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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Wine Clubs--Should You Join?

Pretty much every winery has a wine club.  A few will call theirs a mailing list meaning you don't get discounts.  Some retail wine shops also offer wine clubs.  Why does everybody do it?  Because it's a great money maker, but this doesn't mean you shouldn't join. Let's look at some of the options.

Winery Wine Clubs

The typical wine club will ship you a certain number of bottles over the course of a year and will offer you wine discounts on your shipped wines and any others you buy.  After this their club benefits can vary quite a bit.

The wine discount is typically between 15% and 30%.  The amount of wine shipped to you during a year is typically from six bottles to a couple cases.   With some clubs you can cancel the next day if you change your mind, but most require a time or bottle commitment. For instance, you must stay in the club for a year or buy at least 12 bottles of wine.  Clubs letting you back out generally don't give you a discount on the day you sign up.

Most wineries have other benefits for members, but many are winery events so they are only good if you live nearby. Plus if you're fortunate to live near the winery you can pick up your wines instead of paying shipping.

So should you join a particular winery's club?  Some things to ask yourself:

  • First, do you like most of their wines?  This one seems obvious but don't go in just because it's a good deal, or you like the host/hostess, or the winery dog.
  • Are you getting more wine than you're likely to consume?  If it's a few bottles a year that's not a problem for most, but if you're signing up for a couple cases a year is that more than you want of one particular winery's product?
  • Do  you have somewhere to ship the wine where there is an adult available to sign for it? Federal law requires an adult signature for wine delivery. Maybe have it delivered to you workplace or your neighbor.
  • Do you understand how much the shipments will cost?
  • Are you getting wines you can't find at home?  No use having wines shipped that you find in your local market.
  • Are you getting wines you want?  Most clubs offer a white and red option or a red wine only option.  A few actually let you pick your own wines.  So, for instance, if you only drink whites and the club has no white wine only option what are you going to do with the reds?
  • What are the club benefits? Don't get talked into signing up because they throw great parties at their winery in California if you live in New Jersey. Do it for the discount on wines you can't find at home.

If you are visiting the wine country pay attention to how many clubs you join and how much it'll cost you over the course of a year.  More than one person has got home and realized, "Oh my God, I've joined eight wine clubs!"  You could wind up with a couple thousand dollars in commitments!

Winery Mailing Lists

For some wines the demand is much greater than the supply.  These wineries will often have mailing lists and will only offer their wines to people on the list.  What's the difference between a club and a mailing list?  Generally, there is no discounting for mailing lists and you usually get to pick what you want and can even skip an offering or two from the winery.  If you don't purchase after awhile you'll be dropped off the list. Some might even make you buy their mediocre Chardonnay to get their highly sought after Cabernet so ask about that.

Okay, maybe this one's not for real
Image from
Retail Store Wine Clubs

The biggest difference with a store's club is that you are getting wine from many different wineries, not just one. You want to look at what wineries are available and how much choice you have in the selection. Generally, they offer a number of smaller producers.  Sometimes they are great finds, sometimes not, but this is a good way to try lots of different wines.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Carrying wine on an airplane--coming soon!?

Recently a UK company announced they have a new scanner mechanism that will pick up explosives in liquids.  The word is getting around that in the next few months you'll be able to carry wine and other liquids over 100ml in size on board the plane with you.

If this happens it would be great news for the wineries as ever since the ban on liquids post-9/11 many visitors who would consider carrying a few bottles home with them don't because they want to avoid checking them and get charged up to 50 bucks for the baggage fee.

News article. You can perform a Google News search for something like "Carry liquids on airplane" for the latest information.

There are still many things to work out: Does it work as well as the company claims? Can airports afford the scanner? How significantly would this slow down the security checkpoints as travelers unload their six bottle carrier of wines and pass them through the scanner one-by-one?

BTW, Horizon Air out of Santa Rosa CA currently allows you to check through a case of wine for free to any of their connecting cities!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Recent History of Merlot

Merlot plays second fiddle to Cabernet, then Merlot is up, then Merlot is down.
That pretty well describes U.S. sales for the last forty years.

