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Friday, August 30, 2013

Wineries changing owners

Wineries get bought and sold more often than you may think. Only the "big boys" tend to make the news.

Clos Pegase in Napa Valley was founded by Jan Shrem 30 years ago. He was middle-aged even then. Finally he decided it was time to sell and probably not a moment too soon as the winery has been in a state of benign neglect for awhile. The new owners, a local company called Vintage Wine Estates, came in saying everyone would keep their jobs and then fired several people -- just like other corporations. Vintage Wine Estates owns a handful of wineries in the Sonoma/Napa/Mendocino area. The selling price was not disclosed, but it includes several hundred acres of Napa real estate. Clos Pegase is probably best-known for Shrem's private art collection on display at the winery.

Almost 25 years ago a member of a Sonoma County pioneering wine family, Sam Sebastiani, founded Viansa Winery. He built a "Tuscan marketplace" that's been very popular with first-time tourists to the area. Sam turned it over to the children and they ran into trouble and Viansa was sold. It's for sale again. One rumor has Vintage Wine Estates interested in the property. It's listed at $15m in case you were looking to get into the wine biz. Viansa is probably best-known for tour buses and weddings.

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Update 10/4/13: It's official, Vintage Wine Estates has bought Viansa for an undisclosed sum.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Autumn 2013 Events in Sonoma County

These are some of the major events, mostly wine or food-related, for Sept, Oct, Nov 2013. This is harvest season -- there's lots to see!

Getting ready to make wine!


Aug 30-1  Sonoma Wine Country Weekend - Wine tasting at the beautiful MacMurray Ranch, auction, winemaker lunches and dinners, BBQ, all at various locations around Sonoma County. Info

1  Rodney Strong Winery Concert Series - The great B.B. King. Info

Santa Rosa Railroad Square Summerfest - Street festival with food, wine, music. Info

7  Healdsburg Beer in the Plaza.  About 30 microbreweries. Info

Cajun/Zydeco Festival in Sebastopol. Food, beer, wine, and lots of music. Info

10-12 National Heirloom Exposition at the Sonoma County fairgrounds. It's about the small, local farmer. Info

21-22 Russian River Jazz & Blues Festival on the beach in Guerneville including Boz Scaggs, Los Lobos, and Robert Cray. Info

21-22  BR Cohn Winery Music Festival - Big-name acts mostly from the '70s including The Doobie Brothers, Heart, Bad Company and the Gin Blossoms. Info

22  Polo in the Wine Country benefit for Junior Achievement in Santa Rosa. Food and wine tasting. Info

27-29  Sonoma Valley Crush Weekend. Get hands-on with the crush. Info

27-29 Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival -  The 116th annual celebration held on the town square in Sonoma with a grape stomp, parade, music and, of course, wine tasting. Info

Note there are two big events happening the weekend of Sept 27-29 in and around the town of Sonoma (Sonoma Crush & the Vintage Festival). Lodging and restaurants will be booked up!

28 Heirloom Tomato Festival at Kendall-Jackson in Fulton. Info


4-6  Sonoma County Harvest Fair - Food, award-winning wines, beer, music, "World Championship" Grape Stomp. Info

12 Cotati Oktoberfest - Eat and drink in your lederhosen. Info

27  Pinot on the River in Healdsburg. Info


2-3 Wine and Food Affair - A northern Sonoma County food and wine event weekend with over 100 participating wineries. A great chance to check out some of those small ones that aren't usually open for tasting. Info

23-24 Holiday in Carneros - Winery open house in southern Napa and Sonoma Counties. Info

29-30  Heart of Sonoma Valley Open House at about two dozen Sonoma Valley wineries. Info

Dry Creek Valley in early November

The harvest / crush / vintage - Grape harvest season this year started in late August and generally runs until about Nov 1st. The prime time is about mid-Sept through mid-Oct. 

Individual wineries harvest events - Many wineries have their own harvest parties and winemaker dinners. Check with your favorites to see if they have anything going on.
A list of October events at various wineries.

