10 Must-Try California Wines

Let me tell you, there’s a big difference between a connoisseur and an aficionado. Beyond the French and Italian lineage. I am not a wine connoisseur. I am a wine aficionado.

Scott’s cousin is a connoisseur, and beyond. She actually has so much knowledge of fine wine that {very, very, very rich} people hire her to pick fine selections to stock their amazing wine cellars. Talk about a dream job!! But she deserves it. She is an expert.

An aficionado comes with some knowledge, but a lot more enthusiasm than skill. We’re probably more passionate than we are expert.

That’s a really long caveat that says if you’re looking for an expert opinion, I’m really sorry but we can’t provide that! Maybe sometime soon I’ll be able to interview Scott’s cousin here for some beginner wine tasting tips. Until then, all we can do is point you toward great wine experiences we’ve had when touring through California’s many great wine regions.

Here are our 10 favorite California vineyards and our favorite bottles they offer. If you’re in the neighborhood and see a tasting room for one of these or see a bottle in your local shop, give it a try and let us know what you think!

1. J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines.

J. Lohr is a family-owned collection of vineyards with land in Paso Robles, Monterey, and Napa Valley. They focus on sustainable vineyard growth and care for the land just as much as they do on flavor, and the flavor of their wines is intense without being overwhelming. It challenges you to search for descriptors instead of beating you over the head with fruit.

Why we love it: J. Lohr has been a favorite of my family’s for some time. One of my teachers in junior high introduced my folks to their wines – they were well stocked, since his wife is one of their lead chemists! And we’ve all been loving their mild but flavorful wines ever since. I love serving a J. Lohr Cabernet with a festive family dinner.

Our wine of choice: J. Lohr 2013 Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon. It goes beautifully with rich Burgundy sauces and braised beef.

2. Hope Family Wines.

Hope Family Wines has been a fixture in Paso Robles since I was a kid. They were known in my hometown region for planting apple orchards where we occasionally went apple picking, but eventually, the grapes took over everything.

Why we love it: The wine is brilliant, but so are the partnerships! It says a lot about a local vineyard when all the local stores and restaurants carry and recommend their brand, and a lot of our favorite stops in Paso will offer you something from the Hope Family selection. Beyond farming sustainably, forming bonds with the community and being receptive to their needs is an essential skill for sustainable wineries!

You can read about the food and wine tour where we met the Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon over here!

Our wine of choice: Hope Family Wines Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon. We tasted it first with a roast beef sandwich, and it beautifully augments the smoky flavor!

3. Talley Vineyards.

Talley Vineyards is a family owned farm and winery in Arroyo Grande, just a mile or so from my grandmother’s ranch. They’re the perfect distance from the beach to get the coolness of the marine layer without the salt, and they produce beautiful chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling, sauvignon blanc, and cabernet sauvignon grapes. They also farm gorgeous fields of Napa Cabbage, spinach, and many other local favorites. They have a cookbook coming out soon that I’m excited to share with you!

Why we love it: Beyond being a family owned enterprise, Talley Vineyards are very, very connected to the community around them. They take special care to bring in special events of interest to the community without totally disrupting Central Coast life and find lots of opportunities for outreach and education. They are truly a community fixture.

You can find more details on Talley Vineyards over here!

Our wine of choice: 2015 Bishop’s Peak Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s mild, it’s mellow, and it’s the perfect red if you, like us, need something to serve with poultry that isn’t, well, a white wine. Oh, it goes pretty awesome with duck, too.

4. V. Sattui.

V. Sattui, named after founder Vittorio Sattui, started in Napa Valley in 1885. The winery shut down briefly for Prohibition, but now it is back in full force, producing some of the most flavorful and boldest tastes in the region.

Why we love it: It might only be #4 on this list, but prior to our discovering the other wineries that top the list, this was Scott’s favorite pick. The winery lies in Napa Valley’s St. Helena community, not too far from my folks. We have been able to visit a few times with family and friends since then, and we love all of the bold flavor and the beautiful tasting room – that just happens to be close to a Dean & DeLuca store, which makes it perfect for a Napa outdoor picnic event!

Our wine of choice: 2014 V. Sattui Madeira. This is Scott’s go-to dessert wine. He loves a small glass with a cheesecake or with my strawberry tiramisu!

5. Edna Valley.

Edna Valley is something of a sentimental addition here. I grew up driving past it with my parents as we went from our house to my grandmother’s ranch. In later years, that drive has included a few stops for tastings when we see signs out for special events. It’s probably one of the most beautiful vineyards in California as well.

Why we love it: Normally, neither of us care for Chardonnay. But Edna Valley is probably the one winery we’ve visited who does Chardonnay beautifully. They produce many varietals but a lot of their effort is dedicated to producing a grape that loves their long and cool growing season and benefits greatly from the salty sea air that blows in through nearby See Canyon. On top of that, they offer plenty of pairing recipes – and I love that in a winery!

