Robert Mondavi the Man
One of our top wine picks recently was the 50th anniversary wine from Robert Mondavi, probably the most renowned winery in California's Napa Valley.
The 50th anniversary is an important milestone to be sure, but longevity alone is not what makes the occasion significant. Many among the current generation of California wine enthusiasts weren't born yet when Robert Mondavi parted ways with the family winery, Charles Krug, and founded his namesake winery in 1966.
It was a time when California wine was regarded with suspicion and seldom found on the best restaurant wine lists of the day. Mondavi made it his mission in life to bring California wine to the best tables in the land.
Toward that end, he hit the road, zigzagging across America with his first cabernet sauvignons. His favorite tactic was the head-to-head tasting during which Mondavi would sit down in a top-notch restaurant with a major influencer and challenge that person to order any wine he or she desired off the wine list.
They would then taste the two wines side by side. More often than not the other wine was a famous French red, either a Bordeaux or Burgundy. The objective wasn't necessarily to "win" the tasting as much as it was to prove the Mondavi cabernet belonged in such refined company. Rest assured, however, Mondavi won its share of the tastings.
Robert, never the winemaker, made his mark as the most dogged salesman in the history of California wine. More than anyone before or since, he put California wine on the map and made it fashionable in the toniest restaurants and wine shops.
Thus, this 50th anniversary of the Mondavi winery is also the 50th anniversary of the modern era of California wine.
The Week In Reviews
Duckhorn Vineyards, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon Rector Creek Vineyard 2012
($95): Although most well-known for its superb merlot from various sites in the Napa Valley, Duckhorn has done itself proud over the years with a succession of vineyard-designate cabernet sauvignons that are the equal of the finest the Napa Valley has to offer. One of Duckhorn's finest sites for cabernet is the Rector Creek Vineyard. This vintage from Rector Creek is a stunning wine, showing intense aromas of ripe cassis and blackberry, with a hint of wood spice and cedar in the background. The tannins, though firm, are beautifully integrated and the balance of the wine sublime. Excellent now, but even better in another decade or do.97 Robert Whitley Jul 19, 2016
Patz & Hall, Sonoma Coast (Sonoma County) Pinot Noir Gap's Crown 2014
($70): The Gap's Crown vineyard gains in stature each vintage, and there's a simple explanation. It has quickly become one of the most reliable pinot noir vineyards in all of California. This Sonoma Coast site delivers with intense, pure fruit aromas (in the Patz & Hall from 2014 it's a seductive raspberry note) and bright acidity that keeps the wine alive. The 2014 also exhibits a firm grip on the finish, which bodes well for its potential to improve over the next several years if cellared properly.95 Robert Whitley Jul 19, 2016
Goldeneye, Anderson Valley (Mendocino County) Pinot Noir Gowan Creek Vineyard 2013
($82): This vintage from Goldeneye's Gowan Creek Vineyard is an earthy beast, rich and powerful, with exceptional depth. Showing a nose of damp earth, forest floor and mushroom, with layered aromas of black raspberry and strawberry, this is a complex pinot that is glorious now but with a bright future as well. The tannins are nicely integrated, and the wine shows hints of fall spice in the very long finish.94 Robert Whitley Jul 19, 2016
Duckhorn Vineyards, Napa Valley (California) Chardonnay Toyon Vineyard 2013
($55): Duckhorn's Toyon Vineyard chard is a richly layered, full-bodied, oily Napa Valley Chardonnay that will please anyone with a fondness for this hefty style. It shows notes of citrus, baked apple, butterscotch and spice, with enough underlying acidity to keep the fruit bright and fresh. Hook up this wine with cream sauces of meaty grilled fish.92 Robert Whitley Jul 19, 2016
Goldeneye, Anderson Valley (Mendocino County) Pinot Noir 2013
($55): With inviting aromas of strawberry and raspberry and firm acidity, this Anderson Valley pinot from Goldeneye promises to improve in the cellar over the next several years although it's perfectly crafted for immediate enjoyment. Serve it with roasted game or grilled wild salmon.91 Robert Whitley Jul 19, 2016
The Week in Reviews
Robert Mondavi, Napa Valley (California) 'Maestro' 2013
