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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Generalizing about California wine styles

Like these generalizations:
  • California Chardonnay is oaky and buttery.
  • California Zinfandel is all sweet red fruit with heat from too much alcohol (or is pink)!
  • California Merlot is cheap, undistinguished crap.
  • Great Cabernet must be $100+ and from Napa Valley. 
  • California wine never will be as good as French. Chablis, Bordeaux, and Burgundy are better.
Unfortunately lots of people believe in many of these generalizations. I assume because that's what they've read from some wine "expert" or from a limited selection of California wines available to them at home.

Why each of these statements isn't quite true:

California Chardonnay is oaky and buttery

This was a trend that peaked in the '90s as many popular California Chards were full of oak and butter flavors. Some producers, such as Kendall-Jackson, Sonoma Cutrer, and Rombauer make a ton of money with this style. And they still make it pretty much the same way for their loyal followers.
A Chardonnay that tastes like grapes
instead of oak!
Image from

The '90s were a long time ago in California wine trends. Now many are made with more neutral oak or stainless steel to lessen that characteristic. The secondary fermentation that gives the butteriness is done partially or not at all. There are more labels of Chardonnay done in this restrained style, but by volume found on most store shelves Chardonnay still leans towards the oak and butter flavors.

I find many visitors surprised when they taste the more typical California Chardonnay found in most wineries. Many will say, "I don't like Chardonnay" until they taste it and say, "Oh, but I like this one."

California Zinfandel is simple red fruit and high alcohol

Another trend that seems to be dying back fortunately. Much of California Zin isn't the over-the-top high alcohol fruit bomb, but what happens is the ones winning awards are. Why? On first sip in a judging these soft, fruity wines are really nice. A half a glass later they are not so nice (to me anyway). So for the minority of wineries that chase after gold medals this was the way they went and these people get the press.

There are many examples of the more restrained, "old school" Zin from folks like David Coffaro, Dry Creek Vyds, Nalle, Preston, Ridge, Seghesio, Storybook Mountain, etc.

There's nothing wrong with the big fruit and high alcohol Zins if that's what you like, but that isn't the only style available. It's just the style you hear more about.

California Merlot is junk

Merlot got a bad rap through no fault of its own. It got popular in a hurry after The French Paradox revealed possible health benefits of red wine. Merlot was where everybody turned and producers had to play catch-up to meet the new demand leading to a lot of blended Merlots made out of some pretty mediocre grapes.

But actually California has always made some pretty nice Merlot. A few of the producers are Duckhorn, Gundlach-Bundschu, Larkmead, Pride Mountain, and Shafer. There are lots of good Merlot from the Columbia Valley of Washington. Merlot is also one the the best bargains out there in under $20 wines. Try Alexander Valley Vineyards, St. Francis and Sebastiani.

Top California Cabernets cost over $100 and are from Napa Valley

Looking through a recent Wine Spectator pretty much all the Cabs receiving 90+ points were very expensive and from Napa. So you can see how so many wine drinkers equate Napa Valley with the best Cabs. Napa does put out some great ones, but they aren't all so expensive and all the great ones aren't necessarily from Napa. Sonoma County's Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Rockpile, and Sonoma Valley's hillside vineyards are other prime Cabernet growing regions as is part of Washington state. You'll find lower prices in these areas compared to Napa.
Never had a Cabernet from Rockpile?
You're missing something!
image from

Within Napa Valley there are many great Cabs at more reasonable prices. A few of these are from Beringer, Hall, Heitz, Markham, Raymond, Smith-Madrone, and there are many others.

From Sonoma County a few are Alexander Vly Vyds, B.R. Cohn, Clos du Bois, Hanna, Rodney Strong, and Simi and there are a bunch more. Many of these Sonoma County Cabernets can be found selling in the $20s and $30s.

California wine isn't as good as Old World wine

This one has been tossed around for decades--ever since California was first seen as competition for France. California grows the same grapes, but has a different climate, usually different soils, and doesn't grow or process the grapes exactly the same as the Old World. That doesn't make California wines inferior; just different. The comparison was going to happen, of course, but you'd think after the Judgement in Paris almost 40 years ago people could get over the "Old World is better" stuff.  But some still think since France was first then all wine should taste like theirs. 

You may have an overall favorite style and lean more towards one of the other. Nowadays you'll find a number of New World wineries making wine in more of an Old World style and you'll find Old World wineries making New World style wine.

