Aratas 2012 Shake Ridge Ranch Petite Sirah (Amador County): $52. Alcohol 14.9%. This is a real mountain wine, grown at an elevation of 1,700 feet. The climate in this part of California is wild, with very hot summer days that turn rapidly chilly at night, as cold air sinks down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The wine is 100% Petite Sirah, aged in 50% new Hungarian oak. The wine itself is dramatic. I love the intricate blackberry jam and cassis flavors that ooze across the palate, complexed with grilled meat bone, crispy bacon, crushed black pepper, espresso, umami tamari, wood spice, mocha and smoky oak. I love the mouthfeel, rich and deep in finely-meshed tannins, enlivened by bright, citrusy acidity. And I love the finish, which is as satisfying as the attack. The founding partners come from a restaurant background, and it shows in this wine, which tames Petite Sirah’s sometimes brawny character and makes it elegant. This is the best, most satisfying Petite Sirah I’ve ever reviewed, and I have no problem giving it the highest rating I’ve ever given to a Petite Sirah. Score: 97 points.
Aratas 2012 Petite Sirah (Napa Valley): $48. Alcohol 14.9%. The winery’s 2012 Shake Ridge was the best Petite Sirah I’ve ever reviewed. This one’s nearly as good. Clearly, winemaker Matt Sunseri, who has worked with Helen Turley, Heidi Barrett and Paul Hobbs, understands this variety as few do. The wine has Cabernet-like elegance, which is really hard to translate to Petite Sirah. The vineyard is in Oak Knoll, in other words, a cooler, southerly district of Napa. The wine is 100% Petite Sirah, and spent 27 months in a combination of new and older oak before bottling—a long time by any standard, which gives the wine a smokiness throughout. Black currants, blackberry and cherry liqueur, umami charcuterie and baking spices comprise the fascinating array of flavors. I wish I had a case of this. Score: 96 points.
Hindsight 2013 Bella Vetta Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Howell Mountain): $75. Alcohol 14.7%. By coincidence I had been working on a project involving describing Howell Mountain Cabs, so tasting this wine played right into that. We know that the mountain is a fabulous place to grow intense, concentrated Cabernets. What this wine brought home is how elegant they can be. It’s not a pitch-black monster, but rather gleams with ruby luminescence, a hint of its character. Despite the considerable black cherry, cocoa nib, smoked meat, spice and saline flavors and rich tannins, it dances on the palate, now lithe, now full-bodied and muscular. It grows more complex by the minute. I must admit I spent a lot of time with it. The winemaker is Jac Cole, whose resume includes time at Chateau St. Jean, Stag’s Leap and Stags’ Leap (both of them) and Spring Mountain. Cabernet Sauvignon, in other words, is in his DNA. (Jac also owns the vineyard.) I would happily drink this wine immediately and over the next ten years. Score: 96 points.
Robert Biale 2014 Palisades Vineyard Petite Sirah (Calistoga): $55. The trick with Petite Sirah is to balance the variety’s natural tendency toward bigness with the elegance we want in a red table wine. This single-vineyard wine succeeds. It was grown in the eastern side of Calistoga, a warm, sheltered region that is friendly to Cabernet Sauvignon, but also for Petite Sirah, which thrives in inland Napa Valley, from St. Helena up to Calistoga. The wine is rich, soft and heady (although the official alcohol is just 14.4%). The texture is pure velvet. Blackberry jam, black currants, white pepper, crisped bacon, cocoa nib, violets, a firm minerality—this is as complex as Petite Sirah gets. Definitely one of the best I’ve had in years. Score: 95 points.
Robert Biale 2014 Royal Punishers Petite Sirah (Rutherford): $45. Biale’s three new Petite Sirahs are all so good, it’s crazy. Is anyone else making multiple Pets, especially at this level? Not that I know of. This one is really good, but first, I want to criticize the winery for not letting us know why they call it “Royal Punishers” or providing any technical information as to grape sourcing. Is it a single vineyard? A blend? Some of us want to know! Anyhow, it’s a wonderful wine whose soft tannins and taste of the earth define “Rutherford Dust.” The wine is pitch black in color except for a glint of garnet at the outer rim. The flavors are fabulously deep in concentrated plum essence, espresso, blackberry jam, beef teriyaki and smoky cedar wood. I’ll give it 95 points, easily, which makes it as good as the E.B.A., which costs 30 bucks more.
Robert Biale 2013 E.B.A. Petite Sirah (Napa Valley): $75. The initials stand for extended barrel age, to suggest the long aging period, 30 months, in oak. The wine has begun its long process of softening and mellowing. Although it’s still pretty hefty in tannins, it’s fully drinkable now. Stuffed with blackberry jam, black currant and cassis flavors, it has a smoked meatiness that suggests pairing with short ribs, barbecue, Szechuan beef. Expensive, yes, but it brims with complex elegance and smooth grace despite high alcohol (15.5%). Drink now-2026. Score: 94 points.
