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July-August 1999


HOW TO USE THESE NOTES: Many of my tasting notes take the style of mini-articles and discuss multiple wines. So, rather than bust them up, I've organized them in the order they were written, with the most recent at the top.

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BAROLO vs. CALIFORNIA CAB (August 27, 1999) Let me be blunt: Iím not crazy about Barolo. I donít care that itís "food-friendly" -- Iíd rather have flavor. Most days Iíd far rather have a good California Cab.

     But these are interesting times. Barolo is getting much better -- to my taste, anyway -- meaning that itís often fruitier, less tannic and better balanced overall. Plus, even mediocre California Cabs are getting overly expensive.

     So I canít say I was shocked when I lunched today with a fellow wine-wonk and we assessed the following wines:

**1994 Paolo Scavino Barolo "Bric de Fiasc." Classic nose of tar and roses. Very full and fruity on the palate, with a bit of tannin on the finish. Wonderfully satisfying and surprisingly approachable. If youíre tannin-averse, you may want to cellar this for another year or so. Otherwise, go for it. (NOTE: The 1995 is even better, but the price went up nearly 50%. Sigh.)

1995 Cornerstone Cabernet Sauvignon "Howell Mountain." Essentially the same price as the Barolo at around $40 a bottle. Nice cherry-vanilla flavors and well-balanced, but thereís no intensity here, and the finish is watery and short. Winemaker Greg Scotland has made some terrific stuff in the past -- I have fond memories of the 1993 Tay -- and Howell Mountain is home to some of Napa Valleyís better grapes. But today we could have done better with a $10.99 1997 Terra Rosa (made from Argentine grapes).

    Was I disappointed? Very. Surprised? Sadly no. This kind of price/value experience is getting distressingly common, and not just among California Cabs.

     Weirdly, the best buy of the day came from -- are you ready for this? -- Burgundy! I really liked:

*1996 Emmanuel Roget Bourgogne. Lively aromas of black tea and raspberries. Very full on the palate. Hint of leather on the aftertaste. So complex and complete, itís hard to believe this is generic Bourgogne. Iíd like to taste what this guy saw fit to classify! About $20.


ARE THE Ď88s READY? (August 8, 1999) I think so, but you may not. This year Iíve been tasting a fair share of 1988 Bordeaux and generally enjoying them a lot. Tonight we uncorked a couple more and they played sweet music to me, but others complained that the tannins were still in the forefront.

     The whites tonight were kind of disappointing. Best of the lot was...

*+1975 Pfarkirche Bernkasteler Graben Auslese. Not bad for an old guy! Plenty of diesel fumes on the nose, with moderate pineapple on the plate, joined by hint of parchment. Slippery texture adds to the pleasure. Iím not bowled over, but itís WHITE OF THE EVENING.

1988 Chave Hermitage (Blanc) makes a promising start, but then runs out of gas. Right out of the bottle, you taste apples and nuts -- and smile at the finish. You hope things will improve with air. Not to be. Acid pokes through, but no more fruit.

And 1996 Ramey Chardonnay has not improved since release. Back in January, this was tight, focused and impressive -- showing little oak and lots of apricot. Now the fruit seems to have thinned out and the oak is about all thatís left. Drink up.

     Happily, the reds gave us a lot more to cheer about:

*+1985 Certan de May is as good as itís going to get. Maybe it was better a year or two ago, but no complaints. First you get a big hit of Bordelaise tar and tobacco, then dollops of currant. Oxidized, ashy flavors emerge with airing, so I wouldnít hold this wine much longer, but right now itís giving a lot of pleasure.

I brought the **1988 Certan De May and once again Johnsonís Law operates. I prefer it to the 1985. Yes, it does need more swirling and airing, but the result rings my bell loud and clear. The flavors are similar, but thereís no oxidation -- and thereís simply more of everything. Others comment on tannin, but I canít say I sense much at all. This is there. Goes beautifully with my baby lamb.

Predictably bigger is the **1988 Leoville Las Cases. Unlike the 1988 Certan, this wine could use some more time in the cellar. Thereís a winge of tannin on the finish. Even tastes a little green back there. But frankly, I donít care, since there's so much else going on.

