June 2011


Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center near Fulton, at the northwest edge of Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County.

I work for a winery that produces 3,000 cases of wine each year, all the varietals unblended, all the grapes from one organically grown vineyard. Our Chardonnay is from great grapes, and we let them shine, fermenting and holding the juice in stainless steel, and foregoing secondary, malolactic, fermentation.

Kendall-Jackson is the opposite of the winery I work for in so many way. First, it is a giant, a Goliath, no longer merely a single winery entity, but an empire made up of many successful wineries, about three dozen, bought up by the late wine industry icon Jess Jackson.

Looking at Kendall-Jackson as a stand alone winery, ignoring Matanzas Creek, Murphy-Goode, and the other wineries within it’s domain, Kendall-Jackson produces about 5 million cases of wine each year. The most popular Kendall-Jackson wine sold is their Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, accounting for roughly 20% of their wine quantity sold, or 1,000,000 cases each year.

Stylistically, this Chardonnay is significantly oaked. The wine also undergoes malolactic fermentation; a secondary fermentation that changes malic acid, the green apple flavor notes often found in the juice of Chardonnay grapes, and converts it to lactic acid, cream or butter notes that do not exist in Chardonnay grapes. It is often suggested that this wine packs a sugar punch, either from adding back sugar directly or in the form of added grape juice concentrate.

Kendall-Jackson has a Chardonnay with dominant oak, toast, cream and vanilla notes, buttery, smooth, sweet, and round. It is worth noting that none of these are notes or attributes that come from the Chardonnay grape, all are winemaking manipulations.

There are many in the wine industry who suggest privately that good grapes don’t need such manipulations, winemaking tricks, and that Kendall-Jackson’s style spawned a host of heavily manipulated cheap wine imitators, notably Two Buck Chuck, similarly producing wines without variety correctness, vintage variations, or sense of place.

There are others who would characterize such assertions as “sour grapes.”

It could easily be argued that most consumers of wine prefer the complete predictability, the absolute consistency, that a bottle of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay offers; that sameness of experience being preferable to the unpredictability of a single vineyard designate wine, a wine held in stainless steel without malolactic fermentation, a wine showing different fruit notes year to year, as terroir – the interplay of land, weather, and grape within a vintage – and the changes that brings to the wine, becomes a factor in the final bottled product.

In addition to the Vintner’s Reserve wines, sourcing grapes from throughout California, making consistent wines using every tool at the winemaker’s disposal, Kendall-Jackson makes smaller lot wines, many from single vineyards, and many with much greater varietal character and vintage variation.

Notably, many of these smaller lot Grand Reserve and Highland Estates series vineyard designate wines garner 90 plus ratings from Robert Parker Jr in his Wine Advocate, Steve Heimoff in Wine Enthusiast, and Charlie Olken in the Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wines. Whether that is owing to making wines to Parker’s palate, jammy fruit bombs, heavily oaken, tannin laden, not shy with alcohol percentage, or whether the wines made coincidentally in this style happen to be appealing to Parker is beside the point; what matters for Kendall-Jackson is that, in addition to making consumer friendly Chardonnay, they are able to make wines that capture critical claim from the country’s top wine scorers.

The folks at the Wine Center were uniformly friendly, cheerful, informed, and justifiably proud of their wines. They have heard the criticisms about overly consistent wines, and understandably are not overly concerned. What some see as a fault, is just as easily seen as an enviable result of winemaking choices, reinforced by spectacular sales success.

Again, when your winery sells a million cases of just one Chardonnay, five million cases overall, owns almost three dozen other wineries, and enjoys critical acclaim for the small lot, vineyard designate, hand crafted wines released; well, it becomes pretty easy to let small criticisms roll off your back.

For my visit to the Wine Center, rather than a simple tasting of wines, I enjoyed the Reserve Wine & Food Pairing tasting. Regularly $25, I tasted complimentarily.  A definite benefit of being a hugely successful wine enterprise, Kendall-Jackson employs professionally trained, very skilled chefs creating seasonal expressions using the bounty of their own on-premises culinary gardens to pair with “small-production, limited release wines.”

Chef Matthew Lowe delivered each food course, describing the food, the wines, and how they pair well.

