California - Does it get any better? Tasting Report 2020

As most of you know, I tend to visit California once a year. I lasted visited in June 2019 in search of the Californian style. This year, I had the opportunity to attend the Premiere Napa Valley Auction. This auction showcases the best of Napa and is a week-long event. I couldn't say no to this event and was by far the best wine event I have ever attended. I took this opportunity to visit wineries which I have yet to visit, which showcase some of the best wines in Napa and Sonoma.

 

I rated 12 wines at 95 points or higher! I have never rated so many wines this highly before, and this did not include the Premiere Napa Valley Auction where I found a potential 100 point wine! It has taken me three weeks to write this report, not because I did not want to, but because I was reflecting on the best trip to California I have ever taken. So who did I visit?

 

  • Groth Vineyards & Winery

  • Dalla Valle

  • Bevan Cellars 

  • Dana Estates

  • Failla 

  • Three Sticks 

 

All of the above wineries are producing world-class wines and for those who have been driven away from California due to the high alcohol, unbalanced, ripe and jammy styles, well I have good news. The above producers are producing wines which speak from the heart and maximize the terroir from which they are from. They are not trying to produce Bordeaux blends or replicate Burgundy. These are Californian Wines!  

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Groth Vineyards & Winery

Dennis and Judy might have been making premium Chardonnay instead of Napa Cabernet, if a deal in 1981 had not fallen through in Sonoma. At that time, whilst driving in Napa they came across a new plot of land, realized it was perfect, and that is when Groth Vineyard and Winery was born. Robert Parker gave a perfect 100 points to their 1985 Cabernet, the first 100 points given in California, however that did not stop them producing even better wines. Between 1999 and 2003, 54 acres of vines were re-planted using different clones and rootstock in an attempt to raise the bar even higher. Groth Winery is now fully sustainable and produces some of the best wines in California, whilst staying true to their values being family-owned and -operated. The future is bright at Groth, and quality has never been higher, recently coming in at No.4 of the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines 2019!

Highlights included the No.4 of the Top 100 of Wine Spectator: Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2016 (95 points), which showed a wonderful bouquet of dark fruit, chocolate, medium-body with fantastic structure and length. The Groth Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (92 points), which was medium-bodied, with reserved fruits, dusty chocolate and finely grained tannins, this is benchmark Oakville.

Here is a great video of Cameron Perry (Director of Winegrowing) discussing the 2015 and 2016 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 

Groth Reserve 2016 tasting video

Dalla Valle

Dalla Valle was originally purchased by Gustav and Naoko Dalla Valle in 1982. The wines improved throughout the late 80s and early 90s as the vineyard matured, however, tragedy hit the family and in 1995 Gustav Dalla Valle died. This left Naoko to take the helm. Their only daughter Maya showed an early interest in the wine industry and Naoko encouraged her to study and learn. She studied at both Cornell as well as Bordeaux University. She also gained valuable experience at Bodega Rolland, Ornellaia, Petrus and Chateau Lafleur. In 2017 she returned to the family winery to help her mother and continue the Dalla Valle legacy.  Dalla Valle wines are Cabernet-based, fully estate-grown and they practice sustainable farming practices. Dalla Valle has a strong technical team, along with Naoko and Maya Dalla Valle, they have Andy Erickson (Screaming Eagle, Spottswood) as chief winemaker and Michel Rolland as blending consultant. Maya is looking to take the reins in the following years and has the vision of pushing the Dalla Valle to new heights.

All wines tasted at Dalla Valle were of exceptionally high quality and Maya and her team produce some of the most balanced, elegant and refined wines in the valley. Highlights include the Dalla Valle Maya 2016 (99 points), which exploded with both black and red fruits along with a wonderful floral component, the palate was rich, textured and harmonious. The Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (98 points), was such a complete wine from the aromas to the finish, this is the new standard for Napa Cabernets. Finally, the Dalla Valle Maya 2009 (98 points), showed how Napa Cabernets can age, this wine still carries so much freshness and structure with potential for further ageing. This is Napa at its best!

