John On Wine – Coro, Crush, Coro and Crush

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, April 2, 2015

Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah, Coro Mendocino, Crush, Coro, sometimes it seems that I am writing my column about one or the other with a frequency that squeezes other worthy subjects out. There are other great restaurants in Ukiah; Patrona, Ritual, and Oco Time come immediately to mind; but Crush is uniquely suited to host spectacular chef’s wine dinners, with their private dining room and top notch kitchen and front of house team. Anderson Valley is well known as a place where premium Pinot Noir and Alsatian variety white wines are born; inland Mendocino grows some terrific Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux varieties; but Coro Mendocino is the county’s flagship wine, and the cooperative element to the program has me writing about these Zinfandel-centric blends made by different great winemakers with deserved prevalence.

Guinness McFadden makes a Coro wine and, fortunately for me, he was overwhelmed with meetings and sent me to sit with the Coro winemakers to taste barrel samples of the 2013 Coro wines being produced by Barra, Brutocao, Clos du Bois, Golden, Graziano, Parducci, Testa, and, of course, McFadden, on March 18.

I tasted through the wines in January, for the second of four blind tastings, with the winemakers, each giving notes of unvarnished constructive criticism on each wine, so adjustments could be made. I tasted them again yesterday, for the third group Coro winemaker blind tasting, and the tweaks made in the intervening two months had every one of the wines positively singing. As an example, Guinness reduced the blend of his wine from 70% Zinfandel to 67%, and increased the Syrah in his blend from 20% to 23%, with the remaining 10% unchanged and given over to Petite Sirah. That small change improved the wine remarkably, providing balance and integration.

Doubly fortunate, I was also able to blind taste the finished, bottled, but not yet released, 2012 vintage Coro wines, to help judge their weight, in advance of the multi course 2012 vintage Coro Release Party at dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco on June 19 (tickets would make a perfect Father’s Day Gift). Again, the wines of Barra, Brutocao, Clos du Bois, Golden, McFadden, Parducci, Ray’s Station, and Testa all tasted wonderful, each their own unique wine, and vintage different from the just tasted 2013 Coro wines.

Triply fortunate, that same evening, I attended a Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah, featuring incredible dishes prepared by Chef Jesse Elhardt and his team, and the lineup of 2011 vintage Coro wines.

Rusty Martinson of Testa, Owen Smith of Barra, Hoss Milone of Brutocao, and Dennis Patton of Golden. (photo by John Cesano)

Rusty Martinson of Testa, Owen Smith of Barra, Hoss Milone of Brutocao, and Dennis Patton of Golden. (photo by John Cesano)

The evening started off with passed Gazpacho Shooters of San Marzano (the best) tomato, olive oil, sherry vinegar, and Malden salt; which were the best gazpacho I have ever tasted, and paired perfectly with the McFadden Sparkling Cuvee Brut.

After the ‘meet & greet’ appetizers, the lucky 70 attendees at the sold out dinner moved into the private dining room and took seats. Four Coro wineglasses, appetizer, and main course plates were in place, and the first course wines were poured, all 2011 vintage Coro wines, from McFadden, Parducci, Clos du Bois, and Testa. These four ‘lighter’ 2011 Coro wines were substantial, as was the food from the kitchen: Crush Antipasto with four assorted cured meats, four assorted cheeses, cornichons, olives, peppers, crostini, olive oil, and course mustard; Spicy Lamb Balls with Calabrian chili from Italy, romesco with toasted almonds and hazelnuts, feta, mint, and micro basil; and Seared Day Boat Scallops with a rosemary fig jam, bacon couscous, and a baby kale salad topped with white Champagne vinaigrette.

I Love the lamb meatballs, they were incredibly flavorful, and paired beautifully with sips of each of the four Coro wines from the flight. One of the cheeses, a Parmigiano-Reggiano, also was a particular delight when paired with the wines. The scallops, fresh from San Francisco the day before, was a spectacular dish, but honestly would have paired better with the lighter ‘meet & greet’ wines served earlier, as the Coro wines overpowered the delicious but delicate flavors of the dish for me, but easily resolved as I just ate the scallop without the wine, and loved them.

Gracia Brown of Visit Mendocino, Inc. (photo by John Cesano)

Gracia Brown of Visit Mendocino, Inc. (photo by John Cesano)

First plate cleared, wines dumped, new wines were poured, the 2011 Coro wines from Brutocao, Barra, Fetzer, and Golden, and the second food course to impress was brought out; Roasted Whole Filet Tenderloin with spiced crust, roasted mushrooms, a board sauce, and red wine demi-glace; One Hundred Layer Lasagna of fresh pasta, ten hour ragu, béchamel, tomato, reggiano, and fresh herb; Roasted Zucchini Ribbons with garlic chip, basil pesto, cherry tomato confit, and olive oil; and Potato au Dauphinoise with herb infused cream and cheddar bread crumb.

Sips of each of the five wines, I held onto some McFadden Coro, with bites of each food creation, were spectacular. The tender tenderloin of certified Angus beef, a perfect medium rare, cooked in butter, with a peppercorn medley crust was as good as meat gets; The lasagna was 100 layers of red, white, and green, representing the colors of the Italian flag, with the Bolognese ragu providing the red, béchamel bringing the white, and every third layer made from a basil infused pasta for the green; the roasted zucchini ribbons were delicious and provided a bright note for the second course; with the potatoes, made from a 1906 recipe, featuring sliced potatoes infused overnight in an herb cream, a must have seconds dish for me.

Dessert was a Flourless Valrhona Chocolate Cake served with house made toasted almond gelato, chocolate crumb, and spun sugar; and paired with a choice of McFadden Late Harvest Riesling or Brutocao, Dunnewood, or Parducci port. This might just be the best dessert I have tasted at Crush yet. I went with the Riesling, which paired perfectly, once again, with Jesse’s food.

All of the night’s wines were wonderful, and there was quite a bit of talk about how good the 2011 vintage Coro showed. Initially thought a ‘weak’ vintage, every Coro was a stellar food wine, and a testament to each winemaker’s skills and a great showing for the Coro program. Without exception, the 2011 Coro wines were delicious, lovely, and showed great finesse, balance, and flavor, each showing differently that intensity of flavor is not limited to over oaked, high alcohol, fruit jamb bombs. These were elegant wines, all.

The next Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush will feature the wines of Graziano, and will be held on Wednesday, May 20; for tickets call (707) 463-0700.

The next Coro dinner will be on Friday, June 19, at dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco, when the 2012 vintage Coro Mendocino wines are released. Tickets are $700 per couple, and include a gourmet multi course meal, paired with all eight new Coro wines, and each ticket includes the full collection of 2012 vintage Coro wines to take home. There will also be complimentary valet parking for the dinner, which in San Francisco is a huge bonus. For tickets, call Sip! Mendocino in Hopland at (707) 744-8375, and tell them you want to sit at a McFadden table if you would like to hear Guinness tell a five minute story about an Irish priest and a bike, or be less than dazzled by stupid magic tricks by me. Seriously, I have attended two of these dinners and they are the best wine dinner events you can attend, if you love red wine or Mendocino County. With Father’s Day falling on June 21 this year, tickets to this June 19 dinner really are a perfect gift for any wine loving dads.

It isn’t every day that you get to taste a lineup of an entire Coro vintage, doing so with a great dinner makes it all the better experience. Getting to taste three entire vintages in a day, 24 great wines in all, pretty much makes me the most fortunate tasting room manager and wine writer in California.

John On Wine – My favorite Crush Chef’s Wine Dinner yet

This piece originally ran in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, February, 5, 2015

The recent Chefs’ Wine Dinner at Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah featuring McFadden Farm in Wednesday, January 21st 2015 was special for me. You have read six previous posts where I spread my love for these dinners all over the page, and we were finally going to be doing one for McFadden. What a treat.

First dose of love goes to Gracia Brown from Visit Mendocino County; Gracia brokered the deal between Kevin Kostoff at Crush and me at McFadden, bringing us together in joyful partnership, so McFadden’s top awarded and highly rated wines could be paired with Chef Jesse Elhardt’s unrivaled cuisine to offer inland Mendocino a premier event during the Mendocino County Crab, Wine & Beer Fest.

The dinner would also be special, because it would mark Guinness McFadden’s first major public outing after heart surgery at the end of November.

Tickets for the dinner sold faster than any previous Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush, without Crush getting to send an email invitation to their previous dinner attendees, thanks to you, the readers of John On Wine in the Ukiah Daily Journal and the Wine Club Members and other McFadden newsletter subscribers. Kudos also to Nick Karavas, the exemplary bar manager at Crush, who talked up the dinner in house, and sold quite a few tickets as well.


