Focus on California

At today's prices, California's producers rightly believe that their wines must make a statement. The problem is that relatively few vineyard sites around the state are truly capable of speaking for themselves. Making wines with impact is often a matter of picking with freakishly high grape sugars, blending disparate parcels in an attempt to create complexity, extracting heavily during vinification, or throwing a lot of new oak at the wines in the hope of giving them personality (and sometimes all of the above). It should not be surprising under the circumstances that so much California wine today is unbalanced, overwrought, or thoroughly interchangeable.
Increasingly, I find myself predisposed toward two kinds of California operations and bored with the rest. The first group consists of small, high-quality producers who are making outstanding, unmanipulated, characterful wines from great sites. While it's natural for all of us to wish that these wines were less expensive, the fact is that they are rare and hotly pursued, as witness the still-brisk secondary market in a handful of California's top cult wines. The other wines I like are those that are vinified for freshness of fruit, pliant texture, overall balance and compatibility with food, and then priced as though their makers actually want people to buy and enjoy them. This is not to imply that these latter wines are lacking in personality or complexity; on the contrary, many of them are the product of a felicitous combination of variety and site, and are made by winemakers intent on letting the soil express itself.

During my annual late winter tour of the best North Coast addresses, as well as in tastings of hundreds of additional samples in New York in subsequent weeks, I found it difficult not to have my appreciation of new and upcoming wines colored by their retail prices. It's quite possible to accept concentrated but ultimately uninteresting and generic wines when they're $20 or less. But today, a growing number of California wines are more like $40 or $60, or even more, and far too many of these wines lack personality. That's if they're not downright flawed: green, overextracted, flat, or overwhelmed by crude oak. Little wonder that many California wines are clogging the retail pipeline.

A look at recent vintages. In my recent visit to California and subsequent tastings of samples in New York, I focused on white wines from the 2000 vintage, and reds from 2000 and 1999, the former mostly still in barrel and the latter mostly in bottle. Both years featured late harvests by California standards, but they differ markedly in character. 1999 was a cool but mostly dry La Ni?a year featuring a late flowering and late harvest (more than one winemaker described this year as a more European style of vintage, by which they probably meant that the typical California wine drinker might find the wines atypically firm and fresh) in which a sharp heat wave during the last week of September following very cool weather earlier in the month played havoc with relatively early ripeners like pinot noir, but had less of a negative impact on varieties like cabernet and syrah, which benefitted from an agreeably mild October, which saw little rain until the 28th. While producers in particularly cold sites and those with excessive crop loads often produced '99 reds with strong green components, those who got it right have made dense, tightly coiled wines likely to develop slowly and gracefully in bottle. The best '99 cabernets are among my favorite examples to date from California.

The 2000 crop flowered under good conditions but then June was cool except for an extreme but short heat spike and July was freakishly cold by California standards. August, too, was cool except for a hot spell in the middle of the month. The cool weather lingered into the first couple days of September, and some rare early rain fell during this period. Following a short burst of heat from September 17 through 19 and a storm system with moderate rain from September 21 through 24, the accumulation of sugars in the grapes in many North Coast sites seemed to stagnate until mid-October. Some growers, especially those with low crop levels and favored locations, eventually got the ripeness they needed. But others had to harvest before their grapes rotted or began to raisin, or simply threw in the towel and picked in advance of an extended rainy period that began on the 26th. While the better 2000s tend to be ripe at moderate sugar levels, some wines never reached optimal maturity and thus lack for mid-palate density and structure. But it is also clear that there will be many thoroughly ripe, broad, supple wines with very good concentration and considerable charm.

Although I did not go out of my way to taste the infant 2001 reds on my late winter tour, I did happen onto a few of the wines that normally number among California's best. From these samples it is clear that 2001 holds out great potential; perhaps it will be California's answer to Bordeaux 2000. The wines that I tasted showed extraordinary richness and baby fat and an almost liqueur-like essence-of-fruit quality that was utterly captivating. To be continued...

On the following pages I offer brief profiles of numerous wineries I visited in late winter, along with notes on their current and upcoming releases, including some finished wines that will not be released until next fall or even later. Following this section are my tasting notes on many additional recommended current and upcoming wines (i.e., those receiving scores of 85 or higher) tasted in recent months in California and New York. (As always, unfinished wines are scored within ranges, while wines in bottle are given precise scores.) In my lists of additional wines sampled from a given producer, bottles that scored 83 or 84 are denoted with asterisks. I have omitted from my coverage dozens of wineries from whom I tasted one or more current releases that I cannot recommend.