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March-April 2002

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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CHERRY, CHERRY PIE. (April 28, 2002) Watch out, Russian River Valley. Just a couple months ago I was seduced by a new Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and now here comes another that may be even better. **+2000 Siduri Pinot Noir Anderson Valley "Cerise Vineyard" lives up to the sexy moniker and then some. It's such a young babe, but I couldn't resist pulling a cork and, gulp, I'm glad I did.

     This wine is just brimming with ripe red cherry and piecrust flavors, with more than a hint of blueberry on the finish. The oak is already soaked up, but enough vanilla lingers to provide a scoop of ice cream for your cherry pie. Will it age well? Search me, but for now, wow-wow-wow. Way to go, Adam and Dianna Lee!

BORDEAUX RINGERS (April 28, 2002) Terroir enthusiasts, welcome to hell. Not only are competing regions producing equally fine Cabs and Merlots, in some cases even you guys can't taste the difference. Old-guard grumps call this a crime against wine. Me, I just drink and take notes. Following are a few of my favorite ringers from recent tastings:

In a flight of Californians, you'd find it pretty easy to identify ***--1991 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley "Insignia." It's got the spice, the fruit and the power that have driven prices of recent Insignia vintages north of $100. But as it ages, Insignia also takes on saddle leather and subtle herbal overtones that trick your brain into thinking "Bordeaux." Maybe you could train yourself to nail it in blind tastings, but it's developing just as you'd want your better 1990 Bordeaux to mature.

***-1997 and ***1998 Ornellaia should be required drinking for those who scoff at Super Tuscans. Drink either one blind and you know you're on the Right Bank, except you're not. Both have the lead pencil, black fruit and fascination of your favorite St. Emilions and I predict both are going to age just as well. Right now, the 1998 is cuddly and cute as a kitten. You can drink it right now or wait another 5 years. The adolescent '97 emerges after some coaxing, but I'd advise giving it a few more years in the cellar.

I was personally stumped a couple of weeks ago when trying to identify ***1987 Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley "3 Palms Vineyard." My notes say "sweet cassis, anisette, expands with air and Bordeaux flavors take over. Structure, balance for more age. 1985 Left Bank." You'll note I not only blew the region, but couldn't even nail the main grape. (Fair enough. I've done the same to others with other Duckhorns.) 

**-1998 Viader Napa Valley will fool no one at this point, as it's all about succulent California fruit and sweet new oak. But the sterner sister from ***-1995 has a much more pronounced French accent. Talks tough at first, but she cozies up an hour or so into the evening, revealing the strawberry, cherry and herbal notes of Bordelaise Cabernet Franc. We compared these side by side and several tasters were intrigued by how the highly hyped 1998 faded as the 1995 came on strong. You may as well drink the 1998 now, but don't rush the '95. Even greater days may lie ahead.

Next, if you really want to outfox the Bordeaux hounds at your next blind tasting, stick ***1994 Angelus into a flight with some California ringers. They'll snuffle the minerals and graphite, lap up the cassis-laden fruit, smack their lips, savor the lengthy finish and think "Bordeaux." But they may then second-guess themselves, because it's so ripe and chocolatey. Call it Bordeaux with a California accent, but don't deny it's delicious.

PINOT PICKS (April 13, 2002) If you like discovering cool new boutique wines, 2000 West Coast Pinot Noir could be your proverbial pasture of plenty. I've only tasted a handful so far, but quality seems to be steady or slightly up across the board. Here are my picks from the spring portfolio at Michael Skurnik Wines:

Sean Capiaux's wines are devilishly hard to find, but whenever I do, I'm impressed with his flair for finesse. **-2000 Capiaux Pinot Noir "California" blends fruit from various vineyards in Sonoma County and the Santa Lucia Highlands -- with 47% coming from Demostene Vineyard ( a source of fruit for some legendary Kalin DD Pinot Noirs). I guess that must be where it gets its meaty character. Berries come into play too, but the effect is intriguingly un-Californian. I'd love to have a bottle of this to stick in a blind tasting.

