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Sunday, April 28, 2013

First time visiting Sonoma County?

When you travel somewhere new it's easy to not understand the geography and other things peculiar to the area. So if you're making your first trip to Sonoma County this might help with a few things people often don't understand about the region.

Travel Times Between Wineries

Sonoma County is big enough to have significant drive times within the county. Plan enough time at each stop to enjoy yourself without rushing and allow for travel time.  For example, the drive time between a couple popular wineries, Ferrari-Carano in northern Dry Creek Valley and Viansa in the Carneros region in the south is over an hour.

In planning appointments don't do something like, "1pm at Winery A, 2pm at Winery B, and 3pm at Winery C." You can't do it that quickly even without travel time. You're on vacation! Relax and spread out the visits.

Number of Wineries to Visit Each Day

You will be drinking the equivalent of one glass of wine at each winery unless you share tastes with someone. Six glasses of wine during the day will probably put you over the legal limit for driving. Four winery visits a day is ideal.

Planning Some Down Time

If this is more than a two-day trip have some other activities planned in the middle. Your palate, and maybe your liver, will thank you. Start over fresh and you'll better enjoy the winery visits.

Know What You are Looking for in Wine

Whether you are planning your winery stops ahead of time, or like most, ask the locals once you get to town, it's good to know what you want in a winery as there are hundreds to choose from!  So what's important? Looking for Pinot Noirs you won't find back home, nice views, free tastings, inexpensive Chardonnay, tours, small, family-owned wineries? Try to figure out what that is to help you or someone else help you choose.

Planning on How to Get Your Wine Purchases Home
Some go in saying, "I'm not going to buy any wine this trip."  Hah! You will fall in love with some wine(s) you will never see again after you leave and will just have to get some.

If you are not from California know if it's legal for wineries to ship to your state. Or maybe you know someone in a nearby "legal" state that can take your shipments for you. If so have their address available. You can ship from wineries or take your purchases to a local UPS store and have them shipped home. Shipping a couple bottles isn't very economical--it's best to ship at least a half case (six bottles) to make the shipping cost worthwhile.

When shipping to be sure someone will be home when the wine arrives. It's federal law that an adult must sign for the wine. Maybe ship to your place of business.


There are actually quite a few folks that will be out wine tasting and all of a sudden, at maybe 2 pm, realize they're starving. They haven't planned ahead to be somewhere to eat or to have a deli sandwich with them. Most winery tasting rooms do not carry food items. Plan ahead!

I've had folks come in (to a tasting room) and actually be upset because there isn't anything to eat. Others come in asking for a cup of coffee. Huh?

Speaking of eating... 
Remember, you came to Sonoma County primarily to eat and drink. It's okay. You can lose weight when you get home!

We'll see you soon

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

It's Pig in a Blanket Day!

April 24th is a day of dual celebrations. The more well-known holiday is Secretary's Day, now called Admin's Day by the politically correct police.

But the holiday related to food and wine is Pig in a Blanket Day. The "pig" being a sausage or hot dog; the "blanket" is a crescent roll or, more traditionally, a pancake. This, of course, leads to the question, "What wine with a pig in a blanket?"

Image from
Whether sausage or dogs the food will be fatty and salty. Sausages may be spicy. This is crying out for an off-dry sparkling wine, either white or rosé. If that's too fancy for you then find a (cheap) Riesling. 

Maybe surprise your favorite admin assistant today. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Destination Winery

In the 1970s, just as California wine growth was really taking off, a visitor to Sonoma or Napa had a couple dozen wineries to choose from. Now that number is in the hundreds. That's why visitors often ask, "What wineries should I go to?" It's a daunting task just to pick a few for any traveler interested in wine.

On the other side of this, for the winery owners and managers, the problem is equally daunting. How do you get the visitors to choose you over all the others? It can be name recognition, tasting room location, architecture, views, freebies, etc. Heck, it might even by the wine!