Bevan Cellars

Russell Bevan and Victoria De Crescenzo were always set to produce some of the most sought-after wines in Napa. However, the journey to success was not an easy one. The story began in 1998, when Russell was spending many hours learning about wine through the Wine Spectator website, he jumped into the 2003 vintage, and by 2007 his wine was highly noted by Robert Parker. Russell thought he had it all sorted, and he and Victoria put everything they owned (401K, IRA) into Bevan Cellars to raise capital. Their timing was wrong: the financial crash of 2008-2009 nearly wiped them out. Their friend, Eric Epstein, kept them going and now has a wine named in his honour: the famous Tench Vineyard, EE. The 2011 vintage was a real turning point, with their Tin Box receiving 100 points from Robert Parker, the only 2011 Napa Cabernet to score a perfect 100 points. Since then, Bevan Cellars has earned a perfect 100-point score with seven of their wines. Russell has access to some of the best vineyards in the Valley, including both Tench and Sugarloaf. These vineyards are located between other famous plots of Dalla Valle, Screaming Eagle and Joseph Phelps Backus.

Bevan Cellars Tench vineyard is located right next to the famous Screaming Eagle vineyard, so the pressure is on to produce wines capable of standing up to their famous neighbors. Russell produces wines that are rich, lush and textured. These wines are big yet balanced and age-worthy. Highlights included the Bevan Cellars Tench Vineyard 2016 (99 points) which was full-bodied and rich with plush fruit with silky tannins. The Bevan Cellars Tench Vineyard E.E 2016 (98 points) was a touch more savory and was more serious with fresh herbs, potting soil and an extremely structured finish. Finally, the Bevan Cellar Ontogeny 2017 (95 points), which showed the full potential of the 2017 vintage, I was expecting a drying and hot wine, but there was a significant amount of fresh and lush fruit along with a rich yet nimble mid-palate.  

Russell shows us the importance of Petit Verdot in this live blending session of the 2018 vintage.

Dana Estates

Dana Estates was originally founded in 1883 by H.W. Helms. However, it was not until the 70s when it was purchased by John and Diane Livingston, under which many famous winemakers worked including Randy Dunn, John Kongsgaard and Juan Mercado. Since 2005, Hi Sang Lee has been the owner of Dana Estates. Mr. Lee, was a South Korean businessman and owner of a fine wine distribution company which specialized in Californian wine, prior to investing in Dana Estates. When the chance came up to own Dana Estates he jumped at the chance, ensuring to keep the old ghost winery, and building on the past. Dana estates comprise of four separate vineyards: Helms, Hershey, Lotus and Crystal Spring Vineyard. All vineyards are farmed organically, yields are low, and each site showcases the terroir to which it lies on. This new style of Californian Cult winery pushes boundaries and with the team of Mr. Lee, Chris Cooney and Philippe Melka at the heart of all decisions, Dana Estates are turning heads in the Cult wine scene.  

Dana Estates produces premium, high quality, organically certified wine, and is focused on terroir-driven wine with personality and breathtaking finesse. I rarely taste wines with so much precision and focus on quality from grape to bottle. Walking through the winery with Jae, there was classical music playing, he explained that you should treat the wine like your own children. I could not agree more! A highlight included the Dana Estates Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (95+ points), this is the best Sauvignon Blanc I have ever tasted from Napa; lush and rich yet with fantastic energy and persistence. The Dana Estates Vaso 2015(95 points) which was a blend of their four certified Organic estates (Lotus, Helms, Hershey and Crystal Springs) was medium-full bodied with lush dark fruit, finely integrated tannins and a layered finish. The Dana Estates Hersey Vineyard 2016 (99+ points), is like no other wine you have ever tasted from Howell Mountain. Wow! Lush fruit, crushed stones, savoury notes, layered, texture and a persistent precise finish, this is going to age beautifully and just get better and better!

