Tasting Notes

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July-August 1998

Notes are in chronological order, with the latest at the top.

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FLIGHTS AT THE RIO (August 30, 1998.). On our recent trip to Las Vegas, we stopped by the Wine Cellar at the Rio Hotel. It ain’t Napa Valley, but it’s sure a welcome respite from the rest of Las Vegas.

     It’s attractively furnished to resemble a real wine cellar, features a large collection of hard-to-find wines, both old and current (all at sky-high prices, of course). It even makes an effort at wine-education, with a tasting bar where you can order up flights. Best of all, as long as you’re down here, you’re insulated from the perpetual Las Vegas soundtrack of slot-machine noises. They don’t even have a Keno board!

     Phylis and I each tasted a flight and I guess this is as good a place as any to transcribe my notes.

     My flight was 1994 California Cabs — featuring 1994 Cakebread Reserve, 1994 BV Reserve and *1994 Silverado Reserve. The Cakebread had medium weight, a very muted nose, and clean, compressed chocolate-tinged flavors. Wasn’t very impressive.

     The BV was darker and deeper, with pickled American Oak flavors partially masking some nice black currant fruit. The finish was tannic, though not overbearingly so, and I would anticipate a positive development over the next 10 years. But. Eh.

     The Silverado Reserve was far and away my favorite, with a chocolate-herb-cherry nose and a nice, supple mouthfeel. I fault it only for its astringent, acidic finish, which may indicate over-acidification.

     One final thing I must note about the Rio Wine Cellar — the prices they were asking for "gift baskets" of wine. As I recall, they wanted something like $4000 for a basket containing one bottle each of ‘94 Bryant, Colgin and Grace Family! And I’ll bet some high roller eventually springs for it.

WHAT DOES CAB TASTE LIKE? (August 26, 1998) Wait. It’s not as easy as you think. I’m talking about mature stuff. And well-chosen.

     And well-stored. So often when you get together with friends to taste older California Cabernets, you have to wonder how well they’ve been treated over the years.

     Not tonight. All three Cabs came from our own, temperature-controlled stashes.

     They showed it. They all tasted really good.

     But here’s the weird part — or maybe not so weird. They also all tasted like...uh...mature Bordeaux.

     **1/2 HESS COLLECTION 1986 RESERVE. Here’s a Hess that’s actually ready. Sure, you taste the tannins if you search, but they’re pretty tame. This is a dark, thick, juicy wine with lots of cassis, olive and Bordeaux-style tabac. Chocolatey, slightly astringent finish. Very impressive. My favorite California wine of the evening.

    **SIMI 1985 RESERVE. Not quite as thick as the Hess, but maybe even sweeter. Similar flavor profile, though. You’d guess St. Estephe or St. Julien. Fully resolved and ready to rip. Runner-up.

     **SIMI 1986 RESERVE. Started out at cellar temp, so was tough to compare to the 1985. Quite similar as it warmed, though seemed a bit more tannic, less generous. Perhaps it could use a couple more years to scrape off the burrs. Perhaps more; 24 hours later, it was virtually unchanged.

     All three of these wines simply out-Bordeauxed a worthy contender from the real place:

    PICHON-BARON 1982. Nice wine. Outclassed. Showing a bit of oxidation...but more to the point, just didn’t have the flavor-intensity of the above. Faded as the evening wore on.

     But don’t accuse me of rigging the game for the home team. Because the winner was:

     **1/2 CLINET 1993. Oh do I wish I had bought some of this! It’s much the youngest-tasting, of course, and still has some toast and tannin to shed. But what a delicious, viscous, powerful, mocha-chocolata yaya! Maybe we Bordeaux-lovers should be looking again at the ‘93s? WINE OF THE EVENING.

**BERINGER 1990 PRIVATE RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON. (August 24, 1998)   Enjoyed a bottle of this over the weekend to accompany some penne pasta with andouille susage and red sauce. Still very dark ruby, but lightening at the edge. The once-formidable tannins have melted away and what’s left is thick, juicy and compellingly drinkable. The aromas and flavors are your classic California combination. Very ripe cassis and plum, with a hint of licorice. This wine was showing a lot of toast at release but the fruit has gobbled it up and you’re not even left with a burp. Yum.

WHO WON? (August 22, 1998). Ever tried keeping score by region in your tasting notes? Silly, but fun — and I find the outcome does influence one’s general buying attitude. The winners this week from my cellar were Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Carneros Chardonnay, with an honorable mention to Burgundy. Biggest loser was Napa Valley Cab, with a yawn allotted to German Riesling.

     *PATZ & HALL 1996 PINOT NOIR RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY. Riding a hot streak for RRV wines in my tasting notes. This medium-to-dark ruby wine isn’t what I’d call thick and rich, but after an hour in the glass it really surprised me. Ho-hum quaff turned into aha! A beacon of bright cherry fruit flashed out. Held up well through the rest of the evening. Flavors typical of the best stuff from this region. I wouldn’t take a chance and hold this wine for more than a year or two, but right now it’s a really pleasing glass of PN.

