The two-day annual Family Winemakers of California Tasting in San Francisco (FW) is the most comprehensive showing of California wines in the state. The event is mainly for trade and media, but it's open one day to the public for three hours. It's the one event all year in which great small producers like Paloma and Seavey regularly participate, and is also a forum often used by new labels to debut, hoping to garner distribution and/or retail awareness.
Over 500 wineries belong to the organization, and over 215 were on hand for the event this year, offering about 700 wines.
It is impossible for one person to taste more than a fraction of the wines poured during this event. This year I cheated: Besides participating in both days of the tasting, I also attended the Napa Vintners Association event two days before, at which a lot of the same wineries were represented. I also regularly receive samples from a number of FW participants, and made recent strategic visits to other regular attendees. All in all, from the two-day event and other tastings over the past few months of producers represented there I put together 372 tasting notes on wines from 98 producers, virtually half of those in attendance--i.e., an impossible number to taste and analyze during the course of the two days.
In selecting the producers to taste through at this event, I focus on the strongest, most consistent ones in my tastings over the years whose wines I haven't otherwise reported on recently, as well as on labels I haven't tried yet, especially those showing their wines at FW for the first time.
Among the latter group, the standouts for me this year, with one or more wines rating 92 points or higher, were Herb Lamb (93 point Cabernet Sauvignon), Kaena (93+ point Grenache), Somerston (92 point Cabernet Sauvignon) and Valance (92 point Cabernet Sauvignon).
The major stars of the tasting for me, with strong lineups overall and one or more wines rating 93 points or higher, were Bien Nacido, Benovia, Chateau Montelena, Grgich Hills, Herb Lamb, Kaena, Keenan, Ladera, Lagier Meredith, Lamborn Family, L'Aventure, Ottimino, Paloma, Saxon Brown, Seavey, Thomas Fogarty and Vino Noceto.
Among the most exciting new finds at the tasting for me were Kaena's Grenaches, which are among the best of that varietal I've ever had from California.
Kaena is the project of Mickael and Sally Sigouin in Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley. Mickael is also winemaker for Beckmen. All of their Grenaches were strong, but the 2010 Larner Vineyard and 2010 Tierra Alta Vineyard were particularly impressive (93+ and 93 points respectively). The couple really need to work on their website, however, which currently offers no way to order the wines online.
I was also very impressed by the complex and delicious Zinfandels being made by Ottimino, especially the 2010 Biglieri Vineyard (93+ points, $38 from the winery), and the very strong lineup of single vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from Thomas Fogarty, a Santa Cruz winery I profiled here, including the very ageworthy 2011 Pinot Noir Henry Ayrton's Block Rapley Trail Vineyard (94 points, $80 to mailing list members only).
Also amazing, as usual, was the lineup from Lagier Meredith. These are the wines created by U.C. Davis Professor Emeritus Carole Meredith and her winemaker husband Steve Lagier. Their Syrah, made from fruit grown on their estate vineyard, has long been one of California's most complex and ageworthy. They are also now making a terrific Zinfandel, the first in the U.S. to employ on the label the name reported in Jancis Robinson's recent book on wine varieties as the earliest confirmed one used for the variety in Croatia where it originated, Tribidrag. In partnership with talented winemaker Aaron Potts, the couple also make delicious wines under the Chester's Anvil label, including what I think is California's best Malbec ($40).
My highest rated wines of the entire event were the 2010 Lagier Meredith Syrah (95+ points, $48 from the winery); 2010 L'Aventure Estate Cuvée (95 points, at an average of $74 from U.S. retailers); 2010 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (94+ points, and a good value for highly rated Napa Cab at $46); and 2010 Paloma Merlot (94+ points, $54).
Barbara Richards and son Sheldon of Paloma
These tastings also reconfirmed a major conclusion of my report on last year's FW--that California wines are exhibiting more balance--higher acidities and lower alcohol levels, resulting in wines with more vivacity and less heaviness--than was true just a few years ago.
This continues to be facilitated by cool recent vintages--2010 and 2011--but is also attributable to conscious decisions on the part of winemakers and growers, reacting in part to consumer demand.
The result is a lot of really delicious wines that are fit for drinking in the nearer term, good partners for food that don't knock you out with the high alcohol levels of the past.
This is really notable in Cabernet Sauvignons from cool 2010. Many of these exhibit the kind of savory, loamy character one gets from old-style California Cabs, i.e., from the '60s and '70s--before the super ripe style of the '80s took over.
Good examples of young Cabs in this style besides the Chateau Montelena are the 2010 Arrow & Branch Cabernet Sauvignon Napa (91+ points, pre-release); 2010 Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon Napa (93+ points, $51); 2010 Herb Lamb Cabernet Sauvignon HL Herb Lamb Vineyard (93 points, $150); and 2010 Stonestreet Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Mountain Estate Bear Point (91+ points, $49).
For my ratings and tasting notes on all 372 wines, see the complete report on my website here.