Archive for August, 2011

Fruitful Family Affair

August 27, 2011

At big tasting events, like the Family Winemakers of California, I have an irrational fear that I won’t find anything worth writing about from the thousands of bottles being poured.

I’ve attended many FW events, including the first one back in 1999, when there were just a few dozen participants.

Last weekend, at the 21st annual tasting, there were 303 wineries on the list.

It’s not a competition, like the SF Chronicle tasting, where the wines are pre-judged by a panel of experts.

It’s not a themed tasting, like the ZAP festival which focused on zinfandel only.e

The Family Winemakers event is more like a church supper, where everybody brings something they like to share.

FW members poured 23 different white wines, 24 different red wines, plus various white and red blends, rose and dessert wines.

There was literally something for everybody’s tastes but I found some very special wines to recommend, mostly from Napa.

Andesite Vineyard

Andesite Vineyard’s 2007 Mervignon is a proprietary blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc from Spring Mountain in Napa.

It’s the only wine produced by owners Charles and Jo Ann Howard with help from winemaker Kenn Vigoda.

Production is small (150 cases , $48/bottle) and quality is very high. The Mervignon showed an incredibly rich, red color with stunning mocha highlights surrounding black cherry and blackberry fruit.

Andesite, by the way, is a type of volcanic rock found on the estate’s property which sits 2,000 feet above sea level.

Bacio Divino Cellars

I like the fact that Bacio Divino literally means divine kiss in Italian. I like even better the taste of this Napa Valley winery’s namesake blend of cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese plus petite sirah from 2007.

This marvelous $80 wine features cassis and berry flavors and it’s ready to drink today.

It’s a smooth, luscious and complex wine made by winemaker Kirk Venge for owners Claus and Diane Janzen.

Some of that complexity comes from the marriage of three different varietals, but also lending depth is the use of cabernet fruit from 18 different vineyards — including the hallowed To Kalon Vineyard, originally planted by Robert Mondavi.

Guarachi Family Wines

Alex Guarachi spent a quarter century in the wine importing business — focusing on introducing Americans to wines from around the world, including his family’s native Chile — before he became a producer. With noted winemaker Paul Hobbs at the helm, the Guarachi Family Wines label includes chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon from Napa and Sonoma.

I liked the cabernet the best. The 2008 Napa cab ($75) was very, very nice and approachable with a medium dark red color that led to irresistible black cherry fruit.

It’s sourced from three Napa vineyards — Elkington-Setty, Lincoln, and Winfield Vineyard. The wine spent 1.5 years in French oak, yielding 1,700 cases and a 92 rating from Wine Enthusiast.

McManis Family Vineyards

I like three things about this Ripon-based grower and wine producer.

McManis Family Vineyards wines are in wide distribution. Prices are reasonable. Quality is predictably good.

At the FW tasting, I liked both current releases of California cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah ($12/bottle).

I appreciated even more the red blend called Jack Tone Vineyards poured from a 3-liter box. It’s the equivalent of four bottles for $19.99. A good, affordable party wine, this syrah/petit sirah blend is a mouthful of fresh, soft red fruit (creamy blackberry) that doesn’t see any oak.

Orin Swift Cellars

I got a double-barrel shot of goodness when I stopped by the Orin Swift Cellars table.

First, I found something new called D66 — a delightful blend that’s heavy on the grenache. The 2009  is the inaugural vintage from Orin Swift’s new winery and vineyards in France’s Roussillon region.

I actually licked my lips after the first taste of this $38  juicy red which includes a bit of carignane and syrah. Flavors are dominated by ripe cherry fruit tempered by mild tannins.

Second, I re-tasted the 2008 Papillon ($55), a red wine that’s mostly Napa cabernet with some petit verdot, merlot and cabernet franc blended in for complexity.This is the fourth vintage, and it succeeds with high-toned cassis and cherry flavors plus some sweet cedar notes.

Robert Biale Vineyards

I got another one-two punch of great red wines from Robert Biale Vineyards, a red wine specialist from Napa.

I loved the sweet cherry attack of the 2009 Southern Trail, a blend of zinfandels from the south end of Napa. Biale has earned a high reputation for its zinfandel lineup and this $46 bottle is another winner.

Equally good is the Basic Black ($38), another blend based on petite sirah and zinfandel from the North Coast. This is a smooth-tasting, seamless red wine ready to open and enjoy tonight.

Staglin Family Vineyard

Staglin Family Vineyard has long been known as a top-quality producer of Napa Valley estate cabernet. I found something else to like when I tasted the 2007 Salus, Staglin’s second label cabernet.

A bottle of the 2007 Stalus is a relative bargain at $90 compared to the estate cab that retails for $250.

The Stalus showed some nice mulberry/cranberry flavors, finely integrated tannins, a touch of the famed Rutherford dust and a lingering finish that just wouldn’t quit.