During the rise of California as a wine-growing region in the last quarter of the 20th century Cabernet Sauvignon was king (and Chardonnay queen). Merlot held a distant second place to Cab for red wine drinkers. It was easier to drink young, but usually less interesting.

Then two events happened having huge effects on Merlot sales in the U.S.

In 1991 The French Paradox segment on 60 Minutes concluded the French may have a lower rate of heart attacks because of their high consumption of red wine. American consumers jumped on board and Merlot was ready with its easy-to-drink nature. Demand outstripped supply so Merlot got planted everywhere including some places where it probably shouldn't. The result was a lot of bland wine with no real varietal character. Merlot got a bad reputation with the more "serious" wine drinkers.
Miles and Jack contemplating the
high price of Pinot
Image from

In 2004 a somewhat minor movie Sideways made Merlot uncool as the main character declared he'd never drink any f%#$ing Merlot, but he loved Pinot Noir. The movie's inside joke was his prized bottle of French wine he was carrying around for a special occasion was Merlot-based. By the way, Merlot is the most widely planted red grape in France.

The damage was done to Merlot, but you know what, much of the Merlot on the market deserved it. Merlot had become a commodity wine, that is, you'd ask for "A glass of red wine" and would get a nondescript Merlot. It was the Toyota Camry of wines--boring, but reliable. A lot of Merlot vineyards have been recently ripped out and replanted with something else. That's also probably good.

Now Merlot seems to be making a bit of a comeback. There are folks who continue to make quality Merlot though these are going to be more than ten bucks a bottle, but are still cheaper than the higher priced Cabernets.

A "real" Merlot
Image from
From Sonoma and Napa try Clos du Bois (the Alexander Valley Reserve bottling), Duckhorn, Gundlach Bundschu, Pride, Shafer, Twomey.  The Clos du Bois sells for in the lower $20s, the Gundlach Bundschu in the upper $20s. The others, all from Napa, are 50 bucks and up. There are also a lot of good Merlots out of Washington State and, of course, France. How about a nice Chateau Petrus for about $3000? That's per bottle!

Gundlach Bundschu has been a long-time favorite. They make well-structured, tasty Merlots that will actually age well.

So what's in store for Merlot sales in the future?  I think they will actually be helped by Pinot Noir's popularity because Pinot prices are very high and still rising. Merlot sales will perhaps be hurt a bit by the softer, fruitier Cabernets being produced these days as they compete directly with Merlot, I believe. What can help Merlot? How about some blends? In the "old days" a lot of Merlot had maybe 20% Cab in it for structure and heft. Merlot needs some Cab, Malbec, heck, some Syrah, to make it more interesting.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Simi, Sausal, White Oak & Soda Rock

An afternoon of tasting in Alexander Valley, Sonoma County (1/17/2012)

From White Oak Vineyards

Simi Winery

A very old, historic winery now owned by Constellation Brands.

2008 Alexander Vly Cabernet $26
Softer and fruitier than the ones coming after it, but still has the oak and tannins to be laid down for awhile. It's hard to go wrong with Cabs from AV especially at this price so I picked one up.

2008 Alexander Vly Landslide Cabernet $40
Not ready yet! Very drying but with some peppery spice. This one has been a favorite in the past but not sure the fruit is there to support it this year.

2006 Alexander Vly Reserve Cabernet $65
Good structure, still needs some time. The best of the three cabs and, it figures, the most expensive.

All three Cabs show good structure and ageability. Actually, all require some years in the bottle.


Specializing in Alexander Valley old vine Zinfandel. In fact, their "everyday" Zin was from 50 year old estate fruit.

2008 Family Zinfandel, 50 year old vines $19
Good wine, great price.

2008 Private Reserve Zinfandel, 95 year old vines $24
Spicy, good depth. An excellent wine at a great price. I purchased this one.

