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John On Wine – Wine competitions and Barrel Tasting 101

Originally published on Thursday, January 15, 2015 in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper by John Cesano

Nine wines made from Mendocino County grapes took gold medal or higher honors at last November’s Grand Harvest Awards. They were:

• 2011 Handley Cellars Pinot Noir Anderson Valley ($32) Gold/Best of Class

• NV McFadden Vineyard Cuvee Rose Mendocino ($32) Gold

• 2013 Navarro Vineyards Grenache Mendocino ($27) Gold/Best of Class

• 2013 Navarro Vineyards Chardonnay Table Wine Mendocino ($15) Gold/Best of Class

• 2013 Navarro Vineyards Barbera Mendocino ($27) Gold

• 2012 Navarro Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Mendocino ($29) Gold

• 2012 Navarro Vineyards Mourvedre Mendocino ($29) Gold

• 2013 Navarro Vineyards Chardonnay Anderson Valley Premiere Reserve ($25) Gold

• 2012 Stephen & Walker Trust Winery Limited Chardonnay Botrytis Mendocino Ridge ($65) Double Gold/Best of Class/Best Late Harvest or Dessert

What does that mean? By itself, very little. About 99 out of 100 times when a wine takes a gold medal in a wine competition, no matter how many subsequent wine competitions it is entered into, it never manages to take another. Many in the industry, if they were honest, would let you know that gold medals awarded in a wine competition are just random, chance based, nonsense … but that doesn’t stop the wineries from blasting news of their awards to a waiting audience of consumers who seem to think such luck based honors have genuine meaning.

What I look for are wines that do take more than one gold medal, or the rarer unanimously voted double gold medal, or better still more than one double gold medal. I pour several wines that have earned more than one gold medal. Two have three double gold or higher (double gold and best of class, or double gold and best of show) awards. Not everyone will love these wines, because there are always wines that don’t appeal to someone but these are the wines to taste, these are the wines that are amazing, these are the wines to look for.

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Seriously, if consumers rush to buy a gold medal winning wine at the store figuring that the wine must be good, probably significantly better than the other bottles on the shelf, then take a moment to appreciate how incredibly rare it is for a wine to be unanimously voted gold by a competition’s judges earning a double gold medal, and then have that happen again, and still again. That is a wine to seek out.

The Grand Harvest Awards are pretty much the last big wine competition of the year. Up next is not just the first big wine competition of the year, but the largest judging of American wines in the world, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Last year, more than 5,800 wines were entered into the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. This year’s judging took place earlier this month, with over 6,417 entries and the big winners will be poured at a celebratory grand tasting for the public on the second Saturday of February at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Next week, I’ll post the big Mendocino County grown wine winners from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
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If you haven’t picked up you Barrel Tasting 101 ticket yet,  go online and get it for $20 instead of waiting until the event and spending more; $30 for the same $20 ticket. Of course, if money doesn’t mean anything to you, just pop on down to one of our local car dealerships and buy a new car for my son, I’m sure he would appreciate it.

Barrel Tasting 101 will feature wineries from Hopland to Calpella and Ukiah to Redwood Valley pouring barrel samples of future wines on the final weekend of Mendocino County’s Crab, Wine & Beer Fest on Saturday, Jan. 24 and Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. I attended my first barrel tasting weekend back in 1993, when it was a free event over one weekend in Sonoma County. I used to visit the wineries of the Alexander Valley on Friday evening, and then spend Saturday in the Dry Creek Valley and Sunday in the Russian River Valley. Quiet, uncrowded, low key, and incredibly enjoyable, I used to taste an incredible number of wines, spitting all, and had a terrific glimpse into the future. I also took advantage of some sale prices offered on futures, these wines tasted from barrel before being bottled. Last year, I attended the Anderson Valley barrel tasting weekend, which included the wineries of Yorkville Highlands, and might be better named as Barrel Tasting 128. It was as enjoyable as the old barrel tasting weekends in Sonoma County used to be, before they became the overcrowded drunk-fests that winery owners and staff report today.

Barrel Tasting 101 will feature barrel samples from Barra of Mendocino, Brutocao Cellars, Campovida, Cesar Toxqui Cellars, Graziano Family of wines, Jaxon Keys Winery, Jeriko Estate, McNab ridge, Milano Family Winery, Nelson Family Winery, Rivino, Saracina, Seebass Vineyards, Simaine Cellars, Terra Savia, and Testa Ranch. Each participating winery tasting room will also serve up Dungeness crab food pairing treats. To get your tickets for $20 instead of $30, visit http://bit.ly/1zS36ay and then, armed with your receipt, you’ll be given your logo tasting glass and map to begin your terrific wine adventure.

