Author Archives: Lyle W. Norton

About Lyle W. Norton

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

An Afternoon At Flora Springs

 

My friend Jon began an internship with Flora Springs Winery in the heart of the Napa Valley and invited me in for a tour and a tasting.  The plan was to buy a bottle of sauvignon blanc, grab some sandwiches at the neighboring Dean and DeLucca and picnic in a nearby vineyard before tasting their extensive palate of wines.  This sounded like a nice Sunday afternoon in the Napa Valley; sunshine, a great albacore tuna salad sandwich paired with the creamy texture and mineral

an estate vineyard

finish of the 2015 Flora Springs Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley ($25). With annual production exceeding 3,600 cases, this estate wine uses two different clones including the musque clone, fermented in stainless steel and aged on its lees in oak barrels with many stirrings.  Hence, we find creamy, complex flavors.

I first became aware of Flora Springs Winery in the mid-nineties through their flagship blend, “Trilogy” which has become a classic “meritage,” defining Bordeaux blends from California soil. If fact, “Trilogy” was first created over thirty years ago when successfully blending cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet blanc, malbec and petit verdot in California was a new thing. The result

Flora Springs “Trilogy” – a classic CA meritage

of a good vintage, the 2012 Flora Springs “Trilogy” Napa Valley ($90), aged for 22 months, achieves elegance through expressive aromas and rich texture with dark cherry and berry flavors, some spice and a nice finish. My first memory of this wine was being shocked at the $40 price.  Now at $90 per bottle, it is indicative of the increasing market value of Napa Valley wines.

Although Flora Springs Winery was first established in 1978, the land has an auspicious history dating back more than a century. The first vineyards were planted on sixty acres in the late 1800s by Scottish immigrants James and William Renne, the first known owners of the land. Later, a fire destroyed the wine-press and all their cooperage, leading them to sell the property to pursue other dreams.

Over the ensuing years, property ownership changed several times during which the vineyards were re-planted with phylloxera-resistant stock.  Phylloxera is a microscopic insect that attacks the roots and leaves of vines and destroyed entire vineyards in California and France throughout the

Flora Springs tasting facility

late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The only known cure is grafting the vines with stock resistant to the disease.  Admist dealing with pests in the vineyards, Prohibition became law in 1920 and this and many wineries were literally abandoned.

Louis Martini purchased the property in 1933, replaced the old structure with a new one and operated the winery until 1977 when it was purchased by Jerry and Flora Komes. The next year, their children, John and Carrie Komes and Julie and Pat Garvey, founded Flora Springs Winery, naming it after their mother and the natural springs on the property. The winery will

indoor tasting space

celebrate its 40th birthday in 2017.

Our afternoon tasting on the patio began with two releases, one white and one red, from their Family Estate Wines and

The tasters

evolved, through the “2012 Trilogy” to a series of five premium, high-priced, single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon with tremendous ratings, a special surprise given guests of staff.  With ten percent of its juice aged in concrete tanks, the medium-bodied 2014 Flora Springs Family Select Chardonnay ($35) is a beautifully balanced wine, lightly oaken, with flavors of fresh pear and subtle tropical fruit through the finish.  It is a very nice Chardonnay among many great options within the $30-40 price range. The red, from local sustainably-farmed vineyards, the 2014 Flora Springs Napa

Flora Springs Merlot

Valley Merlot ($30) was nicely balanced with notes of sweet spice like vanilla, a good value for merlot lovers.

Basking in the diffused sunlight under colorful stretched screens, our journey through these impressive single-vineyard Cabernet, priced far beyond my budget, was a special treat.  It began with the 100% 2013 Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) from a sloping, benched vineyard near the winery.  Awarded 94-points by Wine Enthusiast magazine, it is most amply defined with “warm notes of blackberry pie, crème de cassis, coffee liquor and maraschino cherries that slowly evolve into a decadent core of melted bittersweet chocolate inflected with vanilla bean.”  It is as good as it sounds.

The Renne Reserve Vineyard in the St. Helena appellation is one of the finest blocks within their 550 acres.  After 22 months in new French oak, the 2013 Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Renne

Flora Springs Single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon releases

Reserve ($150) has an impressive bouquet followed by complex flavors of black currants and coffee with a rich mouthfeel.  The lingering spice finish sets this Cabernet apart from the others, awarded 95-points by Wine Advocate

The next wine comes from the nearby Oakville appellation, known for limestone and granite soils.  The 2103 Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Holy Smoke Vineyard ($125) displays firm tannins with intense black cherry, licorice and cinnamon spice on the palate.  James Suckling awarded this low production release a 94-point rating, citing nice chocolate nuances through the finish.  The most balanced and finely structured wine of the day was the 2013

Flora Springs “Wild Boar Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon

Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Wild Boar Vineyard ($125)from the

Pope Valley, east of the Napa Valley where elevations rise to 1,200 feet.  For me, the “Wild Boar” was the best that we tasted, expressing complex and robust flavors of ripened currants, plum, cherry, vanilla and caramel.  The tannins are firm, but rich and plush.

Remotely located in the Stag’s Leap District along the Silverado Trail, the organically-farmed “Out Of Sight” Vineyard produces dense fruit for the 2013 Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Out Of Sight Vineyard ($125), a wine with vivid aromas of wild berries and layered tastes of vanilla and spice, woven within concentrated fruit.  Smooth tannins are present throughout creating a wine that they claim will be optimum for the next 12-15 years.

Flora’s Legacy Wines are remarkable, low-yield releases that honor the matriarch and namesake of the winery, Flora Komes.  One wine of depth, the 2014 Flora’s Legacy Chardonnay ($70), was our last tasting of the afternoon.

Flora Springs “Flora’s Legacy” Chardonnay

Again there is very impressive competition with other chardonnay at this price.  That being said, this wine, after 50% malolactic fermentation and aging sur lee with weekly stirrings, reveals rich, concentrated fruit flavors of orange marmalade, pear, jasmine and ginger.  The nice mineral finish sets it in the company of many superb California chardonnay releases.

The one wine not available for tasting boasts a total production of one barrel (25 cases).  Combining 50% juice from the Renne Reserve Vineyard in St. Helena and 50% from the Rutherford Hillside Vineyard in neighboring Rutherford, the sold out 2014 Flora Springs St. Rutherford

Flora Springs St. Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon ($300), aged 22 months in French oak, is their premiere wine.  We were told that the Renne brings the berry and fruit flavors and the Rutherford the earthiness and spice nuances.  How can my palate miss something that it hasn’t ever experienced?  Maybe another time. The high demand for wines in this price-range is still amazing to me.

