When you have to eat your words, use a Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel to wash them down.

Recently, I wrote that while the Passport to Dry Creek Valley is the big daddy of wine events, Hopland Passport is the better value.

I’m a little jaded, I work for what I think is the best tasting room in Hopland; the wines we pour and the food we serve with them are unmatched in quality, so I allowed my pride for what we do half an hour north of Healdsburg with our wine and food at our event to color my writing.

I write about wine while running a tasting room; and in the past I used to sit on the board of, and then did marketing for, Destination Hopland – the folks who put on Hopland Passport. Perhaps, I was a touch biased in my piece for the local paper.

I received a media invite to Passport to Dry Creek Valley from Anne Alderette and Melissa McAvoy, two superstars of media outreach hired by the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley (WDCV) to make magic happen.

Passport to Dry Creek Valley

Passport to Dry Creek Valley


I have shared my opinion, long held, that Hopland Passport is the better event value for some time now, and in email exchanges I included a past piece where I wrote as much along with several other wine event recap pieces when corresponding with Anne and Melissa before Passport to Dry Creek Valley.

On the last Saturday in April, I drove to Seghesio Family Vineyards in Healdsburg proper, and was allowed to check in a little early. I am glad that media check in was at Seghesio because the food and wine served up set the tone for much of what would follow.

Seghesio Gamberi e Fregola

Seghesio Gamberi e Fregola


Gambero e Fregola (the most deliciously fried shrimp ever, covered in a romesco, served on a bed of lemon zest cous cous), Penne Bolognese, and homemade Seghesio Italian Sausage were paired up with reds of wonderful body and flavor. With a terrific band laying down great electric jazz jams, I enjoyed one perfect Italian varietal wine after another, with my favorite two being the 2010 Sangiovese and the 2010 San Lorenzo Estate wines.

Next great stop: Amphora Winery, where my high school classmate Karen Mishler Torgrimson works. Amphora is one of over a half dozen wineries that operate in a winery complex just off of Dry Creek Road. Previously, I had focused on Amphora’s Zinfandel, after all, when in Rome and all of that. This time, I tasted Chardonnay to pair with both fresh shucked oysters and a tuna croquette. The oysters were delicious, and the tuna croquette tasted exactly like a good tuna melt tastes – which is a compliment because I love tuna melts on toast. The Chardonnay pushed the limits of tropicality (yeah, I make up words when they don’t but should exist), also a good thing. I also tasted a 2007 Amphora Cabernet Franc, Pedroni Vineyard that showed great fruit and body.

Amphora

Amphora

In the same complex of wineries as Amphora is Dashe. Mike Dashe buys grapes from my boss for his wines (and gets huge acclaim), so I always look in when I’m in the area. Dashe shares a tasting room with Collier Falls and it was actually Collier Falls that was on the passport for this tasting room, although all of the family wineries were pouring.

Collier Falls at Family Wineries

Collier Falls at Family Wineries


One of our wine club members, Jenny Candeleria, was greeting folks at Collier Falls and she pointed me to some wines to taste and made sure I got a plate of food. Lots of red and white country western check and hay bales, and the Steve Pile Band laying down bluesy country music. I enjoyed Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel and a country cover I heard cowboy Bob Weir also cover countless times in concert. The food was simple hearty fare with a terrific sandwich of pulled bbq smoked meat and slaw and the chocolatiest chocolate brownie anywhere.

Truett Hurst. I do not know what caused me to stop in, but I am so glad I did. Preston has been my longtime favorite place to spend an afternoon in the dry creek Valley, with their great wines, arbor shaded picnic tables, and bocce courts. Before my visit to Truett Hurst was done, I had a new favorite Dry Creek Valley stop, or a tie between two favorites, one old, one new.

Me at Truett Hurst

Me at Truett Hurst


I was greeted at the door by a lovely schoolteacher from Ukiah, where I live, who works some weekends at the winery. Upon check in, she told me that after getting some wine, I needed to head out back for some food and then, if I could make the time for a short walk, I had to go sit in a chair beside the river. Best advice all weekend!

Herb gardens at Truett Hurst

Herb gardens at Truett Hurst

The tasting room building is comfortable, well laid out, features two tasting bars, upright refrigerators filled with yummy picnic provisions, and spectacular photographic art that let me know immediately: I was in a winery with biodynamic wines. The animal photos told of wines made from grapes grown in a biodiverse and organic manner, with a touch of ritualistic magic on the side.

