Posts Tagged ‘cabernet sauvignon’

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.

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.

Young Guns, Good Wines

May 27, 2011

If Ryan Moreland’s parents had a wheat field instead of a vineyard, he’d probably be making artisan bread from family grain.

But Ryan lives in St. Helena. His family has a small plot of sauvignon blanc. Naturally, he’s got wine fever.

Ryan Moreland

The 20-something has channeled his energy into winemaking. He has  his own label, Corvalle, with three wines currently for sale and a fourth due for release later this year.

Production is miniscule, but hopes are high.

I found something to like in all of Corvalle’s offerings at a tasting last weekend. The event, held in a warehouse wine making space near the Napa airport, featured “millenial” winemakers (35 and under).

I especially enjoyed the Corvalle 2010 sauvignon blanc, from a 1-acre vineyard in Rutherford, which is also home to iconic wineries like Grgich Hills Estate, Caymus and Cakebread Cellars. The neighborhood is a hotspot for big red wines, but this is a finely crafted sauvignon blanc ($24) that tastes great on its own and would also hold up well with grilled chicken or fish.

Also likeable was the Corvalle 2010 Weka Ranch Vineyard chardonnay ($21/bottle) from the Oak Knoll District and a pleasant rose’ made from an unusual 50/50 mix of Carneros pinot noir and Rutherford cabernet sauvignon.

Sheldon

Two wines made by Sheldon also caught my eye.

The 2007 chardonnay, made from the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, is a nice example of barrel-fermented chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands near Monterey. The 47-year-old vines produced a deep golden wine. It is unfiltered and unfined, showing a lovely balance between sweet oak and a nice acid tang.

Dylan and Tobe Sheldon

Sheldon is a co-production of Dylan and Tobe Sheldon. The couple, who met in a wine bar, learned the wine trade in New Zealand and France before returning to California to put their knowledge and belief in a minimalist approach into practice.

They currently have eight different wines for sale, including an unusual bottling of 2009 graciano, a Spanish red varietal grown in the easternmost reaches of the Lodi appellation.

Spell Wines

Hosting the tasting was Spelletich Vineyards, which operates in the warehouse space.

Kristen Spelletich, whose mother, Barbara, is the family winery’s chief winemaker, bottles her own, less-expensive wines under the Spell label. I first met Kristen at a tasting in St. Helena earlier this year, when I discovered her mom’s wonderful 2006 reserve merlot.

Kristen’s 2006 Spellonu Red, a blend of Napa cabernet sauvignon and merlot, is a very good wine at a great price ($15). This wine showed a sweet cherry core and nice balance with a whiff of mint in the nose.

Wine and the World Series

October 22, 2010

Beer may be baseball’s mainstay beverage, but there’s room for wine in any fan’s hands as we edge closer and closer to the World Series.

In fact, the hard-charging San Francisco Giants roster begs for a comparison with a really good wine list.

Here’s how I see the line-up, through wine-tinted glasses:

Tim Lincecum

Tim Lincecum, the two-time Cy Young Award winner, is the ace on the Giants pitching staff, winning twice in post-season play with a l.69 ERA. Affectionately known as “the Freak,” with his long hair and slight build, Lincecum keeps hitters off-balance with sneaky speed and a tempting change-up that has baffled most opponents this year.

Giants Ace Tim Lincecum

Lincecum is like a top-drawer pinot noir, with a racy intrigue and tasty finish that’s hard to replicate. I’d look toward the Santa Lucia Highlands for a wine that matches the ace’s on-field performance. Something like the outrageously good Siduri Wines 2008 pinot noir fits the bill. It’s made from the legendary Garys’ Vineyard, located on the edge of the Salinas Valley. This is a big pinot, with luscious red cherry fruit that will improve over time, just like Lincecum.

Buster Posey

Although he’s originally from Georgia, a state where moonshine might be the drink of choice, clean-up hitter  Buster Posey honed his skills right here in Wine Country. The rookie spent time with both Fresno and San Jose in the Giants minor league system before joining the big league club in late May. The hard-hitting catcher and clean-up hitter has been a star ever since.

He’s an everyday hero who I’d compare to a big Napa Valley cabernet. Something with a track record of success like the Silver Oak Cellars 2005, a ready-to-drink selection with strong red fruit and a smooth finish that delivers great taste vintage-to-vintage.

Cody Ross

A hidden gem in the Giants lineup is the late-season addition of Cody Ross. The outfielder picked up on waivers late in the season from Florida Marlins and he quickly made his presence felt as the team’s unexpected hero. Ross swatted four post-season home runs and collected seven RBIs going into the fifth game of the Giants’ National League Championship Series with Philadelphia. Ross reminds me of a “little” wine that over-delivers on quality at a reasonable price. Like the McConnell Estate’s 2007 cabernet sauvignon ($15) from Lodi. This is a smooth customer, discovered at last weekend’s Lodi Wine Fest on Treasure Island, with just enough backbone to support the lively black fruit and currant flavors.

Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson is the madman of the Giants bullpen. With a bushy beard dyed deep black, he’s responsible for the Giants battle cry “Fear the Beard” that pops up on homemade signs throughout AT&T Park in every game. I didn’t have a second thought when it came to a wine that reminded me of this gritty reliever. It’s the Prisoner, a zinfandel-based blend from Orin Swift that has been great every time I’ve tasted it. The 2007 Prisoner ($35) needs a bit of time to open up, and then it comes on like gangbusters with bowl-you-over blackberry fruit and rich tannins.

Aubrey Huff

First baseman Aubrey Huff is a 10-year veteran who played for Tampa Bay and Baltimore before coming to San Francisco in 2009. He was a solid contributor down the stretch for the Giants, collecting 86 RBIs and 26 homeruns in the regular season. I’d compare him to a high-toned merlot, not too flashy but built on solid fundamentals.

Two merlots I recently tasted from the an up-and-coming district in Napa come closest to matching Huff’s intensity. I enjoyed the Silverado Mount George 2006 merlot ($50) and the Coho 2006 merlot from the Michael Black Vineyard ($55), both tasted earlier this month in a Coombsville District tasting event.

Pat Burrell

Outfielder Pat Burrell played for the Phillies for eight seasons before defecting to Tampa last year and then joining the Giants for the 2010 campaign. He’s another acquisition who has brought power to the SF lineup, slugging 20 homes runs and collecting 56 RBIs this season.

I’d compare Burrell’s performance to a powerful but smooth-sipping syrah, like the excellent 2006 Zio Tony Ranch ($75) from Martinelli Winery in Sonoma.

Freddy Sanchez

Second baseman Freddy Sanchez has been with the Giants for two seasons after stints in Boston and Pittsburgh. He’s a good fielder and reliable singles hitter, who has hit over .290 in an SF uniform.

I’d match up Sanchez with an award-winning chardonnay with a great track record, like the Ridge Monte Bello chardonnay, an award-winning bottling from Ridge Vineyards, which is better known for its legendary Monte Bello cabernet. I got my first taste of the Ridge 2008 chardonnay ($65) a few weeks ago and I’m sold. It’s gold juice with tropical fruit and citrus overtones that counterbalance just the right touch of oak.

The wine will be officially released later this year. Only 250 cases were produced, so get yours quick or wait ’til next year.

Juan Uribe

Infielder Juan Uribe was the star of Game Four of the NLCS with an outstanding fielding play to stave off a Phillies rally and a walk-off fly ball that won Game 4 of the NLCS for the Giants. This was the hardest pick of the bunch, so I went with a personal favorite that’s reliable and inexpensive. I’m talking about the Don’s Lodi Red, an $8 blended red that contains carignane and syrah plus a dash of symphony — a flowery-tasting hybrid grape developed at UC-Davis. I buy this wine  — from Michael-David Vineyards — by the case and sometimes sneak it into blind tastings with higher-priced brands just to see the reaction when the price is revealed.

Andres Torres

Andres Torres always seems to be smiling and hustling, two characteristics that helped earn him the 2010 Willie Mac Award given to the most popular player on the Giants roster each year. He’s backed up that popularity with some key hitting (16 homers and 56 RBIS) that helped deliver the Giants to the doorstep of the World Series. He reminds me of a California sparkling wine, something that goes with any celebration, like the Gloria Ferrer VA de VI ($22), a non-vintage cuvee that’s pinot noir and chardonnay blended with a dollop of fruity muscat. Definitely a pick-me-up wine!

Pablo Sandoval

Pablo Sandoval, nicknamed “The Panda,” had an up-and-down season on offense and defense, but broke out of his batting slump in the playoffs with a key hit as a starter in Game 5 of the NLCS. He’s like a good bottle of everyday wine that you forget you had, like the Robert Mondavi  bottle of wine that you lost track of and, upon re-discovering it, found \that it was still enjoyable. Like the 2007 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon ($28), an easy-to-enjoy dinner wine with a core of red fruits and complementary sweet oak.

