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Recapping an Epic Tasting of 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon

Why taste of a bunch of wines from all the way back in 1968? Is it a stunt or for bragging rights? No, it’s for the love of wine and the history of wine. My friend, Rich Meinecke, who organized the tasting and sourced almost all of the wines put it this way.

“Why 1968? It was a watershed vintage for California and Napa Valley, showing California could make world class wines. We see the emergence of ”boutique“ wineries (Heitz, Robert Mondavi and Mayacamas) to challenge and perhaps even surpass the big five (Inglenook, Krug, Martini, BV, Beringer). It was also the ”Wild West" period of California winemaking. Winemakers were willing to take chances.

I’ve tried to find wines that would still be alive, significant, educational and interesting. I want to look at the age-ability of California wines and set a benchmark for comparison to today’s wines. Do the old school wines age better? Are they more enjoyable when aged? Does it matter?"

I would add that some of these wines have historical significance beyond their mere age and the vintage overall, the last vintage at Ridge before Paul Draper’s arrival and the very first “Late Harvest” Zinfandel. Here’s what we tasted (the links take you to the commentary on each wine in this article):

1968 Hanzell Chardonnay Sonoma County
1968 Louis M Martini Pinot Noir Private Reserve
1968 Inglenook Charbono
1968 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de la Tour Private Reserve Napa Valley
1968 Buena Vista Cabernet Sauvignon Haraszthy Cellars Cask 102 Sonoma County
1968 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard Napa Valley
1968 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon Cask H–12 Napa Valley
1968 Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Selection Cesare Mondavi Napa Valley
1968 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Unfined Napa Valley
1968 Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Bello
1968 Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
1968 Mayacamas Zinfandel Late Harvest
1957 Ficklin NV Port

Hanzell Martini Charbono
"Starter" wines for the tasting of 1968 Cabernet Sauvignons. Photo: Fred Swan

About the 1968 Vintage
1968 was a warm, but long, growing season. There were some significant heat spikes, with one in late August and two in late September leading to sudden acceleration of ripeness. In some cases, such as Mayacamas’ Zinfandel, the spikes resulted in some raisining. Nonetheless, Stephen Brook characterizes grapes to have been “clean, intense and well-balanced.” He believes 1968 to have been the best vintage for California Cabernet Sauvignon since 1947.[1]

About our Tasting Venue, The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards
Finally, before I proceed to the wines, I want to express my appreciation to The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards for being such an excellent host for the tastings Rich and I have been holding over the past few years. Their private, downstairs dining room is a perfect venue for up to 18 people. The service is simultaneously friendly and professional, the food is delicious.

Fried Green TomatoesPork Chop
Crispy fried green tomatoes and Wente's signature smoked pork chop were among the excellent dishes for our dinner. Photos: Fred Swan

 1968 Hanzell Chardonnay Sonoma County
This wine was made by Brad Webb (d. 1999), Hanzell’s founding winemaker. The winery had closed down in about 1964 but re-opened under new ownership in 1967. Webb returned as winemaker while also taking on those duties at Freemark Abbey where he had become part owner.[2]

At Hanzell, Webb helped pioneer numerous winemaking techniques, including controlled malolactic fermentation, the use of glass-lined stainless steel fermentation tanks and the use of inert gas to prevent oxidation.

I don’t know exactly how he made the Chardonnay in 1968. My understanding is that it was probably old Wente clone fruit. Regardless, in this tasting intended to highlight Cabernet Sauvignon, Hanzell’s bright, powerful and delicious Chardonnay was so good that I’d have been content to drink nothing but that all night. Seriously.

The wine is amber with medium- color intensity, a water-white rim and some haziness. The nose is concentrated and lovely, showing baked pear and golden apple, baking spice, fresh herb and sweet cream. After a few moments, caramel and apricot upside-down cake emerged.

The palate is full-bodied and juicy with vibrant flavors of apricot, baking spice, pear and peach plus a talc-like texture. The wine stayed strong in the glass all night, developing additional nuances—one taster suggested Bananas Foster. The only negative note was some heat on the palate from alcohol. James Laube gave this 91 points in 1990. Today, I’m a point or two higher, Highly Recommended+.

 1968 Louis M Martini Pinot Noir Private Reserve
This wine was made by Louis P. Martini who studied winemaking at U. C. Berkeley and U. C. Davis[3] before taking over for his father in 1954. He passed the reins to his own son, Michael, in 1977. Though I can’t confirm it with certainty, I’ve been told that the grapes for this wine probably came from Stanly Ranch in Carneros.

Louis M. Martini (d. 1974) purchased 200 acres of the Stanly Ranch vineyard in 1942. He started experimenting with clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay there in 1948. Those trials continued through the 1950’s with some participation from the Wente family and U.C. Davis. Martini purchased additional Carneros acreage in the early 1960’s. Rich Meinecke says the old Martini Pinot Noir sometimes included some Pinot St. George (aka Nègrette).

Light garnet in the glass, the 1968 Louis Martini Pinot Noir was wholly tertiary throughout the evening: sanguine, earth, dark spice, old cigar box and shiitake mushrooms. The medium-bodied palate retains acidity and moderate talc-like tannins. The finish is quite long, maintaining flavors of earth, mushroom, dry herb and soy. While not a palette of tastes today’s Pinot drinkers expect, it is an interesting and enjoyable wine that would pair well with some umami-laden Japanese foods. Rich took the remains of the bottle home and tells me it blossomed overnight, showing some fruit and other youthful aspects. That said, drink ’em if you’ve got ’em.

 1968 Inglenook Charbono
The inclusion of Charbono in this tasting was a bit of a lark. Rich thought it would be fun to try, but I don’t think any of us was aware of the reputation Charbono used to have as an age-worthy varietal. I discovered in post-tasting research that members of the Inglenook Charbono Society routinely held bottles for decades and found that forty year-old wines looked and tasted half their age.

Our experience bore that out as this Inglenook was the surprise of the night and one of the evening’s most persistently pleasing wines. The color is still predominantly ruby, though there’s hints of orange at the rim. The nose is of baked red cherries and baking spice. The palate is nearly full-bodied, predominantly from fruit as the tannins and alcohol were both moderate. Rich flavors of baked cherry, baking spice, sanguine, earth, blackberry and chocolate kept us sipping. Recommended

BV Buena Vista Heitz
California icons stood toe to toe.
Photo: Fred Swan

 1968 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de la Tour Private Reserve Napa Valley
I had big hopes for this wine. One of Napa Valley’s “Big Five” Cabernet Sauvignon producers, Beaulieu Vineyards has consistently been an excellent producer. The flagship Georges de la Tour is particularly solid. Last year, we tried a 1958. It was vigorous and full of ripe fruit.

Our 1968 hadn’t weathered that well, but was still enjoyable. The color is medium+ garnet and the nose gives cause for concern, offering only Worcestershire and celery salt. The palate is much more attractive though. Flavors include chocolate, brown spice, raisin and Christmas plum cake. There are moderate, talc-like tannins, medium+ body and a finish that’s long and full of juicy fruit. Drink right away.

 1968 Buena Vista Cabernet Sauvignon Haraszthy Cellars Cask 102 Sonoma County
There’s a long, long history of Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma County and who better to represent that than California’s first commercial, quality-focused winery, Buena Vista. Perhaps the magical revitalization Jean-Charles Boisset and his team have worked on the winery and its grounds sent positive energy to this bottle. It was a winner. Still light ruby in color, it blends flavors of fruit and development. Appealing aromas of cherry and drying leaves are followed by saliva-generating sweet/tart cherry and brown spice. Medium+ body, moderate talc-like tannins and a long finish completed the satisfying experience. At its developmental peak, drink now through 2016. Highly Recommended

 1968 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard Napa Valley
Joseph Heitz is thought to be the second California producer to bottle vineyard-designated wine, the first being Ridge (Monte Bello). Heitz Cellar designated a Pinot Noir in 1967. 1968 was the debut for the Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

Martha’s Vineyard is located in Oakville and was originally planted in the 1950s. An aroma of eucalyptus, stronger in some years than others, is considered a hallmark of the vineyard’s Cabernet Sauvignon. Joseph Heitz was known to get quite upset when people characterized the wine that way though. He considered the aroma purely in keeping with the traditional Cabernet.

Bam! Cabernet of the night. Ruby, ruby in the glass with just the slightest tinge of garnet at the rim. The nose is irresistible with moist earth, red cherry, coffee and a delicate spray of eucalyptus Cabernet Sauvignon typicity. Full-bodied and delicious in the mouth, the flavors of tart, black cherry, earth and mint are fresh. Moderate tannins and acidity remain. This wine’s probably got a good decade ahead of it, but why wait? Very Highly Recommended

 1968 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon Cask H–12 Napa Valley
From the sublime to the… brunch wine? Bottles of wine are like people, you never really know exactly how long they’ll live or what they’ll be like when they’ve hit their 45th birthday. The mystery was even greater for this bottle than many. Inglenook was, of course, another one of the big five. Under John Daniels Jr., the winery produced some of California’s most celebrated Cabernet Sauvignon. A bottle from 1963 that I tasted with Rich earlier in the week totally delivered.

Daniels sold the winery’s name and about 75 acres in 1964. He stayed on as a consultant for a time but the new owners, Allied Growers/United Vintners, soon showed an interest in volume over quality. Drinks giant Heublein bought them out in 1969 and continued the trend. It’s unclear who made this wine which was vinified under one owner, then aged and blended under another. I’m pretty certain it wasn’t John Daniels Jr. though. It’s also hard to say where the fruit came from.

I called this a brunch wine because, all flavors wrapped into one, it smells and tastes like a Bloody Mary: Worcestershire, celery salt, tomato juice and even a grind of black pepper. I made that observation aloud, prompting journalist and wine-industry veteran Cy Musiker to suggest I was describing the wine accurately yet somehow making it sound better than it actually was. Fair enough. The bottle was D.O.A. Next!

 1968 Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Selection Cesare Mondavi Napa Valley
Yet another member of the Big Five and perhaps the one that gets less attention than it deserves. I’ve tasted of a number of long-aged Krug recently (1950’s and 1960’s). Profile and quality vary with the vintage but they’ve all been quite good. And, like the other four producers, Krug is still making very good wine.

