Archive for June, 2011

Lateral Moves Ahead

June 29, 2011

Good things do happen over time, but I’m not sure I really need to hang around another 20 years to try a great wine like Lateral.

The wine has a lovely aroma tinged with mocha around a core of damson plum.

On approach, the first sip showed healthy tannins with the sweet bite of new oak. It’s a bit tightly wound, so I let it sit for an hour and kept tasting to fully appreciate its charms.

It got better with each sip, revealing more complexities over time thanks to the blend of 30% merlot, 28% cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon 25%, malbec 10% and petit verdot 7%.

The pepperiness of this wine, a characteristic of the cabernet franc grape, makes it interesting.

The deeper, fuller core of merlot fruit provides solid footing. A more subtle earthiness develops as the wine opens up a bit to reveal some of the cabernet sauvignon influence.

A whiff of graphite and vanilla from the wine shows the influence of oak barrels and  provided another interesting interplay.

I think the producers got it right when they set out to make a Bordeaux-style red wine that is more sophisticated and complex than most $30 California red wines. And, it’s got the structure to develop even further over the next few years.

The wine paired well with a simple dish of angel hair pasta topped with tomato sauce flavored with Italian sausage and herbs. Plus some grated parmesan, of course, and a chunk of sourdough bread.

Lateral would be an even better match for grilled tenderloin of beef or pork, in my opinion.

Lateral is a joint production of two Santa Cruz Mountains wine guys. Marty Mathis has a day job as winemaker at Kathryn Kennedy and Chris Condos makes wine under the Vinnum Cellars and Horse and Plow labels.

Mathis came up with the idea for Lateral about 20 years ago.

He sourced fruit from various California appellations to blend into a wine that would emulate Bordeaux. For the last 15 years, Condos has been the “hands-on” winemaker for the project.

What makes the 2008 different is the sourcing of the grapes. They all came from Napa vineyards, including fruit from Robert Sinskey, Yount Hill and Pat Garvy (Flora Springs).

This was the first bottle of Lateral I ever tried, but it won’t be the last. Not by a long shot.

Mondavi Summer Concerts  

Every Saturday in July, the Robert Mondavi Winery will host a series of outdoor concerts at its iconic Napa estate in Oakville.

Robert Mondavi Winery

On July 2, the featured artist is Gavin DeGraw, the New York-based singer-songwriter. The lineup for the rest of the month includes Colbie Caillat (July 9), David Foster and Friends (July 16), Chris Isaak (July 23) and k.d. lang (July 30).

In addition to a lineup of great wines, the Mondavi name has long been associated with the arts in wine country. The Mondavi winery hosts cultural events on a year-round basis, but they go all out with the outdoor concert series each summer.

Click here for ticket info.


Where’s the Prime Pinot?

June 25, 2011

Only a tiny percentage of U.S. beef earns a prime rating and it was no different with the wines I liked at Pinot Days.

There were about 200 wineries pouring multiple wines apiece at the event last weekend.

From a personal tasting of 104 wines, I found three that were superlative. But, a lot of others left me wanting more.

Where’s the Rank?

Why can’t buying wine be more like shopping for a good steak? I know what I’m getting when I pick out a juicy rib eye steak, based on a USDA inspection and rating.

There are eight levels of beef quality based on marbling, color and maturity.

Only the top three grades — prime, choice and select — usually make it to retail butcher shops and supermarkets.

The government doesn’t get involved with wine like that.

Who, What Where

Wine labels must adhere to industry standards regarding the type of grapes inside the bottle, the place of origin and the name of the seller and/or producer.

There can be lots of other details. Like, vineyard name, geographic location, AVA (American Viticultural Area), sub-appellation plus any organic or bio-dynamic explanations.

As far as wine taste and quality go, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There is no higher standard.

The name on the label is important, but it’s only one indicator. Bigger impacts come from weather and the myriad man-made decisions affecting the growth, harvest and production cycles.

All of those impacts shone favorably on the wines below, which I ranked highest in the Pinot Days tasting last Saturday (June 17) at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

Joseph Swan Vineyards

Joseph Swan Vineyards started production in Forestville in 1968. The name has long been associated with ground-breaking pinot noir and one of their pinots was my top pick at Pinot Days.

I liked the Swan 2008 Trenton Estate Vineyard ($52) from Russian River Valley for its complexity and brilliance, like a star you notice in a sky full of stars.

Everything seemed to rise up another notch with this wine, including the deeper color and lovely finish. I tasted sophisticated dark cherry with baking spices and smelled a pleasant forest scent. The red fruit lingered for a beat longer than I expected. It was wonderful.

