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September-October 1998

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

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BLIND AS BATS. (Halloween night, 1998) Instead of disguising ourselves for Halloween, we bagged our bottles...and flitted over to a friend’s for a bang-up dinner and blind tasting.

     No mischief here — just some of the best wines I’ve tasted all year, including a couple of tricky ringers that won their flight.

     FLIGHT 1 is Alsace whites, accompanied by a wickedly tasty pumpkin soup:

WINE 1. Very light gold and initially very tight in the aroma department. But take a sip — and WHAM what a wine! Incredibly thick, highly structured, with a finish that went into Sunday. A huge bowl of roses. I figure it has to be ***+ZIND-HUMBRECHT 1994 CLOS WINDSBUHL GEWURZTRAMINER (no, not a tough guess, since I brought it). My #1of the flight and the group pretty much agrees.

WINE 2. About the same color as wine 1, but much leaner and mellower. Seems to be out of its peer group, emphasizing melon flavors instead of classic Alsace Gewurz flavors. Not a bad wine, but definitely the odd one out. Sure enough, it turns out to be MARTINELLI 1996 GEWURZTRAMINER DRY SELECT. Nice try, California, but no one does Gewurztraminer quite like Alsace. My #3 of the flight.

WINE 3 is the darkest, softest and sweetest of the flight. Soaring lychee and rose petal aromas. Softer, more lush, more flavorful than wine 1. Well yes, it’s Gewurz, but let’s get specific. I guess Albert Mann. Nope, I shouldn’t have showed off. It’s *** ZIND-HUMBRECHT 1989 HEIMBOURG VENDANGE TARDIVE. A couple of folks pick it for number 1, but I rank it second by a whisker.

     IN BETWEEN COURSES, we taste another blind white, very different from all the above. Peach and apricot flavors. I suspect Viognier, but note it’s not quite as thick and slippery as I’d expect from this varietal. But wait, let’s consider what we just tasted. Okay, and I make the palate correction. Yes, I say, Viognier, and sure enough it’s *VERNAY 1996 CONDRIEU LES CHAILLEE DE L’ENFER — what an appropriate name for tonight!

     FLIGHT 2 is served alongside a fantastic-tasting, feather-light shrimp mousse. It’s supposed to be all Chardonnay, but...

WINE 1 sure isn’t! Deep gold with a huge nose of honey, spice and orange peel. Definitely not a Chard. I knew just from swirling it that this wine would overpower my palate, so I waited to taste it last. When I did, big sugar and botrytis flavors took charge totally. Okay. I guess it’s a botrytis Semillon-Sauvignon blend and I love it. Turns out to be *RAYMOND-LAFON 1986. I don’t rank it as part of this flight, but put it aside for dessert.

WINE 2 is light gold and decidedly Burgundian. Very complex, developed nose. Plenty of oak, nuts and lots of fruit on the palate. We debate this wine a lot. It actually tastes a lot like a mature Mt. Eden to me — could this be a California ringer — but it’s so long and loud, I figure it must be something rarer. Yes it is. **NEILLON 1991 CHEVALIER MONTRACHET! Yet, believe it or not, my #2 in the flight.

WINE 3 is about the same color as wine 2 and I figure this one just has to be Burgundy. Starts out shut tight but then opens gradually to a subtle fan of flavors and an almost hurtful sting of fruit on the finish. This is a tight, tight, great young wine. I hear whispers about Verget, but there’s really not enough oak here. Canny Michel is about to guess, then says "I believe this is a great producer." Well guess what. It’s **FLOWERS 1995 CAMP MEETING RIDGE — and the table buzzes with astonishment. I feel humiliated. After all, I tasted this wine just a week ago! # 3 of the flight, just behind the Neillon Chevalier. I gotta find some of this stuff!

WINE 4 sneaks up on me. At first I don’t like it. Tight, almost soapy aromas. But that phase passes and I get perfumed oak, then a flinty blast of mineral flavors and a long, long stony tail. Oh YES! But what is it? The mineral flavors are so pure that I’m tempted to guess a great Chablis, but it’s really ***COMTE LAFON 1991 MEURSAULT DESIREE — and easily my #1 of the flight.

     FLIGHT 3 is served with char-grilled steaks. All Pinot Noir — and the most devilishly deceptive flight of the evening.

WINE 1 is medium ruby, light at the rim, and if this isn’t Burgundy, well, I give up. The funky, sweaty nose could hardly be anything else. Leathery, gamey and — you know what? — really good! Its **MUSSY 1990 POMMARD. (Les Epenots? Didn’t get to see the label!) Tied for my #3 of the flight.

