Search Results for 'mondavi'


Robert Mondavi Winery established a reputation for the sauvignon blanc grape soon after the charismatic and innovative Robert Mondavi broke away from his family and established his own winery in 1966. Long a neglected grape in California, used for blending generic proprietary white wines or badly made on its own, sauvignon blanc became in his hands a fresh, grassy, appealing wine that bore a made-up French name on the label, “Fumé Blanc,” a nod to the Pouilly-Fumé appellation in the eastern Loire Valley, where sauvignon blanc reigns supreme. The result was a marketing triumph. In fact, some wineries in California still maintain a theoretical distinction between sauvignon blanc wines, supposedly made in the fashion of white Bordeaux, and fumé blanc wines, fashioned in the Loire Valley manner, if such distinctions can practically be made.

Today I look at three fumé blanc wines from Robert Mondavi. While I give out two Excellent ratings here and one Very Good+, my caveat is that the winery seems to make a fetish of French oak barrels and of employing every possible winemaking technique to shape a sauvignon blanc in a particular image rather than — especially in the instances of the Oakville 2014 and Reserve 2014, made from the almost hallowed To Kalon Vineyard — allowing the character of the vineyard to achieve eloquent expression. One feels, again particularly for the Reserve ’14, that the wines were poked and prodded and minutely examined rather than being allowed a natural development. Still, two Excellent ratings out of three ain’t bad. I especially liked the basic Fumé Blanc 2015, which at about $20 rates as a distinct bargain.

Director of winemaking for Robert Mondavi is Genevieve Janssens.

These wines were samples for review.
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The winery’s basic product in this iteration is the Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2015, Napa Valley, a blend of 96 percent sauvignon blanc grapes and 4 percent semillon. The grapes derived from a Wappo Hill vineyard in Stags Leap District (70 percent); from Mondavi’s famed To Kalon Vineyard (13 percent), with the balance from Napa Carneros. Eighty-five percent of the juice was barrel-fermented — the rest in stainless steel — and then aged five months in French oak barrels on the lees, hand-stirred twice a month. This is a smoky sauvignon blanc, truly fume, that offers a very pale straw-gold color and entrancing aromas of roasted lemons and lemon balm, lime peel, pea shoot and lilac. The texture is silky, talc-like but balanced by bright acidity and the burgeoning edge of limestone minerality, all in support of pert and tart flavors of guava, greengage, lemon and heather, the latter for a subtly grassy touch; spicy oak stays at the filigreed periphery. 14.5 percent alcohol. One of my favorite sauvignon blanc wines of the year. Drink now through 2019 or 2020. Excellent. About $20, marking Great Value.
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The Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2014, Oakville District, contains 21 percent semillon grapes, a factor that lends the wine notes of honeydew melon and fig and a particular sunny-leafy aspect that I associate with the variety. Ninety-one percent of the wine fermented in French oak and then aged on the lees for eight months, undergoing regular bâtonnage (hand-stirring); only eight percent of the oak was new barrels. Grapes for this wine derived from the renowned To Kalon Vineyard that surrounds the winery in Oakville. The color is pale gold; besides the features I already mentioned, the wine teems with hints of lime peel and lemongrass, crushed gravel, verbena and fennel, hay and heather. Vivid acidity and scintillating limestone minerality provide the balance between fruit and oak, which indeed as the moments pass becomes a dominating aspect of the wine: dry, spicy and burnished, a bit more powerful than I would like. Still, this sense of tension and resolution in texture and structure gives the wine its exciting quality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 to ’20. Excellent. About $40.
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Strangely, or sadly, my least favorite of this trio of sauvignon blancs is the Robert Mondavi To Kalon Reserve Fumé Blanc 2014, Napa Valley. The amount of new oak increased to 42 percent, the aging to nine months, from the previous example; a small difference one might think, but enough to make this wine feel burdened by its wood regimen rather than enhanced, at least from mid-palate back through the finish. There’s a bare two percent semillon. The grapes came from the To Kalon Vineyard, half from Robert’s Block, first planted in 1960. A small portion of the fruit was fermented in cement egg-shaped containers and was added to the final blend. Of course the wine was barrel-fermented and hand-stirred in barrel. The color is very pale straw-gold; aromas of lime peel and celery leaf, lemongrass and preserved lemon are woven with notes of spiced pear, tangerine and just a hint of fig, all abetted by a snap of gunflint and graphite. The wine offers a texture almost dense in its fluid materiality, though it’s lightened and heightened by vibrant acidity and a sense of lithe energy. That oak, though, develops from a subtle haze to a formidably drying factor in the mouth, powering over all other aspects to become the wine’s raison d’etre. Through all the technique exercised in the winery, does the character of the vineyard shine through? It just feels all too handled. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $52.
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When the Mondavi family sold the Robert Mondavi Winery to Constellation Brands in 2004, no one assumed that the children of patriarch Robert Mondavi (1913-2008) — Michael, Tim and Marcia — would roll over and find jobs outside the wine industry, say in teaching or marketing or going to law school. No, wine and the Napa Valley were in their blood. Ten years later, Tim and Marcia own Continuum Winery on Pritchard Hill (whose products I have not tasted), while Michael and his family, wife Isabel and children Rob and Dina, preside over an empire of sorts that under the Folio Fine Wine Partners umbrella includes an arm that imports wines primarily from Italy but also Germany, Austria and Spain, and Michael Mondavi Family Estate, which includes the Isabel Mondavi, Emblem, Animo and M by Michael Mondavi labels. It’s the last three cabernet-based wines that concern us today.

Cabernet sauvignon is a natural fit for Napa Valley and for the Michael Mondavi family. That grape variety grew in importance with the reputation of Napa Valley and the Robert Mondavi Winery, which, along with others, exploited key vineyard sites to produce profound wines. Whether the grapes come from the valley floor, foothills or mountainside, cabernet sauvignon and Napa Valley are inextricably linked. Michael and Isabel Mondavi and their children presciently purchased the vineyard on Atlas Peak, renamed Animo, in 1999. It provides grapes for the flagship M by Michael Mondavi label but only became its own brand with the 2010 vintage reviewed below. True to the vineyard name, the Animo 2010 and the M 2010 feel imbued with a life force of vibrant animation. I found previous renditions of the Emblem wines well-made and flawless technically but somewhat stolid and uncompelling. For 2011, however, while the ‘regular” Emblem requires a year or two to lose some youthful brusqueness, the Emblem “Oso” is fine-tuned and engaging.