    *JEAN-LUC DUBOIS 1993 SAVIGNY-LES-BEAUNES CUVEE UNIQUE RESERVE. Surprised me. I opened a bottle of this in March and it was ready to rip. But that bottle had a wet cork. This one’s stopper was in beautiful shape and the wine was much sterner. Still very youthful looking, with some tannins to shed. No decanter on hand. Just had to swirl and enjoy what we got. A tease, since there’s plenty of fruit under the veil. I have only one more. Will wait a couple of years to open it.

     *SWANSON 1995 CARNEROS CHARDONNAY. I found some of this favorite at one of my favorite stores last week — and it still amazes why it doesn’t fly off the shelves. Bought a couple more and opened one last night. Beautiful as ever...same creme brulee bombshell. I suspect this will continue to age well over the next year or two.

     *ROMBAUER 1996 CARNEROS CHARDONNAY. New release just showed up on local shelves. Different style from the Swanson — more acidic, with fig flavors instead of custard. Crisp attack, good finish. Nice for a change and very food-friendly.

    WITTMAN 1995 WESTHOFENER STEINGRUBE WEISSER RIESLING SPATLESE. Turnabout. Phylis ("make mine Chard") and our guests liked this a lot. I wasn’t moved. Very thick and tasty, but scant evidence of the petrol aromas I like and it seemed a bit short.

     PER SEMPRE 1993 CABERNET SAUVIGNON. Disappointing evolution. A year or so ago, this wine seemed full of Cab fruit, though a little tight. Now the tannins seem lower, but so is everything else. In fact, there’s an unpleasant oaky flavor that seems to be overtaking the fruit. I have a couple more and some reserves. Let’s hope it’s just a phase.

     *MARIETTA 1992 CABERNET SAUVIGNON. Much better drinking right now than the Per Sempre, at less than half the price. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed by a Marietta wine. After two days, half-full in the fridge, it’s just as delicious.

5 BDX...BUY MORE? (August 16, 1998) After a long day of pruning, I was way too tired and sore to have a good time. But somehow I managed. Good company and ‘95 Bordeaux had something to do with it.

     Six of us gathered at Overtures to taste though a few of our favorite producers. We went away pleased — though I’m not sure what to do as a result of the tasting. Buy more or just be happy with what I’ve got?

     We opened the evening with a *LARMANDIER NV Champagne — a Grand Cru from Cramant. Very satisfying stuff in the creamy, toasty, Egly-Ourier mode. Wonder how it compares on price. Forgot to ask the guy who brought it.

     Then to a *1996 BANNISTER ALLEN VINEYARD CHARDONNAY. Unusually nervy for a Sonoma Chard, with a penetrating lemon-apricot bite, somewhat leesy middle and good finish.

     I regret I missed tasting the SCHWEIGER 1995 CHARDONNAY that also circled the table; the Reds were open, aromas calling, making a great argument for moving on.

     Took my first sip of ***1995 PICHON-LALANDE, let out a deep sigh, and scribbled down YES! Even though it hadn’t warmed yet to room temp, the violets were blossoming. It’s a bee-oo-tee-ful Pichon-Lalande, with the sweet cassis and cigarette flavors that make even lesser years heavenly. But this one has a super-thick texture that reminds me of the ‘82. Well, maybe it’s not quite the ultimate P-L, but I’d put it a notch ahead of the outstanding ‘89 and ‘94. As it developed, you could sense a lot of bone and muscle below the baby-fat. Great wine with a long life ahead and my (unsurprising) pick for WINE OF THE EVENING. Drink now for a decadent thrill or revisit in 2003.

     Worthy competition was offered by ***1996 COS D’ESTOURNEL. If you tasted the 1990 when young, this one’s going to be familiar. The first whiff makes you wonder if you wandered into Starbucks — huge roasted coffee bean aromas. But there’s also a lot of concentrated fruit waiting to greet your palate, as well as substantial, but balanced, tannins. Clearly this wine needs more time to integrate, but it’s going to be a big winner. I’d say don’t waste a great future wine by drinking now, but do sock it away for five years.

     So far we were tasting superlative, but typical examples of each producer. Then **1995 MONTROSE threw us a curve. The flavors are spot-on Montrose — blood, brass, cherries — but the texture is unexpectedly friendly. This is not the hard, stern hero that greeted us in 89 and 90. A kinder, gentler Montrose? Yes, but wait, here’s some tannin at the end too. And the wine wore well through the evening. It’s no lightweight. I heard it said during dinner that Montrose used abnormally high amounts of Merlot in the cepage. maybe that accounts for the difference. Predict an aging curve similar to the Pichon-Lalande.

     The cipher of the evening, to me, was the *+1995 Lynch-Bages. This is the only wine that was decanted prior to dinner. Perhaps it suffered as a result — one taster noticed that all the wines had noticeably toughened by the end of the evening, the result, I would guess, of the outer "cloak" of young fruit. In any case, this wine seemed to me noticeably dumber than the other three, although it had a lovely, rich texture and good finish. Yes, it was well-stuffed. Given the record of the producer, I’m tempted to think that we caught it at an odd moment. Certainly it was enjoyable.

     Dinner closed with *1988 Guiraud. Lovely wine, but a little weird — could it actually have less sugar and more botrytis than other ‘88s I’ve tasted? That’s how it seemed to me. Pungent tangerine flavors. Not a bad match to my mango sorbet.

     So yes, all they say is true, 1995 is a winner for Bordeaux. Big fruit, good balance and an excellent bet for cellaring.

     But what about the big question — buy more ‘95s or sit tight? And if "more," which?

     Still mulling.

*HESS COLLECTION 1994 CABERNET SAUVIGNON. (August 12, 1998) Tasted from barrel nearly three years ago, this wine seemed like a powerhouse. Best Hess I’d ever tasted. Well, guess what. It still is! The initial impression is heavily-oaked cassis, but that’s just a snapshot. With an hour of air, the oak falls way off and the Cab fruit comes to the fore. The usual Mt. Veeder tannins still hum in the background and will probably get louder in another couple of years. But right now, it’s a treat. Prediction? Drink now or after 2003.

A LA BELLE ETOILE. (August 8, 1998) Cicadas sang lazy, echoing scales. We sat out on Al’s deck, swirled the red stuff and I thought, life can be kind.

     Something about the evening made for good talking. Eight of us, and everyone seemed ready to relax, unwind and follow the ball of conversational yarn wherever it rolled.

      Is Ulysses really the best book of the century (or course!) and why? Is Shelby Foote an historian or a novelist? What is love? Yuck! Did Yeats really say that? (Yes he did.) Why do people like gamy flavors? Why do women love to talk about love? What does a cat think when you think it loves you? How did you avoid the draft? Why is that guy the way he is? Why is Clinton? Why did you vote for him — would you do it again? Would you sell your Colgin for $400 a bottle? Would you pay capital gains taxes on it? What goes on in the head of an 11-year-old boy?

     I broke the flow and insisted that we discuss the stuff we were drinking. It was, after all, our excuse for knowing each other. It was also really, really good, especially with the grilled duck. So discuss we did, for a bit, before the river of real talk rolled back over the technical chatter.

     I held back for a minute, figured out how I felt (about the wine, anyway) and scratched some words onto a couple of scraps of paper. It would have to do.

      It’s tough taking notes by starlight, but here’s what survived:


***PERNOT 1992 BIENVENUES BATARD-MONTRACHET. Honey-gold, hint of brimstone that dissipates quickly, penetrating pungeunt attack, holds back in the mid-palate, opens up broad on the finish. WHITE OF THE EVENING.

*DOMAINE DAUVISSAT 1990 CHABLIS LES PFEUSES (GRAND CRU). Tough for me to read tonight. Much lighter than the younger Batard. Lots of flavor, but missing the complexity I expected. Too young?

**COLIN-DELAGER 1992 CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET LES CHAUMEES. Also lighter colored than the Pernot. Dances well, skipping back and forth between creme brulee and walnuts. Lovely wine, robbed of center stage by the Pernot and the next:

***BOUZERAUT 1990 MEURSAULT-CHARMES. About the same golden color as the Pernot. Lacks the concentration but makes up for it in grace. What a bouquet! is that honeysuckle?


***GRANTET-PONSIOT 1991 CHARMES-CHAMBERTIN. (The first of a four-part vertical.) Al asked me to uncork this wine and make sure it was okay. I pulled the stopper, sniffed the neck, and wham! "Oh yeah, Al, it’s okay." Deep ruby, as were all the wines in this flight. Very intense red raspberry with plenty of Chambertin spice. Held all evening. Occasioned much discussion about the "forgotten" 91 vintage. Over dinner, it announced itself unmistakably (to me anyway) as WINE OF THE EVENING.

**GRANTET-PONSIOT 1993 CHARMES-CHAMBERTIN. Part of the fun of this vertical was how "transparent" the wine tasted. Each revealed a textbook picture of the vintage. Here you could taste a heavier (though not unbalanced) twinge of tannin, and a corresponding tealike flavor on the finish. Drinking well enough now, though. Seemed to me to lack some of the intensity of the ‘91, though one experienced taster felt it would prove the better wine in a few more years.

*GRANTET-PONSIOT 1994 CHARMES-CHAMBERTIN. This wine had been decanted prior to serving and at first I ascribed its lesser depth to that. As the evening progressed and the first two wines opened, I decided that, again, it was simply the year talking. With excellent color and outstanding flavor, this is nonetheless the lightest, most dilute wine of the vertical.

***GRANTET-PONSIOT 1995 CHARMES-CHAMBERTIN. Very fresh, spicy and lively! The oak has not quite knit completely with the fruit, but the baby-fat on this youngster is just delightful. I’m pretty sure the ‘91 will ultimately prove the better wine; however, the ‘95 is still so youthful, comparisons are tough.

*TRUCHOT-MARTIN 1985 CHARMES-CHAMBERTIN. Totally different experience. Lighter than the G-Ps, with a lot more game. This is a fully mature wine that probably needs drinking — it started to fade after about an hour in the glass. Al, who generally likes his wines older than I do, thought it was pretty much dead. Nah. Super stuff, starting on the downslope.

Finally, a *MYSTERY RED was thrust under our noses. Red. We all agreed it had to be Pinot Noir. Excellent Pinot Fruit, in fact, though a tad rustic. Fruit and oak fighting a little and probably always will. We agreed it was probably French. Maybe an ‘88, someone said. Nah, I said, too young for that. Early ‘90s. I was right on that, but just as wrong as everyone else about the locale. It was SANFORD 1993 BARREL SELECT PINOT NOIR. Well, I’ll be. Five-year-old Santa Ynez Pinot Noir — and not an herb in the glass!


*PRESIDENTIAL 1970 PORT. Medium ruby with amber rim. Soft and resolved. Mild and understated compared to the big names, but delightful on its own, smaller-scaled terms.

**CHATEAU DE FARGUES 1976. Gold going to amber. Very sweet and botrytis tinged.

*GUILLEMOT 1992 MACON-CLESSE-QUINTAINE SELECTION DE GRAINS CENDRES. Chardonnay-based dessert wine that met with general satisfaction. Not as sweet as the Sauternes, but offers a delicious collection poached-pear flavors. I like this a lot for a change of pace.

BETTER THAN BURG? (August 1, 1998) That’s the bait, isn’t it? Why we all keep trying West Coast Pinot Noir? I mean, Burgundy is so punishing, we figure that some other product must stand a good chance of being better in some way. If not better, period, maybe it will be better value. Or get to us in better condition. Or be "better for drinking tonight."

     Well. I don’t mean to start any fights or make any peremptory claims. But. If...

     If the three Pinot Noirs we consumed tonight had been from Burgundy, we all would have been thumping one another on the back for our flawless judgement. That’s all. Get the picture?

     Notes in a moment. But first, the whites.

     A stranger from Australia first. D’ARENBERG 1996 CHARDONNAY MCLAREN VALE "THE OLIVE GROVE." Not your typical Ozzie. Seems to be non-malolactic or maybe partial. Higher acidity than most, and with a noticeably more muted nose. Spicy oak, good viscosity. Lots of bite. Nice wine, but a little lacking in the flavor department for me.

     Next, an entry from the Central Coast of California, ***VILLA MT. EDEN 1996 SIGNATURE RESERVE. Made by Jed Steele, this is full-blown Chard following the Sbragia model (hope you don’t mind the comparison, Jed, but that’s high praise in my lexicon). Very intense tropical fruit, buttery as all get out, and finishes like an Arctic sunset. Yowsah! We took home the last quarter-bottle and it was undiminished two nights later.

     Finally, the fun of the evening, a *MYSTERY WHITE from Michel, who delights in pulling our chains. Seemed to me to be a Chardonnay, barrel-fermented with full malo. From the color and development, I guessed a ‘92 or ‘93 from Sonoma. We all agreed it was well balanced and well made. Off the bag came it turns out to be from OHIO! It’s 1993 MARKKO CHARDONNAY. Never had it before and may never have it again, but I’m here to tell you it was pretty darned good.

     Now to the serious stuff. The **CASE 1994 PINOT NOIR from Talbott was so pure, tight and focused, who’d a thunk this beautiful stuff came from Monterey? Maybe this is terrific Pinot-Noir-terroir and nobody knows yet? (Well...who’d guess that Ohio could make very good Chardonnay?) Anyhow, as the night progressed, I was increasingly impressed. This kid is structured for a run. Cherry flavors, with a little chocolate. Would have guessed it for a Williams-Selyem, Rochioli or Gary Farrell from the Russian River Valley. Close runner-up in my book for Red of the Evening.

     Next a wine I’m familiar with, **PONZI 1994 RESERVE PINOT NOIR. Another outstanding performance from this wine, which shows a softer, lusher character than its RRV cousins, with flavors more on the blackberry side of the spectrum. As the night wore on, it kept up with the others, which increased my respect for it. Yup, another beaut. I love the way it tastes now — and intend to drink mine up over the next two years.

     Finally, the winner by a slender margin, the DOMAINE DROUHIN OREGON 1993 LAURENE. Seemed to have the highest acidity of the three. Similar in flavor to the case — very correct and Burgundian — but deeper by a hair and even tighter than the Case. Probably needs another two years to show its best, but I’ll take what I tasted tonight, thanks. Boy, if Drouhin could make wines like this in Burgundy, wouldn’t folks exult!

WINE FACTORY OUTLET. (July 25, 1998) No, it’s a lie, but I got your attention, didn’t I? The outlet stores in Flemington, New Jersey have Riedel crystal, Leverpulls, Screwpulls, coasters, decanters, even ice buckets — but we made up for the lack of wine last night by bringing our own.

     Sixteen online friends actually managed to align our calendars and show up at Flemington many bottles? Was it 29 or 31?

     Anyhow, the food at Max’s Bistro was mighty fine. Loved my beef tournedos in portabello mushroom sauce. And, mirabile dictu, only one bottle was corked. Let’s see how many I managed to take notes on.


     Well, look at this. Not one bottle of Champagne! But a riot of other whites, most terrific. My favorites were:

**LOUIS LATOUR 1992 CORTON CHARLEMAGNE. Joel, Mark, Phylis and I sipped this on the porch of our B&B right before dinner. It’s a lot more open and fleshy than it was a couple of years ago. Very penetrating and long. A unique take on CC with its oak, but a delicious one.

***DR. F. WEINS-PRUM 1990 WEHLENER SONNENLUHR RIESLING AUSLESE. Too dry to be a dessert wine, but one walloping aperitif. Just attacks your tongue with pungent fruit and botrytis. Leaves you numb, in fact. You need a roll and glass of water before you can go onto anything else. And yes, Phylis did like this non-Chard a lot, as she did the...

