This year’s Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood in St. Helena was the 10th anniversary of this annual event. It was my second time attending, and perhaps because I am further along in my career than I was when I first attended two years ago, it felt like a much richer and deeper experience for me this year.
Among the sessions that particularly impacted me were perspectives on photography from Bonjwing Lee, a food blogger and highly successful food photographer. I chatted with Bonjwing at the symposium’s first dinner and during other gatherings, as I wanted to learn as much as I could from him. A riveting talk by Columbia School of Journalism Professor Michael Shapiro will also stay with me for a long time. It included suggestions on methods of inquiry for getting past writer’s block, and enabling one to come from a place of authority and true “need to write” when composing a piece.
There were the usual helpful workshops on pitching pieces to editors, this time from the likes of wine writer David White, C Magazine’s Alison Clare Steingold and Travel & Leisure Senior Editor Jacqueline Gifford. And there were talks and panels that included distinguished wine writers like Eric Asimov, Jay McInerney and Ray Isles. McInerney’s segment, moderated by Ted Loos, was particularly entertaining and memorable.
The session that provoked the most ongoing debate through the succeeding three days of the symposium, however, had to be that of our keynote speaker, Robert M. Parker, Jr. It was also the event’s most newsworthy aspect, containing statements likely to be of interest both to the many who follow Parker as well as to those who find themselves periodically provoked by him. I therefore attempted, speed typist that I am, to take down the core of his remarks verbatim as much as possible.
I did not capture everything Parker said. I thought a couple of questions Parker was asked by fellow symposium attendees were not particularly good—-like “what’s your favorite wine?”—-so I’ve omitted those questions and their not surprisingly unenlightening answers. Below, however, you will pretty much find the gist of Parker’s presentation and most of his answers to our better questions.
I think I speak for everyone on hand when I say we were immensely appreciative to have Parker speak to us. This was his first ever appearance at the symposium. Although he did not stay to take part in the succeeding events, as speakers and faculty members traditionally do, it still meant a lot for him to address us and take some of our questions.
Many of us, like me, were avid readers of Parker when we first got into wine. Parker has obviously had a huge impact on wine criticism and wine education in the 30 years since he came to national and international prominence with his eventually triumphant opinion on the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux.
Parker published widely read books and is responsible for the influential 100-point rating scale, as well as the success of a great many now important wineries, from Bordeaux and the Rhone to Napa and Paso Robles. So for him to share his perspectives and attempt to give some advice to other wine writers was a significant moment.
As you will see from the summary below, he was very forthcoming with his thoughts and opinions. Even though I have issues with several of his statements, I applaud him for accepting the invitation to address us this year, and for being willing to speak before an audience that included many of us who have sharply criticized one or more of his actions or pronouncements in the past.
Parker’s symposium appearance comes at a time when a number of observers have suggested that Parker and The Wine Advocate’s influence has waned in recent years. Some say that’s because there are now many more good sources of information about wine, and because there’s been a shift away from the kind of big, intense, higher alcohol wines that typically receive high scores from Parker.
Ironically, the session that immediately followed Parker’s appearance included empirical data that further evidenced this decline in influence on the part of The Wine Advocate (“TWA”).
That data, presented by John Gillespie of Wine Opinions, was based on surveys last fall of Wine Opinions’ Drinks Opinions panel, individuals statistically chosen to reflect the 30% of U.S. wine buyers who are “high frequency wine drinkers.”
A portion of that data—presented on two out of a few dozen slides Gillespie shared with us, analyzed who had the biggest influence on wine buying decisions by this segment of the market. Gillespie explained that a mean score of six indicated the highest influence; a score of one indicated no influence.
Not surprisingly, the biggest influencers, with a mean rating of six, were buyers’ wine knowledgeable friends. Second most influential were wine shop staff, with a rating of 5.3 As far as major publications, Wine Spectator had the highest mean rating of influence at 4.7. Wine Enthusiast followed with a 4.4 score. A high Parker rating in TWA rated only 4.1. Newspaper wine columnists, several of whom were represented at the symposium, were only a notch below that at 4.0.
Parker referred at length in the comments summarized below to the criticisms and attacks he’s received over the years. I have to note that, unlike other highly influential critics—people like Stephen Tanzer, Jancis Robinson and Allen Meadows—Parker often issues strident, strongly worded and combative statements. Arguably, Parker often has his own intemperate and extreme statements to thank for sparking many of the personal attacks he receives.
During the course of his keynote, Parker called for us wine writers to be more supportive of each other and less negative. Nonetheless, during this hour long session, he made remarks and affirmed recent prior statements that themselves could be read as highly negative and combative.
A final note: Parker’s physical appearance came as a surprise to many of us there. The last time I saw him speak—ten years earlier at a vertical tasting of Chateau Latour in San Francisco—he was well groomed. This time, he had long, unkempt hair and sported a shaggy beard. He walked slowly and hesitantly with the aid of two canes. Obviously he has had a very challenging recovery from extensive back surgery that he referenced at the beginning of his talk below. Nonetheless, one wonders what Asian audiences who are paying substantial fees to attend his talks over the coming month will make of his current wild and wooly appearance.
Synopsis and Excerpts from Parker’s February 19, 2014, Keynote Session
After walking very slowly up to his seat behind the microphone, Parker explained that he now has a “completely rebuilt lumbar spine.” This has taken “lots of metal and rehab,” but he reported that he is now in “no pain.” In fact, Parker claimed, “at 66 years of age, I feel about 20.”
Looking Back to His Beginnings
Parker spoke for about 25 minutes before opening the floor to questions. During these remarks, Parker reminisced that he, “came out of nowhere and a farming background and never dreamed of the success I’ve had.” He stated, “When I retire, I don’t want to see the wine writing profession wither away. There’s a lot of good talent out there.”
He told the familiar story of his dropping out of the University of Maryland to follow his then girlfriend (now wife, who was listening in the audience) to France in 1967-68, since he was afraid she might turn her attentions to a Frenchman.
“I got interested in wine by fortuitous circumstances. I went to France to protect my investment. I went to see her, and she made me drink wine. I wasn’t fond of alcohol. I thought liquor was numbing, and beer was so filling. We drank bistro wines, probably the kind I wouldn’t touch today. For me, the most important part was a nice euphoria that came incrementally. You could talk after drinking it.”
After six weeks in France, Parker returned to school and started a wine group. He bought the classic wine books of the time and started learning.
He told us he was fortunate that where he lived in Maryland was near the national headquarters of Les Amis du Vin. They had great speakers, like Peter Sichel, and he learned a lot.
