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Boy, that Chappellet Cabernet Franc!

July 4, 2018

Chappellet produces exceptional Cabernet Franc from grapes grown on a hillside vineyard.

Several years ago a friend of ours began waxing poetic about Cabernet Franc, the relatively rare grape varietal that, along with Sauvignon Blanc, is thought to have been an unintentional parent grape for a little hybrid known as Cabernet Sauvignon. This friend has only modest experience with wine, didn’t mention any particular vineyards, and was hard-pressed to articulate the specifics of his adoration.

“Boy, that Cab Franc!” was about as specific as he got, in fact. We’d nod and smile, still puzzled by this sudden eruption of support for a wine variety that was usually difficult to find.

It’s highly unlikely that he was referring to the 2015 Chappellet Cabernet Franc ($85). However, when we tried it recently, we were surprised – thrilled, even – by the depth of flavors and layers of structure.

The winery has been one of only two Napa Valley vintners to celebrate 50 years of post-Prohibition wine production, and one of the few that is still family-owned. On the advice of legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, founders Donn and Molly Chappellet settled on Pritchard Hill in 1967, carving out 48 distinctive vineyard blocks that produce some truly exquisite wines.

Vineyard manager Dave Pirio and winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus (shown below) have turned these blocks into a veritable playground of quality and creativity, of which the 2015 Cabernet Franc, with its blend of its namesake grape (77%), Cabernet Sauvignon (15%), Malbec (4%) and Petit Verdot (4%), is a prime example.

Aromas of blueberry, blackberry, coffee and herbs greet you from the glass, followed by a complexity of other aromas. The complex, elegantly structured wine showcases a firm, supple palate of dark fruits and darker chocolate, with hints of oak, smoke and toast from its time spent aging in French oak barrels.

But the Cabernet Franc isn’t the only example of Corallo-Titus’s exceptional handwork:

  • The 2015 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon ($65), a blend of its namesake grape (79%), Petit Verdot (14%), Merlot (4%) and Malbec (3%), is Chappellet’s flagship wine. Aromas of blackberry, cassis, anise and chocolate float from the glass, followed by a creamy palate of dark fruits, cola and clove supported by velvety tannins and a lovely mouthfeel.
  • The 2015 Napa Valley Merlot ($45), aged for 22 months in French oak barrels, is a blend of Merlot (80%), Cabernet Sauvignon (9%), Malbec (8%) and Petit Verdot (3%). The mountain-grown wine arrives with a nose of cherry, cedar and black tea, followed by a structured palate of currant, black cherry, dark chocolate and even a little graphite, all dancing in a delightfully complex combination.
  • Corallo-Titus also does wonders with whites, specifically the 2016 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($35). Produced from grapes harvested from a variety of mountain-side vineyards with a strong marine influence and aged sur lees for eight months in French oak barrels, the resulting wine arrives with a lovely tropical aroma blend of pineapple and citrus. The flavors that follow reflect the nose, adding lychee and orange zest along with a hint of melted butter which adds to the creaminess of the palate

Boy, that Cab Franc? Yes, but boy, that Chappellet.


Turning whiskey (barrels) into wine (barrels)

May 26, 2018

It was bound to happen eventually.

With craft brewers swarming over whiskey distilleries and paying top dollar for used whisky barrels, it was only a matter of time before winemakers joined the fray. Some are simply testing the waters, while others are making it their own personal market niche.

Cooper & Thief Cellarmasters is more the later, with two recently released wines that have spent time in some spirited barrels. In both cases the results have been very good.

Winemaker Jeff Kasavan’s 2014 Red Wine Blend mixes with bourbon residue in former distillery barrels, where the wine is aged for three months. The blend of Merlot (38%), Syrah (37%), Zinfandel (11%), Petite Sirah (7%), Cabernet Sauvignon (4%) and few unidentified varietals has enough substance and variants to stand of to the heady, aromatic whiskey notes.

The end result is a rich red wine made richer by its three-month liaison with the bourbon, which is evident more in the palate than the nose, but is never overpowering.

Kasavan does even better with his 2016 Sauvignon Blanc aged in tequila barrels, which adds a delightful and unexpected character to the proceedings.

The wine’s blend of Sauvignon Blanc (78%), French Colombard (12%) and Semillon and a few others (10%) has the bright tropical notes and clean palate of its New Zealand cousins. But the undeniable presence of the tequila’s unique character frames the entire tasting experience.

Whereas the bourbon subtly enhances the Red Blend, the tequila showcases the Sauvignon Blanc, giving it a brighter, delightful character unlike any other wines of its type.

