Posts Tagged ‘mourvedre’

Goodness, Gracious, Grenache

April 8, 2011

I recently discovered a trio of very tasty red wines — each made at urban wineries in the East Bay — that deliver a one-two punch of flavor and quality.

The first wine of the day turned up at Urban Legend in Oakland, my first stop on the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance Passport event last weekend. From my first whiff of sweet strawberry jam in the nose, I knew this 2009 wine called Lollapalooza ($26) was something special.

It’s a lovely medium garnet color with juice that’s primarily grenache with small amounts of syrah and mourvedre — all from Amador County. The fruit is a real grabber, with the fruit forward demeanor of the grenache carrying over into the taste

“We didn’t want to step on it (grenache) when we put the blend together,” explained Marilee Shafer, who owns Urban Legend with husband, Steve. “We wanted to capture all of that bright strawberry fruit.”

Two Winners from JC Cellars

Staying with the fruit forward theme, but taking sophistication a few notches higher, is the 2008 grenache  ($35) from JC Cellars, another stop on the East Bay Vintners Alliance passport event. This is the most “Rhone-style” wine of the bunch. It’s not over-the-top or hot, despite it’s 15.5% alcohol level.

The grapes come from Ventana Vineyard in Monterey County, where cooler temperatures allow longer hang time, which can allow more complex flavors to develop.

I also enjoyed JC Cellars 2007 petite sirah from Eaglepoint Ranch vineyard in Mendocino County.

I’ve tasted several other delicious wines made from Eaglepoint Ranch fruit, which winemaker Jeff Cohn handled masterfully for this effort. It shows distinctive blueberry aromas and flavors of red raspberries with an effective tannic bite.

I’d decant this wine for 30 minutes or an hour to let its flavor flag unfurl.

Seeking Sushi Solution with Sattui

I find Japanese food, especially raw fish dishes, a tough match for wine.

An off-dry riesling or gewurztraminer gets mentioned most often by the experts, but neither varietal hits the right notes in my mouth when I’m eating Japanese fare.

I much prefer a good Japanese beer (like Sapporo) or sake (try Takara Sake’s Sho Chiku Bai made in Berkeley), but my new favorite choice is a delicious Italian-style, slightly sparkling moscato from Napa Valley.

With sashimi made from tako (octopus) and fresh yellowtail (procured from Tokyo Fish Market in Albany), I paired a glass of 2010 moscato from V. Sattui.

Sattui is an interesting success story. The winery produces about 45 different wines and sells them all only at the winery/tasting room/deli in St. Helena and online through the website.

The moscato has plenty of nice fruit flavors, but is not overly sweet. Each sip revealed a bit more flavor (tangerine) and I loved the luscious texture of this slightly fizzy white moscato, the Italian version of muscat.


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.

Wine in Them, There Hills

July 23, 2010

The Sierra foothills may have yielded a lot of treasure since the 49er gold rush era, but today’s bounty is red and white wine from a pair of newly discovered wineries near Placerville.

I hadn’t planned to visit any wineries this past weekend, hoping instead to strike it rich at the casinos on a visit to Lake Tahoe.

My luck was lukewarm at the tables, but it picked up en route home when my friend, David, pulled out a winery map and directed me to turn off I-80 at the Camino Exit and head for the nearest winery.

Luck of the Draw

When we turned into the driveway at Para Vi Vineyards, it was about 90 degrees and getting hotter.

Lesi and Laiken Brown

Two little girls in swimsuits were cooling off in a water-filled wine lug, the plastic boxes used to haul grapes to the winery. Their pet frog rested on a floating leaf, much to the delight of its caretakers, Laiken and Lesi Brown, the daughters of winery owner Tom Brown.

Para Vi Pad Dweller

Brown greeted us like old friends, hardly showing any effects from the wine release party the previous night. The shindig hadn’t broken up until well after midnight, and owner was doing the last few bits of cleanup  when we arrived.

The winery is a comfortable spot and it’s wired for sound and lights used for special stage performances scheduled throughout the year. Two bocce courts draw local teams interested in competition and red wine.

Limited Production, Unlimited Potential

Para Vi (Italian for “with life”) has 13 acres in vines that produce about 3,000 cases of four varietals — zinfandel, syrah, merlot and cabernet franc, each bottled separately. Sales are strictly through the winery, either online, on-site or through the Wine Society. There’s no white wine and no blending program at Para Vi, thanks to Brown’s desire to let his grapes rise or fall on their own merits.

After tasting each wine, I’d have to agree he made the right decision. Each varietal runs to a house style, similar to four brothers who are all different but share a family resemblance. All are finished in 100% French oak.

