Sometimes all a wine lover wants is an honest drink. A wine that’s affordable for any night of the week and every occasion. One that’s delicious and generously flavored, yet straightforward and without any pretension that it should be aged longer, served only with certain foods or poured at a precise temperature.
Honest wines should offer great value — what marketers call high QPR, or quality-to-price ratio, which is shorthand for vino that tastes a heck of a lot better than its price would suggest. Not all cheap wines have high QPR, and some more expensive bottles — say a pinot noir with a suggested retail price of $35 — can deliver more bang for the buck than another pinot costing $55.
One of Sonoma’s many vinous blessings is that good- to great-value “honest” wines are still plentiful. Unlike Napa Valley, which became, for better or for worse, internationally glorified as a producer of super-expensive cabernet sauvignons and very little else, Sonoma County is larger in acreage with more diverse grapegrowing areas, myriad varieties planted and winegrowing roots dating to before Prohibition, with many families still holding ownership of their vines and wineries.
Make no mistake, Sonoma produces its share of wallet-busting wines (particularly chardonnays and pinot noirs). Yet many long-established wineries continue to satisfy consumers with smartly priced wines for any-day enjoyment, while also offering higher-end, more complex bottlings for those who seek them out.
Here are 10 Sonoma wineries that pour something for everyone, with excellent value/QPR in mind. Prices listed are those charged at the tasting rooms; these wines often can be found for less at high-volume-buying chain stores. Case purchases at these wineries are highly recommended for discounted pricing, too.
Alexander Valley Vineyards
Harry and Maggie Wetzel bought the historic Cyrus Alexander homestead in 1963, planted grapevines and raised their children there. Three generations of Wetzels now farm the vines. Cabernet sauvignon is AVV’s bread-and-butter varietal, first bottled in 1968. Yet today, they produce a wide range of wines, among them a refreshing dry rosé of sangiovese ($18), estate chardonnay ($20) and estate zinfandel ($20). When it comes to fine-value cabs, the ones to try are the Estate ($25) and the Organically Grown Estate ($32). The Alexander School Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is a bargain, for its character and quality, at $50.
8644 Highway 128, Healdsburg, 707-433-7209, avvwine.com
Carol Shelton Wines
In a nondescript yet intimate tasting room in a Santa Rosa industrial park, winemaker Carol Shelton sells the zinfandels she’s known for and also her “bargain” treasures (my term) — chardonnays and viogniers she labels as “wild things.” The Wild Thing Chardonnay ($19), from Shelton’s Dry Creek Valley vineyard, often bests far more expensive wines in competitions; it’s a crowd-pleaser, for sure. The viognier ($20) hails from the Damiano Vineyard in Placer County. It’s an aromatic, honeysuckle-laced wine with richness cut by crisp acidity. Zin-fanatics know Shelton for her Wild Thing Old Vine Mendocino County Zinfandel ($19), an amazing value blend that includes carignane and petit sirah. Upgrade to Shelton’s array of more complex zinfandels, among them Rocky Reserve Rockpile ($40) and Maggie’s Reserve Old Vine Sonoma Valley ($40).
3354 Coffey Lane, Santa Rosa, 707-575-3441, carolshelton.com
Cline Family Cellars
Fred and Nancy Cline started Cline Family Cellars in 1982, in Oakley in northeastern Contra Costa County. There, on the banks of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, grow ancient zinfandel, mourvedre and carignane grapevines in soils so sandy it’s hard to believe they can support green growth. The Clines tapped these vines for their wines. In 1989, they moved their business to Sonoma Carneros, where they planted chardonnay, viognier, pinot noir and syrah and devoted much of their vineyard acreage to what’s now the Petaluma Gap AVA. There are many excellent values in the multitiered brand lineup, among them the Seven Ranchlands Sauvignon Blanc, Estate Chardonnay and Estate Viognier, at approximately $20. Two to four bucks more scores the Estate Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah. For a taste of Oakley old-vine wine, try the Ancient Vines Contra Costa County Zinfandel ($25).
24737 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 800-546-2070, clinecellars.com
One can spend $72 for this Russian River Valley producer’s fine Estate Pinot Noir and $90 for the Les Parcelles Cachees Pinot Noir, from a vineyard block on the estate. Such is the pricing of top-notch pinots from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast. DeLoach’s bargains are found in the Russian River Valley blends of chardonnay and pinot noir ($20-$24), which overdeliver on quality and complexity. Winemaker Brian Maloney has a knack for evaluating multiple lots of wine and knitting them together seamlessly. He also produces several other varietals, including ultrafine zinfandels, traditional-method sparkling wines and riesling and pinot noir from Marin County grapes.
1791 Olivet Road, Santa Rosa, 707-755-3300, deloachvineyards.com
Dry Creek Vineyard
David Stare, enamored by the wines of France’s Loire Valley, rolled the dice by planting sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc in Dry Creek Valley in the early 1970s against local viticulturists’ advice. They were wrong, as Stare coaxed fruit-driven yet racy white wines from his vineyard, later adding zinfandel, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and another Loire Valley staple, cabernet franc. Although chenin blanc proved unprofitable at Dry Creek Valley land prices, Stare’s daughter, Kim Stare Wallace, her husband, Don, and winemaker Tim Bell continue to produce a dry version of the varietal from Clarksburg grapes ($16). Sauvignon blanc is well-represented by the classic Fume Blanc at $16, the gently oaked and outstanding sauvignon blanc ($20) and two vineyard-designated sauv blancs. The Bordeaux-style reds are, dare I say, underpriced versus most of the competition, with the cabernet sauvignon ($32) and Meritage blend ($35). Zinfandels, many of them vineyard-designated, range from $26-$55.
3770 Lambert Bridge Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-1000, drycreekvineyard.com
Reno hoteliers Don and Rhonda Carano made Dry Creek Valley their second home in 1981, and what a place it is. They founded their winery, with its Italian-style architecture, stunning gardens, fountains and sculptures, in 1981, and matched the splendor with quality wines. Now owned by Foley Family Wines, Ferrari-Carano continues to bottle exceptional wines across multiple price points, with the black-and-silver label “Classic” series ubiquitous in grocery stores and on restaurant by-the-glass lists. Yet don’t miss these wines — fume blanc ($15), pinot grigio ($15), chardonnay ($23) and dry rosé ($18) — because they are downright delicious, crowd-pleasing and often discounted. The merlots and zinfandels are priced in the mid-$30s, cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese in the mid-$40s, and there are the single-vineyard, reserve and PreVail lines for those willing to spend more.
8761 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 800-831-0381, ferrari-carano.com
Founded in 1927 — during Prohibition, no less — this Dry Creek Valley winery also has weathered the Great Depression, World War II, 9/11, the 2008 economic meltdown, floods, fires and a pandemic to stay in business. That business has always been based on selling quality wines at affordable prices, even today, when the urge might have been to elevate prices and thus, profits. Jim Pedroncelli and his late brother, John, simply resisted. Spaniard Montse Reece took over winemaking duties from John six years ago, and while she has put her own spin on vinification, the Pedroncelli wines remain remarkably well-priced. The zinfandel rosé is dry (not sweet) and luscious, with bright strawberry and cherry fruit ($17). The Mother Clone Zinfandel is classic Dry Creek Valley, with pure red and black berry fruit and a dash of spice ($20). Don’t miss the Three Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($22), medium-bodied and balanced.
1220 Canyon Road, Geyserville, 707-857-3531, pedroncelli.com
Founder Fred Peterson and his adult children, winemaker Jamie Peterson and sales and marketing manager Emily Peterson, grow 14 varieties in their Bradford Mountain Estate Vineyard off West Dry Creek Road. As farming costs and grape prices continued to soar in Sonoma County, they looked to Mendocino County for less expensive fruit, and the result is a less pricey, second line of wines with suggested retail prices of $18 to $21. Barbera, zinfandel and a Mendo Blendo red, all from grapes grown in the Tollini Vineyard in Mendocino, represent fine value for the money. The Peterson-label wines come from both the Bradford Mountain vineyard and purchased grapes. Zinfandel is a prime focus ($25-$40), as well as petite sirah ($35). Don’t miss the Egret 3V White Blend ($28), utterly refreshing on a summer afternoon and unusual for its mix of vermentino, vernaccia and verdelho. Have a crowd coming over? Invest $60 in a bag-in-box 3-liter of Shameless Red V6, the equivalent of four 750-ml bottles.
4791 Dry Creek Road, Building 7, Healdsburg, 707-431-7568, petersonwinery.com
Rodney Strong Vineyards
You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant, and Rodney Strong Vineyards, too: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, rosé, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, Meritage-style blends and zinfandel, from $15 to $100 and up. The 60-year-old Healdsburg winery has undergone some brand and packaging retooling, including breaking out its Knotty Vines Zinfandel, previously under the Rodney Strong label, into a Knotty Vines brand. Priced at $15 each, the line includes chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and a red blend. It’s party-priced and competently made. The Sonoma County line ($17-$20), which retired winemaker Rick Sayre worked magic to create amazing-for-the-price wines, is now under the guidance of director of winemaking Justin Seidenfeld and better than ever. In fact, Rodney Strong Vineyards wines, across the board, are better than ever, and Seidenfeld’s cabernet sauvignon program is headed into the stratosphere. Watch this space.
11455 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, 800-678-4763, rodneystrong.com
St. Francis Winery & Vineyards
Like many of the wineries here, St. Francis has been around a long time (founded in 1971) and has slowly raised wine prices to reflect the times and the costs of doing business. A $10 St. Francis Sonoma County Chardonnay in 1995 might have increased by 70% percent today, yet at $17, it’s still a steal. So are the Sonoma County Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Old-Vine Zinfandel, each at $22. From there are levels of reserve and single-vineyard wines, with cabernet and zinfandel the red-wine rock stars. Winemakers Katie Madigan and Chris Louton also produce small lots of Rhone-style wines, malbec, sangiovese and other varietals — all at reasonable prices compared to much of the competition.
100 Pythian Road, Santa Rosa, 888-675-9463, stfranciswinery.com