers aromas of anise, blueberry, graphite and smoke, with integrated tannin on the finish, and well balanced acidity hiding under the full bodied fruit.

2002 Syrah ($40)
Both deep and bright, with overtones of blueberry, tin, rust, meat, mint and leather, with some serious chewy tannins.

2002 Estate Cuvée ($70)
Big nose of graphite, anise and chocolate. Drinks amazingly well right now but seems to have a structure that should age gracefully while supporting generous fruit. A rich leathery finish balances tobacco with warm spices. Sumptuous.


Midnight Cellars

2002 Gemini ($32)
An unlikely 50/50 blend of Syrah and Zinfandel. A nose showing both deep and light overtones, with blueberry, leather, mint and dusty minerals. The palate is similar - clean, with both light and deep personalities, smooth blueberry, tobacco, with a minty medium-tannin finish.

2002 Zinfandel ($26)
Bright ripe strawberries, with some chalky components typical in a zin of this style. Not too peppery, with good acidity and generous crisp fruit.


Opolo Vineyard

High in the coastal Adelaida mountians, not far from Tablas Creek and Justin, Opolo makes a wide range of bottlings with consistent good quality. These mountains offer a rare climate for wine growing, lifting the vineyards slightly above the Big Sur coastal fog, allowing for periods of serious hot sun in the summer, yet benefitting from the cool ocean breeze at night. I need to spend more time tasting through the Opolo offerings; but this brief introduction impressed me.

2002 Pinot Noir ($24)
Chocolate richness, with black cherry fruit and minty overtones. Some big tannic extraction kicks in on the palate, a bit surprising for a Pinot, but finishing with the long lingering oily mouth feel one expexts from a good Pinot Noir. Well done.

2003 Grenache ($24)
Nose with dark berry fruit, hints of cigar box and smooth rich chocolate, palate has a ripe velvety quality with a long lingering round finish.

2002 Syrah ($24)
A lovely and approachable Syrah, with soft vanilla oak, black liquorice, coffee and leather surrounding ripe dark plummy fruit. Gentle integrated tannins lead to a fruity finish that leaves the mouth wishing for more.

2002 Rhapsody ($45)
A lush, deep chocolate profile with fragrances of anise, coffee, dark ripe blueberry and creme de cassis. Rich and spicy in the mouth with a fruity roundness that lingers into Chambord blackberry liquer and milk chocolate. The word "opulent" wouldn't be a pun in this case.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon
Nose hints at grasses and earth, with blueberry, mint and tar. Bright and clean on the palate, warming into chocolate, tobacco and coffee. Delicious.

2003 Sangiovese
Nose shows some Bretty barnyard character, which integrates nicely with black cherry fruit, liquorice and leather. These qualities carry through into the open light mouth feel, with a light clean finish ending in a dusting of anise and chocolate.


Robert Hall

2004 Rosé de Robles
A well made dry rosé, with fresh fragrances of grapefuit and rose petals, clean in the mouth, a bit simple with a quick finish.

2004 Sauvignon Blanc
Chalky aromas with pineapple and grass, bright open structure with cleansing acidic backbone.

2003 Rhone de Robles
Perfumed nose, a bit grassy, with roses and bright red cherries. Complex deep flavors, dark and smooth, with overtones of coffee and tobacco, a rich lingering finish. Excellent.


Stephen's Cellars

2001 Pinot Noir
A huge extracted wine that resembles some of the technically manipulated Pinots coming out of Southern Oregon recently. With a profile more like Petite Sirah than Pinot Noir, this one's unique. Intense nose with black liquorice, black asphalt and a hint of shoe polish. Round dark fruit in the mouth, with lingering sweet oils and low tannin.


Tablas Creek

2003 Cotes de Tablas Blanc ($22)
A generous white Rhone blend with creamy notes of peaches, limestone and honey, with a smooth viscous mouth feel and long finish hinting at pineapple.

2004 Grenache Blanc ($27)
Mint and musk, with grapefruit undertones. Brighter than the Cotes de Tablas.

2004 Rosé
Every year Tablas Creek makes one of my favorite rosés in California. Musky spices, nutmeg, rose petals, peach pits and more linger on the palate of this deceptively complex Mourvedre-centered pink blend.

2003 Syrah
Very young still, with a smokey nose showing mint, rose petals, dry cocoa. This should be drinking very well in a couple years, with finesse and balance.

2002 Cotes de Tablas
Lighter than the 2001 Cotes de Tablas red blend, with more predominance of oily cherries and some grassy herbaceous qualities (from the Grenache?), less of the dusty cocoa qualities that are more present this year in the pure Syrah.


Treanna & Liberty School

Liberty School is the second label for Treanna with the same winemaker, Austin Hope - a serious talent. Liberty School has some great value for the quality, and Treanna makes some of the top wines in the Paso Robles area.

