Beyond the Usual Suspects

Exploring Napa Valley’s lesser-known producers


There’s more to Napa Valley than the big, well-established brands and “cult” producers of unobtainable Cabernet Sauvignon. There are hundreds of family-owned wineries making distinctive wines that are reasonably priced and not sold out before release. Read on for five such wineries, including one that may become the next big name for collectors.
Tres Sabores

Tres Sabores is a certified organic vineyard at the base of the Mayacamas mountains in western Rutherford. It bears no resemblance to stereotypical notions of a Napa winery. I stood at their small, outdoor tasting bar just the other day, sampling upcoming releases while snow-white baby lambs bounced happily through the bright yellow mustard flowers that serve as inter-row ground cover.
Proprietor/winemaker Julie Johnson co-founded Frog’s Leap Winery in 1981 with Larry Turley and her then-husband John Williams. Six years later, she left to live on and manage the Tres Sabores vineyard. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petite Verdot and a bit of Petite Sirah grow on the dry-farmed estate. Two carefully-tended outside vineyards provide Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and additional Petite Sirah. Johnson’s winemaking style is non-interventionist, letting the vineyards reveal themselves. Her wines are oak-aged, but most of the barrels are well-used and flavor neutral. 

Zinfandel is the Tres Sabores Vineyard’s signature grape, delivering distinctive, balanced, food-friendly wines that are very different from the jammy, heavily-oaked Zins which are so common today. The nose here offers fresh cherries and berries, huckleberry, white nectarine and sweet herbs, with just a hint of vanilla. In the mouth, it’s dry and medium-bodied with moderate tannins, very fine and lightly grippy. Flavors include cherry, dark berries, cocoa, coconut and spice. 100% Zinfandel. French and American oak, mostly neutral. 500 cases. 90 points

Wine glass and bottles via shuttersto​ck

Aromas of dusty black fruit, dark chocolate and a scattering of dry leaves precedes a juicy palate of black cherry, blackberry, chocolate and warm dark spice. The medium-plus body and light-grained tannins mean the wine is suited to pairing with casual meals or drinking on its own.  50% Zinfandel, 35% Petite Sirah, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Petite Verdot. Mostly French oak, some American, 40% new. 1,980 cases. 89 points

An elegant nose: blackcurrant and cocoa with a trace of bay leaf. Medium-plus-bodied in the mouth with blackcurrant, powdery mocha and dark chocolate, framed by medium-plus chalky and grainy tannins. Decant now or drink from 2015 to 2022. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 200 cases. 92 points

An opaque wine with black ruby color and blackberry, thick black plum and sweet dark spice. Full-bodied with generous tannins, juicy blackberry, licorice and sweet dark spice. Enjoy it this Fall with unctuous braised meat or hold it for 2 to 5 years. 200 cases. To be released end of March. 90 points
Cornerstone Cellars

Jeff Keene brought a New Zealand accent to Cornerstone Cellars’ California operation in 2008, but also years of Napa Valley winemaking experience. He started at Havens Wine Cellars, where they focused on cool-climate Carneros wines and made America’s first varietally-labelled Albariño. Several years as assistant winemaker at Peter Franus Wine Company broadened his experience with both varieties and Napa Valley AVAs.
Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley has two personalities. The main label offers powerful, age-worthy Bordeaux varietals and blends plus an oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc.  Its sister label, Stepping Stone by Cornerstone, is no less quality-focused and uses dedicated vineyards. However, it is more varietally-diverse and offers wines that are ready-to-drink upon release. 
The Cornerstone Cellars tasting room is in downtown Yountville, where they also pour their Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made in Oregon by Tony Rynders, formerly of Domaine Serene. Keene met me at the tasting room with tank and barrel samples of their upcoming releases for this article.

