Archive for August, 2009

California Wine Served up Family Style

August 25, 2009

There were a few surprises, a few new faces and some old favorites at the Family Winemakers of California annual tasting, where more than 300 wineries showed off their current releases.

Cain Vineyard and Winery, located atop Spring Mountain, is one of the most reliable premium producers in the Napa Valley and the winery did  not disappoint with a trio of fine red wines poured at the tasting Sunday (Aug. 23) at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

Cain Five

Cain Five

Cain Five (~$100) is a blend of fruit from both mountain and valley vineyards. The mix is similar to the Concept, described below, but this one is made for aging, if you can resist the pull of its luscious fruit and cocoa flavor profile.

Cain Concept ($50-$60) is a blend of grapes grown in the valley’s benchland vineyards. The winery uses the classic Bordeaux varieties — cabernet sauvignon, cabernet Franc, merlot, malbec, and petit verdot — to produce this somewhat tannic wine that needs a few more years to develop completely.

Cain Cuvee is the “entry level” bottling ($30) with 49 percent merlot and 36 percent cabernet sauvignon along with cabernet franc and petit verdot. This is the most accessible wine in the bunch, thanks to the easy-drinking merlot. Cain blends lots from both the 2005 and 2006 vintages to produce this wine.

Prisoner and Papillon and Pahlmeyer

Another personal favorite, Orin Swift, poured two really good wines — 2006 Papillon ($55), a Bordeaux blend made chiefly from cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and 2007 Prisoner ($35), a uncommon blend of 50 percent zinfandel plus 24 percent cabernet sauvignon, 14 percent syrah and lesser amounts of petite sirah, charbono and grenache. orinswiftpapillon500x367

I found the well-made Prisoner to be a tad lass approachable than previous vintages, but would not hesitate to recommend it to any red wine enthusiast who could wait another six months for the tastes to meld.

I also got a chance to sample the Pahlmeyer proprietary red blend, vintage 2006, which was excellent. This serious, deep purple wine — it’s 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot along with dollops of petit verdot, cabernet franc and malbec — displayed a favorable “racy” profile that stimulated my tired tastebuds even after sampling close to 100 wines. The aftertaste lingered for what seemed like forever, a characteristic that noted critic Robert Parker also mentioned when he gave this $125 wine a 95 out of 100 rating.

Some Small Surprises

I’m not normally a fan of viognier, a white grape from France that is gaining traction in California, but the example poured by tiny Skipstone Wines in Santa Rosa really caught me by surprise.

Skipstone Terraced Vineyard

Skipstone Terraced Vineyard

It tasted full , round, and rich, like a good chardonnay, along with a floral nose that was completely enticing. The wine is available at finer restaurants for ~$75 but you can buy it at a discount directly from the winery, provided you are a member of the Skipstone Wine Club.

Respite Wines is another small Sonoma County producer that showed a very good 2006 cabernet sauvigion ($48) from Alexander Valley fruit.  The flavor profile combined ripe raspberry and cassis plus a tinge of smokiness that hung together well on the palate.

Sunset Cellars, which makes its wine at the Suisun Valley Co-Op (click here for a closer look at my recent blog about Suisun Valley wines), poured a killer 2005 syrah blended with regional zinfandel to produce a bargain bottle ($16) of easy-drinking red. This full, round wine tasted of red cherry fruit with a floral aroma (violets?) that was very approachable. Sunset also makse a Green Valley syrah in a bit leaner style that was also very good.

For a good overview of the Family Winemakers of California event, check out this Wine Country Insider video.


Winterhawk — Backroads Wine Find

August 21, 2009

Winterhawk Winery is off the beaten path, but it’s worth finding if you want to have fun while tasting some pretty good wines.

Winterhawk is in Suisun Valley, an American Viticultural Area near Fairfield in Solano County just north of the border with  more-famous Napa. The winery is open to the public on Saturdays for tastings that include live music and free pizza. The Used Blues Band performs this Saturday (Aug. 22) and the blues ensemble Caravan of All-Stars is on stage Aug. 29.

Don Johnson and Clive

Don Johnson and Clive

Winterhawk proprietor Don Johnson welcomed me on a recent weekend with a handshake and a grin, his blue eyes sparkling in the summer sun.

Unlike some places in Napa, there’s no pretension or snooty attitudes here. The tasting room at Winterhawk is a set of folding tables on the crushpad, adjacent to the vineyards.  In line were smiling visitors who were eager to pay $5 for a taste of everything the winery makes plus a glassful of whatever wine you liked the best.

