Archive for June, 2009

Not Napa, Not Sonoma

June 26, 2009

Today, I’m writing about two wineries in Marin and Solano —  a pair of Bay Area counties that aren’t generally known for winemaking, but should be.

Scenic Root Winegrowers is a husband-and-wife affair in Marin. Susan and Jonathan Pey took their combined wine industry experience (she is a restaurant wine buyer and he worked for some of the world’s largest wine brands) and applied it to their family operations.

Liz and John Pey

Susan and Jonathan Pey

The resulting wines, especially their pinot noir grown in western Marin, are wonderful. I really enjoyed the Pey-Marin 2006 Trois Filles ($39), which is named for the couple’s three daughters. This pinot is a blend of juice from three vineyards located within a few miles of the Pacific Ocean.  Grapes from this cooler growing area can give wines an enjoyable balance and smooth as silk finish that is hard to resist.

They also make an excellent dry  riesling (the 2008 Shellmound is $24) from Marin County grapes and a Marin merlot. Rounding out the lineup are syrah from Sonoma, another pinot from Monterey and a Napa cabernet sauvignon called Textbook.

Marin actually has a long history of viticulture. The first grapes were planted here in the early 1800s by Spanish clergy who built the San Rafael Mission. Several commercial vineyards were developed and vines were a common site  until 20th century residential real estate development pushed Marin grape-growing into less-hospitable areas.

There are about a dozen wineries in Marin. Pey-Marin has a tasting room at the Olema Inn, but most of the other winemaking operations are private and open only by appointment.  To learn more, check out this list of Marin County wineries.

So Good in Solano

I’ve wondered about the winegrowing part of Solano County for quite a while. I’d tasted a few regional wines, and some were pretty good, but nothing that really screamed delicious until I ran across Vezer Family Vineyard. This winery is in the beautiful Suisun Valley appellation, which is off I-80 about halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento.

Vezer is the brainchild of Frank and Liz Vezer, Canadian immigrants who decided to get into winemaking in 2001 as a sideline to their successful industrial contracting business.

There are 10 wineries in the appellation and most are within a few minutes drive of Fairfield. It’ s hard to imagine that just a few minutes from the whizzing traffic on the interstate you’ll find Suisun Valley’s backroad wineries flanked by rows and rows of lush green vines set alongside rolling hills.

Vezer La Salette

Vezer La Salette

The Vezer reds are most impressive. The 2006 cabernet sauvignon (smooth and delicious) and 2006 petite sirah (moderately spicy) and 2006 zinfandel (tasting of  blackberry and pie crust) were very good. The star of the lineup, however, is a proprietary blend called La Salette ($85).

This mix — 65 percent petite sirah and 35 percent zinfandel — is opulently smooth. It coats the mouth with rich, red flavors that persist on a long finish.

The winery  is on the family estate, which is only open for private events. The main tasting room is at Manka’s Corner with a second tasting facility called the Blue Victorian. Both are open to the public.

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Rough and Ready Reds from Rockpile

June 19, 2009

There’s a rugged stretch of land rising hundreds of feet in the hills above Lake Sonoma called Rockpile where the tough terrain produces some of the most sensational zinfandel wines in California.

Mauritson Wines is one of the most successful wineries using Rockpile fruit to craft  incredible wine. The Sonoma County winery grows grapes on 40 acres in the Rockpile appellation.  Zinfandel rules the roost but they also farm cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petite sirah and malbec from these hillside vineyards.

Three Generations of Mauritsons - Glendene, Thom and Clay

Three Generations of Mauritsons - Glendene, Thom and Clay

The Mauritson family have been farmers for more than a century, but it’s only in the last decade that winemaking became part of their operation. Clay Mauritson, whose father, Thom, heads the farming operations, is the winemaker.

Production for each special lot of Mauritson zinfandel is limited to only a few hundred cases. Most goes to wine club members, but you can get a pretty good idea about just how good the small production wines are by sampling the 2007 Dry Creek Valley zinfandel ($27), which includes about 40 percent Rockpile fruit.

It’s a fruit forward wine with raspberry overtones and a nice broad finish that makes it a good choice for drinking right now or perhaps holding for a short while to let the minor tannic bite relax just a bit.

The Rockpile area — now its own appellation which is about 700-800 acres in size — had been five times bigger before the  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed Lake Sonoma. The lake covers what had been vineyards first planted in 1884 by some of the Mauritson forefathers.

