Tasting Notes


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July-September 2000

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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THE ABCS OF CALIFORNIA WINE. (September 23, 2000) This evening, "ABC" stood for Araujo, Bryant and Colgin, with a bottle each of Harlan and Screaming Eagle thrown in for good measure.

     Best of all, we weren't tasting them. We were drinking these sought-after goodies. Seven people, seven bottles. Over dinner.

     I had a great time, but I didn't come to any earth-shattering conclusions. Except to affirm that the wines are not wrongly praised -- and to wish that everyone who owns these wines would stop yammering about the auction prices, shut up, sit down and drink 'em. That way, there wouldn't be any auction prices and the world would have fewer sourpusses.

     To the notes:

***+1995 Araujo. Sexy kirsch aromas. Buckets of chocolate and cherry flavors. Absolutely drenches the palate, the finish doesn't quit and it keeps pumping all night long. Every time I taste this wine I like it even more. WINE OF THE EVENING.

**+1996 Araujo. When you swirl and sniff, it doesn't give much, but it delivers convincingly on the palate. The flavors are very similar to the '95 but not as integrated -- oak here, fruit there, and the tannins pop up more noticeably. Smooths out and opens a little more with airing, but not completely. Try again maybe in two years.

***1995 Bryant. Wow, what a nose! Both the Bryant and the two Colgins feature really exotic floral aromas. This one is laden with violet and spice. Lots of blackcurrant fruit when you drink it, with again, an exotic tang. Someone said he tasted rhubarb. I disagree. Maybe sweet, smooth strawberry-rhubarb pie à la mode, which I happen to love.

***+1995 Colgin. Violets and roses when you lift it to your nose. Call it rose-petal potpourri. And oh! It goes down so sweetly. Big thick, rich wine that somehow dances gracefully on the palate. Tough call between this and the '95 Araujo.

**+1996 Colgin. Similar flavors to the '95, but it's at a stage like the '96 Araujo. Little more disjointed, Little looser on the palate. After about 3 hours it opens wider and starts to kick, but still doesn't quite arrive at where the '95 started out.

***1996 Harlan. From first pour, manifestly a big bruiser of a wine. Maybe the biggest wine on the table. Very intense flavors of currant and licorice, with substantial tannins. At first I like it the least of anything we're drinking -- just seems like a black, brooding monster. But eventually it gets a lot friendlier. Impressive development. This wine should age beautifully. Reminds me a lot of a young Château Montelena tonight.

***1996 Screaming Eagle. Very distinctive wine. At first it seems almost like first growth (or super-second) Bordeaux, showing lots of black currants. Then it develops a sweetly ferocious intensity that you just don't get from Bordeaux -- with some really exotic fruity aromas. Watermelon? Yeah, watermelon. Most exotic wine poured tonight. I like it a lot.

     Ah, this was a nice, nice evening. Shame on anyone who's reselling these wines. You're darned lucky to have them.

GEWURZ 'TIL IT HURTS. (September 10, 2000) Tonight we tasted some 20 worthy Gewurzes from the last 24 years.

     Before we started, I was convinced that Zind-Humbrecht makes the world's greatest. Who truly rules? Answer in a moment. First the notes:

**1976 Schlumberger Cuvée Christine. Medium gold, with aromas of cream and roasted nuts. Take a sip and you're biting into marmalade on buttered toast. It's not what I'm expecting, but deelish on its own terms.

1983 Preiss-Zinamer Reserve Cuvée Personelle. Sweet and kind of hollow. Not much on the finish. Blah.

*+1988 Trimbach Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre. Elegant attack. Expands to reveal lots of different flavors. Finishes well. Thinly styled, but seductive. Some rank it higher than I do.

*+1988 Zind-Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl. Compared to the later vintages tasted tonight, this ZH is dry and understated. You might even say austere. Flavors are straight-down-the-middle Gewurz. Some lychee. Some rose petal. Sharp acidity on the attack, with a decent finish.

***+Muller-Catoir Haardter Bürgarten Auslese. Sour milk aromas may put you off, but drink it and the fruit comes on strong. Dense and complex, with apricot notes. Served alongside the drier, more polite '88s, this wine jumps out and demands notice. Some complain that the sugar is getting the glory, but no, I don't think so. It's simply great wine.

*1998 Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains (California). It smells like apple pie with a hint of sour dream. Tastes like apple pie à la mode. Nice wine, but if I tasted it blind, I'd never guess Gewurz.

