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WTN: White Rhones and White "Rhones"


Brad Ballinger
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Mary Baker of Dover Canyon Winery sent me a six-pack of California wines made from Rhone grape varieties. One of her reasons was to show what California (particularly the Central Coast) is capable of doing with these varieties. Another reason might be because she thinks I’m a swell guy. I was happy to receive the wine and the opportunity to taste through six bottles I’ve never had before, and that are hard or impossible to find locally in Minnesota.

But knowing my bias against just about any white wine from California, I assembled a “tasting panel” of wine board guys to help evaluate these wines. Making up the panel were Lee Short (who is known to be shocked and disgusted when he finds a bottle of California wine in his cellar, thinking he got rid of them a long time ago), Jean Brislance (who likely has more California wine – per capita – than the rest of us), Paul Campbell (who is balanced in his cellar inventory and appreciation for Old and New World styles), Jim Verlautz (who we learned holds onto white wines too long), and yours truly. This was the first time I’ve been with these people where we all were drinking the same wines simultaneously. Usually someone goes off and does their own thing.

Of course, far be it for this crowd to show up empty handed. I would’ve been fine just tasting through the six bottles that Mary sent. If you quickly scroll through this post, you will see that was nowhere near the case. I needed to start spitting sooner. The wines in the six-pack appear in italics. We all brought delicacies we had cooked. The halibut with mango salsa was great, Paul.

NV Champagne Gaston Chiquet, Brut Blanc de Blancs d’Ay, Grand Cru. Ho-hum, just another solid, well-crafted wine from Terry Thiese’s book. Subdued nose that struggles to reveal chalky mineral, lemon zest, and perfumed soap. The mousse is soft and cushy. The flavor profile prominently features pears. There is also a little lemon tartness. The wine finishes with lemon pith and a chalky texture.

2002 Dover Canyon Viognier, Fralich Vineyard, Paso Robles. Strange nose that some of us found off-putting with notes of bell pepper and squash. But aromas of orange oil and peach still came through. The attack was oily and the wine felt heavy in the mouth, as if weighed down by mouth-coating oak. The finish was all peach juice at first, giving way to an alcoholic burn. It’s a big and oaky wine. Warmth helped bring more of the fruit and less of the vegetables out on the nose, but it also showcased the oak more on the nose and in the mouth.

2003 Dover Canyon Viognier, Hansen Vineyard, Paso Robles. This was my second or third favorite still wine of the evening. One or two others thought similarly. Jim didn’t like it at all. Lighter in color than the Fralich, and more muted on the nose. Thankfully, nothing veggie-like whatsoever. Light citrus and stone fruit aromas, but also a whiff of alcohol on the nose. In the mouth, this wine shows much more balance than the Fralich – focusing on fruit and spice rather than oak. There is a bigger alcohol burn on the finish, though. Eating food with the wine helps control the burn on the finish, but it never fully goes away.

2002 Changala Viognier, Santa Barbara County. Lee’s first impression on the nose was canned tuna fish. I didn’t get it. I could struggle to get the can but not the tuna fish. My impression of the nose is that this is a viognier that wants to be a chardonnay. There’s a large vanilla component. According to the winery’s tech sheet, the wine was fermented 50% in stainless steel and 50% in neutral oak. All of us commented on the oak in this wine. The flavor profile was a combination of orange rind and white peaches in between the oak attack and oak finish. We all thought the wine showed some nice acidity, which helped keep the oak from dominating even more.

2002 Alban Vineyards Viognier, Central Coast. This wine was the consensus favorite, regardless of Steven Tanzer’s 86-point rating. This is the first wine that has shown some floral on the nose (other than the Champagne). Beautiful honeysuckle, peach, and citrus. Pretty seamless from attack to finish. Creamy texture than features oranges, peaches, flowers, and a hint of spice. As it warms, it loses some lift and becomes flatter. A tiny bit hot on the finish, but that resolves itself when paired with food. Paul called it his wine of the night, but I think he was forgetting about the Chiquet.

There were two other wines in Mary’s six-pack, but they are blends. So we decided to drink some other viognier wines before moving onto them.

2001 Chateau Pesquie Viognier, Portes de Mediterranée Vin de Pays. This one, along with the Dover Canyon Hansen, was my second or third favorite still wine. But we wondered – bemusedly – how this producer could make a good wine without oak. Nose features tarragon in a large dose, but there is also lemon and stony minerals. Waaaaay more acid than any of the California wines. To nitpick, the wine is a tiny bit stem-y. I enjoyed the acid play with the citrus, minerals, and floral tones.

