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!
Ten-time winners of the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri award, once again earning this top honor in the 2016 Guide, there are few producers in the Veneto who compete with my good friends at Zenato. Nadia and Alberto have built upon their father Sergio's successes, impeccably operating in the most important zones west of Verona. The family began with pristine parcels in Lugana near Lake Garda, expanding into Valpolicella, perfecting their brilliant Amarone cuvees vintage after vintage. This care, this passion, this attention to detail is perfectly evidenced in their 2012 Ripassa, the family's treasured version of Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore DOC. Once their vintage Valpolicella completes its fermentation process, the new wine and skins are separated, the wine allowed to rest in
large oak casks until February. At this point, the grapes which have been drying for several months will be pressed to begin the Amarone process. What remains – once the juice has been pressed from these dried grapes – is called the Amarone marc; passing the finished Valpolicella over the warm Amarone marc begins a second fermentation, resulting in this rich, deeply colored and intensely aromatic wine. This is an Italian wine lover's wine; a wine I look forward to every year – a wine you'll adore with grilled meats, game or rich cheeses. Deliciously divine.
Here's a Languedoc Roussillon Chardonnay which could very easily wind up in our Burgundy Report. Tasting it blind alongside some of the better examples from the Mâconnais speaks volumes. Emulating classic Burgundian winemaking, the barrels used here are from Burgundy; with a nod to the Northern Rhone the wine is aged on fine Viognier lees – lots going on here. Our good buddy – and yours – importer extraordinaire Eric Solomon custom blended this cuvee (100% Chardonnay) without borders, working with Jean-Marc Lafage to redefine that which has yet to be defined. Cotes Catalanes, wide swaths of vineyards near Perpignan and the Mediterranean are dominated by red varieties, Chardonnay here being overwhelmingly underwhelming. Enter Lafage and Solomon. Close your eyes, nose in glass. The aromas are lightly toasted, with hints of crème brulee, stone fruits and whiffs of floral elements – that last note thanks to the Viognier lees. But the palate is where things really turn interesting; daringly Burgundian. There's a sense that you're somewhere near the Rock of Vergisson, a glass of very fine Macon-Villages in your hand. This is serious Chardonnay. "Tastes like it cost three times the price," reports our buddy Jeb.
First established in 1893, on an estate where grapes were originally planted in the 1880s, Stags' Leap Winery is sole owner to the bragging rights as "The Original Stags' Leap."
Just a short seven miles outside the town of Napa on the eastern side of the valley, the Chase family began construction on their stone Manor House, complete with historic gardens and family winery, in 1892. By 1893, their expansive estate – including vineyards planted 15 years prior – was complete, and quickly gained fame as a respite for vacationers from Hollywood. Christening their estate Stags' Leap, the Chase family paid homage to a native Wappo legend of a stag that eluded an entire generation of hunters, always leaping and vanishing at the last moment.
The majestic mountains which flank the estate on its eastern edge – being the most prominent geographical feature in the area as well as part of the Vaca Range that stretches along the eastern side of Napa Valley – became known as The Stags' Leap Palisades. These mountains offer the protective barrier which has ensured the continuous growth of world-class Cabernet vines, in particular since the estate's rebirth and revitalization, which was launched in 1971.
Robert Parker has many times declared his excitement for this vintage, informing readers that the 2013s are possibly the finest wines from California's North Coast producers in his 37 years of tasting these wines.
Stock up, Cabernet lovers! This is the deal of the year.
The new generation has taken a firm hold of the terroir in Argentina. Today's young winemakers are so incredibly passionate about their work, their wines and their region's vinous future that they've practically rewritten the book on viticulture in Mendoza. Irrefutably leading the charge towards exceptionally balanced, terroir-driven, striking wines in the Mendoza is Alejandro Vigil. Along with Adrianna Catena – winemaker and youngest daughter of Nicolas Catena – Vigil launched Bodega Aleanna (ALEjandro & AdriANNA). Vigil says, "I love the unpredictability of being a farmer... those moments when we discover a sublime new flavor in a wine that comes out of nowhere. This unpredictability could kill me from all the stress, but it’s actually what keeps me alive." His battles with nature gave rise to the name, "El Enemigo" ("The Enemy"). So labor intensive is the work at Bodega Aleanna that their selections are often bottled in quantities of less than 3,000 for the world. The 2011 Cab Franc – parcels planted to schist, very densely spaced to reduce their yields – is one for the ages. Packed, stacked with black fruits and miles of minerality, think thickly cut rib-eyes on the grill for this beauty. Nothing like it – Old World or New – and a wine you deserve to discover.
B-21 and Caymus Cabernet have been together in Florida for more than 30 years. We introduced Caymus to Florida, bringing Charlie's flagship Napa Cabs to our friends and customers decades ago. With each new release comes your opportunity to secure THE hottest-selling label – getting better and better now that Charlie's son Chuck has taken the reins – before anyone else in Florida gets their hands on it. And it takes real work to bring it to you at one of the hottest prices in the nation, blowing away the local competition while I'm at it. My long-standing relationship with the family and its reps here in Florida guarantees B-21 Cab lovers of the largest allocations and hottest prices. That included the red hot, incredibly delicious 2014. Galloni tells us, "The best 2014s are aromatically expressive, rich and energetic, with striking balance and plenty of potential." Parker told us, "post-bottling there is an exuberance and flashiness to the 2014s..." making it "another superlative year..." Parker clearly adored Caymus in 2014, rating it 94 points (higher than the triple dollar 2007 Special Select) while calling it "lush, full, intense and pure..." I've got it – priced right – just waiting for your order.
To know me is to know that I require no celebratory excuse for enjoying a glass – or more – of Champagne. Professional companions on buying trips know this quite well. Doesn't matter the region, Bordeaux, Spain, Piedmont... marking the space between the end of a long day of tasting and the beginning of an evening of great dining is my required downtime with a great glass of Champagne. Reviving the palate and spirit, it's the perfect pick-me-up. One of my favorites, a go-to for its unbeatable value allied to a quality which impresses even the most well-bred Champagne aficionados is Piper Heidsieck. You'll hear a lot about the vintage-dated stuff from Piper – the 2000 is dreamy – but at less than half the price of the Vintage, there's no reason not to just drink the NV version twice as often. I love the base notes here – that toasty, slightly yeasty nuance – which play off the stone fruits beautifully. From beginner to jaded old Champagne soul, Piper captures your attention. Keeping things in perspective, they've held the line on pricing, too. Have your bubbles and drink 'em, too. That's the Piper way.
His name is Marcelo Pelleriti; his resume includes a 100 point Parker rating for his 2010 Chateau La Violette Pomerol, a 98 point rating for his 2009, a 99 point rating for his 2010 Chateau Le Gay Pomerol and a 96+ rating by Parker for his 2009. And he is renowned for being "the first Argentine winemaker to receive 100 points from Robert Parker for a Bordeaux wine." When I tasted with him in South America, I understood why his recent ratings run neck and neck with his Bordeaux scores. He has been commuting between Mendoza and Pomerol since 2000, "the unsung star" (per Wine Advocate) of the late Cathérine Père-Vergé's Pomerol estates – Le Gay & La Violette – and the most important vintner as well as consulting oenologist to some of the biggest names in Argentina – Bodega y Viñedos Monteviejo & Clos de Los Siete to name but two. Tasting the fruits of his labor speaks volumes, but he prefers to remain behind the curtain; as sought out as Michel Rolland, yet 180° apart in terms of personality. The purity here is unmatched, the value head-spinning. Yeah, it's a case buy – no doubt.
Bodega Tapiz has been around for quite some time, originally built in 1999, yet awaiting that perfect combination of foreign investment and the perfect winemaking team to take the operations to the next level. Within a few short years Tapiz was gaining international acclaim, and land deals in the historic "first zone" districts within Agrelo, Tupungato, Ugarteche and Maipú of Mendoza. Word spread quickly, especially through the top estates in Bordeaux, at a time when the biggest names of the Medoc were seeking to make their marks in Argentina. Fabian Valenzuela, with his bioclimatic, terroir focused sites, in the foothills of the Andes Mountains – altitudes ranging from 3,000 to 4,500 feet in elevation – soon found himself in the company of one Jean Claude Berrouet. If that name rings a bell, well, it should; Berrouet was cellar master / chief winemaker, spanning 44 vintages, for Chateau Petrus. Yep, the greatest name in Pomerol was retiring from his post in the Libournais, and he desired to make his next big hit partnering with Valenzuela at Bodegas Tapiz. I'm quite proud to announce the American debut of the 2014 Tapiz Cabernet – the dynamic duo's all-time greatest bottling and finest varietal from the Alta Collection.
If you could be here now, as I taste this killer wine before me, you'd know as I do: the Wagners have perfected their work in the Santa Lucia Highlands. In front of me today is their breathtaking 2014 Reserve Chardonnay, testament to the work they started in these foothills nearly three decades ago. Monterey sunshine, Pacific Ocean breezes; man, what a glass of Chardonnay.
They explain the success with their Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay with a line from John Steinbeck, who wrote, "I’ve lived in good climate, and it bores the hell out of me. I like weather rather than climate." Translating, the dramatic diurnal temperature swings in Santa Lucia protect their precious Chardonnay, saving them from the dramatic heat of the day, allowing for longer "hang time" – which is the signature style of Wagner winemaking.
And they totally nailed it for 2014. The aromas are classic California: luscious, unctuous, flowing from the glass for all to experience. But that balance from the cooling breezes off the Bay brings a supporting vein of glorious acidity and a wave of minerality that makes the finish go on for miles. Like I said, you should have a glass of this in front of you right now. If your mouth isn't watering, you’re not a Chardonnay drinker.
The Caymus of Chardonnay; the Chardonnay of Caymus!