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Winemakers Who Made a Difference in California

Ten Golden State winemakers who stepped up their game in 2012
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Dec 20, 2012 3:00pm ET

I tasted thousands of wines in 2012, and you already know which wines we selected for the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of 2012. Today I want to recognize some of the California winemakers who stepped up their game in 2012, either with their own wines or in their consulting projects. You will see some familiar names as well as some you probably don't yet know, but all are making outstanding if not classic-rated wines.

Jeff Ames has overseen winemaking for his label, Rudius, along with making wines for Tor, Knights Bridge and others. For Tor alone, he had an extraordinary year, with four outstanding 2009 Cabernets (three scoring 95 points or more), three outstanding 2010 Chardonnays (one scoring 95) and a 95-point 2010 Syrah.

Russell Bevan is settling into a groove with some high-water marks with Napa Cabernet.

Eric Jensen of Booker in Paso Robles proved the value of fantastic, fanatic farming with stellar wines. Jensen makes a variety of fascinating, exceptional-quality cuvées, mostly from Rhône grapes Syrah, Grenache, Counoise and Mourvèdre, along with Cabernet, Tempranillo and others. Jensen's wines rival those of his West Paso neighbor, Justin Smith at Saxum.

Annie Favia and Andy Erickson (formerly of Screaming Eagle, still with Dancing Hares) are perhaps the most talented, least-known wife-and-husband winemaking team in California. Everything they touch is exceptional as Amador County is coming of age with wines that rival the best in the state. One key is the winemaker, or in one case, the winemaking team (See Keplinger and Pruett below). The Favia Amador reds (Rompecabezas, The Lincoln and Quarzo) have been stellar now for years, hovering in the 95-point atmosphere. The Napa couple's Napa La Magdalena Cabernet Franc-based blend fits snugly among Napa's finest.

Kenneth Juhasz, owner-winemaker of Auteur in Sonoma, has been making wine for a decade. He began his career with Pinot Noir in Oregon, using Burgundy as a model, yet he's found a happy home in Sonoma, where he has raised the quality bar by making his Pinot Noirs in a riper, fuller, more flavorful style. In particular, Auteur's Mendocino Ridge Manchester Ridge Vineyard 2009 (94, $50), Sonoma Coast 2009 (93, $38) and Sonoma Coast Stage Vineyard (93, $60) are the best California wines he's made. His work with the 2009 vintage at Donum (six outstanding Pinots) added to his remarkable year.

Helen Keplinger is proving her talents as a winemaker, making a trio of striking Rhône-inspired Sierra Foothills reds under her Keplinger label—Sumo (Petite Sirah, Syrah and Viognier) and Lithic (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre) from Amador, and Caldera (Mourvèdre, Grenache and Counoise) from El Dorado. Ann Kraemer's Shake Ridge Vineyards is at the epicenter of the Keplinger excitement.

Aaron Pott of Pott winery is getting his due, having made three outstanding 2009 Napa Cabernets.

Like Mark Carter, race-car driver Scott Pruett was encouraged to pursue wine by Fred Schrader, and he has accelerated with outstanding reds from the Sierra Foothills.

Mike Smith, who trained with Thomas Brown, took over winemaking at Carter Cellars, where the reds have always been outstanding, coming from exceptional sites. But in 2009, Carter had three 95-point ratings (and a total of five outstanding reds), the result of Smith being able to capitalize on a sensational vintage and give the wines a little more polish and finesse. Smith's own label, Myriad, is a rising star, too.

Joey Wagner, the son of Caymus owner Chuck Wagner, is pursuing Pinot Noir under the Belle Glos/Meiomi label from a variety of vineyards and appellations throughout the state, seeking, like his father, the art of the blend.

That's my starter's list. Chime in in the comments with other winemakers or vintners who stood out in your wine life this past year.

Joseph Byrne
CA —  December 20, 2012 7:35pm ET
Nice to see you have Anne Favia and Helen Keplinger there.

I would add these folks.

Winemakers at Kosta Browne being not exactly sure who that is Michael Browne, Ryan O'Donnell or Jeremiah Timm?

Elias Fernandez, for #1 Wine and finally got his reward for being "Relentless"

Joey Tensley, some of the best Rhone style wines year after year.

Thomas Brown, well you know.

