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Today's Wine Tasting Note

© Copyright 1997 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

Two California Wine Dinners (June 12-13, 1997)
So much wine, so little time. In the quest for knowledge and enjoyment, but limited by the bounds of moderation and one's budget, what's a wine lover to do? One excellent solution: Band together with a group, locate a restaurant with a reasonable corkage policy (or gather at someone's home), and spend a happy evening with good friends, good food and good wine. If everyone brings a bottle or two to share, with the judicious use of a "dump bucket," it's entirely rational for a group of six to a dozen folks to taste their way through twice as many wines as people without losing track or falling to significant impairment.

Here's my report on two such recent gatherings with fellow wine lovers I've met online, one each in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

San Francisco, June 12, 1997

It would be hard to imagine a more enjoyable evening than this session at Lulu's in San Francisco, a really pleasant Northern Italian spot on the south side of Market with a rational attitude about corkage. Our group of ten brought in a random and eclectic collection of 16 wines, and we managed to do justice to them all.

In addition to your humble scribe, participants included online pals Jason Brandt Lewis and Shari Gherman-Rance; Lou and Bettylu Kessler; Brian and Linda Kingsbury; Sam Goth and Leslea Brickner, and Joe "SFJoe" Doughterty; an amiable company indeed, serious and intelligent wine lovers without a snob among 'em.

With all my usual caveats about the non-analytical and unscientific nature of wines consumed with food, "unblind," in a social setting, here's my report on the wines of the evening (in the order tasted):

Weingut Prager 1995 Wachau (Austria) Feinburgunder Smaragd. A little translation is in order: According to SFJoe, our Austrian wine guru, who posted all this in more detail a while back, "Feinburgunder" ("Fine Burgundy") is Austrian German for "Chardonnay." "Smaragd" is evidently a special rating used in Austria's Wachau region for a dry wine made from grapes of a high ripeness level, vaguely akin to a German Auslese or higher, but vinified dry. Coming to this wine with no particular expectations, we were all virtually blown away by its quality. A pale brass in color, it showed a lovely green- pea and chestnut aroma with floral notes, and a big, ripe and tart flavor, full and lasting, very "Burgundian" in style. This is a truly impressive wine. Importer: Vin Divino Ltd, Chicago.

Pierre Boullay Chavignol 1994 Cuvee Reservee Sancerre. Pale greenish-gold in color; very subtle, highly complex, with perfumed aroma notes and good steely, mineral flavors, but it's a little hard to pin down in the context of the other whites being poured at this point, which were much more forward and in-your-face, making this one a bit like a Degas pastel in a gallery full of Toulouse-Lautrec posters. We're told that this rated a Parker 97, which seems ridiculous, but it's certainly a fine Sancerre, and went exceptionally well with simply steamed mussels and drawn butter. Importer: Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Va.

Domaine Velette 1994 "Tradition" Pouilly-Fuisse. Clear brass color. Apples and oak aromas; big, oaky vanillins and tropical fruit on the palate and a faint, acceptable whiff of volatile acidity on the finish. This is a White Burg? "Chateau Montalena," cracks Leslea Goth. She's right, too; this could easily pass for a big, oaky California Chard of the old style.

Hyde Vineyards 1995 "Selene" Carneros Sauvignon Blanc ($17.95). My contribution to the evening's deliberations. Pale straw coor. Very fresh, fruity citrus aroma limned with spicy oak; bold fruit flavor with a clear presence of oak rendering it a bit Chard-like, but it's well-balanced and complex, definitely a match (and maybe more than a match) for Matanzas Creek, Rochioli and theother big-name Sauvignon Blancs in this style and pricey budget range.

Joseph Swan Vineyards 1995 Russian River Valley Cotes du Rosa. Shy nose, soft and fruity on the palate. Nice quaffing wine, and thanks to my previous familiarity with this tasty quaffer at the winery, I wanted to like it more; but it was just out of its league in this batting roster.

Zaca Mesa 1995 Zaca Vineyards Santa Barbara County Roussanne. Pale straw color. Nice honeydew melon scent; rich, buttery and smooth on the palate.