Matt Cain

Matt Cain has been a solid performer on the mound all season and his success continues in the play-offs with just one run allowed in two games. He just keeps getting better and better with every outing, like one of my favorite daily-drinking chardonnays from Edna Valley. The 2008 Edna Valley chardonnay from Paragon Vineyards on  the Central Coast continues a long string of reliable vintages that feature tropical fruit tastes and a nice touch of oak.

Jonathan Sanchez

Jonathan Sanchez has pitched well enough to win in the post-season, but without enough offensive support to seal the deal. Still, he owns a 2.03 ERA and collected 18 strikeouts in two play-off appearances in which opposing batters managed just .149 against the lefthander.

I’d compare Sanchez to a zingy sauvignon blanc, like the wine made by Rochioli near Healdsburg. While Rochioli’s claim to fame is delicious pinot noir, it’s worst kept secret is the estate sauvignon blanc. With a $40 pricetag, this is high-class juice, but it’s so smooth with just the right touch of oak that it’s hard to resist. Join the winery’s waiting list (aveage wait to join is five years) to assure yourself of access to the future Rochioli offerings.

Madison Bumgarner

Madison Bumgarner is the Giants fourth starter. He won against Atlanta in the division series and then pitched well in game 4 of the NLCS against the Phillies, but left without earning a decision. He’s a 21-year-old, hard-throwing left-hander who’s got a long career ahead of him. I’d liken to one of the smaller, newer producers with a big future in Wine Country, like Urban Legend near Jack London Square which is making its reputation on out-of-the-ordinary varietals like its 2008 barbera ($25), a Cal-Ital wine made from grapes grown in Clarksburg. This round, red and delicious selection would complement pasta, pizza or grilled red meats.

Napa: Location, Location, Location

October 1, 2010

In Wine Country, just like where you live or do business, location is a key to quality.

The winegrowers of Coombsville, just east of the town of Napa, make some great wines and also sell grapes to some of the biggest names in the business, but they don’t get the same level of respect as their neighbors in world famous hot spots like Stags Leap, Oakville and Yountville, but that’s about to change.

Farella Vineyard, Napa Valley, California

Farella Vineyard in Coombsville

Soon, wineries will be able to feature the name of the Coombsville growing region on the label. Wine made from grapes grown in these rolling benchlands today can only carry the general “Napa Valley” designation on the label. A lot of Coombsville’s grape production winds up in “Napa Valley” blends made by other wineries all over the valley.

Federal authorities are expected to approve a request to create a Coombsville AVA (American Viticultural Area) that covers about 11,000 acres where dozens of wineries operate. This would be the 17th sub-appellation within the overall Napa Valley AVA.

Earlier this week, I was introduced to the Coombsville area and its wineries at a private tasting at the Napa Valley Country Club, which is in the district. There were 20 participating wineries, mostly smaller grower-owner estates along with a few bigger and smaller operations, pouring tastes. The wines were well made and interesting — across-the-board.

I enjoyed several very good cabernet sauvignon, cabernet-based blends and a couple of tasty merlots. The slightly cooler climate and hillside locations of many Coombsville vineyards gives the Bordeaux varietals a nice California punch of flavor that’s satisfying, but not overwhelming.

Hitting the Highlights

Farella Vineyard, Alta, 2005 — This blend of 70 percent cabernet and 30 percent merlot made by Tom Farella is ready to rock. There’s a touch of smoke on the nose, leading to some nice chocolately flavors under the broader palate of mixed fruits. A balanced, smooth wine with the chance to improve over the short term.

Bill Frazier, Frazier Family Estate

Bill Frazier

Frazier Family Estate, Memento Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 — This is a dark, deep and powerful wine. There is 5% petit verdot and 2% cabernet franc in the bottle, which sells for $110. This wine, which sees 100% French oak, is a classic high-end Napa cabernet. It’s approachable now, but will only get better over the years. A great effort. “I could open a bottle and let it sit out for two days and it would be better,” remarked owner Bill Frazier, whose family winery got its start in 1995.

Inherit the Sheep, Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 — This deep purple bottle of wine ($65) presents a broad, smooth tasting base of red fruit, shading toward plum. It’s blended with a small amount of cabernet franc, which contributes to its complexity. The winery got its name after the owners — wine industry veterans Clay and Tersilla Gregory — made a successful bid to buy the property that included an offer to raise the resident sheep that the owner’s children had raised for a 4-H project.