When Parker was practicing law at a bank, he told us he looked forward to Wednesdays when he would buy The New York Times and Washington Post for the weekly wine columns there.
He found he hated the practice of law. In 1976 he got the idea of starting a wine newsletter. He ultimately launched it in 1978. From the eight-page newsletter he first produced, TWA is now up to 124 pages.
Parker told us, “1978 seems like yesterday to me.” He reminisced that, “Mohammed Ali was still boxing.”
Parker stated there were some very good wine writers back then, but most of them made their living in the wine industry. Parker wanted to take a “consumer-focused, independent approach.”
Parker told us, “I was extremely lucky. I wish you all the success I’ve had. And the climb to the top is what makes it all worthwhile. Once you get there, there’s nothing there.”
Parker reminded us that what brought him to international attention was the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. “It takes that threshold event that separates you from the pack.”
“Robert Finigan, whom I respected enormously, did not like the vintage. Nor did Terry Robards. I was the new guy and there was a real civil war as to who was right—this new guy who comes from nowhere, or these esteemed long time critics. Consumers ended up siding with me and I’ve never looked back. I believe in standing up for what you believe in. I’ll always do that, regardless of the fallout.”
“When I started in 1978, the greatest wine in Spain, Vega Sicilia, wasn’t even imported to the United States. The alleged greatest Australian wine, Penfolds Grange, wasn’t imported to the United States. There were no by-the-glass programs. Sommeliers were intimidating. They had kinky leather aprons with a lot of chains. They looked like they were working in a sex club.”
“The level of education in the wine community, among consumers and professionals, is 20 or 30 times what it was when I started.”
“My philosophy is to live and let live. Even though people accuse me of having a thin skin, I actually have a thick skin, and waistline.”
“Wine to me is something that brings people together. Wine does promote conversation and promote civility, but it’s also fascinating. It’s the greatest subject to study. No matter how much you learn, every vintage is going to come at you with different factors that make you have to think again.”
Advice to Wine Writers
Turning to one of the topics Parker was asked to speak to–suggestions on where opportunities were today for wine writers–Parker noted that the number of magazines and newspapers carrying wine columns had greatly decreased in recent years.
“Streaming, educational video programs that are professional but affordably priced is a great direction. The real growth market is in Asia. And virtual tastings with people.”
Parker told us he was on his way to Asia for a month of lectures, “all of which are sold out.”
“You have to find the right purveyor there,” Parker advised. “Everyone gets a commission. But you make it up in the volume of people looking for wine education there.”
“Women in China are a huge, huge resource. When it comes to wine, for some reason there is no ceiling for women in wine in those countries—positions as buyers and wine directors.”
“When you have a blog, you have to have original content. I may have been the first wine blogger when I was the wine expert for Prodigy. But there’s got to be real content. Not rehashed news or other people’s headlines. It has to be compelling and consumer-oriented. There has to be creativity. People buying this blog need to have a sense that there’s continuity. And you can’t give it away. The idea of giving it away when you have high quality content makes no sense. People will always be willing to pay for high quality content.”
“In the blog world, I see too much negativity and a lot that’s derivative of other sources. You may have to do something with four or five people to make it work and have enough to read.”
“People do still want to read tasting notes. You may disagree, but I think it’s as true today as it was 35 years ago. They don’t have to agree with you, but people want some guidepost, some sign that this is what that guy or woman thinks about the wine.”
“I don’t think it’s easy. We’re in a tough, tough market for new and upcoming businesses, but you can still do it on a shoestring. Video to other countries, with translations, would be a huge success.”
“I don’t think there are enough positive stories. What’s happened in California in the last 25 years is remarkable. I see Chards and Cabs that can rival France’s best. And keep in mind I’m a Francophile–everything I learned about wine I learned in France.”
Closure of World’s Biggest Online Wine Community
I asked about the Fall 2010 shutdown of the world’s largest online wine community by far—the once very active bulletin board on eRobertParker.com, that financial types had estimated attracted an audience that was worth millions. I asked Parker to speak to the thinking that led to the decision to close the board, overnight and without warning, to everyone except TWA subscribers, and to say whether he had any regrets about that decision.
Parker responded that he knew it was the most open and active wine board. He also stated upfront, “No one at The Wine Advocate has any regrets about closing it.”
“When I was Prodigy’s wine expert, I saw a deterioration of communication standards beginning there. There was more and more aggressive stuff and hostile behavior. One person’s handle was ‘Not Fun to Play With.’ The breakdown in civility chased a lot of people away. And sinister, invidious trends started up.”
“My critics would say I didn’t like the criticism of me. But I still get criticized on the bulletin board by Advocate subscribers. There was a thread there recently about how many wines people ‘disagreed with Parker’ on.”
“[Bulletin board editor] Mark Squires kept throwing people off, warning them at first. It just got worse and worse though. [Squires] was turning into a schizophrenic because so many people were complaining.”
“We knew we were going to lose a lot of traffic and endure a lot of criticism. Now, however, the board is much more civil, but traffic there is high quality and people self police.”
“The mistake that was probably made was that I should have policed Mark a little better. I believe in ‘killing them with kindness.’” Parker indicated that, by contrast, Mark, an attorney, metaphorically “took a sledgehammer,” beat people down, and then “poured sulphuric acid over them. That doesn’t engender a lot of friends.”
Parker noted that Stephen Tanzer’s and Jancis Robinson’s boards are likewise closed [they were never publicly open to non-subscribers] “but they don’t get the same criticism.”
“Do I miss some of those high test posts that were on the edge? Yes, I do sort of.” But the eRobertParker.com policy of a bulletin board closed to non-subscribers is “not going to change. But then, who knows? I’m not the majority owner anymore.”
Defining Personal Success
Parker was asked, “What does success at this point mean to you?”
Parker explained that TWA “went through a transitionary stage with staff where there were some scandals.” Those scandals were “damaging and embarrassing and I was certainly at fault for not watching as carefully as I should have.”
“Now there are strict rules. Our writers are no longer independent contractors. And we’re not done hiring.”
“I think The Wine Advocate is as brilliant as it’s ever been. No one covers more wines under $25. We have a great team now and I’m excited about it. 2011-2012 were troublesome years. The appearance of doing something wrong is just as bad as the reality, and our writer in Spain, although he didn’t do anything seriously wrong, surely wasn’t careful.”
Success for Parker today, he continued, was “enjoying the new team we have.” Parker claimed, “I think we have some real superstars. You’ll see it two and three years from now.”
“I continue to cover the north coast of California, and Bordeaux, which is in a major, major bad patch right now. When some vintages came along, they should have dropped their prices. Napa and Sonoma, and bands of areas in Paso Robles are making great wine.”
