Thursday, July 27, 2006

1979 La Crema Viñera Tasting

One of my wine lover friend, James Strohecker, had recently the great opportunity to attend a 1979 La Crema Viñera Tasting dinner, hosted by wine collector George Kautzman. He sent me some great tasting notes and was kind enough to let me post them on this blog.

1979 La Crema Viñera "Ventana Vineyard" Chardonnay (Magnum)

One of the best kept secrets in the history of California winemaking was a small winery started in Petaluma in the late 1970's called La Crema Viñera. Their first vintage, 1979, saw the emergence of three "super-premium" wineries, all of whom received the scarcest and most highly sought after grapes in all of California -- Winery Lake Vineyard, in Carneros.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a tasting hosted by famed wine collector, George Kautzman, who had scurried away every 1979 La Crema Viñera creation.

George Kautzman’s Original Background Notes:

The three upstart wineries were Acacia, Kistler, and La Crema Viñera. Of these three, there is no question that the finest wines produced that first year were from La Crema Viñera. (The name and assets were later sold, eventually becoming La Crema, part of Jess Jackson's wine empire, but the winemaker and grape sources were long gone.)

Rod Berglund, La Crema Viñera's winemaker when they launched in 1979, will be here to talk about their inaugural wines. I have been holding every wine La Crema Viñera produced their first year, including Magnums of 5 of the 7 wines (the other two were only produced in 750 ml's). As a hint of what's in store for us that evening, I brought a 750ml bottle of the 1979 La Crema Viñera "Winery Lake Vineyard" Chardonnay to the Francois Audouze dinner on May 1, and you can visit that thread to view the raves this wine received that night. Imagine what it will taste like from a Magnum! The scarcity of these wines, and the chance to taste them from Magnums, assures that this tasting will probably never be duplicated....

These are my tasting notes on the lineup:

1979 La Crema Viñera Vin Gris Pinot Noir (two 750 ml's)
As George Kautzman pointed out, the two bottles he selected were twin (750 ml) “brothers” out of the same case – one tuned out fine and went to an outstanding university such as the University of Oregon. The other went to Soledad Prison near where its grapes were grown.

This was the tale of two completely different wines, same vintage and bottling. The first bottle was clear; and the second had a smoky, caramel tainted look.

Interestingly, Rod Berglund and his original business partner were talking about this wine: They’d essentially made it to last a year at most.
• Light bottle 1979 Vin Gris Pinot Noir: Excellent. Tangy and tart. Very nice; almost “young” and still with some bounce on the palate. No real heaviness or excessive sugars.
• Dark bottle 1979 Vin Gris Pinot Noir: Very sherry in the nose; mushroom taste. It had turned and was too far gone for me. *However,* there were a few tasters in the group who actually liked it and later thought it went well with the dinner course of Mushroom-covered bread.

2005 Ladd Cellars Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Rosé
Let me start by saying I really don’t care for Rosé. Don’t like it. Never have. Always too fruity or made for a different palate. Or maybe it’s a reflection of growing up in a family supermarket where we sold Gallo Rosé. And not surprisingly, of my two favorite Pinot Noir brands/winemakers, I don’t like David Bruce’s Rose, and if Ancien’s Ken Bernards made one, I’ll say that I wouldn’t like it either. It’s just not a wine I care for.

But this wine really changed me -- I really liked this Ladd Cellars Pinot Noir Rosé. It was unique – in more ways than one. Supposedly, this was one of only 12 bottles in production. The Rose was very crisp with a nose of fruit blossoms and passion fruit. The flavor was an intense, full Pinot grape flavor, with a tangy finish. It was young and powerful – and only opened up slightly over time. I rated this the fourth-place wine of the evening.

1979 La Crema Viñera "Winery Lake Vineyard" Chardonnay (Magnum)
The nose was oak and apricots, that eventually flattened out a bit. It tasted like Chenin Blanc and Marigolds; but was very fresh and clean with a silky-soft finish with a twinge of Nectarines on the palate. An excellent, surprising start to the Chardonnays.

I rated this my third favorite wine of the evening, and spicier and more bouncy than the Ventana Vineyard Chardonnay that followed it.

1979 La Crema Viñera "Ventana Vineyard" Chardonnay (Magnum)
This wine nosed very buttery – I first wrote, “butter and lobster,” but that could have occurred from the aroma of our first dish, a Lobster Ravioli appetizer.

Later, when I tasted it again, it had a butter and kumquat nose, with a lime-rind (lime zest) citrus-and-hay finish. Though this flattened out a bit as well, it stood the test of time as a solid Chardonnay that was slight and smooth on the palate

1981 La Crema Viñera (51% Monterey/49% Sonoma)
This was fresh with still some room to move, but probably best to drink now. Smooth, smooth, smooth. Balanced. A touch of smoke and rose on the finish. Good citrus twinges and as the evening progressed, you could taste the blend – but the flavors never fell apart. Well melded when made and now at the tasting.

1979 La Crema Viñera "Winery Lake Vineyard" Pinot Noir (Magnum)
Raspberry and cocoa. Smooth (of course) and classy finish. Barn-color on the edges gave away its age.

