Archive for January, 2010

Pouring All Zins, All the Time

January 31, 2010

There was an ocean of wine flowing beside San Francisco Bay at the world’s largest celebration of all things zinfandel, the 19th annual ZAP festival.

The funnel was Fort Mason, where about 300 wineries uncorked their best bottles for Saturday’s Zinfandel Advocates and Producers grand tasting — the culmination of a long weekend of zin-focused wine and food events. Hawaiian chef Beverly Gannon was the headliner and I especially enjoyed her island-themed meatloaf with sweet barbecue sauce served at Thursday’s “Good Eats and Zin” event, also at Fort Mason.

Alcatraz through the wine glass from Fort Mason

ZAP at Fort Mason

Good zins from Napa, Sonoma, the Central Coast, the Sierra Foothills and Lodi popped up alongside one red herring — an impressive European import with a link to California zinfandel.

The Accademia dei Racemi’s 2007 Sinfarosa from Puglia ($26)  tasted great and showed a true zinfandel fruitiness and blackberry backbone. The grape is known in Europe as primitivo, but it’s genetics are the same as our homegrown zinfandel.

Vintners mostly poured wines from the 2006 and 2007 vintages, but they also showed some 2008s, including many wines that won’t be released until later in the year.

I’m looking forward to Robert Biale‘s 2008 Monte Rosso Vineyard zin, a wonderfully fresh, approachable wine from one of Sonoma’s premier vineyards that will be bottled and released in a few months. A barrel sample was ripe, round and ready to drink.

The Monte Rosso Vineyard, first planted in 1938 by the venerable Martini wine family, is now owned by Gallo, which sells fruit from this site to more than dozen winemakers.

Let’s Dance and Drink Zin

One of my favorite wines at the tasting was from Dancing Lady Wines in Healdsburg, a winery I’d never run across before.

Winemaker Gia Passalacqua squeezes a ton of cherry fruit flavors topped by a twist of spice out of grapes for the 2007Della Costa Family Vineyard zinfandel ($27),which may even be surpassed by the unreleased 2008 version from the same Alexander Valley vineyard. Look for the 2008 to take the taste meter up another notch!

From Amador County fruit, Folie a Deux Winery in Oakville fashioned a great 2007 zin at a great price of $18. There’s a fine balance between just enough fruit and just enough tannic tartness to bode well at table with tomato-based sauces and lighter grilled meats.

Wine for Tonight

If I had to pick a wine to take home frdinner, it would be any of the following three wines poured by Hendry Wines. George Hendry grows wine on 117 acres divided into50 blocks of vines on his property in southwestern Napa. He nurtures several different red and white varietals, including some really great zinfandel.

The 2007 Hendry Block 7 & 22 zinfandel ($30) hasn’t been releasedyet, but it’s ready to go in my book with classic Napa zin credentials — cherry/berry fruit, a touch of smoke and enough tannins to hold everything together.

The 2006 Block 28 zinfandel ($30) showed some cabernet-type character, basically muting the fruit a bit and upping the tannins, still in balance and perfect for a roast beef dinner with all the trimmings.

Even the HRW ($15), a second-label blend of several Hendry zinfandel lots that don’t make the top-line assemblage, is a great everyday wine.

Jam Time

From the jammier side of the fruit spectrum comes Opolo Vineyards in Paso Robles. I’ve been drinking their wines for years and am a big fan of two 2007 offerings that were poured at ZAP.

The 2007 Opolo Mountain Vineyard ($28) has a big grape jam taste and structure that cries out for a sizzing steak or pork chop with a  sour cherry glaze. The 2007 Summit Creek ($20) was almost as fine with a streak of blue/red fruit spread across an equally enjoyable framework of integrated tannins.

The Bargain Corner

One of the best bargain wines of the tasting was the 2008 Immortal, a $13 quaffer from Peirano Estate Winery in Lodi.

In the $10 and under the category, I really liked the 2007 Wily Jack, another new brand from Napa launched last summer by Diageo Chateau and Estate Wines. This $8.99 bottle had great fruit and fine structure for a California blend.

Up Next:  New Napa Cabernet Releases

A slew of Napa wineries will be unveiling their newest cabernet offerings with special events next weekend.

On Saturday (Feb. 6), check out the festivities at Silver Oak in Oakville where they will debut the 2007 estate cabernet. That same day, similar events are planned at Flora Springs Winery in St. Helena (where the 2007 Trilogy will be on center stage), Bennett Lane in Calistoga (where the 2007cabernet will be previewed), Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena (where the 2006 cab will be celebrated) and Raymond Vineyards in Oakville  (where the 2006 Generations cab will make its debut).

