When most people think of California wines, they typically think of Napa Valley–but there is so much more to California wine. Outside of Napa Valley, there are 111 other American Viticultural Areas (AVA, see below for more information). I recently tasted wines from California regions I was unfamiliar with through Naked Wines. Naked Wines works directly with independent winemakers, cutting out the middleman, to ship world-class wines directly to your door. With 60% off retail prices, you’re getting better wine for your money, which makes Naked Wines perfect for trying new wines without spending too much.
Winemakers at Naked Wines come from varied backgrounds. Some winemakers are longtime viticulturalists from multi-generational growing families. Others hail from renowned Napa Valley estates and labels. No matter their history, all of the winemakers benefit from creative and financial freedom that isn’t found in the traditional wine industry. One feature I really like on the Naked Wines website is the winemaker profile, which provides information about every maker and their available wines. It is nice to learn about the wine and what to pair with it before ordering.
I received a case of wine from Naked Wines to test and review for this article as well as samples from Coro Foods and Fab Slams.
Editor’s Note: TravelAwaits readers can save $50 on their first order of Naked Wines, shipping included, using code: TRAVELAWAITS50.
Sierra Foothills AVA
The Sierra Foothills AVA was designated in 1987 and grapes were first grown in the region during the California gold rush in the late 1840s. Zinfandel is the most common varietal of grapes grown in the Sierra Foothills. Vineyards in the area are planted at 1,500 to 3,000 feet above sea level and experience warm summer days. With zinfandel, these conditions produce perfectly ripe grapes that result in a full-bodied wine. If you like small, boutique wineries, this is the AVA for you. There are over 100 wineries and many are family-owned. The nearest large city is Sacramento, but you could easily fly into San Francisco to visit this AVA as well.
1. David Marchesi Sierra Foothills Zinfandel 2019
David Marchesi sourced the grapes for his Sierra Foothills Zinfandel 2019 from this region and it is easy to see why.
While Marchesi has worked for some well-known names in Napa Valley such as Paraduxx and Gundlach Bundschu, you won’t pay Napa prices for his zinfandel with Naked Wines. I found this zinfandel very drinkable. Marchesi has an active role in sourcing the grapes with Naked Wines, which gives him more creative control over his wines. With over 18,000 followers and over 110,000 reviews at Naked Wines, his wines are definitely a crowd favorite. The price points on his wines average between $12-20 a bottle, which I would happily pay to drink this wine again.
There are seven different nested AVAs within the Lodi AVA, each with its own unique character, micro-climate, and soil. According to Lodi Wine California, there are more than 125 varieties in production, making Lodi the most diverse winegrowing region in the United States. The Lodi AVA is known for its old vine zinfandel. Grapes thrive in the Mediterranean climate with their cool nights and warm days. The Lodi AVA is easily accessed from Interstate 5, which forms the western border of the region.
2. Karen Birmingham Lodi Malbec 2020
Karen Birmingham’s Lodi Malbec 2020 is a single premium vineyard that is sustainably farmed by a fourth-generation farm family located in the heart of the Lodi AVA. It was aged in both French and American oak. Karen is also the reigning Winemaker of the Year for Naked Wines. Her Malbec did not taste like I expected a Malbec to taste, but when putting aside my preconceived notions of how dry a Malbec typically tastes, I enjoyed the rich, fruity flavor. Birmingham has over 273,000 reviews for her wines, which are mostly four and five-star ratings and she has over 40,000 followers. What I liked about her profile on Naked Wines was how engaged she is in replying to comments and posting updates on her wines.
3. Miriam Reserve California Syrah 2020
The Miriam Reserve California Syrah 2020 comes from winemaker Alex Farber and hillside vineyards in Lodi. I enjoyed this syrah, but what surprised me is that some of my neighbors who are only white wine drinkers loved it too. I loved its red berry flavor. This wine has been popular, so Naked Wines and Farber have decided to continue making it. It is a limited offering, so make sure to order before it sells out. Farber is a young winemaker who didn’t want to wait 10-20 years to be named a winemaker, so she reached out to Naked Wines for the opportunity. “On top of my personal wine project, I get to help manage the whole team of Angel-funded winemakers (there are more than 130 of us now), and I love that I get to work with winemakers from all around the world. I am learning so much so quickly,” she said.
Paso Robles AVA
The Paso Robles AVA is located on the Central Coast of California, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It has a long growing season with warm days and cool evenings. In 1787, missionaries from the Mission San Miguel Arcangel planted more than one thousand vines. There are now 11 sub-AVAs within the Paso Robles AVA. Growth has surged in the AVA from less than 20 wineries in the early 1990s to more than 200 today. Zinfandel is the heritage grape, but many more varieties are grown in the region, including cabernet sauvignon.
4. Sharon Weeks Cattoo California Cabernet Sauvignon
I had mixed feelings about trying Sharon Weeks Cattoo California Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 because the name “Cattoo” comes from two things: her love of cats and tattoos. I’m not a fan of either, so it is interesting how the label affected my perception. I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed the smooth velvety texture of this lush cabernet. This was another wine that did not taste as I expected it to, but I appreciated its nuanced flavor profile.
