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Top 10 California wine pioneers in the UK

The Californian wine offering in the UK has come a long way in the last decade thanks to these trailblazers championing top drops from the Golden State.

Wind back the clock 10 years and the choice of California wines in the UK was embarrassingly thin on the ground.

A few well-known names like Ridge, Stag’s Leap and Au Bon Climat could be found but dig a little deeper and you’d be hard pressed to find anything from the plethora of boutique producers making some of the most exciting wines in the state.

But it wasn’t entirely the UK merchants’ fault – demand was such in the US that producers didn’t need to ship their wines abroad.

Though with an explosion of new producers on the scene championing a more refined style of Californian wine that put freshness first, British merchants started pricking their ears up, and as a result, the Californian wine scene is now thriving in the UK, having been championed by the likes of Roberson, Mission wine bar and fine wine merchant Hedonism.

Read on for our round-up of the top 10 Californian wine pioneers in the UK. If you feel we’ve missed anyone important out then let us know in the comment box below.


The husband and wife dream team behind Hoxton wine bar Sager + Wilde put their faith in the Golden State last summer when they opened Mission in London’s Bethnal Green.

Named after the first grape planted in California, the 60- seater bar shines a light on California, which the duo believe is “one of the most curious and dynamic” wine regions in the world.

Working with around 40 suppliers, Mission serves some of California’s more unusual drops, such as Jekel Vineyards Riesling, Birichino Vin Gris and Broc Cellars Carbonic Carignan.

In addition, rare older vintages of some of the state’s most highly prized wines are available by the glass via Coravin, with Ridge Monte Bello 1982, Littorai Pinot Noir 1999 and Williams Selyem Chardonnay 1999 all having gone on pour recently.

“With a lot of our wines, we buy single bottles, some of which are the last bottle left in the marketplace,” says Charlotte.

The pair have teamed up with Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman of Domaine de la Côte in the Santa Rita Hills to produce a Sager + Wilde own-label Pinot Noir, which is on pour at Mission by the glass and bottle.

“Rajat has been a great mentor to us. We believe Domaine de la Côte will become a leader in cellar-worthy American Pinot,” says Michael.

Both Charlotte and Michael believe Californian wine has entered a new era: “With a return to elegance, it’s an exciting time for Californian wine. The array of terroirs and diversity of styles is compelling,” they say.


Another young gun banging the Californian drum is Mark Andrew of Roberson, who has spearheaded the merchant’s recent foray into the region.

Keen to represent the best of what American wine writer Jon Bonné has dubbed “the New California”, Andrew began his quest by taking on the Pinots made by Wall Street trader turned winemaker Jamie Kutch and soon added Chardonnay specialist Sandhi to the portfolio, which now includes over 30 small producers from the state, such as Moobuzz, Wind Gap and Broc Cellars.

“Tasting Kutch’s wines woke me up to the idea that California wasn’t just about big blockbusters. I felt that it was time to take a second look,” says Andrew, adding, “There was an opportunity to reset the UK market’s view of California and I knew that I would be a fool not to get involved.”

To showcase its growing portfolio, last April Roberson hosted “New California”, an event which included a tasting of its California range and a talk by Bonné about the rapid stylistic revolution taking place in the region. Andrew believes the tasting helped show people the new face of California.

“There’s a lot more to California than Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We’re really proud of our range and are happy to have some sort of influence on the narrative,” says Andrew, adding, “The reds are becoming fresher, brighter and lighter but no less complex for it, while the whites are moving away from the heavy, buttery style towards a more mineral, vibrant style that pairs well with food.”

He believes the terroir conversation will become increasingly relevant to California. “There has been a shift in emphasis towards wines with a sense of place, from the Sonoma Coast to the Santa Rita Hills. California has incredibly diverse terroirs, which are beginning to shine,” he says.


Featuring one of the most comprehensive selections of Californian wines in the UK, Wolfgang Puck’s upmarket steakhouse Cut at 45 Park Lane has done much to bring wines from the Golden State to London’s well-heeled gastronomes.

Looking after the 600 bin wine list is Turin-born head sommelier Vanessa Cinti, whom Puck plucked from Spago in Colorado to help launch his debut London venture in late 2011.

Nearly half of Cut’s wine offering is American, with California taking the lion’s share of spots on the list, which includes the likes of Bonny Doon, Sine Qua Non, Kistler, Stag’s Leap, Harlan, Schrader and Screaming Eagle.

The surge in interest on the part of UK wine suppliers has made it easier for Cinti to manage her list. “We wanted to have a strong American focus but when we opened in 2011 it was hard to get hold of a lot of the wines, meaning I had to source a lot of them directly.

