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MORE CHARDONNAYS

FLOWERS
Located in the middle of no-where is where you'll find the Flowers vineyards and winery. Cazadero.

Walt & Joan Flowers* started in the nursery/landscaping business in Pennsylvania.  They own a piece of property in the Sonoma Coast appellation, right close to the edge of the Left Coast.  They're something like a mile inland and high up on a hill (their home vineyard is called "Camp Meeting Ridge") in very steep and rocky terrain.  The Flowers planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in this remote area, a region shunned by U.C. Davis many years ago.  It was thought to be too cold to ripen fruit.  

Yet the Flowers are above the fog line and have exceptionally long growing seasons.  This accounts, in some measure, for the exceptional character of their wine.

We've noticed a change in the styling of their wines over the past few vintages.  Early offerings were matured in a higher percentage of new oak than the current offering.  This may be a negative for some tasters, especially those looking for lots of vanillin and toasty oak notes.

On the other hand, the new vintage is refined, elegant and you can taste some of the minerally notes expressed by this noteworthy and difficult "terroir."  

Whole cluster pressing, fermentation in oak, with no cold-settling, full malolactic, no fining, no filtration...only gravity flow racking/moving of the wine...pretty much the full, pedal-to-the-metal treatment except the oak is not as heavy-handed as is often fashionable.  Crisp acidity, too.  The major problem: supply.  
Naturally.  

We currently have their 2014 Sonoma Coast bottling.  This comes from several vineyard sites, including their "Camp Meeting Ridge" vineyard.  The wine shows the lemon blossom notes and apple-like tones of cool-climate (or cooler climate) California Chardonnays.  

There's also a sort of "reserve" wine available.  It's called their "Andreen-Gale Cuvée" and it's a selection of barrels.  The wine takes its name from the mothers of Joan and Walt Flowers.  We find a touch more minerality in this wine than in their normal, Sonoma Coast bottling.  It shows a melon-like fruit tone, too.  

The Flowers have sold a percentage of their wine company to a famous Napa vintner, Augustin Huneeus (owner of Quintessa in Napa and the Veramonte label from South America).  
Currently in stock: 2014 "Sonoma Coast"  Chardonnay (List $50) SALE $43.99 (limited)

* The Flowers decided they'd like to have more time to themselves, play a little golf and take it easy, so they sold a percentage of the company to Huneeus Vintners, who also own the Quintessa winery.  We'll see if this changes the Flowers brand or not...stay tuned.



THOMAS FOGARTY WINERY

Dr. Thomas Fogarty.
This guy is a real American hero.  
And a first class vintner.

Fogarty was a cardiovascular surgeon and professor at Stanford University.  He had purchased extensive acreage in the Santa Cruz Mountains a bit south of Woodside up on Skyline Boulevard. 

His father had encouraged him to be remarkably curious and, as a kid, he was.  Fogarty tinkered with all sorts of things...soap box derby "cars" were of some interest and he ended up designing a centrifugal clutch.  It may not sound like much until you realize this thing is used in all sorts of machinery, from power lawn mowers to, if we recall accurately, those little wagons driver by US Postal Service letter carriers.

He had a job at a hospital near the family home in Ohio and he became interested in medicine.  One thing led to another and he became a cardiovascular surgeon.  He wound up at Stanford University, but along the way he invented some sort of catheter that was used to treat blood clots.  He'd seen too many people lose a limb or their life being treated for that and today the Fogarty Embolectomy Catheter is widely used.  It's been reported more than 15 million patients have been treated with this life-saving device.  

During his stint as a doctor and professor at Stanford, he bought a place in the hills overlooking the University campus and the Silicon Valley.  When neighboring parcels came on the market, Fogarty snapped them up, amassing something like 360 acres.  Some of his wine-savvy colleagues urged him to plant some vineyards and he did some research.  Along the way he met a skilled winemaker named Michael Martella and shortly thereafter the Thomas Fogarty Winery came to life.
 
 

Many vineyards are close to the winery, but they also have a site called Gist Ranch which is south of the winery.  Fogarty launched another label called Lexington and it's devoted to Bordeaux varieties.

In the early days, Michael Martella made some very fine Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Gewurztraminer wines.  

We recall visiting one morning, way back when and Dr. Fogarty was poking around in the offices and tasting room and he said "Well, I have to go now and make some money to support this place."

In those days it wasn't clear if one of his sons would be interested in the wine business.  Both Tom Junior and Jon were more enamored with race cars.  Junior, Tommy as he's known, was affiliated with the Skip Barber Racing School and, later, the Jim Russell Racing School.  Jon Fogarty now lives in Oregon and is still involved in motor sports.

Tommy has developed his wine interests beautifully.  I've witnessed this evolution and am delighted to hear him speak so passionately about grape growing and winemaking.  

We currently have a 2012 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay in the shop.  Most of the fruit comes from vines near the winery, while 7% is from the Gist Ranch site.  A whopping one percent is sourced at a place in Los Gatos called Camel Hill.  It gets that name from being a ranch raising camels, amongst other things.

Winemaker Nathan Kandler has been a Fogarty staffer since 2004.  He became "the" winemaker in 2012 as Michael Martella now gets a Senior Citizen's Discount on CalTrain.  

Tommy and Nathan seem to have a good sense of winemaking which shows off their vineyards.  The juice for the Chardonnay goes into French oak.  About 15% of the barrels were brand new for the 2012 Chardonnay.  They use indigenous yeast for the wine and don't block the malolactic fermentation.  It's still nicely crisp, showing the relatively cool climate of the Santa Cruz Mountains (and it's below 14% alcohol, too).
The wine spends close to a year in wood.  It's kept on the spent yeast, but they don't stir it.

