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Enjoy “Influential” Wines




Michael Cervin, from www.intowine.com, recently rated the “top 100 most influential U.S. winemakers,” highlighting those who have made long-standing contributions as well as newcomers that are making strong impacts to the national wine scene.  While reviewing his list, I found some familiar names that have created wines that I have enjoyed and will

vista from Penner-Ash Winery

vista from Penner-Ash Winery

continue to pursue.

While a list of most influential winemakers makes for a fun read, the proof is always in the palate.  I thought it may be helpful to match some of the top winemakers with some of their specific wines that I have had the pleasure to experience.

These winemakers represent the Santa Maria Valley, Paso Robles, Sonoma County, the Santa Cruz Mountains and Oregon’s Willamette Valley, evidence of the growing de-centralization of power in the industry.  Many of these wines are so unswerving there was no need to list a particular vintage. The number indicates the winemaker’s ranking on Cervin’s list.

#58. Kenneth Volk          Kenneth Volk Vineyards

Kenneth Volk Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2005 ($36)

     Kenneth Volk Pinot Noir Garey Vineyard 2006 ($48)

Kenneth Volk Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles

Kenneth Volk Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles

Raised in San Marino, CA, Kenneth Volk made his name in the industry through his Wild Horse Winery in Paso Robles.  He has since sold Wild Horse to concentrate on Kenneth Volk Vineyards, producing boutique wines in north Santa Barbara County. At a recent tasting in Pasadena, I met Mr. Volk and enjoyed three fine pinot noir wines, the bold “Garey Vineyard” release, in my opinion, taking the varietal to a higher level.

Unfortunately, good cabernet sauvignon can be very expensive, especially from the Napa Valley.  The Kenneth Volk Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2005 is one of the “cabs” that I recommend in the $30-40 range.  From Westside vineyards, this wine is restrained, with softer tannins making it very drinkable now

#45. Neil Collins          Tablas Creek Winery

     Tablas Creek “Espirit de Beaucastal” ($55)

     Tablas Creek “Espirit de Beaucastal” Blanc ($40)

A pioneer in introducing Americans to the famous blends that originated from the Rhone Valley, Neil Collins was involved in importing Rhone vines to the U.S., enduring the quarantine and furnishing the research to encourage others to follow. Each vintage produces several high quality Rhone-blends from Paso Robles, many from vines propagated

2010 Tablas Creek "Espirit de Beaucastel"

2010 Tablas Creek “Espirit de Beaucastel”

from the original imports.  Tablas Creek produces a wide variety of wines, none more intriguing than the 2010 Tablas Creek “Panopile,” a mourvedre-dominant GSM blend that, like other vintages, is consistently rated in the mid-nineties. Admittedly, I have not yet tasted the wine whose meager 600 cases are reserved for members of their Vinsider wine club. Cautious with the restrictions of wine clubs, the high quality of red and white varietals, member programs and sustainable farming practices make Vinsider one that I would recommend.

My selections are the red and white wine from the “Espirit de Beaucastal” series, named for the French chateau that partnered with the Haas family to create Tablas Creek. Both wines display complex aromas and limestone-driven minerality that set them apart,


#43. Gary Eberle          Eberle Winery

Eberle Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($34)

Eberle Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Bottled

Eberle Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Bottled

A patriarch of California, as well as Paso Robles winemaking, Gary Eberle’s eastside winery has been a leader in the region for decades featuring varietals such as syrah, zinfandel and viognier in many well-reviewed wines. Most vintages of the Eberle Estate Cabernet Sauvignon stand above, consistently ranked among the best California cabernet in the $30-40 price range.

