Archive for September 2006

Movie Reviews: Hollywoodland and The Last Kiss

September 27, 2006

My wife and I decided to see a couple of movies last weekend, as this fall is already being touted as one of the best for movies in recent memory. Briefly, here are my thoughts on them:

HOLLYWOODLAND (126 minutes, directed by Allen Coulter, starring Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck)       *** out of 4 Stars

“Hollywoodland” is an intelligently written look at the life and death of George Reeves, who played Superman in the original television series in the 1950s. To its credit, the film does not play like a suspense or a mystery, as its point is to examine rather than resolve to circumstances surrounding Reeves’ mysterious death in his home. Affleck does a respectable job of portraying the troubled Reeves, who openly dispised the Superman show and the fame he gained as a result. However, I found myself wishing his portrayal was given more depth by the script. Affleck’s most telling scene comes at a carnival where he is dressed up as Superman and is approached by a young boy pointing what appears to be a real gun at him, not understanding that what he sees on television does not carry over to reality.

The best performance is given by Brody starring as cocky private eye Louis Simo who is hired to investigate the mysterious death, which was ruled a suicide by police. The movie consists of Simo’s investigation and his fearless public disapproval of the police department’s closing of the case as a suicide without further investigation. Throughout the movie, he imagines all of the different circumstances that could have caused Reeves’ death, eventually settling on one that eases his mind about a case that had driven him mad.

Diane Lane gives a powerful performance as Toni Mannix, the wife of MGM studio head Edgar Mannix and girlfriend of Reeves. Did Mannix have Reeves killed for his relationship with Toni? Did he have Reeves killed for breaking Toni’s heart? Was Reeves killed by his moderately unbalanced fiancee? Or had Reeves simply decided that he’d had enough of the Hollywood lifestyle? “Hollywoodland” doesn’t answer any of these questions, and to do so is not its purpose. Instead, it provides an accurate portrayal of the facts along with insight into the tendency for corruption and mental instability in the land of Hollywood.

THE LAST KISS (104 minutes, directed by Tony Goldwyn, starring Zach Braff, Jacinda Barrett and Rachel Bilson)    ** 1/2 out of 4 stars

Being a man who married at the age of twenty-five, I have trouble connecting to such commitment-phobic characters as Zach Braff’s character represents here. However, I knew the plotline going in, so I digress. Braff stars as Michael, a thirty-year old man who lives with his pregnant girlfriend Jenna who he has dated for three years but does not want to marry yet. This isn’t exactly a shocking state of affairs in the world today, so I suppose the movie attempts to become interesting when Michael and Jenna travel to a friend’s wedding and Michael, having escaped Jenna’s supervision, lays eyes on Kim. Played to perfection by the intelligently cast Rachel Bilson, Kim is a twenty-two year old college student who thinks, talks and acts exactly like a co-ed should. (So do you like, want my number or something?)

Predictably, Michael is tempted by Kim. He tracks her down on campus, not knowing exactly what he is doing or what he hopes to gain. The character of Michael is frustrating in that he never completely understands his own intentions, but I suppose that this is the point of the film, that temptation happens. But everyone who has ever been in a relationship on any level knows that already. Where the film fails is in its lack of resolution on this point- can succombing to temptation be forgiven? Or is letting your guard down and devastating someone who loves you unforgivable? I suppose the movie also succeeds in letting the audience determine this for themselves, but it is difficult when Michael’s character deserves little to no sympathy.

I am, of course, getting ahead of myself, and the point of the movie where the predictable plot unleashes itself is painful to watch. One thing leads to another, Michael is unable to resist Kim’s advances, Jenna figures it out and Michael’s world comes crashing in. As Jenna, Jacinda Barrett gives an impressive performance as a young woman trying to balance her feelings of extreme anger and sadness against each other, and as the film ends, these feelings are still unresolved.

Overall, the film is well-acted and mildly entertaining but its premise does not generate a lot of intrigue.  To me, a thirty-year old man who has a pregnant girlfriend and cheats on her is a pretty horrible person and a loser, and I didn’t need to watch this movie to decide as much.

What ever happened to the extra point? College Football Week 4 Recap

September 26, 2006

Okay, so Notre Dame’s unthinkable comeback stole the show during what turned out to be a more exciting weekend of football than I anticipated. But what was the deal with the special teams?

You really had to feel for Alabama kicker Leigh Tiffin after the Tide lost a heartbreaker in double overtime at Arkansas 24-23. Such a loss is always heartbreaking, but it certainly feels worse when your kicker misses an extra point and THREE field goals inside of 40 yards. He was able to the first of his four attempts, but it was from 46 yards! Go figure.  Oh, and the missed extra point came after the Tide scored on the opening possession of double overtime. Arkansas then promptly scored to tie the game and converted an extra point that felt like a 50-yard field goal to win the game. Wooey pig suey!!!

Then, later in the day, Boston College scored quickly in their game at NC State but missed the extra point. They later scored a field goal to make the game 9-7, which was suprisingly close as I expected BC to dominate. When they scored again, the missed extra point early on forced them to go for a two point conversion, which they also failed to convert, giving them a 15-10 lead after an NC State field goal. The Wolfpack then threw a hail mary to give them the win thanks to BC’s trouble on special teams.

And then, of course, the game of the day, and probably the year, Notre Dame at Michigan State. The Spartans jumped out feriouciously to a 17-0 lead, but everyone knew that the Irish offense would put some points on the board before the game ended, especially after recalling that last year’s game between these teams began on a similar note. Notre Dame’s offense got rolling, but Michigan State was still powering the points onto the scoreboard. Leading 31-21 in a monsoon of a downpour, the Spartans scored again to seemingly push the game to a three possession differential and virtually seal the deal early into the fourth quarter. However, a missed extra point kept the game within two scores for the Irish, a tremendous difference with time winding down. Notre Dame did indeed score again and was unable to convert on the two point conversion, and the game remained a two possession deficit, but this was a giant mistake by the Michigan State special teams.

Of course, Notre Dame would score again to pull within four points, 37-33, with the extra point coming, which they then returned the favor by missing. This was another giant miss, as now the Irish would have to score a touchdown for the win. Michigan State’s ineptness at clock management and protection of field possession led to Stanton throwing an inexplicable pass that was intercepted and returned by the Irish for the game winning touchdown. Why were the Spartans even passing the ball at this point? Your guess is as good as mine. This play really bailed out the Irish, who wouldn’t have had the luxury of getting into field goal range to force overtime.

Anyway, the extra points missed in this game didn’t determine the outcome like the previous two did, but they certainly could have, and they definitely cost me my 3.5 point spread. Curses!

In other action:

– Penn State gave Ohio State all they could handle in Columbus, despite a misleading 28-6 score. The Nittany Lions actually had the ball with three minutes to play trailing 14-6 and with a shot to tie the game. Then they threw two interceptions that were both returned for touchdowns. Regardless, they showed that the Buckeye offense can be kept in check.

– California played like the team I expected them to be in a 49-21 thrashing of Arizona State. It contiunes to amaze me how weak Pac-10 defenses are.

– Georgia survived what would have been a devastating home loss against winless Colorado with some late heroics from their backup QB. The Bulldogs have one of the best running attacks in the nation and a stout defense but until they find more balance offensively they are going to struggle against more formidable opponents.

TOP 25 OF THE MATTY, games through September 23rd

  1. Ohio State (4-0)
  2. USC (3-0)
  3. Michigan (4-0)
  4. Auburn (4-0)
  5. West Virginia (4-0)
  6. Florida (4-0)
  7. Texas (3-1)
  8. Notre Dame (3-1)
  9. LSU (3-1)
  10. Louisville (4-0)
  11. Georgia (4-0)
  12. Iowa (4-0)
  13. Oklahoma (3-1)
  14. Oregon (3-0)
  15. Tennessee (3-1)
  16. California (3-1)
  17. Clemson (3-1)
  18. Nebraska (3-1)
  19. Florida State (3-1)
  20. Virginia Tech (4-0)
  21. Arkansas (3-1)
  22. TCU (3-0)
  23. Boston College (3-1)
  24. Alabama (3-1)
  25. Georgia Tech (3-1)

Heisman Watch

  1. Troy Smith, Ohio State
  2. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma
  3. Brady Quinn, Notre Dame
  4. Steve Slaton, West Virginia
  5. Chris Leak, Florida

Oh-No Oh-You! College Football Week 3 Recap

September 17, 2006

So basically my picks for this mega Saturday of college football games didn’t really go so well for me. I suppose it could have been worse–I went 3 for 8 on the outrights, 2 losses of which I still covered the spread. Of course, I missed the spread on 2 of the outrights I picked correctly so it evens out. How do you miss 2 games by a half a point on the same Saturday? (LSU +3.5 and USC -18.5. Grrrr……)

But the worst part of Saturday wasn’t the narrow misses on the spreads, the Irish getting blasted at home or Miami’s no-show. It was watching Oklahoma having a huge road win ripped from their clutches by a complete defensive breakdown, not to mention two late controversial and, in my opinion, blatantly incorrect calls.

I’ve never been one to blame a referee or a call for a game, so I won’t do that here either. What baffles me to no extent though is this: What is the point of having all of these reviews and challenges if upon official review the correct call is still not made? Truthfully, I’d rather just have the offical make the incorrect call on the field and attribute the mistake to human error than have a few numbskulls in a replay booth review the play for endless minutes only to inexplicably uphold the call on the field.

For those of you that missed the game, unless you are an Oregon fan, it was pretty tough to watch, and regardless of the controversy, Oklahoma has itself to blame for letting the game even come to such a point where controversial officiating would become relevant. The Sooners led 33-20 with 1:10 to play in the game. Oregon converted a touchdown on a 35 yard run by QB Dennis Dixon. I had stopped paying attention to the game already as I was sure I had it in the bag, with bets on the money line and the spread that I argued earlier in the week to be absurd. Thanks a lot to Oklahoma for making me look like I have no idea what I am talking about…

The onside kick was obviously coming, so I began to panic mildly. I could see the unimaginable happening, but for some reason I trusted that the football gods had more sense than to allow such a thing. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The kick was perfect by onside standards, getting a lot of air off of the first bounce. It is without question that an Oregon player touched the ball first, and it certainly appeared to have been well before the necessary ten yards. After Oklahoma failed to control the bounces that followed, Oregon came up with it. Of course, after reviewing the play for what seemed like an eternity, the officials determined either that Oregon did not touch the ball too soon or that there was not enough evidence to overturn the call. I certainly hope that the latter was the case. However, no difference, Oregon received the football at midfield with about 45 seconds to play and Sooner fans looking for holes to hide their heads in.

I noticed two trends during yesterday’s games, the first of which was a positive one and the other of which was anything but. The first was that when a bad or “questionable” call was made that greatly affected the outcome of an important game, the next play often resulted in some sort of a make-up call to even the playing field a bit. The second was that any time the secondary was anywhere near a receiver, the zebras threw pass interference flags. On the first play from scrimmage, Dixon stepped back to throw and had his pass partially deflected at the line of scrimmage. The Oklahoma secondary then essentially tackled his intended receiver, completely within the rules since the ball had been touched. Of course, the officials, who had been flag happy all day across the country, called pass interference.

However, since this particular call was going to result in Oregon being inside the 20 yard line and within reach of pulling off an unthinkable comeback, the officials again decided to review the call. Phew, I thought. Of course they will see that the ball was deflected. Oregon will have the ball at the 50 and needs a touchdown. I still like my chances. Plus, trend #1 is still in effect, right?

After an even longer review, it appeared that trend #1 was no longer in effect, but trend #2 most certainly was. Bob Stoops looked even more shocked than I probably did, and I guess that seems about right. Oregon then scored on an easy 20 yard pass play that the Oklahoma defense might as well have slept through.

To add more insanity to the wild finish, Oklahoma returned the ensuing kickoff to the Oregon 25 yard line, well within field goal range. I wanted them to take a shot at the end zone on their first play since they were out of timeouts and the Ducks would obviously be looking for the run. Instead, they chose to play it safe and ran it to Peterson to center the ball for the field goal–certainly not a gimme shot at 42 yards.

Never for an instant did I think that the Sooners had a realistic chace at actually making the field goal. The gods had spoken.

I was right. Oregon capped what might be the most amazing comeback we see all season with a game-saving field goal block.

Sooner fans certainly have reason to be upset about the ineptitude of the fellas in the review booth, but should probably be more upset with a Sooner defense that most expected to be among the nation’s finest. Giving up 34 points to an overrated Oregon team doesn’t exactly make me all that sympathetic to a couple of late mis-calls by the officials and the replay booth, although I do prefer to watch games that are called correctly, especially if we are going to stop the games for such extended reviewing. The bottom line is that if you are ahead 33-20 in the game of football with a minute to play, there shouldn’t be anything the officials can possibly do that will cost you the game. Anyway, the outcome is final, and to call this loss a heartbreaker for OU might be the year’s greatest understatement.

Briefly, in other games:

-Michigan really came to play at Notre Dame and took advantage of a few big turnovers early to set a dominant tone that the Irish couldn’t overcome. I was very impressed by how well Michigan’s secondary played. They were swarming the entire game and never lost their intensity, and as a result Brady Quinn never got going. I guess that Notre Dame defense hadn’t improved as much as we all thought… However, I give more credit to Michigan than I take away from Notre Dame. The Wolverines are for real, and Big Ten fans can only pray that Ohio State and Michigan are both undefeated when they play in what could be the biggest game of the year Nov. 18. At this point, an undefeated showdown looks more likely than not.

