THE 52 CALIFORNIA WINERIES YOU NEED TO VISIT IN 2019
BY ESTHER MOBLEY
For many, many years, I limited my wine of choice to whites and rosés. As much as I wanted to classily sip red wine like Cersei Lannister or Olivia Pope, I just could not get myself to enjoy it no matter how hard I tried. However, I wanted to start drinking more seasonally appropriate wines. I transitioned into opting for reds in the fall and winter by drinking lighter and fruitier reds. Now, I've learned to love them all. If you'd also like to switch from pink, summery sips to bolder reds, these 10 red wines for fall are the perfect transition.
Today, California wine country stretches all over the state, no longer confined to the familiar stretches of Napa and Sonoma. If you’re taking a road trip, you’re more likely than not to happen upon a wine region. But with more than 3,600 wineries in California, according to Wines Vines Analytics, how do you choose where to spend your money, time and alcohol tolerance?
Allow us to help. Here at The Press, our team of wine experts has been busy visiting tasting rooms from Mendocino County to Paso Robles, determining which offer the highest-quality wines, the most fun experiences and the best bang for your buck. As always, we conduct these visits according to the same principle with which our parent publication, The San Francisco Chronicle, would conduct a restaurant review: We visit anonymously and pay our own way. The fruits of that labor are the hundreds of independently conducted, expert-written winery reviews published on The Press.
But you don’t have time to read hundreds of winery reviews. So we’ve culled through our notes and come up with a collection of 52 — one for each week in 2019. This is not an all-time best-wineries-ever list; it’s a group of places that we think represents the breadth and diversity of California wineries and tasting experiences this year. Whether you want an in-depth educational tasting, an Instagram-worthy setting with delicious bites of food or simply a cheap, quick and easy tasting bar, we’ve got you covered.
The Press’ team of wine experts is led by me, Esther Mobley, and includes Virginie Boone, Matt Kettmann, Chris Macias, Sara Schneider, Tim Teichgraeber and Bryce Wiatrak. All of our work contributed to this feature.
Below are our recommendations for California wineries in each of the regions covered by The Press. Scroll through the full list, or click on a section to browse by geographic region.
East Bay and Livermore
Monterey and the Santa Cruz Mountains
Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo County
You can taste the Campovida wines at the winery’s tasting bar near Jack London Square in Oakland, but if you’re driving north it’s worth stopping at the bucolic winery in Hopland, where you can wander among many acres of trees with a glass of wine in hand. This would be a great place for a picnic. While you’re in the area, consider stopping at the owners’ nearby restaurant and inn, Piazza de Campovida.
Jason and Molly Drew make some of the best wines in Mendocino County, and they’re known — rightfully so — for their gamey, meaty Syrah. Visit their small, storefront tasting room in the Madrones complex in Philo, near the deep end of Anderson Valley, though many of their wines come from outside of this Pinot-centric valley. The Valenti Ranch Syrah is a special treat.
Foursight is a boutique operation specializing in Pinot Noir. The petite tasting room nestled near the vineyards offers a set of single-vineyard Pinots, which fall at the lighter, more delicate end of Anderson Valley examples. The Semillon, a rarity in these parts, is a pleasure. Call ahead if you’d like to arrange for a picnic basket.
Long Meadow Ranch
The newest addition to the Anderson Valley tasting room roster is an old-timer from Napa Valley: Long Meadow Ranch, which purchased a formidable 145-acre estate here in 2015 with the goal of adding cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to its portfolio. Noted winemaker Stephane Vivier makes the wines from this vineyard. (Long Meadow Ranch also bought the Napa Valley Chardonnay winery Stony Hill Vineyard last year.) At the tasting room in the Madrones complex, you can sit at a big communal table and choose either an Anderson Valley-only flight or a flight that includes the Napa Valley wines. Espresso is also available, if you need a pick-me-up. The winery still runs its original St. Helena tasting room too.