Clearly, Flora Springs Winery has moved beyond their first-rate flagship wine, “Trilogy,”  to become one of the finest

Flora Springs vineyard

producers in the Napa Valley.  When I learned about the 40% discount made available to staff and their guests, I had to re-think purchasing a bottle.  Expressing thanks to the tasting staff, I invested in my palate by purchasing a 2013 Wild Boar single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon for $75.  It sits in my cellar waiting for a special occasion with special friends. We had a wonderful afternoon at Flora Springs Winery, located along Highway 29, south of the town of St. Helena, which has been named one of the “Best Napa Wineries To Visit” by Food and Wine Magazine and is great place to taste some of the best wines the valley has to offer.


Lyle’s Totally Subjective Top Ten Films of 2016

 

At first glance, the best films of 2016 seem to share a depressingly sad theme.  My top four movies included horrific family tragedies , separation, life effects of drugs and violence and, although expressed through a comedy, unrequited love. However, true stories like Hidden Figures and Lion provided enough inspiration to go around.  For me, great writing, casting and acting is what set these films apart from the others.  Some are easy and some are difficult to watch, but, I continued to think about them long after leaving the theater.

#1: Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonegan)

If you can overcome the sadness, this is another great screenplay for Kenneth Lonegan (You Can Count On Me), who unexpectedly became the director of the film. The story and

Manchester By The Sea

#1 Manchester By The Sea

beautiful cinematography stand out as one of the year’s best. Casey Affleck’s performance as Lee Chandler is deserving of an Oscar and Michelle Williams brief, but compelling appearance enhances the story of a family coping with a tragic loss that has consumed their lives.

#2: Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar)

Writer-director,Pedro Almodóvar, who’s film resume includes The Skin I Live In, Talk To Her and Volver, continues his female themes with the more traditional story of Julieta with Spanish actress Emma Suárez, in the title role. A widow, Julieta is

Julieta

#2 Julieta

preparing to move on with her life and move to Portugal with her boyfriend before a chance meeting with an old friend of her estranged daughter changes everything.  We begin to understand Julieta as the film unveils her compelling story.

#3:  The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi)

Having become a fan of Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi after watching his last three films, I had to see The Salesman before compiling my list.  Another great, compelling story.  Emad and Rana are forced to leave their apartment because the building is collapsing and must find a new place immediately.  Their new landlord

#3: The Salesman

#3: The Salesman

failed to disclose that the previous tenant was a prostitute, working from home.  After his wife is horrifically attacked at the apartment, Emad becomes obsessed with finding the perpetrator.  It ends, focusing on the moral dilemma between revenge and forgiveness.  As they are dealing with the extended physical and emotional pain that jeopardized their relationship, Emad and Rana are performing opposite each other in a local production of Arthur Miller’s, Death of a Salesman.  A must see for film buffs and, for those affected by visual violence, it is only referenced in this film.

#4:  Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

Moonlight follows the life of a young black man, growing up gay in a drug infested Miami neighborhood, the son of an addicted mother, portrayed courageously by Naomie Harris. It is not

Moonlight

#4 Moonlight

always an enjoyable film to watch, but reveals a human side to the drugs, violence and poverty that ultimately shape his life, but don’t change who he is.  This film has been branded with many notable supporting performances, all driven by Barry Jenkins’ screenplay and direction.

#5:  Cafe Society (Woody Allen)

I am always cautious of my “confirmation bias” with Woody Allen films, eager to enjoy because I expect to.  However, Cafe Society

Cafe Society

#5 Cafe Society

is a twisted love story set in New York and Hollywood, superbly cast with notably magnificent lighting throughout.  Kirsten Stewart seems to flourish under Woody’s style, turning me into a fan.  A period piece set in the 1930s, the design and lighting create an , “American craftsman” image.  Jesse Eisenberg nails Woody’s neurosis, on full display during his failed meet up with a novice hooker.  Note the lighting in that scene.

#6:  Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

Described as a minimalistic depiction, I found Paterson to be uplifting and refreshing.  There is no antagonist in this film.  Poet-bus driver Paterson drives a route in Paterson, New Jersey. Director Jarmusch takes pains to reveal the lives of both Paterson the

Paterson

#6 Paterson

man and Paterson the town, as routine.  Paterson’s delightfully spontaneous girlfriend, Karen, her English bulldog Marvin and, of course poetry represent the trifecta of his world. His calm reaction to the only (somewhat)tragic event sends a message to us all. Trivia:  After Karen’s dream of having twins, Jarmusch includes various twins in future scenes, adding a mystical quality. On second thought, Marvin may be the antagonist.

#7:  20th Century Women (Mike Mills)

Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig are the two reasons that 20th

#6 20th Century Women

#7 20th Century Women

Century Women made my list.  The story of three women exploring new freedoms in the 1970s, much of it revealed through the behavior of the cynical matriarch Dorthea’s young son, Jamie.  Gerwig is a rising star and Bening deserved an Oscar nomination for her performance in this overlooked film. 

#8:  Hell Or High Water (David MacKenzie)

Two brothers, desperate to save their family’s land from bank foreclosure, set out on a series of small robberies of the foreclosing bank branches to come up with the money. Toby, played by

#8 Hell Or High Water

#8 Hell Or High Water

Chris Pine, is motivated to leave something to his son and estranged wife and ex-con Tanner seems to be in it for the fun. Soon, crusty small-town sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is in pursuit and things get out of hand in a dramatic ending. I would like to see Jeff Bridges win an Oscar for his performance.

#9:  Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi)

Why did it take over fifty years to learn about the significant contributions of these African-American women mathematicians to one of our nations most famous and heroic space flights?  Better late than never, they have been documented, through this film, in an insightful, yet charming way.  It reveals much about life for educated African

#9 Hidden Figures

#9 Hidden Figures

American women in 1964 Houston, Texas, including separate restrooms and lunch facilities.  I enjoyed the characters portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner as well as the closing footage of the real women. A story that is both inspiring and fun to watch, Hidden Figures is a deserving nominee.

#10:  Lion

Based on a true story,  Lion is the most inspirational film of 2016.  The story of young Saroo, a five year-old boy, artfully played by Sunny Pawar, who gets lost and miraculously survives, alone in Calcutta.  He is eventually adopted by a loving couple and has a normal childhood in Australia.  Decades later, a familiar smell

#10: Lion

#10: Lion

from his homeland has him yearning for contact with his birth mother and family in India  He sets out on a journey to find them and his story ends on a heartfelt and bittersweet note.

