Best California Wines of 2018

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Best California Wines in 2018

In 2018 I was fortunate enough to taste and appreciate over 1600+ wines. I am only recommending about 3% of those wines. This is my yearly summation/recommendations with a link to each winery by clicking on the winery name. I believe whole heartily and stand by these picks, as I not only tasted each, but now all of those wines, from each of the categories are in my cellar.

No matter which category, each wine listed will enhance your tasting experience.

Only 29 wines are listed in the $51 and Above Group. And 21 wines made the $50 and Less Group. These wines represent some of best quality for California wines. Again most can be purchased at the winery only and are based upon availability.

New this year based upon feedback are the Best Imported Wines. These wines are markedly above average, unique in specific characteristics and should be tried. Additionally most of these would  only be sold at your local high end retail store. I have also listed The Wine Steward and they would be happy to procure these for you.

During the year I have kept meticulous notes on each wine tasted and hope you enjoy these selections in the coming year. Wishing you a wonderful New Year and that 2019 be prosperous, meaningful and find you in good health.


Michael Kelly

Please provide any feedback on tasting of these wines to mkellywine@gmail.com


Best California Wines of 2018 ($51 and more)
Vintage – Winery – Varietal – Description – Price
2014 Alyris Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon The Audition $85
2014 Carnal Wine Company Cabernet Sauvignon Mt George, Napa Valley $100
2015 Crocker & Starr Malbec & Cab Franc Casili 8 $90
2015 Crocker & Starr Cabernet Sauvignon Stone Place $110
2016 Hanna Winery Chardonnay Elias $55
2015 Hanna Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Bismark $69
2016 Lail Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Blueprint $80
2015 Larkmead Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Solari $200
2015 LaRue Wines Chardonnay Charles Heintz Vineyard $60
2014 Ledson Winery Chardonnay Russian River Reserve $52
2014 Ledson Winery Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve $52
2013 Ledson Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Stagecoach, Napa Valley $120
2014 Ledson Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mtn Reserve $100
2017 Maritana Vineyards Chardonnay La Riviere $55
2017 Maritana Vineyards Pinot Noir Le Russe $55
2013 Mountain Terraces Cabernet Sauvignon Lex $100
2015 O’Shaughnessy Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mtn $100
2015 O’Shaughnessy Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder $135
2015 Outpost Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Estate $95
2015 Outpost Wines Cabernet Sauvignon True Vineyard $135
2015 Revana Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Estate $165
2014 Secret Door Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 1X $170
2014 ShadyBrook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville $125
2015 Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Premier $100
2014 Switchback Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Peterson Family Vineyards $95
2016 Tate Wine Cabernet Sauvignon Jack’s Vineyard, Howell Mt $110
2015 Trespass Vineyards Cabernet Franc St Helena $110
2014 Viader Winery Cab Franc and Cabernet Blend “V” $215
2016 Wood Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon “Especial” $55
2015 YoungInglewood Cabernet Franc St Helena $95

Best California Wines of 2018 ($50 and less)
Vintage – Winery – Varietal – Description – Price
2017 Acquiesce Winery Picpoul Blanc Club members only n/a
2016 Allegorie Tempranillo Calaveras County $30
2015 Alyris Chardonnay Audition $45
2015 Anaba Wine Chardonnay Dutton Ranch $42
2017 Crocker & Starr Sauvignon Blanc St Helena $34
2015 Crocker & Starr Cabernet Franc Napa Valley Blend $50
2014 deLorimier Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Preston Ranch $42
2016 Dracaena Wines Cabernet Franc Paso Robles $34
2012 Jazz Cellars Zinfandel Teldeschi Vineyards $44
2015 Jessie’s Grove Winery Carignane 118 Year Vines $32
2013 Lange Twins Family Winery Teroldego Wine Club Only $50
2014 Lange Twins Family Winery Bordeaux blend Midnight Reserve $30
2015 Lange Twins Family Winery Nero d’ Avola Exclusive $35
2016 Lavender Ridge Roussanne Calaveras County $28
2013 Ledson Winery Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley $28
2016 Mer Soleil Vineyard Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands Reserve $32
2017 O’Shaughnessy Winery Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley $38
2016 Tate Wine Merlot Spring Street $50
2017 Tate Wine Chardonnary Spring Street $34
2017 Wood Family Vineyards Chardonnay Para Mas Amigas $30
2015 Zuidema Wines Grenache McGah Vineyard $42

Best Imported Wines of 2018
Vintage – Winery – Varietal – Description – Price
2014 Alaya Tierra Granacha Tintorera $40
2015 Chateau de la Gardine Chateauneuf-du-Pape $67
2015 Domaine Grand Veneur Chateauneuf-du-Pape Vielles Vignes $130
2016 Finaca Sobreno Tinta de Toro $40
2014 Garcia + Schwaderer Pais + Carignane Blend $70
2016 Governors Bay Sauvignon Blanc $13
2013 Marina Cvetic Montepulicano d’ Abruzzo $33
2017 Matua Sauvignon Blanc $8
2014 Mendel Finca Remota Malbec blend $52
2014 SAIA Nero d’ Avola $24
2013 Tres Picos Borsao Granacha $18
2014 Vatan Tinto de Toro $43
*Available at: The Wine Steward

Maritana Vineyards – Four Ace’s On the First Vintage!!

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If you have not read the article on Secret Door Winery, take a quick peak and peruse https://californiawinesandwineries.com/2018/08/15/secret-door-winery/ which gives some background on Donald Patz and his history. Now after understanding his commitment to the wine business (35 years+) of making exceptional wines, his first release which only two are available today have already made a mark in the wine industry. Very few (in fact none that I can remember, coming out the gate) with 4 Ace’s all scoring in the middle 90’s!!! This is a testament to the selection of vineyards, clones and Donald’s sparing no expense with barrel selection and procurement.
Recently I had the opportunity to try these four spectacular wines. Let’s start with the two that are available today and the other two will be released in early 2019. The first wine that I tasted (actually drank!) was the 2017 Maritana Chardonnay Sonoma County Russian River La Riviere. While Donald had many years ago produced Chardonnay’s but has been an industry leader for his Pinot Noir’s. I was expecting a good solid wine, but what my palate tasted was “total astonishment”. This wine was of another spectrum of quality found only in wines twice this price. First on the eyes, the clarity and brightness was ethereal straw yellow. It was a refined and delicate Chardonnay with soft lemon custard and a Red Delicious apple, mildly sweet. As the wine settle in the back of mouth, a minerality of a babbling brook or creek came to mind. This wine reminded me of the higher end Kistler Chardonnay and Peter Michael Chardonnay, specifically La Carriere. I was so impressed I immediate sent Donald off a note of appreciation of this quality wine. About two weeks later, lo and behold, James Suckling, immediately gives this wine a score of 95 points. For an “inaugural release”, this wine is immediately in the Big Leagues of Chardonnay’s!
Donald’s second wine, the 2017 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir “Le Russe”. This wine come from Jayda Hill Vineyard, Goff Vineyard and Monte Cristo Vineyard’s all using similar and different clones to create an extraordinary wine. It was absolutely delicious and shows Donald’s long and close familiarity with this varietal. The bouquet was immediately floral with strawberries and cherry cola. The color was pure Pinot Noir with a distinguished dark hue. In the glass this was medium body and in the mouth, a full express of redwood fern forest abounded with the fruit. James Suckling gave it a 92 score and it will surely change over the course of five plus years. Donald believes it will continue to evolve up to ten years. The Pinot Noir pedigree is etching in Donald’s heart!

More on the other two later, suffice it to say, they are vineyard designated Chardonnay’s. One is the “Dutton Ranch Hansen Hill Vineyard” and the other “Dutton Ranch Shop Block 1967”. Again, both will be released in early 2019 and have already received scores of 93 and 94 respectively. They are both fine and amazing Chardonnay’s—–keep a watch out for them!

So for a “new adventure” with a “seasoned professional” winemaker, getting 4 Ace’s on the first score is amazing and yet, the quality is nothing less than expected from Donald. Enjoy the first two now.



International Cabernet Franc Day Blind Tasting Event

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For this prestigious day, thanks to Michael & Lori Budd who originated this day for Cabernet Franc, we held a private tasting event last evening. Each participant brought an appetizer and a bottle of Cabernet Franc of their choice. Each wine arrived covered and no hint of what wine was being served. In the advance paperwork, a listing of cheeses, meats and other items were offered as complimentary to this varietal and brought by those attending. I also provided a few bottles from the cellar. This was a pseudo-serious event with tasting lasting approximately two hours. Each person (or couple) would provide input based upon an outlined scoresheet, information, etc., sent in advance. The summary at the bottom of the page was set up to arrive at an “Objective Rating” which represented the profile of this noble grape. Additionally each participant would provide a “Subjective Rating” based on their preferred taste.

