My mom, like most mothers, told me it was better to give than to receive. To not look a gift horse in the mouth (especially during the holidays). That it's the thought that counts. She was compelled to give such sage, though worn, advice to a daughter who once grumbled about needing to be cheerful at Christmas, and who wrapped the family's presents in paper emblazoned with 'bah humbug.'
The daughter is now older, wiser and kinder, seeing the holiday season as a time for caring and sharing, and embracing an honesty-is-the-best-policy. I confess that I tasted many really good wines in 2007 and didn't publish the results.
It's not that I didn't want to spread the word; it's that there were 10 pounds of positive wine reviews to squeeze into a 5-pound sack, with so much fascinating wine being made these days, from all corners of the world. Some bottles were square pegs when I needed to fill round holes; others were unusual blends or varietals that didn't fit into specific categories -- fishes out of water.
Since the road to hell is paved with good intentions -- and I meant to recommend the wines below much sooner, I swear -- I now ask forgiveness for pushing some bottles to the back of my mental cellar. I bring them forth now, and each is a winner, for the holidays and thereafter, for stuffing in stockings, stocking up by the case, or sending to the cellar for future drinking. I should have done this sooner, but hey, better late than never, yes?
The grass may be greener on the other side, but I've kept my end-of-year recommendations strictly to California bottles. It's easy for an inquisitive palate to wander to Oregon, Washington, New Zealand, Rioja, Burgundy and elsewhere, but at this time of year, it's comforting to stay close to home, to drink the wines from my own backyard. Home is where the heart is, and my heart is in California. So is my mortgage.
Since haste makes waste, let's get to it. First up, fizz -- sparkling wines that offer sunny California fruit with the complexity that comes from secondary fermentation in the bottle and contact with yeast.
A great bargain is the non-vintage Korbel Brut Rose ($10). It's not hugely complex, yet is utterly delicious and refreshing, with bright berry flavors and palate-cleansing effervescence. Even a Grinch-y party pooper would embrace this one, particularly at this price.
Two splurge sparklers absolutely knocked my Christmas socks off: the 2000 Roederer Estate L'Ermitage Anderson Valley Brut ($45) and the 2000 Schramsberg J. Schram ($90). Some may argue, but these bubblies demonstrate that the Golden State can produce wines with the depth and complexity of Champagne, using ripe California fruit.
The Roederer has a nutty, spicy nose with a gentle yeastiness and a palate that explodes with energetic citrus and red-berry fruit. It's long and rewarding. The J. Schram is a fuller style, with a creamy mousse and hints of baked bread, golden apple, dried apricot and citrus. It will likely benefit from cellaring three years or more, for those who like a more mature style of sparkler.
I'm eager to open Dry Creek Vineyard's Clarksburg Chenin Blanc whenever the new vintage arrives. The current release, 2006 -- just $10 -- is juicy and succulent, with a honeyed richness and plenty of acidity for refreshment. It has just 12.5% alcohol, and is sublime for sipping with crab cakes, petrale sole and baked halibut. Or without food, for that matter.
Mendocino County's Potter Valley may be unknown to many wine drinkers, yet it's long been a source for the Rieslings of Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley. Mike and Anne Dashe of Dashe Cellars in Oakland have gone to that well and come up with a taut, bone-dry Riesling that is an invigorating change from the off-dry style that predominates in California. Their 2006 Dashe McFadden Farms Potter Valley Dry Riesling ($20), made from organically grown grapes, is layered with minerals, red apple and yellow stone fruit, with an acidic backbone.
The Lynmar 2005 Sereinité Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($50) is a new wine from this Russian River Valley producer and very exciting, if pricey, stuff. It combines California ripe-fruit richness with the acidity and minerality of a fine Chablis. Wonderfully complex, it offers notes of acacia, apple, citrus, spice, caramel, yeasty lees and beeswax. Only 298 cases were produced, so shop now.
Moving on to reds, one of the best of 2007 is the 2004 Treana Paso Robles Red ($52), a symbiotic blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Winemaker Austin Hope used 70% Cabernet Sauvignon (for its black cherry and cedar character, structure and cellaring potential) and 30% Syrah (for its bright berry/black plum fruit, licorice and smoky character) in this seamless, seductive wine that will likely gain complexity over the next seven years.
