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February 15, 2016

New Kid on the Block

SONOMA, Calif. -- Chances are you’ve never seen nor tasted a wine from La Chertosa, one of the new kids on the block. Its first release was 2009 and the wines are sold, for the most part, in restaurants and small wine shops in and around the village of Sonoma and a few fine wine shops and restaurants scattered throughout Californi. It also can be found in small quantities in Nebraska and Colorado, or purchased online.

Should you find yourself exploring California wine country and stumble across a bottle of La Chertosa, what you will experience is a California wine made with Old World sensibilities. The La Chertosa wines are not made so much to dazzle as they are to charm.

Well balanced and beautifully structured, they are made to be enjoyed with food, as well as improve with age. You may wonder who would think of such a thing.
Chances are you’ve heard of the proprietor, 75-year-old Sam Sebastiani, who now splits his time between his comfortable home overlooking Sonoma and a cattle ranch in Nebraska.

Even if you don’t know much about Sam, you’ve likely heard of Sebastiani, the historic winery that sits on the outskirts of Sonoma. And if all you know about Sebastiani is that the theatre on the Sonoma square is the Sebastiani Theatre, at least you know the Sebastiani family once played a prominent role in the everyday lives of Sonoma residents.

Sam’s grandfather, Samuele, settled in Sonoma in 1893. He came to this country from Italy, having learned to make wine from the monks at a 14th century monsastery, La Chertosa di Farneta, near Lucca.

In its heyday, when Sam was at the helm, the Sebastiani winery produced millions of cases of wine each vintage.

“Back in the day we felt we had to be represented in every chain store in America,” he remembers. “It’s a different way of life. We were always chasing after it.”

The Sebastiani winery was sold some years ago and is now owned by Foley Family Vineyards. Sam went on to run the nearby Viansa Winery with wife Robin, but has since sold off that venture as well.

His pace now is significantly more modest, with production of La Chertosa hovering around 1000 cases per year. He prefers to make the wines he likes, and that means adhering to an Old World style that seems to be coming into vogue once again as winemakers dial back the volume a bit on ripeness and the level of alcohol that comes with that style.

“Old World wines are what we do now,” said Sam. “We’re not trying to make (fruit) bombs.”

Sebastiani sources grapes from Amador County as well as Sonoma and is particularly fond of red Tuscan series soils, which Sam simply refers to as “red soils.”
“Everything we do is grown in red soil,” he said. “We’re staking our flavor profile on the softness and roundness it gives us.”

Robin Sebastiani, an avid cook who is fond of game dishes, chimed in: “There is a harmony of flavors. It’s like a symphony.”

I had the pleasure of visiting Sam and Robin on a recent trip to Sonoma and tasted the four basic wines in the La Chertosa portfolio: a 2014 Chardonnay (91 points), 2014 Reserve Sangiovese (93 points), 2013 Reserve Zinfandel (92 points) and a 2014 Reserve Barbera (90 points). The Chardonnay and Sangiovese were made from grapes grown in Sonoma Valley and the Reserve Zinfandel and Reserve Barbera from grapes grown in Amador County.

Restraint was a common thread through all four wines. Sebastiani, who is the winemaker as well, uses a mixture of old and new oak barrels to age the La Chertosa wines. All show the wood influence without the sometimes overwhelming characteristics that accompany wines made using 100 percent new oak.
The chardonnay was a delight made in a style I find appealing. It was creamy and smooth without being heavy, and the note of lemon crème to me is a signature aspect of high-quality chardonnay.

The reds were attractive in the same sort of way. Each offered exceptionally fruit purity and definition without crossing the line into fruit jam. The Sangiovese was perhaps my favorite because of its tightness and the tension between acidity and fruit.

The zin was low in alcohol (14.5 percent) compared to most modern zins, but it didn’t lack for bright brambly fruit aromas of wild blackberry and blueberry. Ditto the barbera, which delivered enticing wild berry aromas without sacrificing the acid tension that makes for an outstanding food wine.

