The Cult Wineries of California

Californian winemaking may be something of a spring chicken in comparison to the classic European wine regions (California dates its earliest vineyards back to the 1700s, whereas much of Europe can trace vinous origins as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans) but this does not mean that the Sunshine State should be underestimated.

In fact, California – and the Napa Valley in particular – can undoubtedly lay claim to some of the greatest wines being made in the world today. The best producers are often referred to as ‘cult’ estates, and for many oenophiles, the pursuit and worship of the great Californian wines certainly amounts to something akin to a religious experience.

The Chelsea Vintners team have watched this fascinating region go from strength to strength in recent years. Despite challenges ranging from devastating wildfires to years-long drought, California’s tenacious, dedicated winemakers still manage to produce profound, life-changing wines year after year.

We’ve put our heads together and shortlisted just a few of our favourite California wines and vintages so far … whilst looking forward to many, many more to come!

Colgin Estate Tychson Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2002

Colgin’s meteoric rise to cult status is nothing short of remarkable. The first ever vintage was only released in 1992, yet by 2005 Colgin was recognised by critic Robert Parker as one of his top 50 wine estates in the world.

Art auctioneer Ann Colgin fell in love with the wines of Napa in 1988 whilst attending the Napa Valley Wine Auction. Within four years she was crafting her first wines and buying up some of Napa’s most historic vineyard land. One of the first purchases Ann made would become in part the Tychson Hill vineyard. This 2.4 hectares of land just north of St Helena which was originally owned by Josephine Tychson, the first woman ever to build a winery in the Napa Valley.

The 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon from Tychson Hill was only the third vintage to be released from this vineyard, yet it received the ultimate 100 Point score from Robert Parker and is still considered one of Colgin’s greatest ever vintages.

What a great, great Cabernet Sauvignon the 2002 Tychson Hill Vineyard is. Tasting like a hypothetical blend of a first growth Pauillac and a great Napa Cab, this world-class wine has a gorgeous nose of white chocolate, sweet black currants, acacia flowers and cedar as well as a hint of toast. With a full-bodied, voluptuously textured, opulent mouthfeel, gorgeously silky tannin and an evolved set of aromatics, the flavors have resolved all the tannin and the wine is now perfectly balanced. It is a real tour de force, so for those who are sitting on any appreciable stock of this, you’re lucky...” 100 Points, Robert Parker

Harlan Estate 1994

1994 is widely praised as one of the great modern day Napa vintages, as well as a significant year in the California calendar for all kinds of other reasons. This was the year that the eponymous French Laundry restaurant (the ultimate Napa Valley foodie mecca) first opened in Yountville, as well as the date that O. J. Simpson burst back into the L.A. headlines for all the wrong reasons …

Bill Harlan himself was as much of a colourful character as any. A pilot, real estate agent and sometime professional poker player, he turned an unloved country estate into legendary Napa Valley hotel Meadowood – and the inspiration didn’t stop there. Inspired by a trip to France with Robert Mondavi, Harlan purchased his first 40 acres of land, although the winery did not become a commercial enterprise until the 1980s.

Today, Harlan Estate is relentless in its pursuit of Bill’s dream; to craft red blends which would not be out of place in a line-up of Bordeaux’s best First Growth wines. The wines are so sought after that they are only available through a mailing list system (a hallmark of the most exclusive Napa wineries). It is not uncommon for hopeful subscribers to wait for years before being granted access into the Harlan inner sanctum.

The 1994 vintage perfectly encapsulates all the reasons why these wines are so adored, a glorious, harmonious, tantalisingly complex red blend awarded a well-deserved 100 points by a long line of salivating wine critics.

“What can I say about the 1994? I have tasted the wine for three consecutive years, and each time it satisfied all of my requirements for perfection. The opaque purple color is followed by spectacular aromatics that soar from the glass, offering up celestial levels of black currants, minerals, smoked herbs, cedar wood, coffee, and pain grille. In the mouth, this seamless legend reveals full body, and exquisite layers of phenomenally pure and rich fruit, followed by a 40+ second finish … what is so extraordinary about this large-scaled wine, with its dazzling display of aromatics and prodigious flavors and depth, is that it offers no hint of heaviness or coarseness. Harlan’s 1994 comes close to immortality in the glass”. 100 Points, Robert Parker

Opus One

No list of Californian legends is complete without a mention of Opus One. This legendary joint venture between Napa godfather Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild – who first met on vacation in Hawaii – was founded in the pursuit of nothing less than the ultimate Napa wine. This partnership was also key in creating a new aura of quality and excellence around the burgeoning Californian wine scene in the early 1980s.

Ever since the release of its first vintage in 1983, Opus One has been a byword for outstanding quality. The very first bottles commanded the heretofore unimagined price of $50 per bottle, and today the brand is known (alongside a reputation for outstanding quality) for consistently achieving some of the most dizzying prices in California for their flagship Cabernet Sauvignon dominant Bordeaux-style blend.

Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon

When it comes to Screaming Eagle, it is futile to try and select just one wine or vintage from Napa’s most revered cult winemaker. This estate is synonymous with exclusivity and excellence, renowned for producing what are often the most expensive wines in the USA (regularly hitting the $3000 dollar per bottle mark) from a tiny corner of land in Napa’s Oakville.

Screaming Eagle’s first ever vintage in 1992 immediately achieved a 99-point score from Wine Advocate, and the numbers have continued to tell the story. 100-point scores have come so regularly (in 1997, 2007, 2012 and 2016, to name but a few) that they are almost an everyday occurrence for the estate’s 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Only around 500 cases are produced each year, and the mailing list is thousands of names and several years long. As such, the chance to experience the wines of this unique estate really is something that you’ll tell your grandchildren about in years to come.

Sine Qua Non Just for the Love of It 2002

Sine Qua Non is a winery that does things differently. Located just north of Los Angeles in Santa Barbara, this estate has been instrumental in proving that great Californian wines do not just come from Napa! Founded in the early 1990s by Austrian winemaker Manfred Krankl, Sine Qua Non (a Latin phrase meaning ‘something that is absolutely necessary’) specialises in the grape varietals of the Northern Rhône; Syrah and Grenache for reds and classic blends of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier for the whites.

Perhaps the most seductive thing about Sine Qua Non is the fact that the winery rarely, if ever, makes the same wine twice. Every vintage sees a new name and a new, creative blend made in tiny volumes and only available to those fortunate mailing list subscribers who have waited patiently for months and years to get hold of a very few bottles.

2002 saw the birth of ‘Just for the Love of It’, a single-varietal Syrah that sent critics the world over into overdrive and commands a price point that never dips below $1000 and often achieves two or three times that. A 100-pointer, of course, but also a wine which proves beyond doubt that California is capable of so much more than Cabernet Sauvignon.

“A dead ringer (at least aromatically) for Guigal’s single vineyard Cote Rotie La Mouline, the 2002 Just for the Love of It is the greatest California Syrah I have yet tasted … it boasts a provocative perfume of creme de cassis, toast, blackberries, liquorice, barbecue spice, and exotic floral scents. Extremely full-bodied, with fabulous intensity, great purity, awesome length, and a finish that lasts over a minute, this classic is a must purchase.” 100 Points, Robert Parker

Kongsgaard Syrah 1996

John Kongsgaard is a fifth-generation Napa inhabitant who can count politicians and adventurers amongst his colourful heritage, so it was perhaps inevitable that he would become a winemaker with a mission. Armed with a master’s degree in viticulture from UC Davis, John spent time working with some of Napa’s best-known estates and was one of the first Californian students of the legendary French viticulturist Michel Rolland before founding his own label.

All the wines of Kongsgaard are revered (particularly the Chardonnays, which garner much praise and are regularly compared to the best white Burgundies in the world) but one of the most special is the 1996 Syrah, the estate’s inaugural vintage and one which showed beyond doubt that this was an estate to be reckoned with. This was the most expensive Syrah in California upon its release, a firm statement from John that his wines could compete with the best that Napa had to offer, and one which he lives up to until this day.

