I got a letter the other day from a longtime reader with a complaint: "How is it," he asked, "that you seem to like the same wineries year in and year out? Is there nothing new under the California sun?"
I confess that I often like many wines from the same winery and that I often like them across most vintages. I see no shame in that. At the very least, it means that my palate is consistent.
Indeed, how can anyone feel bad about liking what has been coming out of Beaulieu for the last half dozen vintages, or from Dehlinger for at least twice that long? Some of the old favorites, such as Ridge and Ravenswood, have managed to maintain quality quite well while others, such as Sterling and Robert Mondavi, have had patches of inconsistency along the way.
Furthermore, all of the wines reviewed in this column are tasted blind. It is through the sampling of wine with the labels hidden that the new discoveries are made. The catch phrase around my house is: "The wine speaks."
In fact, one of the great joys of tasting wine blind is removing the aluminum foil that wraps the bottles and finding a new hero. Not so long ago, it was the wines of Fife and Testarossa, of August Briggs and Ancien that were simply bowling me over.
In the last few months, I have had the pleasure of finding a brand-new batch of rising stars.
** 1999 Cedarville Vineyard Syrah, El Dorado, $24. Here, from the talented winemaking duo of Susan Marks and Jonathan Lachs, is one of the most deeply flavored Syrahs in my recent tastings. It is a powerful, dramatic, expansive wine with concentrated blackberry fruit filled out by rich seasonings of wood smoke, vanilla, game and black pepper. Expect it to age well for three to five years. You might also enjoy the one-star 1999 Cedarville Vineyard Zinfandel from this husband and wife team.
1998 Claudia Springs Winery Zinfandel "Vassar Vineyard," Redwood Valley, Mendocino, $16. Claudia Springs has three big, ripe, dense Zinfandels, and this one, the least expensive of the lot, is my favorite. It is wonderfully well-mannered for such a big wine, and its pretty berry-and-cocoa aromas and rich, solidly fruity flavors show an uncommon sense of craft, especially given the wine's flirtation with overripe late-harvest character. Fans of unrestrained Zinfandels will want to watch this winery.
* 1998 Clayton Vineyard Zinfandel "GG Vineyards," Lodi, $18. The Lodi area is among the leaders in California in grape production, yet most of what is grown there gets blended.ries. Occasionally, though, some Lodi produce is set aside for special handling and offers glimpses of what might be possible. This wine is ripe, fleshy and tasty with its mix of black cherries, chocolate and black pepper, and it carries the slightly soft, rounded texture often found in Lodi Zins.
** 1999 Du Mol Winery Chardonnay "Dutton Ranch Vineyards," Russian River Valley, $40. Du Mol had a superb debut Chardonnay from the 1998 vintage and has followed up in kind with this lovely effort focused on sweet fruit, evocative of apples. Creamy oak and crisp acidity share the scene but never upstage the compelling fruit that shines through from engaging start to lengthy finish. Du Mol also has done well with its one-star 1998 Pinot Noir "Dutton Ranch and Hanna Vineyard," Russian River Valley, $48.
$* 1999 Frei Brothers Pinot Noir "Reserve," Russian River Valley, $16. This wine and its one-star companion, 1999 Frei Brothers Chardonnay "Reserve," Russian River Valley, $14, offer terrific value. The Pinot is one of the very few moderate-to medium-priced wines that can compete comfortably with more expensive versions of what has never been an inexpensive variety. It is nicely keyed on ripe cherry fruit with an enriching dollop of toasty oak held just in the background. It is invitingly lush and smooth, yet beneath its supple exterior lurks finishing tannins that foretell an even better future. The Chardonnay, an equally fine accomplishment and an equal value, is fairly outgoing in its delivery of apple, citrus, creme brulee and buttered popcorn aromas and flavors.
** 1999 JC Cellars Zinfandel "Rhodes Vineyard Cuvee Isabel," Redwood Valley, $27. Jeff Cohn, the winemaker at Zinfandel-expert Rosenblum Cellars, is the JC behind this new label. His first releases, made in minuscule amounts, were unrestrained, massive wines with over-the-top ripeness and tannin. This latest effort shows a more mature hand in guiding ripe grapes into a wine that, while noticeably jammy, retains its blackberry fruit focus and avoids syrupy overripeness. It is an intense, rich, dramatic wine, to be sure, and one that requires red meat or even cheese and walnuts to show at its best.
** 1999 Laird Family Estate Chardonnay "Cold Creek Ranch," Carneros, $40. Also, the two-star 1999 Laird Family Estate Chardonnay, Napa Valley, $36. This admirable pair were walk-away winners in my recent look at new Chardonnays. Both are deep, rich, impressively filled, complex wines whose juicy fruit dominates at every stop. The Cold Creek strikes me as the more ready to drink while the Napa Valley bottling might do with a year of cellaring to resolve a bit of finishing raggedness. Both are superb first efforts and mark Laird as a name to remember.
1998 Selby Syrah, Sonoma County, $18. Susie Selby apprenticed at other wineries before bringing out her own label. Here, in a very reasonably priced Syrah, she offers a wine that is nicely ripened without heaviness and is focused on medium-depth blackberry fruit with black peppery zest to its personality. Lively acidity firms the finish and calls for a couple of years of cellaring.