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The 100 most amazing wines in Sonoma County

The remarkable North Bay wines that were released in 2021 is credited to the farmers, winemakers and their crews, who faced a run of unprecedented challenges from 2017 into 2021 to get great wine into our glasses and on Thanksgiving tables. It took can-do attitude, and the earned response is gratitude, from those who appreciate local wines, enjoy the joie de vivre they bring, and the jobs and economic boost a resourceful wine business provides.

100 best wines 2021 Dutcher  Crossing
100 best wines 2021 Dutcher Crossing

The Press Democrat’s 100 Amazing Wines list is populated by bottles produced in 2017 through 2020 (with a 2016 outlier or two), each year having its own harvest-time issues. The catastrophic Tubbs, Nuns and Atlas fires of 2017; the scramble by vintners to install generators, replant scorched vines and create defensive space around buildings in 2018; the 2019 Kincade fire structural damage and preventative evacuations; and the smoky 2020 season, in which county grape growers lost as much as 30% of their crop to smoke taint in the grapes. Add the coronavirus pandemic, drought and labor shortages, and the last five vintages have not been easy.

Despite all this, Sonoma’s reputation as a world-class wine region remains not only intact, but enhanced. A diverse group of winemakers has taken the field, bringing new and sometimes radical ideas that wine new wine drinkers and keep the long-established wineries on their toes. What was once considered a lame claim, “We grow everything here,” has become cool, as nearly every grape variety known to humankind can grow successfully here.

The most admired wines in the world are expensive, their prices based on demand and prestige; Sonoma has entered this sphere, and unfortunately, some of the wines on the list are beyond the means of some. It’s the price of success.

7 Sparkling Wines

Balletto Vineyards 2015 Russian River Valley Méthode Traditionnelle Russian River Valley Brut Rosé ($42)

Winemaker Anthony Beckman used Champagne techniques to produce this wine, with a secondary fermentation in the bottle capturing the nutty, baked-bread character created when the spent yeast cells remain in suspension with the wine. This aged yet fresh-tasting bubbly has those characteristics, plus luscious berry and cherry notes, with a racy finish.

Breathless Wines 2016 McMinn Vineyard Russian River Valley Blanc de Blancs ($49)

Breathless, a brand birthed from the Faust sisters’ Rack & Riddle custom winemaking business in Healdsburg, added to its repertoire three single-vineyard sparklers in 2020; this all-chardonnay wine shines bright, for its core of crisp green apple, Asian pear and citrus, and a welcome yeasty note.

Gloria Ferrer Wines 2013 Carneros Royal Cuvée ($42)

Once upon a time – 10 years ago – this fabulous wine sold for $25 and could be found on grocery store shelves. It was underpriced then, and appropriately priced now, for its extended yeast aging and complex layers of fruit, spice and brioche. I miss purchasing it for $25, yet it remains a remarkable bottle of bubbly – best found at the Carneros winery.

Iron Horse Vineyards 2017 Green Valley of Russian River Valley Wedding Cuvée ($48)

This venerable Sebastopol bubbly pro offers more than a dozen Champagne-style sparkling wines, yet this one, year after year, ticks all the refreshing and elegant boxes. Pinot noir (73%) is expressed as strawberry and raspberry (and the salmon color), chardonnay lends tangy citrus and green apple, and four years aging on the spent yeast adds a complex brioche nuance.

Iron Horse Vineyards 2017 Green Valley of Russian River Valley Gratitude ($70)

Joy Sterling and her family released this limited-production sparkler to recognize and thank those who suffered from, and responded to, the October 2017 fires that decimated many neighborhoods in Sonoma County. Five dollars from each bottle sold goes to the Redwood Empire Food Bank; not just a charity wine, it’s a serious, delicious sparkler with marzipan, baked apple, citrus and blood orange complexity.

Keller Estate 2018 Petaluma Gap Brut Rosé ($66)

Arturo Keller bought this east-of-Petaluma site in 1983, planted vineyards and an olive grove, and began installing outdoor sculptures. His daughter, Ana, the estate director since 1998, and current winemaker Julien Teichmann have evolved the site to be a superstar in the Petaluma Gap. Their efforts are reflected in this precise, floral and racy methode champenoise sparkler with red fruits, anise and biscuit notes.

Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards 2014 Grand Cuvée Russian River Valley Méthode Traditionelle Winemaker’s Release ($44)

It’s the first sparkling wine to win Best of the Best at the North Coast Wine Challenge, in 2021, and it was a much-deserved victory. Mick Schroeter used classic Champagne-production methods, including the time-intensive aging of the wine on yeast cells exhausted during in-bottle fermentation, to compose this complex, full-bodied, multi-layered wine.

7 Sauvignon Blancs

Belden Barns 2020 Sonoma Mountain Sauvignon Blanc ($30)

This is not your everyday herbal, pungent sauvignon blanc; instead, it’s ambrosia in a bottle, bursting with pink grapefruit, blood orange, candied lemon peel and tropical fruit aromas and flavors -- rich, juicy and rewarding.

Cormorant Cellars 2020 Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($24)

Charlie Gilmore worked 12 years at Fetzer Vineyards, for other North Coast wineries, and in France and Australia, before striking out on his own in 2018, with a focus on sauvignon blanc. His style -- very little oak contact, sur lie (on the spent yeast cells) aging and no fining or filtration – yielded a wine that’s a bit cloudy yet pure, vibrant, low in alcohol (12.7%), and with zesty grapefruit, lime cordial and tropical fruit personality.