These wines were samples for review. Image of the Mondavi family from jamesbeard.org.
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Poor Emblem Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley, falls between the cracks on the winery’s website, which lists the 2012 for sale but explicates the full technical details about the 2010. I can tell you only that the wine aged 22 months in French oak barrels, 66 percent of which were new. The color is dark ruby fading to pretty translucence at the rim; intense and concentrated aromas of black currants, black raspberries and plums are infused with notes of loam and some pleasant briery-brambly raspiness; a few minutes in the glass bring up hints of cloves, lavender and graphite. This is a wine of tremendous substance and presence, filling the mouth with dusty, grainy tannins and granite-like minerality, being rather sinewy and lithe in character. Alcohol % NA. The wine feels a little inchoate presently; two or three years should bring it around and smooth the edges. Very Good+. About $35.
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The grapes for the Emblem Oso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley — 87 percent cabernet, 13 percent petit verdot — were grown in the eponymous vineyard at about 1,250 feet between Sugarloaf and Howell mountains in the northeastern region of the appellation. The wine aged 20 months in French oak, 77 percent new barrels. The deep ruby color shades into magenta at the rim; the lovely, seductive bouquet features notes of mulberries, black currants and cherries, with hints of cardamom and ancho chili, violets and lavender and lightly toasted bread; a few minutes in the glass bring in a touch of macerated plums. It’s an elegant, fit and trim cabernet that has been working out at the gym faithfully, as evidenced by its sleek, supple texture and lithe structure built upon finely sifted tannins and polished oak; stay with the wine for an hour or so and you detect leathery tannins and more prominent graphite minerality, leading to a taut, rather austere finish. 13.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $60.
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Animo Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. This wine contains 83 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and 17 percent petit verdot, derived from the 15-acre Animo Vineyard on Atlas Peak, elevation from 1,270 to 1,350 feet; it aged 20 months in French oak barrels, 87 percent new. The color is dark ruby with a tinge of magenta at the rim; the first impression is of graphite perfectly sifted with loam, charcoal and granitic minerality, followed by notes of iodine and iron, underbrush and walnut shell. This description makes the wine sound as if it’s all structure, but it unfolds elements of spiced and macerated and deeply ripe black currants and cherries with a touch of plum, highlighted with hints of blueberry tart, lavender and black licorice. You feel the mountainside in the wine’s indubitable lithic character, but ultimately it turns out to be a fitting marriage of power and elegance, a multi-faceted cabernet etched with fine particulars; the finish is long and a bit austere, packed with spice and minerals. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink now, with medium-rare dry-aged rib-eye steaks, hot and crusty from the grill, through 2020 to ’25. Production was 860 cases. Excellent. About $85.
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Also from the Animo Vineyard but 100 percent varietal, the M by Michael Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley, spent 28 months in French oak, 87 percent new barrels. The grapes were harvested from small selected areas at the highest point of the vineyard. The color is opaque ruby; boy, this is a fleshy, meaty, sanguinary cabernet, flush with ripe and slightly roasted-feeling black currants, raspberries and plums permeated by mocha, tobacco and granitic minerality and a back-note of plum pudding and all the touches of dried spices and candied fruit such confection allows; a few minutes in the glass bring in earthy elements of burning leaves, dried porcini and underbrush. This is, as you can see, a bouquet of impressive layering and complexity. In the mouth, well, this behemoth coats the palate with dusty grainy tannins, burnished yet not obtrusive oak and graphite; the texture is lithe, sinewy and supple, and all its qualities, included surprisingly succulent black fruit flavors, are sewn together by fresh acidity. While M 2010 is a powerful, dynamic cabernet — don’t look for elegance — its grave dimensions are tempered by attention to detail, though the finish is substantial, dignified and fairly austere. 14.3 percent alcohol. Try from late in 2015 or 2016 through 2025 or ’28. Excellent. About $200.
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Few wineries in Napa Valley and indeed in California are as iconic, both physically and metaphysically, as the Robert Mondavi Winery. Its mission-style facility on Hwy 29 on Napa Valley is unmistakable. The story has often been told of how Robert Mondavi (1913-2008), in a feud with his brother Peter about the operation of the Charles Krug winery, left that business and launched his own winery in 1966, eventually becoming a wine-juggernaut of world-wide innovation and influence. As they say, the rest is history, though the history of the winery related on a timeline on the company’s website skips from 2002 to 2005, omitting the fact that the over-extended family sold the kit-n-kaboodle to Constellation Brands in November 2004 for a billion dollars. The wise move that Constellation made was to retain Genevieve Janssens as director of winemaking, a position she has held since 1997, thus lending a sense of continuity and purpose. Modavi continues to release a dizzying array of products — a rose! a semillon! (neither of which I have seen) — but the concentration is on the varieties that made its name, often produced at levels of “regular” bottlings, single-vineyard and reserve: cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Today, in this series, I consider the Robert Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, from 2012.

These wines were samples for review.
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Let’s start with red, this one being my favorite of the pair. The Robert Mondavi Reserve Pinot Noir 2012, Carneros, Napa Valley, spent 10 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels, and to my mind that’s a lot of new oak for pinot noir. Despite my opinion, however, the grapes soaked up that oak, and the wine came out sleek and satiny; this is no ethereal, evanescent pinot noir, but a wine of substance and bearing. The color is dark ruby with a purple/magenta tinge; aromas of black cherry and raspberry are bolstered by notes of pomegranate and sassafras, oolong tea, graphite and loam, all in all retaining a winsome quality in the earthiness. Nothing winsome on the palate, though; while the texture is wonderfully supple and attractive, and the black and red fruit flavors are deep and delicious, this is a pinot noir that takes its dimensions seriously, as elements of new leather, briers and brambles and slightly woody spice testify. 14.5 percent alcohol. At not quite two years old, the Robert Mondavi Reserve Pinot Noir 2012, Carneros, Napa Valley, is still in its formative years; try from 2015 or ’16 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $60.
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Unfortunately, the Robert Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay 2012, Carneros, Napa Valley, pushes all my wrong buttons as far as the chardonnay grape is concerned. The color is medium straw-gold; with its rich and ripe mango-papaya trajectory, this is more tropical than I would want a chardonnay to be, not even accounting for its creamy elements of lemon curd and lemon tart, its vanilla and nutmeg and touch of lightly buttered cinnamon toast. The wine aged a sensible 10 months in French oak barrels, 58 percent new — that’s the sensible part — but its over-abundant spice and its nuances of toffee and burnt match detract from the grape’s purity of expression, and it lacks by several degrees the minerality to give the wine balance and energy. I know, I know, many of My Readers are going to say, “Well, look, FK, this is an argument about style, not about whether this is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ wine,” and I will reply, “Yes, I’m aware of that fact, but a style of winemaking that obscures the virtues of the grape is folly.” This is, frankly, not a chardonnay that I would choose to drink. 13.5 percent alcohol; that’s a blessing. Now through 2017 or ’18, but Not Recommended. About $40.
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Bittman being Mark Bittman, and the recipe was the Baked Rigatoni with Brussels Sprouts, Figs and Blue Cheese from his recently published The Food Matters Cookbook (Simon & Schuster, $35). Mondavi being the Robert Mondavi Winery and its Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2012, Napa Valley. The match: Exquisite, though allow me to emphasize, as anyone writing about food and wine pairing should, that there’s no such thing as one wine being the sole Platonic beverage to sip with one particular dish; both food and wine are more versatile than that “perfect marriage” trope would have you believe.

Anyway, I think Bittman wouldn’t mind that we added a handful of diced applewood-smoked bacon and a scattering on top of homemade breadcrumbs to enhance the dish, since he offers variations on many of the book’s recipes himself. And the combination of bacon, figs and blue cheese seemed a triumvirate almost unholy in its synergistic appeal. Cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts (and, notoriously, artichokes) can be difficult to match with wine because of the presence (Education Alert!!) of phenylthiocarbamides, which produce bitterness — the ability to detect PTC, by the way, is genetic — and the sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates. Still, in this dish the Brussels sprouts are chopped and distributed throughout along with other ingredients and the whole shebang baked. For the wine, I chose the Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2010 almost randomly and with a trace of doubt. I need not have worried.

The grapes for the wine derive from the Wappo Hill Vineyard in the Stags Leap District (51 percent), from Mondavi’s well-known estate vineyard To Kalon in Oakville (30 percent) with the remaining 19 percent from other vineyards in Napa Valley, the point being to balance grapes from different microclimates in terms of the effect that varying temperatures and soils have on their development and character. Sixty-nine percent of the grapes were fermented and then the wine aged five months in French oak barrels, the rest in stainless steel tanks. The blend is 94 percent sauvignon blanc and six percent semillon grapes. Winemaker is Genevieve Janssens.

The Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2010, notable for restraint and elegance, offers a pale straw-gold color with faint green highlights. Aromas of lemongrass, roasted lemon and verbena sift from the glass with back-notes of freshly mowed hay, lime peel, fennel seeds and a bare whiff of fig and gooseberry; you detect just a touch of oak in a sort of blond shimmer of wood and spice. This seeming welter of sensations is subdued to an admirable structure of harmony and poise, though there’s nothing delicate or fragile about it. It’s a mouth-filling wine, not quite dense but certainly displaying pleasing heft on the palate; at the same time, there’s an element of fleetness and transparency, abetted by crystalline acidity. To the citrus and herbal qualities are added hints of quince and ginger, a slightly more emphatic dose of fig — there’s that semillon! — and an ineffable quality of sunny leafiness through the finish. Again, you feel the oak as an influence on the wine’s spicy nature and the suppleness of its texture. Somehow the wine made a terrific match with the Baked Rigatoni with Brussels Sprouts, Figs and Blue Cheese (and Bacon), allowing everything rich and savory and slightly sweet about the dish to have complete integrated expression and in turn bringing out the savory, spicy qualities of the wine. Drink now through 2014. Excellent. About $20, an Incredible Bargain.

This wine was a sample for review.

In the deep backward and absym of time, I used to receive samples from Robert Mondavi Winery, usually twice a year in the form of a case of new releases. After Constellation bought Robert Mondavi at the end of 2004, though, for whatever reason, I stopped receiving samples from the winery; was it something I said, or perhaps it had to do with my switching from a weekly newspaper column to my own website (the old KoeppelOnWine.com, which operated from December 2004 to April 2008). In any case, I was happy to open a two-bottle box recently delivered to my threshold and find the Robert Mondavi Chardonnay 2010 and Pinot Noir 2010. Even more happily, the wines are terrific models of their kind, and while the products featured in “Pairs of Great Wines” are often rare and expensive, these represent high quality for not exorbitant prices and are widely available. Director of winemaking for Robert Mondavi is Genevieve Janssens.
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I found the Robert Mondavi Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley, entrancing, and of course it didn’t hurt that the wine is an example of precisely what I want chardonnay to be: stony and steely but with plenty of tasty fruit and chiming acidity and a texture that balances lushness with litheness. So, there’s the review right there, but I’ll expand on the theme a bit so you’re familiar with the technical thinking behind it. Seventy-seven percent of the juice was fermented in French oak barrels, 15 percent new, with the remaining 23 percent fermented in stainless steel tanks; these lots aged for 10 months on the lees, that is, the residue of used-up yeast cells, a process that can add depth and character to a wine. The color is radiant pale gold; aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit open to notes of baked pear, ginger and quince and hints of jasmine and limestone; a hint of mango adds complexity. In the mouth, this chardonnay at first is spare, almost lean with its dominant limestone and steel qualities and vibrant acid nature, but the citrus and stone fruit flavors offer burgeoning spice and smoke over a mounting oak presence (from mid-palate back) that contributes firmness and a pleasing, almost powdery finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $20, marking Great Value.
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My first note on the Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley, is “absolutely beautiful.” The wine spent only seven months in French oak, 34 percent new barrels, so the wood influence is almost subliminal, yet it’s there, shapely and suavely spicy. The color is dark ruby with a mulberry-magenta cast. Aromas of smoky black and red cherries are infused with cola and cloves, pomegranate and rhubarb, all singing over bass-notes of slightly earthy briers and brambles. In the mouth, ripe and spicy black and red fruit flavors (and a touch of dried fruit) exist in complete harmony with the wine’s super-satiny texture, but this is no kissy-face pushover; instead, the Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir 2010, Carneros, Napa Valley, avoids plushness or opulence through the agency of bright acidity and the presence of finely-knit tannins. Above all, the impression is of a lovely marriage of spareness and elegance in the service of delicious pinot noir authenticity. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2015. Excellent. About $27.
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Yes, friends there’s the eternal battle between Good and Evil, and then there’s the martini, dispensing its chilly balm with the chaste aplomb of a wordless nun. Here’s the end of the workweek and the end of a day on which nothing bad or embarrassing happened (not speaking of the world at large), and obviously it was the perfect time for a dose of the purest, most radiant of cocktails. The formula is five parts Tanqueray gin to one part Noilly-Prat vermouth. What you see floating in the drink is neither twist of orange rind nor goldfish but a sliver of kumquat skin.

We have been enamored of the kumquat, smallest of citrus fruit, for several days. Thursday night, LL made a sauce for seared tuna with sliced kumquats and jalapeno peppers, and I tell you, that made the taste-buds jump and jive. And last night, in addition to the kumquat twist in the martinis, I squeezed about 10 of the little suckers to get enough juice for a vinaigrette, by-passing the usual lemon.

I had taken a grass-fed, organic ribeye from the freezer, thawed it and then marinated it in soy sauce, Worcester, red wine, salt and pepper for a few hours. I cooked it in the simplest manner possible, in olive oil and butter is an ungodly hot cast-iron skillet, about four minutes per side, so it came out a rosy-colored medium rare. I had also sliced fingerling potatoes fairly thinly, doused them with olive oil, salt, pepper and minced rosemary and put them under the broiler, and guess what I discovered, guess what revelation was granted unto my grateful spirit? If you use parchment paper under a broiler, it will catch on fire! No harm done, though these tiny moments of drama do spark up a life, so to speak.

I opened a bottle of the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Oakville District. This is available at retail for a range of about $30 to $48; I paid $60 at a silent auction to benefit a dog rescue group. (A different silent auction than the one I’ve been writing about recently.)

Many wine consumers know the story of the Robert Mondavi Winery, how Robert Mondavi quarreled with his brother Peter about the operation and goals of the family’s Charles Krug winery, and Robert split away from the family and started his own winery in 1966; how he achieved remarkable success, building Robert Mondavi into one of the Napa Valley’s great wineries and brands; how he collaborated with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, in the creation of Opus One; how lofty ambitions and lavish spending began to chip away at the family’s wine empire, forcing the family to take the private company public; of conflicts among the father and his sons, Tim and Michael; how the winery, at the end of 2004, was sold to Constellation (which still uses the image and words of the late Robert Mondavi himself in advertising and on the website). This chronicle is related in sometimes brutal detail in Julia Flynn Siler’s highly readable and cautionary The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty.

While the winery produces often excellent wines in a variety of genres — the Fume Blanc 1 Block is one of the best in sauvignon blancs in California — the reputation mainly rests on its Bordeaux-style cabernet sauvignon blends, especially the reserve bottlings. This “regular” Oakville cabernet is a blend of 89 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 6 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent petit verdot and 1 percent each malbec and merlot. The wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels.

At a bit over four years old, the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Oakville, rests in a state of perfect equilibrium among all qualities and functions. This is a sleek, polished wine, smooth and savory and packed with spice, black currant and black cherry flavors, graphite-like minerals and the dry, slightly briery character of dense, chewy tannins. A few minutes in the glass bring up classic notes of cedar and tobacco, black olive, potpourri and bitter dark chocolate, finishing with a beguiling hint of mint and iodine. The wine embodies a gratifying sense of unassailable vitality and unshakable purpose. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. It was wonderful with the steak. Excellent. About $30 to $48.

Not that I would expect any of My Readers to purchase these 12 wines collectively, even if they could be assembled, but in these models we see some of the best of what Napa Valley can be. These cabernet-based wines share a sense of vigor and rigor, of abundance and luxury married to earthy, brooding qualities that never descend to truculence. Some of the high quality of this group derives from the years, 2013 and 2014 being two and three of a trio of fine vintages. Equally important is the treatment of the grapes and the wines in the winery; it feels almost miraculous that whatever the widely diverse nature of the oak regimens practiced and new oak barrels applied, none of these feel unduly influenced by wood. It’s true that I tend to approve of the more sinewy, reticent style of cabernet sauvignon (see Stony Hill, below), but I try to keep to keep my receptors open even for the more florid, succulent models.

These wines were samples for review.
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Amici Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley, is composed of 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent cabernet franc, 4 percent petit verdot and 2 percent each merlot and malbec, thereby touching all of what used be be called the five classic Bordeaux red grapes, though in truth there’s very little malbec in Bordeaux nowadays — it emigrated to South America — and not a lot of petit verdot. The wine aged 22 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels; the grapes derived 60 percent from vineyards on the valley floor, 40 percent from mountain vineyards. The color is dense ruby-magenta with a mulberry rim; the glass teems with notes of walnut shell, briers and brambles, graphite and loam, cedar, tobacco and dried rosemary, tending, after a few minutes in the glass, to exotic hints of espresso and bittersweet chocolate, cloves and sandalwood, and finally admitting a slightly meaty and fleshy element of intense and concentrated black currants, cherries and plums. Yes, there’s a lot going on here, but all these aspects are balanced with pinpoint precision and integration. If satin could be woven from iron filings, well, there’s a metaphor for this wine’s dense, mineral-inflected structure, yet it presents a real mouthful of juicy, spicy black fruit and berries propelled by vibrant acidity. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2022 to ’24. Excellent. About $50.
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The Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Calistoga, is a blend of 86 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent merlot and a 1 percent smidgen of cabernet franc; the wine aged 16 months in French and Eastern European oak — usually being Slovenian or Hungarian — 27 percent new barrels, a completely rational oak regimen. The color is a typical dark ruby shading to a purple edge; classic notes of cedar and tobacco, dried thyme and rosemary are woven with ripe and spicy black currants, cherries and plums (with a surprising blueberry undertone) and hints of mocha and oolong tea, loam, walnut shell and graphite. This complex layering continues on the palate, where you feel the sway of the earth and the power of surging acid that lend the wine grounding and energy; flavors of ripe and spicy black and blue fruit are bolstered by forceful dusty, graphite-inflected tannins and a background of subtle, supple oak. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2024 to ’30. Excellent. About $58.
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If ever a wine qualified as a theoretical “First Growth” of Napa Valley cabernet-based wines, the Chateau Montelena “The Montelena Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon would be one of them. For 2013, the fine-tuned blend of the winery’s top cabernet is 97 percent cabernet sauvignon, with 1.5 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot; the wine aged two years in French oak, 30 percent new barrels. The color, if you can call it that, is opaque purple-black with a vivid magenta rim; the wine is, as you might expect, a cauldron of graphite, iodine and iron that seethes with loam, briers and brambles, with spiced, macerated and roasted black currants and plums. These elements segue seamlessly onto the palate, where they feel wrapped around an intense core of crushed lavender and violets, licorice and bittersweet chocolate, with a helping of more graphite. Dusty, velvety tannins reach far into the depths, where they meet bastions of supple, subtle oak and streams of vibrant acidity; the wine tends toward Olympian austerity through the formidable finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Matt Crafton. A wine of this character and costing this much entails a sense of responsibility on its owner, so don’t treat this one frivolously; cellar until 2019 to ’21 and consume through 2033 to ’35. Exceptional. About $160 (a bottle).
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The Faust Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley, from Huneeus Wines, draws cabernet grapes mainly from the Rutherford and Coombsville AVAs, with smaller portions from Yountville, Mount Veeder and Atlas Peak, making this wine a representative of a general Napa Valley notion. It aged 19 months in French oak barrels. The color is opaque ruby-purple shading to a glowing magenta rim; the aromas radiate sweet Asian spices, graphite and iodine, infusing fruit that feels like a macedoine of black currants, cherries and plums infused by lavender and violets, rosemary and cedar and grilled bread. The wine is heady and voluminous, offering perfect weight, heft and balance; it flows across the palate in a resonant tide of lip-smacking acid and tannin, flint and granitic minerality; it’s very dry, and you feel the burgeoning elements of walnut shell and forest floor in the depth, while on the surface, notes of lilac and loam appear. 14.8 percent alcohol. Drinkable now, with a steak, or try from 2019 through 2028 to ’30. Excellent. About $55.
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Flora Springs Trilogy Red Wine 2014, Napa Valley, is a blend of 86 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent malbec and 6 percent petit verdot; the wine aged 22 months in 85 percent French oak, 15 percent American oak. The color is dense dark ruby; the nose is very ripe, spicy and intense, with black currant and cherry scents deeply imbued by a whole, old wooden box of dried spices and grilled herbs and penetrating notes of iodine and iron. The wine is quite dry, and the entire enterprise leans to, even rushes toward, austerity from mid-palate back. No problem with that, of course, just give it time, but Trilogy 2014 at this point feels like a four-square house from the 1910s in a good neighborhood, solidly-built on a firm foundation but pretty much unexciting. 14.2 percent alcohol. Try from 2018 or ’19 through 2029 to ’32. Very Good+, with Excellent potential. About $80.
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The Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley, is a blend of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 14 percent merlot, 4.5 percent petit verdot and 2.5 percent cabernet franc; the wine aged 21 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels. This feels like totally classic Napa Valley cabernet, from its intense, glowing dark ruby shade; to its notes of cassis and spiced and macerated plums permeated by briers, brambles and forest floor over a deep layer of loam, graphite and granitic minerality; to its tight core of lilac and lavender, bittersweet chocolate and ancho chili. It’s a very dry wine, yet delivering luscious black and blue fruit and berry flavors girt by a framework of dusty, earthy tannins and bright acidity; the finish is long, a little untamed, both rigorous and luxuriant. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink from 2019 or ’20 through 2030 or ’32. Excellent. About $72.
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The Robert Mondavi Maestro 2014, Napa Valley, is an operatic wine that extends its range from bass to baritone through tenor and even allows some alto notes with scarcely a pause for breath; a great deal of crescendo, not much diminuendo. This is the second vintage; I did not try the 2013. The wine is a blend of 73 percent cabernet sauvignon, 23 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent each merlot and petit verdot, aged 21 months in French oak, 28 percent new barrels. The grapes derived from Mondavi’s estate vineyards, Wappo Hill in Stags Leap District and To Kalon in Oakville. The fathomless hue is purple black with a bright magenta rim; the bouquet offers an abundance of rich, spicy black and blue fruit and berries permeated by iodine and graphite, violets, lavender and bittersweet chocolate; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of smoke, roasted fennel and ancho chili, briers, brambles and walnut shell. This is a juicy, sizable, dense, sleek and suave red wine, framed by dry but velvety tannins, subtly spicy oak and a rising tide of loam and gravel minerality that tends toward austerity in the finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Best from 2018 or ’19 through 2025 to ’29. Excellent. About $50.
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The 100 percent varietal Stewart Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley, aged 22 months in French oak, 65 percent new barrels. The color is intense ruby-purple with a delicate, transparent magenta rim; boy, this delivers a real snootful and mouthful of iodine, graphite and iron, barely tempered by resonant and pretty damned luscious flavors of black currants, cherries and mulberries. For all that, though, plush and dusty tannins coat the mouth, and while the wine is succulent without being gooshy, it offers real rigor in its broad effects and true character in its depths, both powerful and chaste. 14.5 percent alcohol. Do not touch until 2019 or ’20, and allow it to develop through 2028 to ’30. On the other hand, decant it tonight and give it plenty of air and a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the grill. Production was 1,436 cases. Excellent potential. About $75.
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The 100 percent varietal Stewart Cellars Beckstoffer Las Piedes Vineyard “Nomad” Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley, aged 22 months in French oak, 85 percent new barrels. The abyss in your glass is inky purple-black that allows a glowing, nuclear violet rim; the extraordinary, provocative, intensely perfumed bouquet wreathes strands of walnut shell, iodine, crushed blueberries, currants and violets with smoke from the smoldering spice box and hints of macerated and slightly roasted black and blue fruit, fruitcake and loam. As if that panoply were not enough, the wine is as dense as a velvet blanket, framed by mineral-drenched tannins and creamy oak (that wisely stays in the background), and enlivened by resonant acidity that seems to pluck all the bass and baritone strings of dark, spicy fruit and healthy vigor; the finish is very dry, sleek, chiseled and rigorous. 14.5 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Blair Guthrie. Production was 180 cases. Your children may be enjoying this wine, fully developed or in gentle decline, between 2035 and 2040. A stunning achievement. Exceptional. About $175 (a bottle).
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The grapes for the Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Spring Mountain District, grew in vineyards that average 1,550 feet elevation, and indeed there’s something of mountain rootiness and stoniness about the wine, which aged 18 months in French oak, only 20 percent new barrels. The color is medium ruby fading to a garnet rim; aromas of black currants and cherries are permeated by graphite and wood-smoke, with unfurling hints of cedar and tobacco, dried thyme and rosemary (with the latter’s slightly astringent resiny quality), briers and brambles; a few moments in the glass bring out touches of blueberry. It’s a wine that feels warm in its spicy nature of fruitcake and slightly roasted berries, yet also cool in its bright acidity and scintillating granitic mineral character. Tannins like an antique velvet gown are dense, dusty and chewy and extend their reach through a long graphite- and flint-laden finish. Lovely balance and integration in a young but perfectly drinkable cabernet, though you could defer the pleasure from 2025 to 2028. 14 percent alcohol. Winemaker was Mike Chelini. Excellent. About $70.
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The Yount Ridge Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley, contains 97 percent cabernet sauvignon, with mere nods toward 2.5 percent malbec and .5 percent merlot, grown in a certified organic vineyard in the Oakville District AVA. Winemaker is Cecilia Welch. The color is very dark, almost impenetrable ruby; it’s a dense, supple and sinewy cabernet, packed with dusty graphite, iodine and iron; a new minutes in the glass expose notes of lavender, ancho chile, cassis, cedar and rosemary; a very dry cabernet that delivers a huge presence and weight on the palate, this has deep roots in the earth, as well as swingeing acidity and a finish that feels chiseled from granite and flint. This needs some time to become more well-knit, say 2018 through 2025 to ’28. Production was 500 cases. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $96.

Don’t confuse Yount Ridge Cellars with Young Ridge Winery, also in Napa Valley.
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The percentages for the Yount Ridge Cellars Proprietary Red Blend 2014, Napa Valley, are 66 percent cabernet sauvignon, 24 percent merlot and 10 percent malbec. An opaque ruby-purple hue shades to a vivid purple-magenta rim; the wine is quite intense and concentrated, unfurling multiple layers with some airing: cassis and black cherry, lavender and licorice, violets and plums; notes of cedar, rosemary and black olive. It’s a dense and chewy wine that offers significant weight and heft, feeling sifted with dust and graphite and slightly exotic elements of sandalwood and incense. This is a lovely and expressive red wine but with an earthy background, none of which prevents it from being warm, spicy and appealing; the finish brings in touches of leather, briers and brambles and granitic tannins. A surprisingly drinkable yet seemingly ageless Napa Valley red that offers both pleasure and abundant character. Production was 500 cases. Now through 2025 to ’30; it’s not really ageless, of course. Excellent. About $98.
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So, here it is, My Readers, the annual “50 Great Wines” roster, presently for the past year, that is, 2016. Not the “Greatest” of all wines or the “Best” of all wines, but a selection of 50 products that struck me as embodying everything we want in a wine: freshness, balance, appeal; depth, personality and character; an adherence to the nature of the grapes and, where possible, the virtues of the vineyard and climate. These are wines that leave aside the ego of the winemaker and producer for an expression of — not to sound too idealistic — an ideal of what a wine should be. I won’t belabor the process by which I arrived at this list of 50 wines, except to say that every wine I rated “Exceptional” during 2016 is automatically included. Did I leave out wines that I truly admired? Indeed, I did, because this list focuses on wines that I truly loved. Enjoy!
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Acorn Heritage Vines Alegria Vineyard Zinfandel 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 78 percent zinfandel, 12 percent alicante bouschet, 8 percent petite sirah and 2 percent a combination of carignane, trousseau, sangiovese, petit bouschet, negrette, syrah, black muscat, cinsault and grenache. A real field blend. Production was 548 cases. Excellent. About $45.
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Alfred Gratien Brut Rose nv, Champagne, France. Excellent. About $65.
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Arrow&Branch Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $35.
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Black Kite Cellars Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay 2014, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Production was 212 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Bonny Doon Bien Nacido X-Block Syrah 2012, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County. Exceptional. About $50.

