On the Road in Arizona

March 23, 2012

I’ve been on the road a bit lately and discovered some excellent California wines while visiting Arizona to play golf and check out the Spring Training baseball scene.

For seven years running, I’ve spent a week in March in  Phoenix  with four high school buddies seeking sunshine and camaraderie.

The Valley of the Sun provides a lot of options for fine dining and drinking, so I figured I’d share some of my experiences.

Grand Canyon State of Mind

Arizona does have a handful of wineries, mostly in the southern portion of the state outside Tucson. On this trip,  I turned to locally produced beers for diversion.

The brewpub scene is alive and well in the Phoenix metroplex. I tried several homegrown selections and my favorite, turned out to be HopKnot, an IPA from Four Peaks in Tempe.

Following an afternoon baseball game, the brewpub was packed with students from nearby Arizona State University and a mob of hungry and thirsty out-of-towners.

The brewpub is inside an old creamery/warehouse building in an industrial district.

The food is good, basic pub grub and the beers are fresh and tasty.

Besides the Hopknot, an IPA that was the hands down favorite at our table, I enjoyed the Kiltlifter Scottish-style Ale for its sweet malty flavors.

Scottsdale Dinner Break

I always book a table at the Atlas Bistro in Scottsdale when I’m in the area.

The restaurant is small. Only 10 tables. And, it’s located in a nondescript strip mall.

Chef Carlos Manriquez

But, it’s a great place to eat with a wonderful chef, Carlos Manriquez, who has a long track record of gastronomic success.

And, they let you bring your own wine.

That’s important because BYOB is against the law in Arizona, unless the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license.

The bistro doesn’t suffer because it’s located next door to AZ Wines, one of the best wine stores in the Grand Canyon State.

Alpha Omega

My longtime friend, Paul Ainger, turned me on to a great cabernet sauvignon from Alpha Omega a few months ago, so I was ready to be pleased when he recommended that we put a bottle of the AO chardonnay ($51) on the table at Atlas.

Paul’s batting two-for-two with this recommendation because this Napa chardonnay hits a flavor home run.

The wine is finely balanced, creamy, round and full-flavored with hints of honeysuckle and vanilla. Citrus flavors mingled with apple and a dash of sweet melon.

It was so good, we ordered a second bottle. Same reaction. The balance of fruit and acid was seamless, near perfect.

AO winemaker Jean Hoefliger, with help from jet-setting French consultant Michel Rolland, is on a roll up in Rutherford.

The chardonnay married well with a couple orders of sweetbreads over baby greens that we shared plus a plate of Kurobuta pork belly with polenta that was gobbled up by our group.

The AO carried over nicely with what the restaurant calls its “Absurd Cheese Platter” featuring a rotating selection of 10 international selections.

I can’t remember all of the cheeses, but the entire experience was absurdly delicious!

Sebastiani Scores

We  also tried several red wines that I brought along from my cellar, but one really stood out.

The 2002  Sebastiani Winery Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, which made the Wine Spectator Top 100 list  in 2005, is drinking beautifully now.

I bought a case for $180 and have just a couple of bottles left.

It will be hard to replace, having sold out at the winery long ago.

The wine tastes of slightly dusty black fruit. The blackberry and cassis flavors marry well with the just-below-the-surface tannins to provide excellent balance and structure.

It was a great match for a divine pork confit with juicy meat that nearly melted on the plate.

I’m already gearing up my palate for a return engagement next year!.

Red Velvet Lives up to its Name

March 16, 2012

The first California wine I’ve tasted from the 2011 vintage provided a ripe mouthful of enjoyment.

The latest release of Red Velvet, a red blend from Cupcake Vineyards in Livermore, is delicious. Let’s hope it’s a harbinger of great things to come from last year’s harvest.

The  taste of this wine ($13.99) is definitely round with no hard edges to restrain its fruit forward enthusiasm.

If Red Velvet was a boxer, it would be a middleweight.

It starts with a healthy combination punch of purple plum and blackberry fruit followed by a jab of mocha.

The fruit for Red Velvet, which features a healthy percentage of zinfandel, is sourced from multiple vineyard sites across California.

The core properties remind me of the fresh-tasting and bargain-priced Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon blends from Australia’s Penfolds and Lindeman’s that were my “go-to” easy drinking wines 5-10 years ago.

The resemblance is probably no mistake since, Adam Richardson, the head of wine making operations for Cupcake, is a native Australian.

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.

Rosenblum

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.

Fieldstone

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.

Brown Red Rates Zin Win at ZAP

January 31, 2012

They don’t give awards at the annual Zinfandel Advocates and Producers Grand Tasting, but if they did I’d nominate Brown Estate for the top spot in 2012.

