Thursday, December 17, 2015

Five California Wineries that Wowed Me in 2015

I had the pleasure of tasting a whole lot of California wine this year — from my own collection, during visits with winemakers and trips to wine country, and as part of my weekly wine reviews for the daily wine blog Terroirist. Sure there are some boring, inexpensive multi-regional blends that pass by without much notice. But I am consistently impressed by the amount of good, really good and even thrilling California wines I’ve tasted this year. 

Some of my favorites came from renowned producers and big-name vineyards (Cardinale, Shafer’s Hillside Select, Mondavi’s To Kalon, , Ridge’s Monte Bello), but a handful of relatively new producers really wowed me with exceptional (and far less expensive) wines.  

Like I’ve done in years past, I’ve chosen five California producers to highlight. Some of these producers I’ve known and tasted before, while others were new to me in 2015. The wines from these five producers were so consistently good (regardless of grape variety, vintage, etc.) that their name on a label is enough for me. If they make it, I’m confident the wine will be good. Most likely, it will be damn good. 

Here, in no particular order, are the producers that wowed me this year.


Jake and Ben Fetzer know a few things about Mendocino wine. As sons of Mendocino legend Bobby Fetzer (who kicked off Fetzer Vineyards in 1968), they grew up in the vineyards of this sprawling, sparsely populated area of Northern California.

In 1994, Bobby Fetzer purchased a site west of the Redwood Valley appellation called Masút, a Native American word meaning “dark, rich earth.” The first vines were planted in 1997. After Bobby passed away in a rafting accident in 2006, the brothers moved forward with the project. “More determined than ever, we felt a need to continue to move forward in his honor,” they write on the Masút website. “We spearheaded a petition for a new viticultural area called Eagle Peak Mendocino County, and decided to convert a barn on the property to make wine. In 2011, our first vintage was released, and we dedicated it to our father.”

Anyone who talks California wine with me for more than a minute has heard me wax effusively about Mendocino. I fell in love with this region in 2009 and have made a bunch of trips back since, tasting and touring my way around the appellations of Yorkville Highlands, Anderson Valley, Potter Valley and more, exploring the redwoods and surfing remote surf breaks along the rugged coast. So I was thrilled to learn about Mendocino’s new Eagle Peak American Viticultural Area (AVA). The AVA comprises more than 20,000 acres, but only 115 are planted to wine grapes, under the auspices of Masút, Golden, Linholme, Sea Biscuit South, and Turan Vineyards. (I’ve yet to taste any wines from these other producers, but that won’t be the case for long.) All Eagle Peak vineyards sit between 800 and 3,200 feet, which sets this region apart from the neighboring Redwood Valley, where vines are planted at around 600 feet.

This year I tasted my first wines from Jake and Ben, their two 2013 Pinot Noirs. These wines were the first to use the new Eagle Peak AVA on their label. The wines are rich and see lots of new oak, but they’re precise, complex and age-worthy. I can’t wait to explore more wines from this and other Eagle Peak winemakers. 

2013 Masút Pinot Noir Estate Vineyard - Mendocino County, Eagle Peak 
Medium-deep ruby. Lovely, elegant aromatic approach: roses, lavender, lovely red currants and strawberries, some deep and rocky elements, earth and charcoal. Fresh acid on the palate, bright and elegant with dusty tannins and great balance. Tangy yet fleshy red berry fruit, pulls off the rich yet pretty appeal with ease. Complex loam, pipe tobacco and dried roses along with notes of cedar and cherry wood. Long finish. Beautiful, elegant stuff. Beautiful stuff, aged 15 months in 50% new oak. (93 points)

2013 Masút Pinot Noir Two Barrel Estate Vineyard - Mendocino County, Eagle Peak 
Medium-dark ruby color. Nose of deep black cherries, some raspberry and strawberry, too, deeply floral, with violets, also some vanilla cola and cedar. Medium-firm tannins, medium-plus acid, chewy yet pretty fruit (black and red cherries, some strawberry jam). Silky yet full, showing complex flavors of coffee, tobacco, dusty earth, sweet cola, dark chocolate and cedar shavings. Could use a few years, but quite approachable at this point. For 15 months in 100% new French oak, I’m impressed by its balance. (92 points)

I’d never tasted a wine from Kitá before this year, but — oh, boy — mine eyes hath been opened! This Santa Ynez-based producer pulls off consistently excellent interpretations of all sorts of wines: Grenache, Syrah, Red Rhone Blends, Grenache Blanc, White Rhone Blends, even Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Apparently they can grow almost anything in the Camp 4 Vineyard, which was planted by the late Fess Parker in 1999 and is now home to a whopping 19 different grape varieties. The 256-acre vineyard, which stretches to the easternmost edge of Santa Ynez Valley near Happy Canyon, was purchased by the Santa Ynez Band of the Chumash Indians in 2010.

