Tag Archives: Alexander Valley

The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray

As California Wine Month comes to a close, I want to spend some time reflecting on the men and women who have made California what it is today.

Folks like Agoston Haraszthy, H.W. Crabb, Charles Krug, Josephine Tychson, Louis M. Martini and, in more modern history, people like Andre Tchelischeff, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Robert Haas, Donn Chappellet, Fred and Eleanor McCrea and Dick Grace.

Truthfully, the list could go on ad infinitum because the history and story of California wine is truly a patch work quilt of individual dreams and efforts.

But I’m willing to bet that if you asked most wine lovers to list some of the influential figures in California wine history–only the truly old timers and the geekiest of wine students would mention Martin Ray.

Which is remarkable considering the modern legacy of all “the Martians” that came after Ray.

The Invasion of Quantity over Quality

In the link above, wine economist Mike Veseth highlights the dichotomy in thought of two post-Prohibition wine pioneers over what the “idea” of wine should be–a topic he greatly expands upon in his 2011 work Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists.

Philip Wagner, who founded the Maryland winery Boordy Vineyards, bequeathed the Wagnerian ideals of wine being an everyday commodity–much like any other food and beverage–that should be affordable and accessible. As Veseth notes, the existence of “Two Buck Chuck” is a very Wagnerian model. However, Wagner’s idea of everyday affordability wasn’t just limited to bottom of the barrel prices.

Photo from Radicaldreamer29. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Martin Ray in the 1960s.

Martin Ray, on the other hand, thought that American wine should aim high and not settle for just being a commodity like milk and grains. Inspired by the great wines of Europe, the original “Martian” was convinced that California had the potential to reach similar heights.

Post-Prohibition Blues

As Thomas Pinney notes in A History of Wine in America, Volume 2: From Prohibition to the Present, the American wine industry was in a bit of a funky, cloudy haze in the years after the repeal of Prohibition–just like many of the wines of that period.

The goal of most post-Prohibition wineries was cheapness and quantity with quality being a distant third. In chapter 4 of his work, Pinney quotes UC-Davis professor Maynard Amerine’s 1940 letter bemoaning the fact that many producers ignore their vineyards until late in the harvest season, letting the grapes go far past their ideal harvest time and producing wines that were “…heavy, lacking the essential fruit quality and frequently have an overripe grape or raisin taste.” Beyond the poor condition of the fruit, Amerine noted, in the winery this often led to the presence of spoilage bacteria.

Amerine’s letter (as quoted by Pinney) would go on to say:

Aside from [Martin] Ray you would be amazed at how few of our growers or vintners have the least conception of these facts. This is one of the recurring reasons for the lack of quality (or even drinkability) of California wines.

— Maynard Amerine’s October 20th, 1940 letter to Julian Street as quoted in Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America, Volume 2

Martin Ray was different.

 

A protégé of Paul Masson, Ray grew up near Masson’s vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco.

While today his name is synonymous with low quality jug wines made by Constellation Brands, Paul Masson was a pioneer in his own right aiming to make high quality sparkling wines in the style of his homeland of France–even importing his own cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay vines from Burgundy (likely from his friend Louis Latour’s vineyards).

During the Great Depression, Martin Ray quit his career as a stock broker to joined his neighbor Paul Masson at his winery. Falling in love with the industry, Ray bought the Paul Masson winery in 1936.

Seeing the poor quality that dominated the post-Prohibition wine industry, Ray made it his personal mission (a fanatical obsession as Pinney describes) to bring back the quality levels and standards that trademarked the industry in the Pre-Prohibition days of Haraszthy, Krug, Lily Langtry, Tychson, Jacob Schram, Gustave Niebaum and Georges de Latour.

The Best Of Intentions, The Poorest of Results
Photo from the California Historical Society. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US

A 1935 advertisement for California port with a hefty 18-20% ABV.

But he had an uphill battle with the legacy of bootlegging, speakeasies and moon-shining leaving American drinkers with a taste for things strong and sweet.

Many of the California wines that dominated the market were often fortified with brandy and sweetened up with the use of raisins or very late harvested grapes made from Muscat, Thompson Seedless and Sultana. Thomas Pinney notes those three grapes represented nearly half (44%) of the 1941 vintage alone.

The nature of the industry and a devastating winery fire were too much to overcome. In 1942, Ray accepted an offer from Seagram’s for the Paul Masson brand and what was left of the winery.

