2015 Winery of the Year: Tablas Creek Vineyard

This California Central Coast powerhouse is the state's touchstone for Rhône-style wines
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Winery of the Year: Tablas Creek Vineyard

It seems safe to say that in America we have access to a wider variety of wines, at every price level, in every degree of quality,

from every corner of the winemaking world, than any other nation. The great wine icons of Italy, France, Germany, and Spain are on our wineshop shelves (often behind locked glass doors).The supermarkets (of our more enlightened states, at any rate) offer aisles upon aisles of pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and more from Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand , and California, and grüner veltliner from Austria has become practically a commonplace. The adventurous can sniff out bottles from Moldova and Croatia, Lebanon and Turkey, Switzerland and Luxembourg, Mexico and India and Japan. Then there's our own wealth of wine, not just from the major players — California, Oregon, Washington, and New York — but from Virginia, Michigan, Idaho, Texas, and literally every other state in the union (though Alaska's wines are admittedly made with juice from elsewhere).

What that means is that American wine-lovers have the chance to sample wines bearing thousands upon thousands of different labels, wines made from grapes both famous and obscure, wines priced from almost nothing (hello, Three-Buck Chuck) to thousands of dollars. Nobody knows exactly how many wineries or wine-producing entities there are around the world, but some estimates put the number as high as two million. That may or may not be in the right ballpark — but there are more than 900,000 designated vineyards in Italy (not every one corresponding to a winery, of course, though many of them do) and about 28,000 actual wineries in France. Even the U.S., which is new to winemaking compared to our European counterparts, has at least 8,000. That's an immense number of producers to try to get a handle on, but try we have.

For the past five years, The Daily Meal has named two Chefs of the Year, one American, one international, and for the past three years, we've also singled out an American Restaurant of the Year. Now, for the second time, we are honoring a Winery of the Year as well. The idea is to hail one wine producer from anywhere in the world (we're also acknowledging two runners-up) that has produced consistently fine wines over a substantial period of time but has also served as an innovator and/or inspiration in the world of wine, whether dynamically or simply by example.

Because we have access to wines from every corner of the world, we threw the field wide open, and asked a panel composed of wine writers and bloggers (including our own regular wine contributors), sommeliers and wine merchants, and wine-savvy chefs to offer us their nominations for this honor.

Our winner last year was not the newest, most obscure favorite of America's coolest wine stewards, but the Napa Valley's 1971-vintage Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery, known primarily for their exemplary cabernet sauvignon and their unexpectedly sophisticated riesling. Honorable mention went to Burgundy's venerable Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and to another California winery, Tablas Creek. The other finalists were Charles Smith Wines from Washington State, Linden Vineyards from Virginia, Ridge Vineyards from California, Château Pontet-Canet and Domaine Paul Mas from France, and Taylor-Fladgate from Portugal. All were eligible again, as were other wineries from the same places — but we asked panelists to consider the whole vast spectrum of international winemaking as well and offer suggestions from less famous wine-growing places. They didn't disappoint us.

We had entries from four French wine regions, three corners of Italy, five California counties, two parts of Spain, Austria, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, and Texas. Here are the wineries that made the shortlist (together with the reasons they were given consideration).

Marchesi Antinori (Italy). For consistently producing first-class wines at many price levels, not just in its home in Chianti but all over Tuscany and in neighboring Umbria (and in Washington State), but also, as Sacramento wine and food merchant Darrell Corti points out, for "actually creating the field of 'Super Tuscan' wines in 1971," with the introduction of the still excellent Tignanello. 

Weingut Bründlmayer (Austria). For its enlightened vineyard practices (organic fertilizers, no herbicides, vines trained low to the ground to absorb more light and heat); for its leadership in proving that Krems-Land can produce superb chardonnay in addition to the more expected riesling and grüner veltliner; and because, as chef–restaurateur Frank Stitt, puts it, "the wines combine the minerality, finesse, and power of Chablis, mixed with the raciness of Champagne and mellowed with the unctuousness of Alsace."

