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Thursday, July 28, 2011

2011 wine grape growing season--late July update

Every year it seems Mother Nature has a few surprises.  The good news is, in relation to other wine grape regions, California's surprises usually aren't drastic.

OK, last year was tough with mostly cool and damp weather during the growing season with a couple blasts of heat towards the end.  A lot of grapes were lost in 2010 to sunburn.

This year started with a big, "Oh, oh, here we go again," but has settled into a nice growing season--so far.   It rained into early June--the seasonal rains usually end about a month earlier.  This did a couple things:

1. Grape clusters were lost during bloom because of the rain.  Some fruit was lost, but the thinning of the fruit can actually be a good thing for quality as the premium vineyards are manually thinned anyway.

2. Canopy management is probably the most important thing being done now.  All the rain in the spring followed by heat led to vigorous growth in the canes and leaves.  This has to be controlled to allow the right amount of sun and air into the developing clusters.

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Currently the vines are in the grape growth stage.  Next is the beginning of ripening, or veraison. This happens around the end of July. The grapes start to turn color and during the ripening phase physically increase in size, weight, and sugar content.

The countdown to harvest is about to begin!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Is Treasury Wine Estates on the market?

Awhile ago Foster's of Australia spun off its wine division, Treasury Wine Estates.  They are the second biggest "wine corporation" behind Constellation Brands.   Treasury owns Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Stag's Leap, and dozens of other wineries around the world.

According to financial analysts their stock is currently undervalued and potential buyers are looking including the Chinese.   Even before the spin-off there was an attempt to buy Treasury, but Foster's turned down the offer saying it wasn't enough money.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Parducci--The world's greenest winery?

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Parducci Wine Cellars of Mendocino County in California recently received another award, the "2011 International Award of Excellence in Sustainable Winegrowing."

This was based on their sustainable grape growing, operating completely on renewable energy, recycling all their waste water, and being carbon neutral.

Water and power usage by grape growers and wine makers is high and is a local issue as other vie for the same resources.  But even packaging with glass, the ink used on the labels, and  cardboard have to be taken into consideration. Ink? Yes, the petroleum-based inks used by many actually contain heavy metals.  And then there's Styrofoam packaging.

Parducci has set the bar high for others to follow.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What wine to drink in the heat of summer

Downing a big, heavy Cabernet when the outside temp. is hovering around 90 degrees is not all that enjoyable (believe me, I've tried).   So what to consume in the heat?   (Besides a nice cold beer).

Sauvignon Blanc
SB is more acidic than Chardonnay and isn't as heavy.  This means it's clean, crisp and refreshing.   I tell beer folks, "It's like the IPA of wine."  (You'll get that if you're a beer geek).

Chenin Blanc
Many folks don't know what this is.  It's usually a little sweet, but has decent acid to balance that out (and make it refreshing).   And it's cheap!

Dry Gewurz is spicy and refreshing.  A couple weeks ago on a hot night I enjoyed a Navarro Gewurztraminer with grilled chicken. It hit the spot.  Riesling works well, too.

People are surprised by the quality and drinkability of California rosés today as the better ones aren't syrupy sweet and are made from quality grapes.  People along the Mediterranean in France and Italy have long-known about dry rosés in the summer.

Pinot Noir
The lightest and softest of the reds, but watch the alcohol level as some can be heavy and hot-tasting.
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Rhones (red and white)
Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Syrah blends are easy-drinking summer wines. Among the whites Viognier is easiest to find. For reds, Syrahs can be heavy so look for blends and look for lower-alcohol wines.

Of course, when it's really hot there's nothing better than a nice, cold beer...

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Friday, July 15, 2011

The Bennett Valley Appellation

You may have never heard of Bennett Valley or seen it on wine labels.  The appellation is less than ten years old and was a product of Jess Jackson wanting to distinguish his Matanzas Creek Winery products from other Sonoma Valley wines.

Morning fog over the vineyards

Bennett Valley has a higher elevation than the Sonoma Valley floor, but it's different mostly because of a cooler weather pattern during the grape growing season.  The valley has an ancient volcanic origin plus has a couple fault lines running through the area. There are three long-dormant volcanic peaks circling the valley--Taylor Mtn, Sonoma Mtn, and Bennett Ridge.

Bennett Valley was named after a pioneer who arrived with his family during the 1849 gold rush.  There is still a strong sense of community among the residents.  The Bennett Valley Grange is the oldest continuously operating grange in the country. Granges were farming community organizations that started in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Dry Stack Vineyards (and it's for sale)!

The valley is about three by five miles in size with 700 acres of grapes planted--mostly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Syrah, but also Sauvignon Blanc, other Rhone varieties and even a bit of Cab and Cab Franc.  The only winery open to the public in Bennett Valley is Matanzas Creek.  There still seems to be more horse and cattle ranches than vineyards.  I've had wines from some of the smaller producers including Bennett Valley Cellars that makes a great under thirty dollar Pinot.

There are over 30 growers in Bennett Valley and over 30 wineries buying grapes from there  including Carlisle, Deloach, Ferrari-Carano, Gloria Ferrer, Kunde, Landmark, Quintessa, Rodney Strong, Sonoma-Cutrer, and  Williams Selyem.

More info:  Bennett Valley Grape Growers

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What wineries should you visit while in Sonoma/Napa?

Beats me!   But this question gets asked a lot and there's no easy answer as there are hundreds of choices.

Some things to consider:

Have you visited before?
If you're new to the area and maybe fairly new to wine (not a wine geek) the choices are different than for the person who makes a yearly excursion to the area to buy wines to age at home.
If you are new to California wine tasting you may want to check out a couple of the more famous places such as Mondavi, Beringer, Chateau St. Jean or Sebastiani.
Typically visitors do something like this:  First trip to the wine county means visiting the big names in Napa Valley. Second trip they go to Sonoma for somewhat lesser known stops.  About the third trip they are looking for the out-of-the-way places.
Too many choices!

When are you visiting?
If you'll be in the area, especially Napa Valley, in peak tourist season there will be big crowds and lots of traffic.  If you're not willing to deal with that stick with more out-of-the-way places.  That is, don't go to Mondavi, Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, or Sebastiani.

Where will you be staying?
Plan your driving distances. For instance, the travel time between Bella Winery in Dry Creek Valley and Viansa Winery in Carneros (both are in Sonoma County) is about an hour and a quarter.  Plan your lodging central to the areas you want to visit.

What do you like to drink?
Chardonnay, Cabernet, anything red, ABC (anything but Chardonnay)?
Certain areas specialize in certain varietals. Maybe you are looking to discover something new like sampling a lot of Zinfandels or sparkling wines.   Maybe you have a favorite wine at home, say Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, and you want to get an appointment to see where it's made.
Wine tasting at many different wineries is a great way to break down any personal prejudices such as, "I only drink sweet wines" or "I only drink reds" or "Anything under $15 isn't drinkable" or "California Pinot Noir is crap."
Use this opportunity to discover something new about wine!

How much are you willing to spend on a bottle?
If your limit is 25 bucks then a private appointment at Diamond Creek where the least expensive wine is $150 is a waste of your time and theirs. This doesn't mean you shouldn't try more expensive wine than you buy at home. If you've never had a $75 Cab you might as well sample a couple to see if there really is a difference with the $20 ones you normally drink.

What's your tasting budget?
While we're talking about money you can easily spend $25 per tasting fee in Napa.  If you do that for you and your Significant Other and plan five stops a day for three days, well, that is getting into real money.  Sonoma County is cheaper and most Sonoma wineries will not charge you to taste if you buy something.   There are a number of wineries in Sonoma that don't charge for tasting, there are fewer in Napa that don't.

Any other special things you are looking for?
Views, picnicking, wines you can't find at home, wines you can find at home, small family wineries, large wineries, tours, art?  Would you like to have a wine tasting in a cave or tasting from barrels?  Tours can be broken down into production (how wine is made), caves, or vineyard tours.
There are lots of smaller wineries you'll never see on the store shelved back in Des Moines, but even most of the larger wineries make wines that you don't see at home. Places like Beringer and Chateau St. Jean have reserve rooms that charge a bit more for tasting, but offer higher quality wines that you probably won't find at home. 
Are you looking for "the Disneyland effect" -- places like castles and palaces? You can find several.
You never know what you'll
find in the wine caves!
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So how do you find these places that have what you're looking for?
Google is your friend.  Just be aware there are sites that wineries pay to advertise with and will list ones paying the most at the top under a title something like, "Featured Wineries."  Some less commercial web sites are:

So what if you are really new to this and don't have an idea of what or where you want to visit?  
First, pick a central area to the wine regions of interest for your lodging.   Next, plan on visiting a couple well-known wineries that look interesting plus pick one nearby that is small and family-owned to get a contrast.  Then you can plan on-the-fly from there.
If you have several days plan on a day in Napa, a day in Sonoma then leave the rest of the time open to go back to the area you'd like to see more of.

Enjoy your visit!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A day in the Russian River Valley

We made several stops in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley on July 10th, an area known mostly for the cool-climate grapes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It was another picture perfect day with brilliant sun and temps in the 70s.  With stopping at several wineries I limited myself to only a few of the wines available at each location.
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Interesting history, folklore, redwood trees and beautiful gardens make this a popular stop for everyone from locals and international travelers.  The Heck family bought the winery from the Korbel's in the 1950s and still run it today (along with Kenwood Vyds, Valley of the Moon Winery, and Lake Sonoma Winery).
We started with a sandwich from their deli on the deck in the redwoods.
If you stick with the drier bubblies they are pretty good, especially for the price.  The Natural, the organic Brut (a different wine from the Korbel Brut found everywhere), and the Reserve Blanc de Noir (Sangiovese-based) were the best.

Along a scenic section of the Russian River the family has been making wine for over 20 years here focusing on Pinot Noir.
Good quality across the board.  The Bacigalupi Vineyards Pinot Noir was my favorite. The Bordeaux-style red blend was very good also--at $75.