We find this has a nice interplay between a lime note and some Granny Smith apple fruit.  The wood is in the background, so it's like a sprinkle of salt on a perfectly grilled steak.  

A customer had purchased a bottle of Fogarty Chardonnay from us and her husband made her bring it back, fearing it was long-in-the-tooth, being 5+ years old.  Yes...that is old for many California white wines.  We brought that "bad" bottle to a lunch a few weeks later and nobody had any difficulty drinking and enjoying that wine.  It was marvelous, so we raised a glass to toast that customer.  Too bad for them, this was a delightful bottle of Chardonnay, French, Californian or otherwise!!!

Currently in stock:  2012 THOMAS FOGARTY WINERY Santa Cruz Mountains CHARDONNAY  Sale $23.99

 

 


HAGAFEN CELLARS

This winery's products are viewed as fitting into the niche market of "Kosher wine" because their wines are, in fact, "kosher."

But so are products such as Chobani Yogurt, Best Foods Mayonnaise and Cholula Hot Sauce.  Yet nobody buys those "only" for those products being Kosher.

Many people in the wine trade view Hagafen as a wine sold only during the Passover season or for other Jewish holidays.
(A friend of ours likes serving their Sauvignon Blanc for lunch on Yom Kippur when she prepares a Clam, Garlic & Prosciutto Pizza.  "It's my go-to wine," she explains.)

Winemaker (ווינעמאַקער) Ernie Weir worked as a vineyard manager ages ago for the then-fledgling winery called Domaine Chandon.

He had a few friends pitch in and they started a little wine production of Napa Valley "kosher" wines.  One of his friends was the late Rene di Rosa, an early pioneer in Napa's Carneros district grape-growing.  They started the project in 1979, so the Hagafen brand has been around for many years.

Weir had the idea of making really good wine that happens to be Kosher.  And they weren't chasing the consumer who drinks and enjoys Manischewitz or Mogen David's Concord Grape wines.  They wanted to make wine for those people who actually drink and enjoy good wines made from "vinifera" grape varieties.

Weir makes wines we consider to be good quality.  His Chardonnays have been reliably good for quite a while.  They may not be the flashiest, biggest or the most lavishly oaked, but you'll find bright apple-like notes of Chardonnay and there's a very light bit of a woodsy note.  It's a solid example of Napa Chardonnay and, oh-by-the-way, it's Kosher, just like the Heinz Ketchup you have in the 'fridge.

SIDE NOTE:
We were at a tasting of numerous California wines and stopped to taste the line-up of Hagafen wines.  Our colleague Brian Azimovski had his first chance to taste these "Kosher" wines and a measure of surprise clearly registered and was noted.  
It was evident that the quality of Hagafen wines came as a surprise to him, as he expected that the Kosher feature of these was the sole selling point.  In fact, he found the wines to be "not only Kosher," but good quality, period.


Currently in stock:  2015 HAGAFEN Napa CHARDONNAY  SALE $21.99

 

 


WALTER HANSEL
2013 Russian River Valley "CAHILL" CHARDONNAY $32.99
This family has a Ford automobile dealership located just west of Highway 101 as you're on your way to Sonoma's wine country near Santa Rosa.

But the patriarch of the Hansel clan also had the foresight to invest in vineyard property back in the 1970s.  Located near the Santa Rosa Golf Course, the vineyards cover some 80 acres of land.  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay comprise the bulk of the property.

After years of growing grapes, Walter's son Stephen decided to open a winery and vinify his own fruit.  Early Chardonnays were really nice, but more hazy than a first stage smog alert in Los Angeles.  Ellen looked at one bottle and shook her head, telling the sales rep "This will result in too many bottles being returned, because most customers don't want to deal with so much sediment."  

While we appreciated their efforts at capturing the maximum Chardonnay character in the bottle, doing a minimum of clarification for the wine is probably a good idea from a commercial standpoint.  After all, their Ford automobiles do come with mufflers and smog control devices!

These days the wines are nicely polished and much-appreciated by fans of stylish California Chardonnay that tip their chapeau to the French.

A 2013 bottling of Hansel's "Cahill Lane" is  very fine.   It's smoky  and mildly leesy, so not every Chardonnay drinker will find this to be to their taste.  If you're a fan of some mildly leesy Puligny-Montrachets from France's Cote de Beaune, this may be right up your alley.  And it's well-priced for this quality and complexity.




 

 

HANZELL VINEYARDS
2013 Sonoma Valley Chardonnay (List $75) SALE $64.99
This historic winery is a jewel!  It was founded in the 1950s by James D. Zellerbach who named the place Hanzell for his wife Hana.  Zellerbach was, apparently, a fan of European wines.  And why not?  He lived in Europe for many years and was the U.S. Ambassador to Italy.    


Zellerbach constructed a building resembling the Clos de Vougeot in Burgundy.  He brought back one other European twist that forever changed the course of California winemaking: French oak barrels!  

In 1953 the Hanzell winery project began by planting two acres of Pinot Noir and all of four acres of Chardonnay.  And in those days, nobody knew much about Chardonnay.  There were less than 200 acres of it planted in the entire state.  They got cuttings for their Chardonnay from Fred and Eleanor McCrea at Stony Hill.  The McCreas got their cuttings from Wente.   

On a trip back "home" to California, Zellerbach enlisted some suggestions from University of California enologists as to how he might go about making wines identical (or, at least, comparable) to those he enjoyed from Burgundy.  He listened to their advice and followed virtually all of it with one exception:  he bought barrels from France which had those wooden hoops around them because he liked how they looked in the cellars of Burgundian vintners. 


The winemaker in 1957 was R.B. "Brad" Webb and the first vintage was sent off to Zellerbach in Rome for his evaluation.  Most tasters identified the wine as a Burgundian Chardonnay, though they couldn't tell if it was Corton-Charlemagne, Meursault, or something from Puligny-Montrachet or Chassagne-Montrachet.  

Wine writer Bob Thompson, who lived in Napa, said they were aiming for Montrachet and hit Meursault.

Zellerbach's widow sold the place in 1965 when it was purchased by Douglas & Mary Day.  They kept the place for a decade, selling it to the de Brye family.  Mrs. Barbara de Brye liked Cabernet and so for a few vintages, Hanzell made and bottled a Cabernet Sauvignon.  She died in 1991 and her son Alexander inherited the family fortune (rumored to be 30-Million British Pounds) and Hanzell.  These days it's in the hands of GMIC, Geary Market Investment Company.

Back to the early days:  Webb had been advised by an American barrel builder that he should not even consider buying those silly French oak barrels...
We are not sure if Wikileaks found this correspondence or if some Russian computer hackers unearthed it.  Give this a quick read:

 
Well, now nearly half a century later, Hanzell still makes pretty good Chardonnays and still in small quantities.  The wine, though, is a bit on the subtle end of the spectrum, so don't expect to find a really oaky bottle of wine.  Nor is this toasty and leesy as are many top French White Burgundies.
 

Hanzell claims to be the first to have temperature-controlled fermentation tanks.
We don't know if it was Brad Webb or Bob Sessions who came up with this innovation.
Of course, these days temperature-controlled tanks are quite standard...

Webb also studied the malolactic fermentation and he figured out a system to use inert gas to protect the wine from oxidization.
For what many people consider to be an "old school" and traditional winery, Hanzell, in fact, had been quite modern and innovative at the start.




Yet their wines taste "old-fashioned" along side the lavishly oaked, full malolactic wonders so popular with eno-scribes and consumers alike.  
 

All the oak used by Hanzell, formerly run the late winemaker Bob Sessions (for as long as we'd been buying their wines) came from the Sirugue cooperage in Nuits-St.-Georges.  They used about one-third new oak each vintage and only 20% of the Chardonnay is fermented in oak.  
About half of the wine undergoes a secondary, malolactic fermentation, a small concession to winemaking in the 21st century.  The fruit comes from the old "Wente Clone," which Mr. Sessions credited for the quality and character of the wine.  A typical yield for Hanzell's Chardonnay is about two tons per acre.

Hanzell's Chardonnay is one of the few California white wines with a record of being cellar-worthy.  We've had, from time to time, bottles which were five or more years old and the wines have routinely been exceptional!  With mild oak and a hint of pear-like fruit in their youth, these blossom with notes of honey and toasted hazelnuts as they become mature.  


  
HART'S DESIRE
2014 Knight's Valley Chardonnay $23.99

John Hart has been dabbling with Chardonnay for a number of years. 

Every once in a while we've found a nice wine.  Always well-made and always really showing the character of the vineyard and its location.  We've had Carneros Chardonnay and Sonoma County Chardonnay.  Good.  Sure.

 

But in 2013 John made a batch from a vineyard in Knights Valley.  This is an area north of Napa's town of Calistoga and end up in the Alexander Valley as you're driving through.  Beringer owns vineyards there as does Kendall Jackson.   The most fancy-pants winery in that appellation is the famed Peter Michael Winery.

And John's 2013 reminds us of the really good wines Peter Michael's early winemakers produced.  There's "something" about the fruit grown in that area, for one thing.  And John's use of oak is spot-on!  It's a ringer, with two exceptions, for those early Peter Michael wines:  it's not fifty bucks a bottle and you don't have to beg for an allocation.

We now have the 2014 vintage...same idea.  There's both a particular character to the grape and there's something about the use of oak...

Do try a bottle...this is delicious!

 
 
 

 

LLOYD CELLARS

Rob Lloyd got a degree at U.C. Irvine in Economics and ventured north to Napa to work in the wine business, an endeavor which requires knowledge of business and economics.

He worked at Cakebread in their tasting room and was hired away by Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.  Finding the wine business was fascinating and challenging, he then enrolled at U.C. Davis and was in their viticulture and enology program.   While at Davis, he took an internship at the Kent Rasmussen Winery and got his hands dirty.

After graduating with a Masters Degree, he had a hitch at the Jackson Family's "La Crema" winery before signing on at the Rombauer winery in Napa.  He began as an Assistant Winemaker and eventually became "The" Winemaker there.

The next step was to launch his own brand and a winemaking consulting service.  These days we know he's been affiliated with a brand called Humanitas and Jessup Cellars, along with a brand called Handwritten Wines.  

As you might expect, his own label combines some elements of both La Crema and Rombauer, two wineries known for Chardonnays with a bit of residual sugar.  

The 2015 Lloyd Chardonnay comes from two vineyard sites from the famous Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros, plus some fruit sourced from the highly-regarded Truchard Vineyard.  

