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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Kenwood Vindyards sale to Banfi cancelled

About four months ago Banfi intended to buy Kenwood Vineyards from Gary Heck, owner of Korbel, Valley of the Moon, Lake Sonoma, and Kenwood.

The original owners of Kenwood Vineyards, Sheela and the Lees, bought Valley of the Moon Winery in the 1990s primarily for its wine-making facility to give them increased capacity as Kenwood was expanding production. When Gary Heck bought Kenwood about 13 years ago they were at about one-quarter million cases a year and have now increased to over a half million.

The Kenwood facility has no where near the capacity for this much wine. This may not have been known by Banfi when they originally looked at buying the winery. First, Gary offered to rent them space, but Banfi balked at the price. Then it appears they explored buying the Valley of the Moon Winery, but probably didn't like that price either.  Also, many of the grapes used in Kenwood's wines come from Korbel's vineyards.

So the sale is off. Now what happens?
  • One possibility is Gary looks at repackaging the property differently so the buyer can maintain the production rate. 
  • Another is one of the large "mega-winery" companies buys Kenwood and uses some other facility of theirs to produce most of the wine. This could be anyone from Gallo to Constellation Brands. 
  • The other possibility is Gary decides he can't get what he wants out of the property so he doesn't sell.

Earlier posts on this sale are on March 30 and May 20.

Update 8/3/12: It appears Valley of the Moon and Lake Sonoma Wineries have been sold to Quail's Gate Winery of British Columbia.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Merlot on the rebound?

Merlot was up then down. Is it going back up again?

In the 1990s

Merlot played second fiddle to Cabernet in California until the 1990s when Merlot got hot. You might say Merlot had its day and now it's Pinot Noir's turn. However, Pinot is generally expensive and the popular Merlots during the '90s were less pricey. People just wanted an easy-drinking red wine after the French Paradox story on 60 Minutes. Merlot was tops for wine by the glass sales.

The call for cheap Merlot led to, well, cheap Merlot. Lots of it just wasn't very good. According to the Wine Institute Merlot is grown in almost every county in California. Which county leads in Merlot production? No, not Napa or Sonoma, but San Joaquin in the hot Central Valley--an area not known for premium wine production.

Over the past ten years

The final nail in the coffin seemed to be the movie Sideways that blasted Merlot and praised Pinot Noir.

Merlot acreage in California vineyards dropped. The hotter areas of the state's Central Valley probably grafted over to something like Pinot Gris. The coastal areas most likely switched over to Cabernet as it's still in demand from areas like Napa and Sonoma.

The under-$20 Merlots always sold well, but the more expensive ones had a tough time, but seem to be picking up now. With all the talk about new, trendy wines like Malbec, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, the big three have always been Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

Merlot's problem--and it's best features

Merlot's challenge is more with trendiness than anything else. Wine is trendy--like Pinot Gris is now, for example. Wine drinkers apparently like to discover new things.

What Merlot has going for it is:
  • It's easy-drinking nature with softer tannins than Cabernet.
  • Food-friendliness as it will go with many foods including lamb, beef, sausages, tomato-based sauces to pizza.
  • Merlot tends to be less expensive than Pinot and Cabernet.
Pretty much all of those things Merlot has going for it also goes for Zinfandel, btw.

Some top Merlots

Some of the better known high-end Merlots come from Duckhorn, Pride, Shafer and Twomey plus lesser-known wineries like Ehlers, Markham and Merryvale.  In the mid-range Gundlach-Bundschu, Clos Pegase and many others are top-notch. In the less expensive range Alexander Valley Vyds, Blackstone, Clos du Bois and Kenwood are dependable. Washington State is also known for putting out good Merlot.

Usually the more expensive ones are built to age a bit while the less pricey wine are made to drink on release. The nice thing about even the ageable Merlots is that you can drink now or in five years.

What Merlot needs now

In general, I believe the best Merlot isn't 100% Merlot, but a blend with other Bordeaux varietals especially Cabernet. Look for Merlot-based Meritage wines. Red Meritage wines contain at least two of "the big five" Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot.

I think Merlot will do better once more more people get on the blending bandwagon. This is how we'll fix Syrah sales, too, with blending.

Monday, July 23, 2012

New grape varieties for California?

You hear about Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, etc. when people talk about California wine. Actually, the vast majority of wine grapes are grown in the hotter Central Valley, mostly the San Joaquin Valley that runs roughly from south of Sacramento through Lodi and Fresno to Bakersfield.

