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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dry Creek Valley Passport Weekend

What is it?   

This is an annual open house of wine, food and music put on by a Dry Creek winegrowers group.  It's two days with about 50 wineries participating.   Food-wise the wood-fired pizza ovens were all the rage and that's just fine by me!
Ferrari-Carano's cellar
Wineries Visited

We were with a group of eight so we decided on visits semi-democratically.

Over the two days we stopped at Amista, Armida, David Coffaro, Dutcher Crossing, Ferrari-Carano, Lambert Bridge, Martorana, Mazzocco, Quivira, Raymond Burr, Ridge/Lytton Springs, Rued, Sbragia, Seghesio, Teldeschi, and Truett Hurst.  Yes, that's a lot.  I sampled only red wines and dumped a lot.  Trust me.

We wanted to get into Rafanelli first thing Sunday morning but it was already too busy.  That place is nuts!


Armida - The heaven and hell displays are fun if you haven't been here before during an event.  This place is party central.  I overheard one of the staff saying to another, "This year if there are women taking their shirts off this afternoon let me know!"  The 2009 Parmelee Zinfandel out of the barrel was my favorite (since there were no naked women yet).

David Coffaro - An audio/visual system not to be missed.  Highlight for me was in the parking lot--the fully restored to stock '69 Chevelle SS red convertible--gorgeous.   Loved the 2007 Block 4 red blend wine also. There's a subtlety in his wines missed or not appreciated by some people who prefer the blam! in your face knockout punch of fruit and alcohol.

Dutcher Crossing - I know the fried shrimp encrusted in coconut can't be good for you but this weekend isn't about diet anyway.

Ferrari-Carano - The gardens are always impressive making this a real destination winery.  This is the first time I've been in the cellars and this is equally impressive.   So was the 2007 Alexander Valley Cabernet at $27.

Lambert Bridge - 2007 Forchini Zinfandel was great but from a vineyard with a good Italian name like Forchini how can it not?

Martorana -  A new winery from a family that's been growing grapes for others for many years.  The 2007 Dry Creek Zinfandel was the standout but all were nice wines.

Mazzocco - This is Zinfandel central as they had many single vineyard Zins to sample. They retail from about $20 to $60 -- something for everybody.  They had a Moroccan-themed party with great food.

Quivara - The grounds in front of the tasting room are full of raised beds growing vegetables and they even have a chicken coop.  The 2006 Anderson Zinfandel and 2007 Petite Sirah were standouts.

Raymond Burr - I forget about this winery for some reason but they make great Cabernets.

Rued - They went with a farm theme with hay bales, twangy music and dressed in flannel shirts and cowboy hats.  For the owner,  however, it appeared to be his everyday clothes as he's a long-time grape farmer who decided to make his own wine a few years ago.  Rued is well-known for their Sauvignon Blanc.  I loved the 2007 Zinfandel.

Seghesio - This was our last stop on Sunday and the place was hopping!  The food selection was sausage, ribs, and pizzas.  Seghesio can throw a good party like a number of others were doing this weekend but I really respect their practice of hospitality.  They really treat people well and they pay attention to the details.  Maybe it's the Italian blood in the family as you never leave hungry!

Teldeschi - They win for the best music with a semi-loud band playing everything from modern country to ZZ Top.  Their wines are what I call "old style Dry Creek" in that they are definitely not fruit-forward high-alcohol wines but need some aging and food to show their best.

Truett Hurst - Another fairly new operation with lots of fruit-forward Zinfandels with the Red Rooster Zin my favorite.

The rib tent at Seghesio
2006 vs. 2007

Several wineries had the same wines from 2006 and 2007 to compare side-by-side.   In every case I preferred the '07s.  The '06s seemed a little dull and uninteresting compared to the balanced fruit of the '07s.

2007 is probably the best year since the 2001 vintage.


Sustainable farming (and its wacky offshoot Biodynamics) is really taking off with organic farming, growing other crops, plus raising free-range chickens (we saw chickens at two wineries).   Even a lot of the table service for the food was recyclable materials rather than plastic.   Green is catching on.  "Thank you" to the farmers and owners.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Speaking of Sonoma Valley ...

(See previous blog post for more on SoVly)
Chardonnay at Kunde 4/17/10
We made a few stops with friends in Sonoma Valley on the 16th -- Valley of the Moon, Kunde, Ty Caton, Muscardini, and Enkidu.

Ty Caton, along with Audelssa, are my two favorite small producers in Sonoma Valley.   Audelssa was written up last June "A new find in Sonoma Valley."

Ty Caton's wines are maybe a bit expensive running mostly in the $30's and $40's but are very nice wines. They are a fruit-forward style but very well balanced with varietal character showing through. (I often find fruit-forward wines to be lacking varietal character and/or hot).

Most wines are estate grown on his property and are all small production--maybe 300 cases of each wine on average. The basic red blend at about $30 is a favorite.  My top pick this time is the Ballfield Syrah at around $40.  The alcohol level on the Syrah is high but it doesn't show.  It's got a nice spiciness to it that I like on Syrahs.

A short description I would use for Ty Caton's wines would be "rich and supple."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sonoma Valley

Just a little mountain range away from Napa but a whole different world

Often overlooked with all the noise made about Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander Valleys perhaps because there's no single focus to Sonoma Valley wine.   (RRV = Pinot, DCV = Zinfandel, AV = Cabernet).

Where is it?

What Sonoma Valley has going for it is its location at the southern end of Sonoma County making it easy to get to from San Francisco and other Bay Area locations.

Sonoma Valley is in the southeast area of Sonoma County just north of Carneros and west of Napa Valley.  It runs just about from the town of Sonoma to Santa Rosa bordered by coastal mountains on both sides with State Highway 12 being the main road.

Sonoma to Napa
Trinity Road between Sonoma and Napa

Just over the mountain range to the east is Napa Valley.   Napa can be reached by traveling Highway 12 east from Sonoma through Carneros.   The adventurous can take Trinity Road/Oakville Grade offering a fantastic view of Napa Valley as you wind down towards the town of Oakville.


There's a bit of California history with the town of Sonoma being the northernmost Spanish mission and Buena Vista as one of the oldest wineries in the state.  The Sebastianis, Bundschus, and Kundes have been around a long time, too.

The Town of Sonoma

Lots of history, wineries, restaurants, hotels, etc.   The town square deserves a half-day browse.  It's a wine country town that hasn't gone "hyper-cute" like Yountville and Healdsburg.   Even though I'm a local I like going to Sonoma every once in awhile to stroll the town.   The town square can get pretty busy on summer and fall weekends.

 There are numerous wine-related events in the town during the year.   There are film festivals, the Fourth of July celebration, plus several wine tasting events on the square -- the biggest being the Sonoma Valley Harvest Festival

Infineon Raceway (aka Sears Point) is nearby.   Some of the events, such as the vintage car races, spill over into the town.

Gundlach-Bundschu Winery has an outdoor amphitheater with summer plays and movie nights.

Don't miss the Vella Cheese Company a couple blocks off the square.  This family has been making cheese from local cows for 80 years and it rivals any in the world.

What grows there?

The southernmost and the northernmost ends of Sonoma Valley are a bit cooler as they are less protected by the mountains so air off the water reaches these areas.   That's why so many different grape varieties are grown though SV seems best known for Cabernet and Zinfandel.

Where to have lunch

So if you want to absorb the alcohol mid-day here's some ideas of where to go:

Near the north end of the valley close to the town of Kenwood try the Kenwood Restaurant, Cafe Citti, or Vineyards Inn.  Kenwood Restaurant has the nicest atmosphere and is the priciest, Citti is an Italian diner with pasta to die for, Vineyards Inn specializes in Mexican food (this is where the locals go).

To the south in the town of Sonoma restaurants tend to change around a bit so I'm not as familiar with them. Most recently I've eaten at the Red Grape and it made for a really nice lunch.  The Girl & the Fig is highly regarded and priced accordingly.  If you just wish to fill up and not spend a lot you can try The Black Bear Diner or La Casa (Mexican). You can check out the internet buzz on other Sonoma restaurants.

In the middle the tiny town of Glen Ellen has a few eateries.


All are very good, but some of my favorites, starting from the south, are:

Cline for the Red Truck (that's a wine)
Gloria Ferrer for bubbly
Gundlach-Bundschu Merlot
Arrowood for Cabernet
Audelssa for the Rhone blends
Kunde for the estate Cabernet
Ty Caton for the field blend Red
Chateau St. Jean for the reserve room tasting
Landmark for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
St. Francis for Zinfandel

To do something a little different while visiting the wineries you might want to take the Benziger vineyard tram tour or sign-up for one of the many special tours Kunde offers.

More info

Monday, April 12, 2010

Regulating Tasting Room Hours

A front-page article in the April 12th Santa Rosa Press Democrat talks about county officials looking into setting limits on tasting room hours.   For years a 4 or 5 p.m. closing time was the norm but it's crept up as late as 7 p.m. now.

As to be expected the winery folks interviewed thought it wasn't necessary because they could "self-regulate" and it "would hurt business."  Another industry that can self-regulate.  Yes, as a matter of fact I am laughing right now.

The first tasting room I remember was Mayo in Sonoma Valley staying open until 6:30 p.m. when everyone else closed by 5 p.m.  Don't try to tell me folks are tasting at 6 p.m.  No, they're drinking.   Tasting rooms are not bars.  They should not be in the happy hour business.   Not too long after Mayo opened they had an inter-winery party one evening.  I asked the manager how the late closing was working and what kind of crowd she was getting.  She just rolled her eyes.

Will it hurt business?  Probably for those wineries open so late.  It's no secret in the tasting room biz that the late crowd is looser with their wallets.  I've tracked the time of day by sales dollars and the end of the day on weekends is pretty damn good.   And that's being open until 5 p.m.   I'm sure six would be even better and seven would be better still.

If a tasting room closes at 6 p.m. the folks who slip in the door at two minutes before closing aren't generally cut off but taste through a normal flight meaning they are there probably 40 minutes past the official closing time.  This means any regulation should probably be a "last call" type of rule rather than a closing time regulation, as last call at 5 p.m. is different from closing at 5 p.m.

In the "old days" when tasting was free the purpose was to sample the product to decide if you wish to purchase.  As there got to be more winery tasting rooms in a given area it turned into free drinking for some people so tasting fees came into being.    With these fees often ranging up to $20 and sometimes more many tasting rooms are all too happy to become a de facto wine bar.   That is, a drinking establishment.

Wine tasting should be just that.   Happy hour should be at a bar.  Wineries are not in that business I hope.

Press Democrat article

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Diversification is a risk management technique practiced by corporations.   That, and moving jobs offshore then wondering why there's no one in the U.S. to buy their products.   But that topic is out of my scope here.

Besides have the usual veggie garden plus apple and plum trees I recently planted three Zinfandel vines.  Even though the mailing list for the 2013 bottling is growing I decided to expand into other areas.

Jeez, I hope nobody thinks I'm growing marijuana

Today my hop rhizomes (rootstocks) arrived from Hops Direct in Washington State.   Can't have all my eggs in the wine basket!   It also is a coincidence my next door neighbor is a home brewer.   We'll call it a symbiotic relationship.

Before Prohibition Sonoma County had thousands of acres of hops.  Hop production has moved mostly up to Washington. You still see hop drying kilns in the area.  I don't plan on building a kiln because it turns out you can dry them in a warm oven (that will make the house smell good)!

I know nothing about growing hops or what kind goes in what beer but from reading up I've selected these two:

  • Centennial - Similar to Cascade Hops that are really popular but with a bit more punch.  Good for making ales.  It's a dual purpose hop meaning it adds bitterness and aromas (some hops just do one or the other).
  • Chinook - A higher acid and more of a bittering hop used for ales, IPA's, stouts and lagers.
Luckily, I have raised garden beds next to the south side of the house.  The plan is to plant them in the nice garden soil and train them up the wall.

Just trying to be self-sustainable.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why I Hate Wine

There are a number of reasons I hate wine.   Here are ten that come to mind.  I'll probably think of more later as I've lost too many brain cells to have good recall.

  1. I can't afford the good stuff.  Who's got $150 to put towards three-fourths liter of a beverage?  I deserve the good stuff don't you?   Makes you wonder if $3/gallon for gas is a steal.

  2. What's with the spitting?   How in the hell are you supposed to spit your wine while you are eating?   Suppose you mistakenly chew and swallow your wine then spit out the food?

  3. I like wine so much I'll drink more than I should and wake up dehydrated.   It's not my fault it tastes so good.   If only they fix the dehydration problem somehow then I could drink more tequila, too.

  4. There are so many good European and South American wines I can't pronounce.   Can't you guys learn American?  How am I supposed to know how to say "Clos des Verdots Moelleux Bergerac?" Clothes-Dis-Vair-Dots Mole-Lou-X Burger-ack.   Jezuz, I don't even have any idea what this is--a Cab or what?

  5. Wine snobs.  You know, those people who know more about wine than you which is pretty much everybody you want to impress.

  6. Then there's the whole wine scene with the talking about malolactic and swirling to volatize your esters. Ever try to swirl your wine after already having four glasses?  I've ruined more shirts that way.  Spilling on someone else's shoes is even more embarrassing (if they notice before you walk away).

  7. The French make great wine, but they are snooty about it and besides we had to bail them out of two wars.   Yes, their wine is good and their women are beautiful, but their cars suck.  I've never heard of a good Japanese wine so maybe autos and wine are mutually exclusive.  Oops, but then there's the Germans who can start wars, make good wine and build good cars.  But they lost the wars and the wine is white.   This is getting complicated...

  8. I'm supposed to wait five-to-seven years before drinking this Cabernet?   Yeah, good luck.  The only consumable around my house that old is the chicken legs in the back of the fridge behind the beer.

  9. The Wine Wheel.   That's the device listing about a hundred different things you are supposed to smell in your wine.   I don't know about you but I smell Zinfandel.  The last time I looked there were no raspberries in my Zin.  Some bees and earwigs maybe.

  10. Internet wine forums like Robert Parker's because I have no idea what those people are talking about. That would be okay except I have people asking me for wine advice and education.  If this gets out I'll be seen as just another Chardonnay guzzler.
The only solution I see for this is to become a beer snob but I don't have the inclination to learn about all the different kinds of hops.   Besides I think beer geeks are a lot like wine snobs except they tend to be chubbier and have facial hair.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why is Chardonnay so popular?

Growing Chardonnay Grapes 

By far the number one white wine grape grown in California is Chardonnay.   In Sonoma County there is 50% more Chardonnay grapes crushed than the #2 grape, Cabernet Sauvignon.  The #2 white wine grape, Sauvignon Blanc, has 15-20% of the tonnage of Chardonnay.
Why Chardonnay?

It will grow in a lot of places--in cool or warmer microclimates.   Chardonnay grown in cooler areas are more crisp and a bit acidic.   The Chardonnays most Americans are used to are heavier with tropical fruit flavors because of the warmer climate in CA as compared to most French vineyards.

Why it's Popular 

Chardonnay is popular with Americans who grew up on soda pop because:
  • Malolactic fermentation turns the natural green fruit flavors into soft buttery flavors.
  • Barrel fermentation.   Clos du Bois Winery popularized this in California.
  • Oak barrel aged.  Fermentation and aging in oak barrels gives toasty flavors, creaminess, vanilla and other spices, and fuller-bodied wines.  That is, a lot more complexity at the cost of some fruit flavors.
  • Residual sugar.   Leaving a bit of sugar in your Chardonnay to fatten it up is a wine making secret so don't tell anyone.   :)   I believe this is done by a very small percentage of wineries, but I believe it's a larger percent of Chardonnay sales.
And you can't forget the Judgement in Paris in 1976 where Chateau Montelena's Chardonnay beat out the French in a blind tasting by French judges.   See the movie "Bottle Shock" if you haven't.  Demand for California Chardonnay really took off after this judging in '76 much the same way the demand for Merlot increased after the French Paradox episode of "60 Minutes" in '91.

It's easy to understand this style of Chardonnay.  If you're consuming something new and different it works better if you have a frame of reference, that is something you've already experienced (Pepsi) to help you understand something new (Chardonnay).   Dry, relatively acidic wines are an acquired taste.   Softer (less acidic) and maybe slightly sweet wines just go down easier.  Chardonnay is just easy to drink and you don't have to think about it.

Styles of Chardonnay

Much of that extra processing of Chardonnay came from the French where the best Chards went through this, but their wines tend to be stark and acidic.  California Chards are already fruity and lower acid and don't necessarily need the extra processing.

In the last couple decades the California style is often over-ripe, over-oaked, heavy and syrupy.  You know, taste kinda like the Pepsi of wine.   Just recently a few wineries started making unoaked Chardonnay from cooler climate grapes. This newer style is in response to backlash against the heavy Chardonnays and growing "membership" in the ABC club (Anything But Chardonnay).

Of course, it's whatever you like.   Some of the most popular "butter ball" Chardonnay come from Rombauer and Sonoma-Cutrer.  The ones from Clos du Bois are a little less so and better balanced.  One of the more historic Chardonnays is from the Robert Young Vineyard.  There are a number of Chardonnays labeled as unoaked.  Often those labeled with the Sonoma Coast appellation won't be big and heavy either, as that is a very cool growing climate.

You don't have to like either the big, buttery ones or unoaked.   You can like both.   Also, there are plenty of Chardonnays in between the butter balls and the acidic, starker unoaked ones.   Unoaked Chards will come across more refreshing so I think if you are a Sauvignon Blanc fan you may find the unoaked ones more to your liking.

You may even find you prefer Chards from a specific California appellation.  The main ones are Carneros, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Monterrey, and several in Santa Barbara County--Santa Maria, Santa Rita and Santa Ynez.

Alternatives to Chardonnay

Sauvignon Blanc has been the poor stepsister to Chardonnay forever.  Why?  It's more acidic (not as soft).  Consumed by itself without food it can come across as either "refreshing" or "tart."  Some winemakers have tried to "fix" this by making SB like Chard by giving it barrel time.

Viognier made some inroads in California but never quite caught on.  I believe it to be the typical problems with a new grape.  That is, figuring out where and how to grow it then how to process it into a wine.  Some of the first CA Viogniers I tried were oaky--made like Chardonnay.   This wine could really catch on once CA figures out the best way to make it and people figure out how to pronounce it.

Pinot Gris is the latest thing in white wines.  It's an easy drinking wine like Chard but not as heavy.  It's also a bit simple but that may be what people want for a warm day sipping wine.

Q: So what is the best white wine to have with food?
A:  A dry rosé  (yeah, I  know, it's not exactly white)