Then once the visitor is there, how do they keep them around long enough to spend lots of money? This is where the destination winery comes in. This is a place where you are going to want to spend a couple hours or even all day. How do they get you to do that? The best example of a destination trip would be Disneyland.

The top destination winery in Sonoma County is Francis Ford Coppola's. Besides the Coppola name to get you in there's a restaurant, a full bar, sometimes there's music, and even a swimming pool! Hang out at the pool, rent a cabana, order some drinks, buy some wine to take home. You get the idea.

Wineries with a smaller budget might do it with things like sit-down tastings, food, live music, and various special events to get you to stick around and spend money.

The latest to enter this foray will be Valley of the Moon Winery in Sonoma Valley. A sort of under the radar winery with a beautiful building and mediocre wine. They were under the Korbel umbrella for many years without much attention from the owners. It was sort of stale. They've been purchased by a local wine executive, meaning a businessman, not a vintner or a winemaker. There are big plans costing a fair amount of money. It all centers around the experience and finding ways to get visitors to hang out for awhile. So far I've only heard about the visitor experience and nothing about the wine so we'll see where they are in a year or two.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery
Come on in! Buy some wine!
Rent a cabana. Hang out at the pool all day.
(Instead of going to other wineries and spending money there)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Wine Industry Expands in Michigan

Wine consumption, wine making, and the resulting tourism in wine regions doesn't just happen in California (or WA, OR, and NY).  Michigan has a growing wine area in the NW part of the "mitten" near Traverse City. That part of the state has long been known for cherries and while we all like cherry pie that doesn't bring in many tourists--though Traverse City does host the National Cherry Festival! That brings the question, what kind of wine with cherry pie? I'm guessing Pinot Noir.

This may seem like a strange place for a growing wine industry. Fruit grows here because of the moderating effect of Lake Michigan and the 30 mile long Grand Traverse Bay. The water temperature changes more slowly that the air temp so spring is delayed, helping prevent frost issues, and fall is extended because the lake has not yet cooled off. This is all great for growing fruit in a narrow band near the water. Though it's got to be a hearty group of grape farmers as the last freeze is typically mid-May and the first of the autumn is mid-October.

Michigan wine sales rose six percent last year. The state has over 100 wineries now. Vineyard land has doubled in the last ten years. My only experience with MI wine was a very nice Pinot Gris.

According to there are one million tasting room visitors each year. Napa sees over four million. Still, that's a lot of folks eating in local restaurants and staying in local lodgings. In a state with a failing economy it's good to see a bright spot with tourism.

It's a beautiful area if you've never visited.

Image from

Sunday, April 14, 2013

What wine for your ex?

April 14th is Ex Spouse Day. No, I don't know why anyone thought we should celebrate this, but it's an excuse to ask, "What wine should you send to your ex?"

If it's for your ex-wife send her a bottle of this

For an ex-husband maybe this

Just don't let this happen

Friday, April 12, 2013

Some Wine Myths

There are misconceptions about many complex subjects including wine. You may already know these, be surprised about some, or maybe disagree with some. Like I said wine is complicated.

Screw Caps

Screw caps and plastic corks are for cheap wine, right? Many Americans started their wine experience with something cheap, sweet and under a screw cap so this myth persists. Today the evidence says screw cap closures are almost always better than cork, but tradition dies hard.

Corked Wine

A bad wine means it's corked? There are many reasons a wine might not be as good as it should be. Corked wines have gotten a lot of press over the past few years. Bad does not usually equal corked. It can, but it's often not the problem. Usually it has to do with traveling or storage. Sometimes it may even be a problem at the winery. So if a wine seems bad don't assume "corked" unless you understand what a corked wine tastes and smells like.

Serve Red Wine at Room Temp

Room temp is about 70 degrees or so. That's too warm for wine unless you like a heavy, alcoholic taste. If it's too cold you'll lose a lot of the flavors. About 60 degrees or a bit higher is best. If the wine wasn't stored in a cool enough place then put it in the fridge for a hour then set it out for a few minutes before drinking.

