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World-Class Winemaking

'Wine Spectator' Top 100 has the North Bay written all over it

By Heather Irwin

Each year around this time, winemakers and their fans rush to mailboxes and newsstands like kids on Christmas morning, flipping open pages and tearing at wrappers to see if they've made the list. It's a nerve-wracking time of year, because though most of them will politely say they were just glad to be considered, being selected for the Wine Spectator's annual Top 100 list is akin to winning the lottery. Wines have been known to sell out in just a few hours after the release of the list, in addition to launching the careers and fortunes of many a winemaker.

Released just last week, this year's list--drum roll, please--includes 18 Sonoma and Napa wineries (19, including Anderson Valley), comprising nearly a fifth of the entire list. This cements NorCal's reputation as a premiere winemaking region. As we gently thumb our sunburned noses at more established wine regions like France (who made only 20 of the total top 100), Italy (5) and Germany (2), allow yourself to feel a little smug. But honestly, is this really news to anyone?

The story behind the story is the addition of several new names to the list and the rather refreshing accessibility of some of these local wines--because everybody knows that you'd better be making some damn good wine if you're selling it for $200 to $400 a bottle. In fact, Napa vintner Joseph Phelps took the top spot with his admittedly astonishing, but rather inaccessible, $150-a-pop Bordeaux blend, Insignia. Several other Napa wines ranged in the $60-plus range. Nice, but not really in the drinkability range for most of us plebes who can't even get on the mailing list.

What's a little more challenging is making great wine at, say, $25 a bottle, or even $15. Nearly all of the Sonoma wines (and, surprise!--a bunch in Napa, too) are between $15 and $35 per bottle--the kind of wine you wouldn't cringe drinking with anything from homemade risotto to a classed-up TV dinner. These are outstanding, not-a-stinker-in-the-bunch buys, often from local, family-run operations you've probably never heard of, such as Novy Family Wines or Sebastopol's Kosta Browne, who make only a few thousand cases each year.

But therein lies the rub. Wine this good and this cheap doesn't sit around gathering dust for long. Many of the smaller vintners are on the verge of selling out, or in fact have already sold out of their winning vintages months ago. Ruh-roh. Don't give up yet. Even if the vintage is sold-out, new vintages are set for release in just a few months, and chances are that many of these wineries will have equally good--if not equally cheap--vintages next year. Hey, such is the price of fame.

What you can do, however, is to use lists like the Wine Spectator's Top 100 as a reference for types of wines, regions or particular wineries that are notable.

For example, Pinot Noir is really hot this year, taking several of the top spots on the list. If you are having trouble finding, say, the amazing Kosta Browne Pinot Noir that took the number 11 spot on this year's list, try looking for other Sonoma Coast Pinots. The coast is an established Pinot region that has a number of excellent growers and wineries that didn't make the list. In addition, there are a number of Pinot Noirs from the Willamette Valley in Oregon--for instance, the Penner-Ash ($40)--or from slightly lesser known but quickly emerging regions like the Santa Rita Hills; try the Sea Smoke Santa Rita Hills Botella 2003 ($30).

By nature, Pinots can be pricey. Zinfandels tend to be more value-oriented--the grape is easier to grow and more forgiving--like the Buhler Napa Valley Zin ($15). The Russian River and Dry Creek regions are also well known for Zin, so be willing to experiment.

You can also get some good deals on wines that are less popular at the moment (Chardonnay and Merlot, for instance), or from larger wineries that can keep prices a little lower, like Sebastiani, whose 2002 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon took the number 77 spot ($17).


In addition to those already noted, locals on the Wine Spectator's Top 100 list include Rosenblum Cellars (placing twice at numbers three and 30), W.H. Smith, Lewis, Buehler, Shafer, Orin Swift, Goldeneye, Truchard, Paul Hobbs, Simi, Turnbull, Sebastiani and Seghesio.

Some of the winners, like Novy, were a surprise--especially to the owners. "Who the heck is Novy?" asked a friend as we were pouring over the Top 100 list like the wine nerds that we are. (I won't tell you that it was also a weekend night, and this was the big excitement for the evening.) Actually, we probably should have known, because Novy is a second label (entering its eighth vintage) for premium Pinot producer Siduri, based out of Santa Rosa.

Adam and Dianne Lee, who own the winery, shepherd their kids between wine barrels and forklifts while working on the next vintage. Novy took the number 44 spot on the list for its Sonoma County Syrah ($19). The only hint, say the Lees, that they were on the list was a positive review a few months before.

Better known for the premium Pinots of their Siduri label, the Lees are unlikely winners, with no degrees in winemaking, no high-priced consultants or tasting room staff. "We just have a lot of fun making wine," says Dianna, laughing as she guides her two-year-old between casks. It's easy t o believe her.

The Novy brand--named after Dianna's maiden name, which means "new" in the family's native Czechoslovakian--features "everything else" that isn't Pinot (they wanted to keep the Siduri brand exclusively Pinot) and includes a Syrah, a dessert wine "for grandma" and a Chardonnay for a sister-in-law who doesn't drink reds.

The Lees embody the sort of passionate, seat-of-your-pants winemaking that doesn't much care about critics or tasting rooms with fancy art and T-shirts. "Folks like us because when they get a $30 bottle of wine from us, they're getting $30 worth of wine. Not $15 worth of wine and $15 worth of marble and art on the wall," says Adam. "They get an office park. And some good wine. And I think people can appreciate that."

Novy Family Wines is located at 980 Airway Court, Ste. C, Santa Rosa. 707.578.3882.

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From the December 7-13, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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