The tasting included sauvignon blanc, a merlot rose, a regular merlot, petite sirah, pinot noir and tempranillo plus a sweet late-harvest zinfandel and a semi-sweet orange muscat.

The tempranillo, a Spanish grape not widely planted in California, caught my eye, so I asked Johnson about it. He said he got interested in the grape during a trip to Europe.

“I was on a sailboard in Sicily and I drank a lot of tempranillo and I really liked it,” Johnson explained. “So, when I got back home, I looked around for some to plant.”

His tempranillo vines are now six years old. The 2007 vintage ($18) is a lovely little wine that would fit in nicely beside a plate of grilled spicy sausages or even paella.

My favorite of the bunch is the Suisun Valley pinot noir (2007). This is everything a $20 bottle of easy-to-drink California pinot should be. It’s a moderate ruby red color with a nose of fresh cherries and a round finish that invites another sip… and then another… and another.

My second favorite, the 2005 merlot ($18), really came into its own when paired with a piece of vegetable pizza fresh from the winery’s wood-fired oven. There’s a whiff of bell pepper on the nose with a soft middle palate of cocoa and red fruits that blend together into a juicy mouthful of goodness.sv_map

Fun Family Farm Days

Suisun Valley wineries, vegetable growers, u-pick orchards and farm stands will open their doors for an end-of-summer celebration called Fun Family Farm Days on Aug. 30. Winterhawk and five other area wineries, including the Suisun Valley Co-Op (which is home to four micro-wineries Sunset Cellars, Bask, King Andrews and Blacksmith) will have special tastings in connection with this event that will be repeated Sept. 27 and Oct. 25.

For a special treat, check out the locally produced oils from Il Fiorello Olive Oil Co. and the fruits, home-made ice cream and baked goods from 99 Cherry Orchard U-Pick (2627 Rockville Rd, Fairfield). I took home one of their blackberry/cherry pies that was insanely good!

To learn more about wines from Suisun Valley, check out Not Napa, Not Sonoma.

Test Your Tasting Tactics

August 14, 2009

One of the benefits — and potential drawbacks — of being so close to wine country is the sheer volume of different winetasting opportunities to choose from. So much wine… so little time!

Here are my top picks for the next few weeks:

Family Style

The Family Winemakers of California tasting  scheduled Aug. 23-24 at Fort Mason in San Francisco offers a broad glimpse at the diversity of  wines produced by smaller labels from around the state. More than 400 wineries will pour dozens of different red and white varietals at this sometimes overwhelming but always fascinating event. Tickets are $50 in advance and $60 at the door.

This event is nearly 10 times bigger than the initial FWC tasting in 1991 that featured 46 wineries.  I recommend a game plan, choosing either to taste one or two different types of wine from different wineires or taste wines from specific wineries that look interesting. Take a look at the full lineup of participating wineries and what they’ll be pouring.

There are plenty of  choices, alphabetically, starting with the A’s — Ackerman Family Vineyards of Napa — and ending with the Z’s —  Zenaida Cellars from Paso Robles. Ackerman is a cabernet specialist while Zenaida focuses mainly on syrah, zinfandel and cabernet.

Havest Stomp in Yountville

Harvest time is nearly upon us, so naturally there are celebrations bound to happen. A good one to check out is the Harvest Stomp on Aug. 29 sponsored by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.napagrowersstomp

The group, which has about 500 members, is aimed at preserving and promoting regional wines. They will be pouring samples from 45 wineries alongside a feast that includes fare from Hog Island Oyster Farm, an Aregentinian barbecue plus rotisserie chicken and authentic paella.

There’ll also be music by Belle Monroe and her Brewglass Boys and Red Meat. A live auction and raffle will send home lots of great wine and wine-related prizes to the winners, including a “Harvest Immersion” experience with award-winning winemaker Andy Hoxsey, the NVG’s Grower of the Year for 2009 whose Napa Wine Company oversees the largest organice grape-growing operation in the country. Tickets ($100) are limited and available only from the NVG.

Some of the better known wines on the menu include Cakebread, Corison and Duckhorn (here’s a link to our Duckhorn video). You’ll also get a chance to sample wines from smaller producers like Peacock Family Winery, Jericho Canyon Vineyards and Cloud View Vineyards, among many others.

