Somm-approved bottles that prove the region can do edgy and innovative or rustic and raw as well as any progressive wine stronghold.

By Carson Demmond
Updated May 24, 2017
© Michael Cruse

Napa Valley may still be home to California wine country's most prized real estate, but ask any young oenophile well-versed in Champagne growers and Beaujolais crus how often she drinks the home-grown juice, and you'd think the region went out of style. In fact, there's a certain tendency to associate the entire viticultural area with bombastic renditions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay—the score-chasing, spoofalated wines priced for expense-account dinners and marked by garish new oak and jammy fruit instead of purity and food-friendliness.

It sounds like the perfect setup for a counterculture storyline, right? A new wave of young-gun vintners enters the scene to restore Napa to its former glory and save the vineyards from their high-alcohol overlords.

In truth, there are some rising star maverick winemakers turning out seriously compelling bottlings from alternative varieties, old heritage vines, and experimental plantings. But the story isn't that simple, and Napa Valley has never been only one thing. Long have there been passionate producers who have sidestepped the obstacle of having to invest in a costly Napa vineyard by using a shared facility and contracting fruit from conscientious grape growers with unique plots. And some wineries simply never took the blockbuster Cabernet bait and have been making honest, restrained whites and reds since their humble beginnings. Here, I've gathered seven sommelier-approved examples that prove Napa can do edgy and innovative or rustic and raw as well as any progressive wine stronghold in the New World or the Old.

2015 Massican Sauvignon ($33)

Massican is the passion project of Larkmead winemaker Dan Petroski. Although named for a mountain range in the southern Italian region of Campania (where Petroski's forbears hail from), the label takes inspiration from the fragrant, bracing whites from further north—in Friuli. This bottling pairs the grapefruit-like citrus of California Sauvignon Blanc with the mineral verve of a Friulian rendition, making it a perennial sommelier favorite.

2015 Stony Hill White Riesling ($32)

Stony Hill is that rare gem of a family-run Napa winery that has specialized in whites throughout the course of its history. Tucked away in a high hamlet on Spring Mountain, it still uses fruit from the gnarly, dry-farmed, head-trained vines from its original 1948 planting for this broad, minerally, peach-laced Riesling that brings the dry versions from Alsace to mind.

2014 Dirty & Rowdy Sémillon ($35)

When compared to conventional Napa Valley winemaking techniques, Hardy Wallace's may seem downright outlandish. For this Yountville-sourced Sémillon, he fermented 80 percent of the grapes on their skins in old oak barrels and pressed the rest into an egg-shaped concrete tank. The result is an earthy, smoky, fig-scented white that'll make you wonder why more California vintners aren't trying the whole skin-contact thing.

2015 Cruse Wine Co. Valdiguié ($30)

Self-taught winemaking wunderkind Michael Cruse may be best known for his Champagne-method sparkling wine project, called Ultramarine. But it's his Valdiguié—that cheerful, light-bodied, rose-scented red grape formerly known as Napa Gamay—that offers a glimpse into the future of California wine. Cruse sourced the grapes from the Rancho Chimiles vineyard in the Wooden Valley sub district, fermented with native yeasts and performed punchdowns by foot.

2013 Matthiasson Refosco ($47)

Although many of Steve and Jill Klein Matthiasson's bottles sport esoteric grape names, the spirit of their label is less indie attitude and more pure, old-fashioned farming. The Refosco (a native Friulian grape) grows in their home vineyard in the west Oak Knoll district, surrounded by other underappreciated varieties as well as fruit trees and other cover crops. Not unlike Italian versions, it's peppery and bright, laced with black fruit flavor and pomegranate-like acidity.

2013 Calder Wine Company Charbono ($28)

The much-maligned Charbono grape was planted up and down the valley in the '40s and had a brush with popularity in the '60s before being pulled out in favor of profit-friendly Cabernet Sauvignon. Luckily, young vintners like Calder's Rory Williams have taken up its case. His native yeast-fermented, unfined and unfiltered bottling is juicy and plum-inflected, with soft tannins and bright acidity that make it great for weekend sipping.

2012 Cain Five ($125)

If Stony Hill embodies the spirit of old school, unadulterated Napa for whites, Cain Vineyard & Winery occupies that seat for reds. Cain's organically farmed vines grow in a steep, amphitheater-shaped ring in the cool southwestern sector of Spring Mountain District. The wines are all indigenous yeast-fermented, including this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, which presents more savory than fruit-forward—like a Bordeaux with mountain freshness.