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Best California Wines of 1999

by Steve Pitcher

Looking back on all the wines I encountered in 1999, one thing became abundantly clear: California bottlings released in this last year of the century did much to prove that the state's wine industry has certainly come of age. Wines at and near the pinnacle of success reflected the bounty of continuing good-to-excellent harvests that can be traced back as far as 1990, while winemaking skills continue to be honed and perfected.

Significantly, in the vineyard, young vines coming on line after replanting due to phylloxera are yielding comparatively better fruit than before, thanks to denser vine spacing in many cases, better rootstocks, the availability of new and improved clones, intelligent varietal site selection (planting the site with a grape variety better suited to the location than the one that preceded it) and an increased and more widespread dedication to state-of-the-art vineyard management techniques and tools.

A few of the best Cabs, Merlots and proprietary red blends showing up in 1999 were late-release wines from the exceptionally great back-to-back harvests of 1994 and 1995, but most were products of vintage 1996, which received some bad press early in the game. Critics were concerned that heat spikes around
harvest-time might result in stressed vines and overripe fruit, yielding raisiny, pruney, alcoholic wines with green tannins. That didn't happen to any great degree, and 1996 is now more accurately ranked at about the same level of greatness as 1994 and 1995.

The best Pinots, Syrahs and Zinfandels released this year were mostly products of the 1997 harvest, which is at least on a par with those of 1994 and 1995, and may actually prove to be even better in the long run.

It's particularly exciting that Syrah continues to entice more and more vintners to try their hand with this popular, multi-faceted crowd-pleaser. Syrahs in all price ranges released in 1999 were uniformly well made and demonstrated that style for this varietal is primarily a function of where the grapes are grown -- peppery, gamey wines from cooler climates, deeply fruited, spicy wines from warmer zones. Happily, more than 4,000 acres of syrah are now planted throughout the state, up more than a thousand-fold from about 350 acres in 1990.

For white wine lovers in 1999, vintage 1998 is a year to be treasured, as it produced excellent Chardonnays (based on early releases) and absolutely outstanding Sauvignon Blancs. Trendy white Rhone varietals -- Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne -- continue to impress, as more and more winemakers offer bottlings of these exotic newcomers to California.

Unfortunately, prices kept edging upwards, continuing last year's trend. Cabernet prices especially showed the effects of supply and demand -- 1994, 1995 and 1996 were all lower-than-average crop years -- with large numbers of wines priced in the $50 to $95 range, and more than 20 at or exceeding $100 a bottle.

Here, then, listed in each category in order of personal preference, are my top picks for 1999, culled from hundreds of tasting notes I've assembled throughout the year from regular Vintners Club panel tastings, wine competition judgings, winery visits and trade and media events grand and small. Of the hundreds of wine samples I received in the course of the year, many went into the Vintners Club program and tastings of other wine appreciation groups, while others were evaluated against each other and then with food at the dinner table.

For those looking for bargain wines, I've designated a "Best Value" in each category.


1. 1996 Etude, Napa Valley -- $48: A study in opulent texture, the 1996 Etude is a winemaker's tour de force utilizing grapes from three separate vineyards in Oakville and St. Helena. Certainly a bigger wine than the ultra fine, elegant 1995 Etude, the current release offers fragrant, appealing scents of chocolate truffles, cedar, dark roasted coffee beans, cassis, black cherry and blueberry accented by a delicate fragrance of violets from the 8 percent cab franc in the blend. Luscious and silky smooth on the palate, this expertly crafted, seamless Cab delivers deep, rich, concentrated flavors that replicate the nose and linger powerfully through the long finish. The tannins, while firm, are ripe and supple and balanced by all that wonderfully fleshy, voluptuous fruit. Hard to resist now, the 1996 Etude will certainly improve over the next 6 to 8 years. (1,500 cases)

2. 1995 Shafer, Hillside Select, Stags Leap District -- $110: A monumental wine that follows very closely in the footsteps of the superb 1994 Hillside Select. A profound expression of the what the great Cabs of Stags Leap District can deliver, the 1995 Hillside Select offers power and extract counterbalanced by a certain youthful elegance, plush, rich texture and medium-firm, yet ripe tannins. Intensely fragrant scents of ripe cassis, a hint of leather and a slight minty flourish are replicated on the palate, enhanced by black cherry and chocolate notes. Great depth of flavor persisting through the extended finish. (2,000 cases)

3. 1996 Dalla Valle, Napa Valley -- $60: Blended with 12 percent cabernet franc and 3 percent merlot, this spectacular Cabernet offers forward, fragrant, appealing, sweet aromas of plum, raspberry, black currant and blueberry, milk chocolate and dried lavender. Smooth, velvety and rich in the mouth with deep, persistent, intense flavors that replicate the nose, the wine displays an appealing purity of estate fruit along with graceful power and suppleness. (2,200 cases)

4. 1996 Araujo Estate, Eisele Vineyard, Napa Valley -- $100: Fragrant, intense, complex aromas of ripe black currants, black cherry, vanilla, dark chocolate, clove spice and dark-roasted coffee beans. Quite rich and generous in the mouth with medium tannins, the wine is fairly brimming with flavors of ripe, luscious, concentrated black fruits accented by the vineyard's own special notes of warm earthiness and mineral. (2,305 cases)

5. 1995 Groth, Reserve, Napa Valley -- $125: Distinctive, very appealing notes of cassis, plum, black cherry, moderate herbaceousness (less than previous vintages), vanilla, cedar, leather and spice define both nose and palate in this rich, complex, smooth, classic Oakville Cab from a superb vintage. Fairly bursting with deep, extracted cassis and plum tinged with cocoa, the wine's firm yet supple tannins and fine acid structure, balanced by impressive depth of fruit and intense flavors, promise long-term ageability. (1,350 cases)

BEST VALUE CAB: 1996 Chateau Souverain, Alexander Valley -- $19: Enticing fragrance of blackberry, cassis, vanillin oak, dried herb and clove-cinnamon spice. Deep and concentrated on the palate with flavors that echo the nose, the wine's supple tannins and modest acidity encourage early consumption, yet the extract level promises some mid-term ageability. (35,000 cases)


1. 1996 Opus One, Napa Valley -- $125: In a vertical tasting this year of every vintage of Opus One, this one emerged as unquestionably the winery's finest effort ever. Very forward, aromatic nose of dusty herbs, clove, sandlewood, ripe black fruits and toasty oak. On the palate, deep, ultra-ripe black fruits are accompanied by a wisp of Medoc-like green herb, with flavors that show excellent concentration and avoid any suggestion of being overripe. A bigger style of Opus than bottlings up to 1993, with medium-full tannins and considerable extraction that will require several years of cellaring, this exquisitely balanced wine illustrates the finally evolved Opus style, with both the 1994 and 1995 vintages exhibiting similar levels of extraction and concentration. (30,000 cases)

2. 1996 Dalla Valle, Maya, Napa Valley -- $100: A remarkable blend of 55 percent cabernet sauvignon and 45 percent cabernet franc, Maya offers fragrant, attractive scents of creamy oak, glove leather and ripe black fruits, plus a subtle note of sandlewood spice. Rich and generous on the palate with medium-full tannins, the wine's delicious black currant-like fruit is quite concentrated and deep, and the balance is exquisite. Excellent aging potential. Sampled as part of a complete vertical of all the Mayas since 1992, the 1996 vintage was eclipsed only by the 1994, one of the greatest achievements in California winemaking ever, and a barrel sample of the 1997, which could be the 1994's equal. (500 cases)

3. 1996 Swanson, Alexis, Napa Valley -- $40: Departing from the Bordeaux-blend model, this wine's formula for success is a combination of 55 percent syrah, 33 percent cabernet sauvignon and 12 percent cabernet franc. Reminiscent of a northern Rh┘ne, Alexis offers complex aromas of smoked meat, blueberry, black raspberry, black cherry, brown spice and vanilla, accented by a green olive note. Smooth and supple in the mouth with moderate tannins, the wine's rich, ripe, spicy, nicely concentrated flavors focus on strawberry jam, black pepper, blackberry and cassis, accented with exotic smoky and gamey nuances. Thoroughly different and absolutely delicious; in a class by itself. (2,138 cases)

4. 1996 Beaulieu Vineyard, Tapestry Reserve, Napa Valley -- $35: Utilizing 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 17 percent merlot and one percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot, BV crafted a seductive, complex, delicious wine with impeccable balance and breed. Forward scents of ripe currants, cherries and plum are enhanced by elements of black olive, dark chocolate, dried thyme and vanilla. Luscious and long in the mouth with supple tannins, Tapestry's slightly earthy flavors focus on ripe dark cherry fruit, mineral and anise, with the vanillin oak nicely integrated. (16,000 cases)

BEST VALUE BLEND: 1996 Chateau St. Jean, Cing C╚pages, Sonoma County -- $28 ($33 after Jan. 1st): While not inexpensive, this magnificent achievement is worth much more than its sticker price. Forward, fragrant aroma of dark chocolate, super-ripe (not overripe) black cherry, blackberry, raspberry fruit and a subtle floral nuance. Big and mouthfilling, yet round, luscious and supple, this blockbuster blend of all five traditional Bordeaux varietals is enormously extracted and rich, offering complex, slightly leathery flavors of black fruit, cocoa and vanilla framed in toasty oak. Elegance should emerge eventually, as time tempers some of the power of this bold wine. (11,300 cases)


1. 1996 Duckhorn, Estate Grown, Napa Valley -- $53: With fruit sourced from 3 separate estate vineyards located in the choicest alluvial fans in the Napa Valley, Duckhorn has created a spectacular Merlot that offers plush texture and finesse, balanced with ripe black cherry-berry fruit and silky tannins. The nose focuses on intense, somewhat earthy, leathery aromas of cassis, sweet red cherry and blueberry, green olive and toasty oak. The deeply fruited, complex flavors echo the nose, with the addition of cedar, dried lavender and thyme, and persist deliciously into the extended, spice-tinged finish. (1,892 cases)

2. 1996 Paradigm, Oakville -- $35: Fruity, spicy scents of black cherry, blackberry and plum mingle with subtle dried herb, leather and vanilla notes. The complex palate replicates the nose, enhanced by hints of coffee bean, black pepper and cocoa. Wonderfully silky and seamless with medium-full tannins, the Paradigm is bold but approachable now, and will further improve with a bit more bottle age. (1,380 cases)

3. 1996 Beringer, Bancroft Ranch, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley -- $75: Always a Merlot of monumental proportions, the 1996 Beringer Howell Mountain is not quite as brooding as its predecessors, but rather offers a certain bold elegance (think of a bodybuilder in a tux). Reticent nose of dried sage and savory, cedar, berries and vanilla, yet the palate is enormous, bursting with ripe black fruit extract, brown spice, cedar, black licorice, toasty oak, vanilla and nutmeg. A well-stuffed, round, concentrated mountain Merlot with medium-full tannins and firm structure, built for the long term. (7,000 cases)

BEST VALUE MERLOT: 1997 Chateau Souverain, Alexander Valley -- $17: Forward, enticing scents of dark cherry, blackberry, blueberry, plum and vanilla. Silky smooth, round and luscious in the mouth and brimming with delicious, close-to-extract, cherry-blackberry fruit and sweet, toasty French oak. The mouth-feel is rich and substantial, with ripe, supple tannins. Slightly rough in the finish as might be expected with all this fruit and oak, but it should soften given a year or so in bottle. (24,500 cases)


