11 Big California Reds That Aren’t Napa Cabs

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If you live anywhere other than Southern California or Miami, chances are you’re cold right now. Yes, you can add layers, make a fire or load up on comfort food, but one of the ways we like to warm up in winter is to pop open a bottle of lush red wine. California, specifically Napa Valley, is known the world over for its bounty of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. But California has other incredible wine-producing regions stretching from the north down through the Central Coast and beyond. So these are 11 bottles from all over—Paso Robles, Anderson Valley, Sonoma County and more—that will help ease winter’s chill until that first thaw.

1. 2011 The Alex Cooper Project “Doug Rafanelli Vineyard” Red Table Wine (Sonoma, $42)

This passion project, dreamed up by two wine lovers and industry veterans, produces high-quality wine in smaller batches. Former wine merchant Rodney Alex and music industry vet Rick Cooper, who’s also a partner in Chicago’s quintessential foodie restaurant Avec, teamed up with renowned Sonoma grape producer Doug Rafanelli. The result is this modestly named yet incredibly lush red table wine. Comprising 95 percent zinfandel grown on Rafanelli’s Dry Creek Valley vineyard and rounded out with 5 percent petite syrah, the super dark and inky wine offers blackberry, roses, clove and vanilla on the nose and leads to heavy tannins up front that eventually soften, giving off flavors of chocolate, smoke and marshmallow. Only 593 cases were produced, and it’s definitely worth seeking out.

2. 2014 Hahn SLH Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, $30)

SLH is the midtier offering from the Santa Lucia Highlands–based Hahn Family Wines (between the lower-end Hahn and higher-end Lucienne) and a definite bargain for the price. This 2014 pinot noir is produced from grapes procured from Hahn’s four vineyards—Smith, Lone Oak, Doctor’s and Hook—all cooled from dense fog from the Monterey Bay. And it, in a word, sings. It’s at the same time lush and silky, offering cherry (a lot of cherry), nutmeg, clove and cacao but also leather and red plum. While Hahn may produce a lot more wine than most wineries in this region, winemaker Paul Clifton, who grew up in nearby Salinas, pays close attention and crafts beautiful wines with depth and rusticity.

3. 2012 Oso Libre Carnal GSPS (Paso Robles, $46)

Paso Robles is no stranger to big, powerhouse high-alcohol wines, and the Carnal (think the Spanish meaning for “pertaining to the flesh” as in “brother” versus the English meaning, “sexual desire”) is no exception. Named for the “brotherhood” of grapes that make up this wine—grenache, petite sirah and syrah—the individual wines were each aged for 20 months, then blended, resulting in a hearty, viscous wine with sexy legs. Expect cherry, tree bark, currant, cinnamon and even some black pepper. It’s a medium tannin wine with a smooth finish that gets earthier it opens. It would go great with game meats, pasta with mushroom sauce or a big, fat steak.

4. 2014 Beckmen Vineyards Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah (Ballard Canyon AVA, Santa Barbara County, $32)

Beckmen Vineyards’ Cuvee Le Bec, a Côtes du Rhône blend, is probably its most accessible wine. But this syrah is the one to get, especially for colder weather. This wine, sourced from 100 percent biodynamically grown estate grapes, gives off essence of campfire, blackberries and dark chocolate on the nose. That chocolate scent continues into your mouth and pairs with blueberry, smoked meats, vanilla and pepper. Either drink it now or pop it into a cellar for 10 to 15 years, and let it age beautifully.

5. 2013 Champ de Rêves Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, $45)

If you’re looking for an elegant bottle of wine to curl up with, it doesn’t get much sexier than Champ de Rêves. This offering from Mendocino’s super cool Anderson Valley is silky and velvety with blueberry, licorice and maple on the nose. But when you get this in your mouth, that’s where the true happiness begins and continues. It’s spicy, juicy with raspberry and black cherry and balanced with nice tannins and acid. If you want to impress a party host, bring over a bottle of this wine.

