There is often a hangover, so to speak, after huge sporting events and seasons end. There is no more of the sport to watch on television, so the sports networks takeover, rehashing again and again the entire season of the sport and then looking forward to the next year already. I am similar to the ESPN sports caster that just can’t get enough of the NCAA men’s basketball season as I keep commenting on great wineries. However, instead of breaking down each questionable referee call or talking about the professional prospects of the players, I am going to hold on to the last vestige of my eight elite wineries by showing one final set of California producers, one final bracket for all to see. The final word goes to my fellow International Wine (and Spirits) Guild alumni Oscar Montes Iga.
Oscar has been involved with travel, tourism, and events his entire adult life. He started first with degrees in Nutrition, Diet, and Health Science; Travel, Tourism, Meeting, and Event Planning; and Food, Beverage, and Hospitality Management. This formal education came after he worked in family-run restaurants throughout his childhood. Then in 2005 while working in a prime steakhouse in Texas, he visited a local winery and was in love…with wine! His lust for wine knowledge started, and he has hunted for this knowledge in almost every avenue possible. In addition to the already mentioned International Wine and Spirits Guild where Oscar is an Executive Chef of Wine Arts and Guild Wine Master Candidate, he is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators. He has worked tirelessly in the state of Texas to promote the state’s wines through groups such as The Wine and Food Foundation of Texas, the Texas Hill Country Wineries Association, the Texas Wine Consortium, the Texas Wine Journal, and Texas Wine and Trail Magazine.
|Sommelier Oscar Montes Iga|
What this very impressive list of accolades means is that Oscar knows good wine. He makes it his mission to know good wine. In fact, he admits to being a “grape hunter and oenophile, foodie and avid ambassador for hospitality.” I think it only fitting that I give him the final say on our honored wineries.
Oscar’s criteria is a bit different than both mine and Eric Gardner’s (check out Eric’s elite eight here). Having been full-time in the industry for a decade, he has tasted multitudes of wines from all over the world, so choosing eight greats from California isn’t about what is his favorite wine. His choices are based on wines of extraordinary quality that impacted his sensory perception and captured his emotions in the instant of the taste. He has yet to travel to California, but these producers represent ones he will surely visit to get closer to the experiences he has already had with the wines themselves.
One—Cain Vineyards and Winery: A Napa Valley producer specializing in cabernet sauvignon (the king of grapes), Cain has 90 acres under vine and makes about 20,000 cases of wine a year. In 2005 while working his steakhouse shift, a customer shared with the staff the bottle of unfinished Cain. Oscar was clueless about what Meritage or Bordeaux meant, but he knew instantly when he sipped that this was a special wine. He professes, “It was as if the wine spoke the truth about the tender journey it had taken to be able to express itself in such manner upon consumption.” This winery now has a deep spot in his wine memory.
|Cain Vineyards and Winery|
Two—Opolo Vineyards: In 1999, Rick Quinn and Dave Nichols teamed together to make Paso Robles zinfandels under their own label instead of just selling fruit to other producers. At a Zinfandel Advocates and Producers event, Oscar tasted Opolo Vineyards wines. Though there are many quality zins from Opolo, the Mountain Zinfandel is the one that grabbed Oscar’s attention. “It was really robust with a full body, yet very well balanced, rich, showcased a ton of jammy fruit with some spice qualities, and sufficient alcohol, nothing overpowering, but certainly overwhelming.” It is the most memorable zinfandel experience Oscar has had.
Three—Ridge Vineyards: This Santa Cruz producer also made my elite list (see my list here), and Oscar loves the producer for the same reasons. The history of Ridge dates back to 1885 when it was the Monte Bello Winery. Through the 1940s, Ridge made one of the best cabernets. In the 1960s, zinfandel was planted there. Although Ridge is famous for Monte Bello, its cabernet blend, it was the Geyserville Zin that made Oscar sin. “It’s a dark and plump wine, with eloquent fruit and restrained alcohol, but certainly a wine that shows minimal manipulation, letting the fruit ‘do all the talking.’”
Four—Jordan Vineyard and Winery: Founded in 1972, Jordan created one of the truly original cult wines of California. The story goes that winemaker Rob Davis was unhappy with his first vintage in 1975, so he decided to dump all of the wine and wait for the next year. The move created an incredibly sought-after product, even today. Oscar respects this producer saying, “The passion and dedication of the grape growing and wine making teams shows in the glass when you pour yourself some Jordan, a commitment of over four decades is reason enough to pay them a visit.”
|Jordan Vineyard and Winery|
Five—Robert Mondavi Winery: Such an iconic winery and wine personality, California and the United States both owe a lot to Robert Mondavi. He was instrumental in advocating for strict labeling laws aligned with growing regions, much like the European concept of terroir upon which our American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are based. When Mondavi was forced to leave his family-owned winery, he built his own facility, showing the future of California’s industry. “Mondavi’s wine[s] continue to appear the world over, and it is with extreme dedication and care that we are able to taste in our glass the essence of the fruit and the winemaking techniques used to elevate each of his created [wines].”
|Robert Mondavi Winery|
Six—Heitz Wine Cellars: Though a traditional California winery dating back to 1964, Heitz has worked to find modern and new outlets to get traditional CA varieties to the market. This blend of old and new can be seen in the fact that Heitz grows the traditional wine grapes of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and zinfandel, yet produces a zinfandel rose, the Grignolino rose. This is Oscar’s favorite: “A dry, medium dark cranberry hue, with fresh and ripe flavors of strawberry, cherry, and raspberry with good acidity and a pleasant floral bouquet enticing you to have a ‘pique-nicque’ at every city park or country outing.”
|Heitz Wine Cellars|
Seven—Stolpman Vineyards: In the business for over twenty years, some of Stolpman’s best wines come from the recently approved Ballard Canyon AVA. Although some Mediterranean grapes like garnacha, viognier, roussane, and sangiovese are grown, the producer’s syrahs are world class—especially the ones from Ballard Canyon. “Fresh and bright, with ripe fruit, pleasant perfume, dirty earth and spice components that are balanced and complex, ensuring you have an evolving glass of wine throughout the evening.” Oscar says this is a must see!
Eight—Chateau Montelena Winery: In a way, this is Oscar’s honorable mention winery, merely because he has yet to have a personal experience with these wines. However, the historic significance Chateau Montelena has in not only California but all of the United States makes it a significant producer. The winery gets its fame from the celebrated Judgement of Paris tasting when British wine shop proprietor Steven Spurrier pitted American wines against French wines in a blind tasting. The Chateau Montelena Chardonnay triumphed against the French wines, gaining respect for Napa Valley wines. Oscar feels, “Visiting this chateau will give me an opportunity not only to taste the fruit of their labor, which they certainly take great pride in, but also to visit a historical site that has put American wine on par with elegant and ancient European estates.”
|Chateau Montelena Winery|
Yes, well-educated and passionate sommelier Oscar Montes Iga definitely deserves the last word in our brackets of eight elite California wineries. He is the final commentator dissecting the play-by-play of our wine game. Though he lives in Texas, he knows good wine from all over the world. His education and experience have helped to show that so many different options abound in choosing “teams”—the wineries which we love or would love to visit—for our elite brackets. Luckily, unlike the actual brackets for the NCAA tourney, we can all be winners in our pool. Just look for all of these wineries’ products. Judge for yourself who your favorites might be.