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11.09.2004

California's Best Boutique Wines: A Report From Family Winemakers 2004

To those whose idea of serious wine tasting involves hitting seven or eight wineries in a day trip to Napa instead four or five, it may come as a surprise to hear wine tasting described as exhausting. Yet that's just the right way to describe any serious attempt to sample the offering at an event like Family Winemakers. One of the largest (and in my opinion, the best) tasting events in California, this marathon tasting makes available wines from over 400 different wineries, each of whom belong to the Family Winemakers Association. With so many wineries, and each pouring between one and 12 different wines, you can imagine what's involved in trying to sample even a minority of what is on offer. At events like this, if you're serious about tasting a lot, you can't stop for small talk and you definitely can't swallow.

The notion of tasting over 200 wines as I did yesterday without being able to enjoy even a swallow, let alone a relaxing glass, might not appeal to all, but hey, that's ok. I'm willing to abuse my palate, strip the enamel off my teeth (too many tannic wines), and color my fingers purple for several days (some inevitably spills) in order to bring you the hottest and highest quality wines from California's family run wineries.

*DISCLAIMER: My notes below, as usual, are wine stained, and scribbled. If you notice any factual errors, please cut me some slack and even better, correct them for me in your comments.

FAVORITE WINE:
Last year at the same tasting, I encountered one wine that was head and shoulders above the others in my opinion. It was liquid ruby, and as far as I was concerned, the nectar of the Gods. I talked to the winery staff at the event, and they said they had plenty, just give them a call and order some. Heck, they even offered to sell me some right there. But I declined, and three weeks later Robert Parker gave the 2001 Ramey Jericho Canyon Cabernet 97 points, the price doubled, and it disappeared like smoke.

While I certainly am not going to make predictions about future scores, I can safely say that there was one wine that particularly impressed me, and which I am definitely not going to wait 3 weeks to place my order for. If you love sumptuous Napa Cabernet but don't like paying $100 for the upper echelons and then waiting 10 years for their aggressive tannins to mellow out then this is the wine for you (and me). It's imminently drinkable now, and will cellar well for at least 5 or more years.

2002 Neal Family Cabernet, Napa. Score: 10. Price: $45


EXCEPTIONAL WHITES:

  • 2002 Paul Hobbs "Richard Dinner" Chardonnay. Score: 9.5/10. Price: $55
  • 2003 Lewis "Dutton Ranch" Chardonnay. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $40
  • 2003 Carmel Road "Arroyo Seco" Chardonnay Monterey. Score: 9. Price: $35
  • 2003 Cole Bailey "Sesquipadalian" Sauvignon Blanc. Score: 9. Price: $18
  • 2003 Keller Estate Pinot Gris. I discovered Keller here last year. Now they've got this new wine that's another winner. Score: 9. Price: $TBD (not yet released).
  • 2002 Londer Vineyards Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley. Excellent acidity, super dry, not too sweet. Score: 9. Price: $20.
  • 2002 Flowers "Andreen Gale" Chardonnay. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $42
  • 2003 Barnwood (Laetitia's second label) Sauvignon Blanc. Score: 9. Price: $10
  • 2002 Ramey Carneros Chardonnay Score: 9/9.5. Price: $42
  • 2002 Tandem Sangiacomo Chardonnay. Score: 9. Price: $38
  • 2002 Spencer Roloson Viognier. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $28
  • 2002 Praxis Viognier. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $15
  • 2002 Fritz Russian River Chardonnay. Made by Merry Edwards. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $22
  • 2003 Neal Family Chardonnay, Carneros. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $22


    OTHER RECOMMENDED WHITES:

  • 2002 Testarossa Bien Nacido Chardonnay. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $35
  • 2003 Carmel Road "Monterey" Chardonnay. Monterey. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $14
  • 2002 Chasseur Russian River Valley Chardonnay. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $30
  • 2002 Ramey Russian River Valley Chardonnay. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $36
  • 2002 Borra Gill Creek Ranch Chardonnay. Burgundy style. No malo. Score: 8.5. Price: $16
  • 2003 Clos La Chance Sauvignon Blanc. Score: 8.5. Price: $16
  • 2002 Spencer Roloson Ben Lomond Mountain Chardonnay. Score: 8.5. Price: $28
  • 2003 Swanson Pinot Grigio. Score: 8.5. Price: $20
  • 2002 Tablas Creek "Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc" White Blend. Score: 8.5. Price: $34
  • 2002 Tandem Porter Bass Chardonnay Score: 8.5. Price: $48
  • 2003 Stuhlmuller Chardonnay Score: 8/8.5. Price: $??
  • 1999 Calera Mt. Harlan Estate Chardonnay Score: 8. Price: $34


    EXCEPTIONAL REDS:
    * I concentrated a little more on non-Pinot wines because of the recent Sonoma Pinot Festival.

