When F&W debuted the American Wine Awards nine years ago, the wine scene was very different. Few in the industry used terms like "natural winemaking" and "painstaking vineyard work." However, this year's winners, chosen by a panel of judges, share this emphasis on the grape.
Best New Winery
WHY IT'S SO GREAT Since its first vintage in 2001, this Santa Barbara winery has been producing some of California's most exciting Pinot Noirs.
Sea Smoke, in the coastal Santa Rita Hills area of Santa Barbara County, began like so many wine ventures—with a dream, stubborn persistence and plenty of money. Owner Bob Davids, CEO of Hong Kong's Radica Games and an avid Burgundy collector, was determined to produce a world-class Pinot Noir in California, and he knew exactly where he wanted to grow this finicky grape: in a bean field. Not just any old bean field, of course, but a perfectly sited bean field across from the famed Sanford & Benedict vineyard. Except it wasn't for sale. Davids persisted, and after a long campaign he was able, in the words of Sea Smoke's winemaker, Kris Curran, to "obtain the unobtainable," in 1998. Sea Smoke currently produces less than 15,000 cases of three critically acclaimed Pinot Noirs: the fruity, approachable Botella, the elegant Southing and the more monumentally scaled Ten. Priced from $28 to $69 a bottle and available in restaurants and a limited number of retail stores, all are remarkable for their liveliness and purity of fruit.
Winemaker of the Year
WHY HE'S SO GREAT He makes some of the most extraordinary Cabernet-based wines in the New World.
As winemaker Bob Levy remembers it, Napa's now legendary Harlan Estate at first didn't evoke awe so much as bemusement: "A lot of people were saying, 'What the heck are those guys doing?'" After all, it took Levy's boss, real-estate magnate Bill Harlan, over a dozen years to assemble the estate's vineyard parcels in the rugged hills above the town of Oakville, and almost as many years to release its first wine. (Levy and Harlan didn't release Harlan Estate's first vintage, 1987, nor the 1988, nor the 1989.) But Harlan was determined to create the Napa equivalent of a Bordeaux first growth, and Levy, gifted with a focused curiosity, an obsession with detail and a healthy self-confidence, was the pioneering point man. The Bordeaux-style blends he went on to craft (with consultant Michel Rolland) are among the world's most prized wines, particularly the 1994, 1997 and 2002 vintages. The prices reflect this: The 2002 Harlan Estate can sell for $1,000 a bottle. Levy is also at work on a new luxury brand, Bond, which currently includes four single-hillside vineyard Cabernets priced at $150 to $185. More may be added in the future. "We are trying to identify up to six properties that are the grands crus of Napa," says Levy. "These are properties with great soil and owners willing to share our commitment to great winemaking." Bob Levy's commitment has never been in doubt. "I was passionate about wine when I was a teenager, and I still have that passion today."
WHY HE'S SO GREAT He champions small-producer wines that emphasize a sense of place rather than winemaking technique
Ever since Eric Solomon founded European Cellars in his New York city living room in 1989 with just two Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers, he has adhered to a single bedrock principle: place over process. Solomon says, "The excitement of wine for me is in taking the purity and warmth the ground has given it and making that articulate." In addition to those first two obscure (now famous) properties, Domaine de Marcoux and Domaine de la Janasse, Solomon is now working with over one hundred wineries in five countries. Solomon's biggest score, in the early 1990s, was Clos Erasmus, from Spain's then-unknown Priorat region. "I fell in love twice," Solomon likes to say—first with the wine, which he helped launch into the stratosphere, and then with the winemaker, Daphne Glorian (now Mrs. Eric Solomon). He continues to champion native grapes (Spain's new As Sortes white, made from Godello) and uncover superstars-in-the-making (South Africa's Columella). "My customers sometimes look at me like I'm from Mars when I bring them obscure bottles," he says cheerfully. But they know one thing: If Solomon found bottles on Mars, you would be able to taste the red soil in the wines.
Best Wines $20 and Under
Sauvignon Blannc ($18)
2004 CLIFF LEDE
This arresting wine pulls off a high-wire act between finesse and rich flavor, wafting notes of melon, peach and citrus. Lively and polished, it's one of the many attention-getting bottlings produced by head winemaker Michelle Edwards at this Napa winery.
Pinot Noir ($17)
2004 SAINTSBURY GARNET CARNEROS
Year after year—this is the 22nd vintage—the Saintsbury Garnet bottling showcases the Carneros region's superb fruit with a dry, deftly restrained, unflamboyant wine that has a weight and texture that could be called Burgundian. If only Burgundy could create such a terrific red at such a low price.
2004 NELMS ROAD
This "second wine" from Rick Small's pioneering Walla Walla winery, Woodward Canyon, shows how strikingly high the quality of Merlot was in Washington State's 2004 vintage. Winemaker Kevin Mott produced this supple, juicy wine with aromas of black cherry and mocha.
2004 RED CAR BOXCAR
The creation of winemaker Carroll Kemp and the late Mark Estrin, Red Car has quickly gained a reputation for turning out well-crafted wines like this very rich (nearly 15 percent alcohol) 100 percent Syrah, selected from seven vineyards around the Santa Maria Valley. Aged in French oak and bottled unfiltered, this is a gutsy, smoky red full of blackberry and blueberry fruits.
Cabernet Sauvignon ($20)
2003 TWENTY ROWS
This small négociant operation, an offshoot of Brian and Lori Nuss's Vinoce winery on top of Mt. Veeder, is this year's best deal in Napa Cabernet. It's a polished, mouthfilling red chockablock with crushed blackberry fruit.
If you can get past the curious plastic "Zork" cork, you'll find a soft, plush, textured red made from grapes sourced from prime Zinfandel vineyards in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. The wine is one of several made by a breakaway branch of the Sebastiani family, a fast-growing négociant business known for goofy names (Screw Kappa Napa, Smoking Loon) and, more important, for quality in the bottle.
2004 SAINTSBURY CARNEROS
Saintsbury owners Dick Ward and David Graves, winners of two American Wine Awards this year, make this Chardonnay with the same graceful lift as their standout Pinot Noir.
Best Wines Over $20
Sauvignon Blanc ($24)
Sauvignon Blanc isn't likely to overshadow the famous Pinot Noirs from this family winery in Sonoma's Russian River Valley, but alone it's good enough to make Rochioli a star property. Tom Rochioli crafts this vibrant, subtle, intensely flavored wine to let the fruit shine through.
2003 HENDRY BLOCK 7
The Hendry family has owned 117 acres of vineyards in southwestern Napa since 1939, of which Block 7 is one of the most important parcels. From the vaunted nine-acre site, winemaker George Hendry produced this graceful, full-bodied and delicious wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon ($160)
Husband-and-wife team Mark Herold and Erika Gottl may just qualify as America's finest home winemakers, crafting tiny lots of cult-status Cabernets literally in their backyard in the city of Napa. Their sixth vintage of Merus (Latin for pure) is dark and extracted yet still ethereal, with seamlessly integrated aromas of cassis and sweet oak.
Pinot Noir ($80)
2003 ETUDE HEIRLOOM
The first vintage of Heirloom from Etude's new Napa property is evidence that winemaker Tony Soter's talent and owner Foster's Wine Estates' capital are a potent combination. To create this silky, expressive Pinot, Soter selects "heirloom clone" grapes, with small berries and irregular bunches, from a Carneros vineyard, then bottles them without filtering or fining.
The owners of this Napa winery gave retirement a new and very active meaning when they purchased 15 acres of vineyards near the top of Spring Mountain in 1983 and began producing some of the best Merlots made in California. Unfortunately, they produced only 1,900 cases of this voluptuous wine.
2003 RAMEY HYDE VINEYARD
Sourced from a top property in Carneros, this dazzling Chardonnay is firmly structured with a pure minerality coupled with notes of white peach.
2003 BEHRENS & HITCHCOCK CHIEN LUNATIQUE
This full-throttle, ripe, juicy Syrah—a collectors' favorite—is the work of former sommelier Les Behrens and moneyman Joe Bob Hitchcock, who founded their winery in Humboldt County, then moved it to Napa.
Best Bordeaux-Style Blend ($150)
2002 JOSEPH PHELPS INSIGNIA
California's first proprietary Bordeaux blend (1974 was the inaugural vintage) still sets the standard. Much credit goes to winemaker Craig Williams, who has been with this top-notch Napa winery since 1976. His gorgeous 2002 blends Cabernet, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec.