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On the last night of the Alexander Valley Winegrowers Cabernet Academy this past May, we were treated to a gourmet dinner in the barrel room of Rodney Strong Vineyards, featuring exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon blends. In the courtyard reception prior to dinner we met Katja Newman, Managing Partner of La Cienega Vineyard. Katja introduced herself and said she was sorry they had missed our 2023 Under the Radar California competition but that they wanted to enter in 2024. Katja then poured us their inaugural vintage (2018) of the La Cienega Sonoma County Red Blend. While they may have missed this year‘s competition, they did not miss out on recognition. This “Singing Angels” Red Blend is our August wine of the month.
Katja’s parents, Werner and Helle Siegert, began growing Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley in 1997 to sell to two prominent local wineries. Their first commercially sold vintage under their own label was in 2018. La Cienega (“lovely pond”) Vineyard is named for a beautiful hacienda an hour outside of Quito, Ecuador, where the family moved in 1986. When the family moved back to Alexander Valley in 1994 to grow grapes, they found the perfect site, complete with a lovely pond. La Cienega Vineyard was born.
The 2018 “Singing Angels” is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley) and 20% Carignane (Russian River Valley). The wine is deep ruby in the glass. On the nose, you get raspberry, red plum, violet, black cherry, and black pepper tending toward licorice. The palate confirms the nose with the addition of blackberry, cassis, black olive, spice, and mocha. Medium acidity with plush, ripe tannins. Deftly made as the Carignane adds a robust quality to the wine without being astringent. The wine is full bodied with a long finish. It is wonderful now and will be for 5-7 years.
Our readers and followers know that it is not enough for a wine just to be of high quality, as this “Singing Angels” Red Blend clearly is, but it also must provide great value. At $48 per bottle, this wine drinks way above its price point. We strongly suggest you purchase a half case or more to see (and taste) for yourself.
The true gems of the wine world are the small-production, under-the-radar wineries. This is one of the reasons we have an annual competition to highlight these producers. We look forward to next year’s submissions from La Cienega Vineyard. If the 2018 Singing Angels Sonoma County Red Blend is any indication, they will do very well indeed. In the meantime, it is our August wine of the month.
Learn more about La Cienega Vineyard, purchase their wine, and follow them here:
This seems to happen so often: one of the highest-scoring wines in a competition doesn’t win Best in Class while wines with lower scores do. During our Merlot Madness national competition this past March our Sommelier, Andy, placed eight bagged wines at random in a bracket to create head to head blind tasting match-ups. As it turns out, the wine that had the second-highest score, the 2021 Accenti Bedrock Vineyard Merlot, lost in the first round because it ended up being paired against the wine that had the highest first-round score.
During our 2023 Under the Radar California competition the wine that received the fifth highest score of all wine received, the 2019 Stringer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, did not win Best in Class because the two highest scoring wines in the entire competition also happened to be Cabs. In fact, this Stringer wine scored higher than every Best in Class wine except for Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Syrah. It deserves to be honored. We highlighted Westerly Wines, which was second overall, as our April Wine of the Month. For July, that honor goes to Stringer Cellars.
Winemaker Casey Stringer grew up in Wisconsin, attended college in California, and has worked in wineries at some of the premier wine regions of the world: Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, Central Otago, and Hawke’s Bay (you can read Stringer Cellars’ full profile in the Wineries drop-down under 2023 Under the Radar California).
Casey’s winemaking philosophy is simple: use the finest grapes he can find from the best vineyard sites in California and make small lot wines you will not soon forget. Casey employs minimalist winemaking techniques, allowing the fruit and individual vineyards to shine through in each bottle.
The 2019 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley is outstanding; there was a warm, even growing season, allowing the grapes to ripen properly. The Stringer Cellars Cab is a great representation, scoring an average of 93 points with our five reviewers.
The wine itself is a beautiful, deep purple; what you would expect from a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. There is a medium intensity of aroma that becomes more pronounced as the wine opens up. Expect black cherry, black plum, blackberry, black currant, stewed fruit, black pepper, violet, lavender, baking spices, dark chocolate, and turned earth. It certainly leads with dark fruit, but has layered complexity, great structure with high acid, and a full, long finish. Very well balanced. A wine that reflects skilled, finessed winemaking. Not overly extracted. Just pure quality.
