Everybody knows Napa Valley. Fact of the matter, most of the time people come in looking for California wine, they’re just using California as shorthand for Napa. Unfortunately, the secret is out, and there are few - if any - bargains to be found in California’s most well-regarded region.
While those privileged few Napa winemakers are able to benefit from the natural advantages given by the land, there is no shortage of highly talented winemakers throughout the state. So we’re exploring the other horizons of the Golden State, from the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County to Carneros, and to Knights Valley in Sonoma.
Melville Winery 2014 Sta. Rita Hills Estate Chardonnay
The California wine boom owes a lot, at least as far as reputation, to a small tasting that took place in Paris in 1976. Forever remembered as The Judgement of Paris, this was the first time that California-made wines held their own against some of the most highly regarded French Bordeauxs and Burgundy’s in a blind tasting.
The Santa Rita Hills appellation, known in the wine world as Sta. Rita Hills due to legal action on behalf of a large Chilean winery, had its first vineyards planted just a few years before that blind tasting in 1976, though now it holds some 2,700 vineyard acres.
The Melville Winery got its start in 1989, situated in Sonoma County’s Knight’s Valley, but in 1996, Ron Melville and his sons purchased and developed 82 acres of vineyards in Lompoc, California, some five years before the Federal Government recognized the region as an AVA.
So why Sta. Rita Hills? From a winemaker’s perspective, the region is more suited for delicate varietals like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, where the hilly region allows for a cooler climate and better temperature variation between days and nights, crucial for the grapes to ripen properly.
The Melville 2014 Sta. Rita Hills Estate Chardonnay is a blend of 4 different Chardonnay clones on their estate from the west-facing hills, which take the brunt of the maritime winds and have poorer (less absorbent) soils, letting the grape retain some of its minerality and vibrancy before aging the wine in 10 to 20 year neutral French Oak barrels.
This isn’t the big, gloopy Chardonnay’s that dominated California for years, this balances the rich texture with more freshness and finesse.
Melville Winery 2015 Sta. Rita Hills Estate Chardonnay - Regular Price: $29.99 Sale Price: $26.99
Melville Winery 2014 Sta. Rita Hills Estate Pinot Noir
Sometimes you can’t anticipate what might make a grape popular. That was certainly the case when Sideways came out, with its professed hatred of Merlot and love for a Burgundian varietal called Pinot Noir. In Cabernet dominated Napa, Pinot Noir was only found in a handful of places that featured a relatively cooler climate, but the demand for Pinot Noir skyrocketed, and Sta. Rita Hills was ideally suited for the growth of such elegant varietals.
It’s a mistake to conflate Californian Pinot Noir with French Burgundy - it may be the same fruit, but the land is a different sort, and though Burgundy is a wine region worth idolizing, it’s better to look for your own route, lest you get lost along the way.
Nevertheless, the Sta. Rita Hills Estate Pinot Noir is sourced from vineyards on the east-side of the vineyards and is a selection of 16 different Pinot Noir clones, 40% of which was fermented whole-cluster, aged again in neutral old French oak, and racked only once in June before being bottled in August, this Pinot Noir has the clarity and character that we’ve come to expect from the Sta. Rita Hills, with notes of pomegranate, candied orange peel, and dried cherries.
Melville Winery 2014 Sta. Rita Hills Estate Pinot Noir - Regular Price: $39.99 Sale Price: $35.99
B. Kosuge 2016 Carneros Gamay Noir
Byron Kosuge has been making wines for over 30 years, getting his start in the 80s with Saintsbury before consulting at vineyards both in California and Chile.
Farming was in his blood, as his father had been a farmer in Colorado before moving to California to pursue a position at a university as a biochemist. Born in Davis, California, Byron initially studied American and English literature before deciding to pursue a career in wine.
We had the pleasure of meeting Byron not to long ago, and compared to the bombast of some Californian winemakers, Byron is measured and soft-spoken, always searching for elegance in his wines.
While in Chile, he realized that their Pinot Noir doesn’t suit well with new oak, and the practice of using concrete eggs became a fascinating jump off point for his pursuit of well-structured and balanced wines. Eggs, he thought, allowed the wines to move more naturally in the fermentation process.
This Gamay Noir is the result of a new quest of exploration. In 2013, he set about looking for Gamay in California only to find there was surprisingly little of it to be had. So he asked some of his friends at ‘The Shop” vineyards, where he sources one of his single-vineyard Pinot Noirs if they’d be game for Gamay grafting.
His hunt took him up to the El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills, where he partnered with a farmer named Ron Mansfield. The cuttings were brought back to Carneros and a half-acre was grafted over to the Gamay on clay rich soils.
B. Kosuge 2016 Carneros Gamay Noir - Regular Price: $29.99 Sale Price: $26.99
Ehret Family Winery ‘Bellarina’ Meritage Blend
In Napa’s oft-overshadowed neighbor Sonoma County, we find the Ehret Family Winery, owned by husband and wife Pierre and Susan Ehret. They’ve been producing wines from their solar-powered estate since 2005, but the Bavarian Lion vineyard was begun some 9 years earlier in 1996.
Sonoma lies north of Napa, and the Knights Valley AVA is Sonoma’s smallest, abutting Alexander Valley to the west, Chalk Hill to the south, and Calistoga in Napa to the east. Once part of a Mexican land grant, Knight’s Valley gets its name from Thomas E. Knight, a New England immigrant who is said to have participated in the Bear Flag Revolt, when Californian settlers rebelled against the Mexican government and declared California independent in 1846. Knights Valley also remains one of the most untouched regions in Sonoma, with little in the way of modern settlements and some 2,000 vineyards split by cattle and other farm based operations.
Ehret Family Vineyards stays true to the mission of Knight’s Valley’s natural beauty, with only 1/3 of their estate taken up by vineyards, while the rest functions as a natural wildlife preserve and all the energy here is sourced from solar, and all of the water for irrigation is provided by recycled rainwater in order to keep the farming practices sustainable.
But perhaps what sets Knight’s Valley apart from other Sonoma County AVAs is the combination of higher elevation and volcanic soils, thanks to the presence of ancient volcano Mount Saint Helena, the highest mountain in the whole county.
And what’s the deal with Meritage Blends?
Red blends are not new, rather, they are the principle that makes Bordeaux so viable. While a lot of the American wine market was consumed with the idea of single-varietal wines, there were winemakers that were preoccupied with the notion of being seen on the level of Bordeaux for their craftsmanship when it came to blending noble varietals. Red blend seemed a lesser than phrase, so in 1988, a group of winemakers banded together to create the term “Meritage Blend” a term that was a portmanteau of merit and heritage, to evoke the noble varietals and the tradition of Bordeaux.
‘Bellarina’ is made in this style, with a blend of 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.5% Cabernet Franc, and 3.5% Merlot.
There’s a small lesson to be learned here - depending on the region, winemakers are allowed to say something as single varietal (say for instance, Cabernet Sauvignon) when it may only contain 75%. This is perhaps why California Pinot Noirs have taken on a reputation as being fuller bodied, fruit-driven wines, despite the technical specifics of the varietal.
This is not meant as a comment on quality, but just an indicator of the nature of the beast.