Others:  Toni Erdman, Captain Fantastic, LaLa Land, Zootopia, Nice Guys, Queen of Katwe, Elle


Walt and My Autopian World

 

In 1955 suburbia, our quiet street was typically filled with young baby boomers seeking to play in the remaining after-school sun.  In the late afternoon, we would hear the recognizable unique sounds each parent used to call their kids to come home.  They ranged from whistles to something between a scream and a yodel.  Mine was simply a shout out of my name and these days, I had my parental alarm clock set at 4:00 pm, the time that the new Mickey Mouse Club television show began.

Walt Disney’s first major achievement in 1955, the Mickey Mouse Club had many diverse features that were presented in a very regimented way.   Firstly, it was anyone’s

The Original Mouseketeers

The Original Mouseketeers

guess on the outcome of cartoon Donald Duck’s daily ringing of the gong to introduce the show.  Sometimes the gong remained rigid, like a stone, leaving Donald to vibrate off the screen and other times it had the consistency of watermelon, surprisingly exploding on contact.  Then, there was clubhouse time with the original Mouseketeers including Cubby, Annette, Jimmy, the adult leader and one of my early crushes, Cheryl. The Mouseketeer activities changed daily, always woven within a fabric of wholesomeness.  They were the envy of every seven-year old that I knew.

Twenty minutes a day was devoted to special family serial dramas like “Spin and Marty” and “The Applegate Mysteries.”  “Spin and Marty” was about two boys who grew up on a cattle ranch, always finding themselves with strange conundrums to resolve, usually before their parents discovered them.   Disney always revealed his latest cartoons on the Mickey Mouse Club featuring Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy or Pluto, two mice, a couple of mutt dogs and an irritable, ill-tempered duck.  One of his most famous cartoons starred Goofy as a mild-

Disneyland (NBC, ABC, CBS) [1954-1990] aka The Wonderful World of Disney Shown: Tinkerbell

The Wonderful World of Disney Shown: Tinkerbell

mannered man-dog who became a crazed maniac when he got behind the steering wheel of a car.  This cartoon not only foreshadowed current life in the fast lane, but serves as a segue to the rest of my story.

Walt Disney used his new television show to market and promote a uniquely innovative and awesome new theme park, his second major achievement of 1955.  There would be nothing like Disneyland anywhere in the world and ample time on the Mickey Mouse Club and Sunday evening “The Wonderful World of Disney” television programs featured Walt himself, with models and drawings, looking like everyone’s grandfather, explaining new aspects that were well beyond people’s imaginative comprehension.  Anticipation throughout the country was so high that the grand opening was nationally televised, something unheard of in

Spin and Marty

Spin and Marty

1955.  Television personalities Art Linkletter, Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan hosted the show, guiding the nation down Main Street and eventually into a jungle boat, a delta riverboat, a castle, then to Autopia in Tomorrowland, the attraction that I most coveted.

It seems ironic today that the opportunity to drive a car on a scale model freeway usurped my fascination with visiting far away tropical forests or the Wild West.  Like Walt, I saw freeways as alluring conduits that would enhance our freedoms and connect our communities.  Sustained with cheap, plentiful gas and enough

Ronald Reagan, Bob Cummings and Art Linkleter co-host Disneyland's Grand Opening

Ronald Reagan, Bob Cummings and Art Linkletter co-host Disneyland’s Grand Opening

rubber plants in the world’s jungles, the new freeways would be filled with families passing in shiny convertibles, waving to each other on the way to the beach or a picnic.  The obsession with driving clouded my memory of the Goofy’s “road rage” cartoon, Walt’s prophetic warning of the dark side of his mobile utopia.

While watching the grand opening show, I said, “Mom…”   Without letting me finish my thought, she said, “I’ve already talked to Aunt Naomi and we plan to visit her next spring and all go to Disneyland.”   My parents were in their twenties and probably wanted to go as much as I did.  This would be a dream for most kids in my neighborhood, but as a somewhat spoiled, only child, I complained to myself that our visit was almost a year away.  Maybe I would be too old for Disneyland by then.  Turns out I wasn’t too old, just too short.

The drive from Aunt Naomi’s house in Encino to Anaheim seemed to take forever.  Once we passed downtown Los Angeles on the 101 Freeway, their was nothing but orange groves and blue skies.  Most people had never heard of Anaheim, dtour02California before Disney selected the rural area for his ability to secretly buy up several large parcels under separate, newly created real estate companies, a feat he would repeat in assembling vast contiguous acreage for his Disney World theme park in Florida.   An enormous sign announced that we had arrived at the Magic Kingdom.  After entering the property,  traveling along a half-mile entryway to access the colossal parking lot, waiting for a tram to pick up and deliver us to the entrance, we were about to experience the dream.

Originally, Disneyland offered five categories of attractions ranging from A tickets for the more common rides to the E-ticket for those most popular and exciting.  To this day, the term “E-ticket” is a commonly used metaphor for describing something thrilling like “Surfing the pipeline was an E-ticket ride.”  My parents purchased the largest fifteen-ride book for

Original Disneyland ticket coupons

Original Disneyland ticket coupons

$5.95 Adult ($12.35 value) and $4.95 Child ($9.50 value) that included the following tickets:  one A ($.10), two B’s ($.25), three C’s ($.40), four D’s ($.70) and five E-tickets ($.85).  By comparison, in 2007, I treated my son’s family to a day at Disneyland, who now sells simplified general all-day passes.   Responding to my request for two child and four adult passes, the attendant responded, “That will be five hundred and thirty-six dollars, please.”   In 1956, the attendant would have requested the hefty sum of twenty-nine dollars and seventy cents for the same entry passes.

Since it was on the way, we went directly to the jungle boat ride in Adventureland, an awesome experience for my generation and a true E-ticket ride.  Surprisingly, the Autopia ride was only a C-ticket, but I wanted to drive those cars around that beautiful miniature freeway, and begged to go there next.