Dry Creek Vineyard 2020 Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($20)

This is a lot of wine for the price, and comes from the winery that was the first to plant sauvignon blanc in Dry Creek Valley, in 1972. (Thank you, David Stare.) Firmly structured and nervy, it delivers layers of citrus, passionfruit, white peach and fresh-herb deliciousness.

J. Bucher Wines 2020 Bucher Vineyard Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($35)

Vineyard owners John and Diane Bucher’s winemaker, Adam Lee, has a gift for making sauvignon blanc, even though he’s best known for his pinot noirs. In his hands, the Bucher Vineyard yielded a polished, citrus-driven wine with tropical notes and a hint of vanilla from aging in older oak barrels.

J. Cage Cellars 2020 Tzabaco Rancho Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($30)

Another Adam Lee-made wine, for Roger and Donna Beery of J. Cage, it was grown in Janice and Brian Schmidts’ vineyard, which the family has farmed since 1856. Juicy Meyer lemon, peach and tropical fruit flavors are backed by brisk acidity.

Quivira Vineyards 2019 Alder Grove Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($27)

Winemaker Hugh Chappelle produces three sauvignon blancs in a typical vintage, and Alder Grove hits all the varietal high notes: white grapefruit, honeydew melon and fresh-cut grass, with a hint of fig from the blending of a splash of semillon with the sauvigon blanc.

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards 2020 Wild Oak Ranch Sonoma Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($24)

Lemon merengue pie aromas lead to lip-smacking guava, lemon curd and kiwi fruit flavors. For all its fruitiness, it’s crisp and mouthwatering, with a lingering citrus finish. Credit Chris Louton for making a serious wine that’s also a crowd-pleaser.

16 Chardonnays

100 best wines 2021 Ram’s Gate
100 best wines 2021 Ram’s Gate

CHEV Wines 2018 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($80)

Michael Browne remained a winemaking energizer bunny after he and Dan Kosta departed Kosta Browne winery in 2017. Browne first launched CIRQ, then added CHEV, both brands devoted to chardonnay and pinot noir. The 2018 CHEV Chard is not shy: it’s a big, rich, concentrated, multi-layered marvel that floods the mouth with fruit, caramel and brilliant acidity, yet not too heavy.

Corner 103 2019 Carneros Chardonnay ($40)

Lloyd Davis came to Sonoma from his New York financier job in 2008 to help work out the kinks that existed back then at Viansa winery. He fell in love with the region and its wines, and stayed, founding Corner 103and building a successful tasting room and DTC business. While not as flashy as CHEV, his Carneros chardonnay is a seamless, keenly balanced wine blending zesty citrus and green apple fruit with rich, juicy pineapple and guava, and moderate toastiness. Very drinkable.

Dutton-Goldfield 2018 Rued Vineyard Green Valley of Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($55)

The so-called “Rued Clone” produces chardonnay clusters with thick skins and tiny berries. The late Warren Dutton planted this clone on a cool Green Valley site, and winemaker Dan Goldfield turns the grapes into a dazzlingly complex wine that’s floral, fruit-filled, medium-rich, brightly acidic and with just the right amount of creme brulee and nutty character to add interest.

Foppiano Vineyards 2018 Della’s Block Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($38)

This is, if memory serves, the finest Foppiano chardonnay I’ve tasted. This Healdsburg winery, founded 125 years ago, has had ups and downs over recent years, but is now on a roll. Try this bright, citrus-driven wine with moderate oak and a toasted-almond finish, then decide for yourself.

Frostwatch Vineyard & Winery 2018 Bennett Valley Chardonnay ($32)

Bret Raven and Diane Kleinecke are among the brave souls who grow wine grapes in chilly Bennett Valley (where they are often on nighttime frost watch in spring). This great-value wine is on the richer, yet energetic, side, and its balance convinced 2021 North Coast Wine Challenge judges to select it as Best of Show White, in a tie with Halleck Vineyard Dry Gewurztraminer.

Gary Farrell Vineyards 2018 Rochioli Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($65)

Delicious now, this Theresa Heredia-made wine has the acid structure to age gracefully in the cellar for five years or more -- but who wants to wait? It’s got plenty of fruit aroma and flavor (pear, white peach, citrus) and spice and creme brulee notes that add complexity without interfering with the purity.

Hartford Court 2019 Four Hearts Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($50)

Take a trip to the tropics with this wine, which puts vibrant pineapple and mango fruit in a bowl, adds zesty citrus, toasty brioche and hazelnuts, and lets natural acidity keep it all fresh. Jeff Stewart makes several chardonnays for Hartford, each with its own personality; this one is both exuberant and polished.

La Crema 2019 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($23)

Who says a large-volume wine can’t be wonderful? La Crema, a major brand in the Jackson Family Wines portfolio and whose bottlings span several regions, used Sonoma Coast grapes in this widely available, terrific-value wine that deserves its Top 100 stripes. There is brightness and verve to it, a mingling of orange marmalade, tangerine, peach, fennel and hazelnut, in a compact, mouthwatering package.

