5 California Wines We Absolutely Love…

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If you’ve been reading us for awhile, you know that we love trying new wines from unknown spots around the world. We’ve covered wine in Portugal, Argentina, Australia and Hungary — some of the reds which never get exported are some of the best values I’ve found.

We love French Bordeaux and Italian Borolo’s (bring ’em on) and it was hard to find a wine I didn’t fall in love with in South Africa on each and every trip. Remember that I lived in South Africa twice which gave me additional opportunities to taste their wines on a regular basis, including ones that never make it out of the country. And, this past fall, I got excited by Austrian winery Hopler when I was in Salzburg for the Sound of Music 50th Anniversary and now have some of their Gruner Veltliner at home. A cool factoid is that 70% of their wines are actually exported with the U.S. being the largest market.

Wine lovers know that the list goes on and on…..

While I’ve found gems in the least likely places like Upstate New York, we haven’t really covered this region yet, which is full of romantic getaway inns and B&B’s as well — it’s on the list. We’ve also done very little coverage on wines from Oregon, Paso Robles, Washington State, New Zealand, Spain, Germany and Chile, although all of these regions have bottles that will blow you away.  We even experienced a burgeoning wine growing scene just outside Jerome Arizona last year around this time — they even do tours of nearby vineyards in Wilcox, Jerome and Cottonwood. While still early and yet to prove themselves, my point is that there are many small regions around the world that produce fabulous wines, and yet Sonoma and Napa continue to produce some delicious and memorable wines year after year.

Northern California is easy for us since it’s so close to our backyard. Over the holidays, we explored a few wineries in Alexander Valley where the wine is less oak-infused and not as intense as some of its southern cousins because of the difference in soil. Along the trail east of Mendocino, we could have hit nearly thirty wineries and over 130 grape growers. Truth be told, as much as it’s great to discover unique wines with lovely texture and diversity elsewhere, California Cabs and Chardonnay’s remain among my favorites. Frankly, it’s a style I’m familiar with and simply love!

With that bias, let’s dive into some of my favorites;  some may be familiar to you and others may not. We reached out to them prior to the holidays as we were interested in exploring the best they had to offer, first at a gathering where others got to try them out and then over the last couple of weeks where we’ve been pairing them with various dishes.

Jordan Vineyard & Winery

If you’re a Chardonnay lover and familiar with California wines, you’ll likely know the name Jordan and if you’re not, order a mixed case from them and thank me later. I’ve been a fan of Jordan for as long as I can remember, so I wasn’t surprised to fall in love with their 2013 Chardonnay. They’re known for their scrumptious Chardonnay’s and it’s my favorite of their offerings.

They’ve been around for awhile (1972), and not atypical in the wine industry, the founders are a husband wife team: Tom and Sally Jordan. As story has it, they were inspired by French reds and wanted to be the first to create a Bordeaux-style California Cabernet Sauvignon. Located in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, the vineyard has turned into a chateau that includes wine making facilities, guest suites, kitchen and dining areas all under one roof.

Actual “home” is Healdsburg CA, a charming town with a lot of fun restaurants, art galleries and antique stores.  Rather than the heavy oak-infused style you might traditionally think of, the 2013 Chardonnay is a lovely combination of passion fruit, persimmon and Granny Smith apples, with hints of Meyer lemon, Asian pear, honeydew melon and guava, a fruit flavor that is classic Russian River.  It was surprising and yet lovely to taste so much fruit in every layer and like the other Chards I’ve tasted from previous years, there is a creamy texture in your mid-palate, which is one of the characteristics I love so much about Jordan’s Chardonnay.

Their 2013 Chard is inoculated and fermented 14 days in roughly two-thirds French oak barrels and one-third stainless steel.  They did two months of sur-lie aging with some bâtonnage to heighten that creaminess for this particular year.

We tested it out with mixed salad (chopped romaine and spinach combo) with figs, avocado, pears and apples followed by grilled sea bass which we sauteed with fennel, dill and scallions. Green beans roasted with garlic ginger accompanied the seafood entree and we didn’t change wines throughout the course of the night — in other words, the Jordan 2013 Chardonnay happily serviced them all.

