Within mere minutes of talking to sommelier Marnie Old, everything you thought you knew about wine goes out the door.

“The key to unlocking the wine kingdom is understanding the power of ripeness,” she proclaims. “It has a direct relationship to wine flavor.”

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If this is the first time you’re hearing the word “ripeness” in relation to wine drinking, you’re not alone. But you won’t be confused for long. Old offers up an analogy to help.

“Picture that you are growing cherry tomatoes in your backyard,” she says. “If you pick them early when they’re still green, you can eat them, of course. They’re not very sweet. You’ll get a celery taste—and that’s because you’re tasting high levels of acidity, low levels of sugar and mostly leafy green flavor compounds. But if you wait and let those tomatoes ripen, they get sweeter and juicier, and turn red. If you wait longer to pick them later, you’ll get sweeter, richer flavor—as they make their way toward becoming sun-dried tomatoes.”

Duly noted. But how do we go about choosing wines for our next dinner or get-together? In celebration of California Wine Month, we’ve found five of her favorite varietals and offered their California equivalent. Cheers!

Albariño 

What she says: Albariño pulls off a high-wire act, managing to be both aromatic and understated—which is why it makes such a great food wine. It shines a spotlight on food.”

What we picked: Longoria 2011 Albariño ($23) from Santa Ynez Valley.

Cue the butter-drenched lobster rolls and spicy tuna tartare! This ripe Albariño, made by Spanish-variety specialist Rick Longoria, comes from a single vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley and has all of the hallmarks of the racy acidity and salty sensations of a typical Albariño. 

Reisling

What she says: “I’m a fool for a 2007 German riesling.”

What we picked: Tatomer 2012 Riesling “Kick-on Ranch” ($30) from Santa Ynez Valley.

Santa Barbara winemaker Graham Tatomer can do no wrong in our eyes when it comes to a dry riesling. Sourced from a small vineyard in western Los Alamos, between the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Ynez Valley, his “Kick-on Ranch” Riesling got “the full Austrian treatment,” meaning some skin contact and aging in neutral wood. Flowers, a touch of the classic petrol in the nose, bright acidity and deep minerality are its tasting notes. Tatomer calls it the most age-worthy of his wines, and he recommends decanting it.

Chenin Blanc

What she says: “It’s such an underrated grape; only now are people beginning to realize it’s potential. There is nothing it can’t do well! It can make gorgeous wines across the board, from bone dry to sticky sweet, from still to sparkling and from unoaked to barrel-aged. It’s a chameleon.”

What we picked: Field Recordings 2014 Chenin Blanc ($22) from Jurassic Park in Santa Ynez.

Planted in 1982, the Jurassic Park Vineyard is one of the oldest Chenin Blanc Vineyards on the Central Coast. Vine age, couple with the region’s sandy hillside soils and natural low yielding vines give these grapes exceptional balance and depth. While there are many California winemakers who source these grapes with great success, we selected Field Recordings 2014 Chenin because it was winemaker Andrew Murray’s original release. “I pick the grapes pretty lean to let the acid shine, and age it in a mix of new and neutral acacia barrels to let the tropical character show through,” he says of his approach. “Its bottled un-fined and unfiltered, which keeps it pretty raw and with a lot of energy.”

Tempranillo

What she says: “I also enjoy tempranillo, which is Spain’s No. 1 red grape. As a variety, it combines the best of many different grapes. It is resistant to oxidation, so ages as well as cabernet, yet still has a lighter body and food flexibility, more like pinot noir that way. It’s a mid-palate dark fruit, covering the flavor bases, and I’m a huge fan.”

What we picked: Twisted Oak 2011 The Spaniard ($49) from Calaveras County.

Tempranillo practically made Calaveras County famous. Twisted Oak’s The Spaniard won praise from Wine Enthusiast critic Steve Heimoff as “one of the state’s best Tempranillo-based wines.” Hurry though—the 2011 is almost sold out.

Syrah

What she says: “I love the peppery qualities to it when it doesn’t get overly jammy-ripe. More and more producers of syrah worldwide are making lighter and brighter versions of it, inspired by the classics of the Northern Rhône.”

What we picked: Margerum 2012 Black Oak Vineyard Syrah from Santa Barbara County ($36).

We would be remiss if we did not pick a syrah from Santa Barbara County. Doug Margerum’s syrah is a top pick, praised by Wine Enthusiast, for “intriguing complexity on the nose, from violet and rose petals to smashed boysenberry, thyme, rosemary and roasted boar meat. Blueberry, blackberry and black cherry soak the palate, which is evened out by pine sap, cedar, purple flowers and shiitake…” Incidentally, it’s also our favorite grilling and burger wine; and we plan on doing a lot of barbecuing this month thanks to an Indian Summer.

Have we must one of your favorite California favorites from this list of varietals? Let us know in the comments! 

September is California Wine Month and we’re celebrating our own Wine Week on the California Home blog. Click here for more posts celebrating California’s great wine culture.