Given that it is Napa Valley, you would expect a wine as good as the Stringer Cellars Cabernet Savignon to be well over $100. It’s not. This wine is a great value at $75. You can purchase it and enjoy it now, but this will also lay down for many years to come.
For making a premium Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at a reasonable price the 2019 Stringer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon is our July wine of the month.
Learn more about Stringer Cellars, purchase their wine, and follow them here:
So many of the wines and winemakers we have highlighted and awarded over the years have an artistic connection:
Cameron Stoffel, owner and winemaker of Ultima Tulie Wines, is the artist on all his labels; blending femininity with nature, the labels are mixed media and have a photographic depiction of a woman. Cameron’s Syrah/Petite Sirah blend won best red blend at our 2022 Under the Radar California competition.
Actor-turned-winemaker Matt Espiro Jaeger, whose extensive credits include Yellowstone, released the inaugural vintage of his Fuil Wines and Tábla label in 2022 and garnered several awards in our Under the Radar California competition and a high score from Wine Enthusiast.
Steve Alden, former photojournalist with Newsday and the National Geographic Society, is essentially a one-person operation at Murder Ridge, the most honored winery at our 2022 Under the Radar California competition. Steve’s stunning pictures of nature and wildlife can be found on Murder Ridge Winery’s website.
It is no coincidence, then, that we occasionally use the phrase “wine as art” to describe something notable…extraordinary. Our June wine of the month, the 2019 SUTRO Wine Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley Warnecke Ranch, continues this trend.
On Day 3 of the recent Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy, attended by our senior writer and co-founder, Steve Rochford, 13 industry professionals were driven up a windy dirt road shrouded by fog in the Mayacamas for a discussion (and tasting) of the impact of elevation on wine. On the drive, Alice Warnecke Sutro, founder and owner of SUTRO Wine, gave a delightful talk on the history of Sonoma County art and counterculture, interspersed with her family history in the county, which traces back to the 19th century. We learned that her grandfather, John Carl Warnecke, architect to President Kennedy, actually designed the President’s gravesite and the eternal flame. In her storytelling Alice is poised, erudite, and downright charming. So is her wine.
Alice has a BA from Stanford University in Art History and graduated from the California College of the Arts MFA program in Painting and Drawing. Her current medium is creating portraits as a live performance. Alice founded SUTRO Wine in 2012 and grows grapes for her label on Warnecke Ranch and Vineyard, which has been in her family for more than a century.
We tasted the 2019 SUTRO Warnecke Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon as one of five wines chosen for a discussion of geology and soil during the Cabernet Academy. Warnecke Ranch is known for its volcanic soil and the wines made from grapes grown there are reflective of the terroir, but not entirely predictive. We love when wine surprises us and arouses our senses. The SUTRO Warnecke Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, which spent 20 months in 25% new Hungarian oak, is distinct from the start, with pronounced intensity of black tea on the nose, followed by black cherry, rosemary, and tomato leaf. The black tea and black cherry carry through to the palate, along with black pepper, herbs, and chocolate. This wine has high acid, well-integrated, soft tannins, and a long finish. A wine with a real spirit and soul; a wine to be savored. Revel in opening a bottle now or over the next 10-12 years.
One of the great benefits of Cabernet Sauvignon in a world-class growing region like Alexander Valley is that you get enough warmth to ripen the grape properly and volcanic soil to stress the vines and concentrate the flavors. These wines are thoughtful; not overly extracted, like what you may find in other parts of the state. And more reasonably priced. We would put the 2019 SUTRO Wine Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley Warnecke Ranch ($70) up against any California Cab of double the price and not just be getting a better value but also a better wine.
An accomplished artist carrying on a family tradition by making distinct, balanced, exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon from their century-old vineyard in Alexander Valley. Sounds like “wine as art” to us and it sounds (and smells and tastes) like our June wine of the month.
