Tag Archives: santa rita hills

Pinot Noir ’12 & ’13


The following weather forecast appeared in my local newspaper last week:

Santa Lucia Highlands vineyard

Santa Lucia Highlands vineyard

“Russian River/Coast:  Areas of low clouds and fog, then sunshine today.  Mainly clear tonight, high 80/low 48”

Noting the 32 degree temperature swing made me smile because this forecast describes the ideal climate for pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay and is consistent with the major regions in CA and Oregon where the best of the varietal, outside of the Burgundy region of France, originates.

Ideally, pinot noir awakens to fog, dripping moisture on its leaves, then basks in the mid-day sun, enjoying late afternoon cooling breezes and dropping evening

Rosella's Vineyard

Rosella’s Vineyard

temperatures.  This repetitive climate is one mandatory element of the terroir in all of our California and Oregon pinot noir growing regions, using the marine influence, extending from the northern Willamette Valley in Oregon to Santa Barbara County.

In California, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, the

Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, the Carneros region of the Napa Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County and Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County produce much of the best New World pinot noir on the planet.  As consistently good as they are, experts are deliberating between vintages 2012 and 2013 as the best in a decade, most saying that 2012 wines are perfectly structured while the vintage 2013 delivers more vibrant colors and concentrated fruit

Of special note is the Santa Lucia Highlands (91-94 pts.) and Russian River Valley (90-93pts)appellations who have produced, according to Wine Spectator and others, the finest California pinot noir among the 2012-13 vintages.  This is not a huge surprise

Garys' Vineyard

Garys’ Vineyard

, both have been among the leaders for decades.  The Russian River Valley is arguably the best U.S. appellation and pinot producers throughout the state have sourced grapes for years from the “Highlands,” namely Garys’, Rosella and Pisoni Vineyards that all began with two friends Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni elevating the region to worldwide recognition.

I am fortunate to have access to fine single-vineyard pinot noir from Sonoma’s Wiliams Selyem and Kosta Browne wineries who both built their reputations while sourcing grapes from top vineyards in the Russian River Valley and, eventually beyond.  Ironically, my vintage 2013 selections from each, for the most part, have been sourced from these Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards. One wine is the Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Pisoni Vineyard 2013 (94-pt/$90) that Wine Spectator ranked among the top pinot noir wines using descriptive words like “depth, density and grace,” all music to my ears.

ROAR Pinot Noir

ROAR Pinot Noir

A second Franscioni-Pisoni partnership created ROAR Wines designed to introduce the distinct flavors of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation.  Deserving of recognition among Wine Spectator’s top 2014 wines, I found the ROAR Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Rosella’s Vineyard 2012 (93 pt/$52) to have a uniquely wonderful floral bouquet that foreshadowed a rich, luscious mouthfeel that enhanced the flavors.

From Santa Barbara County, the Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills 2012 (94pt/$40), recognized by Wine Spectator as a Top Ten 2014 release, is the

culmination of a long standing, respected partnership.  Winemaker Greg Brewer uses whole cluster fermentation methods and his signature absence of any new oak to create very fruit forward, balanced flavors.  Also serving as winemaker for another Santa Rita

Brewer-Clifton Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2012

Brewer-Clifton Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2012

Hills producer, Melville Winery, Brewer’s low-yield Melville Pinot Noir Block M Santa Rita Hills 2012(97pt/$50), with complex flavors, was one of the memorable wines that I enjoyed this year.

Although the Meiomi Pinot Noir Monterey-Sonoma-Santa Barbara Counties 2013 (92pt/$22) has been reviewed as a top value-priced pinot noir, past vintages also

Meiomi Pinot Noir

Meiomi Pinot Noir

express very complex and structured flavors for the price, representing grapes from three of the major growing regions.

Amid the early stages of California’s drought, vintage 2013, especially in the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Russian River Valley,  experienced uniform, moderate temperatures with early rains no spring frost or summer heat waves. The lack of water may have slightly stressed the vines which often results more concentrated flavors.  We will be following with interest the 2016 vintage in California that may or may not have to adjust to the rains and weather patterns caused by “El Nino.”

The word “opulent” is what has Pinot Noir aficionados everywhere excited about the vintage 2102 of Oregon releases, the best since 2008, standing well above recent inconsistent vintages.  In 2012, the Willamette Valley and surrounding regions experience nearly ideal climate, requiring no extraordinary maintenance, seamlessly

Willamette Valley vineyard

Willamette Valley vineyard

aligned to the terroir.  Wine Spectator magazine, who rated the entire 2012 Oregon pinot noir vintage with 97-points, reported that nearly 60% of the wines tasted received ratings of 90-points or higher, opposed to 32% in 2011.

