Best of the Best 2002: Wine: Best Domestic Estates

Purity and Polish
Kistler Vineyards (Sebastopol, Calif.) In the realm of fine wines, pedigree often overshadows purity.  Even in California, whose wine industry, at least by European standards, is relatively new, large brand names and wineries with cult followings, such as Screaming Eagle or Bryant, steal the limelight from the quiet, exceptional achievements of smaller entrepreneurial wineries, whose success is based not on marketing or flash, but on patience, consistency, and attention to detail.  Such is the case with Kistler Vineyard, the Sonoma County winery founded in 1978 by Steve Kistler and his business partner, Mark Bixler, with whom he shares the wine making responsibilities. Dedicated to the creation of Burgundy-style pinot noir and chardonnay, the pair have poured their experiences by the barrel into perfecting these two great varietals. Simplicity and age-old techniques (such as pruning the vineyards to low yields and unfined and unfiltered bottling) result in some of the most perfect one-vineyard vintages available. Suggestions include 1997 Cuvée Cathleen Chardonnay, 1997 Cuvée Catherine Pinot Noir, and 1997 Kistler Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay.

Kistler Vineyards, 707.823.5603

A Personal Priority
Joseph Phelps (St. Helena, Calif.)
In 1972, a successful construction executive made the momentous decision to surrender his blueprints and surveyor’s charts for a plot of land near the town of St. Helena in California’s Napa Valley. This choice, Joseph Phelps later recalled, was not an expression of dissatisfaction with the career he had built, but a “return to earlier priorities.” These were a commitment to quality in all things—and a love of fine wine.

Phelps’ first release, a 1973 Johannisberg Riesling, came on the market in 1974. In 1977, he revived interest in the syrah grape in California, which had all but disappeared from the state’s vineyards for 50 years. But the com-pany truly made its reputation a year later with the release of the 1974 Insignia, the first Bordeaux blend to be produced in California by a single proprietor. Regarded as a major innovation in American wine making, Insignia has evolved under the inventive and exacting care of wine maker and Executive Vice President Craig Williams—and, now, wine maker Sarah Gott— to become one of the most prized labels in all of California. Insignia typifies the firm’s stylized methods, in which the blending of flavors takes precedence over vineyard designations or strict varietal compositions. Suggestions include 1997 Backus Vineyard Cabernet, 1998 Insignia, and 1998 Los Carneros Chardonnay.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards, 707.963.2745, www.jpvwines.com

The Tastemaker
Robert Mondavi Vineyards (Oakville, Calif.).
Probably no one on the American wine making scene has done more to shape the nation’s taste for fine wine than Robert Mondavi and his two sons, Michael and Tim. Since the release of the winery’s first Fumé Blanc (Mondavi’s own variation on the French Blanc Fumé) in the early ’70s, to the company’s recent purchase of the prestigious Tenuta dell’Ornellaia vineyards in the Bolgheri region of Tuscany, the Mondavi family have educated and delighted generations of wine lovers with innovative wines that combine the grand traditions of Europe with a pioneering spirit. While critics have recently criticized the firm’s refusal to produce “blockbuster” super-cabernets, the Mondavi family have demonstrated once again their willingness to buck the current trend. “Ours are European styles of wine,” says Mondavi Sr. “They’re not excessive in their bouquet or in body or character—they’re wines that have finesse and elegance that will harmonize with food.” Suggestions include the 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, 1997 To-Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Reserve and 1997 Carneros Merlot.

Robert Mondavi Winery, 888.766.6328, www.robertmondaviwinery.com

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