Author Archives: Lyle W. Norton

About Lyle W. Norton

Free-lance writer specializing if wine, food, travel and jazz reviews.

Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2014


In the world of wine, 2014 will forever be remembered as a premier year for Portuguese releases.  In fact, it is not about the year 2014, but the 2011 vintage in northern Portugal’s Douro River Valley.  Exceptionally warm, dry temperatures in 2011 pushed the fruit forward, resulting in robust, yet pristine ports and tables wines, so much so that it landed three wines in the top five, averaging 98pts on Wine Spectator magazine’s most exciting wines of 2014 list including the Dow’s Vintage Port 2011 (99pt/$89)as the top wine of the year.

2014 WS Wine of the Year

2014 WS Wine of the Year

I always anticipate Wine Spectator’s annual list that emerges from a  laborious process beginning with some 20,000 wines tasted by their staff throughout the year, hard work but someone has to do it. Their criteria are quality (only wines rate 90+ are considered), cost ( is it a reasonable value for the price) and accessibility (how many cases were produced).

From the wines tasted throughout the year, approximately 5,000 met the 90pt+ criteria and moved on to the blind taste test. Next, those extremely high-priced or low produced wines are eliminated.  Finally, numerous votes are taken after and during intense discussion, allowing the panel to be subjective in defending their wine’s special characteristics such as unique region, varietal, etc.  The final product is a list of the year’s Top 100 exciting releases.

Dow’s Vintage Port 2011 is no stranger to the list, slipping into the top twenty in 2010 with the perfect 100 pt rating for the 2007 vintage. It originates from the Cima Corgo region along the Douro River near the village of Pinhão, known for

Portugal's Douro Valley

Portugal’s Douro Valley

higher temperatures, lower rainfall and premier grapes.  The Symington family, the region’s largest land owner with 2,400 acres, oversees all vineyards and production including the 2011 vintage of native varietals, touriga franca (40%), touriga nacional (36%), souzão (10%) and a few mixed-grape plantings.

Wine writer Jancis Robinson compared the relationship of the main varietals with that of Bordeaux’s Cabernet Franc to Cabernet Sauvignon.  Touriga franca adds the exceptional flavor, touriga nacional the power and souzão the color.  Managing Editor Kim Marcus chronicles the Dow’s Vintage Port 2011 as simply “the best of the best of a great vintage,” with a reference to the other fine Douro River Valley wines on the 2014 list.

At the cusp of yet another top rated release, the Symington family, in partnership with Bruno Prats, created the #2 Prats and Symington Douro Chyseia 2011 (97pt/$55), another red wine hailed for the flair and capacity of Douro’s 2011

Prats & Symington Douro Chryseia 2011

Prats & Symington Douro Chryseia 2011

vintage.  From the upper Douro valley, the #4 Qunita Do Vale Meao Douro 2011 (97pt/$76) continues the regions dominance with a red table wine with, as Marcus described, “plenty of cream and spice notes.”

Aside from the strong showing from Portugal, the “Big 3,” Italy (19), France (14) and California (19) contributed 52% of the wines. California was represented by nine different varietals, with pinot noir and chardonnay topping the list including the #11 Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2011 (95pt/$60), a perennial addition and always one of the best among the varietal. Fermented in mostly new oak with full mall-lactic fermentation, sur lie for 10 months makes my mouth water for this creamy, California classic.  There has been much discussion this year 134876lregarding chardonnay from Napa’s Peter Michael. His #20 Peter Michael Chardonnay Knights Valley Ma Belle-Fille 2012 (95pt/$90)remains one of 2014’s best although at a bit higher price.

Among the California pinot noir, I was pleased to see current releases of two favorites make the list, especially the #8 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills 2012 (94pt/$40) The Greg Brewer-Steve Clifton partnership has produced pinot noir from this appellation for two decades.  As Brewer also serves as the winemaker at Melville Winery, I has recently enjoyed wines from his distinctive style of whole-cluster fermentation sans new oak.  This wine is competitively priced and, from

Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2012

Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2012

all accounts, is deserving of its new status.

I have enjoyed, over the years, pinot noir from winemakers statewide who have sourced their grapes from Garys’ and Rosella’s Vineyard in the highly regarded Santa Lucia Highlands appellation of Monterey County. Roar Wines is a special project of Gary and Rosella Franscioni to produce limited amounts of fine pinot noir, syrah and cool-climate chardonnay in their “Highlands” vineyards.  There is much excitement at ROAR these days with the #71 ROAR Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Rosella’s Vineyard 2012 (93pt/$52), earning deserved recognition as they have produced fine wines like this for years. My friend, David, a long-time ROAR aficionado, has two bottles, one of which will be shared at our next fork ’n cork gathering.

Launched by ideal weather, the 2012 Oregon vintage was excellent and #17 Soter Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton District Mineral Springs Ranch 2012 was the highest ranked pinot noir on the list.  If you have a preference for pinot noir, pay close attention to the 2012 vintage in Oregon.

Three special California wines should be noted, first for their accomplishments and also for their story. The magazine

The Bedrock Heritage Sonoma Valley 2012

The Bedrock Heritage Sonoma Valley 2012

recognized a blend from 120-year old vines in the Sonoma Valley, done in an old-style of winemaking.  The #15 The Bedrock Heritage Sonoma Valley 2012 (95pt/$42), a blend primarily of zinfandel and carignane has a “yummy” review and releases at a reasonable price.  As one who enjoys the juice of grenache, the #52 Herman Story Grenache California On the Road 2011 (93 pt/$42), from north Santa Barbara County sounds intriguing.

Finally, as a sports fan, I have delighted in watching the skills of former Heisman Trophy winner, current

all-Pro NFL defensive back Charles Woodson. I have also heard some buzz about the #58 Twenty-four Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2010 (93pt/$112), but did not make the connection.  It seems that Mr. Woodson has

Twenty-four Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Twenty-four Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

secured a vineyard in north Napa Valley, found the right partners/winemakers and turned a hobby into one of the highest ranked California cabernet sauvignon on this year’s list.

Internationally, 15% of the wine’s on the 2014 list were produced below the equator. Australia contributed six wines, two in the top five.  The #2 Mollydocker Shiraz McLaren Vale Carnival of Love 2012 (95pt/$75), no stranger to the list, is defined for the same richness as past vintages I have tasted. Chardonnay from the westerly Margaret River appellation is renown, but the magazine was most impressed with the #5Leeuwin Chardonnay Margaret River Arts Series 2011 (96pt/$89), making it the highest ranked in the varietal.  The #16 Two Hands

Mollydocker Shiraz McLaren Vale Carnival of Love 2012

Mollydocker Shiraz McLaren Vale Carnival of Love 2012

Shiraz Barossa Valley Bella’s Garden 2012 (95pt/$69), once again made the list, confirming it’s place as one of the fine wines produced by the Aussies with a superb 2014 release.

Ten percent of the 2014 list are wines from South America, namely malbec from the Uco Valley/Mendoza region of Argentina and red wines from the Colchaqua Valley in Chile.  On my radar since the 2005 vintage was named Wine Spectator’s 2008 wine of the year, the #42 Lapostolle Clos Apalta Limited Release Colchagua Valley 2010 (94/$89) has remained a first-class wine since Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle began the project in the late nineties.  This wine has a fascinating story and it’s own state-of-the-art facilities.  The #19 Luca Malbec Uco Valley 2012 (93pt/$32) seems to be a wine that is available and at a moderate price.

Of course, we could not discuss any list without acknowledging the wonderful wines from Italy and France, who contributed 19 and 14 wines respectively, mostly from the famed Tuscany, Piedmont, Bordeaux and Rhone Valley regions.

When the region has a good vintage, the #7 Clos Des Papes Chateaunef-du-Pape 2012 (97pt/$135), from the

Clos des Papes Chateau-du-Pape 2012

Clos des Papes Chateau-du-Pape 2012

Rhone Valley, is usually ranked in the top ten.  Likewise with the #14 Fontodi Colli della Toscana Centrale Falccianello 2011 (95pt/$120) Having had the pleasure of tasting earlier vintages of each, assuredly, they are very special wines, though a bit above my pay-grade.  For the money and based upon the magazines descriptions, let me discover a bottle of #6 Castello Di Ama Chianti Classico San Lorenzo Gran Selezione 2010 (95pt/$52).

So, congratulations to Portugal, Australia, Chile and Argentina for helping to define the unique 2014 list.  Their wines, including releases from South Africa, will continue to emerge and, when a vintage comes together, will compete with all great wines throughout the world.  As for California, we continue our place among the world’s great appellations and, from Santa Barbara to Mendocino, great wines are ours to explore.




Sojourn Cellars of Sonoma


I was first introduced to wines from Sonoma’s Sojourn Cellars a few years ago at a 2013 “Pinotfest” event in Pasadena. After tasting pinot noir selections, a representative asked, in a soft voice, if I was ready to try their “dark pinot,”  which turned out to be my introduction the 2009 Sojourn Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Home Ranch Vineyard($48)that I described to be as opulent and complex as many of the $100 Napa Valley cabernets. I have continued to participate with Sojourn Cellars and they have since added chardonnay 5260fb3d201bed141bf51ae469e98f84to their menu of pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. While picking up my Fall order at the quaint tasting224b9c459364583836464098455c8656 room off the historic Sonoma Square, I arranged to taste the new releases and discover more of their history.

Sojourn Cellars literally emerged from two men who met playing tennis, bonding over the game and fine Burgundy. Former Dot-Com exec Craig Haserot and winemaker Erich Bradley, formerly of

Arrowhead Winery, partnered to pursue their passion for pinot noir and, more interestingly, their desire to produce small bottling of cabernet sauvignon through sources at a few of Napa Valley’s prestigious vineyards.  Their first cabernet sauvignon release was 2001, followed by the 2003 Sojourn Cellars Pinot Noir Sangiacamo Vineyard.  They now produce nine different single-vineyard pinot noir wines, four img_sojourn cabernet sauvignon and, in 2011, released their first chardonnay.  Today, their annual total production ranges from 6,000-8,000 cases, concentrating on new vineyards to expand their profile with the three varietals.

Sojourn has “by appointment only” tastings most days and it is an ideal setting and format for small groups serious (or not) about good wine.  Today, I met up with Tasting Salon Manager Sarah Congress to taste new wines, including some that I was picking up.

Having concentrated on their pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, my first opportunity to taste some of their chardonnay releases was at hand, a varietal that has recently grown in my modest inventory. All four wines are cool-climate “chards” from the Sonoma coast appellation.

Carefully chosen clones from three prominent Sonoma Coast vineyards contribute to the crispy 2012 Sojourn Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($38), spending eight months in oak barrels, 30% new.  Pressed 2009sojurnwhole cluster, this vintage has soft stone fruit and apple flavors with a nice acidity that earned a 90 pt. rating from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

From the same vineyard as their outstanding pinot noir, the 2012 Sojourn Chardonnay Sangiacamo Vineyard ($45), also pressed whole cluster, delivers pleasant melon and citrus on the nose and a splendid minerality to the palate.  It has a rich fruit character and mouthfeel and a 91 pt. rating from Parker.

Based upon the reputation of the vineyards, I purchased two new single-vineyard chardonnay in my Fall allotment. About to taste them, I can now determine if my instincts were true.


The Durrell Vineyard, in the Sonoma Coast appellation, has sourced grapes to some of the finest chardonnay producers in California. The inaugural release 2012 Sojourn Chardonnay Durrell Vineyard ($48) was pressed whole-cluster with full malolactic fermentation before resting sir lie in 40% new French oak barrels, bearing the opulent touch of a classic California chardonnay.

With only 175 cases produced, the début 2012 Sojourn Chardonnay Campbell Ranch Vineyard ($45) has all the fine qualities expected from this cool-climate, low-yield vineyard that manages large variations in temperature that produce complex aromas and flavors of melon, tropical fruit through a lush texture.  I savored both wines and I’m feeling good about my instincts.17881b5f9beb8f4338cd7bd8f0e20caa

Much of Sojourn’s pinot noir comes from cool-climate vineyards along the Sonoma Coast that, along with the Russian River Valley, constantly yield some of the world’s best. The next four wines of our tasting were from vineyards within these appellations that turns out so many world-class pinot noir releases.

The most classic, and possibly my favorite, the 2012 Sojourn Pinot Noir Rogers Creek Vineyard ($59),comes from an elevated vineyard in the Sonoma coastal hills above the Petaluma Gap.  Nice vanilla and cinnamon on the nose foreshadowed dark fruit and hints of spice through the finish.

In the remote hills, above the Sonoma coastline lies a low-yield vineyard, known for years of quality farming that is the source for the 2012 Sojourn Pinot Noir Ridgetop Vineyard ($59), a wine with pepper on the nose, concentrated fruit flavors and a silky texture that extends throughout the finish.  The grapes are di-stemmed prior to open-top fermentation and are highly influenced by thirsty new oak.

A right turn at the intersection of River and Wohler Roads drops you into the heart of the renown Russian 105299994c0c65f4e63f2ef883ab6845River Valley appellation near Forestville.  Less than one-half mile ahead is the origin vineyard for the 2012 Sojourn Pinot Noir Wohler Vineyard ($48). A bit austere, this wine has more earthy qualities with nice expressions of fruit and spice that should “open-up” with an hour or more decanting.

Yet another vineyard in the coastal hills, surrounded by redwoods, produces, according to winemaker Erich Bradley, “The best fruit I have ever tasted.” Since I was taking home a bottle of the 2012 Sojourn Pinot Noir Campbell Ranch Vineyard ($59), his 17881b5f9beb8f4338cd7bd8f0e20caa statement caught my attention.  As advertised, I found it to be the most aromatic of the pinots with nice tannins, cherry dominant flavors and texture, drinkable today, yet rewarding patience.  Not being able to taste the 2012 Sojourn Pinot Noir Sangiacamo Vineyard ($54), their original, most elegant and highly rated wine, was a disappointment, but left me someone to discover on our next visit.

Enthusiasm for Sojourn Cellars Pinot Noir is also shared by the experts.  The PinotReport, a Sonoma-based newsletter has consistently rated Sojourn’s pinot’s from 92-96 points. In a crowded arena of big high-end pinot producers, Sojourn can certainly compete in both quality and cost.

Next, we moved to a couple of reasonably priced Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon wines including the sold-photo_springmountainout 2012 Sojourn Cabernet Sauvignon Georges III Rutherford that was fruit-forward  with hints of blueberry and cocoa on the finish.

The 2012 Sojourn Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District ($59), from the hills above the town of St. Helena, was a very nice surprise with complex aromas and flavors of vanilla, cassis to accompany the dark fruit that has, to employ an overused term, a nice, long finish.

All and all, the Sojourn Cellars tasting experience is extraordinary.  A picture perfect setting, a personalized Sojourn-Cellars-Sonoma-Tasting-Salon2tasting, at tables with proper glasses and, of course, the previously described fine wines are in store for any group of wine lover’s. The opportunity to add a nice meal on the Square makes the day a sojourn not to be missed.

“Spark of Life”: Marcin Wasilewski Trio & Joakim Milder

The new ECM release, “Spark of Life” is the second extraordinary project for the Marcin Wasilewski Trio this year, showcased earlier with lead guitarist Jacob Young on the multi-dimensional recording, “Forever Young”.   The new recording, their fourth,  continues the trio’s evolution while maintaining the alluring

"Spark of Life"

“Spark of Life”

melodic stories that began with the first “Trio” CD.   Here, on several pieces, they collaborate with tenor saxophonist Joakim Milder, who gained recognition in his work at ECM with the late trumpet player, Tomaz Stanko.  Admittedly a fan of their musical style,  this current release is nearly flawless, especially the empowering percussion of  Michal Miskiewicz.

The album opens with “Austin,” a beautiful tribute to the late young prodigy, Austin Peralta where Wasilewski’s haunting melody is precisely  augmented, showcasing their skills in the trio format.  Marcin’s soulful finish is exquisitely  enhanced by the percussive work of Miskiewicz, foreshadowing his brilliance.  Wasilewski contributed five other original compositions, with “Three Reflections”and the alternate version of the title tune continuing to exhibit the trio.

Milder’s deft integration with the group is first presented on “Sudovian Dance”…his solos seem effortlessly woven within the trio, allowing for individual expression but often syncopated.  Listen carefully d43fd9d24bd22fd5019d7ab7035129ef38cf1adaas the piano brilliantly interplays with the other instruments.

Two disparate versions of “Spark of Life” are presented in both quartet and trio format.   It would have been a mistake to choose  one.  While Milder’s tenor adds a dimension to the composition, the interplay of Wasilewski, Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz always binds this beautifully melodic, yet evocative free composition.

No better way to showcase the trio’s intensity than a brisk version of Sting’s castaway tale, “Message in a Bottle.”  This is straight ahead, uptempo jazz as bassist Slavomir Kurkiewicz delivers an impressive transition to some highly energetic interplay between Wasilewski and Miskiewicz.  Enjoy this ride!



The most alluring quartet piece is a ballad from a Polish grunge-rock band named “Hey.”     I will not attempt to interpret, just know that  “Do Rycerzy, do Szalchty, do Mieszcan”  is probably the most accessible piece of the recording, melodically delicate, but featuring some fine improv work by all.

Krzysztof Komeda, the revered Polish jazz musician/composer, is known for composing the music for Roman Polanski’s 1968 film, “Rosemary’s Baby.”   Komeda who died in 1969 at age 38, is also credited with bridging US and European jazz during that time period.

The groups rendition of  Komeda’s “Sleep, Safe and Warm,” from the film, leads with the trio before Milder’s tenor sound transports us to the seashore in a 1960s black and white European film.  Beautiful piano-tenor interplay, a notable bass solo, all driven by Miskiewicz who controls the tempo (or tempos).



There are two pieces reminiscent of past Herbie Hancock groups, the later composed by the piano master.   “Still” has the appearance of a modern take on music from the quintessential Blue Note recordings like  “Maiden Voyage,” an anthem of my early exploration of jazz.  Herbie’s distinctive style is evident on “Actual Proof” with Miskiewicz’s skillful performance seemingly paying homage to drummer Tony William’s great work with those early groups.

Each release of this group has explored new, innovative territory and it has been a joy to experience their musical evolution, including their extensive work with

"Forever Young"

“Forever Young”

Manu Katche’.  To my viewpoint, “Spark of Life” and  “Forever Young” are two of the most significant jazz releases from ECM or any other label in 2014,  though I am nothing more than an expert in my own taste.

The Anatomy Of A Wine

Having recently received a fine bottle of wine as a part of my D.E.W.N. (Distinguished Esoteric Wine Network) membership with Bonny Doon Vineyards near Santa Cruz, I am always eager to read

2010 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Reserve

2010 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Reserve

Founder/Winemaker Randall Grahm’s esoteric wine descriptions.  He has a colorful, yet informative writing style that compliments his inventive style of winemaking.  My grand idea is to share Randall’s knowledge and rendition of his very distinctive, flagship wine and offer my own interpretations to help you understand wine descriptions and make more educated choices in the future. Randall’s comments on this 2010 vintage was typically rarefied, yet told me everything I need to know to become intrigued or not with drinking the wine.  His descriptions are in bold. 

2010 Le Cigare Volant Reserve ($79)

28% syrah, 22% grenache, 17% cinsault, 17% mourvedre,  16% carignane

His signature, aged Rhone-style blend with varietals used in the famous Chateaunef-du-Pape appellation in France’s Rhone Valley.

Appellation:  Central Coast Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo Co.

Production:  511 cases Slightly over 6,000 bottles

Alcohol by Volume:  13.3%  Average

Cellaring: Ideally hold for a year or two. 15-20+years ageability

This wine already has some age on it, but can handle as much time as you want to give it.

“This special cuvee’ of Le Cigare Volant is identical to our normal bottling but, owing to its unorthodox elevage, appears quite different in presentation.  After a short tenure in barrel, assemblage and completion of malolactic fermentation, the wine was removed to 5-gallon glass carboys (boubonnes)where it reposed sur lie for 20 months.  This practice yields a fare degree of integration and complexity plus a preternatural degree of savoriness.”

The French word “elevage” is literally defined as “upbringing the wine,” but also describes the art of maturing a wine which begins with the crush and ends in the glass.  Here, Randall tells us that after the

5-gallon carboy or "boubonnes"

5-gallon carboy or “boubonnes”

varietals spend a short time in the barrel alone, they are blended by formula before the malolactic fermentation process is initiated through the introduction of bacteria that consumes the harsh, astringent “malic” acid, leaving more of the softer “lactic” acid.  This technique is used with many varietals, most prevalent in California pinot noir and chardonnay. The word cuvee’ has several meanings, but is used here to simply reference a blend of several varietals.  A carboy or “boubonne” is a rigid glass container ranging in size from 5 to 15 gallons. Here, Randall uses

Aging wine "sur lie" with layer of yeast at bottom

Aging wine “sur lie” with layer of yeast at bottom

smaller 5-gallon glass containers where he allows the wine to rest “sur lie” for nearly two years; clearly unorthodox. Lees are deposits of residual yeast that forms on the bottom and sides of oak barrel during the early fermentation process.  Often, the juice is filtered, called racking, and transferred to clean barrels.  In many wines, notably those great ones from Burgundy in France,  the juice and yeast are left together described as “sur lie,” which tends to give a creaminess to the finished product.  Randall tempts us to crave an aged Rhone blend with very creamy texture and mouthfeel by informing us that he has left the wine “sur lie” for 20 months, not in oak barrels rather glass containers.  While “sur lie” tends to minimize the impacts of oak, glass containers is a new concept to me.  He also informs us that this wine is not fruit-dominant, developing its structure around more savory herb flavors.

“On the nose, tobacco, cherry wood ash, wild blackberry, bramble, cigar box, leather and garrigue.  Ia that a note of brandy?  Raw ginger?  Definitely a sweet spice layer.”

Firstly, Randall is not referring to the stench of someone smoking in a public place, more like the smell that permeates a cigar factory in the French Quarter in New Orleans.  The bouquet has some fruit but is clearly dominated by hearty, pleasant cedar wood aromas often found in cabernet sauvignon from the Bordeaux region of France.  Notes of leather signify that the wine has healthy tannins and will age exceptionally well, but can be harsh in young wines.  Drinking a young tannic wine can often fashion the sensation of sucking on a piece of raw leather. References to brandy, used to fortify sweet wines and raw ginger signifies that Randall is preparing us for a hearty or “earthy” wine, that has enough time in the bottle to drink now, but will improve significantly as it ages.  Apparently, garrigue is an aromatic shrub that grows in the Mediterranean region and heightens herbaceous elements to the bouquet, courtesy of the dominant syrah in this blend.

“Cinsault lends the Montmorency cherry, one of the flavor elements typically associated with Cigare (and also, coincidentally seems to get the final word in over the protestations of the vocal syrah).  But, don;t let that fool you – this is no fruit bomb.  There are strong suggestions of iodine – meaty and bloody.  This wine is all about elegance, and seems to disarmingly suggest a Burgundian take on Chateauneuf, if such a notion can be fashioned.  This is not an ordinary wine.  What is most noteworthy about it is its amazing silky texture, savoriness and infinite length.

Here, Randall references this particular cherry that, according to my research, is noted for its tartness, slightly sour on the palate which will add to the spicy profile of the wine, a role normally reserved solely for the syrah varietal.  However, he quickly reminds us that, in spite of the enhanced bouquet and soft fruit flavors, the cinsault cannot overcome the strong earthy aspects derived from the other varietals and the fermentation process. References to iodine flavors are most typically associated with wines that are grown near the sea.  Hints of

2012 Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese

2012 Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese

iodine, petrol and other mineral elements in wines are soft and subtle, often influenced by large deposits of limestone in the soil.  I was skeptical of these flavor references until I tasted a 1996 Bollig Lehnert Piespoter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese ($20) at Cava Restaurant in San Francisco. When our sommelier used the word “petrol” in describing the wine’s superb minerality, I finally understood what the excitement was all about. Comparing great Burgundian to great Rhone Valley (Chateaunef-du-Pape) wines is risky.  They are two of

Chateauneuf-du-Pape vineyard in Rhone Valley

Chateauneuf-du-Pape vineyard in Rhone Valley

the world’s finest wine regions and consumers are passionately loyal for each.  Le Cigare Volant is actually a blend of southern Rhone grapes, but here Randall is referring to its significant spice elements that are the cornerstone of pinot noir from the Burgundy region.  For what its worth, these comparisons make the wine sound very intriguing.  Again emphasizing the savory over fruit elements, Randall reminds us that the wine is also silky smooth with a very long finish.

“The 2010 Le Cigare Reserve’ is wine to be savored and studied over a long meal with friends.  Will benefit enormously from a gentle decanting or even sitting in large glass for 30 minutes, especially when consumed young,  This bodes well for the wine’s great aging potential”.

All noted wine makers believe that good wine is not for thirsty people, but to be enjoyed slowly while in discussions with others.  It is always better for wines such as the Le Cigare Volant to be decanted for an hour or two and a few minutes more in the glass before imbibing, allowing the exposed juice to “open up” to your palate. Wines that require the most effort before consuming are the ones that are improving while they age. For many of the features illustrated by Randall, Wine Enthusiasts magazine awarded this wine 92 points, the highest of any Le Cigare Volant

Epoisses cheese

Epoisses cheese

vintage.  While descriptions such as “earthy,” “spicy” or “savory” can help us match features to our palates, the word “elegance” makes it an easy choice for me. Although we have enough information to determine that the 2010 is a bold, hearty wine, we can also surmise that the additional time in the bottle will enhance its soft side and make it more accessible With the proper decanting outlined above, pairing this wine with tri-tip or rack of lamb will compliment the wine and help the flavors of each to reach their potential.  For us “pescatarians,” pairing it with Epoisses cheese, an odiferous, silky cheese from the Burgundy region in France is highly desirable.

Le Cigare Volant

Le Cigare Volant

I have tasted most vintages of Le Cigare Volant since 1990, each unique on to itself. Though I have not yet tasted this vintage, preferring to let it age longer, I would recommend it based on my interpretations of Randall’s comments and knowing that he has taken steps to create a distinctive wine from the 2010 harvest. Despite the fact that D.E.W.N. members do not pay the retail price, this will be a special occasion wine to be shared with family and good friends.

Sweet Dessert Wines


With the holidays just a few months away, we may want to include some dessert wines in our entertaining plans.  People are beginning to substitute a big piece of apple or pumpkin pie for fruit, cheeses and a nice sweet wine.  The most famous, and most expensive, dessert wines on the planet are called Sauternes, from France.  More specifically, they hail from the Sauternes region of Bordeaux and consist of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, the

2001 Guirard Sauternes

2001 Guirard Sauternes

same varietals used in the classic Bordeaux white wines.  The difference lies in something nicknamed the “noble rot.”

Mold is a natural enemy in the vineyards, something that can quickly destroy plants.  However, the renowned Sauternes are among those “botrytized” wines, that oddly benefit from a mold called Botrytis cinerea.  High humidity make the plant susceptible to the rot which, primarily late in the growing season, turns the grapes to raisins, enhancing the ripened flavors that sweeten the wine.  Botrytis can sugar-coat the Sauternes, but cannot change that fact that these are old vines from the Bordeaux region, known for producing complex flavors.  Sauternes have all the attributes of white wines from this region, but sweeter.


Sobon Estate Vineyards

Although the Sauternes I have tasted are unmatched by any other sweet wine, with price points beginning in the $50 range, they are beyond my and many wine budgets. The same stands true with the mighty Portuguese “ports”, the Italian Moscato d’Asti and the German late-harvest Riesling Spatlese, so special that they command an exceedingly high tariff.  Though I would never dissuade someone from the opportunity to experience the world’s greatest dessert wines, common sense suggests that we look for other available choices that can still meet high standards at a more reasonable cost.  The following are the current vintages of some of my favorite dessert wines from California and the Pacific Northwest.

Sobon Estate has been a leading winery along the Shenandoah Trail in Amador County for several years, producing primarily zinfandel in the hills of Gold Rush country.  Sobon could provide one-stop shopping for all your dessert wine needs with their orange muscat, zinfandel port and a distinct white port consisting of Rhone grapes, roussanne and viognier.  The 2012 Sobon Estate Zinfandel Port ($13), like earlier vintages, is a wonderful port-style wine that includes the rich, fruitiness of good zinfandel.  This wine is perfect for discovering the complexities of modern dessert wines, moderately priced and high on quality.

One of the most unique California port-style wines available is the 2012 Sobon Estate Amador County White Port ($14) in which three Rhone

Sobon Estate Amador County Zinfandel Port

Sobon Estate Amador County Zinfandel Port

grapes are combined with orange muscat.  In that the grand white grapes from Portugal are not available, the French roussanne, viognier and marsanne are able substitutes, providing a rich, luscious wine that requires no other dessert.  The new 2012 ReZeerve Orange Muscat ($12) rounds out Sobon’s big three with the caution that they are all above 18% alcohol.


2011 Chateau Ste. Michelle Ethos Reserve Late-Harvest Riesling

As previously mentioned, late-harvest rieslings, mostly from Germany and the Alsace region of France, are among the most beautiful, aromatic and rich dessert wines anywhere.  Rated 92 pts by Wine Spectator magazine and still somewhat available at a few suburban outlets, the 2011 Chateau St. Michelle Ethos Reserve Late-Harvest Riesling ($35), from the Columbia Valley in Washington State is simply elegant throughout and the best finish to any meal.  A bit pricy, but bottles can be found and high ratings for dessert wines are not common.

Vincent Arroyo Winery in north Napa Valley has produced their petite sirah port-style wine for over twenty years in the authentic method of using grapes from one vintage only.  Petite sirah is accessible to many palates and some of the best comes from this region.  Clearly identified by a striking silver embossed label, 2012 Vincent Arroyo Port ($25) is fortified with wine spirits and, as most dessert wines, has rich, age-worthy flavors and a high alcohol content.

Visiting the winery years ago, I acquired two bottles of the 2009 vintage and one remains in my cellar.  We can only imagine how good it will be.

Bonny Doon Vineyards has released many creative and excellent dessert wines over the years. The latest 2013 Bonny Doon “Vinferno” ($24), made from 100% grenache blanc grapes, will certainly sustain their reputation.  From the Arroyo Seco appellation in Monterey County, these grapes were planted with the “botrytis rot” in mind, but our drought has not yet allowed that to happen.  It has extended the growing season enough that the “Vinferno” drinks like a late-harvest wine, perfect with after dinner cheeses.

2013 Bonny Doon "Vinferno"

2013 Bonny Doon “Vinferno”

A few months ago I wrote of a dessert wine discovery from the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County.  I first tasted the full-bodied 2010 Richard Longoria “Vino Dulce” Syrah Santa Barbara County ($23) paired with fine chocolate and all self-control immediately dissipated.  I have since shared the experience with others at the conclusion of a syrah and cheese tasting.  What I love about these new port-style, single-varietal wines is that, although they are fortified, one can smell and taste the complexities of the zinfandel, syrah and other grapes as well as the rich sweetness.  In nose and on palate, the  “Vino Dulce,”  spices are protuberant and the cherries are baked; balanced yet expressive.

Tobin James Late-Harvest Zinfandel "Liquid Love"

Tobin James Late-Harvest Zinfandel “Liquid Love”

The best place to shop for any type of dessert wine under one roof is still Tobin James Cellars in Paso Robles.  Aside from their classic 2010 Tobin James Late-Harvest Zinfandel ($14), dubbed “Liquid Love”, they produce a late-harvest Riesling, a muscat, a sparkling muscat, a port and the 2012 Tobin James “Charisma ($20), a zinfandel dessert blend that I have enjoyed for years.