This particular bottle was in excellent shape with a nose of sandalwood and exotic spice plus both red and black cherry. Fruit on the juicy palate was tart, yet jammy, red cherry along with brown spice and tobacco. Good for another 5 years. Highly Recommended+

 1968 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Unfined Napa Valley
Robert Mondavi Winery was founded in 1966 and released it's first release came in 1968.[4] 1968 was also the year Mondavi bought 500 acres of the legendary To Kalon Vineyard.[1] Beginning in 1971, the Robert Mondavi Winery Unfined Cabernet Sauvignon wines were marketed as “Reserve.”[4]

Another well-preserved 45-year old, our ’68 Mondavi Unfiltered was deeply-colored and only just garnet at the rim. The nose showed sweet black currant, brown spice and tobacco. The palate was medium+ in body with matching acidity and tannins, light and chalky. Flavors included tart raspberry and red cherry, spice and loads of caramel, all of which lingered generously. It will hold for a few years yet. Highly Recommended+

68 Mondavi Cabernet
When this label was printed, paint was still fresh on the now famous Robert Mondavi Winery building it depicts.
Photo: Fred Swan

 1968 Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Bello
Founding Ridge winemaker David Bennion [d. 1988] produced this wine in the historic winery/barn that’s attached to the current tasting room.[5] (Paul Draper joined the company in 1969 and didn’t assume all winemaking responsibilities until 1971.[6])

Crystalline ruby in the glass, this amazingly fresh wine delighted with its combination of vibrant fruit and tertiary notes. Aromas of black currant, red cherry and forest floor led into flavors red cherry, tangy red berries and cigar box. Medium+ body, acidity and talc-like tannins plus a lengthy finish. This was, with the Heitz, very clearly one of the two best Cabernets of the night. However, the Ridge didn’t weather an evening’s worth of air in the glass as well as the Napa wine so it mightn’t have as many strong years ahead of it. Very Highly Recommended

68 Ridge Monte Bello
Fun numbers: 2,300 feet, 1968 vintage, 12.7% alcohol.
Photo: Fred Swan

 1968 Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
Souverain, now located in Alexander Valley, was founded by Lee Stewart [d. 1986] on Howell Mountain in 1944. The derelict winery and vineyards he bought then had originated in 1884 as the Fulgencio Rossini estate.[6] Stewart sold to investors in 1970 who themselves sold the property to Tom Burgess in 1973. It’s been the home of Burgess Cellars ever since.

Wines from that vineyard are thought to be especially age-worthy and this particular wine had held up pretty well. Our bottle of 1968 Souverain Cabernet was fully-mature with aromas of moist earth, porcini mushrooms, soy and zesty herb. The palate was still full-bodied with chalky, medium+ tannins and juicy berry flavors. Drink Now. Recommended+

Mayacamas Ficklin
A great finish.
Photo: Fred Swan

 1968 Mayacamas Zinfandel Late Harvest
1968 was the year Robert (Bob) and Elinor Travers purchased the Mayacamas Vineyard and winery from the Taylor family which had operated it since 1941. Travers’ 1968 Mayacamas Zinfandel was late harvest by circumstance rather than intent. By the time there was an empty fermentation tank to accommodate that year’s Zin, the grapes had begun to raisin. Travers and his winemaker, Bob Sessions, who later took over winemaking at Hanzell, nonetheless fermented the wine dry. The result was a delicious, concentrated wine of 17.3% alcohol. That was the first time a Zinfandel had been labeled “Late Harvest” and was tasty enough to inspire others, including Paul Draper at Ridge, to emulate the style.[1]

Our bottle of ’68 Late Harvest Zinfandel held a wine just turning garnet and smelling of cherries, raspberries and… vinyl. All thoughts of pool toys disappeared with a sip though. The wine was full-bodied and long with sleek tannins and beautiful, vivacious flavors of kirsch and candied cherry. Absolutely delicious and likely good for another decade. Very Highly Recommended

 1957 Ficklin NV Port
Walter Ficklin Jr. planted his family's first vines in 1945. From the outset, Ficklin Vineyards aimed to make Port-style wine. By 1948, their Madera County vineyard held 15 acres of Alvarelhao, Souzao, Tinta Cao, Tinta Madeira and Touriga. Walter Jr.’s brother, David Ficklin, had studied fermentation science at U. C. Davis and made the family’s wines.

It might seem odd to see a year on the label of non-vintage “Port.” In this case it designates the final vintage included in the mix. The wine is a solera-style blend, primarily of Tinta Madeira (aka Tinta Negra Mole or Negramoll)[7], from vintages 1948 through 1957. It was bottled in 1960 and released in 1968. An attractive nose of creamy raisin leads to a much more complex palate with intense flavors of sweet baking spice, brown sugar, golden raisins, white chocolate and hazelnut that go on and on. It’s a full-bodied wine, sweet and fortified to 20% alcohol but without perceptible heat. Fully-developed but will hold for ages. Highly Recommended+

Conclusions
It’s impossible to know now whether or not California’s most iconic Cabernet Sauvignon of the 1960’s were more age-worthy than those made in the 1980’s, 1990’s or today. We have to see how the more recent wines last. However, this tasting proved once again that California’s best vineyards and wineries have the potential to make wines with tremendous aging potential.

Does it matter? That’s up to you. Consumer tastes have changed as has our willingness to cellar wines. New techniques in the vineyard and the winery have also made it possible to produce wines that are accessible immediately while retaining the ability to develop well over an extended period of time. Those people who do enjoy the complexity, tertiary flavors and graceful structure of thoroughly aged landmark wines shouldn’t hesitate to buy bottles when such as those above when they turn up at reasonable prices.