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Celebrating Zinfandel — America’s Wine

January 29, 2010

The annual Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) weekend is an All-American event featuring delicious red wines from all over California.

The human headliner of the 19th annual ZAP festival — a celebration of all things zinfandel — is chef  Beverly Gannon, one of Hawaii’s most influential cooks and proprietor of the world-famous Hali`imaile General Store on Maui.

Chef Beverly Gannon

Chef Beverly Gannon

Gannon, an advocate for regional Hawaiian cuisine, was just one of many chefs whose dishes were paired with wines from about 50 different producers at the ZAP “Good Eats and Zinfandel”event held Thursday at Fort Mason.

This affair served as a warm-up for the public grand tasting on Saturday when wines from about 300 wineries will be poured. Tickets are available online for $59.

Gannon lived up to her reputation, based on the positive reaction to the dish she prepared for the Good Eats and Zinfandel crowd — Joe’s Favorite Meatloaf with Hawaiian Sweetbread Roll.

Two words — absolutely delicious!

The meatloaf matched up well with  the 2007 Old Vines zinfandel from Three Wine Company. This fruit-forward blend ($18) is made from 76 percent zinfandel,  nine percent petite sirah, eight percent alicante bouschet, five percent mataro and two percent black malvoisie.

Finding other great wines in this group was more of a challenge.

Out of nearly 80 wines that I tasted on Thursday, only a few were truly memorable. A lot of the 2006 wines were decent, but not spectacular. The 2007s, overall, were much better and the 2008s are just being released.

Stellar Wine from Selby

My favorite wine of the night was from Selby Winery in Healdsburg. Selby’s 2007 Bobcat ($34) is made from hillside vineyards in the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys. This extremely smooth zinfandel has no rough edges. It’s decadent, deep flavored, with a dartk fruit core that held everything together — simply delightful to drink.

The Selby Bobcat was a great match for a beef daube with parsley potatoes and gremolata prepared by Relish Culinary Adventures, a catering company in Healdsburg.

Another interesting wine, the 2007 Old Vine Reserve Alexander Valley fzinfandel came from Mantra Wines of Healdsburg. This was everything a zin should be with a briary mouth feel and red fruit flavors. This $30 wine paired quite nicely with a delicious braised beet and carpaccio panzanella, a type of Italian bread salad, from San Francisco caterer Graffeats.

Sublime Wines from Sonoma & Lodi

The famed Monte Rosso vineyard in Sonoma — once owned by the Martini winemaking family —  is the source of Rancho Zabaco’s premier zinfandel, available only at the winery. The 2007 Monte Rosso ($50) exhibits classic zinfandel characteristics — briary, brambly flavors along the blackberry spectrum with a fine backbone of tannins.

One of the most unexpected pairings of the evening matched the 2007 old vine Lodi zin from St. Amant Winery with a salad tossed with chocolate vinaigrette prepared by Philadelphia’s A Chef for You.

The salad featured Maytag bleu cheese, dried cranberries, and brownie croutons. The $24 zin, from Marian’s vineyard, was fresh, approachable and fruit-forward. It was ready to drink as soon as the cork was pulled. I’d also recommend the Mohr-Fry Ranch bottling, also 2007, for $18.

The weekend of ZAP activites continued Friday with an auction dinner and smaller comparative tastings before Saturday’s main event when close to 300 wineries particpated in the grand tasting at Fort Mason.

Good Wine, Good Deeds

January 22, 2010

The wine business can be a snake pit of competition, but it’s also a fountain of compassion when it comes to helping the less fortunate. Good deeds and good works just go hand in hand with good wine.

The premier fund-raising event in Wine Country is Auction Napa Valley, which runs June 3-6 with a wide variety of wine and food themed events culminating in the bigger-than-life live auction. This is the 30th anniversary of the Napa Valley Vintners-sponsored event, which raised $5.2 million for local charities last year and boosted total donations over the years to $90 million. Click here to see KTVU’s video coverage of the 2009 auction.

Every Little Bit Helps

On a different scale, the folks at Alameda Point Vintners, a collection of boutique wineries within Rock Wall Wines in Alameda, wanted to do something to help the victims of the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

They decided to donate 10% of sales through Sunday to the Red Cross effort in Haiti. The tasting room is open all weekend — a good reason to try, and maybe buy, some good wines. Here’s my recent blog about Rock Wall Wines and its friends.

In Napa, Ceja Vineyards is donating 15 percent of its online wine purchases through Jan. 31 to the American Red Cross for Haiti earthquake recovery efforts.

For a list of charity organizations taking donations earmarked for Haiti relief, read the Better Business Bureau guidelines.

Feel Good, Do Good

There is the “feel good” component of making charitable donations that is often amplified by the “do good” component.

A good example is the “Blending for a Cause” program that donates profits from wine sales to melanoma cancer research. Dutcher Crossing owner Debra Mathy began the charity effort following her father’s death just two months before she purchased the Healdsburg winery in 2007.

Debra and winemaker Kerry Damskey will lead the blending event on Feb. 8 from 1-3 p.m. The blend will be cabernet-based, with fruit from Mt. Veeder’s Mountain Terrace Vineyard. Check out the Dutcher Crossing web site for more details.

There are many other charitable efforts throughout the wine industry. Please comment below about your favorite wine-related event and I’ll share the info in a future blog.

I Told You So

A quick glance through the winners of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition showed great showings by tiny Oakstone Cellars in Fair Play, which I wrote about in last week’s blog. Oakstone won 13 awards, including the top wines in two categories!

Oakstone won Best of Class Judge’s Choice in the Bordeaux Blends category (up to $19.99) with its 2007 Meritage  ($19.99) from the Estate De Cascabel Vineyard and also took Best of Class honors in the Zinfandel category (up to $19.99) with its 2007 Fair Play zin ($16).

You can taste the Chronicle competition winners yourself at a public tasting Feb. 20 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Click here for more info.

Wine Pick of the Week

I’m a sucker for a decent bottle of pinot for less than a sawbuck, but I’m often disappointed by thin, tart tastes in many mass-produced bargain pinots from California.

I picked up a bottle of DeLoach Vineyards 2007 Russian River pinot noir on sale for $8.99 last week and  got much more than a bargain. I discovered a rush of lovely strawberry fruit with a hint of tasty rhubarb on the finish. Delightful stuff that carries a full retail price of $20. It matches up well with a sirloin steak braised in butter and then grilled and served with brown mushrooms in pinot reduction sauce.

Fair Play Flight of Fancy

January 15, 2010

I’ve tried wines from just about every part of California’s wine country, but I’d never actually visited the picturesque Fair Play appellation  in the Sierra Nevada foothills until last weekend.

After finding a tasty bottle of everyday syrah from Perry Creek Winery on sale for $4.99 at a local wine shop, I made the 120-mile drive from the Bay Area, up Highway 80 and then onto Highway 50 into El Dorado County  I found several regional wines that were quite good along with a welcoming community of winemakers eager to share the fruits of their labors with visitors without a tasting fee!

Perry Creek Vineyards

Perry Creek Vineyards, Fair Play

There are about 20 wineries in the region around the small town of Fair Play, a former mining community south of Placerville that survived past  the mid-19th century gold rush thanks to the fertile, well-drained land that produced fruits and vegetables along with grapes.

Visitors can fill a weekend with wine tasting in and around Fair Play, where the wineries are grouped within about a five-mile radius of each other, but I only had four hours to squeeze as much tasting in as possible.

My first stop of the day was the Sierra Oaks Estates tasting room on the corner of Mt. Aukum Road and Fair Play. Jim Brown, owner/winemaker, bought property in the area in the mid 1990s and started planting vines with his wife, Toshi. They were weekend wine warriors, commuting from their home in the Danville before making a permanent move after Jim retired from his 9-to-5 job in the Bay Area.

Jim usually has 5 of 6 wines open for tasting and I tried them all — a red blend, an estate merlot, syrah and zinfandel plus a cabernet sauvignon — all from the 2005 vintage.

The best of the bunch was an unusual blend called Zinzabar ($21) which combines 62 percent zin and 38 percent barbera. The rich fruit of the zin matches nicely with the more acidic barbera to produce an interesting wine that tastes great on its own and pairs easily with grilled meats, pasta with tomato sauce or pizza.

A short drive down Perry Creek Road took me to Perry Creek Winery, where the specialty is zinfandel. The zins are good, but I really liked their 2006 Syrah’Del  ($18), which contains 52 percent syrah and 48 percent zinfandel. The wine starts with a spicy hit of clove and fresh red fruits and finishes with a cedary backbeat that was delicious.

My next stop on the Fair Play wine trail was Oakstone Winery, which sits on Slug Gulch Road alongside a vineyard of gnarled old vines. The wine lineup, mostly reds, is dominated by zinfandel, petite sirah, merlot, barbera and sangiovese.

My taste buds, however, gravitated to the least expensive wine they make — Slug Gulch Red ($9.95), another blend that combines odd lots of different wines each year. It’s a great quaffer that’s named after a nearby gold mine where large nuggets of gold, called “slugs,” were discovered back in the region’s mining heyday.

I barely touched the surface with my short visit, so I’ll be returning the next time I get a yearning to explore higher elevation wineries. I’d recommend spending a full weekend in the Placerville area, which features another grouping of wineries north of Highway 50 in the Apple Hill region, where orchards and berries also flourish in the spring and summer.

A great opportunity to sample the newest vintages is later this month during the El Dorado County Wine Association’s annual barrel tasting weekend January 30-31. Tickets are $20 apiece through Jan. 23, when the price rises to $25.

Rock ‘n Wine in Alameda

January 8, 2010

The old Navy base on the west end of Alameda may not seem like a suitable launching pad for a winery, but don’t let the folks at Rock Wall Wine Company hear you say that.

They think the 40,000-square-foot hangar, once used as a paint shop for Navy aircraft, is a perfect place to continue the tradition of urban wine making that has become a vibrant part of the Bay Area’s culture, which includes the East Bay Vintners Alliance and the San Francisco Wine Association.

Click here to read my blog about the SF Wine Association.

Rock Wall is not the first winery in Alameda but it has very strong ties to the first, and most successful, urban winery in the state — Rosenblum Cellars.

Shauna & Kent Rosenblum

Shauna & Kent Rosenblum

Kent Rosenblum, a veterinarian turned wine making pioneer, started his namesake winery (Rosenblum Cellars) in 1978 and turned it into one of the world’s most respected zinfandel producers. After selling the company  in 2008 to Diaego, the big wine and spirits conglomerate, Rosenblum helped his daughter, Shauna, get Rock Wall launched later that same year.

Rosenblum has also helped several other winemakers get their start. Former Rosenblum winemaker Jeff Cohn  now runs his award-winning JC Cellars winery in Oakland, and Thomas Coyne, former Rosenblum cellarmaster, makes wine in Livermore at the Thomas Coyne Winery.

Back in Alameda, the Rock Wall facilities serve as an incubator for a handful of boutique wineries that share the workspace and tasting room.

Rock Wall is open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Don’t expect an exquisite wine estate with an elaborate manor house and picturesque vineyards.This is a working, commercial winery. The tasting room consists of a crude bar at the back of the giant hangar. The nearest vineyards are hours away, but there’s something spectacular just outside.

San Francisco Skyline

View from Rock Wall Wine Co.

It’s an awesome view of the majestic San Francisco skyline, which comes into focus the minute you step out the door.

Back in the winery,  tasting room manager Erin Barrett poured me a sample of the Rock Wall 2007 Sonoma Valley zinfandel reserve and it was delicious. This polished red wine scored a well-deserved 90-point rating from the Wine Spectator and earned a gold medal at the 2009 Orange County Wine Fair. This $35 wine delivered a noseful of fresh blackberry fruit backed by a solid core of cherry and sweet chocolate flavors.

I also enjoyed Rock Wall’s 2007 Rock Star Rouge, an unusual blend of syrah (42%), tempranillo (37%) and cinsault (21%) that makes for a great everyday drinking wine. I liked the violet edge to this wine’s flavor and a bit of peppery bite that would make it a good match for burgers, pizza or grilled chicken. At $14 a bottle, it’s a steal.

There are six other wineries at the Rock Wall Wine facility, including Blacksmith Cellars, Carica Wines, Ehrenberg Cellars, JRE Wines, R&B Cellars and Virgo Cellars.

Of the 10 wines available for tasting during my visit, I really liked the Carica 2007 Kick Ranch syrah ($30), a bright-tasting glass of cherry/blackberry fruit with a slightly smoky nose.

I also enjoyed an unusual white wine from Blacksmith Cellars made from the torrontes grape, a white wine grape popular in Argentina. The 2008 vintage ($15) tasted of lychee fruit with a hint of citrus on the nose. The grapes are from the Silver Spoons vineyard, near Galt, which is also the source of several other unusual varietals used by a number of other wineries.