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R. Buoncristiani Vineyard Orentano Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 305 cases made. Excellent. About $40.

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Les Cadrans de Lassegue 2012, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux. Merlot and cabernet franc. Excellent. About $35.

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Champ de Rêves Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Exceptional. About $45.

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Chartogne-Taillet “Heurtebise” Blanc de Blancs Brut 2008, Champagne, France. Exceptional. About $65 to $80.

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Domaine Chignard “Beauvernay” 2014, Julienas, Beaujolais Cru. Excellent. About $22.

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Cornerstone Cellars Michael’s Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. Production was under 250 cases. Exceptional. About $75.

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Erath Winery Prince Hill Pinot Noir 2012, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $50.

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Etude Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Sta. Rita Hills. Exceptional, About $45.

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Eve’s Cidery Essence Ice Cider, Finger Lakes, New York. 390 cases produced. Exceptional. About $28.

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Fields Family Wines Old Vine Zinfandel 2013, Lodi. 250 cases made. Excellent. About $28.

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Gamble Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $25.

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Tenute Cisa Asinari Marchesi di Grésy Martinenga Camp Gros Riserva Barbaresco 2010, Piedmont, Italy. Exceptional. About $106.

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Inman Family OGV Estate Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley. Excellent. About $73.

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Jayson Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $75.

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Luscher-Ballard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 200 cases produced. Excellent. About $80.

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Lutum La Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sta. Rita Hills. Production was 225 cases. Excellent. About $50.

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MacPhail Wightman House Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Production was 100 cases. Exceptional. About $55.

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Frederic Mallo Vielles Vignes Rosacker Riesling 2010, Alsace Grand Cru. Excellent. About $23.

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Merisi Wines Denner Vineyard Petite Sirah 2013, Lake County. 100 cases produced. About $35.

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Chateau Montelena Riesling 2015, Potter Valley. About $25.

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Chateau La Nerthe 2014, Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc. 40 percent each grenache blanc and roussanne, 10 percent each clairette and bourboulenc. Excellent. About $65.

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Patz & Hall Vineyard Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Carneros-Napa Valley. Excellent. About $70.

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Pine Ridge Le Petit Clos Chardonnay 2013, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $75.

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Pol Roger Extra Cuvee de Reserve Brut Rose 2004, Champagne, France. Excellent. About $80-$100.

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Prieure de Montezargues 2014, Tavel Rose. 55 percent red and white grenache, 30 percent cinsault, 13 percent clairette, 2 percent melange of syrah, mourvedre, carignane and bourboulenc. Excellent. About $24.

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Red Newt Cellars Tango Oaks Vineyard Riesling 2013, Finger Lakes, New York. About $24.

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Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Josephshoff Riesling Kabinett 2012, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $23.

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Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley. 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent cabernet franc, 2 percent each malbec, petit verdot and merlot. Excellent. About $60.

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Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $24.

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Saxon Brown Durell Vineyard Hayfield Block Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast. Fewer than 100 cases. Exceptional. About $48.

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Sedition Chenoweth Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 230 cases produced. Exceptional. About $75.

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The Seed Malbec 2014, Altamira District, Uco Valley, Argentina. 59 cases made. Excellent. About $60.

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Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2013, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Production was 806 cases. Exceptional. About $32.

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Stonestreet Estate Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $35.

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Stony Hill Chardonnay 2013, Napa Valley. Production was 1,852 cases. Exceptional. About $45.

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Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. 585 cases produced. Exceptional. About $65.

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Tongue Dancer Wines Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. Production was 125 cases. Exceptional. About $45.

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troon
Troon Vineyards Vermentino Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Applegate Valley, Southern Oregon. 80 percent vermentino, 20 percent sauvignon blanc. 176 cases produced. Excellent. About $24.

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2-sheps
Two Shepherds Catie’s Corner Viognier 2014, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Production was 75 cases. Exceptional. About $26.

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Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc 2013, Russian River Valley. 12.9% alc. Roussanne 50%, marsanne 25%, viognier 13%, grenache blanc 6%, grenache gris 6%. Production was 100 cases. Exceptional. About $30.

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Two Shepherds Trimble Vineyard Carignan Rosé 2015, Mendocino County. Production was 50 cases. Exceptional. About $22.

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Williams Selyem Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $55.

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Guillaume Sorbe “Les Poëte” 2014, Quincy, Loire Valley, France. Sauvignon blanc. Exceptional. About $30.

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windracer
WindRacer Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 1,007 cases produced. Exceptional. About $50.
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Zena Crown Vineyard Conifer Pinot Noir 2013, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Production was 240 cases. Excellent. About $75.

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Lordy, I haven’t posted a “Whither Napa Valley Cabernet” entry since June 30. That’s totally remiss for two reasons: First, I receive a ton of samples in that genre, and, second, California’s Napa Valley is one of the best places in the world for producing excellent cabernet sauvignon wines. Not that Napa Valley has a lock on delivering great cabernet-based wines in California; such an assessment would be unfair to Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley and Knights Valley, to Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County, and other pockets of congenial micro-climate here and there in the Golden State. Today’s post looks at nine examples of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet-based wines, mostly from 2013, with a few from 2012 and one from 2014. It’s a miscellaneous group falling under the general Napa Valley designation; two of these display more specific appellations, Oakville and Rutherford. Prices range from $45 to $90, an upper range that reflects not only supposed standards of quality but perceived reputation and the cost of doing business, as in the prices of grapes, cultivated acreage and new French oak barrels. The wines also reflect similarities and differences in philosophy and winemaking techniques. Oak regimens and blending percentages vary widely as does the scale of alcohol content. As with any consumer product, you pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

