Norton Safeweb

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Choosing Napa over Sonoma Valley

I have more than one blog post here dissing Napa and saying Sonoma is better. Hey, that's my job!  Okay, it not really my job as I don't get paid for this. Anyway, one of the professional wine bloggers recently wrote about his opinion as to why Napa Valley is a better wine vacation spot than Sonoma Valley.

Tom Ware's Daily Fermentation: Ten Reasons to Choose Napa Valley over Sonoma Valley

I could point out the crowds and cost, but I won't. :)  I will say that when you speak of Napa Valley you are really talking about Napa County as the Napa Valley appellation takes in almost the entire county. When you're talking about Sonoma Valley you are speaking of maybe ten percent of Sonoma County.

In all fairness to Tom Ware he also wrote about why you should choose Sonoma over Napa Valley.

Have fun deciding where to visit!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Today's alcohol news

Booze news in the good ol' U.S.A.

1. The annual Oktoberfest in Snowmass, Utah may have their alcohol license revoked meaning brats without beer. Why? Because it's Utah. Lets have a groan from the Germans. Story

2. Oklahoma City is considering licensing a gun range to serve alcohol. Why? Because Oklahoma has the most liberal gun-ownership laws, but it's interesting they're real stringent on alcohol laws. I can't see any potential problem here. Story

3. Americans will spend $11 billion on beer this summer. I'm doing my part. Story

4. In a surprising bit of sanity from a government body Ohio will start allowing free samples of beer and wine to be given out. This way you can actually try before you buy! Story

5. Oregon Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in "beer" cans is coming. Will it be any good? Someone else try it and let me know. Story

6. Sonoma County visits China to convince them to buy Sonoma wines. Why not? Everybody else thinks the Chinese will buy anything and everything. Story

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

American Wine -- Some Stats

California dominates American wine production accounting for almost 90% of all wine made, and is home to about one-half of all wineries. Washington, New York and Oregon are next in wine production with another 7% of all American wine. That leaves the other 46 states to divide up the remaining 3%. In number of wineries after California is Washington, Oregon, New York, and Virginia. Overall, the U.S. is 4th in wine production behind France, Italy and Spain. China is number five.

Within California, Napa and Sonoma are the most well-known wine regions. What you may find surprising is that each is responsible for only about 4% of the state's total wine production. The entire North Coast region that includes Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Solano and Marin counties is home to over half of the state's wineries.

By acres of wine grapes planted the top California counties are San Joaquin, Sonoma, Monterey, Napa, Fresno, Madera, and San Luis Obispo. San Joaquin, Fresno and Madera are in the Central Valley; the others are coastal areas. More telling, you'll find the tons of grapes harvested per acre to be much smaller in place like Napa and Sonoma compared to the Central Valley (quality over quantity).

In California there are over 4,000 wineries and 6,000 grape growers on 500,000 acres of grapes. About two-thirds of all the wine sold in the U.S. is from California. Every year about 15 million visitors come to the various wine regions in the state. Disneyland is the #1 tourist destination; wine tasting #2.  Which would you rather be doing this summer?

image from

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Wine Country Cottage for Sale!

There's this little place nestled in the Mayacamas Mountains between Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley. It's got vineyards, olive trees, and something like a dozen bathrooms in the main home.

In 2012 Robin Williams put his wine country villa up for sale at $35 million, but no takers. It's now listed at only $29.9m. There's a pool, three safe rooms (guess he's paranoid), a theater, and a viewing tower for checking out the little people down in Napa Valley. The main home is 20,000 square feet sitting on 600-plus acres--about 50 acres of that is claimed to actually be accessible. So yeah, it's kinda remote, but if you're living there you'll have your people run the errands while you entertain any of your friends that can find their way up.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What will surprise you on a visit to Sonoma County

If you haven't been to this corner of the world before here are some things that may surprise you on your first trip to Sonoma (or Napa) County.

