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Reflections on six of Wine Enthusiast’s top 100 wines of 2009

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Now that Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 wines of 2009 list has been published and absorbed, I want to talk a little about some of the California wines I reviewed which made the list. Some people have asked me how and why particular wines are chosen while others aren’t. Understand, these are group decisions and others involved will offer different perspectives. Here, though, as the reviewer/scorer, are mine.

I mentioned our #1 wine, the Cambria 2006 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, yesterday in this blog. I’m sure that wine would have made any critic’s best-of-year list, because it’s such a genuinely fine wine in itself, and the fact most people will find it below $20 makes it a great value, which, in this economy in particular but also in Wine Enthusiast’s constant philosophy, is important. The wine is from the Santa Maria Bench, where Bien Nacido Vineyard also is situated. This terroir is extraordinary for Pinot Noir (and other cool-climate varieties but not, alas, for Bordeaux grapes which require warmth). The area isn’t well known to wine tourists because the Santa Maria Valley is a barren, windswept place with few amenities, although there’s talk down there about developing an infrastructure. Anyway, the wine’s price-quality ratio was the driving factor in giving it our top slot.

Our #4 wine was 2005 The Matriarch, from BOND, which is of course a sister wine line (if you will) to Harlan, although made from contracted, not estate-grown, grapes. Where the single-vineyard BONDs (such as Vecina, St. Eden and Melbury) all have lately cost well north of $200 a bottle to club members, The Matriarch 2005, a blend of them all, is priced at a relatively modest $90, suggesting that the Harlan team views it as “lesser”; yet I rated it (98 points) higher than any of the vineyard designates (which suggests, perhaps, a certain penchant for accessibility on my part). I once told Bill Harlan, only semi-jokingly, that The Maiden, the “second” wine of Harlan Estate, was getting so good it might soon rival the first wine, and so it was in 2005 with The Matriarch and its single-vineyard siblings. How and why would a “second” wine be as good as a “first”? Keep in mind these decisions (of which barrels to bottle under which labels) are made by mere human beings, in the guise of Mr. Harlan, his winemaker Bob Levy, their consultant Michel Rolland, the general manager Don Weaver, and perhaps one or two others; and humans, being only such, are capable of doing surprising things. No doubt the Harlan team believes in their decisions, but it is far from clear, in a blind tasting, that Harlan Estate or the single-vineyard BONDs are superior to the “second” Maiden or Matriarch. And that is why The Matriarch 2005 is one of the top wines of the year.

We then move to the #10 wine, Testarossa’s 2007 Brosseau Vineyard Pinot Noir. It comes from the Chalone appellation and costs $39 the bottle. To tell the truth, any number of other Testarossa Pinots might have taken this slot, or even some from other producers. I think there were lots of Pinot Noirs in our list this year because Pinot is obviously the hot variety from California, the 2007 vintage was so spectacular (but wait for 2009), and Testarossa deserves a nod because they do such a good job, so consistently, from so many different vineyards. They practically invented the concept of non-vineyard-owning people obtaining grapes from famous vineyards and then crafting beautiful wines, and their prices are generally $10-$20 lower than they might be. Then there’s our #12 wine, the Sequana 2007 Sundawg Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Green Valley ($50). It is clearly a fabulous wine from that cool district bordering on the Sonoma Coast, but what made it especially fun for me was that it’s a first-ever bottling from a new brand. Wine writers love new discoveries. The pedigree of the people behind the wine did not surprise me, when I eventually learned of it. The owner is Donald Hess, of Hess Collection. The winemaker is James MacPhail, of MacPhail Family. And although it may not really matter, the wine was made at Copain.

Immediately following the Sequana is Au Bon Climat’s 2006 Santa Barbara Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay. It retails for $35, which is cheap considering the wine’s vast, Clendenenesque dimensions, which clearly put it near the top of the pile for white Burgundian-style California Chardonnays. At #18 is another Pinot Noir, Melville’s 2007 Carrie’s ($52, from the Santa Rita Hills), an achievement of considerable proportions even in this historically great vintage; Melville (with winemaker Greg Brewer) obviously deserves recognition for their long and distinguished performance. Finally, at #21, yet another Pinot, this time Lynmar’s 2007 Hawk Hill Vineyard. At $70 it’s not inexpensive, but it defines the southwestern Russian River Valley’s terroir. This is a wine I would like to have many cases of.

