25 of Our Favorite Under-the-Radar California Reds
“Sometimes it's necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly,” says Jerry, the main character in Edward Albee’s play The Zoo Story. It's one of my favorite quotes of all time, and when it comes to red wine from California, truer words have never been spoken.
Be honest: on your last trip to California wine country, how far off the main arteries of Napa did you veer? Could you still see the Silverado Trail or Highway 29 from the tasting room? If you went to Sonoma, could you see the ocean from where you parked the car? If your trip was to the Central Coast, did you stick to downtown Santa Barbara’s buzzing tasting rooms, or did you venture out into the stunning landscapes of Ballard Canyon, Sta. Rita Hills, and Santa Ynez?
I can’t tell you how many times I stumble upon another new project in Napa alone, or get tipped off to some hush-hush label that’s been produced for over a decade—often being made just out of site up in the Vaca or Mayacamas foothills. As such, the following list of reds showcases a smattering of lesser-known labels from some prominent producers, as well as a handful of wines I hope you’ve never heard about.
It’s time to go out of your way.
Veteran winemaker Joel Aiken, the longtime guiding force behind Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, is the co-founder and winemaker for Scattered Peaks. The 2015 vintage marks their inaugural release—so get on the mailing list now. Gorgeous black cherry and cassis aromas abound. That dark-berry theme continues throughout the palate with robes of dark fruit unfolding with notes of black licorice, olives and turkish coffee. Plush tannins round out the savory finish. A savvy pickup for the cellar.
New Zealand born winemaker, Angela Osborne sources Grenache from some of the most unique sites along California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Foothills. This Santa Barbara County bottling showcases select parcels from the Highlands, Santa Ynez, Ballard Canyon and Sta. Rita Hills. Neutral barrel aging allows for a stunning purity of fruit to shine through, giving way to vibrant raspberry, tar, licorice, white pepper and pronounced red floral notes that sing on another level with perfect harmony. This vintage appears to be sold out at the winery, but grab what you can from local retail or online.
The “Band of Vintners” is back together for their second release. The “band” is an all-star team of some of Napa’s hottest winemakers. Led by 100-point winemaker Dan Petroski (Massican, Larkmead), Stéphane Vivier of Hyde de Villaine, and Master Sommelier and Harlan alumnus Just beJason Heller—this Cabernet Sauvignon combines Merlot for suppleness and a dash of Cabernet Franc for added aromatics and savoriness. Dominated by black fruit aromas with mocha and crushed-rock minerality. Generous on the palate, with mouth-filling blackberry, blueberry compote, and dark chocolate-covered cherries tinged with cassis, plush and long.
This is one of your best bets for a food-friendly, bright and focused red for imbibing all summer and into the fall. Varying year to year, the blend breakdown combines Bordeaux and Rhône varieties, with Zinfandel playing a leading role. Lip-smackingly delicious with heady notes of cracked pepper and violets follow gobs of cassis and black fruit seasoned with roasted meat and savory herbs. You see “barbecue” written all over that, right?
For those who crave a well-balanced Bordeaux-inspired red blend, the tiny Chalk Hill AVA just northwest of Santa Rosa, California is the place of origin for you. Calluna is a breathtaking estate on the western exposure of the Mayacamas Mountain range. Had this fruit been planted over the county line in Napa it would equate to a wine costing double the price. This true Bordeaux blend is Merlot-dominant with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Black currants and black cherry fruit meet plum notes, tinged with savory crushed bay leaf, tobacco, cedar-spice, dried violets, cassis, and cocoa.
Superstar sommelier and co-author of Secrets of the Sommeliers and the just-published Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste teamed up with Pete Stolpman, one of California’s most respected Central Coast winemakers, to craft this one-of-a-kind red. Combe is a French word that describes a small sheltered valley within a vineyard—in this case, the area of Trousseau grapes that Parr convinced Stolpman to plant on the limestone soils of Stolpman Vineyards. This effort is an ode to the grape’s origins in the French Jura with a light to medium-bodied concentration accentuated with high-tone fruit notes of sour cherry and red currants with heaps of beguiling spice notes. The perfect afternoon picnic red.
Proprietor and winemaker, Michael Cruse is making wine in the town of Petaluma with ultra-cool-climate Syrah from the area’s highly prized Charles Heintz Vineyard. The site is planted in the nearby town of Occidental, and is more known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but this tiny 170-case production of Syrah is a showstopper. A delicious blue-black-fruited stunner, rounded off with crushed violets, and a hint of white-pepper and cured meat.
The Red Hills AVA of Lake County has emerged as top-notch territory for affordable California Cabernet. Strikingly red volcanic-rich soils marked by black obsidian and quartz crystals combined with extremely high elevations (most vineyards here are planted between 2,000 to 2,400 feet), makes for the perfect medium for concentrated, mountain-grown Cabernet. This is a real steal, packed with juicy plum and black cherry, buttressed by polished tannins and hints of brown spice seasoning.
