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.