It's the nature of wine writers to be impressed by that which is new: Fresh wineries, brands, winemakers, varietals and packaging.
The thrill of discovery drives many of us, and some make it a contest to see who will be the first to proclaim the next great winegrowing region, the budding superstar winemaker, and the next 'vintage of the decade' (which seems to be proclaimed every other year by someone).
I love a breaking wine story as much as anyone, and my pulse races when I acquire the odd bottle of California Vermentino or Tannat. Yet I have great appreciation and admiration for wineries that have been around for a while and do a consistently excellent job in bottling quality, and selling it for fair prices.
I'm not talking about 'cult' wineries, nor those that sell primarily to restaurants and mailing list customers, nor single-varietal specialists. The producers I admire most have long track records for excellence, are adept at making a range of wine styles and at different price points, and, alas, are often ignored when writers create their 'best of' lists each year.
In alphabetical order, here are the California wineries I depend upon most to deliver terrific wines, in many styles, and at reasonable prices:
This venerable Napa Valley winery's history dates to 1876, when German immigrants Jacob and Frederick Beringer founded Beringer Vineyards. In modern times, Myron Nightingale, and then his protégé, Ed Sbragia, built Beringer into one of California's most accomplished and diversified wineries, best known for its opulent Chardonnays and well-structured Cabernet Sauvignons, and a Bancroft Howell Mountain Merlot.
Current winemaker Laurie Hook has been at Beringer since 1986, and with the semi-retirement of Sbragia, has full control of production, which spans several quality/price tiers. Her Private Reserve Chardonnays maintain the Sbragia style of richness and weight, and the sturdy Beringer Private Reserve Cabernets, blended from multiple sites, remain among the most sought-after Golden State Cabs. Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are important to the porfolio, as well.
Best bottles to buy now: With price and springtime drinking in mind, try the Beringer Knights Valley (Sonoma County) Alluvium 2007 ($17), an oak-aged white blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay and Viognier. It's bright and complex, with fig, pear, apple and citrus notes. I'm a sucker for Hook's Beringer Stanly Ranch Chardonnay Carneros 2006, crisp and minerally; it's a California version of Chablis, and likely a wine Sbragia would never have made.
The 2009 harvest will be winemaker Margo Van Staaveren's 30th at the winery, located in Sonoma Valley. She began as a laboratory technician in 1980, advanced to assistant winemaker, then associate winemaker, then winemaker, following in the footsteps of Richard Arrowood, Don Van Staaveren (her husband) and Steve Reeder. Under Margo, the Chateau St. Jean wines have never been better.
Known for its Chardonnays and Cinq Cepages Cabernet Sauvignon, Chateau St. Jean, like its sister winery Beringer (both are owned by Fosters Wine Estates) also makes a range of varietals, including Fume Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, all of excellent quality.
Best bottles to buy now: Chateau St. Jean Alexander Valley Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay 2006 ($25), delicious on release yet age-worthy, with a keen balance of spicy oak and lemon/yellow stone fruit/pear fruitiness; and the flagship Chateau St. Jean Sonoma County Cinq Cepages Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($75), a harmonious blend that includes Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot.
Grower Steve Dutton and winemaker Dan Goldfield combine their talents at their Russian River Valley winery, producing food-friendly Chardonnays, Pinot Blancs, Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Zinfandels from cool sites in Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast.
I love these wines for their brisk acidity, and as Goldfield likes to say, 'crystalline' character. They have plenty of fruit, yet are not soft and plush - instead, firmly structured and cellar-worthy. They also tend to be lower in alcohol than many of the wines produced by Dutton-Goldfield's neighbors. The single-vineyard red wines cost upwards of $50, though those labeled 'Dutton Ranch,' sourced from various Dutton family-owned vineyards, are excellent and less expensive.
Best bottles to buy now: The steely, citrus-y 2006 Chardonnay Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley ($35), and the vibrant 2007 Pinot Noir Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley ($38).
Former Penn State defensive lineman Gary Eberle took over his family's Estrella River Winery in 1973, and 10 years later, he founded Eberle Winery in the same area, Paso Robles, an American Viticultural Area he helped create.