If flavors have colors, this wine would be a bright, pale blue. Conjuring the visual only further enhances the experience

On Mothers Day, drink pink

April 24, 2018

With apologies to the Bard of Avon, a rosé by any other name would indeed taste as sweet. But it also might be crisp, with a hint of acidity – or dry, leaving the palate cleansed and refreshed.

Shakespeare, of course, was talking about the flower in his oft-quoted line from Romeo and Juliet. In this case, however, the subject is rosés, the bright pink wines whose color range and flavor palate fall neatly between straw-colored, acidic whites and inky, robust reds.

The right wine for any season is always the one you enjoy the most, but a chilled rosé, tippled from a delicate stem, is a brighter and often more flavorful alternative to another tired round of chardonnay – oaked or otherwise.

And few wines are more appropriate for Mothers Day, when the actual flower might accompany its namesake wine. Here are a few wine suggestions to aid in your holiday celebration.

These days it’s all about organic, and in many cases that includes wine. Bonterra Rose is produced from organically grown Grenache grapes that capitalize on the organic Mendocino County vineyard’s natural characteristics. Winemaker Jeff Cichocki notes that aromas of strawberry, key lime, pineapple and rosewater lead to a palate of peaches, pomegranate and watermelon. The blend in the bottle is as compelling as its component flavors are plentiful.

Marcel Guigal and his son Philippe continue a tradition started by Marcel’s father Etienne, meaning that the 2017 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Rosė is every bit as good as its predecessor wines, and perhaps a little better. Comprised of 70% Grenache, 20% Cinsault and 10% Syrah, the wine pours a vibrant pink with irresistible bursts of bright red fruit on the nose and palate, offering sublime stimulation for all the senses.

The Simi 2017 Dry Rose follows much the same pattern, but with a drier approach. The Sonoma County, California, wine produced from 64% Cabernet Sauvignon and lesser amounts of Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Zinfandel and Graciano, pours a bright coral pink. Expect aromas of strawberry, cherry and melon that replicate on the palate with light acidity and a lengthy, subtle finish.

If you’d like your mother’s special day to be a little effervescent, we have few sparkling special suggestions for you.

If your holiday get-together has multiple mothers celebrating their day, a four-pack of Martini & Rossi Sparkling Rose minis (187 ml) may do the trick. The light and lightly effervescent wine offers aromas of citrus and elderflower, which replicate on the palate with a crisply stimulating snap. It’s perfect for sipping on a warm spring afternoon.

The French Champagne house of Moët & Chandon has produced not one but two special wines perfect for showering Mother with some high end – and high priced – bubbly.

The Rosė Impėrial ($50) is produced from a blend of 40% to 50% Pinot Noir for intensity, 30% to 40% Pinot Meunier for roundness, and 10% to 20% Chardonnay for elegance. Of these, 20% to 30% of wines used are from a special reserve.

Expect a nose of strawberry, raspberry and cherry with a pinch of black pepper. Those same fruits, plus the fleshiness of peach, carry over to the palate with a subtle freshness.

One step up from there, the Grand Vintage Rosė 2009 ($70) is blended from the best wines from the vintage year. The mix of 59% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 11% Meunier emphasizes the grapes’ character and finesse along with the winemaker’s superior skills.

The aroma is redolent with red berries and currants, with hints of rhubarb, vanilla and pink peppercorns. The palate reveals the sweetness of red fruits, with a touch of nutmeg that leads to a gentle texture and long finish.

This wine is suitable for only the very best mothers, but then aren’t they all?

Violin virtuoso Ilya Kaler ‘rocks’ Paganini and WCO

April 21, 2018

Violinist Ilya Kaler

Is it blasphemous to call a classical musician the ‘Jimi Hendrix’ of his instrument?

Those who accept the thesis may find the late rock guitarist a useful comparison for the diversity and skill Russian-born and educated violinist Ilya Kaler brought to his April 20 performance of Nicolò Paganini’s ‘Violin Concert No. 2 in B minor, op. 7 “La campanella”’ with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

The musically self-taught Hendrix, whose first instrument was a one-stringed ukulele plucked out of the trash, was flash, flamboyance and showmanship. He also is considered the most influential rock guitarist of the 20th Century, coaxing sounds out of his ‘ax’ that no one had done before and few have mastered since.

Paganini also was the master of flamboyance and skill, his dexterous and athletic performances thought to have been aided by an undiagnosed case of Marfan syndrome, one characteristic of which is extremely long fingers. The composer and performer could play three octaves across four strings in a single hand span. His musical histrionics are said to have inspired the equally flamboyant Franz Liszt, and that’s saying something.

