The New Wine Review spends a lot of time with winemakers—some new to us, some we’ve known for years. We’ve created this recurring feature as a means of passing along some of the insider intelligence we pick up from these conversations.
The 2020 Northern California vintage continues to haunt many producers, a good number of whom skipped it altogether. But you shouldn’t miss out on it, as there are some incredibly good 2020 wines to be found—especially whites (see my first note about Arista and Ferren for a great starting point).
Beyond 2020 there’s increasing enthusiasm for and interest in wines not necessarily made from Cabernet, Pinot or Chardonnay. For consumers, this provides ample opportunity for discovery and value.
More broadly, Northern California continues to be a hotbed of adventurous experimentation. Two of the producers I met with recently–Hammerling and Broc—are exemplars of this experimental spirit. Based in an industrial part of Berkeley, these winemakers have chosen to focus on perfecting sparkling Chenin Blanc (Hammerling) and a grab bag of Mendocino-grown Italian varieties (Broc), among other projects. There’s plenty of award-winning Pinot, Cab and Chard out here, but there’s no shortage of fun things happening off the well-beaten path, as well.
Arista & Ferren
Outstanding Chardonnays from a 2020 vintage that yielded no reds
Arista is a longstanding Russian River Valley Pinot Noir producer that’s risen up the ranks in quality and reputation over the years, thanks to the vision and skill of winemaker Matt Courtney, who came on in 2013, after working at Marcassin Vineyard for eight years. His own brand is Ferren, which makes highly-coveted, single-vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot from far Sonoma Coast sites. I sat down and tasted 10 Chardonnays (five Arista and five Ferren) with Courtney and Arista proprietor Mark McWilliams, who together decided to skip making red wines altogether in the 2020 vintage. Their loss is our gain: the 2020 Chardonnays from both brands are exceptional. A new vineyard-designate, the Ferren 2020 Volpert Vineyard Chardonnay proves that you don’t need older vines to make amazing wines, while the Arista 2020 Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnayis made from old vines and displays remarkable growing and winemaking wisdom. Its richness is perfectly balanced in acidity.
Native-ferment wines from Italian varieties in an industrial corner of Berkeley
Berkeley has long been a hub for fine food and wine, where names like Chez Panisse and Kermit Lynch grew from quality local outfits into world-famous brands. But independent wine producers have also found it a good place to set up shop–particularly in an industrial part of the city where rents are relatively affordable, and there’s a built-in cadre of adventurous consumers interested in their natural-adjacent wines. Among the earliest of these producers was Broc Cellars, which opened in 2004. Founder and winemaker Chris Brockway says his wines are made with the intention of lifting you up, never weighing you down, and he uses native fermentations and organically-grown grapes to achieve these results. This year, Broc was able to buy its first estate vineyard, Fox Hill in Mendocino County, from which it has long sourced grapes like Nero d’Avola, Ribolla Gialla, Montepulciano and Trebbiano. These go into such light and lifted wines as Broc’s Amore Bianco, Amore Blendo and Amore Rosso, while two of its most playful, evolved and popular wines are the newly released Love White and Love Red.
Experimental sparkling wines from a Broc neighbor
A few doors down from Broc Cellars, Hammerling is a new-ish addition to the neighborhood, where Josh Hammerling makes experimental sparkling wines and a few still wines. Having worked in Washington State–as well as for his neighbors, Broc and Donkey & Goat–Hammerling’s lineup includes both single-vineyard sparklers and cuvées from grapes grown throughout California. The 2021 Always for Pleasure Sparkling Chenin Blanc is from the Massa Vineyard where Chenin was planted 40 years ago in a high-elevation nook of the Carmel Valley. It’s Hammerling’s take on a sparkling Vouvray.
