HomeAbout UsWine ReviewsArchivesAdvertiseContact Us


Whitley On Wine

Wine Review Online Radio

W.R. Tish

Leslie Sbrocco

International Wine Center

The Great Wines of America

Wine Style Book

Gold Medal Wines

New York Times 'The Pour'


Critics Challenge

San Diego International


WRO Wine Blog

January 28, 2007

Stag’s Leap Stunners from 2003

If you've heard disparaging remarks about the 2003 vintage Cabernets from the Napa Valley, I've got three strong reasons for you to take them with a really, really big grain of salt.

My working assumption about the vintage is that those who find it underwhelming are lovers of massive wines with the proverbial gobs of fruit, mouth-searing tannins, and so forth.  I'm sometimes impressed by wines of this type.  However, I think it a higher achievement in Napa to produce a wine that will show--at three years of age--lots of intricate aromatic and flavor details as well as fine structural symmetry between fruit, tannin, wood and acidity.

Getting concentrated fruit in young Napa Cabs is not difficult.  Getting perfect balance and lots of little nuances is much more impressive to me.  And if such wines can also stand the test of time and develop even more complexity over the years, well, that is what greatness in Napa Cabs means to me.

Nobody in Napa has a better record than Warren Winiarski and his Stag's Leap Wine Cellars of turning out Cabs that combine complexity and structural stylishness with longevity.  And nobody has a better record of achieving excellence in iffy growing seasons, as was proved by the amazing 1998s from Stag's Leap.

So it was with considerable anticipation that I pried my way into Winiarski's top three bottlings from 2003 two nights ago.  And the results?  One was excellent, one was superb, and one was downright extraordinary.  Here are my reviews, in ascending order:

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley (California) Fay 2003 ($80):  This is a delicious, beautifully balanced wine from the Fay Vineyard with excellent integration of its various components.  A sober assessment compels me to conclude that there simply isn't enough depth or dimension to the wine for it to achieve greatness even with further ageing, but the fact remains that it is delicious already and very versatile as it stands.  Lovely fruit notes of dark cherries are accented with interesting notes of vanilla and subtle woodsmoke.  The soft, fine-grained tannins are just right for lending structure to fruit of this modest weight.  90

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley (California) S.L.V. 2003 ($110):  This gorgeous wine sourced from particular blocks within a famous single vineyard is remarkably complex at this early age.  The core of fruit is deeply flavored and very expressive in both aroma and flavor, and yet the fruit notes never seem chunky or obvious.  They show dark berry and black cherry notes that seem pure and fresh, but every sniff and sip seems to show several other fascinating accents (fresh meat, chocolate, smoke, mushrooms and cedar) that I'd be more accustomed to finding in a much older wine.  94

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley (California) 'Cask 23' 2003 ($175):  Yes, this is painfully expensive, but yes, this is a 2003 that could make you take a hammer to your piggy bank.  It was fantastic from the first sip immediately after I popped the cork, and even better 24 hours later, showing no degradation but even more complexity.  The fruit is remarkably vivid and expressive despite moderate weight, with bright notes of blackberries and black cherries but also a red fruit note that pops up repeatedly.  A whole host of little nuances surround the core of fruit, and the wood and tannin are perfectly weighted and seamlessly integrated.  Complete and convincing in every respect, with impressive length but without a lot of extraneous weight, this is a thing of beauty.  97

Congratulations to Warren Winiarski and winemaker Nicki Pruss for these exemplary efforts!

Posted by Michael Franz at 2:03 PM

January 22, 2007

Time to Update the Book on California Chardonnay?

I love it when someone proves your humble correspondent wrong. I mean it. Indeed, I loved every last sip of it as I dug into three new California Chardonnays that virtually destroyed the conventional wisdom.

Or perhaps I should just say that my perception -- that California Chardonnays in general are fat, flabby and boring -- requires a bit of tweaking. So to the list that includes Sonoma Cutrer, Kistler, Gary Farrell, Bouchaine and Franciscan add Nickel & Nickel, the single-vineyard specialist that sprang from Far Niente.

