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California is simultaneously heaven on earth (example: the Redwoods) and hell in a hand-basket (example: the 405). For me, the Golden State’s wines occupy a similar spectrum. I’ve spent a lot of effort trying to discover its unrivaled enological highs, but to do so, I’ve had to sip through a lot of cherry-cola Cab clutter and piña colada-esque Chard.

Fortunately, the last few years has seen a willingness on the part of many winemakers to rip up what sells and plant what thrives. That doesn’t mean we will see an end to warm-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir any time soon, but a future with more Verdejo and Nero d’Avola to match California’s intense continental summers? That might be interesting.

Because of this trend, there is now promise in nearly every corner of the state that supports viticulture. My list of Essential Winemakers is by no means complete — and it still has a skew toward Sonoma and Napa — but with increased awareness of terroir, the conversation in California gets more interesting with each year.

If you are an adventurous wine-drinker, you’ll find plenty of excitement drinking any of the wines from these California winemakers who pass the Essential Winemaker’s criteria: three different excellent wines, or three excellent wines over three different vintages.

Essential Winemakers of California - Cain
Essential Winemakers of California - Copain
Essential Winemakers of California - Ehlers Estate
Essential Winemakers of California - Fort Ross
Essential Winemakers of California - Qupé
Essential Winemakers of California - Red Car
Essential Winemakers of California - Stephen Ross


Cain Five wine ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Spring Mountain District AVA, Napa •

What they make: Cain makes three Bordeaux blends from the high slopes of Spring Mountain. The signature bottle here is, without a doubt, Cain Five, a sterling blend of every grape grown on the hilltop estate: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. The NV12 Cain Cuvée is a red blend made of predominantly Merlot, while the Cain Concept bottling is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon.

Why I am partial: The wines of Cain are not your typical, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon blends. They are graceful, pretty and abundantly detailed, with zero bombast and little swagger, yet — paradoxically — an air of confidence about what they bring to the table. These are wines that recall nature, and they don’t offer easy answers on why they have the identity they have. That’s part of the adventure. When I tasted at their estate with winegrower Chris Howell, I got the feeling that — even after more than 20 years with the estate — he was still learning new things about his wine with each sip.

Of their three bottlings, I tasted the NV12 Cain Concept and two vintages of the Cain Five (2006 and 2012). The NV12 is a romantic wine, with loads of berries, traces of savory notes and a luxurious palate that is somehow not “plush” and overly decadent. But the real star, for me, is the Cain Five, particularly when it has benefited from age. The wine is supple, light on its toes, yet powerful and evocative. Don’t be surprised if its aromas remind you of a forested, mountain-side berry patch.

Read more: A Cabernet Sauvignon Skeptic in Napa


Wines of Copain ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Sonoma/Mendocino •

What they make: Twenty-one different wines, all with roots in French varietals and French winemaking philosophy … just expressing distinctly New World terroir (like the untamed floral aromatics of the Anderson Valley). While based in the Russian River, Copain’s interests appear to be elsewhere. On the Chardonnay side of things, they source grapes from as far away as the Monterey AVA, while their Pinot Noir has a special focus on the aforementioned Anderson Valley, offering several single-vineyard selections with amazing character. They also make dazzling Syrah, and they’re not afraid to experiment with obscure French varietals such as Trousseau and Picpoul.

Why I am partial: Copain is a bit of a darling for sommeliers and the wine press; when I finally got around to checking their wines out, I could see why. They are complex and elegant, yet perfectly calibrated for accompanying a variety of foods. This versatility makes them an essential addition to any wine cabinet that’s within easy reach of what’s cooking in your kitchen. The Copain “Les Voisins” Anderson Valley Pinot Noir is especially seductive; while the Kiser “En Bas” Pinot Noir has more gravitas and a bouquet that recalls a rainstorm in the summer. But perhaps the real reason I love Copain is the risk-taking. After all, winemaker Wells Guthrie decided to make a Trousseau — not because there was demand (for God’s sake, what the hell is Trousseau anyway?), but because it is a damn fine wine and worth making. For that, Copain’s wines are worth keeping an eye on.

Read more: Getting Schooled in Sonoma: At Copain

Ehlers Estate

Wines of Ehlers Estate ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

St. Helena AVA (Napa Valley) •

What they make: Ehlers Estate makes eight different wines, including a stellar rosé of Cabernet Franc, a Sauvignon Blanc that cuts like a Sancerre, and individual bottlings of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. There are also two primary Bordeaux blends — the estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the flagship 1886. Of the main Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Franc seems to get the least attention in California’s circles, but at Ehlers, the juice is treated with reverence and care. Perhaps that’s why there are more than a few shades of the Loire in this Bordeaux-focused winery.

Why I am partial: To appreciate Ehlers Estate, its best to visit the winery. I had sampled their wines before my visit, but it all made a lot more sense after seeing it in person. What Ehlers Estate does with Cabernet Franc would be enough to warrant inclusion on this list. Their Cabernet Franc is dark, natural and brings to mind dark forest berries. On the flipside is an exuberant rosé of Cabernet Franc that recalls watermelons (and demands patio time in the summer). There is even a little Cabernet Franc in the Merlot, which perhaps contributes to its roundness and completeness. And I’d be remiss to not mention the 1886, their “big wine” that somehow still manages quite a bit of restraint and finesse.

Read more: Subtlety Over Strength at Ehlers Estate

Fort Ross

Fort Ross Pinotage ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Fort Ross/Seaview AVA •

What they make: Several cuvée and single-block Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from their estate vineyard, which may be the closest vineyard to the Pacific Ocean in America (although the Spanish Springs Vineyard outside Pismo Beach is just as close … see Stephen Ross entry below). The South African owners have also reserved one block in their vineyard for an expressive, dark-berried Pinotage.

Why I’m partial: Yes, there are a lot of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers on this list, but given the expressions of microclimate found in these grapes, they represent the most consistently interesting wines in the state. The Fort Ross/Seaview appellation, which hugs the Sonoma Coast, is among the most unique. Fort Ross Vineyards’ Pinot Noir are complex yet approachable, their Mother of Pearl Chardonnay is exotic and surprising, and the Pinotage will change more than a few minds about the grape’s potential.

Kudos also go out to Fort Ross Vineyard for being open to the public despite their remote location, and for not being a mailing-list only winery, something that the West Sonoma Coast’s wineries have shifted toward as a sales model.

Learn more: Getting Schooled in Sonoma: At Fort Ross


2011 Qupé Maxtap Cuvée

Santa Barbara County • and

What they make: On the surface, Rhône varietals should fare very well in California. But from my experience, few winemakers show the restraint necessary to afford these grapes their best showing. Qupé is lead by an O.G. Rhône Ranger in winemaker Bob Lindquist, and Bob gets it. His elegant and food-friendly Rhône-style wines show the unique coastal influence of winemaking in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

In addition to nine Syrah and a handful of Rhône blends (red and white), Lindquist also collaborates with his wife — Louisa of Verdad Wines — on a beautiful Pinot Noir from their Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard. Verdad also makes a refreshing Albariño worth checking out (Note: Only one of Verdad’s wines has been sampled).

Why I am partial: I’ve only had a sliver of the vast portfolio of Qupé wines — which also includes Chardonnay — but everything I’ve had has been impressive: a Marsanne that felt like it was kissed by honey and oranges; a Central Coast Syrah that was vivid and shape-shifting throughout; and the affordable Maxtap Cuvée which would be happy on any table any night of the week. (Note: The Maxtap has been replaced by the Los Olivos Cuvée). As well known as Bob Lindquist is from Rhône varieties, the work he has done with his wife on the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Pinot Noir is equally impressive. I sampled it alongside five other California Pinot Noir and the aromas alone made it standout as superior: think cherry, raspberry, and sarsaparilla with whispers of pepper and watermelon on the finish.

Qupé and Verdad Wines share a tasting room in Arroyo Grande, California.

Read more: Overlooked by Wine Enthusiast: Qupé Maxtap Cuvée // Qupé Syrah Goes to the Rafters // 2016 Preview: What We’ll Be Drinking Next Year

Red Car

Rosé from Red Car Wines ©Kevin Day / Opening a Bottle

West Sonoma Coast •

What they make: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah from very specific, cool-climate vineyards from the Sonoma Coast. They also make a rosé of Pinot Noir that is sublime, in part because the grapes are grown specifically for rosé. Red Car’s wines are all gorgeous, elegant and highly food friendly. If there is a strike against them, it’s price. With the exception of their Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($30), they are outside of my everyday budget (e.g. their fleet of Reserve Pinot Noir cost between $68 and $72/bottle).

Why I am partial: These are flawless wines. The aforementioned rosé is the best I’ve had from California, with nary a trace of tartness. The Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay is mystical: a swirl of complexity conjuring lemon, lime, toast, tomatillo and herbs with a creamy finish. Their Cuvée 22 Syrah builds and builds with each sip, revealing a delicacy and vibrancy that is rare with Cali Syrah. And best off all: the Pinot Noir. I’ve enjoyed both the Hagan Vineyard as well as Heaven and Earth Pinot Noir — each recalling Old World charm with New World vibrancy.

Read more: The Most Surprising Chardonnay of the Year: Red Car

Stephen Ross

Stephen Ross Wines ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Edna Valley •

What they make: A wide-ranging flight of Central Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Edna Valley, Bien Nacido and Santa Lucia Highlands. The Pinot Noir in particular is detailed, vivacious and decadent without being overbearing. However, I think the real excitement begins with winemaker Stephen Ross Dooley’s aromatic white wines — Pinot Gris and Albariño. I have not sampled his Grenache Blanc.

Why I am partial: Pinot Noir is the kind of grape that leaves winemakers with little room for error. This especially becomes evident with an aged Pinot Noir. In the wrong hands, those sexy layers of fruit that gave the wine energy and immediacy in youth can turn flat with age, conjuring brown fruit tones of overripe plums. When I sampled Stephen Ross’ 2010 Stone Corral Vineyard Pinot Noir — a wine with eight years of age in its rearview mirror — I was amazed. It was fresh and it was immediate, as if it had been waiting for us to arrive to the party. Stephen Dooley’s Pinot Noir convey a depth and concentration of flavor while still feeling fragile and delicate, a high-wire act that lends intrigue to the wines.

However, these aren’t even his most compelling wines coming from his winery. In my opinion, that honor falls to two of his aromatic whites: the Albariño from Jesperson Ranch (decked in tones recalling crisp pear, bright lime and guava) and the Pinot Gris from the Spanish Springs Vineyard (wild rose, strawberry, almond, figs). Both come from sites near the ocean in the cooler pockets of San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley, and they seem to carry a briny edge to their finish that is all at once exciting and conducive to wild food pairings.


More Essential Winemakers

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Essential Winemakers of France – Opening a Bottle

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