2001 Treanna White ($25)
From the same Mer Soleil vineyard in Santa Lucia that Austin Hope's Roussane comes from, not surprising considering that Austin Hope is the winemaker for Treanna - a very good one, too. This blend of 61% Viognier and 39% Marsanne has a warming nose of pineapple, honey, nutmeg and orange oil, with a smooth rounded mouth feel that shows the hint of smokey bitterness in the finish from viognier, lingering into mint and citrus.

2002 Treanna White ($25)
Showing more of the smokey viognier character than 2001, lighter than 2001, with less pineapple and slightly more oily texture on the palate.

2001 Treanna Red ($52)
A blend of Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot, a big dark wine with smokey nose, palate showing serious body with the meaty profile of blueberry and rust. Rich generous fruit and excellent structure in the long lasting finish. Almost brooding in its blackness.

2003 Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon ($13)
An excellent value, one of the better local Cabernets I have tasted at this price point. Dark inky aromas with chocolate and liquorice notes in an envelope of ripe but austere fruit. Blueberry and rust notes fill the mouth, somewhat simple but with good acidity and balanced oak.

2003 Liberty School Chardonnay
Un-oaked bright style, green apple and dry grasses, a smooth mouthfeel with citrus and a minty finish. Clean and open.



2003 Cabernet Sauvignon
Fragrances resemble a shoe shop, with leather, graphite, some dusty minerality and low fruit profile. Seeming low acid on the palate, quirky.


Vina Robles
P.O. Box 699
Paso Robles, CA 93447
805-227-4812, www.vinarobles.com

I quickly became friendly with the representatives for Vina Robles, but I was worried about some of the cooked smells in their red wines. The hot weather during this tasting gave an explanation for some of these faults, but I didn't want to assume a profile from these conditions. Returning to these wines later, I came to feel that several of the red wines show vegetal flaws, yet the whites are clean and quite lovely. Hopefully this friendly new winery will find the solution to some of those cooked smells, and gain respect from their excellent white wines.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate ($19)
Rich nose of anise and chocolate, with a long minty finish. Also, cooked and vegetal. This one may have been feeling some damage from the hot weather, developing some oxidized fragrances (but it may have been the wine), so more detailed notes will have to wait for another occasion.

2001 Syrah Huerhuero Vineyard ($24)
A fat stinky Syrah in the best Rhone tradition, embracing the grape's more intense qualities: barnyard, blueberries, rust, anise and chocolate, with rounded cocao tannins in the finish, inky black, full of fruit but not jammy. A generous yet intense and uncomprimising wine. (Showed better than the others in the hot weather.)

2001 Syrah Estate ($17.50)
Tasted a new bottle several weeks after the event, when trying to determine the extent of heat damage. Sadly, this wine is flawed by serious vegetal characteristics. The nose shows leafy mulchy character, wet tobacco, and overripe blueberries. Palate also tastes somewhat cooked, soft with meaty echoes. Not a succesful wine to my tastes. 13.5% alc.

2002 Petite Sirah Jardine Vineyard ($26)
Quite unique in its deep earthy character, although feeling some damage from the hot sun on the day of tasting - or perhaps vegetal by nature. A meaty nose with loamy qualities, blueberry and plum with added layers of tobacco, clove and blueberries. The palate reminds me of some Italian Brunellos, earthy with a lingering hint of cigar tobacco in the finish. age. 14.3% alc.

2002 Viognier Huerhuero Vineyard ($16)
Fragrances start with chalky minerals atop sweet lemon custard, tart pineapple and a tropical waft of passion fruit. Bright, open and fruity on the palate, and as it breathes it develops a richer fruit profile. Flavors begin tart and lemony spreading out into a creamy rich mid-palate, slightly nutty with a long balanced finish hinting of clover blossoms and smoke. Excellent. 14.5% alc.

2002 Chardonnay Edna Ranch ($17)
An elegant example of the renewed style of unoaked Chardonnay, showing the fruit rather than the winemaker's manipulation. This offers fragrances of bubblegum, pineapple, lemon and green grass, light and fruity but not sweet, with a hint of musky French perfume. Open and smooth on the palate, with a creamy mouth feel and a rich buttery finish with hints of almomd oil and tropical fruit. 14.5% alc.

2003 Signature ($29)
A Rhone-Bordeaux blend using a high percentage of Petit Verdot (59%) with Syrah (22%) and Petite Sirah (19%). Rich smokey nose of coffee and cream, bacon fat, blueberries and blackberries, summer grasses, anise, tar, cigar box and coriander. Soft on the palate, with smooth tannins. Deep and concentrated yet ripe and fruity; probably not for extended cellaring, but pleasant at this young age. 14.3% alc.


Posted July 2005

Rutherford Dust 2005

Every year, the wineries of Napa's Rutherford appellation host a trade tasting to show off their recent releases. The Rutherford Dust Society tasting includes some of the more high-end wines in Napa, and offers a benchmark for each vintage of the valley's "Big Cabs." It's easy to get saturated by tannin and oak at these events, and most of the subtleties of these wines get lost. But then some would argue that many of these wines aren't subtle. A generic profile of black cherries, tobacco, leather and chocolate becomes apparent throughout all of these cabernets, so I personally tend to notice wines that show something different. Since most of these wines cost over $50, I also give special attention to wineries willing to charge less.

(Greg & Petra Martin)

My favorite wines this year included Martin Estate's Cabernet and Reserve Cabernet ($60, $100), Quintessa ($100), and William Harrison's Rutherford Red Blend ($45), with kudos to Provenance for charging only $35 for their excellent Cabernet. Heitz Cellars also impressed me with their library sample of 1989 Trailside Cabernet. Here are my notes:


Beaulieu Vineyard

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($18)
Bright and light on the palate, with red cherries, strawberries and a characteristic dusty nose.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour (tasted 7/05) ($100)
Much softer and smoother than the Latour vintages from the late '90s. This wine used to show intense steely blueberry fruit and black olive acidity, but 2002 vintage has more chocolate and anise, with warm black cherry fruit. I would not expect this to age as well as the tighter style, but it's certainly pleasing right now. Not for the price, though.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 4 (tasted 7/05)
Here's the tight black olive fruit of the old Latour, leathery and rusty. I find this more interesting.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 6 (tasted 7/05)
Soft, round and herbal, black cherry and cassis fruit with a hint of Band-aid in the nose.


Bell Wine Cellars

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Clone 6 (tasted 7/05) ($40)
Slightly vegetal nose, with Cabernet profile of roasted sweet peppers and pencil shavings alongside dark cherry fruit. Not a standout.


Conn Creek Winery

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Hozoni Vineyard (tasted 7/05) ($50)
One of my favorites at the tasting, with a complex nose of blueberries and rust, rose petal perfume and a touch of iodine. Balanced palate exposes dark toasted oak, bright oily cherry fruit and black liquorice, with well integrated tannins.


El Molino Winery

2003 Chardonnay Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($40)
An excellent non-malolactic Chardonnay that avoids the soft buttery style that I personally find a bit cloying. This shows crisp sweet apples and dust in the nose with a palate showing hazlenuts and ripe meyer lemon.

2002 Pinot Noir Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
An unusual and complex Pinot, with nose of strawberry and sandlewood, palate showing tropical flavors of li chi and berry fruit, at once bright and deep, with a finish dominated by new French oak.


Elyse Winery

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Tietjen Vineyard (tasted 7/05) ($60)
Earthy nose with rust, salt, blueberry, trout skin. Palate full of oily bright red fruit with hints of strawberry.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli Vineyard (tasted 7/05) ($60)
Softer than the 2002, more earthy, with gravelly minerality, tar and some rich loamy mushroom qualities.


Fleury Estate WInery

2003 Merlot Fleury Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Sweet cherries and rose petals in the nose, soft chocolate-cherry palate with some herbal character. Round and supple in the mouth with a smooth finish.


Flora Springs Winery and Vineyard

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($100)
A big supple wine with dry cocoa, black cherries and cassis on the nose with fresh herbal grassy characteristics. It fills the mouth with rich chocolate and coffee qualities and finishes rather smooth. Very polished but overpriced.

2002 Cabernet Trilogy Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Mild nose, still closed at the time of tasting. Palate shows bright spicy red cherry fruit, leather, crisp acid backbone and a tart finish with Christmas spices. Needs a few years to wake up.


Fountainhead Cellars

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli-Borges Vineyard Rutherford (tasted 7/05)($45)
An excellent wine, especially attractive at around half the price of other wines at this tasting. Interesting nose of dry tobacco, cigarette smoke, dark oily cherries and Belgian chocolate. Round mouth feel with a slightly minty finish. Excellent.


Frank Family Vineyards

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve (tasted 7/05) ($65)
A tough and rather tannic wine that will probably age quite well for a decade. Bright red cherries with black pepper and saddle leather with a light chocolate-cherry palate, some tobacco.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford reserve (tasted 7/05) ($65)
Similar to 2001 but with more chocolate profile to the fruit.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Winston Hill Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Restrained and tight, still young, but with a smooth ripe mouth feel. Slightly bitter strong tannins linger in the finish. Needs a few more years to find its center.


Freemark Abbey Winery

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Bosche Vineyard Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Green pepper dominates the nose followed by blueberry, cassis, black pepper, brambles and cinnamon from oak. Complex and good for those who like green pepper in their cabernet.


Frog's Leap
I have often liked Frog Leap's wine for its good value, and I respect them for their honest practices and pursuit of organic grape farming. They buy some of their fruit from the Del Bondio family, who speak highly of Frog's Leap as a business partner. At this particular tasting, I was a bit surprised to learn that their Rutherford Cabernet costs about the same as others in the room (they used to keep their prices lower) and while I like it, I didn't think it stood out at this price point. Good folks nevertheless.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($65)
Within characteristic black cherry fruit, layers of leather, black pepper, minerals and dust join with a hint of Band-aid.



