Although cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, zinfandel, and merlot remain the most popular red wine grapes in California, if you’re like me, you crave something different now and then. Here are a few of the most interesting alternatives – mostly Bordeaux and Rhône varieties – I’ve tasted the past several months.


One of the traditional Bordeaux blending varieties, petit verdot contributes color, tannin and intensity, bold dark fruit and a floral note to the flavor profile. It is made as a single varietal wine in the U.S. but you’re still more likely to find it in a blend like the spicy, herbal, soft 2016 French Bar “Gold Dust Red” ($19).


Another Bordeaux blender, malbec’s appeal as a varietal wine is based largely on a profile of forward dark fruit, mocha, admirable depth, and user-friendly texture. The 2014 Rodney Strong Reserve ($40) elevates this profile with structure, density, and seamlessness.


And then there is cabernet franc, which also plays a supporting role in Bordeaux blends. It is noted for bold red fruits, discreet acidity, and savory bell pepper. The 2016 Ironstone ($14) nicely balances bright fruit, and pepper. Although pricey, the supple, luscious 2015 Chappellet ($85), from one of Napa Valley’s best wineries, bursts with deep fruit, vanilla, mocha, and brown spice.


Syrah is most famous for its prominent role in the great wines of the Rhône Valley. It produces aromatic, fairly full-bodied wines, with dark berries, black pepper, meatiness, and ample but polite tannins. Like in the impressive 2013 Pomar Junction Paso Robles ($38).


These days, I especially appreciate the Rhône blends from Paso Robles. The 2014 ONX “Reckoning” ($59), whose two-thirds syrah is supplemented with grenache, malbec, and petite sirah, is an impressive offering. Complex, structured, and rich, it delivers ripe fruit, with savory, earthy and peppery notes. Also fantastic is the 2014 Tablas Creek “Esprit de Tablas” ($55). Modeled after Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it combines mourvèdre, grenache, syrah, and counoise. Another complex wine, it offers pungent forest notes, smoky anise and a solid frame integrate with a silky texture.


A delightful exception to my Paso rule, the 2014 Paraduxx Napa Valley “Candlestick Blend” ($58), two-thirds syrah/one-third grenache, is vigorous and concentrated, with tobacco, dried herbs and smoky oak.


One of my favorite “alternative reds” is the Rhône origin grape petite sirah. It makes a robust, dense wine of dark berries, tobacco, leather, earth, and pepper. The following wines are excellent examples.


  • 2016 Michael David “Petite Petit” ($18) with 15 percent petit verdot, rich, sweet, concentrated, lush, spicy
  • 2015 Scheid Hames Valley ($36) peppery, rustic but lush
  • 2015 Two Angels “Red Hills” ($27) full, firm, spicy, gripping
  • 2015 French Bar ($19) dried flowers, sweet fruit,


Grown extensively in southern France and Spain, carignan often is blended for color, acidity and tannin. As a varietal wine, like the 2016 1000 Stories “Batch Blue” ($19), which happens to be Bourbon Barrel-Aged, it can show red fruits with spicy and savory notes.


Finally, an exception to the French theme: dolcetto, an important grape in Piemonte, offers juicy plum, earthy, and light with friendly tannins, good acidity, combining bitter and sweet flavors. The 2016 Scheid “Riverview” ($34) is notable for its flowery nose, powdery texture, and tight acidity.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.