Archive for August, 2010

Winemaking Families Strut Their Stuff

August 25, 2010

Fisher Vineyards was an established winery when the Family Winemakers of California kicked off its first tasting event two decades ago.

The Napa winery was pouring its top wines again, this time at the 20th annual FWC tasting last weekend at Fort Mason in San Francisco. This event featured 340 wineries — a far cry from the group’s inaugural tasting, which I attended back in 1990, when there were only about 40 participants.

In addition to Fisher, nine other family wineries from the inaugural event returned for the 20th reunion.

Family Winemakers Tasting

They include Chateau Montelena, Fritz Winery, Hanzell Vineyards, Kendall-Jackson Winery, Lava Cap Winery, Macauley Vineyard, Justin Vineyards and Winery, Renaissance Vineyard & Winery, and Swanson Vineyards & Winery.

The group represents a full spectrum of styles and varietals from every major winegrowing region in the state.

Click here for a KTVU video from the Family Winemakers  event.

Wines by Fisher

Cameron Fisher

The Fisher wines come from a family that was first known for auto body design work in Detroit (Body by Fisher). Fred Fisher, who founded the winery in 1973, is the patriarch. His daughter, Whitney, is the resident winemaker. Her sister, Cameron, handles sales and marketing.

Grapes for their wines are grown on the Fisher’s Napa estate in the Mayacamas Mountain range and from the family’s Sonoma estate on Spring Mountain.

I particularly enjoyed Fisher’s 2007 “Coach Insignia” ($75), a blend of cabernet sauvignon (90%), malbec (7%) and cabernet franc (3%) that sees nearly two years in oak before bottling .

This is a full-throttle, deep purple wine with a long life ahead of it. It features seamless tannins and an aftertaste that kept revealing more and more nuances of blackberries, cedar and vanilla. Noted critic Robert Parker rated it 91 points out of 100 and I’d probably push that up a notch or two.

Tale of Two Chardonnays

I was impressed by the relatively low-cost chardonnay poured by Adastra Winery, an organic producer from the Carneros region. The 2009 N’Oak chardonnay ($20) is fermented in stainless steel to produce a crisp white wine with nice citrus notes and a smooth finish.

I first wrote about this winery after meeting owner Chris Thorpe at Pinot Days in June. Thorpe, a retired physician, also produces a more serious chardonnay under the Adastra label, which includes offerings of merlot, pinot noir and a blend called Ed’s Red. Pam Starr is the winemaker.

The 2008 Pommeraie chardonnay ($48) from Benovia Winery was the best white wine I sampled at the tasting. It featured a solid apple core with a streak of citrus that came alive on the palate. The grapes for Pommeraie (it means apple orchard in French) were sourced from the Frei Road vineyard, site of a former apple orchard in the Russian River Valley. The vineyard is owned and cultivated by Martinelli Winery, another family winery that I profiled last month. (Martinelli — A Sonoma Success Story)

For a peek back in time, check out the Martinelli Winery tasting room (3360 River Road, Windsor, CA), which has just been moved into a renovated hop barn. The barn is a throwback to the early 20th century when the fertile fields produced hops — a key ingredient in brewing another pleasurable beverage, beer.

Macauley Cabernet

When I tasted this wine, Macauley Vineyard’s 2007 Napa cabernet, I didn’t realize that it came from one of the 10 “20th reunion” wineries that poured at the very first Family Winemakers of California events. This is a really nice wine with a rich price tag ($125/bottle). It paired well with a tidbit of smoked gouda atop a slice of baguette from Bakers of Paris.

There’s just a touch of eucalyptus on the nose and tongue, a taste of lovely blackberry fruit with a mint accent. This is a very smooth mouthful of gorgeous red wine.

The wine is made from purchased grapes grown on the Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard near the historic Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. This vineyard produced some classic Napa cabernets, even before vineyard owner/manager/impressario Andy Beckstoffer bought a share of the property in 1993.

“Dreamy” Mi Sueno

I really like the two cabernets from Mi Sueno, a Napa winery with a Mexican heritage. As a teenager, owner/winemaker Rolando Herrera began working as a dishwasher at upscale wine country restaurants. Then he got a job as a laborer at a winery. That led to bigger and better jobs in the industry, culminating in the creation of his own winery. The winery’s name, Mi Sueno, means”my dream” in Spanish.

Mi Sueno’s premium wines, bottled under the Herrera label, are led by a 2007 Napa Valley cabernet ($65) made in a contemporary California style. This wine is a juicy combination of rich red fruit and integrated tannins with just a touch of what some call “Rutherford dust” — a flavor component that shows up in some wines grown in the Rutherford district.

Mi Sueno’s El  Llano (named for the owner’s Mexican hometown) is a 65/35 blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah from assorted Napa vineyards. It’s a dark, delicious $40 wine with blackberry fruit flavors and baking spice highlights that demand a second sip.


Sipping Through Santa Clara Valley

August 18, 2010

Before tech companies like Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle took root, vineyards flourished in the Santa Clara Valley and produced some of the finest wines in California.

