The COVID-19 (coronavirus) has brought life around the world to a standstill. In the United States, from a sports perspective, it has knocked out the NBA, NHL, MLB and the PGA Tour to name a few.
Also, among the events canceled was the NCAA Basketball Tournament, more affectionately known as March Madness.
Being on basic house arrest got me thinking about March Madness as it pertains to other things in my life and what would be the top 64 various entertainment options.
One of the first that came to mind was the top 64 wineries in Northern California that I have visited and enjoyed my experience be it writing a review or just visiting. The number of wineries I have visited in Northern California far exceeds 64 so I started to pare them down, not just on the quality of the wine, but the fun of the experience we had on our visits.
Obviously, it’s an imperfect system, but please keep in mind these are my favorites and my ultimate winner will be a combination of great wine with a great experience. Once again, I had to have visited the winery.
I know when we are released back into the world and everyone heads out of their houses, wineries are going to be No. 1 on my list! I am certainly doing my best to support these wineries while I am home and hopefully this tournament can help give you some ideas where you can head when it’s time to get out and go crazy!
Following is how my inaugural March Madness Northern California Wine Tournament shakes out. I must name the four regions on my favorite varietals of wine. These doesn’t mean the respective wines in each region match the type of wine – it’s just for separation sake.
Here’s the first round – the round of 64!
Del Dotto (1) vs. Nella Terra (16): Certainly, a tough first round match for Nella Terra, a new and emerging winery in Sunol that I think has a bright future and is one of the most beautiful wineries in the Livermore Valley. It’s just too much firepower from Del Dotto to have any chance at a huge upset. But the future looks bright for the freshman heavy Nella Terra.
Galante (8) vs. St. Francis (9): A great first-round match here. Great vistas and tremendous food and wine pairings from St. Francis are formidable, but in the end it’s the quaint and personable Galante with their western-theme in Carmel-by-the-Sea that gets the win.
Beaulieu Vineyards (5) vs. Bernardus (12): Bernardus has a total package in the Carmel Valley with a wonderful resort mixed in with great wine, but BV has the ace in the hole with its line of Georges De Latour wine of which I had a chance to do a vertical tasting dating back to 1975.
Ledson (4) vs. Turkovich (13): Our first major upset in this bracket! I was a big fan of Ledson and was even a wine club member, but over the last few years, something has changed in the wine and service at the winery. On the flip side, Turkovich is the best winery few have heard of as this wonderful wine out of Winters is impressive and is only going to get better. Turkovich is your winner!
Justin (3) vs. Rubino (14): Even though Justin lost a lot of its charm when it was sold by Justin and Deborah Baldwin to the Wonderful Corporation in 2010, it still puts some big wines and thus earns a win over Rubino, a sharp winery from the Livermore Valley that features Italian varietals.
Etude (6) vs. Sullivan (11): This a tough one and comes down solely to personal preference as the two have vastly different approaches to wine. Etude is a wonderful Pinot Noir producer, with Sullivan coming back with some powerful and big Cabs. Etude has a wonderful facility, while visiting Sullivan is like going to a friends’ house. In the end, Etude pulls out one the closes first-round battles.
Plump Jack (7) v. Korbel (10): Plump Jack was founded and formerly owned by California Governor Gavin Newsom and has always been a fun place to hang out with some high-quality wines. Korbel might have a reputation of being one of the inexpensive California Champagnes, but they are solid across the board and their red wines are sneaky good, as is their Brandy. The winery is sensational in beauty, located in Guerneville on the Russian River. The nod goes to Korbel for the total package here.
Cakebread (2) vs. Cedar Mountain (15): Cedar Mountain in the Livermore Valley fought its way into the main field on the strength of its ports and is worthy of visit when you are in the area, but Cakebread is a legend in the Napa Valley and rolls to the easy win here!
