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John On Wine – Celebration of Mendocino County Sparkling Wines

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

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

Graziano Family of Wines

Handley Cellars

McFadden Vineyard

Nelson Family Vineyards

Paul Dolan Vineyards

Rack & Riddle

Ray’s Station

Roederer Estate

Scharffenberger Cellars

Signal Ridge

Terra Savia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Some movies are shot with more than one ending so that only the director knows the real ending, helping to thwart those who seem intent on spoiling the plot, twists, and ending of the movie. Often, these alternate movie endings end up on the movie’s DVD release.

The stones collected from the vineyards are put to good use at Sonoma-Cutrer

In writing about yesterday’s visit to Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, I was torn between three introductions. I have decided to present all three introductions as a bonus formatted recap and review piece. Enjoy!

Intro 1) I am a red wine lover, but don’t have anything against Chardonnay. That said, many years ago, my understanding of what Chardonnay could be was changed when I tasted a 1994 Sonoma Coast Kistler Chardonnay. I wondered how it was possible to fit 1.5 liters of flavor into a 750 milliliter bottle, without the wine being overblown, while actually being elegant.  How can one winery make Chardonnay that tastes so much better than most other offerings?

Intro 2) I am lucky to be invited to many wine tastings and events, and to receive many sample wine shipments to consider for review. I would love to write about inexpensive wines that taste great with food and are easily available, but too often I taste wines of very limited quantity and very big price tag; the wines taste great, but I really wonder if writing about these wines has any real value to anyone.

The wines I tasted at Sonoma-Cutrer, without having looked at prices, tasted like more uber expensive wines – they tasted great. Seeing how much handcrafting went into every bottle reinforced my expectation that the prices had climbed into the stratosphere in the years since I tasted Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay for the first time. What a treat to find the wines poured cost a fraction of what I expected. I hope a number of my readers have the opportunity to taste today’s reviewed wines.

Intro 3) In the late 80’s, younger, much better looking, and very single, I dated often. Grab some French bread, salami, cheese and a bottle of wine and head to the coast, or a quick run to the store for a pasta with wine at home. Wine was always part of a date day or date night. I managed a local restaurant and put together the wine list, and my “go-to” white wine was my favorite from our wine list, Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay.

Almost three weeks ago, the invitation came; Maggie Peak, princess of PR for the California wine and Champagne brands of Brown-Forman, kindly invited me to tour the home vineyard of Sonoma-Cutrer, preview the new tasting room, and share in a lunch with Sonoma-Cutrer’s winemaking team. The quickness of my affirmative reply nearly broke the internets.

I set the address of Sonoma-Cutrer, 4401 Slusser Road, Windsor, CA 95492, into my phone, using Google maps, and asked for directions. Google maps tries to direct visitors to a point about 3/4ths of a mile north of the winery, up Slusser Road. Be warned, and adjust as necessary.

4401 Slusser Road in Windsor (Kind of, sorta)

Arriving 40 minutes early, I took a few pictures of the winery. From the road, beautiful flowers are maintained by gardeners, a broad lane leads you to the vineyards and winery, runway lighting (parallel to the nearby airport runways) flank the final winery drive, and vast lawns perfect for practicing golf pitches lead to a pair of remarkable croquet fields.

I wanted to pull out my pitching wedge and get some practice in

Beyond the parking lot for guests a lovely shaded picnic spot and lake afford visitors additional serenely beautiful views.

Shady picnic spot

A “Green” lake, where water is reclaimed and reused

The winery grounds feature an enormous number of stones, bordering roads, surrounding greens, and making up walls.

Shall we put in 20 Bocce courts or 2 Croquet fields?

The winery itself enjoys interesting architectural elements, angles, colors, and doorway shapes that echo the brand’s label design elements.

The door openings have the signature Sonoma-Cutrer label shape

I was thrilled to be met by Maggie Peak, who flew out from Louisville, KY with Brittnay Gilbert. As I took in my first views of the tasting room, we chatted comfortably about what was becoming a beautiful day, cooler than Ukiah where I came from, and much warmer than San Francisco where Brittnay, unprepared, nearly froze to death during Summer.

The tasting room is rich, but the real beauty is inside the glass

Soon, we were joined by Winemaking Director Mick Schroeter, Assistant Winemaker – Pinot Noir Michelle McClendon, Tour and Hospitality Host Supreme Michelle Wing, and Wine Journalist/Sommelier Christopher Sawyer. Leaving behind empty glasses begging to convey wine from bottle to mouth, we left the winery for a vineyard tour.

Aboard a giant golf cart, Michelle Wing drove Mick, Michelle, Christopher and I all over the home vineyard, known simply as Cutrer. Originally founded by Brice Cutrer Jones in the 1970’s, the rolling hills of the first vineyards were ignored and only the flat vineyard land was planted – to Cabernet Sauvignon. The result was a typically vegetative Russian River Valley Cab. Jones went to UC Davis, learned, and came back to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. At first, Jones sold the grapes grown, then began to make wines with his grapes. The first Chardonnay vintage was 1981, and the first Pinot Noir vintage was 2002.

Burgundian row spacing at 4 feet

Sonoma-Cutrer tries to be Grand Cru-esque, marrying the best vineyard and winery practices of Burgundy and California to produce the best hand crafted wines possible.

Morning side of the rows, leafed, grape bunches on display

The blend of Burgundy and California is visually evident with the row spacing, combining 4 foot rows (the European norm) that require walking for every vine need and 8 foot rows that allow a vehicle to squeeze between the rows.

American 8 foot row spacing alternating with 4 foot rows

The vineyards looked vigorous, and leafing had taken place on the morning side of vines while the afternoon side was unleafed allowing some protection from the longer, hotter effects of the sun. This year, there is uneven grape set, looser clusters in the vineyard, but that is allowing greater airflow this cooler, wetter year and naturally fighting possible mold.

Except in Arizona, where work is done by magic, French food and French style wine is helped by Mexican Americans

Some vines are drip watered on demand, as need is determined by probes in the ground rather than arbitrary clocks and calendars, while the flat and fertile land is dry farmed.

Mick is from Australia and given to entertaining phrases that British and Australians use, but Americans don’t, “Chalk and Cheese,” as an example to suggest unlike things, and Austalian viticultural terms like “Hen and Chicken” to describe big and little grapes in the same bunch. Mick worked at Geyser Peak for 17 years before coming to Sonoma-Cutrer.

Mick pointed out Hen and Chicken grape bunches, and Michelle McClendon held her hand under a bunch while patting the top of the bunch. I asked her what she was doing and Michelle showed me tiny wasted dried up flower bits that fell into her hand, representing grapes that did not form due to shatter owing to sudden temperature fluctuations, rains, or winds.

Michelle McClendon checking for shatter

The Cutrer home vineyard has soil made from ancient seabeds, clumps of fused rock, shell, and sand. Other Sonoma-Cutrer vineyards are Kent, Shiloh, Owsley, Vine Hill, and Les Pierres, each with a different set of soil and geographic uniqueness. Vine Hill has very sandy soil, while Les Pierres offers up a host of large rocks in the Earth.

Michelle McClendon’s Pinot Noir winemaking takes place in out buildings among the vineyards, away from the main – Chardonnay – winery; a small winery within a winery, built on the same philosophy that makes Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay stand out, a dedication to marrying the best vineyard and winemaking practices of Burgundy and California. Creating a Grand Crufornia.

The main cellar was created when a natural hill was excavated, the cellar built, and then the Earth was returned atop the cellar 6-15 feet deep. The result is a naturally cool, and humid environment.

The chilling tunnel, where at Sonoma-Cutrer, it is cool to be a grape

The treatment of the grapes destined for the bottle impressed me at every turn. After the grapes are hand picked from the vine, they are put in smaller than ordinary bins and sent on a 45 minute ride through a blast chilling tunnel that lowers the grape temperature 20°. Grapes then make their way to sorting tables, where hand sorting assures only the best grapes move forward. The hand picked, chilled, hand sorted grapes then move on to be pressed in top of the line Bucher presses that gently press the grapes allowing a clearer, more similar to free run, juice than other presses. The juice then moves from the press to tanks, and from the tanks to barrels.

The sorting tables, where all grapes are hand sorted before press

The barrel rooms were marvels of organization, and I am told that new folks to the winemaking team are asked about experience with Excel (Can you create a functional pivot table?). The racking is just 3 barrels high with a large amount of room between for breathing, allowing for a much more consistent heat transfer than many other barrel jammed spaced cellars afford.

One of the numerous barrel rooms

Once the barrels are filled, everything is done with the barrels in place. There are over 200 batches of Chardonnay, identified by vineyard and block, in the barrels, some new, others used once.

The barrels are almost entirely French, although Sonoma-Cutrer experiments with American and Hungarian oak. All of the wood is seasoned and aged, by a stave mill and coopers, over 3 years. Sonoma-Cutrer utilizes Rousseau and Remond, two Burgundy coopers.

All Chardonnays sit in barrel 6-8 months before bottling, but two of the Chardonnays, The Cutrer and Les Pierres, are blended and barreled another 7-8 months. The goal of the blending and additional aging is to achieve a wine of distinctive Terroir.

Along the way, these babied wines are cold stabilized to precipitate and remove excess tartaric crystals from the wine.

Mick removed some future wines, 2009 vintage, from barrels with a glass wine thief, and we barrel sampled the Les Pierres and The Cutrer. The Les Pierres showed zesty mineral, lemon-lime, wet pebble, great fruit, light oak, with a lean tightness. With none of this wine seeing new oak, greater subtlety can be showcased. The wine was delicious, lean, and elegant.

The Cutrer barrel sample showed greater oak due to a portion of the wine being held in new oak, was more full and round, more ripe fruit, less tart. Bigger, rounder, creamier.

These 2009s are due out of the barrel and into a bottle early next year.

I have never experienced this level of care and craft in making wine, from vineyard to bottle. I was impressed, and know how some wines taste special – they are, thanks to a lot of work.

We passed the wine lab, where we were asked to refrain from knocking on the glass or offering food to the workers. Mick brought out an amazing rock from the home vineyard chock full of shell fossils.

Our tour ended where it began, as we returned to the new tasting room. We were joined by Terry Adams, Sonoma-Cutrer’s retiring winemaker of 29 years. A table was set for eight, each place with 4 Chardonnay glasses and 1 Pinot Noir glass.

Terry Adams, Christopher Sawyer, Brittnay Gilbert, Michelle McClendon, Michelle Wing, Mick Schroeter, Maggie Peak

Sonoma-Cutrer plans to offer three seated tastings each day, at 10:00 am, noon, and 3:00 pm for $10 per person, with a limit of 20 total persons per tasting. Additionally, 8 people can take part in the golf cart vineyard and walking winery tour. Tours are at 10:30 am and 1:30 pm. Tour and tasting together is $25 per person. The tasting or tour and tasting fee will be credited toward any wine purchase you make.

Saturday, July 10, 2010, Sonoma-Cutrer will be opening the doors to the public for the Grand Opening/Open House, but RSVPs are required. If you live within driving distance of the winery, and many of my readers do live within 15 minutes of the winery, pick up your phone and call (707) 528-1181 right now for details. In addition to unbelievable wines, there will be live music, food and wine pairings, and croquet play.

If you miss the big grand opening celebration, the winery will be open for tastings and tours by appointment, same phone number above, Thursday through Monday (closed Tuesday and Wednesday).

The Tasting (prices may reflect wine club membership discount):

2008 Sonoma-Cutrer Sonoma Coast, Estate Bottled, Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, $21 – Stylistically in the same vein as The Cutrer, but with a larger intended retail presence. 3rd vintage produced. Lovely, rich, big and round. Delicious baked apple pie kind of sweet apple, butter, oak, nice acidity, lots of fruit, well balanced. This may be the least expensive wine, but nothing is held back; I love it.

2008 Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Ranches, Estate Bottled, Sonoma Coast Chardonnay $23 – 8-15% of the vintage’s grapes were lost to frost damage, the remaining grapes got the extra nourishment their lost cluster-mates would have received, the result: flavor. A more elegant, refined style. Buttery smooth, light acidic zing reinforced by lemon lime and tropical fruit. Gravenstein apple. Lean, crisp, yet round.

2006 The Cutrer, Sonoma-Cutrer, Estate Bottled, Russian River Valley Chardonnay $35 – Much smaller release, single vineyard, home ranch, best blocks and barrels. Holy elegant Batman! Creamy round honeyed oaken apple, lemon, lime and baking spice. Shudder.

2006 Les Pierres, Sonoma-Cutrer, Estate Bottled, Sonoma Coast Chardonnay $32 – Wow. Minerality. Notably Burgundian in style. Complex, bright, clean, subtle, tarter style Granny Smith apple, lemon, light cream, light oak. Elegant.

2007 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley $34 – If the Les Pierres is Wow, then this is Effin’ Wow! Cherry, multi note from dark black cherry to candied cherry, floral, earthen, spicy, licorice and leaf. Delicious.

With lunch, we had some older wines from Sonoma-Cutrer, including the 1994 The Cutrer (only 12 bottles remain), 2001 Les Pierres, and 2005 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir.

Three from the vault

Joining us at lunch was Assistant Winemaker Chardonnay Cara Morrison. Over lunch, Christopher and I explained how we came to write about wine, and far more interestingly, our four winemakers told us how they came to be at Sonoma-Cutrer.

Background: Two Michelles; foreground: 2007 Pinot Noir, 2005 Pinot Noir, 2001 Les Pierres, 1994 The Cutrer

Lunch was provided by Park Avenue Catering in Cotati.

FIRST COURSE: Romaine & field Greens, Laura Chenel Goat Cheese, Glazed Walnuts, Daikon Sprouts. The salad was dressed with a lemony-creamy dressing that paired so well with the Chardonnays. Brilliant match.

The salad was a great choice for Chardonnay pairing

MAIN COURSE: Grilled Pork Tenderloins, Pinot Noir Plum Sauce, Scalloped Potatoes, Grilled Summer Vegetables, French Epi Bread. Pork tenderloin doesn’t have a lot of (any) fat and can be too dry, but that wasn’t the case here. Beautifully prepared, moist and tender pork, with a delicious Pinot plum sauce, almost a glaze. Everything worked, but the Pinot is so big and rich and full of flavor, don’t be shy pairing it with bigger meats like lamb or venison.

Pork with Pinot sauce goes pretty good with Pinot Noir

DESSERT COURSE: Vanilla Panna Cotta, Caramelized Fig Sauce, Chocolate Coupe-with Coffee-Molasses Ganache, and French Press Coffee. The figs were absolutely delicious. The vanilla panna cotta was great. I don’t eat much chocolate, so the intensity of flavor contained in the chocolate coupe was startling, but certainly welcome, the coffee molasses ganache was amazingly delicious. The coffee was fresh and delicious, the perfect end to the perfect lunch.

Pictured: Vanilla Panna Cotta with Caramel and Fig; in my belly: Chocolate with life altering Ganache

I tasted and sold a lot of great ’94 Chardonnays, and remember the vintage very well. It was a treat tasting a great wine from the vintage, it made me wonder how others had fared over the years. This 1994 The Cutrer was definitely age effected, but was still showing crisp acidity, citrus zing, and apple fruit. The 2001 Les Pierres was more intact and highlighted the lean Burgundian style noted in the current vintage. The 2005 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir made me write bad words in my wine notebook, but that is a good thing because I save the big bad words for the very best wines. Absolutely delicious.

That’s it, I’m wrung out, I hope you enjoy the recap of the events of the day, and the reviews of the wine, and food, tasted at Sonoma-Cutrer.

Jovey Becerra (not pictured), captain of the Sonoma-Cutrer croquet team, can give lessons by appointment

Here is what I would do if I were you: Call Sonoma-Cutrer, (707) 528-1181, make an appointment for you and your friends to both tour and taste at Sonoma-Cutrer, just $25 per person for the best vineyard and winery tour I have ever experienced, plus a seated tasting of wines that taste like they should cost $60-125, and then buy a bottle or two and the $25 you spent will go toward your wine purchase (you may find yourself buying a mixed case, or joining the wine club to get a discount). Sonoma County beautiful, and after decades of not being open to the public, Sonoma-Cutrer has put together a hospitality program worthy of their wines.

There is a global Chardonnay tasting, linked through Twitter, happening this Thursday, May 6, 2010 from 5:00 pm -7:00 pm. Wine lovers will gather at participating winery tasting rooms, wine bars, wine shops, restaurants, and private residences; open a bottle of Chardonnay, taste it, and twitter about it using the hashtag #Chardonnay.

Mendocino Wine Company presents

a Chardonnay Tasting Event

(this is a free event)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

5:00 pm – 7:00 pm

2008 Parducci Chardonnay, Mendocino County

2008 Paul Dolan Vineyards Chardonnay, Mendocino County

Apple Mushroom Risotto

Apple Pie a la mode

Chardonnay Apple Ice Cream

Parducci Wine Cellars

501 Parducci Road

Ukiah, CA 95482

(800) 362-9463

guest chef: John Cesano (yeah, me)

I will be attending the third monthly wine TweetUp held at Parducci Wine Cellars in Ukiah; they are pouring two Chardonnays, the 2008 Parducci Chardonnay, Mendocino County and the 2008 Paul Dolan Vineyards Chardonnay, Mendocino County. Each month, the folks at Parducci have delicious food available to pair with the wines being poured; I have secured a recipe from their first tasting, and visited the food provider from the last one.

Thursday’s food will be prepared by me. The folks at Parducci have invited me to be this event’s guest chef, and I am preparing food that will match with the specific wines being poured.

I am cooking an apple mushroom risotto to pair with the the Paul Dolan Vineyard Chardonnay; I’m using the wine in the food to tie it more firmly together.

To contrast with the grown up-ness of a risotto, I am making apple pies from scratch, and serving them with a scoop of Parducci Chardonnay apple ice cream. Apple pie a la mode to pair with the Parducci Chardonnay.

Come to Ukiah this Thursday, anytime between 5:00pm and 7:00 pm, taste some wines, have a snack; it is free, and a great way to break away for an early evening midweek escape from routine. I have seen many people over the last couple of months use the events as a nice afterwork treat.

Started by Rick Bakas, Director of Social Media for St. Supery, the monthly wine TweetUps have grown month by month, and Thursday’s event is expected to be the largest yet.

