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Family Winemakers of California
Fort Mason, San Francisco, August 19-20, 2007
(Augmented by Passion for Paso, San Jose, August 30)
by Robert Rich, September 2007
(Above: Sensorium's Jeff Ritchey and business partner John Zasio.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
1340 Penman Springs Road, Paso Robles, CA 93446
Notes in progress from Paso for Paso tasting - coming soon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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:
5805 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles, CA 93446
Notes in progress - coming soon.
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
Tasting Notes: Family Winemakers - 2004
by Robert Rich, January 2004
Arbios Cellars561 Mission Blvd.
Santa Rosa CA 95409
Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill and Susan Arbios have run their small winery for two decades, making small batches of honest Sonoma Cabernet. He seems to aim for good structure and balance in a clean and uncomplicated style. With grapes coming from the Alexander Valley, his wines typically show fairly high acidity and tannin, big in the nose and light on the palate. His Praxis sub-label makes very good affordable table wines selling mostly to restaurants or direct from the winery.
Arbios 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley ($38)
Nose of light cherry, dry grass and delicate caramel oak slowly opening into leathershop and cigar box earthy tones. The palate seems a bit thin at first, with bright acidity and lingering clean dry tannins, hints of tea, leather and cedar in an open body of red cherry fruit. Very clean and light overall, mostly delivering in the nose.
Arbios 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley ($38)
Active and complex fragrances, richly nuanced with cassis, clay dust, butterscotch, iodine, graphite, chocolate, toasted stems (briar), menthol (balsam or pine?), capsicum. Very clean and bright palate with dusty tannins, plummy fruit and graphite in the finish. Shows a lot of finesse.
Praxis 2000 Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands ($15)
Fragrances of a classic light pinot, grassy and dry, crisp cherry, a touch of barnyard and dusty clay. Palate is light and not lingering, with clean acidity, leathery tart cherry fruit, well controlled light oak with a bit of toastiness. Very food-friendly. (13.5% alc.)
Praxis 2002 Viognier Lodi ($15)
Deeply layered and complex nose, slightly woody, with nutmeg, clamshells, a hint of caramel, honeycomb wax, and malolactic popcorn. Rich and buttery mouthfeel, with smooth fruit oils that imply sweetness, but finishing with dryer woodiness, lingering notes of smoke and pineapple. This wine paired very well with tofu in spicy black bean sauce, and I think it would taste perfect with oysters. (14.5% alc.)
Praxis 2002 Merlot Dry Creek Valley ($15)
A small batch of grapes came available for sale in Dry Creek, and Arbios made a beautiful balanced Merlot with them. Deep ripe fragrances of cassis and black cherry fruit, not brambly like many Merlots from Dry Creek, with nuances of liquorice, chocolate, and tobacco. Palate shows oily soft tannins that linger on the tongue, medium acidity, round ripe fruit and lasting fatty oak sweetness.
1961 Highway 4
Douglas Flat, CA 95229
Owner Gay Callan first planted chardonnay and chenin blanc in Calaveras County back in 1981. Her vineyards have since grown to 65 acres and 14 varietals. Chatom's previous winemaker, Scott Klann, made soft and easy drinking wines with low acidity. New winemaker Mari Wells has only released one of her first vintages at the time of this writing (December '03), the 2002 Chardonnay. I'm looking forward to taste what she brings to these warm summer grapes. Overall, the quality of these wines continues to impress me at their very affordable price range. I think Chatom makes some of the better value Gold Country wines.
2000 Sangiovese Gitano ($12)
Nose of dry leather and tart cherry fruit, iron minerality, burnt toast. It seems the dry oak smells dominate the thin fruit. Clean and acidic in the mouth, a bit watery, plum fruit with a sweet oak finish. (14.1% alc.)
2000 Zinfandel Calaveras County ($16)
A lush and very soft pillow of flavor, reminding me of hot cocoa and berry cobbler. The warm nose doesn't explode out of the glass, but gently exudes cocoa powder, ripe plums, blackberries and strawberries, clay dust, some briar but not much pepper or spice, a hint of VA and taffy from the oak. Soft chocolate in the mouth, very ripe and low acidity, deep and earthy, with characteristic ripe Zin pepperiness hiding until the finish. (14.2% alc.)
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Calaveras County ($18)
Nose of brambly blackberries, milk chocolate and vanilla, coffee, coconut, thyme, cedarwood; opening up with a dusting of gravel and a drop of iodine. Palate of blackberries, lichi tea, rose syrup, chocolate tannins and graphite. A surprisingly complex and generous cabernet at this price point.