Silver Oak (1) vs. Pangloss Cellars (16): Pangloss offers some special food and wine parings and is located in the wonderful Sonoma Town Square, but Silver Oak stands as one of the top in the Napa Valley and backs its reputation with sensational wine. An easy winner.
Steven Kent (8) vs. 3 Steves (9): A battle of the Livermore Valley and I am a fan of both, but the Three Steves is better than one in this case. 3 Steves brings the perfect package with its high-quality wines mixed in with a festive atmosphere at the tasting room. Prayers for you if you get one of the three Steves as your host! Steven Kent is one of the higher end stops in Livermore.
Mumm (5) vs. Sawyer (12): Just like the NCAA Tournament, there always seems to be a 12 seed knocking off a 5 seed and we have this here. Yes, Mumm makes wonderful sparkling wine – the DVX is a personal favorite – but don’t sleep on Sawyer. Located in the Rutherford Bench, the winery slides under the radar, but produces some great wine, including a wonderful Meritage. Sawyer pulls the upset.
Stags’ Leap (4) vs Sterling (13): Sterling is a cool place to visit with its aerial tram ride up to the tasting room and the wines are obviously quality, but Stags’ Leap (one of two with the same name, different placed apostrophe) is visually stunning both on the drive in and then the views from the winery. The wines match the vistas and history just seeps out of everywhere on the property. An easy winner.
Joseph Phelps (3) vs. Porter-Bass (14): Porter-Bass – located well down a country road outside of Guerneville – is a personal favorite and I love that the tasting is done on a picnic table in the front yard of the owners – but taking on Joseph Phelps is a tall order and too much to overcome. Joseph Phelps was my second largest single day wine purchase, trailing only Del Dotto.
Duckhorn (6) vs. Cade (11): Duckhorn is another winery that I was a big fan of when it was owned by Dan and Margret Duckhorn, but I think it has lost some charm since the purchase by TSG Consumers Partners in 2016. Still it is Duckhorn and the winner here over Cade, part of the Plump Jack family. Cade is located on the slopes of Howell Mountain and has some stunning vistas to match world class wines.
Wente (7) vs. BoaVentura (10): Another all Livermore battle and one that will also go to the lower seed . Wente really has put the Livermore Valley on the world-wide wine map and its Nth Degree wines are amazing, but BoaVentura is one of the most enjoyable tasting experiences you will find in the Livermore Valley. A rustic barn is home to the tasting room, surrounded by lawn seating, a bocce ball court, and classic rock cranking during tasting hours. Pack a lunch, take over a table and have a great day with some killer wines!
Cardinale (2) vs. Balletto (15): Loved our time at Balletto – a place that features a baseball field cut into the vineyards and has been visited by at least one actor from the movie Field of Dreams. Located on Occidental Road on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, Balletto is a must visit, but just can’t overcome the firepower of Cardinale. Born in 1982, Cardinale has a mission to produce a singular Cabernet from the highest quality vineyards in the Napa Valley. Located in the Oakville region of the Napa Valley, Cardinale was the first Cab I tasted in my life, thus setting an impossibly high bar for other wineries.
Schramsberg (1) vs. Shale Canyon (16): Schramsberg is one of my two must-visits in the Napa Valley when visitors come from outside the state. Founded in 1862, Schramsberg sparkling wine helped put Napa on the map when their Blanc de Blancs was served at the Toast to Peace between Richard Nixon and Zhou En-Lai in Beijing in 1972. Their sparkling has been served at more state dinners in the White House than any other. Shale Canyon is a solid little winery with a cool tasting room in Carmel-by-the-Sea, but compared to Schramsberg…
Peju (8) vs. Vine Cliff (9): A battle in the Miller household here as my wife is a big Peju fan, and it is a wonderful wine/tasting experience. But Vine Cliff to me has always been a favorite of mine. On our first visit we were greeted in the office and then escorted down to a picnic table in the garden area with wonderful views and a six-pack holder of wines. When Beverages and More offered a buy-one, get one for a nickel, they had Vine Cliff one time. I walked into the store, saw the deal and bought out the entire stock! Vine Cliff in a close one!
