Tuesday, September 30, 2014

2011 Joseph Phelps Insignia and Diamond Creek Cabs



For my 3-day birthday weekend in September, Rona and I decided to take Evan to Napa Valley. At 3.5, he is of the age when he would hopefully enjoy running through vineyards, pick grapes hanging in full glorious ripeness, and last through gourmet restaurants (while watching iPad, thank god for that!) I had a bit of extra motivation for Napa this time, because 2011's are just coming out, affording me an opportunity to evaluate something special for Evan's birth-year collection (he was born in 2011).

On my short list were Dunn, Phelps, Diamond Creek, Mayacamas, and Harlan. And Ridge of course, but that's another trip, not Napa. I was able to book Joseph Phelps and Diamond Creek this time, while the others requested to follow up later in the year, after the harvest. Visiting two major wineries with a kid in a 3-day weekend was perfect. One winery per day (2-3 hrs) is more than enough, and in the day in between, we drove to the very cool African Safari (Safari West) in Santa Rosa. Keep in mind that many wineries don't take appointments on weekends, so one has to plan for a weekday. Phelps accommodated on a Saturday, while Diamond Creek worked out for Monday.


Joseph Phelps

Joseph Phelps is in my opinion one of the best wineries to visit in Napa Valley. Not only are the wines good and historic, but also there is a fantastic visitor center overlooking Napa Valley, and you can book a picnic table and bring lunch while sipping their wines. Right now they are in the middle of a major renovation, so the old visitor center built out of the original winery (which has since been re-located lower down the hill) has been gutted and is being re-built from ground up. It will be an impressive, expansive space with room for classes, private and public tastings, etc., accommodating more visitors. In the meantime, a temporary visitor center was erected down the slope, in a vineyard, after some 20-year old Cabernet vines had been sacrificially ripped out. Once the new center is up next Spring (hopefully), the temporary one will be demolished, and the vineyard replanted. So it's an expensive operation, but obviously Joseph Phelps can afford it!

Considering the quality and the price of the wines, the winery has relatively large production. On average 12,000 cases of Insignia in a normal year (varying from 10,000 to 15,000, depending on the vintage), it was 13,000 in 2011. While most quality-oriented wineries in Napa had to reduce output in 2011 due to very difficult growing season, Phelps has six estate vineyards to draw on for the flagship Insignia, and therefore they were able to maintain their annual production level for this wine without sacrificing quality. Overall Phelps volume is ~65,000 cases (i.e. close to 800,000 bottles.)



2011 Insignia is also noteworthy as the first vintage composed from all 5 major Bordeaux grape varieties. First vintage with all estate fruit was 2003.

We went through the solid line-up of Phelps' wines, obviously my focus and anticipation were on the Insignia.



2011 Insignia is a very polished wine, classic deep dark-berry Cabernet flavors, with smooth tannins, perfumey herbs and tobacco. Even though 2011 is supposed to be a cooler vintage, the wine certainly has plenty of deep palate-staining fruit, full body and 14.1% alc. Acidity is good by Napa standards (i.e. still a bit lower than what I seek in old world wines) and the wine comes across as very refined and quite balanced. The slightly more pronounced tobacco, herbs and spices (a good thing!) betray a cooler vintage. While by Napa standards, perhaps this wine may be considered "shy" by some, to me this is the direction I like and wish they went even farther. Their regular Cabernet is no slouch either - has similar flavor profile, just less of everything, and certainly less refined. At about 1/3 of the price, it is worth considering. Note to self: buy cooler Napa vintages from good producers. We also tasted a 2006 Insignia from super hot vintage, and it showed pretty well, though not as balanced and polished as 2011.

One Chardonnay and two Pinot Noir are from their Sonoma Coast property called Freestone. Nicely balanced for California. Chardonnay shows some oak but not excessively. We enjoyed the 2011 Pinot Noir blend of all their Sonoma Coast vineyards and the 2010 "Quarter Moon" single vineyard higher-end bottling - more complex, with cooler fruit, medium body, hints of fermented dried prunes, complex whiffs of stems and spices, the extra year of age also helped I think. The 2011 was more fruit forward, but still not a fruit bomb. Nicely done for Cali, though certainly not for burg palates, although 2010 is quite interesting, needing just a touch more acidity.

On my way out I was happy to purchase a magnum of the 2011 Insignia for Evan's birth-year collection. In cold storage, I am optimistic, it will see Evan's 30th birthday in fine shape!


Diamond Creek



Took me three years to set this one up, ever since I ran into them at Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries, and loved their 2007's.

They don't see much general public, and this relatively small (12-employee) family winery has a long-standing reputation among wine connoisseurs. The property is not easy to find, there isn't even a sign on the road. They host two big events per year for their members, and otherwise it's a fairly exclusive property to get a visit to. So I was happy when Phil Ross agreed to receive us.

Diamond Creek was the first winery in California to focus exclusively on Cabernet-based wines. They were also a pioneer in bottling single-vineyards, with the goal to express individual and distinct terroirs of their three main vineyards - Red Rock Terrace (7 acres), Volcanic Hill (8 acres), and Gravely Meadow (5 acres). Occasionally, in an exceptional vintage a fourth vineyard - Lake (3/4 acre) - gets bottled, but not in 2011. Lake vineyard (on the far shore of the man-made lake) was planted in 1972 - it is the coolest, slowest ripening vineyard, that has only been bottled 14 times. Gravely Meadow is the next coolest vineyard, located on a relatively flat ground, lower than Red Rock and Volcanic Hill. There is one more (unnamed) vineyard that grows 100% Petit Verdot used as a blending grape for their cabs. The special micro-climate of the property with little to no fog in the morning provides for early morning sun warming up the vines, while the cool breeze coming through a cut in the Mayacamas mountain range from the Pacific ocean and Russian river cools the vines in the afternoon. This results in longer and cooler growing season (which is good for grapes). Special care is taken during harvest to pick only mature grapes, which means multiple passes through the vineyard. In 2011, due to cooler, rainier season, about 1200 cases (30% less than normal) were produced as the winery decided early to drop much fruit to assure ripeness. Average annual production is under 2000 cases. While the winery certainly has the opportunity to expand their vineyards and their production, they have decided against, in order to focus on quality rather than quantity. There are fewer than 100 magnums of each vineyard, and I was excited to snag a mag of Volcanic Hill for Evan's birth-year collection, hand-signed and dedicated to Evan by Phil Ross.





Diamond Creek Vineyards was founded by Al Brounstein and his wife Boots in 1968. The first vintage that was released was 1972. Al passed away in 2006 at the age of 86, while Boots (now 87) is still actively involved. A visionary and renaissance man, Al created a beautiful property out of foresty hillside on Diamond Mountain, west of Calistoga. He envisioned a lake, vineyards, waterfalls, island, and never hired any landscape architects. It took years of clearing the terrain, building and landscaping to make this incredibly natural looking oasis. This area had had some history of grape growing of indigenous varieties by native Indians. But Al was the first modern man to cultivate here using European varieties.


Man-made lake, with the Lake vineyard seen on the far shore.

His step-son (Boots' son) Phil Ross - director of Sales & Marketing - conducted the tour and tasting. Now 65, Phil has been working on the property for 25 yrs. He was very gracious and knowledgeable. Evan loved running through the vineyard, tasting grapes, and riding in a golf cart trough the breathtaking territory.



And so the story goes...



Al studied art in France at the University of Sorbonne art school and spoke French fluently, along with several other languages. In 1950 at the age of 30, he moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles and started a proprietary drug distributorship called Standard Brand Company which became successful. In 1960, on a whim he took a French wine class at UCLA instead of French literature that he was interested in, since they only had one French related class and it was on wine appreciation. And loved it! With that, Al caught the wine bug and started looking how we can change his lifestyle in that direction. A winery he paid close attention was Ridge (in Santa Cruz Mountains). Al started visiting his friends at Ridge, and even worked several harvests there, which eventually led him to finding a mountain property in Napa Valley in mid-sixties. With encouragement from the famous Louis Martini and Andre Tchelistcheff, he bought 80 acres on Diamond Mountain for $100k, planted 20 acres of it with St. George root-stock (phylloxera resistant variety, which proved fortuitous in the 80's when Napa got hit by phylloxera, thus to-date Diamond Creek has some of the oldest surviving Cabernet vines in California). A lover of French wine, particularly Bordeaux and Burgundy, and a pilot, he smuggled vine cuttings from Bordeaux via Mexico. The vines were acquired from three of the four original Bordeaux first growths (it's a secret which three), and planted in all the vineyards. The vineyards are field blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, harvested and vinified together. After he had started clearing the terrain, he discovered three distinct soil types, which naturally yielded themselves to three different vineyards. In a pioneering move, Al decided to vinify and bottle separately, as per great domaines of Burgundy. While he loved both Bordeaux and Burgundy, he correctly thought Napa was more suited to Bordeaux varieties. In the 46 year history of the estate, there have only been two winemakers - Jerry Luper, who was there for 20 years, and the current winemaker Phil Steinschriber.

[Note: for additional information about Diamond Creek, I found Al Brounstein's interview with Wine Spectator, published in 2006, very illuminating. As well as another article here.]


Tasting impressions



2011 Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace - Similar to Volcanic Hill but less stony. Cool, with perceptible tannins, black cherries, forest and dark berries, almost silky (once you get past the tannins). Should be very silky eventually. Super drinkable.

2011 Diamond Creek Gravely Meadow - Much more open, fruit forward, creamier nose (almost cheese and liqueur). Beautiful palate, redder fruit, plush and inviting but cool, definitely riper, some dry plum coming through (a hint of raisin), very tasty although the cheese/milky aspect is a little distracting right now.

2011 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill - Stone and dark deep fruit. Slightly more tannic than Red Rock, but the tannins are not massive, dark berries, forest trees, no chocolate, long finish. This is the most intense of the bunch. Delicious.




Tasting Joseph Phelps and Diamond Creek gave me insight into the much-maligned 2011 vintage in Napa Valley, and fascinating stylistic contrast between the flagship wines of these two esteemed estates.

First, on 2011, supposedly the worst vintage in Napa in years if not decades...
All I can say, based on this very small sample, is if this is a "bad" vintage, bring it on! I recognize that in a challenging vintage like this, a winery has to do more work, stricter selection, cutting down yields, and perhaps not making as much profit. But it seems to me that it is perhaps the price to pay to make more balanced wines in the hot California climate. Mind you, these 2011's are by no means shy or lacking, in my opinion. They are rich, suave, deep, and well balanced, and unmistakenly California. The cooler year imprinted slightly better acidity, lower alcohol, and more complexity, which is manifested in nuances of herbs, spices and minerals un-clobbered by fruit. In a typical Napa vintage, the richness and chocolatiness will dominate the wine. Certainly over the years, California wineries have perfected that style to a very high bar of quality. However, in 2011, I see more balance. The Insignia is still a rich full-bodied wine at 14.1% alcohol (though the label states 14.5%, but actually it's lower), and comes across complex, polished and refined. The fact that Parker gave Insignia a slightly lower than usual score (90-93) is further indication that this wine is quite up my sleeve more so than a product of a "typical" high-scoring "blockbuster" year. Diamond Creek's wines are more rugged, darker, stonier, cooler, and at lower 13.5% alcohol, a little leaner and easier to drink with food. Diamond Creek's mountain expression and restrained sensibility reminds me of my favorites Dunn and Ridge - the old-school California classics, whereas Joseph Phelps occupies a spot somewhere in between the old school and the cult cabs, reminding me of Opus, Dominus, etc., certainly not reaching the concentration of Bond or Harlan.

