The Daily Meal's Colman Andrews previews our list of the 25 best wineries in California for 2015.
Earlier this year, we asked a panel of wine experts to help us choose the 101 Best Wineries in America for 2015. When the results were tallied, we ended up with a roster of producers both famous and little-known from a dozen states: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Texas, and Michigan — oh, and of course California.
Wine is now made — from grapes — in all 50 states (though Alaskan vintners admittedly have to import their fruit or its juice), and we specifically asked our panelists to consider wines from all over, not just from the usual places, so that we could at least partially reflect the broad scope of American winemaking today.
That said, when the must settled, our results verified what we'd really known all along: California is our nation's wine capital, and the Napa Valley is at the heart of that state's quality wine industry.
In gleaning this list of the 25 Best Wineries in California from our larger list, we didn't have to go very far: 25 of the top 30 producers were Californian. Of those, 14 call the Napa Valley home. The state's Central Coast, from Santa Cruz south to Santa Barbara, accounts for another seven. Sonoma County, to our surprise, fielded only three wineries in the top 25 (the one outlier was from Philo, in Mendocino County).
The wineries on our master list were nominated by dozens of sommeliers, wine writers, chefs, and restaurateurs, along with wine-savvy editors at The Daily Meal. Some respondents asked to remain anonymous, but among those who didn't were regular Daily Meal wine writers Roger Morris, Gabe Sasso, and Andrew Chalk; John Tilson of The Underground Wine Letter; wine writer and wine bar proprietor Keith Beavers; chef–restaurateur Daniel Boulud and Daniel Johannes, corporate wine director for Boulud's Dinex Group; chef–restaurateur and Daily Meal contributor Norman Van Aken; sommelier, wine educator, and wine blogger Elizabeth Schneider; Cathy Mantuano, wine director at the Chicago Art Institute's Terzo Piano; and Julian Mayor, head sommelier at Bourbon Steak in the Washington, D.C., Four Seasons Hotel. We also factored in our own tasting notes of recent vintages, consulted leading wine publications and newsletters, and considered recent awards from prestigious competitions.
We asked our panelists to judge wineries not on individual wines, but on the overall place of each property on the American wine scene. Is it a dependable veteran, tried and true? An audacious innovator? Does it specialize in just one or two grape varieties, or do a sterling job with 20? Is it representative of its corner of the wine country? Does it help, in one way or another, enhance the reputation of its region, and/or of American wine in general?
We also factored in quality-to-price ratio. While this wasn't our principal criterion, we did feel that value should be considered in our ranking strategy. Value doesn't necessarily mean low price, of course, so there are some producers of pricey wines represented here. But our consideration of value accounts in part for the absence from our list of some of famous "trophy wines" from the Napa Valley and elsewhere, wines priced at many hundreds of dollars on release and bought more often (we're pretty sure) as status symbols rather than as delicious things to savor — though it is also worth noting that our panel didn't vote for some of the most famous names at all.
Here, then, drawn from our 101 Best Wineries in America, is our ranking of the 25 Best Wineries in California.
Did your favorite ones make the cut? Let us know which winery on our list is your favorite — or if we missed one that you love — by tweeting us @TheDailyMeal using the hashtag #25BestCaliforniaWineries.
#25 Navarro Vineyards and Winery, Philo
Navarro Vineyards and Winery, Philo
"Ask folks in Sonoma what their favorite winery in the area is and many of them will tell you to head to Philo in Mendocino County and visit Navarro," sommelier, wine educator, and wine blogger Elizabeth Schneider told us last year. Navarro virtually owns gewürztraminer in California these days, making a dry, intensely aromatic, bright and clean example that can stand up to its Alsatian inspirations quite nicely, as well as some of California's best zinfandel (it has won a gold medal and best in class designation from the Zinfandel Producers of America) and excellent chardonnays and pinot noirs — including an unusually good pinot noir rosé. Prices are modest and, notes Schneider, "The best part: they regularly offer penny shipping to those of us who have to order rather than visit the winery!"
#24 Saxum Vineyards, Paso Robles
Saxum Vineyards, Paso Robles
Young Justin Smith launched his winery in 2002 on a family-owned hillside vineyard that had to have terraces carved out of rock which had once been ocean bed; fossilized whale bones uncovered in the process gives testimony to this geological provenance. Smith's wines were almost an immediate critical success. Today he produces 4,000 to 5,000 cases of red Rhône varietals annually — grenache, mourvèdre, and syrah — both single varietals and blends. Try his 2012 James Berry Vineyard Bone Rock Syrah (the name is a reference to those whale remains), which is dense and delicious — if you’re fortunate enough to find a bottle.