It’s great that companies like Roberson have invested in Californian wines as it has expanded the offering in the UK,” she says. Cinti has made small producers her current focus and has begun sourcing a number of niche wines that aren’t widely available outside California to keep her list fresh and exciting.

“The beauty of Californian wines is that there is a variety of approachable, enticing styles. I love both the big juicy reds and the more delicate, refined styles. It all depends on my mood,” she says.


Opened in August 2012, Russian-backed Hedonism Wines in Mayfair is an oenophile’s delight, boasting bucket-list wines in their droves.

In addition to a strong French focus, the wine Mecca has also carved a niche for itself via an impressive Californian wine offering, with over 800 wines from the state on sale, ranging from £9.90 all the way up to £7,685 for a bottle of the inaugural 1992 vintage of cult wine Screaming Eagle.

Presiding over the wine offering is ex- Harrods buyer Alistair Viner, a longtime lover of Californian wine.

“California is a good bridge from the Old World to the New World and offers wines that appeal to a wide range of people via fruity, easy drinking wines to those with serious ageing potential,” he says.

For Viner, “The region has a lot to offer in terms of diversity – Napa boasts one of the most diverse terroirs in such a small stretch of land of anywhere in the world.” In addition, he notes, “Producers are planting closer to the ocean, which is leading to some spectacularly good wines.

Winemakers have shifted their focus towards making terroir-driven wines with structure and depth as well as ageing potential.”

Hedonism’s owner Evgeny Chichvarkin was keen from the start to shine a light on quirky Ventura County producer Sine Qua Non, run by Manfred Krankl, who, in addition to making a dizzying array of wines from Rhône varieties, creates the artwork for the labels.

Already selling for crazy money at auction, after news emerged last September that Krankl had been hospitalised following a serious motorbike accident, leaving the future of Sine Qua Non in doubt, Viner has experienced unprecedented demand for the wines.

“They move as soon as we put them on sale. People view them as works of art as much as wines,” he says.


Making a name for itself with a Burgundy focus, it was a natural progression for independent merchant Flint Wines to begin exploring the Chardonnays and Pinots on offer elsewhere.

Entering the US via Oregon, Flint has recently taken on a number of cool-climate Californian estates, from Knez and Anthill Farm to Snowden.

Flint’s co-owner, Jason Hayes, has noticed a change in ethos in California recently. “A younger generation is rising up through the ranks and the focus has shifted to smaller, vineyard-led cuvées,” he says, adding, “Producers are picking earlier in order to lock in the freshness.”

Haynes has sought out small producers that fit with the merchant’s philosophy, alhough small means less wine to go around, which has resulted in a few lucky sommeliers being offered Flint’s entire allocation of certain wines.

“We offered Romain Audrerie of the Chiltern Firehouse all of our Knez Chardonnay 2011 and he’s getting through a case-and- a-half a week,” he says. And as Burgundy edges up in price, Haynes believes sommeliers will increasingly look to California for better value alternatives for their wine lists.

Haynes has been particularly impressed by the food-friendly nature of the Chardonnays and Pinots coming out of California recently. “We’re specifically seeking food-friendly wines with good tension and a lively quality.

Some of the new wave Chardonnays have higher acidity levels and a lovely saline character that evolves in the glass,” he says, blaming the strength of the domestic market as a reason for it taking so long for the top stuff from California to make its way over to the UK.

“California’s rising stars are making the effort to ship their wines to the UK as it’s a point of pride for them to see their wines listed in London’s top Michelin- starred restaurants,” says Haynes.


One of the first UK merchants to get behind California in a big way was Fields, Morris & Verdin – a relationship that began when Meursault producer Dominic Lafon introduced Jasper Morris MW to Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat in the ‘90s.

“A lot of our Californian agencies came about through introductions from other clients – it’s quite incestuous really,” explains the merchant’s commercial director Damian Carrington.

To this day, FMV continues to work with some of California’s biggest names, from Ridge and Qupé to Frog’s Leap, with Birichino in Santa Cruz the company’s most recent addition. “All of the Californian wineries we work with share a belief that wine is made to be drunk rather than traded,” enthuses Carrington.

“A quest for balance and elegance rather than Parker point chasing over-extraction is a common thread. They aren’t trying to be anything other than Californian but their inspiration is more Old World in terms of balance, elegance and longevity.”

He believes that a shift has taken place both in terms of young winemakers focusing on food-friendly styles, and consumer perceptions of Californian wine changing for the better in the UK.

“Consumers have come around to Californian wines and now realise that the state produces more than just 16% abv Zinfandels,” he says, citing young restaurateurs like Will Lander of the Quality Chop House in Farringdon and Charlotte and Michael Sager- Wilde of Mission as fantastic trumpet-blowers for Californian wine in the UK.


Another California stalwart is The Wine Treasury, which has carved a niche as an American wine specialist.

Working with 40 Californian producers, including Sean Thackery, Duckhorn, Caymus, Silver Oak, Golden Eye, Kistler, Schug and Flowers, managing director James Doidge has noticed a recent “groundswell of interest” in Californian wines in the UK.

“The tide seems to have turned and it’s not surprising as California is a fascinating region with great diversity capable of delivering distinctive wines from an array of grapes, from Napa Valley Cabernet to Santa Barbara Syrah,” he says.

Doidge believes a strengthening of the pound against the dollar has helped make Californian wines more widely available in the UK. He also thinks that Jon Bonné’s The New California book has helped change consumer perceptions about the region’s wines.

“The book illustrates that producers are paying attention to balance and elegance. There have always been these kinds of high acid, bright fruited wines in the region, like Flowers and Schug, they just haven’t got the attention they deserve,” says Doidge.

Like Roberson and Flint, The Wine Treasury specifically seeks out small producers with a story to tell, making quality wines with personality and integrity. Having been an early pioneer of Californian wines, Doidge welcomes the new players on the UK market.

“There are a lot of great Californian wineries that aren’t represented in the UK but should be. There’s only so much we can take on, so having other UK importers in the game is a good thing,” he says.


Dubbed “the temple of Californian wine” by Jancis Robinson MW, The Vineyard at Stockcross in Berkshire is home to the largest Californian wine list in the world – more than 800 bins from a 30,000-bottle cellar.

The California connection comes courtesy of owner Sir Peter Michael, creator of Classic FM and head honcho of the Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma.

Presided over by head sommelier Romain Bourger, well-known regions like Napa and Sonoma are generously represented on the list, along with a vast collection from more obscure sub-regions like Potter Valley, Chalk Hill, Mount Veeder, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Yolo County.

“If our customers are into Bordeaux or Burgundy, we try to suggest a similar alternative from California,” says Bourger, who is also keen for diners to experiment with California’s less widely planted grape varieties like Riesling, Pinot Gris, Albariño and Viognier.

In addition to a vast selection from the Peter Michael Winery, the list is peppered with the likes of Kistler, Littorai and Hyde de Villaine, alongside big guns like Château Montelena, Stag’s Leap, Dominus and Opus One.

“Winemakers in California are starting to view single vineyard sites in the same way a composer would different instruments in a symphony.

Each has their role to play, either as a solo act or as part of an orchestra,” says Bourger, who believes consumers are waking up to the fact that Californian Cabernets can age gracefully.

He has recently put on a series of older Cabernets from the Peter Michael Winery, Montelena and Caymus by the glass via Coravin.


While better known for its French and Italian focus, Berkmann Wines has a Californian wine champion in the form of purchasing director Alex Hunt MW.

“I’ve always had a keen eye on California as a place capable of making high-quality, distinctive, authentic wines,” he says. “The difference at the moment is that it’s becoming possible to sell them.”

Hunt is actively seeking out “inherently delicious Californian wines that communicate something about their origins, offer good value for money and belong on the table with food.”

He has been heartened by the recent success stories in the UK market, as consumers wake up to the wealth of great sites and winemaking talent in the region. He also believes that cooler vintages like 2011 have helped demonstrate the beauty of more elegant and restrained Californian wines.

“The obsession with over-ripe Californian wines is waning as growing numbers of winemakers shift their focus to pleasing themselves and their restaurant clients rather than a few critics,” says Hunt, who believes the Pinots from the region in particular show great promise.

“California has a potential with Pinot Noir that beats any region outside Burgundy. The diversity is stunning, from Mendocino down to Santa Barbara, there are magnificent wines being made by committed winemakers who are seeking – and managing – to capture a sense of place,” he enthuses.


Another importer that has recently started eyeing up California is Pol Roger UK, which currently represents Staglin Family Vineyards and Robert Sinskey Vineyards in this market.

“The quality of wines coming out of California is outstanding, and with Bordeaux struggling with a set of less exciting vintages, there seems to be a demand from the top end of the UK trade for the best Californian wines from the very best producers,” explains MD James Simpson MW, who is due to take on two new California agencies, Abreu and Dalla Valle, this year.

Simpson is particularly excited about the growing acceptance of, and respect for, terroir differences within Napa and Sonoma.

“At the top end, the Napa Cabernets are the equal to, and some might argue even better than, the equivalent wines coming out of Bordeaux.

With riper tannins, they are more approachable early on but can also reward lengthy ageing,” says Simpson, who compares the top AVAs for Napa Cabernet, Oakville, Rutherford, Stags Leap, Howell Mountain and St Helena, to Pomerol, St Emilion, St Julien, Pauillac, Margaux and St Estèphe.

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