Tara Gomez, a member of the Chumash tribe, crafts wines of stunning clarity from the Camp 4 Vineyard. Tara studied Enology at Cal State Fresno with the help of a scholarship from her tribe, and she graduated in 1998. She interned with Fess Parker, worked as enologist for J. Lohr in Paso Robles and kicked off her own label in 2001 called Kalawashaq, through which she focused on Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc. Tara also trekked to Europe to tour wine regions in Spain, France and Germany and study more traditional winemaking methods. 

Kitá (which means “our valley oak” in the native Chumash language of Samala) is a small batch producer (artisinal is a bow cliched, but the term applies here). Tara produces a dizzying array of different wines, but they add up to only 2,000 cases per year (less than 5% of the vineyard’s total crop). 

“Kitá prides itself on its connection and balance to the land, which was a Chumash philosophy I was raised on,” Tara told me in an email message. “With each distinct vintage, I aim for the wines to capture the essence of such a spiritual and extraordinary place.” 

The specialness of this place (and the attention to detail by the vineyard crew and winemaker) is evident in each Kitá wine I’ve tasted. These wines consistently pop out in blind tastings with a sense of purity and freshness. If you get the chance, I highly recommend trying some. The expansiveness and diversity of Gomez's wine portfolio is beyond impressive. 

2013 KITÁ T'aya Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Light yellow color. Aromas of green apples, kiwi, lime, margarita salt, some clover and ginger as well, a bit hesitant, needs air to come out and speak. Rich in texture but it has a lighter essence (12.5% alcohol), medium acid. The green and yellow apple fruit is fresh but fully ripe, quite subtle, hesitant even. Some hazelnut, toasted almond, hints of saline and chalk too with the richer honeyed elements. Hints of shaved lime and seashell on the finish. Generous texture but subtle flavors. 59% Marsanne, 39% Roussanne and 2% Grenache Blanc. Very good for the price. (89 points)

2012 KITÁ Spe'y Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Light ruby color. Nose of tart red berries, some sweeter, jammier notes, backed up by elements of baking spices, pepper, coffee and toast. Bold approach, some moderate acid, drying tannins of decent strength, alcohol gives it a thicker presence. Tart currants, dark and crunchy cherries and plums. Lots of coffee, toasted nuts, add in some sweet herbal notes, spices, cola and rhubarb. A warm, rich finish. Seems to need a bit of time, as it really opens up with air. 53% Grenache, 27% Syrah and 20% Carignane, aged 18 months in 30% new French oak. (90 points)

2012 KITÁ Syrah Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Light purple color. Vibrant and bold on the nose. I get black cherries, currant jam, menthol, sweet cedar, violets, black pepper. Rich texture, medium-low acid, fleshy but quite firm tannins. Black currants, black cherries, some plum fruit, mixed together with menthol, eucalyptus, cedar, cherry cola, roasted coffee, black pepper. Chewy and long on the finish. Delicious, no doubt, but quite bold, perhaps it could use some time. Rich but the wine maintains this element of mystique that I find really attractive. All Syrah, aged 18 months in 30% new French oak. (90 points)

2012 KITÁ Grenache Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Pale ruby color. Nose of tart red cherries and strawberries, red flowers and even some cherry blossom and potpourri notes, hints of pepper. Fine tannins, a full body but some richer and fuller notes. Elegant despite its richness, with freshness from the acid. Lovely tart red fruit (strawberries and raspberries), notes of chestnut, tobacco, pepper, a spicy herbal kick, toasted almond, hint of cedar woven in well, spiced coffee, sweet cola. Complex, showing wonderfully right now but could hold for a year or two. Long finish. Exciting stuff. All Grenache, aged 18 months in 25% new French oak. (92 points)

2013 KITÁ Sauvignon Blanc Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Light gold color. Nose shows lemons, limes, grapefruit, lychee along with jalapeno, cut grass and oregano. Medium bodied, tangy acid. White peaches, drizzled with ruby red grapefruit juice, lots of grapefruit. Tangy and brisk throughout with notes of chalk, honeysuckle, green onion and spicy Italian oregano. Some hints of honey and orange peel on the finish. So food friendly, definitely a brisk style but showing some richer notes of nougat and raw almond on the finish. Quite complex, could even use some time to open up. Stainless steel plus 20% old oak for eight months. 13% alcohol. (89 points)

2013 KITÁ Grenache Blanc Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Light gold color. Aromas of white peaches, yellow apples, topped with honey, dandelion, hints of toasted almond. Clean acid on the palate, the wine has a waxy, full texture but stays bright. White peach, green melon, yellow and green apples, the fruit has a refreshing tartness, which is complemented by the white tea, honeycomb and almond notes (not oaky, though). Hints of chalk, crusty ocean jetties and a slight green herbal spice notes. Complex, full of flavor, yet stays tangy, salty and refreshing throughout. Really unique style. I for one would like to see more California Grenache Blan. (90 points)

2012 KITÁ S'alapay Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Bright purple color. Aromas of tart red and black currants, some cool blueberries, notes of roses and lavender, cedar, tobacco leaf and roasted coffee. On the palate, firm yet approachable tannic structure, some impressive tart acid for freshness. Soft around the edges, with juicy red and black fruit, which tastes ripe but still shows some crunchy skin aspects. Tempered noted of roasted nut and cherry wood. Long, clean finish with notes of tobacco and dusty soil. 50% Merlot, 44% Cabernet Franc and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 18 months in 35% new French oak. (89 points)

2012 KITÁ Cabernet Sauvignon Camp 4 Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Medium ruby colored. Smells of roasted figs, raspberry jam, some charcoal, sweet oak, coffee and baking spices, tobacco hints. Full-bodied and fruit-forward, but the tannins are easy to chew, medium-low acid, a smooth and rich presence on the palate. Full of juicy, gushing blue and black berries, laced with notes of cola, sweet coffee, earthy-dusty elements. I get cedar, pine, hints of sweet menthol as well. Full of richness and hedonism, but I can’t deny the deliciousness, and I’m loving the velvety feel and complexity of flavors. All Cabernet, aged 18 months in 40% new French oak. (88 points)

2012 KITÁ Pinot Noir Hilliard Bruce Vineyard - Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills
Deep ruby colored. Nose of raspberries and blackberries, red and black cherries, along with loamy soil, sweet rose potpourri, pepper, vanilla, root beer. Very juicy, fresh and attractive nose. Medium-bodied, silky tannins provide a chewy feel, medium acid. The fruit is rich and chewy, black cherries, dark plums, blackberries, add in some vanilla cola, mocha, sweet chewing tobacco, black cherries in ice cream, but also some cracked pepper, loam and Portobello mushroom elements. Despite the forward approach, this shows a lot of subtlety and complexity. Could be popped now, but I would cellar this for three or four years. A lot in here to contemplate over time. I love high acid, and would like this even more if it had a tad more acid, but it’s still quite balanced. 13.1% alcohol, aged 18 months in 25% new French oak. (91 points)

I swear, it’s not the name that makes me love this wine, although it is quite cool to drink a Baker Lane Pinot with a whole room of Bakers. (My family all loved the stuff, too.) 

Founder Stephen Singer has had his fingers in many (eco-friendly) pies. He’s worked as a wine consultant and mentored with Kermit Lynch. He was also married to Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, and he served 15 years as wine director for the famous Berkeley restaurant. And he developed his own restaurants, Table 29 in Napa and César in Berkeley. Perhaps this deep experience with high California cuisine helps explain the vibrancy and food-friendly attitude of Baker Lane’s wines.

Winemaker Greg Adams joined Singer in 2007, after working with Flowers, Stags Leap and Lynmar, in addition to stints in Argentina, South Africa, Italy and France. These guys put out some absolutely delicious Syrah and Pinot Noir. I find the wines maintain an earthy, spicy, bright aesthetic, but many of them have plenty of structure to age well. 

Located at the end of Baker Lane in Sebastapol, Sonoma County, Baker Lane Vineyards is home to Syrah and Viognier vines, which are farmed biodynamically. A neighboring vineyard, the organically farmed Ramondo, is the site of some exceptional Syrah and Pinot Noir. The Syrahs I tasted this year are packed with savory, peppery, earthy elements (which is refreshing for old-school Syrah nerds), but they also pack juicy Sonoma Coast fruit that makes them immediately attractive. Lower alcohol and less new oak (10-20%) round out these restrained versions of California Syrah. 