Note: An earlier version of this article stated that 1968 was the first vintage for Mondavi. In actuality, 1968 was when they first released a wine, but it was from the 1966 vintage.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. All rights reserved.


  1. Brook, Stephen. The Wines of California. Faber & Faber, 1999  ↩

  2. Laube, James. “Brad Webb, Pioneer of California Chardonnay, Dies” Wine Spectator October 4, 1999  ↩

  3. Adams, Leon. The Wines of America, third edition. McGraw Hill, 1985  ↩

  4. Lewin, Benjamin. Clarets and Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon. Vendange Press, 2013  ↩

  5. Bonné, Jon. “Monte Bello Through the Years” SFGate.com March 9, 2010  ↩

  6. Sullivan, Charles L. “A Companion to California Wine”. University of California Press, 1998  ↩

  7. Robinson, Jancis, Harding, Julia and Vouillamoz, José. Wine Grapes. Harper Collins, 2012.  ↩

Solving a Food and Wine Pairing Puzzle at Tadich Grill

Finding a good wine pairing for cioppino is a challenge. Cioppino is essentially a stew made with tomatoes, wine and all kinds of seafood — but always a lot of shellfish. There’s usually some celery and onion in there and plenty of garlic. Some restaurants add hot red pepper, others avoid that to emphasize the sweetness of the seafood.

Normally when we think of pairing wine with seafood, our mind goes to white wines. But, cioppino is a perfect example of why one needs to focus not on the protein but on the sauce when selecting wine. Scallops, crab and white fish could go with any number of wines. But, when you start throwing in a lot of tomatoes, plus garlic and hot pepper, the list of options shortens substantially. You can forget about Chardonnay and most other medium to full-bodied whites. They won’t have the acidity to hold up to the cooked tomatoes and will have all the charm of a mouthful of mineral oil. There are white wines that do have a lot of acidity, but many of them have neutral flavor profiles. Those wines might work as palate cleansers with cioppino, but so does water. What should you choose?

cioppino-small

Though the dish sounds like it comes from Italy, cioppino was actually “invented” by hungry San Francisco Italian-immigrant fishermen in the late 19th century. Not long thereafter, the dish moved from the fishing boats, where it was a fresh and easy one-pot lunch that warmed body and soul, to The City’s restaurants, where on cold, foggy July days it is a fresh and easy one-pot lunch that warms body and soul. It is served throughout the Bay Area, but Tadich Grill considers it one of their specialities. They serve hundreds of bowls of the tangy fish stew daily. What better place to go for advice on cioppino pairings?

Tadich Grill, which started business in 1849 as wharf-side coffee kiosk, is a busy place. Having moved to its present location in the Financial District in 1969, it’s become a lunchtime hangout for San Francisco’s movers and shakers, a mecca for well-informed tourists and a destination for truckloads of fresh fish. Tadich Grill takes no reservations, but moves people through in a hurry. Hence, conversations with the waiters are brief. “Excuse me kind sir, what wine would you suggest for the cioppino? Perhaps a crisp Sauvignon Blanc?” “No,” says the waiter. “Pinot or Zinfandel. You want more bread?” And away he trots.

Pinot or Zinfandel — that was unexpected. California serves up some rich Pinot Noir that still retains good acidity, so I could see where the waiter was coming from. Somehow though, it didn’t sound quite right. Zinfandel on the other hand seemed a brilliant call. Zesty with bold flavors yet low enough in tannins to play nice with fish, Zinfandel blends are probably also the wines the Italian fishermen would have been drinking in the 1880’s. The key, I decided, would be finding one that isn’t too high in alcohol.

While Zinfandel used to be the daily drink of Italian farmers throughout the Sonoma and Napa regions, and that of their relatives in nearby cities, at some wineries it has become like sipping whiskey. With intense flavors, heavily influenced by oak, and full body from high-alcohol levels created with extra-ripe fruit and superhero yeasts, these Zins make an impact at tastings and can easily chase a cocktail. However, they also steamroll a plate of food. Plus, drinking high-alcohol wine with food that may have hot pepper in it is almost literally throwing fuel on a fire. Reviewing the Tadich wine list, I saw four good Zinfandels, but three of them struck me as better options for a grilled steak. I chose the fourth, the 2007 Storybook Mountain Zinfandel Mayacamas Range Napa Valley ($34 retail, $50 on the wine list).

07_Mayacamas_24

The wine turned out to be perfect for the cioppino. Fresh, dark berry flavors parried the bright tomato and soft oak-derived chocolate married with the red pepper spice. Elegant and supple for a contemporary Zinfandel, the wine did not overwhelm the white fish, scallops, crab or mussels. Smooth on the palate, the Storybook went down easy and was enjoyed by all.

This was my first time at Tadich Grill and I was pleased with the experience. The prices are fair, even low for downtown San Francisco, and the portions quite large. Plenty of good San Francisco sourdough bread is provided for each table automatically too, so take care not to over-order. Dungeness crab leg cocktail and prawn cocktail appetizers were fresh tasting and included six pieces of the named seafood for $15.75 and $11.25 respectively. The Pacific Oysters Rockefeller ($19.00) also came with six pieces, but overflowed with the tasty cheesy-spinach topping and also included a huge tomato stuffed with same. That dish could easily serve as a main course. The “cup” of Boston Clam Chowder ($6.25) is thick, hearty and comes in bowl the size of a large coconut shell. I didn’t see any “bowls” of the chowder ($7.25) but can only assume the portion is large enough to bathe in.