2008 Century Zinfandel, 134 year old vines $40
Depth, strength. Some old vine Zins gets a bit pruney and tannic, but not this one. It's a Zin worth trying just because of the age of the vineyards. Consider it educational.  :)

All were well-made, well-structured, balanced Zinfandels at reasonable prices. I hadn't been here in several years and have now added Sausal back on my list of favorite Zin producers.

White Oak

2008 Alexander Vly Old Vine Zinfandel $40
Okay, but not for $40

2005 Alexander Vly Reserve (Cabernet blend) $50
Too tannic

2005 Napa Vly Reserve (Cab blend) $50
Richer, spicy, but still tannic

It was an excellent idea for our host to pour each of the Reserve wines side-by-side, once through an aerator to smooth it out, and once straight from the bottle. This is a great opportunity to see how the wine might age or at least show you what it's like after decanting. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the aerator device as the wine smelled off. I thought maybe a corked wine may have been poured through it and contaminated the aerator. I let him know. He tried the wine via the aerator only (didn't try them side-by-side) and declared it just fine. That is, I didn't know what I was talking about. Two others in my group tried them and agreed that wines through the aerator weren't right.

Old vine Zinfandel at White Oak

Soda Rock

Owned by the Wilson Family along with Mazzocco, Matrix and a couple others. An old, historic property beautifully restored. I previously reviewed Soda Rock on May 11, 2011. I didn't care for the wines then so was anxious to try them again.

2009 Sonoma County Wentworth Zinfandel $29
Spicy, hot, rich, acidic

2009 Sonoma County Primitivo $34
Good fruit, "dirty" but not in a bad way. Nice balance and seems food-friendly. I took one of these home. I love Sonoma County Primitivo and am glad to see more available. Primitivo is a sibling of Zinfandel--not the same, but similar.

2009 Rockpile Zinfandel $60
Minerality, bit over-ripe, lower acid. Pretty decent wine at an out-of-sight price.

2007 Sonoma County Malbec $28
Inoffensive, no varietal characteristics (I couldn't tell it was Malbec).

2007 Sonoma County Cabernet Franc $32
2007 Sonoma County Reserve Cabernet Franc $45
2005 Sonoma County Mercantile Cabernet Sauvignon $40
2006 Alexander Vly The General Cabernet $50
2006 Alexander Vly Five Star General Cabernet $65
I listed these all together because they are similar--too dry and tannic.

I don't know what to make of Soda Rock wines as they are over-oaked (their Cabs all spend about 38 months in barrels). It's more puzzling as they're from the Wilson family that's more known for big, soft, and fruity wines. I suppose it's a style of wine for somebody--just not me!

By the way, other Alexander Valley wineries I've been to many times before and love are: Alexander Valley Vineyards, Field Stone, Hanna, and Stryker.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Another new marketing trend. Manly wine.

Maybe it's based on statistics, logic, and market knowledge or maybe it's desperation in the recession. The fact that millennials are really into wine, more so than any previous generation of 20-somethings, means the wine marketing people have been looking at various ways to woo them.
Middle Sister girly wine
Image from

The latest is based on the belief that it's the male millennials that require some attention now. They need manly wines to get them away from their Bud.

Treasury Wine Estates, owners of Beringer, Stag's Leap,  plus others, has a new label, Sledgehammer. "No sipping, no swirling. Man up!"  "The wines are so big and bold they have a hard time fitting them in the bottle" they say. "Too big." Guys like that.

Big House (as in prison) Wines makes a "muscular" Syrah called Slammer. Their mascot seems to be some ugly guy called Bruno.  I assume you need multiple tattoos to drink this stuff. Even better if you're an ex-felon.

There's  a Canadian winery, Dirty Laundry, that makes Naughty Chardonnay, Bordello red blend, and Hoar Frost Icewine. They have a wine club called the Bordello Club. Sounds more like a place in Nevada.

If you require more help in figuring out what wines are more masculine look for descriptors like "big, bold, muscular, meaty, and tannic." By the way "tannic" is the only word there that actually describes a wine characteristic. "Fleshy, soft" wines are feminine.  Any wine that starts sweet and ends acidic is going to remind you of your ex.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"The Bachelor" is Looking for Love in Sonoma

For the 0.5% of the country that doesn't watch reality TV shows The Bachelorettes jilted winemaker is now appearing on The Bachelor. Sonoma's most eligible winemaker is showing the ladies around his home town. It's Sonoma, California in case you didn't hear him say it 90 times during the show.
All the women (on the show)
want to marry him
Image from

There's something known as The Sideways Effect that launched Pinot Noir and killed Merlot sales after the movie, Sideways, hit the screens in 2004. A lesser known effect was the increased travel to California's wine regions and an even lesser known "event" happened to someone I know while working in a local tasting room one weekend.  A couple, let's say dorky, guys went through the room trying to pick up the women working there. If you remember the scene where the guys from the movie hit it off with Sandra Oh--that's what they were trying to recreate.

So Sonoma is hoping for a Bachelor Effect to bring in more visitors. Hopefully, it won't bring in hordes of young, single women trying to pick up guys in the wine business! Don't think that will happen because Sideways was actually a pretty good movie whereas The Bachelor TV show... Whoa, do people actually watch that crap?  Fake, overdone dramatization and all? (And some fake boobs, too).

The scenery shots in and around the town of Sonoma were amazing. Yes, it's really that beautiful here. Sometimes I forget.
Image from

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

An afternoon in Dry Creek Valley (with photos)

First stop was the Wurst Restaurant in Healdsburg (wurst as in sausages). When the owner moved from Detroit to open this restaurant it was a big deal locally as: 1) you don't get much in the way of good encased meats around here, and 2) it's inexpensive by Healdsburg standards. The owner is an ex-bassist for MC5 and Ted Nugent. And still has his hearing!
I skipped the sauerkraut so it wouldn't interfere with my tasting. lol

 (You can click on any photo to enlarge)

Amista Winery
Nice unoaked estate Chard and estate Syrah. A pretty good, although very high alcohol, Saini Farm Zinfandel.

Pruning out front of the winery

Unpruned single cordon trellised vines out back

High alcohol Zins but they seem better balanced and more ageable than most of that style. Best known for their estate and Maple Vineyard Zinfandels.

Nice view across the valley

Ridge / Lytton Springs
Well-structured, balanced, and ageable Zinfandels--a rarity. They even had their legendary Monte Bello Cabernet open for tasting.
Only issue was the tasting room hospitality person could have been more hospitable.

Some really old vines outside the tasting room

They specialize in Rockpile appellation reds, as the Mauritsons are growers in that small region. And are these wines ever good across-the-board! Rockpile is a special place.

Everett Ridge
(from a stop here a few days earlier)
Good wines, but not what I'd call very good wines especially at their premium prices. A nice spot though and they've just hired a new winemaker with excellent credentials.

Hillside vineyards in the afternoon sun

A note for the hospitality staffs: On Jan 10th I was out with two males--one 25, the other 22. Only one place asked if the younger one was 21. Nobody checked ID's. Be careful! It's not worth getting busted for serving underage people.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Anything But Chardonnay

CHARDONNAY is the most planted grape in Sonoma County with an estimated 16,000 acres. The next most popular white wine, Sauvignon Blanc, has just 2,700 acres planted.  Over a quarter of all California wine is Chardonnay.  It's the best selling wine in the U.S. and is still growing in popularity.

So what's with the "Anything But Chardonnay" folks (the so-called ABC Club)?   Many people have gotten tired of the buttery, oaky flavored California Chards.   Or at least profess to hating the big butterball Chardonnays.  What do I mean by "profess to hating them?"  I hear people say they don't like them but actually do when they taste one.  The conflict is with consumers having been told by the "experts" they aren't supposed to like this style.
Nekked Chardonnay
No oak or malolactic fermentation

Chardonnay is a mass-market wine but has multiple styles and no one can seem to feel neutral about the wine--it's either love or hate.  Chardonnay (and Merlot) became commodity wines. That is, when you ask for a glass of white wine you pretty much expect a nondescript Chardonnay.