2012 Baker Lane Syrah Sonoma Coast Cuvée - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Dark ruby. Lush and exotic on the nose, the blackberry and dark plum fruit mixes with violets, rose potpourri, bay leaf, cracked pepper and roasted coffee. Firm tannins, moderate acid, the wine is big but balanced and could be elegant with time in the cellar. Tart blueberries, black cherries and blackberries, the fruit is dusted with all sorts of spices (black pepper, dried red pepper, oregano, soy sauce). Notes of loam, violets, iron and roasted coffee as well. Tons of stuff going on here, but this needs two to four years to show its true potential. 2% Viognier in here, this spends 17 months in 10% new oak. (92 points)

2009 Baker Lane Syrah Estate Vineyard - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Dark ruby colored. I love the aromatics here: the tart blueberry and black cherry fruit is intertwined with cracked pepper, red sprinkle pepper, barbecue spice rub and grilled steak smells. Medium-bodied, moderate tannins and acid balance each other out nicely. The fruit is tangy but fully ripe (blackberries, blueberries, black cherries), again those elements come out on the palate and take center stage: black pepper, beef jerky, spice rub and crispy bacon. The fruit is pure Sonoma Coast goodness, but this could be mistaken for a Northern Rhone Syrah. Long finish with notes of coffee and iron. Complex, delicious, beautiful stuff. 13.6% alcohol, this is co-fermented with 4% Viognier and aged 17 months in 20% new barrels. (93 points)

2010 Baker Lane Syrah Estate Vineyard - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Medium-dark ruby colored. Smells of black and red currants, some tart blueberries, more violets but also some subtle pepper and spice elements. Juicy and ripe with grippy tannins and medium acid. Jammy but smooth on the fruit (blackberries, blueberries and dark currants). I really like the accents of cracked pepper, red pepper, soy glaze and bacon fat. Juicy, forward fruit but love the spicy complexity of this wine. Hints of mineral, coffee and iron as well. Plenty of time to let those complexities evolve, the wine has a lot of stuffing. 13% alcohol, this is co-fermented with 4% Viognier and aged 17 months in 20% new barrels. (92 points)

2014 Baker Lane Syrah Rosé - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Pale salmon/tangerine color. Lighter approach on the nose, sliced red apples and white cherries, a breezier aromatic profile with white flowers, dandelions and hints of sea salt. Bright and crisp approach on the palate, this wine is light and elegant but not short on flavor. I get McIntosh apple, wild raspberries, tangerine and watermelon fruit, but what I like best is the complex mix of crushed chalk, white pepper, sea shells and minerals. Long, bracing finish that keeps the mouth watering. Crazy value, this is a 12% alcohol Syrah from Baker Lane’s Ramondo Vineyard. (90 points)

2010 Baker Lane Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Cuvée - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Bright red cherries and currants on the nose, coated with dried rose petals, clove and some red licorice. Fresh and lively with moderate tannins and acid. Bursting with tangy-ripe strawberries, red and black cherries and raspberries. Interesting herbal and earthy elements (rosemary, white pepper, tobacco, rose hips) mixed with sweet cocoa powder and cola. This wine is open and outgoing but it has a lot of interesting elements to unpack. After two hours, this started exploding with complexity, roses, soil, pickling spices, hints of mushroom. Showing well right out of the bottle, but enough structure for a few more years of aging. I’d love to see what happens to those savory notes in two or three years. (90 points)

Hatton Daniels          

Kicked off in 2009, Hatton Daniels is the combined effort of winemaker Daniel Fishman and his co-owners and friends John Hatton, Daniel Caddigan and John Black. Dan Fishman interned at California Pinot boss Donum Estate, as well as Auteur and Eric Kent before taking over as Donum winemaker in 2012.

Credit: Hatton Daniels. The Roberts Road Vineyard is home to some excellent Pinot.
Describing their vision on their website, Hatton Daniels aims for wines that have “plenty of natural acidity, and this leads to wines that are a bit lighter in style, but that are full of energy, and still have plenty of depth and complexity. ” Well, that’s exactly how I’d describe their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs — full of flavor and complexity but demonstrating an airy, almost effortless feel on the palate that makes them so refreshing to sip.

They also produce a Napa Cab and a Contra Costa County White Rhone Blend. I haven’t tasted either of these wines, but I’m willing to guess they’re solid bottles.

2012 Hatton Daniels Chardonnay Fichtenberg Vineyards - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Aromatically rocking, so bright and crunchy but woven in perfectly are these richer, honeyed notes, the whole thing is dashed with crushed shells and chalk. Tangy acid, this medium-plus-bodied, the lime and green apple fruit is so pure and vibrant. The wine is loaded with Sonoma Coast goodness in a complex blend of honey, minerals, chalk, hazelnut and baking spices. A beautiful wine. (93 points)

2011 Hatton Daniels Chardonnay Fichtenberg Vineyards - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Do you like tart, tangy, mineral-driven Chardonnay? No? Then don't bother with this wine. But I love it. So vibrant and alive, sea shells and chalk and lemon peel, lime, crushed rocks, some richer dried honey notes. Love the intense oceanic elements. Tangy acid, laser-like. Creaminess is attractive though. Lemon, lime, green apple, top it off with crushed oyster shells, chalk. Almost Muscadet like in its oceanic and acidic severity, but some really nice honey richness as well. I love it. (91 points)

2011 Hatton Daniels Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Roberts Road - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Light ruby color. Loving the tart red berries and spice components, more floral notes with air. Refreshing acid throughout, tart red berries abound on a frame of fine tannins. Spices and herbs mix with sweet floral and vanilla cola notes, but this is a brisk and easy-drinking Pinot that’s showing very well right now. Could hold for a bit longer, but beautiful right now. Drink this while the 2012s are sleeping. (90 points)

La Pitchoune

I first tasted wines from this Sonoma Pinot and Chardonnay producer late last year, and my interest was immediately piqued. La Pitchoune is a newcomer to the Sonoma winemaking scene, but everything I’ve tasted, from regional blends and single-vineyard bottles, has been delicious.

Co-founders Tracy Nielsen and Peter Joachim Nielsen are both transplants to Sonoma (Tracy is originally from Colorado, Peter from Sweden), but they’ve adapted quite well.

La Pitchoune (which means “little one” in French) focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, sourcing grapes from a range of Sonoma County vineyards. Some are bottled as single vineyard wines: English Hill Vineyard near Sebastopol; Holder Vineyard, on a ridge above Occidental) while others are blended into the Sonoma Coast wine. The wines are made by Andrew Berge, a UC Davis grad who has Sonoma Pinot and Chardonnay experience with Spell and Hunter Wine Cellars.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what this producer does in the coming vintages. 

Credit: La Pitchoune.
2014 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir Vin Gris - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Medium salmon colored. So vibrant and fresh on the nose, with wild strawberries, white cherries and watermelon, mixed in with sea salt, crushed shells and a hint of white pepper. Crisp, clean, racy but attractive in its creaminess as well. I love the watermelon and tangy white cherries, and I get notes of honeysuckle, chalk, sea salt and rosewater. Delicious stuff right here, so vibrant and begging for shellfish and salads. (90 points)

2013 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir English Hill Vineyard - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Deep ruby color. Aromas of ripe, juicy black cherries, raspberries, tart strawberries, also some notes of pine sap, tobacco, white pepper, a spicy-herbal kick. Bright approach on the palate with tart raspberries, cherries and red plums, dusty tannins, plenty of structure, a bright acidic backbone that keeps the wine lively and tart. Notes of bay leaf, tobacco, white pepper, mixed in with richer elements of chocolate-covered cherries and cola. Deep underlying sense of earth and minerals. A beauty of a Pinot Noir that should improve for the next three to five years. Aged 11 months in 25% new French oak. (93 points)

2013 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir Holder Vineyard - Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Medium ruby colored. Aromas of jammy raspberries, tart summer plums and red currants, along with some earth and rosemary elements. Medium+ bodied, a velvety appeal with moderate acid, the balance is quite a thing. Tart plums mix with wild raspberries and richer strawberry jam flavors, and I get secondary notes of pine sap, green coffee, black tea. Velvety, smooth but stylish, rounded out with some earthy and saucy aspects that will surely evolve with time. 13.8% alcohol, aged 11 months in 25% new French oak. (92 points)

2012 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Tart cranberries and cherries on the nose but so many floral, spice and complex aromatic nuance as well. Bright and red fruit-driven on a frame of dusty tannins and some refreshing acid. Lots of spice, earth, rose petal and coffee integrated together so smoothly. A bold and full-bodied wine at 14%+ but maintains freshness and elegance as well. Opening up beautifully, drinking fine now but I’d like to revisit again in 2016. (91 points)


  1. Great piece and some stellar selections to add to my docket! I have some 2011 and 2012 Masút in the cellar, but have not tried any yet. The others are all new to me, so thanks!