18 Defining California Wineries; Critic Picks

A Playbook for the California Wine Fairs coming to Canada in April

California Wine Fairs will roll through six cities across Canada in April, with over 150 participating wineries at the largest events. WineAlign has decided to profile eighteen wineries that fair-goers should visit this year – an arbitrary number on the one hand, but a somewhat realistic number for any fair-goer to tackle in one evening. And undoubtedly others will grab your attention along the way, as they should.

WineAlign critics Anthony Gismondi, John Szabo and David Lawrason have each chosen six. They had a chance to taste California in-depth during the recent five-day Vancouver International Wine Festival where California was the theme region (so there is no Vancouver fair in April). That exercise – which included several seminars and regional tastings – yielded new discoveries and rekindled some old relationships.

The reasons for their selection are varied – from appreciation of the wine style, to the philosophy and outlook of the wineries, to those who are simply doing things very well. Each has also highlighted a wine or three that can be located through WineAlign. And most will also be poured at the California wine fairs. For a full list of wineries in each city, as well as ticket information use this link to the California Wine Fair 2013 website.

Anthony Gismondi’s Six

Anthony Gismondi

Anthony Gismondi

Kendall Jackson, Sonoma County

Sommeliers are often a fine source of information regarding unknown obscure producers making fascinating, one-off wines but sometimes they brush off wineries they shouldn’t. Point in question Kendall Jackson. KJ as it’s known to its peeps is a vastly underrated producer of California wine that is often lumped in with large commercial producers who simply are not in the same ballpark. While some wine companies were busy acquiring other wine companies over the last two decades, KJ was busy buying land, as in 10,545 acres of coastal and mountainside vineyards. That allows the family to claim that all the chardonnay grapes used in a bevy of labels are grown on vineyards the family controls. That’s an amazing 2.4 million cases of control from vineyard to bottle. The current structure of Kendall-Jackson’s chardonnay empire (don’t bet against more evolution) begins with the calling card of Vintner’s Reserve 2010 made from individual lots of grapes blended from multiple appellations. Stepping up in intensity and complexity of flavour is the Grand Reserve label. It’s made from a severe selection estate grown grapes blended from one or two appellations, in this case Monterey and Santa Barbara Counties. Its pinnacle chardonnays are labelled Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates, wines that showcases specific estate vineyard sites located on “mountains, ridges, hillsides and benchland influenced by the cool coast of California.” Two examples well worth seeking out are the Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Grand Reserve 2010 and the newest food friendly Kendall-Jackson Avant Chardonnay 2011 (The former is an almost even split of Monterey and Santa Barbara fruit while the Avant is a slimmer juicier style that has impressed us with its early releases, the 2011 is t quite up to those releases but all in all good value.

Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay

Joseph Phelps Vineyards (Freestone), Napa Valley, Sonoma Coast

Joseph Phelps Vineyards, founded in 1973 has been around most of my wine drinking life. Founded by Joe Phelps at St. Helena in the Napa Valley, the winery now works with or owns some 375 acres of vines on eight estates in Napa Valley and in 1999 expanded that number with some ultra-cool chardonnay and pinot noir producing vines grown near the town of Freestone on the Sonoma Coast. There is no doubt the fame of Phelps is closely linked to its signature Napa Valley blend, Insignia, but there is little to suggest its Freestone estate on the western Sonoma Coast won’t become equally valued in the decades to come. The family is so pleased with the early wines it has already reworked the original Freestone winery labels adding the Joseph Phelps brand name and highlighting Freestone Vineyards as an estate designation. Joe Phelps was always a fan of the cooler weather that moderates the Sonoma Coast and he was sure that top –flight pinot noir and chardonnay could be made there. He was right. I just love the Freestone wines the electricity in the Joseph Phelps Chardonnay Freestone Vineyards 2010 is crazy good and a benchmark for the future. Similarly the red brother Joseph Phelps Pinot Noir Freestone Vineyards 2010 entices with its sleeker cooler leaner style.

Joseph Phelps Pinot Noir Freestone Vineyards

Rodney Strong Vineyards, Sonoma County

Rodney Strong, the dancer turned winemaker is long gone but his spirit and foresight remains evident at his eponymous Sonoma County winery located just outside the picturesque town of Healdsburg. What Strong started, San Francisco businessman Tom Klein seems determined to finish or at least bring to fruition. Klein has built an impressive team of people led by chief winemaker Rick Sayre. Sayre’s first harvest was 1979 and over 30 years later Rodney Strong has become a beacon of the Alexander Valley, a region often said to be too warm to produce high quality reds. Sayre’s team has dismissed that fallacy and more with a trio of excellent hillside, single vineyard reds. The iconic and now revamped Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon, the Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon and the Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon each tell a story of terroir and exposition that would make Rodney the dancer fly through the air.

Sayre is also responsible for establishing the “Winery within the Winery’ at Rodney Strong. The blocks, be they single clones, or grapes grown on a special soil type, are tracked from the minute they enter the winery until they are bottled. Sayre’s sidekick is the youthful Greg Morthole who began working at Rodney Strong in 2005, and has quickly progressed to become the “Winery within a Winery” winemaker and is now responsible for another Klein family acquisition, the boutique Russian River pinot noir and chardonnay winery Davis Bynum. If anyone winery in Sonoma has helped to turn around the image of modern California chardonnay among the masses Rodney Strong is it. There are two labels to look for: the Rodney Strong Chardonnay Chalk Hill 2010 from white ash soils of the Chalk Hills appellation, and slightly rustic but intense and ageworthy the Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon 2010.

Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay

Signorello Estate, Napa Valley

Ray Signorello Jr. appears much younger than his years but don’t be fooled by the boyish grin. Signorello has more than 25 Napa Valley vintages to his credit and that makes him more establishment than newcomer in his beloved Napa. Signorello is a student of fine wine, young and old. His experience and observation with great wines from around the globe have shaped his thinking and the steady rise of quality at Signorello Vineyards. Cabernet sauvignon is the largest single grape variety planted on the Signorello hillsides. Signorello cabernet is all about finesse and balance no easy task in a region that wrestles with ripe fruit. His goal is to make complex reds that age gracefully a la the great bottles of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo and more.

Signorello has a pair of talented Frenchmen helping him make the wine Pierre Birebent and Luc Morlet and while he says he is not making French wine, quality has its benchmarks and Bordeaux is never far from their minds. I’m a fan of understated Napa cabernet and Signorello makes just that. Padrone is a salute to his father and founding partner is fast becoming wine to reckon with in all of Napa Valley. Signorello Padrone 2009 is all Napa Valley with concentration and intensity but with finesse and restraint youthful tannins on the finish need 3-5 years to soften. Signorello Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is a surprisingly fine wine given the difficult vintage in Napa. With only cabernet franc in the mix now the regular cab is just beginning to hit its stride.

Signorello Padrone Proprietary Red

Schug Carneros Estate, Sonoma County

Walter Schug began his winemaking career as the original winemaker at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in 1973 – think Insignia, Backus and Eisele Vineyards cabernets. His move to Carneros in 1980 signalled a longing for a cooler maritime climate and a focus his true love pinot noir and chardonnay. By 1992 he was making estate chardonnay and pinot noir and the rest is history. In 1995 Sonoma-born winemaker Michael Cox joined Walter and a year later took over the reins. Walter Schug has a clear vision of what his wines should be and it begins with elegance and finesse. Always understated and refined the Schug chardonnay was modern long before the rest of Sonoma caught on. It’s easy to say Schug is European old school until you consider he was working with some 600 independent growers and several thousand acres of prime vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties in 1966. His journey continues with his 50th crush this season and I for one can’t wait to taste his latest chardonnays and pinot noirs because they represent some of the best value, intriguing, food friendly wines in America. Schug Sauvignon Blanc 2011 is exceptional, proving that Walter Schug understands the essence of Sonoma County freshness, minerality and electricity and he has all three running through this bottle. The Schug Pinot Noir Carneros 2010 is a mix of cool Sonoma Coast vineyards: rhubarb, raspberry, carrot top and caraway mark this juicy style pinot with excellent fruit and finesse.

