California Wine Country Recap

I’ve spent a lot of time in California’s wine country in the month of July in the past few years. Over time, I’ve visited in the fall months of September, October and November as well, but before my most recent trip, I had never visited in the spring. During my five day tasting tour of Napa Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Forestville and Anderson Valley, I experienced unseasonably warm weather in mid-May. With temperatures in the 90s, it felt very similar to my recent July trips, if not hotter than some, but there was something different- a strong, undeniable floral aroma that carried through the breeze.

After enduring a severe winter drought that dried up reservoirs across the region, such hot weather so early in the growing season could pose challenges, but vinters in the area showed no signs of panic. Some early spring rains came just before budbreak, staving off potentially catastrophic irrigation dilemmas, and while 95 degrees in the valley in the middle of May is unseasonably warm and there are recent rumors of the onset of veraison even before the summer equinox, there’s still a lot of weather ahead.

Tasting through more of the elegant 2009 vintage, the dramatically acclaimed 2010 vintage, and the cool, more difficult 2011 vintage, one theme stood out for me on this trip. It became apparent that the string of good vintages that the region had enjoyed spanning 2004-2010 benefited those who sought to capitalize on the land itself. While far from ideal, the challenging 2011 vintage really proves to separate the true winemakers from those that are merely wealthy winery owners, as the best among the crafters made fantastic, nuanced, character-driven wines in 2011. While it is a year where buyers should choose carefully, it is also a year that could prove to be a great separator between vinters.

Over five days of constant wine tasting, which I determined once and for all, is pretty much my limit, I tried roughly 125 wines and visited over 20 different wineries. While I won’t dedicate this recap to covering them all, I wanted to focus on each region I visited, and upon the winery that I felt stood out above the rest for each unique appellation, both in terms of wine quality and visitor experience.

Day One- FORESTVILLE

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When it comes to pure dedication and focus, the folks in the tasting facility here would have you believe that there are few in California, if not the world, on the level of Paul Hobbs in terms of winemaking. This lovely tasting takes place seated on comfortable couches in a group setting and overlooks the vineyards, while the highly wine-educated staff take you through a tasting of five wines for $45, while also giving you some historical background on Paul Hobbs’ journey through his love of wine, his meticulous nature, and his rise to superstardom in winemaking.

Hobbs specializes in a variety of grapes, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, and grows them all over the map, with vineyards here at the winery site in the Western Sonoma town of Sebastopol (above) as well as outsourced grapes from Russian River Valley, Carneros and highly sought after single vineyards in Napa such as To Kalon and Stagecoach. Hobbs is an example of a winemaker who was able to make lemonade out of lemons in 2011, as richness shows all the way through the Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2011 (91 Points), which bursts with vibrant fruit and toffee notes, to the deep, almost brooding Cabernet Sauvingnon Napa Valley (92 Points).  Even the Pinot Noir Russian River Valley (91 Points) balances the rugged vintage characteristics with dark wild berry notes behind its earthy mushroom and tobacco notes.

We took the latter wine into the barrel room (below) to take a look at what the future holds. It was most re-assuring the taste one of his famous single vineyard wines after returning to the tasting couch, the Cabernet Sauvignon Dr. Crane 2010 (93 Points). As mentioned above, the greatest winemakers can turn a difficult vintage into something truly special and character driven, but if this is the case, imagine what they do in ideal vintages? This wine, with its super-extracted black currant fruit that combines with cocoa over a silky texture, is evidence of this.

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Day Two- ANDERSON VALLEY

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GOLDENEYE: While traveling through the wineries of the Anderson Valley, which for the most part cover the towns of Navarro and Philo, it made me long for the days of a decade ago in the now comparatively pretentious Napa Valley, the days where my notepad alone was enough to have a tasting fee waived. While I am more than happy to pay for any wine that I taste, it was refreshing to visit an area that pours its wine to sell it, and to spread its own good name above all else.

I visited four wineries on my trip through this somewhat isolated and heavily pine-tree laden region, and none of them charged me a fee. This is Pinot Noir country, and there was no question that I would be planning my day around Goldeneye Winery, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the friendly, personalized service I received here, with a lovely fountain and vineyard backdrop to complement. My host Doug greeted me and was as congenial a man as you’ll meet, which seems par for the course in this neck of the woods. I received a flight of five Pinots here (below), including three single vineyards, and was offered all of the re-tastes that I wanted. The Gowan Creek Vineyard 2010 (94 Points) earned the highest rating of all the Pinots I tried this trip, mostly on the strength of its weightless, integrated texture that combines with juicy fruit and earthy spice. The Confluence Vineyard 2010 (92 Points) and The Narrows Vineyard 2010 (91 Points) demonstrated contrasting, well-executed styles, with the former showing more juicy fruit notes and the latter more herbacious, piney and earth driven. The Gowan Creek seemed to be a beautiful combination of both styles.

