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John On Wine ­ – A tale of two Passports

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, May 1, 2014
Written by John Cesano
John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

It was the best of Passports…

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I attended the 25th anniversary Passport to Dry Creek Valley last week, with my girlfriend and trusted second taster, June, as guests of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley (WDCV). We were greeted at check-in by the new Executive Director of WDCV, Ann Peterson, who may have one of the best jobs in the wine industry, working with great farmers and winemakers in a gorgeous environment, every day.

Dry Creek Valley lies mostly to the west of Hwy. 101, and stretches 17 miles south to north from Healdsburg to Geyserville, two miles wide, in Sonoma County. Continuing a string of sold-out passport events, 6,000 tickets were sold, at a two day weekend price of $120, and allowed visitors the opportunity to visit and taste at 50 winery tasting rooms throughout Dry Creek Valley.

There is no reason to try to visit all 50 wineries even in two days, as there would be less than 15 minutes per winery, with travel between wineries having to fit into the allocated time, and rushing is no way to enjoy a passport event.

June and I visited 17 wineries in two days, a perfect number, giving about 45 minutes per winery. Some visits were shorter, some were longer, all were enjoyable. The great thing is that we could attend next year, visit 17 new wineries and have a completely different experience, equally great; and the same again for a third consecutive year with only one winery repeated in three years with 50 wineries to visit. There is no way I can fit a description of food, wine, music, and scene at 17 wineries here, but here are some impression highlights:

DaVero Farms and Winery stood out because I have a thing for farms and wine, farm stands & tasting rooms, and Ridgely Evers, the owner of DaVero greeted us both warmly. I had met Evers on previous visits, and was surprised at how much growth had occurred. This was June’s first visit and, an animal lover, June was in Heaven at Evers’ biodynamic farm, scratching a pig into a contented lie down. I enjoyed a taste of the DaVero Malvasia Bianca, bright with citrus and white pear flavors, in an outdoor canopy room being made from one tree . Evers has planted cuttings from a single Italian willow in a large circle and is training their growth to create the unique spot to enjoy wine.

Charlie Palmer has been honored by the James Beard Foundation twice, once as “Best Chef” in New York for his restaurant Aureole, and earned a multi year string of Michelin stars for restaurants in both New York and Las Vegas. He also cooked for June and I – ­ okay, and everyone else with a passport who visited Mauritson Wines. We loved the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc paired with brown sugar and bourbon cured salmon with arugula salad, pickled red onions, goat cheese & toasted hazelnuts; and the 2012 DCV Zinfandel with a Zinfandel braised wild board slider and Charlie’s bread and butter pickle.

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Truett Hurst: A glass of Zin Rose in hand, June and I walked down to the Adirondack chairs beside the burbling water, the wind in the trees, insects chirping, birds calling, a kiss shared; ­ truly a magical place. We also had the opportunity to talk with Paul Dolan, Mendocino biodynamic grape grower and partner at Truett Hurst.

Hog Island Oysters at Stephen & Walker with possibly my favorite wine of the weekend, a 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir; Amphora’s ABCs, Aglianico, Barberra, and Chardonnay, and June’s favorite food of the weekend, a chocolate truffle; the lobster roll at Bella; and the weekend’s best music: Rovetti & Meatballs, a fiddle, drums, and guitar ­ blending bluegrass, zydeco, and country – American music; Seghesio’s Zin; Ridge’s Zin; Talty’s Zin; there is just too much that was great to mention.

The views, wide open valley, green on the hills, blue skies, baby grapes on young vines, trees and flowers; slowing down, taking it all in, the scents and sounds too, Passport to Dry Creek Valley is a time to recharge your batteries, get right after working and living in a box, and is a bargain at $120. This is my favorite wine event, any price, anywhere; attending and not working is great!

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…It was also the best of Passports.

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If you missed Passport to Dry Creek Valley, or if you attended but want another weekend to experience more soul cleansing magic, the great news is that the 23rd annual Spring Hopland Passport is this weekend. Seventeen Hopland area winery tasting rooms – a perfect number – will put their best foot forward, pouring all of their wines and offering food pairings for two days, Saturday, May 3 and Sunday, May 4, from 11 a.m. -5 p.m. each day.

If you order online today, Thursday, May 1 by noon, you can pick up a two day ticket to Hopland Passport for just $45 each. Visit http://www.DestinationHopland.com/store, and if the store closes then you can buy your passport at any participating winery tasting room during the event for $55.