More California Red Wine AVAs
5. Tom Shula California Merlot 2020
The Tom Shula California Merlot 2020 is an interesting merlot, as it has a touch of cabernet sauvignon and a bit of petit verdot blended in. This little bit does not change this merlot into a blend, but makes for a unique cabernet sauvignon. This easy sipping red medaled in a prestigious wine competition, so Naked Wines has Shula making it again. Shula was one of Naked Wines’ first 1,000 winemakers and the first amateur winemaker. His love of wine turned into a hobby of making wine for family and friends, which he enjoyed for more than 30 years before partnering with Naked Wines. This 2020 merlot is an excellent example of his craft.
6. Sin Fronteras El Mechon 2020
The Sin Fronteras El Mechon 2020 from Macario Montoya is unlike anything I have ever tasted. This rustic wine is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo. Montoya is a Spanish-varietal specialist, and he takes the best of both worlds. The Spanish tempranillo is grown in California soil and pairs with the number one varietal in California, the cabernet sauvignon. What an interesting blend. It has a rich, red color, and an edgy flavor profile unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. I usually don’t like tempranillo, but these two varietals together were my favorite of the wines I tasted from Naked Wines.
California Viticulture History
California produces almost 90 percent of U.S. wine. There are now more than 4,200 wineries and 6,000 vineyards in the state. Viticulture in California began when Father Junipero Serra planted the first vineyard at Mission San Juan Capistrano in the 1770s. During the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, a California chardonnay and a cabernet sauvignon placed higher than renowned French labels, putting California wine on the map. As you can imagine, this shook up the wine world. The two most popular varietals in the state are cabernet sauvignon (number one) and chardonnay (number two).
What Is An AVA?
I remember when I first started writing about wine and I was at a travel conference. Someone mentioned an AVA and I asked, “What is an AVA?” The person looked at me with disdain, “You don’t know what an AVA is?” Well, obviously I didn’t, or I would not have asked. I dislike it when people are snobby about wine. Anyways, I digress. An AVA is an American Viticultural Area. You might also see the term Appellation of Origin.
This is how a winemaker lets you know the distinct geological area or pedigree of its wine. Appellations are usually the county, state, or country of a wine and are required by federal law to have 75 percent or more grapes from that area. For example, California state law requires a bottle of wine with a California appellation to have 100 percent grapes from California. Wines from an AVA must have 85 percent or more of the grapes from that region to have the AVA on the wine label.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) defines an AVA as “a specific type of appellation of origin used on wine labels. An AVA is a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown. Using an AVA designation on a wine label allows vintners to describe more accurately the origin of their wines to consumers, and helps consumers identify wines they may purchase.
I find AVAs fascinating. It is so interesting to learn why a particular area was designated as an AVA. There is some unique feature, climate, or soil within the area that makes it worthy of becoming at AVA. Some are very tiny and some cross the borders of two states. Some AVAs are an area within an AVA, and these are called nested AVAs. So, a wine could be from the Napa Valley AVA and the Calistoga AVA, which is a nested AVA within the Napa Valley AVA. There are currently 267 AVAs in the United States and California has 147.
Tips For Tasting Naked Wines
Honestly, many of this group of red wines tasted differently than I expected based on the varietals. I was not alone in those thoughts with reviews stating, “didn’t taste like what I expected,” “too edgy for the market to handle,” or “lighter than I expected.” However, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive for these unique wines. After reading about the winemakers and Naked Wines, I realized that this is by design. Each winemaker has creative control to make wines they typically don’t get to make with traditional wineries.
I recommend doing a blind tasting. Put the bottles in a bag and give each one a number. Taste and take notes. I think you will enjoy the wines more if you don’t have any preconceived notions. Also, read about each wine and the notes about aerating and opening times before tasting. It does make a difference.
What Food To Pair With Your Naked Wine Red Wines
I recommend getting creative. These wines are unique, so try them with something you wouldn’t normally pair them with. For my tasting, I made a variety of boards using my Fab Slabs. I received these as a sample to review and I love them. Coro Foods makes some great salami that is higher priced than grocery store brands, but it is all I buy now. Coro is local to the Pacific Northwest. I had the opportunity to tour the factory and it was so clean.
It is a woman-owned business in a male-dominated industry. Who knew a woman’s touch could make such a difference in salami? Trader Joe’s and Costco have a variety of quick and easy foods to put together charcuteries. Since most wineries don’t have commercial kitchens, you’d be surprised how many put their boards together from Costco.
For a quick and easy board, pick a sauce or two, such as mustard, honey, or a Trader Joe’s sauce. Then, place them in small ramekins on your board, pick a few types of meat and cheeses, then add fruit like grapes or strawberries for color. If there is any space left, add some nuts. My new obsession is lightly salted Oregon hazelnuts. After that, add some brightly wrapped candy such as Lindt chocolate truffles. Serve with sliced baguettes and a variety of crackers. This is a quick and easy entertaining option that you can throw together in minutes.
What are you waiting for? TravelAwaits readers can save $50 on their first order of Naked Wines, shipping included, using code: TRAVELAWAITS50. Enjoy your tasting!
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