The Road Less Traveled

Obscure But Interesting Califnornia Wines

By Sandra Crittenden
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Most Texans who have been to California for a wine tasting vacation have headed to Napa Valley, the Golden State’s most well-known wine region, to taste Cabernet Sauvignon, the area’s most famous varietal wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted red wine grape in the state and accounts for over 40% of the wine production in Napa Valley with Chardonnay being the most planted white grape. 

 Other widely planted varieties are Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Zinfandel, totaling 88% of all the wine grapes planted there. While some of the other 12% are used only in small amounts for blending, some producers are making some more obscure varietal wine from these grapes, grouped together in the category of “other.” However, Napa is not the only wine region in California that has an identity grape. 

 Steve Matthiasson, a long sought-after viticulture consultant, grafted Ribolla Gialla to vines in his home vineyard in 2006. Ribolla Gialla wines are best known as coming from the Friuli region of Italy, but the vines are also found in Croatia and Slovenia. Wines made from these grapes have an acidic backbone with a spicy and nutty character. The wine is treated like a red wine in the winery, and it is often referred to by sommeliers as an excellent bridge wine between whites and reds.

 It can be ordered for $49 at An excellent food wine, it can be enjoyed with rich seafood dishes, charcuterie, and more intense cheeses. It is also an ideal pairing for the wine movie Somm - Into the Bottle which introduces top wine growers including Matthiasson. 

 Russian River Valley, located close to Napa in the neighboring region of Sonoma, is primarily planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It is also home to a smaller percentage of “other” varieties. At Two Shepherds Winery, founded by William Allen in Windsor, they seek these more unique varieties from cool climate old vine vineyards to make small lots of wine. They currently make only a little over 3200 cases per year of wines from grapes like Syrah, Picpoul Blanc, Pinot Meunier, and Trousseau Gris. 

 Learn more and purchase his wines at Their 2013 Pastoral Rouge is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre and is bright and juicy with that certain elegance that comes with a bit of age. This wine is a steal at $30 a bottle. 

 When wine drinkers think of Lodi, they often think of Zinfandel, yet many are surprised to discover that Lodi grows over 125 different grape varieties. Susan Tipton, owner/winemaker at Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards, is a white wine enthusiast who produces an array of sophisticated white wines in this seemingly sea of Zinfandel, along with one sparkling and one rose wine. 

 Find these wines at Tipton is a particular fan of Rhone Valley wines so her Grenache Blanc-based wines are ones to seek. 

 About 45 minutes away from Lodi by car lies Amador County. This area has a storied past of gold rush miners as well as a long history of wine production. The region, like Lodi is known for its Zinfandel, but the past 20 years have brought more diversification to the area. Big names in Zinfandel have been sourcing grapes from the area for years and some, like Turley, are now producing other wines from Amador. 

 One that is particularly smooth and juicy is the Turley “Sleeper Ranch” Barbera priced at $28. Shop for this at by clicking the Amador on-line tasting room store. 

 Last but not least on this lesser trodden trail are wines hailing from Cienega Valley. The San Andreas fault line runs through this lesser-known region and has churned up some wine worthy terroir. Located in San Benito County just south of the town of Hollister are vineyards that have been planted since 1849.

 Once upon a time, the vines were a source of grapes for Almaden Vineyards, but it began its current history in the late ‘80s when 455 acres were purchased and restoration began. This was followed by its current change in ownership less than five years ago when it was acquired by Christian Pillsbury and replanted to heritage clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

 The vineyards at Eden Rift Winery lie on diverse soils benefiting from the coastal influences from Monterey Bay and inland influences from Mount Harlan. Order these premium mineral driven wines from this restored historic estate vineyard at 

 While it can be comforting to stay on a well-worn path, a certain level of excitement comes with the unique and unknown. This winter, venture onto the less traveled California wine path and see what new taste adventures are waiting to be explored.