Archive for July, 2010

Urban Wines by the Bay

July 28, 2010

The Alameda/Oakland  Ferry becomes a wine-drinker shuttle this weekend when city dwellers can sail from San Francisco to the Urban Wine Experience on the East Bay shoreline.

There will be 19 wineries from the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance pouring about 60 wines from 2-5 p.m. on Saturday (July 31) in Oakland at the old Barnes and Noble building, now called the Jack London Pavilion.

It’s easily reachable from all of the Bay Area by car, BART and several bus lines. Advance tickets are $45 online and $60 at the door.

Starting Small

Although there is one big fish in the group, Rosenblum Cellars, most of the wineries are much tinier operations that produce small lots of wines with limited distribution. Here’s a chance to taste wines you won’t likely see on any grocery store shelf.

Bob Rawson is president of the  vintner group and a partner in Urbano Cellars, which operates in Emeryville at facilities operated by Periscope Cellars, another small producer that set up shop in an old submarine repair shop in an industrial block of 62nd Street off Hollis Avenue.

Bob Rawson, Urbano Cellars

Rawson started making wine several years ago in his San Francisco garage with a neighbor, Fred Dick. It was a hobby that grew into a business with plans to expand into new space in Oakland later this year.

Several alliance members share facilities with Rock Wall Wines in Alameda, where a huge aircraft hangar at the old naval air station provides room to work and grow their businesses.

Other alliance winemakers, like Jeff Cohn at JC Cellars, who started working at bigger wineries, like Rosenblum, have grown their businesses and now operate their own wineries. JC Cellars shares winery and tasting room space with Dashe Cellars at 55 4th Street in Oakland.

Award Winners

Some of these wines are “turn your head around” good and have been recognized for excellence at various competitions around the state.

One of the newest alliance members, Urban Legend in Oakland, won Best of Show at the California State Fair for their 2009 Clarksburg rosato di barbera ($16). I wrote about this dry, flavorful summer wine in an earlier blog about the new winery near Jack London Square (621 4th Street, Oakland). Only 65 cases were made.

Urbano will be pouring its own 2008 rose’, a bone dry wine made from the valdiguie grape. Known in some circles as Napa Gamay, valdigue is actually a French grape that is sparsely planted in California.

Rawson gets grapes for his “vin rose'” from a two-acre plot in Solano County. (Click here for my take on an interesting Solano County winery to visit.)

“We are trying to make something different and unusual,” Rawson said, explaining why there is no cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay in his lineup.

Instead, he sources fruit from small growers of sangiovese, barbera, and petit verdot grapes.

The 2006 petit verdot from Urbano (made from grapes grown in Lodi) is a steal at $16. It’s not a grape you see bottled on its own very much. Usually petit verdot is a small part of a Bordeaux-style blend, but in Rawson’s hands this petit verdot becomes a smooth and complex red wine.

One alliance member, Adams Point Winery, goes in another direction, making mostly fruit-based wines from mango, papaya and persimmon. There’s room for all kinds of wines in this alliance, so you’ll find a wide range of styles from big, bold reds to rose’ wines and whites, too.

Urban Concept Pays Off

The idea that wines can be made outside of the major wine-growing regions, like Napa and Sonoma, isn’t new. Home and hobby winemakers  all over the country make wine from imported grapes. Rawson thinks the commercial urban winemaking movement is sustainable and practical.

“This is a model that can work,” he said, over a glass of his delightful 2008 sangiovese. “There are no land costs and no planting costs. We’re leasing warehouse space, for the most part.”

And, Rawson says, “Most of the wine consumers are here, where we are, not in Napa or Sonoma.”

Plus, there are plenty of high-quality grapes for sale from all the major growing regions, which are only a few hours away from the urban wineries.

“There are plenty of grapes. And, as beautiful as it is to look at vineyards from your porch, you don’t need that view to make great wine,” he said.

Here’s a link to a listing of all the members of the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance.

East Bay Vintner's Alliance Membership


Wine in Them, There Hills

July 23, 2010

The Sierra foothills may have yielded a lot of treasure since the 49er gold rush era, but today’s bounty is red and white wine from a pair of newly discovered wineries near Placerville.

I hadn’t planned to visit any wineries this past weekend, hoping instead to strike it rich at the casinos on a visit to Lake Tahoe.

