Justin Baldwin settled into the rolling limestone-rich hillsides of Paso Robles back in 1981, purchasing 160 acres with a goal of producing world-class wines to rival Left Bank beauties of Bordeaux. Within five years, he was bottling privately labeled wines for friends and family, the first Cabernets bearing the Justin label a huge success. The Reserve bottlings were next – later christened "Isosceles" – Justin's ode to Bordeaux with their unique blend of Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. I recall fondly following that wine, as the winemaker's talents at Justin – as well as their vines – matured through the 1990s and into the 21st century, culminating in the #6 spot on Wine Spectator's Top 100 Issue in 2000. For more than 32 years, the Justin Winery has focused exclusively on Paso Robles, producing a bevy of Cabernets in several price points, under the guiding hand of current winemaker Fred Holloway. For 2014, one of the earliest and third in a string of outstanding vintages for Paso, the team at Justin produced a fabulous "intro" Cab that personifies their fresh, focused style. It remains a go-to for serious Cab lovers with an eye for value.
Freemark Abbey, its old stone estate house built by hand in 1899 still standing today along the now-famous Rutherford Bench, embodies the very history of Napa and the legacy of Rutherford. And its current winemaker, Ted Edwards, is releasing some of the greatest wines ever bottled at this historic Napa stalwart. Founder Josephine Tychson – first woman winemaker on record – established the inaugural winery in sunny St Helena in 1886. But, no, there were never any monks involved. The new owners, ca 1939, conceived the moniker based on their names: Charles Freeman, Markquand Foster and Abbey Ahern. Through the 1960s and '70s, Freemark Abbey enjoyed considerable successes and advancements. New owners brought in gifted winemakers and the famous "Judgment of Paris" tasting – hosted by Steven Spurrier – involving two of Freemark's top selections. But it would be the partnership with Jon Bosché in 1970 which would forever establish Freemark Abbey's place among California's elite. For 2012, Edwards has bottled some real beauties, his Napa Cab impressing Parker like never before, "An absolutely fabulous value... A stunning Cabernet Sauvignon and a classic example of Napa viticulture..." Stock up, friends. Freemark Abbey is back!
Finding "Best Values" among Wine Spectator's Top 100 list – any year – takes real digging. These guys release ratings on more than 18,000 wines between their Napa and New York offices alone, spanning every category of wine imaginable. For the Top 100 list, the editors duke it out; lobbying for 10-20 of their personal favorites from a group of more than 5,000 90+ point wines. In the end, only 100 wines are left standing, and the editors negotiate like seasoned pros until a final consensus is reached on the hierarchy. Finding wines under $20 from this list takes work – and guts; getting the price down to $10 takes a magician. Well, I did it. And these are killer. Bodegas Montecillo produced the best version of their top selling Rioja Viña Cumbrero in 2010. Coming in at #62 (and a Best Value, to boot), it's laced with bright red fruits that are deliciously balanced by crisp, mouthwatering acidity – a total quaffer. From Portugal – red hot these days – coming in at #56, is João Portugal Ramos Alentejo Ramos Reserva. This is so packed with black fruits, layered with an almost tapenade quality; you'll swear it's a top Rhone. I loved it! You'll love 'em both – especially at these prices.
One of the most important monasteries of the 12th century, Santa María de Retuerta (Abadia de Retuerta), was built in a beautiful enclave on the banks of the Duero River, one of only two from that period in existence today. The current owners are heirs to this place, restoring it beautifully. A majestic spa, a Michelin starred restaurant, a Relais & Chateaux luxury hotel, guided tours via helicopter... quoting Maître de Maison, Andrés Araya, "Every architectural detail has been immaculately preserved." As with their famous neighbors – Vega Sicilia – their hillside vineyards are on the south side of the river and gradually ascend, topping out at 2,500 feet elevation. Working with world-renowned winemaker Pascal Delbeck (Petrus), the team here isolated the best parcels (54 in all), planting 510 acres to a combination of soils; clay and gravel near the river, limestone mixed with boulders and stones on the upper reaches. Mostly Tempranillo, with varying percentages of Cabernet and Syrah gives Retuerta its fascinating, unique flavor profile. The estate's 2012 Seleccion Especial represents tremendous value, but more importantly it shows a refinement – a balance and beautiful elegance – that the team has been striving towards for years. Tasting this wine will show you the future of this ancient place, a tremendous success rich with history.