I rated Brown’s 2010 Rosemary’s Block Vineyard Zinfandel ($55) as the top wine of the event, which drew close to 200 wineries pouring their most recent releases for the public last Saturday.

The estate-grown wine, from a five-acre plot in Napa’s Chiles Valley, exhibits a solid core of sweet red fruit and that lingered for a full 30 seconds on the palate. It was as smooth and creamy as it was delicious, with a lovely floral nose that was intoxicating. The wine spent a year in oak, half French and half American with 30 percent new barrels.

Crowded Field for Second

Several wines competed for second on my list, including a barrel sample of Acorn Winery’s 2010 Zinfandel from its Alegria Vineyard in the Russian River Valley.

This $40 Sonoma wine did not have quite the concentration and ripe fruit of the Brown Estate, but it did show a bit more complexity. I’d expect it to be even better upon release to the public.

Frank Family Vineyards 2009 Napa Valley Zin was another favorite. This spicy, deep purple wine comes from a Napa winery that’s used to excellence in both its red and white wine programs. The zinfandel showed beautiful, bright red fruit flavors (raspberries and plums come to mind) married with a streak of acidity needed to provide balance.

Gregory Graham‘s 2009 Zinfandel from his Crimson Hill Vineyard in Lake County also showed well at ZAP. Red and black fruits combined for a luscious taste in this $24 bottle that includes five percent petite sirah. Click here to read more about Gregory Graham.

I’m a long-time fan of Paso Robles Opolo Vineyards, but I had never tasted any of their reserve wine until the ZAP festival.

I love the Opolo 2010 Reserve Zinfandel ($45) which is as complete a zinfandel as I have tried from the Central Coast. The finely focused red/black fruits come in a smooth-tasting package with just enough spice to make it interesting. Tannins are seamless.

It’s ready for drinking now, but will surely get even better with another year or two in bottle.

Another first-time taste from a legendary producer caught my eye. It was the 2009 Carmichael Ranch Zinfandel, one of 11 zinfandels made by Ridge Vineyards.  This is a very smooth offering from Sonoma County with no hard edges.

The flavor profile edges into plum/cherry territory and it’s a delightful mouthful of juice that includes eight percent petite sirah.

Valdez Family Winery worked magic with the 2009 St. Peter’s Church Vineyard Zinfandel from Alexander Valley.

The wine, made from a plot of century-old zin vines owned by the Catholic church in Cloverdale, is an exquisite bottle of red wine. It shows hints of mint and spiciness plus rich red fruit from the low-yielding vines.

Two Easy-Drinking Bargains

Sledgehammer’s 2009 California Zinfandel, made mostly from Lake County fruit, is a great buy at $16. It’s fruit-forward, but not over the top with too much sweetness.

Another bargain sipper comes from Chronic Cellars in Paso Robles. The Purple Paradise ($15) is mostly zinfandel with some petite sirah blended to give it a bit more backbone.

Try either of these wines with grilled burgers, pasta or pizza to elevate the meal without blowing your budget.

Zinfandel Zaniness Returns to SF

January 26, 2012

All tastes turn to Zinfandel this week as the world’s largest gathering of fans of California’s adopted grape unfolds in San Francisco.

Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) is in the midst of a week of Zinfandel-focused events that culminates with the Grand Tasting on Saturday.

More than 150 wineries will be pouring samples of their best zins at the SF Concourse at 8th and Brannan in SF. Tickets for the Grand Tasting are $59 in advance and $69 at the door.

For a more formal food-and-wine experience, check online to see whether tickets are still available to the Viva Las Vegas Winemakers Dinner at the St. Francis on Friday (Jan. 27). Tickets to the charity event, which includes a live auction, are $225.

Quick Peek at Some Favorites

I checked out some of the featured wines at a special wine-and-food pairing preview Thursday in San Francisco. I’ll file a full report on the Grand Tasting later this weekend.

Kokomo

I enjoyed two bottles from Kokomo Winery in Healdsburg, both from the 2009 harvest.

The Winemakers Reserve from the Timber Crest Vineyard ($32) was a bit more extracted with nice blackberry/raspberry fruit. Wine Spectator gave it a 92 rating.

The Pauline’s Vineyard Zinfandel from Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley is blended with a very small percentage of petite sirah, which adds a bit of tannin to the mix and pushes the level of complexity up a notch. There’s nice raspberry fruit, but not overly sweet.

Delicious Dusi, Beautiful Ballentine

Janelle Dusi sells most of the grapes grown on her family’s 100 acre spread in Paso Robles, but she keeps 10 percent of the crop and bottles it herself under the J. Dusi Wines label.

Look for the 2009 J. Dusi Zinfandel ($35) is you want an approachable red wine that’s fruit forward with enough acidity to balance out the brambly zinfandel character. You can taste her grapes in wines made by several other high-profile producers, including Turley, Tobin James and Four Vines.