Vina Robles 2013 Creston Valley Vineyard Petite Sirah (Paso Robles): $44. Creston is southeast of the city of Paso Robles, located in a hilly, arid and hot area that is a high region III on the UC Davis Winkler scale. That is too hot for many grape varieties, but not Petite Sirah, which thrives in such a climate. This single-vineyard wine is an excellent Petite Sirah, inky black, soft and thick in tannins, with the most delicious mulberry, chocolate, blackberry, espresso, cola, beef teriaki and spice flavors. Oak barrel influence shows up in the smokiness and caramelly-vanilla taste. The alcohol is a hefty 15.1%, and only 418 cases were produced. This is quite as good as any Petite Sirah I’ve ever encountered. Score: 94 points.
Hindsight 2013 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon (Calistoga): $65. Hindsight is really killing it with Cab. This bottling is just lovely. It defines a more elegant, supple style (the alcohol is only 14.1%), although the tannins are rather hard at this time. They frame enormously complex black cherry, leather, licorice, teriyaki beef, espresso and smoky cedar flavors, and that just begins to describe it. Despite the hefty tannins the wine impresses for its balance and charm and overall fanciness. Drinkable now, but it will improve with 6-8 years in the bottle. Score: 94 points.
Hindsight 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $40. Right out of the bottle, the wine is tight and seems a little straightforward in fruit and oak. It offers tiers of black raspberry and cherry jam, mocha, fig, cassis, toast and cinnamon-spice flavors, swirling in soft, complex tannins. It’s tasty, but you really want to give it some time for the baby fat to start to melt. Made from 100% Cab, it’s full-bodied and dry, with an inherent sense of drama. Give it until the holiday season before popping the cork. It will drink well for another decade. Score: 92 points.
Vina Robles 2013 Estate Petite Sirah (Paso Robles): $29. What a delightful Petite Sirah. If you compare it with, say, the Robert Biales, it’s not as gigantic. But it is Petite Sirah-esque in its dark color, thick tannins and full-bodied, ripe blackcurrant, espresso, blueberry and dark chocolate flavors. It also has a real bite of acidity—technically, 7.6 grams per liter, which makes it a little tart on its own, so drink it with the appropriate foods. I can’t see it aging, so your window is over the next three years. The alcohol is 14.9%. Score: 91 points.
Hindsight 2012 Estate Grown Petite Sirah (Calistoga): $45. If size was everything, this would get a much higher score, because it’s a big, huge, gigantic Petite Sirah. By that, I mean inky black, tannic, and absolutely stuffed with blackberry, blueberry, blackstrap molasses, black licorice, charred meat bone, black pepper, tanned leather and smoky oak flavors, with a bone dry finish. It’s impressive, but kind of cumbersome, with something old-fashioned and rustic. It could age very well, and in fact probably will. If you can, give it ten years in the cellar. Right now, the score is 91 points.
Hindsight 2014 Chardonnay (Napa Valley): $28. Some people will find this Chard too oaky. Others, including me, will love the caramel vanilla richness, which meshes effortlessly with underlying tropical fruit flavors. The texture is creamy, the acidity is just right. This single-vineyard wine comes from the Oak Knoll District. It’s a little sweet on the finish, but sure is tasty, and easily deserves 90 points.
Paul Dolan 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendocino County); $20. Alcohol 14.5%. It’s not a back-handed compliment to call this one of the best $20 Cabs on the market. It has real character, from the rich tannins and oak-infused smokiness to the fresh blackberry and licorice flavors. It’s a little rough around the edges, but to tell the truth, it has quite a bit of sophistication, sort of a country cousin to Napa Valley. Score: 88 points.
Parducci 2013 True Grit Reserve Red (Mendocino County); $20. Alcohol 14.5%. This is one of those red wine multi-blends the oldtimers used to drink. In this case, it’s comprised of eight varieties, led by Carignane, Zinfandel and Grenache. The wine is briary and rustic, not as heavy as a Petite Sirah, in fact quite drinkable with the right foods: barbecue, tacos, chicken cacciatore, lasagna. It has the benefit of honesty: an old-fashioned wine with few pretensions, but solid. Good price. Score: 88 points.
Zin-Phomaniac 2014 Old Vines Zinfandel (Lodi); $15. Zin’s rustic personality has been preserved here, with plenty of baking spices and slightly overripe flavors of red currants and raspberry jam. Some 20% of new oak brings sweet oak flavors. The alcohol is a little high, 14.9%, and there’s evident glycerine in the wine, which makes it somewhat sweet, like sugared berry tea. This is a big, bold Zin for easy drinking. Score: 85 points.
Tie-Dye 2013 Red Blend (North Coast); $15. Crazy label, kind of a cross between a Sixties psychedelic rock poster and an auto repair shop pin-up. They’re clearly appealing to a crowd that eats pizza and such and doesn’t want to spend big bucks on their red wine. The blend is at least seven varieties, from Pinot Noir to Tempranillo and Barbera. The wine is decent and honest, with leather and blackberry jam flavors and scoury tannins. Score: 84 points.
Justice Grace 2013 Tenbrink Vineyards (Solano County): $30. Solano is the county to the east of Napa, almost in the Central Valley, but the climate is tempered by its proximity to San Pablo Bay. This wine, with a little Grenache from the Sierra Foothills, is rustic and drinkable. It has blackberry jam, bacon and espresso flavors, and is full-bodied and tannic. Score: 84 points.