Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Monte Bello Dinner

I got together with some friends recently for a pot-luck dinner and tasting around a dozen vintages of Ridge Monte Bello spanning a few decades.

Most of the older wines were in great shape, though as you can see the cork on the 1973 was in a terrible state and it came as no real surprise to find the wine hopelessly oxidised.
We began with a 1999 Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay - Light mineral nose, lemon thyme and light oak. Initially showed some sulphur, but that soon dissipated. Flavours of peaches, cream, and some mineral notes. Plenty of oak on the finish. Still very youthful. 93

First Flight

1973 Ridge Monte Bello
The fill level seemed a little low and we soon found out why; the cork had totally failed and wine was bubbling up around it. DOA.

1983 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet
The 1983 Monte Bello was declassified and all the fruit went into the Santa Cruz Mountains bottling. On the nose there's some nice black fruit, a little herbal, perhaps vegetal. There's perhaps rather too much acid for the remaining fruit; it's simple but pleasant, and not bad for a 25 year old wine from a weak vintage. 87

1984 Ridge Monte Bello
There's a lot going on here; earthy, brambly fruit and some smoky notes. On the palate it's big with loads of smooth black fruit. The tannins are almost fully resolved, and there's nice acidity. This got better with air over the next 15 minutes. 93

1986 Ridge Monte Bello
A brighter nose than the 1984, with lots of pencil box and brambles. Again there's nice rich black fruit and a bit more tannin than the 1984. However where the 1984 seemed to improve with air the 1986 seemed to decline. Perhaps tasting the 1984 after the 1983 gave it an advantage, but to me the 1986 didn't seem quite as strong. Though we didn't tally scores the group seemed to be pretty evenly split between the two. 92

Second Flight

1992 Ridge Monte Bello, served from 375s
Meaty nose, with blackcurrant and brambles. Rich smooth fruit, nicely balanced, very drinkable. Coming from a half bottle certainly helped, though there was some definite variation between the two. I was lucky and got the better of the two. 94

1996 Ridge Monte Bello
There was initially a little heat on the nose, which soon passed leaving dark berry, plum and blackcurrant notes. Stacks of rich black fruit, with a hint of mint.
There is still plenty of tannin as you'd expect, and it continued to improve in the glass. More elegant than the 97, and still evolving. 95

1997 Ridge Monte Bello
1997 was a riper year, and this shows on the palate. It's a more fruit-forward wine than the 1996 (though still very restrained by Californian standards) - layers of rich sweet fruit and a hint of smoke, with a longer finish than the 1996. For now I gave it the edge, though I think in the long term the 96 might be a better bet. 95+

1998 Ridge Monte Bello
Not declassified, but perhaps it should have been. Apparently Ridge pulled out all the stops to help the grapes ripen in this terribly wet El Nino vintage. A much lighter weight wine than any other in the flight, with cranberry and plum notes, and some green tannins. Seemed simple compared to the others, but reasonable. 88

Third Flight

Each of these had been double-decanted that morning.
2001 Ridge Monte Bello
Rather bright on the nose - cranberry, black cherry and blackcurrant on the nose and palate. I also got liquorice root. Plenty of chewy tannins backed with loads of acidity. Keep it locked away for at least a decade. 94+

2006 Ridge Monte Bello
I felt this was a slightly weaker showing than the last few times I've tasted it up at Ridge - perhaps they had it open much longer. Loads of structure, with a dark chocolate note that I didn't notice previously. I took the last quarter home and finished it a couple of days later; it didn't seem to have faded in the slightest, which bodes well for a long future. 93+

2007 Ridge Monte Bello
I didn't really take notes on the 2007; I've had it several times recently and I think it's delicious. There was some discussion as to whether it's got the same ageing potential as other vintages, but I remain confident that it's a 20+ year wine. 94+

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Barrel tasting at Stefania

Following the visit to Varner (see previous post) our group called in at Chaine d'Or. Paul poured a few barrel samples of the 2009 and 2008 vintages.

2009 Syrah, Split Rail Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains Barrel sample
Since the beginning Stefania have been looking for a local source for Syrah, and have found an excellent one in the Split Rail vineyard.
The nose is savoury, with soy, smoke and black fruit. It's rich and intense; lots of black fruit and white pepper, with a touch of liquorice on the finish. Delicious, even at this early stage.

