Recently, Sip! Mendocino in Hopland played host for the release of the 2012 vintage of Coro Mendocino wines, the uniquely Mendocino Zinfandel-centric cooperative wine program, with the 2012 Coro Mendocino blends of Barra of Mendocino, Brutocao Cellars, Clos du Bois, Golden Vineyards, McFadden Farm, Parducci Wine Cellars, Ray’s Station, and Testa Vineyards each being unveiled.

2012 was a terrific vintage for reds, a warmer than average year, with near perfect growing conditions, yielding richly flavorful wines. Each winery produced their own version of Coro, with notes from each of the participating winemakers during pre-bottling blind barrel tastings to guide them.

If there was a ‘typical’ Coro in 2012, which there wasn’t, it would have been made with 50 percent Zinfandel, 17 percent Petite Sirah, 16 percent Syrah, 6 percent Carignane, 4 percent Primitivo, 3 percent Charbono, 2 percent Barbera, 1 percent Grenache, and 1 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend — that’s what I get when I averaged the components for each of the eight wines poured at Sip.

All of the wines were tasty, with the stellar fruit of 2012 showing well. Each individual winery will sell their wines at about $40 through their tasting rooms, and all eight will be available for purchase at Sip in Hopland, beginning in the next week or so. Look for the Coro wines grown organically to show up at the Ukiah Co-op soon.

McFadden will release the 2012 Coro at their Annual Farm Party on Saturday, July 11 (call 744-8463 for tickets), and each of the other seven wineries will find the right time and way to release their new wine. When you see them, taste them, you’ll enjoy each.

One of the folks I work with invited me to join her large family on the coast for a camping weekend, which allowed me the opportunity to see some of our county’s more rural, and beautiful, areas; that, and I got to enjoy lots of delicious authentic Mexican food, paired with McFadden’s Late Harvest Riesling, 2011 Coro and award winning Sparkling Cuvee Brut. Thank you to Juanita Plaza and all of her family for making me feel so welcome.

While on the coast, I visited Sally Ottoson’s Pacific Star Winery, located on the west side of Highway 1, 12 miles north of Fort Bragg at the 73.58 milepost. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Pacific Star is a popular destination for tourists visiting Mendocino’s coast.

Picnicking on the Mendocino Coast is possible at Pacific Star Winery. (Photo by John Cesano)

Picnicking on the Mendocino Coast is possible at Pacific Star Winery. (Photo by John Cesano)

When I visited, Holly poured me six wines for a $5 tasting fee. The glassware was INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine). The egg shape bowl of INAO glassware is designed to fully enhance the concentration of aroma and allow the wine to be swirled without spilling. Noted wine critic Robert Parker called INAO glasses, “The finest inexpensive tasting glass in the world,” and I was pleased to taste from them.

Holly attends to several tasters at family-friendly Pacific Star Winery. (Photo by John Cesano)

Holly attends to several tasters at family-friendly Pacific Star Winery. (Photo by John Cesano)

First up was the 2013 Pacific Star Orange Muscat, a sweeter, but not too sweet at less than 1 percent residual sugar, white wine. An apricot and floral nose gives way to a mouth of ripe stone fruit, herb, and mown hay.

Sally holds her white wines in stainless steel, rather than oak, for brighter fruit expression, and many of the wines are poured through an aerator to further accentuate the fruit notes.

2012 Pacific Star Viognier — grassy peach and pear with a touch of astringency

In 2006, Sally found there were fault lines under the property, and that was the inspiration for Pacific Star’s NV It’s My Fault, a non vintage red wine, made from a “secret blend” of six varieties. Sally used to make a Coro wine, so this is like that…sort of.

The nose gave up notes of raspberry, cola, herb, cherry, blackberry, mint and light oak. The tannins were a little tight, the oak was evident, and there were sweet tart black cherry, raspberry and darker berry notes in the mouth taste.

2012 Pacific Star Tempranillo, with fruit from Lake County, chocolaty, blueberry, and blackberry, with supple tannin, was really nicely balanced, and had good mouthfeel.

Holly told me that Charbono was Sally’s flagship wine, and the grapes came from Eddie Graziano’s farm in Calpella.

2012 Pacific Star Charbono — Really lovely wine nose of deep full multi-noted blackberry, cassis, oak, and dusty cocoa earthiness. The mouth showed medium firm tannin, and there was plenty of aging potential for this wine. I picked up berry fruit, earthiness, leather, and tart blackberry.

2012 Pacific Star Cabernet Sauvignon — I picked up slightly greener, more vegetal, vinous notes with herb supporting a nose of raspberry and blackberry fruit, and a mouth of bright, slightly tart blackberry.

On the coast, Pacific Star Winery is a lovely place to visit, taste wine and enjoy a picnic lunch. Don’t fret if you show up without food, as there are packages of meats, cheeses and crackers available for purchase in the tasting room.

I finished up my weekend with a visit to see Crispin Cain and Tamar Kaye at their American Craft Whiskey Distillery to pick up a bottle of their two-year Rye Whiskey as a gift for my stepfather. While there, I sampled the latest barrel sample of the Bourbon, cut from last tasting’s 60 percent alcohol to 41 percent with collected rain water, and it tasted great. I also tasted their son Devin Cain’s 1850 Cocktail, based on the Sazerac, and ended up buying a bottle for myself.

In 1838, the first cocktail was created in New Orleans featuring French brandy and Peychaud bitters, and by 1850, that first cocktail, the Sazerac, had achieved popularity. Over the years, the recipe has been tweaked, with the addition of absinthe and sugar, and American rye whiskey replacing French brandy.

I love Devin’s 1850, and I love the absinthe ice cream that Crispin and Tamar make for events, but I don’t like absinthe. Crispin told me that similarly most folks would not drink straight vanilla, but enjoy vanilla ice cream, as both vanilla and absinthe are powerfully flavorful on their own. Thanks for helping me understand my own confusing and seemingly contradictory tasting experience.

Devin, like his father, worked at Germain-Robin Alambic Brandy and learned the art and science of distilling there before making use of that knowledge to craft the craft whiskeys, gins, vodkas, liqueurs, absinthe and bourbon I have enthused about here previously.

Devin’s version of the 1850 cocktail, or Sazerac, is informed by his time with Alambic, tasting aged and new brandies, and noting their differences; Devin’s 1850 Cocktail is made from newer brandy aged and colored by French oak barrels, made more flavorful by infusion of sassafras, vanilla, dried fruit, and other exotica, and clear wheat whiskey instead of the rye I expected, plus absinthe in a 1 part per 500 parts ratio.

Creating each individual element, and then finding the perfect blend of those elements, involved nearly 100 tasting trials over the course of a full year, but that level of attention to detail is something that I have come to expect, and appreciate, from everything coming out of the family’s American Craft Whiskey Distillery.

This is a perfect cocktail, a whole glorious bottle of perfectly blended cocktails, and an improvement on the standard Sazerac, bringing a welcome memory of my last New Orleans visit home to Ukiah.



John on Wine –
Spotlight winery: Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery

This piece was originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery tasting room is located in a beautiful farmhouse on Highway 101, 3.5 miles north of Hopland, between Hopland and Ukiah.

I visited last during Barrel Tasting 101 in January and was so impressed with the hospitality and passion extended by Amanda Moore that I called in advance to request that she pour for me when I visited recently.

The Farmhouse at Jaxon Keys Winery and Distillery. (Photo by John Cesano)

The Farmhouse at Jaxon Keys Winery and Distillery. (Photo by John Cesano)

Jaxon Keys is one of eight Wilson Artisan Wineries. Ken and Diane Wilson have an empire of seven Sonoma County wineries, and Jaxon Keys is their sole Mendocino County winery. For me, Jaxon Keys stands out stylistically from the other Wilson properties, and not just because of geography. By and large, I find most Wilson owned wineries produce highly concentrated wines, massive in weight, and high in alcohol; they are similar, winery to winery, for most of their wines I have tasted. The notable exception has been Jaxon Keys, where winemaker Fred Nickel has taken a very Mendocino County approach to his winemaking, allowing the variety, vintage, and vineyard to speak more clearly, with the resulting wine feeling less a manipulated product and more a unique experience. Fred has recently retired, and I personally hope that the stylistic difference continues, but the big Wilson style is very popular and garners many wine competition medals, so change is likely.

A bigger change is in the tasting room itself, where a staff change has been made. If you read my column regularly, you know that I focus almost exclusively on positive notes, but I will say that I was not alone in feeling subjected to naked hostility when interacting with one Jaxon Keys employee in the past, often enough that I chose to make my visits infrequent. That singular employee issue has been addressed by the team at Wilson and I was met by the happiest tasting room staff that I have encountered anywhere in a very long time on my recent Jaxon Keys visit.

I arrived to find that Amanda Moore had prepared a charcuterie plate with cheese, salami, crackers, and a chocolate for me to enjoy with the wines to be tasted. Amanda and I were joined by Stacie Lynch and Ashley Murphy at various times, and the three wanted to make clear that everyone is invited to come back and experience a new level of hospitality; Amanda put it perfectly, “we invite you to come any time, bring your friends, and we will absolutely spoil you.”

Amanda Moore, tasting room hostess with the mostest. (Photo by John Cesano)

Amanda Moore, tasting room hostess with the mostest. (Photo by John Cesano)

Okay, changes dealt with, here’s what you expect from a tasting room feature from me: parking my car, the view is gorgeous with vineyards, flowers, cypress, oak and maple trees, a horseshoe pit, and that incredible farmhouse with a wraparound porch, 38 steps up from the parking area, with red Adirondack chairs, wrought iron chairs and tables with red umbrellas, wicker furniture with red cushions, riddling racks and upright barrels. I was very fortunate to have visited on a Second Saturday in Hopland, wine club pick up day, and Brocca jug wine program – a red wine made pretty much following the Coro wine protocol – refill day. Although very busy, the staff gave me an inordinate amount of attention and made every guest feel just as welcome and special. Leilani and Tyler of Sonoma Coast Shuckers were also on hand, and brought me both a flavorful Korean inspired taco and a plate of mixed oysters, both barbecued and raw, with different preparations, all delicious.

Amanda shared that she loves pouring Fred’s wines at Jaxon Keys because of her, “passion for estate wines,” and that she, “likes knowing where my grapes come from and how they’re farmed.”

Jaxon Keys grapes are, “conventionally farmed using drip system irrigation, frost control sprinklers, and of the 1,580 acres, slightly under 125 are planted to grapes,” Amanda told me. Jaxon Keys also has a small organic farm that provides vegetables, fruit, and herbs for various dinners, from the annual wine club dinner – this year a luau – to a seated catered harvest dinner and a crab feast, both open to the public after offered to wine club members.

The wines: 2014 Jaxon Keys Estate Sauvignon Blanc $18 – Brilliantly clear white color. Amazingly abundant fruit on the nose, really beautiful round fleshy sweet guava and grapefruit. gooseberry juniper. The mouth was dry grapefruit, guava, herbal, and juniper. Terrific balance of fruit to acid. Bright and lively. Lingering finish.

2013 Jaxon Keys Estate Barrel Fermented Chardonnay $22 – This wine spends a few months in new oak, then the rest of its life in neutral oak barrels. 100% barrel fermented with malolactic. Pale gold in color. Nose of clove, light oak, and citrus zest. Mouth of apple, toast, vanilla, pear, pie baking spices, and citrus. Medium body. Finish of clean light oak and apple, leading to sweet citrus zest.

