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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bill Foley -- Collector

Some of us buy wine and maybe even a few extra bottles to build up a collection. Some billionaires collect wineries.

Bill Foley, owner of the Foley Wine Group, made his money in the financial sector and got into wine late. I suppose it's sort of a hobby. He owns numerous wineries, but has really been on a tear this year as he's bought three wineries and a vineyard. His Sonoma County holdings include Sebastiani and Chalk Hill Wineries. According to his own website he now has about a dozen wineries in California plus one each in Washington and New Zealand. His most recent is in nearby Lake County--the 23,000 acre Langtry Winery that also has the Guenoc label.

A lot of this has been just in the last month. Maybe he needs a tax write-off for 2012. Or maybe the prices are right as some wineries are probably getting a bit stressed financially by the recession and a few years of small grape harvests. With three years of short harvests the word is when the economy, and wine buying, picks up there will be a grape shortage in California. So those with the cash are buying up vineyard property.

I will guess ol' Bill's not done yet.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Winter 2012-13 wine events in Sonoma County

Major Wine-Related Events for 
December 2012 and January / February 2013

This is the off-season in the wine country and it's a great time to visit. What to expect:
  • There won't be any crowds (except on major event weekends). If you go on a weekday you could be the only people some wineries see all day!
  • At smaller wineries you have a chance to chat with the owner or winemaker.
  • Small crowds also means not much traffic, it's easy to find hotel rooms and get dinner reservations.
  • The weather can be 70 and sunny or 48 and raining so check the forecast.

There are various holiday events, crab feeds, etc. besides these few major events listed below. Yes, winter is crab season in the San Francisco Bay Area. It's also the time to see the gray whale migration at the coast.

From Lytton Springs Winery in January

December 2012

Many wineries have their own holiday open house events on the weekends leading up to Christmas. Check with your favorites and see if they have anything going on.

Almost all wineries are closed on Christmas Day; some will close early, or all day, on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. If you plan on visiting at the holidays call in advance to be sure they will be open.

January 2013

Most wineries are closed on New Years Day.

19-20 Winter Wineland. It's the 21st year for this open house of wine, food, and art at over a hundred wineries in northern Sonoma County. This is the big wine event for the winter. Info


For Valentine's Day several wineries put on chocolate and wine pairings or even host a lunch or dinner. Check with your favorites to see if they have anything going on.

1-14 Russian River Brewery. No, nothing to do with wine, but this has become a big event. The annual release of Pliny the Younger, a 100 point double-IPA that beer nerds come in from all over to sample. The lines form at the pub every morning during these two weeks. Hint: Don't show up on Superbowl Sunday.

15  VinOlivo. Wine is the #1 ag crop in Sonoma County, but olives are #2. This event celebrates both. Info

15-18 Cloverdale Citrus Fair includes a wine competition. Info

23  Eighth Street Wineries Open House. Several small producers in a warehouse area of Sonoma open up for visitors. Info

23 Mr. Healdsburg Pagent. No, I don't get it, but the women really enjoy this. And, of course, they serve wine. Info
Local fireman hoping to be crowned Mr. Healdsburg
Image from


1-3 and 8-10 The first two weekends of March are the Barrel Tasting weekends. Open house at over 100 wineries. The greatest concentration of wineries and over-imbibers is in Healdsburg and on Dry Creek Road. If you want to party then that's the place to be; if you don't then stay in Russian River Valley or Alexander Valley.  Info

January in the Russian River Valley

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Cocktail Wines

Lots of folks go on about the complexities in wine, the proper food matches, their age-worthiness, etc. Others just want an enjoyable glass of wine after work or at a party while talking with friends. You know, a cocktail. These wines go down easy and don't require a lot of thought. "Go down easy" usually means low acid, low tannins, with "inoffensive" often being the best descriptor. "Don't require thought" means not very complex.
A popular cocktail wine
Image from

The original cocktail wine were the oaky, buttery Chardonnays popularized by Kendall-Jackson. When red wine became fashionable after the "French Paradox" on 60 Minutes then nondescript Merlots were in. Over the last decade many of the cool kids went for the big Zinfandels.

Big Zins are the ultimate cocktail wine. They're fruity, soft, and have enough alcohol so one glass can give you a buzz just like that Rum and Coke you used to (or maybe still do) drink. These Zins are enjoyable when they hit the palate and are certainly inoffensive if the heat of the high alcohol doesn't show. And it goes down easy.

The best cocktail Zinfandels come from places like Wilson Winery or Hartford Court whereas the food Zins can be from Lytton Springs, Storybook Mountain, and the like. Actually, the two wineries mentioned here for the cocktail Zins are fairly expensive (and high quality), but often the less expensive Zins will fall into the cocktail wine category also, especially those from the Lodi area.

Wine as a food beverage is in a different style and may not be as enjoyable in the cocktail setting. These are the wines that have higher acid, maybe some tannin, some spices and other complexities. The cocktail wines don't usually match well with food and don't belong in a wine cellar as they probably won't improve with age.

So when you buy decide on the likely setting for the wine.

Monday, November 12, 2012

History and Future of Buena Vista Winery

Buena Vista Winery hasn't gotten much press related to their wines in many years. The focus always seemed to be on corporate profits rather than the wine. For the last couple decades of the 20th century Buena Vista was owned by a German wine distributor. In this century it's been owned by Allied Domecq of Britain, Constellation Brands out of NY and others. Maybe some stability is there now with the purchase and renovation by Jean-Charles Boisset who has been making a name for himself in Sonoma County.

Signs telling the history along the walk to the winery

The town of Sonoma recently celebrated the 200th birthday of the founder of Buena Vista Winery, Hungarian Agoston Haraszthy, considered the originator of California viticulture. He founded Buena Vista Winery in 1857. In 1861 he brought back cuttings from European vineyards. He started a viticultural society, wrote a book on the subject, dug out the first wine caves, and was the first to use redwood barrels for wine (a practice that was popular until the 1970s). Buena Vista Winery is a California state historical landmark.

The winery closed in the late 19th century then was bought by the Bartholemews in the 1940s. They consulted with California's most famous mid-20th century winemaker, Andre Tchelistcheff. The winery was quite successful for a number of years. The Bartholemews sold in 1968 and that began the succession of mostly remote ownership.

The new entrance--still under construction

In 2011 Boisset purchased Buena Vista and has been renovating the place. Boisset is a bit of a flamboyant type just as the original owner, Haraszthy, was. Haraszthy called himself a Count because it was a cool title back then. Boisset married into California royalty when he married the granddaughter of Julio Gallo.

The very dapper Boisset
Image from

Under Boisset there is a lot of work done recently and still proceeding on the winery site. Next will be the wines, hopefully. A sampling of the current offerings (made before Boisset's influence) shows well-made wines without any real flaws, but too much vanilla oak for my liking. The prices are fairly reasonable for premium wines.

Very old casks in the cellar

New casks--French oak--very expensive

 We'll see what the future brings for Buena Vista Winery. It looks like, at least, it will be a more interesting place to visit.

The Ultimate Tchotchke
It's a Count Haraszthy bobblehead available in the gift shop!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Amazon's wine shop opens

Amazon has wanted to get back in the wine sales business since a previous failed attempt several years ago.

Previous post on Amazon. 

The store is up and running with mostly from California and Washington state wines. There are quite a few small producers. When I first looked there were about 500 wines. Within a short time the list grew substantially so more is being added as I write this. There are many thousands of more wines available from around the world on external sites meaning Amazon just directs you to another online store.

The prices are standard winery retail so if the wines are available elsewhere you can probably find them cheaper. I put together a test order of three bottles each from two different California wineries with a CA shipping address and the shipping cost was only $20 and that's pretty cheap. I expect if I ordered the wines directly from the two wineries I'd probably pay about $50 total for the shipping.

I did another order for one bottle each from three different CA wineries and the total shipping was $30. I would pay more than that if I'd bought each bottle separately from each of the three wineries--at least $45.

Currently Amazon can ship to a dozen states. More will be added as they get licensing.

There are annoyances with Amazon as you get hit up to buy lots of other stuff and after you visit your cart you can't get directly back to shopping for wine again. The main wine shop page says the store is still in beta test phase. They also promise their standard 3-5 business days shipping, but I don't know how these small wineries can process the orders and ship them out that quickly.

So is it worth using the Amazon store to buy wines? I'd say if you're buying a few bottles from multiple small producers then yes. If you want to buy in larger quantities from a single winery then search for a better price online plus check the winery's web site to find the best deal.

It's good to have another choice for buying and trying new wines.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Russian River Valley Photos

Nov 6, 2012. A vineyard along Olivet Road.
You can click on the photos to enlarge

Sunday, November 4, 2012

2012: Vintage of the Year!

Perhaps you've already heard about 2012 being one of the best wine grape harvests in California in a long time. Especially after a string of three so-so years it's great to have a lot of high quality grapes this season.

Various wine mags like to proclaim certain vintages as being the best since ____ (fill in the blank). This is a long standing tradition started in France (along with starting wars they can't finish). California has more consistent weather than Europe so wine vintages don't have quite the same highs and lows, but that doesn't stop wine experts from declaring great vintages. This is different from wine marketers that declare every vintage a great one.

The tradition of proclaiming top vintages in CA got its kick start with the turn of the new century. 2001 was the first California wine vintage to be declared The Vintage of the Century, along with 2005 and especially 2007.

Let me be the first to tell you that 2012 will be the Vintage of the Year for California wine.

Buy these wines now! Okay, you can't quite buy them yet as they're still in tanks and barrels, but buy up all the 2010s and 2011s now so we can get to the 2012s before they're all gone! 


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Wacky Wine Descriptions

No wonder some folks don't like wine! A wine writer might come up with something like, "a subtle undercurrent of sexy layers." That's fine, I can drink that. Here's a few things I don't want in my wine:

Band-Aids -From the flaw, Brettanomyces or Brett, that once it gets into a winery is almost impossible to get rid of. It's found more in older European wine making facilities so they like to call it part of the wine's character. All I know is I ain't drinkin' no wine where some smelly cellar dude lost his Band-Aid in the juice.

Barnyard - It smells like, you know, poop. Another Brett smell. Mostly French and the occasional Italian wine.Thirty years ago when Mondavi and Rothschild made a big splash with their joint venture, Opus One, supposedly they introduced Brett into the cellar to get that European flavor. Just goes to show that even smart, successful people don't always make good decisions.

Tellin' it like it is
Cat Pee - Classic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. There was such a demand for NZ Sauv Blanc they had to up their production by having cats pee in the tanks! Their Sauv Blanc also is described as smelling like gooseberries. I have no idea what a gooseberry is or what it tastes like, but if it's anything like cat pee I know why gooseberries don't get imported.

Horse blanket, horsey - Brett again. Probably better than a Band-Aid or poo, but not by much.

Tar or Asphalt - Certain parts of southern Europe do an especially good job of having wines that smell like a freshly paved road. I don't know why they do, but they should try to fix that.

Wet Cardboard, Wet Dog, or Musty - From corked wines. Get a screw cap!

Yeah, it's bad. This is all stuff my mother taught me to never put in my mouth.

So what would the worst wine ever smell like? Imagine a horse galloping down a hot, newly paved road with an old feral cat riding on top and peeing on the horse. The sweaty horse returns to the barn where it all drips down on the old Band-Aid on your big toe right before the hose takes a dump. What a visual!