A great trick for buying the best bottles of California wine? Memorizing the names of top vineyards so you can spot them on labels.

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Prepare yourself. You're about to learn a new life hack in the realm of wine selection. No longer will you stare blankly in the grocery store wine aisle wondering which wines are the ones you want to take home; no longer will the wine labels stare back at you and laugh with disdain at your ignorance; no longer will you bring home a dud and lose the respect of your family and friends.

If you can't memorize the thousands of winemakers around the world and keep a mental note of which wines are guaranteed to delight and which wines should get drained down the sink, there's one trick to identifying the best potential bottle of wine: knowing the name of top vineyards that might appear on the label.

Bien Nacido
Bien Nacido
| Credit: Photo by David Brewer

Okay—this isn't completely foolproof, but many of the great producers share grapevines from distinct appellations with the most desirable soils and climates before turning those grapes into vinous gold. Simply knowing the names of these hallowed vineyards supplying the magic fruit is a smart way to streamline the wine-buying process and increase your chances of picking a real prize.

To keep things relatively simple, this list here only includes a handful of top California vineyards. Truth be told, this is by no means a complete list. It could easily be doubled or tripled (and to list every worthy vineyard would be to write a sizable book, so if you're a book agent, I'm up for the gig!), but the vineyards listed here are among the larger, highly-sought-after sites that sell grapes to multiple producers in California.

Take a look and get familiar with these names. You'll never look at the wine aisle the same way again.

1. Bien Nacido

Bien Nacido is ground zero of California's Santa Maria Valley—it is the vineyard against which all of Santa Maria is measured. It's the benchmark, crown jewel of the region. Bien Nacido's size is just about exactly 3,000 acres, of which roughly 600 acres are actually planted to vineyard land. While the site is home to several grape varieties, it's Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that thrive in the site's undulating hills and varying slopes and aspects, which are treated to Pacific Ocean breezes funneling up through the uniquely west-east oriented Santa Ynez Mountains. The resulting wines enjoy a pronounced acidity.

Fifth-generation Californian farm family the Millers began planting Bien Nacido in 1973. As of today, there are 83 distinct clients purchasing grapes from Bien Nacido. Big-name producers like Joel Gott and Orin Swift buy grapes, but it's the smaller, boutique wineries that have made the vineyard famous, like the late Jim Clendenen's Au Bon Climat, Ojai, Qupe, Tyler, and Gary Farrell. "Bien Nacido on a label means a guaranteed certain level of quality," explains Nick DeLuca, Grape Sales Manager for The Thornhill Companies (the greater umbrella of Miller Family business, which also owns nearby Solomon Hills vineyard). "The excitement with winemakers right now is Rhône varieties, especially Syrah." DeLuca adds that what draws winemakers to the site is a very unique "saline character that pervades everything."

Producers:

Au Bon Climat, Bien Nacido Estate and Solomon Hills Estate, Chanin, Covenant Wines, Foxen, Fess Parker, Gary Farrell, J. Wilkes, Ledge Vineyards, Migration, Ojai, Paul Lato, Presqu'ile Winery, Qupe, Twomey, and Tyler.

Wines to Try:

2017 Au Bon Climat Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley ($35)

One of the most classic expressions of this site, offering sleek, bright citrus aromas and flavors alongside toasty, buttered brioche, yellow apple, and vanilla bean notes. Potent floral aromas on the long finish.

2016 Qupe Bien Nacido Reserve Block Eleven Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley ($30)

Lime zest, vanilla cream, candied ginger, and a salty minerality mingle with zippy acidity and a bright streak of delicious baking spices.

2018 Migration Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley ($70)

Elegant red and black fruit notes, fine silky tannins, salty crushed stones, and vivid volcanic ash earth notes, with clove-tinged cherry on a spicy finish.

2. John Sebastiano Vineyard

The microclimates in Santa Barbara County make the area a phenomenal place to grow Syrah grapes, and if it's Syrah you desire, you want to roam the 100 acres at the relatively new John Sebastiano Vineyards. So what does John Sebastiano Vineyard (JSV) have going for it that makes the vineyard the belle of Buellton? "The place is magic," says the vineyard's co-owner John Wagner, who also makes wine under the Peake Ranch label. "It's high, with six or seven radically different soil types, it's romantic and cool, and it gets that ocean breeze. The wind is so strong, that if you open the door to your truck haphazardly, it'll blow the door off the truck."

In particular, John Sebastiano sits "in the Goldilocks zone at the eastern edge of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation," explains Dragonette winemaker Brandon Sparks-Gillis. "Here, the east-west orientation of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Sta. Rita Hills allows direct ocean influence, funneling in cool wind and fog from the Pacific Ocean. The relatively high elevation slopes face south, catching the sun, wind, and fog, creating an extremely long growing season which is perfect for Syrah." But JSV is not to be pigeon-holed as a one-trick pony, the site is also known for making waves with super Grenache and Pinot Noir.

