Archive for January, 2011

BlackStone Hits High Note

January 28, 2011

I could tell from the first sip that I was tasting something special, but it wasn’t a blockbuster.

It was forthright, but not over the top. It didn’t pulverized my palate. Quite the opposite.

I smelled strawberries on the nose. The scent reminded me of these incredible little strawberries that we got from Louisiana when I was a boy.

Sweet-tart, red and fragrant.

The approach was smooth and silky. Just a bit of earthiness  (crimini mushroom?) added a pleasant, minor contrast. 

Blackstone Winery, Kenwood

Over about an hour, more nuances emerged. A sliver of oak, a dab of cinnamon, and some emerging red cherry notes, including a sense of the cherry pit.

The wine was Blackstone 2009 Sonoma Reserve pinot noir ($18, suggested retail).

If the rest of the class of 2009 California pinot noir follows this lead, we’re in for some good times in wine country.

Sensational Surprise

I tasted through the Blackstone lineup last year and liked their merlot but nothing prepared me for this exceptional pinot noir.

The color of the 2009 reserve pinot was so dark  that I suspected that winemaker Gary Sitton had included a heartier grape in the mix, but I was wrong.

This is 100 percent pinot noir from vineyards in the Carneros and Sonoma Coast regions.

Three quarters of the grapes were grown in Sonoma; the rest in Napa.

Cool Pick

The crop was hand-picked, at night, and then rushed to the winery where a three-day cold soak process was used prior to fermentation to draw as much flavor and color as possible. After fermentation, using native yeast, the wine was aged for eight months in French oak.

This wine would be great with grilled lamb chops with mint sauce, roasted red potatoes and sautéed green beans with slithered almonds.

I enjoyed the sample sent to me for review so much that I went out the next day and tried to buy another bottle of my own, but I haven’t been able to find it in any of my local outlets.

If you happen to run into this wine, I’d like to hear what you think. And, please tell me where you got it!


Two Big Tasting Events Ahead

January 21, 2011

There’s a wine competition of some sort nearly every week, but the San Francisco Chronicle’s massive judging of American wines is something special, giving Bay Area imbibers a chance to sample the biggest all-USA wine list in the country.

The  SF Chronicle Wine Competition winners — and many of the other entries — will be featured in a one-day event scheduled Feb. 19 at Fort Mason. Advance tickets and all the details about the tasting are available online for $65. Tickets at the door, if available, are $80.

Six sweepstakes winners were announced earlier this year. There were 5,005 entries from wineries in California and 22 other states.

SF Chronicle Sweepstakes Winners

Four of the top wines were made in the Golden State, including three from Paso Robles — Thatcher Winery’s 2008 Triumvirate (zinfandel, $36), a 2008 cabernet sauvignon ($32) from Ecluse Wines and a late harvest sauvignon blanc dessert wine (2009, $30) from Alapay Cellars.

The other California sweepstakes winner was Sonoma’s Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, which drew high praise for its 2006 brut rose ($42), the competition’s top sparkling wine. I reviewed the 2005  vintage, another winner in my book, in an earlier blog.

A New Mexico gewurztraminer, St. Clair’s 2009 ($11), surpassed all other white wines in the judging while a $12 2010 rose of sangiovese from Washington’s Barnard Griffin was chosen as the best pink wine of the competition.

Warning: 20th ZAP Ahead

The 20th edition of the world’s biggest tasting of zinfandel wine is coming up in San Francisco next weekend.

The Zinfandel Advocates and Producers grand tasting at Fort Mason runs from 2-5 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 29. Tickets are $70 ($60 for ZAP members, who get in an hour early). 

More than 250 wineries will pour their finest offerings at the grand tasting. ZAP also sponsors a series of more intimate (and expensive) events in the two days leading up to the main affair.

Here’s the schedule of events leading up to the grand tasting:

ZAP Warm-Up

Good Eats and Zinfandel, 6-9 p.m., Thursday January 27, Fort Mason Center. More than 50 different wines are paired with food from 50 different restaurants. Tickets are $140 for the pubilc; $100 for ZAP members.