Thanksgiving weekend - Wineries are closed on Thanksgiving Day. The rest of the weekend is usually very busy and many put on holiday open houses.  Check with your favorites to see if they have a special event. Be prepared for big crowds on Friday and Saturday.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Barefoot Cellars Success Story

It's everywhere!
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There's been high growth for this inexpensive wine.
Why? Great wines? No.
Excellent price and value? Not especially.
Barefoot Cellars is owned by Gallo and they have enormous clout in the distribution channels. They do know how to sell wine!

Read all about it at

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Labor Day Weekend 2013 in Sonoma County

It's the last big weekend of the summer! (Though most kids will have already been in school for a couple weeks). What's happening for the long weekend in Sonoma County?

Sonoma Wine County Weekend. Lunches, dinners, BBQ, auction and a Saturday wine tasting. This is the big event of the weekend.

Broadway Under the Stars. It's the end of the season for professional shows in the Jack London State Park.

The King of the Blues, B.B. King, performs outdoors at Rodney Strong Winery.

Harvest BBQ and Grape Stomp at Viszlay Vineyards.

Friday Night Live in Cloverdale. Farmer's market and live music.

Funky Friday Music in the Meadow at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

What to know about visiting on Labor Day Weekend (or any holiday weekend):

Lodging - Expect all rooms to be booked in advance for pretty much anywhere in Sonoma and Napa.

Dinner - Likewise expect all restaurant reservations to be booked.

Wineries - Tasting rooms will be very busy Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Plan for some out-of-the-way places at these times.

Healdsburg and Sonoma - These towns are always busy so expect crowds everywhere in their small downtowns.  This means the tasting rooms and restaurants in Healdsburg and Sonoma will be really crowded at certain times of the day.

Service in the tasting rooms, restaurants, and hotel desks may be a bit slower than you'd like, but remember these folks are working the busy holiday weekend so you can enjoy yours!

Friday, August 23, 2013

2013 grape harvest is underway

It always begins slowly with a few reports of a few bins of grapes coming in here-and-there.  That's happening this week. It's a couple weeks early than the norm--at least for the warmer areas of Sonoma County. Generally you can expect the first grapes shortly after Labor Day though Mother Nature won't always play by those rules.

It's possible by mid-September things will be really moving--we'll see.  Lots of people like to visit this time of year. It's exciting to see (and smell) the harvest in action.  If you are visiting soon the big event for this coming weekend (Aug 24-25) isn't wine-related--it's Indy Cars at Sonoma Raceway. For Labor Day Weekend the big event is The Wine County Weekend including the Taste of Sonoma.

Article on the start to the harvest from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Where to get a burger

Food & Wine's online magazine listed the Healdsburg Bar & Grill (aka HBG) as having one of the top 25 burgers in the U.S. Angus beef with a bun made by Costeaux Bakery two blocks up the street. A great place to sit outside in the California sun with a burger and a beer.
HBG on the list

Also in the top 25 are In-N-Out Burger, the best chain burger joint in the world (there are two in Sonoma County). Next door in Napa is Gott's Roadside, a Napa Valley institution.

Not mentioned are Mike's at the Crossroads, Superburger, and Flipside Bar & Burger. Any of these get top billing from many Sonoma County residents.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Wine Trends

What's trending in the American wine market? There are often reports of the Latest Big Thing, but you need the perspective of a few years to really see the trends.


Wine sales dipped a bit early in the recession, but picked right back up to where California is seeing record sales. American wine wasn't really hurt by the bad economy or by cheap imports.

What You Drink

Chardonnay has long been #1 and is about one-fifth of American wine sales. A lot of press has been spent on Pinot Noir, Muscat, and sweet red wines, but they are only a small percentage of the market. Sparkling wine sales are growing, also.

How You Drink It

Screw caps are finally catching on. Good wine can be found in boxes, not just bottles, but not very many. Tradition dies hard with corks and glass bottles though neither is required for a good quality wine.