     Winding up the evening, we opened up:

*+1996 Wittman Alba Longa Westhofener Steingrube Beerenauslese. Nuts galore -- filbert, pistachio and marzipan flavors, plus lots of orange peel and pineapple. My one complaint would be that the acidity is a little too strong for the sugar-level. But letís not quibble. This is one delicious sweety, and a beautiful match to my chocolate-pistachio pyramid.

**1992 Muller Catoir Eselshaut Riesling. Softer, much sweeter and beautifully complex, this is more my style of dessert wine.


FORWARD AND BACKWARD. (August 10, 1999) Some wines seem always to be ready, willing and gushing with fruit -- while others never, ever surrender without a lot of persuasion. 

     Tonight we had both. The evening commenced with two very unreluctant whites:

*+1995 Francois Mikulski Meursault-Charmes is charming enough but atypical for this wine. The generous fruit flavors are covered by a curtain of tangy, honey-like notes. Botrytis -- or what? I like the result, but I must say I was expecting something a little different.

***1996 Peter Michael Belle Cote Chardonnay puts in its usual fireworks display, shooting out a shower of tropical fruit flavors, intermingled with lees and bread.

     Then we matched up:

*1983 Cantemerle. At first I wonder if this wine was past it. Lots of tar, smoke and spice, but little else. Ninety minutes later, however, the currant flavors come out -- and with them, some bacon-fat and a great deal of game. It doesnít get to the point of dog-poop, but I have to wonder whether some brettanomyces crept into this cuvťe.

Forgetting the barnyard nuances, however, this wine behaves a lot like the 1989 Cantemerle. It shows the same need for nursing and coaxing. I donít think Iíd age either wine hoping for that characteristic to change. Seems built into the style. But you sure canít say that about...

**+1990 Shafer Hillside Select. Just cozies up to you and licks your face like great big Labrador retriever. Lots of black cherry fruit and it wants to keep playing all night.


DEEP VELVET. (August 4, 1999) If you like your Pinot Noir dainty and polite -- some other time. Tonight we listened to Louis Jordan tunes, chomped some sensational eats and indulged in the sensual depths that the grape can provide when it's treated right.

First a flurry of warm-up whites:

*+ Jacques Selosse Blanc De Blanc Grand Cru (from magnum). Bubbling over with apples and pears. Crisp attack and a shower of Chardonnay notes. Great counterpoint for the smoked salmon. Luckily there was a lot of it.

*1993 Paul Pernot Puligny-Montrachet "Les Folatieres." Nothing at first. Knock, knock. Anyone home? Wait, here's some vanilla. Now figs, pears, hints of pineapple. Maybe there's more for the patient. Iíll never know. I'm too taken with...

**1992 Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet "Les Vergers." Starts out behind the Puligny. Stony, polite, sedate. 30 minutes later, it yawns open. Mineral springs flow. Broadens, even gets longer. Nutty flavors emerge. Fascinating! But white Burg canít compete tonight with...

***Zind-Humbrecht 1990 Gewurztraminer Hengst Vendange Tardive. This is at a stage in its life when the rose petal scents have dimmed. But the lychee, minerals and spice are so powerful -- well, you canít complain. Thick, sweet, long, yowie.

Then came the reds. They were served blind, but obviously all Pinot Noir:

Pinot #1. Very dark -- no help, because theyíre all very dark. Very spicy nose. Spicy cherries on the palate. A young, vibrant wine that needs a little coaxing to blossom. Yup, here it comes. BIG! Reminds me of a 1987 Calera when those wines were young. Iíll guess California and a great one. Yes, itís **+1995 Kistler Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast.

Pinot #2 is similar in character to #1, without the allspice. Deep, deep raspberry nose and a very velvety texture. This is the most fruit-driven wine of the evening. Doesnít quite have the complexity of Pinot #1 but it makes up for it in sheer concentration. Pure, sweet essence of raspberry Chambord. I guess California again and itís not a tough call. Turns out to be **1995 Flowers Pinot Noir Camp Meeting Ridge.

Pinot #3 is big too, but different. Pure cherries on the nose, a big dollop of mineral on the palate and some tannin on the finish. Love it! may not have quite the extraction of #1 and #2, but itís loaded all the same and has even more interest and finesse. Having contributed to the evening I know at least one of these guys is Burgundy and this has to be it. Yes, itís ***1993 Arlaud Clos St. Denis and gets my vote for wine of the evening.