To me, good vintage Oregon pinot noir has sumptuously rich flavors that are restrained by the solid structure of the wine.

I can remember tasting the Bergstrom Pinot Noir de Lancellotti Vineyard 2008 (94pt/$60.00) during a 2010 visit and feeling that I had truly experienced the best

Bergstrom Pinot Noir

Bergstrom Pinot Noir

Oregon can offer.  Bergstrom remains among Oregon’s many extraordinary pinot noir producers and recently shared the spotlight with releases from the Seven Springs Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills appellation of the northern Willamette Valley.

The pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay from Evening Land Vineyards has received several accolades over the past few years and, once again, their 2012 vintage, namely the Evening Land Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills Seven Springs Vineyard La 143793lSource 2012 remains atop pinots from Oregon or any other region.

Focusing on Oregon vintage 2012 seems to be the key and great values can be found among veteran winemakers from Ken Wright, Ponzi, Chehalem and, of course, A to Z Wineworks who have, for some time, produced very nice pinot noir for under $20.  I have tasted previous vintages of this wine and was not surprised to see the A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir Oregon 2012 (89pt/$19)

A to Z Wineworks Oregon Pinot Noir 2013

A to Z Wineworks Oregon Pinot Noir 2013

among Wine Spectator’s top values of the vintage.

Long known for their pleasantly “grassy” sauvignon blanc and other whites, New Zealand has spent the last few decades expanding and perfecting the production of pinot noir.  Average vintage ratings have been in the low to mid-90s since the beginning of this decade, with the South Island’s Marlborough and Central Otago regions leading the way.  In a recent Wine Spectator review of all New Zealand wines, seven of the top 10 were pinot noir.  Many experts agree that the structure, thought to be lacking in the past, is where the best wines have improved and, in many instances, become more expensive.  However, as  with sauvignon blanc, New Zealand still produces some very good, accessible pinot noir at competitive prices.  While the Amisfield Pinot Noir Central Otago RKV Reserve 2010 (94pt/$100) is one of the highest rated of the varietal, they also produce the reasonably priced  Amisfield Pinot Noir Central Otago ($32), reviewed as complex, focused with good structure.

Quality, accessibility and cost are appealing features to many New Zealand pinots such as Kim Crawford Pinot Noir South Island 2013 (89pt/$19) and several others

Kim Crawford New Zealand Pinot Noir

Kim Crawford New Zealand Pinot Noir

that are often available at local outlets.

To fans of the “heartbreak grape,” be assured that the immediate future is bright.  Targeting California’s vintage 2012 & 2013, Oregon vintage 2012 and anything from New Zealand since 2010 seems to be the key in searching for your perfect pinot to pair with fresh salmon, Thanksgiving turkey or Monte Enebro, a slightly pungent, creamy-style goat’s milk cheese from Spain.

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.


Richard Longoria Wines




Our first 2014 Brown’s Valley Fork and Cork Society event took place, over three days, deep into the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, specifically the Vineyard House of the Koehler Winery. With a restricted membership, the Society consists of three couples whose friendship and love of food and wine exceeds forty years. Amid a misty early Spring rain, we set

Longoria Tasting Room in Los Olivos

Longoria Tasting Room in Los Olivos

upon this gorgeous property, tasked with producing one dinner and breakfast each, sampling some local wine and food, finding scenic locations to get our “steps” in and quietly prepare for evening

The "Fe Ciega" Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills

The “Fe Ciega” Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills

cut-throat sessions of “Balderdash” and “Wizard”.


Balancing our desire to enjoy the property and explore local wines mandated the choice of one high quality winery that personifies the diversity in the region, specializes in food-friendly wines and is located nearby. My choice was a no-brainer and, luckily, Longoria Wines and their quaint Los Olivos village tasting room were available and willing to host our group.


My introduction to Richard Longoria Wines began through my passion for pinot noir, when years ago I first tasted his “Fe Ciega” Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills appellation.


Established in 1998, the site of this vineyard is as unique of any in the state. The Spanish words for “Blind Faith”, the Fe Ciega Vineyard

2011 Longoria Pinot Noir "Fe Ciega" Vineyard

2011 Longoria Pinot Noir “Fe Ciega” Vineyard

is located on the north side of the imposing Point Conception, above Santa Barbara, that forms the only east-west coastal mountain range in California. This natural feature and proximity to the Pacific Ocean make it ideal terroir for pinot noir.