  • 2002 Outpost Zinfandel. Holy cow this is a bottled supernova of fruit. Thomas Brown does it again. Score: 10. Price: $40
  • 2001 Paul Hobbs Merlot. Forget Duckhorn, now this is what Merlot should taste like. Score: 9.5/10. Price: $65
  • 2003 Brown Estate Zinfandel, Napa. Score: 9.5/10. Price: $36
  • 2002 Tandem "Peloton" Red Blend. Score: 9.5. Price: $25
  • 2001 O'Shaugnessy Cabernet Score: 9.5. Price: $??
  • 2002 Pride Mountain Estate Merlot: 9.5. Price: $52
  • 2002 Ancien Sonoma Mountain Pinot. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $40
  • 2001 Sullivan Coer de Vigne Red Blend. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $100
  • 2001 Stuhlmuller Cabernet. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $30
  • 2002 Viader Red Blend. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $90
  • 2001 Volker Eiseli Cabernet, Napa. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $38
  • 2002 Ramey Claret, Napa. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $36
  • 2001 Lail Cabernet Score: 9/9.5. Price: $75
  • 2002 Lail Cabernet Score: 9/9.5. Price: $75
  • 2001 Lancaster Red Blend. Score: 9/9.5. Price: $65
  • 2002 Tandem Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir Score: 9. Price: $38
  • 2001 Volker Eiseli Terzetto Red Blend. Score: 9. Price: $75
  • 2003 Blue Rock Vineyard "Estate" Syrah. Tiny estate right next door to Silver Oak in Napa. Score: 9. Price: $32
  • 2003 Roar "Rosella's Vineyard" Pinot Noir. Score: 9. Price: $31
  • 2002 Paul Hobbs "Hyde Vineyard" Pinot Noir. Score: 9. Price: $60
  • 2002 Paloma Merlot. Last year it was Wine Spectator's #1 wine in the world. Score: 9. Price: $51
  • 2000 Hanzell Pinot Noir, Sonoma. Score: 9. Price: $75
  • 2002 Fritz "Dry Creek Valley" Pinot Noir. Score: 9. Price: $25
  • 2003 Keller Estate "La Cruz Vineyard" Pinot Noir. Score: . Price: $30
  • 2003 Keller Estate Syrah. They poured this last year and I got so excited about it, and then they didn't release it publicly. They promise to sell us all some of the '03, though. Score: 9. Price: $TBD (not yet released).
  • 2003 Kosta Browne Russian River Pinot (barrel sample) Score: 9. Price: $TBD (not yet released)
  • 2002 Lail Blueprint Red Blend. Score: 9. Price: $48
  • 2002 Lehrer Syrah, Contra Costa County. Bizarre (but likeable) Syrah with flavors of blueberries which they say come from the Hungarian oak they use. First vintage and they're looking for a distributor. Score: 9. Price: $34
  • 2002 Bucklin "Old Hill" Zinfandel. Score: 9. Price: $30
  • 2003 Brown Estate "Chilis Valley" Zinfandel. Score: 9. Price: $42
  • 2002 Chasseur Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Score: 9. Price: $30
  • 2002 Ancien Carneros Pinot Noir. Score: 9. Price: $32
  • 2003 Ancien Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Oregon. Score: 9. Price: $40


    OTHER RECOMMENDED REDS:

  • 2001 Two Creek Vineyard Rhone Blend. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $24
  • 2002 Steltzner Cabernet. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $36
  • 2001 Roth (Lancaster 2nd label) Red Blend. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $00
  • 2002 Bucklin Syrah. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $28
  • 2001 Blue Rock "Estate" Cabernet. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $44
  • 2003 Ancien Napa Valley Pinot. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $TBD (not yet released).
  • 2002 Surh Luchtel Zinfandel. I didn't taste their other wines as I am very familiar with how great they are. Score: 8.5. Price: $25
  • 2000 Storrs Winery Santa Cruz Pinot Noir. Score: 8.5. Price: $25
  • 2001 Rusty Ridge Zinfandel. Score: . Price: $28
  • 2001 Steltzner Merlot. Score: 8.5. Price: $28
  • 2001 Steltzner Claret. Score: 8.5. Price: $16
  • 2001 Viader Syrah. Score: 8.5. Price: $65
  • 2002 Viader Syrah. Score: 8.5. Price: $65
  • 2001 Siduri "Shaw Mountain" Pinot Noir. Score: 8.5. Price: $39
  • 2000 Richard Perry Cabernet. Score: 8.5. Price: $50
  • 2000 Fritz Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Score: 8.5. Price: $27
  • 2002 Kosta Browne "Cohn Vineyard" Pinot Noir (barrel sample). Score: 8.5. Price: $TBD (not yet released)
  • 2002 Borra Merlot, Lodi. Score: 8.5. Price: $16
  • 2002 Cole Bailey "Sesquipadalian" Cabernet. Score: 8.5. Price: $30


