Archive for September, 2011

Liquid Gold Rush on Treasure Island

September 24, 2011

There’s a kind of reverse 49er effect about to happen.

This time, instead of fortune-hunting prospectors rushing for the Sierra, there will be 49 wineries from Lodi pouring liquid gold on Treasure Island.

Lodi’s third annual Treasure Island WineFest features about 200 red and white wines for tasting on Oct. 8 when  visitors might be a little distracted by the Blue Angels, the Navy’s precision flying team that will be streaking overhead as part of Fleet Week.

The air show is free, but WineFest tickets cost $55 in advance (available online) and $65 at the door.

Stuck in Lodi, Again

I’ve been going back to Lodi regularly since my very first visit in the early 1980s when I reunited with a childhood chum who happened to be living on a vineyard in the area.

There were just a handful of Lodi wineries back then and most of the grape production was poured into blended “California” wines. Today, Lodi grapes still find their way into big blends, but there are about 70 commercial wineries operating in the region.

Personal Favorites

Some of my personal favorite wines are made in Lodi and will be pouring at Treasure Island.

Winemaker David Lucas

Try the latest release of the velvety Zinfandel that David Lucas makes from his small organic Zinstar vineyard next to his Lucas Winery. I’ve been a fan  and collector of this wine for more than 20 years. Look for the 2007 vintage at the Treasure Island event, but leave some room for the Lucas chardonnay — a serious mouthful of goodness.

I’ve liked every bottle I’ve had of Don’s Blend, a bistro-style red made from Carignane, Syrah and Petite Sirah by Michael-David Winery, which also makes the popular 7 Deadly Zins label as part of far-ranging line up of reds and whites.

On a recent visit to the Michael-David tasting room, I enjoyed both the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (which tasted of white peaches, minerals and a bit of grassiness) and the 2010 Incognito, a blend that’s mostly Viognier and Chardonnay.

Michael-David must have a lot of fun choosing descriptive names for the wines, including a trio of reserve Zinfandels called Lust, Gluttony and Sloth. And, there’s a Cabernet Sauvignon called Rapture — a top-of-the-line red from the 2009 vintage with a $59 price tag.

Big Zins, Odds & Ends

For fans of big zins, check out the old vine offerings from Klinker Brick (especially the Old Ghost bottling made from 90-year-old vines) and the popular and very tasty Earth, Zin and Fire label from Jessie’s Grove.

Another winery to check out is Macchia, which makes a lineup of fine-tasting zinfandels along with two juicy Barberas — one from Lodi and another from nearby Amador County.

Lodi earned its chops with bold and brassy zinfandel, but this isn’t a one-grape kind of place. There are some exciting wines made from an ever-growing list of grapes.

For example, look at Ripken Vineyards and Winery.

This three-generation family operation produces small lots of premium wine under its own label. I’m personally partial to their Tempranillo and Petite Sirah.

The Ripkens have been growing grapes in Lodi since 1950. Today, their vineyards produce more than 20 different wine grapes, including Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Malbec, Petite Sirah, Carmine, Petit Verdot, Alicante Bouschet, Tempranillo, Graciano, Souzao, Touriga National, Grenache, Mourvedre, Montepulciano, Barbera, Dolcetto, or Corvina.

Wines from these grape types — and many others — will be poured at WineFest, so be adventurous and let me know what you think.


St. George Spirits Gets “Gin-trified”

September 19, 2011

The tasting room with the best view of the San Francisco skyline is not at a winery. It’s in an airplane hangar.

The hangar is home to St. George Spirits, the Alameda distillery best known for pushing the taste envelope with fruit-infused Hangar One vodka and an ever-widening circle of other specialty spirits and liquers.

Distilling equipment at St. George Spirits, Alameda, CA

Where the Magic Happens at St. George Spirits

In honor of San Francisco Cocktail Week, which runs Sept. 19-25, I dropped by the distillery at its home on the old Alameda Naval Air Station to taste three brand new bottlings of gin, the first they’ve ever made.

I’m not a gin fancier, by nature. My preference is the Hangar One vodka lineup, especially the Buddha’s Hand version that’s flavored with citron.

How would chief distiller Lance Winters’ team — which has made malt whiskey, rum and even a tequila-inspired spirit called Azul made from imported Mexican agave — handle the gin challenge?

Very well, I’d say.

Three Choices on a Central Theme

I liked something in each of the three offerings — Botanivore, Terroir and Dry Rye.

Three Gins from St. George Spirits


The Botanivore tastes the most conventional, but with the base juniper flavor amped up by a combination of 19 different botannicals.

I liked it best with just a twist of lemon on the rocks, but it also made one heck of a classic martini when paired with  few drops of vermouth and served straight up from an ice-filled cocktail shaker.


The Terroir takes that botannical note a few steps further.

It’s made, like the others, from a pot distilled mixture of juniper berries, Douglas fir, fennel and bay laurel gathered from nature.

A fellow taster at the distiller told me this gin smelled like a hike in the woods. My wife had the same reaction, remembering the intense smell of Bay Laurel from a hike in Lake County several weeks before.

I like Terroir best with a twist of lime and a dash of grapefruit bitters over ice. The Bay Laure was a bit overpowering, however, when mixed with tonic water.

Dry Rye

The third offering, Dry Rye, is based on a clear rye spirit that’s flavored with juniper berries, black pepper and carraway seeds.

It mixed well with tonic water  and a wedge of fresh lemon for a new take on the classic G&T, with all of the flavors coming together in a smooth, cool drink that made a warm afternoon much more tolerable.

A three-pack of 200-ml bottles sells for $36. Standard-size fifths go for about the same.

These are high-end spirits with high-end flavors that fit the bill for a highly enjoyable end-of-summer celebration.

Oh, here’s the view:

SF Skyline from St. George Spirits, courtesy

Hedging Bets With Cal Wine

September 10, 2011

With financial markets doing a crazy up-and-down dance around the globe these days, now might be a good time to invest in blue-chip California wines as a safe haven.

There’s definitely some upside potential and, even with a downturn, you can always drink your liquid assets.

 California Wine Month 

September is also California Wine Month, according to a proclamation from Gov. Jerry Brown that encourages citizens to pick up a glass and support the industry that rang up $18.4 billion in retail sales, employs more than 330,000 workers and drew 20.7 million tourists to the Golden State last year.

Here’s a list of special Wine Month activities, including several in or near the Bay Area.

Overseas Pricing Pressures

Globally,  more wealthy collectors in Asia are flexing their monetary muscle to acquire “trophy” wines from France like Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Le Pin and Ausone — all from Bordeaux.

When, not if, those collectors make a serious move on the California market, look out!

Hong Kong-based auctions — signaling the entry of “new money” from Asia — have pushed up prices for older vintages of top-ranked Bordeaux wines but haven’t helped light a fire underneath unreleased vintages of blue chip wines entering the sales pipeline.

The 2010 futures have been weak and the next vintage, from the 2011 harvest, is just now being picked or is still ripening in the vineyards.

The Wine Spectator Auction Index actually fell back a bit (3.6%) in the second quarter, after reaching a record high earlier this year. The index measures prices at auction of 32 blue chip wines from France, Italy, Portugal and California.

Blue Chip California Wines

All  California entries in the Wine Spectator index are cabernet-based wines from Napa that retail for more than $100, sometimes a lot more than $100. They include Araujo Eisele VineyardDominus EstateHarlan EstateHeitz Martha’s VineyardJoseph Phelps InsigniaOpus OneRobert Mondavi Napa Valley Reserve and Shafer Stags Leap District Hillside Select.

For most California cabernet producers, the latest vintages in retail distribution will be 2008 or 2009, depending on aging requirements.

On a lower price level, quality can be great from many Napa producers.

For example, I just tasted a really good bottle of 2008 Franciscan Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon ($27) sent to me by the winery for review. It had a lovely mocha backdrop with red berry fruit and finely integrated tannins. The wine improved overnight, with the flavors melding together nicely.

Mondavi will introduce its 2008 Napa Valley Reserve next Saturday (Sept. 17) with a special tasting from 2-5 p.m. at the winery in Oakville. Tickets are $75 in advance and visitors will be treated to the new release plus older vintages of reserve wines and a special tasting menu prepared by chef Jeff Mosher.

Screaming Deal

The highest priced Napa wine is usually Screaming Eagle, which can retail for $2000 (or more) per bottle after release.

The exclusive Napa winery’s sister winemaking operation, Jonata Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley near Buellton, offers a more “reasonably” priced selection of red wines from $50 to $125 per bottle.

The 2008 vintage from Jonata is due to be released next Wednesday (Sept. 14).

Labor Day Weekend Wines

September 3, 2011

The days of the drive-in movie are nearly over, but you can still enjoy an outdoor film with a glass of cool wine in hand at one East Bay winery.

Movies in the Vineyard

You won’t have to drive to Napa or Sonoma for a wine country movie experience  at Chouinard Winery in the hills above Castro Valley.

Chouinard Winery

They kick off kick off a Labor Day weekend celebration with a Saturday (Sept. 3) showing of the 1954 horror classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Gates open at 6 p.m. and the movie starts at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $20/car. Bring a picnic dinner and try the lineup of Chouinard wines including their award-winning 2007 malbec from Paso Robles ($19).

Movies are shown every Saturday night this month, including a Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon double feature Sept. 10.

Music & Meritage

Every Sunday in September, you can enjoy live music and wine tasting at Hannah Nicole Vineyardsin Brentwood. This Sunday (Sept. 4)  features an acoustic performance by Toree McGee from 1-4 p.m.

Owners Neil and Glenda Cohn originally wanted to grow apples, but followed the wine muse instead. They began making wine as amateurs in 2002 and opened their winery in 2009. The estate covers 80 acres and there are 10 current releases of red and white wines.

Saturday Happy Hour at Berkeley’s Casa Vino

Prices drop by $2 per glass at Casa Vino during the 5-6:30 p.m. happy hour on Saturdays. This wine-centric spot has one of the largest “by the glass” menus in the Bay Area featuring selections from all parts of wine country, foreign and domestic.

Wine Mine Find: $1 Tasting

Every Saturday afternoon, in the Temescal district of Oakland, David Sharp sets out 4-5 interesting wines for a $1 tasting at the Wine Mine, a delightful discount wine shop. That’s right, it’s only a buck to taste the whole flight. This Saturday (Sept. 3), the lineup features an all-rose selection.

Rosenblum Cellars

There will be live music on the deck at Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda this Saturday (Sept. 3) and 20 percent discounts on case sales through Labor Day. Admission is free.

They don’t make wine anymore at Rosenblum’s Alameda facility, but the tasting room is still open and  on a sunny day it’s a fun place to kick back and enjoy a glass of world-famous zinfandel.