Tag Archives: Judgement of Paris

Hunting Unicorns in the Stags Leap District

Even if it’s was just a marketing farce of Horace Chase, I still like the story of how Stags’ Leap Winery (and the area) got its name. Jancis Robinson recounts it in her book, American Wine, with the legend of Wappo tribal hunters chasing a stag. The hunt was close until the cunning beast secured its freedom by leaping across a vast chasm among the craggy palisades.

Stags Leap Palisades

The “Leap” of the Stags Leap District behind Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Kirk Grace, director of vineyard operations for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, pointed those fabled peaks out to me when I visited the district on a recent press tour. I thought about those hunters often while tasting through a stellar line-up of Stags Leap District wines.

There’s a lot of great wine here, no doubt. Trophies and treasures abound with a close-knit community of growers and producers. It’s hard to find a bad bottle because they all hold each other accountable for maintaining the area’s reputation.

But even with the bounty of treasures, there is still the urge to hunt.

As I noted in my post, Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?, there’s a dichotomy brewing in the valley. It’s between what the Boomers (and, to some degree, Gen Xers) want to buy against the boredom that Millennials have with seeing the same ole, same ole everywhere. It’s this boredom that pushes us away from Napa in a hunt for something different.

However, from a business point of view, the current Napa recipe is working spectacularly well right now. Folks are making outstanding Cabs and Chardonnays which Boomers and Gen Xers are gobbling up. Of course, the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon grows really well in Napa Valley helps a lot.

Shafer Cabernets.

You can’t discount how delicious these Cabs can be. They are, indeed, “dialed in.”

As Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards noted, the valley has spent the last 40 years or so dialing things in. They have virtually perfected the art of making exquisite Cabernet. I can’t argue against that. The proof was loud and clear in the many sinfully delicious wines that I had on that trip. It has also been solidified over the years by several bottles that I’ve purchased and enjoyed on my own.

But even with all that velvet-glove gluttony, my Millennial heart was still tempted by another sin.

Lust

A craving for something different. Something exciting. Something worth stringing a bow and sharpening arrows for.

While the stag has gotten fat and easy to cull, I was excited to discover other beasts in the Stags Leap District that would have given the Wappos a good fight. These wines are often made in meager quantities and rarely see the light of retail or restaurant wine lists. Instead, these are the gems hidden in the tasting rooms and wine club offerings. But they are absolutely worth hunting down.

Steltzner Sangiovese

The Steltzner Stags Leap District Sangiovese was so good that a member of our tasting party bought another vintage (2015) to take to dinner.

What was even more remarkable–beyond their existence–is that each of these wines was quintessentially Stags Leap. The family resemblance you see in SLD Cabs of bright, juicy fruit with powerful, yet ripe and forgiving tannins echoes fiercely throughout these wines. Likewise, you can see the same care and “dialed in” attention that Stags Leap producers are known for in each bottle.

Of course, with all that care and the SLD banner comes a hefty price tag. With the average price of land in Napa over $300,000 an acre (and hitting over $400,000 an acre in the Stags Leap District), nothing here is going to be cheap.

Undoubtedly, this is always going to be an area where the Millennial Math is a struggle. However, one of the things that enhances value is excitement and uniqueness.

And you can’t get much more exciting and unique than hunting unicorns.

So let me share with you some of the unicorns I discovered in the Stags Leap District.

Again, I’m not trying to downplay the region’s flagship Cabernets. But trumpets have been heralding their triumphs for decades. If you’re like me, sometimes your ears get enchanted by a different tune. I think each of these wines offers notes worth singing about.

Note: the wines tasted below were samples provided on the press tour.

Steltzner Sangiovese ($55)

I’m going to be writing a dedicated piece on Dick Steltzner in the not too distant future. It’s fascinating how someone who is so ingrained into Stags Leap District history would step out of the parade so many times to do his own thing.

Even though Steltzner’s Cabernet Sauvignon has been prominently featured in iconic bottlings like the inaugural vintage of Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and the 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon (of Judgement of Paris fame), he’s never been afraid to try new things.

Steltzner Sangio

The 2016 Steltzner Sangio. Probably my favorite of the two vintages but they were both excellent.

The initial plantings of Steltzner Vineyards in the mid-1960s included Riesling which had been a favorite of Dick Steltzner since he tried Stony Hill’s version. The Riesling didn’t work out, but that didn’t discourage him from experimenting again in the 1980s with adding Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinotage and Sangiovese.

Over the years, Dick Steltzner has gradually parcelled and sold off his vineyard–first in 1990 and most recently in 2012 to the PlumpJack Group. However, he’s kept many of his oldest and favorite plantings including the absolutely delicious Sangiovese as well as some Malbec vines which will occasionally be made as a varietal ($55).

Today, the vineyards are managed by Jim Barbour with the wines made by Mike Smith and Robert Pepi.

The Wine and Verdict

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of black cherries and plums. Not as herbal as an Italian example. Instead, there is an intense blue floral component.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through and are quite juicy with medium-plus acidity. Full-Bodied but not overbearing with ripe medium-plus tannins. As with the Stags Leap District Cabs, the texture and mouthfeel are outstanding. The fruit wraps around your tongue, having a tug of war with the mouthwatering acidity. It makes you want to both hold the wine in your mouth to savor and swallow so you can enjoy another sip. Long finish brings back the floral notes and adds a little oak spice.

Like Villa Ragazzi’s Pope Valley/Oakville Sangioveses, you’re not going to mistake this for a Tuscan wine. But this wine has more than enough character to stand on its own compared to similarly priced Brunellos.

Ilsley Seis Primas ($79)

Not long after Nathan Fay pioneered Cabernet Sauvignon in the Stags Leap District, Robert Mondavi suggested to Ernest Ilsley in 1964 that he try his hand at the variety. The Ilsley Vineyard was already selling their Carignan and Zinfandel to Charles Krug winery. When Robert Mondavi opened his winery a couple of years later, a good chunk of the fruit for his very first Cab came from the young Ilsley vines.

The Ilsleys continue to sell fruit to wineries even after starting their own label in 2000–most notably to Shafer Vineyards where David Ilsley is the vineyard manager. David also manages the family vineyard with brother Ernie running operations and sister Janice handling hospitality and sales. Since 2009, Heather Pyle-Lucas has been making the wines after starting at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Ilsley Seis Primas

Such a delicious bottle. I’m kicking myself for not figuring out a way to bring a few bottles back to Paris.

The 2015 Seis Primas is a blend of 62% Malbec, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc with only 183 cases made. The name pays homage to the six girl cousins that make up the 4th generation of the Ilsley family. The wine is sourced from six separate vineyard blocks including a 1996 planting of Malbec that the girls’ grandfather, Ed Ilsley, added to the family estate.

The Wine and Verdict

High-intensity nose. Rich dark blackberry fruit and plum. Lots of blue floral notes of violet and irises. There is also some noticeable oak spice, but it’s not dominating at all.

On the palate, the oak is more noticeable with a chocolate component added to the dark fruit. But still not overwhelming with black pepper spice emerging that compliments the allspice and cinnamon. Full-bodied with high-tannins, the wine is balanced well with medium-plus acidity that keeps the fruit tasting fresh. Long finish lingers on the spices.

I know that I said that it’s hard to find value in the Stags Leap District, but this wine proves me wrong. I’m stunned that this bottle is less than $100. It was easily one of the Top 5 wines that I had that entire week in the Stags Leap District after visiting 15 wineries and trying lots of heavy-hitters.

Honestly, if this wine had the magical “C-word” on the label, it probably could fetch closer to $130. All the Ilsley wines are sold direct-to-consumer. If you want any chance of bagging this trophy, you need to visit this family winery.