($50): The Robert Mondavi Winery's 50th anniversary wine is a fitting tribute to the man who did more to establish the Napa Valley's cred than any other. This is an unusual blend for Napa, top-heavy on merlot and cabernet franc in the image of a proper Saint-Emilion from Bordeaux. Showing fresh red and black-fruit aromas and sweet, supple tannins, it has power combined with elegance and the staying power that is so appropriate for a tribute wine.97 Robert Whitley Jul 12, 2016
Levendi, Howell Mountain (Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
($90): Levendi's Howell Mountain Cab is a splendid example of the concentration and power the appellation delivers on a regular base. Located on the eastern side of the Napa Valley, where it catches the late afternoon sun, Howell Mountain is one of the Napa Valley's finest sites for Cabernet. This bottling from Levendi offers layered black fruits with a strong note of cassis. A hint of cedar and wood spice provide additional complexity. The tannins are firm but not overpowering, though I would still give this vintage an additional five years or more in the cellar before opening.95 Robert Whitley Jul 12, 2016
Levendi, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Sweetwater' 2013
($60): Fans of bold, bodacious Napa Valley cabernet will love the Sweetwater Cab from Levendi. Sourced from grapes grown in the Atlas Peak district at the southern end of the Napa Valley, this mountain wine is inky dark, with dense layers of black fruits and muscular tannins. Not for the faint of heart. Drinking well now, but will benefit from additional cellaring.93 Robert Whitley Jul 12, 2016
J Vineyards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County) Cuvee 20 NV
($32): Cuvee 20 is J's most popular bubbly, and there's a reason for that. It shows inviting floral and lemon zest notes, with a hint of spice. Exceptionally well balanced, with a creamy mouthfeel, it is without doubt one of the best value's in domestic sparkling wine today.92 Robert Whitley Jul 12, 2016
Albatross Ridge, Carmel Valley (Monterey County) Pinot Noir Cuvee Vivienne 2013
($40): This Monterey County pinot is not typical of the which, which routinely produces full-bodied, rich pinot noirs that are in vogue. Cuvee Vivienne is more in the European mold, a model of restraint though certainly not short on flavor. This vintage delivers notes of strawberry and raspberry and shows a leafy backnote that is quite attractive.90 Robert Whitley Jul 12, 2016
Champ de Reves, Anderson Valley (Mendocino County) Pinot Noir 2013
($45): This beauty from Mendocino's Anderson Valley shows bright red-fruit aromas and a touch of wood spice. It expresses a subtle floral note on the nose, and on the palate the wine is smooth and supple, with beautifully integrated tannins. Ready to drink now.90 Robert Whitley Jul 12, 2016
MacRostie, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County) Pinot Noir 2014
($42): Continuing in the same vein as the exceptional 2013 vintage, MacRostie's basic Russian River Valley pinot is a shining example of a more elegant, restrained style. It exhibits inviting red-fruit aromas, hints of spice and mouth-watering acidity on the palate. This is a superb food wine and ready to drink now.90 Robert Whitley Jul 12, 2016
Edna Valley, Central Coast (California) Chardonnay 2014
($15): Sometimes the less expensive chardonnay is the most enjoyable. That's because they often aren't overdone. This Central Coast bottling from Edna Valley is beautifully balanced, exhibits notes of lemon oil and spice, and a creamy texture that makes for easy sipping.88 Robert Whitley Jul 12, 2016
Inside 'Whitley On Wine' Reviews
Regular "Whitley On Wine" readers know that most weeks I offer a selection of wine recommendations. What may be less well-known is how I choose which wines to highlight.
Over the course of the year I taste thousands of wine samples for review consideration. A small percentage of those are flawed in some way and easily dismissed.
The vast majority are perfectly fine, which is a tribute to the strides made in viticulture and winemaking over the past three decades. Even large commercial wineries routinely produce splendid wines that are perfectly acceptable no matter the setting or occasion.
Culling through this abundance of riches to arrive at a recommendation is clearly a judgment call. I sometimes take a pass on perfectly fine wines that fail to move me because I can't get past the price. Other times I will recommend somewhat expensive wines because I believe they possess unique qualities that justify the price.
Whether a wine retails for $10 or $80, my instincts tilt in the direction of value. I'm constantly looking for wines that over deliver — a $10 wine that can hold its own against $20 wines, a $40 wine that can cut it in the $75 crowd and so on. Hence, you will typically find a broad range of prices in the "Wine Talk" reviews.
