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This page last updated
Fri, Mar 4, 2005

ALL-AMERICAN WINES

(ALL TASTED NOV. 2004)

It's Thanksgiving, that time of year when those who don't normally drink wine seek advice on what to pour with their Holiday Meal, and those of us who drink it frequently get cocky offering amateur expertise. For me, having jumped back into the sport of wine drinking with a vengeance after a lengthy abstention for the NYC Marathon, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to focus on American wines for this very American holiday.

For a full list of iJamming! wine reviews, please visit the Wine Home Page.

NEW YORK CABS

TERNHAVEN CELLARS CABERNET SAUVIGNON 1998, NORTH FORK, LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK

I chose this wine for my reintroduction to the world of wine because of its low alcohol – a mere 12% - and because I've been pleasantly surprised by this miniscule Long Island winery in the past. Unlike most offerings from a region whose reds are usually over-priced and over-soaked, this Ternhaven Cabernet Sauvignon completely belied the two years it apparently spent maturing in small oak casks. It probably helped that I had given it another three years' maturation in the home cellar. But it was obviously well made to begin with. Either way, a nose of bright strawberry and blackcurrant fruits mixed in with a hint of mint; on the palate, that cheery fruit was accompanied an impressive Bordeaux-like astringency; the finish lingered just long enough to leave me gasping for more. I was atypically patient, and held off for 24 hours, at which I poured the bulk of the bottle to open up an all-American wine night for visiting English friends, who were greatly impressed. The wines of Harold Watts's boutique operation are not easy to find – Ternhaven is the smallest winery on the North Fork, to best of my knowledge – but they're well worth seeking out. At only $14, this Cabernet is a reason to maintain faith in an otherwise underperforming New York region.
B

OSPREY'S DOMINION CABERNET SAUVIGNON RESERVE, NORTH FORK, LONG ISLAND 2000

A week later, a stranger showed up at someone else's dinner do, swinging two full bottles of this stuff, and I initially recoiled: Osprey's Dominion are responsible for the worst white wine I have ever tasted from Long Island. Maybe they should just stick to the reds, for this Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is, if neither so subtle nor distinctive as the Ternhaven, certainly difficult to dislike. It offers up an extremely alluring aroma of mint and chocolate, with a dollop of sweet oak on the palate that just avoids overpowering its considerable quantity of juicy ripe fruit. It's what you call an obvious crowd-pleaser – except for the price, which, I have just noticed at the company's web site, is a whopping $35. See what I mean about Long Island wines being over-priced?
B

CALI ZINS

RIDGE CALIFORNIA PASO ROBLES ZINFANDEL 2001

Ridge wines come in distinctive labels...

...with copious notes on the rear.

Back to my own, all-American wine dinner the week after the Marathon. As I told my English guests, Ridge's Paul Draper is widely revered as America's greatest wine maker, and Zinfandel is considered America's greatest – or at least the country's most indigenous - grape. This Paso Robles Zinfandel is everything you would hope for from that combination. It explodes out of the bottle with an aroma of ultra-ripe wild fruit flavors – think of those unusual jams/jellies made of boysenberries and Lincolnberries and others you know for being exotic even if you don't know them by taste – wrapped inside a solid wall of dense licorice. The wine introduces itself on the palate with a bright, tongue-sapping acidity, settles in to wrap a big fat wall of fruit on the cheeks, and then hangs around for a long, spicy, intense finish. Though the wine is enormous, it's perfectly balanced: you wouldn't know it's 14.5% alcohol without checking the label. And while, at $25, it's proof that quality does not always come cheap, this Ridge may replace the ever-reliable Seghesio as my wine of choice when looking to show off Zinfandel to overseas visitors unfamiliar with the grape. Ridge makes good wines across the board, and some of its Zinfandel-based blends are even more approachable (financially and on the palate), but anyone looking for the archetypal American wine for Thanksgiving dinner need go no further.
A-

WEST COAST NOIR

YAMHILL VALLEY VINEYARDS PINOT NOIR, WILLIAMETTE VALLEY, OREGON 1999

Not all wines live up to reputation. Oregon is touted by many as the best source in America for Pinot Noir; the Williamette Valley is considered that State's best region; 1999 was hailed as an excellent vintage. But despite considerable tannin deposit in the bottle, and for all that it was decanted a couple of hours before dinner, this Yamhill Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir was surprisingly muted. Don't get me wrong: there were distinct varietal notes of cherry, earth, and spice, and a lovely dustiness that carried over into the palate, but the wine was more austere than I had hoped, and yet without the secondary flavors on anticipates with bottle age. Could it just have been in a 'closed' stage? Possibly, but Oregon hasn't yet established the reputation to warrant yet longer term cellaring. The next Williamette Valley wine I buy I'll drink young.
B-


BABCOCK PINOT NOIR TRI-COUNTIES CUVÉE, CALIFORNIA 2002

The beautiful Babcock Tri-Counties gives 104%.

You've heard of the sports team that gives 110%? Well, meet the wine that gives 104%: David Babcock's Tri-Counties Cuvée Pinot Noir somehow includes 75% Santa Barbara grapes, 19% Monterey County and 10% Sonoma County. Fortunately, the wine acts like it's carrying that extra 4%. A pretty and vibrant dark red color in the glass, it's full of bright but delicate cherry flavors with all manner of floral accompaniment. They're an obvious enticement to get stuck into the wine itself, yet they're also something of a tease, inviting us to sit back and enjoy the anticipation a little longer. Fortunately, the body is as sensual as the smell, from first kiss on the lips to lingering aftertaste. It enters cleanly, with more of that bing cherry aroma; it fills out nicely on the inside, showing some density that suggests you could hold it a few years without worry, and deposits just a hint of chocolate as it disappears down the throat. It then hangs around on the palate for ages, like a perfect new partner who stays in bed for cuddles after copulation. Can a wine truly be compared to a lover? Maybe not, but after a sip of the Babcock, you'll understand why Pinot Noir is often described as the most 'sexy' of grapes. (And, conversely, why it's also described as the most 'finicky' and 'unreliable'!)

I've been through two bottles of this wine over two periods separated by several months: in each case, people I've shared it with (some of them the kind who rarely pause to note what wine they're drinking) have instantly perked up and proclaimed its brilliance. The good news? The Tri-Counties Cuvée is inexpensive. I paid $18 for this in New York City, where it's a struggle to find decent Burgundy Pinot Noir for twice that price. The bad news? Well, Babcock only makes 20,000 cases in total, of some 17 or more different labels. If I've read the web site correctly, the 2003 Tri-Counties is only available to members of the New Release Program. (And if you live in one of the many States that STILL forbids intra-State Internet purchases, like New York and New Jersey, you won't be able to buy it that way anyway.) If you live in Brooklyn though – and I know a few of you do – pay a visit to that wonderful Seventh Avenue store, Big Nose Full Body, and pick up a bottle or two. If you don't share my enthusiasm, I'll happily relieve you of the remainder!
A-
MUSIC? For its subtly stated sensuality, I should really be recommending some beautifully sculptured female. But the wine that comes to mind does so for being classically Californian, and equally well constructed. Sip the Babcock with Brian Wilson Presents Smile and all will seem well with the world.


CASTLE ROCK PINOT NOIR RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY 2002

The Russian River Valley is rapidly turning into my favorite wine region in the States. With its morning fogs and comparatively cool temperatures, it allows for an intensity of flavor and restraint in alcohol, and has become a benchmark region for Californian Pinot Noir and well-balanced Zinfandels. Class does not come cheap, however, which is why this bottle from Castle Rock seems like a double-edged sword. Great, it's a mere $10. But at such a low price, can it be any good?

That depends what you compare it to. Tasted on its own (as when I first came across it, at Long Tan, a 5th Ave, Brooklyn, Thai-Australian restaurant that doubles as a chic bar), it's distinctive to the varietal, with that typical cherry aroma (though of a darker kind than the delicate Babcock), and some of the mushroom and earth that comes with rustic Pinot Noirs. It's quite big and aggressive, but as a bar wine, a party wine, or an everyday quaffer with a hearty red wine meal, you can't go wrong for the price.

But recently, I brought my own bottle to a new 5th Ave, currently unlicensed, restaurant, Peperoncino, and opened it up straight after we polished off the Babcock. It was like comparing Oasis to The Beatles. One friend commented that the alcohol was more obtrusive in the Castle Rock (as it's a touch lower in content, 13.5 as compared to the Babcock's 13.8%, that means it’s actually less balanced), and the other noted that it was more bitter to the taste. I just observed that it felt bigger, less subtle, more powerful than its Tri-Counties rival. If we persist with the notion of Pinot Noir as a partner, this one's good for a quick shag – but the kind you might hope would NOT stick around for the night!

It was unfair perhaps to compare these wines: wines should always be reviewed according to price, and it's never a good idea to work down the quality scale over the course of an evening. But still, the message is clear. If the Castle Rock is a bargain (and it is), then the Babcock, even at a few dollars more, is an absolute steal. Who, after all, would take Oasis home for the night when they could bed a Beatle?


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