Sunday, January 19, 2014

5 California Wineries That Wowed Me in 2013

2013 was a great year, wasn’t it? Over the course of the year I tasted a lot of amazing wines and toured many a beautiful California vineyard. As a writer for the daily wine blog Terroirist, I blind-tasted my way through a lot of samples in 2013, most of which hailed from CA. I found myself gravitating toward several producers who put out consistently awesome wines, regardless of vintage or grape variety.

Some of these winemakers are new-ish, some are just new to me, some have been bottling vino since before I was born. But all of these producers wowed me in 2013 with wines of high quality and distinction. I haven’t tasted the full portfolios from these five producers (yet). But from what I’ve tasted so far, I feel confident enough saying: If one of these folks made the wine, then it’s probably legit. I’m also excited to see more 2012s from these producers, because winemakers from all over the state seem psyched about that vintage. And when you taste the 2012s, it’s easy to see why.

All the wines in this post were tasted and scored blind, unless otherwise noted.

Alta Maria

Alta Maria kicked off in 2004, but this producer was new to me until I discovered their wines in blind tastings in the fall. Alta Maria takes a focused but humble approach to Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Their wines show tangy acid, complex non-fruit flavors and, perhaps best of all, incredibly reasonable price points. It’s rare to find a producer making reliably exciting wines in the $18-$30 range. Alta Maria is one of them.

Alta Maria is the cooperative effort of owner James Ontiveros and winemaker Paul Wilkins. Ontiveros traces his family’s California roots all the way back to the late 1700s, and his family once owned land all over Santa Barbara and Orange Counties. Ontiveros has worked for Kendall-Jackson as a field supervisor and for Gallo, maintaining relationships with growers throughout the North Coast. Wilkins showed off his winemaking skills while working for Alban, and went on to start Wilkins Vinotech, a consulting firm for start-up wineries. Through Alta Maria, these guys set out to, “make genuine, honest and authentic wines that were inspired by the old world regions of France.” And that’s exactly what they’re doing.

2011 Alta Maria Sauvignon Blanc - Central Coast, Santa Barbara County ($18)
Aromas of honeysuckle, lemon-lime, a hint of green herbs and white pepper. Medium-bodied, lots of acid keeps this thing tart and lively. Grapefruit, lots of tangerine, the fruit is backed up by notes of sea salt and fresh green herbs and peppers. Tangy, focused, with some significant complexity. I’m impressed, especially considering the price. 100% stainless steel, no maloactic fermentation. (90 points)

2012 Alta Maria Chardonnay - Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley ($23)
A straw-yellow color. On the nose: tangerine, white cherry, lemon-lime, honeysuckle. On the palate: tangy but creamy, lots of floral notes blend with the tangerine and papaya, some honeycomb and almond elements, minerals and sea salt. Shows a lot of elegance and complexity. Fermented and aged 31 months in French oak. (90 points)

2010 Alta Maria Pinot Noir - Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley ($24)
Aromas of rich plum, black cherries, some pepper and cranberry sauce elements. Juicy and ripe on the palate, with black cherry and tangy plum fruit. Fine tannins and crisp acid make this so pleasant to sip. Some pepper and black olive, too, and the toast is well-integrated. I was surprised to see this was an appellation blend, because it drinks like a single-vineyard Pinot. Great quality-to-price ratio. Aged 17 months in 1/3 new French oak. (89 points)


I’d never heard of Dierberg until I unveiled one of their Pinot Noirs in a blind tasting. After tasting a few of their wines, I’m officially a fan.

They’re bankers by profession, but proprietors Jim and Mary Dierberg had owned a winery before… in Hermann, Missouri. They’d been building up the historic Hermannhof Winery since 1974, but they wanted to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and the St. Louis area is less than ideal for growing Burgundian varieties. But they found what they were looking for in the Santa Barbara area. In 1997, they planted the Dierberg Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley, which is now home to some downright awesome Pinot and Chardonnay, and a tiny bit of Syrah. The Drum Canyon Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills was planted in 2003 to Chard and Pinot as well.

Winemaker Tyler Thomas, formerly of Sonoma’s Donelan Family Wines, joined Dierberg this summer. I’ve loved Tyler’s wines in the past, and I look forward to tasting his Dierberg stuff in the future.

