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.
 
TASTING NOTES
 
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


 

Jeff Keene loves to make Cabernet Franc, and it shows in this charming, balanced wine with aromas and flavors of red fruit, dusty earth, drying leaves, mocha and foresty spice. The palate is lightly creamy with moderate, powdery tannins and mid-palate richness enhanced by St. Helena AVA Merlot (8%). Drink through 2016. 500 cases; Release date TBD. 92 points
 
Y Rousseau

Yannick Rousseau was born in Gascony, in southwestern France. (His hometown is not far from the birthplace of the real-life d’Artagnan of The Three Musketeers fame.) Rousseau worked in Côtes de Gascogne and Madiran, and earned a Masters in Enology and Viticulture in Toulouse, before moving to Napa Valley some 15 years ago. There he was assistant winemaker at Newton Vineyards (St. Helena) under winemaker Luc Morlet and consultant Michel Rolland. Later he spent six years at the celebrated Chateau Potelle in Mount Veeder.
 
He established his own label, Y Rousseau, in 2008 to make distinctive North Coast wines that recall those of his native Gascony. To that end, he produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and French Columbard. He has just bottled his first single-vineyard Tannat and has Tannat from a second vineyard in barrel.
 

The best French Colombard I’ve ever had, it smells of citrus and white flowers on a Spring day. The palate is extremely well-balanced: slightly round on the attack with satisfying body but persistent acidity and a dusting of talc. (Despite its being a white grape, tannins are a hallmark of French Colombard.) Tangy flavors of grapefruit and tangelo predominate.
 90 points
 

80% Stainless and 20% neutral barrel fermentation with native yeasts leave this wine without oak flavors, but with complexity and a gently creamy texture not found in un-oaked Chardonnay. The nose of yellow apples, apple blossoms and muted baking spice is subtle and pretty. It feels full-bodied in the mouth but fresh, because Rousseau didn’t allow any malolactic fermentation. The flavors are yellow apple, Meyer lemon and mineral. 91 points
 

This wine was barrel-fermented (25 percent new) with native yeast and then aged sur lie for 11 months. Malolactic fermentation was inhibited. The vineyard is at 1800 feet with a northeast facing, above the fog line, but cool. Spiced golden apples with white flowers and veiled lychee aromas are echoed by the palate. This wine is about finesse: full-body with silky minerality, restrained but friendly, balanced. 92 points
 

The AVA designation is misleading here since the Cavedale Vineyard sits at 2000 feet just over the ridge of Mount Veeder. The wine’s aromas and flavors resemble the vineyard—dusty and gravelly with scattered sage—but there are also dark plum, black cherry and some Christmas spice. Its medium-plus body with light-grained medium-plus tannins will please Cabernet fans. 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged 18 months in French oak, 50 percent new. Best from 2014. 90 points


 
Tallulah

Tallulah proprietor/winemaker Mike Drash was driven to Northern California from the American South by a love of wine and food. He entered the wine business as a cellar hand at DeLoach, moved on to J (both in the Russian River Valley), then Far Niente and Luna Vineyards of Napa Valley. In 2009, he discovered that the Tallulah wine brand was available for purchase. With a daughter named Tallulah and family ties to actress Tallulah Bankhead, he saw the opportunity as a sign and made the label his.
 
His Tallulah wines include single-vineyard varietals and blends of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon plus Chardonnay. Many of the grapes are from Napa Valley, but he also uses Sonoma County, Sierra Foothills and Oregon fruit. California-produced Rhône-variety red wines can display a very broad range of personalities, from soft and gooey fruit-driven drinks at one extreme to lean wines at the other, with reticent fruit peaking through complex layers of spice and herb. My experience with Tallulah puts their wines in an attractive middle ground, smooth and satisfying on the palate with a balance of fruit and earthy spice.
 

Opaque and ruby-black with aromas of dusty black fruit, mocha, game and dark spice. The palate is full-bodied with moderate fine, powdery tannins. Very attractive flavors of mocha, black fruit, game, toasted wood and dark spice.  91+ points


 

Gently aromatic with black cherry, vanilla and sweet spice. Nearly full-bodied with moderate lightly-chalky tannins. Ripe black plum, black cherry, oak, allspice and black pepper. 90 points
 

42-year old Oak Knoll District Chardonnay vines, native yeasts and limited malolactic fermentation are the basis of this extremely flavorful, well-balanced wine that will appeal to fans of Montrachet. Compelling aromas and flavors of yellow apple skin, mineral, dry cheese rind and delicate baking spice with a full-bodied palate. The mineral-laden finish is long and juicy. 93 points
 

This full-bodied Cabernet comes from a single undisclosed vineyard in Coombsville. Its nose is dark spice, cassis and dusty dry leaves. Slightly chalky chocolate ganache, black currant and spice make up the lengthy palate. 92 points
 
Chateau Boswell
 
Chateau Boswell in St. Helena has a history of top winemakers, starting with Andre Tchelistcheff in 1979 on through John Kongsgaard and Luc Morlet. It’s known for estate Cabernet Sauvignon and for Chardonnay sourced from top vineyards—all made in a classic style. In 2002, Boswell added another label, Jaquelynn, to produce Bordeaux varietal wines from celebrated outside vineyards such as Beckstoffer To Kalon. 
 
In August 2012, Boswell handed winemaking duties to rising star Russell Bevan, who had garnered attention with his own Bevan Cellars wines as well as those he’s made for Showket, Wren Hop, Jemrose and Westerhold Family. Scores in the mid-to-high 90s for Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir are now routine for him.
 
At Chateau Boswell, it will be steady as she goes for Chardonnay, but the Cabernet Sauvignon will shift toward his modern, luxurious style. His reds are mouth-filling, sensually-textured wines with layers of flavor that seem to tap directly into one’s emotions. His first effort at Boswell was “We Will Rock You,” a micro-production wine for the 2013 Napa Valley Premiere Auction. He blended 2011 Chateau Boswell Estate Cabernet Sauvignon with 2011 Bevan Cellars Merlot. Bidding on the 10-cases reached $75,000 making it the day’s most expensive lot.
 
Chateau Boswell and Jacquelynn wines are not inexpensive, ranging from $75 up to $250. But, unlike many exclusive producers, Boswell is still accepting new mailing list customers and doesn’t plan to raise prices in the near term. It’s hard to imagine collectors of lush Napa Valley wines not jumping on this opportunity.
 

I tasted the barrel sample of this Napa Valley Premiere auction lot, the only red wine Bevan’s made thus far at Chateau Boswell. It will be released in September/October of this year to the buyer, Total Wine & More, which paid $625/bottle. It’s a deeply concentrated wine, opaque in the glass with aromas rising well above the rim. The palate is improbably thick and velvety yet nimble. Plenty of fine tannins are coated with loads of black currant, cherry, and dense chocolate. Elegance eschewed for unabashed seduction. 96+ points