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January 25, 2017

Merry Edwards Makes Marvelous Pinot Noir

The title of this blog post should come as no surprise to anyone who enjoys Pinot Noir.  Although Edwards was the founding winemaker at Matanzas Creek and put their Sauvignon Blanc on the map, her specialty now is Pinot Noir.  She added an excellent Sauvignon Blanc to her offerings several years ago, and is now off to a flyting start with Chardonnay as well, but superb Pinots remain the calling cards for her eponymous winery.

Edwards makes two regional Pinot Noirs, one from Sonoma Coast and one from Russian River Valley.  In addition she makes up to six vineyard-specific wines and a Reserve bottling.   Though they are all significantly different (these vineyard designations are not mere marketing ploys), three threads of stylistic continuity run through them.

First, they are robust wines reflecting California’s climate.  She is not aiming to make Burgundy--she makes California Pinot Noir.  That said, they do not fall into what I refer to as the “Pinot Syrah” category of over ripe, over extracted wine.  Second, their texture is suave and velvety despite plenty of structure that keeps them lively.  Third, they’re exciting to taste--and drink--because they evolve with time in the glass.  These are wines to savor.

Here are notes on a terrific set of current releases:

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Meredith Estate 2014 ($63): The pick of an exceptional litter at this stage, Merry Edwards’ Meredith Estate Pinot Noir says wow!  It’s a wonderfully complex mixture of dark fruit and savory flavors.  Both glossy and chewy (in a nice way) its contrasts continue to captivate throughout a meal.  It delivers New World opulence without a hint of exaggeration or flamboyance.

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Coopersmith 2014 ($66):  Merry Edwards’ Coopersmith bottling, similar to the Meredith Estate, delivers refined black fruit flavors enrobed in suave tannins.  There’s also an alluring smoky or slightly toasted aspect to it.  It’s long and captivating.  Part of this wine’s excitement is that it is, indeed, different from the Meredith. Open them side-by-side with a group of friends and I suspect you’d get a pretty even split regarding preference. Another tell-tale sign of greatness is how beautifully this wine -- and all her others -- showed the next day. 

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Olivet Lane 2014 ($68): There are fewer savory elements in Merry Edwards’ Olivet Lane compared to the Coopersmith and Meredith, but the crystalline purity of the red fruit flavors is astounding.  The savory slightly mushroom-y nuances appear with time, with reinforces an important point when drinking (or tasting) her wines.  They develop in front of your eyes over hours so these are wines to savor and think about while you eat.  

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Flax Vineyard 2014 ($60): The Flax Vineyard bottling bombards the palette -- in a very nice way -- with lovely aromatics and juicy dark red fruit.  It speaks directly to you.  Savory elements appear, almost reluctantly, but then persist through a long finish.  Similar to her other Pinot Noirs, the tannins are suave giving the wine a velvety texture. 

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir “Cuvée August” 2014 ($98): The grapes for Merry Edwards’ Cuvée August, named after her first grandchild and her most expensive Pinot Noir, come from the top part of the slope of the Meredith Estate.  A dazzling and explosive wine, its concentration almost borders on a “Pinot Syrah” style, but does not cross the line.  It’s just rich and savory and refined all at once.  Despite its power, it’s still closed and tightly wound.  At this stage, the “regular” (I hate to call it that) Meredith Estate is more expressive.  It will be fun to see how they develop over the next five to ten years.

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Georganne 2014 ($63): Merry Edwards’ Georganne bottling has more apparent tannic structure compared to her others from 2014.  It’s more brooding at this stage without the same velvety glossiness.  That said, there is an appealing earthy, savory aspect that grows on you as the wine sits in the glass.  On day two of tasting, it’s still the most structured wine in this lineup, but not in an offensive way.  It just needs a few extra years of cellaring.  This is an excellent young Pinot Noir.  Cellar it while you enjoy some of Merry Edwards’ other bottlings.

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Klopp Ranch 2014 ($66): Merry Edwards’ Klopp Ranch bottling highlights bright red fruit flavors with less emphasis on the savory component.  A succulent wine, it is balanced and pure with an alluring suppleness.  It strikes a gorgeous mid ground in terms of intensity.  I’m not sure that anyone, even Edwards herself, can explain precisely what it is about the vineyards that results in the different expressions of her wines.  But it’s clear that the wines differ one from the other.  It’s not a marketing technique.  Another unique and riveting Pinot Noir from Merry Edwards! 

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir 2014 ($48): Also reflecting its origins, the Russian River Valley bottling delivers more black fruit-like flavors rather than the red fruit of the Sonoma Coast.  In contrast to the cooler Sonoma Coast bottling, this one is fleshier with a hint of savory notes. The fine-grained tannins contribute to its supple texture.

