Archive for April, 2011

Wine Country Giant Remembered

April 29, 2011

To say that Jess Jackson was a larger than life figure is an understatement.

His success spanned two of the most competitive businesses in the world — wine making and horse racing — and his life unfolded as a unique rags to riches story that exemplifies attainment of the American dream at the very highest level.

Jess Jackson

Jackson died at home in Geyserville last week. He was 81; a victim of cancer.

A public celebration of Jackson’s amazing life will be held May 11 at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, not far from the Kendall-Jackson winery, a business he started by making a family investment in a Lake County orchard that was  later converted to vineyards.

The man who would become a billionaire many times over bottled the first vintage of Kendall-Jackson chardonnay in 1982.


Over the next decade, the wine became one of the best-selling chardonnays in the country. It remains a perennial top performer on restaurant lists and wine shops.

Jackson acquired a vast amount of vineyard property and his family-run operations grew more and more successful on the national stage.

In addition to the Kendall-Jackson operations and assorted other California properties like Cardinale, La Jota and Lokoya, the Jackson Family Wines holding company owns wineries in Italy, France, Australia and Chile.

“When my family and I founded Kendall-Jackson in 1982, we simply wanted to create extraordinary wine from California’s best vineyards,” Jackson wrote in his biographical notes.

“We grow grapes on our own 14,000 acres of California coastal vineyards,” he said. “We take the no-compromise, high road approach to quality required to grow our world-class grapes and produce acclaimed award-winning wines.”

Preakness Perfection

On the racecourse, Jackson found success with Curlin — who won back-to-back Horse of the Year awards — and with Rachel Alexandra, winner of the 2009 Preakness Stakes. She was the first filly since 1924 to capture the race known as the second jewel in the Triple Crown that each year starts with the Kentucky Derby and ends with the Belmont Stakes.

Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay: Key to Jackson Legacy

In the wine world, Jackson’s success was built on reasonably priced, easy-drinking chardonnay.

His Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay is produced in prodigious quantities with a quality and taste profile that is consistent from vintage-to-vintage. The Vintner’s Reserve designation, by the way, is a self-proclaimed descriptor with no official industry meaning other than marketing.

The consistency comes from a combination of winemaking skill and quality-control over the raw materials. The grapes are from Jackson-owned or controlled vineyards across California that offer myriad flavor profiles, many clonal variations and different regional characteristics.

Avant: Lighter Chardonnay

I’ve enjoyed many bottles of Kendall-Jackson red and white wines over the years, including a bottle of a new chardonnay from K-J called Avant that I tried this week.

I bought a bottle to taste and serve with a dinner of roast chicken, steamed broccoli and wild rice. It was a good match for the chicken and I think it would be really good with lighter fare like grilled shrimp over pasta or a summertime chicken salad.

Avant ($14 suggested retail, but on sale for $11.98 at Lucky’s) is a bit lighter in appearance and flavor than the current release of K-J Vintner’s Reserve, which costs about the same. Avant is made from grapes grown in Monterey, Mendocino and Santa Barbara counties.

There’s definitely less oak on the tongue in this floral-scented, light golden wine. It presents a crisper fruit profile suggesting ripe green apples or maybe Japanese apple pear.

If you have ever tried — and liked — a K-J bottle of wine, it would be a fitting tribute to raise a glass sometime soon to honor one of the industry’s most successful winery owners.



Benessere: Good Things Come in Twos

April 22, 2011

I’ve never been a big fan of Cal-Ital wines, but today I’m re-thinking that viewpoint after tasting a pinot grigio and sangiovese from Benessere Vineyards in Napa Valley.

Sangiovese Sensation

I have tasted few, if any, domestic sangiovese that could hold a candle to its better-made Italian counterparts, but Benessere showed me an example that truly measures up to the European ruler.

Benessere winemaker Jack Stuart points to the clonal variations in the estate vineyards as one factor behind the authentic flavor profile, but it doesn’t hurt that the grapes are babied with personal and gentle treatment from harvest to hand sorting of the harvest to manual punchdowns of the fermenting must.

This 2007 estate wine ($28) is neither fined nor filtered, allowing deeper colors and flavors to show up in the glass.

The taste is classic sangiovese, which is the prime component in Italy’s well-known Chianti — which is made as a blend of  several different  types of grapes. Sangiovese is also a powerful player in some of Italy’s well-regarded Super Tuscan wines.

The Benessere is all ruby-colored sangiovese. The grape, by the way, takes its name from the Latin sanguis Jovis, which means the “blood of Jove (Jupiter).”

Most domestic sangiovese that I have tasted has come up short on taste and flavor with tart, thin fruit and high acids. Benessere makes an assuredly better and deeper impression.

Sure, there is a tartness to the fruit, like sour cherry, but it’s balanced. The wine’s fuller mid-palate flavors pull your tastebuds to a higher dimension. There’s a little gamey taste and dash of leather on the palate, too, adding to the sophistication and giving the wine a firm leg to stand on against hearty food flavors.

At dinner, the sangiovese took off when paired with a plate of spaghetti. I topped the pasta with a lamb, tomato and crimini mushroom sauce spiked while it simmered with a generous splash of the Benessere wine.

Go-To Pinot Grigio

The 2009  Benessere Pinot Grigio ($22) is made from grapes grown in two vineyards — Mueller-McKenzie and Bartolucci. Both are in the Carneros region, where pinot noir and chardonnay are widely planted

This pale gold wine has a definite hint of citrus (lime blossoms?). The taste is somewhat tart, but not too acidic or sharp . I’d say it was more like a bite from a peach that’s just a bit under-ripe. There’s also a touch of minerality or wet stones on the edge.

Exceptional Experience

I’d never come across something this good in a pinot grigio from a U.S. producer.

Most of the California PG wines I’ve had were simple, tart and inexpensive quaffers. I have a much higher impression for the Benessere, which is good on its own and would be great matched against simply prepared seafood, grilled lemon chicken or fettuccine alfredo.

Visiting Benessere

The St. Helena winery, purchased by John and Ellen Benish in 1994, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. A tasting fee of $15 covers samples of six different wines.

In addition to the sangiovese and pinot grigio, Benessere makes some pretty good zinfandel, a rose’ that’s blended from sangiovese, zinfandel and merlot, plus a proprietary red blend called Phenomenon ($62, vintage 2006) that won a gold medal at last year’s San Francisco wine competition.

Napa Cabernet Quickstep

April 16, 2011

There are lots of wines with Napa on the label. That doesn’t make the wine good, but it’s a sign that it might be.

The best of the bunch are made from cabernet sauvignon grapes grown in a fairly narrow swath of hallowed ground that runs from the edge of San Francisco Bay north to Calistoga.

From small family-run wineries to mid-size producers to corporate giants, this region is home to some of the top-quality red wines in the country, if not the world.

For every big name like Robert Mondavi, there are hundreds of smaller producers who make wines (some great, some not so great) in relatively small amounts. Keeping up with all the players would be a full-time job.

21 Into 2

I rediscovered an old bottle and met a few new ones at a recent wine tasting put on by the Napa Valley Vintners Association.

The tasting, at Flemings Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Walnut Creek, featured pours from 21 wineries, big and small at a two-hour mini-marathon.

My sentimental favorite was the 2007 Georges de Latour from Beaulieu Vineyard (BV). I ran across this wine on my very first visit to Napa Valley more than 30 years ago.

I loved it then and I love it now.

This top-of-the-line bottle ($115) offers a lush mouth feel. There’s a minty edge, plus a classic touch of “Rutherford dust” alongside mixed red fruits and sweet cedar in the mouth.

BV Reserve Room

It’s a concentrated wine that drinks great today and, no doubt, will develop even deeper complexities over time.

You can sample a wide selection of reds and whites at the historic BV winery in Rutherford. A basic tasting runs $15. Special offerings, including reserve wines, are available for $30, $35 and $40.

Jarvis Reserve Shines

A big wine from Jarvis Winery is a new Napa Valley favorite.

It’s an opulent and well-aged cabernet (Reserve 2001, Napa Valley, $160). There are gobs of smooth flavors alongside moderate tannins and nice oak finish.

This wine is ready for immediate consumption, but it will probably hold its luster for many years to come.

Jarvis Underground Barrel Storage

Jarvis operates in the ultra-premium marketplace. It’s winery operations are all located underground in a man-made cave dug into a mountainside about four miles outside the town of Napa. The place oozes deluxe.

A visit to the winery requires an appointment and a $40 fee, but you’ll be treated like royalty with a tour and tasting that includes 5-6 wines, that will usually include at least one reserve wine.

For a preview, check out our video tour of Jarvis’s underground facilities.


Goodness, Gracious, Grenache

April 8, 2011

I recently discovered a trio of very tasty red wines — each made at urban wineries in the East Bay — that deliver a one-two punch of flavor and quality.

The first wine of the day turned up at Urban Legend in Oakland, my first stop on the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance Passport event last weekend. From my first whiff of sweet strawberry jam in the nose, I knew this 2009 wine called Lollapalooza ($26) was something special.

It’s a lovely medium garnet color with juice that’s primarily grenache with small amounts of syrah and mourvedre — all from Amador County. The fruit is a real grabber, with the fruit forward demeanor of the grenache carrying over into the taste

“We didn’t want to step on it (grenache) when we put the blend together,” explained Marilee Shafer, who owns Urban Legend with husband, Steve. “We wanted to capture all of that bright strawberry fruit.”

Two Winners from JC Cellars

Staying with the fruit forward theme, but taking sophistication a few notches higher, is the 2008 grenache  ($35) from JC Cellars, another stop on the East Bay Vintners Alliance passport event. This is the most “Rhone-style” wine of the bunch. It’s not over-the-top or hot, despite it’s 15.5% alcohol level.