Producers: Byron, Carlson, Couloir, Dragonette, Duckhorn, Foxen, Herman Story, Holus Bolus, Joel Gott, Kosta Browne, Ojai, Orin Swift, Paul Lato Atticus, Peake, Samsara, Sanguis, Siduri, Storm, Story of Soil, Tatomer,

Wines to Try:

2018 The Ojai Vineyard Alisal 'Sans Soufre Ajoute' Red, Sta. Rita Hills ($32)

A brilliant un-sulfured Grenache-Syrah blend, revealing a medium-body red with Damson plum, late-summer blueberry, white pepper, and divine floral notes. Find it at vivino.com.

2019 Dragonette Cellars Syrah John Sebastiano Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills ($65)

A very beautiful wine, with a gorgeous potpourri of dark berry fruit, dried tobacco, cured meat, and candied violets. Medium-bodied with velvety and concentrated black and blueberry flavors, crunchy acidity, and an energetic mineral-tinged finish.

2018 Peake Ranch Pinot Noir John Sebastiano Vineyard ($60)

John Wagner's personal project, this JSV Pinot delivers spicy, cinnamon-tinged red cherry and red licorice notes, giving way to luscious chocolate-covered raspberries, with tangy acidity, and a perfumed finish.

Radian Vineyard
Radian Vineyard
| Credit: Courtesy of The Hilt Estate

3. Radian Vineyard

Along with its neighboring vineyards Bentrock and Puerta del Mar, Radian lives under the domain of Hilt Estate, perched on the southwestern tip of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, and it stands out as a much-desired source for Central Coast grapes. Radian doesn't fit the stereotypical mold of serenity associated with most vineyards; the land features some steep, un-walkable ridges and often faces extreme lose-your-hat-forever winds at its highest elevations. Of course, the climatic accents of cool days, cooler nights, mixed with silica-laced diatomaceous soils and plenty of sunshine, do wonders for the quality of their grapes. Despite the relatively harsh conditions, Pinot Noir reigns supreme here alongside Chardonnay. The Hilt's winemaker Matt Dees is known for getting nerdy about perfect soil conditions and maintains a strict no-pesticide or herbicide policy—tricky work for Dees who loves (and hates) the "evil" property, which produces positively stunning, energetic, and gorgeous wines. 

Producers: Babcock, Chamisal, Dragonette, The Hilt, Ken Brown, Liquid Farm, Paley Wine Co.

Wines to Try:

2018 The Hilt Estate Pinot Noir, Radian Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills ($45)

Deeply flavorful with black cherry, cola nut, blueberries, dark roast espresso, and new wood cedar. Sassafras, sagebrush, and heady brown spices find a long, fruit-spice finish marked by pronounced chewy tannins and crisp acidity. PRO TIP: In the spring of 2021, The Hilt opened a new winery and tasting room to the public for the first time! If you're planning to visit Santa Barbara County, this is a must. Find it at bountyhunterwine.com.

2019 Dragonette Cellars Radian Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sta Rita Hills ($75)

A lip-smacking delicious and incredibly complex Pinot, delivering a panoply of black cherry, red plum, pomegranate, and blueberry, with a lively streak of minerality, brisk acidity, and soft tannins gliding to an earthy, wild-herb-tinged finish.

2018 Liquid Farm Radian Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sta Rita Hills ($74)

Another bright and lively rendition of Radian Pinot, with loads of spicy black cherry fruit, sumptuous earthy notes, cola nut, raspberry coulis, and marked by a zippy, tangy acidity. Find it at vivino.com.

4. Durell Vineyard

Remember Bill Price, the owner of Gap's Crown? Well, he must have a real eye for picking out great land, because he's also the man in charge of Durell, another Sonoma county powerhouse vineyard that provides 610 acres mainly devoted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. As Three Sticks winemaker Ryan Prichard tells it, "Durell is special because it's at the confluence of so many different forces of nature." Durell gets wind and fog rolling in from both the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay; the soils vary from sandy loams to ancient rocky river beds to volcanic, iron-rich clay. Mix these factors together and you end up with a bunch of grapes bearing the mark of depth and complexity so perfectly primed for producing iconic wines that it's near impossible to replicate without such a specific environment. The Pinots are expressive; the Chardonnays intense, so it's no wonder winemakers flock to Durell.

Producers: Armida, Auteur, Chateau St. Jean, DeLoach, Dunston, Fulcrum, Gary Farrell, Kistler, Patz & Hall, Saxon Brown, and Three Sticks Winery.

