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Sonoma vineyard

California Wine Diary 1999
A quick and mostly business trip to Northern California this week didn't leave much time for frivolity or casual wine touring; but I managed to sneak in a few tastings, and enjoyed excellent wines and dinners with good friends every night of the week. Without getting into deep critical analysis, I was able to jot down at least quick and careless notes on most of the wines I tasted.

Wednesday, Sept. 29
Dinner at Dwight Green's home in San Jose
Dwight and his friend Robin hosted Allan Bree, Milan and Sue Maximovich and their daughter Kira, and me for a dinner at home, and we all brought wine. The food was superb (Dwight is one of the best cooks I know, and he worked with a remarkable medium, the local "Fred's steaks"), and the wine was right up there to match.

Ahlgren Vineyard 1997 Livermore Valley Semillon - Pale straw color, with good melon, light spice and tobacco leaf aromas. Rich mouthfeel, melon fruit and sharp acidity; oak perceptible but not overbearing. Nice wine.

Thunder Mountain 1998 DeRose Vineyard Cienega Valley Chardonnay - Milan's first bottling from this little-known appellation (it's on the edge of Santa Cruz Mountains, close to Monterey), it's a promising item indeed. Clear gold in color, with very full aromas of ripe white fruit and hazelnuts, it's rich and full, citric and almost unctuous on the palate. Given time in the glass, its aromas open up even more to "outrageous" butterscotch and big, intense fruit. Not your typical California Chardonnay!

Louis M. Martini 1966 California Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon - I spotted this 33-year-old bottle on sale at K&L Wines's Redwood Valley shop on my way down to Dwight's and, knowing Martini's amazing record for unexpected longevity, decided to risk a relatively modest $34.95 for the bottle. It was a good gamble. Clear dark rosy amber in color with no real browning, it offered a lovely aroma of red fruit accompanied by pleasant notes of black coffee and fresh hay. Ripe and sweet flavors showed herbal notes and still-abundant fruit rounded out by bright acidity; an excellent wine, still in such fine shape that it didn't fade perceptibly in glass or decanter throughout the evening. (A curios note on marketing of the era: The wine was labeled "California Mountain," not "Napa," and the back label alludes, tantalizingly, to the grapes having been grown in the Mayacamas region near the Napa-Sonoma border. Spring Mountain?)

Flowers 1997 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir - Dark ruby, with delicious perfumed red-fruit aromas and ripe, intense cherry flavor. An excellent Pinot, opens up and evolves in the glass.

Ridge 1985 Napa County York Creek Devils Hill Petite Sirah - Bree brings this choice item to expand my Petite Sirah horizons, and it's a good one for sure. In one way, though, it merely confirms my stereotypes, being a 14-year-old wine that tastes as if it were last year's bottling. Inky dark reddish-purple, it shows deep, plummy aromas and big, chewy black fruit on the palate well guarded by fierce, barking tannins.

Thunder Mountain 1997 Bates Ranch Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon - Bottled just the previous week and not to be released until Spring 2000, this one will be worth waiting for. Opaque blackish-purple, it's as closed as you'd expect from a just-bottled wine, tightly wound cassis and black-olive. With coaxing in the glass, though, it emerges with big, brooding black fruit and olives, dark chocolate and a firm acidic core, with loads of tannin that the Fred's steaks seem to tame nicely. Passes "the Thunderbird test" as the first and only empty bottle on the table.

Kathryn Kennedy Winery "Pearls" 1992 Knight-Smith Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon - Very dark ruby, with dark chocolate and deep black fruit aromas. Big and chewy; huge fruit wrestles hulking tannins, and pins them for the three-count.

Domaine des Baumard 1990 Quarts de Chaume - Presented "blind" from a decanter, just for fun, this one puzzles us all. Bright gold, almost the color of apple juice, it shows surprising aromas of creme brulee and "Dreamsicles" and a distinct, tangy hint of lime juice; sweet, rich and delicously fruity on the palate, it's juicy sweet and correctly tart. A lovely way to end an excellent evening of food and wine.

Tuesday, Sept. 28
Wine Lovers' Discussion Group "Offline"
Indigo in San Francisco

A crowd of 20 Wine Lovers' Discussion Group participants and friends gathered at this stylish restaurant in the city's Financial District, bearing almost too many wines to count. The food was good, the friends fine, and the wines? Well, judge for yourself. There were so many, I didn't catch them all. Skipped a few at the start, and found that my notes become more sketchy as the evening wore on. Couldn't tell much about color in the dim lighting. And, as is usual in such delightfully social settings, wasn't 100 percent focused on wine analysis. So, with all those caveats, here's the gist of it:

Andrew Murray 1998 Santa Barbara County Roussanne - Remarkable orange-blossom aroma. Ripe and rich, seems sweet at first, crisp and tart in the finish. The flavor really doesn't come up to the excellent nose, but it's still a striking aperitif.

