Focus on California

Tasting California wines today is enough to make even the most stable wine reviewer bipolar. I can only imagine what effect these wines have on unsuspecting consumers. More than ever before, California is a state of confusion when it comes to wines offered and prices asked.At one extreme are wines of stunning, palate-massaging richness, made by a handful of winemakers who appreciate the role of technology yet understand that great wine is made in the vineyard. These are individuals whose best instincts are not squashed by bottom line-obsessed winery owners or deluded marketing departments. On my visits to many of the best North Coast producers in late winter and in my subsequent tastings back home of hundreds of additional current releases, I kept finding myself wishing that more consumers could have the chance to experience these remarkably sexy wines - and not just American tasters. The reason they can't is that a growing number of these elite wines now carry price tags of $75 or $100 a bottle, or more. Even in a depressed market, California's finest producers are not cutting prices for their best bottlings. Then too, even wine lovers who can afford these wines may be unable to find them, as these scarce collectibles, as a group, represent the tiniest fraction of California wine production.

At the other extreme, more undrinkable wine is pouring out of California today than ever before. Over and over again, I would taste sets of wines from new producers (or wines new to me) and come away with the feeling that these folks should not have given up their day jobs. Too many wines continue to be dry and nasty; others lack clarity and shape; and more than a few are simply dull as dishwater, vinous in only the vaguest way. I'm not just referring to cheap plonk. These wines are as likely as not to carry price tags of $40 or $50, and sometimes higher. That's not to say that these bottles are selling. Not long ago, there was a strong market in America for grossly overpriced mediocre wine, not least because so many casual wine drinkers were unwilling to do the rudimentary research necessary to find vastly superior imported wines at far lower prices. While the same mass market drinkers are no better educated today, the market for overpriced junk has essentially vaporized. Today, generic, clumsy California wine in the $20 to $50 range is a seriously hurting segment of the wine business.

Although many California producers are undergoing severe hardship today, it is possible that building interest in the very good 2001 vintage will give some wineries desperately needed cash flow - even if it won't help them find a home for their remaining 2000s, '99s and '98s. My extensive tastings of the 2001 cabernet-based wines just a few months prior to bottling suggests that this is an outstanding vintage for this category, ranking with top years like 1991 and 1994. Following three consecutive late harvests, 2001 brought a more normal growing season. It began, however, with a succession of very cold nights in early April that caused the most significant frost damage in some parts of the North Coast since 1971. The 2001 flowering was early thanks to very warm weather in May. June was warm but July and August escaped extremes of heat. The harvest began early, and September was cool right up to a three-day heat spike beginning on the 29th. Much of the best cabernet was picked in October.

The cabernets in particular offer a fabulous combination of deep, dark colors; thoroughly ripe fruit flavors, sometimes with notes of crystallized berries; firm framing acids that give the wines a succulent quality; plenty of alcohol; and thoroughly ripe tannins. In many ways, 2001 is California's answer to Bordeaux 2000.

In contrast to 2001, the 2000s from later-ripening varieties are often more problematic. They can display good dimension yet come off as a bit hollow, lacking the flavor development of the best years. Fruit that was not ripe enough by late October was compromised by six consecutive rainy days beginning on the 26th. For North Coast cabernet, the yardstick by which California vintages are normally rated, I view 2000 as a bad good vintage, which is a cut above a good bad vintage. There are certainly many very good cabernets, but just a few outstanding wines. But for varieties like chardonnay and pinot noir, as well as some syrahs, 2000 is a consistently very good vintage. In fact, I prefer a number of these wines to their 2001 counterparts, some of which give off baked or jammy aromas.

Incidentally, my early tastings of 2002s suggests that this vintage, too, has produced some immensely rich cabernet-based wines. While most insiders consider 2002 to be less consistent than 2001, some feel they made even better wine in 2002. Late harvesters benefitted from very warm, sunny weather during the first half of October.

On the following pages I offer brief profiles of numerous 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 many additional recommended current and upcoming wines (i.e., those receiving scores of 85 or higher) tasted in recent months in California and in New York. 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 omitted from my coverage dozens of wineries from whom I tasted one or more current releases that I cannot recommend.