After rushing everyone through Fantasyland, by the Madhatter’s Cup and Saucer ride, we were soon standing at the

Autopia

Autopia

Autopia entrance.  Moments later, my lingering anticipation and excitement would crash like a lead balloon falling from the sky.  With a red arrow pointing to the bottom, the sign said “You must be this tall to drive the cars.”   I walked under the sign several times in disbelief.  I was two inches too short.  My only option was to ride as a passenger, arms crossed, bottom lip protruding and silent while my father drove the car, boring for him and humiliating for me.  C’mon, I  experienced this on the drive down from my aunt’s house.  The consolation that “there’s always next time” was not consoling at this moment.  An otherwise tremendous day was marred by this episode.  I had a bone to

The sign

The sign

pick with Mr. Walt Disney.

In 1959, we returned and I finally drove the small cars on the Autopian freeway, though at age eleven, some of the original excitement had waned.  Besides, other attractions like Tom Sawyer’s Island and The Matterhorn had been added, enough new imagination for any young mind to feast on.  Later in the day, we were walking in Fantasyland when my mother, grabbing my shoulder, pointed and said, “Look, over there.”  It took a few moments, but I soon realized it was Walt Disney, strolling through his masterpiece, holding the hands of his two grandchildren.   There was no crowd or entourage following him around.  We asked for a photo and he said, “Sure,” adding, “are you having a good time?”  “This is the greatest place ever,” I responded, deciding to put the Autopia incident behind me. He was forgiven. Few people had more influence on the my generation than Walt Disney and this small, barely focused photo, is a constant reminder of the wonderment that he created in me.

Walt and I, 1959

Walt and I, 1959

Epilogue:  It’s always nice to get through these childhood disappointments and laugh about them later.  But, really, two fricken inches!

 


Margaux, by chance?

 

After sleeping in St. Emilion during the last few nights of a month in France, we dedicated the next day to exploring nearby Bordeaux and the renown wine appellations to the north of the city.   Famous regions along the Left Bank of the Gironde River, like Haut-Médoc, Saint Julien and Paulliac, were at our fingertips but I was focused on

Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux

Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux

Chateau Margaux, the Grand Madame of them all.    A bottle of their Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux sells  for thousands of dollars and has been in the discussion as the world’s finest wine for more than a century.  We understood that time-consuming post-harvest activities were at peak and any chance of tasting required connections and months of planning.  “I just want to be there,” I said, trying to maintain reasonable expectations, “to see it, to touch a vine,”  Karen, remembering that I had followed her into three Cro-Magnon caves in Les Eyzies-De-Tayac days before, was supportive.  “Let’s do it,” she answered, “I’m in.”  We try to be conscious and supportive of each other’s passions.  For us, the concept first became instilled after listening to the 1977 Joni Mitchell song, “Jericho”:  “I’ll try to keep myself open up to you and approve your self-expression/I need that too/I need your confidence and the gift of your extra time/ In return, I’ll give you mine”/

Chateau Margaux wine production buildings

Chateau Margaux wine production buildings

Although fairly commonplace today, these were poignant thoughts in 1977, for two twenty-somethings trying to make a go of it.   Today, thirty-nine years later, it’s more about managing round-a-bouts and reminiscing of the anniversary dinner with a bottle of Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux 1992, a gift from the parents of our German exchange student.   Karen would stop eating sugar shortly after and forfeit the enjoyment of wine.  If these were her last two glasses, what a way to go out.  Her apt description of “liquid velvet” remains a standard by which I compare good wines today.

The central city of Bordeaux was being victimized by its own progress.  Road

Chateau Margaux

Chateau Margaux

construction and the ensuing congestion was everywhere.  Thanks to modern-day GPS, we were able to maneuver our way through and, more importantly, master the round-a-bouts.  During a previous visit, entering a round-a-bout was quickly followed by a female voice on the GPS directing us to, “Re-route.”   This time, improved technology and graphics, along with experience, neutralized our stress level.  Streets soon turned into country roads that connected the small viticultural villages, a calming transition into a world that defies progress.  Royalty resides here but essentially these people are farmers from families that have worked this land for centuries.  The marbleized skies, poplar trees silhouetted by the afternoon sun and freshly harvested vines created the autumn Bordeaux landscape that I had always imagined.

The tiny village of Margaux was on the horizon.  Looking in the distance, I recognized the steeple of an old church, one that I had seen in photographs of the Chateau property.  I turned the wheel abruptly, veering off to a side road.  “What are we doing now, isn’t the village straight ahead?” Karen’s question made me realize that I hadn’t been too forthcoming about my new plan  “The village can wait,  I think Chateau Margaux is less than a mile from here and I want to get as close as we can,” I said, hoping for even a distant glance.

Suddenly, we came upon a vineyard near mustard-colored production buildings.  Vines

In a field of cosmos

In a field of cosmos

tend to look alike, but these were surrounded on two sides by a thirty-foot swath of multi-colored Cosmos, creating a Jackson Pollack-type border surrounding the uniformity of the vineyard.  As we stopped to take pictures, I noticed numerous cars passing by that seemed to access a large grass and dirt field about a quarter-mile away, then stop and park. Something was going on.  I could see other landmarks from the Chateau and knew we were close.

We entered the field strewn with uniformly parked cars looking like we belonged.   It

Chateau Margaux grounds

Chateau Margaux grounds

was a small, eclectic crowd that were leaving their vehicles and strolling along a poplar-lined path toward the Chateau’s entrance.  Karen fit right in with her fashionable jeans, tweed blazer and scarf while my orange sneakers, matched with faded jeans and gray cashmere sweater, may have eventually outed us as outliers.   However, we did leave our car and casually stroll onto the estate, immediately coming upon the Chateau Margaux mansion. On display behind iron gates, looking like it had in photographs over the

years, it defined grandeur, elegance and tradition.  Staff was working in the courtyards of the freshly painted production buildings on immaculately manicured pavement.  These building clusters resembled the backlot of a Hollywood film studio more than a working winery.

Soon we were walking on neatly trimmed, rustic paths that directed us and others

Chateau Margaux grounds

Chateau Margaux grounds

through a grove of large trees and over a stone bridge spanning a small canal.  One man, with large, working hands, wearing old jeans and a white starched shirt, unbuttoned to reveal his chest, strolled with a young woman in a navy business suit, struggling to walk with four-inch heels.  Another young couple looked very Goth with tight black pants and many piercings.  The moment was surreal, walking through the grounds of the world’s most iconic and private winery with no idea where we were going or what we may find when we got there.