Jean-Louis Chave (France). For maintaining a centuries-old tradition of fine winemaking in the northern Rhône (the first Chaves produced wine in the Hermitage region in 1481) while using modern technology intelligently; for remarkable consistency based on a philosophy of complex blending; for raising the St. Joseph appellation into the Rhône pantheon through its efforts in that region; and for, in general, proving again and again what great wines syrah (and, for the whites, marsanne and roussanne) can yield.

Craggy Range Vineyards (New Zealand). For the sheer breadth of its consistently high-quality production and for winery co-founder Steve Smith's efforts in pioneering the rocky Gimblett Gravels area as the source of some of New Zealand's best red wines, while meanwhile making sauvignon blancs in Martinborough that are, as Daily Meal wine contributor Roger Morris puts it, "arguably more sophisticated and complex than those of the more famous Marlborough region." 

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (France). For many reasons, expressed by a number of our respondents, but most of all because, as John Tilson of The Underground Wine Letter put it succinctly, "DRC is Burgundy."

Inwood (Texas). For making diving deep into the art and science of making tempranillo in the Lone Star State; for producing the most expensive wines in Texas and making them good enough that there's a waiting list; for proposing the heretical notion that "terroir" might not really be that important; and for, as Daily Meal wine contributor Andrew Chalk says, "its inspirational role to other wineries in Texas and elsewhere."

Numanthia (Spain). For, as Roger Morris puts it, "having done for the wild, sun-drenched plains of Toro what Vega Sicilia did for nearby Ribera del Duero — given it respect in the international community;" and for proving that massive, high-alcohol wines can still be elegant and well-balanced.

Ridge Vineyards  (California). For being industry leaders, making fine, traditionally styled wines for over 50 years; and for expressing that leadership by, among other things, inaugurating ingredient labeling in 2013; and for, as John Tilson notes, producing "great California cabernet [that] ages beautifully and is delicious to drink."

Tablas Creek (California). For being a leader in use of Rhône varietals in the Paso Robles region, and by extension in California as a whole; for leading the important fight for approval of 11 sub-districts around Paso Robles; and for advancing sustainable and biodynamic vineyard practices.

Viña Koyle(Chile). For having surged to the forefront of Chilean wine production in not much more than a decade, producing some of the country's best cabernet sauvignon and carménère; for proving that Chile can yield complex sauvignon blanc that's a far cry from the bargain-price stuff it's better known for; and for, as Daily Meal wine contributor Gabe Sasso adds, "throwing down the gauntlet on what can be achieved in Chile with pinot noir when it's grown in appropriate spots and handled deftly thereafter."

We would have happily extended honors to any of these producers, but as it happened, the majority of number-one votes from our panelists went to a French-American Rhône-variety specialist in California's San Luis Obispo County. Our second-place winery was a New Zealander that has dramatically expanded our experience of what New Zealand wines can be. Our number three is another Californian, and estimable modern-day pioneer specializing in cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel.

Here, then, are our two runners-up and our Winery of the Year for 2015.

Honorable Mention: Ridge Vineyards. Founded in 1960 in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Santa Clara County, in the southern reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area, by four engineers from the Stanford Research Institute, Ridge set up shop on a nineteenth-century vineyard site on Monte Bello Ridge. From the beginning, they have championed the most "natural" possible grape-growing and winemaking practices, even when they may not be the most cost-efficient, and the results show. With zinfandel grapes from Monte Bello, and from several properties in Sonoma County — where they later purchased the Lytton Springs Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley — Ridge pretty much defined the grape for modern-day purposes. Their cabernets have been scarcely less impressive; the 1971 vintage places fifth out of 10 red wines at the so-called Judgment of Paris, which pitted famed Bordeaux wines against their California counterparts (it finished about Château Montrose and Château Léoville-Las Cases, two acclaimed properties). Ridge also makes first-class chardonnay, as well as syrah, petite sirah, and other wines, including red blends of considerable distinction. The Daily Meal named Ridge to first place in the 2014 edition of our 101 Best Wineries in America (they placed second last year). In casting his vote, Daniel Johnnes, wine director for Daniel Boulud's Dinex Group, proposed that the winery's "long track record of consistently making one of the best cabernets in America is the equivalent of the New York Yankee Dynasty." Winery proprietor Paul Draper, who came on as winemaker in 1969, he added, "is Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle all rolled into one.”