You may find lodging, restaurants, gasoline, and sales taxes to be a bit higher than at home. That depends on where you're visiting from as I expect someone from NYC will find things a bit inexpensive while someone from Topeka may gasp at a hundred dollar restaurant bill.
Most wineries charge for tasting so if your plan is to get in as many tastings as possible over a three-day period, for instance, it's gonna cost you. If this is an issue look for 2-for-1 offers. If you have a Visa Signature card check their website.
In Napa Valley two people can ring up $200 just in tasting fees in a day! 

You can buy a day pass that covers tasting fees
image from

It can be cold in the winter and can be very hot in the summer or autumn though those weather spells are fairly rare. What will surprise is the daily variance in temperatures. A thirty or forty degree swing in temps from day to night isn't unusual. That's why you should dress in layers as the morning starts off cool, then it warms quickly mid-day before cooling rapidly in the evening.
We have micro-climates. This means that ten miles away it can easily be five or ten degrees warmer or cooler. Another reason to keep those layers of clothing handy.
I can pretty much guarantee you that you'll be cold sometime during your stay. 

Check out the fog layer moving inland straight off the chilly Pacific

Number of wineries
There are a lot of wineries with tasting rooms, literally hundreds. For every one winery you've heard of there are a couple dozen small wineries you've yet to discover because their wines never make it as far as your hometown.The fun is in exploring new wines.

Variety of wines available
It's not just oaky Chardonnay and Cabernet. There's a world of wine types out there--blends of Syrah and Grenache plus Zinfandel everywhere. You might just find you prefer Sauvignon Blanc to Chardonnay or discover that Sangiovese is your perfect dinner wine.

Variety of styles of wines
How can a couple hundred winemakers all make Cabernet so different? It's fun to see the variety available. It's a whole lot more than what you probably see on the store shelf at home. Why? Because there are a couple big boys that control most of the market once you get out of wine country.

Lack of nightlife
Yes, there isn't much. It's still mostly an agricultural region. You can find some live theater and music, but this ain't L.A. or N.Y. or even Austin. Besides, after a day of wine tasting and a big dinner how late do you plan on staying up?

Evening in Sebastopol. Looks purdy excitin', huh?

This ain't L.A., but there are only a couple main arteries so they can be full of weekday commuters and weekend visitors from the Bay Area. US 101 is the only north-south route available from San Francisco so it can be really crowded. State Highway 12, especially in the south end of the county, can be full of visitors Friday afternoon through Sunday. Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) will be full on warm weekends.

Beauty of the Pacific Ocean
This ain't L.A., so you don't really get to lay on the beach or swim because it's often too cold, but it is one of the most beautiful places around especially near sunset. You've seen photos, but like the Grand Canyon, they don't do it justice--you'll want to see it in person. Remember where I talked about the weather above--it can be mighty chilly along the coast.

Sonoma Coast: It's bigger in person
Plus you have the sounds of the waves crashing, the birds and the seals

Friday, May 16, 2014

Guys' Weekend in Sonoma County

What to do with your guy friends in the Sonoma wine country?  Well, wine tasting is the obvious choice, but what else is there?


Sonoma County is craft beer heaven!

Tell me this doesn't look like a good time
At Russian River Brewery
Image from

The big guys are Bear Republic, Lagunitas and Russian River Brewery. There are many other small ones around, too, from Carneros Brewing to Woodfour.

There are numerous beer bars specializing in local micros such as Heritage House and Sprenger's in Santa Rosa.

If you're going for food, too, try Dempsey's, Hopmonk or Third Street Aleworks. Lagunitas offers brewery tours.


Check into a a sea fishing charter out of Bodega Bay.


There are lots of courses including Bodega Harbour, Northwood, Oakmont, and Windsor.

Graton Casino

This is a new, Vegas style casino. Lots of restaurants. If you get tired of losing, Hooters isn't too far away.

Kayaking the Russian River

Bicycle tours, hiking (flat lands, hills, or beach, your choice), canoeing and kayaking (river, lake, or ocean).


Sonoma Raceway--check their events schedule as there are pro and amateur events to watch. Wednesday night drags are open to the public.

Thoroughbred horse racing comes to the Sonoma County Fair in the summer.