The evening started with a reception appetizer of Dungeness Arancini with panko, saffron-sherry aioli, fried dill sprig. These rice balls, topped with crab were wonderfully delicious, and paired perfectly with the 2013 McFadden Chardonnay (90 Points – Wine Enthusiast Magazine); a perfect way to kick off the evening.


After the meet and greet reception in the dining room bar area, Kevin invited the full house to move to the private glass-walled dining room and find a seat for the rest of the night’s dinner, served family style, which I love as it makes for a much more social evening.


Once seated, owner Doug Guillon welcomed everybody to Crush and promised a wonderful evening for all, a promise kept. Chef Jesse described the appetizer course previously enjoyed, and the various dishes we would all soon enjoy. Guinness McFadden talked about his McFadden Farm and how his land influences the grapes that make the wines that would be served. Guinness introduced me and challenged me to be as brief in my remarks. I described our appetizer wine, and the two wines chosen for the first course.

Bacon wrapped, crab stuffed, shrimp

The first course dishes included Nueske Bacon Wrapped Stuffed Jumbo Prawns with dungeness mix, bistro sauce, buerre monte, and chive; 1914 Crab Louie Salad with butter lettuce, endive, marinated tomato, avocado, orange, and haystack; and Crab “toast” with garlic, reggiano, basil, lemon aioli, chili, and olive oil.

Crab Salad
Crab Toast

Many said that the first course was so rich, that by itself, the meal was complete, and every other dish was a bonus. The bacon wrapped prawn with crab was a meal highlight, although the crab salad showing notes of bright sweet citrus and the crab toast (think garlic toast but with crab, so a million times better) made the plate a celebration of delicious taste experiences.

Very happy guests

The first course featured two wines: NV McFadden Cuvee Rose (Gold Medal – 2014 Mendocino Wine Competition, Gold Medal – 2014 Grand Harvest Awards, and Double Gold Medal – 2015 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition); and the 2013 McFadden Pinot Gris (90 Points and Editor’s Choice – Wine Enthusiast Magazine) – Guinness’ favorite wine. The Brut Rose showed lovely ripe red fruit notes of strawberry, cherry and watermelon, and the Pinot Gris is a lighter wine with pear and apple flavors richer than ordinary for the variety. The two wines, each in their turn, brought out the subtle, and not subtle, flavors of Jesse’s dishes.


Plates cleared, Jesse introduced his second course: Garlic Roasted Whole Crab with lemon, olive oil, and fresh herb; Zinfandel Braised Short Ribs with 4 hour natural jus, baked carrot purée, crispy shallot, and micro intensity; Roasted Jumbo Delta Asparagus with shallot sea salt, balsamic reduction, and chive; and Potato Gnocchi Gratin with fresh herb, cream, caprino, and house made bread crumb. I introduced the 2012 McFadden Old Vine Zinfandel (95 Points – Just Wine Points/Wine X), possibly the only Zinfandel light enough not to overpower crab, yet flavorful enough to stand up to Zinfandel braised short ribs. Every bite of food was a delight, but gnocchi speaks to my Italian heart, and I loved Jesse’s version…and his dedication, having handmade 1,500 individual gnocchi for the dinner.

Zin braised short ribs


For dessert, by request, Chef Jesse recreated a much loved pairing from his December 2013 wine dinner that featured Coro Mendocino wines, a Butterscotch Budino with dual chocolate and butterscotch layers, chocolate pearls, salted butter crunch, toasted crab & coconut crumble (okay, the toasted crab and coconut crumble were a new crab-centric addition for tonight’s meal), paired again with the 2011 McFadden Late Harvest Riesling (Best of Class – 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, 4 Star Gold Medal – 2014 Orange County Fair Wine Competition, Double Gold Medal – 2014 Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition).


The dinner was so good, the service so excellent, that although the ticket price for a crab dinner with wine was higher than any previous dinner (still a bargain at just $75), and included tax and tip, attendees spontaneously passed a collection basket for the servers to increase the tip, with the basket filling with $20 bills.

The owners' toast

The evening was great, and I want to thank everyone at Crush, from the folks who ordered our wines (thanks!), to those that cooked the dinner, and from those who served us all, to Doug and Debbie Guillon, our fantastic hosts for the evening. All night, and again all the next day, person after person told me how enjoyable everything about the evening was.

