Archive for the ‘Vino’ category

California Wine Trip Tasting Recap

July 22, 2019

For the second straight year, we chose to focus our wine country trip upon Dry Creek Valley and Healdsburg rather than Napa Valley. Quite simply, it’s become almost impossible to vacation with children in Napa, and with Courtney six months pregnant, it didn’t make a ton of sense to be spending $50-$75 to taste. The fact of the matter is that the top Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs and Syrah blends in these regions rival Napa’s Cabernets in terms of quality, and often at about a quarter of the price.


Sidekicks enjoying an outdoor grove tasting at Seghesio, which continues to set the gold standard for single vineyard Zinfandel in the Sonoma Valley and its neighboring appellations.


Tasting wine with an 8-year old in tow doesn’t have to be hard, and Alex makes it easy! He enjoyed the hospitality and scenery at Limerick Lane while his Dad evaluated their consistently exciting wines.


The scenery leaves nothing to be desired at Unti, a unique winery which produces strictly Italian varietals, and is well worth the stop on Dry Creek Road.

In all, I tasted just over 50 wines. Below are my top 20 favorites, sorted by score and then by price.

  1. Bedrock Zinfandel The Heritage 2017, 94 Points, $45- Thick but not overripe, with intense blackberry paste up front and plumcake notes underneath, turning silky as it lingers with black pepper spice and a hint of orange peel that adds complexity, finishing with a firm tannic grip.
  2. Seghesio Zinfandel Rockpile 2016, 94 Points, $50- Bright, jammy red berry fruit and black cherry flavors combine above focused minerality and cracked pepper undertones. Incredible finish that lingers for minutes with tobacco and bay leaf undertones. Rich and polished.
  3. Siduri Pinot Noir Saralee’s Vineyard Russian River Valley 2016, 94 Points, $50- A nearly flawless offering, as lively wild berry and baked plum fruit combine above mushroom, white pepper, white chocolate and tobacco notes. Lingers long with a seamless texture. A textbook Pinot, in the deeper style.
  4. Hartford Family Zinfandel Old Vine Russian River Valley 2017, 93 Points, $40- A huge, jammy fruit bomb of wild raspberry and dark plum gliding over a rich texture that shows notes of allspice and baking spice as licorice notes creep in late and linger long. Beautifully polished and balanced between its deep blue and purple berry fruit notes as exotic spices carry through the finish.
  5. Sbragia Zinfandel Nonno’s Reserve Dry Creek Valley 2016, 93 Points, $44- Ultra-ripe on the nose, as a plump texture of blackberry and licorice picks up undertones of smoke, briary underbrush and tobacco spice. Earthy character lingers long beyond the fruit. White pepper spice creeps in as it lingers, a true Dry Creek terroir expression.
  6. Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel Beeson Ranch Dry Creek Valley 2016, 93 Points, $45- Dark currant aromas gain a smoked meat nuance on the nose. Lush body of blackberry jam is rich and juicy, showing undertones of white pepper spice that catches a mocha hint as it lingers long. Incredibly polished.
  7. Unti Syrah Benchland Dry Creek Valley 2016, 93 Points, $55- Classic Syrah profile, showing smoked red meat, black pepper, and black and purple fruit aromas. Velvety texture comes across like a cool-climate Hermitage, with hot brick, smoked meat and fresh leather up front, leading into plush blackberry, dark plum and black licorice flavors. Finishes with a blast of bay leaf and cracked pepper that are all in balance with the fruit as this extends and lingers long.
  8. Seghesio Zinfandel Home Ranch Alexander Valley 2015, 93 Points, $58- Thick and rich black and purple fruit flavors are backed by cracked pepper, briary herbs, mocha bean and clove spice. Thick, burly and complex. Long finish offers a firm tannic grip.
  9. Limerick Lane Zinfandel 1910 Block Russian River Valley 2016, 93 Points, $60- Super complex, with dark berry aromas shaded by briary tobacco lead and pepper nuances. Intense flavors of blackberry, black cherry fruit is backed by undertones of baking spice, clove and vanilla bean. Long finish shows a firm tannic grip, but this will be even more amazing in time. Packed and powerful offering.
  10. Hartford Family Zinfandel Old Vine Hartford Vineyard 2016, 93 Points, $60- Huge nose of blackberry and briary herbs. Deep, dark and elegant, with blackberry and plum paste notes above savory undertones of bay leaf, tobacco and cracked pepper. Rich and polished through the long finish, with minty nuances and chewy tannins lingering.
  11. La Crema Pinot Noir Shell Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast 2016, 93 Points, $60- Jam-packed, with blackberry and black licorice notes above orange peel spice and a complex echo of tobacco. This showcases an amazing texture all the way through the long finish, lingering on a creamy note.
  12. Quivira Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2017, 92 Points, $25- Delivers a pure Dry Creek Valley essence, with appelation-specific and heavy notes of cracked pepper and briar up front that braces juicy wild raspberry and blackberry fruit. Long finish over an elegantly silky texture, a perfect 4th of July wine.
  13. Unti Barbera Dry Creek Valley 2016, 92 Points, $38- Aromas of smoked cured meats show red currant fruit in the background. Explosive and juicy cherry and wild berry fruit picks up steam behind crackling briar, white pepper spice and smoke. Long finish with savory spice and pepper lingering for minutes. A big surprise.
  14. Unti Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2016, 92 Points, $38- Deep plum, blackberry and tobacco aromas. Velvety and ripe, with thick flavors of plum paste and blackberry preserves above a backbone of tobacco and peppery spice. Extremely rich but not overripe; very polished through the long finish as silky tannins add grip.
  15. Sbragia Zinfandel La Promessa Dry Creek Valley 2016, 92 Points, $40- Silky, floral body is heavily perfumed showing flavors of red plum, raspberry and cherry fruit that finishes with cinnamon spice, clove spice and exotic baking spice. Feminine in style and delivery, with a weightless texture. Cracked pepper lingers; this is all spices and no herbs.
  16. Limerick Lane Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2016, 92 Points, $40- Ultra-silky and ripe, with snappy dark plum, blackberry and black licorice flavors that explode into undertones of peppery spice and tobacco that really pick up as this lingers long.
  17. Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel DCV7 Wallace Ranch Dry Creek Valley 2016, 92 Points, $42- Plummy body is silky and fruit-driven, with a plush texture that evolves into peppery, briary undertones. Long finish of juicy red plum, black cherry and dark raspberry lingers with savory spice, baking spice, black tea and peppercorns.
  18. Dry Creek Vineyard Somers Ranch Dry Creek Valley 2016, 92 Points, $44- Huge blackberry preserve and dark raspberry flavors are shaded by cedary spice, chocolate, cinnamon and clove spice. Long finish with plump, juicy dark fruit notes that echo beyond the exotic spice notes.
  19. La Crema Pinot Noir Fog Veil Sonoma Coast 2016, 92 Points, $65- Juicy, plummy and full of ripe raspberry and black cherry fruit that evolves into strong baking spice notes and undertones of creamy mocha. Silky and expressive through the long finish.
  20. Hartford Court Pinot Noir Jennifer’s Vineyard Russian River Valley 2016, 92 Points, $70- Expressive nose of baked red fruit, cherry pie and tobacco. Silky and elegant, with wild raspberry and black cherry flavors that gain depth from heavy tobacco, pepper and mushroom undertones. Long, lip-smacking finish.



St. Emilion Wine Tasting Recap

June 13, 2019

First of all, when making the wise decision to spend a few days in the lovely wine village of St. Emilion, we can highly recommend the accommodations at the charming Au Logis des Remparts, a centrally located yet secluded hotel within walking distance to all of the restaurants and attractions the village has to offer, and within driving distance to the recommended wineries. Complete with a pool, a parking lot, oversized rooms (we got upgraded!) and set just behind the vineyards of Chateau Villemaurine, we couldn’t have been happier with our stay here.






While visiting this famous Bordeaux wine region, we obviously took the time to visit several wineries, some of which I’ve placed on a viticultural pedestal for years now. Like most of Europe, wine tastings in St. Emilion are quite different than what most Americans are used to on their normal visits to California or Oregon wine country. Visits are heavily structured and are almost always reserved by appointment only. The format generally consists of a tour of the estate and a brief discussion of its history followed by an explanation of the wine-making process that is usually accompanied by a trip through the vats, barrel-room and caves. Only after this educational overview does the tasting commence; there is no “belly-up and taste” option here. The tastings themselves are quite subdued, consisting of two or three small pours, only one of which represents the actual chateau being visited, as these estates almost always have sister properties or offshoot projects within the family that they are pouring alongside a premier growth. And, the vintage that they’ll be pouring will likely be a much older one and not necessarily the one you’re seeking, since the mentality in Bordeaux is to make wine worthy of cellaring and to showcase that quality to potential customers. Those eager to taste the highly acclaimed 2015 and 2016s will have to buy them by the bottle at this juncture.

Knowing this, I made it my top priority to locate and purchase a bottle of each of the three bottles of 2015 St. Emilion that earned a spot in last year’s Wine Spectator Top 100. We had planned to visit two of these vineyards, and I had tasted those two wines previously, but consuming an entire bottle of wine while residing within the same region where the grapes are grown is a different experience entirely. For one, wine always tastes better with context, and what better understanding could be gained than by visiting and standing in the very vineyard where the wine was born and understanding its history and process? Furthermore, the ability to drink the wine slowly over a day or two provides a more complex tasting evaluation, as the wine is able to be appreciated in its different forms as it evolves and opens. I was able to find the third bottle of wine on my list, which is not available in the United States nor available for public visitation, at a local wine shop across the street from our hotel:


Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere 2015, 96 Points- An absolutely monstrous nose of smoke, tobacco and tar above deep, dark currants. Weightless texture considering its overall power, this explodes into a beam of rich, polished blackberry and dark plum that coats the palate, then evolves into creamier layers of toasty vanilla and mocha that expose smoky tobacco, smoldering charcoal and graphite notes through the endless finish. One of the greats, and should improve with time.

Chateau Beau-Sejour Becot 2015, 95 Points- Perfumey red currant nose shows vanilla bean and tobacco leaf influences. Very soft and creamy on the palate yet exploding with elegant, pure flavors of black cherry, wild raspberry and damson plum which evolves into deeper, thicker notes of blackberry and black licorice. Expressive fruit, lingering with exotic white pepper spice and sandalwood through the long finish. Firm tannic grip that will soften with time. This really deepens as it opens, lingering with a tarry edge.

Chateau Monbousquet 2015, 95 Points- Intense and complex on the nose, with tons of smoked meat nuances above its perfumey black currant aromas. Thick, bold and powerful body shows rich blackberry and dark raspberry fruit above layered elements of tobacco spice, mocha and charcoal, with a streak of iron running throughout. Long finish, gaining depth from its black licorice notes as spice lingers.

Here’s a look at each of the Chateaus we visited, and my highest scoring wine at each from its tasting session.


We had time for one stop in Pessac-Leognan on our drive from Bordeaux to St. Emilion, and this was an obvious choice given the recent successes of the 2015 and 2016 vintages. Planted in 1300, it is the oldest vineyard in the region, and still bears the name of the Pope who acquired it at that time. There is a lot of history here, but the current winemaking team continues to create wines in a powerful, modern style.




Chateau Pape Clement 2014, 93 Points- Perfumey and dark, with blackberry and black cherry fruit above juicy plumcake notes. This is very velvety and fruit-driven, uncommon for this vineyard, picking up licorice and Italian herbs through the finish. Gains complexity from tea leaf and baking spice notes which linger long; a deviation from the norm as all elements of loam, iron and smoke have dissipated from previous notes.


This spectacularly modernized facility sits on the southern edge of Pomerol and borders the famed estate of Chateau Cheval Blanc, sharing the same plateau and terroir. In my estimation, this has long been an extremely underrated producer, and after visiting it was apparent how their superior technological advancements in the winemaking process, specifically in terms of sorting for ripeness, have helped them catch up to the bigger names in the region.




Chateau La Dominique 2014, 94 Points- Complex on the nose, with deep cassis, cracked pepper and understated smoked meat nuances. Velvety on the palate with its perfumey blackberry and dark plum fruit that leads into a blast of charcoal, campfire smoke, black pepper and chalky mineral. Very intense and muscular through the long finish.


As the lone Premier Grand Cru Classe A Chateau that offers tours to the public, securing a private tour and tasting here was our number one priority on this tasting trip. (These reservations are highly competitive, so secure your spot early). The property itself is immaculate to an almost obsessive degree. One wine is poured and the experience is an expensive one at €45 per person, but the tour is informative and personalized and cannot be missed when visiting the region.




Chateau Pavie 2008, 95 Points- Powerful aromas of minty cedar, vanilla bean and juicy cherry, showing black licorice and wet mineral notes. Silky body of explosive cherry and dark raspberry fruit that gains a blast of black licorice and anise, backed by a complex combination of tobacco, briar and clove spice with cocoa and dark chocolate underneath. Long, intense finish that is all well-balanced and layered with spices lingering longest of all. Super soft on the palate; finish goes on for minutes.


As my favorite producer in all of Bordeaux that I’ve been able to taste on a consistent basis over the years, suffice to say that setting foot in the vineyards of Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere was akin to the holy grail. The tour here was a large group, but we really enjoyed being able to walk through and stand in the actual vineyard and hearing detailed scientific explanations of the grafting process from our guide. This was a hardcore highlight for me, and they even had bottles of the 2015 for sale to help me complete my quest.




Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere 2011, 94 Points-  Lots of smoke, mocha and black tea leaf on the nose, with subtle red plum aromas. Silky and elegant, with refined plum and pure red currant giving way to layered elements of graphite, smoked meat and mocha bean. Weightless on the palate, as tobacco spice kicks in through the long finish. A solid effort in a tough vintage.


This was by far the most elaborate, meticulous and expansive cave network we encountered, and it was truly mesmerizing. The sheer volume of wine stored below the ground at this estate is astonishing and surreal. From the standpoint of a tour experience, this was second to none for us. The wine is fantastic as well, and the tasting provides a full overview of the four different winemaking projects the family is currently involved in.




Chateau Beau-Séjour Becot 2013, 91 Points- Aromas of crushed red cherries, red licorice, vanilla bean and barnyard. Silky, elegant and jammy, with cherry plum and red currant preserve flavors gliding effortlessly over undertones of sandalwood, iron and wet limestone. Understated elegance in a tough vintage, medium length.


If your preference is for a more old-school, musky and moldy cave experience, this will be a highlight. Rustic and authentic, this Chateau is well worth seeking out for some of the best wines in the region in the €30 and under range. And the tree that guards the entrance to the cave is simply glorious.




Chateau Franc Mayne 2011, 90 Points- Jammy and plummy on the nose, with wet limestone nuances. Velvety and mineral-driven, with wet rock and slate notes preceding juicy, violety purple fruits- black plum, fig and boysenberry, finishing in unison as this lingers with a graphite bite.


California Wine Country Tasting Recap

July 18, 2018

An abbreviated summer trip to the Bay Area and Healdsburg included visits to eight wineries where I tasted close to 50 wines. My 7-year old son Alex was along for the ride this time, so we decided to avoid Napa altogether and really focused on wineries that offered either seated tastings, outdoor areas, or both. This is becoming more and more of my preference these days anyway, as rising land costs in Napa have resulted in its wineries almost completely pricing out those of us seeking affordable tasting experiences. It’s gotten to the point that if I am paying $100 for two people to taste wine, I’d be better off just skipping the tasting and purchasing an entire bottle of whatever I desire, and then drinking it overlooking the vineyards, or back at my hotel pool.

The more relaxed pace allowed us to really zero-in on what I feel are the can’t miss tasting spots in these areas. And of course, as a result of the wineries we selected, this turned out to be a trip to wine country that focused almost entirely on Zinfandel and blends, and very little on Cabernet Sauvignon. Tasting the differences in terroir between the Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley and Sonoma County Zinfandels was an eye-opening exercise, and as Cabernet prices continue to soar, these impressively structured and nuanced alternatives should be on the radar of every California wine lover. We discovered some delicious white wines as well, and spent less time at tasting bars and more time sitting outside overlooking the surrounding vineyards than ever before.

To briefly recap, our itinerary combined a list of old favorites with some new surprises.

  • The J. Lohr tasting room in downtown San Jose is always a great stop, as the tasting is complimentary, the service is friendly and knowledgeable, and the Gesture wines deliver consistent quality at the price-point.
  • Our first trip to Sarah’s Vineyard in Gilroy was a success, as we enjoyed our tasting outdoors along with a picnic lunch before ordering more bottles to share by the bocce ball courts. The quality of the Pinot Noir and Viognier here far exceeded expectations.
  • The relatively new Hartford Family tasting room on the Healdsburg square now offers outdoor tastings with very generous pours of its top notch Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, as well as wines by the glass. Despite the lack of vineyard views, I could sit here for an entire day and be perfectly content.
  • Limerick Lane is almost entirely empty every time I visit there and I cannot for the life of me figure out why, as they are making some of the most innovative and delicious wines in the area. The reservation-only tasting experience is very relaxed, intimate and informative.
  • I never miss Seghesio on any trip to Healdsburg, as it is the only winery I deem worthy of my wine club membership. We enjoyed an outdoor tasting for the first time ever with spectacular service before ordering a bottle to share. They remain the Zinfandel king of the area in my book.
  • The drive up Dry Creek Road is usually my favorite part of any trip to this area, and we opted to stop at Ferrari-Carano to enjoy a bottle of Chardonnay while seated over their sunny terrace this time around.
  • Every time I have ever been to Ridge, they haven’t been pouring outside because of excessive heat. We took advantage of the milder temperatures and enjoyed a seated outdoor tasting. You’d be surprised how great the views are here from the valley floor. Just watch out for the cactus at the host stand.
  • We made our last stop at Mauritson on the way out of town, and purchased a bottle to enjoy outside. (We really only wanted a glass, but that is apparently no longer an option here).

The entire tasting crew (plus well-behaved kiddos) enjoying the day at Sarah’s Vineyard in Gilroy, where the Viognier 2016 and Pinot Noir Estate 2015 were big hits. 

Below, I’ve listed my top 10 scoring red and white wines tasted on the trip. As always, wines scored the same are listed in ascending order of price, as extra credit is given to wines that deliver equal quality at more affordable price points.



While enjoying the always relaxing and spectacular tasting at Limerick Lane, we were asked if there was anything specific we would like to try. When I answered honestly, we enjoyed an unexpected treat, and the greatest wine of our entire trip!

  1. Limerick Lane 1023 Russian River Valley 2015, 95 Points, $60- Huge, explosive nose of red currant fruit and exotic spice. So soft and seamless on the palate entry, showing off a gorgeous body of dark raspberry, plum and licorice that runs along a backbone of smoke, white pepper spice and cinnamon. Milk chocolate notes creep in late, this is a blockbuster. Incredible elegance and an essay in balance as the finish lingers for minutes. Zinfandel, Syrah and Grenache.
  2. Seghesio Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Cortina 2015, 94 Points, $40- Super elegant, with explosive dark raspberry and licorice flavors above briar and cracked pepper undertones. Creamy body shows a mocha note through the long finish. Seamless texture. Rocking in a stream of solid vintages for this single vineyard offering.
  3. Hartford Family Russian River Valley Zinfandel Old Vine 2016, 93 Points, $40- A near perfect expression of the varietal. Dark and brooding, with crackling briar and pepper spice above blackberry, black licorice and black plum. Loads of black pepper underneath. All in finesse and not overly ripe, a big and burly Zin. Savory herbs creep in late.
  4. Seghesio Zinfandel Rockpile 2015, 93 Points, $45- Silky and ripe, with black cherry and wild berry flavors that give way to savory underbrush, wet slate and mocha. Incredibly polished and deep through the long finish.
  5. Hartford Family Zinfandel Russian River Valley Jolene’s Vineyard Old Vine 2015, 93 Points, $60- Exotic spice and baked raspberry pie aromas. Elegant but robust, with intense baking spice, cinnamon and cracked pepper that runs through the core of jammy red currant fruit, lingering long on a savory herb note. Delicious and expressive.
  6. Mauritson Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2015, 92 Points, $37- Deep and intense, with crackling briar weaving through rich, earth-driven blackberry that leads into peppery spice. Lingers with a firm tannic grip, but this is a mouthful, showing lively acidity throughout.
  7. Ridge Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Pagani Ranch 2015, 92 Points, $40- Huge, ripe red currant fruit aromas. Plump and plummy, with juicy baked plum pie and black cherry flavors gaining traction from subtle tobacco and pepper. Silky tannins, this is super bright, alive, and almost port-like.
  8. Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County Old Vine 2015, 92 Points, $40- Velvety, ripe and deep fruit flavors of dark raspberry and black cherry. Super elegant and streamlined through the delicate finish, feminine and refined, if perhaps a tad less complex than the Cortina and Rockpile.
  9. Limerick Lane Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2015, 92 Points, $42- Explosive nose of ultra-ripe blackberry pie backed by savory herbs. Silky and refined, with tons of blackberry paste and black licorice at its core. Leads into white pepper spice through the very vibrant, alive finish.
  10. Sarah’s Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Clara Estate 2015, 92 Points, $45- Dark body but aroma is true to the varietal, with jammy raspberry and strawberry aromas. Ultra-soft texture, with understated dark raspberry, blackberry and black cherry flavors above a blast of white pepper and tobacco spice. Just super soft through the long finish. This feels very refined, for fans of the darker style of Pinot.



The impeccably manicured grounds at Ferrari-Carano have always been second to none. The winery recently added a terrace where you can enjoy this view while relaxing with a bottle, a choice we recommend above dealing with the often busy tasting room.

