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Legends in Cabernet Sauvignon

Though California’s winemaking history goes way back, the wine boom properly began in the 1970s. Below are some legendary producers of cabernet sauvignon, and hints at

some of their travails.

Heitz Cellars Bella Oaks Vineyard

Back in the 60s, Heitz Cellars helped establish the idea of single-vineyard bottling of California wines, most famously with its Martha’s Vineyard bottling. Alas the winery will no longer produce cabernet sauvignon from the renowned Bella Oaks vineyard that Heitz made famous. Planted in 1973 by Barney and Bella Rhodes, its production was used exclusively by Heitz up until the death of Bella in 2008 and Barney a year later. Gargiulo Vineyards, owned by Barney’s niece, bought Bella Oaks. Selling price was close to 7 million dollars. Exclusivity was to remain with Heitz.

The plot thickened last year when a group called Booth Bella Oaks bought the vineyard, and handed exclusivity of the vineyard’s 18 acres of Cabernet to The Staglin Vineyards. One wonders if Gargiulo might’ve felt a financial pinch from its purchase of the vineyard. Heitz will continue to produce wine from the even more world famous Martha’s Vineyard, which the Rhodes also established, then sold to Tom and Martha May long ago. It sounds like a soap opera in the making. The 2007 Heitz Bella Oaks is the last Heitz wine from that vineyard, and a great offering, whether you are a collector or a cabernet lover.

Ch. Montelena Estate

The staff at Chateau Montelena has seen some 40 vintages working within the constraints of Napa Valley’s climate and the estate’s own particular challenges. This experience helps them succeed even when conditions prove challenging. The winery’s website marks the 2008 vintage as miraculous not for beneficent weather but rather in the difficulties overcome. Frost in April and in May, shatter—which is when conditions prevent the fruit from setting—lowered yields. Because of those 40 years experience, Wine Master Bo Barrett—son of owner Jim Barrett—and his wine making team turned the difficulties into triumph. Rated 92 points by The Wine Advocate, the 2008 Estate bottling shows the hallmarks of what one could fairly describe as the Latour of California. Dense and deeply extracted, the wine is powerful without undue alcohol punch. The structure says it will reward years of cellaring, but the balance and suppleness make it delightful now. Chateau Montelena is a first growth winery.

Nickel & Nickel

Nickel and Nickel is an offshoot of the much-lauded Far Niente Winery. An uncle of painter Winslow Homer first owned the vineyard, back in the mid-19th century. The winery closed its doors when prohibition began, and remained so until the late Gil Nickel bought the property in 1979. Nickel began producing a succession of definitive Napa wines: muscular, intense, and gorgeous. His family continues his success with Far Niente and several other enterprises, including Nickel and Nickel. Nickel & Nickel devotes itself to single-vineyard wines.

The winery’s own 42 acre John C. Sullenberger Vineyard sits in Oakville near Opus One and Robert Mondavi’s To-Kalon vineyard. Nice neighborhood! The winery purchases fruit from 9 acres of the 43 acre Tench Vineyard, also in Oakville. The wines are masterful expressions of Napa winemaking, powerful yet enticing. These coveted wines from the fabulous 2007 vintage already show plenty of promise but will reward the collector for years to come. A truly state-of-the-art, solar-powered facility produces these organically grown beauties.

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Cider

Cider has become a steady seller in our stores. That should surprise no one. The recent rash of traditional and not so traditional ciders that have appeared lately offer easy enjoyment. At the very least, they make a refreshing alternative to wine and beer. We find them absolutely compelling and delicious.

Ciders can be either still or sparkling. Either way, they make a convivial aperitif. The scent of apples cannot fail to please, nor the lively flavors.

As we have explained before, the term cider used to mean hard cider. In the days before refrigeration, you would be hard pressed—so to speak—to maintain a supply of sweet cider. Yeast associates readily with apples, as it does with grapes. The sweetness of the juice inspires yeast to produce alcohol, like it or not. Our ancestors liked it, just as we do today. In addition, sweet cider lays prey to acetic bacteria. The work of these bacteria produces vinegar, not the most refreshing of beverages.

Ciders range from light and sweet to strong and dry. For the sweeter ones, producers rack off the cider from the lees while sugar still remains. This removes the yeast and ends fermentation. Producers can produce sparkling cider by leaving some yeast in the cider and letting it ferment further in a closed environment, like Champagne.

Ciders range in alcohol content from about 4% to 9% or more. Be forewarned, because ciders tend to go down awfully easily. And now, a few of the ciders we carry.