Wines to Try:

2018 Three Sticks Winery Chardonnay Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($60)

Irresistible and downright delicious. Leading with lime, grapefruit zest, and white flowers, the palate is medium-bodied with loads of orchard fruit flavors, scintillating acidity, and pops of vanilla-tinged crushed almonds. Find it at wine.com.

2018 Kistler Chardonnay Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($90)

Sumptuous, heady aromas of rich, lemon-filled pastries, marzipan, and salted caramel and high-toned candied mineral note. Decadent layers of golden delicious apple, poached pears, quince, and finishing long with a salty minerality. Remarkable. 

2018 Gary Farrell Chardonnay Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($65)

Honey-tinged white flowers, quince, and bright mineral qualities follow a rush of salted Meyer lemon candied ginger and apple tart. Medium-bodied with a sumptuous caramel finish. Find it at wineaccess.com.

5. Dutton Ranch

Not all great vineyards come in tidy packages of a single contiguous property, and to prove it, there's Dutton Ranch, an archipelago of 74 variously-sized vineyards (none larger than about 50 acres) boasting 1,100 combined total acres of pristine grapevines across the Russian River Valley and Green Valley AVAs. It's a kind of Burgundian model, with one family—the Dutton family—in charge of the entire range of vineyards, leasing out entire vineyard blocks or individual rows to various producers. Dutton Ranch is owned 50/50 by brothers Joe and Steve Dutton. Meanwhile, Joe and his wife, Tracy, own a wine label called Dutton Estate, and Steve and Dan Goldfield are partners in Dutton Goldfield wines.

The origins of Dutton Ranch date back to 1964 when Joe and Steve's parents bought the 35-acre "Home Ranch" site in Graton, CA. Today, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir lead the pack, along with plantings of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Syrah, and some old-vine plantings of Zinfandel. You'll want to look for either "Dutton Ranch" on a label, as well as names of their single vineyards, like Emerald Ridge, Morelli Lane, and Shop Block. Emerald Ridge, for instance, is planted to Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Viognier, and takers are Dutton Estate, Dutton Goldfield, Chappellet, Nickel & Nickel (for En Route), and DuMOL.

Producers: The Calling, Chappellet, Davis Family, DuMol, Dutton Estate, Dutton Goldfield, En Route, Francis Ford Coppola, Kistler, Marine Layer, Migration, Patz & Hall, and Siduri

Wines to Try:

2018 Dutton-Goldfield Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir Emerald Ridge Vineyard Russian River Valley, Green Valley ($68)

Black cherry and black raspberry notes, broad, with a vibrant candied red berry mid-palate and whispers of cinnamon, vanilla, silky tannins, and cedar through a mocha and candied violet finish.

2018 Chappellet Grower Collection Pinot Noir Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley ($49)

Lofty baked cherry pie spices, orange peel, flamed grapefruit; expansive with chalky tannins and hen of the woods earthy notes, forest floor, and mixed wild berry flavors, finishing long and strong with zingy acidity and zip. Find it at vivino.com.

2018 Marine Layer Jentoft Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($60)

Black cherry, wet river stones, smoky wild herbs; medium-bodied with distinct underbrush notes, forest pine, and creamy dark berry fruit framed by elegant and savory tannins, and good grippy acidity. A lingering zesty smoked grapefruit note takes this wine home.

6. Red Hen Vineyards

Red Hen Vineyards has a story like no others on this list: a comeback story. Since as far back as 1881, this warm, creekside tract with alluvial soils in Napa's Oak Knoll district has served as a site for truly delectable grape-growing. Throughout the twentieth century, however, the land hit some hard times, dealing with everything from pestilence to neglect. So how did Red Hen manage to stay in the game after periods of mistreatment? You'd have to ask some reputable winemakers like Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson, or former Screaming Eagle winemaker Maayan Koschitsky of La Pelle Wines, who saw the vineyard's long-ignored potential for excellence. And Matthiasson's red blend leveraged some Red Hen Merlot to produce one of Napa's most age-worthy wines. Legend tells that ever since its resurgence of popularity, the vines at Red Hen whisper these words into the night sky: "Still got it!"

Producers: Ashes & Diamonds, Matthiasson, La Pelle, Laird, Ideology, Levendi, Mineral Hill, Nicholson Jones, J. Moss.

Wines to Try:

2015 Matthiasson Red Hen Vineyard Merlot Napa Valley ($115)

One of the most age-worthy Merlots made in Napa in the last decade, delivering black cherry, damson plum, black tea, dark chocolate, and a wild berry finish. Fresh, savory, and tasty.

2018 La Pelle Cabernet Sauvignon Red Hen Vineyard Oak Knoll District Napa Valley ($125)

From the hand of Maayan Koschitsky, formerly of Screaming Eagle comes this full-bodied, richly imbued red bursting with black cherry, blackberry, pops of red fruit, cassis, and crushed herbs. Firm, broad-shouldered and muscular tannins glide to a long, spicy finish.