Our wine of choice: 2014 Central Coast Chardonnay. Seriously, this is about the only Chardonnay either of us will drink. We’re picky. It’s great for summer al fresco dining!

6. Eberle Winery.

Eberle Winery is another Paso Robles favorite of ours. They’re a little bit younger and newer than some of the surrounding wineries, but this family owned winery has made their mark on the Central Coast wine scene in a big way. They built the first underground wine caves in Paso Robles, which adds a totally different depth of flavor to the wine.

Why we love it: Hospitality is the name of the game here. The owner, Gary Eberle, still greets guests who visit the tasting room and offers complimentary wine tastings and public torus of the underground caves. We’re hoping to offer you a virtual tour of those caves soon {translation: we can’t wait to take the tour!!}.

Our wine of choice: 2015 Full Boar Red. It’s the family’s favorite blend and we think it’s ours, too. It holds it’s own against any meat dish, but if I have a venison stew or steak to serve, it’s my definite go-to.

7. Tablas Creek.

Tablas Creek is another Paso Robles jewel that tells the story of family connections across the world. The Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel and the Haas family combined forces to create this winery because the soil and climate was so remarkably similar to the Perrin family’s vineyards in France. They imported a lot of traditional varietals and started experimenting with blends, along with opening up tracts of land to organic farming and biodynamic farming that includes their herd of sheep, alpacas, and donkeys.

Why we love it: It’s kind of the tasting room. It’s all wood and has a cork floor, and leads right into the wine cellar. It’s like tasting wine in a big, gorgeous wine barrel.

Our wine of choice: 2014 Espirit de Tablas Red. It blends four of the vineyard’s best varietals and has a lot of lushness and spice. I’d pair it with a stuffed pork loin with lots of rosemary.

8. Ancient Peaks.

Ancient Peaks lies just south of Paso Robles, nestled between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Oceans. More than 70% of the different soils in California exist somewhere on the property, so they’re able to find the ones that work best for the different grapes they farm. Coupled with the marine layer and a whole lot of family care and concern, they raise some pretty amazing grapes – and produce some pretty astonishing wines.

Why we love it: So the wines are delicious, but did you know they have more than 4,500 combined feet of zip-lines criss-crossing the vineyards that you can zip along before you visit the tasting room? They do. And in the process, you’ll spend time with guides who will tell you all about the winery’s enterprise, from the grapes they use to their sustainable practices, to how they care for the massive oaks they won’t let anyone clear from their hills {that’s right, we’re giving you side-eye, Justin Vineyards}.

Check out our Ancient Peaks tasting and zipline experiences here!

Our wine of choice: 2014 Renegade. The Renegade blend combines three different grape varietals that, if combined in France, would be considered a crime and punishable in court. It’s a beautiful wine with intense flavor and a dash of rebellion that you can’t help but love!

9. Castello di Amarosa.

Castello di Amarosa is…well…kind of cheating, as far as our list goes, because it was constructed by Dario Sattui and is, as far as we understand, still managed by the Sattui family. However, the vineyard operates separately, but that’s not the reason we find it amazing or why tastings are so much fun there.

Why we love it: Because the winery itself is housed in an authentically reconstructed Tuscan-style castle. Pieces of the castle were brought over to California from Italy individually and then reassembled. Where pieces weren’t available, they were created using the same techniques they would have been created with in the 13th century. And when you taste, you don’t just sit in a tasting room. You sip on a tour throughout the castle, including a pretty amazing wine cellar and dungeon!

Our wine of choice: 2013 Sangiovese. It’s a sweet, spicy, and berry-filled Italian favorite that works perfectly with your favorite Italian cheeses and antipasti.

10. Duckhorn.

Duckhorn is a Napa staple for good reason. They’ve been around since the mid 1970’s with a heavy focus on the merlot grape. They have expanded into different parts of Napa to expand the grape’s flavor, and have spent the last 40 years experimenting with different combinations in order to get the best quality, best tasting wines.

Why we love it: To us, it’s a great view of what historic Napa looks like. The tasting room opens up onto a gorgeous wide porch and lets you stroll right out into the gardens that overlook the vineyards. It’s quiet and lush and just feels luxurious, the perfect escape from too many wineries trying to be on the cutting edge of trendy.

Our wine of choice: We used to be able to pick up the Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon sporadically in Hawaii, and we used it for special occasions. It’s deep, it’s dark, and it’s delicious. There’s plenty of rich grape but also plenty of licorice and mint mixed in with the grape. To us, it felt like almost a dessert wine. I love serving it with my chocolate soufflé.

What are your favorite California vineyards and wines? What should we try next?


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