1. 1997 Patz & Hall, Hyde Vineyard, Carneros -- $36: Forward, fragrant, aromatic scents of black cherry, wild strawberry and dark plum, vanilla, licorice and nutmeg with hints of violets and dried thyme. Complex, smooth and elegant in the mouth with deep, delicious flavors that replicate the nose, enhanced by a note of mocha and a faint hint of gaminess. Medium tannins; lingering, spicy berry finish. (160 cases)

2. 1997 Sanford, "Barrel Select," Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Santa Barbara County -- $40: Characteristic nose of ripe red cherry, strawberry and raspberry accented by vanilla, smoky oak and a hint of pleasant earthiness ("good barnyard"). Full-bodied and rich on the palate with ripe, medium tannins and soft acidity, the wine is immediately appealing with its intense, succulent fruit flavors of wild strawberry, black cherry and raspberry plus lots of vanilla. A big, bold, complex wine that nevertheless exhibits finesse and purity of fruit. (1,600 cases)

3. 1996 Acacia, Beckstoffer Vineyard, Carneros -- $40: Intriguing nose of Bing cherries, blackberries and black currants enhanced by cocoa, violets and toasted oak. Smooth and velvety in the mouth with all the flavors promised by the aromas. A big Pinot Noir with lots of attitude, able to stand up to grilled meats and some of the more exotic cuisines. (397 cases)

4. 1997 Etude, Carneros -- $33: Expressive aromas of dark cherry, sandlewood and cinnamon translate nicely on the palate, where an additional note of strawberry enlivens the flavors. The medium-full tannins promise good aging potential for this grand scale Carneros Pinot. (6,000 cases)

BEST VALUE PINOT: 1996 Villa Mt. Eden, "Grand Reserve," Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley -- $20: Fragrant, appealing scents of toasty oak, ripe raspberry-strawberry fruit and brown spice. A smooth, seductive, luscious Pinot with excellent depth and concentration, the Grand Reserve offers rich, generous, moderately complex flavors reminiscent of ripe plums and strawberries enhanced by hints of roasted spices and leather. (3,000 cases)


1. 1997 Foxen, Morehouse Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley -- $35: Intense fragrance of black raspberry and cherry, green peppercorns and a hint of vanilla. Rich and viscous and brimming with succulent berry fruit extract and peppery spice. Exhibits good balance and structure; medium-full tannins. (450 cases)

2. 1997 Kathryn Kennedy, Maridon Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains -- $64: An opulent, exotic wine with aromas of vanilla, black pepper and ripe blackberries. Dense and chewy on the palate with lots of blackberry fruit enhanced by freshly cracked black pepper. Pricy, but worth it if you consider what some high-end Rhone Valley collectors' wines offering similar qualities go for these days. (340 cases)

3. 1997 Qup╚, Bien Nacido Hillside Estate, Santa Maria Valley -- $35: Forward, fragrant scents of ripe berry fruit, brown spice and green peppercorns. Silky smooth and luscious with medium tannins, offering deep, concentrated berry fruit, peppery spice and well-integrated oak. (875 cases)

4. 1997 Jade Mountain, Paras Vineyard, Mt. Veeder -- $52: Dark and opaque, rich and extracted: everything a Rhone lover could want. Floral berry-like nose enhanced by 4 percent viognier (a Rhone practice) leads to deep, intense black fruit with a wonderful gamey note and peppery spice. Superb, as is their 1997 Napa bottling at $24. (530 cases)

5. 1997 JC Cellars, Mesa Vineyard, Santa Barbara County -- $21: Wonderfully Rhone-like with its come-hither scents of leather, gamey smoked meat, black cherry-cassis fruit, dried thyme and lavender and dark chocolate. The palate is full-bodied with medium tannins, offering delicious flavors of smoked meats, dried black cherries, freshly cracked black pepper and dried herbs. A complex, thoroughly delicious wine that demands to be paired with robust, bistro-style food. Duck confit comes to mind. (90 cases)