2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Kathryn Hall Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Deep ripe cherries, chocolate and Christmas spices surrounded by tough grainy tannins that take over in the finish. Hopefully the tannins will soften in a few years, but this tastes very tough at this young age.


Heitz Wine Cellar

Famous for the eucalyptus tones in their Martha's Vineyard Cabernet, Heitz remains one of the old-guard leaders for quality Napa wines. This year they showed their confidence by opening some 1989 Trailside Cabernet, which pleased the palate after a roomful of young upstarts.

1989 Cabernet Sauvignon Trailside (tasted 7/05)
Madeira oxidation in the nose with related toasted almond nuttiness. Deep warm earthy cherries coat the palate with good viscosity and an old wine minerality. Veering away from the graphite profiles of a tougher old Cabernet, this shows rich oily character with clear remnants of supporting acidity.

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Trailside (tasted 7/05)
Light fresh nose with red cherry, limestone and iodine, showing warm chocolate on the palate. Still fresh and young at five years.

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Bella Oaks (tasted 7/05)
Dusty cherry nose with wet road tar, artichoke, mint. Showing some age.

2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Bella Oaks (tasted 7/05)
Oily smooth black cherries, pepper, menthol, bay leaves, perhaps some of that eucalyptus profile that one expects from Heitz?


Hewitt Vineyard

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($75)
An excellent, complex, musky wine with smells of deep fruit, earthy loam, rust and sweat. Liquorice and soft chocolate on the palate with lingering cocoa tannins.


Martin Estate

I was so impressed with these wines that I called the Martin family after the tasting to arrange another meeting. Although I often sort my wine impressions by price, the Martin Estate wines jumped out at this tasting in a way that made price irrelevant. Not cheap by any mark, but not the most expensive either, Martin's wines have the type of complexity that makes me take special notice. These wines show pure Cabernet profile of blueberry-cassis, graphite, green pepper, oregano, tar and more, with an immediate appeal supported by the kind of structure that will help them mature for a long time. Regardless of price, these are beautiful wines.

Greg and Petra Martin bought the building that housed one of the oldest wineries in Napa's history, a lovely stone mansion dated 1887, built by Henry Harris and later used by George de Latour for some of the first Beaulieu vintages. The Martins refurbished the old building in 1996, returning it to its original intention as a winery.

Greg Martin grew up in Morgan Hill, south of San Jose. His parents owned a restaurant near the main road, plus a prune and walnut orchard in the hills. Since he was 14 years old, Martin started making wine from grapes growing along the border of his parents' orchard, teaching himself winemaking from scratch. Later he built a career as an antique auctioneer, and followed his calling into Napa.

2001 Martin Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($60)
Tasted next to the Martin Reserve Cabernet, this has a similar profile with slightly softer structure and more of a black olive mouth-feel. Otherwise, refer to the notes for the Reserve, but imagine a lighter, more grainy texture. Excellent and well structured.

2001 Martin Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($100)
Immensely complex wine that opens up into layers of flavor as it breathes. Nose of blueberry, rust, oregano, earthy tarmac; changing into graphite, a bit of green pepper, a hint menthol - bay leaf or dusty eucalyptus, saddle leather, dried tobacco, liquorice, coffee, dry haystacks, alongside the more obvious black cherry, with caramel and cinnamon oak. The palate unfolds over time with blackberry fruit, bittersweet chocolate, mint, and a lingering subtle bitterness that resolves into soft coating tannins. Over time it opens up to add green pepper and pencil shavings, with reminders of blackberry jam that protrudes after the other flavors have passed. A beautiful wine. (14.8% alc.)



2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Vineyard Clone 6 (tasted 7/05)
Almost dead center in the profile of a textbook Napa Cabernet. That's both good and bad. It's a really good wine, with no flaws and generous complex fruit; but it has few characteristics that actually call attention to it. Bright red/black cherry fruit, cassis, liquorice, tar, black olives, with a finish of gravelly tannin and cinnamon red-hots from a big dose of new French cooperage.


Neal Family Vineyard

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Soft and slightly vegetal, with good chocolate and spice character. Something's wrong here though. Either this bottle has gotten cooked or it's a soft and flabby wine.


Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery

I have been hard on Coppola in the past for charging too much for soft drab wines. They make their reputation on Rubicon, wich had better be good for $100. This year it was very good. A hundred bucks good? Well, at least it stood out from the middle of the pack, but I still think it's overpriced.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Rubicon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($100)
Oily black fruit, tar, peppery Greek oregano, black liquorice. I expect this will age into a dark earthy intense wine. Has few of the green-pepper nor graphite characters of Cabernet, showing mostly the tight but ripe tarry profile of big black fruit.