If you missed out, and many did – we could easily have sold out two nights – don’t fret, there are more Chef’s Wine Dinners planned for this year, and the next will feature the 2011 vintage of Coro Mendocino, the county’s flagship wine, a Zinfandel dominant red wine blend. The Coro dinner at Crush is going to be on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, and will likely feature the winemakers of Barra, Brutocao, Clod du Bois, Fetzer, Golden, McFadden, Parducci, and Testa, with wines big enough to allow Jesse to showcase the depth of his ragu and other hearty Italian fare. To reserve your seat early for the March 18 Coro dinner at Crush, call (707) 463-0700.

This weekend, on Saturday, February 7, join me at the 10th annual International Alsace Varietals Festival for a full day of events in the Anderson Valley, with many Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling wines, starting with an educational session in the morning, the big grand tasting in the afternoon, and a winemakers’ dinner in the evening. For more information, visit www.avwines.com/alsace-festival.


John on Wine- Coro Mendocino

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on July 17, 2014
Written by John Cesano

John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine


So, you want to be a winemaker and you want to be old school about it? You buy an airline ticket and fly to Bordeaux France. When you get there, you find that there is a protocol for making wine in this geographically identifiable area, and that if you make your wine in Bordeaux using any varietal grapes other than those on a very short list of approved grape varietals for Bordeaux wines, then you’ll be with Luca Brasi, “swimming with the fishes”. Get caught dropping a single Pinot Noir grape into a barrel of Bordeaux wine and life as you knew it is forever changed for the worse.

It is the same in Burgundy, Tuscany, pretty much everywhere throughout Europe. Every geographically identifiable area has a protocol, a list of allowed grapes that can be used to make wine.

Here in the United States, things are different. Winemakers can make wine with much greater freedom, in a near willy-nilly manner. There is no geographically identifiable area making wine following a protocol — except Mendocino County, and the Coro Mendocino wines.


For a short time, it could have been argued that California had the Meritage program, but the association did a poor job of protecting the name and protocol established, and now there are wines called Meritage made outside of the state, and even outside the country.

Back to Coro; unique in the United States, a group of Mendocino County winemakers got together a dozen years ago and decided to cooperatively and collaboratively make a wine representative of the county. They chose the name Coro, because Coro is Italian (and Spanish, Latin, and Portuguese) for Chorus. Where a chorus is a blending of voices into a harmonious whole that is greater than the individual voices, Coro wines would be blends of grapes made better than the individual varietals, and with multiple Mendocino County wineries producing their own Coro each year, the program would be greater than the individual efforts of any one winery.

There are wine regions that are famous for particular grapes; Napa is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley is known for Pinot Noir. Sadly, the wine buying public did not similarly know what Mendocino County grew (other than Marijuana). The reason is that roughly 75 percent of the grapes grown in Mendocino County are bought and used by Napa and Sonoma County wineries to make their wines. Mendocino County was more of a grape farm county than a grape wine county.

The initial task for the first Coro winemakers, when creating a protocol for the wines to be made, was to make Zinfandel, Mendocino County’s most planted grape, the heart of every Coro wine. Every Coro would contain no less than 40 percent and no more than 70 percent Zinfandel. The blending grapes would be grapes that have historically grown alongside Zinfandel in the county, grapes that might have been harvested and co-fermented in the field blend wines of the past; typically Italian or Rhone varietals. There was also a 10 percent “free play” allowance established, so each participating winery could put their own flavor stamp on their Coro.

Other rules were established, barrel and bottle aging minimums, specified use of oak, chemistry limits to ensure a general uniformity with no outliers.

Recently, the 11th vintage was released, at a five course meal at the Little River Inn. The participating wineries were Barra, Brutocao, Clos du Bois, Fetzer, Golden, McFadden, Parducci, and Testa. The new Coro wines will be available at each winery’s tasting room. Golden promises a tasting room in Hopland before year’s end. For convenience, all new Coro wines are also sold at SIP! Mendocino in Hopland, for folks who want to pick up a vintage set.

Just before the dinner, I had an opportunity to gather with five Coro winemakers at Parducci for a television shoot. The CORO show is part of a three-part segment on the Mendocino County wine industry. The other shows are Women in Wine and Next-Gen in Wine. All three should air and be available for viewing by September at the latest, back to back, on public access channels and online. Look for “Spotlight on Mendocino County!” by Out & About Media in a couple of months.

