On the Trail

A K&L Exclusive from a Historic Vineyard

David Driscoll
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Along California's Central Coast, midway up the Santa Maria Valley, sits one of the state's most historic vineyards: Bien Nacido. Known as a cool climate site due to the fog that rolls in off the coast, cooling down the grapes and helping them to retain their acidity, the vineyard is a natural fit for delicate Burgundian varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. White wines from Bien Nacido tend to be crisp and fresh, unlike those from warmer parts of California that can be ripe and creamy. Red wines from Bien Nacido have vibrancy and tangy fruit, unlike soft and supple reds from Napa or the Central Valley. With a slower ripening time, the grapes have time to develop concentration and complexity rather than simply sweetness from the sugar. It's the perfect habitat for a winemaker looking to replicate the wines of Burgundy, those coveted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir expressions that showcase not only delicacy, but the individual conditions in which the grapes were grown. It's here that winemaker Jim Clendenen, a man who called his first winery Au Bon Climat as an homage to Burgundy, made us a new batch of Pinot Noir. 

Jim Clendenen, the man behind Au Bon Climat winery in California's Santa Barbara region since 1982, is internationally known for his critically-acclaimed Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Sourcing fruit from several of the most highly regarded vineyards in the Central Coast, we asked Jim a few years ago if he'd be willing to make us a private label single site wine from the legendary Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley, He willingly agreed and we're now on the third and final vintage of the K&L/Au Bon Climat partnership. The 800 acre site can trace its roots back to 1837 and Jim has been working with the 250 acres of Bien Nacido dedicated to Pinot Noir for decades. Our 2016 K&L edition exemplifies both delicate fruit and tangy acidity, fleshed out by accents of violets and spice. It's our most Burgundian ABC edition yet, true to Jim's original vision. Fans of both domestic and French Pinot Noir will want to take note of this once again limited single vineyard edition.

Au Bon Climat has always been one of my favorite California wineries, so I was excited when we started working on our own private label expressions. While I've enjoyed the previous two Pinot Noirs we bottled under the K&L label, the 2016 edition of the single vineyard "Bien Nacido" is by far the best of the bunch. We just need to give it 20 -30 minutes in the decanter before trying. I can tell you from two empty bottles of experience that the difference a bit of air makes with this wine is night and day. After twenty minutes or so, you get everything you expect from a Burgundian-inspired Pinot Noir: crunchy red fruits, raspberry and hints of earth with lots of spice. I could easily be fooled into thinking this was a bottle of Bourgogne Rouge if poured blind. The best part is that previous editions of this wine sold for $25 - $30, but this time around you're getting the single vineyard edition for the same price as the standard release. How can you pass that up?

-David Driscoll

More Raffles for Fire Relief

David Driscoll

I've been working with our management and ownership teams early this morning to get two more exciting charity raffles going in association with the ongoing beer raffles started yesterday. Here are the details we've added since yesterday in terms of donations:

100% of the proceeds will go to organizations directly helping the affected areas, split evenly between the Redwood Empire Food Bank, Napa Valley Community Foundation, and the Redwood Credit Union Fund. 

Raffle tickets are $10 each and there's no limit to how many you can buy. The raffles will run until Tuesday 10/17 and we'll draw the winners on Wednesday morning. We appreciate your help!

1980 Karuizawa 35 Year Old "Samurai" Single Cask #8317 Japanese Single Malt Whisky Raffle This raffle features a very rare bottle of Japanese whisky from the now extinct distillery of Karuizawa. Previously priced at $10,000 on our website and one of 89 bottles from an ancient single barrel, the whisky was distilled in 1980 and aged for 35 years before it was bottled in 2015.

1974 Joseph Phelps "Insignia"/2014 Dominus 3L Raffle - This raffle features two California legends, thus there will be two individual winners. The 1974 Joseph Phelps "Insignia." was previously priced at $1750 on our website, the wine was retasted by Robert Parker a few years back and awarded a 99/100 score, who wrote: "nearly perfect nearly 40 years after it was made," and a giant 3L bottle of 2014 Dominus with a 97 score from Parker valued at $1100.