Guys like beef so where do you get it?
Stark's for the fancy (more expensive) steaks.
Cricklewood for steaks in a bit funkier, locals atmosphere.

For burgers the top choices are:
In N Out - The CA chain burger joint. If you are from out-of-state you should go because when you get home someone will ask if you've had an In N Out burger.
Mike's at the Crossroads - A basic diner in Cotati with what many call the best burger around.
Flipside - Great Santa Rosa downtown location for a burger and a beer.
Healdsburg Bar & Grill - Outdoor seating for a burger and a beer.

Wurst Grill - More of a sausage place that definitely qualifies as guy food (in Healdsburg).

For the other guy food, pizza, try La Vera, Old Chicago, Red Grape, or Rosso's.

Happy Hour
The weekday after work crowd at Jackson's
Image from

Stark's, Jackson's and Jack & Tony's in Santa Rosa. Spoonbar in Healdsburg is considered the best place around for cocktails. BTW, Jack & Tony's full name includes "Whisky Bar" so if that's your thing this is the place to go as they have a couple hundred available.

Wine Tasting

If you are a group of eight or more call the wineries in advance to see if it's okay. You will probably need a reservation.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

California's newest AVA will sell on its name

An American Viticultural Area, or AVA, is a gov't-approved name for a wine grape-growing area--Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley are examples. The newest one is in SoCal, actually in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. It's called Malibu Coast.

To most of the country Malibu Coast brings to mind images like this:

Or even this:

The Malibu Coast AVA contains the Santa Monica Mountains and is bordered by the beaches on one side and L.A. sprawl on the other. There are two smaller existing AVAs within this new one: Malibu-Newton Canyon and Saddle Rock-Malibu. No, I've never heard of either and, in fact, didn't realize there were even wine grapes planted there. I mean, who ever heard of vineyards on the beach!?

Although the total acreage is small there are 52 wineries in the new Malibu Coast appellation. Maybe Pamela Anderson owns one?  You may have to search to locate a wine from here, but if you find one let us know if it tastes like salt spray and suntan lotion.

Update: L.A., in typical "LA-ness," wants to ban more vineyards in this new appellation. Guess they don't want to risk pushing out a future strip mall. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Summer 2014 Events in Sonoma County

Following are some of the bigger wine-focused and non-wine events during June, July, and August in Sonoma County, California for 2014.

Summer in Sonoma Valley

Wine events 


28 Grill 116
Grilled food and wine at about a dozen wineries along Highway 116. Info


4  Many wineries are closed. Others will close early for the holiday.
All American Zin Day
Grilled meats and Zinfandel in Dry Creek. Info


1-3 West of West Wine Festival
It's all about west Sonoma County cool climate wines with winemaker dinners, seminars and a tasting. Info
29-31  Sonoma Wine Country Weekend
The big event is the Taste of Sonoma on Saturday. Info

Non-wine events
Although you'll find wine available at most of these. 


30-7 (begins May 30)  Healdsburg Jazz Festival.
7   Beerfest. Northern California's micro-beer scene.
12-15 Peggy Sue's All American Car Cruise. Hundreds of old cars highlighted by a Saturday evening cruise in downtown Santa Rosa.
13-14 Country Summer music festival at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
13-14 Huichica Music Festival at Gundlach-Bundschu Winery.
14-15 Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic. You have to get up early for this one!
15  Father's Day car show at Julliard Park in Santa Rosa.
18-22 Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma. Evening concerts, ugly dog contest, destruction derby.
20-22 NASCAR at Sonoma Raceway. If you're going to Sonoma or Napa this weekend stay away from the racetrack--there will be huge traffic jams.
21-22 Russian River Rodeo in Duncans Mills.
27 Broadway Under the Stars live theater in Jack London State Park. Performances into early September.
28-29 Sonoma Lavender Festival in Kenwood. Local wineries will be pouring.


    Beginning July 1st independent league professional baseball comes to Sonoma. For special seating  you can choose the Cline Cellars Club or the Lagunitas Lounge.
4  Lots of fireworks shows on or near the 4th. The big one is at the county fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. 
12 Wine Country Big Q. Barbecue, beer, and music sponsored by the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
19 Rivertown Revival, Petaluma. Music, art, food, boat races.
20-21 Civil War re-enactment in Duncans Mills.  
24-Aug10 Sonoma County Fair. Rides, corn dogs, concerts and thoroughbred horse racing.
25-27 NHRA Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.


1-10 Sonoma County Fair continues.
23  Taste of Petaluma with local wines, beers, foods along with art and entertainment.
23-24 Bodega Seafood, Art and Wine Festival
22-24 Indy Cars at Sonoma Raceway.


Tuesday: Farmers' market in Sonoma. Evening concerts in the Healdsburg plaza
Wednesday: Morning: farmers' market in Santa Rosa at the Vets Building and at the Wells Fargo Center. Evenings: Santa Rosa downtown market, Wines & Sunsets at Paradise Ridge Winery, Petaluma Farmers Market.
Thursday: Windsor farmers' market and concerts.
Friday: Cloverdale Farmers' Market and music in the plaza
Saturday: Farmers' Markets in Sonoma, Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Healdsburg. Music in Montgomery Village, Santa Rosa.
Sunday: Music in Montgomery Village, Santa Rosa. West End Farmers' Market, Santa Rosa

Gundlach-Bundschu, Moshin, and St. Francis Wineries all offer movie nights during the summer. Check their web sites for info.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Understanding Chardonnay

Visitors to the California wine country are more confused about Chardonnay that any other variety. Except for those who gasp when discovering Zinfandel is red.

The problem rests with what you see on the store shelf at home. You know, the oaky, buttery Chards. I won't name names, but the initials might be KJ. Why did this happen to poor Chardonnay? Well, if you don't make it right in the first place the fruit tastes kinda crappy. As it turns out Chardonnay grapes don't really have much flavor so you want to add some with French oak barrels, lots of malolactic fermentation (you might have to look that up), and leave in some residual sugar. Voila! You have the perfect drink for your mom and her friends. And for 22 year old Caucasian females.
Yes, they are drinking Chardonnay!

You have to wonder why Chardonnay became the number one selling wine if the grapes aren't really all that good. You have to wonder why every winery has to make a Chardonnay. Maybe because it's a cash cow. Maybe because the French do. Maybe to attract the 22 year old females.

Chardonnay has been called California Cougar Juice. Sometimes you can even find a female named Chardonnay (I guess Mercedes sounded too hoity-toity). When you're number one in sales you get no respect, just like McDonald's. If you think about it Chardonnay is kind of like McDonald's in that you always know what you're getting and it won't be very good.

A few years ago California winemakers were getting yelled at by the wine critics for making lousy Merlot so they quit making it rather than try to make good Merlot. More recently they were getting yelled at for their oaky, buttery, sweet Chardonnay. So some started making "naked" Chardonnay. Cute name. Too bad it tastes like Grenache Blanc. If you've never had Grenache Blanc count yourself lucky.

Q: What are the best uses for Chardonnay?
A. To attract young females
B.  To attract middle-aged females looking for younger men
C. Sparkling wine 

So what are your alternatives to California Chardonnay?

Why drink it - California winemakers try to make it like CA Chardonnay so you won't have to get used to something new.
Why you shouldn't - Nobody can pronounce it. Goddamn French, who gave them the naming rights?

Chenin Blanc
Why drink it - "Everybody" would like to see Chenin Blanc return to popularity.
Why you shouldn't - Nobody drank it when it was available. There's probably a reason.

Grenache Blanc
Why drink it - No reason
Why you shouldn't - I already told you

Gewurztraminer or Riesling
Why drink it - The cheap stuff will put hair on your chest. Granted, this isn't a positive for everybody.
Why you shouldn't - The Germans tried to take over the world. You want to reward them for that?

Sauvignon Blanc
Why drink it - It's cheap
Why you shouldn't - You know what it smells like when you wake up in the morning and find out the cat has peed on the carpet?
Pinot Gris
Why drink it - If you don't really like wine, but prefer sweetened ice tea or Diet Pepsi.
Why you shouldn't - It tastes like watered down cat pee--I mean Sauvignon Blanc.