2010 Dierberg Chardonnay - Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley ($32)
I get some hazelnut and lemon oil notes on the nose, covering the yellow apple and lime. On the palate, this wine has a medium-bodied frame and crisp, persistent acid. The yellow apple and apricot flavors show richness, with notes of whipped honey, walnut and a kind or oily, varnished wood note. Long finish. I’m enjoying the combination of freshness and richness in this Chardonnay. Undergoes 10% maloactic fermentation and spends 10 months in 25% new oak. (90 points)

2010 Dierberg Pinot Noir - Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley ($44)
Bold aromas of black cherries and plums, along with a bunch of rose and violet aromas, a hint of loamy soil. On the palate, some fine tannins, medium acid and rich fruit (black cherries, currants and a bit of strawberry mixed in). Earthy, with tobacco and a good amount of cedar and mocha. Generous, but showing some restraint as well. Long finish with notes of vanilla and pepper. (90 points)

2011 Dierberg Pinot Noir Drum Canyon Vineyard - Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills ($44)
Aromas of fresh black cherries, wild strawberries, sweet vanilla, some spicy pepper. Medium tannins with rounded edges, the mouthfeel is creamy, and the acid that keeps it fresh. Cranberries and tart red cherries mix with notes of rhubarb, root beer and white pepper. Some notes of caramel, vanilla and mocha, but not too much, and the wine maintains some restraint and elegance. Easy to drink now, but it should get more expressive over the next year. Love the tart finish. (91 points)

2010 Dierberg Syrah Estate Grown - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley ($34)
Concentrated on the nose with black cherry, pepper, some blueberry, violet, root beer. Firm, gritty tannins, moderate acid. The fruit is creamy and rich yet full of nuance. Black cherry, blueberry and dark plums mix with secondary flavors of black olive, sweet barbecue sauce, mocha, even a bit of a rocky-mineral aspect. Full and pretty, but this also shows staying power. If it had just a bit more acid, I’d be even more excited. Regardless, this is a very pretty wine. (91 points)

Kelly Fleming

Kelly Fleming crafts unique and intellectually stimulating wines from the Napa staple varieties Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Proprietor Kelly Fleming moved to Napa from Arizona in 1998 with hopes of starting a boutique winery. They planted a few acres of Cabernet in a little pocket of Calistoga, and their first vintage, 2002, came out in the spring of 2005. Their Cab is actually 100% Cab, no Merlot or Cab Franc chaser.

These days, Kelly and winemaker Celia Welch have been getting some serious accolades for their Cab. One taste, and I get it. I’d love to try a Kelly Fleming Cab with a decade of age on it.
2012 Kelly Fleming Wines Sauvignon Blanc - Napa Valley ($36)
Clear, light yellow color. Aromas of orange blossom, white peach, honeysuckle, some pineapple. Medium+ body, medium acid, there’s a waxy-creamy aura to this wine. A lot of nice peach and pear fruit, glazed with a mix of honey and almond. Rich and forward, but I like the tang and the floral, herbal and mineral notes on the finish. Impressive depth. Made from primarily the Musque clone, this wine sees a combination of French oak and stainless steel. (90 points)

2010 Kelly Fleming Wines Cabernet Sauvignon - Napa Valley ($110)
Black cherries, currants, coffee, black licorice and toast on the nose, really rich and perhaps a bit foreboding. Firm tannins on the palate meet a moderate dose of acid, combining for a velvety mouthfeel. Lots of blackberry and currant fruit, mixed in with a hefty dose of cedar, sweet oak and mocha. Notes of tobacco and birch beer linger long into the finish. Very rich, but also very well made. Long life ahead. 100% Cab, aged 20 months 80% new French oak. I could see rating this higher in two or three years. (91 points)

The Smith Bros back in the day. Napa Valley bad ass.
Photo: Smith-Madrone.

Founded in 1971, Smith-Madrone’s winery is located on Spring Mountain, west of St. Helena. The operation is run by brothers Stuart Smith, managing partner and vineyard manager, and Charles Smith III, winemaker. They dry farm their estate vineyards, which line steep slopes between 1,300 and 2,000 feet in elevation. Their mountain wines are dynamic, lively and they show a refreshing sense of purity and minerality.

One of my favorite discoveries this year was Smith-Madrone’s 2012 Spring Mountain District Riesling. I’m rarely excited by Rieslings from Napa, but this one stoked my palate with refreshing dryness, intense minerality, high acid and loads of stone fruit and minerals. Some notes on recent Smith-Madrone wines…

2010 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Estate Bottled - Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District ($30)
The fruit smells honeyed and rich, yet these shaved lime peel, sea shell and peanut brittle notes demand attention as well. It all combines in a beautiful aromatic display. This Chardonnay introduces itself by barging through the door, with pineapple, melon, honey, and mixed nuts from the oak. (It spends 8 months in 100% new French oak). But it’s still bright from the acid, which is crucial to have in wines with this kind of intensity. Orange peel, seashell, caramel and hazelnut linger long onto the finish. A brave wine that challenges — and rewards — my palate. (92 points)

2011 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Estate Bottled - California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District ($30)
Gold-yellow color with viscous legs. Aromas of whipped honey, pear, apricot and nougat, mixed in with a hint of limestone or chalk. On the palate, the yellow apple and pear fruit is coated in nougat, peanut shell and a distinct macadamia nut flavor. There’s a nice kick to the acid, though, offering some balance. I like this lemon zest and chalk note as well. Bold, but not heavily creamy. Interesting because it’s toasty, but still tangy, and offering some mineral and rock accents. Long finish with notes of honeycomb and toffee. Barrel-fermented and aged 8 months in 100% new French oak. (91 points)

2012 Smith-Madrone Riesling Estate Bottled - Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District ($27)
A very light yellow color. Aromas of grapefruit, white flowers, some apricot and a distinct crushed limestone note. The acid tingles the palate as the apricot, creamy peach and green melon roll in. There’s an awesome lime juice and rock quarry aspect that reminds me of the Mosel, which I’m not sure I’ve ever said about a Napa Riesling. Very crisp and lively, this likely has some fun evolution ahead of it. (90 points)

2007 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Bottled - Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District ($42)
Dark and brooding on the nose, with blackberries, cassis, toasted oak and hints of sweet mocha. Dry, tight tannins on the palate. The heavily toasted oak bursts onto the scene early and stands its ground until the finish. Luckily there’s a good dose of blackberries and plums fruit, which is powerful enough to tame the oak just a bit. Violet, soil and tobacco leaf flavors (almost undetectable upon uncorking) become vibrant with just 15 minutes of air, and more and more so over the course of a few hours. That sweet mocha flavor lingers long onto the finish. Good stuff, but must be a fan of the toast. Includes 2% Merlot and 1% Cab Franc. Aged 22 months in new American white oak. (88 points)

2009 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Bottled - Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
SRP: $45
Dark ruby color. Aromas of plum sauce, black cherries, sweet vanilla, caramel, some nice forest floor and peppered steak. On the palate, medium acid and firm, gritty tannins. Currants and plum fruit lead the way, followed by some kicking spices, charcoal and an herbal, maybe a pickled beet note? Sweet vanilla and cedar, but not too much, and theyre matched by the fallen leaves and soil notes that come out strong on the finish. I love this tart pickle note. A unique wine with equal parts guts and nuance. Seriously impressive stuff thats built to last. Includes 8% Merlot and 8% Cab Franc, the wine was aged 22 months in new American white oak. (92 points)

Vie Winery

I’ve tasted some Vie wines over the years, but in 2013 a bunch of their wines graced my palate. While on a trip to San Francisco, I stopped by the Winery Collective in Fisherman’s Wharf. Seeing a flight of Vie wines on the list, I knew immediately I was in the right place. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it out to Vie’s winery on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, but I’ve heard is worth the visit. Upon returning home to DC, I tasted a bunch of Vie’s wines in blind tastings for Terroirist, and they wowed me blind just as much as they did sighted.

Vie sources Rhone varieties from high-quality vineyards throughout the state, from Santa Barbara (White Hawk, Thompson) to Napa (Beatty Ranch in Howell Mountain) to Mendocino County (Alder Springs). Vie is the product of Bryan Kane and a small group of wine nerd friends. Winemaker Todd Seaver has been crafting Vie wines since 2005, and he’s got a solid track record. According to Vie’s web site, Seaver’s “primarily aim is to create full wines with palate weight and good body, that have a sharp, bright acidity and sing with food.” I’d say he’s doing pretty well, although some of the young Syrahs may require a serious brisket or lamb shank in order to “sing.”

2011 Vie Winery Roussanne - California, North Coast, Lake County ($29)
Aromas of white flowers, honeycomb, white peach and some mineral and lime accents. Richly-textured on the palate but it shows tangy acid. Flavors of orange peel, mango and notes of lime, along with vanilla, toast, caramel and honey. More focus and tang than the 2009 I tasted recently. (90 points)

2012 Vie Winery Belle-Amie - Central Coast, Santa Barbara County ($18)
Looks like the color of a cherry Jolly Rancher candy. A kick of pepper is the first thing I notice on the nose, followed up by rose hips, watermelon and wild strawberries. The palate displays a big, creamy feel along with persistent acid. The watermelon and strawberry fruit tastes fresh and ripe, there’s also this lime and grapefruit aspect that keeps it snappy. The white pepper and herbal undertones work great. Full, complex, but the acid makes it food-friendly. An impressive rosé from a reliable producer. Mostly Mourvèdre, with Grenache and Syrah. (89 points)

2007 Vie Winery Syrah Les Amours - Central Coast, Santa Barbara County ($30)
Tasted sighted at the Winery Collective tasting room. Age does wonderful things for Vie’s wines. The purity of fruit on the nose is impressive, plums, black cherries, mixed in with rose petals. Firm tannins on the palate, fresh acid, the combination is really silky. Lots of plums, black cherries, along with smoke, pepper, potting soil and rose petal notes. Long finish. Seems to be in a great place right now, and seems like it could easily improve for three or for more years. (90 points)

2010 Vie Winery Syrah White Hawk Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Barbara County ($45)
Smells really smoky, like barbecued meat over the grill, on top of tons of fruit: blackberries, rich blueberries and plums. Big and bold on the palate, but solid tannin structure and some fresh acid. Blueberries and black cherries lead the way. I like the mix of brandied plums and root beer with the peppered steak and charcoal flavors. Rich, but there’s enough balance that it’s easy to drink. Really delicious and seductive stuff. Fermented with 3% Viognier. (92 points)

2010 Vie Winery Syrah Las Madres Vineyard - Sonoma, Carneros ($39)
A heavenly nose, mixing currant, plum and blueberry fruit with campfire smoke, rich earth, also some savory undertones and clove. So pure and lush on the palate, with velvety tannins and moderate acid. Lots of blueberry and black currant fruit, along with a complex blend of earth, smoke, roasted chestnut and clove, just a hint of meat underneath. This wine has an effortless kind of beauty to it, and it’s hitting all the right notes for my palate. A long evolution ahead. Using 20% whole cluster fermentation, this Syrah is co-fermented with 3% Viognier and aged 18 months in 25% new French Oak. (93 points)

2010 Vie Winery Zinfandel Beatty Ranch - Napa Valley, Howell Mountain ($39)
Blueberry, strawberry rhubarb pie, smoke, red licorice, sweet flowers… what an aromatic display. Rich and plush on the palate, with chewy tannins and some acid for balance. A mix of blueberry and strawberry combines in this tart yet bold display of fruit. Notes of black pepper, sweet pipe tobacco, earth and clove linger onto the finish. Beautifully bold, this wine also delivers serious complexity and the capacity for improvement in the cellar. Wow, what a great example of old-vine Howell Mountain Zinfandel. (93 points)


  1. I stumbled upon Vie out on San Francisco's Treasure Island and was blown away. Creative, clever, with an eye towards the old world but with a new world sense of adventure. Their Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrahs and Melange Maison are brilliant.

    1. Ray, I obviously agree. Their Zin really impressed me, and the Melange Maison, a non-vintage blend, is awesome, especially for the price. I agree about the sense of adventure, and that's what drew me to them, blind and non-blind alike, their wines have a mystique and intrigue about them. I'm definitely visiting the winery next time I'm in SF. Cheers!