Chardonnay, as opposed to Sauvignon Blanc, is a more neutral-tasting grape.  Some of its flavors come from where it's grown but most from the winemaking.   Chard grown in very cool areas can be crisp and minerally with warmer climate Chards having tropical fruit flavors. Chardonnay is also used to make sparkling wines.

About 15 years ago Chardonnay peaked in its butterball style in California. They all tasted the same. Few showed any hint of fruit or acid. But they were great with popcorn! (Gotta love that butter flavor).

Now there are various price ranges for Chardonnay and many styles. Low-end Chardonnay is usually a mass-produced, sweeter, almost soda pop-style wine. For example, the Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay is wildly popular, just not wildly true to the chardonnay grape.  That doesn't mean you can't like it or it's seven dollar price.

The more expensive Chards, about $20-up, are more likely to have style plus show finesse and delicacy.  They can be made in the California oaky/buttery/tropical way, be unoaked with all stainless steel fermentation and aging, or be somewhere in between these two extremes.  I believe the in-betweeners will win out as the highly-oaked ones are losing customers and unoaked Chardonnay is often uninteresting.
Expensive and ageable
Image from

To see a range of styles within quality California Chardonnay try some of these fairly easy-to-find Sonoma wines and decide for yourself:

Traditional California oaky/buttery:
Chateau St. Jean Robert Young or Belle Terre
Clos du Bois
Landmark Overlook

Rodney Strong

Iron Horse
Toad Hollow (one of the first California unoaked Chards)
Valley of the Moon

It doesn't have to be Anything but Chardonnay.  Maybe it's just finding the style you like.

Friday, January 6, 2012

2012 wine predictions

What does the coming year hold for the local wine industry? These are trends that will  continue to grow and evolve in the coming year(s).

Wine prices

Expect prices to creep up for both bargain and premium wines. It's supply-and-demand. Weather has decreased crop size in California for the past couple years. There is increasing demand for CA wine both domestically and overseas. The wine glut at the beginning of the recession has run its course as inventory is down. Over the last couple years bargain-hunters have found good, inexpensive American wines. They may have to go back to looking to the Southern Hemisphere for cheap wine.

Tracking wine

News stories seem to come out every few months about fraud in the high-end wine market. With top wines commanding over $1,000 a bottle it's a market ripe for unscrupulous behavior. That is, when you buy an older Bordeaux at auction for a few thousand dollars are you really getting the wine that's listed on the label and has it been stored properly?

Look for small computer chips to be embedded in the bottles of expensive wines.  These will give you a history of the temperature of the bottle, if it's been opened and the wine removed, and maybe even a location history (GPS-tracking) of the bottle.

Sweet table wines

Sugar left in premium wines (except dessert wine) has been officially taboo since the invention of the wine critic. This doesn't mean there hasn't been a low level of sweetness in some wines to make them more appealing to many consumers. It's just that no one admits to this--until recently.

You can now find $10-ish Moscato-based sweet wines and reds actually labeled as sweet red wines. These wines appeal to the younger new-to-wine crowd and to the older, infrequent wine drinker. The majority of California's wine grape crop is actually planted in the hot Central Valley--an area that can produce this type of wine easily and cheaply.

A question I'm sure the marketing folks are asking, "Will this wine sell in China"?

The economy

The sale, closure and consolidation of wineries will continue as many can't pay their bills.

