Wine Reviews Tasting Notes and Education for the Non-Snob, by Vino Joe, a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)

Best Wine Deals Under $20

Forgive me if I sound like a shill for this week, but it’s all in the name of helping you get good wine at good prices — and one-cent shippingis nothing to sneeze at in the quest for great values.

That said, this is the last day of one-cent shipping from So I’ve done a quick review of the wines available from the site, which I think give good bang for the buck — some call it “QPR” or great quality:price ratio (I call them “no-brainers”).

Click on the wine names to order directly from — do it before midnight on September 10th, and you’ll get a case delivered for one penny.

Kanonkop Pinotageicon $19.99 sale price
Kanonkop is the king of Pinotage — the beginning, middle, and end of any and all conversations concerning the grape. The 2004 vintage was the first made without legendary winemaker Beyers Truter, but that shouldn’t preclude you from denying it. However, Pinotage is a wine with a distinct flavor profile, which includes an element some describe as “band aid”. It’s one of those wines that people either love or hate. If you love it, this wine at under twenty bucks is an incredible value.

Argiolas Costera 2007icon $17.99
Year in and year out, Argiolas consistently delivers great wines from “unknown” varietals — i.e., grapes with which the casual wine consumer aren’t familiar (I’ve reviewed their “Perdera” and “Costamolino” in the past). This wine is what I like to refer to as a “Super Sardinian”, a fabulous red for stews and steaks made from 100% Cannonau (you may know the grape better as Grenache). A perfect choice for the autumn season.

Statti Calabria Gaglioppo 2007icon $19.99
It’s wine “discoveries” like this that invigorate my passion for grape juice — the unknown jewels from regions and grapes that even geeks overlook. People generally know wines from the northern regions of Italy, and Sicily is gaining popularity, but Calabria? Gag-me-up-what? Truth is, Statti Gaglioppo is an open, ripe, distinctive red that would likely cost $35-40 if the label said “Tuscany” instead of “Calabria”. To me it’s something like a cross between a Chianti Classico Riserva and a Moulin-a-Vent. At under twenty bucks it’s a steal.

Clos de los Sieteicon $18.49
OK, this one isn’t on sale, but it’s an incredible value nonetheless. Made by flying winemaker extraordinaire Michel Rolland, this Argentine blend drinks like a wine twice its price. Great with ribeyes and skirt steaks.

Plantagenet Riesling 2006icon $17.49
The name of this wine reminds me of “Interplanet Janet“. Now that you have an idea of my age, I’ll tell you the taste of the wine reminds me more of a Riesling from Alsace than Australia — and that’s a good thing. It has that typical oily texture and flavors of fresh ripe apple, lemony citrus, and stony mineral that are common from Alsace, and also has the edge of tart acidity to hold everything together and make it a good food wine.

La Crema Chardonnay 2007icon$19.99
I’m generally wary of California Chardonnays, as many tend to be overoaked and unnaturally sweet. La Crema, though, is one brand that has always delivered good balance and pure, ripe fruit. I reviewed the 2005 and jotted similar notes for the 2006. There’s every reason to believe the 2007 is similarly scrumptious.

Red Wine Review: Estancia Meritage

Estancia Meritage 2004

Year in and year out, Estancia consistently delivers a strong quality – to – price ratio across its breadth of bottles. Because I am never disappointed with their “entry” level of wines, Estancia is one of the brands I will consider when spending “big bucks” (hey, to me, $25-30 IS big bucks!) for a gift or special occasion. Their Meritage is an example.

Made from Paso Robles fruit picked in Estancia’s Keyes Canyon Ranches Vineyard, the blend is 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot, and 8% Petit Verdot.

Following are notes for the 2004 vintage, which was released in October of 2008 and is drinking very well now — so uncork it if you have a bottle in your cellar. From what I understand, the latest release on retail shelves is the 2006.

Tasting Notes: Estancia Meritage 2004

Nose is rich, ripe, and full of black fruit, spice, hints of earth, pepper, and licorice. In the mouth there is a medley of flavors: blackberry, black raspberry, black licorice, boysenberry, and plum, with hints of sweet tobacco and vanilla. Tannins are firm, acidity is ample – well structured. Smooth, almost creamy texture. Finish is long and enjoyable, with plenty of black fruit. This wine needs food, so be sure to have it with cheese, grilled beef, or a roast. At just under thirty bucks, this is a good value.

a-9 t-8 b-9 fc-8 v-8 ~ 91 Points

Bottom Line

A rich, ripe, complex, well structured red that warms the palate with a plethora of black fruits and spice. Perfect pairing for roasts and stews. A good value and fitting gift bottle.

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Learn more at the Estancia Estates website

Chardonnay Review: Mondavi Solaire

Robert Mondavi Solaire Chardonnay 2007 · Santa Lucia Highlands

solaire_chardonnay.jpgIn the past, when I was geekier, more condescending, and had free access to world-class (read: expensive) wines, I stayed away from the “mass produced” brands. But lately I have become more humble and open to wines from any and every producer. And there’s something to be said for a wine that provides consistency year in and year out.

So with my newly opened mind I uncorked this Chardonnay from Robert Mondavi. Called “Solaire”, it retails for between $12-15 and has a cousin named Cabernet Sauvignon using the same moniker. The Chardonnay delivers good bang for the buck and is easily found at wine shops across the United States.

Tasting Notes: Robert Mondavi Chardonnay “Solaire” 2007

Rich nose of ripe and overripe white fruit — pear, apple, peach, banana, along with honeysuckle and vanilla. In the mouth it has a weighty, slightly oily mouthfeel and a creamy texture that carries ripe pear and candied peach fruit flavors. Also some oaky vanilla and honey. Acidity is low to medium, so with the abundance of ripe fruit this wine has a slightly fat character to it. OK on its own, better with food. Match it with rich and buttery fish and chicken dishes, such as shrimp scampi, lobster, chicken francaise.

a-8 t-7 b-7 fc-7 v-8 ~ 87 Points

Buy Mondavi Chardonnay Solaireicon directly from

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Visit the official website for Robert Mondavi Solaire wines

Wine Review: Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc

Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc wine bottleWhat’s a “pomelo”, and how do you make wine from it?

Truth is, though this wine is called “Pomelo”, it’s not made from the pomelo fruit — instead, it’s made from Sauvignon Blanc grown in Lake County, California.

From the back label:

Pomelo – Giant citrus fruit native to Malaysia and thought to be ancestor to the grapefruit.
Our Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc reminds us of the coral-pink tangy juice from a pomelo. Plus … it’s just fun to say.

I must admit, I’ve never tasted a pomelo, but it certainly is tangy. I also must admit that sometimes, I’m a sucker for a great-looking package, and this wine’s label was screaming to me to pick it off the shelf. In this case, the wine inside was every bit as fresh and appealing as it looked.

Tasting Notes: Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc 2006

Clean, bright aroma of green fruits — gooseberry – with some pear and lime. On the palate it is clean and refreshing, with good limey citrus fruit and touches of pear, apple, and yes, tangy pink grapefruit (I’ve never had a pomelo). Racy acidity is a good foil for the fruit. This is a typical Sauvignon from California. Enjoyable on its own as an aperitif, better with food. Drink it with pork, fish in creamy sauces, hard cheeses. A perfect wine for parties, and a crowd pleaser.

a-7 t-7 b-8 fc-9 v-8 ~ 89 Points

Website: Pomelo Wine

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Pinot Noir Review: Acacia “A”

Acacia “A” Pinot Noir 2006

Acacia A Pinot Noir wine bottleThere are oodles and oodles of Pinot Noir choices at all price levels from all regions around the world — so how does one know which one to buy?

Beats me … unless you’re spending $45 or more for a legit red Burgundy from a reliable producer, buying Pinot Noir is a crapshoot. What I’ve been trying to do is focus on the ones in the $15-20 range, with the hopes of finding a few nuggets. So far, so good. It appears that if you get too far below the $15 mark, the quality and uniqueness drops considerably. Going above twenty, though, doesn’t seem to guarantee anything. But as I uncover Pinot Noirs that deliver good bang for the buck, I’ll post them here.

The most recent find is Acacia “A” Pinot Noir.

Acacia is a winery based in the Carneros region of Napa Valley, California, and respected for their Chardonnay as well as for their pioneering efforts with Pinot Noir in Carneros. However, this wine is not from Carneros, but rather from grapes grown in both Sonoma and Monterey. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows Acacia to make wines that are more affordable for short-pocketed folks such as me. The effort is commendable, and well-executed: Acacia “A” Pinot Noir is a quality wine.