The River at Truett Hurst

The River at Truett Hurst


The tasting room staff at Truett Hurst Winery confirmed that they had recently received their Demeter Biodynamic Certification, a many year process, and then listing the owner partners they surprised me: Paul Dolan, iconic Mendocino County grower, winemaker, and a past guest at our Wine Club Dinner, was one of the owners. I like Paul Dolan a ton, and was now, perhaps, predisposed to like Truett Hurst.

Okay, a quick review of biodynamic growing practices: start with organic growing; no synthetic pesticides, insecticides or fertilizers – No Monsanto RoundUp! Next, grow beneficial cover crops to fix nitrogen, attract beneficial insects, and possibly provide some food (fava beans do go great with a nice Chianti). Now bring in some happy animals; chickens to eat less than beneficial insects, sheep to mow the covercrops down, and of course the animals leave behind a natural and unmanipulated fertilizer for the grapevines. Okay, now comes the magic: take a cow horn, fill it with cow poo, and bury it by the light of the moon on one solstice. Near six months later, unbury the cow poo filled cow horn on the next solstice and place it in a barrel full of collected rainwater, or virgin tears, to steep, making a cow poo horn tea. Do not drink the tea, but instead use the liquid preparation to spray the vines. Seriously, you have to do this if you want Demeter Certification. I don’t know if the ritual magic has any real benefit, but I know that time spent in the vineyard with the grapevines is never bad, so while maybe not any better than simply growing organically with maybe some biodiversity in the mix, it isn’t a bad thing. Heck, maybe the magic does great things, I don’t know, but I do know the practice has passionate adherents, like Paul Dolan. Cesar Toxqui, another winemaker from my area is another true believer and he, like Paul, makes great juice.

Anyway, back to the juice. I tasted the 2011 Red Rooster Old Vine Zinfandel, a solid offering made even more solid when I stepped into the large back yard and found three delicious treats to pair it with served up by Peter Brown, the chef at the Jimtown Store: Pork Rillettes (think phenomenally flavorful pork pate), deliciously light slaw with lots of nice acid and herb, and possibly the weekend’s best bite, a mascarpone and pistachio stuffed date. The pourers were generous with pours, and I took a decent 4 oz of the 2011 White sheep Pinot Noir with me as I walked through flower and herb gardens, planted to attract beneficial insects but also offering up the most intensely pungent natural perfume, and on a short distance to where I found groupings of red Adirondack chairs arranged under tree shade on the bank of a calming babbling river – it looked more like a creek, but why quibble?

The peacefulness, sitting comfortably in a chair, glass of delicious Pinot Noir at hand, the lovely earthy dried cherry aromas and flavors, everything at Truett Hurst made me happy.

Who has the biggest balls in wine country? The folks at Malm Cellars, that’s who. Enormous cajones, I tell you. Words I thought I would never write: “and I poured out the Chateau d’Yquem,” but the folks at Malm had me writing it before I was done visiting them.

Malm Cellars

Malm Cellars


I had friends in the Dry Creek Valley, tasting wines, but had no idea where they were; my phone and mobile internet coverage were non-existent for most of the day throughout the valley. At one point, I headed back to Hwy 101, for a wi-fi connect, and in checking out #dcvpassport tweets, I got into an exchange with Lori Malm, no relation, about Malm Cellars, and decided to visit them.

Hardest to find winery of Passport to Dry Creek Valley may go to Malm Cellars. Like many of my favorite adult juice makers, Malm makes their wines in an industrial park. Down a dead end (W. North) street,  behind a row of buildings, I found them at last.

The food was flavorful, from butter drenched scampi shrimp to simple but perfectly executed bbq, and the wines were delicious from a 2012 Sauvignon Blanc through a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, but if I had any criticism it would be that the food flavors were a bit intense, overpowering the wines a bit. I just took them separately, along with lots of water in between.

A major highlight of the entire Passport to Dry Creek Valley weekend event came when I tasted, side by side, a 2005 Chateau d’Yquem (rated 97 points by Wine enthusiast, 97 points by Wine Spectator, and 92 points by Robert Parker’s wine advocate) at $429 for a 375 ml half bottle up against a 2010 Malm Cellars Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc at $97 for a 375 ml half bottle.

At $429 for a half bottle, I do not taste a lot of Chateau d’Yquem, a late harvest, botrytis blessed Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blend, usually 80%/20%. This was a terrific wine, as you would expect, but I liked the 2010 Malm Cellars Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc more. It wasn’t even close.

I will forever be impressed with Malm’s courage to compare themselves with the best, and prove they are better.