How the Wine is Made

"Natural wines" got a lot of media buzz for awhile and no one seemed to care. Wineries are going organic and sustainably farmed without a lot of PR. Only the folks using biodynamic practices seem to want to show off what they're doing. Perhaps they're just looking for acceptance for some of the wacky things they do.


There has been much noise made about social media. There's some truth to the notion of more people getting their wine opinions from other consumers online rather than relying on print magazines, but the influence of The Wine Spectator, et al hasn't gone away as was predicted. Some wineries thought all you needed was a good online presence to sell your wine. Well, no, it's just another outlet.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The coming grape shortage

The U.S. is about to enter a wine grape shortage.

Grape supplies are cyclical--it's economics. When there's a shortage and grape prices are high many people rush to plant more. This was the scene through most of the 1990s. But for more than a dozen years the plantings have dropped dramatically. Not in all areas--one example being coastal plantings of Pinot Noir have gone up sharply in the last ten years. But in many areas it got to be more profitable to plant something else. In the Central Valley of California where most of America's grapes for inexpensive wines come from the economics said to yank out the grapes and put in other crops. You can get a lot more dollars per acre of almonds that you can for grapes in the San Joaquin Valley

Demand is up as more Americans are drinking wine. And with the economy improving it's expected wine sales will continue to grow. This will probably be good news for other countries as they can pick up the slack.

Why do you care? Because supply and demand says grape prices will rise and so will wine prices. This may be especially true of the less expensive American wines.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

What wine with S'mores?

August 10th is National S'mores Day so get some marshmallows, graham crackers, Hershey's chocolate, and start a campfire.

Image from

Here's something you were probably wondering about:  What wine goes with S'mores? Well, lets starts by breaking down the food. You've got cocoa, a wheat product, some white goop, and a whole bunch of sugar. And then you're going to char it up, maybe even flambé it.

My first thought is pair it with a late harvest wine or maybe a tawny port.  What about a rich Viognier or one of those oaky, butter California Chardonnays? Trentadue Winery makes a Chocolate Port--that might be worth a try. Maybe a slightly sweet sparkling wine.

So many possibilities.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tasting then buying wine

You might be fortunate enough to be able to "try before you buy" rather than having to pick a wine blindly off a store shelf. Once you try wines what's the thought process used to determine what you buy?

Over-analyzing vs. no thought process

You can be a uninformed consumer and get a wine because it has a picture of a cute cat on the label. You can be like the wine geeks and spend a lot of time analyzing the heck out of what you're  consuming using technical and abstract terms.

The decision-making process 

The two opposing ends of the decision-making process:
  • Deciding simply either you like it or you don't.
  • Trying to decide whether a Chardonnay is overly malolactic. Or whether or not a Cabernet's slightly dill characteristic is because of a cool growing season.
As with most things there's a happy middle ground.

Know what you will drink! I've talked to enough people that buy dessert wines then say they never drink them. I'm not picking on dessert wine, but don't buy stuff you won't open later.

The first thing should be do you like it or not then put some thought into why you do or don't.

Decide if it's in your budget. Should you really have a $60 Cabernet with burgers? Well, I've probably done that, but that doesn't mean you should be so fiscally irresponsible.


In what setting will you use the wine? Are you likely to drink it with friends on a summer afternoon on the patio or are you likely to open it up with a big steak dinner? If you are a vegetarian or will be using the wine in really hot weather than a heavy Cabernet may not be for you even if it tastes really good right now. Maybe you should be looking at lighter reds such as Pinot Noir and Merlot or a white wine.

So think about when you'll use the wine and how. Think about what kinds of dinners you normally eat. Lots of beef, lots of chicken, spicy food, Italian food, etc. All that should be part of the decision-making.

