Grosset Gaia 2001

Exotic and yet strangely familiar, this wine smells of California mission figs, damp soil in a shady redwood forest, freshly-baked German plum torte, the singing acidity of just-cleaved fruit, freshly baked brownies cooling in a suburban kitchen window, and cassis. It’s so wonderfully complex that honestly? I could probably sit here smelling it for half an hour; it’s as elaborate and fluid as a Guerlain perfume.Texturally, it’s fascinating, simultaneously hard and porous, with an initial impression of hard, ripe tannin quickly changing to a soft, slippery, sensual decay of just-melted chocolate. Beyond the texture, though, is still-present, still-youthful black cherry fruit, cheerfully slipping into warmer cigar box and cedar notes, finishing softly into a long, slow dissolve into dried herbs and dark bread baked in a wood-fired oven.Ironically, it’s the sweetness here that marks this wine as distinctly what it is. If that weren’t here, it would remind me of a Loire red, given its firm tannin and wonderfully complex notes of cherry, mineral, and herbs. However, it’s that beautiful, pure Australian fruit that elevates it beyond the merely really f***ing good and into the phenomenal. There aren’t many wines that can convincingly walk the line between Old World and New; just as Ridge Monte Bello does, this wine is simultaneously everything good about the Old and the New.I would imagine there’s another five or ten years’ life left here; simultaneously, I can’t imagine this being any better than it is right now.Grosset
Price: $27
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Palumbo Family Vineyards Tre Fratelli 2005

Somehow, a conversation over barbecue and Michelob last Saturday night turned to Temecula. Temecula (or, more properly, the Temecula Valley) is a wine region just up the road from my house here in San Diego – it’s about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. It’s known for two things: casinos and wineries. Every time I drive past, I see at least one mini-coach filled with a good half-dozen party types doing the circuit of the local wineries, drinking, not tasting, and obviously enjoying themselves. Me, though, I’ve never been. I’m a native Northern Californian, which means I tend to be suspicious of any wine from the Southland (i.e. Southern California) – and no, Sideways country doesn’t count as it’s north of Los Angeles, you know – and the one time it was mentioned in wine school (in Washington state), Temecula was briefly noted as a success story, but only in terms of the hospitality industry (i.e. not as an actual wine producing area, just as a pleasant place with fake Tuscan villas making a living selling crap to daytrippers in mini-coaches).

However, there are most definitely locals who absolutely swear by the quality of the local wines. One of them (an ex-coworker) was nice enough to give me a bottle of wine from Palumbo Family Vineyards a couple of years back, and here it is in front of me. The packaging is lovely and the cork extra long: it looks exactly what a moderately expensive wine should look like. But what’s the wine like?

First of all, it’s inky black with a very slightly watery rim. The smell, well, it quite frankly reminds me of vanilla ice cream with a trace of dill pickle. There are definite notes of dusty cocoa, baker’s chocolate, roasted coffee, and espresso: it smells like someone went a little bit overboard with the char here, but then again heavily oaked wines are of course usually highly palatable to Americans. Even so, I find it disappointing because I don’t smell fruit, minerals, earth, or for that matter anything other than wood here. Hrm.

The wine, once drunk, is deeply unpleasant. Imagine if you will a new brand of Lipton Cup-a-Soup called “Consommé du Parker” – this consists of nothing other than tannin extracts with a peel-off sticker that says “90+” on the package. Now, dump that in a bottle of uneventful grape juice. Shake slightly – not enough to truly distribute the tannin – et voilá, you’ve got a bottle of Tre Fratelli. A mouthful of this is as unpleasant as drinking a bottle of Yoo-Hoo you forgot to shake: the initial sweet fruit attack is quickly displaced by a sensory nightmare of tiny bits of particulate matter that quickly turn into harsh, grating tannins that cover your teeth like a cheap rug. The fruit flavor, such as it is – it’s a simple, boring red-fruit aquarelle – is quickly overshadowed by the mouthfeel, and there’s no finish, no line, absolutely nothing to recommend this wine at all.

