Finding Little-Known Wine Gems in California Wine Country

Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

We are part of The Trust Project

When I was a young man, I thought like a young man, acted like a young man – and drank like a young man (with apologies to the Bible verse from Corinthians 13:11).

Now that I have matured, I think, I act and drink like a mature man (my self-assessment; not necessarily shared by those in my life circle). What does a mature man drink? I must say it has been an evolutionary journey, from price-conscious wines to price/quality wines and now, to higher quality wines that command commensurate prices.

It has been my experience that it is becoming increasingly difficult to satiate my appetite for finer wines, while adhering to my self-imposed budget. The first hurdle is the price-quality hurdle. Certainly, we’ve all experienced a few of our favorite wines in the under $20 category. The price-quality ratio can be exceptional in this price range.

But if you’ve ever “upped your game” into the $20 to $30 range or ever splurged on a wine above $30, you’ve most likely experienced a greater price-quality ratio than your taste buds and palate previously enjoyed. And if you’ve ever experienced a higher-end wine above $50, you may find it rather difficult to revert to the wines that piqued your palate as a younger wine consumer (your wine spending budget notwithstanding).

Over the last few years, I’ve embarked on a mission to find upper echelon wines that stand apart from the hundreds of brands and/or labels available on the shelves of retail wine shops. My current effort is focused on California wines, which, in my opinion, are today’s hotbed of entrepreneurial experimentation. There is a cult of winemakers who are intent on producing wine as a fulfillment of their passion, with a genuine desire to introduce consumers to fine wines at (somewhat) reasonable prices.

So here’s the rub: How does one find and procure these gems?

California is dotted with the likes of wine lovers turned winemakers. A number have grape-stained hands from crafting their own wines while others have ink-stained hands from writing checks to purchase wineries and hire talented winemakers.

During my last two trips to Napa Valley and Sonoma County, I have been fortunate to locate passionate winemakers producing fine wines in near obscurity from the broad wine-consuming community.

Here are several means I’ve employed to seek out these winemakers:

  1. A deep dive into the internet prior to my trip. I’ve found comments from fellow travelers, blogs from fellow wine writers and newsletters from professionals with far greater time and budgets than I have. This investment in surfing has paid off many times. Several of my now-favorite wineries have come from unpeeling the layers upon layers of information and opinions deeply buried in the internet.
  2. A sommelier at a wine country restaurant. Who better to offer advice than someone who is tapped into local winemakers who frequent their dining room? He or she will gladly share with you a unique experience of a wine on their list, which may be an exclusive offering. A number of them have hidden gems in their cellar that may not be on the wine list.
  3. The concierge desk at boutique wine country hotels and resorts. Small producers frequently offer these workers free tastings at their winery. For me, word-of-mouth is a powerful inducement coming from an exuberant concierge.
  4. A tasting room visit. Fellow patrons frequently will share their wine country adventures and discoveries when you join them at the tasting counter. Everyone likes to share a secret, especially wine country travelers.
  5. Specialty wine shops in wine country. Wooed by small producers, these wine shops can be instrumental in identifying and sponsoring a rising winemaker star.

Invariably these gems command premium prices. But the artisanal craftsmanship and small production are often worthy of an investment.

Coming up, a few of my discoveries over the last few years.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at

We'd love for you to support our work by joining as a free, partial access subscriber, or by registering as a full access member. Members get full access to all of our content, and receive a variety of bonus perks like free show tickets. Learn more here.