Three decades ago it was easy. Today, not at all.
I’m talking of drawing up my list of California’s 10 most-reliable wineries. Thankfully, it’s an exercise I indulge just once every 10 years. The first was in 1984.
Before getting to the fourth, let’s review the ground rules.
By most reliable, I mean wineries that can be counted on to provide quality and value across the board. They don’t do well just one or two wines, they do several, vintage after vintage.
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• Each winery here has a distinct house style. For the most part, they interpret each varietal or style cleanly, without a lot of flourish. Individuality is highly rated. They generally make wines to be drunk upon release, though some are built to age. Often, they are everyday wines, priced for less than $12 per bottle. (The average price that Americans pay for a bottle of wine in grocery stores is $9.19, in wine shops $11.55, according to sales tracking by The Nielsen Co.) Some of their wines, however, are strictly for special occasion.
• Each winery has a solid track record. They’ve all been in the business at least a decade. And each strives to improve its wines; they aren’t complacent, an issue that explains why some wineries on earlier lists aren’t here today.
• Each winery is fairly well distributed; consumers should have no trouble finding at least one or two of their releases at alert and conscientious restaurants, wine shops and markets.
Thirty years ago the list was relatively easy to assemble because far fewer California wineries existed. Furthermore, a winery back then customarily had but one brand, two at the most; today, consolidation and expansion has resulted in several massive wineries that are more wine companies – broad corporate umbrellas under which they release wines through dozens of brands.
So then, alphabetically:
Bogle Vineyards: Since 1978, when the Bogle family founded its eponymous winery at Clarksburg in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta, the brand hasn’t wavered from its commitment to honest and refreshing varietals affordable enough and interesting enough to be put on the table every evening. Their merlot is the country’s best-selling take on the varietal, but virtually each wine they make – including chardonnay, zinfandel, riesling, pinot noir and petite sirah – has its loyal fans. When the Sacramento restaurant Mulvaney’s B&L prepared dinner at the James Beard House in New York this spring, the only local wine poured was the Bogle Phantom, a proprietary blend of zinfandel, petite sirah and mourvedre.
Bonterra Organic Vineyards: No winery makes the case for the organic, biodynamic and sustainable growing of grapes more persuasively than Bonterra Organic Vineyards, which since 1993 has been releasing wines of uncommon vitality and individuality. Founded as a spin-off brand by Mendocino County’s pioneering and creative Fetzer family, Bonterra today is owned by the large Chilean wine producer Concha y Toro. Whenever I browse a wine list and see a Bonterra cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, chardonnay or viognier, the browsing is pretty much done.
Bronco Wine Co.: No, I’m not a big fan of Bronco’s best-known brand, Charles Shaw Winery, whose wines became known as “Two-Buck Chuck” for their price and for their occasionally surprising quality. Bronco is massive, grows much of its own fruit, and while based in the state’s underappreciated Central Valley gets grapes from throughout California, including Napa Valley. Thus, several of the nearly 80 brands in its portfolio steadily offer value, pleasure and sometimes excitement, such as Patianna Organic Vineyards, Forestville Vineyards, Forest Glen Winery, Robert Hall Winery, Salmon Creek Cellars and Napa Ridge.
E.&J. Gallo Winery: Gallo has been on this list since its inception for the simple reason that no American winery more reliably makes wines for every imaginable palate and pocketbook. Whether the brand is the bargain-priced wines of Barefoot Cellars, an immense popular and critical success, or the more ambitious and precious releases of Gallo Family Vineyards, MacMurray Ranch or Frei Brothers, Gallo continually strives to upgrade its products by both taking advantage of latest winemaking science and respecting the sources of its grapes.
Frog’s Leap Winery: Can’t help it, but whenever I think Frog’s Leap I think wines with, well, bounce. Whether the wine be sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, zinfandel, merlot or some other varietal that Frog’s Leap makes, you can count on them to say what they are meant to say with equilibrium, clarity and zip. What’s more, while Frog’s Leap is in the heart of Napa Valley its wines are on the readily affordable side of the price scale.
Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards: While Gloria Ferrer makes some still table wines, it’s principally a sparkling-wine house, and that’s why it is on this list. With any given harvest, Gloria Ferrer’s winemakers are apt to make eight sparkling wines, from its direct and sharp entry-level Sonoma Brut to its high-end, vintage-dated, exquisitely complex Carneros Brut. Rare is the list of winners at a commercial wine competition that doesn’t include at least one Gloria Ferrer sparkler.
J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines: When I started to sketch out this list, J. Lohr was the first winery I jotted down, if for no other reason than its wines are so doggone solid. Besides, Jerry Lohr has one of the more compelling stories in the state’s wine history. A member of a South Dakota farming family, he was a rocket scientist out of Stanford University and then a San Jose home builder when he got the wine bug more than four decades ago. On this year’s 40th anniversary of his winery, he oversees more than 3,700 acres of vineyards in several of the state’s more acclaimed regions. Long before “terroir” started to trip off the tongues of California vintners, Jerry Lohr recognized and emphasized the value of estate wines, and that individuality continues to distinguish his wines.
Korbel Champagne Cellars: What, another sparkling-wine house in this list? Yes, for reasons general (California is producing the best sparkling wines in the world not made in Champagne) and particular (not only has Korbel been instrumental in that development through both vineyard and cellar enhancements, it’s been largely responsible for putting finely crafted bubblies in the hands of Americans by keeping their prices so restrained). Granted, Korbel’s exploitation of “Champagne” is politically incorrect, but whether the wine be its non-vintage Brut, a staple at wedding parties across the country, or its playful yet sophisticated non-vintage Blanc de Noir, one of the more honored entries on the wine-competition circuit in recent years, the Russian River Valley facility can be counted on to deliver pleasure and excitement for a ridiculously low investment.
Navarro Vineyards: Can it really be possible that Navarro Vineyards will be 40 years old next year? By that age, most wineries have settled into a comfortable if not complacent groove. Not Navarro. Founders Ted Bennett and his wife, Deborah Cahn, their children and their longtime winemaker, Jim Klein, still are exploring and testing their 913 acres of Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. They’re tinkering with new clones here, new trellising there, always striving to improve an already impressive lineup. Alsatian varieties like gewurztraminer and riesling drew them to farming and still form the spine of their portfolio, but they also turn out splendid pinot noirs, pinot blancs, even muscats.
Ridge Vineyards: I can’t explain why I didn’t include Ridge Vineyards on earlier lists. Maybe because it built its standing principally on just two varietals, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. It makes more than that these days, though cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel remain its signature wines. The cabernet simply may be California’s finest take on the varietal, and it isn’t from Napa Valley, but the winery’s estate vineyard Monte Bello high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. As for its numerous zinfandels, they come from all over the state, reflecting winemaker Paul Draper’s early commitment to site and his philosophy that a zinfandel of profound character need not be unreasonably priced.