Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Value of “Barrel 27”

On our way to attend an event called, “Wine, Women and Song” at the quaint Hotel Cheval in downtown Paso Robles, we received a text that our friends, Rosemary and David, were going to be in town for the last few nights of their month-long “No Reservation Road Trip.”  This two night get-a-way just got busier.

As friends, our serious interest in wine began in the mid-eighties.  Discovering new eating establishments and wines is what we are about when our paths cross in Paso.  During lunch, I explained my plans to visit Barrel 27, a new winery that recently has received recognition for producing good value-priced Rhone-style blends. With everyone game after lunch, we headed east from town to hopefully, discover some new releases.

Reviews from two major periodicals led me to the Barrel 27 ’08 “High On The Hog” White blend ($15) with ratings well into the nineties, medium-dry with layers of flavor.  Aside from comparing “Hog” vintages ’08 and ’09, the plan was to taste their entire palate of single-varietal and blended wines.

Barrel 27 Winery is located approximately one mile east of Highway 101, in the old industrial condo building that once housed Garretson Winery.  It’s visible from Highway 46, but only accessible from Golden Hill and Union Roads   Winemakers and friends, McPrice Myers and Russell From, drawn together by fate, are very upfront about their mission to respect the fact that hard working people should be able to drink high quality wine and still pay for the mortgage, car, kids and pets.  With two whites, five reds and a moscato dessert wine, we set about to make our own judgments.

From 100% Santa Barbara County vineyards, their second release of “Sittin’ Pretty” Viognier 2010 ($18) delivered a nice blend of tropical and orchard fruits, but the rich, dense texture embodied the softer flavors of honey and melon. Although its price is average, this wine surpasses the standard in bouquet and taste.

I was not surprised that the 2009 “High On The Hog” White ($16), primarily Grenache Blanc and Viognier, stood up to its predecessor in overall quality.  Strong floral hints on the nose led to complex orchard fruit, honey and softened mineral flavors through a nice finish.  This is a great food wine.

Only their second vintage, Barrel 27’s single-varietal release of Grenache, a grape that, when done properly, can push the fruit forward without becoming overpowering.  Exhibiting a beautiful deep, ruby color, the 2008 ‘Rock and a Hard Place”  Grenache” ($18) was superbly balanced and full-bodied, delivering jammy fruit and spice on the palate.  The wine was rated in the high eighties by Wine Spectator and Robert Parker.

The winery’s signature release, sourced from Santa Barbara County vineyards exclusively, is poised to deliver the highest quality at value price of any Syrah in California. Consumer interest in Syrah from our central coast has driven starting costs above $30 per bottle.  The 2007 “Right Hand Man” Syrah ($18) is bold, both in bouquet and taste, with complexity and richness of wines twice the price.  Simply stated, this wine is a wonderful “find.”

The next wines are special, illustrating the winery’s ability to create single-varietals and blends with texture and complexity.  The costs are higher, but very competitive with similar high-end wines. Three wines before us, a bold Syrah, a classic Rhone-style and a “bullish” blend that promises to, possibly, be “the great steak wine of all-time.”

Smelling the bouquet of the 2007 “Head Honcho” Syrah($28) is a sensual task in itself.  The longer you do it, the more aromas you discover. The texture (heavy on the tongue) and the balance of sweet and savory flavors, to be expected from quality syrah, combine with typical spice influences to signify a compelling wine even before you experience floral hints on the finish.  A few bottles will rest in my wine cabinet for 6-12 months because everything about this exceptional wine signals that it will get better with time.

After discovering Barrel 27 through their white Rhone-style blend, the moment has come to taste their only classic Rhone-style red blend, unavoidably mindful of comparisons with wines tasted during my recent trip to Chateaunef-du-Pape.  The 2008 “Hand Over Fist” ($30) is Barrel 27’s highest rated wine, a classic Rhone-style blend of syrah (60%), Grenache (30%) and mourvedre (10%), nearly identical to those in the southern Rhone Valley.  Quoting some knowledgable person, “this wine is big and bold from nose to finish.”  The flavors are perfectly balanced, very jammy and liqueur-type in their intensity.  I agree with the winery’s recommendation to decant the wine for at least an hour, thinking maybe two is better.  A wine like this must have time to breathe and adjust to a new environment before it begins to “open up” to strangers.