  1. Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay Russian River Valley Tre Terre 2016, 91 Points, $28- Intense and concentrated, with golden delicious apple and poached pear flavors. Succulent and juicy, gaining complexity from its subtletly intertwined oak influences as it lingers on a toasty vanilla bean note. Smooth, driven and persistent, laced with a lovely nutmeg spice note.
  2. Sarah’s Vineyard Viognier Santa Clara Estate 2016, 91 Points, $32- Floral aromas of white peach leads into vibrant stone fruit flavors of peach and apricot. Creamy texture is laced with honey and floral spice through the long finish. Spiciness really defines this, one of the best American Viogniers I’ve tasted in years.
  3. Hartford Family Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Far Coast 2015, 91 Points, $65- Fresh and tropical, with floral notes of lemon-lime, nectarine and guava laced with creamy toffee spice that is understated and perfectly intertwined. Smooth, polished and balanced through the long finish.
  4. Sarah’s Vineyard Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2015, 90 Points, $32- Citrus and toffee notes on the nose. Creamy body of golden apple, pear and vanilla bean. Rich, polished finish, with caramel spice lingering.
  5. Hartford Family Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Stone Cote Vineyard 2015, 90 Points, $65- Golden-bodied, with ruch golden apple and pear flavors above layers of toasty oak and vanilla bean. Picks up honeysuckle nuances as it lingers with oaky spice. Creamy, oily and thick throughout.

Visiting wine country with a 7-year old didn’t slow us down at all! Alex was a perfect angel and really enjoyed the beauty of the vineyards. (At Mauritson)


Courtney and I enjoying the top-billed Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay Tre Terre 2016 on our second annual trip to California Wine Country. (She preferred the Viognier from Sarah’s Vineyard, which I scored the same, but it lost the tiebreaker based on its slightly higher price point.)


I surpassed the mark 5000 wines tasted, evaluated, scored and recorded on this trip. Until next time! (Enjoying the game-changing Limerick Lane 1023 in front of the winery’s 108-year old Zinfandel vines). 

Woodinville Tasting Recap

January 11, 2018

About a 30 minute drive east of Seattle, the cozy town of Woodinville offers a magnificent getaway for lovers of food and wine. The Willows Lodge is the place to stay, as it is positioned midway between some twenty tasting rooms and a dozen restaurants, all close enough to travel on foot. The late autumn trip we took offered a chance to take in the colors of the season and to enjoy the warmth of the fireplace. With great farm to table dining options such as the Barking Frog and Purple Cafe nearby, it’s hard to go wrong for a long weekend trip.


The milk-braised pork short rib at Purple Cafe and Wine Bar is to die for, and pairs perfectly with the Sparkman Syrah Untamed 2014 (91 Points, $35), an impressive value wine available right next door. The staff happily opened it for us without a corkage fee. 

For those who love to seek to taste as many wines as possible such as myself, the ability to walk from tasting room to tasting room without ever needing to drive is a dream come true. Be warned that this isn’t exactly wine country- there are no vineyards here and no wine production occurs on the premises- but the massive collection of tasting rooms offers a great opportunity to sample high end wines without making a four hour trek to Walla Walla Valley, and the scenery doesn’t disappoint either.


The view off the back lobby at Willows Lodge is a picture of serenity, as late autumn colors abound.

For drinkers, Washington wine offers an alternative to the somewhat over saturated (and overpriced) California wine market. Often times those with a keen palate will be able to locate standout offerings in this region at less than half the price of their highly sought after neighbors to the south. There’s a substantial difference in terroir and flavor profile here as well, thanks in large part to the cooler temperatures and forest soils, and some may find this style preferable and more complex. I was able to taste 75 wines in somewhat of a whirlwind two day adventure here. I’ve decided to count down my Top 10 favorites, using my typical combination that considers both price and quality. Spoiler alert: There’s a LOT of Syrah.

Honorable Mention:

DeLille Syrah Grand Ciel Red Mountain 2013, 92 Points, $68: Black fruit, leather and herbs on the nose. Velvety body of blackberry and black cherry that carry an herbal edge are layered above deeply complex undertones of briar, violet and orange peel, lingering long on a black pepper spice note. Lots going on here through the long finish. Texture is weightless relative to the overall power.



A seated tasting at the shared Pepper Bridge and Amavi tasting room is a great way to start the day.

Pepper Bridge Trine Walla Walla Valley 2013, 92 Points, $65: Inky purple fruit and leather aromas above hints of herb and cedar. Velvety body of dark plum and black cherry above complex undertones of rosemary, thyme and minty cedar. Finishes with a blast of dark chocolate. Silky but powerful through the long finish. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec.


Bookwalter Conflict Columbia Valley 2013, 92 Points, $60: Deep, intense and perfumey aromas of wild berry, underbrush and cedar. Full-bodied, rich and spicy, with acidic red cherry, raspberry backed by briar, herbs and cracked pepper through the long, long finish. The texture is amazing. One of the most sustained finishes on this entire tasting trip, but that finish is all herbs and briar. Unique. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.


Januik Cabernet Sauvignon Champoux Vineyard Horse Heaven Hills 2015, 92 Points, $55: Cedar, wet limestone and black currants on the nose. Silky and deep on the palate, with elegant blackberry and dark plum fruit notes above toasty vanilla and milk chocolate notes. Supple and substantial, with baking spices adding complexity through the long finish.


Gorman Cabernet Sauvignon The Bully  Red Mountain 2013, 90 Points, $50: Shows some cool climate influences on the nose, with olive, cedar and wet rock above black currant aromas. Silky and elegant, with explosive blackberry and dark plum above cracked pepper, cocoa, cedar and tobacco. Spices linger long underneath.


DeLille Metier Yakima Valley 2014, 92 Points, $46: Ripe red berry and smoke on the nose with a hint of an herbal tinge. Ultra-silky and approachable, with a pure core of raspberry pie and red plum that picks up complex undertones of white pepper spice, clove, bacon fat and rosemary. Long, zesty finish. This cries for food as cracked pepper lingers for minutes. Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.


Gorman Syrah The Pixie Red Mountain 2013, 92 Points, $45: Rich aromas of purple fruit and brown sugar. Big and ripe up front, with fig, licorice and blackberry above smoked meat, leather and black pepper. This is chewy and powerful, my kind of Syrah. Long, intense finish. Thick and tannic, with dusty mocha creeping in late.



Fun with friends at the shared Januik and Novelty Hill tasting room, where you can pair pizza with the top notch Syrah and Cabernet offerings, all while watching the football game. 

Januik Syrah Ciel du Cheval  Red Mountain 2014, 92 Points, $35: Huge aromas of smoked meat above mocha and perfumey, violety fruit. Velvety and deep, with black licorice, dark plum and blackberry cascading into rich mocha, leather, smoke and white pepper spice. Displays an incredibly impressive texture throughout the long finish.


Bookwalter Cabernet Sauvignon Chapter 7 Conner-Lee Vineyard Columbia Valley 2014, 93 Points, $100: Gorgeous aromas loaded with minty cedar, chocolate and black currant. Ultra-silky on the palate, with explosive and intense blueberry, blackberry and black cherry above dark godiva chocolate and wet cedar undertones. Long, long finish.



Col Solare offers tastings tucked inside a VIP-style glass enclosure within Chateau Ste. Michelle’s modern tasting room. We were impressed by the quality of wines poured here and were not ashamed to display purple lips after our first stop of the day! (It’s one of the few places where you need an appointment). 

Col Solare Syrah Component Selection Red Mountain 2014, 93 Points, $85: Explosive aromas of dark fruit above leather, smoke and mint notes. Silky and elegant on the palate, with black licorice and dark plum flavors above expressive forest floor, cracked pepper, leather and smoldering charcoal notes that dominate the long finish. Refined but present tannins add grip. This straddles the line between masculine and feminine styles.



There’s not a more inviting tasting room in America than JM Cellars, which combines friendly service with campfires, fireplaces and country music all perched above lovely scenery. Oh, and the wines are on point too. 

JM Cellars Syrah Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2015, 94 Points, $48: Purple fruit, smoked meat and wet leather on the nose. Velvety and intense, with dark plum and black licorice flavors above rich chocolate, black pepper, leather and bacon fat. Texture is amazing, with a long, persistent, creamy finish. Wet limestone lingers while blackberry jam notes keep pumping; this is tops now but will be even more amazing with time.

Napa and Sonoma Wine Tasting Recap

August 17, 2017


I made my annual pilgrimage to California Wine Country in July, and went all in this time, spending ten days between San Jose, Napa and Sonoma. For the first time, I was accompanied by a Sidekick. Together we visited 25 wineries and tasted over 125 different wines, taking accurate and precise notes on each together as a team. Once in proper wine country, the four wineries per day plan I had scheduled proved a bit taxing and aggressive for my Sidekick, but she bravely endured it successfully. Here is a rundown of the best wines we sampled, organized by varietal. When scores were the same, the tie was broken by price point, because, duh.  (Above: me, amazed by the expansive 1800 acre behemoth that is the Kunde Estate).


Tasting Cabernet in Napa has become quite the expensive ordeal, and wine enthusiasts had better plan carefully and know what they are getting themselves into, or they might find their wallet about $100 lighter after spending an hour tasting mediocre wines. I can remember coming here ten years ago and popping into Silver Oak to taste wines for $10 and getting a free glass to boot. This is no longer the case, but there are still great experiences to be had that are well worth the cost. Shafer (below) excels on all levels, pouring large tastes of its five offerings, including the highly sought after Hillside Select Cabernet, for a $75 per person fee that is worth every penny. Recent Wine Spectator Wine of the Year recipient Lewis Cellars is one of the best bargains around, as they still pour flights for $45 per person in an intimate setting accompanied by fantastic commentary and information. However, there are plenty of $50-100 per person experiences that won’t be nearly as exemplary as these and could leave visitors disappointed, so do your homework. Meyer Cellars, which pours wine out of a quaint tasting room on the main Yountville stretch shared with Hestan, made a Cabernet for the ages with their 2014 at a price point rarely seen in these parts for this tier of quality.


1) Meyer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014, 96, $70- Intense and chocolatey, with black currant fruit, black licorice, dark chocolate, wet rocks and rich spice flavors that lend towards mocha. This is insanely concentrated and densely structured, layered elegantly through the long, persistent finish. Rich, detailed and pure. A nearly perfect Napa Cabernet at a compelling price point.

2) Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select Stags Leap District 2012, 96, $275- Light oak, cedar and chocolate aromas above black currant fruits. Ultra smooth on the palate, exerts elegance, with powdery mocha above the perfumed blackberry, plum and licorice notes. Refined and graceful. Finish lingers for minutes with silky tannins. An essay in elegance, with dark chocolatey spice lingering long beyond the dark fruit and subtle cedar.

3) Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley 2014, 95, $175-Powerful black currant nose, showing oaky spice and dry cedar. Pure and concentrated, with a perfumey essence of crushed blackberry and dark plum gliding over a plush, seamless texture. Complex undertones of wet cedar, black olive and mocha spice add complexity. Length lingers long with silky tannins adding backbone. Textbook Cabernet, finishing with powdery chocolate and oak.

4) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Stag’s Leap District 2013, 92, $125- A big, powerful wine full of blackberry, steeped plum, cassis and powdery cocoa flavors. Deep, rich and intense, with cedary spice lingering with vanilla bean, brown sugar and cocoa through the long finish.

5) Chalk Hill W.P. Foley II Chalk Hill 2013, 92, $160- Powdery cocoa and cedar aromas above black currants on the nose. Deep, dark and chocolatey, with intense mocha and espresso above creamy blackberry and black cherry fruit that lingers long and effortlessly. Silky tannins hold together the complex structure.