Tasting Notes: Acacia “A” Pinot Noir

Attractive aroma of roses, bright raspberry, and a hint of earth. The palate is equally pleasant, offering flavors of ripe red raspberry, black cherry, a touch of black pepper and mild, sweet earth. Texture is smooth. Acidity is medium, tannins are mild to medium. This is a pleasant, easygoing wine that is OK by itself and better with simple dishes. Try it with mildly seasoned chicken, turkey, or duck; vegetarian cuisine; or mild cheese.

a-7 t-7 b-8 fc-8 v-8 ~ 88 Points

Winery website: Acacia Vineyard

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White Wine Review: Simi Sauvignon Blanc

Simi Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County 2007

Simi Winery Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County wine bottleUsually when in the wine shop, I try to pick up a bottle (or vintage) that I’ve never tasted before — to me, exploration and discovering something new is what wine drinking is all about. Once in a while, though — and often when I’m purchasing a bottle for someone else — I pick up a wine that I know well, and know I can “count on”. Most of these “staples” are always available, easy to find, match with a wide variety of dishes, a good value for the money, and most importantly, are reliable and consistent from year to year. Simi Sauvignon Blanc is one of those wine “staples” I purchase over and over.

Tasting Notes: Simi Sauvignon Blanc

Bright, clean aroma of fresh citrus – lemon, lime – and a hint of something green, such as herbal or grass. Equally clean and bright and expressive on the palate, with delicious ripe green and citrus fruit. Again, lemony and limey flavors dominate, with some pink grapefruit, herbal notes, and a touch of ginger spice. Texture is glassy smooth, almost creamy. Good acidity for food matching. Finishes with pleasant flavor and some tart apple notes. Overall an easy drinking, enjoyable white wine that doesn’t have to be ice cold and is nice by itself, and a good match for simply prepared white fish, pork, chicken, salads, veggies.

a-8 t-8 b-9 fc-9 v-7 ~ 91 Points

Website: Simi Winery

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Rubicon 2004

Rubicon 2004

If you’re looking for a Jeep review, move on. This is a site for cork dorks.

Rubicon wine bottleLast week we learned about Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate, and the one white wine produced there, Blancaneaux. Today we’ll review the flagship wine of the estate, and the wine that gives the estate its name: Rubicon.

The 2004 vintage was one of the ripest ever seen in Napa, which means the wines of that year should be “huge”, or have a high concentration of fruit. It was the earliest harvest since 1994 due to the warmth of the season — which was a fortunate anomaly since there have been more cooler vintages than warm in the last fifteen years.

However, that warmth and ripeness did not equal abundance. In fact, 2004 was a fairly light crop, with not much fruit — it yielded 25% less cases compared to 2003. In contrast, the 2005 vintage was the largest harvest in history, but didn’t have quite the same ripeness (but it was still pretty damn ripe!).

Because of the extreme ripeness and concentration of 2004, winemaker Scott McLeod chose to age the wine in 100% French oak barrels (small ones, called “barriques”). When you have a lot of fruit, you can give it some oak to add vanilla and spice components without worrying about the wine tasting like a tree. McLeod chose French oak because it leaves less of a “stamp” on the wine; American oak barrels tend to impart more “woodiness” to a wine.

Rubicon 2004 Tasting Notes

The nose is full of violets, with blackberry and other black fruits, as well as some vanilla spice.
In the mouth you get ripe black fruit right away: black raspberry, plum, black cherry. There are equally ripe tannins and good acidity holding things together, and an incredibly silky texture. There is lots of complexity, with flavors of rum raisin, sour cherries, vanilla and other spices. Additionally, it has great length (meaning, flavors hang around in the mouth for well over a minute after swallowing), finishing with black fruit and licorice. It’s OK alone, but it’s very big and most valuable with food — I’d drink it with a braise or a stew or a hunk of cheese.

a-10 t-10 b-10 fc-9 v-7 ~ 96 Points

In addition to the 2004, I was able to get a sneak preview of the 2005 out of barrel. It’s huge, with a wide open nose of red and black berry fruits — licorice, violets, boysenberry, earth. Flavors are similar, but this wine was way too young and nowhere near ready to judge. I can tell you it’s going to be a monster. Meantime, there is the 2004 to drink (or cellar).