The Sky’s The Limit

However, rather than retire, Ray tried his hand again in his fanatical quest for quality. Purchasing land on the hilltop across from the old Paul Masson vineyards, Ray transferred many of those Burgundian cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay to plant what is now known as Mount Eden Vineyards–2000 feet above the Santa Clara Valley. His widow Eleanor Ray and their daughter, Barbara Marinacci, detailed Ray’s passion and goals in their book Vineyards in the Sky: The Life of Legendary Vintner Martin Ray which is a great read for folks wanting to know about this pivotal time in California’s wine history.

By Radicaldreamer29 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Martin Ray vineyard was renamed Mount Eden in 1972 with the legendary Dick Graff and Merry Edwards making the first few post-Ray vintages. Today Jeffery Patterson tends to these grapes.

Branded under his own name, Martin Ray spared no expense in making Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines that he felt could compete with the best that Europe offered. In the vineyard, he focused on lowering yields and refused to irrigate–believing that excess water diluted the vine’s potential to make great grapes.

After the grapes were harvested, he rushed to get them crushed and fermenting within an hour of leaving the vine in order to minimize the degradation of quality and exposure to spoilage bacteria.

The wines were barrel fermented and then pressed in a custom built hand press that Ray designed himself to minimize extraction of harsh tannins. He then aged the wines in oak barrels before bottling them unfined and unfiltered. However, rather than releasing the wines soon after bottling, Ray kept the wines back and aged them further in cellar until he felt that they were ready for the market. Sometimes this meant holding them back as long as ten years.

Recognition, at last?
Photo a derivative of photos on Wikimedia Commons uploaded by self under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Unfortunately by the time Steven Spurrier was touring California to select wines for his famous tasting, the wines of Martin Ray were fading into obscurity.
S

Ray’s efforts and dedication to quality allowed him to ask for and receive some of the highest prices in all of California at the time–$2 a bottle.  Martin Ray wines were even served at the White House for both Johnson and Nixon.

However, Ray still had the cards against him. Many American drinkers of dry wines were more apt to look eastward towards Europe than to the home grown products of California. The costs and expenses of his quality-driven style–plus some bad business decisions with investors–caused Martin Ray to lose his winery in 1970. The new owners did allowed him to spend his remaining years living in a house below the vineyard.

He passed away in 1976–the same year that the famous Judgement of Paris wine tasting took place. It seems both fitting and tragic that the moment when Martin Ray’s passion and vision were actualized was when he left this earth.

That year, American wines truly did compete with the best that Europe offered.  The embrace of American consumers came shortly after.

His life’s work. Finally completed.

Rediscovering Martin Ray

Following the Judgement of Paris, the California wine industry entered a boom period of prosperity and acclaim. In the dust, the name of Martin Ray continued to fade into obscurity until 1990 when a young entrepreneur named Courtney Benham stumbled upon a warehouse in San Jose that contained 1500 cases of old Martin Ray wines along with Ray’s letters and winemaking notebooks.

That same year Courtney Benham had founded Blackstone Winery with his brother Derek. Intrigued, Benham inquired with the family of Martin Ray about acquiring the rights to Ray’s name.

Lindsey Haughton and Bill Batchelor of Martin Ray.

In 2001, the Benham brothers sold Blackstone to Constellation Brands for $140 million and in 2003 acquired the historic Martini & Prati Winery in the Russian River Valley to be the new home of Martin Ray Winery.

Blackstone’s winemaker Dennis Hill made the first vintages of the new Martin Ray wines until the 2001 sale. Then Bryan Davison succeeded him. The new winery building in 2003 saw the hiring of Bill Batchelor. The brand expanded to with the introduction of sister labels, Angeline and Courtney Benham Wines.

Batchelor eventually left Martin Ray in 2017 to take over the winemaking operation of Gundlach Bundschu. He was succeeded by his assistant winemaker, Lindsey Haughton who has been with the winery since 2012. Prior to joining Martin Ray, Haughton worked harvest at Heitz Cellars in Napa and studied at Fresno State University. While at school, she worked at Engelmann Cellars.

The Wines

2016 Martin Ray Sauvignon blanc Russian River Valley ($16-20)

100% Sauvignon blanc sourced from vineyards mostly in the Green Valley of the Russian River.

High intensity nose. Very intriguing mix tropical citrus fruit like starfruit and pomelo with richer honeydew melon and subtle grassiness. It’s not as green as a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc but the nose is as intense as one.