I will also be picking up a bottle to pair with foie gras, ordered in from outside the state, because a wine this good demands a pairing this great. Malm Cellars is located at 119 W. North Street near Moore Lane in Healdsburg.

I finished day one on Westside Road, near West Dry Creek Road, at DaVero Farms & Winery, but I would recommend starting there instead of finishing there. It was hot Saturday afternoon, and most of DaVero’s offerings were arrayed outdoors among the organic and Biodynamic fields, where shade was short.

Salmon at DaVero

Salmon at DaVero


A welcome bite of skewered salmon, with a very little farm olive oil, lemon, and salt, reminded me why I consider salmon a perfect food. Paired with Malvasia Bianca, a varietal I first fell in love with years ago when Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm was introducing many of America’s wine lovers to it, I was pretty happy. The DaVero Sagrantino, a rose berry Italian red varietal, went great with bites of grilled lamb and rustic pizza slices.

One of the things that impressed me about Passport to Dry Creek Valley was that each of the participating wineries had a 5 gallon thermos cooler for water, each with a matching “hydration station” sign. I took advantage of the offered water at every stop, consuming far more water than the amount of wine I tasted. Kudos to the folks at WDCV for the thoughtful and caring touch. Hey, Destination Hopland, I’m looking at you, follow suit, okay?

Meyer Lemonade at DaVero

Meyer Lemonade at DaVero


DaVero went one step further. In addition to the hydration station water, DaVero provided Meyer lemonade. Thank you, thank you, thank you. In the heat of the afternoon, this was a most appreciated touch. You are the bomb!

Day two, I was joined by my good friend Serena Alexi. Serena has joined me for other tastings, and has helped me by making sure I get the good picture, or taste the yummy wine, or pick up my notebook when I leave. That, and she knows more folks in Sonoma County’s wine industry than I do these days.

Serena Alexi at Passport to Dry Creek Valley

Serena Alexi at Passport to Dry Creek Valley


Our first great stop was Ridge Vineyards. Everything, as expected, tasted great, but my favorite was the 2011 Zinfandel, made from Benito Dusi’s grapes in Paso Robles. Paired with the Sonoma duck mole and corn spoon bread prepared by feast catering, this was a great start to our day.

Under the shade at Ridge

Under the shade at Ridge


Kachina Vineyards is off Dry Creek Road about as far as any winery has ever been off any road. It is way the hell back off the road, a decent drive. The location is worth the travel. Remote, quiet, and bucolic, Kachina welcomed guests with a quiet and relaxed greeting…and homemade corn nuts. Kachina is off the grid, relying on solar energy to power their endeavors. The sun was out and Serena and I found a couple of comfortable wooden chairs at a table in the shade and set up base camp, leaving only to try a new wine and quickly return to the comfort of our camp.

A paper bowl of yum at Kachina

A paper bowl of yum at Kachina


I found myself favoring a Sangiovese Rose at Kachina, and a terrific simple rustic grilled meat, onion, potato and tomato dish.

Back to the road, we made our way next to Unti Vineyards. I think Unti Vineyards was the favorite stop on day two for both Serena and me. 

Everything Unti did at Passport, and they did a lot, worked effortlessly. Okay, that isn’t fair, there was obviously a lot of work that went into everything, but it was presented so well as to seem effortless.

Oysters at Unti, fresh from Tomales Bay

Oysters at Unti, fresh from Tomales Bay


The wines, from a 2012 Rose, through Grenache, Segromigno, Montepulciano, and Zinfandel were all excellent. The food, from the best guacamole ever (www.poormansbutter.com) and the tastiest oysters from the famed Tomales Bay Oyster girls (you’ve got to try the sassy pink horseradish sauce) outdoors, to the indoor food: truffled duck liver terrina with grilled bread and truffled salt, meatballs “dabe glace” with roasted red pepper salad, and eggplant caponata bruschetta, was varied and uniformly outstanding. The music, when we were visiting, was provided by the local high school’s jazz combo, and they were great.

Proof for the existence of a loving God: Truffled Duck Liver at Unti

Proof for the existence of a loving God: Truffled Duck Liver at Unti

The reds at Unti Vineyards were excellent, but Sunday was a scorcher, hotter than Saturday, which made me really appreciate the 2012 Rose, a Grenache/Mourvedre blend, so juicy crushed berry over ice yummy, and the 2012 Cuvee Blanc, a blend of Vermiento, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul, that paired perfectly with the oysters.

Because, I was so impressed with Truett Hurst the day before, I returned to share my find with Serena. We have often visited Preston before, and she could see easily why I loved this spot as much. Serena also liked the wines, the herb and flower gardens, the food from Jimtown store, and the comfy chairs by the river.

