Archive for October, 2010

Ghostly Wines for Spooky Times

October 28, 2010

You can perk up just about any holiday with the right wine, so why not drink something different and delicious to celebrate Halloween?

There are a couple of direct connections with the scariest holiday of the year in Wine Country — both spooky events and spook-tacular wines.

First, the wines.

Old Ghost Zinfandel

One of the most on-the-topic-of-Halloween  wines you can get is the Old Ghost zinfandel produced by Klinker Brick Winery in Lodi. I recently sampled the 2008 vintage ($37) and it was great. The grapes come from two low-yielding vineyards planted 89 and 98 years ago. The wine is rich with red cherry and blackberry fruit tinged with an exotic spice note (cinnamon?).

I wouldn’t hesitate to serve this wine alongside something exotic like this recipe from Food Network for pumpkin risotto or the yummy pumpkin curry cooked up by King Thai Noodle at 1635 Park Street in Alameda.

Many experts link today’s trick-or-trick festivities to a Celtic celebration called Shamain, a word that means summer’s end. Have you noticed those long summer days are gone and nightfall is inching earlier and earlier every day?

Those Celts got the last part right when they decided the passing season deserved a unique celebration.

Ghosts in the Pines

There are four wines marketed under the Ghost Pines label from Louis Martini. The name comes from a specific vineyard in Napa (Chiles Valley, actually) that is bordered by whispy pine trees. Today, some of the grapes for the Ghost Pines wines come from that same vineyard, but the finished wines are actually blends made with grapes from other parts of Wine Country.

There are three reds — merlot, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel — plus a chardonnay. Suggested retail is $18-$25 per bottle.

I picked up a bottle of 2007 Old Ghost Pines Winemaker’s Blend cabernet sauvignon at Lucky’s at a bargain price of $12.95. This wine could easily compete with California merlots selling for $20-$30.

There’s bit of mocha in the nose that follows through in the mouth along with some restrained tannins that provide the proper edge to the fruit. The broader mid-palate flavors — think juicy ripe cherries — tasted great with a bowl of leftover beef stew.This wine is a mix of 51% Napa and 49% Sonoma fruit.

Tricks, Treats and Tastings

Harvest season open houses are rampant in Wine Country now with some wineries promoting Halloween-oriented special events and tastings. Here are a couple of suggestions for the holiday weekend.

Francenstein Fest at Flora Springs

How do you announce a new wine with an odd name? Throw an event called “Francenstein” to unveil Flora Springs 100% cabernet franc wine called “Ghost Winery.” The party runs from 9 p.m. to midnight on Saturday (Oct. 30) at the winery’s tasting room in St. Helena. Advance tickets are $20.


They will be pouring award-winning wines from the 2008 vintage to celebrate the harvest at Dutton-Goldfield in Sebastopol on Saturday (Oct. 30). The first corks will be pulled at 11 a.m. and the event runs through 4 p.m. Admission is $15. Costumed attendees receive an extra discount on any purchase.

You can score brownie points by congratulating winemaker Dan Goldfield on winning the Winemaker of the Year award from Sunset magazine. Then, ask him for an extra pour of his estate pinot noir. The Dutton Ranch 2008 ($38) is delicious, if you like to walk on the rich cherry side of pinot.


Wine and the World Series

October 22, 2010

Beer may be baseball’s mainstay beverage, but there’s room for wine in any fan’s hands as we edge closer and closer to the World Series.

In fact, the hard-charging San Francisco Giants roster begs for a comparison with a really good wine list.

Here’s how I see the line-up, through wine-tinted glasses:

Tim Lincecum

Tim Lincecum, the two-time Cy Young Award winner, is the ace on the Giants pitching staff, winning twice in post-season play with a l.69 ERA. Affectionately known as “the Freak,” with his long hair and slight build, Lincecum keeps hitters off-balance with sneaky speed and a tempting change-up that has baffled most opponents this year.

Giants Ace Tim Lincecum

Lincecum is like a top-drawer pinot noir, with a racy intrigue and tasty finish that’s hard to replicate. I’d look toward the Santa Lucia Highlands for a wine that matches the ace’s on-field performance. Something like the outrageously good Siduri Wines 2008 pinot noir fits the bill. It’s made from the legendary Garys’ Vineyard, located on the edge of the Salinas Valley. This is a big pinot, with luscious red cherry fruit that will improve over time, just like Lincecum.

Buster Posey

Although he’s originally from Georgia, a state where moonshine might be the drink of choice, clean-up hitter  Buster Posey honed his skills right here in Wine Country. The rookie spent time with both Fresno and San Jose in the Giants minor league system before joining the big league club in late May. The hard-hitting catcher and clean-up hitter has been a star ever since.

He’s an everyday hero who I’d compare to a big Napa Valley cabernet. Something with a track record of success like the Silver Oak Cellars 2005, a ready-to-drink selection with strong red fruit and a smooth finish that delivers great taste vintage-to-vintage.

Cody Ross

A hidden gem in the Giants lineup is the late-season addition of Cody Ross. The outfielder picked up on waivers late in the season from Florida Marlins and he quickly made his presence felt as the team’s unexpected hero. Ross swatted four post-season home runs and collected seven RBIs going into the fifth game of the Giants’ National League Championship Series with Philadelphia. Ross reminds me of a “little” wine that over-delivers on quality at a reasonable price. Like the McConnell Estate’s 2007 cabernet sauvignon ($15) from Lodi. This is a smooth customer, discovered at last weekend’s Lodi Wine Fest on Treasure Island, with just enough backbone to support the lively black fruit and currant flavors.

Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson is the madman of the Giants bullpen. With a bushy beard dyed deep black, he’s responsible for the Giants battle cry “Fear the Beard” that pops up on homemade signs throughout AT&T Park in every game. I didn’t have a second thought when it came to a wine that reminded me of this gritty reliever. It’s the Prisoner, a zinfandel-based blend from Orin Swift that has been great every time I’ve tasted it. The 2007 Prisoner ($35) needs a bit of time to open up, and then it comes on like gangbusters with bowl-you-over blackberry fruit and rich tannins.

Aubrey Huff

First baseman Aubrey Huff is a 10-year veteran who played for Tampa Bay and Baltimore before coming to San Francisco in 2009. He was a solid contributor down the stretch for the Giants, collecting 86 RBIs and 26 homeruns in the regular season. I’d compare him to a high-toned merlot, not too flashy but built on solid fundamentals.

Two merlots I recently tasted from the an up-and-coming district in Napa come closest to matching Huff’s intensity. I enjoyed the Silverado Mount George 2006 merlot ($50) and the Coho 2006 merlot from the Michael Black Vineyard ($55), both tasted earlier this month in a Coombsville District tasting event.

Pat Burrell

Outfielder Pat Burrell played for the Phillies for eight seasons before defecting to Tampa last year and then joining the Giants for the 2010 campaign. He’s another acquisition who has brought power to the SF lineup, slugging 20 homes runs and collecting 56 RBIs this season.

I’d compare Burrell’s performance to a powerful but smooth-sipping syrah, like the excellent 2006 Zio Tony Ranch ($75) from Martinelli Winery in Sonoma.

Freddy Sanchez

Second baseman Freddy Sanchez has been with the Giants for two seasons after stints in Boston and Pittsburgh. He’s a good fielder and reliable singles hitter, who has hit over .290 in an SF uniform.

I’d match up Sanchez with an award-winning chardonnay with a great track record, like the Ridge Monte Bello chardonnay, an award-winning bottling from Ridge Vineyards, which is better known for its legendary Monte Bello cabernet. I got my first taste of the Ridge 2008 chardonnay ($65) a few weeks ago and I’m sold. It’s gold juice with tropical fruit and citrus overtones that counterbalance just the right touch of oak.

The wine will be officially released later this year. Only 250 cases were produced, so get yours quick or wait ’til next year.

Juan Uribe

Infielder Juan Uribe was the star of Game Four of the NLCS with an outstanding fielding play to stave off a Phillies rally and a walk-off fly ball that won Game 4 of the NLCS for the Giants. This was the hardest pick of the bunch, so I went with a personal favorite that’s reliable and inexpensive. I’m talking about the Don’s Lodi Red, an $8 blended red that contains carignane and syrah plus a dash of symphony — a flowery-tasting hybrid grape developed at UC-Davis. I buy this wine  — from Michael-David Vineyards — by the case and sometimes sneak it into blind tastings with higher-priced brands just to see the reaction when the price is revealed.

Andres Torres

Andres Torres always seems to be smiling and hustling, two characteristics that helped earn him the 2010 Willie Mac Award given to the most popular player on the Giants roster each year. He’s backed up that popularity with some key hitting (16 homers and 56 RBIS) that helped deliver the Giants to the doorstep of the World Series. He reminds me of a California sparkling wine, something that goes with any celebration, like the Gloria Ferrer VA de VI ($22), a non-vintage cuvee that’s pinot noir and chardonnay blended with a dollop of fruity muscat. Definitely a pick-me-up wine!

Pablo Sandoval

Pablo Sandoval, nicknamed “The Panda,” had an up-and-down season on offense and defense, but broke out of his batting slump in the playoffs with a key hit as a starter in Game 5 of the NLCS. He’s like a good bottle of everyday wine that you forget you had, like the Robert Mondavi  bottle of wine that you lost track of and, upon re-discovering it, found \that it was still enjoyable. Like the 2007 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon ($28), an easy-to-enjoy dinner wine with a core of red fruits and complementary sweet oak.

Matt Cain

Matt Cain has been a solid performer on the mound all season and his success continues in the play-offs with just one run allowed in two games. He just keeps getting better and better with every outing, like one of my favorite daily-drinking chardonnays from Edna Valley. The 2008 Edna Valley chardonnay from Paragon Vineyards on  the Central Coast continues a long string of reliable vintages that feature tropical fruit tastes and a nice touch of oak.

Jonathan Sanchez

Jonathan Sanchez has pitched well enough to win in the post-season, but without enough offensive support to seal the deal. Still, he owns a 2.03 ERA and collected 18 strikeouts in two play-off appearances in which opposing batters managed just .149 against the lefthander.

I’d compare Sanchez to a zingy sauvignon blanc, like the wine made by Rochioli near Healdsburg. While Rochioli’s claim to fame is delicious pinot noir, it’s worst kept secret is the estate sauvignon blanc. With a $40 pricetag, this is high-class juice, but it’s so smooth with just the right touch of oak that it’s hard to resist. Join the winery’s waiting list (aveage wait to join is five years) to assure yourself of access to the future Rochioli offerings.

Madison Bumgarner

Madison Bumgarner is the Giants fourth starter. He won against Atlanta in the division series and then pitched well in game 4 of the NLCS against the Phillies, but left without earning a decision. He’s a 21-year-old, hard-throwing left-hander who’s got a long career ahead of him. I’d liken to one of the smaller, newer producers with a big future in Wine Country, like Urban Legend near Jack London Square which is making its reputation on out-of-the-ordinary varietals like its 2008 barbera ($25), a Cal-Ital wine made from grapes grown in Clarksburg. This round, red and delicious selection would complement pasta, pizza or grilled red meats.

Treasure Island Wine Adventure

October 15, 2010

While the Blue Angels streaked overhead on a sunny Indian Summer afternoon, Treasure Island sparkled with the reflection of hundreds of bottles of wine.

It was the 2010 Lodi Wine on the Water event featuring a cavalcade of tastes.

Blue Angels in Formation


Star of the wine show was zinfandel, the rambunctious red wine grape that Lodi is famous for. Supporting roles were played by  cabernet and two grapes that don’t normally get a lot of respect in California — carignane and alicante bouschet.

Forty-two wineries participated in the event, which coincided with the Fleet Week aerial manuevers by the famed Blue Angels. Quality was good across the board, but three zinfandels stood out from the pack.


My favorite wine was the 2007 Lucas ($35). This sleek red beauty is produced from a single organic 3.5-acre vineyard tended by Lodi veteran winemaker David Lucas. The zinfandel featured dark fruits and a sliver of tannins that showed a sophistication and balance achieved by few of its peers. The 70-year-old Zinstar vineyard is hand-harvested and nearly half the crop is thinned to give the gnarly, head pruned vines a better chance to produce exemplary berries. The wine rests in French oak barrels for more than year before bottling.

Klinker Brick

I liked the hint of strawberry fruit in the Klinker Brick 2008 old vine zinfandel, which is made from vineyards that are at least a half century old. You can taste a bit of sweet American oak in this wine and the rich red fruit coats the mouth with flavor. Yields were down in 2008, giving this wine a more concentrated feel than past vintages. The taste lingered for what seemed like minutes and left me craving another sip.

M2 Wines

The 2008 old vine zinfandel from M2 Wines is sourced from the 94-year-old Soucie vineyard, originally planted in 1916. It’s a deep, dark wine with intense black fruit and aromas of black cherries and blackberries mingled together. There is gobs of fruit in this wine but it’s not overpowering.


Lodi Wine on the Water Commemorative Bottle


What’s in a Name?