So as I sat and sipped and scribbled notes, Doug would come to check on me and engage me in enjoyable conversation. All the while the fountain splashed, the sun beat down on the vines and the grapes began to ripen. I could have stayed here forever and will certainly visit again.

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Day Three- DRY CREEK VALLEY

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SBRAGIA: I’ve driven many wine roads in California in my day, from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles, all the way up to Calistoga, Sonoma, Forestville and Mendocino, and everything in between. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as stunning, lush and concentrated as the Dry Creek Valley Road just north of Healdsburg (above). It has become a mandatory stop on every tasting trip even if only for the drive alone, which incidentally is best done after the lunch hour as the sun beats down and reflects upon the sea of green vines. At the very end of this road, I almost always find myself at Sbragia, with the anticipation of the lovely drive back south always to look forward to after my tasting.

Ed Sbragia was winemaker at Beringer for years, and that establishment needs no introduction, being only one of two wineries in Napa to have ever won Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year award twice, and the only one to earn that honor with two different varietals (Caymus is the other, both with Cabernet). Sbragia excels with everything that he does, but really brings a special touch to his Chardonnay. He is certainly not one to be shy of the oak, and prefers wines of a rich, creamy style, but finds remarkable balance and does not sacrifice the fruit. The Gamble Ranch Chardonnay 2009 (94 Points) is perhaps the finest American Chardonnay I have ever tasted, with Burgundian aromas that offer earthy petrol and mineral nuances, with a rich, oily, stone fruit-driven texture that is almost like a Sauternes. I tasted this alongside three other Chardonnays in an impressively orchestrated vertical tasting (below).

This brings me to my two keys for getting the most out of your tasting experiences in California wine country. First and foremost, email ahead of time and express your interest in visiting the winery, even at a facility like Sbragia that allows walk-ins and where you don’t need reservations. By specifying your interest in particular wines, the staff will realize that you are truly interested and will be willing to offer selections accordingly in many cases. Secondly, if an outdoor seated tasting is available, take advantage of it. I’ve grown incredibly weary of bellying up to tasting bars when the beauty of the vineyards is right outside to be enjoyed. Sbragia in particular offers one of the very best outdoor enviroments in the whole area, and since its laid back tasting room offers wines by the glass or by the bottle, this is a great stop to relax with a group even if you aren’t in the mood for a serious tasting flight. Not surprisingly, I was in the mood to taste quite a few, and my wonderful host Matt had pre-arranged an outdoor seating for me, with a lineup of four Chardonnays (below) and three Cabernets that I had requested ahead of time. It was an incredible experience. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.

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Day Four- NAPA VALLEY (Silverado Trail)

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SHAFER: Shafer’s Relentless is an expressive, perennially powerful Syrah-based blend and was one of the first bottles that resulted in my full blown affliction with the wine bug. I’ve tasted every vintage since 2004, visited the winery for the first time in 2009, and I was ecstatic when the 2008 bottling was awarded the coveted Wine Spectator Wine of the Year award, albeit with mixed feelings. I was so very happy for a wine that had earned such cult status in my individual tasting regimen to receive such a high accolade, but at the same time lamented what the results of such widespread recognition would have upon my own selfish considerations, namely, availability and price. Indeed, the Relentless bottling is much more difficult to locate than it once was, and the price has risen slightly. After a five year hiatus, it was time for another visit to the winery (above).

Doug Shafer, President of the winery (below), wrote the fascinating book “A Vineyard In Napa” in 2010, which describes all of the risks, trials and tribulations that the family dealt with when they moved here on a whim from Chicago in the early 70s. Little did they know way back then, nor did they know that just after the book was published, that the Relentless would receive such an honor. Shafter takes its tasting experience very seriously and reservations are very difficult to come by inside of a month ahead of time, and having planned this trip somewhat quickly, I really had to scramble for one of the last available spots. The informative seated tasting offers a wide open view of the surrounding vineyard accompanied by five large pours of current release wine for a prepaid $55 fee, but to me, although pricey, this is still one of the very best experiences in the area. The highlight of the show is always the Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select, and the 2009 (95 Points) is no exception, demonstrating depth and elegance beneath its black currant, cocoa, cedar and atypical smoked meat notes. The grapes for this terroir-driven wine are carefully selected from the steep single vineyard located on site, and is a special offering. There aren’t too many tasting rooms in Napa that pour their $250 Reserve Cabernet to the public, and perhaps the most refreshing thing about Shafer’s tasting is that unlike so many wineries in the area, they aren’t afraid to pour you their very best stuff for the price you’re paying. To the contrary, they will pour you the very best of what they have available.

As if any more confirmation of the consistency of the Relentless was necessary at this point, I found the monstrous, masculine 2010 (95 Points) to be on par with the Hillside Select in terms of quality, and at less than a third of the price, it still represents significant value in the area if you can get your hands on it at your local wine store. And if you can’t, it’s comforting to know that you can always head straight to the source, provided you are willing to prioritize this stop first and foremost. You’ll also get to taste the current releases of the One Point Five Cabernet, Merlot and Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, as well as a rare Chocolate Port at the conclusion. Some things in life are worth the splurge, and this remains the case in the Shafer tasting room.

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Day Five- NAPA VALLEY (St. Helena)

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BEHRENS: A drive up Spring Mountain Road is, to me, a mandatory piece of any tasting itinerary while visiting the Napa Valley. There are so many unique producers pouring wines on this winding, moderately treacherous road due west of Highway 29, and they all offer views that are second to none. I’ve made many visits to Pride, I’ve had the pleasure to visit Barbara at Paloma, and have stopped in at Schweiger, Sherwin Family and Charbay. However, until this trip, I’d never made the drive to the very far end of the road, where an air-conditioned trailer (above) and a straight-shooting, wine-loving tasting hostess await, offering exquisite wines and unparalleled views.

Les Behrens doesn’t own any vineyards, but he is a winemaker who executes low-production wines by purchasing grapes with careful precision, and the results are bottles that demonstrate remarkable character, balanced with earth-driven elements over a seamless texture–the most consistently soft, silky and structured tannin composition of any winery I visited on this trip. The Behrens production is wide and varied, but focuses primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. The incredibly unique tasting experience takes place in a trailer offering views from the very top of Spring Mountain, covers about eight different wines for a $40 fee (waived with a two bottle purchase), conducted by Robin Cooper, a true wine-lover who has a collection herself of some 6000 bottles. Robin’s passion for the Behrens wine is evident, and I was most impressed by her willingness to discuss her appreciation of many other winemakers in the area. She truly exhudes an attitude of collective success for the whole region, which has become a bit of a rarity in this particular, highly competitive appellation. Behrens sells out of nearly all of their wines, so they have no incentive to badmouth other wineries, but her honest appraisal of the surrounding vinters was certainly a breath of fresh air.

The Behrens wines have so much personality, and this is evident before tasting them even by the way they are bottled. The leathery, earth-driven Sainte Fumee 2011 (93 Points) comes in a stout, port-shaped bottle, and shows off circus-like artwork as so many of these bottles do, while the unique Cabernet Sauvignon Thanksgiving 2011 (95 Points) attempts to suggest an immediate pairing by its name, and appropriately so– that was the best Cabernet I tasted over this entire trip, with its intense earth aromas reminiscent of a Bordeaux that combine with deep, dark fruit notes. Like they say in marketing, half of the battle is getting the customer to see the bottle in the first place, although none of these bottles will make it to your local wine store anyway, so I digress. Still, the entire concept implements a perfect balance between having fun with the wines and simulatenously taking them incredibly seriously, and this balance carries over to the structure of the wines themselves. Best to go to the source.

CABERNET SAUVIGNON AND BLENDS

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1) Behrens Cabernet Sauvignon Thanksgiving Napa Valley 2011, 95 Points, $115-  Bordeaux-like aromas, with iron mineral, leather and cigar box above crushed berry fruit notes. Impossibly polished and seamless, with intense, powdery mocha, layers of blackberry and deep plum above terroir-driven, expressive earth elements of tobacco, fresh leather and road tar. Long finish with refined tannins adding grip. This is all about texture.

2) Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select Napa Valley 2009, 95 Points, $250- Lovely aromas of cassis and minty cedar. Velvety body of blackberry and black cherry show complex notes of wet petrol mineral and smoked meat underneath. Atypical for the varietal, as elements of cedary spice and cocoa creep in and engage the back of the palate. Phenomenal texture, with the slightest hint of dry tannin creeping in late as structured dark fruit and mineral linger for minutes.

3) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Oakville 2010, 94 Points, $80- Big aromas of plummy cassis, chocolate, toast and cedar. A real mouthful, with dark plum, black cherry and blackberry exploding above creamy vanilla, toffee and milk chocolate undertones, with complex hints of sweet tobacco creeping in late. Impeccable texture and balance through the long finish.

4) Behrens Cabernet Sauvignon Crowley Vineyard 2010, 94 Points, $85- Huge, rich crushed blackberry jam aromas with hints of cedar and pine underneath. A juicy, gutsy style, with tons of blackberry fruit that is incredibly lush and layered, with earthy tobacco spice notes that pick up leather in a stunning shift underneath. Utterly packed, with an impeccable texture through the long finish, which shows velvety tannins.

5) Hestan Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2010, 94 Points, $110- Rich aromas of black fruit, dark chocolate and cedar. Polished, dark and aggressive body of black licorice, blackberry and mocha bean that show cedary undertones. Dark chocolate creeps in late. A monstrous, masculine wine, still showing huge tannins on the finish, but the texture is silky and the flavors are pure and focused. Needs to soften, but this is packed and powerful.

6) Meyer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009, 93 Points, $48- Rich, perfumed cassis and chocolate aromas. Lush texture of blackberry, black plum and black cherry above hints of chocolate as tobacco and cigar box notes creep in late. The finish is all dark, polished fruit though, as it lingers.

7) Sbragia Cabernet Sauvignon Rancho Del Oso Howell Mountain Napa Valley 2009, 93 Points, $75- Piney, wet forest floor aromas. Lush and velvety, with perfumey black currant fruits above subtle chocolate notes, stony minerality and cedary spice that lingers for minutes. Textured and detailed, with silky tannins adding structure.

8) Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley 2011, 93 Points, $135- Aromas of black currant, cigar box and mocha powder. Seamless and dark, with brooding blackberry, black licorice and Godiva dark chocolate notes above mocha powder and undertones of tobacco spice. Silky, refined tannins add depth and structure. Long finish with spicy tobacco and chocolate lingering for minutes. Well done in a tough year.

9) Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon Dr. Crane Napa Valley 2010, 93 Points, $175- Gorgeous on the nose, with perfumed black currants and subtle cocoa. Seamless, silky body with super-dark and refined blackberry and black cherry that tastes thick but feels light. Super-extracted and dark, with a long, refined finish that goes on and on, gaining traction from its silky tannins. Thick and chewy finish.

10) St. Clement Oroppas Napa Valley 2011, 92 Points, $55- Marked by its black cherry cola and cedary underbrush aromas. Ultraripe on the palate, with a focused core of juicy crushed blueberry and blackberry cassis notes along with black cherry that are layered impressively above mocha, dark chocolate, cedar and oak notes. This lingers long with some exotic baking spices adding intrigue, a strong effort in a tough vintage. Shows elegance and dimension in its youth.

11) Behrens The Heavyweight Napa Valley 2010, 92 Points, $75- Rich black cherry, wild raspberry and hints of black olive on the nose. Silky texture unfolds with detailed, balanced red currant fruits, complex undertones of cigar box, leather, sage and herbs, with a faint hint of petrol earth. Distinct and weightless, showing silky tannins and a complex, earth-driven length.

12) St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder Paras Vineyard Napa Valley 2010, 92 Points, $80- Huge nose of cocoa powder, black olive and black currant. Very terroir-driven and earthy, with chocolate and olive elements above dark plum and black licorice running over a smooth, silky texture. Refined, silky tannins add structure through the long finish.

13) Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2011, 92 Points, $90- Classic varietal profile, with black olive and cocoa powder above black currants. Dark black fruit flavors of plum and licorice combine over dark chocolate and black olive earth, all over a silky texture. A big, masculine wine, showing depth through the long finish.

14) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap 2011, 92 Points, $100- Big, rich nose of black cherry, coffee and cedar. Silky texture shows dark cherry and blackberry fruit notes, evolving into sweet vanilla and mocha/espresso notes and burnt toast nuances, finishing with a grip and lingering long, showing fresh minty notes. Very well done in a tough vintage.

15) Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2011, 91 Points, $50- Toasty graham cracker and cinnamon spice aromas shade blackberry and black cherry. Juicy, complex body of black currants and melted licorice show cool vintage characteristics of wet forest floor and briary spice with undertones of clove and tobacco lingering. Dry tannic grip, and needs to soften, but there’s lots going on here.

 ZINFANDEL

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1) Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel Sonoma County 2011, 92 Points, $38- Toasty on the nose, with dark berry and black cherry fruit aromas. Super-dark and elegant on the palate, with rich chocolate-covered black cherry notes that wrap around spicy pepper and vanilla bean through the long finish. Surprising darkness, as earth and spice elements power down the fruit, somewhat atypical and unique from old vines.

2) Hartford Family Old Vine Zinfandel Dina’s Vineyard Russian River Valley 2011, 92 Points, $55- Enticing aromas combine dark fruit with exotic spice. Full, supple and spicy body, with intense wild berry, dark raspberry and black cherry fruit flavors above spicy white pepper, herbs and fennel which cleanse the back of the palate. Very layered and detailed through the long, spicy finish.

3) Hartford Family Old Vine Zinfandel Fannuchi-Wood Russian River Valley 2011, 92 Points, $55- Massive aromas of raspberry pie, briar and dark red currant. Bursting on the palate with its juicy, concentrated raspberry and boysenberry fruit, shwoing darker notes of blackberry and blueberry that are understated but add a purple element. Smooth finish carries a savory underbrush note and a hint of chalky mineral that gets out of the way quickly as the fruit and briary spice lingers long.

4) Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County 2012, 91 Points, $24- Lively cherry and rich raspberry pie aromas lead into darker flavors of blackberry and black licorice, with undertones of exotic spice, cracked pepper, briar and vanilla bean. Long and substantial, for fans of the juicy and hot style, but shows a polished texture.

5) Girard Zinfandel Old Vine Napa Valley 2012, 91 Points, $24- Spiced red plum and cherry aromas show a hint of cinnamon. Juicy, ripe and spicy, with cherry and plum pie flavors understated by white pepper and cinnamon spice. Most impressive for its texture, which is silky and polished without the slightest hint of dryness. A classic spicy old vine fruit bomb, for fans of the style.

6) Mauritson Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2012, 90 Points, $29- Black cherry and a hint of toasty oak in the nose. Vibrant acidity showcases bright cranapple, raspberry and cherry flavors that gain traction from toasty spice and understated white pepper notes, which linger nicely on the finish with firm tannins. A lovely, blended example of the surrounding single vineyards.

7) Ridge Zinfandel Paso Robles 2012, 90 Points, $30- Juicy aromas of cherry and wild raspberry. Seamless texture with a pure, focused fruit beam of bing cherry, wild berry and blueberry above a strong cracked pepper note through the long finish. Refined tannins add structure.

8) Seghesio Zinfandel Cortina Dry Creek Valley 2011, 90 Points, $38- Aromas of briary dried raspberry and toasty oak. Zesty and balanced with its dark raspberry and black cherry fruit, gaining depth from savory herbal underbrush nuances and a toffee note through the finish.

9) Mauritson Zinfandel Rockpile Ridge Rockpile 2012, 90 Points, $39- Briary and peppery on the nose, with dark raspberry, toasty spices and a trace of stone mineral. Cracked black pepper runs through the juicy raspberry and cherry fruit, finishing with crushed rock undertones. Firm tannins add medium grip through the long length, which extends the fruit and spice components.

10) Mauritson Zinfandel Westphall Ridge Rockpile 2012, 90 Points, $40- Warm, toasty aromas of dark berry and mocha bean. Complex body, with forest floor, savory herbs and mocha spices above dark red currant fruit notes and dill creeping in through the long finish. Plush texture needs time to soften on the back of the palate, as firm tannins dry out the length a bit, but this shows potential and complexity.

CHARDONNAY

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1) Sbragia Chardonnay Gamble Ranch Napa Valley 2010, 94 Points, $40- A Burgundian nose, with stony mineral bracing squeezed lemon notes. Impeccable texture, with a Sauternes-like depth, complete with honey, apricot and peach above hints of petrol and wet stone. Understated oaky spice pulls it all together and adds complexity. A massive, courageous Chardonnay, one of the greatest terroir-driven American Chards I’ve ever tasted.

2) Beringer Chardonnay Private Reserve Napa Valley 2012, 92 Points, $44- Inviting aromas of pear, guava, melon, green apple and toasty vanilla bean. All in perfect balance with its toasted oak nuances not overpowering expressive tropical fruits, with juicy pineapple, pear suace, honey dew and canteloupe melon. An essay in balance, with toasty spice lingering long with the fruit.

3) Sbragia Chardonnay Home Ranch Dry Creek Road 2009, 91 Points, $26- Rich and buttery aromas, full of honey, apricot and stone fruit. Creamy body shows golden delicious apple, peach and dried apricot, with a streak of butterscotch, toffee and beeswax running all the way through. Brown sugar spice lingers with the fruit through the long, soft finish.

4) Sbragia Chardonnay Home Ranch Dry Creek Road 2012, 91 Points, $28- Lifted floral citrus notes of lemon and grapefruit on the nose. Seamless and weightless on the palate, with creamy but understated oak influences above effortless lemon custard, tangy grapefruit and a luscious crème brulee aftertaste that lingers long.

5) Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2011, 91 Points, $47- Butterscotch and golden citrus aromas. Vibrant and refreshing on the palate, with golden delicious apple laced with toffee and brown sugar spice. All in finesse, with deft balance between its acidity and oak influences, with neither getting in the way of the fruit. No tartness, as golden citrus and toffee spice lingers through the long finish.

6) Shafer Chardonnay Red Shoulder Ranch Napa Valley Carneros 2012, 91 Points, $50- Meyer lemon and tropical fruit aromas, with very subtle shades of oak. Crisp and clean, with lively green apple, pineapple, and lemon fruit that is juicy and acidic. Maintains balance from its very subtle oak influences underneath, but citrus really shines here through the long, polished finish.

7) Lewis Chardonnay Barcaglia Lane Russian River Valley 2012, 91 Points, $75- Big, butterscotchy oak aromas shade citrus notes of bartlett pear. Lovely, creamy texture, with juicy tropical fruit flavors of peach and canteloupe melon along with the pear up front that shift into a rich, toasty underbelly of toffee and vanilla bean spice. Lingers long with a beeswax nuance and vibrant acidity. Long finish, very layered and balanced.

8) Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains Estate 2012, 90 Points, $30- Lemon meringue pie aromas show hints of butterscotch and floral nuance. Creamy body of lemon, golden apple and pear citrus, laced nicely with almondy spice. Clean and crisp through the long finish.

9) Laird Chardonnay Red Hen Ranch Napa Valley 2012, 90 Points, $30- Crisp and clean throughout, with a focused beam of peach, canteloupe and toasted pear. Lingers with spicy but subdued oak notes. Very finessed, showing vibrant acidity and balanced oak undertones. Elegant all the way through, lingering with a floral note.

10) Hartford Court Chardonnay Four Hearts Vineyard 2012, 90 Points, $45- Rich and buttery aromas, with traces of orange blossom and stone citrus. Smooth, creamy body of golden delicious apple and orange peel spice, balanced impressively with vanilla bean and hazelnut spice. Shows juicy acidity balanced by toasty undertones through the long finish.

PINOT NOIR

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1) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Gowan Creek Vineyard Anderson Valley 2010, 94 Points, $80- Fresh forest floor aromas combine with deep plum and black currants. Remarkable texture, with perfumey plum, boysenberry, wild berry fruit that dance on the palate, showing undertones of white chocolate, exotic spices and wet cedar, pine cone and understated tobacco through the long finish. Detailed and engaging, with lovely floral lilac and lavender notes lingering with the fruit and soft, refined tannins pulling it all together.

2) Seghesio Pinot Noir Costeira Russian River Valley 2009, 93 Points, $42- Gamey aromas of smoked meat, with mushroom nuances above red currant fruit notes. Delicate mouthfeel of floral black cherry, strawberry and rose petal above white pepper spice, smoke, tobacco and earthy mushroom through the long finish. Remarkable texture, complexity and elegance.

3) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Confluence Vineyard 2010, 92 Points, $80- Jammy raspberry aromas show hints of earthy mushroom. Weightless on the palate, with lovely floral violet nuances giving way to rich plum, blueberry and raspberry fruit notes that sit above creamy, toasty vanilla bean spice and understated mushroom and tobacco earth. Complex, layered and delicate through the long finish, which lingers with silky tannins holding it all together.

4) Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2011, 91 Points, $50- Svelte and ripe, with complex mushroom and tobacco spice aromas. This starts silky on the palate with earthy mushroom up front, then gains steadily riper berry fruit notes of black cherry and dark, wild raspberry. This is impressive for its evolution and layering in a tough vintage.

5) Goldeneye Pinot Noir The Narrows 2010, 91 Points, $80- Tons of fresh pine cone and herbaciousness on the nose. A distinctly herbal offering, with pine and cedar influences above vivid raspberry and blueberry notes, gaining toffee and charred oak elements over an even texture. Lingers long with toasty herbal spices and a mocha note, showing a hint of off-balance tartness and dry tannins, but impressively structured.

6) FEL Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2012, 90 Points, $40- Big, inviting nose of perfumey red currants backed with toasty oak and herb nuances. Rich plum and red cherry fruit flavors combine on the palate above herbal undertones and burnt toast. Bursting with fruit and savory spice through the long finish.

7) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2011, 90 Points, $55- Aromatic with its dried berry and floral notes, showing a hint of smoke on the nose. Silky and elegant, with raspberry and black cherry fruit notes above subtle sweet tobacco spice underneath. Graceful and polished through the long finish, as dry tannins add grip.

8) Breggo Pinot Noir Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley 2011, 90 Points, $55- Campfire smoke and black cherry aromas. A darker style, with black cherry and licorice fruit above black coffee, smoke and charred oak notes. Lingers with a savory edge, as cedar, sage, cracked pepper and crushed rock elements creep in late. Complex and well-executed in a tough vintage.

9) Hartford Court Pinot Noir Far Coast Sonoma Coast 2010, 90 Points, $70- Elegant nose of rose petal and red currant fruits. Delicate mouthfeel shows deep, expressive red plum, raspberry and boysenberry above complex rose and violet floral nuances that deepen into subtle tobacco spice and chalky mineral that linger with grainy tannins.

10) Goldeneye Pinot Noir Migration Russian River Valley 2012, 89 Points, $35- Elegant on the nose with its lifted, perfumed red currant fruit notes. Juicy wild berry fruit intertwines with white pepper spice, hints of cigar box and wet mineral. Silky texture with refined tannins through the long finish.

SYRAH, PETITE SIRAH AND MERLOT

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1) Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2010, 95 Points, $75- Complex as always on the nose, with fresh mint, smoke and leather above wild berry and dark currant aromas. Deep, rich and explosive with its dark raspberry and black cherry fruit that evolves into complex undertones of campfire smoke, cedar, café mocha, peppery spice, road tar and charcoal through the long finish. Weightless on the palate for its incredible depth, lingering with firm tannins. Structured and impressive. Syrah.

2) Behrens Sainte Fumee 2011, 93 Points, $55- Toasty and leathery aromas show wild berry fruit undertones. Elegant and peppery on the palate entry, as the dark berry and black licorice take a backseat to the earthy leather, peppery smoked meat and graphite notes. Amazing texture through the extended length, and proof of what a great winemaker can do with a cool vintage. Syrah.

3) Seghesio Petite Sirah Il Cinghiale 2010, 92 Points, $38- Inky purple fruit aromas. Prune, raisin, black licorice and fig flavors are intense and detailed on the palate, leading into complex, layered undertones of road tar, charcoal and peppery spice, finishing with a smooth, extended length. A powerful, masculine wine; not for the faint of heart.

4) Behrens Front Man 2011, 91 Points, $80- Ripe, exciting nose of red plum, cherry and hints of cedar. Bursting at the seams with its flawless red currant fruit and forest floor notes. Smooth, polished and seductive. Finessed and textured, with a long finish of herbal spice lingering. Merlot.

5) Shafer Merlot Napa Valley 2011, 91 Points, $50- Aromas of fresh pine and cedar with powdery cocoa bean influences. Silky and elegant body that shows the cool climate of the vintage with its forest floor, loam and chocolate notes hanging above the black cherry and dark raspberry fruit. Shows a remarkably polished texture for this vintage, with refined tannins adding structure. Lingers long with cedar and vanilla bean spice.

6) Girard Petite Sirah Napa Valley 2012, 90 Points, $30- Aromas of leather, chocolate and dark red berries. Chewy texture shows muscular red fruit notes of dark raspberry and black cherry. Earthy leather, tar and briar show up underneath but this is quite velvety overall for the varietal. Long finish shows firm tannins but has lots of cellar potential.

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