Posts Tagged ‘viognier’

Short Sips and Quick Trips

August 25, 2012

With harvest approaching, there’s still time before it gets crazy busy for a quick trip to wine country to check out new offerings and old favorites.

I’ve put together some  suggestions below for specific events in the next few weeks.

Sonoma Wine Country Weekend

A three-day slate of tastings and special events featuring Sonoma County’s best wines is on tap for the Labor Day weekend.

The main event of the 33rd annual Sonoma Wine Country Weekend will be held Saturday (Sept. 1) from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at MacMurray Ranch, the winery named after founder Fred MacMurray, the late actor.

More than 170 wineries will be pouring tastes for guests who will also be served by 60 local chefs. Tickets are $150 online.

Many of the wineries are hosting individual winemaker dinners and other events from Friday (Aug. 31) to Sunday (Sept. 2). Here’s a list of the full lineup of events.

Lastly, the long weekend concludes with a charity auction.

if you want to buy a treasured or rare bottle of wine, check out the 20th annual Sonoma County Harvest Wine Auction at Chateau St. Jean pm Sunday (Sept. 2) from 1-7 p.m.

Winetasting, dinner and entertainment are included in the $500 ticket. Proceeds benefit local non-profits.

 Lake County Wineries Invade Treasure Island

On Saturday (Sept. 8), more than 100 wines will be poured at a tasting on Treasure Island sponsored by a group of more than 30 Lake County wineries.

The “Wines with Altitude” event will be held at The Winery SF from Noon to 3 p.m. Tickets are $60, but half-price admission is available online in advance.

Check out the Rhone-style wines made by one of my favorite Lake County producers, Gregory Graham, at this event.

 Family Winemakers of California

I’ll be attending the 21st annual Family Winemakers of California tasting on Sunday, Sept. 9 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Tickets are $65 in advance and $75 at the door.

Hundreds of large, medium, small and micro wineries from across the state will pour tastes of old and new wines from dozens of different type grapes.

The event began with a few dozen wineries pouring samples back in 1991. I find it to be one of the best big tastings of the year and a great chance to try a wide variety of wines in one afternoon.

Be sure to pace yourself. Drink water between tastings and don’t arrive on an empty stomach. There will be food available to help bring your taste buds back to life.

Please use a designated drive or public transit if you overindulge.

Atlas Peak Harvest Celebration

A group of mountain wineries from the Atlas Peak appellation in Napa County will be celebrating harvest with a special tasting in Yountville on Saturday (Sept. 8) from 1-4 p.m. at the V Wine Cellar.

There are at least 10 producing wineries in this area, which is located northeast of downtown Napa, east of Yountville and above the foothills of the Stags Leap District.. Several winegrowing-0nly operations in Atlas Peak also supply grapes to some of Napa’s most prestigious winemakers. About 1,500 acres are currently in cultivation.

Advance tickets are on sale for $25. Click here to order.

Short Sips

I’m learning to appreciate Viognier, the French grape that some call the poor man’s Chardonnay.

I recently enjoyed a terrific bottle of 2010 Loredona Viognier from Lodi, a region best known for big red Zinfandel wines.

I bought the wine off the list at Gecko Gecko Thai in Berkeley, a tasty spot for a quick dinner that’s just down the street from one of my favorite music venues, Freight and Salvage.

The grapes are from Loredona’s Clay Station Vineyard lies northeast of Lodi in the foothills of the Sierras. Warm days and cool nights which are typical in this region help ripen the grapes to maturity.

The wine tasted of peaches with a pleasant honeysuckle nose. This lighter-bodied white wine went well with a crispy rice salad spiked with ground pork.

The Loredona Viognier can be found at Whole Foods and Beverages and More stores on sale for less than $10 a bottle.

It’s a great summertime sipper at a great price!


White is Right

March 31, 2011

I’ve decided to try more white wines this year, opening myself up recently to the pleasures of unfamiliar grapes transplanted from France’s esteemed Rhone Valley.

The annual Rhone Rangers tasting event, held this past weekend at Fort Mason in San Francisco, featured a wide range of these white wines. Unlike the more common chardonnay and sauvignon blanc or riesling, these wines are made from grapes like grenache blanc, roussanne, marsanne, and viognier.