The 2011 Longoria Pinot Noir “Fe Ciega Vineyard”($48) embodies elegance from the very fruit-forward, spice-driven aromas through the velvety texture long on the palate.

Oak plays a significant role in creating this wine, much of it new and thirsty. Its compatibility with salmon also makes the “Fe Ciega” a personal favorite and one can find it paired with fantastic dishes at local restaurants like Los Olivos Café and Sides Shoes and Hardware.


Longoria produces four additional pinot noir varietals including the accessible Longoria Pinot Noir “Lovely Rita” Santa Rita Hills ($32) and a single vineyard release from the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard.


Richard Longoria has been a winemaker, mostly in this region, for forty years. After a brief stint at Buena Vista Winery, his passion for pinot noir and food-friendly wines led him to this area and the Firestone Winery where he met and later married his wife Diana, who handles business operations for Longoria Wines.

Chardonnay Block at Koehler Winery

Chardonnay Block at Koehler Winery


Richard spent over a decade as winemaker at Gainey Winery near Solvang before starting his own small label in 1982, going full-time with the present winery in 1997.


With an extensive resume, a very special vineyard and long-time friends in the region, Richard has set high standards for the wines that bear his name. The results have been fruitful as Longoria Wines consistently receive outstanding reviews in major periodicals.  On this rainy morning, Diana Longoria and an associate were on-hand to carefully guide us through their story and their wines.


Lottie and Mojo making friends with the sheep

Lottie and Mojo making friends with the sheep

A classic cool climate chardonnay from four different Santa Rita Hills vineyards, including Rita’s Crown and Fe Ciega, the grapes for the

2011 SRH Chardonnay “Cuvee Diana” ($40), named for Richard’s better half, are harvested, oak-barrel fermented and aged separately. The

2011 Longoria Chardonnay "Cuvee Diana"

2011 Longoria Chardonnay “Cuvee Diana”

best of each lot are carefully blended before bottling to meet Richard’s goal of fragrant aromas, good texture and complexity with the mineral elements of a classic Burgundian wine.


This is my preferred chardonnay style, no stranger to oak with some butterscotch on the nose and enough acidity to pair well with seafood, and yes, more seafood. Longoria produces two additional “chards” including an exclusive from Rita’s Crown Vineyard.


Rose’ wines have been back in vogue for the past decade and the new ones have no relationship to your mother’s favorite white zinfandel. The 2012 Longoria Pink WineCuvee’ June” ($18) , their granddaughter, is a dry, not sweet, complex blend of Grenache and syrah resulting

2012 Longoria Pink Wine "Cuvee June"

2012 Longoria Pink Wine “Cuvee June”

in a very nice food friendly rose’. Only 62 cases of this stainless steel fermented “pink wine” were produced making it in high demand.


Longoria has been one of the few wineries in this region to diversify and experiment with Spanish varietals like tempranillo and albarino, both increasingly popular with consumers seeking alternatives to varietals. Their 2011 Longoria Tempranillo Santa Ynez Valley ($36), with small amounts of syrah and merlot and aged in 100% American oak, 45% new, has a nice spice on the nose and toasty rich fruit flavors with manageable tannins.


The top tempranillo aficionado in our group gave it a “thumbs up.” The warmer climate and terroir of the Santa Ynez Valley seems to adapt well to the tempranillo profile and we can anticipate the planting of more vines.


The 2011 Longoria “Blues Cuvee” ($30) and its predecessors first attracted my attention through the label artwork, always depicting a jazz or

2011 Longroria "Blues Cuvee"

2011 Longroria “Blues Cuvee”

blues musician. Primarily a Bordeaux blend today, Richard originally created it as a single varietal Cabernet Franc, so ahead of its time that it preceded demand by California consumers and, hence restaurants. Needing to spark sales for this wine’s survival, he re-established it as a “Cabernet Franc/Red Table Wine. Later, Longoria’s love of blues music led to the artistic label that changes every two years and the wine that no one wanted suddenly became high in demand.