Here is the tasting menu from my visit:

2009 Grand Reserve Sauvignon Blanc $20 – Grilled Estate Baby Fava Bean Pods

2008 Jackson Hills Chardonnay $25 – English Pea Soup

2006 Highland Estates Seco Highlands Pinot Noir $35 – Buckwheat Crepe with Smoked Ham Hocks and Bellwether Farms Carmody Cheese

2006 Highland Estates Alisos Hills Syrah $35 – Sweet Tea Brined Niman Ranch Pork Belly Slider with Syrah BBQ Sauce

2005 Highlands Estates Trace Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon $70 – Lamb Kefta with Pomegranate Molasses

2008 Late Harvest Riesling 375 ml $25 – Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Strawberry Gelle and Icebox Cookie

2006 Late Harvest Chardonnay 375 ml $25 – Mama Frischkorn’s Caramel Corn

First came the fava bean pods and English pea soup. I know most people would write about the wine, but these two taste treats were nothing short of brilliant. Regularly, fava beans need to be shucked then peeled before preparing, but these little pods were just babies, tender, and completely edible. Grilled with just a little sea salt and lemon juice, they paired perfectly and played off the lemon and grassy notes of the Sauvignon Blanc.

The English pea soup was cold, a chilled soup made from tender spring peas, topped with a couple of drops of olive oil. The oil allowed for a smart pairing with the buttery styled Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay. The chilled soup was the most delicious dish, perfect, flavorful, amazing.

Up next came the Buckwheat Crepe, Slider, and Lamb Kefta. Chef Lowe also brought out a glass of the 2006 Highland Estates Taylor Peak Merlot $40 and I tasted the foods with the four reds, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The earthiness of buckwheat paired nicely with the Pinot Noir. Pork Belly anything is always welcome, and this slider was delicious with both the Syrah and the Merlot. The Merlot was pretty tasty, big and rich, a Cab lover’s Merlot.

The Cabernet Sauvignon was a food, in and of itself. Bigger than the lamb, this may have been the least successful pairing. Both were delicious separately, but they didn’t really elevate each other like some of the day’s other pairings.

Late Harvest wine is not the first wine I reach for, but both the Riesling and Chardonnay were delightful, especially paired with the fantastic buttermilk panna cotta with strawberry gelee. The caramel corn was a fun and pretension busting snack, not really my favorite, but perfectly made.

The wines were all good, some were great, all were worth tasting. Coming from a very small production winery, managing a tiny tasting room, made me appreciate what Jess Jackson achieved with Kendall-Jackson:  palatial manor house set on 120 acre garden and vineyard estate, an enormous tasting salon, a team of on-site chefs, enormously successful wines by any definition, industry changing embrace of social media marketing, both a dedication to growing awareness of Sonoma County and it’s wines and a regional outreach beyond Sonoma County, empire.

I had a really enjoyable time at the Wine Center, I recommend a visit, and further I recommend taking advantage of the professional chefs on property; spend the $25 for the constantly evolving Reserve Wine & Food Pairings tasting (one wine and four of the seven food creations have changed since my recent tasting), your experience will be unrushed and top flight – mine was.

Wine made in an industrial park? That could be the new focus of my wine writing, and provide endless material with great wine after great wine made and released by winemakers who would rather put limited resources into securing the best grapes or equipment instead of an architectural wonder, a castle, an imposing edifice created to humble or impress visitors.

The wine theme parks, with landscaped gardens and fountains, almost universally charge for tastings, and those fees can climb to well over $50 per theme park, um, winery. The winemakers who toil away in decidedly more modest industrial business parks almost never charge to taste their wines, and set low fees which are applied to a purchase when there is a charge.

Last week, I wrote a recap about the wineries of the Vinify Winery Collective at 3358 Coffey Lane in Santa Rosa. There are a number of individual winemakers using different spaces in the same business park, making some of my favorite juice, as different in style but similar in amazing quality as Kevin Kelley’s the NPA and Salinia to Carol Shelton’s eponymous winery.

