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Pinot Noir Tag

A Renaissance Man’s Perspective on the CA Wine Industry, Circa ‘78-85

“A coke habit is God’s way of saying, ‘you’ve got too much money’ ”. – Gordon Stevens

Gordon Stevens is a jazz musician and Renaissance man. He’s 81, and is way more hip than I am. He speaks about everything with passion, and with a lingo that James Laube might not understand. I can talk to Gordon about anything, because he’s so engaging about it. Like many of my elders, I find myself wanting to sit and absorb his stories and wisdom.

Speaking of stories, the jazz tradition is handed down from musician to musician through tales about the famous icons. The way Gordon speaks is very much in that tradition, except substituting wineries for great musicians, like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.

When we sat down to talk, I had no idea Gordon was going to share, stream of consciousness, about the early CA wine business, but I found it fascinating, and hope you enjoy it too.

“The discoveries (of great wine), man, you’re like ‘ahhhhhhhhhhh’ (a moment of unabashed nostalgia, like a paramour you’ve never forgotten).

I broke my teeth on red wines with Charles Krug (the 1978 – 1985 vintages). Even the 1940’s stuff, because Krug had a library. He hooked up with Chesterfield cigarettes. Guys would smoke their Virginia tobacco with Cab (Cabernet Sauvignon).”

“As a pairing?”

“No. Everyone was smoking anyway, so it wasn’t a decision to pair (wine with cigarettes).”

“One informed the other?”

“Yeah. Then it became cigars and port, or cigars and big Cabs. That’s Wine Spectator stuff.”

“I can see the whole coke and wine fad being a thing?”

“I saw it in action with the various people, ‘cause that’s when I got deep into wine, when our violin shop started to take off (Gordon owned a series of music shops, called “Steven’s Music”). I saw a lot of high rollers, the Persian guys that came in and bought all the Saratoga real estate, and the Stradivarius violins on the west coast.

I had a bunch of stock in Chalone (Richard Graff, founder and winemaker of Chalone, is a California wine legend) when they first hit (somewhere between ‘78 and ‘82).  As a stockholder, we got invited up there for an annual business meeting, and celebrities would come to speak. Bill Walsh had a great palate, and he loved classical music. Julia Childs was a keynote speaker. She called to me, out by the porta potties, ‘Young man, young man, can you direct me to the oysters! I just don’t understand these business meetings’. We had the greatest talk. She told me about her husband, their Buick stationwagon, her first trip to France. It was fucking amazing, man. ‘Tell me about you?’, she said. It was the most thrilling celebrity meeting I’ve ever had.

After Chalone came close to being the best of the Chardonnays in the famous Paris tasting, I bought stock. The first bottle of Chalone Chardonnay set me up for those French Burgundy trips into the 80’s. The standard was always Chalone.

I remember watching a ballgame all by myself, and nearly finished a bottle of Chalone, and I set the bottle down. It had a tiny bit left, and I forgot about it. The next day I saw it, and I swished that sucker around and hit it, like you do with a jar of maple syrup! It was like perfume from God.

It was not that buttery shit they were making in Napa. The malolactic craze (changing the appley Malic acid into buttery Lactic acid – which caught fire in the 80’s) came after (the great Chardonnays of the 70’s). Then Kendall Jackson came in and got busted.”

“For chaptalization?” (Which is a controversial process of adding sugar to wine to give it more alcohol and fix stuck fermentations.)

“Yes. Putting sugar in on top of their malolactic excesses. Then you got sugar and butter going, and then every secretary in San Francisco had to have one of them after work on Friday.

I got crazy on the olfactory thing. Then the food pairing came in on the naturals. My mother, and her family, locals (in San Jose), used to own all the property that Ford and Tesla is on right now. They had access to everything. The best vintages of (Ridge) Montebello and Picchetti. She (and Gordon) had access to all the greats.

Wine sales went up after the 50’s. Gallo, Grenache, and Muscats…mostly sweet, people were sucking them down.”

“How about Syrah and Grenache (in CA)?”

“Yeah, the Syrahs and all that. All those came in as a result of Rhone-Villages, and Kermit Lynch (local wine legend with many ties to France). I remember seeing headlines from Robert Parker, talking about how Kermit had discovered all these killer wines and varietals, you know?

A lot of that was here (in California). We used to go to Buena Vista (the oldest winery in California) up there (in Sonoma). The wine sucked, relatively speaking, but it was part of the mystique and history.

