Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES – March 18th, 2017

A Giant California Wave Rolls In

by David Lawrason
with notes from John Szabo, Sara d’Amato & Michael Godel

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Time to either grab a surfboard or step into your hip waders, because the annual California wave is crashing onto our shores, cresting higher than ever before. Actually, there are three waves. First came the launch of the LCBO’s new California destination store in early March (more in a moment). Then on March 18 VINTAGES fires up a special release of premium priced California “stars”. And finally comes the gargantuan California Wine Fair March 31 in Ottawa and April 3 in Toronto.

The Toronto Fair will feature 120 wineries pouring over 400 wines, which of course is an impossible number to cover in three hours, but folks sure have fun trying. The fair is emblematic of, and part of the reason for, the success of California here. California is the #1 selling regional wine in Ontario.

In fact, Canada is the number two market overall for California wine, after the combined nations of the European Union. Retail sales of California wine in this country amounted to 6.5 million cases worth $1.1 billion. When I visited on Wednesday there were 764 red, white and sparkling California wines showing in LCBO inventory.

That number was recently boosted by the opening of the LCBO’s 15th Products of the World “California destination store” at Weston Road and Hwy 401 in northwest Toronto. I went to ‘Crossroads’ last Sunday to have a look and literally count SKUs. There are almost 400 California wines at this one store alone – which is impressive. Whether it is the largest selection outside of California as claimed in LCBO marketing materials would be a debate to be undertaken by any offended US retailers. Don’t expect an outcry against this alternative fact.

California destination store

In one section I counted 130 wines flagged as store “exclusives” or at least wines that I did not recognize as ‘regulars”. When including “Essentials” and current VINTAGES listings the number jumped to about 210. Then add 32 very expensive “classics” locked up over there in the cabinets. And finally there are the “general list” wines – another 150 or so – housed nearby in the main store area.

I do wonder why the LCBO can’t organize the wines in more consumer friendly way rather than whether they were purchased as General Listings, VINTAGES selections, or Wines of the World selections. They are segregated only because different departments within the LCBO are responsible putting them there.

The California wines, for example, could be grouped by varietal. Imagine having every California cabernet sauvignon displayed side by side on one shelf, from least to most expensive. Sounds like simple, up-selling logic to me. (Over at the Royal York store I would be grouping the Spanish selection by regions of Spain)

If Weston and 401 is not the most convenient location, you can also buy the wines on-line at and have them shipped to your home or office. The kick in the shins is that these “exclusives” are only available by the case, which given the pricing of good California wine, makes them an expensive proposition.

Let’s take one wine that I dearly covet – Rochioli 2014 Pinot Noir. On Wednesday there were 11 bottles on shelf at Weston Road, for $79.80. It is also on-line, showing 24 bottles available. But you must order it by the case, which is a $957.60 hit. I just don’t understand why the LCBO cannot offer such wines by the bottle for home delivery. They already do this for wines that are on the shelf at VINTAGES or the General List.

Rochioli Estate Pinot Noir 2014

The new tranche of wines being released at VINTAGES on March 18 is pegged as “California Stars – Top Producers and their first class wines”.  It has does indeed have some impressive wines but it also feels a bit like a cozy rewarding of listings to the historically most prevalent, tried and trusted wineries. I understand that retail logic, and yes there are some excellent wines, that we flag below. But I was hoping for more new faces.

And finally, long time readers will know that I feel many premium California wines are over valued (partially due to exchange rates). The market is what it is, and they always sell well.  Still, we here at WineAlign are always looking for value to guide our selections, unless a wine is just so great it can’t be ignored. Enjoy.

Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES for Match 18th:

Chardonnays and Sparkling

Sonoma-Cutrer 2013 The Cutrer Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County ($49.95)
David Lawrason – This house has remained focused on chardonnay for 40 years, based on a fine site in the cool Russian River Valley. This is a beautifully poised, delicate and complex chardonnay with California generosity and French finesse. It is as fine as most $50 chardonnays from anywhere in the world.

Duckhorn 2014 Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California, USA ($46.95)
Sara d’Amato – A progressive style of Napa chardonnay that delivers great definition from natural acidity, a compelling aromatic profile along with impressive depth of flavour. The surprising element of a musky, honeyed white pepper spice on the palate is both intriguing and comforting. Not typical but certainly evocative.

Sonoma Cutrer The Cutrer Chardonnay 2013Duckhorn Chardonnay 2014Kistler Mccrea Vineyard Chardonnay 2014

Kistler 2014 Mccrea Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Mountain, Sonoma County (129.95)
John Szabo – Premium-priced to be sure, but this impressive. High intensity and volume on the nose follows through to the palate, with flavours shifting into the pineapple/tropical fruit spectrum, yet reeled back by intense salinity/minerality and serious extract – this has exceptional density, weight and concentration. Length and depth are also superb. Best 2017-2026
Michael Godel – What strikes so kind and so different is the subtlety of this chardonnay and while it costs more than most it should because there aren’t many better. The vintage is understated and exceptional which only succeeds in keeping with the coolest of the Kistler climate-persisting ideal. If money is no object and the sharpest chardonnay needs to occupy 12 sockets in your cellar than The McCrea is it.

Cakebread Cellars 2014 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($69.95)
Michael Godel – Much to appreciate at first whiff comes with direct amenability out of the Cake-bread chardonnay, a wine possessive of just the correct amount of reduction and the great equalizer of optimum acidity directly connected after the initial swaths of ripe fruit. Cakebread’s broad brushstroke paints back and forth, from east to west, with every barrel knot filled in by that perfect fruit. Not without tension mind you this ’14 is structured to linger with excellence for years to come.

Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay 2014Domaine Chandon Blanc De Noirs

Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs, Traditional Method, California ($31.95)
Sara d’Amato – Blanc de Noirs is Domaine Chandon’s flagship style made entirely from pinot noir and pinot meunier with a good deal of punch and power. A more elegant incarnation, Chandon’s latest cuvée offers both crispness and a fuller bodied profile with impressive complexity for the price.

Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels

Sonoma-Cutrer 2014 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County ($39.95)
David Lawrason – This is another good value Sonoma-Cutrer value when measuring against other global pinots in a New World style at the same price. It’s medium weight, quite supple, ripe, fruity and smooth. Very California.

Sara d’Amato – For more than a decade, Sonoma Cutrer was a grape grower supplying to premium producers along the Sonoma Coast until the 80s when they broke ground on their own winery. Top restaurants quickly picked up their chardonnays and I remember those chards being a core product throughout properties of the Four Seasons Hotels in my days as a sommelier for the company. Since then, prices have increased and so has their level of production. Growth does not seem to have greatly affected their quality if this Russian River pinot noir is any indication, which offers a wild herbal profile, youthful structure and elegant Sonoma typicity.

Fess Parker 2013 Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara ($34.95)
David Lawrason – This is a pale, maturing garnet-shaded pinot that’s ready to drink. It may strike some as soft but it is not out of balanced, and the I really like the complex aromas of strawberry/sour cherry pie, gentle herbs and the touch of meatiness. Oak is in the background.

Sonoma Cutrer Pinot Noir 2014Fess Parker Pinot Noir 2013Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma 2015Ravenswood Dickerson Single Vineyard Zinfandel 2013

Seghesio 2015 Sonoma Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($29.95)
John Szabo – A classic Sonoma Zin from one of the top producers, fleshy and jammy-juicy, but also with a sense of restraint and composure. Tannins are a touch woolly at this point, so I’d tuck it in the cellar for another 2-4 years or so. Best 2019-2023.
David Lawrason – This zinfandel specialist makes several editions, including some killer, old-vine single site wines. This less expensive and quite delicious round-up of several Sonoma vineyards shows lovely fruit purity with soft brambly raspberry aromas, gentle oak spice and vanillin.  All nicely integrated.

Ravenswood 2013 Dickerson Single Vineyard Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($39.95)
Michael Godel – From the late, great Dr. William J. (Bill) Dickerson’s sea level, low-lying, Napa Valley floor vineyard, its eucalyptus tree and iconic 100-year-old oak. The clay-loam vineyard was planted in 1930, 1979 and 1985 and Ravenswood began vinifying Bill’s grapes in the 1980s. I find less chocolate and texture than some other Ravenswood 13s but silky it most surely is. This is the smooth operating zinfandel, with reeled in spice, great robust red fruit and terrific acidity from well down on the flat valley floor.
David Lawrason
– This is classic, full-bodied, plush (14.9%) zinfandel that manages to avoid being ponderously heavy or jammy. Pleasantly smooth, with fine tannin then considerable heat on the finish. Ready to roll

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon

Stags’ Leap Winery 2013 Merlot, Napa Valley ($39.95)
David Lawrason – Merlot may no longer be sexy, but California can do this grape very well. This is a lovely and honest example from an excellent vintage. It still needs some cellar time as the tannins are in full gear.
Michael Godel – The savoury component of Stags’ Leap merlot is quite intense and travels a parallel line to the dusty, typically classic and purple-floral Stags Leap District fruit. The relatively low heat and subtle smokiness allows for a fruit first expression and more length allotted to mineral character and daydreaming. Really well-made merlot and well within the boundaries of acceptable, relative affordability. Merlot, like radio, can be so obvious, so conscious and so often on repeat. Stags’ Leap’s dares to be different, to lead ahead and to go against the Napa norm.
John Szabo – Aromatically subdued, and very firm and extracted on the palate, this is a particularly sturdy and structured merlot, absent the immediately appealing plummy fruit of more commercial examples (and all the better for it) and replaced with plenty of graphite-minerality. It’s an uncompromising wine, with no concession to easy commercial appeal. In other words, a genuine terroir wine for wine lovers, best after 2021.

Duckhorn 2013 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot Napa Valley ($117.95)
John Szabo – Duckhorn’s flagship, this magnificent 2013 is rich, dense, intense and highly concentrated, like Christmas cake in a glass, full of rum-soaked raisins and other macerated fruit, sweet baking spice, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, and dark chocolate. The palate is full and balanced, richly flavoured with terrific intensity and depth riding on high, boozy alcohol (14.9% alcohol), almost port-like in intensity.  A serious vintage, surely very age worthy – I’d revisit this after 2020.

Stags' Leap Winery Merlot 2013Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot 2013Brandlin Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2013Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

Brandlin Estate 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley ($59.95)
David Lawrason – This deeply coloured, firm, opaque cabernet needs to go into the cellar. Great sense of purity and structure but currently not a lot of joy – the tannins are very grippy, despite the mid-palate elegance. Good value!

Heitz Cellar 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($94.95)
John Szabo – Open, fragrant and stylish, 2012 is a great vintage for the Heitz cabernet, which includes some high-toned, lifted fruit in the best sense. The palate is perfectly mid-weight, rippingly fresh, lively and vibrant, super savoury. This is still a few years away from truly prime drinking and will make a superb bottle into the ’20s. Best 2020-2030.
Michael Godel – Though the dry vintage is the launching point it is Heitz that marches on with or without directives into its singular Napa Valley milieu. Such ropey, chewy and perfectly sour fruit is a thing of St. Helena beauty, that and perfect, dry as the desert execution. There is this carob to liquorice by way of bokser note bringing all of Napa’s historical savour into focus. Moderate of warmth and always elevated above the valley floor, this Heitz is just another classic, like a 12th best actor or actress nomination for a Hanks, Hoffman or Streep.
Sara d’Amato – If it wasn’t for such a harmonious profile, I would wonder if this newbie tasting cabernet was under screw cap given the palate’s youth and liveliness. This cabernet has been produced since 1961 and encapsulates the expression and glorious variability of vintage conditions year after year. The highly praised 2012 vintage speaks volumes in this wine resulting in a complex, age worthy and absolutely charming manifestation.

And that’s it for this edition. Watch next week when we cover other wines in the March 18 release and focus on some Ontario wines recently encountered at Taste Ontario trade tasting at the ROM in Toronto.


David LawrasonUse these quick links for access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release. Non Premium members can see all release file from 30 prior.

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Michael’s Mix

New Release and VINTAGES Preview


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