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MORE CHARDONNAYS

 

SONOMA CUTRER
This winery was created specifically to focus on Chardonnay.  The project was started by Brice Jones in the 1970s, planting Chardonnay vineyards in the Windsor area of Sonoma, as well as in Sonoma Valley.

We were amongst the first people to see this amazing facility with its various state-of-the-art innovations.  Winemaker Bill Bonetti had been part of the design team and his input was heard by the architects.   I recall seeing a conveyor belt for "sorting" many years before this sort of thing was common here in California.  They also chose to pick into specially-designed boxes which could be quickly chilled to allow the fruit to start its journey towards being wine at a low temperature.

Bonetti was amongst the early winemakers to "whole cluster press" his Chardonnay.  Now you hear radio ads for Chardonnays from huge wineries which routinely "whole cluster press" their wine.

While the wines have been nice and sometimes very fine, this firm has had its ups and downs in terms of marketing.  

Five Chardonnays are currently produced, but sales of these are restricted until someone determines they're not selling quickly enough.  It's really a quirky system.  

The basic Chardonnay is a twenty-buck bottle called "Russian River Ranches."  This is their "entry level" wine, being a nice, mildly appley, lightly citrusy dry white.  
Russian River Ranches is no longer offered to wine stores...this is to allow restaurants to ask a small fortune and have a wine that's "exclusive."  It would typically retail at $20 a bottle.

Replacing the Russian River Ranches in the retail market is a wine called "Sonoma Coast" Chardonnay.  We passed on early vintages and only recently tasted the current bottlings of both, side-by-side. 
I was able to taste this, totally blind, at a wine judging in 2013...we had no idea what the wine was, apart from its vintage and that it was labeled Chardonnay.  The three judges at my table unanimously voted to note award this even a modest Bronze Medal, meaning this was as dreary as dreary gets.

The Cutrer Vineyard wine is a Russian River Valley wine.  I find notes of ripe pear and a touch of wood...dry...medium-bodied.  Very nice, actually.

Les Pierres comes from a rocky vineyard on Sonoma Mountain.  It's a marvelous wine for those who are in tune with the wine.  For the rest of the world, it's a simple, light, dry white wine.  Too bad, because it's actually rather nice.
 
*****
Some years ago some marketing genius determined it would be best to focus sales of the Russian River Ranches wine to restaurants and "allow" stores such as ours to buy The Cutrer and Les Pierres from time to time.  Many customers, of course, don't hear the whole Sonoma Cutrer story when dining out, so they amble into the shop, see the $30-$40 bottles of the single vineyard wines and think we must be gouging customers since they paid "only" $30-something for the wine they had in a restaurant.  


One year we were told there was no Russian River Ranches for our shop and I sent the founder, Brice Jones, a nice letter asking him to kindly send us a list of wines he'd suggest as substitutes for Sonoma Cutrer.  This would alert customers to the fact the winery was still in business and give them a tip on an alternative.  Two cases of wine arrived the following week, though I never did hear from Brice.


The original shareholders grew interested in cashing out on their investment and the these shares were eventually purchased by the Kentucky liquor company of Brown-Forman.  This is the same firm which now owns brands such as Fetzer, Jekel and imports Bolla wines, sells Jack Daniels, as well as Lenox China and Hartmann luggage.    The firm finally fired "poor" Brice Jones and today you won't find a mention of his name on the winery web site.  Not even on the "history" page.  Winemaker Bill Bonetti is still mentioned, however.

A new Chardonnay has been released.  It's called Founder's Reserve.  Someone from the winery even came by the shop to show us a fact sheet of this wine.  It's apparently "too precious" to allow us to actually taste the wine since production is small and the price is high.  
"You sell it on the reputation of Sonoma Cutrer." we were told by the sales rep (who didn't even leave a card, not wanting us to pester him asking for cases of Russian River Ranches).
"Not on my reputation." I replied.

The distributor's representative and the winery rep departed, in search of more important customers, restaurant wine buyers.  
I was later told by the distributor rep that I was the only person who understood the quality of the wine and had an interest in buying them.  The restaurant buyers found the wines too simple or not rich enough (big, flabby or even slightly sweet) to offer them to their guests.  But of course, we are but a mere "retailer" and not as high a profile place as Barney's Beanery down the street.


 
Currently in stock:  Russian River Ranches $19.99 Sold Out

2011 The Cutrer Vineyard  SALE $29.99
2010 Les Pierres (list $41) SALE $37.99
2009 Les Pierres in magnum (list $85) SALE $74.99





 




STONY HILL VINEYARD
This winery was the model for dozens of Napa Valley cellars in terms of its "cult following" back in the 1960s and 1970s...the fact that they sold wine exclusively to friends on their mailing list and a handful of dining establishments...and that they were, once-upon-a-time, widely regarded as the best Chardonnay in California.