My luck was lukewarm at the tables, but it picked up en route home when my friend, David, pulled out a winery map and directed me to turn off I-80 at the Camino Exit and head for the nearest winery.

Luck of the Draw

When we turned into the driveway at Para Vi Vineyards, it was about 90 degrees and getting hotter.

Lesi and Laiken Brown

Two little girls in swimsuits were cooling off in a water-filled wine lug, the plastic boxes used to haul grapes to the winery. Their pet frog rested on a floating leaf, much to the delight of its caretakers, Laiken and Lesi Brown, the daughters of winery owner Tom Brown.

Para Vi Pad Dweller

Brown greeted us like old friends, hardly showing any effects from the wine release party the previous night. The shindig hadn’t broken up until well after midnight, and owner was doing the last few bits of cleanup  when we arrived.

The winery is a comfortable spot and it’s wired for sound and lights used for special stage performances scheduled throughout the year. Two bocce courts draw local teams interested in competition and red wine.

Limited Production, Unlimited Potential

Para Vi (Italian for “with life”) has 13 acres in vines that produce about 3,000 cases of four varietals — zinfandel, syrah, merlot and cabernet franc, each bottled separately. Sales are strictly through the winery, either online, on-site or through the Wine Society. There’s no white wine and no blending program at Para Vi, thanks to Brown’s desire to let his grapes rise or fall on their own merits.

After tasting each wine, I’d have to agree he made the right decision. Each varietal runs to a house style, similar to four brothers who are all different but share a family resemblance. All are finished in 100% French oak.

One common component is a pleasant hint of dustiness and the other is a balance that kept the flavors of each varietal in check and true to the grape.

Every wine is very good but the piece de resistance is the cabernet franc (2006, $62). It sports a rich profile with hints of raspberry and lavender alongside balancing tannins. In the mouth, I tasted milder berries that lingered on my tongue for a nice, long finish. It would be outstanding with any grilled meat dish.

Micro-Green Winery

By chance, I got to taste more foothills-region wine from another, much smaller, winery — La Clarine Farm — that was pouring at my local wine bar, the Alameda Wine Company.

Winegrower Henry Beckmeyer brought along two whites and two reds plus a 2009 barrel sample from his tiny operation in Somerset, CA. All the wines are made “naturally.”  No tilling, no fertilizer, no irrigation and no weeding of the home vineyard that includes tempranillo, syrah, tannat, grenache, negroamaro and cabernet sauvignon.

La Clarine Farm Vineyards

I sampled two red blends from the estate, the 2008 ($22) and the 2009, which is not yet released. Only tiny amounts — less than 100 cases of each — were produced. 

The 2008 tasted of plums with moderate tannins. It was not a heavy wine, but it had good acids that made it a good match for some beef salami from an artisan meat company in Oakland and an organic sage cheddar cheese from Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Company in Petaluma.

The 2009 was more tannic (naturally) and I think it will turn out to be a very good wine. I liked looking at the long, lovely legs that trailed down the glass after I swirled the wine a bit. 

A wine that’s ready to drink tonight is the 2008 mourvedre ($22), made from grapes purchased from the nearby Cedarville Vineyard. This is a complex little garnet-colored wine with an edge of granite and a nose of fresh, light herbs. I wanted a medium rare lamb chop to go with another glass!

Agent Orange

The other La Clarine Farm wine I liked was an “orange” viognier from the 2008 vintage ($22). There’s a touch of fizz, thanks to a small amount of sulfur used as a preservative.

Whole clusters of grapes, stems and all, were fermented together, just like many red wines are processed. The result is a delightful, zingy wine with an enticing aroma that releases after about 15-20 minutes in the glass. There is a layer of honey on the tongue with a very nice aroma of sweet, fresh hay. Unusual and worth a try if you can find any of the 56 case production.

White Wine of the Week

I meant to share several bottles of wine with my friends at Lake Tahoe, but it was so hot that we left the reds alone and only cracked one white wine and it was quite good. I brought the 2008 Saintsbury Carneros chardonnay (2008, $19.99), sent to me by the winery to sample.

I was suspicious, since it was in the trunk of my car over the course of a very hot day, of how it might taste. I don’t recommend the hot trunk treatment, but the wine was no worse for wear.

