Great Cal-Ital from Gold Rush Country: Sobon Estates

minersWhen I think of California’s Gold Rush Country, up there in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I think of crusty old miners swilling cheap liquor from a jug. I believe they were a hard-drinking lot; not the kind to be enjoying elegant Italian varietals.

So I was knocked out recently when I came across two killer Cal-Itals from Amador County. For those unfamiliar with the term, “Cal-Ital” refers to Italian varietals (Sangiovese, Barbera, or Arneis, for example) planted in California soil. It’s like an “Old World meets New World” kind of thing. Cal-Itals can be hard to find if you don’t live in California, so those of us in the hinterland are thrilled to discover good ones.

I just tasted Sobon Estates Amador County Barbera 2010 and Sobon Estates Amador County Sangiovese 2009. They made me want to play the accordion and  sing “When the moon hits-a your eye like-a that big pizza pie…”

Let’s look at the Barbera first. This grape is best known as Barbera d’Alba, produced in the Piedmont region of Northwest Italy. There, it makes a medium-bodied red with low tannins, high acidity and cherry/blackberry flavors. Italian immigrants (maybe some of those gold miners?) brought Barbera to northern California, and the grape thrived in the warm, dry climate. They were so happy that the grapes did a little Tarantella!

Second-generation winemaker Paul Sobon does great things with Barbera. He’s created a wine that expresses California opulence with Italian structure and acidity. When I poured this wine, the deep purple/red, almost opaque color suggested a very extracted wine. The nose was compelling with dark berry fruit, cedar, and maybe a hint of chocolate. On the palate, intense black cherry and blackberry led the way, with some spice and tobacco elbowing their way in. Then came the kicker — the bright acidity that shouted “food wine!!”

You have to explain this concept to many Americans. Those who grew up drinking wine like a cocktail — i.e. without any food to accompany it — aren’t used to the acidity that makes European wines so great with food, and food so great with European wines. You have to force these people to grab a piece of cheese, or anything with a red sauce, and enjoy it alongside their wine. Then they have the OMG moment…

So speaking of OMG moments, let’s go to Paul Sobon’s Amador County Sangiovese. This is the grape that made Chianti famous, and you may know that Chianti is a region in Tuscany, Italy. Chianti’s reds can range from bright and fruity to bold and full-bodied, but they always have good acidity.

I opened Paul’s wine with a plate of Chicken Parmesan, and I had my own OMG moment. This Cal-Ital is more fun and fruity than the Barbera, with a bunch of soft cherry/berry fruit, spice notes and mocha adding complexity. There was a surprising richness and velvety mouth-feel — but then again, I was enjoying this with the kind of food that could tame the classic acidity. The tasting notes revealed that the winemaker added a dollop of Zinfandel and a pinch of Petite Sirah, which added more “Cal” to the Cal-Ital.

All Sobon wines are produced from sustainably farmed grapes, and the winery uses solar generated power, composting, natural pest control and other sustainable practices. That’s good — I like to be able to recommend a wine that’s environmentally friendly, as well as darn good. Cheers!



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Drink Wine, Save the Planet

cowI just read a great post on It told me that some clever researcher has discovered that cows who eat winemaking residue (such as crushed up skins and seeds) are happier, healthier, and pass less gas.

Yes, someone found a way to measure cow flatulence (I can’t wrap my head around that one) and were able to determine that happy wine-junk-eating cows pump less gas into the atmosphere. And since an ordinary cow’s typical CO2 production is equal to an automobile’s (imagine that!), then feeding grape junk to cows is as good as car pooling for cleaning up the environment.


I know we’re all looking for ways to save our planet, so isn’t it GREAT that DRINKING MORE WINE has been added to the list? Now you can sip away all evening, knowing that the more you drink, the more new wine will be needed to meet increasing demand. And that creates more wine-grape-junk to feed to all those happy cows.

Check this article out for yourself: it’s a feel-good read.