Learn more about SUTRO Wine, purchase their wine, and follow them here:
According to Statista.com, more than 60% of Americans ages 30-49 have purchased wine at a grocery store in the last three months. But what are they buying? The usual suspects, that’s what (come on, you know the ones we mean). The mega-production wineries with enough volume to be placed in large retail chains. Lots of these wines are more of a manufactured product than a work of art. They are often manipulated to meet a taste profile, to be consistent year after year. They essentially make Budweiser, unaffected by that year’s grape quality, yield, or weather. Yes, you can pay a lot of money and find some good wine in supermarkets but rarely will you find great, or interesting, wine.
Now, it is hard to blame many people who purchase wine at grocery stores. Not everyone lives within convenient travel distance of a wine region. In fact, many have never visited in their lives and don’t have the knowledge to purchase wine previously unknown to them online.
Those of us in the industry who are fortunate to live in, or frequently visit, wine country, realize that truly great wine often comes from small-production, family-owned producers. Let us introduce you to one of them: Golden Ridge Cellars of Washington’s Walla Walla Valley. Their 2017 Estate Merlot is our May wine of the month.
In a relatively short period of time, the Walla Walla Valley AVA has cultivated a reputation for world-class Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. With hot days and cold nights and a 200+ day growing season, the region allows these grapes to ripen properly and develop their signature aromas and flavors. This length also fosters the right balance of acid and tannin. Golden Ridge Cellars is a gem in this region and their wine really has a sense of place.
Owned by Michael and Cindy Rasch, Golden Ridge Cellars is a 10-acre farm and vineyard, first planted in 1998, that grows Bordeaux varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. Michael is the winemaker, and along with his winery team, takes pride in being completely hands on every step of the way, from vine to bottle. With an annual production of 900 cases you won’t find their wine in every grocery store—and that’s a good thing. Handcrafted wine that goes where the grapes and the weather take it is where you tend to find greatness. Their 2017 Estate Merlot is the perfect example.
In the glass, our May wine of the month is ruby in color. The first aromas are of red plum, followed by cranberry, sour red cherry, and a hint of stewed fruit. We also detect violet and tomato leaf. Secondary and tertiary notes of smoke, grilled meat, leather, wet leaves, and mushroom give the wine great complexity. The medium plus tannins are chewy and velvety, which is a hard needle to thread, and are perfectly balanced by the medium acid. This is a full-body, harmonious wine that is so good now but will continue to develop over the next 2-3 years. It’s a fantastic tasting experience.
At Peninsula Underground we are most impressed by wine that delivers great value. At $40 a bottle the Golden Ridge Cellars Estate Merlot Walla Walla Valley does just that. They produced 150 cases and only about half remain so we suggest you orders yours before it’s too late.
If you happen to be in Walla Walla Valley, make an appointment to taste: the fee is only $10 and is refunded with a single bottle purchase. If you can’t make it in person, visit them and buy online:
Make sure you pick up several bottles (maybe one of the last cases) of the 2017 Estate Merlot, our May wine of the month.
Located northwest of the city of Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara County wine region conjures up thoughts of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and the cult classic Sideways. The region’s proximity to the cooling influences of the Pacific Ocean make it an ideal climate for these cherished varietals. The eastern-most AVA in this region is also one of the smallest and newest (2009) in California: Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. There you will find some of the finest Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varietals made in the United States. In fact, Happy Canyon may be country’s most underrated AVA.
You may be wondering why, in a world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay region, you would find some of the best expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon. After all, Burgundy is not geographically close to Bordeaux in France, so why would Pinot and Cab grow successfully in Santa Barbara County? It has to do with microclimates and geography.
In France and many other parts of the wine-growing world, other than the United States, strict regulations control which grape varieties may be planted. Each variety is unique in terms of when it buds, when it ripens, the temperatures in which it thrives, the thickness of its skin, and so on. A grape is therefore planted only in regions uniquely suited to extract the best result for that varietal.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape that buds late and ripens late (Cabernet Franc buds about a week earlier). It thrives in warmer climates and therefore needs a longer growing season so that can it fully mature. Happy Canyon is more than a dozen miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and is flanked by the San Rafael Mountains. This area has a large diurnal range, with temperatures typically topping 100 degrees (too hot for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) during summer days but cooling to the 50s at night. Elevations in the area range from 500 feet to 3,430 feet and the the low-nutrient soils are made up of a mixture of loam and clay with red and yellow chert and serpentine cobbles. Such factors tend to result in lower yields with pronounced aromas and concentrated flavors in Cabernet Sauvignon. If Happy Canyon AVA was located in France it is very likely that the only permissible varietals would be Bordeaux.
At a Morton’s wine locker event several years ago we were speaking to their general manager and sommelier, and asked him to introduce us to a wine that was different…off the radar…underrated. He immediately directed us to Michael Speakman, owner, with his wife Joyce, of Westerly Wines. Michael has spent his adult life as a successful entrepreneur but has so thoroughly enjoyed his tenure as head of Westerly Wines that despite all his labor in making deliveries and pouring at events seemingly every night he will tell you that he hasn’t worked a day. The Speakmans are also good neighbors and members of the community, as Westerly has developed partnerships with organizations such as Navy Seal Foundation, Granada Theatre, Second Harvest, and Fish For Life.
We spent a lot of time chatting with Michael that evening. He’s engaging, knowledgeable, and yet disarming when talking about wine. When we learned that most of his wine came from Happy Canyon we were intrigued. We were quite familiar with, and had visited, Happy Canyon’s Crown Point, which makes an exquisite—and expensive—Bordeaux blend. Our first sip of Westerly’s Typecast (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Cabernet Franc) was a revelation. It was the equal of Crown Point and less than half the price!
The back of the bottle gives the origin of the name Typecast, a champion thoroughbred racehorse in the early 1970s who broke stereotypes by routinely defeating male horses in prestigious races on both coasts. Typecast was the jewel of Fletcher Jones’s 4,000-acre Westerly Stud Farm in Santa Ynez. Like the racehorse, Westerly’s Typecast Happy Canyon would take down seemingly more heralded, and expensive, wines in a blind tasting.
The 2019 Westerly Typecast Happy Canyon is deep purple in the glass. There is a medium plus intensity of aroma and pronounced flavors that include blackberry, black currant, black cherry, violet, a hint of roasted red pepper, graphite, dark chocolate, and tobacco. There are several more descriptors, but at the risk of geeking out too much, let’s just say it has great complexity with wonderfully integrated acid and tannin. The alcohol level is 15.5% but the balance is such that it doesn’t seem that high, which is a testament to skilled winemaking. Enjoy this wine now or over the next 8-10 years.
You know that at Peninsula Underground we are always impressed with great value. You also realize that value is a relative term. If you want to experience exceptional wine from Happy Canyon AVA you must pay the price. However, rather than paying $150 per bottle you can purchase two bottles of Westerly Wines Typecast and still have money left over. We suggest you buy a bunch, but hurry, fewer than 170 cases were produced. Our bottle of is number 398 (cool, right, they number the bottles!).
For making an exceptional wine in one of the country’s premier AVAs at a reasonable price, the 2019 Westerly Wines Typecast Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara is our April wine of the month.
Learn more about Westerly Wines and follow them here:
This year we are celebrating our tenth anniversary at Peninsula Underground. In that time we have tasted amazing wine from all over the country and all around the world. After a decade, to say a wine is “the best” means comparing it against thousands of its peers.
We may have just discovered the best Rosés (yes, plural) we’ve tasted in all our ten years. Every head must bow, every tongue must confess that Vinos Unidos is the best: their 2019 Napa Valley Rosé is our March wine of the month.
In early December, the night before our board conducted its initial tasting for the Idaho Wine Experience, we were invited to cover a wine tasting event at the Huntington Club. Of the 50 or so wineries pouring that night, two of them made a distinct impression on us. One of them was Vinos Unidos (teaser alert: you’ll have to wait to find out about the other). We met Bob Jauregui, one of the partners, and he poured us their 100% Rosé of Pinot Noir. It was astonishing. We wrote about it on Instagram the next day and declared Vinos Unidos a new star in the wine galaxy, even though it was the only wine of theirs we tasted.
Leaving the event that night we realized we had to try their entire portfolio. Bob contacted us the next day to thank us for our post and offered a private tasting for our board. What a treat. He led us through seven labels made by founding partner and winemaker Gerry Martinez—all of them very good. There are just a few wineries where we like everything they make right out of the bottle: Chalk Hill and Corner 103 quickly come to mind. Vinos Unidos joins that list.