Clos du Val Cabernet Franc ($100)
Clos du Val Cab Franc

The 2016 Clos du Val Cabernet Franc. Still young but impressive already.

Even among Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignons, Clos du Val is a unicorn. From founding winemaker Bernard Portet to current winemaker Ted Henry and assistant Mabel Ojeda, tasting a Clos du Val Cab stands out from the pack. While the use of new French oak has steadily increased over the years (100% for their 2015 Hirondelle estate), it’s never been as overt as it is with many of their Napa brethren.

With lively acid and more moderate alcohols, these are always wines that sing in harmony with food. Think Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Yeah, Fleetwood Mac and the Heartbreakers are great–just like a big, bold, luscious Napa Cab is at times. But, damn, if there’s not something magical about tension and style.

These are also wines built for aging. That’s why it wasn’t shocking that when the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting was recreated in 1986, it saw the 1972 Clos du Val Cab nab first place.

The Cabernet Franc comes from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard that surrounds the winery. It’s named after the French word for “swallows” and references the birds that build their nests on the northwest side of the winery every spring. The 2016 vintage was 99% Cabernet Franc with 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. Clos du Val’s winemaking team aged the wine 20 months in a mix of 80% new French and Hungarian oak.

The Wine and Verdict
Swallows at Clos du Val

Some of the swallows and nests that give the Hirondelle Vineyard its name.

High-intensity nose. Very floral but also an earthy, leather component. Underneath there is some dark fruit of blueberries and blackberries, but they’re secondary notes in this very evocative bouquet.

On the palate, the fruit makes its presence more known and are amplified by high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The earthy, leathery notes are still here but add a truffle component. It’s not like a Rhone, but it’s almost meaty. Firm, medium-plus tannins have solid structure but are still approachable. Moderate length finish brings backs the floral notes.

This is definitely a completely different Cabernet Franc than anything you would see in the Loire. It’s also not as “Cab Sauv-like” as many new world examples of Cabernet Franc can be (especially in Napa and Washington). The wine is certainly its own beast and is bursting with character. I can only imagine how much more depth and complexity this wine will get with age.

At $100 a bottle, you’re paying top-shelf Cab prices for it. But I guarantee this wine is going to have you scribbling a lot more tasting notes and descriptors than your typical $100+ Napa Cab.

Quixote Malbec ($80)
Quoixote shower

Or step into the shower they have in the visitor’s bathroom at the Quixote tasting room.

Quixote is pretty much the Narnia of Napa Valley. If you want to find unicorns, all you need to do is enter through the Friedensreich Hundertwasser-designed wardrobe and there you are.

Carl Doumani founded Quixote in 1996 not long before he sold Stags’ Leap Winery to Beringer (now Treasury Wine Estates). At Stags’ Leap, Doumani built a reputation for the high quality of his Petite Sirah.  When he sold the property,  he kept many of the choice parcels for his new venture. The current owners, the Chinese private firm Le Melange, which acquired Quixote in 2014, continues to make Petite Sirah a significant focus.

They make three tiers of Petite Sirah. The prices range from the red label Panza ($50) up to their premier black label Helmet of Mambrino ($105-125 depending on the vintage). Quixote also makes a very charming rose of Petite Sirah ($35). All of those are well worth trying. However, the one wine that really knocked my socks off was their Stags Leap Malbec.

Doumani fell in love with the grape after a trip to Argentina in the 2000s. He had a little less than an acre planted with the first vintage released in 2011. Only around 100-150 cases of this wine are produced each year.

The Wine and Verdict
Quixote Malbec

The 2015 Quixote Stags Leap Malbec.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Blackberries clearly dominate the show with some noticeable chocolatey oak undertones. With a little air comes black pepper spice, anise and savory leather notes.

On the palate, this was one of the most quintessential Stags Leap wines I tasted. Totally “iron fist in a velvet glove” all the way. Very full-bodied with ripe, medium-plus tannins. The plush texture is accentuated by the creamy vanilla of the oak. Medium acidity gives enough balance to add juiciness to the blackberries and also highlight a red plum component. Moderate finish brings back the spice notes with the black licorice note lingering the most.

In many ways, I can see regular consumers (as opposed to blind tasters) thinking this was a Napa Cab. There’s the rich dark fruit with noticeable oak. Coupled with the full-bodied structure and mouthfeel, it hits all those hedonistic notes that many consumers seek out in top-shelf Napa wines. But I love what the Malbec-y spice brings to the table. It helps the wine stand apart as a unicorn worth seeking out.

It’s definitely different than Malbecs grown elsewhere in the world (and a lot pricier too). However, this is truly a unique expression of the grape that reflects the Stags Leap District exceedingly well.

Other Stags Leap District Unicorns that I haven’t had yet but am on the hunt for.

In 2014, Decanter magazine noted that the Stags Leap District was planted to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petite Sirah and 1% other. I honestly don’t think the numbers have changed much in the last five years. If anything, Cab has probably gained more ground and relegated Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah to the One-Percenter Club.

So, yeah, these wines are going to be hard to fine.  But my experiences with the unicorns that I’ve already encountered has me feeling that these are going to be worth the hunt.

Chimney Rock Cabernet Franc ($85)
Author with Elizabeth Vianna.

Yup. Totally fangirl’d.

I fully admit that I’m an Elizabeth Vianna fangirl. I adore her work at Chimney Rock and she also has a great twitter account worth following.  Another upcoming post in the works will see me getting geeky over Chimney Rock’s crazy delicious Elevage Blanc.

From a solely Stags Leap perspective, this Cabernet Franc from their estate vineyard intrigues me. Even though Chimney Rock’s vineyards essentially encircles Clos du Val’s Hirondelle vineyard, I suspect that this will be a very different expression of Cabernet Franc. That’s partly why it would be so cool to try.

Chimney Rock also occasionally releases a rose of Cabernet Franc as well as a varietal Sauvignon gris– when the latter is not being used up in their Elevage blanc.

Update: Oh and there’s now this to look forward to!

Yes! A Stags Leap District Fiano!

Pine Ridge Petit Verdot ($75)
Pine Ridge map

While founded and based in the Stags Leap District, Pine Ridge sources fruit from many places and has estate vineyards in Carneros, Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Oakville.

Founded by Gary Andrus in 1978 and now owned by the Crimson Wine Group, Pine Ridge was also a big player in getting the Stags Leap District established as an AVA. While the winery is well-known for its Chenin blanc-Viognier blend (sourced mostly from the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties), the bread and butter of Pine Ridge’s Stags Leap estate is, of course, their Cab.

That’s what makes trying this Petit Verdot so intriguing even though a small amount comes from their Oakville property. Petit Verdot is a late-ripening variety that is seeing increased interest across the globe. It’s being planted more to help offset the toll that climate change is having on overripe Cab & Merlot. Of course, it can be a finicky grape to make as a varietal. However, when it’s done well, it’s a spicy delight!

Regusci Zinfandel ($60)
Screenshot of The Taste podcast

If you want to listen to a great podcast, check out Doug Shafer’s interview with Jim Regusci.

The Regusci family has a tremendous history in Napa Valley beginning with the site of the very first dedicated winery built in the Stags Leap District. The stone building, constructed by Terrill Grigsby in 1878, was known as the Occidental Winery for many years.

In 1932, Gaetano Regusci acquired the property and planted Zinfandel with many of those vines still producing fruit today. The family would sell grapes and maintain a dairy ranch on the property for several decades. In 1996, Gaetano’s son and grandson, Angelo and Jim Regusci, started the Regusci Winery.

While Zinfandel has a long history in Napa, its numbers are slowly dwindling. That’s a shame because Zinfandel is the “Craft Beer” of American Wine and a grape that is poised to capture Millennials’ attention. I don’t think anyone else in the Stags Leap District is still growing the grape which certainly makes this a fun unicorn to find.

Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis ($150)

I became fascinated with this wine when I attended a winemaker’s dinner last year with Stags’ Leap Winery’s winemaker Joanne Wing.

Stags’ Leap Winery Winemaker Joanne Wing.

Sourced from a tiny Prohibition-era block of vines, Ne Cede Malis is a field blend.  Mostly Petite Sirah with up to 15 other different grapes including Sauvignon blanc, an unknown Muscat variety, Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Peloursin, Cinsault, Malbec and Syrah. The grapes are all harvested together and co-fermented.

Coming from the Latin family motto of Horace Chase, Ne Cede Malis means “Don’t give in to misfortune.” But with the last vintage of Ne Cede Malis on Wine-Searcher being 2015 (Ave price $86), I do fret that maybe these old vines came into some misfortune. If any of my readers know differently, do leave a comment. (UPDATE BELOW)

Of course, that is the risk that comes with all unicorns. One day they may simply cease to exist. But that is also part of the thrill of the hunt.

Sometimes you bag your prize. Other times you’re standing on the edge of a cliff watching it leap away.

UPDATE: The Ne Cede Malis lives on! I was very excited to get an email from Stags’ Leap Winery letting me know that these old vines are still going strong with the 2016 vintage slated to be released in the fall for a suggested retail of $150.  Only around 500 cases were produced so this is still a unicorn worth hunting!

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Nathan Fay’s Leap of Faith

Over the next several months I will be working on a research project about the stories and wines of the Stags Leap District. In 2019, this Napa Valley region will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of its establishment as an American Viticultural Area. So in between my regular features and reviews, you can expect a fair sprinkling of Stags Leap geekiness.

Stags Leap Fay bottle

My review of the 2011 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Fay Vineyard is down below.

Today the wines of the Stags Leap District are part of the robe that drapes Napa Valley in prestige and renown. However, originally that wasn’t the case. As the sleepy valley shook off the dust from decades of Prohibition and ambivalence, this little pocket in the shadow of the Vacas was dismissed as too cold for Cabernet Sauvignon.

While ambitions were growing up-valley in places like Oakville and Rutherford, the Stags Leap District was known for cattle and prunes. It took a single wine, from three-year-old vines, to shake the world into casting its gaze on this three-mile long “valley within a valley.”

But before anyone had reason to give the Stags Leap District a look, Nathan Fay took a leap.

The Origins of Fay Vineyard

A native of Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley, Nathan Fay moved to Napa in 1951. He purchased 205 acres in 1953 that was once part of the Parker homestead dating back to the 1880s. The land included several acres of prune trees that were a popular planting in the valley.

But following World War II, the fortunes of the Napa prune industry was on the decline. As William Heintz noted in his work California’s Napa Valley: One Hundred Sixty Years of Wine Making, Napa prunes were facing stiff competition from large-scale producers in the Sacramento Valley. Not only was the production bigger, but so were the prunes. Their size, Heintz shared, made them look more appealing in supermarket cellophane bags than their less plump Napa cousins.

Photo by Kduck94558. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Stags Leap Palisades frame the east side of its namesake district and profoundly influences the terroir.

Then Napa’s most lucrative export market for prunes, the United Kingdom, shriveled as cheaper options from Hungary became available. Faced with these prospects, Fay sought the advice of the University of California-Davis. They encouraged him to switch to viticulture.

But the experts at Davis cautioned Fay against planting “warm weather grapes” like Cabernet Sauvignon, noting the chilly maritime winds that funneled up through the Stags Leap District in the late afternoon.

They didn’t take into consideration the influence of the Stags Leap Palisades. Fay had noticed, how during the heat of the day, these hills of volcanic rock would absorb the sun’s warmth. In the evening, after the wind had passed, they would radiate it back to the land. Fay also knew that the famous region of Bordeaux, well known for Cabernet, had its own maritime influences to deal with.

A Hunch and Some Hope

Conversations with the Mondavi brothers of Charles Krug gave Nathan Fay a hunch that there was a market for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. In 1961, he took the plunge, planting the first sizable acreage of Cabernet south of Oakville. When those 15 acres of vines came of age, the Mondavis were his first customers with Joe Heitz of Heitz Cellars soon following. Then came George Vierra of Vichon, Frances Mahoney of Carneros Creek and others looking to buy Fay grapes.

By 1967, Fay was expanding his plantings, moving from the deep alluvial soils on the west side of his property to the shallow volcanic soils closer to the Palisades. With the help of his friend, Father Tom Turnbull, Fay planted 30 additional acres of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Wine That Started It All?

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

Warren Winiarski in 2015, many years after his fateful meeting with Nathan Fay.

While the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars gets the glory of winning the Judgement of Paris, in many ways that bottle was the moon reflecting the light of a 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon made by Nathan Fay. It was the pull of this wine, made from Fay’s vines, that changed the gravitation of Warren Winiarski’s career–and perhaps that of the entire Napa Valley.

George Taber describes Winiarski’s 1969 visit with Fay in his book Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine. Winiarski had finished the first two vintages as the inaugural winemaker of Robert Mondavi Winery and was looking to start his own operation.

He had planted a few acres up on Howell Mountain but found that his Cabernet Sauvignon buds were not taking to their grafts due to insufficient water in the soils. Winiarski was intrigued by irrigation techniques that Nathan Fay was experimenting with on his property. So he went down the Silverado Trail to pay him a visit.

While the two gentlemen discussed farming, Fay took Winiarski to a small building across from his house along Chase Creek where he kept barrels of his homemade wine. While Fay sold most of his grapes, he saved enough to make a few cases each year.

Tasting this young and roughly made wine, Winiarski found the aromatics and texture to be unlike anything else he had tried in Napa. The experience impacted him so dearly that when the land next to Fay’s vineyard, the 50 acre Heid Ranch, went up for sale the following year, Winiarski sold his Howell Mountain property and purchased the site.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and the Fay Vineyard

Photo by Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Entrance towards the winery and tasting room of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

The wine that beat some of the best of Bordeaux was not made from Fay grapes. The fruit for that 1973 bottling came from the young vines next door where the two sites shared the same deep alluvial soils. Most of the Cabernet buds Winiarski used for the new vineyard were from Fay’s vines with a few from Martha’s Vineyard in Oakville as well.

In 1986, Nathan Fay was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Wanting to scale back, he negotiated a sale for most of his vineyard to Winiarski. By 1990, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was producing a vineyard-designated Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Fay passed away in 2001 with Winiarski acquiring the rest of this fabled vineyard from Fay’s heirs in 2002.

In 2007, Winiarski sold Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and its vineyards to a partnership of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and the Antinori family. He agreed to stay as a consultant through the 2010 vintage and winemaker Nicki Pruss remained through 2013. That year, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates brought Marcus Notaro down from Col Solare in Washington State to take over the winemaking.

Since 2006, Kirk Grace, the son of legendary Napa cult wine producers Dick and Ann Grace of Grace Family Vineyards, has been the vineyard manager. During his tenure, Fay and Stag’s Leap Vineyard have converted to sustainable viticulture, earning Napa Green certification in 2010.

A Stable of Wines
close up of fay label

Since Winiarski’s retirement, bottles of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars wines no longer feature his signature above the establishment date.
They do, however, note his 1976 triumph in Paris.

The Fay Vineyard is one of four Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars produces. Kelli White notes in Napa Valley Then & Now that, along with Cask 23 and S.L.V., Fay is always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and estate-grown fruit. The entry-level Artemis is made from mostly purchased fruit and will often include Merlot and some Malbec.

Both Fay and S.L.V. will see around 20 months aging in 100% new French oak. The Cask 23, which is a blend from the two vineyards, will have 21 months in 90% new French oak. The Artemis is usually aged for 18 months in a mixture of American and French oak barrels with only about a quarter new. While the winery typically makes these wines every year, the quality of the 2011 vintage led them not to release a Cask 23.

Review of the 2011 Fay Cabernet Sauvignon

Medium intensity. Noticeable pyrazines right off the bat. Green bell pepper that overwhelmingly dominates the bouquet. Tossing it in the decanter for splash aeration allows some tobacco spice to come out, but it’s green uncured tobacco. Fighting through the greenness finally brings up a mix of red cherry, currant and a faint floral note that isn’t very defined.

On the palate, the green bell pepper, unfortunately, carries through but the medium-plus acidity adds more lift to the red fruit flavors. It also highlights the oak spice of cinnamon and allspice. Medium-plus tannins are soft with the velvety texture you associate with a Stags Leap District wine. They balance well with the medium-bodied fruit. Moderate finish still lingers on the green with the uncured tobacco hitting the final note.

The Verdict

Photo by JMK (JohnManuel). Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.5

Folks that are less sensitive to pyrazines might not mind this 2011 Fay. But for me, getting past the green bell pepper was a tall order

It would be incredibly unfair to harshly judge the terroir of the Fay Vineyard and winemaking of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars based on a 2011 wine. While there were some gems from that troublesome vintage (Chappellet, Paradigm, Barnett Vineyards, Corison, Moone-Tsai and Frank Family being a few that I’ve enjoyed), you can’t sugarcoat the challenges of 2011. The cold, wet vintage made ripening a struggle. Come harvest time many wineries had to be aggressive in the vineyard and sorting table to avoid botrytis.

While I applaud Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars for realizing that this vintage didn’t merit producing their $250-300 Cask 23, it’s hard to say that it warranted making a $100-130 Fay Vineyard either. I’m not a fan of dismissing vintages wholesale but 2011 is a year that you have to be careful with.  Great vineyards and winery reputation (or glowing wine reviews) won’t spare you from striking out on expensive bottles.

If you’re going to seek out a Fay Vineyard Cabernet, there is a charm in finding some of the Warren Winiarski vintages from 2009 and earlier. But I would also be optimistic about the more recent releases from the new winemaking team as well. While they might be different in style compared to the Winiarski wines, better quality vintages will be far more likely to deliver pleasure that merits their prices.

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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 join 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.

His goal was to make Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that 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 the cellar. Not a single bottle was released 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 homegrown 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 allow 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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Geek Notes 8/28/18 — Upcoming Wine Books For September


Let’s take a look at some of the new upcoming wine books that will be hitting the market soon.

Crush: The Triumph of California Wine by John Briscoe (Paperback to be released Sept 1st. Hardcover on Sept 4th)

September is California Wine Month (I know, I know, someone needs to publish a calendar with all these various wine months and days) so the release timing of this 368 page book covering the history of the California wine industry is apt.

Given the breadth of its subject, it will be interesting to see how this book tackles its topic with most books on California’s wine history being more singularly focused like James Conway’s 3 book series on the history of Napa–Napa: The Story of an American Eden, The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley and Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity, Charles Sullivan’s nearly completely California-centric Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine or George Taber’s account of the famous Judgement of Paris tasting and its impact of the California wine industry.

It’s also telling of a daunting task that Thomas Pinney, a former professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, needed more than a 1000 pages and two volumes to document a lot of California’s history in his work A History of Wine in America Volume 1 & Volume 2. Yes, Pinney does include a little bit of history of winemaking from other states–including the early booming industries of Missouri and Ohio–but the vast majority of his work focuses on California and even then you get the impression that he probably could have added a third volume.

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

California wine pioneer Martin Ray in the 1960s. Any good book on California history should have him featured.


If you are craving more, I can recommend for any geeks wanting to learn about California wine to check out Larry Bettiga’s Wine Grape Varieties in California which goes beyond the usual suspects of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to detail more than 50 grape varieties growing throughout the state as well as Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen’s Wines of California, Special Deluxe Edition that takes a little more of an overview approach of the state, focusing on wineries and winemakers. Likewise Jon Bonné’s The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste also takes an overview approach but focuses on the wineries that Bonné particularly feels are driving the future of the California wine industry.

Literary Libations: What to Drink with What You Read by Amira K. Makansi (To be released Sept 4th)

I love when my passion for wine and literature cross paths which is why I’ve been really looking forward to Jay McInerney’s upcoming November release of Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing which will include both fictional and non-fictional stories and anecdotes on wine from folks like Rex Pickett (of Sideways fame), Jancis Robinson, Kermit Lynch, New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling as well as McInerney who previously wrote Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar, A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine and The Juice: Vinous Veritas.

Photo 	Screenshot from

Makansi recommends drinking a Bloody Mary while reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
But come on, you’ve got to go with the Hungarian wine Egri Bikavér (Bull’s blood) or a Romanian wine from Transylvania which is a legit wine region with more than 6000 years of viticulture and unique varieties like Fetească Regală (white) and Fetească Neagră.


I suspect that Makansi’s Literary Libations is going to have a more light-hearted and entertainment-focused approach than McInerney’s work–especially since the former is categorized as “Humor Literary Criticism” by Amazon. Still the description of the 224 page Literary Libations notes that it will offer nearly 200 wine, beer and cocktail recommendations for numerous classical works across a number of genres.

I can see this being a fun easy read, especially for something like a long train ride or airline flight.

Flawless: Understanding Faults in Wine by Jamie Goode (To be released September 7th).

Now this is a book to truly get your geek on. A plant biologist by training, Jamie Goode (the Wine Anorak) is an excellent writer who takes a keen scientific approach to all aspects of wine production and tasting, presenting it in both a thought provoking and digestible manner.

If your book shelf doesn’t have at least his The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass then you are missing out. Likewise his I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting Wine and Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking with Master of Wine Sam Harrop are also well worth the read.

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

A plating of Brettanomyces bruxellensis. While mostly considered a fault in the wine world, many brewers are intentionally cultivating this yeast strain to produce sour beers.

With Flawless, Goode turns his attention to faults in wine which can have a myriad of causes in the vineyard and the winery. To add to the complexity of faults, humans have a wide range of sensitivity to them with some, like Brettanomyces, being considered anything from a component of terroir and complexity (see A Spice of Brett) to an incorrigible fault that should be eradicated in winemaking.

It will be fascinating to see Goode’s take on this so you better believe that this book will soon be on my shelf.

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Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Kirwan, d’Issan, Brane-Cantenac, Giscours

Photo by davitydave. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0We are in the home stretch of our series on the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign with only a few more offers left to review.

Today we’re making our second to last stop in Margaux to review the offers of the 3rd Growths Ch. Kirwan, d’Issan and Giscours as well as the 2nd Growth Brane-Cantenac.

In our previous visits to the commune we explored the offers of Marquis d’Alesme, Malescot-St.-Exupéry, Prieuré-Lichine, Lascombes and Cantenac-Brown as well as that of Ch. Palmer.

You can check out the links at the bottom to see other offers from across Bordeaux which we have reviewed so far in this series.

Ch. Kirwan (Margaux)
Some Geekery:

The origins of Kirwan date back to the 17th century when the land belonged to the noble de Lassalle family. In 1710, the Bordeaux negociant Sir John Collingwood bought the property which eventually passed as a dowry to his daughter when she married an Irishman from Galway named Mark Kirwan.

In 1780, Thomas Jefferson visited the estate on his tour of Bordeaux and ranked the wines of Kirwan as a “2nd Growth” behind his ranking of First Growths Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Haut-Brion.

Photo by Gilbert LE MOIGNE. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Label of Chateau Kirwan featuring the Chateau and the portraits of Armand and Jean-Henri Schÿler

After Mark Kirwan passed away in the early 19th century, the estate went through a succession of owners until it family came into the hands of Camille Godard, the mayor of Bordeaux. In 1882, Godard bequeathed the estate to the City of Bordeaux who contracted the negociant firm Schröder & Schÿler to manage the property.

By 1925, the Schÿler family had purchased Ch. Kirwan outright. The property is still in the hands of family today with Nathalie Schÿler managing.

In 1991, the Schÿlers brought Michel Rolland in to consult. Prior to this, Rolland had worked almost exclusively with clients on the Right Bank making Kirwan his first foray into the Haut-Medoc. He quickly made several substantial changes, insisting on lower yields and more strict selections with the creation of a second wine, Les Charmes de Kirwan, to help limit the fruit that would go into the Grand Vin. Since 2002, all the fermentation have been done via native wild ferments.

Ch. Kirwan is unique among the classified growths with virtually all of its 40 ha (99 acres) vineyards being the same as they were during the 1855 classifications with only slight changes in the cépage assortment. Today the vineyards are planted to 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 10% Petit Verdot and a little bit of experimental Carménère.

Over the years the amount of Cabernet Franc has decreased (and replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon) but Kirwan still has one of the highest percentages of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot planted in the Medoc. Most of the Cabernet varieties are found on the deep gravelly-sand soils of the Cantenac plateau while the Merlot thrives on the more clay and limestone-based soils on the western side of the Margaux commune near Arsac.

The 2017 vintage is a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. Around 16,000 cases a year are produced.

Critic Scores:

93-95 Wine Enthusiast (WE), 90-92 Wine Advocate (WA), 89-92 Wine Spectator (WS), 89-91 Vinous Media (VM), 89-90 James Suckling (JS), 90-92 Jeb Dunnuck (JD), 88-89 Jeff Leve (JL)

Sample Review:

This is well extracted, with dark berry fruits, attractive tobacco leaf and charcoal notes. It has that same savoury frame that so many from Margaux have this year, and the fruit character is not bursting with generosity but is still expressive and lyrical. It really does offer something for those looking for a more sculpted wine. Medium term drinking. (91 points) — Jane Anson, Decanter

Offers:
Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $45
JJ Buckley: No offers yet.
Vinfolio: No offers yet.
Spectrum Wine Auctions: No offers yet.
Total Wine: $45.97 (no shipping with wines sent to local Total Wine store for pick up)
K&L: $46.99 + shipping (no shipping if picked up at 1 of 3 K & L locations in California)

Previous Vintages:
2016 Wine Searcher Ave: $47 Average Critic Score: 92 points
2015 Wine Searcher Ave: $56 Average Critic Score: 92
2014 Wine Searcher Ave: $46 Average Critic Score: 91
2013 Wine Searcher Ave: $43 Average Critic Score: 89

Buy or Pass?

Photo by Ryan O'Connell. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Merlot berries being sorted at Ch. Kirwan during the 2010 harvest.

Kirwan has been charming the pants off of me since the 2009 vintage (WS Ave $79). Both the 2012 (WS Ave $55) and 2014 vintage were released in the mid $40s and offered stellar value for the quality they delivered. Even the troublesome 2011 (WA Ave $54) and 2013 vintages of Kirwan drank way above their similarly priced peers with the former starting to see a steady price bump as more folks have catched on.

That personal track record of producing a savory, yet elegant style which hits my pleasure spots as well as pricing which fits perfectly in line with the 2014 vintage makes this a Buy for me.

Even though it looks like most critics have been poo-pooing this years release, this is a case where I’m going to go with my gut and past experience instead of numerical scores.

Ch. d’Issan (Margaux)
Some Geekery:

Engraved above the door in the entryway to Ch. d’Issan is the estate’s Latin motto–Regum Mensis Arisque Deorum “For the tables of kings and the altars of the gods”–which pays tribute to the property’s long history and presence on the tables of royal families throughout Europe.

Legend has it that wine from the vineyards of d’Issan were served at the wedding banquet of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henri II in 1152.

Clive Coates notes in Grand Vins that following their defeat at the Battle of Castillon in 1453, the English Army made their last stand at d’Issan. At the conclusion of the Hundred Years War, the property was granted as a reward by King Charles VII to the Comte de Foix for his service is fighting the English.

Centuries later the wines of d’Issan were well stocked in the cellars of the Prince of Wales (later George II) along with those of Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Pontac (Haut-Brion). While serving as the Ambassador to France, future US President Jefferson ranked the estate (then known as Ch. Candale) as a “3rd Growth” following his tour of the wineries of Bordeaux. In the 19th century, the favorite claret of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria was reportedly Ch. d’Issan.

Image from The U.S. Diplomacy Center exhibition page which states All materials in this exhibition are in the public domain and can be reproduced without permission.

When Thomas Jefferson visited the estate in 1780, he ranked the wines Ch. Candale (named after its then owners) as a 3rd Growth–a ranking that would later be affirmed in the official 1855 Classification done by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce.

The estate gets its name from its time under the ownership of the 17th century French knight Pierre d’Essenault who acquired the estate as a dowry with his descendants running it till 1760.

The modern history of the estate began after World War II when it was purchased by the Cruse family who also owned the 2nd Growth Ch. Rauzan-Ségla. The Cruses eventually sold Rauzan-Ségla in 1956 to focus completely on d’Issan.

The estate is still managed today by the Cruse family however, in 2013, Jacky Lorenzetti acquired a 50% stake in the ownership of d’Issan to go along with his holdings of Ch. Lilian Ladouys in St. Estephe and Ch. Pedesclaux in Pauillac.

When the estate was officially classified as a 3rd Growth in 1855, the vineyards were planted almost entirely to the obscure variety Tarney Coulant (also known as Mancin). Today the 44 ha (109 acres) of d’Issan vineyards are planted to 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot with the percentage of Merlot increasing in recent years.

The 2017 vintage is a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Merlot. Around 6000 cases a year are produced.

Critic Scores:

93-94 JS, 90-92 WA, 89-92 VM, 92-94 JL, 89-91 JD

Sample Review:

The 2017 d’Issan is plump, juicy and forward. There is lovely depth and texture to the 2017, but without the explosive energy that has characterized some recent vintages, including the 2015 and 2016. Plush fruit, silky and soft tannins all add to the wine’s considerable appeal. I expect the 2017 will drink well with minimal cellaring. In 2017, d’Issan is a wine of finesse, persistence and nuance rather than power. The blend is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Merlot. Harvest started on September 18, the earliest since 2003. Quite unusually, there was no break in between the picking of the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Indeed, some of the younger vine Cabernet came in before all the Merlots were in. Tasted four times. — Antonio Galloni, Vinous

Offers:
Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $60
JJ Buckley: $61.94 + shipping (no shipping if picked up at Oakland location)
Vinfolio: No offers yet.
Spectrum Wine Auctions: No offers yet.
Total Wine: $59.97
K&L: $59.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:
2016 Wine Searcher Ave: $71 Average Critic Score: 93 points
2015 Wine Searcher Ave: $76 Average Critic Score: 93
2014 Wine Searcher Ave: $63 Average Critic Score: 92
2013 Wine Searcher Ave: $51 Average Critic Score: 89

Buy or Pass?

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

The castle looking chateau of d’Issan.

The history geek in me absolutely adores the story of d’Issan. But I’ve only have had tasting experiences with a couple of vintages of d’Issan–both stellar years (2005 WS Ave $119 and 2009 WS Ave $95). While its relatively easy to make good wines in vintages like those, I find that the mettle of an estate shines in the more average to sub-par vintage.