The final stop for this year’s Passport to Dry Creek Valley was at Michel-Schlumberger. I decided to visit, finally, because the winery fields two teams that I golf against each year in a wine country invitational tournament at the nearby Windsor Golf Course each year, and because they put up fellow wine blogger Hardy Wallace as he transitioned from a Really Goode Job to a great one.

The courtyard at Michel-Schlumberger

The courtyard at Michel-Schlumberger

What a lovely spot, again a bit of a drive off a main road, off West Dry Creek and up Wine Country Road, Michel-Schlumberger offered up a gorgeous courtyard, shaded places to sit and enjoy their wines and food offerings, and a very skilled Spanish flamenco styled guitarist.

I had a delightful Pinot Blanc paired with a cucumber and grape gazpacho, served in the cool cellar, that made me glad we were finishing our weekend at Michel-Schlumberger, a perfect last taste on a hot day.

I wrote, perhaps foolishly that, at $45, Hopland Passport was a better value than the $120 Passport to Dry Creek Valley. I visited the same number of wineries that participate at Hopland Passport, 17, and wrote up the 9 I loved when visiting Dry Creek Valley. I expect the experiences would be the same at either event, visit 8-9 each day, and absolutely love a little over half.

That said, next year, I could visit a completely different 17 wineries at Dry Creek Valley, and a completely different 17 the year after. With a greater number of tickets sold, and at the higher price, participating wineries can spend more and offer more, knowing they will see substantial reimbursement checks. Every Dry Creek Valley winery treats folks like McFadden does in Hopland -or better, with the crazy large reimbursement money to do it. The signage, the hydration station water coolers, comfort stations, spectacular food, live music, the appreciation of marketing, the emphasis on quality media outreach; we in Hopland could learn a lot more from our friends to the south.

Passport to Dry Creek Valley rocked my socks off, and is the undisputed heavyweight wine weekend event champion of the world. The preceding words were washed down with a glass of 2010 Seghesio Cortina Zinfandel from a bottle I bought shortly after checking in.

The folks in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley asked me to let you know that limited ticket sales will begin this Friday, February 1, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. for Passport to Dry Creek Valley.

PassportLogo2012Ivory-K

The 24th Annual Passport to Dry Creek Valley will run Saturday & Sunday, April 27 & 28 at the 50+ wineries directly west and northwest of Healdsburg, roughly an hour north of San Francisco on Hwy 101.

Tickets are $120 each for a Two-Day Passport or $70 each for Sunday only and can be purchased at www.wdcv.com.

Here’s what the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley website says:

“Passport to Dry Creek Valley was introduced in 1990, by the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley, as a time every year when the winegrowing community could come together to celebrate the generations of farmers, vintners and families that are the roots of the Dry Creek Valley wine region. Over the 24 years since, the event has become a beloved tradition among wine lovers who enjoy a world-class tasting experience with a festive twist, all within the idyllic Dry Creek Valley.

Over one weekend, Passport guests are welcomed into 50+ wineries throughout Dry Creek Valley, each offering a unique pairing of premium wine, gourmet food and entertainment. Take a vineyard tour for a grape-to-glass look at Dry Creek Valley wine. Sample exclusive vintages, rarely available to taste. Meet winemakers and grapegrowers – the generations of people behind the wine and magical ‘Dry Creek Valley spirit’. Savor exquisite food and wine pairings from acclaimed chefs.  Delight in discovering each winery’s unique Passport “theme,” a tradition of the event. The possibilities are as varied as the wineries themselves and promise a fun, unforgettable weekend. Enjoy!”

Here’s my take: The event rocks. Any Passport event does. The opportunity to pay one price and then visit and taste wines at several winery tasting rooms with special food pairings created to make the wines taste even better – well, you’ve got to love that. Many of the winery stops have live entertainment and offer up a theme experience.

I grew up in Sonoma County. I crushed Dry Creek Valley grapes for family wine when I was twelve. I worked a Dry Creek vineyard as a teen. Some of my favorite wineries are in the Dry Creek Valley. A friend from high school, Karen, works at Amphora Winery (who is serving up Cioppino on Saturday, February 16) in Dry Creek Valley.