I believe that Hopland Passport is the best wine weekend event value – well underpriced – in the industry. Participating wineries include Brutocao, Campovida, Cesar Toxqui, Frey, Graziano, Jaxon Keys, Jeriko, McFadden, McNab Ridge, Milano, Naughty Boy, Nelson, Ray’s Station, Rivino, Saracina, Seebass, and Terra Savia.

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The weather looks like it will be perfect, I hope to see you in Hopland this weekend. I’ll be at the place with the farm stand & tasting room, stop by and say “hi.”

 

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John On Wine – Wine Tasting in March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Winemakers: RIVINO Winery
Tierra – Art, Garden Wine
312 N. School Street
Ukiah, CA 95482
RIVINO husband and wife winemaker team Jason McConnell and Suzanne Jahnke-McConnell pour their limited production wines, paired with hors d’oeuvres.
COMPLIMENTARY
Thursday, April 29, 2010
5:00 pm – 8:00 pm

(707) 468-7936

Hopland Spring Passport Weekend
Hopland, CA Wineries
Tasting glass, wristband and passport picked up at any winery and usable at all wineries, all weekend: Brutocao Cellars, Dogwood Cellars, Graziano Family of Wines, Jaxon Keys Winery, Jeriko Estate, McDowell Valley Vineyards, McFadden Vineyards, McNab Ridge Winery, Mendocino Farms, Milano Winery, Nelson Family Vineyards, Rack & Riddle, Terra Savia, Saracina, and Weibel Family Vineyards
$35 per person online through Thursday at 5:00 pm
Saturday, May 1, and Sunday, May 2, 2010
11:00 am – 5:00 pm

(800) 564-2582

3rd Annual “The Mamas & The Tatas” Mother’s Day Fashion Show
A Benefit for Breast Cancer Awareness

Tierra – Art, Garden Wine
312 N. School Street
Ukiah, CA 95482
Spring Fashion Show, Hors d’oeuvres, and Wine. Great fun for a great cause.
$20 per person
Saturday, May 1, 2010
2:00 pm

Chardonnay TweetUp
Parducci Wine Cellars

501 Parducci Road
Ukiah, CA 95482
Taste the 2008 Parducci Chardonnay and 2008 Paul Dolan Vineyard Chardonnay, paired with an Apple-Mushroom Risotto, and Apple Pie topped with Chardonnay Apple Ice Cream prepared by guest chef John Cesano (me!)
COMPLIMENTARY
Thursday, May 6, 2010
5:00 pm – 7:00 pm

(800) 362-9463

14th Annual Wine Country Golf Classic Invitational
A benefit for Cornerstone Media Inc

Windsor Golf Course
1340 19th Hole Drive
Windsor, CA 95492
This is the best golf event I have ever taken part in. 18 holes of golf on a great course, with cart, and lunch, and dinner, and champagne, wine and micro brew beer. First class, lots of contests, and prizes. Fabulous auction items. Winery and non winery teams compete. Proceeds go to help children.
$195 per player
Thursday, May 13, 2010
11:00 am Registration Starts
11:30 am Grilled Gourmet Lunch
1:00 pm Tee-Off Ceremony/Shotgun Start
6:30 Evening Cuisine Extravaganza, Silent/Live Auction, Awards Ceremony
(707) 431-8336

Open House
Toad Hollow Vineyards Ranch

4024 Westside Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Toad Hollow’s wines are usually poured only in their tasting room; this is a rare opportunity to taste them in the beautiful vineyard setting of their ranch.
COMPLIMENTARY
Friday, May 14, 2010
4:00 pm – 7:00 pm
(707 431-1441

Vinify Winery Collective Wine Tasting Event
3358 Coffey Lane, Suite D
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Vinify is a Santa Rosa custom crush facility hosting 16 wineries, 12 varietals, and over 40 wines. Come taste the best from the member wineries in Riedel stemware which you will take home after the tasting. Vinify will also be providing food. Wineries include: Baker Lane, Bevan Cellars, Bjornstad Cellars, Lattanzio Winery, Pfendler Vineyards, Sojourn Cellars, Westerhold Family Vineyards, Calluna Vineyard, Jemrose Vineyard, Barbed Oak Vineyards, Claypool Callears, Desmond Wines, Frostwatch Vineyard and Winery, Olsen Ogden Wines, Gracianna Winery, and Cinque Insieme Wines
$20 per person
Sunday, May 23, 2010
1:00 pm – 4:30 pm

(707) 495-4959

A few weeks ago, I met Joe Nagan of Toad Hollow Vineyards at Costeaux French Bakery & Cafe for a morning chat over cups of coffee just a few doors down from the Healdsburg tasting room undergoing renovation.