Sometimes they are bottled separately but often the producers will make a blend of two, three or even all four grapes together.

Try This at Home!

If you like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, then you should experiment with these wines. You might find something that tastes great, like I did.

Take viognier. I’d mostly encountered somewhat wimpy versions of this wine in the past, but maybe I was drinking the wrong labels.

I found a lot to like at the Rhone Rangers gathering. My two favorites were:


Curtis Winery’s address is in Buellton. It’s viognier is grown in Santa Barbara County and in 2009 things came together very nicely.

Curtis Winemaker Chuck Carlson

My first sip of this viognier reveals a slight effervesence. Winemaker Chuck Carlson got that effect when he left a small amount of carbon dioxide with the wine after fermentation was completed. I liked “frizzante” style and the grapefruit flavor, which nicely balanced out the sweet fruit of the grape.

I’d serve this wine at any summer picnic with grilled chicken or fish.

Only 1,000 cases were made. Bottles go for $25 at the winery.

Pride Mountain

A step up in sophistication (and pricing) from the Curtis wine is the 2009 viognier from Pride Mountain Vineyards.

This Sonoma County offering ($42) is bound for glory.

It has a supple silky texture and walks the perfect line between sweet fruit and tart citrus, with sweet peaches in the nose and on the tongue alongside honeysuckle nectar and some honeydew melon.

I think this wine would complement a plate of German sausages, or lightly smoked meats. I also think it would match noodle dishes with cream-based sauces. It also tasted just fine with a dab of cheddar on sourdough bread.

Best Blend

I think the best blended white wine at the Rhone Rangers tasting was the 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc from Tablas Creek, a California Rhone-style producer with a direct link to Chateau Beaucastel, one of the real wine giants in France’s Rhone Valley.

Roughly translated, patelin means neighbor or neighborly, according to the folks at Tablas Creek. I think it’s the least expensive wine this award-winning winery makes. Call it the perfect bistro wine, an alternative to pedestrian chardonnay for the by-the-glass crowd at bars and restaurants.

At $20, I’d buy a bottle of this nice, light-bodied white wine.

It comes from Paso Robles and is made from grenache blanc (50%), viognier (33%), roussane (10%) and marsanne (7%). This wine feels good in the mouth. It’s not overbearing due to a nice balance of lighter lemon fruit and acids. The nose has a whisper of lemon zest.

East Bay Tasting This Weekend

If you have an itch to try wines made locally, then check out the East Bay Vintners Alliance annual passport event on Saturday (April 2).The wines are made at 21 member wineries, predominantly located in Oakland, Alameda and Emeryville.

Free shuttle buses will run from BART and the Oakland Ferry Terminal to five East Bay wineries, where 5-6 wineries will be pouring multiple selections ranging from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon to zinfandel, petite sirah and syrah. Click here for more details concerning this event from my last blog.




Sipping Syrah, Saving Lives

November 12, 2010

Charity fund-raising and wine-selling often go hand-in-hand. Nothing like a few glasses of donated wine to loosen up the credit card donation crowd.

I’ve attended an untold number of charity events involving wine, for personal and professional reasons, but I have no affiliation with the groups mentioned below. I was taken in by the effort and the wines so I wanted to share more about both.

Case of Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a disease we’ve beaten back, but it still kills, mostly children. Too many youngsters succumb to this too often tragic lung infection.

Despite availability of  an effective vaccine, the disease claims more than 1.5 million kids worldwide each year.  That’s an incalculable loss, but it’s not the only casualty. There’s also the cost of treating the estimated 150 million cases of childhood pneumonia that aren’t fatal.

When a wine industry joke deriding syrah wine (Question: What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? Answer: You can get rid of the pneumonia.) made the rounds on the Internet, it sparked an online rebuttal from Dr. Orin Levine, Executive Director of the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Levine’s post quickly caught the attention of the Rhone Rangers, an organization of wineries that make wines from 22 special varieties of grapes, all from France’s Rhone Valley region.