As far as we know, not a single unopened bottle of that trailblazing 1996 Syrah still exists today. If you happen to hear of one, please let us know!

Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973

Few single wines have had such a seismic effect on the profile and reputation of Californian wines as the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay.

It was this wine that triumphed over the best competitors from Burgundy in the legendary 1976 Judgement of Paris, in which Steven Spurrier brought together the best French and Californian wines he could find and pitted them against each other in what has become perhaps the most famous blind tasting of all time.

10 French and California Chardonnays were poured blind for a judging panel which consisted mainly of some of France’s greatest wine figures, including Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Christian Vannequé, head sommelier at iconic Paris restaurant La Tour d’Argent. A staggering 6 of the 9 French judges placed Ch Montelena in first place, in a line up which included wines from Domaine Roulot, Leflaive and Drouhin – upon unveiling, there was widespread consternation and Steven Spurrier was ultimately banned from some French tasting events for a year, ostensibly for the damage this tasting did to the image of French wine!

However, in a blind tasting, the results speak for themselves and this sensational Californian Chardonnay has become the stuff of wine legend, sparking a new interest in and appreciation for California that has only continued to gather momentum.

Ridge Monte Bello 1974

Ridge Vineyards is without doubt one of the most iconic and instantly recognisable names in California. Wine has been made here for over six decades, with the first-ever wine a ‘quarter barrel’ of Monte Bello estate Cabernet Sauvignon which would pave the way for this wine to become one of the most collectible Cabernets in California.

Of all the cult Cabs, Monte Bello is the only one made outside Napa Valley (the vineyard sits in the heart of Sonoma, overlooking the tech paradise of Silicon Valley and cooled by Pacific winds) and one of the oldest – few others can trace their heritage back to the 1960s.

By the 1970s, the production of Monte Bello had truly hit its stride and the exceptional 1974 vintage achieved the perfect 100 Parker points with aplomb. Even today, nearly 40 years later, this exceptional wine still has plenty of life in it with many more spectacular years to give.

The 1974 Monte Bello is a spectacular wine that’s in its prime today, soaring from the glass with an exuberant bouquet of ripe cherries, plums, cigar box, black truffle and petroleum jelly. On the palate, it’s full-bodied, broad and powerful, with a dramatically lavish attack, considerable mid-palate amplitude and a deep core of ripe, succulent fruit framed by melting tannins and juicy acids. There’s still some chalky grip on the long, savory finish, and I’d expect this to drink well for another decade or two.” 100 Points, Robert Parker.

Marcassin Chardonnay 2013

It’s important to remember that it’s not just red wines that have made California famous. Chardonnay also thrives in many areas of the state and, as we saw with Ch Montelena, is more than capable of producing world-beating wines on American soil.

Californian trailblazer Marcassin have set a lofty benchmark for Californian white wine that only the very best can aspire to. Husband and wife team Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer recognised the untapped potential of the Sonoma Coast in the early 1990s, and now their Burgundian-influenced wines are a regular fixture in lists of the world’s best Chardonnay. As with any true cult California producers, the majority of Marcassin’s best wines released exclusively to mailing list subscribers, who have navigated an average wait time of 7-10 years to get their hands on the tiny quantities of Chardonnay that Robert Parker has glowingly compared to Burgundian legend Coche-Dury. 

Notes of caramelized citrus, hazelnut, apple blossom, lemon oil and orange marmalade are all present in this wine of dazzling aromatic and flavor dimension. It is full-bodied, again shows some wet pebbles (which I equate with minerality), vibrant acidity, and no real evidence of any oak. Much like the 2012, the finish goes on for 45+ seconds. This is another killer Chardonnay from Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer … perhaps the closest comparison is not to anything made in California, but a Corton-Charlemagne in a top vintage from the famous Jean François Coche-Dury”. 100 Points, Robert Parker

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