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What are California’s greatest vineyards?

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What are California’s grand cru vineyards? Somebody at work asked me this question, for a project they’re working on, so it got me to thinking.

Some years ago, I wrote an article for Wine Enthusiast (which I no longer have available, alas) on California’s five greatest vineyards. Before I could make that determination, I had to define what I meant by “greatest.” There’s no objective definition; it’s purely subjective. Besides, there are so many fantastic, famous vineyards, you really have to cull the field to make your article manageable. So I decided on the following parameters:

  1. The vineyard must have a long, consistent history of producing great wines. (“Long,” by California standards.)
  2. Following #1, the vineyard probably will be known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (on the one hand) and Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other. (Sorry, other varieties, you lost out on that one.)
  3. The vineyard must not be the exclusive monopole of a single winery. Although it may primarily be associated with a single winery, it must also sell some of its fruit to other wineries. In this way, the vineyard’s name and fame are spread, and a fairer assessment can be made.

This last rule was a little controversial, I must admit. It excluded vineyards including Harlan’s Estate, or Screaming Eagle. But it left enough room for Beckstoffer-Tokalon, Pisoni, Sanford & Benedict, Bien Nacido and Rochioli to make the list. They all sell fruit to other wineries, they’ve all been around long enough to have established track records, and surely nobody would quibble about any of them.

Today, ten years later, I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing. The historian in me reveres the notion of great vineyards, Grands Crus, First Growths and the like. If you’re a wine geek with a penchant for reading about the history of wine, you know that certain vineyards always have been considered the greatest, from time immemorial.

On the other hand, part of me–the democratist–realizes that “grands crus” are not as rare as may once have been thought! In other words, they’re not exactly unicorns. With modern advances in viticulture and enology, vineyard managers are now able to deliver far more distinguished fruit, from far more sources, than ever before. Indeed, if we look to Mother France for a clue, we see a near-constant reshuffling of reputations in Bordeaux, for example: Second- and Third Growths now said to rival Firsts. In Burgundy, in Champagne, in many places, the traditional hierarchies are falling, as tastes change and opportunities arise for garagistes or for long-established wineries that are cleaning up their acts. I also know, as a media maven, that the reputation of the so-called top (or cult) vineyards often is based, not on objective quality, but on the decision of wine writers to include them on their “best” lists! With all due respect, Screaming Eagle is not the best Cabernet in Napa Valley. It’s one of dozens that are “the best.” There is no “best,” nor can there be, unless you are absolutely ideological about it and don’t care about fairness. So I’m somewhat loathe to say “These are California’s great vineyards,” because that implies that the rest of them—the 99 percent—are not great.

Still, I think there’s a useful purpose in trying to identify the top vineyards, although this has to be based on clearly spelling out your parameters, with all the caveats that this imprecise effort involves. It’s also fun: we all like reading about this stuff, don’t we? And so, dear readers, what are your nominations, and why?


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