-Miami’s program officially hit rock bottom after they were utterly embarrased by a depleted Louisville team. Louisville can beat Miami at football? The gods really were in a funny mood Saturday…

-Florida showed a lot of guts in a huge 4th quarter comeback win at Tennessee. The Vol defense impressed me as well, but in the end Chris Leak just made too many big plays. Mark your calendar for October 14th when Auburn and Florida meet in what could be an SEC championship preview.

-Clemson proved me right in giving Florida State all they could handle before putting them away with a late touchdown. I still think the Tigers are the ACC’s best squad.

– LSU and Auburn battled in a surprisingly entertaining defensive struggle. I knew that this would be a defensive game, but 7-3 was a bit more than I expected. LSU passed up two long field goal opportunities in the first quarter and as a result, they needed a touchdown to win once they finally got back into field goal range late in the fourth quarter. I understand playing for defensive field position early in the game I suppose. But it has to be frustrating. Still, all the credit in the world goes to the Auburn defense, who held a very athletic LSU offense for four quarters without a touchdown.

THE TOP 25 OF THE MATTY, games through Sept 17

  1. Ohio State (3-0)
  2. USC (2-0)
  3. Michigan (3-0)
  4. Auburn (3-0)
  5. West Virginia (3-0)
  6. Florida (3-0)
  7. Texas (2-1)
  8. Notre Dame (2-1)
  9. LSU (2-1)
  10. Louisville (3-0)
  11. Georgia (3-0)
  12. Iowa (3-0)
  13. Oregon (3-0)
  14. Oklahoma (2-1)
  15. Tennessee (2-1)
  16. California (2-1)
  17. Boston College (3-0)
  18. Clemson (2-1)
  19. Florida State (2-1)
  20. Arizona State (3-0)
  21. Arkansas (2-1)
  22. Alabama (3-0)
  23. Virginia Tech (3-0)
  24. TCU (3-0)
  25. Nebraska (2-1)

Heisman Hunt

  1. Troy Smith, Ohio State
  2. Steve Slaton, West Virginia
  3. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma
  4. Brady Quinn, Notre Dame
  5. Chris Leak, Florida

    College Football's Best Weekend of the Year Comes Early- WEEK 3

    September 15, 2006

    When I saw the lineup for “Saturday, September 16” in my Athlon College Football Preview back in June, I was already getting excited. Now that it is here I am pumped for an entire day of watching some of the most intruiging matchups of the season.

     By my count, there are 8 games involving Top 25 teams or teams that are right in the running to be in the Top 25. I will break down each game briefly and give you my expert opinion as to where I will be putting my money tomorrow. But first, I impart upon you my personal TOP 25 coming into tomorrow. This is the only poll that matters.

    TOP 25 OF THE MATTY, games through 9/15

    1. Notre Dame (2-0)
    2. Ohio State (2-0)
    3. USC (1-0)
    4. West Virginia (2-0)
    5. LSU (2-0)
    6. Michigan (2-0)
    7. Texas (1-1)
    8. Auburn (2-0)
    9. Oklahoma (2-0)
    10. Florida (2-0)
    11. Florida State (2-0)
    12. Louisville (2-0)
    13. Georgia (2-0)
    14. Iowa (2-0)
    15. Tennessee (2-0)
    16. California (1-1)
    17. Miami (1-1)
    18. Boston College (2-0)
    19. Clemson (1-1)
    20. Arizona State (2-0)
    21. Nebraska (2-0)
    22. Oregon (2-0)
    23. Arkansas (1-1)
    24. Alabama (2-0)
    25. Virginia Tech (2-0)

     #6 MICHIGAN at #1 NOTRE DAME, 2:30 CST, NBC

    This will be the most hyped game of the day and with good reason, as both teams have a lot to play for in this fierce rivalry. Michigan is coming off its worst season in many years and has lost the last two meetings to the Irish, while ND has a national title at the forefront of its aspirations. Certainly, one would expect the winner of this one to be in the title mix going forward. Notre Dame has silenced some doubters by palying surprisingly strong defense in its first two victories. They struggled a bit moving the ball against a stout Georgia Tech defense, but seemed to be on the right track last week during a 41-17 thrashing of Penn State. Michigan has its offense in tact and clicking. The question in this game will be which defense steps up and which gives in, as the two teams have probably the two most complete offenses in the country outside of Ohio State. I have a feeling that the Wolverines are going to have their hands full trying to contain the Irish offense, especially in South Bend. Michigan will put some points on the board as well but will struggle to contain Notre Dame.   Notre Dame 38, Michigan 24