Sonoma: Labor Day Getaway

If your plans for the long Labor Day weekend are still up in the air, a good place to land if you like fantastic food and great wine is the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend extravaganza. More than 200 wineries are participating in three days of wine-splashed events.

MacMurray Ranch

MacMurray Ranch

The two cornerstone happenings are the big Taste of Sonoma tasting on Saturday (Sept. 5) at the MacMurray Ranch in the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction on Sunday (Sept. 6) at Cline Cellars in Carneros (click  to see our Cline Cellars video).

For more intimate experiences, there are winemaker dinners and lunches sponsored by participating Sonoma wineries throughout the weekend. There’s also an online auction, if you prefer to get a head start on the action.

Tickets run upwards of $100 per event. Click here to enter a drawing for free tickets.

Larson Family’s Deep Roots in Carneros

August 7, 2009

In the heart of Sonoma’s Carneros region, there’s a special place where broncos once bucked off cowboys and steamboats used to deliver passengers from San Francisco. Today, it’s home to the Larson Family Winery.

The  5,000-case winery sits at the end of bumpy, tree-lined Millerick Road, right off Highway 121. I knew where I was going and still missed the turn off, so be careful and watch for the Larson Family Winery sign.



I parked in front of the red barn that serves as a tasting room and immediately heard the Larson’s pet sheep, Marshmallow, give out a loud bleat. I learned later she was lonely. The Larson kids had taken the sheep’s buddies — pygmy goats named Blondie, Mission and Tiffany — to exhibit at the county fair.

History in the Shadows

Owner Tom Larson is proud of the historical connection his family has to the land alongside Sonoma Creek that his great grandfather, Michael Millerick, acquired in 1899. In the second half of the 19th century, steamboats navigated from San Francisco to deposit passengers and freight for the overland journey to nearby Sonoma and points farther north.

Later, the Sonoma Rodeo grounds were located here and crowds by the thousands watched the action, which included a prize-winning roping performance one year by August Sebastiani, past patriarch of a proud winemaking family that is still very active in today’s wine trade.

Tom and his father planted his first chardonnay vines here in 1977.  On a recent hot afternoon visit, I watched as the shifting bay breezes carved patterns in the 70 acres of leafy vineyards around the tasting room.

Lazy Dog Day Afternoon

Sunny, Pete and Bubba — the winery dogs — lay in a sliver of shade under a tractor as I walked inside to meet Molly Biss, the tasting room manager, and Lee Sweeney, her assistant.

Larson Family Winery Tasting Room

Larson Family Winery Tasting Room

If this isn’t the friendliest place to taste wine, it’s pretty darn close. It’s kid-friendly, too, with the barnyard animals, a big grassy area next to the barbecue grill and shaded picnic tables plus a bocce court for bigger kids and adults.

For the more adventurous, horseback rides through the vineyards can be arranged through Vineyard Rides.

Back in the tasting room, Molly was busy tidying up the place while Lee poured samples of the 10-12 wines that were open.

I enjoyed the simple Sonoma Red (non-vintage, $20/liter), imagining how good it would be at a summer cook-out. They were out of the Sonoma White, a “summertime in a bottle” type of wine made from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and gewurtraminer, but a new batch has been bottled and it should be available for sampling this weekend.larson late harvest chardonnay 2

Larson makes some seriously good wines, too. The 2006 late harvest chardonnay ($35/half bottle) was a delightful surprise. This is a sweet, sauterne style wine. It’s made from shriveled grapes harvested in November after being infected with a virus called botrytis cinerea.

Some wines, like my favorite of the tasting — a violet-scented cabernet franc  ($24.99) — are made in such small amounts that they are only available to wine club members. The wine club at Larson offers some of the biggest discounts I’ve seen — 50% off for some wines — along with invitations to special events (Santa visits during the holidays) and special rates for the winery’s rental property, a four-bedroom, two-bath 1890s farmhouse with all the modern amenities.

Coming Up This Weekend: Eighth Street Wineries Open House

Just a few minutes drive from Larson Family Winery will take you to Sonoma where a group of eight small wineries will open their doors for a special tasting this Saturday (August 8). The cost is $20/person to taste wines from Anaba Wines, Enkidu, MacRostie Winery, Parmelee-Hill Wines and Vineyards, Talisman Wines, Three Sticks, Tin Barn Vineyards and Ty Caton Vineyards. Most of these boutique properties are not generally open to the public.  Tickets are on sale at MacRostie, a top-rated winery whose pinot noir and chardonnay I have enjoyed for years.