We wound up with another mystery wine that surprised the socks off me...

Mystery Dessert Wine. Itís pretty dark! Lots of petrol aromas. Mouth-drenching flavors and sweet, but very well balanced. I guess it must be German Riesling -- probably a BA. But itís **1983 Joseph Phelps Johannesburg Riesling! 23% residual sugar and still kicking after all these years!


THE BIG, THE HUGE, AND THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMP. (July 30, 1999) "So," we asked ourselves...

     "...what to drink with South American barbecue?"

     Answer: what a great excuse to open some great big Zins!

     First, though, we uncorked a couple of well-matched whites:

**1993 Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris. Itís tough not to mumble clichťs here. So Iíll cave in. This sucker is unctuous. Thick, rich stuff that coats your palate in yummy fig and lychee flavors.

**1996 Didier Dagueneau Silex A Sauvignon Blanc that miraculously seems to please everyone at the table. Thereís a trace of oak on the nose, but mostly itís all about honeydew, cat pee and honeysuckle. Not too acidic for "make mine soft" Phylis, but racy enough to satisfy me.

By contrast, the *1995 Penfolds Yattarna doesnít hold up to my conch fritters as well, despite an acidic attack. Still, itís a very a good Chard. Oak is evident -- this is Penfolds! -- but itís custardy and not splintery.

     Then it was on to the large guys:

BIG. **+1996 Turley Zinfandel Vineyard 101 is about as sexy as Zin can get and still be legal. Has me mumbling unlikely descriptors like passion fruit, cherry kirsch, guava and toffee. But thereís stuff here too that I canít even name. Eeyow, this is good!

*1994 Martinelli Jackass Vineyard Zinfandel is BIG TOO, but one wine has to finish last in this lineup and here it is. Doesnít have the size of the next two -- nor the complexity of the 101 -- and it's the only Zin this evening that betrays a little heat.

HUGE is perhaps too slighting a term for ***1993 Martinelli Jackass Hill Zinfandel. It starts the evening practically dumb. But two hours into dinner it suddenly flexes its pecs and bursts to life. Ripe cherry and blackberry flavors overwhelm the alcohol. The wine has enormous grace as well, flashing unexpected flavors every sip.

BUT THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMP is still ***+1994 Turley Hayne Zinfandel. Some tannin protrudes early on, but soon this disappears under wave after wave of virtually every conceivable goodie you can squeeze from a red grape. Blackberry? Sure. Raspberry? You bet. Currants? Leather? Licorice? Them too. The 17.2% alcohol is a non-issue from first sip. Is it what I expect in a Zinfandel? Maybe not. But itís fabulous wine and, yes, a terrific match to my barbecued lamb!


NOT QUITE WHITE ZIN. (July 28, 1999) Maybe youíve been told that White Zin is the most uncool wine you possibly ask for. Fine. But think about this:

     When hot weather hits, true rosť wines can be incredibly refreshing. And, uh, cool.

     And Zinfandel, when you think about it, is ideally suited for rosť winemaking. When grown correctly, itís got lots of fruit -- and even when picked very ripe, it offers plenty of acidity. If they grew it in the South of France and made rosť from it, snobs would swoon for it.

     So how come we all dump on White Zin? Isnít it possible that, with a little tender loving care, someone could turn this ugly ducking into something attractive and elegant?

     Well, what do you know. Someone just did.

     I have to admit that I harbored great deal of skepticism when I uncorked my first 1998 Pedroncelli Sonoma County Zinfandel Rosť. But, as we sat out on the patio, we found ourselves saying, "Hey, this is pretty good!"

     As the name suggests, itís darker than your textbook White Zin. Sort of a deep, lurid pink. It offers up a lot of ripe cherry flavors, with enough acidity to balance the slight residual sugar. Bears up quite cheerfully to chilling too -- a necessity if youíre going to drink it outdoors on an 85 degree evening.

     Do yourself a favor. Pretend itís not Zin and give it a quaff this summer. At about $11, you wonít be risking much.


