Archive for May, 2010

Get Crushed Here

May 28, 2010

For many aspiring winemakers, a custom crush facility like Vinify in Santa Rosa is a place where they can get their feet wet without getting in over their heads.

Vinify provides the structure — and all of the equipment — of a working winery without the overhead and other headaches involved in becoming an independent producer. The model is being repeated across California’s wine country where the dream of making wine permeates.

I’ve written in the past about Crushpad, another custom winemaking facility that started in a San Francisco warehouse and is now moving operations to Napa.

The dream of independence can also be strong, but it requires major investments in plant and property to become reality.

Just ask the owners of Urban Legend, a husband-and-wife team that opened a small winery near Oakland’s Jack London Square in April. They’re losing money on every bottle until they can boost production past a couple thousand cases.

Custom Vinification

Back at Vinify, Hillary and Justin Lattanzio have set up a production facility  in a row of warehouses just off 101 in Santa Rosa that more than 20 winemakers turn out a wide variety of wines under one roof. Production can run to hundreds of cases of each wine, depending on the winemaker’s whimsy, financial backing and access to high-quality grapes.

In today’s wine market, prices are down across the board, not just for finished wines, but also for the raw product — grapes. Even small producers, it seems, are finding supplies of really good grapes to help them make higher quality wines.

I was impressed by the overall quality of the wines produced at Vinify. They ranged from triple-digit priced, high-grade Napa cabernet to everday rose’ for less than $10. Most wines encountered at a Vinify tasting last weekend ran $30-$50.

Bevan Cellars

The most expensive wine came from Bevan Cellars, another husband and wife team (Russell Bevan and Victoria Decrescenzo) that migrated to Wine Country from Minnesota. Their $150 cabernet sauvignon (vintage 2007) is sourced from thehighly-regarded Showket Vineyard in Oakville, right off the Silverado Trail. It’s everything a Napa cab should be and has the high rankings from both Wine Spectator (96) Robert Parker (95+) to rank it alongside some of the great wines of the valley.

But it was Bevan’s sauvignon blanc (Maria’s Cuvee) that really made my mouth water. This white wine ($28) is unfiltered so it’s not crystal clear in the glass, but it tastes great. It’s refreshing with a citrus twist and a mouthful of other exotic flavors that keep piling on. There’s no residual sugar, so it’s the sublime fruit (from  Sonoma’s Kick Ranch) that makes it taste so good.

Marvelous Marsanne

I liked another white, a marsanne, from Olson Ogden, for different reasons. This marsanne ($35), made from a grape with origins in France’s Rhone Valley, is rich in texture and tastes of peaches within a nice oak framework. The grapes come from Napa’s Stagecoach Vineyard, from which Olson Ogden also makes a very good syrah ($52, 2007). I also admired the winery’s touch with pinot noir, especially the 2007 Sonoma Coast  bottling — a class act, starting from the rich red color through to the classic cherry fruit profile.

Bargain Bottles

At a lower price point, it would be hard to find fault with the 2006 Whitehawk Vineyard syrah made by Cinque Insieme. This $20 wine — sourced from fruit grown in Santa Barbara — is an inky-dark bargain with overtones of blackberries and pepper. By the way the name of the winery (a collaboration of five friends) means “five together” in Italian.

For hot-weather sipping, stock up on the Bjornstad Cellars 2008 rose’ at $7.50/bottle or $90 case. This bargain of a pink wine, made from pinot noir, is available online through the winery. Bjornstad also makes a fine lineup of of highly rated red pinot noirs and some chardonnays that are worth checking out, too.


Zinfest Surprises

May 20, 2010

A funny thing happened to me at a Zinfandel festival. I found a couple of unusual white wines that were great and a good red that wasn’t even a zinfandel.

Of course, there were lots of decent zins on tap last weekend at the Zinfest in Lodi where 50 regional wineries poured for several thousand attendees. I’d sampled many of the wines before, so I was looking for anything out of the ordinary and/or extraordinary.

With temps in the 80s, and sundresses and shorts the uniforms of the day, I tramped through the crowd in search of refreshing white wines.

There was a very nice sauvignon blanc ($13/2008) from Langetwins Wienry and Vineyards, a good viognier ($11/2008) from Loredona, and a slightly sweet and delicious verdelho from St. Jorge Winery, but I fell hard for two Rhone style wines — roussane and grenache blanc — from Hux Vineyards.

I’d actually tasted a lovely petite verdot from another producer, Periscope Cellars in Emeryville, made from Hux Vineyards grapes. I just didn’t know at the time the connection with Hux — a small Lodi winery making its first commercial releases after a long history of home winemaking and grape-growing.

The two whites were delicious and unique.

The Rhone Edge

The grenache blanc had a sharper feel in the mouth, like a crisp sauvignon blanc with rounded corners. The roussane showed more fruit — tinged with honey.  Often they’re used together in blends, but these two varietals (both vintage 2008 and $20/bottle) were great on their own in winemaker David Huckstead’s hands.