Equally exotic is **-2000 Capiaux Pinot Noir Russian River Valley "Widdoes Vineyard." This one has a gamy tang too, but red cherry flavors win the day. I like the hint of cranberry on the finish.

And **2000 Capiaux Pinot Noir "Gary's Vineyard" veers off in yet another direction. Richest of the three, it's all about sweet young fruit at this stage. My notes say I tasted blueberry pie. Wish I had a sip right now to confirm it.

Ever since Diane and Adam Lee sprung for their own winemaking facility, quality at Siduri has been on the rise (it was already very good). Their 2000s are still fearfully young, but I'll creep out on the limb a little and call this their strongest overall vintage yet. *++2000 Siduri Pinot Noir "Santa Lucia Highlands" may be the easiest to like in the lineup. It's got these wonderful rose aromas (how? why?), followed by red cherry flavors and a darned nice finish. Three-quarters of the fruit comes from Gary's Vineyard, with the remainder from Pisoni.

By contrast, the **2000 Siduri Pinot Noir "Gary's Vineyard" is a darker, tighter, deeper wine. A tang of pomegranate mingles with red raspberry at the core. Really needs a year or two, unless you're prepared to decant and be patient. Less than half the fruit they harvested from Gary's went into this cuve, with the remainder going to the SLH bottling.

As in past vintages, **++2000 Siduri Pinot Noir "Pisoni Vineyard" may be my favorite of their current releases. The silky texture and black cherry flavors make it sexy as all get-out, and the lingering finish seals the deal. Not too tannic, not too fleshy, just right.

A couple of tasters I spoke with today preferred **+2000 Siduri Pinot Noir "Muirfield Vineyard." They could be right -- it's more structured and although it's not showing quite as much fruit upfront, it's even longer than the Pisoni. If it follows a "normal" development curve, this could mean it beats the Pisoni in a couple of years. But I'm not sure what's normal for Pinot, and past Siduri Pisonis have all developed well. I wouldn't bet against them.

Meantime, you can enjoy the regional Oregon bottling, *++2000 Siduri Pinot Noir "Willamette Valley," just about any time you choose in the next few years. This one's already oozing blackberry jam and reminds me a bit of the still-alive-and-kicking 1993 Fiddlehead Willamette.

Another Willamette Valley fruit bomb is **-2000 J. K. Carriere Pinot Noir, the first wine I've ever tasted from this producer. Full of ripe, generous blueberry flavors, the wine shows little oak influence even at this stage. Wouldn't hold it long but it's mighty fine drinking today.

Finally, Paul Hobbs wins big yet again this spring with his ***-1999 Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir "Augustina." Okay, it's not a 2000, but I have to give it mention. The spicy nose and big, full cinnamon-raspberry flavors remind me of some of the great Calera Pinot Noirs.

ZANY FOR ZIN (April 6, 2002) California's 2000 Zinfandel vintage may have been more challenging than 1999, but the top producers have fielded a bunch of outstanding wines. In a couple of cases I actually prefer the 2000 efforts. Here's what I tasted recently from the Michael Skurnik spring portfolio:

According to Robert Biale and his partner Dave Pramuk, the big challenge in 2000 was that "the sugar levels in the grapes were racing ahead of the flavors." This is a classic problem in dry years and can result in an overly alcoholic wine -- but Biale's 2000 Zins are models of balance and finesse. My favorite today is the **2000 Robert Biale Zinfandel "Old Crane Ranch." The fruit's grown across the street from Hayne Vineyard, but this is a very different kind of Zin, with pure red cherry fruit, silky texture and an elegant finish.

**-2000 Robert Biale Zinfandel "Black Chicken Vineyard" is grown on the plot out behind the Biale family home in Napa. It's a thicker, richer wine, with flavors that veer toward briar and blackberry. Broadens out well on the palate, finishing without a squawk.