-David Driscoll

A Special Beer Raffle for Fire Aid

David Driscoll

This is the first of a few different raffles to come, but with the smoke-heavy air in Redwood City this morning choking our lungs, our minds were 100% focused on doing something ASAP. We're starting today with a very special beer raffle put together by our buyer Jim Boyce. I'm going to post his notes below:

We, along with many others, have been thinking nonstop about family, friends, colleagues, and everyone else being hit unbelievably hard by the fires in North Bay. Sonoma and Napa have been the backbone of K&L for decades, in both the wine and beer categories, so to see these lives upended so quickly has been heart breaking. It will take years for families and businesses to rebuild and help is very much needed. After talking about ways to help, we thought it would be a great idea to dig into our cellars to find some incredible bottles, set up a raffle, and donate 100% of the proceeds to organizations directly helping the affected areas. On the beer side, we have two different sets going up:

A Cantillon raffle featuring one bottle of 2014 Vigneronne and one bottle of 2015 Fou'Foune

A Bottle Logic raffle featuring one bottle of 2016 of Fundamental Observation and one bottle of 2016 Darkstar November.

Raffle tickets are $10 each and each customer can buy unlimited tickets. The charity for these donations will be set up asap. Raffle tickets can be purchased through midnight next Tuesday (10/17), and the winner will be drawn Wednesday morning. (Winner will be charged a $.05 included in the purchase of a ticket). Pickup via Will Call to all three locations and shipping within CA ONLY. Thank you for helping! 

-David Driscoll

Anything Less Than the Best is a Felony

David Driscoll
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Sometimes I feel like I'm beating a dead horse here, but we're still finding "classic" claret values from the 2014 harvest, one of the most underrated Bordeaux vintages since 2001, and I keep writing blog posts about why you should buy them. I put the word "classic" in quotes because I want to clarify exactly what that means: textbook, no frills, nothing extraordinary, just plain good, true to form, representative, and simple. "Classic" is a way of saying typical and varietally correct. But why do retailers and wine writers like myself use the term "classic" instead of those other synonyms when describing vintages like 2014? Because as a society we've been trained to ignore anything that isn't the best, or at the very least above average. It's the reason you only see reviews with 90 points or more; because retailers know that a B+ is worthless in the court of public opinion. As Vanilla Ice once said in his smash hit "Ice Ice Baby": "anything less than the best is a felony." That's been the case with 2014 in comparison to the "outstanding" 2015 vintage and the "unbeatable" 2016, heralded by some as the vintage of a lifetime. So how in the heck do you sell "typical" next to those two titanic harvests? Believe it or not, there are plenty of people (myself included) who value a "classic" value when they find one. Enter the 2014 Château du Retout, a "classic" Haut-Médoc claret with everything you could want from a fifteen dollar bottle of Bordeaux. 

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Château du Retout is a "classic" Bordeaux property: simple, straightforward, and true to form; just like the 2014 vintage itself. However, it wasn't until my colleague Jeff Garneau put a recent issue of Decanter magazine in my hand that I realized how much better the British view of "classic" seems to be than the American one. While the American reviewers doled out 90 point reviews across the board, the panel at Decanter bumped up that praise to 92 points. Their summation of the vintage was right alongside our own, writing: "The difficulties in 2014 put a break on hyperbole, meaning the best wines offer value for money for consumers in comparison with the 2015s. Good bottles for 20 Pounds or less are not hard to find." I loved that line about putting the "break on hyperbole" because that's exactly what 2014 represents to Bordeaux wine drinkers: no BS, just value. The Brits don't have any problem celebrating "classic" anything! The 2014 Château du Retout, in the panel's opinion, represented the best bang for your buck from a myriad of 2014 Cru Bourgeois selections. Run by the young couple of Hélène and Fréderic Soual, the small Haut-Médoc property uses an unusually high proportion of Petit Verdot (17%) to add fleshiness and body to Cabernet-dominated cépage. Unlike the ripe and plush-fruited wines of 2015, the 2014 du Retout is grittier and more rustic. It's not nearly as easygoing as what you taste from 2015, but it tastes like true-to-form Bordeaux. It's a classic claret and more importantly it's a great deal at $15.99. 