One common component is a pleasant hint of dustiness and the other is a balance that kept the flavors of each varietal in check and true to the grape.

Every wine is very good but the piece de resistance is the cabernet franc (2006, $62). It sports a rich profile with hints of raspberry and lavender alongside balancing tannins. In the mouth, I tasted milder berries that lingered on my tongue for a nice, long finish. It would be outstanding with any grilled meat dish.

Micro-Green Winery

By chance, I got to taste more foothills-region wine from another, much smaller, winery — La Clarine Farm — that was pouring at my local wine bar, the Alameda Wine Company.

Winegrower Henry Beckmeyer brought along two whites and two reds plus a 2009 barrel sample from his tiny operation in Somerset, CA. All the wines are made “naturally.”  No tilling, no fertilizer, no irrigation and no weeding of the home vineyard that includes tempranillo, syrah, tannat, grenache, negroamaro and cabernet sauvignon.

La Clarine Farm Vineyards

I sampled two red blends from the estate, the 2008 ($22) and the 2009, which is not yet released. Only tiny amounts — less than 100 cases of each — were produced. 

The 2008 tasted of plums with moderate tannins. It was not a heavy wine, but it had good acids that made it a good match for some beef salami from an artisan meat company in Oakland and an organic sage cheddar cheese from Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Company in Petaluma.

The 2009 was more tannic (naturally) and I think it will turn out to be a very good wine. I liked looking at the long, lovely legs that trailed down the glass after I swirled the wine a bit. 

A wine that’s ready to drink tonight is the 2008 mourvedre ($22), made from grapes purchased from the nearby Cedarville Vineyard. This is a complex little garnet-colored wine with an edge of granite and a nose of fresh, light herbs. I wanted a medium rare lamb chop to go with another glass!

Agent Orange

The other La Clarine Farm wine I liked was an “orange” viognier from the 2008 vintage ($22). There’s a touch of fizz, thanks to a small amount of sulfur used as a preservative.

Whole clusters of grapes, stems and all, were fermented together, just like many red wines are processed. The result is a delightful, zingy wine with an enticing aroma that releases after about 15-20 minutes in the glass. There is a layer of honey on the tongue with a very nice aroma of sweet, fresh hay. Unusual and worth a try if you can find any of the 56 case production.

White Wine of the Week

I meant to share several bottles of wine with my friends at Lake Tahoe, but it was so hot that we left the reds alone and only cracked one white wine and it was quite good. I brought the 2008 Saintsbury Carneros chardonnay (2008, $19.99), sent to me by the winery to sample.

I was suspicious, since it was in the trunk of my car over the course of a very hot day, of how it might taste. I don’t recommend the hot trunk treatment, but the wine was no worse for wear.

At our hotel, I iced the bottle down for about 20 minutes and then opened it to toast our weekend fortunes. It was delicious — creamy good with just enough oak to give it structure. The citrusy nose was completed by Asian apple pear tastes and a nice round feel in the mouth, thanks to sur lie aging and complete malolactic fermentation. The wine was also bottled unfiltered.

I liked the ease of a screwcap closure versus a cork, but regretted not being able to bet my friends that I could open the chardonnay with only my shoe. Click here (and scroll to the bottom of the page) to read a recent blog that shows how you can turn a shoe into a corkscrew, too!

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.

Rhone Rangers on a Roll

March 31, 2010

The annual Rhone Rangers tasting in San Francisco showcased some great syrah and petite sirah wines, but it was the grenache that really caught my eye and tickled my tastebuds the most.

The 13th annual grand tasting at Fort Mason last weekend featured Rhone-style wines from 102 producers from California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

When handled properly, good grenache fills the glass with a nose of spiciness  and a taste of berries and other red fruits. Many producers will combine grenache with syrah (more acid and tannin) and mourvedre (darker colors) to produce a blend that showcases the best characteristics of each varietal.

Carina Cellars Vineyards

I happen to like all three, on their own or in blends, but a few of the grenache wines really stood out, including a bottle from Carina Cellars in Paso Robles.

Carina’s grenache, from the 2007 Tierra Alta Vineyard in Santa Barbara, showed intense red fruit in the glass with a pleasurable edge of plums on the tongue. It’s available ($28) only from the winery.

Frick Winery of Geyserville poured tasty cinsault and carignane — two grapes that you don’t normally see bottled outside a blend — but it was the 2006 grenache that really captured by interest. Made from Dry Creek Valley grapes, the fresh fruit in this wine seemed to leap from the glass to my lips.

Another nice grenache (The Crossroad, $25) was poured by Curtis Winery from Los Olivos. Made in a lighter style from Santa Ynez Valley fruit, this 2006 wine includes 20 percent syrah.

Leslie Preston

I also liked the fresh, uncomplicated 2008 syrah ($29) from Coiled Wines, which are made from fruit grown in Idaho. Winemaker Leslie Preston splits her time between her Napa home and an Idaho co-op where she makes wine from Snake River Valley fruit.

“I think there is a lot of potential in Idaho,” said Preston, who has worked at Clos du Bois, Saintsbury and Stags’ Leap in California. “There’s a fresh intensity of fruit that I really like.”

I was able to re-taste the exciting 2006 Estate petite sirah ($28) from D. H. Gustafson Family Vineyards. This is the first wine made from Gustafson’s stunning hilltop winery near Lake Sonoma (see my earlier blog on Gustafson) and the 2007 version is nearly as good, too.

For a celebrity experience, try the 2007 syrah made by Fleming Jenkins Vineyards & Winery from a Livermore Valley vineyard owned by former Raiders coach and football analyst John Madden. The flavor profile is a delicious mix of cherry, black pepper and a hint of chocolate .

The top syrah on my scorecard were the 2006 Zio Tony Ranch ($75) from Martinelli Winery in Windsor. This one hit all the pleasure points that a syrah lover wants to find — finely integrated tannins, a pleasant spiciness balanced by broad, expanded red fruit.

My second favorite wine overall was the glorious 2007 Espirit de Beaucastel ($50) from Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles. This red blend had all the elements of a genuine Rhone champion. It should. The winery is run by the same family that owns the esteemed Chateau de Beaucastel in France.

The biggest bargain wine of the tasting was the Cotes du Crows blend of grenache and syrah produced by Morgan Winery in Carmel. I’d order a second (or third) glass of this $16 quaffer anytime.

One of the most interesting 2007 grenache-syrah blends I tasted came from a little winery in Oakland called Prospect 772 Wine Company. The $36 wine is called The Brat, a name chosen due to the difficult-to-cultivate grenache grape’s character.

You can taste Prospect 772 wines  — and other wines from more than a dozen urban Bay Area wineries — at the annual East Bay Vintners Alliance passport event on April 10.

Imagination Rules at Imagery Winery

September 18, 2009

If your tastebuds need a new temptation — something that veers off the well-traveled cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay path — chart a course for Imagery Estate Winery in Glen Ellen where variety is the spice of life.

Imagery’s master of temptation is Joe Benziger, a member of the winemaking Benziger family that turned its hugely successful brand, Glen Ellen, into a gold mine by selling the business to a corporate suitor in 1993. The family still makes fine wine under the Benziger Family Winery label while Joe branched out with Imagery to produce small lots of boutique-style wines from a cornucopia of lesser known varietals.

Imagery's Joe Benziger

Imagery's Joe Benziger

To enhance the uniqueness of the wines, each wine features an original work of art on its label.  The label-turned-canvas idea germinated from a chance meeting between Joe and Sonoma artist Bob Nugent, who now oversees the collection of artwork created by artists from around the world. The only requirement: artists must include an image of the Parthenon in their work.  More than 200 different labels have been created and dozens more are in development for use in future production. There is a rotating exhibit of the original artworks on display in the tasting room.

Lagrein, Cinsault and Mourvedre, Oh My!

imagerylagreinlabelTake Lagrein, for example. This northern Italian grape is quite rare in the U.S., but that didn’t stop Joe from forging ahead. He located a source (French Camp Vineyards near Paso Robles) and turned the grapes into a delicious red wine. Imagery’s 2005 bottling ($40) is worth trying for its uniqueness, but it’s worth going back for another glass due to its jammy good taste and a touch of sweetness from aging in French oak.

Cinsault is widely planted in France, but it is primarily used there and in other parts of the world as a blending grape. You rarely run across this hot weather-friendly grape bottled by itself in California, unless you’re in the lively and inviting tasting room at Imagery.

“The cinsault grapes are huge,” Joe told me on a recent visit to the winery, making a circle with his thumb and finger to show the size. “They were so big, I couldn’t put them through the de-stemmer (a special machine that separates grapes from their stems).”

The dark, rich wine was smooth, with just a hint of tannin to provide complexity.

“It feels like ‘furry’ tannins to me,” Joe said, trying to explain the delicate tingle on the tongue produced by the wine.

Mourvedre is another interesting grape, not as rare as Lagrein nor as widely planted as Cinsault but important as a blending grape in regions like France’s Rhone Valley, where it shines. Rhone-style wines made in California nearly always include some mourvedre, but at Imagery Joe puts the grape in the spotlight as a solo performer. The newly-released 2006 mourvedre ($42), grown in a high valley in Lake County, tasted of plums and purple fruit.

So Many Wines, So Little Time

Joe says he makes 18-22 kinds of wine each year. The exact number depends on supplies from growers and from the estate’s own vineyards. I really liked his current release of petit verdot, another French grape used primarily in Bordeaux for blending.imagerypetitverdot

“It’s difficult to grow and hard to ripen,” he explained. “But if you get it right, it’s great.”

A barrel sample of the 2008 petite verdot displayed a lot of potential, and tannin.

“I think this may be one of the best I’ve made,” he said, eyes bright with excitement. “At least I hope so.”

Blending Outside the Box

Joe is proud of his lineup of more traditional varietals like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, which include “estate” wines produced from vines grown on the Imagery property just down Highway 12 from B.R. Cohn and right next door to Arrowood Vineyards and Winery.

Imagery’s reputation, however, has been bolstered through Joe’s careful blending of traditional mixes like cabernet/merlot and cabernet/sangiovese plus some really “outside the box” concoctions.

Examples of the latter include a chardonnay-based wine (they call it white burgundy, $29) blended with pinot menuier (which is traditionally a champagne grape) and pinot blanc (a French grape often found in Alsatian wines) and Code Blue ($36), a blend of syrah grapes co-fermented with California blueberries. The blueberries (about one ton) were harvested in June at the peak of maturity and kept frozen until the syrah grapes ripened and were harvested.

The Imagery tasting room is open daily (10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). It features a covered patio for outdoor sipping overlooking a bocce ball court plus a rear patio where there are about a dozen umbrella shaded tables.

Nearby is the Sunny Slope vineyard, home to estate grapes that go into the delicious Sunnyslope merlot (2004, $42) and Sunnyslope cabernet sauvignon ($45). The winery’s top-of-the-line wine is called Pallas, after the daughter of Zeus, the Greek god. The cabernet (with about 6 percent malbec) is $60 while a 60/40 cabernet-malbec blend carries the winery’s highest pricetag ($70).

Up Periscope

June 4, 2009

Emeryville has about 10,000 residents, a movie studio, a big bio-tech company, an educational toy maker and a fun winery called Periscope Cellars.

If you blink while driving down I-80 between Oakland and Berkeley, you might miss the town that is home to Pixar, Chiron and Leapfrog.  But, if you get off at either the Powell Street  or Ashby Avenue exits, and head for 1410 62nd Street, you’ll find Periscope Cellars  in a non-descript industrial building that once was home to a submarine repair shop.

Unlike many of the big wineries in Napa and Sonoma, there are no lush vineyards surrounding a picturesque chateau.  Instead, this four-year-old winemaking operation prides itself on its gritty, urban setting.

Brendan Eliason is the winemaker responsible for Periscope’s tasty lineup of syrah, zinfandel, petite verdot  and Deep 6, a flagship blend of red varietals.

Brendan Eliason

Brendan Eliason

Eliason recently led me through a tasting of barrel samples of the various wines to be included in the 2007 Deep Six, slated for release later this year. Using a wine thief,  he drew samples from several different wine-stained barrels stacked three and four-high in the same space where workmen once refurbished submarines that patrolled the Pacific Ocean during World War II.

I was surprised by the wine from two barrels of sangiovese that had different taste characteristics. The grapes were harvested from the same location in Alexander Valley, but taken from different sections of the tiny vineyard. One sample had a rich, full mouth feel but a closed nose while the other had a  more pronounced aroma. They complemented each other well and I can’t wait to see how the final mixture turns out.

“The grapes we get are from four blocks in the vineyard, which starts on the edge of the valley floor and then continues up a hillside,” Eliason explained. “You can really taste the difference, even though the blocks are only eight feet apart.”

Wine has been Eliason’s focus since he was 18.

“I’m completely unqualified to do anything else,” the winemaker said with a laugh when asked why he got involved in the business. His qualifications include a degree in enology from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and a position as co-winemaker at Caffaro Cellars in Dry Creek Valley.

Periscope Cellars offers free tasting (Wednesday-Sunday) from Noon to 5 p.m.  Prices for most bottles hover around $20.

On the second Wednesday of every month, there’s a 5-8 p.m. happy hour with snacks, live music and movies.  The winery also opens its doors on a regular basis for special events, including a fund-raiser Saturday (June 6) in honor of World Ocean Day. Proceeds from the event go to COARE, the Center for Oceanic Research, Education and Education.

