Posts Tagged ‘California wine’

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.


Cough, Sniffle, Sneeze: Thanks, Santa

December 28, 2011

We have a lot to be thankful for at this time of year, but I’m just glad to have my taste buds back.

I’ve had a case of the holiday flu, which for the last week or so has pretty much killed my sense of taste and smell.

With that experience behind me, I’m ready to start the new year with a new-found appreciation for the pleasures to be found in Wine Country 2012.

New Look at an Old Favorite

It’s been popular — and easy — to bash California Chardonnay over the years, but I’d like to reverse direction and focus on finding the best this varietal has to offer in the Golden State.

California Chardonnay

I’m not going to forget red wine, but I am going to make a special effort to seek out more Chardonnay wines to sample in the months ahead.

Chardonnay can be flinty and dry as a bone. It can be sweet and fleshy. It can be kissed lightly (or overwhelmed) by oak from barrel aging.  Tastes run from crispy apple to honeyed tropical fruits with a wide range of other nuances

All wine takes a taste cue from the soils and climates in which the grapes are grown. Chardonnay is no different. In fact, I believe it can show more about its background than many other grapes.

In France, you find world-class Chardonnay in the Burgundy and Champagne regions. The unique soils, variable weather and vineyard practices combine to produce  wines that reflect the essence of place.

California Style

In California, Chardonnay styles are all over the board.

It’s the most widely planted grape in the state with more than 95,000 acres in vines. Chardonnay sales accounted for 28 percent of all California tables wines sold in 2010.

Different soils, sub-climates and growing conditions can produce a wide range of flavors and taste characteristics in both still and sparkling wines.

I’ll be looking for both regional influences and wine making styles to compare and contrast the choices we have as wine consumers looking for the next glass of California Chardonnay.

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.

Family Wine Virtues

August 13, 2011

I like the Family Winemakers of California annual tasting because it’s like visiting a big, raucous, fun-loving family for a special holiday.

The big event is Sunday, Aug. 21, at Fort Mason in San Francisco where more than 300 mostly small and moderate-size wineries will be putting their best pours forward.

Admission is $65 in advance and $75  at the door. Details online at the Family Winemakers of California website.

The FWC event has been an annual affair for the last 20 years, serving as a tasting platform to expose smaller wine producers to wine consumers and the wine-selling trade.

I happened to attend the very first gathering  in 1991 at the Sheraton Palace Hotel where 46 member wineries presented their wines. The event has grown up in size and stature over the years.  Click here to read about last year’s FWC tasting.

With hundreds of wineries pouring several wines apiece, the only sure thing is there will be lots of interesting wine available for tasting. I’ll seek out the most interesting examples and report back on how it turned out.

Urban Wine Finds

It was hard to find a clinker at the Urban Wine Experience last weekend in Oakland. I enjoyed a wide sampling of good wines from the group, which includes more than 20 East Bay wineries.

Two white wines stood out from the crowd.

Urbano Cellars

I’d forgotten how good chenin blanc can be until Bob Rawson of Urbano Cellars shared a glass of his 2010 bottling from Green Valley (Solano County).

This $17 white wine, which took silver at the California State Fair,  is balanced with a refreshing crispness that’s true to the varietal’s form. I picked up some citrus  and peaches on the nose — along with a touch of minerality — to complete a nice package of flavors.

J.C. Cellars

I’m not usually a sucker for cute names, but First Date ($28) caught my eye when I saw the name on a bottle of 2009 blended white wine being poured by J.C. Cellars of Oakland.

The mix is Roussane and Marsanne, two grapes with French ancestry, that are relatively rate in the United States.

Together, they produced a luscious mouthful of ripe apricot delight. I loved the honeysuckle nose, too. Kudos to winemaker Jeff Cohn.

Tayerle Pinot

The 2008 old vine pinot noir from Tayerle Wines stood out as a best buy at the Urban Experience.

The wine, crafted by owner/winemaker/classically trained musician Loren Tayerle, is made from Central Coast fruit. It’s got a nice spicy approach, pleasing cherry flavors and a cherry nose.

