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While Napa Valley has risen the ranks to produce wine as prestigious as the Old World varietals found in Burgundy and Piedmont over the last 50 years, it's no longer the only place to travel in California for an incredible wine-centric experience. Across the rich, diverse terrain of the Golden State, winemakers are producing an array of collectible, highly rated bottles ranging from Chardonnay to Zinfandel that have earned top markings from the industry's most respected critics.
The second most popular wine region, Sonoma County, is Napa's less glitzy but equally important neighbor that produces spectacular Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (it produces more than any other wine region in the state), among other varietals, that have established itself as important to collect from as the county next door. Among the lesser-known wine regions that are emerging as major players include the Central Coast, which is home to Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County, and the Santa Cruz Mountains, all of which are areas to watch for serious wine enthusiasts and are bringing incredible bottles at excellent prices to the market.
We asked six California-based sommeliers, writers, and members of the wine industry to share their thoughts on the wineries every enthusiast should know about in the state. Plus, we're sharing which bottles to try from each that will make a fabulous first impression and leave you wondering how you've never enjoyed a dinner party or holiday gathering without them on rotation.
Dominus Estate: Napa Valley
"World renowned vigneron and businessman Christian Moueix is most famous for his involvement in Chateau Petrus in Bordeaux’s Pomerol region, but in the early '80s founded Dominus Estate just northwest of Yountville in Napa Valley. His dedication to organic and dry farming this 134 acre parcel of celebrated terroir has yielded one of Napa’s great treasures. The wine evokes memories of the greatest Napa wines and Bordeaux wines ever made in the same glass, with older wines from the '80s and '90s tasting nearly identical to serious classified Bordeaux. This Estate is realizing Napa’s potential in a style which will also age for decades. The Dominus Estate is their flagship wine, and their second label Napa Nook is an incredible value as well which is a fraction of the price." — Ian Cauble, Master Sommelier and Founder of SommSelect
What to Try: Cabernet Sauvignon Blend
Mount Eden Vineyards: Santa Cruz Mountains
"Mount Eden in the Santa Cruz Mountains comes immediately to mind. It’s a heritage property, family run, and they do everything well—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are classic, consistent, and unbelievably well-priced given their pedigree." — David Lynch, James Beard Award-winning writer, sommelier, and SommSelect's editorial director
What to Try: Domaine Eden Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon
Frog's Leap: Napa Valley
"John Williams is a California winemaking Ppioneer who arrived in Napa Valley in the early '70s. After numerous projects including working at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Spring Mountain Vineyard he launched Frog’s Leap Winery in 1981 focusing on dry farming with a strict approach to organic farming just like many of the greatest French estates. Today, Frog’s Leap represents the single greatest value amongst Napa wines and the wines are a spectacular representation of the lauded Rutherford Terroir. All of the wines are delicious, with the Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc being the most well-known." — Ian Cauble
What to Try: Frog's Leap 2019 Merlot
"It’s truly important to remember the commitment to preservation, sustainability and regenerative farming which Valeria Huneeus committed to upon walking the property, we know as Quintessa. The quality of the fruit, the health of the vineyards and the balance of the eco-system are the reasons why the wines of Quintessa are exceptional. It is my belief via my palate that you can taste the difference in the health of the vineyard". — Tonya Pitts, award-winning sommelier and food and wine consultant
What to Try: 2018 Quintessa
Domaine de La Cote: Santa Rita Hills
"Renowned Sommelier Raj Parr’s first release Domaine de La Cote was in 2011 with the idea of taking the best Pinot Noir clones to the most extreme western plots of the Santa Rita Hills and fermenting the wines using whole clusters. The results have been pure magic, resulting in some of the most perfumed and complex examples of California Pinot Noir ever produced. With a touch of age, the wines from DDLC can perform similar to top examples of Grand Cru Burgundy in a blind tasting, one of the greatest achievements a producer can achieve, and the Blooms Field always performs like incredible Chambolle Musigny: perfumed, elegant and seamless while deeply rooted in earthy savor."
Mayacamas Vineyards: Napa Valley
"Mayacamas Vineyards[...] is perched on the slopes of Mount Veeder above the Napa Valley. This is the next tier up in terms of price [compared to Mount Eden], but the wines are reference points—full of character and age-worthy. Their Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the Californian wines in the famous “Judgement of Paris” tasting and their Chardonnay is perhaps the closest California comes to French white Burgundy." — David Lynch
What to Try: Mayacamas Chardonnay Mount Veeder-Napa Valley
Tyler Winery: Santa Rita Hills
"In my opinion, Tyler Winery consistently makes some of the best Pinot Noir not only in Santa Barbara County, but in the entire state. We offer an array of their single vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays on our wine list. Perhaps one of their most exciting wines is the Mae Estate, which is their new estate vineyard." — Tristan Pitre, Advanced Sommelier and Restaurant & Wine Collection Manager at San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito.
"Carlo Mondavi and his brother Dante launched RAEN in 2013. And while their grandfather Robert Mondavi is most readily associated with Cabernet Sauvignon that rivaled (and often eclipsed) Bordeaux’s best, Carlo and Dante are gunning for the greats of Burgundy with their gorgeously perfumed Chambolle-like Pinot Noirs from the extreme Sonoma Coast. Every time I serve this wine blind to someone they think it’s top-tier Burgundy, and I understand why.
"RAEN is a very serious, very ambitious wine that has ascended to the elite ranks very quickly, and for all the right reasons: Far from being a mass-market brand, RAEN is all about meticulous, sustainable viticulture and resolutely natural, small-batch production. It’s the same kind of rapturous devotion to 'site'—i.e. the unique qualities of a specific vineyard, and the nuances it imparts to Pinot Noir—you see at the great family-run domaines of Burgundy. The Freestone Occidental Vineyard always has a savory accent to the wine and reminds me of my favorite wines of Morey-Saint-Denis in Burgundy, but all the wines are serious. The 19’s they just released are some of the best wine produced to date." —Ian Cauble
Broc Cellars: Berkeley
"I love Broc Cellars, which is in Berkeley, so it's easy to visit when anyone comes to the Bay Area. They've been making wine there for years, and they do inventive blends from grapes that grow throughout California. I love their Amore Trio collection, especially their Amore Bianco wine." — Kate Leahy, award-winning food and wine writer and author of Wine Style
What to Try: Broc Cellars 2020 Kou Kou Cabernet Franc
"I am loving Pax in Sebastopol, who is leading the pack on natural sustainable winemaking sourcing from lesser known but spectacular vineyards in Northern California. Pax is known for his Syrah but, secretly, the Alta Monte Gamay is the one that I am loving: it's an amazing expression of two beautiful Gamay vineyards in Sonoma County." — Dana Porusch, Wine Club Manager SommSelect
Scribe Winery: Sonoma
"Everyone loves Scribe. The view of the Sonoma countryside is stunning, and you get a lot of nice little bites." — Kate Leahy
What to Try: Scribe Winery 2018 Atlas East Cabernet Sauvignon
Massican: Napa Valley
"Massican in Napa is a favorite as winemaker Dan Petroski is also centered on sustainable farming practices with really unique Italian varieties for the region. Massican fulfills my Italian wine dreams with 'Annia,' which is a blend of Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Chardonnay. No one is really doing these Italian varieties in California right now and it is impressive to taste them from Napa. We were fortunate to feature this wine in our June Somm 6 wine club." —Dana Porusch
What to Try: 2020 Massican Annia
Rhys Vineyards: Santa Cruz Mountains
"Rhys is one of the greatest additions to the California wine scene who spared no expense planting some of the most beautiful sites within the cooler wester areas of Santa Cruz Mountains just south of Pescadero. They utilize high-density plantings and top winemaking techniques which deliver profound expressions of Pinot Noir which have a sublime balance of both earth and fruit. The Horseshoe Vineyard is always one of my favorite wines coming from extreme areas of the SCM where the fog often covers the vineyard allowing maturation to happen slowly which creates an incredible aromatic profile." — Ian Cauble
Corison Winery: Napa Valley
"The wines crafted at Corison are my favorite Cabernets to drink from Napa Valley. While many producers seem to be heading towards stylistic convergence, the wines of Corison have a charm and personality all their own. Cathy Corison’s Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon achieves what the best wines in the world are defined by: a sense of time and place." —Tristan Pitre
What to Try: 2016 Corison Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon
Eden Rift Vineyards: Hollister
"I am loving Eden Rift Vineyards in Cienega Valley—Burgundian style Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays just really show what great California wine and farming is all about. I am mostly a Pinot and Chardonnay gal which is why I love Eden Rift's "Terraces" Pinot. It is all Calera clone Pinot Noir—just a symphony of flavor and elegance." —Dana Porusch
What to Try: 2018 Eden Rift Terraces Pinot Noir, Estate
Robert Sinskey Vineyards: Napa
"For a classic Napa experience without all the over-hyped fuss, I recommend Robert Sinskey. It was one of the first wineries in Napa to talk about organic farming, and it's always placed an emphasis on including food with its tastings." — Kate Leahy
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