Flights!, 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday January 28, 2011, Westin St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco. SOLD OUT

Evening with the Winemakers, Dinner and Benefit Auction, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. ”  Westin St. Francis Hotel. Sit down to dinner with the world’s top zinfandel winemakers and bid on auction packages to benefit ZAP charities. Tickets are $225 (includes one-year ZAP membership) in advance.

New Oakland Wine Bar — Punchdown

There’s a new, fun place to taste wine in downtown Oakland, the Punchdown at 2212 Broadway.

The menu showcases a nice selection of about three dozen wines by the glass, carafe and bottle at reasonable prices. The focus is on “natural” wines, made without excessive manipulation and/or chemicalization. A limited, but tasty menu, is served all day.

Punchdown took over the same storefront that was vacated several months ago by the Franklin Square Wine Bar.

It’s a comfortable location with a nice vibe to it that made me want to come back and try more of their offerings. There are regular tasting flights of three wines each for reds and whites plus a ‘mystery flight” of three different wines selected by the house for $12. The flight is free — if you can identify all three of the wines.

Serving Hard Time — Wine Behind Bars

January 14, 2011

I guess you can make wine just about anywhere. Even behind bars.

Wines are often stored in out-of-the-way places like caves or underground cellars where temperatures remain naturally cool and constant.

In fact, archeologists earlier this month announced they had found the world’s oldest winemaking sites deep inside a cave in Armenia where grapes were fermented more than 6,000 years ago. None of the wine survived, but the researchers found both crude equipment and by-products that confirmed winemaking took place there.

Island Treasure

There are several urban wineries operating in the Bay Area that were built in some pretty odd places including warehouses, airplane hangars and even a former submarine repair shop, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything like the location of Fat Grape Winery on Treasure Island.

Grape bins along the security fence at Fat Grape Winery

Fat Grape operates inside the old Navy brig on Treasure Island where thick, reinforced walls, bars on the windows and doors and a perimeter security fence makes this an oddly perfect place to make wine.

That’s what Patrick Bowen, a concrete contractor who was bitten by the winemaking bug, thought when he decided to convert the former jail into a winery.

Bowen started in 1998 as a home winemaker and then turned pro in 2008. He had outgrown his hobby and needed a place to make wine commercially. He scouted all over Treasure Island before making his choice to convert the brig into a modern winemaking operation.

Free Weekend Tasting

The winery is open to the public on weekends for free tasting.

It was definitely cold inside the former brig during a recent visit to the former Navy base now being developed for multi-faceted civilian use by the city of San Francisco.

From the Fat Grape parking lot, you can see the new towers of the Bay Bridge expansion taking shape. Nearby, several World War II buildings are being dismantled, to make way for new development while other, existing facilities are being converted to civilian use, including an aircraft hangar that is home to an even larger winemaking operation called The Winery SF.


Bowen is committed to making wines without the use of sulfites, a chemical often used by many winemakers as a preservative. Bowen advises customers that his sulfite-free wines should be stored at temperatures below 56 degrees Farenheit, to guard against spoilage and deterioration.

The wines are happy in the chilly brig, which is cooled by the surrounding Bay waters, cold wind and fog that influence the island’s climate.

Fat Grape’s lineup of bottled wines for sale is all red — cabernet franc, mourvedre, petit verdot, sangiovese, zinfandel and cabernet. There are 54 barrels of petite syrah aging along one internal wall of the winery, not ready yet for bottling but available for sampling. Most of the grapes come from Lodi, where Bowen contracts with the grower to supply the raw materials for his work.

The wines are young, fresh, and interesting, but Bowen is not quite ready to challenge Chateau Lafite or any of the big name California wineries in Napa and Sonoma. His production is relatively small and prices are reasonable, ranging from $19-$23 per bottle. It’s probably worth buying a bottle, or a case, just to tell the story of getting your wine behind bars!

Secret Ingredient for Great Wine

January 7, 2011

I don’t know who first coined the phrase, but they were right when they said it takes good beer to make great wine.

It’s no secret that a cold beer really quenches your thirst after a long day working in the vineyard or the winery, or as a follow-up to a long day of wine tasting.

There are a lot of choices for beer drinkers in wine country. In Sonoma County, my favorite spot to grab a pint is the Bear Republic Brewing Company, located right off the square in downtown Healdsburg.

Bear Republic Brewing Company

There are more than two dozen different styles of beer brewed by Bear Republic, which is expanding its capacity with a much bigger production facility in Cloverdale.

Here’s a full list of Bear Republic brews.

Not all beers are available all the time, but one beer that’s always on the list is my favorite — an extremely hoppy IPA-styled brew called Racer 5. The “5” is best served on draft, but it’s also available in bottles at many Bay Area retail outlets (~$8/six-pack).

Racer 5 won a gold medal at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival in the American-Style Strong Pale Ale category and Bear Republic was selected as the best small brewing company of the year at the same event in 2006.

Bear Republic serves lunch and dinner with a pretty good pub menu that ranges from burgers and fries to salads, ribs and beer-friendly fare. On a sunny day, grab a seat on the patio and drink up!

East Bay Beer

We’ve got our own wine country, right here in the East Bay, which is home to more than a dozen urban wineries. (Check the East Bay Vintners Alliance website for a full list of nearby wineries.) The East Bay is also home to a host of brewpubs, craft brewers and some commercial-size breweries.

Pyramid DPA

My favorite East Bay stop for good beer, brewed at the source, is the Pyramid Alehouse in Berkeley (901 Gilman Street, about halfway between I-80 and San Pablo).

This is a sprawling facility with your typical pub-grub menu and a full slate of different styled beers. Check out the free tour schedule for a behind-the-scene look at the brewing process. There are also Pyramid Alehouses in Walnut Creek and Sacramento. The original alehouse is in Portland, where Pyramid got its start in 1984.

I’ve enjoyed several different Pyramid brews, but my favorite (by far) is the Draft Pale Ale (DPA). Available only on draft, this mildly hoppy brew is copper-colored with a thick, foamy head, the kind of foam you like to see on a properly poured glass of Guinness Stout. The head is created by the use of nitrogen and carbon dioxide which are used to propel the beer from the keg to the spout to the glass.

More East Bay Brews

The East Bay has a rich supply of drinking establishments that feature interesting beers. A stellar selection of Belgian-style ales is The Trappist’s claim to fame in Oakland. Cato’s Ale House, another Oakland hangout on Piedmont Avenue, has a great beer list and pretty good pub grub, too.

Germany by the Bay

I have enjoyed the very good pilsener style beer brewed in the German style in Berkeley by Trumer Brauerei. This is a crisp, summer-time pour that’s available at most grocery and liquor stores around the Bay. The Trumer brewhouse, located at 1404 Fourth Street, is literally just around the corner from Pyramid!

Linden Street

There’s a new brewery in Oakland, called Linden Street, which is making a “steam style” beer patterned after the original SF steam beer made famous by the granddaddy of craft brewers, Anchor Brewing on Potrero Hill. I haven’t sampled Linden Street’s products nor visited its production facility, located at 95 Linden Street. This is a beer-making facility only, with no tasting room and no set schedule of tours, which are available by appointment. I’d love to know what you think about this place, so please leave a message with your comments.

For a more complete list of beer-centric bars, brewpubs and small breweries, check the SF Brew Pub Club website.

Coming Up — San Francisco Beer Week

Hundreds of craft and specialty beers — from lagers and pilseners to red, brown and black ales, stouts, fruit beers and barleywine — will be poured around town in the annual San Francisco Beer Week  that runs Feb. 11-20 at various locations in the city. Check the SFBW website for updates on the full event schedule.