2001 Merlot Calaveras County ($24)
A plush and velvety merlot, smooth in the mouth. The nose shows very little of the brambly side of this grape, instead showing deep sweet blackberry and cherry, dark chocolate, tobacco smoke and mint. Very full mouth-feel, low acidity, soft tannin, viscous black cherry lingering into cocoa. Drink this wine young and enjoy the huge deep fruit. (14.5% alc)
2002 Chardonnay Calaveras County ($14)
A very generous nose full of strong ripe fruit, with green apples, pears, brown sugar and a hint of paint-like terpines (from the fruit.) Warm and dark on the palate, evoking Christmas spices, with pear and Meyer lemon flavors, finishing in a light oily tartness without too much oak. (14.5% alc.)
1289 Bella Oaks Lane, Napa, CA 94558
The Del Bondio family has grown fruit in Oakville and Rutherford since 1910, when prunes dominated the Napa valley. Replanting to vineyards 40 years ago, they began selling grapes to surrounding wineries, recently Frogs Leap and Downing Family. The new generation began a label in 1997, with father Rich Poncia and son Shawn Sellers at the helm, winemaker Randy Mason consulting.
I met Poncia on a recent rainy November morning at the construction site of his new winery building. In coveralls and boots, more farmer than entrepreneur, Poncia looked a bit like Jerry Garcia. Del Bondio's vineyard has organic certification. Their compost operations convert grape wastes into natural fertilizer. Around the vineyards, boxes on poles offered homes for owls, hawks and bats to rid pests without poisons.
2001 Syrah Oakville Napa Valley ($25)
A fascinating contrast between a candy nose and austere tannic flavors. Perfumes of sugared cherries, coffee, soft caramel oak. Very acidic dry palate with rose oil, black coffee, and strong lingering tannins. Tough and bright, would pair perfectly with fatty meat like leg of lamb. 1000 cases made.
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Napa Valley ($38)
A Rutherford cab that shows clean varietal flavor without the typical heavy oak treatment so common in this region. Nose with pepper, brambly cherries, earth and musk wrapped in delicate sweet oak. Very clean and cedary on the palate, a bit thin and bright, with red cherry fruit. The finish lasts longer than the thin center-palate would imply, with a hint of tobacco and subdued oak character. A clear honest Napa cab. 2400 cases made. (The 1998 and 2000 Cabernets have a similar profile but thinner palate. So far I think the 1999 is the best of these three vintages for Del Bondio.)
Dutch Bill Creek
P.O. Box 238
Occidental, CA 95465
Husband and wife team of Charles and Deborah Heintz started by farming grapes in Occidental near the Russian River. They began making their own wine in 1997, and have just released an exceptional first pinot noir. When I met them toward the end of the Family Winemekers tasting, my mouth was rather numb from a day's worth of tannin, but their 2002 pinot noir had such a huge round mouth-feel that it clearly stood out among the best I had tasted recently.
2001 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Heintz Ranch ($30)
Complex nose of butter, apples, apricots, candied pineapple, bubblegum, taffy, chalk, lemon custard. Coats the mouth with buttery softness, showing full malolactic, with a hint of nutmeg oak in a long lingering finish. Good acidic backbone keeps the palate open rather than cloying, helping it pair with food despite the soft texture and oak. 452 cases made. (14.2% alc.)
2002 Pinot Noir Sonoma County Heintz Ranch ($40)
Warm candied black cherry fragrances deepened by smells of earthy humus, hayloft, vanilla créme brulée, violets and tropical fruit (papaya?). As the wine opens in the glass the bouquet turns darker, more barnyard and damp earth mixed with the black cherries, but not particularly bretty. Round and oily in the mouth, one of those rare pinot noirs that delivers a larger mouth-feel than its nose, with floral perfumes rising to the back of the palate, lingering notes of peach nectar. Soft and sensual, velvety and smooth. 473 cases made. (15.5% alc.)
4500 Atlas Peak Rd., Napa, CA 94558
Patrick Elliott-Smith lived in France during his teens, where he tasted some of the great Bordeaux from his grandfather's cellar. He and his brother came to California in the early '70s, bought property on the slopes of Atlas Peak and began farming.
After procuring property near the summit in 1979, he lived in a teepee while clearing brush and planting Cabernet vines. He sold his grapes to Caymus, who used them to add structure to their Special Select, a wine which now sells for well over $100.
Elliott-Smith started Elan in 1992, making fewer than 1000 cases annually from his own Cabernet grapes. He built a house of rammed earth where the teepee once stood, vineyards surrounding it, cellar beneath. Patrick's wife Linda helps run the business, their two children help charm the guests.