The seasonality of wine

Some are better in summer heat and other shine in the winter months. Think of a hot, sultry summer day--would you rather be having a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc or a big, heavy Cabernet Sauvignon? Okay, some will take a Cab any day over a white wine, but you get the idea. Sauvignon Blanc sells really well in the late spring and through the summer while Cabernet sells best in the autumn and winter months for this reason.

That first sip vs. the second glass

This is perhaps the hardest thing of all to understand. This mostly comes down to the acidity in the wine, but tannins and residual sugars also play a part.

What pleases the palate in that first sip? Most react favorably to wines that come across as smooth and fruity. This is why the lower acid, higher alcohol wines do so well as they make a great first impression. Wines that are still interesting by the second glass or when standing up to a meal tend to not seem as pleasing on the first sip. If you happen to be a whiskey drinker you understand this. Even with some hoppy beers you need to get past that first drink or two to really appreciate them.

Are you looking for a cocktail wine or a dinner wine? The softer, lower acid wines can get washed out by food, but can be pleasing sipping wines.

Your palate

It's your money so it's what you like. Seems simple, but it gets confusing when you get opinions from friends, strangers, wine critics, and salesmen.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The 2013 Grape Harvest

As of August 5, 2013 in Sonoma County

Bud break was early this year

With a warm spring bud break in the vineyards occurred up to three weeks early. The predictions just several weeks ago was for one of the earliest harvest ever, maybe three weeks ahead of schedule. This was after a long heat spike in June that ended on July 4th. Ma Nature has a way of evening things out. Since mid-July we've been running a few degrees below average. The forecast is for continued cool weather. This has probably put things back to normal harvest times.

 This is good for the proper maturity of the grapes. This is good for winery scheduling. Generally, in August wine is being bottled to clear out barrel space, harvest interns are brought in to help with the upcoming busy months, and the barrels and tanks are cleaned and made ready.

A few days ago, on August 1st, Mumm Napa Valley brought in the first of their grapes for sparkling wines. This is about a week ahead of the average. Wine grapes for sparkling wine is picked earlier than for regular table wines as they are less ripe (have lower sugars). The table wine season starts around Labor Day and with the cool stretch of weather it looks to be on schedule. Of course, another heat wave could change that.

The first Pinot Noir grapes coming in at Mumm
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Article on bringing in Mumm's first grapes from the Press Democrat.

Will 2013 make great wines? Too early to know.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Wine ingredients

It's just grapes and yeast right? Not even close.

Making wine can be pretty simple in theory. Grow some grapes. When they have enough natural sugars squeeze out the juice and add yeast to convert the sugar into alcohol. If that's what you think you may as well throw in the young maiden stomping the grapes that becomes your wine.

Wine is a food product. There are lots of chemicals that can be added at various stages. The most common and well-known is sulfur used as a preservative. It's naturally occurring in grapes actually, but more can be added. Sulfur is used in many food products. It's gotten a bad rap because a few people have allergic reactions to sulfur so wine bottles are labeled "contains sulfites."

There can be chemical sprays in vineyards as on any food product. Sugar can be added in some parts of the world, acids in others. There are chemicals to adjust aromas, color, clarity and tannins. It's apparently become semi-common to add water in California to bring down alcohol levels. In 2008 in Mendocino and northern Sonoma Counties, especially, there were smokey traits because of large forest fires early in the season. It seems some folks were able to remove this from their wines--not sure how. During the harvest for the rough 2009 growing season one highly-regarded winemaker, to remain nameless, declared it "the vintage of better winemaking through chemistry."

So some of this isn't necessarily bad for you, like adding sugar or water, but many consumers would probably like to know what they're ingesting. There's a (small) push on to get wines labeled with what exactly goes into a bottle of wine. Winery owners are fearful of some backlash. This has also led to a small number of "natural" wines on the market, but the term "natural" is unregulated (unlike "organic" which is).

Bonny Doon Winery (always a rebel) puts ingredients on their wine labels. Ridge Vineyards recently announced they will do the same. The truth shouldn't hurt.