Chateau Saint Jean Plan de Dieu Cotes du Rhone Villages 2011: An aromatic whirlwind, the intriguing berry-oriented bouquet is complemented by scents of lignified stalks, allspice, tapenade, and bark, with a pleasant lactic undertone. On the palate, the wine is seemingly enrobed in ganache and black raspberries, with a delicious core of chocolate brownie-like flavors at the center. Truly irresistible. An inspired blend of 65% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 5% Carignane, and 5% Mourvedre, aged in concrete. Pair this with roast chicken or chicken mole dishes. 14.5% alc. Drink now-2017. (91+)
Chanin Los Alamos Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011: Ruby with dark shadings. A stunningly pure black cherry, mineral, and earth melange both on the nose and on the palate. On the attack, this starts out delicate, then slowly builds up, stone by stone, into a precise, augmented mineral wonder of California Pinot Noir. Medium-bodied, with the dark berry fruit flavors, mild acidity, gentle tannins, and underlying tilled earth components in total equillibrium. I am reluctant to use the “B” word, but this is rather Volnay 1er Cru-esque. 13.6% alc. Drink now-2016. (92+)
Purple-ruby robe. A full glass of delicious intrigue on the nose, where ripe black currant aromas mix with earthy scents of dried clay and a hint of smoke. Medium-bodied, with moderate tannins and subtle acidity. Still quite youthful, with a lot of push from the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (70% of the blend), while the Sangiovese grapes (30%) add notes of black cherries. Hints of basil and wood emerge with time in the glass. Pairs well with red meats and meat-driven pasta sauces. 13% alc. $30 Drink now-2015. (91)
“Everybody wants to be a DJ, everybody wants to be an MC” – De La Soul, Magic Number
“You’ve got to have style, and learn to be original” – Boogie Down Productions, My Philosophy
I cannot begin to understand why surgically manicured visages, post-operatively devoid of the originality with which they were genetically graced, dominate modern media. Whether it be a Kardashian, a Lohan, or some vaguely feminine and slightly-over-tanned flotsam that washed up on the Jersey Shore, the normative female phenotype has been rhinoplastically re-defined and re-bootyed: plumped up lips; streamlined noses; oval-shaped eyes with curtly tucked eyebrows; salon-managed skin tones that are darker than streambed clay but lighter than a brown paper bag. (Not to slag off just the ladies of the day; most of the Hollywood men-bots are just as devoid of character and individual nuance, save for the fat, stoner, comic stock characters that have always had their place near the sun, if not quite in it.) This procedurally enhanced aesthetic similarity in the Age of the Kardashians is in stark contrast to the media darlings of the 1990s, where the lunch-starved waif look of Kate Moss shared the spotlight (but not the order of baby-back ribs) with the callipygean roundness of Anna Nicole Smith, both of which competed with Cindy Crawford’s beauty mark for magazine covers around the world. Looking back, it is clear that 20 to 30 years ago, mainstream society had substantially greater appreciation for the genetic or experiential foibles that were unique to a person. Warren Beatty’s nose? Harrison Ford’s chin scar?
Perhaps the “Pursuit for Sameness” in the Age of the Kardashians is parallel to a more ubiquitous development in the greater social construct: the rise of the Big Box store. At no point in the history of this country have more people been able to go out and buy the same exact clothes, foods, homegoods, and appliances, regardless of their location. Undoubtedly, there is a comfort in buying into the “sameness”; you know that enough other people are shopping at Target, Wal-Mart, or Costco and buying the same things you are buying, thus validating your decisions. And if each one of us is primarily a compendium of decisions, well, you cannot be ill-judged by adopting such an approach. The prevailing attitude seems to have become if we look alike, and we eat alike, and we like the same things, we put ourselves above reproach. Either way, I can’t relate. I grew up in the 1980s, about 25 minutes north of Yankee Stadium in lower Westchester, New York. Rather than wear the brands of sneakers that were sold in the surrounding suburban shops and malls, my friends and I would go down to Fordham Road in the Bronx, and hit up the V.I.M. store for Diadora high-tops and other obscure brands and styles that were not available up by us. The goal was to stand out by being different, original, by sporting a pair of kicks that were not only good looking but which nobody else in our high school could find.
How does this relate to the culture of wine in America? There is a growing culture of sameness in the world of American winemaking that is equally disconcerting. It is the sameness of grape varieties, the sameness of clones, the sameness of barrel coopers, the sameness of elevage techniques, the sameness of viticultural practices, and the sameness of parameters of wine criticism that threatens the industry. Most of us love Pinot Noir, a lot of us can swoon over Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Grenache and Syrah as well. But fewer and fewer winemakers are providing a new (or at least, long-lost) sense of Pinot Noir, Cab or Chardonnay. So many American wines taste . . . just like the bottle next to it on the shelf.
