Archive for July, 2009

History in a Bottle at BV

July 31, 2009

When I first visited Beaulieu Vineyard back in 1979, the Napa Valley was a much less expensive place to enjoy great wine than it is today.

There were a lot fewer wineries back then and the region’s top wines hadn’t come close to the triple-digit price tags that now adorn bottles from tiny cult producers up and down the valley.georgesdelatourlabel2

Beaulieu, or BV as it is known, produced the first Georges de Latour Private Reserve wine in 1936 and it’s been a relative bargain ever since. The all-cabernet wine, made from grapes grown in and around Rutherford, has been a Napa landmark ever since. The 70th vintage, the 2006, will make its debut in October.

On my first visit to the winery, I purchased a bottle for less than $30, a big sum at a time when a hamburger cost 38 cents at McDonalds, gas went for 80 cents a gallon at the pump, and dinner for two at the four-star French Laundry in nearby Yountville could be enjoyed for less than $100, including wine!

Some folks say you can never go home again, but I disagree, especially when it comes to Beaulieu, which is French for beautiful place. I stopped by the historic BV winery recently, returning again after an impromptu stop on my honeymoon 30 years ago during my first visit to California.

The winery has changed, of course, but the feel remains the same. There have been upgrades to modernized equipment and improved winemaking techniques. They’ve even added misters to some of the vineyards to cool the vines during the summertime when temperatures push past 100 degreees.

The original vine-covered winery building, erected in 1900, is still there and Georges de Latour continues to be the star of the BV lineup, which includes a wide range of both whites and reds.

A separate $7 million winemaking facility for Georges de LaTour production was added in 2007. Along the way a special reserve tasting room was built to show off the reserve wines.

The original tasting room has been spiffed up and flat screen televisions with flashy graphics and colorful videos have replaced the old-fashion slideshow that visitors were shown three decades ago.

BV Vineyard Video

BV Vineyard Video

The great hospitality remains, but it now costs a minimum of $10 for a tasting of white wines, $15 for reds and $30 to taste a selection of reserve and specialty wines. Click here to print a special 2-for-1 tasting coupon.

Winemaker Jeffrey Stambor has been involved in production for the last 20 years and he’s excited about continuing the tradition of excellence and responsibility that Georges de LaTour commands.

“I like to think of this as old-style winemaking with all the advantages of new technology,” Stambor said, as he showed me around the new winery-within-a-winery where Georges de Latour comes to life.

Later, in the tasting room, he poured a glass of the 2005 vintage  ($115) and described what he tasted as he sipped the nearly opaque red.

BV's Jeffrey Stambor

BV's Jeffrey Stambor

“It’s like a blackberry bramble, like you’d taste at the end of a hot summer,” Stambor said. “There’s an earthy taste, too, and then an intense explosion of ripe blackberry.”

There’s a hint of cedar and vanilla (from the mostly French oak barrels the wine is aged in) plus a hint of spiciness and a touch of the famed “Rutherford Dust” characteristic that’s unique to wines from this area.  Stambor says it’s made to be drunk upon release, but I think the 2005 will be even better after a few years of additional aging.

I speak from experience on that last point. My bottle of 1974 Georges de Latour remained in the cellar for 20 years. When I finally pulled the cork, I enjoyed some of the same tastes that Stambor described plus another level of complexity (mocha flavors and meaty texture with fine, integrated tannins) acquired during all those years in my cellar.

Come back in 20 years, and we’ll see how the 2006 vintage fares.

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Ravenswood Delivers Fun in a Bottle

July 24, 2009

The  Ravenswood Winery is a fun place to taste wine, perched on a pretty hillside  just outside Sonoma.

It’s an easy drive from the Bay Area and, if the weather is nice, walking the 1.6 miles from the town square to the winery is an easy trek. Head east on Spain Street about 2/5ths of a mile to Fourth Street and turn left.  Proceed about two more blocks,  passing the historic Sebastiani Winery, and take a right on Lovall Valley Road.

Cherrybloc Vineyard

Cherryblock Vineyard

If it’s hot, take a breather at one of the olive tree-shaded picnic tables on your right and admire the views of Sebastiani’s historic 90-year-old Cherryblock vineyard across the street. Continue on Lovall to Gehrhicke Road,where you turn left onto a eucalyptus tree-lined thoroughfare that leads uphill to the winery.

At the edge of the parking lot, just below the winery, sits a vineyard with numbered rows of well-tended vines. Rising in the distance are more vines on a hillside where green leaves protected green fruit during a sun-splashed visit earlier this month.

Ravenswood’s motto — “No Wimpy Wines!” — should be taken seriously. Founder and winemaker Joel Peterson has been at the helm since 1976, when the winery was started on a shoestring. I’ve never had a faint-hearted experience with any of his wines, including a long-time favorite blend called Icon.

Icon isn’t cheap, but it’s very good. The current release (2006, $70) is made from carignane (39%), petite sirah (38%), zinfandel (22%), and alicante bouschet (2 %). The intoxicating combination shows rich, spicy fruit  with the deep, delicious scent of dark cherries rising from the glass.

Winemaker Joel Peterson

The winery is best known for its lineup of zinfandels, which include up to 10 single-vineyard wines (like  the  heavy-hitting 2005 Todd Vineyard  at $35 a bottle), along with regional bottlings (from Sonoma and Lodi), plus the vintner’s blend, an everyday quaffer that’s widely available and always a great value.

At the winery, I discovered a new favorite, the vintner’s blend petite sirah ($9.99 at Beverages and More in Oakland).

This deep purple concoction is from the 2007 vintage. Unlike many other reasonably priced California petite sirahs, this one shines with a peppery bite that balances a surprisingly smooth finish.

The wine cries out for a plate of barbecue ribs, burgers, sausages or other grilled meats, but it also worked just fine with a chunk of cheddar cheese and a slice of sourdough bread.

The winery’s tasting room is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tasting fees run $10-$15 per person, unless you have a tattoo of the winery’s famous three raven logo. Then, the tasting is free.ravenswoodlogo

Sonoma Sparkles with Spanish Style

July 16, 2009

A brilliant red tile roof draws your attention to the Gloria Ferrer winery, a blend of Spanish style with California Mission design that sits on a gently sloping golden hillside about seven miles south of Sonoma.

A terrace  overlooking the vineyards provides one of the most memorable vistas in the county.

The soul of the place follows the blending theme, as this  winery’s famous sparkling wines are almost always a combination of different grapes, whose total impact is greater than the sum of its parts.

Gloria Ferrer Winery

Gloria Ferrer Winery

Four flags — Spanish, Catalan, California and U.S. — are flown outside Gloria Ferrer every day, giving visitors a hint of the combinations to come as they walk from the parking lot at the rear of the building, climb the steps, cross the wide portico and enter the  tasting room.

The winery combines Spanish hospitality with sophisticated viticulture to produce  a lineup of  sparklers and notable still wines. It’s open daily for tastings.

Visitors this Saturday and Sunday (July 18-19) can help celebrate the winery’s 19th annual  Catalan Festival, highlighting the cuisine and culture of the northeastern region of Spain that is home to Barcelona and the Ferrer family. The festival features authentic music and dancers (flamenco) along with food from regional Spanish restaurants (Sabor of Spain from San Rafael and B-44 Catalan Bistro in San Francisco). Tickets are $45.

Catalan Festival Dancer

Catalan Festival Dancer

On a sun-drenched morning visit, I was guided through a tasting of sparkling and still wines by Cindy Friedman, director of consumer marketing. The quality, across-the-board, was first rate.

Royal Cuvee

Royal Cuvee

When it comes to Champagne-style wine, I really enjoy the creaminess factor. That’s one major selling point for the 2002 Royal Cuvee, a very dry yet creamy  blend of 65 percent pinot noir and 35 percent chardonnay.

This $35 wine spent five and a half years on the yeast before bottling and the benefit of that extended aging produced a fine string of tiny bubbles and a round palate based on apple and baking spice.

My second favorite was the newly released Va de Vi, which means “It’s about the wine!” in Spanish. This $22 bottle is delicious, thanks in part to an unusual addition (dosage) of fruity muscat. It’s less creamy than the Royal Cuvee and its flavors tend more to the peachy part of the fruit spectrum, but the combination is a winner.

Coming in a close third was the 2005 Brut Rose. It’s nearly all pinot (with four percent chardonnay) and the red grape skins are left in the mix after pressing for a brief period of time, giving the wine a lovely pinkish tint. There is not much Brut Rose available outside the winery, but it does pop up from time to time on some restaurant wine lists.

The most complex sparkler was the $50 Carneros Cuvee. The current release, from the 1998 vintage, showcases maturity and a complex interplay of tastes and texture. Tiny bubbles rippled through the pale wine, which smells faintly of lemons. It tastes of citrus (meyer lemon?) and there’s a layer of toastiness that’s interesting . Oh, and that creamy edge doesn’t hurt the taste one bit!

Carneros Cuvee

Carneros Cuvee

On the still wine front, I tried three different pinot noirs, starting with the 2006 Carneros ($28). It has a delightful cherry nose, red fruit flavors and a wisp of smokiness that pushed my button in a good way.

Production of the next two wines is in the hundreds of cases, but they are worth seeking out from the winery, at a restaurant or at some high-end wine shops if you are California pinot lover.

I enjoyed the 2005 Jose S. Ferrer, a $35 reserve wine named after the winery founder, for its vibrant cherry flavors and complex nose that hinted of wood, spice and plums and seemingly went on forever — even after the glass was emptied.

The final wine of the tasting was the Rust Rock Terrace ($50). This single vineyard wine  reminded me more of a restrained red Burgundy with its almost silky, elegant texture.

Gloria Ferrer is part of the Freixenet wine group’s holdings, which includes wineries on four continents — Europe, North and South America and Australia.

Check out this great video on Gloria Ferrer Vineyards shot by KTVU videojournalist Evan Borders!

Pretty in Pink

July 10, 2009

Summer weather is heating up in the Bay Area, so it’s time to slide a bottle of rose’ into an ice bucket, find a shady spot and discover the pleasures of California wines that live in limbo between red and white.

My interest in pink wine percolated a few weeks ago when I tasted a delicious rose’ from Scherrer Winery at the Pinot Days event in San Francisco. It was a pure shot of pleasure, and a great change of pace from all of the serious pinot noir wines featured at this event, which I wrote about in my last blog, Pursuing Perfect Pinot.

When my friend Bob uncorked a couple bottles of the same Scherrer rose’  at a Fourth of July barbecue, I was hooked on this uncommon wine. It’s a blend of zinfandel and pinot noir — varieties that don’t usually come together in a bottle — but this combination works great in the hands of Fred Scherrer. It’s available from the Sonoma County winery at $15/bottle.

I’ve mostly avoided pink wines in the past, but what we are talking here is good wine, at a good price, that goes down smooth and isn’t too sweet and cloying. This is definitely not your mother’s white zinfandel!

Blushing in Oakland

I started looking close by for some similar wines to taste and locked into two winners at J.C. Cellars and Dashe Cellars in Oakland. The two wineries, which share space near Jack London Square, have earned reputations for mostly red wines like zinfandel and syrah, but both also make a small amount of blush wines for summertime sipping.

Dashe & JC Cellars

Dashe & JC Cellars

I enjoyed the Dashe vin gris and the JC Cellars rose’ of syrah. Both sell for $14/bottle.

The vin gris is a bit lighter on the palate. It’s a three-way blend of syrah, petite sirah and zinfandel grapes. Dark rose colored in the glass, the nose wasn’t anything special, but the taste was smooth and it went down easily with a chunk of cheddar cheese and a bit of country ham perched on a slice of pita bread.

The JC Cellars rose’ was darker than the vin gris and it tasted great, edging closer to the flavors of a full-blooded red wine. This rose’ is made using the saignee method, in which some of the juice is removed from the tank before it picks up any deeper color from the red grape skins. The result is a blush colored wine that drinks like syrah “light.”

The Dashe and JC Cellars tasting room is open daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. There’ s a $5 tasting fee, but it’s waived if you buy a bottle.

Cal-Ital Twist

I wanted to try something different in a rose’, so I stopped at my local wine bar — Alameda Wine Co. — to see what was available.  Owner Karen Ulrich turned me on to another pink wine, Uvaggio’s barbera rose’ ($8.50), a dark pink color with tangerine highlights. It makes for a decent quaffing wine — served really cold — and has enough backbone to stand up to dishes like grilled seafood or cioppino.

Barbera is the third most popular wine grape in Italy, but it is not widely planted in California. Grapes for the Uvaggio rose’ came from Lodi, where the vines thrive in the Central Valley climate.

Coming Up

Alameda Wine Co. celebrates its first anniversary with an open house next Tuesday (July 14) featuring barbecue, music, magic and $3 wines-by-the-glass. The address is 2315 Central Ave., right next door to the Alameda movie theater. The event runs from 4-8 p.m.

Rosenblum Cellars, also in Alameda, hosts its annual summer open house from 1-5 p.m. July 25-26 at the winery near the Alameda Ferry Terminal. Tickets are $35 in advance, $45 at the door.

Looking Farther Ahead

The annual East Bay Vintner’s Alliance is holding its fourth annual tasting event on the grass in Jack London Square next to the Oakland Ferry Terminal on August 8. Each of the 16 participating wineries — including Rosenblum, JC Cellars and Dashe — will be paired with a local restaurant serving food to complement the wines. Advance tickets are $45 and $60 at the door.

The Family Winemakers of California 19th annual tasting is scheduled for August 23 at Ft. Mason in San Francisco. This non-profit advocacy group puts on a great tasting featuring hundreds of wineries, including a few big family-owned companies you know by name alongside a lot of mostly smaller wineries that don’t usually share the public spotlight. Tickets are $50 in advance, $60 at the door.

Pursuing Perfect Pinot

July 2, 2009

I had an opportunity to sample nearly 100 pinot noir wines from 50 wineries last weekend and discovered in that ocean of red a few special bottles that would be worth re-visiting.

The event was the 5th annual Pinot Days at Fort Mason in San Francisco where more than 200 wineries were offering samples to more than a thousand imbibers.

My favorites came  from a pair of wine families with a history of success — Belle Glos Wines and Scherrer Winery –plus a couple of smaller producers like Enkidu Wine and Kastania Vineyards, whose fame hasn’t skyrocketed… yet!

Caymus Connection

Belle Glos Pinot Noir

Belle Glos Pinot Noir

Belle Glos winemaker Joseph Wagner made a pair of winners in the 2007 vintage from Taylor Lane on the Sonoma Coast and Las Alturas in the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County. The Taylor Lane  was round, full-bodied and lip-smacking good while the Las Alturas was a bit lighter, racier and more whimsical.  Both have a suggested retail price of $60.

The winery is named for Joseph’s grandmother, who, herself, was a co-founder of the family’s much better known Caymus winery in Napa where their world-renowned cabernet sauvignon is produced. Click here for a video visit to Caymus.

Scherrer Sure is Good

Fred Scherrer has been working around wines all of his life. I’ve been especially fond of his zinfandels, but it’s the pinots that are now also in the spotlight. Fred started making wine from his family’s vineyard and then later honed his pinot production skills at Dehlinger, where he was winemaker for a decade.  By 1997, Scherrer formally started his namesake winery and it’s been his show ever since.

Scherrer Vineyard

Scherrer Vineyard

Fred poured three wines for me — a pinot triple play. I immediately fell in love with his fruit forward 2006 Sonoma, a $35 ready-to-drink, red brick colored mouthful of great pinot fruit. The Russian River bottling ($40) features red cherry flavors and a bit racier profile. The third sample was a wine called Big Brother-Sonoma Coast ($50) which had a more brooding character, slightly deeper color and overall an impression of greatness  that would unfold over the next few years.

There is no formal tasting room, but if you sign up for the winery’s mailing list, you will be invited to one of the three annual open houses held each year. The next Scherrer open house is set for the first weekend in August.

Starting Small with Big Flavors

I’d never heard of Enkidu Wines before I wet my lips with the 2007 vintage from the Tina Marie Vineyard in the Russian River Valley.  This $40 wine tasted of spicy strawberries with a hint of citrus on the nose. Very refreshing.

Winemaker Phillip Staehle takes a minimalist approach, preferring to let the fruit shine through with as little manipulation as possible. He does get a little help from the winery pooch, whose name is also Enkidu.

Phillip Staehle and Enkidu

Phillip Staehle and Enkidu

I thoroughly enjoyed the Enkidu 2007 Kiambrell’s, sourced entirely from a 1.5-acre vineyard near Sebastapol. This $45 wine tasted of mixed cherries and cranberries with a pure pinot nose that only hinted at the seamless, round taste. For a lower cost treat, try the $28 Sonoma Coast, a blend of several vineyards with a softer approach and sweeter cherry/berry flavor profile.

Enkidu gets its name from a character in an ancient Sumerian tale called “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. The tasting room, in Kenwood, offers samples daily except Tuesdays.

Blink and You Might Miss It

I’ve literally driven by the Kastania Vineyards winery — located on a hillside along Highway 101 just south of Petaluma — hundreds of times, but never stopped to check out what was happening. Now I’m kicking myself because I missed such an obvious jewel.

The 2007 Kastania Proprieter’s Reserve ($45) is a delicious pinot wine — like a liquid fruit pie with a dusting of cinnamon — made from grapes grown on the property by owners Linda and Hoot Smith. The winery, which makes 800-1000 cases of wine annually, is open for tasting, but only on weekends.