But what about the Rosés, what about our March wine of the month? As it turns out, the 100% Pinot we tasted at the Huntington Club is sold out, and we think it’s cruel to our readers and followers to honor a wine as wine of the month if they can’t buy it. But no problem, Vinos Unidos has three Rosés, with their new release right around the corner. The one you can buy now—our March wine of the month—is the 2019 Napa Valley Rosé, a blend of 36% Petite Sirah, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 16% Malbec, and 11% Syrah. It is a medium salmon in the glass and on the nose the first impression is citrus and peach blossom. This wine has a pronounced intensity of flavor with lemon, grapefruit, peach, watermelon, and a slight minerality on the palate. It’s as complex of a Rosé as you’ll find, while still being light and fresh with the right amount of acidity. A scrumptious finish. Gerry really threaded the needle with this wine. Outstanding.
For ten years our motto at Peninsula Underground has been to help our followers find great wines of great VALUE that are ready to drink right away. The 2019 Vinos Unidos Napa Valley Rosé—perhaps the best Rosé we’ve tasted in ten years—can be purchased for just $32. Buy a bunch of it.
For making the best Rosé we’ve tasted at such a reasonable price the 2019 Vinos Unidos Napa Valley Rosé is our March wine of the month.
If you live in Orange County contact Bob for a private tasting for your group.
You can learn more about Vinos Unidos, purchase their wine, and follow them here:
An outstanding Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for less than $40.00? It’s true, it’s the 2020 Synthesis by Martin Ray Winery & Vineyards, and it’s our February Wine of the Month.
Though Santa Rosa-based, Martin Ray has sourced from around the great Napa Valley mountain and valley floor appellations: 40% Oakville, 16% Stags Leap District, 12% Oak Knoll, 12% Yountville, 8% Rutherford, 5% St. Helena, 5% Mount Veeder, 2% Diamond Mountain District. The result is a wine that is eminently balanced with layered complexity, ripe tannins, bright acidity, and subtle approachability.
On the nose and palate this Synthesis Cab has a wonderful primary combination of black fruit and concentrated red fruits, secondary notes of chocolate and toast, and tertiary characteristics of turned earth and walnuts. Frankly, it has something for just about every Cab-lover’s palate. You can drink it now, but it has the acidity and tertiary backbone to lay it down for many years.
At Peninsula Underground we are always on the lookout for great value wines. It can be hard to find, and often quite relative, when it comes to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. However, whether you buy it from Martin Ray ($55.00) or from Wine.com ($39.99), the 2020 Martin Ray Synthesis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley is one of the great values for a premium wine anywhere in California. We highly recommend it.
Learn more about Martin Ray Winery & Vineyards and follow them here:
With its spiritual home in the heart of Tuscany, Sangiovese is unquestionably the signature grape of Italy. Whether it be Chianti, Chianti Classico, or Brunello di Montalcino, these wines enjoy a worldwide following.
The grape-growing regions of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres sit between 30 and 50 degrees latitude. Tuscany rests at a latitude 43.5 degrees north. If you follow that latitude around the globe you will discover that it goes through Idaho’s Snake River Valley AVA. It is there that you will find Will Wetmore’s Veer Wine Project and his 2020 Sangiovese, our January wine of the month.
The Sangiovese grape, when made as a premium wine, is generally characterized by high acid, high tannin, and high alcohol. On the nose and palate you’ll experience red cherry, red plum, strawberry, chestnut, game, leather, oak, mushroom, tobacco, and cedar. In short, it is red-fruit driven and rustic.
Veer Wine Project’s Sangiovese comes from the Arena Valley Vineyard. Wetmore fermented it both wildly and conventionally. The extended skin contact time of 20 days coaxed out extra tannin to add complexity. Our reviewers noted aromas and flavors of raspberry, red cherry, violet, toast, fresh herbs, and spice. The high acid and medium-plus tannin give this wine great structure and aging potential, though it is enjoyable right now. It stands up quite well to its Italian brethren.
As our readers know, it is not enough for a wine to be great but it must also provide great value. At $32.00 per bottle the 2020 Veer Wine Project Sangiovese drinks way above its price point and is therefore our January Wine of the Month.
Learn more about Veer Wine Project, buy their Sangiovese, and follow them here: