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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Vinoteca - Micro-wineries in Santa Rosa

There are now three tasting rooms in Santa Rosa operated as co-ops of several micro-wineries.   First, there was Cellars of Sonoma, then the Urban Winery Village, and now Vinoteca.   First, I have to comment on the name--it's bad. It sounds sort of "high teca" rather than wine-friendly.  I didn't know where "teca" came from until I looked it up. Vinoteca means "a collection of wines."   Fine. But sex always works in marketing--how about "Vinosex?"    LOL
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There was a soft grand opening on June 27th mostly for social media types (I stay away from the unsocial media types) and others in the local wine industry.
What I sampled:

Argot Wines  Known primarily for their unfiltered Pinot Noir
2009 Sonoma County white blend (70% Roussanne/30 Chard)
   Interesting wine, bit of heat on the finish
2007 Bennett Valley Syrah
   A touch green, nice structure, bit spicy, big

Bjornstad Cellars  Single-vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
2007 Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay
   Lean, toasty
2008 van der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir

Calluna  Mostly about Bordeaux varietals
2009 Cuvee (Merlot and Cabernet Franc)
   Thin, tight, not much showing. How will it age?

Frostwatch  From the cool Bennett Valley appellation
2010 Kismet (Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon)
   Soft, fruity, good acid
2009 Bennett Valley Pinot Noir
   Soft, fruity up front then earthy, lower acid. 
   Would like to try this one after a few more months in the bottle

Olson Ogden Wines  Mostly about Rhone varietals  
2008 Stagecoach Vineyard Marsanne 
   Oily, spicy, decent acid. Inoffensive, but not particularly interesting
2007 Unti Vineyard Syrah 
   Nice spicy, good balance, good fruit.  Outstanding.
   My favorite wine of the night.

Super Sonoman  Specializing in Cabernet from the hills separating Sonoma and Napa Valleys
2005 Redwood Hill Vyds Cabernet Sauvignon
   Complex, fruity, spicy, still tasting youthful.  Excellent.
   Only concern is the 15.2% alcohol, but it's not showing now
2006 Redwood Hill Vyds Cabernet Sauvignon
   Bit thinner and more tannic than the '05.  15.2% alc also

Visiting these shared tasting rooms consisting of multiple small wineries you've probably never heard of is a great way to sample many different styles. And it's convenient. What you're missing, of course, is the view out over the vineyards afforded by the larger ones out in the wine-producing areas.  

A list of the urban co-op tasting rooms in Santa Rosa, CA and the wineries represented:

Cellars of Sonoma, 133 Fourth Str
Amorosa Bella, Bonneau, Dunah, Gann Family, James Family, Joseph Jewell, Krutz, La Sirena, and TR Elliot

Urban Winery Village, 1301 Cleveland Ave
D'Argenzio, Krutz, MJ Lords, and Sheldon

Vinoteca, 3358 Coffee Lane
Argot, Bjornstad, Calluna, Frostwatch, Olson Ogden, and Super Sonoman

Also, within the city limits you'll find Carol Shelton, Inspiration (both near Vinoteca), and the not-to-be-missed wines of Siduri.

All that's missing now is bus service between the local hotels and these urban tasting rooms. Think of it as a pub crawl!

Friday, June 24, 2011

NASCAR and Chardonnay

No, they just don't seem to go together do they?    But that's what we've got this weekend as the good ol' boys invade Sonoma County.    A cold Bud, no thanks.   How 'bout a nice single-vineyard old vine Zinfandel instead.

NASCAR is about four left turns around an oval at close to 200 mpg.  Then four more left turns. Then four more.   Repeat for four hours.    The wine country has to be different (see also Watkins Glen in the NY state wine country).    Infineon Raceway is a damn narrow windy up-and-down hill chaotic race track.

And the fans?   Yeah, Bud drinkers next to the Chardonnay crowd.   I mean the nearest winery is about a mile away!   In the past they've set up an outdoor register on the road so folks can come by and get a case of wine and head back to the track.   I'm guessing there ain't much of that in North Carolina.
Yep, this is gonna be trouble
Image from

It's a race of attrition as drivers "trade paint" and knock each other out of the race and get into shouting matches later.

Also, probably not seen in North Carolina, but spotted at Infineon, was Queers4Gears, an organization hoping to bring NASCAR to some decidedly not redneck types.

Anyway, this is the weekend you avoid the roads south of the town of Sonoma--it's a damn mess!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Napa on the cheap

Yeah, I know, this blog has "Sonoma" in the title,  but Napa is just over the hill.   I mean it's not like I'm giving recommendations for your Mexican vacation ...


