The State of California Wine

All that’s new and next in America’s greatest wine region.
By Ray Isle
April 02, 2020

California wine is bubbling over right now—with new winemakers, ideas, regions, varieties, and ambitions. Do you feel like a quirky natural wine from an up-and-coming young talent? California has it. Classic, long-aging Cabernet from an iconic name recently given a new lease on life? California. Mind-blowing Pinot Noirs from a region you somehow overlooked? Yep, the Golden State again.

The truth is, if you love wine, you should give thanks you live in a world that has California in it—especially right now, when a good glass of wine (at home, of course) is one of the best ways to lower stress and take a reprieve from an endless barrage of dire coronavirus news. And keep in mind: If you’re short on bottles, many California wineries are offering special deals on shipping (take a look at our list here). But before you order, definitely check out the wines on the next few pages. If you were harboring even a scintilla of a doubt about how exciting California wines are right now, they’ll banish that thought—and maybe even give you an idea or two for your next virtual happy hour, too.

For years, Merlot has labored under the aspersion that it is, essentially, deeply uncool. That’s thanks to the 2004 movie Sideways, in which Miles Raymond yells in disgust, “I am NOT drinking any f---ing Merlot!” So is a grape’s fate sealed, apparently. But the bland, overcropped California Merlots of the 1990s are largely a memory (ditto Sideways, for that matter). Plus, Merlot is responsible for some of the greatest wines in the world, Bordeaux’s Château Pétrus and Tuscany’s Masseto among them. Its inviting dark fruit and velvety tannins are hard to resist; it can make easy-to-love everyday wines as well as ageworthy classics. The wines below are excellent—and if anyone questions your taste, just reply, “Of course I’m drinking some f---ing Merlot!”

Read the full article: 9 California Merlots to Buy Right Now

Illustration by Abbey Lossing

All things change, but there’s always an air of apprehension when iconic wineries are acquired by new owners, an occurrence that’s on the rise in Napa Valley. There’s no real surprise here—aging founders, succession questions, and the stratospheric cost of replanting older vineyards are coming into play for many benchmark properties in the region. The worry is always that what made the wines famous in the first place will be diluted or changed for the worse. Yet three recent transitions inspire hope rather than concern.

Photo by Victor Protasio / Graphics by Abbey Lossing

California winemakers are a restless bunch, and even when they’re bound to the Cabernet-Chardonnay mast, the siren calls of other varieties are a constant lure. So much the better for wine lovers: The state’s climate and geography are so varied that it’s almost impossible to find a grape that won’t produce impressive wines here. Lately, adventurous winemakers have been particularly drawn to Spain’s crisp Albariño grape; sultry Grenache, with its wide swing of character from delicate and silky to rich and fruit-forward; and Chenin Blanc, rescued from years of inattention by way of a renewed interest in its mother region, France’s Loire.

Illustration by Abbey Lossing

What does climate change mean for wine in California? Potentially, dire problems: rising temperatures that render some regions too hot for the varieties they grow; increases in vine diseases and pests; fewer cool nights leading to decreased grape quality; temperature spikes damaging grapes on the vine; and, as is very clear now, increased instances of forest fires, threatening personnel, harvests, and property.

Photo by Victor Protasio / Graphics by Abbey Lossing

One of the abiding mysteries of California wine is why more people don’t know about—and therefore love—the Santa Cruz Mountains wine region. Part of the explanation may be that it’s small, with only about 1,600 acres of vines (Napa Valley has 46,000); part of it may be its divided nature, since the region lies on both sides of the San Francisco Peninsula ridge of the Pacific Coast Ranges (it was, in fact, the first American Viticultural Area, or AVA, to be defined by a mountain range). Yet right now it’s producing some of the state’s best Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, as well as several benchmark Cabernets—unlikely bedfellows but for the dramatic variations in climate and soil here. And the region is also beautiful, with wineries tucked away amidst conifers and oaks and, on the western side, often graced with stunning views of the Pacific. You owe it to yourself to investigate.

Read the full article: California Wine’s Best-Kept Secret

Illustration by Abbey Lossing

When Ryan Stirm started his eponymous label, he says, “I didn’t realize how unpopular Riesling would be.” But he was persistent. A cellar rat in Santa Barbara, Stirm flipped a fixer-upper there and, with the profits, was able to move to Santa Cruz and grow his coworking winery, Stirm Wine. Six years later, he’s fêted for his Riesling. Naturally fermented, unfiltered, and unfined, his old-vine wine from Cienega Valley has a heady guava nose, lush texture, and sly acidity. “I love that Riesling turns people off at first,” he says. “I find it so easy to change minds.” —Betsy Andrews

Photo by Victor Protasio / Graphics by Abbey Lossing

Amazing values from California tend to hover around the $15 mark these days, thanks to the state’s labor and land costs. There are certainly plenty of less expensive California wines, but they tend toward the mass-produced and innocuous. (“Amazing,” unfortunately, drops off.) The good news is that for your $15 or so, you can still score some extraordinarily good bottles. Here are 12 to seek out right now.