More than a story, the “Blues Cuvee’ delivers a highly complex bouquet with very balanced flavors and tannins.  Cabernet Franc still comprises slightly more than

Longoria "Blues Cuvee'"

Longoria “Blues Cuvee'”

half of a blend with Bordeaux partner’s cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and, a Rhone Valley guest, syrah. Not one for restraint, I forced myself to take a bottle



Speaking of syrah, many Santa Ynez Valley vineyards like Clover Creek in the warm Happy Canyon appellation have become a friendly home for syrah grapes. It is without hesitation that I recommend the Longoria Syrah Clover Creek Vineyard 2011 ($28) as a fine localized representation of the varietal. According to the winemaker, the vineyard is adjacent to the Santa Ynez River and has a cooling effect on the vines that seems to draw the fruit and berry flavors to the surface.

2011 Longoria Syrah Clover Creek Vineyard

2011 Longoria Syrah Clover Creek Vineyard

We also made a note of the long and balanced finish with no hints of harshness.


Once again, syrah was featured in what turned out to be a pleasant surprise of the tasting. The 2010 Longoria ”Vino Dulce” Syrah Santa Barbara County ($23), a port-style fortified wine, expresses the same complexities as any Clover Creek Vineyard syrah, equal to, yet different.


For me, the first test of any rich port-style wine is the bouquet. The “Vino Dulce” aromas of baked cherries and typical spices are clear, but then we are asked if we can sense the chocolate. One more sniff, nose in the glass and we say, “oh yes, definitely cherries and chocolate,” surrendering to the power of suggestion.


This full-bodied dessert wine has a velvety texture and the soft cherries and spicy flavors are integrated and balanced which generally translates to “smooth”. One more taste, paired

2010 Longoria "Vino Dulce" Port-style wine

2010 Longoria “Vino Dulce” Port-style wine

with a piece of chocolate and we were treated to a nice long finish to the wine and the tasting.


Our group, consisting of six adults, Mojo, a standard “party” poodle and Lotti, a soft-coated Wheaten terrior, found the large 3 BR/3BA, pet friendly Vineyard House at Koehler Winery to our liking. They also have smaller units available, all in a beautiful, vineyard setting.


Los Olivos is an ideal place to relax and sampling a flight of Richard Longoria releasess is a great introduction to the diversity of a region that consistently creates wonderfully balanced, food-friendly wines.



Collecting Wine And Why


Establishing a wine collection is far more than selecting some great bottles from an afternoon tasting but certainly does not have need of the time, money and research to acquire rare vintages. It requires some education of both the mind and palate because beyond the labels, specific varietals and ratings, the crescendo of wine is all about taste and the color, aroma and texture that precede it.

Taste is always upfront in my pursuit of wines, searching for the perfect balance in fruit, spice and earthy flavors. However, collecting is usually constrained by budget and many collectors agree, “Once you’ve gone Burgundy, you can’t go back.” As great as Burgundian wines are, collecting the “grand cru” would, inevitably, lead to bankruptcy for most of us. Fortunately, wines from our local California neighborhood have the quality and accessibility to satiate a collector’s appetite.

The main factor surrounding my collection is that I am an occasional wine drinker. My wife, declaring war on sugar some 15 year ago, no longer takes pleasure in wine and I am not going to open a nice bottle for one glass.  The result is a small collection, quality over quantity that can be shared with others, the best way to enjoy the attributes of wine.

2009 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast

2009 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast

Sharing is wonderful, but the goals of any cellar reflect the individual tastes and diverse varietals enjoyed by the collector.  Surprises and opportunities aside, the following guides the search for wine within my budget.

#1:  Explore the finest pinot noir from California and


With few exceptions, the world’s optimum pinot noir is produced in Burgundy France, Oregon and California.  The core of my pinot noir comes from three California producers, Kosta Browne Winery, Williams Selyem Winery from Sonoma County and Seasmoke Cellars from the Santa Rita Hills in northern Santa Barbara County. There are enough diverse releases from specific vineyards and terroir among the three to provide for an impressive array of pinot noir. Among my Kosta Browne pinot’s, the 2009 Sonoma Coast, 2008 Russian River Valley and the 2007 Sonoma Coast were all among top ten wines on Wine Spectator magazines annual list, the 2009 named “2011 Wine of the Year.”

2009 Seasmoke "Ten" Pinot Noir

2009 Seasmoke “Ten” Pinot Noir

My routine is to “lay down” the new vintages for a year, making the older ones available for consumption.  My 2009 Seasmoke “Ten” Pinot Noir is now a prized bottle in the “drink/hold” status waiting a special occasion while the 2010 and 2011 vintages can rest.  It takes patience to receive an allocation of these great wines, but the rewards to your palate are worth it.

