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I’ve attended the Chef’s Wine Dinners at Crush Ukiah for Saracina, Barra/Girasole, Bonterra, Coro Mendocino, and last night’s dinner featuring the wines of Yorkville Cellars in the Yorkville Highlands on Highway 128 between Cloverdale and Boonville.

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The evening kicked off at 6:00 pm with a Yorkville Sparkling Brut reception, flutes of bubbly paired with oysters on the half shell and oysters Rockefeller. A Cuvee (fancy word for bubbly blend of varietals) of 51 percent Semillion, 24 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25 percent Sauvignon Blanc, Deborah Wallo, one owner of Yorkville Cellars, suggested a finishing note of English black currant. I pick up a rounder mouthfeel than is typical for classic Chardonnay/Pinot bubblies, with grapefruit and light berry notes. It paired beautifully with the oysters on the half shell, bright citrus and micro herb notes, and a clean salinity, easy to eat and chase with a sip of the sparkling. The oysters Rockefeller were delicious, but not as easy to eat without utensils.

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Assuming everyone in Mendocino County knows each other, I failed to introduce Bob and Deb Perkowski to Deborah and ed (the other owner) Wallo, but, Mendo simple, they introduced themselves, and of course it turns out they know each other as the Perkowskis have been putting the Yorkville Cellars’ logo on ball caps in their silkscreen and embroidery studio for the Wallo’s tasting room.

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After the welcoming reception, dinner guests were shepherded into the private dining room where two long tables were set. Folks found a seat, and Doug Guillon (owner of Crush Italian Steakhouse, along with his wife Debbie) greeted everyone and explained that tonight would be like a marriage, a coming together of two groups of people who love what they do and are committed to the very best in what they do, the team at Crush and the team at Yorkville Cellars.

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Next Edward Wallo described how a visit with his wife Deborah to Mendocino County in the early 80′s led to a return the very next day to look for a “wine place”. Ed is Italian so wine was a natural part of the meal table, and Deborah grew up with clarets in England – a claret is how the British refer to Bordeaux red wines – so a wine life seemed approriate. In 1982, Ed and Deborah purchased a Sauvignon Blanc vineyard, and over the years added Semillon, plus all six of the red Bordeaux grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Canernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenère.

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Today, out of the several thousand wineries in America, Yorkville Cellars is the only winery growing all eight Bordeaux varietals and making a varietally specific wine from each. Oh, and as a bonus, they do it all organically with a healthy dose of biodiversety.

Has anyone else noticed that so far we have a Deb, a Deborah, and a Debbie at the dinner? It means nothing, but I thought it interesting.

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Two wines were poured for our first course, a 2013 Sauvignon Blanc and a 2012 Rose of (Cabernet) Franc.

I loved the Yorkville Sauvignon Blanc, a really great example loaded with varietal yumminess; light grass, minerality, citrus, a touch of white peach, terrific mothfeel, decent size owing in part to barrel fermentation and aging in neutral oak.

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The Rose of Franc was darn yummy too, showing a dry fruitiness, not sweet in the sugary sense but loaded with juicy fruit notes; strawberry, watermelon, a touch of light herb and dust, but a core of juice berry.

Chef Jesse Elhardt described the menu’s first course, which was three dishes, and as always at Crush would be served family style.

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First came an asparagus salad, with the stalks sliced into coins and the spears turned into ribbons, with frisee, baby kale, fried prociuttom fried quinoa, Humboldt Fog goat cheese, a warm bacon vinaigrette, and a last minute tableside squeeze of grilled orange to awaken the aromatics of the salad. The asparagus was prepared in a parsley water infusion to prevent the leeching of color and flavor from the vegetable.

Oh, my, was this delicious (a refrain I uttered over and over again throughout the evening’s meal). I would never have thought to turn asparagus into a salad, and certainly would never have imagined this salad, but I am so pleased that Chef Jesse did. I came back for seconds on this, the flavors clean, distinct, and melding beautifully, the cheese creamy and bright. Taking sips of each wine with this dish was a treat, experiencing how the two wines paired differently but equally well.

Grilled desert artichokes with a spectacularly delicious housemade remoulade (with bright little sliced cornichons) and a smoked lemon accompaniment; and roasted bone marrow.

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Okay, the artichokes were delicious, they taste nothing like mine, and I enjoyed them…but roasted bone marrow!

Chef Jesse didn’t just roast bones for their marrow, first he spent four hours creating a bacon jam, a cooked down essence of bacon, to slather upon the bones, and then he baked them, and then he brushed them with a balsamic demi glace and added some micro greens to the end of each long bone.

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Eating at Crush Ukiah during a Chef’s Wine Dinner is like watching Barry Bonds hitting dingers at a Home Run Derby, everything is a long ball, grand slam, game winning hit.

Plates and glasses were cleared, two new wines were poured, the 2011 Hi Rollr red and 2012 Malbec.

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Chef Jesse described the next round of dishes, the 8 hour lamb ragu, with 5 hours going to the base sauce before 3 more for the actual lamb ragu element. He kept going, but I’ll get to each in a paragraph or two.

Deborah described the next two wines. The 2011 Hi Rollr Red is a blend of seven wines, including Zinfandel, Carignane, and Petite Sirah, three decidedly non Bordeaux varietals. If you are from Mendocino County, think of this wine as a Coro-esque wine. The name of the wine refers to the Boontling (a unique language spoken by the inhabitants of Boonville) term for people from Yorkville who rolled their pant legs up for the horse ride into Boonville on a Saturday night, in days past, to keep them out of mud but then forgot to roll their pants back down upon arrival. A charming story told in a lovely voice, a touch of England still evident in Deborah’s voice.

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The 2012 Malbec was the bigger of the two wines for me, a product of increased plantings and a blend of three individual clones of the vartietal. The Malbec is weighty with dark blueberry and chocolate notes, exactly as promised by Deborah in her description.

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Here’s the taste sensations from the second course: you know a meal is great when vegetables can be elevated into starring roles. Tomato slices…big deal, right? Well they are when topped with compound butter, house bread crumbs, and grated cheese, then broiled. Sweet creamed corn was transformed when Chef Jesse reinforced the corn’s sweetness by creating a corn pudding and blending that back into the dish with the whole corn kernals, and then taking it over the top with the addition of sweet caramelized roasted baby scallops. More than one person commented that they would have felt satisfied with simply of bowl of the best corn you’ve ever tasted in your entire lifetime.

