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Friday, June 29, 2012

Fourth of July in Sonoma County

For 2012 the Fourth falls mid-week. Many wineries close for the Fourth and most of those that are open will close early that day (maybe 3 pm). The number of visitors is usually low as folks are going to the beach and/or a BBQ. This year with a Wednesday holiday expect most wineries to be closed that day. If you wish to visit a few tasting rooms then call ahead to see who is open.

Otherwise, there are lots of fireworks shows in the county starting on the weekend before the Fourth. A couple of towns have parades on the Fourth. Also, there's the Napa County Fair in Calistoga. 
A list of fireworks shows from the Press Democrat.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sonoma Valley late June photos

June 28, 2012 in Sonoma Valley, CA
Click on photos to enlarge

Behind Kunde Vineyards

Neatly trimmed rows at Kunde
Loosely-formed bunches at Kunde

At Valley of the Moon Winery
Full-formed bunches compared to Kunde above
Bunches on old head-pruned vines
Different pruning methods compared to Kunde above
Near Valley of the Moon Winery looking east to Mayacamas Mtns

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ascentia Wine Estates--That Was Bad Timing

Timing is everything in the business world.

A local group of wine industry veterans got together and bought some wineries "to keep ownership local," they said.  Except they started up just as the economy, and wine sales, tanked in 2008.

Their flagship was Geyser Peak Winery. An Australian wine company just bought their last California wineries--Geyser Peak, Atlas Peak and XYZin. Their Washington wineries, Covey Run and Columbia Winery, went to Gallo. (Columbia Winery is not the same as the well-known Columbia Crest Winery).

Ascentia went down the tube fast. In the past year they've sold other holdings--Gary Farrell Winery, Buena Vista and St. Chappelle (an Idaho winery). A couple years ago one of their investors sued them.  So it's no surprise Ascentia is gone.

Their "alumni" have a Facebook page    

Some of these wineries have gone through multiple owners. It seems Gary Farrell gets sold again every year. It must be tough to keep consistency in the brand with that going on. Geyser Peak is over 130 years old. In 1982 a local (rich) guy, Henry Trione, bought it then sold to Fortune Brands in 1998. Since then it's been owned by Constellation Brands, Ascentia, and now Accolade Wines, owners of about 40 other wineries. Accolade, of Australia, used to be owned by Constellation Brands. It's difficult keeping track!

Yes, it's a sign of the times, but it's not a sign the wine business is tanking. Others are still out there buying at what must be bargain rates. Those buying now may be the ones with good timing.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Buying wine in Oklahoma

Oklahoma is one of those Bible Belt states with strict liquor control laws. Or maybe it's more funny liquor laws. When I was there years ago you could only get 3.2% beer in retail stores--and you could only buy it at room temp, not cold, to prevent drinking and driving. Everything else was available only in state-regulated package liquor stores. Except that it was funny how you could buy a pint of liquor and take it to a "club" and drink until 4 am off your own bottle.

Anyways, some of the more open-minded folks there want to allow wine sales in stores saying, "People just want to have wine with dinner." while others say, "It still has the same addictive qualities (as other alcohol)."

These folks are trying to get enough signatures to put this on the November ballot. Even at that the new law would stipulate only in large stores, only in the larger counties (?), and only after local voter okay.  I have no idea why it would only be allowed in counties with over 50,000 residents. Maybe you can't trust people in the more rural areas with a bottle of Cabernet?

Article from CBS News

My favorite line from the above article?  "The petition seeks a statewide vote on one of the biggest changes to Oklahoma's liquor laws since Prohibition was repealed in 1959."  Whoa, that's a half-century behind most of us. Anyway, it would be nice to see reasonableness prevail.

Chapel Creek Winery in El Reno OK
where they can actually sell their own wine!
Image from

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Winery hopping without driving

Visiting several wineries in a day is fun and educational. The downsides are you probably don't really know where you are going on the often narrow, winding roads. The biggest risk is driving while intoxicated. This can sneak up on you as you make stops with a short drive time between each. What to do?

The most popular has been the designated driver. It's no fun for them and they can still get lost.

Some of your options if you don't want to drive
Image from

Renting a limo for a day is also popular. You don't have to drive and hopefully the driver knows some good stops. Downsides:
  • You may still have to drive once they drop you off (unless they're taking you home or to your hotel)
  • It can be expensive unless you have a larger group to share costs
  • Some wineries don't allow limos 
Hiring a small van with a tour guide is great as you should have a knowledgeable driver who knows their way around. They should call ahead to the wineries with as estimated time for arrival so they know you're coming.  There are several companies in Sonoma County that offer this service and most drivers know the area well. You don't need a large group to make it affordable as with a limo. You sign on to go with the driver and other people he signs up for the day. Downsides:
  • You may still have to drive once you are dropped off
  • Some wineries don't allow buses or vans
You can sign up for a full-sized bus tour. This is the worst way to visit. The only wineries that will take a large bus are those catering to lots of tourists. This isn't what I'd call the real wine country. Sure, taking a tour bus trip of Europe with 50 other Americans is easy, but you don't really see Europe or real Europeans.

The famous (or infamous) Napa Valley Wine Train will take you through the valley but there are no winery stops. The cost is fairly high.

There are a few other unique ways to get a wine tour. One guy offers a horse-drawn carriage ride in rural Alexander Valley. There are a couple people offering old trolley cars that go through Sonoma Valley. The wine trolley will pick you up at Sonoma hotels so if you're staying there you won't have to drive at all. The costs of these options is reasonable. Downsides:
  • They have already selected the wineries you'll be visiting so you don't have a choice
  • You may still have to drive once the tour is over

Note that for most of these options you will still be responsible for any tasting room fees on top of the cost of the bus, van, car, or trolley.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sauvignon Blanc -- Sonoma's Best Deal

Sauvignon Blanc is a distant second place to Chardonnay in white wine sales.  
Sauv Blanc is usually less expensive than Chardonnay.  
Sauv Blanc grows really well in Sonoma County.

There are 16,000 acres of Chardonnay planted in Sonoma County. That's about 25 square miles of Chardonnay!  Sauvignon Blanc has about 2,500 acres. In Napa County there are 6,500 acres of Chard and 2,000 of Sauv Blanc. 

You can generally get higher yields from Sauvignon Blanc than just about any other premium grape variety. (That is, more tons of grapes per acre of land). It's usually fermented in stainless steel and after a very few months goes directly to the bottle. The high yields and the lack of expensive oak barrels helps keep the price down.

Sonoma County seems to put out consistently good Sauvignon Blanc at reasonable prices. You'd think more people would drink it. Why not?
Best of Class winner
at last year's Sonoma
County Harvest Fair
Image from

Sauv Blanc never quite caught on like Chardonnay. Even Mondavi, the father of modern California wine, renamed his to Fume Blanc. About 25 years ago New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs caught on, but America still lags in consumption.

Styles can be pungent to sour to clean and refreshing. NZ Sauv Blancs are sometimes described with terms such as cat pee and gooseberry. I know I don't want cat pee in my wine and I have no idea what a gooseberry is. 

One of the first local wineries to hit it big with Sauv Blanc was Kenwood Vineyards. Their basic Sonoma County SB can be found for less than ten bucks and it's quite nice. In this price range Geyser Peak and Dry Creek Vineyards are also great values. Other folks, such as Merry Edwards and Hanna Wineries, put out consistently top-notch Sauvignon Blanc year-after-year. There are lots of good ones for under $20.

Most Sonoma County Sauvignon Blancs can be described as something like, "clean, refreshing, grapefruity, lemony, grassy." Great for a warm summer day. Nice with many lighter meals. And one of the few wines (along with many sparkling wines) that will stand up to a salad course.

I call it the IPA of wines--clean and refreshing. If you're a beer geek you'll understand.

Instead of a heavy, expensive Chardonnay try a lighter, more refreshing, less expensive Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc next time.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Wine Growing Terminology Explained

As a follow-up to the Wine Tasting Terminology Explained post here's one related to the farming and production side of wine (all the stuff that happens before you get to drink it). Hope this all helps cut through the bullsh#t when you're just trying to get a buzz.

Rotten grapes; aka Botrytis
Sometimes you want it, usually not
Image from
Appellation - If you're rich, powerful, and/or a lawyer you can make your wine more unique and hopefully expensive by having your very own grape-growing region. See Bennett Valley, Green Valley, etc.

Botrytis - Rotten grapes, but in a good way, otherwise there wouldn't be a fancy word for it.

Bud Break - The first chance for the farmer to start worrying.

Canopy Management - What you do in a cool growing season just before a heat wave so the grapes can get a nice sun tan. See the 2010 growing season for more info.

Cap - The crust at the top of the fermentation tank. You "punch down the cap" because it sounds cooler than stirring up the goop.

Chaptalization - Cheating by adding sugar. Different than adding acid which is not cheating.

Closures - They can't just put a damned screw cap on it and be done. They'd rather use a limited resource from trees that doesn't work worth a crap (don't want to put the cork screw makers out of business).

Cold Stabilization - A technical-sounding term for upping the electric bill by refrigerating the wine. See Tartrates.

Crusher-Stemmer - Where you stick your hand to see if it's working properly.

Crush - When you stay away from grumpy winemakers.

Extracted - A way to make wine when you don't know finesse.

Filtering & Fining - Getting out the stuff you don't want to know about: bad "organisms," dead stuff, bees, the occasional starling.

Hangtime - A term borrowed from the porn business.

Lees - A nice name for the rotting bodies of dead yeast cells.

Must - Mushy, stinky grapes with the juice.

Pomace - Mushy, stinky grapes without the juice.

Pump Over, Punch Down, Racking - Procedures to keep the cellar staff busy and out of the beer.

Residual Sugar - Making wine palatable for Americans.

Rootstock - The name Woodstock was already taken so...

Sediment - Stuff in wine people don't want to see. If you have it in your wine then you need to explain to everyone why it's good. Much easier to just get rid of it.

Shatter - A dramatic name for one of nature's crop reduction strategies

Suckering - Another term borrowed from the porn industry.

Tartrates - Harmless crystals that look like tiny pieces of glass that worry consumers so wine industry folks would rather call them "diamonds."

Toasty - What happens to winemakers when they spend the day barrel sampling.

Ullage - The air space in the top of the bottle as it sounds better than "some settling may have occurred...".

Veraison - The grapes are getting ripe, but you can't just say that as it doesn't sound as romantic.

Viticulture - Grape farming. Not sure what they call soybean and corn farming.

Taking barrel samples for quality control, blending sessions, etc.
The work never ends!
Image from

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why you should visit Sonoma instead of Napa

Wine enthusiasts have to visit the world-famous Napa Valley for the same reasons, I suppose, that travelers to Hawaii have to go to Oahu first before they discover the other less crowded islands.

Speaking of Crowds

Napa Valley is about 35 miles long and 5 miles wide and has about 400 wineries. Napa sees 4.5 million visitors a year with the bulk coming during July, August, and September. Imagine the crowds on the roads and in the tasting rooms on a Saturday afternoon! Imagine trying to make a left turn onto the main highways in Napa Valley on the weekend--forget it!

Tasting rooms in Sonoma County are much more spread out so you may have to drive a bit farther with the trade-off being fewer people. This is something to keep in mind if, for instance, you wish to start your day at Gloria Ferrer for some bubbly then go to Sbragia for some Cabernet as it's a 1-1/2 hour drive between the two. But then the 25 mile drive between the towns of Napa and Calistoga in Napa Valley will take that long on a busy day.

The Tasting Fees

Napa instituted tasting room fees a couple decades ago as a way to control the "power drinking" groups that hopped up and down Highway 29 through the valley getting drunk for free. Now most wineries everywhere charge a tasting fee. The differences being (1) Napa tasting fees are higher and (2) Napa wineries are less likely to refund the fee if you purchase.

This is a generalization, but figure on $25 to taste in Napa vs. $10 in Sonoma County. Many Sonoma wineries will not charge you for tasting if you purchase wine. But always check on the policies before going as everyone does things a bit differently.

Also, many Sonoma County wineries participate in a Visa Signature program meaning if you have a Visa Signature credit card tasting is free and there are often discounts on wine purchases.

The Wines

Napa Valley is known for Cabernet Sauvignon and the reputation is well deserved. However, you can find outstanding Cabernet from Alexander Valley with the main difference being they are about half the price of those from Napa. If you really want to spend $90 on a bottle of Cab then go to Napa because you'll find it much easier to do than in Sonoma.