Made entirely from Syrah picked at 22.5 brix specifically for this rosé. The pretty, light-salmon color fits aromas of just-ripe wild strawberry and mineral with delicate floral and spice notes. Soft on the palate, owing to five months sur lie in neutral French oak, with medium-plus body, mouthwatering wild strawberries and persistent minerality. It will be just right with a light lunch by the pool. 89 points

Syrah from the Truchard Vineyard is combined with a 5% share of Carneros Merlot for an approachable, nuanced wine. Dark flowers are followed by a touch of black pepper, then earthy spice, mineral and dark fruit on the nose. The gentle palate is medium-plus in body, with tannins of chalky powder. Attractive flavors of licorice, dark and earthy spice, chocolate and dark fruit gradually give way to a mineral finish. 300 cases; Release date TBD. 90+ points

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  • Snooth User: steve666
    392767 156

    reading this article referencing Tallulah reminded me of a couple of boxes of Syrah I had hidden away. I have a Tallulah Les Trois Voix 2007 in it, in my memory this was a very interesting Syrah, not realizing when I last opened one that it was a GSM in roughly equal proportions. I really wish wineries were forced to reveal the grapes in their wines, and better yet the actual proportions.

    Mar 29, 2013 at 4:43 PM

  • Snooth User: Kathleen Pileggi
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    702685 160

    Thanks for the review here on 5 less known wineries or "not usual" wineries. I love hearing about them and their what makes them special.

    Mar 29, 2013 at 5:11 PM

  • Good aticle. I want to try this Talluha. We are fans of Tres Sabores- Porque No!

    Mar 29, 2013 at 5:16 PM

  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 8,426

    Looking forward to my first bottle of a Tres Sabores wine which I picked up a few weeks ago at a local store.

    Mar 29, 2013 at 5:21 PM

  • Starting my journey with Napa Valley wines in '59, these prices are getting back on the retail level to somewhat of a more saner reality, though still exorbitant. Boswell's prices have always been ridiculous and the above is no exception, though I expect there will be some sucker who will bite. The fact is folks, that we are asked to pay for the ridiculous prices, that these newbies have paid for their properties and vineyards, for their wines that while good or even excellent, are still a debatable pleasure in a glutted market. Many of these oh so wonderful gems, when they sit on the shelf, end up having their labels stripped off, relabeled and sold off to restaurant groups as specials under 2nd labels, so their owners can stay afloat another season, to meet their mortgage payments. You pay $10.00 or $12.00 for the Restaurants 'Special', that they bought for $36 to $48 a case. This translates to $3 to $4 a btl. so they can make at least a 100% mark up, if it's more upscale it will be more. This is the same wine you are paying $96.+ on up for a case. Right now the reason these wineries are pricing the wines the way they are, is to stay alive due to the competition from the imports which are excellent. Why do you think Mondavi made the investment in South American wineries ? You can have the greatest reputation in the world and win all sorts of awards, but if the wine doesn't move off the retail shelves, you're screwed.

    Mar 30, 2013 at 4:03 AM

  • Snooth User: mark holys
    1176343 36

    To Mr. Nanakulikane....

    With all due respect sir....

    I have been in food and wine all my life, working in the very finest restaurants from San Francisco to Monterey....

    Certifeid Food and Wine Professional CWP;

    Windows on the World WTC, Kevin Zraly MS...

    and Advanced Sommelier;

    PCI endorsed Davd Glancy MS, CWE,CSS, FWS....

    What is being produced in CA. and in fact world-wide is so far superior to the madian available in '58 that it insults comparison.

    I suggest that you research your perspective before you post....
    thus avoiding the enormous brown spot visible upon your lips.;......

    Mar 31, 2013 at 9:17 PM

  • A once far older and wiser man than myself once said " opinions are like rectums, everyone's got one " and you sir are certainly entitled to yours. In conversations I have had in the past with my friends Andre Tchelistcheff, Mike Grigich, Joe Heitz, Martini and Robert M., all of us, though we don't have the lofty degrees and appellations that you have sir, nor the ego that goes with it, are agreed that the pricing due to fatuous, grandiose, self serving praying mantises in our beloved business, is our biggest problem next to disease in the vineyards. In fact one might say, this is disease, just in another area. What you forget is that we as producers, and hopefully critics or any one else in this wonderful business, remember that without the consumer, all of us are out of a job. So pricing these wines in the stratosphere does no one any good except some severely deprived egos.Saying that the wines made now are hands over fist better than say the '65 Pinot from B.V. that is still raved about, makes a lie to what you say. Are you telling us that a '45 Margaux is crap ? Neither of these wines cost anywhere close to what they sell for today, so we'll excuse you to the little boys room to wipe your lips. We commend your scholarly efforts and recommend a year at a winery picking grapes, washing barrels / tanks, working the tasting room at the height of the tourist crush, doing the p&l in a bad year, to round out your education.

