If you thought the Oscar race was competitive, check out the Western wine scene. Here’s your indispensable guide to the true stars
TOP 50 BOTTLES TO BUY
How the best was won: Our panel of wine pros nominated more than 200 wines, tasted them blind, and found a red and a white winner in each of our five categories, with 40 runners-up.
Steals // $15 or less (our people’s choice awards, tasted by Sunset wine club members)
White: Edna Valley Vineyard Paragon Chardonnay 2007 (San Luis Obispo County; $12) Why we chose it: All the apple, spice, and lemon brûlée a good Chard needs. Runners up: Bogle Chardonnay 2007 (Clarksburg and Monterey County; $9) // Evesham Wood Chardonnay 2008 (Willamette Valley; $13) // Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (California; $12) // Justin Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (Paso Robles; $15) // Sokol Blosser “Evolution” White Blend Nonvintage (United States; $15) // Uvaggio Vermentino 2008 (Lodi; $14)
Red: Cycles Gladiator Syrah 2007 (Central Coast; $9.99) Why we chose it: Juicy blueberries spiked with white pepper make your mouth water. Runners up: Big Ass Zin 2006 (Sonoma County; $15) // Columbia Crest “H3” Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (Horse Heaven Hills; $15) // Easton “H” House Red Blend 2005 (California; $10) // Four Vines “Old Vine Cuvee” Zinfandel 2006 (California; $14)
Good Values // $16 to $30
White: Geyser Peak “Block Collection” River Ranches Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (Russian River Valley; $19) Why we chose it: Fresh herbs and pink grapefruit add up to a vibrant sip.Runners up: Anne Amie Pinot Gris 2008 (Willamette Valley; $19) // Chateau Ste. Michelle “Indian Wells” Chardonnay 2007 (Columbia Valley; $18) // Morgan “Metallico” Unoaked Chardonnay 2007 (Monterey; $20) // Schramsberg “Mirabelle” Brut Multivintage (North Coast; $23) // Tsillan Cellars Estate Riesling 2007 (Columbia Valley; $22)
Red: Hahn Meritage 2007 (Central Coast; $16) Why we chose it: Sweet black cherry and cedar with a touch of espresso. Runners up: Brandborg “Bench Lands” Pinot Noir 2006 (Umpqua Valley; $22) // Cadence “Coda” Cabernet Blend 2006 (Columbia Valley; $25) // Monte Volpe Sangiovese 2005 (Mendocino County; $17) // Pellegrini Family Cloverdale Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (Alexander Valley; $28) // Siduri Pinot Noir 2007 (Willamette Valley; $20)
Special occasion bottles // $31 to $50
White: Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2005 (North Coast; $36) Why we chose it: Complex toast and tart apple with tiny lemon-honey bubbles. Runners up: Landmark “Damaris Reserve” Chardonnay 2006 (Sonoma County; $40) // Rusack Reserve Chardonnay 2007 (Santa Maria Valley; $32) // St. Supéry Dollarhide Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (Napa Valley; $35)
Red: Abeja Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (Columbia Valley; $42) Why we chose it: Rich, long black- berry fruit over velvety tannins. Runners up: Cadaretta Syrah 2006 (Columbia Valley; $35) // JC Cellars Caldwell Vineyards Syrah 2005 (Napa Valley; $45) // Kutch McDougall Ranch Pinot Noir 2007 (Sonoma Coast; $48) // Morgan “Twelve Clones” Pinot Noir 2007 (Santa Lucia Highlands; $32) // Neyers Old Lakeville Road Syrah 2007 (Sonoma Coast; $33) // Snows Lake “Two” Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc 2005 (Red Hills, Lake County; $45) // Tantara Bien Nacido Vineyard–Adobe Pinot Noir 2006 (Santa Maria Valley; $48)
Deep Pocket Wines // More than $50
White: Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay 2006 (Santa Cruz Mountains; $60) Why we chose it: Lively citrus brightens classic golden apple. Runners up: Lynmar “La Sereinité” Chardonnay 2006 (Russian River Valley; $70) // Schramsberg “J. Schram” Brut Rosé 2000 (North Coast; $130)
Red: Continuum Cabernet Sauvignon blend 2006 (Oakville, Napa Valley; $134) Why we chose it: Ripe black cherries, a hint of licorice, and great structure. Runners up: Boudreaux Cellars Champoux and Loess Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (Washington; $100) // Kapcsándy State Lane Vineyard “Estate Cuvée” Cabernet/Merlot Blend 2006 (Yountville; $135) // Mazzocco Maple Vineyard Reserve Zinfandel 2006 (Dry Creek Valley; $60) // O’Shaughnessy Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (Howell Mountain; $75) // Quintessa Cabernet Blend 2005 (Rutherford; $145) // Realm Cellars Farella Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (Napa Valley; $85) // Shafer “One Point Five” Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (Stags Leap District; $70) // Testarossa “Cuvée Niclaire” Pinot Noir 2005 (California; $75)
Critics’ Choice Award // Hard to FIND, but our judges were impressed
White: J. Rochioli Rachael’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2007 (Russian River Valley; $70; limited release) Why we chose it: Perfect balance of bright apple and lemon cream.
Red: Evening Land “Celebration” Gamay Noir 2007 (Eola-Amity Hills; $20) Why we chose it: Unusual, spicy red with minerals and dried flowers.
Next: Best Wine Region and Bar
Best Up and Coming Wine Region: Walla Walla Valley, WA
In the past five years, more than 70 wineries have set up shop in the region wrapping the town of Walla Walla in the far southeast corner of Washington State, pushing the total to more than 100. Comfy inns have opened, chefs are turning local goods into yummy dishes, and Cab and Syrah have gone from good to great. You can walk to 21 tasting rooms from the center of town (we love Forgeron Cellars), or drive out through rolling hills to Northstar or Pepper Bridge.
The fireplace by the pond at Walla Walla’s newest tasting room―Waterbrook―makes a great picnic setting; the pond at Waters and the lawn at Dunham are sweet spots too. Historic sleeps rule here: Walla Faces Inns’ restored downtown location, the Inn at Abeja’s turn-of-the-last-century farmstead, and the grand dame―the Marcus Whitman Hotel, with the most rooms handy to downtown wine crawling. Don’t leave town without trying Buty’s Merlot/Cabernet Franc or Spring Valley Vineyard’s “Uriah.” If you can’t find them, give the anonymous gas station (aka Walla Walla Wine Depot) just off U.S. 12 a try. We’ve even spotted Leonetti there. For more info, contact the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance (wallawallawine.com).
Best Wine Bar: Noble Rot, Portland
One of the West’s oldies still does it best when it comes to pouring interesting bottles with just the right little plates at hand. Why we love it: Our favorite discover-really-incredible-wines-for-a-pittance hangout has a new address―with a view―and the same great sustainable cooking. Sips and nibbles: About 30 wines by the glass plus small bites, salads, and steak. Details A lot of the produce is as local as you can get―from the rooftop garden. $$; closed Sun; 503/233-1999.
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The Runners-up: Oxbow Wine Merchant, Napa; Yield Wine Bar, San Francisco; Purple Cafe and Wine Bars, Seattle area; Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar, Santa Rosa, CA.
Next: Best Winery Tasting Room and Winemaker of the Year
Best Winery Tasting Room: J Vineyards & Winery, Healdsburg, CA
The vibe: Sleek, artful, and very much about good bubbles with food: On weekends, spring for the sit-down pairing ($60) in the Bubble Room, for inspired food like the “BLT” ―foie gras, applewood-smoked bacon, heirloom tomato, and mâche on toast points with the J Brut Rosé. Sips to try: J “Cuvée 20” Brut, J Pinot Gris, and J Robert Thomas Vineyard Pinot Noir. Extras: Stellar still wines along with the sparklers. $20 tasting fee (5-wine pour); 707/431-3646. Runners-up: Dunham Cellars, Walla Walla, WA; Robert Sinskey, Napa Valley; Press Club, San Francisco.
Winemaker of the Year: Jim Clendenen
Clendenen, of Au Bon Climat in California’s Santa Maria Valley, has kept Pinot Noir from tasting like Syrah. Yes, he’s rejected über-ripe fruit-bomb winemaking in favor of elegance. “We think the real quality in Pinot resides in its subtle, hedonistic side. Pinot should have alluring aromas; nuanced, complex flavors; a soft, creamy texture; and an exquisitely balanced finish.”