2002 R.C. Reserve Syrah Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($65)
Salty spicy black fruit with an echo of smoked fish skin. A big sulking dark wine, with smooth tannins considering it's Syrah.

2003 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($40)
A lovely, austere but fruity dark Zin, with black pepper, dust, blackberry jam and chocolate. The tannins show good balance with the fruit. Pretty darned expensive for a Zin, but one of the better Zinfandels out there, showing rare balance.



2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Barrel tasting showing bright cherry, Red-vines liquorice, chocolate, pepper, and Sweet-tarts candy sharpness. Could turn into something interesting.

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain (tasted 7/05)
(Not a Ruthorford appellation, they sneaked this one under the table.) Showing characteristic traces of eucalyptus common on Howell Mountain, with bright chocolate, cherry spice, black pepper and minerals. Might be a better wine than their Rutherford.


Pine Ridge

I have tasted through a few of Pine Ridge vintages, and generally find that they make light and balanced wine. They didn't stand out at this tasting among the big guns, but I still like their wines.

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Creamy, light and smooth, with strawberry-raspberry overtones in the fruit, hints of sweet rose petals, liquorice and chocolate. Not big in the mouth, but finishing clean and light. A refreshing break from the big tannic Napa Cabs.


Provenance Vineyards

Recently purchased by the Chalone group, Provenance showed one of the best value wines at this year's Rutherford Dust. Not the best wine at the tasting, but full-bodied, solid and without flaws. I liked it as much as many of those costing twice as much.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($35)
Woody cherries, black liquorice, white pepper, salty ocean breeze and limestone. Cherry-cassis fruit, basic Napa profile, fresh but full-bodied, with slightly granular tannins and cinnamon oak finish.



2002 Red Meritage Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($100)
An absolutely satisfying wine, full-on flavor from start to finish. After hours of careful spitting during the tasting, this was the wine I returned to for actual sipping. Deep black fruit with smooth chocolate mouth-feel, complex and earthy with rich liqueur-like flavors resembling creme de cassis and kahlua, perhaps a touch alcoholic, with giant but well-integrated chalky tannins in the finish.


Raymond Vineyard & Cellars

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($50)
Somewhat predictable Napa profile, a good wine that didn't stand out in a roomful of giants. Cherry/cassis fruit, coffee, leather, with a touch of Band-aid in the nose and drying tannins at the end.


Rutherford Grove Winery

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($40)
A slightly odd wine in this context, with a bright nose showing red cherries, menthol and tar. The oily mouth feel shows good acidity, with minty bright red fruit.


Sawyer Cellars

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($46)
A very good wine - I marked a star by their name while taking notes. Nose shows Creme de Cassis, red and black liquorice. The rich, deep earthy palate offers chocolate and sweet spices with a warm cinnamon finish. By using only the free-run juice and leaving the pressed portion for other purposes, Sawyer has built a rich and smooth wine with softer tannins than many.

2001 Red Meritage Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Warm ripe cherry fruit with brighter acidity than the Cabernet, with balanced oak treatment and smooth tannins. Still young and slightly simple.


Sequoia Grove Winery

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($60)
On the smooth and chocolatey side of the spectrum, with some alcoholic heat and liqueur-like fruit. Rounded nose with blueberry, coffee, chocolate and tar. The rich, rounded palate shows Kahlua and smooth cassis, with hefty lingering tannins.


Slaughterhouse Cellars

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($60)
Bright cherry fruit, leather and pencil shavings, with dusty tannins. A tight wine with a mineral profile.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($60)
Fruit shows more of a raspberry quality alongside the cherry, with pepper and pencils.


St. Clement

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Star Vineyard Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($80)
A hint of Brett in the nose adds a softening touch of wet hay to warm rusty blueberry smells, tar and black cherries. The palate is soft and rich, with black liquorice overtones and mouth-filling fruit, with a minty finish and supple tannins.


Staglin Family Vineyard

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
A deeply layered wine with fragrances directed both towards the bright and dark sides of the spectrum. The nose offers ripe fruit profiles of blueberry, liquorice, coffee and cream, but also a sweet-tart quality that resembles sour grape candy (concord grapes.) The flavors are deep and spicy, with leather, mint, tobacco, and a rusty finish, then resolving toward the trinity of coffee, chocolate and liquorice.


Sullivan Vineyards

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($55)
Nose of bright red/black cherry fruit, anise and cassis. The palate shows black oily qualities with lingering chocolate.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($100)
Musky black cherries, more earthy than the Estate Cabernet, with a clean open palate and strong lingering tannins.

2002 Meritage Couer de Vigne Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($90)
A generous and detailed wine, with deliniated and balanced flavors. Spicy red fruit fills both the nose and palate with full ripe character, chocolate, cinnamon and mellow tannins.