“In my career I’ve been able to cross lines that haven’t existed before. I’ve received awards from kings and presidents that were unprecedented. I don’t want to be the last one to get those awards.”
“I want to leave some kind of legacy in Asia. I started going there in 1998. In China, although the government is a dictatorship, there is robust capitalism. The people there are great students and fast learners. They’re too respectful to challenge you on anything, but they’re learning. They’ve read all the books. And each year we see progress in Chinese wine. Last year we actually had an 85 pointer, didn’t we Lisa?”
Parker was directing that question to TWA Editor-in-Chief Lisa Perrotti-Brown, who was also scheduled as a speaker at the symposium, and who was sitting in the audience along with TWA correspondent Jeb Dunnuck.
“You can’t just say you’re going to be successful. You have to earn it and it’s hard work. You can’t do that and have an idyllic life. In the early days I was traveling three or four months a year. After tasting all day, you end up alone in a room, popping an Ambien to sleep. The next day it starts all over again. I missed a lot of my daughter’s growing up years.”
“My wife suggested that all the things that were written that were false and malicious about me be flashed up on the wall while I am talking. But I was getting criticism even before I was terribly well known. Criticism about the 100 point system. I’ve been told I’m the person people love to hate until they meet me.”
“The press has exaggerated my power and tried to pigeonhole my taste. They attributed power to me to make or break a winery, which I’ve never been able to do.”
“Virtually every one of those hateful things that have been written about me, they don’t bother me. I wish it didn’t happen but it does. You just let it slough off your back.”
“The wine world is so big. Yes, there are styles of wines I don’t like. Orange wine, natural wines and low alcohol wines. Truth is on my side and history will prove I am right.”
“I don’t think people making or drinking these wines should have a brain transplant. As a consumer advocate you are required, expected to state your opinion. Do I sometimes overdo it? Do I sometimes get carried away? Yes. Sure.”
“People who’ve written nasty things, people that fire back, I can’t get angry at them because I know it’s coming from passion.”
“As I look around the room now, I see a tiny number of people here that I have met. That’s sad. I am out in the boondocks, and I’m alone a lot while I’m traveling. Early on people told me I should move to New York or San Francisco if I wanted to cover wine. But I wanted to look at things through clear glasses and not live in a bubble.”
“2003 Pavie was a very controversial call. Jancis, for whom I have a lot of respect, said it was akin to late harvest Zin and basically undrinkable. Clive Coates, for whom I don’t have the same respect, said ‘Parker needs a brain transplant.’”
Parker then mentioned a recent charity event for the U.S. Seal Foundation, supporting Navy Seals, for which he provided Bordeaux from his cellar for a “master class,” and where the 2003 Pavie was poured. “Three quarters of the people there loved the wine. I was having problems with it though. The gritty tannins seemed to me to be excessive. It is a vintage that’s evolving very fast. I kept those problems to myself though, until today.”
Another attendee asked, “What is a Parkerized wine?”
Parker responded, “In the 1960s in Bordeaux, Emile Peynaud was very influential. Some of his critics started using the term Peynaudization. People said all the wines were tasting alike. I think Parkerization is a derivative of that. The people who use that term don’t read The Wine Advocate. It’s a gross simplification, an effort to pigeonhole my taste. People who know me are shocked by what they read, by what I’m supposed to drink.”
“I do believe flavor intensity is critical, and I look at what the wine is going to be. You need some power, some richness, some intensity. Otherwise, the wine will fall apart because there’s nothing there. And I am looking for wines that will be better in five to ten years than they are today. Some of the thin, feminine, elegant wines being praised today will fall apart. You can’t expect soft, shallow wine to get any better. You need some intensity.”
As an example of what he was talking about, Parker referred to recently drinking [at Press Restaurant two nights previously] “a last bottle of 1969 Chappellet. Philip Togni, the winemaker, said it was the greatest wine he ever made. Jay Miller found it on auction and bought four cases at $35 a bottle. The wine is brilliant, powerful and rich, with lots of nuances. It could go another 45 years.”
“I remember talking to Gerard Chave about the ’03. There was no acidity in it. The pH was over 4. He explained that it was just like his father said the ’29 was, that it had so much fruit and dry extract it would survive on that. “
‘Natural’ and Low Alcohol Wine
San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonné asked a lengthy question involving Parker’s recent screed against “natural” and low alcohol wines, those who produce them and writers who champion them, that appeared on Parker’s website in January. Among other things, Parker referred there to an “anti-California, anti-New World movement by Eurocentric, self-proclaimed purists.” Concluding his question, Jon asked, “Under the philosophy of live and live, why not allow more diversity?”
Parker said he agreed with what Jon said, “even though the passage you read is a call to arms. I think it’s a mistake to have a formula to pick grapes at lower brix just so you can have low alcohol and then slam the word ‘elegant’ on it. You just have a wine with low alcohol.”
Parker referred to Steve Kistler’s new project, Occidental, “where he is able to get exceptional flavor concentration in his Pinot Noirs at 12.5 and 13%, due to the microclimate and viticulture.”
“I’ve never used alcohol as a criteria. It’s just not that important to me. Most of the labels lie anyway.”
“I am going to flunk a wine if it doesn’t have the requisite concentration of flavor. If you’re just picking under ripe fruit.”
“I had this argument with Adam Tolmach at Ojai. I used to visit there every year. One year he brought out a Chard that had no flavor and was too high in acidity. He said he was going to do this in the future. I just don’t think people making those wines should trash those that are big and alcoholic.”
“I wrote that column to encourage conversation on this subject. I think there are terroirs in California where you can get the concentration and flavor. If it isn’t ripe, you don’t get expression of grapes or the terroir or the vintage.”
“Excessive manipulation includes picking too soon, or too late. Or following a rigid non-intervention philosophy.”
“When I first started, there was too much fining and microfilters going on. I don’t know any quality producers that use megapurple and enzymes. If they do it, they’re doing it really well.”
“And I never talk about having a vineyard with my brother-in-law [Beaux Freres in Oregon’s Willamette Valley]. That vineyard in most vintages has sulfur levels that are sometimes so low we could have put no sulfur on the label. It is biodynamically farmed, which I am not in full agreement with, and I don’t allow him to put it on the label. We don’t fine or filter, and I think the wine is fairly delicate. Only two or three vintages have had alcohol over 15%. But I think the very best was the 1994, which came in at 15.5%.
“I would like to see more civility. If I had one hope, it’s that we stick together a little better than we’re doing and move forward together as wine lovers. And if you’ve got something that you really disagree with me on, or have a question, pick up the phone and call me. I’m not going to bite anyone.”
The (410) area code telephone number for TWA’s office was then given out.
Parker concluded by saying he would like to come back, and to do a tasting with us.
Again, I applaud Parker for coming to face a room full of fellow wine writers, including many of us who had written attacks on various things he has said or written in the past.
I am sure Parker meant well with his comment that he hoped “the wine writing profession” doesn’t “wither away” on his retirement, but it hit me as one of the single most arrogant statements I have ever heard him say. I think it’s safe to say that wine writing is more varied, robust and informed than it has ever been. It is in no danger of “withering away” when Parker hangs up his quill.
Parker’s suggestions as to current opportunities for writers struck me as surprisingly narrow and uninspired. Wine education videos for Asia? There are already people doing that, including people who actually speak Asian languages who are quite expert in wine. I have met some of China’s own wine experts and journalists on press trips and they are very knowledgeable and possess impressive credentials. And TWA is obviously now focused on providing wine education to Asia. I hardly see that as a growth area for the average Western wine writer.
Parker’s assertion that “truth is on my side” and “history will prove me right” sounded disturbingly Nixonian, or Dick Cheney-esque, to me. In my view, such arrogant and empty assertions are hardly valid, useful or reasoned arguments in support of his position.
As to Parker’s continued diatribe against orange, “natural” and low alcohol wines, I could go on at length, and some of my esteemed wine writer colleagues already have (e.g., Alder Yarrow and Eric Asimov). In sum, though, for Parker to follow his broad over generalizations and unfair blasts at producers and writers with a call for greater collegiality on the part of wine writers struck me as more than a little disingenuous. If that’s what Parker wants to see on the part of the wine writing community, I think he needs to learn to practice a little more thoughtful moderation of his own comments.
Next up on our tour of Santa Barbara County appellations is its newest AVA—Ballard Canyon. The aromatic, flavorful, structured Syrahs from this small area southwest of Los Olivos invite comparisons to wines of France’s Northern Rhone. The aromatics, firm tannins and good balancing acidities particularly remind me of the wines of Rhone’s tiny Cornas appellation.
Wines labeled Ballard Canyon AVA are just starting to hit the market. Lovers of cooler climate Syrahs and other Rhone varieties should be on the lookout for great wines from the likes of Beckmen, Jonata, Larner, Rusack, Stolpman and others.
Ballard Canyon AVA was officially approved by the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) on October 1, 2013. It is relatively tiny, only 7,800 acres in total. Its boundaries amount to an elongated oval sitting virtually in the center of the 30-mile-long Santa Ynez AVA. Solvang lies about a mile to the south. It becomes the third sub-appellation of the Santa Ynez AVA.
Ballard Canyon starts several miles to the east of the subject of my first Santa Barbara appellation report here, Sta. Rita Hills. The north-south orientation of the hills that frame this canyon protect it from the fierce wind that pours through the Santa Rita Hills. During the growing season, lighter winds from the west push back the morning fog layer, and significant breezes pick up typically around 1:30 in the afternoon. This greatly moderates the effect of the mid-summer heat in this area. It is therefore a milder climate than that found further to the east in the third sub-appellation of Santa Ynez AVA, the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. Potential hang time here is very long, much like Sta. Rita Hills.
The soils are a mix of sand and clay loam with excellent drainage. In some areas, especially under Jonata’s vineyards, sand predominates. There are also limestone subsoils in the middle of the appellation that are very unusual for California.
Slightly more than half of the AVA’s 561 acres of vineyard are planted to Syrah. It was this grape, and the aromatic, concentrated but balanced nature of it coming from this particular area that was the subject of a 2010 visit here organized by the Sommelier Journal. Planning for this event, which began in 2009, brought the vintners of Ballard Canyon together for the first time.
As they met and worked to coordinate the event, the growers and producers here learned that many of them had been thinking about creating an AVA for the area. The hugely positive reaction to the 2009 Syrahs poured at the 2010 event on the part of the visiting sommeliers galvanized that thinking. Michael Larner spearheaded the effort to keep them talking and to bring in Wes Hagen, the successful draftsman of both the Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVAs, to meet with them.
Work then proceeded to map appropriate boundaries. With the support of all the area’s growers, the AVA application was filed with the TTB in 2011.
I was fortunate to receive a tour of the AVA from Michael on my last visit to Santa Barbara in December last year, followed by a day of comparative tastings of Ballard Canyon wines Michael organized for me. I had also been on hand for a celebration of the AVA the preceding month at Rusack Vineyards, where I spoke with Michael, Wes and others involved in the effort to create the appellation.
In all, I was able to taste over three dozen wines based on Ballard Canyon fruit over the past year. My complete tasting notes and ratings for those wines appear below.
There are 18 vintners and winegrowers based in Ballard Canyon. Of those, the largest and most significant producers are Beckmen, Jonata, Rusack and Stolpman. Harrison Clarke, Larner, Saarloos and Tierra Alta are also major vineyards that supply a number of winemakers, and the first three of those also produce a small amount of their own wine.
The area’s first vines were planted in 1974 at Gene Hallock’s Ballard Canyon Winery. Geoffrey Rusack, an aviation lawyer, and his wife Alison Wrigley Rusack, a Disney exec and descendant of the Wrigley chewing gum family, purchased this property in 1992. The 17-acre estate vineyard here is planted primarily to Syrah and Sangiovese, with smaller blocks of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Petite Sirah. They also grow one-half acre each of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot, with meter by meter spacing, for their Bordeaux blend called Anacapa.
The vineyard was substantially replanted in 2002-2003 with realigned rows, following the contours of the land and running 11 degrees off from a north-south direction, to allow for balanced sun exposure on both sides of the canopy. The Rusacks also own most of the remaining plantable area in Ballard Canyon.
Tom Stolpman, a Long Beach based trial lawyer, bought 220 acres here with his wife Marilyn in 1990. They had been looking for limestone based soils in a cooler climate. They began planting in 1992, putting in a wide variety of grapes. Over several years, they got to see which varieties excelled. Bordeaux varieties did less well than Sangiovese, Syrah and other Rhone varieties.
They originally sold all their fruit to the likes of Sine Qua Non and The Ojai Vineyards. In 2001 Sashi Moorman came on board as winemaker, working with vineyard manager Ruben Solorzano. Tom and Marilyn’s son Peter now manages the operation, which currently uses 90% of the estate fruit for the Stolpman label. The 152 planted acres are largely dry farmed, and predominantly planted (92.4 acres) to Syrah. There is also substantial acreage growing Sangiovese, Roussanne and Grenache.
