Family Winemakers of California Tasting Review
By Kerry Winslow
This year’s Family Winemakers of California tasting event was a good chance to taste some new wines, new vintages and meet some interesting people, plus get a pulse on how the wine business feels to those on the front lines. There seems to be a ways to go in the economic recovery, but there is promising signs and even hope in most people’s eyes that things are getting better and that is a brighter future ahead, though there was a lack of attendance by premier artisan Pinot Noir producers that I found very noticeable and troubling for this event, which is one of my favorite to visit and report on. That said, there was plenty to enjoy, great weather, super location at Fort Mason and many exciting wines to sample, all in all a very worthwhile show.
Here is my list of highlights from the Family Winemakers Tasting, these are the producers and wines that left the biggest impression on me and my palate, and while I tasted lots of very nice wines, and to be honest there was not many duds, I tried to only include those that offered that something unique or special. I wanted to include a good range of new and already established producers and regions. This is a wonderful state, and we have in California a fantastic array of terroirs, styles and the choices are almost endless, there is something for everyone here and this event highlights that to perfection.
Best New Winery: Law Estate Wines
I’m always on the trail of new discoveries and future specialties in the vast wine world, and at this year’s Family Winemakers Tasting in San Francisco, I managed to find an exciting new producer that looks set to compete with Saxum, Booker, Epoch and L’ Aventure for honors in the western hills of Paso Robles, Law Estate. Don and Susie Law have planted a glorious hillside vineyard between 1,600 and 1,900 Feet up on shiny limestone chock soils, mostly to Syrah and Grenache, but with some Cabernet, Mourvedre, Carignan, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot in black grapes and a few white grapes that include Roussanne, Marsanne and Clairette. The Law’s hired Scott Hawley to be their winemaker and leader, to make the wines and get an ambitious state of the art winery done and up and running, Hawley is known for making some very intriguing wines including his own wines at Torrin, as well as Jada and Alta Colina prior, he is also very much dedicated to sustainable growing practices. This fall Law Estate will releasing their first four wines from the 2010 vintage, all of which are stunning and all of which will certainly blow a few minds.
2010 Law Estate, Beguiling, Proprietary Red, Paso Robles.
This Grenache cuvee, with a tiny amount of Syrah (94% Grenache & 6% Syrah) is lavish and lush with pure flavors and silky tannins, this is a delightful and throughly enjoyable wine. There is lots of lively layers to explore here with fresh fruit, floral tones and tangy grenadine on the aftertaste, the main drive though is a red fruit core that never stops pushing with loads of raspberry and baked strawberry leading the way. There is a spicy plum and pepper note that add to this fine effort, plus there is a shinning burst of acidity and hints of chalky mineral as well. This deeply colored red is very rich in the mouth and will satisfy most Grenache fiends addictions, this certainly reminds me of elements of Booker and Alban and pays tribute to the wines of the southern Rhone.
($62 Est.) 92-93 Points, grapelive
2010 Law Estate, Sagacious, Proprietary Red, Paso Robles.
I especially liked the 2010 Law Estate Sagacious GSM blend of 44% Grenache, 42% Syrah and 14% Mourvedre, this was pure pleasure in the glass and I wish I could have gone off with a few bottles right there and then! The nose was young and tight, but it turned magical with air, violets, creme de cassis, white pepper and sticky lavender all flowed from bouquet to palate while blackberry, boysenberry, loganberry and blueberry compote exploded in the mouth and layers behind the scenes included sweet herbs, all spice, mineral and game plus a touch of espresso. This full bodied effort is flamboyant and utterly hedonistic, but not in anyway over the top or out of shape, this is well crafted and focused wine, and it should drink fantastic on release plus age well for another decade, this is deserving stuff, not cheap mind you, but after having the Saxum 2010 ($169) recently, and Booker ($89), plus others, this price point is very fair for the quality on offer here, no question.
($62 Est.) 94-95 Points, grapelive
2010 Law Estate, Audacious, Proprietary Red, Paso Robles.
While the westside of Paso is home to some of the greatest Rhone inspired wines in California, there are those that get there clues from more than one region and there are a few that combine many ideas, like this almost Aussie meets Priorat influenced cuvee of 44% Grenache, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Syrah and 10% Petite Sirah which all comes together in a most California fashion. The 2010 Audacious Red from Law Estate is super dark, brooding and full of explosive power, this is a wine to watch and while I quite like it now, it might be good to give this red some time in the cellar as it looks to be very rewarding, a solid investment in future pleasure. Certainly, as L’ Aventure’s Stephan Asseo has proved with his Estate Cuvee blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, there is great promise in these kinds of blends and they can really show the nature and personality of the region. This wine is massive and forceful on the palate with loads of creme de cassis, blackberry, blueberry and juicy sweet plums along with dried currants, tobacco leaf, licorice and chocolate elements. Ripe tannins and subtle wood frame this wine very nicely, and the is great potential here.
($62 Est.) 93-94+ Points, grapelive
2010 Law Estate, Intrepid, Proprietary Red, Paso Robles.
The 2010 Law Estate Intrepid is an intense 100% Syrah, the only one in their lineup this year to focus on a single varietal, but this wine lacks for nothing and is a very well crafted expression of this grape and place with lots of character and style. This gripping Syrah has eye popping fruit and almost a dry port feel to it, though I’m sure given time the wine will develop more graceful elements, I noticed air did open it up to reveal more complex details and there is plenty to enjoy here with it’s black and blue fruits, hints of peppery, sage and wild game. This wine leaves an impression, no question and I’m amazed by it’s depth coming from such young vines, this is a wine to take note of, I can’t wait to try not only this wine in a few years, but also to try future releases, this was the dark horse in the lineup, it might be a risk in the cellar, but I think it might be a good gamble. The nose has classic heady notes of sweet liqueur, smoke, salted licorice and meat along with loads of extract on the palate with blueberry, plum, kirsch and boysenberry fruit, plus hints of lavender oil, mocha and cracked pepper. For those that enjoy Alban and Saxum, you should be sure to look these guys up.
($62 Est.) 92-93 Points, grapelive
Best Up and Coming Winery: Donelan Wines
The future looks very bright indeed for Donelan, I was very impressed by the whole lineup of wines on offer by Donelan and the Brothers Tripp and Cushing Donelan that took me through their latest wines and developments, the Donelan family were partners in Pax, and started their own label after their split with Pax Mahle. This year they have added Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to their portfolio of wines, moving away from the Rhone only style, though they will keep making their Syrah based wines, mostly to their loyal mailing list clients as these wines are produced in limited amounts. Both their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir offering from the difficult 2011 vintage showed great, in fact the Pinot was utterly delicious and left me wanting more! I also tasted a barrel sample of their 2012 Chardonnay which was not in finished form and was from a single vineyard, but I can tell you it was spectacular and I highly recommend trying these wines and be sure to get on their list.
2011 Donelan, Pinot Noir, Two Brothers, North Coast.
The 2011 Pinot Noir is a multi-region cuvee from sites in Sonoma County, Russian River and Mendocino, and while I tend to be a purist when it comes to Pinot Noir preferring single sites, this wine is glorious and is drinking great, I had to put my inner wine snob away and just enjoy this Pinots beauty and charm without prejudice. The nose is full of bright notes of fruit and flowers leading to a transparent, but deep palate of wilted roses, wild strawberry, plum and a rich core of cherry fruit, hints of cinnamon, pepper and fennel add complexity along with a fresh mineral streak. This vibrant and vivid Pinot is one 2011 wine not to fret about and while not cheap, is a lovely wine and very worthy of a splurge. Drinking well now, though should be a fun cork to pull for the next 3 to 5 years. Donelan’s Chards and Pinots are going to be some super wines to look forward to, especially the up coming 2012 vintage, so I’d suggest securing some of their wine sooner versus later. By the way, their Syrah wines are rockstars, be sure to check out 2009 and 2010 vintages as well!
($55 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive
Best Value Winery: Kaena Wine Company
Mikael and Sally Sigouin’s small Los Olivos winery is making some tasty Rhone wines from select sites in Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez, and all of them are sold at what has to be considered bargain prices for small lot artisan handcrafted wines. I’d had heard quite a few times I needed to check these wines out, but for whatever reason hadn’t had the chance to sample them, and now I really feel stupid for not getting to them earlier, these are wonderful and interesting wines of great quality. Mikael’s day job is crafting the excellent Beckmen wines, so he does know a thing or two, and I was impressed with his humble and laid-back nature, it makes sense as he is from Hawaii, hence the name and all. Mikael has been making Kaena since 2001, he has worked for Beckmen since 1999, but with a short stint at Fess Parker, becoming head winemaker at Beckmen in 2007. His Kaena wines all drink well, better than well, I should just say they all rocked, because they did, I particularly loved the Rose, the Sauvignon Blanc (the only wine in the lineup not a Rhone) and his 2011 Grenache Noir Vie Caprice from the Santa Ynez Valley, though I liked every wine he poured me, Kaena should be on your radar, these are top notch whites and reds.