    #17 Miami at #12 Louisville, 2:30 CST, ABC

    Louisville’s high powered offense goes up against the strong defense of Miami–what will give here? The Canes will benefit from the return of RB Tyrone Moss, who was suspended during the narrow home loss to Florida State. On the flip side, Louisville’s offense lost a huge piece as RB Michael Bush was lost for the season in the season opener. QB Brian Brohm should still be able to produce, but I expect Miami to come out in a fury for this one in order to avoid an unthinkable 1-2 start. The offense will be ready and the defense should keep a shaken Louisville team at bay, as Miami’s D should be a bit tougher to break for Louisville than Temple’s was last week. Miami 31, Louisville 21.

    #5 LSU at #8 AUBURN, 2:30 CST, CBS

    ND-Michigan gets all the glory but make no mistake, this is the best matchup of tomorrow. Nothing beats SEC football, and the winner of this one will be in the driver’s seat to take the SEC West, the seemingly superior division this season. I tend to think Auburn is a tad overrated relative to the national polls. I certainly respect their running game but have questions about the passing game and defense. LSU, on the other hand is stacked across the board, with more athletes on both side of the ball. If they can keep their cool and avoid turning the ball over while keeping Irons in check on defense, I like their chances here in a defensive struggle. LSU 17, Auburn 14.

    #9 OKLAHOMA at #22 OREGON, 2:30 CST, ABC

    If someone could explain to me how Oregon is a five point favorite here I would be mighty grateful. In my opinion, the Ducks remain the most overrated program in football year after year. Remember when Indiana went in there two years ago and knocked them off? That was truly classic. But anyway, everybody was all over Oklahoma until QB Rhett Bomar got dismissed, and now it is as if they are a completely different team. Does anyone remember a RB named Adrian Peterson? How about that powerful OU defense? Sure the Sooners have looked a little rusty in their first two games with a new QB, but isn’t that to be expected? And of course Oregon is supposed to be a tough place to play, but please, if Indiana can win there with the team they had in 2004 than I am going to take my chances that Oklahoma can do the same in 2006. Oklahoma 28, Oregon 10

    Texas Tech at TCU, 4:30 CST, ESPN 2

    I personally have both teams just on the outside of the Top 25, but they are both ranked in the other polls so I suppose that this game is worth keeping an eye on. Besides, TCU has BCS aspiratons now that there are officially 25 BCS bowl games. (Okay, maybe only five, but that is still a motherload). I can respect the matchup between the former Southwest Conference rivals and it will serve as a nice in between before the night games start. TCU 35, Texas Tech 34.

    #19 Clemson at #11 Florida State, 6:45 CST, ESPN

    Clemson lost a really tough game on a missed PAT in OT last week against Boston College, but don’t be fooled, this is one of America’s most underrated teams. If they do lose this game, I’ll be looking for them to fly under the radar for the rest of the season. The ‘Noles always seem to have trouble with Clemson, whether the game is home or away. And they had quite a lot of trouble with lowly Troy at home last week coming off the big win at Miami. I expect this one to be incredibly close, with whichever defense makes the most big plays determining the winner. Florida State 24, Clemson 23

    #10 Florida at #15 Tennessee, 7:00 CST, CBS

    I have to admit I was shocked at how easily Tennessee handled Cal opening weekend. I was equally shocked when they narrowly escaped at home in a game they probably should have lost against mediocre Air Force. In that game, they lost two key defensive starters, so Urban Meyer is probably not the guy they want to see on the opposing bench this weekend. The Vols should play hard and will have 100,000 hillbillies draped in orange on their side but Florida just has way too much talent on both sides of the ball. Florida 34, Tennessee 17

    #21 Nebraska at #3 USC, 7:00 CST, ABC

    This is a great spotlight game showcasing two historic programs, but I’m not quite convinced that Nebraska is back to its glory day form, or in all honesty, anywhere near it. They’ve had blowout victories against hapless opponents to start the season, which is probably not the best way to prepare to enter the Colliseum for a night game. Some will argue it is a statement game for the Huskers, and they may be able to keep it close for a half, but in the end USC just has way too much athleticism. USC 45, Nebraska 21

    Hopefully all of you either have 4 television sets in your home or you are planning to go to a bar that has as much, as I am planning to do. And don’t give me any of this nonsense about watching one game and Tivo-ing the other games. There is nothing exciting about watching a game that has already ended, regardless of whether or not you “check the score.” The game is over, get on with your day.

