Louie the Wine Guy

June 20, 2004

Well, the time has finally come. Hennepin-Lake Liquors’ Summer Wine Sale is in full force, running through July 3rd. Reportedly, this is the sale to beat all sales, and I pretty much have to agree. Be advised, however, that newcomers to Phil’s place, or those who are at all claustrophobic might become overwhelmed. With that caveat in place, let’s dive into the sale.

Henn-Lake Liquors, as comapred to Surdyk’s, has a huge selection of high-end wines. This is one of the standout elements of the Summer Sale. California, France, Australia, Italy: If the name is prestigious, Phil more than likely carries it. If only two cases came to Minnesota, he probably bought them both. Haskells might argue the point, but while they excel with European wines, they can hardly compete in the domestic category.

Being a California wine guy, need I say more? To put a finer point on it, let’s look at the Cabernet/Meritage list from the Henn-Lake’s sale catalogue. Some big names like Quintessa, Viader, Chateau Montelena, and Opus stand out from the rest. Some even better, though perhaps less-familiar names that stand to offer more “value” in the high-end world of wine are O’Shaughnessy, Atalon, Cain, and Flora Springs.

Just to be fair, there are also more than twenty wines among Cabernet/Meritage selection that are on sale for under $10 a bottle. The list is as broad as it is deep, and the prices, overall, are very good, about twenty-five percent off “other’s price” (which, as usual, is a somewhat inflated idea of full retail). You will find better values at Sam’s Club & Costco, but on a much smaller selection. A few examples from Sam’s: Viader ’00 is $54.99 (Henn-Lake is $69.95); Clos du Bois “Marlstone” ’97 is $24.99 at Sam’s and $35.95 (for the ’99!) at Henn-Lake.

Now, Phil always says he will match anyone else’s price, but you do have to wonder if that means he could go head-to-head with the buying power of Wal-Mart (the Sam’s Club mother-ship). Still, I would make Henn-Lake the first choice for stocking up on a few mixed cases of very special wine. Phil even teases us in saying that he might have some Harlan for sale!

Henn-Lake’s kick-off tasting did not reflect well on the overall quality of the sale. It was held on Wednesday, June 9 in a large tent in the parking lot behind Campiello’s, just a block from the store. Unfortunately, the tent was not nearly large enough, and by 7pm the crowds were hardly navigable. Luckily I arrived early and made quick work of the large selection of wines.

The first group was from Phillips and included the Atalon ’00 Cab (young, a bit hot, but massivea great wine), three zinfandels from Edmeades (the “Piffero Vineyard” my favorite), Archipel ’00 meritage (very nice), and the best at the table, the Verite “La Joie” and“La Muse” (two beautifully structured Bordeaux-styled wines (are a bit pricey at $77.95 on sale). Also sampled at the Phillips table were Cambria’s “Julia’s Vineyard” Pinot Noir (always solid), Hartford Pinot Noir (just ok), Heitz ’00 Napa Cabernet (a bit disappointing), Tommasi’s Amarone ’98 (very nice), and the organic cab from Bonterra (surprisingly good).

The quality really picked up at the Grape Beginnings table! In the three-stars-or-higher category were the Altamura ’00 Sangiovese, the Paradigm ’99 Cabernet (amazing!), and Ehler’s ’01 Napa Estate Cabernet (my pick for the best quality/value at the tasting at just $24.95). At two-and-a-half stars we had Liberty School ’02 Cab and Treanna ’00 blend; and at two stars were Paul Hobbs ’00 Cab and the Vieux Telegraph ’00 Chateauneuf du Pape.

Paustis was pouring some fine selections such as the Steele ’01 Pinot Noir “Durrell Vineyard” – three stars, very fine, the best Pinot of the tasting, along with Cat & Fiddle’s Handley. Also a standout at this table was Fess Parker’s ’00 Syrah and Whitehall Lane’s ’01 Cab (both two-and-a-half stars). At the Grigg’s table I tried their Hungarian Egri Bikaver and was not impressed; also, the Phelps ’01 Pastiche was disappointing, as I have been long-time fan.

On the Johnson Bros. table, who showed one of the top wines of the show, the Chimney Rock ’01 “Stag’s Leap” Cabernet (was a three-and-a-half-starswow! Also decent, but not worth the price ($75) was the Raymond “Generations”; Raymond’s ’00 Reserve Cabernet was just about as good and is on sale for $23.95. I also tried the Freemark Abbey ’99 Cab, which was smooth and solid (two stars).