-David Driscoll

The Hidden Yarra Comes to K&L

David Driscoll
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This past February I took my first trip down under to Australia to work on a gin project with Yarra Valley distillers Four Pillars. While I was there primarily in my role as spirits buyer, I have a great personal and working relationship with our Aussie expert Ryan Woodhouse and he gave me full permission to shop for K&L on his behalf. I wasn't in Healesville for more than a few hours when I ran into two winemakers who wanted to show me their vineyards in the hills above town. After catching a few gin and tonics at Four Pillars to get the old blood pumping, I hopped in the car with a guy named Behn Payten, a friend of my buddies at the distillery.  Behn Payten spent a number of years working as a winemaker at Punt Road, even working on some of the Dalwhinnie wines that we import to K&L, and his partner Troy Jones works in sales while managing time over at Four Pillars. I spent that entire afternoon with Behn tasting through a handful of his wines and touring his estate vineyards. Behn's dad Peter, a viticulturist and consultant in the Yarra Valley, also helps with the project, working to source additional fruit beyond the pinot noir and chardonnay sites on Behn's property. Having worked at Botobolar in the early eighties, Peter Payten had an early role in organic farming in the Yarra. Botobolar was the first organic vineyard in all of Australia when it was founded in the seventies, and his experience there has proved valuable to those producers who continue to move away from pesticides and other chemicals.

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Located just outside of Healesville behind one of the Yarra's highest peaks, Behn's original house perished in what's referred to as "Black Saturday" in the Yarra; the horrendous wildfires that savaged the region's hillsides and killed more than 170 people back in February of 2009. Having talked with a number of folks in the area over the last few days, it's clear the tragedy is still fresh in their minds and the blackened trees that still scatter the region are a stark reminder of that carnage. "After the fire a lot of outside money came in to help rebuild," Behn told me as we gazed out over his vines. "When they rebuilt the infrastructure it was better than before. There was more awareness at that point and today we're stronger because of it. Before then we tried to make pinot noir like Burgundy and cabernet like in Bordeaux, but today we understand what Yarra is and how the fruit responds in turn."

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Joined by his daughter Pia (pictured in the first photo), we crept beneath the tarp meant to keep out local pests and animals. "We get kangaroos here and loads of wombats," he said with a chuckle. I was dying to run into one, I told him. "We'll keep an eye out," he replied. "They'll be here by dusk." In addition to his estate selections, Behn is making a lush, yet vibrant grenache and a solera-aged, non-vintage sangiovese that about knocked my socks off. The wines are modern in their expressiveness, but classic in their restraint. In essence, they represent a style currently embraced by a number of forward-thinking Yarra producers: wines made to drink in their youth, but with complexity and elegance. The best of both worlds, if you ask me. After seven months of waiting for paperwork, legalities, and shipping arrangements, we've brought the Payten & Jones wines directly to K&L and I'm absolutely stoked, both for our customers and for Behn and Troy who I know will be excited to see their wines available for sale on the site. Ryan and I were practically grinning like kids on Christmas morning while tasting through the new arrivals today. 

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Twisting off the cap on the 2016 "Valley Vignerons" Chardonnay and tasting that crisp acidity on my taste buds brought me right back to those vineyards. The wines of the Yarra Valley are the perfect middle ground between California and Burgundy, in that there's more fruit than say a young bottle of Chassagne-Montrachet, but more freshness and minerality than a typical Napa expression. The Payten & Jones Chardonnays are zippy and clean, but they're never tart or citric. For the price, they're a big step up from what we generally see in that range from both California and France. The same goes for the reds. We cracked the 2016 "Valley Vignerons" Pinot Noir and it had plenty of fleshy berry flavor, but balanced by a vibrant acidity and hints of spice and earth. There's definitely a terroir-driven quality to the wine. 