BEST VALUE SYRAH: 1997 Meridian, Paso Robles -- $16: Meaty, gamey aromas mingle with bright black fruits. Luscious blackberry palate accented by a green olive note. (case production not disclosed)


1. 1997 Rosenblum, Carla's Vineyard, Contra Costa County -- $21: Kent Rosenblum makes more great, distinctive, vineyard-designated Zins than anyone else on the planet. This one exhibits intense, rich blackberry and black cherry with notes of anise, tobacco leaf and green olive. Rich and fleshy with lots of ripe berry fruit and spicy, herbal accents that echo the nose. Medium-full tannins and thankfully under 14 percent alcohol. (1,500 cases)

2. 1997 JC Cellars, Rhodes Vineyard, Redwood Valley -- $25: Made by the chief enologist at Rosenblum Cellars, Jeff Cohn, this tiny-production blockbuster offers an enormous, exuberant, wonderfully fragrant nose of wild strawberries and juicy, ripe blackberries accented by rose petals, cinnamon spice and vanilla bean. Rich and lush on the palate with medium-full tannins, this full-throttle, leave-no-prisoners Super Zin delivers intense, deep flavors of blackberry extract enhanced by blueberry and red raspberry tinged with brown spice, while maintaining balance and focus. Extraordinary wine. (125 cases)

3. 1997 Edmeades, Ciapusci Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge -- $25: Forward, complex, fragrant scents of intense blackberry fruit, green olive and red meat. Concentrated, almost thick, extracted, jammy berry fruit that is fully ripe without being raisiny, framed with ripe, medium-full tannins. (611 cases)

4. 1997 Robert Biale, Monte Rosso Vineyard, Sonoma Valley -- $30: Freshly crushed berry scents virtually leap from the glass. Great concentration and depth of blackberry fruit; luscious, supple and generous, with notes of peppery spice. Intensely flavorful mountain Zin.

5. 1997 Pezzi King, Hillside Estate Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley -- $24: Attractive aromas of black raspberries and exotic spices. Big, concentrated and bold in the mouth, this delicious Zin is brimming with blackberries, black pepper, anise and clove spice. Smooth with medium tannins. (1,200 cases)

BEST VALUE ZIN: 1997 Seghesio, Sonoma County -- $14: Forward, attractive aroma of ripe, spicy cherry and black raspberry, black pepper notes and a wisp of oak. Rich and full on the palate with deep, intense berry fruit and mild herbaceousness; medium-full tannins. (30,000 cases)


1. 1997 Shafer, Red Shoulder Ranch, Carneros -- $35: Fresh, attractive, lightly toasty nose of lemon-lime, apple-pear and mango. Smooth, nicely defined palate with refreshing acidity, the wine's creamy citrus and pineapple flavors are intense and develop even more depth and power with airing, picking up some honeycomb in the creamy finish along with toasted hazelnut. (6,000 cases)

2. 1997 Kendall-Jackson, Grand Reserve, California -- $26: Forward, appealing scents of tropical fruit, pear, apple and citrus, enhanced by vanilla, spice and toasty oak. Smooth and round with good acidity, this generous, well-stuffed, yet still elegant Chardonnay is enormously impressive for its cascade of creamy citrus and tropical fruit and toasty-leesy notes. A remarkable achievement for such a high-production wine. (65,000 cases)

3. 1997 Ramey, Hudson Vineyard, Carneros -- $48: Decidedly Burgundian in style, this very elegant Carneros offering exhibits fragrant, expressive aromas of lightly toasted hazelnut, mineral, lemon-lime citrus and cr╦me brÜle╚. Silken and seamless with nice weight and excellent acidity, the wine delivers deep, persistent flavors of creamy citrus, mild caramel, vanilla and mineral. Best sampled from the finest Riedel "Montrachet" glass, where it seems very much at home. Ramey's 1997 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay ($46; 600 cases) is equally impressive. (400 cases)

