Taste the Grapes Along Northern California's Lesser-Known Wine Trails
We get it. Napa Valley is king of all things wine in California, and the United States, and arguably the entire planet. But the area can be crowded and expensive, so if you need a break or want to mix it up, these local wine regions (and their lesser-known wine trails) are great adventures and offer some of the best bargains in the wine world. And the best part? Their wines are available all over the place, from wine peddlers like K&L in SOMA, to most of the local markets and grocery stores in the Bay Area.
The Sacramento Delta
From the picturesque sunsets with Mount Diablo in the foreground, to the cultural meccas like the town of Locke and our state’s capitol, the Sacramento Delta is known for a whole bunch of things. Only recently has it secured its spot as one of Northern California’s powerhouse wine regions. A bunch of the small winemakers, including the Kirchhoff Family in Courtland, are sprinkled in with the tens of thousands of acres of wine grapes being grown for many of the big boys in the industry like Sutter Home and Korbel. Wine grape production has doubled in the past decade, making the Delta one of the top producing regions in the state.
These guys a true locals -- Ryan Jody and Warren Bogle were raised and still live in Clarksburg. Their quaint tasting room on a quiet slough typifies Delta style and is a perfect retreat for urbanites. Many consider the Bogle’s wine it to be the best value wine in the country, with most of their varietals under $10/bottle. It’s hard to believe that this family-run operation is soon to become one of the top 10 producers in the country (but tasting is believing). Their sauvignon blanc is perfect on a warm California day and the Essential Red just hit the 90 point mark from Wine Enthusiast.
The Clarksburg Sugar Mill may be the single most popular stop for wine drinkers in the entire Sacramento area. About 15 minutes from Downtown Sacramento, and a part of the Delta that locals refer to as “up river,” this re-purposed Sugar Beet factory is incredible with nearly a dozen wineries sharing a cathedral-like tasting room. Todd Taylor wines may be the best of the best, offering critically acclaimed, single vineyard, small production wines. Their big reds rival those of the well-known California labels. Elevation Ten Winery, Heringer Estates, and the Carvalho Family Winery share space in this historic building, pouring local wines throughout the week.
Across the river, just south of the Town of Freeport, is the vineyard of longtime local farmer, Mark Scribner. Scribner Bend Vineyards boasts a super-fun tasting room and wedding venue that people can’t get enough of. This is as real and local as it gets folks -- the Scribners live just feet from the tasting room, and the tasting room and production facility are smack dab in the middle of the vineyard.
On your way back to the Bay, pop into Grand Island Vineyards along the river on Highway 160. The vineyard is within earshot of the iconic Grand Island Mansion, where movie stars anchored their yachts and partied for weeks on end back in the day. The Salman family put the finishing touches on the winery just two years ago, and focuses on chardonnay, merlot, gewürztraminer, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon. GI also has two pear orchards, making this an extra-awesome place to drink wine and enjoy in the Delta breeze.
Santa Cruz Mountains
The Santa Cruz Mountains should be known for more than twisty Highway 17, hippies, and fruit stands -- there are amazing wines all over the hills. A handful of trails make up the Santa Cruz Mountain wine experience instead of a single wine trail. From start to finish, this wine region is home to some of the best wines in California and it shouldn’t be overlooked.
Ridge produces perhaps some of the most under-appreciated bottles of zinfandel in California. Seriously, label looky-loos, don’t let the simple, nondescript label fool you -- Ridge wines are outstanding. Ridge is bringing it with its modestly priced, rich, and full-bodied Three Valleys, to the flagship Monte Bello. Public transit won’t get you to this mountaintop winery, so load the car with a few friends, and zip up the switchbacks to this edifice-like winery overlooking the Silicon Valley.
One of the bigger names on the list of 75 Santa Cruz wineries, Bonny Doon built a reputation for its incredible diversity, from their grenaches and cuvees, to pinots and sparkling syrahs. Owner and winemaker Randall Grahm scaled back operations in the past decade to focus on singular wines, and on all accounts, he hasn’t missed a beat. If Ridge is straightforward and minimalist in style, Bonny Doon is artsy, fun, and unmistakably Santa Cruz. Unfortunately you can’t get into the winery and vineyard to look around, but the tasting room in Davenport isn’t a bad option.
Californians fell in love with David Bruce wines in the 1970s because of the vineyard’s traditional winemaking techniques and commitment to making only a handful of varieties. Today, many would say they are one of the top pinots on the market, at a great value. Its mountain location down the peninsula is ideal for Bay Area wine seekers, and a great starting point if you want to hit the Santa Cruz trails.
How can you talk Santa Cruz wines without a mention of Mount Eden? This winery was boutique before boutique was cool, with vineyards are steeped in winemaking history. Mount Eden’s wines are consistently the highest rated in the region, with many of the varieties rated deep into the '90s. It’s back to family roots in the past decade with Jeffrey and Ellie Patterson running the show, making some great chardonnay and pinots.
Nearly 100 miles east of San Francisco and north of Stockton, Lodi is beyond hot. It’s also Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Region of the Year in 2015. With almost 100 wineries, Lodi is more than worth the hour-plus drive from the Bay. In addition to the regional awards, Lodi wineries are scooping up accolades from newbies and wine snobs alike.
It’s pretty difficult to narrow it down to two or three wineries for a visit to Lodi, but it’s really close enough for you to make a couple trips. Jessie’s Grove, Harney Lane, Acquiesce, and Michael David are all exceptional.
A huge part of the experience for many wine enthusiasts is the chance to meet the owner and winemaker to talk-the-talk. So when you mix an outstanding product with good people you’ve got the recipe for something special, and KB is wine made by good people. From the banks of the Mokulemne River, their syrahs and zins are award-winning wines at great price points (under $20).
Macchia burst onto the scene this past decade with some of the best Italian varietals and zinfandels in California. With most bottles in the $15-25 range, start exploring their Shenandoah Valley-grown reds (white zin fans beware, no bubbly or pink wines here). You’ll spot their paint-splat label and catchy names (Mischievous, Righteous, Outrageous, and Oblivious to name just four) on the shelves.
One of the leaders in Lodi’s push for sustainable production practices and programs, Bokisch has found its niche in Spanish varietals. People seem to be paying attention (and loving this winery), including both wine enthusiasts and industry gurus. Quite a buzz about their 2014 Verdejo and Albariño, so seek it out.
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