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Wine Reviews

Interpreting our Wine Ratings

Different publications and reviewers have different methods for rankings wines for their readers. The most popular system today is the 100-point scale. There are many reviewers that use a 20-point scale and still others 5-points. Some reviews use icons that look like stars, corks, bottles, thumbs up, etc. to communicate a wine’s overall quality. Icons are cute, I suppose, and those that are unique may be eligible for trademark protection. In the end though, icons are just place holders for numbers. Numbers appear to be extremely precise, but it’s not always clear what they communicate.

I’s not always clear where the numerical scale really starts. On the 100-point scale, it’s extremely rare to see a rating below 70. Whereas a rating in the 70’s communicates a wine that is really not very good one you wouldn’t want to buy, a rating below 70 indicates a wine so flawed that some sort of drastic corrective action is probably called for at the winery. On the 100-point scale, wines pretty much get 60 points for simply being in liquid form and having some measure of alcohol. But what about a 5-point system? Does a “1” translate to a 60 or would that be a zero? Is 4 equal to 80 or to 95? Who knows?

Another issue with the 100-point system is that it implies a level of precision that is not realistic over multiple tastings. Wines simply taste different from one day to the next. Our palates change too, even during the course of a single day. A wine that receives a 91 in a blind tasting one day might get a 92 or an 89 the next day from that same reviewer.

In setting up the ratings system for NorCal Wine, I’ve sought to do the following:
  • Avoid artificial precision
  • Clearly communicate our recommendations
  • Create a range of ratings between which there are meaningful differences
  • Provide ratings that can serve as a call to action

We provide four different levels of rating: recommended, highly recommended, very highly recommended and highest recommendation. On this scale, wines that are merely acceptable don’t make the grade. They aren’t recommended. For that matter, wines that are good and hit all the marks but don’t illicit any particular excitement on our part aren’t recommended either. I figure that if you’re going to read wine ratings on a website, you’re not looking for wines that are “pretty good.” You want wine that you’ll actively enjoy, not sip absent-minded. Those are wines that we “recommend.” For those of you who do like a 100-point scale, our recommended wines tend to be those other reviewers give 87 - 89 points. They are wines that you’ll enjoy but for which you might not want to spend a lot of money.

A wine we rate as “Highly Recommended” is one that has at least one feature worthy of special note. That may be complexity, concentration, purity, etc. These are wines that you would order a second glass of without considering the price. Something about them really captures your attention.  On a 100-point scale, they are in the 90 - 92 range.

“Very Highly Recommended” wines don’t capture your attention, they command it. Conversation ceases, except for short phrases like “Holy Cow.” This is a wine of which you’re going to want to buy more than one bottle. And you will probably be willing to spend over your normal price limit to get them. Whereas the “Highly Recommended” wine has one exceptional feature, the “Very Highly Recommended” has several. These are wines with charisma, wines that you don’t want to put down. “Very Highly Recommended” translates to about 93 - 95 points.

Our “Highest Recommendation” goes to wines that seem to correlate to 96 points or greater on the 100-point scale. These wines are so good that the phrase “cost is no object” may come into play for you. If the wine isn’t perfect, it’s pretty darn close.

Our ratings as described above do not take price into consideration. We don’t want to filter the qualitative ratings through our perception of the value of a dollar. In a world where many people won’t pay more than $20 for a bottle but restaurants offer Romanee-Conti for $3,000, there is clearly no universal standard for value. We provide a rating and the price, you can make your own decision about value.

That said, we do sometimes give different value-oriented ratings. One is “exceptional value.” Wines that we rate in that way may or may not be inexpensive and they aren’t necessarily the very best wines either. But, they are so good for the price relative to other wines in that style that our jaws drop a little bit. We say, “How can they sell this for that?” These are wines you might want to buy by the case. They are wines that make you feel a bit guilty about buying something else.

The final value rating we offer is “Best Buy.” These are wines that may not have made our “Recommended” list but are solid and at such a low price that we believe they merit your interest. These are wines to stock up on for parties and everyday drinking.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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Also check out
our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

Drinking a 1993 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Steiner Vineyard Sonoma Mountain

High quality California Pinot Noir is lovely seven years from vintage. They are more open and expressive. The bottle aging adds complexity to the nose and palate. Tannins resolve. But it’s a rare bird among California Pinot Noir that is still thriving after nearly 20 years, or Pinot Noir from anywhere really. The 1993 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Steiner Vineyards was a rare bird.

