Tasting Notes


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May-September 2003

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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SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, PART 1 (August 11, 2003) It was stinking hot and humid -- perfect weather for beer or water. So we scampered indoors, cranked up the ac and opened a bunch of big Bordeaux. How childish. How American. How perfectly delightful.

     First come some whites, of which the winner on my card is:

***2000 Grange des Peres Blanc. Love their red, and this is my first go with the Roussanne-based white. May not be for the ages, but tonight it shoots out the lights. Very long. Generous flavors of ripe white peaches and almonds, with a whiff of rose petal.

**2001 Turley White Coat is even riper, showing apricot and pear. Texture plenty slippery, reasonably long, but can't quite best the GdP. Strong flight!

*+2000 Chteau Beaucastel Blanc is either a compromised bottle or can't run with the big dogs. Nose of pineapple and apple cider. Not nearly as much follow-through as its neighbors tonight.

**+1998 Chave Hermitage Blanc bests the GdP according to some, but hey, the label's showing. I tend to think it just needs time in the cellar -- or three hours in the glass, which we can't spare tonight. You mostly taste it on the finish, which lasts a good long time.

**2001 Failla Vignier shows well, but excites some controversy. Honeysuckle aromas, followed up by pineapple and apricot, with some butter on the finish. Pineapple upside-down cake. Condrieu it ain't, but I like it a lot.

     Now for the main event:

***+1992 Matanzas Creek Merlot is served blind, which affords some amusement. Half say Right Bank Bordeaux and the others guess California Cab. No one dares utter the words California Merlot, which is exactly what it tastes like, of course -- or would taste like if everyone else in California made Merlot this good. Anyhow, this stuff is finally hitting maturity and it's just fantastic. Mocha fudge-nut sundae smothered in cherry kirsch. Mm-mm-mm-Mm-mm-Mm.

**-1984 Chteau Lynch-Bages is also served blind, but the origin's obvious. What bamboozles us is the much-shunned vintage. This wine is fresh, full and fruity -- no sign of dilution of oxidation. My guess is 1988 Pauillac. Well, half right. Great effort from Jean-Michel Cazes.

**+1982 Ducru Beaucaillou is dazzlingly pure. Ultra-ripe plums and minerals. Might have claimed more attention if the next wine hadn't been...

***+1983 Chteau Margaux! Those who call this Wine of Evening won't get much argument from me. Skitters around the palate like a Bach fugue, volume gradually swelling, until everyone is murmuring about it. Violet aromas emerge after half an hour. Magnificent with our barbecued lamb.

***1990 Cos D'Estournel comes darned close to eclipsing the Margaux. I was expecting a big hit of coffee bean, but the wine's more mature than in previous tastings. There's still a hint of mocha, but blackberry rules the palate now. Everything you could want in a Cos. Seems to be at peak -- if you have any, open a bottle next time you've got a steak on the grill.

**++1990 La Mission Haut Brion is plummy, cedary, lush and long. Flavors of Christmas pudding with a whiff of cigar in the background.

***-1982 Gruaud Larose is, to my surprise, still pretty backward. The earthy notes rule for about 45 minutes, whereupon black cherries and figs pop out. Meaty flavors go well with lamb. Still a bit of grit on the finish. I'd wait a couple years more before opening another.

***1982 Talbot is ready to rip and runs riot. Violets! Roast pheasant! And yes -- the "s" word. Some vintages of Talbot walk a little too far on the wild side, but this one plays the brett game like a master. Is there anything left in that bottle?

***1989 Palmer might have knocked 'em dead on another night, but here it's just another gorgeous face. Aromas of silverberry blossom and sauteed mushroom. Licorice and damson plum on the palate. Starts out pretty stiff, but broadens rapidly. Probably could use another few years.

And the Wine of the Evening on my card is the sensuous, silky, sexy, cocoa-cassis and who-cares-what-else-it's-wonderful ***+1989 La Conseillante! Something about this wine just slips past my guard and seduces me. So much grace, yet so much oomph. Would love to try it some evening alongside the divine 1990.

GOOD GRIEF, MORE CALIFORNIA CABS? (July 20, 2003) Apologies for the excess, but this time I've got a great excuse. Some friends of ours threw a dinner in honor of Jean-Michel Cazes, proprietor of Bordeaux estates Chteau Lynch-Bages and Les Ormes de Pez, among others. Heaven forbid he should depart our fair city feeling thirsty. We opened...

     FLIGHT #1

1973 Ingleneuk Cask C3. More a curiosity than a truly really enjoyable wine, but if you can get past the ashes, there's still some blackberry underneath. The fruit gains on the oxidized flavors for about half an hour, then quits. Might have impressed us more if the rest of the lineup hadn't included...

**1991 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Aromas of iodine and licorice give way to black cherry and graphite. Still some tannin on the long finish, which may have marred its showing, as this wine is tasted even before the appetizers show up. (If that sounds bizarre, well, maybe it is.)

***+1991 Chteau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon. This one's plenty backward too, but dominates the flight. Essence of blackcurrant penetrates palate, period. Most of the show is still packed away, but starts to seep out after half an hour. That's all the time we have with it -- breaks my heart to dump it!

**+1991 Ridge Monte Bello. There's a little dill on the nose which makes some tasters cock a snoot. And yes, there's a touch of butterscotch -- that's the American oak. Get over it, guys, and get into the style. Once it opens, this wine flows with fruit, broadens out on the palate and trails gracefully. Just beginning to come into its own.

     FLIGHT #2

***+1992 La Jota Howell Mountain 11th Anniversary Release. Once standoffish and bristling with tannin, this wine has shed most of its prickles and whew -- how slinky and sexy can you get! Buckets of blueberry and raspberry, and you never quite get to the bottom. Entering its prime, where it seems destined to stay for quite some time.

***1994 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve shows consistently with my notes of a few months ago. A classically built California Cab, showing lots of cassis, shaded by herb. Pretty much ready to drink, just as last time. Nothing bad to say about it -- just not quite as powerful as the others in this flight.

***+1995 Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon has not been decanted, as it was when I tasted it a couple of months ago. Allowing for this, it shows the same -- meaning you have to swirl for 30 minutes before you get to the goodies. Chocolate-covered cherry cordial with slight nuances of watermelon. Most backward wine of the flight. (Given that we still don't have our appetizers, I'm amazed we can taste these youngsters at all.)

***+1997 Pahlmeyer Merlot is the most accessible wine of the flight -- even more so than the Mondavi. Very chocolatey, ripe, flamboyant. Like chocolate-chip cookies smeared with plum jam, stuffed with a pecan or two.

     FLIGHT #3

***+1997 Peter Michael Les Pavots has not fallen apart as some folks predicted a few years ago. Yep, the acidity's plenty low, but the pleasure is coming on strong. Shoe polish, blueberry, lead pencil and a floodtide of ultra-ripe blackcurrant. Would have been wine of the flight but for...

***+1994 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select. Yet another magnificent performance from what just may be my favorite California Cab of all time. For all the supple tannin hidden below the fruit line, this wine has never been anything but plush and welcoming. And the fruit never quits -- layer upon layer of black cherries, dark cocoa, blackberry, more. WINE OF THE EVENING on my card.

***-1997 Chteau St. Jean Cinq Cepages has shown better on previous evenings. Perhaps it's the company here -- don't know for sure, but it's still quite impressive. Like the '91 Monte Bello, this wine is also shows a trace of dill. Mostly though, it's a box of chocolates, with varying fruit centers.

    FLIGHT #4

**+1999 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon got rave notices from tasters I trust, but this is my first whack at it. Well, I'm a little disappointed. Could be that it's a tannic youngster, toward the end of an evening of tannic youngsters. Bordelaise flavors, lots of lead pencil. Don't get me wrong, it's plenty good -- but hmm, the earth isn't moving. I've loved previous Quilceda Creek Cabs. Maybe this one simply needs some serious decanting.

***+1999 Quintessa is far more flattering tonight. Tonight's also my first fling with this babe and I'm wowed. Lots of concentration and gorgeous balance. Flirts with overripeness, but gets away with it. My notes say "REALLY GOOD" in caps. Guess that means it's really good.