Speaking of main courses, at $26.25, the cioppino is one of the most expensive items on the menu. But it’s loaded with clams, prawns, scallops, bay shrimp, Dungeness crab meat and white fish and comes with two pieces of garlic bread. You don’t need an appetizer and I think it’s a good value. At $17.75, the meat ravioi with meat sauce is a full plate too. Porterhouse steak was a special that evening for $21.75. It was wide enough to cover the whole plate but very thin and somewhat overcooked — ask for it rare.

And then there were the desserts. The Cheesecake ($7.25) was large but didn’t strike us as a specialty or something made on site. However, the Mixed Berries ($7.00) was a heaping bowl of very fresh and flavorful fruit. It comes with a massive quantity of Zabaglione Sauce that was flavored with something that may have been Grand Marnier. It was very good and a single order could satisfy at least three people. The Chocolate Mousse ($8.25) was the prettiest dish I saw come out of the kitchen and, while big enough to share, can be tackled by one person. The rich, not quite fluffy chocolate, is served in a cylindrical mold made from artfully wrinkled leaves of frozen chocolate and topped with a dollop of whipped cream.

As mentioned above, Tadich Grill doesn’t take reservations and that’s a policy from which they don’t waiver. However, they have a lot of tables, especially two- and four-tops, a large bar to make the wait pleasant, and move people in pretty quickly. They were able to seat my party, a group of 11, by putting together three four-tops, within about fifteen minutes and that was at 7:30 on a Saturday night.

Tadich Grill doesn’t have a website to speak of, but they are located at 240 California Street in San Francisco. That’s between Front St. and Battery St. They are open from lunchtime through 9:30pm, six days a week. They are closed on Sundays.

Storybook Mountain Vineyards is a Napa Valley winery whose 100% organic vineyard lies on the eastern slope of the Mayacamas Range. Their vineyards get direct morning sun but the harsh afternoon sun hits the vines at an angle, sparing them from its searing heat. Cool breezes come up from the San Pablo Bay to the south and over the mountains from the Russian River to the west. This keeps the average temperate for the vineyard about 10 degrees lower than for those on the valley floor. Clay soils and relatively high rainfall (due to moist air from the ocean reaching the dew point as it rises over the Mayacamas Range) allows the vineyards to be “dry farmed” for the most part. The site and weather allow Storybook to create concentrated, yet balanced, wine. Their offerings include very well-regarded Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier varietals. NorCal Wine Highly Recommends the 2007 Storybook Mountain Zinfandel Mayacamas Range Napa Valley ($34, 14.6% alc.)

All of the food and wine mentioned in this article were purchased at full price by my friends and I.

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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 outour 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 NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved. The Storybook Mountain Winery label art is property of that winery.

16 North Coast Rhones to Try and a Toothsome #WineChat

rhone rangers logo

Join Randall Grahm, David White, Meg Houston Maker, Melanie Ofenloch, Tina Spina Morey, Jameson Fink, Elaine Brown, William Allen and me for a live #WineChat at 6pm Pacific on Wednesday, April 2. We’ll be tasting wines from Bonny Doon, Cornerstone Cellars, Kieran Robinson, Tablas Creek and Two Shepherds.

Sign up to tune in here. It’ll be a fun, informative warm up for the upcoming Weekend Celebration of American Rhones.

Last Sunday, March 23, I headed up to Yountville for the North Coast Chapter Rhone Rangers tasting. The quality of the wines made the lengthy drive more than worthwhile. There were some wineries who’d also been at the Oakland tasting. I didn’t re-taste wines from that event. Here are the wines that made the top of my list Sunday in the order I tasted them:

2012 Miner “Iliad” White Blend
It’s soft on the nose with pear, apple blossom and a hint of banana. The palate is full-bodied and silky. Flavors include white flowers, vanilla, peach and pear. Highly Recommended

2013 Cornerstone “Corallina” Rosé
A pale-salmon rosé of Oak Knoll Syrah picked specifically to make this wine. The nose engages with fresh cut strawberries, flowers, vanilla and cantaloupe. Medium+ body and creamy, then lightly silky in the mouth, it offers peach blossom and mineral flavors. Highly Recommended.

2013 Two Shepherds Grenache Gris Gibson Ranch, Mendocino
Pretty in pink with light aromas of blood orange, rose petal and mineral. Flavors of cherry water, mineral and peach appear in the juicy palate. Highly Recommended.

2012 Donelan Roussanne/Viognier
Native yeast fermented and aged 10 months in neutral barriques and puncheons, this creamy wine shows white flowers, chervil, and waxy peach. It’s gently tangy on the palate with a mineral finish. Highly Recommended.

2013 Petrichor Rosé
A small production, 50–50 blend of Syrah and Grenache that’s pastel pink in the glass and smells of just strawberry cake crumb, spice and cream. It’s medium-bodied with very fine grip and lingering juiciness. Highly Recommended.

2013 Kale Rosé
68% whole-cluster pressed Grenache and 32% saignée Syrah. A fresh, spicy nose of passionfruit and grapefruit lead to a creamy palate with medium+ body and intriguing flavors that remind me of Pimms Cup with cucumber. Refreshing and Highly Recommended.

2010 Prospect 772 “The Brawler” Syrah
Dense, meaty aromatics of earth, spiced game and black cherry. The palate is just barely medium+ in weight but is packed with the flavors above, plus black pepper. Tannins are moderate and fine-grained, the finish long. Highly Recommended.

2010 Kieran Robinson Vivio Vineyard Syrah, Bennett Valley
Complex on the nose with five spice, resin, and dark berries of mixed ripeness. These follow through on the tangy palate. Medium to medium+ body with fine tannins. Just 12.9% alcohol. Highly Recommended.

2010 Maclaren Judge Family Vineyards Syrah, Bennett Valley
Earthy blackberry, spice and espresso flavors and a medium+ bodied palate with chalk. Only 12.7% alcohol. Highly Recommended.

2011 Maclaren Stagecoach Vineyards Syrah, Napa Valley
Black pepper, five spice and briary blackberry on the nose and palate. Medium+ body with fine, grippy chalk. Highly Recommended.

2006 Barrett Vineyards Syrah
Medium+ body and fresh. Flavors of forest floor, plum and spice. Lightly chalky tannins. Highly Recommended.

2010 La Sirena Le Barrettage Blend Calistoga AVA
This nod to the Northern Rhone’s Hermitage region is opaque in the glass with intense aromas of dark spice, earth, black fruit, licorice and cherry. Approaching full body. Fine tannins, lovely balance. Highly Recommended+.

2011 Donelan Syrah Cuvée Christine Sonoma County
Lithe but full-flavored with spice and a blend of red and black fruit. Fine, powdery tannins provide a very nice mouthfeel. Highly Recommended.

2011 Donelan Syrah Walker Vine Hill
Dark fruit, spice and a grind of black pepper. Medium to medium+ body with tannins of fine powder and chalk. Highly Recommended.

2011 Petrichor Les Trois
Opaque, masculine and funk forward. Rich aromas and flavors of earth, iron filings and animal. Medium+ body, fine-grained and chalky tannins. Very Highly Recommended.

2011 Kale Kick Ranch Cuvée
A co-fermented blend of 70% Syrah, 30% Grenache. Slightly earth red and black cherries on the nose with milk chocolate. Medium+ body and tannins (fine grain and chalk). Highly Recommended+.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

Tasting 12 of California’s Best Syrah with Antonio Galloni

Yesterday, I wrote about Antonio Galloni’s approach to tasting and rating wines. The genesis of that article was the 8th Annual Wine Advocate Seminar and Tasting at the CIA’s Greystone Campus. Today, I’m discussing the twelve California Syrah he selected for the tasting.

In his preliminary comments, Antonio Galloni said that his primary goal was to use twelve great wines to showcase the differences between Syrah from different regions in California. He also wanted us to evaluate each wine on it’s own, within it’s own context, rather than trying to compare the wines on a points basis. “They are standalone great,” he said.

Galloni also believes strongly that “it’s time to take off the training wheels” with respect to varieties such as Syrah and Grenache in California. That means no longer referring to them as Rhone varieties or trying to compare a wine from Sonoma Coast or Napa Valley or Edna Valley as being like a Cote Rotie or Cornas or Hermitage. There may be some similarities of course. The varietal is the same. But the regions are different, the individual sites are different and they deserve to be evaluated independently.

California’s Syrah wines won’t get the respect they are due while being constantly compared to wines from the Northern Rhone. It’s not that our domestic wines aren’t as good. The wines are just inevitably different and our great Syrah regions and vineyards need to forge their own identities.

Today, people don’t talk about Napa Valley being a great place for Bordeaux varietals. They laud Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Spring Mountain Merlot. We don’t tell the salesman at our local bottle shop we’re looking for a domestic Nuits St. George. We ask for California Pinot Noir with a certain character or from a specific region such as western Sonoma Coast or Carneros.

It’s a difficult situation though. The varieties we have been calling Rhone are still not as well known here as Cabernet or Pinot. Syrah hasn’t had a Robert Mondavi-like evangelist. Grenache hasn’t had a hit movie. And sales aren't as brisk as we might wish. But, Galloni is right. It’s time to create our own local points of reference.

Of course, that assumes region and site are important for Syrah and that the wines are worthy of the effort. Asked if he thought that Syrah reflected terroir as well as Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, he responded, “there’s no question that these wines can be as transparent to site... These aren’t just twelve great Syrah. They are twelve of the best California wines that I’ve tasted in the last few years. These wines actually transcend the grape.”

We tasted the wines, and I wrote my notes, in silence, three wines at a time. Then, Galloni gave us his thoughts on them. So, my notes below are solely my impressions of the wine. Galloni’s comments, which I recorded and have abridged, follow. He did not discuss scores, but I’ve added them as found on eRobertParker.com. I’ve included prices and case volume as available.