I’d rate this a best buy and one of the better California pinots for less than $20 that I’ve tasted.

Ehrenberg Petite Sirah

My favorite red  wine at the tasting was the $30 petite sirah from Ehrenberg Cellars, a small producer operating at Alameda Point in the Rock Wall Wine Company compound.

The 2009 is made from Lodi fruit. The wine is an inky dark mouthful of chocolate mocha flavors, luscious and smooth. It’s $28 a bottle. Only 35 cases were produced.


Two Big Tasting Events Ahead

January 21, 2011

There’s a wine competition of some sort nearly every week, but the San Francisco Chronicle’s massive judging of American wines is something special, giving Bay Area imbibers a chance to sample the biggest all-USA wine list in the country.

The  SF Chronicle Wine Competition winners — and many of the other entries — will be featured in a one-day event scheduled Feb. 19 at Fort Mason. Advance tickets and all the details about the tasting are available online for $65. Tickets at the door, if available, are $80.

Six sweepstakes winners were announced earlier this year. There were 5,005 entries from wineries in California and 22 other states.

SF Chronicle Sweepstakes Winners

Four of the top wines were made in the Golden State, including three from Paso Robles — Thatcher Winery’s 2008 Triumvirate (zinfandel, $36), a 2008 cabernet sauvignon ($32) from Ecluse Wines and a late harvest sauvignon blanc dessert wine (2009, $30) from Alapay Cellars.

The other California sweepstakes winner was Sonoma’s Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, which drew high praise for its 2006 brut rose ($42), the competition’s top sparkling wine. I reviewed the 2005  vintage, another winner in my book, in an earlier blog.

A New Mexico gewurztraminer, St. Clair’s 2009 ($11), surpassed all other white wines in the judging while a $12 2010 rose of sangiovese from Washington’s Barnard Griffin was chosen as the best pink wine of the competition.

Warning: 20th ZAP Ahead

The 20th edition of the world’s biggest tasting of zinfandel wine is coming up in San Francisco next weekend.

The Zinfandel Advocates and Producers grand tasting at Fort Mason runs from 2-5 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 29. Tickets are $70 ($60 for ZAP members, who get in an hour early). 

More than 250 wineries will pour their finest offerings at the grand tasting. ZAP also sponsors a series of more intimate (and expensive) events in the two days leading up to the main affair.

Here’s the schedule of events leading up to the grand tasting:

ZAP Warm-Up

Good Eats and Zinfandel, 6-9 p.m., Thursday January 27, Fort Mason Center. More than 50 different wines are paired with food from 50 different restaurants. Tickets are $140 for the pubilc; $100 for ZAP members.

Flights!, 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday January 28, 2011, Westin St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco. SOLD OUT

Evening with the Winemakers, Dinner and Benefit Auction, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. ”  Westin St. Francis Hotel. Sit down to dinner with the world’s top zinfandel winemakers and bid on auction packages to benefit ZAP charities. Tickets are $225 (includes one-year ZAP membership) in advance.

New Oakland Wine Bar — Punchdown

There’s a new, fun place to taste wine in downtown Oakland, the Punchdown at 2212 Broadway.

The menu showcases a nice selection of about three dozen wines by the glass, carafe and bottle at reasonable prices. The focus is on “natural” wines, made without excessive manipulation and/or chemicalization. A limited, but tasty menu, is served all day.

Punchdown took over the same storefront that was vacated several months ago by the Franklin Square Wine Bar.

It’s a comfortable location with a nice vibe to it that made me want to come back and try more of their offerings. There are regular tasting flights of three wines each for reds and whites plus a ‘mystery flight” of three different wines selected by the house for $12. The flight is free — if you can identify all three of the wines.

Cork This!

December 3, 2010

As the season of giving approaches, I looked in a different direction this week for blogging inspiration — giving back.

What are you supposed to do with a bad bottle of wine?

Bad Signs

Wine is an agricultural product, subject to variations of geography, geology, weather, growing practices, production methods, storage conditions and maturity. Sometimes, even a good product can turn bad.

Poor handling, extreme weather and fouled closures (like tainted corks) can all adversely affect the final product, which is also also evolving over time through the aging process.