    Apr 01, 2013 at 6:08 PM

  • Snooth User: mark holys
    1176343 36

    If you knew Andre...then you also knew his brother...Victor. I am very sorry that your pathetc commentary hascompelledyou to introduce others to validate yourself....I guess I am guilty first....evne so .....out of respect for Jim Barrett and Mike G.,.....I'll refrain rom name dropping.

    "You're right{".......thats what you want to hear....but i suspect rarely do the way you express yourself....


    what a pompous....."dear sir" ...... ass you are

    Apr 01, 2013 at 7:05 PM

  • Snooth User: mark holys
    1176343 36

    BTW - you seem apporpriately familiar and indoctrinated to your vocation.....keep up the good work son...

    Apr 01, 2013 at 7:07 PM

  • Thank you for the nice little cameos on the lesser known producers I really enjoyed reading them. I live in Liverpool in the UK so can only get whatever is imported by the big supermarket chains and although they all have good selections of Californian wines these have to compete with French, Italian, Australian, New Zealand and South African wines. The south African and Australian wines are particularly competitively priced and are of comparable quality to the Californian so people in the UK tend to drink more of these. I personally prefer the Californian wines on offer and find them more pleasing to my palate. My wife and me are visiting California in September to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary and hope to taste some of these little gems. One further point to the two comedians who take up most of the space in the comments section - Fellas, why don't you just meet up and knock seven bells out of each other instead of trading insults, you may find you feel better afterwards, I used to when I was at school!!!

    Apr 04, 2013 at 10:37 AM

  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 8,426

    Peter, as a Californian, I am pleased to hear that you enjoy the wines of this state. We also welcome your visit in September. If your itinerary is not yet set in stone, and you are still looking for ideas on where or what to visit, especially wine-oriented destinations, I suggest that you go over to the Snooth Forum page. You can use the "Search" facility to find previous conversations where individuals have sought California travel advice, or you can start a new conversation and ask any specific questions that you might have.

    Apr 04, 2013 at 2:34 PM

  • I agree with Mr.'Nana's" observation here. As for Mr. Holys response I would say that today there are more quality wines available partially due to the "science" of winemaking and abundance of money. in the "ol days" wines were made by the feel of the vineyard, the soil, the yearly change. It was done by pure farming. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Heitz once in the tasting room, just him and unexperienced me alone. He was filling in when the girl he had called in sick. Remember those simple days? He patiently, happily walked me thru vineyard to bottle in each pour capped off with a Martha's side by side tasting of the 84 and 85. I've bought Heitz and Napa Valley wine ever since. My complaint to Mr. Holys is that it's NOT an insult to compare the old wines to new. It IS an insult to all the great winemakers, winery owners from those early years to poo poo thinking that the current wines are so superior. I admire your standing and credentials in the industry but please, don't get caught up in the so prouder than thy. Instead, enjoy all that is new, but also embrace the legacy of all those farmers who dedicated themselves so you would have the opportunity to be where you are. I hoist a glass to both you and Mr. Nana. To Napa Valley, amongst the greatest on the planet !!

    May 15, 2015 at 12:37 PM

  • Peter, Happy to hear your coming to one of the most beautiful areas of California. May I suggest a few places. To eat: Morimoto Restaurant, Downtown Napa, on the river. Long time favorite, Tra Vigne, St.Helena. Redd-Wood Pizzeria, Yountville. Wineries: Cakebread, Pine Ridge, Round Pond, Rutherford. Most of all, make sure you go to the other side of the valley along the Silverado Trail. Great wineries, FAR less people. A great website is

    May 15, 2015 at 2:15 PM

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