The nose was lighter and more delicate than the Ventana Pinot Noir. Later, the tastes that emanated were lake water + minerals + raisins. Nice. This really was excellent and was my second favorite wine of the evening

1979 La Crema Viñera "Ventana Vineyard" Pinot Noir (Magnum)
Yum. Smoke On The Water. Older musky nose and a light finish. Big. Lots of late-palate blackberry. And an unusual, spice-filled finish. With a tart lingering flavor. Much different than the Winery Lake Pinot Noir. More hearty. And though it never boomed with new flavors, it remained remarkably strong during the tasting; it didn’t flatten out.

1979 La Crema Viñera "Roberts Vineyard" Pinot Noir (one 750 ml)
First of all, George has 11 bottles of this . . . somewhere in his vast collection. Secondly, and more importantly, he could only find one 750 ml out of the 11 he has. So he also provided a 1980 Roberts Vineyard Pinot Noir (see below)

1980 La Crema Viñera "Roberts Vineyard" Pinot Noir (two 750 ml's)
BIG. Fruity up front nose that never diminished. Tanin and black cherry. More fruit. Drinkable and delicious. Almost un-Pinot Noir like à very deep. Many layers. With a smoky, interesting BIG final pow on the palate. Wow. This is great wine.

This clearly stormed to the top of the list and stood out as my (and others’) Number One selection of the evening. Well crafted and it aged very well.

1979 Petaluma Cellars "Steiner Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon (Magnum)
Silky and sweet nose. Dark and full with hints of Boysenberry and Oak. Tanin-rich with a spicy finish. This was Zinfandel-like on my palate; although smooth, it’s not a knock-down Cab. Later, I smelled hints of Mrs. Neushin’s Dill Pickle juice, with a smoky back. Though this was polished, it was a bit past its prime – no palate increase; it flattened out.

Frankly, I wasn’t as blown away by this wine as others were. Many raved long and loudly about this Cabernet. I felt it had settled a bit too much and thought that it was a little too raisiny for my taste.

1983 Graham’s Vintage Porto
Wow! Smooth and medium-sweet with a Wild Berry finish. No sediment. Very smooth and not overbearing with alcohol. A fine finish to the evening.

James Strohecker

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Friday, July 21, 2006

Montana trip: reaching its apogee on the Flathead River and with L'Ecole No 41

We ended our Montana trip with a day of rafting on the scenic Middle Fork of the Flathead River, at the southern boundary of Glacier National Park. Although most of it is mild whitewater rafting, the river has a few exciting class III rapids with fearsome names such as Tunnel, Bonecrusher, Jaws, Waterfall Narrows, and C.B.T. (Could Be Trouble). For us, Jaws was maybe the most thrilling of them all. It is where our 12 year old daughter suddenly fell out of the boat in the turbulent waters. Fortunately, she did not panic, swam back to the boat, and was quickly brought safely on board.

Rafting on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, Montana

After all the excitement of the day, we really deserved a gratifying dinner. We were staying in Whitefish, Montana, which is a ski and summer resort with a lot of good restaurants. We decided to try Tupelo Grille, a restaurant specialized in Cajun and Southern cuisine. The place had also a fine wine list with a good selection of wines from Washington State.

I chose a 2002 L'Ecole No 41 Apogee to go with our entrees. Apogee means the point in an orbit most distant from the body being orbited. It is also the farthest or highest point; the apex. “We chose the proprietary name, Apogee, because its definition seemed to reflect all that we were trying to accomplish with this wine....reaching the highest point.” explains Martin Clubb, the winery co-owner and winemaker on the winery's website.

Apogee is a classic Bordeaux blend from the reputable Pepper Bridge Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley. The wine was really enjoyable with our meal, rich but well-balanced, with plenty of dark fruit flavors and a long finish. And what a great way to end our Glacier adventures!

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Hiking in Glacier National Park and tasting Canadian ales

I am just back from a awesome hiking trip in Glacier National Park, Montana. Of course, we had many adventures, saw big horn sheep, mountain goats, marmots, and I still remember the fear I had when I saw my first Grizzly bear!

Our trip started with a 7.6 mile hike on the Highline Trail that took us to the Granite Park Chalet, a rustic backcountry chalet only accessible by trails.

Hiking on the Highline Trail

As we stayed two nights at Granite Park Chalet, we hiked the following day up to Swiftcurrent Lookout, which sits at 8436' on the Continental Divide, and to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, looking down onto one of the largest glaciers of the park.

Grinnell Glacier Overlook

Then we drove to the bordering Waterton Lakes National Park, located in Alberta, Canada. This part of the park offers many interesting hikes too, including the Crypt Lake trail, one of Canada's best-known trails. It is a full day hike that takes you to great waterfalls, an iron ladder climb, a natural tunnel, an exposed cliff traverse, and finally a hidden alpine lake surrounded by snow covered peaks.

The 600 ft cascading Crypt Falls

Alberta's main brewery is the Big Rock Brewery, which offers a pretty good selection of brews from light, crisp lagers to rich, full-flavored stouts. Among the ones we tasted, our favorites were the Traditional, an English-style amber ale, the McNally's Extra, a stronger Irish-style ale with a 7% alcohol content, and on the sweeter side, the Honey Brown Lager with a touch of clover honey. After a long day of hiking, I can tell you: these beers were absolutely delicious!

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