"The intersection where great wines meet reasonable prices"



Wednesday, August 20, 2014

10 Napa Valley Wineries: Prestige Brands and Amazing Quality

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts,” Albert Einstein 

Writing a Story about the Napa Valley: Any Suggestions? I don't often get asked by other writers who [unlike me] get paid to write stories about the wine scene here in California for recommendations about the wineries, the places I know where some great stories can be found, but just two weeks ago, I did receive such a request. Of course it goes without saying; I was quite flattered to be asked in the first place. That said and being the nice little wine blogger, you know [and hopefully love] that I'm; I quickly whipped together a list and shot it over to the requester via email. 


"The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.” ~Mark Twain

Honestly, no fiction here, I really don't mind giving recommendations and I'm always eager to help. When I do, I often attempt to send them to one of the many great folks I've met over the years and besides I can't cover the entire wine scene alone, even with the help of Andy McCallion my all-star contributor.

No writing about wine, wineries and the folks behind the label takes many different voices and the story lines and angles are as vast as the ocean. I hope she does get a chance to visit even one of the wineries I recommended. It was a bit of tough question to address, while some wineries say, "Prestige Brand" just from looking at their amazing curb appeal, still others without the fancy chateau-like facades produce wines of amazing luxury, but without the price tag that could make your wallet want to run for cover. So I tried to come up with a balanced list, something I thought would touch all the bases and below is that list I shared with her.



First, you must visit Carter Cellars, who is in my opinion making some of the very best Cabernet Sauvignon in the valley, hands down. Honestly, I can't afford too many of their wines, [sigh] which are available via allocation only, and while he has no fancy Chateau to gaze at, his wines will make your heart sing and your palate rejoice with the wine-gods. And Mark is about laid back as it gets, completely unassuming. If you do find yourself in Calistoga, please do pay them a visit, their tasting bar is shared with Envy Wines. Editors Note: I don't like vertical images, but it's the only one I have. 

Second: Now here's the place you can snap, video or what ever the money shot. Go to Spring Mountain. Where you will find Vineyard 7 & 8 I did a story on them a few years back. They're grape peeps, you'll love getting to know them, their wines and the tasting room is jaw droppingly scenic. As for their wines, the Chardonnay is off the hook amazing, it's not like any other Napa Valley property, this 100% Spring Mountain Chardonnay and their Cabernet Sauvignon is mind melting good, wines which say luxury all the way. 



Third: This is another money-shot place is Quintessa, believe me, no expense was spared building this place, with gigantic 40 foot doors that open into the vineyard from the crush pad, sweeping panoramas from the roof top. On top of that, the wine is very good as well, but it is a luxury brand. And their story is quite amazing, and for images, you'd be hard pressed to find a better locale.

Fourth: A visit to the Hess Collection. Yes, they do walk that fine line between value wines and wine luxury, but I'd have to say their wines represent a solid "value" to the consumer overall. They have a good selection of wines in many price points and deliver a very consistent product. For the visitor to their tasting, don't forget to check out the amazing art collection, it is quite impressive and changes often and again this money-shot territory for the luxury brand. A great place to see sustainability in action. 




Fifth, a visit to Inglenook is a great place to see a prestige brand up close and personal, with loads of great history. And a historic recent name change, that left a few folks puzzled. Considering the time and effort it takes to build a brand and the crazy effort to revive an old brand, which doesn't necessarily connote prestige at first blush.

Sixth: If you're going to write a story about the Napa Valley wine scene, then you have to Howell Mountain, to get above the fog. Take a trip to Red Cap Vineyards, the last time I had their wines, they were just stunning, textured and in a word delectable. A small family run operation, where the wine is bigger on the inside, than it appears from the outside.



Seventh: If you need another money shot, then take a drive up to Atlas Peak [also known as Blue Mountain to the locals] to visit the grape folks at Antica in the Atlas Peak AVA, if possible ask to do a tasting from the picnic spot, right outside the caves and overlooking a sweeping vine covered vista. Another prestige producer, luxury wines with price tags to match, but so worth the price of admission if you have the coin. 