***1993 Albert Mann Steingrubler. Exotic aromas of spice and flowers -- not just roses, but a complex arrangement. Lots of fruit on the palate, with a long finish. Concentrated stuff in a flamboyant style. Consistently stunning since it was first released some five years ago.

*+1994 Albert Mann Steingrubler. Same general profile as the '93, but thinner all the way through.

**1998 Albert Mann Steingrubler. This one seems more sugary. The young fruit is showing very well, with a nice, thick texture. There's so much lychee, you might think you were tasting a Grand Cru Pinot Gris.

***1989 Weinbach Cuvée Laurence. Sour milk, coffee grounds and lychee on the nose. The flavors include a distinct note of mocha. Seems drier than the Manns or the Zind-Humbrechts. Lots of power here, but it's trumped by the next two...

***+1994 Zind-Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl. Ooh. Ah. Hmm. The trouble is, what can I say that ain't a cliché? Amazing length. Tremendous breadth. Penetrating rose petal and lychee. Pure Gewurz heaven. Almost wine of the evening, but a just whisker short of...

***+1994 Zind-Humbrecht Hengst Vendange Tardive. Having used up so many superlatives on the Windsbuhl, let me just say that this one is at least as enjoyable and maybe even more complex. Throw in some apricot scents and a botrytis tang that makes me think of great Sauternes. My pick for WINE OF THE EVENING.

***1990 Zind-Humbrecht Hengst Vendange Tardive. Seems like we've caught this one at its peak of maturity. Tastes drier than the 1994, without the apricots. But a very complete wine, dense as all get-out and loaded with classic Gewurz flavors.

1983 Zind-Humbrecht Hengst Vendange Tardive. Very little fruit left. Just about dead. Something bad must have happened to this bottle. We opened one several weeks ago that was kicking up a storm.

**1989 Zind-Humbrecht Turckheim Vendange Tardive. Medium sweet, with grapefruit flavors dominating the more expected ones. Darned good wine, but overwhelmed by the '94 and '90 Hengst VTs.

*+1994 Leon Beyer SGN. Lightest of the super-sweeties, this wine may have shown better if tasted earlier in the evening. Elegant stuff that comes across as relatively dry.

**Muller-Catoir Haardter Herrenletten Eiswein. Deep gold, with crisp acidity and plenty of peach and botrytis. Seems a little dilute for an Eiswein, but I like it.

***+1985 Navarro Late Harvest Cluster Select (Anderson Valley, California). Deep gold color. I can't help falling in love with this wine as soon as I sniff the apricots -- and a great big wallop of tangy botrytis. Thick, sweet, honeyed stuff with enough acid to keep it from cloying. I'm amazed to find it controversial. Are people tasting the wine or looking at the label?

     So who rules? Zind-Humbrecht, of course. Load up on those '98s!

STELLAR STUFF UNDER STARS. (August 27, 2000) Great 1990 Bordeaux was the featured act for our outdoor dinner tonight, but some younger stuff from elsewhere very nearly stole the show.

     We start the evening with a rip-snorting ***1998 Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris. Overflowing with fig and lychee flavors, laced with lively but not-overdone acidity. Lingers on the palate and blows away its white competitors -- a moderate 1998 Cuilleron Condrieu and a more substantial **1995 Peter Michael Cuveé Indigène. In fact, the ZH is sooo good that I may be underestimating the Peter Michael.

     Then come the reds, in three flights:

     FLIGHT 1 (1993 BURGUNDY). In these two bottles the controversial vintage in showing very well indeed:

**+1993 Esmonin Gevry-Chambertin Clos St. Jacques is easy to like from the moment it's poured. Medium Ruby with aromas of minerals and raspberry, plus an animal tang that adds to its appeal. Expands pleasingly throughout the evening. Outdoor meals aren't the most flattering settings for Burgundy, because subtle aromas can get lost in the air currents -- but this wine has no apologies to make. Yum.

**+1993 Rouget Echezeaux is darker and much sterner tonight. Initially mute, the wine needs 90 minutes to creak open -- then erupts with mineral, earth, cherry, cinnamon and flavors. Teasingly, just as this Burgundy really starts to kick tail, it's time to move on to...

     FLIGHT 2 (1990 BORDEAUX):

***1990 Lynch Bages is the flashiest Bordeaux served tonight, seducing you with aromas of roasted coffee bean and blueberry pie. On the palate, it's initially tight, but opens to reveal bags of fresh fruit, shaded by appropriate amounts of toast and jam. I've never tasted 1990 Lynch Bages when it wasn't generous and rewarding -- a model of the supple new style in Bordeaux.

**+1990 Lagrange initially hits you with leather and tobacco aromas. Then the blackcurrant flavors come out and eventually dominate the wine. This wine seemed further along than the Lynch Bages, though not yet mature -- and tastes more of classic Bordeaux.

*+1990 Haut Marbuzet is the most puzzling of the Bordeaux quartet. There's some kerosene on the nose and the wine, although very good, seems comparatively dumb. Let's hope it shows better in a few more years.

The star of the flight is unquestionably ***+1990 Angelus. With your first sip, you're struck by the power and majesty of this wine. In its first 60 minutes, it doesn't delight you like the Lynch Bages, but there's no denying its presence and lengthy finish. As the evening wears one, violet aromas pull you back into the glass and then the full chorus of Bordeaux flavors starts humming. Fabulous wine that still needs more time. Tied for WINE OF THE EVENING.


WINE #1 seems very young indeed. There's a boatload of chocolately blackcurrant fruit, but some splintery notes tell me the wine is still settling down. Big, ripe wine that lingers long on the finish. I guess a young, great Napa Cab. Turns out to be another stunning showing for ***1996 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red Wine.

WINE #2 is intensely grapey, but relatively speaking it has to be the most mature wine in the flight. The blackcurrant flavors have soaked up any trace of oak. It's still too young for the peacock's tail to have fanned out fully, but the power is undeniable. This one's easy to guess, since I brought it. **1990 Newton Cabernet Sauvignon.

WINE #3 is an absolute standout. It's got to be at least as young as #1, for the same reasons, but the fruit in this glass is even more amazing. It's a fountain of blackberry, cassis, with a little licorice on the finish. You can't help wanting more and more. Too bad it's practically non-existent! A rare, rare bottle of ***+1997 Joseph Phelps Ranca Dorada Vineyard "Premier Napa Valley" (15 cases made). Tied for WINE OF THE EVENING.

HOG WILD FOR MARCASSIN. (August 26, 2000) Long have I longed to taste the first wines from Marcassin Vineyard. Tonight, generous friends made it possible. Was I expecting the earth to move? You bet. Was I disappointed? Only when the last drops were gone!

Notes in a moment -- but first let me sketch out some background for the benefit of readers who are not yet hopeless wine geeks. Marcassin Vineyard is a new, from-the-ground-up, do-everything-right planting by Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer on California's Sonoma Coast. They have planted both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and I have heard much buzz from insiders that the wines would be start-of-the-art.

Both Chard and Pinot appeared on our table tonight:

***+1996 Marcassin Vineyard Chardonnay. Medium-gold, with intense mineral and pear aromas. Thickly textured and very intense on the palate. Ultra-long finish. All this is expected, but here's a surprise -- there's no perceptible oak. There is no way you're going to mistake this wine for Helen Turley's Chardonnay's from other vineyards, which all show oak when they're young. Yet I'm told that the barrel treatment for this wine isn't any different from Marcassin Gauer Ranch Upper Barn. Which can mean only one thing -- this awesome youngster is so incredibly powerful that it has already shrugged off the oak. Fantastic as this wine tasted tonight, I must believe it needs another five to ten years to unfold and show its full potential.

***+1996 Marcassin Vineyard Pinot Noir. Dark, dark ruby-purple. Already showing very complex aromas of red cherry, black cherry, raspberry and spice. Flavors feature all the above, plus pomegranate, pear and other stuff. Dense, concentrated stuff with a finish that rolls on like a drum solo. But don't get me wrong -- this isn't a one-note "fruit bomb." It's already showing a lot of finesse. As far as my memory serves, it's the most impressive Sonoma Coast Pinot I've tasted. probably needs another 10 to 15 years to show its full potential.

JONES JOINS THE CULTS. (August 26, 2000) With a tiny production, vines tended by David Abreu and wine made by Heidi Barrett, ***1996 Jones Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon has "cult wine" written all over it. By the way -- it happens to taste terrific too.

     Tasted tonight alongside two amazing new releases from Marcassin Vineyard (reviewed above), the Jones Cab wasn't embarrassed a bit. It's deep black, with delicious aromas of black cherry and kirsch. Lots of supple tannin, but it glides across your palate as gracefully as you please. Thick, velvety, full on the finish, all you could want in a Cab. Reminds me a little of Montelena, yet broader and more approachable.