12 California Syrah selected by Antonio Galloni, in the order we tasted them:

Araujo Estate Wines Syrah, Eisele Vineyard, Napa Valley 2010
Fred Swan: Tangy dark fruit and herb on the nose with flowers, spice and smoked sausage. Full-body, very fine powdery tannins and medium+ finish. Packed with flavor; dark, meaty, delicious. Very Highly Recommended+
Antonio Galloni: More about Eisele than Syrah. I like the texture and smoky tobacco... It’s really highly reflective of where it’s from. 95 - 97 points

kongsgaard_labelKongsgaard Wines Syrah, Hudson Vineyard, Napa Valley 2009 - $150
FS: Bright black fruit, licorice and sweet herbal aromas. Full-bodied and long with fine, powdery tannins. Black licorice, black and red fruit, black Moroccan olives, earth and black pepper flavors. Engaging and beautiful. Highest Recommendation
AG: [I love] the textural richness and volume, but it’s not heavy. Incredible fruit and then the more varietal notes on the finish. A very sexy wine. 97 points

Colgin Cellars Syrah, IX Estate, Napa Valley 2009 - $175, 400 cases
FS: Sweet and briary dark red fruit on the nose with black pepper and high-toned spice. Medium+ body and tannins (chalky and grainy) with a long finish. A savory wine with a highly textured mouthfeel. Earthy spice, black raspberry, huckleberry and herb. Very Highly Recommended+
AG: Another beautiful wine I’m attracted to because of the amount of structure and freshness. Much more floral, more of a red fruit profile. I’m attracted to the higher, brighter tones. 96 points

 

Alban Vineyards “Reva” Syrah, Alban Estate, Edna Valley, 2008 - $94
FS: Very ripe black fruit, sweet herb, flowers and plenty of oak. Full body and rich, chalky tannins. Peppery black and purple fruit on the palate alongside dark flowers, spice, oak and tangerine rind. Lengthy finish. Highly Recommended+
AG: I fell in love with this wine the first time I tasted it in barrel, and then I found out the bottle was really better... It captures the house style. Voluptuous but not heavy. Floral notes throughout. I like the juxtaposition of rich fruit, but not heavy, with complexity. 96+ points

Piedrasassi Syrah, Rim Rock Vineyard, San Luis Obispo County, 2009
FS: Chocolate, black pepper, licorice, animal and eucalyptus aromas. Medium+ body and tannins (chalky), very long. Flavors of dark fruit, earthy spice, eucalyptus, black pepper and licorice. An earthy, peppery wine with rich fruit. Very Highly Recommended+
AG: Now we get into the more Syrah-like notes, the black pepper and licorice, grilled herbs, olives, black fruit, earthiness. This is a great wine to pair with food, great brightness and acidity. One of my personal favorites. 95 points

Paul Lato Syrah, Il Padrino Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley, 2010 - $95, 125 cases
FS: Bresaola, black pepper and purple fruit on the nose. Medium+ body and moderate, lightly chalky tannins. Earthy spice, dark fruit, bresaola and floral flavors. A long, meaty/savory wine with soprano notes of fruit and flowers. Very Highly Recommended+
AG: More of a lifted quality... much more floral, delicate and feminine. 96 points

 

Tensley Wines Syrah, Colson Canyon Vineyard, Santa Barbara County, 2009 - $56
FS: Aromas of grape soda, peach and five spice. Medium+ body and tannins (chalky, grainy) and a long finish. Flavors of grape soda, tangy herb, chocolate and spice. [I tasted this wine three weeks ago and didn’t get any grape soda notes then, just rich dark berries. Either way, it's really good.] Very Highly Recommended
AG: Interesting because it’s constantly changing in the glass. I find that so intriguing. Push and pull tension between feminine, graceful elements and more powerful and masculine structure and tannin. 95+ points

Samsara Wine Company Syrah, Melville Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills, 2009 - $48
FS: Very floral on the nose with black pepper and juniper berry. Medium+ body and tannins (fine, powdery). The palate offers rich, dark fruit, dark flowers and juniper with a long finish. Very Highly Recommended
AG: More of those floral notes. Very clear and distinctive notes of juniper berries. Very high-toned notes of stone fruits. It’s like an orchestra with all the bass notes in the middle and then all the high notes. 94+ points

Sine Qua Non Estate Syrah, “The Duel,” Santa Rita Hills, 2008 - $220
FS: Earthy black and purple fruit, chocolate and black pepper on the nose. Nearly full-bodied with medium+, very finely powdered tannins. Very sensuous and long with rich dark fruit, oak and chocolate. Highest Recommendation
AG: Textural opulence, rich, voluptuous. This wine is really precise, really beautiful. Super finessed. A very different expression of Syrah. More about ampleness and generosity and creaminess. 97+ points

 

Copain Wine Cellars Syrah, Baker Ranch, Anderson Valley, 2009 - $45
FS: Aromas of spice, dark fruit, flowers and exotic wood on the nose. Medium body and medium+ chalky tannins. A long, feminine wine of flowers and exotic spice. Very Highly Recommended
AG: Almost pinot-like in texture and its ripeness of fruit. There’s a really beautiful purity of fruit. The most mind-bending wine of this flight, because it’s definitely not heavy but it’s so flavorful. There’s an intense minerality. [Note: During the tasting, Galloni said that to him, minerality is “a tension on the finish”] It’s got so much going on yet, it’s so light. 94 points

Radio-Coteau Vineyards Syrah, Las Colinas, Sonoma Coast, 2010 - $48
FS: Flavors and aromas of tangy purple fruit, sweet exotic spice and herb. Medium body and tannins (chalky). Long. Very Highly Recommended
AG: A wine of contrasts: very bright red fruit and then you have black pepper, savory notes, herb, earthiness. Constantly changing. It’s difficult to describe these wines sometimes because every time you taste them there’s something different. A dazzling wine. 93 - 95 points.