It's entirely barrel fermented and the wine, remarkably, undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation which creates a buttery element.  He uses mostly American oak cooperage and about 40% of the barrels are brand new.
The resulting wine shows some ripe pear fruit with a hint of woodsy spice...not quite full-throttle pineapple, but heading in that direction.
Fans of Rombauer and ZD Chardonnays will certainly find this to be to their taste.  In fact, we've noticed quite a few Rombauer fanciers have switch allegiance and now are Lloyd Cellars Fan Club members.

 

Currently in stock:  2015 LLOYD Carneros CHARDONNAY  ($40 List Price)  SALE $33.99

 





 
MINER FAMILY
We suspect most wine aficionados view the Miner Family brand as a source of good Cabernet and Pinot Noir, but they do a lovely job with Chardonnay, too.

Sourcing fruit from six Napa vineyards, the juice is entirely fermented in small French oak.  About half the cooperage is new and this wine does show a lot of vanillin, creamy, woodsy notes.  It's a big, intense, full-throttle Chardonnay and one of the best $30 Chardonnays we have in this style.

If you prefer a more subtle style of California Chardonnay, this one is probably too big and oaky for you.  On the other hand, if you've enjoyed Rombauer's Chardonnay and want something drier, give this Miner a try.
 
Currently in stock:  2013 MINER Napa CHARDONNAY $29.99

 

CHATEAU MONTELENA

Back in 1973 we purchased some cases of Johannisberg Riesling, as they called it, from this brand new Napa Valley estate.  Well, it wasn't exactly new, but the place had been taken over by new owners in 1968 (Lee and Helen Paschich, attorney Jim Barrett and developer Ernest Hahn) after a long "sleep" and with a winemaker of an unusual name, Miljenko Grgić.  

The Riesling was very nice.  And later that year, if I recall correctly, we were able to buy some cases of their 1972 Chardonnay.  And it was just "Chardonnay," not "Pinot Chardonnay" like most California wineries called it.

The wine was very nice and rather showy.  Winemaker Miljenko Grgić, who's known as "Mike Grgich," seemed a bit defensive about the wine.  
Every time I'd see him, he would remind tasters that this wine was a tad higher in alcohol than most other California white wines and so what you might perceive as sweetness, he'd explain, was simply glycerol (a 'higher' alcohol which gives the wine a rounder texture).    

Well, their 1972 and 1973 Chardonnays were very fine and the winery was put on the map in the "Judgment in Paris" tasting back in 1976 when the wine won the tasting, finishing ahead of others from California and some French white Burgundies.

Grgich departed shortly after and partnered with a coffee guy (Austin Hills of Hills Brothers) and started what is now Grgich Hills Cellar. 

Jim Barrett's son, Bo Barrett, has been the winemaker since the 1982 vintage, though he's been involved at the winery since 1972.  In the movie "Bottle Shock," father and son periodically get into a boxing ring by the winery and duke it out, Dad seeming to get the better of things.
 


It would be tempting, then, to say Barrett makes a "knock out of a Chardonnay," but really, Montelena's wine isn't a "heavy hitter."  It's typically less than 14% alcohol, somewhat of a rarity these days.  Further, they don't oak the hell out of the wine. The wine spends less than a year in French oak, but only 10% is new.
It's not a butterball, either.  Instead, they make a wine which offers nice green apple fruit, a hint of melon with a note of citrus along with some stony, minerally tones.  You might find a faintly smoky quality here, too.  

The 2013 is the current release and it's a dry, medium-bodied Chardonnay.  Paired with good food, it can be a memorable bottle.  Entered in a blind-tasting, "beauty pageant," it will usually be stomped by bigger, heavier, oakier, flashier wines.
 

Currently in stock:  2013 CHATEAU MONTELENA Napa CHARDONNAY  (List $50)  SALE $44.99
 

 
MOUNT EDEN VINEYARDS
The story of Mount Eden Vineyards is a long and twisted tale.

Located on what was called Table Mountain in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Saratoga, vineyards here were planted by the famous (or notorious) Martin Ray.  Ray had been a stockbroker/real estate mogul and a fancier of fine wine.  This meant "French wine," since to Ray's palate, there was no "fine wine" made in California except for wine he produced!    

His first foray into the wine world from a production standpoint was Ray's purchase of Paul Masson's "Champagne" winery in Saratoga.  This he later sold to Seagram's, the big liquor company.  Meanwhile, Ray planted vineyards at his place off of Pierce Road in Saratoga, taking cuttings from Paul Masson's vineyards which had been propagated from Burgundian vine-stock from Louis Latour!  

Martin Ray made today's less-than-humble, egomaniacal California vintners appear to be downright gentile by comparison.  He was a rough-and-tumble character, to say the least.  

Mount Eden Vineyards emerged when Ray's "investors" forced him to split up the property.  Ray kept some vineyards and the Mount Eden Vineyards brand was born with the 1972 vintage under the guidance of winemaker Merry Edwards.  Her wines were spectacular, thanks to great vineyards, good management and attention to detail in the cellar.

Merry departed in the late 1970s to make wine at Matanzas Creek and Bill Anderson became the winemaker.  Fred Peterson followed with F. Jeffrey Patterson being his assistant winemaker.  Patterson and his wife Ellie took over in 1982 and they've been fixtures there ever since.

The Mount Eden vineyards are at about 2000 feet in elevation and their mostly east-facing situation allows for a long, slow-ripening process during the growing season.  Patterson credits his vineyard work with providing the special character of Mount Eden's "Estate" Chardonnay, more so than his cellar regime.  Don't be fooled, though...you have to be paying attention in the winery to allow the fruit to express the character of this special place (what the French call 'terroir").  