GREAT CAB FROM TWO COUNTRIES. (August 9, 2000) Blind tasting is a great way to keep yourself humble -- even when you guess mostly right, you can learn a lot. Tonight we pitted a pair of blind-bagged Bordeaux-style wines against one another. They're both great, and one's even affordable in recent vintages.

BLIND CAB #1. Deep garnet and going clear at the rim. Seductive Bordelaise aromas of cedar, tobacco and black currants. On the palate you get all the above plus some chocolate fudge. Long finish. Big wine. I guess that it's a Paulliac and the color says 1970s to me. Turns out to be ***1982 Haut-Marbuzet . So I'm slightly off on the year and commune -- but more to the point, I'm so smitten with this wine that I wonder if I should try to nab some of the 1996.

BLIND CAB #2. Black in the glass with a dark shade of purple at the rim. Poured from decanter, this wine has a fantastic nose of violets, chocolate, black cherry and forest floor. Supple tannins still show when you drink it, but there's way too much fruit for me to mind even a bit. Like Ol' Man River, the finish just keeps rolling along. One taster guesses a young California Cab -- perhaps a 1994 Howell Mountain. Another suggests Bordeaux from the '90s. It's ***+1992 Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon. One of my favorite years of a much-beloved Cab that, alas for me, has become a Cult. If you bought this at release, congratulations -- and if you open a bottle this year, do decant.

ITALY THEN AND NOW. (July 29, 2000) I'm all for the supple, smooth, new-style Italian reds. You can drink them young with pleasure and I'm betting they'll age very well.

     But tonight we tasted evidence that the rougher-edged wines can deliver too...if you're willing to give them ten or more years in the cellar. We compared:

ITALY THEN. **+1986 Mastroianni Brunello di Montalcino Riserva must have been pretty tough when young, but tonight it's brimming with gorgeous chocolate-cherry flavors. The attack is very smooth and its generous on the mid-palate. The only fault you might notice is some gritty cocoa powder on the finish -- a result, no doubt of the brutal oak-aging regimen for Brunello Riservas.

ITALY NOW. ***1995 Montevetrano. With fantastic black cherry aromas, this inky-black wine is already very complex when you sip it. Flavors of cherry, walnut and pecan mingle nicely, and there's an earthy edge to the finish. Still very young, the wine reminds me a lot of the better 1995 Bordeaux. You can enjoy it now, but in five to ten more years, the oak should be better integrated.

THREE DECADES OF OZ. (July 27, 2000) Seems I can't walk into a wine store these days without seeing another few Australian wines I've never even heard of before. Lots of these new-wave Ozzies are pricey, but some are getting rave reviews.

      Are they really any better than the stuff we used to scarf up for ten bucks a bottle? Tonight we made a halting attempt to make sense of it all. I can't say we fully succeeded, but I did tend to like the younger stuff even better than the old:

First up is Mystery Wine #1. Medium ruby, with raspberry jello aromas and similar, simple flavors. Not awfully impressive. I search around in my memory banks and guess it may be a washed-out Sangiovese. Nope, it's 1996 White Heron "Chantepierre" from Washington State -- a washed-out Loire-style red, made with 60% Cab Franc. Priced at around $10, it's not dear, but life is too short. Spend a few bucks more, get a real Saumur-Champigny and you'll be glad you did.

Then Mystery Wine #2. Deep ruby with intense, young, grapey aromas, plus a hint of violet. Bacon hints come out wit a little airing, followed by blueberries and herb. One taster guesses it's a Southern Rhône while another says New World Merlot. Can't explain the second guess, but the first is close to the mark. It's **1992 Peyre Rose "Clos Syrah Leone" from the Cites de Languedoc. Very serious Syrah that needs yet another 5 years to strut its stuff.

Now we're spared further embarrassment and allowed to look at labels. With due respect for age, I try very hard to like 1977 Château Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon, but alas, it's just too musty. I'm pretty sure it's not the dreaded TCA, but neither is it pleasant. With a half hour in the glass, the moldy aromas tend to dissipate, only to be replaced by oxidized notes. Maybe it's a bad bottle, maybe a bad wine.

Things look up for Oz with the *+1985 Seppelt Cabernet Shiraz. The aromas of currant and butterscotch recall 1985 Silver Oak Alexander. So do the dill flavors. With some airing, the fruit increases, and the American oak flavors recede to the point where it's maybe more like 1985 BV Reserve. I like this wine, but it's certainly defined by its American Oak aging, like many an old-style Oz red.