2000 Lys de Volan Condrieu. A Gerard Depardieu wine. Vegetables on the nose. Quite a bit of residual sugar. This wine is particularly sweet after the Pesquie. There is some complexity and dimension to the flavors of stone fruits, spice, and melon. But there is no acid or structure to make a good presentation. So it comes off as flabby and sweet. Dump and move on.

1999 E. Guigal Condrieu La Doriane. Beautiful nose of peaches, apricots, and orange oil. Nice presentation of the fruit and spice on the attack, but it’s all downhill after that. There’s no “there” there in this wine. A low acid level causes the wine to entirely disappear in the mid- and rear-palate. I mean there is positively nothing that happens beyond the tip of the tongue. On the finish there is tired fruit and a bitterness that lingers.

Onto the blends (and others)…

2002 Tablas Creek Vin de Tablas Blanc, Paso Robles. 36% viognier, 30% marsanne, 26% grenache blanc, 8% roussanne. Tarragon herb on the nose along with white pepper and melon. Thick and oily in its structure, low amount of acid play. A bit of vegetation that mars the melon, citrus, and stone fruits.

2002 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, Paso Robles. 70% roussanne, 25% grenache blanc, 5% viognier. Paul liked this wine more than the rest of us. I found it appealing enough. Nice nose of herbs and melon. Without food, the wine comes across as oaky and hot. Spice accents in the citrus and melon flavor profile. But the oak doesn’t appear to be very well integrated. I’d like to try the wine after (if) the oak integrates – or without the oak entirely. The fruit and acid components are quite pleasing in their own right.

1989 M. Chapoutier Chante-Alouette Hermitage Blanc. The nose is all fingernail polish remover. Dumped it.

1999 Domaine des Remizieres “Cuvée Christophe” Crozes-Hermitage Blanc. This wine suffered from being cooked at some point. Cooked aromas and oxidation on the nose. Cooked and caramelized fruit on the palate.

1994 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc. Cream and earthy minerality on the nose. Nutty and resiny in the mouth. On the decline. Tired fruit.

1993 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay, “Le Bouge D’a Cote,” Santa Barbara County. Lee wanted to get rid of this being shocked to find it in his cellar. He could’ve done so without subjecting the rest of us to it. Supposedly, this top cuvée from ABC is supposed to age well. Supposedly. This was DOA.

2001 Sine Qua Non Albino. California. 46% chardonnay, 40% roussanne, 14% viognier. Overwhelming oak on the nose. Even more on the palate. Can’t get past it. I take everything back I said about the oakiness in the earlier wines. This wine is the poster child for over-oaked white wine.

1999 E. Guigal Condrieu Luminescence. 375ml bottle. This is tied for the worst dessert wine I have ever had. The other was the 1997 Feudi di San Gregorio Privilegio. But if I tasted them side by side, this one may be voted worst.

NV R.L. Buller & Sons “Calliope” Rare Liqueur Muscat, Rutherglen. We has to end the evening on a good note. This wine isn’t entirely like P.X., but you can see it from here. Liquid brown sugar buoyed by acid. Jim had a good description when he said “baked apple without the apple.”

Jim also brought a white quaffer from the Greek producer, Boutari. It was a great summer deck white for about $6. But I didn’t write down any information or notes on it.

Amazingly, not one red wine in the bunch.

Jean also took notes, so he may have detailed comments to add.

We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

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I'm intrigued by the poor performance of the Guigal sweet wine. Your tasting notes are only personal in nature and don't quite make clear what, if any, flaws are apparent in that wine. Nor do you state what was wrong with the Feudi di San Gregorio dessert wine.

Given that so many of the wines you had were of such poor quality, was this some sort of Masochist's Club Wine Tasting gathering, or what?

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I'm intrigued by the poor performance of the Guigal sweet wine. Your tasting notes are only personal in nature and don't quite make clear what, if any, flaws are apparent in that wine. Nor do you state what was wrong with the Feudi di San Gregorio dessert wine.

Given that so many of the wines you had were of such poor quality, was this some sort of Masochist's Club Wine Tasting gathering, or what?

That's a fair comment about not stating what was wrong. I focused on getting the notes out quickly, and didn't include detail I should in some areas. But I will add that, for the most part, the impressions were consensus impressions of the group, and not just my own curmudgeonly comments.

