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Short Sips and Quick Trips

August 25, 2012

With harvest approaching, there’s still time before it gets crazy busy for a quick trip to wine country to check out new offerings and old favorites.

I’ve put together some  suggestions below for specific events in the next few weeks.

Sonoma Wine Country Weekend

A three-day slate of tastings and special events featuring Sonoma County’s best wines is on tap for the Labor Day weekend.

The main event of the 33rd annual Sonoma Wine Country Weekend will be held Saturday (Sept. 1) from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at MacMurray Ranch, the winery named after founder Fred MacMurray, the late actor.

More than 170 wineries will be pouring tastes for guests who will also be served by 60 local chefs. Tickets are $150 online.

Many of the wineries are hosting individual winemaker dinners and other events from Friday (Aug. 31) to Sunday (Sept. 2). Here’s a list of the full lineup of events.

Lastly, the long weekend concludes with a charity auction.

if you want to buy a treasured or rare bottle of wine, check out the 20th annual Sonoma County Harvest Wine Auction at Chateau St. Jean pm Sunday (Sept. 2) from 1-7 p.m.

Winetasting, dinner and entertainment are included in the $500 ticket. Proceeds benefit local non-profits.

 Lake County Wineries Invade Treasure Island

On Saturday (Sept. 8), more than 100 wines will be poured at a tasting on Treasure Island sponsored by a group of more than 30 Lake County wineries.

The “Wines with Altitude” event will be held at The Winery SF from Noon to 3 p.m. Tickets are $60, but half-price admission is available online in advance.

Check out the Rhone-style wines made by one of my favorite Lake County producers, Gregory Graham, at this event.

 Family Winemakers of California

I’ll be attending the 21st annual Family Winemakers of California tasting on Sunday, Sept. 9 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Tickets are $65 in advance and $75 at the door.

Hundreds of large, medium, small and micro wineries from across the state will pour tastes of old and new wines from dozens of different type grapes.

The event began with a few dozen wineries pouring samples back in 1991. I find it to be one of the best big tastings of the year and a great chance to try a wide variety of wines in one afternoon.

Be sure to pace yourself. Drink water between tastings and don’t arrive on an empty stomach. There will be food available to help bring your taste buds back to life.

Please use a designated drive or public transit if you overindulge.

Atlas Peak Harvest Celebration

A group of mountain wineries from the Atlas Peak appellation in Napa County will be celebrating harvest with a special tasting in Yountville on Saturday (Sept. 8) from 1-4 p.m. at the V Wine Cellar.

There are at least 10 producing wineries in this area, which is located northeast of downtown Napa, east of Yountville and above the foothills of the Stags Leap District.. Several winegrowing-0nly operations in Atlas Peak also supply grapes to some of Napa’s most prestigious winemakers. About 1,500 acres are currently in cultivation.

Advance tickets are on sale for $25. Click here to order.

Short Sips

I’m learning to appreciate Viognier, the French grape that some call the poor man’s Chardonnay.

I recently enjoyed a terrific bottle of 2010 Loredona Viognier from Lodi, a region best known for big red Zinfandel wines.

I bought the wine off the list at Gecko Gecko Thai in Berkeley, a tasty spot for a quick dinner that’s just down the street from one of my favorite music venues, Freight and Salvage.

The grapes are from Loredona’s Clay Station Vineyard lies northeast of Lodi in the foothills of the Sierras. Warm days and cool nights which are typical in this region help ripen the grapes to maturity.

The wine tasted of peaches with a pleasant honeysuckle nose. This lighter-bodied white wine went well with a crispy rice salad spiked with ground pork.

The Loredona Viognier can be found at Whole Foods and Beverages and More stores on sale for less than $10 a bottle.

It’s a great summertime sipper at a great price!


Judges Pick: Pican’s Pork Tacos at ZAP Grill-O-Rama

August 14, 2012

Food and wine are natural partners. One usually tastes better with the other.

I found that universal truth at work during the ZAP Grill-O-Rama food and wine event last weekend.

A panel of wine and food writers, myself included, selected grilled pork tacos from Pican as the best food presented during the event. The people’s choice — by a popular vote of attendees — was the beef short ribs prepared by Tyler Stone, a celebrated personal chef from Sacramento.

Zin, Wine for All Seasonings

Zinfandel holds up well with all the grilled foods served  at Grill-O-Rama with wines poured by 32 wineries representing ZAP, the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers group.

I enjoyed a glass of Mauritson Dry Creek Valley 2010 Zinfandel — a blend of several different vineyards, including vines grown in the celebrated Rockpile appellation of Sonoma County, with a “beef lollipop” made from short ribs of beef prepared by Chef Stone.

The beef was prepared “sous vide,” which is a slow-cooking method in which the meat is sealed in plastic and then submerged for hours (or days) in a hot water bath. Briefly finished on the grill,  each serving contained a single chunk of tender meat presented on a thick skewer with a mild chimichurri sauce.

I tried a glass of a 2009 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel from Brazin Cellars ($17) with Pican’s shredded pork, served on a soft tortilla with spicy tomatillo sauce and a sprinkling of crumbly queso fresca cheese. I really liked the addition of pickled onions, which gave the plate a definite acid bite.

Sonoma Smokehouse served an enjoyable grilled pork slider on an open-faced bun with hot and mild tomato-based sauce. It paired nicely with a 2009 Zinfandel  ($20) from Contra Costa County made by Three Wine Company in Clarksburg. The wine carries characteristic blackberry high notes plus some extra stuffing provided by 12 percent Petite Sirah. There’s just enough tannin to balance the fruit nicely.

Oakland’s Bocanova restaurant presented grilled chicken skewers with a delicate mole sauce. I tasted it with a wine I’d never drunk before from Napa, the Green and Red 2007
Tiptop Vineyard ($28).

I’d go out of my way for another bottle of this Green and Red offering that features pure Zinfandel flavors. Don’t be fooled if it’s a bit shy on the nose. It goes down so easy, a second glass is inevitable.

If you went to the tasting, please let me know what wine was your favorite. If you didn’t attend, who made the last bottle of Zinfandel you enjoyed?

It Means Orchard Tender in German

August 2, 2012

Roughly translated, Bumgarner is German for an orchard worker or gardener. It’s also the name of a  Giants pitcher and a not-so-Giant winery in the Sierra foothills.

The family owned Bumgarner Winery in Camino has an interesting lineup of red and white wines, with several on tap in the tasting room plus a delightful hard apple cider.

I found this quaint little winery by accident, thanks to my wife’s urging to stop at a thrift store off Highway 50 while driving home from a visit to Lake Tahoe.

As luck would have it, the winery sits directly behind the Snowline Hospice Thrift Store, where I got a great deal on a pair of $3 blue jeans.before strolling next door to taste some wine.

Tapping into High-Altitude Juice

Wines offered on tap are sold in a re-usable 750-ml  bottle with a resealable top. Bring the bottle back, and they knock $5 off the price of a re-fill.

My favorites included the 2010 Chardonnay and the 2008 Eldorado Tempranilllo. I also liked the apple cider, made from Pink Lady fruit in a delightfully dry style that I found refreshing.

The Chardonnay carries the vein of apples forward on a much lighter and delicate note. This was clean Chardonnay fruit without any heavy oak attributes.

The Tempranillo is made from a Spanish varietal that presents a solid, earthy backbone with leathery overtones against blackberry fruit and  bouquet.

There are some good tannins at work in the Tempranillo alongside significant acids which make this wine a particularly great match for hearty foods involving tomato-based sauces or grilled meats and sausages.

Get Your Grill-O-Rama On in Alameda

If you’re a Zinfandel fan and enjoy grilled foods, head for Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 11. I’ll be there to help judge the entries and write about the results.

ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) is sponsoring  the Grill-O-Rama, an amazing cook-off competition pairing Bay Area grilling artists (like John Ledbetter from BocaNova in Jack London Square, chef Tyler Stone, Dawn Wofford from Sonoma Smokehouse, and Sophina Uong from Pican in Oakland) with wines from 32 different California Zinfandel producers.

Bay Area wineries like Rock Wall, R&B Cellars and Dashe Cellars will be pouring their wines alongside a host of other top producers from Lodi, Napa, Sonoma, the Central Coast and Sierra Foothills.

Advance tickets are available online for $50 and $60 at the door.

Why Didn’t I Think of That?

July 7, 2012

I’m sure you’ve had one of those moments, when you smack yourself in the head and ask: “Why didn’t I think of that?”

It happened again to me a few days ago. I was online, doing research for another wine story, when I saw a reference to an online reservations system for wineries.

Wineries obviously take reservations, usually for special events. Many wineries are also only open by appointment — which often means an advance phone call or two and an e-mail query to an understaffed operation that’s not necessarily designed to be tourist-friendly. Nobody answers the phone after hours, in most cases.

It just makes sense some kind of formalized  reservations system — like Open Table in the restaurant trade — would work for the wine trade.

Vino Visit

VinoVisit began operations in late 2009. Today, it has more than 80 wineries on a growing list of clients in both the U.S. and Canada. A competitor, Cellar Pass, offers a similar service with a different list of participating wineries.

Familiar names on the VinoVisit roster include heavy tourist draws like Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi, which was the first winery to offer the VinoVisit experience, and Sonoma’s Sebastiani, plus there’s a pack of smaller wineries — like Cabernet specialist Von Strasser Winery in Calistoga — that are also onboard.

If you’ve ever booked an online restaurant reservation, then you’ll have no problems with VinoVisit.

Plan Ahead

I see this as a real time-saver for wine country visitors who prefer 24-hour access to winery information and trip scheduling without ever having to talk to a person until they arrive on-site. Being able to confirm a set day and time for a visit, allows busy tasters to fine-tune and expand their experience.

Sure, most winery websites are chock-a-block with info, but there’s not much of a chance of receiving any real guidance after normal business hours when many wine fanciers are home in front of their computers.

After-Hours Access

“We are staying true to the model to help attract visitor to the wine regions, in general, and then to continue to make it very easy for the winery to take reservations,” explained Bob Ianetta, VinoVisit founder.

“It’s very time-consuming. The phone call comes in. Somebody has to answer the phone, set up the calendar, and confirm all the details,” he said.”They get phone calls at night and emails, too. By the time the winery gets back to them… the guest moves on.”

Ianetta says with his system, 40 percent of reservations are being made after hours,  when wineries are closed.

“We are capturing new customers, potentially 24 hours a day,” he said. “We make it almost like an impulse buy. We make it so easy to book a reservation right there on the website.”

Potential visitors can make reservations directly on each participating winery’s website or directly through

Peju Province

At Peju Province Winery in Napa, use of the VinoVisit technology led them to expand the list of specialized tastings, boosting business at the upper end of the market where veteran wine tasters are looking for a novel experience and willing to pay for it.

“To drive greater awareness we increased the number of offerings to 5 or 6,” explained Dan Gaffey, Peju’s marketing manager. “Besides the scheduled tastings, we wanted to add something different.”

Peju Province Winery

Gaffey said they’ve experienced a 25 percent increase with the online system in place.

“It’s like an Open Table experience for wineries,” he said.

At Peju, which is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., you can sign up in advance for regular tastings plus barrel tastings, private tours, special tastings of reserve-style wines, and wine and cheese pairings.

Fees run from $30-$65/person. The standard tasting is $20, but the fee is waived if you purchase at least $35 in wine.

Pinot Dazed & Amazed

June 21, 2012

I’m a fan of American Pinot Noir, whether it strives for a New World vibrancy or tries to emulate the leaner Burgundian model.

I recently got a chance to taste some of the best Pinot Noirs made in this country at the 8th annual Pinot Days event in San Francisco. Click here for an event preview.

Fast and Furious

There were 134 wineries listed in the Pinot Days 2012 tasting guide and festival officials promised at least 500 different wines would be poured.

From that massive list, I tasted 84 wines last Saturday afternoon at Fort Mason. I think it was a pretty good sample.

Quality overall was good, with a high middle ground between my top picks and the least favorite from the tasting.

Most of the wine was from the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages and most of the wines were Californian. There were a few entries from Oregon plus a handful of French and German wines.

The majority of wines come from small-volume operations.

The Road to Good Pinot Noir

Roadhouse Winery, a small outfit based in Healdsburg, poured two of my favorite wines from the tasting — the 2009 Russian River ($44) and the 2010 Sonoma Mountain ($48).

The Russian River bottling boasted sweet red cherry fruit and a fuller, rounder profile than its sibling, which comes from the hotter Bennett Valley.

The Sonoma Mountain featured strawberry/rhubarb flavors and was made in a leaner style than the Sonoma Mountain.

Look for amiable winery owner Eric Hall if you visit the Roadhouse tasting room, which is open daily just off the Healdsburg Square.

I’ve enjoyed other bottles from Roadhouse, which started up in 2010. Here’s a link to a previous Pinot Days review.

Another Familiar Favorite

I’ve enjoyed Martinelli Pinot Noir since tasting their wines at another pinot event a few years ago. Here’s a link to my blog about a visit to Martinelli in 2010.

The 2010 Zio Tony Ranch “Grace Nicole” Pinot Noir was a great example of well-rounded Russian River wine featuring fine cherry fruit balanced by enough acids to keep the sweetness in check.

It was the fifth vintage in a row for the Zio Tony Ranch wine — one of nine different Martinelli Pinor Noirs currently in distribution — to win a 90+ rating from Wine Spectator.

Good Wines Galore

There were several really good wines that just missed the top three spots on my list and there was one great buy — a $20 wine that comes from the 2011 vintage.

Here are some great suggestions for near-term enjoyment:

Black Kite Cellars “Stony Terrace” 2009 ($52) is  another example of pure red fruit that lingered for quite a while on the tongue. It really worked well with a bite of Dubliner cheese.

No 7 JCB  by Jean Claude Boisset, is a 2010 Sonoma Coast bottling from a French winemaker who showed a deft hand with this very dark red wine. This fruit forward $50 wine tasted of sweet red cherries with a hit of cranberry and some nice spicy notes.

Meomi Winery’s $20 2011 blend — made from grapes grown in Santa Barbara, Sonoma and Monterey counties — is an instant favorite at a great price! Tasty from the first sip, with a touch of mulberry against the nice cherry core, I found it amazingly approachable for such a young wine.

The  2010 Belle Glos Taylor Lane Vineyard bottling — one of the last wines I tasted — proved to be a well-balanced mouthful of moderate red fruit from the Sonoma Coast with a hint of mint that lingered pleasantly in my mouth as I headed for the exit. Full retail is about $40+.

It’s Pinot Time Again

June 9, 2012

If you scratched Lisa Rigisich, she’d probably bleed Pinot Noir.

With her husband, Steven, Rigisich is the co-founder of Pinot Days, the annual celebration of the pinot noir grape that culminates with a grand tasting from 2-5 p.m. next Saturday (June 16, ) at Fort Mason.

Rigisich is not a professional event producer. She’s a college professor. Her husband is a software professional.

The pair developed a personal interest in wine and began hosting tastings for friends at their home on the East Coast.

Then, they moved to California and took the pinot plunge in a big way. They loved the grape and wanted to get more people involved.

Pinot-Centric Purpose

The couple found that there were already big Zinfandel-specific events (ZAP) and tastings for Rhone-style wines (Rhone Rangers), but nothing in the area specifically aimed at pinot noir patrons.

Thanks to their efforts, winemakers from more than 170 wineries from California and Oregon will be pouring 500 different wines for Pinot Days attendees.

Tickets are $50. VIP tickets, which include an extra hour of tasting, are $100.

Pinot Expansion

Pinot Days kicked off eight years ago in San Francisco. Since then, additional tastings have been added in Chicago and Southern California.

There are several lead-in events in the coming week, including a dinner on Thursday (June 14) featuring 14 winemakers pouring their best bottles.

