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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Rush to the Crush

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The heat is on!

Several days of hot weather in Sonoma County, including some record-setting temperatures, has some growers smiling and others frowning.

Grape growers have been asking for heat to help ripen this year's crop that is well behind schedule.   They got it this week.   But some also got dehydrated grapes and crop loss.   The hardest hit seems to be the Pinot Noir.   In fact, pretty much everybody wants to bring in their Pinot for processing NOW!  Look for traffic jams in Carneros and the Russian River Valley from all the grape trucks.   Also, look for people picking the grapes in the pre-dawn cooler weather.

It's estimated only about 10% of the crop is in so far this year when on average about 40% is already picked.  The heat is speeding things up as sugars rise rapidly, but you also need the correct acids.  

I don't know if we will see a lot of great Pinot Noir from the 2010 crop.  It's certainly too early to tell, but if I want to guess I'd say Pinot and Zinfandel may not have one of their best years, though Cabernet could still do well.  I haven't heard much about the Chardonnay crop except that it got hit hard with sunburn in an August heat spike and a lot of the Chard turned into raisins.  On the other hand, some say a late-ripening crop leads to better flavors and better wines overall.  We'll see.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pride Mountain tasting

Pride Mountain Winery has gotten a lot of "Internet buzz" and other word-of-mouth acclaim amongst winos to where they are sort of a cult winery in that their wines are highly praised and somewhat expensive.  Where they might fall down on the "cult-o-meter" is in that you can actually buy the wines rather than wait on a mailing list for years to get that privilege.

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On Sept. 21st the Wine Spectrum Wine Bar in Santa Rosa hosted a Pride Mountain tasting--five of their wines for $15!  Sounded like too good of a deal to pass up.

2008 Napa Valley CHARDONNAY, $45
Zesty and more acid than many Chards which is usually good for my tastes, but this wine seemed a bit disjointed.  As there was a front of the mouth roundness and fruitiness then the tartness in the back.   Two separate parts that just didn't fit together.  There are a number of Chards at half the price I'd rather drink.

2009 Sonoma County VIOGNIER, $49

Luscious with honey and just a bit of acidity to where you can drink this by itself or with a meal.  I think seafoods, cream-based pastas, some slightly spicy dishes and even some deserts would work well.  So it's a very versatile wine.

2008 Sonoma County SYRAH, $69

Big, complex, dense, packed with flavor, and not ready yet, but this should be quite the wine in a few years.   Serve with a big, beefy dish in about 2015.  Or maybe 2020.

2006 Napa/Sonoma MERLOT, $65

Until now I was sure the best Merlot I'd ever had was a Shafer at a Merlot tasting in Napa a few years ago.   I believe Shafer has met its match.   Spicy, complex, deep, and a very serious Merlot with the tannins to age.  Bad news:  The winery is out of the 2006.  Maybe the Wine Spectrum still has a few bottles (I don't think I bought the last ones).

2007 Napa/Sonoma CABERNET SAUVIGNON, $79

A multi-layered Cab of great structure and balance. Lots of red, black and blue fruits. You should lay this one down for a decade though it's fairly approachable now if you like 'em big.

I honestly find the prices a bit steep on many of their wines (my perceived quality for the price), but you can't fight success and Pride Mountains has definitely had lots.   Though the reason I was lucky enough to be able to taste their wines at a local wine bar may be because the over $50 wine market is as flat as a pancake right now.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Backlash against over-processed wine

Wine is grape juice with the sugar turned to alcohol by yeast.  That's about it, right?

Modern winemaking can have lots of intervention in the process with different sorts of filtering, commercially grown yeast strains, enzymes, specialized bacteria, tannins, acids, oak, oxygenation, reverse-osmosis, and adding water.   Not to mention what all can go on in the vineyards with chemicals, water and pruning shears.

This is done sometimes to help prevent a loss such as using sulfur in the vineyard, but often it's done to improve the wine or reduce the cost.  The current style of highly processed "improved" wine has roots in a Helen Turley / Robert Parker connection.  So you can blame them or thank them depending on your preferences.

The old-fashioned way
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 Recently there has been a growing trend towards less manipulation amongst a few people.

The organic wine movement first gained popularity about 20 years ago.  This is mostly in the growing of the grapes and not so much in the precessing of the wine.

The more recent Biodynamic farming practices gaining popularity and press in the last five years.  This is similar to organic farming, but with what I call a spiritual side.

More recently the natural wine movement.  This is unorganized at this time, but in general wants to more away from what they consider over-manipulation of the grapes.   Exactly what chemicals and processes are OK and what aren't is being debated.

The latest is the Natural Process Alliance and minimal intervention with the grapes.  This means sustainably farmed, unfiltered, but of most interest it also means the grapes are fermented with only the natural, wild yeast that are present in the air.  So not only no commercially grown yeast is added, but no yeast at all is added.   This is winemaking from many generations ago.  In fact, this is pretty close to winemaking as it first began.  And it's pretty risky to rely only on yeasts in the air.

Wines from the NPA are made to be drunk locally and soon.  In Sonoma County at least, they are using refillable stainless-steel containers, like water bottles, rather than glass and a cork.  So it's like milk delivery in the old days--you get fresh wine delivered, you drink it, they pick up, clean and refill the bottles.

So, should you care what's been done to your wine?  Perhaps chemically it's easier to see why you should care.  When it comes to processes in winemaking it may be less obvious.   For instance, does it matter that a wine had a fancy tannin added or alcohol removed?  Or does it only matter that you like the finished product?

I can't answer that for you.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

News, rumors, and trends

What has been happening

Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson got shot down on his bid to build a big operation in Knight's Valley. Never heard of Knight's Valley? The locals want to keep it that way.

Jess Jackson again, is trying to get Black Mountain overlooking Alexander Valley renamed to Alexander Mountain. Why? Because he has Cabernet there and Alexander Mountain would look better on the label than Black Mtn. apparently.

And one more time, Kendell-Jackson has consolidated wine production of Arrowood Winery to a facility in Napa. Dick Arrowood left his namesake winery a few months ago. KJ moved Matanzas Creek production to another larger site awhile ago. This is a cost-cutting measure. A few jobs were lost in each move. Arrowood ownership has changed several times in the past decade.

Rosenblum's founder sold to Diego a couple years ago and the result has been job loss. Their Healdsburg tasting room closed and now they are moving the wine production from Alemeda to a Diego site in Napa to consolidate.

Francis Ford Coppola's winery and "theme park" or whatever it is had a job fair for 130 positions. Not many people would have the guts (or is it a vision?) to do this in the current economy.

Earlier this year a local outfit called Vintage Wine Estates purchased a minority stake in the Kunde family's winery. This is a long-established family in the local grape business that apparently got caught off guard by the economic slowdown and ran short of cash.

Geyser Peak, Buena Vista and Gary Farrell wineries have bounced around with different ownership over the past several years. A local company, Ascentia, bought them just as the industry started to tank and now this company appears to be in trouble.

What might happen

These are rumors so I won't mention names in some of these just in case I'm wrong.

Layoffs at a big family-owned winery conglomerate? They went through this last year and may do it again, but then they're heavy in administrative-type positions anyway.

Fosters has been reorganizing and creating outside alliances in its beer and wine empires that split the wine and beer sides cleanly. Is their wine business going up for sale?

Emerging Trends

Some things that are just catching on with growers and wine makers, much of it related to the economy. Will this stuff be around long-term?

Higher-end wineries and wine makers making cheaper wine. There once was a business case for making $30 wine rather than $15 wine. That seems to have flip-flopped.

Natural wines. This is a trend towards organic growing and away from too much oak and alcohol. Some people are once again picking grapes for balance rather than max fruit so you don't have to add water, tannins, acids, etc. to turn it back into wine.

Social media is catching on big with many wineries without any evidence of increased sales. How much of this just grasping for anything to prop-up wine sales?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

2010 grape harvest -- mid-September update

California's coastal areas have dealt with cool, damp weather much of the summer.   In Sonoma County and nearby areas after a short, but dramatic, heat wave the weather has turned ideal for the past couple weeks.

Due to the cool summer many vineyard people did some canopy management, that is they removed leaves from the vines to help expose the grape clusters to the sun to help prevent rot.   When the heat came many grapes raisined from the exposure and are now useless.  It's estimated 10% of the crop was lost.

The weird weather isn't that weird though.  I've lived in Sonoma County for thirty harvests.  The one constant is the growers, like any farmer, will sound pessimistic until the grapes are in.   Once the juice is made you'll then hear the folks whose livelihood rests on selling wine say what a great vintage it was.   Or at least by the time the wines get to market in a couple years they'll hope you forget their troubles.

Even in the much talked about bad years like '88, '89, '98, '99, '00 you can't make blanket statements about quality (good or bad).  Sometimes a certain variety gets affected.  For instance rain can really damage Chardonnay and Pinot but not Cabernet so much.  But Cab gets picked much later than Chard or Pinot so if anything bad happens in October those earlier ripening grapes may already be in, but the Cab is still hanging on the vines.  

This year the cool damp weather seems to mostly affect the cooler growing areas such as Russian River Valley.

Oh yeah, there's a chance of rain in the forecast for this coming weekend.

The cool summer delayed the start of harvest by about three weeks.  Some wineries are underway now, but most in the cooler growing areas are not.  As of Sept 10th only about 1% of the grapes have been picked!  Many are expecting a compressed harvest.  That is, rather than having two or more months for all the grapes to come in they could be bringing in the bulk of the grapes in less than a month's time. 

Some wineries appear to be hiring addition crush help for the expected rush.  It's tough on the crew as it can mean working for weeks without a day off.   You work when mother nature says she's ready!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Sonoma County -- Beer Country

Wine?   Okay there's some of that, too.
from Russian
River Brewery

According to the Beer Advocate magazine Russian River Brewery, of Santa Rosa, makes the top two American brews.   They placed seven of their beers in the top 100 beers of the world.   Also on the list are two beers from the Bear Republic in Healdsburg and one from the North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg (just to the north in Mendocino County).

The Russian River Brewery is considered one of the best in the country. lists it as the sixth best brewery in the world.

Most lists of top breweries in the country also contain Lagunitas.  Their IPA is the top-selling IPA in California.  They offer tours and tastings daily if you're in the neighborhood.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Santa Rosa Restaurants

The biggest city in Sonoma County is Santa Rosa, pop. 150,000.  In fact, as you're going up the West Coast it's the biggest city between San Francisco and Portland, OR.    Being the biggest in the North Coast wine region means there are lots and lots of places to eat.
The old Western Hotel building
in Railroad Square

The town layout:

Santa Rosa is divided in two by the US101 freeway.  To the east is the modern downtown with businesses by day and lots of eating and drinking by night.  To the west of the freeway is the older downtown area called Railroad Square.  This are is more about antiques and, of course, eating and drinking.  Street parking is free at night; parking garages charge most of the time. 

Many of the restaurants listed here are in or near the downtown area.  There are many other places to eat in downtown Santa Rosa besides the few I've listed.

What to expect:
  • Dress is casual compared to most other places, even in the "fancier" restaurants.
  • Prices are probably higher than you are used to unless you already live in CA or in AK or HI.
  • If you are going out during the busy season or a holiday weekend when visitors are around you should make a reservation.
  • This list is a combination of personal favorites and those that get high marks from others.
Less expensive

Burger joints:  Phyllis Burger and Superburger, but if you want the best go to Mike's in Cotati.

Taquerias (Mexican diners):  There are too many to mention, but most are good value.

China Room - My favorite Chinese.

Hank's Creekside - breakfast

Omelette Express - big breakfast


Gary Chu's - I call it gourmet Chinese.

LoCoco's - Comfortable and authentic Italian.

Roberto's - Another good Italian restaurant.  Love their Bolognese sauce.

Rosso - Thin-crust pizzas from an wood-fired oven and other specials plus an interesting wine list.  Always crowded on the weekends.

Russian River Brewery - Good pizzas and salads, but it's the beer people from all over the county come for.

Union Hotel - Italian the way mama makes it. Great pizza.

Willie's Wine Bar - Interesting small plates and wine list.

More expensive

Ca Bianca - Great Italian in a cool historical, old house.

Equus - For a hotel restaurant the food is first rate.

Le Gare - A locals favorite since they opened in the '70s.  They call it Swiss French cooking.  I say, if you're hungry and want a great meal this is the place.

Santi - Fancy Italian with an excellent reputation.

Stark's Steakhouse - The building previously housed a hundred year old Italian restaurant so it doesn't look like a fancy steak joint from the outside.

Zazu - Just a bit outside of town but the food is worth a little drive.


John Ash - Fine dining wine country style.  Over the years this restaurant has had ups-and-downs, but seems to have their act together now.

Syrah - They call it "sophisticated cuisine."  The plates are inventive, I find it just okay for the price, but many rave about it.

The Chains

Everyone knows Denny's and to stay away, but there are several more local chains you may not be aware of if you're from outside California.  It doesn't mean the food is bad at these place, it just means it's corporate eating.

Carrows, Chevys, Coco's, IHOP, Marie Callendar's, and Sizzler have mediocre food, but at reasonable prices.

A few local chain restaurants that I can recommend are Cattlemans, In-N-Out Burger and Mary's Pizza Shack.   If you're not from California you'll want to go to In-N-Out just to get one of their cool t-shirts!


Newer restaurants I haven't tried yet, but are getting some good reviews, are:  El Coqui (Puerto Rican), Jackson's Bar and Oven, plus Jack and Tony's.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Governator says, "Drink California Wine"

and threatens, "I'll be back" if you don't.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaims September as California Wine Month.

The state can't pass a budget, but at least we get the important stuff done!

The press release from the Wine Institute lists several major wine events going on this month.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September-October Events in Sonoma County

Sonoma County Harvest Fair

Autumn means grape harvest time and numerous celebrations to go along with all the hard work.  Here are some goings on I know of in Sonoma County.
Labor Day events were already posted in this blog on 8/22/10.

Sept 10 Inman Family Wines Grand Opening
They've been open, sort of, but maybe the tasting bar is done for the official grand opening.  Check out the eco-friendly building and the Pinot Noirs.  Website

Sept 10-11 Cloverdale Car and Motorcycle Show
A true small town event. Friday night cruise and sock hop.  Saturday show--with food, beer, and wine, of course.  Website

Sept 11  Beer in the (Healdsburg) Plaza
About 30 breweries and live music.  I'll be there!  Website

Sept 11-12  Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival
Jazz on Saturday; rock and blues on Sunday.  On the river in Guerneville.   Website

Sept 15-19  Sonoma Valley Crush
Various wineries have different crush-related events such as Kenwood Vineyards', "Compare fresh pressed grape juice with our current reserve wines".  All events priced separately. Website

Sept 15-26  Wine Country Film Festival
World Cinema, food, and, of course, wine.  Website

Sept 16 Healdsburg Crush Festival
Food and wine tasting.  Website

Sept 25  Sonoma County Harvest Fair Awards Night
Oscar night for the growers and winemakers. Tuxedos, evening dresses, cellar boots, and local drama.  Website

Sept 25  Taste of Petaluma
Food, wine and beer from local purveyors.   Website

Sept 25-26  Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival
In the Sonoma Plaza.  Wine, food, music, art, grape stomp, and even a parade.   Website

Oct 1-3  Sonoma County Harvest Fair
Taste 500 or so award winning wines. It gets hot, crowded, and noisy, but I go every year because I always find some new hot winery or killer wine.  Website

Oct 9-10  B.R. Cohn Winery Fall Music Festival
Rock in the vineyards.  The Doobie Brothers and Eddie Money are this year's headliners. Website

Oct 14-17 Napa Sonoma Wine and Food Festival
This is a new event of multiple goings on at multiple locations.  A quick Google search showed several sites selling discounted tickets.   Website

Oct 23-24 Pinot on the River
Pinots from 100 wineries.  Website

Numerous individual wineries are having their own harvest events such as BBQs, harvest tours, grape stomps, dinners. etc.  Check the websites of your favorites.