2014 Jaxon Keys Estate Viognier $22 – Expected release date: July 1, but if you are reading this then head on in to the tasting room and beg for a taste and you will buy it; this is a spectacular Viognier. Brilliant clarity of color and incredibly clear discernible fruit. Complex, layered nose of lychee, white peach, apricot, white pepper, grass and herb. Oh my, what a mouth! Spicy, round, fleshy ripe peach flavors balanced by acidity. Mouthwatering and food friendly, you’ll want this for your 4th of July celebrations.

2012 Jaxon Keys Estate Grenache $22 – Coming off about just 2.5 acres, this is “the lightest approach to Grenache,” Amanda has ever seen. I concur; it is light, but tasty. Bright in color. Light rose, cherry and berry nose, and flavors of dry herbed cherry. A really versatile food wine.

2012 Jaxon Keys Burnee Hill Dry Creek Valley $28 – A Meritage Bordeaux variety blend wine of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot. Gorgeous rich dark color. Nose meets color, rich and dark, blackberry, plum and currant. Terrific mouthfeel, round and delicious berry driven fruit with a supple earthy cocoa component.

2012 Jaxon Keys Cabernet Sauvignon Preston Vineyard Wilson Dry Creek Valley $40 – Deep purple color. Deep extracted berry fruit nose. Plenty of aging ability. Remarkably soft tannins. Nicely balanced; often a wine of this depth ends up over tannic, over oaked, overly high alcohol, but this is super drinkable.

Jaxon Keys also distills brandy, so consider picking up a bottle or two of their different offerings when you visit.

I had a wonderful visit at Jaxon Keys, and I happily plan to return soon. I have sent tasters at my tasting room on to Jaxon Keys this week, after they finish up at McFadden. I highly recommend to you that you visit the new and improved Jaxon Keys, where happiness and hospitality will make your wine tasting a pleasure.

Jaxon Keys is open daily from 10:00am to 5:00pm. For more information, visit or call (707) 462-6666.


John On Wine – Local wine events you’ll want to attend

This piece originally ran in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, June 18, 2015

The 2012 vintage of Coro Mendocino wines will be first tasted at a 2012 Coro Release Dinner on tonight, June 18th from 6:00-8:00pm at SIP Mendocino in Hopland. A catered light dinner will be served at the event. Tickets are only $10 each. Stop reading this column, pull out your cell phone, and call (707) 744-8375 right now to secure your tickets before they are sold out.

For those who just stumbled upon my column anew, Coro Mendocino is a wonderful wine program that allows any Mendocino County winery to make a Zinfandel blend, supported largely by historic heritage field blend varieties, in a cooperative manner, with a who’s who of the best local winemakers working together to help make each individual winery’s Coro blend the best wine it can be, through multiple blind tastings of barrel samples and a pass/fail blind quality assurance tasting.

The wineries that produced 2012 vintage Coro blends are Barra, Brutocao, Clos du Bois, Golden, McFadden, Parducci, Ray’s Station, and Testa.

With each of the Coro wines priced at about $40, this is an opportunity to be among the first to taste effectively $320 in wine, and enjoy a light dinner, all for just $10. Why are you still reading and not calling?

June 19-21 is the time to visit the wineries and (oh yes!) distilleries of Redwood Valley.

The 24th annual Father’s Day weekend A Taste of Redwood Valley event kicks off with the Winemaker Dinner at Barra of Mendocino on Friday, June 19 from 6:00-9:00pm. Start off with reception tastes from Barra/Girasole, Brown Family, Frey, Graziano, Giuseppe/Neese, Silversmith, and Testa, then move on to a dinner featuring and antipasto buffet of Italian meats, cheeses, olives, and fresh baguettes; salad with grilled eggplant and roasted red peppers; Italian style roulade served with a red wine gravy and fresh crusty bread for dipping, and a creamy three cheese tortellini; grilled fresh summer garden vegetables; and for dessert a cannoli served on a chocolate drizzle with a dollop of whipped cream accompanied by late harvest wines, ports, and liqueurs and spirits from Germain-Robin and Craft Distillers. Dinner tickets are $65.

On Saturday, June 20 and Sunday, June 21, from 11:00am-5:00pm each day, a $35 ticket includes wine tasting, gourmet foods, logo glass, gift drawings, musical entertainment, and more at Barra/Girasole, Brown Family, Craft Distillers, Frey, Germain-Robin, Graziano, Giuseppe/Neese, Silversmith, and Testa. New this year: local restaurants and caterers will be at each winery location, serving up delicious Italian food, and vying for your votes in a pasta cook-off, as part of the included ticket price event experience.

Save $10 on the three day package, and attend the dinner and two days of tasting fun for just $90.

Wine, food, and spirits. For more information, visit or call (707) 485-0322.


On Friday, June 26, the Funky Dozen will be in concert at Nelson Family Vineyards between Ukiah and Hopland. The Funky Dozen blends fun and funk to keep people on the dance floor all night long. Doors open at 5:30 and the music starts at 6:00pm. Tickets are $13 in advance and $20 at the door.

The site is casual so please bring blankets and chairs. Enjoy delicious, handcrafted wines and local beers, along with a tasty dinner prepared by Ingram Eatz Barbeque. Of course, pleased do not bring outside alcoholic beverages.

On Saturday, June 27, make your way to Lakeport’s Library Park for The Winefest, a celebration of Lake County’s amateur wine & beer makers running from 1-5pm. There will also be premium Lake County wineries, music, food, raffles, an auction, and art & craft vendors; and the event benefits the Lake County Symphony and Youth Orchestra.

Tickets are just $20 in advance, or $25 at the event. For vendor information and advance ticket outlet info, call (707) 277-8172 or (707) 277-7076.

I will definitely be attending, as I get to serve a wine judge for the event’s wine competition. If you are a home winemaker, and you make a wine from Lake County grapes, call the numbers above and get your wine entered into the competition.

My favorite wine event of the year is less than one month away, and tickets are already selling well. Now is the time to sign up for the Annual McFadden Farm Party, set for Saturday, July 11, from 5:00pm-late.