Wine by the glass

If you buy a glass of wine at a wine bar or restaurant you may find it coming out of a keg rather than a bottle. Actually, you may not know this as the host/hostess probably would just as soon not mention this as it lends of air of cheapness to the wine for some.  But you get beer in a keg. Why not wine?
For the Pinot Gris lovers --
check out Chenin Blanc!
Image from

Wine trends by varietal

Folks like to know what the newest trendy wine is.  I hate to break this to the trendy-types but Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot are still at the top of the pile. In the recent past grapes like Viognier and Syrah were thought to be the next big thing in California. This hasn't quite worked out. I expect these varieties will do best as blending grapes. Some are jumping on the Pinot Gris bandwagon. Pinot Noir continues to grow in quantity available and in price. We'll see when this comes crashing down as I'm not sure how many more $50 Pinots the market will absorb.

The problem with having a "new wine of the year" is you can't just shut down a production line and retool. It's a time-consuming and expensive undertaking to ramp up some unproven new wine grape. So maybe Malbec will finally catch on in California? Or Temprinillo?

I think I might put my money (if I had any) into Primitivo, for Sonoma County anyway. Why? Much of Sonoma County is the home of Zinfandel.  Zin is king in Dry Creek Valley. Primitivo is a close relative of Zinfindel but is supposed to be easier to grow and Zin has had a couple rough years in the vineyards due to weather-related issues.

Wine country travel

My unscientific visitor count says the number of folks visiting is up at the end of 2011 compared to the past couple of years. Hotels, restaurants and wineries may be filling up again. Overall California saw growth in visitor travel and spending in 2011 compared to 2010.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2011 Wine News and Trends

Following are the biggest stories of 2011 in the wine industry from a Sonoma County perspective.

California wine exports

California wine had its best year for exports. Traditionally most goes to Europe, but now China, too. The weak dollar and booming Chinese middle class are behind this trend.

Wineries changing hands

Foster's split off their winery holdings into Treasury Wine Estates (Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Penfolds, and others). They've since been going on a corporate hiring binge in Napa even with rumors they are up for sale.

Buena Vista, Gary Farrell, Landmark, Michel-Schlumberger, Laurel Glen, Seghesio all changed hands. Kunde and Sbragia have gone from family-owned to needing outside investors.

There will be more next year. It's the economy.  I've heard "through the grape vine" of others who are seeking buyers or would like to sell if approached.

Wine Spectator's top wines of the year

A local wine was selected as their wine of the year, a Pinot Noir from Kosta Browne Winery
Another Pinot, from Dehlinger Winery, was ranked fifth.

Biggest guzzlers

The U.S. passed France as the largest consuming nation. The French still drink more wine per person but Americans are consuming the most overall. This trend in U.S. consumption owes it's existence to The Judgement in Paris, Robert Mondavi, and The French Paradox. The U.S. has been on this upward trend for a long time as the French have been decreasing consumption while increasing their intake of, um, Starbucks, Coke, etc.  Our apologies.

Wine for the young'uns

In past years there was much made of social media and other ways of reaching out to the Millenials (those under 35).  Now there's more of a move on to actually make wine they want to drink as not many 25 year olds are buying $100 Napa Cabernet. This is seen with the rise of Muscat-based wine and even sweet red wines selling for around ten bucks. And you can see it in the "hip" labeling.

Pennsylvania's wine kiosks

All alcohol sales in PA are controlled by state bureaucrats. One of their stupidest ideas was vending machines for wine. After wasting millions of tax dollars the project failed.

Another tough vintage for grape growers

2010 and 2011 weren't kind to the local wine grape growers as the weather conspired to lower the grape tonnage in both years. 2010 was cool and damp followed by a damaging heat spike. 2011 was wet at the beginning and end. I don't know how much this will affect the quality in premium wines, but it will quantity as there won't be as much available.

Italy had their smallest harvest in 60 years. French growers were calling 2011 a difficult year. Oregon had a cool, wet summer, but had a decent October and was able to salvage the harvest after fears that nothing would get ripe.

Wine packaging

Kegs, one liter boxes, refillable stainless bottles, paper wine bottles are all trying to make headway into the standard 750 ml glass bottle packaging.

China loves (inexpensive) Bordeaux

The Chinese became the biggest importer of Bordeaux wine by volume but not by value. Mostly it's the smaller, less expensive Bordeaux makers that have broken into this market.

