Reviewers’ Favorites 2021: Erin Brooks

2021 was a difficult year as the global pandemic dragged on, events were delayed and people continued to hunker down at home. But exciting things were happening in the world of wine as producers pivoted to online sales and found new audiences outside restaurants. Thinking back on wine tastings and experiences over the past year, there are highlights all along the West Coast, from inexpensive wines to drink with dinner at home, to those worthy of cellar aging. There are special wines suitable for the holidays and gulp-able bottles still flying under the radar. Plus, in the wake of climate change, there were more winemakers than ever dedicated to producing sustainably made beverages. Read on to discover some wines to light up the end of a dreary year. Cheers! 

A Wine for the Cellar: 
2020 Epoch White EXT (USA, California, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Willow Creek District)
Winemaker Jordan Fiorentini with the Epoch lineup

A recent retrospective at Epoch in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles drove home the aging potential of these Rhône-blend wines—some of the Syrahs made here have barely budged after a decade or more in bottle! But it’s the White EXT that proves the pedigree of these wines. A blend of Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Roussanne that received extended aging in foudre, it’s satiny and savory, with more than just fruit on offer. It’s a white that will take on volume with bottle time and is one to tuck away in the cellar for a few years.

A Wine That’s Under the Radar: 
2019 Audeant Pinot Noir Luminous Hills Vineyard (USA, Oregon, Willamette Valley)
Audeant winemaker Andrew Riechers (Photo courtesy of Audeant)

Audeant is a new brand that was founded in 2016 by winemaker Andrew Riechers and proprietor Teal Walker. At this early stage, only four wines are made, with a total of about 1,000 cases. The Luminous Hills Vineyard Pinot Noir stands out for its silkiness, perfume and fruit intensity, delivered in an approachable frame. The wines are made at Lingua Franca’s new facilities in the Eola-Amity Hills and track closely with that team’s philosophy and quality. Audeant recently purchased an estate on Parrot Mountain, at 1,000 feet in elevation, with the first grapes due to come online in 2022. This Pinot Noir will be released early in 2022, so scoop some up before the word gets out!

A Wine for Tonight/Holiday: 
2018 Arista Winery Pinot Noir Russian River Valley (USA, California, North Coast, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley)

This bottle is a tad pricier ($75) than the typical weeknight wine but well worth it—something special is happening when a wine’s score is higher than its price! It’s an appellation wine that overdelivers; relationships forged by winemaker Matt Courtney and the McWilliams brothers (who purchased the estate from their parents) have allowed Arista access to fruit from some of the Russian River Valley’s top vineyard sites. This appellation wine isn’t an afterthought but a blend of fruit from those single-vineyard sites, plus Arista’s own estate fruit. Its freshness and flavors of cranberry and blood orange will be a perfect pairing for all kinds of food at the Christmas table, so it’s a great splurge for the holidays.

A Wine from a Producer That Exemplifies Sustainability: 
2019 Brick House Pinot Noir Les Dijonnais (USA, Oregon, Willamette Valley, Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge)
(Photo courtesy of Brick House)

Visiting the farm at Brick House is like being at home—relatives and friends run the bottling line in the old barn, and things are authentic and simple. Arguably, it’s a more welcoming experience than the high level of gloss at some wineries. But what’s really special about Brick House is its commitment to responsible farming. It’s a brand that’s nearly synonymous with biodynamic farming, having gone organic in 1990 and then biodynamic in the early aughts. These wines are lively and energetic, delicious and affordable, and consumers can be proud to support the (more than) sustainable farming at Brick House.  

A Wine That's Especially Good Value:
(Photo courtesy of Marietta)

Robert Parker praised Marietta for many years, presciently noting that “for some inexplicable reason, few California wineries turn out top quality value-priced wines…for over three decades one of the great values in dry California red wine has been the non-vintage kitchen sink blend from the Bilbro’s family-owned Marietta Cellars.” The NV Old Vine Red continues to impress, offering incredible pedigree and pleasure for $18. And in the face of increasing natural disasters, like the devastating wildfires on the West Coast in 2020, there’s more reason than ever for producers to explore non-vintage bottlings.

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