Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Best Wines of 1998
Now that this year's panel tastings have been completed, and Vintners Club members and guests have celebrated in grand style at the Club's annual Champagne Gala -- which required the entire Garden Court of San Francisco's famed Palace Hotel to accommodate an abundance of Champagnes and sparkling wines, a vast array of hors d'oeuvres from the kitchens of some of the Bay Area's greatest chefs, mounds of freshly shucked oysters and lots of caviar and other specialty foods from gourmet purveyors -- it's a good time to revisit the most impressive wines I've encountered in Club panel tastings during 1998. Turns out there are 32 of them, 10 more than last year.
As I reviewed my notes and the official panel results, it was apparent that in several cases my top-ranked wine wasn't the same as the panel's top choice in a particular tasting. Such a circumstance is to be expected in any group judging forum, since excellent wines appeal to wine tasters in many ways, and there is no absolute right answer to the question, "Which of these 12 wines is unquestionably the very best one." Much depends on an individual taster's preference for certain styles of winemaking, such as finding a bit of herbaceousness very appealing in Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux reds, or looking for grassy or bell pepper notes in Sauvignon Blancs.
Since every year I evaluate hundreds of wines outside the context of the Vintners Club -- in a half a dozen major wine competitions, at enormous and comprehensive tastings for the trade, media and public (such as the ZAP tasting in January), regional tastings (such as the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Festival in April), and in countless special programs put on by wineries, trade groups and visiting foreign winemakers -- it's likely that my criteria for quality and acceptability are somewhat more demanding that those of many tasters. But, as the old saying goes, it's tough work, but somebody's got to do it.
So, for this "Vintner's Choice" column, I've approached the task as a wine critic, instead of a wine reporter. The listing of all the "Vintner's Choice" columns that have appeared in Sally's Place since May 1995 will give the reader immediate, hyperlink access to commentary on a broader scale.
The most remarkable development affecting the California wine picture in 1998 is the proliferation of Rhône-varietal wines in the market, especially Syrah. Almost every time one turns around nowadays, another Syrah or Shiraz is being offered by a winery for the first time, not only in the South-Central Coast, which is home to the greatest concentration of Rhône-varietal producers, but also in the North Coast and the Sierra Foothills. Producers such as Simi, Alderbrook, Livingston, Beaulieu Vineyards, Lane Tanner, Lewis Cellars and Clos du Bois have recently emerged as Syrah producers, along with others, such as Pezzi-King, which are still below "radar range" in this department because their Syrahs are available in tiny quantity only at the winery's tasting room.
These wines have found legions of enthusiastic fans because of their bold, intense flavors, moderate tannins and luscious textures, coupled with still reasonable prices, for the most part, and consistently high quality. A judging panel at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition last September, for example, evaluated 15 Syrahs and awarded seven gold medals and five silvers. During my individual evaluations, I found myself initially worried that perhaps I was being too generous until, during the discussion phase of the session, it was evident that the four other judges were equally impressed. I can't think of any other varietal in California competition judging that even comes close to this 47 percent gold-medal accomplishment.
Here are my favorites, listed in order of preference:
1. 1996 Foxen Syrah, Morehouse Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley ($30) -- Distinctive, intense, fragrant nose of green peppercorns, vanilla, blackberries, glove leather and a hint of smoke. Luscious and smooth in the mouth with medium tannins, the Foxen Syrah is generous and absolutely delicious, with deep flavors of ripe, concentrated blackberries and spice, plus a hint of green olive herbaceousness.
2. 1996 Kathryn Kennedy Syrah, Santa Cruz Mountains ($38) --Fragrant and appealing nose of ripe blackberry fruit, vanilla and lots of white pepper. Smooth and luscious on the palate with medium tannins, offering deep, concentrated, succulent black fruits and white pepper spice. This vibrant and expressive Syrah was the Red Wine Sweepstakes winner at two major wine judgings in 1998 -- the West Coast Wine Competition and the Los Angeles County Fair "Wines of the Americas" Competition.
3. 1995 Henschke Shiraz, Keyneton Vineyard, Mount Edelstone, South Australia ($60) -- Forward, deep, complex. Northern Rhône-like nose offering ripe blackberry-black cherry fruit, loamy earth, freshly cracked black pepper, anise, warm spice and a hint of raw meat. Juicy and luscious in the mouth, the wine's intense flavors replicate the nose and are deep and concentrated. An elegant and stylish Australian legend.
4. 1996 Qupé Syrah, Bien Nacido Reserve, Santa Barbara County ($25) -- Black raspberries, freshly cracked black pepper, vanilla and a subtle, smoked meat aroma define the nose. Round and generous in the mouth with soft, medium tannins, the Bien Nacido Reserve offers wonderfully concentrated, lush, high-extract berry fruit and peppery spice, with no trace of green olive, which sometimes shows in these wines. A supple, complex, delicious wine.
5. 1994 Lindemans Shiraz, Padthaway, South Australia ($12) -- What a great value! Forward, enticing scents of raw red meat, spicy black fruits, black pepper and vanilla are reminiscent of the northern Rhône. Ripe, concentrated flavors of black fruits and spice have a smoky, gamey edge and constantly expand as the wine airs. Medium-full tannins. A bold, delicious, generous, complex wine.
BEST CABERNETS AND CAB-BASED BLENDS
1. 1994 Ridge Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains ($100) -- Forward, fragrant, distinctive scents of ripe cassis, blueberries and glove leather, plus black cherry, cedary spice and vanilla. Smooth and round on the palate with medium tannins, the wine's vibrant cassis-black cherry fruit is wonderfully integrated and deep, and the characteristic Ridge leathery component adds to the complexity. A noble and distinctive wine.
2. 1994 Opus One, Napa Valley ($90) -- Undoubtedly the best Opus One since the first vintage of 1979, having benefited considerably from the longest, coolest growing season recorded in the Napa Valley in the last decade, this wine offers a glorious nose of cassis and black cherry fruit, tobacco-leaf and mildly minty herbaceousness, shy black pepper, anise and cinnamon-clove spice, accented by subtle notes of warm earth and leather. Smooth and supple in the mouth with ripe, velvety tannins, the vibrant, well-integrated flavors focus on black fruits, green olive, tobacco leaf and vanillin oak.
3. 1994 Joseph Phelps Insignia, Napa Valley ($70) -- Appealing aromas of ripe black fruits (cassis, black cherry, black raspberry) from the blend of 88 percent cabernet sauvignon from estate-owned vineyards in Rutherford and the Stags Leap District, 10 percent Carneros merlot and two percent estate-grown Rutherford cabernet franc mingle with vanilla custard, cinnamon-clove spice and a mild, minty herbaceousness. Smooth and supple in the mouth with ripe, medium-full tannins, the wonderfully concentrated flavors exhibit ripe, plumy black fruits, sweet vanillin oak and notes of roasted coffee bean and mint, and linger persistently into the long finish. Complex and elegant, this Insignia certainly benefits from the excellent vintage and should ultimately prove to be the best Insignia the winery has produced so far.
4. 1995 Geyser Peak Reserve Alexandre, Alexander Valley ($28) -- Predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, the Reserve Alexandre also contains the four other traditional Bordeaux varietals, and is a wonderful expression of the Meritage concept. Pleasant and appealing scents of vanilla, glove leather, sweet cassis and cherry-berry fruit, anise and eucalyptus expand and develop intriguing accents of orange peel, cedar and cinnamon. Smooth and generous in the mouth with medium tannins and lots of ripe, juicy, almost jammy black fruits, the wine broadens on the palate and lingers long on the finish. A big, delicious wine that nevertheless maintains fine balance.
1. 1995 Pahlmeyer Merlot, Napa Valley ($50) -- Wonderfully fragrant scents of ripe, spicy black cherry-cassis fruit, vanilla, coconut and a touch of intriguing green olive herbaceousness. Concentrated and well-stuffed with medium-full tannins, the Pahlmeyer is a Merlot on a grand scale, exhibiting wonderful dark cherry-cassis fruit, cedar spice and a good dose of vanillin oak. Requires a couple of years in the cellar, but can be enjoyed now if decanted and allowed to breathe for an hour or more.
2. 1995 Lewis Cellars Merlot Reserve, Napa Valley ($45) -- Slow to open, but eventually offers deep aromas of cassis and cherry cola, chocolate, cedar and plenty of new French oak. On the palate, the wine is rich and massively proportioned, with extractive dark cherry fruit that is concentrated and deep. Densely packed and not for the faint hearted, the Lewis Cellars Merlot deserves at least three or more years of ageing to show its true potential.