2011 Kaena, Grenache, Vie Caprice Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley.
This wine is full of energy, life and soul, it may not be the richest or flamboyant compared with the 2010’s in Kaena’s lineup, and those are excellent, but I really just fell head over heals for the 2011 Vie Caprice Grenache which shows a more delicate nature, but still is wildly enjoyable. Like Sheldon’s lighter style Grenache, this wine is just sexy and pleasing with spice, acidity and layers of silky fruit. While 2011 won’t ever be regarded as a blockbuster, or even a remembered vintage, it did challenge winemaker’s to show their talents and Mikael has some, and this wine is the reward. The nose shows wild flowers, peppery spices and tangy red fruits with hints of earth, chalk and cinnamon stick leading to a palate of raspberry, loganberry, plum and strawberry with sweet fennel and herbs, peppercorn and tart cherry. I recommend buying up the 2009 and 2010 Grenache and Syrah wines from Kaena while you can, no question they deliver the goods, but also, grab a few of these, I really think you’ll be impressed, Drink 2013-2015.
($38-45 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive
Top Three White Wines
2010 Chester’s Anvil, Gewurztraminer, Potter Valley, Mendocino County.
This wine is for all the wine weirdos out there that crave something different, something wild or truly unique, an off dry Gewurztraminer from Lagier Meredith & Pott Wines, this is super fun stuff and at a huge trade tasting, it stood out and I had to include it here in my top white picks! Carole Meredith, Steve Lagier and Claire and Arron Pott, neighbors and friends created a joint project to fuel their collective wine geek, that is Chester’s Anvil and they have made a collection of interesting wines together, their latest offerings include a Malbec, a Sauvignon Blanc and this wonderful Gewurztraminer. This tangy, bright and fresh white has a touch of off dry RS, but you don’t really get sweetness on the palate, so fear not, this is a refreshing table wine that offers an amazing array of flavors. The nose has a floral and tropical bouquet leading to a wild palate of lychee, melon and basil with tangy mango, pineapple and lemon, plus pepper and honeycomb notes. Crisp, but with a slight creamy feel mid palate this Gewurztraminer is great alternative white, and would be a dream with Asian cuisine and or most salads, don’t be afraid, this is groovy stuff.
($26 Est.) 91 Points, grapelive
2011 Tablas Creek, Esprit Blanc de Tablas, Proprietary White, Paso Robles.
The Tablas Creek Esprit Blanc is a Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc blend, an ode to Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc and Beaucastel’s glorious Roussanne based wines, and I think of it as one of the great white wines of California, it is a lovely and richly textured wine of utmost class and distinction. The 2011 shows a slightly lighter side than most vintages, but it is not a bad thing at all and I love the vibrancy of the fruit and the creaminess of the texture, it just plays well and makes for a balanced whole. This Roussanne led wine shows the intensity of this varietal with it’s hint of oiliness and that clarified butter note to go along with the citrus and stone fruits, while the acidity of Picpoul and complexity of the Grenache Blanc add mineral elements, fill out a peachy note and add to the life here. Tablas Creek maybe better known for their red, but without question this white rivals anything with loads of character, focus and seductive charms, it would be hard to imagine this wine needs anything more. The nose is subtle with hints of melon, pear, butterscotch and spices leading to a palate of white peach, nectarine, lemony citrus cream, a touch of wet stones. Beautiful and lush in the mouth and with a long clear finish this wine is world class, and it has good grip, but everything flows with smooth gracefulness, drink now through 2016.
($40 Est.) 93+ Points, grapelive
2010 Ramey, Chardonnay, Platt Vineyard, Sonoma Coast.
Dave Ramey nailed with this wine, the 2010 Platt is almost dead on perfect, this has to be one of the finest Chards I’ve had this year, and I will find it difficult to put into words just how good this wine is, so you’ll have to trust when I say, just try it yourself! While the Ritchie and Hyde Vineyard wines grab all the attention, it is this Platt that is more impressive, it is seriously fantastic, right up there with a top Puligny or dare I say a Batard, it is that good, it has it all and is a steal when compared to the great white Burgs it rivals, let alone the likes of Aubert, Kongsgaard or Peter Michael Chards. The 2010 Ramey Platt shows what a great vintage and site can do, it has a nose of white flowers, smoke, honeycomb and river rocks with a vivid palate of lemon, apple, pear and a hint of tropical fruit, firm acidity, chalky minerals and hazelnut notes. This Chardonnay is class from nose to finish with plenty of depth, length and laser like focus, without question this is pure class in the bottle, kudos to Ramey and his team, this is compelling juice and a fantastic wine, flirting with total perfection.