WINE 2 might have won the flight if it had been more open. Deep ruby, with classic, down the middle Burgundy flavors, but a tannic clamp on the palate. Swirl, swirl, swirl — yep, here’s more — but I have to give up and go on. Spicy, pure raspberry fruit. Very focused. Most flawless, perhaps, of the flight. I’ll put it alongside Wine1. It’s **MEO-CAMUZET 1991 AUX MURGERS. Would like to revisit this wine in a few years.

There’s nothing so elusive about WINE 3. Darkest wine of the flight and kicking tail. Aromas of raspberry, plums, spice. Very ripe and all about deep, deep fruit. I think I can tell what it is — I brought it — but let’s play the game and shut up. Folks vote it a Burgundy and #2 in the flight. Hah! It’s ***1992 BEAUX FRÈRES.

WINE 4 is also deep red, but much funkier than wine 3. Cinnamon and leather alongside the fruit. Nice wine, but compared to the others, a little dull. It’s 1988 ADELSHEIM ELIZABETH’S RESERVE. Not bad at all for an ‘88 Oregon Pinot, but not in a class with the others. Last in the flight.

And yes, there is a WINE 5 — and oh, what a winner. Very, very sexy fruit — plus exotic spice, flowers, berries, you name it. Michel comments that there’s even a hint of Chardonnay on the nose. "Close your eyes and smell it," he says. He’s right. Could this be a Leroy? Ponsot? Who knows? But it’s no contest — this is my WINE OF THE EVENING. Then off comes the cloak and tada! It’s ***+WILLIAMS-SELYEM 1986 ROCHIOLI VINEYARD. What an amazing Pinot Noir!

     We finished up with Creme Brulee, the remainder of the Raymond-Lafon and a sensational 1976 **DE FARGUE. If you didn’t love the wines, food and company tonight, well, boo on you, child!

BISTRO BEAUTIES. (October 30, 1998) A back-in-action Phylis and I repaired to our local bistro last night. We found it mobbed — populated by, among others, the staff of Chaddsford Winery, who were celebrating the close of what promises to be a memorable harvest. (DIGRESSION: We’ve had an unusually warm and dry October here in Pennsylvania, and our summer was sunny , but not overly hot. Winemaker Eric Miller says the grapes were tasting fantastic.)

     Anyhow, we did finally nab a table, and proceeded to open:

**NEYERS 1997 CHARDONNAY CARNEROS "EL NOVERILLO VINEYARD". First bottling from the vineyard for Neyers and what a sexy lady it is. Like a barrel sample? Yes, and I like barrel samples. Cloudy, yeasty, but shows real class on the attack and has decent grip on the mid-palate. The main show is the fruit — platters of it, ranging from mango to citrus. This may be the most complex wine I’ve tasted yet from Neyers.

*LYNMAR 1996 QUAIL HILL VINEYARD PINOT NOIR. Medium ruby color leads me to expect something, but there’s plenty of pure, focused, cherry fruit on the palate and a decent finish. Oak is a bit overdone — a slight taste of ashes pokes through now and then — but this is a minor flaw and the wine may well integrate better in another year. All in all, a very satisfying Russian River Valley Pinot, and decent value at $27. I also bought some of the Reserve from this vineyard and now can’t wait to taste it.

CAN’T GET ENUF...(October 26, 1998) ...o dat Cantemerle! Nine years out, the *1989 CANTEMERLE still needs a few more to be called easy drinking. But haul out the big Riedels, be patient, and here come the chocolate, minerals and roasted meat. One glass is not enough. Sipped another after dinner while munching peanuts and watching the biography of Joan of Arc. Call me a heathen. It worked.

GIMME ANOTHER MERLOT! (October 23, 1998) Ye who scorn the Napa Valley product, get humble if you plan to sample **PALOMA 1994 MERLOT. Dark as molasses, it’s too young yet to sing the high parts of the National Anthem, but the bass notes are ringing loud and long tonight. Needs red meat, 2 hours decanting or 5 more years in your cellar.

BOGART THAT BORDEAUX! (October 24, 1998) Even wine-maniacs can get tired of wine orgies.

     I mean, I attend a lot of dinners where we open loads of different wines and they can be fun.

     But sometimes...

     Sometimes at these affairs I catch myself wishing that I could just grab a bottle of the legendary best, Bogart it for the rest of the evening, forget about taking notes and relax with my dinner.

     So that’s what we did last night at Morton’s in Philadelphia.