Huecksteadt’s magic in the bottle won gold medals in the home winemaking competition at the San Joaquin County Fair for several years. No Hux reds were available for tasting at Zinfest, but I’ll track them down and report back on availability.

D’art is D’elicious

My favorite red wine of the tasting was the 2007 petite sirah ($24) from one of my favorite Lodi-area producers, D’Art Wines. This a big  wine, aged in Hungarian oak. It’s ready for consumption now, but I’d decant it and maybe let it open up for 30-60 minutes before pouring it alongside any hearty plate of grilled pork or beef.

Owner/winemaker Dave Dart focuses on reds at a small winery next to his home on North Curry Avenue in Lodi. Dart’s 2008 zinfandel ($24) is a delightful mix of blackberry fruit with a vein of barely perceptible mint on the palate. D’Art is releasing a new blend ($12.50/bottle) later this month and visitors can actually bottle their own wine at the winery on May 29-31.

Zins to Remember

Some of the top zins on my Zinfest scoresheet included:

Mettler Family Vineyards 2007 Epicenter “old vine” ($18), m2′s 2008 old vine zinfandel from Soucie Vineyards ($28) and two zins from Oak Ridge Winery — the 2007 OZV (a big, bold “old vine” style wine/$15) and the 2005 Moss Roxx (a more refined $20 wine showing smooth brambly red fruit).

Oak Ridge is the oldest commercial winery in Lodi, where it began operations as a cooperative in 1934.

Upcoming Wine County Events

Mark your calendars for two big tasting events next month at Fort Mason in San Francisco.


The third annual TAPAS Grand Wine Tasting is on tap for June 5. The group, Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society, promotes mostly Spanish- and Portuguese-styled wines produced in the United States. About 40 wineries from California, Oregon and Arizona are scheduled to pour a wide range of wines, including Tempranillo, Albariño, Garnacha, Graciano, Mourvedre, Touriga, Verdelho, Bastardo. Advance tickets are available online.

Pinot Days

The annual Pinot Days event is set to unroll at Fort Mason on the last weekend in June. There will be 220 wineries from top pinot-producing regions in California and Oregon pouring more than 500 wines at the grand tasting from 1-5 p.m. on Sunday, June 2 7. Smaller, focused tastings, dinners and seminars will also be on tap. Here’s a link for ticket and schedule information.

One If By Land and Two If By Sea

May 13, 2010

After receiving the famous signal that the invaders were coming by boat, Paul Revere began his historic ride in 1775 to warn his countrymen about the approaching British forces who would eventually be defeated in the American Revolution.

The signal, shown from the top of the bell tower at Boston’s Old North Church, was to be two lanterns if the solders were coming by boat and one lantern if the were coming overland.

When Revere, watching from across the river, saw two lights, he raced on horseback through the countryside with the now-famous cry, “The British are coming. The British are coming.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captured the scene in his riveting poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride“.

That poem popped into my head when I visited a new winery in Oakland called Urban Legend Cellars. It’s most definitely approachable by land and sea. The Jack London Square ferry terminal is just a few blocks away and the BART tracks, running to Oakland’s 12th Street Station, are visible from the winery’s front door.

Steve Shaffer inside a tank at Urban Legend

Owners Steve and Marilee Shaffer opened Urban Legend last month in a warehouse on a commercial block of Fourth Street. The  couple — who emigrated from the East Coast to the Bay Area — caught the winemaking bug by experimenting in their garage before turning professional. Their lineup includes five different wines at prices from $18-$28 a bottle.

There is no formal tasting room. Tastes are poured for free at a table near the entrance to the winery, with tanks, hoses and other winemaking gear in the background. Steve and Marilee said they did most of the work themselves, with lots of help from friends.

You won’t find one drop of cabernet or chardonnay here. Four-fifths of the five-wine lineup is made from Italian varietals in a food-friendly style.

The best of the bunch is the 2008 barbera. This grape can be ponderous in the wrong hands and high acids can also be a problem. Not here. This tasty red wine is round and sensual and delicious. I can imagine drinking it with a thin-crusted pizza scattered with grilled garden vegetables and tomato sauce.

Of course, there are no vineyards anywhere nearby. In fact, the barbera is grown by Heringer Estates in Clarksburg — about 90 miles away in Yolo County.

The winery is open to the public on weekends and the wines are available in a few retail shops including Rainbow Co-Op in San Francisco and the Alameda Wine Co. They’re also available on the list at Encuentro wine bar and Chop Bar — both in Oakland.

There was a tie for my second favorite Urban Legend wine. I really enjoyed the Ironworks blend for its bright cherry-cranberry taste. The wine is 80 percent nebblio and 20 percent sangiovese, both Italian varietals grown in Lake County. I also was intrigued by the uniqueness of the Teroldego, a medium-bodied red wine. also with Italian roots, that’s quite rare in California.

Sonoma Passport Event

The annual Passport to Sonoma Valley weekend will be in full swing Saturday and Sunday when 51 wineries open their doors for a mass tasting of new and old wines punctuated by a wide selection of catered foods from local providers across the valley. Tickets are $50 for a two-day pass, $40 for Saturday-only visitors.