($55-60 Est.) 96+ Points, grapelive
Top Three Red Wines
2009 Lamborn Family, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain Estate, Napa Valley.
There are few small wineries that can say they have Heidi Peterson Barrett as their winemaker and ask this kind of price, it may seem odd, but yes this wine is a bargain, a tiny plot of Cabernet Sauvignon on Howell Mountain made by one of the great names in California wine, yup it is a steal. Better still, the Lamborn’s are great people, I’ve known them for a long time now, and they are true special and kind, I admire them greatly, and I have always been a fan. I used to buy a small production Zinfandel call Rocking Horse during the early nineties and one of their wines was from this Lamborn Vineyard on Howell Mountain, it was so different and interesting I just had to find out more, and then I discovered they made their own wine and I was hooked, and between 2001 and 2009 I didn’t miss a vintage of their Zinfandel which I found gave the same pleasure as a fine Chateau du Pape. As of the 2005 vintage, the Lamborn’s got into the Cabernet Sauvignon business, with Heidi calling the shots and developing the vines, with her experience and talents, of which most people know through her efforts at Screaming Eagle and other top estates, she has created a striking Cabernet for the Lamborn Family, a wine with terroir, personality and pedigree, and the 2009 looks set to considered the best yet. The 2009 Lamborn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is a wonder expression of varietal and place with a nose full of acacia and dark flowers, sweet creme de cassis and spiced cherry leading to a full bodied palate of blackberry, currant and plum fruits with hints of mocha, licorice, lavender, blonde tobacco and smoky vanilla. Richly packed, dense and firm with ripe tannins this a jewell of a wine and the rewards of lots of handwork and commitment, drink from 2015-2022, bravo.
($100 Est.) 95 Points, grapelive
2009 Guilliams, Cabernet Franc, Spring Mountain Estate, Napa Valley.
Guilliams has long been making quality Cabernet from their estate on Spring Mountain, and while they are known more for their Cabernet Sauvignon, they also craft a fine Cabernet Franc as well, and this 2009 is really lovely and very much worth spotlighting here. Guilliams also poured the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon which was well made and extremely good, but I decided to focus on this 2009 Cabernet Franc, well, because I wanted to and that is was very interesting with lots of character. The nose has hints of violets and dried roses with hints of all spice and peppers plus a tease of creme de cassis before a refined medium weight, Bordeaux like palate of mineral driven fruit including dark cherry, plum and brambleberry with smoke, vanilla and wild herbs. There is a earthy element and touches of cigar, dried currants and cedar that really come into view with air, and the finish, which is lengthy and rich. This pretty Franc is drinking super now and should age another 5-7 years easy with it’s balance of fruit, tannins, wood and acidity, this is a classy mountain wine.
($36 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive
2010 Lagier Mededith, Syrah, Mount Veeder Estate, Napa Valley.
Steve Lagier and Carole Meredith have been making wine up on Mount Veeder since the mid nineties and while I had heard of them, I only first sampled their Syrah when I tried the 2004, and I was instantly a fan, and the 2005 was a magical wine, it left a mark on me for sure, they certainly produce wonderful wines. This years Family Winemakers tasting in San Francisco was a great chance to revisit their Syrah and the other wines in their lineup as well as get their expert insight into grape origins, with Dr Mededith being one of the world’s foremost researchers in the field, especially in the case of Zinfandel AKA Tribidrag and Syrah. Steve poured his latest samples, a Rose of Syrah with a touch of Mondeuse, the Tribidrag and the 2010 Syrah, but they he also brought out his 2002 Syrah, and wow, this was heaven, it was fresh and youthful with just a few signs of age, great stuff. But it was the new 2010 Lagier Meredith that blew me away, it was maybe my personal favorite of the show, though I must say it took me trying about 50 other really good wines to absolutely know just how remarkable it truly was, sometimes it is like that, putting things into context. The 2010 Syrah shows a deep opaque color, almost black in the middle with garnet edges and a nose of violets, huckleberry, creme de cassis, smoke and espresso bean leading to a full and robust palate of blueberry, boysenberry and mountain wild berry with touches of spiced plum, fig cake and cherry notes with pepper, cinnamon shavings, mint and vanilla. This beautiful and rich wines expands on the palate and the length is remarkable, this is special stuff, and while it drinks great now it should age with lots of style.
($48 Est.) 95+ Points, grapelive
More reviews to follow from this event on the main grapelive.com reviews page
A big thank you to Family Winemakers of California for putting on this event, again it was done right and with a warm and profession attitude making it one of my must go to events of the year, plus a special thank you to Dr. Carole Meredith, Steve Lagier for their graciousness in allowing me a thousand and one questions, and a shout out to Kathleen Naughton of Law Estate Wines that pushed through all the white noise and got my attention.