I had many other wines on our Top 100 list and if the interest is there I can offer brief sketches of them in future blogs.

  1. Steve

    Bien Nacido grows Syrah and Merlot on that very Santa Maria Bench. What’s more, BNV is more westward than Cambria (which also grows Syrah).

    If you look at the three main properties on the bench (BNV, Cambria, Byron – west to east) those more to the east see an earlier burn off of the morning marine effect. There are real differences in the climate and resulting wine. Which makes BNV Merlot a paradox. It turns out they grown it some “nooks and crannies” which get a bit warmer.

    I would not characterize the valley as barren. The valley floor is used for row crops and vines. It may not be Oakland but the surrounding towns what a lot of appeal and have no trouble attracting professional (like lawyers, doctors and dentists). The area’s home prices are not in line with a struggling, fading town.

    That being said, SMV may not be crawling with tourists like Los Olivos but those wineries that have tasting rooms (admittedly few) don’t have trouble getting people in the door.

  2. Arthur, thanks for weighing in. There may be special hot spots for Merlot in BNV but I doubt if SMV is ever going to succeed at Cabernet!

  3. You wrote about the Cambria Pinot: “I’m sure that wine would have made any critic’s best-of-year list, because it’s such a genuinely fine wine in itself…” I would challenge this. Were it true, the Cambria website would include this on its website and PR materials.

    Let’s just take the newspaper list closest to us: Jon Bonné’s Top 100 for the SF Chronicle. He selected 20 Pinots in recognition of their current popularity with an average cost of $47. No Cambria, though two of the wines were priced at $20 and $18.

    Or take my citizen reviewers, those who buy wines: a “crowd” of 122 guys and few gals gave it a median score of 87. Many acknowledged the QPR of the wine.

    And this is why the wine deserves a 93, using the Jerry Mead’s double score methodology, one for absolute quality, the other for value–bang for the buck. I wish Jerry were still with us and writing in that great style of his. And giving scores for affordability. I’m not aware of any writer, apart from the obscure blogger, who carries on this tradition, and in these times particularly, this is a shame.

    TOM

  4. HA!
    Have you had Foxen’s Ma Mere Vineyard (SMV) Cab? 2001 blows all the Happy Canyon stuff (of the same vintage) away – at 8 years old. Yes, it’s a tiny vineyard and the production is miniscule, but it demonstrates that this doubt is not to be universally applied.
    Incidentally, this wine had bell pepper notes in 2006. My last bottle (drank it 1 or 2 months ago) was utterly gorgeous. Brilliant wine and turns the whole paradigm on its head.
    Of course, those that bought it ($75/bottle) probably drank it years ago and didn’t think all that much of it. They probably shrugged their heads and concluded that SBC Bordeaux is vegetal. Those that held on to it will be rewarded.
    People completely missed the fact that SYV (and warm parts of SMV) can make beautiful, *age worthy* Bdx.
    Those that doubt the ability of places like SMV (warmer, southeastern parts and mouths of canyons), SYV (I almost cried when I learned that Beckmen pulled their Cab vines after making the 2005 Atellier, but there are still a few in the area that make very nice cabs), Arroyo Seco (2001 Jekel Sanctuary anyone?) or Carmel Valley (OK, Bernardus Marinus grapes mostly come from the Colchagua area – which also makes stunning Sauv Blanc and Semilion for Jullien) to make beautiful Bdx fail to see the ugly duckling phenomenon at play.
    The real (commercial) quandary here is that producers face a decision that involves a trade-off: make wines of immediate appeal that will sell (and get high scores upon release, because they are rated for impact not overall quality) or make wines that will take a few years to reveal their true beauty and value.