Serious problems usually don’t present themselves until the bottle is opened, the wine is poured and the taste and smell indicate there’s an issue. By then, you’re committed. Right?

Not so fast.

While the odds of getting a tainted bottle of wine are not very high, it does happen. I’ve had only one personal experiences in restaurants with a purchased wine that was spoiled.

The two major failures are caused by oxidation and spoiled/tainted corks.


Oxidation literally means the addition of oxygen, which over time will interact with the wine and make it degrade.

If the closure is damaged, or if a natural cork dries out and shrinks, oxygen seeps into the bottle and the wine begins to spoil. If you have ever left an open bottle of wine in the refrigerator for more than a week, you know what I’m talking about. It tastes stale, maybe musty. Sometimes, there’s the flavor of overcooked fruit.

TCA — Tainted Cork

Corks can be tainted at the microbial level by TCA, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole. The offending process that produces TCA commences when an airborne fungus combines with chlorophenal compounds that may come from pesticides and wood preservatives.

The presence of TCA is not harmful, health-wise, but it does produce unpleasant odors. Think wet newspapers or that wet dog smell and you get a pretty good idea of how bad it can be.

Bad Wine or Bad Winemaking

It’s not enough to not like the wine. If it’s not to your taste, that’s part of the risk you take upon ordering an agricultural product with seasonal, regional and varietal characteristics that may not appeal to you.. The wine may not be to your taste, but that’s not a good enough reason to demand your money back or exchange it for something else.

Modern winemaking methods have substantially reduced the risks, but some stinkers occasionally sneak through.

Some obvious signs of trouble ahead are discoloration, corks that have pushed up from the lip of the bottle, seepage and low fill line or ullage. Ullage is literally the empty space at the top of an unopened bottle. The lower the level, the higher the possibility of problems.

You’ll see ullage levels included in wine auction descriptions of older wines, as an indicator of quality.

Send It Back!

The first time I encountered a bad bottle was in a well-regarded restaurant in my hometown of Memphis. I was in my 20s and not a very sophisticated food or wine person.

Nevertheless, when I ordered an expensive bottle of red wine and it was brought to the table, the cork disintegrated upon opening.

The wine was spoiled and had an unpleasant odor. I was inexperienced, but I knew something was terribly wrong. I gathered up my courage and complained to the waiter. This wine was not right and I wanted another bottle.

He was resistant, sniffing the wine himself and insisting that it was fine. I asked for the manager, who finally agreed to send over another bottle.

The waiter removed the bad bottle and walked away. I saw him stop at the serving station and decant the bad bottle into a carafe, using a coffee filter to remove the bits of cork. Then, he brought the same wine to the table in the carafe. He’d missed a few pieces of cork, which floated in the carafe.

I was outraged, but really didn’t know what my rights were. I told the waiter I’d seen what he did and refused to pay for the bad bottle of wine.

He insisted the wine was fine and that dissatisfaction was due to tasting inexperience, not spoilage. I didn’t know what else to do, so I paid the tab, but didn’t leave a tip.

That was the last time I ever visited that restaurant, which has long since closed. But I never missed the chance to tell anyone who asked for a restaurant recommendation to look elsewhere.

The cost of insisting on serving a bottle of bad wine? A tarnished reputation spread by word-of-mouth or, today, via the Internet.

What You Should Do

If you think you have a bottle of bad wine, first take a few minutes to let the wine breathe. Sometimes, off odors will “blow off” or diminish in a few minutes.

Give the wine a few minutes to show its true colors. If you still think it’s bad, then get the waiter (or better yet the sommelier /wine steward, if the establishment has one) and describe the problem. Ask him/her to smell and taste the wine.

A competent taster will be able to identify a bad wine right away. If the server or sommelier disagrees with your assessment, ask for the manager.

A top-notch restaurant should placate a customer’s wishes and replace a bad bottle, if it’s truly bad, but there’s no law that requires it. A retail shop or wine store might refund your money, or replace an obviously damaged wine, but again there’s no obligation to do so.

Older wines are more susceptible to problems, but younger wines can also be affected.

Let the buyer beware.

Three Faces of Zinfandel

November 18, 2010

Zinfandel grows all over California where it adapts to all kinds of weather conditions, soil types and cultivation practices. There are regional differences, of course, and some parts of the state are more closely identified with good zinfandel than others.

Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley is zinfandel heaven for a lot of wine lovers. Others are convinced Lodi or Napa or maybe even the Sierra Foothills are the motherlode of this uniquely American wine.

The grape’s history can be traced back to Europe, but it is only in America that zin has emerged as an important standalone varietal

Taste the Difference

I lined up three bottles of zinfandel, one each from Sonoma, Napa and Lodi, for a blind tasting. The great thing about all three wines I tried was the price. I saw them on sale at Lucky’s for $9.98, that’s about 25% off the suggested retail price for one of the wines and 40% off the other two!

Each wine comes from “old vine” sources of fruit. In this case “old vine” means vineyards that range in age from 50 to more than 100 years old. Regional differences were apparent in each sip, as detailed below.

Zinfandel No. 1

This wine revealed the least perfume, and the deepst color (dark purple), of all the wines. It’s bashful nose of dark cherries developed after a few minutes in the glass. This wine came up a bit short on approach with noticeable tannins.  When I added dab of sharp cheddar cheese and a hunk of sourdough baguette, the wine came alive in my mouth.

This was the 2007 Sonoma County bottling ($16) from Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma. It’s 76 percent zin with equal portions of petite sirah, carignane and “assorted” black grapes in the blend.

Zinfandel No. 2

On initial approach, there was a strong, sweet blueberry nose. The color rivaled the purple darkness of No. 1. The blueberries followed through in the taste, but the finish landed a bit roughly and abruptly in the mouth. I got a bit more pleasure out of the next sip when I took a bite of tonight’s dinner — grilled lamb kebabs and zucchini over rice. A bit of hot sauce pushed the combination of the wine and lamb up a notch in taste.

This was the 2008 Napa Valley from Ravenswood. The blend is 75 percent zin and 25 percent petite sirah. Retail price is $16.

Zinfandel No. 3

A bit less dark than 1 and 2 with some red highlights. Nose of blackberry compote. Mouth-watering and lick-smacking before the first sip. The flavor practically leaped from the glass. To say this wine is fruit forward is an understatement, but there’s enough structure underneath to balance things out. This was the Lodi bottling ($13), also from Ravenswood. It includes 23 percent petite sirah.

Zinfandel No. 4

Out of curiosity, I decided to try my own blend of the three wines, mixing equal parts of each one to produce a hybrid glass that, hopefully, would highlight the top features of each separate wine.

I liked the result, which toned down the fruitiness of No. 3 with the tannins of No. 2 and No. 1 while retaining the blueberry highlights of the nose that I personally enjoy. Given more time, I’d probably fine-tune the blend and experiment with percetages to see the impact on taste.

Thanksgiving Surprise

What wine do you serve with traditional Thanksgiving fare like roast turkey?

My best advice is to drink anything you like — from sparkling wine and chardonnay to middleweight reds like syrah and heavyweight reds like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. There is no one “perfect” choice, but I do have something different to suggest for 2010’s most thankful of holidays.

I recently received a sample bottle of Darcie Kent Vineyard’s 2009 gruner veltliner ($18, 2500 cases) from the Rava Jack vineyard in Monterey County. Gruner veltliner is a white European grape that grows well in cooler climates and it’s especially popular in Austria. Not much gruner is planted in California. I’ve tried a few unimpressive Austrian bottles, and didn’t expect much from the one domestic bottling I’d encountered.

It was terrific. The gruner offered a nice citrus nose and a great touch of lime and light peach fruit in the mouth. This was a refreshing glass of wine that I would be happy to offer on my Thanksgiving table. Right next to the zinfandel.

Operating in the same price range, and always a great deal for zinfandel fans, is the “Vintner’s Cuvee XXXII” from Rosenblum Cellars. The current release ($12) is another winner in a long string of successful bottlings for this zinfandel and Rhone-style specialist. It’s “berry” good with a mix of blackberry, raspberry and cherry flavors. My own blended “hybrid” reminded me of the Rosenblum offering, which is made from vineyard sources all across the state.

Going Green with Reds and Whites

April 30, 2010

I met with Mendocino growers this week and sampled some of their tastiest “green” crop.

The buzz you get from this “green” is totally legal. It comes from a part of wine country punctuated by biodynamic and sustainably farmed vineyards. Nearly one quarter of the grapes grown here are organic — the highest concentration in the state.Mendocino County

There are 84 commercial wineries, starting at the Mendocino county line (about 90 miles north of San Francisco). The three largest grape-growing regions are Anderson Valley, Potter Valley, and Redwood Valley.

Mendocino is home to:

*Cole Ranch, the country’s smallest AVA (American Viticultural Area), which has only 187 acres and one winery.

*Greenwood Ranch Winery, which is is totally off the grid. It’s been completely solar powered since 2005.

* Parducci, which became California’s first “carbon-neutral” winery in 2007. The winery was able to balance its carbon-based emissions with an equal amount of renewable energy for a net-zero impact on the environment.

The Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission sponsored a tasting at the Presidio in San Francisco where 58 wineries poured samples for trade and media. It was a veritable smorgasbord of wine types and styles. Several special bottles caught my eye, starting with two very good wines from Chiarito Vineyards.

Winemaker John Chiarito

Mendocino Winemaker John Chiarito

The Chiarito 2007 Nero d’Avola (made from a grape that’s native to Southern Italy) is a smooth-tasting, fruit-forward red wine ($36) that could compete on equal terms with most of the Nero wines that I’ve tasted from overseas. Only 48 cases were made.

John Chiarito, the winemaker, poured a glass of his 2007 petite sirah — a grape that came from France — and it was heavenly. Many petite sirah wines are harsh, tannic and out of control, but the Chiarito ($35) was silky yet powerful. It tasted of sweet cherries with a touch of fennel. Click here for a closer look at petite sirah in California.

Another Italian varietal, dolcetto, made by Naughty Boy Vineyards is a great buy at $16.50/bottle for the 2007 vintage. This red wine grape — best known in Italy’s Piedmonte region — comes from a three-acre vineyard in Potter Valley. It’s a mildly tannic wine that pairs nicely with meat and cream-sauced pasta dishes. A total of 400 cases were produced.

Pinot noir is the fair-haired child in the Mendocino wine world right now and I like what the crew at Londer Vineyards is doing with their pinot lineup, especially the 2007 Anderson Valley bottling ($35). True to varietal form, this pinot noir tasted of red cherries with a spicy overtone that sat like a dollop of cream on a decadent sundae.

Another top-flight producer, Claudia Springs, is a two-person operation. It’s just winemaker Bob Klindt and his wife, Claudia. Their pinot noirs are good, but I was more entranced by an amazing zinfandel that comes from Valenti Ranch Vineyard.

The 2006 Valenti Ranch zinfandel ($28) is quite high in alcohol (17.8 percent) but the jammy fruit carried the day and the wine’s aftertaste lingered for what seemed like forever in my mouth. I’d drink it with barbecued meats, spicy pasta dishes or with a plate of rustic bread and strong cheese.

Claudia Springs also produces a tiny amount of fine zinfandel from the John Ricetti Vineyard, a one-acre plot tended by the owner, 93-year-old John Ricetti, whose family has been growing grapes in this region since the early 1900s. The 2007 vintage ($24) showcases the chocolate facet of the varietal with highlights of blackberries and plums. Only 124 cases were made.

The best bargain wine of the tasting was the 2006 Sustainable Red from Parducci Wine Cellars ($11). It’s a blend of 30 percent zinfandel, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent syrah and 10 percent petite sirah. I’d call it an everyday wine that delivers great value for the price. Good on its own or with simple foods like pizza and burgers.

Parducci — the oldest winery in Mendocino —  is one of the most eco-friendly wineries in the country and was the recipient of the 2009 Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA).

South Bay Wine Sojurn

April 21, 2010

You can visit more than 30 wineries from the fastest-growing part of California’s wine country without leaving the South Bay when the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance brings its traveling tasting tour to Menlo Park tomorrow (Thursday).

I know you are in for a treat because I sampled the same wines at a media/trade tasting in Sacramento after previewing the tour in last week’s blog.

Here are some of highlights:

From Finland, With Style

Kukkula (it means hill or high place in Finnish) is a small winery with some big, interesting wines.

I especially liked the 2006 IPO ($20), an unusual combination of 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent syrah and 10 percent zinfandel. Delicious!

“When I first made this wine, I felt like I had to apologize for it,” explained Kevin Jussila, owner/winemaker of kukkula. “But people really liked it, so I just keep making it.”

Jussila drew inspiration for the name (IPO – Initial Public Offerng) from his previous life as a financial advisor. He should feel right at home in Menlo Park,  home of the world’s leading venture capital groups and a hotspot for initial public stock offers from new or growing companies.

I enjoyed kukkula’s 2007 Lothario ($28), a name you might link to a legendary romantic figure in literature, but it’s really named after the winemaker’s friend, Lothar. This wine is another blend made from grenache, mourvedre and zinfandel — a spicy mix of red fruits and berries on the palate.

Be sure to check out the pours from Ancient Peaks, a sustainably operated winery which features mostly value wines. I enjoyed their 2007 merlot ($16) for its price, smoothness and fruit-forward (think plums, raspberry) flavors. It also got a 90 rating from Wine Enthusiast.

Family Made

Ortman Family Vineyards produces another SLO-centric blend called Cuvee Eddy made from the traditional Rhone varietals syrah, grenache and mourvedre with a bit of petite sirah added to the mix for fun. It’s all berries – strawberry, raspberry and blackberry – rolled into a single sip that lingers on the tongue for about 15 seconds. Delightful!

The wine is made by Matt Ortman, whose father, Chuck, is the original winemaker and now their winemaster. The name of this cuvee symbolizes the flow of experience from generation to generation, according to the younger Ortman.

This won’t be available at the tasting, but do try the Ortman’s 2007 Edna Valley chardonnay, a classic Central Coast white wine that promises tropical notes in the nose and a smooth, oak-finished feel on the palate.

Sweet Treats

If you like dessert wines, you’ll find a unique opportunity at Rotta Winery which makes a fortified wine from black monukka grapes (which are normally used for raisins). The wine is mixed with neutral spirits and put in barrels for two years of aging outside of the winery. The result is a rich, nutty, caramel delight ($25/half bottle). Check out the Rotta 2007 estate zinfandel ($27), another great example of intense Paso zin.

Speaking of after-dinner libations, I’d order a glass of the STANGER Vineyards port-style wine made from zinfandel and syrah ($18/half bottle). It’s a sweet treat that is delicious on its own or with fruit or a slice of apple pie. STANGER is an small producer that also makes cabernet sauvignon, syrah and tempranillo.

California Wine With an Irish/Argentine Twist

Who’d figure a winery with an Irish name could produce a great wine from a grape that earned its reputation in South America?

Take a look at what Maloy O’Neill Vineyards has accomplished with malbec, the primary red grape grown in Argentina.  I liked this malbec (vintage 2005, $30) more than any other domestic malbec that I’ve sampled. It’s got the fresh fruit and enough tannic backbone to go with a variety of foods.

Maloy O’Neill is not a person. It’s a combination of the names of the winemaker, Shannon O’Neill, and his wife, Maureen Maloy, who met while studying at UC-Davis. For a special treat, try their lagrein (, a tasty red wine that’s rarely seen outside of northern Italy.

Show Biz Connections

Finally, if you’re a wine drinker drawn to celebrities, check out Villa San Juliette, a value brand that includes as owners two famous friends from Great Britain — Nigel Lithcote (producer/judge of the hit TV show “So You Think You Can Dance”) and Ken Warwick (executive producer and director of another hit TV show “American Idol”).

The current release of VSJ cabernet sauvignon  (2007, $16) is a delightful red wine. Not too serious, but well-made and easy to drink while watching reality TV or while enjoying a grilled burger or some spaghetti with red sauce.

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.