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The two proteins were an herbed rotisserie chicken with a Panzanella salad, and the lamb ragu. The salad that came with the chicken was flavorful, and the chicken was quite tasty, but the depth of flavor in the lamb ragu was attention grabbing.

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Roughly 30 years ago, my first ex-wife took me to a birthday dinner at Clint Eastwood’s Hog’s Breath Inn in Carmel (we weren’t ex’s yet). I ordered leg of lamb, and the kitchen ruined it by slathering it more than liberally in mint jelly, which was not mentioned on the menu. I recount this story because there was mint in Chef Jesse’s lamb ragu and – for me – it elevated the dish, rather than ruining it.

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The intensely flavored lamb ragu was served with a cavatelli pasta, boccoli rabe, kalamata olives, a rustic mint pesto, and reggiano cheese. This weighty and intense dish paired with the Yorkville Cellars Malbec provided my favorite wine and food pairing of the night.

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I had seconds of the lamb ragu. At meal’s end, i waddled, not walked, to my car.

Once again, plates and glasses were cleared, and one of my favorite parts of this dinner series occurred: people talked. Sitting at long tables, surrounded by people you may not have met, over a family style meal, people introduce each other, ask for plates to be passed, talk about wine and food and the county, and become friends for the evening. I bounced around, during the evening from one table to the other, and talked to many people. A little weird for me, over and over I was asked if I write the wine column in the Ukiah Daily Journal. It turns out people recognize me, and about half the people attending told me that they came only because they read about the dinner in the column that ran the week before. I was a little humbled, but pleased as my intent in writing the column was to act as a cheerleader for Mendocino County’s wines – and the restaurants that do something special with them. One diner kindly shared that she had a favorite piece, and recounted it; I wrote the piece last year, and to have it remembered to me was touching.

Anyway, more wine and dessert, so I moved back to my seat, and Chef Jesse described the candied orange panna cotta he created with real reduced orange zest for flavor, no artificial ingredients, and how he floated a gelée of Yorkville Sweet Malbec  reduction atop the panna cotta to create a dual layered dessert. There was also a mint leaf and a house made candied orange crisp.
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Ed and Deborah’s son Ben described the night’s final wine, the 2011 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend. 23.6 residual sugar off 45 degree brix grapes, late harvest and botrytis, 74% Sauvignon Blanc and 26% Semillon, this is undeniably a sweet wine. Hearing Ben talk about this wine, his parents, his life, was heartwarming.

I have some bottles of this wine at home, and it manages to be incredibly sweet, but not taste so. This is not a cloyingly sweet dessert wine, supported by much acid, but I liked it best by itself. The dessert, fantastic, was sweet, with notes of honeyed fruit, but tasting the wine after the dessert made clear how much sweeter the wine was than the dessert.

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All night long, in what was an over four hour experience, every bite was a rich flavor explosion, and each sip of wine an exploration of palate pleasing playful pairing. There were no real false notes, plenty of highlights, everything a success.

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I feel bad that I didn’t take a picture of each dish, but I was filling my belly. I also feel bad that I didn’t grab a picture of Ben as he described our dessert wine, and a picture of the entire assembled staff both from the kitchen and front of house as they deserve greater recognition than I am giving them here. A fantastic job by all. God willing, I’ll be attending the next Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush in Ukiah again.

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John On Wine ­ – On food and wine pairings, and the next Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush

Oroginally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, April 17, 2014
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Wine dinners are one of my favorite things. I’ve written about a handful of Chef’s Wine Dinners at Crush Italian Steakhouse, the Roederer Estate Dinner at Patrona during the Mendocino County Crab and Wine Festival, and about random but delicious wine and food pairings at Uncorked. My recaps of past Passport events, from Dry Creek Valley to Hopland, have focused as much on the food as on the wine, or the interplay between the two.

The most memorable wine I tasted at the big Zinfandel Advocates and Producers tasting in San Francisco was not the amazing offerings from Ridge or Bedrock, but the decidedly unfancy Zinzilla made by Rich Parducci for McNab Ridge. How did an inexpensive Mendo/Lodi Zin blend trump the wines from two producers I revere? Simple, I had the cheese of the day in my mouth when I took a sip of the Zinzilla; the pairing was fantastic, the wine made the cheese better and the cheese made the wine better.

Similarly, while tasting the sparkling wines produced by Mendocino County’s dozen top producers a couple of weeks ago was a treat, the real fun came in the random pairings of different foods and bubblies, some pairings were sublime while others were total failures ­ but the fun is in the experimentation. Just like certain foods go together ­ – pork chops and apple, peanut butter and chocolate, and tomato soup and grilled cheese are great examples, there are a host of classic food and wine pairings. If you are Italian and consider wine a food, something that belongs at the table with a meal, then this makes the concept of wine and food pairing natural.

Spicy Asian food sees flames tamed by Riesling or Gewürztraminer, fatty morsels of duck beg to be paired with a big round Merlot, there should be a law requiring that mushroom risotto be paired with Pinot Noir, and magically every soup ever made is made better when paired with a McFadden Coro. There are classic food and wine pairings that fall apart if you personally do not like them, but the trying is the thing; that is where the fun and excitement lie. I fondly remember perfect food and wine pairings from over 30 years ago, and remembering the food and the wine, the vintage, appellation, varietal, and producer of the wine, brings back place and time clearly, who I was with, where I was.

Food paired with wine allows a sort of time machine of the mind to exist, as memory of the specific senses being played from wine and food pairings of a decade ago bring back the past as clearly as memories of last night’s dinner. I remember every food and wine pairing from each of the previous Chef’s Wine Dinners at Crush as Chef Jesse Elhardt and his team served 10 different dishes, from appetizer to dessert with anywhere from four to over a dozen wines, as Crush played host to Saracina, Barra/Girasole, Bonterra, and Coro Mendocino. So many combinations of food and wine possible, so much fun experimentation, finding what goes with what for you. You’ll get a chance to see what I’m talking about next Wednesday, April 23 when Crush features the wines of Yorkville Cellars in their next Chef’s Wine Dinner. Dinner starts at 6 p.m. and tickets are $75, which includes food, wine, tax, and tip (although you can always throw more money on the table for your servers).

Yorkville Cellars is stand-out unique. Every winery is unique with a story to tell, but the story of Yorkville Cellars is easier to tell than most. Located on Highway 128 between Cloverdale and Boonville, Yorkville Cellars focuses on organically growing Bordeaux varietal wines when most along Highway 128 focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, varietals of Burgundy. Yorkville Cellars grows and produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carmenere, Semillion, Sauvignon Blanc, a few blends, plus a sparkling wine made from a blend of three of these varietals.

I do not have a working menu, it wasn’t available as I punched the keys for this column but imagine this:

Yorkville Cellars bubbly is poured as dinner guests gather as a welcome reception wine and it is paired with passed appetizers of salmon in puff pastry bites. Moving into the private dining room, dinner patrons select seats at the long tables and glasses are poured; Semillon and Merlot, and four dishes are laid down to pair with these two wines; Nueske bacon wrapped asparagus, Merlot braised pork ribs, Semillon poached pears, and a wedge salad with gorgonzola and chopped duck confit.

Plates are cleared, and new wines are poured for the second course. Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon in the glasses, and dishes of oysters Rockefeller, fork shredded Cabernet sauvignon braised beef over polenta, lasagna with a 40-hour ragu, and an artichoke heart and wild rice salad.

Served family style, diners interact, asking for plates to be passed, talking about favorite dishes, the wines, and best pairings.

Once again, plates are cleared and a deceptively simple dessert of peach pie with peach ice cream is served, only to be deeply rich in layered flavors, and made more delicious when paired with the Yorkville Cellars Late Harvest dessert wine, a blend of botrytis blessed Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. For $75, you’ll experience six wines, ten food dishes, and enough opportunities for food and wine pairing to create memories that will last decades.

For reservations, and the actual working menu [not my completely made up one], contact Crush Ukiah at (707) 463-0700 and I’ll see you there.

 

 

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John On Wine – ­ A Mendo bubbly fest recap

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on April 10, 2014
Written by John Cesano

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Last Saturday, April 5th, I attended the inaugural Celebration of Mendocino County Sparkling Wines. I was not alone, more than 150 people showed up at Terra Savia in Hopland. Many were readers of this column who were kind enough to say hello, some were wine club members of the tasting room I manage, and some were brand new to me ­ but not brand new to having fun as they clearly knew what they were doing.

Alison de Grassi and Gracia Brown, the wonder twins from Visit Mendocino responsible for events and marketing, attended as did Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster. The support for this great event was really impressive. The day was beautiful; I parked a short walk away from the site, and saw workers raking muddy leaves into a pile, the scent earthy, almost mushroomy, and wonderful.

A Gathering of friends

Birds were chirping many different songs in the trees around. The sky could not have been more blue or clear. Terra Savia operates from a large yellow metal building filled with art and custom handcrafted furniture of immense proportion. Within the space, a dozen tables were set up in a circle, each table a microburst of activity, color, and energy as each participating winery created their own presentation space.

Here are a few definitions for bubbly-centric wine terms that may prove useful as you read on: Brut means dry. Cuvee means blend. En tirage means time yeast and lees spend in the bottle before disgorgement. Lees are spent yeast, yeast that converted sugar into alcohol, heat, and carbon dioxide during fermentation. Blanc de Blanc means white of white and suggests that Chardonnay is the grape the wine is made from; as opposed to Blanc de Noir, a white wine made from red wine grapes, typically Pinot Noir, but given no time on skin after crush, so no color. A magnum is a bottle twice as large as normal, 1.5 L. vs, 750 ml.

Bubbly Gathering

Graziano poured their Cuvee #10 Sparkling Brut, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc from the 2010 vintage that spent three full years en tirage. This bubbly had the most clear lemon note of the sparkling wines being poured at the event, balanced by a rich yeastiness. Both Greg Graziano and Bobby Meadows poured for the assembled crowd.

Handley poured a 2003 Brut, made from 60 percent Pinot Noir and 40 percent Chardonnay, with flavors of steely mineral lemon and vanilla apple.

Guinness McFadden and Judith Bailey poured the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition double gold medal winning 2009 McFadden Reserve Sparkling Brut, a blend of 50 percent Chardonnay and 50 percent Pinot Noir that spent more than two-and-a-half-years on yeast and lees in the bottle before disgorgement. The flavors are bright, showing apple and grapefruit tempered by brioche and nut.

Nelson poured a nice NV Blanc de Blanc with bright lemon, pear, and apple notes.

I really liked the Paul Dolan NV Brut, a cuvee of 45 percent Chardonnay and 55 percent Pinot Noir, with 100 percent of the grapes from McFadden Farm. Bright, unapologetically crisp, with green apple, grapefruit, and pineapple.

Rack and Riddle poured for sparkling wines. I tasted their NV Brut, showing orange, cream, apple, and lemon; and a Brut Rose that was dry, dry, dry with strawberry over ice crispness.

Ray’s Station’s NV Brut offering was 65 percent Chardonnay and 35 percent Pinot Noir and was fairly broad and round with apple, pear, and bready notes. Although Brut suggests dryness, this seemed a touch sweeter ­ at least in comparison with the wine tasted just before this one. Margaret Pedroni captivated attendees as she described the wine she poured.

Roederer Estate poured from 1.5 liter magnums, which is nicely showy. Their NV Brut tasted of pear, green apple, nut, and lemon; the NV Brut Rose showed lovely balance and flavors of apple and strawberry.

Scharffenberger’s NV Brut tasted of dry yeasty ginger, citrus, and apple.

Signal Ridge garnered a lot of buzz from attendees, with tasters elevating the apple, almond and mineral flavored Brut into their top three tastes.

Terra Savia, the host for the event, poured their lovely 2009 Blanc de Blanc, showing bright apple and lemony citrus notes.

Yorkville Cellars doesn’t grow Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, the grapes typically found in sparkling wines, but Bordeaux varietals instead. Previously, Yorkville made a Sparkling Rose of Malbec, the only one I had ever tasted, and it was good. The current release I jokingly refer to as the cuvee of crazy, because the blend was unimaginable prior to it being poured for me: 51 percent Semillion, 24 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25 percent Sauvignon Blanc. The result isn’t crazy at all, but rounder than is typical with the Bordeaux varietal fruit offering up flavors of grapefruit and cranberry.

Bubbly Feast

The food for this event was spectacular, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of the event was random pairings of different foods and sparkling wines. Some pairings elevated both the food and beverage, while other pairings oddly diminished the wine being tasted. There will be a Mendo Bubbly Fest next year, and I’ll attend again, but get out of your house and into the tasting rooms of these wineries to taste their sparkling wines this weekend, or soon, and bring a bottle or two home ­ not to serve on a special day, but to make a day special by serving them.

 

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John On Wine ­ – Four “must do” wine events

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, April 3, 2014
By John Cesano
John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

The best wine events I attend are those where an area wants to impress you with what they do. Individual winery events are nice, but they rarely rise to the level of “wow” that an area-wide event reaches. There are several area-wide events that I hope you will consider attending.

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First, there is this weekend’s Celebration of Mendocino Sparkling Wines at Terra Savia in Hopland on Saturday, April 5, from noon to 4 p.m.

An even dozen local producers will pour their bubblies, paired with perfect food bites, to the accompaniment of music, and attendees will walk away impressed as heck with how good Mendocino County sparkling wine is. I know, and if you read enough of my writing then you know too, that Wine Enthusiast Magazine put one Mendocino County sparkling wine on their top 100 list of 2013 ­ in the #1 position, and that another producer is the only one in America to take a pair of Double (unanimous) Gold Medals at this year’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine competition for sparkling wines ­ and they only make two.

It is reasonable to say that the best American sparkling wines are made in Mendocino County, but it is another thing entirely to taste them all together in one place and have it made crystal clear. Participants include Graziano Family of Wines, Handley Cellars, McFadden Vineyards, Nelson Family Vineyards, Paul Dolan Vineyards, Rack & Riddle, Ray’s Station, Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger Cellars, Signal Ridge, Terra Savia, and Yorkville Cellars.

Tickets are $55 and available online at http://mendocinosparkling.brownpapertickets.com.

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Saturday April 26 and Sunday, April 27, are the dates for the 25th Passport to Dry Creek Valley.

50 wineries, two days, each pouring their best wines, and pairing them with show-off amazing taste treats, and live music at many stops; these are some reasons to attend.

I was born in Sonoma County and grew up drinking Dry Creek Zinfandel. I attended the monthly party at the Dry Creek General Store and have enjoyed salami and cheese sandwiches from the DCV Store going back to childhood. Some of my favorite memories are of friends and family at the bocce courts at Preston. For me, this event is a touch of home.

I love Passport to Dry Creek Valley. I have shamelessly taken from what some of the best stops offer to make events I help manage better.

The food offerings: oysters, pork, lamb, fresh baked bread, cannoli, chocolate, pancetta, roast beef, spit roasted pig, pork ribs, black eyed peas, seafood cake, fried chicken, cheddar and garlic mac and cheese, hot cinnamon rolls, creamy mushroom lasagna, guacamole (and so much more!) will pair with wines: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Rose, Barbera, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese, Petite Sirah, Chardonnay, Cabernet franc, Pinot Noir, Charbono (and, again, so much more!).

It is impossible to oversell the event, so instead I will undersell it: simply, this is the most amazing annual area-wide wine event that you might attend. Attend it if you can. Tickets are $120 and available at http://arestravel.com/6406_attraction-tickets_a882_r140776.html.
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Hopland Passport is another passport event, closer to home, a little bit less expensive and held twice each year.

The 23rd annual Spring Hopland Passport will be Saturday, May 3 and Sunday, May 4, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, at 17 wineries in and around Hopland; $45 in advance at http://www.destinationhopland.com/store or $10 more for procrastinators who wait to buy at the event from a participating winery.

I am undoubtedly biased, but I think this is the best wine event value in the entire California wine industry. With wine and food at each of 17 stops, to me a perfect number of wineries to visit over two full days, and music, tours, contests, sales, bottle signings and more at various individual wineries, $45 is a terrific bargain.

Less than $2.65 per winery visit ­ what does that get you? At McFadden, where I work, we’ll pour every wine released. There will be none of the restricted reserve nonsense. We’ll pour a Double Gold Medal sparkling wine, and a dozen wines rated 90 or above. We’ll serve up organic, grass fed, beef, grilled to perfection, and a 100 percent pure wild rice and artichoke heart salad. We’ll offer a 40 percent discount on cases to wine club members, old and new. We’ll have Guinness McFadden signing bottles as they are purchased.

Multiply that visit by 17, as each winery demonstrates they care about guests just as much as McFadden does.

For you, that makes this an absolute “must attend” event.

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The Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival is another perfect example of an area showcasing what they do well.

Anderson Valley is famous for Pinot Noir. Wine magazines devote covers and feature story pages to Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. This is better than good stuff, this is great stuff. Friday, May 16 ­ Sunday, May 18.

The Festival is a weekend affair with technical conferences on Friday, a kick-off barbecue dinner at Foursight Wines on Friday night, Grand Tastings of 45 producers at Goldeneye in Philo on Saturday and more dinners Saturday night, and less structured winery tasting room visits on Sunday.

Ticket prices vary by event, $50-$125, and are available at http://www.avwines.com/anderson-valley-pinot-noir-festival/.

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I get to attend the Celebration of Mendocino County Sparkling Wines, Passport to Dry Creek Valley, and Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival and I am enormously grateful to each area association for the invitation. I am working at Hopland Passport and if you pick up a ticket for that event then you will see me when you visit the McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room that weekend. Be sure to say “hi” to me at any of these four amazing events.

 

 

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John On Wine – Drought

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on March 27, 2014
By John Cesano

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Brave the storm to come, for it surely looks like rain.” ­ – 1972, Look Like Rain, Grateful Dead

Rain, water, drought, shortage, rationing, voluntary reductions, mandatory reductions; Thoughts of our current situation swirl like water about a drain. I’m a winery tasting room guy. I know finished wine, whether it is good, what notes it has and how to describe it. I know a little bit about growing and winemaking, but really just the basics.

When it comes to the crisis facing everyone in Mendocino County, not just the vineyards and wineries, I had to reach out and talk with some folks more knowledgeable than I am on the subject. I spoke with Zac Robinson, President of the Mendocino WineGrowers, Inc., the voluntary coalition of growers and producers working to promote Mendocino County grape grower and wine interests to the general public. Robinson grows grapes both inland, on the Russian River between Ukiah and Hopland, and in the Anderson Valley, and then turns them into wine for his winery, Husch Vineyard.

Robinson described the problems facing the entire community as stemming from a two year drought, stating “the Navarro River is at the lowest level ever for this date, and “things are pretty dire.” Robinson outlined measures that vineyards and wineries are taking in the face of water shortages including adding nearly 50 new wind machines, installing double drip irrigation lines, and installing soil moisture monitoring probes. This is on top of water use reductions of approximately 67 percent since the previous drought of record, 1976-77.

The fans minimize the use of sprinkler water for frost protection and later to mitigate the highest heat of summer, but at a cost as the fans are pretty noisy for residential neighbors to endure. Soil moisture monitoring probes allow more intelligent application of moisture as needed, and double drip lines involve a second irrigation drip line with emitters tasked only to the weakest vines in a vineyard. Double drip lines allow about a 30 percent reduction in water as regular summer drip irrigation can be delayed for weeks as only the vines most in need are taken care of earlier. Later pruning also reduces water demands, as it leads to later bud break and decreases the period when frost protection water use might occur.

