Jamieson Ranch: Napa Valley’s gateway winery

As you travel north and enter Napa Valley, Jamieson Ranch Vineyards sits at the gateway. It’s the winery further south than any other in Napa. Their estate is composed of more than 300 acres. From those vines and other fruit, they craft a portfolio of wines under several sub-labels but all part of the overall Jamieson Ranch umbrella. Considering their Napa Valley location and the quality of their general portfolio, there is a lot to like here for the money.

Even their flagship red, Double Lariat Cabernet, is a bargain compared to wines of similar quality from many of their neighbors. Here’s a look at four current releases that I recommend. It’s worth noting that a portion of the profits from the wines under the Light Horse label benefit the Light Horse Foundation. This organization was founded by the winery to help support at risk people, in particular those with autism.

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Martin Ray Vineyards & Winery highlights two California regions

Martin Ray Winery’s history dates back to the 1940s in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Their second life started in 1990 when Courtney Benham bought the winery and moved it to the Russian River Valley. While they’re now deeply ensconced in Sonoma County, Martin Ray Winery continues to produce wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains too. Both of these areas are well suited for a variety of grapes to thrive. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are among those that do the best. I recently tasted a number of selections from them. Here are four that I really enjoyed and highly recommend.

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Martin Ray 2014 Mill Station Chardonnay ($35)

This is entirely Chardonnay from a single vineyard located on Dutton Ranch in The Russian River Valley. Aging took place over 12 months in 40% new French oak. After aging, select barrels are chosen for the final blend. The spice-driven nose also features a bevy of other attractive aromas such as subtle toast, crème fraiche and yellow apple. Lemon curd, Anjou pear and more are on display throughout the layered and complex palate. Continued spices, hints of lemon merengue pie crust and more emerge on the long luscious finish.

Martin Ray 2014 Bald Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay ($35)

All of the fruit for this wine (entirely Chardonnay) was sourced at the namesake vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Barrel aging took place over a year in 40% New French oak. Pineapple and spice aromas dominate the lovely nose. Asian pear, citrus zest and hints of stone fruit are all apparent on the engaging palate. Wet limestone and gentle hints of brown sugar appear on the above average finish.

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Toad Hollow Vineyards: Delicious wines & great value

Toad Hollow Vineyards was founded in 1994 by a group of friends. They launched their winery with “Francine’s Selection,” an unoaked Chardonnay. At the time, particularly in California, this was not only uncommon, it also ran against the trend. Defying what was popular, Francine’s Selection was a huge hit and sent the vineyard off and running. In the years since, their portfolio has expanded to include Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet and more. I tasted through some brand new releases and found a lot of deliciousness for a small amount of money.

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Toad Hollow Vineyards 2014 Unoaked Chardonnay ($13.99)

This Chardonnay is produced from fruit sourced in Mendocino County. It’s made up entirely of Chardonnay. The 2014 bottling represents the 22nd vintage of this wine, the most popular in their lineup. The moment you stick your nose in the glass, a burst of fresh, unadulterated apple and pear aromas leap out. The palate is similarly stuffed with oodles of fresh fruit flavors accompanied by hints of spice. All of these characteristics continue on the long, fruit-laden finish. This is a delicious, easy-to-drink Chardonnay that you’re going to want a second glass the moment the first is empty.

Toad Hollow Vineyards 2014 “Eye of the Toad” Rosé ($11.99)

This dry Rosé is composed entirely of Pinot Noir sourced at a variety of vineyards throughout Sonoma County. Toad Hollow has been producing a dry Rosé for 20 years, well ahead of its current popularity in the U.S. A hint of crème fraiche underpins the freshly picked strawberry aromas that inform the nose here. Bing cherry and continued strawberry notes are in evidence on the beautiful and bone dry palate. White pepper and continued red fruit flavors are evident on the crisp, zippy finish. If you need a perfect pairing partner for fried chicken, this is it.