Sciandri Family Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 — This wine is also deep purple with higher toned, sweet prune fruit with a good edge of oak to cap the finish. I enjoyed sampling this wine, which is produced from estate-grown fruit. Family patriarch Ron Sciandri and his wife, Roberta, head the family-run business, which had been “winegrowing-only” until the 2006 vintage, when they began producing their own label. Only 600 cases ($48/bottle) were made of the inaugural vintage.

Silverado Vineyards, Mount George Merlot 2006 — I’m coming around on merlot, thanks to wines like this. Silverado is located in the Stags Leap District, but it sources grapes from Coombsville’s Mount George Vineyard for this smooth red wine. There’s just enough tannin from aging for 15 months in French oak (47% new). I caught a touch of green bell pepper in the background but it fit in nicely between the rich broad red fruit that’s the core of this $50 wine. This vineyard is the site of one of the original wine grape plantings in the Napa Valley, way back in 1868. Grapes for this wine come from vines planted in 1989-1990.

Coho, Michael Black Vineyard Merlot 2006 — Made from a home-cultivated clone, this deep, dark $55 wine features a delightful balance of power and finesse. It’s 100 percent merlot, but it shows some of the same strong backbone as its cabernet cousin.

Daviana, Cabernache 2007 — This cabernet-grenache blend ($45) presented a nice change of pace. The fresh fruit of the grenache balanced the firmer cabernet to produce a delightful moutful of red fruit flavor. Just three barrels (75 cases) were produced.

Prime, District 4 Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 — I enjoyed this wine — produced from four different clones of cabernet — for its high-toned blue fruit and slightly higher acid component, which bodes well for matching with food. It was a bit shy on the nose, but presented some fine fruit-forward flavors on the tongue. Production was 304 cases ($39/bottle).

Ridge: 50 Years of Success in Wine Country

September 17, 2010

There may be older vineyards in California, but none have produced the steady stream of high-quality wine like Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello estate in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The winery is best known for its magnificent cabernet sauvignon-based blend of Bordeaux varietals that garners solid praise from critics and consumers who like the restrained power of the dark red juice produced from the ridgetop vines.

Monte Bello Vineyard

The 2007 vintage of Monte Bello is primarily cabernet sauvignon (79% ) with merlot (10%), petit verdot (9%) and cabernet franc (2%). This is a classic blend, ready to drink upon release but it is built to age gracefully over years, even decades. The wine ($135/bottle) is restrained, both in taste and bouquet. This wine is not an oaky blast of fruit, but a smooth, silky “food” wine that just keeps developing more interesting flavors with every sip. There’s a hint of mint and cassis on the tongue with restrained red fruit , finely grained tannins and a pleasant interplay of mineral elements — thanks to the unique blend of soils in the vineyard.

The wine is made from selected lots — 63 batcheds are fermented individually  — and only the highest quality juice makes the final blend. The “leftover” juice is used for the  Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Red. This “baby Monte Bello” wine is treated differently in the cellar. The blend —  52 percent cabernet sauvignon and 48 percent merlot — is aged in both new and used barrels to produce a softer style wine that retails for $30.

Monte Bello Chardonnay

Part of the Monte Bello vineyard, about 18 acres, is also planted to chardonnay which is very good in its own right. It was a treat to find it at a tasting earlier this week.

I got to sample seven Ridge wines, including the unreleased 2008 Monte Bello chardonnay, at Wine on Piedmont , a nifty little wine shop on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. The tasting, seven wines in all, cost $5 — a huge bargain. The store also has an outstanding craft and imported beer selection, including one of my favorite IPA-style beers, Racer 5, from Bear Republic Brewery in Healdsburg.

This finely textured, golden-hued chardonnay — which has not yet been officially released — is aged in air-cured American oak barrels. Only 250 cases of the 2008 vintage ($60/bottle) were produced. Just 2 percent (five cases) have been allocated for retail shops in the East Bay, so the supply is definitely slim. The rest of the grapes from this vineyard are made into the Santa Cruz Mountains estate chardonnay, which I haven’t tasted… yet!

Ridge Winemaking Team (left to right) Eric Baugher, Paul Draper, David Gates & John Olney

It felt smooth on my tongue with a citrus-tinged nose and tropical fruits with sweet oak accents . Like the Monte Bello reds, this wine is aged in American oak, which helped refine the mix of flavors. The wine came alive with a bite of baguette topped with a slice of mortadella.

Zinfandel Joins the Party

Ridge also produces a string of award-winning zinfandels at a second winery location in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley. This is not your big, brambly, brawny California zinfandel that shakes your tastebuds and demands attention. The Ridge style is more sublime, understated and cool on approach and ultimately fits in better at table with a meal.

