Archive for February, 2012

New Crop of Family Winemakers in Bloom

February 25, 2012

The cycle of life in the vineyards of California’s wine country repeats itself in the lives of the people who work the land and create the wines that consumers all over the world enjoy.

One vintage ends and another begins. One generation starts the story and it continues with the next generation and then the next.

Famous and Not-So-Famous

Famous wine families like Mondavi and Martini immediately come to mind, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Growing the grapes, making the wine, and handling the business end of things often are often handled by people with the same last name.

Immigrants from Italy, France, Germany and Spain laid the cornerstone for today’s wine family empires that now include more names with a Mexican heritage.

Viva Ceja

Ceja Vineyards is a case in point.

The Ceja family, whose patriarch (Pablo) first worked the vineyards as a seasonal laborer, immigrated from Mexico to St. Helena in 1967.

Pablo and his wife, Juanita, had six children at the time. That number would later grow to 10 as the large family settled into the community and began the journey that would lead to starting a wine business of their own.

Amelia Ceja

The family venture gained speed with the purchase of 15 acres of land in the Carneros district in 1983.

They harvested their first crop of pinot noir in 1986.

Today, Ceja Vineyards has 115 acres in vines and a modern tasting room in downtown Napa. Plans are in the works to build their own production facility.

Pedro Ceja, Pablo’s son, is an owner/founder. His wife, Amelia, is president. Amelia’s daughter, Celia, is head of marketing and Pablo’s brother, Armando, is the winemaker.

I met Amelia at the Next Generation tasting in St. Helena earlier this week as part of the Premiere Napa Valley celebration that includes a charity auction on Saturday (Feb. 25) of one-of-a-kind lots of wine donated by 200 wineries.
A number of good wines were poured, including the Ceja 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($50). With a vein of spicy oak on the nose, the Ceja wine provided lovely red currant and plum fruit on top of a balanced tannic base. It really shone when paired with a hunk of creamy Humboldt Blue Fog cheese.

More Family Favorites

I enjoyed the entire lineup of reds from Frazier Family Estate, especially the 2008 Memento ($110).

This reserve-style wine  comes from the family estate in the Coombsville District. Aged for 27 months in new French oak, it features rich red fruit and is silky smooth with no hard edges.

The 2008 Charles Krug Napa Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($27) is another wine with a rich family background.

The winery is owned by another branch of the Mondavi clan, so it’s no surprise this wine is approachable with balanced tannins, nice red fruit and a hint of cocoa on the finish.

Best Bargain, Again

The best bargain at the tasting was a repeat from last year, when I first discovered Spelletich Family Wine Co.

-Timothy and Barbara Spelletich are husband-and-wife partners whose winery produces a  reliable lineup of wines under their namesake label.

I was especially drawn to the $20 Severed Head Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot from Napa bottled under their second label (SPELLwine ) created by the couple’s daughter, Kristen.

This is an approachable bottle with generous, ripe plum flavors that are lip-smacking good.

“I like to make wines that shake people up,” Kristen replied, when I asked her about the odd name.

It turns out to be a reference to an illustration on the family crest that  is featured on the label of Spelletich’s first-rank wines.

Early Signs of Vintage 2012

Driving South on Highway 29  through the Napa Valley after the tasting, I passed vineyard after vineyard deep in hibernation.

A new moon rose overhead, showing a sliver of a smile.

The cycle of growth was changing again. This time, turning inevitably toward regeneration.

Soon, green leaves will sprout.

Tiny buds will emerge and begin the journey that will transform them into grape clusters, heavy with juice destined for your glass or mine.

I can’t wait to see how the next vintage — and the next generation — performs.


Petite Sirah Lovefest

February 18, 2012

Most of the wines I tried at a recent Petite Sirah tasting were tannic, tart and true to form for the big and burly flavor profile of the grape that originally hails from France’s Rhone region.

If you can get a bit more up-front fruit into the California version of this varietal, the wine becomes more approachable.

Petite Sirah can be a hard-sell to the general wine-drinking population, but don’t tell that to the P.S. I Love You crowd.

P.S. I Love You is an association of Petite Sirrah producers and their supporters.

The group’s annual public tasting, held Friday night at Rock Wall Wine Co. in Alameda (click here to read my earlier blog about Rock Wall), featured 58 wineries pouring selections mostly from Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, Lodi and the Sierra foothills.

Several vintages were represented, with a few 2010 examples scattered amongst the mostly 2007, 2008 and 2009 selections.

My favorite of the tasting was the 2008 Pizzicato Petite Sirah ($28) from R&B Cellars, a boutique producer who makes wine at the Rock Wall facility.

The fruit comes from Bingham Ranch in Napa, where red wine grapes have been grown for more than 50 years.

This is a bold red wine with a strong tannic structure that grabs the limelight, for now. I picked up black (plum) and blue (blueberry) fruit that should move forward a bit as this wine ages.

Paso Petite

The 2009 Petite Sirah from Christian Lazo was a bit easier to swallow.

This Paso Robles wine ($25) showed some really nice and deep red plum fruit up front with blueberry highlights. The taste, which included a nice spicy undertone, lingered on the palate for half a minute.


