Category:California wine

Expensive wine 131: Justin Isosceles 2015

Justin IsoscelesThe Justin Isosceles is a powerful, well made California red blend

The Wine Curmudgeon has always appreciated Justin’s wines, whether the $12 sauvingon blanc or the pricey, pricey red blends. It’s not necessarily a style I prefer, but the wines are always well made and aren’t as over the top as so many others.

The Justin Isosceles ($70, sample, 15%) is a case in point. On the one hand, this red blend (mostly cabernet sauvignon, with about equal parts merlot and cabernet franc) costs a lot of money, and especially for a wine from California’s Paso Robles region. Plus, that 15 percent alcohol screams “HOT FRUIT BOMB DESIGNED TO GET 96 POINTS!”

On the other hand, it’s not nearly as hot and as ripe as it could have been. Powerful, yes, in that fruit forward, California style. That means lots and lots of black fruit aroma, and it tastes of not too sweet cherry fruit. Plus, there is even a little spice, and the oak pushed just enough to the background so as not to get in the way. If it’s not subtle, it is mostly balanced, very layered, and well worth drinking (assuming the price doesn’t scare you off).

I’m not sure the Justin Isosceles is going to age all that well for that much longer, so it’s ready to drink now.

Mini-reviews 131: Raeburn, Pigmentum, Montmirail, Excelsior

raeburnReviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the fourth Friday of each month

Raeburn Rose 2019 ($13, sample, 13.5%): California pink with some tart raspberry fruit that is well made, but the longer it sits in the glass, the more you notice the lingering residual sugar and that it’s not quite dry rose.

Vigouroux Pigmentum Malbec 2014 ($10, purchased, 13%): Didn’t notice the vintage when I bought this French red, and that it’ss so tasty is amazing given its age. Still has a little dark fruit and some earth, and still eminently drinkable.

Château de Montmirail “M” 2018 ($10, purchased, 14%): This red Rhone blend has some heft and black fruit, but isn’t overdone or too heavy. Availability may be limited, which is too bad since it’s close to a Hall of Fame wine. Imported by Kindred Vines

Excelsior Chardonnay 2018 ($10, purchased, 14%): This South African white will not help the country get back into the U.S. market. It’s a Kendall Jackson chardonnay knockoff, complete with residual sugar. Imported by Cape Classics

Wine of the week: Vinum Cellars Petite Sirah Pets 2016

Vinum Cellars PetsThe Vinum Cellars Pets is California petit sirah that delivers quality and value

Wine will surprise you, even when you’ve been doing it as long as the Wine Curmudgeon has. Sit and bemoan the lack of quality cheap California red wine and especially the lack of top-notch inexpensive petite sirah, and then you’ll taste two terrific petites – first, the McManis and now the Vinum Cellars Pets.

The Vinum Cellars Pets ($12, sample, 14.5%) was even more surprising than the McManis; the latter has long been one of the best cheap producers in the world. Vinum Cellars, on the other hand, has been annoyingly inconsistent – sometimes wonderful, sometimes not, and with no real reason for the difference.

But know that the Pets is well worth drinking. It’s petit sirah that tastes like petit sirah, so it’s not too jammy or too sweet (either the fruit or from residual sugar). It’s also not too hot, despite the high alcohol.

Instead, there is berry, almost plummy fruit, well-integrated oak, and soft tannins that aren’t too soft. In all, a $12 wine with structure and body, hardly what we’ve come to expect from this grape from this part of the world and certainly at this price.

Highly recommended, and a candidate for the 2021 $10 Hall of Fame.

Wine of the week: Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red 2016

Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red The Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red is what we don’t see often enough – great, cheap California red wine

One of the blog’s great laments is the lack of quality cheap California wine. There’s lots of cheap wine, of course, but not much that most of us would want to drink. Because, as one of the blog’s regular visitors and a longtime California winemaker once told me, “we all decided we needed to become famous.”

Enter the Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red ($12, purchased, 13.9%). This red blend does what so many others don’t care to do – offer quality wine at a fair price that tastes like it comes from California. It’s a blend of syrah, petite sirah, tempranillo, and zinfandel, but remains balanced and interesting even though that grape combination can produce a six-megaton fruit bomb.

Look for some some sweet fruit (red berries?), but it’s not a sweet wine. There are soft tannins in the back, bracing the structure, just as they should, and there’s even a bit of acidity. In all of this, it’s not smooth, and that’s a good thing.

Highly recommended, and especially for anyone who likes this style of wine. And don’t be surprised to see it the Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red in the 2021 $10 Hall of Fame.

And, because I no longer understand how the wine business works, the 2012 vintage, which was also terrific, cost $14, $2 more than this one.

The fifth, almost annual, $3 wine challenge

$3 wine challenge
Who knows? Maybe one of these $3 wines will be a best buy.