6) Pride Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain Napa-Sonoma Counties 2014, 91, $70- Deep perfume, cassis and chocolate aromas. Velvety and silky texture, balanced with well-water mineral above blackberry, plum and powdery mocha. Firm tannins linger, cutting off the fruit a bit. This needs time but is very elegant.

7) Lancaster Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2014, 91, $75- Deep black plum, blackberry and licorice flavors, showing dark godiva chocolate undertones. A powerful style, with beefy game notes adding complexity as it lingers long with velvety tannins.

8) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2014, 91, $85- Heavily perfumed with cassis, minty cedar and tobacco leaf. Silky body of blackberry and dark raspberry above creamy vanilla bean and light chocolate notes. Long elegant finish.

9) Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2014, 91, $185- Very old-world in style and structure, with cool climate aromas of wet mineral and loamy earth above the dark red and black currant flavors that linger behind. Restrained and elegant, with cedary herbs and cocoa/ milk chocolate flavors above sandalwood. Rustic, with minerality lingering with dusty tannins.

10) Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Santa Cruz Mountains 2014, 90, $60- Dark berry fruit, dark chocolate aromas show a hint of black olive. Velvety and elegant, with polished blackberry and black cherry above pepper and loamy earth nuances. Smooth oak and chocolate linger long and deeply. Tighly packed, needs time.


I tasted and scored highly more Chardonnays on this trip than ever before. The star of the show was Sterling (below), which is a highly accessible and slightly touristy stop that is a great first time recommendation. I hadn’t visited here since my very first trip back in 2005, but the views from the gondola ride and once on top of the winery are second to none. It’s important to remember what you are here for though, and it isn’t the tour, as efficient and entertaining as it may be. It’s the Reserve Chardonnay, which they won’t be pouring, so you will have to strong arm your way into an invite to the Members’ Only room like we did. (It isn’t as hard as it sounds, in most all of wine country, showing specific interest in a winery offering will get their attention and they will be happy to pour it for you, especially when you are marching around with a clipboard taking notes and your friend is telling everyone who asks that you have 3 million twitter followers).


1) Sterling Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve 2012, 93, $55- Honey and floral citrus combine on the nose. Super viscous and waxy texture, with intense golden delcious apple and pear fruit above complex mineral, petrol, balanced hazelnut and almondy spice, and a cream soda note. Long length, very balance and Burgundian in style as it lingers long with a light hint of smoke. An amazing Chardonnay.

2) Lewis Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve 2015, 93, $75- Floral aromas show pear and smoky oak. Creamy body is focused and expressive, showcasing juicy pear and cinnamon apple flavors above toasty crème brulee spice and hazelnut cream that lingers long with vanilla bean nuances. Lovely balance and layering between fruit and oak influences, finishing like a cinnamon dolce latte.

3) Shafer Chardonnay Napa Valley Red Shoulder Ranch, 92, $52- Tropical fruit aromas of melon, tangerine. Crisp and clean, showing intense orange citrus notes along with tropical pineapple and honey dew melon. High acidity keeps pumping through the long finish, which picks up light toasty spice nuances as it lingers. Waxy texture.

4) Sterling Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve 2014, 92, $60- Strong buttery oak and stone fruit aromas. Elegant and creamy texture full of poached pear, golden apple and peach flavors, finishing with a blast of crème brulee and toffee spice. Balanced acidity and super creamy, with toasty spice influences lingering. Long, mouth-coating finish.

5) Ram’s Gate Chardonnay Carneros Hyde Vineyard, 92, $68- Floral citrus and smoky earth aromas. Juicy and fruit-driven, with intense lemon curd and green apple flavors that show racy acidity and tartnes. Very subtle oak nuances linger over the long finish.

6) Chalk Hill Chardonnay Chalk Hill Wright Creek, 92, $75- Burgundian in style, with floral lemon zest and understated stone fruit flavors up front before evolving into layers of toasty vanilla bean. Delicate and graceful as it lingers with subtle minerality and clovey spice. Long finish, lively acidity.

7) Ram’s Gate Chardonnay Carneros, 91, $36- Lots of butterscotch and caramel on the nose, showing honey with golden declious apple notes. Clean and pure fruit flavors of lemon and apple show comp,ex earth and mineral notes underneath, lingering long with toasty spice.

8) Chalk Hill Chardonnay Estate Chalk Hill 2014, 91, $42- Rich, butterscotchy aromas show honey and caramel notes. Creamy body of golden apple, pear and lemon show Werther’s toffee and almondy spices that linger long underneath. Picks up a floral edge as it linfers with toasty oak spices.

9) MacRostie Chardonnay Russian River Valley Bacigalupi 2015, 91, $46- Floral and perfumed aromas. Balanced and elegant on the palate, with golden apple between the dominant tropical fruit notes of melon. Understated but well-intertwined oak nuances. Incredibly well-balanced through the long finish.

10) Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay Sonoma Country Reserve, 91, $50- Refreshing, balanced and juicy, showing rich and full-bodied golden apple, pear and lemon flavors above layers of toasty oak and butterscotch underneath. Finishes long with vanilla bean spices lingering.

Failla Chardonnay Napa Valley Hudson Vineyard, 91, $50- Golden body, aromas of toasty oak, mineral and stone fruit. Clean, crisp and flinty, showing a lovely juxtaposition beween its rocky minerality and toasty oak components, showing poached pear and golden apple flavors underneath. Lingers with toasty spice, balanced and elegant.


Syrah is my favorite varietal of all, but I require it in a certain style. I’m not much for the elegant, feminine style of this grape and prefer big, beefy, muscular, leathery and peppery wines. I’ve always been of the opinion that someday this grape will be the king of the Napa region instead of Cabernet. That hasn’t happened yet, but the choices remain spectacular from top producers and for half the price, so who’s complaining? I’d tasted and scored the excellent Lewis Alec’s Blend 2014 a year ago and was lucky enough to taste it again and confirm my notes, which did not change the score and rendered this offering best of all. But for pure experience, it was hard to beat the Michelin Star lunch we had on the 4th of July at Auberge de Soleil (below), which offers the perennially awesome Plumpjack Napa Valley Syrah for $107, which is not even double the retail markup from the winery that lies just south on the Silverado trail below. Still a bit of a splurge, this was well worth it, paired with an expertly prepared Kurobata Pork Chop to complement a meal that was second to none on our trip.


1) Lewis Alec’s Blend Napa Valley 2014, 95, $70- Explosive aromas of black and purple fruit, toffee and mocha. Complex as can be, with perfumey elegance in its blackberry, licorice and plum flavors above black cherry cola notes. Creamy toffee and mocha flavors combine with smoked meat, leather, minty cedar, clove and earthy hints of tar underneath that add nuance through the seemingly endless finish. Clove and pepper linger long. Remarkably focused and elegant in the feminine style, with silky tannins behind it all.

2) Plumpjack Syrah Napa Valley 2013, 94, $56- Big aromas of purple fruit and smoked meat. Velvety and deep, with bacon fat, smoked game and beef notes alongside leather nuances that hover above dark plum, black licorice and blackberry. Finish lingers long with black pepper spice and mocha.

3) Robert Biale Like Father Like Son Napa Valley 2013, 93, $48- Deep and complex, with blackberry paste, licorice and black plum flavors above intense cracked pepper and allspice nuances. Long finish as spices linger long behind silky tannins. Elegant for its overall power.

4) Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2013, 93, $90- Perfumey black and blue fruits, lightly smoky and peppery on the nose. Velvety and seamless mouthfeel shows great concentration and balance, with blackberry, blueberry and licorice flavors above complex but understated smoked meat, cracked pepper, espresso, leather and cigar box. This lends more towards finesse than power in this vintage, a rarity for this bottling.

5) Lewis Syrah Napa Valley Ethan’s 2014, 92, $45- Perfumed and smoky on the nose. Chewy body of crushed blackberry, black plum and black licorice. Intense tannins coat the mouth through the finish, which gains traction and complexity from its black pepper and dark chocolate notes.

6) Limerick Lane Hail Mary Russian River Valley 2015, 92, $48- Deep leather and smoke above black currant aromas. Thick, powerful and plummy, with dark plum and blackberry above dark chocolate, smoked meat and black pepper. This is exactly what a Syrah should taste like, lingering long with wet leather hints. Big and monsterous yet maintain smoothness and polish.

7) J. Lohr GSM Gesture Paso Robles 2015, 90, $30- Ripe plum and dark berry aromas with a hint of smoky bacon fat. Elegant body combines floral violet notes above layered, juicy plum, wild berry and cherry notes, giving way to creamy caramel, charred meat and black pepper spice underneath. Complex, long finish held together by firm tannins. Needs time.

8) Pride Syrah Sonoma County 2015, 90, $60- Well-water mineral and purple fruit combine on the nose. Velvety texture, with subtle leather and smoke notes above the licorice, black plum, blueberry and cherry flavors. This finishes with black pepper and cocoa bean notes, silky and smooth.

9) Failla Syrah Fort Ross-Seaview 2014, 89, $58- Combines briary herbs and cracked black pepper with perfumey black fruit and caramel. Wet mineral, hot brick and heavy herbal notes of oregao, sage and rosemary dominate the perfumey blackberry underneath. A streak of cracked pepper runs through and lingers through the dry, medium length.

10) Miner Syrah Napa Valley Stagecoach 2011, 88, $50- Aromas is defined by herbaciousness, with green olive and green pepper notes above hints of smoke and game. Cracked pepper, green herbs and smoke on the palate above medium-bodied licorice and plum but the fruit is very understated. Finishes on a dry tannic note.


I think that wine clubs, for the most part, are a scam, but I do belong to just one, and it is one of the best decisions that I have ever made. Seghesio makes Zinfandel at a price point that continues to astonish me, and some of their most coveted offerings are allocated specifically to wine club members at a discount to those price points. You can simply visit the tasting room for the low fee of $15 without appointment too, or just buy a bottle to take to the bocce ball court. When it comes to Zinfandel, there is Seghesio, and there is everyone else, although several in the general vicinity produce spectacular options as well. Zinfandel is unique in America in that it is the only varietal name that you will see printed on a bottle here but nowhere else. While genetically equivalent to Italy’s Primitivo, you won’t see the word “Zinfandel” anywhere else in the world. For that reason, I’ve made it a tradition to enjoy a bottle every year on the 4th of July to honor America, and you should as well. The common misconception with this grape comes from your grandmother’s “White Zinfandels” of the 80s. That is not what we are talking about here. The red Zinfandel grape when properly cultivated in these regions delivers a wine that is ripe, rich and zesty, showing briary earth, cracked pepper and high alcohol. This combination of flavors is perfect for anything off of the grill and is therefore a perfect pairing on the 4th of July.


1) Seghesio Zinfandel Cortina Dry Creek Valley 2014, 94, $40- Deep purple fruit aromas above hints of chocolate and briar. Elegant body shows dark fruit flavors of plum, blackberry and licorice with underbrush and briary herbs adding complexity. This lingers long with cracked pepper nuances adding distinction and place. This offering may have passed Home Ranch.

2) Seghesio Zinfandel Home Ranch Alexander Valley 2014, 93, $58- Thick, purple, perfumey fruit showing cocoa and spice on the nose. Super polished and silky on the palate, a classic Zin, with explosive blackberry, black cherry and plum notes that lead into black pepper and briar. Long finish, layered and complex.

3) Limerick Lane Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2014, 92, $42- Big, bold and ripe on the nose, showing red currant fruit and baking spice notes. A strong cracked pepper note permeates all the way through this offering. Fleshy and intense on the palate, with dark raspberry, blueberry and plum flavors above finely integrated cinnamon and briary spice notes. Long finish that shows serious character.

4) Martinelli Zinfandel Giuseppe & Luisa Russian River Valley 2015, 92, $58- Thick, juicy and ripe purple fruit flavors of black plum, blueberry and licoice, carrying undertones of briary spice and cracked peper. This is rich, intense and powerful, with long finish that pumps with peppery spices.

5) Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel Heritage Vines Sonoma County 2015, 91, $22- Huge, intense and crackling, with tons of briary spice above its dark raspberry, blackberry and licorice flavors. Long, spicy finish with vanilla and mocha oak influences lingering in the background. Might be the best deal in town, an astounding value.

6) Girard Zinfandel Old Vine Napa Valley 2014, 91, $25- Juicy and generous, packed with intense blackberry, black cherry and plum paste flavors. Black pepper spice and briar add complexity as this lingers long, gaining a licorice hint through the finish that the carries the body and pulls it all together.

7) Seghesio Zinfandel Todd Brothers Alexander Valley 2015, 91, $48- A distinctive mix of ripe black fruit and woody characteristics, with crushed blackberry jam and dark fruit flavors that mingle with crackling briar, cedar and black pepper spice. This finishes on a powdery chocolate note as spice lingers long. Fantastic offering in its first vintage.

8) Limerick Lane Zinfandel Rocky Knoll Russian River Valley 2014, 91, $58- Dark berry fruit is ripe and roughly hewn on the nose, showing rocky minerality and peppery spice. Thick, muscular and ripe, with blackberry fruit behind a distinct black pepper note and wet slate undertones. Crushed grape skin adds dryness through the long but tannic finish.

9) Ridge Zinfandel East Bench Dry Creek Valley 2015, 90, $32- Plump and plummy, with notes of cinnamon on the nose. Medium-bodied and spicy, with red plum, cherry and raspberry pie flavors running over white pepper spice notes. Medium length, dry tannins add grip.

10) Kunde Zinfandel Old Vines Century Reserve Sonoma Valley 2014, 90, $50- Smells like Christmas, with evergreen, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove spices streaking through a medium body of dried berry and cherry fruit. Medium length, with exotic Asian spices lingering.


The rise of the quality of wines at Arista in recent years has been nothing short of transcendent, and they now have a top notch arsenal of offerings to accompany their gorgeous views and picnic grounds (below). No longer open without appointment but by no means pretentious, their rise can be attributed to the acquisition of winemaker Matt Courtney, which just so happens to also be the first name of your author and his Sidekick, so that’s pretty neat, to say the least of being easy to remember. The cost to taste here has risen but so has the quality of the wines and the service, and that’s what it is all about. For an off-the-beaten path experience in Napa to switch the palate away from the Cabernet for a bit, I can’t recommend Failla highly enough, as the seated tasting takes place on a rustic living room couch, and the delicious wines keep coming.


1) Arista Pinot Noir Monomi Vineyard Russian River Valley 2015, 93, $75- Complex aromas of floral rose, smoked cured meats and crushed wild berry fruit. Velvety and intense, showing richness from its perfumed fruit notes and nuance from its milk chocolate and smoke undertones. Chewy tannins add grip. Impeccably balanced.

2) Arista Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2014, 92, $54- Toasty oak, blackberry and lifted potpourri on the nose. Silky texture shows complex layers of perfumey blackberry, plum, blueberry and licorice above creamy oak and exotic baking spice. This is complex and structured, with vibrant acidity keeping the fruit pumping, lingering with wet tobacco spice. Finish is pulled together by with refined but powerful tannins.

3) Failla Pinot Noir Singler Vineyard Russian River Valley 2014, 92, $58- Baked plum and cherry pie aromas. Velvety and polished, with plum and licorice nuances above intense cinnamon, nutmeg and clove spice. This is balanced, elegant and focused, showing layered and concentrated flavors as it lingers with a long, silky finish.

4) Failla Pinot Noir Keefer Ranch Russian River Valley 2015, 91, $45- Dark hued ruby body with bright red currant fruits on the nose. Soft and silky, with dark raspberry and black cherry flavors above floral rose and white pepper spice notes. A hint of white chocolate creeps in as the finish lingers long and seamlessly. Exotic spices linger as well.

5) Martinelli Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2014, 91, $45- Huge, juicy flavors of wild raspberry and black cherry combine with floral watermelon accents and a huge streak of white pepper spice that mingle together through the long, zesty finish.

6) Arista Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2015, 91, $54- Aromas of dark berry fruit, raisin, plum and white chocolate. Bright and expressive cherry and dark raspberry above a backbone of grilled herbs that adds complexiy through the long finish. Fine-grained tannins add structure and balance.

7) Ram’s Gate Pinot Noir Gap’s Crown Sonoma Coast 2013, 91, $70- Big aromas of strawberry and raspberry. Plush mouthfeel of intense red berry fruit flavors, leading into plum pie and blackberry above subtle tobacco spice notes. Perfumed and ripe, juicy fruit is the story here through the long finish.

8) Failla Pinot Noir Lola Sonoma Coast 2014, 90, $48- Ultra ripe and juicy on the nose, showing floral aromas of violet and lilac. Juicy body of crushed red berry fruit- strawberry, wild berry, cranebrry- is backed by smoky tobacco and allspice notes. Picks up a red licorice nuance through the medium length.

9) MacRostie Pinot Noir Wildcat Mountain Sonoma Coast 2014, 90, $56- Elegant black cherry, crushed red berry and cracked pepper/ mushroom aromas. Silky body of peppery crushed berry and cherry fruit are all in balance as brambly spice lingers. Cracked pepper notes are very distinct.

10) MacRostie Pinot Noir Manzana Vineyard Russian River Valley 2015, 89, $56- Rich and perfumey aromas of black fruit, subtle brown sugar and olive. Red plum and black cherry flavors expand into caramel and brown sugar. Slight hint of cardboard adds a flabby edge but exotic spices keep pumping and recover.


Blame it on Sideways talking shit about this varietal over a decade ago if you want, but for some reason, they just don’t pour Merlot very much in NoCal wine country these days. The small sample size makes it hard to give a full report, but the best offerings still forgo the ripe, jammy fruit for deeper, earth driven flavors of cedar and mocha that mingle with darker currant and berry fruit. Ridge was the top performer here in somewhat of a surprise. But at the top of Spring Mountain Road, the cave tour and tasting at Pride (below) is still one of my highest recommendations, and the unique terroir that the appellation delivers consistently is still the best in America short of Washington State. The tour and tasting at Pride is also one of the best deals in the area at $20, and offers picnic grounds overlooking the mountains as well.


1) Ridge Merlot Santa Cruz Mountains 2014, 91, $50- Perfumey cassis and chocolate on the nose with hints of cedar and oak. Complex and Bordeaux-like, with balanced earth and fruit flavors of dark plum and blackberry above wet limestone, musky cedar and cocoa powder. Velvety tannins carry through the finish, a cool climate style reminiscent of a St. Emilion.

2) Pride Merlot Napa-Sonoma Counties 2014, 91, $60- Dusty berry aromas, notes of brown sugar spice, cedar and forest floor. Juicy plum and blackberry fruit show a creamy cassis nuance that gives way to dark chocolate and forest floor/ wet cedar notes. A touch of loamy earth lingers on the long finish, a distinctive Spring Mountain offering.

3) Lewis Merlot Napa Valley 2014, 91, $80- Cedary and perfumey on the nose, showing hints of mocha and oak. Juicy and ripe fruit body of black cherry, dark plum and pomegranate glides over a fleshy texture, showing spicy cedar and creamy mocha bean notes underneath. Firm tannic grip.

4) Sterling Merlot Napa Valley 2014, 89, $28- Perfumey aromas of cassis and powdery cocoa. Rich body of blackberry and plum fruit, gaining complexity underneath from its caramel and cocoa nuances. Finish lingers long with a hint of herbal spice. Dry tannins add grip.

5) Shafer Merlot Napa Valley 2014, 87, $55- Black currant and vanilla on the nose. Medium-bodied, with dried berry flavors above sage and cedar herbs, gaining toast and mocha notes. Very tannic, dry and earthy through the medium length.


The great thing about going to this part of the world in July is that you know what you are going to get. The bad part about that is that without fail, you will get days in the high 90s on the regular, but what is a better wine for that kind of weather than Sauvignon Blanc? It seems nearly every winery in Napa or Sonoma makes one now and usually leads its tasting flight with this wine. The best examples show less grass and grapefruit these days, instead exhibiting more juicy tropical fruit and melon flavors that aren’t cloying or sour. Quivira (below) is just over the Lambert Bridge on West Dry Creek Road and makes the best one of these we tasted this trip as well as the best Rose in the area year after year, so this is the perfect stop for a hot day. It’s family friendly, offering picnic tables and even a petting zoo for the kids.


1) Quivira Sauvignon Blanc Fig Tree Dry Creek Valley 2015, 90, $24- Very refined and polished, with citrusy lemon drop, pineapple and honey dew flavors. Impressively floral and minerally with a fig note running throughout. Little to no tartness as the finish lingers softly and effortlessly.

2) Lewis Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2016, 90, $38- Lifted floral aromas show tropical fruit and melon on the nose. Fruit-driven, with mango, canteloupe and honey dew flavors above lime and lemon accents, lingering with a hint of toasty spice. Creamy and persistent.

3) Chalk Hill Sauvignon Blanc Chalk Hill 2015, 88, $22- Tropical fruit aromas of grapefruit and guava. Crisp and refreshing, toasty spice nuances running through the juicy melon and stone fruit flavors, lingering with a bit of well-water mineral. Medium length.

4) Sterling Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2016, 87, $16- Tropical grapefruit fruit aromas, grassy on the nose. Vivid fruit flavors balanced between tropical melon and acidic grapefruit/ kiwi. Hints of lemon creep in late with white chocolate undertones. This is very soft and smooth.

5) Lancaster Sauvignon Blanc Alexander Valley Samantha’s 2015, 87, $30- Spicy and intense on the nose, with toasty vanilla and citrusy tropical honey dew and peach flavors. Balanced acidity through the medium length. Refreshing with subtle minerality lingering.

Until next year my friends!!!




California Wine Country Recap

June 20, 2014

I’ve spent a lot of time in California’s wine country in the month of July in the past few years. Over time, I’ve visited in the fall months of September, October and November as well, but before my most recent trip, I had never visited in the spring. During my five day tasting tour of Napa Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Forestville and Anderson Valley, I experienced unseasonably warm weather in mid-May. With temperatures in the 90s, it felt very similar to my recent July trips, if not hotter than some, but there was something different- a strong, undeniable floral aroma that carried through the breeze.

After enduring a severe winter drought that dried up reservoirs across the region, such hot weather so early in the growing season could pose challenges, but vinters in the area showed no signs of panic. Some early spring rains came just before budbreak, staving off potentially catastrophic irrigation dilemmas, and while 95 degrees in the valley in the middle of May is unseasonably warm and there are recent rumors of the onset of veraison even before the summer equinox, there’s still a lot of weather ahead.

Tasting through more of the elegant 2009 vintage, the dramatically acclaimed 2010 vintage, and the cool, more difficult 2011 vintage, one theme stood out for me on this trip. It became apparent that the string of good vintages that the region had enjoyed spanning 2004-2010 benefited those who sought to capitalize on the land itself. While far from ideal, the challenging 2011 vintage really proves to separate the true winemakers from those that are merely wealthy winery owners, as the best among the crafters made fantastic, nuanced, character-driven wines in 2011. While it is a year where buyers should choose carefully, it is also a year that could prove to be a great separator between vinters.

Over five days of constant wine tasting, which I determined once and for all, is pretty much my limit, I tried roughly 125 wines and visited over 20 different wineries. While I won’t dedicate this recap to covering them all, I wanted to focus on each region I visited, and upon the winery that I felt stood out above the rest for each unique appellation, both in terms of wine quality and visitor experience.



When it comes to pure dedication and focus, the folks in the tasting facility here would have you believe that there are few in California, if not the world, on the level of Paul Hobbs in terms of winemaking. This lovely tasting takes place seated on comfortable couches in a group setting and overlooks the vineyards, while the highly wine-educated staff take you through a tasting of five wines for $45, while also giving you some historical background on Paul Hobbs’ journey through his love of wine, his meticulous nature, and his rise to superstardom in winemaking.

Hobbs specializes in a variety of grapes, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, and grows them all over the map, with vineyards here at the winery site in the Western Sonoma town of Sebastopol (above) as well as outsourced grapes from Russian River Valley, Carneros and highly sought after single vineyards in Napa such as To Kalon and Stagecoach. Hobbs is an example of a winemaker who was able to make lemonade out of lemons in 2011, as richness shows all the way through the Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2011 (91 Points), which bursts with vibrant fruit and toffee notes, to the deep, almost brooding Cabernet Sauvingnon Napa Valley (92 Points).  Even the Pinot Noir Russian River Valley (91 Points) balances the rugged vintage characteristics with dark wild berry notes behind its earthy mushroom and tobacco notes.

We took the latter wine into the barrel room (below) to take a look at what the future holds. It was most re-assuring the taste one of his famous single vineyard wines after returning to the tasting couch, the Cabernet Sauvignon Dr. Crane 2010 (93 Points). As mentioned above, the greatest winemakers can turn a difficult vintage into something truly special and character driven, but if this is the case, imagine what they do in ideal vintages? This wine, with its super-extracted black currant fruit that combines with cocoa over a silky texture, is evidence of this.




GOLDENEYE: While traveling through the wineries of the Anderson Valley, which for the most part cover the towns of Navarro and Philo, it made me long for the days of a decade ago in the now comparatively pretentious Napa Valley, the days where my notepad alone was enough to have a tasting fee waived. While I am more than happy to pay for any wine that I taste, it was refreshing to visit an area that pours its wine to sell it, and to spread its own good name above all else.

I visited four wineries on my trip through this somewhat isolated and heavily pine-tree laden region, and none of them charged me a fee. This is Pinot Noir country, and there was no question that I would be planning my day around Goldeneye Winery, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the friendly, personalized service I received here, with a lovely fountain and vineyard backdrop to complement. My host Doug greeted me and was as congenial a man as you’ll meet, which seems par for the course in this neck of the woods. I received a flight of five Pinots here (below), including three single vineyards, and was offered all of the re-tastes that I wanted. The Gowan Creek Vineyard 2010 (94 Points) earned the highest rating of all the Pinots I tried this trip, mostly on the strength of its weightless, integrated texture that combines with juicy fruit and earthy spice. The Confluence Vineyard 2010 (92 Points) and The Narrows Vineyard 2010 (91 Points) demonstrated contrasting, well-executed styles, with the former showing more juicy fruit notes and the latter more herbacious, piney and earth driven. The Gowan Creek seemed to be a beautiful combination of both styles.

So as I sat and sipped and scribbled notes, Doug would come to check on me and engage me in enjoyable conversation. All the while the fountain splashed, the sun beat down on the vines and the grapes began to ripen. I could have stayed here forever and will certainly visit again.




SBRAGIA: I’ve driven many wine roads in California in my day, from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles, all the way up to Calistoga, Sonoma, Forestville and Mendocino, and everything in between. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as stunning, lush and concentrated as the Dry Creek Valley Road just north of Healdsburg (above). It has become a mandatory stop on every tasting trip even if only for the drive alone, which incidentally is best done after the lunch hour as the sun beats down and reflects upon the sea of green vines. At the very end of this road, I almost always find myself at Sbragia, with the anticipation of the lovely drive back south always to look forward to after my tasting.

Ed Sbragia was winemaker at Beringer for years, and that establishment needs no introduction, being only one of two wineries in Napa to have ever won Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year award twice, and the only one to earn that honor with two different varietals (Caymus is the other, both with Cabernet). Sbragia excels with everything that he does, but really brings a special touch to his Chardonnay. He is certainly not one to be shy of the oak, and prefers wines of a rich, creamy style, but finds remarkable balance and does not sacrifice the fruit. The Gamble Ranch Chardonnay 2009 (94 Points) is perhaps the finest American Chardonnay I have ever tasted, with Burgundian aromas that offer earthy petrol and mineral nuances, with a rich, oily, stone fruit-driven texture that is almost like a Sauternes. I tasted this alongside three other Chardonnays in an impressively orchestrated vertical tasting (below).

This brings me to my two keys for getting the most out of your tasting experiences in California wine country. First and foremost, email ahead of time and express your interest in visiting the winery, even at a facility like Sbragia that allows walk-ins and where you don’t need reservations. By specifying your interest in particular wines, the staff will realize that you are truly interested and will be willing to offer selections accordingly in many cases. Secondly, if an outdoor seated tasting is available, take advantage of it. I’ve grown incredibly weary of bellying up to tasting bars when the beauty of the vineyards is right outside to be enjoyed. Sbragia in particular offers one of the very best outdoor enviroments in the whole area, and since its laid back tasting room offers wines by the glass or by the bottle, this is a great stop to relax with a group even if you aren’t in the mood for a serious tasting flight. Not surprisingly, I was in the mood to taste quite a few, and my wonderful host Matt had pre-arranged an outdoor seating for me, with a lineup of four Chardonnays (below) and three Cabernets that I had requested ahead of time. It was an incredible experience. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.


Day Four- NAPA VALLEY (Silverado Trail)


SHAFER: Shafer’s Relentless is an expressive, perennially powerful Syrah-based blend and was one of the first bottles that resulted in my full blown affliction with the wine bug. I’ve tasted every vintage since 2004, visited the winery for the first time in 2009, and I was ecstatic when the 2008 bottling was awarded the coveted Wine Spectator Wine of the Year award, albeit with mixed feelings. I was so very happy for a wine that had earned such cult status in my individual tasting regimen to receive such a high accolade, but at the same time lamented what the results of such widespread recognition would have upon my own selfish considerations, namely, availability and price. Indeed, the Relentless bottling is much more difficult to locate than it once was, and the price has risen slightly. After a five year hiatus, it was time for another visit to the winery (above).

Doug Shafer, President of the winery (below), wrote the fascinating book “A Vineyard In Napa” in 2010, which describes all of the risks, trials and tribulations that the family dealt with when they moved here on a whim from Chicago in the early 70s. Little did they know way back then, nor did they know that just after the book was published, that the Relentless would receive such an honor. Shafter takes its tasting experience very seriously and reservations are very difficult to come by inside of a month ahead of time, and having planned this trip somewhat quickly, I really had to scramble for one of the last available spots. The informative seated tasting offers a wide open view of the surrounding vineyard accompanied by five large pours of current release wine for a prepaid $55 fee, but to me, although pricey, this is still one of the very best experiences in the area. The highlight of the show is always the Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select, and the 2009 (95 Points) is no exception, demonstrating depth and elegance beneath its black currant, cocoa, cedar and atypical smoked meat notes. The grapes for this terroir-driven wine are carefully selected from the steep single vineyard located on site, and is a special offering. There aren’t too many tasting rooms in Napa that pour their $250 Reserve Cabernet to the public, and perhaps the most refreshing thing about Shafer’s tasting is that unlike so many wineries in the area, they aren’t afraid to pour you their very best stuff for the price you’re paying. To the contrary, they will pour you the very best of what they have available.

As if any more confirmation of the consistency of the Relentless was necessary at this point, I found the monstrous, masculine 2010 (95 Points) to be on par with the Hillside Select in terms of quality, and at less than a third of the price, it still represents significant value in the area if you can get your hands on it at your local wine store. And if you can’t, it’s comforting to know that you can always head straight to the source, provided you are willing to prioritize this stop first and foremost. You’ll also get to taste the current releases of the One Point Five Cabernet, Merlot and Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, as well as a rare Chocolate Port at the conclusion. Some things in life are worth the splurge, and this remains the case in the Shafer tasting room.


Day Five- NAPA VALLEY (St. Helena)


BEHRENS: A drive up Spring Mountain Road is, to me, a mandatory piece of any tasting itinerary while visiting the Napa Valley. There are so many unique producers pouring wines on this winding, moderately treacherous road due west of Highway 29, and they all offer views that are second to none. I’ve made many visits to Pride, I’ve had the pleasure to visit Barbara at Paloma, and have stopped in at Schweiger, Sherwin Family and Charbay. However, until this trip, I’d never made the drive to the very far end of the road, where an air-conditioned trailer (above) and a straight-shooting, wine-loving tasting hostess await, offering exquisite wines and unparalleled views.

Les Behrens doesn’t own any vineyards, but he is a winemaker who executes low-production wines by purchasing grapes with careful precision, and the results are bottles that demonstrate remarkable character, balanced with earth-driven elements over a seamless texture–the most consistently soft, silky and structured tannin composition of any winery I visited on this trip. The Behrens production is wide and varied, but focuses primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. The incredibly unique tasting experience takes place in a trailer offering views from the very top of Spring Mountain, covers about eight different wines for a $40 fee (waived with a two bottle purchase), conducted by Robin Cooper, a true wine-lover who has a collection herself of some 6000 bottles. Robin’s passion for the Behrens wine is evident, and I was most impressed by her willingness to discuss her appreciation of many other winemakers in the area. She truly exhudes an attitude of collective success for the whole region, which has become a bit of a rarity in this particular, highly competitive appellation. Behrens sells out of nearly all of their wines, so they have no incentive to badmouth other wineries, but her honest appraisal of the surrounding vinters was certainly a breath of fresh air.

The Behrens wines have so much personality, and this is evident before tasting them even by the way they are bottled. The leathery, earth-driven Sainte Fumee 2011 (93 Points) comes in a stout, port-shaped bottle, and shows off circus-like artwork as so many of these bottles do, while the unique Cabernet Sauvignon Thanksgiving 2011 (95 Points) attempts to suggest an immediate pairing by its name, and appropriately so– that was the best Cabernet I tasted over this entire trip, with its intense earth aromas reminiscent of a Bordeaux that combine with deep, dark fruit notes. Like they say in marketing, half of the battle is getting the customer to see the bottle in the first place, although none of these bottles will make it to your local wine store anyway, so I digress. Still, the entire concept implements a perfect balance between having fun with the wines and simulatenously taking them incredibly seriously, and this balance carries over to the structure of the wines themselves. Best to go to the source.



1) Behrens Cabernet Sauvignon Thanksgiving Napa Valley 2011, 95 Points, $115-  Bordeaux-like aromas, with iron mineral, leather and cigar box above crushed berry fruit notes. Impossibly polished and seamless, with intense, powdery mocha, layers of blackberry and deep plum above terroir-driven, expressive earth elements of tobacco, fresh leather and road tar. Long finish with refined tannins adding grip. This is all about texture.

2) Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select Napa Valley 2009, 95 Points, $250- Lovely aromas of cassis and minty cedar. Velvety body of blackberry and black cherry show complex notes of wet petrol mineral and smoked meat underneath. Atypical for the varietal, as elements of cedary spice and cocoa creep in and engage the back of the palate. Phenomenal texture, with the slightest hint of dry tannin creeping in late as structured dark fruit and mineral linger for minutes.

3) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Oakville 2010, 94 Points, $80- Big aromas of plummy cassis, chocolate, toast and cedar. A real mouthful, with dark plum, black cherry and blackberry exploding above creamy vanilla, toffee and milk chocolate undertones, with complex hints of sweet tobacco creeping in late. Impeccable texture and balance through the long finish.

4) Behrens Cabernet Sauvignon Crowley Vineyard 2010, 94 Points, $85- Huge, rich crushed blackberry jam aromas with hints of cedar and pine underneath. A juicy, gutsy style, with tons of blackberry fruit that is incredibly lush and layered, with earthy tobacco spice notes that pick up leather in a stunning shift underneath. Utterly packed, with an impeccable texture through the long finish, which shows velvety tannins.

5) Hestan Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2010, 94 Points, $110- Rich aromas of black fruit, dark chocolate and cedar. Polished, dark and aggressive body of black licorice, blackberry and mocha bean that show cedary undertones. Dark chocolate creeps in late. A monstrous, masculine wine, still showing huge tannins on the finish, but the texture is silky and the flavors are pure and focused. Needs to soften, but this is packed and powerful.

6) Meyer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009, 93 Points, $48- Rich, perfumed cassis and chocolate aromas. Lush texture of blackberry, black plum and black cherry above hints of chocolate as tobacco and cigar box notes creep in late. The finish is all dark, polished fruit though, as it lingers.

7) Sbragia Cabernet Sauvignon Rancho Del Oso Howell Mountain Napa Valley 2009, 93 Points, $75- Piney, wet forest floor aromas. Lush and velvety, with perfumey black currant fruits above subtle chocolate notes, stony minerality and cedary spice that lingers for minutes. Textured and detailed, with silky tannins adding structure.

8) Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley 2011, 93 Points, $135- Aromas of black currant, cigar box and mocha powder. Seamless and dark, with brooding blackberry, black licorice and Godiva dark chocolate notes above mocha powder and undertones of tobacco spice. Silky, refined tannins add depth and structure. Long finish with spicy tobacco and chocolate lingering for minutes. Well done in a tough year.

9) Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon Dr. Crane Napa Valley 2010, 93 Points, $175- Gorgeous on the nose, with perfumed black currants and subtle cocoa. Seamless, silky body with super-dark and refined blackberry and black cherry that tastes thick but feels light. Super-extracted and dark, with a long, refined finish that goes on and on, gaining traction from its silky tannins. Thick and chewy finish.

10) St. Clement Oroppas Napa Valley 2011, 92 Points, $55- Marked by its black cherry cola and cedary underbrush aromas. Ultraripe on the palate, with a focused core of juicy crushed blueberry and blackberry cassis notes along with black cherry that are layered impressively above mocha, dark chocolate, cedar and oak notes. This lingers long with some exotic baking spices adding intrigue, a strong effort in a tough vintage. Shows elegance and dimension in its youth.

11) Behrens The Heavyweight Napa Valley 2010, 92 Points, $75- Rich black cherry, wild raspberry and hints of black olive on the nose. Silky texture unfolds with detailed, balanced red currant fruits, complex undertones of cigar box, leather, sage and herbs, with a faint hint of petrol earth. Distinct and weightless, showing silky tannins and a complex, earth-driven length.

12) St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder Paras Vineyard Napa Valley 2010, 92 Points, $80- Huge nose of cocoa powder, black olive and black currant. Very terroir-driven and earthy, with chocolate and olive elements above dark plum and black licorice running over a smooth, silky texture. Refined, silky tannins add structure through the long finish.

13) Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2011, 92 Points, $90- Classic varietal profile, with black olive and cocoa powder above black currants. Dark black fruit flavors of plum and licorice combine over dark chocolate and black olive earth, all over a silky texture. A big, masculine wine, showing depth through the long finish.

14) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap 2011, 92 Points, $100- Big, rich nose of black cherry, coffee and cedar. Silky texture shows dark cherry and blackberry fruit notes, evolving into sweet vanilla and mocha/espresso notes and burnt toast nuances, finishing with a grip and lingering long, showing fresh minty notes. Very well done in a tough vintage.

15) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2011, 91 Points, $50- Toasty graham cracker and cinnamon spice aromas shade blackberry and black cherry. Juicy, complex body of black currants and melted licorice show cool vintage characteristics of wet forest floor and briary spice with undertones of clove and tobacco lingering. Dry tannic grip, and needs to soften, but there’s lots going on here.



1) Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel Sonoma County 2011, 92 Points, $38- Toasty on the nose, with dark berry and black cherry fruit aromas. Super-dark and elegant on the palate, with rich chocolate-covered black cherry notes that wrap around spicy pepper and vanilla bean through the long finish. Surprising darkness, as earth and spice elements power down the fruit, somewhat atypical and unique from old vines.

2) Hartford Family Old Vine Zinfandel Dina’s Vineyard Russian River Valley 2011, 92 Points, $55- Enticing aromas combine dark fruit with exotic spice. Full, supple and spicy body, with intense wild berry, dark raspberry and black cherry fruit flavors above spicy white pepper, herbs and fennel which cleanse the back of the palate. Very layered and detailed through the long, spicy finish.

3) Hartford Family Old Vine Zinfandel Fannuchi-Wood Russian River Valley 2011, 92 Points, $55- Massive aromas of raspberry pie, briar and dark red currant. Bursting on the palate with its juicy, concentrated raspberry and boysenberry fruit, shwoing darker notes of blackberry and blueberry that are understated but add a purple element. Smooth finish carries a savory underbrush note and a hint of chalky mineral that gets out of the way quickly as the fruit and briary spice lingers long.

4) Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County 2012, 91 Points, $24- Lively cherry and rich raspberry pie aromas lead into darker flavors of blackberry and black licorice, with undertones of exotic spice, cracked pepper, briar and vanilla bean. Long and substantial, for fans of the juicy and hot style, but shows a polished texture.

5) Girard Zinfandel Old Vine Napa Valley 2012, 91 Points, $24- Spiced red plum and cherry aromas show a hint of cinnamon. Juicy, ripe and spicy, with cherry and plum pie flavors understated by white pepper and cinnamon spice. Most impressive for its texture, which is silky and polished without the slightest hint of dryness. A classic spicy old vine fruit bomb, for fans of the style.

6) Mauritson Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2012, 90 Points, $29- Black cherry and a hint of toasty oak in the nose. Vibrant acidity showcases bright cranapple, raspberry and cherry flavors that gain traction from toasty spice and understated white pepper notes, which linger nicely on the finish with firm tannins. A lovely, blended example of the surrounding single vineyards.

7) Ridge Zinfandel Paso Robles 2012, 90 Points, $30- Juicy aromas of cherry and wild raspberry. Seamless texture with a pure, focused fruit beam of bing cherry, wild berry and blueberry above a strong cracked pepper note through the long finish. Refined tannins add structure.

8) Seghesio Zinfandel Cortina Dry Creek Valley 2011, 90 Points, $38- Aromas of briary dried raspberry and toasty oak. Zesty and balanced with its dark raspberry and black cherry fruit, gaining depth from savory herbal underbrush nuances and a toffee note through the finish.

9) Mauritson Zinfandel Rockpile Ridge Rockpile 2012, 90 Points, $39- Briary and peppery on the nose, with dark raspberry, toasty spices and a trace of stone mineral. Cracked black pepper runs through the juicy raspberry and cherry fruit, finishing with crushed rock undertones. Firm tannins add medium grip through the long length, which extends the fruit and spice components.

10) Mauritson Zinfandel Westphall Ridge Rockpile 2012, 90 Points, $40- Warm, toasty aromas of dark berry and mocha bean. Complex body, with forest floor, savory herbs and mocha spices above dark red currant fruit notes and dill creeping in through the long finish. Plush texture needs time to soften on the back of the palate, as firm tannins dry out the length a bit, but this shows potential and complexity.



1) Sbragia Chardonnay Gamble Ranch Napa Valley 2010, 94 Points, $40- A Burgundian nose, with stony mineral bracing squeezed lemon notes. Impeccable texture, with a Sauternes-like depth, complete with honey, apricot and peach above hints of petrol and wet stone. Understated oaky spice pulls it all together and adds complexity. A massive, courageous Chardonnay, one of the greatest terroir-driven American Chards I’ve ever tasted.

2) Beringer Chardonnay Private Reserve Napa Valley 2012, 92 Points, $44- Inviting aromas of pear, guava, melon, green apple and toasty vanilla bean. All in perfect balance with its toasted oak nuances not overpowering expressive tropical fruits, with juicy pineapple, pear suace, honey dew and canteloupe melon. An essay in balance, with toasty spice lingering long with the fruit.

3) Sbragia Chardonnay Home Ranch Dry Creek Road 2009, 91 Points, $26- Rich and buttery aromas, full of honey, apricot and stone fruit. Creamy body shows golden delicious apple, peach and dried apricot, with a streak of butterscotch, toffee and beeswax running all the way through. Brown sugar spice lingers with the fruit through the long, soft finish.

4) Sbragia Chardonnay Home Ranch Dry Creek Road 2012, 91 Points, $28- Lifted floral citrus notes of lemon and grapefruit on the nose. Seamless and weightless on the palate, with creamy but understated oak influences above effortless lemon custard, tangy grapefruit and a luscious crème brulee aftertaste that lingers long.

5) Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2011, 91 Points, $47- Butterscotch and golden citrus aromas. Vibrant and refreshing on the palate, with golden delicious apple laced with toffee and brown sugar spice. All in finesse, with deft balance between its acidity and oak influences, with neither getting in the way of the fruit. No tartness, as golden citrus and toffee spice lingers through the long finish.

6) Shafer Chardonnay Red Shoulder Ranch Napa Valley Carneros 2012, 91 Points, $50- Meyer lemon and tropical fruit aromas, with very subtle shades of oak. Crisp and clean, with lively green apple, pineapple, and lemon fruit that is juicy and acidic. Maintains balance from its very subtle oak influences underneath, but citrus really shines here through the long, polished finish.

