Wine Talk

Snooth User: Stephen Harvey

Californian Wine

Posted by Stephen Harvey, Dec 13, 2010.

My Cali Wine Education is starting to take shape and I read with great interest the Cali Natives musings on what is good bad and indifferent about Cali Wines.

I want to create an bit of a database of Cali Wines - but not all and sundry so I am asking for your top 3 as set out below, in choosing your top 3, I would value your assessment based on the wines expression of its Cali region and your opinion that it is reasonably consistent from vintage to vintage [allowing for crap vintages].  I am more interested in say 2000 and later vintages and as to price I am OK with anything from a bargain to the top end

So top 3


Cabernet or Cabernet Blend

Shiraz or Shiraz Blend



Plus what you would expect to pay in USD on a normal [ie not super promotion basis]

I hope you can help me



Reply by dmcker, Dec 14, 2010.

You should go for top 5 or so. Too many different expressions. Remember, there are as many wineries in California as in France....

Reply by Stephen Harvey, Dec 14, 2010.


Happy with top 5 but I am just trying to get a relatively tight list to focus my attention on and you Cali Natives seem to me to be my best source of knowledge

It would be a similar challenge for me with Aussie wines but limiting the choice does make one focus, a bit like choosing your all time favouriite movies or songs

Reply by dmcker, Dec 14, 2010.

Not as many wineries in Oz... ;-)

Reply by Stephen Harvey, Dec 14, 2010.

True but hopefully you can give me some to focus on trying to get hold of and this time I am recording the recos in a speadsheet so I do not lose them

Reply by dmcker, Dec 14, 2010.

Excel or Numbers?  ;-)

Reply by Stephen Harvey, Dec 14, 2010.


Reply by dmcker, Dec 14, 2010.

That would've been my guess. Didn't see Deloitte Touche using Macs... ;-)

Reply by GregT, Dec 14, 2010.

Stephen - we call it Syrah in CA.  Some wineries do use the term Shiraz, esp if they want to denote a bigger, riper style.  But that's pretty rare.

And as for Syrah - just look at the top 100 from Wine Spectator.  Seems like they were loaded with Syrah from CA this year.  As D says, there are many iterations of these wines.  You need to state whether you mean Napa or whether you mean CA entirely.  Remember, it's about the size of France, and it's pretty long from north to south, plus there are mountains, so there are really defined microclimates.

In Napa itself, there isn't really a lot of Syrah produced.  It's there, but that's not the sweet spot for it.  Too dominated by Cab Sauv.  And then there are styles.  Phelps makes it, Colgin makes it and here's an article for what it's worth - I know at least one of the participants and his preferences, but it's a good point.

The most Syrah  is in San Luis Obispo - 2,812 acres, then Joaquin County - 1,973 acres and then Sonoma County -  1,970 acres.  Napa has about 1/2 that.

So Syrahs from other parts of the State are likely to be more interesting.  Pax made one from Castelli-Knight ranch.  Big, ripe, but peppery and spicy too.  He left his namesake winery and makes the wine under the Wind Gap label.  Very different style from what he used to do, much leaner and less opulent but very good in a very different way.  Tasting those side by side, from the same winemaker, is an education in itself.  I like them both.

In the huge, ripe style, there's SQN if you can get it.  It's actually good wine but I think there's more interesting wine produced and that's just for Syrah.

Compare those figures to Cabernet Sauv though - Napa alone has 19,000+ acres, almost 20 times as much Cab as Syrah.  It's nearly impossible to recommend the top 3 Cabs.  I'd also put Merlot in there. Best Merlots I've had would be the Pahlmeyers from 1994 - 7.  Just outstanding. In the $100+ range, I guess I'd put Staglin and Schraeder and Shafer Hillside Select in there.  Some may scoff that Staglin isn't in the same league, but the fact is, if one drinks the wine and not the price, it holds its own.  The 1995 and 1996 for example, are drinking wonderfully.  For longevity with improvement, you'd have to include a few like Dunn and Ridge Montebello and Mayacamas, but those are different in style from the first three and also very different from each other.  None are in the current fashion.  In that vein, something like Gemstone is wonderful to drink out of the gate and I buy it for that reason, but I have no idea how it will age.  I don't particularly care though, as it has no hard edges and it's always great.  It also lacks the minty menthol notes that so many have and that I dislike. 