The almost annual $3 wine challenge: The Wine Curmudgeon will drink $3 chardonnay with dinner every night this week, because that’s what Google says the Internet wants

The Wine Curmudgeon hates writing this post, but not because the wine is usually so terrible. It’s because, no matter how terrible the wine is, people still buy it and “enjoy” it because it costs $3. How many times do I have to write that cheap wine isn’t good just because it’s cheap?

Nevertheless, since this remains one of the most popular features on the blog and I regularly get emails asking me to do it again, here we go for the fifth time: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Or are the ultra-cheap wines just cheap, without any other reason for being? The details about the first four $3 challenges are here, here, here, and here.

This year, I will taste five chardonnays (all purchased in Dallas). In addition, the results will run in the weekly Dallas Observer; food editor Taylor Adams asked me to write a fun and creative wine story. I’ll post the link to that story here on March 6,  and include the highlights from the tastings. So, once more unto the breach, dear friends:

Two-buck Chuck chardonnay ($2.99, 12.5%). The Trader Joe’s private label was the first — and remains — the most famous of the very cheap wines. It’s a California appellation from the 2019 vintage, and made for Trader Joe’s by Bronco Wine.

Three Wishes chardonnay ($2.99, 12.5%), the Whole Foods private label. It carries an American appellation, which means it’s non-vintage and at least three-quarters of the grapes used to make it were grown anywhere in the U.S. (though most probably came from the Central Valley in California). It’s made by multi-national The Wine Group, which is best known for Cupcake and the big Franzia boxes.

Winking Owl chardonnay ($2.95, 12%) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere). It’s a California appellation but non-vintage, so 75 percent of the grapes came from California but from different harvests. It’s made by E&J Gallo, the largest wine producer in the world. The price is price is seven more than the last time I did this.

Oak Leaf chardonnay ($2.50, 12.5%), the Walmart private label. Also made by The Wine Group, American, and non-vintage. The price almost 50 cents less than the last time I did this.

Bay Bridge chardonnay ($2.99, 12.5%), the Kroger private label; sold at Kroger, Fred Meyer, and Kroger-owned banners. It’s American and non-vintage, and the third of these wines made by The Wine Group.

Photo: “$2.99” by *lapin is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Wine of the week: McManis Petit Sirah 2017

mcmanis petit sirahThe McManis petit sirah: $10 California red wine that is well made and speaks to quality and value

California’s McManis family, despite the trials and tribulations of the post-modern wine business and the faint-heartedness of others, still cares more about quality than focus groups. The McManis petit sirah is just one of the family’s many wines that proves that point.

The McManis petit sirah ($10, purchased, 13.5%) is a reminder of the early days of the blog, when petit sirah was used to make quality cheap wine – a little plummy, a bit rich, not especially tannic, and just enough acidity for balance. Today, it’s mostly used to make sweet, “smooth,” flaccid red blends that cost $15 or $16, because someone somewhere thinks that’s what younger consumers want.

The McManis is the exact opposite of that, one of the best petit sirahs I’ve had in years, regardless of price. There is sweet dark plum fruit, but this is not a sweet wine. Plus, subtle acidity and the correct tannins. In this, it’s a reminder that California used to give us some of the world’s best cheap wine. Drink this with everything from takeout pizza to fancy meatloaf, and it wouldn’t be so bad on its own after a hard day at work, either. And you could do a whole lot worse using the McManis as a gift for the holiday that must not be named later this week.

Highly recommended, and a candidate to for the 2021’s  $10 Hall of Fame and Cheap Wine of the Year.

Expensive wine 129: Bonny Doon X-Block Syrah 2013

x-block syrahThe Bonny Doon X-Block syrah is magnificent California red wine, combining the Old World with the New World

Those of us who love savory syrah – that is, where the wine is earthy and funky instead of being stuffed with sweet fruit, like the Australians do it – were especially sad when Boony Doon’s Randall Grahm sold his legendary winery at the beginning of the year. Grahm was famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for many things, but I don’t think he ever got enough credit for wines like the Bonny Doon X-Block syrah.

Grahm was able to combine an Old World approach to syrah with California’s riper and richer fruit. In this, the Bonny Doon X-Block syrah ($48, purchased, 13.5%) is an amazing wine – funky enough for those of us who want that, but fruity enough so as not to turn off people who think funky is a slang term 50 years out of date.

The X-Block is a step up from Grahm’s Le Pousseur syrah, which costs about half the price. But it’s more than worth the added expense: There’s the smoked meat, bacon-y aroma, a bit of pepper and spice, soft tannins, and full, rich black fruit. Open the wine about an hour before you drink it, and serve it with anything beefy or smoky or both. In addition, it’s still young and should age for at least a couple of more years.

Highly recommended, and just the gift for someone who likes savory syrah, what with the Holiday that Must not be Named coming up later this week. So long, Randall. It was a hell of a ride.