The Stony Hill story begins in the 1940s when Fred and Eleanor McCrea, who lived, I believe, in Hillsborough, purchased an old piece of a hillside where someone kept goats, had a few fruit trees and grew a bit of wheat.  It was their "weekend getaway" home, except getting away during World War II, with gasoline rationing, was a bit difficult.

Fred worked for an advertising agency in San Francisco and was in love with the place.  The wine business was tiny in Napa in the 1940s and yet they had some friends who encouraged them to plant grapes.  U.C. Davis experts suggested Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but McCrea was enthralled with the notion of Chardonnay.  The university gurus didn't think Chardonnay would ripen, but McCrea stuck to his guns and planted some anyway, adding a small parcel to the state total of 225 acres.  ((Today there are more than 90,000 acres of Chardonnay.))

Riesling is still made and I can tell you, we opened a bottle of a 15 year old Stony Hill in 2008 and this was amazing with a capital "A."  They used to sell those grapes to Lee Stewart who had a small, boutique winery across the valley called Souverain.  He was the leading Riesling-meister.  A former BV associate named Joe Heitz bought Chardonnay grapes when the fellows at the Christian Brothers Winery refused to pay a premium price for these higher-than-usual-quality grapes.  The going rate was $40 a ton and not a penny more!

McCrea knew he had good fruit and was a bit sad to see it blended away into anonymity at Christian Brothers, so he started making his own.  They built a small winery in 1951 and a few years later entered their wine in the state fair, winning a gold medal.  Word spread about this lovely and exclusive wine and by the 1970s you had to be on the mailing list to buy Stony Hill wines.

I went to visit them and have a taste in the early 1970s...Fred and Eleanor were sweet people and enjoyed reminiscing about their days in the Burlingame and Hillsborough communities.

Fred had a bit of help with the winemaking from a fellow who'd worked at Beaulieu, though this guy was mostly a vineyard expert.  He could tap friends such as Stewart and Heitz for help if he needed guidance.  They used to have high school kids in Napa come help during the harvest and later it dawned on them that they could get a UC Davis enology student to come work the harvest since school didn't begin until well into October.  

The roster of "kids" who worked for the Mcreas is impressive...Jed Steele who now owns Steele winery was a Stony Hill staffer.  So was Ric Forman who has Forman winery.  Hank Wetzel, whose family owns Alexander Valley Vineyards worked at Stony Hill.  So did chocolate-meister John Scharffenberger and John Konsgaard!  

But the fellow who worked the vineyards after a stint at Sterling (in its early days) was Mike Chelini.  He's still the winemaker and has more than 30-something vintages under his belt.

Stony Hill still makes wine using their old, classic recipe.  They've not changed to be more fashionable and make wines for today's Chardonnay drinker.   The juice comes from estate-grown grapes.  It's fermented in old, rather neutral French oak barrels and they do not allow the wine to undergo a malolactic fermentation.  In fact, they filter the wine to be sure it's stable and doesn't undergo a secondary fermentation.  

The idea at Stony Hill is to make Chardonnay that tastes like it came from the Stony Hill vineyard.  And these wines, typically below 14% alcohol, manage to age beautifully.  In an era when the world demands "instant gratification" and when so many people are so terribly self-centered, it's nice to have a taste of wine from a time when the world was a much simpler place.

This sort of wine will not please the legions of Kendall-Jackson fans or those who find Rombauer's wine to be the height of sophistication.  And the wine, while it's perfectly nice in its youth, seems to blossom handsomely with a bit of a very scare commodity:  patience.

The 2007 vintage is in stock presently.  This is a wine which tastes "stony" as in Stony Hill.  There's a flinty, minerally tone to the wine along with the apple/pear notes of the Chardonnay.  As I write this, I've read an article by some "experts" who claim that the notion of terroir and tasting the soil or vineyard is a bunch of bunk.   Maybe those people ought to try a glass of this Stony Hill wine...it might make them change their tune.
 
Currently in stock:  2007 STONY HILL Napa CHARDONNAY $35.99









TALLEY VINEYARDS
2012 "Estate" Chardonnay $25.99
talley_chard.gif (12109 bytes)The Talley family produces wonderful bell peppers and some pretty awesome Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Happily, they keep everything separate, so you won't find a green pepper flavor in their Chardonnay!  Located in the Arroyo Grande appellation, north of Santa Barbara, this is a fine producer of creamy, buttery Chardonnays.
  

The 2012 "Estate" is a wonderful example of Talley Chardonnay.  The fruit comes from their Rincon vineyard with a bit of fruit from the slightly younger Rosemary's vineyard.  This vintage saw a rather small crop and Talley whole-cluster pressed the juice out of the grapes.  The juice is then fermented in oak, a portion of the lot being fermented with the indigenous yeasts and the major segment fermented with a special Burgundian yeast strain.  Fifteen percent new oak was employed, giving the wine a nice vanillin, toasty note.  Full malolactic gives the creamy texture to the palate.  Rich, without being heavy, the new Talley is very fine.  Very drinkable now!