In short, this is strictly amateur hour. I’m sure the people that make it are lovely people, and I’m sure that their tasting room is a lovely place to visit, but this isn’t as good as even the cheapest Jacobs Creek wine I’ve tasted. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Palumbo Family Vineyards
Price: $35
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

Wayne Gretzky Estates Meritage 2006

At the fairly ritzy SAQ Sélection on boul. De Maisonneuve Ouest Saturday afternoon, I put the bottle of Osoyoos-Larose I’d gone there to buy in my card… and then I noticed a pitiful clump of neglected bottles nearby. What? One of Canada’s best known sportsmen had produced a wine? What the hell? The capsules were dinged up, the back labels all had French language labels hastily applied, peeling already, with typefaces that didn’t match anything; underneath were labels that appeared to have been designed for US export. The URL on the back didn’t work (it’s outdated), there were still more slapped-on labels talking about a charitable foundation… ugh, what a mess.Of course, I immediately put back the prized bottle of Osoyoos-Larose and bought this wine instead. After all, Wayne Gretzky, eh?So: how is it? Fairly ordinary looking in the glass, the nose offers up simple, attractive, cherry-berry flavors with just a hint of oak and/or glue; I’m not sure which. In the mouth, you get a somewhat thin, somewhat fake wine with body that seems largely derived from alcohol with maybe a little bit of residual sugar, not extract; there really isn’t much by the way of flavor here, but at least what little you get isn’t bad, especially not compared to the Jackson-Triggs merlot from last week. With some aeration, it improves a bit to the point where voilá, you’ve got a decent pizza wine: little red fruits, some smoky oak, decent acidity, and a good enough finish. Not too shabby! Overpriced by Californian standards, it didn’t seem that expensive in a Canadian context. I’d be interested to see how their current wines are faring; there could be some potential here for a exceptional sub-$20 wine in the future.No. 99 Estates Winery
Price: C$17.99 (US $17)
Closure: Synthetic cork

Foundry Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2003

Such beautiful packaging, and such a shame to unwrap the bottle from its stylish red paper, but my cat just got back from the vet and deserved something to help him overcome the trauma, so there you go. This has been languishing in my cellar for years, picked up in Walla Walla during their spring tasting weekend; that time, I had stayed in the Bridal Suite at the Howard Johnson’s – don’t laugh, it was only $5 more, and turned out to have fewer amenities than their usual rooms, but I digress.I was shocked to smell this at first; the first impression is of, well, shit. Ewww. However, once you get past the shock, it does improve, but the bad smell seems to be on an endless, faulty merry-go-round with the other smells of Walla Walla fruit and Kalamata olive. I… am not a fan, admittedly; this smelled quite a bit different when I tasted the wine on site.Thankfully, when you get it past your nose and into your mouth, what you get is a lovely, elegant, supple Washington cabernet that is everything that good wines from that state are: brightly/subtly acidic in the background, with rich, lush, ripe red fruits in the front, all set off nicely against a lumbering backdrop of quality French oak. There is also a very distinctive, very hard for me to describe of something like green olives, salt water, and stale fruitcake hovering around the midpalate; I have a feeling that this wine may be a bit de trop for your average American red wine drinker, but honestly? Try to see beyond the oddness and you may be richly rewarded.Bonus: Jim Dine did the label, which is quite handsome. This wine really does look and feel like a $100 cult Cabernet from California; it’s insanely good value.Foundry Vineyards
Price: $30
Closure: Cork

Meerlust Rubicon 1984

As I worked to open the bottle – unsurprisingly, the cork was a little bit soft and broke in two – my partner mentioned that not only was I a high school freshman when this wine was made, but that Nelson Mandela was still in prison as well. Yeah, that’s pretty old. 🙂

The nose is fairly delicate, definitely old, and not one hundred percent attractive; it smells a bit too musty, and there’s a hint of horehound, or medicinal camphor, or something along those lines; I can’t say for sure. To be honest, it smells like a Tandy leather crafts shop from the 1970s; it reminds me of making leather wallets at summer camp ages ago. In terms of color it’s rather faded, but still fairly dark.

In the mouth, it seemed corked for just a moment, but it’s more along the lines of unaired hatboxes than true TCA taint. Still, the fruit is still good, there’s some sweetness left hanging in there, and a lovely savor to the finish. There are very, very fine tannins here as well, giving it a lovely polish. In terms of what it tastes like I’m at a loss: I suppose that this is what a fine aged claret tastes like, and I’m afraid I may not be quite British enough to know how to describe this. There’s a lovely acidity supporting gentle red fruits awash in mellow tannin, and the experience is almost more of a sensual one than a tast-centered one. It’s plush, surprisingly so.

At nearly a quarter century old, this wine is in remarkably good shape. It’s also fantastic value.