***MONDAVI 1995 TO-KALON I-BLOCK FUME BLANC. Ultimate SB? Starts out with a strong spray of gooseberry and cat pee, then erupts into a riot of seductive aromas. Peach blossom. Honeysuckle. Figs. Controversial again. If you don’t like the raunchy side of SB as well as the mild-mannered version, this wine is just too complex for you. It’s not one or the other. It’s everything.

***GIRARDIN 1995 CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET "MORGEOT" VIELLE VIGNES. I heard some comments from the north side of the table that this wine was too disjointed and young. Disagree. Right now it tastes like a loud, fat, sassy, brassy California Chardonnay, flaunting it’s oak. I love it — and I like the bite of acid that reminds you it might be Burgundy.

**COMTE LAFON 1993 MEURSAULT "CLOS DE LA BARRE." Another one that’s tasting very young, showing it’s youthful fruit and oak right now — playing at just a shade less volume than the Girardin.

*MARTINELLI 1995 CHARLES RANCH CHARDONNAY. A fine Chard in fast company, has excellent fruit and, again, a good dollop of oak. Some called this wine "oaky," but if you want to play that game, you must also indict the Latour, Girardin and Lafon, yes? I liked it a lot.

**PAHLMEYER 1994 CHARDONNAY was also on the table and I managed to snatch a sip before it vanished. This wine went into a dumb stage about a year after release, but now it seems more open than ever, its lees-scented character coming through loud and clear.

*ROCHIOLI 1997 SAUVIGNON BLANC. If you want the well-behaved side of SB, this is your baby. Melon-flavored, smooth and creamy with a hint of honeysuckle and not a sign of the cat.

*CLOUDY BAY 1997 SAUVIGNON BLANC. Fun drinking this evil twin of the Rochioli alongside its bro. This is Sauvignon’s wild side. Grapefruit and gooseberry galore with a hint of kumquat.


*MYSTERY RED. Lots of fun with this one. Dark and pretty stiff. Muted, Cab-like nose. Tobacco, tar, kind of Bordelaise. Might turn into something very nice indeed. I’ll guess a backward Bordeaux or a Madiran. Nope! It’s SULLIVAN 1988 COEUR DE VIGNE. A very impressive California Cab from the most-despised vintage of the past decade. Thanks for bringing it, Joel.

*SEAVEY 1990 CABERNET SAUVIGNON. Dense and focused. Packed with black currants. Seems to have the focus but not quite the power of the one I tasted two weeks ago.

***ARAUJO 1991 EISELE VINEYARD CABERNET SAUVIGNON. This one was a pleasant surprise. More open and generous than the one I tasted last January -- when it was shut tight as a spiteful clam. Yawned ever wider throughout the evening. Not the sheer power statement of a couple of others noted below, but the chocolate-cherry flavors made me keep returning to it. Wins the first flight on my card.

*SILVER OAK NAPA 1987. Yowie! Oaky, okay? But a stunner in the style. Oak and fruit seamlessly married to produce something different and delicious.

SILVER OAK NAPA 1984. Similar but not as lively, oak now overcoming the fruit. But the best Silver Oak of all tonight wasn’t even Silver Oak. It was...

**PENFOLDS 1991 BIN 707 CABERNET SAUVIGNON. Beats Silver Oak at its own game. There’s no mistaking the American oak, but the fruit makes a powerful statement and oak is off in the background. maybe even closer to Monte Bello in its style.


***CHATEAU MONTROSE 1989. A power statement. Tannin, blood, meat, brass, tar and finally, loads of Cabernet fruit. A terrific Montrose. Tied for my second favorite of the flight.

**ABREU 1993. A chunky but ultimately well-balanced Cabernet with classic flavors that seemingly needs a few years to lose its rough edges. Seems to have been lost in the shuffle of big-name wines, but worth remembering. (I seem to recall that David Abreu is the vineyard manager for Araujo. Good fruit here.)

***PHELPS 1994 INSIGNIA. Another awesome showing for this gigantic, but oddly approachable California Cab. Right now the cassis and licorice flavors are dominant, but toward the end of the evening you can taste Asian spice and tobacco. A twenty-year wine.

***STAG’S LEAP 1991 CASK 23. Wonderfully complex wine. A multi-layered hot-fudge sundae. Supple and light on its feet, but doesn’t quit all night. Pick your style for wine of the evening. This is mine.

?**HARLAN 1991. This was marked down by several tasters for being monolithic. Let’s give it the benefit of the doubt -- I just can’t decipher it right now. It’s an immense wine that may turn into something wonderful. Or not. No hardship to drink it, but the reputation makes you expect even more. Will it or won’t it?

*VILLA MT. EDEN 1992 SIGNATURE RESERVE. Overlooked among the superstars and that’s too bad because this is one heckuva wine. Has a different flavor than the Napas -- a plummy, chocolatey quality that speaks of very ripe fruit. Reminds me a little of Justin Reserve cabs from Paso Robles, but this is Mendocino fruit. Along with their new 1995 Signature Reserve Chard, this confirms that Villa Mt. Eden is back with a vengeance.

***1990 MONDAVI RESERVE. I’ve made notes on this a couple of other times in the last two years, and this one was consistent. Classic, classic, classic, California Cab on the model of their archetypal 1987. Nothin’ flashy, nothin’ quirky, just a great example of what Napa Valley can do better than anyplace else.