Serve White Wine Cold

 Too cold of a temperature will hide the flavors of the wine you paid good money for. Actually, you can serve a bad wine really cold to hide the flavor, but let's hope that's not a problem. A cold refrigerator temp is good for sparkling wines and Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay is better somewhere between this cold temp and the temp you should use for red wine. If you're going to err either way then serve Chardonnay closer to 60 degrees rather then 40 degrees.

Legs on the Wine Glass

When you swirl a wine in the glass the "legs" or "tears" stream down the side of the glass. Slow or fast moving streams of wine can tell you about viscosity (the body of the wine), but have nothing to do with quality.

Red Wine is Better When it Ages

Some wines will be better after they have aged properly. Only a small percentage of wines improve after a few years left in the bottle. Very few of us can age our wine correctly meaning the right temperature, humidity, etc. And even then how do you know when it's best?

A better way to "age" a wine is to either open the bottle several hours before you will drink it or decant the wine. Decanting is simply pouring it into a clean, neutral vessel (glass is good) to let oxygen soften the wine.

The biggest mistake with aging is buying an expensive Cabernet, for example, after being told that it will be better in five years then sticking it in a wine rack on the kitchen counter. This wine will be awful in five years as light, heat and vibration will destroy it.

Besides what does it mean by "better?" It will be certainly different after a few years of aging, but will you find it better than when you purchased it? Many people like drinking young, big, fruity wines and don't like the characteristics of an older wine.

White Wine doesn't Age

Usually not, but I've had a couple Chardonnays that were aged properly for many years and were amazing wines. But they were definitely different than they were when they were young. So I wouldn't say dry white wines don't age, but that you generally don't want to age them.

White White with Fish and Chicken

The preparation is the key. You might be using anything from lime juice to a spicy BBQ sauce and this will determine what wine you should have, not the meat itself. For instance, if you slather lots of that spicy BBQ sauce on your chicken while grilling a Zinfandel might be a better wine pairing than a Chardonnay. More flavorful fish like salmon are often great with lighter reds like Pinot Noir.

Red Wine with Red Meat

This one is fairly safe, but there are lots of reds to choose from. Besides if you just don't like red wines or maybe it's a really hot day and red doesn't sound good then have a full-bodied Chardonnay or a Viognier. (Don't know what Viognier is? Look it up)!

The Best Wines Come from the Years with the Best Weather

Someone or another will declare a particular California vintage as a great vintage, or the vintage of the decade, or some such. This usually means these are years with warmer summers. Warmth leads to higher alcohol, lower acids (that might be added back during wine making), and basically really ripe wines. If this is what you like then you'll like these warm weather wines.

The other issue with declaring great vintages is that California is a big state and even a particular region has weather idiosyncrasies. So if someone says 2007 was a great vintage in Napa, as many did, what does that mean? For what grape variety? For what parts of Napa as some areas are borderline hot while others cool?

Having said that, there are years that in general produce better wine than in others, but that's such a broad stroke you can't really apply it to all purchasing decisions. 

Listen to Wine Critics and Judges

You can use this as one data point. Wine quality is 98% subjective. It's like having someone else pick a piece of art to hang on your wall. Okay, some folks will let an art "expert" decorate for them and some will go see a movie because a movie critic liked it. It just seems better to buy what you like, not what someone else tells you to like.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In your search for great wines ...

... leave no Rhone unturned

Chardonnay, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc ...   Ever just want something different, but something eminently drinkable? Something that's also a great food wine? Rhones baby!

What are Rhone wines?

Roussanne in Sonoma Valley
Per the Rhone Rangers there are 22 varieties of grapes grown in the Rhone region of France and 12 of these are planted in the U.S.

The most prominent red Rhones are Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. For white wine Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. These grapes are usually considered to be from France, but many originated in other countries, such as Spain, then were popularized in the Rhone region of France.

Petite Sirah is the Durif grape from the Rhone, but doesn't grow well there and is fairly rare outside of California and Australia.

Syrah plantings in California really grew in the 1990s much like Pinot Noir is doing now. The demand for Syrah never really took off like many thought. Why? I believe there are a couple reasons. One is Syrah competes in style with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab has always been number one with consumers and isn't about ready to be displaced by Syrah. Secondly, I think Syrah is best in a blend and California traditionally isn't very big on blends compared to "straight varietals."

Syrah can be blended with other Rhones plus Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Sangiovese. It's even been added to Pinot Noir. One of the better blends is what's called GSM for Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre.

Syrah is sometimes called Shiraz. That usually signifies a style difference with Shiraz being a simpler, fruitier, easier drinking wine.

Food pairings

The reds do well with something spicy like chili or pizza along with hearty meals. Grilled red meats are a great choice. The white match pretty much with anything you'd have with a Chardonnay plus some spicy meals like chicken in a Thai or Indian dish.

Some local wineries

Audelssa, Mounts Family, Quivira, Sheldon, Two Shepherds, and Wind Gap all make interesting Rhone-type wines. This is not a complete list by any means. These smaller wineries listed here use some of the other Rhone grapes beside Syrah. There are many wineries in Sonoma County that make Syrah as a varietal from Cline at the lower priced end to Peay at the expensive side.

Other parts of California

You'll find the largest concentration of wineries making Rhone-style wines in the Paso Robles area of the California Central Coast where Tablas Creek Vineyard was instrumental in bringing Rhone varieties to California. There are a number of Rhone-style wines from the Sierra foothills, too (Amador and El Dorado counties).

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sonoma County for Car Guys

During your visit to Sonoma County you might not want to drink wine all the time! What else can a car (or motorcycle) guy (or gal) do while in the area? 

The most obvious car-related part of Sonoma County is the raceway formerly known as Sears Point and Infineon and for now called simply Sonoma Raceway. It's a very technical (meaning no straight parts) road course. There's also a 1/4 track and a kart track. All are available to use by the public at various times. For spectating there are major professional events during the year and some smaller ones that can be just as fun and a lot cheaper to attend.

Ferrari Challenge weekend at Sonoma Raceway

There are numerous car shows during the year: Peggy Sue's All-American Cruise is the biggest with acres of cars on display with the highlight being a Saturday evening cruise of downtown Santa Rosa. There's the Father's Day Show & Shine and a custom auto show also in Santa Rosa. Petaluma hosts the American Graffiti Classic Car Show.

Peggy Sue downtown cruise

You can rent a sports car, a Harley, or have someone drive you around the wineries in a classic muscle car.

You can bring or rent an appropriate vehicle and drive some great roads yourself. With the mountains, valleys and coast line there are lots of choices. Here are a few:

  • Mark West Springs and Calistoga Roads. Both traverse the Mayacamas Mountains from the Santa Rosa area to Calistoga in Napa Valley.
  • Trinity Road / Oakville Grade. From Sonoma Valley to Oakville in Napa Valley. There are switchbacks on the Sonoma side. The view dropping into Napa is spectacular.
  • Highway 128 from Geyserville to Calistoga through vineyards and forests.
  • Chalk Hill Road from the south end of Alexander Valley to the Windsor area.
  • Pacific Coast Highway (aka State Highway 1). Driving north-to-south puts you on the water side so you can easily pull off at the various overlooks and beaches. My favorite coast loop is River Road out to Jenner, south through Bodega Bay then back inland via the Bodega Highway. PCH can have a lot of traffic on some weekends.
  • Coleman Valley Road. An adventurous way to visit the Pacific coast. Watch out for the sheep!
  • Skaggs Springs from the north end of Dry Creek Valley out to the coast. Narrow, winding, dark.
  • Westside & West Dry Creek Roads from the Russian River Valley through Dry Creek Valley. Great vineyard views. Some parts of the road are are less than two cars wide.
Westside Road

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Wineries and Vineyards Selling Like Hotcakes!

It's another sign the Great Recession is ending. Also, a sign the wine business is picking up faster than other parts of the economy.

In the Napa, Sonoma, and Lake County area there has been a rash of winery and vineyard sales over the past year. One thing helping the vineyard sales is a proclamation at an industry conference last year saying there will be a grape shortage in the near future. This opinion is based on the lack of new plantings during the depth of the recession and the continuing growth in California wine sales.

Some of the properties changing hands in the past year or so:

In 2005 Coppola bought the Souverain Winery
and put lots of money into the property
Accolade Wines, a world-wide wine corporation based in Australia, bought Geyser Peak Winery. A few months later Francis Ford Coppola bought the Geyser Peak buildings and vineyards, but not the brand name. Over the past 15 years Geyser Peak has gone through numerous owners. Without their own facility I'm not sure what will happen to the brand in the long term. For now they are leasing back the property from Coppola. 

Duckhorn bought the Ridgeline Vineyard in Alexander Valley from Artesa -- as Artesa is putting in a huge vineyard in the Sonoma Coast area. (Ridgeline is about Cabernet; the Sonoma Coast is about Chardonnay and Pinot Noir).

The most active buyer has been Bill Foley. In recent years he's purchased Sebastiani and Chalk Hill Wineries plus several others. In the past year he's added Lancaster in Sonoma, Langtry in Lake County, and Sawyer Cellars in Napa. He also purchased a 200 acre vineyard in Carneros at the southern end of Sonoma County. Foley appears to have lots of money from his financial dealings and may not be done yet.

Gallo bought a 2300 acre property with vineyards in Lake County. I guess they took the "future vineyard shortage" proclamation to heart.

Kendall-Jackson bought several hundred acres of land in Oregon, some already planted, the rest to be planted. Jackson also bought the well-regarded Saralee's Vineyard in the Russian River Valley from the Kunde's. The Kunde family has been selling off in the past few years.

Plumpjack bought Stelzner Vineyards. Stelzner is a long-time grower in Napa. The family is retaining some vineyards. 
Any future for them?

Silver Oak bought Sausal Vineyards, a family winery in Alexander Valley known for Zinfandel. Silver Oak hinted there would be changes. All I know is at the time I'm writing this Sausal doesn't even have a web page. Too bad as Sausal was one of the few places you could still buy a great Zin for $20. That doesn't fit the Silver Oak business model well.

The Wilson Winery family bought Pezzi King, including their vineyards -- a small operation known for Dry Creek Zinfandel. The Wilson's also bought the Blackstone Winery facility, but not the brand name, from Constellation Brands. The Wilson's seem to be doing very well as they have several premium winery holdings in Sonoma County.

A couple of ex-winery execs who own a British Columbia winery bought Valley of the Moon and Lake Sonoma from Gary Heck (owner of Korbel) including 40 acres of vineyards. Gary had been attempting to sell off Kenwood Vineyards, but that deal fell through.

A more detailed article on the changes from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Happy 90th Birthday Mr. Grgich!

Image from
Mike Grgich turned 90 on April 1st. He was part of a Croatian winemaking family. Miljenko (Mike) left then communist Yugoslavia and eventually found his way to California. His first major achievement was as the winemaker responsible for the famous 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from the Judgement of Paris that set up California to become a premium wine region.

With that success he started Grgich Cellars in 1977 and started making his own award-winning Chardonnay and later Zinfandel. He was one of the first to believe Zinfandel originated in his native Croatia. This was confirmed about ten years ago by DNA testing.

On April 13th the winery will host a birthday party for Mike honoring his many life achievements in the wine industry.

Happy birthday and thank you!