You can take the girl out of Cali...

Barbie Wine and Ameila Singer's first impression of California Wine.....aged 7!

Barbie wine. That was my first Californian wine impression. I was seven years old and I had just been allowed to taste a sip of a cherry starburst smelling, glistening pink liquid; and the grandparents were looking at me expectantly. My tasting note for Zinfandel blush has never been forgotten.

Over the years the wine repertoire at my grandparent’s house in Orange County, California, has varied wildly. If it was just them at home, my grandmother was very happy with the biggest, sweetest and cheapest Zinfandels she could find at Costco. The perfect companion to the rather explosive political programmes she watches every evening.

If my parents were staying, my dad would go to town on wines from Peter Michael, Ramey and Kistler.  My grandparents would dutifully swirl, sniff and sip – the nice glasses would of course be used – but they could never really understand spending that much money on essentially a vinous counterpart to the Rachel Maddow show or simple homemade family meals.

To a certain degree I can empathise with my grandmother. Californian wine, especially from Napa and Sonoma, has never been more expensive.  Even if I may be willing to occasionally splurge $100 on a bottle, many of my millennial friends would never dream of such a thing.

Saying that, California is now producing some of its most exciting, high quality and terroir focused wines at the most accessible prices. As soon as you start looking at the Central Coast, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara and Lodi – there are a whole array of styles of wine to choose from savvy winemakers who may work with grapes from one vineyard or may blend from a few premium sites.  There is a Californian confidence now in the industry which doesn’t need to hide behind lots of new oak or stick to a few grape varieties or even one kind of business model.

This month I set my grandmother a test. We would go to her usual wine buying haunts (Costco, Trader Joe’s and Albertsons), but I would buy the wine. Nothing over $30 but preferably it would be under $20. It was a good challenge for me too as I was determined to see past garish labels, (the Game of Thrones chardonnay looked pretty cool though), and really try and find the savviest, most well-made wines I could.

California is now producing some of its most exciting, high quality and terroir focused wines at the most accessible prices.

Below are my four favourite supermarket savvy buys – I was looking for quality, typicity and obviously personality!  They would also have to go with family meals or be able to be sipped on their own at 6pm whilst Rachel’s show was playing. A tall order but I found a few!

Bargain Napa option: Buehler Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 $19.99

I know I know. I eat some of the words in the above paragraphs. If you are diligent you can indeed sniff out some affordable Napa Cab treasure. The structure of this wine is incredible! There is plenty of concentrated dark plum fruit which is layered with sprinklings of wood birch spice, dusky mocha, and a resinous balsamic undertone. The wine is made at a family-owned winery and the excellent terroir from their mountain site vineyards is reflected beautifully in this complex and alluring wine.

Best All Out Option:  Estancia Stonewall Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2013 $30

This is exactly what I want from a Californian Pinot. On the nose – sweet smoky incense and toasty sandalwood. To taste – intense deep pure cherry, red currant, kola and strawberry fruit combine with aromatic rose hip, clove and chai tea spice and a long, sweet smoky finish.  Soulful and succulent.  This was the perfect accompaniment to a rosemary crusted lamb dinner and the SAG awards.

Best All Round Option: Gainey Winery

Santa Barbara is a sweet spot for a range of grapes of fantastic quality and great value. I love Gainey Vineyard’s Viognier and Pinot Noir and on this trip I tried their Chardonnay, which was equally as impressive and extremely fairly priced.

Gainey Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 $22.00

This Chardonnay is actually the only Cali Chardonnay my grandmother claims to like. Although I think this is a severely harsh statement I can see why she appreciates the intense fruit which ranges from grapefruit peel to golden apple, cindered toffee (balanced use of oak) and a zesty saline minerality which keeps you coming back for more. If you like cool climate, more restrained Chardonnay from California then Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez (in the western part of the region) in Santa Barbara are fantastic places to start. This elegant wine we opened to celebrate the first episode of the second series of The Wine Show being aired in the UK!

Thrifty Alternative Grape Option:

Hahn Pinot Gris Monterey  2016 $10!!!

Full of honey baked apples, passion fruit, star anise and a zesty lemon rind zip – this is a real crowd pleaser. It will unite the Sauvignon Blanc fans who love pure fruit and acid as well as Chardonnay fans who prefer fleshier and weightier whites.  I am really excited to see more of this aromatic varietal grown on the Cali coast!

At the end of my three-week stint in January my grandmother could be assured that by spending a bit more at the supermarket and by being a bit savvy she could be vinously rewarded. And just as importantly, I could be assured that Barbie wine would never again be served on my watch... Cheers to that!