Toad Hollow World Headquarters on Westside Road, Healdsburg, CA

Joe is the National Sales Manager for Toad Hollow Vineyards and had kindly invited me to meet with him and ask any questions I might have about the winery and wines I might taste for review. Personable, passionate, and knowledgeable, Joe generously fleshed out the history and mission of Toad Hollow.

Cover crop in bloom between the vine rows, lush between rains

Founded by two retirees, Todd Williams and Rodney Strong. Todd Hollow was an opportunity for both to make one more lasting mark in the wine world.

The main office, with porch for serious thinking

Todd Williams, half brother to comedian Robin Williams, worked for Whitehall Lane Winery, as the sales manager for Shafer Vineyards, and honed his wine view at the many bars and restaurants he was involved with.

A view from the office down toward the Russian River

Rodney Strong had sold the winery that bears his name to Tom Klein, but retained the beautiful and bountiful sloping vineyards that ran from his house down to the Russian River.

Mustard in bloom in the vineyards

Together, using Rod’s grapes and winemaking know how and Todd’s national wine sales ability and hospitality industry tested tasting room welcome, the pair created wines of incredible quality and at an unbelievably affordable price that are readily available in 48 states. Toad Hollow Vineyards is just about as Sonoma County as a winery can get.

Green and yellow abounds in the vineyards, but the vines are empty

The idea that great wine can’t be utterly approachable, and even fun, clearly never occurred to Todd and Rod. Wine labels and winery iconography feature Toads (Todd) and Badgers (Rod) from Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book The Wind in the Willows, while wine names include Eye of the Toad and Amplexus, the latter a reference to amphibian “whoopee making.”

The path to the World HQ office door

Sadly, both Todd Williams and Rodney strong have passed away, but Frankie Williams, Todd’s wife, continues to helm the winery.

Frankie Williams has been described to me by more than one person as the “heart” of Toad Hollow. Frankie has had offers and opportunities to sell the winery, she could have sold and retired, but she didn’t. Frankie Williams is the reason that Toad Hollow continues to maintain the feeling of being a family business instead of feeling like just another interchangeable cog in a larger winery conglomerate’s operations.

The sign helps visitors find the tasting room on Healdsburg Avenue

Recently, I stopped by the beautifully renovated tasting room in Healdsburg just one block north of the downtown Plaza at 409A Healdsburg Avenue, and tasted wines with the tasting room team of Jim Costa and Debra Rickards. Two years in a row, the Press Democrat sent reporters undercover to all of the over 150 winery tasting rooms in and around Healdsburg, and for two consecutive years Toad Hollow was named the “friendliest tasting room in Healdsburg.” Together, Jim and Debra (it would be horribly unToadian and stuffy to refer to them as Costa and Rickards) provide the first class, friendly, inclusive and fun wine tasting experience that epitomize Todd Williams’ influence from his days providing customer service in the hospitality industry.

Prices already low, lowered, then end of vintage wines put on further sale.

During my visit, another taster visiting from out of state, remarked that, “the quality high and price low is a unique relief,” before purchasing two cases of mixed bottles.

Todd Williams

As I tasted the wines of Toad Hollow Vineyards, either at home with food, family and friends, or by themselves at the tasting room I kept noting that the wines were soft, drinkable, approachable, fruit forward, delicious; over and over the word “soft” appears in my notes. As a group, the wines of Toad Hollow Vineyards are without pretension, they are just simply delicious.

With the opportunity to choose beautiful wood like this, why would anyone choose stone for a bar?

You don’t have to try to understand these wines, you just need to taste them and marvel at what the Toad and Badger have wrought.

2008 Chardonnay, Mendocino, Francine’s Selection UnOaked – $12.99


Accounting for nearly 40% of all sales, this wine is made from grapes grown near Boonville in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, an area known for high quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit.

Pale straw in color, with aromas of fruit, apple and grapefruit.