Once across the bridge, we came upon another grove of the same Cosmos that framed a

stone building at Chateau Margaux

stone building at Chateau Margaux

large one-storied stone building with several  framed window openings, each with a small crowd gathered outside.  This was definitely where everyone was going.  We thought we were blending into the crowd as we looked into one of the windows to discover an elegant luncheon setting for about one hundred and fifty people with white linen tables cloths and napkins,  porcelain dinnerware, sculpted silver and five crystal wine glasses at each place.  We had seen settings like this before, but never of this size.

“May I help you?” said the nice looking forty-something man in a tailored black suit and open blue shirt, as he approached Karen.   We were busted.  She described our little sojourn and he patiently explained that we were at the Chateau Margaux Harvest

Discussing wine at the Chateau

Discussing wine at the Chateau

Luncheon, an annual event to celebrate the harvest and honor all the local vineyard owners and staff that contribute grapes and/or land toward each vintage.  This famous luncheon is both very exclusive and very local.

During our brief  conversation, I informed the gentleman of our Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux 1992.  “I hope you still have it,” he said, “the 1992s are peaking now.”  “No”, I answered, slumping my shoulders, “we drank it,”  adding, “But, it was damn good in 1995.”  Karen repeated her “liquid velvet” metaphor and thanked  him.  “We don’t want to crash your luncheon any more than we already have,” she said.  Speak for yourself, I thought.   We said good-bye and he reminded us to walk by the mansion on our way out.  At Chateau Margaux, even being bounced from an exclusive event is done with distinction.

Karen in Margaux

Karen in Margaux

My day visiting wineries in the Bordeaux region was over.  No other experience could match this one.  During a late lunch at a boutique hotel in the village, we  stared out at the vineyard, then looked across the table at each other and smiled.  Feeling exhilarated and mischievous, we knew that this would always be a good story and a great memory among many.


Wine Spectator’s Top Wines of 2016

 

Envelopes, please. ’Tis the season for Wine Spectator magazine to release their Top 100 Exciting Wines Of 2016, an annual tradition since 1988.  Although there are other reputable lists, the Spectator’s Top 100 is like the Oscars, much suspense, but if one reads the monthly, many of them are not surprises.  Differing from their standard reviews, this list has a criteria, one that needs to be understood for the whole thing to make sense.  Wines are ranked by the editors based upon quality (wines with 90-point

Lewis Cellars and vineyard

Lewis Cellars and vineyard

or above ratings only), value (cost), availability and excitement, the last criteria rumored to generate the most spirited discussions. This may explain why the Hartford Family Zinfandel Russian River Valley Old Vine 2014 (93-pt/$38) was ranked #10 on the list and the A. Clape Cornas (96-pt/$120) number 87.  I can go to nearby Healdsburg to taste and purchase our local zinfandel while the French Rhone blend is more expensive, more difficult to find and won’t be ready for drinking until 2020.

With the criteria in mind, the magazine has selected the Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon

Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013

Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013

Napa Valley 2013 (95pt/$90) as the seventh Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon to be named Wine Of The Year in its nearly three decade history. The Lewis’ cabernets have been on the radar of wine experts since their inaugural vintage, the best ones deemed and recognized as special.  This wine has been named to Wine Spectator and other periodicals Top 100 and Top 10 lists on many occasions.

Randy Lewis was a former Formula One and Indy 500 race car driver

Randy, Debbie and Dennis Lewis

Randy, Debbie and Dennis Lewis

.  A crash into the wall during trials in the early nineties helped channel racing partners Randy and Debbie Lewis into winemaking partners, releasing their first vintage in 1994. Lewis is known for being patient with the vines, preferring the grapes fully ripened.  The result has been rich, elegant, lengthy wines and the 2013 vintage, described by Senior Editor James Laube as “a hedonistic wine experience from a spectacular vintage,” apparently, is one of their best.

The other top ten wines are equally interesting featuring two Oregon releases in the top five, whites from Bordeaux, a more obscure Italian region, a historic vineyard, a history family and a consistently good blend from California.

I am quite familiar with the Domaine Serene Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, especially their 2012 vintage pinot noir releases.  Owners Ken and Grace Evenstad, who have produced fine pinot noir grapes for years, began in 2010 to combine choice barrels

Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Rserve 2014

Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Rserve 2014

from single vineyards to create the Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Reserve 2014 (95-pt/$55), Wine Spectator’s #2 wine. I am intrigued by descriptions of minerality with layered and lengthy flavors, all pointing to elements of a Burgundian white. From a terrific winery, this wine will soon be in my search engine. It is back to back Oregon releases with the #3 Beaux Frères Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge The Beaux Frères Vineyard 2014 (95-pt/$90)from a respected producer, also from the northern

Evenstad Vineyard

Evenstad Vineyard

Willamette Valley.  Senior Editor Harvey Steiman’s characterization of “supple, expressive and multilayered flavors” is enough to peak my interest.

That two Bordeaux wines placed in the Top 10 is somewhat normal, the fact that they are both white wines is anything but.

The #4 Château Climens Barsac 2013 (97-pt/$68) is a sweet wine made from

Chateau Climens Barsac 2103

Chateau Climens Barsac 2103

semillon grapes, produced at a biodynamically farmed, certified organic winery located south of Bordeaux along the left bank of the Gironde River, north of the famous Sauternes region.  The first Barsac named to the Top 10, this wine used only sémillon grapes infected with Botrytis cinerea, the “noble rot” and is described as balanced, with ample stone and tropical fruit flavors and a creamy mouthfeel.

A few miles south of Bordeaux lies the Pessac-Léognan appellation, the home of the #9 Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte Pessac-Léognan White 2013 (96-pt/$106), a highly rated, expensive blend of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris and sémillon. Senior editor James Molesworth’s descriptive words like “gorgeous,” “opulent,” “shortbread,” “white peach,” and “tarragon-laced” are, indeed, exciting.

In the late 1950s, four Stanford Research Institute scientists purchased an old winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 2300 feet on Monte Bello Ridge high above the current technologies of Cupertino. Years later, the Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz

Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012

Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012

Mountains 1971 helped re-shape the wine industry by placing fifth in the 1976 Paris tasting, then ranking first in the 2006 Reprise Tasting, judging the aged versions of the original vintages.  Described as an old-school cabernet, the Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012 (94-pt/$175) adds merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot to take its place among our finest meritage blends.