No matter the price, however, know that I firmly believe that each pick is a wine that would shine even in more expensive company.
Follow Robert on Twitter @wineguru
The Week in Reviews
Shafer, Carneros (Napa Valley) Chardonnay Red Shoulder Ranch 2014
($52): Red Shoulder Ranch is undoubtedly among the finest chardonnay vineyards in the United States. Shafer has an unbroken string of successful vintages with this wine, and in 2014 continued the chain with a remarkable chardonnay that allows this vineyard to shine. The beauty, of course, is its ability to have it both ways, with layered richness and complexity in combination with firm structure. The 2014 shows a delicious note of lemon oil, crunchy apple and spice.96 Robert Whitley Jul 5, 2016
MacRostie, Sonoma Coast (Sonoma County) Pinot Noir Goldrock Ridge 2013
($56): MacRostie's Goldrock Ridge pinot is one of the most suave and polished in the MacRostie portfolio, exhibiting exceptional fruit purity with notes of raspberry and strawberry and smooth, polished tannins. With a gentle note of wood spice, this is a top-notch effort from a very good vintage.93 Robert Whitley Jul 5, 2016
Navarro Vineyards, Anderson Valley (Mendocino County) Muscat Blanc 2015
($19): Muscat is a tricky wine to work with if the goal is to produce an elegant dry white, which is likely the reason more vintners don't try. Navarro has had tremendous success with the grape variety, however, and the 2015 is just another in a long line. This vintage delivers the distinct floral nose for which muscat is famous, and on the palate the wine shows notes of ripe melon and spice without the cloying sweetness of most muscats. The tricky part is fermenting to dryness without the wine turning bitter, but Navarro clearly has the knack and the know-how and the result is a beautiful summer white that's quite different and a welcome change of pace.93 Robert Whitley Jul 5, 2016
MacRostie, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County) Pinot Noir 2013
($42): Quite seductive and elegant, the MacRostie RRV pinot had me at the first whiff of violets and spice. On the palate the wine delivers ripe aromas of blueberry, raspberry and plum, with a generous bit of heft. The finish is long and satisfying.92 Robert Whitley Jul 5, 2016
Graffigna, San Juan (Argentina) Malbec Reserva 'Centenario' 2014
($13): Malbec's affinity for the climate and soils and elevation of Argentina expresses itself in this exceptional reserve from Graffigna. It shows dense black fruits on the palate with a thread of enticing minerality and hints of peppery spice. At the price, a genuine steal.90 Robert Whitley Jul 5, 2016
Torresella, Prosecco DOC (Italy) Extra Dry NV
($16): I generally find "extra dry" prosecco a bit sweet for my taste, though there are exceptions. Torresella is an exceptional exception, showing exquisite balance combined with freshness and purity of fruit. Notes of peach and citrus dominate, and the finish is long and clean. (Note: extra dry bubbly is actually sweeter by percentage than brut.)90 Robert Whitley Jul 5, 2016
Morgan, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County) Pinot Noir 'Twelve Clones' 2014
($34): A ripe pinot that exhibits layered richness, Morgan's Twelve Clones shows earthy forest floor notes with a touch of wood spice and nicely integrated tannins, though it finishes on a slightly stemmy note.90 Robert Whitley Jul 5, 2016
Five Roses to Love This Summer
It was a warm summer day in Grasse, late June in the south of France. I had celebrated a significant birthday the evening before at La Bastide Saint-Antoine, a Michelin-starred restaurant attached to the Relais & Chateau hotel by the same name.
Lunch was being served on the lawn behind the restaurant, the Mediterranean Sea barely visible in the distance. Every table was occupied. And every table, or so it seemed, had a bottle of rose chilling in a bucket of ice.
At the time, my impression of most rose wines was anything but favorable. Too fruity or too watery, but always too sweet. Nevertheless, I decided to do what the French do when the temperature rises. I ordered a bottle of rose recommended by the waiter.
The wine selected was Domaines Ott, perhaps the most famous and respected rose in the world. It was dry, crisp, complex, delicious. It was the turning point in my appreciation of rose, a wine usually made from red grapes with little or no skin contact during fermentation, which typically results in a pale pink or onion-skin color.