I don’t believe carignane, a grape generally used in blending in the Rhone Valley of France, gets a fair shake from many wine drinkers. Two examples from Lodi really show off the grape’s potential in the 2008 vintage.

From Jessie’s Grove Winery comes a majestic old vine carignane, sourced from two estate vineyards that are more than 100 years old. Blueberry highlights over a cedar edge come together in the glass with a flash of oak to form a delightful triumvirate of taste in this $32 bottle.

Done in a “smaller” style is the 2008 carignane from Heritage Oak Winery. In my tasting notes I wrote, “very nice little red wine.” It shows a bit of sharpness and acidity that endears this grape to winemakers looking to add more dimension to a blend. I wanted a slice of pizza in the worst way with this wine!

McConnell Estates

I’m always on the lookout for a great cabernet sauvignon at a good price and the McConnell Estate’s 2007 vintage from the Wackman Ranch vineyard hits both marks. This wine ($15.50) was aged for two years in French and American oak,. The wood doesn’t take center stage. It’s a comfortable backstop to the black fruit and currant flavors that roll over the tongue.

Touche’ for Alicante Bouschet

The alicante bouschet grape gets little respect outside of its traditional role as a blending grape used in small amounts to pump up color and power. Occasionally, someone makes an all-alicante wine that stands on its own merits. The 2006 vintage ($30) from Harmony Wynelands repeats the success of the winery’s sold-out 2005 vintage of this wine. This is a thick-skinned, hearty grape from which Harmony winemaker Chad Joseph coaxed some extraordinary smooth flavors.

It’s All Greek to Me

October 7, 2010

Sometimes you need to take a walk on the wild side of Wine Country.

I decided to be adventurous when I went shopping for a wine to serve with a weeknight dinner at home. I wound up with a bottle of red made from a grape that I can’t pronounce. I’d never even heard of this wine until I met Dan Marshall, owner of Du Vin Fine Wines in Alameda.

Dan has the largest selection of Greek wines in the Bay Area. When I asked for a recommendation under $20, he gladly obliged by handing me a bottle of Gaia Estate’s Notios 2008 ($17.99), made from a Greek grape called agriogitiko. It’s from the Peloponnisos region of Greece, from mountainside vineyards in the village of Koutsi.


Gaia Estate vineyards in Koutsi, Greece

Gaia Estate Vineyards


Marshall described the wine as similar to Beajoulais, not the sometimes thin, weak noveau style, but  more like a village wine from a good vintage — a fruity and food-friendly wine that is made from the gamay grape. He was pretty close to spot on.

The Notios was fresh and inviting with an aroma of cherries. The fruit was impressive, with enough of an acidic counterbalance to make it a great match for casual food, anything you might serve at a picnic.

A glass of Notios paired well with a plate of cubed pork that was simmered in a half cup of the wine mingled with onions, carrots and broccoli that I spiked with a blend of Greek spices and served over rice. Very nice!

Back in California

You don’t have to go to Greece to enjoy a good wine. There’s plenty of nearby options for trying new wines and exploring your own “wild” side of Wine Country.

Lodi wines will be featured Sunday (Oct. 10, 2010) at an afternoon tasting on Treasure Island. Where else can you drive to an island in the middle of a beautiful bay and find more than 200 wines being poured by dozens of wineries from one of California’s most interesting wine regions? Nowhere else.

On a clear day, you can see the stunning San Francisco skyline from the Treasure Island Wine Fest while sipping a zinfandel, cabernet, or any of the dozens of different styles of wine produced in Lodi. Advance tickets are $55.

Whisky By the Bay

The 4th annual Whisky Fest rolls into town Friday (Oct. 9, 2010) with a selection of more than 200 distilled beverages available for tasting at the Marriott in downtown San Francisco. This is close to heaven if you like spirts with a global twist. The bar will be stocked with Scotch, Irish, Japanese and Canadian whiskies, along with rum, brandy, tequila and beers from around the world. The tab is $110.

A Quarter Century of Napa Winemaking

Goosecross Cellars in Napa will celebrate its 25 anniversary this weekend. The kick-off event is a gourmet dinner (5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.) at the Yountville winery where a full selection of wines will be poured . A $125 ticket buys the dinner plus a full weekend of activities that continue Saturday with a wine and cheese pairing plus barrel samples and then a special “make your own blend” party with Goosecross wines on Sunday.