From the Piedmont region, produced with a co-operative managed by Aldo Vacca, the #5 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011 (96-pt/$59) comes from an appellation that is

Produttori del Barbaresco Asili Reserve 2011

Produttori del Barbaresco Asili Reserve 2011

smaller than Barolo and the wines are accessible sooner. Asili is one of nine single vineyards that lies atop the hills where it’s generally cooler. Fermented in stainless steel after the malolactic process, it is highly reviewed for concentrated, elegantly balanced flavors and is the best value within the Top

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Asili Vineyard, Barbaresco, Italy

10. The sangiovese-dominant #8 Antinori Toscana Tignanello 2013(95-pt/$105) comes from a pioneering winery who was a leader in introducing French varietals to the Tuscan varietals, labeling them “Super Tuscans.”  The addition of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc is said to add ”power, depth and structure.”  Always consisting of the same blend, this is the highest rated vintage from IGT Toscana designated Tignanello Vineyard, over one hundred acres high above sea level.

The Orin Swift Winery, founded in 1998 is derived from winemaker Dave Phinney,s fathers middle and mother’s maiden names.  I have enjoyed his zinfandel-based “The Prisoner” wine for years, a brand he sold in 2010 to concentrate on new blends with

Orin Swift "Machete" 2013

Orin Swift “Machete” 2013

names that include “Papillon,” “Machete” and “Abstract.”  I was pleased when the #6 Orin Swift Machete California 2014 (94-pt/$48) received such lofty recognition.  Having tasted previous vintages, this is a big, earthy wine with ample tannins and rich flavors.  A good value, but now harder to find.

California dominated the list with 21 wines and after the addition of ten more from the Pacific Northwest (Oregon-4, Washington-6) and one from the Fingerlakes region of New York, the #70 Ravines Riesling Fingerlakes dry 2014 (90-pt/$18), the US contributed 32 wines.  France provided 16 releases, divided evenly throughout their diverse regions and Italy placed 18 wines, mostly from Tuscany. Spain was the only other country in double figures with 10 wines, including two standards from the Haro wine loop in northern Rioja that we visited in 2010. Returning to the list are the #22 Cune Rioja Gran Reserva 2010 (94-pt/$33), after the vintage 2004 Imperial Gran Reserva was named the 2013 Wine of the Year and the #65 La Rioja Alta Rioja 904 Gran Reserva 2007 (93-pt/$55), both good values.

Tzora Judean Hills White 2014

Tzora Judean Hills White 2014

Israeli winemakers are beginning to show their diversity by setting two wines, a red and a white, into the fold.  A kosher chardonnay-sauvignon blanc blend, the #79 Tzora Judean Hills White 2014 (92-pt/$30)relies on winemaker Eran Pick and his world of experience for the complex flavors and and the north region #93 Galil Mountain Yiron Galilee 2013 (92-pt/$32), the winery’s flagship release,  blending cabernet

Yiron Vineyard, Galil Mountain

Yiron Vineyard, Galil Mountain

sauvignon, merlot, syrah and petit verdot.

The 2016 list is filled with old veterans, a few grace or have graced my cellar.  Having long described it as my favorite food-pairing sauvignon blanc, the #17 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley 2014 (93-pt/$32) signals an extraordinary vintage.  I have enjoyed single-vineyard zinfandel from Paso Robles’ Ueberroth Vineyard since the mid-1990s when grapes were

2013 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley

2013 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley

sourced to the now defunct Martin Weyrich Winery. Turley has continued to honor it with the #20 Turley Zinfandel Paso Robles Ueberroth Vineyard 2013 (94-pt/$48).  Ancient vines and limestone slopes are the key to the vineyard’s rich expressions.

I savor each vintage of the Sojourn Cellars pinot noir from Gap’s Crown Vineyard in the cold, breezy Petaluma Gap. The #35 Sojourn Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Gap’s Crown Vineyard 2014 (94-pt/$59) caught the Spectator’s attention with a high rating and moderate price.  We recently shared a bottle of the #47 Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eighteen Seventy-Three 2013 (94-pt/$80) with friends,

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eighteen Seventy-Three 2013

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eighteen Seventy-Three 2013

pairing it with an Abbaye de Belloc cheese from southern France.  It has the depth, balance and richness expected from Hall, but this one is their most moderately priced.

I am actively searching for the #31 Tenshen White Central Coast 2015 (92-pt/$20), celebrating its second appearance on the list. In fact, the wine has appeared in

Tenshen White Central Coast 2015

Tenshen White Central Coast 2015

periodicals and is generating excitement for winemakers Joey Tensley and Alex Guarachi.  From a white Rhone blend of viognier, roussanne,grenache blanc with a touch of chardonnay, we expect it all:  body, texture and expressive, balanced flavors.

South America was well represented with seven wines total from Chile and Argentina, including a wine that meets all the criteria and I feel compelled to mention, the #74 Bodega Norton Malbec Mendoza Reserva 2014 (90-pt/$19).  Retailing for less than $20, each vintage of this nicely structured wine from the Mendoza region of Argentina seems to be readily available in most wine outlets and, in the best years, extolled as an exciting wine.

Finally. a special mention goes to Sonoma County, especially the Russian River Valley appellation that contributed six wines.  Known for pinot noir and cool climate chardonnay, the 2016 releases expressed more diversity than normal with two zinfandels and a sauvignon blanc in the top 20 and one each of syrah, chardonnay and pinot noir. The Russian River Valley appellation is a leader among leaders.


A Tasting in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

 

The opportunity to experience the extraordinary blends in France’s Chateauneuf-du-

vineyard in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

vineyard in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Pape is a rare treat for anyone serious about wine.  Blessed with near perfect terroir and climate, the area is always in the discussion of the world’s best appellation.  Nearly all the 280 wineries in Chateauneuf-du-Pape are owned by small families, not the case in Bordeaux or Burgundy.  There are thirteen grapes approved for the appellation by the governing AOC, which also requires that they are all hand-pruned, hand-picked and essentially dry-farmed, allowing two irrigations per season during drought years.  The famous “La Mistral” winds blow 100 days per year, a benefit during wet vintages and a challenge in dry ones.  The production of rose’ or sparkling wine is also prohibited in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, allowing winemakers to focus on the best blend of grapes that most align with the terroir.

Translated “the Pope’s new castle” or “Chateau of the Popes,” Chateauneuf-du-Pape became a significant winemaking region in the 14th Century after the papacy was relocated to the town of Avignon.  The “Avignon Popes” appreciated their

Chateau de Vaudieu

Chateau de Vaudieu

wine and were first to promote viticulture in this area, 10 miles northeast of their palace residence.  It’s esteemed terroir has continued to produce superb local wines for eight centuries and is still revered today. With all the acclaim that Chateauneuf-du-Pape gets, one would expect them to be promoting tourism.  They do not. It is authentic, a relatively small area with family farmers doing what they have done for centuries, create near perfect wines.

October was a busy month for winemakers, following up on the recent harvest.  It was off-season and our time was limited, so we chose Saint Charles Cave,in the heart of the village, for our first tasting. Located in a 13th Century cave, Saint Charles represents

Tasting in Saint Charles Cave

Tasting in Saint Charles Cave

many of the producers and offers selections of the best the region has to offer.  In addition, it also houses the La Cour Des Papes Restaurant that could extend our experience through mid-afternoon. Sitting on wooden benches in the cave, our young, knowledgeable host began to take us through his selection of wines from the region.

The Château de Vaudieu is one of the genuine 18th Century castles left in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, operated by the Brechet Family since the mid-1980s.  Described as “a real mosaic of terroirs,” the vast vineyards of the Chateau represent very distinct micro-climates and elevations. Our tasting at Saint 3efcc0ec2827a487028818f55a178c90Charles Cave began with the Chateau de Vaudieu Blanc 2012 ($32), a mostly grenache blanc and roussanne blend that expressed a complex bouquet and rich citrus and mineral notes on the palate.  The varietals were fermented separately in oak and stainless steel to form a dry wine that would be a perfect pair with seafood or shellfish.

The grenache dominant 2011 Clos Saint Jean Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($35-40), our second pour, is a classic wine from the region, full-bodied, dry, herbal with deep fruit and savory flavors. The grenache is aged in cement tanks while the syrah, clos-saint-jean-chateauneuf-du-pape-rhone-france-10675487mourvedre and bits of other varietals get the benefit of oak.  Brothers Vincent and Pascal Maurel took over the winery from their father in 2003 and have produced very good vintages since.  Robert Parker awarded this one, that I found online at klwines.com, with a 92-point score.

Covered by the famous diluvial red pebbles that protect them from the dry climate and La Mistral winds, the vineyards at Chateau Maucoil are said to consist of all chateau-maucoil-chateauneuf-du-pape-rhone-france-10293833tChateauneuf-du-Pape soil types.  The 2011 Chateau Maucoil Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($30-40) is an old vine grenache dominant blend that adds 20% syrah, 10% mourvedre and cinsault, very fruit forward and balanced.  This wine is produced only when the vintage is good and the 2011 was a very good one.

Our next wine was a big, earthy release, the only one created by the Barrot Family, long-standing growers producing 5,000 cases annually on 16 hectares in the appellation, divided among 24 different parcels.  The 2011 Domaine Lucien Barrot et Fils Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($50), with 80% grenache, 10% syrah and five percent each cinsault and mourvedre, is made whole cluster, fermenting in large cement vats before aging up to 36 months in oak. Significant aromas of spices, herbs and earth are followed by deep, dried cherries and anise flavors of great length.

Their family has farmed the land since the 17th Century, but Domaine du Pegau was 160164lformed in 1987 by father, daughter team, Paul and Laurence Ferard. The grenache dominant Domaine du Pegau Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reservee 2013 ($70), our next wine,is produced whole cluster and was the most masculine wine that we tasted. Aromas of ripe fruits and pepper precede rich, earthy flavors with soft tannins on the finish.  All the major periodicals rate this wine in the 90-95 point range.

From another family with local roots dating back to the 17th Century, the Chateau de la Gardine was established in 1945 by Gaston Brunel, producing great red Rhone blends and a special roussanne-dominant white, the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Château de la Gardine Cuvée des Générations Marie-Léoncie 2013 ($30).  The 60-year old

The "Gardine Bottle"

The “Gardine Bottle”

vines lay atop limestone soil and, with early rains followed by a warm 2013 summer, the roussanne was allowed to fully ripen, creating a rich, buttery texture and full flavors. Although there is no malolactic fermentation, the wine is fermented and aged in new French oak. Many wineries in Chateauneuf-Du-Pape can be identified by the shape of their unique bottles and this wine is exclusively released in the “Gardine bottle,” broad at the bottom with long, narrow neck. Counter to tasting wine in the States, it is tradition in Chateauneuf-du-Pape to end with a white blend and this one was memorable.  Approximately 70% of the Chateau’s wine is exported, so these wines can probably be found with a little effort.  The group was enamored by all six wines and immediately discussed shipping a case home to the US. Soon, our practical sensibilities prevailed and we settled on a 2011 Chateau Maurcoil Chateauneuf-du-Pape to accompany our lunch.

Lunch at La Cour Des Papes was both distinct and memorable. Firstly, the large dining table is in the chef’s kitchen and guests are welcome to stand, roam and question the chef while he is cooking. The partly set menu in French was intriguing with dishes described as “filet de Canette e au marine au soja et champignons” or “Hachis parmentier d’epaule d’agneau et sa sauce de Chateauneuf-du-Pape” that were translated fullsizerenderto “Filet of female duckling, pickled and raw with soy beans and mushrooms” and “Shepherd’s Pie with lamb and Chateauneuf-du-Pape sauce.” I opted for the raw duckling entree and “Cabillau” or codfish with butter and saffron as my “plat” or main course.  Our chef, Julien, was not only patient with our questions, but serenaded us with song and entertained us with his humor throughout the entire meal that included a rich crème brûlée’ dessert.

La Cour Des Papes also offer cooking classes where patrons can learn new dishes that they prepare for their own meal. Our once in a lifetime luncheon was a bit extravagant but the Browns Valley Fork and Cork Society, six people strong, saved their pennies and were ready.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape and other nearby towns located between the cities of Avignon andimg_3780 Orange boasts nearly 8,000 acres of vineyards and produces as much wine as any other region in France.  Those lucky enough to visit the area will be rewarded with beauty, history and the ability to purchase these remarkable wines at local prices.  They are a bargain as long as you drink them locally.


Chateau de Beaucastel

 

Two-hundred forty-thousand contiguous vines, dry-farmed, hand pruned and picked, in the middle of France’s famed Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation is what defines the family owned Chateau de Beaucastel, the region’s largest.  Eighty-percent of the

270,000 bottles produced annually are exported to the United States and Canada and

Chateau de Beaucastel

Chateau de Beaucastel

they contain iconic French Rhone wines for discerning palates.  Traveling through the region in October, we had the opportunity to visit Chateau de Beaucastel to tour their vineyards and production facility before tasting current and past releases.

The estate includes a quarter of a million vines that, aside from being cultivated by hand, are all organically grown and de-stemmed before fermentation.  The Chateau produce and use all thirteen grapes permitted by the governing AOC, seven white and six red.  The white grapes, namely roussanne, picpoul, muscardin, picardan, clairette and bourboulenc, are fermented in separate rooms from the red grapes, mostly in large concrete tanks with

Diluvial deposits (stones) in the vineyards

Diluvial deposits (stones) in the vineyards

tile floors.  Among the red grapes, syrah and mourvedre are aged in oak, grenache, vaccarese, terret noir, cinsault and couniose in similar concrete tanks. All varietals are fermented separately and blended only after the malolactic fermentation process is completed for each, giving the wine a softer, more balanced mouthfeel.

While visiting the estate, we soon understood that we were visiting French Rhone royalty, one that has been a force among the world’s magnificent Rhone blends for the past

barrel room at Chateau de Beaucastel

barrel room at Chateau de Beaucastel

107 years.  The bottles in the cellars are enigmatic, the huge, meticulous barrel rooms look like they belong in Architectural Digest and each of the tall concrete vats had beautiful tile flooring. After seeing the immaculate grounds, we were assured there were no shortcuts at Chateau de Beaucastel.

In 1687, the land where the Chateau exists today was given to Pierre Beaucastel by Louis XIV after he converted to Catholicism. In 1909, Pierre Tramier transferred ownership of the property to his son-in-law, Pierre Perrin who established the Chateau de Beaucastel.  Pierre’s son Jacque

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin 2012

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin 2012

Perrin took over operations shortly after and spearheaded its growth and reputation until 1978 when it was transferred to his children who collaboratively operate the estate today. The recently released Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin 2012 ($617), is a very serious wine produced only during great vintages, that pays respect to the long-time winemaker and innovator.  The experts have rated this wine in the high nineties and I will just have to take their word for it.

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Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2015

We began the tasting with the Chateau’s only white release, using all permitted varietals.  The Chateau de Beaucastel Chateaunuef-du-Pape Blanc 2015 ($70) will be released in January 2017, ready for consumption and peaking within the first two years. They had experienced more heat and less rain in 2015 that allowed the roussanne, 80% of the blend, to fully ripen.  Small amounts of grenache blanc, picardan, clairette and bourboulenc help add a beautiful golden color with the stone fruits and spice on the nose and nice mineral notes on the finish.  The estate describes the terroir as “molasses seabed of the Miocene period covered by diluvial deposits (rolled pebbles)”.  The diluvial deposits are actually medium reddish stones, two-inches in diameter, that covered the soils throughout the vineyard. Representing the limited plantings of the white varietals, the nicely structured, balanced “Blanc” is not excitable, but subtle and elegant.

Out to the west, the vineyards are dissected by a small, but significant road. Any vines located outside the road are not within the Chateauneuf-du-Pape boundaries and cannot, according to AOC regulations, be identified with the name.  Therefore, the

Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cotes du rhone

Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cotes du rhone

Chateau created the Condoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone blend to give these grapes a home.  A grenache, mourvedre, syrah (GSM) blend with 20% cinsault added, the Condoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone Rouge 2013 was rich with wild berry flavors and hints of pepper and herbs. This was another refined and balanced release.

The white varietals across the road produce the Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone Blanc 2014 with a zesty, citrus quality, revealing apples flavors mid-palate. A blend of marsanne, viognier, clairette and bourboulenc, aged half in oak, half in steel, this is one for the patio on a summer evening. Bourboulenc is a white grape grown in southern France, primarily the Rhone, Provence and Lanquedoc. Its challenge is that it is a late-ripening grape that must be fully ripened to achieve full body, citrus aromas and smoky flavors it is known for.

The flagship release of the estate is the Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, considered an adolescent until it is aged 20 years or more. Today we tasted a flight of the 2013, 2007 and 2001 vintages, each with very distinctive structure and flavors.

101438lThe young Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2013 ($60), mostly grenache and mourvedre has concentrated berry flavors with some nice spice throughout. Our host said that it would take another 4-5 years before the wine is taken seriously, but the balance and structure was already evident. The vintage 2007 was a great one for the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation and the Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2007 ($90-100), awarded 96-pt by Wine Spectator, expressed a deep ruby color and delivered loads of spice, licorice and burnt wood flavors on the palate, more earthy than the recent release. We missed the 2005 vintage that was #8 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines of 2008 with a 98-pt rating.

Although still described as a young wine, the Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2001 ($60-75) was balanced with a very earthy quality that set it apart from the other two. With an aromatic nose, the wine was complex and spicy with flavors of licorice, roasted herbs and, what was described as “cigar box”. Aside from the main three varietals, the 2001 vintage adds counoise, cinsault and a small percentage of other red and white grapes.  This wine began to express what an aged Chateau de Beaucastel wine could taste like and it was for serious consumers.

The presence of the Chateau de Beaucastel in the United States goes far beyond importing their wines. The well-respected Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles,

perrin_la_route_menant_au_chateau_de_beaucastel_2_jpg_11453 producer of terrific Rhone-style wines is a 30-year partnership between the Perrin and Haas families.  Attracted to the limestone laden soils and similar climate to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the partnership purchased land in 1989 and imported clones from the French estate.  Today, Tablas Creek, similar to the patriarch, produces Rhone blends from their “Espirit de Beaucastel” and “Cotes de Tablas” labels. Tablas Creek Winery is organic and sustainable and their wines are well-rated, best represented by the 2006 Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel Paso Robles (93-pt/$45) that was named #50 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2008.  The Mourvedre, grenache, syrah and counoise blend is full-bodied with earthy flavors of ripened berries and nutmeg.  The best example of Rhone-style wines outside of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is Paso Robles, centrally located for access by all Californians.

Another partnership with the Miraval estate in Provence, owned by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, produces the Jolie-Pitt and Perrin Cotes de Provence Rose’ Miraval

Chateau Miraval 2015

Chateau Miraval 2015

2012 ($25)that landed the 84th spot on the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of 2013 list, leading their marketing staff to hail it as the world’s best. There is a bit of uncertainty about future vintages but we were told that Brad is mostly involved.

Visiting the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation in southern

The vines are manicured by hand

The vines are manicured by hand

France is a special treat for anyone serious about wine.  But, the opportunity to spend time at a historical and refined producer like Chateau de Beaucastel, to observe their methods and facilities, is truly a memorable learning experience.