The esteemed Kaler, the only musician to win Gold Medals at three of world’s most prestigious violin competitions, comes from a different background than the other two. But his physical dexterity and musical mastery of the Paganini piece, including the remarkable plucking-while-bowing measures in the work’s third movement, made for a memorable and often astounding performance that generated an enthusiastic audience response.

At the end of a particularly strong performance Hendrix was known to set his ax on fire. Kaler avoided that level showmanship, content to play a short encore before leaving the stage with his ‘ax’ intact.

The Paganini work was flanked by two equally interesting and musically strong performances that once again demonstrated WCO’s ongoing excellence under the baton of Maestro Andrew Sewell.

The ‘String Symphony No. 2 in A Major’ by Gioachino Rossini called on WCO’s string section, but without the aide of the violas. The composition was originally one of a series of sonatas the composer wrote for two violins, a cello and double bass. The musicians handled the largely pleasant evening opener, rescored for orchestra, with both skill and grace as befits a WCO performance.

The second half of the program brought all hands back on deck for a performance of Joseph Haydn’s ‘Symphony No. 81 in G Major.’ It’s hard to remember a more fluid and flawless WCO performance this season. Sewell led his orchestra through the four movements with ease, obviously and rightly pleased at the quality of his musicians’ performances.

And no one set his or her instrument on fire after the closing notes. But that certainly would have been a memorable way to bring down the curtain.

Picture Perfect Pinot Noirs

April 13, 2018

Migration Wines’ Running Creek Vineyard

Few wines generate more debate than Pinot Noir, and few wines are as worthy of the attention such debate attracts.

As one of the world’s oldest wine cultivars, Pinot Noir is the pride of Burgundy and lies at the heart of many of the French region’s great wines. But it is a sensitive, fussy fruit that prefers cooler weather and doesn’t always perform well for winemakers who lack the sensitivity and misunderstand the grape’s potential.

Pinot Noir’s greatest asset, however, is its mercurial nature and ability to shine through many different facets. Is there a prototypical Pinot Noir flavor profile, one that stands as the best Burgundy? If you answered, “All of them,” then you’re beginning to get the drift.

At the Migration winery, part of California’s Duckhorn family of wines, Pinot Noir is one of its brightest jewels. A recently released trio of single vineyard wines demonstrates both the superiority of the plantings as well as the winemaker’s art.

Dana Epperson

“When it comes to our single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, our winemaking approach is extremely consistent,” says Migration winemaker Dana Epperson. “These are great sites, and our goal is to always let the vineyards shine.”

The combination of winds and rain, soil composition and minerality, and even the leaf mulch that falls from the trees bordering the vineyards add to grapes’ character. The end result, Epperson says, is a trio of wines that perform in distinct harmony while each demonstrates its own unique characteristics.

All three, priced at $68 each, are worth exploring. Two of three come from vineyards in Napa’s Russian River Valley.

  • The 2015 Running Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir arrived on the palate a poised and elegant wine. Harvested from 70 acres of grapes cultivated in a sandy loam soil, the wine’s red berry flavors and silky tannins deliver a style and maturity enviable among Pinot Noirs.
  • The 2015 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir is produced from two different clones grown in Green Valley, the coolest part of the region. Expect the wine to be long on texture, with a flavor profile of dark fruits balanced with savory elements that offer a fine blend and unusual character.
  • The 2015 Drum Canyon Vineyard Pinot Noir is altogether different. Produced from grapes grown on the steep, wind-swept slopes of the Santa Rita Hills, the wine has a full aroma and concentrated fruit flavors framed by a spice and minerality unique to Pinot Noir. Like the other two wines, Drum Canyon speaks clearly of the environment in which it’s grown, Epperson says.

“We want people to be able to taste the growing environment,” she adds. “This connection is the essence of a great vineyard-designate wine.”

MSO musically explains Elgar’s “Engima”

March 19, 2018

Knowledge of any kind is designed to enlighten and inform. The Madison Symphony Orchestra took time on March 18 to expand our knowledge and try and unravel one of classical music’s greatest “enigmas.”

MSO didn’t fully succeed – no one really thought they would nor did they themselves expect to do so – but in the process delivered one of its most engaging performances this season.