Tres Sabores Vineyard

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Perspective Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Red berry fruit - strawberry or raspberry - with a big jammy palate that one could almost mistake for a Zinfandel, which is a bit ironic considering that most of their other wines were Zinfandel. After a double-take, I confirmed that this was indeed Cabernet.


Trinchero Family Estates

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Chicken Ranch Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($27.50)
One of the lowest priced wines at this tasting, and certainly not the worst. Nose shows strawberry fruit, coffee & cream, with a big black cherry palate and a trace of lingering bitterness within the tannin structure.

2002 Merlot Chicken Ranch Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Not complex but yummy, with rose petals, pepper and cherries in the nose and deep earthy cherry fruit on the palate.


William Harrison Winery

2002 Cabernet Franc Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($35)
Light floral nose, a good expression of the aromatic qualities of Cab Franc. Smooth and light on the palate, with an oily tar quality and hint of strawberry.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($39)
Coffee and chocolate, big ripe black fruit, a finish that almost feels slightly sweet. Seductive.

2002 Rutherford Red Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($45)
One of my favorite Bordeaux style blends at the tasting, with complex layers of herbal smells and rich ripe fruit. Nose shows a trace of Bretty wet grasses, iodine, coffee, leather. Rich and round in the mouth with dark cassis fruit, leather, tobacco, mocha and big lingering tannins.


Witt Estate

2002 Merlot Repartie (tasted 7/05)
A big smooth Merlot with port-like overtones, nose of rose petals and chocolate. Palate shows oily ripe fruit with sweet cherry juice, coffee, and good tannic structure, perhaps a fraction of residual sugar?


Zahtila Vineyards

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer, Georges III (tasted 7/05) ($48)
Bright spicy nose with black cherry and traces of oregano, tar-weed or menthol. Deep earthy coffee and cola palate, round and rich.



Posted June 20, 2005

Diamond Mountain Wineries

Wine Tasting Notes

A cooperative of small Diamond Mountain wineries arranged a promotional tasting in San Francisco in May 2005, which provided an excellent opportunity to taste the common character shared across this excellent appellation. This is the northernmost mountain in the Napa region, bordering Calistoga with Lake County to the north. Most of these wineries are small and family owned, striving for depth, quality and a sense of place. Trying to summarize the common ground between the wines tasted here together, I would describe the profile among the reds (Cabernet in particular) as sharing elements of milk chocolate, anise and a lingering oily quality, with bright red cherry fruit. The Cabernet Francs on Diamond Mountain are among the best I have ever tasted. After the initial tasting, I reconnected with Graeser Winery and tasted most of their current releases, coming away very impressed.

Graeser WInery
255 Petrified Forest Rd., Calistoga, CA 94515
E-mail: Richard@graeserwinery.com
Phone: (707) 942-4437 Fax: (707) 942-4437

After the May '05 Diamond Mountain tasting I got a call from Richard Graeser asking if I would like to taste more of their wines, and possibly help them with release notes. I've known this winery since the late 1990's, but only recently came to appreciate the range and quality of their wines. The Graeser family has owned this land since the mid 1950s, and the buildings on the property date back to the late 1800s. Dick Graeser has been making wine for 20 years without large distribution or marketing. The locals know how good his wines are, and library bottlings from 1990 are still showing well today.

2001 Graeser Alex's Ruff Red Table Wine ($18) (tasted 6/05)
An excellent second tier bottling that uses non-estate grapes but still shows Graeser's clear Bordeaux-style profile, with nose of anise, chocolate, dry grass, caramel and dust. Palate of tart cherries, bright spices, coffee and chocolate mint with soft tannins.

2001 Graeser Cabernet Franc Diamond Mountain ($27) (tasted 6/05)
Nose opens to berry fruit rather than cherries, with black olive, graphite, dry grass, dust, cedar, black pepper. Palate shows creme de cassis, pencils and leather with a light smooth cherry finish. 13.6% alc.

2002 Graeser Cabernet Franc Diamond Mountain ($27) (tasted 5/05)
Surprisingly rich and complete for a Cab Franc, with clean sweet floral fragrances of violets or rose petals, caramel and vanilla oak, bright red fruit, black and green olives, tobacco, liquorice, tar, cherry cream pie and dry haystacks. The palate opens up to black cherries and hibiscus tea with a hint of raspberries, milk chocolate and a creamy coffee finish reminiscent of Kahlua.

2002 Graeser Two Dog Merlot Diamond Mountain ($28) (tasted 6/05)
A rich and generous wine with plenty of complexity, nose of black cherry, chocolate, pepper, coffee, mint and cream (aged cheddar cheese?) Big mouth-filling flavors of spicy black cherries and currants, sweet oak and persistent cocoa tannins.

