INDIANA BASKETBALL MOMENTS- The Best and Worst Since The Last Championship

Posted February 24, 2018 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Sports

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THE MOST MEMORABLE WINS

#10: Indiana 87, San Diego State 83, 2006

Mike Davis was on his way out, but this one was quite sweet even as the program looked to restructure, blissfully unaware of what the future what hold only a ahort three years later after a disastrous hire. Nevertheless, after being outplayed for much of the game and trailing 83-82 with 40 seconds to go, Marshall Stickland made a great defensive play that resulted in an over-and-back call on the Aztecs. After the timeout, Robert Vaden drained a three to give the Hoosiers an 85-83 lead that they would not relinquish. Although they would go on to lose to Gonzaga two nights later, this win felt fantastic coming off of two consecutive tourney absences, the first time that had happened since the last championship. We would get our revenge on Gonzaga in the first round the following year, but it would be a painful five year wait until the next tournament win.

#9: Indiana 63, VCU 61, 2012

This was, for the most part, a wild, frustrating game against a tough defensive squad in VCU that created a season high 22 turnovers and led this game by 9 points on two separate occassions. Thanks to the tempo of the game going against the Hoosiers’ preferences, such a deficit seemed almost insurmountable. However, on the first occassion, near the end of the half, Christian Watford was able to rattle off two three pointers and convert on an and-one to bring us back, and later in the game, we were able to hang around just close enough. Trailing by 3 with under a minute and with VCU at the line, Victor Oladipo, in a moment that would foreshadow what was to come the following season, grabbed the rebound and went coast to coast, and converted on a tying three point play. VCU ran the shot clock down on the next possession but solid IU defense forced a contested three, which Oladipo again grabbed, pushed back up the floor and passed (or had his shot blocked, but whatever) to Will Sheehey, who spotted up and drained an easy 12 foot jumper with just under 13 seconds to play. VCU had an open look for the win, but another three point miss was hauled in by the Hoosiers, who were off to their first Sweet 16 in ten years, and were officially, once and for all, back.

#8: Indiana 59- Michigan State 58, 2001

This was the defining moment of Mike Davis’ first full year at the helm, as the Hoosiers knocked off the #1 ranked Michigan State Spartans. It was the first #1 ranked team Indiana had beaten since 1993 when they knocked off the hated Kentucky Wildcats. However, this game provided a brief sigh of relief for fans still enraged by Bob Knight’s firing. Trailing by two with the ball, Davis drew up a play to go for the win rather than send the game into overtime at home, a plan that could have easily backfired. Instead, junior Kirk Haston knocked down a three pointer at the buzzer and bedlam ensued as fans stormed the court. Probably the most memorable aspect of this moment, however, was Davis’ reaction, as he dropped to his knees in a combination of relief, disbelief, and probably thankful prayer.

#7: Indiana 76- Michigan 75, 1989

It is easy to forget what a great player Jay Edwards was in his brief time with the Hoosiers, but this was the defining moment of his career. Trailing by two against a Michigan team that would go on to win the National Championship that year, Edwards just barely beat the clock on a three pointer that was nothing but net, and Indiana walked away with a huge victory. This might be the only victory where Coach Knight showed so much genuine emotion at the moment the shot went in; it was a rare occasion indeed to see the General jumping up and down after a win. When I met Edwards a few years back at a bar in the South Loop, I immediately mentioned that this game was one of the high points of my entire childhood, and told him how upset I was when he decided to leave after his sophomore season. He admitted that he regretted that decision, and had nothing but good things to say about Knight.

#6: Indiana 73- Kentucky 67, 2016

Any time you beat Kentucky, it’s a big deal, but this time it was in the tournament, and it was a bigger deal. The hard fought win advanced the Hoosiers to the Sweet 16 for the third time in five seasons under coach Tom Crean, and provided some revenge against the rival that put them out of the 2013 tournament in route to their own national title. It was a fitting final win for legendary point guard Yogi Ferrell, who would graduate with two big ten championships and two Sweet 16 appearances. My reaction after this win, several beers deep, could best de described as profanely taunting the television screen and Kentucky players before falling backwards into a table of unsuspecting bar-goers. There were no last second shot heroics necessary here, as the Hoosiers advanced behind a thoroughly solid performance from a team led by its senior point guard before falling to eventual national runner-up North Carolina the following weekend.

#5: Indiana 73- Oklahoma 64, 2002

Does everyone remember how overmatched Indiana was coming into this game? I can’t think of a single analyst that picked them, and for good reason; Oklahoma was many people’s choice to win it all, and Indiana was coming in as a big underdog and seeded #5 in the South Regional. But those of us who believed knew that the Hoosiers had one last miracle left in them during their furious charge to the championship game in 2002. Worthy of note is the fact that Indiana actually trailed by four at the half, but went 8-13 from three point land on the game, a statistic that was key to their success throughout their tournament run. Over a decade later, it is still tough to believe we were heading to the National Championship for the sixth time in history following this unlikely upset. I found myself laying on top of a stranger’s car screaming “We’re in the Final Game!” and I don’t think they were even upset by it.

#4: Indiana 106- UCLA 79, 1992

Bob Knight didn’t know it at the time, but after winning this game, he would make his last trip to the Final Four. Only five years removed from a championship, this was still an incredibly difficult game for a young but talented Indiana team that was just hitting its stride. UCLA had easily beaten the Hoosiers in the preseason, but IU turned the tables this time, and blasted the Bruins 106-79 after putting up a whopping 62 points in the second half. I was in Orlando, Florida with my family visiting Disney World, and I couldn’t ever remember having more fun watching an IU game at any point in my life up to that point. The combination of the significance of the game, the decisiveness of the win, and the fact that I didn’t expect a win in the first place make this game one of the most memorable. It is worthy to note that in November of the same season, the Bruins crushed the Hoosiers, which made turning the tables in such decisive fashion with a trip to the Final Four on the line even more sweet.

#3: Indiana 72- Michigan 71, 2013

It was a very tough call to put this victory ahead of tournament wins that put us in the National Championship and Final Four respectively, but the circumstances of this game and the amount of years it had taken to realize what this win accomplished (20) places it higher on this list simply because of the two decade drought it watered. In 1992, Indiana had been to the Final Four just five years earlier, and the trip to the Final Game in 2002 broke a 15 year drought. But this improbable, heart-stopping win over Michigan clinched the Big Ten regular season title outright for the first time in 20 years, and was the ultimate coronation for a group of players and coaches that had been through hell and literally went from the bottom to the top in what was arguably the strongest edition of the Big Ten conference in its storied history. Trailing by five points with under a minute left, the Hoosiers took advantage of two front end misses at the line by the Wolverines, and played smart, efficient offense. Cody Zeller scored the final six points for the one point win as the team efficiently exploited the mismatch down low in the final minute. Zeller also hit two crucial free throws before hitting the shot that would be the eventual game winner. To add to the drama, Michigan had two very legitimate shots to win game, trailing by one with under ten seconds to play. All-American point guard Trey Burke’s runner missed long, but Jordan Morgan’s tip in rolled in and around the rim for what seemed like an eternity before sweet gravity finally overcame it and Christian Watford came up with the game-saving rebound. I haven’t reacted to a win this wildly, well, maybe ever. As the years pass, it will probably be forgotten that these Hoosiers had the chance to clinch the outright conference title on their home court on senior night against an Ohio State team they had beaten handily in Columbus just three weeks earlier. Indiana lost that game, but cut the nets down anyway. And it was only fitting that a group that stuck together and endured such misery in its first few years together would have to earn this the hard way on the road in Ann Arbor in the most unlikely fashion conceivable.