***+1993 Turley Hayne Petite Syrah was intended to be the last red of the evening, and that's as it should be. First, because the wine is ENORMOUS -- maybe the biggest wine tonight. But also because it mugs your palate while you're swimming around in the blueberry vat. I count myself nearly immune to tannin, but even I get anaesthetized here. How do I know? Because in comparison, even the next wine seems downright elegant. For all that, I must confess I enjoy being kidnapped by this pirate. I'm  inventing a new award for it. BRUISER OF THE EVENING.

***+1994 Dominus is usually a heavyweight champ, and I'm sure it would have been tonight, if its next-door neighbor weren't Turley Hayne PS. The folks around me swirl, sniff -- say "Yeah, that's '94 Dominus" -- and that's how I feel too. We recognize it's spectacular, but we're numb. That's the way the cork crumbles. I had more fun from a ***1995 Dominus opened last night -- not a better wine, but consumed in a friendlier context.

THIS CURLY'S NO STOOGE. (June 29, 2003) Australia isn't that famous for its Chard and Pinot Noir... yet. But if enough others follow the trail blazed by Curly Flat, this could change in a hurry.

This newcomer has a vineyard just north of Melbourne, at an elevation of about 1700 feet. The wines are lush and generous, and you won't mistake them for Burgundy, but neither are they simple fruit bombs -- very classy stuff. Supplies are now trickling into the States and I expect they'll be warmly received. Recently we opened three of their current offerings and here's what happened:

**++1998 Curly Flat Chardonnay should put grins on the faces of folks who like Pahlmeyer. Butterscotch notes fall away after a little swirling, leaving you with walloping mineral and pear flavors. Drink now and over the next year or so. May age fine, but who knows and why wait?

*+1998 Curly Flat Pinot Noir is plenty of fun if a little too ripe, with plum and cola flavors distracting from a core of ripe red cherries. The nose reminds several of us of mint chocolate-ship ice cream. Nice stuff in its way, but eclipsed by the following vintage...

**+1999 Curley Flat Pinot Noir is among the best Pinots I've ever tasted from Oz. Offhand, in fact, I can't think of a better one. None of the weirdness I've found so often in other Australian Pinot Noirs. Focused red cherry flavors. Full on the palate, finishing well. Reminds us of fine efforts from California's Russian River Valley. Kudos to Curly Flat -- can't wait to try their next!

     Then we opened some established benchmarks that put the Oz efforts in perspective:

**1996 Beaux FrPres Pinot Noir is aging remarkably well given how grim a vintage this was in Oregon. No sooner do you pour it than scents of rose potpourri come spiraling out of the glass. Black cherries and blackberries parade down the palate. Not quite as full as the '99 Curly Flat, but finishes well, and you've gotta love those seductive aromas.

***-1996 Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir "Brown Ranch" is big stuff, but beautifully balanced. A bushel of berries is braced up by ample acidity. Things get pretty complex between the crisp attack and lengthy finish. I believe this bottle was hand-carried from California. Wonder if any makes its way East via normal distribution.

And **1991 Hubert Lignier Morey St. Denis "Vielle Vignes" pretty much pleases everyone -- Burgundy lovers and fruit fanatics alike. The big, dark raspberry flavors don't show a trace of sweat or game. Tastes amazingly fresh and well-stuffed for a village '91.

WALKING TALL IN 2000 (June 22, 2003) I've heard talk that 2000 was dicey for California Cab, and I've already tasted some watery examples. But we opened one this weekend that walked convincingly tall among giants:

***2000 Behrens & Hitchcock "Ode to Picasso" promises much with its fancy 10-ton bottle, and what do you know? It delivers.  Ripe red cherry, crLme de cassis and a hint of blueberry skip around your senses in ballet slippers. Joyous juice that no one tonight can resist. The blend is only about half Cabernet, with the rest Merlot and Syrah -- a little strange-sounding, but works bigtime. Drink now or over the next decade.

Along side the B&H, ***+1995 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red Wine nearly gets neglected, but that may be because it's cold and needs an hour longer to open. Once this flower starts unfolding, it rapidly gets flamboyant. Super-ripe blackberry flavors. Finishes very convincingly. But my favorite wine of the evening is...

***+1991 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon. Slowest of all to unfold, but also the most rewarding. Classic Cal Cab flavors go deeper than you can taste. Plenty packed up in reserve for years to come. Good for at least another 10 years, maybe longer. Ric Forman's Cabs are fine agers and here's his benchmark.