2017 Ashes & Diamonds Cabernet Sauvignon Red Hen Vineyard Oak Knoll District ($85)

Light and breezy, full of red fruit notes and graceful spice aromas.

Sangiacomo Vineyards
Sangiacomo Vineyards
| Credit: Courtesy of Mike Pucci

7. Sangiacomo Vineyards

It's hard to believe that the generations-long Sangiacomo family of farmers were once known for being the top pear farmers in all of Sonoma County, but when their pear business went bust in the 1960s, they dove head-first into growing grapes—and the rest is history. With over 1,600 acres of prime land in Sonoma over four separate AVAs (the majority of which are rooted in Carneros) and a dedication to the sustainability of their vines, Sangiacomo Vineyards is a highly desired source for premium cool-climate grapes. With more than 85 clients collecting Sangiacomo's pristine Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from 15 different single vineyards (like Home Ranch, El Novillero, and Roberts Road), many are long-time customers. In fact, the grape business at Sangiacomo has been going so well, they launched their own label in 2016—Sangiacomo Wines with James MacPhail helming the cellars—so they may never go back to growing pears ever again!

Producers: Amici Cellar, Anaba, B.R. Cohn, Benzinger, Barnett, Buena Vista, Chappellet, Cuvaison, Decoy, Flowers, Folie a Deux, Frank Family, Landmark, Myriad, Newton, Prisoner Wine Company, Ram's Gate Winery, Rombauer Vineyards, Sangiacomo Wines, Saxon Brown, Schug Winery, Thorn Hill Vineyards, Three Fat Guys, Walt Wines, and Westwood Family Wines, to name just a few.

Wines to Try:

2018 Sangiacomo Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($60)

A blend of Roberts Road Vineyard, Amaral, and Fedrick, this is one juicy and fleshy Pinot with nice clove-tinged cherry, orange peel, pithy grapefruit, and satiny tannins.

2017 Chappellet Grower Collection Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay Carneros Napa-Sonoma ($45)

Supple and rich with lemon citrus, candied pineapple and banana framed by mouthwatering acidity and a sweet baking spice finish.

2018 Schug Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($52)

Sourced from Fedrick Ranch in the Petaluma Gap, and Tallgrass and El Novillero in Sonoma Valley, this is a muscular, spicy, Pinot with tart cherry and blood orange, balanced acidity, and pretty earth notes. The winemaker today is German-born Johannes Scheid who is doing a remarkable job with the new releases! Find it at wine.com.

8. Hyde Vineyard

Since 1979, you could amble through the morning fog in this Carneros vineyard and find founder Larry Hyde tending to his yield. Hyde makes some fantastic Merlot, Viognier, and Syrah, but the real superstar is their Chardonnay, which attracts a veritable Who's Who of the most revered California Chardonnay winemakers. You may also know Larry's partner in the HdV Winery—one Aubert de Villaine, the co-owner of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. While we're name-dropping, it's almost impossible to talk about Hyde without talking about Hudson, the other Chardonnay Grand Cru vineyard in Carneros owned by Lee Hudson. Instead of Starsky & Hutch, it could have been Hudson & Hyde. And Lee Hudson might just be the devilish Jekyll to Mr. Larry Hyde, certainly from this writer's perspective. I have a fond memory of meeting Mr. Lee Hudson the night before my wedding day at Gott's Roadside in St. Helena. When he found out I was getting married, he gave me the same advice I'm going to pass along to you. "Run," he said—and to this day, I'm sure he meant: "Run into the vineyards [once you're married] and eat off the fruit of the vine." That's what he meant, right? Anyway, as for Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay, get it where you can.

Producers: Amici, Aubert, HDV, Hyde Vineyard Estate, Joseph Phelps, Kistler, Miner, Patz & Hall, Paul Hobbs, Radius, Ramey, Ram's Gate, Saxon Brown, Tor, DuMOL.

Wines to Try:

2018 Ramey Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard Carneros Napa Valley ($70)

Can't ever get enough of this! Lovey ginger spices, crushed wild rosemary, lemon, and lime citrus for days, subtle nutty finish. Everything David Ramey touches turns to gold, including this divine white. Find it at wine.com.

2018 Amici Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard Carneros ($75)

The incredibly talented Jesse Fox joined forces with the legendary Tony Biagi on this bottle of terroir-forward brilliance, showcasing the energy of the site, bolstered with crisp apple and vanilla notes and citrus zest. Rich with a spicy and nutty finish—a remarkable Hyde Chardonnay.

2017 Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Hyde Vineyard Carneros ($75)

A richly scented, fruit-forward Pinot with floral and spice aromas. Earthy and bold with fine tannins and a long, inviting finish. Find it at wine.com.