More recently, I had the opportunity to visit Victor Simon at Simaine, his winery hidden away in the Redwood Square industrial park at 3001 South State Street #42, on the south east corner of the intersection of South state and Plant, at the south end of Ukiah.

Not in the front row of building spaces, but around to the back row, Simaine is an unprepossessing space, with a nondescript edifice, completely hiding the amazing winemaking going on behind the doors of the business park space.

Opening the door to Suite 42, I was stunned by the amount of colorful non wine merchandise that decorated the small retail tasting room space. Victor’s wife Brenda creates one of a kind shadowbox gifts, jewelry, necklaces, and earrings, which are available for purchase at Simaine.

The name Simaine is a contraction of Victor’s last name, Simon, and Brenda’s maiden name, Maine; Simon and Maine becoming Simaine.

Passing through the cozy retail space, visitor’s enter Victor’s work space, a full winery with a small kitchen space and a couple of tables for relaxed tasting and possible eating.

Open daily, from 10 until 5, Simaine is both a labor of love and an enormous time commitment for Victor. With summer heat in Ukiah often proving debilitating, Victor chooses to start work many summer days at 4:00 am, and there is plenty of work to do as Victor is a one man winery crew; owner, winemaker, and cellar rat all rolled into one.

Working with certified organic growers, Victor makes 100% unblended varietal, 100% unblended vineyard designate wines, treating the grapes and the wine as gently as he can, and chooses exclusively French oak barrels for the flavors they impart to his wines, blending neutral and newer oak held juice for his finished product.

I consider myself very lucky to have been invited by Victor to taste his wines at lunch time, with Victor preparing the fixings for Carne Asada tacos for a small group that had gathered. The reality is that Victor works every day, and long hours, so part of his relief comes in a daily preparation of lunch for himself and whoever happens to arrive at the winery at the right time. Limousine drivers, knowing Victor’s lunchtime habits, are known to deliver gleeful tasters to Simaine just after noon.

The first wine I tasted was the 2009 Simaine Sauvignon Blanc, Mendocino County, Larry Venturi Vineyard, $18. Grown in gravelly soil next to the Russian River, these certified organic grapes were dry farmed and come from 45 year old vines. Stainless steel fermentation, then French oak held seven month to add a vanilla note, this Sauvignon Blanc has beautiful melon, lemon, citrus, and a decidedly Mendocino grapefruit note. A truly lovely wine, it shows great balance of acidity and sweetness, fruit and oak.

The second wine tasted was Victor’s 2007 Simaine Syrah, Larry Venturi Vineyard, $25. Soft, silky, and Smooth. Chocolate, and a mix of red and dark fruit. Cherry meets plum, with nice smooth, tight grain, oak imparting a vanilla kiss.

Victor’s other lucky guests around the lunch table included a local musician Steve, Angela from SIP! Mendocino in Hopland, and neighbor Mark from Domaine Charbay. My luck grew as it turned out Mark had a Korean wife, they put up their own kimchi, and Victor had a jar that he opened for me to test Mark’s assertion that both Victor’s Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah paired wonderfully with kimchi.

Kindly described, kimchi could be called pickled cabbage. More accurate would be fermented, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say rotted. Kimchi is a powerfully pungent mix of cabbage, peppers, garlic, and fish oils, sealed in a clay vessel, and buried until ripe, very very ripe. I spent one year in Korea, love the country, and the food. I love kimchi, but my son’s mother used to scream when I brought any commercially available kimchi into the house. Hearing that not one, but two wines had been found, both delicious on their own, that paired with kimchi, did seem a little farfetched – I was sceptical.

Well, let me say here and now, Mark was completely correct. The Syrah was an OMG match for kimchi, and the Sauvignon Blanc though a completely different pairing was equally perfect.

Simaine produces just 2,500-3,000 cases of wine each year, small lots of high quality wine. Although the only wines available for purchase when I visited were the Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, Victor has several wines in barrels, some so ready for bottling, and “if things work out,” there may be, ” a 4th of July Release Party,” for some of those wines currently in barrel, said Victor.

Coming soon will be releases of Sangiovese, a new Syrah, Petite Syrah, Carignane, Merlot, two Zinfandels, and a new Sauvignon Blanc.

