Reflections on California Wine Today from a Longtime Ontario Fan and Observer

By David Lawrason

This feature was commissioned by California Wines.

For the third year in a row Ontario’s biggest and most anticipated wine event has been postponed by COVID. The April California Wine Experience (formerly called California Wine), which was to have taken place April 11, has been an institution in Toronto and Ottawa for almost four decades – the great spring release of pent-up energy, and the great meet-up for the trade in particular. We now have to wait one more year, until May 2023. It was actually a wise decision to postpone given the sub-variant doing its nasty at the moment. I am sure it was a gut-wrenching decision by California Wines Canada.

In Ontario, however, we still get some benefit with an increased availability of California wines planned to buttress the event itself. California Wines Canada and the LCBO have built an impressive tranche of California releases through this period. Between March 19 and May 21 there are 125 California wines being released through VINTAGES InStore, OnLine and the Classics Catalogue. The WineAlign crü have been tasting dozens (but not all) in recent days. We present our picks and where and when to buy them below, with a note that more will be presented in the Review of the April 16 VINTAGES Release that features California.

Please allow this longtime fan and observer of California wine a paragraph of personal reflection on the California Wine Fair. It was my touchstone in the early years and I have attended most ever since. After being smitten by wine – and California wine in particular during tourist visits in the late 70s – I began to dabble with wine writing. In 1984, having decided to try wine writing as a career, I spent three months in California visiting over 200 wineries with tape recorder in hand, and have been back countless times since; most recently, pre-Covid in 2019 in Napa. I can still navigate California’s wine regions without a GPS. I have many observations and opinions on California wine assembled over this long span, and equally long-in-the-tooth readers will, I hope, forgive any repetition of ideas here.

The major evolution in California wine that I have witnessed in my career has been its maturation and how it has dealt with its huge commercial, qualitative and reputational success. Back in 1984 the notion of fine wine in California was driven by idealism and can-do frontier spirit by very few in a region just starting to strut its stuff internationally – about ten years ahead of many other New World regions. Everything was so new and hopeful. One of my most memorable interviews and tastings in 1984 was with Tim Mondavi, son of Robert M, who had undertaken Carneros Pinot Noir as a hobby horse. I will never forget his excitement. I was so pleased to taste the legacy in the excellent Mondavi 2017 Pinot Noir Reserve reviewed below.

California wine is all ‘growed up’. And it is huge. California makes 90% of America’s wine, and the USA is the world’s 4th largest producer. There are almost 5,000 wineries, drawing from almost 900,000 acres of vineyard. It produces over 700 million cases per year – from oceans of main-stream brands (as all major regions do to sustain themselves) to some of the finest and most expensive wines in the world, with something for everyone in between.

©California Wine Institute

Hand in hand with the growth in production has been the drilling down into terroir and the creation of new Geographic Indicators, both within existing regions and in new regions. When I roamed the state in 1984 there were perhaps two dozen AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). Today there are 143. Napa Valley now harbors 16 AVAs and Sonoma County 18. What I am most recently intrigued by is the creation of 18 AVAs grouped in a new broad geographic area called Inland Valleys, which essentially comprises sub-zones in the northern half of what is broadly called the Central Valley, with many focused on hotter climate varieties like zinfandel and Rhone varieties linked to California’s early history. Five new AVAs have also sprouted in mountain valleys in the far north of the state, so it’s time for another road trip. By the way, for a wine to bear an AVA name on its label 85% of the grapes must have been grown in that AVA.

One of the great achievements in California is consistently sound, absence-of-fault, well-schooled winemaking which engenders faith and satisfaction that the next bottle will be clean and very expressive of what the label says it is. This is the foundation of consumer acceptance, and California has excelled in it. This combines with the soft, ripe, generous California style, based on its Mediterranean climate (with cooler spots near the coast and at higher altitudes). So many people, including the Americans who anchor California’s success, love the consistency and generous, appealing style.

©California Wine Institute

While teaching a WSET course in Toronto in early April, I blind tasted the students on a 3rd classed growth Haut-Medoc from Bordeaux and a Napa Cabernet, both wines in the $100 range. The Bordeaux excited some and incited debate with its range of edgy herbal, savoury notes and tension while the Napa Cab provided immediate fruit-driven calm and luxurious aplomb. A hands up poll gave a small majority vote to the Napa Cab.

And I save the most important trend to last, one that has really taken off in California since my first forays: its environmentally consciousness and sustainable production. One only needs to be aware of recent catastrophic climate events to understand that California is in a very sensitive environmental position, particularly in terms of water resources and wildfires, with so much at stake given the importance of its size and agricultural output. I was certainly aware of early organics adopters that were an outgrowth ‘60s hippie culture in Mendocino – Fetzer and Bonterra – then Benziger in Sonoma and others in 1990s, but today 80% of the wine of this massive industry is produced sustainably, with initiatives that go way beyond organic viticulture to monitor and re-shape every facet of production. And the wine industry is leading the way in California.

On that note it is time to present some wines that have impressed us recently, and are or will be available in Ontario in this spring period. Again, we have tasted dozens of California wines of late with many other reviews posted on WineAlign’s much improved searchable database. You can also click here for a handy list of all the wines recommended in this article.


Au Bon Climat XXXV Anniversary Estate Bottled Chardonnay 2015, Santa Maria Valley
$99.95, WineOnline, Classics Catalogue May 5
Sara d’Amato –
I was particularly enamored by this maturing chardonnay that is drinking at its best right now. Pouring a luminous golden colour and featuring flavours of almond butter, caramel and delicate spice, along with fleshy yellow plum apple cinnamon stick. Offering notable purity and transparency despite the oak treatment with a distinctly saline quality. Characterful, lively and certainly memorable.
David LawrasonThis is the 35th Anniversary bottling from Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and pioneer of premium wine in Santa Maria Valley and neighbouring Santa Rita Hills. It pours fairly deep gold, consistent with its seven years. It has lifted nose of peach/apricot fruit, honey, lemon wax, hazelnut, sponge toffee, and some sappiness. It is medium weight, very firm, mineral and intense on the palate. Full on flavours with great textural grip and dryness on the finish. Great focus and length.

Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay 2019, Sonoma Coast
$25.95, Charton Hobbs, VINTAGES April 2 (LCBO# 420943)
Sara d’Amato –
Of significant value in this release is the 2019 Chalk Hill Chardonnay from Sonoma Coast showcasing sunshine and high-quality oak in a measured fashion. Generous and complex with notes of toasted pine nuts, brioche and citrus zest along with white peach. Overdelivers with respect to depth of flavour and length for the price.
John SzaboClean and nicely balanced, well-measured Sonoma Chardonnay, offering a pleasant whiff of flint and matchstick without going too far. Fruit is appealingly ripe in the orchard spectrum, while the palate delivers a soft and broad, creamy experience. Good length, too. I’d say one of the more complex and accomplished chardonnays from California on the Canadian market in the mid-$20s price range. Ready to drink or hold short term.

Chamisal Vineyards Chardonnay 2018, Monterey County
$27.95, Andrew Peller Import Agency, VINTAGES May 21 (LCBO# 22678)
Michael GodelA great freshness and marine air herbal-saltiness pervades and distinguishes this Monterey chardonnay. Exhibits more than ample ripeness, fleshy amplitude and structure on the palate, easing in though never acting coy against the backdrop of underwhelming acidity.

La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2020

La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2020, Sonoma Coast
$29.95, Breakthru Beverage Group, VINTAGES Essentials (LCBO# 962886)
John Szabo
Clean, polished, creamy and immediately appealing, La Crema’s 2020 Sonoma Coast chardonnay bottling is a broad and generous, orchard fruit-flavoured wine ranging from peach and apricot to pear and apple, with really well-integrated wood, and lingering finish. All in all, a solid wine with integrity and depth. Enjoy over the next 1-3 years or so.

Beringer Chardonnay 2019, Napa Valley
$26.95, Mark Anthony Group, VINTAGES Essentials (LCBO# 84988)
David Lawrason
This is a stylish, elegant chardonnay that straddles the line between old and new schools. Still generous ripe peach, vanilla and spicy oak for the old school fans, but a certain freshness and refinement works for the new schoolers. Not overly hot or sweet, but satiny smooth with some lemony acidity. Stays nicely focused on the palate.

Cline Viognier 2020, North Coast
$17.95, Vinexx, VINTAGES March 19 (LCBO# 128421)
David Lawrason
This is a very bright, fresh and well-defined viognier, long a hidden gem in the Cline line-up. It has lifted starfruit, apricot, white pepper and lime blossom aromas. It is medium-full bodied, off-dry, almost creamy with some heat, yet showing fresh acidity. The focus and length are excellent.


Blue Canyon Monterey Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Monterey County
$19.95, The Case For Wine, VINTAGES April 22 (LCBO# 17815)
Michael Godel
Medium-bodied if luxe enough cabernet sauvignon while never turning its back on the fog or the ocean influence. Nearly Mediterranean in sun chic shine, focused and very much alive.

La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2019, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County
$31.95, Breakthru Beverage Group, VINTAGES Essentials (LCBO# 719435)
John SzaboClassic Sonoma-style pinot from the ever-reliable La Crema, fleshy but nicely balanced and relatively fresh, with silky tannins and lively acids. Wood is a minor flavour contributor, adding a gentle sheen of chocolate-coffee spice, but bright red fruit dominates. Solid, professionally made. Drink or hold until the mid-2020s.
Sara d’Amato –
A very generous pinot noir from Sonoma Coast with some coastal salinity on the palate along with red and black cherry, nicely balanced alcohol and silky tannins. The palate offers an abundance of fresh fruit, tilled earth and just a hint of acetone. Rather complex and commercially appealing without an excess of oak or heat. Inviting. Best now to 2025.
Michael Godel – Pure and simple Sonoma Coast pinot noir, gregarious, generous and open from the word go. Hard to find more pleasure with more than ample complexity in numbers at this price.

Bien Nacido Estate The Xo Reserve Syrah 2018, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County
$151.97, WineMoves, Classics Catalogue April 7 (LCBO# 23595)
John SzaboA marvellously fragrant and peppery-violet wine, Bien Nacido’s “X” block of vines grafted to syrah in 1987 and considered by many to be California’s first genuinely cool climate syrah vineyard. The Pacific influence is felt strongly here, the cooling breezes enhancing the cold cream/zinc oxide and fresh black fruit character of classic cool climate examples, distinctive and perhaps even polarizing, such is the intensity on offer. A highly distinctive syrah all in all, quite unique in California, one that will appeal to classicists to be sure. Best after about 2025 or so – it needs time, and given the track record, should age gracefully into the ’30s without a stretch.
Sara d’Amato –
Syrah lovers take note! Bien Nacido’s XO Reserve is a generously perfumed and highly engaging syrah expression of the variety. Rotundone blessed with bright, aromatic appeal and brimming with notes of lavender, graphite and black currants and black olive. Mediterranean-influenced flavours abound and a delectable saltiness on the palate provides a memorable crunch. The tannins contribute grip and power without austerity and the acidity creates a riveting dynamic tension on the palate. An experience worth the premium price.

Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir Reserve 2018, Carneros, Napa Valley
$89.98, Arterra Wines Canada, Classics Catalogue (LCBO# 726737)
John SzaboAppealingly bright and lifted wine, the result of a perfect long, cool season with harvest lasting into late autumn. The fresh and concentrated flavours, slow-simmered to ripeness, also make for impeccable balance between silky tannins, lively but comfortable acids and generous but fully integrated alcohol. Top notch from Mondavi, best now-2028.
David Lawrason –
This is a very energized, complete and poised pinot noir. The nose nicely captures complex, well integrated notes of strawberry/cherry jam, cranberry, fine underbrush, oak spice and toast, and red rose florality. It is mid-weight, firm and detailed with just right proprtions of alcohol, acid and slightly chewy tannin that suggests another three to five years ageing. The focus and length are excellent to outstanding.

Raymond Reserve Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Napa Valley
$49.95, Univins, VINTAGES May 21 (LCBO# 715979)
John SzaboThis is a dense, dark and chocolaty cabernet, with some appealing grit and grip, and swarthy black fruit and evergreen flavours. I like the firmness and the bold flavours, and the solid length. All in all, a good option in the “entry-level” Napa cabernet price category. Drink or hold up to a half dozen years.
Sara d’Amato –
A very taught cabernet sauvignon to tuck away in the cellar for another 2 years or more. The palate features voluminous and velvety tannins, reminiscent of the label on the bottle yet there is energy here too. The alcohol is nicely balanced and the length is excellent.

Silenus Tyros Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Napa Valley
$49.95, Carpe Vinum International, VINTAGES April 2 (LCBO# 16409)
Michael Godel
Prêt à porter cabernet sauvignon, ready to wear, drink and pair alongside the first grilled outdoor steaks of spring. Just the right weight and a great drink anyway you assess.

Bien Nacido Estate Pinot Noir 2019

Bien Nacido Estate Pinot Noir 2019, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County
$96.95, WineOnline, Classics Catalogue May 5 (LCBO# 23660)
Sara d’Amato
Featuring impressive concentration and elegance, this lightly grippy pinot noir features generous aromatics of fresh fig, cherry, red plum, wild lower and delicate wood spice. A traditionalist style with ample complexity and length. Drink now or hold on a few more years.

Ghost Pines Winemaker’s Blend Merlot 2019, North Coast
$19.95, Gallo Family Estates, VINTAGES Essentials (LCBO# 454876)
David Lawrason
A decent, representative $20 merlot for any occasion. No great concentration or depth but it has ripe, sweet blackberry jam, plummy fruit typical of merlot, and the barrel notes are nicely built in. It is medium-full bodied, fairly firm with fine tannin, acidity and a hint of sweetness.

And that’s the end of the bottle. I trust you have enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it and the memories that surfaced along the way

David Lawrason

VP of Wine

This feature was commissioned by California Wines. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.

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