The annual party at McFadden Farm is set for Saturday, July 11

The annual party at McFadden Farm is set for Saturday, July 11

I run the McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room for Guinness McFadden, but I would buy a ticket to this event every year even if I didn’t work for McFadden.

Held the second Saturday of July every year, which makes planning for our wine club members from around the country easy, this is not your ordinary wine club dinner event.

First, it is open to the public, not just wine club members, and second, this is not a mere winery or vineyard, but a gorgeous, secluded, 500 acre bio diverse farm and there is so much more to do than just eat and drink…although I do love to eat and drink.

Folks show up early in the day and set up tents or park campers and RVs, then play in the Russian River beneath the spill way of Guinness’ hydroelectric plant, wander the farm taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of a real working organic family farm, from our grass fed beef to fresh herb gardens and grape vineyards to fruit orchards. Guests check in at around 5:00pm and enjoy a wine & appetizer reception, and some choose to tour the farm with Guinness. There is a sit down BBQ feast, featuring Magruder pork and lamb and farm to table vegetable, salad, and dessert dishes plus more McFadden wine and bubbly throughout. The Kelly McFarling Band will perform, and dancing goes late into the night. Most years, someone jacks an iPod into the sound system, so music and revelry can continue into the early morning hours. Overnight camping is encouraged and a fun time is had by all.

Tickets are all inclusive and priced at $85 for the general public, $70 for McFadden Wine Club members (limit two per membership), and $20 for children 12 and under.

Visit or call the McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room in Hopland at (707) 744-8463 to get your ticket before they are gone.


John on Wine – Spotlight Winery: Phillips Hill Winery

This piece originally ran in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on June 11, 2015

On visits to the Anderson Valley, I have asked tasting room staff what wineries I should visit. While tasting Pinot Noir at the press tasting session during the recent Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival; and sommelier Chris Sawyer and I had a conversation about his favorite local producers in the area. Over and over again, people in the know mention Toby Hill and his Phillips Hill Winery as a ‘must visit’ and ‘must taste’ spot in the Anderson Valley.

Surrounded by green, the Phillips Hill sign welcomes visitors travelling on Hwy 128 between Philo and Navarro

Surrounded by green, the Phillips Hill sign welcomes visitors travelling on Hwy 128 between Philo and Navarro

Out past Gowan’s Oak Tree Fruit Stand and the turn off to the Philo Apple Farm, on Highway 128 between Philo and Navarro, is Phillips Hill, a winery and tasting room in a converted and historical apple drying barn facility.

The old apple drying barn is the new Phillips Hill winery tasting room site

The old apple drying barn is the new Phillips Hill winery tasting room site

When I arrived, the smell of freshly cut grass from the picnic area mixed with other outdoor scents; floral, herbal, wide open natural outdoor perfume of vineyard and orchard greeted me. I walked through the aroma room, where collected materials help prepare visitors for some of the scents they may encounter in the wines, then ventured upstairs to taste through Toby’s current releases in his beautifully appointed, rustic yet refined, tasting room.

The aroma room at Phillips Hill

The aroma room at Phillips Hill

Toby is an artist, both with canvas and wine. A native Californian and grandson of a grape grower, Toby earned a BFA from the California College of the Arts which has allowed him to more fully appreciate the efforts and artistry of grape growing. The name of his winery, Phillips Hill, honors both of his paternal grandparent’s family sides, as does his marriage of art and wine. Each label of the Phillips Hill Winery portfolio of wine is a miniature reproduction of an original abstract composition created by Toby.

Toby Hill's original artwork graces each Phillips Hill wine label

Toby Hill’s original artwork graces each Phillips Hill wine label

In 1997, Toby purchased land in the Mendocino Ridge appellation, overlooking the Anderson Valley, and made his first wine using 2002 Pinot Noir grapes grown on Oppenlander Vineyard, nearby in Mendocino’s Comptche. Ten vintages later, all five of the expanded line up of 2012 Pinot Noir wines made by Toby were rated 90-94 Points by Wine Enthusiast magazine, two were designated Editors’ Choice wines, and another designated a Cellar Selection wine.

Toby Hill

Toby Hill

Informed by his trained and professional experiences as a fine artist, Toby crafts wines of intent; pursuing elegance and ethereal power, wines with delicacies, subtleties, and nuances. Using native yeast, less intervention, believing less is more, Toby wants each wine he makes to be a genuine expression of the land the grapes come from, terroir driven wines, spending time he feels essential to making great wine in each vineyard his wines come from as they are being grown, respecting each farmer’s art.

Never content with yesterday’s accolades, always striving to make better wines, Toby has made pilgrimages to Burgundy, France, and has invited respected French winemakers to work with him at Phillips Hill Winery, all in an effort to craft “old meets new world” style wines, with flavors of clear discernible fruit notes offering a beginning, middle, and an end, hinged together in harmony and balance.

I first tasted Toby’s wines with his fiancé and partner, Nastacha Durandet at last year’s Anderson Valley barrel tasting event, and promised myself that I would return to write this piece. Natacha was born in France’s Loire Valley and her passion for wine tasting and collecting began early, leading her to work in some of France’s finest resorts alongside esteemed master sommeliers. Natacha’s background in culinary arts has allowed her to bring an elevated experience to tastings at Phillips Hill Winery for visitors and Muse Cru wine club members.

Natacha wears many hats at Phillips Hill Winery, overseeing the tasting room, wine club, marketing, and events, including sumptuous Muse Cru wine club dinners that take advantage of an on property commercial kitchen. If Natacha is in the tasting room when a Muse Cru wine club member visits, she will prepare a cheese and charcuterie plate, featuring seasonal terroir driven French, Spanish, and Italian cheeses, chosen to naturally pair perfectly with Toby’s terroir driven wines. Cheese and charcuterie plates are also available for purchase by the public and can be enjoyed with wine at picnic tables. Natacha also serves up four Muse Cru wine club dinners annually; Farm to Table, Dungeness Crab, Harvest, and Mushroom themed dinners.

