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What are California’s greatest vineyards?



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?

  1. Bob Henry says:

    The reputation of Martha’s Vineyard and Joe Heitz’s Cabernets that came from that fabled property trumps all others historically.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    “3. The vineyard . . . must also sell some of its fruit to other wineries.

    “This last rule was a little controversial, I must admit. It excluded vineyards including Harlan’s Estate, or Screaming Eagle. . . .”

    Screaming Eagle sells fruit to other wineries. (Purportedly, Jean Philips used only about 10% of her vineyard to make Screaming Eagle.) Its just that those other wineries sign a NonDisclosure Agreement preventing them from publicizing the source of their fruit.

    Does Harlan ever sell off excess fruit?

    Maybe someone “in the know” will ring in (as the Brits say).

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Take a look at the 1974 Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon:

    Today, some 42 years later, that wine sells for the price of Screaming Eagle.

    Citing the wisdom of “value investing” guru Benjamin Graham:

    “… in the short run, the market is like a voting machine — tallying up which firms are popular and unpopular. But in the long run, the market is like a weighing machine — assessing the substance of a company.”

    [Substitute the word “wine” or “winery” for “company” and the sentiment still rings true.]

    I submit that the marketplace has voted and weighed in favor of Martha’s Vineyard.

    What other wine — other than the 1968 Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet bottling or perhaps 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon — has that reputation and reverence?

    From Wine Spectator (January 31, 1999) cover story titled “Wines of the Century”:

    A powerful Rutherford wine that showed the way
    Rated 100 points * Now [circa 1999] $1,300 * On Release $1.49

    “Beyond Bordeaux, Napa Valley is where Cabernet Sauvignon reaches its greatest heights. The grand old Inglenook property in Rutherford helped establish Napa’s Cabernet credentials in the 1930s and 1940s with an amazing string of rich, dense, age-worthy wines. Inglenook’s grapes were grown in the rich, loamy soils right in front of the handsome stone château that for years was known as the Home Vineyard. The winemakers, John Daniel Jr. and George Deuer, were tough to please, setting high standards and among the few in California who would declassify wines–sell them off in bulk or bottle and sell them at a lower price–that weren’t the best.

    “There are many sites in Napa Valley where Cabernet does well, but surely the Rutherford area is among the most consistent appellations. The soils come from the crumbling hillsides and are deep and well-drained. During the growing season, Cabernet ripens evenly and easily, as the days are warm and long and the nights cool and breezy.

    “The 1941 Inglenook Cabernet did indeed ripen fully–the alcohol level is well above 14 percent. And it never saw the inside of a small oak barrel. Daniel preferred to age his Cabernet in large casks, which allowed the wine to age slower than if it had been kept in smaller vessels. The 1941 is probably 100 percent Cabernet, but no knows for sure, for it was common then for many winemakers to blend in other grapes for color or tannin. In several tastings, this wine has never failed to amaze. It’s dark and enormously concentrated, with a broad range of mature Cabernet flavors, hints of raisin, sage, currant, herb and dried cherry, and a wonderful bouquet that fills the room. An estimated 5,000 cases were produced. –James Laube”

  4. One Vineyard that always perks my interest is Dutton Ranch

  5. Bob Henry, you make a good point. I meant, sell its fruit to other wineries who then bottle the wine with a vineyard designation! I should have made that clear.

  6. Gabe: I hope you are pulling our leg. Dutton Ranch is a bit of a misnomer in that wine labelled Dutton Ranch come from several Dutton-owned locations. While I have high regard for many of those vineyards and for the name, Dutton Ranch, they own seventeen sites and 1300 acres of vines.

    Steve: I appreciate your reasoning that a vineyard has to sell fruit to other wineries in order to prove its chops but, in my humble opinion, to be great, a vineyard only needs to be “great” over a reasonable period of time. While I might question if Martha’s Vineyard is “great” since it has not stayed in the top tier, I would argue that Ridge Monte Bello cannot be excluded from any meaningful list of top vineyards.

    What about Gravelly Meadow, Red Rock Terrace and Volcanic Hill at Diamond Creek in the Diamond Mountain District?

    Still, the question itself is an interesting one and is food for thought. Thanks for asking.

  7. Charlie, of course you’re right to point out that Diamond Creek, Monte Bello etc. be included. However, as a writer, you will appreciate the practical constraints, especially when you’ve had magazine experience, which was my career! So I always have to come up with parameters to limit these lists, in ways that are honest, transparent and defensible.

  8. Charlie,

    I’m a thousand miles away, I don’t know this stuff. That’s what I rely on experts like you for! I was not aware that Dutton Ranch was a mismash of various vineyards, I only knew that I’d had some nice wines from that vineyard designation. Is the same things true about the Durrell Vineyard?

    And I agree with your opinion about the Monte Bello Vineyard. In my opinion (which is obviously based on limited information), that is probably the best vineyard in the country.

  9. Mike Officer says:

    Although I agree with your first criteria, I think it isn’t quite sufficient. Not only does the vineyard have to a long track record of producing great wine, it needs to demonstrate that it produces a superior wine in lesser vintages. This is a mark of grand cru terroir. I would think another criteria is that wines from the vineyard need to command a higher price relative to other vineyards of the same variety and appellation. And speaking of variety, I disagree with the notion that the vineyard has to be Pinot noir, Chardonnay, or Cabernet Sauvignon. One, many vineyards are mixed, like Monte Rosso, a vineyard surely worthy of being in the discussion. And two, in my mind, some of the greatest vineyards in California are based on old-vine Zinfandel. In fact, a large part of why these vineyards have survived is because they have produced a superior wine for decades and decades, some more than 100 years! Think Old Hill, Pagani, Papera, Jackass, Whitton, and others. These are California’s original grand crus!

  10. Thanks, Mike Officer, for chiming in!

  11. I would immediately dismiss any list of great Calif vnyds that did not include MonteBello or was restricted to those varieties.

  12. Bob Henry says:


    Has Heitz in recent decades equaled the heights of the 1960s and 1970s?

    Sadly, no.

    The wines since the vineyard’s replanting aren’t the same.

    Few know that son David Heitz — not Joe — made the 1974 bottling.

    ~~ Bob

  13. Good question!

    Monte Bello and Sanford & Benedict get the top spots for me! I guess Monte Bello is disqualified as estate only (as far as I know, at least), so Sanford & Benedict it is. Those old vine Pinots and Chards can’t be beat!

    Sanford itself, though, I think lost more than a bit of its soul when Richard was forced out.

  14. One of my favorite vineyards is Ritchie in the RR appellation. Goldridge soil , solar aspect and precision farming make this a go to site for the likes of Aubert , Ramey , Dumol , Hobbs , Red Car etc

  15. Pedroncelli Vineyards, in the family for almost 100 years!

  16. I am right there with all of you!
    Thank you Steve Heimoff for your article on CA “greatest vineyards”! The sharing of tractors, information, workers, wines and passions is still strong in Napa Valley. When we moved to St. Helena in 1967 we were welcomed by the families who had lived there for generations. To this day the classiest wineries and wine people are warm, caring people who love the land and love their neighbors… those are the ones who truly have the “Greatest Vineyards” of California!

  17. Tone Kelly says:

    I would propose To-Kalon. It has been in existence since the mid-1800s and was known even then to produce to notch wine. Given the lack of need for irrigation and the consistency of the wine produced (from all the producers) I think it fits your criteria.

  18. Steve,

    Interesting article, I’m not certain if The Three Palms vineyard qualifies as Duckhorn now has 100% control of it but historically it has produced fantastic fruit that has gone to at least two producers. (I went ahead and changed the “must be Cabernet” to Bordeaux Varietal)

    After that I’ve always been a fan of The Morisoli Vineyard.


  19. Perhaps I’m being a little too critical Steve, but “The vineyard must have a long, consistent history of producing great wines.” The vineyard produces grapes, the wine maker makes the wine. I’ve tasted and witnessed incredible fruit coming into the crush pad and neglected, abused, and manipulated to the winemaker’s wishes, not to showcase brilliant vineyard management and top quality fruit.

    Great horses, ALL triple crown winners, have a jockey on their back.

    I think a further discussion and correlation between those “great vineyards” and the winemakers who brought them status is the natural extension to what vineyards are truly great. A family tree of winemakers and their vineyards, tracking that history, the clones selected, the trellis system, the irrigation or lack thereof, and of course what happens after the fruit is picked; that history and those details, that pedigree are important. The devil and greatness is in the details.

    I would also argue, that Zinfandel, specifically old vines of at least 50 years are a California treasure. However, the economics of yield and the retail prices of Zinfandel are difficult to reconcile, unfortunately. Those vines will be pulled because the economics just don’t work.

    On a personal note, Monte Bello, Bacigalupi, and Rafanelli have always held a special place for me.

  20. Marshall Newman says:

    In a sense, we are looking at a moving target, as the planting of new vineyards and the evolution of old ones continue. Are there absolutes? Yes, but only a few. In my mind Monte Bello, Monte Rosso, Eisele, BV #1 and #3, Neibaum, Rafanelli, Rochioli, Dehlinger and Joe Swan’s Pinot Noir block have stood the test of time. Others that might have been included 10 years ago but have fallen for various reasons include Winery Lake, Three Palms and Martha’s Vineyard. There are lots of other possibles – Pisoni comes to mind – but only time will reveal them.

  21. Excellent article Steve…. I would have liked to see both Monte Rosso and Robert young included as they have been around longer than many of those that you mentioned…. Just in my not so humble opinion !

  22. Thank you Mr. Arrowood. Hope you are thriving!

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