20 Small and Mighty California Winemakers Who Deserve Your Dollars This Year
CategoryFarm + Table
Written byBonnie Graves
Featured image of Fathers & Daughters byJay Graham
Now, more than ever, it matters what we read and where we spend our money. Some news sources would have you believe that the wine industry is booming. While it is true that at-home consumption of wine has skyrocketed during quarantine, much of that grape juice is coming from corporate producers who make millions off cases of fairly generic stuff. Meanwhile, the family farmers and artisanal winemakers who depend on word-of-mouth or on high-end restaurant placements have struggled to transition to direct-to-consumer channels. If you believe in shopping locally, now is the time to support small California producers whose livelihoods and businesses are currently threatened.
Below is a thoughtfully curated list of 20 to support in 2020. Each of these 20 wonderful wineries deserves your dollars. Each makes small-batch, carefully vinified wines with love and commitment; most are made with organically grown grapes and with sustainable vineyard practices too. From the sandy hills of Malibu where the Woolsey Fire ravaged Semler just two years ago to the moody Anderson Valley in Mendocino where pinot noir quietly flourishes, we’ve spanned the Golden State and its many appellations (or AVAs, “American Viticultural Areas”).
Lushly fragrant Russian River viognier, world-class coastal grenache, iconic Napa cabernet sauvignon and more…each of these bottles is a hand-crafted testament to the spirit of California that we here at Golden State strive to embody—innovative, resilient, environmentally sound and fun. And yes, delicious. Happy online shopping!
A Tribute to Grace Grenache, “Besson Vineyard”
Santa Clara County, 2017 – SRP $53 (120 cases made)
At the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains lies this incredible plot of century-old grenache vines. Made by Angela Osborne in honor of her late grandmother Grace, this wine is an iconic expression of California grenache. Notes of cranberry, crunchy red apple skin and baking spices like cardamom predominate.
Beauregard Chardonnay, “Bald Mountain Vineyard”
Ben Lomond Mountain, 2018 – SRP $60 (550 cases made)
Farmer-turned-winemaker Ryan Beauregard works this parcel of mountain-grown chardonnay planted on unique white sand called Zayante. Just a touch of French oak lets the fruit shine; this chardonnay presents with aromas of honeysuckle, crisp Asian pear and oyster shells.
Beekeeper Zinfandel, “Montecillo Vineyard”
Sonoma Valley, 2017 – SRP $65 (250 cases made)
Los Angeles wine educator Ian Blackburn has a thing for zinfandel! With partner Clay Mauritson, Blackburn founded Beekeeper Cellars to showcase the exceptional potential of old-vine zin grown in Sonoma. While some inexpensive zins can taste like IHOP blueberry syrup, Beekeeper makes age-worthy wines with structure and acidity. Notes of blackberry bush, currants and cedar complement zinfandel’s characteristic white pepper.
Santa Barbara County, 2018 – SRP $42 (350 cases made)
Kris Curran is one of the finest winemakers in California. Fans might remember her from her days at pinot noir house, Sea Smoke, a brand she squarely launched onto the world stage. I’ve always loved her other wines as much her pinots. This smoky, gamy tempranillo—Spain’s great red grape—is layered with incredible textures and nuance. Aged 18 months in barrique, it offers aromatics of cranberry, leather and jam, and it pairs beautifully with grilled meats, charcuterie and, of course, spicy andouille paella.
Dragonette Pinot Noir
Santa Rita Hills, 2018 – SRP $50 (900 cases made)
Anybody crazy enough to ferment wine in a barrel in his garage in Manhattan Beach is destined to be a winemaker! Brandon Sparks-Gillis was doing exactly that before he teamed with the Dragonette family to create some of the best pinot noirs coming out of Santa Barbara County. This blend uses fruit from coveted vineyards across the Santa Rita Hills, where the maritime influence of the Pacific preserves the pinot’s bright acidity while allowing slow ripening. This pinot noir offers beautiful notes of black cherry, Damson plum skin and star anise. It should cost twice as much as it does.
Fathers & Daughters Pinot Noir, “Ella’s Reserve”
Anderson Valley, 2017 – SRP $52 (104 cases made)
The pinot noir inside this bottle is wonderful, but so too are the people behind the label. Fathers & Daughters’ inaugural vintage was launched when granddaughter Ella was born in 2012, and it continues to be a family affair with three generations of dads and daughters working the vineyard and the bottling line. Ferrington Vineyard is the fruit source for this wine, which showcases the terroir of the Anderson Valley beautifully. Aromatic notes of violets, tarragon and macerated strawberries with great acidity and lift on the palate.
Herman Story Syrah, “Bien Nacido”
Santa Maria Valley, 2016 – SRP $55 (312 cases made)
Planted in 1969 in the singular soils of the Santa Maria valley in northern Santa Barbara County, Bien Nacido is a crown jewel among winemakers. For Russell From, who makes wine in homage to his grandpa Herman, the opportunity to work with syrah grown in Bien Nacido is a gift. The 2016 vintage is his fifth production of this wine and, like Russell, the wine is big and brooding. It’s an intense style of syrah with stewed plums, black peppercorn and bacon notes—the perfect complement to the region’s namesake BBQ.
Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon, Blueline Estate
Napa Valley, 2017 – SRP $125 (900 cases made)
In a valley crowded with overpriced ‘cult’ cabs that are often fairly generic, this small lot cabernet sauvignon stands out for both its integrity and elegance. Situated at the confluence of two small streams, the alluvial soils of Blueline are composed of Cortina gravel, which allows for better drainage and smaller, more intensely flavored grape clusters. Finished with a small amount of petit verdot and malbec—the least known of the classic five Bordelaise varieties—this cabernet is exceptional. Lush cassis and violet aromatics are tightly wound in a core of fine-grained tannins.
Inman Family Rosé of Pinot Noir, “Endless Crush”
Russian River Valley, 2019 – SRP $38 (1,251 cases made)
Made with grapes from the esteemed Olivet Grange estate, this rosé of pinot noir is aptly named. A seductive and highly perfumed wine, it is lower in alcohol and higher in mouthwatering acidity. With lovely notes of watermelon, guava and grapefruit zest on the nose, this rosé pairs beautifully with charcuterie and summer salads. Order a case; you’ll drink it all by September 1st, I guarantee.
Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc, North Coast
Napa Valley, 2016 – SRP $27 (1,000 cases made)
For Tracey and John Skupny, working with cabernet franc has been a career commitment. Planted extensively on the Right Bank in Bordeaux and in the Loire Valley, cab franc hasn’t always flourished on the market in the US. Champions like the Skupny family have safeguarded its unique varietal characteristics by keeping it center-stage, rather than viewing it simply as a blending grape. In this vintage, cab franc’s hallmark red berries, juniper and bell pepper are nicely structured with grippy tannins. Incredibly versatile wine that pairs well with everything from lamb vindaloo to pepper steak.
Porter Creek Viognier, “Hayley Marie Vineyard”
Russian River Valley, 2018 – SRP $36 (528 cases made)
Once considered an exotic grape, viognier now has a devoted following among white wine lovers. Thick and unctuous, with notes of honeysuckle, jasmine and unripe mango, viognier is THE perfect wine for a lot of spicy Asian cuisines. The cool climate of the Russian River Valley helps to preserve the acidity in this version from Porter Creek. Try it with shrimp pad thai or yellow curries.
Saddlerock Cabernet Sauvignon
Malibu / Semler Estate, 2017 – SRP $37 (1,180 cases made)
If you’re only picturing “Baywatch” reruns and hearing Beach Boys tunes, you don’t know Malibu, one of the most mountainous areas in coastal California. Many of the local vineyards were decimated in the Woolsey Fire of 2018, so this 2017 cab from Saddlerock is a reminder of the region’s potential. It’s a cabernet grown on sandier soils, with softer, more approachable tannins that make it ready to drink when younger. For under $40 a bottle, it’s an incredible deal.
Tablas Creek Partners Francois Perrin, Danny Haas, Jason Haas, Robert Haas, and Jean Pierre Perrin
Skylark Pinot Blanc, “Orsi Vineyard”
Mendocino, 2018 – SRP $19 (700 cases made)
Fine! Fine. As a sommelier, people ask me all the time what my “favorite” wine is and while that’s akin to asking a parent which is the favored child, I will share that I ALWAYS have a bottle of this wine in my own fridge. It’s our house white at home, a delicious, high-acid pinot blanc from Mendocino that is fantastic all by itself or paired with just about anything from citrus salmon to roasted pork to Netflix and popcorn. At under $20, buy yourselves a case.
Smith Story Sauvignon Blanc
Sonoma County, 2018 – SRP $25 (1,600 cases made)
Eric and Ali, the Smith and Story behind this lovely sauvignon blanc, are proof that you CAN make your own wine and make it exceptional. Long-time wine industry pros, they made the leap to production in 2013 after eloping to Hawaii and dreaming of a label together at home in California. Their popular sauvignon blanc sells out each vintage and is ripe and round, with notes of citrus and great minerality.
Tablas Creek, “Esprit de Tablas”
Paso Robles, 2017 – SRP $60 (4,090 cases made)
The story of the wine-importing Haas family and their connection to Beaucastel in France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape region is, in many ways, one of the origin stories of the California wine industry. The Haases founded Tablas Creek in Paso at a time when the region was still largely undiscovered and under-appreciated; their nursery material from the Rhône Valley has in turn propagated a whole generation of amazing California vineyards. This blend of mourvèdre, grenache, syrah and counoise is deep, dusty and rich with spice and bramble aromatics. It’s one of the best red wines made in the state, hands-down, and it’s made by one of its finest families with love and with care.
Talley Chardonnay, Estate
Arroyo Grande, 2017 – SRP $30 (7,000 cases made)
I have a vivid memory of the first time I tasted Talley chardonnay as a young sommelier in New York City. I didn’t know California’s smaller appellations all that well at the time, but I did know world-class chardonnay when I tasted it, so I made it my business to look up “Arroyo Grande” in my World Atlas of Wine. Years later, it’s been my pleasure to pour this wine at many restaurants. I love the balance of fruit and acidity in Talley; beautiful aromas of Bosc pear, orange blossom and stony soil with just enough oak to frame but not overwhelm the wine.
Tatomer Riesling, “Kick-On Ranch”
Los Alamos, 2018 – SRP $38 (150 cases made)
Winemaker Graham Tatomer worked for several years at legendary Austrian producer Weingut Knoll, and his finesse with grape varieties like riesling and grüner veltliner is unique. Graham’s expertise meets California’s microclimates in this bottling from Los Alamos in northern Santa Barbara county. If you expect all riesling to be syrupy-sweet, this bracingly dry, high-acid wine from the breezy Kick-on Ranch vineyard will be a revelation. Gorgeous white flowers and a saline tang make this riesling endlessly refreshing.
Tercero, Rosé of Mourvèdre
Santa Barbara, 2019 – SRP $30 (120 cases made)
Besides making phenomenal wines from a variety of grapes, winemaker Larry Schaffer is genuinely one of the nicest guys in the business. Make a point of visiting his tasting room in Los Olivos and you’ll be treated like royalty. I’ve always loved his rosé made from mourvèdre grapes, which is reminiscent of Bandol wines from the south coast of Provence, France. Mouthwatering notes of guava, watermelon and a hint of cinnamon bark make this my go-to poolside pink for the summer.
Terre Rouge, Tête-à-Tête
Sierra Foothills, 2014 – SRP $25 (3,000 cases made)
If ever there were a California wine-producing region that deserves more love, it’s the Sierra Foothills. Winemaker Bill Easton has been crafting extraordinary wines from this inland appellation for years, and this particular blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre is an absolute STEAL at under $30 a bottle. Named one of the top 100 wineries of the year in 2019 by Wine & Spirits magazine, Terre Rouge and sister brand Easton are wines that more than deserve a place in your cellar.
Truchard Merlot, Estate
Carneros, 2017 – SRP $35 (617 cases made)
Oh merlot! How wrongly you’ve been treated in recent years! One of the classic big five grape varieties from Bordeaux, merlot has always thrived in Napa and Sonoma’s sunny climates. This delicious wine from Truchard hails from Carneros, which is paradoxically one of the most southern sub-regions in the valleys, yet is also one of the coolest. The temperate vineyard conditions preserve the acid in the merlot as it ripens and an additional 25% of cabernet franc brings spice and herbaceousness. This wine presents with notes of ripe purple plums, bitter dark cacao, spearmint leaf and star anise and has a supple, mid-weight palate that pairs well with an array of proteins and preparations. Yummy stuff.
But don’t expect him to spill any of his customers’ best-kept secrets.
Twelve places to savor the final days of summer in California.