F&W’s Ray Isle reports on the latest trends in California winemaking, from Chardonnays with just the right amount of oak to value-priced Cabernets not from Napa.

By Ray Isle
Updated June 16, 2017

In this Article

California Wine: Chardonnay’s Third Wave

California wine update: Alta Maria Chardonnay is full of fruit and only modestly oaky.Photo © Kate Mathis.

In the 1980s and ’90s, California Chardonnay was instantly identifiable: It was big and buttery, so rich it was almost unctuous. But over time, people started to get sick of that style. In the early 2000s, wineries started to react by releasing unoaked Chardonnays, often with austere-sounding names like Metallico or Steel Cut. But austerity can get tiresome, too, so now the focus is on using just enough oak to frame the wine’s other flavors.

2010 Noble Vines 446 Chardonnay ($13)

If it weren’t for its bright acidity, this juicy, citrus-and-pineapple Chardonnay would seem flabby; instead, it’s sprightly and appealing.

2010 Husch Vineyards Mendocino Chardonnay ($15)

Husch ages only 15 percent of this Chardonnay in new oak barrels, which helps give its crisp, intense flavors remarkable clarity.

2009 Alta Maria Vineyards Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay ($28)

Half the wine for this white is aged in stainless steel, which focuses its tangerine-lime flavors.

2009 Shafer Vineyards Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay ($48)

In 2006, Doug Shafer decided his Chardonnay was overly rich, so he adjusted how he made it. Now its lush, lemon-cream notes come in streamlined, zesty form.

California Wine: All-Star Values

There are hundreds of wines on the market labeled with a generic “California” appellation, meaning that the grapes are sourced from all over the state. These wines are usually inexpensive, and many are nondescript. But sometimes, as with these five bottlings, they offer amazing value for a very low price.

  • 2009 Bogle Vineyards Petite Sirah ($11)
  • Marietta Old Vine Red Lot #56 ($12)
  • 2009 Colby Red ($13)
  • 2010 The Pinot Project Pinot Noir ($14)
  • 2009 Joel Gott Wines 815 Cabernet Sauvignon ($18)

California Wine: Sauvignon Blanc Goes Back to Basics

California wine update: Duckhorn’s Decoy wines are values.Photo © Kate Mathis.

The most recent trend in California Sauvignon Blanc has been a proliferation of expensive wines. Until a few years ago, it was rare to see Sauvignon for over $20; now it’s not unusual to run into $35, $45 or even $100 versions of this citrusy, grassy grape (the highest-priced ones tend to come from Napa Valley). Some of the wines are very good—Grieve, Captûre and Peter Michael come to mind—but no matter how you look at it, $50 is a lot to pay for Sauvignon Blanc. Especially when there are still so many good bottlings, like the ones below, for less than half that.

2010 Decoy Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($18)

Decoy is longtime Napa winery Duckhorn’s more affordable label; the quality of its zesty Sauvignon is close to the flagship bottling’s, but for $10 less.

2010 Geyser Peak Winery California Sauvignon Blanc ($12)

A perennial value in Sauvignon, Geyser Peak is true to form with its 2010 vintage. It has sweet citrus and melon flavors, along with plenty of bright acidity.

2010 Lincourt Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($18)

Small pockets of the sunny Santa Ynez Valley can be uncharacteristically cool; as a result, they can produce brisk, citrusy whites like this one.

2010 Matanzas Creek Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc ($19)

A well-known Merlot producer, this long-standing Sonoma County winery also bottles this peppery, mouthwatering Sauvignon Blanc. It’s well worth hunting for.

California Wine: Gonzo Grapes

California winemakers have been exploring unusual grapes, often with great success. And last fall, Foundation Plant Services, a crucial source for new vine stock, released over 20 varieties for winery use, including rarities like Gouais Blanc.

2010 Zocker Grüner Veltliner ($20)

The signature white grape of Austria, Grüner, finds a new home in California’s Edna Valley.

2010 Palmina Arneis ($18)

Palmina specializes in indigenous Italian grapes like this floral Piedmontese white.

2009 Wild Horse Blaufrankisch ($26)

A medium-bodied red variety from Austria, with pepper and blueberry notes.

California Wine: Cabernet, Beyond Napa

California wine update: Mount Eden Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon is a benchmark for the Santa Cruz Mountains region.Photo © Ellie Patterson.

For most American wine drinkers, Napa Valley equals Cabernet Sauvignon. That isn’t surprising: Napa’s climate and soil are exceptionally well-suited to Cabernet, and the region has done a fine job of making sure people know that, ever since a handful of Napa Cabernets triumphed over some of Bordeaux’s greatest properties in the famous 1976 Paris tasting. But worldwide recognition also translates to higher prices: The most sought-after Napa wines are now over $500 a bottle, and many others are over $100. Anyone looking for a great quality-to-price ratio when it comes to Cabernet would be wise to check out the rest of California. Here are three great bottles to look for.

2009 Foxglove Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($15)

Top-quality Paso Robles fruit and skilled winemaking combine in this fruity, incredibly drinkable red.

2008 Laurel Glen Counterpoint Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)

Vineyards on Sonoma Mountain produce this rich-but-not-too-rich Cabernet Sauvignon, which was made with assistance from star winemaker David Ramey.

2007 Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($55)

This elegant, age-worthy Cabernet Sauvignon, with its layers of tobacco, mocha and cassis, is a benchmark for the Santa Cruz Mountains region—and, indeed, for the entire state of California.

California Wine: A Rhône by Any Other Name

California wine update: Tablas Creek bottles a smoky, Syrah-based wine.Photo © Kate Mathis.

California’s Rhône-style winemakers have had some problems. They watched helplessly as Syrah, the Rhône’s signature grape, went from “the next big thing” to “missed the bus,” aced out by Pinot Noir in the mid-2000s. In response, many winemakers now sidestep mention of varieties like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignane and Counoise (except in very tiny type). Instead, they label their Rhône-style blends with made-up names.

2010 Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas ($18)

It’s smoky, Syrah-based and from an acclaimed producer—yet on the right side of $20.

2008 Halter Ranch Côtes de Paso ($28)

Paso Robles’s warm weather helps give this California interpretation of a Côtes-du-Rhône its savory, raspberry flavors.

2009 Foxen Cuvée Jeanne Marie ($35)

Foxen’s aromatic, cherry-rich Grenache blend from the Santa Ynez Valley is a masterful Rhône-style red.

California Wine: Pinot Specialists

California wine update: Fleur’s Pinot Noir from the Carneros region is a bargain hunter’s dream.Photo © Kate Mathis.

In an ironic shift, Pinot Noir—specifically, affordable Pinot Noir—is now facing many of the problems that used to face Merlot. There’s more demand than supply, so new vineyards have been planted in places that should never have been planted with Pinot. Weak wines are bolstered with percentages of Syrah and (turnabout is fair play?) Merlot. And the qualities that drew people to Pinot—its seductive fragrance and alluring combination of fruit, earth and spice—are often entirely missing from bargain bottlings. Yet, at nearly every price level, there are winemakers who have a religious devotion to this difficult grape; they’re the ones to trust when you’re trying to track down a Pinot that will explain what all the buzz was about in the first place.

2009 Fleur Carneros Pinot Noir ($17)

A truly expressive Pinot Noir at this price is a rarity, yet this fresh, lively bottling delivers.

2009 Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir ($28)

Saintsbury and winemaker Dick Ward specialized in Pinot Noir long before it was popular (Ward’s been at it for 31 years now). His experience shows in this graceful, fragrant wine.

2009 Kutch Wines Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($39)

Jamie Kutch ditched his New York City finance career to undertake a Pinot pilgrimage to western Sonoma, where he now makes lovely wines like this tea-and-berry-scented red.

2009 Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir ($57)

Sonoma-based Merry Edwards is one of California’s greatest Pinot Noir talents. Her wines are fairly expensive, but this single-vineyard Pinot is well worth the price.

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