For years Mount Eden's wine displayed more elegance and grace, not to mention intensity and concentration than most California Chardonnays.  The wines also tend to age most wonderfully, thanks to the backbone of good acidity.

The 2011 Estate Bottled Chardonnay is the winery's current release.  It's got the typical, almost spicy tone we often find in Mount Eden Chardonnay.  Think of a brown spice like cloves or cardamom.  For the fruit, imagine a tart, crisp apple with a streak of tangy lemon zest down the middle.   Add some smoky notes and a touch of vanilla along with a whiff of toasted hazelnuts and you are in the neighborhood.  The 2011 is wonderful, deep and complex...and still developing.  

 
A relatively new label is this "Domaine Eden."  It looks like some sort of counterfeit Mount Eden label, but in fact it replaces the Mount Eden "Saratgoa Cuvee" which we liked so much. This comes from fruit grown at their Mount Eden site and the new "Domaine Eden" location (the old Cinnabar vineyard site owned by the late Tom Mudd).  The wine is a selection of barrels which did not make the cut for the estate bottled labels.

The idea is to offer a wine which tastes like a "Santa Cruz Mountains" Chardonnay, but isn't quite as long-lived (or potentially long-lived).  They select barrels which seem a bit more developed and "ready to drink" for this wine.  The wine, though, is similarly vinified.  One third new French oak and the other 2/3s are fairly young barrels.  Full malolactic, yet the wine is crisp and dry.

The 2009 is remarkably nice wine and quite fine, along with being well-priced.


Also, don't confuse Mount Eden Vineyards with Napa's "Villa Mt. Eden."  The latter was a lovely estate in Oakville and today is owned by the Stimson Lane, a subsidiary of U.S. Tobacco ("skoal, brother!").  The legal entanglement over the names being so close ruled that Mount Eden must always be spelled as "m-o-u-n-t," while the other property must always abbreviate the Mt. in Villa Mt. Eden.  Please don't break this code and print it as "Mt. Eden" or "Villa Mount Eden" or you'll be flogged.

Mount Eden is also making an Arroyo Seco Chardonnay, along with an Edna Valley bottling.

Currently in stock:  2011 Mount Eden Vineyards "Estate" Chardonnay   $59.99
2010 Domaine Eden Chardonnay  (Winery Price is $28)  Sold Out
 












NEWTON
The late Peter Newton was one of the founders of a famed Napa winery called Sterling Vineyards.  Back at the start, Sterling actually made some really soulful wines, unlike much of the plonk they turn out these days.  


Though he had sold Sterling, Mr. Newton still had a hankering to be in the wine business.   He had purchased a property on Spring Mountain and this was going to be the site of a new winery named after winemaker Ric Forman who had been with Newton in launching Sterling.  Ric was a partner in the venture, owning a significant share.  

Newton's wife though, Sue Hua, fancies herself a marketing expert and shortly before the release of the first vintage, it was decided the Newton name would look better on the label than Mr. Forman's.  

So, Forman departed and launched his own winery across the valley, leaving Newton on less-than-amicable terms.  In late 2000 or early 2001 the winery was sold to the Louis Vuitton-Moet Hennessy bunch.  Sue Hua Newton still has a hand in the operations of the winery.  I read someplace where she was described with the title of winemaker!  The woman does, indeed, wear many hats.  At least, on paper.

Newton is somewhat famed for its "Unfiltered" Chardonnay.  The idea for this wine was, as I recall from a visit to the then Forman facility, to replicate a cold cellar in Burgundy.  A well air conditioned cellar would retard the maturation of the wine, allowing for a lengthier period in barrel.  With the slower development, the winemaker (whomever that is) could allow the wine to fall bright thanks to gravity without manipulating the wine.  Thus, Newton's Chardonnay is one of a number of unfiltered wines made at this facility.

The 2012 vintage is typical of Newton's work.  The wine displays a citrus element, some toasty, smoky notes and a buttery quality.  I'm not sure I'd liken it to a white Burgundy as it's more exotically fruity on the nose, but the wine is certainly of interest and worth trying with rich foods.

I have found their "regular" bottling to be good, too...a big improvement seems to have taken place.  We can special order this for you...they're around $20 a bottle.

Currently in stock: 
 2012 Newton "Unfiltered" Chardonnay $54.99






PAHLMEYER
Jayson Pahlmeyer was a trial lawyer who is now making some of his biggest "cases" in the Napa Valley.  He's always been interested in no-holds-barred, over-the-top, pushing-the-envelope winemaking.  From the start he had Randy Dunn for a vintage or two.   Then Helen Turley was involved for a number of years. Bob Levy has a Pahlmeyer tattoo.
Last week, so-to-speak, the winemaker was Erin Green.  And as every restaurant menu seems to feature a salad made with the currently fashionable "kale," Pahlmeyer's winemaker today is a fellow named Kale Anderson.  

Chardonnays from Pahlmeyer are entirely barrel fermented.  Lots of new oak.  Full malolactic.  They're bottled without fining or filtration, so if you want a wine of crystal clarity, these are not your wines.  On the other hand, if you think most white wine is simply "too light" to be of interest, these might just be your kind of vin blancs.

The Pahlmeyer labeled wines are either from Napa or Sonoma.  We usually see a few bottles of the Napa wine.  Big, deep, creamy, vanillin and rich on the palate.  We had the 2013 Napa as of today...what a wine!  Huge and powerful, yet for all our railing about high alcohol wines, this wine manages to carry the alcohol without being extremely 'hot' on the nose or palate...Lavishly oaked in barrels coopered by our favorite barrel builder, François Frères, too...



The Jayson label is a selection of barrels which did not make the 'cut' for the first label wine.  We have the 2012, a 'second' tier wine that's more interesting than many winery's 'reserve' wine.  It's a wine which is lavishly oaked, but there's enough "grape" in the bottle so the wood doesn't overwhelm.  It's a wonderfully flashy, showy bottle of wine.
 

Currently in stock:  Jayson 2013 North Coast Chardonnay  (list $55) SALE $49.99
2013 Pahlmeyer Napa Chardonnay SALE  $74.99

 

 






The New Patz & Hall Playhouse in Sonoma



PATZ & HALL

2015 Sonoma Chardonnay  SALE  $35.99
2013 "Hyde" Chardonnay  SALE $59.99
2012 "Dutton" Chardonnay SALE $41.99
2012 "Dutton" Chardonnay (half bottles) $23.99

Jim Hall is the winemaker and Donald Patz is a marketing whiz.  The two have teamed up to create some terrific wines.  And the wives also play a major role in this winemaking enterprise!

Chardonnay is their main production, though they ventured off into the world of Pinot Noir and have created a bit of a stir there, too.  Chardonnays are big, creamy, toasty, buttery and showy. 

The wines have had a good following in the connoisseur market and Patz & Hall attracted so much attention that the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates conglomerate recently bought the brand.  The head of the Ste. Michelle group described the purchase as adding another jewel to their "string of pearls."

While we are a bit sad to see another good, family-operated winery cash out and sell the winery and their names, at least Ste. Michelle has had an idea about making some decent quality wines.  Purchasing Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and now Patz & Hall does add a bit of jewelry to their portfolio.

We will watch with great interest any changes that may take place at this winery.  The Patz & Hall founders will remain, at least for the time being, with the winery.


The Hyde vineyard bottling is made from rather costly fruit.  The vineyard is situated in the Carneros region and features a couple (at least) of clones of Chardonnay.  One is the Wente clone.  The other is one Mr. Hyde represents as "Hyde Musqué."  These are planted on soils which help restrict the yields of these already said-to-be shy-bearing clones of Chardonnay.  Patz & Hall's 2013 is quite rich, deep and displays the sweet spice notes along with ripe, appley fruit.  They employed about 50% new oak to this wine, finding the wine could absorb the wood without becoming an oak monster.


Their 2012 Dutton comes from the Russian River Valley.  They get fruit from a few parcels planted with what might be dubbed "heritage clones" of Chardonnay.  They used 40% new French oak for this wine and the lees (sediment) was stirred periodically to create an additional layer of complexity.  It's got some nice toasty notes and a creamy quality...a sweet spice element runs through this wine.  Quite good.

The 2015 Sonoma bottling is creamy, rich and has the supple texture one usually finds in P&H Chardonnays. It features fruit from a new vineyard planted specifically for Patz & Hall.  Add to the mix of vineyards from some famous names (Parmalee Hill, Dutton Ranch, Durell and Gap's Crown) and you have a very good pedigree.  Upon release the wine was a bit tight and the oak didn't show itself.  Now (early 2017), the wine is its usually showy Patz-and-Hall self.  Creamy, toasty, vanillin...big...quite good.


James Hall, winemaker

 
 


 





 
OJAI VINEYARD
2012 Solomon Hills CHARDONNAY  Sold Out
We can easily say this is the best winery in Ventura County!  Adam Tolmach is one of the founding partners in the Au Bon Climat winery and today his efforts are concentrated on The Ojai Vineyard.  Adam and wife, Helen, make some exceptional wines, the lineup featuring a Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Syrah, Pinot Noir and some wonderful Chardonnays.  

Mildly oaky, faintly, creamy, dry and elegant.   Adam is really a fussy fellow in terms of procuring the best grapes and in the cellar.  His wines are routinely outstanding.

The 2012 Solomon Hills Chardonnay in stock presently  comes from vineyards on the western edge of the the Santa Maria Valley appellation.  If you know where the little burg of Orcutt is situated, then you have an idea about Solomon Hills.

The vineyard is planted with Dijon clones of Chardonnay, so it avoids the hugely fruity character of many Californian bottlings of this grape.  The oak is nicely integrated, so you sense there's a touch of wood, but it doesn't club you over the head with oak.  We like the touch of a pear/apple fruit quality and there's a faintly creamy aspect to the texture.

Good value, too.


 

 

 

RIDGE VINEYARDS

The Santa Cruz Mountains area has long been a prime region for Chardonnay.  

Few people know the name of Frenchman Paul Masson and associate it with great wines.  But the story of Masson and his influence on Santa Cruz Mountain winemaking is important.  It was Paul Masson who brought cuttings from Burgundy of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, likely from his friend Louis Latour.  Masson had married into the Lefranc family of Almaden winery fame before starting his own vineyard and winery called "Paul Masson."  

A brash fellow named Martin Ray had wanted to buy Paul Masson's winery but Masson suggested, instead, Ray buy a neighboring real estate parcel, plant vines and build a winery.  He did and planted a vineyard from cuttings taken from Paul Masson's "La Cresta Vineyard."  
Ray may have made some good wines, though most of what we tasted in the 1970s was, aside from being expensive, a bit sketchy.  But the Martin Ray Winery morphed into Mount Eden Vineyards and it was under that flag that Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay really staked its claim.