Cows, the popular bovines behind beloved wine accompaniments steak and cheese, may get fit from wine just like humans do, a new agricultural nutrition study shows. Cows in Australia were fed about 11 pounds of grape pomace, or marc—the skins, seeds and stems usually repurposed after winemaking for brandy production, or tossed in the refuse bin—along with their usual cuisine of cow food, for 37 days. Some of the winemaking leftovers were consumed in pellet form and some were scraped right out of the vat, retaining their pleasing winey smell for the animals. Compared to the dairy cows that only ate hay and bugs or whatever, the wine waste bovines improved, at least for our purposes, in three ways: They produced 5 percent more milk, that milk was higher in anti-oxidants and fatty acids (that’s a good thing) and, perhaps best of all, the cows’ methane emissions were reduced by 20 percent. Cows, you see, have four stomachs, and when they get gassy after a big meal, entire ecosystems cry out with great lamentation: A cow annually spews as much greenhouse gas as a car does. So drink up—tonight’s wine might make tomorrow morning’s milk cheaper, better for you and better for the planet. —


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Pine Ridge Killer Reds

pine rSorry it’s been awhile. If you’re in the wine retail business, like I am, your life gets put on hold for a few weeks when ‘Tis The Season for the holiday shopping and drinking frenzy. Thank God that’s over…

So meanwhile back at the ranch — I finally have time to write about two killer reds I tasted during an online TasteLive session in December. Pine Ridge Vineyards, one of the Stags Leap District’s most classic wineries, sent me two of their Cabs — the Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2008 and Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District 2008. We (a motley crew of wine bloggers) and winemakers Michael Beaulac and Jason Ledbetter connected online, and we got some great input on where these wines come from and how they’re made.

Pine Ridge owns vineyards in four Napa appellations. Michael and Jason talked about their unique characteristics, and explained what grapes from Stags Leap, Rutherford, Oakville and Howell Mountain bring to their party. It was a blast to pick out those characteristics in the wines we tasted.

We started with the Napa Valley 2008 Cabernet, which is a blend of fruit from Rutherford, Oakville and Stags Leap. Before I fill your head with lots of technical mumbo-jumbo, let me say simply that this is a kick-ass bottle of wine. Rich fruit and sweet oak make it positively hedonistic — and there’s nothing wrong with that!

But to get technical again… Beaulac explained that the 2008 growing season gave winemakers the conditions to create softer, lusher, enjoy-it-right-now kind of wines. He used 60% Rutherford fruit that gives intense, rich, palate-coating flavors; 30% Oakville grapes for bright red fruit flavors, good acidity and structured tannins; and 10% Stags Leap for chocolate and mocha notes with fine tannins.

The result — there’s blackberry jam on the nose, with vanilla and mocha sneaking in behind. The palate shows plenty of blackberry fruit, balanced by good acidity and well-integrated tannins. There’s good depth and concentration, and this oh-so-yummy “sweet” finish.

Michael and Jason shared some interesting information on this wine’s creation. Each appellation lot was fermented and aged separately, and then “assembled” to spend another year getting to know each other. They used only American oak barrels: they say Napa Cabernet needs American oak to impart volume and texture. I guess that explains all that sweet vanilla I enjoyed.

So let’s move on to number two — Pine Ridge Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. Again, to cut to the chase — lush, powerful and balanced. Michael used only Stags Leap fruit from a vineyard that stresses the vines to produce thick-skinned grapes with intense color, cocoa powder and mocha flavors, and fine-grained tannins.

Wow, does it ever. The nose knocked me out first: there was sweet blackberry and mocha that morphed into pomegranate and blueberry, and I could have sat with my nose in the glass all night. Michael called this “volatilizing aromatics,” and I’m all for that…

The palate was a bit of a surprise. I didn’t get a big fruit bomb, but instead a (relatively) light touch with power behind it. I tasted dark berries and dark chocolate, with more juicy red fruit on the end. I got well-integrated, fine tannins for a long finish that didn’t “bite.” Again, there was intensity without jamminess or “heat” — my kind of Cab. And the oak used in the Cab is all French — for this wine, Michael wanted to emphasize elegance.