I’m now a Mendocino County guy, a Hopland guy, a McFadden Farm guy. We have our own Passport; Hopland Passport is the weekend following Passport to Dry Creek Valley, May 4 & 5, 2013. Hopland Passport is only $45 for a two day ticket, or $55 if you procrastinate. Hopland Passport has 16 or 17 participants, which is the perfect number of winery tasting rooms to visit without rushing or courting gross inebriation – there is no Earthly way to visit all of the Dry Creek Valley participants enjoyably. Hopland Passport is by far the better value for a nearly identical experience. In fairness, Hopland Passport owes much of its’ success to being modeled on the brilliantly spectacular Passport to Dry Creek Valley event.

Okay, duty to where I live done, here’s a dose of reality: Passport to Dry Creek Valley is an event that sells out quickly every year. People in San Francisco and the bay area are willing and able to drive an hour north of the Golden Gate to attend Passport to Dry Creek Valley. There are numerous lodging and dining options available in and around Healdsburg. By picking 6-10 wineries to visit each day and taking the time to fully experience the offerings at each stop, wine tasting (not drinking, but tasting please – buy and drink later), listening and dancing to great music, enjoying tours and special presentations, and partaking of outrageously delicious food at each stop, you will have an absolutely great time and enjoy one of the best wine country experiences available at any price. I love this event, you will too.

This is the hottest ticket in wine country. Tickets go on sale Friday at 10:00 a.m. and if you want a ticket then you should get it early.

You are also free to delay until they are sold out; I honestly hope they sell out faster than ever! For everyone that ignores my message about getting your tickets early and misses out, we would love to see you the following weekend, up the road just another half hour, in Hopland for our Passport event.

No matter how much you love your job, a day off is often a welcome thing.

I arranged to take four days off, Thursday through today, Sunday, and I had an absolute blast.

Thursday morning I awoke realizing I had to pop into work because I failed to enter my last order of the day before with the correct discount for a Wine Club Member ordering the Wine of the Month, 35%, so a quick trip into the office to void one order while reentering a new correct order started my day off.

My next stop was the Windsor Golf Course in Sonoma County where I would join my friends Fred, Gary, and Fred’s brother Richie to play as a team in the 15th Annual Wine Country Golf Classic, a charity tournament run by Cornerstone Media with the proceeds going to fund efforts to make meaningful communication possible with young people, to effect positive changes.

I had not golfed in over a year, and I am a terrible golfer anyway, but I have golfed with Fred and Gary many times in this tournament, and have golfed with Fred and Richie on off days while working in Florida, they know I am terrible, but we have a great time together, it is a best ball format tournament and I can contribute a little while being carried, and it is a fun day and for the kids.

Great lunch, champagne toast, winery teams, kegs of Bear republic on the course along with oysters and bloody Marys and mojitos (I didn’t find them but I really didn’t need them) and Bahama mama jello shots and wine and champagne and water and cookies and a painter and a River Rock Casino hand of 21 and more fun scattered about the course, plus an incredible dinner and live and silent auction to go with your golf would be enough for most people, but I got a terrific bonus: I shot well! I had booming drives, solid approach shots, birdie putts; maybe my best day of gold, certainly my best at this tournament, and together with my teammates, we took a second place award.

Friday, I had a morning meeting with a friend going back to elementary school, Mike. Mike is either the hardest working, or smartest working, or luckiest working person I know – I suspect it is a lot of the first two and a little of the last. I could list the series of business successes he has had, but it just comes off sounding unreal. The super cool news is that we might have the opportunity to work together on a future project, possibly with yet another friend from elementary school, Arne. Mike also is the man behind the authentic Pablo Sandoval panda hats you see at baseball games. Mike, the exclusive supplier, gifted me one of the incredible hats, and if there is any question as to how cool a panda hat is, my 14 year old son stole it immediately upon seeing it and has worn it without break the last three days.

Next, I went to visit another school friend, Karen, at the Dry Creek Valley winery she works at, Amphora Wines. It was funny, but it was kind of like seeing myself. Karen enjoys working for her winery, is competent, and a solid representative for her wine brand. I tasted her wines, loved the 2006 Amphora Zinfandel, Rivet Vineyard the most, perhaps because it reminded me most of the wines I grew up on. Many Zins are a little too much or too little of this or that, but the Amphora Rivet Zin has full fruit with a dose of pepper in the proportion I am fond of.

To get to Amphora, I passed by Dashe, another Dry Creek Valley winery, but one I know to use grapes from my employer’s vineyard. At Dashe, I tasted a 2009 Riesling. At work I taste a 2009 Riesling daily, made with grapes from the same vineyard and vintage. It was wild how grapes identifiably McFadden could yield two completely different wines. I bought a bottle, and now have to track down a Montelena Riesling made from McFadden Farm grapes so I can pour the trio for my staff at work.