Some parts of Napa Valley are more expensive just because they are cute.  This would be Yountville and St. Helena so most anything you do there is bound to cost a more, especially the lodging and often the restaurants.  At opposite ends of the valley the towns of Napa and Calistoga will generally be less expensive.  The town of Napa has lots of options for rooms and restaurants.   Some folks will stay outside of Napa Valley, maybe an hours drive or more, to save money, but I wouldn't want the long drive after wine tasting or after dinner at night.


Wine tasting

There are a very few wineries still offering free tastings.  There are a few more that will at least refund your tasting fee if you purchase.  Napa websites that will give you (hopefully) up-to-date information are and, or you can Google something like "napa valley free tasting."  Last I knew August Briggs and Heitz had complimentary tastings.

Typically Napa Valley wineries charge about $20/each for a tasting so if you and a significant other are spending a few days this will get into real money.   At these places you should plan on sharing a tasting.  There are several tasting rooms in the five-to-ten dollar range. Look for 2-for-1 wine tasting coupons online. Do your homework before you go and you'll save money.

As far as I know Clos Pegase and Mumm have the only free guided winery tours.

But Yountville is much cuter

There are lots of expensive restaurants that will be happy to charge the two of you in excess of $100 for a meal.  It's nice to do this once in a while, but 200 bucks a day to eat gets into real money after a couple days.
There are diner-type establishments like Gotts (aka Taylors Refresher) or Busters BBQ where two people can eat for $25 or less.  Tra Vigne's pizza kitchen is reasonable.  My favorite moderately priced restaurants are the Rutherford Grill and Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen (though it's been awhile since I've been to either).

Or for lunch pick up a sandwich or some bread and cheese at a market and have a picnic if the weather is cooperating.


I have nothing specific to recommend as I've never stayed overnight in Napa Valley, but the town of Napa will be your best bet.  Another option is over the hill in Santa Rosa (about a half hour drive from Calistoga at the north end of Napa Valley).   The bigger towns of Napa and Santa Rosa offer more choices so they will have better prices.

Other stuff

Hiking - For the adventurous there's Robert Louis Stevenson Park north of the valley. For easier hikes there's Bothe-Napa State Park in the valley and Napa Valley Skyline Park to the south.

Wineries where you can see art for free:
  • Clos Pegase - Architecture and the owner's private art collection.
  • Hess - Art collection
  • Mumm - Usually has a photography display.
The town of Napa has various events such as farmers' markets and street fairs.

Sonoma County

Of course, if you don't like Napa prices you'll find almost everything less expensive in Sonoma.   Free wine tastings are not as common as they once were, but most wineries are five or ten dollars and will refund your fee with a purchase.  Plus you'll find the wines are generally less expensive.

A couple good resources for exploring Sonoma County are and

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The danger of wine coolers

I always knew those things were bad for you.   Now the truth is told.

Bristol Palin, never one to shy away from attention (much like her mother), has revealed that she lost her virginity while drunk on wine coolers.   And she couldn't even remember the event she says.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pennsylvania Wine Kiosks Still Suck!

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The state wine bureaucrats' folly continues. Pennsylvania has state workers, including a "chairman," in charge of all alcohol sales in the state. Why? No one really knows, but it's an excellent money-making monopoly. About a year ago they had this great idea to offer wines in a kiosk.  Sort of like a candy machine, but with alcohol.   Why did they think this would be a good idea?  Did money exchange hands? Or maybe they're just not very bright.

All you do is prove your identity to a machine (with a real person overseeing the operation), blow into a breathalyzer to prove you're not already drunk, then put in your credit card. What could be easier? What could be more humiliating?  Why is this better than buying from a store clerk?
Wouldn't you want to buy
your wine from this thing?

Image from

Well, one of the main stores in the pilot program, Wegmans, has seen enough. They've had plenty of customer complaints. Go figure. The state says they'll continue " to ensure they provide the customer service our consumers expect."  Hard liquor in store kiosks may be next. Hopefully, followed by condoms and guns. Actually, the idea of one-stop-shopping for a bottle of whiskey, a box of rubbers, and a 9mm might prove to be popular.    Question for the bureaucrats:  Do I have to blow into a breathalyzer to buy condoms?   How about to buy a gun?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Summer 2011 ongoing events in Sonoma County

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the big festivals going on during the summer in Sonoma County.  This post is about ongoing, such as weekly, smaller events.