Coro Winemakers

Coro winemakers, (l-r) Dennis Patton, George Phelan, Maria Testa Martinson, Bob Swain, and Hoss Milone. Photographic credit: Larry Wagner

I got to be the moderator, but the show could have self-moderated around a pouring of the Coro Mendocino wines poured that day by Bob Swain of Parducci Wine Cellars, Maria Martinson of Testa Family Winery, Hoss Milone of Brutocao Family Vineyards, George Phelan of Clod du Bois, and Dennis Patton of Golden Vineyards.

Photographic credit: Larry Wagner

Photographic credit: Larry Wagner

We tasted wines, each different, yet related by protocol, from five producers and three vintages. They were uniformly delicious, but Dennis stole the show by bringing a Golden Coro from the classic 2007 vintage. The answers from the five winemakers, their conversations, were probably better than my questions.

Line up of Coro

Photographic credit: Larry Wagner

Most striking was how every answer seemed to touch upon the collaborative aspects of the program, how winemakers blind taste barrel samples of each vintage several times, making and then sharing notes, all in an effort to produce the very best wines possible. The camaraderie among the winemakers was palpable.


Photographic credit: Larry Wagner

Huge thanks to the crew; producer Leigh Anne Lindsey from Out & About Media, director Steve Yoakum of MediaVectors Group, photographer Larry Wagner, and production assistants Marilyn Wagner and Mary Fairbanks.

Get out to a Coro member winery tasting room, and taste Mendocino County’s flagship wine. For more information about Coro Mendocino, visit their website at www.CoroMendocino.com.

EDITED TO ADD: For the archived copy of this column, I went back to the working title “Coro Mendocino #205” which I came up with because it felt like I had written about Coro at least 204 times previously, sometimes a mere mention, sometimes a section in a column, while other times I use a whole column to spread the word of Coro. I’ve written pieces for 101 Things to do in Mendocino County and I wrote full page pieces for the Ukiah Daily Journal before I decided to take on a weekly column. By a wide margin of words, I have written more about Coro Mendocino than any other writer, so now you know why this piece was titled as it was. Oh, here’s a few archived Coro mentions: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

2010 Coro Rankings

John On Wine ­ – Question Corner

Originally published on December 5, 2013 in the Ukiah Daily Journal by John Cesano

My good friend, Amie Bunch, recently sent me a note asking, “This maybe a dumb question, but do they add sugar to wine?”

Here is the answer I sent her:

“Not a dumb question at all, it is a great question.

Wine gets sweetness and alcohol from the sugar that is in the grapes that the wine is made from.

In the vineyard, buds break out on the vines in the spring and grapes come from those buds. The vines take moisture from the earth and heat from the sun during the summer and grapes grow from the buds – small at first – but larger and larger and by fall’s harvest they have gone from bitter to sweeter. The measure of sugar in a grape at harvest is called brix and usually the higher the brix the more a grower gets paid for his grapes.

The sugar loaded grapes are squeezed, crushed, pressed, stomped, and otherwise rendered of their juice at the winery. Grapes become grape juice.

Fermentation, the changing of grape juice to wine, occurs when yeasts (naturally occurring or purposefully chosen inoculation) convert the sugars in grape juice to alcohol, heat, and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide can be bled off, the heat can be controlled with cooling coils, and the alcohol can be manipulated to some degree.

In many red wines fermentation is complete, taken all the way to dryness and this can yield some high alcohol wines. As Zinfandel can often brix high, there are Zinfandels that drink hot with alcohol running 17 percent or higher.

Many sweeter wines – whites and rosé, have lower alcohol and higher residual sugar, because fermentation is stopped before the yeast can convert all of the sugar in the juice into alcohol. To stop fermentation coils around a stainless steel tank are super chilled, cooling the wine, and stopping the fermentation.

Okay, that’s the vineyard grape to juice to wine story.

Some vintages (simply another name for year when referring to grapes) are cool, too cold to yield the desired brix for a vineyard’s grapes. Big rains can do the same thing, especially if they come late in the season but before harvest, as the vines suck up the extra moisture which then decreases the ratio of sugar to water in the grape. Generally, growers do not love low sugar grapes. Same with the winemaker at the winery.

A natural fix for low sugar in the grapes would be simply to add some sugar.

Wineries in most of the U.S. are not allowed to add sugar to wines. It is illegal.

That said, grape concentrates can be added to the juice to bring sugars up and a low brix problem can be solved.

Oh, and it is alleged that some wineries – I’m thinking of one enormous producer of Chardonnay in particular – do in fact add sugar to their juice.