Biale and Pramuk also gave me a sip of their new **2000 Robert Biale Petite Sirah "Thomann Station," grown from 10-year-old vines across the street from Crane. Love blueberries? This is your baby -- big stuff that's drinking well now. Tough to resist even if you're not a PS person.

**-2000 Downing Family Zinfandel "Oakville" opens with a blast of raspberry, trailing cherry and a hint of cranberry relish. The vines come from a plot just a bit South of Oakville Grocery. Another beaut from this Napa newcomer. (Don't miss their Cab!)

*++2000 Dashe Cellars Zinfandel "Dry Creek" is stuffed with briary fruit and doesn't mind a bit if you call it brawny. Brash, friendly and easy to like, it impressed me just a little more than the tighter, more tannic *1999 bottling, also tasted today.

With heady black cherry aromas, **-2000 Dashe Cellars Zinfandel "Todd Brothers Vineyard" is a classier wine than the Dry Creek cuve -- bigger and more focused all at once. Here again, I slightly prefer the 2000 to the *++1999.

Finally, Larry Turley gave me a taste of the treats in store for people lucky enough to cadge a bottle or three of his wines. *++2000 Turley Zinfandel "Juvenile" brings together grapes from younger plantings in the Hayne, Duarte and Earthquake vineyards. I hope winemaker Ehren Jordan won't be miffed if I call it this babe very pretty. Lots of forward cherry fruit and a long finish make it a swell date with pizza or pasta. (Had the **-1999 Juvenile last night with a South Philly hoagie and ooh, what a feast.)

Turley "Old Vines" Zins are special favorites of mine, going great lots of different foods and priced pretty reasonably too. The broad, lush **2000 Turley Zinfandel "Old Vines" gets it right on the money once again. A barge-load of jammy raspberries float across your palate and meander downstream to a leisurely finish. Climb aboard and prepare for smiles all the way.

*2000 Turley Zinfandel "Pesenti" is made from Paso Robles fruit and it's plummy character reminds me of other wines from the area. Frankly, I'm not as thrilled with this wine as the other Turleys today, but it's still good juice that won't disappoint Turleyites.

**+2000 Turley Zinfandel "Duarte" is big stuff (like you were expecting a shrinking violet?) and very complex -- dates, figs and other unexpected fruits join the dance. Pushes ripeness as far as it can and gets away with it, finishing full and long.

And a star is born with ***2000 Turley Zinfandel "Mead Ranch." Located over on Atlas Peak, this vineyard is new to the Turley roster, and I must say its my favorite since Aida left the tribe. No matter what kind of Zinfandel flavors you like, you'll find them in this wine. Briar, berry, cherry -- the full Zin symphony. Catch it if you can!

CAL CAB CRAZY (March 30, 2002) In spring a man's fancy turns to...well, several things we won't talk about here, but sexy California Cabs and Merlots are allowable, yes?

     Sigh, shrug, I can't help it. After all the crazy price increases, I may not be able to buy it, but I still love the stuff.

     Following is the first in a series of tasting reports from the spring portfolio of Michael Skurnik Wines. They distribute some of California's hottest bottlings to New York's top restaurants, so I'm always eager to slurp what's being poured. Today I tasted mostly 1999s and found them tasty indeed. While not as consistent as '97s, they're two steps up from just-okay '98s and a couple of producers really belted it out of the park. Happily too, most of the winemakers I asked couldn't hold back their glee about 2001.

     The Skurnik offerings have multiplied, so I tasted a lot of wine and even then didn't have time to do all that I wanted. Apologies for any good bets I missed, but here's the cream of the crop I sampled. Some are actually affordable:


*+Michael Sullberg 2000 Merlot "Reserve" (California). Plenty of soft, ripe fruit plus some meaty, chocolatey overtones make this an excellent choice for restaurants or for your own house pour. I would guess the retail hovers somewhere around $10-$12. Drink now and over the next year.

*-Michael Sullberg 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon "Reserve" (California). This one's a tad less exuberant than the 2000 Merlot, but similarly well-made. Aging in 2-3 year old barrels puts the oak blessedly in balance. No dill notes, even though there's some American oak in the elevage. Swell drinking over the next year for just $10-$12.