     DESSERT: We finished up with a Beerenauslese that was very nice, but I couldn’t keep the bottle in front of me long enough to copy down the name. Ortega? Funny, it didn’t taste like taco shells.

STEAK & DOMINUS. (July 24, 1998) Simple fare last night. Green salad with grapes and Gorgonzola, French bread drizzled with Dei olive oil and pan-grilled filet mignons (tuna for Phylis), accompanied by...

     WEINGUT TONI JOST 1995 WALLUFER REISLING KABINETT . Phylis called this one "good" but didn’t flip over it. I thought it excellent for a hot night Very fruity, amply structured style, with no detectible diesel aromas but plenty of pineapple and lemon flavors.

     **1987 DOMINUS. Consistent with previous note, this wine has smoothed out remarkably. Still retains a healthy deep ruby color. A grain or too of grit remains, but for the most part it’s just rich, delcious Cabernet fruit, with the roasted-grain-mushroom-and-whatever Dominus signature. This wine has reached its prime drinking tableau and I look forward to opening more in the coming year.

OREGON PN VS PB. (July 22, 1998) Last night we tried both Oregon Pinot Noir and Oregon Pinot Blanc with sauteed salmon filets.

      The red was **Ponzi Reserve 1994 Pinot Noir— in beautiful shape, with lush, deep raspberry flavors pairing perfectly with the sweetness of the salmon. This is a gorgeous wine for drinking now.

     The white was Ken Wright 1996 Pinot Blanc. It showed sharp acidity, a tinge of the lime flavors I often find in Orgegon Chardonnays and a nice slippery mouthfeel. Seemed either a tad austere or a little tight (giving it the benefit of the doubt for being young).

     Winner by far: 94 Ponzi Reserve PN!

BURG FIGHT. (July 14, 1998) Born on the 14th of July, Michel knows Burgundy better than anyone else I taste with — knows it in the sense of buying shrewdly, knowing when to open them and nearly always bringing an eyeopener to dinner. We celebrated his birthday yesterday in appropriate style, at Sienna in Wilmington, with a table full of, well, what else.

     Loud arguments ensued. We agreed on practically nothing except that we were having a good time. Here are my notes. Let the arguments begin again.

     First let me mention that the **EGLY-OURIET 1989 MILLESIME was predictably superb, but it’s probably time to drink it up. The mature notes are exploding, but the finish is waning a bit.

     The dog of the evening was indisputably DUJAC 1989 MOREY ST. DENIS VIN GRIS DE PINOT NOIR, a textbook argument against aging rose wines. Not even diplomatic Al could think of anything nice to say about it.

     It’s tough picking a favorite among the whites, but I guess I’ll go with ***RAMONET 1992 CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET LES RUCHOTTES. Balanced right now between young fruit and mature nuttiness, creamy as all get out and lengthy as well. This is the moment I look for in whites.

    **VERGET 1996 PULIGNY-MONTRACHET SOUS LE PUITS is one of the best young Pulignys I’ve tasted — tight, lemony, very intense with a rich layer of lees, and a silky texture that just makes you want to purr. I’m looking for some starting now.

     And **COMTE LAFON 1990 MEURSAULT LES PERRIERES might be too young to show all the class its capable of . I didn’t follow it for very long — perhaps it might have won out by the end of the evening — but it seemed a touch more restrained than the others at the time I sampled it. Pick your style.

     Biggest disappointment for me among the whites was REMOISSENET 1992 CORTON-CHARLEMAGNE. Mute at first. I thought, well, give it time to open. Then it opened. Dilute and forgettable. What happened here?

     Best red was, of course, brought by Michel, the **CORTOCHOT 1988 MAZY-CHAMBERTIN. Absolutely kick-a** fruit, with barely a trace of the infamous 1988 tannins. Just pure, focused Pinot Noir fruit with perfect acidity, opened on just the right evening.

     First runner-up was *JOBLOT 1996 GIVRY CLOS DU CELLIER AUX MOINES, which probably won’t be as long-lived as the Cortochot, but is drinking beautifully now if you like ‘em young (and I do). Very intense and pure Burgundy. Worth looking for and I plan to.

     Close on its heels, *BOUCHARD 1990 LA ROMANEE, which started out tasting wonderful — just a beautiful shade of raspberry — but then seemed to fade at the moment I was hoping it would explode.

     LABET & DECHELLETTE 1990 CLOS DE VOUGEOT "CHATEAU DE LA TOUR" seemed a little dull as well. Is it just too soon to be opening these 1990s? It was getting rave reviews at the other end of the table, but I couldn’t taste what the fuss was about tonight.

     And, although others liked the LIVERA 1993 CHAPELLE-CHAMBERTIN "DOMAINE DES TILLEULS" a lot, I found it too woody and tight. Decanting helped a little. Maybe a few more years in the cellar is called for — or maybe there’s just too much oak.

     To atone for the Livera (which I brought), I opened a **BEAUX FRERES 1993 PINOT NOIR, which afforded far more satisfaction, and compared well to the better red Burgs. This may be the most "Burgundian" vintage of Beaux Freres to date. I doubt very much that it would have been spotted for an Oregon wine in a blind tasting.