MacRostie Winery & Vineyards 2019 Bacigalupi Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($46)

The Bacigalupi Vineyard continues to earn praise for contributing chardonnay grapes to a Chateau Montelena wine that “won” the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting. In the hands of MacRostie winemaker Heidi Bridenhagen, Bacigalupi fruit is transformed into an integrated wine that contrasts richness and ripeness with freshness and vibrant fruit, with oak well in the background, supporting cast rather than a headliner.

Ramey Wine Cellars 2018 Fort Ross-Seaview Chardonnay ($42)

The Ramey family produces excellent chardonnays each year from Sonoma grapes, including several single-vineyard wines. This one, from the Martinelli Charles Ranch just two miles from the Pacific Ocean, doesn’t show its specific provenance on the front label, though it’s worthy of that, with impressive structure, energy, layers of Granny Smith apple and pear fruit, and French oak influence that’s a texture enhancer, not as a flavoring agent.

Ram’s Gate Winery 2019 Carneros Estate Chardonnay ($76)

Seamless and suave, this 13.8% alcohol wine from Joe Nielsen offers a gentle oak aroma and nicely textured palate of bright green apple, white peach and Meyer lemon, plus streak of minerality. The balance is impeccable.

Roche Winery & Vineyards 2019 Carneros French Oak Reserve Chardonnay ($45)

Chardonnay that was fermented and aged in French oak barrels remains a popular stylistic choice for many Sonoma winemakers and consumers. Michael Carr employed this traditional Burgundian technique on this wine, and the result is a rich, full-bodied chardonnay with a pear/apple/cirtrus palate and buttered-toast presence.

Rochioli Vineyards & Winery 2018 Estate Grown Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($58)

For those not on the winery’s mailing list, finding the Healdsburg producer’s vineyard-designated wines can be fruitless. Winemaker Tom Rochioli’s appellational blend is the next best thing, and far easier to acquire. A touch of toasty oak joins tangy citrus and green apple in this clean, crisp wine.

Three Sticks Wines 2019 Sonoma Coast Gap's Crown Vineyard Chardonnay ($60)

Three Sticks proprietor Bill Price also owns Gap’s Crown Vineyard, and sells grapes to other wineries. He keeps enough fruit for his winemaker, Ryan Pritchard, to produce this striking wine, one that won my “OMG good” notation on first taste. It’s pure, precise, minerally and layered, and with a forever finish.

Tongue Dancer Wines 2019 Pratt Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($42)

James MacPhail no longer owns MacPhail Wines, having sold the brand to Hess Collection a few years ago. He regrouped and with his wife, Kerry Forbes MacPhail, founded Tongue Dancer Wines in Healdsburg, zeroed in on chardonnay and pinot noir. This wine hits the balance bulls’-eye with rich, ripe stone fruits and apple, and hints of oak toast, spice and vanilla, all supported by nervy acidity.

100 best wines 2021 Trombetta
100 best wines 2021 Trombetta

Trombetta Family Wines 2019 Four Brothers Vineyard Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay ($50)

There’s a hint of honeyed richness to this mouth-filling wine, which comes from the Sullivan family’s vineyard planted on a steep slope on Sonoma Mountain. Trombetta winemaker Erica Stancliff’s charming wine has a harmonious mix of oak spice, juicy pear, guava and apple fruit, and a lingering close.

9 Other Whites

Abbot’s Passage Winery 2019 Rossi Ranch Vineyard Sonoma Valley Sunblink ($40)

From Katie Bundshu’s new-ish winery in Glen Ellen comes this racy, saliva-inducing blend of Rhone Valley varieties roussanne, marsanne and grenache blanc. It’s lithe and crisp, smelling of acacia blossom and honeysuckle, and tasting of lemon oil and white peach.

Gail Wines 2019 Two Creeks Farm Sonoma Valley Chenin Blanc ($35)

Dan O’Brien’s devotion to finding obscure vineyards in Sonoma Valley, and turning the grapes into distinctive wine, yielded this wine that over-delivers on flavor and crunchy texture, at just 12.3% alcohol. Asian pear, green apple and peach flavors are tinged with hints of lemon and honey.

Gundlach Bundschu 2020 Sonoma Coast Dry Gewurztraminer ($25)

It’s nearly impossible to leave this bone-dry yet succulent wine out of Top 100 each year, as it’s a consistently stellar example of Alsatian-style gewurztraminer sold at a fair price. It has the textbook rose petal and lychee aromas of gewurz, and a mouthful of ginger, ripe peach, golden apple and citrus, a subtle vanilla accent from partial barrel fermentation, and overall lusciousness.

Halleck Vineyard 2019 Calandrelli Vineyard Russian River Valley Gewurztraminer ($45)

This wine tied with the Frostwatch Chardonnay for Best of Show White Wine at the 2021 North Coast Wine Challenge, and for good reason: there is a gentle sweetness (2.72 grams per liter, with 0.00 being bone-dry) that adds weight and enhances the aromas and flavors of honeysuckle, lychee, stone fruit and grapefruit. Shadings of candied ginger and rose petal lurk in the background.

J Vineyards & Winery 2019 Estate Grown Russian River Valley Pinot Gris ($36)

J’s California-designated pinot gris can be found at chain grocery stores, and while it’s tasty, it’s worth a search for the estate-grown version. It’s richly textured and juicy, with ripe peach and pear and tangy citrus notes. Winemaker Nicole Hitchcock used partial aging in neutral oak barrels to add texture and creaminess to the wine.