Beckmen Vineyards purchased 365 acres in 1996 and began planting what is now the Purisima Mountain Vineyard. The elevation here ranges from 750 to 1250 feet. Steve Beckmen and his father Tom have farmed this vineyard biodynamically since 2006, receiving certification in 2008. It consists of 37 sub-blocks, 18 of which are planted to eight different clones of Syrah. Another eight blocks contain five different clones of Grenache. There are also smaller plantings of Mourvèdre, Counoise, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The assistant winemaker here is Mikael Sigouin, who also has his own Grenache-focused label, Kaena, working mainly with Ballard Canyon fruit.
The Larners purchased their 134-acre ranch at the southern end of what is now the Ballard Canyon AVA in 1997. Stevan Larner was a Hollywood cinematographer who got interested in wine early in his career when he worked in France on a government documentary on Algerian vineyards. Stevan’s son Michael explains that there was nothing but sage, chaparral and Texas Longhorn cattle here when they put in irrigation in 1998 and planted, starting in 1999. The 34-acre vineyard contains 23 acres of Syrah including seven different combinations of clones and rootstocks. They also have six acres of Grenache, and much smaller amounts of Viognier, Mourvèdre and Malvasia Blanca. Michael tells me they plan to put in an additional 34 acres.
After selling all their fruit to a number of different producers for several years, the Larners began making a small amount of their own wine starting with the 2009 vintage. Michael, who is the winemaker, was a geologist who received his masters in viticulture from U.C. Davis in 2005. His sister Monica Larner lives in Rome where she is the Italian reviewer for the Wine Advocate.
Jonata arrived here in 2001, when Santa Barbara-based money manager Charles Banks and his business partner, Stanley Kroenke, a real estate developer and owner of the Denver Nuggets basketball and Colorado Avalanche hockey teams, purchased 586 acres and began planting the first of what is now 84 vineyard acres on predominantly sandy soils. They planted Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc. Banks reportedly left the partnership in 2009. The winemaker is the very talented Matt Dees, who studied geology before learning winemaking at Staglin Family Vineyard in Napa and Craggy Range in New Zealand. Matt and vineyard manager Ruben Solorzano are also partners in the Goodland Wines project I profiled here.
Now that the AVA has been approved, Ballard Canyon will start appearing on wine labels. The Stolpmans began bottling wines with the AVA designation in January this year, and four of those, including their 2013 Sauvignon Blanc and 2012 Roussane, are on the market now. Their 2011 Petite Sirah and 2012 Grenache will be released April 1.
The Rusacks expect to release their first AVA labeled bottling, a 2012 Zinfandel, this April. They plan to use the designation on their Syrahs starting with the 2013 vintage, which will likely be released in Spring 2015. Jonata plans to use the AVA designation starting with its 2012 vintage wines. And Beckmen will release seven wines with the AVA on the label this year, including two 2012 Syrahs in the new Ballard Canyon embossed appellation bottle.
Estate producers here have designed a special bottle, what they are calling a “cartouche,” inspired by what’s used in some European appellations, like the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape raised seal with papal emblems and the appellation-designated bottles of Savenierres and Piedmont. The Oregon Yamhill-Carlton appellation similarly introduced an AVA bottling with raised lettering in November last year.
Ballard Canyon’s special bottle may only be used for Syrah made from estate grown AVA fruit. Contrary to some misinformation that appeared in the press last year, there is no pricing requirement on wines sold in this special bottle. The bottles have been ordered and are supposed to be available for bottling in August.
Below are my notes on 38 wines made exclusively from Ballard Canyon fruit. In addition to powerful, balanced and flavorful Syrahs, there are some terrific white wines and Grenaches listed below, as well as Jonata’s rich and complex Bordeaux blends. In the future, all or most of these will carry the Ballard Canyon AVA on their label.
Currently, the only Ballard Canyon tasting room that is open daily to the public is the Rusack Vineyard visitor center at 1819 Ballard Canyon Road. The Larners are working to get the building on their property that used to be a general store restored and licensed as a tasting room. Their current tasting room is on Los Olivos’s tasting room row, along with the Stolpman tasting room and those of Kaena and Tercero whose wines are listed below. Beckmen’s tasting room is at the winery located south of town in Los Olivos.
- 2012 Beckmen Vineyards Viognier Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Light lemon yellow color with clarity; aromatic, floral, tart pear, honeysuckle nose; tasty, poised, ripe pear, crisp, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol; from own rooted, very low yielding vines) 92 points
- 2011 Beckmen Vineyards Grenache Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Medium ruby color; tart cherry, light herb, tart berry, light tar nose; delicious, juicy, bright red fruit, ripe cherry, ripe raspberry, pomegranate palate; ready now and should go 5 years; medium-plus finish (80% Grenache, 20% Syrah; 14.9% alcohol) 92+ points
- 2011 Beckmen Vineyards Syrah Clone #1 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Medium ruby color; appealing, tar, roasted black fruit, roasted coffee nose; rich, tasty, medium-plus bodied, roast coffee, roasted black fruit palate with firm, sweet tannins; good now but could benefit from 2-3 years of age; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol; about 50% new French oak) 91+ points
- 2011 Beckmen Vineyards Syrah Estate Santa Ynez Valley
Very dark purple red violet color; lifted, appealing, vivid, black berry, ripe black cherry, baked black cherry, blackberry nose; rich, tight, ripe berry, tart berry, baked berry, blackberry palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (14.3% alcohol; no whole cluster; 14-16 months in 33% new French oak) 93 points
- 2010 Beckmen Vineyards Syrah Block Six Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Medium dark ruby color; aromatic, baked berry, ripe cherry, tar, tart berry nose; tasty, tight, juicy, medium bodied, ripe berry, tar, espresso, ripe cherry palate; needs 3-plus years; long finish (14.8% alcohol; block six is at the top of the vineyard, between 1100-1200 feet in elevation, planted to Estrella, 383 and 174 clones) 91+ points
- 2008 Beckmen Vineyards Purisima Red Wine Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Medium dark ruby color; appealing, aromatic, ripe cherry, baked cherry, black raspberry, violet nose; delicious, rich, crushed raspberry, black cherry, ripe berry palate; long finish (55% Grenache, 45% Syrah) 92+ points
- 2011 Goodland Wines Syrah Ballard Canyon
Pre-release (Fall 2013 release): Opaque purple red violet color; evocative, aromatic, roasted plum, tart black fruit, wild berries, tart blackberry nose; rich, complex, powerful, roasted plum, light pepper, roasted fig palate with light salinity and good acidity; needs 2-plus years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (97% Syrah, Estrella clone; 3% Viognier; 8% whole cluster; 14.7% alcohol) 94 points