Gargiulo (5) vs. VJB (12): You’d be hard pressed to find a more overall enjoyable experience than VJB brings to the table with a setting of old Italian village courtyard. When the tenors are there serenading tables it is memorable. But when you are talking Gargiulo, you are talking about perhaps the most underrated winery in the Napa Valley. Located on Oakville Crossing Road, their vineyards border the vineyards of wineries like Screaming Eagle and Silver Oak. The first time we visited, we were invited into the house of owners Jeff and Valerie Gargiulo and enjoyed their wine with appetizers. All the wines are good to great and priced much more reasonably than their neighbors in the area.
Piazza Del Dotto (4) vs. Grey Wolf (13): The newest winery in the Del Dotto portfolio, this one has incredible food and wine pairings, as well as the party-type atmosphere that has become a trademark of the Del Dotto brand. Piazza Del Dotto was featured on an episode of the Kardashian’s, but you should not hold that against the Del Dotto family! Grey Wolf is a sneaky good Paso Robles winery and is just a fun winery to visit. I absolutely love their GSM which is currently sold out. The Piazza is an easy winner here, but next time you head to Paso, put Grey Wolf in your plans.
Nickel and Nickel (3) vs. Eberle (14): Eberle is one of the wineries that helped launch the Paso Robles wine region and the wines are solid and the tasting room enjoyable, but in taking on Nickel and Nickel, it’s a task too great to overcome. Nickel and Nickel is a sister winery to Far Niente and is one focused on producing single vineyard Cabs from some of the top AVAs in the world.
Tobin James (6) vs. Decoy (11): I like to call Tobin James the “Del Dotto” of the Paso area as it’s a party every time you visit. Built on the site of an old stage-coach stop, the winery has a western theme, including a mahogany bar from the 1860’s, bought and brought out from Missouri. The wine is top-notch! Decoy is part of the Duckhorn family and has always produced great wines since the first one produced in 1985. In 2008 Decoy evolved from a single brand at Duckhorn into its own brand. Tobin James wins here and the party rages.
TH Estates (7) vs. B.R. Cohn (10): TH Estates is one of my favorite Paso wineries and is the product of former NFL and Georgia star football player Terry Hoage and his wife Jennifer. His wines carry football themed names like The 46, 5 Blocks, The Pick, Three-Four to name a few. But don’t think for a minute the names are a gimmick. The Rhone wines are as good as you get in the region and Terry and Jennifer are wonderful hosts. Bruce Cohn was the manager of the Doobie Brothers for 45 years and the tasting room features a lot of memorabilia from the band. They also produce good olive oil and it’s a pretty cool winery to visit. Good, but not enough to break the tackle of TH Estates.
Linne Calodo (2) vs. KORi (15): Linne Calodo has been one of the most reputable wines coming out of Paso Robles for a long time and deservedly so. Winemaker/owner Matt Trevisan is one of the coolest people I have met in the wine industry and had the pleasure of playing 18 holes with, then heading back to the winery to climb around the barrel room, making our own blends. His wines regularly sell out and it is no surprise to anyone from Paso region. An unfair matchup for KORi, newer winery who has a tasting room in Carmel-by-the-Sea, but this winery has become my second favorite in the region. Kori Violini, the owner, has a nice little product and will only go up from here. Linne Calodo could make a run to the finals.
Groth (1) vs. Wrath (16): The first time we visited Groth, we thought we were the only ones there for our appointment, but a short time later we got to meet Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame the day after the Academy Awards. Not much more needs to be said other than Groth is in the Oakville AVA, one of the top Cab appellations anywhere and is of the best. Wrath is named from a line in a Led Zeppelin song and fits well in the Carmel wine scene but is no match for the monster that is Groth.
Domaine Carneros (8) vs. Provenance (9): Might be the toughest first round match in the contest. Domaine Carneros is wonderful sparkling wine house at the southern end of Napa Valley, sitting in a castle setting overlooking Highway 12. Wonderful sparkling wines and a great setting. Provenance is on Highway 29 in the Napa Valley and has turned into one of the top places to visit, combining great wine and an entertaining visit, featuring entertainment and games. It’s a tight one, but I will go with Provenance.
Cypher (5) vs. Joullian (12): Cypher is the offspring of Four Vines, a winery that started in Paso Robles. Once Four Vines was getting too big, the owners sold to the Purple Wine Group out of Sonoma and launched Cypher, a fun winery with a great vibe in Paso. Located in the Carmel Valley, Joullian featured Ridge Watson, the brother of Tom Watson, as the winemaker. Watson stepped away in 2017. They used to have a table wine called Cepage that I would drive to the Carmel Valley from Pleasanton to pick up a few cases, then drive home. Cypher is the easy winner, but Joullian is a wonderful stop when you are in the Carmel Valley.
Domaine Chandon (4) vs. Prospect 772 (13): My second favorite sparkling wine house in the Napa Valley facing an outsider from up in Gold Country! Domaine Chandon has high quality sparkling and has been a staple of celebrations for a long time, but also features some good still wines. Prospect 772 you find just short of Angles Camp. It comes at you with Rhone Valley-style wines and does so with power. The tasting room/winery is well off Highway 4, but is an oasis when you travel down the long road. It’s a drive from the Bay Area, but one well worth making. I am going with the big upset and advancing Prospect 772! Remember this is my palate and I love what they have done with Rhone wines here.
B Wise (3) vs. Chateau Boswell (14): When I first visited the B Wise tasting room on Highway 12 in Kenwood, I was impressed with the wine selection and the staff. Then I visited the B Wise Estate Caves and was blown away. The wines absolutely stand with any in the region and the cave experience is as good as any I have had or probably ever will enjoy. Chateau Boswell is a sneaky good winery we accidentally came upon off the Silverado Trail in Napa. They choose to stay relatively small in the region, but the French-style wines are a fighter. B Wise wins, but if you are looking for something different, try Chateau Boswell.
Davies Vineyards (6) vs. Caliza (11): For years Schramsberg grew red grapes but didn’t make a still wine and sold the grapes to wineries such as Duckhorn. Then the family decided to make still wine and Davies Vineyards was the product. The Cab is sensationally good and at $120 a bottle is a steal for the region. Caliza is a boutique winery in Paso that came out of nowhere on one of our tours. It’s a great place to bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the vistas of the surrounding vineyards. Davies is your winner here!
Ancient Peaks (7) vs. McGrail (10): I probably seeded Ancient Peaks too low. This winery in Santa Margarita (just south of Paso Robles) has quite the combination of offerings. The wine is awesome with the Oyster Ridge wines being crazy good. We ventured out to the oyster beds where oyster fossils were clearly visible in the sides of the hills that used to be under water. The winery is located on 14,000 acres and offers zip lining, wildlife tours, as well as other outdoor adventures. McGrail is one of the top wineries in the Livermore Valley and is a great, fun place to visit, often offering live music on the ample lawn in the front of the winery. Enjoy great wine, in a great setting where families often gather. McGrail is one of our go-to places close to home, but Ancient Peaks takes this one!
Far Niente (2) vs. Dawn’s Dream (15): Probably the most beautiful wine labels adorn the Far Niente bottles, but the wine is every bit as incredible as the labels. Far Niente has been making elite Cabs since 1982 and offers an exquisite Chardonnay as well. Breathtaking is the first word that comes to mind when Far Niente is mentioned. Dawn’s Dream got a tough draw here. The winery is the sister winery to Galante and produces a wonderful Rose – a wine I never enjoyed until tasting it at Dawn’s Dream. Another tasting room in the solid Carmel-by-the-Sea area. Far Niente is an icon in Napa and gets the easy win here.
By Dennis Miller