Classic producer’s limited 2020 Pinot Noirs
I had the chance to taste in person with Jasmine Hirsch, GM of Hirsch Vineyards, who poured me a slew of her 2020 wines, which, as is very well-documented, was not an easy vintage, particularly out on Northern California’s coastal ridgetops. Still, she persisted in making as many of the Hirsch wines as she could, ending up with less total quantity of wines, but some outstanding gems, nonetheless. While there are no 2020s from East Ridge, Raschen Ridge, Maritime or Old Vineyard, the Hirsch 2020 West Ridge Pinot Noir is light and delicate, yet possessed of impressive concentration. Don’t sleep on the 2020 Bohan Dillan Pinot Noir either. Intended as a village wine, one from the area and not just from the estate, and enjoyable on release, it combines grapes from Hirsch and nearby Hellenthal.
Napa Valley A-list winemaker’s Russian River Valley wines
Sam Kaplan makes some of the great wines of the Napa Valley, most notably Arkenstone and Memento Mori. But his personal project is a deep study into Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Called Maxem, a mix of his kids’ names, Max and Emma, and made in partnership with his wife (and local chef), Nancy, Kaplan sources from great sites across the appellation, including UV Vineyard and Silver Eagle. The Maxem UV Chardonnay (served by the glass at The French Laundry) is rich, site-specific and marked by a purity of fruit and ample acidity. These are serious and seriously delicious wines. This year Kaplan will make the first wine from his own Maxem Estate in the Russian River Valley.
Outstanding under-the-radar Grenache, Syrah and Chardonnay
Matt and Audra Naumann of Newfound Wines are making stunning, minimal-intervention Grenache, Syrah, Semillon and other wines, from the Napa Valley, Sonoma Coast and Sierra Foothills, where they’ve planted a Syrah and Grenache vineyard of their own. Don’t overlook the 2021 Newfound Chardonnay from Placida Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast, where they also source their 2021 Newfound Placida Vineyard Grenache. You can’t go wrong with any of the wines, but if given the chance to try a Shake Ridge Vineyard Syrah from Amador County from Newfound, take it.
Ovid Napa Valley
Incredible wines from Pritchard Hill
Perched high above the Napa Valley on Pritchard Hill, Ovid Napa Valley began an extensive replanting project in 2019 to reflect a change in vineyard philosophy, increase quality and encourage earlier ripening grapes. It makes Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines, Syrah, Cab Franc-based wines and a line of experimental wines, which source from outside of the estate. The 2021 Experiment W8.1 is a white wine that blends Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and other white grapes from across the state to explore what a great California white wine can be. It’s outstanding, full of freshness and tension.
Simon Family Estate
New Maayan Koschitzky project set to take off
A new project under the care of talented Napa Valley-based winemaker Maayan Koschitzky (whose day job is with Atelier Melka), Simon Family Estate is debuting a handful of 2019 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons now through fall 2023. The Simon family is sparing no expense in sourcing from many of the best sites in California, including Tench, Vine Hill Ranch and Sleeping Lady. This brand is under the radar right now but won’t be for long.
T. Berkley Wines
Making the case for California Chenin Blanc
Winemaker Taylor Berkley Boydstun trained in New Zealand, Australia and Austria before settling in the Napa Valley to launch this Loire-inspired lineup focused on Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. His 2021 Norgard Vineyard Chenin Blanc is from organically farmed old vines grown in Mendocino County that he native-yeast ferments before letting the wine settle in concrete and French oak puncheons. Boydstun celebrates Chenin’s long history in California with these wines, a variety he sees as perfectly suited for the environment, with thick skins and the ability to retain acidity even when there’s heat.
Serious Sonoma County winery gets a serious makeover
Vérité first opened its doors near Healdsburg in 1998, a shared vision between Sonoma County vintner Jess Jackson and French winemaker Pierre Seillan. From the beginning, the proposition and provocation of Vérité has been to make world-class Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines from select Sonoma County sites, many of them on hillsides or mountaintops. After an extensive renovation, Vérité debuted a grand new tasting space and cellar this year, both of which are worthy of its impeccable wines. The current 2019 vintage is remarkably polished and, as always, includes La Muse, its Merlot-dominant wine; La Joie (my favorite), which is more dominant in Cabernet Sauvignon; and Le Désir, where Cabernet Franc speaks loudest. These wines are nearly always as close to perfection as wines get and 2019 is an iconic vintage. Crunch the numbers on your budget and find a way to get these desert-island wines.