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!
Long-time B-21 fans know this wine well; a wine in need of very little fanfare. The '07 was your "Top Spanish Pick for Summer" a few years back, the 2008 a classic Alberdi; packed and stacked. The 2009 Viña Alberdi – 100% Tempranillo as always – was a killer bang for the buck and a pure thrill to drink. But in tasting the 2010 while touring Spain this past July it was clear that each of those smokin' hot wines was leading to this – the most thrilling Alberdi yet bottled. It has a lot to do with vintage – perfect some say – and a lot to do with our good friends at La Rioja Alta, masters of their craft. Blended and aged for easy, early drinking, Alberdi sees one year in new American oak barrels, followed by an additional year in "seasoned" American barrels. It's what I like to call "casual Rioja from a very serious Rioja producer." Front loaded with gorgeous blue and red fruits and a nice dash of vanillin, it's complete with a serious backbone. You're gonna want at least a case – it's the best thing going in value Rioja today.
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.
Thrilled to see one of our all-time favorites – as well as the very best version of this bottling ever produced – land in the top 20 of Wine Spectator's Top 100 of 2016! Visiting them last summer was amazing, the current owners – heirs to this 12th century monastery – have restored the place to all its original glory. A majestic spa, a Michelin-starred restaurant, a Relais & Chateaux luxury hotel, guided tours via helicopter... crazy, beautiful place... 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 represents tremendous value, but more importantly it shows a refinement – a balance and beautiful elegance – that the team has been striving towards for years. Stock up. It's everything you've waited for.
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.
En route to my tasting trip in Bordeaux last month, I set aside a few days to visit my friends in the deep southwest of France, the Roussillon, a short drive from the Spanish border. I'd heard about the perfect weather patterns during 2015, and now that the producers were smiling over what they had in barrel, it was time to get my tasting glass in those cellars. Chapoutier's Bila Haut project was tops on my list. We all know what Chapoutier has been up to down here. Chiseling away at these ancient schistose hillsides, blending centenarian parcels of Carignan with stunning old vine plots of Syrah and Grenache, producing wines without peer in their price points. The "basic" rouge for 2015, a "jaw-dropper" for Jeb, cannot be explained; you'll need at least a case before you figure out how team Chapoutier packs so much awesomeness in here for so little coin. The "basic" blanc? Same deal. Another "outstanding" effort, says Jeb. I found myself thinking about this wine throughout my trip. Grenache blanc at the top of its game; 2015 returning a wine overflowing with character. Another case buy, you're gonna flip for this dynamic duo from the man who rules the south.
Our good buddy, third generation winemaker Rob Mondavi, Jr., has spent his life studying and working the various microclimates of his native Napa Valley. Teaming with another of the region's best, St. Helena native Tony Coltrin (40 years as winemaker for Robert Mondavi), they are bottling the most consistently well-made, well-priced Cabernets – and more – that I've tasted. That's no small feat, especially with the 2014s. My tasting glass has been working overtime; evaluating as many 2014s as daylight hours will allow. Finding values is the real trick – triple dollar beauties are everywhere. So when Rob and Tony's Oberon hit my palate, I knew what I'd found. Sourcing from Rutherford, Oakville and Oak Knoll, layering grapes from Napa's volcanic hillsides with those grown in alluvial soils from the valley floor, Tony have given us a '14 to rival wines at three times the price. New French Oak barrel aging rounds everything out, making for one seriously sensual sipper. Pour with pleasure; but stock up before it's gone!
I've been working with importer extraordinaire Eric Solomon for decades, bringing his one-of-a-kind, wildly popular and insanely underpriced vinous treasures to eager clients who just can't get enough. And today's freak of a value – "simply one of the greatest values in Rioja that money can buy" says Robert Parker – continues this unmatched winning streak. You've heard it before, you'll hear it again: Solomon is definitely gifted with the Midas touch. When sharing the tale of this epic value, Eric tells us, "Hazaña is a recently introduced custom cuvée made in partnership between myself and Rafael de Haan. In 2001 Rafael moved to Barcelona and set up his first property, Bodegas Abanico, in Rioja with his partner Nuria Altes. Named for the ancient, poetic tales of heroism, Hazaña is made at Viñicola Real in the classical style of Rioja. The fruit comes from near Logroño, 500 meters above sea level, soils of red clay and chalky limestone. A blend of Tempranillo and 15% Graciano, it’s aged in French and American oak before release." A little secret: Eric is sourcing fruit from 70-year old, unirrigated, head-pruned vines – the kind of vineyards which yield inky black fruit and a density that'll have ya thinking $50+ Artadi cuvees. Case buy alert, my friends! This is some killer juice!