Red wine
This is, of course, your best alternative.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What is Old Vine Zinfandel?

Sonoma County is famous for old vine Zinfandel. Amador County, in the Sierra Foothills, is also well-known for old vine Zin. What makes it "old vine," what makes it special, and why does it usually cost more?

  Origins of Old Vine Zinfandel

Zinfandel came to California in the last half of the 19th century. Amazingly, many vineyards dating back to that time still exist. The oldest producing documented vineyard is the Grandpere (grandfather) Vineyard in Amador County dating from 1869.

  Growing Zinfandel

Old vines in Sonoma Valley
Old vineyards weren't trellised, but head pruned instead, meaning they were essentially grown as small round bushes. Zinfandel has a habit of ripening unevenly so on one vine you'll have green, under ripe grapes along with shriveled up, overripe, raisiny grapes. Under ripe can taste herbaceous and acidic; overripe tastes sweet and pruney. Neither trait is good in large quantities. Head pruning leads to more uneven ripening than with trellised grapevines (one of the reasons for trellising is to promote even ripening).

Modern trellised vines
As grapevines get older, generally past 30 years, the production starts to fall off naturally. By the time they get to what is considered "old vines" you have less tonnage of grapes per acre than with a younger vineyard. This can be down to about 1-1/2 tons per acre, with a younger vineyard about five tons. Less yield means higher prices.  Lower yields also mean more concentrated fruit flavors--this is what lovers of old vine Zins are looking for.

  Old Vine Zinfandel

There is no legal definition for "old vine." Most will say it should mean at least 50 years old, but with old vine Zin usually commanding a higher price you can probably find some 25 year old Zinfandel labeled as old vine. Hint: If an old vine Zin on a store shelf is selling for ten bucks assume it isn't from old vines. You may also see "ancient vines" on a label. I guess this means extra old or maybe just extra expensive. Some will say ancient means 75 or 90 years old, but again, there's no legal definition for these terms.

Note that the term "reserve" on a wine label has no legal definition either.

Most old vine Zinfandels come from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, from Amador County in the Sierra Foothills, and from Lodi in the Central Valley.

Dry Creek Valley -- Zinfandel Central!
Old vineyards are usually a mix of vines--in age and in grape varieties.  Over time some vines become diseased and are replanted. Many old vineyards were field blended as it was common to inter-plant Zinfandel along with grapes like Petite Sirah, Aliconte Bouschet, and Carignane. Sometimes the grower may know what else is in the vineyard and approximate percentages, sometimes not.

So if you're drinking a Zinfandel from 90 year old vineyards that's probably when the vineyard was first planted. A certain percentage has been replanted over time and it may be blended with other grape varieties.

  Zinfandel Styles

Zin comes in two major styles:
  • The traditional, more restrained version is generally lower on fruit flavors, higher in acid and tannin, can be elegant, and has some aging potential. Examples: Kenwood Vineyards, Storybook Mountain Vineyards, and Ridge Vineyards.
  • The style that's become popular in the last 20 years is ripe, bold, big on sweet, soft red fruit flavors, and often higher in alcohol. Examples: Mazzocco Winery and Wilson Winery.
Of course, not everyone is pigeon-holed in one of these two categories as many try for somewhere in between.

  Why Zinfandel is Special -- and old vine Zin is Even More Special

Zinfandel is a fantastic wine. It's incredibly versatile because the different styles can be used for differing occasions. Zin is great with many foods--my favorites being Italian (or anything that's tomato-based), grilled meats from chicken with a spicy BBQ sauce to burgers to sausages. Many Zins are great just by themselves without a food accompaniment.
Kick-ass Zinfandel

Old vine Zinfandels add their own excitement. The wines should be rich, dark, concentrated, and full of berry flavors. Sometimes jammy and spicy are characteristics of an old vine Zin. Sometimes pruney is too--something I don't care for in wine. That's a trick in growing and making Zinfandel--getting lots of nice bright fruit flavors without going over-the-top into pruney. The first time you have a really well-made old vine Zinfandel the experience will be memorable.

