The Scholium Project Chuey Cab 2009

There’s a particular type of wine in which I have an inherent interest; they form part of, for lack of a better term, what I’ll call the postmodern wine project. These are bottlings that draw on a particular view of wine history, elevating practices that have, over time, become outmoded, and attempting to illuminate in modern form things we may have lost from our experience of drinking wine. This project can sometimes take generous form, as in the Mountain X wines, or be somewhat more retaliatory tone, as in this one.

The idea here is to reclaim a not-long-lost style of Napa Cabernet that is earlier picked and more elegant in effect. Those who lived through unripe Australian Cabernets from the 80s may shake their heads at this folly, but I am pleased to note this wine, though it shows signs of a certain greeness, is far from the leaf bombs that Coonawarra was churning out those decades ago. At 14.24% ABV it’s not exactly a lean wine in terms of alcohol, and there is a core of ripe fruit here that supports more questionable edges of green.

To focus on ripeness, though, is perhaps missing the point of this wine, which achieves obvious, genuine elegance. Sure, it comes at the cost of some green tannins and a slightly lean (though purely fruited) mid-palate, but I’m not prepared to dismiss this wine on the basis of pulling back ripeness to provide a different view of the fruit. This seems a sophisticated attempt to do something different and beautiful that engages with a (real or imagined) past. And it’s a very good wine, even when judged by conventional markers like complexity, balance and line. Would I prefer it without a smattering of green tannins on the finish? Unequivocally, yes. Do they ruin the wine? Absolutely not.

Another fascinating Scholium wine.

The Scholium Project
Price: $US85
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

The Scholium Project the sylphs 2009

About three days ago I arrived in San Diego, a place I haven’t visited since 1997 when I was here on a student exchange. What a year. I had come to finish my science degree at UCSD, and I did indeed do that. But my fondest memories are of life outside school.

For the first couple of weeks back then, I wasn’t even 21 years old, so was legally unable to enter any of the bars that, as a fourth year university student, I had become rather too accustomed to frequenting in Australia. No matter; my birthday soon ticked around, the school year started, and my time here flew by in a haze of perfect weather, minimal study and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of great beaches.

The intervening years have brought many things, one of which is my friendship with Christopher Pratt, co-publisher of Full Pour and all-around awesome guy. A few years ago, Chris and his partner made San Diego home, and the city has beckoned ever since. Finally, in my year of wine, I’m here again.

Amongst the many Californian wines I’ve been keen to try, few are higher on the list than The Scholium Project’s various bottlings. Chris has written about these in some detail on Full Pour, and I encourage you to browse through the archives to familiarise yourself with what must surely be one of the more intriguing producers working in California at the moment. We’ve already tasted several over the past few days, and none have been less than interesting. This, though, stands out for its sheer perversity.

This is what might happen if you turn Chardonnay inside out. Everything about it seems designed to test one’s idea of what varietal Chardonnay ought to taste like, from its emphasis on flavours that ordinarily sit at the edges to its radical re-rendering of some clearly beautiful fruit. The nose shoves things like nutty aldehydes, salt spray, Mexican candy and your grandmother’s stash of sherry (thanks Chris for that image) right into the foreground; fruit becomes utterly secondary to aromas that are ordinarily used sparingly to add complexity and depth, and that might reasonably be considered faults if too prominent. But do conventional ideas of balance apply when a wine is so determinedly styled to challenge those conventions?

The palate reveals a core of fruit that seems radically distorted yet weirdly beautiful, like trying to see a peach through glass bricks. This styling strikes me as cubist in its reconceptualisation of expected flavours. This extends to palate structure too; weight is much lighter than expected and lacking the sort of flesh one might associate with Chardonnay from California. Flavours aren’t quite as sweet as the nose suggests, although no amount of fiddling can completely rob the fruit here of a certain lusciousness. Texture becomes rough through the back palate, and complexity of flavour is unmitigated from front to back.

In some ways, I’ve no idea what to make of this wine in quality terms. It’s full of intent, shows good fruit and is vastly provocative, stylistically. Does that make it a good wine? Do regular indicators of quality even apply? I’m not sure, but I love that it poses the question.

The Scholium Project
Price: $US75
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

Red Lion Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

If there were ever a shining example of a vin d’effort, this wine is likely it.

