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My wine reviews in 2011: an analysis


I reviewed about 4,800 wines in 2011, which works out to 13.1 per day, although I didn’t taste every single day. The top varietals tasted, by quantity, are listed below. (My top-scoring wines from each category follow in brackets):

1,003 Pinot Noirs [Williams Selyem 2009 Precious Mountain]
885 Cabernet Sauvignons [Venge 2008 Family Reserve]
767 Chardonnays [Foxen 2010 Block UU Bien Nacido Vineyard]
354 Zinfandels [Seghesio 2009 Cortina]
295 Sauvignon Blancs [Trione 2010 River Road Ranch]
295 Syrahs [Qupe 2006 Bien Nacido Vineyard 25th Anniversary X-Block The Good Nacido]
236 Merlots [Rutherford Hill 2007 Reserve]
177 Meritage-style [Von Strasser Reserve]
118 sparkling wines [Schramsberg 2004 J. Schram Rosé]
118 Petite Sirahs [Envy 2008 Nord Vineyard]
59 Cabernet Francs [Merryvale 2008]
59 Rhône red blends [Sanguis 2008 Endangered Species]

plus, of course, a bunch of everything else: Chenin Blanc, Nebbiolo, white Rhône blends, Tempranillo, oddball red blends, oddball white blends, dessert wines, Viogniers, Rieslings and so on.

I was surprised to see that Pinot Noir outnumbered Cabernet Sauvignon for the first time! Pretty impressive. Why? I can’t say, for sure, but here are some educated guesses: Pinot Noir is the hottest wine in California. More and more people are making it, so more and more are sending in for review. I, in particular, am getting a lot sent because producers know I like it, and so they hope they’ll get a good score. Also, I pay particular attention to Santa Barbara County–not all reviewers do, you know–and there’s a lot of Pinot down there.

Other than that, not too many surprises. Napa Valley dominates the above list, followed by Sonoma County and Santa Barbara County. I think we can safely say that, in terms of sheer numbers, those three areas are where the action is, although a great wine can show up anywhere. I was a little surprised, in a pleasant way, that my top Chardonnay was from Foxen. If you’d asked me, before I looked it up, I wouldn’t have guessed Foxen. Maybe something from Stonestreet, Williams Selyem, Hanzell, Lynmar, but not Foxen. However, in retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised, because when I looked up all my Foxen Chardonnay reviews over the years, the scores run quite high. Still, something magical happened with that 2010 UU Block Chardonnay, and I’m guessing it was the vintage. I’ve tasted about 235 2010 Chardonnays so far, and excluding the cheapies, the scores are impressive, with about 12% scoring 90 or higher . But there are many more 2010 Chardonnays to come in, and they’ll be the better ones, too, because the cheapies were mostly rushed out the door in 2011.

Petite Sirah came onto my radar more than ever in 2011. It’s been there for some years, but more as a blip toward the outer edge than as something large and targeting  the middle. But there it is. Vintners have refined their style to make Petite Sirah less brawny and more elegant, although it will never be sleek or refined–but then, you wouldn’t want Petite Sirah to be, any more than you’d want Jack Black to have a sixpack.

I’m always glad when a dark horse does well. I guess you could say the Foxen was a dark horse. So was the Venge, in Cabernet, the Trione in Sauvignon Blanc, the Envy Petite Sirah and the Sanguis red Rhône. Williams Selyem, Schramsberg and Qupe certainly aren’t dark hoses, and neither is Rutherford Hill for Merlot; hell, they practically invented upscale Merlot back in the 1970s.

It was a good year for tasting, 2011 was. Lots of extraordinary wines at the top end. I expect 2012 to be a good year for tasting, and 2013, too, because 2010 is beginning to look better and better. And 2011? After so much bad press [including some here and on my Facebook page], it may turn out better than anyone thought. These last two years have certainly been the coolest in a long time, which should give us wines of lower alcohol and greater elegance and finesse. I haven’t used the word “finesse” very often over the years. I hope to be able to use it a lot more in the future, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

By the way, unless a critic tastes at least as many wines a year as I do, they can’t credibly pronounce on a vintage. If they do, they’re full of it. All they’re doing is repeating stuff they’ve read and been spoon fed, instead of giving a knowledgeable impression. That’s not journalism, it’s gossip. Worse: water carrying.

  1. Hate to sound like a broken record, but thank you again for the attention on Santa Barbara.

    Are all of these scores published already? Curious about Sanguis Endangered Species as I just polished off a bottle the other night.

  2. The Sanguis got 93 points.

  3. Sangiovese?

  4. No, Sanguis wine!

  5. I find it remarkable (but not surprising) that two of the top varietal wines that you tasted were from Bien Nacido vineyards. I’ve tasted a fair amount of wine from those vineyards over the years and have yet to taste one that I didn’t enjoy. Some are incredible, especially after some proper bottle aging. Think of it — in your sampling of 4800 wines, when you look at the best wines for each varietal, two of them were from BN. I don’t see any other vineyards with multiple placements in your top selections.

    Just goes to show what a good winemaker can do with great fruit from an outstanding area and vintage.

  6. Sherman, I didn’t even realize that until you pointed it out. Thanks.

  7. I meant, how many Sangiovese wines were reviewed?

  8. Love it, and I think you know why…

  9. Zack Seymour says:


    Bravo for paying attention to Santa Barbara, but I still don’t think anyone is giving them their due. As far as Pinot goes, Santa Rita Hills is my second favorite region after Sonoma Coast/Fort Ross-Seaview, which is why Sonoma is the hottest region right now. I’d put them in front of Anderson Valley, Santa Lucia where I’ve yet to have a decent Pinot from anything South of Doctor’s Vineyard (surprising because I’d have guessed Mt Harlan and Chalone to be less hospitable but then again their on limestone) and even RRV (though I do love Green Valley, which I find funny that often isn’t even listed on bottle from vineyards within the sub-AVA. Probably because RRV is a much bigger namer). Chardonnay is amazing. I know Chardonnay is forgiving and top notch Card is found from Santa Rita to Santa Cruz to Sonoma but it is surely above Napa. I’d say this probably is THE place in California for Syrah well ahead of Paso. And the only place to date that can grow Nebbiolo. Really all this stuff is just coming together. Happy Valley and now Ballard Canyon. It’s exciting down there!

    So they can’t do great Cab. We’ve got that covered already.

    I’d put the potential to develop niches for a whole variety well above everywhere except Sonoma, which is really coming into it’s own in the last decade which just happens to coincide with your great book. Really, Santa Ynez is just coming out its Sideways hang over, which hurt it almost as much as it helped it.

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