You don't see old vine Chardonnay or old vine Cabernet around (at least I never have). As I said earlier, the production of vines falls off after about 30 years and the economics aren't there to keep producing wine from older vines. Old vine Zinfandel is the exception because of the demand for what older vines brings to Zin. There's the marketing aspect too, as "old vine Zinfandel" sells for more just as "reserve Cabernet" does.

  Choosing a Zinfandel

When shopping for a Zinfandel there are many good growing regions in California besides the previously mentioned Dry Creek Valley, Amador County and Lodi. Also, look for Alexander, Russian River, Sonoma, and Napa Valleys, plus Rockpile and Paso Robles. Also, when I shop I look at the alcohol level listed on the label figuring over 15% means fruit bomb, 14-14.5% means more restrained (this isn't guaranteed, but it's another data point in making a selection). However, most old vine Zin will be in the 15%-plus range.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Short History of Kenwood Vineyards

Kenwood Vineyards was recently in the news as it's being sold (again). Yes, again.

For 60-some years it was the site of the ol' Pagani Brothers Winery. This was a place where you'd take a jug in and for a dollar you could fill it with either white or red. In 1970 brothers Mike and Marty Lee, brother-in-law John Sheela, plus a few moneyed investors bought the winery and some vineyards. Many thought they were crazy to attempt a premium winery at this location--and in Sonoma County of all places! Robert Mondavi had only recently established the now iconic Mondavi Winery "over the hill" in Napa Valley.

Kenwood Vineyards. Kind of a rustic looking place.
Their wines could be called rustic, too.
Image from

Kenwood Vineyards steadily grew during the 70s, 80s, and 90s under their leadership. In 1996 Gary Heck of Korbel bought part ownership then took full control in 1999 as the Lee brothers and Sheela retired with a nice chunk of change. Mike Lee stayed on as head winemaker for awhile.

In 1997 they had purchased the rundown Valley of the Moon Winery making significant improvements in the facility and the wine. So when Heck bought Kenwood he also got Valley of the Moon. Heck also purchased Lake Sonoma Winery to create a nice little wine empire. Kenwood has doubled its production (if not its quality) under Korbel to 600,000 cases a year.

Gary Heck is getting close to retirement age and has wanted to get back to running just the Korbel Champagne and brandy business. Valley of the Moon and Lake Sonoma were sold off not too long ago.
Artist Series Cabernet
from the "old days"

Just a little over two years ago Korbel announced they had sold Kenwood Vineyards to Banfi Vintners, a wine company out of New York. That deal fell though at the last minute when Banfi discovered Kenwood didn't actually have the vineyards, or more importantly, the production facilities to make anywhere near 600,000 cases of wine. Many of the grapes came from Gary Heck's vineyards and most of the wine production was at other of Heck's facilities. Without the ability to actually make the wines Banfi backed out just before signing off on the purchase.

A couple weeks ago Gary Heck announced the sale of Kenwood Vineyards to Pernod Ricard, a French wine and spirits corporation. They already own Mumm Champagne. After the purchase they said the usual corporate stuff about "wanting a winery of considerable scale" and "wanting to be a big player in the American premium wine market." More telling is they want Kenwood to be a larger player nationally--that sounds like increasing production even more.

Also, on "corporate stuff" they are requiring all Kenwood employees to reapply for their current job. Personally, I had to do that several times while working at H-P. It seemed incredibly stupid and it never exactly made the employees feel great. So I will guess taking care of the people that got Kenwood where it is today will not be part of their core strategy. Pernod Ricard probably has a better idea. (Yes, you might note the sarcasm here).

Kenwood Vineyards appears to be on its way to becoming another corporate winery. Of course, this deal could always fall through, too, as the sale won't close until June.  Update: The sale was finalized on May 21st.

As a long-time Kenwood fan I hope they keep the reasonable prices, increase the quality of some products, and keep the employees happy. In my experience happy employees make good products.