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

Tasting Report: Wines of Raymond Vineyards

I’d visited Raymond Vineyards many years ago and thought I knew all about this winery. But that was before the French bon vivant Jean-Charles Boisset purchased the place and turned it into a little slice of Vegas in otherwise sleepy Napa Valley.

If you’ve never been to Raymond, it’s time to take a visit — if only to see what the future of wine country is. And that future involves techno music, glitter paint, and mannequins suspended between fermentation tanks. The days of tasting atop a barrel in a barn with a dog are slowly coming to an end.

The photos below speak louder than anything I could write. I will, however, try to delight you with some tasting notes from my time spent wandering through this surrealistic space.

2012 Raymond District Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford – Lush and drinking beautifully; loaded with rich blackberry notes. A- / $85

2012 Raymond Generations – 97% cabernet sauvignon, 3% petit verdot; gentle herbs and lush fruit are beautiful in tandem; cherries and blueberries galore; wonderful length on the finish. A / $125

1986 Raymond Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – Beautiful truffle/mushroom notes, leathery but alive; still showing acidity, bright berries and cherries. A / $250

And some barrel samples for wines that are probably 6 to 12 months away from release. All are 100% cabernet samples from a single appellation. These notes and ratings are tentative.

2014 Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford – Super chocolatey, cassis, and vanilla. A sweeter side of new wood is showcased here. A-

2014 Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville – Ample tannin masks heavy herbs and a monstrous finish. For blending only, I’m sure. A-

2014 Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena – The weak link in the trio, an over-ripened, flabby wine with dried herb notes. B

Review: Wines of Rodney Strong, 2016 Releases

2013-rodney-strong-chardonnay-sonoma-bottle-72dpiThree new affordable releases from Rodney Strong, all from the Sonoma County range. Let’s give them a spin.

2014 Rodney Strong Chardonnay Sonoma County – Bright and fruity, this is an apple- and pear-focused wine that laces modest (but not overwhelming) vanilla and caramel notes into an otherwise fruit-forward experience. Uncomplicated, but super friendly for everyday drinking. B+ / $10

2013 Rodney Strong Merlot Sonoma County – A workmanlike merlot, with cocoa powder and cassis notes, plus a somewhat herbal finish. Densely fruity at first, it settles into a groove after a bit to pair at least reasonably well with heartier dishes. On its own, a somewhat bittersweet note tends to dull the finish. B- / $13

2013 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County – A very young cab, with notes of blueberry and chocolate. While unabashed in its sweetness, it is tempered by a touch of baking spice and a pinch of bitter herbs that give it a cleaner finish than you’d expect. B / $14

Tasting the Pinot Gris Wines of Alsace, 2016

alsaceThe region is best known for Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but Pinot Gris is a major varietal in the Alsace — so much so that the region’s reps sent us four selections from the area for us to cover.

Let’s dive into four major Alsatian Pinot Gris wines to see how they stack up.

2011 Albert Mann Vin d’Alsace Pinot Gris Rosenberg – Honey and peaches and cream, oh my! A gently fruity and mildly perfumed wine, it’s a pretty sipper with a body that pushes hard on the fruitier notes, those peaches giving way to simpler citrus on the finish. Easygoing, if a little plain at times. B+ / $25

2010 Louis Sipp Pinot Gris  “Nature’S” – Night and day vs. most of the field, this is a wildly sweet wine that you might well mistake for a muscat, or possibly a dessert offering of some kind. Pungent with notes of overripe peaches, orange creamsicles, and Ricola cough drops, this is better saved for the end of the meal, not the start. B- / $28

2011 Riefle Bonheur Convivial Pinot Gris Alsace Moderately sweet, with a tropical bent and notes of ripe banana. Some perfumed notes add a touch of intrigue, but a bit of astringency mars the back end. Less of a blowout than the Louis Sipp, but still on the digestif side of the fence. B- / $17

2011 Hugel Pinot Gris Alsace – Arguably the biggest name in Alsatian wine, this pinot gris comes complete with a Ralph Steadman illustration on the label. Very aromatic and floral, this is one of the driest wines in the collection, a pale and perfumed sipper that melds white flowers with notes of melon, white peach, and tart gooseberry. B+ / $22

Review: 2014 Zaca Mesa Viognier Santa Ynez Valley

zaca mesaThis creamy viognier offers ample peach and apricot notes, with an almost caramel-like body that gives it some weight. Overtones of white flowers arrive after the wine has a chance to warm up a bit. The crisp acidity of many a viognier is missing here, replaced with overtones of spiced nuts and heavy cream. While it’s something of an odd duck for this grape varietal, it is a better choice for pairing with food than most viognier wines.

B / $18 /

Tasting the Wines of Chile’s Ritual, 2016 Releases

ritualHeaded up by well-known winemaker Rodrigo Soto, Chile’s Ritual is a new label that is producing sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and — uncommon for Chile — pinot noir.

Soto recently took to a web chat with wine writers to prove that he was making what’s been called Chile’s best pinot noir — and for under 20 bucks a bottle. In between tales of the wild world of Chilean winemaking, we tasted through three brand new releases.

Thoughts follow.

2015 Ritual Sauvignon Blanc Casablanca Valley – A dry rendition of sauvignon blanc, lots of minerals and tight aromatics, including savory herbs and very light, white florals. Pale a ghost, the wine is clean and crisp, but the finish comes off as a bit astringent. B / $18

2015 Ritual Chardonnay Casablanca Valley – Balanced and restrained, with just a touch of butter and spice atop an otherwise fruity and juicy wine that’s loaded with apple and lemon notes. Some caramel emerges with time, but the finish showcases sweet and ultra-ripe fruit, lasting for quite a while. B+ / $20

2015 Ritual Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley – Very dry at first, almost dusty. Give it some time and fruit develops in the glass, a gentle plum/strawberry combo tempered by a dusting of cloves, slate dust, and mushroom. The “best pinot in Chile” may be pushing things, but it turns out to be remarkably drinkable, even with spicy and exotic foods. B+ / $20

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