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Did it show notes of kangaroo and wombat? No, although as the sun went down that day the "critters" Behn spoke of did come out. It's not often you get to drink dynamic bottles of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay while observing a family of kangaroos in the wild, but that's part of the Yarra's inherent charm. It's a different version of what we think of as wine country; and one that I quite prefer as I get older. There's a certain quirkiness that a number of producers once questioned, but today have come to embrace. The wines of Payten & Jones are a pure passion project for us here at K&L. We don't have all that much. They're never going to make anyone rich, but they're what we as professionals are interested in drinking ourselves (every now and again we get a little selfish while out on the trail). I remember as we moved to Behn's deck just behind his fantastic swimming pool, he brought out some home-cured venison sausage and a huge knife he had forged himself at a local cutlery. "That's a knife," he said without an ounce of sarcasm, harnessing his best Paul Hogan for me. I had thought the old Croc Dundee stereotype might be passé at this point, but I was secretly charmed by Behn's relaxed and laid back nature. There's not one bit of snobbery in the guy, and his wines are as humble and easy-going as he is.

-David Driscoll

Top of the Mountain

David Driscoll
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I don’t think I’ve had one conversation about Napa Cabernet in the last ten years that didn’t use the term “mountain fruit,” because since I first learned the difference between the aforementioned term and the grapes sourced from the Napa Valley floor, I’ve made sure every single customer that’s asked for my advice has understood the concept. I like to think of it like a stew. When you’re making soup or chili, you want to simmer it on a low heat for as long as possible. Cabernet is no different. When you’re looking to make top quality Napa wine you want those grapes to ripen as slowly as possible and hang on the vine until all of the flavors have had time to develop. Cabernet grown on the Napa Valley floor gets exposed to the California sun from morning to sunset, roasting all day long under the heat; thus, it ripens quickly. Cabernet grown on the side of slope gets much less exposure, so it tends to ripen more slowly, developing more complexity in the process. It’s for that reason that wines from Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain, and Mount Veeder tend to carry higher price tags. Mountain fruit is generally on another level from valley floor fruit—literally and qualitatively.

One of my favorite Napa producers that specializes in mountain fruit is Robert Craig. Using site specific parcels, the winery not only makes wines with character and terroir, but also gusto and supreme concentration. The 2014 Robert Craig Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon $94.99 is a spectacular example of not only the structure and power that the region is known for, but also just how rich the flavors can get high on the mountain as it’s jam-packed with cassis and blackcurrant notes. Craig’s vineyard is at 2300 feet along the summit and the temperatures there are about ten degrees cooler than on the valley floor, which allows the grapes to ripen much more slowly while maintaining acidity and tannic structure. With all of those elements in full display, it’s not a wine I would open tonight, but rather ten to twenty years from now. Mountain fruit can take a while to unwind and show its real potential.  The 2014 Robert Craig Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon $89.99 is a bit lower at 2000 feet, but it gets a nice cool breeze that comes over the mountain top from the coast, again allowing the grapes to cool off and maintain acidity after a warm day of development. The Spring Mountain has incredible purity and grace, less meaty and chewy than the Howell, but still capable of going the distance in your cellar.

If you’re looking for serious Napa Cabernet, you’ve got to look to the mountains. As a mountain fruit specialist, Robert Craig is a great place to start.

2009 Bordeaux Hits Reemerge

David Driscoll
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For my own personal drinking preferences, I think 2009 and 2015 are the two best vintages of Bordeaux of the last twenty years. I like ripeness, but I also like finesse. I'll choose elegance over power every day of the week and ultimately I value charm more than I do depth or supreme complexity. I know plenty of people who think 2010 was better than 2009 and just about all of my colleagues think 2016 might be the best vintage they've ever tasted. But this is America and while it may not always seem like it when I watch the news today, I think it's OK to disagree. After re-tasting a number of 2009's greatest hits again this week with my co-workers, I looked at them and asked: "How can you argue with these wines? The proof is in the bottle!" There were a few folks who quickly dismissed 2009 as too ripe and not classic enough in its character upon release, but I think we can put that summation to bed with the evolution of wines like the 2009 Malartic Lagraviere, a wine that showcases incredible terroir-driven, secondary flavors like pine, exotic spice, and earth alongside all the lush, pretty, soft-textured fruit. The wine is elegance defined. It's absolutely gorgeous. If the 2010 version drinks like Sofia Vergara, the 2009 has turned into Audrey Hepburn. 