So while I love the story, without having a bearing on what the d’Issan team can do in vintages like 2017 or poorer, I’m not inclined to gamble on their 2017 offer. Pass.

Ch. Brane-Cantenac (Margaux)
Some Geekery:

Founded in the 18th century as Domaine Guilhem Hosten and later known as Chateau Gorce-Guy, Brane-Cantenac received its current name when it was purchased in 1833 by Baron Hector de Brane, known as “the Napoléon of the Vineyards”. To finance the sale, Brane sold his Pauillac estate Brane-Mouton (later known as Mouton-Rothschild). The “Cantenac” comes from the plateau that the estate’s 75 ha (185 acres) are located on.

In 1866, Brane-Cantenac came under the ownership of the Roy family who also owned neighboring d’Issan. Under the Roys the estate would fetch among the highest prices of all the classified 2nd growths with some vintages being on par with the pricing of the First Growths.

The modern history of Brane-Cantenac began in 1920 when it was purchased by the consortium behind the Societe des Grands Crus de France that also owned Ch. Margaux and Ch. Giscours as well as Chateau Lagrange in St. Julien. Among the shareholders were Léonce Recapet and his son-in-law, François Lurton. After dissolution of the consortium in 1925, Recapet and Lurton purchased Brane-Cantenac with the estate later passing to François’ son, Lucien.

Lucien Lurton would go on to acquire several estates that he turned over into the care of his 10 children in the 1990s. His son, Henri Lurton, took control of Brane-Cantenac in 1992.

While mostly traditional in style, Brane-Cantenac was one of the first in Bordeaux to adopt the use of the use of an optical sorter during harvest and in some vintages will make use of a reverse osmosis machine–mostly in rainy vintages to remove excess water that has swelled the grapes.

The author and Henri Lurton at the 2016 UGC tasting featuring the wines of the 2013 vintage.

Around 25% of Brane Cantenac is farmed organically with only ploughing and organic manure used throughout all the vineyards. Additionally 12 ha (20 acres) are farmed bioydnamically.

The 2017 vintage is a blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot with this vintage being the first vintage to include Petit Verdot in the final blend. Around 11,000 cases a year are produced. In 2017, most of that year’s frost hit the portion of vineyards usually allocated towards production of the estate’s second wine, Baron de Brane.

Critic Scores:

94-96 WE, 92-93 JS, 91-93 VM, 88-91 WS, 89-92 JD, 91-94 JL

Sample Review:

The 2017 Brane-Cantenac was picked from 14 September to 2 October at 31.2hl/ha after frost destroyed 35% of the vines in April. It is matured in 75% new oak and 25% one-year old and it has 13% alcohol. It has a tightly wound bouquet with broody black fruit, tar and a touch of graphite, very Pauillac in style as usual. The palate is medium-bodied with fine tannin, very linear and precise, not a deep Margaux and unashamedly classic in style with dry, slightly brusque tannin. The finish is dominated by tobacco and pencil lead notes with healthy pinch of pepper on the aftertaste. Classic Brane-Cantenac through and through. Tasted on three occasions. — Neal Martin, Vinous

Offers:
Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $64
JJ Buckley: No offers yet.
Vinfolio: No offers yet.
Spectrum Wine Auctions: $413.94 for minimum 6 bottles + shipping (no shipping if picked up at Tustin, CA location)
Total Wine: $69.97
K&L: $66.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:
2016 Wine Searcher Ave: $75 Average Critic Score: 93 points
2015 Wine Searcher Ave: $80 Average Critic Score: 94
2014 Wine Searcher Ave: $60 Average Critic Score: 92
2013 Wine Searcher Ave: $56 Average Critic Score: 90

Buy or Pass?

Describing Brane-Cantenac as the “Pauillac of Margaux” is a spot-on description. Outside of the top estates of Ch. Margaux and Ch. Palmer, no one else in the communes makes a more structured and age-worthy Margaux than Brane-Cantenac. Compared to its 2nd Growth peers and even the highly esteemed Pauillac 5th Growths Lynch-Bages and Pontet-Canet, Brane-Cantenac is often vastly underpriced for its quality level.

However, it is that highly structured and exceptionally age-worthy style which causes me to avoid Brane-Cantenac in vintages like 2017 when I’m looking for more shorter term “cellar defender” wines. While the estate is a stellar buy in cellar-worthy vintages like 2009/2010 and 2015/2017, it doesn’t fit the bill on what I’m looking right now so Pass.

Ch. Giscours (Margaux)
Some Geekery:

While the origins of Giscours goes back to the 14th century, the first documentation of winemaking at the property dates to 1552. In the 18th century, the estate was owned by the Marquis de St. Simon whose family saw the government confiscate Giscours during the French Revolution.

The property was sold in 1793 to two Americans, John Gray and Jonathan Davis. Eventually Giscours was acquired in 1845 by a Parisian banker, the Comte de Pescatore, who hired Pierre Skawinski to manage the property.

Photo by Ken Case. Released into the public domain and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

The exterior of Ch. Giscours.


Over the next 50 years, Skawinski would go on to develop many innovations in the vineyard and winery including the design of a new plow as well as the use of sulfur spray to combat powdery mildew. He also developed techniques of gravity flow winemaking at Giscours that his sons would later take to other notable Bordeaux estates like Léoville-Las Cases, Lynch-Bages and Pontet-Canet.

In 1875, Giscours was purchased by the Cruse family who had their hand in the ownership of several Bordeaux properties. They sold the estate in 1913. By 1952, Giscours came under the ownership of an Algerian vigneron, Nicolas Tari. In 1976, Tari’s son, Pierre, was one of the judges at the famous “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting in 1976.

Today Giscours is owned by Eric Albada Jelgersma who also owns the 5th Growth Margaux estate Chateau du Tertre, the Haut-Medoc estates Ch. Duthil and Ch. Houringe as well as the Tuscan estate of Caiarossa.

In 1995, Alexander van Beek was brought in to manage the estate and is credited with taking Giscours (as well as du Tertre) to new heights of success.

All the vineyards are sustainably managed with 20% farmed biodynamically.

The 2017 vintage is a blend of 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot. Around 25,000 cases a year are produced.

Critic Scores:

94-96 WE, 92-93 JS, 90-93 VM, 90-92 WA, 89-92 WS, 92-94 JL, 89-91 JD

Sample Review:

An up and coming Margaux estate, the 2017 Château Giscours offers a complex bouquet of sandalwood, damp flowers, sous bois, and spicy red fruits. It’s slightly stretched and firm on the palate, with medium-bodied richness. I’d like to see more fat and texture here, but I suspect it will put on more weight with time in barrel and bottle. It should drink nicely for a decade. — Jeb Dunnuck, JebDunnuck.com

Offers:
Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $59
JJ Buckley: $60.94
Vinfolio: No offers yet.
Spectrum Wine Auctions: $365.94 for minimum 6 bottles + shipping
Total Wine: $59.97
K&L: $59.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:
2016 Wine Searcher Ave: $68 Average Critic Score: 93 points
2015 Wine Searcher Ave: $72 Average Critic Score: 93
2014 Wine Searcher Ave: $67 Average Critic Score: 91
2013 Wine Searcher Ave: $52 Average Critic Score: 90

Buy or Pass?

The 2005 Giscours is such a beauty but even in sub-par vintages Giscours has been producing winners that over deliver for the price of a 3rd Growth.


Probably one of the best buys in Bordeaux is the 2005 Giscours (WS Ave $102). This is a wine that is drinking at its peak now and is easily outshining wines almost twice its price. I’ve been fortunate to enjoy this wine several times with a few bottles still left in the cellar.

