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TPFWe have almost 8,000 wineries in the US, today. Over 3,000 breweries. A thousand artisan distilleries – and counting. Even wonks like me simply cannot keep up with everything that’s out there, anymore. Back in 1994, I found that I had sampled beers from better than 90% of all American craft breweries. That sounds impressive until you realize that there were fewer than 100, total, at the time. At that time, also, there were about five dozen wineries, here in Washington state, and I had tried most of those.

Today…anyone who says they know about and have sampled from even a simple majority of America’s total number of wineries is probably either lying outright or exaggerating for effect. So, today, the process of broadening your knowledge base as a consumer is about aggregating – gathering information from many, many sources to assemble what will still be an incomplete (and very subjective) picture of what’s happening here and around the world in wine.

This post is NOT designed to say that the producers mentioned are necessarily the best of their types, nor to suggest that this list is the be-all and end-all of discovering great, obscure wineries. These are simply the wineries that have shown a great level of skill and accomplishment in my own experience. KEEP SEARCHING. Add these to your data base and then read Steven Tanzer and Wine Advocate and Wine Enthusiast and James Suckling and Anthony Diaz Blue and James Halliday and other reputable critics to find more. But DO seek out anything on this list that sounds interesting. All these should be available, even though all may be hard to find. But for those who have an inquisitive mind and a palate that has hit the wall on the Beringers and Ste. Michelles and Mondavis and Ponzis and Monteses that line the bottle shop and supermarket shelves, these are wineries that are easily in the same league in terms of quality and value. None are weird or unfriendly and all share the same basic value: Make Delicious Wines.

NINE GREAT OVERLOOKED WINERIES

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PORTALUPI WINE COMPANY, Healdsburg, California

{ Wine Is A Celebration }

Tim Borges and Jane Portalupi Borges

Tim Borges and Jane Portalupi Borges

In this case, celebration…and a really good love story. When I first met Tim Borges, he was living in Woodinville, Washington, not because he wanted to make wine in WA state but because his childhood sweetheart, Jane Portalupi, had married a couple of decades earlier and moved north.  After her divorce and Tim’s, these two seemed to be drawn to each other like iron filings to a magnet. They reconnected and Tim abandoned a couple of immediate plans to come north and wait for Jane’s kids to graduate from Woodinville High.

He came striding into my wine shop, one day; a bundle of nervous energy that made a complete sham out of that stereotype of the laid-back Californian. He had his Zinfandel with him and I was hooked with one sip. Tim, as it turned out, was flying back and forth to Sonoma to make wine and started the Portalupi label – named after Jane’s Italian immigrant winemaker grandmother, Marina – there while peddling it himself out of Jane’s garage in Washington. I bought (and 2012VasoGrenadier2sold) a LOT of Portalupi and was knocked out afresh with every new release. Using grapes sourced from vineyards owned by names like Rochioli and Rafanelli, he was crafting achingly perfect Dry Creek Zins and Pinots but was also, as was his habit, ranging far outside the confines of Sonoma to get just the perfect fruit. His Amador County Barbera was an early favorite and his first Portalupi Pinot Noir remains one of the two or three best I’ve ever tasted. After Jane’s kids fled the nest, they returned to Sonoma and established a tasting room in downtown Healdsburg and began, as is the norm with Tim, Thinking Waaay Outside the Box. One of his best-selling items is his beautiful “Vaso di Marina”, a pair of lively, juicy red and white editions, packaged in 1 Liter milk bottles(!), (I believe two liters are also available) just as Marina Portalupi used to do in Piedmonte and even after she moved to Sonoma. They even deliver them, ala the old-style milk trucks, to Sonoma County doorsteps, when you join their Luna Apassionata Wine Club.

Despite winning numerous golds at prestigious wine competitions, Portalupi still flies quite under the radar but, make no mistake about it, this is an absolutely top shelf California winery, offering wines that are beautifully crafted and stunningly delicious.

BEST BETS:  Portalupi Russian River Zinfandel 2012:  94 Points

       Portalupi Pinot Noir Il Migliori Vyd, Russian River 2012:   93 Points

       Portalupi Old Vine Zinfandel Dolinsek Ranch, Russian River 2012:   96 Points

       Portalupi “Vaso di Marina” Red 2012:  93 Points

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MAN O’ WAR VINEYARDS, Waiheke Island, New Zealand

Man O' War's shoreline vineyards

Man O’ War’s shoreline vineyards

The land upon which the vineyards of New Zealand’s Man O’ War sit were actually given their name by Captain James Cook, in 1769, while on a voyage to the Queen’s subjects in Australia and NZ. Standing squarely at the helm, heobserved, upon sighting the ancient stands of magnificent Kauri trees that lined the rugged shoreline, that “those would make ideal masts for the warships of the Royal Navy“. The monicker stuck and, when the winery was founded, the reclusive Spencer family had but one name in mind.

The conventional wisdom has long assumed that NZ is too cold to grow any other red grape successfully besides Pinot Noir. And, of course, when most people think “New Zealand”, they think “Sauvignon Blanc”. But the Spencers felt that Waiheke’s DREADNOUGHT_RETeastern coast’s warmer micro-climate might sustain some other reds and they were absolutely right. Man O’ War “Dreadnought” 2010 was one of my wines of the year in 2012 and remains the single most unique expression of Syrah that I have ever tasted. They also manage a number of Bordeaux reds in their vast, 4,500 acre estate. Their two signature blends, “Ironclad“, a Cabernet-dominant blend, and “Warspite“, a Cab Franc/Merlot stunner, both gather high scores from wine critics and, with Dreadnought, recently took Silver Medals in Decanter Magazine’s International Wine Awards.

Man O’ War is a ground-breaking Achievement in advancing the art of winemaking in the far Southern hemisphere and produces wines that stack up very favorably with any of their types made anywhere in the world.

BEST BETS:   Man O’ War “Dreadnought” Syrah 2010:   96 Points

                Man O’ War “Ironclad” 2010:  96 Points

                Man O’ War “Warspite” 2010:   94 Points

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STANGELAND VINEYARDS & WINERY, Salem, Oregon

Stangeland Vineyards

Stangeland Vineyards

In naming Stangeland Vineyards & Winery, owners Larry and Ruth Miller drew on their Scandinavian heritage, using the Norwegian word for “Strong Land”…which is what their 350′ elevation vineyard in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills AVA certainly is. More than almost any winery on this list, Stangeland is a true Dark Horse, a winery so off the radar that even many Northwesterners have no idea it’s there and have even less awareness of their lovely, generous, beautifully-crafted wines. I’m not a huge fan of Oregon Pinot Noir, as readers of The Pour Fool well know, but Larry’s Estate and Estate Reserve Pinots represent a truly inspired marriage of the spiciness and body of California Pinot, while retaining the breadth and complexity – and that amazing terroir character – of Oregon’s Eola-Amity terrains. His Whites are just as impressive, with two dazzling Gewurztraminers (dry and sweet) and an inspired Pinot Gris, 1384090_754450124581971_105463133_nalong with a rock-solid Chardonnay. But Larry does one thing that endears him to me far more than many of his neighbors: he climbs out of the Pinot Rut. He’s offering a Tempranillo(!), a Tempranillo pink, and a sumptuous Ice Wine, “Decadence”, that more than lives up to its name.

Stangeland is a place that many Oregonians know for its stunning winery, done in lovely “Vikings Go Northwest” style, and the weddings and banquets hosted there. But it’s high time people outside the region found this place and sampled some truly distinctive, very personal Oregon wines.

BEST BETS:   Stangeland 2008 Winemakers Estate Reserve Pinot Noir:  94 Points

                Stangeland 2011 Pommard Clone Pinot Noir:  94 Points

                Stangeland 2010 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir:  93 Points

                Stangeland 2011 Gewurztraminer:  92 Points

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AZIENDA AGRICOLA NATALINO del PRETE, San Donici, Puglia, Italy

Natalino del Prete in the vineyard

Natalino del Prete in the vineyard

Natalino del Prete, the man, is synonymous with Natalino del Prete, the winery, in that both are just about as Old School as you’ll find in a wine world which has become increasingly mechanized and teched-up. Natalino, a short, stock older guy with an unruly head of grey hair and a sneaky smile, still harvests and sorts and crushes and presses strictly by hand and ferments in concrete tanks and underground concrete vats. His wines are as rustic as a mud fence and utterly transparent. His shocking Primitivo and Negroamaro are so un-fiddled with that they distinguish themselves in one sip for what they are not: over-polished and over-contrived. Every nuance and every flavor note that can be coaxed out of his NatalyDissidentgrapes – both good and what some other vintners would labor to filter out – is in there and tasting either is a Square One primer in the true nature of the grapes. “Nataly” his stunning Primitivo, is among the two of three best bottles of that Zin varietal that I have ever tasted, and the Negroamaro (a grape that even Italians consider eccentric) in his “Anne” is everything that quirky, uber-expressive grape can offer. His Salice Salentino, “Torre Nova” is the quintessential table red, a hearty, in-yo-face blend that takes to food like cats take to cashmere sweaters. He also makes a scarce Salento IGT, “Sorso Antico” from 100% Aleatico.

Natalino del Prete is my wine hero; a guy who loves his farm, his life, his grapes, and his family and expresses all that in the way he knows best: brilliant, eye-opening wines.

BEST BETS:  Natalino del Prete “Nataly” Primitivo 2010:  95 Points

         Natalino del Prete “Anne” Negroamaro 2010:  93

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BODEGAS ALVAREZ NOLTING, Valencia, Spain

Oscar Clemares Gonzalez of Alvarez Nolting

Oscar Clemares Gonzalez of Alvarez Nolting

Oscar Clemares Gonzales – who took over the Bodega after the tragic death, in 2002, of Juanina Alvarez Nölting, founder of the winery – doesn’t know, apparently, that Valencia is supposed to be all about oranges and Sherry. Nor does he get that Spain is far more about the other Rhone varietals than it is about Syrah, which is almost stupidly scarce as a single-varietal bottling in that country. His bottle of AN Syrah is a bona fide, obscure Spanish classic, easily in a league with – in my opinion, better than – what has always been Spain’s best-known Syrah, Marques de Grinon “Dominio de Valdepusa”. Oscar also bottles a Syrah/Bobal blend just for his American importer, Oleg Fedechkin of America Northwest Distributors in Seattle, called “Fedriani Laffitte”, de_187_lgwhich is one of the most supple and amazingly adaptable food wines you will ever find and which sells for a stunning 12 bucks. Even better is a mid-tier blend, “Soledad” ,that is one of the two or three best wines of any type I tasted in 2011. In addition and currently not for import, he makes a stunning Chardonnay that is as clean and evocative as any top-shelf California or Washington Chard you will ever taste.

As of this writing, AN is not yet exporting their full line, which also includes a sparkling wine and a brilliant 100% Bobal, but I hear they’re coming and, when they do, grab some. Prices for the Soledad will run ya about $20 but it’s worth easily twice that and will make you think about something other than oranges when you hear the word “Valencia”, guaranteed.

BEST BETS:  Alvarez Nolting “Soledad” 2010:  93 Points:

               Alvarez Nolting “Fedriani Laffitte” 2010:  91 Points

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ANWILKA VINEYARDS, Constantia, South Africa

Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, Lowell Jooste, and Bruno Prats

Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, Lowell Jooste, and Bruno Prats

Of Anwilka, an off-shoot of the respected Klein Constantia winery, Robert Parker said, “Fabulous… this is the finest red wine I have ever had from South Africa… This debut release, the 2005, a blend of 37% Syrah and the balance of Cabernet Sauvignon, is world class stuff, exceptional wine…”  I wholeheartedly agree. Anwilka and its baby brother, Ugaba, were created by Lowell Jooste (the former co-owner of Klein Constantia), with Bordeaux wine luminaries Hubert de Boüard de Laforest (co-owner of Chateau Angélus in Saint-Emilion) and Bruno Prats (former owner of Chateau Cos d’Estournel in Saint-Estèphe). In May 2012, Anwilka Vineyards merged with Klein Constantia, purchased in 2011 by Zdenek Bakala and Charles Harman. De Boüard and Prats remain in the newly-merged company as minority shareholders and Jooste becomes a non-executive board member. All that pedigree stuff anwilka_leftaside, Anwilka is just a staggering wine, by any standards. And it may not even be any better than its fifteen-buck kid brother, the startling Ugaba, now renamed “Petit Frère”. Both are modified Bordeaux-style blends with Syrah in a starring role and both show every molecule of their French influence and Jooste’s immaculate skills.

They’re also making a new wine, Bella Rossa, crafted in the dried-fruit style of the great Amarone wines of Valpolicella and I’m beside myself with anticipation of that one. Anwilka and Petit Frère are both available in the States but may require some looking. Take the time to search. These are two wines that will convert anyone who has been slow to come around to the appeal of South African wine.

BEST BETS:   Anwilka Anwilka 2010:  95 Points

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ARIZONA STRONGHOLD, Cottonwood, Arizona

Maynard James Keenan, working his day job.

Maynard James Keenan, working his day job.

Calling anything as intimately connected with its rock star owner (literally), Maynard James Keenan, “obscure” is a huge stretch but, if you’re not a fan of Tool or Puscifer or Keenan’s other music projects, AZS may have not been on your screen. But they are very much worth finding if you like to  A) discover wines made outside the CA/OR/WA West Coast Wine Fortress or B) see what is possible in terms of growing grapes in an actual desert or C) just find out what happens when one of the world’s foremost rockers actually sets his sights on becoming a real dues-paid winemaker. Maynard James Keenan – let me say it now – rocks every bit as hard in the winery as he does on stage. Taught and aided for several years by former David Bruce winemaker, Eric Glomski, Keenan has de_204_lgtransformed his beginners chops into genuine wine skills but that’s not even the best part of the story. What he also did was demand that Stronghold’s grapes be sourced, ASAP, from Arizona vineyards. Wrap your head around that one: ARIZONA vineyards. Scorpions, sand, dust, skin-blistering heat…THAT Arizona. And it worked! AZS is growing and bottling estate fruit from its properties in eastern ‘Zona and the results are startling. Keenan’s top-tier is called Caduceus and most of us will probably never run across a bottle. It’s made in tiny quantities and sold mainly to a wine club liist that has thousands waiting to get on it.

The wines themselves are robust and ripe and juicy and, in many ways, as good as anything you’ll find from many, many lesser California appellations. If they’re not yet on a par with Napa or Sonoma, give the vines time and we’ll see. I wouldn’t bet against it, judging from what I taste. His blends carry imaginative Southwest names like Tazi and Mangus and Dala and Nachise and they’re in beautiful, Native-American inspired packaging that looks and feels like The Real Deal. Keenan also offers two budget blends, Mandala Red and White, that retail for around $20.

This is a authentic, big deal, estate winery that’s quickly putting ‘Zona on the American wine map and showing what Will and discipline and creativity can do.

BEST BETS:  Arizona Stronghold “Mangus” 2011:  91 Points

              Arizona Stronghold “Nachise” 2012:  93 Points

             Arizona Stronghold “Dala” 2012:  92 Points

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VIÑA QARAMY, Mendoza, Argentina

Leo Bromberg in the Qaramy vineyard

Leo Bromberg in the Qaramy vineyard

The father-son team of Mario and Leonardo Bromberg, for many years, tended a stony 247 acres of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah vineyards, located about 3,000 feet above sea level, in Los Arboles, Valle de Uco, Mendoza. I first encountered their Finca Qaramy in 2012, when a distributor wandered into my office with a bottle and poured me a small glass. It took one sip to send me scurrying to google, where I found…nothing. Qaramy was, at the time, so far under the radar that you would have needed shovel to find it. Since then, the sheer quality of the wines has won converts all over the planet and these staggering grapes – which have been used for years by many of Argentina’s greatest wineries – put on vivid display what it is about Mendoza that’s drawing winemakers from 14 different countries to invest in and work these vineyards.

qaramy-finca-argentinian-wine-1-mdmTheir Qaramy Malbec is among the two or three best Argentine Malbecs I’ve tasted for the past three vintages, at any price, and Finca Qaramy remains the little $15 miracle it was when I first fell for it. The original ’05 was a blend of 61% Malbec, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 16% Syrah, and the Brombergs have stayed with roughly the same formula. Their top-tier blend, “600”, is named for the fact that only ONE barrel is made – 600 bottles only! – and it represents the very best grapes from each harvest. All three of their current blends (the third is called “Allto”) are various combinations of Malbec, Cab, and Syrah and all are as different as snowflakes.

Qaramy is an inspired enterprise; a true family winery that never wanted to be a winery, to begin with. The Brombergs were badgered into starting Qaramy by some of their customers who were convinced that they had the Right Stuff to make dazzling wines. It’s to our good fortune that they listened.

BEST BETS:  Viña Qaramy  “Finca Qaramy 2010:   93 Points

               Viña Qaramy Malbec 2011:  92 Points

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LAUREN ASHTON CELLARS, Woodinville, Washington

Lauren Ashton winemaker Kit Singh

Lauren Ashton winemaker Kit Singh

Winemaker Kit Singh, as is the case with a startling number of Washington  vintners, came at wine from a scientific background…but, as opposed to the numerous engineers and pharmacists who tread the barrel rooms of the NW, Kit is a licensed dentist(!), who can presumably tell ya everything you need to know about the effect of lactic acids on your incisors’ enamel. He can also sell you some spectacular reds with which to do the damage. Lauren Ashton got started rather lately, by WA standards. Singh opened the doors in 2009 and immediately started getting noticed by regional wine critics, who have been effusive in their praise: Sean Sullivan of Washington Wine Report said, “…a revelation…jaw-dropping...” Paul Gregutt of Wine Enthusiast awarded 93 – 95 point scores to four of the winery’s reds in their first vintage! Jeb  Dunnuck, writing in The Wine Advocate, gave those same wines 94 and 95 points.

(membergallery)__CAM1456 - Copy (2)In a recent tasting, I was floored by the clarity and purity and uncluttered character of the wines. They’re beautifully constructed and uncannily expressive, showing their Red Mountain roots – and those hallmark “dusty tannins” – as emphatically as any wines in this state.

By all means, when visiting Seattle, swing out to Woodinville and drop into all those more buzz-generating wineries but DO NOT miss Lauren Ashton and what almost certainly will become one of the major winery success stories in the entire Northwest.

BEST BETS:   Lauren Ashton “Cuvee Arlette” Red Mountain 2009:  95 Points

                        Lauren Ashton “Cuvee Mirabelle” Red Mountain 2009:  94 Points

                        Lauren Ashton Roussanne 2011:  92 Points

                        Lauren Ashton Syrah Red Mountain 2009:  94 Points

Speak yer piece, Pilgrim.

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