Dunne on Wine

Halloween treats abound for wine lovers

Shot of the label of the JN Wines 2014 Napa Valley Skull Ring blended red wine.
Shot of the label of the JN Wines 2014 Napa Valley Skull Ring blended red wine. Mike Dunne

With Halloween drawing near, let’s reach into the grab bag to see what tasty treats we’ve gathered lately.

▪ Cue the soundtrack with the creaky door, midnight screams and battalion of bats – Flora Springs Winery in Napa Valley again is having fun with All Hallows’ Eve. Under its sister label JN Wines, it has released the JN Wines 2014 Napa Valley Skull Ring, a blended red wine. Even before pulling the cork, it is scary. The bottle is as heavy as an occupied casket, the label art is skeletal and intimidating and the price is downright frightful, $80. Given all that, the contents should be monstrous. The surprise is that the wine itself isn’t at all foreboding, but downright stately and clean-cut. The inspiration of Nat Komes, son of one of the founding principals of Flora Springs, Skull Ring is a bold and rare blend of 67 percent syrah and 33 percent petit verdot. Those varieties can produce bruising wines, but here they team up to yield a wine delightfully melodic, with fresh blueberry fruit, suggestions of pencil box, polite tannins, sleek lines, keen acidity and reasonable alcohol (14.5 percent). Only four cases were made, and it is available only through the website www.jonnathanielwines.com.

Ghost Winery label
One of three labels for the Flora Springs 2013 Napa Valley Ghost Winery Red Wine. Mike Dunne

▪ At Flora Springs they just can’t get enough of Halloween. In what’s become a more reserved fall ritual, they also have released a wine to recognize an 1885 stone cellar on the property that the Komes and Garvey families bought in 1977 to establish Flora Springs. That wine, the Flora Springs 2013 Napa Valley Ghost Winery Red Wine ($44), is a ripe and complex but nonetheless seamless blend based largely on cabernet sauvignon. By Napa Valley standards, it’s a bargain, but the owners spare no expense in packaging it. They retained Virginia artist Wes Freed to come up with three different bright and busy Halloween-themed labels with which to wrap bottles. The wine is more readily obtainable than the Skull Ring, being distributed nationally and sold at the winery’s Highway 29 tasting room at St. Helena and through its website, www.florasprings.com, through October.

Wine overlook bottle shot
Bottle shot of Landmark Vineyards 2015 Sonoma County Overlook Chardonnay. Courtesy of Landmark

▪ At Beyond Napa Wine Merchants in Lyon Village Shopping Center, owner Rod Farley says the most popular chardonnay he has going is Overlook by Landmark Vineyards of Sonoma. That’s somewhat surprising, given how competitive the chardonnay field is these days, with several other brands striding across the scene with more celebrity than Overlook. On the other hand, for a quarter of a century Overlook has been delivering a reliably clear and balanced take on the varietal at reasonable prices. The current release, the Landmark Vineyards 2015 Sonoma County Overlook Chardonnay ($20/$25; Beyond Napa sells it for $20), extends that heritage with a snugly dovetailed presentation of tropical fruits and French oak seasoning. The wine is as brilliantly colored as any Sierra slope of quaking aspen in the fall. The aroma of fresh ripe fruit and smoky wood is followed by stimulating flavors and complementary acidity. If there’s anything notably different to this Overlook, it’s the gold emblem on the label to recognize the wine’s 25th anniversary.

▪ And speaking of anniversaries, the Pieropan family is celebrating its long experience at making Soave Classico by attaching a special banner to bottles of its latest release of the wine. The Pieropan 2016 Soave Classico ($20) notes that this vintage is the 50th in which Leonildo “Nino” Pieropan has had a hand. He’s the grandson of the first Leonildo Pieropan, who bought a winery in the medieval Italian town of Soave in the late 1800s, which has been home to the family ever since. Today, Nino Pieropan, his wife, Teresita, and their sons Andrea and Dario continue to tend the grape varieties garganega and trebbiano di soave that go into their wine. The 2016 is a lean, fresh and forward testimonial to the family’s blending of tradition and innovation. The wine’s suggestions of lemon and slate, punctuated with quickening acidity, make it a versatile companion at the table, especially with white-fleshed seafood.

Bottle shot of Kenwood Vineyards 2013 Sonoma County Artist Series Cabernet Sauvigon. Courtesy of Kenwood

▪ By Italian standards of grape growing and winemaking, California is a youngster, but it does boast a few traditions of its own. One is the nearly annual release of the Kenwood Vineyards Artist Series cabernet sauvignon. If not for the troublesome 2011 vintage, when winemakers at Kenwood agreed to skip the year rather than release an Artist Series that didn’t measure up to their expectations for the wine, the string would stand at 38 straight years, starting in 1975. The latest is the Kenwood Vineyards 2013 Sonoma County Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), a juicy, concentrated and astutely balanced interpretation of the varietal. Its shifting complexity is its most alluring feature as fresh cherry, berry, plum and mint flavors are underscored by grudging tannins. The wine’s arresting acidity replenishes the palate for another sip or another bite of succulent steak. Winemaker Pat Henderson drew from a richly varied palette to create the wine, including grapes from five scattered vineyards, dabs of petit verdot and cabernet franc, and French and American oak barrels, in which the wine was aged for two years. San Francisco artist Clare E. Rojas created the label art, a geometric abstraction that suggests the towering rock formations of Yosemite Valley, representing a mass and power that should evolve handsomely and smoothly over the next decade.

The Federalist
Bottle shot of The Federalist 2014 Mendocino County Zinfandel. Courtesy of The Federalist

▪ Though winemakers have been using old bourbon barrels to age wines for years, the technique lately has become trendy, with “aged in bourbon barrels” showing up teasingly on wine labels. No brand may be more vested in the concept than The Federalist, a label of Illinois-based Terlato Wines, though the wines are made at Rutherford Hill Winery in Napa Valley. Federalist winemaker Bryan Parker says he likes to use heavily toasted old bourbon barrels of American oak for the vanilla and smoke they bring to a wine. He used the method most assertively with The Federalist 2014 Mendocino County Zinfandel ($22), an exceptionally lush and embracing take on the varietal. While other winemakers may exploit bourbon barrels for three or so months, Parker doubled down, leaving the zinfandel on the wood for six months. As a consequence, the wine smolders with vanilla, caramel and char. Perhaps because of the wine’s high alcohol – 15.5 percent – or perhaps because of the power of suggestion, a thread of bourbon flavor lurks in its deeply colored depths. Parker, however, says the barrels were rinsed repeatedly to flush out any bourbon residue. At any rate, it’s a big wine for big food, though its novelty and sweet berry fruit qualify it as a cocktail wine that can be sipped on its own, perhaps between visits by trick-or-treaters.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.