Syrah is a big player in those Rhone blends, so the organization found itself an ally, of sorts, in pneumonia and reached out to help Levine and the Gavi Campaign raise some money.

Early in the Game

California is relatively new to the syrah game. While there are now more than 19,226 acres of syrah in the state, hardly any of it was grown here until the early 1980s. That’s when the first pioneering efforts of figuring out how to work with the grape really began and it was in the same period that the Rhone Rangers group started to gel.

Taste and Tithe

The Rhone Rangers sponsored a syrah-only tasting with 20 wineries in San Francisco earlier this week to help raise money for pneumonia vaccinations and to showcase member wines.

Three wines stood out.


Novy Family Wines from Santa Rosa poured three different syrahs, all from the 2007 vintage. Their Santa Lucia Highlands and Russian River Valley bottlings were good, but the best of the lot, to my taste, was the wine made from the Page Nord Vineyard in Napa’s Oak Knoll district. The wine opened up nicely in the glass, revealing lovely ripe fruit and a nose that suggested hints of pepper and bacon. This $30 wine would make any pork chop dish better.

Tablas Creek

The most classic syrah of the tasting came from a Cal-Rhone icon, Tablas Creek Vineyard on the Central Coast. The 2007 syrah ($25-$30) needs time to develop, but it’s got good structure, elegant fruit and a lovely deep color. I strong suspect it will only get better with a year or two in the bottle. Only 500 cases were produced. It’s the first single varietal bottling of syrah from Tablas Creek, whose family also owns the legendary Chateau de Beaucastel in France.


The syrah I enjoyed the most came from Ridge Vineyards, whose cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay were covered in an earlier blog. The 2006 Lytton Estate is co-fermented with about 8 percent viognier  — a white wine grape that punches up the floral aromatics and also augments the pigmentation. This was the most complete offering I encountered. It’s $32-$35 retail. About 900 cases produced.

Deal of the Day

The best deal at the event happened to be one of the youngest wines of the day — the 2008 6th Sense syrah from Michael-David Winery in Lodi. For $16, you get an easy-to-drink wine with a core of rich, red fruit plus just enough kick from 8% petite sirah to provide an edge to the taste.

Drink Your Donation

Friday, Nov. 12, is Pneumonia Day with a parade in Washington and other events planned around the world to draw attention to the cause. The Rhone Rangers wineries that poured at this week’s San Francisco tasting event are donating $10 per case of syrah sold to the fight against childhood pneumonia. That ten bucks pays for one kid’s vaccine. The deal is good through the end of November. To find a participating winery, click this link

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!

Wine Country Values

May 6, 2010

There are values galore across wine country and they come in an array of different shapes, sizes and attitudes.

Prices are down across the board in just about every wine category. Bargains are everywhere, but I haven’t seen anything  quite as appealing as a special offer from wine, beer and spirts giant Diaego that includes discounts of greater than 50 percent on most of its labels. Some of the top brands include Chalone Vineyards, Rosenblum Cellars and Sterling Vineyards.

The only hitch — the deals are only good through Friday (May 7). To register, click this link and use “Patricia Danby” as the referring employee. Let me know what you find.

Wine of the Week: Vivacious Virginia Viognier

I’m a reluctant fan of viognier, an alternative to chardonnay that has made some inroads in California from its origins in France. I like the unexpected, but never expected to like a viognier from Virginia. Most California versions I’ve tried are lightweights, so I wasn’t expecting much when I pulled the cork on my first East Coast viognier.

It turns out Virginia makes some decent wines, and the 2006 viognier from Cardinal Point Vineyard in Afton, Va., is an exceptionally good one. I got the Cardinal Point bottle as a gift and now I’m looking for more!

This viognier has the body of a moderate-weight Napa chardonnay with a taste of Bosc pears combined with the tartness of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc covered by a nose of sweet grapefruit — a hot three-way combination that matched up well at dinner with salmon simmered in olive oil and finished with some of the wine. The 2006 retails for $24, but the newest release (2008) is available from the winery for $18.

The only catch —  state law does not allow direct sales by Virginia wineries to California!

Service as a Value

Some values have little to do with cost and much more to do with availability. I’m a member of a half dozen wine clubs, mostly because it gives me access to small lots of wine that are generally not available to the public. Most clubs provide discounts to members, who commit to purchasing some minimum amount of wines on a periodic basis.

One of my club memberships is at Lucas Winery, an award-winning Lodi zinfandel specialist whose wines are tightly allocated. I get opportunities to purchase the mainline wines, which are great, but it’s also nice to be offered special small production wines that are not sold through normal retail channels. If you haven’t checked out your favorite winery’s club selection, now’s a good time to take a look at what’s available.

The Value of Suds

An era, it seems, has passed right before my eyes.

Anchor Steam brewery was one of the first big names in the microbrewery world. Fritz Maytag bought the company in 1965 and saved it from bankruptcy. The 20-something appliance company heir (his family also owned Maytag blue cheese) turned the  beer business into a success. Anchor became an example that hundreds of microbrewers  have emulated over the years in a nationwide trend toward smaller production, higher quality brewing.

Fritz Maytag

Anchor’s unexpected sale (terms were not disclosed) was announced last month. The new owners (Griffin Group) got the brewery and also acquired Maytag’s Anchor Distilling, which makes Junípero gin and Old Potrero Whiskey. Maytag, now 72, held onto another liquid asset, his York Creek Vineyards in Napa.

I met Maytag in an interview for one of the first stories I wrote after moving to San Francisco in the early 1980s. I was struck by his plan to grow better, not bigger, and improve quality while preserving an icon in the brewing world. Maybe it’s time to go back for another interview, this time about the wine business.

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.

Zin-Centric Lodi Branches Out

October 15, 2009

Zinfandel reigns supreme in Lodi, but this part of the Central Valley wine country is no one-trick pony. There are other runners — both red and white — moving up on the leader.

It’s about a 90-minute drive from downtown San Francisco to Lodi, home to more than 70 wineries and more than 100,00 acres of vineyards.

Zinfandel is No. 1, but there are also plantings of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petite sirah, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and a number of more unusual varieites from France and Spain like viognier and tempranillo.

I was pleasantly surprised  at the top-quality of a trio of viogniers sampled at a recent tasting of Lodi wines on Treasure Island.

Berghold Estate Winery makes a classic version of viognier ($18.99), a Rhone-style white wine that exhibits floral and/or honeysuckle on the nose to go with a touch of crisp lemon on the palate and a dry finish. The 2006 Berghold cabernet sauvignon ($21.99) was also very good, tasting of plummy fruit with a backbeat of cedar.

Berghold Estate

Berghold Estate

Owner Joe Berghold, whose son (Miles) is the winemaker, had been a grower/supplier to other wineries for 10 years before introducing the family label in 1999. They’ve made eight vintages of viognier now and Joe is convinced he’s got a winner.

Loredona Wine Cellars showed a very nice viognier that was a bit juicier in the mouth and fruitier in the nose than the Berghold. Price: $11.99

One step behind those two wines was the viognier from Christine Andrews, the second label of Ironstone Vineyards. I liked the fresh lemon taste and tropical nose of this wine ($15.99).

The 2007 tempranillo from D’Art Wines was a stand out. I’m not a huge fan of this grape, which sometimes turns out too dry and leathery to my taste. This dust-tinged Lodi red from winemaker Dave Dart, however, presented a pleasantly racy streak alongside tart cherry flavors.

I also enjoyed the excellent D’Art estate cabernet sauvignon from the 2005 vintage ($24). Dart and his wife, Helen, welcome visitors to their small winery from noon to 5 p.m. Friday-Sunday. The winery’s name, D’Art, is a play on the French phrase meaning “of art.”

The best bargain of the tasting was an easy-drinking blend of carignane (40%) and zinfandel  (60%) called Abundantly Rich Red ($14)  from Abundance Vineyards.

Mettler Old Vine Zin

Mettler Old Vine Zin

I can’t mention Lodi without saying something good about zinfandel. The Mettler Family Vineyards 2006 “Epicenter” old vine zin  ($19) provided a smooth mouthful of pleasure. It was classic zinfandel, brambly with enough jammy fruit to be finely balanced.

My all-time favorite Lodi zinfandel is from The Lucas Winery. Winemaker David Lucas poured his 2005 estate zin, which showed a terrific aroma of black raspberries with a hint of oak.

The wine needs time to develop, but it is still enjoyable for the exotic spiciness typical of the  Zin Star vineyard, a 3.5-acre plot that Lucas has been nurturing for more than 30 years.

Up on a Hillside and Down in the Valley

September 30, 2009

Hawley Winery sits on the upslope of Sonoma’s Bradford Mountain. Preston of Dry Creek operates downslope on the valley floor. Both take an organic approach to making wine, choosing natural methods that link older times to modern sensibilities.

Austin, John and Paul Hawley

Austin, John and Paul Hawley

John Hawley lives above the hillside where he grows merlot, cabernet sauvignon and viognier grapes. Along with his two sons — Paul and Austin — Hawley makes a variety of  other reds and whites, including a juicy viognier that won “Best of Class” in 2007 and 2008 from the California State Fair. The 2008 tasted of fresh honeysuckle and apricot with a creaminess that demanded another sip, even at a 10 a.m. tasting!

Hawley, Preston and Gustafson Family Vineyards (which was profiled in last week’s blog Up, Up and Away)  were part of a tour organized by the Wine Growers of Dry Creek Valley to spotlight organic viticultural practices.

Corked! Comeback

Paul Hawley helps out around his dad’s winery, but he has earned his own notoriety in a different field. The younger Hawley co-directed the mockumentary “Corked!” — a satirical send-off of the wine business — with Ross Clendenen, a Healdsburg High grad (and son of Hawley’s vineyard manager) who studied filmmaking at the Brooks Institute of Film in Santa Barbara.

The Hollywood Reporter’s positive review called Corked! “a pithy delight” and “a brilliant lampoon of winemaking.” The movie debuted last year and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. If you missed it, the film returns to wine country for a special two-day run at the Raven Performing Arts Theater this weekend (Oct. 3-4) in Healdsburg.

Nurturing Naturally

Back in the real-life vineyard, the elder Hawley is convinced that organic farming is the right approach.

“Our grapes every year seem to be better and better… after going organic,” said Hawley, an industry veteran whose resume includes principal winemaking duties at both Clos du Bois and Kendall Jackson.

Hawley Hillside Vineyard

Hawley Hillside Vineyard

Two hawks circled overhead as Hawley explained how hard his 10 acres of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and viognier vines have to work to survive . The vines are planted on shallow volcanic soil that over eons had been leached of its nutrients by seasonal rains that washed the topsoil downhill to the more verdant valley floor.

“Soil is the basis of everything,” he said.

While there are no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, Hawley does use natural amendments, including grape pomace, to revitalize the land that supports the family business.

Organic to the Max

Hillside runoff winds up in places like Preston of Dry Creek, a winery with eco-friendly operations on the floor of Dry Creek Valley..

Lou Preston, the namesake proprietor, takes the organic attitude to an even higher level with a big dash of bio-diversity thrown in for good measure.

Preston Vineyard

Preston Vineyard

He bought the first 40 acres (which had been planted in prunes and pears) off West Dry Creek Road in 1973. Today, Preston oversees organic vineyards and a wide array of complementary fruit orchards, olive trees, vegetable fields, livestock and poultry. Winery tractors burn bio-diesel (recycled vegetable oil from local restaurants) and most electrical needs are fed by an on-site solar power plant. Recycle and re-use aren’t just catch phrases here. They are the law of the land.

“Man must drink, but you need to eat well, too,” Preston quipped as he led visitors past a field of tomatoes and peppers towards a pen stocked with chickens and pigs.

The winery owner and his wife, Susan, sell their organic fruit and produce at local farmer’s markets. I can personally vouch for the apple-chili chutney, which adds a new, spicy dimension to the common pork chop. If you visit the winery, be sure to check out Preston’s artisan bread, which he bakes in a customized kitchen adjacent to the winery.

“Our job is to bring to our customers an experience that is indicative of our place,” Preston said. “Which is pretty unique.”

Lou Preston and Friend

Lou Preston and Friend

Preston produces 12-13 wines a year.  The L. Preston, a combination of syrah, cinsault, mourvedre and carignane that resembles a Rhone-style blend, is a perennial favorite. I also liked the 2008 sauvignon blanc ($22), which was clean, crsip and quite tasty on a 90-degree afternoon in Dry Creek Valley.

“We have diversity in a viticultural setting,” Preston explained. “We are passionate, perhaps obsessive, with a different kind of land management. There is not so much of a monocultural approach. We eat and drink from the land where we live.”

California Wine Served up Family Style

August 25, 2009

There were a few surprises, a few new faces and some old favorites at the Family Winemakers of California annual tasting, where more than 300 wineries showed off their current releases.

Cain Vineyard and Winery, located atop Spring Mountain, is one of the most reliable premium producers in the Napa Valley and the winery did  not disappoint with a trio of fine red wines poured at the tasting Sunday (Aug. 23) at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

Cain Five

Cain Five

Cain Five (~$100) is a blend of fruit from both mountain and valley vineyards. The mix is similar to the Concept, described below, but this one is made for aging, if you can resist the pull of its luscious fruit and cocoa flavor profile.

Cain Concept ($50-$60) is a blend of grapes grown in the valley’s benchland vineyards. The winery uses the classic Bordeaux varieties — cabernet sauvignon, cabernet Franc, merlot, malbec, and petit verdot — to produce this somewhat tannic wine that needs a few more years to develop completely.

Cain Cuvee is the “entry level” bottling ($30) with 49 percent merlot and 36 percent cabernet sauvignon along with cabernet franc and petit verdot. This is the most accessible wine in the bunch, thanks to the easy-drinking merlot. Cain blends lots from both the 2005 and 2006 vintages to produce this wine.

Prisoner and Papillon and Pahlmeyer

Another personal favorite, Orin Swift, poured two really good wines — 2006 Papillon ($55), a Bordeaux blend made chiefly from cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and 2007 Prisoner ($35), a uncommon blend of 50 percent zinfandel plus 24 percent cabernet sauvignon, 14 percent syrah and lesser amounts of petite sirah, charbono and grenache. orinswiftpapillon500x367

I found the well-made Prisoner to be a tad lass approachable than previous vintages, but would not hesitate to recommend it to any red wine enthusiast who could wait another six months for the tastes to meld.

I also got a chance to sample the Pahlmeyer proprietary red blend, vintage 2006, which was excellent. This serious, deep purple wine — it’s 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot along with dollops of petit verdot, cabernet franc and malbec — displayed a favorable “racy” profile that stimulated my tired tastebuds even after sampling close to 100 wines. The aftertaste lingered for what seemed like forever, a characteristic that noted critic Robert Parker also mentioned when he gave this $125 wine a 95 out of 100 rating.

Some Small Surprises

I’m not normally a fan of viognier, a white grape from France that is gaining traction in California, but the example poured by tiny Skipstone Wines in Santa Rosa really caught me by surprise.

Skipstone Terraced Vineyard

Skipstone Terraced Vineyard

It tasted full , round, and rich, like a good chardonnay, along with a floral nose that was completely enticing. The wine is available at finer restaurants for ~$75 but you can buy it at a discount directly from the winery, provided you are a member of the Skipstone Wine Club.

Respite Wines is another small Sonoma County producer that showed a very good 2006 cabernet sauvigion ($48) from Alexander Valley fruit.  The flavor profile combined ripe raspberry and cassis plus a tinge of smokiness that hung together well on the palate.

Sunset Cellars, which makes its wine at the Suisun Valley Co-Op (click here for a closer look at my recent blog about Suisun Valley wines), poured a killer 2005 syrah blended with regional zinfandel to produce a bargain bottle ($16) of easy-drinking red. This full, round wine tasted of red cherry fruit with a floral aroma (violets?) that was very approachable. Sunset also makse a Green Valley syrah in a bit leaner style that was also very good.

For a good overview of the Family Winemakers of California event, check out this Wine Country Insider video.