Friday, October 12, 2012

Back Home to Pine Ridge

Whenever I taste the wines of Pine Ridge Vineyards, it's like old home week for me. I recall tasting the initial release of their 1978 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon and throughly enjoying the classic style of this wine, one that displayed admirable balance along with a nice sense of place. Here was a new Napa Valley estate that could stand alongside some of its more famous neighbors.

Over the past twenty years, I've enjoyed many wonderful wines - white and red - that were crafted under the leadership of founder Gary Andrus. A former Olympic skier, Andrus was a kind-hearted man who was always a positive thinker, one who foresaw greatness - and realized it. Gary befriended me early on and I recall him giving me a big bear hug at a restaurant in Napa Valley one evening, this after not seeing him for a couple years.

I loved this guy like a brother, so I was shocked to hear the news a few years ago that he had passed away. I don't recall the circumstances, but he was much too young and had too much untapped energy to devote to his winery.

Thankfully the winery has maintained their high level of quality after Andrus' death, as Stacy Clark continued to fine tune and improve on these wines, especially the district series of Cabernet Sauvignons. These wines, from Pine Ridge estate vineyards in Rutherford, on Howell Mountain and at their winery plantings in the Stags Leap District in southern Napa Valley, are the signature offerings of the company; they're classy wines that really speak of their origins. Balance has always been the key with these wines, which is one big reason why I have always loved these offerings so much. For me, bigger isn't necessarily better - in fact, it generally isn't better at all. What impresses me is varietal character and elegance, two characteristics that define the Cabernet Sauvignons of Pine Ridge.

Today, Pine Ridge is guided by Michael Beaulac, who serves as general manager and winemaker; he joined the winery in 2009 after working in the California wine industry since 1989. The recent 2012 harvest was his 23rd in northern California.

Beaulac's first efforts with Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon have been released over the past several months of 2012. I'll get to these shortly, but let me first tell you about the 2011 Chenin Blanc / Viognier, a delightful dry white that has been a bit of an innovation for the winery. Early on, Andrus produced a Chenin Blanc from a top grower in Napa Valley, but when that fruit became unavailable, he sourced Chenin Blanc from the Clarksburg area. This was always a nice effort, off-dry with tasty melon, apple and lime fruit. But soon, Viognier was added to the blend (the fruit comes from the Lodi district in central California) and the wine took on an added dimension. The 2011, a melange of 79% Chenin Blanc and 21% Viognier, is a lovely wine with an appearance of straw and just a hint of copper; the aromas are quite inviting with perfumes of lime, honeysuckle (clearly from the Viognier) and magnolia blossoms. Medium-bodied with very good concentration, this has beautiful ripeness, very good acidity and a flavorful, nicely balanced finish.

This is a delicious wine that was given no oak treatment, so as to heighten the aromatics and varietal charms of the two varieties. This is refreshing and very appealing; the winery recommends this with a flavorful Thai curry or a sushi dish such as a spicy tuna roll and I'd be hard pressed to think of a better pairing. Best of all, this retails for $14, which makes this a notable value, given not only the complexity and elegance, but also the amount of character in this bottle for not much money. Congratulations, Michael!

Now on to the bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon from Pine Ridge. There is a Napa Valley bottling that is a blend of fruit from several districts, primarily Rutherford and Stags Leap; there is 76% Cabernet Sauvignon with 14% Malbec, 6% Merlot and 4% Petit Verdot. The 2009 is the current release and it's a handsome, well-balanced wine with inviting aromas of black cherry, black plum and cocoa powder; medium-full, this has good ripeness, polished young tannins and good acidity. It is approachable now, but it will be better in another two to three years as the fruit tones down; it's meant for peak drinking in 7-10 years. This has nice varietal purity and it is unmistakably Napa Valley in its flavor profile. ($54)

As for the district Cabernet Sauvignons from 2009, I've tasted two releases, each representing their origins well, meaning they are two very different wines. The Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon is comprised of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Malbec and the remainder a mix of Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This has a beautiful bright ruby red appearance with a light crimson edge; the aromas are of black cherry, clove, damson plum, red licorice and cumin. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration, this is beautifully balanced with lovely complexity, very good acidity and impressive persistence. This definitely has rich tannins, yet they are held in check; this is a wine to cellar, as it is structured for peak drinking in 10-15 years. ($80)

I've saved the best for last. The winery's Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon has always been a favorite of mine and in reality, this wine expresses this producer's concept of Napa regionality as well as any of their products. This is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, which is somewhat typical of the Stags Leap District, which yields wines of softer tannins than those from Howell Mountain or Rutherford; there are textbook aromas of morel cherry, raspberry, purple iris and a touch of vanilla. This has a generous mid-palate, excellent persistence, silky tannins, good acidity and notes of sweet chocolate in the finish. This is a beautifully balanced wine (I know, this sounds like a broken record with this producer's Cabernet Sauvignons) with signature supple tannins as well as notable varietal purity.

I love this wine, not only for its elegance and precision, but also because the winemaker has crafted a wine that speaks of its origins; there's no statement to be big, bold or super ripe, just in order to attain a higher rating. This is a very classy wine that is approachable now, but is clearly structured for peak enjoyment in 10-12 years, perhaps longer. I give this wine my highest rating of 5 stars - outstanding! ($80)

Up in heaven, I'm sure Gary Andrus is proud of what the proprietors of his winery have accomplished; that is, if Pine Ridge wines are served in heaven. If not, God is missing out on some great wine!

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