In the world of wine, there’s an old adage that great wine is made in the vineyard. Of course, without great fruit, it’s not possible to make great wine. Winemakers, talented as some of them are, can’t make quality wine with substandard fruit. When they have quality grapes, though, it’s a different story altogether. At that point, their creativity, skill, and know how all become instrumental in making something truly special. But, like many artists, winemakers don’t always get the recognition for some of their most creative art.

In America, for whatever reason, the market is dominated by single varietal bottles. Virtually everywhere I shop for wine, the section for domestic blends is by far the smallest. Maybe it’s because back when the California wine industry was building up, Chardonnay and Cabernet were king, and they haven’t relinquished the throne. Maybe it’s because the average customer finds single varietals easier to remember or more accessible. Maybe there really is a great market for blends and the industry just hasn’t found the right way to push it. Perhaps the why is of little concern.

In any case, blends are a chance to think outside the box, a chance to paint a masterpiece by combining the characters of select grapes, from select lots, in select portions. Blending wine takes a great deal of patience, good instincts, and with all the choices that can be involved, a bit of luck too.

For all their great efforts, we decided to try and give these folks a little extra recognition for all their most artistic wines. We gathered up blends from throughout California’s central coast and set out to discover the most out of the ordinary and the most extraordinary. Two separate blind tastings were conducted: one with only our tasting panel, the other with invited guests, none of whom were experts. Wines were initially tasted in flights based on main varietal or region. (For example: blends with Italian grapes were tasted together, Zinfandel based blends had a flight, etc.) Favorites from each flight were then placed into one of our four voting categories and tasted side-by-side with other advancing wines. A wine’s category was determined solely by the varietals in the blend. Traditional blends, such as Bordeaux-style or Rhone-style were put in the extraordinary field. Unusual blends were placed in the out-of-the-ordinary selections. Voting was done by secret ballot.

The categories included:

Most Extraordinary Red

Most Extraordinary White/Rose

Best Out-of-the-ordinary Wine

Most Out-of-the-ordinary Wine

Bordeaux Varietals Flight 

Bernardus 2007 Marinus

The Marinus Estate wine has been a process in the making. It took time to identify the best blocks of their vineyards and for newly selected clones to mature. With these elements in place, the vineyard team implemented a strict policy of shoot and cluster control and used earth-friendly farming techniques. The goal is to create the best possible wine each growing season.

Read the wine’s full review here.  

Chateau Julien 2007 La Conviviance

La Conviviance is a wine meant to represent some of the best Bordeaux varietals being grown in southern Monterey County. Winemaker Bill Anderson selected the final blend of Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2006 vintage was spectacular and given enough time to age, the 2007 vintage could reach similar heights.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Jada 2008 Strayts

The nameStrayts is an allusion to the journey of owner Jack Messina’s grandparents from Sicily across the Strait of Messina to the Italian mainland. Just as they crossed into a new realm, winemaker Scott Hawley has crossed Bordeaux with a bit of the Rhone to create something new.

Read the wine’s full review here. 

J. Lohr 2007 Cuvée St. E  

The inspiration for our J. Lohr Cuvée St. E comes from the Grand Cru wines of St. Emilion from the Right Bank of Bordeaux. These memorable wines are composed primarily from Cabernet Franc and Merlot with touches of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Red winemaker, Steve Peck, shows off his creativity with this Cuvée by putting together a blend focused on quality rather than adhering strictly to traditional varietal components.

Read the wine’s full review here. 

J. Lohr 2007 Cuvée PAU  

The inspiration for this blend comes from the Grand Cru wines of the Pauillac district of Bordeaux, composed primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot accents. The winemakers are given the freedom to emulate these great wines without the restrictions of varietal percentages, instead keenly focusing on the texture and complexity of the blend that Nature delivers with each vintage. 

Read the wine’s full review here.

Niner Wine Estates 2006 Fog Catcher

Part of the goal at Niner Wine Estates is to showcase the terroir of Paso Robles. The components for this blend were carefully selected from the best lots of fruit. The name refers to the belts of fog the grapes “catch” most mornings during the latter part of the growing season. The soft accessibility and particular floral notes make the blend extraordinarily Paso Robles.

Read the wine’s full review here.     

Nottingham Cellars 2007 Ralphi’s Red Blend

Nottingham Cellars winemaker Collin Cranor is only in his mid-twenties, but blends already have a special place in his heart. Ralphi’s Red has been a 60% Cabernet and 40% Merlot blend at the winery for the past few years and Collin plans on keeping it that way. Later this year, they’ll be releasing a new blend into the line-up, consisting of all five Bordeaux varietals, called Supremacy. It’s expected to be something quite special.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Occasio 2007 Sotto Voce

This blend is a first for Occasio. They had the winter season in mind and sitting in-front of the fire with friends and family on cold nights. The name, Sotto Voce, means under the breath. It’s a musical term used to describe a moment when words are uttered subtly for the audience to hear. The wine fits its moniker very well, as it’s subtle and light, offering lots of sweet spice and dark chocolate flavors.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Poetic Cellars 2007 Ballad

Ballads are often narrative poems set to music. They can tell tales of grand adventures or of great lovers. With this wine, winemaker Kathy Lovell tells an story of elegance, as classic Bordeaux varietals are brought together in harmony.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Italian Varietals Flight

August Ridge 2007 Ingenious

This wine is named in honor of August Zamborelli who was Jill Zamborelli Backer’s Grandfather. August Zamborelli was an Italian immigrant who came to this country from his native Italy and first worked as a coal miner in southern Colorado. He was an uneducated but intelligent man with a knack for finding solutions to technical problems and was able to create mechanisms or methods for doing most anything. His ingenuity quickly moved him out of the role of coal miner and into what we today would call a general engineering function tasked with building bridges, creating, modifying and repairing equipment, etc.

The wine honors August Zamborelli by presenting the same ingenious qualities. It is quite unusual to blend the delicate Nebbiolo with the robust Bordeaux varieties but the winemaking team at August Ridge pulled it off in their own ingenious way.

Read the wine’s full review here. 

Carmichael 2008 Sa Vini

Sa Vini is a saying from Italy that translates as “He who knows wine.” It’s a fitting name for this blend because finding that right balance of flavors takes a good deal of know how. Familiarity with the particular vineyards is a key element for success, and in this case the folks from Crū Wine Company certainly have their bases covered.

Read the wine’s full review here. 

Maloy O’ Neil 2007 Enzo

An usual blend for California, winemaker Shannon O’Neill combined the Italian varietals Sangiovese and Lagrein with a touch of Petit Verdot in an effort to produce balance and seamless flavors. The blend is inspired by and named after Shannon’s great uncle Vincenzo “Enzo” Infante, a very well known artist, of Gioi, Italy.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Steven Kent Winery Fratello

An atypical blend of Barbera, Petite Verdot, and Merlot put together by the good people at Steven Kent Winery, it’s not only delicious but also helps support a very worthy cause. The word Fratello means brother in Italian and a portion of the proceeds from this wine go to support all the men out there who are battling breast cancer. So enjoy a great wine and support a great cause at the same time.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Rhone Varietals Reds Flight

Carmichael 2008 Sur Le Pont

The name Sur Le Pont pays tribute to the town of Avignon, France as the winemaking team set out to show what Monterey County can do with traditional Rhone varietals. With their Carmichael label, they goal is to be just a bit different, making blends which don’t quite fit the usual parameters.

Read the wine’s full review here. 

Jada 2008 Hell’s Kitchen

Named after the old New York neighborhood that owner Jack Messina’s mother called home in her youth, Hell’s Kitchen is a traditional Rhone-style blend with a twist of Tannat for more structure and power. Winemaker Scott Hawley oversaw the blending and his creative touch shows through quite well with this rather out-of-the-ordinary wine.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Le Mistral 2007 Red Wine

Le mistral is the name given to the winds that make up such an intergal part of the French landscape. The winds of southern Monterey County are all that different. The breezes slow sugar production in the grapes and allow the expression of more rich, peppery flavors. Winemaker Miguel Martinez takes the selected fruit and carefully crafts a blend that shows just how extraordinary California’s Rhones can be.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Lone Madrone 2007 The Will

At Lone Madrone, out-of-the-ordinary blends are their specialty. Winemaker Neil Collins has over twenty years of experience, and clearly, all the time spent honing his craft has given him the necessary skill to match his creativity. With this wine, Neil combine Grenache Noir, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel to make a truly unusual and very tasty offering.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Poetic Cellars 2007 Mantra

Mantras are intended to bring one peace and balance, and this wine from Poetic Cellars lives up to its name. Taking the classic Rhone varietals Syrah and Mourvedre, winemaker Kathy Lowell added a twist of Sangiovese to make a truly balanced and out-of-the-ordinary wine.

Read the wine’s full review here. 

Ventana 2008 Rubystone

Syrah & Grenache are common Rhone varietals to blend. What sets the Rubystone wine apart is that all the fruit was sourced from the Arroyo Seco region in Monterey County. The area is much more widely known for Chardonnay and Riesling, but as this wine proves, quality reds can come out of the AVA as well.

Read the wine’s full review here.

White and Rosé Flight  

Carmichael 2009 Grigio e Bianco

Grigio e Bianco’ simply means ‘Gray and White’ in Italian, and refers to the grape varieties used in this blend. It’s a fitting name given the colors of the grapes and that the wine’s unusual blend moves it beyond the spectrum of traditional designation. A merger of Italian, French, and Spanish varietals from central coast vineyards, it’s not only very creative but also quite tasty.

Read the wine’s full review here. 

Le Mistral 2009 White Wine

Le mistral is the name given to the winds that make up such an integral part of the French landscape, and while the winds of change have seen the red Rhone varietals gain more popularity in California’s wine market, the whites seem to be sitting a bit behind. Winemaker Miguel Martinez offers us a blend which just might change a few minds and increase the number of converts.

Read the wine’s full review here.     

Pelerin 2009 Les Tournesols

The Les Tournesols blend (French for “Sunflowers”) is predominantly made from the Rhone varietal Roussanne. It’s an odd grape because, as winemaker Chris Weidemann puts it, the wine is bound, by turns, to seem fresh and bright, rich but muddled, then withdrawn or brooding – as if it were a subject seen through the cubist lens of Pablo Picasso. But at the end, despite its apparent moodiness, it always emerges as a more cohesive and satisfying wine than expected: one that is full of playful, complex, and intriguing angles.  

Read the wine’s full review here.

Veris Cellars 2009 Nova Vita Rosé

With the Nova Vita series. winemaker Chris Cameron and proprietor Matthew Talbert sought to select the highest preforming varietals from the best vineyards for each growing season. For their 2009Rosé, they blended the out-of-the-ordinary combination of Tempranilloand Grenache and achieved very favorable results.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Zinfandel Based Blends

 Burrell School 2006 Class Reunion

Burrell School’s origins date back to 1854 when Lyman J. Burrell settled the rough wilderness that is now home to our winery and Estate vines. Carrying on the more than 130 year old tradition at the School, Dave and Submit Siren Anne Moulton began development of the Estate vineyard in 1973. Their Class Reunion blend is a truly out-of-the-ordinary wine.

Read the wine’s full review here.


Ecluse 2008 Improv

The blend for this wine was conceived while testing barrels of Zinfandel and Syrah back in 2007. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision after people thought the two flavor profiles would compliment each other nicely. Given the circumstances of the wine’s conception, naming the finished product Improv is quite fitting.

Read the wine’s full review here.  

Ecluse 2007 Improv

This inaugural release of Improv was anxiously awaited by those who’d been able to taste the wine in barrel. A thoughtful pairing of Zinfandel and Syrah, this wine is just another example of the great, creative blends coming out of the Paso Robles region.

Read the wine’s full review here.    

Lone Madrone 2007 Barfandel

The name was winemaker Neil Collin’s idea, much to the chagrin of his sister Jackie. The blend was originally Barbera and Zinfandel, but Neil wanted the wine to have a bit more structure, so he added Petite Sirah. The name had already caught on, though, so it stuck, even if it wasn’t exactly representative. Enjoy it with good friends and good laughs.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Midnight Cellars 2007 Full Moon

With this wine, the goal was to create an easy-drinking, highly approachable bottle. Thus, winemaker Rich Hartenberger combined Syrah, Zinfandel, and Cabernet to create a lighter wine, with bright fruit, as well as a few hints of spice and oak. It’s great to pair with pizza and doesn’t require any pretense. Just open it and enjoy.

Read the full review of this wine here. 

Midnight Cellars 2005 Gemini

Winemaker Rich Hartenberger conceived of this blend. He wanted a wine that could showcase the wonderful heritage of Paso Robles Zinfandel along with the rising popularity of the area’s Syrah. With the Gemini wine, thanks to Rich’s great skill, it pays tribute to both the varietals and the region in a brilliant fashion.

Read the wine’s full review here. 

Pomar Juction 2007 Brooster

Looking to create a very nice wine at a very nice price, the folks at Pomar Juction combine orphaned barrels of Zinfandel, Syrah, and Merlot to produce a highly approachable red capable of pairing with a wide variety of meals. The fact that it’s under $15 is just an added bonus.

Read the wine’s full review here. 

Pomar Juction 2007 Fiesta

Marsha Merrill, mother of General Manager Matt, wanted a colorful wine that could be combine with local art. Combining Zinfandel, Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah in a blend made a fun wine with a bit of spice to match the festive label.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Open Flight (Wines without a clear classification) 

Ben Hogan 2008 Carnoustie

The man Ben Hogan was one-of-a-kind and the wines paying tribute to him strive to achieve the same billing. The Carnoustie blend, named after the famous golf course in Scotland, combines Syrah, Cabernet, and Merlot. It’s a distinctive wine, with layers of different flavors and a full mouthfeel.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Burrell School 2006 High School Sweethearts

The wine is named in honor of owners Anne and Dave Moulton, who were high school sweethearts. The peppery, bold Zinfandel is much like Dave, and the smooth, silky Syrah is reminiscent of Anne. In both cases, the two together make something better than they do apart.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Gatos Locos 2008 Red Wine

Not everyone would even think of blending Syrah and Pinot Noir together in fairly equal proportions. Even fewer wineries would actually do it. Maybe it has something to do with their Gatos Locos label, but the people at Vine Hill went for it. Now, you too can try this out-of-the-ordinary red blend, and you don’t have to be a crazy cat to enjoy it.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Hunt Cellars 2006 Que Sirah, Syrah

David Hunt spends a great deal of time blending. Even when barrels are tasting very well, he still strives to make them better, often experimenting relentlessly with new combinations of varietals or different percentages. That’s why his latest creation has a bit of irony to it. In David’s mind, blending Syrah & Petite Sirah wouldn’t work because they would be “two monsters fighting each other.” But to his surprise, the combination worked and worked really well on the first try. Further experiments changing the percentages were never as good as his first 50/50 blend, so that’s what we get in the bottle today, and it’s quite something!

Read the wine’s full review here.

J J Cellars 2009 Autumn Flight ZinBera

This blend of equal parts Zinfandel and Barbera was created at the request of JJ Cellars’ operations manager Betty Walker. She wanted to be able to offer their wine club members something very different. The first vintage sold out very quickly, so they trademarked the name and set out to make more. Absolutely an out-of-the-ordinary wine.

Read the wine’s full review here. 

Lone Madrone 2007 Von Dog

This blend pays tribute to winemaker Neil Collin’s dear friend Tom Vaughan, who passed away suddenly at the age of 54. Consisting of his three favorite varietals Tannat, Cabernet, and Syrah, it’s a wine that’s not for the faint of heart. Hearty cuts of meat or a rich cigar would be excellent pairings. So eat, drink, and be merry just as Tom did.

Read the wine’s full review here.

Pomar Juction 2008 Train Wreck

This wine was created on a “hunch” from Head Winemaker Kevin Riley. Knowing that a small amount of high quality Zinfandel and Mourvedre were both available, he enlisted General Manager Matt Merrill to obtain the fruit. Over time, Kevin added Petite Sirah and their estate Cabernet into the mix. The resulting blend was something quite out-of-the-ordinary that everyone was very happy with. Given the wine’s collision of different varietals, they decided a perfect name would be Train Wreck. Thus, the label depicts the famous train wreck at Paris’s Montparnasse Station in 1895.

Read the wine’s full review here.

The Results

Most Extraordinary Red Panel Award: J. Lohr Cuvée St. E

Most Extraordinary Red People’s Award: J. Lohr Cuvée St. E

Honorable Mentions: Le Mistral 2007 Red Wine, J. Lohr 2007 Cuvée PAU

Most Extraordinary White/ Rose Panel Award: Le Mistral 2009 White Wine

Most Extraordinary White/ Rose People’s Award: Veris Cellars 2009 Nova Vita Rosé

Honorable Mentions: Carmichael 2009 Grigio e Bianco

Best Out-of-the-ordinary Wine Panel Award: Hunt Cellars 2006 Que Sirah, Syrah

Best Out-of-the-ordinary Wine People’s Award: Steven Kent Winery 2008 Fratello

Honorable Mentions: August Ridge 2007 Ingenious, Lone Madrone 2007 The Will, Ecluse 2007 Improv, Occasio 2007 Sotto Voce, Jada 2008 Hell’s Kitchen, Poetic Cellars 2007 Mantra, Burrell School 2006 Class Reunion, Burrell School 2006 High School Sweethearts

Most Out-of-the-ordinary Wine Panel Award: JJ Cellars 2009 Autumn Flight ZinBera

Most Out-of-the-ordinary Wine People’s Award: Lone Madrone 2007 Von Dog

Honorable Mentions: Gatos Locos 2008 Red Wine