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Chaine d'Or Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains Barrel sample
The Chaine d'Or vineyard is in a particularly cool microclimate; as a result the wines are very strucured and take a while to come round. The 2009 has a nose that's somewhat old world, with earthy, meaty and forest notes, with some smoke. In the mouth it's tight with black fruit and lots of tannin especially on the finish. It's going to need at least 5 years.

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Crimson Clover Vineyard, Santa Clara Valley Barrel sample
The Crimson Clover Vineyard will replace Uvas Creek as Stefania's source for Santa Clara Valley cabernet. The vineyard is located in the same vicinity and is farmed by Paul and Stef. The nose is elegant and dusty; on the palate there's rich blackcurrant fruit with, biscuit and herbal notes on the finish. It's a big, rich
new world wine in stark contrast to the Chaine d'Or Vineyard.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains Barrel Sample
This is the final blend, returned to barrel prior to being bottled. At the moment it's pretty tight; the nose was showing some earthy black fruit, but not much. There's the typical blackcurrant, eucalyptus and menthol from previous vintages, with good structure and a long finish.

If you're already on the Stefania mailing list these should be no-brainer purchases. If you aren't on the list then you should be; I don't know of anyone making better wines anywhere in California at this price point.

Monday, June 7, 2010


According to Bob Varner there are really only two ways to approach winemaking. You can begin with a budget; the wine will have a retail price of so much, which means I can spend this on grapes, that on barrels, bottles, corks, and so on. Or you can say I'm going to make the very best wine I possibly can, regardless of what it costs. That's the approach he and his twin brother Jim take to their wines.
The idea behind Varner Winery began when the brothers were at UC Davis; Jim studied oenology, Bob biology. After graduating they were introduced to Dr Kirk Neely, a local dentist who owned an idyllic property next to the Windy Hill open space preserve in Portola Valley. The area seemed perfect for a cool climate vineyard, located just below the fog line, and in 1980 the brothers planted two acres of Chardonnay by Dr Neely's house which became known as the Home block. The vines are own-rooted and the clone is unknown, but probably Cloned 4; they were simply purchased from a local nursery. Further down the hill they planted Gew├╝rztraminer on its own roots. The following year they added the Amphitheater block, which was again own rooted, probably to Wente clone. A few years later in 1987 the Bee block was planted, this time with hybrid rootstock and grafted with cuttings from the Home Block.

Over the following years they farmed the vineyard and the fruit was sold, mainly to Thomas Fogarty and Bargetto. The brothers established a wine import business and worked at Fogarty. Then in 1996 they finally got bonded as Varner Winery and produced their first vintage. Permits to allow construction of a winery took a while longer, so the initial vintages were produced at Mount Eden and Chaine d'Or.

In 1997 they began planting Pinot Noir; the Hidden block contains Clone 115 and the Picnic block contains Clone 777. They later grafted over the 25 year old Gew├╝rztraminer in the Picnic block to clone 777; the vines had been producing excellent fruit, but commercially were not viable.

The Varner philosophy is to be as hands-off as possible. The vines are trained in an unusual way, with two short cordons, each of which is pruned to two canes, and a single catch wire above. This results in an open canopy allowing each side to ripen evenly. All blocks except for the lowest are dry farmed. Sulfur is sprayed to control mildew, but that's all. Any imperfect fruit is dropped prior to harvest, with the result that there is little or no sorting required. The fruit is destemmed and crushed into a tank to allow any solids to settle, then pumped into barrels to ferment. No yeast or sulfur are added.

When it comes to racking, most wineries either siphon or pump the wine. Again the Varner philosophy is different - each of their barrels has a second hole in the 'head' (the flat part) stoppered with a bung, like a traditional cask, and racking is done purely by gravity. They even have a device to gently tilt the barrel when it's nearly empty. As a result of this gentle handling no fining or filtration is required. After fermentation the wines stay in barrel for around 9 months; the French oak barrels are on a three year rotation, so roughly one third are replaced each year. Each block is then blended separately.

The winery's total production is around 100 barrels, or 2500 cases annually. Visits are strictly by appointment only.

2009 Home Block Chardonnay, barrel sample
The nose was light, with cracker and lemon notes. On the palate there was creamy lemon, green apple and melon, with nice acidity. The Home block typically has lower alcohol since the own-rooted vines reach full ripeness at lower sugar levels.

