Archive for December, 2009

Looking at 2010 and Beyond

December 31, 2009

The coming year will present opportunities galore for wine lovers to expand horizons, excite tastebuds and enjoy the wide variety of offerings from California’s multi-faceted wine country.

The 2009 harvest is complete and the wines are resting in tanks and barrels, making the transition from raw juice to finished product. Early signs are hopeful, but the proof will be in what develops in the months and years ahead. Time, and effort, will tell.

Most of the 2009 vintage will not be released for another year, or more, depending on the type and style of wine. The early harvest or nouveau style wines debuted before New Year’s. Young, feisty and anything-but-serious, these wines are meant for immediate consumption.

Next up will be the chardonnay and sauvignon blanc wines, most of which will be released over the next 12-24 months.

Zinfandel and syrah  and pinot noir usually show up for drinking in the second year after harvest. The 2009 merlot and cabernet wines will need more time — two or more years after harvest — to become finished wines. Some examples will be aged in barrel for even longer, to give them additional depth and complexity from the prolonged interaction with the wood.

You’ll see bottles from the 2007 and 2008 vintages — now ready for market — offered at tasting rooms and retail locations all over the place. For the adventurous, there will be opportunities to test the new wines before bottling via barrel tastings and special events designed to preview the pleasures to come.

Here are my recommendations for major wine-centric events you can attend over the next few months:


The Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) 19th annual grand tasting will be held at Fort Mason (San Francisco) from January 28-30. There are special winemaker dinners and smaller focused tastings before the grand tasting on Saturday the 30th.. While the list is still growing, ZAP officials expect 250 wineries to participate, with more than 1000 different wines available for tasting.

P.S. I Love You

This advocacy group, P.S. I Love You, supports all things related to petite sirah. Their fourth annual tasting event will be held Feb. 19 at Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda. Each of the 40 or so participating wineries will pour their best bottles of petite sirah alongside great food from more than a dozen regional restaurants. A limited number of tickets are available online @ $60 apiece.

Savor Sonoma County

The 20th Annual Savor Sonoma Valley barrel tasting event will be held March 20-21. A group of 22 regional wineries participate in this fun event, held every year to showcase the newest vintage. A two-day pass is $55 per person. Tickets are on sale online at the Heart of Sonoma Valley web site.

Later in the year, the big auction events take center stage. Two of the biggest include Auction Napa Valley, the prestigious event put on June 3-6 by the Napa Valley Vintners, and Sonoma Wine Country Weekend on Sept. 4-7. Tickets for the Sonoma event go on sale in June.

Check your favorite winery’s website for information about product releases and other special events throughout the year. For example: I’ve got Feb. 6 circled on my calendar. That’s when Silver Oak unveils the new vintage for its Napa and Sonoma cabernet sauvignon with open houses at its wineries in Oakville and Geyserville from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

What’s your favorite wine event? Share your ideas with me and I’ll include them in an upcoming post.


2009: A Good Time for Wine

December 24, 2009

With the economy on the way back up this year, the wine business is awash in unsold bottles and discounts are making great wines more accessible to more people.

We are blessed in the Bay Area with access to world-class wines grown within an easy drive from where we live. Napa and Sonoma are home to hundreds of small, medium and large winemaking operations, but they are not the only sources of award-winning wines.

We also find great wines coming from Mendocino as well as the Livermore Valley, Lodi and the Santa Cruz mountains plus Suisun Valley, the Claksburg region and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The choices sometimes seem endless.

I’ve been fortunate to taste hundreds of California wines over the past year from all of these wine-growing regions. Most have been good. A few have been awful. And, a few have been wonderful. Here are some of my personal favorites:

Superlative Sparkler

With New Year’s coming up fast, I’d better start this list with something festive. The creamy Royal Cuvee from Gloria Ferrer fits the bill perfectly. The 2002 vintage, a blend of 65 percent pinot noir and 35 percent chardonnay, is a $35 bargain. This wine tastes of apple and baking spice, caressed by a fine stream of tiny bubbles.

Zesty Zinfandels

Make no bones about it. I’m a big fan of zinfandel.

Each year, I look forward to the annual ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) tasting in San Francisco. Fort Mason is transformed into a zinfandel lovers paradise with hundreds of wineries putting out their best bottles for sampling. Mark January 30, 2010 on your calendar if you love zinfandel or want to find a reason to fall in love with this versatile red wine grape at the 19th ZAP Grand Zinfandel Tasting.

It was too hard to pick the best zin from everything I tasted in 2009, so I’m going to mention two.

First, the 2007 Robert Biale Vineyards Napa zinfandel ($35) was spicy, vibrant and vivacious —  a winning combo.

Biale may be the only family owned winery operating within the city limits of Napa, but what makes it special is access to great zinfandel grapes and an ability to get the most interesting flavors out of the vines. I found this bottle earlier this month on the list at Teatro Zinzanni, the circus-themed  dinner show/restaurant in San Francisco.

The second top zinfandel was the 2003 Rockpile Road from Rosenblum Cellars. This wine, long since sold out at the winery, earned a 94 rating from Wine Spectator and was the No. 3 entry on the WS Top 100 Wines of 2005. Poured from magnum, the wine was all about jammy blackberry fruit with a long finish and a briary note in the bouquet that made it hard to resist a second glass.

Mauritson Winery in Dry Creek Valley also makes several good wines from Rockpile vineyards fruit. Check out the 2006 Cemetery Vineyard ($39) or just click on my blog about Mauritson.

Cabernet — California’s King

There are lots of good  cabernets in the marketplace today, making it hard to choose a clear winner.

I really enjoyed visiting three iconic cabernet-producing wineries in Napa Valley — Beaulieu Vineyards (BV), Silver Oak and Far Niente. Each winery provides an impressive backdrop for tasting some exceptional red wines.

The Georges de Latour cabernet is the top of the line offering from BV. The 2005 ($115) is a delightful wine featuring mocha overtones with rich black cherry fruit. Click here for more bout BV.

Silver Oak makes just one wine at its Napa winery– all cabernet and almost always great. The current release, 2005 ($100), is no exception. I liked the brambly berry taste with some mocha highlights. The tannins are smooth and it’s ready to drink now.

Far Niente’s cabernet is another perennial favorite. Expensive, yes, but a real value based on the quality of fruit and the commitment to quality. The current vintage (2006, $100) is the 24th in the winery’s history and it’s another winner, tasting of black fruits and chocolate with a long, sweet finish.

Little Wines, Big Tastes

I stumbled by accident on Jocelyn Lonen’s wines at my local wine store, where the wines were featured at a tasting. Lonen produced a terrific 2006 cabernet sauvignon, ($35) with a large portion of the grapes coming from the prestigious Stagecoach vineyard on Atlas Peak. Click here to read more about Lonen.

Last week, I mentioned a nice little cabernet that I’d tasted but couldn’t recall details of who made it. I found my notes and reconfirmed the wine in question was a 2004 Napa cab from Clos Valmi.

This wine, from a small  hillside vineyard owned by the Astorian family in Yountville,  is on the less expensive end of the price spectrum ($24) but it had all the characteristics of a much pricier bottle — smooth cherry fruit, integrated tannins and a long, delicious finish.

Only 59 cases of Clos Valmi  was produced and it’s in limited distribution. I bought my bottle at V Wine Cellar in Yountville, which offers a treasure trove of desirable Napa cabs along with a wide selection of other wines.

Here’s hoping the holiday season and the new year provide you with lots of opportunities to explore new wines and wineries in Wine Country. Drop me a line with suggestions about your favorite wines and wineries and I’ll do my best to check them out in the weeks and months ahead.

Worry-Free Wines for the Holidays

December 18, 2009

Buying wine as a holiday present for friends and family can be a chore and, if you’re scrambling for ideas as Christmas closes in, you’ve come to the right place for some suggestions.

One of the first things I thought about when I tasted Dolce — the dessert wine from Far Niente — was pumpkin pie, a staple at the Christmas table in my family tradition. For a special friend who loves after-dinner drinks, this $85 half-bottle of world-class sweet wine would be a perfect selection. Read more from my earlier blog Dolce: Different, Delicious, Decadent.

At the other end of the gifting price range would be a great little bottle of $10 pinot noir that I tasted a few weeks ago, but haven’t written about yet. There are too many bottles of mediocre California pinot noir at sometimes ridiculous prices, but Windy Hill breaks the mold with their delicious 2003 Sonoma Coast bottling.

Christo's Running Fence

Christo's Running Fence

Even the most discriminating pinot drinker can admire Windy Hill’s strawberry fruit and smooth texture while appreciating the value.

For a student of California art history, the hill on which this Cotati winery’s vineyards are now planted, is the same hill used as the starting point for the artist Christo’s famous 1972 “Running Fence,” a zig-zag stretch of fabric that ran 24 miles to the Pacific Ocean.

I discovered Windy Hill on sale at several Bay Area stores including the Wine Mine in Oakland — one of my favorites. The Wine Mine features cut-rate prices on wines from around the world. And, there’s  a $1 tasting on Saturday, when owner David Sharp opens 4-5 interesting bottles from his warehouse style storefront in the Temescal District.

I found another great wine shop, called V, during a visit to Yountville.

This comfortable oasis of wine features a very broad collection with a focus on local reds and whites of all kinds. Daily happy hour stretches for three hours and gives tasters an opportunity to sample an interesting mix.

I drooled over bottles of classic Burgundy and some fine Bordeaux, but it was the huge array of Napa cabs (including most of the classic names) that was most impressive.

When I asked the folks at V for a reasonably priced Napa cabernet to pair with steak, I got a bottle of $22 wine that I’d never heard of, made from a small unheralded vineyard nearby. It was a fantastic find but now I can’t remember the name! I promise to search through my notes and include it in a future blog.

Finally, I want to close out this holiday post with a recommendation to visit Gustafson Family Vineyard, high up in the hills overlooking Lake Sonoma.

Gustafson, which is only open to the public on Saturdays, has a knockout location with a birdseye view that stretches across Sonoma County. The wines, while young, have great potential — especially their petite sirah and zinfandel, which I wrote about in an earlier blog Up, Up and Away.

The sense of discovery I get from tasting wines, visiting winemakers and listening to wine sellers is truly amazing. I look forward to sharing more great wines to taste, more great wineries to visit and more great wine people to meet in the New Year.

Big Taste, Small Wineries

December 11, 2009

The gap between amateur and professional winemakers can sometimes be great, but at Crushpad in San Francisco they are narrowing the field with a clutch of small wineries producing premium wines that can compete with the big boys in terms of complexity and quality.

Crushpad is a commercial winemaking facility open to anyone who has the urge, and the cash, to make their own wines. The facility provides professional grade equipment and techniques, plus the assistance of professional winemakers, to enthusiasts who want to make the leap from consumer to creator.

Earlier this week, I tasted  43 red wines from 16 boutique wineries  — all members of the San Francisco Wine Association — at a holiday showcase at the Crushpad facilities in the Dogpatch neighborhood on Third Street.

From top to bottom, these wines are surprisingly good. The bad news is that most wines are produced in fairly limited amounts and there may be only a few dozen cases of each to go around.

It’s a good bet you’ve never heard of any of these wines before, due to small quantities of wine and limited distribution, but some are definitely worth seeking out, especially if you have a wine fancier on your holiday gift list who’d appreciate something different and in short demand.

John Tarabini

John Tarabini

John Tarabini, who bottles wine under the Damien Rae label, is president of the one-year-old SFWA. His 2007 Napa cabernet sauvignon was a standout wine ($63) with dark blackberry fruit and smooth tannins.

The top cabernet of the night was produced by Townley Wines in a reserve style. The very smooth 2007 Townley Shizzle ($75) is a blend of fruit from three Napa vineyards. This deep, dark wine showed a classic cabernet nose, seamless tannins and expressive fruit.

Townley also made a very good 2007 pinot noir from fruit grown on the La Encantada Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills.

My favorite wine of the tasting was a Rhone-style wine made from syrah grapes. This wine, called Homage, is from Aver Family Vineyards. Their wine is made from grapes grown on the 8.25-acre estate vineyard in southern Santa Clara County. The 2007 vintage  ($31.50) tasted of minerals and spice and was delicious!

I also enjoyed the petite sirah from Jazz Cellars, another Crushspad customer selling commercial wines. This lovely red  is from the 2006 vintage. It’s made from grapes grown in the Eaglepoint Ranch vineyard in Mendocino. I like the smoothness of this  mellow $35 bottle of  petite sirah, a grape which can be a rough and tumble customer in less experienced hands.

There were several producers making pinot noir with fruit from the Split Rock Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. The top version was a garnet-hued  2007 made by Seawind Wines . This ultra smooth $44 pinot has a creamy texture with nice fruit highlights that made me return for a second taste.

Just a shade lighter was another likable pinot noir. The 2007 from Bartz-Allen Winery also came from the Split Rock vineyard. This $40 bottle had cinnamon highlights to go with a nice fruity character that I really enjoyed.

Making Merlot Memorable

December 4, 2009

Bargain-priced merlot put Blackstone Winery on the map, but this Sonoma Valley institution is no one-trick pony when it comes to good wine.

The winery produces 1.4 million cases of merlot each year. The guy responsible for that ocean of red is Gary Sitton.

Blackstone California Merlot

Blackstone Merlot

“Merlot, in particular, is what Blackstone was founded upon.,” said Sitton, who started as head winemaker at Blackstone with the 2007 vintage. “The Blackstone merlot is the No. 1 selling merlot in the country, so my job was not to screw it up.

He didn’t.

This mellow red wine is a great buy at $10. I like it’s red cherry edge with just enough acidity to make it fit in well at the table with red meats and tomato-sauced dishes.

Sitton cut his teeth in the winemaking game at Ravenswood, a Sonoma County winery that, like Blackstone, is owned by Constellation Brands.

As a new winemaker, taking over a well-established brand, you really need to maintain the status quo while looking for ways to make it better.

“As a winemaker, however, you are always looking for ways to improve the product and yourself,” he explained. “If you stop doing that, you ultimately lose the edge that got you here in the first place.”

Sitton’s creativity shows itself most profoundly in the second tier or wines, Sonoma Reserve, made for customers with a bit more sophisticated taste.

Gary Sitton, Blackstone Winemaker

Gary Sitton

“We have this huge base of consumers that had nothing to buy up to before,” Sitton said. “Now, we have a line of wines that are more focused by appellation. These wines are a little more serious in structure and tannins and they appeal more to a higher-end wine consumer, but that still deliver the value proposition that Blackstone is built upon.”

One of the reserve wines is called Rubric, a $20 red blend that gives the winemaker a broader palate to work with.

The idea was to make a terrific cab-based blend using a handful of other varietals, like tannat and petite sirah, Sitton explained.

“For me to make a wine like Rubric, which compares favorably with $40-$60 bottles of wine and to be able to sell it for around $20,” said the winemaker. “I take pride in delivering that value.”

Other reserve wines in current release include a merlot, cabernet, another meritage blend and a chardonnay — all drawn from different vineyards across Sonoma County.

“We are not trying to make huge, overly extracted wines pandering to wine publications,” Sitton said. “I like good acid structure and balance. In keeping with that, I want to make wines that are varietally correct in keeping with that.”

He also values positive vegetal characteristics — like cedar and cigar box — which can enhance these red wines.

“I still want ample fruit character,” Sitton said. “And with the merlot and cab, that is definitely the goal — rich, ripe fruit but also that depth and complexity and a more nuanced character.”

Blackstone operates two wineries — in Kenwood and Monterey. Tasting rooms at both sites are open on a daily basis.

Holiday Happenings

Tis the season to shop and celebrate and many wineries are holding special Holiday events and open houses — all within an easy drive from the Bay Area.

Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda, which operates as a winery and as an incubator for winemaking start-ups, will  hold a holiday open house on Saturday (Dec. 5). Rock Wall will show off four new releases with a mx of other new wines from Blacksmith Cellars, Carica Wines, Ehrenberg Cellars, John Robert Eppler Wines, R&B Cellars and Virgo Cellars. Tickets are $30 in advance and $40 at the door.

Peju Winery in Napa will be holding a holiday open house on Friday (Dec. 4)  with complimentary tastings offered from 6:30-8:00 p.m.

About 20 Calistoga-area wineries will open their doors for a “Winter in the Wineries” three-day weekend starting Friday (Dec. 4). Tickets are $40, available through the Calistoga Visitors Center.

About a dozen wineries in the Rutherford section of Napa are celebrating in similar fashion with their own weekend passport event this Saturday and Sunday. Tickets for the two-day affair are $65. Sunday only tickets cost $50. For more info, check out the Rutherford Appellation website.

At Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma on Saturday (Dec. 5) , a holiday open house features free tasting for visitors who bring an unwrapped toy to donate to local charities. For more details, check the Gunbun website.

Pelligrini Family Vineyards is hosting a holiday open house in Santa Rosa on Saturday (Dec. 5). Tasting is free at the winery.

The San Francisco Wine Association, a group of 20 small urban winemakers, will hold its annual holiday event on Thursday (Dec. 10) at Crushpad, the custom-crush facility in the city (2573 Third Street, San Francisco). Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online through the association’s website.