These are all California producers that make Chardonnay with superb structure, balance and personality. The three Nickel & Nickel beauties I tasted last week -- Medina Vineyard, Searby Vineyard and Truchard Vineyard -- are impressive examples of non-interventionist winemaking and slavish devotion to the concept of terroir, allowing each vineyard to express its uniqueness through its wine. These wines also bode well for the 2005 vintage.

Searby and Medina are both located in the Russian River Valley and impart a similar minerality and steely structure, though the Searby Chardonnay was clearly the more intense and powerful of the two. The Medina was deliciously delicate and provided a floral note that was not evident in the Searby.

Truchard, located in the Carneros region of the Napa Valley, was a complete contrast, delivering a weightier wine with less minerality and an oily texture that screamed Napa Valley, but cut with firm acidity that lifted the fruit.

These are not inexpensive Chardonnays (all come in at $43 suggested retail) but they are certainly less than I would expect to pay for some of the finest California Chardonnay I've ever tasted!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:02 PM

January 16, 2007

Passmore Gets the Scoop on Cheap Fizz

Our good buddy Nick Passmore (he's a regular judge at our annual Critics Challenge International Wine Competition and calls it his favorite event of the year, bless him!) has been getting into some very good cheap swill over at Business Week.

Now I know Nick and know how much he savors a fine Cuban cigar, single-malt Scotch and older Vintage Ports. He has good taste, but expensive taste. So when Nick gets up on his soap box and touts "Cheap Fizz" I figure he must be on to something.

Passmore may sometimes drink cheap, but he always drinks well. Find Nick's sage advice here; it's worth a peek.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:42 AM

January 11, 2007

Nancarrow In, Beringer Out at Duckhorn Wine Company

Big doings at the Duckhorn Wine Company, where the outstanding winemaker Mark Beringer resigned at the end of the year and has been replaced by Kiwi Bill Nancarrow.

There's nothing unusual about winemakers changing jobs at this time of year -- unless the winemaker is leaving a high-profile, iconic winery the likes of Duckhorn, which is the Napa Valley's equivalent of a Bordeaux First Growth.

Beringer has taken a position as director of a new custom-crush operation in St. Helena. The facility, approximately 75 acres off Zinfandel Lane in the heart of the Napa Valley, was just purchased from the Trinchero family by a group of Napa investors called Rutherford Studios, headed by industry veteran Joel Gott.

Nancarrow, a New Zealander, had worked closely with Berginer as winemaker at Duckhorn's sister winery in the valley, Paraduxx. The transition should be relatively seamless, The Duckhorn winemaking operation was a tight-knit team effort that also included winemaker Zach Rasmuson of Golden Eye, a Pinot Noir specialist located in the Anderson Valley.

Nancarrow had previously been winemaker at the C.J. Pask Winery in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, where he earned a reputation for turning out high-class Merlot, among other wines. He is only the third Duckhorn winemaker in the past quarter-century (Beringer was preceded by Tom Rinaldi).

Photo: New Duckhorn chief winemaker Bill Nancarrow.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 3:36 PM

January 10, 2007

Girard's Unbeatable Combo: Napa Valley Quality . . . and Value!

When I last saw Pat Roney he had only recently purchased the Girard label. The winery off the Napa Valley's Silverado Trail had been sold to the Rudd family and Roney took the Girard brand, content to make wines under a lease arrangement at another Napa winery.

Girard was producing a mere 10,000 cases back then (this was at least five years ago) but the brand still had some swagger, largely because of winemaker Marco DiGiulio. I'm always happy to taste DiGiulio's wines because he's one of the top winemakers in the valley and much in demand as a consulting enologist.

DiGiulio paid his dues at Robert Pepi and Lakoya and now makes wines under his own name as well as for a number of Napa Valley clients, including Roney.

