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james laube's wine flights

My Top 10 X-Factor Wines of 2012

These 10 California wines were among my most exciting this year
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Dec 27, 2012 3:00pm ET

Before the bottles start popping as we welcome 2013, I've got one more list to check off. (Check out my previous blog post for my list of California Winemakers Who Made a Difference.) Here are 10 wines from the Golden State that excited me for one reason or another in 2012. A couple made the Wine Spectator Top 100 list. Some of the linked reviews are from my colleagues, or older notes for reference. Pay less attention to the ratings. One could easily sort out the top-rated wines by numbers, but these go beyond ratings, so I've listed them alphabetically.

Black Kite Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Angel Hawk 2009 (94 points, $70)
This graceful Pinot Noir provides a glimpse into what the future holds for this grape in this bucolic Mendocino County valley. Winemaker Jeff Gaffner has a deft touch with all the wines he makes. Expect more Pinots on this level from Anderson Valley as more winemakers become more familiar with the terroir and fine-tune their winemaking.

Edge Hill St. Helena Estate Mixed Blacks Field Blend Napa Valley 2010 (92, $125)
This is a fruit bowl with great density and polish. It would be hard not to be impressed by the ingredients: Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Grenache, Carignane, Mourvèdre and Alicante Bouschet. The move among Rhône Rangers is toward anything-goes blends. Yet for all its apparent size, it is elegant and supple.

Favia Rompecabezas Amador County 2008 (95, $65)
This wine took me by complete surprise. Sure, the name is great (meaning "puzzle"), the winemaker fantastic (Andy Erickson), the vineyard special (Shake Ridge Ranch) and the appellation full of potential (Amador County). But in the end it's all about the wine, and this is phenomenal.

Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Martha's Vineyard 2007 (94, $200)
This wine is nostalgic, since a 1968 Martha's Vineyard was the first wine that really grabbed my attention when it came to the potential of Napa Valley Cabernet and this signature vineyard.

Lagier Meredith Mondeuse Mount Veeder 2010 (93, $42)
No, Mondeuse won't be the next big thing. Take it from Carole Meredith, it's a nightmare to grow. Still, this is so charming and smooth that it makes you wonder, what if …?

Marcassin Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Blue-Slide Ridge Vineyard 2007 (97, $90)
This has always been my favorite Pinot vineyard of the three made under the Marcassin label. It is gorgeous, deep, polished and refined. Marcassin is planning to drop this wine as it focuses on its estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Marcassin Blue-Slide Ridge will be missed.

Rivers-Marie Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Panek Vineyard 2009 (95, $75)
Consultant extraordinaire Thomas Brown has built more depth and richness into this Napa Cabernet. Earlier vintages were trimmer and lacked the density of this one.

Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Hillside Select 2002 (97, $190)
This is what's supposed to happen when you lay down a wine for a decade. The Hillside Select has emerged as the Stags Leap Cabernet star and it is routinely one of the top bottlings on release each year. This gorgeous 10-year-old should go another 20 years.

Shibumi Knoll Chardonnay Russian River Valley Buena Tierra Vineyard 2005 (97, $45)
This wine stunned me the first time I tried it several years ago, and I've had the great fortune to try it (and its fellow vintages) on several occasions. Beautifully polished, rich and flavorful, enhanced by its elegance and charm.

Williams Selyem Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Rochioli Vineyard 1992 (97, $50)
Burt Williams turned the California Pinot Noir world on its ear with glowing Pinots starting in the early 1980s. I found a "lost" bottle in my cellar this past year and it was stunning. Williams is the perfect example of an intuitive winemaker who has been leading the way for a long time.

Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA, US —  December 27, 2012 5:12pm ET
Great list, Jim! I really like what Jeff is doing with the Black Kite wines. And huge kudos to Carole and Stephen for having the guts to plant and make Mondeuse. Sad to hear no more Blue Slide Ridge from Helen as it was always my favorite as well. And nice to see a shout-out to Burt Williams, who's probably inspired more of the newer generation Cali Pinot Producers than anyone else - especially those of us who followed his business model of buying fruit from great growers :)
Ron Lippitt
warwick' RI USA —  December 27, 2012 6:32pm ET
This is the great thing about wine these days..There are so many great wines out there that you can easily come up with ten great wines that most people know little about. I am looking forward to hopefully trying a few. Two wines that I thought were standouts this past year were the Kamen 2007 cabernet and the Arista 2009 pinot noir (regular bottling). I guarantee these are crowd pleasers. Happy hunting to you all and may the new year bring health, happiness, prosperity and many fine wine experiences!
David Rossi
Napa, CA —  December 28, 2012 8:37am ET
Jim,
Great to see the Williams Seylem on this list. 20 years old and still showing well. I think it makes the case that some Cal Pinots can age beyond the normal 6-8 year range. Brian is right they provide inspiration for many California producers.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  December 28, 2012 12:37pm ET
I have yet to open any of my 2007 Marcassin but you're not making it easy to resist the temptation there Jim!

I have also been enamored with the 2008 Rompecabezas. It's impossibly light in color compared to the depth of flavor and tannic backbone it possesses. Each bottle just gets better. I haven't opened any of my 2009's yet. I know you gave both vintages the same score, but is 2009 just as pleasurable as the 08?
Michael De Polo
West Bloomfield, Mi —  December 28, 2012 6:29pm ET
I may live long enough to be able to someday purchase a Marcassin or two, and I'm also hopeful that the Favia isn't too long into the future for me, but I have been buying Black Kite long enough now that I received an email from Rebecca alerting me to a library offering, including the '09 Angel Hawk. The bottles arrived just before Christmas, guaranteeing Happy Holidays!

All the best in the coming year to you all at Wine Spectator, those in the wine industry who turn out these bottles of joy, and all your loyal readers and consumers who give you both your raison d'etre.

Salute!
Napa, Ca —  January 2, 2013 11:04pm ET
Might be just a touch biased but love what Thomas does with Panek and appreciate that he still sells me fruit.

Jeff Ames
Curt Dahl
Watchung,NJ USA —  January 3, 2013 2:35pm ET
Is there anything better than Shafer? Its an incredible wine! In building wine cellars for a living it is by far my clients favorite wine year after year.

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