Sine Qua Non 1997 Twisted and Bent Roussanne/60%-Chardonnay/40% - Pale straw color. Butterscotch and buttered popcorn aromas; burnt oak and sweet fruit on the palate. Odd, outrageous, too over-the-top for me.

Chateau de Beaucastel 1988 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc - Now we're talking! Clear straw color, with delicious aromas of white citric fruit, almonds and herbs. Full and rich, still laden with fruit flavor. Excellent wine.

Weinstock 1998 Contour Chenin Blanc - This is the wine that's been much discussed on the Wine Lovers' Discussion Group and widely hailed as one of the best-ever California Chenin Blancs, a grape that reaches ascendancy in the Loire but generally produces insipid stuff at best in the U.S. Clear straw in color, it shows wonderful ripe citrus and apple aromas that almost leap from the glass, and a big, rich and ripe flavor centered on apples and juicy tangerines, framed with crisp fresh-fruit acidity. Maybe it's not a Vouvray, but it's certainly one of the two best American Chenin Blancs I've ever tasted (the other being the Pine Ridge "TSIFG").

Domaine Drouhin 1992 Oregon Pinot Noir - Good herbaceous Pinot aromas, cherries and tomato skin. Good Pinot flavors, too, but it seems to vanish on the palate with a light middle and zero finish.

Etude 1997 Carneros Pinot Noir ($34.95) - My offering to the evening's deliberations, and sadly less exciting than I had hoped. It shows good black cherries on the nose and palate but lacks the complexity that I'd expect from this winery and at this price level.

Louis Jadot 1988 Chambertin Clos de Bize - This one's a treat, blowing away its New World predecessors on the table with full, ripe fruit and restrained "barnyard" aromas, very full and long.

Taurasi 1990 Struzziero Riserva - Tar and smoke and dust over ripe black cherry fruit; a classic mature Italian, separates those who love them (like me) from those who don't.

M. Chapoutier 1996 La Sizeranne Hermitage (magnum) - Full aroma of minerals and red fruit leads into a big, peppery and tannic flavor. Impressive but still very, very young, really too immature to evaluate.

Voge 1990 Cornas - Black fruit, peppery and tannic, some earthy funk. Young but good.

Chateau de Beaucastel 1981 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (magnum) - Black fruit and a blast of brett, horsey and chicken-manure flavors wrestling the fruit to the mat. It's good, it really is, but it definitely separates the "barnyard" fanciers from the rest.

Turkey Flat Vineyards 1998 Barossa Valley Grenache Noir - Dark reddish-purple, with jammy, bright fruit flavors and tart acidity, but close analysis leads to a consensus that it's at least lightly corked.

Seavey 1995 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - Tight and closed. Black fruit and dark chocolate on the nose and palate, needs time.

Ahlgren 1991 Santa Cruz Mountains Bates Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon - Vanilla and dill, loads of oak, but lots of black fruit as well. Weedy dill dominates the flavor, unfortunately, making this odd beverage more akin to pickle juice than wine. A waste of good grapes.

Joseph Phelps 1996 Napa Valley Insignia - Big fruit and rich milk chocolate aromas; ripe fruit and substantial tannins on the palate, closed and tight. Needs time. (Cabernet Sauvignon/67%, Merlot 33%)

Groth 1993 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - Caramel and simple black fruit; tannic, herbal and bitter-chocolate flavors. Not a great vintage; disappointing.

Ridge 1997 Geyserville Vineyard Zinfandel/74%, Carignane/15%, Petite Sirah/10%, Mataro/1% - Ripe mixed-berry fruit, big, ripe, strong and sweet. Seems almost overripe - squeeze it, and it will squish - but delicious.

Don Quijote non-vintage Vino da Tavola Dloce da Une Scelte de Moscato Passito - Making an international Wine Lovers' Discussion Group connection, this one came from Luca Mazzoleni in Italy back to the States with Rob Adler, who donated it for the evening's proceedings. A treat it is, clear ruby in color with delicious golden-raisin aromas; thick and sweet on the palate, it offers delicious Muscat raisin fruit and a surprising dose of fragrant black pepper in a flavor that's luscious, sweet and very, very long.

Clos Grensbroennel Willm 1983 Alsace Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive - Clear gold in color, showing delicious honeyed apple aromas and a rich, full flavor that's very nearly dry.

Chateau Suduiraut 1983 Sauternes - Honey and apricots on the nose; earthy and rich in flavor, perhaps drying out a bit; it's luscious but not as sweet as you might expect.

