Archive for April, 2010

Going Green with Reds and Whites

April 30, 2010

I met with Mendocino growers this week and sampled some of their tastiest “green” crop.

The buzz you get from this “green” is totally legal. It comes from a part of wine country punctuated by biodynamic and sustainably farmed vineyards. Nearly one quarter of the grapes grown here are organic — the highest concentration in the state.Mendocino County

There are 84 commercial wineries, starting at the Mendocino county line (about 90 miles north of San Francisco). The three largest grape-growing regions are Anderson Valley, Potter Valley, and Redwood Valley.

Mendocino is home to:

*Cole Ranch, the country’s smallest AVA (American Viticultural Area), which has only 187 acres and one winery.

*Greenwood Ranch Winery, which is is totally off the grid. It’s been completely solar powered since 2005.

* Parducci, which became California’s first “carbon-neutral” winery in 2007. The winery was able to balance its carbon-based emissions with an equal amount of renewable energy for a net-zero impact on the environment.

The Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission sponsored a tasting at the Presidio in San Francisco where 58 wineries poured samples for trade and media. It was a veritable smorgasbord of wine types and styles. Several special bottles caught my eye, starting with two very good wines from Chiarito Vineyards.

Winemaker John Chiarito

Mendocino Winemaker John Chiarito

The Chiarito 2007 Nero d’Avola (made from a grape that’s native to Southern Italy) is a smooth-tasting, fruit-forward red wine ($36) that could compete on equal terms with most of the Nero wines that I’ve tasted from overseas. Only 48 cases were made.

John Chiarito, the winemaker, poured a glass of his 2007 petite sirah — a grape that came from France — and it was heavenly. Many petite sirah wines are harsh, tannic and out of control, but the Chiarito ($35) was silky yet powerful. It tasted of sweet cherries with a touch of fennel. Click here for a closer look at petite sirah in California.

Another Italian varietal, dolcetto, made by Naughty Boy Vineyards is a great buy at $16.50/bottle for the 2007 vintage. This red wine grape — best known in Italy’s Piedmonte region — comes from a three-acre vineyard in Potter Valley. It’s a mildly tannic wine that pairs nicely with meat and cream-sauced pasta dishes. A total of 400 cases were produced.

Pinot noir is the fair-haired child in the Mendocino wine world right now and I like what the crew at Londer Vineyards is doing with their pinot lineup, especially the 2007 Anderson Valley bottling ($35). True to varietal form, this pinot noir tasted of red cherries with a spicy overtone that sat like a dollop of cream on a decadent sundae.

Another top-flight producer, Claudia Springs, is a two-person operation. It’s just winemaker Bob Klindt and his wife, Claudia. Their pinot noirs are good, but I was more entranced by an amazing zinfandel that comes from Valenti Ranch Vineyard.

The 2006 Valenti Ranch zinfandel ($28) is quite high in alcohol (17.8 percent) but the jammy fruit carried the day and the wine’s aftertaste lingered for what seemed like forever in my mouth. I’d drink it with barbecued meats, spicy pasta dishes or with a plate of rustic bread and strong cheese.

Claudia Springs also produces a tiny amount of fine zinfandel from the John Ricetti Vineyard, a one-acre plot tended by the owner, 93-year-old John Ricetti, whose family has been growing grapes in this region since the early 1900s. The 2007 vintage ($24) showcases the chocolate facet of the varietal with highlights of blackberries and plums. Only 124 cases were made.

The best bargain wine of the tasting was the 2006 Sustainable Red from Parducci Wine Cellars ($11). It’s a blend of 30 percent zinfandel, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent syrah and 10 percent petite sirah. I’d call it an everyday wine that delivers great value for the price. Good on its own or with simple foods like pizza and burgers.

Parducci — the oldest winery in Mendocino —  is one of the most eco-friendly wineries in the country and was the recipient of the 2009 Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA).


South Bay Wine Sojurn

April 21, 2010

You can visit more than 30 wineries from the fastest-growing part of California’s wine country without leaving the South Bay when the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance brings its traveling tasting tour to Menlo Park tomorrow (Thursday).

I know you are in for a treat because I sampled the same wines at a media/trade tasting in Sacramento after previewing the tour in last week’s blog.

