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Honors: American Wine Awards 2004

F&W's eighth annual American Wine Awards celebrates two terrific back-to-back vintages in California (2001 and 2002) as well as some top artisanal winemakers. The winners were selected by a panel of 32 experts who tasted thousands of bottlings in their effort to choose this year's best.

Best Wines $20 and Under
2002 Mason Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc
2002 Saintsbury Unfiltered Carneros Chardonnay
2002 R.H. Phillips EXP Dunnigan Hills Viognier
2000 Calera Central Coast Pinot Noir
2002 Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel
2001 Chateau Souverain Alexander Valley Merlot
2002 Qupé Central Coast Syrah
2001 Estancia Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon

Best Wines Over $20
2003 Rochioli Russian River Sauvignon Blanc
2001 Ramey Hudson Vineyard Napa Valley Carneros Chardonnay
2002 Failla Alban Vineyard Edna Valley Viognier
2001 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir
2002 Ridge Lytton Springs Dry Creek Valley County Zinfandel
2001 Shafer Napa Valley Merlot
2001 Copain Eaglepoint Ranch Mendocino County Syrah
2001 Paul Hobbs Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
2001 Andrew Will Sorella Columbia Valley Bordeaux-Style Blend

Best Wine Importer-Distributor
Ed and Mark Lauber

Best New Wine Shop
Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant San Francisco

Most Promising New Winery
Copain Wine Cellars Sonoma County, CA

Winemaker of the Year
John Kongsgaard, Kongsgaard Wine Napa Valley, CA


Best Wines $20 and Under

Sauvignon Blanc
2002 Mason Napa Valley ($16) Randy Mason's 30-year winemaking résumé includes stints at Chappellet and the late, lamented Lakespring. But his greatest fame comes from his work over the past 11 years as the (former) CEO of Napa Wine Co. and winemaker of his own label. His Sauvignon Blanc, with its lively varietal fig-citrus character and deft balance of creaminess and crispness, is a sommelier favorite.

Chardonnay
2002 Saintsbury Carneros Unfiltered ($20) Richard Ward and David Graves were pioneers in California's cool, breezy Carneros region back in 1981. They predicted that the cool, almost marginal climate was perfect for producing rich, barrel-fermented Burgundian-accented Chardonnays like this—and they were right.

Viognier
2002 R.H. Phillips EXP Dunnigan Hills ($14) The Dunnigan Hills of Yolo County, California, don't necessarily spring to mind as an up-and-coming wine region, but R.H. Phillips produces 700,000 cases of wine there, including this exotic, night-harvested white with notes of vanilla, spice and honeysuckle.

Pinot Noir
2000 Calera Central Coast ($20) Although producer Josh Jensen is best known for luxury-priced single-vineyard wines, he also makes this graceful, inexpensive Pinot from purchased Central Coast grapes, giving it the same treatment as his pricey Pinots: fermenting in open-top vats and long aging in French oak barrels.

Zinfandel
2002 Seghesio Sonoma County ($16) Seghesio is synonymous with Zinfandel: Winemaker Ted Seghesio's great-grandfather planted it back in 1895, and the family now farms more than 200 acres. Although Seghesio makes many Zins, their chewy, superripe Sonoma County bottling is a watchword in value.

Merlot
2001 Chateau Souverain Alexander Valley ($18) Under winemaker Ed Killian, Souverain winery (whose château and restaurant are familiar landmarks in Sonoma) produces expansively flavorful, accessible wines like this one, with vibrant notes of blueberry, black cherry and spice.

Syrah
2002 Qupé Central Coast ($16) Bob Lindquist, Qupé's winemaker and owner, and one of the original Rhône Rangers, is one of two repeat American Wine Award winners from last year (Seghesio is the other). Lindquist has a knack for turning out spicy, approachable, intriguing wines at his winery on the grounds of the Bien Nacido Vineyard, including this juicy, 11-vineyard blend full of bright fruit.

Cabernet Sauvignon
2001 Estancia Paso Robles ($15) In 1999, Estancia made a massive commitment to the Central Coast region of Paso Robles, planting 700 acres of what the winery says will be its future Bordeaux-style wines. The company knew that the small grapes these vineyards can produce in Paso mean opulent, concentrated Cabs such as this.

Best Wines Over $20

Sauvignon Blanc
2003 Rochioli Russian River ($24) The Rochiolis started farming the land in Sonoma's Russian River Valley back in the 1930s, long before it became fashionable. Today Tom Rochioli produces this beautifully defined, citrus-and mineral-filled wine from two family vineyards—one planted in 1959, the other in 1985.

Chardonnay
2001 Ramey Napa Valley Carneros Hudson Vineyard ($56) David Ramey has long been a winemaker that other winemakers admire, and his impressive results for Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill and Rudd wineries are a testament to his talents. Now he's making wine under his own label; this Ramey Chardonnay is fearlessly rich and intensely flavorful.

