Friday, July 31, 2015

The Daily Meal's Top 101 American Wineries: 50% of the Top Ten Have Organic Estate Vineyards

The Daily Meal, America's biggest food and beverage web site, named it 101 Best Wineries in America this week - a prestigious group of wineries from across the country. While only 2-3 percent of vineyards in the U.S. are organic, 11 of the winning wineries have organic estates and four more make at least one organically grown single vineyard designate from organic vines.

Even more noteworthy is the fact that, of the top ten, half are wineries with organic estates, the source for their best wines.

As I have said before, if you want the short path to the good stuff, look first at the organically grown fine wine options, for it's there you'll increase the odds of finding treasure.

The Top Ten

1. Tablas Creek

The Perrin family from France - one of the most famous Rhone winery owners, with its Chateau de Beacastel (organic vines) and Famille Perrin brands - and the Haas family from the U.S. partnered to create this Paso Robles Rhone powerhouse, making 18,000 (out of their 24,000 cases) from their 100 acres vineyard.

While their affordably priced Patelin wines are not organically grown (they got their neighbors to plant French clones to increase Tablas' table wine production), the rest of their lineup is all from the organic estate.

Wine critic Robert Parker's been a fan of the Perrin's French wines for many years and heaped a ton o praise on the Paso Robles Tablas Creek wines early on, helping it establish a great reputation from the start. The limestone subsoils on the site are a huge plus, too.

As in the Rhone, all the wines are blended to create a sensuous blend of aromas and flavors - a lesson many in the U.S. could benefit from.

It has two basic wine types: it Mourvedre or Roussanne based Esprit wines ($45-55) and its Grenache or Viognier based Cotes wines ($27-35). Both, of course, are fabulous.

2. Ridge Vineyards*

Is it any surprise to see Ridge on the list? Hardly. Long a favorite for its world famous Cabernet, Monte Bello, most people don't know that its 200 acres in Sonoma and 100 acres in Santa Clara County of organic vines make it the biggest organic grower in each county. But, of course, that's just the icing on the cake.

Its impeccably made Zinfandels (most from old vines), its Monte Bello Cabernet ($165) and Ridge's Estate wine ($50), a star in its own right, already have outstanding reputations.

Within a year or two, Ridge's vineyard conversion to organic certification will be complete and the winery will add the words "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" to the back of the label.

3. Calera Wine Co.

This limestone rich, windy remote site in Central California has been home to fans of Burgundian wines, thanks to its determined founder, Josh Jensen, and his remarkable ambition to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay worthy of their French counterparts.

Jensen is one of California's most decorated winemakers, inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in 2010 and one of the few American member of the Academie Internationale du Vin.

The estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir ($36-80) comprise 7,000 cases out of its total of 31,000 cases made each year (The Central Coast wines come from non estate vines.) The estate vineyard is 83 acres in size.

7. Heitz Wine Cellars

One of the wineries that is not often in the limelight in Napa, thanks to all the new money, razz ma tazz tasting rooms, and hype of newbies in town, Heitz is a steady eddy. Again, not one to hog the organic limelight, it (quietly) has 275 acres of certified organic vines, making it one of the biggest organic vineyard owners in Napa.

One of the few wineries that can trace its history back to 1963, when it was one of only 12 wineries in Napa, it was the first to put the name of a vineyard on the bottle label. That wine was the Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the most internationally famous of Napa Cabs. Today it still makes the Martha's ($225) (from organic vines) and its more affordable Trailside Cabernet, from Rutherford vines, aging them four years before release (unlike many of its neighbors). That is how a proper Cab is introduced into the world.

The Sauvignon Blanc, Grignolino, Rosé and Port are all made from organic vines, too. The two Cabsn and the four others make up 25+% of the winery's production and are Heitz's signature wines.

10. Robert Sinskey Vineyards*

A Napa winery that was one of the earliest to follow the Pinot path as its first true love, Robert Sinskey Vineyards was a surprise, to me, on this list, because it hasn't gotten its due from wine critics or the industry. But it has cultivated chefs and restaurants.

Maria Helm Sinskey, wife of vintner Robert Sinskey, has helped, too, by emphasizing wine with food. The winery's Stags Leap District tasting room is one of the few (and was one of the first) to feature a professional kitchen.