Likewise the 2012 (WS Ave $75) and 2014 are still punching above their weight though both were closer to $55 when they were released. It’s been clear for sometime that Giscours has been an estate on the ascent but, sadly for our wallets, the prices are starting to catch up with its stellar quality level.

That makes seeing a 2017 future offer below 2014 levels quite surprising. While I doubt the price of the 2017 will reach into the $70s, it’s far more likely that the wine will be closer to 2014 by the time this wine hits the shelf in 2020. It’s worth it to Buy now and lock in the futures price.

More Posts About the 2017 Bordeaux Futures Campaign

Why I Buy Bordeaux Futures

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Langoa Barton, La Lagune, Barde-Haut, Branaire-Ducru

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Pape Clément, Ormes de Pez, Marquis d’Alesme, Malartic-Lagraviere

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Lynch-Bages, d’Armailhac, Clerc-Milon and Duhart-Milon

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Clos de l’Oratoire, Monbousquet, Quinault l’Enclos, Fonplegade

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Cos d’Estournel, Les Pagodes des Cos, Phélan Ségur, Calon-Segur

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Clinet, Clos L’Eglise, L’Evangile, Nenin

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Malescot-St.-Exupéry, Prieuré-Lichine, Lascombes, Cantenac-Brown

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Domaine de Chevalier, Larrivet Haut-Brion, Les Carmes Haut-Brion, Smith Haut Lafitte

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Beychevelle, Talbot, Clos du Marquis, Gloria

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Beau-Séjour Bécot, Canon-la-Gaffelière, Canon, La Dominique

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Carruades de Lafite, Pedesclaux, Pichon Lalande, Reserve de la Comtesse de Lalande

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Vieux Chateau Certan, La Conseillante, La Violette, L’Eglise Clinet

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Montrose, La Dame de Montrose, Cantemerle, d’Aiguilhe

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Clos Fourtet, Larcis Ducasse, Pavie Macquin, Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse

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Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner

Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, Washington is one of my wife and I’s favorite restaurants to visit. Each year they host a Champagne Gala that we love going to. Even when we’re not thrilled with the wines selected, we nonetheless always enjoy the exquisite food crafted by Executive Chef Kevin Rohr and a chance to try interesting food pairings.

Recently I got to attend a dinner featuring the wines of Stags’ Leap Winery with Assistant Winemaker Joanne “Jo” Wing.

The Background

I geeked out about some of the backstory of Stags’ Leap Winery in my 60 Second Review of their 2013 Napa Valley Merlot. With a long history dating back to the late 19th century, the winery is one of Napa’s most historic properties.

In California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube notes that the rise of the modern-era of Stags’ Leap Winery under Carl Doumani went hand in hand with the “Cabernet boom” of the 1970s that saw the notable Cabs of Burgess, Cakebread, Caymus, Clos du Val, Mount Eden, Mt. Veeder, Silver Oak and Joseph Phelps hit the scene. It also saw the birth of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and decades-long legal intrigue.

The War of the Apostrophe” soon took off with Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (and winner of the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris) suing Doumani–who promptly counter-sued.

The two men eventually settled their differences in the mid-1980s and released a special collaborative bottling between the two estates called Accord from the 1985 vintage to commemorate. The agreement was that Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars would have the apostrophe to the left of the ‘s’ while Doumani’s Stags’ Leap Winery would have it to the right.

You could tell that the Treasury Wine Estate rep at the dinner wasn’t too happy about the apostrophe typo on the menu.

Around this time, the two wineries faced another challenge with other wineries in the area like Gary Andrus’ Pine Ridge Winery, Steltzner Vineyards, Shafer Vineyards and more wanting to use the Stags Leap name and petitioning for American Viticultural Area (AVA) approval under that name for the region. After more legal challenges, a compromise was struck for the name of the new AVA to be the Stags Leap District (SLD) sans apostrophe.

Today the winery is owned by Treasury Wine Estates where it is part of a vast portfolio that includes 19 Crimes, The Walking Dead wines, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, Ch. St Jean, Penfolds, Provenance, Hewitt Vineyard and more.

The current winemaker is Christophe Paubert who succeeded Robert Brittan when the later left Napa to make wine in Oregon at his own Brittan Vineyards and consult for wineries such as Winderlea.

A Bordeaux trained winemaker, Paubert has extensive experience working at such illustrious estates as the 2nd Growth St. Julien estate of Ch. Gruaud-Larose and the First Growth Sauternes estate of Chateau d’Yquem. Prior to joining Stags’ Leap in 2009, Paubert was the head winemaker for 4 years at Canoe Ridge Vineyards in Washington State.

Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing is a New Zealand native who started out at Indevin, one of New Zealand’s largest wine producers. She gained experience working harvest across the globe from Saintsbury in Napa to Mount Pleasant Winery in the Hunter Valley of Australia as well as in Bordeaux before accepting a position at Stags’ Leap as a harvest enologist and working her way up to Asst. Winemaker.

Gorgeous Viognier that is well worth seeking out.


Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Viognier
Smoked sablefish with soft scrambled farm egg, ikura, chives and Chevre crostini with watermelon beet, grilled apricot, chili spice

I’m not a big beet person so I let my wife try the Chevre Crostini while I had the smoked sablefish with the ikura roe caviar. Both were smashing pairings with the Stags’ Leap Viognier with the wine being a particular revelation.

Sourced primarily from cooler climate vineyards in the Carneros AVA and Oak Knoll District, the Viognier had medium-plus intensity nose of orange blossoms and white peach notes.

On the palate, those white peach tree fruits carried through but also brought some tropical notes of passion-fruit and papaya. However this Viognier never came close to the tutti-fruity “Fruit Loop Cereal” style that unfortunately befalls many domestic Viogniers–especially those fermented and aged only in stainless steel. To avoid that pratfall, Paubert and Wing fermented the wine in neutral French oak barrels with weekly batonnage for 4 months. This very “Condrieu-style” approach produced a Viognier with textural weight and depth but with enough medium-plus acidity to keep it from being flabby or overly creamy.

The acidity also matched perfectly with the hors d’oeuvres, cutting through the “fishiness” of the sablefish and roe. My wife was particularly impressed at how well the acidity matched with the Chevre–the tangy goat cheese that often calls for high acid whites like Sauvignon blanc.

At $22-27, this is an outstanding Viognier with loads of personality and complexity that I would put on par with the àMaurice Viognier from Washington State as one of the stellar domestic examples of this variety.

The preserved kumquat vinaigrette on the salad were quite a treat.


First Course paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay
Spring Salad with Belgian endive, baby kale, avocado, marcona almonds, preserved kumquat vinaigrette

Sourced from the Carneros and Oak Knoll District, this Napa Chardonnay counters the stereotype of over-the-top, oaky, buttery Chardonnays. With 25% fermented and aged in new French oak, 50% in “seasoned” French oak and the rest in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation, this Chardonnay aimed for an elegant and food-friendly style.

The wine had a medium intensity nose with apple and citrus lime notes. A little subtle baking spice from the oak rims around the edge.

On the palate, the citrus notes came through the most and played off the baby kale and avocado very well. Medium-plus acidity maintained freshness and balanced the moderate creaminess in the wine. The clove oak spice and an almost marzipan nuttiness lingered on the moderate finish.

Overall, this was a very drinkable and pleasant Chardonnay that did hit the target for food-pairing. But, admittedly, at $25-30 it didn’t jump out as anything wow-worthy–especially following in the footsteps of the scrumptious Viognier. It’s a very well made California Chard but it is still one of hundreds of similar well-made and similarly priced California Chards.

The star of the night. I can still taste the braised short ribs and that delectable sauce.