Victor pulled barrel samples of his 2009 Carignane $35. Made from 65 year old vines, the wine is gorgeous, with lush fruit – red raspberry, cranberry, rhubarb, strawberry, cherry, hern, and spice. Nicely balanced by acid, very drinkable.

I also got to taste the 2009 Petite Sirah from barrel. Oh! Chocolate, round, ripe, smooth, incredibly soft tannins, rich fruit of blue berry, blackberry and plum. Well balanced.

Much of Simaine’s wine is allocated and goes directly to wine club members who receive four bottles four times per year. While Victor ships, most customers come and enjoy the big Pick Up Parties thrown at the winery with, “music, food, wine, everything.”

Asked what other Mendocino County wineries should be doing to bring positive attention to our wines and wineries, Victor said, “start making very premium wine – stop selling $48 cases – different styles, balanced, good wines. Just make Mendocino County wines popular because they’re good.”

I can attest that Victor Simon and Simaine are doing just that, and they’re doing it out of a little industrial business park space at the south end of Ukiah.

I applaud Simaine for keeping the notion alive that a wine writer covering just business park produced wines could write about great wines without end.

Today, I attended the Vinify Collective Winery Tasting in Santa Rosa. Vinify is a custom crush facility that allows great winemakers who don’t want to build their own wineries to make wine. I tasted wines from 17 wineries, all made under the same roof, no two the same.

Often at tastings, the first wineries visited try to pour all of their wines for me, and long before you can get to the final wineries, my palate is blown, fatigued, useless.

I came up with a new way to try to make tasting fairer for all of the wineries present, sort of a Sophie’s Choice pouring game. I explained that I wanted to taste from each winery before possibly returning, and asked to be poured the one wine I absolutely must taste, the most representative, the wine drinking best right now. Some winemakers did not want to choose one wine. I explained that this was a Sophie’s Choice, I knew they loved all of their wines like children, but they needed to put some of the children off the boat to drown, they can only save one, and I want that one.

Eventually, each winemaker, or pourer made a choice, and these are the wines I tasted today, in order:

2009 Gracianna Winery Pinot Noir, Bacigalupi Vineyard, Russian River Valley, $48 – Barnyard funk nose, buttery dried cherry, floral, smooth herb, oak, mushroom and earth.

2009 Argot Wines Pinot Noir, Silver Pines Vineyard, Bennett Valley, $39 – Strawberry rhubarb forward fruit with nice acidity and a touch of cocoa in back. I was told that the lighter style, funk free, was owing to a predominance of Mariafeld 23 clone.

2008 Calluna Vineyards Estate Red Wine, Chalk Hill, $50 – A Meritage style blend with all five main Bordeaux red grapes. Soft with a light tannin and acid zing on finish. Lighter body, bright, lively blackberry and raspberry with nice spice notes.

2009 Frostwatch Vineyard and Winery Pinot Noir, Bennett Valley – Swan clone. Cool climate. Really nice! Beautiful balance, nice nose of fruit and herb. Mouth of cherry and forest, herb and wood.

2008 Lattanzio Winery Syrah Fedrick Ranch, Sonoma Coast, $35 – Co-fermented with 100 pounds of Viognier skins. I love Syrah when it is good, but this is great. Rich round fruit and meaty wood spice. A little smoky on the back.

2010 Vaughn Duffy Wines Rosé of Pinot Noir, Sonoma County, $15 – Strawberry, cream, and dried herb. Nice saignée wine.

2009 Sojourn Cellars Pinot Noir, Rogers Creek Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, $48 – Whole cluster, Pomard clone. Great full nose, complex, multi layered. Good acidity, cherry, herb, damp earth, smooth, round and full.

2008 Barbed Oak Vineyards Estate Chardonnay, Bennett Valley, $20 – crisp acidity, oak, toast, lemony citrus.

2009 Kanzler Vineyards Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, $48 – Smooth, well integrated loamy earth, cherry/rhubarb fruit, cola, herbs, cocoa and spice.

2008 Olson Ogden Wines Persuasion Red Wine, North Coast, $19 – Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Noir and Marsanne. Light, soft, smooth. Green herb, acid, and a red fruit basket. Easily drinkable. Good food wine.

2010 Baker Lane Rosé of Syrah, Sonoma Coast, $18 – Creamy, round, vanilla cherry and strawberry. Not a saignée styled rosé.

2009 Jemrose Vineyard Viognier, Egret Pond Vineyard, Bennett Valley, $32 – Nice, well integrated fruit notes of peach, citrus, with tropical floral notes. Good acidity. Nice body.

2008 Audelssa Estate Winery Summit Red Wine, Sonoma Valley, $52 – A tasty Meritage style blend of all five main Bordeaux red grape varietals. Medium bodied, lovely, easy to drink, red fruited berry and cherry fruit forward wine. Floral and supple, Lingering finish.

2008 Desmond Wines Estate Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, $38 – Funky, barnyard nose gives way to dried cranberry, herb, and loam. Nice finish.

2007 Westerhold Family Vineyards Syrah, Bennett Valley, $42 – Inky dark. Pepper spice. Lots of fruit hiding behind that pepper spice.

2009 Wren Hop Vineyards&Winery Estate Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, $60 – Earthy barnyard nose. First taste impression: wow! Lovely fruit, cherry and rhubarb, pomegranate, cola, herb, mushroom, all nicely integrated. Lots of yum in the mouth.

2007 Bjornstad Cellars Chardonnay, Ritchie Vineyard, $40 – A nicely balanced, round, Chardonnay with oak and fruit: peach, pear, lemon and apple.

Super Sonoman Wines  – Did I miss a table? These guys are on the list of participants, but I missed them. I am sorry if you were there, and I skipped you – I assure you, the slight, if you were there, was unintentional.

Vinify also unveiled Vinoteca, their new tasting room, a beautiful facility, where wines of the collective wineries can be poured during the rest of the year.

I got to see several online wine writers, William Allen, Marcy Gordon, Fred  and Eva Swan. I failed to introduce my friend Susan Johnson at every turn, perhaps illuminating one of the reasons I am single – my sheer oafishness. Hillary Lattanzio kindly gave a Vinoteca T-shirt to Susan, perhaps to stop her begging for one, and for that I am grateful.

I wasn’t feeling well last year, attended this wine tasting, but my notes reflected my inability to taste wines. Today was a wonderful experience, all of the wines I tasted were good, some very good, a couple just plain great. I am pretty happy about the Sophie’s Choice method of wine tasting, it allowed for a broad tasting of really good wines. Thanks to everyone for making today such an enjoyable tasting event.

Rather than waiting an entire year until next year’s collective tasting, I recommend visiting Vinoteca, Vinfy’s tasting room, so you can taste some of the wines I tasted. Vinify is located at 3358D Coffey Lane, Santa Rosa, CA 95403. Call to find out days and hours 707 535-0900. Alternately, visit any of the wineries online to arrange a tasting or purchase, using the links I provided.

Cheers!

John

Tomorrow morning I’m driving to Sonoma County to taste wines during the day, warming up for Saturday night’s big wine tasting event in the Russian River Valley. Saturday, June 4, from 6:30 to 10:00pm at Thomas George Estate, I’ll be tasting some amazing wines. mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, during the Single Vineyard Night event. Wine, food, auction, dancing. Tickets are $45 online, and a bargain considering the line up of Russian River Valley Wine Growers wines being poured.

Single Vineyard Night, June 4

Next Saturday, June 11, I’ll be driving back to Sonoma County, to taste more wines at the Vinify Winery Collective Tasting in Santa Rosa from 1:00 to 4:30pm. Vinify is a custom crush facility, however their clients are not vain amateurs with grand illusions, but top notch professional winemakers taking advantage of a top notch state of the art facility to make great wines. This tasting, with tickets available for just $25 online, offers these wineries a showcase, an opportunity to pour for new customers, and sell some cases. Wine, food, great stemware. Be there.