Beyond the Bay

If you follow I-80 to Sacramento on Saturday (June 6), there’s a big outdoor wine and food event at Cesar Chavez Park with more than 60 wineries pouring tastes and dozens of restaurants offering samples of regional fare. The 7th annual Raley’s Grape Escape showcases wines from Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Yolo  counties. If you go, I’d recommend trying the cabernet or petite sirah made by Dave Dart at d’Art Wines and any of the fine zinfandels from Jessie’s Grove Winery.

Rock, Paper, Scissors & Syrah

The annual Rock, Paper, Scissors Championship takes place Saturday (June 6) at Cornerstone Place in Sonoma.

Rock, Paper, Scissors

Rock, Paper, Scissors

The competition, which runs from noon to 6 p.m.,  is sponsored by Roshambo Winery, which takes its name from a slang term for the game. To play, two competitors square off and exchange hand signals representing rock (closed fist), scissors (two fingers) or paper (flat hand). Rock beats scissors. Scissors beats paper and paper beats rock. Oh, and there’s sure to be Roshambo wines, too.

All Hopped Up

For a hoppier experience, cruise up Highway 101 and check out the Beerfest in Santa Rosa on Saturday (June 6), featuring pours from 35 microbreweries. Tickets are $35 in advance, $40 at the door. Proceeds benefit Face to Face, the Sonoma County Aids Network.

Cline Cellars: Hidden Jewel of Carneros

May 22, 2009

Charlie Tsegeletos is the kind of guy I’d invite to my next party. Sure, he’s a great winemaker who would probably bring along a nice bottle or two along with him, but that’s not all.

Take a Peek at Cline Cellars

Take a Peek at Cline Cellars

He’s a genuinely nice man with a twinkle in his eye and a ready grin on his face. Charlie leads the winemaking operations at Cline Cellars, a hidden gem in the Carneros region of southern Sonoma County which is known for its zinfandel and Rhone-style wines.

All Bases Covered

This winery has all the basics down pat — a comfortable tasting room, friendly staff and delicious wines.

Cline Cellars Tasting Room

Cline Cellars Tasting Room

The grounds are studded with lovely flowers and a vegetable garden sits near a series of ponds stocked by a previous owner with German carp and a cadre of turtles. There’s an exotic bird collection on the 350-acre property, a pair of miniature Sicilian donkeys, and a Pullman train dining car that’s been converted into a special tasting room. Owner Fred Cline — who started Cline Cellars in 1982 — built a museum behind the winery to showcase scale models of each of California’s 21 historic Spanish missions.

Powered by the Sun, Flavored by Nature

This eco-friendly winery generates its own electricity from a bank of 2,000 solar panels mounted on the winery’s roof. Cline also follows the tenets of Green String farming, which is akin to organic methods that avoid the use of chemical pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers. Instead, the winery uses crushed volcanic rocks, oyster shells and a compost tea — made from natural ingredients like molasses and fish emulsion — to supplement the soil.

Cline Wine Line-up

Cline makes a very popular line of zinfandels. There are seven different bottlings from the 2007  vintage, including the Big Break zin ($30) from Oakley that garnered a score of 89 from the Wine Spectator. They make a couple of tasty syrahs, too, but I’m drawn to the more unusual wine varietals, including mourvedre, a red grape Tsegeletos says originated in Spain, was transplanted to France and later took root in California.

Ancient Mourvedre Vines in Oakley

Ancient Mourvedre Vines in Oakley

Mr. Cline’s grandfather, Valeriano Jacuzzi (yes, it’s the same family that invented the bubbly hot tub) grew a variety of exotic grapes on a ranch near Oakley (Contra Costa County), and that’s where the young winery owner-to-be learned to love those special varietals. Today, that same ranch supplies Cline with some of  those very same grapes — along with other exotics like carignane — that Tsegeletos turns into lovely wines.

The 2007 Ancient Vines Mourvedre ($18) is delicious with a taste Tsegeletos describes as a mixture of chocolate and cherries with an ultra-smooth finish that works well with red meats but can also complement something more exotic like pepper-crusted Ahi tuna.

The winery is open every day for tours and tasting, but if you want a very special treat, drop by on Saturday July 18 for Cline’s annual Dixieland  jazz festival.  Cline is located off Highway 121, about five mileson  from Infineon Raceway.  Across the highway you can visit Cline’s sister winery, Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, which focuses on Italian varietals made with a California twist.