Greetings and Salutations! As 2016 comes to a close, it occurs to me that a summary of an eventful year in wine would be a great way to sign off to the now-grumpy-and-brittle old 2016 before welcoming in the promising-and-fresh new 2017. There were lots of highlights and amazing new wine discoveries, as well as several visits to old friends that reiterated why I became enamored with them in the first place. Local events, international travels, low key tastings, over-the-top world class events, wine dinners at terrific local restaurants and even wine dinners at the residences of world class chefs. Where to start?


3 Best Experiences:

1. Pretty impossible to top the final session of Wine Spectator’s New York Wine Experience in October, when the attendees were graced (and this description is certainly insufficient under the circumstances) with a vertical tasting of the singular Chateau Lafite Rothschild wine that included the 2012, 2010, 2009, 2005, 1995 and 1985 vintages and…wait for it… was presented by Baron Eric de Rothschild himself and his chief winemaker Eric Kohler. Feeling every bit like a gypsy in the palace, your humble Wine Bargain Sleuth nevertheless seized on the opportunity to, like the other lucky attendees, ignore the fact that the pours of the prized Bordeaux blends averaged about $150 per taste and whipped out the sharp grading pen. Although I would definitely not spit out any of the vintages, for my money the top three of this pricey beauty contest were: (3) the 1985, which was originally awarded a 90 rating by Wine Spectator and was priced $531 at a recent auction; (2) the 2010, which was awarded a 97 rating and was priced $1800 upon release; and (1) the 2005, which was awarded a 98 rating and was priced $850 upon release, and was just beginning to come into its own. Definitely a surreal hour of my life! Merci!


2. June brought a return to perhaps my favorite wine festival: the Taste of Howell Mountain, again held at the venerable Charles Krug winery in St. Helena under its picturesque live oaks. This amazing festival, which doubles as an annual fundraiser for the schools and youth programs in and around the Howell Mountain AVA in Napa Valley, provided for the attendees the rare opportunity to taste, compare and contrast the offerings of 40 different wineries, each producing Cabernet Sauvignons, Cabernet Francs and Zinfandels from Howell Mountain fruit. Proponents of the Napa Valley Mountain Cabs frequently argue that Howell Mountain produces some of the very finest of the varietal, citing such Howell Mountain legends as Dunn, Pina, O’Shaunessy and others. As previously noted in Chapter 36, among the standouts from this unique but remarkable festival were Howell at the Moon 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Duckhorn Howell Mountain 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Dunn 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Spence 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, CADE Howell Mountain 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon and Hall 2012 Howell Mountain Cab Sav.


3. June also brought a unique opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a world-class winemaker, Spicy Vines‘ Doug Hackett. While I was introduced to him at a tasting in Healdsburg, California, also known as Russian River country, Doug graciously invited a friend and me to come taste and critique his blends, including the yet-to-be-released 2013 Pinot Noir. Our intrepid duo took Doug at his word and joined him in the Spicy Vines blending warehouse bright and early one morning, tasting dozens of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Petit Sirah samples in oak barrels of differing sources, toasts and ages. We scampered up ladders following Doug’s lead and created our own blends and tasted several of his own concepts. Never before had your Sleuth experienced such a sharp contrast between the effects of new oak versus neutral oak on the same varietal, which was most pronounced on Chardonnay. I gained a huge amount of respect for the decisions made by great winemakers every day. Thank you, Doug! Wow!


3 Best Surprises:

1. This one was easy, given my love of both great wine and great music. Again, rewind to the final afternoon session at October’s New York Wine Experience presented by Wine Spectator. The penultimate session’s scheduled guest was Trudy Styler, who was presenting her vineyard’s decorated Tuscan wine Il Palagio Toscana Sister Moon 2011. As I vaguely recognized the proprietor’s name and made myself comfortable for the anticipated session, the strains of one of my favorite songs, “Fields of Gold,” accompanied a video that highlighted the magnificent Il Palagio vineyard. Now the speaker had my full attention! After the video concluded, Ms. Styler made a charming, brief presentation and then simply and unpretentiously introduced her “partner in wine”, Sting. Sting then walked onto the stage accompanied only with his acoustic guitar, and proceed to sing a memorable version of “Message in a Bottle” (what else?) to the delight of the crowd, who appropriately gave the vintner/musician a well-deserved standing ovation after a performance they will never forget. Only in New York!