Steiner Vineyard, on the cooler, Santa Rosa side of Sonoma Mountain. Now, it’s included within both the Sonoma Mountain AVA (est. 1985) and the Bennett Valley AVA (est. 2003). It was originally planted by David Steiner in 1973. It’s been a source for both Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon and now also Chardonnay and Syrah. Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape most associated with Sonoma Mountain, but it does best on the much warmer Glen Ellen side. The Steiner Vineyard is not only on the cool side of the mountain, but lies in the breezy Crane Canyon Gap. In 2007, a replanting project was begun at Steiner Vineyard and it isn’t currently a source for Swan.

The 1993 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir Steiner Vineyard is one of two I bought a few years ago. Swan's Steiner Pinots were icons of the area, classic Pinot Noir, so I was very happy to have found these bottles. I drank the last one a couple of years ago and it was great and had plenty of energy. I could tell the final bottle would easily hold up for a few more years.


I cracked that last bottle this week with friends. I paired it with crispy-skinned game hen on black truffled pappardelle. The wine looked fairly fresh in our glasses. There was sediment in the bottle and some bricking of the color but, overall, it was still predominantly ruby. The of color intensity was light, but this wine was born lean — just 12.1% alcohol!

The nose was medium in intensity with aromas of forest floor, earth, dried strawberry and old moist wood. As the wine breathed, the fruit become more and more prominent and other notes developed too. The palate resembled the nose, though the tart, yet pretty, strawberry fruit was vibrant from the outset. That flavor was complemented by deciduous forest floor, earth and cedar. The wine was medium at most in palate weight with medium-plus acidity providing focus. The finish was long and the flavors faded gently and in unison.

I wish I had a few more bottles of this wine. It still has years of life ahead. If you fine one, snap it up.


The wine above was purchased. I have no familial relationship to the Joseph Swan of wine fame.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

6 Wines You Need to Try from the Vinify Cooperative Tasting

Vinify is a winemaking cooperative located in a Santa Rosa industrial park. Among the labels making their wine at Vinify are heavy hitters such as Sojourn, Bjornstad, Russell Bevan, Olson Ogden and Baker Lane. But the cooperative aspect and relatively low-cost access to space, equipment, etc. provides an excellent opportunity to new labels and small, boutique producers too. Tasting at Vinify events is a great way to discover the new outfits with the potential to be stars in the coming years.

There’s a lot of good wine happening in that area overall. Other wineries not affiliated with Vinify but residing in the same industrial park include Carol Shelton, Inspiration Vineyards and Natural Process Alliance/Salinia. Pisoni and Donelan (formerly Pax) are there too, but don’t have tasting rooms. And Siduri is just a few blocks away. If you’re going to be in the Santa Rosa area, it would be well worth your time to make some appointments and hit the industrial park wineries.


Vinify held one of it’s semi-annual tasting and sales events on Saturday, June 11. I was a late arriver, but still managed to taste 40 or so wines. Here are three Pinot Noir and three Syrah I thought especially noteworthy, consider all of them Highly Recommended:

2008 Baker Lane Sonoma Coast Cuvée Syrah, Sonoma Coast $25
I’ve yet to taste a wine from Baker Lane that I didn’t like. They were pouring two Pinot Noir and two Syrah on Saturday, all reflecting cool-climate, a broad palate with plenty of non-fruit complexity and restrained use of oak. You may well have tasted their 2007 Syrah already, which has been very well reviewed. The new 2008 release is just as good. Look for dark purple color and rich berry fruit interwoven with herbal and peppery threads. Very good now, but ageworthy.

2008 Bjornstad Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, Hellenthal Vineyard $40
Greg Bjornstad, too, had a whole lineup of reds that are worthy of your attention. Amongst them were very good bottlings from two of my favorite Pinot Noir vineyards, a 2008 Van der Kamp and a 2009 Keefer Ranch. The latter is not yet released. I’m going to single out the 2008 Pinot Noir Hellenthal Vineyard here though, because of it's unique profile relative to other Pinot Noir wines at the tasting. The vineyard is located in what Greg Bjornstad refers to as the “extreme Sonoma Coast.” The wine represents the location with higher acidity, tannins you can feel on your teeth and less glycerin-like viscosity than most North Coast Pinot Noir. There is plenty of ripe, red fruit on the nose and palate complemented by exotic spice and incense. Pair it with seared, Moroccan-spiced duck breast.

2008 Lattanzio Syrah Sonoma Coast, Fedrick Ranch $35
Justin Lattanzio worked Copain, Copain Custom Crush and Revana Family Vineyard before starting his own label at Vinify (of which he is also an owner). His wines are vineyard designates from cool climates. Fermentations rely on native yeasts and the final product is unfined and unfiltered. His 2008 Lattanzio Syrah Fedrick Ranch fermentation included 40% whole cluster and 100 pounds of Viognier. Its dark and complex, silky on the palate and peppery on the nose. The fruit is juicy and wreathed with purple flowers.

2009 Vaughn Duffy Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, Suacci Vineyard $39
Above I mentioned that Vinify is an incubator for new labels which may be future stars. Take note of Vaughn Duffy. If their future wines are as good as their first, you’ll be seeing the name a lot. Matt Duffy is relatively new to winemaking. But, he spent time at Siduri and has worked at Vinify for the past three years. His 2009 Pinot, along with a 2010 Rosé of Pinot Noir are the first wines he’s produced for himself. He made just two barrels of the 09 Vaughn Duffy Suacci Vineyard Pinot Noir. I know and am very fond of Pinot Noir from Suacci Vineyard and recognized that vineyard in my glass before being told what I was sipping. Tucked way back in the hills beyond Sebastopol, almost within sniffing range of the ocean, it’s a cool-climate spot where grapes ripen gently. Matt balanced the cherry fruit with tannins using 33% stem inclusion and complemented the Suacci herbal notes with delicate vanilla and sweet spice from half new, half once-used French oak.

2007 Westerhold Family Vineyards Syrah $42
I’ve drooled over this wine in articles before, but I’ll do it again. Made by Russell Bevan from Westerhold’s estate vineyard in Bennett Valley, it’s a tour-de-yum, if you’ll pardon my French. This wine won the “Syrah Shootout” at the 2010 Hospice du Rhone, owing in part to the dedication of John Westerhold who walked slowly through the vines wielding a leaf blower to dry the bunches, preventing late season fog and rain from creating rot. Much more efficient than using a ShamWow, but still quite an act of devotion. His efforts were rewarded with seriously good juice. It’s full of dark berries accented by earthy white pepper and a mélange of spice. It’s full-bodied, but not gooey. The fruit is rich yet balanced by well-integrated tannins. If you like this wine, set your alarm clock for Fall. That’s when the 2008 will be released. It’s shaping up to be equally good and won the 2011 Hospice du Rhone Syrah Shootout.

2009 Wren Hop “Siren’s Lure” Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast $54
Public walk-arounds aren’t ideal for serious tasting, let alone comparative analysis, but this Pinot Noir was the wine that got the most ‘+” signs in my notes on Saturday. So it’s good. Really good. Russell Bevan makes the wines for Wren Hop too and this one shows that he’s as skilled with Pinot Noir as with Syrah (and the Bordeaux varieties bottled under his own label). As Bjornstad’s Hellenthal shows the lean, taut personality of Sonoma Coast, Siren’s Lure shows its succulent side. The wine has structure, but the tannins are wrapped in silk. The acidity is ripe and and supportive rather than a focal point. The wine isn’t just a bowl of fruit either. It has subtleties and should reveal multiple layers of complexity with three or more years of bottle age.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Review: Eight California Chardonnays for Less than $10 per Bottle

Yesterday, Eva filled you in on a super-bargain in California Chardonnay. That was the 2008 Quail Creek Cellars Chardonnay selling at Whole Foods for $3.99 a bottle. But, that wasn’t the only sub-$10 Chardonnay we tried. Nor was it the best.

Today, I’ll give you a breakdown of the full tasting with all the results. And I’ll let you know what our favorite wine was.

2009 Kapcsandy Family Winery Roberta’s Reserve Merlot

Amazing things can come out of brown paper bags. I, Richard Jennings and friends had been enjoying a casual dinner in the back room at Donato Enoteca with Kevin Sidders of VinConnect when Kevin filled our glasses from a shrouded bottle and asked us to guess the wine.

We had already tried some of his excellent European imports, several very good wines from Italy and a tasty Chateauneuf du Pape. My favorite wine of the evening, had been the 2008 Clos de Tart Grand Cru. It was like a stroll in the country with aromas and flavors of dried strawberry, fresh cherries, pine and spice. I assumed the mystery wine would be something else from the old world.

It was dark ruby in color with pigmented legs. A Super Tuscan perhaps? Maybe Bordeaux.

I swirled then sniffed. Bam! There was an explosion of dark cherries, chocolate and purple flowers.

I took a taste. The wine was full-bodied and beautifully textured with plenty of soft, chewy tannins. A profusion of black and red cherries, chocolate and lovely spice filled my mouth. While enjoying the extremely long finish, I did a mental reset. It was a wine I’d never tasted before. I helped myself to more — for research purposes, of course. Definitely Napa Valley, but where?

Kapcsandy wines are produced entirely from their State Lane Vineyard in Yountville. For a quarter-century, State Lane contributed to Beringer’s Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Lou Kapcsandy and family purchased the land, about 20 acres, in 2000. Phylloxera had finally caused its grubbing up. The Kapscandys replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon (57%), Merlot (35%), Cabernet Franc (6%) and Petit Verdot (2%).

The vines are very densely planted — 2,640 vines/acre — to naturally limit vigor and force them to struggle despite the valley floor location. Kapscandy also drops nearly twice as much fruit as they harvest, striving for tiny, flavor-packed grapes that achieve full phenolic ripeness without high sugar levels.


Winemaking at Kapcsandy has undergone a gradual transition. Their first vintage, 2004, was produced by Helen Turley who also helped guide the replanting with John Wetlaufer, a viticulturalist and Turley’s husband. Rob Lawson of Napa Wine Company made the wines for the next two years in consultation with Denis Malbec. From 2007, Malbec has been the sole consulting winemaker.

Denis Malbec is a third-generation Bordelais vigneron. He was literally born at Chateau Latour where his father (Jean-Noel) and grandfather (Camille) had turns managing both cellar and vineyard. Denis Malbec worked there himself as enologist and cellar master for six years. He’s been in Napa Valley since 2000.

It is no coincidence that winemaking at Kapcsandy is now led by someone of Malbec’s background. Though Lou Kapcsandy has been visiting Napa Valley and tasting with its winemakers from the early 1960’s, his winery came about as a result of visits to Bordeaux with his son Louis Jr. The latter went on to co-found Grand Cru Imports, which focused on the wines of Bordeaux, to work for one of Bordeaux’ most important negociants (JOANNE), apprentice with Bordelais winemakers and eventually get an enology degree from U.C. Davis.

Louis Kapcsandy Jr. is responsible for operations at Kapcsandy as well as Grand Cru Imports. He and his father are involved in the blending of every wine. They also drive the winery’s attention to detail and pursuit of the highest possible quality, including a multi-step sorting process for the de-stemmed grapes. This results in pricing that is quite high for the low-production wines such as the Roberta’s Reserve, but comparable to many wines from Pomerol. And I’ve never had a better Napa Valley Merlot. Drink now through 2025. Highest Recommendation.

09-Roberta-Reserve2009 Kapcsandy Family Winery Roberta’s Reserve Merlot
Rating: Highest Recommendation
Drink: Now - 2025
Closure: Cork
Production: 260 cases
Retail Price: ~ $325.00

Winemaker: Denis Malbec
Blend: 96% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc

Origin: 100% Kapcsandy Family State Lane Vineyard, Yountville AVA, Napa Valley
Aging: 20 months in French oak, 90% new
Alcohol: 14.1%

Service Recommendations
Decanting: Not required
Temperature: 58º - 64º F
Food Pairings: traditional Osso Buco (without tomatoes)

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on Facebook

This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.