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Not only is the grace and grandeur of 2009 on display in the Malartic, it's apparent in the values like the 2009 Lalande Borie as well. I hadn't tasted this wine since the Spring of 2016 until this week and I can't believe the difference another year and a half in the bottle has made. The dark and rich flavors of cassis and black fruit are still present, but they've now made way for more of the secondary flavors to come out and the tannins are a bit finer and less dusty than last time around. There's more earth, but the ripeness still guides the wine from the first sip to the final finish. I love the wines of the Ducru Beaucaillou, and this second label from the Borie family drinks like a more affordable version of the bigger gun, and a more approachable version at this stage in the game. While most of the 2009's I've tasted recently could age further, they're tasting soooooo good right now. For example, I love how the 2009 Latour Martillac is beginning to show some of that textbook Gravesian minerality now that it's had some time to shed the baby fat of that ripe 2009 fruit. When we tasted this wine recently you could finally get deep into the iron, graphite, and flinty notes that make the wine one of the best expressions of true terroir in all of Bordeaux. The fruit is still there to round out the edges, but the evolution on display here is what makes this wine worth buying. You can let it go another decade if you want, but there's no need if you don't want to.

-David Driscoll

On the Trail in Washington

David Driscoll
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While I was hoping to sneak up to Washington this month to check out the landscape this month, I got bogged down with management duties and various other retail tasks and wasn't able to free up the time. Actor Kyle MacLachlan had told me he was planning to be in Yakima to check in on the harvest for his Pursued by Bear wines, so I was thinking of joining him, but when reality set in and the buying duties piled up, I told him to send me some photos so I could at least post something on the OTL blog. He obliged me earlier this week with a number of snapshots from Washington wine country, including a lovely sunrise shot from the area near his winery. Kyle is from Yakima originally and he's really become a savant on the growing regions and vineyard sites in the region: a subject I've become quite interested in over the last few years as I've continued to taste impressive Washington Cabernets and red blends that hold their own with Napa's finest. 

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For those of you who weren't able to make it down to the Hollywood store last month to meet Kyle in person, he proved immediately that his knowledge of the Washington landscape was as vast as the vineyards themselves. He talked about sourcing fruit from new sites like Champoux, Sagemoor, Heather Hill—a vineyard turned onto him by friends in the area. Acting much like a vineyard negociant, Kyle has been putting together blends of different parcels for the last decade and has become keenly aware of the various characteristics of each location. He mentioned that the quality is getting better as more people are figuring it out, not only with the winemaking, but also with the growing. "The growers have learned pretty quickly which varietals make good wine and which ones don’t," he told the group. "Prior to grapes, it was all apples and cherries up there and in that world of farming more is better. If you’re growing apples, you want to grow as many as you possibly can, so the idea of planting grapes and then thinning down the crop on behalf of better quality wasn’t inherent. Then there’s the question of what are the best sites; where do the vines work best and with what varietal?" There's a lot of talk about terroir in Washington right now and I'm dying to get up there and learn more.  

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This morning Kyle sent me a shot of a vineyard called Benches situated along the Columbia River where he's hoping to source some Cabernet for his next vintage. What a beautiful spot! While I'm bummed I couldn't make the trip, I'm following along with Kyle and living vicariously through his wines at the moment. For those of you who think Washington is just a Cabernet state, I'd try a bottle of the Blushing Bear rosé—a Bandol style blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, and Cinsault from the Columbia Valley that we bought directly from Kyle last month. It was after tasting this wine that I knew I needed to get up to Washington and fast. There are many under the radar gems like the Blushing bear that I fear we're missing out on.

-David Driscoll

Gigondas from Gardette's Oldest Vines

David Driscoll
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We’ve been working for years now with the Meunier family to bring the Moulin de la Gardette wines from Gigondas directly to K&L and over the last few they’ve become some of the most popular and beloved wines in the store with their plush fruit flavors and spicy complexity. With the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Southern Rhône gaining traction once again with a growing legion of drinkers who appreciate both the ripeness and the approachability of the cuvées, we’ve had to increase our orders annually to satisfy customer demand and search out new expressions from one of France’s most historic appellations. Even though wine has been produced in the Rhône since Roman times, it wasn’t until the 20th century that wines were planted on the slopes of the Gardette, a hillside previously dedicated to olives and apricots rather than Grenache and Syrah. That's when Victor Jurdic first started making wines from that particular part of the Gigondas. He eventually married Laurent Meunier and together they created the Moulin de la Gardette label, named after the old windmill on the site. 

