Monday, December 29, 2008

Small is Beautiful: Rediscovering Napa

Before heading up to the Great White North (well, only Mt. Shasta, but to the flatlander citizens of the Bay Area, the "real" Northern California might as well be part of Alaska), I headed to Napa for an overnight wine-tasting trip that was my kind of start to my two-week long winter break from job No. 1.

The main focus of the trip was a personal tour & barrel tasting -- a perk of the wine club that Brian has never taken advantage of, despite being a member for the last three years) -- at St. Supery in Rutherford. They're one of the big guys along Hwy 29 that we discovered on our first wine-tasting exursion. It was a fun peek into the production of a 100,000-case, award-winning winery. Periennial greeter Don took us through the winery and then the lineup of wines upstairs, but we finished with crusty Joe, who felt like the neighborhood barkeep. I knew we would have fun cruising around our usual stomping grounds, but the stop that caught me by surprise was Baldacci.

Brian's friend (and fellow law school student) Eric was a member there, being one of those "big Napa Cab" fans. I had looked at the websites of the three wineries he said he was a member at and picked Baldacci as the one to include in our itinerary since they also made a Syrah & Pinoit Noir, albeit with a major focus on Cab. We pull into the modest facility off of Silverado Trial and navigate the rocky driveway to pull up to a cluster of small wooden buildings (the members' Trailside House tasting room was separate) a bit late.

As our group of 7 hustle into the cozy, "appointment-only" tasting building, the two women behind the bar give us a warm welcome. Turns out they had already called Eric to make sure we were on our way. Points for hospitality. The gals pour us the '06 Allwin Syrah, which packed a whollop of white & black pepper but not enough fruit for me, followed by the '05 IV Sons Cab, a smooth, currant-and-spice palate pleaser from Stags Leap that is the entry-level offering in Baldacci's line-up of Cabs. Next was the '05 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, with the right balance of Rutherford "dust" and plummy, brambly & briery notes; then a surprise find of the '04 Black Label Cab, which was more velvety but somehow less distinct to me; and then the Brenda's Vineyard and the Ruppert Cabs -- both were too austere for my taste (and too pricey for my wallet!). I inquired about their Pinot Noir (they are currently offering the '05 and '06 Elizabeth from Carneros) and they opened a bottle of the '05, which won me over with the bright cherry, New World notes upfront and a healthy dose of Burgundian-style earthiness and duskiness on the finish. They also offered up the '05 Frederich Gewürztraminer, a zesty, slightly honeyed effort with good acidity. I traded a bit of shop-talk with the wine pourers and they gave me & mine a nice discount.

The day was finished up by a stop at Peju. Although the setting was lovely (we tasted in the jaw-dropping, new quartzite-marble-and-glass tasting room), the pourer was a bit too slick and rehearsed. I enjoy their consistently good wines best at home, in my wine club shipment. But it is handy to know I can always drop in at the end of the day, since they're open 'til 6. ;-)

For Christmas I got a fabulous book: A Moveable Thirst: Tastes and Tales From a Season in Napa Wine Country. I'm only 100 pages in and already I have 3 wineries on my must-see list on my next trip to Napa. I know it's easy to write Napa off as the touristy part of wine country but that valley makes some damn fine wines. And there are many top-notch, family-run wineries that are a welcome refuge from the hordes. Thankfully, when visiting in Napa I tend to go where either I'm a member or someone in my group is. Preferential treatment is a must in the grape capital of the country.

Cheers toward a 2009 full of change!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A crisp, clean white gem (a snowflake for Dec.)

Just in time for the cold snap that has taken a hold of the Bay Area I have discovered an awesome crisp, refreshing white wine -- yes, I'm quite unseasonable. On a recent late-night, spur-of-the-moment walk with some friends, a bundled-up B & I moseyed into our local wine bar and, as they were out of Spinyback Sauv Blanc that we had tried there a week before, the owner recommended Der Pollerhof Gruner Veltliner. At $12 for a 1-liter bottle (with a handy pull tab to remove the foil, I might add), it was a steal -- and a unanimous winner in the tastebuds department.

With citrus & melon notes, the medium-high acidity and sweetness enticed our tongues and pepped us up for the walk back to the house. It had a slight effervescent quality and a hint of petrol like a good Riesling as well as a floral finish that lingered to tempt one into having another glass. I need to buy a case of this wine -- enough to last until spring and the return of Sunset and Dirtybird parties. This wine would be a perfect picnic quaffer, for the days out in the park groovin' to deep house and wonky tech-house jams.

But on this cold night, we had it with chimichurri salmon and white acorn squash roasted with garlic, thyme, oregano, and Italian parsley. Its light texture went well with the complex but not overdone flavors of the salmon & squash. A Pinot probably would have been even better, but, hey, I'm in denial that it's December...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Urban Wineries -- East Bay Trailblazers

The urban winery trend is blowing up. The New York Times mentioned East Bay wineries not once, but twice, in the past week. The main story was a trend article that featured my employer, JC Cellars, and brought a lot of people into the tasting room since it ran on Nov. 14. "I'm embarassed I had to read the Times to find out you guys were here," was the explanation I heard from quite a few people. They invariably mentioned how nice it was not to have to drive up to Napa or Sonoma or down to the Central Coast to get their winery fix. I agree, although I must say I love to be surrounded by acres of vineyards planted on the rolling hills. The view out the door of JC Cellars yesterday: a white truck with graffiti covering its side panel. Urban indeed.

I thought it was high time that the Times featured East Bay urban wineries considering the paper's wine critic Eric Asimov touched on the urban winery movement in a blog post this fall but failed to mention a single one of the East Bay wineries, despite the fact they are among the pioneers of this trend! Now urban winemakers from the shining city across the bay are following the lead of the East Bay Urban Vintners Alliance and have formed the San Francisco Wine Association. With 16 members the association is off to a great start, however none of those member wineries have tasting rooms. So apart from one-off special events, it seems as though City dwellers will still be hopping on BART to come over to the sunny side of the bay to taste in one of the East Bay's seven tasting rooms.

Sadly, we're losing one of those tasting rooms, as Lost Canyon Winery, purveyors of some tasty Pinot Noir and Syrah, is shutting its doors following a sale to Fritz Wineryof Sonoma. Fritz will continue to pour Lost Canyon's wares at their tasting rooms in Sonoma and San Francisco, but it's sayonara to Lost Canyon's very urbane facility just off Oakland's Embarcadero (and within walking distance of my house)after Nov. 30.

But where one door shuts, another opens, and Two Mile Winery reportedly started pouring its wines at their new south Berkeley tasting room on San Pablo at Grayson St. -- another gritty industrial neighborhood that means the new digs fit in nicely with the other asphalt-locked tasting rooms of the East Bay. Two Mile makes some delicious Viognier (sorry, the '07 vintage is sold out) and also offers Sangiovese, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and a Cab Sauv/Merlot blend.

In addition, while it is still a couple of years away, the grapes for RockWall Winery are happily aging in the JC Cellars/Dashe winery. RockWall is the new winery from Kent Rosenblum, his brother, and another partner. As you may know, Kent, the mentor of many East Bay winemakers, is the winemaker and founder of Rosenblum, the granddaddy of East Bay wineries. After huge corporation behemoth Diageo bought Rosenblum in January (much to the dismay and grumblings of local wineaux), Kent was retained as winemaker for five years, however he reportedly had to sign a three-year non-compete clause. Hence the JC/Dashe warehouse serving as the temporary home of for the RockWall grapes. I've heard Rockwall will be located on the old Alameda Naval Air Station base, close to Hangar One -- and not far from Rosenblum itself. Now, will we do the vodka/brandy/absinthe tasting before or after hitting the tasting rooms?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Rosé 'n Techno

I know I've been neglecting the techno aspect of this blog, so since I'm inspired to actually post twice in one day(!), I thought I'd share the first of what will be a series of techno-and-wine pairings.

We've been experiencing a lovely Indian Summer in the Bay Area lately, and as I was sitting outside reading the paper in the warm fall sun today I was listening to a fabulous mellow techno set from Reference, which you can find (and download) here.

If it hadn't have been the middle of the day with more work to do, I would have been sippin' on a lovely, fruit-laden rosé, like one of JC Cellars' 100% Syrah offerings (on sale for $7 -- yes $7! -- and perfect for Thanksgiving dinner) or Incognito's Pink; both of which Brian and I enjoyed this weekend given the record-breaking warm weather. Sun, easy-to-enjoy wine, and well-programmed, rich beats -- what more is there to ask for!

Faux Winemaker - Exercise in Blending Franciscan Wines

Sadly, my wine class through UC Berkeley extension came to an end last Thursday with the final class covering blind tasting and blending. I've surprised myself and gotten fairly decent at the former, with the instructor not even letting me guess half the time so as to not steal the thunder for the other 10 folks! Hmmmm.... But I hadn't ever tried to blend my own wine, so I was also pleasantly surprised when I ended up liking my Bordeaux blend better than Franciscan's blend, which the winer calls Magnificat.

Franciscan, who conducts blending seminars at the winery and for events, gave my instructor single bottlings of the five Bordeaux grapes as well as a couple bottles of their own Magnificat (73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 2% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc). The winery also gave him plenty of schwag, however they forgot to include the description of Magnificat, so we didn't know the particulars of their blend. However, after having it, I don't think I would have tried to copy it anyway!

Some of Franciscan's single bottlings didn't seem very true to varietal with the Merlot particularly striking me as aggressively tannic instead of the grape's usual smooth and silky nature, while the Cab Franc didn't emit those tell-tale green pepper notes but rather lots of rich clove. My blend was roughly 30% Cabernet Sauvignon (which I used for its unexpected smoothness), 22% Cabernet Franc (loved its spicey & earthy characteristics), 22% Petite Verdot (for its floral and fruit notes), 17% Merlot (added for structure due to its high acid and tannins); and 9% Malbec (for its violet perfume and silky mouthfeel).

I wish we would have had enough wine to make a bottle to take home -- or at least enough for a dozen or so tastes to share with the class, as I was quite happy with my conconction!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

There's gold in those hills -- Wines of the Sierra Foothills

My favorite region to wine taste in of late is the Sierra Foothills. I'm continually impressed with the diverse wines that come out of Amador, El Dorado & Calaveras counties. In Amador County my favorites are Cooper, with its fabulous spicy Sangiovese, fruity Barbera & smooth Merlot and Sobon for its jammy ReZerve Zin. In El Dorado County Boeger is so popular it is often overrun with visitors, but I'm won over by their sense of humor (see the sign on the lawn above) and their peppery Walker Zin and Migliore reserve Italian blend. Luckily they have reserve tasting in a quaint little cellar (check out the heart lock on the door in the pic below) so you can get away from the crowds! Also in the El-Do is David Girard, a recent find that surprised me with its Grenache, made in a lighter style than I'm used to, but lovely with clove and strawberries on the nose and a silky mouthfeel.

I haven't made it to Calaveras County tasting yet -- in fact, I only recently discovered some of the fabulous wines the hardworking folks are making up there. Twisted Oak in Murphys has stolen my heart with its Spanish varietals -- the Torcido Grenache is an amazingly rich blend of mainly Grenache with a bit of Petite Sirah (interesting combo I rarely see) that is loaded with red fruit & baking spices; The Spaniard flagship wine is a delicious blend of Tempranillo, Grenache & Graciano (one of my fave grapes and a varietal rarely produced in CA, although Bokisch has one as well); and of course there's the season-appropriate River of Skulls Mourvedre -- who can resist a winery that prints a spoooooky red skull directly on the bottle?

Aside from Twisted Oak, which is led by the irrepressible Jeff Stai (known as "El Jefe" to the Twisted followers) and his army of rubber chickens, Hatcher (also in Murphys) makes a commendable Mourvedre and a dynamite Viognier. I paired their Viognier, with its orange blossom-and-honeysuckle floral, stone fruit, and honey-laden notes with tacos of shrimp, whole pinto beans, and homegrown grape tomatoes topped with avocado, cilantro, sour cream & a trace of hot sauce. Can you say "yum?" Brian couldn't get enough of it, declaring it "the best meal you've made to date" -- he's saying that a lot lately and I don't get tired of hearing it!