Napa: Location, Location, Location

October 1, 2010

In Wine Country, just like where you live or do business, location is a key to quality.

The winegrowers of Coombsville, just east of the town of Napa, make some great wines and also sell grapes to some of the biggest names in the business, but they don’t get the same level of respect as their neighbors in world famous hot spots like Stags Leap, Oakville and Yountville, but that’s about to change.

Farella Vineyard, Napa Valley, California

Farella Vineyard in Coombsville

Soon, wineries will be able to feature the name of the Coombsville growing region on the label. Wine made from grapes grown in these rolling benchlands today can only carry the general “Napa Valley” designation on the label. A lot of Coombsville’s grape production winds up in “Napa Valley” blends made by other wineries all over the valley.

Federal authorities are expected to approve a request to create a Coombsville AVA (American Viticultural Area) that covers about 11,000 acres where dozens of wineries operate. This would be the 17th sub-appellation within the overall Napa Valley AVA.

Earlier this week, I was introduced to the Coombsville area and its wineries at a private tasting at the Napa Valley Country Club, which is in the district. There were 20 participating wineries, mostly smaller grower-owner estates along with a few bigger and smaller operations, pouring tastes. The wines were well made and interesting — across-the-board.

I enjoyed several very good cabernet sauvignon, cabernet-based blends and a couple of tasty merlots. The slightly cooler climate and hillside locations of many Coombsville vineyards gives the Bordeaux varietals a nice California punch of flavor that’s satisfying, but not overwhelming.

Hitting the Highlights

Farella Vineyard, Alta, 2005 — This blend of 70 percent cabernet and 30 percent merlot made by Tom Farella is ready to rock. There’s a touch of smoke on the nose, leading to some nice chocolately flavors under the broader palate of mixed fruits. A balanced, smooth wine with the chance to improve over the short term.

Bill Frazier, Frazier Family Estate

Bill Frazier

Frazier Family Estate, Memento Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 — This is a dark, deep and powerful wine. There is 5% petit verdot and 2% cabernet franc in the bottle, which sells for $110. This wine, which sees 100% French oak, is a classic high-end Napa cabernet. It’s approachable now, but will only get better over the years. A great effort. “I could open a bottle and let it sit out for two days and it would be better,” remarked owner Bill Frazier, whose family winery got its start in 1995.

Inherit the Sheep, Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 — This deep purple bottle of wine ($65) presents a broad, smooth tasting base of red fruit, shading toward plum. It’s blended with a small amount of cabernet franc, which contributes to its complexity. The winery got its name after the owners — wine industry veterans Clay and Tersilla Gregory — made a successful bid to buy the property that included an offer to raise the resident sheep that the owner’s children had raised for a 4-H project.

Sciandri Family Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 — This wine is also deep purple with higher toned, sweet prune fruit with a good edge of oak to cap the finish. I enjoyed sampling this wine, which is produced from estate-grown fruit. Family patriarch Ron Sciandri and his wife, Roberta, head the family-run business, which had been “winegrowing-only” until the 2006 vintage, when they began producing their own label. Only 600 cases ($48/bottle) were made of the inaugural vintage.

Silverado Vineyards, Mount George Merlot 2006 — I’m coming around on merlot, thanks to wines like this. Silverado is located in the Stags Leap District, but it sources grapes from Coombsville’s Mount George Vineyard for this smooth red wine. There’s just enough tannin from aging for 15 months in French oak (47% new). I caught a touch of green bell pepper in the background but it fit in nicely between the rich broad red fruit that’s the core of this $50 wine. This vineyard is the site of one of the original wine grape plantings in the Napa Valley, way back in 1868. Grapes for this wine come from vines planted in 1989-1990.

Coho, Michael Black Vineyard Merlot 2006 — Made from a home-cultivated clone, this deep, dark $55 wine features a delightful balance of power and finesse. It’s 100 percent merlot, but it shows some of the same strong backbone as its cabernet cousin.

Daviana, Cabernache 2007 — This cabernet-grenache blend ($45) presented a nice change of pace. The fresh fruit of the grenache balanced the firmer cabernet to produce a delightful moutful of red fruit flavor. Just three barrels (75 cases) were produced.

Prime, District 4 Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 — I enjoyed this wine — produced from four different clones of cabernet — for its high-toned blue fruit and slightly higher acid component, which bodes well for matching with food. It was a bit shy on the nose, but presented some fine fruit-forward flavors on the tongue. Production was 304 cases ($39/bottle).