Richard Arrowood, his new Amapola Creek Wines are really something
Dan Cozzo
Coto de Caza, CA, USA —  December 20, 2012 11:24pm ET
Agree on Joey Tensley and would add Jordan Fiorentini, Greg Brewer, Scott Hawley, Anthony Yount and Frank Altamura.
Bradford Dempsey
Arvada, CO —  December 21, 2012 1:49am ET
I'm glad you highlighted Jeff Ames- he's doing great things.
Tom & Nancy Brown
Louisville, KY —  December 21, 2012 1:10pm ET
Philip Titus
Gwen Mcgill
CA —  December 21, 2012 1:33pm ET
Jason Jardine at Flowers. Stunning new estate wines in the 2010 vintage, very exciting things to come.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA, US —  December 21, 2012 3:13pm ET
Jim - awesome to see both Jeff and Russell at the top of your list. Great guys and killer wines. And another couple of wine geeks who took the leap from posting on internet wine bulletin boards to "live the dream" :)

Gewn - good call on Jason! He's doing a great job at Flowers.
Paul Hughes
Yountville, California —  December 21, 2012 5:43pm ET
Thomas Rivers Brown
Have not found a more consistent wine than Maybach, and Harris Estate continues to be impressive
Michael Digiovanni
Huntington Beach, ca —  December 21, 2012 9:34pm ET
Matt Dees at Jonata is making some amazing Cabs,Cab Francs in Santa Barbara of all places, as well as some stellar syrahs
Russell Bevan
Santa Rosa CA —  December 22, 2012 12:26am ET

I am so inspired by several of the people on your list, it is humbling to be included with them, thank you.

Happy Holidays,
Russell Bevan
Bevan Cellars
Jim Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  December 23, 2012 12:44pm ET
Great to see you highlighting Eric Jensen's efforts at Booker. I would echo Dan Cozzo's tags on Greg Brewer (wonderful wines from Melville and Brewer-Clifton, but my favorites are from his Diatom label for their absolutely unique expression of Chardonnay) and Anthony Yount (great stuff at Denner, but even more exciting are the terrific whites under his Kinero label). I'd also encourage your readers to check out Ryan Pease's new label Paix sur Terre. He made a beautiful Mourvedre-driven blend in 2010 called "The Other One" that is one of the most surprising wines I tried all year.

Happy Holidays to all!
James Nokes
Chicago, IL —  December 24, 2012 11:41pm ET
Scott Hawley and Anthony Yount are visionary winemakers in Paso Robles. Bryan Babcock and Colin Kres were great at Babcock. Tuck Beckstoffer is doing some very special things throughout the state as well.
Tomas Marimon
Miami, Fl —  December 26, 2012 12:40am ET
Ed Chin
CA —  December 26, 2012 6:52pm ET
Another name while not real new is Francoise Peschon. With her new consulting gig with Vine Hill Ranch I hope this opens the door to more exposure.
Steve Balmuth
Dana Point, CA, USA —  December 27, 2012 10:35am ET
I love it when I see customers raving about the wines our store specializes in. DaVine in Dana Point carries Paix Sur Terre, Kinero, Denner, Torrin (when available), Epoch, Jacob Toft, Brian Benson, Gelfand, Tablas Creek, Edmond August, Linne Calodo (when available), Herman Story, Alta Colina, Roxo and soon, Cypher. We are known as Paso South among our customers.

Just barrel sampled the 2011 wines of Ryan Pease (Paix Sur Terre)and they are amazing. His Mourvedre from Glenrose vineyard is going to be one of the best Mourvedres ever made in California.
Gregory Kendall
Laurel, MD, US —  January 2, 2013 2:07pm ET
Several winemakers / teams who have impressed me for years and continued to do so in 2012 were:

1.) Brian Mox - Lewis Cellars
2.) Adam Lee - Siduri
3.) Lily & Jon Berlin - El Molino
Brad Paulsen
Saratoga, CA —  January 9, 2013 1:43am ET
Ames, Bevan, Brown, Pott, Welch.

I invest and ingest.

'nuff said.
Diane Horne
Raleigh, North Carolina —  September 2, 2017 9:10am ET
We were in Napa in July and had the most wonderful experience at the Knights Bridge tasting room in Calistoga. The assistant winemaker at Knights Bridge, Katie Rodgers, was absolutely amazing. Her knowledge of winemaking and her explanation about the process was enlightening. The fact that she made and poured the 2015 Chardonnay for us, which we loved at the time, and then we see that Wine Spectator ranked it a 94, let us know Katie is a great winemaker, and our taste buds are working well! Keep an eye out for Katie, she's a rising star!!

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