Wines range from far and wide when revealed. They hailed from Argentina, California —-Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, San Benito County, Livermore Valley, Calaveras County, Amador County, Napa Valley and Washington. In the end no two bottles were from the same winery. The years ranged from 2012 to 2017. Not necessarily a far comparison by vintage, but no requirements were given.


The top four wines that were deemed “objectively” to be in line with the varietal profile were:
#1 – 2016 Monteagrelo, from Mendoza, Argentina. This wine retails for $28.99 and available at The Wine Steward, Pleasanton, Calif. https://thewinesteward.com
#2 tied – 2014 Titus Vineyards, from Napa Valley, California. This wine retails for $54.00 for their current release. www.titusvineyards.com
#2 tied – 2015 Crocker & Starr, from St Helena, Napa Valley, California. This wine retails for $90.00 for their current release. https://www.crockerstarr.com/
#3 – 2012 Leal Vineyards, Dos Almas Vineyard, from Hollister, San Benito County, California. The wine retails for $52.00. http://www.liveloveleal.com/
Note: by .05 points, the 2016 Wood Family Vineyard’s http://woodfamilyvineyards.com/ at $32 placed behind Leal Vineyards.


The top four wines that were deemed “subjectively” to be in line with each raters taste profiles were:
#1 – 2015 Crocker & Starr, from St Helena, Napa Valley, California. This wine retails for $90.00 for their current release. https://www.crockerstarr.com/
#2 – 2016 Dracaena Wines, from Paso Robles, California. This wine retails for $34.00. https://dracaenawines.com
#3 –2013 Val du Vino, from Murphys, Calaveras County, California. This varietal is currently not offered. https://www.valduvinowinery.com
#4 — 2016 Monteagrelo, from Mendoza, Argentina. This wine retails for $28.99 and available at The Wine Steward, Pleasanton, Calif. https://thewinesteward.com


In total eleven wines were tasted and rated this last evening. The tasting portion was paired with various appetizers, deserts and chocolates. The pre-event reading and paperwork was fairly extensive, requiring diligence and a key discernment of each wine tasted. I thank those who participated and believe all who did enjoy their time and conversations.

Note: If you would like your wine to be included in next years’ event, please contact me at mkellywine@gmail.com

LaRue Wines – A Determined Woman on a Mission

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That may sound a bit too serious, but then again making award winning wines is also a serious business. Katy Wilson has set her sights high from the day she entered Cal Poly to make some great wines. She has done her journeyman’s tour from harvests in San Luis Obispo to Australia and New Zealand. She got her start at Testarossa Winery in the Bay Area and then worked hard at Flowers Vineyard & Winery as harvest enologist and made her way to assistant winemaker. This is where is fell in love with both Pinot Noir and the Sonoma soil. Since 2009, LaRue’s first harvest, she has striven to perfect her acclaimed Pinot Noir vintages. Then in 2014, she branched out into Chardonnay with an exquisite LaRue Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay. Key to her success is the hands on detail from hauling grapes, constant punch downs, etc. She does it all to ensure her quality product.


While all that seems very serious, this picture of Katy Wilson in Emmaline Ann Vineyard shows her enjoyment and pride in making some truly remarkable wines. Her smile is as wide as the vineyard!! Here she is poised with her award winning 2014 LaRue Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. One of the key contributing factors beyond her innate hard work ethic, is her ability to gain access to some of the best vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA. Most of her wines are single vineyard designated wines, like Heintz Vineyard, Thorn Ridge Vineyard, Rice-Spivak Vineyard and Emmaline Ann Vineyard. She does produce one non-single vineyard wine – LaRue Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – a blend of the Rice-Spivak and Thorn Ridge Vineyards.


In this picture, is shown the 2014 LaRue Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir. Here on this secluded hillside vineyard, Katy has produced some phenomenal award winning wines. International Wine Report reporting on the 2014 Pinot Noirs, described her wines as “possessing a soft and supple texture on the palate along with expressive fresh red fruits and lovely touch of acidity keeping this fresh and inviting through the finish”. Perhaps the best compliment of her award winning wine making was the compliment from Antonio Galloni on her 2013 Pinot Noir, “Katy Wilson’s 2013 Pinots are some of her best wines yet. Over the years, Wilson’s Pinots seem to have become more precise, nuanced and articulated, all qualities that come through loud and clear with these current releases. As always, Wilson’s light touch translates into wines of grace and restraint.” I personally noted the bright clarity and refined qualities of strawberry and cherry. Also, mentioned her Pinot Noirs were graceful and smooth like a solo ballerina performance from Kirov Ballet School.

