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Great California Reds for Summer Grilling

When summer arrives, my taste for wine definitely shifts to rosés and whites. This seems perennially the case for many wine drinkers. Nary do I find myself reaching for that thirst-quenching red in the heat of summer.

That is, unless, some delicious cut of red meat happened to have found its way onto a grill and then onto my table. Nothing rises to the occasion like a big, bold red when it is grilling and barbecue season.

Much has been written about why red wines are the perfect match for red meat. From a science perspective, there is the theory that higher levels of tannins in red wine help to release the flavors of the beef by countering and softening the meat’s fat. Another perspective postulates that the salt that seasons the beef that makes red wines taste smoother. Nothing at all in the research seems definitive, which frankly, seems just fine given millennia of history of wine drinking has underscored the complementarity of red wine to red meat.

And so, with summer upon us in the northern hemisphere, this month we feature a curated selection of incredible California red wines to consider when the grill is fired up and you are serving that perfect cut of red meat.

Wooden Valley Vineyards 2021 Saluti

I recently returned to the agrarian and rural placidity of the Suisun Valley where last year, whilst tooling about and doing research, I stumbled upon Wooden Valley Vineyards, a family affair of the Lanza clan dating back nearly a century. I love this place. It feels cozy and unpretentious and elevated, all at the same time. The rusticity of darkly stained wooden buildings greets visitors, as well as an old, perfectly aged pickup truck with two wine barrels set astride the back, which, I was told, once served as the Wooden Valley’s distribution center.

“They are farmers first and foremost,” remarked my affable and knowledgeable guide during my visit in referring to the Lanza family. They are also extremely capable winemakers, growing several Italian varietals that speak to their family heritage (the Primitivo is stellar), as well as more traditionally grown California varietals including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and of course, Petite Sirah, the grape for which Suisun Valley is so highly regarded.

Wooden Valley’s 2021 Saluti is a bold and velvety blend of 57 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Merlot, and 13 percent Petite Sirah, perfectly concocted for elevating summer grilling. The blend, curated by the “crew” of the vineyard and under the guidance of winemaker Rick Lanza, is described as a “Crew-vée,” – so fun and even further evidence of the unaffected nature of the operation.

On the nose, Saluti is full of bramble notes and freshly ground cocoa nibs. On the palate, a rich and lush mouthfeel is an immediate sensation, with, thanks to the Merlot, delightfully restrained tannins. It is full of tart cherries and ripe blackberries with just a hint of vanilla bean on the long finish. The Petite Sirah creates great structure for this wine and anchors it to Suisun. As soon as I tasted this wine, I wanted a well-marbled, bone-in rib-eye steak, knowing the depth of this blend and a high alcohol content (15.2 percent) would be exceedingly well-suited to the rich, charred cut of beef.

The 2021 Saluti is an extremely limited production of 88 cases and available only at the vineyard or online at Better still, you can drink well and do good with Saluti as they contribute $10 for every bottle sold to the Alzheimer’s Foundation.

Caymus-Suisun 2022 Walking Fool

While obtaining the Saluti requires advance planning, the Wagner family (of Caymus) has set up extensive operations in Suisun and their Walking Fool blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah is another example of the AVA’s prowess and is a much more readily available bottling.

This wonderful and unfussy blend is the perfect wine for a grilled dinner and has little resemblance to Caymus’ Cabernet Sauvignon which has both its ardent devotees and pointed critics. This is a wine to be enjoyed now and I tasted the 2022, which was bursting with deliciously ripe red berries and blackberries on both the nose and the palate. I observed additional notes of wood and leather on the nose with bold tannins on the palate desperately seeking out that perfectly mojo-marinated flank steak seared on the grill and served with traditional chimichurri.

Gust 2019 Syrah

One of my great joys when gallivanting around Northern California’s wine country is the drive through Petaluma Gap. Designated as an AVA only in 2017, it sits at the very lower end of the Sonoma Valley and stretches from the Pacific Coast to the wetlands of San Pablo Bay. Thus far, it seems to have succeeded in maintaining much of its pastoral character. Herds of sheep and cattle laze away the days chomping on lush, verdant fields. Dairies dot the landscape.

One sign denoted pride in having been named California Dairy of the Year. And there are grape vines. Lots of them, but still without the mammoth infrastructure that seems to accompany wine tourism. It’s the kind of place where you want to slow down, drive leisurely, and take it all in.

Before grape growing in Petaluma Gap gained greater recognition, Fred Cline of Cline Family Cellars planted vineyards in the late 1990s. Seeing an opportunity in the cooler climate of the area, Cline planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah and for decades, sold the bounty to other wineries.

Enter Fred’s daughters, Megan and Hilary, who are the magic behind capitalizing on Petaluma Gap and the prescient investments made by their dad decades earlier. Their label, Gust, is creating wonderfully finessed bottlings of the region’s stand-out varietals.

The 2019 Syrah is a stunner. Aromas of wood, wet earth, and moss dominate and divinely so. A brilliant plum color in the glass, on the palate it has layers of dark fruits – plum, blackberries, and figs – with tense tannins and a hint of pleasant oak that would pair exceedingly well with the right cut of beef. Call me old school but I enjoy this with a simply seasoned (remember the salt!) grilled filet with asparagus spears and sautéed mushrooms. A classic and perfect meal. It will be exciting to see what the Cline sisters behind Gust continue to deliver as, while this is drinkable now, its an age-worthy bottling for the cellar.

Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Other than providing a basic review – and of course, a very positive one -- few writers take the time or opportunity to expand upon Silver Oak’s hallmark bottling of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Alexander Valley. In part, that lack of more in-depth attention is the result of their incredible success in going all-in on this singular wine. Over the years, they have branched out into other ventures, such as Twomey, to offer varietals other than Cabernet Sauvignon (and at lower price points), and also to a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. But I’m still a huge fan of the original.

The Alexander Valley has a long history of wine making dating back to the mid-19th century when Cyrus Alexander, after whom the valley is named, planted the first vines. The Alexander Valley AVA lies just north of Healdsburg, with the Russian River running straight through it. Established in 1984, today it is made up of 15,000 planted vineyard acres and 42 wineries.

Silver Oak’s Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon established itself as a classic for a reason: it is consistently exceptional. This is the case with the 2019 vintage as well… and, I might add, given the pricing of many Cabernet Sauvignons in Northern California, the $100 retail price feels like a real bargain. More than 95 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, splashes of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petite Verdot were blended in for the most recent vintage. Deep garnet-hued in the glass, with notes of ripe bramble fruits and cherries on the nose, it’s a bold, fruit-forward expression with hints of baking spices, vanilla, and oak on the long and lush finish.

Seek out your local butcher and invest in the thickest, most marbled New York Strip, charred and topped with an herbed butter, served alongside a classic, crispy skinned baked potato with sour cream and chives, and haricot verts with crispy shallots. The quintessential Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon will put those classics into proper context, with the acidity and lushness of this classic wine elevating every bite.

No doubt, you may have a favorite red that you feel is the perfect compliment when grilling that perfect cut – whether beef, bison, venison, or something else. Indulge and enjoy. But also explore.

In my own explorations, I stumbled upon impressive newbies to the scene, encountered some old-timers flying below the radar, and fondly rediscovered some old classics.

And in all honesty, testing out the food pairings wasn’t too shabby of a gig either.

As always, Salud!


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