Vinify Winery Collective Tasting, Saturday, June 11

On Monday, June 13, many of my neighboring wineries from Mendocino County will be in San Francisco for Taste of Mendocino, a consumer tasting and buying opportunity at Fort Mason from 5:00 to 8:00pm. Mendocino County wineries are justly proud to grow an disproportionate amount of the organic grapes in California, in the United States. Without synthetic chemical fertilizers, poisonous insecticides, toxic pesticides, and bio genetic Frankenfruit, Mendocino County’s grapes make some of California’s best wines. The same grapes we turn into wine and sell in our tasting room ends up in more expensive Napaand Sonoma County wines.

For the most part, our wineries are smaller than the giants up north. Many of our wineries count production in hundreds or thousands of cases, grapes grown organically and handpicked, delicious reflections of the land, the winemakers desire, the growers commitment to perfection.

There is little opportunity for distribution when your winery is small, but once tasted your wines sell out, direct through tasting room or wine club sales.

Wineries wanting to grow a little larger need to sell more wine, and only so many people travel to Mendocino County for wine tasting. Taste of Mendocino allows the vintners of Mendocino County to bring their best wines to where the tasters and buyers are, in San Francisco.

Event guests will find that in addition to over 60 wineries, there will be Mendocino County food artists, crafters, and representatives of our attraction, lodging, and tourism industry. Taste of Mendocino is as close as someone can get to Mendocino County without a two hour (with no traffic) drive.

Tickets are just $35 online.

Taste of Mendocino, Monday, June 13

I don’t know what kept me to miss Pinot Days in San Francisco last year, but I was so thrilled to print my tickets for this year’s annual Pinot Days in San Francisco, also at Fort Mason, for Saturday, June 18, 2011. By far, the biggest Pinot Noir tasting event with over 200 producers pouring a tasty river of Pinot, several hundred different bottles possible to choose from during the Grand Tasting from 1:00 to 5:00pm, with tickets going for only $50 online.

Sadly, after printing my tickets, I was drafted to work a fundraiser for the Ukiah High School Freshman Basketball Program on the same day. I can only say honestly that I would rather be at Pinot Days than working a fundraiser, but my son is 6’2″ and will be a freshman at Ukiah High School next year, so I really have no choice. I love Pinot Noir, but I love my son even more. That said, if you love Pinot Noir and don’t know my son, this is the event to go to.

Pinot Days, Saturday, June 18

Okay, for the rest of this post, I’m taking off my wine guy hat and putting on my Dad hat.

Like to golf? Saturday, June 18, 2011 is the date of the 2nd Annual Ukiah High School Golf Tournament Fundraiser benefitting boys and girls basketball programs.

Due to the severe funding crisis at the state and school district, without community support, there would be no Freshman Basketball program for the young men and women athletes of Ukiah.

With an 8:00am shot gun start, the tournament is a 4 man scramble. Golfer’s donation is $100 per individual or $400 per team, and that covers green fees, cart rental, and tourney entry fees.

Want to help with a full Tee Sponsorship? $250 ensures your name is displayed on a custom made sign.$150 will get your name on a putting green sponsor sign.

We are also looking for raffle prizes, silent auction items, and gift certificates, no donation is too small or too large. Businesses and individuals made last year’s event a great success, and we would love to be able to continue the effort.

Want to write off your donation? use Ukiah High School’s Federal Tax ID number, 94-6002711. Checks made payable to UHS Golf Tourney Fundraiser (write “Basketball Programs” in the note section) can be mailed to: Jeff Mee, 2240 McClure Road, Ukiah, CA 95482

The Golf Tourney itself is a blast. Played at the Ukiah Golf Course, there are many games within the game, allowing you to donate money on most holes for a chance to improve your score. Lunch is provided at the park across the street after the golf where prizes, raffles, and the silent auction takes place.

Entry deadline for golfing is Monday, January 6. Call 707 272-0781, Jeff will be able to help you secure a spot.

Have a donation item? A gift certificate for a sandwich? A bottle of wine? A case of wine? Tickets for a future wine tasting event, even in 2012?  Anything will help, call me at 707 548-9237 and I’ll arrange to pick up your item or meet for delivery. Deadline for donation items is Wednesday, June 15.

Thank you for helping if you are able.

John Cesano

#42 Charlie Cesano, possible starting center, Ukiah High School freshman team, class of 2015. Will you help?

Ukiah High School Golf Tournament Fundraiser, Saturday, June 18

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