Thanks to Rob Adler for organizing this excellent event (and performing yeoman service at the bottle-opening table). A great time was had by all.

Monday, Sept. 27
Dinner with Lou and Bettylu Kessler in Napa
After a long and busy day, it was good to spend a quiet evening relaxing with good friends. Bettylu put together an excellent dinner featuring an intensely flavored beef daube Provencal, and Lou pulled a couple of very good wines out of his cellar:

Nigl 1997 Senftenberger Piri Grüner Veltliner - Pale brass color, with the crisp green-pea and intense mineral qualities that characterize this fine Austrian grape. Clean and bright flavors carry out the promise of the nose, with minerals, crisp fruit and acidity lingering in a finish that's long and lean.

Paul Jaboulet Ainé 1983 Hermitage La Chapelle - Quite a contrast with last night's 1985 Chave Hermitage, this one is much closer to its peak, but shows no signs of fading any time in the next decade or two. Very dark garnet in color, it breathes delicious earthy black fruit; dark fruit and tart acid flavors are balanced and elegant. Top of its form and there to stay for a while.

Monday, Sept. 27
Kendall-Jackson tastings
A business visit to Kendall-Jackson's Santa Rosa offices turned into a tour of several of the winery's extensive properties (including the beautiful Gauer Ranch) in the company of two delightful people, Susan Sueiro and Jim Caudill. In the beautiful outdoor setting of the winery's outdoor seminar site at the highest point on the ranch, we sampled:

Stonestreet 1998 Stonestreet Mountain Estate Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc - Clear, bright straw color. Good, grassy and citric aromas and flavors, big and full, a fine wine even when served at ambient temperature.

Stonestreet 1996 Christopher's Vineyard Alexander Mountain Estate Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - Very dark reddish-purple, showing rich cassis and perfumed fruit aromas that evoke a "plush" sensation. Big, fruity and quite tannic, a bruiser that will improve significantly with time, although it's enjoyable now.

Kendall-Jackson 1996 Buckeye Vineyard Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - A new Kendall-Jackson label aimed at the upscale restaurant market and positioned to retail at a surprising $65, it's a fine wine but faces real competition at that elevated price tag. Clear, dark garnet in color, it shows appetizing, ripe cherry-berry fruit on the nose and palate with a good acidic core; it's generous and ready for immediate enjoyment.

Kendall-Jackson 1996 Buckeye Vineyard Alexander Valley Merlot - Another in the Buckeye line meant for high-end wine lists (suggested retail price, $33), it's dary ruby in color with ripe cherry-berry aromas and subtle herbaceous and chocolate notes. Ripe and round, it shows ample fruit with a fine acidic structure.

Kendall-Jackson 1997 Vintner's Reserve California Syrah - Very dark garnet color, it offers good black fruit, fragrant black pepper and a pleasant whiff of green bell pepper in the aromas. There's lots of Syrah pepper and ripe, simple fruit on the palate, framed by lemon-squirt acidity.

Later, after a tour of the winery's intriguing educational "sensory gardens," chock full of herbs, flowers and other plants that display the natural aromas found in wine, we enjoyed lunch in Kendall-Jackson's imposing tasting room (formerly the home of the DeBaun winery). Tom Hinde, director of K-J's La Crema Winery, joined us there with La Crema's communications director, Marcia (I apologize for losing her last name); they brought along the following wines:

La Crema 1997 Russian River Valley Chardonnay - Clear gold in color, showing tropical fruit and spice aromas with a distinct impression of creme brulee. Full and bright flavors focuse on apples and pears, backed by clean, tart acidity.

La Crema 1997 Russian River Valley Reserve Pinot Noir - Clear reddish-purple, with lovely perfumed red-fruit aromas; full, ripe and tart flavors, impressive. A very fine match indeed with a wild mushroom and ham ragout in parchment envelopes.

La Crema 1998 Cold Coast Vineyards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir - To be released Oct. 1. Clear ruby in color, with intense cherry-cola aromas, it's ripe and sweet on the palate, well-balanced and structured, with cherry character so pronounced that it inspires jokes about wild-cherry Life Savers.

La Crema 1997 Sonoma County Reserve Zinfandel - Clear, dark reddish purple, with luscious aromas of raspberries and perfumed fruit, soft at first but acidic structure becoming much more evident on the palate. Seems more elegant than its 14.1% alcoholic content would suggest.

Sunday, Sept. 26
Dinner at Acre in Healdsburg
Sunday night, after one of the warmest days in Sonoma of the season, an outdoor table under the lemon trees in the back garden of this attractive Healdsburg restaurant seemed just right; I joined friends Stuart and Linda Yaniger and Franck McCormick for dinner there and these wines:

Clos des Briords 1996 Cuvee Vieilles Vignes Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie - Pale greenish-gold, with light melon and rising bread-dough aromas. Crisp and bright, juicy fruit and sharp acidity.

Kathryn Kennedy Winery 1997 "Pearls" Dry Creek Valley Cinsaut/87%-Syrah/13% - Dwight Green's gift to the group, it's a dark reddish-purple wine with spicy red fruit and pleasant earthy aromas. Simple fruit flavors follow the nose with a good acidic structure. Fruity and appealing, it might stand a light chill.

Domaine Dujac 1993 Clos Saint-Denis - Dark ruby color, with delicious earthy and Burgundian vegetal aromas in proportion with good Pinot fruit. Ripe and sweet on the palate, well-balanced and long. Might have been the "wine of the evening," but it faced stiff competition from ...

Jean-Louis Chave 1985 Hermitage - Dark ruby in color, with grilled-meat and mineral aromas and brooding black fruit. Rull and ripe, remarkably deep and long. Still quite youthful, it will reward substantially more cellar time, but it's impressive now, intriguing to compare-and-contrast with the Burgundy.

Clarendon Hills 1996 Kangarilla Vineyard Clarendon Old Vines Grenache - Although it brings an impressive reputation, this huge Australian red seems a bit out of place in the company of the Dujac and the Chave. Inky dark reddish purple, almost black in color, it shows grapey fruit and vinous alcohol on the nose and big, almost overripe fruit and alcoholic warmth (15%!) on the palate.

Huet 1995 Cuvee Constance Vouvray - A delicious way to end the meal, this delightful Loire is clear gold, with apples, honey and complex earthy aromas; full, sweet and tart in flavor, it lingers in a fine and incredibly long finish.

Sunday, Sept. 26
Joseph Swan Vineyards
Whenever I'm in Sonoma, I try to pay a call on Rod and Lynn Berglund of Joseph Swan Vineyards, two of the nicest people I know in a business full of good folks. The winery, named after Lynn's late father, is highly respected, and a visit to its tiny, out-of-the-way facilities in an old Sonoma barn is a nostalgia trip back to the wine country the way it used to be.

Here's what they were pouring:

Joseph Swan Vineyards 1997 Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir ($10) - Pale rosy color, rather light as Swan's wines often are; pleasant earthy and tomato-skin aromas. Red fruit flavors, tart and crisp. A good buy!

Joseph Swan Vineyards 1997 Steiner Vineyard Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir ($22) - Clear rose color. Delicious cherries on the nose; very full and ripe flavor, full and ripe.

Joseph Swan Vineyards 1997 Stellwagen Sonoma Valley Zinfandel ($22.50) - Clear, light ruby color, with ripe raspberry aromas. Big, full berry flavors, ripe and sweet.

Joseph Swan Vineyards 1997 Lone Redwood Ranch Russian River Valley Zinfandel ($18) - Clear ruby red. Luscious blackberry and raspberry aromas; ripe, full and "sweet." More exuberant than the Stellwagen if perhaps a little less elegant.

Swan will be releasing its 1997 Ziegler and Anniversary Selection Zinfandels around Oct. 1, and Berglund says they will be pouring them in the tasting room throughout the month.

Saturday, Sept. 25
Dinner at Rob and Ilene Adler's in San Francisco
On my first night on the West Coast, fighting jet lag and the effects of a long travel day, I enjoyed dinner at home with my friends Rob and Ilene Adler and Dwight Green, up from San Jose for the evening. Under Rob's supervision, we put together a light vegetarian pasta dinner featuring heirloom tomatoes and other goodies from the city's Farmer's Market, and enjoyed these wines:

Chapoutier 1990 Chante-Alouette Hermitage Blanc - Clear gold, on the dark side. Luscious honey and caramel aromas, hard candies, a hint of oak. Rich, tart flavors follow the nose, backed by piercing acidity. Remarkably, it opens up to show increasing complexity through the evening, and makes an unexpected food match with crusty Pugliese bread dipped in good fruit olive oil.

Gianni Paoletti 1995 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - Very dark reddish-purple. Closed and tight, cherry-berry fruit, tart acidity and a load of tannin - and this bottle has been open for a week (although under gas after the first 24 hours). Good potential but needs lots of time.

Castello de Neive 1982 Vigneto Santo Stefano Barbaresco - Hazy dark plum color with an amber glint. Tar and roses, old Nebbiolo aromas, leading into sweet red fruit flavors, tart and clean; a bit pruney as it develops in the glass but still a fine old Italian.

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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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