Varietally challenged

Concannon 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Coast) – Hard and skin-dominated at first, eventually developing some rounder red fruit characteristics, and even a hint of softness. But overall, it’s a harsh wine; big, but harsh.

Drinking inexpensive pinot noir is a little like playing the slots. Yeah, once in a while you’ll hit the jackpot, but mostly you’re going to lose, and your odds (vs. the house) are worse than just about any other game you’d care to play. If you’re in the market at this price range – and really, who wouldn’t be? pinot noir is yummy – I’d strongly recommend the Maréchal Bourgogne “Cuvée Gravel” instead. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Web:

Cooper Mountain “Cooper Hill” 2004 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – Reasonably friendly, soupberry fruit with elements of earth and leaf. Varietally-correct pinot, without complexity but also without trauma. A nice, simple-minded wine.

On the other hand, this might not be a bad option either. It’s fruitier and more obvious than the Maréchal, but some might prefer those qualities. Cooper Hill is apparently a lower-cost entry from this semi-pioneering (in Oregon) biodynamic producer, who does solid – if occasionally unexciting – work across their range.Alcohol: 12.5%. Biodynamic. Closure: cork. Web:

Mills Reef 2003 Sauvignon Blanc “Reserve” (Hawkes Bay) – Absolutely classic, if slightly restrained thanks to a brief stay in oak, with grass, crisp lime and grapefruit. Nicely acidic, clean-finishing and nicely done.

People know Hawkes Bay – if they know it at all – for some of New Zealand’s better attempts at heavier red grapes; syrah, merlot, the cabernets, etc. But if the latter three can be successful, there’s no reason not to try sauvignon blanc (re: the parallel raising of those grapes in Bordeaux, red and white). This wine is reliably classic in its conception despite the oak, and the seemingly-requisite residual sugar common to so many of its Marlborough brethren is in absence here, which will both win and lose it fans. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: screwcap. Importer: San Francisco Wine Exchange. Web:

Blackstone 2003 Merlot (California) – Boisterous dark fruit and stewed vegetables, which soon start to smell like – no kidding – garbage after enough air. Ugh.

I know this wine is enormously popular. I have never been able to understand why. This (minus the garbage) is a good profile for a wine once it’s spent some time in the stewpot with the aromatic vegetables and herbs, but not so much in the bottle. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Web:

Sokol Blosser 9th Edition “Evolution” (American) – Sweet, perfumed muscat; the other eight grapes add little but acid and some vague, light but tart citrus. Beginner wine, but good in that idiom.

I remember when Sokol Blosser introduced this wine (then called “Evolution No. 9,” which undoubtedly ran afoul of the Beatles because it’s not called that anymore) to our market. I participated in the fun of trying to guess the grapes. I did OK; 7 out of 9 I think. But then, I sorta lost interest in the thing, and I think the reason is the muscat. I like muscat, and I like blends, but I rarely like blends with muscat in them…because the result is almost always a thin-tasting muscat rather than a pleasing mélange of flavors. Some grapes just do not play well with others, and this one features both muscat and the other classic offender in this regard: gewürztraminer. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Web:

Sierra Vista 1999 Zinfandel Reeves Vineyard (El Dorado) – Brooding yet fierce, with animalistic wild fruit and jagged, pointy tannin, acid and alcohol. I’m not sure this is aging harmoniously. It might still come around, and the fruit that’s there is rather good in its classic, angry Sierra Foothills fashion, but the alcohol is worrisome, and I suspect the problem is that it’s actually a bit late to be drinking this.

The ubiquitousness of zinfandel around California’s viticultural regions means that it’s a wonderful study in terroir, even if it’s not always that easy to detail the points of difference. I think that there is a sort of generalized but recognizable Sierra Foothills profile, though – there’s still time to work out the sub-regional and vineyard-specific differences – and this wine demonstrates what happens to it when it gets a little too surly, which happens quite a bit in the region’s zins. Possibly, it would have been more harmonious a few years earlier. Alcohol: 14.2%. Closure: cork. Web:

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