Winery: Rubicon Estate

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Winery Profile: Rubicon Estate

Photo of Francis Ford Coppola's Rubicon Estate in Napa, California

Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the history of American winemaking is the story of Inglenook.

Most of today’s casual wine drinkers know Inglenook as “one of those jug wines”. However, the “old school” wine folks, and anyone who has did a bit of research on American wine history, knows that the “real” Inglenook is quite the opposite: one of the most respected labels California has ever produced.

But don’t take it from me — pick up a copy of James Conaway’s novel-like book Napa: The Story of an American Eden to read about the Inglenook that once was, or the brief history written by James Laube.

Before the Inglenook winery was sold to liquor giant Heublein, it was owned by the Daniel family, and directed by John Daniel, Jr. Daniel was a visionary and a pioneer in California winemaking, and literally created history in Napa Valley. As Laube wrote,

“…for that amazing 31-year stretch — 1933 to 1964 — Inglenook compiled a collection of Cabernets that stand up favorably to the best red wines on earth; nearly all of these Inglenook wines were made under Daniel’s inspired leadership. . . . it’s arguable that Daniel’s Inglenook Cabernets are singularly the greatest group of wines ever made in California.”

Pretty bold statements, eh? None of what Laube states is aggrandizing, either, which makes the current perception of Inglenook such bitter irony.

However, more than 40 years later, and after over 30 years of effort and investment by another visionary — Francis Ford Coppola — the winery has been rescued, and is once again making extraordinary wines.

Since the Inglenook name has been all but destroyed by insipid, mass-produced plonk that bears its label, Coppola brands the wines as “Rubicon” — in honor of the winery’s flagship bottling. The name Rubicon comes from Caesar’s march on Rome, a.k.a., “The crossing of the Rubicon” — or, the point of no return. Indeed, Coppola’s epic journey to reinstate the Inglenook property to its glory days has been something of a war.

Coppola bought a piece of the old Inglenook property back in 1975, beginning a tireless mission to reunite the estate. Through the years he bought back fragments of land and vineyards that previously comprised the original Niebaum / Daniel holdings, painstakingly reconstructing the historic puzzle. The final piece was laid — actually, removed — earlier this year, when the “concrete box” was demolished.

The “concrete box” was a winemaking factory built by Heublein in 1973 on top the estate’s most prestigious vineyard plot. Amidst the beautiful hills and rolling slopes of Napa Valley, this industrial eyesore was a painful reminder of Inglenook’s demise, and an ugly, misplaced symbol of capitalistic greed. When Coppola knocked down the “concrete box”, the original builder was in attendance to see it; he’d been racked with guilt for his part in the atrocity since the blocks went up.

Like a Coppola-produced movie, the demolition was a fitting final scene — the climax or “falling action” that marked the completion of Coppola’s vision. The denouement, therefore, is the replanting of grapes and eventually, magical wines.

Magical wines, in fact, are the goal at Rubicon. The Daniel family lost money on Inglenook for 84 years in a row, as John Daniel held up original owner Gustave Niebaum’s credo of “pride, not profits”. Absolutely nothing got in the way of making the most fantastic wines possible for those 84 years, and today, Coppola is sparing no expense in creating mystical juice from the Rubicon fruits.

Coppola’s mission with the Rubicon brand is to re-create the vision and standards set forth by John Daniel all those years ago. Coppola went so far as to hire the “dean” of California winemaking, Andre Tchelistcheff, as a consultant back in the early 1990s, and has since enlisted winemaker Scott McLeod with the duty of nurturing the Inglenook vines and wines back to their historic levels. For assistance and guidance to what once was, McLeod has a unique and immeasurable asset with a link to the old days: Rafael Rodriguez. For those who read the aforementioned Napa, you should remember Rodriguez. He and his family moved into a house on the Inglenook estate in 1952, “working from home” as a vineyard worker, before eventually becoming the manager of all the vineyards (as well as those of Beaulieu). Now over 80 years old, Rodriguez continues to put in three days a week at Rubicon Estate.

Meanwhile, McLeod works full-time — and overtime — in his obsession with re-creating the past. He’s been given free reign to do pretty much whatever is necessary to make world-class wines — and he’s consistently succeeded. How many California wineries declassify an entire harvest — in other words, not bottle a wine in a particular year — because the grapes didn’t match the winemaker’s standard level of quality? McLeod did just that in 1998, and will do it again if future grapes don’t pass muster. He’d rather make no wine at all than make one that might lower the image and quality that is Rubicon.

Check back tomorrow for reviews of Rubicon wines.

Chardonnay Wine Review: Artesa

Artesa Chardonnay Reserve 2005

Artesa Chardonnay Reserve white wine bottleOnce in a while when I’m in the wine shop my alligator arms reach way way down to the bottom of my pocket, where I hide my twenty dollar bills, so that I can buy an “expensive” bottle of wine. I know, I know, there are plenty of people who plunk down much more than that on a regular basis — indeed, you might be one of those who regularly have Andrew Jackson as your wine enabler.

However, I tend to be — oh, let’s call it “cash challenged” — so when I go far above $15-20 for a bottle of wine, it HAS to be worth it.

In this case, it is.

The “regular” or “Classic Tier” Chardonnay made by Artesa is more in my price range — about $12-14 depending on the retailer. And it’s a very nice bottle of wine. But the “Reserve” edition, which we review here, is much better — at least ten to fifteen dollars better.

For both wines, the grapes are from Carneros, California — and if you’re not aware, that’s a good place to grow Chardonnay. The vines bearing the grapes for this “Reserve” Chard are from the highest hills in Carneros, which means they soak up more sun than any others in the region, and therefore ripen more fully and completely. Lots of sun equals lots of flavor, and in this case, the winemaker further enhances the fruit by putting most of it through what’s called a secondary malolactic fermentation. If you’re not a geek, you don’t need to know exactly what that means — all you need to know is that it makes the wine feel fuller in the mouth, and more buttery and creamy.

In addition, they put half of the juice into new oak barrels for almost ten months, which adds a nice vanilla spice complexity. You can’t do that with just any wine or it will be dominated by a woodsy flavor. With this wine, the oak both “complements” and “compliments” the ripe fruit.

On to the tasting notes.

Tasting Notes: Artesa Chardonnay Reserve 2005

Wide open aromas of ripe pear, candied peach, apple, melon, spice, and vanilla. On the palate it is equally wide open and forward, expressing ripe pear, red delicious apple, and a creamy vanilla flavor that melts into butterscotch. Acidity is mild to medium – just enough for food matching. Texture is thick and creamy, almost heavy, just short of cloying, with a luscious mouthfeel. Overall, a yummy drinker on its own, with enough structure to enjoy with food. Drink it alone or with garlic-roasted chicken, lobster in butter, popcorn.

a-9 t-9 b-8 fc-7 v-7 ~ 90 Points

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Winery: Artesa

Rose Wine Review: Toad Hollow

Toad Hollow Dry Rose 2007

Toad Hollow pink Rose wine pinot noir carnerosSummertime is the best time for rose wine, in my humble opinion. However, it can be difficult to find a good dry rose unless you do some research. Although many US wine drinkers have become more sophisticated, and now eschew the sugary white zins that proliferated the market for so many years, the shelves are still strewn with sweet pinks — and sit alongside their bone-dry cousins.

So it’s with some hesitation that I pick up a pink — particularly one I’ve never had before. I’ll try to look for clues as to a wine’s dryness / sweetness, but since so few labels list their residual sugar content, I’m stuck with relying on instinct (guessing actually) and the fluffy, flowery sentences that may be printed on the back of the bottle.

All that said, I can say I was pleasantly surprised by Toad Hollow Rose — a nice, clean, dry rose, and one that I’ll buy again. This pink is made from 100% Carneros-grown Pinot Noir, is refreshing on a warm summer day, and finishes bone dry.

Tasting Notes: Toad Hollow “Eye of the Toad” Rose 2007

Nose is expressive, with bright strawberry and red raspberry aromas. On the palate it is clean with a citrusy zing, with flavors of strawberry, lime, red raspberry. Acidity is about medium and OK for food matching, but mild enough for drinking as an aperitif. Have it with mildly flavored foods, nothing too fatty. Simple appetizers, lean fish, lean pork, simply prepared chicken, maybe spicy hot dishes such as Indian cuisine or Thai. A pleasant, clean, enjoyable summer sipper.

a-8 t-8 b-7 fc-7 v-8 ~ 88 Points

Winery website: Toad Hollow

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