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San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
Mike Dunne

Mike Dunne’s 2018 Best of Class Tasting Notes

Mike Dunne is a longtime SFCWC wine judge and the former food editor, wine columnist, and restaurant critic of the Sacramento Bee. He continues to contribute to the Sacramento Bee weekly wine column. This year, Dunne shares his insights and tasting notes for each of the 173 Best of Class winners, giving wine consumers an inside look at why these wines were named the best of each category. Dunne has columns based on the SFCWC scheduled to be published in the Sacramento Bee.


CategoryWineryMike Dunne's Notes
Blanc de BlancsHandley Cellars Anderson Valley Estate Blanc de BlancsYou still can find apple orchards in Mendocino County's Anderson Valley, but if you get tired of looking stop at Handley Cellars for a glass - better yet, a bottle - of its Blanc de Blancs, as refreshing and nippy as a freshly harvested apple, trailing off with traditional sparkling-wine notes of yeast and smoke.
Blanc de NoirsRack & Riddle Sonoma County Blanc de NoirsAgainst a brassy backdrop, robust beads of fine bubbles lift the delicate but distinct scent of tiny berries tossed with slivered almonds. Overall, dry, lean and refined.
BrutGloria Ferrer Sonoma BrutThe label says "hand crafted in Sonoma," a boast reflected in this feathery, smooth, apple-accented sparkler by its tightly dovetailed fruit, yeast and acidity. Overall, refreshing and elegant.
Moscato SparklingBarefoot Bubbly California Moscato SpumanteNumerous leisurely beads of bubbles set the stage for a California take on spumante bold in its floral fragrance and refreshing in its fruity sweetness.
Fruit SparklingWeibel Demi-Sec AlmondAn entire candy box in which each square is floral and sweet.
Other SparklingGloria Ferrer 2014 Carneros Reserve Cuvee Demi-SecAn exquisitely balanced demi-sec, its note of sweetness both fleeting and offset by the prickly acidity for which Carneros is recognized. Built with style to accommodate both those who prefer their sparklers as an aperitif and those who want them to pair with all sorts of dishes.
Rose SparklingGloria Ferrer 2014 Carneros Brut RoseExhibit A for anyone who needs to persuade a jury that the most reliable and most attractively priced sparkling wines outside Champagne are made in California. This sparkler is too distinguished to be called "bubbly," though its bubbles are tiny and vital. Beyond its coral-hued color is a sparkling wine uncommonly aromatic, vivid in fruit and spry with acidity.
Sauvignon Blanc/Fume - $0.00 - $14.99Bay Moon 2016 California Sauvignon BlancLavender and peach delivered on a broad and sturdy frame.
Sauvignon Blanc/Fume - $15.00 - $18.99Balverne 2016 Russian River Valley Forever Wild Sauvignon BlancStature and harmony are captured here with an unusually angular, spicy and enduring sauvignon blanc, at home on its own or with most any white-fleshed seafood, poultry or meat.
Sauvignon Blanc/Fume - $19.00 - $22.99Long Meadow Ranch 2016 Napa Valley Rutherford Sauvignon BlancFruit, grass and nettles in a vigorous package accented with intriguing spice and shored up with a fittingly firm backbone.
Sauvignon Blanc/Fume - $23.00 and abovePeju 2016 Napa Valley Sauvignon BlancThe green-olive side of sauvignon blanc's herbaceousness is seized here with both youthful friskiness and adult sophistication. This is one complete sauvignon blanc.
SemillonFrostwatch Vineyard & Winery 2016 Bennett Valley SemillonSemillon would be more popular than it is if only more were made in this vein - generous with sunny fruit, fleshy in texture and caressingly long in the finish.
VignolesKeuka Spring Vineyards 2016 Finger Lakes VignolesNot only a great wine to represent Finger Lakes and vignoles but a great wine period for its clarity, energy and definition. See this on a table with a bunch of other wines at a party and be prepared to grab it and hide it behind the drapes for your own personal joy.
Chardonnay - $0.00 - $9.99Three Thieves 2016 California Republic ChardonnayThe gun-toting, horseback-riding hombres of the label aren't to be so much feared as cheered. After all, they are handing over a veritable strongbox of a chardonnay, from its filigree color through its freshly minted suggestions of citrus and apples.
Chardonnay - $10.00 - $13.99Cupcake Vineyards 2015 Monterey County ChardonnayFor its plush fruit and notable though not overwhelming sweetness, this is a chardonnay to please both extremes of the varietal's camp - those who value purity on one hand, those who put a premium on cordiality on the other.
Chardonnay - $14.00 - $15.99A to Z Wineworks 2016 Oregon ChardonnayA chardonnay all about harmony and persistence. It reveals more sides of chardonnay than ought to be allowed - pointed fruit, zesty acidity, shifting complexity and, most importantly, a true representation of place.
Chardonnay - $16.00 - 17.99Michael David Winery 2016 Lodi ChardonnayAs tempted as you might be, don't rush back for another gulp of this poised and balanced chardonnay; wait to savor how the finish uncurls with seductive suggestions of assorted tropical and citric fruits.
Chardonnay - $18.00 - $19.99Divum 2016 Monterey ChardonnayHigh-value alert! Here's a chardonnay that outperforms 95 percent of its competition in this price niche. It delivers gorgeous and animated rich tropical fruit and refreshing acidity with just the right proportion of smoke.
Chardonnay - $20.00 - $21.99Scott Family Estate 2016 Monterey Arroyo Seco Dijon Clone ChardonnayIn a word, delicious, one of those stand-out California chardonnays that for its breeding and considerate handling could be mistaken for Burgundy by its agile fruit, whiff of smoke and replenishing acidity.
Chardonnay - $22.00 - $23.99Jac Cole 2016 Alexander Valley Unoaked ChardonnayNot all the spice associated with chardonnay comes from the oak barrels in which the wine was fermented or aged, as this brilliant "naked" interpretation shows. It got no exposure to wood, yet its high-profile and zesty fruit is punctuated with diverting yet fitting spice.
Chardonnay - $24.00 - $25.99Deer Creek Vineyards 2016 Rogue Valley ChardonnayA direct and steely yet refreshing take on chardonnay that speaks of the varietal's character so loudly and clearly that it could prompt a land rush to southern Oregon for the cultivation of more vineyards to the grape.