Another 2009 reserve wine, from Ballentine Vineyards in St. Helena, stood out from the crowd.

The Ballentine Block 9 Reserve ($31) is blended with 4.5 percent Petite Sirah to produce a wine with high-tone raspberry fruit and a dusty back beat that was delicious.

Fresh and Affordable

Two lower-priced wines also caught my eye and taste buds.

The 2010 Deep Purple Zinfandel, grown in Lodi, sells for $12. It’s a fruit bomb with lovely blackberry aromas that lead to a lip-smacking finish.

The 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel from CalStar Cellars in Sonoma, also made from Lodi fruit, follows the same pattern, but with a slightly higher-level taste profile.

There is gobs of blackberry fruit, balanced with enough acid to produce a delightful mouthful of balanced taste in a $15 bottle.

Cavalcade of Cabernets Coming Up

New releases from four Napa Cabernet Sauvignon specialists are coming up next weekend, with special events planned at Silver Oak, Bennett Lane, Girard Winery and Consentino Winery on Saturday, Feb. 4.

Silver Oak is pouring its 2007 Napa cabernet at two locations — its Oakville winery and its winemaking operation in Geyserville. Tickets are $40 and $30, respectively.

Girard is charging $20 for tastes of its 2009 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon at its winery in Yountville.

Consentino, also in Yountville, will offer a pre-release taste of its reserve Cabernet.

Bennett Lane will be offering tastes of its 2009 Cabernet and 2009 Reserve Cabernet for $25 at the winery in Calistoga.

Rock-Solid Rosenblum

January 22, 2012

If you tried a different Shauna Rosenblum wine every day this month, you’d still have five left over to uncork in February.

Prolific ain’t the half of it. She makes 36 wines — red, white, sweet and sparkling — at Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda. The winery is located in a giant hangar on the old naval air station, not far from where her dad, Kent Rosenblum, created world-class zinfandel at Rosenblum Cellars.

Shauna Rosenblum, Rock Wall Winemaker

I dropped by Rock Wall  recently to meet Ms. Rosenblum and try three of her current-release petite sirahs — two from Napa and one from Mendocino and all from the 2009 vintage.

They will be poured along with wines from 55 producers at the petite sirah extravaganza called Dark and Delicious held at Rock Wall on Feb. 17. Click here to purchase tickets for one of the best wine tasting productions in the Bay Area.

Carver Sutro

This $40 bottle has a Napa lineage. The Carver Sutro grown near Calistoga is from a vineyard that dates back to the early 1900s when the land was farmed by Italian immigrants.

This deep, dark wine is silky smooth, no mean feat with this often-tannic grape, and there are flavors of rich blackberries along with a bit of mint.

Gamble Ranch

The Gamble Ranch, to Rosenblum’s taste, is like a “chocolate brownie with cream.”

It’s also from Napa. The vineyard, near Rutherford, dates from the 1960s.

I liked the cocoa highlights and house texture of richness that stops short of “over-the-top.”  Flavors of black cherry and plums work well alongside manageable tannins that provide enough stimulating bite to sustain interest in this $35 wine.

Rucker’s

The Rucker’s was the least expensive ($22) member of this trio and my favorite.

This fruit-forward Mendocino wine was easy to approach and paired well with a bowl of chicken cacciatore. Rosenblum described it as having chocolate overtones and I can definitely agree that it’s on the cocoa side of the flavor wheel.

Variety Matters

Rosenblum is bringing out new wines all the time, including a new “Super Alameda” blend called Romancer that debuts right before Valentine’s Day.

Romancer is a blend of equal parts malbec, mourvedre and petit verdot that debuts on Feb. 10 with a party at the winery.

A big star already is the Rock Wall Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands ($25). This tropical-scented wine rolls Asian pear flavors around the tongue in a style that won Best in Class honors at the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Ahoy, Norton

Another debutante waiting to be unveiled is a tiny batch of wine made from Norton, a red grape that was hot back in the 1840s when the Midwest was the nation’s wine-growing sweet spot.

Norton is being re-discovered on a relatively small commercial scale outside California with some vineyards in places like Virginia and Texas yielding interesting table wines.

The Rock Wall Norton is sourced from a three-acre California vineyard that yielded less than one ton of juice. I’ll keep you posted on the release date.

Sipping at Altitude

January 14, 2012

Outside a few good restaurants and hotel wine lists, you have only one really good wine tasting stop to make on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe.

Apres Wine Company is a tasting bar/restaurant/retail shop tucked into a strip mall about a 20-minute walk  along Lake Tahoe Boulevard from the casinos.

I discovered this oasis of wine on a weekend getaway to the mountains for some R&R after the holidays.