Ridge Vineyards got its start commercially with the 1962 vintage, but vineyards on Monte Bello Ridge were planted in the late 1800s.  Chardonnay, we understand, was planted on Monte Bello in the 1940s.  
Of course, Ridge is known for its Zinfandels, Cabernets and other assorted red wines.  Most wine drinkers don't associate the Ridge name with white wine.

But Ridge made Chardonnay the same year the San Francisco Giants won their first National League pennant, 1962.  

We recall attending a tasting in San Francisco and Ridge winemaker Paul Draper was seated nearby.  A Montrachet from the 1973 vintage had been poured for us and Draper was carefully making notes about the various characteristics of the wine.  Montrachet, of course, is the world's most costly Chardonnay and the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is a benchmark.  The wheels began turning and we are certain this exposure to such a wine helped Draper refine his "recipe" for Chardonnay.

Of course, it begins with the grapes.  Ridge made stellar Chardonnay in 1973, as it turned out.  

Ridge planted new Chardonnay vineyards in the 1970s.
The older Chardonnay vineyards from the 1940s, though, were producing such a meager crop that this was not viable financially, so these were pulled out.

While so many wineries seek to produce Burgundian-styled Chardonnay using French oak, Ridge continues to make its mark with a different winemaking protocol.  They use a oak regimen featuring more than 90% American oak cooperage for its Chardonnay.

The 2014 Chardonnay saw 94% American oak and 6% French.  Nearly a quarter of the barrels were brand new.  Whole clusters are pressed and the juice put into wood where they undergo both a primary fermentation and a secondary, malolactic fermentation.  Indigenous yeast, by the way, takes care of the fermentation.  The wine spent about 14 months in wood and then was lightly filtered before bottling.

This is a brilliant bottle of Chardonnay by any measure.  We think it's one of California's best and the wine is certainly comparable to very fine French White Burgundy.  
The wine shows some flinty, stony notes along with its toasty, woodsy elements from the oak.  Add to the mix some ripe pear, pineapple and maybe a hint of apricot and you've got one seriously complex wine.

Don't miss it.
 

Currently in stock:  2014 RIDGE Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay $49.99





ROMBAUER
2015 Napa Valley $35.99  (case discounts!)
2014 Napa Valley Magnums  $74.99 (last bottles)
 
The Rombauer winery has been a promoter of the "Joys of Chardonnay" for many years.  Their wine has become quite popular over the past few vintages and the 2014 remains true to the Rom-Bomb recipe. 

The wine is derided by many in the wine industry, but this product has a legion of unwavering fans who are willing to pay for a wine which is distinctive and hits the mark.

If it's not your glass of Chardonnay, of course, we have numerous others for you.  But with popularity comes this measure of derision which may be, to some degree, fueled by jealousy.

Sure, the sommelier in some fancy restaurant finds it "beneath" him (or her) to offer Rombauer's Chardonnay, as other somms will make fun of them.  
 
We're delighted to have this wine in the shop.  For one thing, with many of the wines in our bins being small production offerings, this distracts customers from buying wines they might not appreciate as much.  

For another, people may eventually become tired of this wine and ask us to suggest something else in hopes of finding a new love.

But you know, this is the height of sophistication for many people and that's perfectly okay.  Those customers don't care what snooty folks in the wine biz think of the wine.

They like the wine.
Their friends like the wine.

End of story.



Some people refer to this wine as "Cougar Juice."  It's a particular "recipe" for making wine of Chardonnay grapes and it's much-appreciated by its fans.
 




Speaking of recipes, Koerner Rombauer's great aunt Irma was an author of a rather famous American cookbook, depicted to the right.

You'll find the 2015 Chardonnay, made by winemaker Richie Allen, an Australian fellow, is intensely oaky, woodsy and redolent of pineapples and spice.  There's a faintly sweet aspect to the wine and most of our "trocken" Rieslings from Germany actually are drier than this.  In fact, it's sweeter than all but one of our Rose wines!

Customers who ask for this tend to be ardent Rom-Bomb fans.  The wine is not at all subtle...it's an in-your-face, lavishly oaky, big, fat butterball of a Chardonnay.  If you ask these fans if they like dry wines, they will tell you "YES!"   
Hardly.





 




RAMEY
2013 Russian River $39.99 (750ml)
2012 HYDE VINEYARD  CHARDONNAY  Sale $59.99
2013 RITCHIE VINEYARD CHARDONNAY  $65.99

David Ramey has been around the Northern California wine scene for many years.  He was associated with Simi during the "Zelma Long Administration," when Simi was actually turning out some serious quality wines.
 

From there he went to Matanzas Creek, making some lovely wines back in the mid to late-1980s.  He packed his bags again, being affiliated with Chalk Hill and turning out some lovely wines there.  I don't know precisely what happened, but he must have been sentenced to do a stint at Napa's Dominus winery.  Somehow, Ramey escaped from there and was then employed by the Rudd winery as he also launched his own label.
 


Ramey now is making his own wines at his own facility in Healdsburg in Sonoma County.  The place is just at the southern end of town...

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
He has a couple of "appellation" series wines along with some vineyard designated bottlings.  Ramey Chardonnays have been very good wines, certainly amongst the upper echelon produced in California.  His wines are intended for those who appreciate serious quality Chardonnays.  They are routinely dry, balanced with crisp acidity and not the fat, flabby butterball-style of wine which is often popular with those just getting into wine.

 

The Chardonnay grapes do not pass through a crusher.  Instead the fruit goes directly into the press and whole clusters are then processed to extract the juice.
 
