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Category Archives: California wine

Wine of the week: Lyeth Meritage 2012

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Lyeth MeritageWineries are like rock ‘n roll bands — they come and go for no particular reason, and if you write about wine or drink it, that’s something you need to understand. Just because a winery made a great wine one vintage is no guarantee it will be around to make a great wine five years later.

Which is much of what you need to know about the Lyeth Meritage ($12, purchased, 13.5%). In the 1980s and early 1990s, this was one of the world’s great wine values, and then it disappeared. I had not seen it in 20 years until I was digging through the bottom shelves of a Dallas wine shop a couple of weeks ago, and there it was.

Hence this very unexpected — but very positive — Lyeth Meritage review. A Big Wine company bought the Lyeth name and has been turning out a full line of wine for the past couple of years. They have done an excellent job with the Meritage, a red blend that’s mostly merlot and cabernet sauvignon. And it shows just how good cheap wine can be when the producer cares — terroir, even. Look for sweet Sonoma black fruit, earthiness, and tannins that offer some grip, each part in balance with the other.

Highly recommended; big enough so that it would complement red meat, but not so big you can’t sip it in the evening after work. And if Lyeth can come back, does that mean there’s hope for Rockpile?

Expensive wine 71: Jordan Chardonnay 2012

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jordan chardonnayThe world of California chardonnay has gone in so many directions over the past decade that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track. First, everything was toasty and oaky, then there was the backlash against toasty and oaky, and then there was the backlash against the backlash. Meanwhile, alcohol levels shot up by a point or more, giving us chardonnay that was hot as some zinfandels, close to 15 percent. Except when they weren’t.

Through all of this, a handful of producers ignored the trends and did what they did best. One is the Jordan chardonnay ($30, sample, 13.7%). Vintage after vintage, it’s dependable, well-made, and varietally correct. This, in the hipster world of California chardonnay, is often seen as damning with faint praise.

Which is foolish. What’s wrong with doing something correctly every year? The Jordan is the archetype for California Russian River Valley chardonnay, with green apple fruit, oak more or less in balance, and a rich mouth feel. This vintage is a little less oaky and more crisp, with a bit of apricot in the mix.

The Jordan chardonnay is better with food, and especially with classic chardonnay dishes made with cream sauces. But given the extra acidity in this vintage, don’t shy away from from roasted fish or chicken ballotine. Highly recommended (even for the holiday that must not be named), and regular visitors here know how fussy I am about chardonnay.

Wine review: Rodney Strong Merlot 2011

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Rodney Strong merlotRodney Strong is an example of how sophisticated the California wine business has become. It makes $15 wine that is sold in grocery stores, but is of better quality than most grocery store wine. It has a line of very high-end reds, aimed at the Winestream Media and the people who read it, and which are about as different from its $15 wines as possible. In all of this, Rodney Strong produces more than 800,000 cases a year, making it the 20th biggest winery in the U.S., according to Wine Business Monthly.

That Rodney Strong can do all three of those, and do it mostly well, speaks to California’s dominant role in the wine world. It’s not only the best place to grow grapes, but its business model is the best, too. The idea is to make wine the way Detroit makes cars, with something for grocery store consumers, something for people who want to spend more, and then the very high end stuff.

The trick to this approach is not sloughing off. The quality/value ratio at the bottom has to be as impressive as at the top, or you’ll never get anyone to trade up. The  2011 Rodney Strong merlot ($17, sample, 13.5%) shows how much care goes into the wines. The 2011 California vintage was one of the coolest in decades, but that didn’t stop a lot of producers from making their usual over-extracted, over-alcoholic, over-oaked wines — even though, thanks to the cool vintage, they had to use a fair amount of sleight of hand to do it.

But not the Rodney Strong merlot. It tastes like it came from a cool vintage — fresh and juicy, no cloying red fruit, a touch of oak at the back that makes the wine better and not like caramel candy, and almost spicy in a French sort of way. It’s about as honest a California merlot as I’ve had in years, in which the winemaker makes what the grapes give him or her, and not what the focus groups want (“smooth,” “sweet fruit”).

Highly recommended, and not just for dinner (beef and lamb almost certainly). This is a gift wine, to show someone you want them to drink interesting wine, and that you found a very interesting one for them to drink.

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