#2: Indiana 73- Kentucky 72, 2011

In terms of pure shock value, this should probably be number one. Coming off a ten win season, the unranked and overlooked Hoosiers battled the top-ranked and eventual National Champion Kentucky Wildcats in Assembly Hall. Behind a raucous, rejuvinated home crowd, the Hoosiers built a ten point lead midway through the second half behind hot shooting, smart passing and solid defense. Outmatched from a talent perspective, Indiana would give away that double digit lead late as they failed to get stops down the stretch and the offense turned cold. After hitting two free throws, Kentucky held a two point lead with under ten seconds to play, and had fouls to give. In a mental lapse, they failed to get that foul to stop the clock, and Verdell Jones split the defense before unselfishly dishing the ball to a trailing Christian Watford, who knocked down a three pointer at the buzzer for the win. Bedlam ensued  on the court, and Indiana was officially back. We would lose a hard fought offensive onslaught to this same rival in the Sweet 16 round of the tournament three months later, but there is no way to measure the impact that this win had on the program. It was a preseason game that should have had no real bearing on the future trajectory of the team, but instead, it instilled a confidence and left a legacy that will likely never be forgotten. The Hoosiers would go on to knock off another top ranked team at home in the weeks that followed, and carried its momentum into the tournament for its first Sweet 16 appearance in a decade.

#1: Indiana 74- Duke 73, 2002

This was the game that I will always remember most of any game I have ever seen Indiana play. The win here catapulted the Hoosiers into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1993 in stunning fashion over the #1 team in the country. At the time, we were all happy just be back in the Sweet Sixteen, and didn’t hold much hope for a win, especially after falling behind 26-8 early. But what made this game so special was the way that we came back; slowly but surely, we chipped away at the lead with threes and smart inside play, and all of a sudden, we were only down by one point with five minutes to play, and then it hit me- we could actually steal this game! The very thought was almost too much to bear, but inched closer to reality when Tom Coverdale hit a layup to take a 72-70 lead with under a minute to play. It was almost happening too quickly to comprehend, but there it was, clear as day- if Duke didn’t score again, Indiana would win the game in an astonishing comeback. But I’d watched way too many IU games over the years to come anywhere near celebration mode quite yet, so instead I braced for the final seconds, which passed like an eternity.

The drama was at full throttle. After we got a huge defensive stop, a near over-and-back on the inbounds saved by Dane Fife resulted in a fortunate foul call on Duke. A.J. Moye knocked down two free throws, and with 11 seconds to play, IU led 74-70. Now, the celebration could begin, right? Not so fast. Any other coach would have essentially pulled his team off the court at this point, but not Davis- the team played defense way too aggressively after failing to retrieve the offensive rebound on Duke’s first missed three and fouled the nation’s best player, Jason Williams, as he drained a three with 4 seconds remaining. Williams, a 90% free throw shooter, needed only to make one free throw to send the game into overtime, which to me would have meant almost certain defeat for the Hoosiers. I was absolutely beside myself, sick to my stomach, but what happened next was nearly an even worse scenario. Somehow, Williams missed the free throw, but in a horrific development, Carlos Boozer out-rebounded Jared Jeffries and threw up a desperation shot that was well within the realm of his accuracy. Now instead of overtime, we were looking at losing the game outright in regulation!! The time that it took for the ball to leave Boozer’s hand until it banked out of the hoop must have taken a year, and Jeff Newton pulled down the rebound as time expired. Then, bedlam set in, as we realized that it was actually, finally, over, and the first of many celebrations on Kirkwood Avenue that spring was the most memorable moment of my senior year, and of the last 25 Indiana seasons. Ironically, it is the same score that gave Indiana their last national title in 1987 over Syracuse in an equally enthralling finish.

THE MOST GUTWRENCHING LOSSES (watch if you can bear)

#10: Ohio State 80, Indiana 78, 2018

In the grand scheme of things, this loss was meaningless. The Hoosiers were looking at an NIT berth at best without winning the Big Ten tournament, which was a highly unlikely proposition. But for this to happen on senior night, in double overtime, in a game where the suddenly scrappy Hoosiers had played so well, it was a real heartbreaker. Both overtimes were back and forth affairs that featured several lead changes. Indiana found itself with the ball, trailing by one with 15 seconds remaining. A smartly designed play featured leading scorer Juwan Morgan backing down to towards the hoop for an easy layup to take the lead. They left 7 seconds on the clock though, which was enough for C.J. Jackson to knock down a game-winning three from beyond NBA range. In a season where Indiana had held late second half leads against top ten teams like Duke, Purdue and Michigan State, this was just yet another instance where they came up just short. They missed a LOT of free throws (ten), too, which always hurts in double overtime.

#9: Charlotte 74 , Indiana 73, 2004

This is what we refer to as a “sky-is-falling” loss. Not only was the fact that the refs allowed this halfcourt shot to count utter and complete bullshit, but the shot effectively ended the season for the Hoosiers before it had even begun. Three days before Christmas, we were an unimaginable 2-6 and on a six game losing streak. Indiana would ultimately miss the tournament for the second straight year, which was an absolute abomination considering the prior year’s absence was the first since I had ever watched or cared about them. I still watch this replay in anger waiting for the officials to reverse the call all these years later. What ended up making this loss even worse is that the team rallied in the Big Ten season, going 10-6 to finish 4th, but it was too little too late. I have always argued that had this game been rightly awarded as a Hoosier victory, we would have made the tournament that year. The differences between a 15-13 and a 16-12 record are vast. (Don’t ask me why they only played 11 non-conference games, and a first round thrashing at the hands of Minnesota in the Big Ten Tourney didn’t help either.)

#8: Iowa 62, Indiana 60, 2002

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I had to do a bit of research to recall why exactly this was as painful as it was. The way I had remembered it, IU had lost to Iowa in the 2001 Big Ten Championship on a last second shot by Luke Recker. But that’s not how it happened. In 2001, (our only appearance in the Big Ten title game in 15 tries), we led most of the game but it gave way late, and it was actually Kirk Haston who had a potential game winning three point shot blocked. That’s what made this game so much infinitely worse, even though it was only a semifinal contest the second time around. Former Indiana Mr. Basketball Luke Recker, who had made the unprecedented move of transfering from the Hoosiers to an interconference rival, sank a three pointer at the buzzer. Not only did the Hawkeyes put us down for the second straight year, this time, they had done it with one of our own. Absolutely brutal. This one would rank much higher were it not for the fact that the loss apparently lit a fire in this team that made my senior year of college a pretty fun spring after all…

#7: Illinois 74, Indiana 72, 2013

Admittedly, at the time, this loss seemed to be more brutal than it actually was. In fact, one could argue the utterly brutal specifics of this loss lit a fire under this team that would lead to successive road wins against much tougher teams in Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan. The team was on its way to a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament and an outright Big Ten Championship despite the outcome here. But with the bitterness of the rivalry between these two schools still fresh despite Bruce Weber’s departure, this was an incredibly tough pill to swallow for die-hard fans. I for one didn’t sleep for at least a couple of days. While everyone wanted to talk about how utterly horrendous our defense was on the last play, that has never been a sticking point with me. We were going to get destroyed in overtime anyway with the way the momentum was shifting. But to control an entire game by double digits, and then to play as though we were trailing while up ten, throwing up quick, ill-advised shots and giving up easy jump shots on the other end, was particularly stomach-churning. The fact of the matter is, no one should have been talking about the last shot, because the last shot should have never  happened. Indiana had the ball with the shot clock turned off and a tie game. That should mean overtime in a worst case scenario. Instead, Victor Oladipo, in perhaps the only mistake he would make in his entire junior season, saw a lane and tried to go behind his back to get there, only to be picked by D.J. Richardson. To his credit, Oladipo made a tremendous play to get back after the steal and make what should have been a game saving block. Then, with under a second left, the above happened.