Lots of interesting wines for sale in the shop, including about 50 different tasting selections. About half are self-serve, using the Enomatic dispensing system.

Enomatic Wine Dispenser

I love these dispensers. They work with a smart card that you buy from the shop and then use to activate the multi-bottle dispenser.

There is also a traditional bar at Apres, but all the wine is dispensed from Enomatic dispensers, which use an inert gas to protect the contents of each open bottle from spoiling. The company promises fresh wines for up to 30 days after opening.

I had the opportunity to taste seven different California Chardonnays — all that were open on a recent Friday night.

Cattle Ranch Conversion

I enjoyed the 2008 Boekenoogen most of all. It’s a delicious wine I’d never seen before from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County.

The vineyards were planted on a working cattle ranch that founder John Boekenoogen realized  in the late 1990s had great potential for grapes.

He was right.

The wine ($35 retail)  is medium gold in the glass. It’s not a see-through wine. There’s some nice body to it.

The wine starts with a core of rich fruit. There are tropical pineapple highlights and some nice spice (clove?).  Just the right touch of oak freshens up the nose and there’s a bit of vanilla, too.

This Chardonnay partnered well with a plate of bacon-wrapped figs and apricots stuffed with goat cheese, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and topped with a basil chiffonade. A $5 order of four pieces disappeared almost immediately and I just had to have another.

Stellar Sonoma Standby

I have never been disappointed with a bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer white wine, so I was very interested in trying the latest vintage of their Russian River Ranches bottling.

The 2010 does not disappoint. It’s lighter in weight and color than the Boekenoogen. The flavor profile features more of a lemony tang that develops over time into more subtle hints of grapefruit.

This $20 Chardonnay — the winery’s entry-level bottling — is made from a blend of estate vineyards in the Sonoma Coast appellation.

Input Here

I’m expanding my Chardonnay horizons this year and welcome our input on new wines to try.

I’d love to hear your suggestions. Post a comment here, if you like.

Chardonnay, A Look Back and Forth

January 8, 2012

I’m determined to uncork some great California Chardonnay in the coming months, but before I look too far ahead maybe I should revisit some wines that made a good impression in earlier tastings.

While  I have focused on white wines from time to time, most of my interest has been on the red side of the wine spectrum — Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah and others.

My goal for 2012 is push deeper into the Chardonnay pool and hopefully hook a few winners.

Three S’s

Summertime, seafood and shellfish all go better with white wines, including Chardonnay, which is the most widely planted grape in California.

In most cases, Chardonnay is not combined with other wine grapes, but there are exceptions.

Sometimes, two or more varietals will be mixed with Chardonnay to create a blended still wine. Sparkling wine -is often made from white-skinned Chardonnay alone but sometimes Pinot Noir is added to the mix.

Good Look Back

Some of the tastiest Chardonnays I’ve sampled in the past year or so were from Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma County.

A visit to the winery for a private tasting was sensational, turning up three recommendations. A return trip is definitely coming in the weeks and months ahead.

I’ve also enjoyed many bottles of Chardonnay from Sonoma Cutrer, a premium producer which draws some of its  fruit from the Russian River AVA (American Viticulture Area).

There are many other interesting names in the Sonoma Chardonnay club, including Flowers, Kistler Vineyards and Walter Hansel Winery  among many others– all of which I have enjoyed.

There is a whole cadre of smaller producers working with fruit from the Sonoma Coast appellation that will also given further scrutiny.

On the Napa side of the world, there are many well-known Chardonnay producers with names like Mondavi, Far Niente, Beringer and Franciscan.

The Chardonnay that put Napa Valley on the fine white wine map was a 1973 vintage from Chateau Montelena, winner of the historic Paris Tasting of 1976.

Further South

Ridge Vineyards is known world-wide for its impressive lineup of red wines, especially the highly respected cabernet sauvignon from the Monte Bello Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

They also grow Chardonnay in that vineyard and the Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay is often a great wine. Click here for my take on the current release.

One of my “go- to” reasonably priced white wines is a Chardonnay from Edna Valley on the Central Coast. The style reflects a core of tropical fruit with sweet oak highlights. It’s been a consistent performer over the past two decades and I can’t wait to try the latest release.

Geographically in between Ridge and Edna Valley sits Chalone Vineyards, a pioneering producer of Burgundian-style Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Limestone deposits under the shallow soil of the Chalone AVA in Monterey County are often compared to the chalky soils of Burgundy’s where some of the world’s most expensive Chardonnay is produced.

More Choices

Napa and Sonoma often grab the most consumer attention, but astute wine lovers know that good bargains and great-tasting Chardonnay come from a wider territory.

I’ll also be looking at other viticulture regions — Lodi, Santa Barbara County, San Luis Obispo and Mendocino County — for more good choices in Chardonnay.