**+1999 Downing Family Cabernet Sauvignon Napa is a new name for me and boy does it bear watching. The fruit's from a vineyard on Bella Oaks Lane -- and includes 6% Cabernet Franc plus a 1% squirt of Merlot. It's seemingly built for aging, but showing gorgeous strawberry and cherry flavors already, and the finish is convincing. I'll be looking for some.

***+1999 Peter Michael Les Pavots may not be quite as profound as their plush 1997 and 1996, but still thrills. Rich blackberry flavors are shaded by the usual lead pencil, shoe polish and adhesive tape (that's what I said, but it works). Texture is thick and the finish sings. It's like ultra-Bordeaux. I shrink to think what Peter Michael's asking now for this used-to-be-buyable wine, but hey, I had my sip.

I only wish Emilio's Terrace had some of their 1999 to pour, because the **--1998 Emilio's Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve was a really nice effort for the vintage. Made by Joe Cafaro (whose own wines I didn't have time to taste, more's the pity), '98 Emilio's is drinking well now, supple and soft with loads of straight-down-the middle Cab flavors. No showboating -- this is purist's Cab, not unlike offerings from their Oakville neighbor, Mondavi. Thins a bit on the finish like many 1998s, but should drink well for the next 5 years.

Equally classy with more oomph to the ounce is **+1999 Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon "Napa." Most of the fruit's from To-Kalon Vineyard and it shows. Hobbs is ringing my chimes with every grape variety he tries and, like his other efforts, this Cab is a model of balance and elegance.

I also had the good fortune to taste a couple of Paul Hobbs' Argentina efforts. I don't approach Malbec expecting to be seduced, but the **1999 Cobos Malbec "Mendoza" is about as sexy as this grape gets. With exotic raspberry and chocolate aromas, it's all plush on the palate, trailing off with a spray of spice. If you're used to thinking of Malbec as a tough guy, try this and change your mind fast.

Cathy Corison fans should be happy to hear about the library release of **-1994 Long Meadow Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. If I've got my geography right, this vineyard is fairly far up the Mayacamas ridge. The oak has fallen back revealing plenty of juicy black cherry fruit. You can drink it now, but I'd anticipate 10 more years of good times ahead. Frankly, I liked it more than the **--1998 Long Meadow Ranch -- good stuff but 50% more expensive.

It was nice to catch up with Rudy von Strasser, who's been busy upgrading and expanding his line of reds made from Diamond Mountain fruit. The ***1999 von Strasser Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon could be the finest Cab I've tasted from von Strasser (Rudy's '95 Reserve is still my favorite, but that's mostly Petit Verdot). Simple explanation -- this new "Estate" designation now gets the best 20% of the grapes he produces. Anyhow, this is big, thick, extracted, cult-grade stuff, with a whalloping black cherry finish and I wouldn't be surprised to see it age positively for the next 20 years.

He's also added a proprietary blend, the **+1999 von Strasser "Sori Bricco Vineyard" Red. It's 54% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon and 18% Cab Franc, and represents a new kind of style for von Strasser -- dark and juicy as you'd expect, but a little cuddlier than his previous offerings.

Finally, the *++1999 von Strasser Cabernet Sauvignon "Diamond Mountain" is the softest wine in the lineup. It's half estate grapes, with the remainder from 5 other Diamond Mountain vineyards. Nice stuff in its way, but it won't make me forget the Estate.


Mia Klein's ***--1999 Selene Merlot "Napa Valley is one I'll be cellaring, if I can find some. It's opened up since my pre-release tasting last spring and performing as hoped. With plenty of chocolate and berry flavors, this is gorgeous stuff for now through 2010, at a price that's pretty darned good in the current overheated scheme of things. (I'm sorry that a Skurnik shipment glitch prevented Mia from pouring the sensational ***+1999 Selene Merlot Blackbird Vineyard, but I'll be looking for that too.)