Gary Farrell
Gary started making his own wines 30 years ago after working for some of the biggest names in the county. A bit over 10 years ago he built a beautiful facility on a hilltop overlooking the river to focus on Pinot. The business side went downhill and the winery has had many owners in the last few years. The wines have pretty much held steady during the turmoil.
A leaner style of Pinot with the Bien Nacido/Central Coast and Hallberg/Russian River Valley ones my favorites with the Hallberg being quite spicy.  The Starr Ridge/RRV I wasn't so impressed with.

Russian Hill
Another hilltop facility overlooking area vineyards.  They started up about 15 years ago and are family-owned focusing on Pinot and Syrah.
Richer style of wines compared to Gary Farrell, but not overripe.  The Leras Vineyard Pinot and the Estate Syrah were the best.  The Syrah was somewhat of a bargain at $28 retail.

The Martinelli family has been growing grapes in Sonoma County since the 19th century, but became well-known with their connection with winemaker Helen Turley.  No, this is not the same family that makes the Martinelli Sparkling Cider, in case you were wondering.
Most wines were very ripe and several showed heat from high alcohol levels. Most wines were very expensive. I preferred the Pinot vineyard blend, Bella Vigna, that was relatively low in alcohol and price.

Hook & Ladder
The Deloach Family sold their namesake winery and started up Hook & Ladder.  Yes, the owner is a retired San Francisco fireman.  There's even an old firetruck on the property and a collection of t-shirts from fire districts around the world.
The Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel were quite nice, the Tillerman red blend wasn't (I'm always looking a good, cheap red).

A family-run winery making everything from Barbera to Bordeaux styles.  A friendly, unpretentious place hosting great barbecues during special events.
Unfortunately, I never really liked their style and still don't.   I purchased wine at each stop except here.

Entrance to Hook and Ladder Winery
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A great way to spend a Sunday.  And we only scratched the surface of what's available in the Russian River Valley.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Red wine is exercise in a bottle!

Much has been made of resveratrol, an antioxidant in red wine, that has done everything from lengthen the lifespan of worms to prevent cancer in mice.
Lifting the glass is all the work
you should have to do!
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The latest research has to do with how to keep astronauts fit while spending a long time in weightless conditions.   It appears a hearty dose of Cabernet every day may be just what they need.  I'm just not sure how it'll match with "dinner in a tube."

"Red Wine is Exercise in a Bottle," from CBS News.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Avoiding the crowds in Napa and Sonoma

If you don't like pushing-and-shoving, stop-and-go traffic, loud people, and lousy service it's important to know when and where to visit.   Wine tasting can be a not-so-nice experience when you have to leave a tasting room without getting served because the crowd is three-deep at the bar and then find you have to wait 15 minutes to make a left turn onto the road.    I've just described Highway 29 in Napa Valley on any weekend during six months of the year.
Welcome to Napa Valley!
Napa is much more crowded because it's famous and because the winery tasting rooms are densely packed along the main road.   Sonoma is more spread out and generally has fewer visitors.
Highway 29 in Napa Valley is much more crowded than the Silverado Trail that parallels it to the east.  29 is lined with tasting rooms.
Places to the south tend to be more crowded as they are a closer drive from San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area.   In Napa go north of Calistoga, in Sonoma north of Healdsburg, to find fewer people.

Time of year
The busy season is roughly May through October with a couple exceptions.   June is actually relatively light in traffic.  Most holiday weekends, whatever time of year, are more crowded.  This is especially true of Thanksgiving weekend as people like to take their visiting relatives out wine tasting Friday and Saturday.   Labor Day weekend?  Stay the heck outta Napa!
Autumn is quite busy, especially on weekends, as there are many people that like to come out during the harvest.  The harvest is roughly Sept through Oct.

Time of week
Obviously, the weekends are much busier and mid-week the lightest traffic.   This is especially true in the off-season as there are fewer people on vacation. In high-season you'll find many popular Napa wineries pretty crowded every day.  In the off-season almost every Saturday will still bring out the crowds.

Time of day
The peak times are in the afternoons beginning about 1:30 pm.   There is a bit of a lull as people have lunch between about noon and 1:30.   Friday and Saturday are especially busy in the afternoons.   The Sunday traffic tends to die off mid-afternoon as the Bay Area people head home.

Certain places will draw more people, such as Mondavi and Beringer.  So, for instance, stopping at Mondavi on a Saturday afternoon in August is a good idea only if you like crowds and noise.   Going to Mondavi on a Wednesday in winter is a whole different experience.
Towards the end of the day people are working their way south back towards San Francisco meaning the wineries in southern Napa and Sonoma will be busier at 5 pm.
Welcome to "downtown" Geyserville in Sonoma County
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Avoiding the crowds
Plan your trip in the off-season.
Plan your wine tasting during the week rather than weekends.
If you can't make either of these work then go to Sonoma County rather than Napa.
During peak times go for the smaller, less known wineries in northern Napa or Sonoma county.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Russian River Valley in July (photos)

July 1, 2011 in the Russian River Valley near Healdsburg.
(click on any photo to enlarge)

Foppiano old vines

Rodney Strong

Sonoma Valley in July (photos)

July 1st in northern Sonoma Valley
(click on any photo to enlarge)

Chateau St. Jean

St Francis
 Roussanne grapes