Come to Pennyroyal Farm for the wine and cheese, stay for the baby goats. This beautiful winery and dairy is the first sign to welcome you to Anderson Valley if you’re approaching from the south; don’t miss a chance to stop in for a tasting, a bite of lunch or, if you can spare the time, a farm tour. Owned by Sarah Cahn Bennett, whose parents own Navarro Vineyards in Philo, Pennyroyal makes Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, all of which pair nicely with the fresh, tangy, soft cheeses they craft in house.
For a history buff, Phillips Hill may present Anderson Valley’s most interesting stop: The tasting room is an apple-drying facility from the late 1800s — a time when this part of Mendocino County was full of apple orchards, not vineyards. A visit here, overlooking a peaceful creek, is a great opportunity to taste a set of charming Pinot Noirs and one of the valley’s best Rieslings. Take note of the beautiful wine labels, too; winery owner Toby Hill, an artist, designed them.
Anderson Valley may be known for aromatic white wines and Pinot Noir, but Roederer Estate’s decades of success prove that this coastally influenced valley is a great spot for making sparkling wine too. A laid-back, walk-up tasting bar offers the chance to taste through several sparkling cuvees — and even some still wines, which are tasting room-exclusives. The estate is owned by the French Champagne company Louis Roederer, which owns two additional Anderson Valley wineries: Scharffenberger, another sparkling wine label at a slightly lower price point than Roederer; and Domaine Anderson, a newer winery specializing in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as still wines.
In an industrial shack outside of Hopland, Terra Savia is an eclectic spot to visit for wine and olive oil tastings. The space, which includes an art gallery, is adjacent to the organic vineyard, plus gardens, olive trees and a lot of animals. (There’s even an aviary on-site.) Ten dollars gets you tastes of wine and/or olive oil; pay special attention to the Merlot.
This established Sonoma County wine producer only recently opened a tasting room for the first time. Owner Morgan Twain-Peterson, a former Chronicle Winemaker of the Year, seized an opportunity to take over the General Joseph Hooker House in downtown Sonoma, which 166 years ago belonged to a Mexican-American war hero. It’s a good way to take in some Sonoma history alongside wines that showcase historic California vineyards.
A short drive from downtown Healdsburg is DaVero, a scenic biodynamic farm and estate winery where you’ll spot olive trees and farm animals outside the tasting bar. Like Idlewild, the focus is on Italian-style wines, but DaVero expands beyond northern Italy to encompass the full boot, with renditions of Primitivo, Fiano, Vermentino and — maybe DaVero’s best — Sagrantino. Book ahead for a farm tour and get to know the pigs and sheep.
Looking for a place to hang out and grab a drink in downtown Healdsburg? Idlewild is just as much fun of any of the bars in town. The small wine label is based here but sources its fruit from Mendocino County and looks to northern Italy for its inspiration. You’ll find delicate renditions of Arneis, Barbera, Dolcetto and more, offered here alongside hearty platters of cheese and salumi.
One of the Russian River Valley’s pioneering producers, Joseph Swan winery today offers tastings in a no-frills setting among barrels and cases of wine. Don’t let that stop you from discovering these old-school Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Zinfandels, which have maintained an ideal of balance and finesse for 50 years.
Since the 1980s, Laurel Glen has put out some of the finest Cabernet Sauvignons in Sonoma County, and for considerably lower prices than comparable Cabernets across the county line in Napa. Although the estate is located high on Sonoma Mountain — whose steep, narrow roads can be intimidating to the unfamiliar driver — the winery operates a tasting room nearby in Glen Ellen where you can taste through these ageworthy Cabs.
The latest addition to downtown Healdsburg’s tasting room scene is Lioco, an intimate space with bar stools and lounge seating that’s open without a reservation (though booking ahead is encouraged). Founded in 2005, Lioco made its name on fresh, energetic, lower-alcohol renditions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but Carignan is a big focus for the winery too. In a nod to cannabis strains, the Carignan rosé is called Indica, while the red Carignan is called Sativa.
Traveling from Healdsburg to points south, you could take a scenic route down Westside Road to River Road before getting onto 101. This route takes you directly by Martinelli’s tasting room, which is an easy stop to tack on to any journey. The bustling space features a central tasting bar surrounded by a gift shop-like display of wines and other products. Zinfandel is a specialty of the Martinelli family, which made headlines this year when it purchased the Three Sisters Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast from its own family members.
What was once a biker bar and gas station in this rural stretch of Alexander Valley is now Medlock Ames, one of the most vibrant spots for wine tasting in the area. Ample outdoor seating gives visitors a great chance to enjoy the scenery and the easy-drinking wines, mostly Bordeaux blends. It’s a breath of fresh, youthful air.
Tragically, Paradise Ridge’s Santa Rosa winery burned during the 2017 Wine Country wildfires, leaving behind only its steel sculpture garden. While the owners rebuild, you can still taste the Paradise Ridge wines at the smaller tasting room in Kenwood, complete with a “sensory garden.” You can choose a tasting experience that pairs garden herbs with different wines.
More Sonoma County tasting rooms require appointments these days, especially on Healdsburg’s Westside Road, a hotbed of excellent wineries. But if you find yourself up Westside without a reservation, you can always pop into Porter Creek. The bare-bones shed of a tasting room can get crowded, but it’s worth a little bit of jostling to taste these expertly crafted wines — and if the crowd’s too much, retire outside with a glass.
If your idea of a great afternoon of wine tasting consists of sitting outside with picture-perfect surroundings and tasting wines at a leisurely pace with tasty, farm-fresh snacks, Reeve may be your Platonic wine-tasting ideal. Co-owner Noah Dorrance departed Banshee to focus on Reeve, which excels with wines as diverse as Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and (especially) dry Riesling.
In Dry Creek Valley, Zinfandel is king. But Unti sees the valley’s climate as ideal for more than just Zin, and has planted a vineyard full of eclectic varieties grown across the Mediterranean, from Vermentino to Grenache. (Zinfandel is Mediterranean, too, hailing from Croatia.) These are charming, approachable wines, offered in a casual tasting bar — though keep in mind that you do need a reservation.
A visit to Arkenstone isn’t convenient, unless you happen to live in the tiny town of Angwin, nor is it cheap, at $100 per person. But if you’re after a deep dive into some distinctive, under-the-radar wines, there are few better options in Napa Valley than this family-owned spot. The red wines, especially the Cabernets, are powerful and concentrated; Arkenstone also happens to make one of Napa’s finest Sauvignon Blancs.
You might call Cain the anti-Napa Valley winery. Although this Spring Mountain producer specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon, it crafts its wines in a distinctively Old World style less about fruit than a melange of earthy, wild qualities. Cain also produces, unusually, a multi-vintage red wine blend that represents a great value. Plan ahead for a visit here — it takes a while to climb the rugged Spring Mountain road to the top — and make sure you’re not in a rush. They don’t accept groups larger than four. This is a place to linger and learn.
One of just a few California wineries located atop Pritchard Hill in Napa’s eastern mountains that is open to the public, Chappellet would be worth visiting for the views alone. Good thing, then, that the longstanding winery produces beautiful wines, from its flagship Pritchard Hill Cabernet to an old-vine Chenin Blanc. The main winery is a striking building, cavernous and triangular. Take a vineyard tour if you have some extra time.
Wine may be the first passion of Cliff Lede, who founded his namesake winery in 2002, but the vintner also loves classic rock, and named blocks of his estate vineyard after favorite songs like “Cinnamon Girl,” “Nights in White Satin” and “Ziggy Stardust.” You’ll even notice a painted crosswalk outside the winery that bears a strong resemblance to a certain Beatles album cover. The winery feels luxurious, with indoor and outdoor seating and a gallery of rotating art.
Gamling & McDuck
While the rest of Napa Valley is unwaveringly focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamling & McDuck prefers to focus on the other Cabernet — Cabernet Franc, that is. This winery is an ode to France’s Loire Valley, where Cab Franc and Chenin Blanc reign supreme. A comic book-like illustration of the wine label’s history by co-founder Adam McClary is on display in the eclectic space, which stays open until 11 p.m. on Saturdays.