As a summer refreshment, rose is splendid, but dry rose wines also pair well with seafood, salads, grilled chicken and an assortment of savory tapas and cheeses.
My current favorites include three from France, one from Spain (where rose is called rosado) and one from California. The prices listed are the average retail price from WineSearcher.com.
Chateau d’Esclans 2015 Whispering Angel, Cotes de Provence, France ($21) – Pale in color but robust in flavor, with crisp, refreshing acidity.
Domaines Ott 2015 ‘By Ott,’ Cotes de Provence, France ($21) – This is a second wine for Domaines Ott and considerably less expensive than its top wine. That said, this creamy rose is a beautiful match with smoked salmon or savory tapas.
Eberle Winery 2015 Syrah Rose, Paso Robles ($19): The first wine made by the new winemaker, Chris Eberle (no relation to winery owner Gary Eberle) is balanced, delicate and dry and is sweeping top awards at major California wine competitions.
Gerard Bertrand 2015 ‘Cote de Roses,’ Languedoc, France ($15) – From one of the Languedoc’s top wine producers, Cotes de Roses is beautifully structured, showing crisp acidity and enticing notes of strawberry and a pale pink color.
Muga 2015 Rioja Rosado, Spain ($13) – The bargain of the bunch, Muga is produced from grapes harvested in the Rioja Alta, at some elevation on the Atlantic side of the Rioja region, which gives the wine freshness and balance. Unlike the other four, which are made exclusively from Rhone grapes such as grenache, syrah, mourvedre and cinsault, Muga is a blend of tempranillo, the white grape viura and garnacha (aka grenache.)
Age Before Beauty
The ability to age is one of the accepted tenets of wine appreciation. That may seem oddly disconnected from reality given that the vast majority of wines are consumed within days, if not hours, of purchase. Yet it is a truth that yields spectacular results for those with the patience and wisdom to wait on a great wine.
That truth was driven home to me recently when I rummaged through the wine cellar and selected two very different wines from the 2003 vintage for the evening meal. Although both were from the same year, it was literally a tale of two vintages. The occasion was a birthday celebration that called for, in my humble opinion, classic red wines with at least 10 years of age.
The first was the 2003 St. Supery Dollarhide Cabernet Sauvignon. This was a cool year in the Napa Valley, and though the Dollarhide vineyard is in one of Napa’s warmer pockets, the result was still an elegant wine with firm tannins in its youth. Some critics more attuned to ultra-ripe red wines from Napa weren’t very high on the vintage, but I’ve always found it to be exceptional.
The 2003 Dollarhide had aged beautifully after 13 years. Brimming with primary fruit notes of blackberry and cassis, it was a deep purple color. The tannins were still firm, and secondary aromas that come with age were at a whisper rather than a roar. Delicious now, I judged it to be good to go for another ten years at least, but kinder and gentler now, and infinitely more interesting, than when it was first bottled.
The second wine was a 2003 Marcarini ‘La Serra’ Barolo, from the hottest vintage in memory in northern Italy’s Piedmont region. I was touring Sicily in southern Italy when the heat wave struck and remember being astonished that the temperature in Milan in July was higher than in Palermo.
In many of Europe’s wine regions the excessive heat ripened the grapes prematurely, achieving high sugar levels quickly, resulting in wines with higher alcohol. The ability of wines to age has a good deal with the balance between fruit, tannin, acid and alcohol, and for much of Europe the grapes were not in balance.
I held hope for the Barolo district, however, because Barolo has historically been among the most age-worthy of wines and Marcarini is among the top producers.
I held my breath as I poured the wine and noticed the brown color in the glass.
Nothing too unusual there. Red wines lose color with age and typically begin the browning stage around the rim of the glass. But the color was more advanced than I would have expected from a 13-year-old Barolo.
Nevertheless, the first sip revealed that its extended time in the cellar had worked the usual magic, albeit earlier than I would have liked. The primary fruit aromas of a young Barolo had given way to secondary aromas of secondary aromas of complexity, notably leather, balsamic and truffle notes with just a hint of black cherry in the background.
It was a glorious tasting experience.
While it is true that aging wines can be risky, and that not all wines age well or even improve with age, but the reward when you stumble across a truly age-worthy wine is great indeed.
Follow Robert on Twitter @wineguru.