Other pinot noir wines are discovered while tasting in other regions, none better than the Willamette Valley of Oregon. In 2012, I acquired two bottles of 2010
Bergstrom Wines “De Lanciotti Vineyard” Pinot Noir
which are drinkable 2012-2022. While one bottle will rest longer, the other, consistent with my goals, is earmarked to celebrate my son’s completion of his MBA in June. In researching ongoing reviews of Oregon pinot noir, I follow the vintages of wineries such as Argyle, Ponzi, Evening Land, Penner-Ash, Archery Summit and others that are all capable of producing memorable

Bergstrom "De Lancelotti Vineyard" Pinot Noir 2010

Bergstrom “De Lancelotti Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2010


#2:  White wines with food.

Although there are an abundance of fine white wines to choose from, chardonnay adds to food like no other varietal and, given that I no longer eat meat, it will receive expanded shelf space in my cellar.  Vintage to vintage, my chardonnay assortment includes bottles of Foley Estate “Barrel Select” Chardonnay, Mt. Eden Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains and, most recently, Seasmoke “Grand Cru” Chardonnay, a superb first vintage from the venerated producer of Santa Rita Hills pinot noir.

Violating my own rule of diversity, these wines are very similar in style and share my highest standard in color, bouquet, oak, flavor, texture and finish. I recently shared my only bottle of the new Seasmoke “Grand Cru” with friends and it immediately became the topic of discussion for the next several

Foley Estate "Barrel Select" Chardonnay

Foley Estate “Barrel Select” Chardonnay

minutes, including the question, “How do we obtain some of this?”  Their answer was revealed, days later, when my annual allocation letter granted me permission to purchase four bottles in 2013. As good as the Seasmoke is, the French “Grand Cru” designation is meaningless in the US.

Aside from these wines, I am always looking for a good bargain on an authentic “Grand Cru” from Burgundy where chardonnay is the only white grape permitted to be grown.

2005 Vincent Girardin Clos Vougeot Grand Cru Vielles Vignes

2005 Vincent Girardin Clos Vougeot Grand Cru Vielles Vignes

Burgundian white wines are elegant and fruit-forward, distinguishing themselves with a soft minerality on the finish.  My current prized bottle is a 2005 Vincent Girardin Clos Vougeot Grand Cru Vielles Vignes.  A brief review on reading French labels tells us this wine comes from grapes within a walled-in (clos) vineyard in the village of Vougeot, they are old vines (vielles vignes) and Vincent Girardin produces it.  Actually, the vineyard, at 125 acres, is a very large “clos” vineyard, the only one in the village.

Other “pairing” white wines that consistently have shelf space in my compilation are the Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc, the Fiddlehead “Goosebury” Sauvignon Blanc and well-reviewed sauvignon blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand, when nice, pungent flavors of lemongrass are needed to enhance a dish like well-prepared, rare hamachi.

#3: Rhone Blends and Value Cabernet Sauvignon

The great blends of France’s Rhone Valley, featuring Grenache, syrah, mourvedre and other varietals are being replicated by California “Rhone Rangers,” free to add their own creative twist to centuries of tradition. New and established wineries, such as Tablas Creek Vineyard, Linne Calodo Cellars and Terry Hoage Vineyards

from the Paso Robles region offer great Rhone blends to choose from. An annual favorite and a consistent reflection of the local terroir is the Adelaida Cellars “Version” Rhone

Adelaida "Version" Red  Rhone Blend

Adelaida “Version” Red
Rhone Blend

Blend, legendary to the area.


Not being the main varietal focus of my collection, budgeting for the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is, with few exceptions, not an option. I enjoy exploring value-priced Cabernet from other regions.  The best example of stand-alone great flavor for under $35 is the Eberle Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles’ eastside.  Of course, the pricier Eberle Reserve Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is a good collectible to age for a special occasion.  With 10-15 cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux varietals, vintages 2002-2006, in my cellar, acquiring new ones before enjoying current inventory is a low priority.

Eberle Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Bottled

Eberle Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Bottled

#4:  Discoveries

Allowing flexibility in my collection for special wines that I come across at tasting events, classes, winery tours etc. is a must.  Generally, these wines fill in varietals like merlot, petite sirah, syrah, zinfandel, riesling and others that comprise one-third of my collection.