Nestled in the Mayacamas foothills, Hendry Ranch crafts a more diverse range of wines than most Napa wineries — and all from its estate, no less. That makes Hendry a good place to taste Albarino, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir in Napa, though the winery’s greatest strength really is Zinfandel. (Separately, it also produces Primitivo, a clone of Zin.) Basic tastings are available, but the best way to experience this family farm is by booking a property tour.
Four years after a 6.0-magnitude earthquake toppled its historic wine cellar, Mount Veeder’s Hess Collection finally unveiled its restored — and improved, to the tune of $5 million — new winery and tasting room, called Lion’s Head. An additional commercial kitchen has now enabled Hess to offer food-and-wine pairings in the peaceful courtyard just outside the new cellar. Hess is one of those California wineries that has it all, from a casual tasting bar that welcomes walk-ins to private chocolate pairings and lengthy ATV vineyard tours. Hess also draws visitors for its top-notch art museum, to which admission is free.
Spring Mountain, in Napa’s western hillsides, is home to many outstanding — and longstanding — estate wineries. Robert Keenan, founded here in 1974, is among the mountain’s stars. In addition to the obligatory Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery excels with Cabernet Franc and what it calls “Mernet,” a Cab-Merlot blend. Reservations are required (though staff is happy to try to fit you in last-minute if you call ahead, as long as there’s space), but unlike many elaborate hillside estates in Napa, the Keenan experience is easy and laid back — and much less expensive than comparable experiences at just $25.
For a last-minute stop near the end of the day in Napa Valley, drop into Merryvale, conveniently located on the main drag of Highway 29 and open — without a reservation! — until 5:30 p.m. every day. Seated tastings in the tasting room are relaxed and comfortable, but you’re also welcome to buy a bottle of wine to enjoy outdoors here.
California Governor Gavin Newsom and philanthropist Gordon Getty co-own three Napa Valley wineries through their PlumpJack Group (and that’s not to mention a number of San Francisco wine shops and bars, including Wildhawk and Forgery). Odette Estate, named for the late French wine critic Odette Kahn, is the latest jewel in their crown, and the winery is an accomplishment in ecological design, having earned a LEED Gold certification.
Young Inglewood is truly a family affair: Mother-son team Jacky and Scott Young make the wines; dad, Jim, manages the vineyard; daughter, Mary, works on special projects. Originally part of a Mexican land grant, the property has been farmed organically by the Youngs since 2007. In addition to some elegant, finessed versions of Chardonnay and red Bordeaux varieties, the winery produces a “vin clair,” essentially a rosé of Merlot and Malbec with a nod to Champagne-style winemaking. This may be the only place in Napa where you can find Aligote, a minor (and delicious) white grape from Burgundy, France.
BoaVentura de Caires
This family-run winery is responsible for some of the best wines in Livermore Valley, the homey wine region at the far reaches of Alameda County in the East Bay. Owner-winemaker Brett Caires showcases his Portuguese roots with an Alvarinho (known as Albarino in Spain) and a Port-style wine, but the winery’s main focus is on its various bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon. The tasting room is located in a converted barn, with lots of outdoor seating.
Together, Broc Cellars and Donkey & Goat have made their neighborhood in northwest Berkeley a destination for natural wine lovers. Broc winemaker Chris Brockway started his business with the intention of making Zinfandel, and he does, but across the board his red wines are incredibly light, many nearly translucent, riding on the lowest end of the alcohol-by-volume spectrum. Try all of the many curiosities — Lagrein, Carignan, Mission — but if you can, don’t miss the chance to taste what this critic considers to be Broc’s best wine, the Michael Mara Vineyard Chardonnay.
You don’t have to venture far from Jack London Square in Oakland to taste some of California’s best Zinfandels. Mike and Anne Dashe began making Dry Creek Valley Zin in 1996 and now source fruit from a range of excellent vineyards, many of them historic, encompassing not only Zinfandel but also Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Carignan. Taste these wines at their warehouse-style winery; for just $15 you’ll drink better than you could at most Oakland bars.
Donkey & Goat
Donkey & Goat owners Jared and Tracey Brandt were early to wave the natural wine flag in California, but any sort of wine lover would enjoy these soulful, eclectic wines regardless of her feelings on sulfur additions. Yes, there’s orange wine (called ramato here) and pet-nat, but ultimately Rhone varieties are the specialty. The winery’s white Rhone blends — think Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Clairette — are uncommonly good.
McGrail Vineyards surely presents one of the most scenic views in Livermore Valley, and you can take advantage of it with a vineyard tour — or a game of bocce, during select hours. If you enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s several bottlings to taste through here, but on a warm afternoon sitting on the tasting room patio you may prefer to linger over McGrail’s crisp, fresh Sauvignon Blanc.
The former naval air station on Alameda Island is now a drinker’s paradise, between Hangar One and St. George Spirits distilleries, Almanac Beer Co., Admiral Maltings and Faction Brewing. But if it’s wine you want, head to Rock Wall Wine Co., owned by Shauna Rosenblum, whose late father Kent Rosenblum founded the pioneering Zinfandel label Rosenblum Cellars. An enormous outdoor seating area at Rock Wall provides direct views of the San Francisco Bay. It would take many visits to exhaust the long list of Rock Wall wines, which includes old standbys like Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and (of course) Zinfandel, but also embraces less common varieties like Fiano, Tannat and Ciliegiolo.
MONTEREY COUNTY AND SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS
The Caraccioli family set out with an ambitious goal: craft top-quality, single-vintage, Champagne-method wines in an area that had little track record for bubbly. Just over a decade in, the winery is producing some of the leading sparkling wines in the state, available to taste in a snug, stylish tasting bar in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea.
I. Brand & Family
Taste the wines of Ian Brand, The Chronicle’s 2018 Winemaker of the Year, at his tasting room in Carmel Valley Village, where Brand and his wife, Heather, pour from their three labels: the value-centric Le P’tit Paysan (look for the minerally, crisp Jacks Hill Chardonnay); the Spanish-inspired La Marea (pay attention to the refreshing Kristy Vineyard Albarino); and the higher-end I. Brand & Family (don’t miss the Enz Vineyard Mourvedre, if it’s available). These are among the most exciting wines in California right now.
Ridge may be the main destination on Montebello Road, but if you’ve taken the time to drive all the way up here you’d be remiss not to stop at Picchetti too, an idyllic property with picnic areas, walking trails and a historic building for a tasting room. Current proprietor Leslie Pantling has revived the sense of the past at Picchetti, whose history dates to the 1800s and which sits on land now owned by the government. The wines fly under the radar, but they’re quite good.
Ridge – Monte Bello
Six decades after its founding, Ridge Vineyards still hasn’t gone out of style — and it shouldn’t, since the winery, under the longtime tutelage of of winemaker Paul Draper (who remains in an emeritus-type role, despite having officially retired), has stayed true to timeless ideals of terroir expression, no-frills winemaking and balance. There’s a second winery and tasting room in Geyserville, the center of Ridge’s Zinfandel production, but the original property is in Cupertino, the estate where the winery’s classic Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon is grown.
When you think of Wine Country, you might not think of the wealthy suburb of Woodside, but when you pull up to Thomas Fogarty Winery and see its expanse of hillside vineyards situated on a dramatic overlook of Silicon Valley, you’ll know you’re in the right place. From its vineyards here at the northern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the winery produces excellent Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, all falling at the lighter, ethereal side of the spectrum. To taste the Bordeaux-style wines of Thomas Fogarty’s sister label, Lexington, visit the tasting room in downtown Saratoga.
PASO ROBLES AND AND SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY
Editors note: This is part of our new list of Paso Robles wineries. Full reviews for each will be coming Jan. 20. Watch out for some new trips, expert tips and the best ways to explore the wine scene.
The jewel of Adelaida Vineyards is the HMR Vineyard, a high-elevation, limestone-studded site where some very unusual Pinot Noir vines, planted in 1964, are still thriving. Under the direction of winemaker Jeremy Weintraub, the winery’s offerings are better than ever, offering a range of finessed, mostly Rhone-style wines that pack big flavors into light frames. At the modern tasting room you can choose from various experiences, from a basic tasting (walk-ins accepted) to a vineyard “tailgate” — but don’t expect to see a football game.
The Epoch Estate wines capture the essence of Paso Robles: bold, fruit-forward and dense, but always with enough structure and freshness for balance. The experience here is by appointment only and state of the art, in a refurbished historic building constructed in 1882 when the property belonged to York Mountain Winery (some bricks from 1906 still remain). When you visit, you’ll get to taste through a range of wines from the 120 acres of estate vineyard owned by Epoch, including classic-for-Paso Rhone blends as well as Tempranillo.
Andrew Jones is among the most experimental and innovative winemakers — and cider makers, for that matter — in Paso Robles today. One of the original residents in the vibrant Tin City complex, Jones offers his lineup of 20-plus wines in a funky, laid-back space. Field Recordings is his flagship brand, featuring a range of bright, easy-drinking wines from Chenin Blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon, though you may also see his Fiction bottles and his canned wine label, Alloy. Afterward wander over to Tin City Cider, a collaboration between Jones and Sans Liege winemaker Curt Schalchlin.
Brian and Stephy Terrizzi, onetime Chronicle Winemakers to Watch, are Paso Robles’ go-to interpreters of Italian grape varieties. He’s the winemaker, she’s the viticulturist, and together they’re making delicious renditions of Nebbiolo, Aglianico, Sangiovese and more. You can visit them by appointment at their small Tin City tasting room, but now you can also find Giornata at Etto Pastificio (3070 Limestone Way, Paso Robles), the Terrizzis’ new pasta factory, where they sell all manner of comestible Italian goods.
Halter Ranch may be a winery, but it is also a wildlife preserve of sorts. The property’s owner, Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, planted vineyards on a small section of his 2,000-acre property that he hadn’t conserved for the animals. Still, unless you take a vineyard tour (which is recommended) you’re unlikely to see any mountain lions when you visit the tasting room, where you can taste through Halter Ranch’s solid lineup of Rhone and Bordeaux-style wines.
Winemaker Kevin Jussila highlights his Finnish heritage at his highly personal winery, Kukkula, which means “the hill” in his native tongue. This ambitious project is centered on the 50-acre dry-farmed, organic, head-trained vineyard that Jussila planted himself, with a modern winery that nearly blends into the hillside. Pay attention to these thoughtful wines, many of them Rhone-style blends. (If you’re looking for Pinot, the Kukkula “Noir” is not it; this dark-colored wine is a Syrah-Counoise blend.)
Tablas Creek made a big bet on the potential of grape varieties from France’s Rhone Valley — Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and their companions — when it was established here in Paso’s west side in the 1980s. A partnership between an American importer and a leading Rhone Valley winery, Tablas is notable not only for its commitment to beautifully balanced, Old World-style wines, but also for the fact that it was the first to bring much Rhone plant material into the United States. A visit to this bustling winery is a chance to taste the rainbow of southern France in the Central Coast: From Tannat to Clairette, there’s truly something for everyone
The Thacher property was once part of a horse farm, and owner-winemaker Sherman Thacher used to be a brewer in Los Gatos. Today, the property is home to a range of mostly Rhone-inspired vines and a modest tasting bar — though they do hold occasional parties in the hulking, 1920s-built barn where all the horses used to live.
From the seaside town of Cambria, take a ride along the road less traveled to reach Stolo, a scenic tasting room nestled among hillside vineyards. Picnics are popular here (though it’s a good idea to make a prior reservation for one of the tables), and there’s a range of compelling wines — including one of the best Gewurztraminers in the region — but the star here is the Syrah, grown less than 3 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
Villa Creek was a restaurant before it was a winery. Only recently, nearly 15 years after purchasing a striking 60-acre estate in Paso’s Peachy Canyon, did restaurateurs Cris and JoAnn Cherry abandon their longtime restaurant to focus solely on the wine business. A visit here, by appointment only, is a chance to taste through a range of single-vineyard expressions of some of western Paso’s most famous sites, though it will still be a while before you can taste the wines from the Cherrys’ own estate, called Maha.
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