Price: about $30 (purchased as part of a Rubicon vertical from the Southern Hemisphere Wine Center)
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: November 2008v>

Beaulieu Vineyard Tapestry 1999

Only a slight softness to the rich, crimson color suggests that this wine isn’t at all young; on the nose, what you get is mostly soft, sweet, rich earth with an gentle framing of soft spice. On the whole, it’s rather akin to Davidoff cigarettes: there’s something about this that screams “expensive,” as plush and rich as a Birkin bag, with a suggestion of the tobacco drying shed thrown in for good measure.In the mouth, it seems like it’s begun to fade slightly, with a certain drabness of fruit present. Even so, it is undeniably lovely and seems just the thing to have with a slice of Parma ham (thankfully, I do indeed have some handy thanks to fresh&easy’s discount pricing). There’s still a small bit of tannin on the finish – not very much – and it all ends with a sigh. Gentle, distinguished, elegant, and, I suppose, a reminder of what some Napa wines may have tasted like before Screaming Eagle, Colgin, and so on redefined the style in the 1990s.If you have some of this, now would be a good time to drink it. If you don’t, it’s not good value at the full retail price, but if you see it for $25, I’d seriously consider it.Beaulieu VineyardPrice: US $25 (K&L Wines pricing, normally $50).Closure: CorkDate tasted: June 2008

Grosset Gaia 1997

This wine has traveled an awfully long way to my table here in San Diego: it’s from South Australia originally, was apparently imported to Germany at some point (the label says “Wein aus Australien” after all), wound up in a Chicago auction house, and now here it is, suddenly making my table look more sophisticated than it has any right to be. (I hid the carry-out pizza box outside just to make sure.)This is obviously a full mature wine: the nose has more to do with shoyu than grapes at this point, suggesting dusky vats, umeboshi, and dried cuttlefish (which, by the way, don’t really smell of fish, but rather of salt). There’s also a seductive aroma of dried cranberries, strawberry fruit leather, and freshly cut cedar. It’s decidedly strange – and yet appealing.The wine has all held together fairly well; it’s probably slightly past its peak at this point, but you do get more than sweet liquid and smoke, which is a relief. There’s a hint of musky, minty berry, a somewhat tired aged note, hints of charred coffee, and then it slinks away under the cover of darkness, leaving only a very slightly off note of sweet old wine. Tannins are still present, doing their best to support the fading fruit; it’s so very close to being a good older wine, at yet it’s not, not really.[By the way, please accept my apologies for labeling this Meritage. It isn’t, at least not technically, but it is a Bordeaux style wine: mostly cabernet (sauvignon and franc) with 5% merlot.]On second thought, this wine is likely displaying low level TCA contamination, unfortunately – it’s at that subliminal level where all it does is mask the true character and quality of the wine, I think. It isn’t immediately obvious, but it is, I believe, causing the strange muted character on the finish more than any other explanation of which I can conceive.Good on Jeffrey Grosset for moving to screwcaps – this shouldn’t happen with newer vintages.GrossetPrice: US $30ishClosure: CorkDate tasted: June 2008

Cameron Hughes Lot 48 Meritage 2005

Whoa. Clouds of rich, dark chocolate, bulldust, and black olive billow up in the glass, and there’s an almost perfumed character to the wine, with a slight sweetness – it’s not unlike vetiver or sage, albeit with a lovely, restrained edge. The color’s a lovely, dark purple with nearly visible particles towards the rim; it just looks expensive, somehow.

On the palate, the first thing that strikes me is the lovely texture: firm and round, followed shortly by flavor that I can honestly only describe as delicious. There are tastes of cassia, Kalamata olive, and cassis, and it all trails off into a clean finish with hints of tannin, acid, and a lovely sweetness, almost like violet pastilles mixed in with tahini. Best of all, the finish keeps going for a while, not resolving itself; it’s a fine drink.

Cameron Hughes
Price: US $9.99
Closure: Diam
Date tasted: November 2007

For you Aussies out there, Meritage is American for “Bordeaux blend,” more or less. This also marks the first time I’ve seen an American wine closed with a Diam technical cork, which is awesome. Finally, it may interest you to know that we don’t have cleanskins – but Cameron Hughes is pioneering what y’all would call cleanskins in the US market. If you’re in the USA, you can probably find one or two of them at your local Costco, and they also do mail order (their Lot 39 Shiraz Viognier from the Barossa is probably the most incredibly fun $10 wine I’ve had this year).