What I love most about their Chardonnay is its perfect balance and while there’s no doubt, the oak and vanilla of classic Chardonnay’s from the region are definitely there, I find that there are many more layers to surprise and delight, enough to melt my palette and take me away to another place for an hour or two. And, it lingers….deliciously so — two thumbs up!

Aged 100% in French oak for 6 months, 40% new oak, it is the combination of night-harvested Russian River Valley grapes, French oak aging and old-world wine making techniques that give you such a succulent finish and harmonious balance. The vineyard says it’s great to drink now through 2018 to take in the crème brûlée and preserved lemon characteristics that will develop with age.

Another thing to note is a great wooden gift box they offer. While the holidays may be over, Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and there are plenty of other reasons aside to gift a box of delicious and memorable wine. Both the 2011 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon and 2013 Jordan Chardonnay exude elegance and seamlessness and we are huge fans of both.

The Chardonnay is all about passion fruit, persimmon, Granny Smith apples, Meyer Lemon, Asian pear, honeydew melon and guava and the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon is round, soft, and refined with flavors of red currant, freshly cut herbs, vanilla bean and allspice. Oh so yum! The set includes three 750mL bottles of each wine, packaged in a labeled wooden gift box.

The Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon is no doubt, incredibly special as well. Every vintage of Jordan Cab seems to have a silky tannin and bold lingering finish.  The diversity of their collection of crus—estate vineyard blocks that have more clay-rich soils like the Right Bank of Bordeaux and family grower parcels on mid-slope, well-drained Sonoma County vineyards with mineral-rich, gravelly soils reminiscent of Bordeaux’s Left Bank—is what provides that new world Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon that they’re known for.

We tested it out immediately without letting it breathe, once in a decanter for about an hour and another time using the Vinuti aerator. The blend is so delicious that while the aerator did give it a kick start on its opening, the wine kept changing as time marched on, making every aspect of the experience rich and oh so lovely.

If you’re a big bold Cabernet lover, then you might be — like me — dreaming of a diverse collection like this at home. While we clearly don’t have any 1980-something’s in our wine cellar, a woman can dream can’t she? Applause, applause for both years we tasted between mid December and early January with several different dishes and cheese types. (aged goat from Spain, provolone, mozzarella, new Pecorino, aged Gouda from Holland, to name a few). A major two thumbs up!!


Jordan Winery

1474 Alexander Valley Road

Healdsburg, CA 95448


Portalupi Wines

The name Portalupi was relatively new to me before I first ventured to Healdsburg and accidentally fell upon their tasting room in 2012. It is run by husband wife team Tim Borges and Jane Portalupi who did their first release back in 2002 and the style of many of their wines is, well….Italian! I love the history of this winery gem which continues to grow year after year. Rich with stories from the old world, I discovered that their inspiration comes from their Nonna, Marina Portalupi, who immigrated to Northern California from Piemonte, Italy who brought with her among other things, a history of wine making.

They largely focus on Italian varietals and include great releases of Zinfandel, Barbera, Pinot Noir, Charbono, and Vermentino. What’s cool is that they have a portfolio of small artisan growers they work with, making it feel about as old world and traditional as it gets.

Portalupi launched Vaso di Marina, an Italian blend bottled in a milk jug, when they opened their tasting room in 2011 – how cool is that? The origin of Vaso di Marina goes back to Marina Portalupi, who first bottled her wine in Italy for the village in a milk jug. Just as she had done in Italy, when she opened Luna Park Grocery in San Jose, California, she kept a small barrel of her vino di tavola to serve in her store.

Apparently Barbera is also a very important varietal to Portalupi so we wanted to taste their latest, the 2014 Barbera, Pauli Ranch.  I had to laugh when I read their description of it: Gutsy with depth and muscle! Gutsy it is and whether you’re a fan of classic Barbera or not, the wine is a great compliment to classic meat dishes – we even loved it with a prosciutto and cheese platter which we had before our main course one evening at home. Their Barbera delivers a whole lotta berries, which we tend to love, especially blueberry and with it, comes hints of black pepper and sweet leather. A combination of earth and old world flavor, their Barbera is a great wine to pair with pasta since it cuts down on the acidity of the richer dishes that northern Italians love so much.

Other great big bold reds they offer which are worth mentioning is their Old Vine Zinfandel, Dolinsek Ranch (from 108 year old vines), Zinfandel from Marcucci Farms and the Zinfandel from Serres Ranch.

Our favorite? While the Barbera was unique and worth trying, I’m a bit biased since Zin’s remain among my favorites even when I’m not going with a red meat dish. We absolutely fell in love with their Old Vine Zinfandel which paired perfectly with our New York Steak with string beans and roasted garlic, pineapple and roasted pepper couscous. We had a light blue cheese salad with fennel and grapefruit to start. Frankly, we were tempted to open another bottle it was so good — Bravo!

Their 2013 vintage has medium tannins and exudes berries with white pepper – we so loved this wine and tested it out with a couple of meals as well as with a plate of olives and sharp, earthy cheeses. Worth adding is that it also boasts a 91 from Wine Spectator.

The tasting room is a real treat as well. What’s nice is that while it is located in Northern California, you’re brought back into old world Italy when you hear about its rich history and taste its Italian style varietals. They are open 11-7:00 daily for wine tastings and reservations are not required.

If you are interested in a Food and Wine Pairing, they also feature local artisan cheeses and hand cured salumi, which they purposely pair with 4 of their most appropriate wines and it’s only $25 a person.


Portalupi Winery

107 North Street

Healdsburg, CA 95448

(707) 395-0960


Cannonball Wines

Also based in Healdsburg CA is Cannonball, a wine we more recently discovered although they’re no newcomer to the scene. Winemaker Dennis Hill’s knowledge of the best California Cabernet Sauvignon climates, soil types and vineyards, coupled with great relationships with premiere growers, is what allow them to leverage fine grapes. Their Cannonball 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon is distinguished and scintillating from being aged for 15 months in French oak, 35% new oak – oh what a treat!

To be honest, we were surprised by its kick and its depth right out of the bottle. While it got better and the layers started to shine the longer it was open, our palettes were happy the moment they met this young wine.

Their 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is also worth mentioning, as it has a lovely blend of traditional California and old world Bordeaux. This vintage was aged 15 months in French oak, 35% new oak. Get your nose ready for a whole lotta ripe mulberry, spiced black tea and purple floral notes and your taste buds ready for cherry flambé, Oaxacan chocolate and roasted hazelnut, all with a long and unstinting finish.

They say it pairs beautifully with lamb chops, roasted duck, cassoulet, black and bleu burger, grilled eggplant, Stilton cheese and dark chocolate chip cookies. We drank it with grilled lamb infused with garlic gloves, accompanied with roasted squash and sauteed brussels sprouts together with a hefty arugula salad, Pecorino cheese, onions, tomatoes and mushrooms.

They also have a delicious 2014 Chardonnay, which has scrumptious pear, apple, vanilla, lemon custard, peach and soft oak tones, followed by a creamy texture. The wine was a bit more “fruit forward” than the Jordan (we felt so anyway) and diverse enough to pair with a number of dishes, but roast chicken or turkey is a great direction to start if you want to “play.”
The Chardonnay was fermented and aged in 50% French oak and 50% stainless steel with 40% going through malolactic fermentation and has an interesting blend:  Sonoma County (70% Russian River, 17% Alexander Valley and 13% Sonoma Coast).  The wine is 100% Chardonnay from Sonoma County with tropical notes like pineapple, Granny Smith apple and vanilla bean on the finish.  Also imagine nectarine and wild honeysuckle veiled with hints of almond although I didn’t get as much of the honeysuckle as I did citrus.  Some say that there are flavors of white peach, brioche and quince compote, as well as vanilla and saffron. Sure to delight your palette, Cannonball wines are also reasonably priced making them a great buy for every day drinking.