On the palate, the citrus notes hold court and add a lemony note. Medium-plus acidity is mouthwatering and fresh but doesn’t stray into tartness. Good balance with medium bodied fruit. Moderate finish brings back some of the honeydew notes.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Pinot noir ($23-28)

A gorgeous Pinot that way over delivers for the price.

100% Pinot noir sourced from the Ricioli and Foppiano Vineyards in the Russian River Valley and the Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros.

WOW! High, high intensity nose. Mix of dark cherries with red raspberries and some subtle dried floral and earthy notes. With air those earthy notes become more defined as forest floor and cola nut.

On the palate the red fruit comes out more than the dark but feels weightier with medium-plus tannins. Noticeable vanilla oak also brings spices like nutmeg and cinnamon to the party. Medium-plus acidity is very lively and balances the weight of the medium body fruit. Long finish lingers on the juicy fruit at this point. It will become even more complex as the baby fat of oak fades and the floral and earthy notes develop.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($18-22)

100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards in the Alexander Valley, Sonoma Mountain and Dry Creek Valley.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very jammy dark fruits of black currants and blackberries. More noticeable oak on the nose with toasty vanilla and some clove.

On the palate those jammy dark fruits come through with medium-plus body weight. Ripe medium-plus tannins holds up the fruit and contribute to the smooth mouthfeel with the vanilla. Medium acidity gives some balance but has me wishing for more. Reminds me a lot of the Justin Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. Moderate length finish continues with the dark fruit and vanilla oak.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting that the modern incarnation of Martin Ray seems to combine the “Wagnerian” and “Martian” ideals. These wines offer affordable everyday drinking of very good quality.

I know that not every household has $20 wines as their everyday drinkers. But compared to many higher priced $30-40 bottles, these wines certainly make that kind of quality level more attainable.

Compared to many Napa and New Zealand Sauvignon blancs over $20, this Russian River Sauv. blanc is extremely tasty and vibrant.

The Pinot noir, in particular, is outstanding for the price with single vineyard designates from the legendary Sangiacomo vineyard rarely dropping below $35. The Ricioli and Foppiano vineyards in the Russian River Valley also tend to fetch higher prices.

While the Martin Ray lineup certainly does include more expensive wines from the Diamond Mountain District and Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, I don’t think the original Martin Ray would balk at these more affordable bottles from Sonoma.

 

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Getting Geeky with Lang & Reed Chenin blanc

This post was inspired by Outwines’ Noelle Harman’s great post on the Loire and South African Chenins made by the husband-wife team of Vincent & Tania Carême. That post and her reviews are well worth a look along with her super geeky and super useful study outline on the Chenin blanc grape (part of a continuing series she does).

With this still being California Wine Month, I’m going to add my advocacy for the overlooked and underappreciated Chenin by highlighting Lang & Reed’s 2015 example from Napa Valley.

The Background

Lang & Reed was founded in 1995 by Tracey & John Skupny. After previous stints at Caymus, Clos Du Val and Niebaum-Coppola, John and his wife Tracey (previously of Spottswoode) wanted to work with their favorite grape varieties from the Loire Valley–Cabernet Franc and Chenin blanc.

Named after their children, Reed & Jerzy Lang, Lang & Reed Wine Company work with fruit primarily from the Anderson Valley of Mendocino and Napa Valley.

The 2015 Chenin blanc is sourced 100% from the cooler Oak Knoll District of the Napa Valley from a vineyard near the Napa River. The grapes were whole cluster pressed with the wine fermented in a combination of stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels. The Chenin was then transferred completely to barrel where it was aged 4 months with weekly batonnage stirring of the lees. Around 185 cases were produced.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first mention of Chenin blanc, under the synonym Plant d’Anjou, dates back to 1496 in the Loire Valley. Here the wine was grown at Chateau Chenonceau owned by Thomas Bohier. It is believed that Bohier then propogated the variety which eventually took on the name Chenin from Chenonceau.

Photo by Simon Bonaventure. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Chenin blanc grapes with botrytis growing in Saint Cyr en Bourg in the Anjou-Saumur region of the Loire Valley.

The name “Chenin” itself first appears in François Rabelais’ 1534 work Gargantua. A native of Touraine, Rabelais describes both a Chenin wine and a Vin Pineau with Gros Pineau being a common synonym of Chenin blanc in Touraine for many centuries.

It is possible that the name Chenin came from the monastery of Montchenin in Touraine. Another theory is that the name is derived from the French word chien, meaning dog, and could refer to the affinity of dogs to eat the the grapes off the vine.