2009 Amphitheater Block Chardonnay, barrel sample
Slightly lighter in weight than the Home block, with a more citrus/floral character. the finish showed interesting hoppy notes.

2009 Bee Block Chardonnay, barrel sample
The vines on Bee block are 6 years younger than Home block. Bee block is typically the most 'Californian' in style. This showed more toast, stone fruit and asian pear notes.

2009 Hidden Block Pinot Noir, barrel sample
Two samples from different new barrels. Both showed delicious cherry and raspberry fruit on the nose, with one having a smoky note and the other more woodland. The wine is light in colour (for California) with lots of rich spicy cherry fruit, pepper and rhubarb and a great long finish.

2009 Lower Picnic Block Pinot Noir, barrel sample
Nose shows strawberry and floral notes; on the palate it's earthy with rich, dark fruit and mineral notes.

2009 Upper Picnic Block Pinot Noir, barrel sample
Slight funk on the nose; this was less earthy and lighter, with cherry and berry notes, good tart acidity and nice structure. the Picnic block needs more time than the Hidden block from my experience.

Varner remains one of my absolute favourite producers (I own more of their Chardonnay than anyone else's), and a visit to the winery is highly recommended.

Jeff Emery

I heard over the weekend that Jeff Emery, owner and winemaker of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, is recovering from a biking accident. Apparently he fell off his mountain bike while out riding last Wednesday and hurt his neck, bruising his spinal cord and requiring surgery.

The good news is that he has been discharged from hospital and is at home recuperating; the signs are that he should make a full recovery.

Our thoughts and best wishes go out to him; I plan on opening a SCMV Grenache later this evening and toasting his speedy return to health

Thursday, June 3, 2010

2010 Vintners' Festival

June see the annual SCMWA vintners' festival, with most of the region's wineries open for tasting. The first weekend showcases the western side of the mountains. The cost is $30 in advance or $35 on the day, and covers all four dates. For details see the SCMWA web site

This weekend the following wineries will be open from 11AM to 5PM:

Alfaro, Bargetto, Big Basin, Burrell School, Byington, Downhill (at Byington), Equinox, Hallcrest, Heart o' the Mountain, Hunter Hill, Loma Prieta, McHenry, Nicholson, Odonata (at SCMV), Pelican Ranch, Pleasant Valley, Poetic Cellars, Roudon Smith, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Silver Mountain, Sones Cellars, Storrs, Trout Gulch, Vine Hill, Windy Oaks, Zayante

In addition, several other wineries will be pouring at local restaurants.
Note that the restaurant locations close at 4PM.

Ahlgren - Scopazzi's, Boulder Creek
Aptos Creek - Michael's On Main, Soquel
Bruzzone Family - Rancho Don Bosco, Santa Cruz
Clos Tita - Rancho Don Bosco, Santa Cruz
Cordon Creek - Michael's On Main, Soquel
Dancing Creek - Rancho Don Bosco, Santa Cruz
Domenico - Tyrolean Inn, Ben Lomond
Muccigrosso - Tyrolean Inn, Ben Lomond
Naumann - Michael's On Main, Soquel
P M Staiger - Michael's On Main, Soquel
River Run - Michael's On Main, Soquel
Roudon Smith - Rancho Don Bosco, Santa Cruz

Next weekend features the eastern side, and the line up includes

Black Ridge, Burrell School, Byington, Cinnabar, Clos LaChance, Cooper-Garrod, Domenico, Downhill (at Byington), Fleming Jenkins, La Honda, Loma Prieta, Muccigrosso (at Domenico), Odonata (at Domenico), Savannah-Chanelle, Testarossa, Woodside

and pouring at restaurants until 4PM:

Cordon Creek - La Fondue, Saratoga
Hallcrest - Nonno's Restaurant, Redwood Estates
Heart o' the Mountain - La Fondue, Saratoga
La Rusticana d'Orsa - La Fondue, Saratoga
Naumann - La Fondue, Saratoga
P M Staiger - Nonno's Restaurant, Redwood Estates
Poetic Cellars - La Fondue, Saratoga
Roudon Smith - La Fondue, Saratoga
Windy Oaks - Nonno's Restaurant, Redwood Estates
The Surf City Vintners group - Nonno's Restaurant, Redwood Estates