9. Gap's Crown Vineyard

So much has already been written about the singular greatness of Gap's Crown Vineyard, that while it might feel rote to call it an iconic vineyard, or a legendary spot for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, or to note how its geographical advantages are nearly unparalleled by any of its competitors, or how its wines are as popular as they are delicious, it doesn't make these things any less true. So what makes it such a big deal? The 406-acre vineyard, owned by Bill Price of Three Sticks Wines, is perched on a southwestern-facing slope of Sonoma Mountain, in the Petaluma Gap. Three Sticks winemaker Ryan Prichard sums up nicely why this site is truly special: "It sees fog early in the afternoon and is one of the last areas that the fog burns off in the morning. This cooler weather and almost constant wind throughout the vineyard causes the berries to develop smaller and with thicker skins. In the fermenter, this higher skin-to-juice ratio causes the wines to develop intense concentration with some wonderful tannins that allow these wines to age gracefully for years." Find the words "Gap's Crown" on any wine label, and you can be assured there's something truly special in the bottle.

Producers: Bruliam, Fulcrum, Guarachi, Kosta Browne, Lutum, MacPhail, Patz & Hall, Ram's Gate, Sojourn, Three Sticks Wines, Trombetta, Walt.

Wines to Try:

2018 Three Sticks Chardonnay Gap's Crown Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($60)

One generous swirl of the glass delivers intensely bright crushed stone mineral aromas accented by lemon and lime zest. Silken layers of lemon, candied ginger, and quince give way to honeysuckle, all supported by a spine of firm acidity and immense length. Find it at wine.com.

2018 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Gap's Crown Vineyard Sonoma Coast  ($165)

There's nothing more iconic than Gap's Crown Pinot from Kosta Browne. Hauntingly dark cherry aromas, coffee beans, cocoa powder, and orange peel. Broad and expansive, evoking cranberry and candied cherry flavors, with powdery tannins, tangy acidity, and a salted dark chocolate mineral-tinged finish. Find it at vivino.com.

2018 Ram's Gate Pinot Noir Gap's Crown Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($75)

Herb and spice notes infuse this wine with hints of raspberry, cherry, and red plum. Earthy with an exciting acidity and savory finish.

10. Stagecoach

Before Dr. Jan Krupp came along in the 1990s, the land where Stagecoach Vineyards currently sits was a tract of dense shrubs, massive boulders, and slithering wildlife. Today, Stagecoach, the largest contiguous vineyard in Napa Valley, produces some of the region's most favored fruit. The years-long effort to turn 750 acres of mother nature into vineyard land paid off big time, becoming to this day a hot spot for Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, and Chardonnay. Winemakers flock to Stagecoach for the distinctly rugged "mountain" characteristics of their grapes–complex flavors and juicy tannins–informed by the volcanic soils and sunlight exposure from above the fog line. It's the kind of weeds-to-riches story that can make any winemaker think twice before dismissing the potential of any plot of Napa Valley wilderness. Stagecoach is now under the ownership of Gallo, great stewards of the land who will ensure quality wines for a long time to come.

Producers: Alpha Omega, Freemark Abbey, Krupp Brothers, Krutz, Levendi, Miner, Patland, Paul Hobbs, Roberti Biale, Sequoia Grove, Venge, World's End.

Wines to Try:

2018 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Stagecoach Vineyard Napa Valley ($200)

Available only at the Louis M. Martini winery, this 100% Cabernet delivers a bold, powerful, and heady expression of this iconic site. From two blocks of Stagecoach Vineyard, aromas of red berries, classic Stagecoach sagebrush, vanilla bean, and new wood cedar find powerful and muscular tannins with serious grip and flavors of blackberry liqueur tinged with chocolate and baking spices.

2016 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon Stagecoach Vineyard Napa Valley ($110)

Always a stand-out, this deep-colored Cabernet offers generous warm berry notes, elegant tobacco spices, and pops of chocolate. Smooth and savory with rich tannins.

2018 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red Napa Valley ($225)

A blend of mostly Stagecoach, followed by Vangone, Rancho Chimiles, and Pahlmeyer Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot grapes, this red blend offers aromas of blackberries and black cherries and spicy wild herbs. Velvety tannins are firm while this full-bodied red offers rich black and blue fruits and whiffs of Stagecoach cigar box and cassis.

