Posts Tagged ‘pinot noir’

It’s Pinot Time Again

June 9, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Pinot-Centric Purpose

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

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

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

Pinot Expansion

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

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

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

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

Viva La Difference

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

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

Lisa Rigisich, Pinot Days Co-Founder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Part 1: Little Guys

June 16, 2011

A kind of “Prince and the Pauper” duality exists nearly everywhere you look in wine country, where many of today’s top names were nobody special when they started.

Price tag and label are not always good indicators of value and quality, but a good name does count for something in this business.

The following wineries haven’t hit “big name” status yet, but they’re making good wines that stand out in a crowd.

Vinifiy Showcase

Vinify is a custom crush facility where winemakers who may not have their own equipment nor grow their own grapes can make their wine in a professional setting.

Commercial-grade winemaking equipment can be shared and there’s also a warehouse for storing wine barrels plus a new tasting room where the public can drop by to try new samples.

The showcase last Saturday (June 11) was a typical set-up.

Vinify is located in a Santa Rosa business park that boasts two other wineries (Carol Shelton and Inspiration Vineyards) plus assorted unrelated businesses.

There were 18 participating wineries pouring more than 60 different wines. The winemakers (plus friends, family and supporters) were poised inside behind a folding table with bottles of reds, whites and roses ready for tasting.

Quality, across the board, was good. A few wines really stood out for me.

Cool Pinot

The wine I liked most was a 2009 pinot noir ($39) from Frostwatch Vineyard and Winery in Bennett Valley. The winemaker is Brett Raven.

Brett Raven, Frostwatch Winemaker

The color was light red with a light dusting of cinnamon on the nose. It felt good in my mouth with a delicate mix of rhubarb and strawberry flavors that tasted seriously good together.


Another really good pinot noir poured at Vinify was from Lattanzio Winery.

The 2008, from the W.E. Bottoms Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, is a big mouthful of dark red juice ($38/bottle) stuffed with racy raspberry fruit. There’s an aroma of forest floor that’s nice, too.


One more Bennett Valley pinot noir caught my eye, the 2009 Zara’s Block from Barbed Oak Vineyard.

The quality was amazing for the winery’s first-ever shot at making pinot from the estate vineyard.

I liked the flavor of macerated cherries on the palate and it had a nice bouquet of sweet loam. Let’s hope the price stays at $29.

Sojourn Cellars

I didn’t read the reviews beforehand, but I agree with the accolades that have been given to Sojourn Cellars for its 2009 Rodgers Creek Vineyard pinot noir.

This Sonoma Coast wine — made from a vineyard that sits in the Petaluma Gap of Sonoma County — swirled dark red in the glass and provided a marvelous nose of  ripe cherries.

The ripe cherry theme continued with the fruit forward taste of black cherry. I liked the hint of mushroom on the nose and the weight of this wine in the mouth.

This $40+ bottle got a 92 rating from cult critic Robert Parker, plus similar scores from other professional admirers.


The Gracianna 2010 Suzanne’s Blend chardonnay ($34) stood out for its tangerine fruit — which struck a nice balance between sweet and tart — and for a de-emphasis on oakiness despite the use of 100 percent French oak barrels. This was a well-balanced and sophisticated effort made from Russian River Valley fruit.

Part Two: Princely Approach

You’ve just read about the “pauper” side of this two-part tale. Tune in again tomorrow when this blog continues with a focus on the “prince” — an elite winery with a stable of fine wines produced at a luxurious Sonoma County estate.

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.


June 26, 2010

This is a great time to be a fan of pinot noir in the Bay Area which is ground zero for Pinot Days — the biggest winetasting event in the country featuring a single varietal.

A series of smaller events have been held over the past two weeks leading up to the Pinot Days Grand Tasting on Sunday (June 27) at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Tickets are available online for $60 each. Walk-up tickets will also be for sale at the venue, where more than 200 wineries will be pouring their best bottles from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The list of wineries — starting alphbetically with organic producer Adastra from the Carneros region and running to Santa Rosa-based Zepaltas — is heavy on California entries. There’s also a contingent from Oregon, including Archery Summit and Domaine Serene, both leading pinot noir producers in the Pacific Northwest.

I’ve attended a few pre-event tastings, including a special media-only preview of some of the top producers.

With more than 1000 different wines to choose from at the main event, there’s no way to taste everything in sight. I look for new faces in the crowd and also hope to find values coming from anywhere, especially some of the smaller wineries currently flying under the radar.

Hanzell Shines

Of course, no big tasting would be complete without a chance to sample the newest offerings from award-winning producers.

Hanzell Vineyards, Sonoma

My top pick from all of the wines poured at Pinot Days is Hanzell Vineyards 2006. Most wineries are pouring 2007s and 2008s, but this four-year-old bottle of $70 juice shines like a beacon with brilliant red fruit and a nose that is intoxicating. It needs decanting, at least a couple of hours, to really hit it’s stride, but it’s well worth the wait!

The fruit comes from a mountainside vineyard about a mile north of Sonoma, first planted to pinot noir in 1953. The estate now contains more than 42 acres of vines, with one-fourth planted to pinot noir and the rest chardonnay.

An old favorite of mine, Scherrer Winery in Sebastapol, is showing well with its 2007 Platt Vineyard pinor noir. The wine is immediately approachable, open and luscious with red cherry fruit and a whiff of sassafras. Winemaker Fred Scherrer sources the grapes for this wine  from a 15-acre parcel that sits at 400-800 feet above sea level, about five miles from the Pacific Ocean near the town of Bodega.

Moving north, to Mendocino, we find the home of Shandel’s Oppenlander Vineyard pinot noir. The 2007 vintage, released just this week, is a marvelous effort. It’s a darker pinot, thanks to some Pommard clone in the mix, with a nice spicy mint element to the nose and on the tongue.

Winemaker John Pepe and Laree Mancour at Pinot Days

John Pepe and Laree Mancour at Pinot Days

Oppenlander winemaker John Pepe points to the wild Mexican sage growing near the vineyard as one reason for the spiciness.There are about 20 acres of vines on the Surprise Valley Ranch property, which also operates as a timber and cattle ranch and is the source of award-winning blackberry jam.

From Z to A

I first heard about winemaker Ryan Zepaltas while tasting wines from Suacci Carciere Winery. He’s the winemaker for this boutique winery and consults with other small wineries.

I liked both versions of this wine from the 2008 vintage. The first, labeled Russian River, is a bit darker and heavier due to addition of about 20 percent whole clusters (stems and all) during fermentation of the juice harvested from the 6.5-acre vineyard. It has great raspberry fruit and a delightful spice-tinted nose.

No whole clusters were used in the 2008 Suacci Vineyard wine, which is lighter in appearance and taste. I sense cherry blossoms on the nose and a nice tartness on the approach to balance the pomengrante and cherry flavors.

Winemaker Ryan Zepaltas

Ryan Zepaltas

Zepaltas makes interesting pinot noir under his own label, too.

His own 2008 pinot noir ($44) from the W.E. Bottoms Vineyard in the Russian River region is outstanding. It’s a dark red wine with strong concentrations of cherry fruit to go with an earthy feel and flavor. It’s ready to go now (please decant this wine and let it sit for an hour to unleash its potential!) but the winemaker also believes it will get better with a few more years of age.

Making Marvelous Wine at Martinelli

I also liked a trio of amazing wines from Martinelli Winery, a six-generation family winemaking operation whose pinot noir and zinfandel programs are world class.

The 2007 Three Sisters pinot noir ($60) exhibits great spiciness with a long, firm finish that shows off great cherry/berry fruit. The 2007 Moonshine Ranch ($70) takes that great taste a step higher and the 2008 Zio Tony Ranch ($60) is just amazingly good with cola/tea flavors against a strong cherry component with a finish that just lingers in the mouth for minutes.

Looking to the Stars

While Martinelli controls hundreds of acres and has been a fixture in wine country for more than a century, Adastra has a much shorter time and space impact on the wine world.

Adastra (which means “to the stars” in Latin) has just 20 acres of vineyards in the Carneros region, where the operation is strictly organic. Owners Chris and Naomi Thorpe bought the property in 1984, thinking it would be a good site for cattle ranching. By 1989, they dropped the cows and began planting vines.

Today, Adastra grows chardonnay, merlot and six acres of pinot noir. The 2007 pinot noir is a very good wine ($40) but a bottle of the 2006 reserve pinot noir (Proximus, $56) is outstanding. Made from a mix of Pommard and Dijon clones, this big wine features a hint of spice against a long, dark elegant flavor that is hard to resist.

Father’s Day Wine Reflections

June 10, 2010

My father was good at many things, but wine wasn’t really a passion for him.

Lancer's Wine

Art Thorsberg was a traveling salesman who sold rakes, shovels, hoes and other garden tools to hardware stores. On the weekends, he and my mother, Ruth, would enjoy an occasional glass of wine. I clearly remember bottles of Lancer’s and Mateus rose — both pink wines from Portugal — sometimes showing up in our refrigerator.

My dad was a bargain shopper, whether it was food, clothes or wine.

When he made business trips to Arkansas, the closest wine-producing state to our family home in West Tennessee, he would bring back bottles with names like pink catawba, alpine rose and niagra. They were inexpensive, medium sweet wines from Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, which is the oldest and largest winery in middle America.

I got my first sips of these wines at home and became intrigued. On my own, I developed a taste for drier styled table wines. I grew up and tasted new bottles of reds and whites from France, Italy and California. I started reading about wine and went to a few organized wine tastings.

Clos du Bois cabernet sauvignon from Alexander Valley — still a very nice wine — was one of my early California favorites.

I wanted to share my growing enthusiasm for fine wines with my parents, but my efforts fell woefully short of success.

On a family trip to Florida to watch spring training baseball, my wife and I took my parents to a fancy steakhouse with the most extensive wine list I’d ever encountered. Bern’s Steak House is still serving up sizzling steaks and fantastic wines in Tampa from a list that includes 6,800 entries from all over the world.

When we dined at Bern’s, the wine list was an actual book that was several inches thick. To keep patrons from stealing it, the book was chained to the table!

The list featured killer bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy, treasures from Italy and Spain along with some of the most famous labels in the American wine industry. I pored over page after page of exciting possibilities, licking my lips at the liquid pleasure to come and  practically giddy with anticipation.

Trying to be nonchalant, I told my parents to order any bottle they wanted. No restrictions. It was on me.

My mom and dad, both products of the Great Depression, looked back in horror. They had no idea what to choose from such an enormous list and the prices, even though they weren’t paying, were daunting.

I offered multiple suggestions, but nothing struck a harmonious chord at the table.

This was frustrating. Here I was, ready to write a blank check for the wine dinner of a lifetime, and my parents hung back.

There was nothing on the list they were really curious about.

It was, however, a great list. And, it did have something for everyone. Even my parents.

Instead of a First Growth from Bordeaux, a beautiful pinot noir from the Cote-d’Or, an older Italian barolo or a stunning California chardonnay, they got something they really liked.

Mateus Wine

My mom and dad were treated to the most expensive bottle of Mateus rose’ they had ever had. It was the biggest bargain on the list.

I had wanted to impress my mom and dad with my knowledge of wine and my bankroll. I had also wanted to an exotic food and wine experience with my family.

What I got instead was a lesson in taste and maturity and it’s stuck with me through the years. I understand now that just because I think something is good, doesn’t mean everyone will agree. And that’s alright. If cost doesn’t matter, your taste still does.

Although it’s not to my taste, I think I’ll find a bottle of Arkansas wine and pour a glass in honor of my dad on Father’s Day.

Is Your Dad a Pinot Noir Lover?

If your dad is a fan of pinot noir, the world’s biggest gathering of pinot noir producers will be held in San Francisco later this month. The Pinot Days main event — a tasting of wines from more than 500 producers — is scheduled for June 26 at Fort Mason. Tickets for the grand tasting are $60 in advance. Several smaller events — winemaker discussions, food/wine pairings and special “mini-tastings” at various Bay Area wine shops and restaurants — are also part of the week-long celebration of all things pinot noir.

Share Your Experiences

Do you have any family wine experiences you’d like to share? Drop me a note. I’d love to hear about them.

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.

Santa Lucia Provides Pinot Pleasures

February 11, 2010

In Monterey County, along the southeastern edge of the Santa Lucia Mountains, they grow some of the finest pinot noir in California.

