Score! Local Wines Land on Coveted Best-of List

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on December 8, 2011)

The significance of being featured in a publication like Wine Spectator Magazine is not lost on winemaker John Falcone.

“It’s the most read wine magazine in the entire country,” he says, “and probably even internationally.”

With an estimated readership of 2.6 million, and a global reach, Wine Spectator is readily known as the magazine of record among wine enthusiasts.  Its reviews and endorsements can help sell wine in large numbers.  Its writers are industry celebs.

Perhaps it most anticipated release is its yearly roundup of the 100 most exciting wines, which it first published in 1988.  According to a company press release, the top 100 wines “reflect significant trends, recognize outstanding producers and spotlight successful regions and vintages around the world.”  The magazine’s editors revisit wines they’ve already reviewed throughout the year and list them based on four criteria: quality (reflected in scores earned from a 100-point scale), value, availability and an overall “X-factor,” or general excitement generated by a particular wine.  Paring down more than 16,000 selections, the list of the best 100 from 2011 was released a few days ago.

“We didn’t know we’d made the list until a retailer in Chicago called us to say congratulations,” says Mr. Falcone.  The 2008 Santa Barbara County syrah he made for the Rusack label of Ballard Canyon was #27 on the list.  The $25 wine garnered 93 points – an enviable feat –- when the magazine first reviewed it last year.  The ranking honors a team that also includes assistant winemaker Steve Gerbac and enologist Helen Falcone.

This is the first time a Rusack wine’s made it on this high-profile lineup and Mr. Falcone admits “it’s quite an honor.”  The wine, itself, is sold out now; the 2009 syrah is on store shelves now.  But the buzz from the honor goes beyond the bottle.  “This kind of publicity brings recognition to the brand, period,” he says.  “People start to ask, ‘what other wines do you have?’  And a lot of them will look at Rusack a lot more closely the next time they’re buying wine.”

Mr., Falcone remembers 2008 as a reduced vintage for syrah, though “the wines tended to be fruity and forward, and very aromatic and easy to drink.”  About 60% of the wine’s fruit came from the Rusack estate off Ballard Canyon Road; the rest came from multiple syrah sources throughout the county.

Two other Santa Barbara County wines made the list, too.  The 2008 Rhone blend “The Offering” on the Sans Liege label -- a $25 wine that also was awarded 93 points – was 34th on the list.  And Doug Margerum’s Sybarite Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon, a $21 bottle and 91-point winner, took slot #82.

Winemaker Brian Loring makes wine in Lompoc, and makes mostly vineyard-designate pinot noirs; the pinot he makes annually with Santa Rita Hills fruit is always a best-seller.  But Loring made this year’s list with a wine he made using fruit from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley.  The $29 wine from 2009, which scored 93 points when it was first reviewed in February, ranked 75th.

Being on the Top 100 list is really cool because it's worldwide,” says Mr. Loring.  “It's also nice that the selections are based on price and availability, as well as score.  That means that the wines are often more consumer friendly than just a list of $1000 bottles of wine that very few people can afford.”

Since the list’s publication, Loring Wine Company has been an increase in phone calls, emails and mailing list sign-ups.  “That hasn’t resulted in increased sales per se,” Mr. Loring adds, “but it's always nice to get new people exposed to your brand, which should translate into future sales.”

The wine, itself, which saw a production of about 600 cases, has been sold out since early this year.  The winemaker recalls 2009 as “a fantastic year for California pinot noir” and “as perfect as you could wish for.  His Russian River Valley wine, specifically, “was probably the lightest, most elegant pinot we made from 2009.  Our wines tend to get bigger as you head south, with our Sta. Rita Hills pinots being some of the boldest we make.  While many of our wines received equally as good scores, I think it was the combination of the lower price point and relatively higher production of the Russian River Valley pinot caused the senior editors at Wine Spectator to choose that wine for their Top 100,” says Mr. Loring.

California Central Coast was further represented on the coveted list with three wines – and all red Rhone blends – from Paso Robles.  The 2008 “The Dirt Whisperer” from Denner Winery was #11, with 97 points and a $45 price tag.  Tablas Creek’s 2009 Cotes de Tablas was 37th, with 93 points and a $30 price point.  And with 97 points and a retail price of $75, Saxum’s James Berry Vineyard came in 52nd place; the winery’s ’07 blend by the same name got the top spot in the magazine’s list for 2010.

In all, Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines list for 2011 represented 12 countries.  The number one slot went to a Northern California Burgundian: Kosta Browne’s 2009 Sonoma Coast pinot noir, a $52 bottle.  You can find the complete list here: