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Carneros Wineries Celebrate Passport Weekend
November 30, 2009
There are a couple of places in the United States where one appellation traverses across county lines, but none more famous than Los Carneros (these days almost universally referred to simply as “Carneros”), which runs through the southern portions of both Napa and Sonoma counties. Quite cool as a result of its proximity to the San Pablo Bay (an extension of the San Francisco Bay), Carneros has rightfully gained notoriety as a world class region for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, which are traditionally best grown in this type climate.
Once a year many of the Carneros wineries join together to present a “Passport” weekend, where for one price the consumer can visit all participating wineries and sample whatever wares are being poured. This year, everyone seemed to be pouring 6-8 bottles of some of their best juice, which gave us a great opportunity to evaluate not only some of the wines, but the wineries and staff of the places we visited (even with 6 hours it was impossible for us to get everywhere, given our penchant for serious evaluation and less serious schmoozing).
Only open to the public a few times a year, we love tasting the wines of consultant winemaker Pam Starr in the old barn on the Adastra property with co-owners Chris Thorpe and Edwin Richards. As we mentioned to Chris and Ed, we have never known Pam to have a miss on any wine she has created, whether it be for Adastra, her own Crocker & Starr label, or any other house. Our visit this day did not change our opinion.
-2006 Proximus Pinot Noir ($56): One of the best wines we tasted during the day, it is full of elegant, dark fruit and offers a long finish. Quite complex for a Pinot, the wine spent 15 months in 80% new French oak, and the grapes were all certified organic.
-2006 Estate Pinot Noir ($40): Shows the characteristic Carneros smoke and earth, along with the winemaker’s signature long finish this time bolstered by some spices.
-2006 Proximus Chardonnay ($56): Lost our notes on this one, but have a big star beside the name of the wine on the Passport flyer. That means we liked it more than just a little.
-2007 Regulus Pinot Noir ($40): The Regulus shows what a good winemaker can do with a light to medium bodied wine. The fruit is surprisingly bright, and there is a wisp of clove that dances on the strawberries.
-2007 Ed’s Red ($15): An amazing $15 wine comprised of Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot. Concentrated flavors abound, with anise and pepper. It is fun to find something at this price that is really worth drinking.
It is always a pleasant trip to the Ceja property, where the Ceja family does all it can to make you welcome and to learn about their wines. On this day, we found Amelia greeting guests, Pedro supervising the construction of a second Bocce ball court for the winery’s guests, and Ariel overseeing the wines. Winemaker Armando had done his job earlier in the day, and during the previous week, as the Valley was in the midst of harvest.
We have long enjoyed the nice line of wines here, but were a bit disappointed that only 3 were being shown this day.
-2007 Vino de Casa Red ($20): An interesting blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Syrah, and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, this super priced wine shows cherries and plums before mocha takes over and finishes the journey.
-2007 Pinot Noir Robert Nicol Vineyard Wild Horse Valley ($32): A nice wine with good fruit, a long finish, and a gentle price point.
We say it simply – when you add together staff, hospitality, and wines, Donum emerges at the top of the class in Carneros (maybe tied with one or two others), and as one of California’s great Pinot Noir houses. With the support of owner Ann Moller-Racke, winemaker Ken Juhasz is turning out fabulous wine after fabulous wine. While the estate used to make only one bottle under the Donum label (superb even at $65-80), and several more under the Robert Stemmler label ($35-45), you can now choose from four different Donums (though you might say more since some are available in various vintages).
On Passport day, national sales manager Frieda Guercio joined Ann in making certain that everyone was not only well versed on the Donum line, which was open on the table for sampling, but that Stemmler was remembered, too. One of our favorite Donum people, Lynda Handley, was unfortunately absent, but you will “meet” her when you call to order your wines after reading this.
-2007 Carneros Chardonnay ($50): We get so caught up in the fabulous Pinot Noirs here that we sometimes forget they make a Chardonnay of great complexity. Meyer lemon and apple pie co-exist perfectly with a hint of oak and smoothness throughout. The price of all the Donum line is not inexpensive, but the quality allows the winery to command what is competitive for such wines.
-2007 West Slope Pinot Noir ($70): A candidate for the best Pinot Noir we tasted this year. Wild berries and spices are all over this one, with smoke and earth showing up at just the right time. Complex and serious, it lingers on your mind as well as your palate.
-2007 Carneros and 2007 Russian River Pinot Noirs ($65): No, they don’t have the same flavor profile just because they are listed together. But the prices are the same, and one is as good as the other. The Carneros perhaps exhibits more secondary descriptors (earth, smoke, and wood) than does the Russian River, which invites you to experience black cherries, red plums, and strawberries before enjoying a little forest floor.
-2008 Carneros Pinot Noir: Out of the barrel and spectacular.
Hard to say where times of past glory have gone, but the hike to the tasting room for some pretty average wines was one we could have easily avoided and still had a great day. In fact, our best memory here was tuning into our Satellite radio in the parking lot and learning our favorite college football team had overcome a deficit and won handily.
-2006 GBR Estate Red ($60): Mostly Merlot (71%), with healthy doses of Syrah and Malbec, there is an unpleasant nose and taste of manure, with very little fruit to balance out the secondary characteristics. Not recommended at any price, much less the $60 being asked.
-2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($85): Sorry to say that there is just nothing to say.
We admit we had not even heard of Highway 12 until this event, and we almost did not visit them this day since their tasting room is on the Sonoma Square a bit north of what one usually considers Carneros. But we found them as we searched for lunch. The winemaker is Michael Sebastiani, the vineyards are all located on the Highway 12 corridor in southern Sonoma county (some not actually in Carneros), and the business is relatively new, having started in 2003. The wines here were drinkable if not yet worthy of special recommendation (save one), and we think the problem might be that this winery is already producing a dozen or more wines. Too many, too fast, perhaps. It is usually better to establish the quality of a few bottles before undertaking to make a dozen. But there is some potential here.
-2007 Carneros Highway Pinot Noir ($18): It is light (which is OK at this price), yet shows bright fruit, discernable spices, and a long finish with some tobacco overtones. A very good value.
-2006 Highwayman ($75): Half Cabernet Sauvignon and half Cabernet Franc, this is, the winery unfortunately announces, a blend of its best. The wine is too tannic and unbalanced. The primary reason to actually write about it and not recommend it is the price. Just way too expensive.
Viticulturalist and up and coming star Remi Cohen was able to give a nice informal clinic about the wines she poured at the Stanly Ranch, a location where many of the Merryvale/Starmont vines are grown. Not always a fan of this winery in recent years, on this day we concurred that the wines being produced by the new wine team of Sean Foster, Graham Wehmeier, and Cohen have great merit.
-2008 Starmont Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($18): Lots of tropicality with a creamy body and finish. Excellent price.
-2007 Carneros Chardonnay ($35): Aged for 14 months in French oak, the pedigree of this big white does not disappoint: Hyde and Stanly Ranch vineyards.
-2007 Napa Valley Syrah ($35): Co-fermented with whole cluster Viognier (ultimately 20% of the blend), this wine has nice body amid a nose of fresh flowers and a spicy, peppery finish. Another good bargain from outstanding vineyards (Hudson and Stanly Ranch).
Patz & Hall
James Hall, Ann Moses, Donald Patz, and Heather Patz have a gorgeous tasting salon in Napa, but have moved their winery to Sonoma. And a good choice it was – lots of space for not only winemaking, but get-togethers. We have long been fans of the wines being crafted here, and things have not changed. Patz & Hall makes some of the best Pinot Noirs you will find anywhere. As for Chards, there are wonderful bottles being made all over Napa and Sonoma, and Patz & Hall’s Chardonnay can easily play in these leagues, too.
Chardonnays: Patz and Hall makes at least 7 different single vineyard Chardonnays from different areas of California. As a rule we can always recommend at least 5 of them, but on this day we only tasted the four 2007 Chards that were being poured. Not surprisingly, we thought all to be excellent and able to command the price asked. These include the Dutton Ranch ($39), the Hyde ($55), the Zio Tony ($60), and the Hudson ($55). The Zio Tony Ranch may have the brightest fruit with the longest finish, but the Dutton Ranch is the best buy. Hyde vineyards seems to only provide incredible fruit, and the Hudson will appeal to those who prefer a bit more oak.
Pinot Noirs: Seven is the magic number, as that is how many different Pinots are produced as well. We tasted five and recommend three from the 2007 vintage, and one, the Pisoni ($80), from 2006. This Pisoni comes from what many think is as fine a Pinot Noir vineyard as exists in California. We agree wines from there are always terrific, though they are expensive and need lots of time to age. The other three to watch for are the Chenoweth ($55), the Hyde ($60), and the Jenkins Ranch ($55). We are fans of the blueberries and chocolate in the Chenoweth, as well as the complexity/fruit integration of the Hyde. Jenkins Ranch is a softer, subtler wine – just as good for some, but different.
Well known and well respected, this was not the winery’s best day – not because it did not pour some good wines (it did), but because it ended the sampling with a Syrah that was either not ready, or was flawed. A word to the owner did not result in a change, so we will treat that wine as if it was showing as usual. However, it was so unpleasant that we needed to eat and drink something else to rid ourselves of the finish. Otherwise, Saintsbury maintained its standing as a winery making good wines available for the most part at reasonable prices.
-2007 Brown Ranch Chardonnay ($40): Aged for nine months in French oak, the wine is then transferred (lees and all) to stainless steel to complete its aging. This provides excellent minerality with some apple and pear overtones.
-2007 Brown Ranch Pinot Noir ($60): Darker fruit flavors than are found in most Pinot Noirs are quickly apparent here, as is the lovely transition from first sip to finish. We did think the wine to be about 25% overpriced, however.
-2008 Rodgers Creek Syrah ($40 in 07): This had not yet been released, but smelled heavily of sulfur dioxide. It was hard to take the nose, much less sip. We will concede that even with the owner’s nonchalance on the matter, the deficiency in this wine could have been because of a bad barrel sample rather than a bad wine in general.
Sometimes hard to find due to its location in the far west corner of Carneros, Schug is always worth a visit. Founded by pioneering winemaker Walter Schug, who has been joined by knowledgeable son Axel, the wines here are classically good representatives of whatever varietal is in the glass. An accurate headline here would be, “European winemaking style meets California weather and fruit.”
-2007 Carneros Chardonnay ($28): A well balanced wine with both minerality and some creamy butter on the finish. Fresh cream corn soup comes to mind.
-2007 Carneros Pinot Noir ($28): Strawberries and cherries draw you in, and a bouquet of smoky wood keeps you there. You will not often see a Napa or Sonoma Pinot Noir give you this much body for this price.
-2006 Rouge de Noirs Brut ($30): We agree with the winery: “This sparkler has the lively character of Pinot Noir while retaining the delicate dry profile of a more traditional Blanc de Noirs. It has a beautiful intense rose color, spicy raspberry bouquet and flavor, crisp yet delicately creamy texture, and lots of bubbles!”
This Passport event is held every October and is just one more reason to visit two of the finest wine areas in the world (Napa and Sonoma) rolled into one (Carneros). So tape the football game of your choice, visit the wineries of Carneros, and buy your favorite bottles to drink as you watch the contest whenever you get home.