As far as Chardonnay, there are many different styles and different clones too and they make a difference.  Sonoma is considered more a home for Chardonnay then Napa, even though there's a lot produced in Napa. You get huge oak bombs like Kistler, which is good, but of a type.  Then Larry Hyde, who has been growing Chardonnay in the Carneros region and who sold Ramey, Hobbs, and Kistler a lot of his fruit, decided to make his own wine with his partner.  They came out with HdV, which people compare to Montrachet.  All of those are about $60 or so.

Reply by Stephen Harvey, Dec 14, 2010.


Thanks for the run down very informative as usual

I understand the size, complexity style differentials etc etc, I guess I was just interested what people thought was their personal favourites from Cali in general.  I am not fussed if people want to limit the choice to a sub region.

To me it was to collect the views of people and try and source the wine and if found, taste it and report back.

I am also keen to understand the new/old style debate with Napa Cab that fires you and Dmcker up regularly [and others] and I would like to get a couple examples of the two styles and benchmark them against what we have here in Aust to see if we have any parallels.

Same with Chardonnay, I drank a whole bunch up in Sonoma when there in late 2002 and really enjoyed them, much more than similar priced Australian ones at the time.  I also stumbled on Chalk Hill and by pure fluke had it twice and really enjoyed it.

So this will form part of my Christmas break aim to find some thing interesting from Cali and enjoy it with a couple wine loving friends in a relaxed beachside environment.


Reply by outthere, Dec 14, 2010.

OK, I'm no expert. I'll only list wines I have in my cellar and/or have tasted but feel are fairly good representations. It's not fair to only have 3 choices. I'm sure everyone will have something different. Most from Napa Sonoma as that is where I live. Not the best of the best but all fairly consistent from vintage to vintage.


  • Mayacamas Vineyards - Interesting high altitude Napa Valley vineyard - not a lot of oak. Ages well.
  • Kistler Dutton Ranch - Rich, nutty, slightly oaky but consistently good RRV Chard
  • Arnot-Roberts - Real nice example of low oak Chard from Napa fruit
  • Wind Gap "Yuen" James Berry Vineyard - A no oak wine made in concrete eggs. Crisp and delicious. Central Coast fruit.

Cabernet or Cabernet Blend 

  • Chateau Boswell Jacquelyn Beckstoffer To-Kalon Vineyard -The most amazing Napa Cab I have ever had.
  • Schrader Cellars GIII - Big and bold
  • Rivers-Marie - Modern styled Napa Cab with loads of fruit, density and richness
  • Switchback Ridge - Big but has the structure to age well. Just had an amazing 99 vintage.

Shiraz or Shiraz Blend

  • You have some SQN Labels - just awesome
  • Wind Gap Griffins Lair - Old world approach, the polar opposite of the SQN (Sonoma County cool climate fruit)
  • Lillian Syrah - Get your hands on this if you can. Santa Barbara
  • Cabot Syrah Kimberly's - Small ultra north coast (Humboldt County) producer. Excellent value $25USD for a quality syrah.
  • Donelan Syrah Richard's Family Vineyard -Another old world approach with amazing results. 


  • Williams-Selyem - so many different bottlings but hard to go wrong. One of my favorite RRV PN producers.
  • Sojourn Cellars Sangiacomo Vineyard - Another great RRV Pinot Noir
  • August West Graham Family Vineyard - Really impressive. RRV again (I'm partial)
  • Gracianna Winery Bacigalupi Vineyard - I'm real partial here.

Other -You left out Zinfandel which is a California Heritage Grape with hundreds of old growth vineyards up and down the state.

  • Bedrock Wine Co - The Bedrock Heirloom - Old vine field blend of mixed blacks. Just a treat on the palate.
  • Bedrock Wine Co - Stellwagen Vineyard - Another big, spicy, structured zinfandel.
  • Scherrer Old Mature Vine Zinfandel - More reserved flavors with more spice and finesse than the bedrock
  • Carlisle - Can't mention Zinfandel without mentioning Carlisle. Gold Mine Ranch Dry Creek Valley, Papera Ranch RRV and many in between. Mike Officer is a rock star zinfandel producer in my book. Makes some pretty darn good syrahs as well.
  • Sean Thackrey "Sirius" Petite Sirah - Thackrey is a craftsman of another era.
  • Switchback Ridge Petite Sirah - 05 is my all time favorite vintage but hard to go wrong with others.
  • Donelan Venus - A very delicate Roussanne with crisp friut. A treat.