Tonight we're making caprese salad (yes, still holding on to summer despite the torrential rains this weekend) with basil and tomatoes from our waning garden and creamy pesto ravioli. To drink we're stepping away from the hills and across the pond to Italy for either the Querciabella (a biodynamic winery in Tuscany) Chianti or Mongrana, a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that London Daily Telegraph wine writer Jonathan Ray called " of the best Italian wines I’ve had in ages."

Mangia e salute!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Inside Look at Michel-Schlumberger

One of the highlights of the Wine Bloggers' Conference this past weekend in Sonoma was the vineyard walk Saturday morning. The early birds got to pick from 5 options, but chronically late me got there when the vans were pulling away and hopped in one of the last ones. Turns out I stumbled upon the best one by pure dumb luck--as we turned onto the Michel-Schlumberger property nestled into the Wine Creek Canyon part of Dry Creek Valley, Allan of Zephyr Wine Adventures confessed that M-S was the company's top-rated wine walk in Sonoma. He didn't want to influence people's choices by telling them that ahead of time, but I'm sure that's the reason he and conference co-founder Joel Vincent of Open Wine Consortium were along for the ride--and walk.

Winemaker Mike Brunson, a fourth-generation Sonoman, led us through a 20-acre parcel on Bradford Mountain that was formerly a tractor-repair property that had never hosted vines until 1998, a year after Jacques Schlumberger and his wife Barbara purchased it. The winery is committed to organic farming and also employs some biodynamic practices. Mike pointed out that the adjacent winery is also organic, providing a haven for wildlife and peace of mind for M-S as there is no chemical drift.

The permanent cover crop in the vineyard preserves the soil structure and ensures that the water run-off into Wine Creek is clean, important for the salmon and steelhead that spawn in the creek during the spring. M-S is critter central, with fish, sheep, raptors, chickens, etc. all on the property. The winery has four resident Babydoll sheep who, along with another 10 the winery brings in periodically, roam the rows nibbling on the grass and cover crop, keeping it down to a manageable level and "fertilizing" as they go. "They're the basset hounds of the sheep world," Mike said, explaining that they have short legs that let them pass under the irrigation lines but don't allow them to reach the berries. He pointed out the blocks the sheep graze in are more healthy than those that don't get paid a visit by the Babydolls.

The down side of a permanent cover crop is that it provides a gopher-friendly environment. In 2002 M-S lost 700 vines to gophers, Mike noted, so after that year they doubled the number of raptor perches in the vineyards. "They came and ate like it was a burger stand," he laughed, pointing out that the big trees on the property also encourage the presence of raptors. M-S has resident chickens that the winery uses for insect control, manure for fertilization, and egg white fining for the red wines. Mike noted that organic farming means you have to be proactive rather than reactive, so the crew at M-S builds up the soil with nitrates and an insectory mix rather than dumping fertilizer on it.

After pulling a bit of a hill in warmer-than-expected temperatures that led to many of us working up a decent sweat, we paused to taste some barrel samples waiting for us on a picnic table in the shade under a big oak. The '07 Petite Verdot was an inky purple color with roses and voilets on the nose; M-S uses that varietal for clout in the middle of some of their wines. Malbec is also used for that same purpose, and the '07 sample had serious spice on the nose and palate. Mike said Malbec does very well on the property, with that varietal's vines so balanced that they stop growing on their own at the desired height of about 18-leaves up. Even during this very dry season (no rain since February), which saw the M-S vineyard crew watering more than ever, the Malbec didn't need more hydration than usual. The taste of the '07 Cab Franc was lighter than the other two, but has the unmistakable green pepper quality of that varietal, although Mike said M-S keeps the green component down using tactics like canopy management in the vineyard and the use of newer oak in the winery. The brown spice notes are more highly desired, but getting that takes careful berry sorting, as Mike notes just two green berries in the whole bunch will produce green flavors.

After the walk we were treated to a scrumptious lunch catered by Santi Restaurant in Geyserville. Sitting at a long communal table under another goregous oak giant on the side lawn of the elegant winery building (with a courtyard reminiscient of the enclosed Carmen villa garden at the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain) conjured up feeliings of being in the Provencal or Tuscan countryside. We were served baby greens salad with goat cheese, fig, and almond; braised pork shoulder on a bed of rapini and fennel; bread with M-S' own home-made olive oil; and a chocolate torte for dessert. Ha, some of the other conference attendees got a boxed lunch!

I guess I really did luck out...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Live Blogging from First-Ever Wine Bloggers' Conference!

Arrived late to the 1st-ever North American Wine Bloggers' Conference due to horrendous traffic -- my style as usual. :-p Jessica Yadegaran (wine writer for the Contra Costa Times,) and I traipsed in and went to the first person we saw who looked authoritative. Turned out to be the co-founder of the conference, Allan Wright from Zephyr Wine Adventures. Score. Sitting right in front and here we go...

'04 Bonterra McNabb -- 60% Merlot 26% Cab & 14% Petite Sirah. Alcohol 14.1%; 500 cases; $45 retail; all organic and biodynamic. Original rootstock, does have phylloxera but keep orig. stock since like the fruit so much and biodyanmic practices allow vines to resist the phyllox. Cherry, black pepper, spice, good structure -- nice grip on the finish but not overpowering. Would go excellent with roasted meats, maybe rosemary-grilled beef or even chicken.

'05 Clos LaChance Estate Cab Sauv -- 100% Cab; retail $30; 1212 cases; 14.5% alcohol. Family winery started in 1992 with a small vineyard in backyard -- "winery that run amok," went from 100 cases to 60,000 to 80,000. Now in San Martin about 1 hour south of San Jose. Hummingbird is trademark, territorial animal, keeps the bad, grape-eating birds away. Name: "clos" = enclosed area, LaChance is maiden name of matriarch. Leather, stone on the nose, also seems pretty hot. Better on the palate with currants, spicey finish but not quite balanced.

This "speed-dating" version of wine tasting isn't moving quite as fast as I thought. Our table (one of 16) has been neglected 3 rounds -- granted we missed a few before actually sitting down and powering up, but it seems like they need more pourers! We're ready and raring to go, here folks!

Boho Vineyards -- one of first premium-wine box formats; $24 retail ($6/bottle, holds 4 bottles); ecological, efficient, more bang for your buck; easier to ship. Good for the wallet & the planet. Lovely nose, lots of vanilla, stone fruit, oak. Toasty on the palate but not buttery -- the fruit shines through.

Jessica is a star here, tons of people know her through her wine features and her CoCo Times blog. Man I need cards for Wineclubbie and JC Cellars.

'07 Muscat James David Cellars. 14.5%, .17% RS. Very FIRST wine, 105 cases, Paso Robles -- new winery. Going up to 185 then 380 and that will be max. Also going to do a meritage. Tobin James also sources from same vineyard. Honey & apricots on the nose, light, fairly crisp finish. Had to dump out to make room for the next wine, unfortunately. Selling direct from Inertia Beverage Group, distributed in some Sac restaurants -- Nugget markets. Would go lovely with sushi, seafood, Thai food. James David is looking also to foothills for another brand with Cal Poly-grad sister with soil science and viticulture degree.

'05 Bink Weir Vineyards (Yorkville HIghlands of Mendocino) Pinot (blend of 3 diff clones); dusty on the nose not much fruit, but lots of strawberry on the nose and SPICE. Long finish, but think it needs to breathe for a bit.

'06 Twisted Oak The Spaniard; 2/3 Tempranillo, rest Graciano & Grenache. Calaveras County. Clove, big red & purple fruit on the nose; chewy palate, just right touches of oak. Hold up to 10 years -- Jeff Stai (the larger-than-life guy known to most as "El Jefe") says the '02s are tasting great right now.

'06 Small Vines Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir - 150 cases, out of Graton, released in November. Mailing list only, $65. 3,680 vines per acre, 4-foot tractor row, 3 feet between vines, avg. in CA is l,000 per acre; lower pounds per vine b/c pinot is most yield-senstive grape. Biodynamic -- converted from organic last year, felt better Great, classic nose to this one. Not terribly complex on the palate -- lacking some in the mid-palate. Would drink but not buy at that price point.

'07 Cupcake Chardonnay -- founded on idea of making wines that would make you feel like you did when you were a kid and mom gave you a cupcake. Approachable but layered with different flavors -- not so astute that they intimidate. Central Coast -Mnterey & SLO fruit, whole fermentation to preserve aromatics. 30% ML, 100% into small, premium American oak. Aged 6-8 months. Very typical Chard nose, the diacetol really comes throuhg (some might think that's bad, others good). Good dose of butter and oak, but not overpowering. Want popcorn with this wine.

OK, we're done. Supposed to go 'til 5:15, but it's the first year, there might be some kinks.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The palate, it is a-changin'

I daresay my palate is changing, perhaps with the season, the advent of fall. Usually a fan of big wines -- mainly New World, although I do love me some Spanish wines like no other -- I'm feeling a shift toward lighter, but more complex wines. Perhaps I can blame it on Derrick Schneider a bit, but after just two of his classes, I don't think I can really chalk it up to him.

I went up to El Dorado County tasting recently and, while I wasn't surprised to find some Grenache and Mouvedre I liked (from David Girard), it was interesting to note that the bottles I bought of those varietals were of a much lighter variety than what I usually gravitate to. Don't get me wrong, they had every bit as much flavor, but weren't as weighty and oakey as what I used to prefer.Even Twisted Oak's allocated new release River of Skulls that I'm sipping on now (quite appropriate this close to Halloween), isn't the massive wine I expected, but rather a very well-balanced blend of cocoa, clove, and raspberry with a surprisingly silky mouthfeel.

So I came home from wine class last week really wanting a wine that tasted as light but complex as some of those that we sampled in class, but the bottle of Dry Creek Zin we opened didn't exactly fit the bill (b/f Brian does not share my changing palate). Some of the more unusual -- at least to me -- and in my book, the best wines we've tasted in the Cal extension course have all been white. They include the '04 Stephane Tissot Les Graviers Chardonnay from Jura, with its vegetal, kerosene & mineral aromas, high acidity and flavors of lemon; the '07 Domaine des Cassagnole Reserve Selection Gros Manseng from Gascogne which gave off yeasty, chemical aromas and lemon & apple flavors on the palate; and the '04 Domaine de la Charriere Cuvee Clos St. Jacques from Jasnieres, a Chenin Blanc with notes of roses under a chemical veil that jumped out of the glass, but was exceptionally balanced with a long finish. The Jasnieres turned off other folks in the class who couldn't get past the unique smell, but I relished its unusual qualities.

So as much as I hate to see summer go (and for the Bay Area, September & October is our summer!), I'll welcome in fall as it seems to be waking up new taste buds and experiences.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Considering I'm going to another Spanish varietals tasting next week, I better catch up and post about the TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates Producers Amigos Society) tasting I trekked up to Napa for last month. Billed as the most extensive tasting of domestically produced Spanish & Portuguese wines ever offered in the good ol' U-S-of-A, I couldn't pass up the chance to see how American producers stacked up to the real deal from Spain.

My friend Chelsea and I battled through painfully slow traffic that was only slightly less angst-inducing when we realized it was due to all the families driving their kiddies to the Six Flags Marine World amusement park. Oh well, at least everyone wasn't headed up to wine country! We finally got to COPIA after a few wrong turns that led us through the revitalized Napa downtown and dead-end streets. While the TAPAS event spanned just the upstairs of the wine center and not both floors like some tastings I have been to there before, figuring out where to start was still a challenge. We first made our rounds in search of Albariño and rosé wines then did a return sweep for the reds.

Standouts from the day.... Bokisch's Clement Hills-Lodi Albariño, which had crisp acidity and notes of apple and pear. The lively, bright wine was my favorite Albariño there, and to my palate, closest to the wines of Rias Biaxas. However, it pales in comparison to Eaglepoint Ranch's '07 Albariño, which wasn't at the tasting but too good not to mention! Two other Albariños from the event worth mentioning were the floral & fruity '07 effort from Abacela, a winery in Roseburg, Oregon (where I didn't even know grapes grew!) and the clean, citrusy Ca' Del Solo '07 Albariño from the fun folks at Bonny Doon.

Moving on to rosés, we gushed over the '07 Odisea Muse Rosé, a 67% Grenache, 30% Carignane, 3% Viognier blend from Lodi's eastern foothills. It was the only rosé of the day that we encountered with Carignane, which I'm increasingly realizing makes my favorite pink wines. Notes of berries and ripe peach were complemented by good minerality and a cripsh finish. Another lip-smacking rosé was a 100% Tempranillo wine from Chateau Lorane in Oregon's Willamette Valley, which had refreshing flavors of strawberry and watermelon.

By far our favorite producer of reds at the tasting was Twisted Oak, an irreverent bunch from the Sierra Foothills' hamlet of Murphys, and up-and-coming wine region I keep hearing more and more about (Hatcher from here is also good). We were wowed by their '06 Torcido, a jammy and spicy 87% Grenache and 13% Petite Sirah wine with a weighty mouthfeel and lovely finish. Twisted Oak's '06 The Spaniard was our 2nd favorite of the day. A bold blend of Tempranillo, Grenache and Gracian named in honor of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride (told you they were quirky -- and I didn't even mention their rubber chickens). A big but smooth wine, The Spaniard (TO's flagship) was a richly layered wine full of earthy notes punctuated with currant flavors and rich, spicey decadence that begged for a decanter. Note to self: Must plan wine-tasting trip to Calaveras County soon.

Odisea's 2006 Temporary Insanity Tempranillo (actually a blend of Temp, Grenache & Syrah) took the bronze in the red event, with juicy berries & cherries on the nose and a velvety taste of vanilla and spice.

We finished up our day trip with a stop in at Peju, where we loaded up on Peju pink (a rosé made from the same blend of red & white grapes -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel with Chardonnay and French Colombard -- found in the winery's popular Provence), the perpetually zingy & fresh Sauv Blanc and a few other choice selections. The pourer bundled our case into a box and instructed us to pull around back so he could load it for us, then insisted on taking our picture (despite no appearance of a camera, although I had one stashed in the glovebox). "Say cheese (and don't forget the wine)!"

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hi-End Luxe

My b/f Brian recently marked his last day of work as a paralegal at his law firm, as he left to start law school (his first day was today). Working among others in the law professions who have a taste for wine (argh, let's not even talk about our 4+ bottle evening last week with one of the associates from his firm at Cesar -- where the son of yet another colleague works), he scored big time with his going-away gifts. His paralegal colleague gave him a bottle of 1999 Dom Perignon, while the firm as a group gifted him with the 2004 Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cab. Both are bottles worth $100+, leading me to suggest that now that he lacks any income maybe he should sell them on eBay!

But no dice. Tonight we're enjoying the Dom, which is much more toasty, creamy and complex than any other Champagne or sparkling wine I've had. I tried to convince Brian to wait to open it until we made the perfect meal to go with it, but he'd waited long enough in his book and was considering taking it boating up north (home to Mt. Shasta ) during the upcoming Labor Day weekend, so I guess tonight with a hodge-podge Mexican-themed meal was better than trying to drink it warmed by hot weather in plastic cups!

So we're celebrating the start of his stint at USF's law school and my new tasting room job at JC Cellars (just working a couple days a month), home of rich Syrahs, complex Zins, and interesting Rhone white varietals. Despite not making a proper meal to enjoy the wine, I think I'm going to go try out a white nectarine with it for dessert!

We're holding on to that Cab much longer, though.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Forgive me, I'm a Zinner

To celebrate the birthdays of me & the B (all of 3 days apart, same year, Leos, makes for interesting times...), we went up to Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma the other weekend with our Sac buddies Alysia & Josh. Despite having a wine fridge and wine racks at capacity, baskets full of bottles, etc., I did it -- I Zinned. That is, I bought a lot of yummy Zinfandel. But hey, it was from a region famed for the grape, a true red-blooded, good ol' American varietal (well, technically it has roots in Italy [Primativo] and Croatia [Plavac] but I think we've refined it enough to call it ours) that came darn close to being California's official wine grape.

 First stop after a long, traffic-jam filled drive was Dry Creek General Store to pick up some sammiches as fortification for the round of wineries we were to hit, so we took them to go in order to make our appointment at A. Rafanelli, hollowed ground for Zin fans "in the know." The first time I heard of this place was nearly a year ago from a waiter at Levende East, a fabulous restaurant/bar in Old Oakland. They didn't have the A. Raf on their wine list (good luck finding it many places outside the winery in general) but he urged us to visit the winery and sample their wares. The winery is surrounded by gorgeous vineyard-covered hills and a lack of signage makes visitors feel they're sneaking in to this appointment-only, family-run business. Two other couples were tasting when we arrived, a German Shepherd was sacked out in his doggie-bed, and one of the Rafanelli daughters was pouring the family's Zin, Merlot & Cab. The '06 Zin was the true standout, of course, with lively jammy and spice flavors and smooth tannins that will only get more velvety with time (hopefully I can hold on to my 4 bottles for awhile).

Then it was off to Preston where we ate under the picnic tables among the winery's many cats and fruit trees and then ventured into the tasting room, in search of their single-varietal Cinsault that sold out last year by the time I got there. Alas, the '06 Cinsault had sold out AN HOUR before we got there. Talk about bad timing for me. I was bummed, and despite the charming farmhouse and relaxed vibe, nothing tasted good enough to buy after that disappointment. Our "partners-in-wine" Alysia & Josh picked up a bottle of the L. Preston, a GSM blend that I purchased last time I was there (but wasn't wowed by when I got around to opening it at home).

Next stop was David Coffaro, one of my faves for his "little bit of this, little bit of that" blends. The first time I had his wine was a few years ago at the house of my parents' neighbors (who also happen to be my mom's bosses -- hey, I'm from a small town!). After requesting Carignane (not that a wild of a gander after seeing Peter's cellar!) we tried a Ridge Buchignani Carignane (can't remember the vintage) that was tasty, but not fruit-forward enough for my taste, then opened Coffaro's Carignane (probably the '03), which resonated far better with my palate. At Coffaro, amid a very casual tasting scene, complete with Raiders paraphernalia all about and Scorsese's Stones documentary "Shine a Light" projected onto a big screen amongst the barrels, we sampled the '05 sale offerings and went home with an '05 My Zin, '06 Carignane (of course), and the '06 Terre Melange, a tasty, earthy blend of the southern Rhone reds.

The collection of "family" wineries off Dry Creek Road beckoned next, and we first hit Papapietro, maker of lovely (although pricey) Pinot Noirs and, even better in my (excuse-the-pun) book, the just released volume of Wine Dogs USA! I left here with a $50 bottle of '06 Leras Vineyards Pinot and the $40 doggie book -- not the cheapest stop, but well worth it for the pages upon pages of cute canine mugs. Then we went to Peterson, which makes such a bevy of different wines that you're sure to find something for everyone. Indeed we did, snapping up the '05 Tradizionale Zin, the '05 Bradford Mtn. Zin, and the '05 Sangiovese. The Tradizionale was the smooth, supple Zin while the Bradford Mountain had the spice & sass.

We found the same variations of Zin in our last stop, Mazzocco (not a planned stop but settled upon by looking at Wine Country magazine for which nearby tasting rooms were still open!), which had gorgeous floor-to-ceiling windows in a tasteful wooden, barn-like building. The '05 West Dry Creek Zin (91 points from Wine Spectator), was laden with super-ripe fruit, spice and cacao, while the '06 Sonoma Coast was the peppery one here -- both were purchased and we were off to dinner.

Our last stop in Sonoma Co. was at The Girl & the Fig for a scrumptious birthday dinner full of all kinds of proteins & veggies, but since this post is running waaaay long I'll just mention that what did the restaurant have on their wine list but the '06 Preston Cinsault! Score one for the birthday girl... :-)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Bubbly on the High Seas

Poor li'l blog, how I've been neglecting you so... I'll write more about my "adventures in wine" soon (have a birthday Dry Creek Valley trip coming up, hooray!), but for now I'll infuse this page with some techno, which has been sorely missing.

This Sunday is a Sunset boat party, which should -- as it always is -- be a blast. Debauchery in the high seas in the form of house & techno music (the legendary John Tejada joins the crew this time) and lots of booze flowing. I'll be sipping bubbly (Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut Prestige Champagne), which usually runs out, as everyone is in a decadent party mood when crusing the bay waters and taking in the lovely, twinkling skyline of SF.

Another super party wine is Periscope Cellars' little bottles of '06 rosé (a blend of Cab, Barbera, Syrah & Sangiovese grapes in Brendan Eliason's madcap "throw-in-a-little-of-everything" style that he learned while apprenticing with the original mad scientist David Coffaro in Dry Creek Valley). Unlike the dry -- and often rather tasteless -- rosés that are all the rage -- Periscope's is a bit fruitier and earthier and could almost be mistaken for a regular light red if one sipped with their eyes closed. Enjoyed a couple of these little guys at the Sunset park party last month, rockin' out to house grooves by longtime djs Halo and Hipp-e.

Too bad the security on the boat doles out such thorough searches, or I'd bring some of the mini-rosé with me for when the bubbles dry up!

After the boat there's an after-party at Vessel, one of the swankiest clubs in SF, although it feels too Vegas or L.A. for my taste, at least on weekends. The place is gorgeous, though, and they serve some good vino (for example, Trimbach Reserve Pinot Gris) in nice stemware (both counts big rarities for clubland). Just be careful not to swirl the wine out of your glass while on the dancefloor!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tasting in the sticks -- with the hicks

In an effort to hit all California wine-growing regions, I've branched out in my tasting adventures, going to Lodi and Amador County recently. (OK, full disclosure, I've actually been to both of those regions tasting before -- what can I say, I'm a small town girl!) While some of the company you may keep at the tasting rooms and festivals is a bit, er, interesting (the b/f almost had to fight a drunken redneck who was barging onto our shuttle bus at last year's Lodi ZinFest) there are some flashes of brilliance to be discovered in those regions.

We hit Lodi on a rainy Saturday, meeting up with friends from Sacramento at Michael David Winery. At first we were charmed by its country store appearance, but then we saw the mobbed tasting area in the corner of the room, crowded with people more interested in the plentiful nibbles than the beverages but who, quite possibly, knew more about wine than the workers behind the bar... Michael David had been my group's favorite from ZinFest the previous year, but that day the only two that impressed us out of a long lineup were the Incognito Pink (a rosé made of old vine Cinsault, Grenache and Mourvedre) and Petite Petit, a blend with honest to Betsy the cutest label ya ever did see (am I talking like a hick yet?) that they give this clever description: "Our carnivalistic blend of Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot is definitely the star of the show. Trunk fulls of blueberry, plum, violet and chalky tannins give a seamless finish to this jumbo-sized offering." Elephant label aside, it is a big wine worth seeking out (the winery finally has an online shop).

Continuing with the animal theme, a couple other wineries in Lodi worth stopping by are d'Art, a labor of love from a married couple and their two mutts (one shy, one friendly) who roam the winery, and m2, a partnership between two friends with a very low-key industrial tasting room enhanced by two rambunctious Sealy terriers. At d'art we fell in love with the Cabs, both the '05 and '06 rocked our socks with their peppery but smooth flavor and finish. At m2 we purchased their yet-to-be-labeled '07 Viognier, which had a floral bouquet and flavors of apricots and honey, and well as the '06 Duality, a blend of Petite Sirah and Syrah with aromas of dark black fruit, coffee and cocoa.

Amador County, along with neighboring El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills, has got to be some of the loveliest grape-growing country I have seen, with leafed-out vineyards covering its hills and picturesque red barns providing eye-catching contrast. In Amador we hit Sobon Estates, their sister winery Shenandoah, Cooper Vineyards, and Renwood Winery. Let's just deal with Renwood first. Beautiful tasting room with lots of celebrity schwag off what can only be dubbed a wine-themed boutique, invitingly landscaped grounds, but pushy staff (HOW many times can you mention the wine club???) and over-priced wines. See ya.

