KENWOOD, Calif. — In 1989, when Steve Ledson began construction of his dream house along Highway 12 in the Sonoma Valley, he had trouble convincing neighbors and passers-by that the huge edifice, designed as a European castle and surrounded by vineyards, wasn't just another new winey in the neighborhood.
Understandable, considering the highly regarded Chateau St. Jean, St. Francis and Arrowood wineries were also located just down the road.
"I like to design things," said Ledson, who owned a successful construction business at the time. "I built the castle as my home. But people would stop by every day and ask me when the winery would open."
Thus, the seed was planted, and in 1993, Ledson decided, with the help of St. Francis winemaker Tom Mackey, to produce a homemade merlot with grapes from his new estate. Having been raised in a farming family and a lifelong resident of Sonoma County, it was a logical transition that soon morphed into the present-day Ledson Winery.
The novelty of the castle soon turned it into a tourist attraction that initially overshadowed the Ledson wines. To be sure, a visit to the castle is a worthwhile and intriguing stop. The hospitality from the moment a visitor sets foot in the tasting room is unparalleled in California wine country. Yet it is the array of exceptional wines that makes a visit truly worthwhile.
I made it a point to pop in recently, after the Ledson 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from the Napa Valley's famed Stagecoach Vineyard earned the prestigious domestic Wine of the Year award at the 2019 Winemaker Challenge in San Diego. My goal was to find out what other gems Steve Ledson had up his sleeve.
To my utter delight, but hardly my surprise, I was treated to a taste of four Ledson wines that I had not previously experienced.
The first, a 2017 Ledson Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($66) from a vineyard owned by the legendary Dutton family, was a beautiful expression of pinot, with exceptional fruit purity and suave tannins. A stunning wine. Rating: 95.
Next came the 2016 Ledson Sonoma Valley Estate Barbera ($54) that combined richness with firm acidity, reminding me of the splendid barbera wines of Italy's Piedmont region. Rating: 93.
Just as I was thinking the barbera and pinot were going to be very difficult to top, I tasted the 2015 Ledson Mountain Terraces Malbec, Moon Mountain ($100). This stunning malbec, one of the finest domestic malbecs I've ever tasted, was beautifully structured, with layered aromas of blackberry, black cherry and cassis, a hint of mocha on the finish and a scintillating thread of minerality. Rating: 95.
Last, but certainly not least, a 2014 Ledson Mountain Terraces Block 14 Cabernet Sauvignon, Moon Mountain ($225) took the cake. This powerful, age-worthy cab delivered flavors of blackberry, black currant and blueberry, a supple palate, and impressive depth and length, with a spicy, mocha-tinged finish. Depending on the vintage, no more than 50 cases of Block 14 cabernet are produced in any year. Rating: 97.
In short, the castle was a visual feast with its beautiful marble and exquisitely carved wood surfaces. The wines, however, won the day.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Cline 2017 'Old Vine' Zinfandel, Lodi ($11.99) — The Cline family has been cranking out excellent zinfandel for at least two decades. This beauty counts in the value category and delivers tremendous bang for the buck, showing ripe black fruits and spice with impressive length in the mouth. Rating: 88.
ROAR 2017 Chardonnay, Rosella's Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands ($45) — This special part of California's central coast produces many of the state's finest, most complex chardonnays, and Rosella's Vineyard is among the best. Typical of the region, the Rosella's chardonnay expresses that rare combination of richness and power with structure, minerality and elegance. The 2017 is another beauty in a long line of exceptional chardonnays from this outstanding vineyard. Rating: 96.
Tenuta Tascante 2017 Buonora, Etna Bianco DOC, Italy ($21) — The Mount Etna volcano blows its top from time to time, yet the intrepid vintners of the area somehow manage to produce wine every vintage. The reds and whites from Etna's volcanic soils are distinctive, and quality has risen considerably over the past 25 years. Tenuta Tascante was founded by the Tasca d'Almerita family in 2007. The historic Tasca d'Almerita, located in the center of Sicily, goes back eight generations over about 200 years. They are known as excellent stewards of the land and fine winemakers, too. That is reflected in the Tascante Etna Bianco, which is 100 percent carricante. This is a mineral-driven wine that shows notes of lime with a stony minerality. Beautifully done. Rating: 90.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. Email Robert at [email protected]