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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?
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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 http://www.atasteofredwoodvalley.com or call (707) 485-0322.

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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.
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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.
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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.

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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 http://www.phillipshill.com.

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.

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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.

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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 HomeWinemakersFestival.com 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 edandcharb1@att.net.

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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)

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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.
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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.
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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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John On Wine – An early Thanksgiving


Susan Johnson and John Cesano at Passport to Dry Creek Valley

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Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, May 14, 2015

I know I am supposed to save up all my gratefulness for the year and post it in a cliché Thanksgiving post toward the end of November, but Thanksgiving is coming early this year.

During the recently passed Hopland Passport event, one of our visiting tasters told me that she wished she could have my job. Everybody sees greener grass outside their lives; I would love to have Anthony Bourdain’s job, but I do recognize how blessed I am.

The Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley invited me to attend the Passport to Dry Creek Valley for the third consecutive year, and I am extraordinarily grateful. This year, I was accompanied by my good friend, Susan Johnson. Susan and I used to travel the country doing tradeshows, winemaker dinners, and corporate events for wineries, and then moved together to work for the Wine Appreciation Guild where we visited hundreds of wineries and tasting rooms throughout California.

Susan now works for a company that provides winemakers the tools to make great wine, and of course I pour great wine at one job and write about great wine in my other job. Although we came at each wine tasted from a different perspective, Susan looking at what could have made a wine better and me taking each wine as it is, we both were absolutely impressed front to back with the line ups at media check in host winery DaVero, Gustafson Family Winery, and Seghesio. Talty did the best job amplifying social media marketing, Selby had the best single bite of food, and Blanchard had the best ‘story’ wine.

DaVero produces organic or biodynamic wines from Italian varieties, and I shared the names of some Mendocino growers when asked by winemaker Evan, but if you grow grapes in the county, certified organic or biodynamic, and they are Italian varieties, then Evan wants to hear from you. Terrific wines that you will not taste anywhere else, plus they have farm goods for sale — and you know how much I love an organic farm stand & tasting room!

Gustafson is a long drive from any other winery, but absolutely worth the time to get there. Best winery views ever, fantastic wines, whimsically wonderful presented tasty food creations, and a dream property for vacation rental. Gustafson joins Preston and Truett-Hurst as one of my three favorite Dry Creek places to spend an afternoon with wine and food.

In spite of my desire to visit new wineries each Dry Creek Passport, Seghesio pulls me in year after year. Between wine, food, and music this is probably the most dependably solid stop for complete satisfaction.

Within seconds of a #DCVPassport post by me, about any participating winery, Talty was sharing or retweeting it. Visit them if you like Zin, Zin, or Zin. Selby’s duck and andouille sausage gumbo with crayfish cornbread was the best food I tasted all weekend. Blanchard had the best music with the Rosetown Ramblers covering Grateful Dead tunes, and each bottle sold of their “Helicopter” blend sees a donation to help the families of our military’s special operators.

Two days before our own Hopland Passport, I attended a general meeting of Mendocino Winegrowers Inc. at Barra of Mendocino. I would love to sit at a table with Charlie and Martha Barra, George Lee, Ed Berry, Leroy and Mary Louise Chase, and just shut up for a change. Listening to these, and other great growers, is so wonderful, and helps me in my education about Mendocino wine. I gratefully accepted an invite to visit the Chase Vineyard on a future date, and am thankful for the opportunity to tell a future story about wine from a great vineyard.

Hopland Passport. For me, it is a week of preparation, two days of intense energy output, and nearly a week of putting my tasting room back together afterward. Although people have reported that attendance may have been lighter than in the past, you couldn’t tell it by our numbers. I have everyone to thank, all of the team at the farm, the tasting room team, our chef team, and especially all of our visitors for more than doubling our numbers from last spring’s Passport event.

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Passport is truly a team effort, and we all work hard to make it as fun as possible; I think we succeeded. Now, if you’ll all come and pick up all of your paid for wine, I’ll be even more thankful.

Thanks to Tom Liden, Mendocino winery photographer, for your kind words of encouragement about the words I write weekly. Thanks also to all of my other readers for your words of support; I confess that I am still a little freaked out when I’m recognized for my writing and the compliments about individual pieces I have written, but I am enormously grateful. Within the last two weeks, three different people have told me they enjoy the recaps of the Chef’s Winemaker Dinners at Crush; that makes the piece I’ll be writing about the May 20 Graziano dinner all the easier to write.

Thanks to Aubrey Rawlins, executive director of Mendocino Winegrowers Inc., for recommending me for a winery writing gig. The funny thing is I already loved the wines and winery involved, had planned a visit for a future spotlight winery piece here, and this might be the easiest gig ever, a two for one opportunity.

Thanks to Janis MacDonald and Kristy Charles of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association for invitations to all of your events, and for treating the Ukiah Daily Journal wine guy the same as the folks from Wine Enthusiast, San Francisco Chronicle, and Wine Spectator; it is appreciated, if a little surreal and humbling.

I will next be attending the 18th annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival on May 14-17; with a welcome dinner on Thursday (tonight) at Balo Vineyards, the Technical Conference on Friday at the Fairgrounds in Boonville (seriously, it may sound boring, but the tech conferences that Anderson Valley puts on are a highlight of each event) and a Casual BBQ at Lula Cellars that evening, a Press Tasting at Scharffenberger Cellars on Saturday morning followed by the Grand Tasting at Goldeneye Winery.

On Sunday, May 17, I’ll be headed to The Barlow in Sebastopol to taste Mendocino County’s Gold Medal awarded wines from the recent 2015 Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge. Friday, June 19, I’ll be at the Coro Mendocino 2012 Vintage Release Party & Multi-Course Dinner at Dogpatch Wine Works in San Francisco (tickets available at Sip Mendocino in Hopland, ask to sit at the McFadden table), and the next day, June 20, I’ll be at the Metreon in San Francisco for the 11th annual Pinot Days.

In between all this, I’ll be visiting vineyards, wineries, and tasting rooms for future pieces, or simply my own further education and enjoyment.

None of my opportunities would be possible without invitations from others, and those invitations come because I write for you, my readers, here in the Ukiah Daily Journal and online at JohnOnWine.com and you are the reason I have a life worthy of gratitude, of thanks, and of appreciation. I’m not waiting until Thursday, November 26, Thanksgiving day 2015; let me say it now (and possibly again then): Thank you!

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John on Wine – Spotlight winery: Fetzer

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, May 7, 2015

On a cool and overcast morning, I met with Fetzer winemaker Charlie Gilmore, at 8 a.m., for a tour and tasting at the Fetzer winery on Old River Road in Hopland. Joining us were Kelly Conrad, the public relations magician who managed to find a day and time when Charlie and I were both free, and Adam Reiter, Fetzer’s global brand manager.

Adam Reitner, Kelly Conrad, and Charlie Gilmore, Winemaker of Fetzer

Adam Reitner, Kelly Conrad, and Charlie Gilmore, Winemaker of Fetzer

Fetzer is the largest winery in Mendocino County, producing 1.5 million cases of Fetzer wine annually, and 3.5 million cases for all associated brands, which include Bonterra, Jekel, and Little Black Dress.

The winery was started in 1968 by the Fetzer family; acquired by Brown-Forman of Louisville, Kentucky – better known for Jack Daniels whiskey than wine – in 1992 for $82 million; and more recently was bought by Chile’s Concha y Toro in March, 2011 for $238 million. Today, Concha y Toro is the fourth largest wine company in the world.

I asked Charlie about the best thing about Concha y Toro as owners, and he shared, “The CEO of Concha y Toro is from a wine family. Concha y Toro allows a recommitment to the quality of our wine, a premium California heritage brand.”

Fetzer is a green winery, considering the environmental impact of every business decision. Through reuse, recycling and composting, Fetzer has decreased waste sent to landfills by 96 percent since 1990; last year Fetzer became the first Zero Waste Certified winery in the world, and next Fetzer is looking to become only the second B Corp winery in the world – guaranteeing social sustainability and environmental performance standards into the future.

Our morning started with a tour of the tank room, with jacketed tanks that allow wines to be super cooled for cold stabilization. The room was insulated, and engineered to make cost-effective wine in the most energy efficient way. We tasted two ice cold tank samples, both from Monterey County fruit, a 2014 Riesling showing peach and fleshy fruit notes, and a 2014 Gewurztraminer showing spice and fruit; and, shortly after, a 2014 Lodi Sauvignon Blanc, with grass and gooseberry nose, and crisp flavors of lemon peel, grapefruit, apple and pear. A little young, a little (okay, a lot) cold, these are wines of the future and this taste just gave a glimpse of that future, tasty but not fully developed.

Within seconds of being in the tank room, I couldn’t express adequately the degree of happiness at having chosen a warm heavy jacket to wear that morning; Kelly did not bring one and Adam was a gentleman and gave up his light jacket to her.

We toured the settling room, where wine sits 24-48 hours after being pressed and before moving to fermentation. As we walked from the settling room to the red wine side of Fetzer, Charlie told me that when Concha y Toro took over, they asked the Fetzer team, “where do you want to go?,” and he said he wanted to make the, “nicer wines that we felt we could do here,” and received more resources to allow that to happen.

We toured giant blending tanks, micro-oxygenation tanks, and tasted another sample, a 2014 Colusa Zinfandel, with briar, deep red fruit, and herb notes.

Stylistically, Charlie is returning Fetzer from European to California style wines, with a greater emphasis on discernible fruit notes.

Fetzer's Barrel Room

Fetzer’s Barrel Room

The barrel room is huge, a cavernous humidity controlled space built with a round Hobbit hole entrance, surrounded by insulating earth, and holds 55,000 wine barrels, most 55 gallons, and a mix of French and American oak.

Multiple presses lined up, most large – and one mega – on an empty pad, but during harvest constantly operating. One small five ton basket press, dwarfed by the larger presses, is used for the ultra-premium grapes used in the Sanctuary wines, and for fruit off McNab and Butler ranches for Bonterra.

Open top fermenters for Pinot Noir, with a track and pulley system to allow punch downs – punching the floating cap of skins and must down into the juice to impart color and flavor – to be more easily accomplished, also stood ready for fall.

Charlie, Kelly, and Adam had prepared a tasting of six current release Fetzer wines, the first full release under Concha y Toro.

2013 Fetzer Echo Ridge Sauvignon Blanc California $9.99 – brilliant white color, round mouthfeel, pear, grapefruit, herb. Charlie said he wanted to, “respect classic Sauvignon Blanc notes, but with more fruit forward expression, mouthfeel, and light acid.” He succeeded.

2013 Fetzer Sundial Chardonnay California $9.99 – white gold color, light oak, 20 percent new split between French and American, 35 percent older neutral oak, 45 percent stainless steel held. 14 percent malolactic fermentation, “takes the edge off acidity,” explained Charlie. Vanilla, coconut, apricot, peach, tropical fruit.

2012 Eagle Peak Fetzer Merlot California $9.99 – plummy red color, smoky, supple, black cherry and blackberry dark fruit, tannin, tobacco, leather, lush. A little Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot, and Malbec blended in for color and flavor.

2013 Fetzer Valley Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon California $9.99 – deeper red color, rich Cab perfume on nose, meaty, deep dark berry. Oak (40 percent new – for Merlot too), mix French and American. Fleshy mouthfeel married to tannin. Red volcanic soils.

2013 Fetzer Goosefoot Road Riesling Monterey County $9.99 – Ahhh! I taste a lot of Riesling and love great ones. This is delicious, and very much a California style wine. You’ll never confuse this with a Grand Cru Alsace Riesling, and that is okay. Light gold color, soft, peachy, apricot, drinking drier than the 2.7 residual sugar would suggest, nice balancing acid. Simply lovely.

2013 Fetzer Shaly Loam Gewurztraminer Monterey County $9.99 – 67 percent of the Gewurztraminer sold in the US is made by Fetzer, they are #1 in the nation for Gewurztraminer wine production by many miles. Charlie is working to bring more of the spicy aromas to the variety, and this Gewurztraminer had a wonderful rose petal nose. Light argent color, orange blossom, spice, fruit, fruit, fruit. Apple, peach, nectarine. Mellow, long, delicious. The finish was so long, I could still taste this wine as I was driving away five minutes later.

$9.99 for a solid bottle of wine, often lower in a California store or higher in a New York store, for wines this good, made in this quantity, is a genuine testament to the entire team, from individual growers to cellar workers and winemakers to owners with a passion for quality wine. Everyone reading this has seen Fetzer wines at $6.99 in a local store, with an additional 10 percent or 15 percent taken off six or more bottles. Simply, you will not find a better wine value today. These are good wines, solid, much improved over recent years, and spectacularly priced.

Locally, Fetzer has a monthly Community Wine Sale with, “crazy good discounts,” where buyers choose from wines offered in an email newsletter and pick them up at the Hopland winery the following Saturday, and Fetzer donates 5 percent of all proceeds to the Gardens Project of North Coast Opportunities to develop and maintain community gardens in Ukiah, Hopland and throughout Mendocino County. To take advantage of this monthly sale, email winesale@fetzer.com and ask to be added to the list.

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