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Worth the Search

Plenty of California wine gems are still attainable and \(mostly\) affordable

James Laube
Posted: April 4, 2000

John Kongsgaard makes a rich and opulent Napa Valley Chardonnay

Worth the Search

Plenty of California wine gems are still attainable and (mostly) affordable

-- By James Laube, senior editor

High prices, tiny production and rave ratings were the criteria used to determine our nine cult wines. But, looking past price and production to focus on quality and style, there are a few overlooked gems that are also worth the hunt.

Many of these wines are Napa Valley Cabernets, typically single-vineyard bottlings made by celebrity winemakers or growers. There's more to life than Cabernet, though, and this list might lead you to enjoy some of California's less-heralded Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and even Merlot.


Abreu Napa Valley Madrona Ranch

Cult status guaranteed. As grape guru to the winemaking stars, David Abreu works with the likes of Helen Turley, Spottswoode, Araujo and Ric Forman. Forman makes Abreu's single-vineyard Cabernet ($85, 600 cases) into a dark, rich, opulent wine. Abreu himself is on the list of those least likely to seek celebrity status -- he's shy and keeps to himself -- but his Cabernets are knockouts. Fax: (707) 963-5104

David Arthur Napa Valley Elevation 1147

You still have a fair chance of buying this wine, as the winery is new and the 1997 vintage produced a bountiful crop. Shoot for the 1147 ($75, 100 cases), but you won't be disappointed by the Cabernet ($60, 980 cases). Even the Meritagio, a Tuscan-inspired blend that includes Cabernet and Sangiovese, merits a taste. All the wines are estate-grown. Telephone: (707) 963-5190

Beaulieu Vineyard Rutherford Clone 4 and Clone 6

BV's clonal research, plus decades of experience with Rutherford Cabernet, combined with Joel Aiken's winemaking, puts the winery on the cutting edge with these two very rich and seductive wines, both from longtime BV vineyards in Rutherford. Fewer than 300 cases of each have been made; the wines sell for $100 a bottle. Telephone: (707) 967-5200

Beringer Napa Valley (Bancroft Vineyard and other single-vineyard Cabernets)

Great vineyards (throughout Napa) and a great winemaker (Ed Sbragia), with a track record for excellence ... hello? What more could you ask for? Only 200 cases of Bancroft Cabernet are made, at $85 a bottle, from a good-sized vineyard that first made its mark with Merlot (which is worth checking out as well). Also highly recommended are single-vineyard limited bottlings ($80 to $100) from Marston Vineyard (on Spring Mountain), Home Vineyard (in St. Helena, behind the winery), Chabot Vineyard (northeast of Joseph Phelps Vineyards) and State Lane (north of Yountville, in the Screaming Eagle neighborhood). Telephone: (707) 963-7115

Etude Napa Valley

The masterful Tony Soter has made wines for Spottswoode, Araujo and Dalla Valle. While he doesn't own any vineyards, and his Etude is a blend from several sources, don't lose sight of the wine's overall quality and value. Careful work with growers results in an intense, deeply concentrated and age-worthy Cabernet (about 1,500 cases; $50). Telephone: (707) 257-5300

Lokoya Napa Valley

Kendall-Jackson's goal with its Lokoya label is to tap into the best Napa Valley Cabernet vineyards and produce single-vineyard or appellation-specific wines. The most polished is the Rutherford. The Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder are all intense and firmly tannic, yet beautifully crafted. The last two bottlings come from vineyards owned by Lokoya; the Rutherford and Diamond Mountain grapes are purchased. Case production ranges from fewer than 100 up to 1,500 or so. The wines are $100 a bottle, but this price may soften if volume grows. Telephone: (707) 944-2807

Peter Michael Les Pavots Knights Valley

Les Pavots is a Bordeaux blend that found a groove with the 1993 vintage, which is uniformly dark, dense and chewy, packed with currant and mineral flavors. Peter Michael once featured Helen Turley as winemaker; she was followed by the talented Mark Aubert (now at Colgin). The winery can pump out 3,000 cases of estate-grown bottlings. The challenge for the new winemaker, Vanessa Wong, will be to take the wines to an even higher level. Telephone: (707) 942-4459

Pride Napa Valley

Take your pick -- the Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc (from Sonoma County) and Reserve bottlings are immense, ripe, polished, detailed wines. The Reserve is the rarest, with 300 cases selling for $80 a bottle. The Merlot, with 4,700 cases, has the biggest production; it goes for $24. The Cabernet is in the 3,700-case range, while the Franc is under 1,000. All grapes are estate-grown under the direction of Bob Foley (who, by the way, has a new brand of his own using grapes from the property). Telephone: (707) 963-4949