Paul Mathew Vineyards 2020 Russian River Valley Viognier ($28)

Viognier is a grape that typically needs to get very ripe in order to show the varietal’s hallmark pear, peach and honeysuckle personality. Owner/winemaker Mat Gustafson coaxed all three of these traits, at a moderate 14.3% alcohol, from viognier grapes grown on Westside Road, with refreshing acidity balancing the rich fruit.

Peterson Winery 2019 Bradford Mountain Vineyard Dry Creek Valley 3V White Blend ($28)

The three “Vs” are vermentino, vernaccia and verdelho, and they comingle wonderfully in a wine with crunchy apple, citrus and pear notes and juicily vibrant texture. Fred Peterson and his winemaker son, Jamie, are best known for their bold reds, and show their skill here with white grapes as well.

Thirty Seven Wines 2019 Petaluma Gap Riesling ($24)

Al and Lisa Brayton’s Paradise Vineyard is planted alongside Highway 37, thus the name of their brand (Paradise was already taken). They are the rare folks to plant riesling in Sonoma, which grows best in the same areas as chardonnay and pinot noir, yet far less profitably. This bracing dry wine has an austere structure fattened by green apple, dried apricot, pomelo and honeydew melon fruitiness. There’s also a light petrol aroma riesling buffs will appreciate.

Two Shepherds 2020 Russian River Valley Skin Fermented Trousseau Gris ($32)

This “orange” wine – its apricot hue coming from a five-day fermentation of the juice in contact with the grape skins – is seriously made, with as little intervention as possible, by William Allen. It’s also fun to drink, brimming with juicy peach and pluot character and some tannic grip from the skins.

8 Rosés

(IsabellaO/Shutterstock)
(IsabellaO/Shutterstock)

Alexander Valley Vineyards 2020 Sonoma County Dry Rosé of Sangiovese ($18)

This fuller style of rosé is still dry and lively, thanks to brilliant acidity. It offers fresh watermelon, raspberry and strawberry essence and a hint of spice on the long finish. This is the 15th vintage of sangiovese rosé for AVV.

Bricoleur Vineyards 2020 Flying by the Seat of Our Pants Fountaingrove District Rosé of Grenache ($29)

The Hanson family owns Bricoleur, in Russian River Valley, and also Kick Ranch in Fountaingrove, planted to an array of varieties, among them grenache. The grape makes a lovely, Rhone-style rosé with inviting floral aromas and invigorating palate of wild berries and tangerine.

Drive Wines Quan Vineyard Carneros Rosé of Pinot Noir ($25)

John Musto and Tom Young began as garagistes, producing wine in a friend’s garage. They’ve since gone pro, and have a gentle touch with rosé, this one reminiscent of the lighter, pretty Provence style of pink wine, with strawberry, peach and lime deliciousness.

Grey Stack Cellars 2020 Four Brothers Rosé Bennett Valley ($25)

This Best of Show Rosé winner at the North Coast Wine Challenge was produced by Patrick Sullivan, one of the four brothers who own the vineyard. Don’t call it brosé, a term that’s no longer hip; consider it a fruity yet tight, crisp wine that just might convince rosé naysayers to reconsider their position.

Inman Family Wines 2020 Endless Crush OGV Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir ($38)

Kathleen Inman’s organically farmed Olivet Grange Vineyard pinot noir grapes converted to this pale-pink wine that gushes in the mouth with wild strawberry, green melon and stone-fruit flavors. It’s dry (as in not sweet), yet flavorful and with a vibrant finish.

Mathis Wine 2020 Mathis Vineyard Sonoma Valley Rosé de Grenache ($24)

Peter Mathis is all-in on grenache, calling it “a frolicky mix of fruit and spice. Don’t think it, just drink it.” This gulpable rosé has a serious side in the care with which it was made, and delivers for the holidays, with strawberry, cranberry and spice personality.

Rodney Strong Vineyards 2020 Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir ($25)

Fresh and juicy, it goes down oh-so-easy, with bright strawberry, raspberry and tangerine fruit, medium body and a palate-whisking finish. A light spritz elevates the refreshment quotient, making the wine a great year-round drink.

Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards 2020 Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir ($25)

Aussie native Mick Schroeter and his winemaking team had a successful 2021, landing three wines on the Top 100. Known for years as a chardonnay specialist, Sonoma-Cutrer branched out to embrace pinot noir, including rosé; pinot’s red-fruit profile shines through here, accented by blood orange and pink grapefruit.

20 Pinot Noirs

100 best wines 2021 Merry Edwards
100 best wines 2021 Merry Edwards

Benovia Winery 2019 Tilton Hill Estate Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($65)

Tilton Hill is planted to heirloom and Dijon pinot noir clones, on a ridge above Freestone. It’s Benovia’s coldest vineyard, and vines struggle there to ripen their clusters. The result is small berries, intense flavors and sturdy skin and seed tannic structure. With saturated purple color, aromas and flavors of forest floor, thyme, wild berries, pomegranate and black tea, and a crunchy finish, it begs for a year or two of cellaring. With few Sonoma pinot noirs made in 2020 because of smoke taint, buy this one, and other 2019s, now, for future enjoyment.

Blue Farm 2018 Anne Katherina Vineyard Los Carneros Pinot Noir ($65)

Anne Moller-Racke has planted and managed acres upon acres of grapes, for others, in the Carneros region. Blue Farm is her own Sonoma Carneros vineyard, and from it she produces several vineyard- and block-designed pinot noirs. The most gorgeous upon release is this one, perfectly balanced, multi-layered and refined, not a component out of place. It favors dark red fruit over black, with plenty of spice.

J. Bucher Wines 2019 Bucher Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($45)

Pinot noir winemaking savant Adam Lee blended lots from the multiple-clone Bucher Vineyard on Westside Road and came up with a wine sure to please just about any pinotphile. It delivers rich red fruit, hints of spice and cherry cola, vibrant acidity and supple tannins for effortless enjoyment.

CHEV Wines 2018 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($80)

Michael Browne has had remarkable success as a winery owner/winemaker, first with Kosta Browne and then with CIRQ, named for his circus-performer days. His latest venture, CHEV, includes this smooth-textured, opulent pinot noir produced at the former Russian Hill Estate in Windsor, which he recently purchased.

DRNK Wines 2018 Hallberg Vineyard Green Valley of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($50)

DRNK is winemaker Ryan Kunde, his wife Katie, and her parents, Dale and Nancy Dougherty. Together, they source pinot noir grapes from Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast and make a range of small-lot bottlings. The Hallberg has an acid-driven energy, juicy black cherry/berry fruit, and complexing hints of black tea and clove.

Dutton-Goldfield 2019 MacDougall Vineyard Fort Ross-Seaview Pinot Noir ($68)

Situated between the Gualala River and the Pacific Ocean, chilly MacDougall Vineyard teeters on the edge when it comes to ripening grapes. The 2018 vintage was super-kind at MacDougall, and winemaker Dan Goldfield coaxed a thrilling wine from the site. Vibrant fruit, savory complexity, saliva-inducing acidity and start-to-finish seamlessness work together harmoniously.

Emeritus Vineyards 2018 Hallberg Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($45)

I could drink this fairly priced pinot every day of my life, for its come-hither floral aromatics, luscious berry and cherry fruit, velvety texture and savory loam note. It’s tightly wound, with refreshing acidity. NEW

Flowers Winery 2019 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($50)

Although it’s not as distinctive as Flowers’ single-vineyard pinots, this blend is delicious and highly drinkable, for $30 less. Medium-bodied and spicy, it offers luscious dark berry fruit, some creamy vanillin oak, and an extra-long finish.

Gracianna Winery 2019 Lasaga Estate Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($62)

Named for co-owner Trini Amador’s grandmother, Gracianna Lasaga, this wine wows with its enticing rose-petal aromas, juiciness and suave texture. The vineyard, owned by Trini and his wife, Lisa, is on a warmer Russian River Valley site southwest of Healdsburg, and the flavors that typically come from there are present in this pretty wine: raspberry, dark cherry and strawberry.

J. Cage Cellars 2018 El Coro Vineyard Pinot Noir Petaluma Gap 2018 ($49)

El Coro –“the chorus” – is the pinot noir block at Keller Estate, which keeps some of its grapes for itself and sells to others. The Beery family and their consulting winemaker, Adam Lee, created from El Coro a wine with moderate oak and brisk acidity framing the ripe dark cherry and boysenberry fruit. A sprinkling of baking spice adds to the deliciousness.

100 best wines 2021 Kanzler
100 best wines 2021 Kanzler

Kanzler Vineyards 2019 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($60)

Alex Kanzler is the winemaker for his family’s brand, which launched after a Kosta Browne Kanzler Pinot Noir knocked the socks off an influential wine critic a decade ago. Aromas of violets, spice and forest floor flood the nose, the dark berry/cherry flavors are crisp and pure, and the finish is long and scintillating. Beautifully balanced.

Lombardi Wines 2019 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Petaluma Gap Pinot Noir ($68)

Cabell Coursey, Lombardi’s winemaker, produced the winery’s best wine yet, in 2019, and it has all the typical characteristics of Gap’s Crown grapes. Savory black tea and bergamot notes mingle with bright black cherry, plum and cola, in a medium-bodied, moderately rich and focused wine.

Merry Edwards 2019 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($58)

This Sebastopol winery is known for its intense, powerful pinots, though the 2019 Sonoma Coast stands out for its silky texture and bright pomegranate, cranberry and dark cherry fruit – there’s a prettiness to the power. Winemaker Heidi von der Mehden blended wine lots from various vineyards and came up with a wine that’s also fragrant, spicy and supple.

Papapietro Perry 2018 Peters Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($64)

The Papapietro and Perry families have enjoyed a long relationship with Randy Peters, whose vineyard is a few miles west of Sebastopol, just within the Russian River Valley AVA boundary. This vintage is a cherry lover’s delight – winemaker Ben Papapietro identifies bing, Queen Anne and Rainier – plus raspberry and red plum. The palate is rich and round, the finish crisp and juicy.

Pflendler Vineyards 2019 Petaluma Gap Pinot Noir ($55)

Violets, dark berries, Luxardo liqueur, sarsaparilla, bergamot and exotic spice are all present in this cool-climate-grown wine that’s firmly structured and deeply flavored. It’s arguably the best Pflendler pinot yet, made by Erica Stancliff of Trombetta Family Wines for vineyard owner Kimberly Pflendler.

Ram’s Gate 2018 El Diablo Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($75)

This complete wine has everything one could want in complex pinot noir: supple texture, tangy red fruits, rose petal, cherry cola, Asian spice, vanillin oak shading ... you get the idea. It’s refined, elegant and precise, with great acid structure and succulent finish.

