Top 100 Wines of California
By Scott Young
Wine knowledge is rarely acquired in a linear fashion. You pick up tidbits of information over time from friends, family, colleagues and experts along the way; from what you read here and there; and from what you may see on television or even on the big screen.
And, perhaps most importantly, you learn about wine by drinking it.
Truth be told, while I am a certified sommelier, a member of the Society of Wine Educators and a diploma student of WSET having studied everything from the history of wine and viticulture, to the science behind making it, it is the act of tasting many wines which has incalculably increased my knowledge.
Like many wine professionals, my path into the wine industry was not a direct one. While attending the Le Cordon Bleu Hospitality and Restaurant Management Program, wine piqued my interest for two reasons (1) The practical side of me knew understanding wine was only going to bolster my career, a proverbial “feather in my cap” and; (2) I was intrigued how a simple grape could blossom into “wine.” After graduating and working as a wine director and restaurant general manager it quickly became clear that in the field of hospitality, a wine steward has the ability to elevate any dining experience.
Today, I make a living as a wine expert. And, while understanding wine may seem like a complicated endeavor, all the on-the-job experience and formal education I have received making me “qualified,” in the end my wine advice is always simple: Drink what you like, no matter what the price tag.
- History of wines in California
For centuries the category of fine wine was owned by the likes of European giants such as France and Italy. It wasn’t until late in the twentieth century when California began to become recognized as a producer of some of the world’s finest wine. Most in the industry point to the 1976 event oftentimes referred to as the “Judgment of Paris” as the watershed moment for the California wine industry. It was at this blind tasting event in Paris by European judges when Californian wines shocked the world by sweeping the competition — in both the red (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon) and white (Chateau Montelena, Chardonnay 1973) categories.
Today, California — which produces upwards of 90 percent of all wine in the U.S. — draws visitors from all over the world all seeking to experience the wine culture the state has become known for. From the classic Napa and Sonoma Valleys to the newer regions, which have been gathering acclaim such as Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County, Santa Lucia Highlands and Mendocino/Lake County areas, California has been a leader in the industry, successfully combining optimal growing temperatures with new technologies while maintaining its own solid history of quality products.
- Criteria for the selections
I was born and raised in California, and I love California wine. There are so many different types of wines and wineries to explore in our rather large state. Every author writing about wine has to make decisions about what to include and perhaps more excruciatingly — what to exclude. The decisions don’t get easier as you then have to figure out how you want to present the information.
I have chosen 100 wines, which I have labeled the “Best of California.”
I realize there will be many a reader who disagree with my choices. That said, I know I have left some arguably deserving wines out. As I mentioned before, in the end the best wines are the ones you like. I don’t say this as a nicety — it is a scientific fact. Everyone’s palette is shaped in a unique way — like a fingerprint — making taste to each of us a bit different. What I have strived to do is chose wines that, at a certain level, all palettes can appreciate.
For this book I have selected roughly 70 Caberenet Sauvignon wines, 10 white wines and 20 miscellaneous wines including Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and White Blends. The wines included in this book come from large and small wineries. Some are what I believe to be hidden gems, others come from the well-known houses. All of these wines in my opinion are exceptional.
To make this book easy to use, specific wines — not specific years — have been chosen. The selections are based on approximately the last two decades of the wine. This means in addition to taste, year after year consistency played a large roll in the selection. It is difficult to replicate a high quality wine year to year. You need both outstanding vineyard practices to produce great grapes as well as an extraordinary winemaker. These wines I believe clear the bar for both.
There is a wide variety of criteria wine experts use to rate wines. From varietal character, integration and expressiveness to complexity and the elusive connectedness, ways to group and rank wines can be intricate and complicated.
While I took all of these into consideration, there seems to be two aspects that continually shine in great wines — balance and finish.
Balance, is simply the careful combination of the components of the wine such as the acidity, tannins, alcohol or oak. A well-balanced wine impeccably weaves all of the elements together so no one characteristic or component stands out. More than just being even, balance implies all components have come together in a harmonious fusion to create a synergy where the sum is seemingly more than its parts.
The finish of the wine is the impression the wine leaves your mouth — or the taste that stays on your pallet. The length, and what flavor lingers and unfold in your mouth up to 60 seconds after you swallow can tell a lot about a wine. Some wines will finish clean and crisp, others will last a longer time imparting different and changing flavors.
These two elements combined can tell a great deal about a wine. There are of course, many other gauges for judging a wine — distinct varietal character, expressiveness, complexity and correctness. I have taken many of these into account, but feel balance and finish are the two most fundamental aspects and therefore I have place greater weight on them.
- How to use this book
This book is meant to be used as reference guide to what I believe are the best wines California has produced. Whether you chose to start with Chardonnays on the list, or want to delve in with my number one ranked wine and make your way down the list, the book is designed to do either. My hope is you enjoy as many wines as possible when you either travel through California or are choosing wines for special or even everyday home meals.