Two nice pinot noirs at the Wine Merchants table were from Archery Summit (the ’01 Premier Cuvee, two-and-a-half stars) and Rex Hill (two stars). At the nearby Vintage One table I sampled Van Duzer’s Pinot Noir (also two-and-a-half stars), the Badger Mountain organic merlot (simply not good), and the Powers ’01 Cabernet (nasty! have they ever slipped from their ’00 “best buy” perch).

World Class Wines, one of my favorite distributors, had few selections that I chose to sample. These included cabs from Provenance (two stars) and Terra Valentine (the ’01 Napa two-and-a-half stars), and the zinfandel from Seghesio (also two-and-a-half stars). Next door Cat & Fiddle wowed me with the aforementioned Handley Pinot Noir and with the best chardonnay of the event, from Solitude (three-and-a-half stars). Also a standout was the Elyse D’Aventure ’01 rhone blend (three stars), and both the cab and merlot from Grove Street (two stars).

The Wine Company showed the top zinfandel of the tasting, the Dashe Cellars ’01 Dry Creek (three stars and best value at the sale price of $16.95). But the real stunner at this table was the Flora Springs ’01 Napa Cabernet, which I thought superior to the Trilogy from Flora Springs and about half the price. Wow! Wow!

I greatly appreciated the few dessert wines offered, especially the fabulous Muscat from Bonny Dune. At eighteen-and-a-half percent residual sugar, this dreamy potion earned my only 4-star rating of the night, but then I am a real sucker for dessert wines, especially on the tail of such a great tasting. My only real complaint, though, Phil, is how come you couldn’t spring for glasses? To drink so many gorgeous wines out of plastic cups was a real travesty. The distributors provide all the wine; Campiello, the food; couldn’t you supply some glassware?

Now, in contrast, a great tasting was put on by our friends Down Under, the Australian Wine Bureau. They showcased over three hundred wines last Wednesday night at the lovely Nicollet Island Pavilion. This event helped me redefine my image of Austalian wines; like many, I tended to think of them only as producers of fine shiraz and shariz/cab blends. Au contraire!

At one table in particular, I learned how great Australian wine can be. It showcased the wines of Penley Estate and Giant Steps and all that these chaps Down Under can do. The Penley Estate ’00 Reserve Coonawara Cabernet ($65) was truly remarkable, and by far the best cab of the evening. It rated the top four-star rating, as did both the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay from Giant Steps (both sell for $35). I never realized that I might find California- and Washington State-style wines being made in Australia. Sadly, so far we don’t see these in our retail market, but maybe this tasting will begin to change that. Another truly great offering from Giant Steps was their Innocent Bystander ’02 Barossa Yarra Valley Sangiovese Merlot (three-and-a-half stars), and very good was the Innocent Bystander ’03 Central Victoria Shiraz Viognier (the Aussies have got to shorten the names of their wines!). I learned the value of blending a white grape like viognier into a red wine to add silkiness and perhaps a touch of sweetness.

Great wines abounded at the Leeuwin Estate table, shared with Jasper Hill, who produce a knockout shiraz, “Georgia’s Paddock” ($100). At half that price, and my pick for the best of all the shi
raz at the event, was Charles Melton (Epic Wines) ’00 Baroosa Valley ($45, four stars). Amazing wine. Charles Melton also makes a killer rose for $22. Another four-star shiraz came at the next table, a wine compared to Penfold’s Grange but at a fraction of the cost. The Mount Langi Ghiran ’99 “Langi Shiraz” Grampians Shiraz (what’s with these names?) was fabulous ($45, four stars)

Again, it was the dessert wines that really stole my heart. Southern Starz was showing two wines from R.L. Buller, one a Muscat and the other a tokay. Both were absolutely delicious. Even more remarkable, though, is that these wines, rated 97 and 95 by Robert Parker, retail for only $15 per 375 ml bottle. That, my friend, is a steal and you should demand your local wine dealer pick up a few cases. The dessert wine that I saved for the very end was a Mt. Horrocks “Cordon Cut” Watervale Riesling which, even at $27 for 500ml, was sensational.

This California wine guy has to include Down Under on his amended list of the best wine regions of the world. Now if only it wasn’t such a long flight to get there, I could start thinking about touring Australian wine regions next winter!

But hey – no time to be dreaming of winter travels today. It’s summer, and the air is perfect today, so I’m off to share coffee and a game of chess al fresco, followed by a round of golf, a barbecue and some fabulous wines. Can life get any better than this?