As noted, Napa is about Cabernet. There are somewhat cooler areas that grow other varietals like Chardonnay and Merlot. Sonoma County's unique location on the cool Pacific gives it lots of micro-climates with large growing regions suitable to world-class Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, etc. In fact you can pretty much say, "I want to taste Pinots today" and go to the Russian River Valley or say, "I want to try Zinfandel today" and spend your time in Dry Creek, and so on. This makes Sonoma County a very unique place in the world.

The Restaurants

If you think Napa Valley is about world-class dining because of famous restaurants like The French Laundry, Bouchon and Aberge du Soleil then maybe you don't know about Cyrus, Dry Creek Kitchen, and Zazu. You'll usually find eating a bit cheaper on the Sonoma side, too.

The Traffic
Highway 29 in Napa Valley

Sometimes there's slow-going in Sonoma, too

The Wineries
Darioush "Winery" in Napa Valley
Image from

Teldeschi Winery in Dry Creek Valley
Corporate-owned? No, a 4th generation winemaking family

The Scenery

Napa  :)

Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County

In Closing

Most people learn by trial-and-error so you'll probably want to "do Napa" once. I understand. But we'll see you in Sonoma County soon.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Summer wines

The warm weather is here and in many places that means lots of heat and humidity. This is usually not the time people think of opening a big, heavy Cabernet Sauvignon. Even a buttery, oaky Chardonnay may not appeal. So what are the wine alternatives for hot weather?

Sauvignon Blanc - SB is fairly acidic which means refreshing. A cold Sauvignon Blanc can revitalize on a hot day. There are lots of SBs available from all parts of the world and can be found at very reasonable prices compared to Chardonnay.
Example: Hanna Russian River Sauvignon Blanc

Unoaked Chardonnay - These are usually lighter, crisper and cheaper than the traditional Chard.
Example: Iron Horse Russian River Unoaked Chardonnay

Rosé - Before you say, "Eeeewwww" I'm talking about drier wines made from quality grapes, not the five dollar stuff. A good Rosé is light and easy-drinking. How do you know a quality, lower sugar Rosé for a cheap, sweet one? It's probably best to check online data for the wine first--look for the grapes in the blend and the residual sugar.
Example: Scherrer Sonoma County Rosé

Riesling & Gewurztraminer - I lumped these two together as their description is similar in that as an off-dry wine they are also refreshing like a Sauvignon Blanc, but with a touch of sweetness to balance the acidity. If you get a wine that's too sweet it may seem a bit heavy for a summer sipper.
Example: Smith-Madrone Spring Mountain Riesling

Sparkling - A good off-dry or dry bubbly is refreshing and pairs well with lots of meals including spicy or salty foods. Best for summer are Brut, Blanc de Blanc and Rosés.
Example: Gloria Ferrer Brut Rosé

Other Whites - Everyone knows about Pinot Gris, but maybe not Chenin Blanc or Semillon.
Example: Dry Creek Vineyards Clarksburg Chenin Blanc

Grenache - A lighter Rhone red variety that is often used for blending, but seems to be catching on in California in it's own right. It can be an easy-drinking red wine that will go with most summer foods. Only issue is that it has a propensity for high alcohol levels which isn't so good for a food wine or a summer sipper so pay attention to the label. Also look for Grenache blends that are typically with Syrah and Mouvedre. Note that wines which are primarily Syrah will be a heavier wine so a Grenache / Mouvedre blend might be best for a warm weather wine.
Example: Mounts Family Dry Creek Grenache

Other Red Wines - Go lighter. This means if you're having beef and would be thinking Cabernet go with Merlot, Zinfandel, or even Pinot Noir. The lighter-flavored beef dishes, like fillets and tenderloins and even burgers, can work with Pinot or Zin. Also look at alcohol levels as higher levels can mean a heavier wine. A hot summer night is not the time for a 16% alcohol Zin!
Example: Nalle Dry Creek Zinfandel

Be sure any red is at a cool room temp. This can sometimes be difficult in hot weather. There's nothing worse than a warm bottle of Cabernet on a hot day. Store the wine in the coolest part of your home. Put the bottle in the fridge for 20 minutes before dinner if necessary.

Or you can always go this way ...