Hello and welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.

Let’s begin this week with some dependable values. Many Pinot Noir lovers know Calera Wines, the lifelong passion project of Josh Jensen who found his own little spot for making Pinot Noir on Limestone called Mount Harlan. Calera, which was bought by the Duckhorn family of brands a couple of years ago, has long made a couple of inexpensive Central Coast wines. Both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which I reviewed this week, are tasty and excellent values.

I’ve been going on, to anyone that will listen, for about 10 years on the subject of planting Nerello Mascalese and Carricante in California. Specifically I think someone should plant them in the volcanic soils of Lake County. To my knowledge no one has done that yet, but the folks at Rhys Vineyards have planted them in a vineyard way up north of Lake Sonoma in Mendocino County and have started to harvest the grapes and put them into a brand they call Aeris, which also includes the Sicilian wines they are making on the slopes of Mount Etna.

Writing about Rhys wines always gives me a little twinge of conscience in the wake of their completely offensive environmental debacle. But their wines are pretty remarkable, and deserve mention, with some hope that they’ve learned their lesson when it comes to ignoring the law and obliterating ecosystems.

The two wines they’ve released from their Centennial Mountain Vineyard are a white, made from Carricante, and a red that is a blend of Nebbiolo, Nerello Mascalese, Carignan, Primitivo, and Barbera. I like them both a lot, though the Carricante, as a solo act, evokes more of its Sicilian heritage than does the red blend. Both are worth seeking out. I look forward to watching this project evolve.

I’ve got two single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from Lavinea in Oregon to recommend this week, both distinctly different in personality, but each pretty tasty.

Finally, I’ve got a few big Napa reds for you, this week, including the Crane Assembly, a high-end Napa Cabernet project from Dave Phinney, the man who brought you the Prisoner wine, and two wines from Peju winery. My favorite of the set is the 1886 Napa Cabernet from Ehler’s Estate, a biodynamic winery north of St. Helena run by a non-profit cardiovascular research organization. It’s got a lovely combination of power and balance that are the hallmarks of great Napa Cabernet. I just wish it didn’t have such a heavy bottle.

All these and more below!

Tasting Notes

2018 Calera Vineyards Chardonnay, Central Coast, California
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and pineapple. In the mouth, rich pineapple and candied lemon rind flavors have a nice juiciness thanks to decent acidity. Definitely leans towards the riper end of the Chardonnay spectrum, but the acidity balances out the intense fruit. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2017 Aeris “Centennial Mountain Vineyard – Bianco” Carricante, California
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of star fruit, celery, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, juicy and saline flavors of lemon cucumber, white flowers, and star fruit have fantastically bright acidity and a candied green apple note that lingers in the finish along with notes of wet pavement. This is the first planting of the Carricante grape in America, as far as I know. 12% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2017 Aeris “Centennial Mountain Vineyard – Bricco Rosso” Red Blend, California
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of nutmeg and mulling spices, cedar, and strawberry jam. In the mouth, very juicy cherry and strawberry flavors are shot through with cinnamon, cardamom, and cedar, as powdery, muscular tannins wrap around the core of the wine. Excellent acidity. A blend of 50% Nebbiolo, 20% Nerello Mascalese, 10% Carignan, 10% Primitivo and 10% Barbera. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.  

2018 Lavinea “Tulatin Estate” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberries and a hint of potpourri. In the mouth, bright raspberry and redcurrant flavors mix with mulling spices and some dried flowers. Excellent acidity backs a citrus peel brightness to the wine, which lingers through a long finish. Fine, powdery tannins. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $59. click to buy.

2018 Lavinea “Elton Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of struck match and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, wonderfully earthy and stony notes of raspberry and raspberry leaf have a faint tannic texture and bright, juicy acidity. Conveys a sense of refinement. 12.9% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $68. click to buy.

2018 Calera Vineyards Pinot Noir, Central Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and cranberry compote. In the mouth, bright cherry, cranberry, and raspberry flavors have a juicy, sweet brightness backed by a tiny hint of dusty tannins. Straightforward and pleasurable. Easy to drink. Good acidity and length. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.

2015 The Crane Assembly “G.B. Crane Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raisins and chocolate, and cherries. In the mouth, cherries and chocolate-covered raisins have a surprisingly light touch on the palate and with good acidity making for something of a conundrum of a wine. At once quite ripe, but definitely not heavily extracted, there’s a bit of an admirable grace to the wine, and a surprising balance given the 15.7% alcohol. Unfortunately heavy bottle weighs 1.78 kg full. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $225. click to buy.

2017 Ehlers Estate “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, California, Napa
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and tobacco leaf. In the mouth, the wine has a bright elegance, with flavors of cherry, tobacco, plum, and hints of dried herbs. Fine-grained tannins hang like a haze above the palate, and notes of licorice and dried flowers linger in the finish. Excellent acidity makes for a mouthwatering mouthful. Quite pretty. 14.5% alcohol. 1100 cases made. Comes in an egregiously heavy bottle weighing 1.79 kg when full. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.

2018 Peju Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and tobacco and cola. In the mouth, cherry cola flavors are bright with juicy acidity. Notes of tobacco and espresso linger in the finish. Muscular tannins wrap around the fruit core of the wine, and a hint of mintiness suffuses the wine. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $57 click to buy.

2018 Peju “Fifty / Fifty” Red Blend, Napa Valley, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and blackcurrant. In the mouth, plush flavors of black cherry and cassis have a nice minty coolness to them and a touch of espresso and dark chocolate that lingers in the finish along with that mintiness. Faint, leathery tannins gain substance as the wine moves across the palate. A blend of 50% Merlot and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $120. click to buy.