Chardonnay - $26.00 - $29.99Santa Barbara Winery 2015 Sta. Rita Hills Reserve ChardonnayRegardless of grape variety, Sta. Rita Hills is gaining a reputation for wines that walk the fine line of muscle and adroitness, With its leaping fruity and floral aroma, open-hearted proclamation of fruit, enthralling equilibrium and astutely integrated acidity this chardonnay reinforces that standing.
Chardonnay - $30.00 - $33.99St. Anne's Crossing 2015 Russian River Valley Bacigalupi ChardonnayThe whole peach - fuzz, skin, pit - in a vigorous and balanced package that explains the allure of Russian River Valley chardonnay.
Chardonnay - $34.00 - $37.99Frank Family Vineyards 2015 Carneros ChardonnaySunny and hale fruit embraces the taster with gusto, cheer and a spicy slap on the back.
Chardonnay - $38.00 - $44.99V. Sattui Winery 2016 Carsi Vineyard ChardonnayA chardonnay for chardonnay enthusiasts who aren't happy unless they get a jolt of vanillin and smoke from the barrels in which the wine was aged. But all that wood is balanced by lush tropical fruit, seductive floral aromas and a lilting structure that can come only from fruit attentively tended.
Chardonnay - $45.00 and aboveLa Pitchoune 2014 Russian River Valley Chenoweth Vineyard ChardonnayWith this chardonnay, think of the three principles of architecture as defined by Vitruvius - durability, utility, beauty. It's also big, but all its elements, including a foundation of sweet ripe fruit and a frame of new French oak, coalesce into one secure and athletic chardonnay.
Gewurztraminer - $0.00 - $14.99Ferrante Winery Grand Rivery Valley GewurztraminerThis is what the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition is all about - to show that fine American wine can come from places in addition to California, in this case the wine is a forthrightly dry and tantalizingly spicy gewurztraminer from Ohio.
Gewurztraminer - $15.00 and aboveCastello di Amorosa 2016 Anderson Valley GewurztraminerThe view from Napa Valley's castle on a hill apparently is unobstructed all the way to Mendocino County's Anderson Valley, which in living up to its standing for aromatic and intense white wines delivered the fruit for this floral, spicy, lychee-accented and gratifyingly persistent gewurztraminer.
Riesling - Bone Dry RS <.99Bouchaine 2016 Napa Valley Carneros Las Brisas Vineyard RieslingThis is a contrary riesling - contrary to the perception that California is too darm warm for riesling. By its austere styling, dry delivery, pinpoint fruit and spry acidity this is the kind of riesling most often identified with Mosel, Finger Lakes, Okanagan Valley or one of the other more esteemed regions for the grape.
Riesling - Medium RS 1.00 - 1.99Bowers Harbor Vineyards 2016 Old Mission Peninsula Smokey Hollow RieslingThis composed and stately riesling delivers equal portions of peach and petrol, both underscored with dry spiciness and uplifting acidity.
Riesling - Sweet RS > 2.00 (No Late Harvest or Dessert)ForestVille 2015 California RieslingA bargain brand that nevertheless respects riesling's nobility with a blooming floral aroma, developed fruit flavors and expansive mouthfeel. Yes, it's sweet, but not cloying, thanks to the wine's decent acids.
Viognier - $0.00 - $24.99Pear Valley 2016 Paso Robles Pear Valley Vineyard ViognierPear Valley looks to be overrun with peaches these days, to judge by the peachy fragrance and flavor here. Beyond that, the wine is classic viognier - honeysuckle, luxuriousness and spice.
Viognier - $25.00 and aboveChateau Tumbleweed 2016 Arizona Cochise County Deep Sky Vineyard ViognierA beautiful viognier, feathery in construct but assured in delivery, coming across the palate with unadultered clarity, freshness and replenishing acidity.
Pinot Gris/Grigio - $0.00 - $ 14.99Rock Point 2016 Oregon Pinot GrisThe teeter-totter of richness and buoyancy is realized in this deep and spirited take on Oregon's most prevalent white wine.
Pinot Gris/Grigio - $15.00 - $19.99Spindrift Cellars 2016 Willamette Valley Pinot GrisIf you were to take just one wine to a vacation cabin on the Oregon coast, make it this one. For its vibrancy, lucidity and assurance it's the perfect companion for kicking back and savoring the moment, dynamics and beauty.
Pinot Gris/Grigio - $20.00 and aboveBenessere Vineyards 2016 Napa Valley Pinot GrigioPinot grigio as a trampoline, good for jumps and jubilation, given its pollen-dusted floral aroma and suggestions of tropical fruits in the flavor.
MuscatV. Sattui Winery 2015 California MuscatAs floral, fruity and sweet as muscat should be, but this one comes with a couple of surprising bonuses - ticklish spice and a finish exceptionally long and twisting for the varietal.
AlbarinoGordian Knot Winery 2016 Russian River Valley Elieo Vineyard AlbarinoAt Gordian Knot, they've taken albarino and loosened it to be all it can be in California - a rich and viscous white wine full of sweet peachy and melony fruit.
Chenin BlancDry Creek Vineyard 2016 Clarksburg Dry Chenin BlancDid someone say oysters? How about fillets of petrale sole sauteed in olive oil with shallots and herbs? This direct and stable chenin blanc has both the vigor and the grace to go with either, or any number of any other cleanly prepared seafood dishes.
Grenache BlancHalter Ranch 2016 Paso Robles Adelaida District Grenache BlancWith seamless precision, this Paso Robles grenache blanc shows just why the varietal is a rising star on the California wine scene. It is all about focus, sharpness and minerality, as direct and crisp as a Granny Smith just snatched off the tree.
VermentinoBrick Barn 2016 Santa Ynez Valley Estate VermentinoAllergy Alert! This is spring unfolding after an unusually benevolent winter, producing whole slopes given over to wildflowers, blooming fruit trees and tall native grasses.
Pinot BlancBoeger Winery 2016 El Dorado Pinot Grande White Pinot NoirPinot noir has had a difficult time gaining traction in California's Sierra foothills, seen as too hot for the fickle variety, but when imagination and patience are brought to the grape it can yield a striking wine, like this invitingly scented, dashingly fruity and refreshingly bracing interpretation, white rather than red, yet the "Grande" of the proprietary name is perfectly fitting.