To be sure, the early 21st-century leaders in the lower-alcohol Pinot Noir school, such as Copain and Inman Family, as well as the early 21st-century leaders of the non-interventionist Pinot School, such as Littorai and Radio-Coteau, have demonstrated successful approaches that have been lauded and implemented by others with equal (and in some cases greater) success. The In Pursuit of Balance and West of West groups, in particular, have done well to capture the public’s attention in this regard, and it is no accident that Littorai, Copain, Hirsch, Evening Land, Red Car, Peay Vineyards, and sommelier supreme Raj Parr hold down the vanguard in these groups. But the members of these groups represent but a fraction of the marketplace. Looking at the industry as a whole, there remains too many wineries that fail to demonstrate sufficient elements of originality and character in their wines to break out from the pack. Rather, there seems to be an ever-growing group of 40- and 50-something men (very wealthy men), who have started wineries or purchased vineyards over the past 6 or 7 years and who are content just to be making wine with the same “ultimate set of winemaking tools” (to paraphrase Jeff Spicoli), with little concern for growing grapes that speak uniquely of a single site, or of crafting a wine that speaks in its own voice. Just being recognized as the owner of a winery and invited to a couple of industry events seems to be enough to satisfy their soul. When I was 18, De La Soul observed, “Everybody wants to be a DJ, everybody wants to be an MC.” Nowadays, it seems everybody wants to be a winemaker. And the by-product of this infatuation is a farrago of banal wine choking the distribution lines.
At the same time, fewer winemakers seem to be taking the chance on obscure or foreign grape varieties that might thrive in California. There seems to be a lot less risk taking, and a lot more playing it safe. On the wine criticism side, the viewpoint continues to be “entertain me, and do it in 30-60 seconds ’cause I’ve got a whole lot of wine to taste and I haven’t got all day.” Wine critics continue to judge wine based upon their preconceived notions of what a wine should be, without letting the wine unfold in a decanter over the course of a few days, or taken with food, and deliver up the goods on its own terms. Consequently, I believe many wines are judged by a critic before they’ve had a chance to fully reveal their true nature and full range of complexities and strengths. And therefore, the critic writes up a review that captures the sameness that is shared with other wines from the same AVA, but with little discernment between producers, without grappling with the individual nuances derived from site and farming. What we are left with is a safe review for a safe wine that captures the sameness of its type, thus further reinforcing the narrow scope of what constitues “a very good to excellent wine.”
This is dangerous. Because the Sicilians, the Corsicans, the Piemontese, the Slovenians, the Portuguese, and the farmers of the Alto-Adige, to name but a few, are not playing it safe. They are making decidedly unique wines, in decidedly unsafe ways, from obscure grape varietals (or from well-known varietals presented in an atypical manner) that are delicious. If they haven’t already, the likes of Abbatucci, G.B. Burlotto, Castelfeder, Occhipinti, Hofstadter, Hauner, and Fiegl are about to blow the doors off your tasting cart.
So what is the remedy? In short, what we need now are more American winemaking visionaries, more producers like Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon, who is tearing between parallel universes to chisel an original, living college of grapes and grape-friendly organisms out of a bowl nestled in the hills of San Juan Bautista, while making a home for world-class Grenache, Albarino, Syrah, and Carignane. We need more producers like Duncan Meyers and Morgan Peterson, who get amped just talking about the esoteric grapes and old vines they shepherd. We need more visionaries like Pax Mahle, who was not afraid to train Nebbiolo to behave under the California sun. We need more winemakers with guts like Wells Guthrie, who was willing to go long on Anderson Valley Chardonnay, and knockedout a killer Chard with a Chablisienne edge to it in the 2010 vintage. We need more farmers like Nick Peay, who is still willing to use biodiesel for his tractor, despite the fact that it gums up the works so much that he spends most of his free time fixing the darn thing. We need more people like Raj Parr and Sashi Moorman calling picks while the grapes still have their natural acidity intact. We need more people like Ted and Heidi Lemon, who live by their words and improve the earth from which their grapes are grown. We need more winegrowers like Alex Davis, who shy away from the spotlight and let their wines do the talking for them. We need more winemakers like Eric Sussman, who refuse to rely upon inputs in the winery and insist upon making as honest a wine as possible. We need more people to appreciate the genius of Paul Draper. But most of all, we need more praise, in our wine media, for that which is original.