In spite of all of the efforts by growers, Robinson shared that “holding ponds aren’t full, the watershed is bone dry, and there will be August decisions (as) we’re not going to have enough water to get the crop through the year (and) we’ll have to choose which vineyards get less water.”

All this, while most of Mendocino County’s vineyards face 50 percent mandatory reductions in water use from various governing boards and agencies.

Not to demonize the “demon weed,” but marijuana accounts for nearly the same water use amount of all of the family farmed multi-generational vineyards in the county, with marijuana acreage just a small fraction of the legal and regulated agricultural vineyards. A walk in a vineyard is a joy; a walk in much of the county a danger due to illegal growth, armed guards, booby-trapped paths, and poisoned lands.

I’m not anti-marijuana, but I support legalizing and taxing it, as well as subjecting growers to the same water restrictions grape growers face. I do oppose illegal grows on public land, diverting water, and ruining existing ecosystems. While vineyards may be the most visible sector of the agricultural community, non-vineyard agriculture (irrigated pastures and orchards) are the largest user of water in the county, using water at much greater rates per acre.

This piece isn’t meant to be an “us vs. them” piece, but a look at where we all are at, together, now and where we all should be looking to go to decrease the severity of drought consequences as a community in the future. Janet Pauli, Chair of the Mendocino County Inland Water & Power Commission, was able to provide a pretty good map for the future.

Pauli first made clear the severity of our current drought, based on insufficient rain October to present, “this is the new drought of record’ and may be a level of severity that hasn’t occurred in over 400 years based on tree ring data.” This surpasses the often recounted 1976-77 drought of record. Pauli said the path forward required progress on two tracks. The first is reoperation and the second is increased storage at Lake Mendocino.

Reoperation involves support of Congressman Jared Huffman’s Fixing Operations of Reservoirs to Encompass Climatic and Atmospheric Science Trends Act (FORECAST) so we can conserve water in our biggest pond, Lake Mendocino. Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers follow required water control instructions from a manual dating back to the 50s, which saw them release water in the spring of 2013 without any evidence of a storm coming in after. Assuming weather prediction is better now than in the 50s, sensible on-the-ground decisions could be made saving unnecessary future water releases from occurring.

Lake Mendocino exists as part of a larger U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control project, authorized by Congress in the 50s, and intended to proceed in three stages. Stage one was the building of the Coyote Valley Dam, completed in 1959, creating the current Lake Mendocino. Stage two involved the building of the Warm Springs Dam, completed in 1982, creating Lake Sonoma. Stage three involves coming back to raise the Coyote Valley Dam 36 vertical feet, doubling the water storage capacity of Lake Mendocino. Stage three has not happened. Pauli said that feasibility studies are costly, but needed to move forward and while $1.2 million has been brought to bear, $4 million more is needed to see the study through to completion. Funding comes from the Federal government, matched by a local coalition including Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Mendocino County, City of Ukiah, and Russian River Flood Control groups. Next congressional action is required, and Pauli said that in the past U.S. Senator (CA) Diane Feinstein “has helped us with funding for the Feasibility Study. We believe that the project is feasible and should be championed by our elected representatives as nearly “shovel ready”. We are hoping that raising Coyote Dam might become the “water supply poster child” for increasing storage in the State of California.”

If feasible, the current estimate of enlarging Lake Mendocino is $300 million, with perhaps 25 percent local funding needed, and would require a year for authorization plus whatever time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would need to enlarge the existing dam. Similarly, Congressman Huffman’s FORECAST Act requires successful passage into law, a couple of years of studies, and another couple of years before implementation. The greatest problem about droughts is that with their end, so too ends the quest for solutions to drought conditions.

Everyone in Mendocino, Sonoma Counties face drought conditions now and should come together to act now and continue to act together in the future as a community to address ways to minimize the impacts of future droughts. According to Mendocino WineGrowers, Inc., farmers in the wine industry and wineries relying on grapes anticipate losses of up to $100 million this year due to the drought and a combination of mandatory and self-imposed responsible water reduction measures. Grapes just won’t be as plump, there will be fewer and this will lead to less wine made. Do whatever you can to conserve water now. I remember the conservation measures that existed in 1976-77 that are not in effect in homes now.

Support your local, legal, agriculture; help them through this drought by taking on extra water conservation measures at your home and business, and contact Congressman Jared Huffman and voice your support for his FORECAST Act, and contact Senator Diane Feinstein and let her know you would really love to see the Coyote Valley Dam raised 36 vertical feet as soon as practical. Consider your local city councilmember’s and county supervisor’s support for these needed protections of our beautiful county as well. As Mendocino County residents, we’re really in this together.

 

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John On Wine ­ – Grapes or Winemaker?

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on March 20, 2014 by John Cesano

I received a great question from Toronto, Canada; Jason Gonsalves asked, “Which has the greatest impact on the quality of a good wine: the winemaker or the grapes?”

I loved the question because there is not an absolute right answer as both are important, impactful. There are clichés in the wine industry about anybody being able to make good wine in great vintages, some vintages being winemaker proof, and these notions suggest that grapes are most impactful, although I would suggest that the vintage impacts the quality of the grape and therefore vintage may be most impactful. It is also oft said that winemakers earn their salaries making good wine in bad vintages. It is true that many wines were saved by skilled winemakers in bad, or tough, vintages.

Let’s look at grapes and then winemakers. The quality of a grape, the impact the grape will have is dependent on many factors. The first factor is varietal. In hotter areas, many folks plant big reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, and see the heat bring sugar that leads to alcohol and body.

In cooler areas, many folks plant cool climate varietals like the Alsatian whites, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling, or Burgundian varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Viticulture, grape growing choices, impacts the quality of the fruit; head pruning vs. trellising, dry farming, vs. drip irrigation, rocky hill sides vs. loamy river banks, pulling leaves (canopy management) vs. leaving all the leaves, organic compost vs. commercial fertilizer, dropping fruit or not, picking by hand vs. machine.

There are many decisions made in the vineyard that affect the quality of a grape and impact the wine. Vintage matters. Remember the fires of 2008? Remember the smoke, soot, and ash that blanketed nearly all of Mendocino County? I remember soaking a bandana in water, covering my mouth and nose, and using it as a filter to breathe through on the way to my black car. Mind you, I owned a white car, but it was black. Everything was black. Grapes in 2008 sat under the same smoke, ash, and soot.