Honorable Mention: Craggy Range Vineyards. Wineshop shelves are crowded with 10- or 12-dollar New Zealand sauvignon blancs, many of them pleasant enough drinking, especially if you like your wines grassy, but none of them particularly memorable. Then there's Craggy Range's Te Muna Road Vineyard version, balanced beautifully through fermentation in both oak and stainless steel and a bit of aging in both old and new French oak, and adding up to a rich, luscious wine with citrus and stone fruit flavors and an enduring freshness that makes the wine all too easy to quaff generously. And that's just a small portion of this young (19-year-old) New Zealand property's green-certified wine portfolio. Craggy Range was established by Australian businessman Terry Peabody and his wife and daughter, with the intention that it would become a multi-generational family business. Peabody hooked up with Kiwi winemaker and vineyardist Steve Smith, the first specialist viticulturalist in the world who is also a Master of Wine. They developed Craggy Range into the first winery in the Southern Hemisphere to make single-vineyard wines from a variety of locations, matching grape varieties to terroir. They're also a beacon for sustainable vineyard practices, with standards that exceed New Zealand's Sustainable Farming guidelines. Oh, and they consistently turn out a wide range of extraordinary wines — not just sauvignon blanc, but the Bordeaux-style Sophia Gimblett Gravels Vineyard red (which Roger Morris described for The Daily Meal as "warm and generous with dark fruits, coffee, bacon, and other savory notes"); the syrah-based Le Sol, also from Gimblett Gravels, which is the only New Zealand wine rated over 95 points by Wine Advocate, and elegant Te Muna Road Vineyard pinot noir from Martinborough, a blend of juice from eight different clones grown on more than 40 different parcels of land. We concur with English wine critic Anthony Rose, who wrote in The Independent, "I can't think of another wine company that's managed to roll Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire and Rhône styles into one harmonious group of wines so successfully."

Winery of the Year: Tablas Creek Vineyard

For more than a quarter-century, this Paso Robles estate, owned by noted wine importer Robert Haas and his sons, Jason and Danny, in partnership with the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel (Rhône Valley royalty), has been producing an ever-increasing range of extraordinary wines. Among these are the approachable Côtes de Tablas bottlings (a red grenache, a white viognier); a couple of near-perfect rosés in different styles; the big, juicy whites (largely roussanne with some grenache blanc and a touch of picpoul blanc) and reds (mostly mourvèdre,syrah, gren) sold under the Esprit de Tablas label; a number of unusual single-varietal offerings, including vermentino, petit manseng, tannat, and even pinot noir (hey, guys, the Rhône is that way), in addition to wines based on the more expected southern French grapes; and even some sweet vin de paille, in the style of the rare "straw wine" of Hermitage. As Rhône and other southern French-style wines become more and more popular in California, Tablas Creek remains the gold standard.

Quite beyond the simple fact that they turn out an awful lot of awfully good wine — "kick-ass wine year after year," as wine blogger and sommelier Elizabeth Schneider puts it — Tablas Creek is a real industry leader in the Paso Robles region, espousing biodynamic farming and other sustainable agricultural practices and fighting for the identity — or identities — of their region. In 2014, largely through their efforts, 11 sub-appellations were approved for the Paso Robles AVA (American Viticultural Area). As Schneider noted last year, "It was so important that Paso be split up into appellations…. Distinctions between this large, varied place will help people get the styles they desire." John Tilson of The Underground Wine Letter has hailed the winery "for bringing Old World know-how to a new viticulture area," and posited that "sustainable agriculture practices and traditional winemaking have established them as a role model for Rhône varietals [in California]." Frequent Daily Meal contributor and food and wine blogger Summer Whitford writes "I fully support Tablas Creek and Danny Haas's incredible influence, especially his dedication to rosé."

Contributor Anne Montgomery sums it up: "You can't go wrong with Tablas Creek," she says. For industry leadership, stylistic influence, and consistent quality, we name Tablas Creek Vineyard as The Daily Meal's second annual Winery of the Year.

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