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Great Wines from Napa and Sonoma: Vintage 2011


Expectations are tempered down for the 2011 vintage in California, widely acknowledged as a “tricky” vintage. However, as with all tough vintages, some wineries find a way to shine and outperform their rivals—and we’ve come across several incredibly impressive wines that are more than worthy of your attention and purchasing power.

We attended the Napa and Sonoma All-Stars event, a giant wine tasting hosted every late Spring by Wally’s, one of the city’s premier wine shops (L.A. is blessed to have at least 6 world class wine stores). The majority of the offerings were from the 2011 vintage, and we also got a preview of highly-anticipated 2012s as well as a smattering of older vintages.

Perhaps we’ll all look back at 2011 as an underrated vintage. Time will tell. Meanwhile, there is absolute brilliance behind the winemaking inside all of these bottles.



Small Production (500 cases or less)

Best: DONUM ESTATE 2011 Russian River Reserve Pinot Noir ($85–$90)

Exceedingly elegant and quintessential Russian River Pinot character—earthy, velvety, round, lengthy, concentrated and balanced. This should age very nicely and we wouldn’t touch it until 2016. Expensive, yes, but worthy. Quite an astonishing wine—expressive and full of stature.  96 pts     search   direct

Runner-up: REULING 2011 Pinot Noir ($65–$70)

If you close your eyes and click your heels twice, you can imagine you’re drinking a Vosne-Romanée Grand Cru. But, back in Oklahoma and after seeing the real Oz behind the curtain, you learn that what you have, you really appreciate—which is a damn fine artisanal, handcrafted California Pinot that’s delicately structured, exotic and floral. Needs until 2018.  94 pts     search   direct

Other notable small production wines:

GANDONA 2011 Encosta Cabernet Sauvignon ($90)  Made by winemaker phenom Philippe Melka, everything you want in a hillside Cabernet sprung from volcanic rock.  94 pts     search   direct

PIÑA 2008 Mimbre Cabernet Sauvignon ($115)  With only 80 cases made, micro-production to the core.  Masculine, dark and brooding.  95 pts     search   direct


Medium Production (500–1,000 cases)

Best: DONELAN 2011 Two Brothers Pinot Noir ($60-$66)

Exquisitely balanced—at once possessing a light buttery texture yet nicely acidic—with an ethereal mix of vanilla, cedar and cardamom spice flittering amongst the rustic quality of concentrated fruit. A nature-lover’s Pinot and boutique winemaking at its finest.  95 pts     search   direct

Runner-up: RAMEY 2011 Chardonnay, Platt Vineyard ($54–$60)

Beautiful crispness and exactitude, exuding confidence and a strong spine. Coming from the very cool regions of the Sonoma Coast, it holds its vast array of flavors and aromas—lemon oil, pear, mint, honeysuckle, green apple to name a few—close to the vest, like a poker pro not wanting to reveal his pocket aces.  94 pts     search   direct

Other notable medium production wines:

MERRY EDWARDS 2011 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($39–$50)  Merry Edwards’ Pinots arrive with a lot of advance praise and it takes one sip to prove why the praise is well-deserved. Sour cherries stand out. Balanced, charming and irresistible. One of Ryan’s top two favorites of the tasting.  93 pts     search   direct

HIDDEN RIDGE 2007 “Impassable Mountain Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon ($70–$80)  A Napa mountain cab through and through. The extremities of the vineyard’s physical location creates a wine notable in its concentration and array of big, bold flavors enhanced by almost overpowering oak.  94 pts     search   direct


Large Production (over 1,000 cases)

Best: MERRY EDWARDS 2012 Sauvignon Blanc ($35–$40)

Possibly the greatest Sauvignon Blanc produced in America. A structural clarity and focus similar to that found in a Domaine de Chevalier Blanc Bordeaux but round and fulsome fruit that’s pure California. The heady nose of blossoming wildflowers and citrus transports you on a Magical Mystery Tour where nothing is real and there’s nothing to get hung about.  93 pts     search   direct

Other notable large production wines:

