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California Wine Diary: January 2000
Winter in the Wine Country
Misty morning at Chappellet I've just returned from an enjoyable week in the San Francisco area, a short but busy trip that included visits to several wineries in Napa and Sonoma and a whirl of dinners with friends.

January in the wine country is mild by Eastern standards but misty and moist by any standard, as the photo at right (in Chappellet's hilltop vineyards high on the eastern slope of the Napa Valley) attests. The vines stand leafless but the turf is green, and the valley's sunny wild mustard is already blooming here and there.

Along the way I sampled nearly 60 wines, not just California goodies but from around the world (and, as a technical sidelight, for the first time scribbled all my tasting notes in a Palm Pilot digital organizer in the place of my usual pocket-size notebooks).

Dinner in San Francisco
The whirl began on Saturday, Jan. 15, when a crowd of nearly 20 Wine Lovers' Discussion Group participants gathered at Elka's, a fine Pacific Rim-"fusion" restaurant, occasioned by the coincidental visits to the City by the Bay of Rey Fortney from Boston and this humble reporter.

Aperitifs

Huet 1995 Vouvray Pétillant Brut - Pale straw, with a light, crackling fizz. Good earthy aromas over ripe-apple fruit; creamy and rich, lightly sweet and tartly acidic, long finish. Great aperitif.

Christophe Pichon 1997 Condrieu Moelleux - This one evoked considerable puzzlement - a lightly sweet Condrieu with a Loire flavor designation!? - but also considerable delight. Water-pale in color, it breathes delicious ripe peach and apricot aromas with an earthy edge. Sweet-tart, juicy and full, with a hint of bitter-almond in the finish.

Appetizer
Tempura of shiso cured salmon with pickled gobo, avocado and ponzu

Prince Poniatowski 1986 Aigle Blanc Vouvray - Pale straw color, with earthy Vouvray "damp wool" over delicious white fruit. Rich and full, flavors follow the nose - and, typical of Vouvray, hardly showing its years at all.

Brander Vineyard 1998 Santa Ynez Sauvignon Blanc - Clear straw color, with delicious grassy and green-olive aromas; ripe and crisp and long, not a hint of oak - an unexpected treat.

Glenguin 1997 River Oaks Vineyard Hunter Valley Semillon - Very pale straw color, light melon-citrus aromas; crisp and fresh.

First Entree
Lentil crusted sea bass on green tea soba and cucumber noodles with lemongrass vinaigrette

Jean-Noel Gagnard 1990 Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Morgeot - Pale gold. Odd, distinctive Roquefort aroma is startling at first, but soon fades to unveil good earthy Burgundy fuit; rich and balanced on the palate.

Jordan & Jordan 1993 Scharzhofberger (Saar) Riesling Spätlese - Very pale. Pine and citrus, mango and tangerine aromas; mouth-filling flavors, consistent with the nose, lightly sweet and steely. Very fine wine, and especially appropriate to be able to enjoy one of Peter Jordan's wines at a WLDG fest. AP Number 356721212-9-94.

Dr. v. Bassermann-Jordan 1997 Forster Kirschenstück (Pfalz) Riesling Spätlese - Very pale gold. Musky melon aromas; sweet and tart, full and balanced; delicious dried fruit flavors in a long finish. AP Number 510606 4 26 98.

Second Entree
Aged New York strip steak with truffled red wine sauce and pomme puree

Louis M. Martini 1988 Sonoma/81%-Napa/19% Zinfandel - My contribution to the evening's deliberations, a 12-year-old Zin picked up for $9.99 at K&L Wines in Redwood City today. Clear garnet with a bricky hue, some sediment gets into the glass. Funky and muddy aromas, Sherrylike and maderized. Much livelier on the palate, sweet-tart black fruit. Interesting, certainly worth the price of the experiment, but I don't see anyone (including me) finish their glass.

Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste 1985 Saint Guirons Pauillac - Dark garnet. Cassis and "lead pencil," classic Bordeaux; ripe, suprisingly fresh, a distant hint of the barnyard does it no harm.

Chateau l'Arossée 1989 St.-Emilion Grand Cru - Clear dark garnet, cassis and herbal notes of fennel. Juicy and tart, a burst of fruit in the mouth. Makes an intriguing side-by-side with the Grand-Puy-Lacoste; as you might expect, the St.-Emilion is more generous, the Pauillac more complex and austere. I love them both and keep these two glasses back to enjoy with the meal.

Chateau Montelena 1984 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - Inky black, opaque. Black coffee and brooding cassis fruit; a cloak of heavy tannins remains after all these years, but this is a wine of character; showing its claim as a "California First Growth," it loses nothing in comparison to the two preceding Bordeaux. Another keeper.

Barnett Vineyards 1992 Spring Mountain District Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - Coming after the preceding trio, a hard act to follow, it's still an impressive performer. Very dark reddish-purple, with dark chocolate and black-fruit aromas. Chocolate-covered cherries on the palate, a load of fruit and a load of tannin. Much potential, still needs time.

Vichon 1988 Stag's Leap District Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (from magnum) - Blackish-purple, with black-fruit and cola aromas; sweet fruit and snappy acidity on the palate. A bit of a return to reality after a string of particularly impressive reds, but still a good quaff, easy to drink.

Herzog 1996 Special Edition Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Unfiltered - Very dark garnet; plummy black-cherry fruit; juicy, soft and oaky. Left me unimpressed, although I heard kinder words from others who tasted it after some time in the glass.

Caymus Vineyards 1991 Special Selection Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - For some odd reason I could not sniff this wine without sneezing. Coincidence? Surely so; but I've never had an experience like this. Once I finally got to it, it's dark garnet, with chocolate, coffee and black-fruit aromas; sweet-oak and dark fruit flavors, full but surprisingly one-dimensional.

Jean-Paul et Jean-Luc Jamet 1989 Cote-Rotie - Stu Yaniger chortles, "You want horse? Here's the horse!" And sure enough, he's right, brett and earth define this nonetheless-delicious Rhone. Opaque, it's earthy, "horsey," with funky scents reminiscent of old-fashioned brown-paper packing tape. And fruit, of course; peppery, juicy black Rhone fruit, delicious flavors, full and ripe.

Alain Voge 1991 Cornas Cuvée Vieilles Vignes - Dark garnet, with clean and delicious black fruit and fragrant pepper aromas. Full, juicy and ripe, clean and delicious. Like the Shaker hymn "It's a gift to be simple," this is a deceptive wine, not in-your-face but simply so balanced and perfect that I keep coming back to it, shaking my head. Perhaps unexpectedly, ranks as one of my favorites of the evening.

Amphora 1997 Dry Creek Valley Mounts Vineyard Petite Sirah - Very dark reddish-purple. Plummy, spicy, fully fruit and acid; perhaps unfairly positioned after the great Cornas; even so, it's exceptionally stylish for a young Petite, and I enjoy it.

Fox Creek 1998 McLaren Vale J.S.M. Shiraz/68%-Cabernet Franc/20%-Cabernet Sauvignon/12% - Blackish purple; faint black-fruit aromas; juicy fruit flavors. I don't pay it much attention and don't find it as bizarre as some, but it's forgettable at best.

Domaine les Pallières 1995 Gigondas - CLear dark ruby. Fragrant black-pepper and light fruit aromas; peppery and fresh on the palate; pleasant, but perhaps my palate, still on Eastern Time, is tiring; I find the black pepper so dominant that I don't particularly enjoy the wine.

Paul Jaboulet Ainé 1983 Hermitage La Chapelle - Inky black at the center, purple at the edge. Horsey and barnyard aromas surround but don't obscure deep black fruit; very full and ripe, drinking well.

Desserts
Fuji apple tart tatin, chocolate truffle rock gardens and exotic fruit soup with passion fruit souffle

Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey 1986 Sauternes - Clear gold. Earthy honey and apricot aromas; caramel and butterscotch and sweet dried fruit, very deep and long. Delicious!

Romariz 1963 Colheita Port (matured in wood, bottled in 1998) - Clear rosy amber. Perfumed stone fruit and mixed nuts with a whiff of cocoa. Rich and full, very sweet, but the sugar is contained in the wine's lemony "grip."

Foppiano Vineyards, Sonoma
My first visit to this old and respected family-owned winery near Healdsburg in Sonoma County, but it won't be my last. The tasting room is casual and friendly in the Sonoma tradition, and the wines are first-rate. I chatted briefly with smiling, bearded Lou Foppiano, then tasted all the reds they were pouring.

Foppiano Vineyards Riverside Syrah 1997 ($9)
Clear garnet, with fragrant pepper and floral aromas and a fresh, tart flavor.

Foppiano Vineyards 1997 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($17.50)
Clear ruby, with delicious perfumed fruit aromas, cinnamon and spice. Red fruit and tangy acidity make for an excellent Pinot.

Foppiano Vineyards 1997 Merlot ($17.50)
Dark reddish purple, this stylish Merlot shows delicious ripe-cherry fruit, and a full, peppery flavor that's very appealing, with a lot more character and structure than many Merlots.

Foppiano Vineyards 1997 Petite Sirah ($17.50)
When I think of Foppiano, I think first of Petite Sirah, a grape that's been a hallmark of this winery for years. This one fufills the tradition: Inky dark reddish-purple, delicious plums and cherries on the nose and palate; mouth-filling, ripe, full and tart. (From their "library" collection, I also picked up a 14-year-old Petite of the 1986 vintage to share with friends farther along the road.)

Foppiano Vineyards 1996 Zinfandel Reserve ($24)
Dark ruby in color with big, appetizing bramble fruit aromas. Ripe and powerful, mouth-filling and very long in the finish.

Louis M. Martini, Napa
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Louis M. Martini. One of the relatively few quality California wines in the market when I was first discovering wine, it was also the first winery I ever visited in Napa, back in the late '60s when only a handful of pioneers there had public tasting rooms. Now as then, Martini turns out excellent table wines with class and character and remarkable longevity, and sells them at affordable prices. This policy may keep the winery name from turning up on luxury and high-end lists but it earns my lasting respect.

Louis M. Martini 1997 Classic Merlot ($10.50)
Very dark garnet, with dusty black cherry aromas. Full, ripe and tart, chocolate-covered cherries on the palate. Delicious.

Louis M. Martini 1997 Classic Cabernet Sauvignon ($10.50)
Inky dark garnet in color, with deep cassis fruit aromas, classic Napa Cabernet, and delicious "sweet" black-fruit flavors, juicy and ripe. Martini's regular-issue Cabernets are invariably delicious and drinkable in youth and yet reward cellar time; I enjoyed a well-cellared 1966 Martini Cabernet last autumn and found it still delicious and in no danger of going over the hill.

Louis M. Martini 1997 Dunnigan Hills Sangiovese ($12)
Clear dark rosy red, spicy and plummy aromas of fruit and oak. Mixed-berry fruit flavor, very tart and full.

Louis M. Martini 1996 Sonoma County Zinfandel.($12)
Dark cherry-red, breathes full bramble fruit and caramel aromas. Big, mouth-filling and ripe, well balanced in spite of potent (14%) alcohol; a fine old-fashioned Zin, said to be made from the fruit of 115-year-old vines.

Louis M. Martini 1996 Gnarly Vine Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard Sonoma Valley Zinfandel
One of Martini's relatively few high-end products ($35 suggested retail price), this special bottling from an ancient vineyard high in the Mayacamas Mountains just over the Sonoma County line is a very dark reddish purple, showing huge mixed-berry aromas and a startlingly refined flavor profile for a big Zin; ripe and full but complex and beautifully balanced. (Historical note: My friend Jason Brandt Lewis tells me that before the heyday of Zinfandel as a named variety, Martini used to use Zin grapes from Monte Rosso in a very inexpensive generic bottling called "Mountain Chianti"!)

Louis M. Martini 1996 Monte Rosso Vineyard Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Another upper-end ($35) Bottling, this is inky blackish-purple, full of cassis/blackcurrant aromas, ripe and appetizing. Fuil fruit, substantial but integrated oak, good acidic balance and soft tannins make this one an ageworthy beauty.

Merryvale, Napa
Another first-time experience for me, Merryvale came highly recommended and fulfilled expectations. Its tasting-room policy is a bit on the pricey side - a flat $10 fee to try two of its flagship labels - the wines were impressive, and I'm glad I made their acquaintance.

Merryvale 1997 Silhouette Chardonnay ($48)
Clear straw color. Chestnut and apple aromas and full-bodied, buttery flavors lead into tasty citrus-peel notes in a very long finish. Shows more finesse than many of the genre. I'm a hard sell on California Chardonnay, but I like this one.

Merryvale 1996 Profile Cabernet Sauvignon/72%-Merlot/20%-Cabernet Franc/8%.
Mint and dust and bright cassis fruit, appetizing aromas. Up-front impact on the palate, big fruit, substantial tannins and a piercing acidity surprising in a California wine. Impressive.

Merryvale 1996 Merlot Reserve
Clear dark garnet. Chocolate-covered cherries in the aroma and flavor, rich and full. Impressive.

I also purchased a bottle of Merryvale's "Antigua," a most unusual dessert wine, to share with friends later; see my notes below.

Dinner with friends in Napa
Whenever I'm in Napa, I look forward to getting together with my friends Lou and BettyLu Kessler, who invariably offer a sterling example of the meaning of California hospitality. What's more, BettyLu is one of the best chefs I know, and she came up with an outstanding "simple little dinner" to match a selection of excellent wines.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 1996 Clos Windsbuhl Pinot Gris
Clear gold. Ripe honeydew and fig aromas. Full and very ripe, big and intense; there's a definite touch of sweetness, but plenty of acidity for balance.

Louis Latour 1992 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru
Bright gold, with pleasing scents of apples, chestnuts and spicy oak. It's surprisingly oaky for a white Burgundy but very rich. BettyLu's rich and creamy shrimp bisque seems to heighten the oak. The Zind-Humbrecht, however, is just right with this dish. Its slight sweetness seems to be the key to the match.

Felsina 1990 Berardenga "Rancia" Chianti Classico Riserva
Lou chose this from his cellar to match BettyLu's hearty lamb-shank preparation. Inky dark ruby with lovely scents of black fruits and violets, its ripe flavor melds black-cherry notes and spice with zingy acidity and still-abundant tannins in a balanced and complex wine.

Merryvale non-vintage Antigua California Muscat de Frontignan
An intriguing dessert-type wine from Merryvale, it's 100% Muscat de Frontignan made from a blend of vintages from 1970-83 and 1989-95) Clear dark gold and color, its aromas of toasted almonds and hazelnuts open up to ripe apricots, delicate and fine. Its flavor is strong and rich but only moderately sweet, far from "sticky," with almonds and hazelnuts in a long finish. An unusual and outstanding after-dinner wine.

Chappellet, Napa
Although I've enjoyed Chappellet's wines for many years - particularly the winery's commitment to producing exceptional wines from Chenin Blanc, a variety that rarely gets much respect in the U.S., this was my first time to make the long trek up to its showplace winery (which is open only by appointment). But Donn Chappellet and his son Jon-Mark (and their friendly bulldog Missy) made me feel at home for a tour of the winery and mountaintop vineyards on a misty January morning.

It was early in the day for serious tasting, but we couldn't resist sampling a couple of the winery's limited-production items that I'll probably never see at retail back home in Kentucky.

Chappellet 1998 Napa Valley Chenin Blanc Demi Sec
Very pale, with fresh and delicate scents of apples and pears, almost reminds me of Calvados apple brandy. Luscious and sweet, flavors follow the nose. It doesn't show the earthiness of a Loire-style Chenin, but then, does it have to? This is a California Chenin, focused on the fruit, and one of the best I've tasted.

Chappellet 1997 Napa Valley Sangiovese
Jon-Mark and I have a long conversation about California Sangiovese and whether it should try to emulate the Italian style or simply manifest the best the grape will perform in a New World environment. For an enthusiast of Italian wines like me, this isn't an easy question, but Chappellet's newly released Sangiovese, which will sell for around $24, manages to stand with one foot in the Old World and one in the New as a very American wine that's not embarrassed by a noble Italian heritage. Rosy red with an orange glint, its fresh aromas include a touch of cassis that may be attributable to 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. Ripe cherry fruit flavors, tart acidity and firm tannins make for an exceptional "Cal-Ital" red; it's a powerful wine at 15 percent alcohol, but good balance keeps it from seeming out of whack.

Dinner with friends in San Francisco
Philippe and Ellen Garadelle's excellent restaurant Chapeau! in San Francisco's Richmond district was the venue for the week's second gathering with Wine Lovers' Discussion Group friends; a smaller group took advantage of the restaurant's casual bistro setting to open a smaller selection of excellent wines.

Château Maligny 1996 Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume
Clear pale gold. Elegant but subtle, this young Chablis showed green-apple and vinous aroma notes and a fresh and steely flavor.

Louis M. Martini "Gnarly Vine" 1996 Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel
I was so impressed with this wine at the winery that I purchased a bottle to contribute to tonight's deliberations. My notes are consistent with those from the tasting room: Very dark reddish-purple, showing ripe mixed-berry aromas, earthy and spicy; huge, bold fruit flavors, powerful and long. While I'm not the Zin fanatic that some of my pals are, more Zin like this could easily convert me.

Arrowood 1996 Sonoma County Malbec Dark reddish-purple. Meaty and smoky red fruit aromas lead to high expectations, but sadly, the flavor doesn't live up to them; it's surprisingly simple and almost thin. It does seem to open up after time on the table, but by then we've moved on.

Jean-Paul et Jean-Luc Jamet 1994 Côte-Rôtie
Dark reddish-purple. Earthy and barnyard notes, herbs and cherries in a complex aroma; some bretty "horsiness" blows off in time to reveal deep black fruit and fragrant black pepper. Not as generous (or as "horsey") as the 1989 bottling tasted Saturday, but perhaps the more refined.

Jean-Martin Spielmann 1990 Altenberg de Bergheim Gewürztraminer Selection de Grands Nobles
Clear gold, Delicious litchee and apricot aromas with a distinct note of botrytis. Rich, full, lightly sweet but not at all syrupy.

Dinner with friends in San Jose
Whenever I'm in the Bay Area, I always hope Dwight Green is around and feeling hospitable. Happily, this was the case, and a crowd of Wine Lovers' Discussion Group pals gathered at his home for excellent fare (including the locally famous "Fred's" tenderloin and the usual over-the-top collection of wines brought by the revelers.

La Spinetta 1998 Vigneto Biancospino Moscato d'Asti
Pale straw color, lightly fizzy. Luscious peaches on the nose and palate, soft and very sweet, a gentle aperitif with just 5.5 percent alcohol.

Flowers 1997 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
Clear gold, vinous butterscotch and apples on the nose and palate. Big, structured, an impressive wine.

Thunder Mountain 1998 Cienega Valley DeRose Vineyard Chardonnay
It was a pleasure to meet Thunder Mountain wine maker Milan Maximovich, his wife Sue and daughter Kira again, and Milan was generous with many wine contributions to the evening's festivities. This Chardonnay is almost over the top, but in a positive way (i.e., I like it). Clear gold with a greenish glint, it's outrageously ripe and herbal, with hints of green beans and asparagus, kiwis and tropical fruits, complex and appealing. Big body and structure, remarkably long in the finish. An amazing wine.

Thunder Mountain 1998 Cienega Valley Merlot
One of the few wines that Milan makes in a consciously "lighter" style, it's still got more guts than many a Merlot. Dark garnet in color, it shows delicious cherry fruit with herbal notes on nose and palate. Ripe and tart, loads of fruit flavor with a slight bitterness in the finish.

Leeuwin Estate 1995 Margaret River Chardonnay
Clear straw color, tropical fruit and buttery oak, full and ripe. Good Chardonnay, with oak certainly present but more integrated and balanced with the fruit than you'll sometimes find in Australian Chardonnay.

Thunder Mountain 1997 Cienega Valley Miller Vineyard "Doc's" Cabernet Sauvignon
Hazy dark ruby, deep cassis and berry fruit aromas. Intense fruit flavor, ripe and acidic. Impressive.

Thunder Mountain 1997 Santa Cruz Mountains Bates Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon
Inky-dark reddish-purple, dark-fruit aromas are shy at first, but delicate and appealing. There's nothing shy about the flavor, which is full, tart and balanced; moreover, the wine opens up significantly with time in the glass, emerging as one of the best wines of the evening, a "keeper" that will surely reward a decade or more in the cellar.

Robert Mondavi 1987 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Clear dark ruby. Good old-Cabernet aromas and flavors, prunes and black coffee, crisp and complex. The regular bottling, not the reserve, it's holding up but should probably be drunk soon.

Franciscan 1987 Oakville Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet, sweet red-fruit on the nose and palate,

Prunotto 1985 Barolo "Bussia"
Clear dark garnet. Black fruit and abundant Barulo tar and smoke with hints of violets. Full and structured, tannic and tart. Emerges more and more with breathing, still quite young, but delicious already.

Foppiano Vineyards 1986 Russian River Valley Petite Syrah ($30)
Purchased at the winery on Monday. Inky dark reddish-purple, black-fruit and burnt sugar aromas, warm and ripe. Big, peppery fruit, full-bodied and firmly acidic. A good demonstration of the ageworthiness of Petite Sirah, a wine that often seems one-dimensional when young but that - in its better manifestations, at least - wakes up to delicious complexity after a decade or more in the bottle.

Sterling Vineyards 1979(?) Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($39)
. Purchased recently from K&L Wines, which acquired it in a cellar purchase; no vintage label on the bottle, forcing me to rely on memory that it was advertised in the store as a '79. Very dark hazy garnet, with complex old-wine aromas including soy sauce, coffee and stone fruit. It's an oldster, but a hale and hearty codger, holding up well.

Thunder Mountain 1999 Raspberry wine
(Wine maker's private stock, not made for sale.) Bright reddish-purple. Intense true raspberry aroma and flavor, fresh, strong and sweet. Some wine lovers shun sweet fruit wines on principle, but this example from the hands of a top-notch wine maker is a revelation; in no way does it take second place to traditional dessert wines, as the satisfied "aahhhhs" from around the table attest.

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All my wine-tasting reports are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores.

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