Of the four 2007 infandels opened at the tasting — Pagani Ranch, Lytton Springs, East Bench and York Creek — I liked the most fruit-forward of the bunch the best.

My favorite was the Pagani Ranch, made from a Sonoma County vineyard that has been producing stellar fruit for more than a century. Yes, t’s really made from 100-year-old vines, grown in a cool climate area near Kenwood, along Highway 12. Small amounts of other grapes, primarily petite sirah, are included in this tasty field blend that also has drips and drabs of alicante bouschet and mourvedre.

The wine is understated on approach, but the rich fruit shines through. It’s unmistakenly zinfandel, but it doesn’t bowl over your tastebuds. It caresses them.

Winemaking Families Strut Their Stuff

August 25, 2010

Fisher Vineyards was an established winery when the Family Winemakers of California kicked off its first tasting event two decades ago.

The Napa winery was pouring its top wines again, this time at the 20th annual FWC tasting last weekend at Fort Mason in San Francisco. This event featured 340 wineries — a far cry from the group’s inaugural tasting, which I attended back in 1990, when there were only about 40 participants.

In addition to Fisher, nine other family wineries from the inaugural event returned for the 20th reunion.

Family Winemakers Tasting

They include Chateau Montelena, Fritz Winery, Hanzell Vineyards, Kendall-Jackson Winery, Lava Cap Winery, Macauley Vineyard, Justin Vineyards and Winery, Renaissance Vineyard & Winery, and Swanson Vineyards & Winery.

The group represents a full spectrum of styles and varietals from every major winegrowing region in the state.

Click here for a KTVU video from the Family Winemakers  event.

Wines by Fisher

Cameron Fisher

The Fisher wines come from a family that was first known for auto body design work in Detroit (Body by Fisher). Fred Fisher, who founded the winery in 1973, is the patriarch. His daughter, Whitney, is the resident winemaker. Her sister, Cameron, handles sales and marketing.

Grapes for their wines are grown on the Fisher’s Napa estate in the Mayacamas Mountain range and from the family’s Sonoma estate on Spring Mountain.

I particularly enjoyed Fisher’s 2007 “Coach Insignia” ($75), a blend of cabernet sauvignon (90%), malbec (7%) and cabernet franc (3%) that sees nearly two years in oak before bottling .

This is a full-throttle, deep purple wine with a long life ahead of it. It features seamless tannins and an aftertaste that kept revealing more and more nuances of blackberries, cedar and vanilla. Noted critic Robert Parker rated it 91 points out of 100 and I’d probably push that up a notch or two.

Tale of Two Chardonnays

I was impressed by the relatively low-cost chardonnay poured by Adastra Winery, an organic producer from the Carneros region. The 2009 N’Oak chardonnay ($20) is fermented in stainless steel to produce a crisp white wine with nice citrus notes and a smooth finish.

I first wrote about this winery after meeting owner Chris Thorpe at Pinot Days in June. Thorpe, a retired physician, also produces a more serious chardonnay under the Adastra label, which includes offerings of merlot, pinot noir and a blend called Ed’s Red. Pam Starr is the winemaker.

The 2008 Pommeraie chardonnay ($48) from Benovia Winery was the best white wine I sampled at the tasting. It featured a solid apple core with a streak of citrus that came alive on the palate. The grapes for Pommeraie (it means apple orchard in French) were sourced from the Frei Road vineyard, site of a former apple orchard in the Russian River Valley. The vineyard is owned and cultivated by Martinelli Winery, another family winery that I profiled last month. (Martinelli — A Sonoma Success Story)

For a peek back in time, check out the Martinelli Winery tasting room (3360 River Road, Windsor, CA), which has just been moved into a renovated hop barn. The barn is a throwback to the early 20th century when the fertile fields produced hops — a key ingredient in brewing another pleasurable beverage, beer.

Macauley Cabernet

When I tasted this wine, Macauley Vineyard’s 2007 Napa cabernet, I didn’t realize that it came from one of the 10 “20th reunion” wineries that poured at the very first Family Winemakers of California events. This is a really nice wine with a rich price tag ($125/bottle). It paired well with a tidbit of smoked gouda atop a slice of baguette from Bakers of Paris.

There’s just a touch of eucalyptus on the nose and tongue, a taste of lovely blackberry fruit with a mint accent. This is a very smooth mouthful of gorgeous red wine.