Philip Togni Napa Valley

Togni is a winemaking veteran with stints in Bordeaux in the 1950s, at Chalone in the 1960s and at Cuvaison in the 1970s. His best work is from his Cabernet vineyard on Napa Valley's Spring Mountain, where he routinely produces exotic Cabernet in the 2,000-case range for about $65 a bottle. Telephone: (707) 963-3731

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Kongsgaard Napa Valley

John Kongsgaard is a busy guy these days: winemaker at Luna, Kongsgaard and Arietta (with Christie's auctioneer Fritz Hatton); consultant at Newton (where he worked through the 1990s), Harrison and Livingston -- and to just about anyone else who needs advice. I've always liked his whites (Chardonnay in particular) better than his reds, so focus on the family-owned and -grown Chardonnay ($50, 900 cases), which is ripe and opulent. But don't rule out greater success with Kongsgaard Syrah or with Arietta, a Carneros-grown Hudson Vineyard red, inspired by Chteau Cheval-Blanc, that mixes a little Merlot into the base wine, Cabernet Franc. Telephone: (415) 885-8050

Ramey Carneros

David Ramey is another busy winemaker, working for Rudd Estate (formerly Girard) in Napa while moonlighting on his own brand. As with Kongsgaard, I've liked his whites better than his reds, but be on alert: Ramey, the former winemaker for Simi, Chalk Hill and Dominus Estate, expects the Rudd Cabernet (grown just north of Screaming Eagle) to be stunning. The two Ramey Chardonnays (about $50 and 400 cases each) are brimming with ripe, delicious flavors. These bottlings tap Carneros vineyards (Hyde and Hudson) for now, but they're likely to expand to different locations yet remain small in case volume. Fax: (707) 833-5620

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St. Francis Sonoma Valley Reserve Despite all the trash-talking about Merlot, California has some terrific sites and some decadent wines. Tom Mackey produces an impressive 6,000 cases, at a very reasonable $39 a bottle, from a parcel behind the winery. A real find. Telephone: (707) 833-4666

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Kistler Sonoma County

While Kistler's Chardonnays are world-renowned, it's the Pinot Noirs from select Sonoma Coast and Russian River venues that are generating excitement these days. The four (at last count) Pinots come from Kistler Vineyard (Russian River, 270 cases), Camp Meeting Ridge (Sonoma Coast, 190 cases), Sonoma Coast Cuve Catherine (275 cases) and Hirsch Vineyard (Sonoma Coast, 160 cases). Prices are in the $40-to-$60 range. But don't be picky -- buy what you can, regardless of whether it's red or white. Telephone: (707) 823-5603

Rochioli Russian River Valley

The Pinot Noir sweepstakes is about to go topsy-turvy, with scores of exciting new sites being mined by serious wineries all along the coast, including Marcassin, Kistler and Flowers, among others. Rochioli's Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, whether from East Block, West Block, Little Hill or Three Corner, is prized for its purity of flavors. The wines are made in varying quantities, from about 100 cases up to several hundred, with more than 2,000 cases of the regular Russian River Valley bottling (not vineyard-designated). Prices range from $35 to $65. Telephone: (707) 433-2305

Williams Selyem Russian River Riverblock and Sonoma Coast Summa

Some folks are writing this winery off as a lost cause, but not me, not yet. Riverblock ($55, 900 cases), from a portion of Rochioli Vineyard, replaces a Rochioli designation in the lineup (previously made from older vines), and Summa, on the Sonoma Coast, still has the capacity to produce stunning wines. Winemaker Burt Williams is keeping a hand in, and his successor, Bob Cabral, is determined to maintain high standards. Don't quit on them. Telephone: (707) 433-6425

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Martinelli Russian River Valley Jackass Vineyard

Helen Turley has had a sudden impact with this one, pushing ripeness into a high-octane (17 percent alcohol) wine that is jam-packed with juicy fruit and polished tannins ($35, 500 cases). Zinfandel may not have the cachet of Napa Cabernet, but it does have its own nearly fanatical following. Telephone: (707) 525-0570

Turley Napa Valley Hayne Vineyard

Another "big boy," teetering at the 17 percent alcohol line, with immense fruit, concentration, depth and complexity (roughly 400 cases; $75 for the 1997). Older vintages are aging quite well. Can't get the Hayne? The winery, owned by Larry and Suzanne Turley, makes nearly a dozen other Zins, most in the same high-voltage style. Telephone: (707) 963-0940

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