Recent DNA analysis has shown a parent-offspring relationship between Savagnin and Chenin blanc with Savagnin being the likely parent. This would make Chenin blanc a half or full sibling of Sauvignon blanc, Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, Grüner Veltliner, Verdelho, Siegerrebe and the Trousseau varieties.

Through its relationship with Sauvignon blanc, Chenin is then an aunt/uncle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

At some point, Chenin blanc naturally crossed with Gouais blanc (mother vine of Chardonnay) to produce several varieties like Colombard, Meslier-Saint-François and Balzac.

In South Africa, the grape was crossed with Trebbiano Toscano/Ugni blanc to produce Chenel.

Chenin Blanc Today

Photo by 	JPS68. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Chenin blanc is also grown in the French colony of Réunion off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Here is a harvest of Chenin blanc grapes in the town of Cilaos.

From a high point of 16,594 ha (41,005 acres) of vines in 1958, plantings of Chenin blanc in France have sharply declined over the years to just 9,828 ha (24,286 acres) in 2008–representing around 1.2% of France’s vineyards.

It is mostly found in the Anjou-Touraine region of the Loire Valley where it is used in the sparkling wines of Cremant de Loire and Vouvray. Also in Vouvray it can be used to produce dry to demi-sec still wines while in the AOC of Bonnezeaux, Montlouis and Quarts de Chaume it is used exclusively for late harvest sweet examples that may have some botrytis influence. In Savennières it is used exclusively for minerally dry wines with notable ageability.

Outside of the Loire it can also be found in the Languedoc where it can make up to 40% of the blend for Cremant de Limoux with Mauzac blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot noir.

Chenin blanc has been historically known as “Steen” in South Africa where it has accounted for as much as a third of all white wine produced in the country. By 2008 there were 18,852 ha (46,584 acres) of the vine representing 18.6% of all South African plantings. It is grown throughout South Africa but is more widely found in Paarl, Malmesbury and Olifants River. In recent years the variety has seen a renaissance of high quality production by producers in the Swartland and Stellenbosch.

From an area so blessed to produce Cabernet Sauvignon, the Chappellet Molly’s Cuvee Chenin blanc from Pritchard Hill is jaw-droppingly good.


In California there is 4,790 acres of Chenin blanc planted throughout the state as of 2017–nearly 2/3 of the acreage that was in production in 2010 (7,223 acres). Notable plantings can be found in the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties, Chappellet Vineyard on Pritchard Hill in Napa, Santa Maria Valley, Lodi, Paso Robles, Alexander Valley and Mendocino County.

Like California, Washington State has also seen a notable drop in plantings of Chenin blanc in recent years going from 600 acres in 1993 to just 67 acres by 2017.

The Wine

High intensity nose–yellow peach and white flowers. There is also some honeycomb and fresh straw notes that come out more as the wine warms in the glass.

On the palate the peach notes come through and adds a spiced pear element. There is noticeable texture and weight on the mouthfeel but I would still place the body as just medium. Medium-plus acidity adds a mouthwatering element and a little saline minerality as well. Long finish still carries the fruit but brings back some of the straw notes from the nose.

The Verdict

The 2015 Lang & Reed Chenin blanc from Napa Valley is, hands down, one of the most delicious domestic Chenin blancs that I’ve had the opportunity to try–second only to Chappellet’s example. While not quite Savennières level, at $25-30 it still delivers plenty of complexity that outshines many California Chardonnays and other white wines in that price range.

At nearly 3 years, it is still quite youthful and I can see this wine continuing to give pleasure for at least another 3-4 years.

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60 Second Wine Review — Silver Oak Alexander Valley

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Geekery

Silver Oak was founded in 1972 by Justin Meyer and Raymond Duncan with Meyer serving as winemaker till 1994 when he was succeeded by Daniel Baron.

Baron would stay for more than 20 years before handing off the reigns in 2016 to Nate Weis. Prior to joining Silver Oak, Weis worked at Etude, Patz & Hall and at the Antinori family’s Atlas Peak property, Antica Napa Valley.

In addition to Silver Oak, the Duncan family also produces Twomey Cellars. In 2017, they acquired the Pritchard Hill estate Ovid. Later that year, they expanded into Oregon with the purchase of the Prince Hill Vineyard in the Dundee Hills from Dick Erath.

The fruit for the Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from a combination of contract and estate fruit with the 2012 vintage being a blend of 98% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Merlot. Around 75,000 cases a year are produced.

The Wine

Photo by Rameshng. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sweet vanilla oak, dark fruit and leafy greenness earmark this Cab.

Medium intensity nose–dark fruit of black cherries and black plum. There is certainly the noticeable vanilla of American oak as well some of coconut tan oil as well. But there is also, paradoxically, a lot of greenness like tomato leaf. This is surprising given how ripe the fruit is. Giving the wine air only makes the green note more evident.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through with medium-plus weight that is just barely balanced by medium acidity. The medium-plus tannins have a firmness to them that is soften by the vanilla oak. The moderate length finish brings back the greenness from the nose which, again, is surprising given the vintage quality of 2012.

The Verdict

Silver Oak is a legendary name. I’m sure the Justin Meyer years went far in creating the brand’s esteemed reputation.

But at around $70-80 for the 2012 Alexander Valley, you’re certainly paying a premium for that name and past reputation.

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60 Second Wine Review — Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon from the Alexander Valley.

The Geekery

Founded in 1972 by Tom and Sally Jordan with the goal of making Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma, Jordan Winery remains family-owned today with son John Jordan managing the estate.

To assist with the vineyard plantings and inaugural vintages, the Jordans hired André Tchelistcheff as consultant to work with winemaker Rob Davis–who is still in charge of wine production at the winery.

Located in the Alexander Valley close to the east side of the Russian River near Geyserville, Jordan Winery own 112 acres of estate fruit that is sustainably farmed. For the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, they utilize their own estate fruit as well as that from 16 contract vineyards.

The wine is a blend of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec with 90% of the fruit coming from the Alexander Valley, 8% from Mendocino County and from 2% Dry Creek Valley. Around 81,000 cases were made.

The Wine

Medium-intensity nose with a mix of red and dark fruit–currants and cherries. Subtle French oak baking spices like cinnamon and clove round out the bouquet.

Photo by George Chernilevsky. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

A nice mix of red and dark cherries characterize this wine.

Those mix of red and dark fruits carry through on the palate with medium-plus acidity and very ripe medium-plus tannins. The oak becomes a bit more pronounced with vanilla and toastiness joining the spice notes from the nose. Moderate length finish ends on the still lively and juicy fruit.

The Verdict

In a blind tasting, I more likely would’ve peg this for a Washington Cabernet than necessarily a California one. It’s clear that Jordan values more balance and elegance versus the hedonistic, lushness you see in many Cali Cabs.

At $55-65 retail (and quite a bit more at restaurants), you are paying a bit of a premium compared to what you could get for equivalent pricing in Washington (or Bordeaux). But there is no doubt that this Jordan Cabernet is well made and enjoyable to drink.

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60 Second Wine Review — Kicker Cane Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Kicker Cane Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from the Francis Ford Coppola Family of Wines.

The Geekery

Kicker Cane is made by the Coppola family whose modern history in winemaking dates back to the 1970s when Francis Ford Coppola purchased the historic Inglenook estate in Napa.

James Laube notes in California’s Great Cabernets that originally Coppola wanted to keep a low profile in the wine industry and had André Tchelistcheff oversee the management and winemaking of his early vintages.

Today the Coppola family’s holdings have grown into an extensive portfolio of wines that includes Francis Ford Coppola Presents, Director’s Cut, Sofia sparkling wine, Archimedes, Storytellers Wines, Votre Santé, Press Run Wine, Virginia Dare Winery and American Pioneer Wine Growers along with Inglenook (formerly Rubicon Estate and Niebaum-Coppola) and Kicker Cane.

The Kicker Cane series of wines are produced by Sandy Walheim and focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon grown in different regions of the North Coast with particular highlights on the the Rutherford AVA in Napa Valley and Alexander Valley AVA in Sonoma County. Prior to working for Coppola (where she also heads up winemaking for Virginia Dare), Walheim worked in Napa at the Robert Mondavi Winery, Beringer, Cain Vineyards as well as at Simi Winery in Sonoma.

The Wine

Photo by Cserfranciska. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Very strong oak flavors characterize this wine.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Red fruits–currants, plums and cherry–with noticeable oak spice and coconut.

On the palate, those red fruits carry through and have a juicy element with medium-plus acidity. The oak also carries through and makes it present known. Ample vanilla adds weight to the ripe medium-plus tannins. Moderate length finish ends on the oak spice.

The Verdict

At $18-23, this is a very oak-driven Alexander Valley Cabernet (a la “a baby Silver Oak”). It  would certainly appeal to those who enjoy those oaky styles.

It does have enough acidity for balance though. That would make this wine a solid restaurant pour and pairing for weighty dishes like meat.

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Wine Spectator Grand Tour Las Vegas (Part 2)


First things, if you haven’t checked out the first entry in Spitbucket’s 3 part series on the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour Las Vegas, head there now. You will find a lot of a great wines that often get passed over as score hounds hunt for the wines with the blockbuster ratings.

While the wines featured in Part I were described as Ted Williams wines, the wines that I’m featuring now are more the Joe Dimaggios. They got the big scores and married Marilyn Monroe (or MaryAnn Worobiec) so of course they garnered the bulk of attendees’ attention. Out of the 244 wines, there were 25 wines that received scores 94+ available for tasting, headlined by two Vintage Ports–the 98 point rated Graham’s 2000 and 97 pt Croft 2011.

I got a chance to try several of them and while there were many delicious treats that made my Top Ten list, there were also a few that were just “meh”. It’s good to remember that while Joe did get Marilyn–so did Arthur Miller.


Adobe Road 2013 Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III A1-Block Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points. Wine Spectator list price $175) Hands down, my wine of the night. Tiny production wine from a single block of Cabernet Sauvignon in the legendary Beckstoffer Georges III vineyard in Rutherford. The highly sought after fruit from this vineyard is prized by a “Who’s Who” of high-end California wineries like Caymus, Alpha Omega, Chateau Boswell, Duckhorn, Staglin, Hunnicutt, Myriad, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Provenance, Robert Craig, Sojurn and Schrader. This example from Adobe Road delivers in spades.

High intensity aromatics of black currant, blackberry with floral elements and a mixture of baking and Asian spices. I spent several minutes just smelling my glass before taking sip because the bouquet was so intoxicating alluring. The mouthfeel was classic Napa–silky smooth tannins that added weight and depth to the palate but wrapped around your tongue like kiss. But unlike a few of the other high scoring wines, this is not a fruit bomb. The acidity was still medium-plus to keep the fruit lively and fresh with the ability to age in the cellar for several more years. However, it is at such a fantastically delicious spot now, I don’t know if anyone lucky enough to get their hands on one of these bottles will want to wait. Just a perfect combination of power, balance and elegance.

Ch. Calon Segur 2003 Saint Estephe (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $117) Another wine that made my Top 10 list. The 2003 vintage often sends a shudder down the spines of European wine lovers because it was a “heat wave” vintage. Indeed, a staggering number of people died from the heat and, while nowhere near as tragic as the loss of human life, grapevines also suffered. But the axiom that “Good wine is made even in bad vintages” is still aptly true. You just have to be more selective and look for the gems that had the kismet of the right terroir and right winemaking touch for the vintage. The 2003 Calon Segur is a perfect case in point.

Located in St. Estephe, the Third Growth estate of Calon Segur is the most northern of the classified growth in the Medoc. While the soils have the typical Medocian mixture of gravel and sand, you also find a far amount of clay. This coupled with the overall coolness of its northernly location, gives you soils that were more apt to retain the limited, precious amount of water needed to weather the heat. Then you add a winemaking style of Calon Segur that (was then) focused on lower alcohol but brawny wines that prized acidity and structure, and you have a wine with a fighting chance to not only be good but maybe even great.

It was a long term bet but one that paid off exceptionally well for the 2003 Calon Segur. The wine had a floral, spicy nose with a delicate touch of fruit that almost smelled like a great red Burgundy. The palate, though, was very Bordeaux–almost full-bodied with velvety tannins that had no greeness or bite. The spice from the nose carried through as a mixture of tobacco and baking spices that complimented the juicy, ripe dark fruits which still had plenty of acidity and life. This wine easily has several more years that it could go on but it is at a great point right now and an absolute bargain at this price. I would put this toe to toe with Bordeaux from the more heralded 2005 vintage in the $170-200 range.

Croft 2011 Vintage Port (97 points. Wine Searcher average price $81) This was the highest rated wine that I got to try that night and it came from the highly acclaimed 2011 vintage. This is a vintage that is often compared to the great vintages of the 1970s as well as 1963 and 1945. However, the thing to keep in mind with vintage Port is that after a few brief years of youthful exuberance following release, these wines tend to “shut down” and enter their quiet phase or “awkward adolescence” that can last for several years or even a decade plus. The trade off is that when these wines re-emerge from that “dumb phase”, they are even more outstanding and mind-blowing. You need the patience of a grasshopper to reap the beauty of a butterfly.