Chateau L’Isle Fort Bordeaux Superieur 2009: Red ruby. Exhibits a tantalizing aromatic blend of plums and violets. On the palate, this velvety, medium-bodied offering shows delicious dark plum fruits, with a hint of chocolate and cassis. A blend of 58% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc and 14% Cabernet Sauvignon. Lovely for its balance and ripe fruit purity, that is pleasantly devoid of new wood or over-extraction. A smashing value for $18 per bottle that captures the greatness of the 2009 vintage. Consider this the steal of the vintage. Drink now-2018. (92)
I’m deep into a book I’m writing on the stars of California wine. I’m talking two weeks from (extended) deadline deep. I don’t want to disclose too much yet about the particular angle, for a variety of reasons (no pun intended); all I can say is that it should be out by late fall 2012. Think of the theme as the top 25 wineries in California, as of right now. The book has copious tasting notes with ratings (100-point scale) and drinking windows. One of the winemakers I interviewed was on the phone with me today, and he asked what my favorite wines were in the book. The truth of the matter is, it is impossible for me to pick a “favorite,” as so many of the wines would be perfect with different foods, while others would be great for casual sipping on their own, and thus it simply comes down to mood and circumstance. However, to come up with a quick answer, I made a list of just the wines and their scores, and I was shocked. The number of 90+ scores is unbelievable. Granted, the wineries I’m writing about are supposed to be the 25 greatest wineries in California right now. No, there aren’t any 100 point wines, although one or two show potential to improve and come close. But more than 90% of the 200+ wines in the book are rated 90+. And there are a number of wineries that are just consistently hitting it out of the park, even across 10 or more bottlings and multiple varietals. What’s even more exciting, my tastings have revealed that many of the best winemakers in California have been able to fashion exceptional wines notwithstanding the weather-related curveballs that tormented growers in 2010 and 2011. In sum, California wine has never been better. So, without disclosing too much, at least not today, here are some of my favorites from the book, with their numerical rating and a brief description of the wine; these are the wines that continue to haunt me, weeks and in some cases months after I first tasted them:
DuMOL Estate Chardonnay 2010 (96+) – This is a blend of the Hyde Wente Chardonnay selection (70%) and the Mt. Eden selection (30%), which are planted in a tight spacing of 4’ x 3’. The nose shows beautiful, seductive aromas of lanolin and boxwood, with a hint of lemon rind. Generous and layered in the mouth, this is aged in 40% new French oak (a mix of 225ml barrels, 300ml hogsheads, and 75 gallon “cigars”). Rich and dynamic, this seamless wine is breathtaking in its balance between power and grace, as well as in its effortless transition from the midpalate to the never-ending finish. It possesses an inner essence, somewhere between a jus and plasma, that sets it apart from most wines in the world. And the essence doesn’t just sit there. I swear by all that is good, it has a vibration, a groove to it. It’s like the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice”; it makes me want to dance.
Rhys Vineyards Horseshoe Chardonnay 2009 (97) – This is clearly the product of people who have drunk a lot of Batard-Montrachet, and fell in love with grand cru white Burgundy well before the whole pre-mox debacle. Granted, it has the sunny kiss of California sunshine, but it has such refined power, such puissance. The combination of concentrated golden apple flavors sprinkled with notes of nutmeg and lemon oil are set off by a fierce acidity that indelibly marks the palate and eternally tethers this behemoth to the good side of the force.
Sandhi Bent Rock Chardonnay 2010 (97+) – Shows what complexity can be achieved at 13.2% alcohol. Displays the apricot/tropical aromatics and oily texture of a Montrachet, the blind purity that you get from the best Santa Rita Hills Chardonnays (esp. when picked on the “early” side), and this incredible focus from the midpalate through the finish where the wine becomes simultaneously more delineated and concentrated. Kind of like the big bang in reverse I suppose.
Radio-Coteau Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 (96+): Over the past nine years, Eric Sussman’s Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noirs have consistently shown the flavor and aromatic characters of this hillside vineyard through the lens of the vintage. The 2002 was brooding and black fruited; the riper 2003 was more red cherry oriented; the 2005 exhibited a “big-boned” quality of natural extract, depth, and structure reminiscent of the larger-than-normal Pinots from the 2005 vintage in the Cote d’Or. 2009 was a lighter, more gracious iteration. The Radio-Coteau Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, however, enchants you with its elegance at first, and then slowly builds to reveal a wine of great nervosity and Pinot purity. This has more subtlety and restraint on the finish than any prior Savoy bottling from Radio-Coteau, and is Sussman’s best wine to date from this site.
Ridge Monte Bello 1995 (97) - Nearly 17 years after the vintage, the tannins of the ’95 Monte Bello have melted into the dark fruit sea, which is still fresh and cool, and the wine is a glorious example of the purity and balance that can be attained when “mountaintop Cabernet Sauvignon” is blended with other Bordeaux varietals. I don’t know if this bottle showed particularly well because it was consumed on site, over lunch with the charming and ebullient Paul Draper. All I can say is, this is about as good as it gets.