Stuck in Lodi, Again

I’ll be attending the yearly Zinfest celebration in Lodi on Saturday. Fifty regional wineries are pouring new releases. Tickets are $45 in advance and $55 at the door. On Sunday, there will be series of open houses at wineries in and around Lodi (no ticket required).

Jessie’s Grove Winery, one of the Zinfest participants, also sponsors an outdoor summer concert series that’s worth the drive to Lodi on its own merits. Roots/blues musician Shane Dwight will be performing at the next concert on May 29. Come early to check out the wine-tasting and stay late for a concert under the stars. Tickets are $22 apiece.  Here’s the rest of the summer concert schedule.

Sonoma – Smaller Focus

The emphasis is on smaller wine producers on May 23 at Vinify Wine Services/Collective in Santa Rosa.  There are 16 wineries pouring more than 40 wines made from 12 varietals at Vinify, which is located in an non-descript business park off Highway 101. Tickets are $20 for the event, which runs from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Call Hilary Lattanzio at 707-495-4959 for more information or contact her via e-mail at

Just across the complex from Vinify is Carol Shelton Wines, a premium producer best known for her award-winning zinfandels. The winery is open by appointment only, but if you are in the neighborhood, see if you can get a taste of their newest offering — a mystery white wine to be released later this year.

My favorite from Carol’s stable is a rich, rewarding zin from the Cucamonga Valley in Southern Calfiornia. Her Monga zin is made from ancient vines that are nearly a century old. This spicy mouthful of zesty zinfandel retails for $21-$24 a bottle.

Santa Cruz Wine Express

You can leave the driving to the train engineer if you attend the Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Express tasting on May 23. The event is staged from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton where visitors can ride a vintage steam train and taste wines from 70 Santa Cruz wineries. For more information, check with the Santa Cruz Mountains WineGrowers Association.

Wine Country Values

May 6, 2010

There are values galore across wine country and they come in an array of different shapes, sizes and attitudes.

Prices are down across the board in just about every wine category. Bargains are everywhere, but I haven’t seen anything  quite as appealing as a special offer from wine, beer and spirts giant Diaego that includes discounts of greater than 50 percent on most of its labels. Some of the top brands include Chalone Vineyards, Rosenblum Cellars and Sterling Vineyards.

The only hitch — the deals are only good through Friday (May 7). To register, click this link and use “Patricia Danby” as the referring employee. Let me know what you find.

Wine of the Week: Vivacious Virginia Viognier

I’m a reluctant fan of viognier, an alternative to chardonnay that has made some inroads in California from its origins in France. I like the unexpected, but never expected to like a viognier from Virginia. Most California versions I’ve tried are lightweights, so I wasn’t expecting much when I pulled the cork on my first East Coast viognier.

It turns out Virginia makes some decent wines, and the 2006 viognier from Cardinal Point Vineyard in Afton, Va., is an exceptionally good one. I got the Cardinal Point bottle as a gift and now I’m looking for more!

This viognier has the body of a moderate-weight Napa chardonnay with a taste of Bosc pears combined with the tartness of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc covered by a nose of sweet grapefruit — a hot three-way combination that matched up well at dinner with salmon simmered in olive oil and finished with some of the wine. The 2006 retails for $24, but the newest release (2008) is available from the winery for $18.

The only catch —  state law does not allow direct sales by Virginia wineries to California!

Service as a Value

Some values have little to do with cost and much more to do with availability. I’m a member of a half dozen wine clubs, mostly because it gives me access to small lots of wine that are generally not available to the public. Most clubs provide discounts to members, who commit to purchasing some minimum amount of wines on a periodic basis.

One of my club memberships is at Lucas Winery, an award-winning Lodi zinfandel specialist whose wines are tightly allocated. I get opportunities to purchase the mainline wines, which are great, but it’s also nice to be offered special small production wines that are not sold through normal retail channels. If you haven’t checked out your favorite winery’s club selection, now’s a good time to take a look at what’s available.

The Value of Suds

An era, it seems, has passed right before my eyes.

Anchor Steam brewery was one of the first big names in the microbrewery world. Fritz Maytag bought the company in 1965 and saved it from bankruptcy. The 20-something appliance company heir (his family also owned Maytag blue cheese) turned the  beer business into a success. Anchor became an example that hundreds of microbrewers  have emulated over the years in a nationwide trend toward smaller production, higher quality brewing.

Fritz Maytag

Anchor’s unexpected sale (terms were not disclosed) was announced last month. The new owners (Griffin Group) got the brewery and also acquired Maytag’s Anchor Distilling, which makes Junípero gin and Old Potrero Whiskey. Maytag, now 72, held onto another liquid asset, his York Creek Vineyards in Napa.

I met Maytag in an interview for one of the first stories I wrote after moving to San Francisco in the early 1980s. I was struck by his plan to grow better, not bigger, and improve quality while preserving an icon in the brewing world. Maybe it’s time to go back for another interview, this time about the wine business.