The high quality was evident in a tasting sponsored by the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans, a group of dozens of growers and winemakers who were at Fort Mason on Monday to conduct a trade and media tasting.

Garys’ is Great

My favorite red wines came from Garys’ Vineyard, where premium pinot noir is grown by Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni, two of the regions finest winemakers who planted their own vineyards together in 1997.

There are 18 wineries that buy fruit from the 34 acre patch of pinot vines. Garys’ Vineyard sits at 200-400 feet above sea level, smack dab in the middle of the appellation, where about 6,000 acres are under cultivation.

Tim Siduri, Siduri Wines

Tim Siduri, Siduri Wines

The Siduri 2008 Garys’ Vineyard ($54) was the biggest wine of the group, with bold tastes that need a bit of time to come together.When they do, look out. This is a blockbuster wine that’s likely to roll up some big scores.

Roar Wines is where Gary Franscioni makes his wine and his 2008 pinot from Garys’ ($50) will give Siduri a run for the money. This young wine is a classic  California pinot noir — rich with dark red fruit flavor and a lovely nose that fills the glass.

For a slightly racier profile, try the 2008 Garys’ Vineyard ($50) from Pisoni, who brings out the high spice notes in this fruit forward wine that matched up well with a bite of baguette spread with Epoisses, a silky but strong-smelling French cheese from Burgundy.

Testarossa’s 2008 Garys’ Vineyard pinot noir ($59) was equally approachable, with a similar lovely nose that hinted of violets and a perfectly balanced structure that made each sip a little masterpiece.

Impressive Organic

I was also impressed by one organic wine from the area. The garnet-colored Morgan 2007 pinot noir from the Double L Vineyard ($48) tasted of dark cherries with a bit of cola on the nose. A cherry coke never tasted this delightful!

Charismatic Chardonnay

On the white wine side of the tasting, the two 2007 chardonnays from Mer Soleil were both winners. I liked the Silver “unoaked” version just fine for its smooth, crisp citrusy vibe, but the toasty oak and luxurious fruit in the 2007 San Lucia Highlands version ($36) made it a real head turner.

I first tasted the Pelerin white wine called “Les Tournesols” ($28) about a month ago. Upon re-tasting this 2008 blend of roussanne and viognier (the name in French means sunflowers), I remembered how much I enjoyed the taste and smell of this asian pear/vanilla elixir.

The bargain of the tasting was the Santa Lucia Highlands chardonnay ($19) from Kali-Hart, a wine from Robert Talbott named after the founder’s daughter. I liked the streak of raciness in this golden glass of chardonnay that is centered by just the right touch of oak.

Highlands Fling Public Tasting

To get a taste of the new crop of wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands wineries, check out the Highlands Fling Gala Tasting May 15 at Hahn Estates in Soledad. There will be 30 wineries pouring their best wines alongside plates of local cuisine from some of the region’s best restaurants. Tickets are $85 in advance.

Good Wine, Good Deeds

January 22, 2010

The wine business can be a snake pit of competition, but it’s also a fountain of compassion when it comes to helping the less fortunate. Good deeds and good works just go hand in hand with good wine.

The premier fund-raising event in Wine Country is Auction Napa Valley, which runs June 3-6 with a wide variety of wine and food themed events culminating in the bigger-than-life live auction. This is the 30th anniversary of the Napa Valley Vintners-sponsored event, which raised $5.2 million for local charities last year and boosted total donations over the years to $90 million. Click here to see KTVU’s video coverage of the 2009 auction.

Every Little Bit Helps

On a different scale, the folks at Alameda Point Vintners, a collection of boutique wineries within Rock Wall Wines in Alameda, wanted to do something to help the victims of the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

They decided to donate 10% of sales through Sunday to the Red Cross effort in Haiti. The tasting room is open all weekend — a good reason to try, and maybe buy, some good wines. Here’s my recent blog about Rock Wall Wines and its friends.

In Napa, Ceja Vineyards is donating 15 percent of its online wine purchases through Jan. 31 to the American Red Cross for Haiti earthquake recovery efforts.

For a list of charity organizations taking donations earmarked for Haiti relief, read the Better Business Bureau guidelines.

Feel Good, Do Good

There is the “feel good” component of making charitable donations that is often amplified by the “do good” component.

A good example is the “Blending for a Cause” program that donates profits from wine sales to melanoma cancer research. Dutcher Crossing owner Debra Mathy began the charity effort following her father’s death just two months before she purchased the Healdsburg winery in 2007.

Debra and winemaker Kerry Damskey will lead the blending event on Feb. 8 from 1-3 p.m. The blend will be cabernet-based, with fruit from Mt. Veeder’s Mountain Terrace Vineyard. Check out the Dutcher Crossing web site for more details.

There are many other charitable efforts throughout the wine industry. Please comment below about your favorite wine-related event and I’ll share the info in a future blog.

I Told You So

A quick glance through the winners of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition showed great showings by tiny Oakstone Cellars in Fair Play, which I wrote about in last week’s blog. Oakstone won 13 awards, including the top wines in two categories!

Oakstone won Best of Class Judge’s Choice in the Bordeaux Blends category (up to $19.99) with its 2007 Meritage  ($19.99) from the Estate De Cascabel Vineyard and also took Best of Class honors in the Zinfandel category (up to $19.99) with its 2007 Fair Play zin ($16).

You can taste the Chronicle competition winners yourself at a public tasting Feb. 20 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Click here for more info.

Wine Pick of the Week

I’m a sucker for a decent bottle of pinot for less than a sawbuck, but I’m often disappointed by thin, tart tastes in many mass-produced bargain pinots from California.

I picked up a bottle of DeLoach Vineyards 2007 Russian River pinot noir on sale for $8.99 last week and  got much more than a bargain. I discovered a rush of lovely strawberry fruit with a hint of tasty rhubarb on the finish. Delightful stuff that carries a full retail price of $20. It matches up well with a sirloin steak braised in butter and then grilled and served with brown mushrooms in pinot reduction sauce.

Big Taste, Small Wineries

December 11, 2009

The gap between amateur and professional winemakers can sometimes be great, but at Crushpad in San Francisco they are narrowing the field with a clutch of small wineries producing premium wines that can compete with the big boys in terms of complexity and quality.

Crushpad is a commercial winemaking facility open to anyone who has the urge, and the cash, to make their own wines. The facility provides professional grade equipment and techniques, plus the assistance of professional winemakers, to enthusiasts who want to make the leap from consumer to creator.

Earlier this week, I tasted  43 red wines from 16 boutique wineries  — all members of the San Francisco Wine Association — at a holiday showcase at the Crushpad facilities in the Dogpatch neighborhood on Third Street.

From top to bottom, these wines are surprisingly good. The bad news is that most wines are produced in fairly limited amounts and there may be only a few dozen cases of each to go around.

It’s a good bet you’ve never heard of any of these wines before, due to small quantities of wine and limited distribution, but some are definitely worth seeking out, especially if you have a wine fancier on your holiday gift list who’d appreciate something different and in short demand.

John Tarabini

John Tarabini

John Tarabini, who bottles wine under the Damien Rae label, is president of the one-year-old SFWA. His 2007 Napa cabernet sauvignon was a standout wine ($63) with dark blackberry fruit and smooth tannins.

The top cabernet of the night was produced by Townley Wines in a reserve style. The very smooth 2007 Townley Shizzle ($75) is a blend of fruit from three Napa vineyards. This deep, dark wine showed a classic cabernet nose, seamless tannins and expressive fruit.

Townley also made a very good 2007 pinot noir from fruit grown on the La Encantada Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills.

My favorite wine of the tasting was a Rhone-style wine made from syrah grapes. This wine, called Homage, is from Aver Family Vineyards. Their wine is made from grapes grown on the 8.25-acre estate vineyard in southern Santa Clara County. The 2007 vintage  ($31.50) tasted of minerals and spice and was delicious!

I also enjoyed the petite sirah from Jazz Cellars, another Crushspad customer selling commercial wines. This lovely red  is from the 2006 vintage. It’s made from grapes grown in the Eaglepoint Ranch vineyard in Mendocino. I like the smoothness of this  mellow $35 bottle of  petite sirah, a grape which can be a rough and tumble customer in less experienced hands.

There were several producers making pinot noir with fruit from the Split Rock Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. The top version was a garnet-hued  2007 made by Seawind Wines . This ultra smooth $44 pinot has a creamy texture with nice fruit highlights that made me return for a second taste.

Just a shade lighter was another likable pinot noir. The 2007 from Bartz-Allen Winery also came from the Split Rock vineyard. This $40 bottle had cinnamon highlights to go with a nice fruity character that I really enjoyed.

Silver Oak Cellars — A Movement in Four Parts

October 8, 2009

The philosophy behind Silver Oak Cellars — to focus unbridled enthusiasm on one thing at a time — has made its celebrated cabernet sauvignon program one of the best in the Napa Valley. But wait… there’s more.

Silver Oak also makes a pretty darn good cabernet from grapes grown in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. Two sister estates, operating in Calistoga and Healdsburg as Twomey Cellars, produce a quartet of top-quality pinot noir wines plus one of the best merlots in the state.

Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet

Silver Oak Napa Cab

The Duncan family, which owns Silver Oak, got its feet wet in the wine business back in the late 1960s, when winery co-founder Ray Duncan began buying prime grape-growing real estate at the cusp of the movement to  produce world-class wines in Calfornia. Duncan’s offspring manage the business today, keeping each facility on a separate and special successful track.

Out of the Ashes

Silver Oak had to rebuild is Oakville winery, which reopened last September, after a disastrous fire. The facility emerged in great shape with a lovely tasting room and expanded and upgraded production facilities that are open for daily tours and tasting.

Although the label is silver and it features an oak tree, the name Silver Oak actually denotes the winery’s location, about halfway between the Silverado Trail and the Oakville Highway (Highway 29).

Mark your calendars for the next big public event, formal release of the 2005 Napa vintage on Feb. 6, 2010, when the entire Duncan family turns out to  pour the new wine for visitors to Oakville and the second Silver Oake winery in Geyserville.

Silver Oak's Ray Duncan

Silver Oak's Ray Duncan

I recently tasted both current vintages, the 2005 Alexander Valley ($70) and the 2004 Napa Valley ($100), and both are really good. Silver Oak’s Alexander Valley tasted of mulberry with a  dash of cinnamon spice plus a touch of healthy tannins from aging in white oak barrels from a Missouri forest. The Napa was a bit smoother, with plum fruit and some mocha overlays, and ready to drink.

Pleasing Pinot

The pinot noir side of the business is headquartered in Healdsburg, where grapes from all over the state are used in Twomey’s four  different bottlings. My favorite from the 2007 vintage was the Santa Barbara, which was sourced primarily from the famed Bien Nacido vineyard. The smoothness was impeccable with an overlay of cherry/strawberry fruit that was hard to resist. I also liked the 2007 Anderson Valley, which was a bit earthier with mineral components that gave it a racy flair.

Merlot Makes the Grade

Twomey merlot is made in Calistoga in a French style — elegant and true to the form perfected in Bourdeaux — with some techniques that are a throwback to older times.

Soda Canyon Ranch Merlot Vineyard

Soda Canyon Ranch Merlot Vineyard

Winemaker Daniel Baron imports special French oak barrels and uses a method — called soutirage traditional — to move (by gravity, not by mechanical pumping)  the aging wine from barrel to barrel to rid the juice of sediment and also to give the wine a natural smoothness and silkiness that has to be tasted to be appreciated. Grapes for this wine come from the Soda Canyon Ranch vineyard in southeastern Napa Valley.

In a recent tasting at the Calistoga winery, I sampled the last five vintages of merlot  — 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, and 2001. There was a strong continuity of quality between vintages, which were all smooth and approachable. I especially enjoyed the 2005 ($60),  a deeply red wine that had a definite mocha taste on top of dark cherries with a peppery backbeat.

Weekend Wine Wanderings

If you can’t get away to the wine country this weekend, you can take a shortcut to taste a wide variety of wines from the Lodi area in a special event on Treasure Island this Sunday (Oct. 11). The Treasure Island Winefest runs from 1-5 p.m. Tickets are $55 in advance  and $65 at the door. In addition to samples provided by more than 40 Lodi area wineries, the Blue Angels aerial acrobatic team will perform overhead as part of the annual Fleet Week festivities.