Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 6

6 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

Oh, California Cab. As one of the world’s benchmark wine styles, victor over Bordeaux in the infamous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, this will of course have a place in any wine Advent calendar worth its salt. I also cannot prevent my mind from conjuring up such pejoratives as “overly oaked”, “heavily extracted”, “boozy”, and even “Mega Purple“. I will concede that for many consumers at the time, and many even now, massive size is a virtue. Fortunately a sea change began in the 2000s. A much-needed shift started taking place, from a winemaking culture focused largely on harnessing a technical wine science to yield a consistent product to please the average consumer, towards a “grassroots” middle path where science still matters but is now free to marry more European notions such as restraint, finesse and elegance, and even the notion that reasonable vintage variation can add interest and pleasure to the wine-drinking experience. It is no longer safe to make black and white assumptions about the monolithic nature of Cali Cabernet, and wineries like Starmont have played a key role in this paradigm shift.

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The name Starmont originally graced a bottle of Carneros Chardonnay in 1989. From there the name grew into a full-fledged brand, relocating from its original home with the more established Merryvale brand to the Stanly Ranch property, home to a couple of quality Carneros vineyard sites. Although the wines are no longer produced at a “green” facility built at one of these sites (that facility was sold this year), the commitment to sustainability remains. Although best known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Starmont does not shy away from Merlot or Syrah. There is an interest in seeing how each varietal does in its place, whether said place is the Stanly Ranch itself, the Carneros AVA, or the broader Napa Valley and North Coast AVAs, and this interest in terroir may have something to do with one of the men at the helm.

Starmont winemaker Jeff Crawford was born in Alaska but has managed to become superbly well-travelled, picking up bits and pieces of winemaking knowledge from places as far-flung as Greece. His general approach is to use his travels and reading to cram his brain with as much history, winemaking philosophy, technical acumen, and tasting experiences as possible. His unceasing quest has led to equipment upgrades at the winery, yet Jeff wishes Starmont to remain a “microcosm” of the Carneros region: a source of even-handed, balanced yet structured wines that can still convey some degree of subtlety.

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The 2017 Starmont North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is bottled under the very broad North Coast AVA appellation, with the grapes hailing from vineyards across the northern part of the state (41% Sonoma, 37% Lake, 13% Napa, 9% Mendocino). The wine is 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Petite Syrah, and 8% Merlot. This blending approach renders much of the philosophy behind terroir irrelevant for this particular bottle, unless the concept of site specificity is somehow extended to rather large tracts of land that exist as legal entities rather than embodying bona-fide “climats”. Nevertheless, the goal here was to obtain a mix of sites that reveals restraint in the final execution. Handpicked, hand sorted, and de-stemmed fruit was not crushed at the winery, leaving over 90% of the berries whole. This approach, if you were wondering, can prolong fermentation, as sugar release from the berries is delayed. This gives winemakers more control over the process, and can also enhance fruitiness and yield a more delicate, silky texture in the finished wine. After a cold pre-soak, the wine spends an average of 14 days fermenting on the skins and is then aged for 15 months in a combination of American and French oak (30% new).

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Stelvin Rating: 6/10 (hey, this is a decent Stelvin: vinous colour, nice font.)

This is indeed pretty silky in the mouth, with a supple, velvet-like latticework of tannins reinforcing a rather light-bodied frame. The aromas do tick all the right boxes: blackcurrant (duh!), some cool climate black cherry, even maybe red cherry Nibs, Aero bar, Swiss mocha instant coffee mix, nutmeg, MacIntosh’s toffee, very slight red pepper flake and well-worn cedar plank. The oak notes I am pulling off this are assertive but not overly intrusive. All of the ripe yet fresh fruit is powdered with graphite and waves goodbye with a medium-duration plume of oaked red currant jelly. An efficient, seamless purple elegance, one that you will likely enjoy but that is unlikely to provide total recall a year from now.

88+ points





Wine Review: 2016 Buena Vista North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon

17 10 2018

By Peter Vetsch

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

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A rare sighting.

The $25 California Cabernet Sauvignon is an endangered species nowadays; once a stalwart gateway drug for luring novice wine drinkers into a lifetime of vinous enlightenment, it has now been superseded in that endeavour by numerous other New World crowd-pleasers that are managing to offer similarly accessible and overt pleasure at wallet-friendlier prices.  The combination of rising land costs, fire- and drought-inspired production difficulties and the utter shredding of the Canadian dollar as compared to the US greenback on world currency markets has more or less eliminated California as a source of solid value wine in our market.  Buena Vista Winery is trying to change that, but with this series of factors arrayed against it, it’s fighting an uphill battle.

I have previously written about the remarkable, riotous, barely credible but actually true history of Buena Vista, the proud owner of the label “first commercial winery in California”.  It is well worth refreshing your memory about, but the Coles Notes version must at least mention:  (1) Agoston Haraszthy, who may have been the first Hungarian to emigrate to the United States, who founded the winery and who essentially crammed six lifetimes of zaniness and adventure into one shortened 19th century thrill ride; (2) 1857, the year Haraszthy founded Buena Vista, part of a major ambition to establish high-quality vitis vinifera grapes in hospitable California soils; (3) Nicaragua, where Haraszthy fled barely a decade after Buena Vista was first established, with angry and misled company investors potentially at his heels; and (4) alligators, which apparently ate him there.  Never a dull moment at Buena Vista in the 1850s and 60s. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Buena Vista Social Club

16 08 2017

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

If there was a Most Interesting Man In The World designation for the history of wine, Agoston Haraszthy would be a strong contender for the crown.  I had previously come across his name in a book about the pioneering contributors of the California wine industry and had assumed that he was one of many 19th-century immigrants from Europe to the United States who brought Old World wine knowledge and tradition with him to his new home and helped it propagate.  And he was.  But his tale was anything but rote.

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Haraszthy was born in Hungary to a noble family in 1812, later becoming known by the honorifics “Count” and “Colonel” even though he was technically neither.  He carved his own path throughout his life, stringing together a series of firsts that would be near-impossible to top in this day and age.  He was the first Hungarian to move and settle in the United States; the founder of the oldest village in Wisconsin (and the planter of some of the first grapevines there); the first town marshal and elected sheriff of San Diego; and the founder of the first commercial winery in California (more on that in a bit).  From the time he first arrived in the United States in 1840 to the time he left in 1868, he was at various times a mill owner, an author, a steamboat operator, a butcher, a member of the California State Assembly, and a gold refiner and assayer at the US Mint.

Read the rest of this entry »








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