    To your point, AVAs have to brand themselves around something: Sta. Rita Hills-Chard and Pinot, SYV-Grenache and Syrah, Paso-Cabs, etc, etc. However, AVAs are so political that they include outlier regions: good and bad (either really flabby, soft Pinots or weedy ones, or situations like SMV where you can grow Pinot, Chard, Syrah and Merlot and Cab – and a few other things in the south western end).
    The boundaries of SMV were expanded not too long ago. That included cooler westerly portions as well as some southwesterly portions where you could do more of this “fringe Cab/Bdx viticulture”. I would not be surprised to see a sub-AVA or district formed in the Sisquoc/Foxen Canyon area.

  5. Ooops, Typo above. Make that “Joullian Vineyards” – in Carmel Valley. (Auto spelling correction made me attribute wine to the wrong producer).

  6. Arthur, you make an EXCELLENT point that some of these more herbal, acidic and less ripe Cabs can ripen beautifully. It’s unfortunate for us wine critics to not be able to taste older wines as much as we might like. Not enough hours in the day.

  7. Tom, I don’t specifically give a value-bang for the buck score. But at Wine Enthusiast we do have “Best Buy” and “Editor’s Choice” designations that accomplish something very close to the same thing. I, too, miss the late, great Mr. Mead.

  8. Steve,

    It was because wine critics pooh-pooed those wines that the vines were pulled.
    That is truly unfortunate.
    People yanked Cab and Merlot and put in Syrah. I like the variety, but have you seen the Syrah sales figures lately?

  9. Arthur, no, but I’ve heard Syrah’s a tough sell.

  10. Yup. Fruit prices are down and it’s getting harder to move it. I even got a call from a winemaker who wanted my opinion on some ideas they have for a Syrah awareness/promotion campaign.

  11. Steve, maybe you should stop tasting 2nd wines blind! Be more like the other guys who add 2 or 3 points to the special cuvees when they see the label and price.

    My feeling is Cab S and Merlot ‘struggling’ in SYV & SMV has as much to do with sun exposure as heat. Bdx varietals need sun to break up the ‘mean green pyrazine,’ and SYV & SMV to varying degrees are subject to marine layers and shorter days in the growing season than up north in WA and Napa. (You get ultra-long summer days, and ultra-short winter days the further north you go.) In Happy Canyon it’s probably the lack of fog as much as the pure heat that gets rid of the greenness. The pure heat has potential drawbacks in terms of high sugars & jamminess, though.

    Anyway, since I like Cab Franc, I’ve had some older CF’s from SYV and Los Alamos that have developed in interesting ways. But I doubt they were loved upon release. I am quite tolerant to tobacco and pepper; most prefer jam where I prefer capsicum and cigar.

    They should plant more Mourvedre. I’ve been finding it less jammy and massive than many SYV Syrahs since it ripens later. It kind of cancels out the extra hang-time vintners like for immediate accessibility all on its own! The gaminess is nice, too.

  12. Steve,

    I had a question about #62 Leonetti Cellar 2006 Cabernet
    Sauvignon. I went to their site and there mailing list has a waiting list of 5-8 years. Obviously this wine is not available in stores, or anywhere for that matter, to the general public. how did you acquire this bottle? Is WE on the mailing list? If not why would they send you a bottle for review if the waiting list is so long anyways? It’s not like they are having a hard time selling their wines or anything. I just don’t understand wine politics I guess.

  13. Steve,

    I would love to have you further expound on more of the wines in the Top 100 list. It is nice to get your personal slant on the selections!

    Thanks for writing, I don’t comment often (this might be the first), but I read everyday!
    Jess

  14. Matt, you raise an interesting question concerning availability of wines reviewed. Our policy is, if the wine is considered a “commercial” release (as opposed to a private bottling), then we review it. Many wines we review are widely available; some are not; that’s just the way it is.

  15. Arthur, I’ve heard for a couple years what a hard sell Syrah is. Strange. It’s a good wine, easy to pronounce, with a sexy French name — should be a natural.

  16. The issues I’ve heard that people blame this slump on is that American Syrah lacks identity (in the face of varying regional styles?) and that Australian Shiraz has clouded this further – if not created unfavorable preconceptions about the variety.