1992 Elan Cabernet Sauvignon (Atlas Peak, Napa)
Amazingly clean and youthful after 10 years in the bottle. Complex smells of fireplace ash, pepper and cloves from integrated oak, raspberry fruit that opens into the rusty blueberry quality of the younger Elan vintages; but overall more grapey, less herbal than the younger wines. The palate softens into chocolate and graphite minerality as it breathes. Quite delicate and lovely, showing amazing ageworthiness for these grapes.
1995 Elan Cabernet Sauvignon (Atlas Peak, Napa) ($50 library)
It seems that Elan almost inverts the usual vintage profiles, austere in ripe years and softer during tough years. This '95 shows much more fruit than the '97, surprising considering the vintages. Maybe it's the altitude? This is huge, tough and lovely. More caramel, chocolate and blueberries in the nose, less tar and rust than '97, much more generous. A bit of iodine on the palate, with the blueberry fruit receding behind herbal lime citrus acidity, but softer in the finish with orange oil, fully integrated oak and a hint of dusty tar.
1997 Elan Cabernet Sauvignon (Atlas Peak, Napa) ($50 library)
An austere wine, full of dusty herbal complexity. Challenging aromas of Herbs de Provence, sage, graphite, rust, fishtank, dusty roadside tar after an early rain. The usually predominant Elan steely blueberry fruit actually hides in the background behind all this herbaceousness until it hits the palate. There it is: blueberries and raw meat with sweet oak and a twist in the direction of tart cherries as it fades alongside cocoa tannins.
1999 Elan Cabernet Sauvignon (Atlas Peak, Napa) ($45)
A huge complex nose with blueberry fruit, cola, cocoa, iron rust minerality, mint leaves, hints of anise, cedar, sage and tar. Huge and oily in the mouth, lingering with big chocolatey dark fruit, a touch of black liquorice and deep lasting tannins. One of Elan's more gentle years, showing lovely deep fruit. Not anything like a simple fruity Napa cab, but more serious and likely to live long in the cellar.
2000 Elan Cabernet Sauvignon (Atlas Peak, Napa) ($45)
A crusty big cab. Might have a similar profile to the 1995 (chocolate, ripe blueberry, rust) but harder, more metallic, hints of coffee, higher tannin, more austere. Two years of 70% new French oak didn't overpower this giant wine, whose mountain austerity harkens clearly to a big tough Bordeaux - but fully ripe. Makes the 1999 seem soft by comparison. Set this one down for at least 5-10 years.
Lava Cap Winery
This winery surprises me with its consistently excellent wines. Their prices are higher than most El Dorado vineyards, but I rate their wines a value considering the quality.
David Jones helped found Family Winemakers in 1992, and served as president for two years. A Stanford graduate and USGS geologist in Menlo Park, Jones taught Geology at UC Berkeley from 1985-96. In 1981 his family bought property above Placerville and planted vines.
They have one of the highest elevation vineyards in El Dorado county, with cool air, strong sunlight, and decomposed granite soil that permeates most of their wines with a characteristic dusty granite fragrance that I am quite fond of. David's son Tom Jones makes the wines, aiming for rich accessible flavors with soft tannins, good balance and a sense of place.
(Tasted December 2002 unless otherwise noted.)
*2001 Fumé Blanc (sauvignon blanc) ($12)
Here's a big surprise from gold country wineries. I never realized a sauvignon blanc grape could generate enough sugars to get a wine this high in alcohol (15.4%). The flavors are very complex, as rich in its own way as a big red wine. Nose isn't hot, considering the high percentage. Very mineral, granite dust or flint. Huge fruit palate with lemon/citrus, sweet pink grapefruit (not bitter), a bit tropical, orange blossoms or orange oil. Finish with a clover honey aftertaste. A very unusual wine, and a new favorite choice for a white wine. Not "light" by any means.
2001 Chardonnay reserve ($16.50)
Pleasantly not over-oaked. Despite 100% malolactic, the buttery qualities do not overpower the fruit. Pineapple overtones, and vineyard characteristic granite dust nose. A well balanced fruity/mineral chard.
2000 Semillon ($18)
Floral nose with sweet overtones, clover honey, with salty limestone mineral qualities instead of the granite that permeates the other wines. A slightly rubbery smell reminds me of Monbazillac or Riesling, but the winery owner David Jones says they don't get botritis (the "noble rot") in these vineyards. Hmmm. Soft vanilla and buttery finish. Slightly sweet and lingering.
2001 Viognier ($?)
Pre-release sample. Exotic tropical nose of apricots, pineapple, peach pits (almondy), not mineral. Palate with hints of lichi and buttery vanillins. Very sensuous and fragrant.
*2000 Barbera reserve ($25)
Hugely mineral nose that jumps out of the glass like a dusty breeze in the sierra high country. A strong sense of place. Vinillins linger under the dust. Palate with soft tannins, big ripe fruit, medium acidity. Finish with dark cherries, caramel, acidity, some oak characteristics.
2000 Sangiovese ($?)
Lower acidity than the Barbera, more limestone and less granite mineral characteristics. Cinnamon nose, soft caramel finish. Part mourvedre in the blend lends some spicy weight.
2000 Merlot reserve ($20)
Very ripe fruity nose with cinamon and vanilla, ripe blackberries. Flavors are simple and very fruit-forward, lush, with lots of oak on the finish.
1999 Merlot Stromberg ($30)
A hint of oxidation on the nose (acetaldehyde, but not a serious problem, results in port-like quality.) More complex and balanced than the reserve, the fruit balances better with tannin and acid structure. Lingering tannin, with hints of chocolate and humus.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon reserve ($20)
Table-ready flavors, very ripe and smooth, light to medium tannin and a chocolatey finish.
*2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Stromberg ($?)
Much more mineral nose than the reserve, higher acid and liquorice-like tannins (lingering oily mouth feel, like a young Bordeaux.) Finish with caramel vanilla, a hint of anise?
2000 Cabernet Franc ($35)
Vanillins overtake the floral nose that would be more typical of this varietal. Buttery palate, with good acidity. Light flavors with a hint of bitter cherries.
2000 Syrah reserve ($20)
Without the granite nose, more smooth, earthy, spicy cinamon toast, slightly herbaceous in the mouth. 15.1% alc.
*1999 Syrah reserve ($40)
Very active nose, with a hint of terpines, violet perfume (almost soapy), without the granite dust tones, exotic floral hints of gardenias or orchids. Palate is huge, explosive fruit and sensuous supple ripeness, with vanilla, smoke and bright cherry tones. 15.4% alc.
*2000 Zinfandel reserve ($25)
Dusty granite nose, with ripe strawberries, raspberries, chocolate, black pepper, oregano. Residual sweet flavors of cardomom and anise. A very interesting, big unique zinfandel. 15.3% alc.
*2000 Petite Syrah ($30)
Dusty granite nose, soft cherries, blueberries and raspberries, lots of tannins and ripe fruit. Huge in the mouth, very ripe and slightly sweet (.4% residual sugar. 15.3% alc.
*2000 Mourvedre ($20)
Fragrances of chocolate, toasted christmas spices, ripe cherries. A touch oxidized and portlike, but these oxidized smells faded the next day after tasting again from the opened bottle. Lingering soft tannins. A fair amount of residual sugars (.4%) lends to the port analogy. 15.1% alc.
2001 Cabernet Blanc dessert wine ($15)
A cabernet sauvignon grape grown in a colder area that didn't quite achieve ripeness, so the vintner chose to stop fermentation before complete dryness, leaving more residual sugars (6.5%). Nose of strawberries, mint and cinamon, like hard candies, with additional minerals and floral tones. Palate with high glycerin, making lingering soft mouth-feel of strawberries. 12.7% alc.
*2001 Muscat Canelli ($15)
Mineral floral nose with a sexy elusive fruit palate, smells of tropical fruits and pears. The mouth-feel is oily and exotic.
*2001 Barbera Reserve (tasted 12/03)
With grapes from Amador county, this barbera has an immensely complex nose, starting with a healthy dose of mineral dust and oak spice. After sitting open for a few hours, amazing things happen. Nose of spicy caramel oak, ripe briary cherries and plums, peach blossoms, caraway seeds, musk perfume, light cigar tobacco (Galloise cigarettes.) The palate shows characteristic high acidity and low tannin, with huge mouth-coating spicy cherry, plum and berry liquer, dry cedar, glycerin, and a slightly splintery cigar box finish. (15.3% alc.)
2001 Merlot Reserve El Dorado (tasted 12/03)
Deep cherry fruit and caramel oak nose, with dusty gravel, peppery spices, chocolate mint and gardenia blossoms. Flavors well balanced between minty cherry fruit, chewy chocolate tannins, and tobacco-caramel oak.