Want to give them a try? Head up to Healdsburg where there are plenty of other gems to try as well.  You can also buy online if you’re not in the Northern California area anytime soon. Now on our list for “every day drinking wines at a reasonable price,” I’d suggest you order both their red and white and then let us know what you think in the comments below. We also check Twitter regularly and oh btw, so does Cannonball. They are pretty prolific on social media which we think is great!  They actually encourage people to post selfies of themselves drinking Cannonball on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Go #Cannonball!


Cannonball Wines

1290 Healdsburg Avenue

Healdsburg, CA 95448


Angels & Cowboys

What a great name you’re probably thinking – I know I was when I first heard it. There must be an interesting story here, right? Angels & Cowboys is a collaboration between Cannonball Wine Company co-founders, Yoav Gilat and Dennis Hill, and Northern California graphic artist, Michael Schwab. The Angels & Cowboys journey began with a sentimental namesake, a bold, mysterious icon and an appreciation for down-to-earth wines. It’s a name and a wine that brings out the rebel buried inside all of us.

We started with their Rose, and I’ll be honest, I’m generally not  a fan of Rose, even at the best of times and from some of the best vineyards, so was reluctant to try one from a brand I never heard of before. Truth be told, I have had a Rose here and there over the years that have blown me away, but it’s rare.

For their 2014 Rose from Sonoma Valley, the grapes were lightly crushed and left to macerate on their skin. Once the juice achieved its perfect pale pink hue and began to show fragrant phenols from the skin-contact, the juice was pressed off the must then closely monitored while it underwent a long cool fermentation. Upon completion of fermentation, the Rosé aged on its yeast lees for a little over two months, creating great depth and texture.

The Angels & Cowboys Rosé is classic Oeil de Perdrix with a color that is light blush of pale gray and pink and its aromas are bright, mineral and ethereal with hints of pink grapefruit, white peach and spicy floral. On the palette, you get flavors of citrus blossoms and pink grapefruit.  For dish pairing, there are so many directions you can go….from vegetable dishes and spicy ethnic foods to sausage, roasted chicken and tangy salads. It also goes well with curries, Tandoori meats, seared tuna, any sushi, baked tofu, crab cakes, shrimp cocktails and ceviche.

The second time around, we tried it with a variety of Indian curries and had several people taste it, including those who only touch Chardonnay — yes, really. We received a positive reaction from everyone around the table except for one, so it fared well among a fairly critical group.

Let’s move onto their reds, which I favored over their Rose, most notably their 2013 Proprietary Red from Sonoma County. This Grenache, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo blend is sourced from Carneros in both Alexander and Dry Creek Valley. We tasted the French oak, rich fruit (think dark cherry, raspberry and fig), with exotic spices and molten dark chocolate. This is one big bold bottle of wine and at 14.8%, you’re getting a smooth and rich blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Malbec.

I love old world styles and while this gem is clearly a new wine, it’s oh so delish in its jamminess and woody earthy berries and rich textures that leave such a warm feeling on the palette.  Food pairing suggestions include Duck confit, Asian BBQ, skirt steak, hamburgers, grilled vegetables, charcuterie, harder cheeses like cheddar and gouda, hearty pizzas and rich pastas. Yum!


Angels & Cowboys Wines

Healdsburg, CA


Peju Wines

Based in Rutherford CA, this gem of a winery boasts a lot of history. Peju also has a 350 acre vineyard called Persephone in Pope Valley, a section of the Napa Valley Appellation a few miles to the northeast of Rutherford, and St. Helena separated by Howell Mountain and the Vaca Range. At an elevation of 2,000 feet, it is higher than Napa Valley, colder in winter, hotter in summer and without the abundance of water, but the region has been producing wine and wine grapes since the turn of the last century. Peju produces some delicious Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the classic Bordeaux blend from an area they refer to as the “HB Clone.”