Let me end with a story that has bought laughter and tears for two decades.  Several years ago, our family hosted an exchange student from Germany; just about the time my interest in wine in its adolescence.  The next year, he returned as our guest and presented me, from his parents collection, with two bottles of 1990 Chateau Latour and a 1990 Chateau Margaux.  I knew they

1990 Grand Vin de Chateau Latour

1990 Grand Vin de Chateau Latour

were nice French wines, not realizing that these Bordeaux giants are, vintage to vintage, arguably the world’s finest wines.  The 1990 Chateau Latour was Wine Spectator’s “1993 Wine of the Year” with a 100- point rating.  To give some perspective of the value of these wines, the recently released 2009 vintage sells in the range of $1500 per bottle. We managed to drink them all, my only memory is sharing the Chateau Margaux with my wife on our anniversary at the old Downtown Bistro on Lancaster Blvd, not completely understanding its complexity, but agreeing it was “liquid velvet” to our palates. The irony of the tale is that, knowing what I know today, I would be reluctant to ever open them, facing the reality of no longer having two of the world’s great wines.  Ultimately, wine collections are to enjoy with others, not displayed on a shelf.

Pinot Fest ’13



Large wine events are most often over-crowded with an overwhelmingly number of represented wineries and more people having fun and supporting a charity then seriously tasting new pinot noir releases. Thus, my strategy for “PinotFest 2013”, held at the Alta Dena Country Club near Pasadena, was to work the room and select a few new wineries to explore. Because they are contemporary and boasting high ratings, I started with a relatively new winery that is producing wines in the Russian River Valley and other prominent Sonoma County appellations

Sojourn Cellars began in 2001, a collaboration of two friends committed to producing distinctive pinot noir in a region that, arguably, leads the world.  square-1CraigHaserot and winemaker Erich Bradley source their grapes from vineyards north of Sonoma, near Cotati, where I watched my uncle race formula cars in the early sixties.  Today, we tasted three single vineyard pinots, one asserting a 96-point rating from the Pinot Report.

We began with the 2009 Sojourn Cellars Sangiocomo Vineyard Pinot Noir ($54/96), a wine that put across an earthy, dark fruit nose followed by complex flavors and a rich, creamy texture.  Not a bad beginning.  The second pour was a pinot noir from Gap’s Crown Vineyard whose out-sourced grapes are used in many fine wines.  The 2009 Sojourn Cellars Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir ($54/95) comes from a hilly slope with stressed soil pushing the grapes to fully ripen, producing those jammy, concentrated flavors that are nicely structured.

The very earthy 2009 Sojourn Cellars Rodger’s Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir was actually my favorite of the three, adding mushrooms and savory herbs to the concentrated dark fruit flavors. As I finished the server leaned forward and whispered, “Do you want to taste our dark pinots,”

Many winemakers could not resist “bootlegging” some of their other varietals into “Pinot Fest 2013” and, in this instance; it was two new Cabernet Sauvignon wines from extraordinary vineyards that were about to steal the squareshow.

The Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard is royalty among the many great Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon vineyards.  The name adorns the label of many great $100+ wines from the Napa Valley floor in Rutherford.  The 2009 Sojourn Cellars Beckstoffer Goerges III Cabernet Sauvignon ($95/) was, of course, very full-bodied with deep dark cherry flavors and luscious textures, a wine to savor.

A late frost, prompting a decision to cut back clusters, reducing volume, ultimately led to a wine rich both in structure and flavor that was one of the “hits” of the show.  A suitable descriptive adverb for the 2009 Sojourn Cellars Home Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($48) is “opulent,” with complexity and structure of wines twice the price.  For those serious about cabernet sauvignon, this is a find.

Winemaker Kenneth Volk, born and raised in San Marino, CA has been a fixture in the central coast wine culture for decades, having started Wild Horse Winery and Vineyards over thirty years ago, ultimately

Kennet Volk

Kennet Volk

producing 150,000 cases annually.  Now operating in the Santa Maria Valley AVA, north of Santa Barbara, Volk is producing pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay under the label that bears his name, his signature.  Today, we tasted two single-vineyard pinot noir and a few “bootlegged” varietals.

From a small township in the Santa Maria Valley, the 2009 Kenneth Volk “Garey” Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($48) was, clearly, one of the notable wines poured, an atypically huge wine with extracted flavors that can pair with a broader range of food. Aside from the influences of French oak, the warm location of this vineyard allows for full ripening of the grape.

For pure elegance in the pinot noir tradition, the Kenneth Volk “Sierra Madre Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($48) has floral and spice aromas and delivers a nice, flavorful finish. Volk’s pinot noir wines are well crafted, respecting the tradition of the Burgundian grape but willing to push the envelope to higher levels.