The Stags Leap is 0nly 91% Cab: the balance is Merlot and Petit Verdot, also grown on the Stags Leap property. At 14.7% ABV, you might expect some heat, but Michael explained that 14 – 15% adds to the mouthfeel as long as it’s balanced by good acidity. When asked how this wine will age, Michael offered that seven years is the optimal drinking point for a Napa Cab. At that stage it should show some maturity but still retain some of that bright California fruit that we love to enjoy.

At around $75, Pine Ridge Stags Leap is a bargain compared to a lot of premium Napa Cabs. I’d go grab a bottle, if I were you… Cheers!


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Pine Ridge Winery Wicked Whites

pine ridgeWhen you’re talking classic, blue-chip Napa wineries, you’d better be talking about Pine Ridge Winery. Sitting just off the Silverado Trail in the Stags Leap District, Pine Ridge has been making wine since 1978, long before the Napa Valley was choked with wine tourists and Highway 29 became a parking lot. Gary Andrus’ first vineyard was planted on a ridge above the winery, and it’s been joined by four others representing the best and brightest appellations in the valley — Rutherford, Oakville, Howell Mountain and Carneros.

I remember visiting Pine Ridge Winery several years ago. I remember the warm Napa Valley sun, and then the cool calm of the Pine Ridge wine caves.

And I remember the wines — sort of. I know I loved the Chardonnay and a handful of Cabernets. But the details are foggy, lost in a touring-and-tasting haze.

I tasted them again recently in a manner much more conducive to memory retention. I tasted them through a Twitter TasteLive event where I watched a streaming video of the winemakers discussing the wines, while I tasted them in the privacy of my own home. It was a great use of online technology.

Winemaker Michael Beaulac and Assistant Winemaker Jason Ledbetter tasted whites first, so I’ll talk about them today.

The first white is a blend that I’d expect to be a hell of a hard sell to most American wine drinkers. Chenin Blanc and Viognier don’t really rock the U.S. wine world, but somehow Pine Ridge has made their Chenin Blanc/Viognier 2010 into a big seller. I’d wager that 90% of the folks who like this wine don’t know anything about these native French grapes, but they don’t need to. Anyone can enjoy this wine if; a) you don’t like oak; and b) you don’t like dry.

That doesn’t mean this wine is sweet, but it has a rich, soft approach that makes it friendly to almost any wine drinker. The Chenin Blanc (79%) is sourced from vineyards in Clarksburg, which is northeast of Napa in the Sacramento River Delta area. The relatively cool climate there allows the grapes to retain great natural acidity, which balances the fruitiness of the grape. The Viognier (21%) in the blend, sourced from warm-climate Lodi, adds richness and lushness.

For me, I got a nose that led with honeysuckle and slid into tangerine and floral notes. The palate was rich and viscous, with apricots and honey morphing into a tangy, spicy finish. There is a trace of residual sugar, which is what helps this wine appeal to a really broad market.

At under $15, this is a very good value, and a step up for those who’ve been buying White Zin just to get some sweetness in their glass.

The Pine Ridge Carneros Dijon Clones 2009 is a more “serious” white wine. It’s made with fruit from Pine Ridge’s Carneros vineyards, which Michael and Jason explain are covered in cool fog for a good part of the day. Cool temps allows the grapes to mature slowly, creating intense fruit flavors with good acid to balance them.

Pine Ridge is certainly not a typical California Chardonnay. Instead of all that heavy oak and butter, this Chard offers crisp fruit and a clean finish. On the nose, I got more spice than fruit: there was wood spice and Meyer lemon, and maybe a hint of banana.

The palate was more obvious. I got baked apple, custard, and baking spice, all wrapped up in a viscous mouthfeel that comes from aging “on the lees.” Again, just like the Chenin blend, there was crisp acid on the finish that balanced the rich flavors.

Pine Ridge seems to be hitting the modern American palate right on the button. They’re making very sound, very delicious wines that can appeal to lots of wine drinkers. I wish them all the best.


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Cool, Cooler, Coolest Pinot Noir

rrvLots of wine drinkers know Benziger Winery. This family-owned operation that sits on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain has been known as a leader in organic and bio-dynamic winemaking. Their Chard and big reds are the wines we see out there in the market, so I was surprised to receive a set of four Pinot Noirs.