#6: Maryland 64- Indiana 52, 2002

In all honesty, this loss didn’t devastate me as much as it should have, because I had a feeling that my beloved Hoosiers were about to be exposed. But it was obviously a sad feeling when the ride of the 2002 tourney ended with a loss one game short of a championship. They just didn’t have enough depth to knock off another superior opponent once the threes stopped falling. However, this was the first time Indiana had ever lost in a title game in six tries, and it has to make the list just due to the sheer magnitude of the game. Also, we did have the ball when game was tied with just under ten minutes to play, so we had a real chance to pull the upset in this one.

#5: Wisconsin 68- Indiana 66, 2008

What made this game even worse than the outcome would suggest is that this was also the day that the Kelvin Sampson allegations hit. Indiana was coming off huge back-to-back wins over Michigan State and Purdue, and would be in control of the Big Ten with a victory. The game was tightly contested all the way through, with over a dozen lead changes. Sampson was still at the helm at this point, and the Hoosiers clung to a 66-65 lead with ten seconds left, Wisconsin ball. It seemed that the call would be to go inside for an easy two, but instead, Brian Butch, the only polar bear that I have ever disliked, threw up a deep three-pointer that somehow banked into the hoop. Indiana had a chance to go back ahead, but a hurried three rimmed out, and deflation set in. One could argue that it was the single turning point for that promising season, the moment when the music stopped on one of the most talented teams to ever put on the Candy Stripes.

#4: Illinois 70- Indiana 67, 1989

In 1989, the Big Ten boasted three of the nation’s top five teams throughout the season, and games like this one really were the true glory days of the conference. Trailing 67-65, Indiana went to its star, Jay Edwards, who hit an improbable jumper from behind the backboard, seemingly as time expired to put the game into overtime, and with the crowd and momentum on the Hoosiers’ side. But, before the days of replay or tenths of seconds on the scoreboard, the officials had to rely on their own judgment, and in this case, that meant giving Illinois the ball with one second left. For some reason, Knight chose not to defend the inbounds pass, which turned out to be a perfect one directly to Nick Anderson, who was still well behind the three point line. Anderson had a enough time to catch, plant his feet and throw up a perfect 30-plus foot jumpshot that hit nothing but net as time expired. Ugh.

#3: Minnesota 59- Indiana 58, 2008

As bad as the Wisconsin game had been earlier in the year, this was much worse, coming in the Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals. The Sampson fiasco had played itself out, and Dan Dakich was running a team that clearly didn’t want to play for him. I’ve seen many frustrating losses to the Golden Gophers over the years, mostly when we had ten point leads with under two minutes to play (that happened twice under Davis), but this one takes the cake because we played poorly and trailed the entire game. Until the last few seconds, that is. That’s when trailing by two with 3 seconds left after a made free throw, Eric Gordon intentionally missed the second in a manner so perfect that D.J. White went up and grabbed the rebound and put the ball back up to tie the game at 57. White was also fouled on the play, which meant that IU now had a chance to win the game! He missed the free throw, but recovered his own rebound and was fouled again. He drained one of the two free throws, and somehow, Indiana had a one point lead, and only needed to play good enough defense to stop Minnesota for 1.5 seconds. The ball flew like a laser beam through three Indiana defenders and through the only possible path to Blake Hoffarber’s wretched little hands. He threw the ball up so quickly that I could hardly even believe that he had caught it, much less believe that the ball was now making its way to the center of the rim and through the net for the Minnesota win. My Hoosiers, once a Final Four favorite in 2008, were then royally screwed by the selection committee and given a #8 seed despite their 25-7 record, and after all of that, lost without much of a fight in the first round to #9 seeded Arkansas. The mass exodus that followed would result in the never-to-be-mentioned 6-25 season next year, but this shot is the moment of that season that completely defined rock bottom. What could be worse than that?

#2: Syracuse 61- Indiana 50, 2013

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I neglected to even post a video for this game, as the above image pretty much explains it all, and it isn’t exactly the sort of game that features any watchable late game dramatics. Simply put, it was ugly, and the final score doesn’t even do true justice to how completely outplayed and out-coached we were here in this Sweet 16 exit. Tom Crean simply had no plan to adjust to the Syracuse zone, and on a night when the outside shots weren’t falling, partly due to senior guard Jordan Hulls’ hand injury, the best offense in the nation had no answers. Syracuse was like an anaconda that slowly squeezed the life out of a Hoosier team that picked the wrong night to put up its lowest offensive production of the entire season, a season they spent most of as the top ranked team in the land. It was as disappointing a loss since the last time an Indiana team had lost before the Final Four as a #1 seed 20 years prior…(see below)

#1: Kansas 83- Indiana 77, 1993

This was actually a tough call, but when I look back over the last 25 seasons, no loss was more painful to take than this one. Coming off a Final Four season in 1992, the 1993 Hoosiers returned all five starters and were ranked the #1 team in the nation heading into the tournament, something than even the 1987 champions could not say. Hopes for a national title were high after a 17-1 Big Ten campaign, but star power forward Alan Henderson’s knee injury prevented him from contributing in the regional final against a pesky Kansas team that had beaten the Hoosiers earlier in the year. Those Jayhawks once again proved too tough for the depleted but determined Big Red, and the most promising season since the last national title ended without even making an appearance in the Final Four. Looking back on that season, I’m not sure we would have won the championship anyway, as Kentucky had also beaten us already, Michigan had the fab five (although we beat them twice in Big Ten play) and North Carolina had it all. But still, it would have been nice to have a chance with a healthy, experienced team, especially considering that Kansas would lose to the eventual champion Tarheels in the semifinal. I still haven’t gotten over this one.

The 10 Best Pork Dishes in Chicago

Posted February 20, 2018 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Eats

I live in Chicago. I love pork. There are lots of great pork dishes in Chicago, and that makes me very happy. Here are the ten best, in alphabetical order!

AVEC: Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder (Tuscan kale, gigante bean ribolitta, apple and pecorino cheese)

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BELLY Q: Roasted Pork Butt (curry bbq, Asian giardiniera)

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ENTENTE: Berkshire Pork (savoy, mustards, pastrami spiced pork belly, smoked rye)

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GILT BAR: Slow Roasted Pork Belly (grits, cider jus, parsley)

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GIRL AND THE GOAT: Wood Oven Roasted Pig Face (sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro, red wine maple, potato stix)

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PROXI: Slagel Farm Pork Porterhouse (mushroom escabeche, coal roasted onion soubise)

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THE PUBLICAN: Slagel Farm Porchetta (paprika broth, Nicoise olive, pecorino and breadcrumb)

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THE PURPLE PIG: Milk-Braised Pork Shoulder (mashed potatoes, puffed farro)

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ROISTER: Pork Butt (dark and stormy glaze, red peas, fried pecans)

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SMOQUE: Smoked Pulled Pork (baked beans, cole slaw)

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Woodinville Tasting Recap

Posted January 11, 2018 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Vino

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.

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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.

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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.

#10:

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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.

#9:

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.

#8:

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.

#7:

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.

#6:

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.

#5:

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.

#4:

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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.

#3:

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.

#2:

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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.

#1:

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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.

The Top 10 Albums of 2017

Posted December 16, 2017 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Tunes

Honorable Mention: Lorde/ Melodrama

Lorde

You’re going to be seeing this at the top of a lot of year end lists this month, and as much as mainstream pop from young girls barely old enough to drink in the United States really isn’t my thing, it would be hard to deny that there isn’t a single weak moment on this very strong and impressive record, so I’d prefer to give credit where credit is due. There’s careful thought to arrangement on the anthemic break-up track “Green Light”, which starts with sparse, deep vocals before building into a chorus that truly shows off the singer’s vocal range, and the seamless transition from bittersweet melancholy to bouncy on “Hard Feelings/ Loveless” seems to indicate the emergence of an innovative artist wise beyond her years. Heartbreaking ballads like “Liability” and “Writer In The Dark” are highlights, while “Supercut” and “Perfect Places” deliver pure pop precision. And it doesn’t get any more fun than “Homemade Dynamite”, which starts and stops effortlessly before evolving into an impossibly catchy chorus. Awesome, right?

#10: Alex G/ Rocket

alex g

This sprawling and experimental record harnesses its power from a strong folk rock backbone but adds elements of jazz and lo-fi garage rock that keep it rich, exciting and in full display of many musical influences. Alex G has a particular penchant for the construction of melody, as evidenced by the accessible and catchy piano riffs on “Proud” and “Sportstar,” while boasting a higher pitched vocal sound and style that is a dead ringer for Elliott Smith. There’s fuzzy, discordant violin that create an almost Appalachian sound on “Powerful Man” and on the soaring duet ‘Bobby”, but songs like the raging, distorted “Brick” keep listeners on their toes and don’t allow for complacency, demonstrating the complex array of styles at hand here. Closer “Guilty” pulls it all together with its jazzy bass beat that picks up carefully arranged piano and trumpet riffs.

#9: Thundercat/ Drunk

drunk

Loosely concocted and at times silly over its 23 tracks (there’s a song about cats meowing for heaven’s sake, and another that rhymes “beat your meat” with “go to sleep”), you’d still be hard pressed to find another album that glides along so smoothly this year. Thundercat’s unique style creates a relaxed acid jazz groove on tracks like “Them Changes”, while a faster tempo combines with a submerged underwater lounge vibe on the thrilling “Tokyo.” Guest spots steal the show here, as Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald combine for a most unlikely collaboration on highlight “Show You The Way”, and Thundercat’s trademark falsetto holds its own in this company, while Kendrick Lamar steps in on the more subdued “Walk On By”.  Valentine’s Day revenge song “Friend Zone” sparkles with funk and comedic lyrical delivery that find the perfect balance….And the cat song is actually pretty damn good too.

#8: Fleet Foxes/ Crack Up

crack-up

The third full length following a six year hiatus took the folk rock outfit in a new, darker, more complex direction and marked a paradigm shift in style for the band. This reality was immediately evident upon the release of the nearly nine minute single “Third of May/ Ōdaigahara”, notable for lead singer Robin Pecknold’s strained falsetto through the chorus as the tune stops and starts effortlessly, constantly twisting and evolving. The lifted melody on “Fool’s Errand” is another highlight perhaps more reminiscent of the band’s earlier work, but not without its own innovations, constructed around an off-kilter time signature. There’s an argument to be made that this new direction lends itself to being almost too soft and stripped down, although tracks like the delicate “If You Need To Keep Time On Me” and desperate “On Another Ocean” are no less beautiful, while the hushed “I Could See Memphis” is easily the darkest song in the band’s catalog. There’s an element of patience and restraint that permeates through Crack-Up, and it’s evident from the start on opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar”, a three-song suite that plays more like an opus, immediately indicative of what is to follow. Whether one prefers the new Fleet Foxes or the old is of little consequence; it’s simply refreshing to see them in motion.

#7: Sampha/ Process

sampha

The debut record from the London vocalist who had previously made a name for himself as a highly sought after collaborator is a soulful and devastating reflection on the death of his mother to cancer. While he could have phoned in any number of guest appearances, Process instead consists of Sampha alone, and the result is a highly personal and often unsettling work. Stand out centerpiece “No One Knows Me Like The Piano” might be the year’s most gorgeous piano ballad, at once a sentimental autobiography and a moving tribute over its sparse frame. “Blood on Me” is an ominous banger that loops two eerie piano keys above Sampha’s cracking falsetto , while opener “Plastic” starts the album on a raw, panicked tone. The unique marriage of pure soul and electronic elements create a style all his own, demonstrated on tense, beat heavy songs like the hypnotic “Under” and anxiety-ridden “Kora Sings.” Elements of regret reveal themselves towards the album’s conclusion through softer, prettier tracks like “Tommy’s Prayer” and “Incomplete Kisses.” A journey laden with grief, power and discovery, Process was easily the year’s best debut.

#6: Vince Staples/ The Big Fish Theory

vince staples

Sharp rhyme schemes and poignant social commentary remain a staple on this sophomore effort, but gone are the sweeping, melodic west coast beats and dark lounge grooves of his debut. In their place is a far more spacious album that utilizes repetitive percussion, big house beats and electronica influences. The result is a decidedly more club-ready collection of songs. Opener “Crabs In The Bucket” sounds as though it could be a Burial track with its trappy dubstep beats above ghostly undertones, while the propulsive tempo on “Love Can Be” conjures Azaelia Banks circa “212”. Hollow synths and clap drum percussion move through the upbeat party track “Big Fish”, which offers the most addictive hook here, and the chant-worthy “Yeah Right” showcases a guest appearance from none other than Kendrick Lamar behind its shot gun blast bass explosions. The album ends on an outstanding note, as the threatening “BagBak” calls out the government, the president, and the one percent behind up-tempo synths and a rolling bass line. Closer “Rain Come Down” is riddled with tension, featuring perhaps the deepest bass line on an album full of them, slowing the tempo down a bit with its off-kilter time signature and ambient chorus. Big Fish Theory is so accessible and immediate, a much easier album to get through in a single sitting than its double-sided predecessor Summertime ’05, and even if perhaps sacrificing some of the complexities of that album, such a dynamic shift in style indicates that Staples isn’t short on ideas and won’t be going anywhere any time soon.

#5: Run The Jewels/ RTJ 3

rtj3

Hip hop fans were treated to a surprise Christmas gift late last year when this album dropped out of nowhere on December 25th. Released in the weeks just following the shock of the election and preceding Trump’s inauguration, it perhaps perfectly captures the anger and resistance that would define the year ahead, all the while reminding us of the unparalleled flow combination that is Killer Mike and El-P. The duo are at their best on tracks like “Legend Has It”, where the rapid alternation of verses between the two escalates the brimming intensity and almost feels like a full scale rap-off. Guest spots add excitement from the incomparable Danny Brown on the dark and brooding “Hey Kids” as well as TV on the Radio lead singer Tunde Adebimpe on the foreboding “Thieves.” The punches keep coming with the hard beats on “Stay Gold”, “Don’t Get Captured” and “2100”, but the album truly finds its footing in its final third. The boastful “Panther Like A Panther” uses a rolling trip hop beat below its anthemic chorus (“I’m the shit bitch!”) and the hands down best rap lyric of the year (“I got banana dick/ Your bitch go ape shit if she hit it!”) The epic closer “A Report To The Shareholders” begins as a bittersweet jazz track before it shape shifts into an absolute bruiser, complete with transformer robot synths and the album’s most enduring and microcosmic battle cry of revolt, a familiar one for fans of Game Of Thrones, another epic in its own right- “Kill Your Masters.”

#4: Slowdive/ Slowdive

slowdive

In 2013, shoegaze kings My Bloody Valentine released their first record in 22 years, a self-titled work that left fans of the genre pleased to see how little swagger the band had lost in their step during their hiatus. Now, an identical 22 years after Pygmalion, Slowdive return with their self-titled record, easily the most melodic in their relatively small catalog. It seems we have uncovered the secret to a successful shoegaze comeback! Lush, cascading soundscapes abound here from start to finish. “Star Roving” is an absolute throwback to the dawn of the genre, with its soaring, distorted guitar arpeggios that reach heavenward. The amazing “Don’t Know Why”, aside from its ethereal beauty, is impressive for its innovation and inverse structure, beginning with a sped up time signature that collapses back onto itself into two distinctly slower layers before picking the tempo right back up again. The absolutely gorgeous chiming guitar line completes the sort of track that you never want to end. Conversely, the soft, gentle “Sugar For The Pill” is another huge highlight but is far more stripped down and delicate, benefiting from a restrained and isolated guitar riff that takes the band’s sound in a new direction entirely. “No Longer Making Time” alternates between its soothing verses and explosive distortion through its chorus in true shoegaze style from a structural standpoint, all the while showcasing an incredibly modern dual harmony, finishing just as it began, while closer “Falling Ashes” beckons Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” with its slow-burn build. If this is the last album we ever get from Slowdive, it is a fitting finale to a defining legacy, and was well worth the wait.

#3: LCD Soundsystem/ American Dream

LCD

James Murphy and his LCD Soundsystem project were one of the most important and exciting artists of the young century when they abruptly retired and played their “final” show at Madison Square Garden on April 2, 2011. Rumors of a reunion began to emerge in late 2015, much to the joy of music fans everywhere, and were confirmed the following year when the band began touring and working on new material again. Attentive minds expected them to emerge with a new sound, and so it is on American Dream, from the patiently building and warmly produced opener “Oh Baby” to the spare-framed closer “Black Screen.” There’s no “Dance Yrself Clean” here, and as a whole the songs on this album seem more melody-focused, darkly introspective and slow-burning than the dance-rock defined by its predecessors. This sonic shift is best demonstrated on tracks like “I Used To”, with its paranoid gliding guitar riff and ominous bass, and the savage takedown centerpiece “How Do You Sleep?”, which is an essay in build over its nine unsettling minutes, culminating into a full throttle dance beat that is well worth the wait. You’d be hard pressed to find a song this year that so fully encapsulates intense propulsion with soaring melody any better than “Call The Police”, which combines a ringing guitar riff with a proggy, spaced out bass line as Murphy’s vocals escalate into his trademark strained falsetto. It isn’t all unfamiliar however, as the title track is the band’s loveliest ballad since “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down,” while the bouncy, sunny “Tonite” probably comes closest to a crowd pleaser for those who have been LCD Soundsystem fans from the beginning, and “Emotional Haircut” delivers the same kind of raucous silliness established on prior songs like “Drunk Girls”. Wherever one stands on the heavier, more serious sound weaving its way in, it would be hard to not be happy to see the band in action again, evolving and expanding their musical horizons in a way that offers a new found variety.

#2 The War On Drugs/ A Deeper Understanding

WOD

The follow-up to 2014’s fantastic Lost In The Dream features rich textures and electronic elements that result in a fuller, lusher and more intricate sound, all the while keeping the dynamics of Adam Granduciel’s guitar at the forefront. Upbeat opener “Up All Night” swells and expands beneath its warm piano riff, leading in to the elegant and vibrantly emoting “Pain”- (“Pull me close and let me hold you in/ Give me a deeper understanding of who I am”). But it’s songs like centerpiece “Nothing To Find” that truly separate this album from its contemporaries, elevating it an echelon higher than typical Americana or Springsteen revival rock. Steady, propulsive percussion reminiscent of the band’s best work (“An Ocean Between The Waves”) picks up an open-road guitar riff that glides along effortlessly. But as the song evolves in constant motion, it gains layers of complexity from shimmering synths, harmonica, a concise and well-timed lead guitar solo, and an electronic organ through its triumphant coda. In similar fashion, after a brilliant synthesizer twinkles through its introduction, glockenspiel chimes add texture, fullness and warmth to the stunning “Holding On”, complete with slide guitar solos and bouncy synths, all a backdrop for Granduciel’s Dylan-esque vocals. 11 minute epic “Thinking Of A Place” features a repeated acoustic guitar riff that is gorgeous in its simplicity and never gets old, an essay in song structure as it builds patiently and magnificently. The presence of slower tracks is notable here, as “Knocked Down” and “Clean Living” aren’t so much weak links but add diversity as they bring the tempo down a notch, but closer “You Don’t Have To Go” is a perfectly understated heartsick ballad. The subtlety and restraint with which Granduciel sings the lyric “into the light” as the song climaxes adds power and depth; a more indulgent songwriter may have taken the opportunity to wail and bloat in this moment, but Granduciel wisely lets the music shine through the vocals. It’s those examples of attention to detail- and they are numerous- that make A Deeper Understanding such a consistently thrilling listen, and the year’s most resonant rock album.

#1: Kendrick Lamar/ DAMN.

damn

It’s difficult to fully comprehend exactly how rapid the ascension has been for Kendrick Lamar, as the undisputed current king of the rap game has now released three albums in a five year span that all must be considered essential pieces of work for any genre. If good kid, m.A.A.d. City was his homage to Compton’s West Coast style and To Pimp A Butterfly communicated hostility and frustration towards society, consider DAMN. his offering to the masses. Easily his most accessible record to date, there is something here for everyone over its 14 broadly diverse tracks, and without a single weak moment among them. There’s far more attention being paid to melody here than ever before, as Rihanna guests on the synth-driven and radio-friendly hook of “LOYALTY.”, Zacari sings falsetto on the delicate and bluesy “LOVE.”, and even Bono adds vocals through the gorgeous chorus of the otherwise bruising highlight “XXX.” (The moment that the sirens stop and shift completely into jazzy bass in the latter is dazzling). The beats are still on point however, and it was impossible to get away from the addictive and engaging “DNA” in 2017, as the track shifts from its initial straightforward club beat into something much darker and more fascinating. As focused on his skin color as he seemed to be over the entirety of To Pimp A Butterfly, as the first proper track on the album, “DNA” seems to indicate lyrically that he has adapted a broader view of his persona. It’s refreshing to hear him deliver lines like “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA” without bringing race into it; Kendrick is the best rapper on the planet whether he is black, white or purple, and he seems like he knows it.

On standout track “HUMBLE.”, hip hop’s top dog has never sounded more bravado-laden as he raps with authority over a haunting, demonic organ beat. The smooth groove on the fascinating “FEAR” features Lamar rapping from the perspective of his mother raising him, conveying a sense of understanding and gratitude, but also demonstrating that we don’t all come from the same place, and that reality tends to have some bearing on how we all turn out. The tension isn’t completely abandoned on DAMN., not by a long shot, as Lamar raps breathlessly, seemingly overwhelmed by responsibility through the conclusion of “FEEL.”, while the unsettling “LUST.” begins to ponder the dangers of materialism in an introspective manner. It all culminates with the awesome closer “DUCKWORTH.” as Kendrick falls back upon perhaps his greatest ability, as a storyteller, recounting the story of his own rise behind a backdrop that starts, stops and changes tone with every stanza. It’s an exhilarating finale, and the perfect way to conclude an album composed of such a diverse array of sounds. There’s a new confidence on display here that makes the delivery of every line and the arrangement of every note seem so effortless, and all that his peers, listeners and rabid fans can do at this point is look on in awe and embrace the best rapper of his generation.

The Top Ten Songs of 2017

Posted December 4, 2017 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Tunes

#10: “BagBak”/ Vince Staples

The raw, hollow drum beats create a threatening air on the standout track from the Compton project’s sophomore effort, which also features one of the year’s most resounding codas. We on now!

#9: “Third of May/ Ōdaigahara”/ Fleet Foxes

Layered and sprawling, this nearly nine minute track took the folk rock outfit in a new, darker direction, marked by Robin Pecknold’s strained falsetto through the chorus as the tune stops and starts effortlessly, constantly evolving and marking a paradigm shift in style for the band.

#8: “Everything Now”/ Arcade Fire

As disappointing as the rest of the new album from the kings of Indie Rock ended up being, it was all worth it just for its title track, and its soaring disco piano riff that combines with some of the band’s most poignant lyricism to date.

#7: “No One Knows Me Like The Piano”/ Sampha

The year’s most devastatingly gorgeous piano ballad came from the talented London vocalist’s debut album, at once a sentimental autobiography and a personal and moving tribute to his late mother.

#6: “Proud”/ Alex G

The standout track from the experimental folk rock opus Rocket is sublime in its simplicity, a highly accessible work that combines an upbeat piano riff on top of a foot-stomping acoustic guitar that screams Americana.

#5: “Slide”/ Calvin Harris feat. Frank Ocean and Migos

Glistening production reminiscent of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories wove together this bouncy summer beach party anthem behind balanced, timely contributions from R&B superstar Frank Oceanand chart-topping rap trio Migos.

#4: “Holding On”/ War On Drugs

Glockenspiel chimes add texture, fullness and warmth to this constantly moving and evolving rock track, complete with slide guitar solos and shimmering synths, all a backdrop for Adam Granduciel’s Dylan-esque vocals.

#3: “HUMBLE.”/ Kendrick Lamar

You could choose from any of a number of songs from Lamar’s Damn. (notably “DNA”, “Fear” and “Duckworth”) but on “HUMBLE.”, hip hop’s top dog has never sounded more bravado-laden as he raps with authority over a haunting, demonic organ beat.

#2: “Don’t Know Why”/ Slowdive

What makes this track so fascinating, aside from its ethereal beauty, is how innovatively and inversely structured it is. Beginning with a sped up time signature, it collapses back onto itself into two distinctly slower layers before picking the tempo right back up again. The absolutely gorgeous chiming guitar line completes the sort of track that you never want to end.

#1: “Call The Police”/ LCD Soundsystem

Admittedly, any comeback single from one of the most exciting bands of the young century was going to receive a bit more attention than it deserved. But in this case, you’d be hard pressed to find a song this year that so fully encapsulated intense propulsion with soaring melody, combining a ringing guitar riff with a proggy, spaced out bass line as Murphy’s vocals escalate into his trademark strained falsetto. ​Bonus points or not, this was a rock song for the ages, and seeing it live was the musical moment that stuck with me the longest in 2017.

Breeders’ Cup 2017 Picks and Analysis

Posted November 3, 2017 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Sports

4- JUVENILE FILLIES, 8.5f, 3:00

The day begins with a nearly full field of two year old fillies which are always tough to separate. We’ll give the edge to Bris Prime Power selection SEPARATIONOFPOWERS, who holds the field high Bris and Beyer speed figures (104, 86) for her last out score in the 8f Frizette. That came over a dirt course labeled good and wasn’t a two turn race, so she’s not without questions drawing into the widest post of all for Chad Brown here. But the way she won that race driving through the finish combined with perhaps the strongest pedigree (by Candy Ride out of an Empire Maker mare) in the field leads us to conclude she will enjoy the added ground here. There isn’t a lot to knock about morning line favorite MOONSHINE MEMORIES, who is undefeated in three career starts, two of which came on this track and one of which was at this distance. She shows the fastest Beyer at the distance (86) and should a pretty clear trip from the center of the field. HEAVENLY LOVE is another winner at two turns as she exits a romp in the Alcibiades at Keeneland where she earned the field’s highest Brisnet figure at the distance (91). In a race where the pace often goes faster than expected, she’s worth using on top as she also boasts the best Late Pace figure at this distance on dirt. We will use these three in multis. WONDER GADOT looks like an interesting long shot after posting a solid figure winning her last. She’s never raced on dirt but is certainly bred for it and could conceivably move up here on the surface switch, and is another that could be moving late. ALLURING STAR may hang around for a piece as the likely pacesetter but fell back when beaten handily by the favorite in her last.

Picks:

1) Separationofpowers 4-1

2) Moonshine Memories 7-2

3) Heavenly Love 9-2

4) Wonder Gadot 8-1

5- TURF SPRINT, 5f, 3:37

Always one of the trickiest handicapping puzzles of the Breeders’ Cup event, this year’s turf sprint presents a unique paradox for bettors, as the two standout shippers most accomplished at the 5f distance are also the two least familiar with navigating races around a turn. Three year old filly LADY AURELIA looms large here off of two Group 1 wins at 5f and 6f in Britain over turf labeled good, and her towering field high Racing Post Rating (124) would seem to confirm her status as the one to beat here. Both of those races came over straight courses, but she does have a stateside win around a bend on firm ground to fall back on from April at 5.5f (101 Bris, 97 Beyer), which is good for the fastest Bris figure in the field at less than 6f in 2017. If you’re sold on her, then MARSHA deserves some respect as well considering she nosed her last out at this distance, although she wasn’t able to duplicate that performance in her last, and there’s some concern as to her ability to handle the turn here as she has never contested such a course. Still, her 122 RPR combined with her form lines and experience at the distance makes her a contender. She will receive first time Lasix here. PURE SENSATION figures to be the speed of the speed and this distance suits him, although he draws a tough outside post. He shows the highest Beyer this year at this distance (110) and a competitive RPR (118), and is probably the best pure 5f horse in the field. He held on well to be third in this race last year, and of course that race was run at 6.5f on a downhill course, so he should find this distance a bit more to his liking. He has won three of his last four at this distance, although all three have come at Parx and over turf with some give. DISCO PARTNER has been hot of late but has never raced a distance this short. Closing type will have to work out a trip from off the pace and may find this contest a bit too sharp. Bris Prime Power selection shows a 109 Beyer and 108 Bris figure at 6f and a 118 RPR so he isn’t without a shot; will need to stay in touch with the pacesetters as he did in his last, and that may be doable from the rail. HOLDING GOLD is another deep closer with competitive figs (107 Beyer, 107 Bris, 116 RPR) that may be overlooked off his last and offers value at his double digit morning line; could be the type to spice up the trifecta for those keying the favorite. For multi-race purposes, it feels like you either need to take a stand and single the favorite, or go at least five deep.

Picks:

1) Lady Aurelia 5-2

2) Pure Sensation 10-1

3) Marsha 7-2

4) Disco Partner 9-2

Longshot: Holding Gold 15-1

6- FILLY AND MARE SPRINT, 7f, 4:14

All eyes will be focused on the highly acclaimed and accomplished UNIQUE BELLA in this race, and this three year old filly may go off as the biggest favorite of the day. She has fired a ridiculous seven consecutive bullet works, including two since winning her last at 6.5f over Grade 3 company. That came after a long layoff and she should be fully cranked for this off of the field high Brisnet Last Race figure she posted there (102). A three year old filly has never won this race but aside from that she is tough to knock on talent and is a must use on top; while she doesn’t hold a considerable edge on figures, the feeling is that she has room to improve and hasn’t yet shown her best. Those looking to beat her could do worse than to land on Bris Prime Power Selection FINLEY’SLUCKYCHARM, who showed a new dimension when winning the TCA at 6f in her last (98 Beyer, 101 Bris) sitting off the pace and taking over through the stretch. That’s a tactic that could suit her well in this race, and while she’s been more successful at 6f than 7f over her career she does have a win at this distance to her credit this year over Grade 3 foes. It bears mention that the winners of 5 of the 10 renewals of this race have used the TCA as their last prep. The horse for the course is SKYE DIAMONDS, who enters off a 6.5f win here in her last (97 Beyer, 99 Bris) and is two for two at Del Mar. She has a three month layoff to contend with but has won five of six starts this year. She bested last year’s champion FINEST CITY two back, and that one also enters off a long layoff similar to the one she used to spring this upset last year. She threw up a bullet 4f work last week and the back class is there off the freshening; not impossible. CURLIN’S APPROVAL owns the field high speed figures at the distance (104 Beyer, 106 Brisnet) for her Princess Rooney score at Gulfstream three back in July, but hasn’t been able to reproduce that form away from her home track, losing to three of these two back in Grade 1 company. If she can run back to it, she could grab a piece at long odds. PAULASSILVERLINING (3rd in this race last year) and BY THE MOON must be considered contenders as well, but the feeling here is that both have done their best running on off courses and that both may be slightly past their prime.

Picks:

1) Finley’sluckycharm 6-1

2) Unique Bella 9-5

3) Skye Diamonds 5-1

4) Finest City 12-1

Longshot: Curlin’s Approval 20-1

7- FILLY AND MARE TURF, 9f, 5:00

Traditionally run at 10f, this race cuts back a full furlong this year over the Del Mar course, and that could have a significant impact on the outcome. It certainly sets things up well for the beloved favorite LADY ELI in her final career start. She’s won her last three starts, two at this distance, posting field high 9f speed figures in the process (104 Beyer, 101 Brisnet). She was just nosed at the wire in this event last year, and should appreciate the shorter distance combined with the relative lack of pace after a ten week layoff. The best shot to beat her may reside with foreign invader RHODODENDRON, who owns the field’s best Racing Post Rating (117) and enters off a Group 1 win in France at 10f for Aidan O’Brien on Arc Day where she bested three of today’s fellow shippers.  That win came over softer ground but she does show a Group 1 win at 8f in Britain last fall and a Group 1 runner up this year at 12f, both over good ground, so she’s versatile in terms of both surface and distance. She’s in the right spot of her form cycle as O’Brien wins with 33% of his runners third off the lay. First time Lasix could be just the boost she needs and this distance could suit her perfectly if she can navigate a wide post with Ryan Moore in the saddle. If we like that one then it’s hard to dismiss the chances of WUHEIDA at a nice price, considering she finished just a half length behind her in 4th last out, and has also won an 8f Group 1 in France over good ground and gets first time Lasix as well. Her Racing Post Rating (114) is equal to that of the favorite and she has worked well this week over the track. Defending champion QUEEN’S TRUST hasn’t won since this event last year, and let’s face it, she needed every inch of that 10f to get there, which she won’t get this time. Closer hasn’t been in the best form this year running over soft courses and could benefit from the surface switch but the race shape doesn’t exactly set up for and she is likely to desire more ground. The same can be said for Beverly D winner DACITA, who has won at 9f but does her best running over more ground, and WAR FLAG, who bested that one last out over 10f. Of the three, we prefer DACITA’s chances best to be flying for a piece. She has defeated GRAND JETE in her last two, and that one continues to attract more money than she should to our eyes. CAMBODIA earns horse for the course honors here and steps up in class off of back to back wins at Del Mar and five consecutive ascending speed figures; she’ll need another one to hit the board here. The most interesting shipper longshot is probably SENGA, who may be overlooked here after a poor showing in her last. That came over soft turf at a longer distance though, and a closer investigation reveals that all three of her career wins have come over firmer ground. Her high RPR of 112 won’t get it done here, but she stands to improve with first time Lasix, bombs away underneath.

Picks:

1) Rhododendron 8-1

2) Lady Eli 5-2

3) Wuheida 20-1

4) Dacita 8-1

Longshot: Senga 20-1

8- SPRINT, 6f, 5:37

Ten runners line up for a highly competitive edition of this race a year after a short, somewhat watered down field. Four runners figure to vie for the lead; they are difficult to separate and it is hard to see any of them backing up much at this distance. The strongest and most consistent has been ROY H, and the 111 Beyer he posted in June at Belmont tops the field at this distance. He’d be undefeated this year if not for fanning six wide two back due to having to avoid a riderless colt he’ll see today, and he still managed to hang on to 2nd. His position outside here should allow a favorable trip to rate just behind the speed and get first run in the stretch, and an old rule of thumb of ours in this race has been to simply key in on the fastest 6f speed figure; all else equal, that horse is often the winner. The aforementioned colt of course is defending champion and Bris Prime Power Selection DREFONG who will break from the #2 post just as he did last year and enters off a similar pattern, having been rested 10 weeks since a 7f win at Saratoga (107 Beyer, 106 Brisnet). He meets a far saltier group this year however and it’s hard to imagine him getting as easy a trip as he received last year, same post position or not, although he is fortunate to be drawn between mostly off-the-pace types. He’s clearly the one to beat but could be a bit more vulnerable than his odds suggest. Perhaps more intriguing in terms of upside is IMPERIAL HINT, who steps up in class here following a Grade 3 win at this distance where he won in an absolutely absurd 1:07.2 (109 Beyer, 111 Brisnet), good for the best last race figures in the field and his fifth consecutive triple digit numbers. He’s been working gangbusters since, posting two bullets and could really be any kind. We like his draw outside the speed as well. TAKAFUL figures to be the one most likely to hook up with the favorite on the early lead based on his field high Early Pace numbers as he lines up in the middle of the field. Talented three year old holds the field high Brisnet speed figure at this distance (114) and has found his niche sprinting in the second part of the year, but it’s fair to wonder whether engaging the defending Sprint champion in an all out speed duel bodes well for his win chances. Closers like MIND YOUR BISCUITS (3rd last year), CALCULATOR and WHITMORE seem better suited to 7f races, especially in a spot such is this where the speed isn’t cheap and feels unlikely to collapse.

Picks:

1) Roy H 7-2

2) Imperial Hint 9-2

3) Drefong 5-2

4) Takaful 5-1

 9- MILE, 8f, 6:19

Speed on the rail! The two main speeds in the race drew posts one and two, which virtually ensures a wicked pace. We’ll toss MIDNIGHT STORM and HEART TO HEART, both talented six year olds that figure to lock up early and expend too much energy in this spot. WORLD APPROVAL has really found his niche at this distance and this race has treated the home team well in recent California editions. Winner of his last two at 8f including a decisive score over today’s foe LANCASTER BOMBER, grey owns the best speed figures at that distance (duplicate 108 Beyers, 103 Brisnet) and a competitive RPR relative to the Euro shippers (123). What we really like is his ability to rate off the likely torrid pace with a target to run at and time his move forcefully as he owns the best Average Late Pace figures in a field loaded with speed; he will take a lot of beating with John Velazquez aboard. Of the shippers, our preference is the French-based ZELZAL, who gets first time Lasix and has done his best running over firmer courses, showing a Group 1 win at this distance over good turf last summer. His career high RPR of 122 fits here and if he can move up a bit from that number on the firm turf with the Lasix addition, he’s a win contender at a giant price. On paper, British shipper and morning line favorite RIBCHESTER looms the horse to beat in his final career start off his field high 127 RPR and four career Group 1 wins at the distance. Something feels a bit off here though, with his subpar performance in his last, defeated by a colt who had just lost to today’s foe ROLY POLY, combined with a quick turnaround of just two weeks (space between races this year has consistently been five weeks). We’ll use him on top defensively in multis but will maintain that the value in this race may lie in keeping him off the top line in exactas and trifecta. Bris Prime Power Selection SUEDOIS deserves a look off his closing win in the 8f Shadwell (Beyer, 100 Brisnet). He’s one of the few Euro shippers to have won in the US this year but will need to improve on that number. The aforementioned ROLY POLY (RPR 116) and LANCASTER BOMBER (RPR 119) round out the Euro threats and deserve a look as well based on their class lines. The latter seems more likely to benefit from the race shape despite a quick two week turnaround, while the former may be better suited to a straight course than a wide draw around a turn.

Picks:

1) World Approval 9-2

2) Zelzal 20-1

3) Ribchester 7-2

4) Suedois 6-1

Longshot: Lancaster Bomber 20-1

10- JUVENILE 6:58, 8.5f

At least on paper, this is the race on the card that offers the most glaring mismatch. Therefore, to single or not single BOLT D’ORO becomes the biggest decision of the Late Pick 4 sequence. He holds a towering speed figure advantage over this field, having posted a 100 Beyer (revised down from 113) for his Front Runner win at this distance, a 10 point advantage relative to his closest foe. Before that, he won two races over this track. Drawing into Post #11 should allow him to allow him to stalk the pace setters and get a great trip near the lead. Simply put, if he runs back to his Front Runner, he wins by open lengths. The argument against singling him is that everyone else will be doing it, so in the event he loses, having another horse could provide payoffs much higher than it would in the regular win pool. FREE DROP BILLY looks to have the most upside off his two turn win the Breeders’ Futurity (79 Beyer). That figure equates to a double digit length gap to make up against the favorite, but the ease with which he won that race might indicate that he wasn’t asked for his best. Strong pedigree is there (by Union Rags out of a Giant’s Causeway made) and he’s been working brilliantly, posting a bullet on 10/21 that was the best of 70. A couple of Curlin progeny round out our picks as both figure to improve. SOLOMINI was 2nd in the Frontrunner behind the favorite, but that was good enough for an 86 Beyer, the 2nd best two turn figure here. He had previously broken his maiden over this track. GOOD MAGIC was a hard luck 2nd in the Champagne, posting an 89 Beyer after leading in the stretch. We’ll give him a shot to turn the tables on the horse that beat him there, FIRENZE FIRE, who hasn’t looked great over the track this week. British turfer US NAVY FLAG strangely lands in this spot instead of the Turf race where he would have been favored Friday, and while he deserves a look based on his connections, he’s never contested a dirt race or a route race.

Picks:

1) Bolt D’Oro 9-5

2) Free Drop Billy 5-1

3) Solomini 6-1

4) Good Magic 6-1

11- TURF, 12f, 7:37

A very deep field of turfers are led by the defending champion globetrotter HIGHLAND REEL, who slips into a cozy spot along the rail with Ryan Moore in the saddle. It’s unlikely he will go off anywhere near his morning line odds, especially considering he went off at 4-1 last year, but he may be overlooked enough off his recent form to still offer value. He switches back to firm turf after two well beaten starts over softer going. He had won two Group 1 events prior to that over ground labeled good (123 RPR, highest in the field at this distance over firmer turf), beating two of today’s fellow shippers, and a repeat of last year’s performance (112 Beyer, 114 Brisnet) would likely earn a repeat trip to the winner’s circle; none of these runners have equaled those figures on a firm turf course since then. He may see a bit more pace in this spot than he did a year ago, but he doesn’t have to have the lead and doesn’t figure to expend too much energy early. This is one of our strongest win choices on the day. Morning line favorite ULYSSES returns after a 4th place finish in last year’s event, boasting a field high 127 RPR off his Group 1 win in the 10.5f Juddmonte International over soft ground two back and a respectable 3rd in the 12f Arc de Triomphe in his last. He’s improved massively in his four year old season and beat the top selection three back at this distance, again over softer ground. His record over firmer surfaces leads us to lean another direction here but he would certainly be no surprise and must be used on top. These two appear a cut above the American contingent, but in the event that a pace meltdown does in fact materialize, SADLER’S JOY might be the most likely to capitalize from off the pace. Winner of the 12f Sword Dancer two back at this distance (105 Beyer, 104 Brisnet) closed into a slow pace in that race and never really got moving in his last when 6th. With a bit more pace to run at, he could be flying late. Bris Prime Power Selection BEACH PATROL, who beat him in has last, has gone from a horse whose limit was once believed to be 9f into the top turf threat in America following wins in back to back Grade 1 races run at 10f and 12f (109 Beyer, 111 Brisnet, 117 RPR). Whether he can withstand added pace pressure against this kind of quality remains to be seen but he is certainly eligible to be around at the end. He seems far more potentially impactful than OSCAR PERFORMANCE, who has put together a nice year as a beneficiary of easy leads the likes of which he isn’t likely to see here. BULLARD’S ALLEY freaked in his last and enters with the highest speed figures in the field at this distance (114 Beyer, 120 Brisnet) but those numbers are such massive outliers to his prior form over a long career that they certainly have to be attributed to the soft turf that day. A few more shippers enter with longshot potential. DECORATED KNIGHT won the Group 1 Irish Champion at 10f (121 RPR) in his last and actually finished ahead of the favorite at that distance and over good ground  in the Group 1 Prince of Wales. He may not want to run quite this far and never has, but he’s run well at shorter distances against classy company. The opposite may be true for SEVENTH HEAVEN, who takes on the boys having finished a closing 4th in last year’s Filly and Mare Turf; that race is too short for her this year. She is a Group 2 winner at 12f this year (120 RPR) over firmer ground and had won two Group 1 events at that distance as a three year old over turf labeled good. She should appreciate both the distance and surface in this spot.

Picks:

1) Highland Reel 5-1

2) Ulysses 7-2

3) Sadler’s Joy 12-1

4) Beach Patrol 4-1

Longshot: Seventh Heaven 20-1

12- CLASSIC, 10f, 8:35

It’s hard to believe that Bob Baffert has won the last three editions of this race with three-year old colts. Enter WEST COAST, who looks poised to continue that trend as the value of this year’s event. Winner of five straight is proven at the distance, having impressively wired and drawn away from the Travers field (108 Beyer, 112 Brisnet) in his lone 10f try. He absolutely destroyed the Pennsylvania Derby field in his last and has been firing bullets since. Drawn in Post #8, he should be able to work out a nice tactical ride outside the main speed. Javier Castellano picks up the mount from Mike Smith, who jumps off to ride ARROGATE, and one can hardly blame him. Defending champion is clearly the horse to beat on paper if he can return to his early year form and 2-1 will look like an absolute gift if he does. He posted the highest number of the year when winning the 9f Pegasus in January (119 Beyer) and overcame a ton of adversity when running against his style to close and win the 10f Dubai World Cup in March. He fired a bullet work on 10/30, will be sent early from the rail where he started for two of his greatest victories, and should be expected to turn the tables on today’s foe COLLECTED, who hung on to pull the upset last out over this track at 10f. Amazingly a colt that couldn’t even make last year’s Kentucky Derby field finds himself in position for Horse of the Year honors coming off an upset of what was once widely considered the world’s greatest horse. COLLECTED will see a bit more pace pressure here and doesn’t appear to be bred for 10f but the proof is in the pudding. He’s never lost in seven starts on a dry dirt surface and he must be considered a candidate for the win. Morning line favorite GUN RUNNER has done absolutely nothing wrong and seems to be getting better with every race. His ten length romp in the 9f Woodward in his last produced career high figures (115 Beyer, 114 Brisnet), and he’s earned nothing but rave reviews working over the track. The main concern with him at these odds is that while he has never turned in a bad effort, he is 0/3 in 10f attempts, beaten twice by ARROGATE. Those two figure to go at it early and we won’t let him kill our Late Pick 4 ticket, but all else equal we prefer the champ for the top of vertical wagers. Our Triple Crown favorite GUNNEVERA comes in off a career best in his last when 2nd in the Travers. He’d be a surprise for the win but has the kind of push button speed that could make an impact in exotics if timed correctly. He improved 24 Brisnet figure between his last two starts; if he can improve even half that many, who knows? Euro shippers CHURCHILL and WAR DECREE find themselves in ambitious spots here in terms of distance and surface compared to this competition. We feel confident that out five will cover the superfecta.

Picks:

1) West Coast 6-1

2) Arrogate 2-1

3) Collected 6-1

4) Gun Runner 9-5

Longshot: Gunnevera 30-1

Napa and Sonoma Wine Tasting Recap

Posted August 17, 2017 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Vino

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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).

CABERNET SAUVIGNON AND BLENDS

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.

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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.

CHARDONNAY

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).

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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

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.

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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.

ZINFANDEL

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.

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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.

PINOT NOIR

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.

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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.

MERLOT

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.

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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.

SAUVIGNON BLANC

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.

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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!!!

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