Wind Gap Luna Matta Nebbiolo Paso Robles 2009 (97-100): Through a use of whole-cluster and de-stemmed fruit, a nightwatchman’s diligence in the monitoring of skin contact in taking the juice off the skins at the right moment to avoid unnecessary tannins, this red raspberry elixir has the most floral of bouquets and speaks with a strong Langhe-accent. Big, neutral Gamba puncheons help amplify fruit roundness without imparting any intrusive wood tones. More than just the real deal, if this proves to be as profound when it is finally bottled (a year or two from now), it may trigger a Nebbiolo-grafting orgy in the Central Coast.
Thank you to all readers, distributors, winemakers, retailers, writers, and friends for your thoughtful feedback and kind words about this website. We try our best, although travel and book writing and day jobs can sometimes get in the way. As a token of my appreciation, I thought I’d give a tip to all readers of the site: a retailer in suburban New York (Zachys; www.zachys.com) is blowing out wines at $10-$15-$20 price points, some of which have been reviewed here. I believe they ship everywhere in the U.S. where permitted, but you’ll have to follow up with them for the details. Anyhow, here are some suggestions of wines that you might want to purchase, with my thoughts:
Vocoret Chablis 2009: My original review of this wine was a bit stingy. I probably rated it around 86 points. Fact is, this is the only wine of which I’ve purchased 2 cases in the past year. Just bought another case this morning. It’s an honest Chablis, with good minerality. What it lacks in complexity it makes up for in acidity and precision. This is not going to displace Raveneau or Dauvissat any time soon at the top of the quality hierarchy, but it’s a great every day sipper at $15 a pop on sale. Perhaps what I love best about this wine is that you and your spouse can nearly finish a bottle with a meal, and you don’t feel the least bit intoxicated.
Halos de Jupiter Costieres des Nimes 2008: Costieres des Nimes fared better than most other regions in the Rhone in 2008. The vines are not far from the Mediterranean, and the wine tastes infused with cool ocean air, and a pleasant hint of brine/seaweed. If you like the Arnot-Roberts Syrahs, you’ll probably love this wine. I adore it wine for its balance, honesty, and aromatic complexity. Again, a wine that you can sip with a meal and feel none the worse for wear. Whoever said Phillipe Cambie only makes one style of wine is utterly uninformed. Oh yeah, I picked up a couple more of these today for $10 a bottle.
Domaine Mas du Bouquet Vacqueyras 2009: Probably the best red wine one can find for $10 a bottle in 2012. This bottling exemplifies the classic dark fruit, spicy aroma, and tannic grip of wines from Vacqueyras. I think I bought about 6 bottles of this today for $10. Great to pair with meats and rich sauces.
Chateau Peybrun Cadillac Cotes de Bordeaux 2009: This is a red Bordeaux blend from the Cadillac area, which is not far from Barsac and Sauternes. A really classy wine, from an ancient site that is organically farmed. 66% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, this shows nice cherry/red currant flavors that are edged with notes of cedar, plums, and pine. This wine takes it back to a time when all any vigneron ever wanted to do in Bordeaux was make a balanced wine. Best thing about this wine: it improves over the course of 3 days, without gassing it or sticking it in the fridge. On sale now for $15.
John Bernard Dawson
Deux Montille Bourgogne Blanc 2009: Clear yellow with a brass tinge. Offers a focused, restrained nose of hay, lemon, and ginger. Fresh, with great acidity on the palate, this is clean, lithe, and mouthwatering. The flavors are equal parts mountain spring water, lemon-lime, and moss. $28 Drink now-2013. (89)
Bookster Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2009: Nearly opaque, with a black-violet hue. Ripe Cabernet aromas reminiscent of blackberry jam, cola, and cassis are set off by a hint of eucalpytus and toasted bread. Full-bodied, dry, and tannic, this is mouthpuckering on the intense finish. The waxy black fruit flavors need time to integrate with the tannins and substantial alcohol, but this should come together with time in the cellar. Drink 2013-2018. 14.8% alc. $55 (90+)
David Duband Nuits St. Georges 2009: Pale ruby, nearly clear at the rim. Savory notes of pan-seared beef, black pepper, clove, cinnamon, and sesame seeds swarm the nose, while the palate is awash in concentrated flavors of black and red fruits, spice, and dusty earth. Medium-bodied, with good acidity. The tannins should meld with the fruit more seemlessly in a year or two. $60 Drink now-2015. (88+)