NAPA '98s? NOT BAD... (June 21, 2003) Yes, it was a tough vintage, but some producers willing to cut their yields in half made outstanding wine. Mind you, I'm not saying the prices make sense, but the following made for one heck of a dinner:

***1998 Colgin Herb Lamb Vineyard is sleek as a silk slip and wow, what perfume. Violets, roses and other seductive stuff draw you in -- then cherries, blueberries and raspberries purr on the palate. Depth doesn't quite approach earlier vintages, but the finish is pretty convincing. No reason not to drink now, and wouldn't cellar it for more than 5 years.

***+1998 Araujo Eisele is right up there with the '97 when it comes to delivering pleasure. May deceive impatient tasters because it needs about an hour before the chocolate-covered cherries pop out. Once you've coaxed it open, however, the wine roars. May be shorter-lived than other Araujos, but there seems to be plenty of structure and stuffing for cellaring over the next 10 years.

But the wine of the evening on my card is the astonishing ***+1998 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon. Emphasizing cassis and black cherry, it's got a bit more depth even than the Araujo and develops just as well. And, while not cheap, it's less than half the cost of the other two wines. Bravo again to Ric Forman!

PINOT TO THE MAX (June 1, 2003) Just when you thought you'd tasted the best Pinot Noir America has to offer, along comes another great statement and steals your heart. At a recent blind tasting, most of us mistook one of these Yanks for Grand Cru Burg and assumed the Cte D'Or ringer was Californian:

Wine #1 is loaded with ripe red cherries, shaded by scents of rainfall on rocks. Elegant, focused and very long, with nary a note of earth or game. I assume it's a great Russian River Valley PN, maybe from Rochioli Vineyard, but it's ***-1998 Anne Gros Richebourg. Could young Pinot Noir taste any better? Not tonight, I'm ready to say...

Then along comes Wine #2 and makes drink my words. Very ripe without straying to over-ripeness, this wine is incredibly concentrated. Raspberries dance on the surface, but you also sense a deep, unpacked core of pure essence hidden below. Petal after petal unfurls, but the flower's never fully in bloom. I guess it to be Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, and if so, it's the greatest I've ever tasted. It's ***+1998 Marcassin Pinot Noir "Marcassin Vineyard." A tough act to follow? Yes, but...

Wonderful Wine #3 is up for the challenge. Even riper than Wine #2, but a shade more open and supple. Mind you that's a relative term -- this baby is far from fully mature. Blackberries are the dominant flavor, which makes me guess Oregon Pinot Noir. Not quite the equal of the Marcassin, it's still a home run for ***+1998 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir "Laurene."

Wine #4 is noticeably older, but still vibrant, with fruit to spare. Red plums and Darjeeling tea mingle with a hint of burning autumn leaves. "Burgundy," we all murmur, but again we've all been had. It's one of the all-time outstanding efforts from America's peerless Pinot pioneer -- **++1985 Calera Pinot Noir "Jensen."

'95 NAPA CABS (May 29, 2003) Though not as hyped as the '94 vintage, 1995 may have produced marginally better wines for some of California's cult favorites. We poured a few recently to "educate" a friend from abroad and all seemed to be drinking pulse-poundingly well.

     Bottles were blinded so people wouldn't instantly dash to their favorite. Each was dark and rich enough, but very distinctive in its flavors:

Wine #1 is seductively fragrant and juicy, emphasizing ripe red cherry flavors, plus a little piecrust. The violet aromas alone would make me fall in love with this wine, but it's not just another pretty face -- the kid has major muscles. Imagine a ballerina that sings Wagner in her spare time. It's so exotic, I figure it must be a Helen Turley wine and sure enough it's ***+1995 Bryant Family.

Wine #2 is even sexier in the scent department. Bouquet of jasmine, violets and other blossoms I can't quite identify. Flavors veer more toward blueberry and raspberry. Someone says something about rhubarb -- well, strawberry-rhubarb pie, perhaps. Maybe not quite as muscular as the Bryant, but probably as long, and incredibly complex. Stellar showing for ***+1995 Colgin.

Wine #3 floods your senses with wave after wave of black cherries, plums and is that watermelon? Not just big and beguiling, but positively mouthwatering. Tops in the fruit department of our 1995 quintet, this turns out to be ***+Araujo Eisele Vineyard. Funny what context does. In any other setting, folks might have been floored by the size of this wine, but the biggest stuff of the evening turns out to be...