Eberle is also credited with being the father of Syrah in California, although his wine range also includes Chardonnay, Viognier, Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah rosé and Muscat Canelli. I am most enamored with Eberle's Cabernet Sauvignons, which I often award gold medals in blind tastings. They are the epitome of balance, structure and Bordeaux-like forest floor/earthiness, yet with sunny, ripe-fruit personality.
Best bottles to buy now: The full-throttle, pleasantly tomato-leafy Eberle Paso Robles Sangiovese 2007 ($22), and the Eberle Paso Robles Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, a steal at $18. For a splurge, the Eberle Paso Robles Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($75) is a beauty.
John Williams and Larry Turley founded Frog's Leap in Napa Valley in 1981, and quickly became known for their irreverence, the frog theme and the 'ribbit' stamped on their corks. The partners split, with Larry moving on to produce bold, high-octane Zinfandels at Turley Wine Cellars, and Williams taking the opposite path, producing lean, elegant Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from his organic Rutherford vineyard and purchased grapes.
Today the Frog's Leap wines, made by Williams and his winemaker, Paula Moschetti, are atypical of Napa Valley wines, in that they aren't too ripe, viscous or overly oaked. Instead, they are restrained and balanced, unafraid to show some herbaceousness in the reds, and angular acidity in the whites.
Best bottles to buy now: Frog's Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($42), an understated, 13.7-percent alcohol wine made in a Bordeaux style and begging for service with lamb; and the Frog's Leap Le Grenouille Rougante Napa Valley Pink Vin Rose du Pays 2008 ($14), which tastes and smells of fresh raspberries, with refreshing acidity and just 11.9 percent alcohol.
Spain's Ferrer family, owner of the famous cava house Freixenet and other Spanish wine properties, came to Sonoma Carneros in 1982 and purchased a ranch that had the cool climate and soils conducive to producing sparkling wine.
After Jose and Gloria Ferrer acquired the property (it's named after her), they planted the traditional Champagne grapes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, hired vineyard manager Mike Crumly and winemaker Bob Iantosca, and employed methode champenoise techniques to produce sparkling wines that undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Crumly and Iantosca continue to work their magic at Gloria Ferrer, and they've added a still wine program that includes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Best bottles to buy now: The rich, yeasty Gloria Ferrer Carneros Royal Cuvee 2001 ($35) sparkler, and the lively, floral Gloria Ferrer Carneros Blanc de Blancs 2004 ($24). Each offers great value in sparkling wine.
In the wind-whipped Santa Lucia Highlands sub-appellation of Monterey County, Dan Lee (Morgan is his middle name) grows grapes organically on his Double L Vineyard, and purchases fruit from nearby vineyards that have become famous in a short period of time, including Pisoni, Garys' and Rosella's.
Lee's Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah wines are rich and stylish, yet never cross the line into heavy and alcoholic. 'Sumptuous' quickly comes to mind when I taste the Morgan wines, yet they are measured and balanced. They might be too much for a faint-of-heart British taster, though New World wine drinkers will be quite at home with Morgan.
Best bottles to buy now: Morgan Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay Double L Vineyard 2006 ($44), fruity yet firm and crisp, and the Morgan Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir Twelve Clones 2006 ($32), with its supple tannins and wild-berry flavors. It's Lee's least expensive Pinot Noir, yet has much to offer for what is, in today's Pinot Noir world, a very fair price.
Edoardo Seghesio left the Piedmont region of northern Italy in 1886 and relocated to Sonoma County. Like most Italian immigrants, he planted grapes and made wine, and today, his descendents have a wildly successful wine business, focused on old-vine Zinfandels from a handful of estate vineyards in the Dry Creek and Alexander valleys, and Italian varietals including Arneis, Pinot Grigio, Barbera and Sangiovese.
Ted Seghesio is the winemaker, his cousin Pete Seghesio the viticulturist and CEO. Together they focus a modern eye on the old vines and traditions of their ancestors, and it's a total success.
Best bottles to buy now: Seghesio's single-vineyard Zinfandels can be tricky to find, yet for a taste of textbook ripe, juicy, spicy California Zinfandel, the Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel 2007 has wide distribution and delivers great value at around $17. Seghesio's Russian River Valley Arneis 2007($17) is a medium-bodied, Italian varietal white wine with melon and pear notes and citrusy acidity.