Kudos to owners/winemakers Tracy and Jared Brandt for leading the California natural wine movement from their urban facility in Berkeley. The Gallivanter Red Blend changes every vintage, but always relies on low-yielding sites. The 2016 Gallivanter is comprised of Merlot, Grenache and Mourvèdre from the Anderson Valley and boasts teeth-staining mountain berry fruit, dusty earth undercurrents and uplifting minerality.
Bringing Italy’s Piedmont region to the hills of Mendocino County was Sam Bilbro’s vision with the Idlewild brand. Piedmont’s star grape variety—Nebbiolo—delivers a North Coast California rendition that hits it on the head with a textbook nose of crushed roses, tar and sandalwood spice. Bing cherry and crushed-stone notes are met with black tea tannin in one of finest New World renditions of Nebbiolo out there.
When he’s not working his day job as assistant winemaker at Wind Gap, owner and winemaker Scott Schultz produces roughly 500 cases per year of Jolie-Laide wines. This classic Rhône blend from the historic Rossi Ranch in Sonoma Valley brings Grenache and Syrah into one tank, where they co-ferment along with a small percentage of white Viognier and Muscat grapes that grow amongst the rows. The white varieties add a wild perfume note to the final blend. And the grapes are actually crushed by foot! After a whole-cluster ferment, the wine is pressed off into neutral oak barrels for another 10 months. The result is an elegant red with a dark-fruited core of sumptuous Grenache that melds harmoniously with the sauvage- and peppercorn-scented character of Syrah. Bold and masculine, but charming and playful.
“Soif” is French for “thirst” and this bottling calls to mind the rustic reds popular in French bistros that boast a refreshing balance, heady spice, and relatively lower alcohol. It's a kitchen-sink-old-vine blend that fully undergoes carbonic maceration—a winemaking technique made famous by France’s Beaujolais region that preserves bright and pure berry-flavors. Sometimes you’ll hear sommeliers refer to “bubble gum,” notes—that’s carbonic. Here, bright berry aromas meet darker blackberries laced with brown spice and violets. Preserve it’s liviness by putting a good chill on the bottle.
Proprietors Ryan and Megan Glaab have sourced a winner in this 100 percent Cabernet Franc from the Alegria Vineyard on the southern end of Healdsburg. This is a cooler site that reveals the more floral side of Cabernet Franc—lovely purple and blue florals combine with lofty white pepper spice. Bright red berry notes are accented by olive, dried herbs and more dried floral notes on a lengthy finish. Ryme has an esoteric portfolio that includes Vermentino and Aglianico, two Italian varieties rarely grown in California—not only an under-the-radar red, but a great source of discovery of unique California blends.
Winemaker Matthew Rorick looked to one of California’s far-flung, relatively unknown appellations, then harvested the truly uncommon Alvarelhão grape (native to Northern Portugal) from 17-year-old vines. The result is an intensely aromatic beauty. One hundred percent whole-cluster fermented, kicked off by local native yeasts, this wine has an irresistible softness bolstered by mouthwatering acidity. No oak aging means this is all pure, with bright berry-flavors marked by subtle hints of wild herbs.
Winemaker Ian Brand created this second label to complement his family label, I. Brand & Family. In French, “Le p’tit payson” refers to “a country man or woman; peasant; clown; in a country fashion,” according to Brand’s website. My best reading of this moniker is that Ian considers himself a country gentleman, with a good sense of humor, out to make a splash—not a posh and city-like splash, but one in which the country man impresses with his intimate knowledge, and access to quality wine country grapes—well off the beaten path. And in this ode to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, this Le P’tit Pape (“little pope”) is dominated by Grenache and rounded out with Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cunoise and Cinsault from San Benito County in California's Central Coast. Wherein the massive swatch of San Benito? Only Brand knows. But it’s a zinger of spicy dried cherry and cured meat with dried savory herbs and worn leather, all supported by a medium-bodied mouthfeel. Hard to resist the whimsical label.
Lioco co-founders Matt Licklider and Kevin O’Connor are behind this sommelier favorite. They're known for their cool-climate, site-specific Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Mendocino, Santa Cruz and Sonoma County. But their “Sativa” Carignan maybe be their most versatile food pairing-red. Sourced from 70-year-old head-pruned Carignan vines rooted on the remote, rocky slopes of Pine Mountain at 2,400 feet elevation, far above the town of Cloverdale. Good old-fashioned foot-stomping gives way to 100 percent whole cluster fermentation, yielding a full-throttle red, bursting with blackberry and cassis notes, accented by subtle tar and candied violets.
The most senior winemaker out of this lineup, Steve Edmunds is one of the original Rhône Rangers and his wines are beloved in the San Francisco Bay Area. Even with his long track record of making wines, however, some of his labels—like this El Dorado County “Bone-Jolly” Gamay—still maintain a low profile. Edmunds was one of the first California vintners to consistently work with the Gamay grape. It's amazingly fresh and pure, with plenty of bright red fruit adorning the palate and streaks of cracked pepper and mouthwatering minerality. Bring on the grilled sausages.
18. 2015 Vermillion Red ($36)
Helen Keplinger sits in the pantheon of great female California winemakers. She was a Food & Wine Winemaker of the Year in 2012, and has worked alongside Heidi Barrett, Michel Rolland and David Abreu, overseeing uber high-end projects like Bryant Family, Grace Family Vineyards, and Kenzo Estate. Vermillion is her California ode to Rhône Valley red. For me, it’s a classy Rhône-inspired party in a bottle—the kind of wine to drink at the start of a meal in one of Lyon’s famous Brasseries. Grenache grapes plucked off vines from Sonoma County to the Sierra Foothills deliver a menagerie of dark berry deliciousness, packed with a ton of viscosity, but that's poised on the mid-palate with subtle undertones of roasted coffee, licorice, dried thyme and rosemary. Soft and creamy tannins make this red wonderfully approachable.
Folk Machine is one of the ever-expanding labels of the Hobo Wine Company. This blend, comprised of Mendocino Carignane and Syrah with some Grenache from the Central Coast and a dollop of Barbera, boasts a terrific fruit-to-acid balance, with gobs of red cherry and black raspberry fruit tinged with brown spices, cracked pepper and warm earth overtones.
Started in 2012, Ernest is one of the hottest Sonoma Pinot Noir labels presently on the scene. Small-lot sourcing led them to Cleary Ranch in the cool Freestone subregion of West Sonoma County. Here, the Pinot grapes experience extended “hang time” as flavors develop, all while enjoying the cool mornings and evenings of Sonoma, which aid in keeping natural acids firmly in check. Crushed rose petal aromas lead the way with juicy bing cherry and dried plum notes on a silken finish.
Beringer and Peter Michael put Knights Valley on the map, but it’s this Galerie “Latro” offering that will remind enthusiasts and collectors alike that you can still pickup quality mountain Cabernet for under around $50. The “Latro” is dark and opulent with an herbal and mineral edge that conjures a broad-shouldered but balanced Left Bank Bordeaux. Beautiful blackberry and blackcurrant adorn the mid-palate with a contrast of graphite and crushed rocks that adds depth to the finish.
22. 2014 Arietta Quartet Cabernet ($65)
Here’s a label for the music aficionados. In 1996, longtime famous Zachys wine auctioneer Fritz Hatton, and his wife Caren, partnered with John and Maggy Kongsgaard to produce the first vintage of Arietta. Today, the Hattons are sole owners and Andy Erickson of Screaming Eagle fame makes the wines. Look closely at this “Quartet” label and you’ll see that behind the four instruments are a few lines of sheet music from the manuscript of the "Cavatina" movement from the Beethoven String Quartet Opus 130. A Cabernet Sauvignon dominant Bordeaux blend, it is a masterful creation, creamy and plush, dripping with dark black fruit, savory tobacco spice, creme de cassis, and gorgeously integrated oak notes.
Founded by Andrew Tow in 2013, The Withers Winery sources from sustainable vineyards throughout Sonoma, Mendocino, El Dorado and Sierra Foothills. A mere 168 cases were produced of the 2015 “Mr. Burgess,” comprised primarily of Syrah with a splash of Mourvèdre. The grapes were harvested off five sites, including Fenaughty and Wylie Vineyards, which Steve Edmunds help put on the map back in the 1990s. This is a Northern Rhône lookalike with seductive aromas of white pepper, violets and sea breeze. Black currants are seasoned with pulverized rocks, giving way to black pepper and worn leather notes.
French-born winemaker Benoit Touquette cut his teeth in the U.S. working alongside the venerable Andy Erickson, sharing responsibilities in the famed cellars of Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Arietta, and Ovid. Touquette has produced a bevy of terrific Napa Cabernet wines for Realm, Kata, and Hartwell, and under his own labels Fait-Main and Teeter-Totter. This 2015 Teeter Totter is hedonism in the bottle. Full-bodied and opulent, generous black fruits, graphite, chocolate and toasty oak notes are supported by silky tannins and flavor-filled finish that resonates 45-60 seconds.
25. 2015 Carbone Red Wine Napa Valley ($75)
Together, proprietors Andy Erickson and Annie Favia are one of Napa’s great power couples. Annie's viticultural work spans some of Napa’s top sites for Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Ovid, Sloan, and Bryant. Erickson (mentioned above) has a glowing resume of his own. And this Carbone label pays homage to the original owners of their home in Coombsville, which has been fully restored. The one-room ground floor cellar, where all of the couple’s Favia wines are produced, is the original winery that the Carbone’s used. The 2016 vintage of Carbone will soon hit select retailers, but the inaugural release 2015 is still out there. This is your entry-level ticket to one of California’s truly great under-the-radar reds. It’s all blackberry, black cherry, and blueberry fruit, peeling away complex notes of clove, allspice, and crushed violets. It's densely concentrated, but light on its feet, with a generous mouthfeel, grace and poise, and plush tannins on a sustained finish. Delicious.