With 176 acres of organic vines, almost all of them in the Carneros, the winery's known for its Pinots (it makes 6, $38-60) and its Bordeaux blends, especially POV ($40) which made it to Jon Bonné's Top 100 Wines list in 2013.

It  kindly (for the consumer) labels all of 27,000 cases of its annual production with the words "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" on the back label.


Other Wineries - Organic Estates

27. Qupé*

Long a favorite, its Sawyer Lindquist vineyard is the beating heart of its finest Syrahs ($35-55). Winemaker Bob Lindquist is widely known as the best Syrah winemaker of his generation and in the U.S.

Its 40+ acre Edna Valley vineyard is certified biodynamic - and so are its estate wines, meaning that Lindquist accomplishes the high wire feat of making wine pretty much strictly from the vineyard - i.e. certified "Biodynamic Wine" must be made using only native yeast and, aside from sulfites, no additives can be used. Applause, please. And now, hand over that bottle.

Labeling: Biodynamic Wine or the Demeter logo appear on the estate grown wines.

About 20% of Qupé's case 25,000 case production is biodynamic.

38. Eyrie Vineyards

I'm not sure why Eyrie is at #38; Oregonians might take offense, as this is one of the true Pinot Noir and Chardonnay treasures in the land. Eyrie, too, needs no introduction. Though it's been farmed organically for decades, it's only recently that it's certified the vineyards organic.

Its Dundee Hills estate vines were the first Pinot Noir vines planted in the Willamette Valley back in the early 1960s.

Today its ethereal estate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay ($31-80) find homes in true aficionado's cellars. And its down home tasting room and winery haven't changed in decades.

One thousand out of its 10,000 cases are from the certified organic estate vines.

42. Spottswoode

This St. Helena winery in the heart of Napa's toniest village is what a winery would look like if Martha Stewart designed one. The most perfect old stone winery, purchased by the Novak family only a few years ago, matches well with the historic Victorian the family settled into in 1972 when its some of its current leaders were children.

One of the first in Napa to become organic, its Cabernet vines were certified in 1992.

Today its Cabernet ($165), farmed on the 40 acres of vines around the house and winery, is still the star of the show (and the only all estate grown wine).

A little more than half of its overall total of 6,000+ cases is the estate Cabernet.

66. Beckmen Vineyards

The Beckmens are known for their outstanding Ballard Canyon Rhone wines - making 17,000 cases (out of 22,000 total) a year from their 165 acres of certified biodynamic vines at Purisima Mountain Vineyard.

They are primarily focused on Grenache (5 clones) and Syrah (7 clones), which are grown over limestone subsoils.

They also make two perennial favorites - both quite affordable - the Bec Le Blanc ($20), a white Rhone blend and their Grenache Rosé ($25). Overall the wines range from $20-55.

87. Neyers Vineyards

One of the smaller wineries in Napa, high up in the hills east of the main valley in Conn Valley, Neyers is an under the radar, top notch choice. Its 2011 Conn Valley Cabernet ($48) got a nod from Jon Bonné as one of the best of the vintage.

It's owned and run by Barbara and Bruce Neyers. Bruce Neyers manages Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant (a French wine importer), tasting French wines often, as you might imagine. Here in California, he has an ace winemaker - Tadeo Borchadt - and sources most of the wines from growers throughout northern and central California.

The two wines from its 12 acres of estate vines in Napa are a Merlot and two Cabernets, and it also makes two single very small lot vineyard designates from the historic Rossi Ranch in Kenwood in Sonoma Valley ($35-85).

About 2,200 cases (out of 15,000+) are from the organic estate.

92. Bokisch Vineyards

A real surprise and a good one: this Lodi winery pays homage to its founder's Spanish roots and is making a place at the table for organically grown Albarino, Graciano and Grenache at surprisingly affordable prices ($18-23). These are also the grapes that should be grown, along with the Rhones, in California's climate, mostly (instead of thousands of acres of Cabernet and Chardonnay in the Central Valley).

The Bokisch bunch need a Randall Grahm to come along and set up a marketing campaign for Spanish varietals - no such luck, so far, but that shouldn't keep us from noticing that they make way more organically grown wines than Bonny Doon does today. (Bonny Doon makes no wine from organic vines, these days.)

Its 84 acres of organic vines produce 2,300 cases (out of 3,000 total). Many of its grapes are sold, but its own wines are fabulous. I've got some of the Graciano in my cellar - an interesting change of pace, if you're looking for something different.


Other Wineries - Single Vineyard Designate Producers

11. Littorai (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Mays Canyon/$70)
55. Tensley (Syrah from Turner/$42)
67. Jaffurs (Syrah from Ampelos and Kimsey Vineyards/$46-50)
72. Bergstrom (Pinot Noir from Temperance Hill/$72)


And Some Questionable Inclusions...

Why St. Supery? (And do people really think sustainability is worth mentioning in describing their winery? Or others? Do these wine "experts" know what "sustainable" means?) Whetstone? A couple who makes 400 cases of Rhone wines in Colorado? There is a very uneven quality to some of the choices, as if it was indeed selected by committee (which it was). There is definitely a sense of wanting to redefine the best in America as coming more from outside California with wineries from Texas, Maryland, Virginia, and New York (both upstate and Long Island) on the list. Is it also a reflection that restauranteurs would like to source locally? Or from wineries wealthy eaters aren't likely to know (Whetstone)?

The wines also range widely in style from those produced for big, bold palates (Caymus Cabs, for instance) to what some might call the whisper lights (Matthiasson, Evening Land).

The Importance of Marketing and Communications

The list does let us know who's been marketing well to the restaurant people, and who hasn't, apparently.

It's notable that Tablas hit the number one spot. Their wines are great, but it's worth noting that they are also the best communicators of any of the wineries on the list. Their web site is top notch and well organized. And Jason Haas' excellent blog keeps everyone up to date on every detail of the enterprise.  Once in the digital world, before the winery was started, he's the best example of a winery blogger with purpose and consistency - and I would say it shows in the results.

Too many wineries look at their web site as a place where they only make 3-5% of their sales, so what's worth bothering about that for? They don't see the vital importance of the web site as the primary customer experience for most of their buyers. They don't really understand brand and brand stories, other than adding their name to in the name "XYZ Family Vineyards" and talk about how they are stewards of the land. Often they do not even farm most of the vineyards they make wine from so that last point is a little hard to understand. (Unless you're Benziger, and you actually set standards for what you want your growers to do, including using a lot less pesticide, insecticide, fungicide and herbicide.)

Notable Omissions

Many of the usual and wonderful suspects were not included, ostensibly to make room for smaller, off the beaten path wineries. Maybe those are the wineries that restaurants like - both for price and for obscurity. Still some huge gaps resulted, in my mind, by not including some of these greats:

Amapola Creek - Sonoma Cabernet rock star
Brick House - Oregon Pinot classic
Campovida - if they were looking for little known wineries with some great wines, and small lots only, they could have looked in Mendocino...clearly Campovida has not been marketing to these guys
Chappellet - why St. Supery (with its mostly Pope Valley vines) when you could have had Chappellet (with its all Pritchard Hill vines)?
Cowhorn - a southern Oregon Rhone treasure; maybe it's too pricey for their lists; or maybe Cowhorn is already fully subscribed
Dashe Cellars - Zins to rival Ridge's, according to Eric Asimov of the New York Times; and in my book, notable for its Les Enfants from organic Mendo growers, which, at $20 a bottle is one of the great table wines to know
Inglenook - this was a real oversight - I would have put this in the top ten; perhaps an inconsistent past was the issue (or prices that don't get the wines into many restaurants)

Ehlers Estate, Grimm Cellars, Hamel Family, Lumos, Soter Vineyards, Turley Wine Cellars - I could go on and on about at least two dozen more great wineries that didn't make the list.

All in all, an interesting exercise. And yet...all lists have their eccentricities.

Congratulations to those who made it onto the list - and to all the others who shudda. Keep up the good work.


*Wineries that label their wines with organic or biodynamic certification. (All the wines listed are from certified organic or biodynamic vines; only the starred ones say so on the bottle labels.)

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