Biggest marketing screw-up
Yes, they really did it.
Image from

NY's Lieb Cellars produced a 9/11 Memorial Commemorative Chardonnay and Merlot. The grapes were "harvested just days after the 9/11 disaster anniversary" and the "grapes are grown just 90 miles from the site of the Twin Towers."  What the hell were you people thinking?

Second biggest marketing screw-up

Central California's Sea Smoke winery anointed themselves Grand Cru status on their label. That should easily be worth an extra ten bucks a bottle, right? Or maybe they were just looking for free publicity from this stunt.


Jess Jackson who built the Kendall-Jackson wine empire.
Mike Lee, a founder and the first winemaker for Kenwood Vineyards.
Good-bye Mike
Image from

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Visiting Sonoma County for the beer

Is someone dragging you to wine country but don't like wine?  No problem!  Sonoma County just happens to have some of the best microbreweries in the country.  For the population we probably have more great beers than most anywhere this side of Germany.  If you think I'm wrong then submit all of your beers and I'll get back to you.

Just have the winos in your group drop you off at one of these pubs on their way out wine tasting.   With any luck they'll forget to pick you up later.

Life is full of choices

3rd Street Ale Works

In downtown Santa Rosa where Tuesdays is the best deal with cheap pints and eats.   Start with the Annadel Pale Ale.  Food is mostly good--it's best to stick with the burgers or tacos.   The crowd is a bit of everything from the 20-somethings to families.

Bear Republic Brewery

In Healdsburg with good food, nice outdoor seating, and outstanding beer.   They are best known for the Racer 5 IPA and Red Rocket Amber.  If you want an easy-drinking beer on a hot day their take on a Mexican lager, the El Oso, is great.  In cooler weather check out the Hop Rod Rye.  You get the picture--maybe you'll want to start with a sampler platter.  The crowd is a mix of locals and tourists.  There might be a better way to spend a warm afternoon than on their outside deck with a Red Rocket and a burger, but I can't think of any right now.


In Sebastopol with a nice outdoor patio.  They have a few of their own beers plus other local microbrews on tap.  Their brews are often a take on European beers. The people are "West County types" meaning "hippy-ish."    Good food and they often have live music.


In Petaluma where where they now offer food to go along with beer and tours.   Their flagship is the IPA.  If you like India Pales you owe it to yourself to try this one.  Their beers have in-your-face flavor--nothing subtle.  It's a funky working brewery and the crowd is the same, but what would you expect from a place that taunts The Man by putting out an Undercover Investigation Shutdown Ale (apparently someone was smoking dope on the job).

Russian River Brewery

In downtown Santa Rosa where Vinnie wins lots of awards, the place is always crowded, and besides traditional ales there are a number of Belgian-style brews.  Their brews are highly sought after by "beer-ophiles." There are usually 15-20 beers to choose from with happy hour all day Sunday.  Start with one of the lighter Belgians and go from there.   Salads and pizzas are good if you're hungry.  The hot spot for sitting is one of the tables out front where you can sip and watch for babes especially on Wednesday evenings when the farmers' market is happening.   The crowd is blue collar and tattooed but they don't bite.  It's worth fighting the crowds as RRB is ranked as one of the top breweries in the world.

Ruth McGowan's

In Cloverdale and it's fairly new, clean, and the crowd is fairly clean, too.   Start with the Cloverdale Ale.

There's also Stumptown Brewery in Guerneville and Dempsey's Brewery in Petaluma--neither of which I'm familiar with.

In Napa visit the Silverado Brewing Company between St. Helena and Calistoga.   Sit outside and watch the traffic go by on Highway 29 while sipping an amber ale and munching on sweet potato fries.

In Mendocino County check out Anderson Valley or Mendocino breweries. On the Mendocino Coast there is North Coast Brewing.

Yeah, I know it's supposed to be a wine blog.   WhatEVER! 

This post originally published 6/6/2010