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Best of Napa & Sonoma Wines: 2011-2013 Vintages


We see troubling signs ahead. One expects to pay a premium for wines from the Napa Valley, which no one can argue is the premier wine growing region in all of America. However, it’s getting harder for us to recommend wines without any reservation after we look at how much they cost. Sonoma Valley has the perception of being Napa’s more affordable neighbor, but marquee wines from this region also carry a premium price tag. Largely, today’s prices seem out of step with what the majority of wine consumers, in the U.S. and around the globe, are either willing to pay or able to afford on a regular basis.

Cynicism is growing among consumers who are quick to accuse producers of Napa and Sonoma wines of jacking up prices just because they can. Conversely, producers claim these prices are out of necessity—not just to meet a return on investment but as a matter of survival. Either way you look at it, there is a growing rift between consumer and producer, and it’s something with which every winery has to contend.

With a shrinking middle class and an expanding millionaire and billionaire class around the globe, there doesn’t seem to be much alternative for wineries with Napa or Sonoma prestige other than to cater to a robust but limited field of consumers for whom spending $60, $80 or $180 on a regular basis for a wine is no big deal. But, with recent data showing that Americans, for the first time in history, are the largest wine consumers in the world, everyone in the wine business recognizes there is a much larger consumer base out there who needs to be catered to—this is the customer who really doesn’t want to spend more than $20 on a bottle of wine but will spend $45 or above for a special occasion.

In this intensely competitive environment, we anticipate a lot of consolidation to happen in the wine industry. The wine world might start to look like the tech world of Silicon Valley, where the major players like Apple or Google (i.e. Kendall-Jackson or E. & J. Gallo) buy up the “startups” (e.g. Siduri or J Vineyards), and where the startups’ goal is to reach a valuation that is desirable for purchase by a major player.

[column size=two_third position=first ]Regardless of whatever an individual winery’s end-game is, there is an important reminder which bears repeating: wines from Napa and Sonoma are some of the greatest wines in the world. Everybody wants them, and there is only so much great wine to go around. In terms of supply-and-demand, Napa- and Sonoma-produced wine will remain, for the foreseeable future, some of the most desirable wines in the world.[/column]
〉〉  “In this intensely competitive environment, we anticipate a lot of consolidation to happen in the wine industry. The wine world might start to look like the tech world of Silicon Valley . . .”
In this context, we present, below, several great wines from the 2011-2013 vintages for Napa and Sonoma, both red and white—let’s not forget how great white wines are from these regions—that we’ve encountered over the past several months. (We sneak in a few reviews of bottles outside of the 2011-2013 vintages that are showing particularly well right now.) Though very few are inexpensive, we recommend these wines without hesitation and without reservation despite their price tags. The wineries and wines we’ve picked out, we feel, do a particularly spectacular job of setting a fair price in context of the wine’s quality.

Lastly, a word on vintages. Please forgive our apparent arrogance, but we’ll flat-out say it: the critics are wrong about the 2011 vintage. We think it’s a great one and continue to feel unabashed love for wines made in this difficult year. Those who love nuance, floral qualities and some emphasis on red fruit versus total and overpowering emphasis on ripe dark fruit in their Cabs should love this vintage. As for 2012, we think it’s good but we have yet to be blown away in general. It’s a vintage that favors big Cabs like the Caymus Special Selection or anything from Stagecoach or Beckstoffer vineyards, like the Krupp or Paul Hobbs’ Dr. Crane, but it’s been hit-or-miss elsewhere. And 2013? It’s early yet, but so far we’re loving the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

We wish all wine artists in Napa and Sonoma good tidings and long-lived financial success. It is hard to find people more passionate about, or dedicated to, their craft. The following wines are only a small example of their great artistry.

— J.M. and R.K.