John and Tracy Skupny are coming on strong at Lang & Reed. I've had fun with previous offerings, but their **1999 Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc "1er Etage" is serious wine. Perfumed nose and focused blackcurrant flavors with a hint of strawberry on the finish. Not a weed to be found. We're edging into Viader territory here, and the price is pretty sharp too. Drink now until 2007.

For less money and happy drinking with dinner tonight, *++2000 Lang & Red Cabernet Franc offers lots of soft, forward strawberry fruit, some bellpepper and no perceptible oak. Seems like it would go well with lighter fowl and fish.

WINES WITH WABBIT. (March 9, 2002)    Tonight we had a tewwific wepast of wabbit pie and opened way too many Pinots, pitting a few more newbies against some tried-and-trues.

     Yes, more Pinots. I'll get back to Cab soon, I promise! But the new West Coast Cabs go mostly for $60 and over -- the Pinot Noirs for $50 and under. So maybe you'll forgive me if I'm mostly tasting the Pinots.


*+2000 Loring Wine Company Gary's Vineyard (Monterey, California) comes out of the bottle smelling of sandalwood and potpourri, and I'm wondering if the oak is overdone. But the color is dark, the texture silky, and before long the fruit emerges. It holds up all evening. A really nice first effort from this new producer.

*--2000 Loring Wine Company Clos Pepe (Santa Barbara, California) starts out more attractively than its cousin, showing cherry and raspberry notes that I like a lot. By the end of the evening, however, it's thinned quite a bit. You'll have fun with this wine for two years, but don't push your luck.

Finally, **+Murdoch James Estate Fraser Vineyard Pinot Noir (Martinborough, New Zealand) has to be the best Pinot Noir I've tasted yet from down under. Dripping with intensely ripe red cherry flavors, it gets a little kinky on the mid-palate. (Is that beetroot I taste?) But I can't resist the total effect. This is a big, pleasure-laden Pinot without the vegetal and oak flaws that I've tasted in so many Oz and New Zealand Pinots. Bravo Murdoch!


*+1996 Ponzi Reserve is holding up well for Oregon Pinot from the usually-dismal vintage of '96. Garnet to clear at the rim, it's showing the strawberry flavors of older Burgundies, and the texture is satisfyingly thick.

***1994 Ponzi Reserve shows how different vintages in Oregon can be. This one's still a puppy, with very pure, sweet cherry aromas and noticeable tannins as it airs. The length is convincing, the balance is terrific and I'll bet there's at least another 5-10 years of happy life left for this classic. Delightful on release, but the best may be yet to come.

**-1990 Leroy Savigny Les Beaune "Les Narbantons" (1er Cru) occasions some argument. One taster asserts it's cracking up and showing oxidation. But I'm no necrophile and I like it a lot -- savoring the sweet strawberry flavors, the velvety texture and the long finish. Don't detect any oxidation, just mature fruit. I wouldn't hold it much longer, but I'd love to open another soon.

**1998 Dehlinger Estate begins sort of spare, like the good Rochioli vineyard wines usually do. 1998 may have been tough for Cabs, but this Pinot is comparable to '96s I've tasted from Russian River Valley. With airing, it shows cranberry relish and sour cherry notes that get sweeter as the night wears on. Beautiful wine with a lovely future.

Speaking of 1996, the WINE OF THE EVENING by universal vote is (no surprise) ***+1996 Kistler Kistler Vineyard Pinot Noir. The deep jammy notes of its youth have given way to pure, focused, raspberry fruit and a finish that endures like the last chord of "Day in the Life." Until I've got a chance to taste the first Marcassin Pinot Noir with some age on it, Steve Kistler remains King of West Coast Pinot Noir.

SPAIN REIGNS! (March 2, 2002) Hush, hear? What you're about to read must remain a deep, dark secret or the fun will be through before you can say "price hike."

