Hello and welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.
This past week included a handful of wines from a winery that prefers to be known by its initials, RG|NY. RG stands for Rivero Gonzáles, a winemaking family from Mexico that in 2019 purchased a vineyard on the North Fork of Long Island in New York. Their early releases are interesting. My favorite among them was the very lean, citrusy Viognier, but both the sparkling riesling and very light-bodied Cabernet Franc had merits as well.
I also received an Argentinian Malbec recently that is grown at one of the highest-altitude vineyards in the world. The Hess Family has long been a pioneer in the region of Salta, and their Bodega Colomé brand is one of the better wine values in Argentina. Their “El Arenal” Malbec is a single-vineyard expression of a sandy site with more than 8000 feet of elevation and sings with a rich, robust, and powerful voice.
I don’t know what to say about her 2019 vintage effort other than it blew me away. Her 2019 St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon may well be the best-tasting new release I’ve ever had from the winery. It offers an incredible aromatic landscape in the glass while delivering a spectacular level of elegance and finesse on the palate. The companion Cabernet from the Sunbasket Vineyard doesn’t quite have the finesse of her standard St. Helena bottling…. yet. It has a more youthful expression that is perhaps not fully resolved. The Cabernet Franc that she calls “Helios” from the same vineyard is more settled in its identity, and positively delicious.
These wines aren’t cheap, but they are among the best that Napa Valley has to offer, and compared to other top Napa wines that are 4 to 6 times their price, they are positively a bargain. Put a few bottles away for 10 years and prepare to have your mind blown.
2020 RG|NY Viognier, North Fork of Long Island, New York Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of apples, lemon, and apricots. In the mouth, juicy and bright flavors of Asian pear, apricot, and citrus pith have a nice tangy juiciness to them thanks to excellent acidity. It might be hard for me to peg this as Viognier if tasted blind, so lean and citrusy as it is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t tasty. 12.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $ . click to buy.
2020 RG|NY “Scielo” Sparkling Riesling, North Fork of Long Island, New York Light cloudy yellow-gold with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of mandarin orange pith and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, a soft mousse delivers flavors of lemon oil, citrus pith, and winter melon. Lightly tart, with good acidity. My guess is that this is an un-disgorged bottle-fermented wine. No information is available on the bottle or the website about its winemaking, however. 10% alcohol. Closed with a crown cap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $ . click to buy.
2020 RG|NY Cabernet Franc, North Fork of Long Island, New York Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and a hint of nut skin. In the mouth, faintly candied flavors of cherry, green herbs, and caramel have a nice silky texture and good acidity. This is a somewhat simpler incarnation of Cabernet Franc but not an unappealing one, especially if you think of it as a dark rosé, which it nearly resembles. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $ . click to buy.
2019 Corison Winery “Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackcurrant, cocoa powder, and black cherry. In the mouth, black cherry and cola flavors are surrounded by fleecy tannins as bright cassis and blackberry notes linger in the finish with a hint of citrus peel. Excellent acidity. Brimming with youthful energy and a spring in its step. Not fully knit together yet, I don’t think. Needs a little time. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $225. Not yet released.
2019 Corison Winery “Helios – Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Franc, St. Helena, Napa, California Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of plums, cherries, and crushed hazelnuts. In the mouth, bright plummy flavors mix with cherry and cola as fantastic citrusy acidity electrifies the palate. Tight muscular tannins grip the edges of the tongue and the sides of the mouth, as the wine finishes juicy with hints of aromatic herbs. Excellent. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $100. Not yet released.
2019 Corison Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of flowers, dark ripe plums, and blackcurrants. In the mouth, gorgeously supple, velvety tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and cassis fruit that has a wonderful purity to it. Hints of graphite and dried flowers float across the palate, as bright acidity keeps the fruit juicy and the saliva flowing. Outstanding. The incarnation of elegance, and largely untouchable by most other Napa Cabernet. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $110. Not yet released.
2019 Colomé “El Arenal” Malbec, Calchaqui Valley, Salta, Argentina Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of struck match and blackberries. In the mouth, rich blackberry and blueberry fruit is wrapped in a massive fleecy blanket of tannins. Excellent acidity keeps things juicy as rich earth and notes of citrus and cola linger in the finish. Grown at the jaw-dropping altitude of 8530 feet above sea level in extremely sandy soils, this wine comes from the El Arenal vineyard. 4.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $ . click to buy.
By now, it is something of a well-trodden path in the world of wine. A long-standing European wine family begins to cast its eyes farther afield for new projects in which to invest, discovers a site in America, and sets about creating a new wine brand. The Spanish have done it, the French have done it, and so have the Italians.
The story of how Marchese Piero Antinori ended up establishing a winery in Washington State, however, owes its genesis to a Russian. Specifically, the legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, who convinced Antinori to take a look at the state during a period when Tchelistcheff was serving as a consultant for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
Antinori would eventually enter into an equal partnership with Ste. Michelle to found Col Solare Winery, a project that from its inaugural 1995 vintage would help set a new bar for what Washington was capable of when it came to fine Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Antinori family brought a decidedly restrained and refined sensibility to the partnership, while Ste. Michelle brought unparalleled knowledge of the region and its growing conditions, resulting in an exceptional portfolio of wines that has remarkably only seemed to get better over time.
In 2007 the brand built itself a winery in the Red Mountain AVA of Yakima Valley (where it had been sourcing fruit for some time), and now comfortably represents one of the pinnacles of that region’s winemaking, having switched to all Red Mountain fruit starting in the 2012 vintage.
Red Mountain, of course, is a tiny, extremely warm AVA in eastern Washington that features deep, powdery soils laid down by the cataclysmic Missoula Floods on top of volcanic basalt. These desert soils are somewhat surprisingly calcareous, thanks to the presence of caliche, which is a sediment of calcium carbonate that coats many of the loose rocks within the soil. With an incredible amount of sunlight modulated somewhat by wind effects and diurnal shifts, as well as its unique, nutrient-poor soils, Red Mountain produces some of Washington’s best Bordeaux varieties, and increasingly some of its best Rhône-style wines as well. I recently covered Red Mountain in-depth for Jancis Robinson’s website, for those that are interested.
While Ste. Michelle Wine Estates was eventually sold to Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, and then sold again late last year to the private equity firm Sycamore Partners, Antinori continues to maintain its 50% ownership in the project. Renzo Cotarella, the chief enologist and chief executive officer of Marchesi Antinori, visits at least twice a year and continues to be directly involved in the crafting of each vintage, which is accomplished by winemaker Darel Allwine and enologist Stephanie Cohen.
This past fall, I sat down with Cohen to taste through a bunch of vintages and hear how things were going in the wake of having new partners in the enterprise.
“As opposed to Altria seeming to look at every move we make, these new partners really seem to trust us,” she said. “They understand wine is an investment and a longer-term thing.”
That would be a very good thing, indeed, for a winery that is seemingly operating at the top of its game.
Cohen explained that the winemaking follows about as classic a model as you might imagine. With a custom-designed winery built to function entirely by gravity, including all racking, the hand-harvested grapes are fermented separately in steel tanks with inoculated yeasts. Some tanks will have a little saignee bled off to concentrate the wine, fining is rarely if ever done, and a very coarse filtration is done to remove any “chunks” of sediment before bottling. The flagship red spends 22 months in oak.
Originally, Col Solare made only a single wine, but in recent years the winery has expanded its portfolio in small increments. It now also makes a second tier of wines under the label “Shining Hill” which is the English translation of the winery’s Italian name.
The winery’s “Tenuta” bottling, launched in 2016, represents the very best blocks in each vintage is made the same way with the addition of barrel fermentation for anywhere between 35% and 50% of the final blend, which is limited to 7 barrels (175 cases of wine) each year. It also spends 22 months in barrel.
The team is currently experimenting with adding concrete tanks to the mix as well.
In addition to the winery’s main Cabernet Sauvignon blend and the Tenuta bottling, the winery makes tiny amounts of some other wines for their mailing list customers that Cohen describes as an opportunity for herself and Darel to “have some fun and change it up a bit.”
These include a “Collector Series” that often highlight specific growers, sites, or unique blends, and a “Component Series” that showcase individual single grape varieties that often end up in the Cabernet blends.
I can remember the first time I tasted a Col Solare wine, which brought me up short as I was making my way through hundreds of wines at the annual Taste Washington trade fair. This was before the winery had narrowed its focus on Red Mountain fruit.
Even then, though, the winery had managed to arrive at a particularly regal interpretation of Cabernet Sauvignon, one that balanced power and finesse beautifully, without the overt flavor of oak. These wines are always wonderfully bright with acidity, and generally feature velvety, carefully managed tannins, making for relatively accessible drinking in their youth, but also enough structure to age beautifully.
These days I try to avoid resorting to the metaphors of “Old World” and “New World” when describing wine as I find them increasingly inadequate, but in this case it seems fitting to describe Col Solare’s wines as walking the fine line between these supposed outposts of wine style. They are undeniably rich in fruit and demonstrate the warmth that characterizes the desert landscape from which they come. But they also show a restraint and elegance of winemaking that sometimes eludes West Coast winemakers who can overdue a sense of power and polish, often through excessive and overt oak programs.
In short, I adore these wines, and believe they are among some of the better red wines made on the West Coast, standing easily in the company of top bottlings from Napa and Sonoma, but at much, much, much lower prices. I’d put the 2018 bottling up against anything from Napa in the $300-$500 price range and expect it to hold its own beautifully.
2014 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington Dark opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar, dried cherries and plums. In the mouth, juicy cherry and plum flavors are shot through with cedar and dried herbs and flowers. Faint, powdery tannins wrap around the core of fruit with lovely citrusy acidity that lingers in the finish, along with hints of dried herbs and licorice. Supple, velvety tannins and overall quite lovely. A blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, 4% Merlot, and 2% Syrah. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2015 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, cassis and black cherry tinged with dried herbs and what I can only describe as pulverized purple Smartees candy. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, cassis, and candied violets mix with dried herbs under a fleecy blanket of tannins. Quite aromatic. This vintage was a rare 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2016 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry fruit with a touch of green herbs. In the mouth, the wine has classic Cabernet character with supple, fine-grained tannins grasping a core of cherry and cedar, with hints of cola and floral notes, but overall a wonderful purity of cherry flavors. Gorgeous. Contains 6% Cabernet Franc. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 . Cost: $65. click to buy.
2017 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and a touch of cocoa powder and green herbs. In the mouth, incredibly juicy cherry cola flavors are held firmly in a tight muscular tannic grip, slightly more aggressive and rough hewn than the usual tannins, thanks to a challenging year. Delicious cherry flavors mix with cola and licorice as the wine finishes long, and the tannins squeeze hard. Contains 3% Cabernet Franc. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 . Cost: $75. click to buy.