What's wrong with the Luminescence? Where do I start? No viognier character. Hardly any fruit at all. No vibrancy. Flat. Bitter. Wooden. If anyone else on this forum has had this wine, they will agree on just how bad it is. Don't believe Parker.

What's wrong with the Privilegio? Taste it side by side to a glass of sugar water, and you'll be hard pressed to tell the difference.

This was not an exercise in masochism. I like viognier. But what I like it for - floral, slight spice, perfumed citrus and stone fruits didn't show up in many of these wines. Or, if it was present it was marred by a heavy hand with the oak and a push toward higher alcohol. Several (not just the California ones) were made in the same way many California producers make chardonnay. It was disappointing to come away with only 2 or 3 that I'd like to try again.

We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

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Brad, thank you for your comments! I agree the Fralich is over the top, very cooked melon. We decided during harvest last year not to buy any more of Harry Fralich's fruit, although we have featured his vineyard for seven years running. He has good vintages and bad, whereas Hansen is always consistent. We will also be getting viognier and roussanne from Judy Starr, Starr Ranch, this year, and we're anticipating high quality from this young vineyard. I was pretty sure you'd like the Alban. John Alban sets the bar for Rhones in the Central Coast.

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Mary Baker

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Excellent notes, Brad. Thanks very much for putting this together. It was a fun and educational evening for me, as I have very little experience with Viognier and white Rhone wines in general.

I have been on vacation for the last week (without Internet access for most of it), so my comments are a bit belated. But, just a few quick remarks from memory, as my notes are still somewhere in my luggage:

The Chiquet was wonderful. Every time I have something like this, I think. "I have to drink more Champagne!" Maybe someday I will learn.

I agree with most everyone in that I definitely preferred the '03 Dover Canyon Hansen to the '02 Fralich. That was no contest.

I'm not sure I really cared all that much for either of the Tablas Creek wines. In retrospect, they just did not do a lot for me.

The Alban was really a surprise to me. I have never had an Alban before, and I am not sure why, but I had assumed this was going to be a big, over-oaked, over-the top wine. How wrong I was! This was really well balanced and delicious.

The Lys de Volan Condrieu was weird. Just too sweet. This was the first Condrieu I had ever tried, and when I asked the group if this was what Condrieu was supposed to be like, my question was met with a resounding chorus of "No!"

The Chateau Pesquie was really quite nice, and if I recall, was also a very good value, correct? I thought that might be the best food wine of the night.

The NV R.L. Buller & Sons Calliope was indeed a great way to end the evening, and I loved Jim's description. That was unlike anything I have ever tasted, and it was a real treat to be able to try it.

Once again, thanks to all for the great evening, all!

Jean

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Rosenblum has a very nice Rousanne which is from a Fess Parke Vineyard in Santa Barbara County. They also have a nice Marsanne from Dry Creek. Both of these are reasonably priced at $18.

Turley has a fine Rousanne/Marsanne blend called "White Coat" though I think at $35 a bottle it is a bit pricey.

I'm curious as to why Brad is so biased against California white wines? Did you know Murhpy-Goode's label is purple because they are Viking fans.

Charles a food and wine addict - "Just as magic can be black or white, so can addictions be good, bad or neither. As long as a habit enslaves it makes the grade, it need not be sinful as well." - Victor Mollo

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Interesting reviews. Is it possible that the Guigal dessert wine was simply a bad bottle or were several bottles opened? Buller makes excellent dessert wines that are also superb values.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I'm curious as to why Brad is so biased against California white wines? Did you know Murhpy-Goode's label is purple because they are Viking fans.

I'll go ahead and address this here because it may help to understand my notes.

I'm not biased against California wines as a matter of course. The best white wine I had at this tasting was from California, and the best red wine I've had of late is a tie between two California Cabs.

I'm also in the process of writing a feature for the Daily Gullet on a California producer that makes some incredible riesling, and pretty tasty chardonnay.

No, there is not a bias against California whites or reds. There is a dissatisfaction with wines that are so out of balance that oak is the prominent feature. I've probably experienced that in California whites as a general group, more than other whites. Regarding the notes from this tasting Jean and Lee (LOS as he posts here) can attest to the imbalance in many of these wines, and not just those from California.

For my personal taste (and wine is personal), I like more mineral, and that's more easily found in whites from other parts of the world. Does it exist in California? Sure. Is it featured in the wines? Not so much. And, for the money, I find better value elsewhere.

Regardig Murphy Goode, winemaker Dave Ready is from Minnesota so maybe that explains the Vikings purple label. They also make a Chardonnay labeled Minnesota Cuvee, because the oak comes from Minnesota. The wines tend to be sweeter than some other Chardonnay.

