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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Alexander Valley

Alexander Valley is for Cab lovers who don't want to pay Napa prices 

Sonoma County's Alexander Valley is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon.   I suppose that's right, but it's shortchanging the region, too.

Where is it?

Alexander Valley is in northern Sonoma County just east of the towns of Healdsburg and Geyserville.  As you travel up US101 Dry Creek Valley is to your left, Alexander Valley to your right.

What grows there?

AV is a warm growing region which is great for Cabernet, but there are other grapes that do well.   The Russian River flows through the valley.  Along the river there are different soils and cooler temperatures where you find Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and even Chardonnay.   There's a good bit of Zinfandel and Syrah, also.   A couple of the great Alexander Valley Zins are from Sausal and Scherrer.  But Cabernet is king in Alexander Valley.

What's going on in Alexander Valley?

The wineries participate in several events during the year, but their own big affair is Taste Alexander Valley that takes place on a June weekend.

River Rock Casino, operated by the Pomo Indians, is a very popular eyesore.  Okay, maybe it's not that ugly, but it sure does stand out.  You can't miss it.  Maybe that was the idea.

The Jimtown Store has been there forever and was recently remodeled to attract visitors and is a popular lunch stop.    Actually, it's about the only lunch stop unless you go into Healdsburg or Geyserville.  Note:  The excellent Santi Restaurant in Geyserville recently closed that location and moved to Santa Rosa.  There just wasn't enough off-season business up in Geyserville.

Francis Ford Coppola bought the former Souverain Winery three years ago and has plans for  a big resort complex--some of which is getting shot down by the county.   But so far it appears he'll have a restaurant, a pool and an amphitheater as he's trying to become a family destination.


There are about 40 wineries that call AV home.   Some of the better known ones are Clos du Bois, Geyser Peak, Jordan, Rodney Strong, and Simi.    Some of my favorites are Field Stone, Stryker, and Trentadue.  

Some specific wines you may want to try:  

Alexander Valley Vineyards Syrah 
Hanna Sauvignon Blanc 
Meeker Carignane 
Robert Young Chardonnay 
Sausal Century Vines Zinfandel 
Simi Landslide Cabernet 
White Oak Merlot

Getting Around

It's a great area to visit in that it's easy to get around and you won't find it crowded other than during a couple event weekends.  This is definitely laid back wine tasting at its best.

One of the nicest wine country drives is on state highway 128 from the north end of Napa Valley in Calistoga through Knights Valley and into Alexander Valley to Geyserville.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Micro Wineries

Vinify, a Santa Rosa custom crush outfit, held a tasting on Sunday.  They process grapes for wineries too small to have their own facilities -- mom and pop outfits.  Vinify had an open house with tastings from 19 wineries pouring an average of three or four wines each.  Some rankings and very short notes follow.

I went for red wines only and tasting mostly Pinot Noirs with some Syrahs plus a couple others.

Best Winery 

Gracianna Winery was my favorite overall.  I tasted two wines form the Bacigalupi Vineyards--a Pinot and a Zinfandel.  Both were excellent.

Favorite Wines

The Top Wines:

Desmond 2008 Russian River Pinot Noir.  Nice fruit; well balanced.

Pfendler Vineyards 2007 Pfendler Vyds Pinot Noir.  Excellent balance

Other Excellent Wines:

Gracianna Winery 2008 Bacigalupi Vyds Pinot Noir. Just a touch hot (alcoholic) to keep it from being the best Pinot.

Gracianna Winery 2008 Bacigalupi Vyds Zinfandel.   Great fruit.   But when you put two nice Italian names together like Gracianna and Bacigalupi how could it not be great?

Olson Ogden Wines Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.  Fruity and complex with a bit of a alcoholic finish.

Westerhold Family Vineyards 2007 Bennett Vly Syrah.  A medium depth wine with nice spiciness.

Other Very Good Wines:

Baker Lane 2008 Ramondo Pinot Noir.  Bright strawberries.

Blagden Wine 2007 Sangiacomo Pinot Noir.  Complex and balanced.  Wife thought it was stinky.

Bjornstad Cellars 2007 van der Kamp Vyd Pinot Noir.  The best of the three Pinots but a bit hot.

Lattanzio Wines 2008 W.E. Bottoms Pinot Noir.  Soft, smooth, and easy drinking.

Olson Ogden Wines 2007 Unti Vyd Syrah. Nice spices, needs time to develop.

Pfendler Vineyards 2008 Pfendler Vyds Pinot Noir. Fruity, but a bit hot.  A bit overdone.

Sojourn Cellars 2008 Gap's Crown Vyd Pinot Noir.  Not ready but has potential.

Sojourn Cellars  2008 Sangiacomo Vyd Pinot Noir.  Not quite ready but has a lot going on.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Being a Tourist

For quite a few years I've worked in Sonoma and Napa tasting rooms either full- or part-time. Okay, I'm using the term "work" loosely.  Anyway, I've seen or heard most of it as far as what people do when they're on vacation in an environment that's a bit different than back home.

Recently I was on the Big Island of Hawaii right in the middle of the Kona coffee country.   On the mainland we usually see the "10% Kona blend" coffees because Kona coffee is so expensive--$20 to $38 for a pound.

First, in the nearby grocery store I found the coffee aisle and it was like a kid in a candy store with dozens of coffees to pick from at what looked like discounted prices.   I picked up a couple based on what I don't know as I have no idea what's what.   Sounds like a wine country tourist hitting the local wine shop.   I know that's how I'd feel if I came here from out-of-state and found the Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa.

Then one morning a local grower came to our condo complex with some samples and gave a talk about growing, making and selling coffee.  She mentioned several times, "It's what you like. Then later said how the coffee-knowledgeable crowd goes for a medium rather than dark roasts because they're more complex and you get more aromas and flavors.  "Good,"  I thought, "I'm supposed to buy medium roasts."  She'd be happy to sign us up for their coffee club!  I tried to ask a couple semi-intelligent questions about the difference in growing seasons (they're in the middle of a drought) and about the differences in growing regions within Kona.  Pretty good, huh?   She gave us a discount coupon for a coffee store in Kailua-Kona right on the touristy strip.   This all sounds familiar to anyone in the wine hospitality or sales business, huh?

We hit the shop in town with dozens of coffees to choose from.  How do I pick something to buy?  Some have neat packaging.  Prices seem a little high, but I have this coupon.  Is the cheapest as good as the most expensive?   Probably not, so I don't want to buy the cheapest one.  Besides it's not in as attractive of a package as most others.   I finally settled on the only organic coffee and it was in clear packaging so you could see the beans -- two things to separate it from the others.   Oops, no medium roast in that one, only dark.   Back to the drawing board.   I finally picked something else based on I don't know what.   Price and packaging, I guess.   Just like with wine where you have price and a label.  (Thank God for Robert Parker)!

Another day we went up into the coffee country to the growers' tasting rooms.   Free tastings, tours available, retail shops, etc.   We sampled, I bought a couple coffees, cruised the retail rooms, but no tours as they all charged for this.   Oh yeah, I bought some coffee beans to bring home and plant.

One guy advertised "The first trellised coffee tree plantation just like wine grapes."   So I got some pictures.

Trellised coffee trees--Just like being in the vineyards!

I brought home a half-dozen bags of expensive coffee and stashed most in the freezer.  I hope they're worth it.  If not, at least I have coffee from places no one else around here does!   Stop in some morning and I will show off my fancy coffee to you.  If you don't like it as well as the $10 Starbucks blends you usually buy ... well, at least pretend you like it for my sake.   Thanks.

It was fun being on the "other side," but also I felt a bit dumb not knowing a damn thing about coffee--other than what I like, of course.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"Natural" Wine

Is it real?  Marketing?  A new trend?

What is Natural Wine?

No one is quite sure as there's no legal definition or certification.   Most will see it as using sustainable farming, but not necessarily organically certified, plus using minimal processing techniques in making wine.

The making of the wine after the grapes are picked seems to be the main focus of natural wines.   There are lots of chemicals that can be added, some add sugar (but not in the U.S.), some add acid, "unnatural" yeasts, commercial enzymes, or water down the grapes after picking.  Others even remove some of the alcohol because by the time they've finished processing the wine the alcohol levels are completely out of balance.   Some wines are just plain over-processed just like a lot of other food products.

Food products list ingredients, but not the processes around making the food.   So adding acids would fall into this category, but not necessarily removing alcohol.    It sounds like any natural wine movement revolves around the ingredients and processes.

Trendy L.A. has a whole week devoted to natural wine

Is it Just Marketing?

Is this just playing on the popularity of the green craze and the organic food movements?   Is it just a new way to attempt to differentiate one's wines from someone else's?  

Since there is no legal definition you can call it natural if you want.

Is it Backlash to Over-Manipulation?

Some blame it on Helen Turley, others on Robert Parker, but I blame it on us for buying over-processed, high-alcohol fruit bombs that are no longer "real" wine.   These types of wines have been very popular wines with a certain part of the buying public.

Wouldn't it be interesting if wineries were required to put the processing details on their labels.   What if wines were labeled with "This wine dealcoholized" or "Genetically-modified yeast used?"    

So What is a Natural Wine?

Good question and there's no answer at this time, but people are arguing about it for now.  So will this lead to something more formal and legal?   Will there be enough winemakers with integrity behind this to start a movement?   Or will the marketing folks try it for awhile to see if it catches on?

There's absolutely nothing wrong with sustainable farming and as little chemical intervention in amy food product.  But for now "natural" has as much integrity as "reserve" when talking about wine.

I guess the question is, "How much is too much?"  when processing wine.

More info:  Additives in Wine

Friday, May 14, 2010

Visiting on the Cheap

Almost everyone wants to save a few bucks this year. That doesn't mean you don't need a vacation or at least a long weekend away. And what better attitude-adjuster than world-class wine and food!

If you're not from CA you'll find that lodging, restaurants, and gasoline are probably more expensive than at home.

Saving on Travel

If you're flying you have a choice of several airports:
  • San Francisco has the most flights. You have to drive through SF to get to the Sonoma/Napa/Mendocino wine regions.  Just getting out of the airport can be a challenge.
  • Oakland is probably a bit cheaper to fly into and a very easy drive to Napa and not too bad into Sonoma
  • San Jose is quite a long, congested drive to Napa or Sonoma, but is close to Livermore and Santa Cruz wine areas
  • Sacramento is a small airport so there's not as many flights. It's farther than SFO or Oakland, but an easy drive. 
  • Santa Rosa/Sonoma County airport puts you right in the middle of the wine country, but there are few flights and they will probably be more expensive.  There are direct flights from L.A., Las Vegas, Portland and Seattle. Also, you can carry a case of wine out of this airport for free.
Coming into Santa Rosa. Not exactly LAX!
But you do fly in over lots of vineyards.

Getting Around

You really need a car and GPS or a good map to get started. You can take one of many bus or van wine tours, but you'll save money by getting around on your own.  Travel through the back-country roads in Sonoma County can be confusing so plan on getting lost at least once, but maybe that will lead you to some great, new winery you've never heard of before!

Where to Stay

There are lots of luxury or near-luxury hotels plus B&B's. There are numerous decent motels and budget hotel chains. The downside in going cheap is the view out your window will be of commercial establishments and traffic rather than vineyards. Decide what's important.

Santa Rosa, being the biggest town in the area, will have the best selection of inexpensive motels. There are good deals in Rohnert Park, to the south, but it's not as convenient of a location. Wine-trendy cute towns like Healdsburg, Sonoma or Yountville will be more expensive.


You can easily spend $10 for a salad, $25 for an entree and $50 for a bottle of wine every night of your stay. And maybe you want to do that sometime, but like anywhere else there are lots of good, cheaper eateries. You'll find non-chain burger joints, brewpubs, plus an abundance of taquerias and Oriental restaurants that are fun to try and not so expensive. 

If you're visiting in warm weather then take a loaf of a delicious local bread and some outstanding cheese along wine tasting and picnic at a winery.

Wine Tasting

Unfortunately, most but not all, wineries now charge for tasting in Sonoma County. In Napa there are very few freebies left,  plus you'll find the tasting fees in Napa to be higher than in Sonoma County and Napa wineries are less likely to refund your fee if you buy wine.   Just one more reason to visit Sonoma, huh?

The best thing to do if you're traveling with a significant other is to share tastings.  You can to contact the wineries and ask about their tasting fee policy before you go.

A number of wineries put out free or 2-for-1 tasting coupons.  These are available at other wineries, hotels, and visitors' centers.  If you have a Visa Signature card about 75 Sonoma County wineries offer free tastings.  

Buying Wine

It's generally not cheaper to buy at the winery unless they're running a sale. You may see a number of sales this year as they try to push out inventory.

If it's not on sale and you can probably buy it at home don't bother. Look for wines you can't find anywhere else as many wines have very limited or no retail distribution.

Getting Wine Home

The more you buy the cheaper the per bottle shipping cost. Wineries generally charge less to ship than a shipping company such as UPS. So if you find a winery that you really like it is cheaper to have a half or full case shipped home for you. Otherwise, if you're picking up bottles from different locations than it's either pay the price of a shipping company or carry it yourself and pay the airline. 

If you live close enough to drive to the wineries and carry the wine home yourself be very careful in hot weather as you will ruin your wine if it overheats. 
Friday night concert in Cloverdale
Other Things To Do

You can visit the Pacific coast or the redwoods for free. Both are worthwhile side trips when you need a break from wine tasting.

Santa Rosa, Windsor, Healdsburg, and Cloverdale all have various free weeknight events during the warm months.   One of the best is Healdsburg's Tuesday night concert series. in the town plaza.

Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, and Sonoma all have interesting downtown areas to browse.

The Sonoma County Fair runs late-July into early-August with lots to do for kids and adults and is semi-reasonably priced for a day of fun. 

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The economy and a winery owner that gets it!

 The Sunday, May 2nd, Santa Rosa Press Democrat Business Section has an article about "J" Vineyards, known for higher priced sparkling wine.  Judy Jordan saw the sales of her $50+ wines plummet along with the economy.

 She's not the only one.   Most owners are either riding it out (mostly the smaller producers) or are heavily discounting wholesale so you see great sale prices in the stores while they hold their suggested retail price waiting for better days.   The latter is okay if your sales are all via the retail market.   Most though sell in their tasting rooms plus to wine club and mailing list customers.   It's pretty damn unfair to the folks dumb enough to buy directly from the winery.

 So Judy actually lowered prices and put out a less expensive blend.  At $18 her cuvee is selling like hotcakes because customers see it as a tremendous bargain from a winery that normally sells for fifty bucks.

Press Democrat article

 For some reason because wine is seen as a luxury item you don't see wineries often lowering their suggested retail prices.  A few wineries have the cash to ride it out or are still able to sell out in this economy -- that's great for them.   But for most why do they wish to screw their most loyal customers -- wine club members and others who buy direct?   You would think these would be the folks they are most concerned about.

 Judy's less expensive cuvee is an idea more wineries should follow.   

 Let's say you are a high-end Pinot Noir producer and you make 4,000 cases annually of a $40 Pinot.   Lets also say you'll be lucky to sell half of that so what do you do?   Start by taking at least half of the Pinot that is still in barrels, buy some cheaper Pinot from the same appellation, if possible,  blend them and sell it for $25 or less.   Give it a special name, maybe a slightly different label, or even a different name if you don't like your own name associated with a $25 wine (though I don't know why you wouldn't).   Yes, there is actually extra Pinot Noir available on the open market.  Ever had the $10 Mark West Pinot?   Try it!  Helluva wine and how do they do it for that price?   Of course, if you are a purveyor of $40 Merlot you have even a better chance of putting together a nice $15 one from available grapes.   Time to get creative!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Upcoming Events

If you are in the area here are some great events happening in May and June:

May 15-16 in Sonoma Valley
Passport to Sonoma Valley.  Special wines, foods, events, entertainment, and usually discounts for passport holders.

May 22 in Santa Rosa
Lots of wineries have open houses.   Siduri doesn't have them very often plus their Pinots are some of the best out there and their Novy-labeled Syrah are great.   9 am to 4 pm.

May 23 in Santa Rosa
This is something new (to me anyway) -- a custom crush facility is hosting a tasting of their clients' wines.  Ever heard of Calluna, Jemrose, or Westerhold wineries?   Me neither.  This would be a chance to sample from a whole bunch of small producers. I'll be there looking for the latest killer Pinot or Zin.  Event info.
Mmmm, Beerfest
June 5 in Santa Rosa
Okay, I know it's not wine but the Beerfest is a fun event to kick off the summer and it benefits a good cause.  Thirty-five microbreweries, a blues band, women in tank tops ...  Besides the t-shirts at beer tastings are better than the ones at wine events like the one I saw last year, "The liver is evil and must be punished."

June 5-6 in Alexander Valley
The Taste Alexander Valley event is similar to the Dry Creek and Sonoma Valley passport weekends where you can party at 25 wineries.

June 27 in San Francisco
Pinot Days.  Want to spend a day trying to taste through over 500 Pinot Noirs?  Life is full of challenges.