2018 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and dried herbs and flowers with a hint of cola. In the mouth, muscular, fine-grained tannins wrap around a core of gorgeous, almost crystalline cherry and floral flavors. Fantastic acidity. The tannins, which were aggressive at first, mellow a bit in the finish, as floral and cherry notes soar through a long finish. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $75. click to buy.
2019 Col Solare “Collectors Series – Kiona Vineyards” Syrah, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington Dark garnet in the glass with purple highlights this wine smells of flowers and cassis. In the mouth, lovely blackberry and cassis flavors lean towards candied blueberries as the wine soars through a gorgeously long finish. Lovely stony underbelly with fine-grained tannins. A faint saline note makes for an extra mouthwatering quality, along with great acidity. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9.5.
2018 Col Solare “Component Series” Syrah, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry. In the mouth, gorgeously polished flavors of cassis and black cherry are nestled into a fleecy blanket of tannins with hints of herbs and citrus peel offering bright grace notes as the wine soars through a long finish. Excellent acidity and some nice wet pavement notes This fruit comes from the estate vineyard. Includes 2% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $95. click to buy.
2018 Col Solare “Component Series” Malbec, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs, sage, and brambly blueberry. In the mouth, juicy blueberry, blackberry and a hint of woodsmoke mix under a dusty blanket of tannins that coat the mouth. Excellent acidity. This is 100% Estate fruit. They have 1-2 acres of Malbec. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $95.
2018 Col Solare “Tenuta” Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cedar, herbs and flowers. In the mouth, the wine is expansive and bright with a suede throw of tannins draped over juicy cherry and black cherry fruit that gushes with acidity. Hints of dried flowers and beautiful cherry fruit linger in the long finish. Interestingly this flagship bottling is coming across as slightly more open and accessible than the standard Col Solare bottling, whose tannins are a little more aggressive and closed at this point. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $175.
Depending on how much you believe in destiny, it will come as no surprise that when, in 1982, Peter Michael established his eponymous estate winery, it was in Sonoma’s Knights Valley. Seven years later, after a long career as an entrepreneur and technology executive, he was made a sir, making his purchase of 640 steep, rugged acres on the western slopes of Mount St Helena even more apposite.
Raised on Bordeaux and Burgundy, Sir Peter credits the taste of a Chateau MontelenaChardonnay while visiting San Francisco in 1973 as the inspiration to make California wine. Many California wineries have similar origin stories, but they usually feature dreams of making the next great California Cabernet rather than world-class Chardonnay. Sir Peter, it turns out, would go on to do both.
Diminutive in both size and profile, the Knights Valley AVA sits between Napa Valley and Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. Its 2,000 acres of vineyards (Napa has more than 45,000) sit mostly on the narrow valley floor, making the Peter Michael estate on steep volcanic hillsides both a world apart and a marvel of viticultural engineering.
Jesus inspects the sunrise Cabernet pick for QTR Wines at their vineyard high above Lake Hennessy near St. Helena, California. Harvest rolls onwards in California, and thus far, fire impacts seem to be minimal or nonexistent, a welcome change from last year’s devastation.
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Hello and welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.
Let’s get started with a question? Why don’t more wineries use Semillon in their Sauvignon Blanc blends? California is the homeland of the single-variety wine, of course, but like rhythm and blues, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon have been together for a long time, and there’s a good reason for it. This is ably demonstrated (despite the name) by the latest release from Blackbird Vineyards called “Dissonance.” I don’t perceive any dissonance here, though, only harmony as the Semillon adds a wonderful saline passionfruit quality to this peppy, juicy package.
Attentive wine lovers are finally discovering the joys of lighter-bodied red wines thanks to sommelier-led advocacy of regions such as the Jura and Savoie. But there are plenty of other lighter red wines out there in the world, and this week I’ve got a couple bottles to prove the point. Schiava (also known as Trollinger or Vernatsch, depending on which part of central Europe you happen to be standing in) is a wonderfully brisk, fruity grape that makes some easy-drinking wines that can be particularly compelling with a little chill on them. Both of the bottles I’m showcasing this week do this well. The Mediaevum bottling is a bit more fruity, while the Abbazia di Novacella leans a bit more savory, but they’re both excellent examples of the form.
I wrote about Adam Lee’s new Pinot Noir project here on Vinography a while back. This week I’ve got the newest Clarice Wine Company releases this week, all of which are quite nice. My favorite, just by a hair, is the Garys’ Vineyard bottling which has something of a surprising stony kick to it with a saline quality that made me want to just keep slurping.
As anyone who regularly reads these sample reviews each week, it’s fair to say that by and large, most of what I get sent are the newest releases from various producers. Occasionally, however, someone will send me a library vintage, and when that happens it’s always a treat. In this case, it was a seriously great thing. The 2006 vintage of the Kathryn Kennedy Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon is positively singing at this point in its evolution, and will likely continue to thrill for another 5 to 10 years. Ironically, it’s also currently available online for roughly half the price of the current release, so anyone looking for a particularly great addition to the cellar should move quickly. You can also get a bottle as part of a 3-pack that is available for sale at the winery. The 2017 and 2016 vintages aren’t slouches either, by the way, and I’ve got notes for both of those below.
Lastly I’ve got a couple more big reds from Napa, a hulking bruiser of a Merlot from Sullivan Vineyards and a supple, ripe expression of Cabernet from Roy Estate, made by superstar winemaking consultant Philpppe Melka.
Notes on all these below!
2020 Blackbird Vineyards “Dissonance” Sauvignon Blanc, California Light yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of apples and lemon pith with a hint of passionfruit. In the mouth, passionfruit and fuji apple flavors have a nice bright acidity to them and a faint salinity that is quite tasty. A blend of fruit from Napa and Sonoma, with 81% Sauvignon Blanc, and 19% Semillon. 14.1% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.
2019 Markus Prackwieser “Mediaevum” Vernatsch, Sudtirol-Alto Adige, Italy Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of strawberries and sour cherries. In the mouth, bright sour cherry and strawberry fruit have a nice mineral clarity to them, with faint tannins and a chalky, juicy acidity. Hints of herbs and dried flowers linger in the finish. Vernatsch is the local name for the better-known Schiava. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.
2020 Abbazia di Novacella Schiava, Alto Adige, Italy Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of earth and strawberries and dried herbs. In the mouth, juicy acidity makes the savory strawberry and herb flavors bouncy and bright, but they never achieve the sweetness of ripe fruit, staying on the herbal side, with a faint minerality. 12.5% alcohol Score: around 8.5. Cost: $19. click to buy.
2019 Clarice Wine Co. Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey, California Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and cranberry fruit with a hint of green herbs. In the mouth, lovely raspberry and redcurrant flavors mix with chopped green herbs and faint powdery tannins. Bright citrusy acidity lingers along with dried flowers in the finish. Quite pretty with a nice savory edge. 14.4% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.
2019 Clarice Wine Co. “Garys’ Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey, California Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of bright cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, faint, gauzy tannins wrap around a core of cherry and raspberry fruit that is fantastically juicy thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a stony freshness and slight salinity to this wine too, which I don’t expect from the SLH. Lovely. 14.1% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.
2019 Clarice Wine Co. “Rosella’s Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey, California Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, silky flavors of cherry and cranberry have a fantastic, mouthwatering acidity with a delicious powdered herb note that lingers in the finish along with a hint of peeled willow bark. Faint, fine-grained tannins add a little texture. 14.4% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.
2006 Kathryn Kennedy Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California Dark ruby in color with a hint of tawny coffee in the highlights, this wine smells of cedar, dried flowers, smoked meats. In the mouth, gorgeously plush tannins provide a bed for flavors of smoked meat, dried flowers, dried and fresh cherries, and mulling spices. The acidity is holding up well, and the umami character of this wine makes the mouth water. Outstanding. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $150. click to buy.
2016 Kathryn Kennedy Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry, plum, and a touch of black pepper. In the mouth, bright and juicy black cherry and plum flavors have a bright plum skin tang to them along with hints of dark chocolate as the wine finishes. Excellent acidity makes for a mouthwatering experience, with floral notes arising over time. 14.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $300. click to buy.
2017 Kathryn Kennedy Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackcurrant, black cherry, and a hint of cocoa. In the mouth, bright, mouthwatering flavors of black cherry and blackcurrant mix with a hint of dried flowers. There’s a touch of alcoholic heat on the finish, but otherwise, this is a really lovely wine, with faint tannins adding a little texture to the very pretty package. 14.7% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $300. click to buy.
2018 Sullivan Vineyards “J.O. Sullivan Founder’s Reserve” Merlot, Rutherford, Napa, California Inky, opaque purple in color, this wine smells of black cherry and black plum. In the mouth, dark, ripe plum, blackcurrant, and black cherry flavors are wrapped in a fleecy blanket of tannins. Good acidity keeps this super-ripe fruit from being flabby, but this is a monster of a Merlot, suitable for steaks and anyone who wants brawn in their glass. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $250. click to buy.
2018 Roy Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Napa, California Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, cocoa powder, and blackcurrant. In the mouth, rich black cherry and black currant flavors are bright with decent acidity and backed by powdery, mouthcoating tannins. Dark and rich, with very well integrated oak that offers only a slight bitterness in the finish. 15% alcohol. 554 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $265. click to buy.
There most definitely was a time, not so long ago, when you couldn’t begin an article about one of Napa’s greatest winemakers with the phrase “Cathy Corison needs no introduction.” But now, I wonder. The combination of interest in women winemakers, an increasing emphasis on balance in California wine, and the decline of the ParkTator hegemony have resulted in Cathy Corison finally getting the attention she so rightly deserves, both in terms of media mentions and increasingly high scores for her wines.
Regular readers will know I’ve been a fan of Corison and her wines for a long time, and since I’ve written extensively about her (most recently after a 25-year retrospective of her wines) I’m not going to tell her full story today. Instead, I’m going to share my thoughts on some of her recently released wines, specifically the 2016, 2017, and 2018 vintages.
Three Excellent Vintages
The 2016 growing season started early in Napa, with a very warm April and after some typical heat in June, the season almost seemed to get cooler as time went on, with no serious heat spikes. And then, as is sometimes typical, things got warmer as harvest approached but without extremes. It’s something of a fleshy vintage for Napa in general, though with Corison picking earlier than most of her peers, it simply means a lovely vintage for her wines.
