California Wines: The Best Cheap California Wines

California wineries have made tremendous progress in their ability to produce quality wine at very affordable prices. So I’ve decided to make a top 25 a “bang for the buck” list for wines.

I’ve been an undying fan of California wines since that fateful day in 1987 when I laid down $7, more than I could afford, for a bottle of Byron Chardonnay at the winery’s rustic tasting room in the Santa Maria Valley north of Santa Barbara.

One sip and the love affair with California wines was in full bloom. I vowed never to live more than a day’s drive from the place that made sunshine in a bottle.

In the years since, as I’ve traveled regularly up and down our verdant state and tasted wine from every region, I’ve witnessed a lot of trends come and go. Chardonnay went through its oaky, butter-bomb-y phase, and now it’s leaner and more balanced; chenin blanc disappeared, then reappeared; sauvignon blanc went from grassy and watery to robust and delicious; Napa lost its dominance as other regions found their viticultural mojo.

Drinking the best cheap California Wines

Paso Robles continues its ascendancy. 

I know some of you are tired of my endless drum beating for the Central Coast, but it’s not just me. Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2017 was illuminating: Four of the prestigious roll’s top 25 wines were from Paso (vs. three from Napa); and Tablas Creek, one of my favorite Central Coast wineries, came in at No. 26. That means Paso Robles is better represented than every other wine region in the world that year, including Napa, at the top of Wine Spectator’s list.

California wines have made tremendous progress in their ability to produce quality wine at very affordable prices. Perhaps it’s because the current generation of young winemakers is better educated than ever – most are graduates of one of California’s world-class university-level wine programs. Maybe it’s just a sign that the industry in California is finally reaching maturity. It’s easy to forget that commercial winemaking almost disappeared here during Prohibition, and after the law’s repeal it took another 40 years or so for California wine to begin making its mark again outside our borders.

Whatever the reason for this happy situation, I’ve decided to make the top 25 a “bang for the buck” list. All of the wines I have chosen sell for $25 or less, yet I wouldn’t hesitate to pop the cork on one of these for Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson or James Suckling if any of those giants of the wine world ended up sitting on my patio one day. Hey, it could happen!

Wines are listed alphabetically. They’re not ranked, because I don’t believe in apples-to-oranges comparisons.

Top 25 “bang for the buck” list.

Bedrock Zinfandel California Old Vine 2015 ($25)

Though it’s only a decade old, this Sonoma-based winery has already made a big impression by following a singular approach: to preserve and rehabilitate old vineyards throughout the state. Zinfandel, of course, is synonymous with California’s wine heritage. This beauty is 88 percent zinfandel blended with a few unusual varieties that also have a history here. It’s a classic New World zin: juicy, opulent and ripe.

Bodega de Edgar Paso Ono Vineyard Albariño 2016 ($24)

From one of Paso’s more adventurous smaller wineries on the hilly Westside comes this dreamy summer sipper. Succulent nose of melon, sliced lemons, white peach and apple give way to a rich palate of cantaloupe and ripe honeydew. It sells out quickly every year; I recommend going to the tasting room in person.

Duckhorn Decoy 2014 Sonoma Valley Red ($20)

Since Duckhorn merlot was rated the world’s best wine in 2017 by Wine Spectator, it’s a no-brainer that the winery’s lower-priced Decoy line would be producing quality merlot as well. This is a merlot-based blend with a velvety texture, plummy nose and a hint of wildness; it has undertones of blackcurrant, chocolate, cloves and licorice. What a sophisticated wine for the price!

Eos Estate 2015 Tears of the Dove Late Harvest Paso Robles Moscato ($24 for 375 ml)

Normally I’m not a huge fan of late-harvest wine, but this one, a 100 percent Muscat Canelli, tickled my fancy. It’s jammy and apricot-y, with strong elements of ginger, tea and succulent peach. It’s not cloying, though, but delightfully clean, light and elegant for a dessert wine.

Our favorite $10 corkscrew with a rosewood handle!

Ferrari-Carano 2014 Merlot ($20)

Merlot is back with a vengeance (see my Decoy entry above), and Ferrari-Carano in Sonoma County makes a dandy. It’s a tad more austere than some merlots, which tend to err on the plummy side. Balanced, silky, with prominent fruit, especially cherries and blackberry; long, coffee-and-chocolate finish.

Field Recordings, 2016 Franc ($20)

Winemaker Andrew Jones is the embodiment of Paso’s innovative spirit. He finds diamonds in the rough – overlooked or neglected vineyards – and turns them into alluring wine. His cabernet franc (blended with 5 percent malbec) carries a wallop of blueberries, black cherries and, more subtly, rosemary and mint. It scored a close second in a cab franc blind tasting at my house, bested only by Ovid’s pricey Hexameter.

Giornata 2016 Barbera ($25)

Brian and Stephanie Terrizzi, a young husband-and-wife wine team, make some of the best Italian wine in California; wine authority Jon Bonne thinks their nebbiolo is second to none in the state. Also irresistible, and considerably less expensive, is their barbera, which brims with the zing of this northern Italian favorite. Raspberry and mushroom give way to basil, strawberry and anise. Be sure to visit the Terrizzis’ tasting room in Tin City – they’re as charming as their wine.

Grgich Hills Estate 2014 Fume Blanc ($25)  

I’m not sure why the winemaker used the deceptive old Mondavi term “fume blanc,” but rest assured this keeper is 100 percent beautifully made sauvignon blanc. Dark hay-gold in color, it’s juicy and tropical, with highlights of lemongrass and a bit of welcome minerality in the long, lush finish. Some critics have noted nutty lime, gooseberry and saltiness.

Gundlach-Bundschu 2014 Mountain Cuvee ($20)

This Bordeaux blend (mainly merlot and cabernet sauvignon) from Sonoma is made by one of California’s oldest wineries. It’s full-bodied and a bit smoky, with tar and cigar notes alongside chocolate, cherries and espresso. Soft-shouldered tannins make it an easy drinker compared to its Napa cousins. This was on my list last year, too – it’s dependable from vintage to vintage.

Hanna 2016 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($21)

Russian River could be one of the best places on earth right now for sauvignon blanc, as this excellent-value wine attests. Winemaker’s notes: “Vibrant straw-colored with a tinge of green. Aromas of freestone peach, nectarine, mango, and pink grapefruit peel. Balanced flavors of stone fruit, tangerine zest, and guava with a surprisingly well-rounded yet refreshing mouth-feel.”

California Wines White wines

J. Lohr 2015 South Ridge Syrah ($15)

Paso’s Jerry Lohr makes solid and well-crafted wine at every price point, contrary to most large California wines. For the reds, all credit goes to J. Lohr’s superb red winemaker, Steve Peck. His notes: “Varietal aromas of blueberry and black tea … A touch of white pepper on the palate opens up slowly to reveal baking spice and pomegranate fruit on the finish.”

La Follette 2014 Pinot Noir ($20)

It grabs you immediately: big notes of cherry and black plum with spicy accents. You’ll also notice forest floor, cedar, violets and wet stone. This Russian River pinot noir is an excellent value in these days of rampant pinot inflation. It’s also refreshingly old school, almost Burgundian – not overly extracted, dark and manipulated like a lot of over-the-top California pinots.

Lawer Estates 2015 Betsy’s Vineyard Viognier ($24)

This multi-medal winner from Sonoma gives off tropical aromas alongside honeysuckle, honeycrisp apple, and jasmine, with highlights of tangerine and vanilla. It’s blessed with excellent acidity, which undergirds flavors of apricot, white nectarine and pear. The lengthy finish is strong on the spicy citrus. Finally, California winemakers know how to nail this varietal.

Lone Madrone 2013 Points West Red ($25)

This Rhone blend (it’s a GSM with a little cinsault and counoise) has deep, inky fruit. You’ll taste black cherry and cranberry notes along with a little slap of leather. Later, some smoke, black tea and pepper sneak in, adding complexity that maintains its intrigue throughout the bottle. The wine is a little grape-y now, but it should settle down if aged. Neil Collins, one of Paso’s most talented winemakers, is the talent behind this wine.

Mason 2016 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley Yount Mill Vineyard ($15)

Winemaker’s notes: “Nestled on the backside of Yountville Hill, Yount Mill Vineyard established in the 1930s and was an early adopter of organics. The owners started planting our sauvignon blanc block in 2001. The definitive style of this wine carries a vibrant acid backbone, subtle vanilla spice and core flavors of fresh fig, quince, honeyed cantaloupe with a touch of grass – all combined for an elegant and boisterous sensation.” No. 57 on the WS Top 100 list.

Oberon 2015 Merlot Napa Valley ($22)

Dense black fruit aromas are followed by blueberry and chocolate flavors, and supple tannins linger on the palate. A robust style, with inky notes to the dark currant, dried sage and fig flavors that glide across the palate. The sanguine finish is richly spiced. No. 77 on the WS Top 100 list.

Pali Wine Co. 2015 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Riviera ($20)

Winemaker notes: “Garnet, medium bodied, classic Sonoma County pinot noir with aromatics of cherries and strawberries leaping out of the glass, backed up with baking spices and hints of fresh-picked mushrooms and black tea.” Big and fruit-forward, with prominent plum and raspberry notes and floral undertones.

Raeburn Russian River Chardonnay 2016 ($17)

A big, fruity horn of plenty here, including pear, nectarine and apple; prominent note of toasted oak with attendant vanilla. The finish is long, balanced, and laced with toasty caramel.

Rodney Strong 2015 Upshot Red Blend ($22)

This zinfandel/merlot/malbec/petit verdot blend is big-boned and unorthodox.  It’s got sturdy body, luscious dark fruit and fairly aggressive tannins that are happily counterbalanced by an unexpected acidity that keeps the whole impression bright.

Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley NV ($24):

Always one of California’s best sparklers, it’s dramatic and big, with cinnamon, apple and brioche notes. Some tasters cite pear and pineapple aromas and citrus flavors, subtle hints of baking spices, almonds and a nice earthy touch at the end. No. 25 on the WS 2017 Top 100 list.

Rombauer 2016 Sauvignon Blanc ($24) Fresh, fruity, and fragrant, the nicely crafted 2016 Rombauer Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc makes an excellent aperitif wine. This wine gives hints of juicy melon, dried grass, and concentrated citrus, especially in the finish, where lime predominates.

Fresh, fruity, and fragrant, the nicely crafted 2016 Rombauer Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc makes an excellent aperitif wine. This wine gives hints of juicy melon, dried grass, and concentrated citrus, especially in the finish, where lime predominates.

Smith Madrone 2014 Riesling Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District ($29): This beautiful riesling delivers notes of honeysuckle, orange blossom, lychee, and citrus in the nose. It’s got a good backbone of acidity that supports flavors of peach, Asian pear and citrus. The finish has some pleasant minerality.

Special interview with Rombauer and Smith-Madrone’s winemakers on the Napa region that make their wines special.

Tablas Creek 2015 Patelin de Tablas Blanc Paso Robles ($25)

One of Paso’s best and most consistent wineries continues to offer excellent value at every price point. This blend of four white Rhône varietals (grenache blanc, viognier, roussanne and marsanne) has notes of lemon, sarsaparilla, crushed rock and apricot.  It has a seductive mouth-feel and its dominant flavors are green apple and grapefruit. Number 26 on the WS 2017 Top 100 list.

Trentadue 2015 Alexander Valley Rosato di Sangiovese ($20)

A supremely drinkable rosé, and a winner in the prestigious 2017 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Winemaker’s notes: “Guava, peach, apricot and water melon followed by touch of Asian spices and a hint of rose petals. The mouth feel is sweet without the sugar, with bright acidity.”

True Myth Cabernet Sauvignon ($20)

French-born winemaker Christian Roguenant brings Old World finesse to the Central Coast, and it shows in his mastery of warm- and cool-climate wines (he does wonders with wine in Edna Valley). This Paso cabernet sauvignon has typical notes of blueberry, blackcurrant and peppery spice leading to cocoa powder, caramel and pungent cedar. Similarly to most Paso Bordeauxs the tannins are soft, making it more immediately approachable than a typical Napa cab.