Looking for a Steal in Sonoma Wine? Try Grenache

In California wine country, Rhone Valley varietals like Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre hold unexpected excitement.

The Underdog Rhone Wines of Napa and Sonoma

Anne Chamberlain / Getty Images

If Cabernet Sauvignon is the movie star and Pinot Noir the indie fave, then a Rhone-based wine, especially from Napa or Sonoma, where Cab and Pinot are most celebrated, is the character actor that intrigues. Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and blends thereof are the most commonly found red Rhone-based wines in these well-respected regions, alongside Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc whites. 

Offering complexity, savory spice and brooding earthiness, these wines deliver the goods at often half the price of a Napa Cabernet or single-vineyard coastal Pinot; but mystery remains on why they have to fight so much harder to get in people’s glasses. Napa tied its fortunes early on to Bordeaux, showing it could excel with Bordeaux varieties and never looked back; Sonoma prized itself on diversity but much of that still centered on the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and California’s own heritage grape, Zinfandel.

Consumers both drove these preferences and mirrored them. There just hasn’t been a consistent and persistent champion of Rhone wines in this part of California to move the dial beyond Pinot and Cab. Farmers and winemakers are thus compelled to plant and make what the market wants. Napa and Sonoma vintners who grow and make Syrah, Grenache or Viognier anyway, or blends thereof, do it for love, not fame. 

So consider this a secret scroll of worthy treasures. These wines and the producers that make them aren’t chasing the light.

2021 MacLaren Aida Gregori-Dutton Vineyard Russian River Valley Viognier ($44)

MacLaren devotes itself nearly exclusively to Rhone-based wines, and its faithful inspiration is in full view here. Made from a cool-climate site, this Viognier was aged six months in oak. Floral and bright, it is restrained in style with lovely notes of wet stone and green apple, a delightfully elegant and structured take on the white grape.

2020 DuMol Wild Mountainside Russian River Valley Syrah ($65)

DuMol makes a range of well-loved wines, from Napa Cabernet Sauvignon to Russian River Pinot and Chardonnay. That it bothers with Syrah is a gift. Full of tension and sinewy intensity, this wine offers balanced acidity, length and power. Edgy and bursting in white and black pepper, it layers leather and lavender against dense, dark cherry. 

2020 Inglenook Blancaneaux Rutherford Rhone-Style White Blend ($68)

Sourced from the great estate, organically farmed since the late 1970s, this blends 36% Viognier with 33% Marsanne and 31% Roussanne. A rare offering in the land of Cabernet Sauvignon, Blancaneaux has been made since the 1999 vintage and is among Inglenook’s main white wines. Tasting of fresh pear and peach, it has a lush yet balanced palate of rich lushness that appeals.

2019 Benovia Sonoma Mountain Grenache ($45)

Beloved for its Russian River and Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Benovia remains true to this grape from winemaker/co-owner Mike Sullivan’s own family vineyard, which is grown at elevation. Fruity and earthy in equal measure, it thrives in lavender, sage, dried herb and white pepper before a midpalate of garrigue, game and strawberry appear.

2019 Gondak Campbell McKinney Vineyard Russian River Valley Grenache ($28)

Winemaker Will Gondak makes tiny production Rhone-inspired wines from cool-climate sites, this one planted on an eastern-exposed hillside in the heart of the appellation. Persistent acidity lifts crisp flavors of cranberry and wild strawberry to bright new levels, dusted in dried herb.

2019 Ramey Sonoma Coast Syrah ($40)

Ramey’s Syrahs are among California’s most beloved and best known. Here he commits to the coolness of the coast, coaxing forest pine, white pepper and decadent red fruit from a silky, supple palate. Its well-defined structure suggests plenty of cellaring potential. Sourced from both Cole Creek and Rodgers Creek vineyards, single-vineyard designates in their own right, the Syrah is co-fermented with 14% Viognier.

2020 Unti Dry Creek Valley Petit Frere ($28)

A blend of 62% Syrah, 25% Grenache and 13% Primitivo, this red  is built to be a likable, approachable table wine and it is, though the sourcing is spectacular, from estate vineyards also used to make Unti’s bigger bottlings of benchland Syrah and Grenache. When available, it’s also worth seeking Unti’s Cuvee Foudre, which is made from three of the producer’s best vineyard blocks planted in 1998 to Syrah, an Alban clone of Grenache and Tablas Creek clone of Mourvedre.

2019 Villein Walker Vine Hill Russian River Valley Syrah ($61)

This wine captures all the lovely attributes of cool-climate winegrowing, exuding all the blue fruit, garrigue and black pepper of classic Syrah. Planted in Goldridge soil, it is velvety smooth and seductive in texture, with restrained, well-integrated oak. Aromas of violet meet a lusher element of dark chocolate, giving it a both savory and rich character. The wine brand of Walker Vine Hill’s owners, Paul and Lynn O’Neill, Villein also makes an Alder Springs Vineyard 50-50 Marsanne-Roussanne.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles