Lesser-known wines with exceptional taste

Chappellet Winery on Pritchard Hill. | Courtesy Chappellet Winery

One quality of all great producers and wine regions is a focus on what they can do at a high level and who they put their energy and resources in that direction. Take Napa Valley, top wineries there primarily make great Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends.

However, every once in a while a top winery makes something that seems completely out of context, usually because it has a passion for that wine. These so-called Bridesmaid Wines are often just as lovely as the star of the winery and almost always a comparative steal. Let’s take a look at some exceptional examples and learn a little about the wine world along the way.

These so-called Bridesmaid Wines are often just as lovely as the star of the winery and almost always a comparative steal.

One of my favorite fun wine facts is that until the blowback from the Judgment of Paris in 1976, Cabernet Sauvignon was not the dominant grape in Napa. It trailed even Gamay and Carignan. At that time, there was a little operation up on Pritchard Hill and the owners, Donn and Molly Chappellet of Chappellet Winery, loved them some Chenin Blanc. Even today they still have a small plot from which they make one of the only versions that can compare with classics such as those from France’s Loire Valley.

Cathy Corison’s Corazón. | Courtesy Corison Wines

Coincidentally, one of Chappellet’s early winemakers was Cathy Corison, who cut her winemaking teeth and made a name for herself making beautiful Cabs there. After matriculating to her own eponymous winery and vineyards across the street from Opus One on the valley floor, she has made an even bigger name crafting some of the most sought-after Bordeaux-style Cabs in the valley. Corison’s dirty little secret, however, is that there’s many a day she would rather be drinking Gewürztraminer, so she buys some fruit from a prime Gewürzt vineyard in Mendocino’s cool Anderson Valley and crafts it into a lovely version she calls Corazón, or her heart.

The Pisonis: Jeff, Gary and Mark. | Courtesy Pisoni Vineyards

Let’s shift regions here to the Santa Lucia Highlands where the son of a vegetable farmer convinced his dad to start growing grapes for wine. That son is Gary Pisoni and thus was born the Pisoni Vineyards that we love today for delicious complex and unique Pinot Noirs from such seminal vineyards as his own, Rosella’s Vineyard & Winery, and Soberanes Vineyard. Pisoni also saw this terroir as a home for great Syrah and now, under both the Pisoni and Lucia brands, he and his family make a small amount of stellar Syrah from some of the same vineyards. In the house style, these wines are blockbusters but also have a sense of refinement and complexity.

So here we have some of California’s best — putting financial gain aside because they would make far more cash putting their energy into their cash-cow primary wines. So, do yourself a favor and try some of the fruits of their passion projects.

Lou Phillips
Lou is a Level 3 Sommelier based on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, who loves traveling the wine world doing research for his writing. He also consults for collectors and businesses buying and selling fine wine and creating special events.