RousanneCass Winery 2016 Paso Robles RoussanneNo need to be intimidated by the relative California newcomer roussanne, not even one with 15.5 percent alcohol, not when it is made with as much embracing composure as the Cass, which long after a swallow continues to resonate with layer after layer of fruit, some of it apple, some of it pineapple, some of it grapefruit. An exceptionally complex and enduring white wine.
MarsanneBatia Vineyards 2016 Sierra Foothills MarsanneMarsanne, a sleeper in the Sierra foothills, will awaken as more examples as mature and balanced as this make their way to the marketplace. Splendid earth and spicy apricot flavors.
Gruner VeltlinerReustle Prayer Rock Vineyards 2016 Umpqua Valley Hefeabzug Estate Cuvee Gruner VeltlinerBy this adaptable and vital model, "gruner veltliner" could translate as "fitting for seafood as well as appropriate all on its own." It is dry, light- to medium-bodied, spirited with peachy fruit and cleansing in its brisk acidity.
MeadNathaniel Rose at Raftshol Vineyards 2013 PymentNot all mead is sweet, nor does all mead taste mostly of honey. This has elements of both, but what really stands out is the wine's assertive floral, fruit and spice highlights in one energetic and enduring presentation.
White Native American/HybridSaddlehorn Winery Texas Blanc du BoisBlanc Du Bois, a hybrid grape developed in Florida, is finding a welcome home in Texas, to judge by the balance and drive of this off-dry white wine, fragrant with floral aromas suggestive of muscat, lively with flavors suggestive of tropical fruits.
White Native American/HybridVilla Bellezza 2016 Upper Mississippi River Valley Zitella White WineA veritable bouquet of all sorts of late-spring flowers, arranged colorfully in a sweet basket fitting for the next royal wedding.
Other White VarietalsCoyote Moon Vineyards BriannaLess sweet than a traditional birthday cake but no less fitting for the day, given fruit as vivid as candles and a spiciness as flashing as the strobes when the guest of honor is told to make a wish.
White Blends - Up to $19.99Sutter Home California Chardonnay MoscatoWinemakers have been using moscato to embolden chardonnay for years, but generally not to this extent. About a third of the wine is moscato, bringing to the chardonnay gregarious floral and sugar notes, but the wine is refreshingly sweet without being cloying.
White Blends - $20.00 to $29.99Cache Creek Vineyards 2016 Lake County Sunset on the Vine Sweet White WineJust as a proper and memorable sunset runs to multiple layers of shifting color, the Cache Creek moves with suggestions of assorted breakfast fruits, a veritable bouquet of wildflowers and a veritable rack of spices.
White Blends - $30.00 and aboveNottingham Cellars 2017 Livermore Valley Ghielmetti Vineyard Micro-Lot Reserve BDX BlancLivermore's first strengths - semillon and sauvignon blanc - are captured here with ruffles and flourishes that just won't give up. Rich ripe fruit running to peaches, melons and figs play grandly and inspiringly across the palate.
Orange Wine/Skin Fermented WhiteNo Boc
Dry Rose/Blush - RS 0Benessere Vineyards 2016 Napa Valley Estate St. Helena Vineyard Rosato di SangioveseWith fruit sunny and spicy, a build wiry and pliable, and a finish that understands the importance of leaving the consumer with a desire for more, this is one fun rose, and validation that sangiovese's long-range role in California could be more pink than red.
Dry Rose/Blush - RS >.25-.99Barnard Griffin 2017 Columbia Valley Rose of SangioveseIf any wine could be called a perennial strong sweepstakes contender at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition it's this strikingly pretty and astonishingly aromatic rose of sangiovese, which by its frank and cheery fruit could lead to a surge in sangiovese plantings throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Dry Rose/Blush - RS .1-.249Acrobat 2016 Oregon Rose of Pinot NoirThe succulence, sweetness and spice of this seriously playful rose gets a shot of adrenaline from the wine's zesty acidity.
Dry/Sweet Rose/Blush - RS>1.00 and moreTuck Beckstoffer Wines Hogwash 2016 California RoseHa ha, funny name, but a serious rose, if "serious" in the wine dictionary is defined as clean and forthright fruit, bristly acidity and exemplalry balance. A pink to accommodate a wide range of foods, from raw oysters to roasted pork loin.
Pinot Noir - $0.00 - $14.99Scotto Cellars 2015 California RB Rare Pinot Pinot NoirRich ripe fruit on a tautly strong trellis.
Pinot Noir - $15.00 - $19.99Toad Hollow Vineyards 2016 Monterey County Pinot NoirFurther evidence that light color and a modest price are not barriers to a pinot noir of intrigue and originality. The vivacious fruit here bounces off a foundation earthy and solid.
Pinot Noir - $20.00 - $23.99A to Z Wineworks 2015 Oregon Pinot NoirIn this congested price niche - $20-$24 - the A to Z stands out for its pronounced berry fruit, creamy texture and recuperative acidity.
Pinot Noir - $24.00 - $27.99Pacific Heights 2015 Sonoma Coast Pinot NoirCharacter and harmony are at work here in the wine's charged expression of mature and telltale fruit, confident yet approachable structure, and uplifting finish.
Pinot Noir - $28.00 - $31.99Baileyana 2016 Edna Valley Firepeak Pinot NoirFrom its brilliant sheen through its lingering anise-accented finish, this is one outstanding pinot noir for its enriching delivery, complexity and persistence.
Pinot Noir - $32.00 - $35.99Selby 2016 Russian River Valley Pinot NoirA Muscle Beach pinot noir - glistening, ripped, showy. It has bulk in its developed fruit, vitality in its retreating tannins and antic acidity.
Pinot Noir - $36.00 - $39.99Darms Lane 2016 Russian River Valley Pinot NoirThe model for complete form and intellectual curiosity in a pinot noir, immensely satisfying in its clean strawberry fruit while raising all sorts of questions about how the winemaker squeezed so many dimensions from such a small grape.
