California Wine Has Never Been Better

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I’m deep into a book I’m writing on the stars of California wine.  I’m talking two weeks from (extended) deadline deep.  I don’t want to disclose too much yet about the particular angle, for a variety of reasons (no pun intended); all I can say is that it should be out by late fall 2012.  Think of the theme as the top 25 wineries in California, as of right now.  The book has copious tasting notes with ratings (100-point scale) and drinking windows.  One of the winemakers I interviewed was on the phone with me today, and he asked what my favorite wines were in the book.  The truth of the matter is, it is impossible for me to pick a “favorite,” as so many of the wines would be perfect with different foods, while others would be great for casual sipping on their own, and thus it simply comes down to mood and circumstance.  However, to come up with a quick answer, I made a list of just the wines and their scores, and I was shocked.  The number of 90+ scores is unbelievable.  Granted, the wineries I’m writing about are supposed to be the 25 greatest wineries in California right now.  No, there aren’t any 100 point wines, although one or two show potential to improve and come close.  But more than 90% of the 200+ wines in the book are rated 90+.  And there are a number of wineries that are just consistently hitting it out of the park, even across 10 or more bottlings and multiple varietals.  What’s even more exciting, my tastings have revealed that many of the best winemakers in California have been able to fashion exceptional wines notwithstanding the weather-related curveballs that tormented growers in 2010 and 2011.  In sum, California wine has never been better.  So, without disclosing too much, at least not today, here are some of my favorites from the book, with their numerical rating and a brief description of the wine; these are the wines that continue to haunt me, weeks and in some cases months after I first tasted them:

DuMOL Estate Chardonnay 2010 (96+) – This is a blend of the Hyde Wente Chardonnay selection (70%) and the Mt. Eden selection (30%), which are planted in a tight spacing of 4’ x 3’.  The nose shows beautiful, seductive aromas of lanolin and boxwood, with a hint of lemon rind.  Generous and layered in the mouth, this is aged in 40% new French oak (a mix of 225ml barrels, 300ml hogsheads, and 75 gallon “cigars”).  Rich and dynamic, this seamless wine is breathtaking in its balance between power and grace, as well as in its effortless transition from the midpalate to the never-ending finish. It possesses an inner essence, somewhere between a jus and plasma, that sets it apart from most wines in the world.  And the essence doesn’t just sit there.  I swear by all that is good, it has a vibration, a groove to it.  It’s like the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice”; it makes me want to dance. 

Rhys Vineyards Horseshoe Chardonnay 2009 (97) – This is clearly the product of people who have drunk a lot of Batard-Montrachet, and fell in love with grand cru white Burgundy well before the whole pre-mox debacle.  Granted, it has the sunny kiss of California sunshine, but it has such refined power, such puissance.  The combination of concentrated golden apple flavors sprinkled with notes of nutmeg and lemon oil are set off by a fierce acidity that indelibly marks the palate and eternally tethers this behemoth to the good side of the force.  

Sandhi Bent Rock Chardonnay 2010 (97+) – Shows what complexity can be achieved at 13.2% alcohol.  Displays the apricot/tropical aromatics and oily texture of a Montrachet, the blind purity that you get from the best Santa Rita Hills Chardonnays (esp. when picked on the “early” side), and this incredible focus from the midpalate through the finish where the wine becomes simultaneously more delineated and concentrated.  Kind of like the big bang in reverse I suppose. 

Radio-Coteau Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 (96+): Over the past nine years, Eric Sussman’s Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noirs have consistently shown the flavor and aromatic characters of this hillside vineyard through the lens of the vintage.  The 2002 was brooding and black fruited; the riper 2003 was more red cherry oriented; the 2005 exhibited a “big-boned” quality of natural extract, depth, and structure reminiscent of the larger-than-normal Pinots from the 2005 vintage in the Cote d’Or.  2009 was a lighter, more gracious iteration.  The Radio-Coteau Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, however, enchants you with its elegance at first, and then slowly builds to reveal a wine of great nervosity and Pinot purity.  This has more subtlety and restraint on the finish than any prior Savoy bottling from Radio-Coteau, and is Sussman’s best wine to date from this site. 

Ridge Monte Bello 1995 (97) - Nearly 17 years after the vintage, the tannins of the ’95 Monte Bello have melted into the dark fruit sea, which is still fresh and cool, and the wine is a glorious example of the purity and balance that can be attained when “mountaintop Cabernet Sauvignon” is blended with other Bordeaux varietals.  I don’t know if this bottle showed particularly well because it was consumed on site, over lunch with the charming and ebullient Paul Draper.  All I can say is, this is about as good as it gets.

Wind Gap Luna Matta Nebbiolo Paso Robles 2009 (97-100):  Through a use of whole-cluster and de-stemmed fruit, a nightwatchman’s diligence in the monitoring of skin contact in taking the juice off the skins at the right moment to avoid unnecessary tannins, this red raspberry elixir has the most floral of bouquets and speaks with a strong Langhe-accent.  Big, neutral Gamba puncheons help amplify fruit roundness without imparting any intrusive wood tones.  More than just the real deal, if this proves to be as profound when it is finally bottled (a year or two from now), it may trigger a Nebbiolo-grafting orgy in the Central Coast.