F&W's ninth annual American Wine Awards celebrates some of the most remarkable wineries and wine professionals in the United States. Among those selected this year by our panel of 41 distinguished judges are a five-year-old Napa winery already producing cult Syrahs and an importer who continues to discover many of Austria's and Germany's most dazzling wines. You'll also find our picks for the most outstanding American wines, ranging in price from $11 to $175 a bottle.
Best Wines $20 and Under
2004 Honig Winery Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc
2002 Mount Eden Wolff Vineyard Chardonnay
2004 Miner Family Simpson Vineyard Viognier
2003 Nelms Road Merlot
2003 Joel Gott Blend No. 815 Caberet Sauvignon
2003 Seghesio Family Vineyards Sonoma Zinfandel
2003 Qupé Central Coast Syrah
2003 Castle Rock Winery Mendocino County Pinot Noir
Best Wines Over $20
2003 Rudd Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc
2002 Ramey Wine Cellars Hyde Vineyards-Carneros Chardonnay
2003 Alban Vineyards Estate Viognier
2002 Shafer Vineyard Merlot
2001 Shafer Hillside Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
2003 Biale Black Chicken Zinfandel
2002 Lewis Cellars Syrah
2002 Soter Vineyards Beacon Hill Pinot Noir
Best Bordeaux-Style Blend
2002 Peter Michael Les Pavots $135
Best Sparkling Wine
Roederer Estate Nonvintage Brut $22
Best New Winery
Pax Wine Cellars
Best Wine Importer-Distributor
Winemaker of the Year
Best New Wine Shop
Crush Wine Company
2004 Honig Winery Napa Valley ($15) Honig is one of Napa Valley's best-kept secrets-in fact, its flagship Sauvignon Blanc is a wine youÕre more likely to find on local Napa tables than read about in the national press (until now). Kristin Belair makes this classic Sauvignon in a bright, dry, zingy Loire Valley style, showcasing its fresh notes of citrus and fruit.
2002 Mount Eden Wolff Vineyard ($17)Jeffrey Patterson descended from his winery's aerie 2,000 feet above Silicon Valley to source the grapes for this Edna Valley Chardonnay. His sure touch with the region's ultraripe grapes (thanks to a long growing season) has yielded this wonderfully creamy, buttery wine with notes of toasted oak.
2004 Miner Family Simpson Vineyard ($20)Naysayers would never have believed that California's hot Central Valley could produce a racy, vibrant white wine like this, but the Miners have proof in the bottle. Gary Brookman ferments Simpson Vineyard grapes exclusively in stainless steel to capture all their lively acidity and delicious peach-and-honeysuckle flavor.
2003 Nelms Road ($19)This is a "second" wine made by Rick Small at his Walla Walla-based Woodward Canyon Winery-one of the top red producers in Washington State. A smooth-drinking wine with juicy, black cherry fruit and notes of vanilla, it's made from lots-mostly younger vines-that didn't make it into his flagship Bordeaux-style red, according to Small.
2003 Joel Gott Blend No. 815 ($17)Fifth-generation farmer Joel Gott may be the hardest-working man in Napa: He owns burger stands and a specialty food market, and he makes wine. Though famed for his Zinfandel, Gott has created this plummy Cab (named for his daughter's birth date) from fruit sourced around the state.
2003 Seghesio Family Vineyards Sonoma ($18)The Seghesios have been growing Zinfandel since 1895, so they've had plenty of experience with tricky years like 2003, with its heat and cold streaks and multiple lightning strikes. By combining fruit from several vineyard sites and reducing yields, they managed to produce this lovely raspberry and spice-rich wine.
2003 Qupé Central Coast ($16)Bob Lindquist's big-flavored Central Coast bottling may have reached a new quality level in 2003. Lindquist's ability to source grapes from some of Santa Barbara's most famous vineyards along with his decades of hands-on experience have culminated in this memorably peppery wine with notes of wild berries and violets.
2003 Castle Rock Winery Mendocino County ($11)Despite California Pinot Noir's skyrocketing popularity (and cost), Castle Rock owner Gregory Popovich was somehow able to buy high-quality, reasonably priced Pinot grapes from the cool vineyards of Mendocino. He gave them a deft touch of French-oak aging to produce this refined wine.
2003 Rudd Vineyards ($28)In 2002, Dean & DeLuca chairman and prominent Napa Valley vintner Leslie Rudd hired Charles Thomas (Mondavi's former head winemaker) to create outstanding bottlings such as this. A rich and well-balanced Sauvignon Blanc, it's a largely barrel-fermented wine inflected with notes of tropical fruit and herbs.