Kent Rosenblum is also from Minnesota. So are the Stotesberrys, owners of Ladera. So is Robert Mondavi.

We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

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Interesting reviews. Is it possible that the Guigal dessert wine was simply a bad bottle or were several bottles opened? Buller makes excellent dessert wines that are also superb values.

John,

Everyone I've spoken to in person or virtually (and there have been at least six who weren't at this tasting) who has had the Luminescence has nothing good to say about it. It wasn't the bottle.

We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

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My personal opinion is that if you are going to drink viognier, it should be from Condrieu. There is viognier being made by most wineries in Virginia now, in addition to California. They are completely different animals. California viognier impresses me as too fat, oily and oaky. Most good Condrieu has no oak. La Doriane is one of the exceptions. For delicious, delicate Condrieu try Georges Vernay "Terrasses de l'Empire", Domaine Pichot, Domaine Boissonet. The regular bottling of Guigal Condrieu varies quite a bit from year to year. 2000 was definitely sweeter than 99.

Mark

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My personal opinion is that if you are going to drink viognier, it should be from Condrieu. There is viognier being made by most wineries in Virginia now, in addition to California. They are completely different animals. California viognier impresses me as too fat, oily and oaky. Most good Condrieu has no oak. La Doriane is one of the exceptions. For delicious, delicate Condrieu try Georges Vernay "Terrasses de l'Empire", Domaine Pichot, Domaine Boissonet. The regular bottling of Guigal Condrieu varies quite a bit from year to year. 2000 was definitely sweeter than 99.

Agreed. I've had Vernay and Boissonet. I also like Villard, even though those can show more oak. These white Rhone varietal wines were sent from Mary at Dover Canyon. So, as the subtitle says, it was a study in science.

In a cover letter from Mary, she referenced a blind tasting where many tasters pegged Guigal's Condrieu as from California. There was no indication if it was La Doriane or not.

We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

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Weeellllll, no, it wasn't many tasters--it was the owners, winemakers and staff of Tablas Creek. However, they are an international group, primarily British and French, so if they say the Condrieu wines were confused with Californian then I believe that indeed there's a little stylistic cross-over there. Personally, I think of French viognier as a sort of Grace Kelly wine, and American viognier as Rachel MacLish. Even Jancis Robinson refers to viognier as a "muscular white wine." :cool: !

I do agree that we need to refine our viticultural awareness in California regarding viognier. The Hansen Vineyard is very black, volcanic soil (unusual in our area) and produces a creamy, more balanced viognier than other vineyards we've seen so far. Other soils also produce great viogniers here, but we are probably picking too late. More experimentation needed.

Mat Garretson is the authority on this, but I have heard that at one point in the last few decades there were only 10 hectares of viognier left in France, and not a hell of a lot planted in California. Ten years ago I couldn't interest visitors in tasting it because it sounded like a German opera and it sure as hell didn't taste like chardonnay.

Personally, I have aspirations to look like Rachel MacLish, therefore I am committed to drinking a lot of California viognier! :laugh:

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Mary Baker

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Any recomendations on reasonably priced Condrieu's one might find over here? I'd be interested in picking up a bottle or 2 and then comparing them to some California Viognier's I find appealing.

Other than Rieslings (especially late harvest) I've mainly been a red wine drinker. In recent years, as my SO prefers whites, I've expanded my interest and taste in the whites. While I like and can easily enjoy Chardonnay and Sauv Blancs they have never been what has floated my boat. Rousanne and Marsanne however, which I've only had over the past couple of years, is quite a different story. I find both of these wines far more attractive to my tastes than Chardonnay or Sauv Blanc. I also prefer Viognier as well over the more traditional California whites.

Charles a food and wine addict - "Just as magic can be black or white, so can addictions be good, bad or neither. As long as a habit enslaves it makes the grade, it need not be sinful as well." - Victor Mollo

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Brad excellent notes, thank you.

After hearing viognier described as "Chardonnay kissed by the Riesling Fairy" I made some effort to try this wine type. But, I don't think that I 'get' viognier. Have had nice enough examples as young wines, but the 5+ years examples have all seemed rather flabby and disjointed, be they Condrieu or New world, cheap or expensive.

What exactly am I missing in the aged wines?

edit: Pleased to see that you enjoyed the Rutherglen muscat (Buller's). Are the desert wines from this area common in your neck of the woods?