Magners

From Ireland, this is traditional cider at its best. Magner’s stands on the dry side, with a pronounced zip. Resistance to its appeal may prove futile. Magners also makes a pear cider, which offers the rounder fragrance of pears. Magners recommends serving their ciders over ice. We say well-chilled, at the least.

Woodchuck

Woodchuck originates in Waterbury, Vermont. Woodchuck offers a full range of core products and limited releases, just like craft brewers. Amber is dark and somewhat sweet. Granny Smith is dry and green apple tart. 802 (which is the area code in Waterbury) is dry, with darker tones supplied by caramelized sugar. Pear is fresh and fragrant. Raspberry is off dry with a berry tang.

Woodchuck calls its current seasonal release Winter. Knock on wood, we haven’t seen much winter locally this year but this cider makes a good defense against the season’s aspersions. A strong cider, it has been aged in French and American oak to give it unusual depth and complexity.

Harpoon

Harpoon began making cider several years ago, using local apples. The cider balances a touch of sweetness with a snappy acidity. Harpoon suggest mixing their cider with their beer. Sounds good to us: the bracing zip of the cider combined with the depth of the beer. Yum! They also recommend marinating pork in cider, which is definitely a can’t miss idea.

Angry Orchard

No telling why this producers calls itself Angry Orchard, with a different angry looking tree on each different label, but its ciders have taken off. Currently this producer offers three ciders: Crisp Apple, which is slightly sweet; Traditional Dry, zesty and full-bodied (5.5% alcohol); and Apple Ginger, with ginger tempering its modest sweetness.

Pinot Noir

Pinot noir makes some of the best, most downright exciting red wines in the world. Perhaps less consistent than the other great red wine grapes, Pinot noir at its best often stands as one’s most memorable wine experience. What’s so special about Pinot noir?

Pinot noir combines diverse elements in tantalizing balance. Great Pinot noir shows power and finesse. Brilliant raspberry and strawberry notes meld with heady, earthy, truffly ones. Pinot noir catches us off guard with how competing elements blend into a rarified delight.

The grape’s name translates from the French as “black pine”. The grape is indeed dark. It relates to pine by the resemblance of its bunch to a pine cone. That sounds more like someone scrambling for an answer but we’ll leave that point aside.

Though dark-skinned, the grape produces a wine that shades quickly from a brilliant purple towards a brownish-red or garnet with age. As a thin-skinned variety, Pinot noir can suffer from fungal diseases like bunch rot as well as from wind and frost. Such sensitivities mean that quality varies immensely, from vintage to vintage and vineyard to vineyard. The cold and tricky climate of Burgundy makes this variability most clear.

California winemaking legend André Tchelistcheff said that “God made Cabernet sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot noir.” Good clonal selection has helped to ease such problems.

Much of Pinot noir’s notoriety derives from the legendary Burgundies it has produced. Some say Burgundy used to augment production and overcome weak vintages by adding wines from the South of France and even beyond. If so, the French government oversees matters more firmly now. Pinot noir also takes a strong hand in Champagne which, surprisingly, devotes more acreage to the variety than does Burgundy.

Because of Burgundy’s climate, authorities allow Burgundy producers the use of chaptalization. Chaptalization is the addition of sugar to the fermenting must as a means of bolstering alcohol content and stabilizing the wine.

Chaptalization hardly looms as a necessity in California and Oregon, where Pinot noir has progressed to giddy heights of excellence. With a climate largely drier and warmer than Burgundy, these American producers had to learn to harness the power of their wines that could so easily overwhelm the grape’s inherent subtleties.

Grapes generally, and pinot noir specifically, readily mutate. Finding or developing clones appropriate for the specific conditions has been the challenge for American producers. Selecting the right microclimate and letting terroir guide the winemaking process have been instrumental in the increasing excellence of American Pinot noir. The following superb wines show the result of this attention to terroir. Quantities are extremely limited

Belle Glos

Talk about pedigree. Belle Glos founder Joseph Wagner is a 5th generation winemaker who named his venture after his grandmother, co-founder of Caymus Vineyards. We’re seeing the development of not just a wine industry in this country, but a heritage.
Clark & Telephone Vineyard, 91 Points, The Wine Spectator ($59.99)
Las Alturas Vineyard, 90 Points, The Wine Spectator ($59.99)

Merry Edwards Winery

Meredith Edwards reached superstar prominence as the founding winemaker at Matanzas Creek. She previously worked as winemaker for Villa Mount Eden, one of the first women in the this country to hold the position of head winemaker. Edwards proceeded to consult at numerous wineries till she and her husband developed Merry Edwards Winery. Their vision: to wed the right clonal variety to soil and climate conditions.
Pinot Noir, Georganne, 90 points, The Wine Spectator ($84.99)
Pinot Noir, Coopersmith, 92 Points, The Wine Spectator ($89.99)

