California – Special Report

Premium California’s Peaceful Easy Feeling

By Michael Godel

(with wine picks from David Lawrason, John Szabo, MS and Sara d’Amato)

This feature was commissioned by California Wines.

Last week I was invited to a most remarkable tasting dinner which included the likes of 20-25 year old vintage Champagne, 1960s and 90s Bordeaux First Growths, early 2000s Super-Tuscan royalty, 100 point Washington cabernet sauvignon, top echelon syrah from the Rhône (1990) and a most remarkable Sine Qua Non, from Santa Barbara California. Included that night was one of the most magnanimous and sought after cult wines from Napa Valley, the 1994 Proprietary Red from Harlan Estate. Out of interest you can click on the links to see my reviews of those two very special California wines. More important and to the point is the notion of premium California not merely being invited to the table with some of the worlds finest wines but holding a centring and leading role. In fact most of the attendees chose the two Californians as their wine of the night.


On a tangent and yet connected to this is much ado and social media noise concerning daylight savings time changes. One camp argues to do away with the archaic notion of clocks falling back and springing forward, while another says to simply ignore it and live one hour later (or earlier) than the rest of the world. At this time of year the kerfuffle is all white noise to those who see time as a necessary abstract, adjustment and as a signal for the arrival of the latest batch of California wines. Top drops from the golden state dot the release cycle year round but when November comes there are three consecutive VINTAGES releases filled with la crème de la crème. Their annual presence is comforting, like a childhood memory of the song and the sitcom, a Minnow’s cast of characters from Napa Valley, Sonoma County and Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Paso Robles and the rest, timeless if premium wines that give Ontarians that peaceful easy feeling.

WineAlign readers are well aware that their critics do not hand out scores without both a requiem of substance and merit which means that score creep is not a thing for this discerning group of writers and readers alike. Many well-known publications, critics and bloggers compete for wine ratings supremacy but WineAlign could hardly be accused of such skulduggery. John has written much on the subject and here is a reminder of his thoughts from a past article. What I have noticed, especially over the last three years is a “creeping up” of scores when it concerns premium California wines. I have complied a graph to drive home the point and when you look at the scores allotted the Buyers’ Guide wines below you will also notice the collective numbers are significantly higher than ever before.

WineAlign Critics’ average scores for premium California wines

Vintners Report Outstanding Quality For 2021 California Harvest

The good news coming out of California should be regarded as a sigh of collective relief but really it’s so much more than that. The last few years have, frankly, been challenging, from wildfires to Covid and so hearing a shedding of positive light might make California wine lovers giddy with delight. California winemakers have always overcome these types of hurdles with an amazing spirit and persevering attitude to continue making great wine. And this just in from the California Wine Institute. “Winemakers across California predict that the 2021 vintage will be one of the best in recent memory, while the Golden State’s winegrowers enjoyed a smooth harvest following a moderate and consistent growing season. The ongoing drought presented challenges for winegrowers, resulting in reduced yields, but vintners are reporting outstanding quality and great concentration in the fruit.”

California produces about 80 per cent of the nation’s wine, making it the world’s fourth-largest wine producing region. More than 80 per cent of California wine is made in a Certified Sustainable California Winery and over half of the state’s 637,000 vineyard acres are certified to one of California’s sustainability programs (Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing, Fish Friendly Farming, LODI RULES, Napa Green and SIP-Certified). Along with preserving the land for future generations, many of the sustainable practices used by the state’s vintners help make the harvest and growing season run more smoothly and increase wine quality.

“The weather was excellent this year, with mild temperatures at the end of the growing season,” said Ted Henry, director of winegrowing at Groth Vineyards in Oakville in Napa Valley. “We got a little more time to mature flavors before pulling the fruit off the vine.” Yields were on the lighter side due to smaller clusters and berries, but otherwise, the vintage was free from significant issues. “I think 2021 will be a top vintage in the Napa Valley,” Henry said. “Reds are very dark and extracted, with nice balance and freshness. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon stood out as exceptional, and whites were bright, fresh and full flavoured.”

J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines saw a good amount of pre-season rainfall for its Paso Robles vineyards this year. However, most of the precipitation arrived during a single storm event, causing runoff that prevented much of the water from penetrating the soil. “No matter how you irrigate, the vines love rainwater more than anything,” said director of winemaking Steve Peck. “Canopies and vines were a little bit smaller this year because of that lower rainfall total. Even so, he added, yields came in around average, with fruit showing more structure and higher tannin levels than typical. “For people that really like that intense mouthfeel,” he said, “I think they’re going to be very pleased with 2021.”

