The Family Winemakers of California produce an annual tasting event at the Del Mar Fairgrounds that could be the wine tasting equivalent of exploring a dense rain forest in search of the rarities of nature.  180 wineries poured some 950 wines at the event, with record crowds. The challenge was developing a strategy to taste the latest from old favorites while looking for new discoveries and checking progress from wineries that had poured for the first time the previous year or two. Wine tasting buddies would pass along hints of new finds. Crowds would stack up at tables where word had spread that something special was being poured.

Our small team started with some favorites known for their consistency and quality across all wines produced, including names you might not be familiar with: Beckmen, Cain, Cinnabar, Corison, Derby, Frank Family, Fritz, Hagafen, Laurel Glen, Manzoni, Mayacamas, Merry Edwards, Miner, Niner, Saddleback, Saxon Brown, Sojourn Cellars and Veedercrest.  Add any of these names to your future tasting list.

In the new or rediscovery category, we found a dozen with compelling wines that were in the top 10 to 15 percent of the wines we tasted.

Anakota – Cabernet from two different vineyards and two vintages, 2005 and 2008, in the Knights Valley: Helena Dakota and Helena Montana. Use French oak, up to 70 percent new.  The four different wines offered complex noses (mint, chocolate, wood) and mid-to-big bodies. Well structured. Interesting styles with a more food-friendly flavor than would be indicated by the nose. A consistent approach to be admired.

Cornerstone – Ripe rich Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2009 Cabernet France ($35) has wonderful character – mix of wood and sharp varietal characteristics on the nose; tight but balanced finish. The 2008 Oakville Cabernet ($60) has a big minty, herbaceous mid-Napa Valley nose, with tasty fruit and flavor on the finish.

Darms Lane – Balanced 2008 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon; varietal nose; mid-body; good fruit and finish; more refined style than most big California Cabernets.

Herb Lamb – Small production from vineyards facing Howell Mountain. Just 200 cases of the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged 18 months in French oak. Complex mint, oak, black currant, ripe grape nose; big on the palate but balanced; good fruit and finish.

La Jota – Our star of the show: 2009 Howell Mountain Cabernet Franc, $75. Big mint and oak nose, complex palate with high-viscosity, deep fruit extra and long finish.  Also fine wines from La Jota: 2009 Merlot (one of the best of the show) and the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Liquid Farm – Small quality winery producing tasty Chardonnay and Bandol-like Rose wines from the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County.

Mt. Brave – Small production from atop Mt. Veeder. Poured the best Merlot we found (2008 vintage, 100 percent), with chocolate, mint and berry nose; ripe, rich and long finish. Also fine wines: 2008 Malbec and 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Parallel – The 2008 estate Cabernet Sauvignon was in the top rank of red wines tasted. It had a classic herbaceous, mint and black currant nose, with layers of oak from some two years of aging in new French oak. The wine was refined and nuanced on the palate with a long life ahead.

Patel – Well-made, small production reds from Napa. The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (77 percent; 11 percent Merlot; 12 percent Malbec) showed rich varietal characteristics with hints of wood and a long rich finish that would make it a good match with food.

Ramey – Consistently high-quality Chardonnay from multiple vineyards (Russian River Valley, Hudson, Platt and Ritchie. The 2008 and 2009 Hudson both exhibited a bigger style and, for oak lovers, distinct vanilla and oak noses from aging in 60 percent new French oak for 18 months.

Seavey – Small production from hillside vineyards. Their 2008 flagship Cabernet Sauvignon has a complex mint, berries and oak nose; good fruit and finish. One of our top wines.

Tablas Creek – Consistently high-quality Rhone varietals, from the fruity 2010 Côtes de Tablas Blanc (54 percent Viognier) to the Espirit de Beaucastel Rouge, a blend (40% Mourvèdre, 28% Syrah, 27% Grenache, 5% Counoise) made in the style of its namesake, Château de Beaucastel, in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.