2. October brought an unexpected “secret” wine dinner at the lovely home of world-class chef Kent Rathbun. Kent and his lovely wife put together a unique and singular dining experience of a Veuve Cliquot tasting paired with Kent’s clever food pairings, each course with a different Veuve Cliquot offering starting with the familiar “Yellow Label Brut NV” and progressing to several vintage offerings, each seemingly more amazing that the last! Best of all, our table included the Veuve Cliquot winemaker responsible for all the Rose Champagnes of the vintner, as well as many of the local representatives. Thank you, Kent, for my current proclivity of drinking more bubbles! After all, I have to blame someone. And we wish you a speedy recovery, as well. Cheers!


3. An amusing (at least to yours truly) series of events which featured the elegant wine proprietor and former US Ambassador to Austria Kathryn Hall during the fall became almost, well, routine. Those that follow The Wine Bargain Sleuth know that I, like critics Robert Parker of Wine Advocate and James Laube of Wine Spectator, am a fan of Hall and Walt, the sister wineries owned by Kathryn and Craig Hall. In September your humble Wine Bargain Sleuth wrangled an invitation to a book signing and release party featuring the Halls and their joint biography, A Perfect Score. A few weeks later I ran into Kathryn at the New York Wine Experience on the Thursday night Grand Tasting event, and finally I saw Kathryn a week later at a Dallas wine dinner featuring the incredible 2013 vintage of the namesake Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon. Gracious as always when she greeted me, I hastily promised Kathryn that I really wasn’t stalking her, but it likely seemed that way. I did manage to elicit a wry smile from her when I inquired as to what her plans were for the next Thursday. And thus the story of 2016’s “Thursdays with Kathryn”.


Top 3 Value Wines:

1. Without a doubt, one of the best values I ran across during 2016 is Joe Dobbes’ Wine by Joe. Of that label’s offerings, my personal favorite was the 2014 Wine by Joe Pinot Noir. Sourced from Pinot growers throughout the state of Oregon, the 2014 Wine by Joe Pinot Noir was a balanced, elegant offering that would fool some Pinot fans who taste it in a blind tasting alongside much more decorated wines. An enticing nose and tastes of cherry, strawberry, pomegranate and a hint of vanilla, with light tannins and refreshing acidity combine to add up to a terrific Pinot for your personal collection. Although the 2014 Wine by Joe Pinot has not yet been rated, past vintages have been awarded strong 89 ratings by both Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazines. At a suggested retail of $19 and its pedigree and sourcing of Oregon grapes, this represents a remarkable bang for the buck.


2. As noted among the 2016 3 Best Surprises above, your humble Wine Bargain Sleuth is on a bit of a bubbles kick recently. The question is how to best afford Champagne quality on a beer budget! My 2016 answer is Louis Bouillot Blanc de Blancs NV, a Cremant from the region of Burgundy, France. As its name implies, the Louis Bouillot Blanc de Blancs NV is made entirely of Chardonnay grapes from the world-famous Burgundy region. After all, you have to get Chardonnay grapes from somewhere, so it might as well be northern Burgundy near the region of Chablis! This crisp sparkler has a strong hint of grapefruit and a light profile of toastiness for complexity, making it an excellent cocktail hour wine or a terrific pairing with brie or similar creamy cheeses due to its refreshing acidity. Fans of blanc de blancs from Champagne may have a very difficult time telling this Cremant from the pricier and more renowned Champagne sparkler in a taste test. And after all, who doesn’t like bubbles? At the suggested retail price of $18 per .750 liter bottle, even wine sleuths on a tight budget don’t mind splurging a little for their dinner guests who love sparkling wine! The Louis Bouillet Blanc de Blancs NV provides a tremendous bang for your buck, and its quality is clearly demonstrated not only by the source of the Burgundy Chardonnay grapes but also by the respectable 88 rating granted to it by Wine Enthusiast magazine!


3. As more and more Americans discover Rose wines, particularly for temperate summer sipping, good information as to what to buy becomes important. Earlier in the year, I had the opportunity to attend a Bonny Doon wine dinner, and to my surprise the Boony Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2015 stole the show! Crisp, fresh with a flavor profile of pears and a hint of blood orange, yet this elegant Rose finishes bone dry with a savory touch. Cleverly nicknamed “Pink Wine of the Earth”, this Bonny Doon offering may have just become my summer go-to. The style of this Gris de Cigare 2015 is very much reminiscent of a southern French Rose from Provence. Served properly chilled like a white wine, the Bonny Doon Rose is so smooth that is doesn’t seem to have a rough edge on it, despite the refreshing acidity present. This is a terrific poolside summer sipper, or it would be delectable with a triple cream brie cheese or even boiled shrimp. The 2015 vintage is an unusual Rhone varietal blend of 44% Grenache, 20% Grenache Blanc, and remaining smaller portions of Carignane, Mourvedre, Cinsaut and Roussanne. With the delicate touch of Bonny Doon’s owner and wine genius Randall Grahm, sometimes referred to as the “Rhone Ranger”, this is clearly a special wine. It has a suggested retail of $18, but careful wine sleuths can find a bottle for several sheckels less. Add a great review and a solid 90 rating by Wine Review Online, you have the very definition of a value wine in the terrific Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2015.


Top Worth a Splurge Wine (Tie):

1. The absolute star of a summer excursion to Willamette Valley was the Elk Cove Goodrich 2014 Pinot Noir. Layered, polished, lengthy and enticing with its classic profile of cola, bing cherry and a spicy note combined with a hint of vanilla, this Oregon wine made my mouth come alive. No less an authority than Wine Spectator thought similarly, bestowing a stout 94 rating on the 2014 Goodrich Pinot, noting that the Pinot Noir was “Distinctly minerally, with a saline quality to the ripe raspberry and cherry flavors, coming together harmoniously against powdery tannins on the long, vivid finish….” Somewhere my late mother, whose family name on her mother’s side was Goodrich, is flashing her trademark world-class grin on this selection, no doubt. And what better way to honor my sainted mother than to have a glass of her family’s namesake Pinot on Thanksgiving?That’s a done deal. The 2014 Goodrich Pinot Noir is decidedly a Worth a Splurge Wine, but you wine sleuths will be hard-pressed to sample a better example of outstanding Oregon Pinot!


1. For those of you who may have picked up the subtle hint that a glass of Chardonnay may not always have been the first choice of your humble Wine Bargain Sleuth, you can now color me white, as in Chardonnays made by Kistler and its proprietor Steve Kistler. Although I recently had the privilege to sample four Chards, including one cuvee and 3 single vineyard Chardonnays, without question the one that rang all the bells of my senses was the world-class Kistler McCrea Vineyard Chardonnay 2013. The 2013 Kistler McCrea beauty, blended from a Sonoma Mountain source, was truly reminiscent of a Burgundy Grand Cru, managing to be elegant, balanced, complex and absolutely thrilling all in one sip. With tones of muted lemon, fresh apples and a hint of creaminess, as well as the minerality that gives this Kistler beauty the complexity and a thrilling, lengthy finish, this Chard would pair impressively with boiled crab, roasted turkey or a zesty green salad. Still very young, the Kistler McCrea Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 is still very approachable today, particularly when paired with fresh goat cheese. The winery recommends cellaring this beauty for 4-8 years–that is, if you can resist popping that cork. No promises on this end. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate bestowed a strong 94 on this white, which impressive mark was matched by Vinous. If you are in the market for a splurge, then search for this world-class white for your cellar.


Note: Given the proclivities of The Wine Bargain Sleuth to enjoy Big Reds, both the selected Bargain Wines and the Worth a Splurge Wines named above may be surprising, but they are each well-deserved! Enjoy! LM


Wine Thought of the Day: Humorous Wine Quotes:


“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
–Anthony Bourdain

“Music is the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken.”

–Ludwig van Beethoven

“Sometimes when I reflect back on all the wine I drink, I feel shame! Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the vineyards and all of their hopes and dreams. If I didn’t drink this wine, they might be out of work, and their dreams would be shattered. Then I say to myself, ‘It is better that I drink this wine and let their dreams come true than be selfish and worry about my liver.”

–Jack Handley



Until next month–make that next year– Cheers!

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