It’s time to stop totally bashing 2020. For all its warts, there were still bright moments in this year that saw more pain and suffering inflicted on the wine industry than any other since the enactment of Prohibition. We’ve had a pretty good long run since the 21st Amendment passed in 1933…right up until last March.
Though it will long live in infamy for the pandemic, economic collapse, and the seemingly endless fire season that not only scorched Australia and double-torched California, then reached its fiery arm up into Oregon and Washington at harvest time, it pretty much provided a daily excuse to drink the good stuff. Which is exactly what I did.
Here are the top 12 wines that helped me make it through the dumpster fire of the past year, and the stories behind them. To paraphrase a dear friend, Chris Howell, longtime winemaker at Cain Vineyard and Winery, whose winery building, home, and fermenting wine were all lost to the Glass Fire in 2020, “Wine is storytelling. Where there is wine, there will always be stories.”
These are the wines that touched me enough to remember them.
2018 The Hilt Radian Vineyard Chardonnay, Sta Rita Hills
A rapier of acidity, this wine cut across my conscience like a revelation. Wow, chardonnay can be racy, linear, and fruity at the same time. Tasting with winemaker Matt Dees on a Zoom call, looking at the topography of the vineyard, you could clearly taste why the extreme western edge of the Santa Rita Hills region of California has a reputation for delivering “refrigerated sunshine.” The Radian vineyards ridgelines are the steepest of the winery’s holdings, reaching nearly 700 feet at its highest points, where the icy wind off the Pacific beats up the vines daily. The citrusy, crisp saltiness of this wine reminded me of being pelted with freezing San Francisco Bay water as I tried to dock a sailboat in a 40-knot wind. It kinda tastes like revenge, but in a good way.
2019 Assiduous Pinot Noir, Lilo Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
This wine may have the distinction of being my most shared wine of the pandemic. When outdoor dining was happening, a few of my wine gals would get together to support our favorite local wine bar, VinoCruz in Santa Cruz, and share a bottle (or two) of local beverages. Everyone, and I mean everyone, with whom I shared this wine over the course of a few months, fell in love with it. Made by young talent Keegan Mayo, who cut his teeth at Testarossa and is now assistant winemaker at Bargetto (Santa Cruz), it precisely expresses the cool ocean influence of mountain terroir. Bright red fruit—think rhubarb pie—silky tannin, generous savoriness, and amazing depth for such a youthful wine made this a pleasure. Too bad it’s sold out.
2016 Fogarty Winery Walker’s Nebbiolo, Santa Cruz Mountains
This raveworthy wine from the Gist Vineyard on Skyline Blvd in the Santa Cruz Mountains (California) is made by Nathan Kandler in handsome Austrian casks from a producer who’s been crafting them since 1895. With its hue of amber rose and its wild herb and Amaro aromatics, it utterly captured the essence of the autumn day on which I tasted it last October. Speckled apples ripening against an azure sky, sunlight filtering through the changing leaves, the aromas of fall in the crisp air—thoughts of roasting chestnuts and the anticipation of cranberry chutney and stuffing had my mouth watering before I took the first arresting sip. My palate was shocked and awed by its utter intensity and willpower. It has the same effect on everyone: jaw-dropping disbelief that something so translucent in color can pulsate like a lightning strike across your palate. Kandler says, “It’s the most difficult variety to grow I could ever imagine, but I love the challenge and the wine!”
2014 Caraccioli Cellars Brut Rosé, Santa Lucia Highlands
Caraccioli Cellars has to be one of my favorite wine brands in the Monterey (California) area, because it’s a story of the pursuit of perfection. And not just any type of perfection, but to make the ultimate sparkling via méthode traditionnelle.Founded by row-crop growers in 2006, who hired sparkling wine master Michel Salgues, a Frenchman who had previously been head winemaker at Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley. Salgues’ talent guided the Caraccioli family in its quest to make the best sparkling wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands; sadly, he passed away in 2016. Combined with the determination and fortitude of GM Scott Caraccioli, the quest was destined to pay off handsomely. The 2014 Sparkling Brut Rosé was recently named Best US Sparkling Wine at the 2020 Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships (CSWWC). It’s the second time Caraccioli has taken the top prize, and this satin-gloved, fine-beaded Brut Rosé is really something special.
2016 En Garde Touché Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Few winemakers can master the octave ranges of both pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, but Csaba Szakal is a rare talent. The gentle Hungarian, who looks more like a linebacker than a winemaker, crafted this lithe mouthful of wonderment from Napa’s most sought after mountain vineyards, including Diamond Mountain and Mount Veeder. Aging in 80 percent new French oak tamed its generous tannins until they melted like butter. The lush flavors of blackberry preserves and cassis conspire with dark chocolate and Asian five spice to create a taste sensation that may become your favorite mouth memory.
2019 Ram’s Gate Estate Pinot Blanc, Carneros
In 2018, winemaker Joe Nielsen took over at this impressive estate, on the western edge of Carneros, after 10 years at Donelan. He’s thriving in his new environment, and this elegant pinot blanc, 85 percent barrel-fermented in neutral French oak, displays his prodigious talent. Fermenting the balance in stainless preserved the natural acid (put too much wood on pinot blanc and it turns to pinot blecch). Luscious Comice pear and juicy nectarine, along with fresh baked bread, a velvety texture and vibrant acidity, deliver a spirited wine you want to reach for anytime your palate craves something fresh and different. While very appealing now, it will continue to evolve. I expect Nielsen to do the same.
2017 Lineage Wine Company “Lineage,” Livermore Valley
When 6th generation winemaker Steven Mirassou set out to craft the best cabernets he could from the Livermore Valley two and a half decades ago, little did he know where the journey would take him. Ten years in, he decided to create a Bordeaux style blend that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s best red blends. Thus began Lineage. Eleven years later, he pulled accomplished his goal. The 2017 Lineage, made of 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent merlot and 5 percent cabernet franc, is a monumental achievement. Not only did it garner a rare 100-point score from Wine Enthusiast, but it truly is one of those wines that stops you in your tracks. Like a custom-tailored Italian leather jacket, it’s so perfect, you never want to take it off.
2017 Stoller Family Estate Reserve Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Ore.
My deep dive into Oregon for a previous story in Spirited was one of the most refreshing aspects of the summer of 2020. With every example I tasted, it became clear that there’s too much pinot and not enough chardonnay planted in the state of Oregon. That’s slowly changing. We thank winemaker Melissa Burr for taking a minimalist approach that lets chardonnay retain its sometimes cold-hearted personality. Not every wine needs to be melted butter.
2014 Domaine Carneros Jardin d’Hiver, Carneros
After tasting the Domaine Carneros sparkler that won Best of Sunset 2020, (2015 Estate Brut, blue label), it was time to try the wine they had just disgorged for the holidays, the 2014 Jardin d’Hiver. Comprised of 52 percent pinot noir and 48 prercent chardonnay, it’s named for the garden conservatory behind the Chateau. Basically, it’s a dry late disgorged Ultra Brut, a first for Domaine Carneros—but we hope not the last. Richly creamy and soft as down feathers, it is rather like drinking crème fraiche in a hot tub in a snowstorm (the very best of all worlds). The bubbles linger a lot longer than snowflakes, thankfully.
2016 Fogarty Winery Will’s Cabin Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains
Pinot noir, we love you, but we as an industry are swimming in it. There’s more than a modicum of mediocrity in the pool, so when you find one that blows your mind, you don’t soon forget it. When you meet friends that have just tasted the same wine and they can’t wait to tell you about it, you know it’s something pretty dang mind-bending. Lo and behold, this racy, ethereal ballerina truly achieves the feat of dancing on your tongue that award-winning winemaker Tony Craig (Sonnet Cellars) told me was his goal in creating the perfect pinot noir. From the Fogarty family’s Gist Vineyard, which looks out from an elevation of 2,300 feet over the vastness of the Big Basin Park watershed, with a glimmer of the Pacific beyond the last ridge, this is savory—pure strawberry rhubarb and red currant. Not for fans of big fruit bombs: it’s a symphony, not a rock concert.
2017 Talbott Vineyards Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay, Monterey
When Robb Talbott sold the Talbott brand (along with the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard on River Road in Salinas) to E & J Gallo in 2015, some feared change might commodify the iconic brand. Nothing could be further from reality. Gallo has invested mightily and purposefully in this crown jewel, which was planted in 1972 by visionary vineyardist Jerry McFarland, to make it perform to its max. Winemaker Dave Coventry is making Sleepy Hollow Vineyard work harder than ever: no more sleeping in. He has gone the extra mile to coax the most out of each block, buying the perfect barrels to amplify each vineyard voice. This wine blew me away with its combination of tropical decadence, orchard fruit opulence, and baking spice centerline. Chardonnay in this hallowed Hollow is being elevated like never before at this luxury chardonnay house that just happens to make exceptional pinot noir, too.
2019 Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc, St. Helena, Napa
Not at all what you expect from Napa. This is a gut-punch of juicy white grapefruit, lemongrass, and a squeeze of lime. It’s like driving through citrus orchards on an early California spring morning, taking in the perfumey blossoms, spring wildflowers, and abundant grass. Winemaker Laura Díaz Muñoz used concrete egg, new French oak and stainless steel barrel, marking the first time Ehlers has used all three types of vessels on a sauvignon blanc. Combined with sur lieaging, this all adds up to a powerful statement wine, a tour de force.
2011 Kings Mountain Vineyards Pinot Noir, Clone 13, Santa Cruz Mountains
Although I’ve had this wine, which is grown in a one-acre vineyard on a stunning estate in Woodside, many times—along with all its siblings, older and younger—this particular bottle was simply outstanding with our Christmas Day dinner of slow roasted pork shoulder with star anise, thyme, and fennel seed. We had other wines opened which I thought might be fun to pair, but the burst of spice that exploded from this selection made the dish come alive as though it had just been electrified. It was a “drop the fork” moment. We kept coming back to that wine, continuing to be amazed at how each sip wrapped each bite in a fond embrace.
One thing I’ve learned after all these years of writing about wine and food: there is nothing like the culinary communion between the perfect bottle and the perfect dish. It gives you something to strive for every time you start cooking and you begin fantasizing about the perfect bottle to pair. Most of the time, we come pretty close. But when that elusive combo of love at first sip and love at first bite occurs, it’s pure heaven. We could use a lot more of that right now.
Here’s to the fabulous food and wine adventures you’re going to have this year, and the stories they inspire.