See related Wine Tastings:


[divider]CABERNET SAUVIGNON[/divider]


HALL Wines ­ Cabernet Sauvignon Kathryn Hall Napa Valley 2011 ($130)

Kathryn-Hall-150x150Unlike the mainstream press, our publication considers the 2011 Napa vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon to be spectacular—if you know where to look—and the 2011 Kathryn Hall is another reason why. An amalgam of fruit from across Napa Valley, including Rutherford, Howell Mountain and St. Helena, it all comes together to create a seamless and rich drinking experience. Most notable here are the dark fruits of blueberry and plum. Ultrasmooth texture and exquisite balance bring depth, making this wine both provocative and sexy. Craig Hall, who is a serial entrepreneur, and Kathryn Hall, who is a former U.S. Ambassador, adorn their Napa property with world ­class art. Here, they share with you one of their world ­class wines.  96 pts     search   direct

Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2011 ($60)

Just awesome for the price. Oakville being one of the most prestigious appellations in Napa, this is everything you want in an Oakville Cab. Round, full and complete. Great character that’s instantly likeable the second it touches the tongue. Despite a high production level of 10,000 cases, this wine achieves a remarkable artisanal quality.  94 pts     search   direct

Turnbull Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012 ($45)

Not as pedigreed as its Oakville brother, but no less charming. Culled from four Turnbull estate vineyards, the final blend is yet another stunner for the price from this winery. So much contrast of light and dark—from violets to cassis to black cherries. Delicious and silky.  93 pts     search   direct

The Debate Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper 2011 ($150)

The-Debate-150x150Hot damn! This is one hell of a f#@!ing wine. From one of the legendary vineyards in Napa. And it blows away other Beckstoffers we’ve had from other winemakers. Stuns you with its power and focus and depth. So rich and forward, balanced by striking acidity, which suggests this thing can age until the day world peace happens or Greece becomes the world’s leading economy. Bad news? You have to buy this in a three-pack (bastards!). Good news? That averages out to about $150 per bottle—which is a STEAL for a wine this incredible.  99 pts     search   direct


The Mascot 2009 ($110)

The-Mascot-150x150We’re sneaking in an older vintage wine here because it’s still widely available and showing wonderfully well now. We have tasted this twice in the past year-and-half, and the latter tasting was markedly more revealing. In a great wine tradition, sons of great fathers in the wine business go on to do great things. In this case, the son is Will and the dad is Bill Harlan, of the world-renowned Harlan Estates. Using grapes from younger vines (17-18 years old) that will eventually go into the estate’s prestige bottlings one day, The Mascot is a window to the soul of the future. Approachable, distinguished and very classy, Harlan Jr. is no slouch.  95 pts     search   direct

Caymus ­Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection 2012 ($180)

Certain names are associated with greatness and/or historical significance: Kennedy (politics); Ferrari (automobiles); Mandela (revolutionaries); Kardashian (asses). Caymus Special Selection needs no introduction as it sits among the pantheon of Napa Valley cabs, vintage in and vintage out. The 2012 is no exception, and benefiting from a warm, bountiful vintage. All of the hallmarks of this wine are present: integrated oak, soft vanilla, concentrated fruit, and balanced tannins. This vintage, in particular, is ready to drink now and shows much more refined than vintages past. Stylistically, it is more reminiscent of an expressive and complex Dominus than, say, the 2006 Special Selection, which was a beast. Has long been a special occasion wine and we don’t expect that to ever change.  97 pts     search   direct

Hiatus Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($45)

Don’t forget about the little guy. Hiatus is a passion project from a David among Goliaths in Napa. With only 300 cases made, this is the equivalent of an independent film going against the corporate Hollywood tide. Soft and plush, the wine exudes charm and character, with an unmistakable handmade quality.  A young winery to watch.  92 pts     search   direct

Honig Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012 ($40)

89% Cab with splashes of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. More earthy than vintages past, a pleasant surprise. Blackberry and coffee skip across the entire palate hand-­in-­hand, while chocolate is evident in the mid palate. The winery, which, over the course of 20 years, has grown from a garagiste to large scale producer, has come to define what it is to be an affordable Napa Cab.  91 pts     search   direct

Smith-Madrone Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($45)

Smith-Madrone-Cab-150x150A knockout value from an independent and under-the-radar winery even though they have been around since the early 1970s and have enjoyed widespread critical praise. Masculine but quietly so, with lengthy and lithe flavors of blackberry, blueberry, mocha and cigar box. This is an athlete dressed in a classy dark suit. A great way to experience the unique pleasures of a Napa mountain Cabernet without breaking the bank.  92 pts     search   direct


Ehlers Estate ­Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($55)