Schug Sauvignon Blanc

Marimar Estate, Sonoma County

You only have to meet Marimar Torres once to understand she has never taken no for an answer when it comes to wine. Fluent in six languages she made her way from Spain to America after first selling the family wines in Europe and then North America. She settled in California in 1975 and by 1986 she was planning her beloved Don Miguel Vineyard situated in the Green Valley sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley. Today the 81 acre site is planted to 30 acres of chardonnay and 30 acres of pinot noir. She also has another 20 acres of a 180-acre property planted to pinot noir between Freestone and Occidental in cool West Sonoma County. Torres is busy converting her vineyards from organic to biodynamic while technical director Bill Dyer, (Sterling Vineyards, Burrowing Owl, Church and State) is cranking out exceptional chardonnay and pinot noir. The wines are not European but like Schug, Phelps, Kendall Jackson, Rodney Strong and Signorello the wines of Miramar Torres use the California sun in measured amounts and balance that with a daily dose of cool air and fog. The result is wines you will not want to miss. Marimar Estate Pinot Noir Don Miguel Vineyard La Masia 2009 is a very complex wine from the Russian River. It could use a few years in bottle and it’s excellent value. Even more attractive is the Marimar Estate Chardonnay Don Miguel Vineyard Acero Unoaked 2010 also from the Russian River. Expect honey, floral, spicy, baked peach and orange muscat flavours that should appeal to many especially when served with Asian seafood dishes.

Marimar Estate La Masía Pinot Noir

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo’s Six

Bonny Doon Vineyard, Santa Cruz

Randall Grahm may have started out on his wine journey as an “insufferable wine fanatic” (his words) searching for the “Great American Pinot Noir”, but his path led him instead into a thicket of Rhône and Italian grapes. He purchased land in the quaintly named Bonny Doon area of the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1981, and has since gone on to create nothing short of an amazing array of wines that stretch both the palate and the mind. He is almost single-handedly responsible for the “Rhône Rangers” movement, proving that Mediterranean grapes are shockingly well suited to California, and he was recently awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Rhone Rangers organization. His philosophical musings are legendary in the wine community, and 350,000+ followers surely makes him the Ashton Kutcher of the wine twitterverse (sorry, Randall). Don’t forget to read the labels when you stop by the table to taste. The following will be at the California Wine Fair: 2010 Le Cigare Blanc Roussanne/Grenache Blanc Beeswax Vinyard; 2010 Contra Carignane/Syrah; 2009 Le Pousseur Syrah; and the 2008 Le Cigare Volant Grenache/Mourvedre/Syrah/Cinsault. (Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant 2006)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant

Bonterra Organic Vineyards, Mendocino County

The original vineyards now belonging to Bonterra were once part of Fetzer’s holdings in Mendocino County. Bob Blue, the founding and current head winemaker, crushed his first harvest at Bonterra in 1990. Blue had worked under seminal American organic/biodynamic winemaking figures Paul Dolan and Dennis Martin at Fetzer, and has never looked back. It’s striking that fully one-quarter of Mendocino County’s vineyards are organically farmed, compared to 3% overall in California. Bonterra now farms an astonishing 915 acres of vines both organically and biodynamically. I’ve always appreciated the freshness and balance of Bonterra’s range, as well as the value. (Bonterra Pinot Noir 2010).

Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, Santa Barbara County

I visited Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, owned by Jim and Mary Dierberg, in the fall of 2011. The winery is tucked up in the upper hills of Santa Barbara County in what’s known today as the Happy Canyon AVA, where conditions are ideal for Bordeaux varieties. The winery itself is a remarkable structure that would be the envy of many Napa Valley wine temples, and the wines, too, are worth the detour inland. Both the Star Lane and Dierberg labels are made at this facility, equipped with every gadget a winemaker could dream of, but Star Lane is reserved for sauvignon blanc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and a red blend called Astral, all grown in Happy Canyon, while Dierberg focuses on a range of chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah in the cooler AVAs of Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and the Sta. Rita Hills. These are intense and highly polished wines. (Dierberg Chardonnay 2008)

Dierberg Chardonnay 2008

Flowers Vineyard & Winery, Sonoma County

In 1989, Joan and Walt Flower purchased 321 acres of land on a ridge top a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean in northern Sonoma. Flowers Vineyards is thus one of the ‘true’ Sonoma Coast AVA properties, and with vineyards that top out at almost 600 meters, winegrowing is extreme. The focus is (almost) exclusively on chardonnay and pinot noir, from both the Camp Meeting ridge and Seaview Ridge estate vineyards, as well as other select sites from the coolest corners of Sonoma. These are finely etched, pure and precise expressions, with more than a slight nod back to the old world. (Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2010)

Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2010

Grgich Hills Estate, Napa Valley

Miljenko “Mike” Grgich has some history in the business. He was the winemaker of the 1973 Château Montelena chardonnay that shocked the wine world by placing first in the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting in 1976. Grgich Hills was established shortly after in 1977, and Mike was inducted in the Vintner’s Hall of Fame in 2008. For the last decade, all of Grgich Hills’ wines are made from 100% estate fruit, farmed organically and biodynamically. The complexity derived from wild yeast fermentations and the purity encouraged by gentle oak ageing are the hallmarks of these balanced and elegant Napa wines. Stop by and pass on your best wishes to Mike, who turns 90 on April 1st. (Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2009 and Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008).

Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2009

Stags’ Leap Winery, Napa Valley

Stags’ Leap Winery (not to be confused with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars), is, unsurprisingly, in the Stag’s Leap district AVA. There’s something special about this appellation: it could be the volcanic-derived soils; it could be the cool air that funnels through in late afternoon from San Pablo Bay. In any case, the wines are distinctive, and this is a reliable producer. The wines have always been very good, but since Frenchmen Christophe Paubert took over as winemaker in late 2009, the quality has risen further. You can still expect the richness and intensity of fruit for which Napa is known, but the wines have a degree of refinement and elegance that makes these more subtle, complex and drinkable than the average. (Stags’ Leap Winery Viognier 2011Stags’ Leap Winery Petite Sirah 2008Stags’ Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2008).

Stags' Leap Winery Viognier 2011

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason’s Six

Etude Wines, Sonoma County

“The state of pinot in California is strong; it’s on fire as a matter of fact. The availability of quality-based Dijon clones and matching them to micro-climates and terroirs is making all the difference. The growing range is also expanding, and it’s become so popular. It’s becoming a better wine overall”. So said Etude winemaker Jon Priest at a pinot noir seminar in Vancouver. Priest is very much at the forefront of California’s pinot revolution. With owner Tony Soter and viticulturalist Franci Ashton, he oversees a small, unique volcanic soiled vineyard in the northwest corner of the Carneros appellation. Over 20 pinot clones, including ten that he describes as ‘heirloom’ clones are planted. The pinots are big and profound yet nuanced and sensitive, and in my books, modern treasures – I have rated the 2010 Heirloom not yet available in Canada at 94 points. Etude also makes Napa cabernet, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Merlot. (Etude Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros)

Etude Pinot Noir

Seghesio Family Vineyards, Sonoma County

Peter Seghesio is the outspoken, almost irascible winemaker of Seghesio, a family enterprise with roots in Sonoma dating back to 1895. He is also in charge of over 300 acres of vineyard in Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley – most of it zinfandel, most of it old vines. In Vancouver he compared zin to pinot noir saying “both are thin skinned, expressive of their site, have red fruit flavours, and they are high maintenance”. It was so refreshing to hear someone speak with reverence and almost fond annoyance about zin – whereas so many nowadays make cheap zin as a candy bar wine and talk about its worth in SKUs. What’s more Seghesio makes zinfandels that try so hard to transpose this grape into the glass, while sculpting them to a balanced modern style. In Vancouver I swooned over the small production single vineyard zins like the burly, granitic 2010 Rockpile grown above the fog-line in the Alexander Valley appellation, and the elegant rich and seductive 2010 Cortina Vineyard from the Dry Creek Valley. (Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2010Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel 2009)

Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2010

Heitz Cellars, Napa Valley

I have always been a big fan of Heitz, just like everyone else who cares about fine wine. Joe Heitz was a true Napa pioneer, starting into the business when Napa had only eleven wineries. He made his first vintage in 1966, from grapes purchased – to this day – from the 35 acre Oakville vineyard of Tom and Martha May. It was a later ripening site, and Joe noticed the distinctive style and quality of the cabernet that was to become Napa’s first vineyard designated wine – Martha’s Vineyard. (I tasted the silken 2001 Martha’s in Vancouver and it had barely begun its life’s journey). If they are not pouring Martha’s Vineyard freely at the Wine Fairs cut them some slack, as it’s a $215+ wine. But you should look for their Trailside and Fay Vineyard wines as well. And don’t miss the surprisingly stylish, complex and deep 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, a variety they only began to producer in 2006. I loved this sauvignon, and it put Heitz back on my radar. No currently available Heitz wines are reviewed on WineAlign, a situation we hope changes as a result of Heitz’s return to Canada through the Wine Fairs. (Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard 2001)

Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha's Vineyard

Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County

The intriguing thing about Chateau St. Jean is its historic attachment to chardonnay. Yes, I like its pinot noirs, and I understand what makes its red Bordeaux blend called Cinq Cepages a collectors favourite, even though it has never thrilled me. But this is a house – actually a very elegant chateau in Sonoma Valley – that chardonnay built. It made its reputation on single vineyard chardonnays from growers like Robert Young as far back as the early 1970s. Today they still make three vineyard designate wines – Robert Young, Belle Terre and Durell Vineyards. What I admire throughout the range, even in the widely available Sonoma County Chardonnay – that proved a challenge in Episode 3.2 of WineAlign’s blind tasting video called “So, You Think you Know Wine” is the wonderfully balanced, rich yet delicate winemaking of Margo Van Staaveren, who has made Chateau St. Jean wines for over 30 years. To me they define Sonoma chardonnay. (Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay 2011)

Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay

Justin Vineyards, Paso Robles

It has taken me a long time to “get” Justin. I found the wines odd, somehow idiosyncratic and over-marketed and over-hyped. But I have been captivated by recent releases, including the flagship 2009 Isoceles, and the “regular” 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2010 Syrah. Justin was founded in 1981 by an international banker named Justin Baldwin who at the time wanted to replicate Bordeaux in California (he was not alone in this mindset). Whether through shrewdness or dumb luck I think he may have actually ended up planting his Bordeaux varieties in an ideal site at higher, cooler elevation on the western flank of the Paso Robles appellation. Elsewhere in Paso Robles syrah and Rhone varieties are important, but syrah is only a minor part of his portfolio. Iscoceles is a “left-bank” Bordeaux inspired blend based heavily on cabernet sauvignon and it impressed me with richness, uniqueness and poise. And I almost hate to say this, but at $80 it is a very good value compared to some iconic, triple digit Napa cabs.

Justin Vineyards Isosceles

Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley

A year ago I would not have included Robert Mondavi on a list like this. It’s a winery I know well and have visited and tasted often from 1978 onward, with an especially memorable pinot tasting with Tim Mondavi in 1984, then some of Napa’s first “sub-appellation tastings with Michael Mondavi during the 90s. When the ambitious, adventurous and much beloved Robert Mondavi sold to Constellation brands a few years ago, I too let go, and frankly thought the wines floundered thereafter. But after re-visiting in January 2011, then tasting Mondavi again in Vancouver in some depth, I realized I really liked at least five of the company’s wines. The flagship 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is outstanding, and so is the stunning 2010 Pinot Noir Reserve. And the Fume Blanc Reserve remains one of California’s great white wines. Then, when I gave excellent ratings to the basic 2010 Chardonnay and 2010 Pinot Noir, I realized that Mondavi, and the work of winemaker Genevieve Janssens, was actually very much worth noting.

Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

County in the City