2002 Graeser Coeur de Leon Diamond Mountain ($28.50) (tasted 5/05)
A Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with a nose of dry grasses, cherry fruit-leather, cedar and milk chocolate. The palate delivers a combination of crisp bright acidity and rich oily fruit texture, mint and liquorice with similarly lingering bright ripe fruit and a hint of cinnamon and coffee. The finish lingers into a smooth creamy mouth-feel. Should develop good complexity with age.

2002 Graeser Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain ($29) (tasted 5/05)
A brambly nose with grasses and saddle leather, coffee, graphite, fennel greens and vanilla taffy oak. Bright palate with oily red cherry, hints of wintergreen, anise, chocolate liquer, finishing in soft cedar/graphite and coffee tannins with lingering caramels. 13.6% alc.

2002 Graeser Chardonnay Diamond Mountain ($24) (tasted 6/05)
A balanced nutty Chardonnay that shows hints of the buttery style while maintaining its freshness. Nose of light butterscotch, baked pippin apples, macadamia nuts and a waft of washed-rind cheese. The crisp and spicy palate shows nutmeg, apple, lemon and vanilla with subtle well integrated oak that offers spices without overpowering. 13.2% alc.

2003 Graeser Semillon Diamond Mountain ($23.50) (tasted 6/05)
Rich musky smells reminiscent of French perfume integrated with crisp pineapple, marzipan, custard. The palate offers lingering hazelnuts, musk and limestone in lemon custard fruit. Would pair well with mussels or baked crab. 13.2% alc.

2003 Graeser Late Harvest Semillon Diamond Mountain ($23.50) (tasted 6/05)
Unfortified dessert wine, not overly sweet, simply allowed to ferment until the yeast stopped at about 15% alcohol. Musky earthy fragrances mingled with pineapple upside-down cake, almonds, apricots and chalky minerals. Lingering smooth sweet palate of apricots, mint and smoke. Pair with a strong aged goat cheese.


2001 Dyer Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain ($70) (tasted 5/05)
One of my personal favorites on Diamond Mountain, this is seriously structured age-worthy wine. Small amounts of Merlot, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot add complexity. Sophisticated nose of black liquorice, black currants, red plums, caramel and chocolate. Rich, smooth and lingering on the palate, with integrated tannins and hints of anise spice in soft ripe cherries. 14.3% alc, 348 cases made.

1996 Dyer Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain (tasted 12/03)
Pure California Cab, but showing such strong acidity that it could sit a few more years. Nose shows dark chocolate and light bright red cherries. Tingling acidity on the tongue, like chewable vitamin C. Bright fruit lingers into chocolate tannins and hint of citrus.


J. Davies
1400 schramsberg Rd., Calistoga CA 94515
www.jdavies.us, Tel: 707-942-8354

Among the Diamond Mountain wines that I have tasted, Davies' show the strongest tannins and the most mineral toughness. At the '05 tasting, I picked up notes that appeared to resemble TCA, although it didn't appear to be cork damage. Some wineries seem to show that profile in the wine naturally. These wines are made in a tough age-worthy style.

2002 J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
Nose showing bright minty red fruit with hints of bay leaves and coriander, tar, fish-skin and ocean breezes with a hint of chlorine. The palate delivers far more fruit than these austere fragrances imply, with black cherries, coffee, tar, chocolate, liquorice and other inky black mineral laden flavors. Finishing with big tannins, drying and intense.


2002 Diamond Creek "Red Rock Terrace" Cabernet blend (tasted 5/05)
Nose shows hints of Bret which actually help soften the tough gravelly minerality. In the palate the fruit also shows minerals, with some pepper spiciness, oily cherries, liquorice and caramel, with a finish of cinnamon oak and lingering dusty tannins.

2002 Diamond Creek "Gravelly Meadow" Cabernet blend (tasted 5/05)
Similar to the Red Rock Terrace but with more chocolate and liquorice notes. The finish also lands on a sweeter and smoother character, with rounder tannins. My favorite of the three Diamond Creek wines tasted here.

2002 Diamond Creek "Volcanic Hill" Cabernet blend (tasted 5/05)
Minty nose with light red fruit, ocean and a bit of fish-pond. Very tannic on the palate, with a slightly thin finish. This needs a return in several years to learn if these tannins resolve and if the fruit pokes its head out from the minerality.


Diamond Terrace
Among my favorite of the wines at the Diamond Mountain tasting, it didn't surprise me that Diamond Terrace is the next-door neighbor to Dyer, another favorite. They have a terraced hillside vineyard with good drainage and wide sun exposure. Their wines tasted rich and balanced, with balanced acidity, round chocolatey fruit and integrated oily-velvet tannic structure.

2002 Diamond Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted 5/05)
Nose showing ripe black fruit, black olives and liquorice. The ripe oily palate offers a smooth round mouth-feel, rich with chocolate and coffee overtones, with silky integrated tannins and good acid balance. The finish lingers with bittersweet cocoa, black tar and coffee. Yum.