The climate here is much different than Sonoma County and the other coastal areas. So the wines coming out of the Central Valley aren't the same, but they are cheaper to buy. The growers plant a lot of the same grapes you find in the premium wine areas. Lately they've been looking at some other varieties that could do well in their hotter climates--grapes from the warmer Mediterranean areas of Europe.Some have been grown in California for awhile, but not so much in the hotter regions of the state.

Petite Sirah/Durif - From the Rhone. DNA testing has shown that Durif and California's Petite Sirah are the same (they are a cross between Syrah and a lesser-known Rhone grape). It can make a firm, tannic, acidic wine. Growing it in a hot, sunny climate can soften its harsher characteristics.

Petit Verdot - A Bordeaux grape that ripens easier it a hotter climate, like the Central Valley. It can be a dark, tannic grape in cooler climates.

Tannat - Another firm, tannic grape from France. It's popular in Uruguay, of all places, plus other warm areas of the world. In California it gets blended with heavier wines such as Cabernet and Syrah.

Now come some other off-the-wall varieties folks are testing now:

Fiano - A southern Italian white wine grape that may go back to the ancient Greeks.
Biancu Gentile - A white wine grape from Corsica.
Sagrantino - A very inky, tannic red wine grape from central Italy.
Marselan Noir. - A French grape that's a cross between Cabernet and Grenache. Decades ago Cab was crossed with another Rhone grape, Carignane, to create Ruby Cabernet that would grow in hot climates. It didn't do well as a variety and is mostly a bulk blending grape now.

These are grapes that don't necessarily do well in cooler climates but soften up in warm regions -- perfect for the hot Central Valley of California. Will we ever see a wine labeled as Tannat or Sagrantino from here? Probably not, they'll likely be blended with other varieties to make inexpensive red table wines. That is if they do well at all in the hot, dry Central Valley.

UC Davis, the home of California wine education, and Constellation Brands, owners of  Robert Mondavi, Clos du Bois and Ravenswood among others, are cooperating on finding grapes varieties that will grow well here. Innovation is always good to see. It's usually fostered by some need. I expect this need is for more quality wine at the lower end of the price spectrum. As the recession ends and wine sales are picking up there's talk now about an upcoming shortage of grapes in the coastal regions so they are looking where land is cheaper. But don't expect to see these wines on the store shelf anytime soon. I expect this is a decade away.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Best wines for grilling

It's summertime and that means the grill should be getting used often. You might be grilling burgers, a steak, pork chops, ribs, chicken, salmon, sausages, or vegetables. That's a lot of different things that can be prepared with a BBQ sauce, a dry rub, or maybe just a bit of salt and pepper. So is there a wine that goes with a variety of grilled fare?

My vote goes for Zinfandel first with Syrah and Pinot Noir getting honorable mentions. Yes, many people often grab a Chardonnay or Pinot Gris in hot summer weather and that's okay while you're grilling, but once the food is on the table I want a hearty, but not too heavy, red wine.

Some characteristics of a wine that goes with grilled food:

Spiciness - Many of the seasonings on grilled food are a bit spicy and you want a wine that won't be overwhelmed by this. A flavorful BBQ sauce on your chicken means Zinfandel (so much for the "white wine with white meat" mantra).

Smokiness - As grilled food will have a smoky character so can many Zins and Syrahs.

Red fruit flavors (raspberry, strawberry) - Rich meats and rich sauces and a Zinfandel with bright red fruit flavors work well.

Heavier meats - This is where a Syrah will shine.

Lighter meats, fish or veggies - Pinot is usually a good choice especially one that shows a bit of a tobacco/cigar box characteristic--it goes with that smokiness of grilled food.

Fattier foods, such as ribs - Zinfandel works best with fatty (or spicy).

If the grilled food is really spicy or really salty even a Zinfandel or hearty Syrah can be overwhelmed. This is where you break out the bubbly. A good, off-dry sparkling wine stands up best to spicy hot foods best. Or, of course, you could always go for a beer--probably a hoppy Pale Ale such as Sierra Nevada or an IPA.

One caution - Many California Zinfandels have high alcohol levels that I find don't match so well with foods. For me, I usually stay away from anything labeled over 14.5% alcohol.

Nothing wrong with a cold one while you're slaving over a hot grill

Monday, July 16, 2012

Wine Trucks

The food truck craze is big.  At least it's a big deal on the West Coast--not sure about wherever you may be. It started with the taco trucks then someone got a brainstorm to serve other foods of high quality. Not saying taco trucks don't have the best food--some do, some don't. Locally we have everything from wood-fired oven pizza to paella in the mobile format.

I recall reading that Portland Oregon (naturally) has beer trucks. So that begged the question, "Why doesn't Sonoma County have wine trucks?" It seems like a logical way to get your wines to various events. Well, it turns out that someone does have a wine truck.

Simi Winery has been around since the 1870s but isn't stuck in the past apparently. They have themselves a wine truck. Okay, it's a food truck too, probably to make the Alcohol Beverage Control folks feel better about it. And, of course, you can't just wheel it down any street or park it anywhere and serve up some Sauvignon Blanc, but it works for events that already have a permit to serve alcohol.

It would be great if they could get permission to serve wine anywhere. Maybe you remember as a kid having the ice cream truck roll through your neighborhood blaring out music or ringing a bell and you'd rush for some money to go get an overpriced ice cream bar. Image how this would work with a truck rolling through business parks in the afternoon playing, say, UB40's "Red, Red Wine!"

Someone with the start-up cash and ambition (not me!) could put together a booze truck with a white wine, a rosé, and a red or two plus maybe a nice cold IPA along with some cheeses, crackers, pretzels, chocolates, etc. This has got to be The Next Big Thing!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Visiting Napa during the busy season

The world famous Napa Valley is about 25 miles long with one main road running the length (Highway 29) and one secondary road (Silverado Trail) paralleling it on the other side of the valley. There are about 120,000 residents throughout the towns in the valley.  Now the scary part: Napa sees over 4.5 million visitors every year. And most of those show up July through September.

Visiting on a Wednesday in January is obviously much less crowded than Labor Day Weekend, but what if you don't have much control over when you go?

The day of the week

The least crowded times are Monday through Friday morning. Beginning Friday afternoon the people start to show up. If you are visiting tasting rooms on the weekend then plan to stop at the busier ones early in the day when they first open.

The time of day

Before 1:30 pm is your best bet. Most wineries open at 10 or 11 am. Folks tend to be at lunch around 1 pm. If you really like crowds go between 2 pm and 5 pm on Saturday afternoon.

Where in Napa, geographically

Napa Valley doesn't run a true north-south, but for the sake of simplicity lets say it does.

Highway 29 is the main road running north and south the length of Napa Valley on the west side. This is where most of the visitors and most of the wineries will be. Just a couple miles to the east the Silverado Trail runs through the valley. There are fewer tasting rooms, but there must be at least 20 of them open to the public. There are many cross roads to Highway 29 if you need to seek out someone specific over on the busy side.

The north end of the valley ("up valley" towards the town of Calistoga) will be less crowded than in the south (St. Helena to the town of Napa). The traffic through the little town of St. Helena on Highway 29 can back up for a mile or more.

Note that on a hot day it will be cooler to the south (closer to the bay). That may seem backwards, but Calistoga can be ten degrees hotter than the town of Napa.

What type of wineries

Even in the less crowded north end of Napa Valley there are major tourist destination wineries you may want to avoid during the busy times. Seek out the smaller and less well-known places.Their wines will be just as good. But if you really want that gondola ride or castle tour then plan on lots of other folks having the same idea.

Nobody likes crowds and the resulting service that comes with it so do your homework and you'll enjoy your trip more. If you really must go to Mondavi then just be sure to avoid Saturday afternoon! Or, of course, you could just come over to Sonoma County instead.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What Wine with Hot Dogs?

July is National Hot Dog month. I don't know if Hallmark has greeting cards for your favorite hot dog eater or not. July 4th is a big hot dog day plus there's a hot dog eating contest sponsored by Nathan's where, for some reason, people actually volunteer to compete in.

So this leads to an important question: What wine goes best with hot dogs?

There are some obvious things to mention first:
(1) You should have Coke or beer with hot dogs.
(2) As with other food/wine pairings it depends on the preparation.
(3) Hot dogs are cheap food so you better not open a $40 bottle of wine

Let's start with the easiest version--the Coney Island or chili dog. Since there's a bit of spice here I'll go with a fruitier Syrah, Zinfandel or possibly a rosé.

It gets more complicated with the other toppings: mustards ranging from sweet to hot, ketchup, onions, relish, kraut, cheese, coleslaw, bacon, tomatoes, etc. And these can be in any combination as some folks swear by onions and mustard while others load up with mustard, ketchup, and relish. There are definitely regional styles of hot dogs.

Another thing is hot dogs contain a lot of sodium and sparkling wine is often best with salty foods.  I believe mustard only or mustard and kraut should be an off-dry bubbly or gewurztraminer. And probably the same wines if you have tomatoes, pickles or relish, or peppers. For the "death on a stick" corn dog I'd say definitely a Brut sparkling wine.