California natives jumped right on this thing. It was not a yuppie thing at all. The locals and Italian guys. That’s why Mondavi is so iconic. He was rubbing shoulders with all the fruit farmers in the valley. It was a fruit bowl heaven.

My godfather, an Italian guy, owned all of San Jose city college. I got to go over there every weekend, and I remember him sitting at the end of the table, and he had a big crystal bowl. He’d take a full bottle of his favorite white, put that in there with a quart of apricots, some cinnamon, and mix it up. He’d eat that like soup for breakfast!

I used to talk to Burt Williams from Williams Selyem. We met on the Russian River steelhead fishing. I remember a stash of Williams Selyem I got, ‘83-’86. He had total control of the Rochioli vineyard. That was the heyday. When…a tasting guy, whether it be Robert Parker, or whoever, they always described it as ‘exotic’. Like patchouli oil is exotic. It was like Omar Khayyam. The poetic palate. Like something you’d read in Middle Eastern poetry.”

“Like Kahlil Gibran?”

“Yeah, then later Neruda for the Chilean / Argentinian thing. It didn’t taste like anything else. You assumed it was the mother ship of all the Pinot (noir) grapes.”

“Were they fruit forward or dry?”

“I don’t think the word ‘dry’ ever entered my mind when drinking his wines. They weren’t fruit forward, they were Williams Selyem!

I also got into 80’s Rafanelli, a wonderful winery up the valley on the west side in Dry Creek. Ohhhh! I got into the core of that.

The high point in all of this for me, though, was the Williams Selyem / Rafanelli hookup.”

“I find those wines to be quite fruit forward. It’s almost like Williams Selyem is blending Syrah to give their wines real chewy depth?”

“It depends on which Selyem vineyard. This is the perfect storm, that creates four great vintages (’83-’86). You have one vineyard replacing the one that went over the hill.  They didn’t have to blend or anything. They could do it purely. That’s the same thing that Navarro did with white wines. They managed to have enough high quality from middle to old-aged vineyards. That chronological thing is paramount. This whole Russian River and Dry Creek region was really a sleigh ride on a slope, right down through the goodies.”

“How about Napa Valley?”

Caymus started in about ’78 for me. Just killers! Then they started the ‘special select’ thing, which became really chichi. It’s as though they tried too hard. The price for the ‘special select’ was insane. You could get a bottle of Diamond Creek for $40 and the ‘special select’ for $60. But the ’78-82 regular Caymus! (He sighs with nostalgia) My God, man!

There was a 60’s thing, called “Rota Red”. The owner was an old Spanish guy that had some vineyards down by Atascadero, near Hearst castle, in West Paso. The San Francisco hippie / Beat establishment, the poets and painters, and people like Bill Graham bought this Rota wine. You’d bring your own bottle. Those old gallon Gallo bottles were going around. There was a rumor that the Rota wine owner put a psychedelic substance, or had cloned some ergot in it. It gave you the weirdest high. If you’re smokin’ hash, you got some sugar here, some psychedelic there, and you got some wine. This was folklore. There was a myth created around this guy. It was an event. It was like scoring Mexican weed and Culiacan. Just normal hippie procedure.”

We can never know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.



These Wines Will Make Your Thanksgiving Feast Even Better

turkey-with-wineThe Thanksgiving feast is a cornucopia of flavors that can be super challenging to pair with wine.  From turkey to cranberries, stuffing to green bean casserole, and candied yams to brussel sprouts, finding a wine that goes well with all of it is tough.  

A couple things you’ll want to keep in mind when picking out your wine this week.   Acidity in wine is key.  There’s gonna be plenty of butter, cream, and duck fat in your food this week.  Pair it with a wine having vibrant acidity, and you’ve got a match made in heaven.  Secondly, you’ll want your wine to have a little texture to it.  Sauvignon Blanc, albeit vibrant in acid, will be too light on texture, with all that complexity and sugar in the food.  Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Semillon, and Pinot Gris will work well for whites, while Gamay, Grenache, French Loire Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir are great choices for reds.  When buying red this week, stay away from medium full to full tannins.  Save those wines for steak.  Although tannins love fat, having a wine with a tannic focus will completely dominate Thanksgiving’s flavors.  