The winter preceding the 2017 growing season was quite wet, especially relative to the drought conditions that set in between 2012 and 2015. After a relatively uneventful Spring, the weather began to warm considerably as August transitioned to September, and then some serious heat settled in and made for a highly compressed harvest for Corison to avoid losing the acidity that she seeks to retain in her fruit.
Corison describes the 2018 vintage as perhaps the “darkest, inkiest” vintage she can remember, as moderate weather stretched from a perfectly undisturbed flowering in spring to a leisurely harvest, with cool nights all along retaining acidity and allowing a smooth and slow maturation of the fruit. Of course, when other people say “inky” you might start to imagine 15.5% alcohol, opaque wines that slip across the palate like olive oil. Corison’s 2018 wines clock in at 13.7% alcohol with fantastic acidity.
Patience is a Virtue
I tell most people that they should really drink Corison’s wines after a minimum of five years, but optimally after about 10 years. The old-school style of these wines deeply rewards time in the bottle. That’s not to say these wines aren’t delicious out of the gate. As you can see from the tasting notes below, they absolutely are. But the real magic with Corison Cabernet comes from the secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors that can only come with time in the cellar. I wouldn’t necessarily make the same recommendation for a lot of Napa Cabernets, many of which (especially the higher-alcohol wines) I find drink at their best within the 2-5 year timeframe when you can revel in their richness of fruit.
With Corison’s wines, though, it’s the refinement of fruit over time with dried flowers, pencil shavings, aromatic herbs, cedar, and cigar box flavors and aromas that truly demonstrates the potential of the vineyards that Cathy farms, and the style with which she crafts her wines.
So if you’re going to buy these wines, I recommend buying them in multiples of three. Drink one if you have to in the next 2 years, drink one between 5 and 7 years later, and save the last one for 10 years or more. You can thank me later.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting Corison’s wine, you’re missing out on one of the most consistently excellent wines made in Napa.
Here’s a photo I took of Cathy amidst her oeuvre, so to speak.
2016 Corison Winery “Kronos Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty earth, dried herbs, and dried flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously refined notes of black cherry and cassis mix with dried flowers and road dust. The texture here is lovely, with delicate, fine-grained tannins that billow like gauze in the mouth, as the juicy berry flavors get a tinge of citrus peel brightness as they finish but also a savory, salinity that adds an umami kick to this wine. Fantastic acidity. Delicious now but in 5-10 years, watch out. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $210. click to buy.
2016 Corison Winery “Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherries, blackcurrants, dried flowers, and dried fennel seeds. In the mouth, juicy blackcurrant and black cherry flavors have a tangy sour cherry note as hints of dried flowers and herbs creep into the mouthwatering finish. Fantastic acidity and the faintest of fleecy tannins. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $200. click to buy.
2017 Corison Winery “Helios – Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Franc, St. Helena, Napa, California Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of plum and plum skin with hints of dried green herbs. In the mouth, juicy plum skin, sour cherry, and dried flowers are bursting with bright acidity and shot through with dried green herbs. Lovely faint powdery tannins give some structure to the wine, but this is largely just mouthwatering juiciness. Very light on its feet and easy to drink. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.
2017 Corison Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and blackberries. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and blackberry fruit is shot through with lightly muscular tannins and fantastic acidity that leaves a sour cherry, mouthwatering quality to the wine. Young yet, and likely to improve for the next 10 years. 14.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $99. click to buy.
2018 Corison Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs, black cherry, blackcurrants, and lavender. In the mouth, intense blackcurrant and dried herb notes are juicy with fantastic acidity and savory with hints of dried flowers. A hint of salinity creeps into the finish along with a dusty earth note. Powdery tannins flex their muscles on the edges of the palate. While this is tasty right now, I’d leave it alone for 5 years to start getting the true magic here. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $99. (this wine is due to be released on 9/1/21 – click to buy.
2018 Corison Winery “Helios – Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Franc, St. Helena, Napa, California Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty earth, black plum, and black cherry. In the mouth, incredibly juicy flavors of black plum, cherry, and citrus oil pucker the mouth with fantastic, mouthwatering acidity. Faint tannins and hints of dried herbs and flowers add texture and complexity to this wine. This is young and quite primary at the moment but will blossom even more with time. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $110. This wine is due to be released on 10/1/21 – click to buy.
2018 Corison Winery “Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California Dark purple in color, this wine smells of black plum and black cherry. In the mouth, muscular tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and blackcurrant with the tangy brightness of plum skin that makes the mouth water. Hints of dried flowers and licorice linger in the finish. This one definitely needs some time in the bottle, but I predict it will be fantastic in a few years. 13.7% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $200. This wine is due to be released on 11/1/21 – click to buy.
Earlier this year, I wrote up an extensive report on many of the new (to me) producers of Napa Valley wines. One of the most interesting of those was a new wine brand called La Pelle, which also (as I noted in the original piece) has some of the most stunning visual branding I’ve ever seen from a winery.
La Pelle is a collaboration between Maayan Koschitzky, a partner in the winemaking consultancy Atelier Melka, and Miguel Luna and Pete Richmond, who are partners in the Silverado Farming Company.
The company started almost as a joke, resulting from Luna’s experience working a harvest in Bordeaux at Chateau de Fieuzal as an intern fresh out of winemaking school.
“When you go to work at a winery in France you think it’s going to be romantic but it’s really hard work,” says Luna. “All I did all day long was dig out tanks,” referring to the messy and backbreaking work of shoveling the must (leftover skins and seeds) out of the fermentation tanks after they have been drained.
“I asked them how you say ‘shovel’ in French,” laughs Luna, “and then I told them one day I’m going to start a winery called Domaine de La Pelle.”
While it was a fun joke with his French bosses, the name lodged somewhere in Luna’s head and was there waiting for the perfect opportunity. That opportunity turned out to be a 2016 conversation between Luna and Koschitzky who, after two years of deepening friendship were kicking around the idea of doing something together.
“If you think about it,” says Koschitzky, “the shovel is the only tool that you use both in the vineyard and in the winery.”
The three founding partners represent an unusual synthesis of experience. Luna is a first-generation child of immigrants who worked his first harvest at age 14, the year after his father brought the family from Mexico in 1996. Luna’s father had been working the harvest in Napa since 1968.
Luna graduated from St. Helena High School, like many children of immigrants, while simultaneously working in the vineyards. After his girlfriend pushed him to continue his education, he went first to junior college (which took 5 years while working full time in vineyards), and then transferred to the Viticulture and Enology program at UC Davis. After graduation, Luna got his first jobs working in cellars, but also went back to work part-time for Silverado Farming, where he had done some previous work before heading to Davis.
“Pete eventually asked me to come on full-time,” says Luna, who faced the tough decision of whether to focus on winemaking or viticulture. “His pitch was that if I came back full-time, he’d support me with a label.”
So Luna started as a full-time vineyard management employee at Silverado Farming Company in 2015, and Richmond came on as a partner when La Pelle launched in 2016. Luna was made a partner at Silverado in 2017.
Maayan Koschitzky is an Israeli-born winemaker who comes to his job with a degree in viticulture, rather than enology.
“It’s crazy,” says Koschitzky, “Miguel and I are always laughing about how he has a degree in enology and I don’t, but I’m the winemaker with a degree in viticulture.”
Koschitzky, who also has a background in Engineering, worked his first harvest in Israel in 2004 and spent 7 years there before moving to Napa and landing assistant winemaking jobs at some big-name wineries, such as Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle.
In 2014, he was hired as an Assistant Winemaker for superstar winemaking consultant Philippe Melka’s company, Atelier Melka. Melka would go on to make him Director of Winemaking in 2016, and a full partner in 2019.
A Perfect Solution
Starting a Napa wine brand is pretty tough for non-billionaires. Especially if you want to make top-tier, single-vineyard wines.
“Maayan and I both have similar day jobs with high-end clients,” says Luna. “We get to do exactly what we think is best in every way. That’s what you get to do with an estate-model winery.”
“We’re both earning a living,” continues Luna, “but if we want to have our own project with similar levels of freedom it’s pretty hard. If you’re just buying fruit, you’re trusting the farming company. But since we own the farming company, we know exactly what’s being done.”
“We’re sort of modern-day vignerons,” chuckles Luna, “We’re doing everything from the farming to the winemaking, but we can do it affordably with our day jobs.”
Boutique, ‘Affordable,’ Classic
The La Pelle lineup began with a Napa Cabernet, a Reserve Napa Cabernet, and the Sauvignon Blanc. It then expanded to include the three single-vineyard-designate Cabernets, as well as a Chardonnay from Bien Nacido Vineyards, after the trio managed to get ahold of fruit from the 1973-planted, own-rooted Chardonnay.
Koschitzky says there will soon be a “Block X” Syrah from Bien Nacido in the lineup as well.
“Our goal is to be about 2000 cases, and to sell somewhere between 50 and 70 percent DTC [direct-to-consumer].”
So far, so good. The 2018 single-vineyard Cabernets which I review below sold out to their mailing-list customers within 2 weeks.
Despite the pedigrees behind the partners and the vineyard sites (which could command far higher prices), prices for the La Pelle wines look quite attractive, at least for Napa.
“A lot of the wines we make for our clients we can’t afford to buy ourselves,” says Luna.
Their Napa Valley Cabernet sells for $75, the Reserve for $175, while the single-vineyard Cabernets are $125 apiece (sold primarily in 3 packs of either the same wine or all three different wines).
From a winemaking perspective, Koschitzky has taken a decidedly classic approach, threading the needle between truly old-school and the rich styles of modern luxury Cabernet. The grapes are picked for moderate alcohols (their entry-level and single-vineyard Cabernets are 14.5% or less, while the Reserve is made in a slightly richer style and ends up around 14.8%).
The farming is a mix of organic and sustainable, depending on the vineyard, though Luna and Koschitzky would love for it to be 100% organic. Luna says Silverado stopped using Roundup three years ago on all of their vineyards, and has bought 2000 sheep to help with weeds.
The wines are excellent across the board, but the single-vineyard Cabernets are quite fantastic, especially at prices that are below many of the lower-priced or second-label Cabernets from upper-echelon producers in Napa.
This is a brand to watch for sure. And not just because it’s hard to stop staring at those stunning labels.
2018 La Pelle “Red Hen Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District, Napa, California Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, tobacco, dusty road, and dried flowers and herbs. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, cassis, and a touch of citrus peel are dusted with muscular but extremely fine-grained tannins. Gorgeous, supple, balanced, and bright. With a long finish of dried sage and dusty road. Organically farmed. 14.5% alcohol. 150 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.