2011 was tough for a lot of folks. That was the year without a summer. I’m looking out a window in March at flowers that sprung from buds that broke in February this year. In 2011, bud break didn’t occur in many places until late May, and was followed almost immediately in early June by torrential rains which took the buds right off the vines. Vineyards that regularly harvested four tons per acre in other years ended up harvesting about a ton and a half, an enormous reduction in tonnage. After the disastrous rain of early June, temperatures remained cool, sugars were very low.

Winemakers impact the quality of wine enormously too. Name 20 Mendocino County winemakers. I’ll choose 10 and the wines they would make would be better, much better, than the wines made by the 10 I didn’t choose. Winemakers saved the 2008 vintage, reducing or eliminating the smoke taint through reverse osmosis. Winemakers made bigger red wines than the 2011 vintage grapes would have allowed with additions of fruit concentrates and color. I have been fortunate, I have seen a winemaker take good grapes from a great vintage that yielded wine that wasn’t great and let them sing with a tiny addition of tartaric acid. Winemakers have a host of choices that impact the quality of a wine: oak vs. stainless, barrel vs. staves or chips, malolactic butter vs. zero ml apple flavors, 100 percent varietal composition vs. blend, filter and fine vs. not, vineyard designate vs. mixing fruit from more than one location source, bottle age vs. truck age. Frankly, there are so many choices winemakers have, so many tools in their toolbox, that it is ridiculous to minimize the impact of the winemaker on a quality wine.

I work for Guinness McFadden, one of Mendocino County’s top growers. Organic from day one, 44 years ago, and biodiverse, Guinness has experimented and found what grows best on his farm and under what conditions. Planting cool climate grapes on his high altitude river valley property, and then treating each of many blocks like the separate micro climates they are has led to the most possible flavor for each varietal planted. Guinness dry farms some, and irrigates other; head prunes some, and trellises other, and sure enough he grows some grapes on rocky hillsides where vines fight for moisture and has other grapes planted very near the Russian River.

I used to work with Carol Shelton, one of California’s best winemakers. I tasted the results of her winemaking, over 40 releases each year, from over a dozen varietals. The top awarded winemaker in the nation, several years running, Carol worked with grapes from all over, and transformed them into amazing wines. If pressed, I would say that grapes are the first and most important factor, winemaker is second, in what makes a great wine; but I wholly respect anyone who disagrees, and there are plenty of great winemakers in the county to point to as examples of impact on wine. Thanks for your question Jason, it was great because there is no wrong ­ or right ­ answer, but an excellent jumping off point to explore some of the complexities of wine.

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Get your ticket for April 5′s A Showcase of Mendocino Sparkling Wine where a dozen local producers will come together at Terra Sávia winery in Hopland to showcase their finest offerings. Graziano Family of Wines, Handley Cellars, McFadden Vineyards, Nelson Family Vineyards, Paul Dolan Vineyards, Rack & Riddle, Ray’s Station, Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger Cellars, Signal Ridge, Terra Savia, and Yorkville Cellars will all pour their sparkling wines. Enjoy smoked salmon, local oysters, pate, canapés, fresh strawberries, artisan breads, and for dessert, a delicious lavender infused sponge cake, to pair with your bubbly tastes. Classical guitarist Joel DiMauro will be perform. I’ll be there, and hope to see you there too. Tickets are $55, online, at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/590621

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John On Wine ­ -
A wine dinner and Mendocino County loses a great friend

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on March 13, 2014 by John Cesano

 

If you read this column, you know that I love wine, and I love food, but I really love wine and food together. I’ve written about the Chef’s Wine Dinners at Crush, each one featuring a different winery or brand: Saracina, Barra and Girasole, Bonterra, and Coro Mendocino. I wrote about the crab and bubbly pairing at Patrona that featured the sparkling wines of Roederer Estate. At the insistence of you, the folks who read this column, I ate at Uncorked, pairing a variety of plates with a flight of different wines. Up next, I’ll enjoy Testa Wines at Saucy in Ukiah during a four course wine dinner on Wednesday, March 26 starting at 6 p.m. The cost is only $60, includes wine and food, but does not include tax or gratuity.

This is a working menu and may change before the dinner, but it should inspire you to call and reserve a spot at the dinner. First course: Bosc pear, ricotta and rosemary ravioli in a dreamy sauce; served with Testa White, a blend of Sauvingon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Muscat and Pinot Gris. Second course: little gem romaine, Pennyroyal blue cheese, red wine vinaigrette, white pepper cracker; served with Testa Grenache, a delicious wine with notes of light berry and spice. Third course: braised short ribs, red wine pan reduction, Peruvian potato & root vegetable gratin, sauteed dino kale; served with Testa Black, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane and Petite Sirah. Dessert, the fourth course: brown butter pound cake, caramelized pineapple, sweet crème, Testa Charbono syrup; served with Sherry. I’ve made my reservation. To join the fun, you’ll need to call too, before all the seats are gone, (707) 462-7007.

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I met Virginie Boone a couple of years ago. Virginie tasted wines from Mendocino and Lake County for Wine Enthusiast magazine and then rated them on a 100 point scale and wrote a review of each. The old Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission, through Jan Mettler of Boss Dog marketing, invited Virginie up to visit some of Mendocino County’s more unique wineries and tasting rooms, and I was fortunate enough to score a visit with Virginie for McFadden. The first thing I noticed was that Virginie was relaxed, not stuffy or pretentious, but smiling and pleased to be visiting a beautiful area on a gorgeous day, and being able to taste wines made the day more joyous for her. Virginie let me know up front that she was a bit pressed for time, had a couple more stops to make and could taste perhaps four wines. I ended up pouring nearly a dozen wines, telling a little story about each, completely blowing her schedule (if you have visited the McFadden tasting room on a weekday when I’m in, then you know I do hour long experiences and not slam-bam tastings), and she was quite gracious about the hijacking of her time.

I also took the opportunity to pour a wine she had recently rated lower than I felt was right, letting her know it was our fastest selling wine; an amazingly food-friendly wine, and a wine made from the same grapes that another writer had raved about and put on his year end Top 100 Wines list. I pointed out that sometimes wines tasted through a “Parker” filter come up short but, when tasted in place, the different flavors that a piece of land and climate give to a wine can expand the envelope of what is considered varietally correct, like the way McFadden’s Zinfandel is a lower alcohol, Beaujolais-esque, sweet tart candy noted delight instead of a high alcohol fruit jam bomb.