     Star of the evening? I vote for ***1989 RAYMOND-LAFON. Cheating, I know, but this wine is amazing. Still very pale and doesn’t seem to have budged a millimeter since release. Does this wine need another decade until it starts showing a little age? Don’t care. It was open. I drank.

A RIESLING FOR MIKEY? (July 12, 1998) This is front page news. On a whim, opened a bottle of Koehler-Ruprecht 1995er Kallstadter Steinacker Kabinett.

     Poured a glass for mein Frau, who usually loathes Riesling.

     She not only drank it, but asked for more and even said "this is good."

     Have the stars shifted?

BIG CAL90 TASTING. (July 11, 1998) Don’t look for startling news here. Do look for lots of I-told-you-sos. Of the 15 different 1990 California Cabs I tasted last Saturday, only a couple made me — or the other tasters — sit back and go "huh?"

     The event was held at Jayco in Maryland. We tasted from INAO glasses, labels in view. rankings are strictly my own; we didn’t vote (but I didn’t sense a lot of disagreement). Every participant brought a bottle, so you can always question the storage if you happen to disagree with a tasting note here.


SMITHBRIDGE. A ringer from Pennsylvania. Garnet hued, aromas of greenery. Old tasting. Good azalea-food. #3 in flight.

HEITZ NAPA. Garnet at the rim, with aromas of pepper and cassis. Quite clean. No musty or sour-milk flavors. Moderate Cabernet fruit on the palate. Soft and ready. Drink up. Better than I expected! #2 in flight.

FISHER COACH INSIGNIA. Chocolatey, earthy aromas. Round and spicy on the palate. Nice wine! But more mature than expected. This bottle needs drinking. #1 in flight.


GROTH (REGULAR BOTTLING). Garnet at rim. Aromas of cedar, cassis, herbs. I find it pleasant but others complain of the herbs. Needs drinking. #2 in flight.

CINNABAR. Garnet at rim. Rubbery aroma. And some kind of strange spice — Cardamon? Peppery and unpleasantly tart on the palate. Yuck. The one clear dog of all the California wines. Was this wine over-acidified or just unripe to begin with? #3 of the flight. Don’t drink, don’t cellar. Get rid of it somehow.

ARROWOOD. Deep ruby with no garnet. Focused cassis aromas. Clean and correct on the palate. Good Cabernet but a little short. #1 of a weak flight. Drink or hold.


TREFETHEN LIBRARY SELECTION. Deep ruby to the rim. Looks pretty young. Nice cherry-cassis nose. Quite tasty with a decent finish. Very good wine and my #2 of the flight. I’m surprised it’s this food. Drink or hold.

STAGS LEAP NAPA. Color is a little closer to garnet than the Trefethen. Chocolate-cherry aromas. Smooth and velvety on the palate. Good finish. My #1 of the flight. Drink or hold.

CAYMUS NAPA. Garnet at the rim. Aromas of American oak still cover the fruit and it’s the same story when you sip it. There’s good fruit here, but it’s smothered by the oak. Some tasters like it fine, but it’s my #3 of the flight. Drink up.

FLIGHT D. (The heavenly flight.)

**DALLA VALLE ESTATE. Very dark ruby. (Now this is more like it!) Berry-bramble aromas. Delicious, thick fruit on the palate. #3 in the flight and the tasting. Enjoyable now but can be cellared for many more years.

***SEAVEY. Almost black. Deep cassis aromas. MONSTROUS concentration, but beautifully balanced. Blows away everything else with ease. Without question, the WINE OF THE TASTING.

**BERINGER RESERVE. Very dark ruby. Classic California Cabernet aromas. Beautiful cassis and plum on the palate. The fruit has seemingly soaked up the toasty flavors that characterized this wine at released. A large, youthful wine that can be drunk now or cellared for another 5-10 years. #2 in the flight and the tasting.

 FLIGHT E. (The tannic flight.)

MT. VEEDER. Deep ruby, lightning at the rim. Schizoid, sweet cassis and bellpepper aromas. Cedar joins in on the palate. Tannic finish. Should come around with a few more years, but I still mark it down for the green notes. #3 in the flight. Hold a few more years.

*HESS COLLECTION. Very deep ruby. Aromas of cassis and dust. Sweet, grapey fruit on the palate with a slightly gritty finish. Good stuff! least tannic of the flight and my #1. Drink or hold.

?LA JOTA HOWELL MOUNTAIN. Deep ruby. Unexpectedly drinkable, despite marked tannins. May be a little dumb right now. Tough to guess what to do with it, but I’d say cellar 5 more years. Seems to have the balance to emerge. My #2 of the flight.

OFF THE BEATEN PATH. (July 10, 1998) We gathered to greet a couple of out-of-town friends them at New Jersey's osh Laurel Creek Country Club, where even the pissoirs are gilded, and it looked to me like all 17 guests had a 24 karat evening.

The wine theme was "Off the Beaten Path" and wander we did. Discipline broke down early — I saw Howard and Mark comparing Bandols even before the Champagne was poured. Forgive me, therefore if I scramble some names or leave out a few worthy ones.


DIDIER DAGUENEAU 1992 POUILLY FUME "PUR SANG." I didn’t see the full label before I took my first sip. Grapefruit attack finishing with melon. Very tasty Sauvignon that makes me wonder why I don’t drink more of this varietal. On the other hand, when I was told the producer, I wondered why it wasn’t even better.