Second Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Braised short ribs with seared sea scallops, morel mushrooms, chervil

From a food perspective, this was the winning course of the night. The braised short ribs melted in the mouth and had you dearly wishing you had more than just the bite. The scallops were perfectly cooked and while I was skeptical with pairing them with a big Cab, the morel and au jus sauce from the short ribs offered just enough weight to carry the pairing.

As with other wines in the white label Napa Valley series, the Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon includes some estate fruit but is mostly sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley. Joanne Wing noted that while Paubert likes the flexibility of having some fruit from warm climate sites like Calistoga, he’s far more excited about the fruit from the cooler southern reaches of Napa like Coombsville, Oak Knoll and Yountville.

Medium-plus intensity with rich dark fruit–black currants, black plums, blackberries. This screams Napa Cab from the nose but it is not as overtly oak-driven as the norm with a little tobacco spice element.

On the palate those dark fruits carry through but there is a little earthy forest-floor element that emerges that adds some intrigue. Medium acidity adds juiciness to the fruit but not enough to be mouthwatering. The oak is a little more pronounced but is more spice driven than vanilla. The medium-plus tannins are still quite firm and young but are more tight than biting. Moderate length finish ends on the fruit which testifies to the youth of this wine.

Stags’ Leap Winery Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing.

At $45-50, this is priced in lined with many of its Napa peers as a sort of “entry-level” Napa Cab. It’s hard to say it is a compelling value compared to what you can get for equivalent pricing from other regions like Washington and Paso Robles. Like the Chardonnay, I feel like this Cab is certainly well made but not blow-your-socks-off-you-must-find-it good partly because of the premium you are paying for the Napa name (and the winery’s history).

However, I do suspect that this wine could kick it up a couple notches with a few more years of bottle age that potentially could make it far more compelling.

Third Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap “The Investor” Red Blend
Piedmontese New York Steak with herb polenta, spring vegetables, blackberry demiglace

Admittedly, this was one of the few times I’ve been disappointed with a Daniel’s steak. Perhaps it was just this cut but I found it was in the weird position of being both too fatty and too dry and lacking flavor. The polenta and blackberry demi-glace were excellent though. But I found myself again wishing that the braised short ribs were the main course.

A unique blend of Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, The Investor pays homage to former owner Horace Chase who made his fortune investing in gold and silver mines during the Gold Rush days of California. The Merlot and majority of the Petite Sirah come from estate fruit in the Stags Leap District and Oakville while the Cabernet and Malbec are sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley.

The medium-plus acidity and savory, herbal element of The Investor red blend definitely helped interject some much needed flavor into the Piedmontese New York steak.

Medium-plus nose with a mix of red and dark fruits–plums and currants. There is more overt oak vanilla on the nose of this wine than with the Cab but it doesn’t seem overwhelming. Underneath there is also a blue floral element that is not defined.

On the palate, the mix of fruits carry through with mouthwatering medium-plus acidity tilting the favor towards the red fruit. Some savory herbal and smokey notes join the party that dearly helps the food-pairing with the flavorless Piedmontese New York steak. The vanilla oak notes add a layer of velvety softness to the high tannins that still have a fair amount of gripe. Like the Cab, the moderate length finish ends on the youthful fruit.

At $50-60, The Investor intrigues me a lot more than the Napa Cabernet (and the Napa Merlot) because of the savory, smokey element and mouthwatering acidity. It’s still young and has some “baby fat” of oak that needs to be shed but this is a unique blend that could turn into something exceptionally good.

Dessert paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Petite Sirah
Chocolate torte with Devonshire cream, coconut crisp

While the chocolate torte was amazing and sinfully delicious and the wine outstanding, this was not a winning pairing. The wine was nowhere near sweet enough to balance with the torte.

While delicious on their own, the pairing of the chocolate torte with the Stags’ Leap Petite Sirah just didn’t do it for me.

Still, it was somewhat fitting to end the Stags’ Leap Winery dinner with the wine that truly epitomizes the estate. While the name “Stags Leap” is synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags’ Leap Winery was always a vanguard in cultivating and promoting Petite Sirah.

High intensity nose that started jumping out of the glass as soon as the waiter poured it. Blackberries and boysenberries with some peppery spice and violets.

On the palate, the first thing that hits you is the weight and richness of the wine with the full brunt of the dark fruits and high tannins. But there is an elegance with the juicy medium-plus acidity and fine balance that keeps the wine from being overbearing. On the moderate finish, there is some subtle dark chocolate notes that come out but not enough to make the food-pairing work. This was definitely a wine to savor on its own.

At $32-40, this is a more premium-priced Petite Sirah but it is well worth not only its price but also its reputation as the winery’s flagship. During this course, Jo told us about the Ne Cede Malis block of Prohibition-era vines that is a field blend of majority Petite Sirah with Muscat, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan and up to 9 other varieties. The grapes are harvested together and co-fermented to produce a limited release bottling. I have to admit that if Stags’ Leap Winery’s mobile ordering website wasn’t so buggy and difficult to navigate, I would have purchased a bottle of the Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah (as well as several bottles of the Viognier) right then.

Overall Impressions

Attending this dinner left me wondering if Stags’ Leap Winery is a victim of its own name and location in Napa Valley. While the winery absolutely shined with its Viognier and Petite Sirah, their more typical Napa offerings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were just “ho-hum”.

I do appreciate that Treasury Wine Estates has let Paubert, Wing and Co. continue producing their more obscure bottlings but I have no doubt that the health of the winery’s bottom line depends on the case sales of the bread and butter Cab, Chardonnay and Merlot. It’s where the money is–especially in Napa–and that is what they’re out to sell.

Yet after tasting their outstanding Viognier, scrumptious Petite Sirah and very character-driven Investor blend, its hard not to think about what more the winery could do with their talented winemaking team and unique approach if they didn’t have to live up to the name Stags’ Leap.

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60 Second Wine Review — 2005 Giscours

A few quick thoughts on the 2005 Chateau Giscours from Margaux.

The Geekery

Stephen Brook notes in The Complete Bordeaux that vineyards have been planted in this area of southern Margaux since the 16th century. The estate was classified as a 3rd growth in 1855 and earned acclaim in the 19th century under the management of Pierre Skawinski.

Skawinski not only pioneered the use of sulfur spray in the vineyard to combat powdery mildew but also developed techniques of gravity flow winemaking at Giscours that his sons would later take to other notable Bordeaux estates like Léoville-Las Cases, Lynch-Bages and Pontet-Canet.

In the mid 20th century, the estate came under the ownership of the Tari family which included Pierre Tari who was one of the judges at the famous “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting in 1976.

Today the estate is owned by Eric Albada Jelgersma who also owns the 5th Growth Margaux estate Chateau du Tertre and the Tuscan estate of Caiarossa.

The 2005 vintage of Ch. Giscours is a blend of 62% Cabernet Sauvignon and 38% Merlot with 20,830 cases made. The estate produces a second wine called Sirène de Giscours made from younger vines.

The Wine

By Mortazavifar - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, on Wikimedia Commons

Beautiful black truffle notes on the long finish add to the layers of complexity in this wine.

Pop and pour medium plus intensity nose — a mix of dark fruits (black currants and plums) with some tobacco spice. After an hour in the decanter, some earthy truffle and dark floral notes appear knocking the nose up to high intensity. Very evocative.

On the palate, the dark fruits and spice carry through with silky medium tannins and juicy medium plus acidity. The spice lingers on the long finish with the truffle notes reappearing.

The Verdict

Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. This 2005 Giscours is at its peak now with velvety tannins. However, the still fresh acidity can probably carry it through for another 7+ years.

I think I have another bottle in the cellar but at around $100-110, I’m going to make every effort I can to secure a couple more. This is a fantastic steal for a top-notch Bordeaux from the 2005 vintage.

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