Cemetery Vineyard Produces Heavenly Fruit

On a recent visit to the Mauritson tasting room — open since 2004 near the intersection of Dry Creek and Lytton Springs roads in Dry Creek Valley —  I  sampled  the current lineup of wines, including the 2006 Rockpile Cemetery Vineyard zinfandel ($39).

Mauritson Winery

Mauritson Winery

This is a big, dense, darkly colored wine that needs more time to develop. One taste showed it had the right touch of oak plus a nice vein of minerality and tannins that should push the wine to even higher levels over the next several years. Noted wine critic Robert Parker gave the 2005 vintage of Cemetery — named for the tombstone shaped rocks that ring the area —  a 90-point rating and  it wouldn’t surprise me if the 2006 version surpassed its sibling.

Summer Solstice Sipping

Get a head start on the official arrival of summer and help a good cause, too. The Napa Land Trust is holding a special tasting at the Bardessono resort in Yountville on Saturday (June 20) to recognize the Summer Solstice and promote a growing trend of solar-powered wineries. The Solarbration event runs 6-9 and features wines from Flora Springs, Larkmead Vineyards, Honig, LMR, Oakville Ranch, Peju, Saintsbury, Silverado, Trefethen and ZD. FYI, Bardessono opened in February and touts itself as the “greenest”  luxury resort  in the country. Tickets are $50.

Howell Mountain – Above the Fog Tasting

Taste a selection of wines from the Howell Mountain appellation of Napa at Charles Krug in St. Helena on Saturday (June 20). Thirty area wineries will pour samples alongside hors d’oeuvres at the Taste of Howell Mountain event.

Randy Dunn

Randy Dunn

There will also be  silent and live auctions of special bottles and wine-related packages like a do-it-yourself winemaking adventure with master winemaker Randy Dunn, special dinners, vertical and horizontal collections and overnight stays hosted by participating wineries. Proceeds benefit the Howell Mountain Elementary School. Tickets are $95.

Make Dad Glad at Crushpad

If there’s a wine-loving dad in the family, celebrate an early Father’s Day on Saturday (June 20) with a visit to Crushpad, the “make-it-yourself” winemaking facility in San Francisco. The open house event is free, and several wines from the 2007 and 2008 harvests will be available to sample, but you must register in advance. Crushpad provides winemaking equipment and storage facilities for individuals and groups interested in making their own wines from premium grapes trucked in from California’s top vineyards.

Collective Wine Wisdom

June 12, 2009

So, you’ve been to the wine country a few times. You’ve tried some of the major brands and driven back and forth to visit several of the larger, well-known wineries.  Where do you go next?

Park the car in downtown Napa and spend an hour or two at the Vintner’s Collective.

Vintner's Collective

Vintner's Collective

This is another world of smaller winemaking operations that aren’t open to the public. Many of these winemakers operate on a shoestring, without a tasting room.  There’s no marketing or advertising  budget , either.

In many cases, restaurant wine buyers and collectors who are “in the know,” scoop up these gems and re-sell them at substantial mark-ups. It’s hard for an  individual wine lover to learn about — much less purchase — these little treasures, unless they stop by the Vintner’s Collective in downtown Napa.

The VC is a multi-winery tasting room inside an old stone building on Main Street. There’s not a vine in sight, but wines from 18 boutique wineries are poured daily on a rotating basis. They charge $25 for tasting six wines. And, while that may seem like a lot, the quality and price of the wines available make for a high-value experience.

There’s no telling what wines will be open, or who might drop in.  On a recent mid-week afternoon, three couples from New York, Ohio and California and an investment advisor from Danville shared the wooden bar. The atmosphere was friendly and fun.

The pourers, like Chris Briseno-Morgan, know their stuff and explain the pedigree behind every taste that’s poured. Chris held court like a wine-pouring ringmaster. He practically bounced from guest to guest, offering new samples, answering questions and giving hotel and restaurant suggestions with a smile that never wavered.

Everything he poured was a winner. Here’s a rundown of three of  my favorites:

Esmerelda Pinot Noir

Herrera Pinot Noir

2006 Herrera pinot noir “Selection Esmerelda” — A smooth, beautifully sleek and elegant single vineyard wine ($95, Russian River Valley, Sonoma) made by Mi Sueno Winery.

Clark-Claudon Cabernet Sauvignon

Clark-Claudon Cabernet Sauvignon

2004 Clark-Claudon Vineyards cabernet sauvignon, Napa Valley — A complete and exciting cabernet ($75)  that everyone in the tasting room swooned over. A second taste later in the session was even better!

Vinoce Vineyards

Vinoce Vineyards

2005 Vinoce Vineyards proprietary red, Mount Veeder, Napa — A deeply colored and more challenging wine ($60) — made from 60 percent cabernet franc, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon and 15 percent merlot — that really showcased the delicious cabernet franc fruit. Imagine dark cherry fruit integrated with fine tannin and an aftertaste that lingered for a full minute.

The Vintner’s Collective was started seven years ago by owner Garrett Murphy, a Bostonian who spent time in France before settling in Napa. As a wine insider with serious Napa connections, Murphy had the inside line on up-and-coming winemakers who needed an outlet to showcase their wines.

A symbiotic relationship was born and it continues today through sales to visitors who stop by for a sample or join the wine club to receive regular shipments of these hard-to-come-by wines. Wine club members taste for free and also get invitations to periodic food and wine pairings, winemaker appearances and other special tasting events.

Up Periscope

June 4, 2009

Emeryville has about 10,000 residents, a movie studio, a big bio-tech company, an educational toy maker and a fun winery called Periscope Cellars.

If you blink while driving down I-80 between Oakland and Berkeley, you might miss the town that is home to Pixar, Chiron and Leapfrog.  But, if you get off at either the Powell Street  or Ashby Avenue exits, and head for 1410 62nd Street, you’ll find Periscope Cellars  in a non-descript industrial building that once was home to a submarine repair shop.

Unlike many of the big wineries in Napa and Sonoma, there are no lush vineyards surrounding a picturesque chateau.  Instead, this four-year-old winemaking operation prides itself on its gritty, urban setting.

Brendan Eliason is the winemaker responsible for Periscope’s tasty lineup of syrah, zinfandel, petite verdot  and Deep 6, a flagship blend of red varietals.

Brendan Eliason

Brendan Eliason

Eliason recently led me through a tasting of barrel samples of the various wines to be included in the 2007 Deep Six, slated for release later this year. Using a wine thief,  he drew samples from several different wine-stained barrels stacked three and four-high in the same space where workmen once refurbished submarines that patrolled the Pacific Ocean during World War II.

I was surprised by the wine from two barrels of sangiovese that had different taste characteristics. The grapes were harvested from the same location in Alexander Valley, but taken from different sections of the tiny vineyard. One sample had a rich, full mouth feel but a closed nose while the other had a  more pronounced aroma. They complemented each other well and I can’t wait to see how the final mixture turns out.

“The grapes we get are from four blocks in the vineyard, which starts on the edge of the valley floor and then continues up a hillside,” Eliason explained. “You can really taste the difference, even though the blocks are only eight feet apart.”

Wine has been Eliason’s focus since he was 18.

“I’m completely unqualified to do anything else,” the winemaker said with a laugh when asked why he got involved in the business. His qualifications include a degree in enology from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and a position as co-winemaker at Caffaro Cellars in Dry Creek Valley.

Periscope Cellars offers free tasting (Wednesday-Sunday) from Noon to 5 p.m.  Prices for most bottles hover around $20.

On the second Wednesday of every month, there’s a 5-8 p.m. happy hour with snacks, live music and movies.  The winery also opens its doors on a regular basis for special events, including a fund-raiser Saturday (June 6) in honor of World Ocean Day. Proceeds from the event go to COARE, the Center for Oceanic Research, Education and Education.

Beyond the Bay

If you follow I-80 to Sacramento on Saturday (June 6), there’s a big outdoor wine and food event at Cesar Chavez Park with more than 60 wineries pouring tastes and dozens of restaurants offering samples of regional fare. The 7th annual Raley’s Grape Escape showcases wines from Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Yolo  counties. If you go, I’d recommend trying the cabernet or petite sirah made by Dave Dart at d’Art Wines and any of the fine zinfandels from Jessie’s Grove Winery.

Rock, Paper, Scissors & Syrah

The annual Rock, Paper, Scissors Championship takes place Saturday (June 6) at Cornerstone Place in Sonoma.

Rock, Paper, Scissors

Rock, Paper, Scissors

The competition, which runs from noon to 6 p.m.,  is sponsored by Roshambo Winery, which takes its name from a slang term for the game. To play, two competitors square off and exchange hand signals representing rock (closed fist), scissors (two fingers) or paper (flat hand). Rock beats scissors. Scissors beats paper and paper beats rock. Oh, and there’s sure to be Roshambo wines, too.

All Hopped Up

For a hoppier experience, cruise up Highway 101 and check out the Beerfest in Santa Rosa on Saturday (June 6), featuring pours from 35 microbreweries. Tickets are $35 in advance, $40 at the door. Proceeds benefit Face to Face, the Sonoma County Aids Network.