    Napa Valley/ Sonoma/ Central Coast Wine Notes

    September 15, 2006

    Recently, we spent nine days and nights in beautiful California, starting in Napa and finishing in Los Angeles after driving all the way down the coast on Highway One. During the course of the trip, I tasted and consumed a great deal of vino.

    In Napa, we stayed in the town of Yountville, which is a charmingly quaint yet still impressively upscale area of wine country. We visited 17 wineries over three days in Napa, and visited 3 more on our drive down the coast into the Santa Barbara area.

    When it was all over, I had tasted over 100 California wines. What follows is my analysis on some of the best I had the opportunity to taste, in Olympic format.

    Wineries visited: Silver Oak, Provenance, Franciscan, St. Clement, Flora Springs, Hall, Cakebread, Andretti, Burgess, Duckhorn, Rutherford Hill, Plumpjack, Pine Ridge, Chimney Rock, Darioush, Luna, Artesa, Domaine Alfred, Edna Valley, Hitching Post

    2003 CABERNET SAUVIGNON: Overall, the 2003 cabs I tasted were better than I expected given my previous tasting experiences and the widespread press regarding the difficulty of the vintage. Certainly the 2001 and 2002 vintages are better as a whole, especially compated to the 2003 when tasted now. However, the some of the more (unfortunately) expensive 2003 cabs held up nicely against the earlier vintages.

    BRONZE: Duckhorn Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $75, 90 Points. Strong aromas of chocolate and black fruit. Deep, dark blackberry and black plum flavors with hints of blueberry followed by caramel and chocolate undertones. The finish is smooth and sweet with very little tannin and lingering black fruit and chocolate notes.

    BRONZE (in a tie): Pine Ridge Oakville Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $65, 90 Points. Primary aromas of dark raspberry, black cherry and cranberry, seemingly bright nose. In your face fruit profile with flavors of raspberry, black cherry, cranberry and cola with hints of oak and cinnamon. The strength of the wine comes forward in its finish. Forward fruits are followed by creamy vanilla, oak and rounded tannins, combining for a gripping, extended length.

    SILVER: Hall Sacrashe Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 91 Points. Aromas of blackberry, black cherry and vanilla. Intense blackberry fruit with notes of black plum. Dark, creamy and smooth body solely dependent on its strong dark fruit character. Concentrated black fruits linger with hints of leather. Incredibly smooth and velvety with soft tannins and little trace of pepper or oak.

    GOLD: Pine Ridge Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $75, 92 Points. Aromas of blackberry, black cherry, rasperry and cedar. The mouthfeel is bursting with fruit flavors of black cherry, blackberry and blueberry backed by nicely layered notes of cedar and chocolate. The fruit shines through the complex, long finish. Hints of chocolate, vanilla, tobacco and white pepper linger with strong, firm tannins. Very impressive and complex layering of flavors.

    CABERNET SAUVIGNON, all other vintages: Now here is where one would expect Napa to shine. During my tasting expedition, I encountered cabs from 1993, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 and even babies of 2004 aside from the onslaught of the 2003s. And these, my friends, were the highlights of the trip.

    COPPER: Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2002, Napa Valley, $100, 91 Points. Aside from being one of the more pleasant tasting experiences we encountered thanks to Joan in the tasting room, this cab really stole the show during my vertical tasting of the 2000, 2001 and 2002 reserves here. Jammy raspberry, cherry and blackberry aromas with light earthy hints of bell pepper. Intense fruit flavors of dark raspberry, black cherry, blueberry and hints of mint and cedar. Firm tannins, long length of black fruits and blueberry jam, lip-smacking finish.

    BRONZE: Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 2001, Napa Valley, $100, 92 Points. Deep black cassis aromas with hints of chocolate and vanilla. Full, soft mouthfeel of blackberry, black cherry and vanilla leads into layers of dark chocolate and hints of clove. Long length of black fruit and chocolate, soft, rounded tannins provide structure, the slightest bit of spice lingers.

    SILVER: Plumpjack St. Helena Cuvee 2004, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $60, 93 Points. Aromas of blackberry and blueberry pie. Strong initial flavors of the same along with black plums and black cherry followed by dark chocolate syrup. Very rich, concentrated black fruit flavors. Long, strong, seemingly endless finish, the longest of any cabernet I tasted in Napa. Black fruit and rich chocolate syrup linger on and on, very little tannin or dryness even at such a young age allows fruit complexity to shine, soft and loaded with flavor. I can’t imagine what this will taste like in five years.