2002 Ramey Wine Cellars Hyde Vineyard-Carneros ($56) David Ramey has worked at many top wineries (Dominus and Rudd, to name just two), but since 1996 he has run his own outfit in Sonoma. Ramey made this dense, flowery Chardonnay with grapes from the famed Hyde Vineyard and aged it a full 21 months in French oak. It emerged sensationally complex.
2003 Alban Vineyards Estate ($32) This winery, founded by John Alban in 1986, was the first in California entirely dedicated to Rhône varieties, red (Syrah, Grenache) and white (Viognier). He is the state's acknowledged master of the fickle Viognier grape. This Estate Viognier is an unctuous, exotically perfumed, full-throttle white.
2002 Shafer Vineyard ($41)Shafer winemaker Elias Fernandez scored the first-ever double victory in this year's Awards for both his Hillside Cabernet and this powerful, inky Merlot. The latter manages to showcase both the fruit intensity of Napa's 2002 vintage and the subtle, aromatic elegance that makes the Merlot grape so highly prized.
2001 Shafer Hillside Vineyard ($175)This monumental, deeply extracted wine comes from the original vineyards John Shafer purchased in the Stags Leap District back in the 1970s. A superb vintage like 2001 resulted in this plush, power-packed Cab framed by the Stags Leap DistrictÕs trademark lush, velvety tannins.
2003 Biale Black Chicken ($35)The Black Chicken Vineyard, located in a quiet residential neighborhood in the city of Napa, is the source of this juicy, supple, raspberry-inflected Zinfandel. Winemaker Al Perry ferments it in traditional open-top vats but ages it in very modern French barriques for a spectacular mix of old and new techniques.
2002 Lewis Cellars ($60)Former Indy 500 driver Randy Lewis founded his acclaimed boutique winery back in 1992, and it is still a family-run enterprise, overseen by Lewis, his wife, Debbie, and stepson Dennis. They produce this spicy, substantial and sought-after Syrah from a vineyard 1,500 feet up on Napa's famed Pritchard Hill.
2002 Soter Vineyards Beacon HillOregon winemaker Tony Soter turns out cellar-worthy Pinots like the firm-bodied Beacon Hill, which is just now beginning to unwind. Soter's rigorous pruning practices makes the superb Beacon Hill Vineyard a particularly low-yielding site, producing only two tons of intensely flavored grapes per acre.
2002 Peter Michael Les Pavots ($135)
Peter Michael Winery turns out six of the most acclaimed Chardonnays in California as well as this Bordeaux-style red from its Knights Valley winery. Sourced from a volcanic-rock vineyard, The Poppies (Les Pavots), this Cabernet-based blend has gotten the white-glove treatment by winemaker Luc Morlet, including hand-sorting of both clusters and individual grapes. The result is a massively extracted wine of seemingly effortless balance, marked by deep berry flavors as well as earthy, rich tobacco notes.
Roederer Estate Nonvintage Brut ($22)
Credit the combination of crisp, cool-climate Anderson Valley grapes and the considerable winemaking experience of parent company Louis Roederer, a centuries-old French Champagne house, for making this Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend one of the most Champagne-like sparkling wines produced in California. Roederer Estate winemaker Arnaud Weyrich adds a portion of oak-aged reserve wines to give this bottling additional complexity.
Pax Wine Cellars
Pax Mahle got a good idea of what it was like to be a cult winemaker when a special five-case lot of his 2004 Pax Wine Cellars Syrah sold for an auction-high $18,000 at the Paso Robles Hospice du Rhône benefit this past spring. Word has gotten out fast about this talented, ultratraditionalist 34-year-old who released his first wines just five years ago. "We take a very pure approach," explains Mahle, "one that was more commonplace 100 years ago in France than it is today." That approach includes organic farming, foot-crushing the grapes, natural fermentations and absolutely no fining or filtering. Though he's new to winemaking itself, Mahle says, "Wine is the only business I've ever been in." His résumé includes stints as a waiter, sommelier, cellar rat and, finally, wine buyer at Napa specialty market Dean & DeLuca. After tasting a few thousand wines for his job at D&D, Mahle became convinced that the cool coastal vineyards of northern California could produce his beloved Rhône style of nuanced, layered Syrah. While working at D&D, Mahle met the owner of the renowned Alder Springs Vineyard, Stuart Bewley, who asked Mahle who he thought would one day make California's best Syrah. "I will," answered Mahle. "At the time I was kind of joking," he says. Today Pax Wine Cellars produces 15 small-production Rhône-style wines in a converted warehouse space in Santa Rosa. Among these wines are 11 vineyard-designated Syrahs from sources all over Sonoma and Mendocino counties, including the much sought-after Alder Springs Vineyard "The Terraces" ($75), a bottling that evokes descriptors such as marzipan, baked blueberries and roasted coffee.