Tapping into Beyond the Score, a program developed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that MSO has used before, the orchestra explored Sir Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, better known as the “Enigma” Variations. Helping Maestro John DeMain and his musicians were American Players Theatre actors James Ridge, Kelsey Brennan and Brian Mani, Wisconsin Public Radio announcer Norman Gilliland, and pianist Dan Lyons.

Composed between 1898-1899, the “Enigma” Variations consists of 14 variations on a simple theme, each of which is meant to musically illustrate the characteristics of one of 13 of Elgar’s friends and family members. The only hints as to their identities were the initials listed in front of each variation.

In addition, Elgar implied that there was a much larger, hidden theme present in the 29:00 composition that is never performed but should be evident to those who knew him. Scholars have postulated that that theme may be anything from A Mighty Fortress is Our God to Auld Lang Syne to a theme from Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte. Elgar never divulged the theme, which made Sunday’s performance that much more fun.

The heart of any Beyond the Score performance is the ability to tell a good story, and Elgar’s humorous personality and intriguing musical puzzle made this performance particular compelling. Actor Ridge led the troupe, creating a portrait of Elgar that was equal parts patrician and prankster. Bringing the composer so effectively to life helped the audience understand and appreciate the man behind the music, in this case a natural joker who quite enjoyed the puzzle he had created.

Brennan and Mani followed Ridge’s lead, creating multiple characters that added depth and breadth to Elgar’s world as described by Gilliland’s narration. Lyons played Elgar’s hands at the keyboard, while Ridge looked attentively on during the musical interludes.

MSO also helped musically illustrate the measures during the hour-long first half devoted to discussion and explanation. The creative and largely black-and-white film footage, scratched and marked to resemble old movie film, created the backdrop that further exposed the audience members to Elgar’s turn-of-the-20th Century world.

MSO’s performance in full of the “Enigma” Variations filled the program’s second half, reminding us of the beauty behind the composer’s riddle. The interpretation exhibited the orchestra’s usual finesse as the variation moved from major to minor scales and from soft, lyrical passages to comedic gallops.

If there was ever a perfect blend between story and music, this was most definitely it. All parties are to be congratulated on an outstanding performance. At least, that’s what the enthusiastic response of the nearly sold-out house seemed to indicate.



Broadway’s “Beast” a Real Beauty at Overture

January 15, 2016

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
, the Broadway musical adaptation of the 1991 animated film feature, opened to a near sell-out crowd at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wis., Wednesday night. The “tale as old as time” closely follows the animated film’s story of a beautiful young woman, Belle, (Brooke Quintana) who lives with her eccentric inventor father, Maurice (Thomas Mothershed) in a small provincial town somewhere in France. Belle is pursued by Gaston (Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek), the handsome – if egotistical — young hunter who believes outward appearances define one’s worth. Belle’s encounter with the Beast, really a prince under the spell of an enchantress, occurs after the Beast imprisons her father for trespassing. Belle volunteers to trade places with her father in the enchanted castle. So the adventure begins.

As you may recall, the Beast is not the only one who has been affected by the evil spell cast upon him when he refused entry to his castle by an ugly hag. All of the servants were also placed under the spell. Luminere (Ryan N. Phillips) the talking candellabra, Cogsworth (Samuel Shurtleff), the talking clock, Mrs. Potts (Stephanie Gray), and her adorable son chip (Kadence Edwards or Deandre Horner, depending on the performance) the teapot, Babette (Melissa Jones), the duster, and of course, Madame de la Grand Bouche (Stephanie Harter Gilmore), the wardrobe.


The musical is technically interesting in its use of puppets similar to those used in the Broadway musical, Lion King. The transition of the Beast into the handsome prince is visually interesting and very well done. But what stands out in this production is the quality of the singers/dancers. As the production opened, I wondered how they would handle “Be Our Guest”, the no-holds-barred number that features whirling candlesticks, knives, forks, spoons, plates, cups and saucers singing and dancing to the delight of Belle. I assumed that it would be omitted. But I was wrong. In a brilliant array of dancing cutlery and china, the musical troupe pulled off the number in a delightful display of movement and color.

There were other highlights in the production as well. Gaston (Smith-Kotlarek) is hilarious as he saunters and swaggers his way across stage trying to win Belle’s attention. She isn’t impressed. Gaston and his sidekick Lefou (Matt Dasilva) plot, preen, and provoke throughout the production providing a refreshing reflection at the true nature of beauty. Is it physical appearance? Or is it the more subtle intellect, heart, and soul of a person? The answer lies in the story, and the touring troupe does a magnificent job of telling it.

Gaston and Lefou


Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through Sunday, January 17, 2016 at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison, Wis.