5 independent winemakers to try at your next home tasting

The amazing winemakers highlighted here all make wine for Naked Wines, a wine company that supports independent winemakers around the world while giving customers access to premium wines at prices up to 60 percent off retail.

Because of Naked Wines’ unique direct-to-consumer model, winemakers have creative control to produce new and interesting wines without worrying about marketing, finance and other time-consuming tasks. This creative freedom means Naked Wines offers unique takes on your favorite varietals at a price point where it’s easy to try something new.

For this tasting, I received a case from Naked Wines to try. I tasted one wine from the Lodi AVA, two from the Clarksburg AVA (both in California), and one from the Columbia Valley AVA in Washington. I also tried an unspecified AVA California wine.

I invited a few neighbors over to share the bottles and get a few more opinions on the wine. There were four of us tasting the wines, each with different levels of wine experience. A friend is very experienced, having lived near Napa Valley for a few years. My neighbor is a wine tasting novice. and my other neighbor prefers sweeter wines.

At the end of the tasting, I asked everyone to pick their favorite. This had never happened to me before and I used to run a wine club: No one could choose because we liked all the wines we tried. I am a big red wine drinker, but this tasting reminded me that I only drank white wine and now I remembered why I loved it so much.

Editor’s note: Host your own Naked Wines tasting party with this great deal TravelAwaits readers: 6 bottles of wine for $34.99, including shipping! Use code: TRAVELAWAITS50.

The five naked wines I tasted were all created by a different winemaker.

Photo: Peggy Cleveland

1. F. Stephen Millier

Lodi AVA in California

Winemaker Stephen Millier has an interesting story. He was the first American winemaker to join Naked Wines in 2012. When he joined, Naked Wines was a younger company and he jumped at the chance.

“The idea was to have winemakers in control of their wines and interact with customers rather than working behind a wall,” Millier said. “I don’t think anyone realized how successful it would become – it was just an idea [Naked founder Rowan Gormley] wanted to try. As they say, the rest is history!”

Little did Millier realize what the partnership would mean for him. He has now put his name on over a million bottles. He is so successful with Naked Wines that he is the #1 direct-to-consumer winemaker in the United States.

We tried the F. Stephen Millier Angels Reserve Lodi Pinot Grigio. This light and refreshing wine is made from grapes from the Millier estate. With California’s extreme heat, he makes sure his fruit is harvested at night, which helps protect the delicate grapes.

Pro tips: Serve the pinot grigio chilled. It is a light, delicate wine that pairs best with salads, chicken, seafood, light pasta dishes and risotto. Millier likes to serve it with steamed mussels and mussels served in a salty broth with pieces of fresh sourdough bread.

Karen Birmingham Pinot Grigio on a platter

Karen Birmingham Pinot Grigio

Photo: Peggy Cleveland

2. Karen Birmingham

Clarksburg AVA in California

Winemaker Karen Birmingham has an amazing depth of experience. Beginning her winemaking career as a consumer, she spent her weekends touring and tasting at California wineries. Worked as oenologist for Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Winery on their 70,000+ barrel program. Each day, she tasted over 100 barrels and worked to create blends, which trained her palate. She then went on to work in a family winery, which was smaller but had a vineyard known for its fruit, giving her the opportunity to make high quality wines. Because of her relationships with farmers, she is able to make wine for Naked Wines from some of the best vineyards in the area.

We tasted Karen Birmingham Clarksburg Pinot Grigio 2021. It was a delight. Birmingham describes it as “the perfect white wine to drink every day”. Pinot grigio is my favorite white, and I really enjoyed this one. It’s full of fruity lemon-lime flavor, but has a subtle, light flavor that’s not overpowering. It pairs perfectly with pasta dishes with subtle sauces, such as vegetable lasagna or pasta salad. Like most whites, it pairs well with chicken, seafood, grilled vegetables and cheese.

3. Katy And Justin Michaud

Columbia Valley AVA in Washington

Winemakers Katy and Justin Michaud are both successful winemakers in their own right, but have always dreamed of working together to produce one wine. Katy has worked with top Washington wineries including Canoe Ridge and Kim Crawford. Justin collected gold medals for Coyote Canyon, a boutique winery in Washington.

“We are excited to bring our individual styles together under our family brand Michaud and look forward to seeing what this new venture and the amazing Naked Wines has in store for us [members] that made it possible,” Katy explained.

“Two heads are better than one,” she said of working with her husband. “I will say that there will be creative differences and that I’m mostly right.”

We tasted the 2021 batch of Michaud Columbia Valley Riesling. Naked Wines Angels (the affectionate term for their members comes from “Angel investors”) have made it the most decorated riesling sold on the site. It is so popular that it has been sold on the site for 9 years.

I’m not a fan of sweet wine, so I tried this Riesling with some trepidation. Rieslings vary so much from a drier wine that some winemakers will label “dry riesling” to so sweet to me that it’s like a Boones Farm Strawberry Hill (also the gateway wine for many before their palate develops). The Michaud riesling has just the right touch, with the peach contrasting the citrus flavors, which keeps this wine from being overly sweet. The Michauds’ favorite pairing is spicy curry. It also goes great with oysters and grilled halibut.

4. Richard Bruno

Clarksburg AVA

Winemaker Richard Bruno has made wines for some of the biggest names in the business and this has given him the opportunity to visit vineyards throughout California’s coastal wine region. It was here that he had the foresight to source high quality fruit at a good price. Naked Wines drinkers can enjoy its premium wine at a reasonable price.

“I love the unpredictability of winemaking – not knowing where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing before I wake up,” Bruno said. “And I love working with like-minded, quality-oriented people to make a unique product.”

We tried Richard Bruno Clarksburg Chenin Blanc 2021. The fruit for this wine comes from a fourth generation family farm in the cooler climate Clarksburg AVA. Chenin blanc usually produces a dry wine, but a cooler climate produces a slightly sweeter grape.

“Chenin blanc is so pure and light with wonderful fruit flavors and aromas. It’s great on a hot day by the pool and it’s great with a wide variety of food,” Bruno said. The recommended pairing is with a beetroot salad tossed in a champagne vinaigrette with goat cheese and roasted and chopped almonds.

DH Elliott California Sauvignon Blanc 2020 with platter

DH Elliott California Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Photo: Peggy Cleveland

5. DH Elliott

Unspecified California AVA

Winemaker DH Elliott has 54 vintages and more than 42 years of experience. His forte is making good wines at incredible value for wine giants like Total Wines and Bevmo. During what he refers to as his “gypsy” winemaking years, he traveled to vintages in New Zealand, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Elliott signed with Naked Wines because he wanted to make some killer wines at a great value for the Angels.

“I want to make all the wines I call ‘moreish,'” he explained. “Wine that as soon as I drink the first sip, they make me want more.”

We tried the 2020 DH Elliott California Sauvignon Blanc, which I found light and crisp with a nice citrus flavor. This wine is excellent value for such a premium-tasting wine. The recommended pairing is grilled chicken with fresh pesto pasta, but it’s a very food-friendly wine that pairs well with a variety of food choices. For our tasting, I included pita chips with sweet and spicy pepper relish mixed with Philadelphia cream cheese. This proved to be a great pairing with all the white wines we tried, but I particularly enjoyed it with Elliott’s Sauvignon Blanc.

Naked wines

As part of my research for this article, I went through the Naked Wines website. Every time I learned something new. Naked Wines has a variety of groups you can join, including Wine Newbies. It’s similar to a Facebook group and you can interact with other wine lovers and also see comments from Naked Wines staff.

I read comments and reviews noting the excellent customer service of Naked Wines. If someone didn’t like a wine and mentioned it in the comments, a member of the Customer Happiness Team responded and showed them how to get a refund or a replacement bottle.

I also learned that there is a Wine Advisor group. When you call, you can speak to someone who will recommend wines based on your likes and dislikes. Many Naked Wines vintages sell out, so if you really like a wine, you can put your name on the list to reserve bottles of the next vintage. Two weeks out, you’ll be notified by email and you can decide if you still want them. No payment is required for the reservation.

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