11. Beckstoffer George III Vineyard

When it comes down to it, what makes Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard such a noteworthy wine destination isn't the climate, or the soil, or even the geniuses tending the 300-acre ranch in Rutherford, originally planted by Elizabeth Rutherford in 1895. No, Georges III owes its fame and historical significance to the acclaim of one bottle: the Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet, which made a huge splash in the 1960s and '70s and defined the flavor of Napa Valley for decades. And yet, that revered bottle never really managed to define the vineyard where some of California's greatest winemakers have tripped over themselves trying to snag some of its fruit. It takes a lot of expertise and ingenuity to concoct the definitive Cabernet, but to keep the quality going strong over generations like Georges III has—that's a whole other thing. Getting your hands on bottles of George III typically means breaking the bank. But worth it to experience "the underlying character of its diversity," as described by Mike Smith of Myriad Cellars, who asserts that "the magic happens when you take that diversity into a wine as a whole, not by varietal-blending but by Cabernet Sauvignon on its own."

Producers: Adobe Road, Alpha Omega, B Cellars, Boich, Fairchild, Hunnicutt, Krutz, Myriad, Purlieu, Schrader, Sojourn, Taub

Wines to Try:

2019 Myriad Cellars 'Empyrean' Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Vineyards George III Napa Valley ($125)

Generous and high-toned, with a rush of Madagascar French vanilla bean, and cigar box along with rich saddle leather. Almost ethereal in its full-bodied texture, with silky, feather-weight tannins, offering bold sweet blackberry, cassis, graphite, and sumptuous earth notes, with rich salted dark chocolate and a long finish punctuated by bitter wild herbs lasting a full minute and then some.

2017 Boich Family Cellars Beckstoffer Vineyards Georges III Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($170)

Produced by Jeff Ames, this is one collector-level wine worth seeking out. It's a ruby-black hued hefty red that wafts of blackberry pie spices, violets, crème de cassis, and blackberry liqueur. Find it at vivino.com.

Hirsch Vineyards
Hirsch Vineyards
| Credit: Courtesy of Hirsch Vineyards

12. Hirsch Vineyards

On the way to Hirsch, one of California's most remote, high-elevation vineyards you'll pass by Helen Turley's famous Marcassin vineyard and Martinelli's Blue Slide vineyard, before arriving at a 1,600-foot lookout where the ocean is quite visible on a clear day, just beyond treacherous ridges of redwood groves and Douglas fir pines. Today, Hirsch Ranch encompasses some 1,000 acres of rugged terrain carved out over millennia by the ever-shifting San Andreas fault lines. "Earthquake farming" is how Jasmine Hirsch puts it. Acting as general manager and winemaker, Jasmine's dad David Hirsch bought the first parcel of land in 1978, one year before she was born. "He found the site in the farm estate section of San Francisco Chronicle," says Hirsch, noting it was a sheep ranch then. "He'd been living in the Santa Cruz Mountains and was in the clothing business, but in the early '80s that business was winding down and he was looking for a new place to live up north—not to plant a vineyard."

Nevertheless, grape growing would become Hirsch's destiny, cemented by a trio of world-famous winemaking legends: Burt Williams of Williams Selyem fame, Steve Kistler who founded his eponymously named estate, and Ted Lemon of Littorai. This trifecta of talent had sampled a wine produced from Hirsch's grapes—and they wanted some for themselves. Their interest shined a unique spotlight on this otherwise remote ranch, and over the years some 30-40 different wineries have become clients. With vines aged between 20 and over 40 years, Hirsch, eyeing a sustainable future for her family's land, began replanting struggling blocks in 2011 and converting the ranch entirely to biodynamics. Since 2014, the entire ranch has been farmed according to biodynamic principles and the winery and irrigation pumps are all powered by solar energy. It cannot be understated how incredible of a high-elevation site this is—situated above the fog line, vines are bathed in intense sunlight. The rugged land forces them to struggle for life, resulting in wines that are vivid, raw, and energetic, showcasing layers of bright, elegant fruit flavors. They're characteristically low in alcohol and capable of incredibly long aging—offering endless drinking pleasure.  

Producers: Failla, Hirsch, Littorai, Twomey, Ultramarine, and Williams Selyem.

Wines to Try:

2018 Hirsch Vineyards Pinot Noir San Andreas Fault Sonoma Coast ($60)

This Pinot is remarkably fresh with high-toned red berry fruit and a lifted floral elegance, tightly wound upon first opening, eventually unspooling into raspberry and dark cherry notes tinged with wild sage, first floor, and pops of juicy, tangy grapefruit peel. Find it at wine.com.

2019 Failla Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast  ($85)

A heady mix of spice and red fruit redolent of cherry and strawberry with whispers of clove and cinnamon. Smooth and with refreshing acidity and a long spice-driven finish. Find it at wine.com.

2015 Williams Selyem Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($72)

Cherry aromas backed by cranberry, pomegranate, and cola with an earthy forest floor balance. Medium-bodied, with silky tannins with bursting deep berry flavors and a lasting finish.