In fact, before Napa’s meteoric rise to fame and fortune back in the early 1970s, the Santa Clara Valley produced more premium wine than its northern counterpart.

Semiconductor companies and software developers reign supreme in today’s Silicon Valley, but pockets of winemaking excellence exist in places like Morgan Hill, Gilroy and San Martin.

There are more than 20 Santa Clara Valley wineries, including the Emilio Guglielmo Winery in Morgan Hill.

Gene, George and Gary Guglielmo

Three brothers — George, Gene and Gary Guglielmo — grow grapes and make about 30,000-40,000 cases of wine per year from an 80-acre vineyard  just off Highway 101, about 30 minutes south of San Jose.

This is a family-run business. Gene handles sales, George is the winemaker, and Gary is general manager.

Their grandfather, Emilio, emigrated from Italy to New York in 1908 and arrived in San Francisco in 1910. He made wine from purchased grapes for friends and family before eventually buying the Morgan Hill property and starting the winery in 1925. In the 1940s, the winery was passed down to the boys’ father and mother, George W. and Madeline Guglielmo.

The quaint family home now houses the winery business office, which sits over a large basement filled with old redwood tanks used to store red wine.

Several outbuildings contain the main storage tanks, bottling line and winemaking equipment. There’s also a special events facility and tasting room alongside a brick plaza and fountain. Looking over the adjacent vineyard, with glass of wine in hand, you’d never know the high-tech revolution was humming along just a few miles away.

Old Style, New Age

The Guglielmos have come a long way from the 1950s and 1960s when the boys rode into San Francisco with their dad to deliver cases of one gallon jugs of “house red”  to homes, restaurants and bars in North Beach.

“The cost was $27.77, I remember that, for five cases,” George said in an interview at the winery. “We’d pick up the empties and re-use the bottles. We started doing recycling before it was popular.”

The business made a significant turn when the Guglielmos began bottling wines by varietal instead of the generic blends that had been the norm. Today, the winery produces 13 different varieties of wine.

Pursuing Petite Sirah

The first varietal wine bottled by Guglielmo was a 1969 petite sirah, which they continue to make from old vines next to the winery.

The latest release of petite sirah is a 2007 private reserve ($19 retail). This is a by-the-book rendition of the grape. It’s got a nice peppery back beat, strong but controlled tannins and great fruit. It’ll get even better with some short-term aging (6 months to 1 year).

I’m a big fan of zinfandel, and the Guglielmo’s private reserve zin is top-notch and fairly priced at $19/bottle for a bottle of wine that’s built to go with hearty pasta, grilled meats and interesting cheeses.

I also liked the 2007 cabernet sauvignon ($19), which is made from “backyard” estates around Morgan Hill, and a 2007 Santa Clara Valley syrah ($25) made from the San Felipe Vineyard southeast of Gilroy.

If you’re in the neighborhood, the winery hosts its annual harvest festival Saturday (Aug. 21) featuring grilled steaks, plenty of pasta and wine plus live music and a grape stomping contest. Tickets are $55 apiece, available from the winery in advance or at the door. Daily tastings are also available to winery visitors.

For more information on other Santa Clara Valley wineries, click here.

Free Tickets to Family Winemakers of California Tasting

This weekend there’s a great event going on at Fort Mason in San Francisco, where more than 300 family wineries will provide samples of their best wine as part of the annual tasting sponsored by the Family Winemakers of California. Tickets at the door cost $65, but we’re giving away free tickets to the event, which will be held Sunday from 3-6 p.m. For a chance to win tickets, click here for more information. I’ll  be covering the tasting, so please check back next week for a full report.

Straight from the Slammer

August 14, 2010

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I really didn’t get the joke when I first encountered Big House Wine several years ago.

I liked the bistro-style juice and the bargain price, but I thought the name meant it was a “super” house wine or maybe it was wine made in a large house.

Nope. Dead wrong.

Big House wines are made in a winery near the Salinas Valley State Prison just outside Soledad. Big House, of course, is slang for prison, and every wine in the lineup plays off the slammer concept.

Twisted Mister

Whose twisted imagination came up with the idea of “prison style” wine?

Answer: Randall Graham, founder of Bonny Doon Vineyards and former enfant terrible of the winemaking fraternity.

Graham built the Big House label into a successful national brand. Then, he sold it in 2006 to The Wine Group as part of a move to simplify his life and business holdings. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonne recently blogged about Graham’s current focus.

Big House red and white (the 2009 vintage sells for $9./bottle retail) are in national distribution, but there’s another warden in charge now.

Georgetta Dane, Big House "Warden"

Calling the shots today is Georgetta Dane, a Romanian winemaker and California wine industry veteran.

She walked into a job that didn’t come with a playbook. Graham didn’t leave behind much to go on, technically speaking.

Dane says the enormity of the challenge became real very quickly.

Her Barrel Runneth Over

“I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Dane admitted over dinner at Pican, the upscale Oakland restaurant featuring down home Southern food with a California twist.

“I had dealt with maybe 15 varieties (of grapes) … but here they were bringing in 42 varieties,” she said. “I couldn’t pronounce the names of  some of these grapes.”