3. 1995 Matanzas Creek Merlot, Sonoma Valley ($45) -- Cassis, cedar and brown spice in the nose, highlighted by red cherry notes and hints of violets, green tea and olives. Typically lush and supple with generous, complex flavors of red currants, red cherries, anise, black tea, vanilla and pomegranate, framed in restrained, yet evident, toasty oak. Tender, medium tannins make for early accessibility, although the wine will surely gain complexity with further time in the cellar.
4. 1995 Draxton Merlot, Farrow Ranch, Alexander Valley ($23) -- Very forward, distinctive, complex, attractive nose of cherry-cassis fruit and mild herbaceousness. Lush, silky and moderately rich with good concentration, this new-label Merlot impresses with delicious cassis-red cherry fruit and intriguing dried herb nuances.
5. 1995 Mason Cellars Merlot, Yount Mill Vineyards, Napa Valley ($20) -- Very reminiscent of Pomerol with its cooler growing area (Yountville) imparting a pleasant green herb note to the nose, which also shows bright cherry-cassis fruit. Scrumptious and supple with lots of black cherry-raspberry fruit, baker's chocolate and spicy undertones from French cooperage. Long, harmonious finish.
A word of advice for Zin lovers: Always check the alcohol level indicated on the label. Some Zins are showing up with alcohol levels in excess of 15 percent, and some exceeding 16 percent, such as the 1996 Turley Hayne Vineyard Zin clocking in at 17.0 percent alcohol. High-alcohol Zinfandel can often resemble late-harvest, port-like wine.
1. 1995 Pezzi King Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley ($22) -- Forward, fragrant scents of ripe, jammy, black raspberry fruit, dark chocolate, sweet, creamy oak and black pepper are replicated on the palate, where the exuberant, extracted fruit seems to last forever, trailing off with a note of freshly cracked black pepper. Wonderfully balanced with nicely integrated French oak and medium tannins, this thoroughly delicious Zin is somewhere in style between claret-like and brawny. The Club's 1998 Zinfandel Taste-Off Winner (I agree).
2. 1995 Signorello Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($25) -- Smoky, toasty oak joins with jammy, berry fruit, mint and a hint of tobacco-leaf herbaceousness in the wine's fragrant and distinctive nose. Quite oaky on the palate, but balanced by lots of ripe berry fruit, the Signorello Zin is both rustic in style and generous in flavors accented by notes of clove and licorice, showing medium-full tannins and a long, slightly hot finish.
3. 1995 Edmeades Zinfandel, Eaglepoint Vineyard, Mendocino ($22) -- Attractive, fruity, slightly briary and peppery nose of plummy, blackberry fruit, cocoa and vanilla. Enormous and dramatic flavors of high-extract berry fruit, peppery spice and smoky oak. The level of oak and the full tannins argue for cellaring at least a couple of years, but patience will surely be rewarded with a luscious, deeply fruited Zin.
BEST PINOT NOIRS
1. 1996 Foxen Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($30) -- Forward, fragrant scents of vanilla, freshly crushed wild strawberries and clove spice, enhanced by fig compote and shy dried herb notes. A generous, elegant wine in the mouth with medium tannins and ripe cherry-strawberry fruit that is concentrated and deep, plus a hint of dried herbs in the long finish.
2. 1995 Bernardus Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($35) -- Expressive nose of ripe wild strawberries, tobacco leaf, dried herbs and smoky oak. Generous, silky, supple and luscious with exquisite balance, the wine's complex flavors include strawberry and red cherry fruit, white pepper, nicely integrated, spicy oak and a touch of warm earthiness. Exhibiting wonderful harmony, the 1995 Bernardus is a classic expression of Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir. Vintners Club 1998 Pinot Noir Taste-Off winner (I agree, but prefer the Foxen just a bit more).
3. 1994 Buena Vista Pinot Noir, Grand Reserve, Carneros ($22) -- Strawberries and raspberries in the nose, accented by some warm, loamy earthiness, smoked bacon, med-char oak and a decadent mushroom-like component that is sometimes described as "good barnyard." Luscious and supple in the mouth with generous flavors focusing on ripe red fruits and mild spice. A complex, flavorful wine with medium tannins, and a great value at this price.