Unfathomably black in the glass, this wine smells damn good in exactly the same way that breast implants look good: you can’t help but like it, even if you recognize that those tell-tale half-grapefruits aren’t even remotely, you know, human. The color of this wine is straight up sci-fi, the color reminiscent of an inky black, otherworldly, viscous ooze that looks like it’s about to do something nasty to Tasha Yar. The nose is moderately complex, with suggestions of Asian spices in a forgotten cedar box that someone’s stashed in amongst strawberries mixed with rising dough; yes, it’s very Cabernet after a fashion, but entirely without the green, leafy notes that so often add interest. At times, though, it reminds me of a shoeshine stand in a dusty Delta town not too far away from Napa; at other times, it tends towards stewed prunes and pencil shavings. You have to admit, though, that this wine is incredible value for what it is: with all of this going on, I’d expect the price tag to be twice as much.The progression of the wine is simultaneously surprising and trite. Wonderfully balanced the initial impression (fleeting, mind you!) is of a vapid California cabernet, quickly resolving into something much more interesting, with sneaky acidity firming up against a billowing cloud of smoky red fruit, which suddenly vaporizes into an entirely delicious, savory, dark expression of Cabernet that – although it doesn’t really seem particularly Californian, or particularly anywhere in particular at all – is admittedly entirely fabulous. It smooths out on the finish even further, transmogrifying into something that damn near approaches pure pleasure, going on for an age, suggesting nothing more than raspberry liqueur, baker’s chocolate, and perhaps star anise. Tannins make themselves known, yes – who snuck in and put socks on all my teeth? – but they’re fully ripe and in their right place here.

To sum up, this is for my money a home run, no questions asked. Sure, there’s no real sense of place or any strange, haunting beauty here, but honestly: do we always, always have to care? Surely it’s sometimes enough to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the contents of a shrink-wrapped magazine or bottle of well-crafted wine? Isn’t it?

R Wines
Price: $13
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

Heritage Vineyard Zinfandel 2003

The University of California at Davis, thanks to Professor Carole Meredith’s work with DNA research, figured out where Zinfandel comes from a few years ago. Given that Zinfandel is very much our national grape, there’s been quite a lot of work done here to better understand the plant material that we have in the state. Given that the grape itself is so incredibly obscure (there are a few dozen vines in Croatia that presumably gave birth to all that we have here), vintners ganged up a decade or two ago to gather all of the different sorts of Zinfandel that were planted around the state in hopes of better understanding if certain sports or clones have better characteristics than other. That’s where this wine comes into play: this wine was made from the selection of different Zinfandel vines from all over California that are planted at a UC research station in the Napa Valley (more information is available over at ZAP).

Every year, a different winemaker takes the harvested grapes and makes wine from them. It’s an interesting conceit, and I don’t know of anything else like this in the state. 2003 was Paul Draper’s year, so this is in essence a Ridge wine made from Heritage Vineyard grapes.

Five years on from harvest, it’s still deep purple and strictly jammy in appearance. The nose is striking, with a very typically Californian Zinfandel outrageously fruity nose, surprisingly undershot with a sort of dusty, musty note. Together, what you get is – to me, at least – what a Californian red table wine should smell like: a distinctly odd mix of the Californian sun mixed with the restraint of traditional French winemaking. You could not possibly mistake this for a Bordeaux: this is Zin.

Strangely, the first thing you notice when you take a sip are the tannins: they’re surprisingly strong, anchoring the sense of the wine with fair seriousness. There’s a nearly green sourness that sneaks in towards the finish, which is fairly lengthy and peters out in a brambly black cherry orchard somewhere on the coast, with a faint hint of iodine and salt air. It’s peculiar, definitely not a Ridge wine proper, but there’s still that same familiar sense of restraint in letting the fruit speak for itself here. There’s also very much a dark chocolate, bittered oaky note which I’m assuming isn’t actually (American?) oak, but who knows?

This one acre of vines were gathered from fifteen California counties; this is the Grand Unification Zinfandel of my homeland.

Heritage Vineyard Project with Paul Draper
Price: about $25
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: November 2008

Mumm Napa Sparkling Pinot Noir NV

Either I’m getting arthritic before my time or else Mumm Napa are using some amazingly tight corks, but as per usual I had a hell of a time getting the cork out of this bad boy.

I was surprised to see that this wine is a fairly dark red; it looks an awful lot like Honest Ade pomegranate blueberry drink (for you Aussies, this is an organic soft drink that’s something like a premixed cordial). Heck, it could just be pomegranate juice if we’re going by loks here. On top of the wine, there are some bubbles – lots of them – which somehow don’t look particularly elegant. They’re kind of like tiny color inverted cod roe, but I digress.

It smells of strawberries and unaired broom closets. It tastes like medium quality Moldovan pinot noir, which is to say fairly good in a musty direction. It comes across as fairly dry with a short finish that hits a fruit leather, somewhat tannic note and holds there; I like it, but it seems abrupt, inelegant.Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of this. It pales by comparison to good Aussie sparkling shiraz, and Moldovan sparkling reds (eg Cricova) are far more entertaining. On the other hand, it doesn’t taste like any other Californian sparkler I’ve had, which is I suppose a good thing, and yes, I would be happy to drink this at any time (I love sparkling red wine). But is it good value?

Mumm Napa
Price: $30 (wine club members: $21)
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: September 2008

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

Robert Mondavi Chardonnay Napa Valley 2005

Light scents of pineapple and Bosc pear drift out of the glass; the color if the wine is a sun-dappled, honey, golden straw. This is exactly the kind of a wine a prop manager could use for an 80s soap opera: imagine the reflection on the shoulder pads of the protagonist’s pantsuit, and you’re almost there.There’s no yeastiness to speak of, but there is a certain creaminess to the smell of the wine that’s very well judged. On the other hand, the wine seems to tends towards tropical fruits that don’t seem quite right for (what’s mostly) Carneros grown fruit; something smells like it’s been manipulated just a bit too much here.In the mouth, the first impression is of a wine that’s a bit flabby, but there’s jarring acidity somewhere in there as well; it’s all just slightly off balance. It seems bigger than it ought to be, with sort of a dead fruit effect: on the other hand, there are distinctive hints of good quality winemaker taste in there, presumably due to bâtonnage, barrel fermentation, and other tricks. On the whole, my best guess is that this is focus grouped to death. There are traces of a really lovely wine in here, to be sure, but on the whole it seems to have been teased out to more closely match the (bestselling) style guide that’s used to make stuff like Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay… and I find that really depressing, because the elements for a strong, traditional California chardonnay are here: good fruit, well judged oak, and ripeness. The problem is simply that they appear to have tacked on the stuff they think will sell well (a certain sucrosité, a certain broadness), and it really doesn’t belong here.If anyone knows what this wine was like before the Canandaigua takeover, I’d love to know about it.Robert Mondavi WineryPrice: US $14Closure: CorkDate tasted: May 2008

Ridge Monte Bello 2005 + Quixote Petite Sirah 2004

You’ll have to excuse me, but last night was the last night my parents were in town – they live in London and were visiting San Diego, so I had to whip out some of the awesome ‘cuz my Dad likes a good bottle of wine every bit as much as Julian and I do. Given that I was concentrating more on the company than the wine, I decided not to write about these two wines right away: as a result, what you’re getting isn’t a proper tasting note, but rather further musing on the difference between these two wines.

We began the evening by opening the Monte Bello. This is arguably one of the finest wines produced in California; every once in a while, usually when I’m feeling flush with cash and slightly inebriated, I’ll cave to Ridge’s offer of Monte Bello futures (sadly, they aren’t really doing that any longer; instead, you have to sign up for a subscription program). $400 or so gets you a six pack, or 12 half bottles; then, you have to wait a couple of years until they deliver the bottles to your door. At this point, I’ve got some of the 2000 and 2001… and the 2005 was delivered to my office last week.

Within a few minutes of opening the Monte Bello, I flew off onto one of my usual spiels about how truly excellent wines can almost be diagrammed on staff paper – there should be different things going on in different registers. Perhaps there’s some floral perfume in the treble, and some deep, heavy bass in the sense of wood or roasted coffee; at the very least, there should be a common thread in the midrange that holds the entire wine together.

The 2005 Monte Bello was… very difficult to accurately describe. There was definitely a vanilla perfume above the entire construction, with some classic cabernet sauvignon fruit, with an underpinning of dirty violet perfume (presumably the petit verdot). No matter how many times we smelled that wine, all of its components drifted in and out of focus, perfectly balanced, perfectly harmonious. You had the rich, mulberry (and very, very young!) notes some times; other times, you mostly smelled vanilla, sandalwood, and eventually camphor. It was incredible.

My Dad and I decided it would be interesting to set our glasses aside for a while – we wanted to see what would happen with an hour or two of air – so we did, and went for the other bottle I’d grabbed from the cellar: a Quixote petite sirah. Both of these wines are roughly in the same price range: $33 for a tenth of the Monte Bello, and $60 for the Quixote. Both of these wines are hugely enjoyable. Both of these wines will probably send shivers down your spine with sheer physical delight. And yet, only one of these wines is a great wine.

The Quixote was huge. Heck, my Dad’s teeth went dark purple in a few minutes. It’s a massive, hulking wine: very rich, obviously very expensive, and with an overwhelming sense of espresso towards the finish. It screams California: this isn’t a Rutherglen durif, not even close. It’s ripe – not hyperripe in the Barossa sense – and it’s obviously been raised in the best French barrels money can buy. The tannins are fine, sweet, and delicious.

What’s missing is of course a sense of place. Just as a wine like the Mollydooker Carnival of Points (er, Love) can be huge, intense, delicious, and all of those good things, the Quixote petite sirah is huge, intense, delicious, and a visceral thrill. I kept thinking of Robert Musil, though: this is a wine without qualities. That is, it doesn’t appear to come from anywhere: this is what happens when you take a plant, apply the most awesome growing technology (canopy management, microirrigation, whatever) imaginable, stick it in the most expensive barrels you can find, and then bottle it in bottles with exquisite labels. By the time we finished the bottle, we had gotten over the initial thrill of it, and began to wonder… is that all there is?

We then went back to the Monte Bello. Two hours’ time had caused the wine to soften appreciably; my Dad described it as “sensuous,” and I wouldn’t disagree. Unusually for so-called New World wines, the Ridge seemed carefully designed and constructed to express beauty, not power: more importantly, it tastes like itself and not like any other wine out there. The 2000 and 2001 both had the same, impossible to describe feeling to them… a feeling that what you’re drinking couldn’t possibly be duplicated anywhere else on Earth. Just as with a Hunter semillon or a good Burgundy, you just knew that you were drinking an incredible wine from a place like no other on Earth.

This is the difference between the excellent and the great: complexity, harmony, balance, and fidelity to place.

Ridge + Quixote
: US $33 (375 mL; futures price) + US $60
: Cork + Stelvin
Date tasted
: March 2008

Cameron Hughes Lot 44 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2005

On the nose, this smells more like fresh, rich cream than anything else, somehow – it’s not what I would have expected from a red wine. There’s also a sharp, dark strawberry note along with black pepper – nearly a balsamic vinegar note, or perhaps shoyu. There seems to be blackberry there as well, and definitely some super smooth French oak. It smells fantastic.In the mouth, what you get is smooth fruit with gently supporting acidity, and then, suddenly, a surprisingly elegant, fairly high toned blackcurrant and damson plum note, something like Guatemalan coffee towards the finish, and then it slinks off to the corner to regroup for the next mouthful. It’s not easy finding a Californian wine this elegant; I imagine it would work incredibly well with pork loin roast or a mushroom ragout.Cameron Hughes

Price: US $15
Closure: Diam
Date tasted: January 2008

Silverado Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2003

My partner saw me dragging this bottle into the kitchen and said “whoa, what is that, forty bucks?” I don’t know how much it cost – I’ll have to look at that up at the end of the review – but yes, the bottle does look fairly impressive in a conservative Napa Cab kind of way, right down to its twenty-fifth anniversary capsule.In the glass, my first thought was nah, maybe thirty bucks? It smells like good, clean, lovely Napa cabernet. More specifically, it smells heavy, dense, mostly fruity, with a fair bit of French oak coming through as well. The color is, however, not as dense as I’ve come to expect, which bodes well. On the palate, it’s brighter than I would have expected, with good supporting acidity and a lovely, fresh taste of ripe fruit (not overripe!), cassis, blackcurrant, and butterscotch, with minimal tannins on the finish… no, wait, there they are; they just take a minute or so to assert themselves. It’s all very California by way of Bordeaux and frankly pretty damned good.Silverado Vineyards

Price: US $35
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: January 2008