Maker: Savage and Cooke, Vallejo, California, USA.
Distillery: Ross & Sqibb, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA.
Style: Bourbon whiskey finished in Zinfandel and Grenache (70/30%) barrels.
Proof: 119 (59.7 ABV)
Purchased for $70 (Vine and Table)
Tasted with a little water.
Appearance: Medium copper.
Nose: Big spice, char, cayenne, oak, and sweet red wine.
Palate: Full-bodied with a velvety, sweet opening. Wild cherry Lifesavers, then oak, spice, and burn that slowly grows until it burns the roof of my mouth like a hot slice of pizza.
Finish: Burn and cherry wine. Not quite cough syrup but right on the edge.
Parting words: Savage & Cooke is a restaurant/distillery in Vallejo, California. It was founded and is owned by Dave Phinney, known as “the The Prisoner Guy” in wine circles. It’s another case of a rich guy getting into the micro-distilling business, and also another case of a distillery that seems to be more of a distillery-themed restaurant than what normally passes for a distillery.
As cheesy as all that sounds, this is one of the better finished bourbons I’ve tasted. One of the keys is starting with good, already aged whiskey. Too many producers, large and small, try to use finishes to cover up flaws in the spirit. That almost never works, so I’m glad Savage & Cooke didn’t try. This has a solid whiskey base. The finish is noticeable, but not overwhelming, and well-integrated. It’s everything a wine-finished bourbon should be.
The price, on the other hand, is higher than it should be. I knew $70 was too much when I paid for it, but it is barrel strength, unavailable in the Mitten State, an exclusive retail bottling, and Dave Helt was pouring samples of it at the time. So I paid it, and I haven’t really been disappointed. As a result, Burning Chair (barrel 213) is recommended.
Distilled at Christian Brothers, Parlier, California, USA
Style: American (100% by law), Bottled in Bond grape brandy.
Age: 4 y/o
Purchased for $25.
Appearance: Dark copper.
Nose: Vanilla ice cream, alcohol.
Palate: Full bodied. Vanilla chews, caramel, burn.
Finish: Oxidized “dusty bourbon”, pure vanilla extract, anise candy.
Mixed: Good in an Old Fashioned, and with Coke. Very good with Benedictine. Would probably be very good in eggnogg.
Parting words: The Christian Brothers (La Salle, not to be confused with the Irish Christian Brothers, of Brother Rice fame) is a Roman Catholic educational organization, made up of lay men. A group of them established a community in Northern California in 1882, and decided to make table and sacramental wine as a way to raise funds for their schools. In 1940, they branched out into brandy, eventually becoming one of the leading American brandy producers. In 1986 the wine and brandy business was sold to a forerunner of Diageo and in 1989 the table wine part of the business was ended. In 1999 the brandy business was sold to Heaven Hill, and they’ve continued to produce, bottle, and market it ever since.
Unlike bourbon and straight rye, brandy can contain additives without disclosing them on the label, and this brandy clearly has them. There is no way that this is a natural color for a brandy of this age, and its sweetness and prominent vanilla flavors and aromas are most likely down to additives as well. Still, there’s a solid, fruity backbone to the whole thing that the high proof helps bring out.
As a mixing brandy, Sacred Bond performs very well. It’s even not too bad as a sipper, although I would reach for a commercial VSOP Cognac as a “weeknight” sipper over this. Still, I like to judge spirits based and what they are, not what they’re not, so I can’t judge this very harshly. It’s not trying to be fine French brandy, it’s trying to be an upgrade to the standard CB VS for mixing purposes. It succeeds at that, so I’m going to give it a recommendation. If you’re fond of brandy cocktails, give Sacred Bond a try.
Place of origin: Smith-Madrone estate, Spring Mountain District AVA, Napa Valley, California, USA.
Purchased for $30.
Appearance: Medium gold.
Nose: Underripe pear, lemon thyme, lemon zest.
Palate: Medium-bodied. Lemon-sage butter.
Finish: Lemon meringue.
