Focus on California

My exhaustive tastings of new California wines in late winter and early spring, both in the cellars and in my dining room, consisted largely of examples from the '99 and '98 vintages, two cool, late harvests in which Bordeaux red varieties often struggled to ripen, especially in cooler sites and at high altitude. But whereas '98 was a very difficult year for these wines, '99 looks far more promising, though hardly typical. On my tour of the better North Coast addresses at the end of February and beginning of March, many growers and winemakers described 1999 as a distinctly European style of vintage in which a fairly small crop of grapes ripened slowly but benefitted from long hang time. The second half of July and most of August were unseasonably cool, as were the first three weeks of September. In many cases, acidity levels remained stubbornly high and tannins are firm, and following frequently protracted malolactic fermentations the wines have evolved very slowly. But the best of the cabernet- and merlot-based wines from Napa and Sonoma are sappy and brisk, with terrific density of flavor; I expect these wines to develop slowly in bottle and last beautifully. In numerous cases, however, the winemakers I tasted with didn't quite seem to know what to make of their '99s, which are not generally the opulent, fruit-driven, high-alcohol numbers that avid fans of California wines generally crave. I frequently found myself liking '99 cabernet barrel samples better than did the winemakers showing them to me.

The El Nino year of '98 is the worst vintage of the '90s for red Bordeaux varieties in California, with 1993 in second place. Following a cold, rainy spring and late flowering, the summer never offered any sustained periods of warm weather. The best growers aggressively dropped crop more than once in an attempt to ripen what remained, but in many areas, especially at altitude, the fruit never ripened. After a warm first week of September, late summer and early fall were cool but mostly dry. There is a flood of meager, green '98s on the market, and most of these would be too expensive at half the price. This is not to say that there are no good cabernet- and merlot-based wines. While only a relative handful of wines merit 90+ ratings, plenty of reasonably concentrated and moderately ripe wines were made. But one has only to taste these bottles alongside the '99s or the '97s to be aware of their more herbal aromas, narrower shape, and shorter finishes. Merchants and wine writers who would have you believe that the '98 vintage isn't really that bad do not have your best interests at heart. With relatively few exceptions, consumers who buy these wines are not going to be happy when they pour them, especially at today's often absurd price levels for California cabernet.

But the cool growing season of '98 often produced very good wine from varieties that ripen earlier, or that benefit from years in which the accretion of grape sugars doesn't rapidly outpace ripening of the skins. There's plenty of very good to excellent chardonnay, pinot noir and even syrah from '98, from Mendocino County clear down to Santa Barbara.

Among the most exciting wines I encountered on my late-winter tour of Napa and Sonoma, and in my subsequent tastings of hundreds of additional current releases back in New York, were a number of aromatically complex syrahs, including several '99s and '00s from new vineyard sources such as the top of Spring Mountain and Mendocino County. Increasingly, wineries are planting syrah in cooler spots, and some of these sites obviously offer the potential for making outstanding juice.

While syrah's star is in the ascendancy, sangiovese, which was spreading like wildfire five years ago, is now in retreat. In many areas thought to offer strong potential for this variety, the fruit has struggled to ripen properly. And in the successful sites, growers have come to realize that cabernet sauvignon would probably do well in the same places. Cabernet, after all, commands two to five times the price in today's market, so sangiovese is increasingly being abandoned for strictly economic reasons.

On the following pages I offer brief profiles of wineries I visited in late winter, along with notes on their current and upcoming releases, including some finished wines that will not be released until next fall or even later. Following this section are my tasting notes on all other recommended current and upcoming wines (i.e., those receiving scores of 85 or higher) tasted in recent months in New York and California. (As always, unfinished wines are scored within ranges, while wines in bottle are given precise scores.) In my lists of additional wines sampled from a given producer, bottles that scored 83 or 84 are denoted with asterisks. I have totally omitted from my coverage nearly four dozen wineries from whom I tasted one or more current releases that lacked distinction. Although the quality of wine coming from the best 50 or so California producers is higher than ever, I continue to encounter too many wines that show no evidence of either site character or a human hand. These wines might as well have been concocted in a chemistry lab.