 

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John On Wine – Kicking 2015 off with wine events

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, January 8, 2014

John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

Here are some events I’ll be attending; I hope to see you at one or more.

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Saturday, Jan. 10 – Second Saturday in Hopland >> A half dozen Hopland area winery tasting rooms offer up food pairings to go with wines, and usually have at least one wine on a significantly discounted sale price. McNab Ridge Winery has been inviting folks to their Second Saturday festivities since wine was invented it seems, the series has been going on for a long time, and with that kind of commitment they have created a loyal following of wine and free food lovers who make the trip to Hopland a monthly event. The McNab Ridge Winery gathering is so popular that many wine lovers and visitors have no idea that several other winery tasting rooms also offer up food and wine pairings with wine sales each and every Second Saturday throughout the year. Be sure to also visit Cesar Toxqui Cellars, Graziano Family of Wines, Jaxon Keys, and the McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room in Hopland as they participate each month. Brutocao, Campovida, and Milano Family Winery often have something going on for visitors during second Saturday in Hopland as well. For more information, visit www.destinationhopland.com

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Jan. 16-25 – Mendocino County Crab, Wine & Beer Fest >> Dungeness crab. Wine. Beer. Okay, you had me a Dungeness crab and wine. Wineries along Hwy. 128 and the coast, and inland along Hwy.101, have a brochure for you to pick up. The brochure is filled with events for you to attend, describes special offerings at different wineries, and has two pages to collect stamps with the opportunity to enter a drawing for great prizes of event tickets, lodging stays, wine, and painting classes for the lucky winners. For more information, visit www.visitmendocino.com/crab-wine-and-beer-festival-0.

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Jan. 21 – Chef’s Wine Dinner >> Featuring Dungeness crab and McFadden wine at Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah . This baby is sold out. Seventy very lucky attendees will sit down for a multi-course meal featuring Dungeness crab, paired with a half dozen wines from McFadden. I will write a recap of this dinner, with pictures, for the many who didn’t get to attend … Crush never even had a chance to contact their regular email attendee subscriber list from past Chef’s wine dinner series events. Definitely, the premier inland Mendo event of this year’s Crab, Wine & Beer Fest. For more information, visit www.mcfaddenfarm.com

Jan. 22-24 – Lots of Crab on the Coast >> On Jan. 22, Trillium Café in Mendocino will have a crab wine dinner with Navarro Vineyards’ wines and, also in Mendocino, Café Beaujolais will create a crab dinner around the sparkling and still wines of Roederer Estate. On January 23, there will be three seatings for a Cioppino dinner at the Pentecost Hall in Fort Bragg and an All-You-Can-Eat crab feed at the Crown Hall on Mendocino. After the 16th annual crab cake cook off & wine tasting event in Ft Bragg on January 24, the folks at the Crown Hall in Mendocino will have a second day of all-you-can-eat crab dining. For more information, visit www.visitmendocino.com/crab-wine-and-beer-festival-0

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Jan. 24 & 25 – Barrel Tasting 101 >> Buy a ticket online in advance for $15, or at a participating winery during the event for $30, and taste wine from the barrel, before it is bottled or aged, at Barra of Mendocino, Brutocao Cellars, Campovida, Cesar Toxqui Cellars, Graziano Family of wines, Jaxon Keys Winery, Jeriko Estate, McNab Ridge, Milano Family Winery, Nelson Family Winery, Rivino, Saracina, Seebass Vineyards, Simaine Cellars, Terra Savia, and Testa Ranch. For more information, visit www.destinationhopland.com

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Jan. 29-31 – ZAP’s Zinfandel Experience >> Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) will celebrate their 24th annual Zinfandel Experience with three days of events in San Francisco. Epicuria is a food and Zin pairing evening on Jan. 29 at the Presidio. Flights is a seated panel tasting at the Four Seasons Hotel on Jan. 30, moderated by one of my idols, Joel Peterson, and will look at three distinctly different growing areas with 15 winemakers; later that evening at the hotel is the Winemaker’s Reception, Dinner & Auction. Finally, The Tasting with over 100 Zinfandels at the Presidio on Jan. 31. I have attended previous ZAP events, and if you love Zinfandel, then this is a must event to attend. For more information, visit www.zinfandelexperience.com
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Feb. 7 – 10th annual
International Alsace Varietals Festival >> There is 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.

 

2010 Coro Rankings

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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 ­ – 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.
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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.

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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.

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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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