Roughly 120 acres of the ranch was planted to Cabernet Sauvignon in the late nineties, cloned from the HB Vineyard, as well as Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Zinfandel. I find that the textures and flavors from Pope Valley are a little more old world America — by that, I specifically mean earthy and full of mountain flavors.

I expected to first fall in love with their Cab, which I did but that wasn’t until spending two weeks with their 2014 Chardonnay, a mid-ranged bottle from Napa Valley which so easily pairs with a variety of dishes, including salmon, chicken and salads, which we made in abundance right after the holidays. The result of this 2014 Chard is just the way I like it – tons of vanilla and honeyed oak, but not so overbearing that you feel lost in an oak barrel like so many classic Napa Chards can do. Imagine a perfect blend of apple, oranges, vanilla and even a little peach and pear with the creaminess that the best oak-barreled Chards can deliver. Yum!

Their 2014 Chardonnay comes from the Persephone Vineyard and is aged 100% in French Oak, 25% new. You can get a case of it for only around $360 on site at their vineyard.

While we didn’t try it, their 2014 Sauvignon Blanc at only around $25 a bottle is a little fruitier for those who like less oak in the finish. Think pineapple, passion fruit, grapefruit and lychee on the nose and on the palate, guava, apricot and lemon tart. We’re keen to try it out on our next trip north.

Peju is so known for their red’s as well, from an inexpensive every day drinking wine like their Tess (Red Wine Blend) and Provence (California Red & White Blend), which is perfect for barbecues and lazy Sundays, to their richer 2011 Piccolo, the 2012 Cabernet and 2012 Zinfandel. The 2012 Cab, which is our favorite of the bunch is all about berries and anise, which I grew up on so anytime a l’il anise hits my palette, I feel comfortable and cozy regardless of whether the wine is best suited for the dish in front of me at the time. Oh so delish and rich, my palette was excited by its rasberry, cherry and anise blend, with just a little cocoa, caramel and mocha to make you want to kick back and sip it slowly all evening long.

Note that we first tested this Cab first immediately after it hit the glass, then through the Vinturi aerator and then an hour later after decanting it. It drank best at around an hour into the meal, which would be after letting it open for roughly an hour and a half in total. I was surprised how well the aerator did with this wine however, accelerating it just enough to make that first sip a little better, although I know purists would be more likely to agree with letting it open slowly in the decanter.

Their 2013 Barrel Experiment Cabernet Sauvignon looks intriguing to us although we’ve yet to taste it – rich and round, this one boasts flavors of plum, cigar box and creme de menthe for the more daring among you. Steak lovers should order some of their Cab, the 2012 Zinfandel (think blackberry, boysenberry, brown sugar, black pepper and green peppercorn) and their 2012 Reserve Cabernet Franc (dark fruit, violets, green peppercorn, raspberry tart, dried cherries, rosemary and sage). You won’t be disappointed.

We’re huge fans of the Peju family of wines and I always try to stop in when I’m near Rutherford to taste their latest and greatest. We were fortunate enough to be able to spread our tasting experiment out over the course of a month and a half, pairing both their Cab and Chard with a variety of dishes, from steak, lamb, veal, tartare, salads, sauteed earthy vegetables, cod, salmon and tuna respectfully.

Next time you get to Napa, put them on your tasting (and buying) list.  Their winery is incredibly historical and you feel it as soon as you enter their hand-crafted wooden doors of the new copper roofed, stone-faced tasting room tower. The ceiling is majestic and there are loads of books on food, wine and Napa Valley history to browse through; crystal decanters and wineglasses, wine openers and accessories, local olive oils, custom made mustards, and other delectables. Afterwards, meander up to the Brazilian cherry wood tasting bar and give your palette a treat. The Peju Province Winery tasting room is open daily from 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m., except on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. A $25 tasting fee is refundable with purchase of wine.


Peju Province Winery

8466 St Helena Highway

Rutherford, CA 94573

(707) 963-3600


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