I propose another historical event, a blind tasting to be held in Avignon, pitting new Paso Robles Rhone-style whites and reds against legendary, century-old wines from Gigondas, Chateaunef-du-Pape and other southern Rhone Valley appellations.  California is at the same stage in Rhone-style blend development as the Napa Valley was with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay during the 1976 Paris Tastings.  How we would compare is still a question, but my instincts see us performing better than expected.

Visualize the “Hand Over Fist,” The Saxum James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2007 ($67), Wine spectator’s 2010 Wine of the Year, the Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel Paso Robles 2007 ($50) representing California going head-to-head with France’s Chateau de Beaucastel Chateaunef-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin Grande Cuvee’ 2007 ($535), Domaine les Pallieres Gigondas Terrasse du Diable 2007 ($28) and others.  We have nothing to lose and everything to gain from such a contest.

In conversations within French people about California, they always inquire how far I live from the Napa Valley.  Paso Robles, as a winegrowing region, was not on their radar at all.  A good showing from our stealth Paso wines would send shock waves through the world wine business.

The previously referenced “monster wine” is a powerful, multi-regional blend of Petit Verdot, representing Bordeaux, Syrah, from the Rhone Valley and Tempranillo, originating from the Roija region of Spain.  Concentrated fruit and berries, exotic spices, vanilla and, even chocolate are up-front on the nose through the finish of the 2007 “Bull By The Horns” Red Wine ($32).  This is a wine that needs that to be tamed by some extra time in the bottle, at proper temperature, with regular turnings.  This investment will result in a mature wine that will enjoy the company of a Filet Mignon with “Diana Sauce,” a favorite recipe from the “Wine Lover’s Cookbook.”

The tasting concluded with the 2008 “Head Over Heels” Moscato ($23), Barrel 27’s sweet, slightly sparkling, dessert wine. To me, an apéritif or dessert wine must stand on its own, shine with or without the accompaniment of everything from crème brulee to sharp cheeses.  The “Head Over Heels” has complex flavors of orchard fruits(peach), honey and melons. However, minerality and nice floral hints on the finish build a case that it can be THE dessert if necessary.

I wrote about all Barrel 27’s releases because I like them all.  For those beginning to research and target wines, they offer very good quality at a decent value.  My recommendation is to discover and enjoy their wines before the entire area does. Real or perceived scarcity can result in higher prices.

Our rendezvous with friends also led to some “catching up” over a nice lunch at Thomas Hill Organics and another memorable dinner at “Artisan,” arguably Paso Robles best restaurant, accompanied by a 2005 Leona Valley Winery “I+L+Y=O” Bordeaux blend from my cellar.  As for the “Wine, Women and Song” event, that’s another story.

Vins de Provence


Long before being invited to this private tasting at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood, I was aware that imports and sales of rose’ has risen over 20% and that a significant portion is produced in the Provence region of southern France.  However, there we were, standing in the white-on-white interior fusion restaurant, Asia de Cuba, staring at the wines of 18 Provence châteaux, set to discover what the excitement is all about.

With one small exception, all grapes produce the same clear juice, the color coming from lengthened contact with the skins.  Rose’ follows the same concept, but with very brief contact.  The wine still benefits from the pigments and tannins, giving the dry Rose’ its color, bouquet and flavor.  For prospective, 10% of the world’s wine production is rose’, 28% of all rose’ is French and 40% of that comes from Provence, with vineyards extending from the Mediterranean Sea up through Aix en Provence.

Throughout the world, Provence is the only region whose focus, primarily, is the production of dry rose’.  The vast majority comes from three appellations, each with distinctions within that create clear characteristics in the flavors.  Notably, Provencal winemakers ferment each varietal, individually, in vats, assembling the final “cuvee” blend afterward.  Prominent Rhone Valley grapes such as Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvedre are used along with Cabernet Sauvignon, renowned in the Bordeaux region.

A collaboration between two winemakers from the heart of Provence led to the creation of Abbaye Saint Hilaire whose wine of note was not a rose’, but an inimitable red Rhone-blend that added 15% Cabernet Sauvingon, a strange bedfellow. The resulting Abbaye Saint Hilaire Cuvee Prieur Red Wine 2007 was a very accessible, well-balanced wine with loads of fruit on the nose and palate, allowing the 60% syrah to contribute a spicy, white pepper finish.  With some luck, one may find this reasonably priced cuvee’ on a SoCal wine list.  The fruit intensity was very clear and appreciated, but the Abbaye Saint Hilaire Cuvee Prieur Rose’ 2010 was best expressed through a soft minerality throughout.

Chateau D’Esclans Domaines Sacha Lichine presented a flight of four rose’, each with vast differences in techniques, flavor and price point.  From the ripest vines on the property, The Grenache-based Chateau D’Esclans-Domaines Sacha Lichine “Whispering Angel” Rose 2010, their most popular wine, is lightly aromatic, heavy on flavor and designed to be very food-friendly.  By comparison with the full stainless steel fermentation, the mid-priced Esclans Cotes de Provence Rose’ 2008 added 20% oak to effectively soften the wine.  A real treat was in store with the last two wines, each from 50 to 80-year-old vines, aged in 100% oak barrels for months before release.

Both the Chateau D’Esclans—Domaines Sacha Lichine “Les Clans”($60) and “Garrus ($100) Rose’ 2008, each boasting a 75% Grenache, 25% rolle blend, expressed more complex, well-balanced flavors, adequate to stand up to food or enjoy individually.  However, at $20, I fully understand the attraction to “Whispering Angel”.

If you are a person who selects wine by the label or bottle shape, Chateau de Berne is targeting you.  Introducing new “liqueur” type, rectangular bottles two years ago, the Chateau de Berne Cuvee Speciale Rose 2010 has become a huge success, partly because of the sexy bottle, mostly because it’s a beautiful, reasonably priced dry rose’. Looking like a bottle of “patis”, consumed at an outdoor café, by a Peter Mayle character, this Grenache-cinsualt blend has the color of rose petals, a floral nose accented with soft orchard fruits that balance other exotic fruits on the palate.  The cinsault-grenache blend Chateau de Berne Bistrot Troezien Rose 2010, with the fruit intensity to match most, generates popularity through its $11 retail price.

Another affordable rose’ with a sexy bottle, more vibrant in color, the Chateau Gassier Sables d’ Azur Rose’ 2010, from 100% stainless steel, was very fruit-forward through the finish.  The sales representative, boasting an 87 pt. rating from Wine Spectator, told us the wine is available throughout the L.A. region for under $15.

Clearly one of the best I tasted was the crisp, clean Chateau Roubine, Cru Classe’ Cuvee Classique Rose 2010, compiled from six Rhone grapes and Cabernet Sauvignon, followed a nice floral nose with fresh, expressive fruit that would pair well with Asian dishes or a porch swing.  This wine is now on my radar.  The Chateau Roubine Cru Classe Cuvee Classique White Wine 2010, combining lesser known varietals ugni-Blanc, semillon, rolle and clairette, is recommended to those seeking a very dry, light wine with significant mineral notes.

Yet a third stylish bottle housed the Chateau Saint Pierre Rose’ Cuvee Tradition 2010, a salmon-tinted, cinsault-based rose’ with peach and other orchard fruits on the nose and palate.  The flavors and texture were very rich and a delightful burst of spicy notes led to a nice finish. The cinsault grape is used extensively in Vins de Provnence, both as dominant and sub-dominant partners. Cinsault adds softness and bouquet to the famous Rhone Valley blends and, now, offers a reprise performance with rose’.

Unique terrior with cooing winds and longer shade sets Domaine de Rimaresq apart from many wineries and has led to recent accolades from Wine Spectator, Steven Tanzer and others. The Domaine de Rimauresq “Petit Rimauresq” Rose’ 2010 and Domaine de Rimauresq “Rimauresq Cru Classe” Rose’ 2010, both highly powered varietal blends, expressed concentrated, well-balanced fruit flavors and an unusually rich finish.