The Gardener Riesling 2013, Carneros, Sonoma County

Nikolaihof Gruner Veltliner 2014, Hefeabzug, Wachau, Austria

Oro en Paz Semillon 2015, Luchsinger Vineyard, Lake County, California

Antiquum Farm Pinot Gris 2015, “Aurosa”, Willamette Valley, Oregon


Anthony Thevenet Gamay 2013, Morgon, Beaujolais, France

Verdad Garnacha 2014, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley

Chateau de Brezé Cabernet Franc, 2015, Clos Mazurique, Saumur, France

Zotovich SR/246 Pinot Noir 2013, STA. Rita Hills, California

Happy Thanksgiving!



An Interview with Paul Mathew Winemaker – Mat Gustafson


“Can there be any other business where there’s so much bullshit?”  – Carole Meredith (from the documentary, “Somm”)

In a twist from my usual blog posts, I thought I’d try something new. So, I called up my friend Mat Gustafson of Paul Mathew to help give us a little window into a winemaker’s world.  First of all, you should know that I really dig the wines of Paul Mathew.  Mat and his wife, Barb, run a mom and pop label of outstanding quality, and have a tasting room in Graton, within the Russian River Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area).  They’d love some new visitors, so plan a trip over to one of California’s most important Pinot Noir AVA’s, and tell them I sent you.  

If you haven’t signed up for the “Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing – an Italian Immersion” workshop on December 11 in Oakland, you might want to hop on that.  Tickets are going fast.  Go HERE to reserve tickets, and find out more info.

Mat Gustafson is a winemaker; equal parts scientist, artist, philosopher, and steward of the land.  He’s been involved in the wine business for decades, and making wine for twenty years.  He has a pedigree as sommelier, worked for Joseph Phelps on the business side, owned his own vineyard development company, worked in the cellar for Oakville Ranch, made wine with Merry Edwards at Dutton Estate, then decided to create his own label in 1999.  He sought out the Green Valley AVA, within the Russian River Valley, after discovering that these wines have great ageability, structure, and finesse.  Amidst the political banter (I talked to him November 7), his passion for the wine business was unleashed.

Can you speak about the positive effects of using native yeast vs. commercial yeast?

“Like turning tables (in a restaurant), using commercial yeast helps big corporate wineries move through the fermentation process as quickly as possible, so they can get to the next batch.  UC Davis (school of viticulture and enology) is not a proponent of native yeast, because (they think) by the end, it gets taken over by commercial yeast that’s been present in the winery.”  

Mat doesn’t think so.  He sees a real difference with using native yeast (the yeast that occurs naturally in the vineyard).  

“Commercial yeast, when used, creates very short, hot fermentations, cooking the wine, and blowing off all the prettiness.  Native yeast takes 4-5 days to get started, having a mellow start and mellow end.  The native yeast fermentations are 5-7 days longer, creating a real difference in mouthfeel, texture, and aromatics.  

Paul Draper (Ridge Vineyards) was one of the first California winemakers to use native yeast.  Helen Turley and David Ramey also got a lot of credit.  Draper, although he didn’t boast about it, helped to dispel myths (perpetuated by UC Davis) that native yeast can ruin a fermentation.  Humans have been making wine for 7000 years without using commercial yeast!”

What are the effects of sulfur on wine?

“25 to 30 years ago wineries were using 100 to 150 ppm (parts per million) SO2 (sulfur dioxide) at the crusher (used to crush grapes and destem them) as a standard practice.  Now that range is 25 to 50 ppm. I am doing 5 to 10 ppm, depending on how clean the fruit is.  There are producers who are not using any SO2 at the crusher, and only add it just before bottling.  There are some who don’t use any SO2 at all, but have varying results.  Conversely, SO2 (when added in high amounts) can shut down the fruit, and gives the wine a little harder edge.”

So, why not hit it super hard with SO2?  

“A fermentation, if it is very sluggish, can benefit greatly by adding 5 to 10 ppm SO2.  It knocks down the bacteria allowing the yeast, who are not as sensitive to SO2, to take off without the competition for nutrients from the bacteria.   ‘Brett’ (Brettanomyces – a yeast that can formulate to potentially ruin a wine) might creep up later, or the wine could get VA (volatile acidity) without the use of some SO2.  If you’re wanting more fruit, softer texture, and higher acid (all characteristics that are crucial to making great Pinot Noir), using minimal SO2 is the way to go.”

Have you seen any effects of global warming?

“Global warming has created droughts, and really warm winter months.  I haven’t had a normal vintage in 5-6 years.  I recently had Cab Franc come in from the vineyard, and the acid kept going up during fermentation.  That’s a first I’ve seen in the business.  As a winemaker there were some hard rules that you could count on in the past.  Some of those are changing.  I had a wine that went down in brix (measurement of sugar in grapes) during fermentation, and I’ve never seen that.  Global warming has made things less predictable.”  

I’d imagine that owning a winery, albeit rewarding, is a challenging business.  Can you tell us about some of the challenges you face?  

“Unless you’re getting 97’s and 98’s (the point system used by many to rate wines is out of 100) in the major publications, a small winery will see no bump in sales with scores, even in the low 90’s.  Only the top 1% get the benefits of publications.  (Kind of like the music business!)  

The most annoying thing about the business is all the lies and deceit that goes on in the business.  Words like ‘sustainable’, ‘gravity flow’, ‘organic’ are often used as marketing jargon to attract sales, but very few are actually following through with these practices.  A perfect example is the use of ‘Roudup’ in the vineyards to save money.  There are plenty of wineries that proclaim to be organic, yet spray weed killer in the vineyard to avoid paying someone to get out there with a hoe.

I thought, for sure, that once the public learned about Velcorin (a harsh poison that kills everything in the wine, but breaks down over the first 24 hours), it would become a huge issue, but nobody seems to care. The big boys in Napa and Sonoma use Velcorin in place of sterile filtration to kill ‘brett’ and bacteria, making a wine taste better when it’s young.  Then you can act like, ‘oh, my wine is unfiltered or more natural’, but in actuality you’ve put the harshest poison imaginable in there, and killed everything to avoid sterile filtration.  There’s no accountability for lying to gain a marketing angle.”  

Do you see the point system publications still driving the retail business, and having the impact they had in the 1990’s and early 2000’s?  

“There seems to be some backlash with the younger wine buyers with the point scoring system.  With so many publications out there rating wines on the internet, it’s like any news you’re trying to get.  It’s hard to sift through all the bullshit.  James Laube of the Wine Spectator (who has so much power in the industry) prefers low acid, high pH, and a high alcohol style that tastes more like Cabernet Sauvignon.  He hasn’t rated many wines outside of California, so that’s his frame of reference.  The classic styles and appellations of the world are unknown to him, so finesse and acidity are not appreciated.  Robert Parker has more exposure to Bourgogne and Bordeaux, but the big wines with power and oak are his favorites.  When you’re a reviewer, tasting lots of wine, the big wines really tend to stand out, because you’re palate gets fatigued.  It’d be nice to get somebody (with a major publication) that appreciates wines with more acidity, lower alcohol, more restraint, and having more of a delicacy.”  

What do you think is unique about the Russian River Valley, particularly Green Valley?

“I remember a conversation I had with Forrest Tanzer (former winemaker at Iron Horse, and California icon), and I asked him what he thought was the flavor profile of Russian River Pinot?   He said, ‘well, I don’t think there is one style, because Russian River is so big.’”  

Since then, there has been only one new AVA, the Green Valley, amended in 2007.  However, the Russian River wine world knows there to be five distinct areas.  

“The Green Valley is known for darker, more structured, and tannic Pinots with great aging potential.  Middle Reach (otherwise known as ‘Westside Road’) is warm and the wines are riper (and where the Williams Selyem’s of the world bottle fruit forward Pinot’s that make James Laube blush!).  Laguna Ridge in the Forrestville area (where Joseph Swan first planted Pinot after Prohibition, with the advice of one Andre Tchelistcheff) is all about the mouthfeel.  Sebastopol Hills (also known as ‘West Sonoma Hills’) is the coolest of the five regions, where Pinots have the most vibrant acidity in the Russian River Valley, with crisp red berry notes.  Lastly, the Santa Rosa Plain, also known as ‘Olivet’, where lighter style Pinot Noirs with bright acidity are crafted by deep, gravelly, clay soils.”

Mat could have talked all day about wine.  In a world where there can be so much posturing in the wine business, Mat is one of the good guys.  He’s truly passionate about his craft, and shoots straight from the hip.  He’s says that he’s just trying to scratch out a living by doing what he loves.  But, to me it’s more than that.  Integrity is an important piece of humanity, and a key ingredient in artistry.  Like appreciating your favorite jazz artist (not named Kenny G or Boney James), a great wine IS art, and its sincerity is more important than its image.  

Some Paul Mathew wines that I love:

  • Chardonnay 2013, Weeks Vineyard, Russian River Valley
  • Pinot Noir 2009, Horseshoe Bend Vineyard, Russian River Valley – tell them I sent you, eh Barb?
  • Pinot Noir 2013, Bohemian Vineyard, Russian River Valley
  • Cabernet Franc 2014, Alegria Vineyard, Russian River Valley – get this one for Thanksgiving and December holidays
  • Syrah 2013, McReynolds Hills Vineyard, Russian River Valley


We can never know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.



3 Wines Your Mom Will Love This Mother’s Day

FlowersThis week’s post if for all of the Moms out there. They brought us into this world and gave us comfort and nourishment when we needed it.  They gave us a place to cry when we needed someone to simply understand, and protected us when we were scared.  Mom’s lift us up and give us confidence in who we are.  

Let’s all give a little back this Mother’s day.  Take your mom out to brunch or on a picnic.  I’m making my mom a special Dungeness crab brunch, and to go with our meal there are so many possibilities for wine.  

Here are some suggestions for great wines you’re mom is going to love.

Premier Cru (or 1er Cru) Chablis is my favorite expression of Chardonnay these days.  I love the combination minerality, ripe stone fruit, silky texture, and subtle toast finish.  1er Cru Chablis is grown at a higher elevation than regular Chablis, so the fruit tends to be a little more generous.  It’s no “fruit bomb” but the apricot nectar and vibrant acid are a match made in heaven.  Try the 2013 Domaine de La Meuliere from the Fourneaux vineyard in Chablis, 1er Cru with crab, pork chops or La Tur cheese, and your mom’s gonna feel super special.  

I love Rhone-style (from or modeled after the French Rhone River Valley) whites when they’re made well. The blend of viognier, roussanne and marsanne combines great texture with notes of summer peach and a vibrant structure to please so many different palates.  Perhaps the greatest California producer of Rhone-style wines resides in Paso Robles.  Tablas Creek is like royalty to me, coming over from the Beaucastel estate in Chateauneuf du Pape, France in 1985.  The Perrin family saw that the climate and soil type (terrior) was perfect for growing Rhone varietals.  Try their 2014 Côtes de Tablas Blanc from their estate in the Adelaida district of Paso Robles.  The honeysuckle notes will draw you into the glass, while the nose of tropical and stone fruit will remind you of how great life is.  The creamy, silky palate and gorgeous fruit will pair well with crab, mussels cooked in a pernod cream sauce, pan seared halibut, pork loin, or roasted chicken.  

If you’re thinking your mom will prefer red this Mother’s day, I’d head straight for the Pinot noir aisle.  The supple red fruits and vibrant acidity will make mom ask for a second glass.  Look for the 2013 Brooks Note Pinot noir from Marin County.  The wine is still singing after I first tried it back in March of 2015.  The supple raspberry, tart cherry and cranberry fruits, mixed with earthy sage and bay leaf are totally seductive.  I love the root beer spice note and vibrant acid on the palate.  At $36 retail, this wine will make you wonder how to get a case come Monday.  Pair it with duck confit, grilled salmon, or duck liver paté.

I recommend one of these for Mother’s Day:

  • 2013 Domaine de La Meuliere, Les Fourneaux, Chablis, 1er Cru
  • 2014 Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas Blanc, Adelaida district, Paso Robles
  • 2013 Brooks Note Pinot Noir, Marin County


I’d love to know what wine pairing you came up with this Mother’s day.  Try one of these suggestions and drop me a line.  Let me know what you did to celebrate mom this Mother’s day.

It’s impossible to know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.


Why Pinot Noir Will Always Have A Soft Spot in My Heart

swirling red wine in glass 02Pinot Noir possess an unforgettable personality and flare that makes her absolutely irresistible. She’s like a woman in charge with her grace, strength, and versatility.  She satisfies the taste buds having substance and virtuosity with a controlled and soulful finish.

What I love best is her poetically understated flavors that keep you coming back for more. She really knows how to grab your attention in the most sophisticated way. That’s what makes her so sexy. She’s regal in poise and is confident in who she is.

One of the things I find most intriguing about this powerhouse varietal, is the fragility at the core of her being. Unlike vigorous varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir needs cool weather and EXTRA TLC to evolve into the seductive beauty that we’ve all come to love. If she doesn’t get her way or get the attention she demands, she becomes extremely finicky and moody — making her one of the most challenging varietals to grow.

Yet despite her temperamental mood swings, she’s a team player too. As the most food versatile of all varietals, Pinot doesn’t discriminate and can hold her own with pretty much any meal. Her acidity and tannins combined with suppleness of fruit is what makes her versatile.  I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for her.

My Favorite Picks

Historically,  Burgundy, France or “Bourgogne” has been the home of high quality Pinot Noirs. One of my favorites for the price is the 2013 Gerard Seguin “La Place” vineyard from the town of Fixin which is adjacent to the world famous Gevry-Chambertin. She gives off the aroma of coffee beans, sizzling bacon, mushroom and thyme. Her palate has lovely acidity, yummy sour cherry fruit, and a toasty finish.  The savory / herbally character of the Gerard Seguin pairs perfectly with the richness of Coq au Vin. She is sophisticated, slightly uptight, and dry with an English sense of humor. Not until you pair her with food does she really open up. I call this one Lady Diana.

Another one of my favorites similar to the Bourgogne style is the 2013 Ayres Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley in Oregon. She’s my Kate Winslet. Her complex earth tones of evergreen, herbs and forest floor balance out the generous cherry fruit and rich tannins. Like that of Bourgogne, she’s grown in a region that happens to be located near the 45th parallel. This makes for having a similar terrior (climate and soil type), of her French cousin. It’s the cool, wet weather that forces the vines to struggle in ripening their grapes creating a delectable tension you can taste from start to finish. What makes her different is that she tends to have more pronounced fruit to go with the amazing balance, because of the slightly warmer temperatures she gets in Oregon.  You’ll love this wine, especially at $26, with grilled salmon with mushrooms and a Pinot Noir sauce.  

Last but not least, my #1 choice comes from Green Valley in Russian River Valley — Paul Mathew’s 2013 Bohemian Vineyard. She is an absolute bombshell beauty; kind of like Scarlett Johansson.  Despite California having the reputation of being too hot for making great Pinot Noir, it’s the consistent fog and the Petaluma Wind Gap in Green Valley that keeps temperatures cooler and regulated. This forces the grapes to ripen slowly and is the secret to crafting artisan quality Pinot Noir.  With notes of mushroom, cherry cola and vibrant acid the Bohemian Vineyard Pinot Noir will blow your mind when paired with curried lamb shanks.  

When it comes to Pinot Noir, earthy complexity, supple fruit, and acidic tension are the key ingredients. Burgundy, Willamette Valley and Green Valley are the ones you have to try, so don’t miss out on getting to know these special ladies.

Check them out and let me know what you think. I’d like to know if there are other producers  from Burgundy, Willamette Valley or Green Valley that you particularly love? I also want to know what you paired these gals with and why?  Leave me a comment or question.  I look forward to hearing from you and continuing the conversation.

We can never know too much about wine.  Let’s keep learning.



Sonoma County is Laid Back, Stylish and Has Some Great Values. 6 Wines that Pair Well with Food – All for $20 and Under

pressing grapes into wine glass_Blog

Even though Napa Valley seems to get all of the attention, this week I’m going to highlight the gems of Sonoma County, and why it produces some of the best food pairing wines in California.

One of things that makes Sonoma so special is it’s geographical location. Nestled between the Mayacamas Range and the Pacific Ocean, the natural environment creates the perfect recipe for high quality grapes. It’s the diurnal temperature variation that makes Sonoma so special.

The hot days followed by fog influenced cool night time temperatures make it a melting pot for many different varietals to flourish.  So basically, the hotter it is, the riper and sweeter the grapes become.  But it’s the cooler air during the evening that regulates and balances out the sugars with acidity.  This is a key component that makes many wines of Sonoma County perfect for pairing with food.

Napa is known for Cabernet and Merlot, whereas Sonoma County’s multiple microclimates offer much more variety.  Sonoma is divided up into 15 sub appellations (or AVA’s) that allow specific varietals to flourish.  Pinot Noir loves the oceanic influence of the Sonoma Coast and the cool breezes of the Russian River Valley.  Zinfandel does really well with the hot daytime temperatures of the Dry Creek Valley and Cabernet does well with the soil types of Alexander Valley, Knight’s Valley and Sonoma Mountain.  There are so many subclimates in Sonoma that there’s bound to be a wine for every palate.   