The wine undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation and is held in stainless steel tanks, no wood; the result is a round, soft, deliciously drinkable wine with flavors of apple, pear, and citrus. Crisp and sweet, nice acidity and medium long mineral finish.

A nice alternative to oaken and over-oaked Chardonnays, it has been described as Todd’s response to 1990 Chardonnay.

The crisp fruit expression makes me want to pair this wine with some shellfish more typically paired with a Sauvignon Blanc. Nice weight, body, taste and texture. A really terrific food Chardonnay.

2008 Dry Pinot Noir Rosé, Sonoma, Eye Of The Toad – $8.99


A French Bandol styled dry rosé wine, beautiful rich purpley pink, nose of rose petal and fruitless directly to crushed strawberry over ice flavors with good acidity.

Wonderful blush wine for those who want a rosé that isn’t cloyingly sweet – this wine isn’t sweet at all, it is bone dry which makes the fruit expression all the more notably clear.

This wine and a sesame crusted seared tuna, perfect Summer evening. Oh, and a date, I forgot the date.

2007 Pinot Noir, Russian River, Goldie’s Vineyard – $19.99


Goldie’s Vineyard is named for Rod’s mom Goldie.

Nice acidity making you want another taste.

Great, round, smooth, soft, delicious rose and soft cherry flavors making you want another taste.

Face it, you’re going to want another taste.

2007 Zinfandel, Paso Robles, Cacophony – $13.99

Soft. Unbelievably approachable. I love Zinfandel, but many folks who don’t love Zinfandel will love this one.

Juicy raspberry jam fruit on a soft tannin background. All the fruit with just the right notes of spice, cocoa, and pepper.

Lushly drinkable.

I would love to pair this with some of the wild north coast venison or boar I hunted in my youth. Lamb would also provide the right wildness to pair with this wine.

2005 Merlot, Russian River, Richard McDowell Vineyard – $17.99


I opened up the 2005 Merlot Reserve, Richard McDowell Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 14.5% alc, to pair with a hearty beef stroganoff I was cooking. It was a beautiful rich purpley burgundy color. I used a cup of the Merlot in the recipe in place of water, and I served the stroganoff with the wine.

My first thought, putting nose to glass was “WOW, that’s a nose!”

The nose is just full of big, bold, juicy, ripe fruit. Deeply floral, plum, rose, dark stone fruit, black cherry, black berry and cassis.

The mouth is incredible smooth and drinkable, open, and ready (I forgot it was a 2005) to drink. Black cherry and black berry, anise. Nice balance of acid and tannin.

A really soft wine with a nice lingering tapering finish.

The wine is gorgeously elegant, loaded with lush fruit through and through.

Thoroughly delicious and a QPR (quality to price ratioo) steal at $16, the 2005 Toad Hollow Merlot reserve is made from 100% Merlot grapes grown on a sandy bench three miles south of Healdsburg and Toad Hollow proudly claims a wine that demonstrates a sense of place, or terroir.

I poured myself a second glass about an hour after dinner, for dessert, and as I put my nose to the glass, again my first thought was “WOW!”

Translated, that means I loved this wine and was just completely impressed and delighted with it.

Several weeks after first tasting this wine at home, I was delighted to hear some visitors attempt to pass over this wine at the tasting room, Jim and Debra’s cries of “noooo” were joined by my own. This is another wine where the result is so much better than the boring offerings of so many other wineries. The folks who didn’t want to taste Merlot ended up buying a bottle.

2006 Rod’s Pride, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Reserve – $39.99


Four clone, single vineyard, 100% Pinot Noir.

Darker, richer fruit tones of black cherry, blackberry, and brambly raspberry, elegantly balanced acid and tannin. Soft and smooth. Weightier body.

A special meal for a special wine; I paired this Pinot Noir with grilled teriyaki marinated fresh wild salmon, served on a Thai Som Tom inspired salad of shredded green papaya, orange carrot, purple cabbage, and red grape tomatoes dressed with passionfruit mango salsa that I buy at the Island Deli at Lucas Wharf in Bodega Bay.

2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, California, Concinnity – $15.99


Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc, the grapes coming from Napa, Paso Robles and Lake County.

This wine is a joy, one of those wines you can happily sniff forever before even tasting.

Soft tannings that you can drink right through to flavors of lush blackberry and blueberry fruit.

Juicy and delicious. While it pairs with a glass just fine, I would love to taste this wine with a good steak.

Amplexus Crémant Brut Sparkling Wine, Limoux, France – $15.99


Light yeast, lightly streaming bubbles and crisp apple and cream flavors mark this blended sparkling wine of Chardonnay, Mauzac, and Chenin Blanc grapes.

Completely drinkable, and lovely flavored. Perfect balance of crispness and fruit.

Risqué, Methode Ancestrale, Sparkling Wine, Limoux, France – $13.99

I poured Toad Hollow’s Risqué, a low alcohol, good sweetness, 100% Mauzac bubbly with boneless chicken wings for Superbowl snacking and drinking.

This sparkler has great tart green apple and pear fruit, nice bubbles, and non cloying sweetness. Crispness of fruit cuts through bbq sauces on boneless wings, and is balanced by light sweetness.

Perfect pairing.

A note about prices: many of these wines are less than indicated, on sale, at my local store, one example is the $15.99 Merlot officially being listed at $2 more.

Erik the Red, an 18 varietal proprietary blend Toad Hollow wine, explains the Viking helmet on the back bar.

I write about wine, hoping to influence regular folks to try wine with a meal instead of iced tea or soda, trying to demystify wine, looking for great wines at affordable prices. In the wines of Toad Hollow Vineyards, all of my goals are met.

Debra Rickards pouring Toad Hollow wines for tasting room visitors

A perfect winery would eschew pretension, focusing on drinkably delicious fruit forward wines that taste great by themselves but pair well with foods, treat their customer well, and would remember to inject some fun and joy in what they do – all at prices that folks can afford to be able to make wine enjoyment an integral part of daily life. By that definition, mine, Toad Hollow Vineyards is a perfect winery.

Debra Rickards and Jim Costa of Toad Hollow Vineyards’ tasting room

DISCLOSURE: I received 5 bottles of Toad Hollow wines to sample – the others reviewed above were tasted at the tasting room

While I wanted to save my reviews of Toad Hollow’s wines for a featured winery piece to come soon, I have to take advantage of a recent picture I took of the Raven Theater Marquee in Healdsburg, CA.

I opened up the 2005 Merlot Reserve, Richard McDowell Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 14.5% alc,  last week to pair with a hearty beef stroganoff. It was a beautiful rich purpley burgundy color. I used a cup of the Merlot in the recipe in place of water, and I served the stroganoff with the wine.

My first thought, putting nose to glass was “f***, that’s a nose!” I’m not great at self editing my interior monologue, and clearly I am prone to the occasional curse in my private thoughts.

The nose is just full of big, bold, juicy, ripe fruit. Deeply floral, plum, rose, dark stone fruit, black cherry, black berry and cassis.

The mouth is incredible smooth and drinkable, open, and ready (I forgot it was a 2005) to drink. Black cherry and black berry, anise. Nice balance of acid and tannin.

A really soft wine with a nice lingering tapering finish.

The wine is gorgeously elegant, loaded with lush fruit through and through.

Thoroughly delicious and a QPR (quality to price ratioo) steal at $16, the 2005 Toad Hollow Merlot reserve is made from 100% Merlot grapes grown on a sandy bench three miles south of Healdsburg and Toad Hollow proudly claims a wine that demonstrates a sense of place, or terroir.

I poured myself a second glass about an hour after dinner, for dessert, and as I put my nose to the glass, again my first thought was “f***!” Translated, that means I loved this wine and was just completely impressed and delighted with it.

Disclosure: I received the 2005 Toad Hollow Merlot Reserve reviewed as a sample.

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I woke up looking forward to doing some wine tasting. My plan was to go to Fetzer’s beautiful tasting room and gardens at their hospitality center in Hopland. Well coated against the cold, the day was beautiful, the mountains misty as ribbons of fog bedecked the mountain folds surrounding the Ukiah Valley.

I hadn’t visited the Fetzer tasting room in seven years, it isn’t really conveniently located, but I wanted to taste their dozen wines and find a jewel or two to recommend as a drinking wine, and perhaps a few more that would pair well with foods. I wanted to write about wines that were available in every store, and at prices that are affordable to anyone that can find their way to my blog.

Fifteen minutes south I turned off the 101 and drove down the empty Tuesday morning road to the Fetzer property. I drove over a bridge spanning the Russian River and came upon what had been the hospitality center for Fetzer.