Reply by outthere, Dec 14, 2010.

Damn, I left one out:

  • Agharta Wines "Exhibit B" - A Bordeaux Blend of Merlot, Cab Franc, CabSauv, Petite Verdot - Just a brilliant wine that is extremely well made and quite possibly my wine of the year. How did I forget this?
Reply by napagirl68, Dec 14, 2010.

syrah:  2006 Big Basin Vineyards Rattlesnake Rock syrah

petite syrah:   Outpost Vineyards 2006 Howell Mtn Petite Syrah "the other"


1. Selby 2008 David Selby Russian river Chard

2.  Chalk hill 2007 Founder's Block chard

3.  Londer 2008 Corby Vineyards Chard

Pinot noir... my fav:

1.  Gracianna 2008 Bacigalupi Vineyards Pinot Noir, sonoma

2.  (my fav) 2008 Lioco Sonoma Coast Pinot (ck out the other wines on the site.. this is the only one from this winery I have tasted)

Cabernet Sauvignon:

1.  2006 Girard Diamond Mtn napa cab

2.  2001 ZD Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (white label)

3.  and a cab franc here: 2007 Robert sinskey Cab Franc, Vandal Vineyard, Los Carneros (this is an AMAZING wine!) 


Gotta run.. can include more later... just my personal preferences here... Forgot to mention Mauritson Family Vineyards, sonoma.  They have a great Cemetary Zin, AND great Sauv Blanc, IMO.



Reply by Stephen Harvey, Dec 15, 2010.

Thanks to those so far, now need to source some, but the AUD at 1 for 1 against USD is opening things up a bit

Reply by JonDerry, Dec 17, 2010.

Good topic Stephen, i'm a pretty big Cali guy. Born and raised here, and have immersed myself in it the last year or two.

Cabernet Sauvignon:

1. Larkmead Vineyards - Napa Valley - Calistoga:

Calistoga is a northern sub region of Napa Valley, and this area is known for producing quality spring water, and so the estate wines made here are known for their distinct minerality and of course, clean, tart taste.  On a great property in Calistoga, Larkmead also boasts a great Scottish winemaker.  The Calistoga zip code also offers more value and far less traffic than in the heart of napa.

Recommended: 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Solari (Reserve).  Price: $60 - $100 - USD 

2. O'Shaughnessy - Nappa Valley - Mt. Veeder & Howell Mtn.

O'Shaugnessy is also more of a boutique winery, with great properties situated well in both Howell Mountain and Mt. Veeder, highly regarded sub-regions bordering5 the valley floor of Napa. This is a new winery with a very talented wine maker as well.

Recommended: 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet, 2007 Mt. Veeder - Price: $75 - $100 - USD

3. Shafer - Napa Valley - Stag's Leap, Carneros 

Rock solid Napa producer that flys somewhat under the radar, but is more well known than the two above. Stag's Leap District. Their Hillside Select Cabernet, the equivalent of their "Reserve" Cabernet, is year in and year out at the top of food chain in Napa. The 2002 Hillside Select is probably the best wine i've tasted.

Recommended: 2002 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon - Price: $350 - $400 - USD


Reply by seerah, Dec 20, 2010.

Donelan Wines has the most exciting array of syrah in California and just received great reviews in Jeb Dunnuck's Rhone Report. I thought the 2008 Donelan Kobler Syrah is incredibly aromatic and Dunnuck raved about it too.  Critics seem to agree here as Parker loves these wines.

The winery owner, Joe Donelan provides the personal touch and walked me through the portfolio to help me make the right selections. Unheard of customer service for a newbie wine enthusiast like me.


Reply by outthere, Dec 20, 2010.

Joe Donelan knows the meaning of customer service. Never been treated better by a winery owner. From his welcome to the mailing list phone calls to the personal thank you notes after each purchase to the one-on-one attention when you visit the winery. Top notch for sure.

Reply by wineguider, Dec 23, 2010.

CHARD:  Sonoma-Loeb Reserve, $25.  William Hill, $20.  Dominican Oaks UNoaked.  $13.  Everybody drools for Kistler, I haven't tried it.

CAB: absolute best I've had is Van Der Heyden, $50.  WOW.  You have to call them and get them to mail it.

PINOT: Mark West Santa Lucia Highlands, $14.  David Bruce Russian River Valley, $38.  And finally: best to stop trying to win with California pinot noir, head up to Oregon and really score with Lange and Domaine Serene.

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