The one Sonoma County wine that changed everything for me was the 1996 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma Mountain.  I discovered it in 2006 and was amazed at its power, grace, earthy complexity and gorgeous fruit.  Until then I didn’t think Sonoma could touch Napa Cab’s.  Boy was I wrong!  It’s level of complexity and finesse beat the pants off of Napa Cab’s that were twice its price.  Sonoma wines became my new favorite in terms of approachability, complexity and value.   

What I also like about Sonoma is it’s laid back, down to earth vibe that welcomes visitors to relax and enjoy the simplicity of life.  I often buy wine directly from places like Paul Mathew, Les Caves Roties de Pente and Speedy Creek, because I prefer supporting the small wineries that have a passion for winemaking and aren’t pretentious about it.

Napa wineries can be great too, but one of the big differences is that they usually come with a different vibe and loftier price.  If you’re looking for a more regal vibe and love being a part of the buzz, then Napa is your place.  In contrast, if you’re looking for more of a laid back, country feel with some decent value, Sonoma is the spot.

Truthfully it’s been a difficult task to find great Sonoma County wines for $20 and under.  Most of them are either $25 and up or the style and value don’t exist for under $20. However, these 6 wines from Sonoma County are fantastic while pairing excellently with food – all for $20 and under:

Barber Cellars Pinot Gris 2013, “Rougissant”, Keller Vineyard, Sonoma Coast – $18

This tiny winery makes sustainable, organic and biodynamically farmed wines.  The Keller vineyard was planted in the 80’s insuring that these old vines produce grapes of wonderful complexity.  Think of this wine as somewhere between pinot grigio and a French Rhone white.  It’s honeysuckle nose and gorgeous stone fruit are balanced out by a savory finish with plenty of structure.  I’d go grilled pork loin with this wine.  

People’s Wine Revolution Viognier 2013, Salem Ranch, Dry Creek Valley –  $18

Speaking of French Rhone … this is in the style of Rhone with wonderful mouthwatering acidity that pairs really well with fat.  All of Matt Reed’s wines are deliciously made and a relative steal.  Classic notes of honeysuckle, peach, green apple, green melon and chalky minerals pop out of the glass.  Think of the body as heavier than Sauvignon Blanc but lighter than Chardonnay with vibrant acid.  Pair this Viognier with sautéed duck breasts with honey, ginger and lavender.  

Paul Mathew Gewurztraminer 2014, Harvest Moon, Russian River Valley – $20

I love the wines of Paul Mathew.  This husband/wife knock it out of the park with care and reverence for the land while making wines that’ll make you sing in the rain. Winemaker Mat Gustafson cut his teeth as a sommelier to put himself through school then worked for CA icons Joseph Phelps, Oakville Ranch and the Dutton family.  Most of these small lot hand-crafted wines are pricier than $20, but this “Gewurtz” is a gem for the price.  The classic nose of peach, orange Marmalade and clove will pull you into the glass while it’s meyer lemon acid and dry finish balance out the fruit.  It’s perfect with Phad Thai or smoked ham with a spicy apricot-orange glaze.  

Lioco Chardonnay 2014, Sonoma County $19.99

The gents from Lioco fell in love with wine through the restaurant biz.  They wanted to counterbalance the “bigger is better” CA movement with more subtle, nuanced wines.   A decade later … mission accomplished.  Their wines remind us of “vintage California”, a time when wines weren’t attempting to score big in publications and reflected a desire to create wines to go with food.  Nose of lemon blossom and jasmine with pear, apple and rocky minerals.  The palate is clean with balanced body and acid and a slightly creamy finish.  Pair this with a crab salad with a lemon-curry dressing.

Brack Mountain “Barrique” Pinot Noir 2014, Sonoma Coast – $17

All of the Brack Mountain “Barrique” wines are as good as it gets for the price.  The Pinot is complex with sea-like minerals, graphite and raspberry on the nose with a soft, supple, sophisticated and sexy body.  Pair this it salmon or a wild mushroom risotto.  

Gundlach Bundschu “Mountain Cuvée” 2012 Sonoma County – 16.99

a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel from a great winery near the town of Sonoma.  Gundlach Bundschu had its beginnings in 1868 leading to a 4th generation vintner in President Jeff Bundschu.  Notes of blackberry and plum-like fruit, clove, tea and spices. Soft and robust with a great texture.  Pair it with grilled lamb and porcini sauce.  

Be sure to try some of these pairings and leave a comment below on how they were for you.  What’s your experience of Sonoma County wine?  Are you a fan?  What are your favorite places to visit and why?  Do you have a favorite Sonoma winery for great value?