John Falcone, winemaker at Rusack Vineyards and his own Falcone brand, both in Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley, produced several terrific wines from the 2005 vintage, yet the one that I remember best is the 2005 Falcone Anacapa Santa Barbara County red blend ($38). It's 75% Cabernet Franc, 15% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, perfectly ripe and juicy (blackberry and raspberry), with an enticing Herbs de Provence note. Cabernet Franc can be a bit too herbal and angular for American tastes, yet this one is flavorful, smooth and balanced.
I haven't written much this year about California Merlot because the interest just doesn't seem to be there -- readers' and my own. A certain 2004 movie helped kill the Merlot buzz, but the energy was sagging before that, no thanks to vintners who planted the grape in inappropriate places in the mid-90s, in an attempt to climb aboard the consumer Merlot love train. As a result, too many under-ripe, herbaceous, diluted Merlots hit the market, sullying the reputation of the well-made ones.
Still, many excellent Merlots are out there, although with sticker prices starting at $52 (among them Amuse Bouche, Duckhorn, Lewis, Pride Mountain, Switchback Ridge and Verite). Yet two wines rose from the depths of my year-end tasting notes review, shouting 'fine value.'
The 2004 Raymond Reserve Napa Valley Merlot ($24) is everything West Coast Merlot should be: plump, supple and smooth, with plum, roasted coffee, vanillin oak and fine acidity. For a few more bucks, Napa personality can also be found in the 2004 Provenance Vineyards 2004 Napa Valley Merlot ($35), a firmly structured, lavishly oaked wine that radiates with plum, black cherry and black olive character.
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon keeps soaring in price and falling in ease of acquisition. However, there is an admirably priced gem that's made in significant quantities: the 2005 Napa Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, an outright steal at $26. The brand was started by Koerner Rombauer of Rombauer Vineyards and Rick Frank of Frank Family Vineyards; in 2006, they sold it to Trinchero Family Estates, which seems to be keeping careful watch over quality with this rich, expensive-tasting Cabernet.
It was a wearying year for me for California Zinfandel, with many of the wines tasting overly ripe, sweet and alcoholic. But then I'm cranky (just ask Mom). Yet one delicious contradiction came from the 2004 Dry Creek Vineyard Somers Ranch Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($30). At a very moderate (for Zinfandel) 14.5% alcohol, the wine is vibrant and juicy, with notes of raspberry, bramble and cocoa on a medium-full-body frame. It's the style of wine that attracted me to Zin 20 years ago, and one I hope returns in greater numbers.
California Sangiovese doesn't have a lot of luster these days, with too many of them made from grapes grown in less-than-ideal soils and climates (see Merlot above). Those that shine have some Tuscan character, though two California wines made from northern Italian varietals are far more intriguing.
The 2005 Montevina Terra de Oro Amador County Barbera ($20) offers a mouthful of cherry and raspberry fruit, and pulls off the trick of being delicious on its own and sturdy enough for service with sausage pizza and ribs. Smoke, chocolate and dried cherry flavors are plumped by crisp acidity.
From Paso Robles comes the 2003 Martin & Weyrich Nebbiolo ($18), made from the same grape that produces the ageworthy Barbarescos and Barolos of Italy's Piedmont region. Martin & Weyrich's comes at a fraction of the price, and while it's unmistakably Californian in its deep, ripe black fruit character and early drinkability, it also has Piedmontesque notes of dried rose petal and truffle, with firm tannins and crunchy acidity.
Note that there are no Pinot Noirs here. That's because the varietal is so sizzling-hot with consumers, and with me, that I've written a lot about them in 2007. Few of the good ones were ignored by me or anyone else.
So this holiday season, rejoice in the knowledge that there are far more interesting, well-made, purchase-worthy wines from California than I or any of my peers can find space to recommend. The more, the merrier, we say. Variety is the spice of life. The glass is more than half-full. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he/she loves a good Cabernet as much as the rest of us.