I go through that tangent because, sadly, this Croft has entered that awkward adolescence. This is a fate rapidly befalling upon its 2011 peers with the Cockburn and Graham’s that I’ve tried in the last year likewise being a bit underwhelming despite their pedigrees and potential. What does a “quiet vintage Port” taste like? Well in the case of the Croft it was very muted on the nose, red fruit and that was about it. On the palate, instead of being focused or concentrated, it was a rather clumsy hodgepodge of undistinguished fruit flavors and sweetness. I have no doubt that the potential to live up to its lofty score is there but it is clear that this wine was tasting exponentially better 2-3 years ago when it was being reviewed and that its best years is still much further down the road.

Kistler 2013 Hudson Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay (94 points. Wine Spectator list price $80) Combine one of California’s top Chardonnay producer with a legendary Chardonnay vineyard and you are sure to have a winning combination. This wine was classic Cali Chard with tropical fruit aromas on the nose–papaya and ripe honeydew melon–followed by a creamy, rich mouthfeel. But what keeps this from being a butter bomb was the elegance with medium-plus acidity that held up the weight of the malo and a minerally streak that you’re often hard pressed to find in many California Chardonnays. No one would ever mistake this wine for a white Burgundy, but fans of the more weightier examples from Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet could appreciate this wine for being a well-made example of a California benchmark.

Antinori 2013 Guado Al Tasso (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $86) A Super Tuscan blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot, this wine captures some of the savory herbalness of a nice Pauillac but with a lighter touch and riper tannins. It was a bit tight at this tasting and, like the 2014 Ornellaia noted in the previous blog entry, will need several years to show its stuffing.

Marchesi Fumanelli 2009 Octavius Riserva Amarone (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $173) This was another first-time find and it had me googling where in the US I could buy this wine. That’s always a good sign that something is heading towards my Top Ten list. This was a very spicy Amarone with some floral and earthy elements that smelled like you were hiking through a mint and clover field while carrying a bouquet of roses. The palate was very bold, almost decadent, with rich dark fruit flavors that tasted like a savory Christmas fruitcake. Every sip revealed something different with this wine unfurling on the tongue like chapters and verses of an exciting story. The balance between savory and rich was outstanding. Situated among tables next to a stunning list of top Amarone producers like Allegrini, Masi, Zenato and Bertani, Marchesi Fumanelli stood head over shoulders above them all.

Much like the Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero I talked about in Part I, I was left feeling that if this wine was this impressive based on a single taste, how much more pleasure could be discovered over the course of a whole bottle?


Mollydooker 2014 Carnival of Love McLaren Vale Shiraz (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $72) This winery has its legions of fans but much like smokey, peaty Islay Scotches, its a singular taste that either people love or find that its not really their cup of tea. Being a wine geek, I try to find the nuance of appeal in every wine and while the lush, over the top oak and fruity style of Mollydooker is usually not my cup of tea, I have found examples of their wines that I’ve been able to enjoy for their simple, hedonistic pleasures. But it is kind of like shooting with a bow and arrow at an apple that a circus clown is juggling. Sometimes you hit the apple and win the prize. Sometimes you miss and sometimes you impale the poor the clown.

This one was just a miss. It wasn’t horrible by any stretch of the imagination. It was just really, really, really, really oaky. In fact it was competing with the Orin Swift Abstract and Belle Glos Clarke & Telephone for most oaky wine at the tasting. Lots of sweet vanilla with more overt taste of toast instead of more subtle baking spice. Trying to get past the oak to venture for some fruit, I did feel a sense of richness and intense fruit on the palate but I was hard pressed to really identify what kind of fruit it was or pick up any other layer of complexity. While, in general, Mollydooker wines are often meant to be consumed young as their low acidity usually doesn’t bode well for cellaring, I find that giving them 4 to 5 years from vintage date allows the oak to temper itself a bit while letting some character show.


Ramos Pinto 30 year Tawny Port (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $85) Not too long ago, I did a tasting featuring the tawnys of Taylor-Fladgate where I absolutely adored the 30 year tawny. As phenomenal as that Taylor 30 was, I have to say that the Ramos Pinto ran laps around it. Wow, just wow. This may be one of the single best Tawny Ports that I’ve ever tasted and I would start putting it close to the 1970 Taylor and 1970 Fonseca vintage Ports as one of the best Ports, I’ve had. Period.

