Focus on California

High California wine prices continue to make purchasing these wines an adventure: today, there are far too many competent but unexceptional bottlings of cabernet-based wine retailing for $80 or more! But the quality of wine being made by California best producers today is truly stunning, and the state has not yet had a bad vintage in the '90s.

My tour of Napa and Sonoma Valleys at the end of February and the beginning of March afforded me an early look at the '97s, a year that featured a record-setting crop and a nightmarish harvest following a warm summer. For the typical estate, what would normally be five or six weeks of picking was telescoped into half that span, requiring some quick and difficult decisions about what to pick and when, and resulting in a scramble for vat space. Still, despite the huge crop, it is becoming clear that many very rich wines have been made.

Nineteen ninety-six featured several short bursts of extreme heat in July and through much of August, as well as some ill-timed rain in early August that created serious rot problems for heavy chardonnay bunches. Generally speaking, hang times in '96 were shorter than average. But the later-picked varieties, especially cabernet sauvignon, were able to benefit from moderating temperatures after the beginning of September. From the tastings I have done to date, it appears that the heat was most destructive to the flavors and freshness of chardonnay and pinot noir: due to falling acidity levels, many growers were forced to harvest before the fruit achieved thorough phenolic ripeness. Many '96 zinfandels show varying degrees of raisining, without possessing quite the intensity or depth of fruit flavors of the '95s or '94s. But varieties like cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc generally fared well.

On the following pages I offer brief profiles of wineries I visited in late winter, during a lucky respite from El Nino, along with notes on their current and upcoming releases. Following this section are my tasting notes on all other recommended current California releases (i.e., wines receiving scores of 85 or higher) tasted in recent months in New York and California. This section also includes many more '97 and '96 cabernets and some other red wines tasted from barrel in California. (As always, unfinished wines are scored with ranges, while wines in bottle are given precise scores.) In my lists of additional wines sampled from a given producer, the bottles I scored 83 or 84 are denoted with asterisks.