From Sonoma Mountain? Of course not. Pinot needs a cool climate in order to thrive, like the climate in — hey, the appellations on these single-vineyard Pinots are Russian River and Sonoma Coast! That’s two of California’s best AVA’s for great Pinot Noir.

We tasted them recently, while listening (through Twitter TasteLive) to winemaker Rodrigo Soto. He took us through the tasting in a way that really showcased their unique character — their terroir.  We tasted from furthest inland, almost at the eastern edge of the Russian River AVA,  to just five miles from the Pacific coast.

Our first wine was Signaterra San Remo Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2009. Not only was this my favorite of the tasting, but it had a unique quality that made this Pinot irresistible. The nose showed tart fruit aromas — rhubarb, cranberry — with a little floral note. The palate started off with red berries, but I was immediately distracted by the quality of the mouthfeel. This wine just glided over my palate. As the berry flavors turned more complex, with some smoke and “meat” coming through, the whole thing was gently seducing me.

Now I know Pinot is supposed to be “velvety,” but this one set a new standard. Winemaker Rodrigo Soto credited 25% whole-cluster fermentation with creating “a different tannic structure.” With this method, an entire bunch of grapes goes into the fermenter instead of (crushed) skins and juice. He said it affects the flavors and the finish, creating the elegant mouthfeel I enjoyed so much.

Moving further west in the Russian River, we tasted Signaterra Bella Luna Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009. Yields are kept low in this bio-dynamic vineyard and whole cluster fermentation is used again. But the nature of this wine was very different. A cooler climate produces a more austere, earthy Pinot, and one that took longer to open. In fact, when I revisited it the second day I tasted the deep berry and smoke that I’d missed first time around.

The Sonoma Coast Pinots, grown just a few miles from the cold Pacific, were bigger, brawnier, and needed time to show their stuff. De Coelo Quintus Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2009 leads with a nose of black cherries and licorice, and a good deal of natural acid keeps the fruit clean and bright. Rodrigo explained that he tries to maintain the distinctive nature of each vineyard’s fruit by using native yeasts in his fermentation. That means the winemaker can’t alter the flavors through the use of selective yeast strains, and it’s a practice he applies to all his wines.

De Coelo Terra Neuma Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot 2009 is leaner, more peppery and meaty. I got the chalky minerality that Soto looks for in order to “lift up the wines and give them personality.” Acid levels promise good cellarability for both these wines, and Rodrigo guess-timates that coastal Pinots with the acid and tannin structure of these two can easily go seven to nine years.

It was a rare opportunity (and a real blast) to see how vineyard locations just a few miles apart can produce such different wines. Of course, having the winemaker handy to explain his approach sure adds to the experience. Maybe you can stop on down to Benziger and get a first-hand taste yourself. Cheers!


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Olema Sonoma County Chard: A Perfect 1, 2, 3

friendsI love Chardonnay, but I’m really fussy about it.

I’ve tasted way too much over-oaked, fake-oaked, or way-too-buttery Chard. There are too many out there that are way off balance in one direction or another, and I’m done with suffering through them.

So I’m thrilled when I taste balance. That’s what stopped me in my tracks recently when I tasted Olema Sonoma County Chardonnay 2009.  I thought, “OMG, I taste wonderful richness without a 2 x 4 in my teeth!”

Olema has a great back-story. It’s actually the second label from a winemaker who’s a veritable Napa Valley icon.olema

Ever heard of Georges de Latour Private Reserve? Or BV Cellars? Of course you have, and you know that BV’s Private Reserve is one of Napa’s classic Cabernets, created for more than 25 years by winemaker Joel Aiken. He left BV to pursue his own wine interests, and ended up hooking up with some good friends to form Amici (Italian for “friends”) Cellars.

I pulled an Amici cork out of my Olema, because it’s is the second label from Aiken’s winery. But this Chard is anything but second-rate. Let me give you my 1-2-3 on that.

1 – The nose on my Olema Chardonnay was positively beguiling, with luscious butterscotch mingling with bright tangerine, and some creamy tapioca creeping in as it warmed in my glass. I could have sat with my nose in the glass all night, but that would have made me really unpopular with my dinner companion.