While I was extremely discipline in spitting throughout the evening, I swallowed and savored every drop of this wine. The nose was a beautiful blend of spice and hazelnuts. The palate introduced butterscotch and dried golden raisins. The mouthfeel was the star with a silkiness that seemed almost feather-light around the tip of the tongue but pulled you in with its richness and weight towards the mid-palate. The finish was the longest of the evening. Several minutes. In fact, I ended up savoring it for so long that I missed out on the 98 point rated Graham’s 2000 vintage port that was being emptied in glasses as I stood by the table still reveling in the Ramos Pinto 30. While I’m sure the Graham’s would have been wonderful, I think the sacrifice of being able to enjoy the Ramos longer was well worth it. Needless to say, this wine was one of my Top 10 of the night.

Rodney Strong 2012 Rockaway Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $74) If you mostly know of Rodney Strong for their low-end, chain-restaurant wines then this wine is an eye-opener. Much like Sbragia’s Monte Rosso I reviewed in the last post, it seems sinful to compare this Alexander Valley Cabernet to a Napa wine but I’d be damn if this wouldn’t fool me for a Silver Oak Napa (but still priced like their Alexander!). Though while the Silver Oak Napa usually needs 7 to 10 years to get to this level of complexity and drink-ability, this Rodney Strong Rockaway is already roaring on all cylinders.

The nose has a great mix of ripe black currant and plum with tobacco oak spice and cedar cigar box. The palate is powerful and fills up your entire mouth with seductive fruit but also has layers of savory meaty notes underneath. The oak is present but plays a supporting role while letting the fruit and power of the wine take center stage. This wine would be equally at ease paired with a juicy prime rib as it would be with an elegant lamb dish or just being savored by itself.

Torbreck 2013 Descendant Shiraz Barossa Valley (96 points. Wine Searcher average price $89) This wine was tussling with the Penfolds 2014 RWT, Two Hands 2014 Bella Garden and the Hickinbotham Clarendon 2013 Brooks Road for best Australian wine of the night. A co-ferment with 8% Viognier, this wine has an absolutely beautiful floral nose paired with vibrant berry fruit. Even though time is precious with just 3 hours to taste upwards of 244 wines, this was a wine that deliberately slows you down, encouraging you to spend several minutes just smelling and enjoying it.

When you finally do get to tasting it, the pay off is well worth it with it full-body but elegant mouthfeel that testifies to but also defies it 15.5% alcohol. Tasting blind, I would’ve peg it more around 14% because of how graceful it carries it heavy weight across the palate. Medium-plus acidity keeps the fruit fresh and invites your taste buds to water enough to pick up some of the black pepper and baking spices of cinnamon and nutmeg that wraps around the berry fruit. It’s a shame that Torbreck gets no where near the amount of attention that Penfolds or Mollydooker gets because this wine is certainly among Australia’s best.


K Vintners 2013 Royal City Syrah (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $129) Like Mollydooker, I find Charles Smith’s wines of K Vintners to be “hit or miss” for me with, thankfully, more hits than misses. But these are still wines that I will hardly ever buy “on faith” without tasting first because when they miss, they’re “impale the clown” kind of misses. Partly that’s because of K Vintner’s style which seems to favor high pH, very lush wines that can sometimes veer towards issues with volatile acidity and brettanomyces. I don’t mind a little brett because it can add complexity but VA is something that I’m personally hyper-sensitive about.

This 2013 Royal City had a smidgen of brett but was, thankfully, just in the gamey arena instead of the full-blown camping-in-the-horse-barn arena of brett. Also, thankfully, there was no overt signs of VA but the very dense and lush mouthfeel with medium-minus acidity doesn’t leave me optimistic that VA won’t make an appearance over time as the fruit fades with bottle age. The tannins are smooth, of course, and the fruit sweet and dark. It’s definitely a drink-now kind of wine that I’m sure will give many people much pleasure. It’s just not a wine that I would, personally, risk the clown for.

Well….maybe I’d risk that clown.

El Nido 2013 Jumilla (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $125) Much like Mollydooker and K Vintners, El Nido is about lush, decadence and lip smacking fruit. But while those wines were underwhelming, this wine was absolutely scrumptious. The nose gave off the siren song of rich, intensely concentrated dark fruit signaling a very fruity and full-bodied wine but the palate surprised with high, almost Bordeaux-like, acidity that added a splash of freshness to the fruit. It not only made your lips smack but your mouth water as well. It’s a big, big wine (probably the most full-bodied outside of the Amarones and Ports) but it had finesse to it that would open it up to more food-pairing possibilities than it lush co-horts. Of course, it was quite delicious still on its own.

Coming up next: My Top Ten Wines of the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour

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