A fragrant Napa Cab that brings the heat as evidenced by its warm mouthfeel. 100% certified organic. More earthy than fruity, leaning towards a French style. Big boysenberry flavor and brooding but not overpowering. Enjoy now with red meat.  92 pts     search   direct

Robert Mondavi To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2011 ($130)

We’ve reviewed this wine in a past article, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tell you again what a masterpiece this is from master winemaker Genevieve Janssens in a vintage for Napa that critics gave short shrift. Gorgeous perfume, texture and balance that is particular to the vintage, which means this wine might be a one-of-a-kind. It’s getting even better with age.  97 pts     search   direct

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Artemis 2012 ($55)

The storied winery, newly refurbished for modern times, is on a roll. We loved the 2011 (a bit more than the 2012), and this vintage brings out the softer, subtler side of this classic wine. Structure, balance and focus, and unmistakable expression of Napa’s iconic Stag’s Leap terroir.  92 pts     search   direct

Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($60)

Chappellet-150x150It just doesn’t get more solid or reliable for the price than Chappellet’s Signature Cab. Great in any vintage from one of the most high class names in Napa. Concentrated and succulent, gripping and enchanting. Pure gratification.  93 pts     search   direct






Donelan Chardonnay Nancie 2012 ($55)

Donelan-Chard-Nancie-150x150While Chardonnay is America’s best-selling wine, it also has an image problem. Cheap Chardonnay is all over the shelves and a lot of people consider it pretty good—or good enough. God knows why anyone would pay 50 dollars for a Chardonnay. Well, this Donelan Chardonnay, from Sonoma County, should lay to rest any doubt why you do. Crisp, pure, fresh, vibrant, pristine, and extraordinarily balanced and integrated, it’s so good it makes you doubt whether you really know Chardonnay. If you called this a Puligny-Montrachet or a Corton-Charlemagne, which is a Chardonnay by any other name, there would be buyers lined up ready to pay in the hundreds for a bottle. We don’t have any fancy names for Chardonnay here in the U.S., but this one is an American beauty.  94 pts     search   direct

Frog’s Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay 2013 ($30)

It seems this is a winery that can do no wrong. It’s hard to think of another that produces such a solid portfolio across such a wide variety of wines at such a fair price. The Frog’s Leap is an impeccable example of Chard for the unoaked/lightly oaked camp. Spending only five days in brand new French oak barrels and then a cement tank, this has sterling transparency, acidity and focus. Brilliant texture, a brilliant achievement.  92 pts     search   direct

Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Chardonnay 2013 ($75)

If a Napa Chardonnay could be a bombshell of a movie star who lives high up in the Hollywood Hills, this one would be it. This carries with it an air of prestige, elegance, fame, fortune and, yes, snobbiness. Unapologetically snobby. And a bigness and richness and boldness of flavor that has to be tasted to be believed. All of it would be too much if not for a beautiful cut of acidity on the long, long finish. Fear not the price tag—this is American Montrachet all the way.  96 pts     search   direct

Neyers Vineyards ­Chardonnay Carneros District 2013 ($30)

From an artisan Napa winery that is certainly deserving of more attention, here is a Chardonnay made of grapes sourced from the distinctive, cool and foggy Carneros region off the San Francisco Bay. Smooth, mellow and creamy, with just a hint of oak. Flavors of pear and pineapple envelop the palate, and the pleasant finish lingers. Grab an adequately chilled glass of this before summer fades into memory…  92 pts     search   direct

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Chardonnay Karia 2013 ($27)

A Chard that puts many others around the same price point to shame. So much elegance for the price. Rich and large-scale Napa Chardonnay, with roundness and sweetness beneath the crisp and clear, almost austere surface. Structure is solid and firm, so this is built to last.  92 pts     search   direct

Hanzell Sonoma Valley Chardonnay 2012 ($70)

Hanzell-Sonoma-Chard-150x150This is how you do big Chardonnay but somehow find exquisite balance and undeniable beauty. From a winery important to the history of developing northern coast Chardonnay, the wine’s texture is super smooth and a textbook example of scrupulous use of oak. They’ve been making this wine since the 50s, and the winery’s vision has never eroded but, in fact, evolved into something essential in our modern times.  95 pts     search   direct