- 2010 Jonata Winery Flor Santa Ynez Valley
Light yellow color; aromatic, smoky, green almond, olive oil, ripe lime nose; rich, tasty, medium bodied, creamy textured, mineral, ripe lime, almond oil, green almond palate; medium-plus finish (70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Semillon, co-fermented; 15.2% alcohol; pH 3.3; TA 6.5; 1/3 new oak, 1/3 neutral, 1/3 stainless steel) 91+ points
- 2009 Jonata Winery El Desafio de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley
Opaque black-tinged red violet color; tar, tart black fruit, roasted black fruit, lead pencil nose; rich, tight, tart black fruit, tar, pencil lead, espresso palate with firm tannins; needs 4-5 years; long finish (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot; racked once off gross lees at 18 months and then for bottling at 24 months) 94+ points
- 2008 Jonata Winery El Alma de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley
Opaque purple red violet color; aromatic, smoky, intense, red currant, tar, black fruit nose; tasty, intense, medium bodied, rich, tar, tart black fruit, tart blackberry palate with sweet firm tannins; medium-plus finish (75% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot) 94 points
- 2007 Jonata Winery Fenix Santa Ynez Valley
Opaque purple red violet color; baked black fruit, black currant, baked berry nose; tasty, tight yet, ripe black currant, tart berry palate with firm, sweet tannins and medium acidity; needs 2-3 years; long finish (84% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6 % Petit Verdot, all co-fermented; only made three times as the Merlot rarely gets ripe enough; next vintage will be 2012) 93 points
- 2005 Jonata Winery El Alma de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley
Opaque purple red violet color; rich, ripe black fruit, ripe blackberry, nutmeg, baking spice nose; a little tight yet, rich, ripe blackberry, black fruit, mulberry, tar, mulberry syrup palate; long finish (93% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot; 14.9% alcohol) 94 points
- 2010 Jorian Hill Viognier Santa Barbara County
Light green-tinged yellow color; wax, baked green apple, pear candle nose; ripe pear, baked apple palate; medium finish 88 points
- 2008 Jorian Hill BEEspoke Santa Ynez Valley
Very dark purple red violet color; light VA, baked berry, ripe black chery nose; fresh, rich, ripe black cherry, black raspberry, bake cherry, baked berry palate; medium-plus finish (60% Syrah, 40% Grenache; 14.5% alcohol) 89 points
- 2012 Kaena Sauvignon Blanc Ballard Canyon
Light yellow color; aromatic, lemon grass, tart gooseberry nose; lemon grass, tart gooseberry, smoke palate; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol) 91+ points
- 2011 Kaena Grenache Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Medium ruby color; tar, roasted red fruit nose; rich, ripe red fruit, cherry, maraschino cherry, ripe berry, tar, black cherry, spice palate; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (15.1% alcohol; clone 362 from south facing vineyard on pure sand) 92 points
- 2011 Kaena Grenache Tierra Alta Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; reduction, tar, dried berry nose; rich, juicy, ripe cherry, Grenadine syrup, raspberry syrup, baked raspberry palate with near medium acidity; ready now but could use 1-plus year; medium-plus finish (15.1% alcohol; 1/3 whole cluster) 91+ points
- 2010 Kaena Grenache Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Dark ruby color; baked berry, charcoal, clove nose; tasty, rich, baked berry, clove, charcoal, tart berry, black cherry palate; medium-plus finish (15.2% alcohol) 93+ points
- 2010 Kaena Hapa Santa Ynez Valley
Medium dark ruby color; smoke, dried black fruit, tar, coffee nose; tar, roast coffee, currant, ripe black fruit palate; medium-plus finish (50% Syrah, 38% Grenache, 12% Mourvedre; 15.3% alcohol) 90 points
- 2011 Larner Grenache Rosé Santa Ynez Valley
Medium pink color with pale meniscus; appealing, tart cherry candy, tart berry, light cinnamon, dried cherry, almond nose; tasty, angular, tart red berry, juniper berry, mineral, dried thyme palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.6% alcohol) 91 points
- 2011 Larner Malvasia Bianca Larner Santa Ynez Valley
Light green-tinged yellow color; appealing, aromatic, fresh, ripe grapefruit, lime aid, freesia, orange blossom, chalk nose; angular, very tart lime, mineral, chalk, saline palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (12.1% alcohol) 88+ points
- 2011 Larner Vineyard Viognier Estate Ynez Valley
Light medium lemon yellow color; vanilla, pear, light sweet butter, cream nose; buoyant, light-medium bodied, juicy, ripe pear, ripe lemon, mineral palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; 1/3 new oak, 1/3 neutral, 1/3 stainless steel) 89 points
- 2009 Larner Vineyard Grenache Estate Santa Ynez Valley
Saturated, very dark ruby color; appealing, focused, ripe berry, black cherry, dried berry, tar, black raspberry nose; tasty, near medium bodied, tight, tart berry, smoke, baked berry, black cherry, dried berry palate with sweet tannins and medium acidity; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points
- 2010 Larner Syrah Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Pre-release (April/May ’14 release) – opaque black red violet color; tart berry, roasted berry, tar, licorice, blackberry syrup nose; tasty, rich, juicy, tight, ripe blackberry, tart berry, spice palate with fine, firm, sweet tannins; long finish 93 points
- 2009 Larner Syrah Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Dark purple red violet color; reduction, tart berry, dried berry, espresso, dark chocolate nose; rich, tasty, juicy, medium bodied, tight, tart berry, black cherry, light violets, blackberry palate with near medium acidity; needs 3-4 years; long finish (15.2% alcohol; 6 clones; 24 months in 25% new French oak) 92+ points
- 2009 Larner Syrah Reserve Santa Ynez Valley
Saturated very dark red violet color; appealing, baked berry, black cherry, baking spice, licorice nose; tight, roasted black fruit, smoke, licorice, black cherry, baked berry palate with sweet tannins; needs 4 -plus years; medium-plus finish (14.9% alcohol; 3 clones; 30% whole cluster; 24 months in 50% new French oak) 91+ points
- 2010 Larner Vineyard Elemental Santa Barbara County
Opaque black purple red violet color; focused, red berry, reduction, tart berry nose; juicy, tasty,medium bodied, rich but balanced, ripe berry, blackberry, black cherry palate with sweet, chalky tannins; medium-plus finish (55% Grenache, 35% Syrah & Mourvedre) 92+ points
- 2009 Larner Vineyard Elemental Santa Barbara County
Medium dark ruby color; roasted black fruit, reduction, tar, espresso nose; tight, tar, tart berry, light pepper, mineral palate with firm, chalky tannins and medium acidity; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (65% Grenache, 23% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre; 14.9% alcohol) 91 points
- 2010 Larner Vineyard Mourvedre Estate Santa Ynez Valley
dark ruby color; ripe black cherry, blackberry, blackberry liqueur nose; tasty, tight, ripe black cherry, ripe raspberry, baked black cherry, violets, charcoal palate with firm tannins and medium acidity; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 2 years in oak, 50% neutral and 50% 2nd year) 92 points