2 – My mouth tasted rich tropical fruit, with more butterscotch (or was it creme brulee?) rounding out the back.

3 – The finish, which I’d been afraid would have that California “butterball” thing going on, was tangy and bright, lifted up by good natural acidity.

Wow! I should have expected this quality from Joel Aiken — I just didn’t expect to find it in a wine under $20.

My research showed that there are a few reasons why this Chard hits my sweet spot. First, only 58% of the juice underwent malolactic fermentation. That may be an unfamiliar term, but Chardonnay lovers should get up close and personal with this key determinant of a Chardonnay’s style. This secondary fermentation takes the grape’s natural malic acid, which is like the acid in green apples, and turns it into lactic acid, or the acid in milk. Chard’s that undergo 100% ML have that buttery (some would say “flabby”) finish.

Aiken uses just enough ML to round out the mouthfeel. His oak treatment is equally restrained. Only 50% of the wine goes into French oak barrels, with the balance aged in stainless steel. That’s why Olema Chard reminds me of vanilla creme brullee instead of a 2 x 4.

Of course, Aiken had some great raw material to work with. Grapes were sourced from Carneros and Russian River vineyards — arguably the best sources for California Chardonnay. And 2009 was an awesome vintage, with mild temperatures and a long Indian Summer allowing the grapes to ripen slowly and develop lots of flavor and complexity.

So here’s my summary — just go buy this. Then pour it for someone who thinks they have to spend $40 to get a top-quality Chardonnay. Cheers!


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Elderton “Friends” Cabernet: Bold and Elegant

edenWhen I see an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon coming my way, especially one with “Barossa” on the label, I’m tempted to jump fast and high to get out of the way.

It’s not that I don’t like Australian wines — I love many of them. But unless I’ve got a 16 ounce Rib Eye nearby, an Australian Cabernet can be just too big for my britches: the big, jammy fruit and high alcohol needs a lot of beef to tame it.

So I was pleasantly surprised recently when I uncorked a bottle of Elderton “Friends” Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 2009. I already knew the Elderton winery by reputation — they’ve won a boat-load of awards over the years for their Barossa wines, and have made a name for themselves with reds and whites from a sub-appellation of Barossa where some good friends (like in the name, right?) own vineyards.

Eden Valley is a different beast than the hot, dry Barossa Valley floor. The Eden vineyards are scattered up the hillsides, at elevations of 1200 to 1500 feet. So what does this do? The elevation creates cooler temperatures, and combined with more minerally soils, it produces grapes with more acid and structure. And of course, acid and structure act to balance big fruit.

So let’s taste Elderton Friends Cab. The color was as purple and opaque as I’d expect, but the nose was relatively delicate. I got mint and eucalyptus right off the bat, with dark fruit notes chiming in. Blackberry and dark chocolate were up front also.

The palate was multi-layered and delightful. The fruit came first, with blackberry and sweet black currant opening the door for gentle mint. There was a peppery note too, and all of this was wrapped up in soft tannins. But it didn’t finish there — that Eden Valley acid lifted up the finish with a bright end-note, and made a package that was bold and elegant at the same time. No jamminess here — just rich, bright fruit.

The Elderton “Friends” series (there’s a good Shiraz, too) represents a good value. At just under $20, you’re getting big wine without a big price tag. Cheers!


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China Spawns A Million Millionaire Wine Lovers

chneseHere’s a mind-boggling statistic:

The number of Chinese millionaires increased fivefold in just six years. (It’s now just shy of the million mark.)

Holy cow! This country just emerging from decades of anti-capitalist rule has seen millionaires multiply like rabbits.

Except that rabbits don’t drink wine. Here’s another amazing statistic:

The country’s consumption of imported wine quadrupled between 2005 and 2009, and is expected to climb another 56 percent by 2014.

Wow! So this is what happens when an entire demographic (upwardly mobile, young- to middle-aged Chinese businesspeople) decides they want to share all the perks and signs of conspicuous wealth that are enjoyed by millionaires everywhere.