Having tasted my way through dozens of recently arrived 2013 Chiantis, it is quite clear that we're in for a killer set of wines. Galloni – in speaking of the Fèlsina selections – went so far as to describe the 2013s as "shaping up to be truly epic." It's nice to see an epic vintage on the books as a fond farewell to one of the greatest men of Tuscany, Giuseppe Mazzocolin, as he enters retirement. So many classic vintages under his belt. Along with the maestro, long-time winemaker Franco Bernabei, Mazzocolin has bottled many of my favorite wines – many of the treasures in my cellar bear their signatures. And now, it's Giovanni Poggiali's turn at the wheel – his influence (and that of Mother Nature's, too) really shines through in the 2013s. The Chianti Classico Berardenga is a brooding, intense and royal masterpiece – I can't recall a better version in recent memory. Coming from the estate's vineyards in the southeastern sector of the Classico zone, Fèlsina's Berardenga parcels are uniquely exposed, almost exclusively southwestern, and higher than many of their neighbors – topping out at 1,375 feet above sea level. These conditions made for an incredible 2013, one I cannot recommend highly enough. Best ever...
For decades among my most trusted sources for classic, terroir-driven Chablis, Jean-Marc Brocard has taken full advantage of vintage 2014 – easily one of the most "must-have" vintages for this region since 2010 and the '05s which preceded. Since his humble beginnings in 1973, with a tiny, one-hectare winery, Jean-Marc has steadily expanded, his estate now spanning nearly 300 acres and including every major vineyard in the region, his son expertly converting the entire operation to biodynamics since joining dad's side in 1996. Jean-Marc's success with the 2014s is easily measured with one taste of his most straightforward bottlings, among those his Chablis "Sainte Claire." A Village-level Chablis, Jean-Marc's "Sainte Claire" is 100% Chardonnay from 30 year old vines, planted to south-facing exposures in the Village of Préhy. This site is classic Chablis, comprised of a complex soil base alternating between layers of Kimmeridgian and ridges of limestone and marls containing fossilized marine bodies. The vines in this site dig deep through these layers, the resulting wine bursting with vibrant minerality. Jean-Marc allows this cuvee to complete its malolactic fermentation, adding depth to the stone fruits and citrusy nuances. A Wine Spectator Top 100, this is simply amazing, REAL Chablis, and a ridiculous value.
Orin Swift fans: this is your dream offer! First, we have unquestionably one of the finest bottlings to date from Dave Phinney; the mastermind behind this coveted brand, with its inspirational labels and deeply satisfying wines. I'm talking about none other than the Robert Parker-95pt Papillon Proprietary Red. A 100% Napa thoroughbred in the mold of La Mission Haut Brion, it sends sparks through the palate and lights up the room with its insane power and beauty. I'm teaming that up with Phinney's "generous and expressive, big and brawny" 2014 Machete. This is the wine Phinney has produced from his phenomenal parcels of Petite Sirah in Northern California, and i'’s nothing short of drop-dead gorgeous (the labels do the wine true justice, by the way). Not sure where the name came from, probably has something to do with the fact that Machete is from the Spanish word for hammer (macho); yeah, it's no wimp – to say the least. Perfecting this trio, naturally, I'm adding Phinney's red hot, gotta-have-it, Robert Parker 96pt Mannequin. A white wine so phenomenal you'll never finish trying to figure out all its subtleties. Phinney's absolute best; three drop-dead gorgeous bottlings – in one offer. Who's your buddy?
Our friends at Marques de Murrieta are proud traditionalists – as they should be – this is the very birthplace of Rioja. Every vine is owned by the winery, planted to their 750 acre Ygay Estate, where 30 individual parcels are identified, planted at altitudes between 1,300 and 1,600 feet. Vines in the La Plana parcel – the source for Castillo Ygay – are approaching their 90th birthday. When it comes to the benchmark for value-priced Rioja, nothing competes with Murrieta's Reserva – especially the 2010. Wine Advocate's Luis Gutierrez was floored, "There is gob-smacking precision and elegance here..." In terms of world-class icons, Murrieta's Dalmau Reserva ranks supreme. Named in honor of Vicente Dalmau Cebrián-Sagarriga y Suárez y Llanos, the charismatic, driving force now in charge at Murrieta, this cuvee is sourced from the 64 year old Canaja parcel within the Ygay Estate. Vinification of Dalmau Reserva is unique among the estate's great reds. Initial fermentations take place in stainless and oak, but the "Dalmau expression" results from malolactic in Allier barrique and a full 20 months elevage in these same barrels before final assemblage. This is the family's recognition of past AND present, recalling that Bordeaux gave inspiration to Murrieta's founder in 1852. Tremendous vintages from our favorite people, deserving of a place in your collection.