Napa and Sonoma are perhaps most synonymous with California’s wine scene, but the reality is that the state’s offerings represent a much wider map spanning a host of different climates, styles and producers large and small. It’s now more important than ever to support domestic wineries, many of which have taken a big hit in 2020.
“I really believe that drinking domestic wines, and California wines specifically, is a way of taking care of those nearest to us,” says Stephanie Watanabe, the cofounder and CXO of Coast and Valley, a wine bar in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn where she and partner Eric Hsu focus exclusively on wines from California. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Old World wines, but with so much volatility in the world, I think it’s one small way we can help take care of our neighbors,” she says.
California, according to Watanabe, is a special place when it comes to winemaking. Not only is it an important agricultural hub for the country as a whole, but also in supporting its wineries, drinkers support the region’s farmers and vineyard workers. And there’s a particular thoughtfulness that she has found to be a common denominator in winemaking across the state.
“Whether they’re using minimal intervention, employing sustainable farming practices or giving back to their communities, I fully respect the care with which they approach their craft,” says Wantanabe. “It’s important to support brands that are doing right by the environment and its inhabitants. It’s one way we can invest in people who care about the bigger picture and are doing their part.”
Plus, Hsu adds, there are certain perks that come with being a relative newcomer to the world of winemaking. “[California is] unbounded by tradition––it's like the Wild Wild West all over again. With a sense of adventure and creativity, California winemakers are trying new things, growing every kind of grapes and combining them with winemaking styles that result in exciting, affordable, unpretentious wines that make drinking them just plain fun.”
Here, Watanabe, Hsu and other wine experts share their favorite California wines of the moment.
As a longtime fan of viognier for its nose, Hsu immediately fell in love with Santa Cruz winemaker Birichino’s 2018 malvasia bianca. “When I put my nose to this wine, I want to drink it, bathe in it and wear it like a perfume,” he says. “It has the most beautiful floral and aromatic nose of any wine I've come across.” On the palate, this wine has floral and citrusy notes with a hint of mint.
“I can’t talk about California without mentioning Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat; he’s a legend, one of the OGs of the California winemaking scene who brought much-deserved attention to the Santa Barbara region,” says Yassmin Dever, a wine advisor for Sotheby’s Wine. “He has been championing a more balanced, less heavy-handed style of winemaking even through the ’90s, when big, ripe, rich, concentrated wines were all the rage. What caught my attention in particular is his zest for experimenting with nontraditional varietals, which prompted him to create the Clendenen Family Vineyards label.” Clendenen’s The Pip nebbiolo is a deep and complex red made from the Piemontese grape. “For a wine lover like me, it’s a fun experience to taste the potential of grapes like nebbiolo in an unexpected place,” says Dever.
Watanabe credits the first vintage of Napa Valley’s Colète, a collaboration between sommeliers Rajat Parr and Marie Vayron Ponsonnet, as being “the merlot to make you fall in love with merlots again.” She’s a big fan of the 2017 bottling, though the recent release of its 2018 vintage has proven to be just as exceptional, she says. This easy-drinking wine is the product of a 20-year-old certified organic vineyard and Bordeaux-style vinification; it’s full-bodied with slight smoke and plenty of ripe red berry on the palate, layered with strong floral notes.
“Andrew Jones [of Field Recordings] has been working with grapes from Paso Robles since 2007, and this sparkling chardonnay fermented with Mosaic hops is fun, unconventional and delicious,” says Hsu. “I think of it as the gateway wine for beer drinkers to like wine.” The 2019 vintage offers pear, gooseberry and tropical fruit notes; the producer recommends pairing it with tuna salad or rotisserie chicken.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
“California has so much diversity in its wines that people tend to forget that there's more than Napa cab, Sonoma pinot noir and chardonnay, but I've discovered some real gems,” says New York City sommelier Sarah Tracey, the founder of The Lush Life. Among her most recent is Halcyon Wines’ 2019 blanc of cabernet franc, made by husband-and-wife team Tyler and Kim Elwell with grapes from Contra Costa County. “This wine is a white produced from 100% cab franc with no extraction from the skins, and it reminds me of yellow plum, persimmon and white flowers,” says Tracey. “The Elwells even include music playlists to accompany the experience of drinking their wines. If you have rosé fatigue, this is your new summer wine.”