South Bay Wine Sojurn

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.

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