- 2000 Ojai Syrah Stolpman Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Very dark red violet color; aromatic, black pepper, tar, charcoal nose; tasty, maturing, medium bodied, tart black cherry, black raspberry, tar palate with a vein of black pepper and medium acidity; long finish 93 points
- 2011 Rusack Sangiovese Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
Dark ruby color; aromatic, ripe cherry, black cherry, black raspberry nose; tight, tasty, tart black cherry, black raspberry, cherry palate with balance; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish 91 points
- 2011 Rusack Syrah Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
Very dark ruby color; tart plum, roasted black fruit tart berry, light lavender, cherry nose; tasty, concentrated, tart cherry, black cherry, roasted berry palate; medium-plus finish (good value at about $25; with 9% Petite Sirah; 2% American oak) 91 points
- 2011 Rusack Syrah Reserve Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
Very dark ruby color; tart black cherry, ripe black raspberry nose; tight, tasty, black cherry, black raspberry, roasted black fruit palate; needs 4 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points
- 2010 Rusack Sangiovese Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
Very dark ruby color; tart dried berry, charcoal nose; smoky oak, roasted tart black fruit, tart red berry palate with medium acidity; could use 2-3 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 20% new oak) 89 points
- 2010 Rusack Syrah Reserve Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County
Very dark ruby color; green peppercorn, roasted plum nose; tasty, rich, dense, complex, tart plum, charcoal palate showing salinity and good acidity; medium-plus finish 92 points
- 2010 Stolpman Syrah Originals Santa Ynez
Opaque ruby color; lifted, aromatic, pepper, roasted plum, tar, tart red currant nose; tasty, pepper, tart roasted red fruit, raspberry puree palate; could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (14.1% alcohol) 93+ points
- 2009 Tercero Cuvée Loco Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Black tinged dark raspberry red color; reduction, light pepper, tart berry nose; tasty, complex, tart berry, violets, tar palate with medium acidity and firm, drying tannins; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish (75% Grenache, 25% Syrah; 42 months in neutral oak) 91 points
- 2009 Tercero Grenache Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Black tinged dark raspberry red color; lifted, tart red berry, dried cranberry nose; tight, tasty, ripe red berry, tart berry, dried berry, licorice palate with depth and medium acidity; firm, somewhat gritty tannins; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (75% whole cluster, neutral oak for 30 months) 90+ points
- 2009 Tercero Syrah Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley
Very dark purple red violet color with bright red meniscus; dried berry, black cherry, baked blackberry, berry compote nose; tasty, medium bodied, ripe berry, tart blackberry, violets, dried berry, black cherry palate; with nice acidity; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (5% Viognier co-fermented; no whole cluster; 14.4% alcohol; 42 months in neutral French oak) 91+ points
Wine consumers in the U.S. have a problem. Our government is one of the few in the world that takes no action to protect consumers from being misled by erroneous wine labeling that suggests a wine made in the U.S. is actually from one of the world’s special winemaking areas that have a long tradition, particular soils and climates, and strict rules on what can be bottled and sold as wine from that region.
I’m talking about outmoded and highly misleading laws and treaty provisions in the U.S. by which wineries here that happen to have misused terms like “Port,” “Sherry,” “Champagne” and 13 other place of origin names on their labels at any time prior to 2006 are allowed to keep doing so on a “grandfathered” basis.
Although consumers should rightly expect potatoes labeled as being from Idaho to actually be from that state and that a “Napa Cabernet” started out as grapes grown in Napa, many don’t realize they are being seriously misled as to the origin of certain wine products.
Wine not actually produced in France’s Champagne region is prohibited from being sold with that designation in over 100 countries of the world. The only major countries that currently permit this kind of labeling are Russia, Vietnam, Argentina and the U.S.
The biggest abusers of this giant anti-consumer loophole are a handful of big producers of sparkling wine misleadingly labeled “Champagne.”
When crates of sparkling wines mislabeled as “Champagne” accidentally show up in other parts of the world, which does periodically happen, they are seized by authorities and destroyed. Here in the U.S., however, sparkling winemaking giant Korbel–the country’s 12th largest wine producer at 2.4 million cases per year—uses “Champagne” in the name of its brand, Korbel Champagne Cellars, and in all of its marketing. Its website even has a lengthy story purporting to describe the “History of American Champagne.”
Cook’s and Tott’s are the two other major labels that advertise themselves as “Champagne,” with “California” appearing in much smaller letters, providing minimal adherence to the U.S. legal requirement that those who continue to use a grandfathered wine name also indicate the actual place of origin somewhere on the label.
And it’s not only consumers who are misled. One even finds people writing about wine who mistakenly refer to products that never came near France as “Champagne.” For example, a piece in Huffington Post last December made that error in its headline, purporting to recommend “The Best Champagnes under $11.” Not a single wine included in that post was actually a Champagne.
Besides the fact that none of these ersatz “Champagnes” allowed in the U.S. are actually from Champagne, and therefore follow none of the strict rules laid down for that region, they bear no resemblance to the real thing. They are typically not made with the grape varieties required for real Champagne (i.e., Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). And most are not made by “méthode champenoise” or “méthode traditionelle,” the process of inducing a secondary fermentation in bottle, including lengthy aging of the wine on the spent yeast cells, or “lees,” used for finer sparklers.
Bubblies of this caliber rely on a much cheaper process created for industrialized production levels called “charmat.” This process uses pressurized steel tanks that induce a rapid secondary fermentation after a sugar and yeast mixture is added. The product is then cooled, clarified and bottled, ready for sale. Some cheap sparklers are even made by simply injecting carbonation, just like soft drinks.
There are, of course, very good sparkling wines from other areas of the world. Some sparkling appellations, like Spain’s Cava, and Prosecco and Franciacorta in Italy, also have rules about what kinds of grapes can be used, how long they need to be aged and the like. These kinds of standards help to promote quality and ensure that consumers are receiving a product actually made in those regions according to those rules.
We have some excellent domestic sparkling wines too. My recommendations on best buys among domestic sparklers currently on the market appear below.
