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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dinner out. Cricklewood and Ramazzotti.

That was refreshing to not get reamed for a bottle of wine at a restaurant.

Cricklewood Restaurant in Santa Rosa is not a fancy joint.  They'll never get a Michelin star let alone be on any wine country visitor's must go to list.   It's an old-style steak place with a bar and lots of cozy booths for eating.

I was shocked when I saw the wine list.   They are all Sonoma County and not your generic wines you find anywhere as some real thought went into the selections.  The shock was there were lots of bottles in the $20s and $30s.  The most expensive was a Kenwood Artist Series Cabernet that retails for $75--for $65 on the wine list.  You'd have to really try to spend more than about $32 on wine.

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We wound up with a Ramazzotti Regale red blend.  Ramazzotti is a small producer using Dry Creek and Alexander Valley fruit.   Checking his website the Regale retails for $35.  I paid $25 at the restaurant.   No, I'm not going to tell them.

BTW, Joe Ramazzotti makes a kick-ass Sangiovese and Super Tuscan blend, but with a name like Ramazzotti he should, huh?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Learnings from the past few wines

Okay, I don't know if this is really a learning, but it's interesting.

Over the past week or so I've pulled these from the cellar:

1995 Gundlach-Bunchschu Sonoma Vly Estate Zinfandel
1999 Clos Pegase Napa Vly Reserve Cabernet
2001 Robert Young Alexander Vly Scion (Bordeaux-style blend)
2001 Kenwood Jack London, Sonoma Vly Zinfandel

You may have heard how Cabernets age so well, but wines like Zinfandel don't.    Of this small sampling the two Cabs were past their prime giving me largely a mouthful of dryness.   The two Zins were damn fine wines still displaying fruit and complexity. Both Cabs were high-end wines retailing for about $75.

So what does this mean?  Beats me!

These two Zinfandels though aren't your typical fruit-juicy Zins of today.  Now many are made with low tannins and low acids and are meant to be consumed soon.  And this is probably okay since rarely does anyone age Zinfandel. (What the hell was I thinking)?

Last I looked at Gundlach-Buncschu's website their Zins seemed to be way high in alcohol as is the current trend.  Kenwood seems to be holding the line and the Jack London ones are not something you necessary want to drink on release.  That's the trade-off.

Friday, February 18, 2011

National Drink Wine Day

It turns out February 18th is National Drink Wine Day.   Nobody seems quite sure where this started.  It's nothing official as the "National" in the title would have you think, but who cares?   It's not like an excuse is needed!

Anyway, be sure to open a bottle.   If you've missed the holiday then you must open two bottles tonight.  Yes, two, it's in the rules.    :)

By the way, it's also International Flirting Week.   So maybe you should combine a sparkling wine with your main squeeze.    I haven't checked on the bylaws for Flirting Week--maybe it's okay to flirt with someone else and you don't get in trouble!   Or maybe it's safer to just stick with the National Drink Wine Day.

Pinot Noir. It's hot!

California Pinot Noir is hot, and not in a good way.   High alcohol levels in wines are controversial. I guess it's made this way because consumers want the very ripe fruit, right?  Pinot being a more delicate wine means the heat of too much alcohol can really show.

Example #1

The other night I picked out a bottle of Melville 2007 Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir for dinner.   I bought this wine a few months ago because it got a lot of Internet buzz and sells for under $25.   Turns out Robert Parker gave it 94 points so it must be freakin' awesome!  Well, maybe it was better when first released a couple years ago.  If that's true then it sure has fell apart quickly.

I was checking out the back label during dinner and there it was - 15.3% alcohol.  I guess that explains the overriding burning sensation.   It was kinda like drinking Listerine mouthwash.    I'm not just picking on Melville here as I've had some really good Pinots from them before.

Example #2

I visited a small Pinot house in the town of Sonoma, Roessler Cellars. They were pouring about six different Pinots from all different areas of California.  The last one was from a newer Sonoma Coast vineyard that has a different label (it was labeled "Ridges") and was, of course, the most expensive.  I liked that one the best, brought one home, then checked out the alcohol level.  Wow, that's high!  Instead of putting it in the cellar I left it out to drink soon.   We had it a few days later with dinner and I didn't think much of it.   

The question I am asking myself is why the heck did I buy that one?   Why was it the best when tasting through a flight?  Okay, it was certainly big and bold rather than a wimpy, restrained Pinot.  Hmmm.

Pinot Noir Styles

Pinot Noir is supposed to have characteristics such as tobacco, leather, black cherries, earth, rose or violet flowers with noticeable acid when young.  But too many blast you with a mouthful of cherries and heat.

14.5% alcohol seems fairly typical for California Pinot whereas French Burgundy seems to be more like 13% or less.  No, Burgundy isn't California, but ...

Sometimes the lower alcohol wines might be called thin or understated whereas the higher alcohol wines are call lush and full-bodied.   You gotta admit "lush and full-bodied" sounds better (are we talking about wine or women here)?

Lots of California wines have gone to a riper style, but it really stands out with Pinot because the heat from the higher alcohol really shows through.   If ever there was a wine that was meant to be restrained, elegant and refined it was Pinot.

Someone that gets it (13.5% alc)
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This post is a follow-up to my original observations  on overly alcoholic wines on January 28th.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

March 2011 Events in Sonoma County

March is a special time in the Sonoma wine country.   Sure, spring is a beautiful time of the year here, but I'm talking about sampling wine --very large quantities of wine!    It's all about the barrel tasting events.

The Wine Road Barrel Tasting

Formerly known as the Russian River Barrel Tasting.  This is one huge affair!   Actually, it's more than one event and there isn't as much barrel tasting going on any more.   If you want to party this is your event.  Also, if you want to check out some lesser known wineries in northern Sonoma County this is your event.

It runs the first two weekends of March with some wineries open on the Fridays before the weekends.  It's a good deal for the price and that's why it gets so crowded.   Hint:  Dry Creek Valley is overwhelmed with people on Saturdays so head for the Russian River Valley or Alexander Valley.

Information at

Savor Sonoma Valley

Formerly known as the Sonoma Valley Barrel Tasting.  Apparently, Sonoma Valley was jealous of the crowds at the Russian River event so they started their own.   This one is a little more low key, a bit less crowded, and more expensive.  For the extra money you get a few more actual barrel samples and some good food.

It's on the third weekend of the month after everyone has barely sobered up from the two weekend Wine Road event.

Information at

The other main event for March is Charlie Palmer's Pigs and Pinots at his Healdsburg restaurant.  This event brings in some big time chefs, winemakers, and sommeliers.  Unfortunately, this is already sold out according to their web site.    What recession?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Wineries offering food and wine pairings

Following are several wineries offering food and wine pairings.   There are probably others I'm not aware of.  Only a few wineries do this as they must have a chef on staff to decide what foods to pair and then to prepare. Check the winery's website for specifics.

Castello di Amarosa
It's a tour and tasting with appetizers to go with several wines served in a dining room in a castle. Not your everyday experience.  The Castello is in northern Napa Valley.

Domaine Carneros

The J Winery Bubble Room
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 Their tasting is via table service rather than standing at a tasting bar.  There are a couple plates available to pair with their sparkling wines.  It's not a specific "this food with this particular wine" pairing, but you'll get some idea of what food go well with bubbles.

J Winery
Known for their sparkling wines, but they make nice Chardonnay and Pinot, also.   They have a sit down pairing menu available in a separate room from the tasting bar.

At their "Wine Center" on US 101 north of Santa Rosa they offer different options for food and wine pairings.

They offer what is essentially a meal paired with their Pinots.

Mayo Reserve Room
Mayo has a regular tasting room down the road in Glen Ellen.  This one in Kenwood offers food-wine pairings.  It's a sit down sampling of several wines and appetizer-sized portions to go with each.  Just drop in, no reservation needed.  There is no tasting-only option at this location--just the food and wine pairing.

They have recently started a sit down tasting.  I don't know anything about it other than what you can read on their website, but when Seghesio puts on any kind of special event it's usually very well done.  I'm going to try this one someday.

St. Francis
Their food and wine pairings are done outside in good weather and it's a great experience when done this way.  They have several different options.  It's best to call ahead and reserve, especially on weekends.

This small tasting room on the square in Healdsburg offers food and wine pairings daily--no appt. required.

Other wineries may offer some sort of nibbles while you taste, but it's not really food and wine paired together done by someone who knows what they're doing.  It makes all the difference!

Monday, February 7, 2011

How to taste wine

Drinking wine is not the same as tasting wine. Drinking is usually in social settings such as a party or at a restaurant.  Tasting is done when your goal is to learn about wines. Drinking wine won't involve any more of a thought process than either you like it or you don't.

Why taste?

Varieties of wine

There are so many wines available there is no way you can know each wine. What you can do is find a few trusted wines you can go to. Also, you can begin to generalize about styles. Such as, you can decide that you don't like cheap Chardonnays, but cheap Merlots are fine. You might decide you love Lodi Zinfandel or Alexander Valley Cabernet.

Price segments

Obviously, you want to learn about varietals and decide if you prefer Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc. But it goes deeper than that. You'll want to segment by prices. Things like how inexpensive can you go with a Sauv Blanc before you don't like them. Or can you really tell much of a difference between a $30 Sonoma Cabernet and a $60 Napa one?

What is the setting?

Something else to consider is if you'll be drinking the wine with a meal or on its own. For instance, a Sauvignon Blanc may be better with food than Chardonnay. Also, a fruit-forward, high alcohol Zinfandel is probably not as good of a pasta wine as would be an Italian Barbera.

And some wines seem better in hot weather vs. cooler. Things like Sauvignon Blanc seem to taste better in hotter weather than a heavy Cabernet.

Getting ready to taste


The wine has to be at the proper temperature. Too cold and you get very little flavors or smells from the wine. Too warm and it may be astringent and unpleasant. Usually, a cool cellar temperature (about 50 degrees) is best for whites and a cool room temp (low 60s) for reds.   A white wine straight out of the refrigerator or a red straight out of a cool cellar is too cold because you won't get many flavors from the wine.  So give the wine some time to warm a bit if necessary.  Or stick it in the microwave for a few seconds.


Wine glasses with a stem are what you want for tasting so you can hold the glass by the stem and not transmit any warmth from your hand to the wine. I suppose that's why beer mugs got popular.

How to taste

Wine tasting comes down to sight, smell, taste, and aftertaste.


Sight is, well, white or pink or red. What you see doesn't tell you much and isn't that important. The only thing you may notice is some brown color right at the edge where the wine meets the glass. That could mean the wine is pretty old or maybe oxidized, but that still doesn't matter as it's your taste and smell that are important.


Smelling, or the nose of a wine, is actually the key to it all. Most of what you get from a wine is actually via your smell plus your sense of smell is much more sophisticated than your taste buds. You may smell things that remind you of different fruits, herbs and spices, or other things. Sometimes you smell something unpleasant which tells you this wine isn't for you. People's memories of odors are better than any other sense memory.  What you pick out in the wine will be different from what others do.

How you smell the wine is important. To get the most you have to get a bit of oxygen in there. One way is swirling the wine in your glass so you'll want a glass of wine that's less than half full. The best way to see how this works is pour a wine and stick you nose as far into the glass as you can get it and inhale strong and deep. Next swirl the wine around for about 15 seconds and do it again. You'll notice a whole lot of things going on the second time that you didn't pick up before you swirled.


To taste you can add oxygen to the wine once it's in your mouth to help bring out flavors. There are a couple ways to do this. The least messy is just to slosh it around in your mouth as you would mouthwash before swallowing the wine. The other is a bit hard to explain without a visual demonstration but it involves sucking air in between the teeth while the wine is in your mouth. This one is a bit noisy and my wife hates it when I do this in public.   :)

From tasting you may pick up things like acidity, sweetness, tannins, and alcohol.

Acidity can be picked up as bright, sour, or mouth-watering--it's different for different wines and different people. Low acid wines can be called soft or flat. Higher acid is generally best with food; lower acid wines are easier to sip on.

Sugar is sometimes confused with fruitiness, oak, or alcohol as all can be perceived as sweet.

Tannins are mouth-drying like black tea. High tannin wines are usually call dry, but also a wine with no sweetness at all is dry. This is where you want the acids, tannins, and sugar all in balance so no one of them overwhelms the others.

Alcohol is something you can pick up as sweet or it can come across as heat. Many New
World style wines (those not from Europe) can show heat from too much alcohol.


As with the sight, the aftertaste, or finish, of a wine doesn't mean too much either. Sometimes people say it's a long or short finish and the experts have decided long is better. Sometimes you may pick up something unpleasant in the aftertaste and this is what really matters to you.

Now what?

Well, it comes down to whether you like it or not, but also why.   What do you like or not like and file this away in your head or on paper so you'll know more next time.  The first objective is to discover wines you enjoy with the ultimate goal being to find the perfect wine for whatever the occasion.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Three winery stops in the Russian River Valley

Recently I stopped by three tasting rooms near Healdsburg in the Russian River area (just on the "border" with Dry Creek Valley).

Known for their sparkling wines, but J Vineyards also make several Pinot Noirs and a few other wines.
We sampled four Brut-style sparklers priced from $30 to $65.  The '99 Brut was my favorite.  I sampled one single vineyards Pinot at $50 out of about six available.
In the past I've liked J's wines, but this time didn't really care too much for them.  The Brut rosé was okay, but I've had better.  Others were too yeasty and one had an odd smell.  I understand the California fruit-forward style vs. the French yeasty, less fruity style, but these sparklers just didn't do it for me especially for the price.
Just too lean and mean for me.  Maybe with food? 
I selected the one Pinot because she called it more restrained, but it smelled and tasted of alcohol.  Also sampled a Pinotage that was okay, but not for $38.

Rodney Strong
Not quite an old-timer in the area, but one of the first in the modern California wine boom of 40 years ago.  They are known for their Cabernets and didn't disappoint as they were are very good.  My favorites were the '08 Alexander Valley at $25 and the '07 Symmetry Meritage (Cabernet blend) at $55.  The '07 Reserve Cab at $40 will be good in time--it's a big one. 
When you compare their quality and prices to Napa Cabs...well, you can't because you'd pay twice as much for "Napa" on the label.

A sister winery to Silver Oak started up to make Merlot as Silver Oak is Cabernet only.  That worked for awhile then the movie "Sideways" came along and Merlot sales tanked so they got into Pinot Noir and bought this Russian River property (the old Roshambo winery). 
They are doing just fine with Pinots.  The '08 Sonoma Coast was my favorite (they were sold out of the '08 Russian River already).   It was restrained and balanced and actually showed some acid!  They had an '08 from the north end of Anderson Valley in Mendocino County.  This was the area hit by forest fires and smoke early in the growing season.  Many of the wines from here show smoke or weren't even made in 2008.  This one did not have any smoke taint, but had kind of an odd roundness.  I say odd because you expect brightness and acidity from that region.  Maybe there was some manipulation for the smoke that changed the wine? This wine wasn't bad, it tasted fine, just not quite what I expected. Their Pinots retailed for $50.
A beautiful tasting room with great views.

From Twomey looking over the Russian River area
back towards Rodney Strong

I don't know where all the $50 Pinots are coming from.  Haven't they heard about the recession?  Or maybe $50 is selling as poorly as $40 so why not keep the prices up.
In 2010 J Winery "reevaluated" their prices and dropped many.  They still have a ways to go.  Twomey, as part of Silver Oak, will probably always be on the high side.   Untrendy, unsexy Rodney Strong Winery seems spot on in value.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

For Sale: Winery in Sonoma Valley

Blackstone Winery

Constellation Brands appears to be weathering the downturn in wine sales better than some other "corporate wineries," such as Fosters (aka Treasury Wine Estates).   That doesn't mean they are sitting on their hands waiting for things to pick up.

Constellation moved production from one of their wineries, Blackstone, a couple years ago.   It's been fairly common to see the larger outfits consolidate production to fewer facilities to save money.   Blackstone's wine is now made at Ravenswood, another Constellation holding.

So the Blackstone Winery site in Kenwood, CA including winemaking facilities, a tasting room an some vineyard land is one the market.  Maybe you always wanted your own winery?  It's a great location just across the street from Chateau St. Jean (a Fosters holding).

An article about the sale in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Matanzas Creek?

Which leads me to speculate on nearby Matanzas Creek Winery in Bennett Valley.   Where the heck is Bennett Valley you ask?   Well, it's definitely off the beaten path and probably way down on visitor traffic.   It's one of many wineries owned by Kendall-Jackson.  They, too, moved production elsewhere.   Now that's there's not much going on at the facility might it go up for sale?   Jackson also owns lots of vineyards so those would stay with the company.  Actually, it was Jess Jackson that got the Bennett Valley appellation awarded to the area so he has deep roots, you might say, in the area.   It's just that visitors either don't know where Matanzas Creek is or won't bother with the winding drive out to visit an area where there's only one winery.

Jackson has also moved wine production from Sonoma Valley's Arrowood Winery to (gasp!) Napa.

The article on Matanzas Creek moving their wine production.

Freemark Abbey and Rosenblum wineries have also moved wine production to other sites to decrease costs during this recession.