RN Estate 2015 Chardonnay Solomon Hills Santa Maria Valley

RN Estate 2015 chardonnay

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This is Roger Nicolas’s first chardonnay and it sure is a winner. Aromas of wet slate and lemon curd lead gently to more minerality on the palate with hints of lemon and tropical fruit. A long finish with a slight butter tinge. We rate the $49 as a fair price for a wine this subtle and varied.



RN Estate 2009 Cuvée des Artistes

RN Estate 2009 Cuvée des Artistes

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We are long-time members of the RN Estate wine club. Today, as I was browsing the Eurocave™ I spotted this beauty on the shelf. Before I write about it, here’s some advice if you’re lucky enough to own some of this: give it a few more years. There are still some slightly rough tannins and a bit of oak. But we’re old and impatient. (If you’re curious about our history with this winery, search for RN Estate.)

Forthwith, my notes: aromas of smoke and black pepper followed by a dark, brooding palate. Notes of brambleberries and dried tart cherries lead to a long, slightly tannic finish. If you can find it, buy it and be patient.

Amazingly, you can still buy this on the RN Estate website for a mere $49. This is a serious bargain.

Owner-winemaker Roger Nicolas regularly makes these blends, using proportions adjusted to each year’s vintage. The 2009 is 50 percent syrah, 19 percent cabernet sauvignon, 18 percent merlot, and 13 percent zinfandel. In Bordeaux and Burgundy a blend like this would be illegal. Luckily for us, Roger is beyond the reach of the French wine authorities.

A Lynmar Horizontal

Confession: we have somehow accumulated a large number of bottles of Lynmar 2014 pinots in our Eurocave. So we’re creating space. This will be the first of several Lynmar horizontals.

The wines are the Susanna’s Vineyard (Sonoma Coast, $65) and the “Old Vines” (Russian River Valley, $80). I’d advise you to join their wine club to save money, but neither membership tier offers a discount to new members. You should have joined when we first reviewed Lynmar.

Lynmar Horizontal A Lynmar Horizontal

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These two wines are terrific representatives of the respective terroirs. The Susanna’s has a black cherry black raspberry nose followed by more black cherries on the palate and a marvelous butterscotch finish. The “Old Vines” is slate and river rock through and through – with a milder butterscotch finish.

I could copy the text from the back labels, but the Lynmar website has done the heavy lifting for me. Forthwith, the story.

Lynmar_2014_PinotNoir_OldVines Lynmar_2014_PinotNoir_SusannasVineyard

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Balletto Vineyards Has Great Wine and
an All-American Success Story

Balletto mainly grows grapes. They keep ten percent for their use. And their wines are pretty terrific. Not to mention reasonably priced. All their wines are estate grown and bottled, with a Russian River Valley AVA designation. And the best word to describe their wines is unusual. You will find aromas and flavors that, in our experience, are unique.

Wow Wine Country Dawn Balletto Vineyards Has Great Wine and an All-American Success Story

Wow Wine Country Dawn (click for larger image)

The Wine

Balletto’s 2016 sauvignon blanc ($19) is a little heavy on the grapefruit for our taste, but with nice, unusual lemon-lime undertones.

Their 2016 “Teresa’s” chardonnay ($20) features tropical fruit and green apple, again, quite unusual.

Addie the Winery Dog Balletto Vineyards Has Great Wine and an All-American Success Story

Addie the Winery Dog (click for larger image)

A 2016 gewürztraminer ($19) was heavy on lychee nuts and ripe pear, lacking much of the traditional spice. Nutty aromas make this another unusual, but not bad, wine.

We’ve always had problems with pinot noir rosé. Usually most of the pinot character is lost with the coloration. But Balletto’s 2016 offering ($18) shows good pinot character, both in the nose and on the palate. This is a major bargain and just the thing for upcoming warm summer evenings.

Their 2014 pinot noir ($29) is a blend from seven vineyards. Aromas of dark fruit with a hint of leather. The palate is an explosion of juice, with a lush butterscotch. finish. Another bargain.

A single-vineyard pinot noir, the 2013 “Burnside” ($42), was lighter with less fruit, more tannins and more oak than the blend. This will improve with age.

Finally, the 2013 zinfandel ($28) was another delightful surprise. Aromas of brambleberries, followed by a soft palate, a small hint of spice, and an overall very nice experience.

The Winery and Its History

To understand the Balletto winery you need to know something about the Balletto family. In 1977 John Balletto started growing vegetables at the tender age of 17. The untimely death of his father sidetracked his college ambitions. With the help of his mother Hazel, he planted produce on five acres in Sebastopol.