While most of the Tobin James dessert wines are moderately priced at $12, the 2011 Tobin James Port, “James Gang Reserve” ($25) is a bit more expensive but worth pursuing.

The now defunct Martin & Weyrich Winery, formerly in Paso Robles, for years, produced an award-winning dessert wine called “Muscato Allegro.”  Apparently there are still some older vintages of the Martin & Weyrich Muscato Allegro that have recently appeared on shelves of some suburban outlets.  Look for a distinctively shaped bottle in the dessert wine section and, if you find some, it may be very competitively priced.

2010 Longoria Syrah "Vino Dulce" Santa Barbara County

2010 Longoria Syrah “Vino Dulce” Santa Barbara County

For those curious about Sauternes, I did a quick net search of K&L Wines in both San Francisco and Hollywood and found several Sauternes priced in the $20-$30 range.  The top-rated wine was the 2001 Guiraud Sauternes ($65), which

received a 96 pt rating from Wine Spectator and was actually #23 on their Top 100 Wines of 2004 list describing flavors of “butterscotch and vanilla with hints of ripe apples.”  It’s there for the taking, but, as you have discovered, there are many delectable options.

Film 2014, Vol. I

Without substantial information nor serious  logic, my sense, and nothing more, tells me to pay close attention t0 2014 as it may be  one of the best years for film in an decade.  For the remainder of the season, as the summer action blockbusters begin to fade,  a multitude of movies with great writing and memorable performances seem poised to emerge…at least that’s what the tarot cards tell me.  So, if your tired of fighting apes or aliens, start your Fall with three films that may foreshadow a great year.

Although not one of his best, Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight”  is, hell, it’s Woody Allen… or Colin Firth as Woody Allen.   A typically

"Magic in the Moonlight"

“Magic in the Moonlight”

creative  screenplay and tremendous performances carry the film, set in 1920’s Provence as Allen transitions from a New York film maker to a foreign film maker.  Firth and Emma Stone are cast perfectly as we explore personal vulnerabilities set among arguments regarding the existence of “psychics”.


From the startling confession in the opening line of the film to its dramatic conclusion, “Calvary” will truly be one of my top 2014 films .  Brendan Gleeson’s Oscar-worthy performance as a hardened priest in a remote area in Ireland is enhanced by a hauntingly complex script and cast of eclectically eccentric characters.   Suspense lands a hard first-round punch and doesn’t let up



until it’s over.   It should be one of this year’s most critically acclaimed films.

Previewed as a film that was twelve years in the making, allowing the characters, especially the children to age naturally  throughout, I found that the concept of “Boyhood”  gave the viewer a new and unique viewpoint into the struggles, changes, mistakes and happy times in a family.  The main character is seven years old as the film begins and 19, off the college when it finally concludes.  Significant changes, obvious to the kids, are equally evident with the adults, and in our two-plus hours together, I felt I knew their story.  It’s called survival.  I recommend this film as a must see, especially if you are a parent.

These are three good ones and the race has only started.  So, spring for the $5.00 Diet Coke and the smelly movie house and select



some films that fit your fancy.   Who knows, before it’s finally over, we may see Michael Keaton take home an Oscar.


Melville of the Santa Rita Hills


If your interest in viticulture and gardening evolves into a passion for the great Burgundian wines, the Santa Rita Hills appellation, north of Santa Barbara is where you want to be.  That, in a nutshell, is the story of Ron

Melville Estate vineyard

Melville Estate vineyard

Melville who left the business world to grow grapes in Sonoma’s Knights Valley area, leaving again nearly 30 years ago for north Santa Barbara County to pursue perfection in pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay.  For years, the Melville Winery has been a staple among the many good wine makers in the prestigious Santa Rita Hills appellation near Lompoc.  With the understanding that everything evolves, now seemed to be a good time to re-visit the winery for an update.

Founder Ron Melville

Founder Ron Melville

The climate of this area can be described as consistently diverse enjoying morning fog, mid-day warmth and afternoon coastal breezes most days.  Managing the vineyards in this terroir to produce high quality fruit evolved into the production of Melville wines with the 1997 partnership between Melville and veteran winemaker, Greg

Winemaker Greg Brewer

Winemaker Greg Brewer

Brewer who was connected to many wineries, mostly known for his small-

production Brewer-Clifton Wines.  The collaboration has enjoyed sustained success that they credit to their desire to maintain small production values as the business grows.

As I sat down with General Manager Kurt Ammann to hear the Melville story, he stressed their efforts to ”stay in touch” with the wine.  One expression of this value is Brewer’s insistence on personally hand-pressing all juice at the early stages of fermentation, something that requires a seven-day work week during harvest season.

Our discussion also focused on three basic techniques or philosophies that best identify Melville:  1. Longer maceration periods, 2. Balancing whole-cluster fermentation vs. di-stemming and 3. No new oak in any wines. Although not unique to winemaking, here they are part of a conscientious effort to maintain intimacy and achieve a natural purity in their wines.

2012 Melville Estate Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills

2012 Melville Estate Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills

Whole cluster fermentation leaves the grape cluster intact, stems and all, while di-stemming frees only the individual grape for the crusher.  Melville believes that stems can add to the flavor of the wine and manage a balanced whole-cluster vs. di-stemming approach in their profile.  One example is the 2012 Melville Estate Pinot Noir($36) which uses grapes from all clones, 40% of them whole-cluster that adds an earthiness or “forest floor” element to the flavor of the wine.  I also found this wine to be wonderfully aromatic with a hint of vanilla in a classic pinot noir bouquet.

Maceration describes the process of exposing the primary juice to the grape skins.  It affects the color of the wine, adds tannins and enhances the aroma.  The impacts of maceration are best illustrated in a rose’ wine beginning with regular grapes that, with very limited skin exposure, evolve with pale colors, subdued aromas and are very drinkable at release. Melville chooses longer maceration periods for their juice, seeking balanced, age-worthy wines with depth.

Another unique attribute of Melville is that they use no (zero) new oak in any of their wines.  All of their oak barrels are two years or older.  I recently met a winemaker who produced one “zero” pinot noir, but here it is inclusive to all wines. The flavors of these wines are controlled solely by the terroir and the conviction that a “hands-on” approach can create flavors naturally.

Due west of the winery is a row of large, mature poplar trees that shield outdoor tasters and picnickers, and much of the vineyards from the afternoon winds.  The westerly vineyard clones thrive without their protection which secures the role of the poplar trees as a major factor in defining the different microclimates at Melville.

From the westerly side, Block M sits upon a mesa of clay loam soil that receives both strong wind and sun.

2012 Melville Pinot Noir Block M

2012 Melville Pinot Noir Block M

From some of the finest clones on the westside, the 2012 Melville Estate Pinot Noir Block M ($56), consisting of 80% whole-clustered grapes, is an exceptionally well-structured wine with a creamy mouthfeel and balanced flavors.  The “Block M” is aromatic; slightly floral with spice and the flavors are concentrated and lengthy, good traits for aging.

In California, we generally compare chardonnay by new oak vs stainless steel. Many consumers have learned

2013 Melville Estate Chardonnay Santa Ritas Hills

2013 Melville Estate Chardonnay Santa Ritas Hills

the benefits of each, principally when paired with food. Melville presents a new twist, differentiating stainless steel from bland, neutral oak only.  The “no new oak” 2012 Melville Estate Chardonnay ($26) expressed a nice Burgundian minerality followed by balanced citrus, tropical fruit, melon flavors and a very soft finish.

The French refer to stainless steel as “inox,” something that is prominent to the vast majority of their chardonnay.  The 2012 Melville Estate Chardonnay “Inox”($36) is cold-filtered and no oxygen is added to the juice.  While effective in

2013 Melville Chardonnay Clone 76 "Inox"

2013 Melville Chardonnay Clone 76 “Inox”

balancing the flavors, oxygen tends to restrict aromas which explains why this wine has such a striking bouquet of ripened melon.

The “Inox” is chardonnay in its purist from.  Hand-selected grapes are cold-fermented in small stainless steel tanks to retard any natural malolactic fermentation, yet still enhance the natural fruit flavors. There are floral hints and a creamy texture on the palate with a nice finish.  This wine’s 90-point ratings are well-deserved and I had to take a bottle home.

Cooler temperatures in the Santa Rita Hills appellation extends the growing season, at times, into November, allowing the grapes to fully ripen.  Aside from well-known calcareous soils, the natural sand along with the distinctive fog produce grapes that can literally be pressed into wines with fully balanced flavors and acidity.

Differences between cool-climate and warm-climate wines are very evident with the syrah grape, expressing higher acid and lower alcohol when temperatures cool and the opposite when they rise. The spice, peppery profile of syrah is most evident in the cooler microclimates of the Santa Rita Hills.  Such is true of the next wine in our tasting.

2012 Melville Estate Syrah Santa Rita Hills

2012 Melville Estate Syrah Santa Rita Hills

The 2012 Melville Estate Syrah ($32), fermented in neutral oak barrels, is wonderfully balanced with spice and floral hints present from the nose through the palate. Initially drawn to its deep, dark color, the multiple flavors and heavy texture intensify the complexity of the wine. Syrah from this region begs comparison with the fine Northern Rhone releases.

For me, the initial appeal of Melville Winery is their focus on Burgundian and Rhone varietals produced from 14 pinot noir clones, nine syrah and six chardonnay.  A closer look reveals a group that has a philosophy and commitment to making pure, distinctive wines that rely on nurturing the juice with “old school” processes and wonderful terroir.  For me, enjoying these varietals sans new oak was a unique experience, one that I will always identify with Melville wines.

Melville is one of a number of wineries to visit along Highway 246 in the Santa Rita Hills appellation between Buellton and Lompoc.  The Tuscan-style tasting room and outdoor patio area offer a wonderful

General Manager Kurt Ammann

General Manager Kurt Ammann

setting for tasting their wines and picnic areas are available for those who choose to bring a lunch.

Melville Winery tasting room

Melville Winery tasting room

Other wineries along this route include Foley Estate and Babcock, while adventuring a bit further into Lompoc, one can discover Fiddlehead Cellars, Loring Wine Company, Ampelos Cellars and other worthy wine makers.  Investing more time will “open up” additional wineries along the parallel Santa Rosa Road at the southern part of the appellation.  The appellations of Santa Barbara County are “at the table” with our State’s best wine regions and we are all fortunate to have them at our fingertips.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.