Named for the red-shouldered hawks and other birds of prey that keep the root-eating gopher population under control, the 68-acre vineyard tract that the Shafer family farms in Carneros brings to the table what many consumers feel is one of the best chardonnays in the world.

Red Shoulder Ranch chardonnay comes from marine-influenced rolling hills the Shafers planted just a hop, skip and jump from San Francisco Bay, a blend of five chardonnay clones that provide winemaker Elias Fernandez with small clusters, low yields and abundant flavors.

“The long, cool growing season in Carneros allows the fruit to mature slowly and evenly, letting us wait for the right moment when sugar and acid achieve balance,” notes Doug Shafer, winery president.

Planted more than two decades ago, the Red Shoulder Ranch tract produced its first wine in 1994. From the get-go, Red Shoulder Ranch chardonnay earned raves from consumers and critics alike. It has been an important offering in the Shafer portfolio, supplanting the chardonnay produced early on from a knoll on the home ranch off Silverado Trail in the Stags Leap District.

That first release was around 5,000 cases, and it hit the wine shops in the mid-’90s with a suggested retail price of $23. Production has been fairly consistent over the ensuing years, with the latest release, from the 2010 harvest, providing the Shafers — and Red Shoulder Ranch devotées — 6,400 cases to sell and sing about. Retail price today is $48 a bottle ... and worth every cent.

I’m not the only one who crows over Red Shoulder Ranch chardonnay. In the foreward to Doug Shafer’s just released book, “A Vineyard in Napa,” New York restaurant king Danny Meyer maintains it’s a “bone-rattling” chardonnay. Noted wine writer Robert M. Parker Jr. said Red Shoulder Ranch chardonnay is “one of the best non-malolactic, barrel-fermented chardonnays in California.”

The wine matured on the lees for 14 months in new French oak barrels (75 percent) and the remainder in stainless steel barrels. Since it did not go through a secondary, or malolactic, fermentation, this oak/stainless blend offers a lively natural acidity.

The mouthfeel of the 2010 chardonnay is as smooth and inviting as it was the first time I tasted it nearly two decades ago. It’s a full-bodied chardonnay with an intoxicating honeysuckle aroma and attractive tropical and stone fruit flavors on the mid-palate and long, gorgeous finish. It’s an elegant wine with ideal structure and balance, one that can be consumed on its own or paired with food. I’d love to accompany shellfish, oysters, trout, salmon and fire-roasted halibut with Red Shoulder Ranch chardonnay.

This is a wine with pedigree, one that you can count on vintage after vintage after vintage. The Shafers never let you down.

New kid on the block

Even though we live in the Napa Valley, sometimes the arrival of a new brand goes unnoticed even among those who try to follow the industry.

Such is the case with Jeremy Nickel’s single wine project, The Vineyard House, a brand he’s dedicated to his father, the late, great Gil Nickel, founder of Far Niente, Dolce and Nickel & Nickel wines.

I just caught up with The Vineyard House 2008 cabernet sauvignon, not realizing that this new kid on the block has been releasing The Vineyard House cabs since the 2005 vintage.

The young Oklahoma native’s bottling is made from grapes grown on his nine-acre wine estate located on a knoll overlooking Far Niente’s Stelling Vineyard in the Oakville appellation.

“The Vineyard House’s commitment is simple: to capture the beauty that surrounds it in each bottle of wine,” Nickel notes in his mission statement. “Each stage of our winemaking process is guided by our unswerving goal to transform the brilliant quality of each grape into an unparalleled bottle of wine. We integrate the best winemaking techniques and philosophies from both the old and new world. Our mission is to carry on the long-standing tradition that defines our craft while integrating modern techniques that care for our environment.”

I don’t know much about Nickel, other than he was embroiled in a lawsuit with the principals of his father’s wine company — including his stepmother, Beth Nickel — about how the business was being run. I don’t know if that lawsuit was ever settled, and, frankly, I don’t care.

What I do know is that young Nickel’s heart is in the right place when it comes to his dad. In a general letter to those interested in purchasing The Vineyard House cabernet, Jeremy Nickel writes:

“The Vineyard House is a tribute label dedicated to the life and legacy of my late father and hero, Gil Nickel. As many of you know, Gil passed away in 2003 after a courageous five-year battle with cancer. As such, I am donating 10 percent of all proceeds to cancer research in Gil’s name.”

What I also know is that Nickel has a lot of “huevos” in tagging his new venture a “cult wine” and charging $175 for it right out of the chute. Actually, the just released 2008 is $200 a bottle.

Just because production is only 350 cases doesn’t make it a cult wine. And charging a lot of money for it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the crème de la crème.

A couple of earlier releases got quite respectable scores from respected wine publications. But some friends and I tasted through a bottle of The Vineyard House 2008 cabernet sauvignon and we were mildly impressed.

Mostly cabernet sauvignon — blended with 6 percent merlot, 6 percent petit verdot and 3 percent malbec — the 2008 TVH is a good Bordeaux blend and is drinking well now. It’s a well-balanced red, displaying sweet, ripe, juicy fruit, lots of blackberry and cassis. It’s a good wine for steak and potatoes, one of my good friends said over a plate of steak and potatoes.

But it’s not a sensational bottle of wine, one that you think you’d be getting for two hundred bucks. It’s a decent cab, but pricey and out of reach of many wine lovers.

Perhaps it would have left a better taste in the mouth if there’d been a lot less ego in the blend.

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