In September John’s article on the “Grands Crus of Napa” was published, along with recommend wines and the agents who import them in Ontario. Last week John discussed Premium California in his Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES October 30th Release. He noted how California wine lovers won’t want to miss reading the excellent new edition “On California, Wine Tales from the Golden State”, published by the late Steven Spurrier’s Académie du Vin Library. John’s contribution was “A Volcanic Tour of California’s North Coast”and should you be so inclined you can purchase your copy here. Mr. Szabo went on to talk about fine wine for the 1 per cent and how wine collectors are spending more on wine than ever before, this as a backdrop to the lead up to frenzied holiday buying, when the average price of wines in the VINTAGES releases rise as steeply as a Liv-ex Fine Wine 100 curve. As they say about California wines, spend big or go home.

John summed it up beautifully. “But it’s also an idyllic place to grow grapes for truly premium wines. The best are counted among the finest in the world. Sometimes, it’s worth paying more. In California, you get what you pay for. Many top wines, even in the $100+ category, can even be considered excellent value on the global fine wine scale. Even the most expensive is still far cheaper than a Methuselah of Romanée Conti.”

This week David will pen the Buyers’ Guide for the VINTAGES November 13th release, which incidentally (and quite purposefully) is chock full of California wines – 28 of them to be exact! There is no question that the LCBO’s premium buyers are fully committed to keeping that peaceful, easy and oh so comfortable California feeling alive. See the full list of VINTAGES – California Classics here. In Ontario consumers are more than happy, ready and willing to join in the fun. California rocks and the hits just keep on coming. In the meantime please enjoy these reviews from the previous (and still available) October 30th release, responsibly of course ;).


Flowers Chardonnay 2018

Flowers Chardonnay 2018, Sonoma Coast
$59.95, Rogers & Company
David Lawrason – This is a very generous, ripe, bright and elegant chardonnay from the cooler Sonoma Coast. It is not highly aromatic but it is very pretty with yellow pear-pineapple fruit, a touch of butter, subtle oak spice and vanillin. Fits together seamlessly. It is medium-full bodied, creamy yet fresh with a hint of C02. Alcohol warms, acid creates lemon and the length is excellent. If Sonoma is all about brightness this is the poster child, but wanted a bit more elasticity and elegance.
Michael Godel – If there were nothing but flowers, how many of us would be perfectly content? In the case of chardonnay we surely would like a host of bottles to choose from but on a desert island, being left with Sonoma Coast and Flowers would work out just fine. It starts out like this. “Here we stand, like an Adam and an Eve, waterfalls, the Garden of Eden.” Sort of like the terroir, the view and the fruit that grows on these vines in Sonoma eden. My what glory comes from 2018, all flesh and saltiness, stone fruit, sapidity and all encompassing fresh kept acidity. A chardonnay talking, in heads but also in rhyming couplets. Non-plussed and undisturbed. There are no worries when it comes to this wine. “There was a shopping mall, now it’s all covered with flowers. You’ve got it, you’ve got it.”

Grgich Hills Estate Grown Chardonnay 2017

Grgich Hills Estate Grown Chardonnay 2017, Napa Valley
$67.95, Rogers & Company
John Szabo – The distinctive style of Grgich shows through again clearly in this flinty-reductive-sulphide inflected 2017, perhaps off-putting to those unaccustomed to the idiosyncrasies of this wine, but have patience. Once on the palate, the wine impresses with its sheer density and intensity, not happenstance or vintage variation, but rather genuine concentration born of careful farming and very low yields. Indeed, the wine washes over the palate like a torrent of flavour, a landslide of structure, including grit and phenolic grip. Length and depth are exceptional. It’s drinking well now, but will surely age gracefully into the late-’20s-early-’30’s. Outstanding wine
Michael Godel – Not exactly the latest vintage but surely one caught in mid-step stride for optimum drinking at this time. A Grgich Hills chardonnay of great fleshiness and shadowy complexities, in and out of view, darting like the energy and the acids in this fruitful yet jagged wine. Really sharp and full of contrasts, chardonnay chiaroscuro if you will, lurking, jumping out and forth, slinging drupe, barrel and intensity. So much to think about here, and for awhile. Drink 2021-2026. Tasted November 2021.

Kistler Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay 2019

Kistler Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay 2019, Sonoma County
$114.95, The Vine Agency
David Lawrason – This pours quite deep yellow gold. The nose is very lifted, intense and rich with apricot, hazelnut/macaroon, flinty reduction and toast. It is full bodied, rich yet braced by good acidity and alcohol warmth. Full bore and intense but not heavy, with some sourness. Excellent to outstanding length.
Michael Godel – Hard to imagine a higher love and level of extract, concentration and extension than what comes from Kistler’s highly prized chardonnay source. While sometimes it grounds and broods this iteration rises, airs past grievances and elevates above and beyond itself into rarefied air. Ethereal and gliding as if in a hot air balloon, effortless, like butter through the sky. No lack of barrel sweetness, nuts, bolts and fine white caramel. Class and distinction in a top notch chardonnay vintage.

Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay 2019

Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay 2019, Carneros
$63.95, Family Wine Merchants
Sara d’Amato – Busting with flavour! Rich tropical and peach flavours, honey and a dusting of cinnamon. The freshness and saltiness of Carneros is apparent along with a hint of volatility and a gentle lactic component. Compelling complex and with great length.
Michael Godel – Always one of the more opulent examples of chardonnay and while 2019 is not all that meandering nor does it truly veer away from the Rombauer style there is something of a restraining nature this time around. Perhaps not so much restraint as more noticeable complexities, minerals, resins, herbals and cooler Carneros shine. A luminescent wine, effulgent and really quite stimulating. The wood is very well to better integrated and surely sends this as a chardonnay capable of aging long, for a half decade or more’s time.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Napa Valley
$84.95, Rogers & Company
David Lawrason – From an iconic Calistoga-based winery that tilts to the Bordeaux school, this is a very fine cabernet. I am surprised by its ripeness of fruit while maintaining great structure and poise. It is full bodied and rich but not heavy. Very even keeled with focus, energy and excellent length.
Michael Godel – Clear quality vintage from Montelena’s estate cabernet with upstanding dark fruit in the blue-black range, a hematic swelling of that fruit and an almost deeply brooding sense gleaned from the aromatics. A wine of serious depth and near equal complexity, rich yet cool, sapid and savoury. Finely chiseled and cut to sear through the moon over pleasure and breathing life for energy and spirit. Needs time, a whole lot of precious time.

Groth Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Groth Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Oakville, Napa Valley
$119.95, The Vine Agency
John Szabo – This is a beautifully perfumed and composed cabernet from Groth, supple and elegant, trading heft for genuine complexity and depth. Make no mistake, however, there’s plenty of depth and concentration, but on a refined and well-balanced frame. Flavours are in the expected black fruit spectrum with a touch of brighter red fruit mixed in with high quality wood spice, integrating nicely at this stage. I love the silky tannins and the perfectly measure acids; length and depth are exceptional. Top notch; Drink or hold another 12-15 years.
Michael Godel
– Tasting this 40 years after Judy and Dennis Groth purchased their 121 acres in Oakville and from a 2017 vintage so high in fruit pectin, glycerol and utmost Grothic texture. What is always so distinct and notable about the Estate Oakville cabernet sauvignon is its Grothiness, an undeniable feeling one gets from this consistently moving wine. Though more accessible and perhaps less tannic than the previous ’16 there persists a grippy underbelly and earth-grounded note of underbrush. Always terrific, exemplary and worthy Oakville example.
Sara d’Amato – A finessed cabernet sauvignon, one with a wealth of texture and flavour to experience and notable gusto. Featuring a stylish aromatic profile where the fruit and floral just upstages the toasted oak. The palate delivers a youthful tannic presence that is not overripe nor green, and almost certainly able to evolve gracefully alongside the fruit. A classy example of a high quality Oakville cabernet sauvignon with very fine balance.

J. Lohr Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

J. Lohr Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Paso Robles
$49.95, Profile Wine Group (Barrique)
Sara d’Amato – Plush and satisfying, this elegantly oaked cabernet sauvignon from Paso offers notable Pacific freshness along with southern ripeness. Showing a great meshing of flavours and winemaking on the palate. Drinking very well now, no need to wait but there is certainly enough concentration for further aging. T
David Lawrason –This shows a very ripe, almost classic California cab nose of stewed black cherries liberally oaked and varnished, with chocolate and light smoke. It is full bodied, plush, smooth and quite elegant on the mid palate with quite soft, dusty tannin and notable alcohol afterburn. The length is very good to excellent.