Parting words: I don’t review many California wines on the blog, but when I do, there’s always a story behind it. This one comes out of an experience at the 2015 City of Riesling festival in Traverse City, Michigan. I first tasted this wine (from an earlier vintage) at one of the Salon Riesling sessions on the final day of the event. Here’s how it went:
After tasting a bone dry 2013 Domaine Wachau (Austria) and the very dry and very good Domaine Weinbach Personal Reserve (Alsace) we tasted a Riesling made by an old family winery in the Spring Mountain area of Napa. I thought it tasted like those awful buttered popcorn jelly beans that used to come in the Jelly Belly variety packs. [Vineyard owner and importer] Barry [O’Brien] had us taste it and asked what we thought. There were a few seconds of silence then I piped up. “I thought it was awful. Didn’t like it at all,” then I gave my jelly bean note. Eric Crane got a quizzical look on his face and said something like “That’s surprising” and sniffed the wine a couple times. Brian Ulbrich [of Left Foot Charley] piped up and told a story about a great experience he had working at that winery and others mentioned how great the family was and how great it was that they gave prime Napa vineyard space to Riesling. Karel [Bush of the Michigan Wine Council] then said that stories like those are the ones we need to tell to consumers to change perceptions. None of them said anything about how the wine actually tasted, though.
Smith-Madrone’s Riesling is almost universally loved, at least online, so I figured I needed to give it another shot. So I did. I liked it much better this time, but the butter note was still there, albeit hiding at the back of the palate. It might have been the abrupt change from the very dry Austrian and Alsatian wines in the tasting that made the butter so shocking at Salon Riesling or maybe it was the vintage.
I can appreciate the care that went into this wine and the importance of supporting independent growers and winemakers. I still found the butter note distasteful. It doesn’t make the wine bad, but it does mean I will probably not be paying $30 for this wine again with so many better local options. 2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling is mildly recommended.
Grapes: 87% Zinfandel, 13% others (Muscat, Syrah, Carignane and more). Field blend.
Place of origin: Morisoli Vineyard, Rutherford AVA, Napa Valley, California, USA
Price: $45 (We think. Didn’t save the recipt)
Note: Not sold in Michigan retail stores but they do ship.
Appearance: Dark crimson.
Nose: Blueberry jam, wild blackberry, cherry, toasted oak, a squirt of Meyer lemon
Palate: Full bodied. Jammy but well balanced with oak, clove, black currant, black and blueberries with a little burn on the back end.
Finish: Medium long. Chewy oak tannins, dried fig. Clean, but leaves me craving another sip.
Parting words: Elyse Winery is a small family located near Yountville, California that draws from vineyards in other sections of Napa Valley, including this one from the also family-owned Morisoli Vineyard. Morisoli is 57 acres located at the base of Mt. Saint John at the southern end of the Rutherford AVA. The vineyard is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, but Zinfindel is grown there too, and has been for over one hundred years. Elyse has been working with the the family for decades and has produced a Morisoli Cab and Zin every for every vintage back to 1986.
When my wife and I were contemplating tacking on a trip to Napa to a trip to Northern California for my cousin’s wedding (see “Two Days in Napa”) Elyse was recommended to us by our friends Jessica and Brian who have been members of their wine club since a trip to Napa they took a few years ago. The experience at the Elyse tasting room was a contrast from the big, slick tasting rooms that take in most of the wine tourist trade in Napa. It’s in a small, no frills white building and the pourers were all family members or winemakers. The only wine we picked up there was this one, but they were all quite good and reasonably priced, for Napa.
We were saving it for a special occasion so when we finally sold our tiny old house last month, we decided that was the perfect special occasion. I grilled up a couple T-bone steaks in my cast iron grill pan to go with the wine and it all worked together perfectly. Sometimes a great wine and a great piece of meat is all you need for a great meal.
The price is reasonable for a single vineyard old vine California Zin of this quality. It could probably have been cellared for another two or more years, but it is drinking beautifully now. Elyse Winery 2009 Morisoli Vineyard Zinfandel is highly recommended.
One of the things I enjoy about wine is its strong connection to place. There’s an old saying that when you taste cider, you taste apples and when you taste cherry wine, you taste cherries but when you taste wine made from grapes, you taste the soil and the sun and the rain. This concept is called terroir, and while it is often over emphasized there is a strong element of truth to it. Different varies of grape grow in differently in different places and the same variety or even an identical clone of the same plant will produce a wine that tastes very differently from vineyard to vineyard. That’s to say nothing of the different traditions and techniques of the world’s vineyards.
