The Best Under-the-Radar Wine Regions Beyond Napa

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Mar 03, 2017

by GEORGE EPAMINONDAS, Writer

Planning a visit to San Francisco’s wine country has long meant debating the merits of Napa Valley and Sonoma County. But what if you’ve been there, sipped that? George Epaminondas discovers the best under-the-radar wine regions producing some top drops. 

Marin

This affluent county, just a golden bridge away from bustling San Francisco, is blessed with a rustic ambience. Marin’s vineyards are mostly small, family-owned enterprises that specialise in cool-weather wines such as pinot noir and chardonnay. But there’s more to try than the vino.

“Before prohibition in the 1920s, everyone in Marin made their own wine because the climate is ideal,” says Mary Stubbs, who graciously receives visitors by appointment at her home on a bucolic property near Petaluma. “We share homemade olive oil, bread and local cheeses, too.” 

SEE ALSO: Californian Wine Regions You Don’t Know About

Head west of Petaluma to the coast to explore Point Reyes Vineyards, a 30-minute drive away. Perched on a remote hillside overlooking the seashore, this sprawling ranch is arrayed with old barrels. Point Reyes creates a delicate, light-bodied pinot noir and a zesty sparkling blanc de noir that’s so popular there’s a two-bottle limit on purchases.

Food-wise, Marin is known for its artisanal cheeses and quality oysters. From its restored barn, Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes sells fantastic fromage, charcuterie and wine.

At Hog Island Oyster Co in Tomales Bay, they raise Manila clams, mussels and five varieties of oysters. The flavour of the bay is in each mouthful – a watery version of terroir epicures call “meroir”. Hog Island has farm tours, picnic reservations and an oyster bar built into the bow of an old wooden boat. Shucking oysters as the sun glints on the bay is a sublime way to spend an afternoon.

Distance from San Francisco: An hour to the wineries.
Grape varieties: Pinot noir and chardonnay.
Restaurant pick: Hog Island Oyster Co. We suggest a dish of plump, buttery Kumamoto oysters.   
Cellar-door pick: Stubbs Vineyard. These wines embody the local style with a high level of fruit intensity.

Livermore

Set amid undulating hills, breathtaking canyons and flourishing farmlands, this wine region an hour east of San Francisco comprises 50-plus charming estates.

“We take our winemaking seriously but not ourselves,” says John Evan Marion of Big White House, where you might find him doling out petite sirah straight from the barrel. The conviviality unfolds in a brown barn with tastings soundtracked by a banjo band. The region is also known for stellar sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon.

The cab savs at McGrail Vineyards, a five-minute walk from Big White House, are highly sought after, too. Musicians play and pizza is served on the patio in summer. Pair a slice with McGrail’s purple-hued 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve – a symphony of cassis, plum and dark cherry notes. The cabernets from neighbouring Steven Kent Winery, praised by Wine Enthusiast magazine, also have widespread appeal.

Stop for lunch or dinner at Wente Vineyards, a family-owned venture with a 130-year history. The restaurant has exceptional seasonal menus and organic ingredients sourced from the garden. Typical dishes include an entrée of peach salad with mizuna, hazelnut, pickled Fresno chilli and saba vinegar and a main of morel mushroom risotto with mascarpone, grana padano, green beans and leeks.

If you’d rather not drive, the Livermore Wine Trolley does a wine-tasting tour with a catered lunch for US$99 ($129) per person.

Distance from San Francisco: An hour.
Grape varieties: Petite sirah and cabernet sauvignon.
Restaurant pick: Wente Vineyards. Confirmation that one can dine well outside of Napa or Sonoma.
Cellar-door pick: Big White House. Generous pours, handcrafted wines and friendly staff.

Santa Cruz Mountains

This diverse area an hour south of the city combines towering redwood forests and glimmering beaches with cosy vineyards tucked into tranquil hillsides. The region’s microclimates and varied soil types result in a spectrum of quaffable wines: pinot noir and chardonnay on the coast, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and zinfandel in the mountain ranges.

“Our terrain is rugged, our wines are product-driven and it’s a more authentic experience than Napa,” says vineyard owner Tommy Fogarty.

Start the day with lunch at The Village Pub. It sounds like a quaint inn but is, in fact, a sophisticated restaurant. Chef Dmitry Elperin uses organic produce from nearby SMIP Ranch to fashion dishes such as turnip soup with foie gras mousse and crispy shallots, and beetroot and strawberry salad with goat’s cheese.

Next, drive 20 minutes to the Thomas Fogarty Winery. Situated 600m above sea level, with views of the Bay Area and the Pacific Coast, the winery has a cinematic charm, particularly when the clouds of fog roll in. Expect chardonnays with striking minerality and pinots with an earthy spice.

Another superb stop is Ridge Vineyards. The road winds back and forth up the mountain but it’s worth the drive for Ridge’s legendary cabernets.

An hour south of that is Big Basin Vineyards, offering next-level pinot noirs with aromatic complexity. The tasting room is in a fetching raised-roof barn and there’s a yoga studio on the second floor, making it possible to have a hair of the dog and do downward dog on the same day.

Distance from San Francisco: An hour to 90 minutes.
Grape varieties: Pinot noir and chardonnay.
Restaurant pick: The Village Pub. It serves top-notch contemporary American food with French and Mediterranean influences.
Cellar-door pick: Thomas Fogarty Winery. Hypnotic views and quixotic wines – the perfect blend.

Santa Clara Valley

The home of Silicon Valley, this region is better known for Apple than grapes but it’s actually the Golden State’s earliest premium wine-production area. The northern end of the valley is urbanised but the southern part, one-and-a-half hours from San Francisco, claims over two dozen wineries, from long-established family operations to smaller newcomers.

“People in Napa called it Vinegar Alley,” says Tim Slater, an inventor who gave up his tech career to buy Sarah’s Vineyard in Gilroy. “The area was dominated by old Italian wineries that made jug wine.” Slater is among the new-wave winemakers proving the naysayers wrong. At Sarah’s – which produces pinot noir, chardonnay and Rhone varietals – you’ll find visitors picnicking on the grounds or lapping up the sunshine on the patio overlooking the estate.

Also in Gilroy, at Martin Ranch Winery, you’ll likely see silver-haired Dan Martin escorting guests to the barrel room for a tasting, while his winemaking partner, Thérèse Martin, explains the nuances of their award-winning drops. Located on Redwood Retreat Road, near the southern tip of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the vineyard’s picturesque grounds include an organic vegetable garden, a rose garden and a large pond. While Gilroy claims to be the “garlic capital of the world”, nearby Morgan Hill has arguably better restaurants. Martin’s favourites are The Good Fork, which waives corkage on local wines, Rosy’s at the Beach and Ladera Grill.

Distance from San Francisco: 90 minutes.
Grape varieties: Various.
Restaurant pick: The Good Fork for sustainable organic produce.
Cellar-door pick: Martin Ranch Winery. Fine grapes in garlic country.

San Francisco Bay

For those unable to leave the Bay Area, a world-class urban wine movement has sprouted in the past few years. Treasure Island, a former naval base minutes from Union Square, is home to a clutch of compelling industrial wineries. Opened in 2007, Treasure Island Wines is the pioneer with 40 different drops available to sample (the 2012 Pinot Noir Reserve and 2010 Zinfandel have generated accolades).

Nearby at Sol Rouge Winery Tasting Room try a Rhone-style red blend and play bocce on one of the courts.

Alternatively, the city of Oakland has a thriving wine trail. Dashe, which buys fruit from Sonoma County, offers half a dozen acclaimed wines, including an old-vine zinfandel.

Urban Legend Cellars has an extensive library ranging from albarino to zin. “If you’re doing this in the city then you’d better be innovative,” says Urban Legend’s Steve Shaffer, who sources grapes from nine regions to produce 18 memorable wines. “In Oakland you can discover unusual wines that you may not find in Napa, as well as an inspiring food scene.”

It’s an eclectic city that offers everything from the Michelin-starred Commis, with sublime fare by James Syhabout, to casual eateries such as Brown Sugar Kitchen, where Tanya Holland serves her take on soul food.

Oakland is 20 minutes or less from San Francisco by car, ferry or Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and these tasting rooms can be explored on foot or on two wheels with East Bay Winery Bike Tours. 

Distance from San Francisco: 20 minutes to Treasure Island or Oakland.
Grape varieties: Various.
Restaurant pick: Commis in Oakland. Chef James Syhabout serves up dishes that marry artistry, technique and rare ingredients.
Cellar-door pick: Urban Legend Cellars. Grapes are sourced from all over California.

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