97 CHIANTI? GO FOR IT! (July 19, 1999) So far, I’ve been very impressed with the ‘97s from Tuscany and 1997 Terre di Corzano Chianti is no exception. It’s a purple shade of ruby and bulges with black cherry stuffing. My only criticism is the acid and tannin -- the fruit is so delicious now that it seems a shame to cellar it. Personally I would have preferred it a little softer.


MUMM’S THE WORD. (July 17, 1999) I’m often underwhelmed by their regular NV Champagne, but *+Mumm de Cramant Grand Cru Brut is a winner! The kiwi and melon scents really seduced me on this sultry evening. Adequate cut, light bubbles and a lot of substance on the palate. Finishes just a little bit shorter than I would have liked, but I’ll take it!


CHARDONNAY THAT’S JUST OKAY. (July 16, 1999) I sort of liked 1997 Domaine Saint Hilaire Chardonnay. It’s a straight-down-the-middle French Chard with not a lot of oak. Good, citrussy fruit with an odd squirt of lime on the finish. However, even at $12.49 I can’t persuade myself to buy more. Phylis hates it and it’s not better than the divine 1997 Valette Macon-Chaintres Jeunes Vignes. The latter still rules!


MERLOT ON THE EDGE. (July 10, 1999) Bergerac is the buzzword these days for politically correct Merlot. But tonight I tried one from beyond the fringe -- the Cotes de Bergerac.

     1997 Chateau Haut Bernasse is a rich, thick, dark concoction. Aromas of damp earth and cassis had me guessing whether I liked it or not, but eventually I found myself warming to the flavors. As the wine airs, you can taste some pepper, cocoa powder and...

     Well, here’s the rub. There’s no new oak. None I could taste. But is that good?

     Yes, I know, you shouldn’t overwhelm a modest wine with sawdust flavors. But this wine has real stuffing and could have handled a new barrel or two.

     And here’s another thing. You can taste old oak. And it’s not a great flavor.

     At $10.49, this is a good, plain, honest wine. But frankly, I would have enjoyed a little tarting up.


COOL QUAFFERS. (July 5, 1999) How’s your weather? Out here it’s 100 degrees and counting. Okay with you if we talk about hot-weather wines?

     Seems to me the ideal summer quaffer should be:

1. Fruity enough to survive chilling down to 45 degrees or lower...

2. Cheap enough so you don’t feel guilty about doing it...

3. Biting enough to tingle the palate at that temp...

4. And interesting. Compelling, even. I mean, otherwise, honestly, why not just have a beer?

     All this in mind, I tried out three this weekend. One flunked, one passed, and one’s a buy:

FLUNKED. Sorry, 1997 Domaine de la Mirande Cuvee du Vieux Moulin doesn’t beat Bud in this heat. This is a Rhone-style white blend from the South of France. Plenty of acid, and the price is right at $7.99 but there’s not enough fruit to withstand the chill.

PASSED. I liked the 1997 Domaine Bouvillon D’Orleans Vouvray "Vielles Vignes" just fine, though I might have hoped for a longer finish. It’s a very pleasant Vouvray for just $12.49, with spicy pear and citrus flavors, balanced by good acidity.

BUY IT! The *1998 Domaine de Fondreche Cotes du Ventoux is the best bargain rose I’ve tasted all year. Scented with peaches and strawberries, it never gets cloying and simply begs you to try another swallow. At $7.99, you can afford to! (And yes, I'm also listing it on the Better than Bargains page.)


THREE CHEERS FOR...BURGUNDY? (July 2, 1999) Pant, pant, pant. Drip, drip, drip. This weekend, the cradle of liberty has been cruelly hot. Thank heaven for air-conditioned restaurants.

     Tonight we dined a few blocks from Independence Hall -- at Philly’s excellent eatery Overtures, where they served me up a mouth-watering meal of crab cake and venison.

     Curiously, our wine theme was French, but we did enjoy one sensational entry from America. Here’s what I sipped in between long drinks of water:

     WHITES:

1997 Vavasar Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand). Fresh, fruity wine that’s very nice on a hot night. Unusual flavor profile. Grassy on the attack with a distinct flavor of cumquat on the tail.

**Egly-Ouriet NV Champagne (Degorgť Juillet 1997). A terrific performance for this over-achieving sparkler. It’s hit full maturity, with deep golden hue and some sherry-like notes joining the fruity and bready flavors.

**1989 Ferret Pouilly Fuissť. The label was so moldy that I couldn’t be sure of the cuveť, but I can tell you it’s a winner. Pure mineral flavors delight you at the outset and the wine just keeps unwinding all evening. Nectar of apples and stones. Excellent finish. Might have been white of the evening, but for...

**+1991 Neillon Chassagne-Montrachet Les Vergers. What wonders this producer performed in 1991. Honeydew, honeysuckle, flint and oak enough to make it awfully sexy. It’s not quite as concentrated as the amazing 1991 Neillon Batard, but WHITE OF THE EVENING tonight by general agreement.

     REDS:

1988 Olivier Leflaine Bonnes Mares. An elegant, very enjoyable wine that was simply outmuscled by the others. Light berry flavors of and some not-unpleasant sweaty notes. The good news is that the famous tannins of 1988 have fallen away. The fruit hasn’t yet, but I’d drink up within the year.

**+1991 Roumier Bonnes Mares. Darkest of the three red Burgundies we drank tonight. Starts out dense and kind of dusty. Then rapidly unfolds to become a glorious, raspberry-scented, classic Burg. Earthy notes just add to the fun. Yum.

*+1992 Roumier Bonnes Mares. Fun and less complicated. Gives you a clean blast of berries, but doesn’t have the gamey character or finish of the 1991. Don’t think it will be as long-lived.

*+1997 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir (New Zealand). Really too young to be opened in the context of these older guys, but I was impressed all the same. Lots of red fruit flavor with a hint of beet. Structured to age well for the next few years at least, and really could use a year or two in the cellar to pull together. But this is outstanding Pinot Noir that doesn’t have to apologize for its origin.

And the winner? A Mystery Red. Earthy notes that are joined by cinnamon and spice. Then there’s an outpouring of strawberry flavors. Something made me say at first "This is very intense for its age." It was just so complex and the flavors seemed mature...yet there was so much power here! Finally I decided it might be a Carneros Pinot Noir from the early ‘90s. Nope, too young and too far north! It’s ***1987 Au Bon Climat Benedict Vineyard, one of the best central coast Pinots I’ve ever tasted and a convincing argument that their wines can indeed age well.


OREGON DIDN'T EXACTLY SHINE in the 1996 vintage, but star producer Ken Wright seemingly did nothing wrong. (July 2, 1999) His *+1996 Ken Wright Canary Hill Pinot Noir is a tight, focused triumph for the vintage that actually seems to need another year or two of collaring. Cranberry and raspberry scents promise a classy, Burgundy-style performance when the wine hits full maturity. Right now, the acid and tannin levels make it taste a little restrained, but decanting and red meat fix that pretty well.


PRIDE'S GOT A RIGHT to be proud these days. (July 2, 1999) Seems like every time I taste a new release from this Napa Valley winery, it's another lip-smacker. And their **1997 Pride Merlot hits the bullseye again. It's deep dark, with a mocha-berry nose and lots of sweet fruit on the palate. Tannins show themselves but they aren't as intrusive as in previous years -- and I think it's because there's just so much stuffing, the structure simply sinks into the background. Tain't cheap at $28.99, but I'd consider buying a couple to drink over the next 5 years.


BLINDED ON THE RIGHT. (July 1, 1999) So you think you can taste the difference between White Corton and Monterey Chard? Or Pomerol and Sonoma reds? Or even Cab and Merlot?

     Sure, so do I. In fact, I know I can. The problem is proving it.

     Saturday night, we gathered for a blind tasting of White Burgundy and 1989-1990 Right Bank Bordeaux. And if you like to huff and puff about terroir and typicity -- well good for you, but you should have been there.

Here's what we tasted:

     APERITIF, served with pate de fois gras and cheese:

Served with label in plain sight, so we all guess this one right. Yup, it's Champagne.To be precise, it's *+1983 Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blanc Champagne. Very light in color and surprisingly fizzy for a Champagne with this many years on it. Biscuity flavors with a sherry-like tang on the finish.

     FLIGHT I (WHITES), served with smoked salmon and whole-grain bread:

BLIND #1. Nutty and fruity aromas. Lots of sweet fruit on the palate, with some toast and custard on the finish. Phylis says it's the best in the flight, which confirms several tasters in their opinion that this must be a ringer from California. WRONG! It turns out to be **1991 Chandon de Brialles Corton.

BLIND #2. Lots of minerals up front. Flint, stones. Then a heavenly aroma of peaches and lemons. Lots of acid bite. Someone remarks it's the most acidic wine in the flight. So it's got to be French, right? WRONG! It's **1993 Talbott Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay. (I brought it. I've had it twice before this month. I didn't nail it.)

BLIND #3. Oak, minerals and lots of creamy hazelnut aromas. Soft and accessible on the palate. Sexy, spicy oak on the finish. I'll guess Corton Charlemagne from a producer that likes to slather on the oak. Maybe Louis Latour. WRONG! It's **+1991 Chandon de Brialle Pernand Ile des Vergelesses. Shockingly good and even better than the Corton. Voted best in the flight!

BLIND #4.Served blind from decanter. Big backward wine. Undeveloped palate. All stones and finish. Long, long, finish. Very little oak evident. I say it's a young Corton Charlemagne and rate it the best in the flight, although I prefer #3 for drinking now. But it's not all that young. It's ***1988 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne. Still needs time!

     FLIGHT II (REDS), served with grilled tuna:

BLIND #5. Chocolate, sweat and roasted meat aromas. Little bit of bean on the palate. Long finish. Develops well in the glass. I won't hazard a guess except that it's French Merlot. Yes, it's **1989 La Dominique.

BLIND #6. Controversial wine. Some insist they smell eucalyptus! No, I say, it's not that. More like allspice. Some kind of Asian spice. That, and some red fruit flavors. I'm pretty sure it's a light-styled Pomerol, though I wouldn't swear to it. Turns out to be 1989 La Faurie Maison Neuve (Lalande de Pomerol).

BLIND #7. Ooh, this one smells great. Chocolate-strawberry sundae! Thick on the palate. "Heckuva Merlot," I say. Probably St. Emilion or Pomerol. But it's **1987 Matanzas Creek Merlot. I know someone who claims these wines fall apart in a couple of years. Well, he should have been here.

BLIND #8. Blockbuster. Big blast of mocha-fudge and lots of follow-through. Kind of like wine #7, but deeper and richer. Nip of tannin on the finish. Very long. Unanimously voted best in flight. I think we all assume it's Merlot, but it's **+1989 Roc de Cambes from the Cotes de Bourg. Second time I've tasted this wine blind and second time I've been fooled.

     FLIGHT II (REDS), served with beef kabobs:

BLIND #9. Perfumed, flowery nose. Strawberries and kirsch on the palate. Very elegant, delightful wine. But what? Bordeaux and I won't guess more. Good thing. It's **1989 Les Ormes Sorbet, a Medoc-designated wine.

BLIND #10. Even more exotic aromas. Like incense. Sandalwood? Full of cherries. Voluptuous body. I shrug. Won't even guess. It's **1990 Chateau Gazin from Pomerol.

BLIND #11. Really dark. Chocolate and cassis serenade your nose. Then cocoa-influenced flavors delight your palate. Dense and complex. A powerhouse. Long finish. Superb concentration! What ever this is, it's the WINE OF THE EVENING. Small wonder, it's ***1990 Troplong Mondot.

BLIND #12. Overripe, plummy aromas. Some greenery on the finish. The green notes grow. Very much like Cab Franc. Okay, it's Cab Franc! And I pull this one out., at least. It's 1990 Chateau de la Grille Chinon.

     DESSERT WINE, served with a Normandy apple tart:

BLIND #13. Deep gold, with a pungent aroma of botrytis. Lots of apricot flavor, great acid and excellent finish. Got to be Sauternes, right? Yes! It's **1990 Chateau d'Arches.

BLIND #14. Totally different character. Lime, grapefruit, pineapple, pecans. Fabulous concentration and finish, Pinot Gris. Alsace Pinot Gris. 1994 Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris! Bingo. Except for the year. It's ***1990 Zind-Humbrecht Clos Jebsahl Pinot Gris VT. Holding up beautifully, and a very pleasant balm for a bruised ego.


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