These wines were samples for review.
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The Acumen Wines Mountainside Red Wine 2013, Napa Valley, feels indeed as if it had been hewn from granite outcroppings, and in fact the grapes derive from organically farmed vineyards in Atlas Peak. The wine is a blend of 74 percent cabernet sauvignon, 14 percent malbec and 12 percent merlot that aged 18 months in French oak, 72 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a glowing purple rim; notes of black currants, black cherries and blueberries are imbued with elements of graphite, iodine and iron that after a few minutes in the glass emit hints of rosemary, cedar and celery seed and an intense aroma of wood smoke. Steep gritty tannins and profound granitic minerality make for an experience that feels as if you’re drinking architecture, and these qualities inform the austere finish. Still, you sense the balance here, the shifting tectonic plates of structure gradually transforming itself to something equitable. A refreshing 13.3 percent alcohol. Try 2018 or ’19 through 2029-’33. Production was 1,200 cases. Winemaker was the well-known Steve Matthiasson. Excellent potential. About $45.
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The Amici Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 carries a Napa Valley designation but the grapes derive from specific AVAs amici_cs_napawithin the valley: 67 percent from Rutherford, 20 from Atlas Peak, 9 from Coombsville, 3 percent from Calistoga and a smidgeon of 1 percent from Spring Mountain. In other words, the wine is a canny blend of grapes from cool and warm districts, from flat areas and mountain slopes, all helping to establish a general “Napa Valley’ character to the wine. The blend is 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 11 merlot, 3 cabernet franc and 1 petit verdot; the wine aged 20 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels. Winemaker was Tony Biagi. The color is very dark ruby-purple with a magenta rim; while the emphasis is on dimension and circumference defined by dusty, velvety tannins, burnished oak and vibrant acidity, the wine allows classic notes of black olive, cedar and tobacco, ripe black currants and raspberries to assert themselves. A few moments in the glass bring in hints of plums and cloves, black pepper and mocha, as well as a graphite edge, so the wine feels both warm with spice and cool with minerals, all etched by chiseled minerality that extends through the finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now — with a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the grill — through 2022 to ’24. Excellent. About $45.
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One of the flagship wines for Franciscan Estate is the Magnificat red wine blend based on cabernet sauvignon with franciscan-estate-2012-magnificat-meritage-label-frontcontributions from the other “noble” Bordeaux grape varieties. For 2012 and 2013, the wines received the same oak treatment, 20 months in French oak, 70 percent new barrels. The blends differ slightly, with the 2012 being 73 percent cabernet sauvignon with 19 percent merlot, three percent each petit verdot and malbec and two percent cabernet franc; the 2013 is also 73 percent cabernet sauvignon, with 24 percent merlot, two percent malbec and one percent cabernet franc, eliminating the dollop of petit verdot. Winemaker was Janet Myers. Not surprisingly, or perhaps disappointingly, these “meritage” wines are quite similar, the ’12 being slightly softer and more approachable than the ’13 but both focused on structure and foundation to a degree that feels not only solid but stodgy. The Magnificat 2012 displays real depth and breadth in its dark granitic minerality and sturdy tannins but not much in the way of the detail that makes a wine compelling and alluring, even at a relatively young age. The Magnificat 2013 feels like an ancient cathedral of a wine, very dense and intense, with dry austere tannins and profound granitic minerality; something slightly warm and spicy lends a touch of appeal but this is essentially a stout, rock-ribbed edifice established on palate-scouring tannins and acidity. After tasting this pair of cabernets, I wanted to say, “Hey, lighten up, even powerful and structured wines can be made with more deftness than these were.” Each features 14.5 percent alcohol. Each I rate Very Good+ with the admonition not to touch for five years. Each costs about $55.
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In the Galerie “Pleinair” Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa valley, Laura Diaz Muñozcrafted a 100 percent varietal wine whose potential lies two or three years ahead. Aged 20 months in French oak, 53 percent new barrels, bottled unfined and unfiltered, this cabernet displays a deep opaque ebony hue and profound intensity and concentration. Its initial phase of iodine, iron and graphite segues into spiced and macerated currants, raspberries and plums opening to notes — after an hour — of walnut shell, cloves and allspice, roasted fennel and caraway seed. The wine is dense and chewy but lithe and supple, dark with rooty-loamy elements, woodsy and mushroomy, and a little knotty with aspects of briers, brambles and forest floor; the black and red berry flavors course over the palate animated by bright acidity. 14.5 percent alcohol. 2018 through 2028 to ’30. Production was 1,616 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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The Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, reveals a gratifying consistency cs-2013-front_750-alcwith its cousins from previous vintages, while expressing a sense of individuality accorded by a great year. The blend is 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 11 percent merlot, 5 petit verdot, 4 cabernet franc; the wine aged 21 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels. The color is dense ruby-purple, while the whole package reflects that intensity and concentration; the initial impressions are all structural: earth, loam and walnut shell; dusty, graphite-laden tannins; a dense and chewy texture; a deep austere finish. Yet the wine is also vibrant, dynamic, resonant and strangely appealing, with its hints of tightly-packed and spicy black fruit flavors. Try from 2018 through 2028 to ’30. 14.6 percent alcohol. Excellent potential. About $69.
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The Grgich Hills Estate Miljenko’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Rutherford, is 100 percent2013-csrf_front_with-alc cabernet sauvignon that aged 18 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels. The color is motor oil opaque shading to a medium ruby-hued rim; as with its stablemate mentioned just above, this wine is immense in structure, deep, intense and concentrated, which character does not prevent it from delivering classic notes of cedar, rosemary and tobacco, black olive and a hint of bell pepper, all buoying a finely-chiseled melange of black currants, raspberries and plums. In fact, for all its size and dimension, this cabernet offers a ripe, spicy, meaty and fleshy aspect not quite belied by its formidable dusty, loamy tannins and its tremendous dignity and authority. 14.3 percent alcohol. Try 2018 or ’19 through 2030 or ’33. Excellent potential. About $90.
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The Jayson label is the second line from Pahlmeyer Vineyards and comes in as slightly less jay-cabexpensive than the top tier, though these are not inexpensive by any means. The Jayson Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley, sees 5 percent cabernet franc with the balance cabernet sauvignon; the wine aged 17 months in French oak, 65 percent new barrels. The color epitomizes the entire experience of this wine, from its intense inky center fading to the transparent ruby-tinged rim, that is, from tremendous depth and dimension to an element of elegance and even delicacy. Most apparent, though, is the wine’s immense honed and chiseled granitic structure, abetted by polished oak and plush, dusty, rigorous tannins; it feels carved from mountainsides. Aromas of iodine and iron open to deliriously attractive notes of black currants, cherries and plums, highlighted by hints of blueberry and pomegranate, tapenade and ancho chili and wild notions of cedar and rosemary, wood smoke, lilac and lavender. Yes, this is damned heady stuff, richly layered and nuanced. The whole project is, not surprisingly, quite serious on the palate, yet its structure of wood and acidity, tannin and graphite-infused minerality does not advance on the punishing scale; the totality is balanced and integrated, though deep and multi-dimensional. 15.1 percent alcohol. Try from 2018 or ’19 through 2030 to ’34. Winemaker was Kale Anderson. This wine feels to me like the essence and apex of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Exceptional. About $75.
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The Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, utilizes the five classic Bordeaux red grapes: 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent each malbec, merlot and petit verdot; the wine aged 22 months in French oak, 72 percent new barrels. The color could not be a more dark, dense and radiant ruby-purple that shades to a glowing magenta rim; in its incisive granitic minerality and dusty graphite-tinged tannins, the wine feels absolutely true to the Oakville model; it offers ripe and slightly fleshy notes of currants, raspberries and plums infused with cedar and rosemary — with a hint of the latter’s feral, woodsy astringency — black olives and lavender melded in a seamless array of superb balance and integration. It’s quite dry, and the chiseled mineral aspects bolster the long finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2022 to ’25. Director of winemaking for Robert Mondavi is Geneviève Janssens. Excellent. About $60.
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More time in oak but less new oak than the previous wine was the regimen for the Robert Mondavi BDX 2013, Oakville, aging 29 months in French wood, 32 percent new barrels. BDX stands for Bordeaux; this wine is a blend of 68 percent cabernet sauvignon and 32 percent cabernet franc. I was impressed by the wine’s lovely balance and integration, for all its size and substance. A dark ruby hue shades to a bright magenta rim; aromas of ripe black currants, raspberries and plums are permeated by notes of iodine, iron and mint, making for a ferrous, sanguinary and slightly herbaceous red wine highlighted by touches of lavender and violets, cedar and tobacco. Yep, it’s a big one, quite dry and cushioned by supple dusty tannins, while animated by a beaming line of bright acidity; the finish is packed with graphite tinged minerality and an array of spicy black fruit flavors. 14.5 percent alcohol. You could drink this wine tonight with a steak or braised short ribs or wait a couple of years; it should develop beautifully through 2027 to ’30. Excellent. About $65.
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The history of Byron Vineyards and Winery is as Byzantine as any of the wineries in a state where convoluted narratives of origins, founders, failures, buy-outs, consolidation and recovery SBCare common. It’s too easy to say that Byron Ken Brown founded his winery in the eastern reaches of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley in 1984. We have to go back to 1964, when Uriel Nielson planted the first commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County, in an area considered too cool to grow grapes. Brown, the first winemaker at Zaca Mesa (for six vintages), purchased the Nielson Vineyard in 1989, and it became his estate vineyard. The people at Robert Mondavi Winery were impressed by the quality of Byron’s wines — mostly chardonnay and pinot noir — with the result that Mondavi bought the winery in 1990, retaining Ken Brown as winemaker. Such was the new owner’s faith in Byron’s potential that in 1995, Mondavi financed the creation of a technically advanced 32,000-square-foot winery.

O.K., now, when Constellation bought Robert Mondavi Winery in 2004 for $1 billion, the giant drinks company signaled that it would divest itself of Mondavi’s individual winery properties, selling Byron to Legacy Estates Group, founded in 2000 by brothers Calvin and Dev Sidhu. Legacy had purchased Freemark Abbey in 2001 and followed with Arrowood and Byron in 2005, purchased for $40 million from Constellation. Eight months later, Legacy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Waiting in the wings was Jess Jackson, founder of Kendall-Jackson and owner, with his wife Barbara Banke, of Jackson Family Wines. He acquired Legacy for $97 million, and it’s with Jackson Family Wines that Freemark Abbey, Arrowood and Byron remain. Byron, not coincidentally, lies next to JFW’s Cambria Estate, and Byron winemaker Jonathan Nagy produces pinot noir from Cambria’s Julia’s Vineyard (see review below). Nagy came to Byron in 2001 as assistant winemaker and became director of winemaking there in 2003.

The four pinot noirs under review today from single vineyards in Santa Maria Valley. Byron also makes pinot noir and chardonnay from vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, southeast of Santa Maria in the Santa Ynez Valley. While this quartet offers differing quotients of detail and dimension, the wines feature a similarity of seductive fruity, floral and spicy bouquets; dense enveloping textures; and loamy, slightly granitic earthiness and minerality.

These wines were samples for review. Map of Santa Barbara County AVAs from sbcountywines.com.
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At about 1,750 cases, the Byron Winery Nielson Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Maria ECM306808Valley, offers by far the largest production of these four single-vineyard wines. The south-facing vineyard lies 18 miles from the coast, some 500 to 800 feet above sea level, on benchland overlooking the Santa Maria River. The site contains a mixture of alluvial, decomposing rock and older soils that have washed down from the foothills to the north. Nielson is the warmest of Byron’s vineyards in the valley, though still quite cool. The wine aged approximately 16 months in French oak, 35 percent new barrels.

The color is a beautiful medium ruby shading to transparent magenta; aromas of ripe black cherries, raspberries and plums are permeated by hints of cloves, sassafras and rhubarb, with high notes of rose petals and lilac. This is a sultry and satiny pinot noir, deeply spicy and almost luxuriously textured, though cut by vivid acidity and a tinge of slightly dusty tannins. The black fruit flavors are bolstered by an intense core of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate, while a few minutes in the glass bring out elements of mint and talc. 14.5 percent alcohol. Lovely dimension and detail. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $45.
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ECM306917
Planted in 1974, the well-known Sierra Madre Vineyard, the coolest of Byron’s Santa Maria Valley sites, sits 10 miles from the Pacific at about 215 feet elevation. The environment is the sort of poor, sandy-loamy soil that forces vines to search deeply for water and nutrients. No pain, no gain, n’est-ce pas? The Byron Sierra Madre Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Maria Valley, aged about 16 months in French oak, 31 percent new barrels.

The color is a beguiling medium transparent ruby-mulberry hue; it’s a dark and slightly brooding pinot noir, pungent with cloves, sassafras and beetroot, smoky black cherries, and notes of violets, lavender and graphite. On the palate, it feels burnished, polished and sleek, flowing across the tongue in a sensuous satiny fashion, though it develops a serious loamy-musky-graphite element that speaks of profound depths and roots in the earth. 13.8 percent alcohol. Production was 225 cases. Now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $45.
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Julia’s Vineyard encompasses some of the oldest pinot noir vines in Santa Barbara County, having been planted in 1970 and 1971. The location is two miles west of the Nielson Vineyard, situated at 500 feet elevation and running east-west. The soil is poor sandy limestone, requiring hard work on the part of the vines. The Byron Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Maria Valley, aged about 16 months in French oak, 39 percent new barrels. An entrancing transparent medium ruby hue shades to an invisible rim; you would be hard-pressed not to love this bouquet that seethes with smoky black cherries and currants imbued with hints of cedar and cloves, sage, rose petals and lilac, flint and graphite and revealing poignant notes of rhubarb and pomegranate. Totally seductive in its lovely weight and viscosity, uttering beguiling in its nuance and detail (and spicy black fruit flavors tinged with blue), this pinot noir does not neglect the structural elements of clean, bright acidity or an almost subliminal tannic edge etched with flint-like minerality. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 115 cases. Prodigiously satisfying. Now through 2021 through 2024. Excellent. About $45.
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ECM306918
The Byron Monument Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Maria Valley, is composed of grapes chosen from the best blocks of the winery’s estate Nielson Vineyard. The wine aged about 16 months in French oak, 78 percent new barrels. A transparent medium ruby hue shades to an ephemeral magenta rim; aromas of black cherries steeped in oolong tea, notes of rhubarb and cola, cloves, an aura like clean linens snapping in an urgent breeze, fresh and dried fruit and flowers — all contribute to a wonderfully layered and appealing bouquet. The wine is dark and spicy on the palate, woodsy and loamy, dense and chewy, yet it displays ineffable delicacy and elegance despite its size and presence. It’s vivid and vital, a pinot noir whose languid satiny drape on the tongue belies its energy and elan. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 120 cases. Excellent. About $65.
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