Toad Hollow Vineyards Merlot ($16.99)

This offering is composed entirely of Merlot sourced at the Richard McDowell Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. These 16 acres were planted in 1995. Ripe wild strawberry and raspberry aromas fill the nose. The palate is loaded with darker fruit flavors such as black raspberry and cherry, as well as black pepper and hints of toast. Light bits of espresso and a touch of dusty cocoa emerge on the finish, along with pomegranate and sour cherry notes. This is a well-priced and tasty example of Merlot.

Toad Hollow Vineyards 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($19.99)

This is a single-vineyard Pinot with all the fruit coming off of “Goldie’s Vineyard,” their estate property. After fermentation and being racked twice, it was aged in French oak for 14 months. Rose petal and red cherry aromas leap from the nose here. The palate is full of even-keeled red fruit flavors supported by a significant spice component. Bits of savory herb, sour red fruits and continued spices are apparent on the long, even finish. This terrific under-$20 Pinot Noir will pair well with a remarkably wide array of foods.

All of these wines represent better than average values. The Pinot Noir, though, is the steal of the bunch. This notoriously fickle and difficult to master grape is also one of the hardest to find at a bargain. At under $20, this offering from Toad Hollow Vineyards is precisely that. Buy a case and drink it as a house wine. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better value in California Pinot Noir.

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Australia’s Wakefield Estate delivers a diverse collection of wines

Wakefield Wines is one of 12 members of Australia’s First Family of Wines. This group of families owned wineries can each boast three or more generations in Australian wine. They hail from regions representing four different states, and collectively, they have more than 5,550 hectares under vine. After tasting some offerings from each family at an event a few months back, I decided to take a deeper dive and look at the wines from Wakefield. Here are my thoughts about six excellent, well-priced current releases from them.

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Wakefield Estate 2014 Riesling ($17)

All of the fruit for this wine (100 percent Riesling) was sourced in the Clare Valley. Fermentation and aging took place in stainless steel with a range of select yeasts. Lychee fruit and hints of linseed oil emerge on the vibrant but even-keeled nose. The palate shows off orange peel, lemon zest and apricot flavors. Tart yellow melon, hints of Granny Smith apple and spices such as cardamom and white pepper are present on the finish. This gloriously dry wine is an excellent example of Riesling. It’ll pair as well with Indian dishes as it will with pork loin roasted alongside apples.

Wakefield Estate 2014 Chardonnay ($17)

Clare Valley and Adelaide Hills is the source for the fruit. Most of it was fermented in a combination of new and used French oak. A small amount was fermented in stainless steel with wild yeasts. Stone fruit and Golden Delicious apple aromas dominate the nose here. Anjou pear and continued apple rule the day on the palate. Yellow peach, bits of spice, and gentle hints of crème fraiche are all in play on the substantial finish. There’s simply an avalanche of fresh fruit characteristics in play in each component of this wine. For $17, you’re getting a lot of Chardonnay character here.

Wakefield Estate 2014 Pinot Noir ($17)

All of the fruit for this wine, which is entirely Pinot Noir of course, came from the Adelaide Hills. After cold soaking, the wine was fermented at warm to hot temperatures in stainless steel, utilizing yeast strains intended specifically for Pinot. Aging in one- and two-year-old French oak followed. Wild strawberry, black cherry and wisps of toast are all apparent on the nose. Red and black cherry characteristics dominate the palate along with a nice spice component. A hint of cherry Jolly Rancher, as well as pomegranate, are in play on the finish, along with substantial bits of earth. Firm acid and good tannins mark the structure. At under $20, this is a steal in the Pinot world.

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Wakefield Estate 2014 Shiraz ($17)

The Taylor Estate in the Clare Valley was the source of the fruit for this Shiraz. After fermentation, it was aged in American oak for 12 months. Big, red and black fruit characteristics emerge on the boisterous nose here. The palate is studded with similar characteristics, as well as bits of espresso and dark bitter chocolate. The long finish is spice-driven and loaded with additional fruit elements such as blackberry and raspberry. This is a fruit-driven Shiraz that is also proportionate and even keeled.