Here are some of highlights:

From Finland, With Style

Kukkula (it means hill or high place in Finnish) is a small winery with some big, interesting wines.

I especially liked the 2006 IPO ($20), an unusual combination of 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent syrah and 10 percent zinfandel. Delicious!

“When I first made this wine, I felt like I had to apologize for it,” explained Kevin Jussila, owner/winemaker of kukkula. “But people really liked it, so I just keep making it.”

Jussila drew inspiration for the name (IPO – Initial Public Offerng) from his previous life as a financial advisor. He should feel right at home in Menlo Park,  home of the world’s leading venture capital groups and a hotspot for initial public stock offers from new or growing companies.

I enjoyed kukkula’s 2007 Lothario ($28), a name you might link to a legendary romantic figure in literature, but it’s really named after the winemaker’s friend, Lothar. This wine is another blend made from grenache, mourvedre and zinfandel — a spicy mix of red fruits and berries on the palate.

Be sure to check out the pours from Ancient Peaks, a sustainably operated winery which features mostly value wines. I enjoyed their 2007 merlot ($16) for its price, smoothness and fruit-forward (think plums, raspberry) flavors. It also got a 90 rating from Wine Enthusiast.

Family Made

Ortman Family Vineyards produces another SLO-centric blend called Cuvee Eddy made from the traditional Rhone varietals syrah, grenache and mourvedre with a bit of petite sirah added to the mix for fun. It’s all berries – strawberry, raspberry and blackberry – rolled into a single sip that lingers on the tongue for about 15 seconds. Delightful!

The wine is made by Matt Ortman, whose father, Chuck, is the original winemaker and now their winemaster. The name of this cuvee symbolizes the flow of experience from generation to generation, according to the younger Ortman.

This won’t be available at the tasting, but do try the Ortman’s 2007 Edna Valley chardonnay, a classic Central Coast white wine that promises tropical notes in the nose and a smooth, oak-finished feel on the palate.

Sweet Treats

If you like dessert wines, you’ll find a unique opportunity at Rotta Winery which makes a fortified wine from black monukka grapes (which are normally used for raisins). The wine is mixed with neutral spirits and put in barrels for two years of aging outside of the winery. The result is a rich, nutty, caramel delight ($25/half bottle). Check out the Rotta 2007 estate zinfandel ($27), another great example of intense Paso zin.

Speaking of after-dinner libations, I’d order a glass of the STANGER Vineyards port-style wine made from zinfandel and syrah ($18/half bottle). It’s a sweet treat that is delicious on its own or with fruit or a slice of apple pie. STANGER is an small producer that also makes cabernet sauvignon, syrah and tempranillo.

California Wine With an Irish/Argentine Twist

Who’d figure a winery with an Irish name could produce a great wine from a grape that earned its reputation in South America?

Take a look at what Maloy O’Neill Vineyards has accomplished with malbec, the primary red grape grown in Argentina.  I liked this malbec (vintage 2005, $30) more than any other domestic malbec that I’ve sampled. It’s got the fresh fruit and enough tannic backbone to go with a variety of foods.

Maloy O’Neill is not a person. It’s a combination of the names of the winemaker, Shannon O’Neill, and his wife, Maureen Maloy, who met while studying at UC-Davis. For a special treat, try their lagrein (, a tasty red wine that’s rarely seen outside of northern Italy.

Show Biz Connections

Finally, if you’re a wine drinker drawn to celebrities, check out Villa San Juliette, a value brand that includes as owners two famous friends from Great Britain — Nigel Lithcote (producer/judge of the hit TV show “So You Think You Can Dance”) and Ken Warwick (executive producer and director of another hit TV show “American Idol”).

The current release of VSJ cabernet sauvignon  (2007, $16) is a delightful red wine. Not too serious, but well-made and easy to drink while watching reality TV or while enjoying a grilled burger or some spaghetti with red sauce.

South Bay Shortcut to Paso Robles Wine Country

April 15, 2010

There’s a shortcut to the Central Coast wine country that runs right through the South Bay, but it’s only passable next week.

The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance brings its Grand Tasting Tour to Menlo Park next Thursday (April 22) when you can sample hundreds of wines from 30 different wineries and also meet the winemakers from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Quadrus Conference Center. Tickets are $45 in advance and $55 at the door.

For a special treat, some of the South Bay’s top restaurants will be hosting Paso Robles winemaker dinners on Wednesday (April 21). Attendees will have a chance to dine and chat with some of the region’s top winemakers at MacArthur Park and Pampas — both in Palo Alto.

Those attending the main event can choose from dozens of varietals like zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, syrah, petite sirah and pinot noir along with grenache, mourvedre, and viognier plus a batch of blended wines, too.

“What we are trying to hone in on is the fact that Paso Robles is really an undiscovered region for folks in the Bay Area,” said Stacie Jacob, executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

Paso Robles Vineyard

Paso Robles Vineyard

“We we want to give people a taste of what the region is all about. And, at this event, they’ll get an opportunity to meet with the winemakers and with the principals/owners themselves,” she said. “As you learn more about Paso Robles wines, you will see we are not a one-trick pony by any measure. We grow more than 40 different varietals in this AVA (American Viticultural Area).”

Closer Than You Think

Paso Robles sits about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, bisected by Highway 101. With traffic, it’s about the same distance (time-wise) as driving to Napa from Silicon Valley.

Most Paso Robles wineries are identified as West Side (which has a cooler, maritime influence) or East Side (inland, warmer weather), depending on where they’re located from the 101 freeway. In summer, temperature swings can go from 100+ degrees to 50-60 degrees at night.

The Paso Robles appellation (generally it’s the northern half of San Luis Obispo County) is part of the Central Coast wine region, which is the fourth biggest wine producer in the state — behind Napa and Sonoma and Monterey.  Paso Robles has 26,000 acres of vines and more than 180 wineries large and small — all within about a three-hour drive from the Bay Area.

The vibe is definitely friendly here and more laid back than Napa. Prices across the board — for wine, food and lodging — are reasonable and quality is high. I’ve made dozens of trips to this area over the past 30 years, tasting hundreds of wines and visiting scores of wineries.

Here are some of the top producers included in the tour:

Tablas Creek is run by the Perrin family that operates world-renowned Chateau de Beaucastel in France. The Central California operation produces a list of award-winning reds and whites, mostly from Rhone-style varietals.

Their 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel, a blend of mourvedre, grenache, syrah and counoise, got a 95-97 rating from Robert Parker and the 2006 vintage was No. 50 on the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list last year. Tablas Creek’s top-rated white wine, called Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, is a terrific blend of rousanne, grenache blanc and picpoul. The 2008 vintage got a 92 rating from respected critic Stephen Tanzer.

Christian Tietje, Four Vines Winemaker

For a zinfandel lover, this region is loaded with great wines coming from myriad producers, including Opolo Vineyards (check out my blog from the annual ZAP Grand Tasting for more about Opolo), Peachy Canyon (great value and quality), and Four Vines (old vine zinfandel, Rhone and some interesting Spanish-style wines).

I especially liked the Rhone-style wines from a small Paso producer, Caliza Winery, which poured samples at the Rhone Rangers Tasting in San Francisco last month and will be on the tour in Menlo Park along with Alta Colina, another small property that makes some pretty cool syrah and petite sirah wines that have scored high with Robert Parker.

Ancient Peaks, named for the nearby mountains, sits at the southern end of the AVA. The family-owned winery specializes in merlot, cabernet and zinfandel grown in five different soil types — ancient sea bed, sedimentary, shale, volcanic and granitic — that give the wines a backbone of terroir, depth and complexity.

Young vines at kukkula Winery

Young vines at kukkula Winery

Another interesting winery on the tour, kukkula (the name means hill of high place in Finnish), specializes in blended wines, including some “Paso-only” mixes of grenache, mourvedre, zinfandel, as well as cabernet sauvignon.

Second Chances

If you can’t make the Paso Robles Grand Tour Tasting, you can get a mini-tasting experience on Friday (April 23) at one of the region’s top retail wine shops. K & L Wine Merchants in Redwood City will pour five selections from Paso Robles wineries for free between 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

And, if you live in the North Bay, the Paso Robles traveling wine tour also makes a stop in Sacramento next Tuesday (April 20).

Here’s a list of wineries participating in the tour:

Alta Colina Vineyard & Winery, Ancient Peaks Winery, Anglim Winery, Caliza Winery, Clavo Cellars, Clayhouse Wines, Derby Wine Estates, Four Vines Winery, Halter Ranch Vineyard, Hope Family Wines / Treana, J. Lohr Vineyard and Wines, Kenneth Volk Vineyards, kukkula, L’Aventure Winery, Maloy O’Neill Vineyards, Opolo Vineyards, Peachy Canyon Winery, Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery, RN Estate Vineyard & Winery, Robert Hall Winery, Rotta Winery, Silver Horse Winery, STANGER Vineyards, Tablas Creek Vineyard,Terry Hoage Vineyards, Vina Robles and Wild Horse Winery & Vineyards.

Bayside Wineries Shine this Weekend

April 8, 2010

The first urban winemaker I met was a college professor  in Memphis in the 1980s. He made zinfandel in his basement from grapes grown in California and I thought he was crazy.

Today, the image of an eccentric educator following his grape muse has been blown away by the reality of urban winemakers turning out really good wines on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay.

East Bay Vintners

About 20 urban wineries will showcase their wines Saturday (April 10) when the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance holds its annual Passport  to the East Bay Wine Trail event at seven locations in Alameda, Emeryville and Oakland.

Wendy Sandy and Ron Pieretti

There will be a wide range of whites and reds from producers like Rosenblum Cellars, a large and nationally known zinfandel producer, and Prospect 772, a small winery started by Rosenblum alumni Ron Pieretti and Wendy Sanda.

Prospect 772’s winemaker, Jeff Cohn, is another Rosenblum veteran. His award-winning winery, JC Cellars in Jack London Square, is also one of the tasting stations in the East Bay Vintners event.

Check out Prospect 772’s wine called The Brat, a grenache-based blend that I covered in last week’s blog.

Tickets to the EBVA event are $30 in advance, $45 at the door.

Dueling for Bay Area wine-lovers’ attention on Saturday (April 10) will be the SF Vintner’s Market.

The two-day event features more than 100 wineries offering samples at Fort Mason on the San Francisco waterfront from noon to 5 p.m. and on Sunday there’s another session from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. General admission tickets for either day are $30 apiece.

If you miss the SF Bay-area events, there’s another passport event next month a bit further north. The Passport to Sonoma Valley is a spread out affair, with more than 50 wineries up and down Sonoma County pouring samples May 15-16.  Two-day tickets are available in advance for $90 . A Sunday-only pass is $75.

Next Stop, Portugal

Portugal has a long history of making table wines, which are often overshadowed by its better-known fortified wines like Port and Maderia. At the annual Grand Tasting of the Wines of Portugal on Monday, 30 Portuguese wineries poured a wide selection of wines..

I focused on red table wines, tasting 60 examples made from mostly indigenous grapes, including the same varietals often used to make fortified wines. Overall, the wines were well made, and prices were quite reasonable, but few stood out from the crowd.

I did enjoy the  2007 Esporao Touriga Nacional ($30). It’s a big tannic wine that opens up to show some very nice red fruit after a few minutes in the glass. The wine is from the Alentejano region in southern Portugal, where one of the world’s largest cork forests is also cultivated.

Monte da Ravasqueira

For a bargain wine ($5), I found the Prova Red, an entry-level wine from Monte Da Ravasqueira, to be delicious. It’s a mongrel made from aragonez (tempranillo), and three native grapes — alfrocheiro, trincadeira, touriga franca — plus a splash of cabernet sauvignon packed into an easy-drinking red wine. It’s light and fruity with just enough backbone to complement simple foods.

Alicante Almighty

Several of the Portuguese wines included alicante bouschet in their mix. It’s a tough grape with strong tannins, but in good years it can add a lot of character and color to the blend. I liked the Caves Bonifacio alicante bouschet 2008 from Lisboa for it’s rich mouthfeel, integrated tannins and dark color plus a bit more red fruit than I expected. It goes for about $10 a bottle retail.

The only other good experience I’ve had with a varietally bottled alicante bouschet was on a visit to Lodi’s Harmony Wynelands winery about two years ago. I was surprised at the smoothness in contrast to the grape’s normally harsh nature. I’ve got a bottle or two in my cellar, and when I open them, I’ll report back on whether the wine measures up to that first good impression.