La Chertosa represents an Old World style that is suddenly new again, and a legendary winemaker who is remarkably comfortable as the new kid on the block.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 6:29 PM

February 13, 2016

Three Picks for Valentine's Day

There are three things you need to know this Valentine's Day: Domaine Carneros Cuvee de la Pompadour Brut Rose, Smith Woodhouse 20-Year-Old Tawny Port and The Dalmore 12-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

If you remember just those three things as you shop for that special someone, you are sure to make someone's day come February 14.

First, the Domaine Carneros Cuvee de la Pompadour. This Napa Valley bubbly is perhaps America's finest sparkling rose. If it's not the best, it at least lives in the same neighborhood with the best. Winemaker Eileen Crane crafts this brut rose in an elegant style. It delivers bright fruit aromas and a creamy texture without sacrificing the tension that is so essential to finer bubblies.

It is one of the few domestic sparkling rose bruts that could pass for Champagne in a blind tasting, and it's considerably less expensive, although still not cheap, at about $35 from Wine.com.

I would be the last person to recommend a pairing of sparkling wine or Champagne with Valentine's chocolates — the sweetness of the candy renders the bubbly too tart for my taste — but if there's a sparkling wine that could make that match work, it would be Cuvee de la Pompadour with its succulent red-berry fruit aromas. My personal preferred match would be smoked or grilled salmon or caviar.

Should the Cuvee de la Pompadour not be available or you absolutely must have Champagne, Laurent-Perrier Brut Rose ($60) or the Billecart Salmon Brut Rose ($90) would make excellent substitutions.

A wine that does fit the occasion in terms of sweetness is the Smith Woodhouse 20-year-old Tawny Port. Smith Woodhouse is a small producer with high standards in Portugal's Douro Valley, and its tawny Port is exquisite.

The caramel, mocha, spice nuances of the tawny make for tasting sipping alongside those Valentine's truffles, and a bottle will keep for several weeks once opened, although it is best when consumed fresh.

Tawny Port also marries nicely with soft savory cheeses and aged gouda. One of my favorite pairings with tawny is seared foie gras. A foie gras torchon or even a country pate also works with tawny.

Because Smith Woodhouse is somewhat of a boutique Port house, it may prove difficult to source. In that case, Fonseca and Taylor Fladgate are perfectly acceptable stand-ins. All will run about $50 a bottle for the 20-Year-Old. If budget is a consideration, the 10-Year-Old tawnies from any of these three houses can be substituted, though the additional age offers greater complexity and is a more sensual experience.

Finally, The Dalmore. One of the best-kept secrets in the world of adult beverages is the compatibility between Scotch and chocolate.

That's not to say all Scotch works with chocolate, but many do and The Dalmore 12-year-old ($60) is one of the most dynamic of these matches.

First of all, it's a single-malt whisky with some age, so it has had time to develop mature aromas in cask. One of those aromas is chocolate, or mocha. The chocolate profile is imparted by the barrels that are used to age the whisky.

The char on the inside of the barrel is one factor that contributes to this, and another, perhaps more important factor, is the prior use of the wooden casks involved in the process. The Dalmore uses a mix of barrels that previously aged Port, Sherry or Madeira. Flavors and aromas from those wines can be detected in The Dalmore 12, and are even more inviting in older Dalmore, such as the 15-year-old and the 18. Of course, the older the Scotch the more expensive it is.

The combination of an aged Scotch with good chocolate is pure magic, though I would caution that Speyside, the Lowlands and the West Highlands offer the most solid pairings.

Scotch made with a strong aroma of smoked peat isn't quite the same match because of the pungency. The smoky, peaty Scotches are largely confined to Islay.

Should The Dalmore not be available, Macallan 12-year-old, aged in used Sherry casks, is a good substitute. Others I like include Glenmorangie, Oban and Auchentoshan.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators COPYRIGHT 2016 CREATORS.COM
Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:51 AM