17 Off-the-Beaten-Path California Reds
California's mainstream red grape varieties—Zinfandel, Merlot, the stalwart Cabernet Sauvignon—have maintained a tight grip on power. Indeed, Cabernet's tenure as California's supreme wine grape has outlived even the length of the FDR presidency.
Still, the Golden State boasts an abundance of revolutionary-minded winemakers who are willing to exploit the potential of the vast array of grape varieties available for cultivation. Some look to lesser-known ones like Counoise, while others experiment with the widely popular Malbec, occasionally blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon to offer a novel take on both.
But California offers so much more than its most familiar grape varieties and blends: The elegant spiciness of a well-made Cabernet Franc; the finesse-driven, red-toned vibrato of a juicy Mourvèdre; lively examples of Carignan, Syrah, and Grenache. All of these and more offer a spate of off-the-beaten-path reds worth seeking out.
The list of 17 wines below showcases the abundance of unique reds that California is capable of producing, along with a few under-the-radar classics, too.
2020 Turning Tide Red Blend Santa Ynez Valley ($25)
Winemaker Alisa Jacobson helped usher the Joel Gott wine label from obscurity to the globally-recognized and iconic brand it is today. She recently passed the baton back to Joel and Sarah Gott, and set out to forge her own path with a renewed and passionate focus on making wine from sustainably-farmed vineyards in coastal regions. An avid diver, her personal Instagram account chronicles up-close, intimate encounters with a wealth of underwater sea life. As for this red blend, it's a combination of Grenache and Mourvèdre from a vineyard she co-owns outside Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez AVA. Scrumptious and juicy, with black and red berry fruit and loads of heady baking spices that offer a deep dive into the realm of the delicious.
2019 Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc California ($29)
The king of California Cabernet Franc, anthropologist-turned-winemaker John Skupny has done it again with his 2019 release. Comprised entirely of the tiny-berried Cab Franc sourced from sites in the Central Coast and all the way up to northern Sonoma, it offers a unified snapshot of the great vintage. Fragrant red berry fruit and floral notes open to wild crushed herbs, while savory minerality underscores gentle tannins and juicy acidity. Enjoy it with your favorite charcuterie platter. And if you're cruising through St. Helena in Napa Valley, stop off at the new Lang & Reed Tasting Salon on Main Street for indoor and outdoor experiences.
2018 Qupe Grenache Santa Barbara County ($30)
Mostly known for its lemon-kissed, candied-ginger-tinged Chardonnays, this red offers a welcome departure for the iconic Qupé label, and it's only the second vintage of this Grenache from the winery. Give it a few big swirls (so long as you're not wearing white), and let the delicate red florals and heady oak spices entice the nose. Take a sip and discover a silky-smooth red that unfolds in waves of cherries, plus, and pomegranates, and becomes richer on the finish with savory baking spices and salty dark chocolate flourishes.
2019 Minus Tide Feliz Creek Vineyard Carignan ($31)
Get ready for a trip to the south of France, told through the eyes of Kyle Jeffrey, Brad Jonas, and Miriam Jonas, co-owners of the uber-small production Minus Tide wines, including this Carignan. Jeffrey says that Carignan is one of the heritage varieties of Mendocino County, and their grape source at Feliz Creek Vineyard is among the oldest, with vines dating back to 1908. Florals such as rose petals and violets join thinly sliced saucisson sec, black olives, and white pepper. Soft, silken dark fruit rides along a salty finish. Pair this with cured meats and a hearty cassoulet.
2020 Kings Carey Mourvèdre Dogged Vine Vineyard Los Olivos District ($34)
Though best known for producing the highly sought-after Liquid Farm Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, James Sparks shows another gifted side of his winemaking chops under his own Kings Carey line. But even the mesmerizing artwork on the label can't distract from the utterly delicious Mourvèdre sourced from an exciting new vineyard in Santa Barbara County called Dogged Vine, owned by Ike Zekaria and his wife, Lara. This is an unexpectedly elegant, red-berry-driven take on the typically muscular and deeply-colored style of Mourvèdre that is more common in the Central Coast and Santa Barbara. The only caveat is you have to become a wine club member, but it's worth the modest price of admission.