Pinot Noir - $40.00 - $43.99Tondre 2014 Santa Lucia Highlands Fondre Grapefield Pinot NoirFor stature, delivery and confirmation of pinot noir's standing as one of the world's truly noble wines, this Tondre has it all, from the forward fruit and spice of its aroma and flavor through its supple tannins to its quickening acidity.
Pinot Noir - $44.00 - $47.99Bargetto 2016 Santa Cruz Mountains Regan Vineyards Reserve Pinot NoirStrawberry and cherry fruit bank up like fog against the Santa Cruz Mountains, offering a panorama romantic, historic and scenic, all in one simple glass.
Pinot Noir - $48.00 - $54.99Nicholson Ranch 2015 Sonoma Valley Estate Pinot NoirThe wine world's equivalent of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl:" "Laughing and a-running…skipping and a jumping." All concentration, balance, nuance and drive.
Pinot Noir - $55.00 - $64.99Tiny House Vineyard 2015 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir"Tiny House" may be the brand, but the vineyard must be a mansion to deliver so much stirring red fruit, lashings of chocolate, rich moist earth and twists of black pepper.
Pinot Noir- $65 and aboveThree Sticks 2016 Sonoma Coast PFV Estate Pinot NoirDon't explain to a newbie why Sonoma Coast is such a hot appellation for pinot noir; just open and pour a bottle of this exquisitely robust and layered interpretation. To a rare extent it combines authority with finesse.
Zinfandel - $0.00 - $14.99Bogle Vineyards 2015 California Old Vine ZinfandelBogle holds on to its reputation for consumer-friendly wines with this tightly wound and blunt yet readily accessible take on zinfandel.
Zinfandel - $15.00 - $19.99Ivory & Burt 2015 Lodi ZinfandelFundamentally Lodi - deep and dusty color, inviting berry aroma, forthright fruit flavor, polished tannins, and as versatile at the table as it is easy to sip on its own on the porch.
Zinfandel - $20.00 - $23.99Ancient Peaks 2015 Paso Robles Santa Margarita Ranch ZinfandelYou are in luck. You are the first motorist to happen upon this roadside patch of raspberries on the day when they hit their juicy prime.
Zinfandel - $24.00 - $27.99Mettler Family Vineyards 2015 Lodi Epicenter Old Vine Zinfandel Epicenter, as its name suggests, is a study in power and concentration. All its key components - ripeness, alcohol, tannin, oak - were crafted to fit snugly and smoothly together. Don't look for any faults here.
Zinfandel - $28.00 - $31.99Prie Vineyards 2015 Lodi Soucie Vineyard ZinfandelThe sunny juiciness, peppery spice, relaxed tannins and sharp acidity of this zinfandel demonstrates why a growing community of wine enthusiasts is fretting over the loss of Lodi's older vineyards (this one dates from 1916).
Zinfandel - $32.00 - $35.99De La Montanya 2016 Dry Creek Valley Felta Creek Vineyard ZinfandelFor its muscularity, jamminess and spicy fruitiness, this is the zinfandel to pull from the cellar when a bunch of friends are gathering at the table to laugh, remember and share a hearty cassoulet. It defines zinfandel at its most candid and transparent.
Zinfandel - $36.00 - $39.99Pezzi King 2015 Dry Creek Valley Dry Creek Old Vine ZinfandelThis zinfandel packs the body and assertiveness to qualify to be a starting lineman with the University of Alabama.
Zinfandel - $40.00 - $43.99St. Anne's Crossing 2015 Dry Creek Valley Angelo ZinfandelSweet fruit and cushiony tannins add up to a zinfandel representative, outspoken and ready to liven up the party.
Zinfandel - $44.00 - $54.99St Anne's Crossing 2015 Rockpile Rockpile Vineyard ZinfandelAn exhuberant and classic interpretation of zinfandel for its rich boysenberry fruit, peppery spice, clinching warmth and vaulting finish, which goes on and on, flip after flip.
Zinfandel - $55.00 and abovePezzi King 2015 Dry Creek Valley Row 26 Reserve ZinfandelA vintage over-the-top zinfandel, all sweet and plush fruit.
PrimitivoSoda Rock 2015 Chalk Hill Los Amigos PrimitivoThe godfather of primitivo for its brash ripe fruit, ample girth and heady oak and alcohol.
Sangiovese - $0.00 - $29.99Solis Winery 2014 Santa Clara Valley Estate SangioveseFrom its sunny springtime aroma through its finely honed structure and zesty fruit flavor, the Solis encapsulates what sangiovese is all about - cordial boldness, lean build, acute acidity and a welcome place at most any table.
Sangiovese - $30.00 and aboveLorimar Vineyards and Winery 2014 Temecula Valley SangioveseAdd a little merlot and a little cabernet sauvignon to sangiovese and what you get is a diorama of how a seamless wine can be constructued of so many seemingly disparate components.
Barbera - $0.0 - $29.99Sorelle Winery 2015 Lodi Bellezza Fra BarberaThe pretty and aromatic Bellezza Fra sings of the sweet side of barbera but respects the variety's direct red-fruit flavor, reputation for assurance on a lean frame, and the sort of peppy acidity that makes the varietal such a popular guest at the dinner table.
Barbera - $30.00 and aboveImagery Estate Winery 2015 Pine Mountain/Cloverdale Peak Upper Ridge Vineyard BarberaA barbera built to age, thanks to ripe concentrated fruit and uplifting acidity, though by virtue of its forgiving tannins it readily can be consumed today.
DolcettoMount Palomar 2014 Temecula Valley Castelletto DolcettoThis dolcetto may be from southern California, not northern Italy, but its frank cherry/berry fruit, dusty tannins and brisk acidity give it the clout to stand up to traditionally rich Italian fare like salume, sausages and pastas liberal with mushrooms and truffles.
NebbioloPer Caso 2014 Paso Robles Adelaida District NebbioloNebbiolo finally is finding its place in California, as long as the place is relatively cool, yielding an interpretation like the Per Caso - moderately light in color, more fruity than tarry in perfume, its dark-fruit flavor lashed with suggestions of leather and licorice. Yes, it has the strong tannins associated with nebbiolo as Barola, but they won't get in the way of enjoying the wine with a grilled ribeye steak.
AglianicoMontoliva Vineyard & Winery 2014 Sierra Foothills AglianicoClimate-wise, California's Sierra foothills aren't far removed from southern Italy, where aglianico yields a wine firm, savory and long-lived. All those attributes are captured here with more complexity, agility and length than commonly associated with the varietal.
MontepulcianoLightning Ridge Cellars 2013 Arizona Sonoita MontepulcianoA thrusting, heavyweigh montepulciano, all rich ripe fruit, hefty build, quick movements and saturating warmth.
Carignan/CarignaneSunce Winery & Vineyard 2015 San Francisco Bay Sandy Lane Vineyards CarignaneOne alert and extraordinarily nuanced carignane, speaking with animated gestures of assorted cherries and herbs, all set off against polite oak and limber tannins.
Alicante BouschetJeff Runquist Wines 2015 Fair Play Serendipity Hill Vineyard Alicante BouschetCalifornia's workhorse grape variety is presented here all dressed up and ready to lead the parade with ebullient dark-fruit flavors behind the kind of come-hither aroma that couldn't be resisted even on a heavy bet.
Syrah/Shiraz - $0.00 - $24.99Michael David 2015 Lodi 6th Sense SyrahMonumental yet readily accessible, thanks to careful dovetailing of all of syrah's essential elements - solid color, blooming aromatics, compelling blueberry and bacon flavor, peppery spice and burly build.
Syrah/Shiraz - $25.00 - $28.99Graveyard Vineyards 2015 Paso Robles SyrahSyrah would rise from the dead among the country's buried varietals if only more were to commander these kinds of effusive ripe-fruit aromas and saturating berry flavors.
Syrah/Shiraz - $29.00 - $32.99Augustino 2014 Southern Oregon Reserve SyrahBeyond the wine's bright and youthful color lurks a syrah ready to pounce with multi-faceted fruit, stretched out tannins and revitalizing acidity.
Syrah/Shiraz - $33.00 - $36.99Vina Moda 2015 Sierra Foothills SyrahExpansive and earthy syrah flavors are mined in California's Gold Country with this husky and balanced represenative of the varietal.
Syrah/Shiraz - $37.00 - $40.99Francis Ford Coppola 2015 Dry Creek Valley Reserve SyrahLyrical as "The Godfather," gritty as "Apocalypse Now," insinuating as "The Conversation"…well, you get the point, an entertainng syrah for its pork-belly richness, sturdy underpinning and reflective finish.
Syrah/Shiraz - $41.00 and aboveCornerstone Cellars 2015 Mendocino Ram's Horn Vineyard SyrahFrom the land of tall timber comes a tall-timbered syrah - rich and muscular, yet as coherent and comfortable as a finely crafted piece of furniture.
Petite Sirah - $0.00 - $24.99Plungerhead 2015 Lodi Petite SirahBound to be a crowd-pleaser at art-exhibit openings across the country for the grandeur and sweetness of its fruit, sure to divert the crowd momentarily from considering and discussing the impact of the works on the wall.
Petite Sirah - $25.00 - $28.99Gustafson 2013 Dry Creek Valley East Ridge Vineyard Petite SirahOne strapping petite sirah, intense with vibrant floral aromas and rich dark-fruit flavors, all riding on an undercarriage of chewy tannins and invigorating acids.
Petite Sirah - $29.00 - $32.99Stony Ridge 2015 Livermore Valley Estate Petite SirahOld World petite sirah, the old world being early California, when the state's petite sirah likely was this earthshaking - its rolling aromas evoking visions of cool coastal hollows and warm sunny slopes, its muscular build providing a guarantee of longevity, its complexity giving everyone at the table something to talk about.
Petite Sirah - $33.00 - 38.99Matrix 2015 Russian River Valley Magtrix Estate Petite SirahThe rocky-road candy bar of the petite-sirah road, each bite - or in this case, sip - a treat for the palate with its softness, richness and toasty nuttiness.
Petite Sirah - $39 and aboveLeVigne 2015 Paso Robles Di Ranchita Vista Petite SirahA no-nonesense petite sirah whose emblematic floral, fruit and spice highlights are bound to rigid tannins that will benefit by five to 10 years in the cellar.
MourvedreCarica 2015 Clements Hills MourvedreA stand-out mourvedre for both its persistence and its exceptionally fresh and frisky fruit flavors on top of the varietal's fundamentally earthy foundation.
Grenache - $0.00 - $29.99Lewis Grace 2015 Sierra Foothills GrenacheA lively and accessible showcase for the potential of grenache in California by its direct fruit, subtle shading and high-spirited acidity.
Grenache - $30.00 and aboveCapo Creek 2015 Sonoma Coast GrenacheGrenache's authority and charm - bright shadings of pomegranate and cherry - swing gleefully through this dry, supple, medium-bodied representative.
Merlot - $0.00 -$14.99The Original Dark Horse 2015 California MerlotAmong 53 candidates in the field, the dark horse surged to the leader of the pack on the strength of its inviting suggestions of cherries rolled in cocoa, clean fruit profile and distant tannins.
Merlot - $15.00 - $18.99Educated Guess 2015 Napa County MerlotPlums and cherries, squeezed to extract every last drop of sweetness, then packaged with a curling ribbon of oak.
Merlot - $19.00 - $22.99St. Francis 2015 Sonoma County MerlotA daring merlot - dry, medium bodied, fresh with benchmark fruit but also complicated with herbs and spice unusual for the varietal, yet a welcome twist.
Merlot - $23.00 - $26.99Ranchita Canyon Vineyard 2014 Paso Robles Estate MerlotIf this were an American car, it would be a model from the classic 1950s, when the industry rode a wave of optimism, romance and cutting-edge innovation. Turn the key and be welcomed into a world of sleek fruit, solid framing and more power under the hood than any one person should be allowed.
Merlot - $27.00 - $30.99Arndt Cellars 2014 Paso Robles MerlotRemember when merlot was seen as the gateway red wine for its easy softness? This isn't that merlot. It's from a division where the big boys play - ripe with p;ummy fruit, smoky with oak, solid in spine. This is the gateway wine for anything beefy off the grill.
Merlot - $31.00 - $39.99Kokomo 2015 Dry Creek Valley Pauline's Vineyard MerlotThe supernova of merlots, outshining all other stars in the galaxy for its dazzling and persevering cherry and plum fruit flavors, set against a nightscape of supple tannins and reinvigorating acids.
Merlot - $40.00 and aboveTrefethen Family Vineyards 2015 Napa Valley Oak Knoll District MerlotCould be the long-sought trigger for the brain's pleasure matrix, setting off joyous feelings through the intricacy of its complexity, its recognition of site as well as variety in creating a complete wine, and its enduring equilibrium.
Cab Sauv - $0.00 - $11.99Trinchero Family Estates Dominant Seven 2015 California Cabernet SauvignonLiltingly sweet fruit and threads of smoke add up to a cabernet fitting for the everyday table, especially at its bargain price.
Cab Sauv - $12.00 - $14.99Yribarren Family Vineyards 2015 California Cabernet SauvignonDon't be deceived by the light color; this cabernet is packed with ripe fruit against an earthy backdrop, making for a wine uncommonly intense at this price point.
Cab Sauv - $15.00 - $18.99Penman Springs Vineyard 2014 Paso Robles Old Block Cabernet SauvignonIn one word, "bracing" - for the confident attack of its cherry fruit, the supportive backbone of its tannins, and the reviving assurance of its acidity.
Cab Sauv - $19.00 - $22.99Educated Guess 2015 Napa County Cabernet SauvignonNot many cabernet sauvignons in this price niche will be able to challenge Educated Guess for bravado and composure as expressed by luscious dark fruit, reinforcing tannins and revitalizing acidity.
Cab Sauv - $23.00 - $26.99Fences Winery 2014 Oregon Rogue Valley Cabernet SauvignonSouthern Oregon has mining history, but not all the paydirt was excavated, to judge by the lacy minerality of this lean and buoyant cabernet sauvignon.
Cab Sauv - $27.00 - $30.99Septentrio Winery 2014 Amador County Cabernet SauvignonA bold and secure interpretation of cabernet sauvignon, its cherry fruit mature and forthright, its tannins a force that maybe had a role in "The Last Jedi" and its alcohol a piercing but not painful 15.1 percent.
Cab Sauv - $31.00 - $35.99Jeff Runquist Wines 2015 Paso Robles Three Way Vineyard Cabernet SauvignonIf William Randolph Hearst were to ask someone to bring a wine to match his spread at St. Simeon, the smart guest would show up with this sprawling cabernet sauvignon, richly appointed with towering and intricately carved columns of oak and cherry/berry fruit. The tannins, like the tide just down the slope, are going out fast.
Cab Sauv - $36.00 - $38.99J. Rickards Winery 2014 Alexander Valley Five Sisters Blend Cabernet SauvignonLush cherry fruit, threads of green olives and chocolate, but most of all the retreating tannins for which Alexander Valley is celebrated.
Cab Sauv - $39.00 - $42.99Sequoia Grove 2014 Napa Valley Rutherford Cabernet SauvignonNapa Valley continues to grow in esteem for cabernet sauvignon because of the force, clarity, intricacy and persistence of wines like this, lucid with fruit, balanced with tannins and oak, and stimulating with acidity.
Cab Sauv - $43.00 - $46.99Flora Springs 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet SauvignonSock this away in the cellar for the next five years, not because it really needs to age, not if a substantial entrée is on the menu, but because with a bit more age its already eruptive dark-fruit aromas and flavors will be even more expansive, while its stark tannins will give up the fight to make the wine even more approachable.
Cab Sauv - $47.00 - $49.99Chateau Ste. Michelle Ethos 2014 Columbia Valley Reserve Cabernet SauvignonAs the king of red wines in the United States, cabernet sauvignon should possess, well, nobility, which could explain why the art of the Ethos label looks as if it's been lifted from a crown. This is a kindly king, its deep ruby robe cloaking a figure of substance, conviviality and longevity. The fruit is rich but mannerly, the tannins apparent but easing out of the scene, and the oak woven into the overall fabric with a sense of creaminess and smoke.
Cab Sauv - $50.00 - $54.99Buena Vista 2014 Napa Valley Chateau Buena Vista Cabernet SauvignonFundamentally Napa Valley in its assurance and ease, delivering an interpretation of cabernet sauvignon at peace with both its fruit and herbal sides. Lean and supple, with tannins and acidity in such correct proportion that it agreeably will ride off into the night with all sorts of foods.
Cab Sauv - $55.00 - $58.99Prisoner Wine Company Cuttings 2015 California Cabernet SauvignonThe massage parlor of cabernet sauvignons, kneading the palate with juicy red fruit, yet finishing with a surprisingly gentle touch thanks to stretched tannins and a considerate exploitation of oak.
Cab Sauv - $59.00 - $62.99My Italian Cousin 2015 Napa Valley EugenioA cabernet sauvignon that couples California's vigorous fruitfulness with Italian candor and artfulness. In short, a Napa Valley caberent uncommonly joyful to drink, though its exacting tannins suggest pairing it with a hefty entrée or holding it for the next five to 10 years.
Cab Sauv - $63.00 - $70.99Robert Craig Winery Affinity 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet SauvignonFor focusing on a site where grape and environment are flawlessly matched, no GPS is more accurate than this dynamic and supple cabernet sauvignon, which speaks fairly to both the olive and the cherry sides of the varietal's spectrum.
Cab Sauv - $71.00 - $94.99Trattore Farms 2014 Napa Valley Stagecoach Vineyad Cabernet SauvignonWith candid cherry fruit, brisk tannins and stimulating acidity in perfect alignment, the Trattore Farms shows just why Stagecoach Vineyard is such a special plot of land in Napa Valley. Applause, please, for the winemaker who applied just a light hand with the oak.
Cab Sauv - $95.00 and aboveO'Shaughnessy 2014 Howell Mountain Cabernet SauvignonThe tasty O'Shaughnessy emerges from one of California's recent drought years with inky color, cocky fruit, chewy tannins, considerable oak and a vow that its layering and composure only will improve with five to 10 years of aging.
Cab Franc - $0.00 - $29.99Brady Vineyard 2015 Paso Robles Cabernet FrancPushes the definition of cabernet franc into a whole new realm for its bright and juicy fruit, spreading ofbay leaves in the press and sprinkling of pepper in the fermentation vats. The result an exceptionally layered and compelling cabernt franc.