**MICHELOT-BUISSON 1985 MEURSAULT "LES NARVAUX". More like it. Still pretty stiff and might benefit from a year or two more in the cellar. Swirling and time reveal beautiful flavors of nuts, vanilla and minerals.

*CHEVALIER 1989 LADOIX "LES GRECHONS." One of Michel’s bottles, with a label so moldy I couldn’t extract much information from it. Regrettably too, I neglected to quiz Michel himself, who sat across from me. Nice juice, fully mature. Can anyone offer particulars?

***SINE QUA NON 1995 "THE BRIDE." I believe this is made from a blend of Chardonnay and Rousanne. Sounds weird, but it really works. Gives you the tangy bite of a great young white Burgundy with the slippery mouthfeel of a White Hermitage. Would be a fine choice for a blind tasting. From St. Luis Obispo.


*PRADEAUX 1990 BANDOL. We had two different bottles — the regular cuvee and the Vielles Vignes. Both excellent, very typical Bandols with plenty of pepper and roasted herb. The Argument of the Evening seemed to be whether the VV was worth the money. They tasted fairly similar to me, with the VV a shade more tannic and intense. Some claimed the difference broadened as the night wore on, but by then I was onto the others, including...

**DOMAINE L’AIGUELIERE 1993 COTE ROUSSE. Predictably polarized the guests. The smell of garrigue is often interpreted as brett, but I’m here to tell you it ain’t. There’s a big gulf between dog poop and Provencal herbs and this bottle is full of the latter. The depth of this wine is indisputable, and I also love the violet aromas that twist their way up through the rest of the potpourri.

*ROSTAING 1994 COTE ROTIE "COTE BLOND." What a delicious wine! So elegant and blackberry-scented, it reminds you of a fine Burgundy. This is my style of Cote Rotie. The polar opposite of a bacony, smokey OGIER opened alongside it.

*SILVER OAK 1991 NAPA. Despite the fact that one guy (the one who brought it) dissed this wine for being too oaky, I say there’s room in this world (and my cellar) for a wine that does the style to perfection. The 1991 Napa is one of this producer’s best efforts and it’s maturing well. Flavors fully integrated, and yes, there’s plenty of fruit in the bottle. It just tastes good. (Would be fun someday to do a blind tasting of Silver Oak and Penfolds 707 to see who gets the wooden crown.)

*DALLE VALLE 1992 CABERNET FRANC "CASA DALLA VALLE." I had never seen or tasted this bottling before. It’s kind of a baby Maya, still a little tannic, showing cedar, flowers and strawberry hints. Not surprisingly, it also reminds me some of the 1994 Viader.

***PRIORAT 1995 DOFI. Another controversial wine, most likely because it was so young. It’s 60% Garnacha, the remainder being Bordeaux varieties. Inky, deep, pretty tannic but ferociously intense. Is this what Grenache really wants to be? Dunno, but I’ll take it! Think of a young Le Pavillon and you’ll get an idea of the size and structure. In ten years this wine will be a barnburner. WINE OF THE EVENING.

**CLARENDON 1995 OLD VINE GRENACHE "BLEWITT SPRINGS." Same variety but, uh, a world apart. If the former was Night on Bald Mountain, this Australian Grenache is Ave Maria. Also highly extracted, but less tannic, with an amazing red raspberry flavor that has to be tasted to be believed. Pepper on the finish. Someone compared it to a Gros Freres Burgundy. Can’t argue with that.

***ARGIANO 1995 SOLENGO. Another great wine — but would you ever guess it was Sangiovese and Syrah? Tuscan, but it winds up tasting a lot like Bordeaux. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted this particular blend of grapes before, but in this case it really clicks. You get the finesse of Sangiovese on the attack and then the Syrah sneaks up and clobbers you.


***ZIND-HUMBRECHT 1993 GEWURZTRAMINER ST. URBAIN SGN. Very dark for a 1993. Not as sugary as I expected, but massive! Loads of botrytis on this baby and a very long finish. The blackstrap molasses of SGNs.

**1990 FILHOT CREME DE TETE. I was execting this to be a big comedown after the SGN, but not so. An unexpectedly great Sauternes from this producer. Is it the year, or should I be tasting more of their stuff?

DUCK FOR PINOT. (July 4, 1998) Why a duck? Because Phylis loves it — and because I love Pinot Noir. It was right tasty too, with a passel of All-American reds and whites, including:

     **BERINGER 1996 CHARDONNAY "SBRAGIA LIMITED RELEASE". How fitting for the fourth. Explodes with fruit and finishes with a long resounding boom. Will not disappoint those who loved the 94 and 95. Just as big and broad.

     *WILLIAMS SELYEM 1993 PINOT NOIR "OLIVET LANE". Has aged well. A core of focused cherry fruit bears up well to airing and keeps your interest. But it didn’t have near the power of...

     **TALLEY 1995 PINOT NOIR "RINCON VINEYARD." A rich, spicy Pinot with no herbs showing and plenty of raspberry fruit. More complex and more intense than the WS. I wonder if it will age as well, but there’s really no reason to wait on this one. If you got it, pull a cork!

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