With the pouring of **1996 Mt. Langhi Shiraz "Ghiran", we're into Australia's new wave -- and I like the difference. No thick coat of oak. Just a lot of fruit, nicely balanced with hints of pepper and bacon. It's the only wine tonight that bears a resemblance to the Northern Rhône. If you like Syrah, you'll like this wine.

Then enters the enormous ***Soderstrom Viking Grand Shiraz from Australia's Barossa Valley. Aptly named, this is verily a Wagnerian Shiraz on the grand scale of Penfolds Grange or Clarendon Astralis. Turley Zinfandel comes to mind too. It's deep, dark black, with aromas of plum, allspice and anise, concealing a vast vat of raspberry. Major tannins, but with airing, you can taste blueberries. Try this one again in 2010 and have a blast -- or pop one now to go with an equally heroic steak.

Finally, we visit the other extreme with the well-mannered *+RBJ "Theologicum". With good palate presence, and flavors of meat, blood and grenadine, this wine goes down easily and some rave about it. Personally, I find it moderate, gracious and well-fruited, but not overwhelming.

'98 MAY NOT BE GREAT (July 19, 2000) for Napa Valley wines, but neither is it a washout with top producers I've tasted so far. Today I tried the *++1998 Pride Merlot from Spring Mountain and savored every last drop in my glass.

     This new release is a very dark ruby with the same chocolate and currant aromas that made their 1997 Merlot so irresistible. Lets you down a bit when you drink it -- because it's not nearly as thick and concentrated as the previous vintage. But overall, a delicious wine that tastes to me like it should age pretty well over the next 5-7 years.

    The one piece of truly sad news is the price -- at $39.99, it's more expensive than it's better-stuffed predecessor. I hope that other Napa Valley producers don't follow suit.

SANGIOVESE BLENDS. (July 16, 2000) Some purists cock a snoot at the so-called Super Tuscans, because they blend Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes.

     To which I reply, "And your point is...?"

     Seems to me that Sangiovese is often much better when blended. What's more, if you're careful, you can still find pretty good values in this arena.

     Tonight we opened a tasty trio that proved it:

**1994 Shafer "Firebreak." This Tuscan pretender from Napa Valley is wonderfully supple and fruity, with the red cherry flavors of Sangiovese nicely shaded by leathery, olive-tinged notes. Seems to have the most Cab character of the three -- but curiously, it's 87% Sangiovese and just 13% Cab. Develops very well. A nice change from Cab, without being too far afield.

**+1995 Ciacci Piccolomini "Ateo." I've talked up this wine before and tonight it didn't disappoint. It's got a distinctive Italian accent -- cherries and minerals, with an acidic bite. Most structured of the trio and happily, as the night progresses, it shows the most development. I give it a slight edge over the Shafer. It's not quite as generous tonight, but possibly more ageworthy. Interesting that with 75% Sangiovese, 15% Cab and 10% Merlot, it also shows the most Sangiovese character of the three. (Note: the currently available vintage is reportedly even better and still sells for a remarkably reasonable $24.)

*+1997 Ferarri-Carrano "Siena." Softest, lightest and simplest of the group, this wine nonetheless has a good finish and didn't fade much during the evening. Black cherry fruit is the main flavor here. Again, an excellent wine.

MISSING THE MINES. (July 16, 2000) Just about anytime you open a passel of Pinot Noirs, you're treading the proverbial minefield, unless you choose your producers and vintages carefully.

     Last night we blind-tasted a bunch without mishap -- and it turned out there was good reason. It's tough to go wrong with any of these worthy winemakers:

PINOT NOIR #1. Deep ruby, but clear at the edge. Elegant bouquet of raspberries and strawberries. Bracing acidity adds nerve without making things too shrill. Good finish. This wine is just about mature and in beautiful shape. One taster is torn between California and Burgundy. Another guesses the Northwest coast with 1992 vintage. Dead on. It's **+1992 Domaine Drouhin Oregon "Laurene." Very classy showing from this perennially lovely wine.

PINOT NOIR #2. Deep, dark ruby with big, bold aromas of raspberry and grenadine. Palate-staining flavors with a long finish. Tastes very distinctive and I throw caution to the winds, guessing it's a terrific producer from California's Sonoma Coast, 1995 vintage. Luck favors the brave. It's ***1996 Kistler Sonoma Coast.

PINOT NOIR #3. Earthier aromas than #1or #2. Eventually, the funk blows off, however, revealing plenty of strawberry aromas with a slight vegetal hint. The latter throws me. I have to believe it's California's Central Coast -- and guess late eighties because of the mature nose. Wrong twice! It's **-1996 Rochioli Estate from Sonoma's Russian River Valley. Further along the aging curve than I would have guessed.

PINOT NOIR #4. This one is dark, but showing great clarity. Most complex aromas of the bunch. Raspberries, minerals and some animal sweat. Seems the most acidic of the group, and shows a little tannin on the finish. After about 30 minutes, however, the tannins recede and delightful fruit plays on the palate. Guessing goes back and forth between Burgundy and California. It's **1993 Delarche Pernand Vergelesse 1er Cru "Ile des Vergelesse."

A HIT & A MISS. (July 13, 2000) Go north of California and you can find some very neat Cab and Pinot Noir. The not-so-great news is that Northwest U.S. is much more vintage dependent:

THE MISS. Oregon suffered a generally wimpy vintage in 1996. The *-1996 Panther Creek Pinot Noir "Bednarik Vineyard" is a worthy effort, but needs drinking. It's light ruby, with mild aromas of cherry and autumn leaves. Take a sip and you'll taste a touch of oxidation. On the plus side, it's made with an elegant touch. Enjoyable, but drink up while the fruit still lingers.

THE HIT. Drink this wine blind and you might think you've got a glass of Cos D'Estournel. Inky black, with aromas of coffee bean and cassis. Tannins prevent full exploration, but they're friendly. You ask for another glass. As time passes, the wine slowly creaks open, revealing wondrous depths of fruit. Very long finish. This is ***1995 Quilceda Creek -- tasting even better than release! Hold five more years.

A NAPA LEGEND CONTINUES (July 9, 2000) Last night we tasted a happy new chapter in one of Napa Valley's most haunting sagas. Following is a reader's digest version of the story to date...

     Once upon a time there was a great Napa Valley wine called Inglenook. In its glory days, the estate was owned by a man named John Daniel, who predates Robert Mondavi as one of the pioneers of premium California fine.

     Then, in 1964, Daniel sold Inglenook to United Vintners, who flipped it to a huge outfit called  Hublein. The latter outfit proceeded to exploit the name, degrade the wine, and Daniel died a heartbroken man.

     But the story was far from over. Some vineyard land still remained in the Daniel family -- including the legendary Napanook vineyard, which had once supplied grapes for the great old Inglenook wines. Daniel's two daughters entered a joint venture with Christian Mouiex of Petrus, and proceeded to create a new wine from this vineyard. They named it Dominus, and in time it, too, became one of Napa Valley's greatest wines.

     The sisters sold out their interest to Mouiex in the mid 1990s. A while back, I heard that John Daniel's daughter, Robin Lail, had launched a new wine venture of her own, involving grapes from another two-acre plot near Napanook. Now I've finally tasted the result:

     ***1997 Lail Vineyards "J. Daniel Cuvée" is produced by John Daniel's daughter, Robin Lail. If my memory serves, it's about 36% Merlot, the rest being Cabernet Sauvignon. At about $80 a bottle, it ain't cheap, but it sure does deliver the goods. Practically black in the glass, the wine gives off tempting aromas of chocolate, currants, black walnuts, pipe tobacco and other goodies. It's got excellent concentration, rich texture and a heckuva finish. The oak is beautifully handled, and the fruit sings out loud and clear.

     This is, in short, a wine in the same league with Dominus. Congratulations again to Robin Lail. It's a super way to honor her father.

BORDEAUX FOR THE HECK OF IT (July 9, 2000) The summers out here aren't really Bordeaux weather -- so tonight we stayed indoors, thanked heaven for air-conditioning and brought out a few bottles anyway:

*+1993 Le Tertre Rôteboeuf (St. Emilion). The vintage here isn't a great one, so I wondered if this St. Emilion might need drinking. It doesn't -- in fact, it could use another few years to round off the corners. The wine has aromas of fudge and cassis and offers good fruit on the palate, but it's noticeably more tannic and acidic than tonight's other wines. In 2003, it may merit a higher score.

**+1985 Lynch-Bages (Paulliac) is a joy just to whiff and makes for addictive sipping. First you smell coffee beans, then a burst of blackberries. Big and full. A terrific Lynch-Bages and a great time to drink it.

**1986 Cantenac Brown (Margaux). Complex aromas of leather, forest floor and young fruit. On the palate you get a rich layer of currants, topped with chocolate. Soft and seemingly playing at its peak.

BARBECUE WINES. (July 2, 2000) Two words. California Zinfandel. It's got the fruit to match the meat and the pizzazz to power past the sauce.

     If you're eating outdoors, go for something cheap and cheerful, since aromas tend to get lost in the wind. But tonight we were inside a tony South American establishment, so we opened...


1976 Mt. Eden Late Harvest Zinfandel. This wine is still a dark ruby color and seemingly has plenty of stuffing still. Others at the table love it a lot. I'm stopped by moldy, musty flavor. Either this wine is corked or I just don't get it.

**1998 Turley Old Vines Zinfandel. Critics are calling the '98 vintage California's worst since 1989. Happily this wine seems not to have heard. At this stage, I think it's better than most '97 Zins I've tried from other wineries. Raspberry and bramble flavors against a grapey young background. Thick texture. Comes up somewhat shorter than the '97 OV, but otherwise it's pretty darned close.

***1995 Turley Aida Zinfandel. This marvelous Zin was all about raw power when it was released – an Aida that wanted to be a Hayne. Tonight it has throttled back a notch and I think it's all to the good. Absolutely paints your palate with plum flavors, verging on prune without quite going too far. Doesn't show a trace of its 16%+ alcohol. (Don't bring your glass too close to the grill!)

***+1996 Turley Aida Zinfandel. If the 1994 Aida was a shade too lean and the '95 was too ripe, this one's the Goldilocks Aida. Everything just right. Fruit is complex and pure -- cherry and berries with no plums or prunes. Last year this wine was too young and tannic. Now that problem's gone and it's singing hallelujah!

     WHITES (yes, whites work with barbecue too, if you must):

***1994 Kistler Durrell Chardonnay. This is terrific wine but not a great match to spicy food. Oh, it's got the power, but the best parts get lost after a mouthful of salsa. Many fine mineral and mango flavors with tangy acidity too. Comes on strong with airing. Prime time.

**1997 Neyers Chardonnay El Novillero. Intense pear flavors, followed up by a lingering lees-laden finish. Still youthful and tight, but laden with promise. Wait a year or two.

**+1994 Zind Humbrecht Riesling Clos St. Urbain Rangen de Than. Huge bouquet of mineral and treefruit. Nice viscosity, well matched to the food. Fairly long finish. Comes on like gangbusters at first – but you know what? While the Kistler grows, this one falls back a bit with airing.

**+1989er Weingut Ch. W. Bernhard Sheurebe Auslese Hackenheimer Kirchberg. I keep complaining that these German things require more time to write down the name than to taste the wine. Having said that, I can't think of any other complaints. Nose of apricot, kiwi and kerosene. Syrupy but crisp on the palate, if that makes sense. Probably the best of the whites to go with what we're eating tonight.

DEER WINES. (July 2, 2000) I used to think they were cute, but Bambi and his brethren have been grazing our garden down to the ground. So dining on wild venison gives me special satisfaction these days – and last weekend it provided a nice chance to check on the health of some favorite Rhônes...


**+Tarlant Cuvée Louis. One of my favorite unsung Champagnes, this stuff is creamy, toasty, full and about half the price of Dom Perignon. A splurge but not a wallet-purge.

***1985 Chave Hermitage (Blanc). Aromas of lemon and toasted almond. Pleasingly slippery when you sip it, and offers a mouthful of mineral and marzipan. Broadens with air. Entering its prime, it would seem. WINE OF THE EVENING.

*+1997 Dr. Burklin-Wolf Forster Reisling Kabinett. Tempts the nose with generous pineapple and diesel aromas. On the palate, it's dominated by fruit and falls a little short. But matches well to challenging food -- asparagus dressed with mustard vinaigrette.


**1983 Brunel Les Cailloux Châteauneuf du Pape. Aromas of strawberry, grenadine and some noticeable oxidation. Someone even says they can smell marijauna smoke -- does that make it Châteauneuf du Pot? But after a half hour it pulls up its socks and starts strutting. Oxidation is covered with sweet, juicy fruit. Impressive comeback!

**+1985 Vieux Telegraphe Châteauneuf du Pape . No traces of oxidation and the flavors trend more to pure strawberry. Seems to have a little more depth than the Brunel. But it's a close race.

**+1994 Ponzi Reserve Pinot Noir. Rumors that this wine may have peaked are grossly exaggerated. There's no more babyfat, but the muscle below is showing now -- and it hasn't even hit full maturity. If you've got 'em, lay off for another year. Regret this is one of my last. There hasn't been a better Ponzi Reserve since this terrific vintage.


It's often said that Banyuls is the perfect wine to serve with chocolate and I can't argue with **M. Chapoutier 1990. Doesn't have the sweetness of Port, but contributes a dusty note that really matches well with our dessert.

THE KITCHEN SINK. (July 1, 2000) Burgs? Rhônes? Bordeaux? Cabs? We looked at the menu and couldn't make up our minds. So many good eats in store for us. So many good wine ideas. So little discipline in our hearts. So naturally, we wound up opening...

     WHITES: (With Appetizers)

***1990 Egly-Ouriet Millesime. The greatest champagne that Wine Spectator never writes about. Last year it was mighty tight. Now it's unwinding. Lots of texture, with bodacious bread and apple flavors.

**1996 Chandon de Briaille Corton (Blanc). Biting acidity, tinge of mocha, lemon, a little apricot and stones. Coiled spring? Or just lean? Didn't taste long enough to decide. Elegant stuff. Befriended our appetizers, but blown away by...

Mystery White #1. Light gold. Aromas of lemon, lees and mango. Lots of creme brulee on the palate, but no splintery oak. The acidity makes one guy guess Burgundy. Nope, I say, it's really good American Chard. Correction, great American Chard. What the heck, make that Sonoma Chard. Oh, really? Yes, really. And what do you know? The wine gods smile on me tonight. It's ***+1994 Kistler Cuvée Cathleen.

     RED BURGUNDY: (With Diver Scallops, Truffles wrapped in Puff Pastry and Langostine in Champagne Sauce)

**1996 Bertagna Vougeot "Les Cras." Nice counterpoint between this wine and the next. Here's a juicy, approachable, loveable Burg. Bright cherry and raspberry flavors. Thins out a little on the mid-palate but finishes well.

***1993 Geantet-Pansiot Gevrey-Chambertin "Les Poissenot." Whomp! What a dark, intense treat. This is the bright side of the 1993 vintage. Piercing flavors of raspberry, earth and leafy compost. Some tannin and acid showing, but it's well-balanced to the power of the fruit.

     SAUTERNE: (With Hot Fois Gras)

Mystery White #2. Deep gold. Sip, what have we here? Lots of apricot flavors. Loads of tangy botrytis. Lots of sugar too. You don't need a bloodhound's nose to figure out this is great Sauterne. Hits you in the face. Okay, says the guy who brought it, what year? From the 1980s, I guess. It's so sweet, and the parchment flavors of older Sauterne haven't overtaken it. Wrong! It's ***1970 Château Suduiraut -- perfection with the fois gras.

     CHÂTEAUNEUF DU PAPE: (With Woodcock in Blueberry Sauce over Risotto with Exotic Mushrooms)

***+1990 Brunel Les Cailloux "Cuvee Centennaire." Huge bouquet of cassis, kirsch and unidentified wild things. Immense palate presence. Long finish. Once again, this vintage of Centennaire proves to be among the greatest CnDPs I've ever enjoyed, period. Lots of fun comparing it to the next...

**1989 Brunel Les Cailloux "Cuvee Centennaire." More open and seems less alcoholic. Super wine on a smaller scale than the mighty '90. But really, a better match to the woodcock.

     BORDEAUX AND CALIFORNIA CAB: (With the Ostrich main course, the Cheese Course and Chocolate Soufflé)

***+1989 Château Pichon-Baron. A favorite of mine, showing well tonight. Lead pencil, cassis, chocolate -- this one has it all. Complexity, class, fruit and power. I wonder if this wine will ever close. 1989 may be the greatest PB I've ever tasted...but then I've never tasted 1990 and 1989 side by side.

**1989 Calon Segur. Tighter, leaner, more herbal than the PB, but on its own a very fine Bordeaux. I'm kind of surprised by how approachable it is tonight. Maybe it's the effect of tasting those mammoth CnDPs first.

***1991 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon. Ric Forman's Cabs are almost always delicious, but the 1991 may be the best I've tasted to date. Thick, rich ocean of sweet cassis and blackberry. Makes me want to try the recently-released 1997 Forman soon.

Mystery Red. Deep ruby, but shows some lightening at the rim. Mature flavors show, but there's also plenty of stuffing in reserve. Some rough tannins still, although there's plenty of smooth stuff too. Others guess Bordeaux from the '80s. I'm not so sure. Something about the flavors make me guess California Cab. I'll say Mondavi Reserve from the 1970s. Not far off! It's **+1978 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill.

See more tasting notes (April-June 2000)

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