I'm going to pick on one winery in this column, and I'm naming names.
Oh dear, you're thinking, he's having one of those days.
I recently tasted 14 products from Hanna Winery, founded in 1985 in Sonoma County by heart surgeon Elias Hanna.
The "regular" bottlings are well-made, especially the sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, but the reserve red wines and those designated Bismark Ranch illustrate all that's wrong with California winemaking today: They push alcohol levels so high and embody so much toasty oak that they're not only almost undrinkable but also practically obliterate individual characteristics.
First, the successes:
The Hanna Sauvignon Blanc 2000, Slussen Road Vineyard, Russian River Valley, is a delightful wine, very lively and spicy, restrained in its grassy, herbal elements, but made in a rich, earthy style emphasizing tasty lemon-lime flavors over limestone. Excellent. About $16.
The Hanna Chardonnay 2000, Russian River Valley, handles its oak deftly. It's fresh and clean, with winsome green apple and pear scents and classic pineapple-grapefruit flavors; it's certainly very ripe, but the essence lies with elegance and restraint, balance and integration. Excellent. About $21.
Another winner is the Hanna Zinfandel 2000, Alexander Valley. Big in alcohol (14.7 percent) and large in sweet, polished tannins, it's manageably, even seductively ripe, dense and concentrated, with hints of dried currants and potpourri under delicious black cherry and blackberry flavors; the circumference is presently a bit austere. Excellent. About $22.
I'm also a fan of Hanna's Two Ranch Red 1999, Sonoma County, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and sangiovese. Though a briary, brooding wine, it's vivid with cassis, black cherry and raspberry flavors touched with lavender and licorice set in bastions of polished oak and grainy tannins. Certainly drinkable now if you're in a teeth-staining mood; it could age two to four years. Excellent. About $21.
Another Hanna wine that I liked, rather improbably, was the Reserve Zinfandel 1999, Pourroy Vineyard, Alexander Valley, a 15 percent alcohol zin that manages to be as pure and elegant as a super-ripe, macerated, incredibly intense and concentrated blockbuster zin can be. Excellent. About $42.
However, I'm not so fond of the 14.5 percent alcohol Hanna Merlot 1999, Alexander Valley, a wine that scintillates with so much toasty oak and so many mineral elements that its succulence seems entirely misdirected and undistinguished. Good only. About $23. And the Hanna Pinot Noir 1998, Russian River Valley, is made in a very earthy toast-and-tobacco-infused style that features heaps of cranberry, black cherry and cola in a setting that becomes increasingly dry and austere. Very good but not quite balanced. About $22.
The next wines, however, are completely beyond the pale. (The Bismark Ranch wines carry a Sonoma Valley designation.)
The Hanna Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Hanna Red Ranch, Alexander Valley, is a "very" wine - very toasty and oaky, very big and extracted, very minerally. It's too typical of the contemporary style to express any individuality. About $50.
The Hanna Bismark Ranch Noir 1998, 15.1 percent alcohol and aged 20 months in French and American oak, is essentially driven by its oak and alcohol; it's dense, thick, spicy and very austere. About $50. The Hanna Bismark Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, also 15.1 percent alcohol, is astonishingly ripe, plummy and jammy, smelling and tasting like an over-ripe zinfandel. About $64. I would be hard-pressed to tell that the Hanna Bismark Merlot 1997, which spends one month in new French oak and 24 months in new and old American oak barrels, has anything to do with the merlot grape. It could be cabernet sauvignon; it could be zinfandel or syrah. What a waste of what must have been terrific grapes. About $60.
The Hanna Bismark Zinfandel 1999 works so aggressively at being super-ripe and super-rich and exaggeratedly plummy and jammy - and where did those notes of coffee and tobacco come from? - that it's almost unmanageable as a beverage. Think of it as cologne you wear to a club that doesn't open until 2 a.m. About $52. The Hanna Bismark Sangiovese 1999 smells and tastes like any other over-manufactured, over-manipulated California red wine now so much (and regrettably) in fashion. Anything that has to do with the noble sangiovese grape got lost in the factory. About $50. And finally, the Hanna Bismark Syrah 1998 is so dry and austere, so deeply permeated with wood, that no details come through. It's anonymous and undrinkable. About $46.
Geez, F.K., you're saying, don't you have any good news for us?
Oh, all right!
As antidote to my diatribe, here are five cabernet sauvignon-based wines from the Napa Valley that you should not neglect, especially if you're serious about such wines.
The Markham Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley, positioned at a sensible 13.5 percent alcohol, starts at big and tannin and leaps right to voluptuous. It presents plenty of grit and stuffing, but it's essentially well-balanced, offering lovely ripe cassis and black cherry scents and flavors with a hint of bittersweet chocolate and intensity with lip-smacking dividends. It could use three to five years. Excellent. About $26.
The oak in the Merryvale Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Napa Valley, takes a cue from Old Ironsides, but, boy, is this a clean and pure expression of the grape: Large-framed and chewy, dense with forest and underbrush qualities, it offers fairly reticent cherry, raspberry and bittersweet chocolate flavors that need four to six years. Excellent potential. About $26.
Truckloads of dark slate-like minerals and thunderous weight and presence characterize the Livingston Moffett Stanley's Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Napa Valley, but Lordy, is this intense and concentrated wine ever juicy and luscious, floral and spicy! Give it three to five years. Excellent. About $32.
Classic touches of cedar and school box waft from The Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley, a beautifully proportioned amalgam of earthy and slightly leathery cassis and black cherry fruit nestled in a polished, chewy texture of lovely weight and balance. Three to five years. Excellent. About $35.
The St. Supery Meritage 1998, Napa Valley, slides a distinct mineral edge right over the tongue, but softens the effect with luscious seams of chocolate-covered raspberries and cassis that go straight down to the foundation; lavender and violets come up, permeating the dense, polished and chewy texture. The blend is 84 percent cabernet sauvignon, 14 percent merlot, 1 percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot. Excellent. About $50.
Picks of the week
Here's a clutch of reds, each from a different country, particularly suited to food from the grill - hot dogs, burgers, steaks - or pizzas and red-sauce pastas. The order is descending by price.
Made from tempranillo grapes in Spain's Rioja region, El Coto Crianza 1998 is deeply spicy, quite round and fruity in the plum and black raspberry range. It's rich and warm, a bit sunbaked, with pleasing detail and heft. We drank it with roasted salmon tacos with arugula, bell peppers, red onions and green chili salsa. About $12.
The 2 Brothers Big Tattoo Red 2001, Colchagua, Chile, is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot that's dense, rich and hearty and vivid with cherry-berry fruit nestled in a fine-grained texture. About $9.
The Hacienda Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, California, is a terrific little wine, and I don't mean only at the price. Though it's basically a simple expression of the grape, there's nothing one-note about this young, ripe and vigorous cabernet that displays a good level of spicy oak, attractive density and tasty plum, black cherry and raspberry flavors touched with minerals and potpourri. Desperately hungry one afternoon, we pulled out Parmesan cheese, tapanade and Italian bread and made a snack with this wine. Bingo! A Bargain of the Decade at about $7.
Finally, from the ubiquitous Georges Duboeuf, based in France's Beaujolais region, comes the non-vintage GD Red, a surprisingly intense and spicy, rich and hearty all-purpose blend whose delicious plum-currant-black-cherry flavors are bolstered by a full complement of briars and brambles. Astonishing for the price, about (E-mail Fredric Koeppel at email@example.com or write c/o The Commercial Appeal, P.O . Box 334, Memphis, TN 38101.)