October 13, 2004
Let’s play a game. Say the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words "Napa Valley" and "Sonoma." Great wine, of course.
But how about Santa Barbara or Santa Cruz? While the Napa and Sonoma valleys have been synonymous with worldclass wine for decades — including legendary names like Mondavi, Beringer, Simi and Sebastiani — California’s "other" wine-growing regions have come on strong with great offerings and good value.
In fact, more than half of the Golden State’s 58 counties produce grapes for wine production; some mass-produced for bulk wines such as in the vast central San Joaquin Valley, others for the more exotic qualities found in grapes of the Sierra Foothills and south of the San Francisco Bay.
Beyond Napa and Sonoma, a number of areas showcase the diversity and splendor of wines from California.
Lake and Mendocino counties north of Napa-Sonoma, for example, are coveted for their volcanic soil, coastal fog and warm inland areas, which produce outstanding sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and zesty zinfandel. A couple of well-known bubbly producers — Roederer and S charffenberger (known under the brand Pacific Echo) — use pinot noir from the area as well. Other names to look for out of the region include Fetzer, Parducci, Guenoc and the ubiquitous Kendall-Jackson. What’s a day without a glass of K-J chardonnay?
South of San Francisco, around Santa Cruz and Monterey, and east of the city in Livermore Valley, some wonderful wines are being produced. Irreverent Bonny Doon from the Santa Cruz Mountains is a Valley favorite. Their current Big House Red ($10) is packed with syrah goodness and softening doses of cabernet franc and petit verdot. Also in the Monterey area are the vineyards of sixth-generation wine producer Mirassou, known for a silky pinot noir and peppery cabernet sauvignon. I’m not sure how many grilled salmon filets I’ve washed down with Mirassou’s glorious pinot noir.
Worshipped red producer Ridge, the Burgundy-styled pinot noir and chardonnay of Calera and Chalone, and the bright sauvignon blancs of Wente in Livermore are also worth seeking out from this region. Plan a brunch at the picturesque Wente estate if you’re visiting the area.
Another region that receives a lot of attention is the up-and-coming wine producing areas farther south of Monterey, surrounding San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, especially at Paso Robles. The area is known for soft, accessible cabs and spirited zins. Fun, fruit-focused chardonnays from Meridian and Callaway are a favorite in our house. During a recent Arizona distributor tasting, I fell in love with Zaca Mesa’s 2001 Z Cuvee ($18), a Rhonestyle blend of grenache, mourvedre, counoise, syrah and cinsaut. If I could have licked the bottom of the glass, I would have. On the white side, I had a nice run in with Wild Horse’s 2002 viognier ($16), also from the central coast. All I needed at that point was a creamy Caesar salad with extra anchovies.
It’s important to note that winemakers outside Napa and Sonoma often use some grapes from those areas, and vice versa, even filler grapes from the inland valley. But this is nothing to get hung up on. Winemakers genuinely care about what’s in the bottle. When selecting wines from outside of Napa-Sonoma, you’ll still sip passion and quality in every glass.