Together, in everything they do at Phillips Hill Winery, Toby and Natacha strive to provide the best visceral experience for their customers; whether visiting their tasting room or picking up a bottle of wine in their local wine shop.

Inside the Phillips Hill tasting room

Inside the Phillips Hill tasting room

Toby poured a half dozen of his wines for me:

2013 Phillips Hill Chardonnay Ridley Vineyard Anderson Valley $30 – Really gorgeous wet stone minerality leading to clean pure Chardonnay apple, pear, and peach fruit.

2014 Phillips Hill Gewurztraminer Valley Foothills Vineyard Anderson Valley $20 – Deep honey, nectarine and apple, fleshy round mouthfeel, lemon peel citrus. This is an Alsatian styled dry Gewurztraminer, and I love it.

2013 Phillips Hill Pinot Noir Boontling Anderson Valley $28 – Candied cherry, cranberry, and cola mark this bright, round, wine.

2013 Phillips Hill Pinot Noir Anderson Valley $40 – Yeah. Multi layered, light Pinot funk, oak, tannin, dried herb mixed with strawberry and cherry fruit.

2012 Phillips Hill Pinot Noir Oppenlander Comptche Mendocino $45 – Toasty, deeper, rich, really nice round mouthfeel, earthy spicy notes come out with air, phenomenal balance, integration, seamless. A lovely touch of barnyard perfume. Darker blackberry meets rich chocolate covered cherry.

2012 Phillips Hill Tempranillo Lake County $35 – Great food wine, big gripping masculine married to feminine, massive depth, a treat.

Every one of these wines is a winner, and made more delicious for having been poured on the property with Toby as my guide. Reflecting on the three Pinot Noir wines, Toby shared, “that’s one of the great things about buying fruit from different vineyards; these are terroir driven, and I want that different personality to be expressed.” Mission accomplished.

A modest $5 tasting fee is waived with purchase, and case orders receive a 20% discount. Phillips Hill Winery is located at 5101 Highway 128, Philo. For more information, call (707) 895-2209 or visit

John on Wine – The Last Supper

This piece ran today, in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper, but likely with a few selected photographs. This online archive is richer for the photographic contributions of Bryan Elhardt and Tom Liden; thank you both. -John

The Baby Jesse (photograph provided by his father Bryan Elhardt)

The Baby Jesse (photograph provided by his father Bryan Elhardt)

Genesis: In the beginning, April 20, 2013, Chef Jesse Elhardt created a menu to pair with Greg Graziano’s wines for a wine club dinner at Crush Italian Steakhouse; Jesse said, “Let there be food”; and there was food, and Jesse saw that the food was good.


Chef Jesse Elhardt’s last dinner cooking at Crush Ukiah was the Chef’s Winemakers Dinner featuring Graziano Family of Wines (photograph by John Cesano)

From that dinner, the Chef’s Winemaker Dinner series at Crush was born, and begot nights that featured Chef Jesse’s food creations paired with the wines of Saracina (July 2013), Barra of Mendocino and Girasole (August 2013), Bonterra (November 2013), 2010 Coro Mendocino (December 2013), Yorkville Cellars (April 2014), Cesar Toxqui Cellars (November 2014), McFadden Farm (January 2015), 2011 Coro Mendocino (February 2015), and finally ending where he began, with a Chef’s Winemaker Dinner featuring the wines of Graziano Family of Wines on May 20, 2015 and Greg and Trudi Graziano. Chef Jesse also squeezed in a sold out wine club only dinner for McNab Ridge earlier that week.

St. Gregory Sparking Wine for appetizers and Monte Volpe Pinot Grigio for the First Course (photograph by Tom Liden)

St. Gregory Sparking Wine for appetizers and Monte Volpe Pinot Grigio for the First Course (photograph by Tom Liden)

The Graziano Family of Wines dinner was the last supper Chef Jesse would cook at Crush in Ukiah. Jesse will continue with Crush, in Chico and San Diego for a short while before embarking on a 2,600 mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Jesse’s parents, Bryan and Lynne Jackson Elhardt, and Crush owners Doug and Debbie Guillon attended this very special wine & food event.

Chef Jesse talks with John Cesano and Graziano manager Mike Williams before dinner (photograph by Bryan Elhardt)

Chef Jesse talks with John Cesano and Graziano manager Mike Williams before dinner (photograph by Bryan Elhardt)

The incredibly fortunate attendees met in the bar area to enjoy winemaker Greg Graziano’s 2010 St. Gregory Cuvee Trudi (named for his wife) Brut Rose, paired with both a wonton cup filled with Prawn & Scallop Ceviche, with saffron, tomato, red onion, jalapeno, cucumber & parsley; and Fried Colossal Olives stuffed with a mixture of cooked Italian sausage, ricotta, and Gorgonzola, soaked in buttermilk then coated with flour, semolina, and ground risotto, which were incredibly delicious, with a meaty, nutty texture, and a brine saltiness that bordered on addictive, and paired brilliantly with Greg’s phenomenally delicious sparkler, my favorite of all he has yet released.


The amazing fried colossal olives and Greg’s equally amazing sparkling brut rose (photograph by John Cesano)

Restaurant manager Kevin Kostoff shepherded the diners into the banquet room to find seats, and then welcomed all assembled to a very special evening, introducing our servers Ben & John, beverage manner Nick Karavas, and owners Doug and Debbie, before turning things over to Jesse, who upon announcing, “this will be my last wine dinner in Ukiah,” was greeted with crying and gnashing of teeth.

Chef Jesse breaks the news that this is his Last Supper at Crush Ukiah (photograph by Tom Liden)

Chef Jesse breaks the news that this is his Last Supper at Crush Ukiah (photograph by Tom Liden)

Jesse took bread, gave thanks to Greg and Trudi, and broke the bread, gave it to the patrons, and said, “Take this, all of you, and dip it in Greg’s organic olive oil.”

