Smith & Hook is a Central Coast producer that focuses exclusively on Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes are sourced from four Central Coast appellations: Arroyo Seco, San Antonio Valley, Hames Valley, and Paso Robles.
As Cab goes, the 2013 offers easy approachability, though it’s short on complexity. Early notes of cocoa powder, vanilla, and blackberry give way to some light citrus candy — think jellied oranges — plus a spray of fresh herbs. While the body is appropriately huge and alcohol-loaded, the finish comes on quickly and fades out with notes of blackberry jam, toasted marshmallow, and a light tobacco character.
B / $20 / smithandhook.com
Livermore-based Concannon moves a tad upmarket with this Monterey County bottling of chardonnay from the 2013 vintage.
Immediate notes of burnt butter and baking spice are prominent, with a bit of tropical character on the back end. The body is somewhat flabby, with a caramel note on the finish followed by a light astringency. It doesn’t gel perfectly, but it’s a step up from Concannon’s lower-end production.
B- / $18 / concannonvineyard.com
Calista’s latest Pinot hails from the “Coast Range,” which comprises three distinct regions: Sonoma, Mendocino, and Monterey counties. All of which are great places for pinot noir!
Engaging notes of cola and tea start things off, then layered cherry, vanilla, and red berry notes take over. The finish is lightly bittersweet and complex, just a touch smoky and herbal together.
A- / $25 / calistawines.com
Sicily is heavily pushing the newly-launched “Sicilia DOC” label, and rightly so — it’s the place to go for wines made from Nero D’Avola grapes, as close to a official wine for this region as you’ll find.
The official group behind the Sicilia DOC sent us two current releases bearing the new AVA on the label. Thoughts follow.
2014 Mandrarossa Nero D’Avola Sicilia DOC – Heavy earth and tobacco on the nose gives one the expectation of a dark and brooding wine, but the body on this oddity is tart cherries, Jolly Ranchers, and red rope licorice. Complex in all the wrong ways, it smells exotic but drinks cheaply. C- / $10
2013 Morgante Nero D’Avola Vendemmia Sicilia DOC – Far better realized than the Mandarossa, this is a classic Nero, with dense tannins, dried herbs, and black cherry notes. As it opens up it reveals notes of cola, and the tannin on the finish smooths out with touches of chocolate. A nice and complicated little wine. B+ / $14
Paradoxically, the “Vintner’s Reserve” designation is pretty much Kendall-Jackson’s lowest-end bottling, but let’s not get too caught up in the names. The 2014 vintages of its iconic California white wines are finally here, so let’s give them a spin.
2014 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc California – Almost New Zealand in style, this super-sweet sauvignon blanc boosts the tropical notes while keeping the minerals and herbs to a minimum. The finish offers notes of sugar-coated lemon and orange candies, which might be fine on the deck of your yacht, but which clashes at mealtime. C+ / $13
2014 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay California – A considerable improvement over the sauvignon blanc, this chardonnay keeps the butter and oak in check while pushing notes of baked apples, vanilla cookies, and a sweetness that I’ll call cereal milk. B / $17
SakeOne doesn’t just make interesting sakes in its Oregon home base, it also imports them — lots of them, in fact. In May 2014, SakeOne began importing the Hakutsuru line, which is Japan’s biggest export sake. All four of these sakes come from Hakutsuru collection. Let’s dive in, reader-san!