The wines will be paired with food at the new Dixie restaurant in the Presidio where chef Joseph Humphrey — an alumnus of the Restaurant at Meadowood and Murray Circle at Cavallo Point — will be behind the stove.

For a full list of Pinot Days events, click here.

Viva La Difference

West Coast pinots come in a variety of styles, depending on the geography and climate of the vineyard and the inclination of the winemaker.

“Domestic Pinot Noir seems to improve with every vintage,” Rigisich said. “It’s so good now.”

Lisa Rigisich, Pinot Days Co-Founder

“You don’t go from one table to another (at the tasting) and find clunkers,” she said. “In California and Oregon, we are getting our arms around this and doing it right.”

Rigisich disagrees with some enthusiasts who cling to the Burgundy model and consider some bolder examples of Pinot Nor to be out of character.

“There is a diversity of style that Pinot Noir can assume and that is one of its greatest assets,” she said.

“More and more, we are getting away from the thought that there is only one legitimate way to make Pinot Noir and that it has to be Burgundian.”

Rigisich points to Adam Lee (Siduri Wines) and Brian Loring (Loring Wine Company) as two well-regarded winemakers who have garnered critical praise with their New World bottlings.

“The notion that it has to be Burgundian, that it has to below a certain level of alcohol, that’s baloney,” she said.

“I will reach for one wine with certain foods and reach for another, more delicate, leaner wine with other foods. It’s a great wine that can be made in different ways, depending on where it is made and grown.”

East Bay Urban Winery Spotlight

May 17, 2012

The lure of the  East Bay urban winery scene is as simple as five P’s — Proximity + Promise + Price = Plenty of Pleasure.

There are 23 members of the East Bay Vintners Alliance which has been active since 2005.

The largest, Rock Wall Wine Co., is probably the biggest winery with the longest history, having its origins in Rosenblum Cellars — the first urban winery in the East Bay.

I recently enjoyed a lovely Pinot Noir from the group’s newest and smallest member, Stomping Girl Wines. The husband-and-wife team of Uzi and Kathryn Cohen are owner-operators

I discovered the wine — a blend  of fruit from Petaluma Gap, Carneros and the Sonoma Coast — at the annual Passport to the East Bay Wine Trail tasting last weekend. The event featured tastings at 10 different member wineries.

The Stomping Girl 2010 Unhinged Pinot Noir is a cherry bomb, with vivid red fruit to spare. There’s enough acidity to keep the fruit from overwhelming the palate. I’d pair this with something simple, especially smoked meats and mild cheese.

White Wine Standouts

Two white wines stood out from the pack.

Stage Left Cellars 2006 Viognier presented a pleasantly floral and fruity take on this shy varietal.

I like the citrus highlights and wildflower nose from this Viognier, which is made from grapes grown at Kiler Canyon Vineyard in Paso Robles. Only 73 cases were produced.

The winery is only open to the public on the first Saturday of each month. The tab is $5 and the next chance you have to visit is June 2.

The 2007 R& B Cellars Sauvignon Blanc is another great white wine and a great value, too!

Winemaker Kevin Brown , whose primary focus is vibrant red wines, was direct in his intent with this paler varietal.

“When I think of Sauvignon Blanc, I want to drink French,” he said. “I want that crisp French style.”

The wine is crisp with a nice citrus core — perfect for a late Spring picnic or as an aperitif

Supplies are low, so check with the winery to see if there’s any left at the $10 a bottle/$60 a case price.

Kenefick Cab Franc Stands Out

May 11, 2012

I tasted all of the current releases from more than 40 members of the California Cabernet Society and the belle of the ball turned out to be a Cabernet Franc from Calistoga.

The 2007 Kenefick Ranch Winery Caitlin’s Select Cab Franc was outstanding.

Historically, Cabernet Franc is used in Bordeaux-style blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. On its own, it can sometimes be a shrinking violet, but not in this case.

Tom Kenefick, Kenefick Ranch Winery

I found the Kenefick Cab Franc ($52) to be the most complete and ready to drink wine of the tasting, which was held earlier this week at the Bentley Reserve in San Francisco.

It was round with sweet red fruit countered by a nice level of tannins. A bit of oak, but not too much, was the crowning touch on this red cherry-scented wine.

Dr. Thomas Kenefick, a retired San Francisco neurosurgeon, is the winery founder and namesake.

Kenefick started his second career with the purchase of vineyards in the northern end of the Napa Valley.

The 125-acre  Kenefick estate features vineyards planted along the edge of the Palisade Mountains.

The retired surgeon picked a great spot, adjacent to the Arajuo Estate, which produces elegant world-class Cabernet Sauvignon from the esteemed Eisele Vineyard.

Kenefick operates mostly as a grower.

He only entered the winemaking side of the business in earnest in 2002 when a couple of his clients opted out of their contracts and he had to find something to do with those grapes.

Entre Nous – Between Us

There was a wave of good Cabernet Sauvignon in the tasting, but one really stood out from the pack.

The 2009 Entre Nous Cabernet Sauvignon from Kristine Ashe Vineyards is a spectacular bottle of Napa red wine. 

Winemaker Phillipe Melka — who also has worked for Lail,Vineyards, Bryant Family, 100 Acre and Vineyard 29 — has crafted a memorable wine here from hand-picked and hand-sorted grapes grown in one-acre “micro blocks” on  the 25-acre Ashe estate in Oakville.

The Entre Nous (which means “between us” in French) is a vivacious mouthful of deep purple juice.

The taste of this $120 wine lingers in the mouth for what seems like forever.

The wine is a swirl of rich red fruits and soft tannins that begs for another sip… and another.

Mondavi Reserve Cab Captivates

April 29, 2012

Four years ago this month, the grapes for Robert Mondavi’s impressive 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve wine got their start as tiny buds forming on some very special vines in Napa Valley.

The $135 wine is magnificent, a mouthful of supple tannins and fruit. It  needs time for full flavor development — I wouldn’t hesitate to cellar this wine for a decade or more — but it’s still good to go with dinner tonight.

I liked the blueberry highlights that complemented a core of cassis and plums. The flavors come in layers with a nice long finish that goes on for 45 seconds.

Good Now, Better Later

I’d aerate the wine — which spent 18 months in French oak — at least an hour before drinking. It proved a perfect match for a dinner plate loaded with roasted tri tip steak, baked potato and steamed broccoli.

The 2008 vintage in Napa started with a dry spring interspersed with some tense moments when frost threatened the crop. The grapes persevered, although yields were below normal.

What’s in the Bottle?

The wine is not all Cabernet Sauvignon.

About 15 percent Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are blended in for finesse and color. All of the grapes are from the Oakville Bench, a geographic region marked by well-drained sandy and gravelly soil that allows the roots to grow deeply. Some of the grapes come from the most famous vineyard on the Oakville Bench,,To Kalon,.

To Kalon (which means “highest beauty” in Greek) contains about 440 acres. It was developed by Mondavi on the western edge of the bench land at the foot of the Mayacamas mountain range near where his namesake winery was built in 1966.

This is the first vintage of reserve wines made after the death of Mondavi, who passed away at the age of 94 on May 16, 2008.

The Mondavi family sold the winery to Constellation Brands in 2004. The family has departed, with Robert’s sons Michael and Tim now running their own winemaking operations — Michael Mondavi Family Estate and Continuum Estate.

Meanwhile,  Robert Mondavi’s director of winemaking, Genevieve Janssens, remains in the position she has held since 1978, giving the brand a quality link with the historic winery’s storied past.

Looking Ahead

The Robert Mondavi Winery is open daily for tasting and tours. It’s one of the first California wineries I ever visited (back in the late 1970s) and it’s still a big draw today with the added attraction of a series of special concerts in June and July.

Here’s the lineup for the 43rd Summer Concert Series:

June 30: Of A Revolution (O.A.R.) in a performance with a fireworks show. A portion of the proceeds go to The Heard of the World Fund.

July 6 & July 7: The Plain White T’s are first up followed by day-two feature artist Natasha Bedingfield.

July 14: Five for Fighting is the featured act in a concert that benefits the City of Hope national cancer research and treatment center.

The series concludes on July 21 with a surprise guest artist, yet to be announced.

Regional Wine Events

The 29th annual Tiburon Wine Festival will be held Saturday, May 12 when more than 60 wineries and 20 food purveyors will offer special tasting opportunities. Tickets are $65.

Taste Alexander Valley is a weekend-long celebration of the area’s finest wines May 18- 20. The festivities start on Friday May 18 with a special open house at Lancaster Estate Winery, which is normally closed to the public. Saturday and Sunday will feature open houses at the more than 30 participating wineries in the region, including Clos du Bois, Stonestreet , Rodney Strong,  Robert Young and Hanna Vineyards.

The sixth annual Santa Lucia Highlands Gala is set for May 19 at the Mer Soleil Vineyards winery in Monterey County. For the $85 admission, guests can sample wines from about two dozen regional producers.

Sneaky Good Pinot Noir

April 14, 2012

Cline Cellars has staked its good reputation on hearty zinfandel and Rhone-style varietals, but wine director Charlie Tseletegos has another ace up his sleeve — Pinot Noir.

I have enjoyed Cline wines for years but didn’t realize they made Pinot Noir until I got invited to the winery recently for a food-and-wine pairing event.

The task was to check out dishes paired with Cline wines, including a four-vintage lineup of Cline’s Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.

The Pinot Noir was a revelation. Great quality, great taste and great price — all for less than $20/bottle.

Grower Turned Producer

Cline has been growing Pinot Noir grapes for more than a decade, but didn’t make any commercial bottles of this varietal until the 2007 vintage. Most of Cline’s grapes had been sold under contract to La Crema, another Sonoma County winery which has a very successful Pinot program.

Sonoma Coast Appellation

Cline has a total of 200 acres of Pinot Noir vineyards in the Sonoma Coast appellation — a swatch of land that stretches from southern edge of Sonoma County along San Pablo Bay to the Pacific Ocean and up to the Mendocino County border.

Part of the appellation is miles inland, including the Petaluma Gap, where coastal winds keep temperature cooler and create a climate where Pinot Noir excels.

Nice String of Vintages

The very first vintage, 2007, was my favorite from the tasting. There wasn’t much of this  Burgundian-style wine produced and most of it has been drunk, but if you ever see it, try it.

Juicy red currants dominate the flavor of this wine, which feels rich and earthy in the mouth. There’s a good balance of fruit and acid, plus a silkiness that also runs through the next three vintages.

The 2008 shifted a bit of flavor to the tart cherry end of the spectrum. The feel was brighter in the mouth and a bit lighter than the 2007.

Risotto Match-Up

The 2009 turned the flavor wheel toward cranberry with some cherry highlights. It was definitely a bit sharper and leaner, which made it a good match for my favorite dish served in the Cool Chefs food pairing — Magic Mushroom Risotto, a dark, rich serving of Arborio rice flavored with Pinot Noir, cocoa and dark miso.

Jerry James Stone, whose day job is being a writer for Discovery Channel, devised the first dishes served in the Cool Chefs series at Cline. Stone also produces and develops recipes for TreeHugger’s Green Wine Guide.

2010 Vintage Shines

Cline’s Pinot Noir production levels have risen slowly to 8,000 cases in 2010 — the current release.

The 2010 Sonoma Coast featured bright raspberry and cranberry flavors that balanced the acids and made it another great match with the food.

This wine was a bit darker in the glass than its predecessors but it still offered a wonderfully silky mouthfeel.

The wine spent seven months in French oak, 25 percent of it new, medium toast barrels, which helped add a bit of vanilla to the finish.

Visiting Cline

Cline is open every day for tastings at the estate winery in the Carneros district of Sonoma.

Next weekend (April 20-21), a total of 20 Carneros wineries will participate in the annual April in Carneros, a series of winery open houses featuring special events at each location.Tickets are $39. Cline will be pouring its current releases with grilled sausages and will also give visitors a chance to try some new wines right out of the barrel.