Despite selling his PRISONER brand to the the Huneeus Family empire (now known as The Prisoner Wine Company) in 2010, Dave Phinney’s ORIN SWIFT label has been steadily building a loyal fan based following of wine lovers who enjoy rich, “crowd-pleasing”, immensely satisfying wines.

In the latest issue of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, the current releases of Orin Swift wines fared extremely well. A stellar example of one of Orin Swift’s white wines is the 2013 MANNEQUIN.
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The wine made in Monterey County is gaining worldwide recognition. “You can’t beat it here,” said Salinas resident Michael Howell. “You just go down the road any way you want to here, to any one of these wineries, and you’ve got some good wines.”

The growing attention to the coastal vineyards is putting Monterey County on many lists of top wine destinations in the world.
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Final Vintage from one of Russian River’s finest…

2013 is the final vintage of what many consider to be one of the best kept secrets in the world of ultra-premium Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Considered by many that have tasted these two wines over the years to be California’s version of Grand Cru Burgundy, both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were crafted by Paul Hobbs.
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Winemakers are Optimistic as the 2014 Wine Harvest ramps up – Could this be the 3rd “Dream Vintage” in a row?

The 2014 wine harvest, or “Crush”, is picking up steam throughout California with each passing day. A trend has emerged, and the familiar refrain from grape growers and winemakers goes something like this: the 2014 growing season and wine harvest in California looks really, really good, but it’s earlier than ever.

Grower/winemaker, Steve Matthiason states, “2013 was an early vintage, and this year is even earlier.”
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Carte Blanche Winery lineup

CARTE BLANCHE is a relatively new winery project in Napa Valley that is raising the eyebrows of wine enthusiasts who enjoy high quality, world class wines.

To say that proprietor Nick Allen and his family have a history of producing monumental wines would be an understatement.  Allen is the great-grandson of Clarence Dillon who purchased Chateau Haut-Brion in 1935 (now owned by the family company, “Domaine Clarence Dillon”).  As you may know, Haut-Brion is one of the original five Grand Crus of Bordeaux.

To make the wines under his newly formed CARTE BLANCHE Estate in Napa Valley, Allen spared no expense in luring one of America’s top winemakers, Luc Morlet.

Some of Morlet’s Milestone Achievements:

  • Creating Newton’s Unfiltered Chardonnay (96 points from Robert Parker)
  • Winemaker for Peter Michael (98 points from Robert Parker for his ’02 “Les Pavots” Cabernet blend
  • 99 points for his ’01 Peter Michael “Point Rouge” Chardonnay)
  • 97 points for his ’05 Peter Michael “Les Pavots” in Wine Spectator
  • Also winemaker for Staglin and his own highly acclaimed Morlet Family Vineyards

Suffice to say that Luc Morlet has an illustrious track record of making award-wining, highly-rated, world class wines. CARTE BLANCHE is destined to follow suit.

Vineyard Sources

The wines are made with some of the best grapes money can buy. Vineyard sources include Beckstoffer’s “ToKolan Vineyard” in Oakville, Newton’s “Hillside Vineyard” on Spring Mountain, and Beckstoffer’s historic “Missouri Hopper Vineyard” in southern Oakville.

“Carte Blanche is a partnership between proprietor Nicholas Allen and winemaker Luc Morlet. Although a new project started only in 2008, all of the wines I have tasted so far have been impressive. The 2010s are no exception.” —Antonio Galloni, Wine Advocate

From top to bottom, no expense has been spared to ensure these wines live up to Nick’s uncompromising standards in becoming hallmark wines of the highest quality.
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CARTE BLANCHE

– The Wines –

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2010 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

Carte Blanche Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

This is a rich, opulent, beautifully balanced wine! Brilliant golden in color, an alluring bouquet, super creamy and plush on the mid-palate with a finish that lingers forever. Notes of peach, lemon meringue, nectarine, creme brûlée, hazelnut, and minerals all in perfect balance. A remarkable Chardonnay! Only 200 cases produced. ($75)
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2010 Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley

Carte Blanche Cabernet Sauvignon

“Another powerful, young wine, the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon is incredibly dense and virtually impenetrable. Blue and black fruit, grilled herbs, licorice, new leather, menthol and tobacco flow through to an incisive finish layered with graphite and crushed rocks. Today, the 2010 is cool and implosive, suggesting it needs at least another few years to come together. The addition of 10% Petit Verdot seems to give the wine some of its brooding personality. Anticipated maturity: 2018-2028.”
—Antonio Galloni, Wine Advocate,
Issue 204 Dec 2012 – Rating:  94

400 cases produced  ($125)
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2010 Sandstone Seven
Alder Springs Vineyard, Mendocino

Carte Blanche Sandstone Seven Rhone-style Blend

A brilliant Rhone-style white wine blend. Aromas of bright white flowers jump from the glass, surrounded by notes of lemon zest, wet stones, mineral, slate and sea shells.  The palate entry is silky and rich with fine acidic structure.  Subtle spices speak of Bosc pear galette with hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and a touch of cardamom.  Crushed granite and the faintest flash of petrol barely whisper in the long, clean finish.