    GOLD: St. Clement Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Napa Valley, $70, 95 Points. The big daddy of them all in this price range year after year in my book. Complex aromas of blackberry, black cherry, dark chocolate and leather with hints of coriander/orange peel spice. A mouthfull of black fruit including blackberry, cherry, mocha chocolate and tar with hints of blueberry, orange peel and caramel hiding gracefully behind. Intense black fruits continue on in the long finish with caramel and violet adding complexity, dry but layered finish.

    PINOT NOIR: I didn’t get to taste as much pinot noir as I would have liked as my palate was pretty shot by the time we reached Santa Barbara. However, I’m pretty confident I wouldn’t have tasted anything better than my gold medal winner anyway, at least its this price range.

    BRONZE: Hitching Post Highlander 2004, Santa Barbara County, $40, 89 Points. Subtle aromas of black cherry, mineral and ink. Incredibly elegant mouthfeel, full-bodied with notes of black cherry, blackberry and black licorice. Hints of leather and chocolate lay behind this deep pinot’s flavor profile. Minerally layers linger in the soft, smooth finish.

    SILVER: Artesa Reserve Pinot Noir 2004, Carneros, $50, 91 Points. Initial aromas of smokey tobacco, notes of strawberry and red cherry follow. Elegant, delicate flavors of red cherry, strawberry and raspberry backed by mineral, smoke and earth. Layers of blueberry and white pepper spice become evident in the long finish.

    GOLD: Domaine Alfred Estate Chamisal Vineyards Pinot Noir, Edna Valley, $35, 92 Points. Deep, dark blackberry aromas with hints of black cherry, leather and chocolate. Dark and complex body with an explosion of flavors including blackberry, mocha and caramel with hints of black cherry, spice and chocolate. Full, velvety mouthfeel with light leathery notes, impressively layered. Long, complex length with black fruit, coffee and chocolate lingering on and on. Soft finish with light spice elements.

    SYRAH: Cabernet is king in California, but mark my words, syrah is going to give it a run for its money in the next ten years. These are some of the best examples why.

    BRONZE: Hitching Post Purisima Mountian Vineyard Syrah 2004, Santa Barbara County, $30, 88 Points. Aromas of blueberry, blackberry, black pepper and leather. Dark, leathery flavors with strong notes of blackberry and blueberry. Notes of leathery beef and black pepper provide a nice backbone. Full and deep, black pepper and black fruit notes linger with moderate dryness. The length is dominated by bluer fruit and hints of tobacco.

    SILVER: Tor Durell Vineyard Clone 1 Syrah 2003, Sonoma County, $50, 91 Points. Aromas of violet and blackberry with hints of leather, chocolate and pepper spice. Flavors of perfume, earth and minerally blackberry, blueberry and violet followed by an explosion of black pepper. Full, velvety mouthfeel with hints of leather and tar. Long, spicy finish full of black fruit and black pepper.

    GOLD: Darioush Signature Shiraz 2003, Napa Valley, $60, 94 Points. One of the few wines I tasted that literally stopped me in my tracks. Aromas of blackberry, licorice, tar, leather and chocolate. Velvety, extremely dark body. A tremendous mouthfull of flavors including blackberry, blueberry and black licorice with hints of leather and a burst of black pepper laying behind. Smooth, silky and peppery finish with spice and black licorice lingering for what seems like a full minute.

    MERITAGE: I did not taste any merlots that scored in the 90s, therefore they will not be receiving an Olympic-style rundown. Instead, I will take a moment to recognize some outstanding meritage blends that I tasted, all of which contain some merlot.

    BRONZE: Flora Springs Trilogy 2002, Napa Valley, 50% Cabnernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, $50, 91 Points. Aromas of black cherry, raspberry and a touch of tobacco. Flavors of black cherry, dark raspberry, blueberry, plum and tobacco. Soft, smooth moutfeel, a bit lighter than I remember the 2001 being but still full of flavor. Lightly dry finish with long length of fruit.

    SILVER: Darioush Red 2003, Napa Valley, 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Syrah, $38, 92 Points. Aromas of baked plum, cherries and perfume. Black cherry flavors with notes of wild raspberry and hints of blackberry, black licorice, pepper spice and perfume. The syrah really shows in this one. Full-bodied and deep finish with notes of licorice, chocolate and intense pepper spice. Long length, complex layering of flavors.

    GOLD: St. Clement Orropas 2003, Napa Valley, 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, $50, 93 Points. Aromas of cassis, vanilla and hints of chocolate. Flavors of blackberry, black plum and black cherry with loads of dark chocolate and coffee lingering in the background. Hints of caramel, vanilla and coconut add complexity. Very soft finish with impressive length and with chocolate lingering behind the fruit.