Eighth: If you want to visit an historic property, one of the 'old guard' iconic brands of the Napa Valley, than you owe to yourself to visit Beaulieu Vineyard, and inquire about the possibility of not just tasting current releases, I'd ask about doing a vintage retrospective. I had a bottle of theirs from 1994, not stored in ideal conditions and sold for $15 dollars back in the day, that was a stunner. Loads of great history, a great story line and a winery with real depth, delivering a Bordeaux like experience in the bottle, and price points from luxury to the everyday.

Ninth: The quiet and unassuming, often flying under the radar Elizabeth Spencer. A winery that will blow your doors off and they have a great story to tell as well. I've had their wines on many occasions and I'm always impressed with the quality, depth and complexity.

Tenth: Last, but certainly not the least is a great place, easily found along famous Highway 29 which intersects the valley, it is called St. Clement. S
pecifically, I've been a huge fan of their Oroppas and I know with one sip, you too will share my joy. As for pictures the old Victorian Mansion and tasting salon makes for great luxury imagery.




Monday, August 18, 2014

Chateau Riotor Proves That Provence Is Pretty In Pink


Chateau Riotor, Cotes de Provence is Pretty In Pink

My wine of the week:

 2012 Chateau Riotor - This Rosé was a delight to sip as my wife and I relaxed outside on one of those rare summer evenings with a 70-something temperature and humidity levels that did not necessitate a swimming pool nearby.

Powder pink in color, each sniff draws delicate ribbons of peach, pear and crushed fresh red strawberries deep into your head. The palate has an elegant creamy texture, carrying with it white peach and apricot, infused with some freshly squeezed orange juice - just sufficient to provide an edge and cleanse the palate on a delicately zesty finish. 

Simply stated, this is a delightfully composed Rosé – at $16 – Chateau Riotor is an inexpensive wine that is capable of creating significant excitement. It earns 89 points from me.  I will definitely be finishing a few more of these Provençal Pinks before the summer heat dissipates. 

Food pairing: nothing complicated - stick to delicate flavor profiles. I enjoyed this with some simple salumi, fresh baguette and hard cheeses.


You can catch other bottle notes and pictures on my twitter account - please drop in and follow @BruisedGrape .  Your comments are always appreciated!

Disclosure:  Wine was provided as a Media Sample for the review process.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Babcock Winery and Vineyard: The Cutting Edge of Vine Evolution [Part 2]

Great wines don’t make statements, they pose questions. To end with an exclamation mark is easy; when a question mark, perhaps not more difficult, but far more interesting.  - Hugh Johnson

I couldn't state it better myself, great wines don't just make statements, they pose questions. Like the one I have about the conference that was just last month, in Santa Barbara County. The question I have is this; should we as wine bloggers ask ourselves what is the purpose of the 2014 SBC Wine Bloggers Conference? Is it, to merely go to parties to the wee hours of the morning, sing a few songs, dance on tables or should we take the opportunity we are given by the host of the region to drill down a bit deeper, beyond the superficial surface of the moment? And give our readers something a bit more substantive to ponder? I'll leave the answers for each of you to digest.

Now that said, here is the promised part two of the afternoon I spent getting to know Babcock wines a bit better and I'd like to point out, that I'm very grateful for Bryan Babcock's time that afternoon, and thanks to who ever it was that took the time to reach out to me via twitter with the invitation. It's these moments, I spend with the folks behind the labels seen on the shelf of your favorite wine store, that I really get a better sense of why, they do what they do, and see the passion up close and personal. I'm here to tell you, it is real and in each wine you can sense it, and taste it. It's the same passion I have for writing my thoughts here, to share with each of you.