Cooper was my standout winery from my last visit there in early November (during which I battled an army of fruit flies), but alas, their stellar Sangiovese was sold out. I consoled myself by sitting in their colorful chair collection on the front porch and settling with the silky '04 Merlot (which I'm pretty sure I bought last time -- and have since consumed) and the jammy '06 Barbera. We picked up the '06 ReZerve Zin and the creamy, luscious '06 ReZerve White Port made from Viognier and Marsanne at Sobon, then headed to Shenandoah where a lighter-style, peppery '05 Cab was the standout and we couldn't resist the '07 Orange AND Black Muscat. We were surprised -- we hardly ever drink, let alone BUY dessert wines, but Amador seems to have a knack for producing some delicious ones.

Don't let it be said you can't learn anything in the country...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Warm weather & wine

I came home this week twice to find that three bottles in my wine rack had leaked due to the intense heat wave that hit the Bay Area recently. The telltale crimson drops on the linoleum had me frowning since two of the bottles were pretty nice ones I had been looking forward to drinking -- the'04 Mariner from Dry Creek Vineyards and the '06 Cab Franc from Irish Monkey Cellars. So once the weather cooled off enough Friday night we drank them with friends on our back patio for fear they would oxidize if we waited to consume them. The Mariner (46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 6% Malbec, 5% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot)was especially good, a smooth and rich blend that featured prominent berry flavors but was well balanced.

The temperatures of 90+ degrees coincided nicely, however, with an Albariño tasting I went to in San Francisco on Wednesday, given that grape's tendency to produce very refreshing, high-acidity wines that are just what one craves when trying to beat the heat. The Jug Shop put on the event, which featured about 10 reps from importers/distributors at B44 in the charming Belden Place alley in SF. There was a wide variety of styles of Albariño at the event, including some that had spent a bit of time in oak, producing a much rounder wine, but not a style I particularly cared for.

My favorites were (naturally), the two that aren't available in California. The '07 Don Pedro Soutomaior from Adegas Galegas was fresh, lively and zesty with grapefruit on the nose. It was also slightly fizzy, reminding me of how the grape tastes when it's in the form of the Portugese Vinho Verde. The '07 Fulget from Maior de Mendoza was also slightly effervescent, with crisp citrus characteristics and a slight tartness on the finish.

My favorite bottle that is available in CA was 2007 Laxas from Bodega As Laxas, which featured peachy notes and had a clean flavor with wonderful acidity and a medium finish. I had a great time sipping on many "tastes" of the Laxas while talking to Luis, who works for the importer Viños Unico. Given my recent trip, we chatted about his native Cuba as well as the wines he's providing to two soon-to-open spots in Alameda, BarCeluna (which is re-opening) and a Alameda Wine Co., a combo wine bar/retail shop adjacent to the renovated theater. Finally, I won't have to leave the island to go to a wine bar!

Monday, May 5, 2008

A break

No, I didn't disappear forever from the world o' wine... I did take a break, although that wasn't due to a vanishing taste for the juice, but rather since I was outside the realm of good wine for awhile, in Mexico and Cuba for 2 weeks. Sure, it's possible to find wine there, but with the exception of a "welcome-back-to-decent-food" dinner in Cancun where we splurged on a ridiculously overpriced bottle of Italian wine -- La Segreta Rossa (60% Nero d’Avola, 20% Merlot, 20% Syrah), a decent $15ish bottle that was one of the cheapest bottles they had, even with a markup to $60! -- we were vino-free for two weeks. Wow, longest spell in quite a few years.

Oh sure, we saw some Spanish, Argentinian and Chilean wine in some Cuban restaurants, but we couldn't be sure it was stored right in the tropical heat. Besides, 85+ degree days couples with 85%+ humidity doesn't really get the wine jonsening going. I was pretty happy with mojitos (although I was disappointed they weren't as good -- but about 1/3 of the price! -- as the ones you can get at Forbidden Island in Alameda or the Prado in San Diego's Balboa park) and the local Cuban beer, Bucanero and Cristal.

But now I'm back and was sad to come home and eye a partially empty wine rack. Alas, I've got to stop hemorrhaging money on wine, though, so today I stopped by Trader Joe's to take a chance at some of their cheapies. I was lured there by the mention of Red Flyer on the store's Fearless Flyer -- a $2.99 blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mouvedre, Carignane, and Durif (aka Petite Sirah) made for TJ's by Hahn Estates in Monterey County. Being a Rhone fan I figured, even for the rock-bottom price, you can't really screw up a blend of those grapes too bad. Tonight I was surprised at its inky color as I poured it into the decanter for a half-hour or so, and then was impressed by its candied fruit nose, rich flavor with the musty earthiness I expect from a Rhone blend, a nice, round mouthfeel and (now) a smooth finish (at first it had a slightly sharp, chemical aftertaste, but that has subsided). I would have been happy to pay $8.99 for this wine! Hmmm, wonder how much my local TJ's has left...

I also picked up a $4.99 bottle of Gravity Hills Zin from Paso that I am holding out hopes for. Maybe it's time to start giving the uber-cheapies a chance!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Stayin in the 'hood...

Went to the East Bay Vintners Urban Wine Trail Passport event today and was wowed by the Meritage and Cab Franc from Irish Monkey and refreshed by Two Mile's Viognier. Prophetically, the two were located together, in Irish Monkey's HQ on 22nd Ave. in the O, just a hop, jump & skip from my house. The brickhouse HQ had the spread, too, featuring scrum-diddily-umptious cheese from Farmstead, a folk string instrument quartet, and the best vibe of all of the 8 locations of the day. The Meritage was a smoky, earthy, rich blend of Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot & a couple "secrets" -- the standout red of the day, IMHO. The Cab Franc on its own was delish as well, with much pepper on the nose, but not the green flavors that sometimes accompany the varietal. Two Mile's Viognier was a lovely change from the red-heavy event, showing off peachy notes with the right amount of acid that begged for a well-crafted seafood dish.