Speaking of work and staff, I got a phone call from work when the mouse for the computer stopped working. I would rather get a call than not if there is a problem when I am away from my tasting room, and together we got things working, but the wireless mouse from my office isn’t in my office anymore.

After returning home to Ukiah, after my panda hat was stolen by my son, I went to the sports bar at Branches to visit with my longtime friend Serena. I shared time with Serena and Serena’s childhood friends. Serena works for Sonoma Valley wineries; on her last visit Serena brought me a Wellington Zin, on Friday she brought me a 2010 Muscardini Cellars Rosato di Sangiovese, Monte Rosso Vineyards Sonoma Valley. I imagine it will be similar to the Petroni Vineyards Rosato di Sonoma I tasted last year, as that wine’s grapes came from the neighboring vineyard. I am grateful for the treat, but more grateful for the good company.

Saturday, I headed back to work for the third straight day off, this time to bring in food pairing treats for Second Saturday, a special day each month for Hopland area tasting rooms.

Next, I visited Denise at the McNab Ridge tasting room. Denise and McNab Ridge started Second Saturday, and it was fun seeing Diane Davis and her crew taking professional pictures for Denise’s website. Denise also cooked an incredibly delicious dish, Thai green curry shrimp couscous; it definitely made my Second Saturday dish pale by comparison. I tasted a French Colombard. You don’t see many folks making a straight Colombard anymore, but it was a tasty throwback treat. I actually like French Colombard and Chenin Blanc bottlings, while not noble they can be great performers. I also tasted the McNan Ridge Coro Mendocino vertical from 2003 through 2007, liking the ’04 and ’07 best, and a seriously great barrel sample of the Cononiah Zinfandel.

After McNab Ridge, I popped back into my tasting room to buy a jar of McFadden Farm organic onion powder. My timing was great because I got to help Ann ring up a 70 herb jar sale for a customer who was using our herbs as wedding favors for her son’s Hopland wedding.

On the way home, I visited and tasted at Nelson Family Vineyards at the north end of the Hopland Valley. I ran through the reds and whites, all just solid. I am enjoying tasting Mendocino County wines, noticing similarities and differences. I loved the 2007 Nelson Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Lush, round, soft tannins, delicious. I bought a bottle, a really nice find as my winery doesn’t make a Cab and I had a hole in my wine rack just screaming for a Cab.

Today, I took my son Charlie, in his panda hat, to a baby shower for my niece, Charlie’s cousin, Jenny Jen Jen and her procreator Jeremy, then I went to visit friends old and new at a mini class reunion. My friend Rob and his wife came to Santa Rosa from Kingman, AZ and his friend Tony hosted a barbeque for Rob. I got to see Karen again, plus Shannon and Ken, all longtime friends from school. The day was more about Budweiser than wine, but I brought a bottle of red and white for my hosts. Time flew too fast, as it often seems to when you wish there was more to spend with friends.

I returned to the baby shower just in time for the unwrapping of presents, visited with family, answered a question or five about Social Media Marketing for my sister in law, and gathered my son up to return home.

Work clothes for the upcoming week have been washed, and are now in the dryer. My four days off were great, but it is time to get back to work.

I have worked a lot since I took over my tasting room and wine club manager duties, and with my work being the near totality of my wine experiences last week, I sometimes feel that my blog John on Wine should be renamed “Diary of a Tasting Room Manager.”

I will try to get out and taste more wines, from wineries other than where I work, but today’s post really is largely a tasting room manager diary post, because my work did make serious demands on my time lately.

Last weekend was Spring Hopland Passport Weekend. A month after being hired, our little tasting room was going to get slammed. There was no folder left for me by my predecessor marked “Hopland Passport,” and I was told I could expect to not be able to pull off Passport because my predecessor and her husband did everything, and I could never hope to match their performance.

I’ll be honest, my predecessor probably worked harder than me, but I know how to work smart, and I had a great team which includes my boss Guinness McFadden. Guinness did all of the big shopping, he directed his Farm employees to bring and set up picnic tables and a tent, he invited our cooking and tasting room team to his home and demonstrated how to prepare the weekend’s food while feeding us dinner, and when I expressed concern about adequate staffing, Guinness and his brother Tommy both showed up to help pour wines for the masses.

Ann Beauchamp and I were at the core of the tasting room team, and were supported by Jannée Dale, Guinness and Tommy McFadden. Our cooking team was Ann’s husband Mark Beauchamp and my son Charlie Cesano.

Ann Beauchamp and Jannée Dale

In the past, my predecessor had $89 cases of surplus wine to sell, and those cases comprised roughly half the weekend’s revenue. I had no surplus cases to sell, so we ran a first ever biggest sale on everything in the tasting room, both wine and non-wine merchandise were discounted, generally 15-25% off everything, with the larger discounts reserved for our Wine Club members: 40% off any case of wine. The idea was to offer adequate inducement for Passport weekend attendees to join any of our wine clubs, while generating revenue to offset costs associated with the weekend.

Tommy McFadden, John Cesano, and Guinness McFadden behind the bar

A key to the weekend’s success was an email sent to all of our wine club members offering the Passport weekend 40% case discount and extending a special shipping rate of $23 per case, without having to be present in the tasting room during Hopland Passport weekend, a simple response email order in a timely manner would suffice to secure the discount. In response to one email created and sent, we received numerous multi case orders, several quite large, and many single case orders.

John Cesano, Ann Beauchamp, and Tommy McFadden

That is the working smart part of the weekend. The working hard part of the weekend, which was enormously enjoyable, was pouring wine, telling the McFadden story, ringing sales, signing up new wine club members. I used to do theater, and this was like being back on stage. Continuing the metaphor, my director, Guinness, gave me a note. It turns out I was completely wrong in one part of my story, my audience never heard it false, because I was in character and believed my line completely, so I made it real – but I am happier telling the correct story.

Everyone worked their butts off, and it was only after the first day that a mystery was solved. We were opening and pouring an amazingly large number of bottles, but I never had to dispose of a single empty, which was weird but welcome. It turns out that Ann and Tommy were taking care of them while I was talking and pouring and I never noticed.

Mark and Charlie were cooking under a tent right outside our open back door, and the scent of their food cooking was insanely good. I’ll be sharing the recipe for what they cooked next month in the McFadden Vineyard June 2011 Newsletter, so you’ll just have to ask me to add you to the email subscription list for that if you want it.

The proprietary recipe for our incredible Passport food will be shared in June with McFadden Vineyard Newsletter (free) subscribers by email. Sign up now!

They used three organic Herbs and Herb Blends grown organically in Potter Valley at McFadden Farm. Passport guests bought a ton of jars of each of the three Herbs or Herb Blends used, and next Passport we will have a boxed gift set with the three jars in it, convenient and ready for purchase. Thanks to our cooks for the brilliant recommendation. Also, thanks to Guinness for allowing me to put my 14 year old son Charlie  to work for the weekend, and thanks to Mark for allowing Charlie to gain confidence and proficiency in your tent kitchen. Charlie now has one dish he can rock out for family, friends, perhaps even for a girlfriend thanks to the two of you.

Mark Beauchamp and Charlie Cesano, Team McFadden Vineyard Chefs

We opened our tasting room before neighbors opened theirs, and we enjoyed increased sales as a result. With the case discount pricing, my office became a sold case storeroom. Saturday was insanely busy, Sunday was calmer, our sales were roughly equal each day. While I worked emails, or sale signage, Ann ran opening procedures; while I ran closing reports, and end of period Excel timecards, Ann closed the room down. I am blessed that Ann worked Passport instead of attending it.

In spite of good attendance, other tasting rooms report a significant revenue decrease compared to last year’s Spring Passport, the decrease remarkable consistent. We would have experienced a similar decrease, but for that one email. Including our Wine Club members in the sale we were offering in the tasting room allowed us to post a 22.97% revenue increase over last year, and not a single case we sold went out as low as $89.

After Sunday’s close, Guinness took the tasting room staff that worked both days out to Branches, arguably Ukiah’s best restaurant, certainly one of Ukiah’s best, for a thank you dinner.

Guinness McFadden, the McFadden behind McFadden Farm and Vineyard

Branches isn’t cheap, but it is good, made more so by good people and great wine. In fairness, most of us had Southern Buttermilk Fried Chicken, five really big pieces, for $15.95, so it is a great value…although with salads, sides, and dessert – all great – that does kick it up some.

I thanked Guinness personally. I wrote in my last post that “I love my job.” Well, let me say, as important, I genuinely like my boss. Guinness is former military, a decorated Navy officer. Mark and I were Army sergeants. All of us understand mission accomplishment, it is always job one. We also know that welfare of troops is job two, nearly equal in importance. Taking us to dinner was not just classy, which it was, it was a welcome exercise in team building, in fostering esprit de corps. I like working for a boss with previous military experience. Involved joke telling, with character voices, is an unexpected bonus in a boss that I got with Guinness – a side I imagine rarely seen by most. Again, thanks for dinner.

There have been mid week days without a single customer, with no revenue. I wish it was otherwise, and I hate reporting it to Guinness, but in hiring me, a former Infantry NCO, he knows I am working all day long, revenue or not. My own pride makes me want to exceed every number posted before my hire, and in time I will. I work hard because that is who I am, but it is genuinely nice to be shown appreciation.

This year’s Passport also saw an increase in non-wine merchandise revenue of 26.57% and an increase in wine club sign ups of 150% over last Spring’s Passport numbers.

In a world of my choosing, I would have taken the Monday following Passport off, but I went into the tasting room extra early instead to run beginning of May wine club orders. I also returned the tasting room to the state it was in before Passport for Eugene Gonsalves, my senior tasting room staffer, and ran more reports, before driving up to the Farm in Potter Valley to help pack the wine club orders.

Between Ernesto and Shana, there is no need for me to be involved with wine club shipments, they are masters. While at McFadden Farm, I also listened to Jannée and Shana to find out what I can do better in the tasting room to help them do their jobs in the office.

Guinness McFadden took two great pictures for May’s Newsletter, just nine days apart, which show how much Spring has sprung in the vineyards.

Grapevine on April 25, 2011 at McFadden Farm; photo credit: Guinness McFadden

Same grapevine 9 days later on May 4, 2011 at McFadden Farm; photo credit: Guinness McFadden

I entered years worth of ignored email addresses into our computer system, and sent out our May Newsletter. May’s recipe was for a pizza inspired in part from a tart created by Ina Garten, and with the crust recipe portion stolen from my good friend Nancy Cameron Iannios. The April Newsletter was text only, but I managed to include our logo, the two grapevine pictures above, and the wine label that corresponds to this month’s Wine of the Month this time around for May. I know I got better at that. We were also able to double the reach of our emails over previous attempts, which is a significant marketing improvement.

Another accomplishment from last week’s visit to the Farm; I got two mats that had last been used in an outdoor booth at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, but had been sitting on top of a box in a barn since 2006. I am sorely tested in describing their dustiness, their filth. I put these dirty, nasty mats in the back of my van, to take them home to clean. We need mats behind the tasting room bar to make standing nearly eight hours less stressful.

The mats proved too filthy for mere hosing off in my front yard. On my two days off, I have gone to the car wash, where I power sprayed, foam scrubbed, and power rinsed the mats into cleanliness. I also went shopping for a new broom and wet Swiffer to clean our tasting room floors. With a stop at Staples for office supplies, and an attempt to make business cards for my staff so they can enjoy inter-winery discounts, my two day’s off were not really my own, but I don’t mind. I have been trusted with management of my tasting room by Guinness, and I will continue to do all I can to keep it squared away and moving toward increased profitability.

I go back tomorrow, Sunday, and work a short week, just through Wednesday, then begin almost four days off. I will be golfing in the 15th Annual Wine Country Golf Classic at the Windsor Golf Course in Sonoma County on Thursday, recovering Friday. The golf tournament funds the good works of Cornerstone Media, helping them reach teens through positive popular media messaging. I almost have Saturday and Sunday off too, for a full four day recharging, but have to cook up some fig and blue cheese tarts to be served on Second Saturday. I love to cook, but I am not confident I would have returned home to do so if I hadn’t obligated myself.

Friday, after the lunch, champagne, beer, dinner and wine that goes with my Thursday golf, I want to visit Amphora Winery in the Dry Creek Valley where my friend Karen Mishler Torgrimson works. I’ll take pictures and post here.

I consider myself fortunate, I love my job; I know many people who don’t. I have so much still to learn, but I apply myself daily. I am lucky to have Bob Meadows from Graziano and Margaret Pedroni from Weibel as neighbors; I try not to go to them too often, preferring to figure out things for myself, but they are valuable resources as well as kind and helpful people.

Here’s a wine review from dinner at Branches in Ukiah with the McFadden Vineyard Passport Tasting Room and Cooking Tent crew: 2009 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre, Loire Valley, France $48 ($24 on Mondays). Our Sauvignon Blanc is wonderful, but tasted next to this wine it seemed to be as elegant, as graceful as I am, and I am the proverbial bull in a china shop. This Sancerre is 100% Sauvignon Blanc, has a minerality to die for, limestone and flinty, with lemon and grapefruit citrus notes, lovely grassy mown hay and varietally correct cat pee, wrapped in a beautifully smooth grace. That a wine can be at once this powerful, yet refined, is both a paradox and a testament to the indefinability of a great wine.

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