The Rest of the Best

Choosing a California winemaker of the year is difficult--there are many great candidates. After putting two dozen names down on paper, I rated each one on various levels. The runners-up this year are also exceptional talents worth recognition.

1. Richard Arrowood. The former winemaker at Chateau St. Jean opened his own Arrowood Winery in 1986 and by 1989 was again proving his talent. His 1988 Chardonnay was my Chardonnay of the year in 1990. In 1991, his red wines were amazing; his 1988 Cabernet was my Cabernet of the year last year, and his Merlot is truly exciting. And his unreleased wines are at least as good, if not better.

2. Daryl Groom. When Geyser Peak changed in 1989 from the sleepy home of modest wines to a producer of complex, well-defined, award-winning wines, it was entirely the work of Groom. The good-humored Australian had been the red wine winemaker for Penfolds until that Australian company bought a 50% interest in Geyser Peak and sent Groom here. Geyser Peak's white wines released in 1991 were stunning; the soon-to-be-released red wines will knock your socks off.

3. Van Williamson. Greenwood Ridge was just another producer of good Mendocino County wines when Williamson joined the property two years ago. Seemingly overnight, the winery found itself in the award derby with an array of wines that won medals at every wine competition. Great Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Zinfandel joined an already-stunning Riesling to make this a winery to watch.

4. John Williams. Look past Frog's Leap's humor out front (a cork branded with the word ribbit ) and you find a most serious fellow. Williams' brilliance with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and especially Cabernet Sauvignon is not widely enough recognized.

5. Ken Deis. Flora Springs is moving to the front of top-rate producers with stylish, elegant white wines--notably refined, complex Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. The latter wines redefine what constitutes greatness from this often misunderstood variety. Deis is also making fast improvement in the red wines.

6. Ted Bennett. Navarro Vineyards in remote Anderson Valley annually makes some of California's best Gewurztraminers and Rieslings. In the last few years Navarro's Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs have been captivating too. The winemaking here is more intuitive than technical, the results often searingly good.

7. Dawnine Dyer. Domaine Chandon makes only non-vintage wines and makes so much of them (a half million cases), it's not always apparent that Dyer has improved the line every year. The release of the new wine called etoile reminds us what a talent Dyer is.

8. Jim Clendenen. The real excitement in California wine in the last decade has come from Santa Barbara County. A star of the area is Clendenen, owner of Au Bon Climat, who makes truly great wines in the Burgundian style--Chardonnays with amazing richness and complexity, Pinot Noirs of fruit, depth and intensity. A Nebbiolo project also shows great promise.

9. Chuck Ortman. This transplanted North Coast winemaker, one of the best in the history of the storied Napa Valley, heads up Meridian in Paso Robles. In the last two years, this project of Wine World has turned out some of the state's best values, including a 1989 Chardonnay and a 1988 Cabernet. Both were among the best wines in the state, regardless of price. Ortman is setting a new standard for the Central Coast.

10. Craig Williams. At Joseph Phelps, the standard wines (Chardonnay, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc) are being improved while the rare wines (Viognier, Syrah, Grenache Rose) are reaching standards of art that others envy.

11. Brian Babcock. Santa Barbara County seems home to a number of courageous producers, but Babcock may push the envelope further than all of them. His wines are dramatic proof that good grapes can be bent into all sorts of shapes and still be intriguing.

12. Dennis Johns. St. Clement makes wines that are lean and carefully honed, not wines that are particularly showy. Thus Johns isn't likely to get the recognition he deserves for making perfectly crafted, leaner-styled wines.

13. Mike Martini. This old-line Napa Valley producer has revamped its line, discarding some varieties. Virtually all the wines in the line are improved, including the formerly lowly whites. Quite a turnaround for a property rarely accorded the attention it deserves.

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