25 of Our Favorite Under-the-Radar California Reds
Become a real CA insider.
“Sometimes it's necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly,” says Jerry, the main character in Edward Albee’s play The Zoo Story. It's one of my favorite quotes of all time, and when it comes to red wine from California, truer words have never been spoken.
Be honest: on your last trip to California wine country, how far off the main arteries of Napa did you veer? Could you still see the Silverado Trail or Highway 29 from the tasting room? If you went to Sonoma, could you see the ocean from where you parked the car? If your trip was to the Central Coast, did you stick to downtown Santa Barbara’s buzzing tasting rooms, or did you venture out into the stunning landscapes of Ballard Canyon, Sta. Rita Hills, and Santa Ynez?
I can’t tell you how many times I stumble upon another new project in Napa alone, or get tipped off to some hush-hush label that’s been produced for over a decade—often being made just out of site up in the Vaca or Mayacamas foothills. As such, the following list of reds showcases a smattering of lesser-known labels from some prominent producers, as well as a handful of wines I hope you’ve never heard about.
It’s time to go out of your way.
1. 2015 Scattered Peaks Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($35)
Veteran winemaker Joel Aiken, the longtime guiding force behind Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, is the co-founder and winemaker for Scattered Peaks. The 2015 vintage marks their inaugural release—so get on the mailing list now. Gorgeous black cherry and cassis aromas abound. That dark-berry theme continues throughout the palate with robes of dark fruit unfolding with notes of black licorice, olives and turkish coffee. Plush tannins round out the savory finish. A savvy pickup for the cellar.
2. 2015 A Tribute to Grace Grenache Santa Barbara County ($33)
New Zealand born winemaker, Angela Osborne sources Grenache from some of the most unique sites along California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Foothills. This Santa Barbara County bottling showcases select parcels from the Highlands, Santa Ynez, Ballard Canyon and Sta. Rita Hills. Neutral barrel aging allows for a stunning purity of fruit to shine through, giving way to vibrant raspberry, tar, licorice, white pepper and pronounced red floral notes that sing on another level with perfect harmony. This vintage appears to be sold out at the winery, but grab what you can from local retail or online.
3. 2015 Band of Vintners “Consortium” Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($44)
The “Band of Vintners” is back together for their second release. The “band” is an all-star team of some of Napa’s hottest winemakers. Led by 100-point winemaker Dan Petroski (Massican, Larkmead), Stéphane Vivier of Hyde de Villaine, and Master Sommelier and Harlan alumnus Just beJason Heller—this Cabernet Sauvignon combines Merlot for suppleness and a dash of Cabernet Franc for added aromatics and savoriness. Dominated by black fruit aromas with mocha and crushed-rock minerality. Generous on the palate, with mouth-filling blackberry, blueberry compote, and dark chocolate-covered cherries tinged with cassis, plush and long.
4. 2015 Banshee “Mordecai” Red Blend, California ($22)
This is one of your best bets for a food-friendly, bright and focused red for imbibing all summer and into the fall. Varying year to year, the blend breakdown combines Bordeaux and Rhône varieties, with Zinfandel playing a leading role. Lip-smackingly delicious with heady notes of cracked pepper and violets follow gobs of cassis and black fruit seasoned with roasted meat and savory herbs. You see “barbecue” written all over that, right?
5. 2014 Calluna Vineyards “CVC” Calluna Vineyards Cuvée Chalk Hill Sonoma ($31)
For those who crave a well-balanced Bordeaux-inspired red blend, the tiny Chalk Hill AVA just northwest of Santa Rosa, California is the place of origin for you. Calluna is a breathtaking estate on the western exposure of the Mayacamas Mountain range. Had this fruit been planted over the county line in Napa it would equate to a wine costing double the price. This true Bordeaux blend is Merlot-dominant with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Black currants and black cherry fruit meet plum notes, tinged with savory crushed bay leaf, tobacco, cedar-spice, dried violets, cassis, and cocoa.
6. 2016 Stolpman Vineyards “Combe” Trousseau, Ballard Canyon ($30)
Superstar sommelier and co-author of Secrets of the Sommeliers and the just-published Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste teamed up with Pete Stolpman, one of California’s most respected Central Coast winemakers, to craft this one-of-a-kind red. Combe is a French word that describes a small sheltered valley within a vineyard—in this case, the area of Trousseau grapes that Parr convinced Stolpman to plant on the limestone soils of Stolpman Vineyards. This effort is an ode to the grape’s origins in the French Jura with a light to medium-bodied concentration accentuated with high-tone fruit notes of sour cherry and red currants with heaps of beguiling spice notes. The perfect afternoon picnic red.
7. 2016 Cruse Wine Co. Syrah Charles Heintz Vineyard Sonoma County ($47)
Proprietor and winemaker, Michael Cruse is making wine in the town of Petaluma with ultra-cool-climate Syrah from the area’s highly prized Charles Heintz Vineyard. The site is planted in the nearby town of Occidental, and is more known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but this tiny 170-case production of Syrah is a showstopper. A delicious blue-black-fruited stunner, rounded off with crushed violets, and a hint of white-pepper and cured meat.
8. 2015 Dancing Crow Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Red Hills Lake County ($20)
The Red Hills AVA of Lake County has emerged as top-notch territory for affordable California Cabernet. Strikingly red volcanic-rich soils marked by black obsidian and quartz crystals combined with extremely high elevations (most vineyards here are planted between 2,000 to 2,400 feet), makes for the perfect medium for concentrated, mountain-grown Cabernet. This is a real steal, packed with juicy plum and black cherry, buttressed by polished tannins and hints of brown spice seasoning.
9. 2016 Donkey & Goat “The Gallivanter” California Red Wine ($24)
Kudos to owners/winemakers Tracy and Jared Brandt for leading the California natural wine movement from their urban facility in Berkeley. The Gallivanter Red Blend changes every vintage, but always relies on low-yielding sites. The 2016 Gallivanter is comprised of Merlot, Grenache and Mourvèdre from the Anderson Valley and boasts teeth-staining mountain berry fruit, dusty earth undercurrents and uplifting minerality.
10. 2014 Idlewild Nebbiolo Fox Hill Vineyard Mendocino ($39)
Bringing Italy’s Piedmont region to the hills of Mendocino County was Sam Bilbro’s vision with the Idlewild brand. Piedmont’s star grape variety—Nebbiolo—delivers a North Coast California rendition that hits it on the head with a textbook nose of crushed roses, tar and sandalwood spice. Bing cherry and crushed-stone notes are met with black tea tannin in one of finest New World renditions of Nebbiolo out there.
11. 2015 Jolie-Laide Rossi Ranch Grenache-Syrah Sonoma County ($49)
When he’s not working his day job as assistant winemaker at Wind Gap, owner and winemaker Scott Schultz produces roughly 500 cases per year of Jolie-Laide wines. This classic Rhône blend from the historic Rossi Ranch in Sonoma Valley brings Grenache and Syrah into one tank, where they co-ferment along with a small percentage of white Viognier and Muscat grapes that grow amongst the rows. The white varieties add a wild perfume note to the final blend. And the grapes are actually crushed by foot! After a whole-cluster ferment, the wine is pressed off into neutral oak barrels for another 10 months. The result is an elegant red with a dark-fruited core of sumptuous Grenache that melds harmoniously with the sauvage- and peppercorn-scented character of Syrah. Bold and masculine, but charming and playful.