Merry Edwards Chardonnay Olivet Lane 2011 ($60)

Merry-Edwards-Chard-Olivet-Lane-150x150As American as the wine’s apple pie notes and so balanced, where the richness and sweetness of the grape is rendered just right. Luscious, delicious, pure and golden—the Doris Day of Sonoma Chardonnay. You’ll want to get up and dance and sing, and have a romantic  affair with Rock Hudson in technicolor.  95 pts     search   direct



[divider]PINOT NOIR and OTHER REDS[/divider]


Wayfarer Pinot Noir, Wayfarer Vineyard 2012 ($90)

What a tremendous Pinot. So many layers and layers of flavor and Sonoma Coast complexity. Just so powerful and intense and gorgeous. Wayfarer’s process of putting together this wine is meticulous, perfectionist and obsessive. There is no middle ground. This is full throttle but achieving an astounding balance, texture and complexity. It’s like the making of a Jackson Pollock painting—with a dizzying array of colors dripping and swishing across the palate—but instead of chaos, you have cohesion. Wayfarer is a new offspring of the Pahlmeyer label, and their team of artists has already made an American masterpiece.  98 pts     search   direct

Belle Glos Pinot Noir, Dairyman Vineyard 2013 ($45)

This is a big, dark, hearty Russian River Pinot Noir that comes from the Wagner family, best known for Caymus Cabernets and Mer Soleil Chardonnays. This wine is undoubtedly cut from the same Wagner family wine cloth. Vanilla is the dominating flavor here, so much so that if tasted blind you might mistake this Pinot for another varietal. Its intensity and lack of restraint differentiates it from most other Pinots. Still, the detection of cherry and raspberry remind you what this is, and a damn good one at that. Take a walk on the wild side with this wine!  94 pts     search   direct

WALT Gap’s Crown Pinot Noir 2012 ($65)

WALT-Gap's-Crown-150x150Unbelievably delicious. Beautifully rich and sappy, with mouth coating cherry, plum and tea flavors and essence of violets riding along a velvety texture. Gap’s Crown, on the Sonoma Coast, is one of the greatest vineyards in California for Pinot Noir (the 138-acre site has a current valuation of over $13 million). Legendary grapes are borne out of this location, and they are the crown jewels of Pinot royalty. You still have to know how to make a great wine out of these grapes, and Kathryn Walt Hall, proprietor of HALL Wines and WALT Wines, has done it once again with a superb team of winemakers who, wisely, stay out of the way and allow the character of the vineyard to speak for itself. Staying out of the way, of course, takes a lot of hard work and precision. This wine is truly a gem.  96 pts     search   direct

Hartford Court Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2012 ($35)

A blend of fruit from top sites in the Russian River Valley, this bottling has recently joined a very accomplished portfolio of single-vineyard Pinots from this family-owned winery.  If their name is unfamiliar, just check out the winery’s website to view the accolades they have received. An eloquent and suave, medium-bodied wine with pronounced sour cherry and violet flavors.  A balanced Pinot, and its quality surpasses what one has come to expect at this price point.  92 pts     search   direct

Merry Edwards Pinot Noir, Meredith Estate Vineyard 2012 ($85)

Merry-Edwards-Pinot-Meredith-150x150The prominence of chalk and slate in the texture is a surprise, and this is due to the Pinot grapes sourced from the renowned Joseph Swan vineyard located in the Russian River region of Sonoma. The aromas of the wine are like sticking your nose in a flower bed of rose and lavender. Adding to the complexity and multiple shades of character, there is great structure and power along the spine. An altogether unique Pinot Noir.  95 pts     search   direct


Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 ($45)

Lighter and silkier than in past vintages, and still a fantastic 100% estate-grown Sonoma Coast Pinot. The richness and fruit-forwardness is so attractive, it’s guaranteed to garner some oohs and ahs at the table. Irresistable, addictive, heartwarming and full of joy. This bottle, in just its 6th vintage of the wine, is evidence the late, great Joseph Phelps left behind something young and vibrant that will long continue his legacy into the future.  93 pts     search   direct

Bedrock Old Vine Zinfandel 2013 ($22.50)