CrossBarn

CrossBarn began as a second label for Paul Hobbs Winery. The legendary Hobbs has worked as winemaker or consultant for many stellar wineries, including Opus 1. The second label took wing, and Hobbs saw fit to promote assistant winemaker Jason Valenti to fulltime winemaker.
2008 Pinot Noir 93 points, Wine Enthusiast ($39.99)

Cold weather Choices

Port

In the 18th Century, people like Samuel Johnson could claim that port is for men (and brandy for heroes) while boasting about consuming three bottles in an evening, and complaining of gout. All of which sounds quaint, at best, today. Still, we’ll acknowledge port as the most noble of fortified wines. Port sipped thoughtfully with a piece of Stilton ends a meal nicely.

The European Union regulates the terms port and porto to mean fortified wines from Oporto, in Portugal. Countries outside the EU also use these terms, and the wines can be tasty, but we’ll accept that true port comes from Portugal.

To fortify port, producers add neutral grape spirit to their fermenting wine. This spirit is essentially brandy—distilled wine—but one with little character in itself. Its addition stops fermentation, and produces a sweet wine. The added alcohol also stabilizes the wine, giving it the legs for long aging.

Vintage port represents a mere 2% of port production. Producers do not declare a vintage every year. They choose vintages of high quality and regard the wine as a showcase. Producers want demand for vintage port to exceed production, so they rarely declare consecutive vintages, even when conditions point to that possibility.

Vintage port ages in barrel for up to 2 ½ years, then require at least 10 years of cellar time to reach early maturity. These wines throw prodigious sediment and require decanting.

Ruby and tawny port mark the major part of port production. Ruby means a sweeter, more youthful-seeming wine, with more pronounced fruit tones. Tawny indicates a wine showing more mellow qualities of age, complex and subtle. Neither ruby nor tawny throws sediment. They come in stoppered bottles, are affordable, and are fully ready to drink.

Some tawny ports bear legends such as 10-Year Old or 20 Year Old. These are not vintage wines but are blends of several vintages with an average age as labeled. They offer much of the delight of a well-aged vintage port, without the cost or lengthy wait. Decanting is unnecessary

Ports labeled Late Bottled Vintage are vintage wines that have been barrel-aged for five years or more. They are thus mellower than vintage ports of similar age, and require little or no further aging. They offer a good port experience while your vintage ports mature. Some producers filter and fine LBVs, so you need not decant, but other producers do not.

Though a product of Portugal, port is very much a British invention. When the heads of the port houses gather for their regular industry dinners, they do so in British style. After their meal, everyone leaves the great dining hall and repairs to another one. This second hall is set up exactly as the previous one, with each person sitting in the same location with the same setting as at the previous table. Here port is served and cigars lit. They go to such trouble presumably to prevent a smoky smelling dining hall, but the ceremonial quirkiness must offer its own starchy attraction.

Serve port with almonds, cheeses like bold cheeses like Stilton, and chocolate desserts. Here are some representative ports offered at our stores

Cockburn Ruby $11.99/bottle

Ramos Tawny $15.99/bottle

Taylor Late-Bottle Vintage $21.99/bottle

Dow 10 Year Old $34.99/bottle

Graham 20 Year Old $59.99/bottle

Flavored Whiskys

Flavored whiskys seem perfect for autumn evenings. Served on ice some chill evening, or used as a mixer, they show a warm and delicious character. Try adding to recipes, such as cakes and fudge.

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey $24.99/bottle

The honied tones and moderate sweetness merge seamlessly with the patented grip of Jack’s distinctive whisky. A perfect after dinner sip from the renowned distiller.

Jeremiah Weed’s Cherry Mash $18.99/bottle

Combining the piquancy of cherries and a slight sweetness with Kentucky bourbon, this is an enjoyable change of pace.

Spiced Box $19.99/bottle

Vanilla and other spices add an enticing aromatic dimension to fine Canadian whisky, highlighting rather than obscuring the whisky character.

Cabin Fever $21.99/bottle

Chill-filtered to bring out the maple flavors but not intense sweetness. Very smooth and enticing.

Another Pumpkin Experience

Fulton’s Harvest $9.99

Creamy and mildly sweet, with the pleasant aroma of pumpkin pie, this limited edition liqueur is a delicious fall treat. Make sure you have some for Thanksgiving, and refrigerate the bottle after opening.