Ojai Vineyard 1996 Roll Ranch Vineyard California Viognier. Pale straw color, with lovely floral-honey aromas; big and full flavor, oak framing luscious Viognier fruit. Outstanding, and at a reported $17 retail, a decent value by the pricey standard of trendy Viogniers.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 1991 Tokay Pinot Gris Vieilles Vignes. YOWZA!! This one jumps up out of the glass and beats you on the head with a rubber mallet. Bright gold in color, with a huge aroma of litchees and apricots. Mouth-filling and rich, with firm acidity fully cloaking any residual sweetness, leaving a remarkably long finish that comes across bone dry, with a pleasing apricot-pit bitterness that lasts and lasts. Outrageous, in the best sense. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Calif.

Babcock Vineyards 1991 Santa Ynez Valley Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir. Delicious cherry fruit and earthy aromas with a light and palatable "barnyard" element. Ripe wild-cherry fruit flavor over crisp, cleansing acidity. Really a fine Pinot Noir, not merely capable of standing up to Burgundy but (see below) of beating up on it.

Calera 1991 Jensen Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir. Surprisingly herbaceous aroma, wet hay and rotting grass clippings, dominate the nose and palate. Sam Goth nails it as "Italian parsley." This is the second high-end Calera I've had lately with this odd character, and I can't say I'm fond of it.

Domaine Bachelot 1989 Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes. Dark ruby in color, darker than either of the California Pinots. The aroma is odd and frankly offputting, a pungent, sulfury quality that mingles elements of licorice and old rubber galoshes. The pungent nature carries over to the flavor, causing some controversy at the table among those who love it and those, like me, who hate it. It's not an old-wine quality, I don't think, so much as an idiocyncracy. Importer: Diamond Wine Merchants, Emeryville, Calif.; a Becky Wasserman selection.

Gary Farrell 1994 Collins Vineyard Russian River Valley Zinfandel. Dark garnet. Ripe mixed-berry scent; big, forward, jammy fruit, Zin as it's meant to be. Perhaps the evening's most "hedonistic" red; Shari and I arm-wrestle for the leftovers ...

Yarra Yering 1991 Dry Red Wine No. 1 Yarra Yering Vineyard Coldstream Victoria (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon. One of Jason's contributions, a hand-import from London. Very dark reddish-purple, almost opaque. Leather, anise and light "barnyard" aromas, seeming almost prematurely old, but the flavor's that of a young red, heavily tannic and lemon-tart acid over substantial black fruit. I enjoy it very much, but the odd disjoint between the nose and palate is puzzling and makes me wonder how it will age.

Ahlgren Vineyard 1990 Santa Cruz Mountains Bates Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. Very dark garnet color. Good dark chocolate, cedar and cassis aromas; flavors consistent, full fruit cloaked by still subtle tannins. Excellent wine, a truly world-class Cabernet, with its best years still well ahead.

Caymus 1985 Special Selection Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Amid much hilarity about this being one of the last "affordable" Caymus Special Selections, recalling that this winery was one of the first to kick off the dramatic ramping-up of high-end CalCab prices, the consensus is that a wine of this quality probably gave Caymus good reason to think about raising the rent. A dozen years after the vintage, it remains dark and rich in color, with a classic Cabernet-cassis aroma, and excellent balance on the palate, ripe and complex fruit and soft but still perceptible tannins. Excellent wine, still on the upward curve.

Jean-Martin Spielman 1990 Alsace Grand Cru Altenburg de Bergheim Selection de Grains Nobles Gewurztraminer. Pale gold in color, with fresh, subtle litchee and grapefruit aromas; rich and spicy flavors, perceptible sweetness held in balance with a firm acidic structure. Is it a dessert wine, or is it not? It's delicate, yet incredibly complex; inarguably sweet, but stops well short of the lush sweetness of a Sauternes or Beerenauslese. Define it as you wish, it certainly made a perfect ending to an exceptional meal.

Los Angeles, June 13, 1997

Second night in a row for wining and dining with online wine lovers. Tonight the venue moved to Los Angeles (Chaco, an excellent Japanese-California sushi spot in Beverly Hills), and the group represented CompuServe's Wine Forum: In addition to yours truly, our group included Jim Kronman, Jenise and Bob Stone, Bob Henry and Richard Morgan. As with last night in San Francisco, the company, the food and the wine were above reproach.

Here, with the standard caveat (unblind, social setting, consumed with food and thus less than scientifically analytical) are my notes on the 11 wines that we opened before, during and after dinner.

Gloria Ferrer 1989 Brut "Royal Cuvee" Carneros Methode Champenoise. Clear gold color, with a frothy mousse that drops back fast and falls almost still. Toasty aroma with odd funky notes. Tart, creamy and complex; a nice bubbly, a recent release apparently made in a "late disgorged" style.

William Hill 1987 Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. One of Bob Henry's contributions, the subject of much recent controversy and a lot of very bad tasting reports. This one's been kept under good conditions since release and isn't bad, though it seems a bit past peak: Dark garnet with an amber hue. Old-cab aromas, dark chocolate and bitter coffee; green and thin on the palate, but, well, "not awful."

Campirosa 1994 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Cerasuolo "Illuminati" Rose ($8.99). One of my contributions to the evening's deliberations, a very dry pink wine from an appellation better known for its modest spaghetti reds. It's a clear salmon color with a light strawberry scent and a dry, crisp and light flavor, a pleasant quaff reminiscent of Provence rose. (It went startlingly well with "California roll" sushi, gawd knows why.) Importer: Tocata Inc., Plainview, N.Y., a Eugenio Spinnozi Selection.

Stony Hill 1987 Napa Valley White Riesling. Jim K's offering, no surprise to anyone who's ever tweaked him about his love for older whites. This one's no codger, however, but still quite youthful in style: A clear pale gold, with muted scents of honey and a good mineral-petrol Riesling flavor, light-bodied, soft and pleasant.

Navarro Vineyards 1995 Anderson Valley Mendocino Pinot Gris. Very pale brass color; fresh melon scent. Tart and full, a burst of fruit flavor and slight residual sweetness held in balance with steely acidity. Excellent wine.

Navarro Vineyards 1995 California Gewurztraminer. Grapefruit and a whiff of almond, heady and complex. Soft, slightly sweet, structured with tart fresh-fruit acidity.

Semeli Nemea (Greece) 1993 Dry Red Wine ($9.99). Another of the wines I brought, this one at least marginally persuades some of the group that all Greek wine is not retsina, although this one falls a bit short in the context of some of the evening's more spectacular reds. Made in Nemea, one of Greece's better red-wine regions, from the Agiorgitiko grape, considered one of the country's nobler reds, it's a dark-ruby wine with spicy red fruit and a bit of a green, stemmy quality on the nose and palate. Juicy fruit flavor, soft and fresh, with sufficient acidity to hold it together. Importer: Tom Thymios Petrou/Importex, Anaheim, Calif.

Nicholas Rolin 1992 Willamette Valley Oregon Pinot Noir. Medium, slightly hazy ruby. Muted cherry aroma; soft on the first taste, tart in the finish, a "hole in the middle." Disappointing.

Siduri 1995 Rose Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. This top-rank California Pinot may be closing down just a bit in contrast with my last tasting in February, but it's still outstanding. Very dark ruby color, with black cherry aromas, a little closed, and full, in-your-face cherry fruit flavor, smoke and licorice.

Faiveley 1989 Chambertin Clos de Beze Grand Cru. Dark ruby shading to amber. Herbaceous, earthy leather aromas, with ripe red fruit showing through. Flavors consistent with the nose, adding a "sweet fruit" quality that seems to be a Faiveley trademark. Importer: Wine Is Fine Inc., Buena Park, Calif.

Rieussec 1978 Sauternes. Clear bright gold. Typically nutlike old-Sauternes aromas, hazelnuts and pecans, pleasant though verging on maderization. Rich and toothache sweet, caramel and butterscotch; rich and smooth, clean and tart acidity lending structure in a very long finish. Importer: Rene Mion Selection, Los Angeles.

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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