2018 La Pelle “Alluvium Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena, Napa, California Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet black cherry, cassis, and cola. In the mouth, rich black cherry and blackberry flavors are bursting with acidity, wrapped in a thin, gauzy skein of tannins that flexes its muscles over time. Bright cassis and black cherry linger with the earthy tannins long in the mouth. Powerful and broader shouldered than the Red Hen. Planted in 1981. Expansive. 14.5% alcohol. 150 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.
2018 La Pelle “Ceniza Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa, California Inky opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, chopped green herbs, and cola. In the mouth, rich and bright cola and black cherry flavors are enclosed in a thick fist of tannins. Excellent acidity, hints of dry herbs on the finish, massive, with a touch of heat. Chewy tannins linger. Most heavily structured of the three, and needs some time. The vines were planted in 2001. 14.5% alcohol. 150 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.
And just as a bonus, here are my notes on the very unusual Sauvignon Blanc that the team makes, which will be released for sale on August 5, 2021, after quite a bit of time aging on the lees (read the note and you’ll see why).
2019 La Pelle Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, lemon pith, and a touch of pastry cream and grapefruit. In the mouth, the wine is…. positively screaming with acidity. Amazing lemon pith and lemon juice profile mix with some crushed shell and seawater. Mouthwatering and unbelievably bright. This ain’t your standard Napa Sauvignon Blanc. It’s waaaaay better. Some will find it austere, but others, a breath of fresh air in the universe of largely unremarkable California Sauvignon Blanc. Made from a vineyard planted in 1981, and farmed to keep the fruit lean and ready for an early pick. Spent 18 months in barrel, 30% of which were new. A mere 11% alcohol. 275 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. To be released on August 5th, 2021.
Images courtesy of La Pelle Wines. Shovel image and the portrait of partners by photographer Suzanne Becker Bronk.
As some readers know, I’ve only recently been able to dedicate more time to writing here on Vinography after a number of years being an entrepreneur and small business owner trying to squeeze in some wine writing around the edges. By virtue of that struggle for time, I have not exactly kept up with new developments in California wine at the level to which I aspite. There was a time that thanks to an endless parade of large public tastings, I was almost sure to hear about new wine projects soon after they popped up.
Of course, gone are the days of 1000 people crowding into San Francisco’s Fort Mason to visit with and taste the wares of 200 different wineries. Who knows when we’ll get that opportunity again.
In the meantime, I wanted to see what I might have missed over the past few years in Napa. So I called up the folks at the Napa Valley Vintners Association and asked them if they would be so kind as to give me a list of all the wineries that had joined their ranks in the past 5 years.
When I got the list, which was impressively long, I went through and marked basically every name I had never heard of, and asked if the vintners would see if those folks wanted to show me what they were up to by way of some wine samples.
Of the 122 wineries that had joined the NVV since 2015, roughly 85 names were entirely new to me, and another dozen I had heard of but never tasted. As you might expect, some of these wineries were, in fact, brand new, while others had only recently gotten around to becoming members.
A while later, the boxes started arriving, and for the past few months, I’ve been tasting through the wines in batches, and those that I thought were notable based on my tasting, I have profiled below.
In case anyone is reconciling spreadsheets, I have also included a couple of wines that were sent to me independently in the past year or two that qualify as new names for me in the region.
Speaking of spreadsheets, since I’ve got the info, I found it somewhat interesting to run a few numbers on the roughly 75 wines that I evaluated for this piece that ranged in vintage from 2015 to 2018.
Average price for a Napa Cabernet or red blend: $113.50. Median price: $100.
This came as no surprise, but it still hurts.
It’s not safe to say that the bevy of wines I received are a statistically representative sample of every wine that carries Napa on its label, but as a representation of the fine wine market in Napa, it’s probably in the ballpark.
So what does this mean? Something that most people have already figured out.
Napa is largely pricing itself out of the average wine lover’s budget. And let’s be clear, when I say wine lover, I’m not talking about the average American wine drinker, who studies show spends around $15.66 on average per bottle. I’m talking about people willing to spend $25-$50 on a nice bottle of wine. Those folks can no longer afford to drink the average Napa Cabernet.
The least expensive wines that were sent to me were a $30 Cabernet a $45 Cabernet, and a $45 Merlot—all admirable prices—but the next three cheapest bottles were $55, $60, and $75 apiece. Interestingly and unfortunately, a number of those inexpensive wines didn’t make the cut for inclusion in this article because I didn’t think the wines were good enough to mention.
It’s hard to lay seriously prejudicial commentary about wine prices at the feet of most Napa producers. With land prices, labor prices, and water prices being what they are, it’s all but impossible to make a decent $25 bottle of Napa Cabernet without a level of scale that few possess in Napa Valley.
Having said that, it’s also hard to believe that any wine priced above $80 or $90 suggested retail (that doesn’t come from the notoriously pricey Beckstoffer Vineyards) is being priced purely based on a margin calculated above its costs of production.
Looked at another way, if you’ve just spent a pretty penny whopping boatload of cash for a vineyard and winery in Napa, and every one of your neighbors (or all of your other friends who have wineries in Napa) charge $175 per bottle for their wines, it takes a pretty strong stomach (and maybe a serious ethical point of view) to contemplate pricing your wine at only $80.
In Napa, the price of wine has become a signaling device that plays right into our psychology and creates a vicious circle of ever-inflated prices in which every new entrant to the market tries to position their wines, via price, against their perceived (or more accurately, their desired) competitors.
It’s a game that I believe ultimately hurts everyone, and if not curbed somehow, will ultimately result in lots of producers not being able to sell all their wines each vintage. Which is something that many industry observers say is already starting to happen (and one reason why the fire-driven crop reduction last year and in previous years may have just the slightest of upsides for the industry).
Average alcohol level for a Cabernet or Bordeaux variety: 14.65%
I’m surprised this number isn’t higher. As I tasted through these wines, I was delighted to see how many fell in the 14-14.5% alcohol range.
California seems ever on a pendulum swing of style, and right now we’re heavily into the swing away from higher alcohol levels, or more specifically, a swing away from the ultra-ripe approach that characterized the period between 1995 and 2008 or so.
With the moderating of ripeness has thankfully also come a less prominent oak signature. I’m not prepared to say that less new oak is being used in Napa at the moment, but I can say with confidence that it is being used much more deftly as a rule. Ten years ago a sampling of 80 random Napa Valley Cabernets would have landed on the palate like a stack of freshly milled two-by-fours. There were only a few wines in this tasting for which I could say that the wood approached sore-thumb prominence.
Cabernet is still king in Napa
While some experimentation continues to happen on the fringes, through a combination of blank slate innovation and/or closer looks at historical trends (I got a bottle of Napa Valdiguié the other day) sheer economics continues to drive the prominence of Cabernet in Napa.
Cabernet is what fetches the highest price. Because Cabernet is what people seem to want. So therefore people plant more and make more Cabernet.
Unsurprisingly, when asked to send me “a bottle or two” of their wines, most producers chose to send a bottle of Cab or a Bordeaux blend.
A serious hobby proliferates
More than one Napa resident has repeated to me some version the phrase, “Napa used to be the province of millionaires, but now they’re being pushed out by all the billionaires.”
Like any stereotype or generalization, this certainly has a kernel of truth to it. Napa Valley is a pretty small place, when you come right down to it, and does not possess vast swaths of land that is ready and waiting to be cultivated. There are very few new vineyard developments, but a lot of vineyards changing hands. Prices, not surprisingly, continue to skyrocket.
Practically speaking this means that any new entrant to Napa likely falls into one of the following categories, all of which you will see represented in the winery profiles that follow.
1. A new brand in an existing portfolio Large wineries and wine companies launch new brands. That’s what they do. Some of the new names in Napa are merely new product ideas by existing producers.
2. Real estate that comes with a new hobby Plenty of people want a place in Napa, and frequently the nicer places come with a vineyard. Some people buy such properties with the dream and desire to make wine, and some develop that desire over time. Eventually, instead of selling their grapes to someone, these folks (who usually own just an acre or two of vineyards) hire a winemaker, lease out some space in a custom crush facility, and make their wine. These types of new projects can be intergenerational as well, as a new generation inherits vineyard properties and finds the inspiration to do something new.
3. Let’s buy some grapes and make some wine Making wine is romantic and exciting, not to mention fulfilling, and the industry infrastructure exists to allow “estateless” wineries to get up and running pretty quickly. Meaning, if you can find a grower willing to sell you grapes, you can easily find a facility where you can make those grapes into wine, either on your own or with the help of a consulting winemaker. These types of wineries range from highly casual “lifestyle” efforts with little commercial ambition to strategically crafted businesses aiming either to build a successful brand, make serious quality wine, or both.
4. Go big or go home Buying a larger vineyard (say 5+ acres) and either remodeling or newly constructing a winery and cellar now takes enough money to lend credence to the “billionaires” comment above. But no shortage seems to exist of individuals or wine companies willing to establish a foothold in Napa, and make the next great Cabernet. If individuals, these price-is-no-object efforts are usually accompanied by hiring a brand-name vineyard management company and well-known winemaker, often (but not always) pre-supposing that the results will be a wine sold to an allocated mailing-list at the upper end of wine pricing.
Buying blindly will lead to disappointments
Of the roughly 75 wines I tasted and considered for this piece, 25 of them were low enough in quality that I did not choose to feature them or their wineries. Seven of those wines, rated below 8.5 on my scoring scale were all priced above $120 per bottle.
Just like every wine region around the world, there are still a lot of mediocre wines being made in Napa. Less discerning customers may be at lower risk of disappointment, but higher prices definitely do not correlate with quality in any way that is truly helpful to consumers.
To the extent that I can, through articles like this, I am quite happy to point you towards the efforts that I think are of high quality, letting you make your own judgments about value, given your personal circumstances.
The heavy bottles have got to go
More than a few producers still seem to believe that a primary way they can communicate the prestige of their product lies in the net weight of the damn bottle.
Let me be clear, then. A bottle that weighs 4.5 pounds when full says one thing and one thing only: you care more about your image than the environment.
Glass bottle manufacturing produces a lot of greenhouse gasses, in direct proportion to the amount of glass being made. Shipping bottles of wine around the country and around the world produces a lot more greenhouse gas. According to some studies glass bottles and their shipping make up as much as 68% of the wine industry’s carbon footprint.
That means quite literally the easiest thing a winery can do to reduce their carbon footprint would be to use lighter glass bottles.
So do it.
In this day and age of climate emergency there is absolutely no excuse for using such heavy glass. Whenever bottles are egregiously heavy below, I have made note of that fact.
* * *
I hope you enjoy this survey of some new names (to me) in Napa and their wines, listed in alphabetical order below.
One of the more exciting new wineries to appear in Napa in recent years, Acumen Wines focuses on one of Napa’s lesser-known appellations, Atlas Peak, where proprietor Eric Yuan has purchased 116 acres of vineyards. A developer from the Wuhan region of China, Eric fell in love with wine while studying abroad in Paris. With the help of both the late Denis Malbec and Henrik Poulsen, Yuan developed a portfolio of wines that were frankly some of the most impressive debut wines I’ve had coming out of Napa when they launched with the 2013 vintage. The wines are now the work of winemaker Phillip Titus, assistant winemaker José Rodriguez, and viticulturist John Derr, and continue to offer an admirably restrained elegance.
2016 Acumen “Peak – Edcora Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak, Napa, California Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and cassis with a hint of dried flowers. In the mouth, gorgeous black cherry, dried violets, and cola flavors are draped in a fleecy blanket of tannins that gain strength over time. Notes of licorice root and potting soil linger in the finish with dark cherry. Fantastic acidity and wonderful balance. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $165. click to buy.
2016 Acumen “Peak” Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak, Napa, California Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, black tea, earth and cassis flavors are shot through with a touch of cola nut. Fine-grained muscular tannins drape the core of dark fruit, but don’t overwhelm, while excellent acidity keeps the wine fresh and mouthwatering. Poised and nicely balanced, with a sophisticated restraint, as evidenced by its mere 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.
Founded by painter Laurie Shelton and her late husband, Tom Shelton, who purchased a small vineyard in 2000, CAMi vineyards debuted in 2013 after Laurie Shelton decided to make wine instead of just selling the grapes. The wines are made by John Giannini, who was an assistant winemaker for a number of years at Outpost, working with Thomas Rivers Brown. The vines are farmed by Davie Piña and Piña Vineyard Management.
2019 CAMi Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of juicy golden and Fuji apples mixed with bright lemonade. In the mouth, flavors of golden apples and lemonade made with honey are positively zingy thanks to excellent acidity. Snappy, crisp, and delicious. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.
2016 CAMi Vineyards Red Blend, Calistoga, Napa, California Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of licorice, chocolate, and black cherries. In the mouth, rich and powerful black cherry fruit manages to stay just this side of “too much” largely due to excellent acidity. The tannins are relatively well restrained and supple, but this is definitely a significantly extracted bottle of Cabernet. A blend of 52% Merlot and 48% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.9% alcohol. Extremely heavy bottle weighs in at 1.77 kg when full. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $150. click to buy.
2017 CAMi Vineyards Red Blend, Napa Valley, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of plum, black cherry, and tobacco leaf. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and plum flavors are shot through with cola nut and a bit of mocha. Well-integrated oak and good acidity are matched with velvety, mellow tannins. There’s just the faintest heat of the wine’s 15.5% alcohol on the finish. A blend of 53% Merlot and 47% Cabernet Sauvignon. Extremely heavy bottle weighs in at 1.77 kg when full. Score: around 9. Cost: $125. click to buy.
2018 CAMi Vineyards Red Blend, Napa Valley, California Inky, opaque garnet in color this wine smells of black cherry and licorice. In the mouth, rich black cherry and licorice flavors have a nice juiciness thanks to excellent acidity. Dark, brooding, and powerful, the flavors are thick here, but the acidity and well restrained supple tannins make this easier to drink than I would have thought given the flavor profile. Massive and brawny but dressed in a very nice silk shirt. A blend of 52% Merlot and 48% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.8% alcohol. Extremely heavy bottle weighs in at 1.77 kg when full. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $125. click to buy.
Gentleman Farmer Wines
Vintners Joe Wolosz and Jeff Durham met in 1999 and discovered a mutual love of wine and a common background in hospitality management. What started out as a tiny garage project with a half-ton of fruit has grown into a boutique wine label (less than 1000 cases) that sources fruit from a number of vineyards around Napa. Both Wolosz and Durham are hands-on with the production, along with winemaker Jérôme Chéry, a Burgundy-trained French winemaker who spent a good portion of his career directing winemaking at Saintsbury.
2017 Gentleman Farmer Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District, Napa, California Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis mixed with a dusty road. In the mouth, black cherry, cassis, herbs, and blueberries are wrapped in a fleecy blanket of tannins and enlivened by excellent acidity, which gives the wine a bright freshness that is commendable. The savory herbal and earthy notes emerge on the finish. Quite gentlemanly indeed. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.
2017 Gentleman Farmer Wines Red Blend, Napa Valley, California Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet black cherry and pipe tobacco. In the mouth, juicy plum and black cherry flavors mix with cola and hints of cedar as juicy acidity makes the mouth water. Muscular, fine-grained tannins wrap around the core of fruit, as notes of licorice and candied violets linger in the finish with just a whiff of alcoholic heat. A blend of 62% Merlot and %38 Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.
Judy Jordan, a Stanford-trained geologist, has had a spectacular career in the wine industry. She founded, grew, and then sold J Vineyards, an early entrant and standard-setting sparkling wine brand that also went on to make some pretty killer still wines as well. But like some punchline about winegrowers and how they don’t retire, Judy is far from done with wine. Instead she’s launched Geodesy Wine, a philanthropic wine label focused on advancing the next generation of women in agriculture. Profits from the venture go to fund the WG Edge Program (Women Gaining an Edge), a leadership development organization that Jordan founded. Judy has assembled an All-star, mostly-female team to run Geodesy, including winemaker Megan Baccitich, who spent a decade as Director of Winemaking for Paul Hobbs. In addition to Napa, Geodesy also produces Pinot and Chardonnay from Oregon.
2017 Geodesy “Sage Ridge Vineyard” Red Blend, Napa Valley, California Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry with a touch of blackberry. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and blackberry fruit has a nice buoyancy thanks to excellent acidity. Notes of violets and licorice linger in the finish along with a darker potting soil earthiness that is quite compelling. Supple, fine-grained tannins flex their muscles but in the background. A blend of 73% Cab Sauvignon, 18% Cab Franc, 5% Merlot, 2% Malbec, and 2% Petit Verdot. 14.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $175. click to buy.
2016 Geodesy “Sage Ridge Vineyard” Red Blend, Napa Valley, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and blueberries. In the mouth, juicy flavors of cassis and black cherry are wrapped in a sheet of taut, supple tannins. Excellent acidity keeps the fruit bright, as hints of green herbs emerge on the finish. There’s a high-toned quality to this wine, that makes me wish for a slightly deeper bass note to accompany the treble, despite my admiration for the juicy acidity. A blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot, 6% Malbec, and 1% Petit Verdot. 14.9% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $175. click to buy.
Jon Nathaniel Wines
Another winery born out of significant success in the industry, Jon Nathaniel Wines is the next act of John Komes, the founder of Flora Springs Winery. John started Flora Springs in 1978, back when there were only 66 wineries in California. After selling Flora Springs to the Cathiard family, owners of Bordeaux’s Château Smith Haut Lafitte in 2020, John was able to focus entirely on Jon Nathaniel Wines, which was California’s 6,967th bonded winery when he started it as a personal label along with his son Nathaniel “Nat” Komes. The younger Komes serves as winemaker, with a heavy dose of collaboration from his father, who is referred to as “the fabulist” and serves as the inspiration for the winery’s red wine. Jon Nathaniel isn’t a new winery per se, but it was a new name to me.
2018 Jon Nathaniel Wines “Fabulist” Red Blend, Napa Valley, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich black cherry and cassis. In the mouth, black cherry, cassis and blueberries have a nice polished, round quality in the mouth. Good acidity and faint, billowy tannins round out the blend. Rich but without being heavy. A blend of 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec, and 3% Cabernet Franc. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $100.
Few things are as symbolic of the winegrower’s efforts as the humble shovel, or “La Pelle” in French. La Pelle Winery is a new project from one of Napa’s superstar winemakers, Maayan Koshitzky (winemaking partner with Philippe Melka) and two of Napa’s well-known viticulturalists, Miguel Luna and Pete Richmond, who are partners in Silverado Farming Company. All the fruit is sourced from vineyards managed by Silverado, but farmed specifically for La Pelle. The winery has also recently released some single vineyard wines that I have yet to taste. Finally, it’s rare that I comment on a winery’s packaging or branding, but the overall branding of La Pelle is exceptional, and their labels are quite compelling.
2017 La Pelle “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis with hints of dried herbs. In the mouth, dried herbs suffuse flavors of black cherry and cassis that are enlivened with decent acidity. Muscular tannins mostly hang back and let the fruit do the talking, only flexing a bit in the finish as hints of bitter greens linger on the palate. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $175. click to buy.
2018 La Pelle Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Inky opaque garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis with a hint of green herbs. In the mouth, cassis and black cherry fruit have excellent juiciness thanks to zingy acidity. Notes of black pepper and blackberry linger with a faint bitterness in the finish as powdery tannins gradually increase their grip on the palate. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $75. click to buy.
Randy Wigginton was one of Apple Computer’s first engineers, back when Steve Jobs was just a young visionary that no one had ever heard of. Wigginton went on to work at a number of Silicon Valley’s most famous companies but he never forgot the exactitude that Jobs taught him—or what he likes to refer to as the Unwritten agreement that everything they were working on had to “be big and had to be done right.” Wigginton got into wine and eventually decided with four other friends to start a small wine label. With the help of winemaker Mark Porembski, of Anomaly Vineyards, the partners made two barrels or 50 cases of wine in 2014. The label has since grown to about 350 cases, and sources fruit from some of David Abreu’s vineyards.
2017 Unwritten Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of bright sweet cherry fruit. In the mouth, juicy and bright cherry and cola notes are mouthwatering in their purity and freshness. Faint tannins and hints of floral and plum notes dance around the palate thanks to fantastic acidity. A little on the candied side of things, but it’s hard not to love the purity of the fruit and the absence of significant new oak influence. The acidity is so bright there’s even an orange-peel note in the finish. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $150.
Magna Carta Cellars
David Choi got his start in the wine business through sales, specifically as the owner of one of the nation’s largest and oldest wine stores: Pearson’s Wine and Spirits of Washington, DC, which has been in business since 1933. Choi went deep into the wine world and is one of only 60 people in the world awarded the Merite Agricole by The French Ambassador and the Republic of France, as a result of his work with French wines. Magna Carta is a partnership between Choi and winemakers Peter Heitz (of Turnbull Wine Cellars) and Scott Palazzo of Palazzo wines. The three partners source grapes from Oakville, Stags Leap, and Carneros to make Bordeaux-style blends.