DARIOUSH 2011 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon ($90–$100)  It’s really a disservice to one’s self to never experience the premium offering in Darioush’s highly regarded line of Cabernets (we’re also a huge fan of their Signature Merlot). Well-integrated, velvet smooth, with dark fruit standing out. Caymus fans should love this one too.  94 pts     search   direct

WALT 2011 “La Brisa” Pinot Noir ($35–$40)  From the estimable Hall empire comes a solid, fairly priced Pinot that has all the, ahem, hallmarks of meticulously and lovingly handcrafted wine.  91 pts     search   direct

WALT 2012 “La Brisa” Chardonnay ($35)  Creamy, oaky, fruity, lengthy. All the classic fundamentals of Sonoma Chardonnay are walking in stride in deluxe fashion.  91 pts     search   direct


Mass Production (over 10,000 cases)

Best: JOSEPH PHELPS 2010 Insignia ($180–$225)

A blockbuster wine with each vintage in, vintage out. Like a well-tuned orchestra conducted by a maestro, there are lots of components that come together to produce a sweet sound (or flavor in this case). Fragrant, slightly tannic, very concentrated, and an infinitely elegant, long finish, this wine—given its high price point—just does not ever disappoint. If we had such a classification in this country, to be considered a First Growth American wine.  96 pts     search   direct



Best: GUNDLACH BUNDSCHU 2010 Merlot ($23–$30)

Add a brand name marketing headache to a product with a libelous past (Sideways quote: “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!”) and what do you get? Winning!—a terrific Merlot with a catchy name everyone will mispronounce. The winery’s long history (dating back to 1861) of making this varietal shows through in the depth of character in the wine.  92 pts     search   direct

Runner-up: FROG’S LEAP 2011 Zinfandel ($23–$30)

Wineries like Frog’s Leap, Bedrock and Carlisle are on the forefront of redefining modern Zinfandel while simultaneously honoring traditions of the past—let’s call it Neo-Zin. And it’s a beautiful thing: dry-farmed, organic, estate-grown and craftily blended to reflect the natural beauty of the soil and fruit. Nothing bombastic here… this is Zin with quiet complexity.  91 pts     search   direct

Other notable value-priced wines:

LANDMARK 2011 Overlook Chardonnay ($19–$22)  For 20 years now a classic American Chardonnay, and the brilliance of winemaking great Helen Turley still shines through. This belongs on every table.  92 pts     search   direct

LANDMARK 2012 Overlook Pinot Noir ($20–$25)  The inaugural vintage for this wine, and the future looks bright for all of us who desire excellent value-priced Pinot. Balanced, soft, pleasant and comforting as a Linus blanket.  90 pts     search   direct

HONIG 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon ($35–$40)  A Napa cab that probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves.  Medium body, dark hue with hints of blueberry. Consistently good in vintage after vintage, there’s a lot of bang for one’s hard earned buck.  91 pts     search   direct



TOR 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($72–$80)

Astounding winemaking here. The Gods were not kind to makers of Napa Valley Cabernet in 2011. Fall harvest was a time of bitter cold (for Cali) and heavy rains that destroyed masses of crops—all that was missing was frogs raining down from the heavens to make it downright Biblical. However, once the storms subsided, from the mountain and hilltops—where the three vineyards are located that bore the fruit of this wine—came down a man, a living Moses sporting jeans and worker boots, with a new commandment to make great wine for his people.

Tor Kenward has produced a wine that shows no signs of an uncooperative Mother Nature. A big cab with lots of finesse. Silky, sensuous, harmonious—melodious, really—plump with dark, almost foreboding fruit, and so seamless—making for an effortless, complete and addictive drinking experience. Mind you, there’s a cool, restrained quality to the awesomeness of the wine—this isn’t Napa Cab that’s interested in overpowering you. Its authority lies in its understated elegance and persuasion. An outstanding achievement and—ssshhh!—underpriced for the quality.  96 pts     search   direct



–J.M. and R.K.

[avatar user=”Johannes Marlena” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /] [avatar user=”Ryan Koczara” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /]

August 15, 2014


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