Now to break the rule; bubbly, champagne, sparkling wine – whatever you call it – does get sugar added to the wine. Instead of making the wine in a barrel or tank, the wine is made in the bubbly bottle and spends a year to a year and a half in the case of McFadden, as an example, with the yeast and lees (spent yeast and other small solids) before disgorgement (a process of removing those particulate solids). At disgorgement, a dosage (a dose) of sugar is added to the wine and the cork & cage are fitted. The small bit of unspent yeast acts upon the dosage and a secondary fermentation occurs.

Remember the carbon dioxide I mentioned before that is bled away? Well, now, trapped inside the bottle, this carbon dioxide becomes a part of the wine, and that added sugar is responsible for the bubbles in a bottle of bubbly.”

Yeah, I know the answer was a bit long winded, but she thanked me, writing back, “You rock! My friend asked me and I told her I didn’t think they did. I told her I would find out. I forwarded her your response and she was so impressed. I said, yeah, I have smart friends.'” Hopefully the answer, off the top of my head, was right.

Next week is the big Coro Mendocino wine dinner at Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah. Grab your reservation, don’t wait, do it now! What are you thinking? That they have hundreds of seats available? They don’t. Call now. (707) 463-0700. About 60 very lucky dinner guests will sit down on Wednesday, Dec. 11 at 6 p.m. for an amazing Chef’s Wine Dinner.

Here’s the working Chef’s menu: Mini Wedge Salads with Nueske bacon, blue cheese, tomato, and red onion; Dungeness Crab Cakes with tomato confit, basil aioli, and balsamic; Oyster Rockefeller ­ the original recipe from 1899; Steak Tartare with French mustard dressing, caper, crispy shallot, and chive; Slow roasted Aged Prime rib of Beef with creamed fresh horseradish and natural au jus; Twiced Baked Idaho Potatoes with cheddar, scallion, and crème fraiche; Creamed Spinach Au Gratin with nutmeg, gruyere, and shallot; Local Organic Roasted Carrots with maple, dill, and butter; and a dessert of Butterscotch Budino with chocolate, whipped cream, and caramel pearls. Ten local wineries will be pouring their Coro Mendocino heritage Zinfandel blend wines; they are Brutocao, Claudia Springs, Fetzer, Golden, McFadden, McNab Ridge, Mendocino Vineyards, Parducci, Philo Ridge and Ray’s Station. $65 covers dinner and wine, add tax and a tip, and the price is the bargain of the year. Count on Sparkling Brut to kick things off and dessert wine to end the night. Have you called yet? Stop reading, and start punching buttons, (707) 463-0700, and I’ll see you there.


John On Wine ­ – Alphabet soup (VMC, MWI, AVWA, ATORV, DH, YHGVA)

Originally published on November 7, 2013 in the Ukiah Daily Journal by John Cesano

Last week was remarkable for inland Mendocino County’s wine scene. In a perfect example of “when it rains, it pours,” after I had complained that the wineries of inland Mendocino county receive scant attention when compared to the folks over in the Anderson Valley, all of a sudden we started getting noticed.

First, of course, was the San Francisco Chronicle’s tasting room reviewer for the Sunday travel section giving a three star review to the lovely Campovida and then a three and a half star review to the small but mighty McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room, both located in Hopland.

The impact, the number of first time visitors who came because of the write up, was astonishing.

Next, Visit Mendocino County (VMC) brought professional photographers for all of last week, and in addition to capturing photographs in Anderson Valley and on the coast, the Vintage Marketplace building, which houses four winery tasting rooms, in Hopland was one of the locations chosen. Any promotional efforts by VMC on behalf of the winery tasting rooms, restaurants, and places to stay here along the 101 corridor from Hopland up to Willits, will be greatly appreciated.

Huge thanks go out to Jen Filice from VMC, who shepherded photographers and models all over the county, and to Margaret Pedroni from Ray’s Station, who was instrumental in helping the Vintage Marketplace location be chosen as the new hot spot for tourism promotion.

Speaking of Margaret Pedroni, Margaret also handles marketing for Coro Mendocino and has been busy working with Dave Richards, the manager of Crush restaurant in Ukiah, to see the 2010 vintage Coro Mendocino wines be the featured wines for the next Crush Chef’s Wine Dinner, on Wednesday, Dec. 11.

All 10 producers will be featured, Brutocao, Claudia Springs, Fetzer, Golden, Mendocino Vineyards, McFadden, McNab Ridge, Parducci, Philo Ridge, and Ray’s Station, but with eight of the 10 wines being made at inland wineries, hopefully this dinner will bring a little more attention to the area.