What all the top domestic sparkling wines have in common is that they are not misleading about where they are made. The ones on the market that abuse the loophole and prominently display the word “Champagne” on their labels, websites and retail store signage are the ones you should avoid. Not only are they committing a fraud on unsuspecting consumers; the wine inside also tends to be of inferior quality to accurately labeled domestic sparklers on the market.
The fact is, sparkling wine as a category has experienced a significantly greater increase in U.S. sales than other wine categories in recent years. There’s a demand for both the imported and domestic stuff, and plenty of people buy good sparkling wine that isn’t mislabeled as “Champagne.” So why do some of the biggest sparkling wine producers continue to use misleading packaging on their wines in this country?
I sent a request for an explanation to Korbel weeks ago, but they never bothered to reply. Korbel’s answer seems to be that they’ve been producing something they’ve called “Champagne” since 1892, so they’re darned well entitled to continue.
Well, we’ve made a lot of improvements in our society since 1892. Women have the right to vote; racial segregation was outlawed. And there are truth-in-packaging laws that apply to the vast majority of products we buy. That makes outliers like grandfathered “Champagne” all the more insidious. Since consumers rightly expect most of what they buy to be accurately labeled, they tend to believe what they see written on the label.
So this Valentine’s Day, if your love is true, shouldn’t your bubbly be authentic too?
If you’re looking for good, authentically labeled domestic sparkling wines, here are your best bets. And these bubblies aren’t all from California either. The best domestic sparkler I’ve had to date, my first listing below at 93 points, was actually produced in Massachusetts! There are also a few very good Virginia bubblies and one from Oregon on my list of 20 domestic sparklers rated 88 points and above. (None of the ersatz domestic “Champagnes” I’ve tried rate anywhere near that high.)
A few of these are very limited production, so not available in many parts of the country, but the excellent Roederer Estate sparklers can be found in most states.
2003 Westport Rivers Brut Robert James Russell RJR – Massachusetts
Light yellow color with steady stream of pinpoint bubbles; flavorful, tart pear, tart apple, chalk nose; tasty, rich, poised, delicate, juicy, tart pear, tart nectarine, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (astonishingly good) 93 points
2002 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut California, Anderson Valley
Delicate, light, creamy citrus nose; tasty, tart creamy citrus, mineral palate; medium finish (I prefer it to the ’02 Louis Roederer Brut Cristal, at least at this stage) 92 points
NV Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley
Biscuit, apple nose; apple, stone fruit palate with great acidity; medium finish 91 points
2011 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir Sea Spray Sta. Rita Hills, California
Light pink color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; appealing, light tart cherry, golden raspberry nose; tasty, tart cherry, golden raspberry, tart strawberry, chalk, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (very impressive Cali sparkler, and excellent pairing with foie gras; 12% alcohol; sample provided by winery) 91+ points
2003 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut Anderson Valley
Light green yellow color with lots of small, speedy bubbles; poached pear, tart apple nose; tasty, tart apple, tart pear, yeasty, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 90+ points
NV Piper Sonoma Brut Réserve California, Sonoma County
Pale yellow color; seductive blossom nose; big entry, nectarine, white peach palate with good acidity; short-medium finish 90 points
NV Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut Sur Lees California
Light lemon yellow color with lots of tiny bubbles; saline, chalk, tart lemon nose; tasty, leesy, tart lemon, chalk palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (unexpectedly leesy and non-fruity for a California sparkling wine) 90 points
2009 V. Sattui Winery Chardonnay Prestige Cuvée Napa Valley
Light pinkish yellow color with abundant tiny bubbles in several columns; appealing, chalk, tart apple, floral, tart pear, ginger nose; tart apple, chalk, mineral yeasty palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (81% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot Noir; 12.5% alcohol) 90 points
2009 Buena Vista Sparkling Brut Napa / Sonoma, Carneros
Light yellow color with abundant tiny bubbles in multiple columns; chalk, tart lemon, ripe peach, apple butter, yeasty nose; vinous, mineral, chalk, tart grapefruit, light toffee palate with medium acidity; tart apple medium finish (12% alcohol) 89 points
2010 Flying Goat Cellars Pinot Blanc Crémant Goat Bubbles Sierra Madre California, Santa Maria Valley
Light yellow color with few, medium-sized bubbles; tart apple, yeasty nose; tart green apple, lime, chalk palate; medium-plus finish 89 points
NV Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut California
Wheaty, baked bread nose; grapefruit, floral palate with depth and good balance; medium finish 89 points
NV Veritas Vineyard Scintilla Brut – Virginia, Monticello
Light yellow color with a good amounts of tiny bubbles; tart apple, tart peach nose; sharp acid attach, light mousse, crisp tart apple, mineral palate with near medium acidity; medium finish (2 years in bottle) 89 points
2010 Riverbench Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay Cork Jumper Blanc de Blancs Riverbench – California, Santa Maria Valley
Light yellow color with speedy column of very tiny bubbles; lemon powder, tart apple, lime, tart pear nose; bright, tart pear, fresh cut lime, mineral, chalk palate with tangy acidity; medium-plus finish (12.5% alcohol) 89+ points
NV Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut California, North Coast
Light yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; poached pear, ripe apple nose; yeasty, poached pear, chalk palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points (55% Chardonnay, 38% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot Meunier) 88+ points
NV Horton Vineyards Viognier Sparkling Virginia, Orange County
Very light yellow color with an abundance of tiny bubbles; tart green apple, tart citrus nose; tasty, refreshing, tart citrus, very tart apple, lime, chalk palate, reminiscent of a good cava, but with little Viognier character; medium finish (left on lees for 7 years) 88+ points
NV Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs California
Light medium peach yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; tart peach, apple nose; baked apple, ripe apple, chalk palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (approx. 90% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Meunier) 88 points
2009 Argyle Brut Oregon, Willamette Valley
Light yellow color with few small bubbles; tart apple, oxidized apple nose; tart apple, oxidized apple palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (12.5% alcohol) 88 points
NV Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Blancs Napa / Sonoma, Carneros
Light yellow pink color with abundant, tiny bubbles; light cherry, raspberry cream, raspberry nose; creamy textured, ripe raspberry, golden raspberry, black cherry palate; medium finish 88 points
2008 Afton Mountain Vineyards Tête de Cuvée Brut Virginia, Monticello
Light lemon yellow color with medium-sized bubbles; chalk, tart green apple nose; tasty, chalk, tart green apple, mineral palate; medium finish (50% Pinot Noir, 50% Chardonnay) 88 points
2005 Mumm Napa DVX Napa Valley
Light yellow color with lots of tiny bubbles; tart lime, yeasty, gooseberry nose; tart gooseberry, ripe lime palate; medium finish 88 points