#40. Lynne Penner          Penner-Ash Wine Cellars

Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley ($45)

     Penner-Ash Oregon Syrah ($35)

After an early stint at Stag’s Leap in Napa, Lynne Penner became one of the first female winemakers in Oregon, spending many years at Rex Hill producing those nice pinots. In 1998, she founded Penner-Ash, one of the most beautiful and sustainable winery/vineyard operations in the

Penner-Ash Cellars Oregon Syrah

Penner-Ash Cellars Oregon Syrah

entire Valley.  During a visit last year, I was very impressed with the 2010 Penner-Ash Oregon Syrah with balanced tannins, rich texture and complex flavors comparable to any syrah from the vintage.  Most vintages of the Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Willamette Valley will deliver beyond expectations.


#32. Bob Cabral          Williams Seylem

Williams Seylem Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($52)

     Williams Seylem Bacigalupi Vineyard Zinfandel ($52)


Bob Cabral, Director of Winemaking at Williams Selyem

Bob Cabral, Director of Winemaking at Williams Selyem

Clearly one of the big treats of any vintage is my annual allotment of pinot noir from William Seylem, a pioneer in developing the Burgundy varietal in Sonoma.  Named “2011 Winemaker of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast magazine, Bob Cabral consistently creates high quality, medium-bodied single and multi-vineyard pinot noir and chardonnay. In reviews of each release, the “Sonoma Coast” Pinot Noir remains one of their best values.  In recent years, Cabral has added a new varietal with the Williams Seylem Bacigalupi Vineyard Zinfandel that, as one may expect, is among the best.

#19. Justin Smith          Saxum Vineyards

Saxum “Broken Stones Vineyard” ($89)


Justin Smith burst upon the wine scene a few years ago when his “Broken Stones” and “James Berry” Vineyard Rhone blends were included in Wine

Saxum "Broken Stones Vineyard"

Saxum “Broken Stones Vineyard”

Spectator’s top 100 list, the latter being named 2010 Wine of the Year.  Nearly impossible to obtain, an opportunity to taste the syrah-based “Broken Stones” revealed an elegant wine in perfect balance. Becoming pricy and rare cannot disguise the fact that it is a very special wine.

#11. Randall Grahm          Bonny Doon

Bonny Doon Cigare Volant Blend

     Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard

As a D.E.W.N. (Distinctive Esoteric Wine Network) member for more than a decade, I am never quite ready to move on from the Bonny Doon Winery and Vineyard family.

Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard

Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard

Founder Randall Grahm is legendary to the U.S. wine scene and opened wine consumers to a world outside of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay by introducing Rhone varietals to the Santa Cruz and Monterey County regions.  In addition, he has been a leader in biodynamic farming and replacing corks with screw tops in high quality wines.  Reading Grahm’s newsletter itself is worth the membership.

Although the classic “Cigare Volant” Rhone blend is a must, three single-vineyard syrah releases have recently peaked my interest including the 2007 and 2008 Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard, a rich and balanced syrah from one of he state’s finest vineyards

#2.  Merry Edwards          Merry Edwards Winery

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc ($32)

Among  influential winemakers of the world, Merry Edwards became renown as a winemaker and consultant long before

Merry Edwards

Merry Edwards

she launched her signature label in the late nineties, focusing on fine pinot noir.  However, her Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc is noteworthy because it is, arguably, our country’s finest.  From the floral nose of orange blossoms to the full-bodied, rich flavors, pairing this wine with seafood turns a scallops or salmon dish into a culinary masterpiece.

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc

Leaders in the winemaking world are made from those who can create extraordinary wines and, directly or indirectly, make others better. Proof being in the palate, these wines impart the inspiration that we should expect from the influential winemakers of our time.

Top Wines of 2012 are “Relentless”





Shafer “Relentless” Napa Valley 2008


Clos des Papes Chateaunef-du-Pape 2009

It began in late November, as it does each year. Wine Spectator magazine unveiled wines #10-6, then #5-1 and finally their entire 2012 top 100 list of “the year’s most exciting wines”, an apt description.  If previously rated quality was the only factor, we would be surrounded by the Clos des Papes Chateaunef-du-Pape 2010 (98pt/$128) and Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Family Estate 2009 (96pt/$145), both very fine, but expensive, or the highly touted wines that are nearly impossible to find.  Besides, we can’t overlook price, uniqueness or our personal preference for a specific varietal.  Kudos to Wine Spectator for annually undertaking this arduous task and giving us a global snapshot of the releases in 2012. One can purchase a copy of their latest issue for the complete details or read the following synopsis from someone who enjoys analyzing national, regional and varietal trends.

Without question, my major takeaway from the list is that 2012 is the “Year of Syrah.”  To prove, or at least defend my moniker, nine (36%) of the top 25 wines included syrah as a single-varietal or in a blend.  To be fair, France’s Southern Rhone Valley, using syrah in their mélanges, had a good year.  However, included in that same top 25 were single-varietal syrah from Paso Robles, Edna Valley and the magazine’s “2012 Wine Of The Year”, Napa Valley’s Shafer “Relentless” Napa Valley 2008 (96pt/$60), a blend of mostly syrah with 18% petite sirah.  Finding the #1 wine in the Napa Valley is fairly common, the fact that it was syrah, not cabernet sauvignon, is a headline.  The real story here is the meticulous winemaker Elias Fernandez.

Born to an immigrant father and locally raised mother, both farm laborers, Elias Fernandez grew up in the Napa Valley vineyards before leaving to pursue a Fullbright music scholarship at the University of Nevada, Reno.  Missing his roots, he eventually transferred to the UC Davis, earning a degree in winemaking studies. Since graduation, he as worked closely with the Shafer family as an assistant before becoming the winemaker in 1994.  He pushed for the expansion of syrah vineyards and was relentlessly hands-on in every aspect of the wine of the year.

Shafer winemaker Elias Fernandez

Shafer winemaker Elias Fernandez

ET COSME GIGONDAS 750 ML 09, page 1 @ Preflight

Chateau de St.-Cosme Gigondas 2010

While we again see the Chateaunef-du-Pape region displayed throughout, the #4 Clos des Papes Chateaunef-du-Pape (98pt/$128), a former wine of the year and recurring top ten designee, stepped aside as the neighboring Gigondas appellation produced the #2 Chateau de St. Cosme Gigondas 2010 (95pt/$41) assuming stature as the top French wine. Certainly, at less than one-third the cost of its famous neighbor, this Grenache-based Rhone Valley blend was attractive to the judges.  Demonstrating the global strength of syrah, the #3 Two Hands Shiraz Barossa Valley Belle’s Garden 2010 (95pt/$69), one of the best 21st Century wines, comes from the acclaimed Australian winemaker that performs miracles with the varietal.

The Reverence of Napa Valley



Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley Reserve 2009

In a year of surprises, the Napa Valley maintained its supremacy with the Wine of the Year, two Cabernet Sauvignon, two merlot and a Carneros chardonnay, all from established vineyards.  The #8 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley Reserve 2009 (94pt/$45) puts the time-honored winemaker back on the list after a long absence. Aged for 15 months in mostly new French oak, several periodicals have generated flattering reports of the wine’s texture and flavors.  St. Helena’s Spottswoode Winery, long-time producer of fine quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, earned a spot on the list with the #80 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Family Estate 2009 (96pt/$145).  I am very familiar with this “liquid velvet” wine that has moved into icon status within the high-end market.

The #63 Neyers Chardonnay Carneros 2010 (93pt/$29), a reliably good wine, was the sole chardonnay from the Napa Valley

Neyers Chardonnay Carneros 2010

Neyers Chardonnay Carneros 2010

and only one of two on the list.

Celebrate the French

 Without fail, great wines are produced, vintage-to-vintage, in France.  Twenty-two wines on the list were French and, more impressively, three of the top five and six of the top 20.  Aside from the aforementioned classic wines from Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley, the list included very reasonably priced wines such as the #39 Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Alsace Les Princes Abbes 2010 (92pt/$20), with forward flavors pleasingly influenced by local volcanic soil.

Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Alsace Les Princes Abbes 2010

Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Alsace Les Princes Abbes 2010


Presence of the Central Coast

 With the typical Northern California powerhouse regions in mind, the fact that half of the California wines on the 2012 list originated from vineyards located between northern Santa Barbara County and the Santa Cruz Mountains illustrates a shift that sees new terrior matching the standards of the old.  On a more local shift, nearly all of the five Paso Robles releases on the list included syrah, a change from the typical Rhone’s and Zinfandel.  The exception #72 Turley Zinfandel Paso Robles Presenti Vineyard 2010 (93pt/$35) marks a successful turn since the Turley Family purchased the old Presenti Family Vineyards years ago.

One of the highest rated wines on the roll is the #21 Saxum James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2009 (97/$85), making successive appearances since being named 2010 Wine of the Year. Yielding less than 1,000 cases, this acclaimed wine is rarely available.  While wines like the #19 Booker Syrah Paso

Booker Syrah Paso Robles "Fracture" 2010

Booker Syrah Paso Robles “Fracture” 2010

Robles “Fracture” 2010 (96pt/$70) and the #76 Austin Hope Syrah Paso Robles Hope Family Vineyard 2010 (93pt/$42) have emerged onto the scene, I was delighted to see the #40 Eberle Syrah Paso Robles Steinbeck Vineyard 2010 (93pt/$24), from a well-respected, long-term eastside winemaker, gain recognition.  All of his wines are worthy of your palate and the cave tour is excellent.

Good value Pinot Noir, at times an oxymoron, truly personifies three Central Coast wines that represent much of the region.  Sourced from vineyards in San Luis Obispo to Gilroy, the grapes that encompass the #28 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Vintage 2010 (93pt/$24) are fermented and aged separately, then blended to age harmoniously in the bottle for nearly a year.

Located at the intersection of its namesake, the Clark and Telephone (Rd.) Vineyard is a coastal property in north Santa Barbara County, owned by Belle Glos Winery, that produces the sweet spice-driven #77 Belle Glos Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley Clark and Telephone Vineyard 2010 (93pt/$44).  Located one hour north in Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands, Morgan Winery

Morgan Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Twelve Clones 2010

Morgan Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Twelve Clones 2010

sourced grapes from notable vineyards, Garys’, Tondre Grapefield and their own Double L for the #83 Morgan Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Twelve Clones 2010 (92pt/$32).


Two classic wines and consistent delegate’s to the list represent the Santa Cruz Mountains region, above Monterey. The #26 Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2009 (94pt/$55) belongs in any discussion of California’s best and the historic #94 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2009 (95pt/$150) whose early vintage was the top wine of the 2006 Reprise Paris Tasting.



Evolution of the Pacific Northwest

Nine percent of this year’s most exciting wines were produced north of California with Oregon honing their classic red grape and Washington expressing their diversity.

Oregon placed three pinot noir wines on the list, each from a different region and two wines, the #7 Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2009

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2009

Estate 2009 (94pt/$40) and the #14 Maysara Pinot Noir McMinnville Estate Cuvee 2009 (94pt/$32), were included in the top twenty. Both wines are reasonably priced and representative of a tremendous vintage statewide.  Argyle, another top pinot noir producer, once again contributed the #18 Argyle Extended Triage Willamette Valley 2002 (96pt/$70), always aged and, arguably, our country’s best sparkling wine.

Argyle Extended Triage Willamette Valley 2002

Argyle Extended Triage Willamette Valley 2002

Washington State contributed four different varietals, a cabernet sauvignon, merlot and rose’ from the Columbia Valley and the acclaimed #22 Cayuse Syrah Walla Walla Valley Cailloux Vineyard 2009 (96pt/$75) from their neighbor to the east.

Amidst these great wines that reflect trends of the 2012 releases is the #51 Bodega Norton Malbec-Mendoza Reserva 2010 (90pt/$18), vintages consistently available at local outlets for under $20.  I enjoy this wine occasionally, receiving a bottle as a gift at least once a year.  Here’s to a fantastic 2013.