You may have noticed a sign or two, or read an ad, or heard about events while listening to local radio; we are smack dab in the middle of the Mendocino Mushroom, Wine & Beer Fest. It started last weekend, and runs through this weekend.

Many wineries throughout the county take advantage of the opportunity this festival, organized and promoted by VMC, provides. For two weekends, mushroom appetizers are available to taste with wines at dozens of winery tasting rooms. I, as an example, spent four hours preparing enough mushroom risotto to feed an army, and maybe a navy and some marines too, for my tasting room.

Restaurants team with wineries to feature mushroom and wine pairing meals, like Tuesday’s delicious dinner two nights ago at Uncorked in downtown Ukiah that featured the wines of winemaker Deanna Starr of Milano and Uncorked’s magical mushroom menu.

The big event is the mushroom train, where guests travel on the Skunk Train from both Willits and Fort Bragg to Camp Mendocino in a benefit for the Mendocino County Museum to taste culinary delights paired with the best local wine and beer.

A group of celebrity judges, members of the travel, food, or wine media, take part in the mushroom train event, taste the creations, and announce their favorites.

Last Friday, the members of the press and folks from throughout Mendocino County, kicked off their weekend at a reception put on by VMC and hosted by the four winery tasting rooms of Vintage Marketplace in Hopland; Ray’s Station, Graziano Family of Wines, McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room, and Naughty Boy Vineyards.

Again, it was a treat to play host to visiting press, and also to our counterparts from around the county. Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association (AVWA) Executive Director Janis MacDonald was among the visitors and, always gracious, was very complimentary about one of our wines, sharing a story about how well it went over with a group recently. Poorly kept secret: I don’t only taste and drink wines from inland Mendo, and although I may not write them up, I love scores of wines made in the Anderson Valley.

Thanks to VMC’s Scott Schneider, Alison de Grassi, and Jen Filice for all you did to make the reception happen, and for making sure it was such a delightful success.

Lastly, but absolutely not leastly, the Mendocino Winegrowers, Inc. (MWI) brought all of Mendocino County’s grape growers, winemakers, tasting room managers, everyone in our industry, together for a wonderful night of fellowship and celebration at a Harvest Party BBQ Dinner at Seebass Family Vineyards on Old River Road about a mile and a half north of the Buddhist Temple in Talmage. All hands were on deck for this one.

Thanks to Zak Robinson and Aubrey Rawlins of MWI, and all the folks from A Taste of Redwood Valley (ATORV), Destination Hopland (DH), Yorkville Highlands Growers & Vintners Association (YHGVA), and Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association for bringing so many of your folks to this special night. Hosts Scott and Michelle Willoughby could not have wished for a more perfect evening for Seebass, for inland Mendocino County, and for the county’s wine community as a whole.

Glenn McGourty, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor to Mendocino and Lake County, was presented with a richly deserved award for his many years of service to the entire county’s grape growing success; MWI announced the receipt of a grant from the USDA’s Risk Management Agency; the Mendocino Winegrowers Foundation, the non-profit organization raising resources for the Winegrowers’ Scholarship Fund, presented past recipients and fundraised for future recipients. All in all, a great night for Mendocino County’s wine industry, in the midst of a period of great promotional promise for the wineries of the inland county.

John on Wine – Crush keeps crushing it!

Originally published on October 31, 2013 in the Ukiah Daily Journal by John Cesano

Wine and food. For me wine is food, an ingredient that, when added to a dish, makes a dish taste better. Pair it with the dish and the Heavens open and angels sing.

I have written about the last two Chef’s Wine Dinners at Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah. First I wrote a newspaper column about the amazing dinner featuring winemaker Alex MacGregor’s wines from Saracina, and then I wrote an online piece about the spectacular dinner that showcased Charlie and Martha Barra’s wines of both Barra and Girasole.

I eat at other spots, many with terrific wine lists, and I’ll get to them in future columns, but Crush just keeps on, well, crushing it.

Last week, I took the opportunity to attend the third Chef’s Wine Dinner in the ongoing series. The night featured the wines of Bonterra Organic Vineyards. These dinners have grown to become sold out events. You have to call and grab your tickets early. Two long tables in a private dining room, laid out with place settings heavy on the wine glasses, await the night’s patrons. Folks sit together, and courses are served family style, which encourages communication as platters of food from the kitchen are passed and the food and wine combinations elicit at first squeals of delight and then, later in the evening, deeper moans of over full contentment.The evening’s offerings are deceptively described as First Course, Second Course, and Dessert. I say deceptively, because there are so many more items arriving at the table than a mere three dishes.