Cab Franc - $30.00 - 39.99Kissed by an Angel 2014 Amador Valley Charismatic Cabernet FrancThe sleek lines and pointed fruit of this lean and vivid cabernet franc confirms that it need not play second fiddle to cabernet sauvignon to make a strong and lasting statement.
Cab Franc- $40.00 and aboveMerriam Vineyards 2013 Dry Creek Valley Jones Vineyard Cabernet FrancCabernet francs only rarely achieve this level of authority and complexity. It's so substantial you won't be blamed for thinking the grapes had been fermented in a former military tank, given its power, traction and maneuverability.
Malbec - $0.00 - $29.99Victor Hugo 2014 Paso Robles Templeton Gap District Estate MalbecComposure more than bluster defines this finely crafted malbec, which grabs the varietal's meatiness in thin, tender slices and serves them on a sunny platter.
Malbec - $30.00 and aboveEstate 1856 2015 Sonoma County Tzabaco Rancho Vineyards MalbecWith a few years in the cellar this will be easier to pair and to drink, but even in its youth it boasts the essence of malbec - dense color, plummy fruit, overtones of raw meat, bristling tannins and kindly acidity.
Petit VerdotBunnell Family Cellar 2014 Columbia Valley Painted Hills Vineyard BDX Petit VerdotGrips the palate with solid suggestions of dried tobacco leaves, dark cherries, violets and herbs, all draped on a lean but hardy structure.
TannatNo BOC
Carmenere/GracianoSpangler Vineyards 2015 Southern Oregon CarmenereDeeply colored and lavish in mouthfeel, this Oregon take on a child of Bordeaux and Chile also is notable for its layered presentation of berry, cherry and plum flavors.
Tempranillo - $0.00 - $29.99Shadow Ranch 2015 El Dorado TempranilloA substantial tempranillo - dense color, imposing oak, reinforcing tannins - but all that is overshadowed by a freshness and abundance of juicy fruit that brings exceptional buoyancy and roundness to the varietal.
Tempranillo - $30.00 and aboveUrban Legend 2014 Clarksburg Holland Landing Vineyard TempranilloA tempranillo that spins out across the palate with exceptionally sunny fruit, an alluring thread of herbs and backpedaling tannins to make this take on the varietal all pleasure.
Red Bordeaux - up to $29.99(All Bordeaux Varietals)Moniz Family Wines 2015 Lake County Cuvee AlexandraA profound expression of the potential of Lake County, principally for its complexity - mature cherry fruit, chocolate, tobacco, tar - and its endurance. A wine to secure in the cellar for another five to 10 years.
Red Bordeaux - $30.00 - $39.99(All Bordeaux Varietals)Crooked Vine 2015 Livermore Valley Del Arroyo MoxieIn a parade of muscle cars, Moxie would stand out for its purring growl, sleek lines and eagerness to hit the wide open road with its fresh fruit and spicy highlights.
Red Bordeaux - $40.00 - $54.99(all Bordeaux Varietals)J. Lohr 2014 Paso Robles Cuvee PomIf ribeye is on the grill, pull Pom from the cellar. Even in its youth it is ready to savor, largely for its subtle yet haunting complexity. But a few more years of age will reward the wine enthusiast with even more elegance.
Red Bordeaux - $55.00 and above(All Bordeaux Varietals)Alpha Omega 2014 Napa Valley Proprietary Red WineYou can open this tonight if "live game" is on the menu, but to more agreeably appreciate its gravity and potential amplitude give it a decade in the cellar. If you can't wait to savor its mature fruit and it sturdy superstructure, pair it with a heavily marbled slab of beef.
Cabernet Dominant Blends - Up to $29.99Oakstone Winery 2015 Fair Play Estate MeritageCherries and olives - what's not to like? Add in complications of earth and smoke and the result is a Bordeaux-inspired blend of imagination and gratification.
Cabernet Dominant Blends $30.00 and aboveJustin 2014 Paso Robles Isosceles ReserveNo matter how crowded and loud the restaurant, this will turn heads for its forward aroma of Bing cherries and hope-chest cedar, and those lucky enough to be offered a taste will pick up the bill for the entire party in gratitude for the wine's layering, elegance and persistence.
Merlot Dominant Blends - Up to $29.99The Federalist 2015 Mendocino/Napa/Sonoma Honest Red BlendAbraham Lincoln, prominent on the label, was a member of the Republican Party. But when it comes to parties, the wine is strictly non-partisan, bound to get the vote of anyone who wants their wine supple, medium-bodied and flexible at the table.
Merlot Dominant Blends - $30.00 and aboveCB Vineyards 2014 Paso Robles Auburn Red Blend (a Charles Barkley selection)Don't close the door on merlot in Paso Robles, not if other merlot-based blends can seize as much grace and power as this.
Petite Sirah Dominant BlendsBoisset Collection Secret Indulgence Chronology 2015 California Red WineThe bottle may be thick and heavy, but the wine is a streamlined and buoyant testimonial to astute blending, bringing in floral, fruity and landscape elements in well-conceived proportions.
Italian Varietal BlendsSorelle Winery 2015 Lodi Russo RedThe entry wine for anyone who wants to know why so many winemakers are moving from varietal wines to unconventional blends. The Russo Red is dry, balanced, friendly and quietly provocative in its exploitation of traditional Italian and French grape varieties.
Syrah Dominant Blends up to $29.99Greenwood Ridge Vineyards 2014 Mendocino Ridge MendovinoElegance and longevity pretty much sums up this composed blend, possessed of the meatiness and fruitiness of syrah tempered with the herbal highlights of cabernet sauvignon. This will live for another decade with no problem.
Syrah Dominant Blends $30.00 and abovePage Mill Winery 2015 Livermore Valley GPSNo matter how assertively seasoned the entrée, this wine will be its match for its flamboyant sweet red fruit and agreeably stretched tannins.
Grenache Dominant Blends Up to $29.99Vasco Urbano Wine Company 2015 Livermore Valley GSM Red WineDrinkable now, especially with a succulent slab of beef, but in three to five years it will be even more satisfying, thanks to its young and snug dovetailing of grenache, syrah and mourvedre.