100 best wines 2021 Schug
100 best wines 2021 Schug

Schug Carneros Estate 2019 Estate Grown Carneros Pinot Noir ($50)

Young and a bit closed now, as are most higher-end 2019 Sonoma pinot noirs, this fine effort is at once taut and succulent, with an earthy, truffle note to the red cherry/blackberry core, and hints of dark chocolate and anise on the finish. If opened soon, decant to aerate the wine.

Shane Wines 2018 Stella Grace Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($42)

At once sumptuous and structured, this Shane Finley pinot came from two vineyards in the cool, windy Petaluma Gap AVA. Aromas of Indian spice and cola are followed by a palate of blackcurrant, black cherry and dark plum flavors, with mouthwatering acidity. It’s bold and beautiful.

Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards 2018 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($36)

This is a fantastic price for the wine voted Best of Show Red at the 2021 North Coast Wine Challenge; excellent pinot rarely comes under $40. It’s also a people-pleaser, with vibrant red berry and pomegranate fruit, luxurious mouth feel, soft tannins and refreshing acidity on the lingering finish. Sometimes “yummy” is the best word for a wine like this.

Tongue Dancer 2019 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($49)

From ocean-influenced vineyards comes this James MacPhail cuvée, and it smells and tastes as one would expect from grapes grown in chilly conditions: black raspberry, cranberry, rhubarb, forest floor, cardamom and white tea ride a wave of refreshing acidity. It’s seamless and seductive.

14 Bordeaux Red Varietals & Blends

100 best wines 2021 Arrowood
100 best wines 2021 Arrowood

Arrowood Vineyards & Winery 2017 Reserve Speciale Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($100)

Founder Richard Arrowood gave this wine its name to indicate it had “special reserve” quality. It still does, though under Jackson Family Wines ownership. At 100% cabernet sauvignon, it makes a bold statement in the glass, with sizeable tannins for long-term cellaring, yet enough suppleness that it can be enjoyed now. Inviting aromas of violets and spice lead to dark fruit that’s expressive without being over-ripe; extended barrel aging adds vanilla, spice, toffee and semisweet chocolate to the mix.

Aldina Vineyards 2017 Fountaingrove District Cabernet Sauvignon ($72)

This classically styled cab isn’t not rich and ripe, rather sleek and elegant – and unafraid to show the grape’s slightly herbal and cedar side. Still, there’s plenty of black cherry and dark plum fruit on the palate, with spice and vanilla accents. The Lopez family’s Fountaingrove vineyard, perched on a Mayacamas ridgetop with volcanic soils, gives the wine a graphite minerality.

Alma de Cattleya 2019 Sonoma County Red Wine ($27)

Bibiana Gonzalez, a native of Colombia, has made many terrific wines for other wineries (Wayfarer, Lynmar and others), and Alma de Cattleya is her personal brand. Her top-end pinot noirs and chardonnays are top-notch, priced at $80 or so, but this Sonoma County blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot is affable and more affordable. Well-ripened berry fruit, mocha, velvety tannins and moderate toasty oak make it a crowd-pleasing pour.

Aperture Cellars 2018 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($70)

Splashes of malbec, merlot and petit verdot add depth and complexity to this Jesse Katz-made wine. It brims with ripe, lush dark fruit accented with spice, pipe tobacco and dried sage; full-bodied and generous in flavor, it’s the kind of cab with tannins smooth enough to drink now – and by itself, without food – yet also should improve with a few years of cellaring.

A. Rafanelli Winery 2018 Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($62)

Until five or so years ago, cabernet sauvignon – not zinfandel – was the most-planted wine grape in Dry Creek Valley; Zin is now No. 1. Dave Rafanelli and his daughter, Shelly, are masters of both varieties, with their 2018 cab among the finest, not only of the appellation but also the county. It’s a bonanza of blackberry and blueberry aromas and flavors, with hints of cigar box, cedar, allspice and leafy herbs. Integrated tannins, solid acidity and a pleasant earthiness make for a complex and composed wine.

Chalk Hill Estate Winery 2017 Chalk Hill Estate Red ($70)

With 300 acres of grapevines on the estate, Chalk Hill has a lot of ingredients in its winemaking kitchen. The 2017 blend, comprised of 50% cabernet sauvignon, 40% malbec and 11% petit verdot, is remarkably complex, with each sniff and sip revealing new nuances. Made in an opulent, full-bodied style, it has ripe red and black fruit, contrasting savory and chocolate notes, and a long, mouth-filling finish.

Dehlinger Winery 2018 Russian River Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($70)

Cabernet from Russian River Valley? You bet, and it’s a beauty, elegant and fresh-tasting. The vineyard, on Vine Hill Road near Sebastopol, receives cooling fog from the river, which helps the grapes ripen slowly and retain their natural acidity. The plump red fruit is tinged with cedar, dried herbs and baking spices, and the wine is seamless from start to finish. Cabernet successfully grown next to pinot noir: who knew?

Eco Terreno Wines & Vineyards 2018 Cuvée Tierra Alexander Valley Red Wine ($27)

Longtime Sebastiani Vineyards winemaker Mark Lyon retired from there in 2016 to focus his attention on Eco Terreno, in Alexander Valley, near Cloverdale. Biodynamic farming practices are used in the vineyard to keep soils alive and nurturing. Among the various wines produced, this blend offers the best value. A blend of cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot, it’s medium-bodied, red currant and cranberry fruited, spicy and pleasantly herbaceous. Excellent with food.