2018 Materra Midnight Red Wine Napa Valley ($38)
The Cunat family has conjured an anomaly in Napa's typically Cabernet-focused Oak Knoll District. This "Midnight" blend leverages Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Merlot, and is expertly crafted by an all-star winemaking team that includes Chelsea Barrett, the talented daughter of winemakers Heidi and Bo Barrett, who is working with consulting winemaker Michael Trujillo. Together, they have made diamonds out of grapes, only less angular and more redolent of spiced plums, red currants, fine tobacco, and vanilla bean. Blueberries and cherries mingle with cedar and earth to create a seamless experience.
2018 Dutcher Crossing Winemakers' Cellar Testa Reserve Carignane ($40)
Not easy to find, but worth the hunt (hint: call the winery — they are based in Dry Creek Valley). This Carignane (the American spelling of Carignan) is a classic variety of Spain (spelled there as Cariñena) but is widely planted in France's southern Languedoc-Roussillon region. Owner Debra Mathy's rendition comes from the Testa vineyard in Mendocino County, north of the town of Ukiah. It offers a heady mix of bright red berry fruit, pine forest, and cedar spices. Tart red fruit on the palate is supported by firm, dusty tannins, and a rich cocoa-powder finish. This calls for a bowl of Sunday sauce with pork-beef-and-veal meatballs, just like grandma makes 'em.
2020 The Language of Yes En Passerillage Grenache Santa Maria Valley ($40)
A new creation from Bonny Doon icon Randall Grahm, the winemaker trying to cultivate entire vineyards from seeds. "La Lenga d'Oc" (The Language of Yes) is a phrase dating back to medieval France, according to Grahm, and this namesake wine is all too easy to drink. "En Passerillage" refers to the post-harvest drying of grapes, which concentrates flavors. This wine, then, should really just be called "The Language of Empty Bottles" because of its sultry, plump take on Grenache. Tangy cranberry and blood-orange flavors ride a wave of brown spices into the language of gushing emojis and inspirational TikTok dance routines.
2019 Covenant Landsman Cabernet Franc Dry Creek Valley Sonoma County ($45)
What do you get when you cross a former saxophonist and bandleader of the Grand Casino at Monte Carlo with a longtime professional wine writer turned winemaker and cookbook author? None other than Jeff Morgan, winemaker and co-owner of Covenant Wines, based in Berkeley, California. Morgan is one of the most underrated talents in Northern California, capable of producing a wide range of wines from classic Napa Cabernet to seriously off-the-beaten-track reds like this Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Franc, grown smack in prime Zinfandel territory. The result is a fresh, vibrant, and spicy red with a satiny texture, oozing with blackberries and plums, and a classic herbaceous core—sage and thyme come to mind—finishing with salted dark chocolate. Look for a dynamite pairing in any one of the cookbooks penned by Morgan, and co-authored by his wife Jodie, a Master Gardener.
2019 Cass Rockin' One Red Paso Robles ($49)
The wines of Steve Cass, co-owner of Cass Winery, are perennial favorites at the Central Coast Wine Competition, where wines are judged blind. Cass—who has an uncanny resemblance to Sir Richard Branson—manages to take home the bulk of medals year after year, cementing their status as local favorites. That success, however, means that his wines rarely travel far outside of California's Central Coast. Your best bet is to call the winery to get your hands on his Rockin' One, an opulent blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Petite Sirah, revealing almost brooding layers of deep dark fruit, savory smoked herbs, cherry liqueur, and a blueberry compote finish marked by toasty cedar.
2019 Belden Barns Pinot Noir Sonoma Mountain ($50)
Husband and wife Nate and Lauren Belden have created a true wine-lover's haven at their family-friendly Santa Rosa farmstead on Sonoma Mountain. The stunning property is home to a working farm helmed by Jenny and Vince Trotter. Small production lots of still wine are crafted along with a sparkler and a cider from heirloom apple varieties. There's even a wishing tree on-site. For "Serendipity," nine clones of Pinot are whole-cluster fermented and aged in neutral oak, delivering a dynamic and complex wine with grippy textures and flavors of nuanced red berries, black tea, brown spices, and underbrush.
2016 Fort Ross Vineyard Pinotage Fort Ross-Seaview Sonoma Coast ($58)
Lester and Linda Schwartz planted a vineyard in the early 1990s on a ridge about a mile from the ocean in Fort Ross, north of Jenner, California—the extreme Sonoma Coast. Eventually, they helped define and create the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. Known for their vivid, electric, ocean-spray-kissed Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, they also planted some Pinotage—a grape typical to South Africa—as an homage to their days at the University of Cape Town. There are just over 50 acres of Pinotage planted in the entire state, and this particular one is made in minuscule quantities…less than 10 barrels. It's sumptuously earthy, boasting silky dark cherries, blackberries, and firm, grippy tannins, with lavish baking spices rounding it all out.