First Fridays
In the Railroad Square section of downtown Santa Rosa on the first Friday of every month during the summer (June-Sept).   Arts & crafts, food, wine, and music.

Healdsburg Concert Series
Live music in the town plaza every Tuesday evening through August.  Bring a blanket, fried chicken, potato salad, and a bottle of Chardonnay.  Get there early as the plaza fills up.

Rodney Strong Concerts
Once a month during the summer you can picnic, drink, and listen to music in the vineyards at Rodney Strong Winery near Healdsburg.  Pat Benatar is this year's big name performer.

Santa Rosa Downtown Market
Every Wednesday evening.  It's part farmers market, part crafts, part wine tasting.  Have dinner from one of the downtown vendors.

Windsor Nights on the Green
Thursday farmers market and concerts.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The king of Sonoma cheese passes

Ig with one of his many awards.
Image from
Sonoma County isn't just about great wines.   We make a lot of world-class cheese also--something that was founded on a large, local dairy industry.

Ig Vella, owner of Vella Cheese Company in the town of Sonoma, died at 82 years old.  His father is credited with starting the premium cheese business way back during the Great Depression.   Local Italian immigrants demanded high-quality cheeses like they could get back in the old country. Perhaps Vella's most famous cheese is their Dry Jack, but personally I sure do like the Toma.

The next two generations of the family are carrying on.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Russian River Valley photos

From the southeastern section of the Russian River Valley appellation on June 9, 2011.

Morning fog clearing in the west

Chardonnay and Zinfandel bloom

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

2011 grape growing season -- update

I wrote a couple days ago about early season problems with this year's weather (see post below dated June 6).   The cool, wet Spring has put the growing season behind schedule and has destroyed part of the crop.

Since visual is always easier to understand this diagram may help.   This is part of an article in the Mercury News.

Monday, June 6, 2011

2011: The next wine vintage from hell?

2010 was a tough year for the local grape growers.   Most of the summer was cool and damp meaning the grapes didn't ripen and were subject to mold as the clusters formed and the grapes grew.  Many growers did a little canopy management and cut away the leaves covering the bunches to give them lots of sun.   Then a couple blistering heat waves over-ripened and raisined many vineyards. Some growers lost their entire crop.

2009 was no picnic either as I recall one winery owner / grower saying it was a year for "better winemaking through chemistry."

2008 had lightning strikes setting fires in Mendocino County that created a smoke blanket lasting a month and actually put a smoke-tainted smell and flavor into some wines.

So how is 2011 shaping up?  It's been a wet, cool spring just like last year.  Actually, it's been wetter and cooler than last year.  For late May and early June the temperatures are ten degrees or more below the average in the Sonoma and Napa area.  It's cooler because of cloud cover and rain.  The good news is rain is off the long-range forecast and temps are supposed to run near normal.
This is expected in January,
but isn't so good in June

So what's the grape crop damage?  This is the time of year for the grape bloom.   You don't see actual pretty flowers as grapes are self-pollinating and don't have to attract insects.   Rain at the time of bloom causes "shatter" damaging potential grape clusters so they won't form properly.  It's sort of nature's way of thinning the crop.   But there is a potential for a much smaller crop than average--this will depend on where certain varieties and vineyards are in the bloom cycle.

Mildew is another issue, but the growers can control this.

The cooler weather has pushed the entire growing cycle back so assuming normal or less than normal summer temps the harvest will be late.  In California growers like an earlier harvest to avoid potential autumn rains that can really hurt a mature crop.

What are the growers hoping for now?  Sunny warm days with some wind to dry things out.  Then an average summer would be nice.   It will be about mid-summer before they know the extent of the loss.

It appears many growers are making changes in the vineyards based on last year's Vintage From Hell.  Some are now early believers in climate change--a change that could cause coastal areas to be cooler than normal as interior lands heat up.  Or it may just be our usual El Nino / La Nina cycles (a warming or cooling of the Pacific).

It's too early to say if this will be a good year or bad, of course, but for farmers it's never to early to starting worrying.   The important thing is that only the quantity of grapes is affected so far, not the quality.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Current California Wine Trends

Where has the  the California wine industry been and where is it headed?  Here's a look at some of the trends in this trendy business.

Alcohol Levels

  This has been discussed a lot.  California has picked grapes super-ripe for over a decade now and has recently learned how to process the wines to take away the burning heat of too much alcohol.  This hasn't returned varietal character to wines however, as a big blast of fruit-juiciness still wins out with many winemakers over delicacy, subtlety, varietal character, and balance.  There are now wineries making a big deal out of their lower alcohol levels.  You don't see anyone advertising their high alcohol.  Is a backlash underway?  I don't know about you but I often look at the alcohol level on a bottle before deciding to buy.