Winemaker Greg Graziano (photograph by Tom Liden)

Winemaker Greg Graziano (photograph by Tom Liden)

The first course paired Crispy Veal Sweetbreads with white bean puree, Neuske Applewood smoke lardon, tempura brownbutter caper berry, and chive stick; Insalata Mista with gem lettuce, arugula, grilled radicchio, marinated heirloom tomato, cucumber, marinated artichoke, and red onion; and Bacala All’Amalfitana four day saffron constantly changed water soak, salt cod mini cakes with Yukon gold, housemade bread crumb, lemon aioli, and parsley oil; with Greg and Trudi’s 2013 Monte Volpe Pinot Grigio from 20 acres of Potter Valley vineyards, 100% fermented in neutral French oak barrels, made in the style of the great wines of Friuli.

Insalata Mista - mixed salad (Photograph by Tom Liden)

Insalata Mista – mixed salad (photograph by Tom Liden)

The second course was where Jesse performed his miracle with the fishes. Roasted Snake River Farms Pork Belly and Pork Shoulder Ragu on top of brown butter and aromatics ‘giant’ gnocchi with a reduced Reggiano cream, fried frico cheese for texture, and micro arugula to pair with Greg’s 2011 Enotria Barbera; and a Cedar Plank Wild Scottish Salmon, four pepper spice crusted, with a Petite Sirah reduction, porcini dust, morel, white asparagus, and hazelnut to pair with Greg’s 2011 Graziano Petite Sirah. Also served were Parslied New Creamer Potatoes with roasted red and yellow peppers, coppa, and baby peeled clip top carrots bathed in butter; and Triple Creamed Corn, of corn stock, corn pudding, corn kernel, chipotle compound butter, and micro cilantro.

Cedar Plank Salad, served with Petite Sirah; the miracle with the fishes by Chef Jesse (Photograph by John Cesano)

Cedar Plank Salmon, served with Petite Sirah; the miracle with the fishes by Chef Jesse (photograph by John Cesano)

Let me draw your attention to the miracle: Jesse paired fish with Petite Sirah, and pulled it of magnificently. Petite Sirah is big red wine. Fish is fish, and easily overpowered by big reds, but Jesse added layers of flavor to his Salmon, cooking it on a cedar plank, crusting it in four crushed peppers, glazed it in a reduction of Greg’s Petite Sirah with a touch of dried porcini mushroom dust, and then adding earthy morel mushrooms. The morels by themselves would have been a dish I would happily have enjoyed, and would order if on the menu; sautéed with white asparagus and toasted hazelnuts in butter, with salt and pepper. Building up the salmon, fortifying it, allowed it to pair brilliantly with Greg’s Petite Sirah.

John Cesano and Trudi Graziano (Photograph by Tom Liden)

John Cesano and Trudi Graziano (photograph by Tom Liden)

When supper was ended, before dessert was served, Jesse took a wineglass with 2011 Monte Volpe Tocai Friulano, Late Harvest Dolce Alexandra; again he gave thanks and praise; thanks to winemaker Greg and Greg’s wife Trudi Graziano, his parents Lynne and Bryan, and owners Doug and Debbie; and praise to the entire team of cooks and Crush’s new head chef Steve Lorenz, and then raised his glass, which was met by the crowd in a toast.

When the supper was ended, Jesse took the wine glass, gave thanks and praise (Photograph by Tom Liden)

When the supper was ended, Jesse took the wine glass, gave thanks and praise (photograph by Tom Liden)

Dessert was Monte Volpe Olive Oil Cake, apricot-currant compote, and a fresh ginger gelato with toasted almond crumb that Jesse said he was, “really excited about.” The cake, made from Greg’s olive oil, helped absorb some of the sweetness of his 43% residual sugar late harvest wine, while the fruit compote helped tie the two together. The gelato was a wonderfully delicious bonus, a last gift from Jesse to the fortunate witnesses to his last supper.

I have been fortunate, and have attended every one of Chef Jesse’s winemaker dinners for the public at Crush in Ukiah. While no one is irreplaceable, Jesse brought a high degree of creativity and passion to each dinner, producing different hand made pasta dishes, making uniquely different but always rich ragu sauces, turning ordinary vegetables into entree worthy dishes, and presenting playful and delicious desserts, always allowing the food to showcase the qualities of the wines they would be paired with. Jesse Elhardt is a talent that Ukiah will miss, but we all wish him the best in his new adventures to come.

This weekend as I write this and last weekend as you read this, The Press Democrat will host/hosted a trade and public tasting at The Barlow in Sebastopol, California featuring the highest scoring Gold Medal winners from this year’s wine challenge. Mendocino County’s winners were:

2012 Handley Cellars Pinot Noir Mendocino County — 98 Points and Best of Mendocino County

2013 Artezin Zinfandel Mendocino County — 97 Points

2013 Campovida Campo di Rossa Mendocino County — 96 Points

2013 Frey Biodynamic Merlot Redwood Valley — 96 Points

2013 Campovida Arneis Mendocino County — 94 Points

2013 Husch Pinot Noir Anderson Valley — 93 Points

2012 La Follette Chardonnay Mendocino Ridge — 93 Points

2013 Masut Pinot Noir Mendocino County — 93 Points

2014 Navarro Vineyards Pinot Blanc Mendocino County — 93 Points

2013 Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir Anderson Valley — 93 Points

2012 MacPhail Family Wines Toulouse Vineyard Pinot Noir Anderson Valley — 92 Points

2014 Navarro Vineyards Riesling Deep End Blend Anderson Valley — 92 Points

2013 Paul Dolan Vineyards Pinot Noir Potter Valley — 92 Points

2012 Handley Cellars Pinot Noir RSM Vineyard Anderson Valley — 91 Points

2014 Handley Cellars Pinot Gris Anderson Valley — 91 Points

2014 Handley Cellars Rose of Pinot Noir Anderson Valley — 91 Points

2012 Truscott Zinfandel Mendocino County — 91 Points

2012 Handley Cellars Pinot Noir reserve Anderson Valley — 90 Points

After attending the tasting for John On Wine and The Ukiah Daily Journal, with an intent to taste and write notes on each poured Mendocino County grown wine, next week’s column will be a review of these Gold Medal winners. Congratulations to each vineyard and winery involved. __________

Each year for the last 13 years, Lake County’s amateur wine makers and home brewers have gathered in June to offer the public tastes of their best efforts in the Home Wine and Beer Festival, and they’ll do it again this year on Saturday, June 27.  Along with the amateurs, many of Lake County’s leading commercial wineries and brewers will also sample their products, giving visitors the chance to taste and test some of the best beverages Lake County has to offer, all in one place at one time.