Arnot-Roberts Syrah, Griffin’s Lair Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2010 - $55
FS: Very earthy and meaty with elements of barnyard and black pepper. Medium body and tannins that are chalky and drying. Excellent length. A polarizing wine, but I like it. Very Highly Recommended
AG: The elegance of the Radio-Coteau, but it has more fruit, more body, more volume. It shows the richer side of Sonoma Coast Syrah. 95 points.

 

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 NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Delicious Bites and Sips from the ZAP Epicuria Food and Wine Pairing Evening

When sommeliers talk about wines that pair well with food, Zinfandel doesn’t usually make the top ten list. Nonetheless, there are many foods for which it’s a great match.

Each year at the ZAP! festival, there is an evening devoted to showcasing how Zinfandel goes with food. Scores of wineries pour one wine each. Each winery is teamed up with a restaurant whose chef prepares a dish to go with that wine. Attendees wander from table to table, trying the combinations.

This year’s pairing event, dubbed Epicuria, was the best I’ve attended. The quality of the wines was very high. The food was consistently good. There were also some truly excellent dishes — not an easy feat to pull off for hundreds of people in an exhibition hall. And there were a few revelatory pairings.

Fried foods are often served with sauce that adds a counterpoint of tangy sweetness: ketchup with french fries, remoulade with crab cakes or honey-mustard with chicken fingers. Paul’s Paella of Alameda served up deep fried balls of paella, sans sauce. Very similar to arancini, they were crisp on the outside but soft and almost creamy on the inside. With R & B Cellars 2009 Zydeco Napa Valley Zinfandel to sip on, the sauce wasn’t missed.

paella-balls

When matching wine with food, people usually dwell on the main protein. Often the sauce is more important though. Swan Oyster Depot [no relation] used that principle to make a dish which was simple, yet a brilliant pairing. It is also something you might easily make at home: shrimp cocktail. Small, pink bay shrimp were served in a cup with a generous dollop of cocktail sauce dosed with plenty of horseradish. The sauce was an excellent foil for the briny shrimp. The slightly jammy 2010 Peach Canyon Especial Estate Zinfandel from Paso Robles soothed my mouth after the horseradish and readied me for another bite. [For something in a similar vein, consider Zinfandel with cioppino.]

My favorite plate of the evening was from Rose Pistola. It won a James Beard award for best new restaurant upon opening in 1996. The cuisine is inspired by the food of Liguria, a region on the northwestern coast of Italy. [Trivia: Rose Pistola is located on Columbus Avenue. The street is named for Christopher Columbus who was born in Genoa, which is within Liguria.]

Rose Pistola’s dish was black truffle and ricotta ravioli with golden raisins, orange zest and delicately-browned butter. Never before have I been tempted to lick a paper plate. It was paired with the 2009 Storybook Mountain Eastern Exposure Estate Zinfandel from Napa Valley.

truffled-ravioli

This Storybook Mountain wine tells an interesting tale, but doesn’t shout. Complex and textured, it offers delectable berry fruit adorned by a range of spice, mineral and oak derived notes. A splash of Viognier, unusual for Zinfandel blends, contributes white floral notes and expands the spice box. In the pairing, black truffle and warm butter played off the earth in the wine, the orange zest danced on the berries and picked up the Viognier spice and flowers. Meanwhile, the fruit were a natural pairing for the ricotta cheese and provided a clean finish.

One of the best pairings for Zinfandel is braised meat. Tender, slow cooked beef or pork have a softness of texture that matches up well with the softness of some Zins. So do the deep flavors instilled by braising liquid which often includes a red wine reduction.

One of my favorite bites was from Componere Fine Catering. They braised and finely shredded pork cheek, made it into small patties and then pan-fried them until crispy. Resting on a pillow of smoked mashed potatoes, they were garnished with spicy pickled fennel. Mauritson’s 2009 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel added a punch of ripe dark fruit, making a complete dish: savory, sour, salty and fruity.

pork-cheek

Pican, an Oakland restaurant offering cuisine with a Southern accent, took braised pork in a different direction. They smoked a Berkshire pig before braising it in an intricately-flavored molé sauce of peanuts, chiles, Coca-Cola and chocolate. It was served hot in cup on creamy grits elevated with black pepper. The dish echoed the attributes of Carol Shelton’s Old Vine Zinfandels, rich in texture and flavor with both sweetness and a spicy kick.

pork-mole

Blue cheese is a tough food to pair. It’s intense, tangy flavors and saltiness overwhelm most wines, be they red or white. A boldly fruity wine with noticeable sweetness and only moderate oak is called for. Many people surrender and grab a bottle of Port. Zinfandel can work though and allows you to move from a meat course into cheeses without changing wines and swapping glasses.

Cuvee Napa prepared tasty truffles with a core of Shaft Creamery’s Elies Vintage Blue Cheese rolled in crushed black walnuts from Mendocino. It was a powerful bite: mouth-coating and strongly flavorful. The 2008 Saddelback Cellars Old Vine Zinfandel harmonized and cleansed the palate.

cheese-balls

Good Zinfandel is an excellent match for food. It can provide a fruity contrast or spicy accent. It will cut through oily and creamy dishes or act in place of a zesty sauce. The right Zinfandel can take you all the way through a meal, from fried hors d’oeuvres on to a seafood course, a meaty main and then the cheese. Just save some for dessert.

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 NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Photos by Fred Swan. All rights reserved.

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