Balletto Tasting Room Balletto Vineyards Has Great Wine and an All-American Success Story

Balletto Tasting Room (click for larger image)

The business grew. With the help of Pete Barbieri, the family bought a ranch in Santa Rosa. The business continued to expand. John started leasing land, but quickly realized that fluctuations in lease rates did not make for a stable business environment. With his wife Terri he bought a large parcel at 5700 Occidental Road and built a packing and shipping house. That building is the winery tasting room today.

Jacqueline Balletto and Winemaker Anthony Beckman

Jacqueline Balletto and Winemaker Anthony Beckman (click for larger image)

The Ballettos eventually became the largest vegetable grower north of the Golden Gate with 700 acres under cultivation. But losses caused by three successive El Niño storms combined with competition from Mexico after NAFTA was signed convinced them that there was no future in that market. Luckily they already had 35 acres of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot gris on their home ranch west of Sebastopol. The family began the full-blown conversion to grape growing in 1999. Today they have over 500 acres in the Russian River Valley. In July 2010, the Balletto Family was honored being awarded the Sonoma County Farm Bureau Farm Family of the Year.

There are actually three vineyard sites. The Santa Rosa Plains are a few miles west of Santa Rosa. Sebastopol Hills is southwest of the town of Sebastopol. And they now have a vineyard in the Petaluma Wind Gap, an up-and-coming region featuring very cold, windy conditions.

Balletto Vineyard Map Sebastopol Hills Balletto Vineyards Has Great Wine and an All-American Success Story

Balletto Vineyard Map Sebastopol Hills (click for larger image)


Some days we get lucky. We feel very fortunate to have stumbled onto Balletto. They have terrific wine and a fabulous story.

Mud House 2014 Central Otago Pinot Noir

Artisan Wine Depot was offering a deal on Mud House 2014 Central Otago pinot noir at $16 per bottle. (The link is to our full review on New Zealand Wine Fan.) We bought four bottles on a whim. Subtle aromas of cherries with hints of leather and tobacco greet you. Be sure to swirl vigorously, as this wine is a little shy about exposing itself. On the palate, pure grape juice with bright acidity on the finish.

Kramer Vineyards “Celebrate” Müller-Thurgood Sparkler

Kramer Vineyards "Celebration" Müller-Thurgood Sparkler

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We visited Kramer Vineyards a few years back on our Oregon adventure. And we brought home up a bottle of their “Celebrate” Müller-Thurgood Sparkler ($22 for the 2014 vintage). Aromas of white peach and blood oranges. Grapey on the palate with a hint of grapefruit. Light carbonation.   Highly recommended.  Unfortunately, the new label is considerably less fun than what you see to the left.





Passalacqua 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon TJ Passalacqua Vineyard Dry Creek Valley

Passalacqua Label Passalacqua 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon TJ Passalacqua Vineyard Dry Creek Valley

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We probably waited too long to open this. The aromas are a bit flat, featuring redwood bark and ripe Santa Rosa plums. The palate is multi-layered, opening with an explosion of juice followed by more plums leading to fine tannins and a terrific acid balance.

If you have a bottle of this, wait no longer.

RN Estate Vertical 2009 and 2010 Fiddlestix

Yesterday was my birthday. To celebrate we opened two bottles of RN Estate pinot noir. These bottles are both from the justifiably-famous Fiddlestix Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills AVA. The vintages were 2009 and 2010. And the two could not have been more different.  Before going any further, I hasten to add that they were both terrific.

The 2009 opens with aromas of black cherry and licorice. The mid-palate is dense and luscious featuring more black cherries with some added black raspberries. A finish of spice and silky tannins rounds out a wonderful experience.

By contrast, the 2010 has a nose of black cherries and a hint of forest floor. The mid-palate is brighter than the 2009, tending to red cherries and strawberries. The finish is just a touch of spice and the same silky tannins.

We acquired both of these wines before we got our Eurocave. And we did not handle them particularly carefully. Their durability and development are both testimonials to the skills of Roger Nicolas. If you’ve never tried his wines, do it now.

Last Chance For Reuling Wine

Two years ago we wrote effusively about Reuling pinot noir.  We discovered them at Pinotfest 2014.  Yesterday we got an e-mail with some sad news.  Reuling plans to stop making wine and go back to just growing grapes.  The 2014 vintage will be their last.  The official announcement is below.  Click here to order their wine.