So when the opportunity came up to sit with Roney again and taste the Girard wines, I was happy I had an open spot in my schedule. Much has changed since our last meeting. Girard's production is up to 40,000 cases, Roney has taken a 30-year lease on a winery facility and 18 acres of Cabernet in the Pritchard Hill area of the Napa Valley (think Bryant Family, Chappellet, etc.) and there is a second facility over in Sonoma that handles all of Girard's Russian River Chardonnay.

Life is good. And some things have remained the same. DiGiulio is still making the wines, which is about as good a quality guarantee a vintner could have in the Napa Valley, and Girard continues to shine at a price point that makes it one of California's great values in wine.

I went through the 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (soon to be replaced by release of the '06), the 2004 Russian River Chardonnay and the 2004 Petite Sirah today. They were classic DiGiulio -- fully ripe, well balanced and natural.

The Sauvignon Blanc ($15) doesn't see any wood, exhibits expressive citrus and stone fruit aromas in the nose and hardly lacks intensity or length. The Petite Sirah ($24) shows concentrated bright blueberry and blackberry fruit, a hint of spice and round, smooth tannins that are surprisingly soft for a Petite Sirah.

I was most impressed, however, with the Russian River Chardonnay, which is sourced primarily from the renowned Dutton Ranch in the Russian River Valley. This is a firm wine, with exceptional structure, a generous nose and what I think of as a textbook Russian River lemoncreme aroma profile, with hints of brown spices on the back end. And it's only $20. A steal!

Girard also produces an estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a Cabernet Franc and a red Bordeaux blend. Nothing costs more than $40 retail.

Not only are these wines I can afford, but they are wines I can love as well.

Photos: Top, Pat Roney; middle, Marco DiGiulio; bottom, Girard's Pritchard Hill vineyards.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 8:36 PM

January 6, 2007

An Extraordinary Spirit: Glemmorangie Margaux Cask Finish

When writing my recent contribution to "WRO Wines and Wine Producers of the Year, 2006," I had to wrestle with the question of whether "Wine of the Year" could possibly be stretched to mean "Drink of the Year" so that it could accommodate the beverage that provided the most amazing sip of the year:   Glemmorangie Margaux Cask Finish Vintage 1987.

I concluded, regretfully, that this was too implausible a stretch, given that the word "wine" appears twice in the piece's title.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that this stunning Single Highland Malt Scotch was the most complex and intriguing drink of a very, very good year.  If you have a holiday gift largesse on your hands and are looking for something amazing on which to spend it, this is your baby.

The bad news is that it will run you somewhere between $400 and $500.  The good news is that, unlike one-shot-deal bottles of wine, you'll get about 20 nights of extraordinary experiences out of the bottle if you keep it to yourself.  Alternatively, you'll seriously endear yourself to 10 other people if you elect to share the wealth.

What will those 20 tastes taste like?  The experience begins with remarkably complex aromatic notes that include a faint floral note alongside notes of spicy, confected fruit, freshly baked bread, and tobacco leaves.  The flavors are open and fruity, with stone fruit notes of peaches and apricots taking the lead, but also showing red fruit notes recalling plums and berries.  These are intermingled with backnotes of spices and cocoa.  And I am not making this up.  If you spend 15 minutes with a glass of this stuff, you'll be able to double my list of descriptors.  I'm actually holding back for fear of being thought mad.

The brains behind this amazing beverage belong to Dr. Bill Lumsden, Master Distiller for Glenmorangie.  Lumsden holds a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, but is as much a wizard as a scientist.  One of the most interesting tools in his bag of tricks is the use of casks that previously held different wines to 'finish' his scotches.  Glenmorangie wood finishes include Port, Sherry, Madeira and Burgundy, along with small lots of special 'guest' finishes including 30 Years Old Olorosso Finish, 15 Years Old Sauternes Finish, and now, this Margaux Cask Finish.

This whiskey spent its last two years of ageing in casks from a certain very famous Chateau in the commune of Margaux.  Since this is not a joint venture, and since the barrels were sourced from a third party, the "Margaux" on the label refers to the commune rather than any particular property.  Yet Lumsden is famous within the spirit world for sourcing his wood with meticulous care, often traveling to the United States to select personally the white oak bourbon barrels he uses for Glenmorangie's initial ageing process.  One suspects that it is not a matter of indifference to him which Margaux Chateau's barrels he uses, and you can take your own best guess as to which Chateau's barrels are in question here.

My guess is that this is an unprecedented instance of this Chateau's barrels being put to an even better use on their second time around.

Posted by Michael Franz at 11:22 AM

January 5, 2007

Comiskey Asks the Question, Has the Answer, too!

Our friend and WRO colleague, Patrick Comiskey, wrote an interesting piece in this week's Los Angeles Times Food section on the troubling emergence of overblown, gutless Cabernet Sauvignon thoughout California, particularly in the Napa Valley.

The column, headlined "Where Have All the Honest Cabs Gone?" is available online here (registration is required). Patrick does a nice job of framing the issue, but takes it one step beyond by suggesting several good old-fashioned Cabernets that have what he calls classic Cabernet "grip" and enough balance and bright acidity to make them appealing with food, which I believe was the point of making good wine to begin with -- to wash down good grub!

Some of Patrick's favorites include Karl Lawrence, Ladera, Long Meadow Ranch and Neal Family Vineyards from the Napa Valley, and the iconic Ridge Vineyards "Monte Bello" Cabernet from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

To Patrick's list I would add the Corison, Spottswoode, Duckhorn and Smith-Madrone Cabs. And there are many other very fine Cabernets out there, especially from the Napa Valley, where Cabernet is king.

But there is little doubt the "gutless" trend is growing and that the wines after this fashion are not cheap. I also worry that this style is creeping into the Pinot Noir arena, which is even more irksome for those who are drawn to Pinot because of its finesse and elegance.

Patrick's piece is a good read. Don't miss it, and don't forget to write down his recommendations and show your support for good old-fashioned Cabernet by going out and buying some!


Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:45 AM

January 4, 2007

Chef Brings Latin Flair to Super Bowl Menu

Renowned Latin Chef Douglas Rodriguez, of Miami and New York, has teamed up with the Wine Marketing Council to produce a Super Bowl "Nuevo Latino" game-day menu that is too inviting to resist until the big game, which will be played in Miami this year, of course. There are other playoff football games this weekend, no?

Chef Rodriguez offers up several recipes for a spicy Latin affair -- Nuevo Latino Chicken Wings, Ecuadorian Ceviche, Queso Fundido, Hearts of Palm and Queso Fresco Chopped Salad and Fabada -- as well as suggested wine pairings to match each dish and the more traditional game-day favorites such as pizza and chili.

Though he stops just short of recommending specific wines (I suspect the Wine Marketing Council would get into some hot water if it appeared to be favoring one winery over another) the recommended wine types are solid. And you can certainly go to our Reviews page and click on Wine Search and find plenty of great matches.

I must say I've never had an Ecuadorian Ceviche, but after I sized up Chef Rodriguez' recipe it sure made me hungry for some football!

For more info, just follow the highlighted links.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:08 AM

January 2, 2007

December Numbers: 2,132,834 Hits, 95,485 Visitors

We're fairly ecstatic here at Wine Review Online this morning. The numbers are in and we see we closed out 2006 on a high note, with a record number of hits (2,132,834, see the July-December chart at right) and visitors (95,485, see the July-December chart below) in the month of December.

In fact, the final quarter of the year was a blockbuster with more than 227,000 visitors from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31. In the month of December alone we more than doubled the number of readers we saw in September.

Of course, we have no one to thank but you! Our firm resolve in 2007 is to continue the growth by continuing to provide sensible and compelling wine information from the most credible sources we can find.

I would encourage you to become familiar with our review archives page and master the search and keyword search functions. We have several thousand wine reviews in our library that could and should be a valuable resource as you face the challenge of day-to-day wine purchasing decisions.

And don't forget to tell a friend and pass along our link. Oh, one final thing: Happy New Year!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:50 AM