Review: Cambria Benchbreak 2014 Chardonnay and 2013 Pinot Noir

cambriaTwo new wines from Cambria and its Benchbreak series, a line of sustainably grown wines from the Santa Maria Valley. Thoughts follow.

2014 Cambria Benchbreak Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley – Intensely oaky and meaty on the nose, this chardonnay — which is otherwise lightly bodied and quite fruity — takes the butter and pushes it in a different direction — namely, toward sausage and smoked ham notes, which really put a damper on the party. The finish blends a vegetal and bacon character, neither of which I’m particularly looking for in a white wine and which definitely doesn’t work here, at least sans a meal. C+ / $22

2013 Cambria Benchbreak Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley – Surprisingly light bodied, this gentle pinot initially offers forth light notes of tea leaf, cardamom, and simple red berries. Over time, it evolves a bit of a black pepper note — mild, but folding in a bit of crispness to what is otherwise a wispy wine. Grows on you, though. B / $25

Review: Wines of Cycles Gladiator, 2014 Vintage

cycles cabernetIf you’ve ever been in a California supermarket, you’ve probably seen Cycles Gladiator on the wine shelves. Oddly, I’d never tried it even after years and years of seeing its Art Nouveau-inspired labels, turned off by its rock bottom pricing.

The brand has changed hands in recent years, moving from giant Constellation to a new company called Wine Hooligans. Under this leadership, Cycles Gladiator is now being overseen by winemaker Adam LaZarre, formerly of Hahn Estates. Today the fruit is all being sourced from the Central Coast (and carries that appellation) but the price is remaining at a low $10.99 per bottle.

Five wines make up the brand’s pantry. Three are reviewed here. Let’s see what these Cycles can do!

2014 Cycles Gladiator Chardonnay Central Coast – Modestly buttery, with restrained vanilla that pairs beautifully with the wine’s brisk apple notes. Subtle nutmeg notes emerge on the finish, but the wine stays in a nice band that is both fruit-forward but not overpowered or overly dessert-like. A real crowd pleaser at a great price. A- / $11

2014 Cycles Gladiator Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast – Fruit-forward, with chocolate overtones and notes of burnt walnut shells. The body plays up vanilla, some roasted nuts, and more chocolate notes. Initially quite jammy, it eventually settles down and lets the chocolate do more of the talking. That said, the sweetness here might clash with some dishes, but it’s not a bad effort at this price. B / $11

2014 Cycles Gladiator Petite Sirah Central Coast – A divisive wine, for sure — intensely smoky up front, with herbal and vegetal notes not far behind. The fruit here feels like jam at best, canned at worst — almost pruny. The finish fades quickly, but it leaves behind a brown sugar residue, mixed with raisin and plum notes, that is hard to shake. C+ / $11

Review: Not Your Father’s Ginger Ale

not your father's ginger aleLike Not Your Father’s Root Beer before it, this creation of Small Town Brewery is an alcohol-infused rendition of ginger beer. This is now a surprisingly large category, and standing out is becoming difficult. Not Your Father’s Ginger Ale isn’t really able to do that — a flavored beer product that manages to work some spicy ginger notes into the mix, but ends up promoting flavors more akin to sour apple, with ample malt sneaking up behind it.

The root beer is better.

5.9% abv.

C+ / $11 per six pack of 12 oz. bottles /

Review: Wines of Sokol Blosser, 2016 Releases

sokol blosser

Oregon’s Sokol Blosser is out with a panoply of new releases, ranging from sparkling stuff to single-block pinot noir.

Let’s taste the lot.

NV Sokol Blosser Evolution Sparkling Wine – An everyday brut sparkler made from grapes unknown, but which goes down without a fight. Notes of nuts and brioche on the nose lead to a very fruit-forward body, loaded with fizzy apple, apricot, and white grape notes. Party wine. B+ / $20

2014 Sokol Blosser Pinot Gris Willamette Valley – Stellar pinot gris, with tropical notes on the nose and melon on the body. They come together with bright acidity, modest sweetness, and a bit of exotic baking spice on the back end. Quaffable by the glassful, but also thought-provoking on its merits. A / $18

2013 Sokol Blosser Pinot Noir Estate Dundee Hills – Not my favorite release from Sokol Blosser, a meaty and somewhat astringent expression that offers dusky notes of Vienna sausages, old cloves, spent wood, and brambly thickets. The fruit is stamped down, almost into oblivion, which is not the usual way Sokol Blosser’s pinot behaves. C+ / $30

2012 Sokol Blosser Pinot Noir Estate Dundee Hills Goosepen Block – A single-block designate of Sokol Blosser’s estate pinot, only 300 cases made. (Note that this is a prior vintage, too.) Here we see Sokol Blosser firing on all cylinders. The nose offers chocolate, raspberry jam, and tea leaf. On the palate, light notes of grilled meats segue into notes of darker fruits, more milk chocolate, and a lightly bittersweet finish. Quite a departure from the previous wine, and a massive upgrade. A- / $65

Review: 2014 Hahn GSM Central Coast

Hahn_GSM_2014Chocolate-covered blueberries explode in this rich grenache-syrah-mourvedre blend (65%, 31%, 4% — in that order). That burst of flavor — backed by some cinnamon and notes of currants — is an initial rush, but an overwhelming sweetness arrives soon after, quickly giving the body a raisiny/pruny quality that works against it as a table wine. The finish is dense and lengthy but on the saccharine side.

C+ / $12 /

Review: 1800 Coconut Tequila

1800 coconutFlavored tequila can be a mixed bag, and straight out of the bottle, 1800’s coconut-flavored expression smells exactly like Malibu — at least until you stick your nose into the glass, when sharp agave notes come to the fore.

On the palate, it’s a combination of the two, as the spirit bounces between notes of sweet coconut flakes and brash, green, and peppery blanco tequila (100% agave is used here, though), with very little else happening in between. A touch of pineapple hits the finish, but otherwise this is sugary coconut and punchy agave notes, trying to live side by side.

My mind struggles trying to figure out the appropriate use for the spirit, though. As a sipper the two styles never quite get together in a friendly enough way. As a mixer, the same issue applies — the tequila clashes with cola or another standard add-in.

That really leaves one option: Coconut margaritas, anyone?

70 proof.

C+ / $24 /

Review: 2014 Atalon Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley

atalonAtalon has been releasing wines since 1997, with just three offerings on the table — two reds, and this sauvignon blanc.

Intensely grassy, this is sauvignon blanc that at first showcases a wine pushed to its herbal limits. As it develops, notes of grapefruit peel and saltwater taffy give this wine an extreme profile, a bitter-sour attack leading to an increasingly sweet finish. This is a wine that defies easy categorization — except for drinkers who, I’m sure, will largely either love it or hate it.

C+ / $21 /