In the end, I am quite intrigued and excited by the 2011 vintage in Napa, and will certainly continue to look for opportunities to taste and drink more of them.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Robert Chevillon 2008's, 6 years on





Impressive showing by 2008 lineup from Robert Chevillon at our local wine shop Vin Vino Wine. The vintage is starting to approach the window of drinkability. High-acidity is a common attribute of 2008 red burgundies in general, and it's true for Chevillon as well. The Nuits-Saint-Georges "meatiness" comes through in spades in these wines. Spice combined with acidity gives them attractive savoriness that contributes to complexity. Most of the wines are still 2-5 years away from optimal drinking IMO. As the fruit is ripe, acidity will carry them a long time without distorting balance, the wines should continue to mellow out and integrate. We have much to look forward to.

Tasting notes

Robert Chevillon 2008 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Vieilles Vignes" - nose: hibiscus and herbs, at the peak. Palate: good chocolate and spice flavor but finishes very short as flavor fades almost immediately, this is light and savory without enough substance. Uninspiring.

Robert Chevillon 2008 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Les Bousselots" - deeper nose. Palate: deep sexy spice, good acidity balanced by rich red berry and chocolate inflected fruit. Moderate complexity. Nice.

Robert Chevillon 2008 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Les Chaignots" - smoother texture, more feminine, broader nose and palate, herbaceous spice, but in a good subtle way, seems more complex, and the "softness" shouldn't be confused for lack of intensity. Quite good.

Robert Chevillon 2008 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Les PerriƩres" - nose: earth, herbs and minerals. Palate: ooh! silky smooth mouth-feel, suave, beef, tomato, herbs, classical burg, sweet red-fruited aftertaste, still slightly tannic. Favorite so far. Give it 2-3 years. A beauty.

Robert Chevillon 2008 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Les RonciƩres" - less expressive nose. Very spicy palate, lively acid, rich fruit, stone / slate, toast, intense, quite primary, hibiscus tea. With time, tannins become noticeable, texture quite unpolished at this point (I think due to youth), unlike the prior two wines. Has the components to be very good in 3-5 years, but too young and primary right now. This wine clearly comes across as more powerful and less developed than the previous bunch.

Robert Chevillon 2008 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Les Vaucrains" - nose evocative of deep cave, not revealing all its secrets, put power lurking beneath, herbs (somewhat reminiscent of Bordeaux). Palate: tannic, more savage, leather, coffee grinds, spice, masculinity, really delicious flowers/herbs, should be pretty special with few more years (3-5). A beauty in the making, a bit less Pinot-like than the others, quite true to the reputation of the Vaucrains terroir, with leanings toward Bordeaux / Barolo.

Overall, other than the somewhat disappointing NSG villages (I think 2007, 2009, and 2010 were better), this is a very satisfying line-up. Perrieres is the most enjayable wine at the moment, with silky suave texture. Roncieres is step up in intensity, but needs more time, while Vaucrains is at another level, as it should be. We were not presented with Cailles and Les Saint Georges, but I can extrapolate that those wines would be equally if not more impressive.

Friday, May 2, 2014

2012 Vintage in Chateauneuf-du-Pape is Good



Recent annual tasting by AWA (Angeles Wine Agency) afforded me the first broad look at the 2012 vintage in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. These were all barrel samples that will start rolling out as finished wines in 3-6 months. I have to admit, I don't drink much Chateauneuf, as the wines tend to be heavy and jammy in their youth, and require IMO at least 7-10 years of age before they soften, attenuate and may (or may not) reveal marvelous complexity of flavor. A typical young Chateauneuf has neither the elegance nor freshness nor nuance. It's a big corpulent hairy blob. So when a vintage with some refinement, some delineation, some backbone comes along, I get excited.