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Today the property is managed by the Jean-Baptiste Meunier who first took the reigns back in 1990, caring for more than twenty-five different plots that have since been added around the original site. With an average age of sixty-five years, the old vines produce concentrated and focused berries and that richness shows through in just about every bottle of Moulin de la Gardette I've ever tasted. However, it was a recent bottle of special Gardette expression called the "Cuvée Ventabren" that really got my attention. Made from the property's oldest vines (between 80-100 years of age), the blend of 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 10% Cinsault is simply stunning in both is pureness of fruit and in its expression of terroir due to the fact that Gardettes vines are planted in dry, high-elevation soils, forcing them to dig deep into the earth in search of water and nutrients. Tasting the Gardette you can clearly make out black cherries and fresh strawberries, but also sage, forest, and brush alongside the peppery accents from the Syrah. Jean-Baptiste vinified the Ventabren in cement tanks and aged the wine in giant foudres so as not to mask those delicate flavors with oak. I was taken aback by the pure deliciousness of the wine, right out of the bottle and even more so after it had time to breath. 

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the 2015 Cuvée Ventabren is the price. The critics have already lauded the wine with huge scores and high praise, so our direct relationship plays a big role in keeping the bottle price well under $40. If you're looking for a knock out bottle that not only expresses the character of the Southern Rhône, but also tastes pretty damn great, I'd highly recommend snagging one or two of these before we send out the big email. 

-David Driscoll

Hidden Pockets of Bordeaux Value

David Driscoll
The hills of the Côtes de Castillon

The hills of the Côtes de Castillon

While much of the time we spend in Bordeaux each year is focused on visiting the major châteaux and the classified producers of the Médoc, those merchants who overlook and underestimate the smaller and value-driven wines of the region's lesser-known pockets do themselves a disservice as well as their customers. While it's great to get an allocation of Ausone and Petrus each vintage, I know I speak for K&L when I say that getting hundreds of cases of delicious, bargain-priced, everyday Bordeaux for the bulk of our clients is always going to take priority. During one of our last visits we ventured out into the Côtes de Castillon, a hilly region that was once known as St. Emilionnais due to its proximity on the Right Bank to the great St. Emilion region (the Bordelais eventually found that name to be a bit too misleading). Having a bit of downtime during a late afternoon in the historic city center, we decided to explore a bit deeper and see what we could find outside the big names. 

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Now remember when we're out visiting Bordeaux to taste the most recent vintage (like 2016), we're taking notes for the eventual pre-order campaign that follows. When we head out to visit producers and negotiants, we're tasting available wines that are usually in bottle and ready to go. One such example is the recently-arrived 2014 Château Hyot, a property located in Saint-Magne-de-Castillon that provided us with one helluva sub-$15 option. With its forty year old vines, the concentration of the Merlot (which makes of 70% of the blend) is stunning, adding a plumy lushness to the coffee notes imparted by the oak, and bolstered by the structure from the remaining 20% Cabernet Franc and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is made by the Aubert family, one that has been living in the region for almost three hundred years. Amélie Aubert, who took over from her parents, is a seventh generation winemaker with a special sense of how to tend the vines planted in both clay and gravel soils; she's made her mark with the 2014 expression, for sure. I've not made any secret of my affinity for 2014 with its classic, yet approachable flavors and even more attractive price points (especially when compared to the higher costs of 15/16), and personally I'm always on the hunt for the next great Tuesday night Bordeaux—for those nights when I just want to pop something delicious, warm up my leftovers, and put my feet up in front of the TV. I love how the wine evolved over time, showing more than just oak and fruit with nuances of minerality like graphite and iron once it got some air into it. We kept going back to the wine later in the day to see how it evolved and we all agreed it tasted better after it had been open a few hours, so if you can decant it you'll be doing yourself a favor. 

But just by drinking more great value wines like the 2014 Hyot in general, you'll be doing yourself and all of us a favor because you'll be helping to raise the awareness of Bordeaux as one of the top winemaking regions in general, beyond the collectable names that hog most of the attention. The Côtes de Castillion is just one such hidden pocket. I'm hoping we don't forget to keep exploring all such under-the-radar locales. 

-David Driscoll