Each “course” is actually comprised of four or five dishes. Dessert is often three dessert elements fused into one greater whole. There are often bonus tastes of passed appetizers. All told, these three courses yield ten to a dozen food experiences. I’ve described these nights as Chef Jesse off the leash, nights for him to do one thing and one thing only: impress every diner and leave a lasting impression that brings each guest back again and again. Jesse’s team of chefs do a fantastic job, and assemble at each evening’s close to take a well-earned round of applause. Of course, the front of house has to fire on all cylinders for a night like this to work, and from Manager Dave through his entire team of servers, everything on the service end just purrs.

Last week, Chef Jesse delivered braised pork belly, with a perched and poached quail egg, buerre monte, and chive sticks; a beets salad, with roasted red, golden & striped beets, goat cheese, citrus, and hazelnut champagne vinaigrette; Devils on horseback: Nueske bacon wrapping Point Reyes bleu cheese stuffed Medjool dates; and crab stuffed piquillo poppers, with Dungeness crab, avocado mousse, tomato, esplette, olive oil, and micro greens.

That was just the first course, and it was paired with the 2012 Bonterra Sauvignon Blanc, my favorite wine of the night, with sweet green fresh mown hay, light herb, candied lemon mint sweetness, lime and bright grapefruit notes. A 50/50 Lake/Mendocino County wine, it showed lovely balance, at once both lush and showing crisp acidity. It was a treat tasting pork belly and quail egg ­- don’t you love cutting into a perfectly cooked egg and having the yolk released to form a bonus sauce – yum. Anyway, it was a treat tasting this dish with a Sauvignon Blanc instead of a red wine. Great confidence in pairing on display. The beets salad and crab poppers were also tremendously delicious.

The Second Course featured both a 2011 Bonterra Pinot Noir, just rated 90 points by Wine Enthusaiast, and a 2010 Bonterra Zinfandel. The Pinot Noir was meaty, with strawberry, cherry, and dark rich rhubarb; really drinkable, just lovely, supple yet delicate. The Zinfandel was soft yet bold, spicy with raspberry and strawberry, vinuous anise herb, and a touch of pepper spice.The big treat came pairing these two wines with Chef Jesse’s dishes for the second course: local J-bar-S bison 8 hour (tasted like 48) ragu, with pancetta, tomato, (phenomenal) handmade herbed gnocchi, basil, ricotta, and Reggiano; cracked pepper seared Ahi tuna with chanterelle mushrooms and a Bonterra Pinot Noir reduction; potatoes au gratin, Yukon golds with saffron cream, gruyere, and fresh herbs; and roasted delicate squash with creamed Swiss chard, celery root, and caramelized shallot salt.

Holy foodgasm! The bison gnocchi rigotta ragu dish with Zinfandel was stunningly perfect. The Ahi and chanterelles was gorgeous. The veggie dish with creamed swiss chard was divine.

Dessert was a (local) apple strudel of filo, toasted walnuts, cinnamon, Chantilly crème, and homemade ice cream, paired with the Bonterra Muscat which featured aromatic honeysuckle, floral and sweet-tart pear and mandarin notes, finishing with a zing.

As I have attended each of the Chef’s wine dinners at Crush, I had more than one diner ask if there was always this much food, as numerous a selection of excellent tastes, or whether this was a unique abundance. I am happy to say that for $50-$65 per person, depending on the wines being featured, the Chef’s wine dinners at crush in Ukiah are always the best wine dinner experience and a bargain as well.

Up next: On December 11, 2013, Chef Jesse and the entire Crush Ukiah team will deliver another breathtaking multi dish, multi course, meal and the wines featured will be the 2011 Coro Mendocino wines, Mendocino County’s celebration of grapes and winemaking, heritage Zinfandel blends, from Brutocao, Claudia Springs, Fetzer, Golden, Mendocino Vineyards, McFadden, McNab Ridge, Parducci, Philo Ridge, and Ray’s Station. With so many powerhouse wineries involved, and the other dinner these wines are poured at going for $500 per couple, the $65 per person tickets – to taste the entire line up of Coro Mendocino wines with the consistently breathtaking food creations of Chef Jesse – will sell out faster than any previous Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush. Secure your spot today by calling (707) 463-0700 and I’ll see you there!


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