In the Big House Red, the blend varies in proportion, but it’s built on a base of about one-fourth petite sirah. The other three-fourths represent a hodgepodge of up to 20 different varietals.

The list ranges from Italy to France and Spain with charbono, tannat and nero d’avola in the mix alongside petit verdot, cabernet franc,  montepulciano and tempranillo plus dribs and drabs of more obscure grapes sourced from all over California.

Plays Well With Food

The result is an everyday wine that held it’s ground alongside a string of Pican’s specialties, including indulgent deep-fried chicken livers, a crispy slice of pork belly along with some of the best fried chicken I’ve sampled west of the Mississippi River. Here’s a recent dinner menu.

The wine tastes of plums, smooth tannins and a soft mid-section that’s pleasant enough on approach and even better on the second and third taste. I like the screwtop, too. Kind of a white trash approach with a middle class payoff.

White Side of the House

The Big House white is a less diverse blend of grapes — not a drop of chardonnay, by the way — that Dane describes this way:

“I like it to be like a bowl of fruit and flowers,” she proclaimed, swirling a glass of the wine.

The “fruit and flowers” blend is more than half malvasia bianca with 22 percent muscat canelli, 18 percent viognier and 4 percent rousanne.

The perfumed nose says sweet but the wine is off-dry, tasting of ripe summer peaches and tropical fruits. It matched up well with the friend chicken and also a side order of baked macaroni and Gouda.

Georgetta also makes the Big House smaller production wines called the “Upper Cell Block.” They include: Slammer syrah, the Lineup (blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre), Prodigal Son (petite sirah) and Birdman (pinot grigio). All are well-made and well-priced at $14.99 retail.

Wine Mining for Napa Nuggets

August 6, 2010

Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon represents the very best wine that California can produce.

There are lots of Napa Valley wines on the market, from $10 to more than $1000 a bottle. When they’re good, they can be awfully good. The opposite happens, too.

Napa’s geography is divided into 15 sub-appellations covering an area that begins just south of downtown Napa and runs north to the resort town of Calistoga.

A comparison of two wines from the 2007 vintage highlights some of the similarities — and subtle differences — that can occur.

Robert Mondavi Winery and Mount Veeder Winery provided samples of their 2007 Napa Valley cabernets for my informal tasting.

The two wines are made primarily from grapes grown in different parts of the region — Oakville (on the valley floor), Stag’s Leap (on the hilly eastern edge of the valley) and Mount Veeder (on the steep slopes of the western side of the valley).

Up from the Valley

Most of the grapes used in the Mondavi wine ($28) are from the famed To Kalon Vineyard (38%) on bench land near the iconic winery in Oakville. Another 29 percent come from hillside vineyards grown on the opposite side of the valley in the Stag’s Leap region with the remainder culled from other Oakville and Napa vineyards — plus 2 percent fruit from Sonoma.

To Kalon Vineyard

This wine showed a light touch of sweet oak on the nose, which also revealed some blueberry highlights. This is a deep rich red glass of wine. There’s sweet cassis fruit that filled out over the evening and opened up as some of the tannins softened. It’s 86 percent cabernet, 8 percent merlot, 4 percent cabernet franc and 1 percent each of petit verdot and malbec.

I’d hold onto this one for a year or two and then taste it again to check its progress.

Down from the Mountain

The grapes for Mount Veeder’s wine come from steep, hillside vineyards. The vines are grown on the opposite side of the valley from Stag’s Leap. Higher elevation vineyards — planted on minerally depleted soils — often produce intense fruit from smaller berries that struggle against the elements.

Mount Veeder Winery Ranches

The mix of grapes is similar to the Mondavi, except Mount Veeder winemaker Janet Myers used syrah in place of cabernet franc.

I caught a touch of cedar on the nose (very nice) of the Mount Veeder wine ($40). There was a rounder feel to the aromas that suggested some sweetness to follow.

That hint was just a tease. The wine is dense with fruit that will come further forward, over time. I caught plums on the nose and that carried through to the taste, which had to battle youthful tannins for my attention.

This deep purple wine is still a youngster and it needs time to mellow out and for the flavors to knit fully together.

Both wines were decanted and tasted blind over a three-hour period before, during and after a meal that featured a red wine-marinated pot roast with a medley of roasted vegetables (sweet potatoes, white potatoes, brown mushrooms, red onions, red bell peppers and garlic).

Urban Wine Experience Favorites

My three favorite wines tasted at last weekend’s Urban Wine Experience included:


Cerruti Cellars 2009 Mer Blanc, a stylish pink merlot made from Alexander Valley grapes. Nice fruit in a merlot-light style, great for a picnic or enjoy by the pool on a warm afternoon


Dashe Cellars 2008 Dry Riseling from Potter Valley (Mendocino). A tangy, tasty wine for summer sipping.


Ehrenberg Cellars 2009 Lodi Petite Sirah (barrel sample). This is a deep, dark purple wine with gobs of fruit to watch as it matures, is bottled and comes to market later this year.