We showed up at Eno in Berkeley to see winemaker Sasha drinking beer -- hey, doesn't every good harvest entail much beer consumption? His Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir was divine, with some cherry and pepper on the nose and smooth silkiness going down, pairing quite nice with the duck raviolis & spinach-and-mushroom frittata on the sunny patio out back.

Tonight is the daddy of all techno monthlies, [KONTROL], with Berlin standouts Pan Pot and local hero Clint Stewart. Caught Clint a few weeks ago at a day party in Golden Gate Park. Despite being severely incapacitated from shenanigans the night before, this guy threw down with a vengeance, making club kids everywhere proud. You can catch him and many others tomorrow, at Oasis, for the free Q, which is serving up gratis BBQ & beats from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. This place has the best sound and best dancefloor (glide along the smooth concrete) for miles around, so come on down, yo.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Pink for Spring

I'm not a bubbly gal or a rosé chica -- at least that is what I thought before sipping on the '06 Sofia Blanc de Blancs (in two forms) and quaffing some '06 Cline Mouvèdre Rosé. Blame it on the warmer spring weather we've been having, but I'm definitely craving some sparkling, rosé or a combination of the two to quench my thirst when I'm trying to rid my skin of its pale tone these days.

I first had the Sofia in the cans at 222 Hyde, a grungy, graffiti-laced Tenderloin bar in SF where some of the best techno parties go down. It was a nice change to beer or mixed drinks. After doing a Google search, I found out that clubgoers are a main target of the canned sparkling goodie. Voilà!

Then when I couldn't find an already-chilled sparkling rosé in BevMo to take to a techno day party in Golden Gate park, I grabbed the full size Sofia Blanc de Blancs, which comes in a lovely bottle and pink cellophane wrapper. I left the wrapper on to distinguish my bottle from the collection that was stored in the shade behind the speakers. My Freixenet Cordon Brut Negro-drinking friend Chris turned her nose up at the sweeter Sofia, with it's bright flavors of melon, pear and floral notes, but it was far more complex and refreshing to me.

On a jaunt up to wine country last weekend, I stopped in at Cline Cellars, which was packed at 11:15 a.m. but filled with extremely hospitable staff and friendly tasters as well. One of the bottles I took home from there was the '06 Cline Mouvèdre Rosé, which had a fruitier, more robust taste (but enough acidity to provide balance) than many rosés. Cline bills it as "the perfect breakfast wine" -- I like how they think! Mouvèdre is one of my favorite grapes, so I will be looking for more rosés made from that varietal.

Next up on the rose front is Bonny Doon's'06 Vin Gris de Cigare, which incorporates Grenache Blanc into their Southern Rhone GSM red blend. The weather forecast looks pink for the weekend!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

On a Ridge at 2,000+ feet

One of the best perks of working at Stanford is that I get to take continuing studies classes for free. This quarter I've been taking Terroir: The Geology and Wines of California, taught by David Howell, which has been a real treat, with the first hour of the weekly class covering the geology of various California wine regions then another hour of tasting with a guest winemaker. We've tasted our way through Anderson Valley in Mendocino, Placer and Amador counties in the Sierra Foothills, Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey, and various parts of Napa and Sonoma counties.

This past weekend the class went on a field trip to the Santa Cruz mountains and stopped off at the home plot of Woodside Vineyards (a collection of 26 small vineyards scattered around Woodside and managed by the same team), then headed up the hill to Thomas Fogarty and Ridge. The wine makers at each were extremely gracious with their time and patient with our many questions.

We tasted many Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, naturally, since the region falls into Zone 1, the coolest of them all -- alas, no Zins or tasty Rhone varietals here. While I'm not a Chard girl in any way, shape or form, most of the ones my class tasted were blissfully made in the Chablis style, with plenty of acidity, minerality -- these were not the oaky, buttery bombs found all too often in California. I wasn't wowed by any of the Pinots; instead of the earthy cherry aromas and smooth flavors usually associated with the varietal, I found them to be tarter, darker, and less complex than what I'm used to. Entirely quaffable, but lacking that special Pinot quality. The Cabs we sampled at Woodside and Ridge were better, with definite notes of tobacco, pepper and black currant.

Despite some serious winds and chilly temperatures, we were awed by the views from atop the mountain ridge, feeling the love from our hosts and charmed by the crew of pets -- from the tag-team Australian shepherd and German shepherd greeters at Woodside, to Mortimer the cat at Fogarty (who proudly dragged a bird he pounced on into the tasting room and batted it about for the crowd) and several roaming felines at Ridge.

Some interesting tidbits from the day... In the office/ tasting room/ fermentation room adorned with old wine labels and old wine bottles, Brian Caseldon, Woodside's winemaker, debunked the common myth that people are allergic to sulfites in wine. He noted that most canned or jarred foods (let alone dried fruits) contain more sulfur than what results from any use of sulfuric oxide added in the winemaking process to tame wild yeasts and unwanted bacteria. He suggests people who think they have this "allergy" take an antihistamine before tasting instead, just like many wine judges do.

With winemaker Michael Martella of Fogarty, we stood on the high ground overlooking the south and east bays. Here, the vines that face east ripen fastest because as the sun rises, the radiant heat warms the leaves that sit on the ridges above the fog or cloud level. Michael treated us to an alfresco tasting of estate and non-estate Chards & Pinots outside his own garage, a scene which soon turned into a sidewalk social, with classmates mingling and sipping.

At Ridge we met up with legendary septuagenarian Paul Draper, a true scholar of the winemaking process, who was eager to get his own facts about the geology of the area straight. After Professor Howell answered some of his questions, he tackled ours with extremely thorough (and quite technical although accessible) responses, which spanned 5 or 10 minutes and often finished with him graciously apologizing for their length. But who can find fault with such genuine enthusiasm?

What struck me was the rigorous tasting and technical processes that goes into the wines at Ridge, which has a very sophisticated lab. We tasted the '06 Monte Bello Cab from the barrel and it was already showing wonderful hints of rich berries, spice and pepper. In the tasting room we got a sneak preview of the '05 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay and Cab, which will be out in April and oogled a bottle of the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello Cab that won the Judgment of Paris rematch in 2006.

Now that's what I call a field trip!