Clos Pepe

Wes Hagen, winemaker and vineyard manager, showed an artist’s touch with an alluring 2008 from the Clos Pepe estate vineyard in Santa Barbara.

This is  lighter, and a bit more feminine style than the Swan.

“A delicate little creature, for sure,” Hagen told me after pouring me a taste of his $54 wine. The color is like reflected light through a garnet gemstone.

The taste is light cherry with some spicy aromatics and a trace of minerality.


It’s a completely different ballgame with the 2009 Roadhouse pinot noir.

This is a bolder mouthful with decadence dripping off of every drop of Russian River Valley juice.

The color is deeper, the flavors are bolder. There’s a swagger to this wine that’s engaging. Even the black-and-white label makes an impact.

Only 120 cases made. Wine club only, but maybe you can pick up a bottle ($54) at the winery/tasting room/pool hall in Healdsburg.

Part 2: The Prince

June 17, 2011

In a setting fit for a prince with a green thumb, Ferrari Carano’s Villa Fiore is a must-see Sonoma wine destination.

Rear Fountain, Ferrari Carano

After spending last Saturday tasting at Vinify, a custom crush facility in a Santa Rosa warehouse that hosted a showcase of 18 small wineries, some friends took me along to Ferrari Carano to pick up their latest wine club selections.

The contrast was striking.

I went from tasting at folding tables set up in a business park warehouse full of winemaking equipment to experiencing a lushly landscaped temple to wine in the natural splendor of the Dry Creek Valley. Here’s a link to a KTVU video tour of the gorgeous Ferrari Carano estate.

Once we entered the winery proper, a hostess realized we were royalty (well, there were wine club members present!), and we were whisked downstairs for a special tasting in an underground salon adjacent to the barrel room.

There’s no clicking tourist cameras. No yelling children. No pushing or shoving.

Just a tranquil spot flanked by marble columns and a polished wood bar — all designed to enhance every sip in hopes of making a sale, renewing a relationship or just exploring the next vintage.

Chardonnay Rules

They make an excellent lineup of chardonnay at Ferrari Carano. The winery shows restraint that allows subtleties of the vintage and terroir to emerge in the special bottlings while pushing the fruit profile a bit higher in the larger production wines that carry the Sonoma County appellation.

My two favorites from the salon tasting were the Dominique and Fiorella. Both are made from estate vineyards along the Russian River, but there are subtle differences.


This 2009 vintage chardonnay is grown in a single vineyard that flanks a curve in the river.

I heard the server explain that the location and prevailing winds worked together to keep the site cool, which helps promote longer hang time that allows the grape to develop secondary flavors and minerality. In this vintage, the grapes were not harvested until near Halloween.

There was nothing spooky about this $36 wine. It delivered a fabulous fistful of fresh flavors.

What I smelled in the glass was a fresh golden apple with a bit of nutmeg.

What I tasted was a mix of light citrus and pears with a soft, creamy edge that finished with just the right, light touch of oak.


This 2008 vintage of Fiorella offers more citrus and feels a bit crisper on the tongue when tasted alongside the Dominque.

There is a bit of orange plus a dash of lemon zest for a great citrus combo.

Some nice acids give this $32 wine a fresh approach and the barest whisper of oak holds the flavor package together for a nice finish.

Part 1: Little Guys

June 16, 2011

A kind of “Prince and the Pauper” duality exists nearly everywhere you look in wine country, where many of today’s top names were nobody special when they started.

Price tag and label are not always good indicators of value and quality, but a good name does count for something in this business.

The following wineries haven’t hit “big name” status yet, but they’re making good wines that stand out in a crowd.

Vinifiy Showcase

Vinify is a custom crush facility where winemakers who may not have their own equipment nor grow their own grapes can make their wine in a professional setting.

Commercial-grade winemaking equipment can be shared and there’s also a warehouse for storing wine barrels plus a new tasting room where the public can drop by to try new samples.

The showcase last Saturday (June 11) was a typical set-up.

Vinify is located in a Santa Rosa business park that boasts two other wineries (Carol Shelton and Inspiration Vineyards) plus assorted unrelated businesses.

There were 18 participating wineries pouring more than 60 different wines. The winemakers (plus friends, family and supporters) were poised inside behind a folding table with bottles of reds, whites and roses ready for tasting.

Quality, across the board, was good. A few wines really stood out for me.

Cool Pinot

The wine I liked most was a 2009 pinot noir ($39) from Frostwatch Vineyard and Winery in Bennett Valley. The winemaker is Brett Raven.

Brett Raven, Frostwatch Winemaker

The color was light red with a light dusting of cinnamon on the nose. It felt good in my mouth with a delicate mix of rhubarb and strawberry flavors that tasted seriously good together.


Another really good pinot noir poured at Vinify was from Lattanzio Winery.

The 2008, from the W.E. Bottoms Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, is a big mouthful of dark red juice ($38/bottle) stuffed with racy raspberry fruit. There’s an aroma of forest floor that’s nice, too.


One more Bennett Valley pinot noir caught my eye, the 2009 Zara’s Block from Barbed Oak Vineyard.

The quality was amazing for the winery’s first-ever shot at making pinot from the estate vineyard.

I liked the flavor of macerated cherries on the palate and it had a nice bouquet of sweet loam. Let’s hope the price stays at $29.

Sojourn Cellars

I didn’t read the reviews beforehand, but I agree with the accolades that have been given to Sojourn Cellars for its 2009 Rodgers Creek Vineyard pinot noir.

This Sonoma Coast wine — made from a vineyard that sits in the Petaluma Gap of Sonoma County — swirled dark red in the glass and provided a marvelous nose of  ripe cherries.

The ripe cherry theme continued with the fruit forward taste of black cherry. I liked the hint of mushroom on the nose and the weight of this wine in the mouth.

This $40+ bottle got a 92 rating from cult critic Robert Parker, plus similar scores from other professional admirers.


The Gracianna 2010 Suzanne’s Blend chardonnay ($34) stood out for its tangerine fruit — which struck a nice balance between sweet and tart — and for a de-emphasis on oakiness despite the use of 100 percent French oak barrels. This was a well-balanced and sophisticated effort made from Russian River Valley fruit.

Part Two: Princely Approach

You’ve just read about the “pauper” side of this two-part tale. Tune in again tomorrow when this blog continues with a focus on the “prince” — an elite winery with a stable of fine wines produced at a luxurious Sonoma County estate.

Iberian Wines from California Vines

June 9, 2011

Thanks to California’s wide range of geography and microclimates, grapevines transplanted from around the globe can flourish in our soil.

A recent sampling of California wines made from Spanish and Portuguese grapes shows they don’t yet command the same respect as the Golden State’s world-class cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir, but they are making progress.

TAPAS, the Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society, sponsored a tasting last Sunday (June 5) at Fort Mason in San Francisco where I was most impressed by  white wines made from albarino, a Spanish grape that is fairly rare in the United States.

I have tasted a wide variety of albarino from the Rias Baixas region of Spain, so I knew what to look for: fruit tasting of citrus, peaches, or tropical fruit, dry not sweet, somewhat crisp with a nice acid balance.

Tasting Favorites

I’d recommend several albarinos I tasted at Fort Mason on Saturday, starting with the Tangent 2010 from the Paragon Vineyard in Edna Valley.

This $17 wine showed pleasant citrus fruit, a hint of minerality plus a dry finish that would marry well with a classic paella. The wine was poured from a chilled keg, which didn’t hurt the quality one bit and certainly made the line of tasters move much faster!

I’d wait in line for the 2009 Tinto ($24) from Tangent’s sister label, Trenza. This 2009 red wine is a blend of tempranillo, syrah and grenache — also poured from keg. I particularly like the lift of strawberry fruit from the grenache and a mild spiciness that made me want another taste of this San Luis Obispo County winner.

Albarino Honor Roll

Here’s a quick rundown of my favorite albarinos from the Tapas tasting:

Bodega Del Sur Winery’s 2009 from Calaveras County. This $21 wine — a silver medal winner at the SF Chronicle Wine Competition this year — showed moderate spiciness and citrus fruit, leaning toward pomelo.

Bonny Doon Vineyard, known for its offbeat style over the years, scored a winner with its 2009 albarino ($18) from Monterey County. The wine started out slowly, but came alive with taste when paired with a bite of mildy spicy paella studded with mussels, shrimp and sausage from Marco Paella in Rancho Cordova.

Odisea Wine Company’s 2010 Dream albarino from Clements Hills (Lodi) provided another taste of citrus fruit highlights, crisp acid and nice minerality. Fruit from three different vineyards is blended to make this lip-smacking wine.

From the Sonoma Coast comes the 2009 albarino by Paradise Vineyard. This is a nice, clean wine that shows grapefruit and a bit of lemon zest in its flavor profile. It took a gold medal at the 2011 SF Chronicle Wine Competition and the only shop in the Bay Area that I know carries this wine is The Vine at Bridges in Danville where it sells for $20.

For a bit fuller flavor and less acidity, I’d recommend the 2010 Idilico albarino from Washington State. I liked its rounder mouthfeel and smoothness.

Tempranillo & Friends

I’m not a big admirer of U.S. tempranillo, a wine grape that flourishes in Spain, but I did enjoy the 2009 tempranillo made from Amador County fruit by the Jeremy Wine Company.

Jeremy Wine Label

The name behind the wine, Jeremy  Trettevik, is a graphic designer in Lodi who has found another artistic outlet in winemaking. Trettevik has done packaging design work for several Lodi area wineries, but I hope he focuses more on the winemaking end of things.

His tempranillo ($24) tasted of plums with a spicy top note. The wine did not show too much of the leathery character that marks many tempranillos. As befits a talented artist, the eye-catching label design is top-notch.

I also enjoyed the bright red color and cherry fruit of the 2007 Just Joshin tempranillo poured by Stein Family Wines, a small operation out of Napa.

The most unusual wine I tasted was from Alta Mesa Cellars in Galt. The winery is part of Silvaspoons Vineyards, which sources many unusual varietals to otherwineries.

I’d never seen, nor heard of, the trincadiera grape, but I liked the 2010 barrel sample poured by Alta Mesa.

This is a gentle red wine, which reminded me a bit of gamay with a bit of cherry fruit wrapped in a light/medium weight package. It’s mainly grown in Portugal, where it is often blended to make Port, the country’s best-known fortified wine.

I liked the one Port-style wine tasted at the Tapas event and it was from Tesouro Port Cellars in St. Helena. Made from a classic blend of native Portuguese varietals, the 2005 vintage California dessert style wine ($35/fifth, $17/tenth) was a luscious mix of red fruit that lingered on the palate for an agreeably long time.

Road Trip!

June 3, 2011

We live in an area where so many great things are within easy reach, including world-class wine-tasting destinations both famous and not-so-famous.

Summer is ripe with possibilities.

Familiar & Famous

If you’ve got a pocketful of disposable income, and nothing special on tap this weekend, you might try to snag a paddle at the Auction Napa live auction at Meadowood on Saturday (June 4).

Bidders in Action at Auction Napa 2010

The ne plus ultra charity fund-raiser is always a sellout.

The draw for globe-trotting tasters is  the valley’s most hard-to-get wines alongside world-class food. Auction lots range from cases of rare and expensive wine to personalized wine travel, dining and adventure packages.

Auction proceeds are funneled back to local charities, which have received more than $97 million in contributions over the years. Check the Napa Valley Vintners website for more information or call 707.963.3388. Good luck!

Two Events, One Parking Lot

Next weekend, there’s a pair of wine-tasting events in Santa Rosa featuring a range of tastes, styles and winemakers.

Vinify, a custom-crush facility, will host 18 small producers pouring more than 40 wines next Saturday (June 11) . The event runs from 1-4 p.m . Tickets are $25.

Don’t expect a lush landscape with picturesque vineyards and a veranda. Vinify is located in the Pinecreek Business Park, an industrial/warehouse setting a few miles off Highway 101. This is a fun event, which I attended last year and really enjoyed. Here’s a link.

Just across the parking lot from Vinify, Inspiration Vineyards is  hosting its own open house. Jon Phillips, winemaker, and his wife Barbara will be pouring from a lineup of at least eight Sonoma County wines, , including zinfandel, cabernet, pinot noir, and chardonnay.

Bottle Your Own

Get your hands (and tongue) wet on Saturday, June 11, at La Nebbia Winery near Half Moon Bay where they will be having a “bottle your own wine” event. For $4.95/bottle, you can fill up your own bottle with vintage 2010 sangiovese wine from Paso Robles. Add $1.50 to the tab if you need to buy a 750-ml bottle from the winery.

Pinot Days

The 7th annual Pinot Days celebration culminates with a mass tasting of 100s of wines at Fort Mason on Sunday, June 18.

There’s a heavy emphasis on California pinot at this event, but there will also be offerings from Oregon and France in the mix with more than 200 wineries participating.

Tickets for the main event are $50.

Several additional tastings, including a spotlight on California pinot noir specialist Williams-Selyem and a Best of Oregon retrospective, are also being held prior to the main event. Check out last year’s coverage for more background.

Mendocino in Motion

You won’t have to make the drive up to Mendocino to sample some of the North Coast’s best wines later this month. They’re coming to you!

More than 60 Mendocino wineries will pour current releases in San Francisco at Fort Mason on Monday, June 30 from 5-8 p.m. Regional foods and craft beers will also be available at the Taste of Mendocino event. Tickets are $35 in advance.