2016 Magna Carta Cellars “Magna Carta” Proprietary Red, Napa Valley, California Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and licorice with hints of dark plum. In the mouth, brooding and rich black cherry, cassis, and licorice flavors are draped in a heavy, weighted blanket of tannins. Decent acidity keeps the fruit fresh but there’s an overall weighty, rich darkness to this wine that feels a bit much. For fans of the brawny and powerful, however, this might be just the ticket. A blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 2.5% Malbec, and 2.5% Petit Verdot. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $100. click to buy.
2018 Magna Carta Cellars “Magna Carta” Proprietary Red, Napa Valley, California Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and cassis. In the mouth, rich black cherry and blackberry flavors are wrapped in a muscular fist of tannins that squeezes tighter as the wine moves across the palate. Good acidity keeps the fruit fresh, but the tannins turn drying in the end, leaving a somewhat parched feeling as notes of licorice and black cherry linger in the finish. Massive and brawny, this wine needs a bit of time before enjoyment and may be overdone for those looking for more finesse. Nonetheless, it is a well-made interpretation of a certain style of Napa Cabernet. A blend of 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec, and 3% Petit Verdot. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $100. click to buy.
2014 Magna Carta Cellars Red Blend, Napa Valley, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and cherry, forest floor, and graphite. In the mouth, graphite and cherry flavors mix with cedar and sawdust as hints of dried herbs and licorice root linger in the finish. Fine-grained tannins and decent acidity. There’s a nice savory quality to this wine at this point in its evolution. A blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.
Metzker Family Estates
Michael Metzker is a successful geneticist and entrepreneur, having founded two genetics/genomics companies in addition to serving as Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. During his undergrad years at UC Davis, Metzker fell in love with wine and eventually decided he needed to do more than just drink it. Metzker Family Estates was founded in 2014, and is run by Michael, his son Cameron, and winemaker Melissa Castro, most recently of Antica Napa Valley, the Antinori Estates project in Napa. The label sources fruit from both Napa and Sonoma for their wines.
2017 Metzker Family Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa, California Very dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and black cherry. In the mouth, black cherry and blackberry flavors are dark and earthy, with notes of graphite and wet soil. Tight, muscular tannins grasp the core of fruit in an increasingly tight squeeze, though they are fine grained and quite pretty. Brooding and dark, this wine needs some time to open up. Excellent acidity and very restrained oak presence. 15% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $125. click to buy.
On Q Wines
On Q Wines‘ homepage describes the project as “Small Production Boutique Ultra Premium Cult Wines,” so I’ll leave you to make what you will of that mouthful. Proprietor Steve Brady grew up in Napa and had a career as a Marine Engineer and “semi-professional” trumpeter before deciding to make wine in 2005. After encouragement from friends and neighbors on his initial garage efforts, he got serious in 2010, and brought on consulting winemaker Maayan Koshitzky, who now assists Brady in making several different wines sourced from sites in both Napa and Sonoma, with an emphasis on Coombsville in Napa.
2015 On Q Wines “Appassionata” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa, California Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and tobacco. In the mouth, fantastic acidity makes flavors of licorice, black cherry and cola quite vibrant, and there’s a faint salinity to the wine that adds an extra kick of brightness. Muscular tannins flex and squeeze against the palate as notes of licorice and dried flowers linger in the finish along with hints of cedar. Massive, but with a certain grace. 15.1% alcohol. Offensively heavy bottle weighs in just shy of 2 kilograms (yes, almost 4.5 lbs) when full. 121 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $185. click to buy.
2016 On Q Wines “Appassionata” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and licorice and a touch of niçoise olive. In the mouth, rich black cherry and cola and cocoa powder flavors are wrapped in a fleecy blanket of tannins and buoyed by juicy acidity. There’s a faint salinity to this wine, which contributes to the mouthwatering quality it has despite its power and heft. In addition to notes of licorice and dried flowers, a faint touch of heat in the finish betrays its 15.1% alcohol. 121 cases of horrifically heavy (1.96 kg) bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $185. click to buy.
2016 On Q Wines “Cadence” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa, California Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cedar and a hint of dried herbs. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, plum, and cedar flavors have a nice lift thanks to excellent acidity. Notes of Mexican chocolate linger in the finish along with licorice and violets. Muscular tannins are well restrained. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $85. click to buy.
2017 OnQ “Improvisation” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and cedar. In the mouth, supple, velvety tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and cola nut. Excellent acidity keeps the wine fresh, as a touch of minty green herbs emerges in the finish along with a dark chocolate note that is quite pleasing. Very well-integrated oak. 14.8% alcohol. 175 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $85.
For a certain generation of wine lovers, the name Kornell should ring a bell. In its day Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars was quite a thing. Hanns Kornell is among the few Jews who were sent to the Dachau concentration camp and were able to leave. On the back of this small miracle, he made his way to California like so many other German Jewish immigrants at the time. Kornell would go on to start a massively successful sparkling wine brand and then have it repossessed by the bank after over-extending financially. Kornell’s daughter Paula would grow up in Napa and spend her entire career in the wine industry, working for Joseph Phelps and Robert Mondavi among others, as well as serving in leadership positions for Napa Valley Vintners and Oakville Winegrowers. After downshifting her career out of larger organizations to more of an independent consulting role, Kornell decided the time was right to follow up on a dream she’d had for years. And as of 2019, the Kornell name is back on the front of a sparkling wine bottle in the form of Paula Kornell sparkling wines. She produces a non-vintage Brut and a vintage-dated Blanc de Noirs, the first of which is the 2017 vintage.
2017 Paula Kornell “Blanc de Noir” Sparkling Wine, Napa Valley, California A light to medium gold in the glass with a slight rosy hue and medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells of berries and white flowers and a touch of crushed nuts. In the mouth, forest berry and seawater flavors are borne across the palate on a fluffy mousse, leaving berry scents and a sour SweetTart aftertaste in the mouth. Quite pretty. Blind, I would have guessed this to be a rosé sparkling wine. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.
Dean Papadakis, a successful real estate lawyer and his wife Katie swear that they had no intention of ever becoming vintners. But this wouldn’t be the first time that a little vacation to the Napa Valley turned into a new chapter in someone’s life. Apparently, they were sitting around with their friend and well-known winemaker Mike Smith (of Carter Cellars, Becklyn, Maybach Family, and others) and he happened to let drop the fact that a few rows of Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard were soon to be available. A bit of conversation ensued, and before you know it, Dean and Katie had decided to take the plunge and become proprietors of a brand they call, quite appropriately, Perchance Estates. Mike now makes the wine for their 13 rows of Georges III, and, everyone is quite happy with the arrangement.
2018 Perchance Estates “Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, plum, and tobacco. In the mouth, gorgeously smooth cherry and cola and tobacco notes are juicy with bright acidity. Fleecy tannins hang in the background letting the lush fruit take the fore. Just the tiniest bit of alcoholic heat mars the finish which is dried flowers and licorice and dark chocolate. 14.9% alcohol. Comes in a ridiculously heavy bottle—weighing in at 1.98 kg when full—and that’s after I removed the wax cap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $225. click to buy.
Post & Beam Winery
That label should look awfully familiar to a lot of people. While Post & Beam is a new brand, it is part of the long-standing Art Nouveau-branded Far Niente family of wineries along with Nickel & Nickel, Dolce, Enroute, and Bella Union. This new brand represents something of an entry-level approach to Napa Cabernet, insofar as a wine priced at $45 can be entry-level. As noted in my introductory remarks above, being able to offer a quality Cabernet at this price is no mean feat in Napa, and the wine no doubt fills out a crucial (and I would wager, extremely popular) spot in the Far Niente portfolio.
2018 Post & Beam Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry. In the mouth, bright black cherry flavors mix with a touch of cola nut and black currant. Fine-grained, velvety tannins buff the edges of the palate. Excellent acidity. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.
Seven Apart Wines
Don Dady grew up in Sonoma but eventually made his home in Scottsdale, where he founded the financial firm Annexus. Partnering with former NFL long snapper Jason Kyle of the Seattle Seahawks, Dady purchased the Stags Ridge Vineyard, a rocky plot high on Atlas Peak planted in 1999. The two then hired famed winemaker Andy Erickson (of Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Ovid, and Staglin fame, among others) and set out to take a money-is-no-object kind of approach to building a wine label they are calling Seven Apart, including a brand new, state-of-the-art winery and hospitality building that will soon finish construction. As one might expect, there’s a waiting list already.
2018 Seven Apart “Expedition” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Inky, opaque garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and tobacco. In the mouth, gorgeous black cherry and plum fruit are juicy with fantastic acidity. Muscular tannins grip the core of fruit as dried herbs and flowers mix with the dark berry licorice that is the core of this wine. Brawny but not overdone, and restrained in its expression of oak. Just a tiny hint of bitter wood on the finish. A blend of 98% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Merlot. 14.1% alcohol. Comes in a massive, 1.78 kg bottle with a cork so long that because of the inset due to a wax cap, a Coravin needle couldn’t go all the way through. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $135.
There aren’t many wineries in Napa started by wine writers. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any, but Smith Devereux seems to qualify, as in addition to being a travel writer (working for Lonely Planet for many years) co-founder Ian White has also written for Wine Enthusiast, among other outlets. The road to the launch of the Smith Devereux brand is a bit of a tortured path of one wine venture leading to another, so suffice it to say that this newly launched brand is a collaboration between White, vintner John Anthony Truchard, and music agent Steve Smith, and it has already spawned collaborations with various musicians as well as extensions in to “merch” and other beverages.
2017 Smith Devereux “IBEX” Merlot, St. Helena, Napa, California Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of vanilla and fresh red fruits. In the mouth, juicy notes of cherry, plum, and the sweet toastiness of oak mix with a touch of espresso. Excellent acidity and the relatively low 14.1% alcohol make for a fresh mouthful, though there is a touch of heat on the finish. 417 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45.
2016 Smith Devereux Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, tobacco, and green herbs. In the mouth, cherry, cola, tobacco, and the toasty vanilla and charred espresso notes of new oak have a nice juicy brightness thanks to excellent acidity. The tannins are fine-grained but drying, parching the mouth and leaving a sandpapery feeling on the tongue. A touch too much wood here for my tastes, but still a pretty fresh and juicy wine. 14.9% alcohol. 500 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.
Casey Stringer and his father Chip fell in love with Napa wine roughly at the same moment: when a trip to look at California colleges gave them an opportunity to take a drive through Napa. Even before he ended up back in California for college, Casey started working in a wine shop back in Wisconsin, where he grew up. After realizing he wanted a winemaking degree more than the photography degree he signed up for, Stringer worked harvests for a number of wineries, eventually ending up in New Zealand where he got his winemaking degree. After a brief experiment in making wine in Wisconsin by trucking in California fruit, Stringer convinced his wife to move to California, where, joined by his dad, he started his wine label Stringer Cellars. Casey makes the wine, his father oversees operations, his wife pours at tastings, and his two brothers help with marketing and sales. They source fruit on Atlas Peak and from around Napa and Sonoma for their wines.