Here’s a top 10 list from Rick Bakas:

Top 10 Reasons You Want To Be Part of #Chardonnay May 6th

10. How often do you get to share a glass of wine with people around the globe at the same time?

9.  Wineries will meet new wine tweeters, wine tweeters will discover new wineries

8. It’s truly a community owned by no one
7. It’s a 24-hour event to make it easy for all time zones around the world
8. Online wine tastings are growing in popularity
7. It’s easier than you think. All you need is wine and Twitter (and the #Chardonnay hash tag)
6. There will be a few surprise guests and celebrities
5. You can participate from anywhere virtually
4. It’s a chance to follow and be followed by tweeters with a shared interest
3. Chardonnay is good!
2. Chances are, you’ll know someone who’s joining in
1. This will be the largest online wine tasting in Twitter’s history
I hope to see you at Parducci on Thursday between 5:00 and 7:00 pm,; 501 Parducci Road, Ukiah, CA 95482, (800) 362-9463.

Yesterday, the folks behind the 2010 Wine Blog Awards opened nominations in a number of categories. I went to facebook and pretty much asked for a nomination. My very good friend, and a supremely talented writer, Nancy Cameron Iannios nominated my wine blog in the Best New Wine Blog category.

If you read my blog regularly, and feel moved to do so, here’s a link to the nomination site; you can second my nomination through April 7 at:

Click here to be taken to a place you can second my nomination, thanks!

Here is the kind nomination post Nancy left for my nomination:

I am writing to nominate JohnOnWine.com for a Wine Blog Award in the Best New Wine Blog category.

John’s blog is well read and highly ranked. His posts aren’t puff pieces, but often run t thousands of words; he writes with passion and it is felt in each article he writes.

John started in April 2009, and has 66 posts, his writing has gotten better, richer, more full month by month, post by post.

Consider his event recaps, they are the most complete, often surpassing the descriptions of wine writers who have been around the scene many more years:

Celebrating V. Sattui Winery’s 125th Anniversary

19TH Annual Zinfandel Festival

The Biggest Petite Event of them all – Dark & Delicious

Passion for Pinot Noir, a recap of the Pinot Noir Summit

John’s interview with Ravenswood’s Joel Peterson and Bedrock Wine Company’s Morgan Twain-Peterson was a must read:

A conversation with Ravenswood’s Joel Peterson and Bedrock Wine Company’s Morgan Twain-Peterson

I look forward to each winery review John writes, it is almost like being there:

Feature Spotlight: Toad Hollow Vineyards

Featured spotlight winery: Keller Estates

Mendocino Wine Company: Parducci and Paul Dolan Vineyards

I tried to taste Fetzer’s, but tasted Topel Winery’s wines instead.

John provides wine reviews:

Nine Fine Wines reviewed, with my food pairings. All socially conscious.

2005 Toad Hollow Merlot Reserve, Richard McDowell Vineyard, Russian River Valley

As well as wine book and accessory reviews:

Getting Doon with Been Doon So Long

Age Gets Better With Wine

Friends don’t let friends Vacu-Vin

Finally, John handles tougher more controversial aspects of wine, wine and health, wine blogger ethics, proposed wine excise tax increases, and entertains while he educates his readers:

Wine and pregnancy, a healthy mix.

So, you don’t get wine writers or the wine industry? I know why.

Will Trader Joe’s be forced to sell Seven Buck Chuck?

Who is behind the “Alcohol-Related Harm and Damage Services Act of 2010″ Initiative?

With respect to all of the talented first year wine bloggers nominated, I think John Cesano has to be given serious consideration for this award. John’s work is not just well read, it is referenced, tweeted, retreated, linked, and commented on with great regularity.

Thanks again to Nancy; in the spirit of full disclosure, Nancy runs a business offering consultants to wineries in need of a little help, and I am one of Nancy’s consultants.

I will say, with what limited humility I am able to muster, that I too think I have the Best New Wine Blog in the English reading world, and that I am certainly worthy of being a nominated finalist for consideration. Just sayin’.

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Yesterday there was another tweetup built around wine. From 5pm-7pm, people opened bottles of wine and tweeted about them. Some tweeps banded together, turning a tweetup into a meet up, to enjoy wine and fellowship, and then tweet about the experience.

These wine tweetups were started by Rick Bakas, who handles Social Media Marketing chores for St. Supery. Initially, the theme wine was California Cabernet, and a huge number of people opened, tasted, and tweeted about the experience, using the hashtag #CaliCab, allowing a streaming shared experience across space. Did a number of people visit St. Supery, or open a bottle of St. Supery Cab? Sure, they did.

In the wake of success, other wine tweetups followed. There have been Sauvignon Blanc (#SauvBlanc), Washington state Merlot (#WAMerlot), and yesterday was a celebration of the winemaker’s art at blending (#WineBlends).

I visited Parducci near my home in Ukiah for the March 4 Sauvignon Blanc tweetup and had a great time; I returned again yesterday to taste two wine blends.

First things first, I want to say that the tasting room gals were not only smiling hugely, but laughing freely; Parducci has some of the friendliest, most welcoming staff in the industry.

One of the wines, the 2006 Paul Dolan Vineyards Deep Red, Mendocino County, I had tasted last month with the winemaker Bob Swain. Here are my notes from then: $45 – 14.5% alc. 770 cases made. 100% Demeter certified Biodynamic. 100% Dark Horse Vineyards; 57% Syrah, 31% Petite Sirah, 12% Grenache. Deep Red represents the winemakers attempt to best capture the best expression of the single vineyard for the vintage. Plum, blueberry. The land and varietals are both speaking with an earthiness from the vineyard and spices from the Syrah, Petite Sirah and Grenache. Yesterday, I was much less analytical, enjoying the wine with some delicious Greek food made at a Ukiah shop I didn’t know exists – but will be visited often now. My notes, limited by twitter’s character limits, were much simpler; 100% Demeter Biodynamic grapes, soft tannins, red fruit, delicious flavors, utterly drinkable.

The second wine was initially made exclusively for Whole Foods, but is now available at Safeway; the 2008 Parducci Sustainable White is 41.5% Chenin Blanc, 38% Sauvignon Blanc, 12% Viognier, 7.5% Muscat Canelli, and 1% Fruilliano, but 100% delish. crisp, yet fruity, unpretentious, accessible, easily drinkable.

Although I have a stack of wine books to read and review, sent to me at no cost, I bought Paul Dolan’s book, True To Our Roots: Fermenting A Business Revolution, at the tasting room and look forward to reading and reviewing it when I can get the time.

Next month’s event will be Chardonnay (#Chardonnay), and is scheduled for May 6. If you can visit a Chardonnay producing winery, like Parducci, it is completely worthwhile. You shouldn’t need an excuse to get out after work, and enjoy a little wine and food, and meet some new, like minded people. There is a rumor that Parducci is going to drag Cinco de Mayo out an extra day and have a taco truck park next to the tasting room; I hope the rumor is true. I love real tacos, I love Chardonnay; I want to find out which Chardonnay pairs best with Al Pastor.

If you can’t make it to a winery, buy a bottle of Chardonnay (French White Burgundy will do, but look for something either local to where you live or exciting to try, open it about a half hour before the appointed time to let it breathe and open up, then taste and tweet with the rest of us, starting at about 5pm.

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I got a Google alert last night just before bed, letting me know that I had been mentioned by name in someone else’s blog.

I didn’t find the post particularly complimentary; quite the opposite, I felt I had been insulted.

To be honest, I was a bit pissed. I didn’t really mind the post in and of itself, and the author was perhaps justified in his feelings about me and my actions; I just thought the author should have posted his thoughts as a comment to the article that offended him and perhaps a worthwhile conversation could occur. Instead, without contacting me, and without providing a full context, he took issue with my decision to publish the contact information, easily found using Google, of the authors of the ill considered 12,775% wine tax increase initiative they are trying to qualify for the November ballot.

Rather than count to 100, I got out of bed and crafted a comment of my own, but (perhaps fortunately) it was lost in the internet ether. I wrote my response again and posted it by email.

Having responded, I found I didn’t really care much anymore, my anger had dissipated, and reading some of the other posts on his site, I realized I had read his work before, and found just about every post I wasn’t in to be enjoyable.

Here’s a link to his original piece, along with my response which he edited in and then responded to.

I’m sure it wasn’t his intention, but you’ll find Tom Johnson’s LouisvilleJuice blog listed over in the right column where I have my blogroll.

About a decade ago, there was a very active ABC movement among the wine community. ABC stands for Anything But Chardonnay.

The country was awash in rivers of Chardonnay, it was being ordered in bars and restaurants by the glass and bottle in amazing volumes.

The Chardonnay grape produces a juice that, when fermented, yields wine notes of crisp green apple and possible tropical notes like pineapple if cold fermented. Wine made from Chardonnay can seem sour in its tartness.

A secondary fermentation, malolactic fermentation, can transform malic acid notes of tart green apple to lactic acid notes of butter and cream.

Another winemaking method of changing Chardonnay’s flavors is to age the wine in oak barrels instead of holding the juice in stainless steel tanks. The oak barrel can impart notes of oak, toast, clove, caramel, butterscotch, and vanilla on the Chardonnay. Additional, more intense oak flavors are achieved when the Chardonnay is fermented, not just aged, in oak.

I think Kendall-Jackson is largely responsible for the enormous increase in Chardonnay’s popularity.

Kendall-Jackson sourced Chardonnay grapes from all over California, and ran all of the juice through malolactic and held the wine in oak barrels. The result was a buttery wine of oak, toast, cream and vanilla. Kendall-Jackson sold so much wine that other wineries were making Kendal-Jackson Chardonnay through custom crush relationships, as much as 250,000 cases of a label at a time.

People came to expect all Chardonnays to taste of butter, toast, cream, and vanilla.  Soon, other wineries were hiding the varietal character of Chardonnay, the unique fruit notes, by increasing their use of malolactic fermentation and oak aging.

There was a time when all Chardonnays were boringly the same. Bottles of oak and butter, the fruit nearly gone.

It was said that if you put a rock through malolactic fermentation, held it in oak, and slapped a Kendall-Jackson label on it, it would taste of oak, toast, cream, and vanilla, with very little fruit, and someone would put it in their mouth to find out.

Thus was born the ABC crowd. Anything But Chardonnay, give me something that tastes like grape, varietally correct, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Marsanne, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Viognier, Pinot Gris, anything still held in stainless, anything with fruit notes please.

If you have seen the incredible wine movie Sideways, you heard Miles, the main character, pronounce, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any fucking Merlot.”

Like Chardonnay, Merlot is often boring, bland, uninteresting, yet easy to drink with very little varietal character getting in the way. Miles could just as easily have declared, “I am not drinking any fucking Chardonnay,” but it wouldn’t make much sense for Miles to visit Santa Barbara, a big grower of Chardonnay, and complain about the varietal.

Does this mean that I never drink Chardonnay, or that I recommend that you don’t?

No.

The great news is that in the last decade, wineries have decided that malolactic fermentation and oak aging are winemaker tools, but they don’t have to be used fully, or at all, with every Chardonnay.

Chardonnay, which was nearly uniformly boring as everyone chased Kendall-Jackson’s style because of Kendal-Jackson’s sales, is now an exciting wine to taste.

There are now wineries choosing to forego malolactic fermentation with their Chardonnay, and have clear tart green apple notes in their releases. Other wineries are choosing to put only a portion of their Chardonnay juice through malolactic and blending it with juice that hasn’t been put through this secondary fermentation.

Similarly, some wineries are holding their fruit in stainless steel tanks instead of oak barrels and allowing the fruit free rein. Other wineries hold some of their juice in stainless and some in oak and blend the juices to have notes of fruit and oak.

With blends possible ranging from no malolactic or oak to 100% malolactic and oak, the possible winemaking choices are nearly infinite. Winemakers are using these tools in different percentages and making wines that are unique, even exciting.

Imagine, as an example, visiting a tasting room and finding a Chardonnay where one third of the juice was fermented in oak, two thirds in stainless. Of the two thirds fermented in stainless; one third was aged in new french oak, one third was held in new american oak, one sixth in one year old American oak, and the remaining sixth was aged in stainless. Sixty percent of the juice underwent malolactic fermentation. Complex. Unique.

Chardonnay, once boring, predictable, is now a fun wine to taste. With winemakers using the tools I’ve talked about, and many others, differently, the finished wine is often a surprise. To me that makes wine tasting Chardonnays much more enjoyable.

Involtini. A flavorful pinwheel of meat and stuffing. I hadn’t had any in over twenty years. It took me a long time to realize that I was going to get to eat it again for Christmas dinner, even as I rolled my hands up to help cook it.

Seventeen people were coming for Christmas dinner and my mother-in-law Joan’s house. When I left Ukiah on Tuesday to take my son to visit with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, I thought Joan was cooking a turducken and I was thrilled. I almost cooked a turducken for Thanksgiving, but went traditional banging out the perfect turkey; so my joy at trying this remakable ballotine was nearly palpable.

Turducken is a Lousiana specialty where a turkey is boned and stuffed with a boned duck, which was previously stuffed with a boned chicken, all further stuffed with cornbread and sausage stuffing; and a ballotine is a protein, meat, fish or fowl, that has been boned, stuffed, rolled, tied, and cooked.

When I arrived Tuesday, Joan told me that turducken was off the menu, she did not remove the poultry from the shipping container, thinking that there was enough dry ice to keep it well for several days. Sadly, most food is shipped with only enough dry ice to get it safely to your door and such was the case here, the turducken was unfrozen and not cold on the outside, and as it was poultry that meant that there was surely spoilage.

Joan told me that we would be having a “brah-zhule” on polenta. I didn’t know what a “brah-zhule” was, but didn’t confess to my ignorance.

On Wednesday, Joan and I started prepping Christmas dinner. I love cooking with Joan, she is a great cook, and our backgrounds do not overlap, so I always learn a ton cooking with her. Joan asked me to pound out some already thin carne asada meat, either flank or skirt steak, so that each steak was larger in surface area. I pounded each piece of carne asada until it was about twice the original surface area.

Meanwhile, Joan combined garlic, flat-leaf parsley, grated Pecorino Romano cheese, pine nuts, and bacon. Joan spooned the mixture onto the meat, rolled it up, and I tied each ballotine with cooking string.

With a flash of comprehension, I realized that “brah-zhule” was similar to what I knew as involtini. A check on the internet, and I find that braciole and involtini are the exact same food item and oddly has two names.

Traditionally, instead of spooning a lump of the stuffing mixture onto the meat, and wrapping it by rolling and tying, the stuffing is usually spread thinly along the surface of the meat, then rolled and tied. The only difference is that the involtini/braciole, when sliced, will present a pinwheel of meat and stuffing when prepared in the traditional manner.

Joan made meatballs and browned them, then put them in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Next, she browned and added to the pan both sweet Italian and hot Italian sausages, some boneless pork shoulder, and the involtini.

We covered the meats in an Italian red sauce of tomato, wine, onion, garlic, herbs, and spices, and set it in the oven to cook most of the way, just needing a little oven time on Christmas to reheat and finish.

On Christmas day, Joan set about cooking polenta in a crock pot, using a recipe by Michele Anna Jordan found in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20091215/LIFESTYLE/912149959/1309

Polenta is a cornmeal mush with butter and cheese, and is to Italian cooking what rice is to many other cultures. Put it on a plate, and top it with what you have available. Peasant food become fancy.

Okay, here’s the thing; I grew up eating a lot of involtini in Italian red sauce over polenta. I grew up in an Italian family, and the men hunted. Weekends would find twenty or more Italian men up at a 13,500 acre ranch, hunting by day and cooking by night. This is a dish I ate in endless variety growing up, the meat and stuffing changing, almost always cooked by men. Imagine the scene in the Godfather where Clemenza is teaching Michael the art of making spaghetti sauce for twenty, or the scene from Goodfellas where, in prison,  Paulie is slicing garlic with a razor blade paper thin for tomato sauce. That’s how it felt growing up. Men cooked, not all the time, but almost always better than the women.

Other treats cooked up for Christmas dinner included my take on a Rachael Ray recipe potato dish: I cut up 1 1/2 pound each of baby fingerling heirloom potatoes, baby ruby gold potatoes, baby dutch yellow potatoes, and baby South American purple potatoes. I cut each baby potato in half length wise, then cut them from one end to the other into 1/4″ slices. I put the six pounds of sliced potatoes into a roasting pan.

To 6 cups of heavy cream, I added a stick of butter, 4 cloved of crushed fresh garlic, and 4 sprigs each of sage, rosemary and thyme. I cooked over a medium flame, stirring constantly for about 20 minutes, deeply infusing the cream with flavor. I strained the cream, adding about two ounces of microplaned (super finely grated) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and poured the super flavored cream over the potatoes.

Next, I microplaned five more ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano into a large bowl, then spead the cheese on top of the potatoes. I cooked the potatoes at 400 degrees for about 50 minutes. Better than Rachael’s recipe, more flavorful, it came out just fine; think of an Italian rustic potato au gratin dish.

There was sweet potato wrapped marshmallow, on a pineapple ring, topped with a cherry, a spiral cut ham, a perfectly baked salmon with lemon, butter and herb, stuffed zucchini, baked oyster, green bean casserole, salad, french bread, and more. It was all great, but for me, it was all about the involtini.


For my first pass through the chow line, I ladled polenta onto my plate, on top of the polenta I put meats, the involtini, some meatballs, some pork shoulder, and some sausage, and on top of the meat I ladled Italian red sauce.

I also poured myself a glass of the 2008 Folie à Deux Ménage à Trois, a blend of Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. With raspberry notes from the Zin, cherry from the Merlot, and blackberry from the Cab, this wine was loaded with rich juicy red fruit notes, and was a great wine for dinner as each food could find a different element of the wine to pair with. Inexpensive, only about $12 a bottle, I was impressed throughout the meal with this wine’s versatility and deliciousness. Honestly, better with food than without.

I spent quite a while with my first plate at dinner, scooping a little polenta, a bit of meat, and some sauce into a perfect bite, sipping a little wine, the emergent whole so much better than the sum of its parts. Each bite a joyful experience, and a trigger to memories of times spent with my father, my brother, and a bunch of old Italian men many years ago.

My second plate was a tasting of the other dishes. While good, some great – I have to get the stuffed zucchini recipe – none, for me, matched the magic of involtini, sauce, and polenta.

I had a glass of bubbly, Korbel’s first sparkler, their Sec. Korbel Sec is made with French Colombard, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, and is a little sweeter than most bubblies, but not cloyingly so. It was nice to have bubbly on hand. One of Joan’s daughters (my son’s aunt) got married last week, and a grandaughter (my son’s cousin) will have a baby next month on or near my birthday. There were many reasons to be enjoying bobbly, but any day that ends in “y” is a good day to drink bubbly – no reason needed.

For Christmas, I received an electric pepper mill, an oregano dipping oil, a “green” water bottle, and a stack of old Cook’s Illustrated magazines, from the folks who produce America’s Test Kitchen on PBS. I am really looking forward to reading the food magazines, they look chock full of ideas for me to try out.

I was pleased to see my son’s face as he opened his presents. He listened to the rock songs featuring saxophone that I loaded onto his new iPod, is ecstatic about getting an XBox 360, and is old enough to be happy about getting new clothes.

It was great seeing family, it is nice that I am friends with my son’s mom, my ex-wife, and that her family still consider me their son-in-law, brother-in-law, or uncle. It was great getting to cook, and getting to help cook. It was fun learning that involtini is also known as braciole.

One of the best Christmas gifts I received were the memories of times spent with my father, triggered by food. My father passed away in 2008, but he was alive in my memory as I cooked and ate Christmas dinner.

Wine. Just four little letters, wine; but thousands of books have been published on the subject, with hundreds more written every year, countless magazines, periodicals, and trade publications are printed monthly, and writers opine in columns appearing in the newspapers of nearly every city in the world each week.

Wine. What insightful and new bits of information and wisdom do I have to share, that hasn’t been imparted, shared, by numerous others before?

I will likely add nothing new, and yet my experiences, uniquely my own, may trigger memories of similar experiences you hold; and a particular bottle, and the place you tasted it, and the people you tasted it with, may come back to you as clearly as yesterday. Maybe it was yesterday.

I am wine geekier than most. Experienced, a professional’s palate, around wine all of my life, with developed preferences, I am a Frasier Crane without the pretentiousness, without the snobbiness.  Raised on Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, I love big rich red wines; ideally with a ton of structure supporting accessible forward fruit. If an old friend showed up with a box of chilled white Zinfandel, something I personally have never bought for myself, I would work up a menu to feature the crushed-strawberry-over-ice notes it might have, pour myself a glass, and enjoy time shared with a friend.

The blackberry currant of a Cabernet, or the brambly raspberry and black pepper spice of a Zinfandel, breathed in through my nose buried in a large glass; the wine swirled, aroma molecules breaking free, traveling up my nose, aromas, bouquet, analyzed, information passed on to the brain for comparison with similar previous smelled items. Judgement, memories triggered, new memories being formed.

I love smelling wines. I can happily swirl 4 ounces of wine in the bottom of a 16 or 20 ounce glass, and inhale the wine, breathe in the smells, experience the changes as a newly opened wine’s tannins and alcohol heat flush dissipate and the fruit comes forward. I love to let a wine breathe in my glass, “nosing” it over and over.

I often open a wine to be used at dinner, either in the food as a part of the recipe, or as an accompanying meal beverage – or more often as both. I love wine, I love food, and I love to pour myself a glass of wine to smell and inspire me as I prep a meal’s ingredients. I often spend an hour just breathing in a wine before tasting it.

I have a picture that hangs over my desk, and has hung on the wall of each of the wine industry related offices I worked in over the years; in the picture are an 11 year old me, and my then 7 year old brother, crushing grapes by foot. Any fan of Lucy Ricardo’s I Love Lucy trip to Italy can recognize instantly what my brother and I are doing. I love the picture, because it demonstrates how far back wine reaches into my life.

While I grew up with, and always loved, wine, one of the first wines that made me sit up and take notice was the 1976 Simi Cabernet Sauvignon. As I didn’t turn 21 until 1982, I found it too late and had to purchase the wine as a library release directly from the winery. I think I was spending $50 a bottle 25 years ago. I couldn’t afford much back then, but somehow I managed to always have a couple of bottles on hand for years until the winery ran out.

Fifteen years later, my dad asked me to watch his house when he went on vacation to Italy; and tucked away, I found a bottle of 1976 Charles Krug. I invited a wine loving friend up to the house for dinner, planning to showcase the Krug. Robert Mondavi is one of my wine industry heroes, he is a God, having changed California winemaking for all wineries, not just the winery he created in his own name. Mondavi left his family’s winery, the Charles Krug winery, to make his own wines his own way, and in doing so paved the way for everyone else, including Krug, to make better wines. I looked forward to tasting the ’76 Krug Cab, a winery from a historied family, from an area known for growing great Cabernet grapes, from an incredibly good vintage. Would it have held up? Would it be faded? Would it be vinegar?

Typically, I opened the wine while prepping dinner, and was not thrilled with the nose, it seemed muted, very closed, possibly dead. As time went on, the alcohol flush disappeared, but all that was left was a tannic edge without much fruit. The wine had gone, sadly faded. I sniffed and sipped at 30 minutes, an hour, two hours, three hours. Nothing.

My friend came for dinner, we ate and glanced wistfully at the bottle that never opened up. As I plated dessert, I tried the 76 Krug Cab one more time. Oh My God. a wine aged under dubious conditions for twenty five years, left open to breathe for over 4 hours, finally opened to show off the most amazing array of fruit and leather and herb and spice. Rich, deep and full, our dinner wine became the sweetest non-sweet dessert wine ever.

I remember during barrel tasting weekend in Sonoma County tasting a Zinfandel at Preston Vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley. I was stunned by the flavors, still in the barrel, with lots of growing up yet to do, I was tasting what I thought of as the best Zinfandel I had ever tasted. I was so excited to taste the Zinfandel that would be made from this barrel. When at last the finished wine was blended and bottled, I tasted the newly released Zinfandel and was shocked.

Traditionally, Zinfandel may be blended with some Carignane, just as Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended with some Merlot. There are certain blendings, classic, that are accepted as appropriate and often result in a wine superior to the unblended wines otherwise made. Lou Preston chose to blend the best barrels of Zinfandel I had ever tasted with Cabernet, producing a wine that tasted like no other Zinfandel I had ever tasted. I was horrified, crushed, mourning the loss of what I had imagined.

Ignoring the label, putting aside expectations of what a Zinfandel should taste like, and what this Zinfandel could have tasted like, but tasting this wine as simply a red wine, and asking myself if I liked it or not, I found that I did indeed like it. I liked it quite a bit. I often took visiting friends by the Dry Creek Store for sandwiches, then to Preston Vineyards to buy a bottle of this Zinfandel, and over a few games of Bocce on the grounds of Preston Vineyards I would recount the tale of this wine from barrel to bottle, as I experienced it.

Another powerfully memorable wine is the 1995 Kistler Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast, near where the Russian River empties into the Pacific Ocean. The Chardonnay seemed to hold every note in the nose and mouth that I had ever experienced in all other Chardonnays combined. It was all there: oak, toast, cream, vanilla, apple, pear, tropical and citrus, clove, caramel, butterscotch, and so much more. It was like tasting 1.5 Liters of flavor crammed into a 750 milliliter bottle. It was like magic, I have never experienced anything quite like it before or since.

I was in a restaurant in the foodie Buckhead section of Atlanta and saw the ’95 Kistler Chardonnay on the wine menu at $60 which is about the same as it cost on release in a store; remembering the magic, with great happiness, I ordered a bottle. The wine came to the table at perhaps a single degree above freezing, all of the amazing notes locked in by cold. This was a truly sad wine experience, to me it seemed criminal. I would much rather have enjoyed the wine at room temperature with the notes flying out of the glass than frozen and unable to escape.

From the 1973 vintage, Mike Grgich made Chateau Montelena a Chardonnay that won first place among the Chardonnays and white Burgundies at the famed 1976 Paris tasting using fruit that was purchased from the Bacigalupi vineyards in Sonoma County. I had a chance to taste wines made by California winemaker of the year Carol Shelton, using these same grapes, but from the superior 1995 vintage, for Windsor Vineyards. I had a stocked cellar of 360 bottles of wines at the time, I did not need more wine, but I found myself buying cases of this incredible Chardonnay.

Carol Shelton made wines that featured the flavors of the fruit, allowing the grapes and what they had experienced while on the vine to express itself in the bottle. One of the most consistent, approachable wines Shelton made year between the years of 1995 and 2000 was her Murphy Ranch Chardonnay for Windsor Vineyards. Legend, true or not I don’t know, is that Carol was able by contract to pick fruit from the Murphy Ranch in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County before the vineyard owners could harvest the remaining grapes for use in their own Murphy Goode Chardonnay. All I know is that the Carol’s Murphy Ranch Chardonnay made up the largest portion of my collected Chardonnays during this time. I bought bottles from Murphy Goode each vintage as well to do a sort of horizontal tasting, same wine, same grapes, different winemaker.

I could write about the differences of the Chardonnays; the Kistler, the Montelena, the Windsor Bacigalupi Vineyard, the Windsor Murphy Ranch, The Murphy Goode; or about the different areas the grapes come from: Napa or the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and Coast appellations of Sonoma County; or about the different vintages the grapes were grown: the late frosts and early rains or the perfect long and warm growing seasons. It is all of this and more that makes wine endlessly fascinating to the wine geek in me; but suffice it to say that wine is alive, it changes, even twin bottles, cellared well, can taste different months apart.

I could write endlessly about wines, and the wineries and vineyards of my family home in Sonoma County, California. I could tell you about learning that wines change by vintage as my first wife and I had a favored wine become a least favored wine when the last bottle of one vintage was consumed and the first bottle of the new vintage was tasted. I could share that Sonoma County with half the wineries of Napa County wins twice as many Gold Medals in National and International wine competitions – and the wines cost less.

I could write about the lesser known wines of the county I now live in, Mendocino. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown in the Anderson Valley; the similarities and differences of these grapes when compared with the grapes from the better known Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, the sparkling wine of Roederer Estate in the Anderson Valley compared to the California Champagne of the Russian River Valley’s Korbel. The lusciousness of Handley’s Anderson Valley Pinot, or the commitment to organic and sustainable farming practices of Mendocino County wineries – even wine giant Fetzer, located just off the 101 in Hopland. One of the most exciting one man wineries I know of is in Ukiah, where John Chiarito’s head pruned vines produce artisanal Italian varietals, Negroamaro and Nero D’Avloa, as well as gorgeously dense Petite Sirah and Zinfandel.

Mostly, when I write about wine, I want to share with you a memory; the taste of the wine, where I was, what I was doing, and who I was doing it with.

There are books dedicated to recommended pairings; red wine with meat, white wine with fish. I have found that any wine is best paired with friends.

Early this year, I thought I would be in Ohio in October. Later, I had hoped to take advantage of incredible discount airfare offers and take an October vacation to Melbourne Australia; but my decision to attend my 30 year year high school class reunion, combined with next year’s Pokemon World Championship returning to Kona, Hawaii a year earlier than anticipated, caused me to postpone my Melbourne trip.

With time on my calendar blocked out for the trips that I wasn’t taking, I chose to travel to Oregon for another trip that I had wanted to take, and call it a mini vacation. My Oregon trip would run from Wednesday, October 7 through Tuesday, October 13.

Rather than drive my 207,000 mile Ford Aerostar work purposed van for the trip, I rented a Kia Rio. The money saved from improved gas mileage would pay for the rental, and I would save wear on my van. Most importantly, the Kia had an aux plug so I could play songs from my iPhone/iPod over the car’s stereo system.

I am used to flying. I fly often for work. Driving made me more aware that I was not working, and the drive from my home in Ukiah to my first stop in Newport, OR took 11 hours and covered 600 miles.

I used to follow the Grateful Dead, I built my work, my show schedule, around the show schedule of the Grateful Dead. I used to be able to squeeze a 2 week vacation into a 4 hour show; my batteries completely recharged.

On the drive to Oregon, I was listening to the Grateful Dead as I passed through the town of Weed, CA. I found my funny bone tickled by the serendipity of the moment.

Other driving fun came as I drove my tiny car through the curves and twists in the mountainous areas of Hwy 20 and the I-5. I pushed my little car and imagined myself The Stig as I raced through the passes.

North of Salem, I left the 5, and drove through amazingly beautiful farmland. Christmas tree farms, ornamental tree farms, and sustainably grown produce farms on my right and left as I drove into the Willamette valley, before crossing the Willamette river and driving into Newberg, OR.

I was stunned by the quantity of farmland, the freshness of the ingredients available to the local population.

Just before 6PM, I checked into my room at the Shilo Inn of Newberg. My room on the third (top) floor was completely acceptable, with a big comfortable King size bed, a nice deep tub, and a nice large – but ugly upholstered brown – couch. The couch was ugly enough that it might, in a completely different environment, actually look good. With a mini fridge and microwave oven, I could chill bottled water or pop popcorn. Who could ask for more?

My junior high school friend, Michelle, stopped by after she finished working, and we looked at yearbook pictures and caught up with each other. Let me say that the years have been kind, and Michelle looked great. We talked, while sharing some Rodney Strong Chardonnay that I had picked up, until most every restaurant in Newport was closed.

Hungry, we went to Shari’s, a Denny’s-like restaurant that pushes pie in a huge way. I had a simple breakfast for dinner, and found that all breakfasts come with pie. I tried an Oregon pie, made with marion berries, to my disappointment. In fairness, there was mostly gelatinous colored flavored ooze, and very little whole fruit in the pie, so while saying the pie was terrible, it would be unfair to judge all marion berries by this, my first taste, as equally horrible.

After dinner, not ready to call it a night, we went to a local drinking establishment; sort of a combo bar, pool hall, music venue, downtown. We had a couple of drinks and talked to nearly closing time.

We agreed to meet the next day, and called it a night.

The next day, Thursday, I had a pretty good breakfast with eggs, sausage, sour cream stuffed hash browns, gravy and wheat toast with lots of decent coffee at the restaurant Michelle had recommended to me. Conveniently, the restaurant was right in front of my hotel.

I love to eat alone, and read either a newspaper or whatever book I have at hand. Over breakfast, I finished Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.”

Michelle met me at the hotel early in the afternoon, and we set off in the Kia to explore the greater Newberg area.

Our first stop was back out to the farm land I saw coming into town the day before. We stopped at French Prarie Gardens near St. Paul, where I looked at marion berries, gala apples, yellow and white super sweet corn, pumkins, squash, cucumbers, fingerling potatoes, and green beans. Canned fruits, jams, breads and pies, and pork, delicious, life sustaining pork. I bought some potatoes and beans for Michelle and her family.

I loved the area’s dedication to sustainable farming and winemaking. Having visited a working farm, we set off to visit a working vineyard and winery. We drove back through Newberg to neighboring Dundee and up, up, up into the hills to Domaine Drouhin.

We tasted three wines made by winemaker Véronique Drouhin-Boss:

Arthur: 2006 Drouhin Family Estate Chardonnay, Dundee Hills, Oregon;

Pinot Noir, 2006 Williamette Valley, Oregon; and

Laurène: 2007 Drouhin Family Estate Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Oregon

Look, I drink a lot of Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs, and 2007 was perhaps the best vintage for the appellation ever; Wine Spectator is certainly suggesting as much. The 2006 Willamette Valley wines are from a terrible vintage, rain damaged, and the 2007 wine was released too soon and was very closed in the nose and mouth.

Domaine Drouhin’s winery sits high up in the hills, surrounded by beautiful vineyards with an unparalleled view of the countryside below. The winery is handsome, and affords views of the winemaking going on. Caps were being punched, the skins being pushed down into the darkening flavoring juice. I wanted to enjoy the wines. I couldn’t, I didn’t; sadly, the wines I tasted were just not good, or ready.

Michelle and I had a late lunch back in Newberg’s downtown at Cancun, where we enjoyed a fajitas for two special with margaritas. The food was good. So were the drinks. So was the company.

One of the things we talked about was the strange absence of a restaurant in the area taking advantage of all of the amazing food being grown or raised in the lands around the town.

I would love to visit the farms and cook with fresh ingredients and BGH and antibiotic free meat.

After lunch, we crossed the street so I could buy a new book at the combination coffee shop/book store. I found a copy of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In The Rye.” Perhaps the most referenced novel in American literature, I had never read it, so I bought it.

I started reading “Catcher” that night, sprawled across my big comfy king size bed. I read until tired, and then went to sleep without an alarm clock set for the next day. When I woke up, I read at breakfast, and then came back to me room and read until there were no words left unread.

What a completely overblown novel “Catcher” is. It has been suggested by a Salinger apologist that the novel is dated and has perhaps not aged as well as other stories. I think it is a plotless whinefest from the point of view of a spoiled brat punk. I really do not “get” whatever I was supposed to get, but I am very much not a fan.

I ate bulgogi with kimchi at the Vineyard Steak House downtown. The food was alright, but the decor was better. This is the location that should be taking advantage of all of the amazing produce and meat from the neighboring farms to make great fresh food, not merely acceptable food.

That Friday night, after dinner, I went to the local drive in movie theater to see Julie and Julia, a lovely film that blends food, blogging, and a little romance. I loved this movie; but really, I’m a foodie, you’re reading my blog, and I am a huge romantic.

The weather for my vacation has been perfect, blue skies, clear air, warm sun, gorgeous.

On my last day in the north part of Oregon, in the morning, I visited Sokol Blosser and tasted another not ready to be tasted 2007 Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills.

Next I drove the half hour or so into Portland, and drove some of the hoods, crossed back and forth across the river several times using different bridges, and then went to Aloha, another town on the outskirts of Portland just because of the name. On the way, in Beaverton, I saw a farmer’s market I wanted to stop for, but I also saw sign carrying anti abortion activists, so I skipped it.

On my way from Aloha, about which I can only say it is cooly named, back to Newberg, I drove through more farm land, stopped in Scholls to walk some farms, then played The Stig again as I drove to the top of a mountain range in my way.

At one point, I found myself at the entrance to Bald Peak State Park where years before I made love to a Yamhill girl as November snow fell outside my rental car. I was surprised to find myself back in a place I had been directed to years before, kind of time being stapled on itself in this place. Nice unexpected memories.

After a nice and relaxing four days, I went to bed reasonable early; my plan was to arise early and drive to Grants Pass.

Intent wedded to action, I got up early Sunday morning and drove the 4 hours or so to check in early to my room at the Redwood Motel in Grants Pass, and then on to the Applegate Valley and Schmidt Family Vineyards.

I arrived as the vineyard gates were opened by the owner Cal Schmidt and drove up the drive through the vineyards to the tasting room. I was here to taste wines because one of my favorite people, Nancy Howard Cameron Iannios, works as both the tasting room and wine club manager here.

I have to pause to point out the obvious to anyone who reads my writing with any frequency; I don’t say things just to be nice, I am willing to tell the mean truth when warranted, and about wine, I am a bit snobby.

I was prepared to visit Nancy, taste the wines at Schmidt Family Vineyards, and make some vague complimentary comments about the area. I have tasted a lot of wines from Oregon. I travelled to, and tasted wines at, festivals in Astoria, Salem, Newport, and Portland in several successive years. While tasting the occasional palatable wine, and rarer exceptional wine, overall I find the wines of home to be superior.

Cal and Judy Schmidt have built something magical. A trio of lodge styled buildings, crafted with great care and skill, are set in the middle of spectacularly serene and colorful gardens, complete with a lake and gazebo. The grounds have walking paths, shade trees of muti hued foilage, chairs and benches.

I love it here. The Applegate valley is beautiful, surrounded by forested hills with the Applegate river passing through it. It is rural, unspoiled, green, lush. Sustainable winemaking and farming.

Stone, wood, waterfalls, chickens, foods, flowers. Wine.

On top of the external beauty, there is also the lingering memory of the wines made here that I have tasted.

I don’t like the wines of Oregon’s Williamette valley, I find them weak and think that Sonoma County’s Russian River valley produces far superior Pinot Noir.

Southern Oregon’s Applegate valley is clearly not the Williamette valley. Here at Schmidt Family Vineyards, I have tasted wonerfully flavorful Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and two delightful blends. I generally prefer reds over whites, and am incredibly fond of both the Merlot and Syrah.

This masterpiece of imagination and execution didn’t happen by accident, and I know of few endeavors more risk laden than winemaking; so I can only applaud the courage of Cal and Judy Schmidt for creating everything I am experienced at their winery and vineyards.

I must say that I am envious of Nancy, that she gets to come to such a beautiful place to work.

Nancy arranged for her husband Aris to take me to some other wineries in the Applegate Valley to taste wines.

Without exception, I tasted wines made from grapes yielding enormous, and surprising, flavors. Sadly, I didn’t taste any wines made as well. Often I would find a wine with so much promise in the nose, and feel cheated when the mouth delivered a completely different experience. Disconnect. The area has a ton of potential. Cal is proving the strength of the grapes with the quality of his wines.

I heard more than once a note of bitter jealousy at wineries that did not know I had come from Schmidt Family Vineyards. The other wineries would be better served emulating the successes of Schmidt Family Vineyards rather than sewing discord in the valley.

After a lay down back in town at my motel, I joined Nancy, Aris, and their beautiful four year old daughter Lia at Taprock, a restaurant with an incredible view of the Rogue river. The food was no where as good as the view, and the incredible view paled before the company.

On Monday, Aris picked me up at the motel and took me out to a field to watch Petra, Aris’ perigrine falcon, fly.

Grants Pass, OR is a beautiful place to live. I was impressed to see a downtown intact. So many towns are losing their core independent businesses to big box stores that spring up just outside of the city limits, and outside city tax responsibilities.

For lunch, only because it was directly across the street from my motel, I ate at the Hong Kong Restaurant, even though Aris gave it a bad review. Oh, I should have listened to Aris. Most memorable was the sweet and sour pork: miniscule bits of pork surrounded by deep fried batter, served with a bright red gelatinous sweet, but not sour, sauce – cherry pie filling. Just weird.

After lunch, I went to the movies with Nancy and Lia to watch an animated movie with meatball raining on an island community. It was mostly fun just to watch Lia, a sweet little girl.

My farewell dinner with Nancy, Aris, and Lia was at Wild River Brewing and Pizza where I had a good IPA and fish and chips. Simple and delicious.

I again woke early to start driving, this time home, on Tuesday morning.

In Ashland a neon sign in the darkness beside the 5 proclaimed the “Knights’ Inn Motel, Restaurant” and a vinyl sign “Lounge”.  I pulled off the 5 to find breakfast. The Wild Goose Cafe opens at 6 AM, and I arrived just about then. When ordering I was offered my choice of specials. Chanterelle mushroom with swiss cheese omelet or Pecan Pancakes. I chose the mushroom omelet, a cup of very good coffee, and a marion berry muffin.

It was surprising to me to find my best meal, with the highest quality ingredients, at what looked quite a bit like a converted Denny’s restaurant.

The chanterelles were delicious, the coffee was great, but the nicest surprise of all was to find the previously disrespected marion berry tasting delicious in a beautifully moist and warm fresh muffin.

At the beginning of the year, I expected to be in Ohio the second weekend of October. While I did spend my weekend in a state than begins with the letter “O”; Oregon is very different but was a welcome substitute, and a perfect backdrop for a great mini vacation. Melbourne, Australia is a foodie Heaven; it isn’t fair to compare meals tasted against meals not, but I still thank all that is holy that in Ashland I found a shockingly good meal on this trip. I had a terrific time.

Thanks to my hosts Michelle, Nancy, Aris and Lia.

I graduated 30 years ago from Piner High School in Santa Rosa. Piner was the “agricultural” school in Sonoma County’s largest city.

Our 30 year reunion is planned for October this year. There have been meet-ups once each month in advance, the latest was yesterday at Riverfront Regional Park on Eastside Road west of Windsor, CA.

The meet-ups leading up to the reunion are getting bigger and better, and the reunion itself will be amazing largely because of Kim and Bill. Kim Finitz runs our reunion/alumni site piner79.com and has tracked down 234 of our classmates. Bill Towner runs our facebook alumni site and 65 classmates have joined the group.

At our 5 year reunion, people hadn’t changed much and hadn’t done much yet. At our 20 year reunion, some people had changed too much and we had all done too much…I could remember too few of my classmates but everybody seemed to remember me.

I was active in high school. I was in student government, theater and sports. I was an athletic geek, a rah rah who visited the smoking grounds. I was comfortable everywhere, and knew everyone. 20 years after graduation, I had forgotten the connections I had with some of my classmates from so long before, and I could not tap into memories that, at least that night, seemed lost permanently.

The internet and social networking sites, most specifically facebook, have been such a great aid to me and other alumni. We now have connections reestablished before the big reunion, putting our new more experienced faces to our names, rekindling memories of shared experiences, and creating new experiences will make this the best reunion yet.

Yeserday I saw Derek Clark, Jeff Dahlquist, Doug Duffield, Kim Finitz (Clark), Linda Forthuber (Kynoch), Todd Grames, Susan Greening, Robert Haney, Keith Lewis, Marie Lovell, Deena McConnell, Karen Mishler (Togrimson),  Keith Robinson, Jack Sather, Bill Towner, Tim Vigil, and Kary Witt. There were spouses, significant others, children and even grandchildren too.

I also got to see four additional classmates, Cynthia Johnson (Wise), Felecia McGill (Cordova), Shannon Smyth (Loranger) and David Yokoyama, the night before thanks to Derek and Kim.

I loved seeing everyone, but had the most fun talking about lacrosse with some of my old team mates. In the 9th grade, our cross country coach encouraged us to play lacrosse as a form of cross training, running for an hour without thinking of it as running. We, a group of tiny freshmen, were put in the men’s division of the Northern California Lacrosse Association. We didn’t yet have decent stick skills, and we were pummeled. We lost our first game 33-0, and the only person on the team with any skill left the game early with a broken arm. We played against adult teams for two years, getting better, and finally were able to play even games, managing to win one or two. When we were juniors in high school, our team was put in a high school team division. For the next two years, we were amazingly good. Our competition had gotten smaller, less skilled, and less experienced while we had become larger, more skilled and more experienced. We also had an enormous chip on our collective shoulders about having suffered through two years in the wrong age division. We played with a ferocity that the other teams didn’t expect. We surprised ourselves with lop sided wins. We liked being dominant and practiced more. We developed a bit of a swagger. We started keeping records of spectacularly brutal hits. Collectively, we remember our grandest act of arrogance when we set up a one on one shot on goal by our goalie; this led to a hockey type brawl and an early end to the game. Our other shared memory was our worst physical beating at the hands of a team that decided to play against us in our own style, but with even more extreme violence. We had people leave the field that day with a ruptured spleen, while others were forced to carry on with concussion, or a 100 mph goal shot to the balls.

I wondered to myself how many of us could still handle a stick. It would be fun to pass the ball around, if less fun to run after a missed ball.

I had to answer questions about Murphy-Goode’s Really Goode Job for each classmate I saw this weekend. I had sent notes to every Piner ’79 alumni that is on facebook. Kim did me one better and passed on my plea to all 234 classmates that have been tracked down on our alumni website. You reap what you sew, and so I explained 20 times what the job was about, explained that votes don’t determine who gets the job but can’t hurt making the winery more aware of me, and thanked everyone for the Piner push. I received a ton of votes from Piner 79 grads, their family and friends; many people voting from more than 1 email address. I continue to marvel and the kindness, and complete willingness so many people are showing me in the support and help I am getting in my effort.

Another classmate, John Coons, who I knew probably back to the 4th grade 38 years ago, took notice of my attempt to land what I have referred to as my “dream job” with Murphy-Goode, made note of my qualifications in my video application, and contacted a Calistoga winery owner that he knows on my behalf attempting to help me get a job in wine marketing. I don’t think other wineries are looking to give someone the same position that Murphy-Goode is, but I am incredibly touched by John’s kindness.

I asked for help, for votes. John saw the plea for help and went farther. I have written many times that we are not alone. Ask and people will help.

I continue to be humbled to be the recipient of so much help, kindness, sweetness.

I had a great time this weekend visiting with my high school classmates, I look forward to seeing as many as possible at the July meet-up. I need to go check my work calendar and request a day that I am in town.

__________

Yesterday, on the way home from Windsor with my wonderful son Charlie, we drove out far into the Alexander Valley and parked at the winery of Robert Young. Robert Young passed away Friday. Young was the patriarch of the Alexander Valley wine growers, replacing his orchards with vineyards long before vineyards were fashionable. Sonoma County’s Chateau St. Jean vineyard designated one of their chardonnays as Robert Young Vineyard before anyone else identified single vineyard wines in that way.

If not for Chateau St. Jean and Robert Young, I would have been selling Alexander Valley Chardonnay at Windsor Vineyards instead of the Murphy Ranch Chardonnay I did sell.

I passed my respects yesterday to Robert Young in his vineyards.

Today, I had to drive from my home in Ukiah to Santa Rosa to pack up and be ready for my 3:45 AM wake up and trip to San Francisco to set up and work the North Beach Festival (of really cool handcrafted art topped Corkers for wine bottles and other not as cool things).

As I have applied for my dream job, and the dream job is being offered by Murphy-Goode Winery, I thought I would pop into the tasting room in downtown Healdsburg for a taste of what was being poured today.

Rather than drive directly to the tasting room, getting off the freeway, US 101, at the last possible moment; I chose to leave the freeway in Geyserville, and drive out Hwy 128 through the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County, taking the long way to Healdsburg.

As I left the little town of Geyserville behind me, along with the freeway, I quickly found myself driving through vineyards. The lushly green canopy of leaves on the trellised vines spreading out on both sides of the turning country road, orange California poppies growing wild on the sides of the road, the earth brown, and the grass on the hillsides dried to nearly the same tan brown color of the earthy dirt roads around and through the vineyards themselves, the green vineyards on the hillsides contrasting green against brown, oak trees brown and full leafy green, white feathery bands of clouds against a sky of baby blue; the beauty of the Alexander Valley so powerful, I am happy that I can take the time to drive a slower road.

The road becomes emptier of cars as I reach the turn off to the Indian casino, River Rock, where all cars but mine turn up the hillside drive to give their money away.

I see vineyard workers in cowboy hats and boots. I worked one summer in the vineyards of Healdsburg. I like my view of the vineyard now much better than my view of countless individual vines then.

I pull over and park across from the Murphy Ranch vineyard at the Sonoma Wine Company Alexander Valley Facility. Once upon a time Murphy-Goode used this facility to make wine and pour them for visitors to their co-located tasting room. No more, a large “CLOSED” sign seems perpetually in place to dissuade visits. While I walked about, remembering past visits to the Murphy-Goode tasting room, remembering the friends I visited here with, and the wines we tasted, lost in fond memories, a truck with two men pulled up beside me near the front door and asked me if they were at Murphy-Goode.

I told them that their memory was either very good, or their information very old. I told the two ballooners (their vanity license plate: BALLOON) that the tasting room was gone from here, but directed them to 20 Matheson in downtown Healdsburg. I felt good. Get my dream job or not, 99% of the applicants could not have been able to help these men, fewer than 1 in 100 would have known that this was the former location of Murphy-Goode so would not have stopped to gather memories. I felt more qualified that ever, there is something very special about local knowledge.

Eventually, I got back in my van and continued generally south toward Healdsburg. At the corner of West Sausal Lane and Alexander Valley Road is the closed and dusty Alexander Valley store. I pray the store reopens after remodeling and site improvements, it is both iconic and a perfect landmark, “turn right at the Alexander Valley store.”

I did make my right turn at the Alexander Valley store, saw two women selling cherries by the side of the road, looked down and saw canoes and sunbathers as I crossed the Russian River, and made my way to Healdsburg Avenue.

At the corner was someone selling cherries, strawberries, and oranges; and a taco truck. In northern California taco trucks are ubiquitous, and many a meal is produced at restaurant quality yet at a low price. I smiled at the sign painted boldly on the side of the truck, “Taqueria Guanajuato,” as I made my turn onto Healdsburg Avenue to drive the final leg of my trip to the Murphy-Goode tasting room.

I am pleased to be able to write about more than the tasting room and the wine. The wines I tasted were more delicious for being in the mood my drive through Murphy-Goode’s past, and mine, put me in.

Upon entering the tasting room, I saw a lap top opened to allow people to view video applications for my dream job, so I cued my application (#1015) for the next lap top fiddler to encounter. I noted the upcoming summer jazz performances that Murphy-Goode was sponsoring. I looked at the Murphy-Goode logo clothing that I will want to wear when I am chosen for “A Really Goode Job.”

I bellied up to the tasting bar and asked to taste the first wine being poured, Murphy-Goode’s 2008 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc, “The Fume.” The wine was crisply delicious, showing an abundance of fruit, tropical, citus, and a hint of pear, with a touch of Sauvignon blanc’s straw and cat pee nose. The fruit was so forward, and the straw and especially the cat pee notes so well hidden that I guessed incorrectly that the wine had some Semillon blended in to help boost the fruit. 1 wine tasted, 1 wine loved, 1 bottle purchased.

Next, I tasted a 2007 Chardonnay made with oak barrels sourced in Minnesota. Huh? Okay, The wine maker David Ready is from Minnesota, and likes to link the winery in ways surprising to Minnesota when possible (Viking horns are part of the company uniform). I was told that the Minnesota oak was smaller grain than typical American oak barrel grain. I remember that there was a time when a trained taster could identify American oak held wines by a dill note imparted, a note absent in French oak held wines. I asked about this note, and whether it occurred in these Minnesota oak held wines. The tasting room gal I asked suggested I taste for myself. I would love to tell you about this wine, but I can’t. Served almost ice cold, I couldn’t break much nose or mouth free from the icy clutches of the cold. I liked what I tasted, but I couldn’t taste enough to write more about this wine. Sad, I was really intrigued by the uniqueness of Minnesota oak, I love different, I love unusual, I love quirky.

The other tasting room pourer, I think his name was Will, and I talked of Murphy-Goode past and present. We both had been around wines and wineries for quite a long time and knew many of the same people. It made our conversation easy. We talked about Jess Jackson buying Murphy-Goode; Tim Murphy passed away in 2001, Dale Goode wanted to transition into retirement, and Jess Jackson believes in keeping everything the same in a hands off “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” way, welcoming David Ready Jr. as the winemaker following in his father Dave’s footsteps.

I noted other wineries Jackson had picked up and allowed to continue unchanged, doing what they do best. If you buy a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir artisan winery, you don’t force them to make Sangiovese, or blend Cab into their Pinot, or any other crazy change.

Not sucking up, but Jess Jackson is an icon to me for wine business prowess; up there with Mondavi and the Gallos.

Anyway, next up to tast were a trio of reds.

I started with the 2005 Alexander Valley Snake Eyes (think Reserve) Zinfandel. Oh my God, I think I fell in love with this wine at first nose. I want to marry it, at least get a room and spend the night together. Big, bold, rambly raspberry and black pepper spice for days. Everything promised in the nose, delivered in the mouth. A big mouth feel wine, lots of finish. lots of wine flavor in just a 750 ml bottle. The grapes come from vines of the Ellis ranch which are about 70 years old and you can taste the maturity. This is not your friend’s mom’s white zin; this monster of a Zin, all red, all the time, comes in at a whopping 15.8% alcohol, which is huge; especially as it doesn’t taste hot and thin like some other high alcohol Zinfandels.

Next I tasted the 2004 All In Claret, a Bordeaux style blend, some would call it a Meritage. This wine had a little Petite Verdot, more Merlot, and was mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. Absent in this Claret were Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Supple, delicious, far tamer than the Zinfandel; big, but not scary big. This was a red my friends would love. Filled with Blackberry and currant, with leathery fat cherry. This would be a phenomenal food wine. I would love to drink it with grilled steak. Simple and perfect. Feeling a tiny bit adventurous? Melt a little gorgonzola onto the steak while grilling. The party will be in your mouth.

Finally, I tasted a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon because of a promised eucalyptus note. it seems the vineyard is planted next to a roadside wind block stand of eucalyptus trees, and the flavors sort of leech their way into the first rows of nearby grape vines. I have tasted a wine that had the same notes for the same reason before, and liked it very much. I liked this wine, a little rough around the edges, but chockablock filled with blackberry and eucalyptus notes. The tasting room pourer, Will (?), poured me a second tasting glass through a Vinturi, a wine aeration device. the 2004 Cabernet was instantly improved. The rough edges I had noted before were smoothed out. I liked the wine more, but loved the Vinturi.

I wanted to buy a bottle of red to go with my Fume purchase. The choice came down to the Zinfandel that I would love the most, or the Claret that my friends would love the most.

My friends are going to have to love giant Zinfandels, or they can drink some really perfect Sauvignon Blanc instead; these are the two wines I chose to buy today.

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