2019 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Rouge Adelaida District, Paso Robles ($60)
Even though Esprit de Tablas is the flagship red blend of this Paso Robles staple, it manages to elude entire swaths of wine drinkers. If you're one of those oenophiles, it's time to get acquainted. Consider this: Tablas Creek founders the Haas family partnered up with the Perrin family, owners of Château de Beaucastel, one of the most famous estates in France's Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The Perrins selected some of their best vines, took cuttings from them, and planted them on the Tablas Creek estate in Paso. It was a lot of work, but the results speak for themselves: This is a lush, heady, delectable red that teems with currants and cinnamon, and boasts a creamy mouthfeel rife with boysenberry fruit, sagebrush, speck, and mocha, all resolving with a long, spicy finish.
2017 Native9 Pinot Noir Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard Santa Maria Valley ($64)
James Rey Ontiveros is a name to put on your short-list of "must-watch" vintners. A ninth-generation farmer who works lands established by his family in the early-1780s, Ontiveros decided to plant vines on the property in 1997, after which he studied at Cal Poly, worked in Sonoma, and soaked up the secrets of the Pinot trade during visits to legendary Burgundy estates like Domaine Dujac and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Today, Justin Willett works with James to produce Native9 wines, and they are destined to become vinous commodities to stockpile. Out-of-this-world aromatics of savory wild herbs, leather, and tobacco leaf are complimented by red currants and juicy cherries, all lingering through a long, mineral finish.
2018 Priest Ranch Double Barrel Red Napa Valley ($75)
In the positively picturesque town of Yountville is the Priest Ranch tasting room, all high ceilings and stately charm. Helmed by Craig Becker and the winegrowing team at Somerston Estate, Priest Ranch wines are named after James Joshua Priest, an original settler of the 1,600-plus-acre ranch. Although Priest isn't around to savor the remarkable wines from Becker and his team, you are, and you should zero in on the Double Barrel Red, a smokin' blend of half Cabernet Sauvignon and half Malbec. This resembles some sort of hypothetical yet delicious Napa red by way of Australia: Powerful and expressive oak notes mingle with dried rose petals, lofty dried wild herbs, cocoa, and vanilla bean. Thick and unctuous, each sip is punctuated by Cabernet's crème de cassis and blackberries as well as Malbec's florality and baking spices.
2018 Sixmilebridge Estate Cuvee Paso Robles Adelaida District ($85)
Anytime Anthony Yount attaches his name to a project, it's like Tom Brady has joined your team, and it's a guarantee that a Super Bowl victory is in the offing. His handiwork with Denner Vineyards and Kinero Cellars (his label) is something to behold—wines full in body, deeply layered, and made with Yount's characteristically mineral-driven style. He has brought the same approach to Six Mile Bridge, a new estate owned by Jim and Barbara Moroney. Vines planted on the West Side of Paso at high elevations grapple with extreme weather to deliver an Adelaida District AVA cuvée of immense proportions: This is inky black and ruby-purple in color, and offers up lavish oak aromas as well as blackberries and violets. Silky and framed with robust tannins, it's a wine to enjoy now and later, so stock up and forget about some for a rainy day. You'll just need to join the no-obligation, allocation waiting list to make your purchase from the winery.
2016 Troubador Russian River Vallley Pinot Noir ($125)
Suppose you're a tried-and-true California Pinot Noir lover. In that case, you might know the name Bob Cabral—or at least the wines he has had a hand in producing, like the iconic bottles of Williams Selyem Winery or the drop-dead gorgeous Pinots and Chards from Sonoma-based Three Sticks. Troubadour is a new label that Cabral started to reconnect with vineyards he loves and to raise funds for local charities in his hometown of Healdsburg and around Sonoma County. Priced for rarity and charity, get it if you can and enjoy a bottle on a special occasion. Elegant wild berry fruit, plums, candied black cherries, and cloves join expansive layers of silken strawberry compote, rhubarb, and cola, as well as the kind of fresh, racy acidity that you get from biting into a crunchy Red Delicious apple. Add to all that a panoply of lifted brown spice aromatics, and you have the recipe for an unforgettable Pinot.