And look how small these berries are!


The Russian River bottling is a lovely example of Ramey Chardonnay.  Mildly appley with fairly crisp acidity, no sugar and a hint of a minerally tone.  Oak is nicely balanced in the wine, meaning it's there and you can sense it in the wine, but it's not the focus.  Chardonnay takes center stage and the wood is like a dash of salt...

Hyde Vineyard comes from the Carneros region.  It's made of two clones of Chardonnay, one is "the old Wente Clone" and the other is a newer "Wente Clone," from cuttings from the Robert Young Vineyard (which is planted to "the old Wente Clone."  The wine sees about one-third new French oak and yet, as the wine is nicely intense, it's able to match the wood so you don't get a particularly oaky wine.  The fruit character is in the direction of a various citrus fruits, so notes of lemon, grapefruit and orange can pop up in the glass.  Add to this a mildly toasty character and you've got a nicely complex California Chardonnay.

The Ritchie Vineyard is in Sonoma's Russian River Valley.  It, too, is planted with "the old Wente clone" of Chardonnay and here, my oh my, it reaches its apogee.  Open a bottle of this and you can see Ramey did his homework on those excursions to France's Burgundy region.  This is exceptional.  Smoky and toasty, it's crisp, dry and somewhat viscous on the palate.  And yet we might describe it as lean or taut or muscular.  Take your pick!  







SAINTSBURY WINERY

We abandoned the Saintsbury brand after many years of featuring it here at Weimax.
They changed distributors and, in doing so, increased the price significantly.  We did not think our customers would pay 20%-25% more due to this change.

Recently, at a trade tasting of yet another new distribution company, we asked the current Saintsbury marketing guru for pricing information on the current wine.  
"Are you restaurant or retail?" he asked.
We know wineries often have discriminatory pricing and expressed our opposition to this.
"But that's how business is done." we were schooled.
We told the fellow the wines price had changed some years ago when they first changed distributors.
"Oh no...we didn't increase the price.  We 'repositioned' the brand."
At this stage my Bullshit Meter was going crazy.


So for the time being, after more than a couple of decades of having Saintsbury's Chardonnay in the shop, we no longer carry the brand.  
Maybe that will change?



saintsbury_reserve_chard.jpg (14621 bytes)Since the early 1980s, Dick Ward and David Graves have been making some of the best Chardonnays in California.  The fruit comes exclusively from the Carneros region.  They now even have some of their own vineyards!

They made some very good Chardonnays and their entry-level bottling was a good, reliable bottle of wine.  

The Reserve wine was also good, if a bit costly given other wines competing for the customer's attention.  They have had a Brown Ranch bottling...then a Green Acres bottling.  Then there's been a Clone 809 bottling.  We can't keep track of these (along with the multitude of Pinot Noir bottlings).

And if you've read the editorial above, you have more than an inkling as to why the current vintage is no longer in our shop.

 

**************

I recall, some years ago, Saintsbury Chardonnay was described by The Wine Spectator as buttery and toasty and then given a score of 69 points on their silly 100-point scale.   I was not alone in sending in a note asking about this curious score.  Here was a wine, highly-regarded by those in the trade, yet some dim-bulb at the Spectator could accurately describe a lovely wine, but couldn't recognize it as anything special.   One or two issues later they had virtually the same description, but increased the points by about 20!  These days Saintsbury is higher on their list for ratings.   We still like their basic Chardonnay wine, anyway.
 
**************

I have been fortunate to have been along for a visit of some Italian winemaker's visits at Saintsbury.  I recall each time being offered a taste of either the first or second vintages made by Ward and Graves.  These wines, at an advanced age, continue to show amazingly well!  I remember one set of Italian winemakers going crazy upon tasting a California white wine, well more than ten years of age, which was STILL ALIVE and more than kicking! 
The point here is that you ought to consider having a few bottles of Saintsbury Chardonnay as part of your "aging" program.  They are really much better even just a year or two down the road.

 

 

SHAFER

The Shafer family started in the 1978 vintage making some nice, ripe, robust red wines.  Cabernet Sauvignon was their claim to fame, but some years later they added Chardonnay to the roster.

In 1988 they purchased 70 acres of land in the Carneros region and this is where they planted a handful of clones of Chardonnay.  The first wine they made from this site, called Red Shoulder Ranch for the red-shouldered hawks that fly over this area, was different from other Chardonnays Shafer had made.  The  wine had greater intensity and complexity and it seemed to the Shafers that it needed extended barrel aging to fully develop.

With the 1994 vintage, they chose to focus on this vineyard site and Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay has been their flagship white wine ever since. 

Whole-cluster pressed...wild yeast fermentation...half new oak, half once-used cooperage.  Some of the wood was American oak which added a nicely spicy note to the wine.  The wine usually spends a bit more than a year on the spent yeast and this sediment is periodically stirred to add texture and nuance to the wine.  No malolactic.  

The recipe has since been refined.

We currently have their 2014 in the store. These days they no longer use American oak.  Only French. The fruit is brighter and the wine is better balanced, in our view.  Seventy-five percent of the wine is kept in oak and the rest in stainless steel.  There's a nice hint of honeydew melon, some ripe apple fruit and perhaps a hint of a lemony note.  It's dry, reasonably full and is held together by a bit of acidity which keeps it bright.

Currently in stock:  2014 SHAFER "Carneros" Red Shoulder Ranch CHARDONNAY  SALE $49.99

 

 

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