There is probably no maker of Zinfandel who marches to his own drumbeat more than Sonoma Valley’s Morgan Twain Peterson. Somewhere between mad genius and romantic idealist, each wine that comes from Bedrock is a creation of the artistic imagination. This entry-level Zin only hints at the Willy Wonka-ish wild imagination behind the rest of the Zins in the Bedrock portfolio, but it’s a mighty fine place to start.  91 pts     search   direct

Frog’s Leap Zinfandel 2013 ($30)

Frogs-Leap-Zin-150x150There’s many reasons why this has stood as a classic California Zinfandel for over 30 years. The best reason is probably because it never gets old. Vintage in and vintage out, it tastes as fresh, rich and vibrant as ever. Never interested in being a fruit bomb, this is lower alcohol Napa Valley Zin that’s passionately invested in having great structure and balance. The commercials tell you that love is what makes a Subaru a Subaru car. Uh, don’t think so. Love is what makes a consistently great Zinfandel for the ages.  92 pts     search   direct


Donelan Syrah Cuvee Christine 2011 ($55)

Northern Rhone-styled, cool-climate Syrah is an intellectual pursuit which the purveyor hopes turns into a commercial success. Like great art, it doesn’t come to you—you have to come to it. Right? The beauty of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is only fully revealed with a certain level of personal investment. So, when an alluring, silky, sensuous and quietly gorgeous Sonoma Syrah like the Cuvee Christine is presented in the glass, one must come to it with a sense of quietude and reflection. The reward for doing so is the experience of a finely balanced, refined and complex wine that stirs the soul.  95 pts     search   direct


[divider]SAUVIGNON BLANC and OTHER WHITES[/divider]


Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc Reserve To Kalon Vineyard 2012 ($50)

Vintage classics stay relevant because their impact to the genre can still be felt to this day. Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca forever changed our notion of a love story; Carol Reed’s The Third Man did the same for film noir and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be for comedy. And the same goes for Robert Mondavi’s classic Fumé Blanc from the historically significant To Kalon vineyard. The vines that produce this legendary Sauvignon Blanc were first planted in Napa Valley in 1960, and our perception of American-made Sauvignon Blanc was subsequently sealed. This wine holds up as well today as Casablanca holds up. True sophistication and elegance in a white wine. So pristine and crystalline in texture. The history of California wine cannot be written without mention of this wine, and it is something to treasure.  94 pts     search   direct

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($46)

We’ve raved about this Sonoma classic for a while (see our latest review)—along with pretty much everyone else in the world, so we’re not saying anything entirely original—but others don’t go far enough. Nothing deters us from strongly suggesting that this is the greatest white wine produced in America.  94 pts     search   direct

Turnbull Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($18)

Stunning Napa Sauvignon Blanc and staggeringly underpriced. Very stony soils and early picking of fruit from the vine brings about a wine that is energizing in its minerality and exceedingly pure in taste. Napa Valley has a habit of producing non-descript Sauvignons in this price range that seem to have the same hollow character, but Turnbull produces one that is a thrilling original.  92 pts     search   direct

Sidebar Sauvignon Blanc High Valley 2014 ($19)

Sidebar is the newest side project from Sonoma luminary producer David Ramey, and it’s all about having fun and a good time. Bright, cheery, sweet, round, stylish, young and rich—like the Taylor Swift hit song goes—this is white wine that will never go out of style. The Ramey winery made its name on Chardonnays with serious heft and sophistication. With this Sauvignon Blanc, they just might land a pop hit on the charts.  91 pts     search   direct

Prager Winery & Port Works ­Aria White Port 2010 ($46)

Prager-White-Port-150x150You won’t find many white Ports made in America (red Ports, of course, are the eponymously-named fortified wines Portugal is famous for), and this one is made from 100% Napa Chardonnay grapes. It spends three years in barrel, and what emerges is a rich, viscous dessert wine with a flavor profile hardly anyone will recognize as Chardonnay. Along with hints of peach, the dominating flavor upfront is unmistakably hazelnut, which, interestingly, seems to transform into pecan by the time you reach the finish of a sip. Think of this Port as dessert in a glass perfect for pairing with any Mediterranean-styled pastries after a meal. People in the A-B-C camp (Anything But Chardonnay) might be pleasantly surprised by stepping out on a limb and giving this a try.  93 pts     search   direct

September 1, 2015


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