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Vatan – The Dark Bull of Tempranillos’

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Wines from Toro, located in Northwest Spain and their noted Tempranillo wines,  are especially known for coloration and boldness. The literally translation is “dark bull” – meaning this Tempranillo is not for the faint of heart!

The name Tempranillo comes from the Spanish word temprano (meaning early), a reference to the fact that it ripens several weeks earlier than most other Spanish red grapes. That said most Tempranillos’ exhibit a big blackberry, leathery and a slight smoky aroma – an earthiness character.


For the 2013 Vatan Tinta de Toro, a large portion of  grapes come from a vineyard planted in 1943 with some coming from their renown 1910 vineyard. After fermentation the wine is aged in new French oak barrels for 22 months. What comes out on the other side is a mouthful of wonderment! The 2013 vintage also came out at 15.5% alcohol adding to the robustness of this vintage.

Antonio Galloni stated it best in his review stating it is a “Dark purple. Fresh black and blue fruits, pipe tobacco and candied violet on the highly perfumed, smoke-accented nose. Fleshy, seamless and broad in the mouth, offering intense blueberry and cherry-vanilla flavors and an exotic touch of Indian spices. The spicy quality carries strongly through the finish, which clings with excellent tenacity and smooth, building tannins.”


Here is an excellent picture of the almost black Tempranillo grapes on the vine in Toro. Photo by Fabio Ingrosso.

Most California Tempranillos’ do not come close to this intensity. So if you are looking for a “different big red” without the stark tannins, pick up a bottle of Tinta de Toro for a big, bold  and exotic wine.


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Foretell Wines

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As the name implies, it is the art of telling beforehand, what is to come. Very appropriate for a winemaker of Sam Baxter’s pedigree, both from experience and knowledge. To walk about the vineyards and be able to prognosticate the future quality of the wine is as much intellectual training as it is intuitive from years of experience.


The label on the wine is also provides a clue as to the pedigree of this wine with the Latin phase “respice, adspice, prospice” meaning “look, look, look!” letting you know something good is in the bottle! With the other phrase “Ab Actu Ad Posse Valet Illatio” meaning “from the past one can infer the future”.  And so Sam provides his calculated prophesy of an excellent experience.

Sam and Angela Baxter used a woodcut from Jost Amman, an astonishing craftsman, noted for his detail in his art from the 16th century, for their unique signature label. This label stands out and doesn’t need a bright color or a gimmick to be remembered. Simply classy.

Now on to the wine. Sam makes both a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon is a mix of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged 27 months in 50% new oak fine grained barrels. The coloration is dark and purple with a thick viscosity showing the deep black fruit. The taste of blackberries, dark caramel and cocoa open on the mouth. While excellent today, it will blossom over the next 3-5 years and Sam states it will hold for 18 years.

As of this writing, I have only tried the Cabernet but anxious to try the Pinot. If it is as good as the Cabernet Sauvignon it will foretell of a great wine to be enjoyed.


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When is New Still Old? Terra Valentine Wines

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To answer the question when is new still old, is simple: When the same winemaker who has been producing the wine since 1999. Recently the old winery location was sold, but the name Terra Valentine was kept by the original winemaker Sam Baxter and now being the new proprietor. Thus while new, it remains the same with the established winemaker and vineyards, yet they have even added some new vineyards on to Spring Mountain.


Sam and his wife Angela purchased the name in 2014 from the founders Angus and Margaret Wurtele. Terra Valentine had been producing wine since 1999 at the historic Yverdon Winery on Spring Mountain. I last visited the cold and damp winery in winter of 2006. The wines were great then and my last bottle was consumed in 2016. A longtime friend, Joe Flippini who is now assisting in sales effort, mentioned I should try their wines again. The Jackson Family Wines took over the Yverdon Winery and Sam and Angela continued with Terra Valentine. The Wurtele Vineyard (1,000 foot elevation) continues to be farmed by the Wurteles. The Baxter’s, along with their more recent purchase of property at 2,200 feet elevation have multiple vineyards available for fruit selection.


Sam continues to produce two white wines, a Riesling and Viognier. His also does various red wines, including Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and a harmonious blend called appropriately, Marriage. 


Perhaps the most outstanding wine is their 2014 Cabernet Franc. It is kept in barrel for 18 months in 40% new French barrels. It possess a dark cherry coloration and exhibits almost chewy tannins. While very tasty today, it holds the promise to be exceptional in 2-4 years. Patience here will be rewarded. It is now in my cellar and slated to be enjoyed in the not too distant future!


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Chateau Ksara – Le Souverain

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Last year I did a story on Chateau Ksara, see and now I want to feature their 150 year Anniversary Le Souverain. It is a 50/50 blend of their Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Arinarnoa. I personally was not too familiar with the Arinarnoa grape.  



Arinarnoa grape is a cross between two Bordeaux varieties, Merlot and Petit Verdot. It is a dark berried grape which was bred in 1956. Wine-Searcher calls the grape a “rich and fleshy Merlot with acidity and spice of Petit Verdot” which produces a wine “naturally deep in color and well structured”.  Without a food pairing the acidity and earthiness came through loud and clear. Would have enjoyed tasting it with a hearty meal.