2018 Stringer Cellars “Linda Vista Vineyard” Chardonnay, Oak Knoll District, Napa, California Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, citrus pith, and a touch of melted butter. In the mouth, creamy white flowers, citrus pith, and cold cream flavors have a delicate, filigreed acidity that builds power as the wine finishes with hints of citrus pith and white flowers, with a slight tang of unripe apples. Quite pretty. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $32. click to buy.
2017 Stringer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District, Napa, California Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, blueberries, and flowers. In the mouth, intense cassis, blueberry, and black cherry flavors are cool and crunchy thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a brisk freshness to the wine as notes of minty green herbs mix with the aromatic fruit flavors. Faint, grippy tannins. This wine is quite primary yet, and will likely improve with a few years in the bottle. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.
Walter and Joan Teachworth bought an estate on Napa’s Diamond Mountain just as it was becoming fashionable to do so, but before it became purely the province of the super-rich. Their vineyards were planted in 1997, and their first vintage was in 2000. So Teachworth Winery is not necessarily a new name in Napa, but it’s definitely new to me. The Teachworths have passed away and the winery is now owned by their children and has been operated by young winemaker Taylor Berkley Boydstun for the past 2 vintages. Boydstun is early in his career, having spent a year as the cellarmaster at MacRostie in Carneros before leaving to join Teachworth and to start his own label T. Berkley Wines. Teachworth is a tiny operation making just a few barrels a year from its 2-acre jewel-box vineyard, and its earliest vintages seem to have each been made by different winemakers.
2016 Teachworth Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain District, Napa, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry and tobacco notes. In the mouth, wonderfully bright and fresh cherry and tobacco flavors mix with cola and fresh herbs. Fantastic acidity combined with the tinge of green herbs makes this wine quite fresh and mouthwatering, with the coolness of peppermint patties lingering in the finish. The tannins are quite faint, and the overall medium-bodied quality of this wine is quite quaffable. Excellent. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125.
2018 Teachworth Winery Pinot Noir, Carneros, Napa, California Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet cherry fruit. In the mouth, sweetish cranberry and cherry flavors have a nice purity but definitely a candied quality. Many people will appreciate the bright purity of this fruit, kissed as it is with the vanilla of oak. Excellent acidity keeps the wine fresh. Ultimately a bit too candied for me, but quite pretty. 14.75% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $60. click to buy.
The Rutherford Wine Company began as an iconic vineyard property in Rutherford, the Rutherford Ranch, but it has now become something of a wine portfolio company. Family-owned by some of the investors who joined the historical family owners in building the business, it now makes a very large quantity of wine under a number of different commercial and private label brands, all overseen by Director of Winemaking Jay Turnipseed. Torcia Wines, then, is not a new winery in Napa, per se, but a new brand in their sizeable portfolio, one distinctively targeted at the luxury Cabernet market. Day-to-day winemaking for the brand is overseen by Associate Winemaker Kaitlyn Sulenski and her assistant winemaker Caylin Crivello.
2017 Torcia Wines “Abela” Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa, California Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry, cedar, and tobacco. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, cherry, licorice, and cedar have a wonderful deep resonance and are buoyed by excellent acidity. This is a rich wine but not over the top, and it is mercifully absent a massive dose of new oak. Doubtless, it saw some, but whatever it experienced, it has absorbed beautifully. 14.2% alcohol. An unforgivably heavy bottle weighs in at 1.98 kg when full. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $145. click to buy.
2017 Torcia Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of alcohol and bright cherry fruit. In the mouth, bright cherry fruit has a surprising buoyancy thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a touch of hollowness in this wine, which floats above the palate in a high-toned quality but lacks some grounding element, as fruity cherry and plum flavors seem to soar off into the finish. 15.5% alcohol. Massive 1.97 kg bottle. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $135. click to buy.
Trois Noix may not roll off the tongue that easily, but the wines it makes are certainly designed to. This cleverly named brand (literally “three nuts” in French, after founder Jamie Araujo and her brother’s combined three kids) is Araujo’s new venture after the sale of her parents’ eponymous winery to the Francois Pinault, the owners of Chateau Latour in 2013. Araujo, who is now the sole owner, has built a small wine brand sourcing fruit from biodynamic, organic, and sustainably farmed vineyards in Napa. She recently brought on a young superstar winemaker in Meghan Zobeck who will be making the wines beginning in the 2021 vintage.
2018 Trois Noix Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and buttered popcorn. In the mouth, juicy rich flavors of melted butter, lemon curd, and a hint of candied grapefruit have a nice balance between richness and nervosity. Excellent acidity. Hints of oak and butterscotch in the finish. 14.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2018 Trois Noix Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of golden delicious apples, warm hay and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, pink grapefruit, citrus pith, and golden apples have a nice bright tanginess and a touch of floral aromas as the wine finishes with a pithy astringency. A blend of 53% Sauvignon Blanc and 47% Sauvignon Musque. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.
2016 Trois Noix Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, tobacco, and crushed nuts. In the mouth, cool, earthy, restrained notes of black cherry and cola are shot through with the espresso notes of new oak. Toasted oak, cocoa powder, and that nice earthy note linger in the finish along with the green hint of freshly chopped herbs. Excellent acidity keeps this wine quite fresh and faint tannins grip the edges of the palate. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $120. click to buy.
The aptly named Work Vineyard has been doing its job now since 1976, when it was first planted in the northwest corner of Calistoga, just down the street from Chateau Montelena. The vineyard’s latest owners, Lamya and Sam Malhotra, purchased the property from its original owners in 2007, and after some experimentation and replanting, brought on winemaker Kari Aurigner in 2012 to oversee the winemaking for their 5 acres of vines as well as fruit they purchase from Sonoma County, for a total production of about 500 cases per year.
2017 Work Vineyard “Lamya’s” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and blackberries. In the mouth, bright cassis and black cherry flavors are wrapped in a supple, muscular sheaf of tannins. Excellent acidity keeps the fruit bright, and a darker earthier licorice note makes its way into the finish. Pretty nicely balanced overall, but may need a year or two to show its full potential. 14.7% alcohol. 67 six-packs produced. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $130. click to buy.
Welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.
This week offered an unusually strong set of samples beginning with an absolutely fabulous white Rioja from the boutique producer Abel Mendoza. Husband-and-wife team Abel Mendoza and Maite Fernandez farm about 50 acres and make about 6000 cases of hand-crafted wines each year. The two have been making their own wines since 1988, and have made a name for themselves producing single-variety white wines in a region where, until recently, such wines were not allowed. This white, however, features all 5 white varieties that the couple grows, and it is a stunning expression of fruit and minerality that stopped me in my tracks. Their Seleccion Personal Rioja, which I also tasted this week, is equally as compelling. I highly recommend both wines.
There was a time (as recently as 15 years ago) when California rosé pretty much sucked. One of the problems it faced was that most folks in California didn’t know how to make it well. Most rosés were from saignee, meaning juice that was just pulled out of a tank that would go on to make red wine, rather than being wines that were made from grapes picked specifically to make rosé. Those crappy California rosés were all usually quite dark in color, and at the time, it was rare to see a pale, pink rendition that resembled the rosés of Provence. Now, thankfully, properly picked-for-rosé wines are much more common in California, and so it’s not uncommon to find wonderfully pale-colored pink wines from all over the state.
Having said that, the rosé I tried this week from Raeburn is perhaps one of the most pale-colored I’ve ever seen in California, but that lack of color doesn’t translate to a lack of flavor, however. It offers the bright range of refreshing flavors everyone has come to love in these versatile, delicious wines. I wonder, perhaps, if the pale color may be just an extra little hedge against the risk of smoke taint, the compounds of which are found in the skins of affected grapes. Regardless, there is zero perceptible taste of smoke in this wine, so either such efforts paid off, or there wasn’t anything to worry about.
Perhaps the most impressive wine I tasted this week was the latest wine from the collaboration between Burgundy’s Jean-Nicolas Méo (of Domaine Méo-Camuzet), and music entrepreneur Jay Boberg (among other things, one of the founders of IRS Records) named Nicolas-Jay. Along with the help of Associate Winemaker Tracy Kendall, this estate has been making exceptional Pinot Noirs in Oregon’s Willamette Valley for several years, with a particular emphasis on single-vineyard bottlings. Every year, however, there have always been some barrels or blocks that stand out, even from their single-vineyard focus, and in 2018, the trio decided to assemble a wine from these standout, best-of-the-best lots of wine. To this new wine they gave the name “L’Ensemble” and it truly sings. At the moment it is quite young, but the wine is both delicious and indicative that it will become even more so with age.
This week I also tasted two new releases from Acumen, one of Napa’s more interesting young wine labels. Their “Mountainside” wines are their less-expensive bottles, and both the Cabernet and the Red Blend are very tasty, and like all the Acumen wines, show a restraint of both alcohol and oak that are admirable for Napa.
Lastly, the wine world has been a bit abuzz lately with the announcement of the Penfolds California Collection, the venerable Australian producer’s set of California wines. Comprised of four wines, two of which, quite unusually, are blends of wine from both California and Australia, these were a pretty impressive set of wines.
The wines range in price from $50 to a whopping $700, but all display the extremely competent winemaking that has turned Penfolds into a powerhouse producer. My favorite of the group was the “Lot 149,” a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from both Napa and Australia that had an herbal zing and wonderful juicy acidity. Despite having 85.1% of the wine come from Napa, with 14.9% of the wine coming from outside the US, the wine has received the most generic appellation designation there is in this country: “American.” If only all American Cabernet Sauvignon was this good.
The other three wines are definitely worth seeking out, though I suspect the Quantum bottling may end up being little more than a collectors curiosity.
2019 Abel Mendoza “5V” Rioja Blanca, Spain Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of star fruit, melon, and candied grapefruit. In the mouth, juicy and bright Asian pear, melon and grapefruit flavors mix with dried yellow herbs and a wonderful citrus pith and saline quality that builds through the finish. Fantastically balanced between richness and mouthwatering juiciness. A blend of the five white grape varieties (hence the name) grown on the estate: Torrontes, Viura, Grenache Blanc, Tempranillo Blanco, and Malvasia. 14.5% alcohol. 3797 bottles made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.
