On the wine geekiness scale, the Alta Mora 2014 Rosso ranks high. Made from a decidedly geeky, native grape called Nerello Mascalese and grown on the slopes of Mt. Etna in Sicily, this robust, well-made red wine checks all the boxes for one-upmanship at a bring-your-own party. The Cusumano family owns this winery, two brothers with balls enough to plant a vineyard very near an active volcano. The largest active volcano in Europe. Yep — hope they’re insured.
Read more: Wine review: Alta Mora 2014 Rosso Mt. Etna Sicily
Back in 2007, when I was a full-time wine journalist, I spent a couple of days hanging around Flora Springs, a family-owned winery in Napa Valley. Sean Garvey, 3rd generation and a babe in the woods at the time, showed me around and expounded on the beauty of Napa Valley Merlot. So warm and welcoming, the Garvey and Kome families still hold a place in my treasured wine memories. They likely don’t know this, but, even after almost 10 years, I still recommend their wine and winery to Napa visitors. Because they’re awesome people with solid wines.
Read more: Wine review: Flora Springs Napa Valley Merlot 2014
It ain’t easy being the underdog. When you have Chianti and Brunello as your big brothers and Super Tuscans as your sophisticated sister, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has to do a lot to get attention. Add to that some pretty tough Italian regulations about growing, blending and a helluva long name, it’s been a tough marketing road for this small, 76-producer, sub-region of Tuscany. But they’re making a delicious go of it with Sangiovese as the king pin. Established in 1966, the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOC (Demonimazione di Origine Controllata) is comprised of 3,100 planted acres in the southeastern section of Tuscany, about 65 kilometers south of Siena. But grapes and wine have been in this region for millennia, with documents proving vineyards dating back to 790 AD. In 1980, the region was awarded a G on the DOC (Demonimazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), making them among the elite wine growing regions in Italy. This year marks their 50th anniversary of being recognized with quality Italian wine.
Read more: The new (old) wines of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Founded in 1980 as a partnership by Glen Browne and Brit visionary Tony Cartlidge, Cartlidge and Browne began as a négociant-type winery. The young entrepreneur Cartlidge searched the North Coast of California to sniff out vineyards that spoke to him and the type of wine he wanted to make. Instead of investing in fancy digs and hoopla, the partners sunk money into high quality grapes and a fairly simple garage winemaking facility in Napa Valley. Thus, the brand was born. Fast forward over 30 years later when their well-founded success was rewarded in 2011, they sold to a company called Vintage Wine Estates who has thankfully not ruined what the partners established.
Read more: Wine review: Cartlidge and Browne 2013 Merlot
For me, Cab Sauv isn’t a sipping wine. Not made for the patio or the party, but more for the dinner party. Its hefty tannins and deep, dark flavors are a challenge to my palate without the fattiness of food to protect it. But a well-made Cab begs to be recognized as such – celebrated for having achieved a balance of acid and tannins, fruit and oak, and an elegance worthy of any meal. Honig Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley makes this cut.
Read more: Cold weather wine: 2012 Honig Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
It’s damn hard finding a Pinot Noir worth drinking under $20. Really, really hard. Some might even say under $30 is challenging, but I’m not that hard core. But forget under $15… it’s normally sweetened grape juice with a touch of earthiness likely added in with wood chips. But occasionally, if you look and wish hard enough, you can find a wine treasure that you can enjoy everyday without feeling the pinch too much. I tried the Mark West 2013 Pinot Noir in a blind tasting lineup and pretty much everyone (from wine novices to wine pros) thought it was solid. Especially for the low, low price of $12.
Read more: Wine review: Mark West 2013 Pinot Noir California
The Rhone Rangers, a group of wine producers who have a passion for Rhône grape varietals, spreads the gospel of grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne… all descendants of France’s Rhône Valley that grow quite happily in areas around California. Especially Paso Robles in the south-central area of the state where the intense heat coaxes these grapes into a ripening groove. Rhone Rangers holds regular tasting events across the country to introduce wine lovers to the beauty of these often overlooked yet sublime varietals. If you see one in your town, run to get tickets.
Read more: Wine reviews: Four Rhone style wines rocking my world
I possess a Daredevil-like sense of smell. I notice aromas floating in the air that few people do, from potpourri, blooming flowers the next block over, sauteed onions from outside the front door and — my least favorite thing on the planet — incense burning in a nearby apartment. Inherited from the chef-side of my family, this intense sense is both a blessing and curse, since there are also plenty of not-so-fabulous aromas floating in the air too. As you likely know, taste is heavily dependent on smell (think about when you have a cold) so my taste factor is also influenced by this, ahem, blurse. But that’s where tasting wine becomes really cool. I smell and taste a lot of things in a wine. Like green pepper(aka pyrazine vegetal-ness) in many Chilean Carmenere wines. I whiff it first, then it bursts into my mouth. Generally experienced in grapes that haven’t ripened enough, the green pepper experience in Carmenere is part of its DNA. I never warmed up to this flavor and still don’t care for it. So when I get a sample bottle of Carmenere, I’m rarely psyched. However, the Anderra 2013 Carmenere surprised me. It helps that the wine is is the Chilean project by Baron Phillipe de Rothschild. Yep, that Rothschild.
Read more: Wine Review: Anderra 2013 Carmenere and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon
Chile has been a happening place for several years now. With a Mediterranean climate much like northern California, the grapes bask in sunshine and enjoy rain during the winter mostly. Even the landscape, with mountain valleys and slopes, resembles California. And, like California, the resultant wines are consistently high quality. But there’s one big difference: Price. Wines from Chile astound with a price to quality ratio that most wine regions would love. I dare say few wine regions can top the number of excellent wines under $20 that Chile does.
Read more: Wine review: Montes Alpha 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon
It strikes most wine drinkers at some point in their wine paths: Pinot passion. The multi-dimensional, seductiveaspects of this finicky, oft-loved grape are difficult to avoid. And, when it happens, all you can do is succumb to its wiles and enjoy the comfort it brings. Mendocino County, a wine region rich with redwoods, coastal climate and definitely Pinot Noir, has birthed three disparate yet dedicated wineries, proudly wearing their Pinot passion like a badge of honor. And created some gorgeous wine.
Read more: Celebrating three small, passionate Pinot Noir producers in Mendocino County