As always, buy what you like and at a price you are comfortable with.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Vineyards and the environment

Sometimes the top cash crop shouldn't always win out. In Sonoma County nearby Artesa Winery, owned by the Spanish Codorniu Group, has been fighting for years to clear cut a large parcel of Sonoma Coast land for grape vines. Many folks aren't happy.

News story from NPR

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Wine Float

No, not like this. Unfortunately.
No, not like a root beer float though you might want to try a float with a semi-sweet rosé sparkling
wine and let us know how it turns out.

Speaking of semi-sweet sparkling wine Stella Rosa Wines will have a float in the next Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena. KC and the Sunshine Band will be on the float singing some of their 40 year old songs such as "That's the Way I Like It."  Don't know about you, but I can't wait!  It's the first ever wine-themed float in the Rose Bowl Parade. I don't know why it took so long! Yes, I'm being a bit sarcastic.  :)

News story

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Four reasons to visit Sonoma County in November

1. The crowds are gone. September and October are still busy as folks visit at harvest time. Somehow, magically, the traffic slows way down November 1st. 

2. Special events: 
Wine & Food Affair in northern Sonoma County. 
Annual Holiday Open House in Sonoma Valley. 

3. The weather is usually pretty good. You can get some of those early winter rains in November, but that's most likely going to be at the end of the month. Most days are very pleasant for the better part of the month (the average high temperature in Santa Rosa is 67 in November). Perfect for wine tasting. Also, the cooler weather across the country makes it safe to ship wines home.

4. The beauty of the vineyards in November.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Mid-October in Dry Creek Valley (photos)

Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, October 2013
Click on photos to enlarge

Vineyard in the south end of Dry Creek Valley

A sea of vines!
From Passalacqua Winery in mid-valley

From Passalacqua

From Yoakim Bridge in the northern part of the valley

Several wineries in Sonoma County are set up for self-guided vineyard tours. One of these is Mauritson Winery in central Dry Creek Valley.

Some raisined grapes left on the vine after harvest

40 year old zinfandel

Cabernet clusters left after picking

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Seasons in the vineyards

Photos of the different seasons in Sonoma County vineyards.
Click on a photo to enlarge

Winter is the season of dormancy and pruning off last season's wood. Pruning determines how much growth you get for the next two years.

Late winter in Sonoma Valley

As the soil warms new buds swell and shoots begin to grow. Bud break is when growers worry about frost damage to the tender green growth. Flowering follows in late spring.

Early spring in Russian River Valley

Summer is about the growth of the grapes then ripening (sugar production).

Summer in Bennett Valley

Late summer and early autumn is the time of harvest. All the work and decisions in the vineyards  for the past year pay off now -- with hard work and decisions in the cellar.

Autumn in Dry Creek Valley

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ten things you should do on your visit to Sonoma County

Following are a few items every visitor should experience. As you can see it'll take more than a couple days to work your way through the list, but it's worth multiple trips if that's what it takes!

Drink Champagne
Okay, we can't call it Champagne, but visit Gloria Ferrer, Iron Horse, or J Winery for some bubbles.

Visit a hilltop winery to experience the view
Paradise Ridge and Sbragia are the best, but Armida, Gary Farrell, Gloria Ferrer, Iron Horse, Stryker, and Twomey aren't bad either.

Watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean
The Sonoma Coast has unrivaled views. Just remember some evenings, especially in mid-summer, can be foggy. While you're waiting for sunset go horseback riding, look for whales, fly a kite, or visit a Russian fort at Ft. Ross.
The last California mission -- in Sonoma

Visit the redwoods
The old growth sequoias in Armstrong Redwoods State Park can be 300 feet tall and over 1,000 years old.

Walk around the town of Sonoma
The central plaza is bordered by numerous stores, restaurants, wine tasting rooms, and history.

Visit Sonoma Raceway
aka Infineon or Sears Point
Check their schedule (and the schedule for the Russell Racing school) and see if anything is going on.

Visit a brewery
Yes, Sonoma County has some of the top breweries in the country.

Relax at a spa
Spend a half-day getting pampered.

Sample artisan cheese
Southern Sonoma and northern Marin Counties have a cheese trail.

Check out the local art
Every town seems to have at least a half dozen art galleries plus several wineries display artworks.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Sonoma County Harvest Fair 2013

Sonoma County's Harvest Fair is on the first weekend of October every year. It's main focus is to showcase local wines. There's a judging of nearly a thousand wines the week before with the gold medal winners poured over three days. Optionally, the wineries can pour other medal winners besides the golds. There were almost 200 gold medal winners to choose from. I barely scratched the surface.