“The key to winning baseball games is pitching, fundamentals, and three-run homers.” A singles hitter doesn't scare anybody." ~ Earl Weaver

What is true in baseball, is also true in winemaking, and while one hit wonders don't impress anyone, neither do one dimensional wines. But you'll see nothing but pure fundamentals at Babcock, and in my opinion quite a few three run homers. It is not too often that I find something to like or appreciate about every wine in a given tasting, so I'm happy to report that in each of the wines presented that afternoon, I did indeed found something I'd be happy to purchase and take home. But also, and more importantly, these are wines that I'm happy to recommend to you, my readers. So as I said last time, I have six wines to review here and I'll get started with the Chardonnay and finish up with Pinot Noir; like the grapes you see in the picture above.

"Wine is the prism we look through to the past while enjoying the present." - @twomey Winemaker Erin Miller

2012 Top Cream Chardonnay, Estate Grown, Sta Rita Hills: Not your typical over extracted, oak bomb from California. Instead this wine has style, substance and is layered with fine ground minerality you can taste in each sip, and slurp. The reason they call Top Cream is that you see, if you walk the vineyard, crouch down and grab a handful is loose, sandy loamy soils which I'm told goes down about three feet, hence the name Top Cream. In the mouth, it's creamy and dreamy really, apples and pears dance together, mouth coating citrus, finely knit minerality and a long, long finish. My score for this wine is 94 points.

2013 The Limit Chardonnay, Estate Grown, Sta Rita Hills: So put me on a highway, and show me a sign, take it to the limit, one more time." A great tune from the Eagles, this wine takes Chardonnay to a different limit, a place where even original recipe Chardonnay can shine. You'll find very crisp apples and pears, lemon meringue, a snap of acid, tangy minerality driving this wine to a happy place. My score for this wine is 88 points.



2012 Precocious Pinot Noir: For folks who like a more dialed back approach, a less up in your face style to new world PN; then this wine is your ticket to ride. My initial impression, this wine has a delicate feminine style; cracked rich earth, cut black tea, baked cherries, a tart cranberry note and baking spices, painted across taunt tannins. The structure says, I have many years left to develop and change and in the here in now, tasting drinking pleasure. My score for this wine 89 points.


2012 Je Ne Sais Quoi, Sta Rita Hills: Excuse my French, this wine has a little something, something that says I'm all that you want, with a little cherry on top. Another 100% estate Pinot Noir that so worth the price of admission, you'd be a fool to miss out. This vintage is on the verge of selling out, so move with alacrity to score a few bottles for your cellar. In the glass, a big brooding dark ruby color, the nose full of baking spices, floral and cut black tea.

It's a big wine, one I'd lay down for long term cellaring to properly enjoy down the road, after it has had a chance to shake off some of its youthfulness. Broken rocks, fresh pre-dunked tea bags, brown sugar, cherries, cranberries and cola. The finish is on and on and on. All the fruit for this wine is from Bryan's famously well known Block 9, where he declared aloud before buying it over the phone, this vineyard is the mecca of the Sta Rita Hills. If you visit and happen to run into Bryan, make sure you ask to hear the story behind the acquisition of this block. My score for this wine is 93 points.


"Making wine can be best described as attempting to write poetry in a language you don't understand." ~ Some winemaker, somewhere in time!

2012 Microcosm Pinot Noir, Sta Rita Hills: Is there anything better than enjoying finely crafted wines on a very breezy afternoon, just outside the tasting room, with a view that sails on and like the finish of so many of these wines? The answer yes, it could be better with some friend, food and family and then you'd have the perfect tasting table. This wine takes a very different approach, more feminine, dialed back fruit, and loads of wet, freshly cracked earth, floral and black cut tea on the nose. The first slurp of the wine easily gives way to more of the same from the nose, fortunately, bright cherries, cola, pie crust and baking spices join the fray, tho reticent to do so. The finish is a bit more abrupt than I hope for, but not so, that it takes away from its appeal. My score for this wine is 90 points.


2012 Babcock Radical Pinot Noir, Sta Rita Hills: Winemakers are not suppose to have favorites, but that doesn't work for wine writers. This wine was hands down, my absolute favorite and I was sad to hear there was not even one drop left to purchase. Yes, I do purchase wines, after some tastings. I like to take bottles home to reevaluate them, to see if I can duplicate the same initial experience, sadly in this case, they were all gone. So I have to reply on my first set of tasting notes, to make my recommendation. This wine comes from 'proven' clones Dijon, 667 and 115.

"The reason for the lighter [soil] appearance in Radical is its rocks. Dude, Radical’s rocks are soooo rad! They look like someone, God?, painted them."~ Bryan Babcock

That said, I'm trusting the "sold out" status of this vintage as evidence that I'm on the right track with my exurbanite recommendation. I was wowed, just by the nose, velvety, lingering aromas, alluring and maybe even a bit intoxicating; cracked wet earth, fresh summer cherry, sweet tobacco, cut black tea and vague white pepper. After the first slurp, sublime city, lean in all the right places and coating the palate like a velvet blanket; sweet cranberries, tobacco, a blaze of minerality that drills down deep into the bedrock, adding depth and complexity and perhaps this wine seen some whole cluster fermentation. I'm scoring this wine 94 points, it's a stunner. 

If you hope for a chance to secure any of the upcoming 2013, you better take the steps necessary to do so now, or you'll be left on the outside looking in. Nothing but real soul and substance found here, don't miss it. Until next folks remember, life is short, don't settle for commodity wines, sip long and prosper cheers!



Monday, August 11, 2014

Chateau Tanunda – Bringing The Thunder From Down Under

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Chateau Tanunda, Barossa Valley - picture courtesy of http://www.chateautanunda.com/
Chateau Tanunda has been described as the birthplace of the Barossan wine industry.  The site of the first vine plantings (1840s). In 1994, it was placed on the Register Of State Heritage Places.  However, by the time its current owner, the inimitable John Geber, discovered it in 1998, it was neglected and in disrepair.   It has taken vision, passion and not a little effort and investment to return this iconic estate to its former glory. 

John has now turned his attention to the US market, evangelizing their brand and seeking feedback on their product.  I was fortunate to meet him several months ago. I found him to be a genuine and passionate guy who is proud of his brand, and genuinely interested in making it better.  Recently, I took the opportunity to review some of their offerings.  Here is a summary of my thoughts.


2012 Chateau Tanunda Dry Riesling – Pale gold in color with aromatics of feshly squeezed lime and crisp Golden Delicious apple.  On the palate, it provides a decent attack, with incisive acidity, cleansing lime, granny smith apple skin, with almost grainy saline-driven minerality. A core of pear and apple combine with lime and lemon zest to provide bitter-tinged edge to a persistent finish. Great quality and interest in a bone dry Riesling at a price point ($17) that makes it almost imperative to try. I readily give this 90 points. If all of the wines perform like this, Tanunda could be (arguably) on the path to an Aussie wine renaissance. 

2013 Chateau Tanunda Barossa Chardonnay – enthusiastic aromatics highlighted by tropical fruits, pineapple, melon, nectarine, meyer lemon, and a light chalky note. The palate is soft and round, enriched by pineapple and mango. The attack and midpalate are edged by lemon pith and baking spice – pursued by a persistent finish and decent acidity. At $16 I would give this a solid 88 points – strong effort.


2009 Chateau Tanunda Grand Barossa Shiraz  - it’s easy to greet an Aussie Shiraz with some preconceived notions.  Here, I tried hard to make my notes a genuine reflection of a naïve encounter with a new wine.  Opaque in color, a deep inky ruby gave rise to dusty black currant, sweet ripe dark fruit and cocoa aromatics, accompanied by an interesting note of orange zest.  Odd, you might say but there nonetheless.

On the palate, blackberry, black currant and red currant combine in a sweet ripe core edged by pepper, iodine and some salinity. Bitter cherry and a lightly dusty, tannic spine support a full-bodied palate with dense core of fruit that is gently cleansed and lifted by decent acidity.  At under $20 I gave this 89 points.  A solid wine with character and room for personal growth.

2009 Chateau Tanunda Grand Barossa Cabernet – the aromatics are ebullient! Blueberries and red currant explode from the glass, accompanied by smoke, meat and a herb-like sage / underbrush note (courtesy of the blended Cab Franc). The palate of blackberry / currant and raspberry, pepper spice, mint and dark chocolate are enveloped in a fine grained palatal texture with good acidity. The wine feels well proportioned with a persistent finish driven by dark fruit and dusty tannin.  Again, a wine worthy of 89 points at the $20 price point.


2010 Noble Baron Shiraz – I had been looking forward to this wine. Dense and opaque, crimson at the rim, blackberry and raspberry, smoke, vanilla, and spice aromatics flood the air.  The Baron displays a velvety texture on the attack, coursing with a focused stream of blackberry compote and kirsch, dark chocolate-covered acai/dried cherry. The finish is gently encased by a bitter edge of herb and decent acidity, integrated in fine-grained tannin and leather.  At $50, this earns 90 points from me – a delicious effort, still with a lot of horses under the hood.

I would pair the Noble Baron with some wood fire baked meatballs in marinara, layered over some fresh spaghetti (al dente).

All in all, I enjoyed this showing from Chateau Tanunda.  Sure, there is room for growth, development and refinement in these wines, but it looks like they are headed in the right direction.  These are wines with great value for money. I look forward to trying them in future vintages and learning how they develop.

You can catch other bottle notes and pictures on my twitter account - please drop in and follow @BruisedGrape .  Your comments are always appreciated!

Disclosure:  Media samples were provided by Banfi wines for the review process.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Babcock Winery and Vineyards: The Cutting Edge of Vine Evolution


It’s time to let gravity and winds sculpt the vines for a change. It’s time to let the shoots fall down naturally like a curtain. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for “Canopy Pivoting!” ~ Bryan Babcock

Another Wine Bloggers Conference in the can, the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association pulled off a great event and should be congratulated, well done, kudos. It was great to see so many new faces entering into the wine blogging fray and also getting reacquainted with old friends.I believe the focus of the bloggers conference is two fold; one is to provide an environment for new and old wine bloggers to grow, learn, experience and make new contacts, but more importantly I think it's about telling the story of the region we visit. That said, I think that is done by putting a big spotlight on one or more of the producers from this wildly diverse region. So instead of focusing on what did or didn't happen at the conference, I wanted to spend my time talking about Bryan Babcock and his winery.

The gentlemen in the picture really above really needs very little introduction, he is one of the old-guard on the Santa Barbara wine scene, and more specifically the Sta. Rita Hills where he and other pioneers of the region spearheaded a move to have SRH designated as an official AVA, their petition was submitted in 1997 and in 2001 their petition was granted by the powers that be. But there was just one little snag, as Bryan tells the tale about the AVA that almost wasn't. I remember reading about the story back in the day, but I didn't realize how the issue was resolved. As I wondered aloud, 'thinking, really just one winery, and in a different country?" Bryan was quick to point out, that they did have a genuine cause for concern and we were receptive to coming up with an alternative, that didn't involve lawyers. 

Many folks may not be familiar with the story; about how the pioneers of the initiative were hit with a bit of a lawsuit, from a Winery in South America, whose name just happened to be the same as the proposed AVA. But instead of all the drama of lawyer jousting, Richard Sanford suggested to the folks of the Santa Rita Hills winery, that they get together, see the region for themselves, pop some corks and figure out a way to avoid the whole lawyer/court/lawsuit thing, and you know what they came up with a compromise, which was to abbreviate Santa to Sta, and thus today the AVA is known as the Sta Rita Hills.

“The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.” ― Paulo Coelho

As Bryan Babcock explained it to me, on a warm Monday afternoon in the vineyard, “Why fight gravity? Why not work with it instead? I said, right that makes sense, but how would you describe to someone unfamiliar with what you're doing? He said, "I'm using gravity to help sculpt the canopy, bringing the canes higher, basically, we're turning vertical shoot positioning upside down!”. Where did he start this project? This experiment, if you will? It all started on what he describes as his very best block, the Pacific Block or "Oceans Ghost" block which I believe is more accurate. Wow, you talk about going all in, he's laid all his cards on the table and has called, it looks like he's going home a winner.