The Salus (named after the Roman goddess of health) is the wine to drink while waiting for the 2006 Staglin estate — a majestic wine in its own right — to tame its tannic core.

Plus, all proceeds from Salus sales are donated to mental health research.


Life After Napa

August 20, 2011

Gregory Graham didn’t have to go very far — only a few dozen miles — to leave Napa Valley behind and create an award-winning winery of his own in a brave new world called Lake County.

Gregory Graham’s Crimson Hill vineyard, set on a steep slope overlooking Clear Lake, produces zinfandel, cabernet, grenache, and syrah. He also makes a variety of white wines from purchased grapes.

Gregory Graham, Crimson Hill Vineyard

All of the wines are handcrafted by the accomplished owner, a straight talking, friendly guy, who established himself in the industry as the winemaker for Rombauer, a Napa-based premium winery where production ran into the hundreds of thousands of cases vs. current production of 5,000 cases.

Graham is pouring his wines at The Winery SF on Treasure Island Saturday (Aug. 20) with a dozen other Lake County producers and at the Family Winemakers of California event at Fort Mason on Sunday (Aug. 21) when hundreds of family owned wineries from across the state will be putting their best pours forward.

Graham purchased the Red Hills property in 2000 and later bought an adjacent vineyard. The property had previously been a walnut orchard. Several of the majestic trees still line the edge of the property, whose red volcanic soil is rich with mineral deposits.

I discovered Graham and his wines almost by accident. I wanted to look beyond Napa and Sonoma for a wine based vacation and turned to the Clear Lake region as a well priced alternative with warm weather and diverse outdoor activities.

Lake County has 28 wineries today, equaling the number of wineries here before Prohibition which killed commercial wine development here for fifty years.

Star-Studded Lineup

I loved all 12 of Graham’s wines.

He gets special kudos for the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc ($16) and the 2009 Viognier ($20).

The sauvignon blanc presented a ray of citrus sunshine, with none of the grassy or herbal notes found in some lesser examples.

The viognier had a lovely honeysuckle nose, with beautiful peach and nectarine flavors.

Each of the reds also showed the master’s touch.

The Grenache and Syrah, Graham’s personal favorites, stand out. Both current releases are from the 2007 vintage and both are great values at $20 per bottle.

The Syrah tasted of ripe purple plums and the grenache offered a streak of sweet strawberries.

The 2008 estate Zinfandel was superb.

Its fruit-forward blackberry flavors even got a thumbs-up from my wife, whose tastes usually run ABZ (anything but Zinfandel).

Unexpected Pleasure

I didn’t expect all this goodness when I began scouring the Internet for a vacation rental near Clear Lake.

I certainly thought staying on the grounds of a vineyard would be fun, and it was.

Paying guests get a private tour, with Greg at the helm of his “mule,” a diesel-powered 4×4 that hauled us up the 10 percent grade along the vines studded with berries still a few months away from harvest.

The Crimson Hill guest house — a three bedroom home with a large deck and hot tub overlooking California’s oldest and largest natural lake — sits just downslope from the owner’s ridgetop home. Rates average $200.

Clear Lake Comestibles Shine

Two must-stop dining destinations in the area are the Blue Wing Saloon in Upper Lake and the Saw Shop Gallery and Bistro in Kelseyville.

At the Blue Wing, try the dreamy arancini — balls of deep-fried risotto stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. Also good are the fried calamari and the sweet potato fries which are served by the bucket!

At the Saw Shop, we loved the cold corn soup with crab and the pork cheek prepared “osso buco” style over polenta.

Outdoor Attractions

We worked up our appetites one day with a hike along a ridgetop trail at the Clear Lake County Park near Kelseyville. A 40-minute walk took
us past a group camp facility and then to several outlooks that gave us a grand view of the opposite shore.

Another day, we spent four hours kayaking along Rodman Slough, a wildlife-rich sanctuary on the northern edge of the lake .

Grebes, herons, ducks and egrets provided a fascinating panorama as we maneuvered along the tule-studded and algae-rich waters.

There are several purveyors of boats at the lake. We got two singles and a tandem kayak for $135 from Kayaks 2 Go.

Family Wine Virtues

August 13, 2011

I like the Family Winemakers of California annual tasting because it’s like visiting a big, raucous, fun-loving family for a special holiday.

The big event is Sunday, Aug. 21, at Fort Mason in San Francisco where more than 300 mostly small and moderate-size wineries will be putting their best pours forward.

Admission is $65 in advance and $75  at the door. Details online at the Family Winemakers of California website.

The FWC event has been an annual affair for the last 20 years, serving as a tasting platform to expose smaller wine producers to wine consumers and the wine-selling trade.

I happened to attend the very first gathering  in 1991 at the Sheraton Palace Hotel where 46 member wineries presented their wines. The event has grown up in size and stature over the years.  Click here to read about last year’s FWC tasting.

With hundreds of wineries pouring several wines apiece, the only sure thing is there will be lots of interesting wine available for tasting. I’ll seek out the most interesting examples and report back on how it turned out.

Urban Wine Finds

It was hard to find a clinker at the Urban Wine Experience last weekend in Oakland. I enjoyed a wide sampling of good wines from the group, which includes more than 20 East Bay wineries.

Two white wines stood out from the crowd.

Urbano Cellars

I’d forgotten how good chenin blanc can be until Bob Rawson of Urbano Cellars shared a glass of his 2010 bottling from Green Valley (Solano County).

This $17 white wine, which took silver at the California State Fair,  is balanced with a refreshing crispness that’s true to the varietal’s form. I picked up some citrus  and peaches on the nose — along with a touch of minerality — to complete a nice package of flavors.

J.C. Cellars

I’m not usually a sucker for cute names, but First Date ($28) caught my eye when I saw the name on a bottle of 2009 blended white wine being poured by J.C. Cellars of Oakland.

The mix is Roussane and Marsanne, two grapes with French ancestry, that are relatively rate in the United States.

Together, they produced a luscious mouthful of ripe apricot delight. I loved the honeysuckle nose, too. Kudos to winemaker Jeff Cohn.

Tayerle Pinot

The 2008 old vine pinot noir from Tayerle Wines stood out as a best buy at the Urban Experience.

The wine, crafted by owner/winemaker/classically trained musician Loren Tayerle, is made from Central Coast fruit. It’s got a nice spicy approach, pleasing cherry flavors and a cherry nose.

I’d rate this a best buy and one of the better California pinots for less than $20 that I’ve tasted.

Ehrenberg Petite Sirah

My favorite red  wine at the tasting was the $30 petite sirah from Ehrenberg Cellars, a small producer operating at Alameda Point in the Rock Wall Wine Company compound.

The 2009 is made from Lodi fruit. The wine is an inky dark mouthful of chocolate mocha flavors, luscious and smooth. It’s $28 a bottle. Only 35 cases were produced.


Petite Sirah Preferences

August 5, 2011

This week I tasted the oldest petite sirah label in California and one of the newest.

Both wines were made in Alameda County from grapes grown in other areas — the Central Coast and Spring Mountain in Sonoma.

The Concannon Vineyard 2009 is the latest offering from the first winery in the country to free petite sirah from its role as a blending grape and bottle it as a varietal.

The Livermore winery, founded by Irishman James Concannon in 1883, first put petite sirah on the label 50 years ago. The winery has branched out, in the meantime, boosting production from its estate vineyards to include bottlings from the Central Coast.

The 2009, which I bought on sale at Lucky for $6.99, is a blend of grapes from various Central Coast vineyards.

It’s got the peppery bite that P.S. lovers adore and a good tannic structure that held up well against a broiled rib eye steak.

This wine isn’t all swagger. There’s some oak and a nice vein of blackberry fruit alongside those tannins.

Concannon makes a number of more sophisticated petite sirah wines, but if you’re looking for a low-cost red that meets a high quality mark, look no further.

The winery will be hosting a special 50th anniversary tasting of its petite sirah wines next weekend (Aug. 13-14).

Carica Wines

The 2008 is the first ever petite sirah from Carica Wines, a small family-run operation headed by Charlie Dollbaum, a physician from Oakland who makes his wines at Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda.

Charlie and Helen Dollbaum

I met Dollbaum and his daughter, Helen, at a Rock Wall tasting earlier this week when they poured his petite sirah along with a syrah and a grenache-syrah-mourvedre blend plus a rose of grenache and two sauvignon blancs.

For me, the reds stood out.

The petite sirah ($36) from Kick Ranch in Sonoma was a sophisticated bruiser.

The color is dark ink with the characteristic pepperiness on the approach.

It’s a bit hesitant on the nose, spicy plum, but the blackberry fruit goes on and on and on for a full minute. Delightful!

I also enjoyed the 2008 blend, Siren, which is Carica’s take on a Rhone-style wine with a majority of the blend coming from three different syrah clones grown by Kick Ranch. The grenache is also from Kick but the mourvedre came from Lake County.

This is a harmonic mix of creamy crimson-hued goodness in a $32 bottle. The finish is smooth and juicy with a broad swath of plum fruit.

Carica Wines will be featured at the Urban Wine Experience, a gathering sponsored by the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance at Jack London Pavilion in Oakland on Saturday (Aug. 6) from 2-5 p.m..

Later this month, Carica wines will be poured alongside hundreds of other family made wines at the Family Winemakers of California annual tasting event at Fort Mason (Sunday, Aug. 21).