As a looked back over the 400-plus wines that I tasted in 2011, one common theme was apparent: I drank a lot of California wine this year. There are a variety of explanations for this, between my two trips to California wine country this fall, my son being born and as a result not hitting as many evening wine tastings that represented other regions, and of course, the fact that I really enjoy the wine from this region and it therefore dominates my purchases. After all, there’s something to be said for drinking wines that have meaning to you, for drinking wines that you understand, because you’ve walked on the land where they were grown. And, it is worthy of mention that California has enjoyed perhaps its strongest three consecutive vintages in its history, from the elegant Napa Cabernets of 2007 to the smooth, silky blends of the Paso Robles 2008s, as well as the Sonoma Zinfandels and Pinot Noirs of 2009. In fact, Wine Spectator’s #1 and #2 wines of 2011 both came from California, as did three of the top five and an incredible seven of the top fourteen.

Some of the best wine moments I experienced in 2011 came at the hands of California wine. Some that come immediately to mind include:

  • Meeting Barbara Richards, owner and winemaker at the renowned Paloma Vineyards on Spring Mountain in Napa, and tasting two wines with her, which included the 2008 Merlot, which I gave the highest score for a Merlot that I have ever tasted (94), and the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, which earned my highest score of any Cabernet I tasted in 2011 (96). Not a bad stop.
  • Meeting Ron Denner at his gorgeous winery in Paso Robles, and then running into him again at dinner the following night and enjoying more conversation.
  • In Paso Robles, the Hotel Cheval may be the very best boutique hotel in all of California’s wine country. Aside from having an incredibly quaint ambiance complete with wood-burning fireplaces in the courtyard, they have a generous bartender as well. A good friend and I were dead set on buying a bottle of Booker Fracture 2008 from the Pony Club Bar for $90, a good deal considering the wine’s high accolades and $50 retail price. The even better deal? The bartender insisted that the price should be $55 and sold it to us for that instead. We left him a nice tip. And the wine? See below. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. It was certainly in the running for my Wine of the Year, but it is simply too difficult to find.
  • Tasting Robert Mondavi’s all time highest scoring wine (Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2006, 96) from a magnum this December at a company dinner at the ridiculous non-markup price of $195.
  • Tasting Seghesio’s Home Ranch Zinfandel 2009, which earned the highest score I have ever given to a Zinfandel (94.) Visiting with Jocelyn at the winery in November, we could just sense the excitement surrounding the wines that Seghesio, who I have long supported, is producing right now.

With that in mind, the wine I ended up choosing to represent the best quality to value ratio this year comes from a winery that not only sits on some of the most gorgeous land in Napa Valley, but also from one that offers perhaps the single best tasting experience in that region at their estate. This is a powerful wine that I enjoy every year for its depth, and since the 2007 vintage was so successful, it seemed to perfect time to draw special attention to this wonderful vineyard and winemaking team.


SHAFER RELENTLESS NAPA VALLEY 2007, 95 Points, $60, 3800 Cases Produced- Huge, smokey nose with leather and peppery spice shading the dark fruit aromas. Gorgeous, deep body with enormous complexity, laced with decisive campfire smoke and beefy notes that embrace blackberry, black cherry, licorice, black pepper and chocolate that pick up a bacon fat note through the long finish. Incredibly elegant for such a massive wine, with savory spice and smoke notes lingering for minutes. Will be a powerhouse wine for years to come. Syrah and Petite Sirah.


JANUARY- Peter Lehmann Clancy’s Barossa Valley 2007, 90 Points, $15

FEBRUARY- Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais Jean Descombes  2009, 91 Points, $15

MARCH- Domaine Monte De Luz Syrah San Jose Carquera 2009, 88 Points, $9

APRIL- Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills Columbia Valley 2008, 90 Points, $15

MAY- Sogrape Douro Callabriga 2008, 89 Points, $15

JUNE- Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County 2009, 90 Points, $24

JULY- Columbia Crest Riesling Two Vines Columbia Valley 2009, 87 Points, $8

AUGUST- Two Hands Shiraz Gnarly Dudes Barossa Valley 2009, 93 Points, $25

SEPTEMBER- Montirius Le Clos Vacqueyras 2009, 91 Points, $30

OCTOBER- Bodegas Catena Zapata Malbec Mendoza 2009, 91 Points, $20

NOVEMBER- Owen Roe Syrah Ex Umbris Columbia Valley 2009, 94 Points, $24

DECEMBER- Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas Paso Robles 2010, 90 Points, $20


Booker Syrah Fracture Paso Robles 2008, 96 Points, $50

Paloma Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District Napa Valley 2009, 96 Points, $54

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, 96 Points, $135

Two Hands Shiraz Bella’s Garden Barossa Valley 2008, 95 Points, $60

Booker Alchemist Paso Robles 2009, $60, 95 Points

Cayuse Syrah Cailloux Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2009, 95 Points, $85

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Kathryn Hall Napa Valley 2008, 95 Points, $90

Joseph Phelps Insignia 2007, 95 Points, $175

Seghesio Zinfandel Home Ranch Alexander Valley 2009, 94 Points, $38

Jaffurs Syrah Verna’s Vineyard Santa Barbara County 2008, 94 Points, $45

Papapietro Perry Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2009, 94 Points, $46

Round Pond Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007, 94 Points $50

Paloma Merlot Napa Valley 2008, 94 Points, $54

St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon Star Vineyard 2007, 94 Points, $80

Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2008, 94 Points, $80

Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection Napa Valley 2009, 94 Points, $130

Hartford Family Zinfandel Old Vine, 93 Points, $35

Cass Syrah Paso Robles 2008, 93 Points, $42

Zaca Mesa Syrah Reserve Santa Ynez Valley, 93 Points, $42

Sojourn Pinot Noir Wohler Vineyard 93 Points, $48

John Anthony Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, 93 Points, $50

Robert Biale Petite Sirah Thomann Station Napa Valley 2008, 93 Points, $51

O’Brien Seduction Napa Valley 2008, 93 Points, $52

Booker Vertigo Paso Robles 2009, 93 Points, $60

Justin Isoceles Paso Robles 2008, 93 Points, $62

Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley 2007, 93 Points, $90

Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2008, 93 Points, $70

Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Red 2007, 93 Points, $100

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