For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a wine lover is visiting these places where grapes are grown and wine is produced. Last year when I received an invitation to my cousin’s wedding in Fremont, California the little hamster wheel inside my brain started turning. My wife and I went to Sonoma years ago when my sister and her husband lived in Northern California so it seemed natural that the next area to visit would be Napa.
We arrived in San Jose late at night so we just stayed at an airport hotel and drove to Calistoga to Rivers-Marie HQ in the morning. The most harrowing part of the drive was the final leg driving up and down mountains on two lane roads with no shoulders. Luckily my wife was behind the wheel so I could just close my eyes for the most alarming parts.
The office for Rivers-Marie is in a beautiful, fairly large craftsman style house in Calistoga itself. After meeting with friend-of-the-blog Will (R-M’s employee, as he described himself), we hopped in the truck and went to the associated winery, Tamber Bey. They make wine for a variety of labels and from a variety of vineyards, but Rivers-Marie is the house brand. Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is their specialty but they also do a Cab and a Chard under that label.
When we arrived they were racking the wine and Will showed us around the equipment.
We then got a chance to visit the wines resting in the barrels and taste a few. With most of them, I took a sip and thought, “This isn’t so bad” and then got smacked in the mouth with a big burst of sulphur. Not good drinking but educational.
We then went back to the office for a great tasting and great conversation with Will. I learned a lot about Napa and Sonoma and wine in general from the conversation. My thinking was even changed on a few things, like being overly tough on certain Michigan wineries whose wine I haven’t liked.
We ended up ordering four bottles from them. Since they don’t have a Michigan distributor, we were able to have them shipped.
Nothing could really compare to that experience, but we visited a few more wineries over the next two days.
We also visited a couple “Judgement of Paris” wineries, Grgich Hills and Stag’s Leap. Both were nice, but Stag’s Leap was an especially nice experience and the wines were amazing. Thanks to the advice of friends of the blog Jessica & Brian we also stopped at Elyse winery, a small family-owned winery. It’s not particularly scenic but the wines were very good and it’s always nice to be able to talk to the people who helped make the wine while you’re tasting it. This was our haul, at least all that we could carry on the plane:
We had heard horror stories about how Napa was a wine-themed Disney World, but it didn’t strike me as Disneyesque at all. Yes, there are plenty of touristy wineries, especially the big or famous ones, but the ones we saw didn’t seem any more touristy than ones we’ve seen in Michigan, Indiana or New York. Our experience with Will and at Elyse was anything but touristy. So, like most places, it’s all about expectations. If you go to Mondavi expecting Robert to look up from picking grapes to wave to you from the vineyard as you roll up on the gravel driveway, you’ll be disappointed. Especially since Robert Mondavi has been dead for several years now. If you plan your visit carefully and know what you’re in for you’ll be able to have a good time.
Napa isn’t just wine of course, but lots of good food too. Oenotri in downtown Napa was a standout, but we hit a couple nice little bistros along the way.
The wedding was a blast. The ceremony was a shortened version of the traditional Hindu ceremony, but instead of a horse, the groom rode in on a Ford Mustang. That summed up the festivities pretty well. The reception (on the next day) was even better. Best Indian food I have ever had and best beer list I have ever seen at a wedding reception. My cousin is a big craft beer fan, and she especially loves sour beers. I think we clean up well, too.
It was a wonderful time, and it’s all thanks to my brilliant cousin Rhiannon (aka Rachel) and her brilliant husband Ashish, who is already living up to his name. May you have many more blessings in the years to come!
Maker: Buehler Vineyards, St. Helena, California, USA
Region: Napa Valley AVA, Napa County, California, USA
Appearance: Dark, deep plum.
Nose: Black currant, oak, blueberry jam, whiff of smoke.
On the palate: Fruity, strawberry. Lightly sweet, a bit fleshy.
Finish: slightly tart, leather, a hint of oak smoke.
Parting Words: At its best, California Zinfindel is something like this. It has the finesse and complexity of a red Burgundy and the drinkability of a Côtesdu Rhône. This is a fairly complex, but easy-going wine, a bit surprising for something with its ABV percentage. It goes well with food but its more subtle notes might get lost in the shuffle. Not much else to say, but Buehler Zin comes recommended.