Virginie, to her credit, ended up including McFadden as a “recommended producer” of Zinfandel in a feature piece she wrote over a year later. Virginie visited the county often, more often than many of her counterparts at other publications. She came up to the farm in Potter Valley, toured with Guinness, picked her own corn, which just minutes later was served up with wild rice salad and beef from the farm, all washed down with delicious wine and bubbly.

We ended up as an editor’s pick for Best Year End Sparkling Wine in the magazine. More widely, Virginie sat as a judge, tasting the county’s best wines at the Mendocino County Wine Competition and was open to visits to attend events like the upcoming Celebration of Mendocino County Sparkling Wine on April 5 and the spring Hopland Passport on May 3 & 4. If this feels eulogy-like, it is. Virginie hasn’t passed away, but has been asked to review the wines of Napa and Sonoma counties for Wine Enthusiast. Fortunately, Virginie also writes for the Press Democrat and hopefully her visits to our county will still inform some of the pieces she writes there. Taking over the taste, rate, and review duties for Mendocino and Lake County wines at wine Enthusiast is Jim Gordon. Jim knows wine and wine writing, as the former managing editor of Wine Spectator and the producer of the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa. Earlier this week, I sent an email inviting Jim to several Mendocino County wine events. I hope Jim visits at least as often (more often is great) as Virginie did, and I would share that Anderson Valley is not the entirety of Mendocino County, and there are excellent wines and new styles to be found outside of Napa County, if you open yourself up to them. Welcome Jim Gordon.

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The folks at SF City Voter had month long voting for Bay Area A-List Best winners in several categories, from coffee shops to brew pubs, and wedding photographers to wineries.

Over 37,000 votes were cast.

Winners for Best Wineries were announced today.

Here is a list of the top 5 vote getting wineries from each of the areas throughout the bay area:

BEST MENDOCINO WINERY

1. McFadden Vineyard
13275 S Hwy 101 #5, Hopland, CA

2. Navarro Vineyards & Winery
5601 Hwy. 128, Philo, CA

3. Roederer Estate
4501 Highway 128, Philo, CA

4. Toulouse Vineyards
8001 Highway 128, #152, Philo, CA

5. Pacific Star Winery
33000 North Highway 1, Fort Bragg, CA
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BEST NAPA WINERY

1. Frank Family Vineyards
1091 Larkmead Ln, Calistoga, CA

2. Reynolds Family Winery
3266 Silverado Trl, Napa, CA

3. Artesa Vineyards & Winery
1345 Henry Rd, Napa, CA

4. Peju Province Winery
8466 Saint Helena Hwy, Rutherford, CA

5. V. Sattui Winery
1111 White Ln, St. Helena, CA
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BEST SAN FRANCISCO WINERY

1. The Winery SF
200 California Avenue, San Francisco, CA

2. Schug Carneros Estate
602 Bonneau Rd, Sonoma, CA

3. Stage Left Cellars
2102 Dennison St, East Oakland Oakland, CA

4. Ridge Vineyards
17100 Montebello Rd, Santa Clara County Cupertino, CA

5. Urban Legend Cellars
621 4th St, Jack London Square Oakland, CA
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BEST SONOMA WINERY

1. Imagery Estate Winery
CA-12, Glen Ellen, CA

2. Alexander Valley Vineyards
8644 Highway 128, Healdsburg, CA

3. Portalupi Wines
7 North St, Healdsburg, CA

4. Loxton Cellars
11466 Dunbar Road, Glen Ellen, CA

5. Deerfield Ranch Winery
10200 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, CA
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BEST LIVERMORE WINERY

1. McGrail Vineyards and Winery
5600 Greenville Rd, Livermore, CA

2. Wente Vineyards
5565 Tesla Road, Livermore, CA

3. Steven Kent Winery
5443 Tesla Rd, Livermore, CA

4. Retzlaff Vineyards
1356 S Livermore Ave, Livermore, CA

5. Red Feather Winery
5700 Greenville Rd, Livermore, CA

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This is your list, collectively, a vote of the people, a popularity contest.

Nothing wrong with popularity; I find it is usually deserved, earned.

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John On Wine – Wine Tasting in March

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on March 6, 2014 by John Cesano

This Saturday, Hopland celebrates St. Patrick’s Day a little early with participating winery tasting rooms serving up a little Irish cheer, and homemade Irish dishes, to pair with terrific wines and big savings from 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. St.Patrick’s Day is the day that Rich Parducci and Greg Graziano are as Irish as Guinness McFadden; everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

McNab Ridge will serve up Irish Stew, Irish soda bread, and Bailey’s Irish whipped cream.

McFadden will have corned beef and cabbage, cooked in McFadden Gewurztraminer and McFadden organic herbs. Ray’s Station is going with Reuben meatballs, Irish cheese, and Irish short bread. Cesar Toxqui Cellars will have Italian food. Naughty Boy and Graziano will also take part in Second Saturday fun.

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Saturday, March 8 from 1 -4 p.m. ­ Little River Whale Festival benefiting MAPA ­ the Mendocino Area Parks Association, and the Van Damme State Park. This is a passport style event over three hours with eight locations. Tickets are $25 in advance and can be purchased by calling Little River Inn at 937-5942 or $30 at the event. Specialties from eight local gourmet chefs and local wines! Participating wineries include Alder Vineyards, Edmeades Winery, Graziano Family of Wines, Handley Cellars, Lichen, Lula Cellars, and Stevenswood Wines. Dessert & locally roasted coffee by Thanksgiving Coffee at the Little River Market & Deli.

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The Wine Road is a Sonoma County winery tourism group run by Beth Costa and includes the Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and Alexander Valley, all of which surround the town of Healdsburg. Wine Road puts on the Barrel Tasting Weekends with more than 100 participating wineries in and around Healdsburg.

From the Wine Road website page dedicated to the Barrel Tasting Weekends: “Barrel Tasting is not a food pairing or themed event. It’s all about the wine … many wineries offer “futures” on their barrel samples. This is a chance to purchase wine now, often at a discount, then come back to the winery when the wine is bottled, typically 12-18 months from now. Many wines are so limited, buying futures is your only chance to purchase them. Attendees are encouraged to pack a picnic, as most wineries will not have food for this event. The ticket price includes the opportunity to sample wine from the barrel and in most cases also trying a limited number of current release wines.”