Hakutsuru Draft Sake – Draft sake is aged for 1 month at 41 degrees Fahrenheit before bottling and is unpasteurized. Dry, fresh, and uncomplicated, this is a basic, crystal clear sake with light notes of melon and (heavier) solvent character. Overall, its uninspired entry-level stuff that I’d recommend primarily for use as a mixer. C- / $3 per 180ml bottle
Hakutsuru Tanrei Junmai – A basic junmai sake but nonetheless a step up from the Draft, featuring clearer and stronger melon character, a creamier body, and mild hospital notes on the finish. Definitely easier to sip on, this is your basic sushi bar sake, dry with just a bare hint of sweetness. B- / $4 per 180ml bottle
Hakutsuru Superior Jumnai Ginjo – Stepping up the quality ladder is this junmai ginjo, which is made with more of the rice grain polished away before it hits the brewery. Big, fresh melon notes are punchy on the nose, but the body is oddly more astringent than the Tanrei bottling. Enjoyable at first, it ultimately gets a bit hoary on the finish, with a slightly sour milk character. B- / $8 per 300ml bottle
Hakutsuru Sho-Une Junmai Dai Ginjo – Junmai daiginjo is one of the highest levels of sake production, with considerably more of the rice grain polished away before it is brewed, but otherwise made in the same style as all junmai sake. Here the melon notes take on a deeper and much more brooding character, featuring some mushroom notes plus various herbs. B+ / $11 per 300ml bottle
Frank Family has made a Reserve Petite Sirah since 2008, but it’s never released a standard bottling (with the “Napa Valley” tier appellation) until now. For this inaugural release, Frank has put out a 100% petite sirah that is definitely worth your time and attention. Lush berries and dense chocolate are layered with lightly smoky notes — you would be forgiven for thinking this is a syrah, but there’s also a balsamic character that gives it a little more to work with. The finish is lightly sweet and cocoa-rich and quite satisfying — but keep an eye on the not insignificant amount of sediment in this one.
A- / $35 / frankfamilyvineyards.com
Umbria, Tuscany’s little cousin, is the home of Falesco, which has been operating in the region since 1979. The company produces wine under a handful of sub-labels, the Vitiano brand representing its entry-level bottlings. We checked out two members of the Vitiano line and one wine higher up the chain. Thoughts follow.
2014 Falesco Vitiano Verdicchio Vermentino Umbria IGT – A 50/50 blend of Verdicchio and Vermentino, 100% stainless steel-fermented, this is a pretty, lightly grassy wine with notes of lemon. Light as a feather on the palate and quite a summery sipper. Note: The Vitiano brand doesn’t carry the Falesco name anywhere on the label. A- / $11
2013 Falesco Vitiano Rosso Umbria IGT – A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese. Smells cheap — extracted and overly jammy. The palate is marginally better, at first, starting off fruity but short of blown out. As it develops in glass it takes on some rough, dried herbal notes and the finish has an antiseptic character to it. Big miss. D+ / $9
2012 Falesco Montiano Lazio IGT – Falesco’s flagship wine, a 100% Merlot bottling aged in Allier and Tronçais barriques. Initially heavy and herbal, with a density that recalls Piedmontese wines. Dark blackberry and extracted cassis flavors lead to notes of dark chocolate and coffee bean. Opens up over time to reveal a softer side (with slight floral notes driven by the Merlot) that engages well with food. A- / $25
Two new releases from Napa’s Flora Springs. Thoughts follow.
2014 Flora Springs Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley – Pale and young, and surprisingly sweet for a sauvignon blanc. Notes of overripe melon and pineapple wash away a lightly minerally backbone, leaving just a hint of steel and slate in the wine’s predominantly tropical wake. In need of balance. C+ / $20
2013 Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – A straightforward Napa cab, with initial notes of menthol, cinnamon, and significant barrel influence. Dusty licorice notes and tar meld with a fruity, cassis-loaded core, giving the wine enough complexity to maintain interest without things getting too hoary. B+ / $40
Three late arrivals from the tail end of 2015 from the monstrous variety that Coppola manages to put out. Some quick thoughts on these late-arriving wines.
2012 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut Cinema – 49% cabernet sauvignon, 45% zinfandel, 4% petite sirah, 2% syrah – Quite a sugary experience, it oozes with raisins, sweet tea, and blackberry jelly. The lengthy, New World finish is certainly fresh, if not exactly nuanced. B- / $32
2013 Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – Big and jammy, full of cassis and blackberry, with notes of coffee bean and tea leaf. Sweet but reasonably well-balanced, it’s a fair enough food wine but on its own the finish starts to get away from you as it pours on the sugar. B- / $16
2013 Francis Ford Coppola Votre Sante Pinot Noir California – Fruity up front, then a sizeable smoke influence takes hold. Some cedar wood and black tea notes come into focus, but otherwise this is a simple and perfectly drinkable expression of this classic grape — provided you don’t mind a little char on the back end. B / $12