August 18, 2005

One More Ride on Thunder Mountain

I guess it figures that I had to go to southern California – in fact, Orange County, as in the OC or behind the Orange curtain – to find the potential deal of the year.

No, I didn’t get a free ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at the Magic Kingdom. Rather, red wine from Thunder Mountain winery out of San Jose that I found on serious discount at Trader Joe’s in Costa Mesa last weekend on a short family trip.

The story is that Thunder Mountain founder and winemaker Milan Maximovich passed away two years ago. Wine internet junkies would know him as Milan in Santa Cruz, one of the first people I “met” in the wacky world of internet wine discussion.

Milan knew fine wine and loved the stuff, and it turns out he knew how to make fine wine too. I remember first trying his wines in the late 1990s, among them a ’95 Bates Ranch Cabernet from the venerable Santa Cruz mountains vineyard. When tasted next to Ahlgren’s 1976 model from the same source, both wines were terrific, bookends of a sort portending a nice future for Thunder Mountain.

Then there was Milan’s cult dessert wine, made from Santa Rosa plums and the finest non-grape wine I can recall tasting at a couple gatherings over the years. This I believe never made it to market, though not for lack of quality.

After Milan’s death, his family tried to carry on with the winery for a while before liquidating the inventory. Trader Joe’s bought big and passed along a bittersweet deal – they’re offering 2000 Thunder Mountain Star Ruby and Doc’s Vineyard wines for $7.99 a piece. These were originally $40-$50 wines and, while I’m not spending that kind of scratch for wine, certainly to my taste would be better deals than a lot of domestic stuff out there in the same range.

These Thunder Mountain wines come from the Cienega Valley, an obscure California area east of Salinas over the Chalone and Gavilan Mountains, south of Hollister (I know, where’s that?). I recall driving through there a few years back on my way to the Pinnacles National Monument and thinking it looked in places like a drier, much less crowded Stag’s Leap District from the Napa Valley. This is old California, off the beaten track and a place I recall Milan speaking of fondly.

The 2000 Thunder Mountain Star Ruby is an equal blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, though I don’t have exact information on the vineyard source. Prior Star Rubys came from the Bates Ranch, but this is all Cienega Valley. It’s a deep crimson with strong oak, olive, and mineral aromas hiding the fruit. In the mouth it’s tight like you’d expect from Bordeaux of the same age, all promise. A steak dinner overcomes the wine’s tannin, making a tasty match. Still this is nice wine that simply needs time to blossom. Cellar easily for ten years and then some.

The 2000 Thunder Mountain Doc’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon comes from own-rooted vines planted in the 1940s. These are some of the oldest, if not the oldest, Cabernet vines in California, ungrafted and old school in every way. The Doc’s has a similar dark color with strong cassis aromas and low oak notes with some black olive that many of Milan’s reds seemed to show. In the mouth it’s full and rich but elegant with nice structure yet still some baby fat., with the depth that I think only old vines can give. This wine is much more approachable than the tannic Star Ruby, but its balance and crisp acid structure suggests to me equal aging potential in good cellar conditions. It’s delicious now too.

Apparently Trader Joe’s has had these wines for a few months, so availability may not be so great.. And while the style isn’t for everyone – god help the ghastly labels – if you’re in California check out your local branch. For this money, you’d be crazy not to at least give these a try. As for the god of thunder on the labels, I have only one word – decant.

Farewell Milan, thanks for the memories.

August 02, 2005

For the Love of Port

If you haven’t already heard about the newest site for Port and Madeira geeks, check out Roy Hersh’s For the Love of Port. The name is cute, but the site is very serious about the fortifieds of Portugal and Madeira.

I first heard about Roy several years ago when he showed up as the Portolover on Robin Garr’s Wine Lovers’ Discussion Group. I’ve always liked Port and, being a value-conscious guy, always liked how cheap it is relative to other great, ageworthy wines. I could tell immediately that Roy’s knowledge would be a good thing for me. I loved reading his notes of legendary Ports, but I got more buying advice from his acumen for finding great Port deals. Madeira too, which I’ve only come to try and begin to appreciate based largely on Roy’s enthusiasm.

As he lives in Washington, I’ve had a few opportunities to meet and taste with Roy here in the Portland area. The first meeting alone blew my mind. It was at Magnum Madness a three years ago where he brought a 1935 Sandeman Vintage Port. What a generous gift and delicious wine, light ruby colored, fragrant and deep aromatically and elegant, with a silky texture and a lovely fruit and nut flavor, tobacco…that’s enough. This was a hallmark wine for me, and yet it wasn’t a truly blockbuster Port. So what, such is the greatness of wine and the kindness of strangers.

Roy is now hosting trips to Portugal – the next in late October – with Mario Ferreria, who has an extensive background in Port. The weeklong jaunts aren’t cheap, but then again I don’t doubt that it will be the Port week of your life. Actually, the itinerary alone could make your liver hurt. But if you’re a Portolover, or think now’s the time to become one, go for it.

August 01, 2005

More from the Manning's

Another gathering the other night at the home of Marshall and Carolyn Manning, this time to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. As Marshall put it, think of Magnum Madness but only smaller. So I whipped up a trip to the New Seasons market deli for green pea and Gorgonzola salad in honor of Marsh, who avoids most (all?) vegetables. And taking orders well, I contributed one in a slew of wines from 1995 to honor the host couple, a Charles Joguet Chinon Clos la Dioterie Vieilles Vignes.

This crowd likes its white wines, especially on a warm evening like this. So a cooler in the backyard was the place to start. Moving quickly to try things before they were drained, I poured the 1995 Pinson Chablis Mont de Milieu from magnum. On first sniff, I thought I smelled apple Jolly Rancher™ candies, but that passed quickly to reveal nice maturing but still fresh minerally, waxy Chablis, plain and simple. Tangy and fairly long on the palate, nice wine with time to age yet.

Then the 1995 Pierre Luneau Le "L" de Pierre Luneau Muscadet, which smelled young and clean with clear Muscadet flavors. I was more taken by the 1995 Château de l'Aiguillette Muscadet VV, a recent release locally that smelled like a nice chenin blanc but tasted rainwatery and minerally, delicious and a steal at $12.50. Casa Bruno is the local importer. A NV Gruet Brut was its typically nice self, fresh and clean bubbles with a soft but dry flavor.

Not taking notes at the time, I know I am forgetting a few others, so on to the 2004 Domain Sorin Cotes du Provence Rosé, a classic southern French rosé with minerally strawberry flavors and a nice perfume.

And onto the reds, again there were more than I tried much less recall. But the highlights included the 1995 Joguet Chinon Dioterie that I brought, a fragrant earthy rocky cabernet franc with great balance and length, delicious with grilled lamb even if later wines were more classic matches. Such as the 1995 Domaine Tempier Bandol La Tourtine, which I actually tried earlier before the vultures ate the decanter it came in. Young, tight Bandol with lots of funk – good funk mind you – but great promise. What did it taste like? Bandol, which is harder still than most wines to describe in simple words. Try again in 8 or 10 years with that grilled lamb.

Back to Beaujolais, this the 2001 Chignard Fleurie from magnum. Nice cherry, leaf, and earth flavors but overwhelmed by the company even if I couldn’t help another quick taste at the end of the night. It’s a fresh, delicious wine from importer Kermit Lynch, and someone at this gathering made the good point to not overlook Lynch’s Beaujolais producers beyond the "Gang of Four" of Breton, Folliard, Thevenet, and Lapierre. Look for Chignard, Chanrion, and Diochon, among others.

Then a flurry of bigger reds that ultimately blew my taste buds away. The 1995 Bosquet des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape was my favorite wine of the night, essence of grenache-dominated southern Rhone wine, still young but so fragrant and full of sweet cherry, stone, and assorted meat flavors. Yum. A pair of 1995 Brunello, first a funky if not a little corked La Fortuna Riserva. Then a stunning and young Librisi Brunello that opened all night long. Tobacco, cherries, soil, old wood, just lots of interesting things going on. A poster child for why old school Brunello is still king, or should be. Then to the right bank of Bordeaux, first the 1995 L’Arrosee St. Emilion that was tasting a bit tight and hard, especially after such rich, expressive wines. Likewise the 1995 Grand Mayne St. Emilion which wasn’t corked despite what critic Robert Parker says about this producer in the mid-90s, but was stern and unfriendly to this taster. Back to the cellar for you.

There was more, a nice 1995 Recioto di Valpolicella (producer??) that smelled like there might be some rimage Banyuls mixed in (for the dark chocolate notes). And a 1995 J.J. Prum Spatlese – was it Whelener Sonnenuhr? – that was lightly sweet and pure after some initial sulfur. And a 1995 Gevrey Chambertin (again, producer??) that smelled nice but tasted tight, and some other random things.

But I was done. So down again to the bus for an adventurous ride home through the Portland night to live again for another gathering. Thanks Mannings, well done as usual.