Did you notice that they mention that there is no food at the event and encourage folks to bring an entire picnic of food? That is to counter the only negative attached to the event: it has picked up a bit of a reputation as a drunk fest ­ but a very successful drunk fest. I remember attending more than 25 years ago. Barrel Tasting used to be just one weekend and it was free. Alexander Valley opened up Friday night and I would visit there first, with Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley for Saturday and Sunday. The event was largely attended by folks in the wine industry and wine enthusiasts. The event has grown, and gone from free to $5, then $20, and now $30; and from one weekend to two. With 8,000 folks on the road, racing from winery to winery, trying to taste at over 100 and get value for their ticket price, there are horror stories of inebriation. Imagine it, and the reality is 10 times worse. That said, it really is just a few horribly bad apples gaining all of the notoriety, and the event really is otherwise spectacular. The final weekend of the 36th annual Barrel Tasting are this weekend, March 7-9, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. Advance ticket sales have ended, but wineries will sell tickets at the door. For a map of participating wineries, visit http://bit.ly/1cA956P.

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Saturday, March 22 from 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. – Saracina’s Old Soul Red Blending Party. I’ve written before about how much fun a wine blending party can be, I’ve attended the Testa Barn Blend Party two of the three years it has been held, and was able to be one of three judges to help Maria and rusty choose a winner last year. Nelson, McNab Ridge, and now Saracina also have wine blending events, and all are worth attending. Saracina winemaker Alex MacGragor will lead folks through the art and science of wine blending, and then set you loose to help fashion or inspire the next vintage of the Saracina Coro Mendocino. Oops, a rose by any other name. I should have said that you have the chance to blend your own version of the Saracina Atrea Old Soul Red.

Everyone who attends and participates is a winner, as events at Saracina are known for being memorably top notch. After the hard work (it isn’t really, it is big fun) of wine blending winds down, you get to relax and enjoy Saracina wines and a family-style lunch of wood-fired pizzas and gourmet sides prepared by farm-to-table chef Olan Cox.

Given the hands-on nature of this experience, space is very limited. Please call (707) 670-0199 to grab your ticket now. Saracina is located 1.5 miles north of Hopland at 11684 South Hwy 101.

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I fly to Phoenix for the weekend. Perhaps, I’ll review coach class airline wine and airport hotel lounge wine for next week’s column. In the meantime, why don’t you get out this weekend and taste some wine? There certainly are ample opportunities for a great wine weekend close to home. Cheers!

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John On Wine – Celebration of Mendocino County Sparkling Wines

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on February 27, 2014 by John Cesano

Destination Hopland, the non-profit group charged with promoting tourism for the Hopland area wineries, is sponsoring a new event on Saturday, April 5 and invited participation from sparkling wine producers from throughout Mendocino County. A “Celebration of Mendocino County Sparkling Wines” will be held from noon to 4 p.m. at Terra Savia, 14160 Mountain House Road, Hopland. Eleven local producers will come together at Terra Sávia winery in Hopland to showcase their finest offerings. Great and classic food pairing treats for sparkling wines will be served, like smoked salmon, local oysters, pate, canapés, fresh strawberries, artisan breads and, for dessert, delicious lavender infused sponge cake. Classical guitarist Joel DiMauro will be performing. Participating wineries include:

Graziano Family of Wines

Handley Cellars

McFadden Vineyard

Nelson Family Vineyards

Paul Dolan Vineyards

Rack & Riddle

Ray’s Station

Roederer Estate

Scharffenberger Cellars

Signal Ridge

Terra Savia

Tickets are $55 and available online at mendocinosparkling.brownpapertickets.com.

The folks at Wine Enthusiast magazine taste a lot of wine, well over 10,000 wines each year, I am sure. Last December they announced their Top 100 wines of 2013, and the #1 wine of the year was the 2004 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage. The 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, with 5,825 wines entered, was the largest judging of American wines in the world. The only winery in the nation to win two Double Gold Medals (unanimous Gold from the judges) for sparkling wines was McFadden Vineyard for the NV McFadden Sparkling Brut and the 2009 McFadden Reserve Sparkling Brut.

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Bubbly in Mendocino County is spectacularly good, the quality high, while the prices are remarkably affordable. Far too many people open a bottle of sparkling wine only to celebrate a special event, when a good quality bubbly is an absolute delight when enjoyed as a before-dinner cocktail, or when paired with a host of foods from oysters to salmon bagels and poached eggs with caviar to chicken breasts in a citrus glaze.

Some sparkling wines that will be poured have notes of green apple and grapefruit, unapologetically crisp, while others will showcase a bready, yeasty, brioche character. Lemon, hazelnut, and toffee are notes you might taste in a sparkling wine, or rose petal and strawberry notes from a sparkling rosé.

Cuveé is a word that you will see on more than one label. Cuveé means blend, and a sparkling wine with a cuvee designation is likely a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, with perhaps a small amount of Pinot Meunier.

You will also see NV on a bottle or three, and this is also a blend, but a blend of different vintages. NV means non-vintage. The folks who produce sparkling wines in Mendocino County scrupulously refer to our bubblies as sparkling wines and never Champagnes. Practically the same thing, but we respect that real Champagne comes from Champagne, France. That said, most of us understand and do not mind when our customers use the terms sparkling wine and Champagne interchangeably.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch into how sparkling wine is made: Grapes for sparkling wine are picked earlier than for still wine, at lower sugar, usually in August. Chardonnay is picked for a Blanc de Blanc, Pinot Noir is picked for a Blanc de Noir, and a blend of the two is often picked for a Brut or Brut Rosé. After crushing the grapes for juice, the wine is made in the bottle, rather than an oak barrel or stainless steel tank.

A little active yeast in the bottle feeds the sugar – this is fermentation and where the alcohol comes from. The fruit notes come from the grapes. The wine spends time with unspent yeast, and spent yeast, also known as lees and picks up some yeasty or bready notes.

By tilting the bottle toward a neck down position, and giving the bottle little turns, the yeast and lees collect at the neck end of the bottle. This process is known as racking and riddling. The neck end of the bottle is submerged in a below zero freeze bath so a solid plug of yeast and lees can be formed and removed.

A second fermentation happens when a small dose of sugar, or dosage, is added to the wine and the cork and cage are affixed to the bottle. A small amount of unspent yeast remains in the bottle and eats the dosage, resulting in carbon dioxide, the bubbles that make sparkling wines so fun. This is how good bubbly is made. I hope you’ll get a ticket to the inaugural Mendo Bubbly Fest; If you do, then I’ll definitely see you there. Cheers!

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John Cesano pouring one of two Double Gold Medal awarded McFadden Sparkling Brut wines.

 

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