Merry Edwards, Sonoma Coast (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir 2014 ($45): Merry Edwards is one of America’s top Pinot Noir producers.  It’s always a joy to taste her new releases side by side because it’s clear that her vineyard or appellation designation is legitimate and not a marketing gimmick.  For example, this Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, from a cooler area, reflects those growing conditions with more angularity and firmer lighter red fruit-like flavors.  It’s precisely the kind of Pinot Noir you’d expect coming from that part of California.
Posted by Michael Apstein at 4:26 PM

Everything Old Is New Again

 Once upon a time, in quaint wine villages throughout Europe, it was only natural that villagers consumed the local wine.

It was common for a family to stroll down to the neighborhood winery and stock up for a week or more by filling jugs and other containers with wine directly from a cask or tank. Modern conveniences, such as grocery stores or wine shops with bottled wines displayed in neat stacks, were few and far between in many rural wine regions of the world.

Much has changed since that was the reality for many living and working in wine country, but some traditions die hard. In fact, sometimes they are reborn in the most unlikely venues.

Meet Lowell Jooste of LJ Crafted Wines, an urban winery located in the La Jolla community of San Diego. Jooste and his family are originally from South Africa, where they made highly acclaimed wines for more than 20 years. After moving to San Diego in 2012, the urge to remain in the wine business proved too much for Jooste to resist.

He was inspired to develop a unique urban winery concept that serves up premium Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley wines from the barrel. The wines are custom-made at a winery in Yountville, California, and the finished wines are shipped in barrels to LJ.

Customers, who are mostly locals who live in the beach community and have signed up for the LJ Crafted Wines wine club, can either sit and sip in the bright and airy wine bar or have a growler filled to take home. The growler, made of glass and sealed with a reusable cap, is an invention of San Diego's vibrant craft beer industry that Jooste neatly adapted.

The integrity of the wine in the barrel is maintained through a proprietary device Jooste calls the "Wine Steward," for which there is a patent pending. The Wine Steward extracts wine from the barrel without permitting air to get in, which would oxidize and likely spoil the remaining wine.

"When I was in the wine business in South Africa, so much time was spent on packaging, when my interest was in the wine," Jooste noted.

LJ Crafted Wines had been open nearly a year now, and Jooste says that he sells most of the wine to customers who fill their growler and take the wine home. I tasted a number of the LJ wines on a recent visit — rose, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and a stunning petit verdot — and found the quality to be very high.

Jooste says his wine club is nearly full, which means he's selling most of the wines LJ produces. The community seems to have embraced LJ's barrel-to-bottle concept. And why wouldn't it? At another time and in another place, going to the local winery for a jug of wine was simply what you did.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:29 AM

January 12, 2017

From Best of 2016, Best Glass: Zalto Denk`Art Universal Glass

I first encountered this glass two years ago when tasting in southern France, and it was pretty clearly the most arresting vessel I’d ever been handed for sampling a wine.  It is beautiful to behold and even more amazing to handle, as it seems almost weightless.  Moreover, the balance from the base to the top of the bowl is so perfect that, when loaded with an appropriately-sized pour and swirled, it produces an uncanny sensory impression that the only weight in one’s hand is derived from the rotation of the wine itself.

I deliberately put the glass out of my mind after our first meeting, as it didn’t take a genius to determine that it would be expensive and pretty breakable, as it is an almost impossibly thin, mouth-blown item.  I recall my thought at the moment being something like, “I need another expensive obsession like I need a hole in the head.”

That worked well enough for about 18 months, but then I sat in on a seminar on Austrian Pinot Blancs in Vienna last summer, and 8 of the damned things had me surrounded.  Noted writer David Schildknecht, who conducted the seminar, felt the need to tell the attendees (all journalists) not to walk off with the glasses afterward.  Had he not done so, I’ve no doubt that the count would have been diminished significantly.  That’s how striking this glass is.

Anyway, I finally sprung for a couple of them last fall, with the result that I’ve now officially fallen out of love with every other glass that I own…and I own a lot of them.

Zalto is an Austrian company, and this line is dedicated to a certain priest named Hans Denk, who is apparently a quite influential student of wine in Austria. Regarding the design of the entire line of glasses, Zalto’s website offers the following account, which I quote verbatim:

“The development of the Denk`Art series was as influenced by the earth as by the universe beyond.  The curve of the bowls are tilted at the angles of 24°, 48° and 72°, which are in accordance to the tilt angles of the Earth.  The ancient Romans utilized this triumvirate of angles with their supply repositories, finding that produce stayed fresh for a longer time, and that it also showed improved taste.  Due to these cosmic parallels, we believe that a wine can reach its utmost potential in a Denk`Art glass, developing everything that is possible in the nose as well as on palate, due to these cosmic parallels.”

To be clear, this looks like total mumbo-jumbo to me, and I don’t put a dime’s worth of stock into the business about cosmic parallels.  But with that noted, the design of the glass is undeniably marvelous.  As for the word “Universal” in the name of the glass, that apparently refers not to the cosmos, but rather to its all-purpose design.  Other glasses in the line include stems dedicated to Burgundy, Bordeaux, Sweet Wine, White Wine, Champagne, Digestifs, Beer and Water. 

Have I tried these types?  Absolutely not.  Why not?  Because I need 8 more expensive obsessions like I need 8 holes in my head.

As for expense, the best online prices hover around $60.  Wine Enthusiast will personalize your glass with a single initial for an additional $20, but in my humble opinion, only a jackass would mar this beautiful object with a giant letter.  As for durability, Zalto’s website says the glasses, “…may be washed in a dishwasher,” but that seems like exceedingly bad advice.  After all, dishwashers don’t break glasses; dishwasher loaders break glasses.

Although the reservations I’ve expressed here about Zalto’s usage recommendations and cosmic design principles should make it clear that I haven’t quite drunk the cool-aid, I confess that I’m madly in love with this glass.  Try one at your own risk!
Posted by Michael Franz at 12:18 PM

January 11, 2017

From Best of 2016, Top Category on the Rise: New Zealand Chardonnay

Among the highlights of my 2016 was an opportunity to return as a senior international judge for the Air New Zealand Wine Awards in Auckland.  Judging this competition in 1999 was one of the most illuminating early experiences in my work in wine, one that disclosed a breadth of excellence and potential that was simply impossible to appreciate fully based on the relatively limited selection of New Zealand wines available for tasting in the USA.  Equally illuminating in 1999 was the professionalism of the judges and the judging, and the caliber of the Awards in 2016 was even more impressive in 2016 under the direction of Michael Brajkovich MW, the Chair of Judges.

In 1999, I was struck by the promise shown by Pinot Gris and the sheer quality of Pinot Noir being crafted in Martinborough, Central Otago and Marlborough.  In 2016, the big surprise was Chardonnay.  The flights I tasted during the Awards demonstrated New Zealand’s producers are consistently turning out renditions that combine depth of flavor with superb acidic structure and accents from oak that are restrained in keeping with the brightness of the wines’ fruit.  Naturally, I was tasting “blind” during the Awards judging, but two wines that bookended my trip--and that I purchased and flew back to the USA with me--are worthy of special note:

Kumeu River Chardonnay Hunting Hill Vineyard 2014 ($50, Imported by Wilson Daniels):  Michael Brajkovich MW is the winemaker behind this wine, but his entire family is involved in the Kumeu River enterprise, which makes a range of excellent wines but specializes in Chardonnay.  The “Village” and “Estate” bottlings are reasonably priced and both very good, but quality really gets striking at the single vineyard level.  Coddington is quite impressive, and Mate’s remains the flagship of the line, but Hunting Hill is very close to Mate’s in quality and notably easier to find while also being a bit less expensive.  This 2014 shows full ripeness, with engaging substance and depth, yet the acidity energizes the wine from the first impression on the palate to the very end of the extremely long, symmetrical finish.  Spice and toast notes from oak are beautifully tuned to the weight and character of the fruit, and the overall impression is already one of exceptional proportionality and harmoniousness.  One taste would tempt you to drink this now, but if you had an opportunity to taste the sensationally complex 2010 Hunting Hill (which I scored conservatively at 98), you’d know that patience with this will be rewarded handsomely.  I was also fortunate to taste the 2015 Hunting Hill while at Kumeu River, and it is also terrific, now showing a bit less richness and a bit more acidity--but equally strong potential overall.  95

Felton Road Wines, Central Otago Chardonnay “Block 2” 2014 ($65, imported by Young’s Market):  When I visited Felton Road last October, the plan was to show me the Chardonnays from 2015, and I was very lucky to taste this wine…by mistake.  To be sure, the 2015s are excellent (both the Block 2 and the Block 6), but both are now notably more tense than this 2014, which has unwound enough to show wonderful flinty mineral complexities along with very subtle oak accents while still showing acidic tension that brings to mind the profile of the finest Chardonnays from Chablis or Puligny-Montrachet.  Although this is really just medium-bodied, it seems very generous on account of its exceptional complexity, and there’s no doubt that it has five years of positive development ahead of it…at an absolute minimum.  95
Posted by Michael Franz at 11:32 AM