Failla

Ehren Jordan did not have your typical winemaker route, after graduating with an Art History degree he headed to Colorado, skiing in the day and working in the restaurant scene at night. He started visiting Napa and finally starting working at the Joesph Phelps Winery as well as Turley Wine Cellars. He finally headed off on his own with the 1998 vintage producing a little Syrah and Viognier. In 2006 they opened a tasting room located on the Silverado Trail, which they still own. Failla owns vineyards and sources grapes from across cool-climate sites in California and Oregon, with a focus on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Ehren is always looking at the next project to expand his range of wines, and rumours are circulating that he has started to produce some excellent Chenin Blanc and Gamay. His focus is on the expression of individual sites; maximizing the land and minimizing the cellar.

When tasting through the complete range of their wines, I was impressed by the tension and focus of Ehren's wines. I was a huge fan of their entry-level 2018 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (92 points), which was really benchmark Sonoma coast, with bright fruit, crushed stones and a focused finish. The highlight was surprisingly the Failla Seven Springs Pinot Noir (94 points), which showed fantastic purity of fruit, along with bright acidity, structure and a long finish. These wines perfectly showcase the sites which they are from without being drowned in oak or winemaking tricks, wines do not get much purer than this.

Three Sticks

Bill Price founded Three Sticks in 2002 after buying into Durell Vineyard in 1998. The name of the winery is named after his surfing nickname 'Billy Three Sticks'. The winemaker Don Van Staaveren uses a carefully and minimalistic style of winemaking ensuring the terroir has maximum expression. Three Sticks own some of Sonoma Coast's most prestigious vineyards including  Durell, One Sky Vineyard and Gap’s Crown Vineyard. When looking out on Gap's Crown vineyard with Rob Harris (Director of Vineyard Operations), he explained that even though Three Sticks sells grapes to multiple vineyards, they get the first pick, which is a huge advantage. He goes on to explain that with so many acres of different clones, rootstocks and aspects, each year brings new learnings. One Sky Vineyard is a special vineyard in a forest setting, this vineyard has been planted without touching the sounding landscape, which was very important for Rob. The incline of One Sky is pretty impressive and clearly a lot of thought has gone into this vineyard and even though it is still young there is a huge amount of potential. Back in the cellar and it is about showcasing the best of the land with careful oak management. Finally, I have never been surrounded by such a closely nit team, from Rob, all the way through to the Sales Manage (Chris Mattson), there is a synergy like few other wineries.  

Highlights included the Three Sticks Durell Vineyard 2017 (96 points), this can easily be compared to Montrachet with that New World freshness, this is so layered and textured, yet with fantastic tension. The Three Sticks Gap's Crown 2018 (95 points), is layered with fresh dark fruit, crushed stones with structure and a long grippy finish. Finally, Head High Pinot Noir (89 points), which uses both estate along with purchased grapes to produce a clean expression of the Sonoma Coast at a price which most can enjoy. Three Sticks are producing some of the most exciting Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs on the Sonoma Coast with breathtaking expressions of different terroirs, this is Sonoma Coast at its best. 

Bottom Line

The above wineries are some of the most exciting in California, with a focus on maximizing the expression of land which they work with. I have never returned from California and graded so many different wineries at 95+ points. Dana Estates, Bevan Cellars, Groth and Dalle Valle are producing some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon not just in California, but in the world. Three Sticks produce Chardonnays which can easily compete with some of the best Burgundy wines in the Côte de Beaune.

 

California produces some of the highest-scoring wines in the world, their wines easily compete with Bordeaux and Burgundy, yet what I appreciate and what I was told in every winery I visited, is that they are not trying to produce a St-Estephe Cabernet or a Montrachet Chardonnay. They want to produce Californian wines, true to their terroir. This is the new California.