7) Lewis Chardonnay Barcaglia Lane Russian River Valley 2012, 91 Points, $75- Big, butterscotchy oak aromas shade citrus notes of bartlett pear. Lovely, creamy texture, with juicy tropical fruit flavors of peach and canteloupe melon along with the pear up front that shift into a rich, toasty underbelly of toffee and vanilla bean spice. Lingers long with a beeswax nuance and vibrant acidity. Long finish, very layered and balanced.

8) Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains Estate 2012, 90 Points, $30- Lemon meringue pie aromas show hints of butterscotch and floral nuance. Creamy body of lemon, golden apple and pear citrus, laced nicely with almondy spice. Clean and crisp through the long finish.

9) Laird Chardonnay Red Hen Ranch Napa Valley 2012, 90 Points, $30- Crisp and clean throughout, with a focused beam of peach, canteloupe and toasted pear. Lingers with spicy but subdued oak notes. Very finessed, showing vibrant acidity and balanced oak undertones. Elegant all the way through, lingering with a floral note.

10) Hartford Court Chardonnay Four Hearts Vineyard 2012, 90 Points, $45- Rich and buttery aromas, with traces of orange blossom and stone citrus. Smooth, creamy body of golden delicious apple and orange peel spice, balanced impressively with vanilla bean and hazelnut spice. Shows juicy acidity balanced by toasty undertones through the long finish.



1) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Gowan Creek Vineyard Anderson Valley 2010, 94 Points, $80- Fresh forest floor aromas combine with deep plum and black currants. Remarkable texture, with perfumey plum, boysenberry, wild berry fruit that dance on the palate, showing undertones of white chocolate, exotic spices and wet cedar, pine cone and understated tobacco through the long finish. Detailed and engaging, with lovely floral lilac and lavender notes lingering with the fruit and soft, refined tannins pulling it all together.

2) Seghesio Pinot Noir Costeira Russian River Valley 2009, 93 Points, $42- Gamey aromas of smoked meat, with mushroom nuances above red currant fruit notes. Delicate mouthfeel of floral black cherry, strawberry and rose petal above white pepper spice, smoke, tobacco and earthy mushroom through the long finish. Remarkable texture, complexity and elegance.

3) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Confluence Vineyard 2010, 92 Points, $80- Jammy raspberry aromas show hints of earthy mushroom. Weightless on the palate, with lovely floral violet nuances giving way to rich plum, blueberry and raspberry fruit notes that sit above creamy, toasty vanilla bean spice and understated mushroom and tobacco earth. Complex, layered and delicate through the long finish, which lingers with silky tannins holding it all together.

4) Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2011, 91 Points, $50- Svelte and ripe, with complex mushroom and tobacco spice aromas. This starts silky on the palate with earthy mushroom up front, then gains steadily riper berry fruit notes of black cherry and dark, wild raspberry. This is impressive for its evolution and layering in a tough vintage.

5) Goldeneye Pinot Noir The Narrows 2010, 91 Points, $80- Tons of fresh pine cone and herbaciousness on the nose. A distinctly herbal offering, with pine and cedar influences above vivid raspberry and blueberry notes, gaining toffee and charred oak elements over an even texture. Lingers long with toasty herbal spices and a mocha note, showing a hint of off-balance tartness and dry tannins, but impressively structured.

6) FEL Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2012, 90 Points, $40- Big, inviting nose of perfumey red currants backed with toasty oak and herb nuances. Rich plum and red cherry fruit flavors combine on the palate above herbal undertones and burnt toast. Bursting with fruit and savory spice through the long finish.

7) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2011, 90 Points, $55- Aromatic with its dried berry and floral notes, showing a hint of smoke on the nose. Silky and elegant, with raspberry and black cherry fruit notes above subtle sweet tobacco spice underneath. Graceful and polished through the long finish, as dry tannins add grip.

8) Breggo Pinot Noir Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley 2011, 90 Points, $55- Campfire smoke and black cherry aromas. A darker style, with black cherry and licorice fruit above black coffee, smoke and charred oak notes. Lingers with a savory edge, as cedar, sage, cracked pepper and crushed rock elements creep in late. Complex and well-executed in a tough vintage.

9) Hartford Court Pinot Noir Far Coast Sonoma Coast 2010, 90 Points, $70- Elegant nose of rose petal and red currant fruits. Delicate mouthfeel shows deep, expressive red plum, raspberry and boysenberry above complex rose and violet floral nuances that deepen into subtle tobacco spice and chalky mineral that linger with grainy tannins.

10) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Migration Russian River Valley 2012, 89 Points, $35- Elegant on the nose with its lifted, perfumed red currant fruit notes. Juicy wild berry fruit intertwines with white pepper spice, hints of cigar box and wet mineral. Silky texture with refined tannins through the long finish.



1) Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2010, 95 Points, $75- Complex as always on the nose, with fresh mint, smoke and leather above wild berry and dark currant aromas. Deep, rich and explosive with its dark raspberry and black cherry fruit that evolves into complex undertones of campfire smoke, cedar, café mocha, peppery spice, road tar and charcoal through the long finish. Weightless on the palate for its incredible depth, lingering with firm tannins. Structured and impressive. Syrah.

2) Behrens Sainte Fumee 2011, 93 Points, $55- Toasty and leathery aromas show wild berry fruit undertones. Elegant and peppery on the palate entry, as the dark berry and black licorice take a backseat to the earthy leather, peppery smoked meat and graphite notes. Amazing texture through the extended length, and proof of what a great winemaker can do with a cool vintage. Syrah.

3) Seghesio Petite Sirah Il Cinghiale 2010, 92 Points, $38- Inky purple fruit aromas. Prune, raisin, black licorice and fig flavors are intense and detailed on the palate, leading into complex, layered undertones of road tar, charcoal and peppery spice, finishing with a smooth, extended length. A powerful, masculine wine; not for the faint of heart.

4) Behrens Front Man 2011, 91 Points, $80- Ripe, exciting nose of red plum, cherry and hints of cedar. Bursting at the seams with its flawless red currant fruit and forest floor notes. Smooth, polished and seductive. Finessed and textured, with a long finish of herbal spice lingering. Merlot.

5) Shafer Merlot Napa Valley 2011, 91 Points, $50- Aromas of fresh pine and cedar with powdery cocoa bean influences. Silky and elegant body that shows the cool climate of the vintage with its forest floor, loam and chocolate notes hanging above the black cherry and dark raspberry fruit. Shows a remarkably polished texture for this vintage, with refined tannins adding structure. Lingers long with cedar and vanilla bean spice.

6) Girard Petite Sirah Napa Valley 2012, 90 Points, $30- Aromas of leather, chocolate and dark red berries. Chewy texture shows muscular red fruit notes of dark raspberry and black cherry. Earthy leather, tar and briar show up underneath but this is quite velvety overall for the varietal. Long finish shows firm tannins but has lots of cellar potential.


December 30, 2013

As my passion for wine deepened further in the year 2013, I was able to taste and record ratings for just over 400 different wines, more than half of which came during two long, wine-centric vacations. The first, which I made in April, realized a lifelong dream, as I spent a week in the Southern Tuscan town of Montalcino visiting its famous wineries and tasting as much of its luscious, velvety Brunello as I could. The extended touring and relaxed pace of tasting in that region allowed a visit to just a winery or two per day, followed by an afternoon of sipping my purchases on a massive balcony overlooking the hillside below, and savoring the aromas of gamey campfire roasts as dusk approached.

In July, I made my annual pilgrimage to Napa and Sonoma, and extended the trip out beyond a week to ensure I was able to hit every stop I needed to following a trip in 2012 that felt too short. Aside from being able to sample what would turn out to be the most highly regarded vintage of the young century in the 2010 Cabernets, new stars emerged, including the rapidly improving examples of Petite Sirah and the always unique Zinfandels of Dry Creek Valley.

Still, aside from these great vacations, I managed to locate and sample a great deal of fine wine through various other outlets. Despite the disappointing discontinuation of tasting events at Binny’s retail stores (I attended only one this year, very early on), the distribution chain continued to sponsor two fantastic Taste at the Track Events; the weather co-operated with one, but not with the other.

I’d be remiss not to mention the company dinner I attended at Del Frisco’s in Chicago, where I was able to sample the highest scoring and most expensive bottle of my life, the Penfolds Grange 2008. At $850 retail, the $995 menu price for a wine that had been given the first 100 point score from the Wine Spectator in nearly two years seemed a worthy splurge for a special occassion. While this was my highest rated wine of not only 2013, but of my entire life after nearly 4000 wines tasted (99 Points), its high price point and relative lack of availability forced me to look elsewhere for my Wine of the Year choice. In fact, I was arguably more impressed at that dinner by the Shafer Relentless 2009, which at $130 on the wine menu provided equal power and easily 1/8 the quality (95 Points). Price matters, my friends.

The wine I have selected as Wine of the Year was the very best of the bunch of nearly 30 high end Bordeaux wines that I tasted way back in February, and is my second highest scoring wine of 2013 at 97 Points. For a wine to stand out the way that it did in such esteemed company, and for the memory of its superiority that night to stick with me was long as it has, this was an easy choice for me. I present the Wine of the Year for 2013, from the right bank of Bordeaux:


Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere St. Emilion 2010, 97 Points, $104, 4500 Cases Produced- Huge, toasty nose offers smoked meat, violet, blackberry and mocha bean. Gorgeous balance of deep, refined blackberry, plum and licorice above layers of complex, creamy café mocha, smoke, spice and powdery chocolate, hanging with a chalky mineral note that hits late and adds depth. An amazing wine, remarkably polished and put together at this young age.


Penfolds Shiraz Grange South Australia 2008, 99 Points, $850

Casa Piena Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2008, 96 Points, $150

Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron Paulliac 2010, 96 Points, $220

Chateau Prieure Lichine Margaux 2009, 95 Points, $45

Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2009, 95 Points, $65

Chateau Pavie Macquin St. Emilion 2010, 95 Points, $130

Vietti Barolo Rocche 2008, 95 Points, $130

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Superiore Ornellaia Bolgheri 2009, 95 Points, $175

Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2004, 95 Points, $180

Chateau Lynch Bages Pauillac 2010, 95 Points, $160

Clos de l’Oratoire St. Emilion 2009, 94 Points, $50

Booker Oublie Paso Robles 2010, 94 Points, $60

Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 94 Points, $60

Argiano Brunello di Montalcino 2007, 94 Points, $70

Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape La Crau 2010, 94 Points, $78

Altamura Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009, 94 Points, $85

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2010, 94 Points, $90

Beaux Freres Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge The Upper Terrace Willamette Valley 2009, 94 Points, $90

Chateau Larcis Ducasse St. Emilion 2010, 94 Points, $95

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Bergfeld Vineyard 2010, 94 Points, $110

Altesino Brunello di Montalcino Montosodi 2008, 94 Points, $120

Chateau Leoville Barton St. Julien 2010, 94 Points, $125

Gallica Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009, 94 Points, $125

Chateau Rauzan Segla Margaux 2010, 94 Points, $150

Chateau Pape Clement Pessac-Leognan 2010, 94 Points, $160

Chateau Troplong Mondot St. Emilion 2010, 94 Points, $160

Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes 2008, 94 Points, $325

Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Tenuta Greppo 1997, 94 Points, $425