  17. I think one Syrah “Sideways” moment would turn it around.

  18. HA!
    Well… I have been looking for an acting gig……

  19. I must make one comment in reply to Tom’s post. And that is this…. The Wine Enthusiast reviews all wines submitted without prejudice. That can not be said for Jon Bonne, he only reviews wines that he has a particular interest in. So the top 100 in the Chronicle would not compare directly to the top 100 in the WE.

  20. I don’t know what Jon’s criteria are, but speaking for myself, I review each and every bottle that comes in (and then some). Always have, and hope I always will.

  21. In fairness…. there are only a handful of publications that review all wines sent in and they all use the 100 point scoring system. Most regional publications do not. Therefore all Top 100 lists are not created equally.

  22. Reply to Arthur, winesooth & Steve -
    While in Napa for a Natioanl Sales Meeting I overheard one winemaker tell another a joke.
    Do you you know the difference between Syrah & Syphillis?
    No
    You can get rid of Syphillis.

  23. It’s nice to see that someone finally recognized Cambria’s Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir. I had this on my wine list 10+ years ago and I’m amazed its been flying under the radar for so many years.

  24. Paul, just barely approved your comment which is in poor taste and factually incorrect. Did so in the interests of free speech.

  25. Steve,

    How does producer consistency weigh v. tasting the wine in a vacuum, so to speak? Or maybe best asked, should what a certain winemaker/ owner/ producer has done over time influence how that wine tastes this year?

    A comment like “Testarossa deserves a nod because they do such a good job, so consistently, from so many different vineyards” makes me think you like their 2009 vintage, but maybe not enough normally to make the list.

    Or “Melville (with winemaker Greg Brewer) obviously deserves recognition for their long and distinguished performance”. Is the Top 100 really the top wines of just the vintage year, or a way to recognize favorites when space permits?

    Please don’t take these as indictments, more questions that pop up when you pull back the curtain on this interesting process.

  26. Colin, thanks for asking smart questions. Obviously a “Top 100″ list is not a blind tasting. It is a measured judgment about who deserves what, why, and why now. Testarossa has provided me (and plenty of others) with years of enjoyment of single-vineyard Pinot Noirs at decent prices. As for Melville and Greg Brewer, I guess you could say that a Top 100 listing is like an Oscar for a great actor who’s turned in great performances over and over for years and deserves the award. There’s always an element of subjectivity in such rankings, but I hope the perception is that the subjectivity is based on real and shared perceptions among knowledgeable people.

  27. Arthur writes

    “Have you had Foxen’s Ma Mere Vineyard (SMV) Cab? 2001 blows all the Happy Canyon stuff (of the same vintage) away”

    I think I made one of the first Bordeaux varietal wines from Happy Canyon Vineyards called PIOCHO in 2003. It was the first vintage and the production was tiny.

    While I am a huge fan of the 2001 Ma Mere and promoted the wine in the Wine Cask futures program I would like to know what 2001 Happy Canyon wines the Ma Mere blew away?

    I’m game to host a Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Bordeaux varietals tasting anytime – after being in the business for 30 years I can tell you these wines are truly noteworthy.

  28. I agree with Kelkeagy’s comments about Top 100 lists–they aren’t all created equal. Each publication and the critics with whom they’re associated have criteria, just as consumers and wine buyers do. The key is in finding the right fit, just as you would with a retailer.

    Some value grooviness and exclusivity above all else while others value accessibility and affordability. Certain critics dig big fat juice, and others like delineated wines. After twenty years in the business, what I respect the most is a voice that offers a balanced viewpoint, one that values the legitimacy of a broad range of wine experiences.

    I love me some good Muscadet. And I dig stemmy, meaty Syrah. But I also like a good number of so-called “populist” wines. Is it wrong to enjoy a bottling just because it’s made in large quantities?

    Hell no. There’s room for everyone in this brand new wine culture we’ve created. Let’s not blow it by being elitists.

  29. In my religious teachings, it was only a sin to covet thy neighbor’s wife, and I don’t know what I’d do that.

  30. I don’t know WHY I’d do that… Sorry. Should have used the word “why” not “what.”

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