13. To Kalon

Despite Georges III's world renown, To Kalon manages to be even more famous. The site is second-to-none for Cabernet and only the towering greats in winemaking are able to get their hands on the goods: Mondavi, Tor, Paul Hobbs, Schrader, to name a few. Ownership of the land is fragmented among six different proprietors with Constellation Brands taking the largest percentage of the land, totaling 450 acres. Geneviève Janssens, the chief winemaker for Robert Mondavi Winery, explains exactly where to look for the Mondavi / Constellation portion of To Kalon: "Our To Kalon Vineyard is located west of Highway 29 and extends up the Oakville bench to the base of the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, running between Dwyer Road to the south and the northern boundary of Robert Mondavi Winery." It boasts exactly 435 acres of planted vines, including "such highly prized blocks as Monastery Block (Bordeaux varieties on gravelly, well-drained soils) and I-Block (dry-farmed and well-drained soils with the oldest known Sauvignon Blanc vines in the New World, planted in 1945)." 

Past legal disputes have caused some controversy and friction between the landowners over whether the phrase "To Kalon" is a vineyard or a marketing concept, leaving Beckstoffer to use it only as the former, and Mondavi as the latter (and however they please). MacDonald and Detert, owners of the smallest shares, aren't allowed to use the phrase "To Kalon" on their labels at all. It's a confusing situation for consumers and a boon for lawyers, but does any of it affect the quality of the fruit? Not at all. Every mover and shaker in the wine business is trying to make the best Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc race to crush To Kalon fruit. With great fame and merit comes high grape prices (and very high bottle prices), but wine lovers have an unspoken contract with To Kalon that no matter what the cost, the taste is worth the price of admission.

Producers: Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate, Alpha Omega, Amici, AXR, Bounty Hunter, Mondavi, Realm, Paul Hobbs, Provenance, Schrader, Tor, Vice Versa.

Wines to Try:

2017 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon The Reserve To Kalon Vineyard Oakville ($175)

This is a very pretty wine, incredibly structured, already generous, with a beautiful potpourri of cinnamon-tinged red berry fruit, vanilla bean spices, and elegant fine French oak. Very grippy tannins are powerful and firm while a sweet richness coats the palate through a mélange of boysenberry raspberry, cranberry, and blackberry fruits.

2018 Tor Kenward Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Pure Magic Beckstoffer To Kalon ($275)

An outgoing and exciting Cabernet with currant and cherry notes, lavender aromas, and bold, brilliant tannins.

2016 Realm Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard ($350)

Wow! A savory red, offering iron-like minerality, and salted, cured meat aromas, giving way to dark black and rich blue fruit notes, with an undercurrent of cedar spices. Power and beauty.

14. Evangelho Vineyard

When developers and officials in Contra Costa County made a push to raze Evangelho Vineyard and use the land to build apartments, they didn't know what they were up against. In fact, the whole story behind Evangelho, one of the oldest vineyards in the United States, is one of perseverance. Despite the vineyard's origins stretching back to the 1890s, nearly all of their original vines are still intact and thriving. It hasn't been ravaged by age and the property's sandy soils helped prevent any damage from periodic outbreaks of phylloxera. Not bad for a vineyard whose next-door neighbors are a gymnastics center and a tire shop. But of course, the grapes are hard to beat. The breezy San Francisco Bay air helps to keep their eclectic and sustainable selection going strong: Zinfandel, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Palomino, and Muscat among them. Evangelho goes to show that for some vineyards, the key to longevity is a consistency of excellence.

Producers: Bedrock Wine Co., Cruse, Dashe Les Enfants, Desire Lines, Neyers, Precedent, Ridge, Terrible, Three Wine Co., T-Vine.

Wines to Try:

2018 T-Vine Evangelho Blend, And We All Grow Old Contra Costa County ($50)

Old vine magic in this brew: raspberry, currant, and cherry notes with earthy and floral aromas.

2018 Bedrock Wine Co. Evangelho Vineyard Heritage Red, Contra Costa County ($40)

Here we have some of Master of Wine Morgan Twain-Peterson's fine handy work. Tart cherry and dark citrus notes with berry aromas and a smoky undertone. All supported by firm tannins and nice acidity. Find it at vivino.com.

2016 Three Zinfandel Evangelho Vineyard Contra Costa County ($36)

This bottle from Matt Cline comes with a spiced blackberry flavor with a peppery garnish. It's a full-bodied, rich and tasty red that drinks great on day one, even better on day two.

Vineyards in Napa Valley, Northern California
Credit: TraceRouda / Getty Images

15. Charles Heintz Vineyards

Even with only 100 acres to its name, Charles Heintz Vineyards sits on such varied landscapes that it gets to claim more than a couple of microclimates within its borders. Its proximity to the Pacific coast provides some excellent maritime fog coverage and there's diversity in the soil, ranging from clay to sandy loam. A longtime jewel of Sonoma County, the Heintz Ranch has been in operation as the source for highly desired grapes since 1912, and the enduring quality of their fruit keeps top winemakers coming back for more. Their biggest hits are their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, but they also get high marks for their Syrah.