Why Pax is a winner
Pax Mahle was convinced that nuanced, layered Syrahs could be made in the coastal vineyards of northern California. Today he makes 11 such wines.
Pax Wine Cellars, 707-591-0782 or paxwines.com.
No one man introduced Americans to more great wines they didn't know they wanted than Terry Theise of Terry Theise Estate Selections, an importer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. The voluble 52-year-old made his name 20 years ago by combing one of the least fashionable wine regions (the Rheinpfalz) in one of the least fashionable wine-producing countries (Germany) and discovering bottles like the now-iconic Müller-Catoir and extraordinary producers like Dönnhoff and Willi Schaefer. Theise, who started his business doing literally everything himself, was driven by what he calls "pure passion." AS he says, "There was an amazing story that wasn't being told, and I knew I couldn't wimp out." In 1994 Theise became one of the first Americans to import Austrian wines to the United States, and in 1997 he added small Champagne producers like Vilmart and Gimonnet to his portfolio. "It all fit philosophically," he says. "I cherish them all as European white wines that display a similar grace, freshness and clarity and come to us from geographically complex soils after hundred of years of trial and error."
Why Theise stands out
He combed one of the least fashionable wine regions in one of the least fashionable wine-producing countries and discovered iconic bottles.
Terry Theise Estate Selections, 516-677-9300 or skurnikwines.com.
It may raise eyebrows to name a Frenchman as the American Wine Awards' Winemaker of the Year, but Philippe Melka is an honorary native of the Napa Valley. "I bring my French roots," he says, "but I don't have a French conservatism in winemaking; I have an American open-mindedness." In addition to creating his own tiny-production, Bordeaux-style Métisse and CJ wines for the past nine years, Melka is currently the winemaker of and consultant to 12 first-rate small Napa wineries, including Lail Vineyards, Hundred Acre and Vineyard 29. (Add to that Washington State, where Melka's new Bordeaux-style blend, Pirouette, was just bottled.) His most publicized coup came in 2002, when he seamlessly succeeded the legendary Helen Turley at über-cult-winery Bryant Family Vineyard. This University of Bordeaux–trained soil geologist was enticed by the Bryant family's exquisite Pritchard Hill Vineyard. "My clients are not blind dates," says Melka. "They represent some of the greatest vineyard sites of Napa Valley." Melka believes in strictly noninterventionist winemaking, designed to let the fruit produced by a great vineyard—not the art of the winemaker—shine through. "I don't use any tricks," he says.
Why Crush stands out
It offers small-producer, artisinal wines at every price, and that includes a lot under $20, too.
Melka Wine Company, 707-963-6008 or melkawines.com.
Crush Wine Company
The early buzz about this sleek 3,200-square-foot store on New York's busy East 57th Street was mainly about its high-profile owners: restaurant impresario Drew Nieporent (Montrachet, Nobu); Robert Schagrin (who owns a high-end collectibles store next door); and developer Josh Guberman. Later on people started talking about the store's celebrity clientele, which includes Sigourney Weaver and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant. But the real focus of the excitement should be the wine, which ranges from alue-priced to cult bottles. As Schagrin says, "We offer small-producer, artisanal wines at every price, and that includes plenty under $20, too." Current staff favorites include the earthy 2003 Bodegas Pucho Bierzo ($12) from western Spain and the 2002 Domaine du Vieux Chêne Lou Ginesta ($15), a spicy Grenache and Syrah blend from the south of France. They're only two of the 3,600 bottles that line the store's 73-foot-long serpentine wall. Customers can also shop in The Cube, a 25-by-25-foot glass-and-steel room that's home to auction-grade bottles such as an imperial of 1998 Chave Hermitage ($14,000). Next to The Cube is the tasting room, where six different wines are poured every day. This room, says Schagrin, is a place where customers can congregate to talk about new and unfamiliar wines and—who knows—maybe see a celebrity or two.
Crush Wine Company, 153 E. 57th St., New York City; 212-980-9463 or crushwineco.com.