Dana Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Hershey Vineyard 2016

99 points

Tasting with Jae at the winery. This vineyard is located on Howell Mountain at 1800ft with white volcanic ash along with other volcanic soils. Those who know Howell Mountain know how these wines can be big with bold tannins and need 20-30 years before fully enjoying. I tend to describe drinking a young Howell Mountain as scrappy and jagged and honestly not enjoyable at all. Well, all of that went out of the window when I experience the Hershey Vineyard. Wow! So approachable yet with the structure and acidity that will make this extremely long-lived. Aromas of dark black cherries, black plums, savoury herbs, espresso and a little bitter dark chocolate. The palate was rich, full-bodied with muscular tannins and striking minerality along with dark black fruit, crushed stones, forest floor and cracked black pepper. There is so much texture and potential to this wine. Yet it is accessible now after a long decant, but I would still hold off for 10 years to appreciate the full potential of this single vineyard. One of the top wines I have ever tasted from California and significantly better than any other wine from Howell Mountain.

Dalla Valle Maya 2016

99 points

Dark purple in colour, the Maya explodes with aromas of blackcurrant, kirsch, cassis, raspberries, fresh florals, coffee beans and light fresh earth. The palate is so elegant, rich and textured with silky tannins, waves of lush luxury dark fruit, velvety chocolate, crushed stones, espresso notes and fresh herbs of lavender and a long precise and lingering finish. This is a joy to drink today, however this has the structure to age gracefully over the next 20+ years. Wow! 67% Cabernet Sauvignon and 33% Cabernet Franc

Bevan Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Tench Vineyard 2016

99 points

This wine is flickering on perfection. With addictive aromas of lush dark cherries, dark plums, blueberries, espresso, tobacco leaf, crushed stones and freshly cracked black pepper. The palate is medium-full bodied, deep and concentrated with firm but silky tannins. There is so much going on in this wine with waves of powerful dark plush fruit and spice this is wonderfully layered and is consistently involving with every sip. The finish is precise and extremely long. Drink now over the next 20+ years. Wow!

Bevan Cellars EE Cuvée Tench Vineyard 2016

98 points

2017 and 2016 are so different in terms of vintages and the style of 2016 really stood out. The lush blackberry, dark red cherries, fresh herbs and gently crushed graphite led to a palate which was full bodied and powerful yet with fantastically smooth and refined tannins along with waves of luxurious and rich dark fruit which took front and centre stage, with an underlining of light potting soil and spice to round off. The finish is extremely elegant, long and it is difficult to not smile when drinking this wine. A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc and 10% Merlot. The terms Iron fist in a velvet glove is a perfect description of this wine. Drinking wonderfully now, yet probably will improve over the next 10+ years.

Dalla Valle Maya 2009

98 points

Always fun to taste an older vintage of the excellent Maya and the 2009 shows how gracefully these wines age, yet the best is still to come! I believe this is now entering its drinking window yet still has an easy 15-20 years left. The nose felt shy at first, however, after some time aromas started to unwind and become quite powerful with aromas of violets, dried strawberries, kirsch, cassis and forest floor. The palate was medium-bodied with finely integrated tannins, cooked plums and dark fruit yet with good freshness, velvety cacao, chalky stones with an exceptionally long and precise finish.

Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

98 points

Absolutely phenomenal, so elegant and complete. This makes you re-think what you know about Napa Cabernets. Aromas of dark red cherries, blackberries, cassis, floral components, bay leaves, cigar box, espresso and potting soil. The palate was rich and powerful with refined silky tannins, lush dark fruit, crushed stones, with a long, layered and elegant finish. Consistently evolving in the glass. Drink now over the next 20 years.

Three Sticks Chardonnay Durell Vineyard 2017

96 points

Hello Montrachet? I don't like to make these comparisons yet I feel I need to. Californian Chardonnays do not always get the respect they deserve. This is so on the ball and has that Montrachet touch which would throw most off. This has strong aromas of Asian pears, acacia, fresh honeysuckle, the palate was soft yet alluring and textured with that minerality and structure which you rarely find in Californian Chardonnay which matches with ripe orchard fruit, a little tropical fruit, wet stone and a layered long long finish. Wow! 97+ This is a 100% estate-grown, 15 months, 100% french oak and 30% new with clones of Wente, Hyde, Mt. Eden and 76. I rarely give a Californian Chardonnay this high score.

Bevan Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Tench Vineyard 2017

95 points

This is a powerhouse of a wine for such a vintage with dark, blackcurrant compote, crushed violets, cassis, black pepper, pencil lead aromas lead to a palate which is full bodied and throttled with muscular tannins, big bold fruit along with a round and rich finish. 95+

Bevan Cellars EE Cuvée Tench Vineyard 2017

95 points

So Inky in color, certainly more shy on the nose compared to the Ontogeny, with plush dark fruit, black olive tapenade, bay leaves and allspice round these alluring aromas. The palate was medium to full-bodied yet refined and serious, more savoury compared to the Ontogeny, yet with a wonderful integration between the rich and elegant dark fruit and the savoury textures of crushed stones, pencil shavings and pepper which filled the palate and lead to a more precise and elegant finish. A blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. This needs time, however shows great potential. 95+

Dana Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Vaso 2015

95 points

Tasting with Jae This comes from 70% Hershey vineyard and has a crazy QPR (remember their Single vineyard Hershey is $600 US/bottle). The Nose explodes with aromas of dark black fruit, cassis, black tea, chocolate and espresso notes. The palate is ripe, rich and medium-full bodied with wonderfully integrated fine tannins. Wonderfully layered dark fruit fills the palate, yet with a good minerality lift and a long and rich finish. Blend of 83% Cabernet, 7% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec and 1% Cabernet Franc. 10% New Oak.

Three Sticks Pinot Noir Gap's Crown Vineyard 2018

95 points

This has a unique darker colour along with dark ripe fruits of black cherry, dark ripe berry fruits, fresh earth, crushed stones, vanilla and sweet spices, more structured tannins and tension vs the Price Family Vineyard Pinot along with a concentrated long elegant finish. Loved this.

Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2016

95 points

A big step up from the 2015 and I see why this was highlighted as one of the stars of the 2016 vintage. With its darker fruit, cassis, black cherries and dark plums, along with dusty chocolate, tobacco leaf and cracked black pepper. The palate was medium-bodied, and still feels very reserved with darker and purer fruit compared to the 2015, firm but structured tannins, along with dusty cacao and savoury herbs lead to a long structured finish. This needs time, 5-8 years and this will be a star. More old world in style.

Dana Estates Sauvignon Blanc Hershey Vineyard 2015

95 points

Tasted with Jae at the winery. This comes from Howell Mountain and the Hershey Vineyard, with less than 200 cases produced this is a true gem of a Sauvignon Blanc and in my opinion the best SB in North America I have tasted. At $175US is certainly is not cheap, but is top quality. With fantastically lush yet not heavy ripe tropical fruit, apricots and peaches, the palate was rich yet with bright acidity and a wonderful saline texture, waves of tropical fruit which was wonderfully balanced and integrated, it finished long and harmoniously.

Dana Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Onda 2015

94 points

Tasting with Jae at the winery. The wine was majority taken from the Crystal Springs vineyard which was next to Lotus and at a slight angle which shaded it from the afternoon sun. This is a big winery and needs decanting as others have mentioned. Aromas of violets, florals, crunchy dark berries, forest floor, moss and espresso. The palate was a lot more savoury compared to the VASO along with being more earthy and full-bodied. This is deep, dark and broody, the tannins were more muscular and present yet there was richness and creaminess to the palate which allowed for enjoyment even at this early stage. The finish was rich and very long. Open in around 8 years then enjoy over the next 15 or so.

Failla Pinot Noir Seven Springs Vineyard Eola - Amity Hills 2018

94 points

Sourced from the Seven Springs Vineyard, this had aromas of bright red fruit, violets, cherries with some fresh earth, herbs and mushrooms. The palate was fresh, with grippy tannins excellent purity of fruit along with a long and focused finish.