    CHARDONNAY: While most of my tasting centered around reds, I was lucky enough to run into some great chardonnay as well.

    BRONZE: Flora Springs Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2005, Napa Valley, $25, 87 Points. The 2004 vintage received rave reviews but was, alas, sold out, so I opted to give the new vintage a try. Light butterscotch aromas with notes of peach and pear. Initial flavors of oak and butterscotch. Creamy mouthfeel with tropical citrus notes of pineapple, mango and pear with spicy clove undertones. Incredibly spicy finish for a chardonnay. Tropical citrus and butterscotchy oak linger in the the finish nicely complementing one another. A touch of tartness is the only real flaw.

    SILVER: Domaine Alfred Estate Chamisal Vineyards Chardonnay 2004, Edna Valley, $28, 88 Points. Intense aromas of lemon, pear and green appple with hints of oak. Strong citrus flavors of pear, green apple and hints of apricot. Impressive layers of oak linger nicely without overpowering the fruit. The finish is sweet and citrusy with oak elements adding complexity and only the slighest hint of lingering tartness.

    GOLD: Plumpjack Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Napa Valley, $50, 88 Points. Aromas of pear and cinnamon apples with hints of buttery oak and lemon zest. Intensely concentrated citrus flavors of pear, lemon and red apple with hints of cinnamon and custard. Crisp, clean finish with a long lenght of citrus fruit, very light oak overall, a bit more would make this wine even more extraordinary.

    SAUVIGNON BLANC: I am enjoying this varietal more and more as I taste it more frequently. Innovative winemakers have gotten away from the characteristic lawn-water and sour grapefruit flavors and are creating sauvignon blancs with more and more citrus elements, especially of the tropical nature.

    BRONZE: St. Clement Bale Lane Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Napa Valley, $20, 85 Points. Aromas of lemongrass, hay and pear. Flavors are dominated by a nice pear citrus presence, hints of banana, orange and light grass linger behind. Extremely transparent body, strong acidity. Grassy, acidic finish with hints of coconut and citrus.

    SILVER: Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Napa Valley, $25, 87 Points. Tropical aromas with very little grassiness, atypical but not entirely unpleasant. Well-established flavors of pear, honey dew melon and kiwi with hints of grapefruit and lime behind. Spicy and tropical overall with very little grass, no tartness, and long length of citrus.

    GOLD: Provenance Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc 2005, $20, 87 Points. Strong pineapple aromas lead into notes of pear and lemongrass. Initially grassy flavors evolve into tropical citrus notes of pineapple and lemon with hints of kiwi. Clean finish without any tartness allows the tropical citrus fruit to shine, impressively soft.

    HONORABLE MENTION FOR BEING THE BEST WHITE I TASTED: Darioush Viognier 2005, Napa Valley, $35, 89 Points. Aromas of honey and lemon with hints of apricot. Strong citrus flavors of apricot, orange marmalade and lemon with honey notes behind, nice spice elements as well. Smooth, crisp finish with a long fruity length, spice lingers with hints of butterscotch and toffee, light sweetness.

    So there you have it, my complete rundown of the best of the 100 plus wines I had the pleasure of tasting during my stay in California. Before I depart, here are a few important trends I noticed during my tastings:

    – Winemakers are becoming increasingly more experimental in their bordeaux-style meritage blends, primarily in regard to the proportion of merlot being used. And it is still tasting great! Several wines of this style I tasted, including Rutherford Hill-owned Terlato Vineyards Angel’s Peak 2003 (89 Points, 60% Merlot), Chimney Rock Elevage 2003 (89 Points, 65% Merlot) and Artesa Elements Blend 2002 (87 Points, 75% Merlot) all used Merlot as the primary grape in their meritage blends with great results.

    – The similarities in climate are leading other innovative winemakers to grow Italian grapes with more frequency, a trend I expect to increase in the future. A trip to Luna Vineyards presents a wide range of Italian grapes, the Sangiovese 2003 (87 Points) and Sangiovese Reserve 2003 (89 Points) being the best examples. At Artesa, I tasted the fabulous Estate Tempranillo 2003 (88 Points). Even Rutherford Hill produced a quaffable 2003 Sangiovese (86 Points).

    -To restate, the better vineyards were able to produce Cabernets in 2003 that for the most part exceeded my expectations. Asdie from the reserve versions already mentioned, Duckhorn (89 Points), Pine Ridge (89 Points), Hall (88 Points) and Chimney Rock (88 Points) all produced entry level cabs that gave me a lot of hope for the future of the 2003 vintage.