2007 Kenneth Volk "Garey Vineyard" Pinot Noir

2007 Kenneth Volk “Garey Vineyard” Pinot Noir

A close look reveals that the Paso Robles region is quietly producing some nice cabernet sauvignon, adding to an already expansive range of varietals that thrive in the area.  One example is the 2008 Kenneth Volk Cabernet Sauvignon ($36), sourced from multiple vineyards in the region.  Again, French oak is used to create complex smoky flavors that continue through the finish.


2008 Kenneth Volk Cabernet Sauvignon

At 86 years and claimed to be one of the oldest California plantings, the mourvedre vines from the Enez Vineyard produce low-yield, small cluster fruit, resulting in intense flavors.  The 2009 Kenneth Volk Enez Vineyard Lime Kiln Valley Mourvedre ($36) earns the prize as the pleasant surprise of the tasting.  The flavors also linger on the palate.

A decade since the Alexander Payne film, “Sideways” put the Hitching Post restaurant and the region on the map, the eating place and their fine selection of pinot noir, expressive of the local terroir are thriving.

In the late seventies, Frank Ostini Jr. the co-owner of the Hitching Post family business and friend Gray Hartley began making wine at

Frank Ostini Jr. and Gray Hartley

Frank Ostini Jr. and Gray Hartley

their home. Soon, they were making wines for specific cellars and eventually the Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post label, exclusively pinot noir, was born.

Personal wine labels, created under the wing of a successful restaurant often fall below expectations of serious wine drinkers.  This is NOT the situation at Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post wines.  They are the real deal, sourcing grapes from the best vineyards because the partners agree that is where great wines are made. Having met Frank Ostini, Jr. at a Glendale tasting years ago, Gray Hartley was on hand at this event to guide me through their new releases.

Combining warm Santa Maria Valley and cool Santa Rita Hills vineyards, the flagship Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post “Highliner” Pinot Noir combines the best barrels of the best vineyards to achieve balanced, complex flavors and the overall elegance typical to the region.

From Fiddlestix, Sanford and Benedict and Clos Pepe, three notable Santa Rita Hills vineyards, the 2009 Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post “St. Rita’s Earth Pinot Noir($34) is very fruit forward for those who prefer a healthy dose of black cherry flavors.  Two single-vineyard

Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post "Highliner" Pinot Noir

Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post “Highliner” Pinot Noir

pinots from the Fiddlestix and Bien Nacido vineyards both have the structure to become excellent wines in time.

Gray’s “bootleg” offering was the reasonably priced Hartley-Ostini “Big Circle” Syrah ($20) sourced, once again, from warm and cool climate vineyards throughout the region.  The bouquet hints of the wine’s complex flavors that don’t disappoint on the finish.

Recognition also goes out to the new releases of pinot noir from the Brian Loring Wine Company.  The technique of sourcing grapes from the best vineyards in California to produce world-class pinot noir has served him and us well. If you enjoy pinots, you will take pleasure in any wine from the Loring Wine Company.

00202 LWC 2009 Pinot Keefer Ranch 750ML Label

2009 Loring Wine Company “Garys’ Vineyard” Pinot Noir

All in all, attending the “Pinot Fest 13” event led to some new discoveries and opportunities to do more follow-ups at their respective wineries and vineyards.  Ironically, my favorite wine of the event was the “bootlegged” 2009 Sojourn Cellars Home Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the “dark pinots.”


The Summer of Chardonnay


The summer months always evoke discussion of nice white wines that are more refreshing in the heat. In the forefront of any such discussion is chardonnay, arguably the most popular grape in the world.  It thrives in Burgundy, France; Australia, northern and southern California and even New York State because it can be distinctive and unique, heavily influenced by soil, climate and many post harvest techniques.  The grape responds to stainless steel or oak, limestone or marl, cool or warm climates and 0% to 100% malolactic fermentation, a technique that significantly softens the wine by converting the tart malic acid into lactic acid,  producing those more full-bodied, buttery wine flavors.

Foley Estate Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard

Thriving earlier in the Napa Valley, today’s chardonnay vineyards can be found from Mendocino to Santa Barbara County, gradually shifting to more coastal appellations like Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Rita Hills and the Sonoma Coast.  In fact, Sonoma County past vintages rank the highest in California and, with the Burgundy region of France, produces the world’s best chardonnay.  Over the past few years, it has been difficult to find a bad one from the Napa Valley or Sonoma regions.

Normally a fan of the soft, buttery, oak-driven, lactic-laden California chardonnay, I have begun to appreciate the minerality in Burgundian wines, so influenced by the nature of the soil.