Detroit style
Image from

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Vineyard photos--early July

July 7, 2012. All from the same Russian River Valley vineyard.
Click on a photo to enlarge.



Nice to see after a couple bad years for Zin

Saturday, July 7, 2012

2012 Grape-growing season as of early July

Currently things look great in Northern California. This, of course, just means nothing has gone wrong--no long heat waves, no long cool, foggy spells, no rain or high winds at the wrong time.

The first stages are Bud Break in early spring then Bloom in late spring. Both were a bit ahead of schedule and uneventful (farmers like "uneventful"). Also, good-sized crops are being reported making the folks who will be selling their grapes in the fall very happy.

With early summer comes the formation of the grape clusters. Vineyard workers are training the vines on the trellises then removing leaves to allow the proper amount of sunshine in. They are getting ready for when the grapes start to ripen later in the summer (producing sugar - called Veraison). This usually happens in early August, but with the other stages being early the ripening may start a bit ahead of schedule. There are already reports of some ripening happening in the warmer Central Valley.

The growers also like it when things happen ahead of schedule rather than behind. The later you go into the autumn to pick grapes the bigger the chance of rain that could damage the crop. So will harvest be early this year? Too early to tell. It depends on the weather and on crop size (larger crops take longer as the vine has only so much energy to spread around).

So far the year has been as good as can be hoped for. Definitely better than the last couple years. Does this mean better wine then most years? That's way too early to say, but I'd guess the growers and winemakers would say 2012 looks more like 2007 (a highly-rated vintage) than any season since then--at this point.

Late June cluster formation in Sonoma Valley
And it's not just northern California that's optimistic this year. An article on the Washington state season.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Fourth!

Happy Birthday America!

Annual 4th of July parade in the town of Sonoma

Monday, July 2, 2012

Insider's Guide to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County

Recently Wine Spectator magazine ran an article "Insider's Guide to Sonoma County".

 Their guide is pretty much a listing of the usual travel destination spots. They also have a bigger budget than I do as I've never made it to Cyrus in Healdsburg for dinner, for instance. Some of us have to decide to either pay the bills this month or go out to Cyrus as it's about the same amount of money. So instead of some journalists swarming through the area on an expense account how about opinions from an actual insider--someone who's lived here for over three decades?

  If you're visiting the Sonoma wine country chances are you'll be staying in, or at least traveling through, Santa Rosa as it's the biggest city and is in the center of Sonoma County. This list is Santa Rosa-centric as that's where I live. I see this as a list of where the locals go. Not necessarily where all the locals go, but personal preference plus word-of-mouth from other locals.


 There are a number of highly-rated, and often highly-priced, restaurants in Sonoma County. We are really blessed by the amount of good eats we have for the population. You usually hear about places such as Cyrus, The Girl and The Fig, John Ash, Petite Sirah, and Zazu. These are all great places and I've been to most multiple times (except Cyrus), but these aren't the places you'll find most locals. Here are a few local favorites--actually more than a few--I keep thinking of more to add.
Breakfast at Hank's Creekside
Check out the size of those pancakes!
Image from
In Santa Rosa:

Cafe Europe - Run by a German who knows how to do sauerbraten.
Cricklewood - Traditional American steak joint
East West Cafe - Vegetarian and Mediterranean-type foods. If you feel the need to eat a little healthier. Don't be afraid--even us meat-lovers like the food.
Flavor Bistro -Downtown with outside dining. Great wine by the glass offerings.
Flipside Burger - Good basic burger and a beer or glass of wine place. Fairly new so if it's crowded you can go next door to Third Street Aleworks--for a burger and a beer.
Fresh - A deli/cafe run by locally respected chef Lisa Hemenway.
Gary Chu's - More than two decades of providing gourmet Chinese.
Hanks - Always a line for breakfast--for good reason.
In N Out Burger - Really! It's the best fast food.
La Gare - A local favorite since it opened 35 years ago. It hasn't changed a bit so don't look for "California trendy/modern" cuisine. I always leave satisfied and happy.
La Vera Pizza - Second best pizza in town (see Rosso's below)
Mac's Deli - They've been in downtown Santa Rosa for a zillion years. Breakfast or lunch. Corned beef hash or Pastrami.
Omelette Express - Breakfast (if you couldn't guess by the name). Show up hungry. There will be a wait on the weekends.
Rosso - Best pizza in town from their wood-fired oven. Other great choices, too. Interesting wine list.
Viola - Small, hard to find, home-style cooking. I mean, fried chicken on a waffle!


Cafe Citti - An Italian diner in nearby Kenwood. Sit out in the sun with a plate of pasta and a glass of wine--the perfect meal.
Scopa - In Healdsburg. It's small. It's Italian. It's the best. It's difficult to get reservations.
Willi's Seafood - In Healdsburg. Good for lunch.
Polenta at Cafe Citti
Image from

Other Food 

Sonoma County is home to many good bakeries. Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg is the best.

Sonoma County has a history of raising dairy cattle and sheep and is known for its cheese. A few of the top quality cheese makers include Vella, Bellwether Farms and Petaluma Creamery. The "cheese trail" also dips south into Marin County.

Sonoma is also home to many small coffee roasters. Flying Goat is the best. 

Wineries in the county

 You can go to Viansa and Buena Vista with the tour groups or you can check out some of the small and out of the way tasting rooms. There are dozens to choose from. Here are a few you probably don't hear much about.

Audelssa - They are about Rhone and Bordeaux-type blends.
David Coffaro - Balanced wine (not to oaky, too alcoholic, etc.) with interesting blends at fair prices. Almost all of the wine is sold directly by the winery.
Dutton-Goldfield - Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at their best.
Inman - High-quality though a bit pricey. Specializes in single vineyard Pinot. Also, has the best Pinot Gris I've had (at $30). A rising star in the Russian River Valley.
Iron Horse - Great bubblies; nice view at their outdoor tasting room.
Paradise Ridge - The best view anywhere. A good picnic spot.
Pedroncelli - Quality wines and great value. If you've just come from Napa the prices will shock you (in a good way). A long-time family operation.
Pellegrini - From Chardonnay to Pinot to Cab well-made wines across the board.
Russian Hill - Pinot, Syrah and a nice view.
Trentadue - Check out the La Storia line of wines. The Zin and the Cuveé are outstanding.

For first-time visitors looking for "the experience:"   Coppola, Korbel, and Ferrari-Carano

Iron Horse "Tasting Room"
Image from


 There are numerous pubs and actual breweries in the county. It's not unusual to find a spot with dozens of local beers on tap. These are some of the best breweries you're likely to ever run across anywhere:

Bear Republic - In Healdsburg. There's nothing better than a burger and a Red Rocket on their deck.
Lagunitas - In Petaluma. Home of the #1 selling IPA in California. They are expanding quickly--must be doing something right.
Russian River - Downtown Santa Rosa. People come from all over the country for their IPAs and Belgian-style beers. Rated as one of the top ten brew pubs in the world that sells a seasonal beer rated as the #1 beer in the world. So, yes, it is crowded.

Happy Hour

Jack and Tony's - Many discounted, high quality appetizers and drinks.
Starks - Not the greasy chicken wings kind of grub, but meatloaf sliders and tuna tacos. It can get crowded.

Portuguese Beach on the Sonoma Coast

Coast - The weather there can be cold, foggy, and windy even when it hot and sunny a few miles inland. But when the sun is out it's magnificent.

Napa Valley - I try to visit every winter when there are no crowds. I stay the heck out May through November.

Redwoods - Armstrong Redwoods in Guerneville. If you've never walked through an old-growth redwood forest you need to do it.

Shopping Sonoma style

Imwalle Gardens - They've been here since the 19th century but are now threatened by development. Top-notch produce plus veggie and flowering plants.

Kozlowski Farms - Shop for apple cider, pies, jellies, BBQ sauce, salad dressing, etc. Ol' Uncle Cal's Sweet and Hot Mustard is the best!

Other things to know

Gravenstein Apples - They don't travel or store well so maybe you've never heard of 'em, but they are probably the best apple in the world for eating, pies or sauce. Their season is late-Aug and early-Sept. They used to be all over western Sonoma County until grapes and housing took over.

Climate - Wear layered clothing or at least bring a jacket. Different parts of the county have different weather. Temps between the coast and inland can easily be 30 degrees apart. Day to night temps will vary by 30 degrees or more. Just because it's chilly with a low cloud cover in mid-morning doesn't mean it won't be 85 degrees in a few hours. This is the kind of weather that produces great wine!
Cooling summer fog is a big factor in the local climate

Where to take the kids

Food: Mary's Pizza Shack, Old Mexico, Rosso's.
Indoor: Charles Schulz Museum and Snoopy Ice Arena
Outdoor: The Sonoma Mission, Armstrong Redwoods, plus coastal beaches such as Doran Beach or Salmon Creek (too cold to swim, but the beaches are nice and the surf relatively gentle). Canoeing on the Russian River. Morton's Warm Springs near Kenwood is a good picnic and swimming spot with the kids as is Spring Lake Park in Santa Rosa.

Disclosure: I'm employed by one of the establishments listed here