Following are the wines I tasted grouped by my preference listing the winery, the wine, price and medal received. Note there can be several categories for any one type of wine, for instance, Zinfandel under $25, Zinfandel $25-35, and Zinfandel over $35, each having Best of Class or Double Gold winners. Double Gold means all judges unanimously gave it the gold.

Just the opinion of one person, of course, and I may have had a bit of palate fatigue. Luckily, there were also local beers available to help refresh the ol' taste buds.  :)

The Best
A great wine!

Davis Bynum Pinot Noir 2011 Jane's Vyd Russian River Vly $40 Best of Class
Davis Family Pinot Noir 2011 Starr Ridge Russian River Vly $50 Gold
Estate 1856 Cabernet Bordeaux Blend 2010 Sonoma County $36 Best of Class, Sweepstakes
Estate 1856 Cabernet Bordeaux Blend 2011 Sonoma County $36 Double Gold
Matrix Zinfandel-Petite Sirah 2011 Russian River Vly $32 Best of Class
Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Brother's Ridge Vyd Alexander Vly $75 Gold
Trentadue Petite Sirah Port 2011 Alexander Vly $25 Best of Class
Wellington Victory (Bordeaux) 2008 Sonoma County $60 Gold


Ashton Syrah 2007 Ashton Vyd Sonoma Mountain $49 Gold
Cazadero Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Bei Ranch Sonoma Coast $59 Double Gold
Clos du Bois Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Alexander Valley $28 Double Gol
Davis Family Pinot Noir 2011 Soul Patch Russian River Vly $50 Gold
Deerfield Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Sonoma County $30 Bronze
Dutcher Crossing Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Taylor Dry Creek Vly $45 Gold
Forchini Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Dry Creek $32 Best of Class
Forchini Zinfandel 2011 Reserve Old Vine Dry Creek Vly $28 Gold
Imagery Syrah 2010 Dragonleaf Sonoma Mountain $39 Gold
Mathis Grenache 2010 Sonoma Valley $30 Best of Class 
Matrix Petite Sirah 2011 Bacigalupi Vyd Russian River Vly $32 Gold
Mazzocco Zinfandel 2011 Pony Dry Creek Vly $38 Gold
Mazzocco Zinfandel 2011 Pony Reserve Dry Creek Vly $52 Gold
Pezzi King Zinfandel 2011 Serracino Vyd Dry Creek Vly $50 Double Gold
Rodney Strong Symmetry Red Meritage 2010 Alexander Valley $60 Gold
Selby Malbec 2008 Alexander Valley $34 Double Gold
St Francis Merlot 2010 Behler Sonoma Valley $45 Best of Class
Thirty-Seven Malbec 2010 Sonoma Coast $46 Best of Class
TR Elliott Pinot Noir 2011 Queste Russian River Vly $44 Double Gold

Very Good

Alexander Valley Cyrus (Bordeaux) 2009 Alexander Valley $65 Silver
Arrowood Syrah 2008 Saralee's Vyd Russian River Vly $30 Gold
B.R. Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Olive Hill Sonoma Vly $55 Gold
Cazadero Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Bei Ranch Sonoma Coast $49 Gold
Clos du Bois Cabernet Franc 2010 Alexander Valley $40 Gold
Clos du Bois Marlstone (Bordeaux) 2010 Alexander Valley $50 Gold
Davis Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Sonoma County $60 Best of Class
Geyser Peak Petit Verdot 2010 Foothill Block Collection Alexander Vly $28 Best of Class
Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee (sparkling) 2005 Carneros $32 Gold
Imagery Pallas Estate Red 2010 Sonoma Valley $65 Gold
Matrix Pinot Noir 2011 R Buoncristiani Vyd Russian River Vly $48 Double Gold
Matrix Pinot Noir 2011 Reserve Nunes Vyd Russian River Vly $56 Gold
Mazzocco Zinfandel 2011 Briar Dry Creek Vly $29 Double Gold
Pedroncelli Sangiovese 2011 Alto Vyds Dry Creek Vly $16 Best of Class
Trentadue Zinfandel Port 2011 Alexander Vly $25
Wilson Zinfandel 2011 Molly's Vyd Dry Creek Vly $36 Gold
Wilson Zinfandel 2011 Nolan Dry Creek Vly $40 Gold


Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Signaterra 3 Blocks Sonoma Vly $50 Double Gold
Benziger Pinot Noir 2011 de Coelo Quintus Sonoma Coast $75 Gold
Breathless Blanc de Noir (sparkling) Sonoma County $30 Sweepstakes
Carol Shelton Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Rockpile Reserve $50 Gold
Christopher Creek Petite Sirah 2008 Reserve Russian River Vly $39 Best of Class
Davis Family Barn d'Or (red blend) 2011 Sonoma County $35 Gold
de Lorimier Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Preston Ranch Alexander Vly $52 Gold
Foppiano Port 2010 Russian River Valley $40 Silver
Forchini Papa Nonno (blend) 2011 Dry Creek Valley $25 Silver
Francis Ford Coppola Syrah 2010 Reserve Dry Creek Vly $36 Best of Class
Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs (sparkling) Carneros $22 Double Gold
Gloria Ferrer Brut Rose (sparkling) 2008 Carneros $42 Gold
Keating 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Montecillo Vyd Sonoma Vly $48 Gold
Matrix Pinot Noir 2011 Nunes Vyd Russian River Vly $42 Gold
Mayo Rhone-The Gypsy 2009 Sonoma County $40 Gold
Mazzocco Zinfandel 2011 Beasley Dry Creek Vly $34 Gold
Mazzocco Zinfandel 2011 Seaton Dry Creek Vly $52 Double Gold
Mazzocco Zinfandel 2011 Serracino Dry Creek Vly $52 Gold
Mazzocco Zinfandel 2011 Sonoma County $26 Double Gold
Michael Pozzan Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Sonoma County $15 Best of Class
Pezzi King Zinfandel 2011 Harris Kratka Vyd Alexander Vly $42 Gold
Pezzi King Zinfandel 2011 Row 26 Dry Creek Vly $50
Sebastiani Barbera 2009 Sonoma Valley $26 Best of Class
St Francis Claret 2010 Sonoma County $20 Gold
Sequana Pinot Noir 2011 Russian River Vly $38 Best of Class
Shiloh Road Pinot Noir 2012 Sonoma County $18 Best of Class
Soda Rock Zinfandel 2011 Wentworth Sonoma County $42 Double Gold
Wilson Zinfandel 2011 Estate Dry Creek Vly $68 Gold
Woodenhead Pinot Noir 2010 Wet Kiss Russian River Vly $52 Gold

The Rest

Karah Pinot Noir Karah Vyd Sonoma Coast $16 Gold
Saini Zinfandel 2011 Pear Block Dry Creek Vly $38 Double Gold
Sunce Mourvedre 2011 Montgomery Vyd Russian River Vly $28 Gold
Wilson Zinfandel 2011 Sawyer Vyd Dry Creek Vly $50 Gold
Windsor Vyd Carignane 2010 Reserve Alexander Vly $20 Gold

Best deals

Clos du Bois Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Alexander Valley $28
Michael Pozzan Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Sonoma County $15 
Pedroncelli Sangiovese 2011 Alto Vyds Dry Creek Vly $16  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Wine terms you may misinterpret

Some of these terms refer to making wine and others to the important part, drinking it, but all are obscure and need defining to make your wine enjoyment better.

Aggressive wine - It's threatening and you have a right to shoot.

Appellation - The mountains where the hillbillies live in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Backbone - What you wish your boss had.

Bottle shock - An over $60 wine.

Bud break - In the spring the new shoots come out so the grape grower celebrates with a Bud break.

Bunghole - No, it's not what you think.

Corked - You opened the bottle up. Unless it was a cheap screw cap wine then the term is Screwed.

Cultured Yeast - Yeast that grow up listening to Classical Music. If you still listen to 90s rap you'll want to stay away from wines made with Cultured Yeast.

Downy Mildew - A new fragrance of fabric softener.

Fining Agent - The person who gets you a contract for your next fining gig.

Fleshy wine - A plump and pudgy wine. Think Kirstie Alley.

Hang Time - Alright ladies, keep it clean.

Harmonious wine - The Beach Boys of wine.

Jug Wine - Alright guys, keep it clean.

Late Harvest - Grapes picked after 10 pm.

Reverse Osmosis - Opposite of Forward Osmosis.

Wine thief - Someone who steals wine from a barrel with a glass tube.

Memorize these and you're halfway to being a first level sommelier!