The following is a list of recent vintage chardonnay that I have enjoyed during the past year, representing a variety of price points, regions and oak influence. I did not designate a certain vintage because these wines are consistently good.

Chalone Vineyard Chardonnay Monterey County ($12). Chalone Vineyards have produced Burgundian-style wines for decades, contributing a chardonnay for the 1976

Chalone Chardonnay Monterey County

Paris Tasting.  Although they produce very good single-vineyard estate chardonnay at higher prices, the Monterey County designate is a complex wine that is accessible locally.

Merryvale Starmont Chardonnay ($18).  From the cooler climates in the Napa Valley, this amply available wine consists of grapes aged in both stainless steel and oak with partial malolactic fermentation.  The result is one of the most full-bodied, creamy chardonnay available under $20 anywhere. Nice citrus is engulfed with rich, nutty flavors with a nice minerality on the finish.

Morgan “Mettalico” Un-Oaked Chardonnay ($21).  Morgan Vineyards produce good quality pinot noir, chardonnay and other varietals from the Santa Lucia Highlands.  The “Metallico” favors those with no regard for oak or malolactic fermentation.  It is a very crisp, food-friendly wine with a nice

Morgan “Metallico” Chardonnay

acidity and stone fruit flavors.

Melville Estate Chardonnay Clone 76 “Inox” ($36).  Located on East Highway 246 on the way to Lompoc, Melville creates nice pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay in the Santa Rita Hills.  “Inox” is the French word for stainless steel, foreshadowing a wine void of oak and any softening of its crispness.

Melville “Clone 76 Inox” Chardonnay

Cold temperatures are integrated into the fermentation process, protecting all the malic acid from harm.  Aromas and flavors of lemon, lime, pineapple, apple and honeysuckle assure us that it is not void of taste.

Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay ($32).  Familiar with this wine for several years, I was recently surprised to see a bottle in the “frig” at a “fork and cork” rental home and quickly drafted it to pair with scallops and smoked salmon cakes.  Complex aromas and flavors of peach, melon, citrus and vanilla make this wine, consistently, a great pair with food and a top value within this price range. It is often available locally.

Fort Ross Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($32). From the Sonoma coast, this wine embellishes both the crispness and rich opulence that chardonnay can express. Combining pineapple with butterscotch and vanilla in a balanced way is the main reason it found itself among Wine Enthusiasts Top 100 wines of 2011 with a 92 pt. rating.

Rombauer Chardonnay Carneros


Demetria Winery “Eighteen” Chardonnay ($45). My first encounter with Demetria Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley was through this wine at a tasting last year.  The “Eighteen” stood out among the others.  Aged 18 months in French oak, it combines wonderful stone fruits aromas and flavors that are rich and heavy-on-the-tongue.  With only 200 cases produced, one will not find this wine outside of the winery.

Demetria “Eighteen” Chardonnay


Foley Estate “Barrel Select” Chardonnay ($50). This wine is simply my favorite California chardonnay from a winery that produces many. To retain some acidity, 25% of the grapes are void of malolactic fermentation.  The best barrels are combined and aged another 21 months in oak.  The result is consistently lush citrus aromas and flavors balanced with rich vanilla and toasted nuts.  A pass through the area always warrants a stop for “Barrel Select”.


Mt Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains ($55).Any discussion of good white wine always includes Mt. Eden’s classic California chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation that produces many. A bulk of the aging is with new French oak creating a creamy, heavy-on-the-tongue wine with a perfect balance of citrus, spice and toasted nuts. It is always ranked among the best.

Foley Estate “Barrel Select” Chardonnay


Louis Latour Puligny-Montrachet ler Cru ($55). Discovered at a tasting, this wine, from one of Burgundy’s finest appellations, has a nice earthy/mineral quality combining some citrus with melon flavors and a very long finish.  Grand Cru from this area can age up to 10 years, becoming supple, less acidic along the way.  Available at Monopole in Pasadena.

Louis Latour Puligny-Montrachet “Les Truffieres”

These are my recommendations although what I know about this wine is what I don’t know. Having the opportunity to taste good chardonnay from many regions

within California and abroad, I am always reminded of the complexity of the wine and it’s ability to enhance food.  Any one of these wines and a myriad of others were designed to augment shellfish, sea bass, game hens and even veal.  The major player of the United State victory in the 1976 Paris Tasting, California chardonnay has never sat on its laurels.