One of my favorite things about living in the UK is its close proximity to some of my favorite historical wine-producing regions. It’s also quite easy to procure wines made from relatively obscure grapes that are often difficult to find in the US. However, I do miss a good traditionally-styled Napa Cabernet or coastal Pinot Noir. The Cabernets I can get here are often too fruit forward and modern in style, missing the grippy tannins of an old-school Cab, while Burgundy and New Zealand Pinots lack the combination of aromatics, saline raciness, and tannic structure that can be found on the California coast. I guess I can’t fault them too much – even Oregon Pinots can’t pull this off.
I often get asked about wineries to visit in California – particularly in Napa Valley. My preferences tend to favor small producers over the mass-market wineries like Robert Mondavi. This isn’t to say that a Napa Valley excursion focusing on the large producers is somehow intrinsically wrong or bad – one of my favorite afternoons in Napa was spent at Charles Krug, where the extremely friendly tasting-room staff tried to get us all wasted on very nice winery-only releases. For me, the joy of a winery visit is found in geeking out about things like vineyard training systems, farming techniques, and barrel selection. That is definitely not everyone’s preference. Places like Robert Mondavi, Beaulieu Vineyards, Inglenook (Coppola), Beringer, Chateau Montelena, and other well-known producers create a more social experience that sometimes I wish I enjoyed more. These larger wineries can produce some great wines – Mondavi’s Reserve Cabernet is legendary, as is BV’s Georges de Latour bottling; I’ve had some lovely winery-only Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet Francs from Beringer (their reserve Cabernet is also excellent), while Montelena’s estate Cabernet sings with at least a decade of bottle age. And don’t forget that afternoon at Charles Krug, where I ended up with a case of limited-release bottles. Perhaps the optimal Napa Valley visit for most people combines some of these larger producers with one or two boutique winery visits. I’m always happy to weigh in when asked.
Keep in mind the fact that this is a continual work in progress, especially because my location in London prevents me from expanding the scope of my Californian wine experience to the extent that I’d like.
Favorite American Wineries
Not all of these wineries are open to visitors.
Central Coast – Foxen, Morgan, Sanford, Sanguis, Star Lane, Talley
Napa – Arietta, Blackbird, Clark-Claudon, Corison, Diamond Creek, Dominus, Dunn, Mayacamas, Neal Family, Paradigm, Rivers-Marie, Robert Keenan, Robert Sinskey, Round Pond, Sullivan, Turnbull, V Sattui, Venge
Santa Cruz Mountains – Mount Eden, Rhys, Ridge, Testarossa
Sonoma (and/or Anderson Valley) – Anthill Farms, Kutch, Littorai, Peay, Rivers-Marie, Verite
Temecula – Hart Family
Washington State – Andrew Will
Great Californian Wineries to Visit
These are wineries I frequently recommend to friends and family when asked about where to go in wine country. Most require reservations, so plan ahead. While most of the large wineries cultivate a ‘Disneyland for adults’ atmosphere, most of these provide a much more intimate experience.
Napa – Domaine Chandon, Charles Krug, Clark-Claudon, Corison, Inglenook, Mayacamas, Neal Family, Paradigm, Robert Keenan, Robert Sinskey, Round Pond, Rutherford Grove, Salvestrin, Sullivan, Turnbull, V Sattui
Sonoma – J, Lancaster, Littorai, Mayo Family, Verite
Monterey/Arroyo Seco – Morgan
Paso Robles & Santa Barbara – Edna Valley, Foxen, Kynsi, Sanford, Star Lane, Talley, Wolff
Temecula – Hart Family, Mount Palomar
Favorite International Producers
I’ve also tasted wines extensively outside of the US West Coast. This has been driven entirely by the same curiosity that propelled me to doppel membership in the Wine Century Club (I’m now closing in on 300 unique varietals). The following list contains some of my personal favorites that, for the most part, lie outside the (often pricey) usual suspects for any particular country or appellation.
Argentina – Achaval Ferrer
Austria – Weingut Esterhazy
Beaujolais – Marcel Lapierre (Morgon)
Bordeaux – Ausone, Carmes Haut Brion, Cheval Blanc, de Fieuzal, Grand Corbin Despagne, La Louviere, Latour, Le Lastau, Leoville Las Cases, Mayne Lalande, Reignac, Teyssier (also the Montaigne St Emilion-based Teyssier)
Burgundy – A&F Gros, Confuron-Cotiditot, Nicolas Potel
Champagne – Pierre Peters, Philipponnat, Jacques Seylosse, Tarlant
China – Changyu Moser, Rongzhi
Garda (Italy) – Casello Bondoni, Montonale
Japan – Grace, Mercian (and two others, need to revisit my notes)
Lebanon – Chateau Musar
Piedmonte – Conterno-Fantino, Bruno Giacosa, Michele Chiarlo
Ribera del Duero – Pesquera
Rioja – Hacienda Don Hernan
Turkey – Kayra
Tuscany – Badia a Coltibuono, Biondi Santi, Camargi, Casanova di Neri, Cepparello, Il Poggione, Isole e Olena, La Gerla, Sassicaia, Tenuta Sette Cieli, Tignanello
Veneto – Giuseppe Quintarelli