Rose’ has made a comeback, consumer interest has returned and Vins de Provence understands the dynamics.  Many of these featured wineries have built lodging on the chateaux to promote tourism. However, the bottom line of success is one’s ability to compete in the world market, which requires exports to California.

At times, rose’ can understandingly evoke a “taste one, tasted them all” attitude in some and “this isn’t half bad” among indiscriminate others.  However, I found the Vin de Provence rose’ consistently expressed complex, concentrated flavor that was very balanced, none better than the one I would like to take home.

Among many other fine wines, my top rose’ uses all organically grown grapes, mostly Grenache, to create a wine that embodies all the best qualities of the region.  The Famille Sumeire Chateau L’ Afrique 2010, in addition to more traditional floral, orchard fruit nose and flavors, offers a clean, subtle cranberry tartness, all perfectly balanced and elegant.

The Sumeire family has cultivated their vineyards since the beginning of the 20th century.  Today, the 600 acres of vineyards, divided among three estates, are all officially organic.  Famille Sumeire also produced the Chateau L’ Afrique Red 2009, a Grenache-based Rhone-blend with a powerful nose and soft minerality, although benefits will be delivered with more time.

In France, vin rose’ out sells white wine and much of the production comes from the Provence.  As the wines emerge into the California market, they can, in my opinion, assimilate quite well and offer complex, deep flavors for those who are seeking something light during the summer months or year-round with Asian cuisine.

Wines and Lexus

Photos: Karen Norton


David and Lyle at St. Supery Tasting Room

Long-time friend David’s birthday was January 1st; it falls on the same date each year.  What was special about this year, other than it’s his last to truthfully avoid the big 6-0, was that we joined he and his lovely wife, longer-time friend Rosemary for a few days in the Napa Valley.  Anticipating relaxation, food and wine exploration, we were amazed by the other benefits engendered from the fact that David drives a 2010 Lexus RX450h.

Firstly, he made a call to a live person requesting directions to the Avia Hotel in quaint downtown Napa.  Moments after clarifying the spelling, a map and directions appeared on the screen of the on-board GPS system.  Uncertain of what impact the Lexus had while checking into the hotel, I am certain that David never negotiated four room upgrades at the original discounted rates before he bought the car. One-bedroom suites with fireplaces require very little discussion, a smile, and a simple thank you. It really is a beautiful car.

Lastly, aside from the comfortable ride, Lexus drivers are afforded opportunities to schedule special tastings at designated wineries.  We scanned their list and quickly chose two fine Napa Valley wineries to explore, one producing a wine included on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 List of 2010.

Moving through the spectacular tree-lined entrance to St. Supery Vineyards and Winery in Rutherford, surrounded by estate vineyards, one would expect to discover a French château and not a modern concrete and glass building, amid pleasingly landscaped grounds.  Once inside, the art gallery and attractively appointed tasting room were inviting to all senses.

Founded decades ago, St. Supery is known for producing fine Cabernet Sauvignon and, with the addition of its Dollarhide Vineyards years later, varietals from the Bordeaux region of France.  Our tasting included a wonderful Sauvignon Blanc, two very special blends, a single varietal Bordeaux grape and a flight of exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon.

For several years, Sauvignon Blanc has served as, for many, a softer alternative to Chardonnay.  In recent years, California winemakers have opened up the limits of the grape, shaping it into a more food friendly wine and pushing it to full flavor potential.  The 2009 At Supery Sauvignon Blanc “Dollarhide Vineyard” ($25) is a good example of positive results.  Grapefruit, pineapple and other tropical fruits are evident on the nose, followed by more orchard fruits (apricot, pear) and hints of oak on the finish.

First discovering the Semillon varietal in Australian wines, I later learned that it is one of three white wine grapes approved to be grown in the Bordeaux region of France. Used sparingly in French dry blends, it’s abundant in late-harvest or dessert wines. In California, Semillon is most often blended with Sauvignon Blanc as a dry white wine.  The 2009 St. Supery “Virtu” is one such blend, beginning with orchard and tropical fruit on the nose, progressing to a wonderful texture and “smoked” flavors, combining the best traits of each varietal. This wine is a must for those interested in exploring white blends.  Unique flavors and deep textures were enough for me to add a few bottles to my collection.

