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Friday, October 29, 2010

Interesting Winery Architecture

A number of visitors are interested in seeing wineries with unique architecture and there are quite a few around.   I split them into old, fascinating, and odd (as in amusing) plus those that have great landscaping.    There are others--this is just a sampling.  These cover both Napa and Sonoma counties.



Buena Vista
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The main winery building is about 125 years old.  The tour goes through some of the old wine making areas.  Beringer is very crowded on summer and autumn weekends, but this is a must-see if you've never been to Napa.
Buena Vista
They call themselves "the oldest premium winery in the state."  You can look around the grounds and the large tasting room area.  This is the birthplace of wine in Sonoma County. 
Castello di Amorosa
I couldn't really decide if the Castello belongs under Old, Fascinating or Odd. Lots of money plus a big ego yields an amazing replica of a medieval castle. OK, it's not really old, but it sure looks that way. Worth a visit for the tour if not for the wine.

Hop Kiln
Taste in a 19th century hop barn.  Sonoma County used to have a lot of hops ... then the grapes came in.

The winery site contains the original 19th century winery building.  Their free tour starts at the old train station. They even have an antique rose garden.  There's a lot of history here--ask about the ghost in the old house on the hill above the rose garden.

Take the great tour of their old wine caves.  Appointment required.
A 19th century stone building houses the winery (except for the more modern visitors' center).  They used to offer public tours, but I can't tell if they still do from their website.


Opus One
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Modern architecture that blends in well with the surroundings.
Clos Pegase
A famous architect, an eccentric owner, and a desire to recreate a modern version of ancient Greece.
Domaine Carneros
Several wineries try to emulate a French chateau--Domain Carneros does it best.

Opus One
Very modern and a bit pretentious, just like the wine and the people, but a simple, beautiful mix of classical and contemporary.  Yeah, I know, all those terms don't go together exactly.


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I can't think of a structure that's more out of place, but that doesn't mean it's not beautiful or impressive.
Not your typical winery building.  Looks more like grandma's house.    Or the Addams Family house.


Ferrari Carano
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Chateau Montelena
And old stone building with a great landscaped pond.
Chateau St. Jean
Very beautiful Mediterranean-style gardens.
Ferrari Carano
Amazing grounds.  They must keep an army of maintenance people busy.

Matanzas Creek
A naturally beautiful corner of Bennett Valley (you'll have to look that up on a map) with nice landscaping and their famous lavendar gardens.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Wine Accessories

You can't just buy a $5 cork screw and be done with it.   Noooo, this is capitalism at work!    There are a ton of accessories you can buy to go with your drinking habit.   Some make sense.

Bottle Openers
There are the waiter's pull (a standard screw pull), Ahsos, and Rabbit (lever) pulls.   Now there's even electric ones where you just push a button.
You should have a waiter's pull and an Ahso (sometimes called a two-prong cork puller).

The waiter's pull works great for most everything.  The two-prong puller is great for older wines with soft, dry corks where putting a thread into them will just make the cork disintegrate.  The two-prong pulls don't work well for synthetic corks.

I also use the lever-style screw pull because it's easy.

Most of the other types either don't work well or are expensive.   There are numerous different takes on the basic screw-type puller with different handles that you pull down or push up and it doesn't matter because none work as well as those pictured above.

Of course, the best idea is to just use screw caps!

Wine Preservatives

If you have a partially full bottle you let lots of oxygen get in contact with the wine. O2 is the enemy because it will spoil your wine in a short time.    There are two schools of thought to prevent this:  remove the oxygen or put a heavier than air neutral gas on top of the wine in the bottle to insulate the wine from the oxygen.

The vacuum pumps are cheap and you never run out of anything (like argon gas).   The only problem is that don't work well.

The other option is to buy cans of gas that you spray into the bottle.

Or a better option may be to just finish off the bottle and take a couple aspirin before going to bed!

I've seen fancy preservative systems that control the temperature and pump gas into the bottles that cost over $200.

Wine Mellowers

I'm not sure what else to call these items that are meant to smooth out a young wine.   Decanting is the obvious way to do this.   Tumbling the wine and getting air to it mellows the wine.  Essentially, your ageing the wine in a few seconds.   You can pour the wine in to almost any clean container, preferably a glass one, but of course, you can buy a $75 crystal decanter.

Fairly new on the market are the wine aerators where you pour from the bottle directly into your glass through this funnel that has little air tubes (venturis) running through it.   These are more convenient than decanters and they work.    But decanters have another use--getting sediment out of your wine.

If you primarily drink younger wines the aerators is the way to go.  If you drink older wine then get the decanter.

There are numerous other gizmos to stick in your wine that will magically age your wine in seconds.  These are most likely snake oil.

Palate Cleansers

Drinking too much young red wine, such as when you're out visiting wineries or at a wine tasting event can lead to what's called palate fatigue.   Your mouth just gets too tired to taste wine anymore.   Bread and sparkling water do a decent job of reviving your taste buds.    There's a new product specifically designed for this and it does a good job.   It's a sort of a sparkling water with "secret ingredients" that seem to really work called SanTasti.

Other Crap

Don't forget the wine racks, 18 different kinds of Riedel glassware, coolers, foil cutters, champagne stoppers, blah, blah, blah.

My favorite, after years of being told to hold the wine glass by the stem so as not to transfer body heat to the wine, is Riedel's stemless wine glass.  This is their Pinot Noir tumbler.   Yes, it's expensive.   But hey, if you're a clumsy drunk maybe it'll keep you from knocking over your wine glass.

Yeah, this one's for Pinot Noir only.    Don't let me catch you drinking Sauvignon Blanc out of this thing!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What kind of wine with .....?

You never know when one of these weird combinations may come up so as a public service here's what to serve with these, um, foods.

It's not just for breakfast anymore

Chocolate-covered Bacon
This was at the county fair this year.   No, I didn't try it--couldn't even get the kids to try.   Well, sparkling with goes with salty food and the acids in a sparkler are probably good at cutting through grease so we've got the bacon part figured out.  Chocolate is almost always good with a young Cabernet, but would probably suck with bacon.  Off-dry sparkling wines, however, are great with chocolate.  See, bubbles don't have to be just for Valentine's Day.

I assume there are still people in the South that eat squirrel.  It also seems to be trendy in England for some reason. I don't know what the heck squirrels taste like and I really don't care if I ever find out, but I'm guessing it has a wild gamey flavor.   I'm going with a full-bodied red like a Syrah.   They grow a lot of Syrah in Australia and they seem crazy enough to eat things like squirrels.

Buffalo Burgers
Merlot is a good choice. I think that's what the Indians drank.

This is a nasty, salty yeast paste that Australians use to make sandwiches. Think "stale beer."  I guess they don't get peanut butter down there. I'm going with a robust red similar to what you've have with a stinky French cheese.

Garlic Ice Cream
There's an annual garlic festival in Gilroy, CA (the garlic capital) where they sell this creation.  I believe it needs a somewhat sweet rosé. 

Snickerdoodle Cookies
This is a cinnamon sugar cookie that really needs a glass of milk, but if you insist on wine then go with a late harvest Gewurztraminer.

Jelly Beans
Muscat.   At least something sweet and syrupy.  Think "Log Cabin syrup with alcohol."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Final Push in the 2010 Harvest from Hell

Mother Nature has not been kind to the Sonoma County grape growers in 2010.   It was a cool, wet spring followed by a much cooler than average summer with a few blasts of record heat.  The crop loss will be significant.

As of October 19th the weather forecast is for the possibility of rain showers beginning Friday that will last for several days.   Rain and mature grapes don't get along well.   So this week will be the last major push to get the rest of the wine grapes in.

If you're thinking about visiting the North Bay wine country to see the harvest in action then this may be your last chance this year.

Santa Rosa Press Democrat article.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Winter Season Wine Events in Sonoma County

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You could stay home and throw another log on the fire or have some fun in the wine country.

Following are some wine-related events for Nov. 2010 through March 2011 in Sonoma County.


A Wine and Food Affair along the Wine Road.

Holiday in Carneros Open House.

Heart of Sonoma Valley Holiday Open House.


Notes: Wineries are closed on Christmas, some on Christmas Eve.  Many wineries that have event space, such as a cave, will host a New Year's Eve party.


Note: Wineries are closed on New Years Day.

Winter Wineland along the Russian River Wine Road.   Website


Eighth Street Wineries Open House in Sonoma for a bunch of small wineries you've probably never heard of.  And it's on my birthday!  Website


The Barrel Tasting party (yes, it's a party!) along the Russian River Wine Road.   Bring a designated driver for this one.  Website

Savor Sonoma Valley. Their version of a barrel tasting.  Just when you thought it was safe to sober up.   Website

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sneaking Over into Napa Valley

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Yes, this is supposed to be a Sonoma blog, but Napa is just over the hill and sometimes I like to visit foreign lands. So here are some of my favorite destinations.  So far I've been lucky to not be stopped by the local cops patrolling the "border" as you'd think they could tell I'm from Sonoma, not Napa, by my t-shirt, $17 haircut, and driving an old Ford.

Note that I'm somewhat of a cheap bastard so maybe you rich folks won't want to hobnob with the same people I do.

From north to south in Napa Valley

 Calistoga area:

This is the area closest to me so it's where I like to slip in over the border most often. 

My favorite winery in Napa Vly is Schramsberg.  They make some of the best bubbly and have a great tour / sit-down tasting--reservations required.   Lots of history in their old lichen-covered caves.  Chateau Montelena is in a beautiful setting and also has lots of history (plus a $20 tasting fee and expensive wine).   You can see "The Bottle" from the 1976 Paris tasting that put Napa on the map.

For eats you'll find me at Buster's BBQ (with a real wood-fired grill).  Check out the photo of Buster on their web page and tell me your mouth isn't watering!   Yes, it's Napa, so you can have a glass of wine with your ribs, but I don't know why you'd choose that over a cold beer or lemonade.

St. Helena:

You don't hear about much about St. Clement winery, but they put out some nice cabs at reasonable prices, have a $10 tasting fee (cheap by Napa standards), and a nice view from their porch and picnic area.  Benessere makes a great Sangiovese and some other interesting wines you aren't likely to find elsewhere.  Heitz is well past being trendy so is usually overlooked--a mistake (and they have free tasting)!  Raymond Vineyards is probably on nobody's list of places to stop for Cabernet -- except mine. I've been buying reasonably priced Cabs from them for a long time.  Don't miss Prager Port Works as it's easy to drive right by without seeing their sign.

At the Silverado Brewing Company you can sit outside with a cold one and watch the traffic go by on Highway 29. Be sure to get the sweet potato fries.  Taylors Refresher or Gott's or whatever they call it now is a local institution.  Many can't understand the reason to stand in line for a $10 burger (it ain't the ambiance), but it's something you must try at least once.  Tra Vigne was over being trendy many years ago, but is still a favorite of mine. They have a wood-fired oven.  Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen is, um, on a back street in St. Helena so many don't know to look for this gem.

My only word of warning is avoid driving through the downtown area of St. Helena on weekends as you can have a 20 minute wait in traffic--welcome to Napa!


Mumm has a great setting for enjoying a couple glasses of bubbly.  St. Supery is known for their Sauvignon Blanc and their Rutherford Cabernet, but also makes Semillon and a bunch of other Cabs plus have a nice setting.

The Rutherford Grill makes the best rotisserie chicken!  And has a damn fine wine list.  And a damn fine bar.


This town is just a bit too touristy for me although I've had some good meals at Mustards and Brix, but I can't afford to eat here very often as "cuteness" has its price.

Town of Napa:

Artesa Winery is a favorite stop for cool architecture and wines.

I don't get to the town of Napa often, but when I did I was most often at the Red Hen Cantina (I told you I was cheap).  Hey, they have their own tequila list!  You get tired of wine lists after awhile.   Napa is full of new restaurants that I've never visited--the place is booming!  Check out the downtown and the riverfront area.

Now that I've offered ideas of things to do in Napa Valley I realize it's all about eating or drinking (duh).   Are there other things to do?   I dunno.   I used to work over there, but even that involved drinking.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tasting Room Etiquette

Tasting Room 101

Do you know why they ask you
 to drive slowly?
What to Expect

A tasting room is a place to sample various wines from a particular winery or sometimes several wine producers share one tasting facility.   You'll get to sample several approximately one-ounce pours of wines.

Each tasting room has a different menu of the wines offered and the cost to taste, if any.  The menu, or list of wines, should be in the tasting order, include the prices, and maybe a description of the wines.  It's OK to skip wines on the menu you don't wish to sample.  Maybe they'll have something else to substitute.

If you don't want to finish a wine you've been poured there should be a "dump bucket" available.  If you're dumping wine it can either be because you don't like it or you are trying to be responsible and not overindulge. Either will be fine with your tasting room host/hostess.

If you don't like the wine menu for some reason or the price of the tasting fee it's OK to leave without tasting.  A good way to keep the price down is to share a tasting with someone.

Once your tasting is finished you can purchase or you can say, "Thank you" and leave.
From the movie Sideways
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How to Act

And not be intimidated or come across like a dufus.

It's OK:
  • if you don't know much about wine.
  • if you can't pronounce the names of some wines
  • don't know a varietal from an appellation
  • if you don't like what someone else likes even if they're the "expert"
You're there to learn, I hope.   Ask questions.  I've never had anyone ask too dumb of a question.

A few don'ts:
  • Rather than walking in and saying, "I want your sweetest wine" try something like, "I usually drink white zinfandel at home. What do you think I'd like"?
  • If you don't like the small size of the pour don't ask them to "fill'er up" as that's against the law.
  • It's not self-serve.  You cannot pick up a bottle from the bar and pour your own.
  • If you skip out on paying a tasting fee you are stealing.  
How to Taste

 A few things to know:
  • Most of what you get is via your sense of smell, not taste.  If you have a cold, just had a spicy meal, or are chewing gum you won't be able to make an accurate judgment about what you are tasting.
  • What you like is ultimately up to you.  What tastes good to you is what you like, not what someone says you should like.
  • The wine may taste different back home depending on the setting.  Some wine tastes better in hot weather vs. cold, some are better with food.
If the Tasting Room is crowded:

  • You might want to leave and go elsewhere as the service may be slow and impersonal.
  • When you get a spot at the bar let one person stand there and the rest in your party behind them.  This way your group doesn't hog the tasting bar.
  • Speaking of "hog"  the staff behind the bar will have lots of people to serve.  Don't take up too much of their time telling them the story of your great uncle during Prohibition and what he used to make at home.
It's Educational

Whether you're new to wine or think you know a lot there's more to learn every time to taste wine.  That's what makes it fun.   Do you only drink Chardonnay at home?   This is your big chance to try lots of other wines.

Bad Wine

Eventually you will run across a bad wine being poured if you do enough tastings.  Some wines are flawed when they're opened; sometimes a wine is left open too long in the tasting room.   Cork taint is a specific flaw and is the most common cause of bad wine.  The wine can be musty, moldy, or smell of wet cardboard if it's really bad or the fruit won't be as prominent if it's slightly corked.  If a wine is left open too long, and that can happen during the slow times, it will become oxidized.  It'll smell and taste like a bad Sherry and have a nutty smell.

Do you think you notice something wrong with a wine you taste?  Let the person know there may be a problem with a wine.  Why aren't all wines checked before they're poured for you?   Could be a sloppy host/hostess, a too busy host/hostess, or a bad management decision (not allowing the staff to sample the wines).

Wine Clubs

A wine club is where a winery will ship you a set number of wines at a set frequency (as two bottles every three months).  You'll get enticed with special discounts and events for club members.  Wine clubs are very profitable for wineries.  That's why most of them will push their club.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't join any wine clubs--just be selective.  The best ones give you wines you won't find back home on the store shelf.
Questions to ask before joining any wine club:
  • I live in [state].  Can I join your wine club?  It's not legal to ship wine to many states.
  • What clubs do you have (only one, a red and white, red wine only, library wine club)?
  • How many bottles am I getting and how often?
  • What wines are scheduled to be shipped this year?
  • How much am I charged?  For the wine and for shipping.
  • Is there a fee to join?  If there is run!
  • What's the cancellation policy?  Some let you cancel the next day. Some make you take a certain number of shipments before you can drop.
  • Do you ship over the summer?  If they do run!  You don't need hot wine delivered to your doorstep.
  • What discounts do club members receive?  Any other special offerings?  Many offer special events for club members but if you live 2,000 miles away this won't mean much to you.
The Law

Wineries operate off permits.  There are different classifications.   The one thing that is common is the tasting pour size.  It's supposed to be one to 1-1/2 ounces. 

Closing times will vary by their policy and by what's on their permit.   Some can sell you a glass of wine, some can sell you a bottle to consume on the property, but for many wineries this is illegal.   It's not legal to bring in outside alcohol for your picnic.

Winery personnel can ask anyone for ID before serving.  The ID is to contain a photo, a description, and not be expired.  Note that passports do not meet this criteria as they do not contain a description. 

If for any reason a server thinks you've had too much fun and won't serve you that is their right.   If they serve someone who may be over the legal limit or may be under 21 years of age the winery will be held responsible and so will the individual.   Think about what you would do if you were in their situation.

Getting Wine Home

A winery will ship the wine to you if it's legal in your state.   Or you can collect bottles from various wineries and have it shipped by another shipping company.  Federal law says there must be an adult at home to accept the wine. If no one is home during the day have it shipped to your work or a neighbor.

If you take wine along in your car remember that sunlight and heat will destroy your wine.

What You Should Do

Enjoy, ask questions, learn, have fun!

Answer to the question in the first photo above:  
They want you to drive slowly if you are driving next to grape vines so as not to coat the grapes with dust.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

2010 harvest -- vineyard photos

From October 5th in Sonoma Valley.  Lots of sun damange.  In this vineyard only the bunches shaded by leaves looked OK.

(Click on any photo to enlarge)

Raisins!  So sad.
More raisins.  Most of the fruit in the
vineyard looked like this.

Picker looking for the good bunches

Photo from the same vineyard taken mid-August
The grapes were ripening late, but at least the fruit was still good

Read the latest on the woes of the local grape growers.

Monday, October 4, 2010

2010 Sonoma County Harvest Fair

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This is a wine judging for any grapes grown in Sonoma County. This was my 30th anniversary at the Harvest Fair with 1981 being the first though I'm sure I missed a couple in there somewhere.

Pardon some of my very short wine notes as this event isn't a great place to try to write anything down.

My Favorites

Gloria Ferrer 2002 Royal Cuvee sparkling wine, Carneros, $32. Perfectly balanced. Probably the best California sparkler I've ever had. Though I may want to go back and re-taste a couple Schramsbergs before I make that statement.

Davis Family 2008 Soul Patch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, $42, and Davis Family 2008 Horseshoe Bend Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, $42. They are a bit different as the Soul Patch is the Burgundy-lovers Pinot and the Horseshoe Bend is a bit more fruit-forward, but still well-balanced. If more people could make Pinot like the Soul Patch I might actually spend $42 on a Pinot and not complain.

Gracianna 2008 Bacigalupi Vyd Russian River Valley Zinfandel, $42. This is the way God meant for Zinfandel to taste—complex fruit and spices with the backbone to age.

Wilson 2008 Diane's Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, $60. This is the opposite end of the Zinfandel spectrum from Gracianna. It's fruit-forward, but not too much and finishes without the heat from too much alcohol. I don't usually go for the “fruit juicy” style of Zin, but occasionally I find one that works for me. In the past Hartford Court and Armida have made ones that I've loved. They were expensive, too.

Maier 2007 Roy J Maier Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, $60. A great balance between good drinking now plus age-ability.

Watkins Family 2006 Nuns Cliff Vyd Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $38. It can be difficult to call $38 a great deal, but it is for this wine.

Best Bang for the Buck

Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs Carneros, $20. This is probably the best California bubbles for the buck.

Taft Street 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, $24. Real Pinot characteristics, not just cherries.

Blackstone 2007 Rubric (Bordeaux-style blend) Sonoma County, $23. Deep, complex, with enough tannins to age a bit.
Other Very Good Wines
Mayo 2007 Meritage Los Chamizal Vyd Sonoma Valley. Nice fruit and spices, lighter tannins.

Katarina 2004 Field Vyds Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon . Good structure, ageable.

Bennett Valley Cellars Bin 6410 2008 Bennett Valley Pinot Noir. Nice spices, balanced, soft, peppery finish. A good value at $28.

25 Brix 2008 Alta Ridge Bennett Valley Syrah. Earthy.

Novy 2007 Russian River Valley Syrah. Rich.

Armida 2008 Flora Ranch Chalk Hill Syrah. Soft, nice fruit, balanced.

de Lormier 2008 Stone Ranch Alexander Valley Zinfandel. Fruity and soft without the alcohol showing through.

Wilson 2008 Carl's Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. Noticeable tannin and acid. In time this should be excellent.

St Francis 2007 Old Vine Rowe Vyd Sonoma Valley Zinfandel. It's a big boy.

Robert Rue 2007 Wood Road Russian River Valley Zinfandel. Rich and full-bodied.

The Current State of Sonoma County Wines
(based on what I tasted at this event)

Pinot Noir

Pinot prices have stabilized with the premium ones being in the $40s. There doesn't seem to be much in the over $50 range, but there seems to be more good ones under $35 now.

Also, Pinot quality has stabilized. At past Harvest Fairs I seemed to find many really bad Pinots going for $40. Now most are pretty good though when I compare all the Pinots vs. the Cabs I sampled I liked pretty much every Cabernet I tried. I can't say that about the Pinots.


Prices continue to go up (note the prices on my favorite Zins were $42 and $60). It seems that Zinfandel prices have surged more than any other varietal. Zin is supposed to be a pasta wine or a BBQ wine, but paying $50 for a wine to have with spaghetti and meatballs doesn't make much sense.

There are still the two camps for Zinfandel styles—the older brambly, peppery, ageable Zin and the mouthful of red fruits style. At least the heat from the high alcohols has disappeared from most. The vast majority falling the fruity, simple style. They got real boring after a few because they were all the same.

Who's Hot

Almost every year there seems to be a winery that's really popular. This year it was Mayo. They won a lot of medals and had a very crowded table all Saturday. Wilson Winery drew big crowds also.

What's Hot

The Friday tasting is hosted by the fair itself, rather than the individual wineries, and the wines are grouped by varietal. This makes it easy to see what wine types are hot and what's not. It used to be Chardonnay then Sauvignon Blanc then Merlot then Zinfandel then Pinot Noir.  This year I didn't notice any one type of wine winning the popularity contest. Interest seemed to be pretty evenly spread out.

More Info

Check the Harvest Fair's web site for complete results

My web page of my complete tasting results from 2010 and previous years.