From Stu Bewley’s immaculate, impressive, and meticulously farmed Alder Springs Vineyard in Northern Mendocino County, this amazing blend of 40% Viognier, 40% Marsanne and 20% Rousanne is reminiscent of the great white wines of the Southern Rhone.  Alder Springs Vineyards lies seven miles from the Pacific coast, sitting on well-drained, ancient sandstone slopes at elevations ranging from 1700′ to 2700′.  Truly expressive of the terrior, the small intensely flavored berries create a beautiful, complex and unique wine.  125 cases produced. ($50)

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To Purchase the CARTE BLANCHE Wines

Contact Us


Well, the best and most obvious way to determine if a wine is any good is to pour yourself a glass and try it, of course.  If you are only concerned with price, that’s one thing.  But if you are looking for value and top quality, you can do some preliminary research that will give you enough information to decide whether you should even bother, or move on to another selection.

Questions you should ask before purchasing an unknown brand or label appear at the bottom, but first it is important to understand the phenomenon known as the “Wine Négociant”.

From Wikipedia:

“A négociant is the French term for a wine merchant who assembles the produce of smaller growers and winemakers and sells the result under its own name.

Négociants buy everything from grapes to grape must to wines in various states of completion. In the case of grapes or must, the négociant performs virtually all the winemaking. If it buys already fermented wine in barrels or ‘en-vrac’ – basically in bulk containers, it may age the wine further, blend in other wines or simply bottle and sell it as is. The result is sold under the name of the négociant, not the name of the original grape or wine producer.”

Négociants may also be vineyard owners and include some of the most famous wines in the world, including such renown producers as Bouchard Père et Fils, Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin, Frederic Magnien and Vincent Girardin in France, to name a few.

Domestic Négociants

The négociant phenomenon has also been employed domestically, but has exploded over the last five years with more vineyards and wineries coming online, and a faltering economy. As a result, many top wineries are selling their “overages” as bulk wine to keep their supply limited, allcoations strict and maintain their price points.

With so much great wine available in finished, or near finished form, it makes sense for négociants to selectively procure these wines, add finishing touches if needed, and bottle them under their own label, since these “overages” can often be purchased at very good prices.

Such is the case with the Stonewood label and the wines below.  Some of my close associates have incredible sources and the winemaking chops to finish the wines (if needed), and bottle some outstanding wines at very nice prices.  (Their sources even make me do a double take!).

I am fortunate to not only have access to these wines, but also frequently get to sit in on trial tastings.

Two New Releases From Stonewood

The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and the feedback on the Stonewood 2007 RTR (Red Table Reserve), 2008 Sonoma County Chardonnay and 2008 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir leaves no doubt that the Stonewood wines are top quality.  The fact that the wines sold out in record time speaks volumes!

The two new releases below are admirable followups to these wines, and should be a part of any fan of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varietals.  These may be some of the best “Monday-Thursday” wines available on the market!

Note: This is a perfect example of how price does not always determine the quality of the wine.  It would be a mistake to dismiss these wines out of hand simply because the prices are so low.

Stonewood 2009 Sonoma County Chardonnay

Stonewood 2009 Sonoma County Chardonnay

Stonewood 2009 Sonoma County Chardonnay

On the heels of a very successful and delicious 2008 version of this wine comes this remarkable, yes remarkable, 2009 Sonoma County Chardonnay.

The Stonewood crew had to actully sign an eight-page nondisclosure statement before acquiring this juice.   The names involved with the making of this wine would make your head spin!

This is an amazing bottle of wine!  It keeps evolving with each sip and each glass.  Peaches and honey, marmalade, citrus oil, apricot, hints of vanilla, nutmeg and walnut.  Flower blossoms, wet stone, mineral, great acidity, freshness, depth, vibrant and alive!  Beautifully balanced.  Wow!   Great long lasting finish.  Still youthful, this beauty should drink well for another 5-7 years.  156 cases produced  ($25)

If this were released on it’s original label many discriminating lovers of wine would gladly pay two-three times this price.

Stonewood 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon

Stonewood 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon

Stonewood 2008 Sonoma County
Cabernet Sauvignon

The fruit comes from three distinct vineyards in Sonoma County, ranging from valley floor fruit to a vineyard that rests at 2000 feet elevation, the highest vineyard in Sonoma County.  The wine consists of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% mix of Merlot and Petite Verdot.  The winemaking behind the individual lots involves legendary and historic expertise.

Yes, this wine is still young too, but there is no doubt about what it is and where it is going.

After being opened for about an hour, you get explosive aromas and flavors of chocolate, red berries, black currants and graphite.  Backbone and “stones”, this big boy has some guts.  Hints of forest floor, tobacco, spice box, a touch of vanilla and black licorice.  Decanting recommended for near term consumption.   Only 150 cases produced.   ($23)

You will not believe the quality for this price.

If you would like to purchase these wines, just send an email to gb@wineriff.com.

Questions to ask about unknown brands and labels

  • What are the vineyard sources for the grapes?
  • Who is the viticulturalist or vineyard manager?
  • What was the growing season like for the particular vintage?
  • Who made the wines (winemaker[s])?
  • What was the oak regimen utilized, if any?
  • When was the wine bottled (how much bottle age)?
  • Is the wine drinkable now, or does it need more bottle age?
  • How long will it age?
  • Finally, who is selling the wine (are they a trusted, knowledgeable source)?

The answers to all of these questions may not always be available to the average consumer, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. With the Stonewood wines, we know were they come from and who is involved with the winemaking.  We just may not be able to share that information with you.


“A terrific source of sensational Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays made very much in the style
of the wines proprietor Stephen Hansel loves the most, white and red Burgundies, this
80-acre estate continues to build on a brilliant track record of high quality wines
offered to consumers at sensationally fair prices.”  —Robert Parker, Jr.

Stephen Hansel

Stephen Hansel – Proprietor of Walter Hansel Winery

Proprietor and founder Stephen Hansel built the winery, and as an homage to his father, named it Walter Hansel Winery.  He started making wines with the help of long time friend and fellow grape grower, Tom Rochioli.  Ever since, the wines have gone from strength to strength and developed a very loyal following of fans who love Russian River Valley Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.

Current Release of Walter Hansel Wines

(Reviews taken from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate)

Walter Hansel 2007 Pinot Noir South Slope

“From Dijon clone 777, the 2007 Pinot Noir South Slope is from the highest elevation of any of the Hansel vineyards (and there are 80 acres). It has deep plum and pomegranate notes with hints of sassafras and wood spice. The wine displays a nice, subtle smokiness, medium to full body, good acidity, and a long finish. Unfortunately, there is very little made. Anticipated maturity: 2009-2016.” ($36)

Walter Hansel 2007 Pinot Noir North Slope

“From cool-climate soils, the 2007 Pinot Noir North Slope (Dijon clone 115 exclusively) is another admirable Pinot Noir. Notes of root vegetables, underbrush, clove, cinnamon, and oodles of black cherry and black currant fruit are present in this dark ruby/purple-tinged wine. Good acidity, full-bodied power, and plenty of concentration and depth characterize this very promising Pinot, which should evolve for at least a decade.” ($36)

Walter Hansel 2007 Chardonnay North Slope

“From one of the colder sites in the Hansel portfolio, the 2007 Chardonnay North Slope has an almost liqueur of rocks interwoven with nectarine and honeyed citrus. A wine of terrific intensity, full-bodied power, but restrained wood and great acidity, this is a beauty that should drink nicely for 5 or more years.” —Robert Parker, Jr.

Walter Hansel 2008 Chardonnay Diamond Vineyard – Carneros

In 2008, Walter Hansel added two negociant wines from two vineyards; the Diamond Vineyard in Carneros, and the Feeney Home Ranch Vineyard in the Russian River Valley.

“The 2008 Chardonnay Diamond Ranch exhibits pleasant, straightforward tropical fruit, honeysuckle, and a touch of spice notes. It is round, fruity, and attractive.” —Robert Parker, Jr.  ($22)

Walter Hansel 2007 Chardonnay Feeney Home Ranch Vineyard
Russian River Valley

“More white peach and honeysuckle characteristics are found in the medium-weight 2008 Chardonnay Feeney Home Ranch. Both wines are meant to be drunk during their first 1-2 years of life.” —Robert Parker, Jr.  ($22)

Photos of a tasting I attended with Stephen and some visiting clients.


Watching someone stay true to their vision over a decade rather than following the heard is a joy to behold.  And when you taste the wines you instantly understand and appreciate what these two cutting-edge winemakers are creating.

