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Hidden Gems: Great Wines that Fly Under the Radar

I’ve written many times about how great wine can be found everywhere, but finding it requires some effort (and perhaps even the guidance of a favorite wine writer).

What you find in your local grocery or specialty store is the result of a myriad of decisions by many different parties about many different issues and, sorry to be the spoiler, but quality and taste are often not foremost among the considerations that have landed that particular bottling on the shelf before you.

This imperative to explore and successfully make an end-run around the over-commercialization of the world of wine often yields incredible finds. This month, I share one such find in Kelley & Young Wines in California’s Sonoma County.

Since 1858, the Young family has farmed nearly 300 acres in the Alexander Valley that now comprise the Robert Young Vineyards. Certified sustainable practices are put into deft use in growing a dozen varietals, including Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Merlot, Malbec, and Zinfandel.

And while you may have never heard of the Robert Young Vineyards, plenty of the heavy hitter names that are familiar – Duckhorn, Simi, and Chateau St. Jean – know the family operation quite well. About 95 percent of the fruit grown on the Robert Young Vineyards are sold to larger producers.

Robert Young Estate Vineyards, established by the family in 1997, utilizes most of the remaining fruit to create an array of impressive wines. Kelley & Young purchases a small amount as well and creates wines that are not the focus of Robert Young Estate Vineyards, namely Sauvignon Blanc, two rosé wines made from a blend of traditional Bordeaux grapes, Zinfandel and Malbec. A 2019 bottling of Pinot Noir with grapes sourced from the Russian River Valley indicates that Kelley & Young is branching out beyond the confines of the family’s heritage property.

Kelley & Young was established in 2007 by Jim Young and his late-wife Kathleen Kelly Young and remains a small, family-run boutique winery with an efficient tasting room based in the town of Cloverdale, about 18 miles north of Healdsburg. They sell their wines directly, including through a wine club, which translates to a severely limited distribution (and, if I might underscore, why wine features like this are an important player in touting the extraordinary producers that fly under the radar screen).

Kelley & Young’s 2017 Malbec ($63 USD at is sensational and fulfills every expectation of what you want from this varietal. First, it is gorgeous in the glass – completely opaque and the color of a ripe plum with bright luminosity around the edges. On the nose, expectedly and deliciously full of ripe fruits like bramble berries and black currants with a hint of black pepper. On the palate, it’s luscious and bold. There is nothing shy in this bottling, but its also quite nuanced with lots of ripe dark fruits on the front end with earth, leather, and even a bit of smokiness on the long and lush finish. This is one of those wines I want around, so this tasting prompted me to buy another six bottles to have for that perfect grilled steak evening.

The 2017 Zinfandel is another praiseworthy bottling ($50 USD). Spice and zing sing on the nose, with dark cherry and cassis profiles. I tasted this wine over a period of time and found it benefited from ample time (about 30 minutes) to open up and might even benefit from decanting, After opening up, it was delicious and spicy on the palate and medium-bodied, leading to a lighter enjoyment of ripe cherries, a hint of dark chocolate, and a hint of oak from its nearly 20 months spent aging in French oak. This is also a food wine, paired exceptionally well with a selection of cheeses one afternoon with friends, and would be exquisite with a rich pasta dish of pappardelle and wild boar ragu.

If you need yet one additional reason to seek out Kelley & Young, let it be the heart that infuses what they do. In 2021, co-founder Kathleen Kelley Young lost her battle with colorectal cancer, prompting her family to honor her memory with creating the Kathleen Rose Fund with the American Cancer Society, which raises money that directly supports colon cancer research, education, and care. In the words of the immortal Mr. Stephen Sondheim, “I’ll drink to that.”

As always, Salud.


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