The grapes come from Ventana Vineyard in Monterey County, where cooler temperatures allow longer hang time, which can allow more complex flavors to develop.

I also enjoyed JC Cellars 2007 petite sirah from Eaglepoint Ranch vineyard in Mendocino County.

I’ve tasted several other delicious wines made from Eaglepoint Ranch fruit, which winemaker Jeff Cohn handled masterfully for this effort. It shows distinctive blueberry aromas and flavors of red raspberries with an effective tannic bite.

I’d decant this wine for 30 minutes or an hour to let its flavor flag unfurl.

Seeking Sushi Solution with Sattui

I find Japanese food, especially raw fish dishes, a tough match for wine.

An off-dry riesling or gewurztraminer gets mentioned most often by the experts, but neither varietal hits the right notes in my mouth when I’m eating Japanese fare.

I much prefer a good Japanese beer (like Sapporo) or sake (try Takara Sake’s Sho Chiku Bai made in Berkeley), but my new favorite choice is a delicious Italian-style, slightly sparkling moscato from Napa Valley.

With sashimi made from tako (octopus) and fresh yellowtail (procured from Tokyo Fish Market in Albany), I paired a glass of 2010 moscato from V. Sattui.

Sattui is an interesting success story. The winery produces about 45 different wines and sells them all only at the winery/tasting room/deli in St. Helena and online through the website.

The moscato has plenty of nice fruit flavors, but is not overly sweet. Each sip revealed a bit more flavor (tangerine) and I loved the luscious texture of this slightly fizzy white moscato, the Italian version of muscat.

Cerruti Makes Alameda-Napa-Oakland Connection

April 1, 2011

There’s a brand new East Bay destination for wine tasting at Oakland’s Jack London Square.

Cerruti Cellars is one of six host wineries where members of the East Bay Vintners Alliance will be pouring samples for the public during the group’s annual passport event on Saturday (April 2).

Click here to see our video of Cerruti Cellars.

For more details on this event, including more information about all participating wineries, please click here to read my recent blog.

Urban Zone, Napa Tone

The Cerruti Cellars tasting room, at 100 Webster Street, won’t be officially open until sometime next month, but you can get an early peek at what’s inside during the East Bay Vintners’ event.

Part of the inner walls of the tasting room — which has the look and feel of being in Napa — feature wine barrel staves scavenged from the family winery near Calistoga.

In the tasting room library, Tudal has some older bottles from the family’s winemaking efforts that began with the purchase of their Napa property in 1972.

Two impressive light fixtures hanging over the tasting bar are made from converted metal wine barrel racks. Future plans call for a patio that flanks the railroad tracks that run down the middle of the Embarcadero.

Familiar Faces & Places

John Tudal heads the family business, which makes wine under the Tudal label and the Cerruti Cellars moniker.

He grew up in Alameda, helping his father, Arnold, work their fields on Bay Farm Island.

Today, standing near the railroad tracks in Jack London Square just a block and half from where he used to unload crates of lettuce and other vegetables in the 1960s, Tudal has come full circle.

Go North to Napa

The family makes their wine at their property in Napa, which includes a 10-acre cabernet vineyard.

When the Tudals bought the land, it contained an acre of concord grapes and a walnut orchard.

Tudal says that after one year, his father decided rip out the orchard and table grapes and plant wine grapes. But, what grapes to plant?

He got some pretty good advice from a knowledgeable source — Louis Martini, the patriarch of  the pioneering Martini wine country family.

“Louis asked my dad where his land was located… and he told him to plant cabernet and he’d buy the grapes,” Tudal said. “They shook hands on the deal and that was it.”

By 1978, the vineyards were yielding grapes and there was enough extra for Tudal to make his own wine. The results were promising and the seeds of a winemaking family legacy were planted.

Today’s Tudal

Tudal makes award-winning cabernet from the estate vineyard. They also make some very good wines — in limited quantities — from purchased grapes.

To give more people access to their wines, the family decided to establish a tasting beachhead at historic Jack London Square, which is being developed into a food and wine destination.

Tudal’s Vineyard Series includes cabernet sauvignon from Napa’s Oak Knoll District, chardonnay from the Maldonado Vineyard in Napa, and pinot noir from the Bacigalupi Vineyard in the Russian Region district.

I really liked the pinot and also enjoyed another special wine, Tudal’s 50-50 blend.

It’s made from equal amounts of the Napa estate cabernet and cabernet sourced from Alexander Valley in Sonoma. Elegant and approachable, the wine had a nice balance of sweet red fruits and just enough tannin to keep everything in check.

Cerruti Selection

Under the Cerruti Cellars label (named in honor of Tudal’s mother’s family), there’s a very good blend called Tractor Shed Red that’s made from zinfandel, syrah and cabernet franc. Click here for my review in a recent blog.

There’s also another Cerruti wine, called Flatbed Red, made from zinfandel grown mostly in the Sierra foothills and Lodi. It’s a real palate-pleasing, easy-quaffing table wine. It, and most of the Cerruti wines, sell for less than $20.