Wine #4 needs some decanting and swirling to coax it from its shell. But when the moment arrives, oh baby! Great big dark chocolate and cherry flavors. One of the deepest, inkiest, most concentrated California legends I've ever tasted. Also the first time that I've found ***+1995 Shafer Hillside Select to be anything near ready.

Wine #5 may be the most classic of all the culties tonight. Straight-down-the-middle Cabernet flavors rule, shaded by blackberries. Some guess this to be Shafer or Araujo, but it's ***+1995 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red. Here again, performance belies expectation. Pahlmeyer is occasionally criticized for flirting with over-ripeness, but no one yonight mentions a hint of raisin or prune.

    Which was the best? Our visitor swooned for the Colgin and I found the Araujo fascinating, but tonight there was just no denying ***+1995 Shafer Hillside Select.

RIGHTEOUS NEW REDS FROM SANTA RITA (May 24, 2003) Santa Barbara County hasn't been on my radar screen for a while, but some releases from a new boutique winery just grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me.

     Casa Cassara Winery and Vineyard grows grapes along the Santa Ynez river in the Santa Rita Hills appellation. Production is tiny -- 160 to 600 cases per cuve -- but prices are realistic, and the quality of their 2001s makes them worth a search. Up until now, they've been making the wines off-site, but their press release says an estate winery should be operating in time for the 2003 crush.

     Here's what I tried yesterday. If you like the juicy, generous style of Pinot that Siduri does so well, these wines should be right down your alley:

*+2000 Casa Cassara Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills "Estate Grown" is a pretty young wine that reminds me the most of other Santa Barbara Pinots. Raspberry aromas are offset by some cola notes that mostly blow off as you swirl and sip. None of the celery that mars so many Central Coast efforts. Finish is a little thin, but holds up fairly well throughout the evening. Probably at its best right now.

**2001 Casa Cassara Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills "Estate Grown" is a big step ahead in both flavor and depth. Ripe red cherry flavors bring to mind good stuff from the Russian River Valley. Beautiful focus. Supple texture. Darned nice finish. Keeps developing for the 3 hours it sits in my glass. Yum!

**++2001 Casa Cassara Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills "Burning Creek Vineyard" is like a puppy that leaps into your lap and licks your face. Cherries and blackberries jump from the glass. Rich, plush texture pleases the palate. Then, just when you think it's made its statement, the violets blossom. Finishes very well and tastes better with each passing hour. Love it! May have been too conservative in my score. Fingers crossed that Casa Cassara keeps making stuff this sensational.

Finally, I sampled their **+2001 Casa Cassara Syrah Santa Ynez Valley. Just imagine the Pinots with twice the extraction and you've got an idea of how delicious this is. Blueberries and vanilla bean flavors rule this fruit-driven nectar. May cellar well, but for heavens' sake, why wait?

     (NOTE: For more information about Casa Cassara wines, click here to visit their Website.)

UGLY SHIRTS, TASTY WINES (May 6, 2003) So you think wine geeks have good taste? You should have sat at this dinner. The theme was ugly shirts -- and the result was so spectacular, folks at surrounding tables were visibly cringing. Happily, our wine choices made me forget the gut-wrenching scenery:


**+2001 Donnhoff Norheimer Kirscheck Riesling Sptlese. Both Donhoffs are superbly slurpable tonight, but this one seems a little crisper on the attack and shy on the mid-palate. I'd give it a few more years before opening more.

But ***2001 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brcke Riesling Sptlese is so irresistible right now, why wait? Longer, deeper and wonderfully complex, interlacing lush fruit with several different minerals. Young Riesling doesn't get much better than this.

**2001 Hexamer Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg Riesling Sptlese is a pineapple-tropical fruit bomb. Incredibly ripe and round, it wrinkles a nose or two among the purists.

Of all the German babes tonight, **2001 Muller Catoir Haardter Herrenletten Riesling Sptlese probably needs aging most. Very long and minerally, but a little numb on the attack, and still showing a bit of spritz from the bottling sparge.

And you can go ahead and call me a hick but my favorite white is a California Chard! ***+1999 Ramey Chardonnay "Hudson Vineyard" starts out a little smokey, but quickly broadens and lengthens, showing lots of finesse. Hazlenuts and fresh baked bread, with a hint of gunflint on the finish.


*-1996 Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve seems pretty sexy at first sniff, but watch out for major splinters when you sip. Swirling and airing doesn't help much. Without the oak overdose, this might have rated two stars or better.

**1998 Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve does it much better. Big hit of purple, grapey pleasure with some tannin on the finish that I'm finding in more than few of the better '98s. Not a big issue right now. If it still intrudes in a few more years, I'll worry a little more.

**+1999 Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve affords similar joy without quite so many rough spots on the tail. Plump, plush wine that emphasizes black cherries.


*++1994 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon "Fay Vineyard" disappointed me on release. Shriller and tighter than previous vintages, it's much the same five years later. Don't get me wrong, this is highly enjoyable juice, but $16 can buy better wine -- even better Cab.

**1999 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon "Fay Vineyard" is sweeter, rounder, just lovely. Chocolate layered with cassis -- a return to the style of the early nineties. Unfortunately, those earlier vintages cost under $30, while this one is something like $100. I'll drink it, but don't ask me to buy.

*-1999 Darioush Proprietary Red Wine is all hat, no cattle. The bottle is practically magnum-sized and the label is pretty tasty. The wine inside starts out thin, finishes short and piles on the oak. A few tasters maintain it improves some with airing, and maybe it does, but not near enough.

But there's nothing wrong with ***1997 Chteau St. Jean Cinq Cepages! Silky and thick, it lavishes your palate with ultra-ripe fruit. There's a hint of dill in the mix, but that doesn't faze me a fraction. Wins the flight for value and pure pleasure.


**-1999 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon is juicy, chocolatey, friendly as heck -- quite a treat if you don't mind the price. Probably would have received more praise in the previous flight. Here, however, it's overshadowed by dense, longer delights such as...

**++1994 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Several tasters remark this bottle seems atypically round and resolved compared to previous samplings. That being said, it's still a fine example of Napa Valley's most classically built Cab, deftly balancing palate-drenching cassis and herbal nuances

A Mystery Red is then poured which I like nearly as much as the Mondavi. A little more ripe than the others, a tad softer, alcohol a shade higher, but beautiful stuff. I guess it for a 1997 California Cab -- but it's actually **+1997 Montes Alpha "M". Possibly the best Chilean Cab I've ever tasted.

All the same, the clear winner of this flight is ***+1991 Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon "Eisele Vineyard" -- the last Phelps Eisele and one of the greatest Eiseles from anyone, ever. The fellow beside me remarks how much this reminds him of 1995 Araujo and I can't argue. Supple and deep, with tannins for further aging hidden under a vat of voluptuous chocolate-covered cherries. If you don't adore this wine, poor you. Go out and buy a sixpack of Bud.


***+1998 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon "Hillside Select" contends with the Eisele for Wine of the Evening. Might even have won if the tannins were more resolved -- or if we had decanted. Similar flavors, a very long finish, sings when you sip it with steak.

Call me tannin-tolerant, but ***1999 Dunn Cabernet Sauvignon "Howell Mountain" seems stunning tonight as well. BIG grapey flavors, with adhesive tape notes that remind me a bit of Peter Michael Les Pavots. Yes, there's some rough stuff underneath, but this wine offers plenty of pleasure tonight -- and doubtless also for folks who can bear to cellar it until 2020.

The evening's second Mystery Red is hotly debated -- perhaps because of the price? To me, the lush, lusty **++2001 Marquis Philips "Shiraz 9" is impossible to resist. Okay, there's some coconut on the nose and the fruit's a little too ripe for some palates. Maybe they should have used French oak barrels instead of the American. And it 's up against tough competition in this flight of California culties. But tell me where else you can find a wine with this oomph for under $25.

Finally, **+2000 Shrader "Beckstoffer To-Kalon Vineyard" is quite impressive, with exotic blueberry flavors that remind me more of Colgin than Mondavi Reserve. That's a little strange, since the grapes for this wine grew up next door to Mondavi's finest. Nevertheless, if you can forget the price tag, this newcomer is a clear winner.

See more tasting notes (March-April 2003)

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