 
 
 
 



 




TESTAROSSA
 Central Coast Chardonnays  -- 
The name of this winery has nothing to do with Italian automobiles, but for the red hair of co-owner Rob Jensen.  The Jensens purchased the old Novitiate Winery in Los Gatos near San Jose.  I'm certain the old Jesuits would be stunned to taste the wines being made by the Testarossa crew!   Here these old guys made very standard table wines and some mildly-interesting fortified wines (Black Muscat, especially).  

Here's an old ad the Brothers used to promote their wines:



"Nothing Less Than A Miracle Could Create A Finer Wine."

These guys needed divine intervention to make wines of exceptional quality.  

Nothing in stock presently...
 


 
 

TEXTBOOK
2012 Napa Valley CHARDONNAY  Sale $18.99

2012 TEXTBOOK Chardonnay, Napa Valley
Jonathan and Susan Pey came to the winemaking side of the business from different perspectives.  He worked for some big wine companies, such as the national importer, Kobrand.  Susan worked as a buyer for a small restaurant group.

Both have long been exposed to the world's best wines and Jon spent a fair amount of time in France, as well.

Now they cultivate a bit of Pinot Noir and Riesling in their cool climate vineyards in Marin County and they make a handful of other interesting wines.

With experience rooted in Old World wines, you'll notice their various bottlings lean towards classically-styled offerings, rather than being made with today's wine critic in mind.  

As a result, you won't find the wines from this couple to be fruit bombs, nor do they "push the envelope," nor do their offerings have "gobs of fruit."

The Chardonnay, modestly called "Textbook," is a wine coming from a couple of sites in the Napa Valley.  Most of the juice comes from the Carneros region, with 20% being from the Yountville area.  

Some of the juice is fermented in stainless steel to preserve the appley, somewhat stony, minerally notes, while some goes into French oak for its fermentation.  

They say they've tried to create layers of flavors and complexity by incorporating a number of different winemaking techniques...some of the wine spends time on the spent yeast, which is then stirred.  Some of the wine underwent a malolactic fermentation...

Well, we find the resulting wine to be quite good and well-priced.  It displays a pear-like character with a faint Granny Smith apple tangy quality.  The oak is lurking in the background, adding just the right amount of wood spice to the wine.  It's dry, off course and pleasantly snappy without being shrill or aggressive.  




Other Distinctive Chardonnays

ACACIA WINERY
2012 Carneros Chardonnay 
Special Sale $15.99
-It's $20+ at the winery-
wpeB.jpg (5211 bytes)The Acacia Winery was founded by some crazy guys who had been associated with Freemark Abbey way back in the Dark Ages of the late 1970s.  Today the winery is owned by the big drinks company, Diageo, and it still features Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Carneros region.  

The wine seemed to withstand several vintages of corporate ownership and they maintained the quality and house style.

They apparently make a bunch of single vineyard wines and small lots to sell at the cellar door...perhaps the attention to these wines has meant less attention is paid to the flagship bottling?   

We still carry this as a few customers are still attracted to the wine.  




CAKEBREAD CELLARS
2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay List Price $47
SALE $39.99
0240002Jack & Dolores Cakebread started back in 1973 with a small vineyard and winery located on the St. Helena Highway across from Robert Mondavi's little cellar.  

Things have grown, Cakebread today producing about 65,000 cases of various wines. 

The wines, to be perfectly blunt, are priced ambitiously and we think they're expensive for what they are.  But they've attracted a market which is willing to pay the price.  We stock them because many people view the Cakebread label as the height of sophistication.  
 
They obtain Chardonnay from a couple of sites in the Napa Valley, combining the character of cool climate wine with that of warmer region Chardonnay.  These two pieces of the puzzle fit together nicely.  Woodsy and a bit high in alcohol, a popular combination for many wine consumers these days...

They're also known for Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Merlot.





FAR NIENTE WINERY
2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay  reg. $56 
SALE $49.99  (Magnums in stock now, too...$99.99)
wpeA.jpg (7779 bytes)The Far Niente Winery was established back in the 1880s and is located just south of Oakville in the shadows of the Mayacamas Mountains.  It's ironic that the wines cost so many dollars when the place has been owned by someone named Nickel.  Mr. Nickel, by the way,  died two years or so ago, after an illness.

"Far Niente" is Italian for "expensive Napa Valley wines" and the marketing philosophy here is "why pay less?"  And this works brilliantly for the Far Niente brand as we routinely see people buying this wine as a show of sophistication.  It's also a demonstration of "conspicuous consumption."  

Though our comments may be viewed as a bit derisive, we must say the 2010 vintage is remarkably good and without question, our favorite Far Niente Chardonnay of all time.  

We are unsure as to whether the change in character, which began with the 2006, was a conscious decision or whether it was serendipitous.  But we applaud the change...

The wine is mildly smoky, showing some stony, minerally notes.  I found it to be a bit leesy and along the lines of some good French white Burgundy wines.  It has not undergone a malolactic fermentation, though.  Nice oak...toasted hazelnuts...dry and it's not a heavy or alcoholic Chardonnay.



 


FOXGLOVE
2012 Central Coast Chardonnay $14.99
 

The Varner Brothers had been vineyard specialists when we first met them, as they worked for Dr. Thomas Fogarty in Woodside/Portola Valley.

The next chapter, they had a little importing venture and we purchased some terrific French wines.  In fact, we still buy wine from some of their 'discoveries' from their now defunct Park Wine Company.

The American dollar was on the downturn and they didn't view the French wine business as viable, so they shut the doors and concentrated on making their Varner labeled wines.

They then launched another label called Foxglove.  It's a line of modestly-priced bottlings, including Cabernet, Zinfandel and a rather delightful Chardonnay.

You can compare the 2012 Chardonnay to a good wine from Macon.  Maybe it's not quite on par with some top bottlings of Pouilly-Fuisse, but it's every bit as good as most "Macon Villages" wines.  And the price is attractive, as well.

It features a mildly pear-like fruit quality with a hint of citrus.  Oak is very faint.  The wine is dry and a good value.
Case discounts, too, so it's $13.50 or $12.75 by the dozen.

 
 


TALBOTT
The Talbott family has been making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir since the early 1980s.

The family was well-known for luxury neck-ties, a business started by Robb Talbott's father.  Mom sewed the ties and Dad sold them in the town of Carmel.

In the Carmel Valley they have a vineyard called "Diamond T" and in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey, you'll find their Sleepy Hollow vineyard.

I can tell you the early vintages were marvelous and stylish...amongst the best in California.

Then in the late 1990s, perhaps, or early 2000s we found the style of Talbott's Chardonnays to be remarkably variable.  

Some vintages suddenly had lost the oak character associated with the early Talbott Chardonnays.  Some years the wine seemed to be fruity and a bit sweet.  Vintage to vintage, the wine was, frankly, inconsistent.

We had not had a Talbott Chardonnay in the shop in several years.  Over that time, they'd introduced a few other labels, Logan and Kali-Hart...these are wines which are more "commercial" in style and which are aimed at competing with Kendall Jackson or Clos du Blah.

I included the 2011 Talbott "Sleepy Hollow" bottling in a blind-tasting of Chardonnays in November of 2012.  We had a trio of French Burgundies and 5 California wines.  The Talbott was the surprise winner of the tasting and its style was a bit surprising, too.

It was not the oaky or toasty wine of the early days.  Nor was it the sweet, fruity style of a few years ago.

Instead we found a wine which actually smells and tastes of Chardonnay "fruit."  The Chardonnay grape often produces wine of little personality and so typically the hand of the winemaker helps produce a style of wine appreciated by those who enjoy Chardonnay.  Sometimes this entails dominating the wine with an oak quality.  Other times it means a secondary fermentation takes center stage.  Sometimes the wine spends months on the yeast sediment and is vigorously stirred to give a toasty element to the wine.

Well, the 2012 Talbott is PURE Chardonnay!  Think of the fragrances and flavors of a Granny Smith apple but without the sugar...that's the 2012 Talbott.  We didn't find much oak here, though it was supposedly matured in French barrels, 30% being new.
Currently in stock:  2012 TALBOTT "Sleepy Hollow" CHARDONNAY $36.99




Z-D WINES
2012 California Chardonnay  list $33  SALE $28.99
We have fond memories of visiting the Zepponi and DeLeuze family winery on Burndale Road in Napa back when this was a "garage" operation.  We were early supporters of this little enterprise, having purchased cloudy Gewurztraminer and wildly exotic Pinot Noir.  They also made Riesling back in those early days.  


Today it's operated by the De Leuze family, Gino Zepponi having died in an auto accident in the mid-1980s.  Norm DeLeuze passed away in 2007, so both pioneers are gone, but they live on in memory and spirit.

They left a very distinctive "recipe" for their Chardonnay, blending fruit from the Central Coast with North Coast grapes.  American oak.  No malolactic fermentation.   The resulting wine has a spicy, somewhat pineapple-like character, lovely for grilled seafood or chicken.

The 2012 is the current offering.
This vintage shows the typical ZD "spice" from its exposure to American oak barrels.  It's a bit less of a tropical "fruit punch" at this stage (in its early days) than some of the previous vintages.  Nice and dry, too.

 


 

 

 

 

 

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