     Just a few bottles. Just the best. And just heaven.

     First, with the bacon-wrapped scallops, a white:

***MARCASSIN 1992 GAUER RANCH UPPER BARN. It’s nice in a melancholy way when the last bottle in your bin is the best. This one was just where I wanted it. Fruit is still huge, but all the oak has been soaked up and the splinters sanded off. 45 seconds of creme brulee on the finish.

Then onto the main thing. Serious Bordeaux, alongside a 24-ounce rare porterhouse:

***1983 PALMER. Layers of lead pencil and mineral, gradually yielding to reveal the sweet core of cassis. On top of its game and fully mature. What Margaux is all about!

***1990 PICHON-BARON. Revealing its glories at last. Sexy coffee aromas swirl above a glorious pool of blackberry. Jump in! Structured for a long lifetime, but why deny yourself now?

     Finally, with the flourless chocolate cake, ***DOW 1984 QUINTA DA BOMFIN. This single quinta was so smooth, so sweet, so full of cherries, I’m tempted to name it wine of the evening, but nah. Tonight was just about loving each wine for itself.

CA VS. WA. There are those who say Washington State will one day be home to the best Cabs and Merlots in America.

     Oh yeah?

     Okay, whatever you say — someday. But right now there are some very heavy-hitters from California that show no signs of rolling over and playing dead.

     We staged our own little bout last night at Saranac in Bryn Mawr. Let’s see what happened...

     The opening act:

*NEYERS 1996 CHARDONNAY "THERIOT VINEYARD." Looks I’ve I gone through a year (and 3 bottles) already without posting a note. Previous tastings have been pleasurable and promising but the wine seemed to be still at sixes and sevens. Let it be said that tonight this wine finally delivered, made its best showing yet, flavors finally integrated. Wonderfully complex with a lemon squirt attack, tropical flavors on the mid-palate and a fairly long, custardy finish. Wowed the table. Haven’t seen a ‘97 Neyers Theriot. Wonder if there will be one?

PETER MICHAEL 1995 SAUVIGNON BLANC "L’APRES MIDI." For about 30 minutes this wine was an admirable match to my oysters, with lots of grapefruit and grass...then lapsed into vague melon-type flavors...then expired. Uh-oh. Drink up, lads.

     Onto the main event:

*½WOODWARD CANYON 1995 "CHARBONNEAU" Weird name for a Cab-Merlot, since it sort of rhymes with "Charbono." But I gotta say, I was impressed by this contender from Walla Walla. No cheap tricks here. Sweet, seductive fruit and beautiful balance. Deep, ripe blackberry flavors with a kiss of kirsch on the finish. Just 12.6% alcohol according to the label. Very sexy. Finished the rest tonight. Still very sexy.

But now let’s talk about...

**NEYERS 1995 CABERNET SAUVIGNON. Bang! Big, joyous mouthful of cherry-berry fruit with a lingering finish. plenty of streucture for aging too — ought to be even better in 5 or so years. Fruit comes from a favored place a little southeast of Calistoga. It’s more flamboyant and more alcoholic at 14.%. But, you know? It works really well.

     Nice going, Washington. I like you a whole lot — but better luck next time. [NOTE: We did it again a few weeks later. Click here to hop to next time.])

DIAMOND MT. DEELITE. (October 14, 1998) Found a fabulous new butcher up in Malvern, Pennsylvania. Stuck a 2-inch-thick cow strip on the grill beside Phylis’ salmon steak. Now how to honor this grand hunk of meat? Maybe it’s time to test-drive **VON STRASSER 1994 DIAMOND MT. CABERNET SAUVIGNON? Sure, why not. I feared it might be too stern, and tannins there are, but after about an hour in the big glass, I’m getting beautifully focused fruit — blackberry, cassis — and then, after another half hour, a wild, meaty perfume, part flower, part who knows. Texture gets velvety. What torture to put the rest away till tomorrow!

DEI 1995 VINO NOBILE DE MONTEPULCIANO. (October 13, 1998) The wines from this small producer have consistently impressed me in past years, so I was expecting great things from the 1995 Vino Nobile. Well...uh...I have to say I’m a little disappointed. It’s a very good wine, but seemed at first taste to be thinner and more acidic than, for example, the 1990. The fruit’s there but not quite as ripe and lush as I hoped for from this vintage. Maybe it’s just a little tight? I’ll revisit the rest of the bottle tonight.

