As a wine blogger/writer, I get asked to partake in tastings often. Most of these tastings are conducted online, which the layperson usually has some difficulty understanding. The concept, though, is fairly straightforward: several bloggers/writers are sent a few bottles of wine (usually from the same producer or region) and then, at a given time, they descend on a social media medium (usually Twitter) and discuss the wines for an hour, typically with the winemaker.
I really have no idea how useful/successful the exercise is, but I try to make it fun with what I hope are interesting questions and sometimes off-the-wall comments. Depending on the number of bloggers/writers involved, the chats can either be informative and entertaining (when there are but a few participants), or an extremely frustrating free-for-all resulting in an intense desire to punch someone in the esophagus (I like to think that I am not a violent person, but the next time I see the “What would be your ideal pairing with this wine?” I might just be tempted to go full-Thanos).
Relatively recently, I partook in two such tastings that certainly fell into the former characterization (informative and entertaining for the two of you who have no idea what “the former” references).
The first (at least alphabetically) is Berryessa Gap, where winemaker Nicole Salengo who has been crafting delicious wines from fruit grown (mostly) in Yolo County, for the last half-dozen years or so.
2018 Berryessa Gap Vineyards Chardonnay, Sonoma County, CA: Retail $27. Bright, citrusy, and mineral with just the slightest hint of oak, which is surprising since 50% of the wine was fermented in oak. The palate is clean and crisp with good fruit, great tartness, and a healthy finish. Even if you have sworn off Chardonnay, this is one to try. Very Good to Excellent. 88-90 Points.
2018 Berryessa Gap Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Yolo County, CA: Retail $23. There are few California Sauvignon Blancs that cause me to contemplate doing summersaults down the halls of my high school (channeling my inner John Mayer), but this one comes close. Great tree fruit (peach and pear with a splash of mango), fantastic tartness, and a lasting finish. SB is rarely a go-to for me, but this is particularly delightful. Excellent. 90-92 Points.
2018 Berryessa Gap Vineyards Rosé, Yolo County: Retail $19. 33% Zinfandel, 33% Grenache, 33% Barbera. Before I opened this bottle, I only had one question: was this a saignée or a “True Rosé” (a pink wine that was intended to be such from start to finish). Once I found out it was the former? I was a bit unimpressed. Sure, there is good, even great, red berry fruit and a touch of minerality on the palate, both of which continue onto the palate. There, the fruit really is impressive and there is a hint of tartness, but the acidity is lacking, at least for me. Very Good. 87-89 Points.
2018 Berryessa Gap Vineyards Rosé of Tempranillo, California: Retail $??. 250ml can. I think I am coming around to the wine-in-a-can idea. After a bit of research, it seems as though cans are slightly (but only by a smidgen) more environmentally responsible than glass. That is a good thing. The downside? Once you open a can, you are pretty much committed to drinking the whole thing (wait, maybe that’s a good thing?). This 250 ml can is a good size as it is about eight ounces or roughly one and a half glasses worth. I poured it out into a glass, but I was tempted to drink it straight out of the slender vessel (if I weren’t reviewing the wine, you’re damned tooting I would have). Fairly dark for a rosé with tart, almost sour cherry on the nose, good fruit on the palate, but it comes off sweet, particularly on the finish. Now, I do not mind a bit of sweetness on a rosé, but usually, I want it bone-dry. I wonder if the residual sugar is there to anticipate what a buyer of canned wine might want? Very Good. 87-89 Points.
The other four come also come from a less well-known wine growing region, Lake County, which is just to the north of Napa Valley. The winemaker, Ned Steele, has been making wine in California for fifty (!) years and 2019 is the 25th anniversary of Steele Wines in Lake County. Ned makes a bunch of different varietal wines and I was able to taste four of them a few months ago.
2015 Steele Wines Cabernet Franc Lake County: Retail $20. Deep, dark crimson with cassis, black cherry, vanilla, and pepper–mostly black, but also traces of white, black, and even hints of green. The wine starts with fantastic fruit, laced with black pepper and earth, then leads to some mineral notes, and finishes with significant tannins. I have always been a fan of the variety, and this is a stellar example, regardless of price–fruit, depth, tartness–all there. Very Good to Excellent. 89-91 Points.
2015 Steele Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Red Hills Lake County: Retail $29. There are plenty of quality California Cabs to be had from all over the state, and most of them are affordable–as long as it does not have the words “Napa Valley” on the label. This is a perfect example for under $30–ripe blackberry and pomegranate with a scoop of vanilla on the side. Juicy fruit and glimpses of depth up front, which masks the vibrant acidity, but only briefly. This is fabulous. Excellent. 90-92 Points.
2016 Steele Wines Pinot Blanc Santa Barbara County: Retail $19. In my mind, Pinot Blanc does not get enough respect. It reaches its apogee, perhaps, in Alsace, but there it receives at best second class status (it can not be labeled as “Grand Cru”). In the New World, the grape does not get much attention, either, but this offering from Steele provides plenty of excitement. Tropical and floral notes of guava, melon, and acacia dominate from the go, and while Pinot Blanc usually is lacking when it comes to acidity, this certainly has plenty. There is also a softness, a fullness, to the wine that makes it both a great pairing, particularly for a panoply of seafood, but also as an apéritif or even as a patio sipper. Very Good to Excellent. 89-91 Points.
2016 Steele Wines Syrah Stymie Founder’s Reserve Lake County: Retail $38. Dark, even really dark in the glass. This is not going to be your Rhône-style Syrah. Rich and opulent on the nose with over-ripe blackberry, cassis, anise, and cardamom. The palate is equally decadent with oodles of unctuous fruit paired with a lip-smacking tanginess and a midpalate spiciness. This makes absolutely no attempt to be a Northern Rhône wine, and I have absolutely no problem with that. This is fleshy, tangy, sumptuous, and unapologetic. And it is fantastic. Excellent. 90-92 Points.