The event takes place from 1 to 5 p.m. at Lakeport’s Library Park, and also includes dozens of vendors offering arts, crafts, agricultural products and food.

The event is sponsored by the nonprofit Lake County Symphony Association as a fundraiser, and all proceeds go to support the group’s music activities, including the acclaimed Lake County Symphony and Youth Orchestras, as well as music teaching and scholarship programs.

Admission to The Winefest — the new and shorter name going forward — is $20 per person. Advance tickets are $20 at Cache Creek Winery Tasting Room, Don Angel Winery Tasting Room, EJ Video, Lake County and available at Wine Studio, Lakeport Chamber of Commerce at Vista Point, Lower Lake Coffee Company, Middletown Florist, Laujor Winery Tasting Room, Rosa d”Oro Winery Tasting Room, Steele Winery Tasting Room, Thornhill Tasting Room, Watershed Books, and Wildhurst Winery Tasting Room. Tickets will also be available at the event for $25. Each ticket includes a commemorative wine glass.

Most of the amateurs will have entered their wines and beers in advance for professional judging — I can disclose that I’m a judge this year — and results will be announced during the Festival.  In addition ticket holders will get the chance to vote for their favorites in the popular People’s Choice awards.

Since The Winefest is sponsored by a music organization, there will be music throughout the Festival provided by the David Neft Duo, as well as a performance by the Konocti Fiddle Club, and noted classical guitarist Travis Rinker. Winefest goers will also enjoy a major raffle and Silent Auction, produced by volunteers from the Symphony Association.

Children and leashed pets are welcome, although tastings are of course restricted to those 21 years and older.

Wine Submissions will need to be delivered the day of the event. A 750-milliliter bottle of each varietal to be judged must be delivered to the drop-off location at the tasting room of Bell Hill Vineyards at 125 Park St., across from Library Park and next to Biggs 155 restaurant. Please deliver your entries between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. the day of the event. Visit to download an entry form to bring with your submission.

Visit the same website to download a booth application if you would like to be a vendor at the event, and mail your completed application to Home Winemakers Festival at CLPA, P.O. Box 974, Lakeport, CA 95453.

For more information about Lake County’s The Winefest 2015, contact Ed Bublitz at


John On Wine – Recap of a great three day wine weekend

Last week, I mentioned that I was attending some wine events and promised a recap of tastes of the eighteen gold medal winning wines made using Mendocino County grapes that were at the Barlow on Sunday in Sebastopol for the 2015 Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge grand tasting.

Upon arriving, I was instantly reminded of Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s quote, “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force,” which could be paraphrased and shortened, “no plan survives first contact.”

At check in, my badge could not be found, but I was saved by fellow writer and wine ambassador Thea Dwelle who recognized me and secured two wristbands for me and my tasting companion, Susan Johnson. Thank you Thea!

List in hand, ready to taste the wines in a planned order, I found that the wineries were not alphabetically ordered, but by wine type, whites and bubblies in one group, light reds and blush wines in another, and finally big reds in a last group. The problem, for me, is that a number of wineries won medals for more than one wine type, and the significant crowds made the tasting I had planned nearly impossible.

Instead, I decided to put my notebook away and simply taste what I wished, and enjoy myself. That new plan was a smashing success as there was much to enjoy.

I lived and worked in the Sonoma County wine industry for far longer than I have lived and worked here in Mendocino County, and saw many friends; the event was very much like a reunion for me. The wines were top notch, as you might expect from a collection of gold medal winners, and the food was beyond good, the food was great. Special thanks to all of the wine judges, including Christopher Sawyer who shared some of his event photos for this piece.

Two Michelin Star Cyrus' chef Doug Keene with Foie Gras for Late Harvest and Caviar for Bubbly at The Barlow (photo by Christopher Sawyer)

Two Michelin Star Cyrus’ chef Doug Keene with Foie Gras for Late Harvest and Caviar for Bubbly at The Barlow (photo by Christopher Sawyer)

I tasted Foie Gras and Caviar from Michelin two star awarded chef Doug Keene, spectacular pork treats from Food Network celebrity Duskie Estes and husband John Stewart, salmon, truffled mac and cheese, pork belly, tuna tataki, and so much more. Every bite was an absolute delight but some were so intensely flavorful that finding a wine that could pair well was a challenge – a challenge I accepted.

Duskie Estes of Zasu at The Barlow (photo by Christopher Sawyer)

Duskie Estes of Zasu at The Barlow (photo by Christopher Sawyer)

Wines, well that’s why I attended, right? I loved Carol Shelton’s new 2014 Wild Thing Chardonnay, Mendocino County, with oak but not so much as to mask the abundant and flavorful fruit notes. Navarro’s 2014 Pinot Blanc and Campovida’s 2013 Arneis were also drinking great. Handley’s 2014 Rose of Pinot Noir was bright and flavorful, a good match for many foods, and their Best of Mendocino County awarded 2012 Pinot Noir was especially delicious with gorgeous cherry berry fruit and depth, matched to oak and herb. Campovida’s 2013 Campo di Rossa, a Rhone blend, and Masut’s 2013 Pinot Noir rounded out my day’s favorite local red tastes. I finished my day with a taste of the 2013 Merriam Vineyards Chardonnay, Bacigalupi, Native Fermentation $56, poured by the multi-talented Toni DiLeo, and was well pleased with the choice. Toni and I sold a 1994 Bacigalupi Chardonnay made by Carol Shelton many years ago, and it brought the event full circle for me, with ribbon and a bow.