Wakefield Estate 2014 “Jaraman” Chardonnay ($25)

As is the process with the Jarman line of wines, the fruit comes from two distinct growing regions: Clare Valley (55 percent) and Margaret River (45 percent). Fermentation and aging took place in tight-grained French oak. Yellow fruit aromas are joined by bits of linseed oil and a hint of toast on a slightly austere nose. Classic apple and pear characteristics light up the palate, which is stuffed with tons of fresh, eager fruit flavors. The notably long finish shows off continued orchard fruits as well as bits of pineapple and papaya. The oak in play here adds nice complexity without being obtrusive. This is an extremely complex Chardonnay for the money.

Wakefield Estate 2013 “Jaraman” Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)

The fruit for this entry in the Jaraman line comes from Clare Valley (55 percent) and Coonawarra (45 percent). After fermentation, it was aged in a combination of new and previously used French oak. Dark fruit and savory herb aromas abound on the nose of this Cabernet. The palate is lush and loaded with dark fruit, copious spices and bits of mineral. Toast, earth, hints of vanilla and lots more fruit flavors are all in play on the above-average finish. Firm acid and tannins mark the structure here. What I like most about this Cabernet is how fresh and refreshing it is.

If your mind and taste buds think of Australia only in terms of overripe fruit bombs, think again. There are a lot of really nice wines loaded with character and made in a balanced manner coming from Australia. Each wine noted above is not only true to the grape in question and the area or areas it’s grown in, but theya lso each represent better than average values. We’re at a point in time where many wine drinkers don’t realize the bounty Australia has to offer. Get a jump on them and drink these tasty, well made, wonderfully priced wines. If you have yet to reconsider Australia, the time is now.

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Paso’s Niner Wine Estates offers variety and value

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The city of Paso Robles is located almost exactly between Los Angeles and San Francisco, two of the largest and most distinct cities in California. When wine from Paso hit the national stage, it was Zinfandel that stole the show. Soon after, lots of Rhone varietals began to emerge. In earlier days, many of the efforts were big, extracted wines featuring high alcohol. Things started to change, and today, Paso Robles is home to a truly wide array of different grapes, many of which thrive in its varied climates. In addition to that, many producers are making proportionate wines, so much so that the cartoonish wines of years back are well in the minority. One of the producers that is part of that sea change is Niner Wine Estates. In addition to Paso Robles, they have estate vineyards in Edna Valley. Here are some terrific Niner wines from each.

Niner Wine Estates 2014 Estate Albarino ($20)

All of the fruit for this wine came from their estate vineyard, Jespersen Ranch, in Edna Valley. This is a 100 percent varietal wine. After fermentation, it was aged for 10 months in stainless steel prior to bottling. Toasted hazelnut and lychee fruit aromas fill the welcoming nose here. Stone fruits such as white peach, apricot and nectarine are all in abundance on the delicious and full-flavored palate, along with bits of spice. The finish is long, mellifluous and dotted with topical fruits. Firm acid contributes to the mouthwatering nature of this Albarino. It’s delicious, refreshing and hard to put down.

Niner Wine Estates 2013 Estate Chardonnay ($25)

About 1,200 cases of this Chardonnay from Jespersen Ranch in Edna Valley were produced. It’s 100 percent varietal and was aged in entirely French oak; 30 percent of the barrels utilized were new. Orchard and stone fruit aromas fill the nose, along with toast and spices galore. The palate shows off apple, peach and pear flavors with baker’s spices. Toasted pecan, crème fraiche and continued fruit flavors fill out the above average finish. This is a fine example of Chardonnay that is enhanced by time in new oak without it becoming a distraction. Lovely sipped by itself, this Chardonnay will excel with soft cheeses, pastas with creamy sauces or a simple roast chicken.

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