Pax Wine Cellars
Pax Mahle makes only Syrah. The 2000 vintage marked his first releases, and judging from the crowd around his booth at the Family Winemakers Tasting, I'll guess I'm not the only person who thinks he's starting with a bang. Pax has a goal to express the pure flavors of cooler climate syrah vineyards in Northern California, steering towards organic practices and traditional winemaking methods. His Syrahs show inky dark extraction, huge fruit and deep tannins, artfully combining the soft and hard sides of this giant grape.
2002 Syrah Sonoma Hillside ($25)
Pax's entry level Syrah, with a blend of three hillside vinyeards, aiming at the reference point of a ripe Crozes-Hermitage. This wine shows a fruit-forward blackberry nose with violets, liquorice and smoke, slightly grassy or minty, with mineral earthiness. Tannic but very rich on the palate, dark ripe fruit. An amazing wine for "low end". 507 cases (14.9% alc.)
2002 Syrah Castelli-Knight Ranch ($45)
A massive wine by anyone's standards, almost over the top. Huge alcohol and high pH (4.0) it shows what happens when extremely ripe grapes extract to their full extent. Nose of blueberries, raw meat (rust), schezuan peppercorns, star anise and black pepper. Tastes sweet and plummy in the mouth despite full dryness. The tannins take over after a few sips and completely coat the tongue. 253 cases (16.9% alc.)
2002 Syrah Walker Vine Hill ($50)
Notes from quick taste at Family Winemakers: Softer than the Castelli-Knight, with a bit more finesse, more fruity, lush and floral. Tannins in control, less spicy, but the nose shows beautiful perfumes of rose petals and violets, in the mouth the fruit dominates with deceptive sweetness. Long and lingering palate, soft and huge. 184 cases (15.2% alc.)
Pride Mountain Vineyards
and Robert Foley
4026 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena CA 94574
Winemaker Bob Foley is a master at balance, making giant wines that show good fruit, acidity, tannin, and spicy complexity. When he bottles his own label, the balance point sits at the extreme of saturated flavors: crazy big wines. It helps that his grapes come from one of the best high-elevation growing regions in California, above the Napa Valley on Spring Mountain.
These wines are expensive, and they get high points in the wine press. They deserve the accolades, but I wish the prices could come down a bit so I could buy more! Foley releases only two wines on his own label, Charbono and Claret. The Charbono is a fruit-driven spicy wine with smokey flavors. His gigantic Claret uses the same grapes as the Pride Reserve Cabernet (around $150/bottle), blended to his own tastes and sold at "only" $100.
2001 Pride Merlot ($48)
Intense nose of chocolate, cassis, black cherries, caramel oak, a hint of brambles and clove, some dark floral overtones (violets). Giant fruit on the palate, black cherry with coffee, velvety large tannins. The tannins and fruit linger for a very long time. 5382 cases (14.1% alc.)
2001 Robert Foley Claret ($100)
This wine makes everything else seem small, fat and ripe but wearing velvet gloves. Big everything: tannin, oak, fruit, nose, palate, finish, etc. Deep sweet black cherry nose surrounded by caramel taffy oak, chocolate mint, almonds, cinnamon and winter spices. I pictured zabaglione for some reason: marsala in sweet heavy cream with ripe berries. The flavors conquered the mouth with monstrous sweet black fruit, bitter chocolate, splinters and rock hard tannins (seemingly integrated due to overwhelming fruit and oak), almost impenetrably deep with an endless finish (still lingering 5 minutes after.) After five hours in the glass, it opened into coconut, dark chocolate, blackberries and liquorice. The next day (in the same glass) it tasted like black cherries, caramel oak, milk chocolate and wet leaves. A crazy megawine.
2002 Pride Chardonnay ($35)
A sweet nose of caramel apples, butter and a hint of citrus. Full ripeness, soft malolactic flavors of butterscotch and toasted pineapple, lingering oak sweetness but with enough acidity to keep it from getting cloying. 1484 cases (14.3% alc.)
2002 Pride Viognier ($40)
Floral and fleshy-fruit perfumes show great depth and subtlety. Tropical flowers, peaches or apricots, not much oak at all (a refreshing change that will make this pair well with food.) Crisp yet lingering in the mouth, a viscous mouth feel, with a sense of sweetness despite full dryness and high acidity. Not a trace of bitterness in the long smokey finish. Clean, complex and lovely. 1867 cases (13.9% alc.)
2002 Robert Foley Vineyards Charbono, Napa Valley ($35)
Nose of young unintegrated oak, toasted caramel, hints of cherry, dark earthy chocolate, some VA, low-frequency notes. Flavors reminiscent of barbecue, lots of acidity, lots of fruit extraction, medium low tannin. A slightly quirky wine whose spicy smokiness would pair perfectly with barbecued ribs.
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