2020 Raeburn Rosé, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California Palest peach in color, to the point of being nearly colorless — certainty one of the lightest rosés I’ve had from California, this wine smells of watermelon and strawberry gum. In the mouth, faintly sweet flavors of watermelon, strawberry and raspberry fruit have a nice brightness thanks to excellent acidity, with an orange peel citrus note as well as a little jalapeño heat on the finish. Perhaps slightly candied for my taste, but doubtless a crowd-pleaser. An unusual blend of 74% Pinot Noir, 22% Zinfandel, and 4% Grenache. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $17. click to buy.
2018 Nicolas Jay “L’Ensemble” Pinot Noir, Oregon, Willamette Valley Medium garnet in color, this wine has a slightly shy nose of dried flowers, raspberries, and cherry aromas. In the mouth, beautiful filigreed acidity brings flavors of raspberry, cherry, and forest floor alive. There’s a deep stoniness to this wine that is quite compelling, as well as a coiled potential that suggests it will blossom into something even more spectacular with age. Lovely faint tannins linger in the finish with hints of orange peel and cherry. Fermented with native yeasts and aged in 33% new French oak for 14 months. 13.5% alcohol. 1145 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.
2017 Abel Mendoza “Seleccion Personal” Rioja, Spain Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of rich cherry and dark earth, shot through with dried flowers. In the mouth, cherry and earth and forest floor flavors mix with the exotic perfume of dried flowers and herbs. Gorgeously savory, with suede-like tannins that hang back at the edges of the palate and excellent acidity, this is an understated powerhouse of a wine that has beautiful balance and poise. It’s got a gorgeous voice, but it’s not shouting at you. Step closer and listen closely to what it has to say. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $61. click to buy.
2018 Acumen “Mountainside” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cocoa powder, and tobacco. In the mouth, cherry, boysenberry, chocolate, and cola flavors have a nice brightness thanks to excellent acidity. Faint tannins buff the edges of the palate while notes of slightly-bitter and earthy licorice root linger in the finish. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2018 Acumen “Mountainside” Red Blend, Napa Valley, California Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, plum, and a touch of green herbs. In the mouth, plummy fruit and green herbs mix with cola and a berry note that are all juicy with excellent acidity. There’s a hint of bitterness in the finish that reminds me of Chinese medicinal tea.14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2018 Penfolds “Bin 600 – Cabernet Shiraz” Red Blend, California Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and blackberry fruit. In the mouth, black cherry and blackberry flavors are bright and slightly spicy, with excellent acidity and a nice powdery, gauzy throw of tannins. Hints of orange peel linger with the blackberry bramble in the finish. Tasty. A blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Shiraz, some of which comes from a vineyard planted by Penfolds in the Camatta Hills of Paso Robles in the 1980s. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2018 Penfolds “Bin 704” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis, tobacco and earth. In the mouth, rich black cherry, cola, and licorice flavors are wonderfully savory and juicy with excellent acidity. The wood influence here is subtle and not overwhelming, though it does surface in the finish, leaving the wine with a faint woody aftertaste. A nicely made wine, though. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $70. click to buy.
2018 Penfolds “Bin 149” Cabernet Sauvignon, USA Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis and black licorice. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and blackberry flavors have a faint minty juiciness that it’s easy to imagine comes from the Australian component of this blend, though that’s not entirely certain. Quite juicy and very tasty, with supple, fleecy tannins that wrap around the mouthwatering core of fruit. Notes of mint and green herbs linger in the finish along with black cherry and licorice. Juicier and more satisfying than the Napa-only bottling that is part of this collection. Labeled a “Wine of the World,” this is an unusual blend of 85.1% Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and 14.9% Australian Cabernet. In all likelihood, this is the single best Cabernet without an AVA designation you’ll ever have. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $149. click to buy.
2018 Penfolds “Quantum – Bin 98” Cabernet Sauvignon, USA Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cola. In the mouth, rich black cherry and cola flavors have a nice juicy brightness thanks to excellent acidity. There’s an interesting cedar and camphor quality to this wine, with a high-note that has an herbal incense quality to it. Very fine-grained tannins and a long finish. A blend of 87% Napa Cabernet, and 13% Australian Cabernet. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $700. Yes, you read that correctly. $700. click to buy.
Welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.
This week included a couple of really pleasurable white wines. The first was a Picpoul Blanc (an unusual grape variety to find anywhere outside its home in southern France) from Two Shepherds winery. It’s crisp and juicy but with a richness of flavor that makes it a bit more serious than you expect it to be when you first put it in your mouth.
The second is a really lovely Chardonnay from the Finger Lakes region of New York, by long-standing producer Ravines. It’s lean and bright and wonderfully elegant, and a steal at only $20.
Two Shepherds also offered up two red wines this week, their Mendocino Carignan, which is made in a crunchy, low-alcohol style and has all the berry and sour goodness you expect from the grape. The other wine is their Pastoral Melange, a really tasty blend of their Carignan and Cinsault. I’m finishing off a glass of this wine (with a bit of chill on it) as I write this, and it’s just an eminently drinkable wine.
I’ve also got a Russian River Pinot Noir from Raeburn cellars this week, which is a classic expression of why Russian River Pinot has been charming wine lovers for decades.
Also mixed in there this week I’ve got a very classic expression of Rioja, courtesy of CVNE, one of the region’s largest and most historical producers, founded in 1879 and family-run for more than 5 generations. Their wines are, as is typical for the region, aged in American oak, giving the wine a very particular flavor profile that some love and some don’t. Personally, I don’t love it, but that can’t stop me from admiring a well-made wine..
We can finish out the week with a bunch of “serious” Cabernet Sauvignons, starting with the third single-parcel effort from Knights Bridge Winery (I reviewed two others recently). Like its siblings, it’s a pretty well-made expression of the form and an excellent standard-bearer for the quality of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon.
I got my first taste of Boich Family Wines this week with their top-of-the-line Beckstoffer To-Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon, which is reasonably well made, but not nearly as impressive as it should be given the price tag.
Finally, I was sent the three most recent vintages of Charles Krug Winery’s flagship Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a historic bottling from a historic winery in Napa, and represents their dedication to the Mondavi family heritage that revitalized the winery in the late 1940s. Starting from their very first harvest at the winery in 1944 (the winery itself was originally founded in 1861), the family decided to make a separate bottling of some of its best grapes under the Vintage Selection name (it was actually called Select Cabernet for its first couple of years) and has continued the tradition ever since. These are wines built for long aging, and manage to be pretty balanced despite somewhat elevated alcohol levels.
2019 Two Shepherds “Windmill Vineyards” Picpoul Blanc, Yolo County, California A light yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon curd and a touch of seawater. In the mouth, bright lemony and grapefruit citrus flavors are sharp and juicy thanks to excellent acidity. There’s also a hint of candle wax to the flavor and a faintly honeyed richness that is perceived aromatically rather than as any weight on the palate. Nice wet-pavement minerality. Aged for 8 months in 50% stainless steel, and 50% neutral oak puncheons. 12.1% alcohol. 250 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.
2017 Ravines Chardonnay, Finger Lakes, New York Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon curd and buttered popcorn. In the mouth, crackling lemon curd and white floral notes have a lovely zing thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a faint hint of melted butter but this is mostly a citrusy dance party on the palate. Quite delicious. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.
2018 Two Shepherds “Trimble Vineyard” Carignan, Mendocino County, California A bright medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of blackberries and black cherry. In the mouth, juicy, slightly sour black cherry flavors are dusted with powdery tannins that buff the edges of the palate and grow a little more muscular as the tangy red and black fruit lingers with a SweetTart sourness in the finish. Excellent acidity. Made from 45-year-old, organically dry-farmed, head-trained vines. Fermented in neutral oak barrels. 12.18% alcohol. 525 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $26. click to buy.
2019 Two Shepherds “Pastoral Melange” Red Blend, California Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of boysenberries and strawberry jam. In the mouth, juicy bright boysenberry and strawberry flavors have a kick, thanks to excellent acidity, which leaves a SweetTart sourness in the finish that is positively mouthwatering. Hints of herbs add complexity, but this definitely hits the “glou glou” bullseye. A blend of stainless-steel fermented and aged Cinsault and carbonically macerated Carignan fermented in neutral barrels. 11.4% alcohol. 50 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.
2019 Raeburn Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, bright cranberry and cedar flavors mix with chopped herbs and a touch of sawdust. Excellent acidity keeps things juicy and leaves a citrus-peel brightness in the finish. Faint tannins dust the edges of the mouth. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $23. click to buy.
2015 CVNE “Imperial Reserva” Rioja, Spain Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry, leather, and whiskey barrels. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and boysenberry flavors are shot through with the strong coconut sunscreen, bourbon barrel flavors of American oak. Smooth, fine-grained tannins are stretched taut in the mouth, as the wine courses, silky across the palate. Refined and tasty, just too much wood for my taste. Usuall contains a bit of Graciano and Mazuelo, in addition to its primary grape, Tempranillo. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $28. click to buy.
2017 Knights Bridge “Haggerty” Cabernet Sauvignon, Knights Valley, Sonoma, California Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and a touch of woodsmoke. In the mouth, rich black cherry, sweet pipe tobacco and cocoa powder flavors are wrapped in a fleecy blanket of tannins. Black cherry and black currant notes linger in the finish with a hint of sagebrush. This wine represents a single-block from the estate vineyard planted with the See clone of Cabernet. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $150. click to buy.
2017 Boich Family Cellar “Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and licorice. In the mouth, rich, and slightly sweet black cherry fruit mixes with black currant and cola under a gauzy throw of tannins. Slightly high-toned (a bit too much for my taste), this wine seems to float above the palate a bit, lingering with a somewhat ethereal finish of black currants. 15.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $300. click to buy.
2014 Charles Krug “Vintage Selection” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Napa, California Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cola. In the mouth, gorgeously bright, juicy black cherry fruit is melded to a cola and mocha core to the wine. Suede-like tannins wrap around the core of fruit. Contains 2% Petit Verdot. There’s a touch of heat in the finish that betrays the wine’s 15.5% alcohol level. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.
2015 Charles Krug “Vintage Selection” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry. In the mouth, rich black cherry and cassis flavors mix with licorice and blueberries. Suede-like tannins wrap around the core of fruit. Reads as high octane, with some burn in the finish. Tannins flex their muscles for a while in the mouth. Contains 4% Petit Verdot. 15.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $125. click to buy.
2016 Charles Krug “Vintage Selection” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and blackberry with a hint of tobacco. In the mouth, rich black cherry and blackberry are wrapped in a taut muscular fist of tannins. Excellent acidity keeps this wine fairly fresh feeling in the mouth, with the black cherry and cola notes touched by a green herbal quality. Notes of mocha linger in the finish. Nicely balanced. A third of this fruit comes from the winery’s Howell Mountain property. The balance of fruit comes from two vineyards just south of Yountville. 15.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.