Two years ago when I first tasted the 2010's, my initially low expectations led to a huge positive surprise - that vintage turned out absolutely stellar. Last year, the 2011's disappointed. This year, I am pleased to say that the 2012's are a big step up from the '11's, and are not far behind the '10's. In fact, 2010 and 2012 are quite close in profiles - ripe and concentrated (but not jammy), with discernible flavors of black olives, meats, pepper and Provencal herbs. They are still thick and fruity (they are CdP's after all!), but you can already see past all that richness and into the kaleidoscopically magic future. The 2012's are not quite as built as the 2010's, and thus they are a bit more approachable. But that's not to say that they lack structure. Many wines possess textbook tannic backbones surrounded by dense fruit with balancing acidity. I would say these are poster-boy Chateauneuf-du-Pape's - and for anyone who wants to understand and appreciate the appellation for what it is, I think this is the vintage to dive in.



Overall, I couldn't help but draw vintage comparisons to Burgundy, in the sense how 2012, 2011, and 2010 vintages related to each other. In both regions, 2010 was the most intense, structured and overall best vintage in a decade IMO. 2011's were softer, and quite appealing to the lovers of those regions. However, while 2011 burgundies are generally wonderfully fresh, elegant, and balanced, a year ago I found many 2011 Chateauneuf-du-Pape's out of balance and on the super-sweet side. Finally, the 2012's are sort of an in-between version of 2010 and 2011, closer to 2010. As a result, I am happy to recommend the wines for medium-to-long term cellaring. While majority of the wines were good, I was most impressed with Le Vieux Donjon (on the peppery side) and Olivier Hillaire (power-house showing). I would not touch any them for a minimum of 5 years, and twice that for Olivier Hillaire cuvee "Les Petits Pieds d'Armand".

Friday, April 25, 2014

Great Wines of the World. Tasting at Tango



I run a wine tasting club at Tango. It's a great perk for employees, especially when their VP of Engineering (i.e. yours truly) personally invests time and energy to entertain and educate. About a third of the company attends, it's popular. To celebrate our recent D round ($280M) and passing 200m registered users, we splurged a little bit. See for yourself - this was a mesmerizing line-up of some of the world's greatest wines. Chave and Quintarelli were jaw-droppingly, mind-bogglingly great. Others - very good too.



Tasting notes:

JL Chave Hermitage blanc 2009 - wow, amazing wine, depth, complexity, impact! Up there with top grand cru white burgundy.

Marquis d'Angerville Volnay 1er "Clos des Ducs" monopole 2006 - top wine from Volnay, complex and interesting, secondary notes, but a bit medicinal / pine-needle and in need of more time to smooth out the remaining tannins. I suspect that 2006 was not the greatest vintage of this legendary wine.

Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia 2009 - opulent and luscious Barolo consistent with the 2009 Barolo vintage. Lacking a bit of cool classic structure for me.

Calon-Segur Bordeaux 1995 - very classic, balanced Bordeaux 3rd growth, good depth of fruit, acidity, in a sweet spot of development but nowhere near the end, good but not amazing.

Dunn Howell Mountain 2003 - very good and tasty, many people's favorite, and one of my favorite Dunn vintages in the 2000's. Not quite as complex as some of the other wines, but a pleasure nonetheless.

JL Chave Hermitage rouge 2008 - beautiful wine, super complex and expressive, pepper, herbs, cured meat, beautiful silky texture, and lots of other things, not a powerful blockbuster like 2009 and 2010, but drinking well right now, at half the price.

Quintarelli Amarone 2003 - wow, almost port-like without being heavy, but dry, super luxurious, super complex and exotic. Amazing. Watch out for 16.5% alc.!

Warre's Vintage Port 1980 - very good, but maybe not old enough or complex enough for my taste. Good, but perhaps just ok, especially after Quintarelli. Still pretty fascinating to be drinking a 34 year old wine and calling it "not old enough"...

Willi Schaefer 2011 Graacher Domprobst Beerenauselese - deliciously sweet, classically balanced and luscious, but not amazing enough to justify a $170+ price tag for 375ml IMHO. For almost the same money, I strongly suspect that 2011 d'Yquem is a much more impressive wine.


So there you have it. Tango Winos were very pleased and slightly tipsy. Good times!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

La Paulee San Francisco 2014. The 2011 Burgundy vintage confirmed.





The 2011 line-up of great burgundies, a celebration of celebrations that takes place once every two years in San Francisco, and a must-attend for a serious Burgundy lover, did not disappoint. I've written about this glorious tasting in the past, and this was my third time covering the event. On March 15, the long-awaited La Paulee came to San Francisco again, and the 2011's on display confirmed my positive impression of the 2011 vintage so far - there were many very good and even brilliant wines, with much great drinking to look forward to in the next 15 years, and even a lot to enjoy in the relatively immediate future as many wines are already quite delicious.

As usual, the food at this event is top-notch. Tons of amazing gourmet bites from top restaurants...



Three producers stood out for me.

Armand Rousseau. That's Eric Rousseau in the photo below - the current owner of the domain, holding his precious Chambertin Grand Cru. One month ago I tasted a barrel sample of the 2012 Chambertin. In comparison, this 2011 seemed tastier and more approachable, while I recall the 2012 being thicker and more monolithic, which makes sense in the context of the respective vintages. The entire Rousseau line-up was excellent. I think the 1er Cru "Lavaux St-Jacques" is a beautiful wine. But the Chambertin is a pinnacle. It was hard to fully appreciate this $2000/bottle beauty in all the ruckus around me.


Domaine Fourrier. Jean-Marie and his wife Vicki. The 1er's were juicy, precise, and joy to drink. The Clos St. Jacques quite special.



Even Mr. Daniel Johnnes himself - the famous sommelier and the organizer of the La Paulee event, was giving a hand at the Fourrier table.


Marquis d'Angerville. Gloriously delicious, balanced, clean, refined, joyous wines. Mr. Guillaume d'Angerville holding his famous Clos des Ducs - Volnay's most famous wine.


Other producers made excellent wines too. I will comment specifically under each photo below.

Hudelot-Noellat - very tasty wines. The Romanee St. Vivant was quite fine.


Domaine des Lambrays didn't blow me away in 2011.


Bouchard - the "baby Jesus" was a stand-out, with lots of depth and sap. Both whites where quite good too, but I preferred the Meursault Genevrieres (I also tasted the 2011 Meausault Perrieres in other events, and thought that was excellent too.)  Always nice to see Luc Bouchard (and Tanya the rep) brighten the pages of this blog!


I thought both of Drouhin's whites on display - the Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot 1er, and Corton-Charlemagne were very good. The reds - forgettable.


Pierre-Yves Colin Morey showed in good form. (The man - Pierre Yves Colin - clearly looks bigger in person than on the photos on the internet, btw). No disappointments here - good flavorful white burgundies across the board.


Very serious Clos de La Roche from Hospices de Beaune


This was a very nice palate cleanser! I quite enjoyed the '02 Delamotte on several occasions.


Always great to catch up with Erwan Faiveley. I liked the 2011 Latricieres-Chambertin quite a bit! (on the heels of my recent tasting of his 1993 Latricieres, documented here.)



Jadot's Corton-Charlemagne was good, but Clos Vougeot was truly impressive.



Domaine de Courcel's wines from Cote de Beaune were good, but suffered, following the glorious wines from Marquis d'Angerville.


Similar note about de Montille - good but d'Angerville was a hard act to follow.


Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon. Always super solid in both whites and red.


Sauzet also solid, tastes like classic burgundy, more understated than Colin-Morey, I must stay. Oooh, that Chevalier-Montrachet!



Christian Moreau is a good value, good quality Chablis, but clearly not in the league of Dauvissat / Raveneau.



Francois Carillon also solid and flavorful.


I wish I had more time, but alas three hours blew by like a whirlwind, and I only got to taste about 70% of what was being poured. Perhaps enough time to form impressions, but surely not enough to properly assess or appreciate the wines. I am inspired to purchase more 2011's now, with a bit more confidence. Certainly not as across-the-board great power-vintage like 2010 and not as seductive as 2009, the 2011 offers a lot of charm, appeal and excellent juicy drinkability, and in many cases within a shorter maturity window.

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