I liked two bottles from Rosenblum Cellars.

The 2008 Pato Vineyard ($25), which is in Contra Costa County, is a personal favorite. I’ve enjoyed multiple vintages and this one doesn’t deviate from the expected fruit forward profile that tones down the more aggressive nature of the grape.

Rosenblum’s Rockpile Road Vineyard Petite Sirah ($45) from 2009 is a deeper, darker and more sophisticated bottle of wine. The fruit comes from a Sonoma vineyard that sits 1,200 above Lake Sonoma at the edge of the Dry Creek Valley.

The Rockpile wine is big and sleek, like a thoroughbred racehorse.

Concannon Vineyards

I’ve enjoyed several Petite Sirahs from Livermore’s Concannon Vineyards over the years, especially the entry-level California blend that runs $10-$12/bottle. Concannon is a legendary producer of Petite Sirah, bottling the grape as a varietal starting way back in 1961.

The 2007 Concannon Reserve Captain Joe’s pushes Petite Sirah to a higher level.

There’s a pleasing smokiness to the taste, thanks in part to 17 months aging in French and American oak. There’s good blackberry fruit, a touch of leather and some gamey notes that complete the flavor profile of this $36 wine.


I thought the just-released 2008 Fieldstone State Family Reserve Petite Sirah was also quite good.

Here’s what I wrote in my notes: “Tight, right and tasty.”

The $35 wine comes from a historic Alexander Valley vineyard, first planted in 1894.

There’s good minerality and rich blueberry-scented fruit in this wine, which has good tannic structure. It spent 20 months in oak before release and includes a dash of Viognier, a white  grape that is sometimes added to red wine to introduce floral elements to the taste and aroma of the finished product.

Monterey Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Shine

February 11, 2012

The 2010 vintage  in the Santa Lucia Highlands produced some high-quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, starting with a pair of Double L Vineyard bottlings from Morgan Winery.

The work that made that vintage come to life, however, began back in 1996 when winemaker and co-owner Dan Lee bought the 65 acre site with an eye toward developing an organic and sustainable grape-growing operation.

Dan Lee, Morgan Winery

The Morgan vines are planted on the northern end of the SLH viticultural area, which rises from the edge of the Salinas Valley to nearly 2,000 feet above sea level on the slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains.

Grapes have been cultivated in Monterey County since vines were introduced by Spanish clergymen in the late 1700s. Modern wine-growing was introduced int the 1970s. By 1991,  the region became an official American Viticultural Area.

Lee began his career in wine with an apprenticeship at Jekel Winery, one of Monterey County’s pioneering wineries. He started Morgan in 1982 in Salinas and began to immediately make award-winning red and white wines.

The Double L Vineyard, named to honor Lee’s twin daughters (double luck), is roughly one-third Chardonnay and two-thirds Pinot Noir. The vines are planted along a north-south axis, giving the grapes equal exposure to sunlight.

Morgan Chardonnay Delivers

I think the 2010 Chardonnay ($36) is outstanding.

At an SLH Wine Artisans Group tasting this week in San Francisco, the wine showed bracing citrus highlights and a creaminess that comes from aging in French oak (40 percent new).

The juice is a brilliant gold color and the nose echoed some of that citrusy goodness along with a pleasant whiff of oak.

The 2010 Mer Soleil “Silver” Chardonnay ($24) appealed to me on a different level. The wine is made in concrete tanks with absolutely no exposure to oak. The wine has overtones of sweet lemons and other citrus.

I also liked the La Rochelle 2010 Chardonnay from Rosella’s Vineyard ($65), grown at a similar elevation only a few miles south of the Double L.

I got the same type of citrusy overtones (grapefruit?) from this taut, tight, balanced wine.

Paraiso Vineyards produced one of the best bargains of the tasting with its $20 2010 Estate Chardonnay.

There’s a fine line of citrus flavors here, too, but it’s not overdone. I liked the faint spritz that this little wine offered, too.

Pinot Pleasures

One of the red wines I enjoyed a lot also came from Paraiso.

The Paraiso 2008 Faite bottling of Pinot Noir ($65) showed a bit of eucalyptus in the nose, followed by red fruits with just a touch of fine oak tannins.

The grapes were selected from the estate vineyard’s best block. Only 148 cases were produced.

The Morgan Double L 2010 Pinot Noir is a balanced wine with beautiful texture. There’s a classic Pinot nose, medium body and delicate tannins. The wine is very approachable, even in its youth.

The 2008 Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir ($48) from Pelerin Wines also caught my attention.

It showed a bit more fruit (red cherries with cranberry) than the Double L, alongside good acids providing excellent balance.

One of the last wines I tried at the tasting, Wrath’s 2009 Tondre Grapefield Vineyard Pinot Noir ($49)  provided a lot of pleasure.

This rich, ripe wine (like tasting a mixed berry compote) is just what I wanted to take home for dinner.

Have you tried any Monterey County wines that you’d like to recommend? I’d love to get your comments.

You can try the best of the best from the Santa Lucia Highlands on May19 when the SLV group hosts its fourth annual gala tasting at Mer Soleil. Tickets are $85. Click here for details.