    BEST VALUES:

  • 2002 Tandem "Peloton" Red Blend. Score: 9.5. Price: $25
  • 2003 Barnwood (Laetitia's second label) Sauvignon Blanc. Score: 9. Price: $10
  • 2002 Fritz "Dry Creek Valley" Pinot Noir. Score: 9. Price: $25
  • 2002 Praxis Viognier. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $15
  • 2002 Fritz Russian River Chardonnay. Made by Merry Edwards. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $22
  • 2002 Bucklin Syrah. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $28
  • 2001 Two Creek Vineyard Rhone Blend. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $24
  • 2002 Borra Merlot, Lodi. Score: 8.5. Price: $16
  • 2001 Steltzner Claret. Score: 8.5. Price: $16

    WINERIES TO WATCH:
    As usual I gravitated towards small producers who are on their initial vintages. Here are a few that you should keep your eye out for:

  • Spencer Roloson Winery " look for the nicely designed, Mondrian-style, brightly colored labels.
  • Fritz Winery " This Dry Creek winery just drastically overhauled itself, reduced yields nearly tenfold, and redesigned all their packaging.
  • Borra " Until this tasting I had only had this Lodi County Winery's "Fusion" wine which was great. Looks like nearly everything they make is fantastic.
  • Cole Bailey " Not sure who these guys are but they have a sense of humor, naming their wines "sesquipedalian" which means 'having the tendency to use big obscure words.'
  • Blue Rock Vineyard " Their production levels are tiny (in the 200 - 400 case range) but this, just their second vintage, is already excellent.
  • Outpost " They're tiny, but Thomas Brown (ex Turley) knows what he's doing, and it's fantastic.
  • Lehrer " Their first vintage is compelling and once they find a distributor (I'm sure it won't be long) I'm sure they'll be making waves.

    Comments (6)

    enoch choi wrote:
    11.09.04 at 10:44 PM

    ed chan & i did an hour podcast to wrapup on the great day, and i'll post it as soon as i compress it...

    Bertrand wrote:
    11.13.04 at 10:16 AM

    Nice tasting experience, Alder ...You are really serious ! Extensive tasting I would have liked to take part to . But not swallowing is something I still don't reach , that's why I have to be selective , or lucky, when I go to the Paris salon (982 producers...). I usually go twice (lasts 5 days) .Link for those who want to check the winemakers at this salon :
    http://www.vigneron-independant.com/annuaire/resultat.php?salon=79

    Alder wrote:
    11.14.04 at 9:26 PM

    Gotta learn to spit! Otherwise you can get sloshed very quickly. It's a shame to pay to attend something like that and only taste 20 wines before you're too drunk to remember what the rest taste like.

    For the record I'm extremely jealous that you're going to the Paris Salon. Next year I'll have to come join you!

    Tom Hormann wrote:
    12.01.04 at 6:44 AM

    Alder - great post on California boutique wines. Does anyone on this blog know of a reference to a complete guide on CA boutique wines ... I'm currently stuck in Texas but am able to purchase directly from wineries. Any help would be greatly appreciated (e.g. family members own / operate Anomaly Vineyards in St. Helena but rarely do I find them in any official listing of boutiques in CA).

    Alder wrote:
    12.01.04 at 10:18 PM

    The closest thing to such a book or brochure is the membership rolls of The Family Winemakers association or retailers that deal in boutique California wines like Porthos.Com.

    I'll be interested to know if any readers know of something like this.

    Do you think there's a demand for such a thing? Maybe I should write one....

    08.19.14 at 9:56 AM

    I do not even understand how I ended up here, but I thought this put up was once great.
    I don't recognize who you're but certainly you're going to a famous blogger should you aren't already.
    Cheers!

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