The wine is made from purchased grapes grown on the Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard near the historic Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. This vineyard produced some classic Napa cabernets, even before vineyard owner/manager/impressario Andy Beckstoffer bought a share of the property in 1993.

“Dreamy” Mi Sueno

I really like the two cabernets from Mi Sueno, a Napa winery with a Mexican heritage. As a teenager, owner/winemaker Rolando Herrera began working as a dishwasher at upscale wine country restaurants. Then he got a job as a laborer at a winery. That led to bigger and better jobs in the industry, culminating in the creation of his own winery. The winery’s name, Mi Sueno, means”my dream” in Spanish.

Mi Sueno’s premium wines, bottled under the Herrera label, are led by a 2007 Napa Valley cabernet ($65) made in a contemporary California style. This wine is a juicy combination of rich red fruit and integrated tannins with just a touch of what some call “Rutherford dust” — a flavor component that shows up in some wines grown in the Rutherford district.

Mi Sueno’s El  Llano (named for the owner’s Mexican hometown) is a 65/35 blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah from assorted Napa vineyards. It’s a dark, delicious $40 wine with blackberry fruit flavors and baking spice highlights that demand a second sip.

Sipping Through Santa Clara Valley

August 18, 2010

Before tech companies like Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle took root, vineyards flourished in the Santa Clara Valley and produced some of the finest wines in California.

In fact, before Napa’s meteoric rise to fame and fortune back in the early 1970s, the Santa Clara Valley produced more premium wine than its northern counterpart.

Semiconductor companies and software developers reign supreme in today’s Silicon Valley, but pockets of winemaking excellence exist in places like Morgan Hill, Gilroy and San Martin.

There are more than 20 Santa Clara Valley wineries, including the Emilio Guglielmo Winery in Morgan Hill.

Gene, George and Gary Guglielmo

Three brothers — George, Gene and Gary Guglielmo — grow grapes and make about 30,000-40,000 cases of wine per year from an 80-acre vineyard  just off Highway 101, about 30 minutes south of San Jose.

This is a family-run business. Gene handles sales, George is the winemaker, and Gary is general manager.

Their grandfather, Emilio, emigrated from Italy to New York in 1908 and arrived in San Francisco in 1910. He made wine from purchased grapes for friends and family before eventually buying the Morgan Hill property and starting the winery in 1925. In the 1940s, the winery was passed down to the boys’ father and mother, George W. and Madeline Guglielmo.

The quaint family home now houses the winery business office, which sits over a large basement filled with old redwood tanks used to store red wine.

Several outbuildings contain the main storage tanks, bottling line and winemaking equipment. There’s also a special events facility and tasting room alongside a brick plaza and fountain. Looking over the adjacent vineyard, with glass of wine in hand, you’d never know the high-tech revolution was humming along just a few miles away.

Old Style, New Age

The Guglielmos have come a long way from the 1950s and 1960s when the boys rode into San Francisco with their dad to deliver cases of one gallon jugs of “house red”  to homes, restaurants and bars in North Beach.

“The cost was $27.77, I remember that, for five cases,” George said in an interview at the winery. “We’d pick up the empties and re-use the bottles. We started doing recycling before it was popular.”

The business made a significant turn when the Guglielmos began bottling wines by varietal instead of the generic blends that had been the norm. Today, the winery produces 13 different varieties of wine.

Pursuing Petite Sirah

The first varietal wine bottled by Guglielmo was a 1969 petite sirah, which they continue to make from old vines next to the winery.

The latest release of petite sirah is a 2007 private reserve ($19 retail). This is a by-the-book rendition of the grape. It’s got a nice peppery back beat, strong but controlled tannins and great fruit. It’ll get even better with some short-term aging (6 months to 1 year).

I’m a big fan of zinfandel, and the Guglielmo’s private reserve zin is top-notch and fairly priced at $19/bottle for a bottle of wine that’s built to go with hearty pasta, grilled meats and interesting cheeses.

I also liked the 2007 cabernet sauvignon ($19), which is made from “backyard” estates around Morgan Hill, and a 2007 Santa Clara Valley syrah ($25) made from the San Felipe Vineyard southeast of Gilroy.

If you’re in the neighborhood, the winery hosts its annual harvest festival Saturday (Aug. 21) featuring grilled steaks, plenty of pasta and wine plus live music and a grape stomping contest. Tickets are $55 apiece, available from the winery in advance or at the door. Daily tastings are also available to winery visitors.

For more information on other Santa Clara Valley wineries, click here.