The grape was originally grown in the south of France for the designations of the famous Languedoc and Provence regions. Today it is grown around the world and surprisingly Lebanon produces 54% of this varietal.

This 150th Anniversary Edition won a Gold Medal at the prestigious Mundus Vini in 2011.

I am not familiar with anyone in California producing this varietal and if you know of a winery, please pass it along to me.


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David Girard Vineyards

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How not to die!!  An odd beginning to a winery story, but let me explain. Recently I was at David Girard Vineyards which is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills above Coloma-Lotus Valley where gold was discovered in 1848. While tasting several delightful wines, Rod Gideons, our host for the day, mentioned a quote by David Eagleman stating “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” Okei who came over from Japan was a nanny for the prominent Veerkamp family. She longed for her homeland in Japan and often went to a nearby hill and watched the sunset knowing it was going to be a new day shortly in Japan. She came over when she was 17 and unfortunately died at age 19 in 1871. Okei asked to be buried on that hill facing east. She is the first know Japanese to be buried on American soil. She is revered as personifying the immigrant spirit and is a popular folk hero here and in Japan. A Japanese melody laments her early death according to the Japanese community. So with that in mind, David Girard Vineyards being in the same area, wanted to immortalize her by naming their flagship wine, Okei-san Syrah. And by continuing to mention her name, she will never die the third death!


David Girard Vineyards 85 acre estate incorporates approximately 50% in Rhone and Provence varietals. His wines include Vermentino, a Rose (Mourvedre, Counoise and Grenache blend), Mourvedre, Grenache, Rive D’Or (blend), Syrah and Port. These wines are the handcrafted work of Grayson Hartley. Grayson got his “wine education” as the Assistant Winemaker at Schramsberg in the mid-2000’s and learn his craft from the now prestigious Andy Erickson and John Kongsgaard.


The two standout wines of the day were the 2013 Grenache Reserve with a whole cluster soak which produce a peppery, bright and enticing Grenache. The second wine was their 2014 Dessert Wine (Ruby) which uses the Portuguese grape, Touriga Nacional which imparts a black fruit bouquet.  Both of these outstanding wines are now in my cellar!!


The grounds are spectacular in design accommodating guests and club members, a beautiful scenery in the El Dorado foothills. Possessing the rolling vineyards, Grayson as the winemaker and David Girard at the helm, they will never face the third death as we will all be talking about them for years on end.


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Exceptional, Outstanding and Top Wines of 2016 – Click TAB above for details.

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Exceptional, Outstanding and Top Wines of 2016   – Click TAB above for details.

In 2016 I was fortunate enough to taste over 1600+ wines. While most were good to above average, some five wines stood out and rated as EXCEPTIONAL and should be sought after and tasted ASAP. Each would contribute to your cellar. These wines can be secured from the wineries based on availability.

Another 12 wines were rated OUTSTANDING and provide an excellent wine for tasting and procuring. These wines are the paramount of quality for California wines. Again most would be purchased at the winery only.

Another 29 wines are in the TOP WINES IN CALIFORNIA in various varietals. These vines are markedly above average, unique in specific characteristics and should be tried soon. Most of these would be sold at the winery only.

This year I also added some “OUT OF STATE” and “OUT OF COUNTRY” wines that made an impact on the palate, demonstrated a unique quality or provided a new twist on the varietal. Most of these wines can be procured at the listing provided.



Michael Kelly

Vranac or Vranec? Either spelling means a great grape!

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First, why is it spelled two different ways? This grape has been harvested since the Middle Ages mostly in Serbia and southern Croatia. It also has been cultivated in Macedonia. In Serbian & Croatia it is spelled Vranac and in Macedonia it is spelled Vranec. No matter the spelling the transliteration means “black stallion”. Once you pour this wine, it is almost void of any red or ruby coloration, it is almost jet black! With the meaning of stallion, you get a sense of the strength and wildness of this wine.



I was in Sutter Creek, California recently having lunch and shopping but had time to “pop into a winery tasting room” on Main Street. The name is Sierra Ridge Winery.  I was not there to do a story, but asked the proprietor about his Nebbiolo wine on the tasting list. It was good, but had a distinct Amador County flavor (a bit sweet). I asked about a wine on the list called Vranac. It turned out to this wine was steeped in its own history far greater than the gold rush history of Sutter Creek!


As I spent time with John Bree, owner of the winery, I was enthralled hearing the history of his family’s development of the wine and grapes in the local area. Today, the fourth generation of Sicilian winemakers, harvest some 150 acres of grapes, many with ancestral roots in Sicily, Italian and old Europe. Specifically they have 23 varieties of grapes growing at about 2,000 feet in Amador County. Varietals include the standard Bordeaux grapes, but unique to them are Pinotage (South Africa); Vranac, Fresisa, Aglianico, etc. I did not taste the other wines, but will be back for a full tasting very shortly!


The Vranac was fascinating from the color in the glass, to the infectious smell, to the complete mouthful explosion! It was uniquely standalone without a true comparison. That said, it had the earthliness of Tempranillo, the subtle fruit of a Barbara, the fullness of a non-fruity Zinfandel and the completeness of a Cabernet Sauvignon in the palate. I instantly became a convert to this chewy grape varietal. This wine will only improve with age similar to a hearty Barolo. Stop by and try this wine at their tasting room.


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