Viognier
2002 Failla Edna Valley Alban Vineyard ($35) Winemaker Ehren Jordan never studied oenology, but he can put his credentials (Turley, Neyers) against anyone's. He and his wife, Anne-Marie Failla, created their own label in 1998 and began sourcing vineyards to produce star wines like this silky, rich, gorgeously perfumed Viognier with a lively cut of acidity.

Pinot Noir
2001 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands ($60) Burgundy fanatic Gary Pisoni created one of the New World's most praised Pinot Noir vineyards in the rugged Santa Lucia mountains. This is a subtle and seductive wine that's no less than a benchmark for California Pinot.

Zinfandel
2002 Ridge Lytton Springs ($30) Paul Draper, winemaker at Ridge for 35 years, bottled his first Lytton Springs Zin back in 1972. The core of the Lytton Springs property, a 42-acre vineyard of 111-year-old dry-farmed vines, produced this lively, elegant wine with notes of plum, black pepper and licorice.

Merlot
2001 Shafer Napa Valley ($39) Shafer winemaker Elias Fernandez (F&W's 2002 Winemaker of the Year) turned out a trademark inky, lush, spicy Merlot in the much heralded 2001 vintage. It's got touches of violet perfume thanks to a bit of Cabernet Franc and some extra firmness thanks to a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Syrah
2001 Copain Eaglepoint Ranch ($35) From this year's Most Promising New Winery winner, this California take on a Côte-Rôtie comes from a steep east-facing vineyard in Mendocino. The 2001 crop was a good one, and winemaker Wells Guthrie fermented half the grapes whole to emphasize aromatics over weight. Still, there's plenty of weight and power in this impressively robust wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon
2001 Paul Hobbs Napa Valley ($60) A gifted winemaker who succeeded the legendary Zelma Long at Simi in 1989, Paul Hobbs is not only a California visionary but, since 1989, a valued winemaking consultant in Argentina. His Cabernet, blended with with a bit of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, captures the depth and richness of the sensational 2001 vintage.

Best Wine Importer-Distributor

Ed and Mark Lauber
In 1979, Ed Lauber left his job as a salesman for Mouton-Rothschild and became one of the unsung (to the general public, at least) heroes of the American wine revolution. After more than two decades in the business, it was clear to Lauber that the big wholesalers were pretty much leaving the fine wines behind in the warehouse as their salesmen pushed the big labels or the more profitable spirits brands. Lauber, however, passionately wanted to sell fine wine; the question was how. "We started on a shoestring," he says simply, understating the precariousness of the situation. In fact, the company was funded by a $7,500 advance on Lauber's Visa card, and there was no "we," just Lauber himself. The second employee, his son Mark, signed on the next year. He told his father, "The only reason you hired me was because I had a van and a strong back." And a degree in economics from Wharton.

Father and son now preside over a very different sort of business from the days when they would meet at a rented warehouse space and load up their cars to deliver the wines they'd sold the day before. Today Lauber Imports employs 125 people, and the Laubers own a temperature-controlled warehouse and a trucking firm. Lauber Imports represents 450 wineries from 16 countries and sells to 6,800 restaurants and retail stores across three states. Lauber's domestic roster includes established brands like Ravenswood and Jordan as well as some hot new California labels. ("Watch out for Cliff Lede and Palmaz," Mark advises.) On the import side, they represent many impressive portfolios, including the South African wines brought to the U.S. by Cape Classics, the French wines of Dreyfus, Ashby & Co. and the Italian wines of Vin Divino. There's a range of producers as well, from those that make under 1,000 cases a year to those selling over one million. As the Laubers look foward to their 25th year, Mark says of the company, "Like a fine wine, we want to have balance, depth and complexity."

Details
Lauber Imports
908-725-2100 or lauberimports.com

Best New Wine Shop

Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant
The developers who recently restored one of San Francisco's great landmarks, the 1898 Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street, had carefully defined criteria for prospective tenants, including long track records and an emphasis on artisanal products. Last year they found their wine retail dream team: Peter Granoff, who co-founded the Internet company that became Wine.com, and Debbie Zachareas, wine director of the acclaimed restaurant Bacar (winner of an F&W Best New Wine List award in 2001). Their combined contacts and power mean, according to Granoff, "we get access to a lot of wines that typically don't reach retail shelves. We've got a lot of bottles in here from wineries that make less than 500 cases a year." Among other highlights, Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant's 600 domestic and international selections include what Granoff believes is one of the city's most extensive offerings of German and Austrian wines. The operation occupies 2,900 square feet in two adjacent storefronts in the Ferry Building's soaring, wrought iron-wreathed, five-story central atrium. One side of the store features a Honduran mahogany tasting bar with stainless-steel stools, while the other side is dedicated to retail space filled with surprises and great new bargains like the 2003 Finca Flichman Malbec from Argentina for $8 ("a stellar, stellar value," says Granoff) and the 2003 Basa Rueda white blend from esteemed Spanish winemaker Telmo Rodriguez for $13 ("juicy, snappy and crisp"). Says Granoff of the store's philosophy, "We're willing to present wines that our customers have never heard of."

Details
One Ferry Building, Shop 23, San Francisco, CA
415-391-9400; fpwm.com

Most Promising New Winery

Copain Wine Cellars
Wells Guthrie's Copain Wine Cellars may be in the heart of Sonoma, but Guthrie's heart is often in France. "My motivation for the whole thing was falling in love with the wines of the Rhône," he explains. The "whole thing" in this case included leaving his job at a wine magazine and moving to the northern Rhône, where he worked at Chapoutier for two harvests and tagged along with another famed producer, Jean-Louis Chave. He founded Copain in 1999, after a short stint working for star consultant Helen Turley. As Guthrie says, "I'm trying to keep one foot here and one in the Rhône, to make wines that hem in the ripe fruit we get here and have the elegance of great European wines." A case in point is his Côte-Rôtie-esque Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah (this year's best Syrah over $20)—which, like the Pinot Noirs, Viogniers, Roussanne and Zinfandel he makes, is a small-lot, single-vineyard wine. Copain is small, producing 3,200 cases, but starting it was pricey—so pricey that Guthrie and financial partner Kevin McQuown decided to lease a winery and rent it out to other winemakers. As a result, the winery is like an incubator for fellow artisan producers, including DuMOL and Pisoni. Meanwhile, Guthrie continues his search for the perfect vineyard sources. "The French have had hundreds of years to get it just right," he says admiringly. "We are infants in the winemaking world."

Details
Copain is open to the public by appointment
707-541-7474; copainwines.com

Best Bordeaux-Style Blend

2001 Andrew Will Sorella Columbia Valley ($60)
Think Snow Falling on Cedars and you've got a picture of Chris and Annie Camarda's home on Vashon Island, near Seattle. What you don't get are the grapes—from some of the best vineyards in eastern Washington. This blend, with 68 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, is based on grapes from a block in the famed Champoux vineyard, which give the wine a rich, complex vibrancy and scents of flowers and earth.

Winemaker of the Year

John Kongsgaard
To spend an evening with John and Maggy Kongsgaard, in their home high above the Napa Valley, is to be surrounded by their passions: family, classical music (there may well be a world-renowned musician or singer at the table), Maggy's antique roses and provocative bottles of wine—made by John and others.

A rare fifth-generation Napan (his family settled in the valley before California gained statehood), Kongsgaard was somehow the first of the line to make wine. Back in the late 1970s, while still finishing his graduate work at the University of California, Davis, he transformed the "miserable, scraggly pasture with a few scrawny cows" around his parents' house into the vineyard that today is the source of his transfixing Chardonnay—a wine so profoundly layered you feel that you don't so much drink it as excavate it. For 13 years, however, the grapes were sold to Newton, where Kongsgaard rose to fame not only as the winemaker behind Newton's acclaimed Cabernets and Chardonnays, but also as a restless experimenter. Kongsgaard left Newton in 1996 to manage Luna Vineyards, where he perfected the maverick techniques he used to launch his two labels, Kongsgaard and Arietta—named for the last movement of Beethoven's last piano sonata—in 1996. "Essentially," he says, "I do a lot less than I used to." His radical, high-risk approach with Chardonnay, for example, means leaving the wine in the same barrel it is fermented in for nearly two years with an absolute minimum of intervention. Under the Kongsgaard label, he also makes a Viognier-Roussanne blend and a spicy Hermitage-influenced Syrah. Under the Arietta label, he and partner Fritz Hatton, the auctioneer, produce their homage to Cheval Blanc: H Block Hudson Vineyards, an arresting Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend made from the Carneros vineyard that Kongsgaard helped Lee Hudson plant in the early 1980s.

What are Kongsgaard's next big plans? "Absolutely none," he says. After two decades in larger production wineries, he is thrilled to make a very modest total of 4,000 cases all by himself: "I like going down in the cellar, putting on a Mahler symphony and working with my wine. That's what makes me happy."

Details
Kongsgaard Wine is not open to the public
kongsgaardwine.com

Back to American Wine Awards

The judges: Craig Allen, Nikos Antonakeas, Mannie Berk, Scott Clime, Laurie Daniel, Alice Feiring, Barry Herbst, Todd Hess, Chuck Huffaker, Ray Isle, Karen King, Dan McCarthy, Ed McCarthy, Elin McCoy, Jordan Mackay, Jeff Morgan, Linda Murphy, Richard Nalley, Rajat Parr, Doug Polaner, Jamal Rayyis, Paul Root, Jay Schiering, Margaux Singleton, Jodi Stern, Larry Stone, Lettie Teague, John Frederick Walker, Tamra Weiss, Joshua Wesson, Robert Whitley, Jeffrey Wolfe.

Published October 2004
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