Pickett Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard 2017

Pickett Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard 2017, Napa Valley
$99.95, Halpern Enterprises
John Szabo – There’s some mystery surrounding this wine from Araujo Estates (renamed Eisele Vineyards in 2016, after the famous single vineyard which surely does not find its way into this bottling). One source says it’s a wine made exclusively for the LCBO, and it’s not listed on the Eisele website, nor are there any international reviews for it, but it’s seems to also be available in a smattering of US shops. Whatever the case, it’s impressive wine, a dark and polished well-balanced, supple but structured cabernet of fine proportions, and long, perfumed finish. The intensity and concentration are genuine, and the pedigree and meticulous care applied evident. Cellar another 2-3 years or hold into the early ’30s. There’s plenty to be enthusiastic about here, mysterious origins and all.
Michael Godel – Eisele (formerly Araujo) Vineyard’s Pickett is just a lovely red fruit forward and stand up Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon with clear caste, class and style. Top vintage acids are so ready and willing to keep the fruit grooving with rhythm and soul. You can feel the barrel at the back end so waiting a year or two is likely best but that may be hard to do. Could drink this for the next 10 years but what’s stopping us from getting at it in the midnight hour.

Robert Young Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Robert Young Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Sonoma County
$59.95, Epic Wine & Spirits
John Szabo – This is a deeply-coloured, firmly structured, well-balanced cabernet from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, a prized AVA for the variety with its warmer inland climate and stony, volcanic rock- laced soils. You’ll find more depth and structure here than in similarly-priced cabernets from next door in Napa Valley, also genuine complexity. Black fruit is allied to smoldering wood spice and earth, evergreen and vanilla, even a touch of orange peel to add complexity. Tannins are yet gritty and firm, supported by lively acids. I’s suggest another 2-4 years in the cellar to allow the wine to unwind and relax. Solid stuff.
Michael Godel – Primarily cabernet sauvignon with eight per cent malbec and bit parts rounded by petit verdot and merlot all seeing 24 months in (40 per cent new) French wood. Matt Michael is the winemaker for an estate cab with a heritage dating back to 1968 plantings in the Alexander Valley. A wine that coats without over-filling, liquid chalky of fine tannins and a tarry depth. Firm yet no overt, hit over the head structure and in many respects a lovely restraint so don’t hold back, enjoy now and in the relative short term.
Sara d’Amato – A relatively small-lot production of only 21 barrels, Robert Yongs’ Alexander Valley 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon features perfectly ripened, chalky tannins and more freshness than expected to juxtapose the wealth of black fruit. Exhibits the signature elegance of Alexander Valley with a pleasantly taught nature and a Bordelaise-inspired structure. Excellent length. Finely crafted.


Duckhorn Merlot 2018

Duckhorn Merlot 2018, Napa Valley
$49.95, Rogers & Company
John Szabo – Napa merlot specialist Duckhorn continues to set a standard for this unsung variety in the valley, here in 2018 showing impressive depth and structure, not a soft and easy-drinking merlot by any stretch, but one that will age gracefully over the next decade and more. Tannins are abundant but fine-grained and ripe, while oak is superbly well-integrated and acids seamlessly entwined in the ensemble. Excellent length and depth. Well-measured, even-keeled, sophisticated red wine, without excessive flash or bling.
Michael Godel – For merlot it would seem from first nose that 2018 is a stellar vintage, extolling varietal virtues with open generosity and immediately gratifying haste. Beautiful core of red and black fruit surrounded by circulating acidity of the finest and spirited kind. Then a calmness, a moment of breathing and reprieve before realizing the stability, upright skeletal backbone and pressed serviceability making this a merlot to travel well forward in time. Most excellent stuff.


Ridge Three Valleys 2019

Ridge Three Valleys 2019, Sonoma County
$49.95, Rogers & Company
John Szabo – Ridge’s classic zinfandel blend with 13% petite sirah, 10% carignane, 3% mataro, 1% alicante bouschet, 2019 is a bright, balanced, firmly structured vintage, with typically well-balanced acids and firm tannins, and very good to excellent length. I find this particularly even-keeled and succulent, a wine that pulses with energy and drives desire for additional sips. Cellar for another 2-3 years, and enjoy into the early ’30s.
Michael Godel – Always zinfandel based and yet never the big, jammy and brambly wine that so many are, have been and come to be. Bright red fruit in a raspberry vein, help indeed from the field blend accoutrements of petite sirah, carignane, mataro (mourvèdre) and alicante bouschet. A crafty blend, as always, hints of smoulder and tar, into the violets and roses, never cloying or heavy. A Ridge specialty and while we all wish Califlation had not got hold of a wine once held in the $25-30 range, this is what it is. If you can afford this level of wine it really is a treat.

Good to go!


This feature was commissioned by California Wines. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.