The mission at Arnot-Roberts is making wines that are balanced, express the unique terroir of the vineyards, and showcase pure varietal character.  The wines are made in a classic style with minimal intervention, judicious use of new oak (depending on the varietal), good acidity, and lower alcohol levels than one typically finds in the various varietals.

Duncan and Nathan of Arnot-Roberts Winery

Duncan Arnot Meyers & Nathan Lee Roberts

I first met Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Roberts over 10 years ago when making their own wine was just a dream.  I even have an unlabeled bottle of the very first wine they ever made (but never sold on the market), a Dry Creek Zinfandel.

Duncan and Nathan were childhood friends that grew up in Napa Valley.  Nathan is a second generation cooper and builds the French oak barrels used to age Arnot-Roberts wines.  Nathan travels to the forests of France each year and carefully selects premium oak from the stave mills that will fit perfectly with the wine profile they want to create.  His depth of knowledge surrounding the use of French oak barrels in the wine making process enables them to get just the right effect they need to produce the Arnot-Roberts style of wine.

Duncan grew up around the wine industry in Napa Valley and into his young adulthood.  Over the years Duncan has worked at wineries such as Caymus, Groth, Acacia, Kongsgaard, and was Assistant Winemaker for PAX Wine Cellars until 2008.  Duncan is all about the vineyards.  One can’t help but be riveted to Duncan when he starts describing the unique qualities of each vineyard and how these characters come through in the vineyard designated wines.

Arnot-Roberts was founded in 2001 and specializes in vineyard designated Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from some amazing vineyards such as Hudson, Alder Springs, Griffins Lair, Bugay, and Clajeux.  The total production is around 1,200 cases.  Some of the vineyard designated wines may only consist of a total of two barrels (50 cases) produced, up to around 6 to 8 barrels on a few others.  Truly a boutique, micro winery operation.

Recently we caught up with Nathan doing a Winemaker Pouring at The Wine Shop in Healdsburg where he talks to clients about some of the new releases of Arnot-Roberts Wines.

 

Arnot-Roberts Wines Tasted (4/20/2010)…

Swindle Rig 2009 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc (1 liter bottle)

Crisp, clean, refreshing, with racy flavors of pink grapefruit, gooseberry, lemon zest and herbs. Just a really fun and delicious wine for sipping around the pool or on the porch on a summer’s evening. With the liter-sized bottle you get about a glass to a glass and a half more than you would from a regular sized bottle, so that’s a nice bonus.  ($20)

Arnot-Roberts 2009 Green Island Chardonnay

From the cool southern most region of Napa Valley next to the San Pablo Bay.  Steel fermented with about 12.5% alc.  Aromas of orange blossom, lemon meringue, and spice.  A substantial mouthfeel, yet vibrant and refreshing with appealing flavors of pear, citrus, spice, minerals, and flint.  Very food friendly with nice minerality, well-balanced, and excellent varietal character and flavors. ($30)

Arnot-Roberts 2008 California Syrah

From a variety of top vineyards, this is a beautiful, satisfying, dry red wine that is co-fermented with about 10% Viognier in the style of wines from the Northern Rhone Valley of France.  Dark crimson red in color with aromas of red and black fruits, smoke and wild flowers.  Vibrant blackberry and raspberry flavors with exotic spices, silky tannins, and a lingering finish.  ($30)

Arnot-Roberts 2007 Hudson Vineyard Syrah North Block, Napa Valley

Now we’re getting serious, this is a pretty amazing bottle of wine.  Teeth-staining ruby, almost opaque in color.  Aromas of  blackberry, grilled meat, and spice.  Focused flavors of dark berries, black cherry, earth and spice, all pulled together with excellent acidity and serious yet resolved tannins.  A stunning wine.  Be sure to bring along the teeth-whitening strips.  ($60)

Arnot-Roberts 2007 Bugay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County

The Bugay Vineyard is an impeccably maintained, hillside vineyard located in the Mayacamas Mountain range of Sonoma County.  Prominent aromas of blackberry, currant, violets, cigar box, and earth.  Gorgeous, integrated flavors of blackberry, cherry, graphite, rocks and dusty tannins all wrapped in a seamless presentation.  Beautifully balanced, full bodied with a luxurious mouthfeel.  This is a “WOW” wine that is drinking beautifully now, but has the structure to age for a decade or more, at least.  ($80)

The wines of Arnot-Roberts have been a local secret until a couple of years ago when pundits like Robert Parker (Wine Advocate) and Josh Raynolds (Steve Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar), and others started writing about them, awarding them impressive ratings.

Definitely worth trying, if you can find them.

Very highly recommended.