Edited by Adam Balic (log)
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Brad excellent notes, thank you.

After hearing viognier described as "Chardonnay kissed by the Riesling Fairy" I made some effort to try this wine type. But, I don't think that I 'get' viognier. Have had nice enough examples as young wines, but the 5+ years examples have all seemed rather flabby and disjointed, be they Condrieu or New world, cheap or expensive.

What exactly am I missing in the aged wines?

edit: Pleased to see that you enjoyed the Rutherglen muscat (Buller's). Are the desert wines from this area common in your neck of the woods?

Condrieu should be drunk within 2 years of the vintage.

Mark

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After hearing viognier described as "Chardonnay kissed by the Riesling Fairy" I made some effort to try this wine type. But, I don't think that I 'get' viognier. Have had nice enough examples as young wines, but the 5+ years examples have all seemed rather flabby and disjointed, be they Condrieu or New world, cheap or expensive.

What exactly am I missing in the aged wines?

edit: Pleased to see that you enjoyed the Rutherglen muscat (Buller's). Are the desert wines from this area common in your neck of the woods?

Mark beat me to it on Condrieu. These should be drunk young. I think people get confused a bit when they see the higher price tag on that bottle of Condrieu and think about aging the wine. Hermitage Blanc can age. Even some Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc responds well to age. Not Condrieu, with a very small exception of some late harvest ones. I'm not a chemist, but I would guess the lower acidity has something to do with it.

I've never heard the Chardonnay kissed by Riesling phrase. Chardonnay kissed by Gewurztraminer seems to make more sense to me.

We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

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Well I have also had that late harvest Guigal Viognier Luminescence. Unfortunately I've had it twice. Horrible stuff that left Viognier behind in its distant past. Sweet and flat is about all I can say about it. If it was volatile I would use it to thin paint.

I've actually found a Virginia Viognier I like (King). It's not Condrieu, but it's very tasty.

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Well I have also had that late harvest Guigal Viognier Luminescence. Unfortunately I've had it twice. Horrible stuff that left Viognier behind in its distant past. Sweet and flat is about all I can say about it. If it was volatile I would use it to thin paint.

I've actually found a Virginia Viognier I like (King). It's not Condrieu, but it's very tasty.

The King Family wines are very good, as are Michael Schap's (King's winemaker). His most amazing and delicious wine is his late harvest cabernet franc (vinified dry).

Mark

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What exactly am I missing in the aged wines?

ACEEEEEEEEEEEDDDD (acid).

Viognier, while a tempting wine to espouse, is just too banana starch stinky and difficult for most (including me). I just cannot get my head around it. It is particularly difficult to pair with food unless the food is almonds.

That being said, it is nice that people and pushing at the edges of the Chardonnay envelope. Now that the 2002 Burgs have been released tho', I am a Chardonnay girl once again, little monstrous tantrum throwing babies that they are!

over it

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  • 3 months later...

Tasted a very nice Rhone-inspired (Chateau Neuf de Pape Blanc) wine from Bonny Doon this past weekend: 2003 Le Cigare Blanc. ($18)

(bottle says it is 97% roussanne and 3% grenache blanc

A nice crisp wine, little to no oak that I could tell; seemed to fit the common roussane descriptor of "racy".

I'm not sure how long they've been making this but it was the first taste for me.

Any other recommendations for roussanne-dominated wines from California or France? (I think I'm hooked; have had a few and love them each time).

Edited by ludja (log)

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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My personal opinion is that if you are going to drink viognier, it should be from Condrieu. There is viognier being made by most wineries in Virginia now, in addition to California. They are completely different animals. California viognier impresses me as too fat, oily and oaky. Most good Condrieu has no oak.

there are other domestic viogniers around, too, though many have the same faults as CA viogniers -- too much oak, not nearly enough delicacy and, often, *way* too much residual sugar. (unless they were somehow subtly going for a botrytized version, a la Ayguets, which i doubt.)

i've tasted OR viogniers that were downright sweet. i've also tasted viogniers from the same producer (like Rulo in Walla Walla) that bombarded me with R.S. one year, then were almost bone-dry the next.

weirdly, the folks in Condrieu seemed to endorse a bit of age on their wines when i asked them -- though they may have meant to keep it within five years. they also appreciate the virtues of just a tiny, tiny bit of oak.

not long ago, there was a viognier column in F&W, i think, describing viognier's last ascendancy in the '80s. their conclusion: it was made to be the "next chardonnay," and not surprisingly, failed.

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