For ambitious winery owners, the magnetic lure of California is as strong as ever. And while Napa and Sonoma remain pre- eminent, the richness and diversity of the terroir is now becoming more and more apparent right up and down the coast. A decade ago, it might have been difficult to make a case for Paso Robles claiming a place in collectors’ cellars. But if you haven’t yet tasted the wines that Justin Smith is making at Saxum, or Stephan Asseo at L’Aventure, it’s time to clear some shelf space.
Napa and Sonoma, of course, were the lodestones for the first great wave of pioneers that came out west 50 years ago. In many cases, they still are. Scott Becker and Benoit Touquette, for example, took over Napa’s Realm Cellars barely a dozen years ago, and they are now making wines of astonishing calibre. The MacDonald brothers have only a handful of vintages under their belts, but they come from ancient Napa stock. Russell Bevan, whose Tench Vineyard parcels share a boundary with the rather better-known Screaming Eagle, is in the first rank of California winemakers. Claude Blankiet has been in Yountville since the mid-1990s (though it’s Dominus, whose land his overlooks, that is the more recognised name).
Here we’re presenting a collection of wines with impeccable credentials from this next generation of California prospectors, right across the state. Our criteria for inclusion are simple: the wines must come from the very best terroir, they must be made with the utmost attention to detail and they must be capable of long ageing; in short, they must be wines that no serious collector should ignore, but that might not yet be on many collectors’ radars.
Some producers are conspicuously absent. We haven’t profiled Bruce Phillips at Vine Hill Ranch, for example, because the Oakville vineyard’s profile is high enough already; likewise the ebullient Daniel Daou in Paso Robles. There’s no room to discuss wineries such as the excellent (and already acclaimed) DuMOL in Russian River Valley; then there’s Oakville’s Futo and St Helena’s Dana, both of which are crafting poised and ageworthy Cabernets. There are many more: Luc Morlet (consultant to Peter Michael Winery), whose Oakville Cabernet Coeur de Vallée has, like Andy Erickson’s Favia, just been taken on by La Place de Bordeaux; Rosemary Cakebread’s fine Gallica; the intriguing Ashes & Diamonds in Napa and Terre et Sang in Santa Barbara.
This is a new golden age for California. As Matt Thompson of UK importer Four Corners Wine says, ‘There’s a new generation embracing the region’s history while forging its own path of innovation and refinement. There’s never been such a collective striving for perfection.’
‘I’m the thorn in Christian Moueix’s side,’ Claude Blankiet jokes. His vertiginous Yountville vineyards overlook those of Moueix’s Dominus, one of Napa’s most exalted wineries, planted by the Bordeaux grandee in 1982. Blankiet’s 16 acres (6.5ha) of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc were planted on a mix of sandstone, basalt, white volcanic dust and clay soils by viticulturist David Abreu and the equally renowned winemaker Helen Turley in 1996. The vineyards rise and fall around the Swiss-Burgundian’s Gothic mansion with multiple different aspects. Winemaker Graeme MacDonald (one of Napa’s rising stars – see MacDonald Vineyards, overleaf ) makes six wines here, from the Mythicus Cabernet Sauvignon to the Rive Droite Merlot blend, all showing the hand of an accomplished vigneron who knows his land backwards. Long hot days and cool nights add to the complexity, and – this being Napa – the quality is in the detail: they use not one, but two ultra-accurate optic sorters. ‘We harvest up to 30 times, one side of the row, then the other. We pick exactly what we need at any moment,’ Blankiet says. Compelling wines from some of the finest terroir in Napa.