Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Wines
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Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Wines

I recently had the pleasure of sharing lunch with Blackstone winemaker Gary Sitton at the Modern Restaurant in Manhattan. This was my second wine lunch at the Modern (attached to the Museum of Modern Art). The meal was of such superb quality, that I feel impelled to give it mention before I write about the excellent Blackstone wines. I started with a superb “Chilled Maine Lobster Salad seasoned with Tahitian Vanilla, Granny Smith Apple and Shiso” followed by an equally superb “Pennsylvania Duck Breast with Black Trumpet Marmalade, Fleischschneke, and Banyuls Jus.” Gary, I recall, enjoyed the “Fine Herbs Braised Vermont Suckling Pig with Parsnip Puree, Roasted Pineapple, and Natural Jus scented with Cardamom.” Having tasted five wines with all this, the entire table opted out of dessert, though the offerings looked to be museum quality.

I have known winemakers who are serious about what they do yet shy about expressing themselves. Gary is as ardent a winemaker as they come and also about as affable and communicative as is possible for someone who needs to spend a lot of time thinking about grape skin contact, fermentation temperature, and yeast. “My philosophy is essentially quite simple,” he tells me. “Above all, I want these wines to be varietally correct.” Gary glows when he says this, but then again, he's an outdoor type, a former professional soccer player, at home in the splendor that is Sonoma. After earning a degree from UC Davis, he worked mostly in Sonoma wineries, first at Sommer Vineyards, then at Ravenswood before coming on at Blackstone. “I am one of those wine-begins-in-the-vineyard winemakers,” he says, “so the most important thing is to develop good relationships with Sonoma growers.” Of course, I say to myself, they all say that, but the idea hits home that Gary really means it, given the admirable balance and integrality in all five of the wines we tried that afternoon.

The 2007 Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay, $17, is 97% Chardonnay with 3% Muscat “to lift the fruit” as Gary puts it. The grapes are sourced in the Sonoma Carneros, Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs. The Chardonnay is a greenish gold in color with aromatic notes of apple, pear, pineapple, and vanilla, and some rather forceful acidity. “It's designed to be a food wine,” Gary tells me. “I wanted to finesse the oak contact, neither too much nor too little oak, so we barrel ferment this, do malo for about half, leaving the wine on the lees with lees stirring only during the malo.” This wine spends 10 months in French oak. It had just that balance of creaminess, acidity, fruit and oak elements (more a feel than a taste, as it should be) to work its elegant way into my heart. I am always wary of tasting “yet another” Chardonnay. This one shows the varietal character it is supposed to.

The 2007 Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Pinot Noir, $20, is sourced largely in Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast, with 13% from Sonoma Valley. Syrah makes up 7% of the blend, “to add complexity and texture” Gary says. The juice is cold soaked five days before fermentation, fermented in stainless steel to maintain flavor integrity, and aged 14 months in French oak. In color I found this wine on the tawny side, with garnet edges. The nose gave me baking spice and licorice with dried cherry and cranberry. The mouthfeel is silky soft and elegant, with balanced red fruit, a bare hint of tannin, more spice on the mid-palate and some toast and candied fruit on the finish. I found this wine rather sophisticated, not fruit-forward, with a good touch of earth and an interesting mix of flavors and textures. I'd like to revisit this in two or three years.

The 2007 Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Merlot, $20, brings with it a great deal of math: 85% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Ruby Cabernet, 2% Petit Verdot. The largest portion of the grapes comes from the hot climate Alexander Valley, then Dry Creek, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, and Sonoma Valley with a small foreign component from San Joaquin County. After crushing, the grapes are cold soaked three to five days, fermented in stainless steel and aged in wood for 20 months. In color a deep ruby, the Merlot is dry, with medium acidity, rather full body, a soft mouthfeel, and a long ripe finish. Toast, sweet oak, black cherry and cocoa make up the well balanced flavor and aromatic profile. You have fruit, other elements to complement the fruit, structure and delicacy.

The 2007 Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, $18, is 87% Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Dry Creek and Sonoma Valley Cabernet make up the core. This wine is a deep ruby, with excellent clarity. The nose brings a stimulating mix of clove, cassis, cardamom, basil and chocolate. My adjectives for the palate (directly from my notes) are dry, ripe, balance, structure, and grip. Good Cabernet blackcurrant shows on the palate, with plum and black cherry. Tannins are palpable but round. The finish shows sweet oak nicely balanced by a bit of licorice bite. A nice well conceived mix.

The 2007 Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Rubric, $23, is that daring-of-daring phenomenon in American wine circles, a blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Malbec, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot, 7% Tannat, 5% Merlot, and 3% Petite Syrah. As to geography, it will suffice to note it is 59% Dry Creek, rounded out with Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and a final 6% contribution from the Alexander Valley. This wine sees 20 months of oak. Color: a deep ruby. Nose: black fruit, clove, licorice, orange rind. Palate: black and red fruit, chocolate, vanilla, burnt sugar, pastry crust. The entire experience is characterized by ripeness. This is an unctuous wine, with a meandering, tannin-filled finish.

Verdict: Very well conceived

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Winemaking apparently takes a great deal of care and attention, just to allow the varietal nature of the grape to shine through.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Gary Sitton

Blackstone Winemaker Gary Sitton

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