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Best of the Best 2005: Domestic Red Wines

Brett Anderson

One is left to wonder whether Lady Margaret Michael, when she dubbed the stark, steep slope beneath Mount St. Helena in Sonoma County’s Knights Valley “Les Pavots,” had in mind le pavot des jardins or le pavot somnifère. Sir Peter Michael’s staff will tell you, if you visit the winery and Sugarloaf Ranch, that his wife’s inspiration for naming the vineyard was the flame orange wild poppy, California’s state flower, a stylized rendering of which delicately accents Peter Michael Winery’s otherwise austere labels. But at least one enthusiast of this esteemed producer, who phoned the winery to congratulate the staff on the latest release, appreciates the subtle implication: “It’s my opium,” she said.

Indeed, this Cabernet blend induces in many of its devotees a narcotic state of sensory pleasure and mental ecstasy—this, and its relatively small production of less than 2,000 cases, makes it a prize more valuable and tirelessly sought  after than was the extract of the Papaver somniferum in 19th-century Shanghai. In fact, a succession of supremely talented winemakers (including Helen Turley, Mark Aubert, and, now, Luc Morlet) has refined the overall quality of all Peter Michael releases—including the mouthwatering l’Après-Midi Sauvignon Blanc and the succulent Le Moulin Rouge Pinot—to a sublime standard that sets the winery apart as one of the very few to achieve first-growth quality across all of the varietals in its portfolio. But then, Sir Peter is a sort of Renaissance man, whose interests range from technology to the arts. He founded not only United Engineering Industries, which pioneered new digital technologies for broadcast television, but also Classic FM, the world’s largest commercial FM radio station. Time spent in France with his father during his youth inspired his love of fine wine, and he always had planned to buy a vineyard in either Burgundy or Bordeaux. This plan took a westerly turn when, on a business trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, he discovered Knights Valley. He became convinced that the conditions on this property—its austere, rocky soil, morning sunlight, and cool Pacific breezes—formed the perfect terroir for making California wines with the same elegance and sense of place as those of great châteaux of France.
 
The Les Pavots Vineyard’s 1,200-foot elevation and exposure results in a much longer ripening cycle—often two to three weeks longer than those of vineyards on the valley floor. This gentler ripening yields greater flavor in the finished wine. Although the 2001 vintage began with a spring frost, a sunny September and October coaxed the berries to a near-perfect balance of sugars and flavor. Consisting of 72 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 16 percent Merlot, 10 percent Cabernet Franc, and 2 percent Petit Verdot, this deep indigo elixir exhibits a full-bodied, silky texture that glazes the glass enticingly. Its bouquet exudes a brooding blueberry and lilting lavender, as well as roasted coffee. The tannins are powerful yet soft, and the extended finish smolders with smoked ham, tobacco, and a note of pencil lead, punctuating this diverse blend with a virtuosity and complexity to match those of Sir Peter himself.

 

Peter Michael Winery, 800.354.4459,
www.petermichaelwinery.com ($135)

A Joyous Red Gem

This crown jewel in a trio of wines crafted by master winemaker Pierre Seillan for Jess Jackson and family underscores the extraordinary beauty of Bordelaise-style blends currently emerging from Sonoma County. Vérité La Joie 2001, which is sourced from vineyards in the Bennett Valley and Mayacamas Mountains, offers a North American take on the wines of Pauillac, which emphasize the power of Cabernet Sauvignon over Merlot and Cabernet Franc. However, to the Cabernet Sauvignon’s branching, powerful core of blackberry, blueberry, and fine oak, the latter varietals add dense foliage of chocolate truffle, espresso, and seductive sage. The velvet texture and well-integrated tannins make this a masterpiece that drinks almost as beautifully now as it will decades hence.

 

Vérité, 800.273.0177, www.veritewines.com ($125)

 

Mountain-Sized Merlot

This relatively recent start-up has its winery on the site of the former Chateau Beaucanon in Napa Valley’s Rutherford region. The first vintage came with the 1999 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon; only two years later, general manager and winemaker Tom Rinaldi produced the fledgling winery’s first single-vineyard creation, the Provenance Mount Veeder Paras Vineyard Merlot 2001. Here, Rinaldi’s experience as founding winemaker at Duckhorn Vineyards, producer of some of Napa’s very best Merlot vintages, quite literally bears fruit: The 1,200-foot elevation of the Paras Vineyard has infused into its grapes a vivacious fruit that, in the finished wine, touches off a resounding, hedonistic revel of cocoa-dusted black cherry, sweetened Turkish coffee, and sandalwood smoke that resolves itself on the finish into a very cordial chorus. 

 

Provenance Vineyards, 707.968.3633,
www.provenancevineyards.com ($40)

 

Pride of Place

Wine always has flowed through Summit Ranch, the home of Pride Mountain Vineyards. The mist-coated mountainsides of these lofty acres in Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain appellation were first planted to vines in 1869, and a gravity-fed winery was constructed on the property in 1890. Only Prohibition interrupted the annual cycle of production, and then only briefly: The vineyards were replanted in the 1950s and, since 1990, have thrived under the care of the Pride family, whose commitment to excellence reverberates in every drop. With the Pride Mountain Vineyards Reserve Claret 2001, the family and winemaker Bob Foley have nurtured from the land an ink-black wine of such depth that one can almost believe it has a soul of its own. Indescribably rich with black fruit, earthy chocolate, candied black currant, and cream, the wine renders one incapable of setting the glass down. Difficult to find (it now sells at auction for about $300 per bottle), but worth it. 

 

 

Pride Mountain Vineyards, 707.963.4949 (originally priced at $115)

Feast in a Goblet

Those who are old enough may recall a certain Violet Beauregarde, in the children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who purloins a stick of experimental gum that, when chewed, releases the caloric content and the flavors of an entire multicourse dinner, beginning with tomato soup and concluding with blueberry pie, which proves to be Miss Beauregard’s downfall. This bountiful bottle of Alban Vineyards Edna Valley Grenache 2002, from California’s Central Coast, offers a similarly scrumptious sensory experience and has the advantage of not leaving one bloated and blue. In fact, the fruit course here tends more toward the boysenberry variety, while savory dried meat and an abundance of wild herbs (sage, curry, a touch of mint) round out the main course. Vanilla and espresso lead to a dry finish of pepper, clay, and currant. 

 

Alban Vineyards, 805.546.0305 ($56)

 

Pinot Obsession

By his own confession, Brian Loring is obsessed with Pinot Noir. This is hardly surprising: After all, Pinot is a harsh mistress, inclined either to utterly reject the winemaker’s advances or to demand his all. The challenge has drawn some of the ’s most gifted young winemakers to this capricious grape in recent years. The results have been gratifying, particularly in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Rita Hills region, where Babcock, Brewer-Clifton, and Loring Wine Co., among others, have released phenomenal Pinots of delicacy and power. The Clos Pepe Vineyard seems destined to become one of the area’s legendary crus, as the profoundly concentrated Loring Wine Company Pinot Noir Clos Pepe 2002 attests. A fragrant fusion of plum blossom, rose, strawberry, black cherry, toast, coffee, and custard, this resplendent red will obsess all whose lips it touches.

 

Loring Wine Co., 714.280.0994, www.loringwinecompany.com ($48)

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