At our hotel, I iced the bottle down for about 20 minutes and then opened it to toast our weekend fortunes. It was delicious — creamy good with just enough oak to give it structure. The citrusy nose was completed by Asian apple pear tastes and a nice round feel in the mouth, thanks to sur lie aging and complete malolactic fermentation. The wine was also bottled unfiltered.

I liked the ease of a screwcap closure versus a cork, but regretted not being able to bet my friends that I could open the chardonnay with only my shoe. Click here (and scroll to the bottom of the page) to read a recent blog that shows how you can turn a shoe into a corkscrew, too!

Martinelli: A Sonoma Success Story

July 15, 2010

Thank goodness Regina Martinelli’s family decided against building a trailer park on their land near the Russian River in Sonoma County.

Regina’s face broke into a broad grin when she told the story of a would-be entrepreneurial relative who envisioned rows of mobile homes instead of the glorious grapevines that presently produce award-winning wines.

Regina Martinelli

The winemaking Martinelli family has been in the Golden State since the 1880s. They’d always grown grapes, but sold all of the commercial crop to other wineries until the 1970s. That’s when the first Martinelli family wines were made.

This is not the apple juice and cider business that shares the same family name. Both clans are Italian and operate agribusinesses in California, but they aren’t related.

Family Affair

Lee Martinelli Sr., the patriarch and Regina’s father, wears the work boots in the family. A white-haired, trim, lanky gentleman, the family patriarch still oversees the farming operations with help from his sons, Lee Jr. and George and daughter Regina.

The Martinellis still sell most of the grapes, keeping just 10 percent for their use. But, oh, what happens to those prized zinfandel, pinot noir, syrah and chardonnay grapes when they pass through the talented hands of winemaker, Helen Turley.

Turley is a wine country superstar, having made award-winning wines for a long list of high-profile wineries (Pahlmeyer, Colgin, Bryant Family Vineyard, to name a few) in addition to her own Marcassin label, which is renowned for both chardonnay and pinot noir.

Award-Winning Lineup

With Turley on board since 1993, the Martinelli pinor noir and zinfandel wines have been regularly rated 90+ by uber-critic Robert Parker. The chardonnay and syrah also generate high praise from the wine community.

Martinelli produces up to nine different pinot wines — eight single-vineyard designates and a reserve. There are five vineyard-designated zinfandels and one blended zin called Vigneto di Evo.

They also make six different chardonnays and seven syrahs, plus a little sauvignon blanc and a tiny portion of sweet muscat.

Total production is about 10,000 cases a year.

Immature Zinfandel

I got interested in the Martinelli story after meeting Regina at Pinot Days last month. Here’s my 2010 Pinot Days report.

At the winery this week, I tasted some of  the wines with Regina.

Moonshine Shines

My favorite was the 2007 Moonshine Ranch pinot noir, made from a vineyard site that was once home to an illegal distillery that cranked out cheap brandy in the early part of the 20th century.

Moonshine Ranch Pinot Noir

The Evo zinfandel (2008, $30) is a smooth customer that delivers delightful blackberry fruit with a garnet hue.

The Zia Tony Ranch pinot noir ($2007, $70) is a big, voluptuous wine that shows its Russian River heritage nicely.  Regina described it like drinking “black cherries covered in cream.”

The Charles Ranch chardonnay (2007, $60) is an outstanding white wine that Parker rated 91. The taste melds lemon zest with apple pie crust and cinnamon.

The Charles Ranch vineyard, near Fort Ross, was one of the first sites to be planted on the Sonoma Coast, a cooler section of wine country that now produces top-shelf pinot noir and chardonnay.

Martinelli syrah is a serious wine that can be drunk upon release or held back for 5-7 years of aging to promote complexity.

The Hop Camp syrah (2007, $90) is a strong example that features sweet fruit and a meaty texture with overtones of bacon fat.

The 2006 Zio Tony syrah is a bit brighter with the same tannins that will make this wine improve in the bottle for several more years.

Plan a Visit

The Martinelli winery is on River Road, about two miles west of Highway 101, on the way to the Russian River recreational area.

The property is a mix of old and new.

Wooden Wine Lug

Rusting farm implements sit in dry grass next to the old hop barn that serves as the tasting room. Stacks of old wooden boxes, to carry grapes from the vineyard to the winery, are piled up next to another old barn that’s used for storage amidst the vineyards.

The winery’s small tasting room is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can also taste Martinelli’s wines at the Family Winemakers of California 20th annual tasting event on August 22 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Advance tickets are $45 (through August 1), $55 through August 21 and $65 at the door.

Summertime is Wine Time

July 10, 2010

There are lots of choices this month when it comes to places to go and things to do in Wine Country. It’s high season in Napa and Sonoma and just about everywhere else wine is made, and that includes lots of Greater Bay Area festivities

First, I want to talk about a new wine that I enjoyed over the 4th of July holiday. I feel almost un-American for saying it, but the best rose’ I’ve ever had is French. It was a 2009 Reuilly pinot gris rose’ poured by my friend Bob before, during and after a delicious beef cookout to celebrate Independence Day.


This light pink wine, made by Denis Jamain in the Loire Valley, would complement any special occasion, including the July 14th Bastille Day that celebrates the start of the French Revolution.

French Bubbles in SF

If Bastille Day is your day to party, check out the action July 14 at the Bubble Lounge in San Francisco. Special prices on Champagne wines (300!) and Champagne cocktails. This is definitely a fun place, no matter what you’re celebrating. The Bastille Day party kicks off at 5 p.m. Admission is free but the bubbles definitely have a price tag. Look for great deals on Laurent-Perrier Champagne.

Suburban Blending

You’d never know it driving down I-80 toward Sacramento, but there’s an interesting little winery in Dixon that’s worth a visit. Purple Pearl Vineyards is having a summer blending party on July 17 from 2-6 p.m. Winemaker Rory Horton will pick 4-5 barrels of red wine (winemaker’s choice) for visitors to blend on their own. Admission is $10 plus $10 per bottle. Live music and food, too.

Urban Experience

The East Bay Vintner’s Alliance is having its fifth annual Urban Wine Experience on July 31 at Jack London Pavilion. This event has evolved into a really neat opportunity to taste the best that the inner Bay Area has to offer, with 19 wineries pouring more than 60 wines for the public.  Tickets are $45 in advance and $60 at the door. Live music and appetizers are included in the tab. Look for new wines from a new member of the alliance, Urban Legend Cellars, which I covered in an earlier blog.

Hit the Beach in Oakland

One of the wineries pouring at the Urban Wine Experience is holding its own beach-oriented tasting tomorrow (1-4 p.m., Saturday, July 10). Flip flops and Hawaiian shirts are the uniform of the day at JC Cellars in Oakland, where about 15 wines will be poured for attendees ($25 in advance, $30 at the door). In addition to ice cream for the kids, there will be appetizers from gourmet rotisserie specialist Roil Roti.

Rock On in Alameda

Rock Wall Wine Company hosts a summer open house on July 24 from Noon to 5 p.m. The Alameda winery, which is also home to several other wine-makers who don’t have their own facilities yet, is housed in an old airplane hangar at the Alameda Naval Air Station.

If it’s a clear day, visitors can take advantage of one of the most drop-dead gorgeous views of the San Francisco skyline in the entire Bay Area. They make some pretty good wines there, too, and about 50 will be open for sampling. I’m looking forward to tasting the 2008 Sonoma County Reserve zinfandel, which comes from the historic Monte Rosso vineyard.

The operation is headed by Shauna Rosenblum, daughter of zinfandel champion Kent Rosenblum, who’s also involved in the new winery. If you take the ferry from San Francisco or Oakland, there’s free shuttle service from the Alameda Ferry Terminal to Rock Wall!

Click here for a partial list of participating wineries. Tickets are $25 through July 18 at the winery and $35 through the winery website.

Paws and Causes in Napa

Bring your canine companions to HALL winery in St. Helena on Sunday (July 11) for a dog day afternoon tasting current releases alongside a side order of doggie treats for the four-footed types. The event at this award-winning cabernet producer’s property runs 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and it’s free. 

Later this month, on July 25, the Napa Humane Society hosts a big fund-raiser and tasting event at Silverado Resort in Napa. The Cause for the Paws festivities will feature Napa-area wines, a charity auction and a selection of food from regional restaurants. There will be a portable adoption unit set up on the grounds to give party-goers a chance to take home a shelter pet. Advance tickets are available at the Napa Humane web site in advance for $55 or $65 at the door. 

Shoe Corkscrew?

You can open a bottle of wine with your shoe. Weird, but true. You can actually open a bottle of wine using your shoe. I’d never have thought of it myself, but it works. Brilliant solution if you’re corkscrew-less and not barefoot.  Kudos to for the video.

Wine Bar Wanderings

July 2, 2010

Sometimes you just don’t feel like driving to Napa or Sonoma or other parts of wine country for a new wine experience.

When I feel that way, I turn to one of my favorite wine bars in the Bay Area for inspiration.

From my home in Alameda, it’s a five-minute drive to the Alameda Wine Company, a nifty little wine bar right next door to the local movie house.

It’s a small shop with an eclectic mix of interesting wines for sale by the bottle and by the glass. Every Wednesday night, there’s a special event, usually featuring a winemaker or distributor with something new to taste. I discovered Jocelyn Lonen wines at one of these events, and every time I stop by for a visit there’s something interesting to sample.

And, if too many samples find their way down my throat, it’s an easy walk home.

Marin Pick: Rick’s

Rick’s Wine Cellar in Corte Madera might have never have showed up on my radar except I saw a note about a preview pouring at this Marin County watering hole before last weekend’s big Pinot Days tasting (which I covered in last week’s blog.)

I showed up bit early for the tasting and immediately felt welcome. I asked the bartender for a taste of one of the three California pinot noirs that were being poured by the glass at the bar. My request was immediately granted — no charge — and I was treated to tastes of all three wines to sample while I waited for the official tasting to begin.

As the tasting began, Rick Mendell, who owns the place with his wife, Candy, tried to convince me that swirling the wine in the glass clockwise (it turns out I normally swirl  in a counter-clockwise manner) makes a difference in how the aromas and flavors are released. I’m not quite sure I’m a convert, but I appreciated the interaction.

Rick prides himself on having a great pinot noir selection (it’s good) and also goes out of his way to support Marin County winemakers by featuring their wines. I’ll have to go back to try some of the local stuff , like Pey-Marin, which looks interesting.  I wrote about Pey-Marin in an earlier blog Not Napa, Not Sonoma.

And, if you’re having dinner at a nice restaurant in Marin, stop by Rick’s first and pick up a great bottle and bring it along — you may not have  to pay a corkage fee. Here’s a list of 20 restaurants who waive the corkage for Rick’s customers.

Danville Destination

The Vine at Bridges in Danville is an airy, sophisticated spot to stop and sip wine, whatever the season.

There are about three dozen wines by the glass and a nice bar menu if you need something to nosh on. I was impressed by the quality of the 350-wine list, including about 50 high-profile pinot noir selections along with some killer cabernets.

The bar and retail shop features live music on the weekends and special events mid-week, including happy hour prices and other specials.

Napa’s Bounty

I like to stop in and check out what’s being poured at the Bounty Hunter — whether I’ve just finished a day of tasting or just getting started on a visit to Napa. It’s right downtown, on First near Main Street.

The Bounty Hunter is comfortable, whether you’re seated at the bar, or one of the tables set up for food service. Locals, tourists and the trade all drink and eat here.

There’s a small menu that looks great, but I’ve never ordered anything except barbecue. The pulled pork sandwich is good, but I highly recommend the ribs. They’re wonderfully smoky and tender and delicious. There’s a good beer selection, too, including Guiness and Harp on tap plus a rotating selection from artisnal producers.

On my last visit, they were pouring an IPA from Mission Brewery in San Diego that was a great match for the barbecue.

If you want to find out who’s wines are hot and sample some of the icons of the Napa Valley, this is a good place to start. They not only sell wine at this place, they make it. The Bounty Hunter has its own lineup of 10 labels of wines — from value reds and whites to ultra-premium juice sourced from the some of the top vineyards in the area.

Side Note on San Francisco

I couldn’t begin to cover all the quality places you can find a decent glass of wine in San Francisco in one blog, but I can tell you one of my favorite places to drink wine and people watch is the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant.

The wine bar fronts the retail shop with an open view of the main hallway where you can observe, with a glass of champagne in hand, the parade of commuters heading for a ferry, shoppers with bags of delicacies and office workers nipping in for a quick bite.