Reuling farewell e-mail

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RN Estate 2009 Cuvée des Trois Cépages

RN Estate 2009 Cuvée des Trois Cépages

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Opened a bottle of RN Estate 2009 Cuvée des Trois Cépages tonight and it is terrific. Aromas of black cherries, blackberries and a hint of licorice. Long, complex palate starting with spice and tannins, developing into more black cherries with a hint of caramel. Absolutely wonderful.

Dante Robere 2012 Roberitage

2012 Roberitage

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Dante Robere was one of our Livermore Valley discoveries a few years ago.  We joined their wine club for a few years, then noticed that they were heading in a direction that was not suitable for us.  Nevertheless, Dan Rosenberg and Bob Bossi continue to make excellent wine.

Last night we opened a bottle of their 2012 Roberitage.  This is a 50-50 blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah.  And it sure is good.  The spice and tannins from the syrah balance the elegance of the cab.  Aromas of black cherries, huckleberry and a hint of licorice. On the palate smooth tannins, a hint of spice, and flavors of dark fruit. If you have a bottle or two, hold on to it for another year. It will only get better.

This wine is out of stock at the winery.  And they have sold out their 2013 vintage.  If you find a retailer that has either in stock, please let us know.

Heitz Cellars Vertical at Artisan

On October 8 our very good friends at Artisan Wine Depot invited us for an exceptional tasting event. They were hosting a Heitz Cellars Vertical at Artisan. Heitz is, of course, world-renowned. They source grapes for some of their cabs from the Martha’s Vineyard plot, equally and justifiably famous.

Artisan Entrance Heitz Cellars Vertical at Artisan

Heitz was pouring their 2014 chardonnay followed by eight cabs ranging from 1998 to 2012. We’ll get the chardonnay out of the way first – but we did buy two bottles so take that as a recommendation.

The 2014 Napa Valley chardonnay ($24) is very lightly oaked with no detectable malolactic flavors. Aromas of fresh-cut grass and Meyer lemons followed by blood orange and green apple palate. Unusual and very good.

Now on to the main event, eight cabernet sauvignons. Per the instructions of our host we tasted from youngest to oldest. Heitz’s 2012 Napa Valley ($50) had a little too much acid for our taste. Flavors of blackberries and cassis were nice additions. But the 2011 Napa Valley ($40) was very good and well-balanced. We were greeted us with aromas and flavors of blackberries and licorice.

 HeitzTasting and Talking Cellars Vertical at Artisan

The next three were all from the Trailside Vineyard, Rutherford, Napa Valley. The 2010 ($70) was almost as good as the 2011. The main features were aromas of leather and old wood followed by currant and mineral palate. But the 2006 ($65) struck us as somewhat flat with a musty aroma and flavor. Again not to our taste. Finally the 2004 ($75) was a little off-putting similar to the 2006.

The last three cabs were from the Martha’s Vineyard Napa Valley. The 2005 ($150) proved once again that our palates are not sophisticated enough for wines priced much above $75. But we could tell that there were plenty of tannins backed by some terrific grape juice. If you buy this one, wait at least five years before opening. And we’ll make the same comment about the 2004 ($150). Patience with either of these will be rewarded.

The star of the show was a 1998 Martha’s Vineyard ($110). If you want an expensive, classy wine to open for, say, New Year’s Eve this year, you won’t be disappointed. Minty currant and oak flavors precede a firm. dry, tannic cabernet that is well-balanced with chewy cherry, plum and strawberry flavors.  Per the advice of everyone in the room, drink this one before the end of 2016.

Thanks again to Artisan for inviting us to this special event.

Heitz Cellars Visits Artisan

October 8 was a special day at Artisan Wine DepotHeitz Cellars was pouring a vertical of their cabernets.  The oldest was 1998 (!!).  We’ll post a full review of this terrific event sometime this week.  But for now we thought we’d give you a video preview.  By the way, visit our new YouTube channel!

RN Estate Malbec Vertical

For Labor Day we cracked open a couple of malbecs that had been in the cellar for a while. Both were from the infamous RN Estate. We’ve written extensively about Roger Nicolas and his Paso Robles venture, so we won’t repeat that here.

The two wines were vintages 2009 and 2012. And they could not have been more different. The 2009 (after decanting) is positively decadent. Chocolate, coffee, and Chinese five-spice aromas lead to a dense, tangled weave of more chocolate and coffee, but with a touch of Ancho chile on the palate.

The 2012 exhibited youthful exuberance. Aromas of strawberries and raspberries followed by even more on the palate.

