A year ago, when the 2020 Essential California annual showcase was being held, no-one could have foreseen that the 2021 instalment would have been a two day event held online. And few could have believed that, in such a short space of time, the industry has adapted so quickly and so expertly to the current restrictions. David Kermode, aka Mr Vinosaurus, polished his Zalto and his shades, clicked Play on Brian Wilson and co and got engrossed in what was one of the most ambitious online wine events ever.
Kermode’s Top 10 Essential California wines are listed below with full tasting notes.
“A year ago we were all at the Ace Hotel for this event. A lot has happened since then,” said Damien Jackman, with more than a little understatement, as he and fellow California Wine Institute director Justine McGovern threw open the virtual doors of this year’s Essential California.
We’re now so familiar with not being there that ‘Zoomed’ has joined the ranks of ‘Googled’ as a rather ugly verb, but this event went so much further than the typical virtual tasting, really raising the bar, in terms of ambition and scale.
Eight months in the making, with almost 5000 samples sent out, a bespoke event-specific website, slick promotional films, concise live masterclasses, a free educational module from Capstone California and a goody box complete with tee shirt, mug and a can of IPA for afters … this was an enormous logistical undertaking that must, at times, have felt overwhelming to put together.
The invitations went out last December, with delegates invited to select up to 48 samples from a diverse selection of more than 200 wines represented by 28 different UK importers, from big to boutique.
Reflecting the annual, real life event, Essential California potentially required quite a significant commitment of time – to do it justice at least – but the approach felt authentically Californian, with no particular pressure to do anything at all, other than enjoy the wines, and even then at your leisure and to your timeframe.
However, it was all too easy to find yourself immersed: from the genuinely illuminating taste-along sessions; winemaker masterclasses from the likes of Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen, Jon Olney of Ridge Vineyards and Silver Oak’s Christiane Schleussner; and the production quality of the AVA profiles engagingly presented by IWSC wine communicator of the year Elaine Chukan Brown, who intertwined the basic need-to-know stuff with memorable nuggets, such as the Petaluma Gap being the only AVA to be defined by wind conditions and the fact that significant parts of Lodi sit below sea level.
Above all, it was about the wines, of course. From the 40 or so that I selected, here is my tasting top 10, including one wine that, initially, had me scratching my head:
Kermode’s Top 10 wines from Essential California
Grgich Hills 2017 Napa Valley Chardonnay
It feels fitting to select this gem, amidst the tributes to Steven Spurrier, because Mike Grgich, now 97, famously triumphed at the Judgement of Paris with his Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. From the beguiling nose of tart grapefruit, salty Isigny butter and wet stone, the attack offers a fabulous fusion of ripe greengage, rocha pear and lemon posset. There’s toasty oak but it’s so well-integrated that it’s more of an undertow, with the crunchy citrus acidity keeping everything perfectly in check. They accidentally sent me two samples of this and I’m afraid my spittoon was untroubled. RRP £85 (imported by ABS)
Signorello, Hope’s Cuvée, Napa Valley Chardonnay 2018
Ray Signorello’s winery became the face of the devastating fires in 2017, but is rising again, phoenix-like. This wine, from a plot planted in front of the property in 1980 offers an enticing nose of citrus, charred pineapple, raw almond and apple pie. Generous, gently textured, there’s real purity in the fruit and a long finish. RRP £77 (imported by Four Corners Wine)
Mayacamas Chardonnay, Mount Veeder 2018
A refreshing nose of flint, not unlike a good Chablis, with oyster shell, pink grapefruit and lemon meringue pie, there’s a lovely cool, clean sense of balance through to the mineral finish. RRP £55 (Roberson Wine)
Twomey Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2018
With an enchanting savoury nose of mushrooms, forest floor and cedar, juicy black cherry, kirsch and cracked black pepper, this has real elegance with precise, detailed red fruit, fine-grained tannins and proper backbone from the bright acidity. RRP £77 (The Wine Treasury)
Marimar Cristina Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2016
Owner Marimar Torres is the charming sister of Miguel Torres, patriarch of the Spanish Torres dynasty, and this comes from the Don Miguel vineyard. The style is emphatically European, making the most of cooling Pacific breezes, with its lifted foraged blackberry and bramble fruit, fragrant sandalwood, fine-grained tannins and refined savoury finish. RRP £55 (Fells)
Paul Hobbs Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2017
Violet scented, with damson, black cherry and tapenade, the bright fruit unfolds in delicate layers, the tannins are firm and there’s a lovely, savoury undertow, with a little sweet spice in the finish. RRP £54 (Alliance Wine Company)
Tor Oakville Hillside Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
From its plush, ripe-yet-fresh nose of red berries, graphite and black olive, the complexity comes in gentle, pillowy waves, there’s real intensity, but also masses of charm from the high quality fruit, bright acidity, velvety tannins and smoky, meaty underbelly. RRP £175 (Pol Roger Portfolio)
Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
95% Cabernet Sauvignon, the remainder Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, aged for 24 months in American oak barrels from its own cooperage in Missouri. Bramble, cedar and sage lead into rich cassis, raspberry and pot pourri, the tannins are plush, the finish long and satisfying. RRP £99 (The Wine Treasury)
Lieu Dit Sans Soufre Cabernet Franc 2018
From the transverse Santa Ynez valley in Santa Barbara county, this Cabernet Franc has felt the benefit of that cooler climate, with its crunchy redcurrant, black cherry, tomato leaf and pink peppercorn. Fresh and delightful, it’s just 13% and no sulphur is added during the production process. RRP £27 (Wanderlust Wine)
Mountain Tides Petite Sirah 2018
Petite Sirah is a variety that has the capacity to give me a hangover without so much as sniffing it, so I was surprised to discover I had ordered this sample, then I remembered that I had seen both Peter Dean and Jancis Robinson OBE MW raving about this wine, so I fancied a piece of the action. With its lifted nose of roses, bright blueberry and raspberry – like a twist on a good Fleurie – the wine is both ripe and restrained, precise, yet eager to please and, above all, delicious. Unlike most of the wines on this list, the alcohol is dialled back, at 13.5% and it’s also a relative bargain. RRP £22 (Jeroboams)