And I’m all for it. There have been many stories about the growing pains the nascent Chinese wine industry has experienced (see these recent stories in my blog).

At first, Bordeaux was the wine in favor, and some French winemakers stepped up to take their share of the market (read’s good story about Lafite-Rothschide’s wooing of Chinese wine drinkers).

Now it seems that Australian wineries stand to make out like crazy from China’s craze for imported wine. Read this story from Alder Yarrow’s great wine blog, Vinography, about Australian wine giant Penfold’s. They recently unveiled Australia’s most expensive wine ever, and they did it, not on their home turf, but in Shanghai. I guess the Chinese thirst for vino promises such huge rewards that Aussie winemakers will go to great lengths to win their favor.

Who knows what’s next? I’ll be on the look-out for the latest developments, so stay tuned… Cheers!




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Pepper and Spice, and Everything Nice? Winzer Krems Zweigelt

austriaOK, I’d like to lay a bet. I’ll bet that if I took any given group of, say, 20 American wine geeks, only one of them would have any clue what ZWEIGELT is. Or maybe none of them!

It sounds like a German sausage. Or maybe a German automobile — “The new Zweigelt goes from 0 to 60 in 4 seconds and gets 40 miles to the gallon on the Autobahn.”

So what is it? Well, Zweigelt is the name of a grape grown in Austria. It’s a hybrid, created by crossing Blaufrankisch (a German red grape that’s not exactly a household name, either) with Saint Laurent (I thought it was a river, not a grape). Zweigelt, or Blauer Zweigelt, was engineered to thrive in Austria’s relatively cool climate.

I recently came across Winzer Krems Blauer Zweigelt St. Severin 2010, and explored it with some trepidation. Without any context clues except “cool climate red wine,” I was surprised to see the wine pour out deep burgundy colored and almost opaque. This was way more extraction than I’d expected, almost like a Petite Sirah.

The nose was also intriguing. I got some tart cherry fruit, but the really obvious aroma was black pepper. And I mean intense black pepper. This wine could make you sneeze! There was also a note of tar (yes, like in “road tar”). Read the rest of this entry »

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Elegant and Refined: Chateau Guibon Bordeaux Blanc


Entre-Deux-Mers, Bordeaux

Grapes can be tricky little devils. In one bottle they can have you believing one thing — “this grape tastes like lime and grapefruit” — and in another bottle it’s anything but.

You say, “What happened to the aggressive citrus and acid?”

Well, what happened is that this grape, Sauvignon Blanc, changes style as often as my daughter changes her clothes. Sauv Blanc can be bold and aggressive, like a young career woman on the rise, or refined and sophisticated, like one of those lucky women who look cool and elegant no matter the occasion.

You’ve probably guessed that my two players here are New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc — that’s the aggressive one — and the white wine of the France’s Bordeaux region. The wine that I loved recently, and launched me into this barely-plausible analogy, is Chateau Guibon Bordeaux Blanc 2010.

Chateau Guibon is part of the Andre Lurton wine family, and it’s a very extended family. The Lurton’s have been in Bordeaux since Lords and Ladies rode through it on horseback, and they now own and manage six or eight Chateau in Bordeaux. Not being content to stay close to home, various family members have launched wineries in 10 other countries, including France, Spain, Australia, Argentina and Chile.

So back to the French Lurton. Chateau Guibon comes from the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation, a sub-region of Bordeaux. In this area “between two seas” (the Garonne and Dordogne rivers), white wines can be made from some or all of these grapes: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Chateau Guibon uses all three. Semillon is the predominant variety, and the blend is beautifully balanced.

I liked this wine for its elegance and bright fruit palate. The entry is soft — not like the aggressive attack of New Zealand Sauv Blanc — and some delicate but lush pear and melon linger on the palate. The finish is still crisp (thanks to the Sauv Blanc) but softened by the Semillon in the blend.

This is a classically styled blend that would be very appealing to fans of both the New World and Old World style. In fact, I think it beats the heck out of almost every California Sauv Blanc I’ve tasted. And it’s pretty cheap ($13). Yay for that! Take it out for a spin next time you’re tired of your Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay, and Cheers!

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