Signs forbidding entry blocked the roads onto the property, previously maintained gardens gone wild, “for sale” signs. I began to suspect that I would not be tasting Fetzer’s wines.

I continued another few miles up the road to Fetzer’s winemaking facility. It is huge, and quiet in the post harvest, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, way that almost all wineries are quiet. I drove to the Administration building, and the receptionist confirmed my suspicion: I would indeed not be tasting Fetzer wines.

Note to Brown-Forman: How about putting a tasting room on 101 in Hopland, where Brutocao, McFadden, McDowell, Dogwood/Three Families, and Graziano all have tasting facilities? You could have one facility for your Fetzer, Bonterra, and Sanctuary brands. Not as grand as your previous Fetzer Hospitality Center, closed about three years, but accessible and economically sustainable. Just asking’.

I woke up prepared to taste wines, and I was not going to be deterred by a mere tasting room closure. I got back on the 101 and headed south another half hour to Healdsburg, where Mendocino County’s Topel Winery has located their tasting room at 125 Matheson across from the Oakville grocery.

Walking in the tasting room door at Topel, I was welcomed almost immediately by Kevin Roach. Kevin asked what types of wines I prefer as he welcomed me to taste. I let him know I prefer Reds, but enjoy whites as well, and asked him to pour me his four favorite wines out of the fourteen available, the ones most likely to knock my socks off.

Kevin first poured me a glass of the 2007 Pinot Noir, Serendipity, Monterey. While I swirled and sniffed the wine, I looked over the tasting room. Attractive, well laid out, lots of dark wood and copper. Wood cabinets for Topel branded clothing, and for literature display. A smaller (VIP?) private tasting room with table is available as well.

Kevin told me that the grapes for the 100% Pinot came from the Chalone Vineyard, which is located in the Gabilan Mountain range. The Topel website identifies the grapes as coming from Monterey County’s Serendipity Vineyard. Wherever the grapes came from in Monterey County, 2007 was kind to these grapes, and the wine was luscious, with cherry sweet tart and raisoned cranberry aromas and raspberry and cherry flavors. Round, smooth, and balanced. This wine was wonderful. $28/bottle.

Wine #2 was Topel’s 2005 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. 92% Cab, 4% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot. I was pleased to taste this wine. I am a Sonoma County boy, born and raised. the wines I grew up with, tasted, sold, were Sonoma County wines. I live in Ukiah now, in Mendocino County, and I wanted this wine to taste good, I wanted the grapes from my new home to be good ones.

The 2005 Cab had a really low tannin load, was very approachable, with light herb and dark red cherry and berry fruit on the nose and repeating in the mouth. Velvety, smooth, soft, and balanced, with nice subtle notes. This is not a typical brick bat Cab, but a nicely drinkable Cab. $36/bottle.

Wine # 3 was the one year newer, just released three weeks ago, 2006 Estate Reserve Cabernet. 96% Cab, 2% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot. Same wine, again smooth. A little more tannin evident, but soft. Similar nose and flavor profile to the 2005 Cab; with chocolate and black cherry. Definitely younger, a little edgy. I would let it lay down a while longer. $36/bottle.

The final wine I tasted was the 2006 Topel Estate Blend. 45% Cabernet. 45% Syrah Noir, 5% Merlot, and 5% Petit Verdot. I have never heard of Syrah Noir, Kevin explained that it was a clone of Syrah. The grapes for this unique blend come from Topel’s vineyards on Duncan Peak, west of Hopland in Mendocino County.

Kevin told me that this wine is owner Mark Topel’s favorite wine, I found it unusual. with notes of plum, prune, and fig newton. Again, virtually no tannin load, another incredibly soft wine. I want to retaste this wine the most. The unusual blend led to unusual flavors, and this might be the best, most versatile food pairing wine I tasted at Topel. $36/bottle.

All four wines were soft, supple, balanced, approachable, very drinkable. Tannin providing structure to hand fruit on, but staying out of the way of enjoying the wines. Well oaken, but not oaky. In a word: smooth.

I want the Pinot to drink, the Cabs to have with grilled tri tip, and the Estate blend to get to know better.

I set out to taste affordable wines, under $20, and ended up tasting wines in the $20-$40 range instead. My mission to taste and recommend inexpensive, available, good wines has not been forgotten; but I am really glad I stopped in to taste these four wines from Topel Winery.

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