As a single varietal wine, Petit Verdot is relatively rare, commonly used in Bordeaux or California meritage blends.  Although difficult to find, single-varietal Petit Verdot can express soft flavors and good texture.  When available, the Leona Valley Petit Verdot, grown locally, is one I would definitely recommend.  Enjoying a bottle with family at Christmas dinner prompted an email to Leona Valley owner David Reynolds to share the many compliments it received.  The 2007 St. Supery Petit Verdot ($50), another exceptional wine, expresses rich, concentrated flavors and oak influences. Researching the availability of this grape as a single varietal will truly spawn just rewards.

The Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant 2005 St. Supery “Elu’” ($65), a Bordeaux-blend with Merlot and hints of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, near flawless with wonderful hints of vanilla on the finish, was a definite prelude for the flight of Napa Valley Cabernet that followed.

The St. Supery 2006 Rutherford Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon($80), 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon($30) and the 2005 “Dollarhide Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon ($85) showcase all the micro-climates of their vineyards and a variety of flavors.  Firstly, the cost-effective “Napa Valley”, a blend of all the vineyards, can stand up to any other Cabernet Sauvignon within its price range and beyond. However, the single- vineyard wines expressed minerality, good tannins and significant bursts of flavors, the Rutherford adding a “liqueur-like” richness. The “Dollarhide Vineyard” version, awarded 95 pt by Wine Enthusiast magazine, expressed the most balance with a myriad of flavors to compliment the dominant black cherry.

We completed our tasting with the 2009 St. Supery Moscato, a dessert wine with low residual sugar, sweet while displaying complex aromas and flavors.  We were pleasantly surprised with all the wines that we tasted at St. Supery, equally enjoying the ambiance.  The Lexus program, by providing an opportunity to taste the best wines in the St. Supery profile, succeeded in gaining exposure to the right people.  Located along the St. Helena Highway in Rutherford, St. Supery is strongly recommended as a stop on your next Napa Valley excursion.

Sculpture at Hall Winery

Located a few miles north along the highway in St. Helena is Hall, a winery with an impressive palate of wines including one Cabernet that has recently received some accolades.  A desire to taste the 2006 Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($40) and the fact that the venue was part of the Lexus catalogue simplified our decision to stop.

The most reasonable priced Cabernet Sauvignon on the WS 2010 list; the 2007 “Napa Valley” is a full service wine, expressing pungent aromas, complex flavors, great texture and the obligatory long finish.  Ill-conceived or not, their story of looming scarcity of the wine was believable, prompting me to purchase two bottles for the cellar.

The highlight of the Hall tasting was comparing a flight of three bold, luscious and pricy single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, each with unique attributes and accolades.  From their Artisan Collection, the 2006 Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Hall T Bar T Ranch Vineyard ($45), with a touch of Petit Verdot, expressed an earthiness in both bouquet and flavor.

Hints of Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc add to the aromas and complexity of the 2006 Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Bergfield Vineyard ($100), a full-bodied, fruit-forward wine with firm tannins, destined for greatness.  The Bergfield Vineyard in St. Helena has a long history in the Napa Valley and this wine only accentuate its reputation.

1976 Paris Tasting

The last wine, an opulent 2007 Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon ($80), has received rave reviews in all the major wine periodicals.  With 4% Cabernet Franc added, the “Kathryn Hall” is dense, rich, but soft with innumerable flavors including that of licorice.  It was hard to pass on any of these fine wines, especially the “Bergfield”, but snagging a few of the last bottles of #18 on the 2010 WS list was adequately consoling.  Hall is a flourishing winery, one that will no longer be overlooked by any wine enthusiast.

Happy Birthday, David and much appreciation to your new Lexus for opening new doors in the noble Napa Valley to unearth yetKaren, wife and photographer more distinguished vintages to taste, even if most are beyond our budget.