Yes, I suppose the blonde's
shoulder tastes different than the
brunette's back. That's terroir!
Image from

  It's a French term meaning the wine has specific characteristics from the specific plot of land it grew on.  That's nice to know but I don't know why it's better.  This has led to ...

Single Vineyard Designated Wines

  Many conclude that a single variety from a single plot of land makes a better (and more expensive) wine than does blending from multiple vineyards.   I don't know why this is supposed to be true.  This theory is also used with appellation-specific wines.  Saying, for example, that a Chardonnay from Russian River or Santa Lucia is always better than one blended from the two.

Smaller Sub-Appellations

  This is another offshoot of Terroir-mania.  Grape growing areas, appellations, are getting subdivided into smaller appellations.  In Sonoma County the coastal growing areas of Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast may get further parceled.  The argument being that there are areas of different soil, temperatures, topography and winds making for differences in the wines.   I agree.   Anyone who knows anything about Sonoma County will know you can drive ten minutes to get different weather during the summer and you can usually walk to a different soil profile from most vineyards.   You may as well argue for a thousand appellations in the county.  All this really accomplishes is confusing most consumers--when once you know you liked Pinot from the Sonoma Coast area you may one day find wines with Ft. Ross or Petaluma Gap on the labels and don't know where these come from.

Single Varieties, Rather Than Blending

  American wine laws require 75% of a single variety to be in a wine for it to be labeled that way otherwise you have to call it something else.   A label saying Cabernet Sauvignon has always sold better than one saying Red Wine.  This rule has pushed a lot of people away from blending wines.   So rather than getting a Syrah, Mourvedre, Viognier blend, for instance, you get mostly 100% Syrahs.  Most grape varieties have there strengths and weaknesses so complementing varieties usually make a better wine.   Luckily for us we are seeing more of the Rhone-style blends.  What we aren't seeing is more Cabernet with Merlot and more Merlot with Cabernet blended in.  Most Merlots needs some Cabernet!

"In" Varieties

  Pinot Noir is in, Merlot is out--that's old news.  Syrah is sorta in; maybe Malbec is.  Some bet on Pinot Gris a few years ago and that isn't paying off as yet.  Chardonnay has always been the in white wine with Sauvignon Blanc playing a distant second fiddle.   Pity the poor grape farmer who has to guess years ahead of time and dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into what may be The Next Big Thing or not.  Lots of people talk about what the Next Big Varietal will be in California.  Meanwhile Chardonnay and Cabernet keep plugging along.

"In" Styles

  Consumers have been told by the "experts" that they aren't supposed to like big, buttery, oaky Chardonnays, but they still (but may not admit to it).  Or they aren't supposed to drink Merlot anymore.   It's great to experiment with something new like unoaked stainless steel fermented Chardonnay, but you don't have to like it.   Now many believe they are supposed to prefer the fruit-forward, high alcohol wines because Robert Parker does.  Hopefully, all this will settle out to a nice middle ground rather than one extreme or the other.

The Opinions of Amateurs
So many wines, so little time!
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  Trying to decide what wine to buy from the hundreds available used to be based on the "experts" from Wine Spectator and the other wine magazines plus a few wine competitions.  Since the Internet spawned wine forums, blogs and twitter everybody and their brother can give a wine 92 points just like Robert Parker.   Also, rather than hundreds there are now thousands of wines available from hundreds of boutique wineries.  How can you keep up?  You may want to use the local wine retailer as your trusted expert.


  Being green is good for you and the land.  There's a bit of free PR with being able to say you are a green winery but that's okay because you're doing the right thing.  However, being Biodynamic is just weird, but it is the in thing with many wineries.  Sustainability is the next big thing and it's not just land stewardship because water use is getting to be a big deal.  Water isn't just for irrigation, but also frost protection in the vineyards and cleaning in the cellar, etc. Making wine uses a lot of water.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sign of the times. Another family winery sells out.

The second oldest family winery in Sonoma County, after Foppiano, has sold to a conglomerate.   Seghesio Family Vineyards got through Prohibition but didn't want to chance the current economy and I guess the money just looked too good.   The new owners are Crimson Wine Group that's part of a larger NY-based holding company which invests in everything from mining to real estate.

What does this mean for the Seghesio wine fan?  Nothing right now, but five years from now who knows.

In May Buena Vista, Gary Farrell, and Fetzer changed hands, but these were no longer family run wineries. 

Read all about it.