Producers: Amici Cellars, Ceritas, Cruse, LaRue, Littorai, Marine Layer, Migration, Moone-Tsai, DuMOL, and Senses.

Wines to Try:

2018 Migration Chardonnay Charles Heintz Vineyard Sonoma Coast  ($56)

Rich and inviting with decadent tropical fruit notes, pops of honeysuckle, and richly-textured baking spices, supported by juicy acidity.

2018 Littorai Chardonnay Charles Heintz Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($125)

This wine's not the easiest to find, but even the older vintages are a real treat. Peachy, citrusy, with vanilla and wet stone notes. Balanced with bright, zingy acidity.

2019 Cruse Wine Co. Syrah Charles Heintz Vineyard Syrah ($45)

Another hard-to-find set of wines, especially Ultramarine, their sparkling wine from Heintz. Dark berry notes, savory white pepper notes, airy and elegant. Find it at garyswine.com.

16. James Berry

Not too many figures in Paso Robles have earned the title "kingmaker," but if anyone has, Justin Smith of Saxum fame would be one of them. His parents, James Berry Smith (affectionately known as "Pebble") and Terry established the James Berry Vineyard in 1981, and Justin helped put the site squarely on the map having earned loads of praise for his Saxum wines (the waitlist is about four years for an allocation). The James Berry Vineyard has been hailed as one of California's "grand cru" sites by one of its most ardent fans—the retired critic Robert Parker.

Situated roughly 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, sea breezes, sunny days, and a clay loam topsoil over an ancient seabed rife with marine deposits all work in tandem to develop highly desirable Grenache and Syrah grapes, which make up the majority of plantings along with parcels of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Counoise, Carignan and Petite Sirah. Winemakers from all over the region hope to get their hands on James Berry fruit, but Smith runs a tight ship selling to only a handful of producers. The vineyard is farmed organically and is heading toward regenerative practices. If you want a taste of the best that Paso Robles has to offer, the name "James Berry" on the label is a mark of quality you'll want to look for.

Producers: Carlisle Winery, Kinero, Ledge Vineyards, Saxum, Torrin, Turtle Rock, and Villa Creek.

Wines to Try:

2018 Saxum "James Berry Vineyard" Paso Robles Rhône Blend ($98)

This blend of Mataro, Syrah, and Carignan delivers an explosion of dark blue fruits, espresso beans, cassis, crushed violets, and a royally rich, satiny texture and a finish that goes on for days. 

2018 Carlisle Syrah James Berry Vineyard Willow Creek District Paso Robles ($62)

Full-bodied, with silky blackberry fruit, cedar spices, blueberry preserves, and ultra-fine-grained tannins with a long, crushed stone finish.

2019 Kinero Cellars Rustler Roussanne James Berry Vineyard Willow Creek District Paso Robles ($32)

Produced by Anthony Yount, one of Paso's great, rising-star winemakers, this is near impossible to find, so get on the Kinero mailing list! But it's one gorgeous Roussanne, offering loads of ripe, honeydew melon, white flowers, a flinty minerality and ripe orchard fruit flavors drizzled in honey.

17. Garys' Vineyard

Comparatively modest in size against other heavy-weight vineyards at only 50 acres, this Soledad-based vineyard packs a punch so hard that it's named after not one, but two people named Gary. That's Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni. A sister vineyard of nearby Soberanes (they're both under the same ownership), Garys' Vineyard makes its home in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA inland of Monterey Bay where the marine air makes it one of California's coolest wine-growing regions. It's common to find the Garys' name plastered across some of your favorite wine labels. Syrah makes an appearance on the roster, but with crisp weather like that, it should be no surprise that their big draw is their Pinot Noir.

Producers: Alfaro Family, A.P. Vin, Bernardus, Capiaux, Daou, Kosta Browne, Loring, Lucia, Miner, Miura, Morgan, Neyers, Roar, Siduri, Surh Luchtel, Testarossa, Vision.

Wines to Try:

2018 Twomey Pinot Noir Garys' Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands ($68)

At first, a bit tight, so give it a good few swirls. Moving from wild berry aromas and cedar, eventually giving way to crushed blackberries and dusty cherries, elegant tobacco and dark chocolate accents throughout. This is a Pinot that has power, intensity, and grip. It's poised to unwind and soften with time in the bottle. Find it at wineaccess.com.

2017 Lucia Pinot Noir Garys' Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands ($65)

Incredibly high-toned, bright cherry, giving way to baked cherry or boysenberry tart, rhubarb pie, and grapefruit zest, orange peel, and dark chocolate. Round and luscious, with a lifted wet slate finish.