4. 1997 Beringer, Private Reserve, Napa Valley -- $36: Forward, fragrant, intense nose of lemon citrus, succulent pear, nectarine, tropical fruit and oak spice. Juicy and viscous in the mouth, the wine is brimming with luscious, peachy citrus fruit accented by notes of honey and smoke. A big, bold Chardonnay that is well balanced and buoyed by good acidity. (20,000 cases)

5. 1996 Franciscan Oakville Estate, "Cuve╚ Sauvage," Napa Valley --$35: Forward toasty, yeasty, subtly spicy, creamy citrus, ripe pear aromas tinged with vanilla bean. Luscious, round and smooth with great structure and fine acid balance, tasting of citrus zest, ripe apple, spice and cr╦me brÜle╚; long, silky finish. (3,500 cases)

BEST VALUE CHARDONNAY: 1997 Steele, California Cuve╚-- $18: Jed Steele's "signature wine" offers a heady perfume of tropical fruit, creamy citrus, pear and peach accented by grace notes of vanilla, caramel and brown spice. Rich and impeccably balanced, the wine offers lush, intense flavors that replicate the nose, led by creamy citrus and framed in toasty oak. (10,000 cases)


1. 1998 Mason, Napa Valley -- $14: Extremely fragrant, appealing aromas of white blossom, green garden herbs, grapefruit zest and fig. Smooth, rich and velvety with excellent acidity and deep flavors that replicate the nose, with emphasis on ruby red grapefruit. A delicious, refreshing wine that's a joy to sip. (8,100 cases)

2. 1998 Ferrari-Carano, Fum╚ Blanc Reserve, Sonoma County -- $18: Very pleasant, initially subdued, appealing, nicely grassy scents of honeydew melon and pear, white blossoms, vanilla and shy oak lead to a broad, deeply flavored palate that emphasizes mild herbaceousness and ripe fruit. The smooth, moderately viscous texture is framed with good acidity; bright, crisp finish. An elegant Fum╚ Blanc in a superb package. (5,000 cases)

3. 1998 Bernardus, Monterey County -- $14: An elegant example of barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc at its best, the 1998 Bernardus departs completely from the lean, grassy or herbaceous New Zealand model, offering a rich, round, silky texture without heaviness, excellent acidity and wonderfully complex aromas and flavors of dried apricot, grapefruit citrus, fig, ripe pear and tropical fruit with just the faintest hint of varietal grassiness. (5,321 cases)

4. 1998 Groth, Napa Valley -- $14: Attractive nose of clover, melon and ripe fig. Crisp and clean with good acidity, delivering abundant, luscious, pear-melon-citrus fruit and hints of garden herbs. (20,500 cases)

5. 1998 Matanzas Creek, Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa Counties -- $22: Enticing scents of lemon grass, ripe melon and a touch of vanilla. Complex and generous with excellent acidity, offering layers of tropical fruit, citrus and fig plus a note of varietal grassiness. (15,832 cases)

BEST VALUE SAUVIGNON: 1998 St. Sup╚ry, Napa Valley -- $12: My pick for Best White Wine Bargain of the Year! Forward, fragrant, intensely varietal nose of freshly cut grass, green herbs, vibrant green lime and grapefruit citrus, peach and apricot, enhanced by a complexing floral note as the wine airs. Wonderfully fresh and crisp on the palate with excellent acidity, the wine is fairly rich in the mouth with deep, persistent flavors that replicate the nose with the addition of pear and white melon, and linger nicely in the finish. Unabashedly, unmistakably Sauvignon Blanc and thoroughly delicious, the St. Sup╚ry may be too intensely grassy for some, but devoted fans of the style -- and those who favor New Zealand's wines -- will fairly swoon with delight. The most highly awarded wine in competitions in 1999. (31,311 cases)


Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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