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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Now it's too hot for the grapes

This is not the year to be a grape grower if you have a bad heart.

The summer has been unseasonably cool and moist in the coastal regions of California (where most of the premium grapes come from). Growers have tried to fix this by removing canopy (the leaves covering the grape clusters) to maximize sun exposure. This helps ripen and prevent rot.

Then a few days ago the temps. shot up--way up to record highs. This only lasted a couple days, but the damage was done. The grapes clusters open to the full force of the sun are turning to raisins.

So there has been crop loss this year from purposely dropping fruit to help ripen the rest, from mold, and now from raisining. The mold problem is primarily in the cooler regions--Russian River, Sonoma Coast and Carneros appellations.

Does this mean 2010 will be a substandard year for wine? Not necessarily. First, not all growing regions are affected equally. Second, for those that pick selectively, as do most premium growers, there is still plenty of good fruit. It depends on what else Mother Nature has in store for us, but she has been a bit of a bitch so far.

For more info see:

Previous blog posts "The 2010 grape growing season so far" (July 27th)  and "2010 grape growing season update" (August 6th)

Local news article

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sonoma County Grape Harvest Begins

Sort of.

On Monday, August 23rd, the first wine grapes were picked. These grapes are from the Hunter Vineyard in Sonoma Valley and are for sparkling wine. The grapes generally used for sparklers are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and these are some of the earliest ripening.   But the main reason these are the first picked is because sparkling wine grapes are picked less ripe--with more acid and less sugar than what is required for still wines. So the "main" harvest is still a few weeks away.

August 21st in Sonoma Valley
The Hunter Vineyard is Pinot Noir and it's grown in an unusually warm location for Pinot so these grapes often come in first.   This is two-to-three weeks later than normal for this vineyard as it's usually picked the first week of August.

Other sparkling wine producers will be picking a few vineyards this week.

For more on this growing season see the previous entry "2010 Grape Growing Season Update" dated August 6th.   Also, more from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Labor Day weekend events in Sonoma County

Here's what's happening in the area for the first weekend of September 2010.
(for Autumn 2011 events see autumn-2011-sonoma-county-events

Sonoma Wine Country Weekend
This is a big three-day event with winemaker lunches and dinners, wine tasting and an auction.  The events are priced separately and are somewhat expensive.  Sizable discounts are available if you are a Visa Signature Card holder--check their website.

Bella Vineyards
Food and music

Chateau St. Jean open house
Food, art and vineyard tours.

Inspiration Vineyards grand opening
A small winery opening a tasting room in a light industrial area of Santa Rosa

Railroad Square (Santa Rosa) First Fridays Summer Nights
Wine, music, food, arts & crafts

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Visiting during the wine grape harvest

It's definitely the most fun time to be in the vineyards!


It's up to Mother Nature, but figure about September through October is when the picking and crushing is happening.  Late Sept. into early Oct. is the peak.   Note the 2010 harvest is running late in California coastal areas this year.   I don't believe much will be happening until late September, but it's a little early to know for sure.

You can check with a winery a couple days in advance of your visit to see if they expect to be crushing, but there's never a guarantee for an exact date let alone an exact time.


You can often see grapes being picked as you drive around the vineyards though most picking is done in early morning during the cooler weather.   You'll see trucks loaded with grapes going up and down the roads.   You can smell the fermentation.

The wine grape processing happens daily at the various winery operations.  They work when the grapes are ready so it could be seven days a week dawn to into the night or they may have several days lull usually because of the weather.

The grapes typically get dumped in the crusher in an outdoor area near the stainless steel tanks so it's easy to see this activity at many wineries. 

If you happen to hit the first day a winery is bringing in grapes they often have the traditional toast to the first grapes.

A few wineries will offer special events from formal harvest parties to letting you help pick grapes.  There are several festivals during this time celebrating the harvest.
Grape stomp competion at the
Sonoma County Harvest Fair

Image from

Any winery with a visitor center and the processing operation at the same site may be an opportunity to view the crush.   It's best to call around to see what's available.

One I know of is Clos Pegase in Calistoga.  They have daily free tours that include the crush pad and winery operations.  Expect noise and wet floors!   But even at wineries without tours you can often walk by the crush pad.  


The folks working the crush are very busy and probably very tired. Be careful about not getting too close to the activity without asking first.

If you want to visit small wineries by appointment with the owner and/or winemaker this can be a bad time as most of their waking hours may be taken up with the crush.   If a winery has a separate hospitality staff this isn't a problem.

Don't expect to have the wineries to yourself during the "off-season."  Weekends in Napa Valley during the crush are very busy as many others want to see it.   As always, other areas are less crowded than Napa.   Visit Sonoma County!

Friday, August 20, 2010

The history of winery tasting fees

No, it wasn't always twenty-five bucks to taste a few wines in Napa.   And yes, I gonna dump on Napa Valley here cuz it's fun!

The good ol' days

Before the mid-1980s nobody charged for tastings.   The environment was different as there were far fewer wineries and pretty much everybody in the business wanted to do all they could to encourage visitors to sample their not-so-well-known product.
As wine tasting boomed in Napa Valley starting about 1980, with Robert Mondavi considered the founder of the modern Napa, it became apparent that some people came to town for a free buzz rather than looking for wine to buy.  It became too easy to get looped in about a ten mile stretch of Highway 29.

The reasonable years

I remember my first encounter with tasting fees -- on Highway 29 in Napa, of course.  I was PO'ed they would try to do this and I left.    But with so many tasting rooms available and some folks not able to just pick four or five wineries a day fees became the norm as a means of crowd control.   The thinking was if everyone had to pay five bucks at each stop they would limit themselves.

This is also when the idea of responsible hospitality came along and the wineries had to worry about serving anyone intoxicated.

Tasting room fees inflated with time especially in the crowded areas like Napa. At some point the accounting-types saw a substantial income coming from the fees especially in the busiest wineries and they said, "Let's charge more and make more!"   

I don't begrudge anyone from trying to cover their costs.  Building and operating a winery visitor center isn't inexpensive.   But the idea of the tasting room as a marketing expense went away and it has become a profit center.

About five years ago the typical Napa Valley fee was in the ten dollar range up to twenty for reserve tastings or the high-end wineries.

The greedy times

With the accountants now aware of the revenue to be generated they said, "If we're not seeing as many visitors and they're not buying as much $50 wine then let's raise our tasting fees to help cover our shortfall." Yes, this is what happens when people who don't work the job or understand the customer are put in charge of the decision process. It happens in every business.

I have seen wineries raise their fees as the current recession took hold.  It's almost a government mentality. That is, when you have a shortfall of money (as they do now) your officials want to raise taxes on people who are already strapped. To their credit I went to one upper Napa Valley winery about a year ago that actually stopped charging fees to encourage visitors to come in. What a concept!

So now you've got a typical tasting room fee of $25 in Napa--per person. So if two couples are going that's $100 a stop! The high fees I'm sure encourage couples to share a tasting rather than each have their own and that's probably a good thing.

Though many Sonoma County tasting rooms have begun charging fees in the past several years they are still mostly in the five-to-ten dollar range.

 Napa vs. the rest

In Napa you can probably count on one hand the number of free tastings available today.  In Sonoma and some other popular areas most charge for tasting, but many still do not and they charge less than Napa.   For northern Sonoma County you can find the wineries that offer complimentary tastings at their association's website Also, you can use Google to search for comp tasting or 2 for 1 tasting coupons.  I encourage you to visit these people.

Other lesser known areas, such as in the Sierra Foothills (Amador, El Dorado, etc.), rarely charge a fee.

In general, Napa Valley tasting rooms charge more and do not refund the fee with purchase.  In other areas the fees are less and most will apply the fee towards a wine purchase.   If you're visiting you have to check with each winery to learn their policy and costs.

Where is this going?

The number one complaint of visitors to Napa used to be the crowds and the traffic.  Now it is high tasting fees with no refund on purchase.   At some point the greediness may backfire, but only if people stay away.   Or maybe $20 or $30 doesn't seem that high to you when visiting the world-famous Napa Valley.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Jess Jackson

I guess "Black Mountain Cabernet" just ain't good enough.

KJ's New Appellation

The local billionaire owner of Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Matanzas Creek, Hartford, Murphy-Goode, Stonestreet, Arrowood, Edmeades, Freemark Abbey, and so on, is on the move again. Money is no object!

After success with his Bennett Valley AVA (he owns the only commercial winery in Bennett Vly--Matanzas Creek) he's been in the news wanting to rename a mountain overlooking Alexander Valley. It's called Black Mountain, but Jess thinks there are too many Black Mountains around and it should be renamed in honor of Cyrus Alexander, the first American settler in the area. So Jess wants Black Mountain to become Alexander Mountain.

Oh yeah, Jess has grapes on the side of Black Mtn and thinks his next AVA would sound better as Alexander Mtn rather than Black Mtn. I hadn't heard this last bit of info about him having grapes there until now. I guess the name change didn't slip through as easily as he hoped.

It's Happened Before

Lawyers getting their own AVA (American Viticultural Area) isn't new. Of course, they know the system and how to get legal-type paperwork done. Barry Sterling of Iron Horse got a piece of Russian River Valley separated off into Green Valley many years ago before Russian River Valley got to be synonymous with great Pinot Noir and sparkling wine. Maybe he should have left well enough alone? No. It's probably a ego thing as much as anything else, huh?

Note: AVA or American Viticultural Areas are the designations you see on many wine bottles such as Napa Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley, etc

Friday, August 13, 2010

What to do while visiting Sonoma

Besides standing at the tasting room bar, that is.


Hiking in the vineyards
Sure, seeing a wine cellar is interesting--the first time, but unless you're there during harvest you don't really see that much.   Several wineries are offering vineyard hikes now.  As most winemakers say, "This is where the wine is really made."   Best time to do this is probably April through September.   Read about it in the Press Democrat.

Seeing the cellar during harvest
As far as actually getting into the cellar during harvest the only place I'm aware of that does this, and for free, is on the public tours at Clos Pegase in Calistoga.

Kunde Tours
They offer several different and interesting options for hiking and sampling wines in the vineyards.   Check out their web site.

Benziger Tram Tour
You ride through the vineyards and get the full immersion into biodynamic farming.  If you want to get some idea of what all the hoopla about biodynamics is then Benziger is the place.


Sonoma County is full of first-rate brewpubs.  You can find them in Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Healdsburg and Cloverdale.   If you're in the Healdsburg area and you don't stop at the Bear Republic Brewery for a burger and a beer, well shame on you.  Russian River Brewery in Santa Rosa is nationally famous with the beer crowd.


Yes, lots of great restaurants, but get a loaf of local French bread and cheese because it's some of the best in the world.    There's a lot of olive oil produced locally, too.


During the year there are a couple film festivals and several outdoor concerts.  Cloverdale and Healdsburg have free weekly concerts during the summer. A few wineries put on plays or movie nights.

Other stuff to see

If you don't live near the Pacific Ocean or Redwoods then you should visit both.

For the kids: Charles Schulz Museum and the Safari West Wildlife Preserve in Santa Rosa plus Train Town in Sonoma.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Healdsburg Dining

Healdsburg in Sonoma County has become quite a mecca for visitors.   Anytime you have wine you get great food and for a town of 10,000 residents there sure is no lack of good restaurant choices.  Being wine county chic prices are a bit high, but you don't have to spent a ton of money.

Also, being a smaller town some restaurants will close for a day or two mid-week and may only be open for dinner, especially in the off-season.  Most of the higher-end restaurants have a wine bar and many have outdoor seating.  These restaurants are on the town square or within a couple blocks.  There are more restaurants in the downtown area but these are the ones I know.

Order the El Dorado at the Singletree
if your stomach is man enough

On the cheap

There are several Mexican taquerias in town.  Near downtown are El Farolito and El Sombrero.

Flying Goat Coffee.   Excellent breakfast breads and great coffee.

Less expensive

Bear Republic Brewery.  An extensive list of salads and burgers plus their own outstanding beer.  Jamaican Jerk Burger and a Red Rocket Ale, mmm. Indoor seating is noisy; outdoor seating is nice.  A good place for the kids while dad relaxes with a cold one.

Costeaux French Bakery for a light breakfast or lunch.  Costeaux has some of the best breads that can be found anywhere.

Downtown Bakery & Creamery is another good breakfast or lunch stop.

Healdsburg Bar and Grill. Salads, burgers and beer and a great outdoor seating area.  Nice list of local wines to go with your burger.

Oakville Grocery.  A wine country chic grocery and deli with outdoor seating.

Moderately priced

Barndiva.  Locally-sourced foods and an extensive cocktail lounge (you don't often find good cocktail lists in wine country).

Charcuterie.  Sometimes called "cute" or "romantic," but it definitely is small.

Ravenous. I call it wine country home-cooked comfort food.  They've been around a long time and a favorite with the locals.

Scopa. Small and family run. If my mother was Italian I could only hope she could cook like this.

Willie's Seafood. Good spot for lunch of a light dinner as everything is served in small plates.  The outdoor patio is very popular at lunch time.

Zin.  They call themselves "American food with fresh local ingredients."  Large dining area and a favorite with visitors.

A bit higher

Dry Creek Kitchen. A Charlie Palmer restaurant.  If you feel like dressing up a bit for dinner (though you don't have to) this is a good place to go.  The food has a sort of a "back East/NYC" flavor to it rather than the typical California/Mediterranean-style of many area restaurants.

Sky's the limit

Cyrus.  Two stars from Michelin.   Cyrus and The French Laundry are considered the best wine country restaurants.  I've never been to either as I don't have the required six-figure income.  People who have been there call it not just dinner but an experience.  You can also check out their excellent bar and bar menu where you can have a couple drinks and some bar food and escape for about sixty bucks.

Where to take the kids

The more kid-friendly restaurants would be the Bear Republic Brewery, Center Street Cafe, Downtown Bakery, and the Healdsburg Bar & Grill. Outside of the downtown area are Giorgio's and Singletree.

For what it's worth, if I'm in town for a day you'll find me at the Flying Goat for breakfast, The Bear Republic for lunch, and Scopa for dinner.   Then I'll spend the next two days at the gym!

Friday, August 6, 2010

2010 grape growing season -- update

The stress continues to build for most California grape growers.

An earlier entry dated July 27th, "The 2010 Grape Growing Season So Far," mentioned the unseasonably cool summer in most of coastal California (where most of the premium wine grapes come from).  

For Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, June's high temperatures were about four degrees below the average for the month, but July was seven degrees below average.  June and July's average highs were about 75 degrees. This is the chilliest summer in about 50 years.

Long range forecast is for the same at least through mid-August.

Some vineyards in the cooler areas of the county--the Russian River and the Sonoma Coast appellations-- are reporting rot from the cool, moist air.   These cooler growing areas are where you generally find Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.   Latest word is the grapes are about three weeks behind in development.

Article on the problems from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Seven ways to avoid spending needlessly when wine tasting

Where to go, what to do, and what to buy
Don't buy this at the winery!
1. Grocery store wines.  Don't buy the mass-produced wines at the wineries. For example, La Crema Chardonnay or Ravenswood Vintner's Reserve Zinfandel are common wines found everywhere and they may be cheaper elsewhere.  Instead buy the Hartford Court Sonoma Coast Chard or the Armida Maple Vineyard Zin you aren't going to find at home.  If you're in Sonoma County, a great place to buy wine is at the Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa.

2. Tasting fees.  Most wineries charge tasting fees now.  You can search ahead for the ones that don't by checking out the various winery association's web pages such as the Wine Road.   You can at least be sure to visit those that don't overcharge and those that do refund your fee if you purchase.  Some will charge $5 for five wines; another may charge $25 for four.   Most of the high-priced ones are not that special.  Many wineries in Sonoma offer complimentary tastings to Visa Signature Card holders--check the Visa website.  Search the Internet for free tasting or 2 for 1 tasting coupons before you visit.  Tasting room fees are the biggest complaint of visitors.

3. Wine tiers.  Many wineries will have a particular wine, say Cabernet, at multiple prices with the most expensive having a fancy name, label and price.  Don't assume it will be the best.  Be especially cautious if they won't let you taste "the good stuff," but still try to push you into buying it.

4. Buying at the end of the day.  Speaking of being pushed into buying wine remember you get looser with your wallet after you've had a couple.   This is why some wineries stay open to 6 pm or later.  

5. Sales push.  Also speaking of being pushed into buying wine know that there are a few tasting rooms that specialize in sales, not hospitality or wine education.  These places can be about as much fun as visiting a car dealership sales room.  They are usually easy to spot as conversations start with tying to find out what kind of wine you like so the sales person can zero in on pushing theirs and end with, "So what will you be taking with you?"

6. Shipping wine yourself is expensive; figure about $80 a case if you take it to the UPS store.  Wineries will ship your wine at their cost, about $30/case, so your best bet is when you find a place you really like buy a half-case or full-case and let them ship it.  Don't ship in hot weather!

7. Wine clubs. Don't join every wine club!   Almost all wineries have wine clubs as they are good money makers.  Before you join any club be sure 1) there is no fee to join, 2) you can cancel at any time.   More than one visitor has gotten home and realized, "Oh my God, I've joined eight wine clubs!"