PONSOT &. BERTAGNA. (October 12, 1998) Just when I think the days of good deals in Burgundy are over, along comes a wine like **BERTAGNA 1995 VOUGEOT "LES CRAS." It’s got everything — nice, fleshy fruit for now, with plenty of structure and depth for aging. There’s so much spice and cherry stuff swirling around in the glass that you almost forget the tannins on the finish. Plus, it’s got a racy attack cut that cuts to the heart of your meal. Went beautifully with yellowfin tuna last night. Not cheap, but didn’t cost the moon.

     A very different character was *PONSOT 1989 CLOS DE LA ROCHE. Started out a lot milder, with some notably sweaty aromas. But these dissipated, I’m happy to say, leaving a lively yet elegant wine. Lacked the power, but showed a little more complexity than the Bertagna tonight.

GOOD OL’ CAB & COW. (October 10, 1998) With Phylis still convalescing, steak is an easy standby — and when the wines are good, it’s awfully tough to get tired of it. This weekend, a visiting friend and I chowed down on New York strips, while staging a bout between the two heavyweight wineries of Highway 29.

    **MONDAVI 1987 RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON. Opened restrained, but quickly asserted itself, pumping on the sweet cassis and olive notes, finishing long. Didn’t seem to fade over four hours...but it’s missing a step, maybe, from bottles previously tasted. Think it’s probably bottle variation, as the one before seemed a lot younger. Nevertheless, it’s the winner and still champeen.

     *½ BERINGER 1990 RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON. In comparison to the Mondavi, this came across as sterner, but after about three hours began gushing fruit. Similar flavor profile, with a lick more licorice and mineral. A touch shorter, too. Tonight it bowed to the Mondavi — but wait till I open a ‘91!

PHYLIS DINES OUT. (October 4, 1998) Yesterday, at long last, my favorite convalescent felt well enough -- and bored enough -- to brave an evening out. We kept it low-key and local, meeting a couple of friends for dinner at the Chadds Ford Café. I selected the Angus filet with Portabellos and Gorgonzola; she chose the yellowfin. And yes, we did open some wines. In honor of Phylis, our friends had brought Flowers:

**FLOWERS 1995 CAMP MEETING RIDGE CHARDONNAY. A very classy Chard, reminiscent of Mt. Eden, with good acid bite, nutty nuances and a lengthy, custardy, finish. My first experience with Flowers and we were all impressed.

*SAINTSBURY 1996 CARNEROS RESERVE CHARDONNAY. Softer, leesier, with a distinctive coconut note. Worthy wine, but decisively trumped by the Flowers.

We had named Pinot Noir for the red theme, but were a little disappointed:

ROUMIER 1995 CLOS DE LA BUSSIERE. Nice dark color with a muted nose of black cherry. Acidic attack, very little oak, tannic finish. Mighty tight. There’s fruit behind the structure and this could develop into a fine bottle of Burgundy, but if so it needs at least a couple of years. Tough to read tonight. So we went on to...

DU MOL 1996 DUTTON RANCH PINOT NOIR. Medium ruby color leads me to expect a lighter wine and that’s what I get. The fruit is very pretty and varietally correct -- with tangy red cherry flavors. Structure is good but not overpowering and the oak is way in the background. A very well made wine, but lacking in complexity.

     Fearing that a white might be the wine of the evening, I reached in my bag for the secret weapon:

**1990 MONTELENA CABERNET SAUVIGNON. Super-dark. Swirled, sniffed, sipped, and looked up at friend Al who had just done the same. Almost simultaneously, we grinned and intoned "Doesn’t s*ck." It’s just beginning to open for business, but flavors are flooding out over the transom. Deep, ripe cassis and other black fruit surrounding a core of packed-up goodies that are waiting to explode five years down the line. If you want to open one now, reach for the oversized Riedels and have yourself a ball.

WHO WOULDA THUNK... (October 1, 1998) That two such delicious-tasting Pinot Noirs would evolve on such shockingly different course? Two years ago, I would have ranked **MARTINELLI 1994 RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY and W.H. SMITH 1994 HELENTHAL VINEYARD OLD VINES at the same outstanding level. Both were ripe, rich, bold Pinot Noirs with lots of glycerin.

     Two years later, the Smith seems to be thinning and fading, showing more oak, not less -- but the Martinelli has never been better! Medium ruby in the glass, it offers beautiful red cherry and cinnamon aromas, then fills up your mouth with delicious, complex, fruit. Acidity seemed kind of low at release, but now this is one nervy critter. Flavors remind me of a Rochioli reserve wine, although this stuff isn’t quite as extracted. Glad I have another bottle; sorry I don’t have six!

     SULTANS OF STAGS LEAP. (September 29, 1998) Ask anyone four years ago to name the premier producer in Stags Leap District and most would have told you "Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars." You’d probably get the same answer today, but I’m here to tell you they’re wrong. The heavyweight crown now belongs to SHAFER.

     Why? Well, first, because Shafer’s flagship wine, Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, has been going from strength to strength since 1986. It over-achieved impressively in the subpar vintages of 1988 and 1989, then went into overdrive starting in 1990.

     I would name 1992 as the year that Hillside Select finally overtook the long-reigning local champion, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23. Then, in 1994, Hillside Select simply shot out the lights -- it could well be the wine of the ‘94 Napa Valley vintage -- while Cask 23 was, well, disappointing.

     But wait, we’re not done. All through the ‘90s, Shafer’s less expensive Stags leap District Cabernet bottling has been outstanding as well -- easily, the best value for money going in SLD Cab.

     Then, in 1994, Shafer started producing one of the best Chardonnays in the valley, and possibly the single best non-malolactic Chardonnay produced in California.

     They have also introduced a Sangiovese-Cabernet blend called Firebreak, which, if it doesn’t deliver quite the value of some of my favorite Tuscan blends, is nonetheless one of the best Sangiovese-based wines coming out of California today.

     All this brings me to the wine I’m drinking tonight, SHAFER 1996 STAGS LEAP DISTRICT MERLOT.Deep ruby, with yummy chocolate-cassis aromas, followed up by a violet-kirsch perfume that rewards those who sniff twice. On the palate, it’s got medium weight and is very supple indeed. Concentration isn’t equal to the divine elixir that Shafer gets in its Cabs, but it’s not bad, and the finish is pretty decent too. While this is probably the smallest-scale red in Shafer’s muscular lineup, it’s nonetheless a delicious wine and fair value at $24.

    Nice going, Doug.

LIBATIONS (September 21, 1998) If ever I had something to be thankful for, it was the news from the surgeon on this Rosh Hashana. Operation successful — my wife’s going to be just fine.

     Later that evening, a couple of friends joined me for dinner and helped me unwind. We dug into some steaks and poured a few glasses of the good stuff. True, just about any decent wine would have tasted like nectar tonight, but I figured it was as good a time as any to uncork the **1992 COLGIN.

     It’s a big, deep, dark, red wine, but the readiest of any released to date. Beautiful black cherry aromas are followed up by gusher of fruit on the palate. Still a bit tight but opens enough to make you push your chair back and say "ahhhhhhhh...." Finishes long. Yes, I think I will have another sip.

     Also consumed that evening was a *1996 ETUDE PINOT BLANC. This is Pinot Blanc in a rich, decadent, leesy California style. Not a whole lot like the Alsace product, but I liked the difference a lot.

     Thanks be.

GIMME A MERLOT! (September 18, 1998) You know what I mind the most about wine snobs? They’re so predictable. Much more so than the poor shlubs they look down their snoots at.

     Take Merlot. Sure, it’s demonically popular at weddings, bar-mitzvahs and chain bistros. Sure, people order it just because it’s easy to pronounce. Sure, a lot of it tends to be overcropped, overpriced and, well, awful.

     But surer than all of these verities is the reaction you’ll get when you say the word to a wine snob. The twitch, the sigh, and the little disclaimer, "Well, of course, Petrus is nice." (I agree. At least I would — if I were able to drink enough Petrus often enough to generalize so broadly.) "But, California Merlot...WELL."

     Then, maybe, if the snob is really cool, you’ll start hearing about how you ought to be drinking Riesling or Gruner Veltliner.

     WELL, dear snobs, there was a time when Riesling was Merlot. (Remember the ‘70s? No? Well, you missed a lot of bad Riesling.) And someday — maybe 10-20 years from now — Merlot will become Riesling. It will be wonderfully cheap, because the world will be bristling with mature vines. And very cool, having long since passed out of fashion. And consistently terrific tasting, because only the best will find a decent market.

     Meantime, we unflinching Merlot-lovers can make do with *RAVENSWOOD 1991 PICKBERRY. (Yup, here’s the tasting note at last.) Still very dark ruby, with a little lightening at the edge. And, finally, drinking just swell. Thick and smooth as hot fudge. Berries below. The tail-end is barbed with just a lick of tannin. Lots of life left, but I’m drinking this sucker tonight and loving every sip.

     Okay, it’s only 60% Merlot, but the Merlot defines the wine.

     Anyone else tired of Merlot-bashing?

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