Gundlach Bundschu 2018 Sonoma Valley Merlot ($35)

For the first time in 40 years, this Sonoma winery didn’t produce merlot in 2017, no thanks to wildfire damage. Merlot roared back in 2018, as delicious as ever, with juicy cherry, blackberry, cedar and thyme notes on a medium-bodied frame. No softie, it has a tannic backbone that suggests it will keep well in the cellar for at least five years.

Imagery Estate Winery 2018 Upper Ridge Vineyard Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak Malbec ($45)

The potent aroma of violets is nearly intoxicating on its own; such florality in Bordeaux-style reds isn’t common. On the palate, this Jamie Benziger-made malbec is soft and juicy, loaded with bright blueberry and blackberry fruit, and ready to drink now.

Jordan Winery 2017 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($59)

Maggie Kruse took over as winemaker for retiring Rob Davis in 2019, and had a big hand in making the 2017 vintage as Davis’ assistant. True to Jordan style, it’s nuanced and elegant, with lively (but not overtly ripe) dark berry/cherry aromas and flavors, and background hints of oak spice and herbs. Balance, age-worthiness and food compatibility are its hallmarks.

Rodney Strong Vineyards 2018 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)

Winemaking director Justin Seidenfeld oversees production of the myriad wines made under the Rodney Strong banner. The softest sport in his enological heart is for cabernet sauvignon, and the 2018 Alexander Valley bottling is as powerful as cab gets at this price (often discounted). Its chewy tannins, black-fruit ripeness and concentration are balanced by crisp acidity and French oak aging, which rounds out the mouth feel.

Serres Ranch Wines 2018 Sonoma Valley Watriss ($65)

This blend of merlot, malbec, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot represents the varietal mix of the ranch’s vineyard. Intense and juicy, it has firm tannins and plentiful acidity to support the ripe, dark-fruit flavors. Hints of licorice, rosemary and thyme add interest. The Serres family has owned the ranch, located between Agua Caliente and Glen Ellen, for six generations, with winemaking a relatively recent addition. This is a brand to watch.

Thirty-Seven Wines 2018 Petaluma Gap Reserve Cabernet Franc ($48)

When vinified, the cabernet franc grape can show an herbal note that some adore, others not so much. There’s nothing green about this bold version, with dense black cherry and plum fruit, whiffs of toasty oak and tobacco, grippy tannins and lively acidity. Consider it a cabernet sauvignon-lover’s cab franc.

10 Zinfandels

AldenAlli 2018 Limerick Lane Vineyard Russian River Valley Zinfandel ($57)

Dan Kosta of Kosta Browne fame, Alden Lagasse (wife of chef Emeril Lagasse) and winemaker Shane Finley focus on pinot noir, but they make an exception for zinfandel, when they have access to Limerick Lane grapes. Pinot-like silky texture meets classic zinfandel bramble, black raspberry and brown sugar flavors in an elegant version of what can be a wild-and-wooly varietal.

Carlisle Winery & Vineyards 2019 Sonoma County Zinfandel ($31)

Owner and winemaker Mike Officer is constantly on the prowl for old-vine vineyards, and his higher-priced vineyard designates, produced from his discoveries, are as difficult to find as a three-dollar bill for most consumers. So start with this Sonoma County blend, which has all the intensity and briary personality of zinfandel from old vines, plus supple texture and savory finish.

Dry Creek Vineyard 2019 Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Zinfandel ($38)

Made by Tim Bell for the Stare/Wallace family, it delivers tons of zin personality at a moderate (for the varietal) 14.5% alcohol and moderate (for the times) price. Aromas and flavors of black raspberry, sarsaparilla, mocha, licorice and black cherry are couched by supple tannins and plumped by crisp acidity.

100 best wines 2021 Dutcher  Crossing
100 best wines 2021 Dutcher Crossing

Dutcher Crossing 2018 Bacigalupi Vineyard Russian River Valley Zinfandel ($40)

Savory meets dark fruit in this medium-bodied zin, which sports supple tannins, a complex array of black pepper, brown sugar, salty licorice, Asian spice, plum and black raspberry character. Supple and suave, if finishes bright and mouthwatering. The Bacigalupi Vineyard is best recognized for its chardonnay grapes; zin has long been a secret weapon.

Flambeaux 2019 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($40)

The Murray family, transplants from New Orleans, hired Ryan Pritchard (of Three Sticks Wines) to make their wines from their Dry Creek Valley estate and elsewhere. The estate vines yielded this polished, perfumed and perky zin, with medium body, lively raspberry and plum flavors, kicks of spice and cedar, and long, satisfying finish.

Hartford Family 2019 Old Vine Russian River Valley Zinfandel ($40)

It packs a wallop, at 16.1% alcohol, yet is nicely balanced on the palate, with only a touch of heat. Violets, wild red and blue berries, mocha and sandalwood are the top notes of this juicy and intense wine, whose style is everything to zinfanatics.

Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs 2019 Dry Creek Valley ($45)

It’s not labeled as zinfandel, but it shouts zin (at 73% of the blend) in aromas and flavor. Lesser amounts of petite sirah, carignane and mataro (also known as mourvedre) make for an intriguing blend of old-vine grapes: full-bodied yet well-mannered, with savory notes atop plump red and blue fruit. The Ridge Geyserville blend often wins the tasteoff, but Lytton Springs won out from the 2019 vintage.

St. Anne's Crossing 2018 The Ranch Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($44)

Chocolate-y oak frames this lush, plush wine, with juicy cherry and black raspberry fruit. It’s ripe and jammy, sprinkled with black pepper, brown sugar and clove, and with a salty licorice note on the long, rich finish. St. Anne’s, a member of the Wilson Artisan Wine Family, is based in Sonoma Valley, and looked to Dry Creek Valley grapes for hedonistic zin.

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards 2018 Sonoma County Eletto Heritage Vines ($58)

For this wine, co-winemaker Katie Madigan selected grapes from three old-vine vineyards, each planted in the early 1900s by Italian families, to what are known as field blends: multiple “mixed black” varieties that are harvested at the same time and fermented together. This vintage is zinfandel-centric, supple and with brambly raspberry boysenberry fruit, black cherry, loads of spice, and savory anise, cedar and black pepper notes.

Wilson of Dry Creek 2018 Florence Rockpile Zinfandel ($62)

Ken and Diane Wilson (she’s the winemaker) bottle so many Sonoma County zinfandels, under a number of brands, that’s it’s difficult to keep track. North Coast Wine Challenge judges had no problem sorting out this double-gold zinfandel, rugged yet silky, old-style yet elegant. It’s a wine with a bold personality, with 14% petite sirah adding color, spice and muscularity.

9 Rhone -& Italian-Style Reds

Amphora Wines 2017 Dry Creek Valley GSM ($40)

Owner/winemaker Rick Hutchinson has long had a fondness for Rhone and Italian varietals, zinfandel and petite sirah, making wines from them whether they were fashionable or not. GSM is quite fashionable today – grenache, syrah and mourvedre blends – and his 2017 is right on time, with fresh red fruit from grenache, meatiness from syrah, and the earthiness and plum character of mourvedre.

Jeff Cohn Cellars 2018 Rossi Ranch Organic Heritage Vineyard Sonoma Valley GSM ($55)

GSMs are blends of grenache, syrah and mourvedre, and Jeff Cohn nails it on this wine. His is a bold, potent black-fruited wine laced with black pepper, sage and bergamot, and with sizeable yet also mature tannins that make it very drinkable now and for the next five or more years.

The Meeker Vineyard 2017 Reserve Hoskins Ranch Dry Creek Valley Grenache ($48)

Lucas Meeker took over winemaking from his father, Charles, and found an affinity for producing grenache. He worked with Harold Hoskins and his vineyard through the 2017 harvest, after which Hoskins sold the property. Enjoy this wine now for its exuberant dark cherry and black raspberry flavors, subtle spice and tannic backbone that makes it a great mate for roasted meats – now or with a few years or cellaring.

Mengler Family Wines 2017 Alegria Vineyards Russian River Valley Sangiovese ($45)

This small, family winery in Windsor looked to Betsy and Bill Nachbaur’s Alegria Vineyards in southeastern Russian River Valley for sangiovese grapes. They turned them into a Chianti Classico-style wine, with bracing, tomato-friendly acidity and lively red-fruit flavors – richer than Chianti but with similar intent.

Pax Mahle Wines 2018 Sonoma Hillsides Sonoma County Syrah ($48)

Pax Mahle has fans – winemakers and consumers alike -- who follow his less-is-more philosophy. In particular, less alcohol, and it’s represented by this syrah, which has just 12.5% abv. It’s more dependent on savory herbal and spice notes, and natural acidity, than bold primary fruit flavors, and is a refreshing alternative to richer wines.

Raft Wines 2019 Weed Farms Dry Creek Valley Syrah ($28)

Jennifer Reichardt grew up on her family’s duck farm near Petaluma. Her father, Jim Reichhardt, established the Liberty Duck specialty brand of Pekin duck. She established Raft Wines – a raft is a group of ducks – intent on making wines with low alcohols and food-friendliness. Her Weed Farm Syrah is all of that: 12.5% alcohol, lean and racy, with enough red fruit to balance the acidity.

Ramey Wine Cellars 2017 Sonoma Coast Syrah ($40)

Tasted blind, one might think this wine hails from France’s northern Rhone Valley. Instead, it’s from cool-climate vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA, with meaty, smoky notes and rich but not too ripe black and blueberry aromas and flavors. There’s a pleasantly earthy, beet root essence, with crisp acidity and a long, spicy finish. Elegant and medium-bodied.

Taft Street Winery 2018 Russian River Valley Grenache ($35)

This small Sebastopol winery, which grew to offer custom-crush services to others, continues to produce wines under its own label. This grenache is on the lighter, prettier side, smelling of rose petals and vanilla, and tasting of raspberries and red plums, with a juicy center and long, energetic finish.

Unti Vineyards 2018 Dry Creek Valley Barbera ($38)

Mick Unti and his family have 6 acres of organically grown barbera in Dry Creek Valley. It’s a big commitment to a grape not widely planted in Sonoma, though the Untis make great use of their investment, producing remarkably floral, crisp and spicy barberas. The 2018 vintage is all of that, with a juicy red fruitiness and solid tannin/acid structure that lends it well to both sipping and savoring with rich proteins.

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