6. 2014 Treana Red (Paso Robles, $45)

Treana, the darling of the Hope Family Wines stable, sums up what’s fantastic about wines from the Paso region: big, bold, hearty and a balls-to-the-wall personality. The Central Coast heat combined with cool sea air makes it a perfect climate to grow the cabernet sauvignon (75 percent) and syrah (25 percent) grapes that comprise this bad boy. At 15 percent, it’s a higher-alcohol wine, and damn if it isn’t sexy. From the moment you pour it into a glass, the super deep blood red color will make you feel like a vampire on the hunt. You’ll immediately notice the combination of menthol and dark chocolate on the nose (making you wish you had a box of Thin Mints) and a bit of oak as well. It’s a mid-tannin wine that offers up cinnamon, blueberry, cassis and a nice, long smoky finish.

7. Smith & Hook Proprietary Red Blend (Central Coast, $25)

Sourcing grapes from four quality vineyards throughout Paso Robles, Arroyo Seco and the Santa Lucia Highlands, this blend of merlot, malbec, petite sirah and cabernet sauvignon is far from wimpy. Aged for 26 months in mostly new French oak, this is a bold wine that can pair well with a variety of food from game meats to rich mushroom dishes. It’s dark and inky, showcasing the beauty of these bold varietals, and could stand some time in a decanter. You’ll find leather, menthol, raisin and blackberry on the nose, which make way for plum, eucalyptus and smoke with really nice tannins offering a great balanced wine.

8. 2013 Edmeades Zinfandel (Mendocino, $20)

This is a super jammy wine, which Jon McDaniel, the wine director for Chicago restaurants The Gage, Coda di Volpe and The Dawson, calls a “great value that packs a punch.” Edmeades has a reputation for crafting intense zinfandels, and this one is no exception. On the nose, you’ll find nice red fruit—pomegranate, currant and raspberries—mixing with a bit of vanilla and cinnamon, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a lighter red. The rustic medium-bodied wine is led by plum, dark cherry, blueberry and dark chocolate, with soft tannins that open up and develop with exposure to some oxygen. This bottle is so cozy you’ll want to curl up on the couch with a book, under a blanket and in front of a fire, but it’s also great with food like a hearty bowl of chili or rigatoni Bolognese.

9. 2013 Anaba Turbine Red Rhône Blend (Sonoma Valley, $28)

This well-balanced GSM (grenache-syrah-mourvèdre) blend has the benefit of grapes sourced from two vineyards with two very distinct climates: one low-elevation vineyard that’s protected from wind with warm days and cool nights; the other at a much-higher elevation, above the fog line that gets drenched in sun during the day but with cooler air. Expect a lot of joy from this dark-hued, full-bodied wine with blueberry, cherry, fig and pepper. It offers up a bit of smoke and nice minerality and would pair nicely with a pork roast, steak frites Bordelaise or a rich chocolate dessert.

10. 2014 Copain Tous Ensemble Syrah (Mendocino, $24)

Sourced mainly from Mendocino’s High Rock Ranch and Hawks Butte vineyards, this is another beautiful example of a cool climate Mendocino County red. The good-value fuller-bodied syrah has medium tannins, nice acid and a serious sucker punch of taste. You’ll get some jammy red raspberry and herbs on the nose, but that makes way for a burst of black pepper, plum, dark cherry, boysenberry and a bit of that feeling of getting a mouthful of river stones after wiping out on the standup paddleboard face first. But in a good way. Just go with it.

11. 2014 Predator Old Vine Zinfandel (Lodi, $15)

Talk about a value wine! This sleeper hit from the Lodi region, set at the north end of California’s Central Valley east of San Francisco, comprises grapes hailing from 50-plus-year-old vines. The sustainably produced wine has a dark violet hue with robust boysenberry notes and hints of lavender. It’s a medium-bodied spicy red with a touch of smoked meats, cherries and a nice, smooth finish that allows for easy drinking. Throw some molasses-rubbed ribs or cherry-glazed lamb chops on the grill, and open up a bottle.

Brands: Hahn
Series & Type: Products
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