LaRue’s total production is approximately 500 cases and she sells out each year. If you are desirous of these tasty single vineyard designated Pinot Noirs or Chardonnay, it is available only via the wine club. Beyond her own winery, Katy is the winemaker at Anaba Wines, Reeve Wines and Smith Story Wine Cellars.

So while not guaranteeing a smile as big as Katy’s, I can state your enjoyment will bring a smile to your face while sipping her serious wines!



Alyris Vineyards presents their Pièce de Résistance – Carnal Wine Company

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Alyris Vineyards, with Ewan & Cyndi Downie and Rudy Zuidema, with notable wins in the wine community, launched another venture, Carnal Wine Company. It is hard to imagine something much beyond Alyris Vineyards award winning Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but they have now a premiere wine called Carnal Cab.

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This wine is for collectors only, but stay tuned as they are making a one-time offer later in this article. Only 50 cases were produced of this premium wine. Carnal Cab, identifies the finest of the award winning Audition Series barrels and produces an extraordinary and sensuous yet delightful wine. It is 100% Cabernet from Mt George estate on the hillside east of Napa. See previous article on Alyris at https://californiawinesandwineries.com/2017/04/18/alyris-vineyards-2/

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This wine is set aside for Alyris Club Members and available only in 6 packs. The price is $100/bottle, but don’t reel back, this is a bargain price. Now for the good news! Alyris Vineyards & Carnal Wine Company has set aside fifteen six-pack’s (first come first served) to be sold to discriminating buyers after reading this article. Normally, you cannot buy this wine unless you are a Club Member of Alyris, so this is an exceptional opportunity to acquire and taste some magnificence and unique Mt George hillside estate grown wine.

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The wine is aged in 100% new French oak barrels and then stored in their cave for an additional year. Rudy who is already a noted winemaker in the Napa Valley, has seriously produced his pièce de résistance in Carnal Cab. This is no ordinary Napa Valley Cabernet with strong tannins, this is a silky smooth non-lip puckering wine. Ewan describes it as “backing off on the sugar, or sweeteners and went for a big mountain side Cabernet flavor” with fruit forward embracing nectar on the palate. Perhaps that is where the name Carnal came into play??? This was truly produced a seductive dance with a marinated and BBQed tri-tip last week.

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So while this piece is on their Cabernet, they also do a Carnal Zinfandel and soon a Carnal Chardonnay.
This Carnal Cab is definitely worth a spin around the block for a pleasurable Napa Valley Cabernet experience.




Locke Vineyards, Handcrafted Wines & Farmhouse

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I will start this article off on a personal note. My education as a “philosopher” was impacted by many key historical intellectuals in the discipline. One of these thought provoking men was John Locke (1632-1704). He was one of the forefathers of Empiricist theory which states that we acquire ideas through our experience. Key was his notion of “tabula rasa”, the theory that at birth humans are born with a “blank mind” and without rules for processing data. One forms ideas solely by one’s sensory experiences. Enough of philosophy and on to the wine!


Now with that said, I immediately had an inquiring interest in Locke Vineyards in Murphys, California to see if any connection was there. So upon arriving and meeting both Kevin Locke and Kiki, real name Kirsten, (father/daughter team), I was “disappointed” in no tangible connection to Locke but that was short lived. As I spent time with them, one of Locke’s attributable quotes came to mind. It is “the discipline of desire is the background of character”. Kevin personified this with his desire to go beyond his forestry job to start a vineyard. Kevin and his wife Theresa first purchased a vineyard in Mountain Ranch in 1993 and another in Murphys in 1995. At first they simply sold the grapes to other wineries in the area. Then in 2003, Locke Vineyards label was first introduced. In 2013, Kevin retired from Cal Fire and has focused his devoted attention to the winery and vineyards. In 2018, The Barn on the Murphys property, became the new tasting room. Besides the tasting area, on the property they have a lavender, flower & culinary herb farm from which many of the items that are available in the shop are produced.

I was greeted and welcomed by Kiki with her broad smile. She provided many insights and detailed history on the properties and wines on the farm. She shared her vision as well as her fathers for future development. We tasted various wines and spent time with Kevin who augmented the discussion. Both of them possess a solid “background of character” John Locke had referred.
                           Clone 337                                                               Clone 338


Today, Locke Vineyards offers a variety of wines which include Viognier, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Petite Verdot, Barbera and a few blends. Perhaps one of the key takeaways was the two different Clones of Cabernet grapes grown on the property. Kevin preferring the Clone 338 and the other Clone 337 (more commonly used in Napa, Livermore, Lodi). His reasoning being that the 338 produces slightly bigger berries and larger bunches to take the Calaveras County summer heat better.

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With Kevin’s background in forestry, all winery bottles use trees. The two wines that stood out for me were the 2015 Viognier which only 60 cases were produced. This provided a medium bodied with a strong hint of creamy honeysuckle.

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The other wine was their Sequoia, a red blend of 75% Zinfandel and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. On the eye is a very dark wine. It is a fruit forward blend with raspberry and blackberry being prominent, yet balanced on the palate and lingering in the mouth. Only 75 cases were produced.

In 2019, they will release a new creation, their Reserve Cabernet. This is aged in 100% new French barrels for 3 years. This will surely be something to be sought out!

While disappointed I had not met a direct family member of John Locke, I came away more than excited having met two charming, knowledgeable and solid people in the wine business. If experience is the way to knowledge, I just increase my knowledge tenfold in meeting Kevin and Kiki.



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Craft Wine Association: The Significance and Meaning

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This organization is heading by one dynamic woman, Founder & CEO, Carole Lawson. Carole’s goal is straightforward and is rooted in a passion to expose excellent small family run wineries to the public. She is focused on both wines and wineries which produce less than 5,000 cases per year. There are some prerequisites that must be made and can be found at their website. The Craft Wine organization desires to make known excellent family wines and wineries to the greater public. In today’s market with more and more acquisitions by the “large conglomerates” in the wine industry, the small artisan and boutique wineries are finding it difficult to get attention by consumers or distributors to showcase their wines. It is similar to what has transpired with the small and family run farms in America. (https://www.independentsciencenews.org/environment/america-becoming-a-land-without-farmers/).

Here are the basic tenants of the Craft Wine Association for Certification:
1. An identifiable winemaker. While a custom-crush or Alternating Proprietorship facility may be leveraged in the production of Certified Craft Wines. A Certified Craft Wine will have a winemaker leading production from the process of grape selection through fermentation. This is not just a crush employee, but a winemaker deeply involved with the winery.
2. Small lot productions of wine of fewer than 5,000 cases that rely solely on pre-prescribed protocols of a third party, or without that winemaker/winery connection, do not qualify for the Certified Craft Wine designation.
3. Grapes must come from an identifiable vineyard or identifiable vineyards. Wineries whose entire annual production is under 5,000 cases per year also qualify for the designation of Certified Craft Winery at no additional cost.

The Craft Wine Association also has “other designations” for those making larger quantities and that can be found at https://www.craftwine.org/. The key is to make the Craft Wine logo and the wines as easy to decipher as craft beers and as ubiquitous. Key is to be easily identified as a Craft Wine or Winery offering quality products, which are hard for the consumer to find, enjoy and appreciate Carole’s goal is to get this logo on all the small run wineries throughout the United States, be it on their bottles, on the wineries logo and press material.


At this last weekend’s Farm to Fork Event in Sacramento (https://sacramento.downtowngrid.com/events/2018-farm-to-fork-legends-of-wine/), where approximately 85,000 to 100,000 people attended, the Craft Wine Association held their first Craft Wine Pavilion. This allowed about eight of their members to pour and talk to those attending. The event was a tremendous success and the owner and winemaker members of the Certified Craft Winery Association who attended, were able to schedule visits to their wineries by interested consumers.


Since only “officially launching” in the beginning of 2018, Carole has enrolled 21 wineries and 10 of those are in California! Smaller wine communities like Calaveras AVA has embraced this recognition with open arms. Calaveras Winegrape Alliance has even scheduled a “Calaveras Craft Wine Trail” for Saturday, October 27th. Included at this event will be: vineyard and winery tours, exclusive tastings, the discovery of small batch/high quality wines, opportunities to receive discounts on purchases, meeting the winemakers and staff and lots more. Contact them online at https://calaveraswines.org/calaveras-craft-wine-trail/?utm_source=cawinesandwineries&utm_campaign=craft%20wine%20report for tickets.


So as their phrase statement reads “Rooted in Passion, Shared by the Glass”, The Craft Wine Association Certification is about to explode. Keep an eye out for this logo and some phenomenal wines being produced by their small family run wineries.