Campovida's Sebastian Donoso with two Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge Gold Medal winners (photo by Christopher Sawyer)

Campovida’s Sebastian Donoso with two Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge Gold Medal winners (photo by Christopher Sawyer)


2015 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival (photo by Tom Liden)

2015 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival (photo by Tom Liden)

Before the Barlow event on Sunday, came 2015’s Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival. Once again, another amazing event put on by Mendocino County’s best organized appellation. I might be the largest cheerleader for inland Mendocino’s wine scene, but credit where credit is due, Janis MacDonald and her team at the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association do the very best job reaching out to the press, marketing and promoting, and staging first class wine events within Mendocino County. Kudos go to Janis, Kristy Charles, and all of the amazing volunteers, for another memorable and worthwhile event.

Pizza is served by Stone & Embers at Balo Vineyard's Welcome Dinner for the press (photo by John Cesano)

Pizza is served by Stone & Embers at Balo Vineyard’s Welcome Dinner for the press (photo by John Cesano)

The event kicked off for me Thursday night with a Welcome Dinner at Balo Vineyards. There were more wines than I could taste, more winemakers and winery owners than I could chat with, but I said my hellos and tasted some delicious wines. Favorites of the night included the 2014 Avenging Angel Pinot Noir Blanc, a 2013 Philo Ridge Viognier with Greg Nelson’s grapes, the 2012 Waits-Mast Wentzel Vineyard Pinot Noir, the 2012 Donkey & Goat Broken Leg Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2012 Williams Selyem Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir, and a 1994 Husch Pinot Noir which I would describe as ‘faded glory’, a wine from a great vintage, a little beyond its prime, but filled with memories of other wines from that year. The appetizers, salads and pizza by Stone & Embers were excellent.

Friday morning’s Tech Conference featured a look at the state of Pinot Noir by Glenn McGourty, who shared that Pinot Noir acreage in the state has doubled, at least, since 2000, and that the variety is the most valuable grown per ton, on average. Nancy Smith and Jennifer Carah from The Nature Conservancy returned to update attendees on water flow and proposed efforts to balance the needs of fish and humans in the Navarro watershed. Andy Walker discussed rootstock and Jean-Jacques Lambert talked about soil in the two tech sessions aimed well over my head, but undoubtedly of value to the vineyards and winery owners attending. My favorite sessions included a panel tasting of Pinot Noir produced from different soil types, another panel tasting focusing on various Pinot Noir wines produced using Charles Vineyard grapes, and the lunch session with various Anderson Valley Pinot Noir wines and the best conference food ever served at a tech conference, prepared by Boont Berry Farm. I’m a simple taster, and my favorite sessions involve wine and a story. My favorite quote of the day came from Bill Hill of Expression 39 wine, on terroir (soil and climate), “there are a few places in the world that make wines that are really interesting, there are places in the world that make wines that shouldn’t.” The day’s conference amply demonstrated that Anderson Valley is a place to make Pinot Noir.

Casual BBQ at Lula Cellars (photo by John Cesano)

Casual BBQ at Lula Cellars (photo by John Cesano)

That night’s Casual BBQ at Lula Cellars catered by The Q was a blast. Lots of people gathered to enjoy the best event BBQ food served at one of these events, fantastic wine, great heartfelt country folk music, and the company of one another.

Just some of the wines at the Press Tasting at Scarffenberger Cellars (photo by John Cesano)

Just some of the wines at the Press Tasting at Scarffenberger Cellars (photo by John Cesano)

Saturday morning, at 8:50 am, I started working through tasting wines, taking comprehensive notes for each, at the Press Tasting at Scharffenberger Cellars. I took over 2 ½ hours to taste through about 55 wines, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience as John and Linda Compisi and Christopher Sawyer were also tasting and there were great conversations and cross talk over wines being tasted.

My favorite wines of the press tasting, in reverse alphabetical order, were the 2012 Waits-Mast Pinot Noir, Wentzel Vineyard, Anderson Valley; 2012 Witching Stick Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir; 2011 Philo Ridge Vineyards Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley; 2013 Phillips Hill Anderson Valley Pinot Noir; 2013 Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir, Deep End Blend, Anderson Valley; 2012 Husch Reserve Anderson Valley Pinot Noir; 2012 Handley Cellars Pinot Noir, Helluva Vineyard, Anderson Valley; 2012 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir; 2012 Fathers & Daughters Pinot Noir, Ella’s Reserve, Ferrington Vineyard (not a consensus choice, light, but stand out interesting); 2013 Drew Pinot Noir Fog-Eater Anderson Valley; 2013 Bink Anderson Valley Pinot Noir; and 2012 Baxter Pinot Noir Anderson Valley (tasted at the Grand Tasting).

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival Grand Tasting wines (photo by Tom Liden)

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival Grand Tasting wines (photo by Tom Liden)

The Grand Tasting at Goldeneye Winery was indeed grand, with smiling winemakers pouring for smiling attendees. The smiles were easy to come by, bought with some of the best wine and food imaginable, from among many of the county’s best producers.

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival Grand Tasting food (photo by Tom Liden)

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival Grand Tasting food (photo by Tom Liden)

Tom Liden, Mendocino County photographer extraordinaire, was on hand and his photos are as gorgeous as the wine and food served. Thanks for sharing, Tom.

Next week, I’ll be recapping the Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah, featuring the wines of Graziano Family of Wines.

NOTE: This piece is scheduled to run in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, May 28, 2015 and, instead of waiting for publication there before archiving here, I am running it here first for timeliness. The early reference to last week’s column will actually be a column that runs tomorrow, and be archived out of order shortly after, here.



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