Chardonnay. Syrah. Pinot Noir. Even the much maligned Merlot. These words are like music to the wine lover’s ears—a harmony of honeyed pear or pepper spice or nuanced plum swirling in our glasses and tingling our palates. This month, we have even more cause to celebrate these wines (not that we need much of an excuse to pop the cork) because it’s California Wine Month.
Whether you’re partial to the Napa, Santa Ynez or Paso Robles AVAs and prefer red or white, we have compiled a very unofficial list of our favorite state wines. (California boasts over 3,400 wineries across the state, so we had our work cut out for us!) Some labels you’ve probably heard of; some labels will be off the beaten path. But we’re pretty sure you’ll find at least one local wine to suit your fancy this month. So, sit back, relax, and open that Faust you’ve been saving for a special occasion. After all, it isn’t everyday you get a carefully curated list of wine-fridge-worthy vintages from all over California. Cheers!
2012 Reuling Vinyeard
Reuling Vinyeard in the Sonoma Coast AVA is famous for producing two 99-point Chardonnay wines awarded by Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate—some of the highest ever for a California Chardonnay. While you may not be able to get your hands on the 99-pointers today (2008 Aubert Chardonnay and the 2005 Aubert Chardonnay—well, you could, but for a price), Reuling is still producing some of the finest California Chardonnays. The $70 price tag may make some wine afficionados do a double take, but the “subtle aromas of lemon oil with ripe melon, apricot, and crushed rock” are worth every penny.
2010 Kunin “Jurassic Park Vineyard”
In California, we don’t see much of this white wine grape varietal, and it’s a shame. Seth Kunin gets a big thumbs up for his elegant interpretation. The 100% Santa Ynez Valley “Jurassic Park Vineyard” Chenin Blanc (so named because of its fossil-rich soil) was whole-cluster pressed and fermented and aged in barrel for nine months, “resulting in a wine that is fresh, with leesy peach aromas and flavors, excellent midpalate richness, and mouthwatering acidity.” This wine is not only easy on the palate, but easy on the wallet too—since it’s only $20 a bottle.
2011 Tatomer Kick-0n-Ranch Reisling
It’s probably fair to say that Reisling is one of the most misunderstood grapes. But this aromatic German varietal has staged a mighty comeback in California recent years. Graham Tatomer, a Santa Ynez Valley winemaker, spent years in Austria perfecting his bone-dry approach; and needless to say, his crisp Reislings will make you forget everything you thought you knew about the grape. His 2011 Kick-on-Ranch Reisling is no exception. Rich, powerful and decidedly intense notes make it totally come alive in your glass. Yes, it’s $30 a bottle…but oh-so-worth-it.
2013 Lorenza Rosé
Napa winemakers Melinda Kearney and her daughter, model Michèle Ouellet, have been on quite a run this year. Their Lorenza rosé—which they describe as “an homage to the lovely rosé wines of the south of France”—has been praised in both Vogue and O Magazine. Those who rave about it note that it’s much lighter and drier than other California rosés, perhaps a byproduct of their fruit sourced from old vines grown in Northern California’s sandy soil —mourvedre, carignane, cinsult and grenache—for a layered flavor profile. At $16.99 per bottle, it’s also a great value.
2010 Black Kite River Turn Pinot Noir
Yes, Pinot Noir is a fickle grape. But Anderson Valley in Mendocino County has just the right conditions for it to thrive—which Black Kite Cellars knows all too well. Their artisan Pinots have been garnering praise and racking up Wine Spectator points for years. The 2010 River Turn Pinot Noir is a must-try: “a heady mix of floral cherry pie, bright, full and ripe with a balanced backbone of acidity and a gentle hint of gingerbread,” wrote Virginie Boone, contributing editor of Wine Enthusiast. At $55 bottle, you might even want to let this wine age a few years so you can drink it at its peak.
2011 Sillix Grenache
Haven’t heard of Blake Sillix? Trust us, you will. This young Santa Ynez Valley winemaker’s inaugural 2010 vintage sold out as quickly as it released, and his 2011 Grenache— “vibrant, dominating with red fruits alongside savory notes of Provencal herbs” sourced from Happy Canyon—is just as limited in supply with only 50 cases. Even though it’s $37 a bottle, we’d happily buy a whole case just to keep it in our collection a little longer.
2010 Alban Vineyards “Patrina” Central Coast Syrah
Alban Vineyards has been on wine critic Robert Parker’s watch list for some time. The Paso Robles winery is perhaps best known for its Rhone-style Syrahs. The 2010 Patrina, made from 100% Syrah (from a variety of estate vineyards) and aged two years in 70% new French oak, is one such vintage. The Syrah “boasts gorgeously pure aromatics (cassis, raspberry, flowers, spice), full-bodied richness and an overall layered, fresh profile” that lends to both texture and length. The great thing is, you can enjoy this $49 bottle over the next 5-8 years.
2009 Duckhorn Vineyards Estate Merlot
Like Reislings, California Merlots have also gotten a bad rap, no thanks in part to a movie called Sideways (when Miles Raymond uttered the immortal words “I am not drinking f__ing Merlot!”). But Merlots—when paired right—are some of the most approachable reds. Napa Valley is loaded with Merlots worth mentioning, but Duckhorn is one label that always seems to be our go-to at the steakhouse. Their 2009 Vineyard Estate Merlot has hints of “French oak, vanilla, berry, black fruit and a sweet coffee nose” with “a rich, ripe black fruit, berry, espresso palate.” For $51, it’s not for everyday drinking, but nonetheless it is one divine wine (whether Miles would agree or not).
Oh, Quintessa. How do we love thee. This is one Napa Valley winery that has long captured our hearts after our very first tour of the breathtaking 280-acre property in the Rutherford appellation. Even Food and Wine’s Ray Isle is in agreement, who once noted: “Biodynamic viticulture and meticulous attention in the cellar from winemaker Aaron Pott have helped make Quintessa, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, one of California’s top reds.” The $120 2002 bottle is pure bliss: smoky black plum and black currant flavors with a polished finish.
2012 Turley Zinfandel Paso Robles Dusi Vineyard
Zin—the inkiest of the reds—is another red meat favorite. Turley’s 2012 Zin from the Paso Robles Dusi Vineyard “wraps around the palate with gorgeous depth.” Sourced from grapes planted by Dante Dusi in 1945, this wine is layered with dark red cherries, plums, flowers and sweet herbs for a pliant, expressive and resonant finish. At $70, you’ll want to find the perfect occasion to taste—not drink—it.
What do you think about our list of California wines? Is there a vintage you’re eager to try? Have we left your favorites off the list? Sound off in the comments below.