We’re pretty sure we’ll continue as members of the RN Estate wine club.

Gary Farrell Visits Artisan. Plus Christine’s Chardonnay Challenge

For the rest of your wine-crafting days, if you could only make wine from one red grape variety what would it be? Pinot Noir, of course. ;)

Well, not Gary himself. The winery, however, was well-represented via winemaker Theresa Heredia. More on Ms. Heredia later. But for now this quote from an interview at Winetable.com will do nicely. →

There were two events Friday, July 1. In addition to Gary Farrell, Artisan was hosting their annual “Christine’s Chardonnay Challenge.” Christine Tran, co-owner of Artisan, assembled a dozen chardonnays in the traditional brown paper bags. We swirled, inhaled, tasted and made many notes. Stay tuned for our recommendations.

Gary Farrell Wines

James and Christine Tran, owners of Artisan Wine Depot, were kind enough to invite us to this special tasting. The Gary Farrell Winery has been around forever, at least as long as we’ve been visiting Sonoma County. We’ve dropped by occasionally but the wines have historically been big, loaded with tannins and oak. Those wines had incredible aging potential. But we’re not generally that patient.

According to the website, tasting at Gary Farrell is now by appointment only.  Contact them at 707-473-2909 or concierge@garyfarrellwinery.com.  You can also book through the website.

Artisan was pouring four Gary Farrell wines, two chardonnays and two pinot noirs. We’ll dispense with the chardonnays quickly. The style is oak and butter, although not as excessive as we’ve experienced in the past.

But the pinot noirs were very nice. The 2013 “Russian River Selection” Russian River Valley ($38 at Artisan) is pretty with earthy notes. Aromas of strawberry and rhubarb lead to a fruit bomb palate typical of RRV pinots. The mouth feel is lush and tangy.

Farrell’s 2013 “Hallberg Vineyard” Russian River Valley ($42) is lighter, with aromas of forest floor and cherries. Blackberries and herbs on the palate with a long finish. We actually liked the blend a bit more and picked up a couple of bottles.

Winemaker Theresa Heredia

Theresa Heredia and Tony Gary Farrell Visits Artisan. Plus Christine’s Chardonnay Challenge

Theresa Heredia and Tony

Ms. Heredia was happily working on her Ph.D. in chemistry at U.C. Davis when the wine bug gave her a big, wet kiss. She worked for several years in the vineyards of Burgundy, learning from the source. Among her accomplishments, producing the first vintage at Freestone wines stands out. Following that she was named a “Winemaker to Watch” by the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s what she has to say about working at Gary Farrell:

Accepting the role of winemaker at Gary Farrell has been the experience of a lifetime! This winery has a deeply rooted historical significance in the Russian River Valley, and I am honored to be at the helm of the evolution of these critically-acclaimed wines.

We hope Theresa’s career at Gary Farrell is long and prosperous. And we’re happy to add Farrell pinots to our recommended list.

Christine’s Chardonnay Challenge

Every year Christine selects a dozen chardonnays for a blind tasting. One objective is to see how the infamous Rombauer chardonnay stands up against others. The specific Rombauer was their 2014 Carneros ($34). There were eleven others ranging from standards like Kendall Jackson to newcomers such as Gregory Graham. After tasting, making copious notes, and rating the wines, Christine told us which was which. The Rombauer was oaky with a fair bit of malolactic fermentation, but better fruit than most. The other eleven wines had similar structures with oak and butter. Which means we didn’t like any of them very much.

But, having said that, we’ll reveal our notes on four that we found pretty good. These are in the order in which we tasted them.

Kendall Jackson’s “Grand Reserve” 2014 Central Coast ($16) is a bargain. With less oak than most of the others and a hint of acid balance, this rates as a bargain.

Pahlmeyer’s “Jayson” 2012 North Coast ($45) is not a bargain, but we rated it quaffable. Vanilla with hints of lemon and apples and some oak on the palate.

The aforementioned Gregory Graham “Wedge Block Vineyard” 2013 Lake County ($22) features a nice nose (mango!) with peaches and melon on the palate. A long butterscotch finish makes this another bargain.

We have attended the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Festival for several years. This event is held at the Mer Soleil Winery at the base of the mountains. It happens that Mer Soleil’s “Reserve” 2014 Santa Lucia Highlands ($27) includes an unusual honey palate and a bit too much oak. We recommend saving this one for dessert.

Full marks to Christine Tran for crowdsourcing chardonnay rankings. And, no, the Rombauer did not make our top four.