Many folks think he is 'crazy' and I have to admit, I thought it was a bit odd. So why does this approach seem a bit on the crazy side of the equation? Well, because he's about to kick what has become the gold standard in viticulture, VSP or vertical shoot positioning [good for shading and airflow] to the proverbial curb, in favor of a radically different approach. It's something he likes to call “Canopy Pivoting!" a new technique [you can see in the picture above] he plans to patent. Bryan says, "why fight gravity, if you don't have to" which on the face of it, VSP does seem to be a bit counter intuitive and cost prohibitive.

 So he plans to work with gravity to make his vineyard more functional, thereby saving much of the front ended labor costs, associated with vertical shoot positioning. Some may think, it's ludicrous, but the results are in, and the bottom line is that this approach could radically change everything. The grapes will be hanging near or at eyeball level, the leaves angled downward and a shade screen to let in or minimize the sun as vineyard manager sees fit. All the while reducing front end labor costs substantially, some 30% already according to Bryan, and what that ultimately could translate into is a nice savings [per bottle] for the consumer. Only time will tell if his gamble will pay off, but if I was a betting man, and I'm not, I'd put my money on Babcock for the win.


It has been quite some time since my return to Babcock, the last time I was there was it was in 2009, where I led an intrepid group of travels, on a trip to SBC, or what I dubbed it as then the Sideways Road Trip. No one else in the group wanted to travel out to Babcock with us, it's long trip down the 246 from the center of the Solvang, the windmill capital. That said, the last time we were there we took some wines home and one in particular, which we still have, the 2007 Fathom a label they no longer bottle under, a wine with a good bit of Cabernet Franc. Sadly a vine, which according to Bryan, does not grow in their soils all too well, in fact they dried up and withered away.  


There has been a few changes since my last visit, besides the demise of the Fathom and the change from VSP to his new system set to revolution the wine world. They have also changed and expanded the tasting room, it's five to six times larger than it use to be and also a bit more insulated from the heat of the day. The last time I was there, I kept thinking sheese, this tasting room is pretty hot and the wines seemed a bit warm too and perhaps were not showing as well as they could have. So I was very happy to see an amazingly well done, tasting room with a very long bar, which beckons legions of thirsty vinosapiens to belly-up, sip, slurp and hopefully spit. 


They also added a classic rock and roll salon or as they call it a private tasting lounge, which I guess is reserved for visiting VIP's, the press and Wine Club members. Speaking of Classic Rock, one of my favorite genres of music, you can expect to hear it playing through out the winery, in the tasting room, crush pad and the barrel room. This is room where I had an opportunity to sit down with a very good selection of their wines, even one that is already sold out. And take a quick note here, if you'd like a really radical Pinot Noir, than it would behoove you to secure some of the 2012 once it's released or will be long gone.  


One of the first wines I encountered was from a block they called the 2012 "Naughty Little Hillside" I think they'd like to call it something else, but those alternative names would likely be frowned upon by the label police, aka the powers that be. This had to be one of the very best and most interesting Pinot Gris I've encountered in a long, long time. I don't typically find myself this fascinated by a what is normally a simple white wine. 

Oh no, this wine has crazy, drill down to the center of the earth complexity, and layers, upon layers of texture. To say it had amazing minerality, would be a big understatement, the roots must have drilled right through solid rock. This wine has real weight to it, a blaze of acid helps carry the abundant fruit, papaya, peach and subtle grape fruit on the back end, the finish sails on and on. I took two home, because I wanted to revisit this experience again and again. My score for this wine is 94 points. 



I have seven more wines, which I tasted that day left to write about, but I'm going to set those up for a part two and should have those published on Tuesday. And seeing Andy has a new piece which is running on Monday, and each subsequent Monday through out the month of August, so stay tuned. Plus, I have two more wineries I'll be reviewing from SBC, before heading off to Champagne in September. I'll leave you with a picture of the Naughty Little Hillside, which gives the Babcock team so many fits to work with, but is so worth it in the end. Until next time folks remember, life is short so sip long and prosper cheers!




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