1999 Diamond Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted 5/05)
Library tasting, not for sale. A few more years have exposed the complexity of the fruit, with layered aromas of fresh olives, black liquorice, coffee, sage, red cherry, and slightly salty oceanic smells. More tannic than 2002, with higher acidity, drier and more herbal. A lovely wine with many more years' potential.


Reverie Winery
1520 Diamond Mountain Rd. Calistoga, CA 94515

Norm Kiken started his winery in 1993, leaving his east coast investment job to pursue his love of wine. People don't make fortunes this way; but in Kiken's case, he made great wine. His steep 40 acre property has volcanic soil and south-facing slopes, producing a variety of big red wines, and one of the very best and most unique Cabernet Francs I've ever tasted.

2000 A.S. Kiken Red Table Wine Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
Nose shows a hint of wet hay (Bret) with bright red cherries, black olive and liquorice. Something goes a bit awry on the palate, with extremely tannic minty fruit and dry baker's cocoa, ending in an onslaught of tannin.

2002 Reverie Cabernet Franc Diamond Mountain ($45) (tasted 5/05)
Exceptional chocolate nose with rich candied espresso beans, violets, toasted and rich mocha -- more than any cherry or berry fragrances. The palate also shows rich milk chocolate fruit with a hint of dry grasses and smooth cocoa-butter tannins, toasted sweet peppers, blueberries, lingering into a caramel oak finish. Unique and astonishing.

2002 Reverie Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
Nose shows a hint of wet grass, salted fish and leather with chocolate. After studying the profile, some bretty qualities become noticeable, but not bothersome. Palate of blueberry, cherry, cassis with a finish of black olive tannins.

2000 Reverie Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
A salty nose with black cherry and cassis fruit, liquorice, tar and mint. Delicious structured flavors with chocolate-mint and a smooth mouth-feel, finishing in black liquorice and black olives. A good balance between fruity and earthy flavors, excellent rich and clean Cabernet profile.

2001 Reverie Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
Slightly more generous ripe fruit than the 2000 Reserve Cabernet, but also a hint of Bret in the nose, which integrates well and only serves to make the fruit seem softer and riper. Nose of chocolate, anise, tar and barnyard with a palate showing rich milk chocolate or Kahlua with clean acidity and a finish hinting at chocolate and black liquorice.


2001 Andrew Geoffrey Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
A small winery with 14 acres of grapes owned by Peter Thompson and named after his two sons Andrew and Geoffrey. He makes an excellent Cabernet blend (small amounts of other Bordeaux varietals) with deep complexity and a hint of grassy Bret overtones. Nose is slightly herbal, musty, with leather, creme brulée, black cherries, anise, barnyard. The palate resembles chocolate covered dried cherries, with crisp minty brightness from clear acidity. Dry dusty oak lingers on the palate with soft tannins alongside oily chocolate, cinnamon and cloves from new French oak. I like this one very much - an example of a wine that benefits from tiny amounts of Bret to add depth to an already excellent profile.


2001 Constant Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Estate (tasted 5/05)
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cab Franc, 10% Merlot. Nose of chocolate, liquorice, mint and dusty toasted oak. Palate shows some black pepper with cocoa powder and dry tannins, not as characteristically oily in the mouth as many of the Diamond Mountain wines. Anise seeds linger in the finish alongside black cherry fruit.

2002 Constant Syrah (tasted 5/05)
Pure syrah nose of wet grasses, blueberries, rust and sweaty leather. A bit too much oak for my own taste in a Syrah, with a lingering finish of chocolate, mint and dry grasses. This might pair well with an aged brie and sausage. A big stinky good wine.


1999 Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine, Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
High acidity with a nose showing bright green apples, hinting at strawberries and dry grasses. Clean and refreshing palate with a light finish.



2001 Von Strasser Zinfandel, Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
Nose showing sweet strawberry ripeness, vanilla and a dusting of black pepper. The palate shows much more feisty acidity than the ripe nose implies, with slightly pinched raspberries and lots of pepper, finishing smoother with vanilla oak.

2001 Von Strasser Cabernet Sauv. 5 Vineyards, Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
Delicate light cherry nose with a hint of rose petals. Flavors of young bright cherry fruit, balanced and spicy with lingering tannins, yet finishing slightly quickly with some stemmy qualities. Clean and bright overall.

2001 Von Strasser Cabernet Sauv. Estate, Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
A deep and complex nose with leather, oily cherry and cassis fruit, cloves, black olives and oak caramels. The palate shows well integrated soft tannins in ripe cherry fruit with a hint of mint. Should develop well with age.

2001 Von Strasser Red Wine, Sori Bricco Vnyd., Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
A blend of 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot, and 9% Cabernet Franc. Fragrances of white taffy, leather, pencils and ripe cherries. These flavors echo on the tongue, with ripe red fruit and leathery cedar. The oak never dominates, only providing subtle support while strong tannins linger in the finish.