BEST PETITE SIRAHS
1. 1996 David Bruce Petite Syrah, Shell Creek Vineyard, Paso Robles ($15.50) -- Very reminiscent of a northern Rhône wine, from its inky-black color to its smoky, toasty nose of vibrant black fruits and blueberries enhanced by notes of red meat, black tea and dried sage. Explosively fruity in the mouth with similar flavors, this Petite is big and generous with medium-full tannins.
2. 1996 Rosenblum Cellars Petite Syrah, Kenefick Ranch, Napa Valley ($18) -- Bursting with lots of ripe blackberry, pepper and vanilla, accented by black olives and exotic spice. Eminently drinkable now and absolutely delicious, it will certainly get even better with time.
3. 1994 Concannon Petite Sirah Reserve, Livermore Valley ($20) -- A fragrant, showy wine, offering ripe, medium tannins, smooth textures and generous raspberry-boysenberry fruit that is almost Zinfandel-like. It's like biting into a berry pie fresh from the oven -- simply bursting with flavor.
1. 1995 Mer Soleil Chardonnay, Central Coast ($36) -- Distinctive, fragrant nose of smoky oak, mild herbaceousness, citrus and tropical fruit plus a bright mineral streak. Bright and lively in the mouth with good acidity, this substantial Chardonnay offers opulent, slightly buttery flavors of citrus and tropical fruit, green herbs and a hint of honey, and smooth, elegant textures.
2. 1995 Domaine Saint Gregory Chardonnay, Mendocino ($15) -- A complex and delicious wine, the Saint Gregory Chardonnay is immediately appealing for its aromas of green apple, pear and peach enhanced by minerals. Smooth, rich and moderately unctuous, the wine's complex flavors replicate the nose, with a hint of warm spice in the long finish.
3. Zaca Mesa Chardonnay, Chapel Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($18) -- Deep, mineral-tinged scents of tangerine, lemon drops, pineapple, toasty French oak. Complex and buttery rich in the mouth, this impressive Chardonnay delivers intense, yet elegant, flavors of creamy citrus, spice, honey and toasty oak; delicious.
BEST SAUVIGNON BLANCS
1. 1997 Brancott Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, Marlborough, New Zealand ($15) -- Forward, very expressive nose of varietal bell pepper and green olive, gooseberry, guava, melon and grapefruit. Luscious and generous in the mouth with crisp acidity and powerful flavors that replicate the nose, the Brancott Reserve is an excellent expression of grassy Sauvignon Blanc.
2. 1997 Lenswood Sauvignon Blanc, Knappstein Vineyard, South Australia ($19) -- Very similar to the Brancott in its expressive grassiness, this Aussie counterpart is even more stylish, and perhaps extreme for some people, but what a delicious mouthful of wine. Gooseberry, citrus, melon and pineapple mingle with scents of freshly cut grass after a rain. Very special stuff.
3. 1996 Mason Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($14) -- Forward, quite fragrant nose offering mildly grassy, flinty aromas of pineapple and grapefruit. Classy and elegant on the palate, with generous, moderately rich flavors that replicate the nose, enhanced by nuances of honey and hay; silky smooth, lush mouth-feel. Excellent acidity.
BEST PINOT BLANCS
1. 1995 Mirassou Pinot Blanc, Limited Bottling, Harvest Reserve, Monterey County ($15) -- Forward, intense, fragrant scents of tropical fruit, creamy lemon, lime blossom and vanilla. Smooth, rich and unctuous in the mouth with slightly sweet, concentrated, creamy citrus, spicy pear, anise and lots of toasty oak; good acidity and a long finish. The best Limited Bottling Pinot Blanc ever from Mirassou. Great bargain.
2. 1996 Villa Mt. Eden Pinot Blanc, Grand Reserve, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($16) -- Complex nose of high-char French oak, jasmine and citrus. Big and full bodied with lots of extracted tropical fruit and lemon citrus, plus vanillin oak. Round and smooth with good acidity and fine structure.
3. 1995 Chalone Pinot Blanc, Reserve, Chalone (Monterey County) ($26) -- Very Burgundian nose of French oak and creamy citrus that is slow to emerge. Round and smooth with wonderful complexity, offering spicy citrus, apple, caramel and butterscotch, plus a bright streak of mineral. A full-bodied, delicious Reserve.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.