Grenache Dominant Blends $30.00 and aboveCollege Cellars 2016 Walla Walla Valley GSMThe University of California at Davis isn't the only campus turning out winemakers eager and able to make their way in the country's wine trade. Keep an eye on students at the Walla Walla Institute for Enology and Viticulture. In a championship bowl series among student wines, this would be the top seed based on its clean, fresh and tightly knit composition of grenache, syrah and mourvedre.
Mourvedre Dominant Blends - Up to $29.99Le Casque 2014 Sierra Foothills AdrianA blend of 53 percent mourvedre and 47 percent syrah, the 2014 Adrian suggests Madison Bumgarner uncoiling one more powerful strike directly across the plate - an unleased gathering of forces: fruit, acids, tannins and alcohol (a not unsubstantial 15.3 percent) on a mission to startle and delight (if you aren't the batter).
Mourvedre Dominant Blends - $30.00 and aboveFenestra 2013 Livermore Valley Estate InfraredNot as densely colored as most Rhone-inspired blends, but that's an encouraging sign, recognition that color can be misleading, and that palate and mind ought to be open to recognizing the purity of fruit in the glass. This has that in bunches thanks to a direct, uncontrived expression of mourvedre, syrah and grenahce.
Zinfandel Based Blends (inc CORO) - Up to $29.99Michael David Winery 2016 Lodi Seven Deadly RedBy its lush sweetness, a wine designed to accompany heavily marbled beef.
Zinfandel Based Blends (inc CORO) -$30.00 and abovePomar Junction Vineyard 2015 Paso Robles El Pomar District Train WreckPaso Robles is emerging as the laboratory for some of the more intricate, carefully considered blends in California, with Train Wreck, despite its name, a model of an exquisitely complementary union. All its varied components, including equal measures of petite sirah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, zip across the palate with briary character, smooth tannins and pinging acidity.
Red Native/Hybrid VarietalsBlue Sky Vineyard 2015 Shawnee Hills ChambourcinFor its driving fruit, velveteen texture, firm backbone and replenishing acidity, the Blue Sky shows that dry and refined dinner wines can come from unfamiliar grape varieties in unfamiliar grape-growing areas.
Red Native/Hybrid BlendsPurple Wine + Spirits 2014 California Dark HundredThis wine boasts the sort of frankness and versatility to allow it to be at home with most any everyday beef dish.
All Other Red Blends - Up to $14.99E&J Gallo Ghost Pines 2015 Sonoma/Napa/Lake Winemaker's Blend Red BlendRed blends in this price niche rarely are this complex and dynamic. There's a fair amount of wood here, but it doesn't dwarf the richness of the red and black berry fruits that hug the palate up front and don't let go until well after the last taste.
All Other Red Blends - $15.00 - $29.99Saved 2016 California Red WineAmong the excess of blended red wines on the market today, the Saved stands out for its supple tannins, confident spine, respectful dryness and abidingly frank fruit.
All Other Red Blends - $30.00 and aboveLas Positas 2014 Livermore Valley Estate Obscurus"Obscurus" is a name full of dark potent, but that extends just to the wine's deep color. Beyond that, it is one cheery wine, laced with bright fruit.
All Other Red VarietalsNero 2015 Calistoga Nero d'AvolaWord out of Sicily, where nero d'avola is most at home, is that vintners are working to extract more muscle and impact from the grape. In California, the Nero shuns that direction, preferring to celebrate nero d'avola for its fine bones, sleek structure and athletic swing across the palate. It's dry, lean, angular and satisfying for the unassuming charm of its fruit.
White Dessert/Late Harvest - RS >3.50Merritt Estate Winery Vidal Ice WineA bushel of apples, probably some variety likened to honey for its bouquet, sweetness and luxurious texture.
White Dessert/Late Harvest - RS >3.50Red Soles Winery Paso Robles Lot 7 Bootlegger Dessert WinePaso Robles is rodeo country, and that's what this intense and prolonged ride is all about - caramel, cocoa, nuts. Rarely does a dessert wine express such focused intensity and ever-evolving aromas, flavors and textures.
Red Dessert - RS >3.5Foyt Family Wines No. 93 The Final LapThough inspired by race driver A.J. Foyt's final lap around the Indianapolis Brickyard, this mature, deeply colored dessert wine has the fuel (fruit, body, acid) for many miles to go before it is to be retired.
Fruit WineTexas South Wind Vineyard & Winery Red Raspberry Fruit WineExactly what it purports to be - red raspberries jammy, brambly and luxurious, intense on its own but also available for breakfast duty (think pancakes) or at the cocktail hour (think vivacious cocktail when blended with something more reserved).
SangriaBarefoot SangriaSo assertively citric you will find youself watching for the organge peel to squeeze through the neck of the bottle.
Port - Up to $32.99St. Amant Winery 2015 Amador County Bootleg PortPair it with creamy chocolate for enjoyment today, put it in cellar for exquisite pleasure on its own in a few years. It's a young, intense port, luscious with red-fruit flavors, spirited with spice, curious for its appropriate suggestion of walnuts, and vivid in its finishing acidity.
Port - Over $33.00V. Sattui Winery 15 Year Old California PortTawny in color and in pedigree, this is a delightfully rich, smoky and spirited port, which if folded into a flight of ports in Portugal just might startle the locals for its fidelity.
Distilled/FortifiedBoeger Winery 2016 The Blue StockingA butterfly of a wine, and who doesn't like butterflies, with their floating and fleeting suggestions of spring flowers, mystery and romance. A truly original wine that will have consumers and winemakers alike pondering the creativity behind it.
Culinary CiderGoose Watch Flying High Sparkling Semi-Sweet Hard CiderThe Goose Watch offers a fun path through the orchard, evoking images of fall sunshine and fellowshp, everything working together to yield a product you want to share for its uplifting spirity, freshness and vitality.
Fruit CiderCommon Cider Company Pineapple GuavaBook a flight to the tropics or grab a bottle of this? If budget is a consideration, no debate necessary.
Varietal Cider
Wood Aged Cider
Specialty or All Other CiderCommon Cider Company Blood Orange TangerineIt's apple based, but the blood orange and tangerine come across with refreshing directness.

Learn more about Professional Wine Judge Mike Dunne.