     This week some friends and I tasted through a dozen current releases from Spain, all distributed on the East Coast by Tempranillo, Inc. The uniformly high quality was treat enough, but the stickers had us pinching ourselves. All but a couple were under $15 and some of the nicest even dove below the ten buck barrier.

     What's the catch? Well, you do have to be willing to drink Tempranillo or Garnacha, but honest, it won't hurt. Just close your eyes, taste and then remind yourself that it's practically free:


*-Marques de Gelida NV Brut. Fruity and friendly, with a mild sort of mousse, this isn't the usual, bone-dry kind of Cava that makes you feel like you've sucked a lemon. Think of a well-bred Moscato with extra kick. Weighing in at 11.5% alcohol, this should be very pleasant summer fare and you can pour it at parties with nary at flinch for only $7.99. Excellent with marinated olives and other wine-challenging tapas.


*-1999 Vega Sindoa Chardonnay won't make you forget Marcassin, but it sure beats most California Chardonnays under $10. The French oak is frank but won't turn off seasoned Chard-junkies like my own Best Beloved. With air, things come into balance just fine and you're left with a Beringer taste-alike for about half the price. There seems to be plenty around for $8.99

*-2000 Martivilli Rueda Verdejo was compared by one taster to a good California Sauvignon Blanc minus the grass, and I think that's about right. Honeydew melon with a squirt of grapefruit and not a trace of veggie. Decent acidity, good viscosity, nice clean aftertaste. What's not to like for $5.99?

REDS (in rough order of seriousness):

*2000 Campo de Borja Borsao. Fragrant and juicy, this Garnacha-Tempranillo blend delivers a gush of fresh raspberry and plum flavors. Nice palate presence, finishes well and just $5.99! I first tasted this five months ago. It's not for the cellar, but should remain swell drinking for the remainder of the year.

*+Venta Mazzaron Tinta de Toro is shamelessly forward Tempranillo in a fun, drink-me-now style. Ripe red fruit, soft texture, good follow-through, start-to-finish yum. For $8.99, here's proof that once in a while life really can be a bowl of cherries.

*++1998 Partal Bullas. If you don't mind Silver Oak Cabs, this Tempranillo should float your boat fine. With cherry, chocolate and coconut notes, you can surely taste the American oak, but the result is so round and well-balanced, most folks won't mind a bit. The $14.99 price tag doesn't hurt either.

*+2000 ViZa Alarba Old Vines Grenache plays to those who go for super-ripe Zins or Amarones. You'll either dig the depth or complain that it's too pruney. Ultra-ripe and almost raisiny, it needs about half an hour in the glass to collect itself, but then the raspberries pop up and it's smiles all the way. For $7.99, you can afford to smile often.

**- -1998 Sierra Cantabria "Cuve Especial" (Rioja) gets my vote for STEAL OF THE EVENING. The pure, focused blackberry flavors really ring my chimes, plus there's plenty of depth and some structure for short-term (like maybe 3 years) cellaring. Gorgeous juice that can stave off your Cal Cab Jones for a phenomenally reasonable $9.99.

*-1999 Vega Sindoa Merlot suffers only in comparison to the above. With scads of soft, sweet fruit, the wine reveals a touch of weediness on the finish, but its so sanely priced at $8.99, who's gonna complain?

*++2000 Tresantos Zamora Vinos de la Tierra is promisingly dark and fulfills expectations with big, deep cherry and blackcurrant fruit. This 100% Tempranillo is very close in appeal to the Sierra Cantabria, above -- close in price too at $11.99 -- and some may prefer its slightly more structured style.

*+1998 Lanzaga is the most Rhne-ish selection tonight, with mint and herbal overtones to shade its raspberry flavors. Good juice, but at $19.99, not the best value tonight.

And yes, we did taste one wine over $30, but it too is a fairly compelling value. **1998 Bodega Emilio Moro "Malleolus" (Ribera del Duero) is big, chewy stuff that can square off against Bordeaux, with blackberries, cedar, tobacco and spice playing in pretty harmony. This one feels like it could go 10 years or more. At $38.99, I'm buying a couple.

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