Free Tickets to Family Winemakers of California Tasting

This weekend there’s a great event going on at Fort Mason in San Francisco, where more than 300 family wineries will provide samples of their best wine as part of the annual tasting sponsored by the Family Winemakers of California. Tickets at the door cost $65, but we’re giving away free tickets to the event, which will be held Sunday from 3-6 p.m. For a chance to win tickets, click here for more information. I’ll  be covering the tasting, so please check back next week for a full report.

Wine Mining for Napa Nuggets

August 6, 2010

Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon represents the very best wine that California can produce.

There are lots of Napa Valley wines on the market, from $10 to more than $1000 a bottle. When they’re good, they can be awfully good. The opposite happens, too.

Napa’s geography is divided into 15 sub-appellations covering an area that begins just south of downtown Napa and runs north to the resort town of Calistoga.

A comparison of two wines from the 2007 vintage highlights some of the similarities — and subtle differences — that can occur.

Robert Mondavi Winery and Mount Veeder Winery provided samples of their 2007 Napa Valley cabernets for my informal tasting.

The two wines are made primarily from grapes grown in different parts of the region — Oakville (on the valley floor), Stag’s Leap (on the hilly eastern edge of the valley) and Mount Veeder (on the steep slopes of the western side of the valley).

Up from the Valley

Most of the grapes used in the Mondavi wine ($28) are from the famed To Kalon Vineyard (38%) on bench land near the iconic winery in Oakville. Another 29 percent come from hillside vineyards grown on the opposite side of the valley in the Stag’s Leap region with the remainder culled from other Oakville and Napa vineyards — plus 2 percent fruit from Sonoma.

To Kalon Vineyard

This wine showed a light touch of sweet oak on the nose, which also revealed some blueberry highlights. This is a deep rich red glass of wine. There’s sweet cassis fruit that filled out over the evening and opened up as some of the tannins softened. It’s 86 percent cabernet, 8 percent merlot, 4 percent cabernet franc and 1 percent each of petit verdot and malbec.

I’d hold onto this one for a year or two and then taste it again to check its progress.

Down from the Mountain

The grapes for Mount Veeder’s wine come from steep, hillside vineyards. The vines are grown on the opposite side of the valley from Stag’s Leap. Higher elevation vineyards — planted on minerally depleted soils — often produce intense fruit from smaller berries that struggle against the elements.

Mount Veeder Winery Ranches

The mix of grapes is similar to the Mondavi, except Mount Veeder winemaker Janet Myers used syrah in place of cabernet franc.

I caught a touch of cedar on the nose (very nice) of the Mount Veeder wine ($40). There was a rounder feel to the aromas that suggested some sweetness to follow.

That hint was just a tease. The wine is dense with fruit that will come further forward, over time. I caught plums on the nose and that carried through to the taste, which had to battle youthful tannins for my attention.

This deep purple wine is still a youngster and it needs time to mellow out and for the flavors to knit fully together.

Both wines were decanted and tasted blind over a three-hour period before, during and after a meal that featured a red wine-marinated pot roast with a medley of roasted vegetables (sweet potatoes, white potatoes, brown mushrooms, red onions, red bell peppers and garlic).

Urban Wine Experience Favorites

My three favorite wines tasted at last weekend’s Urban Wine Experience included:

Rose’

Cerruti Cellars 2009 Mer Blanc, a stylish pink merlot made from Alexander Valley grapes. Nice fruit in a merlot-light style, great for a picnic or enjoy by the pool on a warm afternoon

White

Dashe Cellars 2008 Dry Riseling from Potter Valley (Mendocino). A tangy, tasty wine for summer sipping.

Red

Ehrenberg Cellars 2009 Lodi Petite Sirah (barrel sample). This is a deep, dark purple wine with gobs of fruit to watch as it matures, is bottled and comes to market later this year.

South Bay Shortcut to Paso Robles Wine Country

April 15, 2010

There’s a shortcut to the Central Coast wine country that runs right through the South Bay, but it’s only passable next week.

The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance brings its Grand Tasting Tour to Menlo Park next Thursday (April 22) when you can sample hundreds of wines from 30 different wineries and also meet the winemakers from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Quadrus Conference Center. Tickets are $45 in advance and $55 at the door.

For a special treat, some of the South Bay’s top restaurants will be hosting Paso Robles winemaker dinners on Wednesday (April 21). Attendees will have a chance to dine and chat with some of the region’s top winemakers at MacArthur Park and Pampas — both in Palo Alto.

Those attending the main event can choose from dozens of varietals like zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, syrah, petite sirah and pinot noir along with grenache, mourvedre, and viognier plus a batch of blended wines, too.

“What we are trying to hone in on is the fact that Paso Robles is really an undiscovered region for folks in the Bay Area,” said Stacie Jacob, executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

Paso Robles Vineyard

Paso Robles Vineyard

“We we want to give people a taste of what the region is all about. And, at this event, they’ll get an opportunity to meet with the winemakers and with the principals/owners themselves,” she said. “As you learn more about Paso Robles wines, you will see we are not a one-trick pony by any measure. We grow more than 40 different varietals in this AVA (American Viticultural Area).”

Closer Than You Think

Paso Robles sits about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, bisected by Highway 101. With traffic, it’s about the same distance (time-wise) as driving to Napa from Silicon Valley.

Most Paso Robles wineries are identified as West Side (which has a cooler, maritime influence) or East Side (inland, warmer weather), depending on where they’re located from the 101 freeway. In summer, temperature swings can go from 100+ degrees to 50-60 degrees at night.

The Paso Robles appellation (generally it’s the northern half of San Luis Obispo County) is part of the Central Coast wine region, which is the fourth biggest wine producer in the state — behind Napa and Sonoma and Monterey.  Paso Robles has 26,000 acres of vines and more than 180 wineries large and small — all within about a three-hour drive from the Bay Area.

The vibe is definitely friendly here and more laid back than Napa. Prices across the board — for wine, food and lodging — are reasonable and quality is high. I’ve made dozens of trips to this area over the past 30 years, tasting hundreds of wines and visiting scores of wineries.

Here are some of the top producers included in the tour:

Tablas Creek is run by the Perrin family that operates world-renowned Chateau de Beaucastel in France. The Central California operation produces a list of award-winning reds and whites, mostly from Rhone-style varietals.

Their 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel, a blend of mourvedre, grenache, syrah and counoise, got a 95-97 rating from Robert Parker and the 2006 vintage was No. 50 on the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list last year. Tablas Creek’s top-rated white wine, called Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, is a terrific blend of rousanne, grenache blanc and picpoul. The 2008 vintage got a 92 rating from respected critic Stephen Tanzer.

Christian Tietje, Four Vines Winemaker

For a zinfandel lover, this region is loaded with great wines coming from myriad producers, including Opolo Vineyards (check out my blog from the annual ZAP Grand Tasting for more about Opolo), Peachy Canyon (great value and quality), and Four Vines (old vine zinfandel, Rhone and some interesting Spanish-style wines).

I especially liked the Rhone-style wines from a small Paso producer, Caliza Winery, which poured samples at the Rhone Rangers Tasting in San Francisco last month and will be on the tour in Menlo Park along with Alta Colina, another small property that makes some pretty cool syrah and petite sirah wines that have scored high with Robert Parker.

Ancient Peaks, named for the nearby mountains, sits at the southern end of the AVA. The family-owned winery specializes in merlot, cabernet and zinfandel grown in five different soil types — ancient sea bed, sedimentary, shale, volcanic and granitic — that give the wines a backbone of terroir, depth and complexity.

Young vines at kukkula Winery

Young vines at kukkula Winery

Another interesting winery on the tour, kukkula (the name means hill of high place in Finnish), specializes in blended wines, including some “Paso-only” mixes of grenache, mourvedre, zinfandel, as well as cabernet sauvignon.

Second Chances

If you can’t make the Paso Robles Grand Tour Tasting, you can get a mini-tasting experience on Friday (April 23) at one of the region’s top retail wine shops. K & L Wine Merchants in Redwood City will pour five selections from Paso Robles wineries for free between 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

And, if you live in the North Bay, the Paso Robles traveling wine tour also makes a stop in Sacramento next Tuesday (April 20).

Here’s a list of wineries participating in the tour:

Alta Colina Vineyard & Winery, Ancient Peaks Winery, Anglim Winery, Caliza Winery, Clavo Cellars, Clayhouse Wines, Derby Wine Estates, Four Vines Winery, Halter Ranch Vineyard, Hope Family Wines / Treana, J. Lohr Vineyard and Wines, Kenneth Volk Vineyards, kukkula, L’Aventure Winery, Maloy O’Neill Vineyards, Opolo Vineyards, Peachy Canyon Winery, Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery, RN Estate Vineyard & Winery, Robert Hall Winery, Rotta Winery, Silver Horse Winery, STANGER Vineyards, Tablas Creek Vineyard,Terry Hoage Vineyards, Vina Robles and Wild Horse Winery & Vineyards.